Archive for March, 2012

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Book Review: The Dark Side of the Glass

Summary Judgement: If David Crane and Jeffery Klarik of Showtime/BBC’s Episodes wrote a book with Ann-Marie MacDonald, it would probably look a lot like J.M. Frey’s The Dark Side of the Glass.

I won’t deny that I initially approached J.M. Frey’s The Dark Side of the Glass with some measure of hesitation. My regular readers know how little I regard our society’s current taste in brooding self-loathing vampires who just want to be loved. Yet J.M., who has appeared on the Page of Reviews podcast on more than one occasion, sent me an advanced copy of her novel – a novel that cites the likes of Forever Knight as an indirect inspiration. Sufficed to say, I was sceptical. However, my reticence melted within the first few pages of the book when an anonymous character yelled that they were “…so sick of this vampire crap.” That’s when I knew there was a very interesting game afoot. As I read on, I became convinced that I was looking at a clever piece of satire.

Mary, the novel’s protagonist, lives in Toronto where she is a parking production assistant for the fictional television series City by Night. Mary is the consummate fan, and she loves City by Night. Working on the series, even in her most menial of roles, is a dream come true. When she’s not at work, she’s at conventions, or she’s writing fanfic in the guise of screenplays submitted to her executive producer, or she’s fawning over series’ lead character Leondre DuNoir, a mystery solving vampire. Mary is also guilty of committing that most common sin within fandom; she assumes that the creators of a television series are as emotionally invested in product as their fans. Mary gets a cold dose of reality when she overhears the showrunnner and star mocking the series, the fans, and by extension the purpose of her life. Then she gets hit by a craft services truck.

When Mary wakes up, she finds herself not in Toronto, but Night City, the imagined location of City by Night. That’s where things start to get interesting as Mary lives out the “Mary Sue’s” greatest fantasy: being cast as herself within the very thing that she loves. It’s too bad for her that television doesn’t always have the best writing.

Even though most of DSOTG is set within Night City, a place inhabited by vampires who bear a striking similarity to…well every TV vampire, it’s not really fair to pigeon hole this novel as “vampire fiction”. It’s far too meta for such an easy framework. Much like Ann-Marie MacDonald’s protagonist in Good Night Desdemona-Good Morning Juliet, Mary attempts to fix the problems within the narrative. In doing so she comes to confront all of the things that she never noticed as a fan: the contrived plots, the product placement, the adherence established tropes, and the shallow characters who can’t pass the Bechdel Test if their lives depend on it. It’s a delicious irony that sees a fantasy world as the only place where Mary can begin to connect with the reality of her obsession. Mary learns that it is not that orgasmic of a thing to have a Vampire suck blood out of her neck.

On that level, this novel revels in confronting fans with the reality of their fandom. Yet it manages to do so through appeals to humour rather than snark at the expense of fans who know not what they do. That humour also serves to make the author’s insights into the Canadian television industry seem incredibly honest. One particular scene comes to mind when Mary says that Night City is Toronto that is supposed to look like New York but ends up seeming like Detroit because the show can’t afford the permits to shoot in the expensive parts of town. I read that section and all I could do was laugh as I thought back on the short lived Robocop series, filmed in Mississauga and Toronto, and the Robocop: Prime Directives miniseries, also shot in Toronto. Fun fact: Robocop: PD starred Geraint Wyn Davies, who played Nick Knight, the titular vampire in Forever Knight, who looks to be the obvious inspiration for DSOTG’s Leondre DuNoir.

While this novel has a lot working in its favour, its length stood out as something of a puzzle. DSOTG is a very short book. Though it is broken up into chapters, it reads much more like a short story on premium grade anabolic steroids. As quickly as the plot moves, so too does the story come to an end. Considering Mary’s growth as a character, I would have enjoyed a greater exploration of her life once she returns to Toronto from the world of Night City. On a more practical note, I really hope that when Double Dragon Publishing puts this book to market, they price it a level that is appropriate for a 62 page story.

In the end, Frey’s novel shows how a one-dimensional trope of fan fiction can become a meta-critic of their own environment. Personally, I think that is fantastic. However, there’s no escaping Mary’s realization that City by Night, and perhaps the entire brooding vampire sub-genre, is a shallow thing. Thus there is a danger that this novel flies a little too close to the sun for some would-be readers. Vampire fans might do well to avoid this book if they are incapable of having a little laugh at their own expense. For everybody else, if you like sharp wit and satire, then The Dark Side of the Glass is a safe bet.


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Podcast Episode 19: The One Where We Tried It Live On Google+

Well, almost live...

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe, Beverly Bambury and James Bambury

NB: This podcast represents my attempt to do two new things at the same time. 1) Use a Google+ hangout to record a podcast. 2) Make it an open mic and live-ish affair. On the second point, it was a smashing success. Beverly, James, and I had a great conversation. On the first point, there were some unforeseen technical “hiccups”.

Regrettably, my intended plan to post this podcast in its unabridged and unedited format proved impossible. Moreover, I’m still not really happy with the overall audio fidelity that Google+ offered. As such, the technical elements of this podcast don’t quite measure up to the quality of its content. Prepare for odd noises and warbles that were just impossible to edit out. I apologize in advance. I promise things will be back to normal with my next ‘cast.

Podcast Breakdown

Start to 5:00 – My introduction.

5:00 to 13:00 – Beverly and James arrive – we talk Jesse Griffith’s Cockpit, Aaron Sims’ Archetype, and the nature of proof of concept films.

13:00 to 19:00 – Crowdsourcing creative projects.

19:00 to 26:00 – John Carter (of Mars) and the curse of the Martian movie.

26:oo to 46:00 – The Hunger Games, Rollerball, bloodsports, and cultural appetites therein.

46:00 to 48:00 – Wrap up.

Correction: At 24:45 I meant to say “The Washington Post” not “The Wall Street Journal”

Right click “Download” and click “Save link as” to download a DRM free copy of the cast. We don’t like DRM around these parts.


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The Daily Shaft: What’s The Deal With Book Trailers?

Today we’re going to talk about book trailers. They are an interesting sort of thing. I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject, beyond watching a great many of them over the last few years. Generally, much of what I have seen is pretty grim. Last night, I saw one that finally made me want to read the book it was promoting, but more on that in a moment.

I’ll take it as a given that the intended purpose of the book trailer, much like the movie trailer, is to sell a given product. Examining how the movie trailer does that seems to be a natural starting point for this discussion. Within its two minutes of screen time the movie trailer needs to do three things to get my attention: introduce the principle cast of a flim, set up the plot, and showcase the movie’s x factor. Take this trailer for Inception as an example.

The trailer depicts a cerebral “action” movie about planting ideas in a person’s mind via a gizmo that exists within the real world. The actors and text panels give me a sense of the characters involved in the story. The x factor, the plasticity of an individual’s dream, is something that most audience members should find accessible. Dreaming as plot gimmick also has the benefit of being an untapped well in recent cinematic history. Interesting characters, good concept, and a newish plot device makes Inception’s trailer a solid piece of work.

Now comes the hard part; transitioning a medium that has been perfected by big budget film studios into a tool that is effective for selling novels. Problem one: the average movie screenplay is 150 pages with a lot of blank space in the margins. Novels are 300 pages of small print and skinny margins that often amount to 75,000 words worth of text. Problem two: where a movie has the benefit of actors who will convey characters beyond the printed dialogue, the novel has no such advantage. On paper, good characterization is the result of cooperation between the author and the reader. Problem three: on plot and x factors, movies tend to sell better when they are obvious about these sorts of things. For the novel, the opposite is true.

Even the math doesn’t work in favour of book trailers having an easy task. Inception’s runtime is 142 minutes. The trailer is two minutes long. That means the trailer is offering 1.3% of the finished product to whet my appetite. I happen to have a copy of Starship Troopers sitting on my desk. This edition is 263 pages in length. In two minutes of reading at a normal pace I managed exactly two pages. That is 0.7% of the novel. The numbers get even uglier if you apply the same math to something like Neal Stephenson’s latest 980 page tome, Reamde: 0.16%. I know, it’s hardly a scientific study, but I can’t imagine the numbers improving if I conducted this test with books I hadn’t already read. Given this unfriendly ratio, it seems to me that book trailers run the very real risk of inviting a potential reader to commit that most capital of sins, judging a novel on its cover.

Say nothing of low budgets, crappy audio, lousy directing, bad lighting, and air of rushed production that have hobbled so many recent book trailers. The very idea of “book” and “trailer” begins to seem downright incongruous.

Then along comes Canadian SF/Horror writer Matt Moore. He posts this video on his Google+ account.

And I’m blown away. Within ten seconds of finishing the video I’m tracking down the publisher, Orbit Books, and contemplating sending in a request for a review copy. Why? Because the trailer gives me my three essentials: plot, character, and x factor. More than that, it invited me to ask questions. Good literary questions rather than the banal details about the speed at which the zombies move. I want to know what sort of man is driven to bury the dead in a zombie infested wasteland. His bringing peace to others implies that he can’t find it on his own, what sort of trauma does that to a person? The trailer for The Return Man has done with its 0.2-0.7% what all good books must do: make the audience engage on a meaningful level with the material.

Nor should we neglect the fact that The Return Man’s trailer is aesthetically pleasing. Never, ever underestimate just how picky people/critics/me will become when they/we/me can find fault in a two minute trailer. “If you couldn’t be bothered to use a camera dolly in the trailer, why should I expect the prose’s transitions to be any more fluid?”

Kudos again to Matt Moore for the find.


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Video Game Review: Tetris Battle

Summary Judgement: Though not without its flaws, Tetris Battle is one of the few facebook games I’ve seen that is actually a game.

In previous posts I’ve made my position on “Social” gaming quite clear. To summarize: “Social” gaming can be viewed through a lens of Marxism in that it alienates gamers from play through repetitive actions/faux-stimuli, which simulate assembly line mentalities.

To put it more bluntly, “Social” gaming sucks the devil’s ass.

Tetris Battle does not change that rule. Rather it stands as an exception, therein.

On some levels, it seems identical to every other facebook game out there. To start, there are two types of in-game money: Tetris coins and Tetris cash. Everybody collects the former at the end of a match; while the latter is a premium currency that the game miserly doles out after leveling up. T$ can also be acquired through through real world transactions, or engaging with the game’s sponsors. Also similar to every other facebook/Free2Play game out there, Tetris Cash unlocks game play advantages (faster movement speed on the pieces, additional blocks in the upcoming queue, etc.) more rapidly than if a player uses the generic Tetris coins.

Under normal circumstances, those reasons would be more than enough to make me hate this game. Yet there’s one thing that Tetris Battle offers that so many other online games do not: actual player on player competition where somebody wins, and somebody loses.

Regular Tetris is about building solid lines out of falling shapes. The core of Tetris Battle, however, involves sending cleared lines into an opponent’s matrix. Clear two lines, and send one to a foe. Score a triple to send a pair of lines into an enemy’s grid. Landing a tetris forces a rival to deal with four unwelcome lines. There are additional ways to make a player’s life miserable through chaining together single line clearances, advanced T-spin lines and clearing a matrix of all blocks. Rounds last two minutes with a winner determined through most lines sent and fewest matrices filled. Save for the ability to “hold” a piece for future use, something that I have used to rain back to back tetri on my unworthy opponents, all other standard rules of Tetris apply.

But what of fairness within a game environment where those with the deepest wallets can buy the most advantages? Setting aside the obvious fact that Free2Play games are a microcosm for the world in that respect, the game does two things to keep the playing field level. First, the advantages that it gives out aren’t that big of a deal. In theory, it is nice to know the next five pieces in the drop order. But who is really going to make 100% use of that knowledge? Unless you’re an expert level chess player who happens to be tweaking on Crystal Meth, the average person doesn’t have the cognitive ability or reaction time to think five moves ahead while engaged in a fast paced competition of spatial relations.

The other thing that keeps Tetris Battle’s competition on an even keel is its match making system. The game employs an efficient ranking structure that ensures a similar skill level between players. From time to time, I have engaged in the odd outlier match against. There was this one South Korean opponent who pasted me 72 lines to 12. But for the most part, the system gets it right far more often than it fouls things up.

As of this review, the game is lacking a grudge match system where friends can throw down with other friends. A greyed out “Challenge” option on the game’s main screen suggests said option might be in the works for future updates. Speaking of things that are missing, the iconic Tetris music isn’t there. Instead, the game offers some mellow lounge/elevator music during each round. Tetrisbattle.com brags that this game is an officially licensed product, so I have no idea why they wouldn’t deploy half of what makes Tetris so memorable?

Overall, Tetris Battle is a pretty positive experience. Judicious use Tetris Cash will avert the need to spam friends with thousands of requests to help unlock additional game play modes. That little detail in and of itself is a huge selling point for me. There’s nothing I hate more than having to beg for my friends’ attention because I want to play a game on my own. Alerting the world to a need for extra pickles in Hamburger City, or whatever, is probably the most tacky part of the entire “social” gaming experience. For that reason alone Tetris Battle is worth of your attention.

And now, for no particular reason, the best ever orchestral rendition of the Tetris theme.


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Television Review/Recap: Spartacus Vengeance Episode 9

Spartacus leads a team building seminar, with wine.

Misdirection was the word of the day for “Monsters”, the penultimate episode of Spartacus Vengeance. Yet with Spartacus making speeches in two out of his first three scenes, I feared another painfully talkie episode. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. Though getting from A to B was perhaps a bit too easy of a plot twist.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The story picks up with Ilithyia returning to the former house of Batiatus. After opening the door but before passing out, Ilithyia notices her husband wrapped up in Seppia’s arms. When the Praetor’s wife wakes up, she finds herself in the villa’s guest bedroom. Glaber initially greets Ilithyia with what seems like genuine concern. Of course, his facade of support quickly gives way as he attempts to use the details of his wife’s captivity to divine the location of Spartacus’ camp. When Ilithyia presses Glaber on the nature of his relationship with Seppia, the Praetor admits to the liaison and reminds his wife that he is a monster of her own making.

Back at the rebel camp, all is not well; so what else is new?

Spartacus, Crixus, and Gannicus, all clad as legionaries, scale the temple’s wall, walk through a warren of sleeping Germans and Gauls, and make it into the inner sanctum before Naevia sounds the alarm. After making another one of his bland speeches (Seriously, if the writers gave Liam McIntyre a chance to act rather than orate, he might make a great lead) Spartacus sets the camp to training. Unfortunately for the would-be army, petty grudges have given way to disharmony. In Crixus’ words, “We are but flailing fingers when we ought to be closed fist.” So Spartacus enacts a plan. He has Agron knock over a wagon full of wine so the rebels can spend a day drinking and bare knuckle boxing to settle old grievances. But before that kicks off, Mira finds the time to corner Spartacus to talk about their relationship. It’s all rather trite on that note.

Spartacus: You shouldn’t have tried to kill Ilithyia…

Mira: I did it for you…

Blah blah blah. The fast version is that Mira wants “more” and Spartacus is damaged goods what with it being less than a year since he held the bloodied corpse of his wife. So they sort of break up. Which means that Mira is probably going to die next week.

3:1 odds that Mira dies next week.

Other events shape up like so: Agron and Crixus settled their differences after being jointly beat up by Oenomaus and Gannicus, who proved that they can work together despite the latter’s habit of nailing the former’s wife which indirectly killed said wife. I know everybody has to pull together during a time of crisis, but this just seemed a little too contrived for my taste. I liked the tension between allies. Hopefully this “friendship” paves the way for more meaningful deaths next week.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I think next week is going to be a main cast blood bath.

Okay, back to Capua where Glaber and Ashur are meeting for a planning session. Despite narrowing the range of possibilities for Spartacus’ base of operations, the Praetor still has too few men and too large of an area to search. Enter the Greco-Roman god of plot convenience bearing the head of dead Lucius. Contrary to popular belief, dead men do tell tales in ancient Rome. Ashur’s connections managed to identify Lucius and trace his home to the Greek temple at the foot of Vesuvius. Armed with that information and Ilithyia’s vague descriptions of where she was held, Glaber plans to march on the rebel camp – a camp where, in case you forgot, they’ve spent the day drinking and fighting.

For his part, Ashur is offered a place at the Praetor’s side during the coming battle as well as Roman citizenship, possession of the ludus and marriage to Lucretia. He conveys this information to the widow Batiatus as a preamble to yet another implied scene of non-consensual sex. I really used to love Ashur as a character. Now, I’m a little torn. Emotionally, I know I want him to die for his sins. From a narrative point of view, I wonder what role he could serve in the show next season when Pompey and Crassus replace Glaber and Varinius. Yet some twisted evil part of me likes having a character who works toward his own goals without any limitations or moral compass.

Anyway, the stage is finally set for some action. Right? Wrong. Along comes Seppia. No longer apt to be bound to Glaber, Seppia summons Praetor Varinius to Capua with news of Ilithyia’s disappearance and proof of Glaber’s role in her brother’s murder. But by the time Varinius arrived in Capua, Ilithyia had returned to the villa. Also Seppia’s proof of Glaber’s murder, the snake bracelet in Ashur’s box, is laughable in Varinius’ eyes. Needless to say, the Praetor is quite pissed off. The only balm for Varinius anger is the Senatorial order that he carries demanding Glaber’s recall. Since ignoring the order would mean the end of his political career, Glaber acquiesces and makes preparations to return to Rome. This leaves Varinius free to take care of Spartacus.

Poor Seppia is now at something of a loss. Knowing that Roman law will not see justice done, the young Roman noble confides in Lucretia. For her part, Lucretia offers a dagger along with the suggestion that she take matters into her own hands.

This is where the misdirection starts happening. The writing leads the audience to fully buy into the idea that Seppia is going to put a knife into Glaber’s back. Moreover, Ilithyia talks to Lucretia about wanting her life back, and how that can only happen through blood. It makes perfect sense for Lucretia to agree with this sentiment as Glaber’s death means the end of Ashur’s hold over her. When nervous Seppia enters the bath and trades lines with Glaber about returning to Rome, it seems like his fate is sealed. Like a good little Roman wife-in-training Seppia strips the Praetor of his armour and clothing. Then she smashes an amphora of wine against his face. Blade in hand, Seppia is positioned to slay Glaber. Who would have expected Ilithyia to cut Seppia’s throat before she could finish off the Praetor?

Lest we forget, this is ancient Rome. Women are the property of their husband, father or nearest male relative. Ilithyia has none of these save for Glaber. The only life she could get back is the one of privilege that comes with being a kept woman. It’s the ideal solution for Lucretia, as well. A Glaber tempered by Ilithyia will allow Lucretia to come to Rome, rather than languishing in Capua as Ashur’s concubine.

Blood stained and stunned, Glaber asks why Ilithyia would save him. Ever the puppet master, Ilithyia reminds her husband that she is a monster as well. Further she suggests that they should turn their venom outward to set fire to the heavens. Encouraged by his wife, Glaber sets out for Vesuvius.

At the rebel camp, Spartacus stands vigil over his now unified troops. After trading some words with Gannicus, he happens to see a signal fire from one of his lookouts atop Vesuvius. It can mean only one thing: a Roman army approaches. How lucky it is that he looked up at the exact right moment upon the conclusion of a day of team building activities; once again the god of plot contrivances strikes. The approach of Glaber’s men quickly sobers everybody up as they take defensive positions.

They didn't teach us this formation in boot camp, Sarge...

As a group of rebels work to repel the first wave of Romans over the temple’s wall, another squad strikes at the flank of the main force. The battle goes so well that they capture the Praetor himself. But wait, it’s not Glaber that they grab but Varinius, who upon capture orders his men to lay down arms. Huzzahs all around. The rebels have captured a Praetor. Now they can outfit their ranks with proper military kit, right? Nope. Misdirection time.

Here’s the thing with this particular battle scene. The Romans might have been a bunch of puritanical, superstitious, sticks in the mud, but they were good engineers. So I thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t a Praetor of Rome deploy siege engines before sending in the infantry?” Varinius is an idiot, that’s why. As Spartacus and the rebels consider their victory, flaming catapult shot starts flying into their camp. Glaber, it would seem, is not as dim as his co-Praetor when it comes to matters of war.

When faced with Roman artillery, the rebels have no option but to retreat. Legionaries, mercenaries, and Ashur feat. hired goods pour in through the breached temple walls. While the remaining rebels evacuate through their escape tunnel, Oenomaus takes a knife in the eye as he and the other named characters attempt to hold the line. When the rebels emerge from the tunnel they find more legionaries advancing on them. Rather than fight, Spartacus orders a retreat up Vesuvius’ lone foot path.

The episode ends with Glaber taking possession of the temple and ordering his men to set up a picket at the base of the footpath. Rather than attack from the low-ground, he plans to starve the rebels out.

The misdirection here and there makes up for the embarrassingly obvious “Oh shit! How do we get this back on track?” moments that serve to move the plot forward. And while the scale of the battle seems off, Glaber brought 3000 men to Vesuvius according to the history books, the stakes finally feel appropriate. Too bad there’s only one more episode left. A drawn out battle of attrition could easily work over two episodes with a third after that to lay the foundation for where things are going to go next season.

Until next week…


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Activate Interlocks! Announcing the First (Almost) Live Page of Reviews Podcast

I’ve had this idea rolling around my head for the last few weeks. It’s an idea that involves me hooking up my mixer board, launching a G+ hangout, and recording a (mostly) live podcast where anybody can just show up. People could shamelessly promote their projects, pick a fight with me over a matter of nerd trivia, or just chat like we’re at the pub. Did I mention that everybody has a drink in their hand while this whole thing is going on? No? Well they should, that is fundamental.

In a perfect world, it would be like the Ricky Gervais Show, only without Ricky, Steve, Karl, a budget, proper editing, those fun animations…okay it would be nothing like the Ricky Gervais Show. But it would still be fun. So why not do it tonight, after work, I thought to myself.

““Because,” began a voice in my head that sounded nothing like my 10th grade football coach, “If you do it tonight, nobody is going to show up and it will be like one of those first three pathetic podcasts that you did all by yourself.”

The voice had a point. It would probably make sense to give people a bit of notice, do some advertising, post about it here, offer a sacrifice to Gozer to see if Wil Wheaton or Felicia Day would come on the show: all the usual stuff that goes into producing a podcast. Also The Hunger Games opens tonight and I won’t lie, I kind of want to see it.

So how about this, on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 at 7:00PM EST I’m going to do the first ever almost live Page of Reviews podcast via a Google+ hangout. Whoever you are, whatever your project, come on in and chat about it. Or don’t and watch me tap dance for an hour as I talk to myself. Really, it’s a win / win scenario.

Webcams won’t be necessary as the finished version of the podcast is audio only. Maybe one day when I have a better computer and an actual budget I’ll try to pull off a screen cast.

If you know right now that you want to get in on this, feel free to email me at adam@pageofreviews.com. Let me know when during the hour you plan on showing up, and we can go from there. Otherwise you can follow me on G+ for further details.


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The Daily Shaft: Mass Effect 3 and Artistic Integrity

Conditional Sheppard is Conditional.

That’s right boys and girls, it’s time for another discussion about games as art. Emergency exits are in the top left and right corner of your browser. (But please don’t go, I feed upon the internet’s validation.)

Disclaimer: As of yet I have not played through Mass Effect 3. This action is not a form of protest against the franchise or BioWare. Rather I’m a cheap-ass gamer, and I’m waiting for the title to go on sale with a DLC bundle. Moreover, I know I would probably have a hard time being objective within this missive if ME3’s ending is as awful as the internet would lead a person to believe.

To my eyes, this situation speaks to the relationship between a given work of art and its audience. As indicated, legions of angry Mass Effect fans hate the ending to the final chapter of the trilogy. As such, BioWare has announced that they are redoing the ending. This retooling may be as simple as addressing the deficiencies in the dialogue selection within the game’s ultimate scene, or it might extend to an outright retcon. For the sake of this discussion it doesn’t really matter. The artist has presented a given work; the crowd has found it wanting; now the artist is changing his/her art to suit the audience’s taste.

BioWare’s decision to cave into public pressure creates a bit of a slippery slope. On the one note it is highly irregular if not completely unprecedented within the gaming world. Games have long since offered multiple endings, some more canonical than others. Design studios regularly patch technical problems within a title or offer additional content. But to delve into a game’s plot/game structure, something that within the Mass Effect franchise is layered, philosophical, and richly developed, is a bit unusual. Especially if, like myself, you are inclined to view games as art. Why is that important? Because art is allowed, even encouraged at times, to alienate its audience.

When the 19th century saw the separation of art and state, artists found a freedom in expressing their own unique vision through the creative process. In that model, a viewer who engages with art while being true to their taste can’t possibly like everything all the time. Thus emerges an essential paradox of modern art: if an artist wants to sell their work, they need to give the audience what they want.

Some people call it good business to work within that framework. Others look at pleasing the crowd before pleasing an internal artistic vision as being a whore.

Consider for a moment the situation that Eidos Montreal created with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Their game found near universal praise from gamers and game critics save for one detail: everybody hated the boss battles. They were deemed to be a one-way street within a game space that rewarded creativity and lateral thinking. In this scenario, the alienation is more accidental than by design. Still, that did not stop Gameplay Director Francois Lapikas from issuing a public apology.

[The boss fights] were a big part of the game, and we should have put more effort into them. I’m truly sorry about that. Next time we’re gonna think about it more.  Via gameinformer

I commend BioWare for following in the footsteps of Eidos and offering a mea culpa. But to what end? If the altered ending doesn’t receive critical acclaim, will they change it again? Will the original ending remain intact for players like myself, who want to see what the developers had in mind before the mob demanded that Caesar offer a different sacrifice for the arena? And perhaps the most important question, if BioWare refuses to take their lumps and move on to new projects, should we still talk about Mass Effect 3 as art? Since I subscribe to a school of thought which states art must have the courage to stand or fall on its own merits, I don’t know that I can. Make no mistake, I want to view ME3 as art. The aesthetic of Mass Effect’s universe is beautiful, familiar, and alien. The story is the embodiment of sophisticated space opera. But if public controversy leads to a culture of change rather than conviction and growth is it still art, or just a prostitute that appeals to a sci-fi fetish?

Though it’s taken as a maxim that art is never done, at some point, the artist has to step back from the easel and frame the damn thing. I won’t condemn or condone BioWare beyond that point except to say that they are moving into a dangerous Lucas-esque territory.


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The Daily Shaft: Coming Soon to Blu-Ray, Starship Troopers Invasion

Today has shaped up to be a pretty big day in science fiction. The BBC announced that Jenna-Louise Coleman is replacing Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as the Doctor’s companion on Doctor Who. SyFy offered a carrot for fans of man-on-robot warfare with a trailer for their much talked about (web?) series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. Oh and BioWare’s co-founder, Ray Muzyka, took to the internet to say that Mass Effect 3’s ending is getting retcon’d due to popular outrage. Is this a thing now? If I complain loud enough will the endings to other things get changed? Somebody dig up Heinlein, I want to talk to him about the ending of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

While we’re talking about the grand master, let’s take a minute to change the news cycle. In a day already filled with revelations, I happened upon a trailer for a new Starship Troopers movie. My thanks to friend and PoR reader Jay Helstrom for the tip.

Let’s all have a watch, shall we?

Compared to some other things that I’ve seen within the last twenty-four hours, that looked pretty good. The redesign of the starships makes them look like instruments meant to drop troopers from orbit with pinpoint accuracy. Whatever the grunt in the trailer was putting on, it didn’t look like canonical powered armour per se; perhaps it’s an update on the standard issue power suit from Roughnecks the animated Starship Troopers series. I even recognized the voice over as a modification of Heinlein’s own words.

FYI: The passage actually reads like this.

I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychologist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important – it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate.

I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.

So perhaps this trooper is a bit more gung-ho than Juan Rico was before his assault on the Skinnies in the first chapter of the novel. The bottom line is that I look at this trailer and I’m reminded of the excitement that I felt fifteen years ago when I caught my first glimpse at Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Sony Pictures and Stage 6 get to put one in the win column because I really want to see this movie.

Being the good trooper that I am, I always want to know more. This is what I found in the “about the film” section of the movie’s website.

A distant Federation outpost Fort Casey comes under attack by bugs. The team on the fast attack ship Alesia is assigned to help the Starship John A. Warden stationed in Fort Casey evacuate along with the survivors and bring military intelligence safely back to Earth. Carl Jenkins, now ministry of Paranormal Warfare, takes the starship on a clandestine mission before its rendezvous with the Alesia and goes missing in the nebula. Now, the battle-hardened troopers are charged with a rescue mission that may lead to a much more sinister consequence than they ever could have imagined….

It’s not the worst piece of copy that I’ve ever read, but it’s not the best either. Perhaps we could make the first sentence active so the bugs are attacking rather than the fort getting attacked. Should this copy suggest that Carl is the minister of paranormal warfare? Or is he just a member of said ministry? And why would the Terran Federation have ministers, anyway? That’s more of a parliamentary thing.

I know these aren’t huge details, so why am I making a big deal out of it? Because if a person walks into a room full of nerds and says the words “Starship Troopers”, they’ll meet with giggles, groans, outrage, and maybe the odd approving nod. The name and associated story lines, from Heinlein and others, have a bit of an image problem. At best, Starship Troopers is a campy big budget B-movie. At worst, it’s a screed from Heinlein that attempts to legitimize semi-fascist military juntas as effective governments. So when something comes along that looks like it might just transcend either of those narratives, the least the producers can do is offer up some copy that doesn’t look to have been written by a nervous intern.

So here’s how I would have done it.

When the bugs attack Fort Casey, an outpost on the fringe of the Federation, the fleet dispatches the fast attack starship Alesia and its battle hardened troopers to assist in the evacuation. As the Mobile Infantry fight a losing battle to hold the fort, Carl Jenkins, an operative with the Department of Paranormal Warfare, coordinates the evacuation of vital personnel and research aboard the base’s lone orbiting defender. The Alesia’s troopers expected an easy hot drop and bug out. That is until they arrived at Fort Casey and found Jenkins and his starship missing. Loyalties will be tested when the Federation orders the Alesia to hunt down one of its own.

Starship Troopers Invasion drops later this summer as a direct to DVD release. Shinji Aramaki of Appleseed and Appelseed: Ex Machina is directing. Edward Neumeier and Casper Van Dien are attached as executive producers. Neil Patrick Harris does not appear to be reprising his role as Carl Jenkins.


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The Daily Shaft: Wing Commander Saga Seeks to Bring Back the Magic

It’s been sixteen years since Wing Commander: Prophecy became the last entry in Chris Roberts’ award winning space opera/combat series. Two years later the sub-genre as a whole sang its swan song with Volition’s masterpiece Freespace 2. Since then space combat simulations have become something of a dying breed. Notwithstanding StarLancer, a product of Chris Roberts’ brother Erin, attempts to replicate the Wing Commander magic have been few, far between, and generally unimpressive. On March 22, 2012 all of that stands to change.

The game is called Wing Commander Saga, and if it lives up to the hype, it stands positioned to breathe fresh life into Wing Commander’s mythology and space combat as a whole. Oh, and before I forget, it is going to be completely and totally free. More on that in a moment though.

Development on Wing Commander Saga began in 2002. Since then the all volunteer production team has been working with the Freespace 2 engine to produce original art, music, sound effects, ships, and a brand new story set within the timeline of Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger. Even a cursory look at the release trailer suggests that this team has not been labouring in vain.

WCS will feature two fully formed campaigns. The first, WCS: Prologue, introduces players to the story’s protagonist: a wet behind the ears Second Lieutenant named David “Sandman” Markham. Freshly drawn out of officer candidate school, Markham is sent to an aging carrier in an unimportant sector as his first deep space assignment. The main campaign, called The Darkest Hour, sees Markham transferred to the front lines. Once aboard the TCS Hermes, he participates in the final days of humanity’s valiant but faltering battle against the unstoppable Kilrathi war machine.

Tolwyn, one of the project’s co-founders, has been very clear in stating that The Darkest Hour does not subvert the events of Wing Commander 3. Working from canon established in the Wing Commander novels, a successful play through of The Darkest Hour will set the stage for Colonel Christopher Blair to lead his famous raid on Kilrah, thus saving humanity from extinction. Tolwyn has also spoken on WCS relationship with EA/Origin/Chris Robers vis-a-vis intellectual property.

We are not officially or unofficially sanctioned or endorsed by Chris Roberts, Origin, or EA. We are thankful to them for permitting us to make Saga- as manifested by them taking no action to shut us down but allowing us to develop it, just as they have done with other projects like Standoff and Privateer: Gemini Gold- but they have in no way, shape, or form sanctioned our project, nor have they done anything to make it official. They have not contacted us and we have not discussed it with them. Once again, we are thankful that they are permitting us to do this, but no endorsement of Saga by these entities should be implied from that fact.

What then can would-be pilots expect from this experience? Quite a lot from the looks of things. Save for the FMV cut scenes featuring Mark Hamill and aging porn stars, this game looks to be grander in scope than Wing Commander 3.

Over nine hours of voice dialogue.

Approximately 70 cut scenes for a total of about 90 minutes of pre-rendered footage (not counting in-flight communications and command briefings).

Over 60 voice actors, some of whom are actual professionals.

221 voice acting roles.

55 missions.

Achievements (mission performance is evaluated and rewarded)

90 models created for Saga.

Download size of 3-4GB with an installation size of 8-9 GB

With recent attempts at reinvigorating this particular gaming niche receiving luke-warm critical reactions, Sol Exodus I’m looking at you, it will be interesting to see what sort of reception WCS receives. The ten year wait comes to an end on March 22nd.

Head over to Wing Commander Saga’s website for detailed development history, screenshots, and more.


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Television Recap/Review: Spartacus Vengeance Episode 8

Gannicus seeks to balance vengeance...

Another minor character bites the dust, Spartacus does some moralizing, and more fun with Lucretia and Ashur.

*Spoilers Ahead*

There are times when I think that Spartacus Vengeance specializes in setting the stage without ever raising the curtain. The writers have this unique talent for focusing on the movement of pawns around the board. Higher point pieces end up within striking distance, but more often than not seem to back down rather than press advantage. I am so bored with watching pawns fall at the expense of playing out a more risky gambit. Episode 8 “Balance” had it within its power to give the audience an event that would have rivaled the burning of the arena. Instead it just saw one more pointless piece removed from play.

The entirety of the episode focuses on one question: Will Spartacus kill Ilithyia? Gannicus, having brought the Praetor’s wife to the rebel camp, offers Ilithyia’s life as a means of balancing vengeance between Glaber and Spartacus. In his mind, Ilithyia’s death will put the rebellion to rest and allow some semblance of order to return. For all of Spartacus’ talk there’s no real doubt that he’ll let Ilithyia live. In fact, everything that goes on within the rebel camp comes across as telegraphed in advance. I’ve suspected that Ilithyia’s baby is actually Spartacus’ ever since her first scene of the season – why else would she have fantasies about their tryst in the ludus? In similar fashion, anyone with an eye for the obvious would have seen Mira’s attempt on Ilithyia’s life coming a mile away as it had all the subtlety of a Roman cavalry charge. Despite shallow writing, credit must be given to Liam McIntyre and Katrina Law’s performance during those scenes. After cutting short Mira’s attempt to strangle the life out of Ilithyia, Spartacus callously informs Mira that she does not know his heart. Law’s expression conveys agony bordering on betrayal as McIntyre finally gets a chance to act.

In Capua, Glaber is working damage control. Knowing full well that he will become a laughing stock in the Senate if word of Ilithyia’s abduction makes it to Rome, the Praetor institutes a media blackout. Instead of deploying his troops to the countryside, he sends Ashur and his goons to the local brothel in search of information. The scene that follows blends the best of computer and visual effects into one giant bloody mess.

Something worth noticing in Glaber’s plan speaks to the relationship between Lucretia and Ilithyia. For the longest time I thought that Lucretia was running a con against the Praetor’s wife. In light of Glaber’s half-hearted interest in recovering Ilithyia, Lucretia’s concern for her lost friend struck as genuine. Perhaps I’ve had it wrong all this time and she actually is clinging on to Ilithyia as a last vestige of support.

It is not a good thing when Ashur smiles.

Ashur returns to the villa without having found any lead upon Gannicus’ whereabouts. Naturally that means it’s time to pay a visit to his “beloved” Lucretia. The course of this degradation session, where once again Lawless and Tarabay are in top form, yields some essential reversal of fortune for the former domina. Upon being shoved to the floor, Lucretia topples Ashur’s chest of ill gotten goods. From within spills the bracelet of dead Seppius. At last, Lucretia finds a much needed (and not at all convenient) piece of leverage.

Meanwhile back in the telegraph office rebel camp, Ilithyia recognizes Lucius as a Roman citizen. With precious little encouragement the latter admits to the former that his state of affairs is due to Sulla seizing his family’s holdings. Therein Ilithyia offers a bargain; if Lucius gets word to Glaber of the rebel camp’s location, all his assets will be restored. For a moment, I almost believed that Lucius might sell out the rebels. Then Spartacus called him away for an off-camera wisdom walk and I knew the game was afoot. Lucius’ arrival in Capua only confirmed my suspicion. Rather than play out a believable gambit, Lucius took to insulting the Praetor as he delivered Spartacus demands: one, a wagon full of weapons for the life of Ilithyia and two, the deal goes down in-person between Glaber and Spartacus.

Once again, a person would have to be blind, deaf, and in possession of the cognitive faculties of an undomesticated possum not to expect that “wagon full of weapons” to be filled with Ashur and his goons. The ensuing battle, which at least Spartacus seems to have anticipated, sees Lucius get killed for no particular reason other than he didn’t feel like running away. Glaber took an arrow through the shoulder, but it was a mere flesh wound. Wait what? There’s no such thing as just a flesh wound when it comes to arrows, especially when they hit joints.

For all the plotting and counter-plotting, the episode’s last five minutes see the only significant story development. Lucretia confronts Seppia, who has been reveling in hubris as she takes to the Praetor’s bed in Ilithyia’s absence, with Seppius’ bracelet. Spartacus releases Ilithyia but only after some soft spoken yet utterly cruel lines about how Glaber, who valued capturing Spartacus more than recovering the mother of his child, doesn’t love Ilithyia as Spartacus loved his dead wife. Glaber and Seppia have a bath together wherein the Praetor recounts how the gods must have taken Seppius and Ilithyia to bring the two of them together.

Here’s what worries me: History tells us that a Roman Praetor named Gaius Claudius Glaber led 3,000 legionaries against Spartacus and his band of rebel gladiators at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. The slave army was able to route the Romans, and thus became worthy of Pompey and Crassus’ attention. I don’t see how this season could possibly end with that battle if there are only two more episodes left. What seems infinitely more likely is that Glaber is going to get the Julius Caesar treatment from Seppia and Ilithyia. Snore.

Characters positioned in order of importance, sigh.

On a positive note, Oenomaus got a few more lines than he did last week. Even though most of them were spent mulling over the fidelities of his dead wife, it is a pleasure to watch Peter Mensah work. I’m also softening on my previous “Kill Gannicus” position. He’s no Agron and he’s defiantly no Varro, but his whinging has given way to a greater depth of character. He knows that challenging Rome is futile. Yet he follows Spartacus because he believes that fighting for this cause might balance the impossible debt he owes Oenomaus. In a group full of idealists, Gannicus is the only realist. I thought neither actor nor character capable of pulling off such a layered performance. Crixus and Naevia constitute the final surprise of the episode. In a more action focused story this segment would have likely ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead, the audience saw Naevia taking to swordplay as a means of reclaiming what was taken during her various assaults. To my eyes, that little vignette seemed rather empowering, perhaps more so than Mira’s newfound Artemis vibe.

So there we have it. Another episode down and what have we to show for our troubles? The rebels are no closer to being combat ready than they were last week. Glaber seems more likely to take a knife in the back from a jilted lover than from Spartacus. And whatever long con Lucretia might have been running has taken a back seat to getting debased by Ashur. For all its potential, the stakes just don’t feel particularly high right now.