Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Backlog

After Brad Gallaway put together his backlog, I though it might be fun to do mine. Here they are, ranked by system then by preference. Bear in mind that theoretically I'm working on a book on 1990s video games, and would like to be able to make more time for that, so in order to not have "Every 90s game I never played" as a list, I'll only list the ones I specifically acquired and haven't played before (a general rule for the list anyway.


Syphon Filter - Yeah, I never played this, picked it for the book for $2.


Persona 4 - I started this, got 30-40% done, but got overwhelmed and let it go.
God Hand
Sly Cooper
We <3 Katamari 
Disgaea - I've started this and stopped at the same place 2-3 times, early on. Would like to push further someday.


Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds
Mystic Heroes
Metroid Prime 2 - I've had this for years, but every time I start, I want to play Metroid Prime 1 then I do and get my Metroid fix. One day.
Zelda: Ocarina Of Time

Nintendo DS

Radiant Historia - started this, maybe 25% through. I enjoy it but it hasn't grabbed me and demanded I keep playing.
Castlevania: Portrait Of Ruin - started this, enjoy the central out-of-the-castle conceit, but never pushed myself to go back. You know, if I had a job where I left the house, I'd play more DS games.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dubious, but it has so many fans I want to do it.
Dragon Quest IV/VI - picked these up for cheap, played a notable amount of IV, haven't started VI.
Lost Magic - Had this one on my list for so long I kind of forgot why.


Monster Hunter Tri
No More Heroes 2
Little King's Story - Started this, very much liked it, but was driven away by Nutcracker music (sister's recital aversion therapy)
Metroid Prime 3
Zelda: Twilight Princess - I did play most of this on the Gamecube when it was released, but it probably deserves a Wii play.
Super Smash Bros Brawl - Obviously it's best multi-player, but it's terrible with the Wiimote. So I need to get a Classic controller or two and have some friends over.
NHL 2K10 - I read this was one of the best games for use of the motion controls, but the controls didn't really click with me, and I think I have a bum shoulder.


God Of War III - Slowly working my way through this one, and it's top of the list of New PS3 game since it's borrowed.
Brutal Legend - I mean, Double Fine.
Valkyria Chronicles
Demon's Souls
3D Dot Game Heroes
Heavy Rain - I have this (borrowed), I started it, and I can't read it on my non-HD TV.
Resistance 2
Killzone 2
Brothers In Arms/Motorstorm - These were hand-me-downs, but I'll probably give them at least a quick try before trading them.


The Old Republic - Like anything's getting played as long as this is #1....
Fallout: New Vegas
Bulletstorm/Portal 2 - I want to feel like my 2011 Best Games list is more complete. Own these. Haven't played. Should.
Bioshock 2
Bastion - Okay, I've played this, but is it New Game+ time? It should be, right?
Atom Zombie Smasher - This is kind of getting played alongside The Old Republic, so it's not quite a "backlog".
Skyrim - Yeah, I'll go back. Maybe let some mods and DLC show up?
Cave Story+
The Witcher
Dragon Age: Awakening
Just Cause 2
Assassin's Creed
Alpha Protocol
Recettear - Played long enough to get a good feel for the mechanics but not so good I didn't fail. Would like to go back and win.
King's Bounty/Crossworlds - I would like to finish one or both of these
SpaceChem  - Played a while, need to play more.
Metro 2033
Binding Of Isaac 
Shogun 2: Total War - NEVER ENOUGH
Rock Of Ages
Diner Dash
Beyond Good & Evil
Mirror's Edge - Probably would be higher, but I have it on disc and don't have a CD-ROM drive at the moment.
Baldur's Gate II - I played this long enough to get a good idea that there was something impressive, but got stuck and said I'd come back to it. 
E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy
Frozen Synapse - Was not impressed when I started playing, but the Steam gift contest will push me into at least another try.
World Of Goo
Battle For Wesnoth
Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines
Tomb Raider/Myst - These two are probably close on the "Most Important Game I've Never Played" pedestal
Prince Of Persia 2008
Mount & Blade Warband
Majesty 2
Titan Quest
Time Gentlemen, Please!/Ben There, Dan That
Splinter Cell
Ghost Recon
Might & Magic Heroes VI - I liked this a lot and I want to get back and finish more of the campaigns but oh man.
Terraria - Gave this a quick start, but was immediately pissed off by the lack of tutorial or manual. I guess it's hip to make your fans put videos up on YouTube instead of teaching your players how to play. Doubt I'll go back, honestly. Or play MineCraft. But I probably should.
Solar 2
Thief: The Dark Project/Thief: Deadly Shadows
Quake I/II/III
Orcs Must Die 
Overlord I/II
Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus/Oddysee
Monday Night Combat - I played this a bit and really liked it but there are so many team-based shooters around I'm not sure I'll ever go back.
Medieval Total War II/Kingdoms - I have so much love for the Total War but they're such an investment.
Max Payne I/II
Inside A Star-Filled Sky
Grand Theft Auto V
Gemini Rue
Dead Space 2
Delve Deeper
Cthulu Saves The World/Breath Of Death VII
Broken Sword
Avadon: The Black Fortress
1...2...3...KICK IT!


Friday, December 23, 2011

Too many good reviews?

One of the constant discussions I've noticed amongst my game critic friends this year has been about the excess of high review scores. Some see it as a sign that game critics are too soft, or even corrupt. Or perhaps the games really were just that good? Other, more detailed theories (like mine) focus on the 10-point review scale triggering a certain inherent inflation. Or particular review constraints and embargoes.

There's also the theory that maybe the games this year have really been just that good. I didn't necessarily buy this theory at first, but I've come to believe that a variation on it may be true. But "good" is a vague term, so I think we should be more specific.

I think it starts from the extra-mature console cycle. Traditionally consoles have roughly five-year lifespans, but we're getting into years six and seven for the Xbox 360 and PS3, which have come to dominate the blockbuster side of gaming. In the past, as consoles have matured, the games have tended to get slicker, more certain of themselves, and generally better. Consider God Of War for the PS2, or Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger on the SNES. But as we've moved past that rough time scale. The consoles are beyond normal maturity, they are, perhaps, stagnant.

So that's why we see a pile of third games in a trilogy coming out this year that all share similarities: Uncharted, Modern Warfare, Gears Of War, Battlefield, Resistance, Saint's Row, and a few other single sequels, Arkham City and Crysis 2. What do these all have in common? They're all slick, impressive, not-much-wrong-with-them sequels to popular franchises. That's essentially a guarantee of a high-scoring review. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

But the thing is, with three games using similar if not essentially identical engines over a five or six year span, there's very little chance of surprise. Which is why most of these games, with the exception of Arkham City, aren't appearing very highly on Game Of The Year lists, I think. Instead you have games like Portal 2, Skyrim, and Skyward Sword, which may all be sequels, but they're sequels to games from several years back at the very beginning of the console cycle. They have the chance to both surprise and impress.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. Most of those third sequels are games that I'm not terribly interested in to begin with, so if the people who are want to give them high scores, it's no skin off my back. But I do think it's a plausible explanation for high scores that doesn't imply that reviewers or fans are idiotic slaves to marketing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rowan's Best Of Television 2011

When I voted for The A.V. Club's Best Of Television list, I included notes on all the shows I voted for. But since we only published the notes of shows that didn't make the main list, most of mine weren't included. In case you want more detail, here it is:

  1. Parks & Recreation (15) – Parks & Rec had an absolutely stellar shortened 3rd season, with maybe one episode of 16 being disappointing, and including all-time classics like “Flu Season” and “Fancy Party”, my pick for best episode of the year in any category. The 4th season has been a little wobbly, but not enough to take the show out of the top tier.
  2. Community (15) – A show this audacious should have less to show for it, but Community's hits vastly outnumber its misses. Even better, as its gimmicks have become standard, Community has also developed much more of a soul than it's given credit for.
  3. Misfits (14) – Misfits' combination of comedy, drama, character work, and utter absurdity means that it, more than any other show, gives the impression that anything could happen. The tension helps the show be both more amusing and more emotional.
  4. Justified (13) – You could easily make the case that Timothy Olyphant, Margo Martindale, and Walton Goggins were the three best actors on TV this year. I wouldn't argue with you.
  5. Game of Thrones (12) – Possibly the most interesting show on television this year, thanks to considerations both on the screen and outside it. Also one of the best, although it did have its growing pains.
  6. Louie (12) – Louis C.K.'s formal experimentation is marvelous. His use of drama in a comedy show is bizarre and intense, both in good ways. His willingness to dredge up the darker side of his psyche is impressive. It doesn't always hit, and it occasionally focuses too narrowly on a subject or scene, but I'm glad someone is trying that hard.
  7. Archer (11) – I may be in the minority in preferring Archer's more grounded, lighter first season to its second. But that's not to say that there wasn't some great stuff, especially the three-part fall episode.
  8. The Vampire Diaries (10) – At some point the ride has to end, yes? A show can't be this tightly serialized, with so many intense cliffhangers, and actually keep getting better and smarter. Can it? It's working for The Vampire Diaries so far. Why complain?
  9. Mildred Pierce (9) - It's deliberately old-fashioned in a way that you might expect from, say, Masterpiece Theater, but Mildred Pierce has a distinct American flavor that keeps it interesting.
  10. Treme (8) – It's a little less surprising in its 2nd season, and some of the story decisions have been awkward, but Treme is as warm as ever.
  11. Ricky Gervais Show (8) – Tighter editing transformed the 1st season's occasional so-funny-you-choke-on-your-drink moment into a regular occurrence.
  12. Bob's Burgers (7) – Halfway through its first season, Bob's Burgers switched from “potentially interesting” into “possibly magical”. Thanks to animal anus paintings, but hey, you take what you can get. If it can maintain that level of quality, it'll be towards the top of next year's list.
  13. Children's Hospital (6) – For bite-sized dumb fun, hard to beat Children's Hospital. For clever parody that shows just how manipulative TV shows can be, it's also a good choice.
  14. The Middle (5) – The Middle deserves recognition for being consistently good and sneaky-smart about class issues. It may never be one of the very best, but it's a great show to have around.
  15. American Dad (5) – Like The Middle, it's a show deserving of some recognition for consistency, although it does it from an almost totally opposite direction.

    Yes I Know About Breaking Bad - I started my catchup too late and it became a choice between that or three or four shorter, easier to handle shows. Next year.

    As a side note - I did the writeup for The Vampire Diaries on the main list, and also The Cape and cult-comedies-on-hiatus for the specific TV Club Awards.

Friday, December 09, 2011

That Glee episode of Community

I love Community. I think this season has been stronger than its gotten credit for. I will miss it during its break, and hope to see it back and renewed as soon as possible. So it's with that love in my heart that I have to say: last night's Community was among the worst of the show's run. Not because it wasn't funny (it was, often) but because it was almost totally soulless.

The key point of the episode seems to be when Abed says "I just like liking stuff." It's a rejection of snark, of mean-spirited jokes and criticism. It's an acceptance that things can be good just for being liked, that the heart wins out. It's a celebration of, well, the idea of Christmas and the television Christmas special.

Here's the problem: the episode undercuts that at every possible point. When Abed says this, he's been brainwashed by the Glee virus that, through him and his weakness, sweeps through the rest of the study group, forcing them to behave in ways they don't want to. The episode doesn't conclude with the group gathering to like things, it concludes with them gathering around to watch the Inspector Spacetime Holiday Special on the grounds that it's so-bad-it's-good.

But more to the point, beyond the interpretations of the characters' actions, the show itself doesn't abide by the idea that it "likes" things, because the entire episode is a vicious attack on its theoretical rival, Glee. As much as I love Community and as much as I might laugh at the jokes initially, they come across as just mean, jealous of Glee's popularity and zeitgeist. I mean, Glee deserves it, don't get me wrong. But Community has built its reputation on loving, character-based satires. "Modern Warfare" wasn't great because it was it a specific parody of an action movie using sitcom characters, but because it used action movie tropes in order to discuss the characters in a different, interesting fashion - notably the Jeff-Britta relationship. "Regional Holiday Music" dispenses with that in order to simply target one particular show, and a show that Community has already attacked multiple times at that.

Critics of Community often describe it as a soulless endeavor, a meta-sitcom that does parodies and pop culture references without understanding the soul beneath what it's making fun of. This description has always struck me as more fitting of post-cancellation Family Guy or worse, The Cleveland Show, which not a compliment, instead of Community. Community, I thought, was closer to The Simpsons, a show which was in love with the forms and history of television, but not so much that it couldn't make fun of them. Last night's episode? Last night's episode was Family Guy - cheap, mean-spirited jokes with a fake, ass-saving swipe at meaning.

Monday, November 28, 2011

November link roundup

Time for another link roundup!

Over at Gameranx, I had a piece published on the slight disappointment I felt about Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The idea that Hollywoodizing of existing properties dulls their edginess seems so obvious that I actually struggled a bit with coming up with an example. V For Vendetta proved a superb one in the end, but I always felt like I was missing something really obvious. Ian Cheong, editor at Gameranx, has been actively recruiting me through Twitter, and his persistence has won him a few upcoming Skyrim articles for the site, so keep an eye out for those.

I have, in the past, taken some issue with the term "game journalist" to describe my writing about games. I'm a critic specifically, or a writer generally, but if I'm only doing a bit of research on Wikipedia and not interviewing people, I really wouldn't call myself a journalist. At least, I wouldn't have until I did this piece on designers of classic games for Gamasutra. 

My work at The AV Club continues, and it's actually been a fairly dense month for television, though less so for book reviews. One of the most random TV shows I reviewed was Knights Of Mayhem, a reality show on the would-be sports stars of professional jousting.

But perhaps the most exciting thing I did there was a Gateway To Geekery on Discworld author Terry Pratchett, which involved reading five Pratchett books in a week, which was a lot of fun. So if you or someone you know might like Discworld but was scared to start, here's the article for you.

Moving forward, I have a couple of Mass Effect pieces in the pipeline at some different sites, which is exciting, as it's one of the more comment-worthy game series around these days. It's also Best Of list time, and I'll have the chance to put together a few of those.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Link Roundup

Hey all, I haven't been using this blog for much, so I figured I'd use at least to point you at other things I've done recently (and give a somewhat permanent record to them).

I made my front-page debut at The AV Club with this piece about the problems networks have with superhero shows. This was a fairly difficult piece to wrangle, but after putting up with No Ordinary Family and The Cape last year, it was pretty inevitable.

I've continued reviewing the middling but still potentially good Terra Nova there, along with the usually-charming, always-slight American Dad. More excitingly, my TV Club Classic reviews of Veronica Mars are back.

I also reviewed Neal Stephenson's Reamde, which both a very good book and an exciting opportunity for me to review a book from the King of All Nerds at a major website.

This review of Might & Magic Heroes VI may be my last game review at the AV Club for a while - there's lots of people who want to review games there, and...

...I've also started doing game reviews at Paste Magazine, including this one of Bit.Trip.Complete and this one of Red Orchestra II. I'm quite happen with both of them, as the editorial freedom there and longer word count gave me the opportunity to really delve into what made each of the games interesting.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age: Origins  represents the culmination of a few trends in RPG design, which gives it a certain tension in both narrative and game mechanics. Its much-lauded story and characters are at the heart of this tension. On one hand, it wants to be a dark epic fantasy, directly inspired by George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books. On the other hand, it still uses general fantasy RPG and specific BioWare plotting tropes. The setting includes dwarves, elves, wizards and orc-like creatures called Darkspawn from the beginning, making it appear more as a traditional fantasy than the human-centered, politically-oriented dark fantasy of A Song of Ice and Fire. As anyone who played the Dwarf Noble origin story can attest, adding those other races doesn't eliminate the bloody political intrigue – but it's hard to say that it adds much of significance other than some slightly different character models (with the major exception of the oppressed elves, which is a twist both good and novel).

The conventions of RPG storytelling, instead of setting, are far more constraining for Dragon Age: Origins. To perhaps oversimplify, most video game RPGs, western or Asian, tend to follow gaming's version of the Hero's Journey. You start at level one, and are presented with some kind of world-threatening crisis early on. The game follows your character as he or she levels-up until the world can be saved. On the other hand, the narrative form of the epic literary fantasy has become fractured, with multiple different point-of-view characters dealing with interconnected events – seemingly dozens in some books. They may never even cross paths once over the course of a series, let alone a book. Such is certainly not the case in most RPGs, including Dragon Age: Origins, although you do see the occasional external cutscene, usually focusing on the villain.

There are two narrative benefits to the fractured point-of-view approach: first, that it allows every major event in the world to be experienced by the reader, and second, that it keeps narrative momentum going via a series of cliffhangers. Dragon Age: Origins takes its subtitle from the fractured potential origin stories of its main characters, where choosing your character's background, like City Elf or Dwarf Noble, leads to a different recruitment by the Grey Wardens. However, once your avatar has been drafted, the plot coheres into a much more conventional Hero's Journey-style RPG story. The loss of the fractured storytelling weakens Origins' narrative at several points, most notably when your characters go to recruit the Circle of Mages, Upon your arrival, you discover that the Mage's Tower has been betrayed and taken over by demonic influences, with most of the population already dead. It's a major event, and it's one explained almost entirely by exposition, instead of demonstration.

Divided storylines are uncommon in gaming, but not unheard of. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, released in 2009 as well, utilized multiple points of view to tell its story successfully. More traditional RPGs like the classic Betrayal at Krondor also switched between characters from chapter to chapter, to tremendous effect. Dragon Age: Origins seems like it's built for such a game mechanic. The different origins could easily have made for different characters all as once, working simultaneously, crossing paths occasionally. The game suffers from having too many party members, nine, when only three can be in the party at once. Dividing them up with different characters and storylines would have forced the player to get to know them better, both in terms of personality and by encouraging the use of different tactics.

The party members dominate the game so much that they give the game both its greatest joys and biggest frustrations. They are, generally, complicated, three-dimensional personalities, with histories darker and deeper than normal RPG fare. Their personalities are consistent both within themselves and within their world, although there are the occasional interjection, like Morrigan talking about “survival of the fittest” or Alistair doing an internet-inspired “MUWAHAHAHA”, that doesn't quite fit. They're fun to talk to, in when they're in your party with each other, they'll also banter with each other, occasionally quite entertainingly. This is all good (and probably the best variation on the party member theme since BioWare kicked it off with Baldur's Gate), but the problem is that the game mechanics don't entirely support the character mechanics. The choices you're given are either too free, or too limited.

The essential issue is that, with three characters of nine to choose from, there are rarely reasons to pick any one character over another. They don't say “Hey, I'd like to go with you on this mission” or “I won't do this,” except in really exceptional, easily avoidable circumstances. Also, for having such strong personalities and histories that aren't necessarily congruent with your characters, they're fairly easy to please. Get them talking, nod in agreement, and buy 'em booze. The “Feastday Gifts” downloadable content makes it even easier to get into their good graces – I know I'll disable that one if or when I replay the game. Even the most common mechanical reason to develop different party members, splitting the party into different groups, only occurs once at the very end of the game, and only for a quick battle which is also easy to the point of irrelevance. Pushing the player to use different party members is common in story-based games, most notably in the Final Fantasy series, where FFVI's final dungeon used three different parties, and FFX utilized a system where you subbed different party members in and out of combat according to need.

The typical mechanical reason for using a previously under-utilized party member, in these games, is usually to keep them strong enough for use later in the game. Dragon Age: Origins totally eliminates this, by pegging every party member's level to at least one below the main character's. Bizarrely, Dragon Age doesn't force you to use party members, nor does it encourage you to use any of them. The freedom to choose may seem nice initially, but without consequences, the choice is essentially meaningless. Without an anchor, playing the game, I always felt like I was doing it wrong. Should I be using every different member? Should I pick a main party and stick with it? Most importantly, was I missing significant parts of the game by playing the way I wanted to play, instead of some ideal fashion? When, fairly deep into the game, I discovered that the party members automatically set their levels to stay playable, I was actually so disappointed that I stopped playing for a few days. The game simply felt hollower knowing that there was no mechanical reason to vary my party members.

An imbalance in the game's classes exacerbates this as a problem. Mages are both the best at healing and best at dealing damage. Only two party members are mages (and the player can be a mage as well), so if you're not using both Morrigan and Wynne, you're making the game harder than it needs to be. On the other hand, missile-based rogues and fighters are probably the least effective, making mages with their ranged spells even more relatively powerful. While this makes a certain kind of narrative sense – in any fantasy world, mages are probably the most powerful persons – it doesn't mesh well with one of Dragon Age: Origins' other influences, massively-multiplayer RPGs.

One of the hallmarks of the modern MMRPG is its rigid formulation of combat. Your party consists of four different groups: a heavily “tank,” who draws the attention of the bad guys and sucks up damage; damage-dealers like rogues and offensive mages; crowd control, characters who paralyze or stun enemies (almost always also characters who do damage once their crowd control is worn out); and healers to keep everyone alive. There's an entire jargon around MMRPG, involving “pulls” - using a missile weapon to gain the attention of enemies, and “line of sight” to draw them into areas where they're easier to defeat using traps or exploding spells or the like. Dragon Age: Origins has a combat system which seems to be built around the same premise – all of those things are possible, and if you get them to work, helpful – but it's only partially effective.

The goal of creating MMRPG-style combat (also shared by Final Fantasy XII) is undermined by two flaws. The first is the imbalanced class system – in an MMRPG, any class, of any specialization, played well, can be useful, which is not the case with Dragon Age: Origins. Second, the combat system itself is far too fast-paced for a player to play every party member. Constant pausing and deliberation is possible on the PC version, but the game doesn't include an auto-pause option as the old BioWare games like Baldur's Gate possessed, which makes full player control over combat lie somewhere between impossible and extremely annoying. Instead, Dragon Age: Origins utilizes a straightforward tactical if-then approach for non-player-controlled party members, such as “If the main character's health is below 50%, then cast heal.” However, using this for complete control is still impossible, as tactical slots are doled out by progress through the game, instead of being infinite.

The tension in the combat, then, is between a chaotic, action-packed form of combat common to real-time single-player RPGs and the more segmented form of combat in RPGs. Dragon Age: Origins may not have entirely decided which direction it wants to go, but it still manages to have an exciting sense of both chaos and control for the player. This is kind of a synecdoche for the game as a whole. It has wonderful, ambitious aspects which are slightly diluted by its reluctance to embrace them wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Good New Days Are Over

For a couple of years, it was actually getting kind of good to be a media consumer. Digital distribution, thanks primarily to things like Netflix Watch Instantly for movies & older TV, Hulu for newer TV, or Steam for video games, was actually making it cheaper and more efficient to pay for media than before. Naturally, this is coming to a stop: Netflix is raising their prices on hybrid streaming/disc options, while Steam is fighting with EA, who are trying to set up their own distribution system.

And this here is the main issue - the distinction between publisher and distributor is blurring. This was most notable when Netflix announced that they were picking up a TV series, but it's also subtler in Steam's case - they're run by Valve, one of the great developers in video gaming, who can drive critical mass to Steam by making games like Portal, Half-Life 2, and Left 4 Dead. But Valve is also an underdog. They're one of the few companies which develops and publishes their own games - and the only company which also distributes them.

As an underdog, I think Valve understands what makes digital distribution work: it needs to be easy. The point of the exercise is to create an environment where you can type in a game's name, buy it, download it, and play it. This model can break down at several different points: if the game isn't available, if the game is too expensive, if the download is inefficient, slow, or broken, and if the game can't actually be played.

And - this is the most important point - those things have to work in order to prevent would-be players from jumping to the next-easiest option. The next easiest option is not conventional retail. It's not online retail. It's piracy. There, you type in the name of the game, download it, and play it. Steam can beat piracy by being more moral and having games that work without having to hack and crack. EA...well, EA is doing it wrong. They're still acting like digital distribution is an alternative to physical retail, half an alternative to piracy/retail, and half its own thing.

Likewise, while Netflix might still be a great deal, its recent price change combined with the pressure from Hollywood and the studios' attempts to get into the digital distribution game for themselves have started choking off Netflix's selection, or charging higher prices for it. The first results in frustration - as I and anyone following along with my Veronica Mars reviews felt last month - and the latter results in higher prices. Both make Netflix look like the bad guy.

Hulu, too, is losing its effectiveness in the face of "publisher" pressure. One side of FOX may have helped to found Hulu, but another side has rendered it more useless, moving its new streaming episodes from the day after to eight days after.

There's also the growing trend of ISP's trying to cap bandwidth, and behaving like it's a finite resource. This isn't just frustrating to the consumer, it's also frustrating to the distributor.

It's not like I don't expect growing pains in digital distribution. But I do think that this trend towards publishers and distributors (and creators and ISPs) merging is one which is likely to leave the people who benefited from low prices and digital distribution in a worse situation in a few years than they are now. Publishers are inherently conservative, trying to milk the most profit they can out of existing methods. Distributors have to be more experimental, trying to find and exploit new revenue streams. As long as they're underdogs, I'll root for them, but they're underdogs for a reason - the publishers have more power.

And the pirates, just outside looking in, are the ones most likely to benefit from this struggle for power. I think Steam and Netflix understand this, implicitly if not explicitly (, which sells old games for cheap but makes sure they work, is explicit). It's not going to be easier to be legal for quick media acquisition if this continues. Likewise, the consolidation of creation, publication, and distribution of media is a direct path to monopoly. And it's not just media, either, I think we'll see providers of services on the Internet start to become Internet Service Providers over time. It may be a few decades after it was supposed to happen, but the corporate cyber-dystopia of Snow Crash is looking more and more likely.

Monday, July 25, 2011

King's Bounty Reboots

There is a certain critically acclaimed, publicly tolerated subgenre of gaming which goes by the awkward portmanteau "Metroidvania." Based on the Metroid series of games, with an assist from a variation on Castlevania starting with Symphony of the Night, this subgenre focuses nominally on exploration and freedom. The idea is that you appear to have total freedom to explore, but difficulty and items which unlock areas - we'll call them "keys" but they can be more varied than that, like double-jumps or new spells - appear to open new areas.

In the Metroidvania style of gaming, these things tend to be fairly rigid. You explore for a while, and may note several obvious obstacles - this block clearly needs a new type of bomb, that door requires a key you don't have. There are a handful of options which are available to you, one or two of which expand the number of options. Go here, get the key, go there, get the double-jump. It's not quite fully user-driven and emergent, but it's not the linear experience that most games utilize. It is designer-created and fairly rigid, but offers both a small amount of choice but a large feeling of satisfaction.

Perhaps the most interesting and usually successful part of the 2008 King's Bounty remake, and its expansion/sequel Armored Princess, are that it adapts these Metroidvania concepts. However, since it does so in a strategy/RPG style instead of the platformer/RPG style of Castlevania, it invokes a similar feeling despite using very different mechanics. In many ways, it's better: King's Bounty only rarely uses keys, instead, it lets you choose your path by giving you information about potential opponents. It tells you what kind of enemies are in your way, as well as their strength relative to yours, allowing you to judge whether you're up for taking them on.

The gameplay, then, works like this: you get a few quests, which point you in the right direction to travel. In your way are several wandering or static enemies, which can be scouted. You can find multiple different paths, or do entirely different quests in a different area of the map, until you go up in levels, can hire more troops, and suddenly the enemies which had been rated as "Strong" are "Slightly Weaker" and can be cleared out, leading to more levels, more money, and so on.

The "Metroidvania" moniker is insufficient for describing this model, though it's closer than just about anything else to describe King's Bounty. I propose "organic exploration". It's not quite emergent narrative - though it's close - but it has the feeling of letting your knowledge of the map and game slowly expand with your character's power. It's something a little bit magical, like the aim of RPGs and many other games, but rarely ever actually achieved so directly.

With King's Bounty organic exploration comes problems, though. It's possible to fail. Not fail as in "you have to reload your last saved game". Fail as in "your strategy has failed. Restart the game." You can, quite easily, work yourself into a corner where you don't have enough money to recruit troops to replace the ones you just lost. But this is the flip-side to the organic exploration. The thrill of expansion is useless if it's not also balanced by the thrill of defeat.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Far Cry 2

I am only good for one thing: killing. Fortunately, I am in a place where killing is the only thing that matters. 

The fictional African country of Far Cry 2 has been destroyed by civil war, and that civil war continues. Why did it start? I don't know. Why does it continue? To keep mercenaries like me in business in the game, and gamers like me outside the game entertained. What does it mean? It means nothing. It is, simply, killing.

I never meet anyone who says otherwise. The representatives of the two factions in the civil war, the APR and UFLL, have no explanation for why all they do is kill. Their names might have meant something once. They don't now. Their leaders occasionally spout some Pan-African nonsense. They only care about power, and acquiring it by killing. Their second-in-commands, the ones who give me my missions? They're mercenaries just like me, and they know the score. If the war ends, no more work. Worse, an end to the war means a purge of mercenaries, so it's not just money they're motivated by, it's survival. Even when I'm working for one faction, its soldiers don't know it. 

Virtually everyone I meet tries to kill me, regardless of my loyalties. So I have to kill them back.
Such is true of my “friends” in Far Cry 2 as well. They will aid me, yes, so long as I aid them. But what do I help them with? Tasks of petty revenge or maintaining the war. All of my tasks are amoral. Sometimes I destroy medicine. Sometimes I assassinate villains. I shut down the national radio station. Someone told me it was all propaganda. It called itself the voice of truth. Maybe it was both. But it doesn't matter.

What does matter is that I'm extraordinarily good at killing, in a world where that can be difficult. At night, I take a silenced pistol and SMG, alongside a dart gun, and sneak to my objective. Or in the daylight, I pick up a small grenade launcher, a powerful sniper rifle, and a giant machine gun, subtlety be damned. And the things I do! A truck drives straight at me as I stand in the middle of the road. I hastily reload a rocket launcher just in time to fire on it, and barely, just barely, step out of the way of the flaming wreckage as it flies towards me. James Bond eat your heart out.

I should take one part of that back. There is one person in Far Cry 2 who talks to me about morality: The Jackal, the arms dealer whose death is the entirety of my motivation when I arrived in Far Cry 2. Everything I do, every alliance I make, every ally I betray, every blood diamond I find, every single thing is supposed to lead me to his death. But he's the only one who sees what I see, that this is a big, dumb, self-perpetuating war. That there is no room for anyone but killing machines like myself in Far Cry 2, but killing machines like myself are unwelcome anywhere else in the world.

Although I had nominal control over the choice of my character at the start of Far Cry 2, he remains entirely silent. Other than the occasional character calling me “China,” my character choice is totally irrelevant. The Jackal, my ostensible enemy, is a better “me” in Far Cry 2 than I am. He realizes that the country is a total disaster. He realizes that there's no solution in this brutal civil war between interchangeable factions. And he has a plan to end it. This doesn't explain why he sold the sides the weapons in the first place, but then, I don't know why I'm in this country to kill him in the first place, so we're even.

Morality has always played an integral part in open-world games. Back in 1985, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar solidified the concept of the open-world game, building on the burgeoning role-playing genre to create a game where the world existed outside of the hero and his or her quest. You were a part of that world, and could interact with it in myriad ways beyond following a linear path to its conclusion. Ultima IV may be the most ethical game ever made, demanding the player fulfill specific virtuous goals to be successful. So it is perhaps somewhat ironic that, as open-world games like Far Cry 2 have moved outside of the RPG genre, they've become known for their gleeful immorality.
Far Cry 2 initially seems to fall into that immoral category alongside Grand Theft Auto, but I don't feel like it's immoral – I kill no innocents in Far Cry 2 – I think it's amoral. I am amoral My actions are essentially meaningless in an ethical sense. Death and life are entirely utilitarian. But Far Cry 2 does more with that amorality – it uses it to make a statement. If it sounds repetitive and futile, it is. Far Cry 2 succeeds as a monument to the repetition and futility of war. 

There is a famous quote, attributed to Gillo Pontecorvo, director of The Battle of Algiers, that no film can depict war without glorifying it. This may be the case with film. Yet, while Far Cry 2 may revel in the glories of personal combat, it also frustrates my conventional gaming desires to heroically succeed through proper application of violence. I am not simply watching characters fight in this futile war. I am a participant – I am the most important participant in this idiotic war. And I cannot help but be unhappy at seeing what horrors my killing wreaks. My friends are all dead – many by my hand. My allies, who helped me out of many a jam and perhaps deserve my loyalty, are just as dead – many by my hand. Far Cry 2's glorification of war and violence becomes something more thanks to its commitment to amorality. It becomes tragic.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Serialization Visualization

I talk about serialized stories and mythologies quite a bit, and occasionally link to my previous blog post on the collapse of Battlestar Galactica's narrative as an example of what I think about the subject. But it's not enough. Not that I disagree with it anymore, I still stand behind it, but it's a little bit too specific, talking about the very specific failures of one particular show. As a general theory, however, I think that my conception of serialization, mythology, and world-building makes much more sense visually than it does in simple text.

It still requires some text for explanation, so here goes. I imagine a well-balanced show to be circular. Everything fits best in a circle; they're the most efficient use of space. Most shows have an efficient premise, but as they add characters, cliffhangers, history, and continuity, they start getting ungainly. The mythology takes over from the storytelling. It looks like this:

It's a mess. There's no plan, things get lost, forgotten, ignored, or worst of all, lose their impact because they get cut out of the story, by retcons or resurrections or whatever. This could be a chart for The X-Files or Battlestar Galactica, or it could be Angel or Buffy. The difference between the former and the Whedon shows is that the Whedon shows remembered character came before plot. Angel, especially, shifted into emotional resolution more than plot resolution after its excess of serialization in its 4th season caused problems.

On the other hand, The Wire is far more elegant:

The Wire is ruthless in focusing on the important parts of the story for each season, occasionally bypassing formerly important characters and bringing in entirely new ones. The tonal whiplash as it makes these changes can make seasonal transitions difficult, especially at the start of the 2nd and 4th seasons. However, this is necessary both to keep things fresh and to keep the show's overall world and mythology – which is huge, using Baltimore as a stand-in for the American city – working and symmetrical.

Babylon 5, for all its other flaws, also had serialization that worked, in a different fashion. Famously, it was built on a five-year plan, and the creator exercised rigid control over the story – so rigid that he wrote all but one episode over the last three and a half seasons of the show's run.

The premise and overall story for Babylon 5 – the “arc” - was universe-wide, expanding into all aspects of the setting. However, as the series started, the focus was much narrower, on the station itself. The groundwork for the later seasons was built (too) slowly through the 1st season and much of the 2nd, but it was done almost entirely on the station itself. There were hints that the story was bigger, done primarily through foreshadowing, prophecy, dramatic irony, and occasionally ominous whispers about a great evil stirring and the like. As the ambitions of the storytelling increased, it grew to fill in the gaps created by the foreshadowing.

Thus the increased complexity of the Babylon 5 story didn't feel like it was a bunch of added mythology tacked on later once the initial premise was getting tired, but instead built on solid foundations in order to increase the stakes in a satisfying fashion.

This piece is merely meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Both Babylon 5 and The Wire required a specific kind of wild ambition from their creators, which is always going to be unlikely to be duplicated. Likewise, just because a show is a mess in terms of continuity and mythology doesn't mean it can't be great. Battlestar Galactica may be structurally weaker than Babylon 5, but I'm not sure I'd actually say that, as a whole, it's worse. And Angel demonstrates that a series can go absolutely apeshit crazy with the serialization and still somehow bring it together.

However, I do think that using the visual metaphors for how mythology springs from serialization is helpful, and how I generally conceive of these things. I hope it helps to explain my point of view on the subject.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Unified Theory of Game of Thrones

Yes, the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but having seen several reviews, both positive and negative, as well as the first episode itself, I'm starting to feel like there's an elephant in the room. My Twitter friend Noel Kirkpatrick hits upon it to some degree with his generally negative review, in describing Game of Thrones' issues with the big three of race, class, and gender, but it also touches upon the discussion of the series as a representative on the fantasy genre, and even bigger than that, what makes for successful, classic television and storytelling.

It can be summed up as this: what is the point of the story?

In fantasy literature, in general, the point is the plot. It is meant to describe an interesting, entertaining, set of events. There are very few popular fantasy novels where nothing happens. It's not necessarily earth-shattering (although it often is), but the main characters are important participants in some kind of important event.

In more well-respected storytelling, or high-brow, or snotty artsy-fartsy crap, depending on how you want to describe it, plot is much less important than theme. Great stories are supposed to reveal something about the nature of the world or humanity or America or suburbia or men or women or what-have-you. While major events could happen, having the characters as the main participants in them is a sign of genre fiction, and frowned upon to some degree. Fantasy, where that's the entire point, thus exists at arguably the lowest level of that hierarchy, as that goddamn New York Times review demonstrated.

Which brings us to television. Interestingly, television, despite almost all of its series being "genre" stories (with the possible exceptions of Mad Men and Treme), television, or "quality television," is quite strong thematically. When you look at the shows which are considered part of the canon, such as it is, they almost all have tremendous thematic relevance. The critical king of television, The Wire, is all about theme, most notably, the crushing weight of institutions. But it doesn't stop there. The Sopranos is about the corruption of humanity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about growing up and dealing with responsibility. Even the great comedies have strong thematic elements. Arrested Development is about living with family. Seinfeld and later Curb Your Enthusiasm are about societal norms. Even The Simpsons has strong thematic elements, like its tendency to make fun of mob mentality in small towns.

On the other hand, you have shows that are considered trashy fun, like Glee or True Blood currently, where they're best described, as The Simpsons once famously said, as "just a bunch of stuff that happens." Glee of course tries to tack on morality, but it's so inconsistent that it undercuts its own ideals from scene to scene, let alone episode to episode. There are also the CBS-style procedurals, which occasionally have insulting theme descriptions (fascistic, hegemonic, etc) attached to them, but don't try to do much more than blandly entertain.

Here is Game of Thrones' problem: it is a story that is all plot. It's a great plot, to be sure, and some of the events can and will shatter your expectations of how plots are supposed to work (in a sense, it's somewhat similar to Joss Whedon's stuff, but we'll get there when we get there). But it's being treated as if it's a prestige series, to be placed in the HBO pantheon alongside Deadwood and Rome if not quite The Wire. But it doesn't have a strong theme. The theme might be emergent, that is, it slowly develops over the course of the show, and it will likely be subjective, changing from person to person. But that's not what makes for "quality television." And this may be Game of Thrones' biggest problem moving forward.

Note: my essential breakdown of story components is as such: all stories need good characters. Setting is where the characters live. Plot is what happens to the characters. Theme is what the characters learn/are supposed to teach the audience. Game of Thrones the book certainly has strong characters, which doesn't necessarily show up in the pilot, so there's plenty of hope yet.

Second note: I am not covering Game of Thrones in any official, paid, or week-to-week capacity. I would like to. If you know of anyplace that would be interested in taking me on to do it, let me know!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fantasy, Gender, and Game of Thrones

While I should not have been surprised about the new HBO series Game of Thrones turning into a referendum on fantasy, it has somehow turned into a huge discussion on gender in geek culture, which is somewhat more surprising.

The initial reason for this is that the highest-profile negative review, from the New York Times, specifically genders enjoyment of fantasy, calling it "boy fiction." This review's foolishness is well-documented (I took a few shots at it in my last post myself) and has led to a thriving mini-genre of female geek blog posts - see here.

However, as usual with gender, this is a multi-layered affair. Many of the writers who have treated Game of Thrones with the most disdain, and whose links are being passed around and mocked, and presumably have had their comments sections taken over by irate fans of the novels, have been female themselves. Myles McNutt, my co-AV Club writer, has documented and discussed this here, while my editor Todd Vanderwerff went into the subject a little bit deeper in the comments, citing both the male numerical dominance of online TV criticism, and even more interestingly, a masculine definition of what makes for a quality TV show.

This is without even getting into the text itself, where a gender analysis of the books, show, and the show compared to the books could all be fruitful. One consistent criticism of the show from people who haven't outright dismissed it for its genre has been an excessive amount of distracting boobage, which is also an issue I and others had with HBO's Boardwalk Empire. More subtly, I've heard suggestions that some of the impressive female characters from the novel are hard-done-by early on the show, since they don't have the internal, point-of-view monologue on-screen.

To sum up the different gender arguments, in case you're looking for a senior project, thesis, or dissertation topic:

  • Treatment of gender in the A Game of Thrones novel
  • Treatment of gender in the Game of Thrones series
  • Comparing and contrasting gender in the book and the series
  • Gender of reviewers responding to the show
  • Gender of TV reviewers overall
  • Gendered discussion of "quality television"
  • Stereotypes about gender of Game of Thrones fans
  • Stereotypes about gender of fantasy fans in general
  • And, finally, the one that I haven't seen mentioned often: the gendered discussion of fantasy literature as a whole
You see, I've long had the impression that fantasy was gendered female, especially compared to its fraternal twin, science fiction. Science fiction is largely written by men, and the subgenre of "hard" science fiction focuses on rational concerns, extrapoliting current science out into time and space (and note the gendered terminology, hard=rational=masculine, soft=imaginative=feminine). Fantasy, on the other hand, is written by women as or more often than men, and is reliant on magic, an irrational flight of imagination. I even had a creative writing textbook once which said that science fiction was a good genre because it could say something about the world we lived in today, whereas fantasy was pure escapism and totally unserious.

My personal experience bears this out as well. In the 90s, I spent a lot of time on CompuServe's Science Fiction & Fantasy forums, and found that yes, the fantasy forum seemed to have a much better balance of male and female contributors, whereas the science fiction forum skewed much more male. Interestingly, I also talked about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in another subforum, and recall that being a primarily male forum.

To be fair: it is possible that, despite my possibly-accurate impression of the fantasy genre and its fans skewing female, A Game of Thrones is actually a more masculine-oriented novel, much as I found The Wheel of Time to be male. Perhaps there is something in the structure of the neverending fantasy series preferred by Jordan and Martin which fits in with masculine concepts, in the same way that Todd described "quality television" (usually serialized, dense, and overly serious) as seeming to have a masculine orientation. It could also be that by keeping magic largely on the sidelines, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, A Game of Thrones possesses a more historical, rational, and masculine appeal. On the other hand, one of the fantasy authors I would describe as the most "feminine" (despite his apparent male gender), Guy Gavriel Kay, also tends to write "fantistoricals." Or I'm theorizing excessively and this is all total nonsense.

Regardless, if I have a point here, it's that much like yesterday, it's hardly fair to attach qualities of gender to the Game of Thrones series in such a generalized, conclusive fashion. There are layers upon layers here, and as ever, I say it's more complicated than it may seem at first glance.

Friday, April 15, 2011


The HBO series Game of Thrones is still two days away from actually airing, but early reviews have touched off an apparently internet-wide discussion about the fantasy genre as a whole. Some early reviews have taken the form of pure snobbery - witness this witless line from the New York Times:

While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
Others have taken a more engaged approach, if only out of curiosity, like reviewer Heather Havrilesky in the New York Times Magazine (motto: like our daily, but not as idiotic!):

All of which is very somber — and a little odd, when you think about it. Even with countless horrors on the way, wouldn’t there be at least one unshakable optimist in the bunch? Isn’t that how we, in the real world, get through life? Irrational optimism in the face of looming bleakness? Yet in this brand of fantasy (ed note: medieval fantasy, as opposed to superheroes or speculative fiction), grim-faced nihilism isn’t just a default philosophy; it’s a foundational religion.
Somehow this television series has become a referendum on literary fantasy as a whole, and what it means. I'll grant that this is understandable. I've even helped create this impression, having, in the past, described my excitement for Game of Thrones as being excited for the first-ever major television series in the fantasy genre - only Hercules and Xena have even vaguely attempted in recent years, and, well, I'm sure you'll agree that the comparison is slightly different. Yet the fact is that Game of Thrones and the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is not the entirety of the fantasy genre. It would probably be unfair to declare that any single book or series of books counts as that representative, but it's especially bad for Game of Thrones:

  • It's darker than most fantasy. Characters die. Life in pseudo-medieval Westeros is, as Hobbes declared, nasty, brutish, and short.
  • It's not magical. I first discovered the term "fantistorical" on the jacket of A Game of Thrones, actually. There is some magic, but it's mostly on the outskirts - ghoulish "Others" beyond a giant wall, or maybe dragons across the sea. The main story is all people.
  • It's political. The conflicts in the series are largely people in power trying to gain more, maneuvering in back rooms with occasional assassinations or coups. This is not Aragorn making a heroic speech as everyone charges with him into a mass of purely evil orcs and trolls.
  • It's a human conflict, both in the figurative sense of politics and grey areas (as opposed to ultimate evil or corrupt magic), and in literal terms. The characters are humans, not namby-pamby elves or conniving kobolds. It's not Dungeons & Dragons. Some reviews have mentioned that there are "dwarves" but this is misleading. The character in question is a little person, a human, not Gimli or Thorin.
  • Finally, it's really good. They're pulp novels, yes, and shouldn't be mistaken for high art, whatever that means. But they're remarkable at creating momentum, memorable characters and stunning plot developments.
Saying A Game of Thrones and the rest of the books of the series are representative of all fantasy literature is roughly akin to saying The Wire is representative of all television. There are differences, of course, GOT is popular within the medium where The Wire is a niche show, but both have such strong defenders in part because they do things differently than normal, and they do things better than normal. So judge Game of Thrones on its own merits. Judge fantasy in general based on a decent sample. But don't judge Game of Thrones, positively or negatively, because of fantasy as a whole. That's reductive, unfair, and almost certainly wrong.

Tomorrow, perhaps, I'll talk about the gender-based reaction to Game of Thrones and its reviews, since it keeps coming up, and you know, GENDER!!!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Babylon 5?

As television criticism and analysis expands, it necessarily builds a canon. It's impossible to avoid canonization, for good or for ill. A few shows comprise the Mt. Rushmore of television discussion: The Sopranos, The Wire, golden age The Simpsons, and maybe surprisingly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Several more exist on a tier just below that: The X-Files, Mad Men, Deadwood, Lost, Star Trek & TNG, Angel, The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, The Office, and more - just check the A.V. Club's TV Club Classic sidebar for a decent representation.

One show that's missing from virtually any canon discussion (not including me) is Babylon 5. And, you know, I'm not going to argue that it deserves to be on that television Rushmore - I'm not 15 anymore. But given the typical leanings of critical discussions, being biased towards speculative fiction, serialization, and structural experimentation, I would say that it deserves to be mentioned in the conversation. So here's my attempt at explaining, to all and sundry, Why Babylon 5?

There are three major reasons: it's serialization done right; it's historically important; and it's actually really quite good once it gets going. But first, the Why not Babylon 5?, ably answered by Tasha Robinson, one of my editors at The A.V. Club a few years ago:

Going in a completely different direction, virtually every science-fiction fan I know has taken time to sing the praises of Babylon 5 at me. I spent half the '90s listening to people say it was the best thing on television and that I was really missing out. In this case, I didn't get started at the right time, and now I look at the completed series—all 110 episodes—and see a mountain I just don't have time to climb. Especially since even the biggest fans admit that the first year or two is some rough trekking. As my boyfriend says whenever fans wistfully bring it up, "We'll watch it when we retire, at which point it'll probably be available in pill form."
She's not wrong here, and it's not like I'd recommend watching it instead of the collected works of Wong Kar-Wai or The Wire, if there is some kind of competition for your viewing time. But there's still some element of misconception here. The unspoken but logical idea is that Babylon 5 was built on a five-year plan, that this means that you have to start from the beginning or else you'll miss something, but the beginning kind of sucks. So why start? As a syllogism, this works, but syllogisms can be fallacious, even if their premises appear to be true.

Exactly why that conclusion is incorrect comes from the show's structure and its effective form of serialization. Shows like The X-Files and Lost have given the impression that tightly-serialized shows with plans (or shows that should have plans) begin with a central set of questions, and answer those questions in the finale. This is not the case with Babylon 5. Instead, B5 uses a series of interconnected, shorter-term storylines. The central question of the first season is the mystery of the conclusion of a recent war, with a slow realization that something may bepolitically rotten on Earth. The first question is largely resolved by the start of the second season, while halfway through that season, while the Earth politics move into a different phase of direct subversion when prove arrives that things are, indeed, seriously wrong.

Storylines are introduced and resolved in time spans of roughly half a season to a season and a third. Those resolutions usually lead directly to the next major problem, but, and this is the important bit, this resolution and introduction of problems mean that there are multiple different jumping-in points for the show. The structure is less rigid than Buffy's season long "Big Bad", and it's also more sustainable than the constantly-expanding mythology of other serialized shows like Battlestar Galactica. The show's setting and premise changes regularly, a fact illustrated a seasonally-changing intro, which alters the music, background, and premise narration each year. The first season begins with "The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace", for example, a narration which, by the third season, has become "The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed."

Moreover, B5 is lucky in that it's biggest and most important episodes are also generally its best episodes. If you want to skip the dross of the first season - and yes, there is plenty of dross there, sadly - and just watch the five or six most important eps, chances are, you'll also be watching the five or six best episodes of the season. Therefore it's easy to create a list of episodes to watch as well as to skip. You might miss a couple details, but it's written to work around that even without the crutch of the "previously on..." that dominate modern serialized TV.

The final way that Babylon 5's serialization works in its favor is that it manages to avoid the pitfalls of excessive mythology. The "procedural world-building" of its first season establishes the essential boundaries of the "mythology", and over the course of the show, the characters and plot have their influence expand to reach those boundaries. It's anchored in place by an effective use of foreshadowing and prophecy, so that what does happen in the show feels like it was the point, instead of as if the showrunners are making it up as it goes along. The constrast between Babylon 5's use of Londo dreaming his own death and Battlestar Galactica's disastrous attempt to make something out of its Opera House in its finale.

The reason Babylon 5 was so successful at serialized storytelling is part of the reason that it is historically important in television history. It is largely the brainchild of a single man, J. Michael Straczynski (normally called JMS, because, well, you try spelling that), who developed a five-year plan for the story to follow. It wasn't simply a series novelization, but rather a plan that had the flexibility to deal with the apparent cancellation of the show a year early, or contract and other disputes with actors (which happened multiple times over the course of the show). It serves as a pointed rejoinder to all the showrunners who say that it's impossible to plan that far ahead. Granted, JMS ended up writing 3/4s of the show's episode, the bulk of them in a row starting late in the second season, and he perhaps drove himself bald, grey, and insane, in the process. But it is possible.

Second, Babylon 5 was the first space opera not named Star Trek to succeed in any long-term fashion on American TV. The Stargates and Farscapes and Andromedas and perhaps even Battlestar Galacticas of the world owe it for demonstrating that it was possible. Alongside The X-Files and the Star Trek spinoffs, it helped create fertile soil for the speculative fiction and serialized storytelling boom of the 1990s and 2000s.

Finally, its technology was exceedingly important. In a world before Toy Story, it was the first series to utilize computer graphics technology for its special effects. These early stabs at it are occasionally laughable, but the improvement over time helps to show how CGI took over the science fiction industry.

The argument against that, of course, is that "watching it improve" implies that it started badly. And, unfortunately, that is true, in more areas than merely the SFX. Over the course of the series the CGI improves yes, but so does the writing, so do the actors, so does the makeup - really, everything gets dramatically better, which is most notable about halfway through the second season, much like its fellow SF travelers Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I will grant that it can be difficult to wait that long for shows on DVD to actually grow the beard, but honestly? It's worth it. Babylon 5's initially slow plot development gains huge amounts of momentum as the different seeds it plants start to bloom, and by its third season, it can get about as compulsively watchable as dramatic television gets.

I don't just say this as a former fan. Indeed, I specifically avoided watching Babylon 5 pretty much since its ending for two reasons: first, that I was pushing away most of my high school interests (didn't listen to They Might Be Giants for several years either), and second, that I was scared that it would be bad and I was a dumbass teenager. When I eventually did rewatch it, I was surprised and pleased to discover that it was much as I remember - good when it was good, bad when it was bad, and extremely well plotted. But you don't have to take my word for it - the Renaissance Poet watched it with me, unencumbered by nostalgia-covered glasses, and she thoroughly enjoyed it as well.

Perhaps its greatest qualitative achievement was its creation of two powerful, dynamic, scenery-chewing characters in the rival ambassadors Londo and G'Kar. Over the course of the show, both change goals and demeanor multiple times, and, like Wesley Wyndham-Price, king of dynamic television characters, both do it in a manner that seems natural to their characters. Foreshadowing helps as well - it's clear that this is intentional and part of their character history and future.

I mean, it may not be for everybody. The authorial voice is much stronger than in most TV shows since there was really only one writer for the bulk of the series, and if you don't happen to like that voice, it's hard to get into the show. Yet JMS does improve over the course of the series, particularly in terms of comedy. The whooshy electronic new age-style music can be a little bit dissonant, but I think it becomes one of the show's greatest strengths over time, much like Battlestar Galactica's Middle Eastern flairs in its soundtrack.

Babylon 5 is worth being in the conversation as television studies and criticism expand, not merely an afterthought like it has become. And I will happily continue to make that argument on the Internet as often and effectively as I can. Dammit.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Computer

I used my last computer from 2006 until last week. It was serviceable, given that it was a slapdash affair when I put it together - a barebones system with cannibalized parts from my previous computer, which suddenly stopped working (in retrospect, it was likely the power supply, the one thing I didn't check at the time). Anyway, the last computer got me through Bioshock, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead 2, and more, surprisingly given that it was probably something like 2004's finest. But it wouldn't run Dragon Age: Origins, or Fallout: New Vegas, and in the straw that broke the camel's back when I was offered a review copy, Shogun 2: Total War. My hard drive was also filled to the brim, and my wireless flaky as hell. With my tax return showing a decent amount of numbers, it was time to treat myself.

I had a few things to consider, and they didn't all work together well. At all. First, I wanted something energy efficient, in order to soothe my bleeding heart, and hopefully not destroy my electricity bill either. I'd also have preferred to have parts not made from blood cadmium or whichever, but that's unfortunately far too difficult to research. On the other hand, I wanted power - enough to play new games for three years or so. Happily, the rate of technology has slowed down over the last decade, so this is actually pretty possible to do. More good news - newer technology in chips and in video cards indicates that they're actually better than previous models at lower power usage, even when they're more powerful overall, because they do a better job of lowering energy using when not being used at full force.

Of course, the bigger issue is money. I didn't get that big of a tax return. Unfortunately, since the newest of those more-efficient pieces of hardware had the best efficiency, I'd have to figure out how much money to spend on bleeding-edge stuff now, which is "not very much." I also wanted to avoid doing too much computer-building, since that can be a pain in the ass, but I left it as an option.

I'm happy that I did keep that option open, because I cut probably 20% of the cost out, and was able to research my parts directly. Here are my specs:

Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Motherboard: MSI MS-7642
Processor: AMD Phenom(tm) II X4 955 Processor (4 CPUs), ~3.2GHz
Memory: 4096MB RAM
Video Card: ATI Radeon HD 5670
Video Card Display Memory: 2295 MB
Video Card Dedicated Memory: 503 MB
Sound Card: Creative SB Audigy 2 ZS*
Total Space: 476.8 GB
Hard Drive Model: WDC WD5002AALX-00J37A0 ATA Device
CD-ROM Model: _NEC DVD_RW ND-3550A ATA Device*
*cannibalized from older computer

All this was roughly $600. (though I also picked up Windows 7 and some accessories). No new monitor, though, and my current one maxes out at 1240x1040, so I'm not getting the very best resolution. But everything seems to be running well, Shogun 2 is a blast (my AV Club review is coming soon). I hope that this allows me to get more directly into reviews and discussions of current-generation PC games - and lets me play the best mods for the ones which have been out for a while.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In Which I Actively Invite A Decade-Long Flamewar To My Blog

At some point soon I hope to be getting one of the two "core" game systems: PS3 or Xbox 360. I had been leaning towards the 360, just as I have been pretty much since release. However, given that I don't actually care that much about the specific specs of each, unless a game is REALLY bad on one system, my primary criteria are the exclusive games available on each (including PC games). Since many of the games I'm behind on are available for both, like Red Dead Redemption or Soul Calibur IV or even, if I dare, Final Fantasy XIII, or on PC, my preferred system, the simplest way to judge is to make a list of games on each that I should play. And surprisingly, the list as I think of it is tilted towards PS3.

PlayStation 3:
LittleBigPlanet 2
Demon's Souls
Valkyria Chronicles
Uncharted 1/2


Xbox 360:
Halo 3/Reach
Gears of War

Looks pretty even right now, but in most of the cases I'm more interested in the PS3 games than the 360 games. I will admit to a certain level of ignorance towards indie games, but the biggest of them - Braid - is on PC now, removing a major 360 strength. On the other have, given that I have a Wii, Kinect seems vaguely more appealing than Move, but neither really excite me.

What am I missing here, fellow gamers? Bearing in mind that, as a general rule, I like most genres but only the very best games of most genres, though I'll tolerate more mediocre RPGs or quirky games.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Video Game History - The Elder Scrolls: Arena

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990s on this blog. Today, The Elder Scrolls: Arena, surprisingly the only game of its era to make a game series which has lasted through today.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena was, eventually, a far more successful open-ended game than Darklands, though it was likewise somewhat more buggy than it should have been upon its release. However, it ended up spawning one of the longest-running RPG series to survive past the early 2000's, with four games in The Elder Scrolls main series as well as a several expansions and spinoffs.

Part of the reason for Arena's success was its effective use of modern game technology. It is built off of the Ultima Underworld model, but in many ways surpasses even that classic. For example, melee combat in previous 3D games was accomplished by clicking and holding down the right mouse button, with different attacks corresponding to different clicking locations, like a slash if you clicked from the right or left side of the screen. In Arena, on the other hand, melee attacks are accomplished by clicking the right mouse button and moving the mouse in the direction of the attack, which your weapon follows. The whole process is much more visceral and immersive, and makes the action in the game feel much more like action should. Likewise, the superb sound in the game adds to its appeal - hits land with satisfying thumps.

Arena's huge game world is also a major draw. Unlike its predecessors, travel around town is not accomplished via text menu, but rather, each town exists in its own space, and you can wander and explore throughout, from small villages to major metropolises. You can also wander in the outdoors between towns, but it is not an effective mode of travel. The game world is also filled with books which fill in the history and geography. Some days are holidays, with effects like cheaper magical items or free blessings in temples. There is something magical in Arena and it shows up best when you wander into a new town, discover that it's a major holiday as the snow falls and the game's evocative music plays.

These moments of beauty only really occur in games with huge worlds that put the player in small but important positions, as opposed to building the entire game world around the player's quest. Later Massively Multiplayer RPGs like World of Warcraft could achieve similar effects. The Elder Scrolls series is, in some ways, a predecessor to those MMRPGs, and later games in the series would often be described as “single-player MMRPGs.”

Arena is also creative in ways that many RPGs were not. It offered a spell creation system, which a magic-using character could use by combining the effects of different spells. For example, you could build a spell which caused both paralysis and poison. Its sheer amount of randomized dungeons and semi-randomized quests could keep you busy for weeks without ever having to worry about the main plot, although the simple fetch and escort quests could lose their charm.

Of all the great RPGs of the early 1990's it's something of a surprise that The Elder Scrolls: Arena ended up being the one with the most longevity. Its embrace of new technology and creative ambition certainly made it stand out, and subsequent games have demonstrated its creators' ability to adapt to different technological and business environments. Its first sequel, Daggerfall, surpassed it in most respects, but it's still an eminently playable game on its own.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rowan Riting Roundup

If, for some inexplicable reason, you really want to read the things I write on the internet, here are a few links to where I've been published lately:

At Gamasutra, I did a feature about how grinding works well in Dragon Quest IX, thanks to a gestalt effect of a bunch of smaller design decisions.

At, I made two lists of five genre-benders that changed gaming, and five that should have.

I've started doing book reviews at The A.V. Club, including American Uprising, Triumph of the City, The History of History, and Journal of a UFO Investigator.

I also reviewed Magicka for the A.V. Club.

And finally, my TV Club coverage of the Fox animation bloc, No Ordinary Family, and The Cape continue, in addition to The Middle, which I just started.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who's Your Reader?

A piece in Slate about the influence of Alan Sepinwall, generally considered the father of modern TV criticism, has triggered something of a discussion about the role of the television critic-as-fan. My AV Club comrade Myles McNutt posted a typically in-depth response, which brought up a point that I always think about when I engage with (or write) a review: the audience matters.

It's arguably the biggest issue with reviews. Anything that you write about, you have to pick a target audience. Usually, that target audience is you, or people like you, since obviously that's your position of expertise, but it's not always that way. The essential question, on a continuum, is: "The Audience Knows Nothing About The Subject -> The Audience Knows As Much As They Can About The Subject."

As with most continuums, the far reaches of either side can generally be ignored. Reviewing a video game for people who have never played a game in their life would be an exercise in frustration, and writing a review just for people who know everything possible about something, up to and including possibly making it, is too narrow to be useful. In general, the critic acts as a guide: they know about the subject in some rank between competent and expert, and they use that knowledge to help the reader learn more about the subject, or contextualize it better. A new Wong Kar-Wai film would likely get a review that explains how Wong uses image more than dialogue to create his films, and how they're generally light on plot while heavy on emotion.

Yet there is also a set of people, which includes me, who already know about that, and are interested more in how the new film would fit into Wong Kar-Wai's existing context. Describing his past style is mostly irrelevant to them. They want to know how it compares. At its narrowest point, the question then becomes "Is it better than In the Mood for Love?" If the critic's answer is "Yes," then they're telling everyone who already knows about Wong's film that this is fantastic and worth seeing immediately - but everyone else is out in the cold.

This push-pull with the audience happens across media. Games, based on sequels and existing engines, may have it hardest. Books less so, but nonfiction does often rely on a certain level of knowledge and interest in the subject.

Which brings us to television (and, to a lesser extent, comics). Games, books, and films can still be seen as discrete entities. Regardless about whether you've seen Chungking Express or not, you can still talk about In the Mood for Love. However, television, as a serialized story, is many discrete entities (episodes) coming together to make larger discrete entities (seasons) which in the end comprise the entirety of the show itself. So a critic can write about TV at any of those three levels, or even combinations thereof.

But that combines with the audience question to make it essentially impossible for television to be reviewed in a fashion that will be generally satisfying. Someone may be dropping in on the show for the first time. Someone else has been watching and talking about the show from the beginning. They're going to have wildly diverging expectations from anything written about the show.

Any critic who engages in an episode-by-episode writeup of a show is, by nature, going to appeal to the people who also engage with the show on an episode-by-episode basis. And generally speaking, that's good business - better to have the same few hundred folks click once per week than a thousand who click once per year on a season-long review. But that doesn't help the people who are interested in trying it out, or even those who have just started sampling.

My solution to this issue with games and other similar tends to be to have multiple reviews, with each reviewer's perspective made fairly clear. If a new Dynasty Warriors comes out, I don't need someone to tell me that they find the formula tired - I like the formula! Tell me how it differs in minute detail from other games in the series! However, even that doesn't work so well with television. Yes, if a season (or character, or storyline, or anything that can be separated out from individual episodes) deserves examination, it could be examined, perhaps by multiple people.

Still, the upshot of this is that critical examination of media, which is difficult in any other medium, is virtually impossible to do with television in a fashion that will satisfy the bulk of readership. All that critics can do, then, is all they can do.