Friday, February 25, 2011

Seek the Original: Flashforward

90% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original! What did the author write? Let's examine one novel that was adapted into a TV series and see how it stacks up against the author's original creation.

by Robert J. Sawyer

An experiment at CERN (you know, the Large Hadron Collider) leads to a worldwide blackout. Everyone on the planet suddenly collapses into a coma, and the consciousness of humanity leaps ahead 21 years, showing everyone a glimpse of their future lives.

This is a very fascinating concept. Everyone sees a brief glimpse of their future. It inspires some people to pursue their dream, because they see themselves successful 21 years from now. It fills many people with hope that the future will be better. But not everyone. There are plenty of people who see themselves as failures. Some see nothing at all, which means they will be dead. What would knowing your destiny do to humanity?

Theo is the most engaging character. He knows he’s going to be killed in 21 years, and his investigation into his future murder is intriguing because the perspective is unique.

Our main character, Lloyd, knows his marriage is going to end in the next 21 years, so should he bother going through with it now?

Honestly, this concept is good (Sawyer always has great concepts), but about midway through the story falls apart. (Sawyer does this a lot, too.) Sawyer brings this to an energetic start but it’s obvious he didn’t know what to do with the idea.

This peek into the future don’t have any real effect on humanity. Flashforward is supposed to present what seeing the future would do to/for humanity—the decisions not made, the lost hope for the future—but nothing much becomes of it. The world doesn't change. There's barely any mention of how it affects the world.

Even for the characters, it has little impact on their lives. We could’ve had an interesting, reverse murder mystery in Theo, but at the start of part three, the book makes a jumpcut over 21 years, the investigation is glazed over and the murder plot fizzles out and goes absolutely nowhere. Lloyd’s subplot had potential but never comes across as the intense dilemma it should have been.

For over half the book, Sawer builds up the logic that free will is an illusion and quantum physics proves there is no past or future and everything simply exists all at once. In short: there is no way to change what's going to happen because it already has happened. The flashforward merely changed everyone's perception of time for a couple minutes.

And then, suddenly, someone commits suicide, showing the world that the visions are not set in stone. It is possible to change the future.

This development is not logical. The vision of the future 21 years from now would presumably include that everyone had knowledge of the future and acted on that knowledge, so there should have been no way to change anything. That's the scientific logic. That's what the book builds up to.

But suddenly, without nearly as much scientific justification, the future can be changed. It's more of a copout than a crucial plot development. Maybe Sawyer realized this concept was begging to unfold over the whole 21-year timespan, showing how everyone’s attempts to prevent their future end up causing it to happen. He didn't have time to develop a book that deeply, so instead of letting the story unfold like it wanted, he broke his own logic and jumpcut past 21 years worth of story to force the book to conclude.

Because of this, the book never figures out what effect the Flashforward has on the world. As far as we see, it has zero impact on humanity. Everything after the midpoint comes across as random, where-the-hell-did-this-come-from attempts at explanation. Especially the ending. All of a sudden we go from a flashforward to robotized immortality? Where-the-hell…? The book is interesting up to halfway but that’s it.

Compare that to…

ABC series, Fall 2009 - Spring 2010

I wonder how Sawyer feels about this. His blog seems to indicate he was behind it 100%, but…was he? Almost none of the book’s plot is in the series. All that's left is the bare bones concept.

Instead of taking place in Switzerland and France (the LHC site), it takes place in America. Instead of the story revolving around scientists at CERN trying to understand what happened, it's about FBI agents tracking down the conspirators who caused the blackout. In the book, the flashforward is a scientific side-effect of CERN's research. In the series, we gradually learn, there is a global agency of terrorists (or something) who engineer these flashforwards for some nefarious, evil purpose. The cast of characters has expanded, now showing a bunch of people and how the flashforward affects them personally. Instead of 21 years, humanity's consciousness only leaps ahead 6 months.

But this could be a good thing! Maybe now, in this form, the story will have a chance to stretch itself out comfortably. With more characters to show, the series set itself up very well to demonstrate exactly what effect the flashforward has on the world. The book never figured it out, but the series went out of its way to expand on this.

Watching the first episode reminds me so much of Lost. The teaser (meaning the part of the episode before the first commercial break) is exactly the same as Lost's! Our main character wakes up to total chaos, walking around a city falling apart. Oh yeah, ABC tried really hard to make another hit series.

Each character has his or her own little story. There's Bryce, a cancer patient who sees himself alive and well six months from now, and therefore decides not to commit suicide.

There's Olivia Benford, who sees herself with another man six months from now.

Mark Benford (Oliva's husband), the FBI agent and former alcoholic who sees himself drinking again in the future.

Then there's Demetri Noh, an FBI agent who finds out he's going to be murdered in less than six months.

That's just to name a few. It's very promising. Finally, a chance to see how the flashforward affects people! Everything the book failed to do, the series could make up for it! Especially Demetri's subplot! The reverse murder mystery is the only element from the book to make it directly to the screen, and now we can see it play out to its full potential!

Buuuuuuut then most of the plotlines take ridiculously unrealistic directions.

For example, Bryce (the cancer patient) sees himself meeting a Japanese girl 6 months from the blackout. He doesn't know who she is, but he wants to find out. It had potential to be interesting, how these two strangers get together in the future, but the writers made a big mistake giving Bryce a girlfriend while he searches for his mystery girl. He spends six months building a great relationship with his friend, and then he throws it all away to meet a girl he doesn’t even know! Dumbass! You have a fucking hot girl at your side already! Why would you blow her off to meet this stranger?! How can you be in love with this Japanese girl you've never met, but care nothing for your friend?! Stupid, stupid, STUPID!

Another example is when Demitri has the affair with his coworker, Janis. It’s abrupt, has no foundation, and makes no sense. The writers tried to explain it retroactively, saying that Demitri thought he was about to die, so…why not sleep with her? He wasn't interested in her before, even in flashbacks to their days at the academy, so where is this coming from?! Maybe if alcohol had been involved it would’ve been believable, but they’re totally sober. His wife is going out of her mind trying to save his life, and all he can do is have an affair! Stupid.

Also, as Demitri’s death date gets closer, nobody seems to care. Demitri doesn't even notice. He should be worrying about it day and night, brooding, dreading that calendar date as it gets nearer and nearer. But we don't see how knowing the day he's going to die affects him. Again, the reverse murder mystery is underplayed, and he makes little effort to do anything about it.

Mark and Olivia's marriage falls apart all right, but the writers elected to Lost's method of creating tension. These two argue about everything. They're at each other's throats over this issue instead of meeting halfway.

The series makes a pretty big deal about how the flashforward brings the world together. For the first time in history, every person in the world has something in common, and it's created a sense of unity. (it's not shown, but it's what we're told.) Well, you'd think Mark and Olivia would feel this, too. They've been married for years and instead of finding this common ground, realizing neither feels in control, they push each other away. As if it's Mark's fault he's drinking in his vision. As if it's Olivia's fault she's with another man in the future. They blame each other for something they haven't even done yet, and it's stupid. They even say so!

The most illogical subplot is Janis Hawk. In her vision, she's pregnant. But she's gay. Ok, that had my attention at the beginning. How does a lesbian get pregnant? Well, the series never figures this out. As the show progresses, she just develops this unfounded desire to have a baby. The only reason she wants to have a baby is because of her flashforward. Totally self-fulfilling and illogical. She can't explain why she wants to have a baby, it's just a desire that fills her up more and more. No, that's the writers struggling to justify this subplot.

In early episodes she has a "significant other," but after just one or two appearances, this woman mysteriously disappears. What did her lover think of Janis having a baby? The writers had to delete a character to make this plot work, and it still didn't make sense.

It’s no surprise to me the show got cancelled. Most of the series feels haphazardly written. Like someone stepped in and said there's not enough conflict in this show. Put some petty bickering in; that's what entertainment is all about! There's a point in the series where Mark asks a few of his friends who told his wife about him drinking in the future. They exchange bitter, menacing words, completely overreacting. It's not dramatic, it's out of character. Just a lousy attempt to inject more drama into this situation.

The conspiracy is interesting, but I get the feeling the writers didn't have a plan, and they were building up to something they didn't even understand. The conspirators are never portrayed as a group with a dangerous objective, so there isn't much weight behind it. I'm sure their motivation would've been explained later, but the show wasn't renewed for a second season, so we'll never know what the flashforwards were all about.

Season one finishes with a bang, and it's exciting! Too bad the rest of the show wasn't like that.

It does a better job handling the effects of the flashforward than the book, but that's a relative measure. Again, the world still isn't any different. There's a greater sense of how it affects individual people, but most of the time their stories are just plain illogical.

Skip the series. Skip the book, too. Sawyer has written better, such as the Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy. Why weren't these books adapted into a TV series??

Thursday, February 24, 2011


New story in print, "Pori," from Bad Dog Books' ROAR anthology series.

(available on amazon and other shady retailers soon)

I've been waiting to see this one in print for a year. I tell ya, writing is not something anyone should attempt without patience. It's been a YEAR since I wrote the story and it's just now coming out. Has it been that long?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Skip the movie. Play the game: DOOM

Remember the first DOOM game? Yeah, back in the days when processors were measured in megahertz, usually in the x86 family, and hard drive space was often measured in kilobytes. Way back in 1993, when computer graphics were just starting to take off. True 3D graphics were around, but the average home computer couldn't render them.

DOOM was the most realistic game to hit the market at the time. Wolfenstein 3D was technically the original First Person Shooter, but it was DOOM that made the leap into realism. Wolfenstein was made of boxes. No diagonal walls, no height differences, and everything was evenly lit. DOOM changed everything with circular rooms, staircases and flickering light effects! THIS was real!

Old games are usually forgotten as advances in graphics are made. It's not very often someone dares to remake a game. Well, Id Software did. They remade the original DOOM and called it DOOM 3, taking what little story DOOM had and building a realistic, believable narrative out of it.

But there was a problem with it. The whole concept is pretty ridiculous. Hell invades mars. Only in a video game, right? Now try to wrap that idea in a "realistic story," and reveal it to us in realistic, in-game ways. We learn what's happening by picking up PDAs and listening to crew audio logs. We get clues to what's going on from watching video files and talking to friendly characters.

It tries very hard to adapt it from "game story" to "cinematic story." Problem is: we already knew what was happening. We already knew hell was invading this research base on mars. It's no mystery, but the game forces us to listen to long, droning log entries and plot exposition explaining the same thing over and over. Meanwhile the players are thinking "we know what's happening! Stop trying to build a mystery around it!" The game wastes so much time trying to tell a story we already know, and it gets so annoying I wished I could just skip the log entries and get back to killing things.

But that's not all! Id turned DOOM 3 into a clone of Halflife. Think about it. What was the plot of Halflife? Scientific laboratory creates portal to another dimension, disaster strikes the facility, releasing the interdimentional creatures around the whole base, and now the player must cross the base to reach the portal opening site, jump inside the alternate dimension and stop the invasion single handedly. DOOM 3 follows the exact same sequence! It's the same damn game!

The original DOOM stands alone as a genre-defining milestone in computer gaming. It's not right that the remake is actually a ripoff of another game that followed in DOOM's footsteps. It may be coincidence (DOOM 3 was in production for five years), but it's still a shame.

For gameplay, DOOM 3 is little more than walking down dark corridors while monsters pop out at you. This worked in the original games, but our expectations are higher these days, and it comes across as been there done that. There's no room to fight most of the demons because the spaces are so narrow and cramped. You never get a good look at any of the demons either. Surprisingly there are few creatures actually in the mars facility; most of them teleport in once you enter a room. I don't like this; if it's an invasion, shouldn't there be a lot of creatures wandering the base?

One level gives the player a choice whether or not to send a distress message to alert Earth and send a fleet to evacuate the base. This decision has no impact on the game. Whether you alert the fleet or not doesn't matter; either you summon the fleet, or Swann (the devil himself) alerts it for you, and hell's monsters can still get off the planet no matter which decision you make. Why bother?

And after walking down bland, metallic corridors for the entire game, Hell itself lasts merely a single level. How disappointing. Even Halflife made us go through several levels in the other dimension. The final boss, the Cyberdemon, is quite easy to beat. Hell's champion, and that's all it takes to kill him? What a letdown.

In spite of everything I just said, it's not a bad game. it is scary in places, it is challenging, and some nice new things were added, like the cherubs. They're the creepiest addition to the DOOM universe. Nothing is more disturbing than babies with insect wings leaping at you and clawing your eyes out. Buuuut then Id added the biggest cliche` of all to the enemies list: mutant spiders. Couldn't they think of something else?

I love how the user can interact with computer terminals without going into a different screen. I believe it's the first time a game did this, and it's an excellent way to make the place seem more real. Unlike in the original games, DOOM 3 succeeds in making the player feel like he's in a real place. The architecture, the design, the floor plans. It's how a real outpost on mars would be designed. But technical leaps are about all DOOM 3 has going for it.

It was a bad idea to try to retell the DOOM story in such a serious way, because there is no mystery. The story just wastes our time trying to hype up a revelation we saw coming before we even got to the checkout.

Compare that to…

DOOM (2005)
starring Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban

The game DOOM 3 turned the DOOM story into a Halflife clone, so it's a double ass-rape that the long-awaited movie should further reduce it to a Resident Evil clone!

It's simple: Hell invades a mars base. That's it! Why is the movie about a genetic experiment that changes evil people into hideous monsters?



Once you talk about a genetic infection passed through a bite or a wound that mutates dead people into monsters, the movie is officially Resident Evil, not DOOM!

I'm not sure how this basic fact could be lost in the translation from game to film, but I suspect budget had a lot to do with it. The movie obviously didn't have much of a budget, so the story had to be simplified. I imagine this is what the producers thought: Not enough money to show an army of hellspawn invading mars? Change it to zombies instead, this way we only have to show three or four monsters, and we can cloak them in the dark so no one can see how bad they really look! Plus, everybody loves a zombie movie!

It wouldn't have been hard to adapt the original DOOM game literally: lone survivor of hell's invasion has to fight through a mars base against all hell has to throw at him to find his way home. THAT would've been cool, but thanks to low budget they couldn't even stay true to DOOM 3! It's now a zombie movie!

So, we wander down dark corridors, terrified at monsters popping out at these one-dimensional characters for over an hour. Then we find out what's causing this infection. Turns out only BAD people mutate into monsters. Good people change into superhumans!

I'm sure the writers didn't consult any scientists regarding this twist, but come on. Even someone with only a high school diploma knows this is total bullshit. We're offended that DOOM has been raped by Resident Evil, so we're not willing to make this leap of logic!

Guess this means the religious character was a bad person after all; he got infected and mutated into a monster. But he had enough awareness to kill himself before he became a threat. He kills himself by banging his head against the window until he splatters his brains out. It was supposed to be horrifying, but I swear the entire theater laughed.

Finally, we conclude with a POV sequence. It is really cool, but it makes no sense. We just spent the last hour and a half walking down dark corridors, terrified of these creatures that don't seem to die, and now all of a sudden they're dead in one shot! The chromosome mutation cannot affect the guns this guy is using!! He could've done that any time! It's obvious the filmmakers pitched the movie on just this POV sequence. Story was the excuse.

I like that the Sarge turns out to be the villain. I didn't see that coming, but the final fight? A wrestling match? That was the best they could do? Shit, I wanted to see Sarge turn into a Cyberdemon! Or a Mancubus, or something! But we didn't even get that! A WWF finale is all we got!

It's a good, cheesy action flick, but that's it. The POV sequence makes me wish the entire movie had been like that, because it was the most entertaining thing in it. But…I'd rather just play the game.

Skip the movie. In fact, skip DOOM 3. Play the original DOOM and DOOM 2 to experience what game terror was back in '93.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I Read Odd Books review of my happy little book

It's gotta be the first, serious, in-depth review of Felix and the Sacred Thor.

i want to apologize for making Ms. Dalton twitchy:

I have to be brutally honest here and just get the negative out of the way. This book contains two things I loathe deeply: references to gaming and forced sodomy. Seriously, the former is an irritant and the latter is an OMG because I just get freaked out by the image of so much non-consensual buttsex.

I'm sorry...but let's be honest: men love forced sodomy! It's fun! It's entertaining! And if you combine it with video game references, you're guaranteed to hit that 18-24-y/o-white-male demographic.

Ok, in all seriousness, I'm glad she kept on reading even though it made her squirm a bit. She still got it, and she found the words to express it. That takes skill (and guts).

Thank you again, Anita, for giving us nobody authors a day to stand naked in front of the world and show everyone what we have. I'm proud to do so....because nobody but me has a Thor.....

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Maaaaaake uuuus whoooooole!

I was worried about Dead Space 2. When I heard Isaac had a voice now, I cringed. In the first game, Isaac was silent. Changing this most basic part of a game for the sequel is always a bad sign.

I’m thinking of Mechwarrior 3. In that game, the main character is silent, referred to only as “Lance Leader.” In the expansion pack, Mechwarrior 3: Pirate’s Moon, the Lance Leader has a voice and a name. It sucked, and it ruined the game. Naturally I was worried about that in this game.

But Isaac has a good voice. Even a sense of humor. It’s different, and it opens up better storytelling possibilities. Ok, I’m sold on that.

Start with the cons. (Because every gamer is an expert on how to make a good video game.) It begins way too easy. The first 6 chapters fly by and I barely noticed. Little stands in your way from getting from one side of the level to the other, and each level is so simple it goes by in no time.

The twist at the game’s midpoint has no weight because there’s no buildup to it. I didn’t have to work through the first half, and that’s something Dead Space 1 made sure you did. Everything leading up to and including the Leviathan made you EARN the game’s midpoint. DS2? It’s all but handed to you.

Then, in chapter 6, it’s like someone else took over the design. The levels are more complex (though the goals are still linear and basic). The enemies are more numerous and they’re a genuine threat. The boss battles are dramatic. The game finally dwells on the situation long enough to give it some weight, and finally I started to feel dread.

That’s one thing that’s missing from most of this game. Dread. In the first game, I was terrified of my own shadow because the enemies really were a threat. It’s not like a normal FPS, where you just point your gun in the general direction of the enemy, shoot, and the enemy dies.

In Dead Space, you had to aim for certain parts of each enemy to make a kill. Parts that are moving. Sometimes very fast. This means no matter how good you were, there was no wiping out a roomful of enemies with a shotgun. Every shot counted, and this made the enemies a real threat, especially in groups because you had to make multiple, precise shots on each enemy to take them out.

Dead Space 2 softens that. Now I only played it on normal mode, but still, even in the first game, normal mode was unforgiving in where you could hit the enemies to do damage. The sequel is more lenient in that sense, even introducing a couple enemy types who can be killed by body and head shots. It’s like someone told the developers to dumb down the gameplay, when that was what made the first game so terrifying.

Then again, the sequel couldn’t bank on that. Those of us who played the first game are used to the precision shots, so it’s never going to be as terrifying as it once was.

The first time I felt real dread was when I had to go aboard the Ishimura again. That place scared me because I remember all the shit that happened the first time I was on it, and I expected some shit to go down again. That was scary.

It didn’t last too long, because there are so many credits, ammo and power nodes lying around I didn’t fear for supplies. That was a major factor of the dread in game 1: ammo is scarce, credits are rare, and power nodes are so few and far between they’re worth twice their weight in diamonds, even in normal mode! You had to be careful with your shots because you weren't resupplied very often, and there wasn’t enough credits to buy lots of ammo because you needed that money to buy upgrades! Then you had to choose upgrades wisely because there were no nodes to waste on experiments!

But everything is plentiful in DS2. There are nodes to waste, plenty of money to spend, plenty of extras to sell back. You’re in no danger of running out, which takes away from the fear. I’m sure things are rare in the more difficult modes, but for normal, it shouldn’t be that easy.

Levels are simpler than in the first game. On the Ishimura, in DS1, you ran all around that ship repairing that and fixing this because your life depended on it. There isn’t as much to do this time. Not as many detours, or complications, or multi-part goals to complete before you can advance. Just follow the path and reach the end. It’s too simple, and doesn’t build up a sense of urgency or danger.

Curiously, there are a lot of locked doors on the Sprawl. This is disappointing, because in the first game if you came across a locked door, odds were it would be open either later in the level, or later in the game. Not here. There are a LOT of places you can’t go.

Games like Bioshock give you plenty of side areas to explore. Dead Space 2 seldom does this. It was forgivable on the Ishimura because of the location, but here, the maps are begging to be opened up a little more. I would have liked to see more of the Sprawl instead of just the goal path.

Isaac has more freedom of movement now, and I like that. The melee attacks actually do something, and it doesn’t take you several seconds to recover from your wild swings and stomps. But at the same time it almost makes the game feel cartoony.

I feel like a hypocrite for saying it, because I griped that the rigid controls of Dead Space 1 made me feel more like I was piloting a Battlemech than a human being, and now that I have looser controls, I’m still griping. But it really is a good thing to have some freedom of movement. Opens up more combat possibilities.

But there is plenty of good here. One thing I absolutely adore about DS2 is it explains more about Unitology and its founder, Michael Altman. This was a bit of a mystery in the first game, but now it’s clear who these people are and why they’re trying to help this invasion along. It’s fascinating, and the developers can do so much more with it.

Another great part of the game is the new zero-G system. No more point-to-point jumping around; now you have full 360-degree movement in zero-gravity areas. I enjoyed this new freedom, and it added a lot of good to the game.

The best part is the final boss! I love the final boss! The first game’s final fight was a letdown, but this fight is really cool! I didn’t like the new girl they got to play Nicole until she screamed “Maaaaaake uuuus whoooooole!!” (The line is just as memorable as “Your rig is red. It’s red.”) Yes! This is what we’ve been waiting for! THAT’S the Dead Space experience! If only the whole game could’ve been like that from the start!

My guess is the same thing happened to DS2 that happened to Bioshock 2. The developers (likely under pressure from the publisher) focused on making the game multiplayer, so the single-player campaign got rushed. Bioshock 2 is a great game, but it felt about 3 levels too short. For the same reason, Dead Space 2 is unevenly paced. The first half is weak and rushed, but the second half makes up for it. It’s a worthy follow up to the original.

[[Monday, March 7, 2011] Just finished the game in Zealot (hard mode). It's much more channeling, but the same uneven first half still makes the game feel lopsided. There still isn't as much dread as there was in the first game. It's a good followup, but I don't think anything will be as good as the original.]

I Read Odd Books » Blog Archive » Another Bizarro Week coming up!

Another Bizarro Week coming up!

She reaaaaaallllly loves odd books, lucky for us.

Coming up soon, she'll review the NBAS, and will give away a free copy of each book to a lucky person! So check out her offer! Begins soon!

Thanks so much, Anita, for giving us nobody authors some exposure.