Saturday, August 26, 2017

Death Note (Netflix)

I watched the Americanized Death Note movie, the Netflix original. (Yes, I have seen the anime.)


In this version, Light screams like a girl when Ryuk shows up, and then, having never spoken to Mia before, he tells her that he killed two people within minutes of meeting her! She is a total stranger, and he just up and tells her he acquired the power of life and death! Light is a wimpy dumbass in this adaptation! (Mia is this version's Misa, but now she's cheerleader, which isn't a bad change.)

L is an emotional hothead now. He's supposed to be a master of deduction, the world's best detective, but he doesn't do any of that. L would never pick up a gun and go out on a vengeful rampage to shoot Light! That's not who he is! L has a great mind, always has a plan, so very little catches him off guard. This version of L never seems to have a plan, and everything catches him off guard.

Neither Light nor L is in control, and this is the most aggravating part of the movie. These two supposed masterminds are completely out of control the whole time, while their assistants are more confident and very much in control! Mia outsmarts Light several times. Light confesses to being Kira every time someone confronts him about it. He doesn't even act confident when under pressure; this version of Light is a total pushover. Really, Mia is a better Light than Light is! She is confident! She takes control! She thinks one step ahead of the cops! She takes action! She wants to decide who lives and who dies! That's what Light is supposed to be! Why wasn't any of this in Light's character?

I didn't have high hopes for it when I found out the idea was being remade for American audiences. I knew they'd fuck it up. The only thing it got right was Ryuk's voice, and he's barely in the movie. Even taking it as its own thing, there is too much plot crammed into such a small space, making it feel like no plot at all, and the characters are neither believable nor likable. How can we possibly believe Light becomes a serial killer with the power of a god of death when he withers under the slightest pressure and is outsmarted at every turn? How can we possibly believe L is a hyper-intelligent superhuman when he cracks under pressure so easily? The whole series is about a power struggle between two masterminds, but in the Netflix movie, they are downright incompetent.

The movie is a cheap B-movie version of the concept. Skip it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

My journey to becoming a stereotypical author

I am on a journey, gentle reader...




...A journey all writers are honor-bound to make.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Advent Rising: Stars Wars meets Halo, starring Mary Sue

Every now and then I play a game or watch a movie or experience something that rattles me to the core, and I must share it!

Back when Gamestop sold PC games, and when one could buy used copies of PC games, at least two boxes of this title would be in the used section, every Gamestop, every time. Naturally I've been curious why it did so badly.



Advent Rising begins with first contact. An alien race named the Aurelians visits humanity’s homeworld (not Earth) and warns humanity that another alien race, the Seekers, is coming to destroy them. Minutes later, they arrive, and destroy the planet! Our hero, Gideon, survives.

The game had only just started when I reached my shark-jumping moment: the Aurelians teach Gideon how to use the power of telekinesis, something all life forms have the ability to do to some extent.

Queue montage: Gideon learning how to levitate objects.

...it’s the Force.

Yeah, it's a ripoff of Star Wars.

Gameplay does not improve in the later levels. It's just wave after wave of aliens, no real difference between the guns, no reason to change guns, no difference between any of the enemy types. Each doesn't attack you in any different way, no strategy, no thought, they just stand still and shoot you. All you have to do is shoot everything until it dies, or levitate them and throw them off the ledge. (You can do this without limit!) If there is no ledge, the lifting ability is useless because you have very little control over what you can do with objects once you levitate them.

Half the time the game tells you to go to point B but not where point B is, and the path is not obvious. It doesn't even give you a hint for where you need to go. "There's a civilian airstrip just north of the med-labs." Ok, but which way is north?

I haven't played Halo, but from what I've seen of it, Advent Rising simply copies its gameplay. It's Halo meets Star Wars, and if the sum of the parts equals the whole, then this game is nothing more than a total copycat. Halo at least had a good reason to have a regenerating healthbar: Master Chief has a shield to protect himself in battle. Gideon does not wear armor, so how can he take direct hits from missiles and regain health by taking cover?!

It is outstandingly acted and animated (except for Gideon’s appearance changing between cutscenes for no apparent reason), but as ambitious as Advent Rising looks, it took no risks with story or gameplay, which means it is not ambitious at all. The only good boss fight is at the very end, and even then I don't understand the twist.

I like the design of the Aurelians (the friendly aliens), but why didn't they help when humanity’s homeworld was about to be blown up?? Why didn't they do anything about it? Don't they have advanced technology, too? We find out later they're subservient to the Seekers, as is everybody in the Senate, but we don't learn more about that. I was more interested in the nature of this relationship. Instead, the story is about Gideon rising to godlike status. Yes, that’s the story: aliens worship humanity, thus they worship Gideon, and Gideon gets used to the idea that he's a god.

I was more interested in the Aurelian religion. Why do they worship mankind, having never met a human? Why do humans have the latent power to levitate objects and shoot exploding ice particles from their hands? Apparently every species has the potential to do this, so how are humans different? Why are the Seekers destroying human planets to keep mankind from rising up and challenging them for supremacy? (And was that element stolen from the movie “Titan A. E.”?) Why just humans and not all the other species who can learn about the totally-not-the-Force? No doubt all of this would have been answered in the sequels, but it should have been the focus of this story, not Gideon.

And on the same topic, why didn't the aliens take video evidence of the Seekers blowing up mankind if they wanted to prove to the Senate that the Seekers are genocidal maniacs? Why are the Aurelians waiting for humans to save them all from the Seekers? They have weapons, clearly the Aurelians can fight back, so what does Gideon do for them that their freakin' guns and swords cannot?!

The way the Aurelians worship Gideon even though he hasn’t done anything reeks of pandering to a power fantasy. Gideon is someone's Mary Sue, but not the player's.

I think that's what pisses me off most of all: the Aurelians worship Gideon and treat him with reverence, but what does he do to deserve it? What is he contributing to this fight that the Aurelians are not?! One character outright tells Gideon "It is not easy being God." Second shark-jumping moment. Gideon does not deserve their respect! His powers are not that impressive, there is no justification for Gideon having them, and the aliens could have waged this rebellion without him, so why the fuck do they treat him this way?!


It’s not just the aliens who worship him. From the very beginning of the game, the human characters revere and respect Gideon because he’s a famous pilot and brother of a famous pilot, too. Yeah, even the humans worship Gideon, and this means the entire story is about how awesome Gideon is!

It's insulting to the audience because it feels as if someone told the writers the demographic profile of a typical gamer and to write the script to appeal to that. Apparently they believe gamers are insecure and powerless and want to live out their power fantasy and feel godlike, so they wrote every character to reinforce this as if it were a fetish video.

Or it could be Orson Scott Card was merely hired to expand a story outline, and this is in fact the director’s Mary Sue.

No wonder it ended up in the bargain bin.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Zeno Clash 1 & 2, revisited

[I recently a got a new computer, so now I can run ZC2 properly. This is an update to my previous reviews.]


Zeno Clash 1

Weird game. Weird art style, weird characters, off the wall gameplay. Think Final Fight or Streets of Rage in 3D from the first person. Every level is basically a boss fight, and you get to use your hands to beat the crap out of everybody.



Every level is fight, fight, fight, run, dodge. Little else, and your companion character is totally useless. (What NPC tagalong isn't?)

As frustrating and repetitive as Zeno Clash is, it sure gets the blood pumping, and there is just enough story to keep things interesting. The world it shows us is fascinating and bizarre, and it has the audacity not to explain anything. I got that rare feeling there is a consistent story hidden under the surface, and that made me want to see it through to the end.

The revelation at the end is more than enough to make the game epic as hell. I was disappointed the game is so short, but the sequel makes up for that. The story that is only implied in this game is revealed in all its detailed glory in Zeno Clash 2. Think of this game as a prologue to its sequel.

Both games are overlooked gems. They deserve more attention.



Zeno Clash 2

The first Zeno Clash is a quirky, surreal, boss-brawling game. It's like Street Fighter 2 in 3D. It has just enough story to keep it interesting, the fighting is solid and satisfying, and the world it creates is bizarre and cool in its own way.

My only complaints with the first game were how repetitive it got, and the difficulty of fighting multiple foes at once. The development team must have listened to feedback like that because Zeno Clash 2 corrects those issues. Game 1 was boss fight after boss fight after boss fight, and it became tiresome (though it made for a delightfully intense experience). Game two takes a more open-world approach. Instead of being on a single path and stopping to fight everyone on it, now you have a whole world in which to wander.



But I can't call it "open world" gameplay. An open world has other places to visit, other people to meet and talk to, other stories to find. Zeno Clash 2 doesn't have as much of that as it should for how large the game world is. That is a little disappointing, but it is still a much needed break from the constant boss fighting of the first game. Now those fights are spaced out with some exploration.

There are other things to find in the world, though, and they are worth the effort to look around and explore every nook and cranny. Once I figured out what the cubes were for, it gave me something else to accomplish, and I wasn't disappointed when I found out what happened when I had all eight cubes.

Zeno Clash 2 has something the first game only implied: a story! The story is a little tricky to get into at first. Character motivation is a problem because it's not obvious why Ghat is breaking Father-Mother out of jail. After all that fuss in the first game discovering what Father-Mother really is, now they want him/her back?!

It does become clearer as the game progresses, and it all ties to who these people are, what Zenozoik is, and why everyone in it is fighting all the time. Yes, the game's core mechanic (brawling) is part of the story, and it's a clever way to justify it. It may be lost on a lot of players because it does require understanding events from an unusual point of view. For example, the Golem is trying to bring law and order to the world, so players who aren't into this world will wonder why the people of Zenozoik would be against it. It requires you to think about it from their point of view: law and order makes no sense when you can just fight out your troubles yourself. These are primitive, uncivilized people. To them, law and fairness is the chaos they must resist. Making the story take place from that point of view is refreshing, and it takes effort to understand.

When I first played the game, I foolishly didn't think to check the system requirements before buying it. I figured Zeno Clash 1 ran perfectly, so the sequel would also run! Wrong. New game engine, and my computer wasn't strong enough to handle it. I had to run the game on the lowest possible settings, and even then it barely ran. Now I have an appropriate computer, and playing it again is like playing it for the first time. The environment is gorgeous, and it is much easier to string combos together now that my computer is fast enough to render the game properly.

Zeno Clash 2 doesn't rely so heavily on brawling. In the first game, it's all you did. This time the guns do more damage, you have secondary weapons, and you can run and turn at the same time! Plus, it's open world, so you can run away from the fights to find health and weapons, and sometimes leave the area entirely. Finally, you can have up to two allies fighting with you! There are more options for how to play the game, which gives it more appeal than the first.

For me, the story is what saves Zeno Clash 1 and 2. We get to know who the people of Zenozoik are in the sequel, and why they're here. We finally learn who the Golem is, who those shadow things are, and what their purpose is. All the stuff missing from the first game is here, and it's a very well-done story told in an interesting and surreal way.

(Side note: I noticed the resemblance to the Wizard of Oz in the mountains level, and just minutes later, the game makes a self-conscious joke about it. Perfect timing.)

I can understand people's issues with the story, since it does require a stretch to understand. It could have been told in a much stronger way, but it's a game, so development is always geared towards gameplay. I would have liked more places to visit besides the objectives, too. What we have here could have been better, but it's still good and fun, the story makes sense, and it fleshes out the world into a fascinating and unique place.

If you haven't played the first Zeno Clash game, you're not going to understand the second. It tries to bring new players up to speed in the tutorial, but it's not enough; you must play the first game to enjoy the second. Zeno Clash and Zeno Clash 2 are underrated gems showing what a relatively small team can do with story and gameplay. I hope we revisit this world someday because I want to see more of it.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

New story: TV-P

TV-P is now live.

I like how this one turned out. A rare thing for me, when I write something humorous...

Full story published here.


TV-P
By James L. Steele

Lisa shouldered the door open and walked inside, clutching three bags of groceries on two arms. The elderly woman closed the door with one foot and looked around the living room.

"Babies! Mommy's home! Babies, where are you?"

Lisa stood at the door for a moment. Uncertainty quickly changed to bewilderment. This wasn't normal. They always came to the door and welcomed her home, but her three dogs and four cats were nowhere in sight. She glanced at the fish tank against the far wall. She didn't see the fish in it, just empty water bubbling away. Next to the fish tank was Larry's tank. The plastic roof and sunlamp had fallen on the floor, and the gecko was gone.

The fish tank and the muffled drone of the refrigerator were the only sounds in the house. It was quiet. It even smelled different.

Lisa looked around one more time. She didn't see or hear any movement through the whole house. Shrugging off a slight chill, she stepped into the living room, grocery bags carefully balanced between both arms.

Suddenly a lone howl came from the bedroom. The howl was joined by two others and rose in pitch through the back hallway. Lisa's three shiba inus stormed into the living room and surrounded her on three sides. The ankle-high dogs snarled at her, teeth bared, curled tails held as high as they could be.

"Babies?" Lisa said, taking a step back.

She walked right into the jaws of the little dog behind her.

...


Read the whole thing here!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Night in the Woods

Night in the Woods. Wow... This is quite an experience in an indie game.

Mae has just dropped out of college, and she returns home to Possum Springs, an old mining town that has fallen on hard times.

Unlike most adventure games, Mae--the player--doesn't have amnesia. She knows everyone in town, and she wants to reconnect with them. She's only been away 2 years, but she discovers everything is different.



Nothing is quite as she remembers. The people are depressed, and everyone walks around with a chip on their shoulder because Possum Springs is drying up. Jobs are fleeing, people are out of work, and those who have a job can't make a decent living.

All Mae's old school friends are working crap jobs, and they seem to have grown up, and bitter. Everyone has matured except Mae. She is trapped between childhood and adulthood, and she doesn't know how to cross from one to the other.

Something strange is going on in Possum Springs. Something strange is happening to Mae...

The game is incredibly well-written. You get to know these people and their extensive histories so well you really do care about them. Even when they're doing mundane things, somehow they're interesting. Everyone has a defined personality, and their dialogue reads so fluid and natural.

Night in the Woods is pretty much an interactive cutscene. Think "To The Moon." Very little gaming to do, but the story it tells is so interesting, and the characters are so much fun to get to know, that I didn't care.

(There's always Demon Tower to satisfy the bloodlust after reading all that dialogue.)

The story thoroughly engrossed me, and I did not expect it to. It's engaging, funny, and more mature than I expected. Two of Mae's friends are openly gay! Mae was apparently a little criminal as a kid, and slipping into that role now was a strange experience. There are even political undertones in the story.

It's easy to get lost in this town for hours at a time. Not because the town is massive and interesting to explore. (It's actually quite small, and while there are some things to do apart from the current "mission," I wouldn't call it open-world. These side-tasks do affect the narrative in subtle ways though.) Rather, Mae's childhood friends are so much fun! I wanted to spend time with all of them! I even felt bad when I went with one and not the others because I wanted to get to know all of them!

My only complaints are... sprite slowdown?! Really?! More than a dozen polygons on screen at once, and the game slows down?! No excuse for that. And... loading screens... Lots of them... And some events are quicktime, but the buttons on screen do not match my controller. It told me to press button 8, or 9, or 6, but my gamepad is labeled A, B, X, Y. Never did fully memorize which was which. These are hardly game-breaking issues though.

It tells the story of this generation. Kids who aren't allowed to grow up as their parents did, and they don't know how. An economy that no longer seems to be working for anyone has made socialists out of an entire generation of young people, and even some of the older fellows. Surprising to see this in a game story, and it very clearly captures the times.

This is quite a story. Smart, nuanced, and even profound. It pulled me in and never let me go. If you can enjoy a novel disguised as a game, this is a must-play.