Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Darkstar: The Interactive Movie

I've been following this game's production since around 2004, when I first heard of it. It intrigued me because it looked like it was going to be awesome! Just check out the trailer.

When was the last time you saw a game that looked like THAT!? Plus, it stars a bunch of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew! Perfect! The official site looks very cool, too. Sleek, professional, totally sci fi! Well, the other day I finally finished the game.

I feel bad for not liking this independent film/adventure game because it’s obvious writer-director-producer-animator-designer-costar J. Allen Williams put a LOT of work into it. The amount of detail, the sheer volume of computer animation... It’s mind-blowing and I can tell why it took ten years to create.

You play Captain John O’Neil who wakes up on the starship Westwick with severe memory loss. Now you must explore the ship to find out what happened, and why you’re here.

The most basic problem is I didn’t have fun exploring the Westwick. Transitions between nodes are sloooooooow, and there’s no way to skip them, so moving about the ship is painfully difficult. The puzzles are a joke. There are random buttons hidden in invisible areas that don’t apparently do anything, but if you forget to press them will haunt you later in the quest. Inventory items are the same way.

There are plenty of locations in the game that are nearly invisible. The ladder down to the EVA pod, for example. It’s hidden from view no matter where you stand, and there’s no obvious node that takes you to that spot. Sometimes turning a valve opens a door, but there’s no clear indication that you need to turn a valve to open the door, or why it had that effect. It’s random cause and effect for the most part. I still have no idea what that N.S.W.E. marble thing did.

The game is drop dead beautiful, but dark. Even areas that are well-lit look dark, and this is to hide the blue screen around the actors. It doesn’t always work, but it’s acceptable because suspension of disbelief is more tolerant in a game.

I didn’t enjoy discovering what happened to this vessel because the whole story is spoonfed to the player as you touch biolocks. The story of Darkstar is interesting in and of itself, but the way it’s presented here is not. It’s the synopsis of the story we should be experiencing!

We then learn the story of the Westwick all in one shot in the conference room, so very early in the game there’s nothing left to discover. At this point the gameplay should take over and hold our interest, but all we can do is very slooooooly wander around, unlock the ship and repair it. It’s not much of a game.

So much of the environment is pointless. Most of the objects you collect don’t have any relevance to the game. For example, entering each crewmember’s cabin reveals nothing about who they are. There could’ve been more information about Captain O’Neil and his crew, but there’s nothing in there. You only pick up one object in the crew cabins that’s used, so that’s some eight rooms which serve no purpose.

(By the way, if you don’t pick up the “correct” object from those cabins, it will haunt you later in the game, possibly dooming you to save it in an unwinnable state. Very poor design choice.)

I feel no guilt taking two tips from online forums, because there was one hidden switch I missed, and I tried the labyrinth and I did not look forward to it. It’s the worst section of the game. Just more painfully long transitions and no way to deduce where you’re supposed to go. Not fun at all. Fortunately there’s a way to figure out the clamp code without going through the maze. Makes me wonder why the Martian Scythe pilot (played by Joel Hodgson) couldn’t figure it out.

The most surprising thing about this interactive movie is the acting. It’s universally flat and lifeless. From the cast this guy assembled, I expected a lot better. I am a MST3K fan, so I know Mary Jo Pehl can act better than that. I hope Clive Robertson can give a better performance than this. Even Trace Beaulieu’s performance sounds like he’s reading from a teleprompt and they just used the first take.

It’s obvious the performers did all their work in front of a blue/green screen, and none of them were actually on the stage together. They recorded their performances individually, and it shows, because they act like they’re by themselves. They were given some lines to say but no sense of what they’re reacting to. The starship battles in the documentary are especially difficult to watch because they’re so poorly acted. #9 (Mercenaries) is so bad I skipped it.

MAGS, the robot, is supposed to be funny, but she’s not. I liked the other robot, SIMON, but he isn’t in the game enough to be memorable. Too bad, because I like the idea that SIMON has been watching bad movies for 300 years while everyone else was asleep. Sadly, SIMON is not funny either because Clive Robertson’s reaction to him is so stale. He didn’t know what he was reacting to 99% of the time.

On the plus side, the music is nice. The soundtrack might actually stand well apart from the game. Maybe better.

And after all that, the big twist delivered by Perryman about who O’Neil really is and what he did... means nothing. What was O’Neil planning? What kind of person was O’Neil before he lost his memory? Is there more information? On my playthrough, I didn’t hear anything besides what Perryman alludes to, so this revelation is very weak. The idea of O’Neil earning a second chance is cool, but the execution doesn’t convey any of it. If there is a sequence which tells more of the story, I missed it, and that ruined the whole game for me.

Looking at some of the videos on youtube, I must have missed a lot. I somehow missed SIMON’s introduction, and my game skipped the whole sequence with the Martian Scythe pilot towards the end because I didn’t find a certain object on the Westwick before going down to the planet (the bridge key). By the time I was at that point, it was too late to go back and get it. I should not be condemned to miss a whole sequence because I did not find one random object earlier in the game, especially if it’s important to the story! Like hell I’m starting over from the beginning just to try to view the missing parts because it will take sooooo long to do everything again. You know, even Myst had a lightening mode...

I think the creator wanted to make a movie. This would’ve made a much better movie than it did a game. Darkstar tries to be both, but it fails in both gameplay and story. There’s no story to discover, and what little we get is weak at best. Even if the story had been better presented, the passive acting would’ve killed it anyway. Exploring the Westwick and the planet below is not fun or interesting. Just a few random objects, buttons, switches, door codes and biolocks scattered in obscure areas, and it takes forever to move anywhere.

J. Allen Williams is obviously a filmmaker, not a storyteller or a game designer, so the production leaned more towards how to get this stuff on the screen than how to make a engaging game or tell a good story. The game is very pretty--a technical and visual triumph--but not enjoyable.

Darkstar leaves me with mixed feelings. This is an enormous labor of love and I feel like such an asshole for criticizing it! My hat’s off to Williams for going it alone on such an ambitious project. I wanted to like it. Ten years in the making and I’m sad to say I’m disappointed by the result.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Seek the original: The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars

71% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

When I heard there was a direct-to-video sequel to the Brave Little Toaster coming out all I could think was WHY?! Why can't Disney just leave good movies alone?! Why do they have to take every successful movie and make a weak sequel out of it?! They did it with the Lion King, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and everything else! Can't they just leave the stories alone!?

But to my surprise...

The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars
by Thomas M. Disch

...the author of the original Brave Little Toaster published a sequel to his own book back in 1988. For once, this wasn't some executive at Disney cranking out a weak sequel just to make a quick buck on a video release. This is a book adaptation! Let's check it out, starting with the title. The Brave Little Toaster Goes to


Of all the possibilities for a sequel to the original story, I sure never saw this coming.

After recharging the batteries of an old hearing aid, our appliances learn this is no ordinary hearing aid. It belonged to none other than Albert Einstein, who talked to himself a lot, thus passing his knowledge onto the hearing aid. Among other things, it teaches the radio how to interpret transmissions from farther away than ever. Radio then picks up a strange transmission from Mars. An entire product line of disgruntled appliances has taken refuge from its manufacturer, and is now out for revenge. They are prepping for war against mankind.

Yes, you read that correctly. A brand of appliances, Populuxe, is amassing an army on Mars to invade Earth and liberate all appliances from their masters! What’s a toaster to do? Why, travel to Mars and talk some sense into these Populuxe appliances! Duh!

Of all the ways to continue his original story, this has to be the strangest new direction possible. It's so stupid but at the same time the book makes a very good case for all this absurdity. I like the concept for the Populuxe line of products. The manufacturers designed them to wear out and break after just a couple years, thus forcing people to buy them again. What would happen if the appliances didn’t like being made disposable? They took fate into their own hands and ran away. Using the same principles the hearing aid learned from Einstein himself, they fled to Mars where human hands couldn't interfere with their plan to remake themselves indestructible, and plan a method to liberate all appliances from the fate of obsolescence! It’s cute and funny to think about.

It’s obvious Disch took no inspiration from the film adaptation of The Brave Little Toaster, for it picks up in the house of the old women from the original short story. Not to mention a couple of original characters are not part of this adventure, like the Hoover and the lamp. Instead, more useful appliances for the journey to Mars form the group this time: the hearing aid, a ceiling fan (to steer them through space via solar wind), a microwave (their engine, converting organic matter into energy and that energy into anti-gravity), the radio (to navigate) and a pocket calculator (to crunch the numbers of their course to Mars, as specified by the hearing aid).

How do they get to Mars? Easy: "it became clear to the haring aid that none of the other appliances, not even the clever little calculator, would ever grasp the brilliance, the elegance, the greatness, of Dr. Einstein's Unified Field Theory, to which he'd devoted the last twenty year of his life, years that he'd let the general public believe had been wasted. ... He'd kept mum, and shared his great discoveries only with his hearing aid."

This discovery was "a way to make gravity work like magnetism, so there'd be the usual sort of gravity that pulled things down and an anti-gravity that pushed them up." And "thanks to the hearing aid's deep understanding of Einstein's formula for converting matter into energy, they would be able to make the entire round trip powered by a single boxed macaroni-and-cheese dinner."

As stupid as this is, it does make sense! Ok, I'm on board, let's go to Mars!

Our toaster’s role is very benign. The whole situation is solved with very little effort, which doesn’t quite do justice to a setup this big. It's so much bigger than the previous adventure and needed more story to justify it. But again, if you accept this as a children’s book, you can roll with it.

It's also pretty absurd to imagine millions of electric Christmas ornaments working in factories cranking out gigantic war toasters wielding deadly missiles, and hoovers designed to vacuum up the atmosphere! An army of appliances beefed up for war! But it makes sense! Disch gives well more than enough explanation to justify everything and it's believably stupid!

It’s a fun little read, and it has charm to it, though I can’t see parents reading it to their kids for bedtime. It’s too sophisticated, especially the explanation for how the appliances get to Mars. It goes out of its way to be scientifically mock-plausible, which tells me Disch wrote this book for adults. The book was marketed as a real children's story, but it's not. It's meant to be read from an adult perspective, just like the original.

Quirky, completely tongue-in-cheek, and so stupid it's a fun, unexpected sequel to the original story.

Compare that to...

The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars
Disney (1998)

It doesn't take a genius to understand there are some stories that shouldn't be adapted to the screen. Just because the author wrote a sequel to his own book doesn't necessarily mean that sequel would make a good movie. Maybe it would have if Disney hadn't done it half-assed.

Surprisingly it follows the book closer than the first movie followed its source material, but with a few big exceptions. Naturally it has to pick up more or less where the last film left off. (Actually the last two films, since there was another direct-to-video sequel made called "The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue," which wasn't based on anything Disch wrote.) The gang of appliances are with their master and his wife, and they bring back an unexpected surprise: a baby!

So while the house gets used to a baby, the antiquated hearing aid in the junk drawer is up to something. Long story short, the baby is beamed up to Mars by mistake. Naturally, now they have to go to Mars to rescue the Master's baby!

But how are they going to get there? Well, in the movie the hearing aid doesn't know, so our appliances contact a supercomputer in a museum somewhere. Apparently they're old college buddies, and they did him a favor in "Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue," so the computer tells them how to reach Mars. They gather up the materials and blast off.

The movie doesn't explain why everyone is on Mars, or how they get there. The book actually gives a tongue-in-cheek twist on Einstein's principles of manipulating gravity and converting matter into energy to explain this. The movie doesn't bother. It doesn't explain anything at all. It's a real turnoff because without a reason for why this works, it looks pretty stupid.

Without these mock-scientific reasons for how to travel to Mars, the whole idea of a line of appliances taking refuge on the red planet is really, really stupid. I understand the dilemma: try fitting a mock explanation of Einstein's theories on matter, energy and gravity into a kid's movie. I think it could be done, playing it up for laughs. The movie doesn't even try.

Once they lift off into orbit they enter a field of balloons. This is in the book, but there's a good reason for all these balloons to be there. Ever wonder what happens to balloons when kids let go of them? Why, they start new lives in the upper atmosphere, free and happy! The movie doesn't explain this. It turns the moment into a pointless song opportunity that should have been edited out because nothing useful becomes of it. At least in the book they learn what the Populuxe appliances are (WonderLuxe, in the movie).

They land on Mars and discover a whole population of appliances geared up to annihilate earth and free the appliances of their oppressive masters. Surprisingly the toaster in the movie does basically the same thing as it does in the book to stop the invasion. I won't give it away, but it's a bit of a letdown even in the book. It is funny in the sense of a children's book, but I wished for more. On the screen it's even more of a letdown because the filmmakers didn't draw much attention to the reason for the invasion in the first place.

The whole story is weak and lazy. Even the songs. I suppose anyone could argue it's just following the ridiculous premise set down by the original book, but that didn't stop the team making the first movie from improving on a basic story. A book adaptation this may be, but it's still a rushed production to make a quick buck off a video release.

The biggest problem is the baby. Why did they put a baby in there? Now instead of stopping a martian invasion, the story is about getting the baby back. Our gang of appliances merely stops an invasion of martian appliances on the side. Making the baby the focus of the story weakens it. The baby serves no purpose except a simplified excuse to go to Mars.

I suppose that's the whole idea, but isn't stopping an alien invasion enough to keep kids interested? Maybe somebody figured it was too complicated for kids, so they just threw a baby in there and made him the emotional center of the story. I think it proves Disch's book is not for children, but a children's story written for adults. (Apparently, nobody quite understood this.)

Most of the appliances have no role in the story either. Kirby doesn't do anything on the adventure, neither does the radio, or the lamp. There's a reason Disch left them behind in the book. Even the hearing aid doesn't do much in the movie. He doesn't know how to get to Mars in spite of being Einstein's hearing aid, so why bother establishing it at all? The christmas tree ornament doesn't have a strong role either, but is used as an excuse to tack on some sappy, Christmas cheer to the ending.

As a movie, going to Mars is just plain stupid. Too much random weirdness without enough context. The book establishes a lot of context, so nothing is random at all. Even the absurdity of electric Christmas tree toppers working in factories to produce war toasters makes sense. In the movie, it's just dumb. It doesn't establish a reason, just an image, and visuals aren't enough to carry the absurdity. No wonder it was direct-to-video.

(Oh, and they had DeForest Kelley! THE DeForest Kelley, and they wasted him on a throwaway role! Shame!)

Dish's book was never meant for kids. When Disney made it a movie, they dumbed it down for the kids, stripping away everything that made the story work. Skip the movie and read the book. This one is much easier to find.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ten years in [retail].

Today is my tenth anniversary with [retail].

I’ve dreaded this day for at least three years, and I was hoping to be out by now. I put in so many applications but nothing came through. And this year I’ve been so busy trying to succeed with Felix that I haven’t put any applications in. Ironically, without even putting in an application I almost had another job, and I threw myself into that attempt, but it didn’t pull through either.

A long time ago I promised myself I’d quit before I hit ten years, if only to force myself to get out there and do something else. But like my roommate's decision to stay with his company instead of quitting just to get away from the bullshit, I need money and I can’t count on finding another job quickly enough to support me.

Where was I ten years ago? I was living in a hotel, The Dover Inn, with my mother. We were desperate for money, and I knew I needed work, so I walked up and down route 13 (Dover’s main street) and put in three applications. One at Toys R Us, one at K-mart, the other at [retail]. All were within easy walking distance of the hotel. [retail] called me back less than 24 hours later.

Back then we were paid weekly, and my paycheck pulled our asses out of the lava more than once. The hotel’s rent was $200 a week, and because mom and I didn’t make a budget back then, we ran out of money all the time. It was my income that saved the day and kept a roof over our heads until our apartment was ready. I was a cart attendant, and it was hard work for my virgin feet, but I did it because mom and I needed to survive.

Ten years later, I’m still here. I thought leaving Delaware would mean life was moving on, and it has to a point. But I still have the same job, so it doesn’t feel like a step up at all. So much has changed. Mom is dead and I’m in Ohio. Never saw myself here back in 2001. Ten years ago, [retail] was about survival. Now it’s about my future.

[retail] has been a stable source of income for ten years. Reliable and relatively easy, but I still resent it. I’m almost 30 years old. By inaction, [retail] is becoming a career, and I don’t want my first job to be my career! There has to be something else out there, but nobody is fucking hiring, so I have to... play it safe. I can't risk being unemployed for any length of time because I have no one to fall back on.

So many people tell me well why don't you go back to school? If you only had a degree, finding a new job would be easy!

Tell that to everyone I know. Literally three out of four people I know have a degree, or A+ certification, or some kind of qualification, and can't find a job in their field. Then there's the debt... News stories like this are all I hear. It's why I wrote Felix and the Sacred Thor.

When I point this out to people, they tell me to apply for a scholarship. To that I argue the odds I’ll get one are good, but the odds it’ll pay for everything are next to nil. It’ll be like shitty health insurance, covering 30%, or 70% or some crap. Still leaves me with a huge chunk to pay on my own. I'd rather live debt free.

But these aren't the reasons I haven't gone. It still makes no sense to go back to school unless I know what I want to do when I get there. I do not want to waste my time and money shooting for a degree I don't even want. If I go for a career that requires secondary education, I want to make sure it's something I can commit to. Something I'll enjoy, and will pay off. I will not go into debt for anything less. High School tried to drill it into my head to get a degree just to have one, but I think so many years of teaching this to kids has hurt America. Now everybody has a degree in something, but so what?

So... Here I stay.

Fuck you, [retail]. Stealing ten years of my life.

Thank you, [retail]. Supporting me for the last ten years of my life.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Scene It: Star Trek Edition

A while ago, I played Scene It, Star Trek edition with a couple of my roommates. I did very well at the game. It amazes me how much I remember, from the original series through Enterprise, including all ten movies (the J. J. Abrams film does NOT count!).

I can remember episode names, characters, ships, actors, lines. Give me an episode, and odds are I can narrow it down to a particular season! Off the top of my head, I even named the episode wherein Janeway permanently lets her hair down! (Year of Hell parts 1 + 2, season 4.)

I remember more about a fucking TV show than my own country! I remember Star Trek in more detail than I do my own life! Something is wrong with this! Think what I could achieve if I could transfer this kind of recollection to the real world--apply it to something that matters!

As much as I laugh at Star Trek for the technobabble doublespeak and how intact everyone's hair seems to stay no matter how bad the crisis, I watch it now and it's not just for nostalgia. It's still good television. Too bad Enterprise ruined the whole thing. Come on, guys, who thought it was a good idea to go back to the beginning and retcon everything that already happened? Star Trek should've been more like Dr. Who: move forward from what's already been done. Don't go backwards and undo what we've come to accept as true for the last 40 years.

That reminds me, I recently watched the Voyager episode Distant Origin again. I can't help but notice it's similar to Sawyer's Far-Seer. A race of dinosaurs who originated on Earth but is now in a far distant part of the galaxy. Their species is mired in dogma, and one dinosaur (named "Gegen," which is the German word for "against." Symbolism!) is making a stand for scientific truth over untested assumption. The timing is right. The episode aired in 1997, and the last book came out in 1994. Makes me wonder if the books inspired someone on the Star Trek team.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jetsons: The Movie

I watched Jetsons the Movie recently. I remember it was one of my favorite movies as a kid. How is it now that I’m an adult? Well, it’s no Brave Little Toaster. Watching it now, all I can think is... they’re making a movie of the Jetsons for theaters, and this was the best they could come up with?

The story is weak. Barely anything done with it. It’s heavy-handed. Especially the whole “father paying more attention to his job than his family” motif. It’s been, what, three days? George has just been promoted to vice president! Yes, you selfish brats, your father does have to provide for you. Give him some time to get settled into his job before hating on him for not spending time with you.

And the environmental message? It’s so corny I think I’ll give up cereal for a month. "This galaxy is about different kinds of life forms…" "…All working together for the good of everyone." What does that even mean, and how is that trite nonsense supposed to convince a giant corporation to mine elsewhere?!

Then there’s Judy’s subplot. She’s all broken up about losing her boyfriend, Cosmo, but he isn’t her boyfriend. She likes his music, but obviously they’ve never met until that concert because he has to ask her name. Then he randomly asks her on a date! Doesn't even know her name and he just pulls her from the audience and asks her out! So why is she devastated about losing him? “I’ll never trust another boy ever again!” she says. How did he break her trust? She never knew him! They hadn't even been on a date yet!

Elroy and Teddy 2’s friendship is abrupt and rushed, too.

Looking at the movie now, it shows a couple flashes of friendships forming, shows a hint of a girl recovering from a breakup…but doesn’t actually tell these stories. Instead it relies on dropping the bullet points from the synopsis of each subplot's development around the movie and letting them stand in for those stories. They just remind the audience of actual storytelling that should be happening. It's lazy, but hey, when writing a kid’s movie, why bother telling a good story? Kids just want flashy images after all. It’s all I noticed as a kid.

Really, the most enjoyable part of the movie is the You and Me music video. I love the songs Tiffany performs for this movie, and it’s obvious the producers turned it into a jumping platform for her singing career. Too bad it didn’t take off. Tiffany has a great voice. You and Me looks like it belongs in a different movie. It looks like a full-length music video that was edited down to fit in the movie. Too bad it isn't, because it's the best part.

Coming in close second: some great early computer animation. Back in 1990, that looked amazing! It was a novelty and it made me smile.

Painful third: the pseudo, early-90’s rap. Everyone was doing this for some reason--every TV show, every cartoon. Guess they thought it was cool and all the kids loved it. I hated it when I was a kid and I still hate it. It’s awkward, especially George and Rudy 2’s sprocket rap. Hoo boy that’s awful. About the only enjoyable moment of early 90’s rap I can remember is Turtle Power from the Ninja Turtles movie.

Outside of nostalgia, it’s not a very good movie to watch. It’s harmless, but too shallow, too light, too hamfisted. Come on, it’s the Jetsons. Couldn’t they think of a better story?

Solution to the conflict in five seconds: Night security! Makes sense. Spacely has the budget for an employee whose sole job is to push the start button, but not for some security to protect the plant from sabotage?