Monday, March 30, 2009


I've been watching Dollhouse on Hulu since its premiere. Part of it is that I feel so left out by the Firefly fandom - catching up on it several years later, I realize it's a great show. But my outrage only goes so far, after all, I had no idea it existed when it actually aired.

Unfortunately, Dollhouse isn't half as interesting, though it's certainly not bad. I'm rather enjoying it so far, when I watch, but there's not much there after the episode. The show seems to be lacking a thematic core. Most successful science fiction shows have major themes which drive the concept of the show, as well as its individual episodes.

  • The X-Files was built around concepts of belief, knowledge, and faith. How do you know what you know, and why do you believe what you believe?
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon's biggest hit, was essentially an update of Spider-Man: a fantastical parable of what growing up meant, and how "with great power comes great responsibility."
  • The new Battlestar Galactica focuses on the moral decisions of leaders, and when the ends justify the means, and when they don't.
  • Firefly is subtler than the others, but I think it is at its best when it focuses on resistance against an extraordinary power. The show has a tinge of sadness - it's about what happens after the war is lost, not the war itself (which is another reason I find the Serenity movie disappointing, in that the war has suddenly appeared and become winnable, in 120 minutes.)
Dollhouse has, on occasion, mentioned grand themes such as the morality of science, and what makes the limits of humanity. But the storylines of the episodes themselves tend to come down "There is no moral, Marge, it's just a bunch of stuff that happened."

There are potential themes for exploration. In addition to those mentioned above, the show's premise is rife with possibilities for questioning the concepts of consent, rape, slavery. But it's avoided those like the plague in a thematic sense, even as they exist within the direct narrative. That's probably wise, given that it's on network television. I'm not sure I'd continue watching. So instead we're left with a show that appears to be primarily a fairly interesting story, with an amoral heart.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stubbs the Zombie

Here's a game I came across, most interestingly, because of its soundtrack. It's a collection of indie-rockers who cover various 50's and 60's pop hits, like The Raveonettes doing "My Boyfriend's Back." The music meshes fairly well with the game's theme, a somewhat Fallout-like science fiction zombie holocaust based around bad sciffy movies. The game itself is fairly fun, but short and completely linear, meaning it's pretty well disposable.

The fascinating soundtrack, however, leads me to a question - why don't game designers hire commercial DJs or bands to create game music more often? Generally, they either choose licensing already popular songs, or having game composers make the music.

I'd love to see some DJs making music for games, especially if they're science fiction-oriented. If I had a massively budgeted game, I'd give RJD2 (or someone along those lines) a call. Music can be such a memorable, important part of a game that it seems a shame to not be more daring with it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Civilization IV, modding, and grand strategy

Epic strategy games (or, 4X games) tend to have a similar problem. The start of the game is significantly more difficult and interesting than the rest of the game. Every choice matters at the start, but once a certain level of infrastructure is reached within the game, the human player will almost always defeat the AI. I wish I could come up with a clever term for this problem, but it's the main reason that I end up being more frustrated with games that are otherwise exceptional, such as Rome: Total War.

Civilization, being the king of the 4X game, has this problem as well. But the main reason I keep returning to Civilization's recent incarnations is its customizability. Civilization IV, in particular, was made for modders to play with on multiple levels. It's not as user-friendly as its predecessor, but much more powerful. So you get mods like "Fall From Heaven," which posits itself as a sequel to Master of Magic, and the fascinating "Rhye's and Fall of Civilization" (RFC).

"Rhye" is the screen name of the modder, and first achieved fame for his "Rhye's of Civilization," a Civ3 mod which demonstrated his gift of taking the basic concepts of the game, and making them more streamlined, historical, balanced, interesting, and, oddly, attractive.

The most important development for RFC, his Civ4 mod, is the concept of "stability." Stability, in-game, is basically the historically accurate acknowledgement that empires aren't always defeated by opposing empires, but often collapse themselves. The Mongol empire which exploded across Eurasia was not conquered by its rivals, but rather, broke into smaller pieces which were eventually absorbed by other political entities.

Stability also functions as a mechanism to keep the game interesting regardless of the player's power. Instead of merely competing with the insufficient AI, the player is forced to compete with the complex stability mechanism, which encourages infrastructure-building and measured expansion. In perhaps the cleverest aspect of stability, economic stability is tied to growth - and there's only so much growth possible short of founding or conquering new cities. Thus, a civilization has to keep growing (but not too fast) or end up stagnating. And if a teetering civilization happens to lose even a small border city, it can collapse.

There are still several problems. The stability model isn't terribly transparent. It can't be, really, otherwise it would be too easy. I do think that a happier medium could be found. New players especially are going to find it too abtruse.

The other major problem is that the penalties of collapsing stability are a bit off. Having a bad stability may mean that a city or two at random declares independence. Collapsed stability means that all cities, except the player's capital, declare independence or return to their original owner. There's not a whole lot of room between total collapse and slight annoyance.

Still, it's a major step towards solving the biggest 4x problem or being too easy after the initial part of the game.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Here in Renaissanceland, we're working our way through the first three seasons of Buffy. After a whole lot of Firefly and some Babylon 5 (which will get its own post soonish), it seemed a fairly natural progression. We're a few episodes into season 3.

The most interesting thing about Buffy is how small it is, and how big it wants to be. Sunnydale is a small town. Sunnydale High seems small enough that most people know each other. The credited cast is six or seven characters -although some characters, like the principal or Buffy's mom, should be in the opening credits.

But Buffy wants to be big. Buffy is the only Slayer, or at least she should be. Vampires affect the world only when they come to Sunnydale. The fate of the world, or humanity, is threatened multiple times. And the show just doesn't have the budget to demonstrate that.

During the second-season episode "Phases," in which Buffy battles a werewolf, there is a brief stock footage shot of a sunrise over a town. This is a completely normal cinematic method for conveying things like dawn, but was a first for Buffy. More than anything else in the show, the two or three-second shot indicated that there was a town here! with houses! and people! as opposed to a collection of sets.

The second season of Buffy generally got around this by increasing the emotional impact of the big storylines. The fate of the world was relatively unimportant, compared to the fate of the relationship between Buffy and Angel. This led to a fairly satisfying climax, despite the fact that the big fight for the fate of the world took place in a medium-sized apartment with Buffy, Spike, Angel, Drusilla, and two generic henchmen.

The third season has been somewhat odd, in that Buffy appears to have received a "budget" and is using many more extras. Both of the first two episodes involved masses of people and bad guys.

Both myself and the Renaissance Poet have seen episodes from later seasons and have been fairly unimpressed, but we both remember season 3 fairly fondly. So it's likely that we'll stop, or at least take a hiatus from slaying, after season 3.