Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Season/Episode combination

I got in a discussion on Twitter about what the best "number" for an episode of a TV series to have might be. My initial feeling was that the middle of the third season was probably best: shows have settled into a pretty good groove, they know what they're good at, by sticking with the middle, that allows 13-episode seasons to work with 22-episode seasons.

So, using that logic, I poked at Wikipedia, and found several classics huddled around the 9th-12th episodes of the 3rd season of some of my favorite shows:

The X-Files might be at its best at this point. Its 3x09 and 3x10 are my two favorite mythology episodes, "Nisei" and "731." 3x12 is the excellent "War of the Corprophages," which might be my favorite overall.

Star Trek: The Next Generation has a pretty good set of episodes here, highlighted by 3x10 "The Defector," one of my favorites so far. On the other hand, 3x12, "The High Ground" is a completely ridiculous terrorist episode.

Buffy's season 3 is rightfully heralded as its best, and this is around when it started moving from good to great. 3x09 "The Wish" is a great episode, as is 3x12's "Helpless." 3x11 "Gingerbread" is very good, and 3x10 "Amends" is 2/3s of a classic, 1/3 horrible deus ex machina.

Angel's ninth episode of its third season is my favorite of the whole run, "Lullaby." Its next three episodes are good but not quite classic.

Babylon 5 has one of its strongest runs ending here, with the strong "Point of No Return" and the all-time classic "Severed Dreams" at 3x09 and 3x10. Its next two episodes are weaker, though.

I haven't gotten to this point in The Sopranos, but 3x11 "Pine Barrens" is usually considered among its best.

The Wire is finishing up one of its strongest seasons at this point. 3x09 and 3x10 build the tension to a breaking point, and 3x11 features the shocking death of one of its most important characters. All are great choices.

The Simpsons is also coming into its own, with two classics: 3x10 "Flaming Moe's" and 3x12 "I married Marge."

Arrested Development was, sadly, winding down, but included some great episodes. I really dislike the potential finale "S.O.Bs" at 3x09, but each of the next three are fantastic, especially 3x12 "Exit Strategy."

The Boondocks was very good throughout most of its third season, but has two transcendent episodes, 3x09 "A Date With The Booty Warrior" and 3x12 "Mr. Medicinal" which probably made me laugh harder than anything else that aired this year.

Finally, Battlestar Galactica may have been at its weakest here, oddly. 3x09 ("Unfinished Business") is excellent, but 3x10 "The Passage" could be my least favorite Jane Espenson script ever, and yes that includes "Doublemeat Palace." 3x11 and 3x12 have the confrontation on the algae planet, which wasn't bad, but turned the Final Five into a big thing. I didn't like that thing.

Based on all that, I lean towards 3x10 as my favorite, but I could easily be swayed to 3x09 and 3x12. Other people have suggested that 3x10 is good for Breaking Bad, Dr. Who, Lost, Futurama, and more, but I'm not expert on those, so cannot judge.

As a wildcard, I checked out 4x10, which could also contend: Buffy's "Hush," Angel's "Awakening," Battlestar Galactica's "Revelations," The X-Files' "Paper Hearts," and The Wire with a very good episode towards the end of its fourth season.

Only one other person suggested another collection of episodes, S2 E05. I don't watch most of the shows mentioned, so I can't really judge, but hey! I didn't do this alone!

Friday, December 17, 2010


When I read previews of the Fall TV season, Terriers was one of the shows I thought had the most potential. I think Donal Logue has an easy charm to him, Shawn Ryan has showrunning pedigree, and I think Tim Minear has done great stuff on a wide variety of cancelled shows. But when I watched the pilot, I wasn't terribly impressed. It was interesting enough, to be sure, and it made me laugh, but it seemed like such a trifle.

I've continued watching, though at a fairly slow pace (just finished the tenth episode) and I don't believe that Terriers has gotten much better than that initial pilot. On the other hand, I have a much higher opinion of it. Yes, I know that seems counter-intuitive.

The thing that makes Terriers work is that it totally buys into its premise. In most TV shows, the characters have baggage, but it doesn't come into play often. So-and-so might be a recovering alcoholic, but it only comes into play in specific episodes when they're tempted into it. On Terriers, being a former alcoholic informs virtually everything that Donal Logue's character does. Same thing with his partner's dark past.

Because these characters are trying so hard, and because they're so well-defined and acted, this has the subtle but impressive effect of changing the overarching narrative of the show to one about characters instead of plot. While I think novelists have realized this for generations, TV shows (and most visual media, to be honest) have tended to rely on plot to drive their narratives. The Wire, for example, is such a success because while it is a plot-based show, it's the characters who drive the plot - everything stems from them and their understandable motivations. (Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, collapsed in large part because it started letting the plot drive the characters, most notably the Final Five fiasco.)

What makes this interesting is that, in the aftermath of Terriers' cancellation, some of the statements by the FX network president indicate that audiences didn't find the show "edgy" enough, that it didn't fit the brand. The bitterly ironic part of that is that Terriers was edgy, in that I'm constantly emotionally on the edge of my seat (or the edge of a cliff) while watching it, because that's where the characters are. Its tranny hookers and cuckold-fetish husbands aren't particularly light fare either. You just have to do a couple episodes of digging to get to that point, and it seems that most people weren't willing.

This also seems especially non-revolutionary when you consider that it's generally how the best sitcoms work - they make you feel comfortable hanging out with the characters, and the characters' personalities, quirks and fears drive the storylines. Perhaps Terriers' foray into genre-bending helped lead to its demise. Still, I hope that its character-based long-term storytelling helps to influence television in the future - it's the best we can hope for after its cancellation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dreams can come true! And then....

After I graduated from college in 2005, I spent some (but perhaps not enough) time trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. One of the goals that I came up with was writing game reviews for The A.V. Club. I was a long-time reader, liked their voice, and they covered all kinds of media except games. A few months or perhaps just weeks later, I was delighted and unhappy that they introduced a game review section. Delighted because, well, that's what I wanted, and unhappy because it wasn't me.

I should note at this point that I had no connection to the AV Club at that point other than being a reader, and I had no particular reason to expect that I should have been involved. I had no clip collection, I wasn't emailing anyone, making connections, or anything. I was entirely aware of this, but still somewhat disappointed.

A few years later, I was in Chicago with a part-time job when they posted the need for a part-time intern. I jumped on that, and suddenly had the connections that I'd been missing . I didn't utilize them all at once, as I got distracted by my college closing, but a few years later I started doing a bit more writing, had a decent portfolio, called in those connections, and I got my staff box with a few TV reviews. I asked into a few new things, got invited to join, and today, my dream came true: my review of the new Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is live on the site.

Now, as cool as this is, and I do smile when I think about it, it kind of shows the limits of realistic dreaming. I'm still a freelancer. This will help my finances, of course, and will certainly help my portfolio, but (and I hope this isn't a trade secret), the AV Club freelancers would have to work pretty damn hard and do a lot of writing to make a living. It's one down, and God knows how many to go.

I'm sure my slightly younger self would have realized this and wanted to follow this dream anyway. It's just that my current self recognizes this far more as a starting point for bigger and better things, and much less as the realization of a life goal. Onwards and upwards, I suppose.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


I'm pondering changing my research-and-writing methods for my book on game history. So far, I've been going chapter-by-chapter. I decide to write on a genre (and time, if I break it in half), put together an outline, and try to play (if necessary - most of them are pretty firmly ensconced in my memory) and write on the games in order. However, my current chapter on real-time strategy game has exposed some flaws in this process, namely, that if I don't really like the games to begin with, it takes a lot longer. I'm pretty ambivalent about RTS games, so this chapter is in around its fourth month of work. At that rate, I might finish my first draft in three or four years, which seems a little much for me.

So I'm pondering switching writing about each game individually, and putting the segues in later. I've already kind of done this, having played and written about Half-Life while in the midst of my RTS binge. I see two major problems with this: first, it'll be harder to feel a sense of accomplishment like finishing a chapter. Second, it may just be an attempt to satiate my gaming ADD, and may make it harder for me to force myself to write instead of just play. I suppose I'll find out.

After I posted my excerpt on FF6, I had someone ask me on Twitter if I was also going to include Chrono Trigger. Ideally, the book will be mostly comprehensive, at least mentioning if not analyzing most of the influential games, massive hits, games representative of trends, cult classics, and major disasters. Here's an example of the preliminary games list for the first-person shooter chapter:

Catacomb 3-D
Ultima Underworld
Wolfenstein 3-D
System Shock
Doom 2
Rise of the Triad
Dark Forces
Duke Nukem 3D
Team Fortress
Jedi Knight
Quake II
Rainbow Six
System Shock 2
Unreal Tournament/Quake III
Perfect Dark
Serious Sam
Deus Ex
Elite Force
Red Faction

Some of these games may just get a mention (Dark Forces) or a reference to a different chapter they fit in better (the RPGs, Thief), some a paragraph (Serious Sam). Many of the bigger will get a page (Wolfenstein, NOLF) while others may get multiple pages of analysis on different levels (Doom, Halo). One of them will get a particular in-depth analysis using lots of screenshots. In this case, that's Half-Life and its storytelling-without-conventional-plot.

In other words, there's no way Chrono Trigger wouldn't make the book - and I hope I manage to get all the important games even when I get into genres I'm not really an expert on.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Video Game History - Final Fantasy VI

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990's on this blog. Today, I pander with Final Fantasy VI, or Final Fantasy III for those of you who only played on the SNES.

In a technical sense, Final Fantasy VI offers very few major innovations over its predecessors. The most obvious is a significant improvements in character graphics, primarily accomplished by using the same intricate two-dimensional sprites for the characters in both combat and in the outside world. This allowed for plot and character developments to take place during combat - when one character uses thought-to-be-extinct magic for the first time, another character reacts with shock, bouncing around the battle screen. But this is primarily an improvement based on the creativity of the designers - more time working with the harder limits of the SNES cartridges allowed more creativity within the form.

Final Fantasy VI also added customization within the game system. Just like FF4, FF6 has several characters in rigidly defined classes. Locke is a Thief, and the only character with the Steal command, whereas Strago is a Blue Mage who learns and uses monster's skills. However, each character can also be equipped with "Espers," summonable creatures who also teach magic skills and improve certain stats when the characters level up. This would provide the model for most future Final Fantasy games, as well as games from other companies: the characters each have their own personalities and are rigid when acquired, but can be developed in many different directions.

Perhaps more importantly, Final Fantasy VI offers massive improvements in thematic elements of the game. The rough edges of the setting are smoothed into a consistent whole. The coexistence of Tolkein-esque dwarves with science fiction Moon-dwellers has become a thematically consistent steampunk setting. This mixture of science fiction and fantasy was common in early RPGs, as we've seen. The early games in Final Fantasy have D&D settings with random airships, just like Wizardry and Ultima. But in Ultima, those previous embarrassments were ignored in future installments. In Wizardry, that artificial weirdness was maintained, but it was never a major focus. Final Fantasy reveled in its setting, and built its own style of science fantasy world, where airships and magic coexist.

In FF6, that setting drives the storyline, instead of the other way around. The evil empire in this game is using corrupting pure forms of magic in order to power their war machines to take over the world. The plot of the game derives naturally from the setting, and by and large, the major characters fit into both effectively.

I say "major characters" instead of "hero" or "protagonist" because Final Fantasy VI may well be unique in gaming history in that there isn't a character who fits that description. The first character we meet, Terra, is half-human, half magical Esper, and initially seems to be the protagonist, but is soon matched and eventually overshadowed by others. Locke the Thief is perhaps the most cliched, as the lovable rogue in the Han Solo mode. On the other hand, Celes, a general of the evil empire who turns against them, demonstrates much more depth, both tragically and comically, than her rough equivalent Cecil from FF4. Edgar is the king of a small nation which is trying to resist the encroaching empire, while Cyan was a knight of a kingdom which resisted and were all slaughtered, except for him. There are a few characters who don't entirely fit in the plot consistently, particularly some of the more gimmicky later characters like Umaru or Gogo, but one of the game's greatest achievements is how its most important characters are intertwined with the world and the plot. The Town-Dungeon-Boss conceit still exists, but it works organically with the rest of the game, instead of acting as an arbitrary challenge towards continuing the game.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Video Game History - Populous & Powermonger

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990's on this blog. Today, part of the genesis of real-time strategy games: Populous, Populous II, and Powermonger.

One major source of creative tension within the real-time strategy genre is the amount of control that you have over your in-game minions. On one side, the RTS games focus on micromanagement of each individual person (or alien, or robot, or what-have-you). They are usually intelligent enough to respond when provoked, and in some games they can be ordered to do work automatically. But by-and-large, every individual unit has to be told exactly what to do. On the other side of the spectrum are so-called “God games,” in which you exercise indirect control over your minions.

Peter Molyneaux, founder of Bullfrog Productions and later Lionhead Studios, was one of the driving forces behind the God Games of the 1990's. Starting with 1989's Populous and continuing with Powermonger (1990), Populous II (1991), Theme Park (1994), Magic Carpet (1996), Dungeon Keeper I & II (1997, 1999) and finally Black & White (2001), Molyneux and his companies released a series of games with significant similarities. All used a form of indirect control over the characters in the game; most were strategy games (Magic Carpet, an action game with strategic components being the exception); most put you in the role of a god or godlike entity who depended on worship, morale, or happiness; and most involved the altering of terrain as an important aspect of the game. They also all sounded more exciting to pitch than to play. Given the wild ambition behind them, is to be expected – they're never bad games, just perhaps disappointing after you hear the concept behind them.

Populous' concept is one of the purest in game history. You play a god with worshipers, and you have an opponent with worshipers, and your goal is to make sure that your worshipers overwhelm your opposition. You do this via two mechanisms – spells (or perhaps miracles?) and influence. You can influence your people to get stronger, to try and go to a specific point on the map, to try and expand peacefully, or to attack the enemy when they can. Your spells are more direct – you can set things on fire, create volcanoes which ruin opposing terrain, or turn your leader into a more powerful Knight.

Oddly, the single more important thing that you do in Populous is to flatten the terrain. In fact, this is what you'll spend the most amount of time doing. The more flat terrain that surrounds a building, the stronger the people who live in the building. So, click-by-click, you smooth our your land and encourage your people to expand into your opposition's land. It's a strangely mundane way of playing a god, but it's not without its charms. It allows you to constantly have something to do, instead of just waiting for the big decisions. There is an odd dichotomy between the lack of control you have over your minions and the complete, precise control you exercise over the terrain.

Populous II, released in 1991, is almost identical, but it adds a Greek mythology presentation instead of the generic setting of the original game. It also cleans up the interface slightly, as well as adding a spell that significantly sped up the endgame of a scenario.

Between the two Populous games, Bullfrog released another real-time strategy game, Powermonger. Powermonger was inspired by Populous, and looks a lot like its sibling at first glance. However, Powermonger is a more military-oriented game, and offers direct control of small armies. The game world also seems much more detailed, with various villages and behaviors for those villagers. In practice, however, Powermonger consists primarily of attacking villages, regrouping, then attacking the next one. Although it was an award-winning game in its time, its clunky interface and repetitive gameplay make it difficult to grasp today.