Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Video Games That Made Me Cry

There have only been three times I cried at the end of the video game. I didn't cry because the game was sad, but because the game up to and including the ending was so well-done. I've cried at the end of books and movies and TV shows for this same reason, but it's particularly rare for a game.

First time was at the end of a game called


Morpheus

This is an obscure title nobody heard of at the time because it didn't get a lot of publicity. Released in 1998, it was in essence a game-length quicktime movie. It's very much a Myst-style adventure game ahead of its time with 360-degree panoramas and smooth transitions between nodes.

The story is pretty complicated. I had to write down all the character names and identities to keep their roles straight. You play a man stranded in the arctic who comes across an abandoned ship during a storm. Desperate for shelter, you search for a way inside. But this ship is here for a sinister reason, and it has everything to do with who these people are and how they relate to each other.

The mystery is engrossing. The acting is quite good for a game, too. Sure the graphics are a little pixelated, but that's easy to ignore because everything is so well-done. The puzzles are entirely logical. They're solved not with inventory, but by clues taken from your environment, and nothing is unfair if you pay attention to the game's logic.

The ending made me cry. It's a dreamy, cinematic ending that stuck with me for days after I finished. To this day I still remember how profoundly subtle it is. It makes sense if you think about it, and I caught the clues right away. It's a shame the company who made it went out of business. This game deserves to be remembered.




Myst IV: Revelation

I'm a huge Myst fan. Myst 1 through 4 are the best examples of what an adventure game should be, and nobody has succeeded in topping it. (Just forget Myst 5.)

The reason the Myst series worked so well is because it makes the player part of a family. Somehow Rand Miller's acting pulls off the warm feeling we get when conversing with an uncle we haven't seen in years, and every word he says reminds us of the good times we had. He respects us for everything we did, and we earned the privilege of being the son (or daughter) he never had. It's this subliminal connection with the characters in Myst that makes it so unique. No other game, or series, succeeds in putting the player into an environment so well.

It culminates in Myst IV: Revelation. Atrus' daughter is missing, and somehow his sons are to blame. FIguring out what happened and how to stop it is tough, but nothing is unfair or illogical. The puzzles are legitimate (even if they are a bit too elaborate in a few places), the scenery is beautiful, and Peter Gabriel himself voices a character! Sweet!

The game is still a point-and-click slideshow, but it's rendered in such a way that it looks like you're in a living, breathing place. They're not just static frames. Everything moves, everything is touchable, and there's something to look at in every node. It's an incredible milestone of the genre. These days everyone's going for 3D environments, but if this is the last hurrah of the point-and-click style, I'm glad it could go out with a bang that would make any 3D game envious.

The acting is uneven, but forgivable. At the end, if you've played the rest of the series, you are rewarded with a conclusion you've been waiting for since game 1. The emotion comes from the attachment to the characters, and the sense that you are part of the family. I felt genuine loss, and I'm not ashamed to admit I shed a few tears because I felt for Atrus. I really did.




Portal 2

The first game is incredible. It not only introduced players to a whole new kind of gameplay, but featured some of the best-written dialogue I've ever heard. It's so rare to find a game with good writing. it's the nature of the industry: game companies are busy making games, not writing dialogue or telling a good story. Portal did both, and it was such a remarkable achievement. Portal 2 was inevitable.

They continued the story, picking up more or less where the first game left off. I love how it turned out, the story, the characters, the finale! Again, Valve wrote top-notch dialogue not just for GLaDOS, but every character. I laughed while playing this game as much as I laughed playing the first. Especially the line, "I'm a potato."

I love GLaDOS’ character change when the Caroline memories wake up. She becomes an endearing character, and it was so interesting to watch her evolve right in front of me. I got to like GLaDOS as an ally. Too bad she’s still a bitch in the end, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

You're not likely to die a lot in the game, but that's not the point. It takes real, deep thought to get through each level. The final battle also takes a great deal of thought, but it's perfectly logical and downright suspenseful. Yes, even the player's final action is perfectly logical. It's mentioned earlier in the game, so it makes sense and it's a freakin hilarious twist.

But what made me cry was the ending. The closing cinematic featuring GLaDOS' last words to the player, and the turret opera. It's a beautiful touch. Everything in the game is so good it overwhelmed me. Things of great quality should move us to tears, and I'm happy Portal 2's ending was that good.




Play these games. They're the best of their kind.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Seek the original: Anonymous Rex

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 an idea based on Eric Garcia's Anonymous Rex series. A few years ago the Sci-fi channel tried to adapt it into a series. It got as far as the pilot episode, and of course, there were changes.

For some reason, the movie is not based on Anonymous Rex, by Eric Garcia, but rather its prequel. Why the filmmakers chose to name it after the first book is a mystery. So to discuss the movie compared to the book, I have to discuss both Anonymous Rex because it contains the majority of the world-building, and its prequel.

Anonymous Rex
by Eric Garcia

Dinosaurs never went extinct. They went into hiding, and now they live among us in human disguises.

You have to believe a concept like this because the book makes it undeniably logical. It treats the idea so seriously, yet it maintains such a lighthearted and sarcastic tone you can’t help but buy into it. The mental image of dinosaurs stepping into and out of elaborate latex human costumes is almost impossible to imagine, which makes the whole idea even better.

But wait, there’s a story going on, too. It’s almost irrelevant, as the whole book could ride on the world-building Eric Garcia does, but it’s equally mind-blowing. It starts with Vincent Rubio, a velociraptor private investigator still reeling from the death of his partner. He is the typical private eye archetype (almost a stereotype, but way more likable): falling behind on bills, no girlfriend, in bad need of money, reduced to snapping racy pictures of cheating husbands to buy the Chinese takeout that’s now spoiling in his bare refrigerator.

Then he gets assigned a case of arson, which quickly balloons into a massive conspiracy. Not only is this case about more than just a fire, it involves why his partner was killed. The mystery takes effort to figure out, but once I did it was a satisfying read.

And the sex is great, too. Sex scenes between dinosaurs wearing human costumes. It is laughably absurd, but Garcia makes it so believable you can’t help but take it seriously. This is an ideal blend of world-building and storytelling.


Casual Rex
by Eric Garcia

This is a prequel to the first book. Vincent’s partner, Ernie, is still alive, and the case they’re assigned to is pretty simple: find some missing dinosaur and bring him home to mommy.

The case uncovers a conspiracy that takes them to a private island where dinosaurs can lounge around without their human disguises. It puts on the appearance of a cult of a back-to-basics retreat for dinosaurs. A calm place wherein everyone can hang their human guises on a hook and be dinosaurs at last.

Until someone dies. Now Vincent and Ernie are suspicious and get down to doing what they do best: snoop. They discover this is not a just a group of dinosaurs who want to recover a lost heritage like any harmless new age group. There is a rebellion at hand, and it has the power to affect the whole world.

Although the mystery this time is not as mind blowing as in the first book because we’ve seen cults like this before in other movies, TV shows and books, but the delightful humor, absurdly believable world-building and memorable characters kept me turning the pages. It’s a good follow-up, though not a great one.

Compare that to…





Anonymous Rex (2004)
starring Sam Trammell and Daniel Baldwin

It’s not based on the book, it only vaguely resembles the idea of a cult of dinosaurs who want to shed their human disguises and revolt against the human race.

Honestly I can't remember what the movie is about. It vaguely resembles the plot of Casual Rex, but that's it. Much like Flashforward, only one or two bones of the story's skeleton remain. The book and movie have so little in common it's pointless to compare the two.

It was so long ago i saw it I don't remember anything about what the movie was. All I can remember is everything the movie was not. The books left a much deeper impression on me. When I reviewed the movie on Amazon, all I could do was rant its lack of budget. The only reason it sucked was because of budget, and that's essentially what I'm going to do here, too. Everything that's bad about the movie is bad because the production team didn't have the money to do better.

This is a made-for-TV movie. Well, that's how it's packaged on the DVD (now out of print). it's actually the pilot episode of a TV series that wasn't picked up by the Sci-fi channel. You know what that means: LOW BUDGET!

As described in the books, the CGI required to make these dinosaurs come to life (like stepping into and out of latex human disguises) would be incredibly complicated and expensive. It’s barely imaginable when reading the books, think of the difficulty making it believable in a movie! So the filmmakers took the expected shortcut by changing the latex guises to digital holograms. This way they only had to make CGI dino-heads and paste them on top of the actor’s bodies. It’s very cheap, but somewhat forgivable.

We only get to see Vincent’s dinosaur head for a grand total of 10 seconds spread out over the course of the whole movie and he doesn’t even look like a raptor! He’s a generic reptile-like-thingy with a stubby snout. Is that supposed to be a dinosaur?! It doesn’t help the premise, it undermines it! Furthermore, Ernie’s head and claws are both seen once (3 seconds each). Altogether, there are only three dinosaur heads in the whole movie standing in for the entire sub-population.

It's corny. It reminds me of Star Trek. I love Trek, but my one gripe with the franchise is how often the aliens take on human form, especially in the original series. A typical encounter will be like this: “Yes, we *are* aliens. In our natural forms we are multi-limbed and have three heads, but for reasons NOT related to show budget whatsoever we have taken on human form and you should revere us anyway!” The entire Anonymous Rex movie comes across this way, too.

The movie is very dark and humorless, unlike the books which are light and full of sarcastic wit. The movie keeps everything in the dark so what few special effects it has don't look so absurd when seen. It changes the whole story's atmosphere. It’s more like an episode of Law and Order than anything Eric Garcia wrote: emotionless, just-the-facts, and contrived.

The 90-minute slot was not enough time to build a unique world, tell a mind-blowing mystery, and add depth to the characters at the same time. You'd think if the filmmakers weren't going to show us the dinos they'd at least make the mystery engaging, right?

There is barely any mystery. Our private-eyes are faced with a question and then in the next scene they answer it. No buildup or suspense. The mystery and the solution to it are spelled out (not presented) before the first hour. Cultists are snatching dinosaurs, turning them feral and building an army to lead a revolution against mankind. Without the dinosaurs it’s a generic detective story. The story is so cramped it has no weight.

At the same time the movie tries to show some kind of character depth in Vincent. He yearns to rip his disguise off and be a raptor in the open. This is the exact opposite of the Vincent in the book. It's an interesting angle, but it’s glazed over so quickly there's nothing to digest. There's so little time to build his character, or give weight to the events. The story in the movie feels passive because it goes by so quick.

The book has dinosaurs out of their disguises, walking around, getting into bloody fights, talking to each other as dinosaurs, even having sex as dinosaurs! There are mansions, a private island, huge crowds of dinosaurs. The climax of the book is big. Very big. Absurdly big and tongue-and-cheek hilarious as the crowd of celebrity look-alike cross-dressers storms in and fights the cultists.

The movie? It had the budget for three dinosaur heads (20 seconds total), two hands (5 seconds), flickering holographic disguises, two unused rubber suits made to look like the actors, half a dilophosaurus in a darkened room, and Young Vincent (8 seconds). Everybody is in human form, but remember they're dinosaurs. You'll never see them as dinosaurs, but they really are. Right...

It all builds to the movie’s climax: Vincent takes five seconds to decide *not* to open the door that would release the feral dinosaurs on the city. Oh, the suspense... That was it?! That was the end?! That was final confrontation?! I know the TV pilot couldn't go as far as the book did, but I had hoped for something better.

The movie is pedestrian, cheap, stiff and humorless compared to the story Eric Garcia wrote. All the changes to the story were the result of low budget. There was a commercial for Gatorade in the mid-90s that showed more raptor than this (and it actually looked like a raptor). This is a movie! Why make it if you’re not going to show us anything?!

[EDIT: Here's that commercial I was talking about. Thank you, Youtube. I'm convinced it had more budget than Anonymous Rex.

]

Why couldn’t it have been a real movie with an actual budget and with more time to put some depth into the characters so it didn’t come across as the first episode of yet another generic TV crime series? That’s all this is. “Anonymous Rex” could’ve been special, but because of budget it got downsized to a “Law and Order” clone.

Skip the movie. Read the books. All of them. Here, I'll even throw in a review of the third book in the series:


Hot and Sweaty Rex
by Eric Garcia

If the first two books were comedies with tragic elements, then this is a tragedy with comic elements. It picks up a couple years after Anonymous Rex left off, and there is the feeling that the series has moved up a notch, and that Vincent has matured. He had to after everything he’s been through.

This time he gets involved in the dinosaur mafia, and ends up working for both sides of two warring families, one of whom happens to be an old friend of his.

The back story involved is delivered in two, hard-to-swallow chapters right in the middle of the action, but once I got through them the pace picked right back up. The mystery rivals that of the first book, and the spider web of betrayal is overwhelming. I wouldn’t blame him for going back to basil after this because this case gets personal.

He’s not just investigating something that happened to his partner (as in book 1), or his partner’s ex-wife’s brother (as in book 2). This is about Vincent, and it’s painful for him to confront the mistakes of his past and be denied chance after chance to make up for them. It’s also painful for readers who know and care about him.

The wiseass cynicism gradually fades from the narration, and this creates the feeling that something in Vincent changes--maybe even dies as a result of what happens at the end. It hurt me as much as it hurt him. For his sake, I hope he recovers with his humor in tact. Hell, I hope I recover!

Hollywood is still limited by budget but books can do anything. The DVD is out of print. It will vanish into obscurity, but the books will live on!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What?

A brief followup to a previous post.

Have you ever noticed how often people ask "what?" or "huh?" You could be looking right at the person and say something, and they'll say "huh?" So you repeat yourself. Then they answer.

Well a while ago I got tired of repeating everything I said, and I waited a beat. To my surprise the person responded anyway! He heard exactly what I said, and yet he said "what?" So I started doing it more. Instead of repeating myself right away, I paused a beat. More than half the time the person responded. They heard me just fine.

So why'd they say what? It's not just a few people. Everyone does it. I think it's a way to cover for thought time. We heard what the person said; we're considering how to respond, so we act like we didn't to cover up the need to think of a response. I know, because I've caught myself doing it, too.

I just wait. Odds are the other person did hear me. They're just thinking. It's saved me a lot of repeats.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Story in The New Flesh: Cookie

New story published! A very short tale of twisted logic inspired by a children's cartoon I saw years ago. Enjoy a cookie.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sega's Wasted Mascots

Nintendo has Mario, sure, but they also have Link, Samus, Fox McCloud, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Megaman (sorta) and Kid Icarus (retroactively). All of these characters (and more) are uniquely Nintendo, and Nintendo uses them extensively to promote its brand.

What did Sega have? Well, they had Sonic! Hell yeah, Sonic!! Oh, and they also had... Uh... Um... Well, hey had uh... They had Tails--no, that's the same franchise he doesn't count... Um... Crap.

That's what I want to talk about. Something that's been on my mind since I was a kid. Why didn't Sega have more signature characters?

I always root for the underdog, and Sega sure gave Nintendo a run for their money in the 90's, but let's face it: Nintendo made better decisions. Nintendo improved on the Gameboy, Sega left the Gamegear unchanged until it got outmoded. Nintendo spent its time and money developing new hit games and systems, Sega spent its time and money on ads that bashed Nintendo. Nintendo expanded its mascot line, Sega pretty much stuck with Sonic.

Maybe Sega would've done better if it spent more time expanding its mascot line and less time making fun of the competition. These are my top three mascots Sega could've had. Why only three? Because I can't think of 10.

#3 Vectorman

Although little more than a rushed attempt to compete with Donkey Kong Country, Vectorman had something Sega fans liked: attitude. Nintendo was refined and noble, Sega was just plain cool, and that's what Vectorman banked on.



Vectorman is one of the robots built to clean up the Earth's pollution while mankind is away. (Wall-e, anybody?) But of course something goes wrong, one of the robots goes nuts and gets the other bots to stop cleaning up and start making weapons to attack mankind when they return. That's where Vectorman comes in. He alone must stop the madness.

The game itself is totally off the wall. You've got your usual levels: the spaceport, an underwater level, railroad tracks, hydroponic lab. Then you've also got levels like a bamboo mill (?), a disco floor (??), and a piece of parchment (???).

Yup, apparently one of Vectorman's useful abilities is to change into a frog and hop along a huge roll of bamboo parchment. Thank God he can morph into a dance-o-matic to survive the disco floor. Like, who came up with these levels?!

There was little unique about the game. All you do is run and shoot. Vectorman can morph into different forms (bomb, car, train, fish), but only for very limited periods and in very specific areas. Nothing special to it at all, but it looked cool, it was challenging, had a style all its own, and Vectorman had attitude! Yeah! Ha-HAH!

Sega almost used him as a mascot, too. He even starred in a sequel, but be honest. Did you hear about it? I didn't.


#2 Ristar

A cute, childish but deceptively challenging game. It's a standard save-the-galaxy story, but instead of using weapons, Ristar head-butts his enemies!



It looks so kiddie. So happy and cheerful...so lighthearted. So quirky... But it's actually a pretty serious game. Each level is unique, every boss requires a different technique to conquer, and you must figure this out while fighting them. This kiddie game is a real challenge!

Ristar could've been big, but maybe his colorful graphics were actually a downfall. To look at the game, anyone would dismiss it as kid's stuff, and given Sega's image, it wouldn't be a good idea to use such a character as a mascot. Too bad. Maybe Ristar could've been like Harry Potter, gradually maturing and becoming more grown-up as the years progress. That would've been a trip, watching a shooting star grow up.

Or maybe that's just plain dumb.

No wonder Sega didn't use him.


#1 Ecco the Dolphin

After Sonic the Hedgehog, it's the best Sega exclusive ever made. Ecco is a special dolphin who must stop an alien invasion. Dolphins and aliens... it's such a unique approach. An alien invasion that does not include humans, and the aliens themselves are sea-dwelling! It's an amazing achievement and I adore the unique perspective. Ecco's games are unique, challenging and a lot of fun.



If you ever play them, hunt down the Sega CD versions. They feature outstanding CD soundtracks by Spencer Nilsen.

Sega did make an attempt to use him as a mascot; I remember seeing Ecco on some Genesis boxes, right beside Sonic, so Sega at least tried to take advantage of him.

But Sega still failed. If you're gonna use a character as a mascot, he needs to have more than just two games. Yeah, Ecco got two games, unless you count the educational Ecco Jr., which I don't. He should've been like Sonic, getting 5, 6 or 10 games on Genesis, but no, we only got two.

I also don't count Ecco: Defender of the Future for Dreamcast because it was not made by the same studio, completely retcons everything that happened in the first two games and has nothing to do with the Ecco storyline. DotF also does the one thing the Genesis Ecco games avoided at all costs: it includes humans. FOUL! The most unique and engaging aspect of the franchise's storyverse, and they destroy it!

DotF is a beautiful game, no questioning that. It shows what the Dreamcast was capable of and how underused the console was. But the controls, the controls! That damn thumb stick is so sensitive you can't make any precise movements. Just a little nudge sends Ecco spinning out of control! Everything about the game is wrong--the controls, the story, the premise... It was not the long-awaited third Ecco game fans longed for.

I think the franchise would've done better if DotF had been a continuation of the second game's cliffhanger ending. I could probably forgive the lousy controls if the story had remained consistent.

Sega dropped the ball. They were a one-trick pony. Sonic was the only thing Sega had, but they could've had so much more. Learn from Sega's mistake: diversity is the key to survival.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Language is the biggest barrier to communication

You know what’s bullshit? People who don’t say what they mean. I get it at work all the time. Does any of this sound familiar?

“James, do you wanna hop on cash register for me real quick? Thanks, I really appreciate it!”

“James, would you like to go out and get carts?”


My answer would be: "well, since you asked...NO!"

And people also do this a lot:

"If you would take five minutes to go and clean the bathroom, that would be awesome."

"If everyone would pause and help the customers in your area, that would be wonderful."


Yes, it would be awesome if we did that, and it would be awesome if I cleaned the bathroom ...are you telling me to clean the bathroom? Oh, well, you didn't say that! People in general do it.

“Do you wanna take this bag for me and recycle it?”

“I'll let you take this candy wrapper to throw away.”

“Do you wanna call another store and see if they have a pair of shoes for me?”


My answer to all these questions would be FUCK NO, but I know they’re not asking me a question--and don't make it sound like you're doing me a favor giving me your trash! Don't turn it around and make it seem like you're giving me a choice! They’re telling me what to do. They state an order in the form of a question to make it seem less like an order. I hate it. How do we expect to understand each other when we don't make ourselves clear in the first place?

No wonder nothing gets done in this world. Language has become a huge barrier to communication. I implore everyone to say what they mean!

state of photo labs

Commenting on this news article.

The photofinishing industry has also lost its focus and vibrancy.

"While Eastman Kodak (NYSE: EK- News), Fuji Film and Ritz Camera were once major and prominent companies, they are just a splash of what they were in their heyday," van Beeck says.

With about $1.6 billion in revenue last year, they have faced a decline of nearly 70% during the past decade. Revenue could drop another 40% by 2016, IBISWorld estimates.

Once again, technology is the issue. Digital cameras continue to offer improving quality and falling prices. Color printing can be done at home and cheap digital storage, on hard drives and flash sticks and through online services, has reduced the need to produce a hard copy of every shot as a keepsake. Overall, the total number of prints in the United States has fallen at an annualized rate of 3.5% over the past five years, he says.


I can attest to photo labs going by the wayside. I've been working in a photo lab since around '04, and I remember the exact year digital photography began to take over. It was Christmas of '06. Price of digital plummeted. Everybody got digital cameras for christmas that year. Film developing fell off a cliff in '07.

Now I walk in stores and see lab after lab shut down. There's just no demand anymore, now that people don't need to have film processed. Demand for printed pictures in general has gone down, too. I knew it would happen, but only when consumer-level digital photography finally surpassed the quality of real film. It finally did back in '06, so why bother printing anything at all? The photographs look more impressive on these new high-rez TVs and computer screens than they do in printed form.

I miss film. My job involved a lot more activity and skill when film was king. To think, I've witnessed history firsthand. The death of film photography.

The progress of technology is the movement of equipment from the hands of trained specialists to the average person. Photography, for example. When it first began, only highly trained photographers knew how to handle a camera, develop the negative and make a print. As the years progressed, photography moved from the hands of specialists down to the average person.

Filmmaking is another area this is seen. You used to need very special equipment and expertise to make a movie. Then once it was done, you had to get another company on board to distribute it. These days, thanks to digital cameras and the internet, anyone can do it.

It's the progression of society as a whole: the gradual shift of information, ideas and technology from the hands of a select few to the general population. Overall, this has been a good thing, but when it affects your area of expertise, it sure doesn't feel like it at the time.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

10 rules of Facebook

1) get as many of your friends as possible to sign up.

2) tell them how much fun it is to give all their personal information to the marketing computer.

3) do not message or otherwise communicate with your friends after signing up. That's just plain rude.

4) continue to make posts. Remember your posts may be parsed by the marketing computer for keywords that will be used against you for advertising purposes.

5) your only form of interaction with your friends is in the form of "liking" something they post or link to. Any other form of interaction is, again, just plain rude.

6) communication has no place in social networking. You are on Facebook not to communicate or to do, but to be.

7) you are to tell your children not to give away their real name, address, phone number or location on any website, but giving all that away on Facebook is ok. People you should never trust, but the marketing computer is faithful.

8) private messages are available, but remember how much of an inconvenience you'll be to your friends by demanding undivided attention. It's just plain rude.

9) Facebook's goal is for the entire human race to be on one website. This is not a cleverly disguised way to collect statistical personal information for advertising purposes, but to create a backup copy of the human race. When the aliens invade and wipe us out, Facebook will survive and a record of our existence will survive until the end of time. Therefore, if you deny Facebook your friends, you deny them immortality. Satan has constructed a new ring in hell for people like you.

10) but communicating with your friends is still just plain rude.