The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Late to the Game: Transistor

transistor stabbing video game

I really liked Bastion. I liked the atmosphere. I liked the art style. I liked the fantasy-Western aesthetic. I liked the music. I liked the simple hack-n-slash gameplay combined with the “earn upgrades to get new moves”. I’m a sucker for that kind of game–where the objective is “grow stronger to defeat your enemies”.

So when I learned the same developers were creating a follow-up to their breakout hit, I jumped in feet first. It was going to be a little different–a computery cyberpunk feel and starring a slender well-to-do woman. But good art begets another. This game was called “Transistor” and released in 2014.

I’ve attempted playing it three times and only now have I gotten past the first level.

Not because it’s hard. But because it was boring. The problem was I had to get past the tutorial to understand where the game’s “fun” was.

One part is the “Turn()” system, which is a little like Fallout, where you can choose between real-time combat or queue up a series of instantaneous actions at the cost of a cooldown. The trick is to plan your attacks and movements efficiently.

The other part is the actions you get. Each one you get can be its own action, an enhancement to another move, or an enhancement to your character. Mix and match to try new combinations and see what best fits your style.

So that part’s fun for me, but it’s no good unless the game answers a crucial question — what’s the point?

I keep asking myself — why am I here? What am I doing? What am I trying to do? Is there anyone else here besides my talking sword? Who is my talking sword? Why does he talk? Am I inside some kind of Tron-world where everyone’s a sentient program? Who is my enemy? What are they? Why are they trying to stop me? Why am I trying to get through them? Where am I going?

In Bastion, it’s quite clear — some “Calamity” has broken up the world, generated all these weird monsters. You need to find the pieces of the Bastion to “fix it”, although you don’t quite know what it does until the end. And along the way you discover interesting tidbits about the world’s culture and characters, like uncovering a fossil.

There’s nothing like that in Transistor. It’s just you–another silent protagonist–and your chatty sword. There are no people in this world, just mute monsters. Oh, unless you like reading. Yeah, I guess each move is a person? And you can read about them in your encyclopedia when you pick them up. Long paragraphs about these people’s lives and what they did for the empty city you’re in. Because when I play an action-RPG, the part I like best is reading. Especially about characters you never meet.

You never encounter these people, never talk to them. They never show up in flashbacks or diaries laying around (either Resident Evil or Bioshock variety). I might as well hit the “Random Page” button on Wikipedia. If there’s no context to the descriptions, if it never matters in the game, then why should I give a shit about reading it. I wonder how many man-hours were spent on these biographies that were probably the least accessed part of the game.

The very first scene of the game has you standing in front of a man slumped over and stabbed with your giant circuit-board sword. You take it out and start moving. That’s it. The sword seems to imply you have a previous relationship (it calls her “Red”), but you don’t know if you stabbed the guy, discovered him, if that’s your sword or you just found it, who is in the sword, why you were there in the first place, and so on. There’s even a little flashback scene where it shows that, no, you didn’t stab him, just discovered him, but that’s it.

The game is essentially “walk the infinite hallway”, broken up by occasional battles. Your sword is supposed to be guiding you, but really there’s no way you can deviate from the path. He occasionally chimes in about where you are in a gravelly voice. “Hey, Red, look, it’s the Barkland Heights.” “Looks abandoned… wonder where everyone is.” “What a night. You’re still in one piece. That’s all that matters.” “Here he comes.” “Yeah, good call.” Really useful stuff, but it’s the only narrative color the game gets.

I hate games with this “story amnesia”. The characters know everything that’s going on, but we don’t. We, the player, have to piece together what happened, making the story part of the gameplay. I don’t want to play a game like that. A story shouldn’t be a puzzle. Well, I guess it can, like in Memento or a mystery novel, but in Transistor, it distracts. The player character knows where she is and who she is, but we, the player don’t.

Also just a basic storytelling mistake. And it’s especially bad in a video game, where you need to give your player motivation to play. This isn’t an unreliable narrator. It’s not trying to demonstrate something about the reader/player’s prejudices. It’s omitting or hiding information for the sake of drama. But it doesn’t add suspense, just confusion. That’s ludonarrative dissonance. It’s like in Bioshock: Infinite. You have this deep meditation on fate and American exceptionalism and alternate realities and quantum theory… but then you also grind someone’s face to a pulp with a rotating gear tool.

At least in Bastion, the story was simple enough that keeping things vague didn’t have much of an impact. When the puzzle pieces are big, you can kinda tell what the picture is anyway. But here, where you’ve got terms and jargon that never get a definition, that’s where my frustration lives. And I have a bad feeling the ending’s going to make as much sense as Birdman.

Late to the Game: Bioshock: Infinite — The Wrap-Up

bioshock infinite title screen

It’s not been too long since I wrote my “Initial Impressions” but I had some vacation, and this was a much shorter game than I thought. I’ve had some time to think about it, and I don’t think I’ll be saying anything new, but here’s my two Silver Eagles anyway.

Why do I keep playing games like this?

Here’s the thing. Bioshock games are well-put-together. You can tell someone thought about them. A lot. You can tell there’s a singular vision behind them, an author’s voice. You are promised a story that’s more complex than “Save the Girl, Kill the Big Bad”, and it is delivered. But that’s all content that could be put into a novel.

The thing about a video game is that you play it. You interact with it. You make decisions, judgments, and choices that affect the outcome. I don’t even care that the storyline is linear, but don’t pretend to give me the illusion of choice. I’m smarter than that.

bioshock infinite daisy fitzroy

What am I talking about? Well, I’m talking about a few things, which I’ll get into. But here’s what I’m not talking about. I’m not talking about the racism thing. I’m privileged, but I think it was handled plausibly and realistically for the situation. The thing is, with historical fiction, I think you can’t use the present to judge the past, even when it’s fiction. No matter what Courtney Stanton says.

bioshock infinite cover
Box art that’s apparently controversial

I don’t care about the box art. I didn’t even buy the box — I bought it from Steam. Box art is determined by a Marketing Department.  By people who are trained how to deliver a message in a single image. As far as I could see, the box art delivered the game it promised (keyword: game, not story).

I don’t care about Elizabeth. I don’t care that she acts like an immortal idiot in battle — ducking right in the line of fire. Better that than she gets killed every 20 seconds, through no fault of my own, and I have to start over. That’s like the computer playing and beating itself. I’d rather fudge realism in the interest of fun. When you’ve got a city in the sky, you’ve forsaken your claim to realism. In fact, I’m rather endured to Elizabeth. Anyone who’d stay with me after she saw me shred a guy’s face off with an industrial meat grinder is okay in my book.

Bioshock Infinite elizabeth book
Said book

No, what I care about is the “ludonarrative dissonance”. Big fancy word, eh? Let’s break it down. Ludo is from “ludology” which means “video game theory” (not the mathy kind). Narrative means “the telling of the story”. And dissonance means “a harsh, disagreeable combination of sounds”. In other words, it’s when you mix your peanut butter and your tomatoes. Its when the game pulls you out of the experience with indications that you are playing a game.

All games have this, to some degree. You can take a rocket to the face and run around like nothing happened. No one questions why people burst into song during a musical — it’s part of the genre/style. Dying at the first bullet would take the fun out of the game.

Bioshock Infinite skyrail

Here’s a Bioshock Infinite example — skylines. The skyhook is your melee weapon. You can separate someone’s spinal cord with it OR you can use them to jump onto zip lines at certain points around the game. I thought they were great fun, especially when you can drop fifty feet and launch someone over the side of Columbia. Does it matter that I’m certain my player’s kneecaps would shatter, his shoulder pulled out of socket? No, because the coolness of the act makes up for it. It pays for its ludicrosity by the fun factor.

Another one: the game is filled with linear levels that feel like Disneyland. That’s fine. I like Disneyland. I like the idea of being transported to a totally different world, even if it’s a guided tour. Disneyland is beautiful, it’s alien, it’s full of wonders and horrors that stimulate the senses. But the theme park can be grand as cake, and it won’t matter one whit if the rides are crappy.

I don’t need to see Booker eat a bag of potato chips. I don’t need to see him pick up each one and crunch it. I don’t mind that. What I do mind is when A) potato chips repair bullet wounds B) you eat massive amounts of them, and C) you found them in the garbage, along with live grenade rounds, a pack of cigarettes, and a bottle of wine. I’ve tried this in the real world. Maybe I combined them wrong, but the Pringles + Night Train + Kools recipe had, in fact, the opposite effect.

potato chips cigarettes beer
DR. MELIK: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
DR. ARAGON: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
DR. MELIK: Incredible.
Sleeper (1973)

Of course, it’s a video game staple that food = health, but that’s the thing. Bioshock: Infinite’s gameplay is full of staples that remind you this is a game. Not just from previous Bioshocks, but all kinds of cliche features. Keep in mind, I’m talking gameplay, not story (we’ll get to that).

I played this game on easy because as I get older, my VG skillz go down. In the middle of playing Black Mesa, and jumping onto the same tiny railing, falling, reloading, falling, reloading, etc. for the 27th time, I just cheated. (Why did anyone put platform jumping in a 3-D shooter? How can you measure your jump if you can’t see your feet?) I realized that I didn’t really want to play the game, I wanted to see the sights and experience the story.

I wonder if that makes me partially responsible for those hand-holding mechanics. As part of the gaming populace, am I the guy who’s making it so the game’s so easy it feels like it’s playing itself? You’ve got a regenerating shield, gobs of ammo and weapons, highlighted targets, a magic system that stuns enemies, a helper that throws supplies at you when you run low, and magically appearing cover/depots.

It’s a game that promised innovation and delivered Bioshock with a different coat of paint. There’s no difference between Vigors and Plasmids, Gear and Gene Tonics, EVE and Salts, Elizabeth and Little Sisters, Handyman and Big Daddy, skyhook and wrench/drill. I’m not sure why this game got the hype it did.  Especially when it uses some of the most basic cliches like bullet sponges, “teleporting” enemies, convenient plot items, fetch quests that pad the game (what did Finktown have to do with anything?).

All I’m doing when I’m not shooting is running around, hammering space-space-space, grabbing anything that flashes. None of it hurts me, and Booker leaves it if my inventory’s full. I don’t even see what I’m picking up (which is a waste of code).

Why can’t Ken Levine make a game as well as a story? Because this is really just John Steinbeck combined with Call of Duty.  Actually, strike that. It’s more like a Christopher Nolan movie. It’s a puzzle where you can’t solve it unless the author spoon-feeds you the pieces. Then you put them in and wait for the next piece — there is no process of intuition/deduction/solving. The easy parts are easy and the hard parts are so damn incomprehensible (the “infinite” part) that it goes over your head.

bioshock infinite blood elizabeth scissors
Hey, you got a little something on you there.

But my biggest beef is with the illusion of choice. I know that’s supposed to be part of the theme, but the way it’s integrated into gameplay is even worse. Even Bioshock 1 wasn’t as bad as this. Even though it only gave you the option to be messiah savior or cold-blooded child-killer, it gave you the option. Here, they just provide you a stopping point until you press a button to perform some inescapable action. And the narrative doesn’t proceed unless you do. That’s not a choice, that’s making me turn the page.

There’s plenty I wished I could have seen more of too. I love the Songbird. It’s apparently supposed to be an icon of the game, but it’s barely in it. I would have loved more interaction with Elizabeth. You’re supposed to bond with her, why not little events where you can buy her cotton candy, or dance with her, or some kind of Mass Effect dialogue tree?

Here’s the thing: if people want to consider video games as art? Things like Bioshock: Infinite — a penny dreadful disguised as great literature — are not going to help. Bioshock: Infinite is Inception. It’s great, until you pause the game, go to the fridge for a beer, and say “…That didn’t make any sense!” The story and game seem so separate from each other. It’s a Taco Bell burrito in a Don Pablo’s restaurant.

An Unscheduled Rant about Direct-to-DVD Sequels

beverly hills chihuahua dvd cover

I really have nothing to say at the moment.  I just finished a hardcore reading session for some catch up, and I’m ready to get back to the business of writing.  Got to finish up two short stories and make them presentable for publication, and then it’s onto composing some new stuff.  But besides that been busy with work stuff.  So let’s talk about stuff that irritates me.

This past week, I had the TV on in the background, and saw that the sequel to Beverly Hills Chihuahua — Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 (Chihuahua Harder) was coming out, and I could only think one thing.

What the hell are you thinking?

Seriously, these movies cannot be making you money.  And there cannot be anyone in the world who wrote in and asked for a sequel, who wanted a continuation to the harrowing epic of an accessory dog’s hero’s quest.  It got 40% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The first movie was a success.  It cost $20 million to make and earned $204 million through box office and DVD sales/rentals.  Producers see that and get dollar signs in their eyes.  More of it and more of the same.  I’m not going to chide people for going to see family-friendly trash.  That’s common.  But then you churn out junk sequel after junk sequel after junk sequel instead of investing that money into something new that could be fun and original.

Maybe I’m irritated that I just got off sequel week at the Nostalgia Critic.  He review four of the worst 80’s sequels there were: Neverending Story 3, Ferngully 2, Secret of NIMH 2, and Care Bears 2.  The worst part of these movies isn’t that their horrible or thinly veiled attempts to cash in on profitable properties.  It’s that they shit so hard on the precious moments that made these movies good.

In Neverending Story 3, the Rock Biter has gone from this noble giant facing inevitable annihilation to this Fred Flintstone-esque husband bum with an obnoxious kid and a house made of everything rock.  Falcor went from Yoda to Scooby Doo.  The main antagonist went from an intangible nothing-ness to some 80’s punk bullies.  Ferngully 2 stars the unseen Pip instead of Krysta, the main fairy, who does nothing.  And Secret of NIMH 2 completely ignores Mrs. Brisby, the hero of the first movie, and turns characters who had one line into the protagonists.  And in all these movies characters are holding onto an idiot ball large enough to make Atlas jealous.

If I knew that producers were putting some effort into these movies to make the plots good, it wouldn’t be as bad.  Cheaper animation, lack of original voice actors/stars, shorter run times: these can be forgiven.  But a horrible plot that ignores continuity, makes likable characters unlikeable, and shoves unoriginal, hackneyed plots out there just to give the characters something to do, this is my problem.

It’s not hard to come up with something decent, there are lots of good writers out there.  You can make a plot that has at least SOMETHING to do with the existing work and stays true to its themes and spirit.  I guess the producers need to get something out there fast so the movie stays fresh in people’s minds.

But really, I would sell my soul to wipe out the Air Bud/Air Buddies movies out of reality.  The dog died.  Get over it.

Top Five Movies That Need to Be Remade

bad vibes

These days you can’t get ten feet out of your driveway with running into a movie remake, either one in progress or one that’s already released. On the day that every single movie in a cineplex is an original film, not based on anything, not a sequel or a remake, I will futterwacken… vigorously.

But while people talk about the influx of remakes and crap films based on movies or TV series that were popular in the 1980’s (I know there’s a Munsters movie someone’s thinking about somewhere), fewer people remember the movies that deserve to be remade. Movies that had great, original concepts, but fizzled due to ignorant directors, money-grubbing producers, or clueless writers. And hell, the Best Boy could have had something to do with it too. Just what’s so “best” about him anyway? So here are my top five movies that should get rebooted with a clean slate and a better crew.

Westworld (1973)

Summary: Vacationers at a amusement park in the future (divided into Western world, Middle Ages World, and Ancient Greece World (i.e., Constant Orgy World) ) get more than they bargained for when the robot actors find the “Destroy All Humans” switch. Starring Yul Brynner as a Terminator prototype. John Carpenter directed and Michael Crichton wrote.

This idea is full of potential–high concept and great for a thriller, especially pertinent today. You think the world’s great, you can escape into this world, and enjoy everything. You can even shoot people and not have consequences. Then BLAM–the world turns against you. It’s like Dawn of the Dead. Combining apocalypse with Mallrats. Awesome.

Except that in 75% of the movie, nothing happens. You spend most of your time with these two guys vacationing in Westworld, as they do “Western things”, like gamble with robot cowboys, partake of robot hookers, and shoot this robot “Black Hat” who keeps reappearing to get shot. Then we get some scenes of other vacationers in the other worlds, like the computer programmer with a paunch who hoists a giant sword to defend milady’s honor. And then you see the guys behind the scenes, pressing blinking buttons and spouting meaningless technobabble.

At no time is there any conflict. There is no problem. There is nothing the characters want. There are no obstacles. No one changes. Nothing goes wrong until the last 25% of the movie. Then the robots all blow up or kill everyone, including themselves. One of the west world guys has to run away from Yul Brynner through the different worlds until he successfully terminates him. The Simpsons parody was better executed. I don’t know how you went wrong with Michael Crichton as the writer, but you did.

But the idea is sound, and it’s especially relevant as technology gets more powerful. When you’ve the characters at Disney World start moving their mouths, how can you not think about one of them short circuiting and taking a bite out of you? It’s the new “horror movie at a circus”. If you can give this movie an upgrade in both writing and technology, then you’ve got a winning combination.

Highlander (1986)

Summary: A Scottish swordsman discovers he’s immortal and must survive through the centuries as other immortals fight to be the last, including the barbarian who killed his mentor. Whoever’s the last one gets a “prize” (yes, that’s what they call it).

This movie probably started a lot of urban fantasy seeds. It’s got great genre mixing. Swords plus a city plus a symphonic rock soundtrack plus lots of lightning. The problem was that the story-to-film conversion was horrible. The constant flashbacks become the real story, and ignore the present where all the cool stuff is happening. There is no character development except the main guy–supporting characters appear in one scene and get killed in the very next (the black guy).

But the main problem is that there are so many things left unexplained. Why are these people immortal? What is the Quickening and what does it do? Why swords? Why not an axe, like a proper executioner? Why is decapitation the only way? Why does the Kurgan want to kill McLeod in the first battle? Why are they fighting? How do you know you can suddenly grow old and have children? How do other immortals sense each other? What’s the deal with the gathering? Why do cartoon skeleton dragons come out of you?

Besides the parts that concern the Highlander, the supporting characters act like clowns. The police scenes are ridiculous. No cop would lose his temper and start making homo insults. You get sued for that nowadays. The leading lady trying to solve the mysterious case of the murder in the garage is laughable at best. April O’Neil would have done a better job of investigation, and she’s not even a cop.

The sword-fighting is absolutely horrible. It looks like two five-year-olds playing with toys. These guys lived for five hundred years, you think they would have spent some of that time learning martial arts. I mean, yeah, stabbing does nothing, but at least you could learn to disable your opponent so you can get the decap in? Or at least carry a stun gun with you? And these days you got sword-fighting scenes like in Batman and Star Wars, you could do some cool shit with immortals.

It could be a great action film for not a lot of budget, if you get some skilled fight coordinators. Don’t spend so much time on romance and cityscapes that go nowhere. If you’re going to do flashbacks, do them more like that scene where McLeod keeps getting stabbed in the duel and keeps getting up, laughing. Show the consequences of being an immortal.

Summary: The Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students, takes them to an island, and forces them to kill each other to the last, a la “The Most Dangerous Game”.

I think it’d be awful hard to get this movie an American remake, due to everyone’s uppity-ness about student violence. But with The Hunger Games blowing up the bookstore, maybe there’s a chance. You’d think it was just another gory Asian kill-fest, just from hearing the movie’s concept. But it’s actually got a lot of heart. It’s dramatic, well-thought, and well-written. It’s not just a dirty kill-fest. You have to watch what these people do when they’re forced to kill their friends, or get killed themselves.

My only problem with the original was the principal. It would be awesome if the inciting incident is that he’s sick of his delinquent class and takes them all to an island to kill each other. How that’s going to work, I don’t know? It’s a pretty implausible concept for America. In Asia, they have a lot better suspension of disbelief. But my wife’s a teacher, so I know there’s a dedicated audience already.

Basically, all you need to do is make the actors American, and clean up some of the sentimentality with the principal. The rest writes itself. It’s an action epic as 40 high school students fight to survive, all using different tactics based on their stereotypes. We got the techie guys who try to jerry-rig a device to break their prison collars. You’ve got friendly girls who try to get everyone to get along. They broadcast their location and immediately get killed. The suicides. The loners. And then there’s the people who surprise you. Focus on the action on the island, and less on the regret and maudlin side, and you’ve got a movie.

WarGames (1983)

Summary: A hacker kid accidentally hacks into a military central computer via a video game. The game might actually start World War III, unless he can find the game’s disgruntled creator before the government kidnaps him. Starring Ferris Bueller. Directed by the guy who did Short Circuit.

I watched this movie a while ago, and the biggest problem was that it was slow. It’s more about the government than it is about the kid, and it’s more about the kid than any cool Artificial Intelligence taking over. Again, a topical movie that would mean a lot more if it was made today. True, this movie was preying on the Cold War scare, so that would have to change. And I wouldn’t want to make it as simple as a robot takes over all the computers. The scary part was that the computer didn’t know what it was doing. It was just being a computer. It doesn’t get happy, it doesn’t get sad, it just runs programs.

Plus, I think the story about the computer programmer who makes a doomsday device because of his dead son is heart-breaking. And when you combine it with the punk hacker kid, governmental pursuit, and a ticking clock, it makes an awesome moving plot. The best part is that you can keep the idea of the kid outwitting the government. The old people are still clueless (it’s a series of tubes!), so it still makes sense.

I know it’s hard to make an exciting movie about hackers. No one wants to see someone typing at a keyboard for the climax. But it’s time for movie makers to realize their potential, In 1983, computers were boxes of blinking lights. They were a mystery, and hackers were just kids trading information. Security was non-existent. Now the computers have changed. Now people live in video games. How scary would it be to have a video game that might not know it is one?

Summary: Mr. Miyagi, everyone’s favorite real life Yoda, takes a troubled teenage girl under her wing. He teaches her to control her anger through karate. Meanwhile, she must fend off the advances of the school’s “security team” and take care of a hawk. Starring Hilary Swank.

You’d think this sort of movie would be popular–it’s the Karate Kid with a hot girl! Think of the what could happen. In reality, the gender switch comes off as lame. Even though the scene where she rejects the wax-on, wax-off bit for some real training, along with Miyagi walking in while she puts on her bra are somewhat amusing, they don’t exploit the comedic potential. They were filmed for the trailer. The other scenes like the babysitting and all the dancing are just horrible.

I wanted this movie to be about girl power, but it’s about her prom date and taking care of pets. The antagonist, the school security team (a quasi-military club on campus) is so ridiculously, comically portrayed that they can’t be taken seriously. She doesn’t fight most of the time, she runs. She never gets into a real Karate fight until the end, when her boyfriend has just had his car exploded and had the shit kicked out of him. For no reason. And then no one wants to fight a girl, so she gets like three kicks in and then it’s over. And THEN, the final battle isn’t with Hilary Swank, it’s Miyagi vs. the security team’s leader. Miyagi doesn’t fight! Whover wrote this movie must have thought “Hey, let’s make Daniel-san a girl, and hilarity will ensue”.

You want to see a good girlfight movie, see Girlfight (intuitive, I know). That’s a movie that has a real fighter who’s a female, not a girl concerned with prom and boys. It’s not like a girl in a boy’s role. There are consequences because she’s a girl (she has to fight the boy she likes). This is what The Next Karate Kid should have been. A movie where the girl is strong, like Buffy. Not just a man with girl parts. Not a female trying to play with man toys. A girl who uses martial arts to grow confidence and become self-actualized, validated without needing a boy or a beauty crown.

Science Fiction Movies

Sci-Fi Movies! Yay! Nothing beats some good science fiction movies, but what do we have today? Babylon A.D.? Ultraviolet? Push? Unless its a cartoon or based on a comic book, don’t even bother. Remember the good old days when science fiction was fun and exciting? The film genre was like a teenager – dark and moody one minute, and cheerful the next. I want to take a look at some of my favorite science fiction movies – nay, my favorite movies – from childhood (and it’s a break from me yapping about video games). I was partially inspired to write this by Scalzi’s “Notes from the Monolith” column in AMC. Not because its good, but because its often about the same themes (personal lists, sci-fi books,

Short Circuit
This probably my favorite movie of all time. This and Short Circuit 2 (which I thought was better, because you get to see Johnny 5’s personality). There had been so movies with robots portrayed in a negative light (Terminator, Blade Runner, misc cartoons), that to see a child-like fun-loving robot was fantastic. That’s why Wall-E is so awesome – it’s the next extension of the Short Circuit meme (he even looks like Johnny 5’s son). My favorite part of that movie is the ending when you see the robots and humans working together, as the animation steadily evolves. When Short Circuit 2 came out on Pay-Per-View (remember those, basic cable people?), I woke up at 5 in the morning (I had trouble with sleeping as a kid) and went down and watched the ever-cycling commercials for it. They had a short clip where Johnny 5 meets the gang members and is duped into stealing car stereos. I made Johnny 5’s out of legos, and he frequently visited the ninja turtles. I also remember begging my parents for a Johnny 5 toy, like in the movie, but I was too young to realize they were movie props, not mass produced.

E.T.
My mom says this is the first movie I saw, and all I did was run up and down the aisles. Beyond that E.T. was a great love, but I had no memory of watching the movie. The closest I could get to it were scant clips on TV and storybooks. E.T. and Johnny 5 aren’t too far from each other actually – big, wide, flat heads, squashy bodies, long arms and fingers (wait a minute, this sounds like me). Anyway, I remember in a gas station, in 1988 or so, there was an orange flyer that said “He is an alien. He is alone. He is 3,000,000 light years from home.” Yes, E.T. was coming to home video. A miracle was upon us. I remember I always wanted an E.T. doll too.

Back to the Future
One of the first movies I remember watching. This is where I got interested in time travel. The problem was that this movie was really a nostalgia piece for people growing up in the 50’s, not a science-fiction story. I hated the fact that the ending was open-ended, and it didn’t seem like the producers had any intention of making another one. Until I was in the theater and saw a poster of some fire trails, and a licence plate that said “OUTATIME”. Plus that car was so cool – also something I frequently made out of legos. I squeed with delight when I saw a DeLorean in real life on the road a few months ago.

Gremlins
I could never tell if Gremlins was a horror movie, comedy movie, or science-fiction movie. Damn you, Spielberg, for blurring the lines (also, stop making Indiana Jones movies). Some days it seemed like a family movie, and the next I’d be having nightmares about Stripe. Gizmo was essentially a talking toy (come to think of it, so were E.T. and Johnny 5). And where’s Joe Dante, bring him back, man, he was good.

Ghostbusters
On my tapes, Ghostbusters was right after Gremlins (after which was “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “A Garfield Halloween Special”). So I’d often watch one, then the other. Ghostbusters was simply awesome, and a great thing to play act. Once again, its a cross-cultural thing. Ghosts are supposed to be scary things relgated to horror movies. You don’t build a business around them. Plus the great thing about this movie is the characters. I remember once hearing that this movie was so popular because the audience loved the actors. What Wil Wheaton had for Star Wars toys, I had for Ghostbusters toys.

Willow
I think Willow is the first movie I remember seeing in the theater. It was also one of the bonding elements of me and my girlfriend cumma wife. One thing that was different was that I never play-acted Willow. There wasn’t really any toys or cute objects or cross-genres that made it jump out at me. It was just a good movie.

The Dark Crystal
This was a hidden trove, constantly rented from the library (often in conjunction with Shari Lewis). But its the one movie in this list that we didn’t have on tape. I didn’t get it until my high school graduation party when I got from my sister a bunch of DVDs from our youth (also included were Batteries Not Included and The Adventures of Milo and Otis). It was never on TV, I don’t even know how I knew about it. A lot of people remember Labyrinth better, but this was an excellent fantasy movie, because it was scary, but not too scary for kids. I think people like Labyrinth just for the campiness of it.

Now, if you haven’t already noticed, there are two things missing from this list. There is NO Star Wars. There is NO Star Trek. Why? Because I considered those things too adult for me at the time. Unlike most kids, I took a long time to get interested in movies for adults – I liked family movies like Batteries Not Included. I’m not sure why I took so long to take the plunge. No one ever forced me to watch movies. I made my own decisions. Star Wars held no appeal to me, I think I was born too late so none of the children around me were into it. And Star Trek was a show for my parents. I watched these later in middle school, but after I pretty much knew everything. Like how everyone knows the ending to Citizen Kane, so no one can watch it the way it was meant to be watched. I wonder what kind of movies my kid will watch.

Late to the Game: Bioshock: The First Impressions

bioshock logo

I bought Bioshock on Steam for five dollars a week or two ago. I remember it won the GameSpot story of the year award, so I thought “Hey, five dollars. Can’t pass that up.” (Portal was $2.99. Jesum crow, now you have no excuse!) Unfortunately, my five dollars only went so far, as I found out my computer was too old for the game. So I had to buy a new video card to play the game decently, which cost me as much as if I’d bought the game new. Oh well, at least I’ll be able to play new games as well (where’s HL2: Episode 3? Come on, I wanna see how it ends!).

First off, I love the sets (if I can call them that). I’ve never seen such elaborate decoration. Half-Life had detail, but a lot of it was outside. Bioshock takes place underwater in the 1950’s. That alone should be enough to suck anyone in, but these places have bathrooms, kitchens, shops, elevators, ashtrays, and searchable corpses. The enemy movements seem a little stilted – not as fluid as Half-Life, and I miss the ragdoll physics. But the world is rich and detailed. I wish I had the time to appreciate it fully, but the pressing nature of a family makes me feel like I have to finish the game as quick as possible to get back to my other stuff.

So far, the story-telling has its good and bad points. There’s virtually no intro – you don’t know who you are, besides a guy on a plane – but so far that seems largely irrelevant. It’s the “Trapped in Another World” scenario with a nondescript hero – a standard VG trope.

My problem is, because the world is so rich, and because it’s a video game, they move you along fast. You don’t have time to appreciate the fantastic stuff before you get to even more fantastic stuff. For example, your plane crashes and you swim to a menacing black tower, then down a bathyscope to the underwater city of Rapture, where humpback whales swim under the sign for “Dr. Morley’s Tobacco Emporium”. The guy who comes to get you out gets attacked by a Splicer (the common enemy grunt), and you’re on your own, except for a guy on a radio. He doesn’t explain what’s going on, he doesn’t tell you what you’re doing here, and he sure doesn’t help you get around much. The guy lives in Rapture, you think he could give you some directions.

The “what’s going on” is revealed from the advertising (great story-telling device) and narrative diaries (bad story-telling device). You have to basically wait and do nothing while you listen to the diary. This interrupts the experience. I guess the idea is that you keep playing while you listen, but its hard to hear when my shotgun’s going off. Or concentrate when I see a Nitro Splicer coming at me. And those diaries don’t pause.

Very shortly after the game begins, before you even pick up a hitscan weapon, you get your first psychic power. From a vending machine. And the first thing you do with it is inject it into your veins, without any provocation or instruction from your radio buddy. This causes your genetic code to be re-written and makes you black out and fall over a railing, leaving you cold on the ground while all manner of Splicers, Little Sisters, and Big Daddies come up to sniff your potential corpse.

Now, I’m operating on the assumption that this world is completely alien to the main character – there are no plasmids or ADAM on the surface, no one knows of Rapture, and Dr. Ryan (the head honcho) is dismissed as a reclusive Darwinian Mad Scientist. Granted, these are pretty large leaps of faith, but the introduction gives us no knowledge of the current environment, save the year. Therefore, I must assume that everything in the world is as it is in ours, with the exception of the game’s macguffin.

So if the idea is that I’m playing as myself (almost, at least), the first thing I do with a foreign substance I got from a broken vending machine is not to stick it in my wrist. Especially if no one tells me to. In my humble experience, playing god in a mysterious underground city where the people who did the same thing are now attacking you is not the best survival strategy. I’ll stick with my boomstick, thanks.

I’m not complaining about the plasmid game mechanic, mind you. I love setting things on fire. It’s just the way that it’s introduced to the player is implausible. And the fact that these things can be found in vending machines, dentist’s offices, and tennis simulators is a stretch too. In my world, this would be a valuable substance, not something to be doled out willy-nilly. Imagine the chaos if everyone suddenly became telekinetic, pyrokinetic, super-strong, super-smart, and able to shoot lightning. And for clarification, the problems down below came from people messing with their genes in the first place, not the powers they gained. Most people are attacking me with grenades and shotguns, not ice blasts.

In fact, nearly everything you do is via vending machines. It incorporates some more interesting play mechanics (hacking, money management) that you don’t typically see in shooters, but I find it more comically ludicrous than satirically plausible. Granted they sell iPods via machine, but not electric shotgun shells and genetic enhancements.

Finally, Little Sisters. Now, this is an interesting idea – it takes the concept of morality in video games to a new level. But what’s their role in Rapture? In one of the diaries, Dr. Ryan says that the Little Sisters are necessary to their way of life. This means they’re not a new thing. So what did they do before? Man the fry daddy at McPlasmid’s? Right now they have a symbiotic relationship with the Big Daddies – harvesting ADAM in exchange for protection. Surely they weren’t going around and doing this before. Not to mention that I find it hard to believe that ANY modern American society would allow experiments on little girls. They’re described as having a “terminal illness” and “they’re not little girls anymore”. Maybe the storytellers are being vague on purpose, to make them scarier, but I don’t see how declaring their role would take away from the fear.

As you can see from this, and my review of Half-Life 2, I don’t like being kept in the dark for the sake of gameplay or atmosphere. If the main character would know, then the player needs to know.

Nonetheless, I am enjoying myself in Rapture. I just think it’s moving a little fast, and some of the environment wavers between ridiculous and unrealistic. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Ghost Stories

Interesting thought occurred to me today – nobody writes about ghosts anymore.

I’ve been reading through magazines and webzines, looking for good places to submit to. There’s quite a bit of the horror genre out there, and judging from samples, there’s not a lot of ghost fiction. Vampires, scary clowns, demons, and nightly bumpers. No ghosts. At first I thought, well of course, ghosts aren’t scary. Ghosts can’t hurt you, ghosts don’t have claws or fangs. They can’t hurt you. When I think of ghosts, I think of Casper or Beetlejuice or Ghostbusters. So it’s obvious why ghosts aren’t used.

Then I remembered my wife is terrified of ghosts. I still don’t know why (for the above reasons), but the fear is there. She talks about houses in her old neighborhood that were haunted, a college library, dreams. Scares the hell out of her. I think that fear is difficult to translate to writing though. Certainly would be for me. I have no idea how to write a ghost story that’s scary. Ghost stories almost border on mysteries – trying to find out what the ghost wants, which invariably is linked to how it died. Anyway, it just seems to me that ghosts are a motif waiting to make a comeback.

The Storytelling in Half-Life 2: To You I Say thhbppt

Let’s talk about Half-Life 2 for a minute, and hopefully its still current enough we don’t have to jump into the Wayback Machine. I bought The Orange Box as my reward for getting a new job. I really just wanted to play Portal, because the Internet community can’t shut up about it, and I know they’re offering the individual games up soon, but I didn’t want to wait (I couldn’t since I have a two month old and no time), plus it was a hell of a bargain – Half-Life 2 + Episode 1 + Episode 2 + Team Fortress + Portal. I just got finished playing all the Half-Life 2 content, and I’ve got to say, as far as storytelling, I’m not impressed. Why am I not impressed? Because not enough backstory is explained. Like I said in my essay about Shadow of the Colossus, if I don’t know why I’m there, why should I do anything. When you start Half-Life 1, you know who you are and where you are by the time you finish the tram ride. By the time you shove the crystal up the laser’s ass, you know who’s important and what’s going to be important. And by the end of the game, you know what happened, why it happened, and what’s probably going to happen next. I loved the sensation that you start as this genius MIT physics geek, hand-picked to work in the most advanced and secret scientific facility in the world, and you seem to be nothing more than a cart jockey. As the game went on, you were introduced to plot twists (the marines infiltration, the animal testing area) that kept the revelations going, while keeping intrigue (the G-Man, lambda complex) to have the character guessing what all this means. By the end of the game, I was satisfied, but eager for more. Not so with Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2’s biggest problem is that you’re instantly teleported from Half-Life 1 to 2. No explanation why, no transition from one to the other. The G-Man says some cryptic shit, then you appear on a train. Why am I on a train? Where am I going? Who are these guys with me and when did denim get so popular? Who’s that guy on the TV screen? Where did he come from? Am I in City 17? What happened to Cities 1-16? Not good enough for City 7, am I? Is the world in trouble? Where’d my guns go? Did I stop the Xen aliens? Where am I supposed to go? Who are my friends here? Who is the enemy? How long have I been out? What happened while I was gone? Will there be cake?Only half these questions are ever answered, and then, sparsely. Unless I looked on the Wikipedia, I would never know that Dr. Breen was the former administrator of Black Mesa, or that the Combine are here to harvest Earth’s water and change the chemical composition of the air. I would never know that the Vortigaunts are now friendly and why they are friendly. Yet the headcrabs aren’t. If this was real life, there’d be a lot of Vortigaunts limbs lying around City 17 right now. So all of this boils down to ‘what should I be doing?’. This is the first question I ask myself when I start a video game. When Cloud bounced out of the train, that was the first question I asked, and it was answered quickly (blowing up an evil energy reactor as part of a eco-terrorist organization). In Resident Evil 4, when Leon rolled out of the car into some Spanish villa, I knew where I should go (start exploring and discover the zombies). In these cases, there are clearly defined enemies, allies, and motivations. Unless I know what I’m doing and why, I just can’t get into the game. The other reason Half-Life 2 fails to produce emotional attachment is the lack of compelling characters (and this ties into the motivation for the player). You wanted to seek vengeance for Aeris. You wanted to save Rinoa from space. You wanted to see what Midna had to say. Half-Life 1 didn’t really have compelling characters either, but it made up for it with compelling character models, such as Barney the security escort, and the headcrabs. These didn’t become memorable because of who they were, but because of their behavior, which was part of the game mechanic. True, Half-Life’s audience isn’t the same as Twilight Princess’s audience, but at least Half-Life 1 had the newness behind it. In Half-Life 2, the programmers created even more newness, but didn’t exploit it. The Combine are little more than targets. The headcrabs have no new information revealed story-wise (besides they like watermelons). The ally characters are hardly more than background noise. Alyx is a memorable and popular character, but she’s not much more than a partner. She doesn’t initiate things, she doesn’t have a history, and her personality is the same as everyone else. Who else do we got? The bumbling Dr. Kleiner? The wizened Eli Vance? The Vortigaunts? They’re nothing more than rest stops to break up the action. They don’t dispense anything useful and they don’t move the plot. The only character I wanted to see more of in the future was Lamarr.Besides, the whole point of Half-Life is that you are Gordon and Gordon is alone. I should feel more alone, more empty, like in Silent Hill. Half-Life 2’s world is vast, but not empty. It’s detailed, but not thematic. I feel like they created this beautiful dam and then plopped some Combine soldiers in there for me to shoot, like Hogan’s Alley. So how do you tell back story well, without boring the player with ten-minute long intros or endless files to read? (I’m looking at you Resident Evil) Well, God of War put you right in the action, and explained Kratos’s backstory in periodic flashbacks. But this probably wouldn’t work for Half-Life because the nature of its storytelling was always from the perspective of the player, and it never deviates. God of War is all about high action, quick events, and visceral art. Half-Life is about life-like detail, realism, and freedom. Twilight Princess used Midna as a medium, as well as other characters. As the both of you confronted Zant, their dialogue revealed what happened to Hyrule. But the Combine don’t talk to each other, and Dr. Breen never calls to say hi. All you know is what the rebels know, and they always seem to get interrupted when they’re going to tell you something. That’s irritating to a gamer. Let the brother talk, man. Let’s see the seven-hour war. Let there be a few meetings to discuss the current situation. Let me pick up a newspaper and read it. That way you can allow the player to be Gordon (and never a movie viewer) and still keep the game consistent.I feel like Half-Life 2 didn’t capture the same spirit that Half-Life 1 created. It didn’t have the same zest, the same alien themes. It replaced the intrigue with unanswered hanging questions (the difference between the two is the desire to learn more and how much becomes revealed/resolved). Whenever you make a product based on existing material, such as a movie based on a book, you can basically do anything as long as you stay within the spirit of the material. That’s what Mortal Kombat (1) did. That’s what Silent Hill did. That’s what Batman did. Even Resident Evil 4, a radical departure from the gameplay, was still awesome because you were still fighting zombies in scary enclosed places. They kept the fans happy because they kept true to the spirit of the source material. They didn’t make Leon fight in an nu-tech industrial warehouse. They didn’t make Batman into a struggling teenager trying to cope with his identity as a superhero. So, despite it winning this year’s Gamespot award for best story (which I think was really for Portal, so I don’t know why they didn’t just give it to Portal itself instead of the Orange Box), Half-Life 2 gets a C+ for storytelling. Okay, not great. Now, I must return to my computer to catch the end of a thousand year old Final Fantasy rom hack.

Writers are a good position if you want to be in a story

Guess what the most popular profession in stories is? Give up? Suprise, surprise, it’s “Writer”. Seems like five out of eight stories (short and long) I read, the main character is a writer, but not just a writer. A writer who’s hasn’t managed to write anything for months or years. A writer who can’t make the payments. A writer who’s dream has dissipated because either his wife died, he’s not “edgy” enough, or the kids are watching Survivor and playing that thar PlayCube games (they’re the devil).

I suprised, out of all the cliche lists I read, that this isn’t on there – the main character is a bohemian, studio apartment, starving artist. And we’re supposed to be sympathetic towards him. Why does this happen? Well, because the author has to write what he knows best. What he knows best is himself. What himself is is a bohemian, studio apartment, starving artist. Is this interesting to other writers? Maybe, but to me it’s tedious and overused. Writers, by and large, aren’t very interesting. In fact, I get jittery whenever someone asks me about my writing, and I feel like a kid doing something wrong.
There’s no shortage of interesting jobs out there – deep sea salvage divers, WWII pilots, spies, middle school kids, astronauts, Hollywood agents, symbologist, gunslinger (points to anyone who can recognize the books I’m talking about). Writers are right up there with software engineers (also me). I know how to write code, but damned if I could write a story about it, at least one that would be interesting. Jobs like that are more a part of the characterization, like a dinner plate. If you make it part of the story, you’d better damn well have something good to put on that plate.

Goddamn, It is long

Goddamn, It is long.

I guess I could elaborate.

Well, for all Stephen King talks about story, I sure see a lot of places where things could be cut and it wouldn’t sacrifice any of the actual plot. It reads like an epistolary of sorts – most of it is just kids telling their encounters with It, and King tries to scare you through this. Killing kids and old ladies is his bread and butter after all.
Seeing the mini-series would fool you. There’s very little of the adult side of the story, maybe only 20% of the pages focus on their adult situations. And with six characters, you’ve got to do the same thing for each of them. Got to talk about their first encounters with It, got to talk about each one’s phone call that brings them back together. And you know King shirks no details on each of these. Each one has it’s own scare. So it ends up being more of a collection of short stories, each with the same plot.
That’s what bothers me. We spend too much time trying to scare people (which has never really worked in book form for me), and too little time finding out how the kids are going to deal with It, Henry Bowers, their parents, and their love for each other. Beverly is my favorite character (and why wouldn’t she be? She sounds kind of like my wife). I especially loved her first scene when she meets Richie and Ben and they go to the movies, and then she saves them from the bully Henry. That made me nostalgic for some of the stories I used to write back before I became ‘serious’, and future-looking for some of the stories I want to write in the future.
But It, for such a short title, sure is unnecessarily long. Was his editor out to lunch?