Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New story online: Turtle Juice

A quickie little story of mine is online. Head on over to Bizarro Central to read Turtle Juice!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Seek the original: Brokeback Mountain

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? I've wanted to do this one for a long time, and I finally got around to reading the original story.


Brokeback Mountain
by Annie Proulx

Before I begin, I won't forgive myself if I don't plug this. Until this story was published in The New Yorker, this is how the rest of the country knew Wyoming:



But now thanks to Annie Proulx, we know Wyoming as the setting for that story about two country boys who fall in love. This is proof that one person can change the world! Do not underestimate the power of writing! …and controversial sex.

It begins in 1963. Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are high school dropouts looking for work wherever they can. They find it on a ranch. The rancher is looking for people to sleep on the mountain and guard the sheep during the summer. So these two spend the summer on Brokeback Mountain, watching sheep, shooting coyotes and the breeze.

Then on a cold night, Ennis nearly freezes and Jack shouts at him to sleep in the tent for Christ’s sake. So, huddled in a sleeping bag together, Jack “seized Ennis’s left hand and brought it to his erect cock.”

Wow. For a story that had been so eloquently written for some ten pages, it sure blasts us with this shock. Then Ennis goes along with it! There’s no stated explanation for why this happens. It’s definitely spur-of-the-moment, and from that moment on, they never speak of it directly. Sex just happens on its own, sheep be damned.

When the job ends in the fall, they go their separate ways, live their separate lives. They both agree it was a one-time thing. Nobody’s business but theirs. Jack and Ennis get married, have kids. Then, four years later, Jack finally finds Ennis again and they meet up. And like before, sex just happens.

They get a hotel room. Jack says he wants to run away and start a life together. Hell, it’s the 60’s, a man can just up and drive away to some other part of the country and nobody will ever find him again. Ennis is the one who holds back. He’s got a wife and kids, and he doesn’t want to leave them. But he does admit he never should have let Jack out of his sight after their job on the mountain ended. He likes doing it with women, but he’s whacked off thinking about Jack countless times. At the same time he’s scared for his life thanks to his dad showing him what happens to queers in these parts.

Thus sets the cycle for the rest of their lives. Meeting up once or twice a year. Even after his wife leaves him, Ennis still doesn’t run away with Jack. Meanwhile, Jack is the dreamer. He recognizes he’s happier with Ennis than with anyone else and wants to run with that. He resents Ennis for not running with him.

But nothing lasts forever. Their friendship is cut short, and now that there’s no chance of it happening, Ennis is finally ready to make the leap with Jack.

Brokeback Mountain paints a very sad picture of a chance not taken, and feelings never acted upon, but still there. I can see how it got into The New Yorker. It presents the scenario without being vulgar or disgusting.

Compare that to…


Brokeback Mountain (2005)
starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal

And directed by… Ang Lee?? Yes, the man who directed a movie about gay cowboys also directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the year 2000, and Hulk in 2003. How the hell do you go from Hulk to Brokeback Mountain?!

Then there's Ennis, played by Heath Ledger. How do you go from playing a gay cowboy to the Joker!? I think it shows just how talented Ledger really was and why it's such a shame he died.

First, I applaud the movie for daring to tell a story that nobody else had to guts to tell. Even in 2005, this was a pretty taboo thing to discuss. To its credit, the movie follows the original story fairly close, but a few key details were left out that made all the difference.

The film starts off on Brokeback Mountain. Two guys watching sheep for a season. Ennis sleeps outside, while Jack sleeps in the tent. All is fine until it gets cold out and it forces them to sleep in the same bed to keep warm. Then suddenly they have sex.

In the story, we’re told very clearly what leads up to it, but of course you can’t show that in a movie without getting an NC-17 rating, so it just comes out of nowhere. It sure confused me when I saw it. Like…damn, where did that come from?

Here’s the problem with movies trying to address this subject. Movies are a visual medium. The story just tells us what happens the rest of the summer on the mountain, and we can accept this because it doesn’t have to shove the details in our face anymore. To show it in the movie would’ve given us no choice but to look at it, so the movie doesn’t show much of their time together on the mountain.

Then the scene where they part ways. Ennis breaks down crying, but it doesn’t explain why. The story does, in the hotel room when they meet up again after four years, but the movie leaves this information out.

That’s what’s missing from the film. A sense of genuine affection. In the story, we see very clearly that Ennis and Jack really do love each other. They actually talk about it, how much better this is than with any woman. It shows them close, it shows them getting personal, even discussing the possibility of running away together.

This conversation never happens in the movie, but it should have, because it’s the most important in the story. It shows exactly how they feel about each other, without sex. I don’t understand why this wasn’t done in the movie. There is a perfectly clean scene in the story where Jack just walks up behind Ennis and holds him. They share a moment without ever getting physical, and this could’ve been a great way to show they really do love each other.

In the movie, we see more of them fighting and arguing than sharing genuine affection and enjoying their time together. These two men are never portrayed as a couple in love, or hell, even as friends, and this imbalance undermines the story. They very rarely speak to each other, and when they do it's rarely anything deep or meaningful. From what we can see and hear, they spend most of the movie fighting. Aren't they supposed to be in love?

The short story is a narrative. It’s not shown so much as told, and this works all right for the most part. But a movie has to show everything that’s told, so it bulks up the story with plenty of scenes of daily life. The screenwriters were trying to convey the contrast between the aggravating, depressing and even impoverished lives they lead, with the ideal, carefree life they have together.

I get that we're supposed to understand their life with each other is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than their real lives, but the movie never shows this. We don't get to see this ideal existence, so it never comes across as preferable to their real lives.

Again, the story just states it, so the movie had to adapt it into something shown, but it doesn’t work. The fireworks scene with Ennis, for example. It’s striking, but it doesn’t add anything to the story. So he punches that guy out because he's being disrespectful, so what? Jack’s argument with his father-in-law at the dinner table is another scene like this. Striking moment, but it doesn’t mean anything, and this is the majority of the movie. Not the romance, but their everyday lives.

The movie also tries to portray the confusion Ennis is going through, and rightly so. Ennis is confused that he has feelings for this man, and it takes him decades to come to terms with it. This confusion is not a big deal in the story, but it makes sense to show this angle. But since he lacks the vocabulary to express it, we're never let in on it, and these emotions do not come across visually. It's a puzzle what's going on in his head.

But the ending is heartbreaking. I admit it caught me off guard. Ennis’s final words in the film are barely audible, and they're loaded with meaning. But the movie never gets across Ennis's internal dilemma, and it never portrays these two men as genuinely in love, so the meaning is lost.

The movie tried so hard to adapt this story into a personal drama, and it could’ve worked if the film hadn’t left out the conversations between Jack and Ennis. Those were the moments the story showed them connecting on a personal level, and the movie needed to show that, too. Maybe it was going for these two being "normal" men. Never talking about their feelings, not even aware they even have feelings. You know, the strong, silent kind of guy. It doesn't help portray them as lovers when they never show it or talk about it.

Again, bravo to the movie for even attempting it, but the original story does a better job showing that these two men really do love each other.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Video Games That Left Me Hollow

I've played games that made me cry. Others that made me scream. Then there's the category in the middle. The ones that left me snorting in disgust, thinking was that it? This has happened quite a bit over the years. One of the biggest offenders was


Sonic Adventure

Released in 1998 for the Dreamcast, it was one of the first 3D platformers, and boy does it show. Three words best describe this game: haste makes waste.

I can forgive the sparse landscapes. It was a first generation 3D game. Everyone was still trying to figure out how to make a 3D platformer, so I understand why the game feels sparse. i can even forgive the camera bugs to a point. Every early platformer had this problem. Nobody knew how the camera should behave, and it's because of trial and error done on these early games that game designers figured it out.

But I can't forgive the camera bugs this time. At the start of the game (Chaos 0), they are horrible! The camera zips around erratically, sometimes panning to Sonic's feet for no apparent reason, and getting the camera to point at the enemy he's fighting is a pain in the ass. It's very possible to die on the very first playable area just because the camera is an enemy unto itself!



And the problems just keep getting worse. Each level is short and narrow with no room to move or run. Some of them are just plain annoying, like the Casino area. It's long, boring, slow and adds nothing in the way of fun. The Adventure Fields are a total waste of time, as are the humans populating this new world.

The cutscenes are laughable! Characters are constantly bouncing up and down, and for no apparent reason, so you can't take anything they say or do seriously. The voice acting is also awkward (at least here in North America). Knuckles' emotionless "oh no" is especially lousy. The story also makes no sense. It sure tries to build up to a grand finale, but it fails.

Finally, the Chao are stupid.

I liked the multiple storylines. I really did. I especially like how Knuckles' and Big's stories came together. Tails finally has a decent role as well, though his flying is pathetically limited. Knuckles has better flying than Tails, and that's sacrilege in my book. The variety in gameplay is refreshing, and seeing these multiple stories come together is great. Especially e-102 gamma's. A bird trapped in a robot's body seeking to free both himself and his family from their robotic bodies. It's a story that can only be done in the Sonic universe and it's the best in the game! That, and the game's soundtrack make it worth finishing!

But the story as a whole is a confusing mess. By the time I reached the final boss I still didn't know what was going on, and that pissed me off! Such an enormous buildup and nothing makes sense!

It's pretty well-known Sonic Team was pressured to release the game before it was finished in order to meet the Dreamcast's shipping deadline. The proof is in the game itself. The early levels are littered with camera bugs, cramped environments and awkward cutscenes. Then, in the game's later levels, the environments become more refined and the camera glitches all but disappear. Levels are still cramped, but they sure feel a lot more like real environments instead of graphics demos. I guess the story was evolving at the same time as the graphics, too. Maybe it would've made more sense had Sonic Team been given more time to develop the game.

Everything about Sonic Adventure is half-done, but it never feels like a bad game. Rather like a first draft. It left me wanting the finished product.


Prototype

I bought this on a whim, having read no reviews and having no idea what the game was even about. I found out quick what the game was about. Button-mashing!

Sure, you have a ton of special moves. Your hands can become blades and whips, you can run up buildings and glide, take down helicopters and absorb people for heath. You're fighting all the time. Hunters dash out of nowhere and ram you and it's up to you how to take them out. Blades. Whips. Hammerfists. But really if you just mash buttons you'll succeed every time. I hate that. It's like a bad fighting game.



Not only are the controls confusing and needlessly complicated, there's no need to get good with them! Random button-mashing does the job perfectly. You know you're playing a game that's way too complicated when tutorial popups instructing you how to play the game are still popping up past the midpoint!

The game claims to be open-world, but it's not. An open-world, sandbox game allows you to explore the world freely, uncovering new stories, meeting new characters, etc. The only thing you can do between missions in Prototype is find challenges. Kill this many enemies in the time limit. Catch all the glowy thingies in the time limit. Scale this building in the time limit. Each as pointless as the last because your only reward is experience points (evolution points in this game), and you acquire more than enough of those during the story missions.

The game looks so much like Grand Theft Auto it feels like it should be open-world, but Prototype is linear. There's nothing to do between missions, so the only thing left is to do the next part of the story. It tries to disguise itself as an open-world game, probably to cash in on the popularity of the genre instead of being bold and doing its own thing. The deception is insulting. Wouldn't be so bad if there was something to see in Manhattan, but there's absolutely nothing. Just bland city and generic crowds.

The story is revealed in snippets spread out over the whole game. Prototype's story is weak and typical, so to make it seem more dramatic the developers broke the story into literally 100 pieces, scattered them randomly around the game world and left it up to the player to find them and piece them together. I got it after the first ten pieces: genetic experiment, funded by the government, experimented on civilians, now it's loose on Manhattan. Duh. Let's move on.

I will give the game credit for the big boss, Elizabeth Greene. This boss is tough, tense and overwhelming. Yes, that's the right word. She is overwhelming and intimidating. It's not very often you feel that in a video game, but this boss sure scared me. It's the best part of the game, and it should've been the final boss, but no, the story just keeps on dragging.

And the big twist in the story doesn't make any sense. Alex Mercer is dead. The man you're playing is not Alex, but the virus itself. That's cool, but if he is the virus, why would he want to stop the virus from spreading? There's a real contradiction with his motivation. After the game's big twist, I lost interest. I didn't even bother to finish.


Super Mario World

I'm probably gonna take a lot of heat for this one, but hear me out, please. Super Mario World was the Super Nintendo's launch title. This is supposed to be the Mario of the future! Why does it feel smaller than Mario 3?

Mario 3 was enormous, and even playing it as an adult it took me quite a bit of effort to make it through without warping. SMW, however, did not. The game is pretty lacking on challenge compared to its predecessor. Yoshi doesn't add much to the gameplay either. He's more of a pain to hang onto than a benefit. Sure there are some areas you can't reach without him, and he is one extra hit, but for most of the game there's no benefit to having him.

For an SNES game, I expected a lot more variety in the levels, but for the most part each level looks and plays the same as the last. Mario 3 had a ton of variety! Desert Land, Ice Land, Dark Land. SMW... The dungeons are the same. The overworld levels are the same. The castles are all the same. Even the music is the same, just variations on the theme.

The final boss is challenging, but what the hell is up with that clown copter Bowser is riding?! Remember Mario 3's boss, how badass Bowser looked? I was terrified of him, even though he's quite easy to beat. In SMW, he looks so cartoonish riding that thing. He's more of a challenge than in Mario 3, but threatening he ain't.



I was disappointed. Mario 3 felt so much bigger, more difficult, more real. SMW felt like Mario became more colorful and cartoony just to show off the graphics of the Super Nintendo. I finished the game thinking that was it?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The meaning of life (at last)

Since the rapture is coming tomorrow, I thought it was time to reveal the meaning of life. To make it more relatable, I’ll tell it in parable format. Happy rapture day!

********************

A man fed up with life walked to the middle of a forest. He raised a gun to his head, then looked up at the sky and spoke.

“God, if you give me a reason to live, then I will not pull the trigger.”

The Lord appeared to him and regarded the man with a gun to his head.

“Lord, why did you create us?” he asked. “What does it mean? Why go on?”

“I already told everyone,” replied the Lord.

“You did?”

“I even wrote it down. Everybody’s confused about why they’re here, but I told everyone why they’re here and what they’re supposed to be doing in the very beginning.”

“What?! Where?!”

God produced a Bible and handed it to the man. “Read Genesis 1:28.”

The man took the gun from his head, set it down and opened to the very first page. “And God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it [using all its vast resources in the service of God and man]; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and over every living creature that moves upon the earth.”

“‘Them’ being Adam and Eve,” said God, “and that’s an Amplified Bible I gave you, too.”

The man paused for a moment. “Is that it?” he asked.

“What else do you want?” said God. “That’s why you’re here. It doesn’t get any simpler.”

“We're here to reproduce, and you created the Earth for us to use to do that?”

“It’s in the Bible.”

“But I’m a vegetarian.”

"Oh, so no dominating the animals for you. Well, you're subduing the Earth like I said."

"I'm also an artist."

"Never mind that. Um, do you have a girlfriend?”

“I’m gay.”

“Oh. Then no multiplying for you. Let me see…”

“I’m also bottom.”

“Well you have the ‘be fruitful’ part down.”

“Har har.” God didn’t respond. The man thought about it for a moment. “So does that mean it’s okay for me to be gay?”

“It’s in the Bible.”

“Yay, thanks!” said the man and he ran off, leaving both the gun and the Bible.

God shrugged and ascended into heaven. “People make everything so complicated.”

********************

And there you have it. The meaning of life staring us in the face for millennia. Now get to it!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This is how aging starts

Not too long ago I had a kid approach the front desk at work. He looked at the phone on the counter, turned to his mother and said “Mom, why does it have letters on the buttons if you can’t text anybody on it?” I grinned. So did his mother. Then I felt old.

As the years go by and the world moves on, I find myself looking back on the years with fondness. The days when Microsoft was seen a hero for making computers user-friendly with Windows 95. The days when side-scrolling 2D platformers were as advanced as graphics could get. The days when there were no computers in school, and calculators weren’t required in class until the ninth grade. Times when cell phones didn’t exist and phone companies were engaged in the “long-distance war.” There were no contact lists. You actually had to remember phone numbers and dial them! There were no chatrooms or instant messages. If you wanted to talk to your friend, you had to either meet them or call them. Meet, most of the time, because you couldn't tie up the phone line for too long because daddy wanted to get on the internet. For years and years you had to be in front of the TV at a certain time to watch your shows because there was no DVR. Times when you had to rewind tapes. When you used books to do research because there was no internet.

I want to tell everyone I see about what it was like to live through that. It was a drastically different mindset than what it is today, and I think it’s fascinating. Nobody cares, of course. To kids and young adults, it’s life in the stone ages and they just laugh it off.

Every generation looks back on the previous one and thinks all of it was irrelevant and outdated. We don’t appreciate the past until we’re older. Now three years after my mother’s death I wish I’d asked her more about what life was like in the 50’s and 60’s, because now that I’m starting to develop good-ol-days memories of my own I understand how she felt.

Times were different back then. From what I've seen, the world has become progressively less personal as technology improves. It’s fascinating to compare and contrast. Too bad only the people who lived it with me think so.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Video Games That Made Me Scream!

I've played a lot of games over the years. Some made me cry, but those are the exceptions. The normal reaction is to SCREAM MY HEAD OFF! Usually in frustration, but sometimes in genuine fear.

The first game I remember screaming over was


Mario 3

As a kid, Super Mario Brothers 3 was the coolest game in existence, and like every kid my age, beating the game was no problem until I tried it without warp whistles. Damn pipe world always got me. Either that or Ice Land.

I remember one day i was playing it with my father. Hit level 6-5, which was always tough for me as a kid. It involves getting a leaf, stunning a turtle and flying the shell up to a hidden platform and using it to break blocks so you can enter the pipe and reach the exit.



Now it's easy, but I was a kid back then. My coordination wasn't always that good, so the level gave me a lot of trouble. What's worse is I'd done it many times before, but sometimes I couldn't get the movements down as fast as I needed to. If you take too long to get up to flying speed, the turtle wakes up and you have to start over. For a little kid, being that coordinated on a time limit so tight is pretty frustrating.

So when I failed for maybe the third time at the level, my father joked to my mother "hey, hon, finally a level Jimmy can't beat!"

I turned to my father and yelled "YES, I CAN!"

There was a pause. My father got the Mt. Rushmore look on his face. Then he told me to shut off the game and lighten up. He was right. It was just a game. But I was pissed off, like any true gamer would be. I knew I could beat the level, but I just couldn't get Mario up there with that turtle shell fast enough, and that's what pissed me off so much.


Corridor 7

Boy do I hear a lot of bad reviews about this one. You don't have to remind me: yes, I know it's a Wolfenstein clone, the controls are awkward, it's derivative and there are few projectiles to dodge so pretty much if the enemy is looking at you while his gun is going off, he's hitting you.

I don't get why everybody hates this game. Wolfenstein 3D had these exact same shortcomings. The same, sometimes unresponsive control scheme, NO projectiles to dodge, NO lighting effects and fewer weapons. Corridor 7 added variable lighting to the environments and even a little strategy.



Some enemies you have to hide from because they're too powerful. The game even had mines you could lay to take out tough aliens, and you had to lure them over the mines. Some weapons even allowed you to set them off from a safe distance. Did Wolfenstein do that? Hell no! Forget strategy! Just stand in one place and keep shooting--Hitler will die in no time! In so many ways Corridor 7 was better, but everyone hates on this game because it's a clone.

I'm attached to Corridor 7 because it was the first PC game I ever played. Before Doom, I had Corridor 7, and playing a computer game on my first PC was the greatest experience of my life! This means it was the scariest game ever! Aliens around every corner, some of which are invisible or disguised as filing cabinets and potted plants, and it's my mission to fight them! In games like Wolfenstein and Doom, killing the enemy is not required. The goal is to get to the exit. In Corridor 7, killing all the aliens on each floor is your goal, so it forces you to fight them! That was horrifying for someone who'd spent his whole gaming life on Mario 3 and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Yes, I was scared! The game even makes sure you're scared. At totally random moments, a disembodied alien face pops out of nowhere and flies straight for you! You can't hurt it, and it doesn't hurt you, but it happens at the most unexpected moments and it scared the piss out of me every time! Multiple times I screamed for several seconds, unloading shot after shot into empty air it scared me so bad! My buddy, Andrew, did the same thing when we took turns playing the game together. We both screamed whenever that phantom alien appeared, especially when health was low and we were just barely surviving, and yet we still had to face the enemy.

Scary stuff for the early '90's.


Ratchet and Clank

This applies to the whole series, but especially to the original game released in 2002. It's painfully difficult. Enemies shooting at you from all directions, walking upside down on metal vents and falling off because the camera keeps changing perspective, and you only have three hits! Sure, I upgraded to 6 eventually, but holy shit 6 hits is the bare minimum to survive!



The game is a third-person blaster. Ratchet and Clank's quest is to stop Drek, a business tycoon, from stealing parts of other plants to construct a new planet for his people. Ratchet doesn't care, until Drek's plan hits close to home. The story is pretty light until Ratchet finally gets on the ball and starts taking this seriously. That's when I started to care. Until then, the difficult gameplay kept me going, as well as the outstanding soundtrack from David Bergeaud.

The challenge comes from the obstacle course levels, unforgivingly spread-out checkpoints, and the lack of strafe. Guess Insomniac didn't think to put that in there until the sequel.

Then there's the final boss, Drek himself. Remember the final boss of Doom? Remember how disappointingly easy it was? Well, Drek is a REAL final boss! He's freakin tough! He gets a couple thousand hit points, and you only get six! Somehow you have to survive all three of his forms, ammo is scarce and bolts (currency) run out quickly so you can't buy more ammo after you finally run out. You have to scavenge ammo on the final boss! I died a hundred times trying to defeat him! I screamed so much I cracked my voice. Good thing the roommates weren't home or I'da had a lot to answer for.

But it's difficult for all the right reasons. It's unforgiving, but success is always possible and none of the challenges are unfair or uncalled for. It's a fantastic game, but hoo boy did I scream all the way to the end.

Twenty years after yelling at my father I'm still screaming at my games.

And yet, I keep on playing!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Stupid editor...oh...wait

One thing that sucks about editing a story is when I get the draft back from the editor, I read over a sentence and think, damn it, why’d he change that!? This is crap! Then I look back at the original and realize, oh, the editor didn’t change it. I wrote that crap.