the_gneech: (Default)

The Wakaba Girls, successors to Hokagou Tea Time

Source: K-On! Wiki


So what do you do when your little four-panel comedy manga gets picked up as an anime series and blows away all expectations, becoming a huge hit– even if that success has more to do with the anime studio than with your own talent?


…Well…


…You cash in, of course! Which is what the creator of K-On! attempted to do with K-On: College and K-On: High School. Spoiler alert: it didn’t really work, but you can’t blame the guy for trying. But what I’m really interested in here is the attempt, because I’ve found a lot of interesting applicability to my work on Suburban Jungle.


Adaptation Expansion


I won’t go quite as far as Digibro and say that “the K-On! manga suuuuuuucks” because I don’t think it does. I mean, everything in the manga is also in the anime. It’s just that the anime is also so much more. Reading the K-On! manga feels like an outline, or a very rough draft storyboard of the anime series.


To fault the manga for this is kinda pointless. K-On! the manga never professed to be anything more than what it was: a disposable four-panel comedy strip. Imagine if Zootopia was a licensed version of a Garfield-style comic, and you might see what I’m getting at.


To that end, I don’t envy the position Kakifly (the creator of K-On!) found himself in. The story of K-On! had a definite end, and there were only two real ways you could carry on: either you follow the older four off to college, or you stick with Azusa and do the next year of high school. I don’t know if he was unable to decide which, or he wanted to hedge his bets, or what, but he went with “do both,” running two different series simultaneously with alternating chapters… effectively dooming himself to not doing either one well.


More of the Same, But Differently


Of the two branches, the High School storyline works better, if only because the characterization is stronger. Azusa, Ui, and Jun were already established by the original series, and Nao is an interesting new addition in her own gothy way. Sumire… eh… the less said about Sumire the better. But the storyline, as far as it goes, focusing on Azusa’s quest to create her own Light Music Club rather than living in the shadow of the previous one, does at least have a spark.


The College storyline, by contrast, just falls flat. The only new character who makes an impression at all is Akira, the lead guitarist of “rival band” Only Girlz– but even she was clearly created to merge the roles of Yui’s caretaker and tsundere glomp-target into a single character. It’s as if Kakifly tossed Ui, Nodoka, and Azusa into a blender to create Akira… and then had no more ideas for the rest of the cast. As for storyline, there isn’t any to speak of beyond a vague “battle of the bands” one-sided rivalry on Akira’s part that even the members of Hokagou Tea Time barely even notice.


In short, the follow-up manga series disappoint for two major reasons: the first being that the manga was never as good as the anime in the first place, and the second being that the follow-ups needed to be more removed from the original series and allowed to be their own thing. (The fact that a big Yui/Azusa reunion moment keeps being hinted at, but never appears, doesn’t help either. I’m guessing this was being set up to be the highlight of some future chapter that never materialized.)


When You Come to the End, Stop


As I say, I don’t envy Kakifly’s position… because I was in a similar one myself. When I decided I wanted to return to The Suburban Jungle, there was a lot of pressure from people wanting me to just pick up where it left off and basically do more of the same, with variations. Some people wanted Leona to become the new star, some people wanted Drezzer, many people just wanted it to keep on going the way it had.


And Suburban Jungle was a mid-tier webcomic! I can’t imagine the kind of pressure I would have felt if it had been made into hugely successful TV series.


But at the same time, I have studied enough sequels, spin-offs, and reboots to know that just tacking on more chapters after “the end” just feels anti-climactic. It didn’t work for Babylon 5 (twice!), it didn’t work for M*A*S*H or Are You Being Served? or even The Three Musketeers and it wasn’t going to work for me.


That’s why I took such pains to separate Rough Housing from Starring Tiffany Tiger. There is some of that “combine characters from the previous cast to make a new character” thing going on… Charity, besides being the combination of Dover and Comfort one would expect from their child, also has elements of Tiffany, for instance. But it was important to me from the beginning that there not be any absolute corollaries, and not simply repeating the same story or gags with a different skin.


In the case of K-On!, my armchair advice would have been first to let a few years pass in the real world in order to gain some distance from the work, and then to have made a stronger break. If you absolutely wanted to continue with those five characters, which I think could have worked, then fast forward past college and reunite them as adults. My suggestion: make them the stars of a TV show about a band, a la The Monkees, and having to deal with wanting to be For Realz Serious Musicians in a world that just thinks of them as being a corporate cash-in. That could open whole new avenues of humor and would crank up the recurring theme from the original of serious musicianship vs. fluffling off in new and interesting ways. Just imagine Ritsu trying to manipulate studio execs, or Mio finding a website full of fanfiction about herself, for starters…


Dammit, now I want to develop this show. ¬.¬ Anybody got the phone number for Kyoto Animation?


-The Gneech


PS: There’s still more I have to say about K-On! and in particular what effect it’s had on how I think about and approach Suburban Jungle, but that will have to wait for another post. In the meantime, the rest of the series is here: Zen, Music, and So. Much. Tea. (My K-On! Obsession, Part One) and K-On! the Anime v. the Manga, Part One.

the_gneech: (Default)

From left to right: Mugi, Azusa, Ritsu, Mio, and Yui

Source: K-On! Wiki


So those who pay attention to such things have probably noticed by now that I’ve been rambling from time to time on Twitter et al. about K-On!, which started as a four-panel manga comic in 2007 and was adapted to an anime in 2010, eventually gaining a total of 39 episodes and a feature film. K-On! sat in my “Anime To Be Watched” bucket list for some time and I finally found it streamable on Hulu.


I devoured it over the course of a few weeks and, like Cardcaptor Sakura and Love Hina before it, it has already started to have a huge impact on my own work. On the strength of the anime I also tracked down and read the manga, which in many ways turned out to be a mistake… but I will get to that in another post.


The premise of K-On! is simple enough: it is a silly comedy, following the daily activities and school career of a Japanese high school “light music” club. The series begins with the club’s founding, and ends when the girls graduate, and spends a lot of time watching the girls joke around and be silly goofs. Like Seinfeld‘s famously being “about nothing,” there are no major dramas and nothing “exciting” ever happens. This leads to the show’s most common criticism, that it’s nothing more than “cute girls doing cute things.”


But looks can be deceiving.


In case it isn’t obvious, there will be spoilers for K-On! ahead, in as much as you can spoil something that doesn’t exactly have plot twists. It does have surprises, of course– that’s how comedy works.


Season One, Part One: Yui


The structure of the series basically breaks down into five pieces, which are simply enough: season one (parts one and two), season two (parts one and two), and the movie. Each one builds on the one before, and there is actually a story arc that connects them all, but it’s subtle and made of dozens of small blocks, rather than the more typical major plot points.


Season one part one focuses on Yui, the viewpoint character through most of the series. She is aimless and dreamy, having spent her life drifting in a kind of fog, only able to survive everyday life because she keeps being adopted by protectors such as her little sister Ui and her friend Nodoka. Yui is sweet-natured and playful, and is an archetypal savant, capable of doing incredible things once she sets herself to it, but in order to learn a skill, she has to forget some other skill to “make room” for it.


Yui wanders into the K-On (or “light music”) Club thinking that it will be like her elementary school music class, where she can just clap castanets and be told she’s doing a great job by the teacher, and is more than a little dismayed to discover that they expect her to actually do things like sing in public and play a real instrument. She immediately decides to quit.


On the other hand, the rest of the club members have a big problem: the club must have at least four members, or the school will disband it. It’s only by the sheer force of club president Ritsu’s personality compelling the other two current members to join that it has as many as it does. In order to save the club, Ritsu and the others pull out all the stops to convince Yui to stay, first by playing a concert for her, then promising to teach her to play the guitar, and then by finally all going out and getting part time jobs to actually buy Yui a guitar, as she can’t afford one on just her allowance. This gesture moves Yui so much that she vows to learn to play the guitar no matter what it takes, to honor what they’ve done for her and so the four of them can stay together and play as a band.


The remainder of the first half of the first season is spent fleshing out the supporting cast and establishing the characters of the club itself. The focus here is on episodic comedy, and it’s really good comedy, whether it’s the Mutt-and-Jeff banter of mischievous Ritsu versus straight-laced Mio, Yui’s airheadedness, or the “What planet are you from???” humor of rich girl Mugi and the club’s faculty sponsor and resident cosplay-fanatic Sawako. At this point in K-On!, the laughs come fast and frequent… and this quietly sneaks you into caring about the girls and their daily travails, as well as seeing their friendships form and strengthen. The K-On club spends precious little time actually working on their music, tending to drink tea and eat cake more than anything else, but they all love spending time in each other’s company, and somehow manage to pull it together when performance time actually comes.


Season One, Part Two: Azunyan


As funny as the opening episodes are, the show really doesn’t become “about” anything until midway through the first season, with the appearance of Azusa. In the story, a year has passed by this point and for Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Mugi, it’s the beginning of their second year. Hokagou (“After School”) Tea-Time, the official name for their band, is playing at the reception to welcome new freshmen to the school, and there they are seen by Azusa, a freshman guitarist who is immediately mesmerized by the chemistry and unity of the band.


Azusa quickly signs up to join the K-On club, much to the joy of all but especially Yui, who has never had someone look up to her before and goes off into her own dreamworld at being called “Yui-sempai.” At first the upperclassmen fawn over how girlish and cute Azusa seems, to the point of putting her in cat ears and treating her like a kitten. Instead of calling her “Azusa-chan,” as would be more typical, Yui dubs her Azunyan (or “Azu-meow” in the English version), a name that will stick.


This dynamic is almost immediately turned on its head, however, when the rest of the girls discover that not only is Azusa a much better guitar player than Yui, but is actually a more skilled musician than just about any of them and takes her music very, very seriously– to the point where she yells at her upperclassmen for their blasé attitude and storms out. She does eventually return, but it’s clear that the event has had a deep impact on the other four, making them take their music more seriously, but also making them realize how important the club is to all of them.


Azunyan, for her own part, comes to realize that there’s more to making music than the technical skills involved. What made the Hokagou Tea Time concert that blew her mind so enthralling, wasn’t how well each member of the band played their individual instrument, but how well the four of them blended together to become something larger than the sum of their parts, and it’s that connection that she has been searching for up to now. Even though the K-On club is in many ways a group of 4+1 rather than a group of five (something that will become even more important in the second season), Azunyan is still an important member of the group, a thumb to their four fingers.


The remainder of the first season (which is actually quite short) is in some ways a do-over of the first half, only now exploring the dynamics of the “new, improved” K-On club and ironing out rough spots, such as the back-and-forth between Ritsu and Mio and how their own culture of two fit together, and how aimless airhead Yui of the first episode has morphed into the focused and energetic (if still an airhead) Yui of the season finale.


Season Two, Part One: The Golden Age


The entirety of season two, which actually has twice as many episodes as season one, takes place over the course of the four upperclassmen’s senior year, and that countdown to graduation informs the entire season. The first episode of the season opens with Yui, no longer floating in a mental bubble, instead zooming to school on the first day of the year, running up to the music room, and rocking out on her guitar in a routine she’s clearly been practicing for some time while she waits for the rest of her friends to arrive.


With the beginning of the school year, the club again turns its efforts towards recruitment, not only because that’s just what you do at the beginning of the school year, but because when the original four graduate, that will leave Azunyan completely alone. It’s a muted note at first, but it is also the moment when the girls first realize that before long, there will be no more After-School Tea Time, both figuratively in the name of the band, and literally, because they will graduate and scatter and not be there to drink tea together.


Their recruitment efforts fail, with the suggested reason being that because the girls already seem to be such a tightly-knit group, that none of the freshmen want to join because they’d feel like they were intruding. In an usually level-headed speech, Yui tells the other three upperclassmen that she actually prefers it this way, wanting to enjoy the time of being just the five friends while they can; Azunyan overhears this, and realizing how important her club-mates have become to her, agrees, deciding to let the future of the club resolve itself… in the future. Yui does insist on at least a gesture of giving Azusa a “new recruit” of her own to look after… in the form of the pet turtle Ton-chan. It’s not quite the same as new members, but it’s the only way Yui has to make sure Azunyan won’t be alone.


The next several episodes of the series then very deliberately stop talking about it. That isn’t to say that the subject isn’t there, but the girls, and by extension the show, all make a point of being “in the moment,” whether the moment is a Christmas party, or a school trip to Kyoto, or several rainy days and Yui’s various attempts to keep her guitar from getting ruined by the weather. The four upperclassmen, sharing the same class, become more and more of a unit by their shared experiences, while Azusa begins to form her own connections with other girls in her class (notably Yui’s younger sister Ui, and their mutual friend Jun). But the older girls and Azusa keep making a point to come together, by phone call or text message if they have to, even if those calls or texts are random and out-of-context inside jokes sent by Yui. The older girls think of Azusa as being one of them, regardless of circumstances keeping them apart, and they are always eager to bring the group back together.


Season Two, Part Two: Thank You and Farewell


Structurally, K-On! goes a little wonky here, which seems to be an artifact of the manga/anime production process more than anything. It’s fairly typical for an anime adaptation to run while the manga is still in publication, and since anime comes out much faster, it’s quite common for the manga to run out of story long before the anime does. (Love Hina went through this as well, as have who-knows-how-many other stories.)


Thus, the final half of season two seems to have been written mostly by the animation studio, rather than being adaptations of the manga. The last point where there is clear overlap is the class play, where Ritsu and Mio are roped into playing Romeo and Juliet much against their will. From there, the anime production studio start pointing squarely at the final school festival and the older girls’ graduation, while the manga continues being more-or-less serial gags.


In the latter half of season two, as graduation looms, all five of the main characters have to face and cope with what is a metaphorical death. Having spent so much of the past two or three years respectively being defined by their connection to the K-On club, they have to figure out what their lives will mean without it. The older four girls therefore resolve to all get accepted to the same college– something highly unlikely given their very different social strata and academic achievement levels. As a band, they will play together one last time at the school festival, an echo of the festival that first brought Azunyan into their fold. But no matter what happens, even if the upperclassmen somehow manage to achieve their goal of landing the same college, there is no way to stay as five. The upperclassmen will graduate, and Azunyan will be left behind. That much is unavoidable. And so they have to find somehow to say farewell.


It’s hard to discuss the ending of the series without a) giving away spoilers, and b) getting all emotional. Somewhere along the line the comedy of the show, while still ever-present, has backed off a little and the emotional content has become the driving force, and by the time that becomes clear the viewer is left to wonder when that actually happened, because it was so subtle and by degrees. There’s never a “it was comedy, now it is drama” moment, but there is a definite moment when you realize the warm and endearing K-On! you’re watching at the end, is not the same pure goofiness you were watching when it started.


The true emotional climax of the series, the festival concert, is quite powerful. All of the understated realization of the clubs’ approaching end is finally brought into the foreground. It’s an intense and moving episode… which then weirdly leaves something like five more episodes to go. This is the structural wonkiness I was referring to before. There are still important emotional beats, as the girls’ college future is decided, and they give Azunyan her farewell gift, but as important as they are, none of these hit with the same force as the festival concert episode. It’s not unlike Peter Jackson’s film version of Return of the King, which feels like it ends three times before the credits finally roll.


This problem could have probably been addressed by tighter planning in the series planning stage, but knowing how working on serial entertainment of any kind is, on top of what little I have actually learned about the anime industry, I’m not terribly surprised it ended up the way it did. And really it’s not that big of a flaw, but it is the first real gaffe of the entire series in my opinion. (The other major gaffes of the series, in my opinion, happen in the movie.)


And then… the series ends. Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Mugi graduate, give Azunyan a farewell concert and song with her as both subject and sole audience member, and head off to new adventures in the future. Azusa becomes the new club president, with Ui and Jun as her first recruits, to carry on the club next year. The members of Hokagou Tea Time will never stop being friends, and never stop loving each other, but life must carry on in separate ways.


Encore: K-On! The Movie


The K-On! movie is kind of a weird duck. It is set during the same time frame as the latter half of the second season, and focuses on the K-On club all taking a pre-graduation trip together to England. Although it goes into more detail about the composition of the farewell song Yui writes for Azunyan, there is little actual new story. It is instead mostly a retelling of the end of the series with a slightly different focus, with quick cameos of every supporting character, recurring gag, or visual motif of the series crammed into an hour and a half.


The one new thing the movie does bring to K-On, which has until now been almost completely nonexistent… is puberty. Which brings me to the topic of shipping.


When Yuri Met Moe


So. About K-On! and shipping. Well.


I mean, it’s there… kinda? But it’s also mostly not. Sort of.


It’s hard to discuss. I mean, Ritsu and Mio are pretty much platonic life partners from childhood, to the point where they are literally shipped by their own classmates, who strongarm them into playing the roles of Romeo and Juliet for the class play. Despite the views of a thousand fanfics, the two of them don’t seem to actually be romantically inclined and are both less-than-thrilled at the prospect of being treated as if they are or forced to act as if they are, but that’s a damn shame because the two of them are so perfect for each other. Neither one will ever be as happy with a husband as they would both be just staying together as spinsters for the rest of their lives.


Then there’s Mugi, who clearly sees the world through yuri goggles (even more explicitly so in the manga than in the anime), gets all shippy when Sawako-sensei so much as puts her hand on someone’s shoulder, and kinda squicks the rest of the club by rambling about “how nice it is when it’s just girls.” But that, beyond Yui’s never-ending glompage of Azunyan, is as far as the series goes. Yui is established early on as wanting to hug anything cute (such as every dog she ever meets on the street), and so her glomping on Azunyan easily falls into the realm of “more of the same.” Yui thinks of Azusa as an adorable kitten from the minute she first walks through the club door and never stops thinking of her that way.


How Azusa feels about it, on the other hand, is harder to make out. Being the archetypal tsundere kohai catgirl, of course she objects to any form of PDA… and Yui is the club queen of inappropriate PDAs… but Azusa also is very clearly eager to hear from and spend time with her sempais, and spends a lot of time connecting with Yui in particular as time goes on. (Early on, most notably in the manga, Azusa seems to crush on Mio, the same way half the school crushes on Mio. I think this may be a cultural thing, or possibly indicative of the manga writer’s own preferences… Mio, after all, is the only member of Hokagou Tea Time to have a fan club, the show has a strange fascination with putting Mio into maid outfits, and so on.)


Without having shipping goggles on, it’s hard to read more than the weird pressure-cooker of being a teenager into the ship-teases in the series. But then the movie comes along and, basically… Azusa puts on her shipping goggles. Yui spends most of the movie trying to come up with lyrics for the band’s farewell song to Azusa; at one point, Azusa catches a glimpse of Yui’s notebook which has the words “Azusa” and “love” on the same page, jumps to the conclusion that Yui is crushing on her, and she spends the middle part of the movie in an extended freakout.


From the standpoint of “that kind of thing happens in real life,” well, yes it does. I’ve been in those “Do they or don’t they?” extended freakouts myself and Azunyan’s thoughts and behavior were very relatable.


However, from the standpoint of “is this a good story for K-On!“… I’m not so sure. To be quite honest, it feels more like a fanfic than an actual K-On! story. The main series, up until the last graduation arc, is characterized by its light and fluffy, almost-all-jokes-all-the-time approach. The only time anything in the series comes close to touching on romance is in a bonus episode when Ritsu thinks she’s received a love letter and broods about it, only to discover it was actually just song lyrics from Mio the whole time. To delve into shipping, comes across as just putting in what the writers assume the audience expects this kind of show to contain, while missing what K-On! is actually about.


So What IS It Actually About, If You’re So Smart?


K-On! is a thesis on zen, cleverly disguised as a moeblob slice-of-life– the same way Groundhog Day is a buddhist parable disguised as a romantic comedy.


Despite the surface gloss of being cute and silly antics of some hyper and ditzy high school girls, K-On! is really about being engaged in the moment. Yui begins the series floating along detached from everything, and doesn’t really come alive until something catches her and makes her want to engage. Ritsu goes off on silly imaginary adventures in her head for fun, and has her own mini-crisis when she wants to forsake her drums for something that will bring her more attention… but then when she stops, digs in, and actually experiences the moment, she becomes inspired to take them up again. The majority of the second season is a study in “Let’s enjoy the now, because soon it will be gone!”


This is why “nothing happens.” Because the show is not about things happening. It’s about these characters going through various experiences and how it shapes them. Super-focused Yui, rocking out during the first moments of the second season premiere, is in a perfect moment of zen, where her sense of self and all the worldly distractions are released, and only the truth of the moment remains.


This is why shipping particularly is a misguided addition. Because what is shipping, besides attachment? That yuri feeling of longing, that rambling obsession with what could be, what might be, what ones wishes were true, these are not what is. Yui and Azusa’s awkward, embarrassing, and largely one-sided confrontation doesn’t lead to any kind of enlightenment on the subject, either. Azusa’s illusions collapse in on themselves, but she doesn’t learn anything from it… and Yui barely even registers what happened.


Granted, I’m prone to wearing shipping goggles. Heck, I ship my own characters. ¬.¬ So naturally this part of the movie had me intensely interested while it was happening, but even then I felt like it was off and would probably have been left unsatisfied by anything they did with it, due to this “it’s not what the show is about” issue. But it also broke the cardinal rule of comedy by not being funny. So what seems to have been largely intended as the centerpiece of the movie just doesn’t work, and it undercuts the payoff of seeing the “upperclassmen sing to Azusa” episode repeated in high res at the movie’s end.


All of that said, the movie is still beautiful to look at and does remind you of all the warm and fuzzy feelings the series generated in the first place, so to that extent it does the job. But I would definitely say that K-On! The Movie is something that only has appeal to people who already love (and have watched) the anime series in the first place.


And Still More Blather to Come…


This post is already way longer than anyone is likely to read– so if you have read to this point, you have my amazed gratitude! I have more to say about the topic, in particular going into the manga, the differences, and the attempts at sequel/continuations, but also about how the show has impacted the way I look at and approach Suburban Jungle, but I think I’d better put all that stuff in another post… later. Until then, I invite you to check out the video below, on how the animation brings the characters of K-On! to life.


-The Gneech


the_gneech: (Ghostbusters)

So I discover from my Twitter feed, much to my own surprise, that I had people specifically wanting me to weigh in on Ghostbusters before they decided whether or not to go see it.[1] Well, the answer to that is an unequivocal: Yes! Go see! Preferably opening weekend because that’s all Hollywood cares about, they consider anything not a blockbuster to be a flop, and we don’t want to give the assholes any excuse to say “See? Women in the lead, killed it!” Or, as I put it on Twitter:


GUYS GUYS GUYS GHOSTBUSTERS IS SO DAMN GOOD OMG


Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of it a bit, shall we?


Gneech the GhostbusterAs should be obvious to anyone, I am a Ghostbusters fan. As such, my experience of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (or simply “Ghostbusters 2016″ as I suspect it will generally be known) is going to be colored by that. All those fanservicey inserts? Those were put there for me. And reader? I squee’d.


I can’t address whether the mainstream viewer will enjoy it as much as I did, because mainstream audiences and I are from different planets. I mean, I think so? The ghosts are scary regardless of whether you get the connection between the subway ghost in this movie and the Scoleri brothers from Ghostbusters II, and the jokes are funny regardless of whether you notice the “Big Twinkie” ad in the background.


However, if you are a fan already, this movie is steeped in Ghostbusters history. The cameos are obvious and awesome, even if some of them were a bit shoved in. Bill Murray’s especially stands out as not only an important moment in the current story, but also as a sly commentary on Peter Venkman. But there are references to and elements brought in from just about every previous incarnation of the Ghostbusters, from the Extreme Ghostbusters-ish array of busting gear that Holtzmann dreams up, to the animated logo ghost from Real Ghostbusters, to a stinger at the end that references… [spoiler!].


However, of special mention and dear to my own nerdy heart, is that the entire thing is almost a movie version of Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which I was totally not expecting. And by that, I mean, the core plot of the story is the same core plot of GBtVG: “Evil genius using ghosts to power up ley lines and ascend to kaiju-hood.” In the Video Game, it was the ghost of Ivo Shandor using rivers of slime, deftly tying the original two movies and the game into a cohesive trilogy. In the new movie, it’s an internet comments section personified in the form of Rowan.


Between Rowan and Kylo Ren? Watch out, internet manbabies. Hollywood is coming for you.


But the biggest GBtVG moment, and one that is way too specific to be an accident, is the Macy’s Parade. The Video Game takes place on Thanksgiving, 1991, and originally had a giant parade sequence which had to be dropped in production. And while yes, it’s a perfect way to give [SPOILER] a cameo, it’s also a shout-out to a lost moment in the game. Given that Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis wrote the game, and that Ackroyd was a big consultant behind the new movie, I can’t help but think this might have been something he specifically brought to the table.


So yeah, as a Ghosthead, this movie definitely reached into my brain and pushed the Happy Button. It wasn’t absolutely flawless, but my quibbles with it are matters of emphasis rather than any serious objection. I would have liked Erin and Abby to be differentiated a little more. I would have liked a little more backstory on who Rowan is and how he ended up that way, as well as a little more definition of his personality in general beyond “creepy dude,” and honestly his big transformation at the end is a bit clunky and inconsistent– but that moment is short and it actually is kind of a footnote to the “real” ending, so you get carried past it quickly.


But these things are all minor clunkers in the overall result. I spent 99% of the movie either grinning or laughing, and came out of the theater already planning my trip back to see it again… later today.


-The Gneech


[1] The power! The raw social POWER! I AM GNEECH, MOLDER OF OPINIONS! *cough* Erm. Pardon me, got a little carried away. ^.^’


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the_gneech: (Writing)

So sometime last week Matt Trepal (creator of Fight Cast or Evade) pointed me at a writing technique called “7-Point Structure.” It’s not that far removed from the Snowflake Method/Five Act Structure I’ve already been using, but it is different enough that it can give you new insights on a story.


The best breakdown of it I’ve found comes from the person who first popularized it, Dan Wells, and you can see that here:



In order to sort of teach myself the ins and outs of it, I decided to make a 7-point breakdown of Zootopia, as that’s fresh in my mind and a remarkably-tight story considering the “toss everything out and start again” way it came together. I mentioned it on Twitter and had several folks express interest, so I’ve decided to post it here, because I love you.


WARNING! ZOOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD! BECAUSE DUH.


This discussion assumes you already have the gist of 7-point structure. If not, go watch those videos and come back. 😉 Also, Zootopia (in italics) refers to the story/movie, while Zootopia (not in italics) refers to the city itself.


As John Lasseter so aptly put it, Zootopia‘s real subject is bias, both how it effects people and how they deal with it. As I started dissecting Zootopia I rapidly came to the conclusion that it has three major arcs, to wit Judy Hopps’ arc, Nick Wilde’s arc, and an overall Zootopia’s Promise arc. They are all connected by bias: Judy’s having to cope with bias against the idea of a bunny cop as well as her own bias on the subject of foxes, Nick having internalized the bias against foxes as well as his own bias on the subject of Zootopia’s failure to live up to its own ideals, and all of Zootopia’s struggle with the messy intersection of its stated ideals and the reality of life.


In light of that, the true plot points of Zootopia aren’t necessarily a simple list of “A happened, then B happened, then C happened” but of the characters’ progression. Zootopia is a character-based story, not an event-based one. And here’s how it falls out:


Starting Point Hopps: Hopps is discounted as a police officer (by Bogo and Nick)
Nick: Nick is convinced there’s no point to being anything but “a shifty fox”
Zootopia: Zootopia claims to be “where anybody can be anything” but is far from that in reality

 


Plot Turn 1 Hopps and Nick: Hopps recruits Nick to help her search for Emmet
Zootopia: 14 animals are missing

 


Pinch 1 Hopps and Nick: Captured by Mr. Big
Zootopia: Manches goes savage

 


Midpoint Hopps: Nick stands up to Bogo for Hopps
Nick: Hopps saves Nick’s life during the Manches chase and shows him respect and compassion
Zootopia: Lionheart is arrested, revealing that all the missing animals are predators turned savage

 


Pinch 2 Hopps: Hopps resigns from ZPD in despair
Nick: Nick feels betrayed and breaks off his friendship w/ Hopps
Zootopia: Zootopia is violent and full of prejudice

 


Plot Turn 2 Hopps: Hopps figures out the mystery
Nick: Nick realizes Hopps truly values his friendship and forgives her
Zootopia: Bellweather’s plot is revealed

 


Resolution Hopps and Nick: They become respected police and equal partners
Zootopia: Zootopia lives up to its promise, even though “life is messy”

 

The way the 7-point structure works is that you start with your desired end state and from there you make the start the opposite of that. Thus, if the end state is “Judy and Nick are partners and Zootopia is making progress on its ideals” then the beginning has to be “Judy and Nick are enemies and Zootopia is failing or actively working against its ideals.” In this particular case, it’s Bellweather who’s actively working against Zootopia’s ideals, but she wouldn’t be able to succeed if the rest of the city didn’t already have the underlying tensions that she exploits.


Each plot turn or pinch, therefore, is a stepping stone from the starting point to the resolution. An interesting thing to note is that a lot of scenes or moments that stand out about Zootopia do not actually register in terms of plot: the character of Flash for instance, while an awesome piece of set dressing, doesn’t really impact the story at all except as a plot device to burn up some of Judy’s timer and add dramatic tension to the “Nick stands up to Bogo” moment. The character of Gazelle, despite her incredibly catchy song, is not important to the plot at all except as a sort of mouthpiece for the ideals that Zootopia is failing to live up to.


This kind of analysis can show you hidden things about your story, such as empowerment issues. For instance, if you have a story full of “strong women,” but all of the plot points are driven by male characters, guess what? You still have a patriarchal story. (Not a problem in the case of Zootopia, but one I did find in another piece I applied this method to.) It can also help you boil down your story to the most essential elements, and show you where things need to be stronger.


For instance, if your resolution is “Luke becomes a fully trained Jedi” and your starting point is “Luke is a mostly-trained Jedi,” this is gonna be a pretty weaksauce arc. On the other hand, if your resolution is “Luke becomes a fully trained Jedi” and your starting point is “Luke is a powerless nobody in the middle of nowhere,” you’ve got a lot more to work with!


In the case of Zootopia, they did a really good job intertwining the characters’ arcs with the thematic (“Zootopia’s Promise”) arc. Judy and Nick have to be friends and equals at the end: therefore they have to be enemies and socially-disparate at the beginning. But the reason they are enemies is because Zootopia isn’t living up to its ideals.


Dude. That’s some tight plotting.


This, more than any adorable furry critters or catchy songs, is why Zootopia works. It’s just damn well written!


-The Gneech


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the_gneech: (Mysterious Beard)
So in the rare moments I haven't been writing my brains out (~64,000 words and in the middle of the final big action sequence) I've been binge-watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. This is a series I heard praised to the stars and back again, but in my mind it has always more-or-less served as a prequel for Legend of Korra rather than an end to itself.

In the case of LoK I got mired in the crunky part of early season two and never finished, so I wanted to go back and power through that to get to what I'm told is an awesome rest of the series, but I decided that this time instead of just hopping on at the beginning of that series I'd go back and watch A:tLA first.

I'm pleased to say, A:tLA lives up to its hype! I'm roughly 2/3 of the way through the second season (which puts me just about halfway through the entire series), and I'm digging it. Strong and fun characters, interesting setting, engaging story, lovely art, what's not to dig? It reminds me of all the best parts of Pirates of Dark Water, but with better animation and more cohesive writing. There are a few clunky bits here and there and I have a few pet peeves, but this series does so much very right, that it's hard to complain about the few bits that irk me. My main peeve is the villains, who are either Obvious Redemption Bait (e.g., Zuko) or Shut Up and Go Away (e.g., Jet, Princess Azula and her flunkies). The only serial baddie who's really worked for me so far has been Admiral Zhao, who was a complete nonentity, but was a threatening and dangerous nonentity whom I was glad to see get it in the neck.

With that in mind, here is a boatload of random observations, more-or-less as they came to me while watching.

  • Avatar: Master of the four elements, and chosen one! ...Is into extreme sports. That... actually makes sense now that I think about it.

  • Hey, it's that guy! And that guy! And that guy! So far I've identified Mako, George Takei, James Hong, and Mark Hamill. I wonder if Pat Morita or Victor Wong are in here?

  • I am going to like General Iroh. I can tell.

  • "All your friends and family were wiped out, Aang! And here is the desiccated corpse of your surrogate dad, surrounded by the bones of his enemies. We thought about having a note next to him that said, 'If only Aang hadn't run off...' but we couldn't work out the logistics of it." Harsh, show, harsh. At least Aang's parents weren't shot in Crime Alley walking home from The Mark of Zorro.

  • I like that they firmly establish that the avatars are all reincarnations of the same spirit. I also love that the spirit flips genders between incarnations seemingly at random and it's no big deal. "Oh yeah, I was a girl in that life. I totally kicked ass." The implications of that are staggering if you follow them to the natural conclusions.

  • Sokka the Butt Monkey. I hope he gets to do something sometime.

  • Humor is very hit-or-miss. Usually the jokes feel like the script said "Insert joke here." But when this series nails a joke, it nails it. "If you get me out of this, spirits, I'll give up meat and sarcasm."

  • "I am a warrior, but I'm a girl too." Yes, that's cool, but y'know what? Even if she weren't a warrior, that's no way to treat a girl either, Sokka! Argh.

  • This Just In: Zuko is obviously going to be the new Fire Lord by the end of this series.

  • Hello, spirit world! I see someone's been watching Studio Ghibli. I approve of this.

  • General Iroh saw Aang in the spirit world! O.o That's gotta be important.

  • ...The identity of the Blue Spirit took me by surprise.

  • Evil Firebender Princess Twilight! Nuuuuuuu! Along with Harley Quinn the Bending Blocker, and Bored Sociopath Chick. Bleah. I'm not going to like these three, I can tell already. There are villains you love to hate, and villains you wish would just go away. These are the latter.

  • Ba Sing Se, name-checked again and again. I smell foreshadowing.

  • Honestly? Aang should have been all over learning healing from Bender Cleric while Katara was trying to get Master Dickweed to teach her to fight. He's the friggin' Avatar! Bridge between worlds, uniter of the divided, and all that jazz? Healing should be right in his portfolio.

  • On the subject of Master Dickweed, do we really need a "He-Man Woman Haterz Club" story in this day and age? And do we really need a "boys get to kick ass, which is awesome, girls are only good for patching holes, which is boring" cultural assumption? Give me healer heroes any day!

  • Now I get where all the "I once dated the moon" jokes come from. Second most abrupt romance I've ever seen! At least Sokka wasn't a douchebag this time around.

  • Earthbender McNutso attempting to force the avatar state: the Mother of All Bad Ideas.

  • Yo, Earth Nation hippies dude! Like, wow. I guess Lorenzo Music wasn't available, eh?

  • So this is the infamous Toph. Basically "Lucy Van Pelt, the Earthbender." I can see why she's popular, even if she's not likely to be my favorite. (Pretty sure General Iroh wins that.) "Look! There it is!" says the blind girl, pointing at random, just to stick it to the rest of the group.

  • Jet, you're just a dick. Go away.

  • I just imagine a picture of Zuko with the caption, "My life has been a series of bad decisions."

  • And boom, here's where "Team Avatar" comes from. It works. And hey, they all turn to Sokka as the idea guy! Given that he is the only non-bender, I love that they actually depend on him for something!

  • Um, Katara? Toph already knows how to be girly. "That's it, we're going to the spa!" is not a transformative experience for her, it's putting the same fake skin on she grew up with.

  • ...Except it isn't, apparently. Le sigh.

  • The Story of General Iroh. Right in the feels. "Dedicated to Mako." Right in the feels again!

  • Blegh. I know there's supposed to be conflict and all, but I really didn't want Ba Sing Se to be The Village. Could you just not, show?


That's it so far. :) More observations as the watching continues. Currently I'm hoping that the Ba Sing Se Is the Village stuff gets resolved quickly. I'm also hoping that the defeat of Azula is the big climax of season two, and that she and her flunkies don't return for season three, but I suspect we're stuck with them for the rest of the series.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Default)

“Jeeves is a secret agent, starring Colin Firth.” I should love that, right? I mean, I have one or two other buttons you could push, but this should be a slam-dunk “instant favorite” for me.


Nope.


I loathe this terrible, awful, no-good movie. Besides not actually being very good at what I would have considered its selling points, it is also deceptively marketed and prurient in its intent and tone. All of the “charm” is not charming. All of the “humor” is not funny. And instead of being escapist superspy fare, it’s just idiotic, hateful, sophomoric violence-porn with no aesthetic or story value.


In short, it sucks.


NOTE: There will be spoilers ahead, if it is indeed possible to “spoil” a movie that is already rotten. But you’ve been warned, in any case.


So we start things with a clear “George Lazenby couldn’t make it” James Bond stand-in being sheared in half by Gimmick Henchman, with one half flopping to the left and one half flopping to the right, Wile E. Coyote style. It’s dumb, but they’re trying to establish an OTT aesthetic, I get it. Amazing how there’s not even a drop of blood in this room full of rubber body parts, but yeah, okay, I get it. CGI dismemberment is fine as long as it’s not bloody, sayeth the ratings board. That enough would have knocked the movie off my faves list, but it isn’t the real problem.


So then we move into the main meat of the story, where Forgettable Protagonist Boy gets inducted into the Kingsmen, hitting all the same beats MiB did better, while Colin Firth investigates the mystery of Samuel Jackson as Lisping Steve Jobs Wants to Destroy the World. It’s serviceable if a bit dull, but leads to where the real problem is.


Samuel Jackson as Lisping Steve Jobs has stolen the macguffin from Secret Agent Super Dragon: he has a hate plague app implanted in cellphones all over the world, which makes people go berserk and kill everyone within plot device radius. He decides to run a test of this at the !Westboro Baptist Church; Colin Firth attends to investigate, gets hit by the mind control ray, and then spends the next ten minutes slaughtering everyone in the church, because he’s a badass superspy in a bulletproof suit and they’re all just degenerate hicks.


And then I walked out.


I’m told it gets worse from there. I don’t even want to imagine. But let’s dissect this moment of cinematic poo-throwing, shall we?


First and foremost, it’s clear that the movie thinks that filling the church full of annoying bigots makes it totally okay to spend ten minutes showing them all slaughtered one by one, in close up from almost Colin-Firth-cam view. It’s all super-quick cuts and choreography, and again without a drop of blood. You’re not supposed to be thinking about the horrors being inflicted on these people, you’re supposed to be impressed by what a badass Colin Firth is. (Luckily for us, we were reminded by a PSA at the beginning of the film that if a kid puts on harris tweeds and shoots up a school after seeing this, it’s totally not the movie’s fault.)


Well guess what, movie? It’s not okay. Do you maybe not understand what makes bigotry bad? The reason these hate group people are awful is because they would think it was funny to have a single person walk into a room full of [group they don’t like] and wipe them all out in gruesome ways. Ha, ha, darn those wacky bigots! …Wait.


Presumably the movie will then follow up with Colin Firth being all horrified at what he’s done and whinge about not having any choice, etc., etc. (I don’t know, because as I say, I walked out); and while that may theoretically be an out for the character, the filmmakers had a choice. You were the ones who chose to revel in this crap; you were the ones who said, “Hey, who wouldn’t want to vicariously slaughter a church full of crackers?”


I was shaking with rage when I walked out of the theater. Not just at what the movie had done, but that none of the previews or reviews had objected to this, or even fucking mentioned it. I went in expecting classic superspy escapist fare; instead I got loathsome violence porn. If I’d wanted to watch a goddamn Tarantino movie I would have had my head examined watched a goddamn Tarantino movie. One of my standing policies is to never willingly watch movies in which “murdering people and laughing about it is totally okay, as long as they’re the wrong sort of people” is a core value.


To hell with you, movie, and to hell with your poisonous mindset. You are absolute garbage, and you’ve brought shame to everyone involved in the production.


-The Gneech

the_gneech: (Obi-Wan Not Good)

I received my 5E Monster Manual yesterday and spent the evening and part of this morning devouring it. (Mmm, wood pulp! :d) It’s a seriously impressive book, giving almost every monster a page which includes lovingly-rendered art, several flavorful bits of monster lore which the DM can use or ignore freely, and a stat block. This book, like the Players Handbook before it, has just that touch of whimsy (from the “delicious squishy brains” disclaimer buried on the facia page to the outhouse mimic sketch in the index) that both 3E and 4E lacked and I have missed. (Go back and look at the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and you’ll notice that at least half the illustrations were single panel cartoons nicked from Dragon magazine!)

It’s not without its quirks, of course. Many of the creatures I find the most interesting have been shunted off into “Appendix A: Miscellaneous Creatures,” by which they basically mean “beasts.” But since the category includes such staples as blink dogs, giant spiders, worgs, and all of the swarms, you’d think they’d merit a little more respect.

Also, much has been made of the lack of an index by CR. Personally, I find this a non-issue, since the DMG is probably going to have all kinds of encounter tables and the like, but WotC has since published said index on their website, and Blog of Holding has done one that’s probably more useful if you’d like such a thing.

But on the topic of CR, wow did CRs trend down in 5E! Creatures that have traditionally been unholy terrors at the “heroic” tier [1] such as manticores or wights, tend to top out around CR 3. [2] CR 5 is home of the “big league” monsters such as trolls or gorgons, and then the eldritch nasties such as mind flayers or hags start appearing in the CR 7-8 range. This is clearly a deliberate design decision, which I have a few theories about.

First of all, the encounter budget models that WotC have released so far all indicate that the number of monsters shoot the difficulty up quickly, which means that while a single CR 2 ogre would be a “hard” encounter for a 2nd level party, a pair of them would be considered a “ludicrous” encounter. [3] Since many DMs love to throw groups of monsters at the party, keeping individual monster CR down keeps the difficulty from going through the roof too fast.

Second, D&D has always had a certain “When do we get to the good stuff?” problem. The game’s iconic monsters, things like adult dragons and beholders and mind flayers, don’t tend to appear until 5th level or higher, while many campaigns struggle to get past 3rd due to player attrition, DM burnout, or whatever. Skewing the CRs down makes it more likely that the average group will advance to a level where the bigger, badder, “cooler” things can start showing up, hopefully sustaining interest in the game and opening the campaign to more varied scenarios than another March of the Goblins. [4]

Finally, bounded accuracy rears its head again: low level baddies can still hurt higher level PCs. One on one, a lower level critter will certainly run out of hit points long before a higher level PC will, but when you get a room full of them, that’s another story. Lower CR monsters fill the niche that minions were intended to in 4E, without the “meta” aspects (“Why does this goblin have 33 hp, and that one only have 1? They look exactly the same…”) So a creature’s CR is not really as important a factor in encounter building as it was in previous editions, it’s just a general indicator of a creature’s toughness.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works in play. And after this weekend, there’ll be a two week break in my gaming schedule, so I’m also looking forward to retooling my Silver Coast game with a full range of monsters, rather than just what was available in the Starter Set. Now then, where on this map could I put the Tarrasque…?

-The Gneech

[1] I’ll rant about tiers some other time. When codified as they were in 4E, I find them horrible metagamey constructs; fortunately, 5E just uses them as handy labels for the DM, which is fine.

[2] This means that my Summoner Conversion will need a serious retooling, probably topping out the eidolon’s form at CR 4 or so.

[3] I’m not sure I agree with their assessment of encounter difficulty: my players have so far waltzed through multiple “hard” encounters without breaking a sweat. But then again, my players all have years of gaming experience, so it might just be a testament to their playing skill.

[4] Mind you, I love me some goblin invasions. But you can’t do that every time. Nor can you make every campaign about Tiamat trying to break out of her extra-dimensional prison. Tyranny of Dragons, I’m looking at you. Didn’t Red Hand of Doom kinda sew up that idea for a while?

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Obi-Wan Not Good)
I finished Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage add-on for Borderlands 2 last night. It was a lot of wild, over-the-top fun, up to (but not including) the big fight at the end against the Badassasaurus Rex and your ultimate foe. This is because, for all the things the Borderlands team does right, they really suck at making interesting solo boss fights.

It's a thing that can one-punch you. With area effect attacks. Which you can't effectively dodge. In the middle of a large, open, completely empty and featureless arena. The strategy for soloing any boss in Borderlands is "Get killed so you respawn just outside the fighting zone, find the one corner the boss can't hit you but you can just snipe at them, stand in it and plink away until they die ten minutes later." It's not fun, it's not exciting, it's just grindy.

It was particularly disappointing in the case of the Badassasaurus because it was such a visually nifty boss-- I wanted to be able to see it while I fought it! But no. Because if I could see it, that meant I didn't have enough cover, and got one-punched. Sigh.

But I don't want to harp too much on that, because the rest of Mr. Torgue was all the best stuff Borderlands has to offer: action, a lot of loot-and-level fun, and wry satire/spoof that goes from being smirkingly humorous to break-your-furniture funny.



On finishing that, I started the third add-on, Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt, but so far I can't say I'm impressed. As charming as Hammerlock himself is ("That's just a bit of ribald humor for you. Ha, ha! Quite ribald."), the whole "white guys vs. savages with some Heart of Darkness riffs" thing is way too creepy for me to enjoy. Also, there's a really huge and annoying difficulty spike, in the form of the "witch doctor" enemies that buff their allies, insta-heal upgrade them to tougher versions just as they're about to die, and do piles of damage to you, all simultaneously. Even the random encounter wandering-monster types have huge hit points and do tons of damage; I'm guessing the developers were like "Oh, you think the game was too easy, eh? TAKE THIS! Heheheheheh!"

Ugh. If Torgue has all the good stuff from Borderlands, Big Game Hunt seems to have all the worst. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to sustain my interest in it long enough to finish; what I might do is go back to the regular story and finish getting up to the level cap, then come back and power through BGH at +5 levels over, just to get through it.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.
the_gneech: (Lachwen Lightning Girl)

It’s hardly a secret that in real life I’m a big woobie neutral good Boy Scout kind of guy. Sometimes, tho, it can be refreshing to put that aside and be a wiseass, letting out my internal Bugs Bunny (who spends most of his time being thwarted) in an environment without consequences.

Borderlands 2 is all about that; it’s one of the reasons I’ve been enjoying it. Even within the context of Borderlands, anybody you shoot, melt, or slice in half can just be revived at the nearest “New U” station– presumably getting blown to bits still stings, but mainly it’s just annoying and eats up money.

It’s a weird psychological line to walk; I don’t generally like “dark comedy” and roll my eyes at things like Pulp Fiction, but I thought the quest to shoot “Face McShooty” in the face was hilarious and always chuckle when my siren character shouts “That was awesome!” after one-shotting a foe. What’s the difference? I’m not sure.

I did find an interesting discussion of the issue however, called “Of Assholes and Antiheroes: Morality in Borderlands 2. From the article:

It’s important to note that this is not an instance of ludic dissonance, when the gameplay and the story contradict each other. Instead, you’re participating in two parallel stories: the story of you against Jack and the story of you against the planet of Pandora. In one story, I’m clearly the good guy, but in the other story, it’s not so clear. Killing the other bandits can’t be justified the same way that killing Jack is justified since the bandits never tried to kill you (and in fact, whenever they do shoot at you, it’s because you’re in their territory). We have no personal motivation for these fights, so instead the game gives us external motivation. We’re told that the two gangs are vicious and cruel—they are gangs after all. This is the justification for most of what we do: The bandits are bandits, that semantic “fact” alone makes it okay to kill them.

This is the exact same reasoning that Handsome Jack uses to justify killing everyone on Pandora. From an objective point of view, there’s no difference between us. Despite all of our talk of saving the world, we slaughter our bandit enemies without a second thought. Despite Jack’s dream of a crime-free Pandora, he’s really just slaughtering his enemies without a second thought as well.

What’s interesting about Jack is that he represents the traditional gamer morality turned back on us. The only reason that he is the bad guy in this scenario is because he is not a playable character. If the plot of Borderlands 2 stayed the same, and we simply took control of Jack instead of the Vault Hunters, we would see him as an antihero, not a villain. We wouldn’t question his horrible actions, just as we don’t question the actions of the Vault Hunters. Both parties are antiheroes in their own story, both parties are wronged by each other, and the ultimate justification of everything that they do is that “the other guy deserved it.” But to be perfectly honest, I don’t hold this against Maya, my character. Yet I hate Jack so much. Why?

Because Jack is a jerk.

This train of thought doesn’t come out of nowhere: in the game, Jack is constantly having a sort of meta-discussion with your character about this very topic. He repeatedly refers to himself as “the hero of the story” and your character as “the bad guy,” and gets very upset about the fact that you’re not falling into line with this. Even in his very final speech in the game, he’s ranting about the fact that the player character isn’t following the expected “bad guy” behavior of getting killed at the end.

Furthermore, a lot of the random NPC dialog explicitly calls you out for what you’re doing on any given mission, from the Hyperion combat engineers who say “Dammit! I was almost done with my shift, you bastard!” as they die, to the A.I. gun you pick up halfway through the game that shrieks “THEY PROBABLY HAD A FAMILY!” when you shoot it at someone (or “Now you’re just wasting ammo!” when you reload). The writers very clearly want these issues to be on your mind as you play.

To what purpose? That’s a harder thing to pin down; it’s not like the game takes a real stance on the issue. Like everything else on Pandora, the exploration of themes seems to be done with a kind of sophomoric smirk. It may very well be that the writers don’t really have a stance on the issue, they’re just messin’ with you. But at the same time, just the fact that the issue is there for analysis and discussion, adds a kind of depth that makes Borderlands 2 much more enjoyable than just another round of watching this set of pixels blow up that set of pixels.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (LIGHTNING from my FINGERS!)

So this past weekend was the third (already?) InterventionCon. It’s a fun, if smallish, local con put on by an impressively small staff who nonetheless manage to give it a “big con” professional feel. The basic theme of the con is “your online life, offline,” basically giving it a “meta-geekery” vibe similar to Dragon*Con (but on a much smaller scale). There’s a bit of comics, a bit of anime, a bit of cosplay, a bit of technogeekery, even a tiny hint of furry, but no one element really jumps out. This big tent approach is good in that everyone is welcome, but it also has its downside, in that there’s no really strong pull for any group. Despite being open to everybody, InterventionCon is not a “must-go” con for anybody, at least not yet.

Granted, I see most of the con from inside the Dealer Room (or “Artist Alley/Vendor Room” as the con refers to it), which possibly colors my perceptions. On the other hand, the Dealer Room is also usually the main hub of activity. There are several breakout panel rooms which usually have a double-handful of people in them at any given time, a videogaming room, and an open gaming room, and several corridors. Although the Marriott where the con takes place has a huge and impressive restaurant/lounge area (which at a furry con would be overrun with fursuiters and artists), as far as I can tell InterventionCon doesn’t go down there. What crowds there are to find, are in the Dealer Room.

The other thing I’ve noticed about InterventionCon, is that there isn’t much of an art culture. Most people in the Vendor Hall are there as vendors, selling books or crochet ponies or what have you, not doing art at the table– and the attendees don’t seem to be expecting it, either. I was never asked to do a badge or a sketch (my primary profit-makers at most cons), even by people who seemed very taken with my work. Furthermore, those people who were offering sketches at the table, were undercutting themselves badly. One artist wanted to charge me $10 for a fully inked, elaborate sketch; another $15 for an inked and shaded pair of characters. In both cases, I shoved $20 bills at them, just to drive the lesson home.

gneech_chanWhile sitting around at the con not doing any badges or sketches (le sigh), I decided to noodle around with new persona ideas for myself, including this cute little guy, who combines the whole “dapper lion” thing with my little buddy Keroberos. Only problem is, I still can’t figure out how to get more of the sea green and similar colors I wanted into the design without becoming garish. I’m an autumn, and if the persona is to reflect me, he should totally be dressing in gold and burgundy.

Also, I think way too much about that kind of stuff.

But Enough of That Art’n'Creativity’n'Stuff. Let’s Blow Shit Up

As InterventionCon rolls up its sidewalks at 3:00 on Sunday, that left me with all of last evening to occupy myself. I could have watched that Doctor Who we’ve got on the DVR, but instead I downloaded BorderLands 2 to give it a try. Mrs. Gneech and I are forever on the lookout for brainless shooty games we can play together, and this one is about as brainless and shooty as they come. Gung Ho FPS in a quasi-post-apocalypse SF setting with a soundtrack by Escape From LA, Borderlands 2 is snarky, sarcastic, and winks at you from the other side of the 4th wall to make sure you don’t take all the explosions and bloody head-shots seriously.

Does it work? Eh… sort of. The snarky humor and Wile E. Coyote violence are basically there to punch up pretty cut-and-dried FPS gameplay… go here, kill baddies, pull lever, kill baddies, find boss, kill boss, rinse and repeat. The loot is completely randomized, which does sometimes make for strange and amusing results. I picked up a gun which does something like 70+ points of damage and has a sniper scope (as opposed to the more common ~20 points of damage on the first level), so I spent a lot of time starting a battle from far distant cover and going “Boom! Headshot.” Borderlands 2 also floats around somewhere between FPS and MMO, with quest-givers, side missions, and explorer deeds, and encourages you to hook up with other players (via Steam) and take on missions together. However, your character model is determined by your class (all the women are “sirens,” for instance, and all the sirens are women) and the character models only vary by means of three different heads and palette-swaps. So it won’t be long before every character looks exactly identical to every other character.

Correspondingly, the difficulty seems to be all over the map, too. There’s a giant set-piece battle at the end of the first section of the game where you’re in an open area fighting a giant brute of a guy who is not only on fire, but who keeps setting you on fire as well as opening up giant fire pits all over the level. If you die, you simply respawn around the corner, which is handy, but every time you do, he goes back up to full health again. This led me into a loop for the longest time where I could just get to him, nick him a little, and then run out of ammo and get killed. Over and over. I finally defeated him basically through an exploit– I left the arena all together, which lured him over to one corner that stuck out so he could shoot at me, and he got trapped there by the AI pathing. So all I had to do at that stage was peek around the corner, snipe at him, and duck back until my shield recharged, then do it again. Since he was an otherwise unbeatable boss, I didn’t feel too bad about this– I figured that if the game is gonna cheat, I’m gonna cheat right back.

On the plus side, I do like the animation-esque art style and the western-bluesey soundtrack, which give me (positive) associations with Full Throttle. And I can see how the game would be fun with a full party, although I haven’t had the chance to try it yet. However, I suspect it’s going to be real hard to find a group that isn’t made up of four sirens, just because she’s the most appealing character design. We’ll see!

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Me Barbarian)

So a while back, a friend gave me his copy of Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerfaildale, because he couldn’t get it to run on his computer. And since I’ve been jonesing for a little goblin smackdown, I decided to give it a shot. [1]

Daggerdale is basically like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or Everquest: Conquest of Norrath, a multiplayer action game with the trappings of D&D … throw yourself at goblins and mash buttons ’til they die. Theoretically it should be prettier than those, being newer, but it’s basically the same thing. The only problem is, the makers seem to have decided that instead of just making a similar game in the same genre, they would just do a wholesale copy/paste and call it a day.

These games don’t generally mess with a complicated plot, right? Well, the makers of the game apparently decided to go with that “etcetera, etcetera” mindset and really just phoned it in. There’s some evil guy named Rezlus in a tower who is gonna do some bad thing or other. He’s always the evil Rezlus. Or maybe “The’Evil” is his first name. What is Rezlus like or about, other than evil? No idea, except that he’s blue. And apparently worships Bane. But really, that’s enough, right? Anyhow, obviously, y’all gotta knock off all that evil, so !Galadriel teleports you into a dwarf mine so you can smash barrels and even occasionally fight a goblin. (Presumably !Gandalf was busy.)

Barrels. Really. Why. They even have the “barrel-maker crying that people keep smashing his barrels” joke. Didn’t Bard’s Tale put that bit to bed, like ten years ago? Maybe they’re depending on gamers having a short memory. The first level past the tutorial consists of nothing but a bunch of dwarves standing around while you smash all their barrels. (Smashing barrels is optional, of course, but you’ll want those health potions later.)

So you have your choice of four characters in the game: the burly white fighter guy, the white elf archer chick, the white dwarf cleric dude, or the androgynous white halfling wizard. [2] Each one is lovingly rendered in shades of sepia, and looks like they’d rather be doing anything else than going on this adventure. I kinda want to gripe about the lack of options here– I’m partial to male elf fighters and female human clerics (for instance), but none of the other games in this genre really give you a choice (Gauntlet II at least gave you color options…), so I guess there’s no point in that.

I should point out, that you don’t necessarily stay sepia. The high point of the game, in terms of low points, had to be when my character picked up a suit of armor that turned him into the Iceman from Marvel Comics. And by this I don’t mean he was wearing blue armor, I mean his entire body turned bright blue, including his skin, eyes, and hair. I know, fantasy game, magic, yadda-yadda, but wow. Even D&D usually tries to at least keep a little grounding in its quasi-medieval setting. Did some designer really want to be working on a superhero game instead? It was here that it went from “playable if weak” to “just plain silly.”

Anyway, the game’s nomenclature is all lifted from 4E, but it doesn’t mean anything. I fought “level one minions” with 24 hit points, “controllers” who just stood there and beat up on you, and so forth. You have all the usual Strength/Dex/Con stuff, but it’s all pre-set and doesn’t seem to actually do much. You fight by clicking the attack button until everything around you is dead, and defend yourself by guzzling health potions. I don’t know what the multiplayer is like, because that would have required getting another copy for Mrs. Gneech and I wasn’t willing to actually spend any money on it. We can do the same thing only better by pulling out the old Baldur’s Gate platformers or Gauntlet: Legends.

In short… meh. Don’t waste your time.

-The Gneech

PS: Oh, did I mention that the disk appears to contain nothing but an installer that downloads the game from Steam? Whee!

[1] I more or less hung up my dicebag earlier this year, at least as a gamemaster. I’d still love to play if I could find a local game, but I haven’t exactly been actively searching.

[2] Halfling wizard, really? I don’t get the gaming community’s fervent desire to include halflings but OMG can’t have ‘em be hobbits, no, no! Really, guys, the only reason to include halflings is because they’re hobbits. If you don’t like hobbits, leave halflings out all together. They’re superfluous otherwise.

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Doctor Titles 2010)
Just caught up with "The Girl Who Waited" last night -- complete weaksauce. Wow. Such a waste. It might as well have been one of Russel T. Davies' interminable "redemptive suicide of the week" episodes, or a wangsty teenage fanfic. There might be spoilers below, I guess, if such a poor episode can be "spoiled."

First, there was the incredibly contrived situation. The Doctor randomly takes them to a planet that's quarantined with a plague but he doesn't know that. Amy pushes the wrong elevator button without asking which button to push first. The medical computers of a planet that specializes in studying other worlds can't recognize aliens. Idiot balling much?

Second, there was Self-Pitying Screwed Up Future Amy. As somebody on my Twitter feed put it: "Rory waited a thousand years for you to finish sitting in a box and never even grumbled. Suck it up, Amy!" And honestly, given what we've seen of Amy, it just didn't ring true. Who knows, maybe being put into an incredibly unlikely torture scenario for 30 years might have made her go squirrely, but given all the other crap she's put up with in the past two years, it doesn't seem likely.

Finally, there was the ending. Did anyone ever think the "two Amy Ponds" thing was going to happen? Of course not. Did anyone ever think Self-Pitying Screwed Up Future Amy would be the one who stayed? Of course not. The only question was whether she was going to be killed in battle covering Young Amy's escape, or get a tearful sacrifice death instead. So why did the episode waste so much time pretending it was important?

Finally, what did this episode achieve? Development of plot? Nope -- nothing has changed. Revelation of character? Nope -- the episode didn't tell us anything we didn't know about Amy, Rory, or the Doctor. (Remember him? He's that not-companion guy.) Rollicking adventure? Not particularly. At the end of the day, it was 45 minutes of manufactured wangst. In the words of Monty Python, "It's all been a complete waste of time."

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Kero Power Tie)

Well, I binged on the first five (six? I lost count after the Ursa Minor) episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic via YouTube last night, while workin’ on various stuff. It was enjoyable and I can see why it’s popular, although it didn’t cause me to squee with the light of a thousand suns the way it has some others.

I can see the Powerpuff Girls influence in it, and that can be nothing but good. I also wholeheartedly applaud a Very Girly Show For Girls That Is Girly that has things like well-defined and likeable characters, plots with conflict, and themes of self-reliance and personal development, without actually being a show for boys where the characters all have long hair and squeaky voices (a pitfall PPG could occasionally fall prey to).

In the episodes I watched, it never quite reached the level of awesome, although it did have moments that approached it, such as “I cannot tolerate such a crime against fabulosity!” and “But … the rainbow one kicked me…” With a few nudges in the right direction, it could easily become awesome, but my gut feeling is that Hasbro wouldn’t tolerate it.

So what’s my analysis of the whole Brony thing? Well, some of it is the same “breath of fresh air” phenomenon that made the original Star Wars such a hit after a decade of sci-fi movies that made you want to kill yourself. My Little Pony is a well-written, enjoyable, decently-animated show, which means it blows the doors off of anything else happening right now. Since the collapse of TV animation in the late ’90s, there’s been painfully little that wasn’t outright crap, and since it’s not crap, MLP shines like gold. And while I don’t want to belittle the quality of the show, I do think the lack of competition has a lot to do with the sheer enthusiasm of the fandom that’s building up around it.

Fans are gonna glomp onto something, and if there’s only the one thing around worth glomping onto, it wins. Once upon a time, animation fans could geek out about Animaniacs, Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers, Powerfpuff Girls, Balto, Cardcaptor Sakura, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Lion King, even the good old-fashioned Looney Tunes, and all still be fairly current. But all those things are old now (sorry, but it’s true, people like the New Hotness), and even if they weren’t old, they’re not being broadcast. You have to already be a fan of those for them to still be relevant to you.

If MLP was going up against the WB at its height, or even Cartoon Network during the Space Ghost: Coast to Coast era, it would have had a harder time of it, true, but on the other hand, it is a show being made right now that could stand up to those and give them a run for their money, and in the current climate that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Short Story Geeks)

Episode five is up! We respond to listener e-mail, take on the subjects of authorial focus and what it actually means to “kill your darlings,” and check out some stories ranging from the faintly-silly to poetically sublime.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with the sound; I was trying out a new headset, and the results were not all I’d hoped for. I tried to even it out as much as I could, but even with Levelator the gain was just all over the place. Back to my old headset next time!

The good news is, the show is much shorter this week. ;)

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Writing)

Gotta love positive reviews! :) Thanks for the kind words, fellas. Not sure what you were getting at re: “body movements” near the end, I’ll give it a re-listen and see if I can figure it out.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Writing)

Something Missing: A Novel by Matthew Dicks

Martin, the peculiar hero of Something Missing, is a burglar by profession, but not just that. Martin is a master burglar, who robs the same house again and again over the course of years or decades and never gets caught because, and here is the brilliance of his scheme: he only steals things people won’t miss anyway. Six bars of soap in the linen closet? Make that five. An unopened bottle of drain cleaner under the kitchen sink for months? Just the thing. A single dishtowel gone missing? That was probably Martin’s work.

Martin’s is an orderly and meticulous mind: he carefully researches his “clients” to find just the right fit (dog-owners are out!), and plans his thefts over the course of many, many illicit trips into the house. By taking digital photos of the refrigerator, the pantry, the china cabinet, the silver drawer, the jewelry box, he works out over time what gets used and what doesn’t, what will be missed, and what won’t. The book opens with him stealing the second earring of a matched pair: he stole the first one (but only the one) six months previously so the owner would assume she’d lost it somewhere. After all, what thief would only steal a single earring, right? Once the second is allowed to languish without its twin in the bottom of the jewelry box and thus be forgotten, Martin can safely snag it and finally sell off the pair on eBay using his cover identity of a middle-aged shopaholic housewife who’s forever selling off “last year’s treasures.”

All of this long-term, intimate research of the people he refers to as his clientele has, over time, instilled in the lonely and repressed Martin a certain proprietary feeling towards them. When he stops burgling a household, say because they have a child (couples with children are unsuitable for various reasons, not the least of which is that it adds unpredictability into their lives), Martin feels like he’s losing a long-term friend. And what’s more, as time goes on, he finds himself becoming a sort of guardian angel; he starts by befriending a talkative parrot, but progresses into an anonymous and unknown sort-of-askew Mary Poppins who patches up domestic unhappiness and makes sure surprise parties go unspoiled. With few friends and even fewer family members of his own, he has become an unrequited adopter of the people he makes his living mooching from.

However, much to his dismay, the more he gets involved, the more his life goes off the rails. His chessmaster-like planning goes out the window as he starts reacting to crises and he finds himself hiding in closets, chased by (shudder!) dogs, and falling in love. And when he finds that one of his best clients is being stalked by someone with all of Martin’s skill but much more sinister intentions, everything in Martin’s life is turned upside down.

The Good

Something Missing is a breezy, enjoyable book, and Martin is both a very likeable and surprisingly relatable protagonist. Intelligent and introverted, Martin may be a shade anti-social but he’s not a sociopath. If anything, it’s his extreme sensitivity to the feelings of others that’s led him to his peculiar line of work. Not being versed on the ways of burglary myself, I don’t know how much of the equipment and techniques Martin employs are real, but they’re certainly convincing and well thought-out. And of course there’s a lot of suspense: once Martin starts varying from his pre-planned strategies and controlled situations, he keeps finding himself deeper and deeper in unfamiliar and dangerous territory which escalates every time. A chatty parrot who keeps calling him rude names seems like the least of Martin’s worries by the time he faces off against his malevolent counterpart. Themes of redemption and grace quietly underpin the story without making a fuss about themselves, making Martin’s very moving transformation over the course of the book both inevitable and desired.

The Bad

I can’t think of any real criticisms to this book. It does take a little time to get into the meat of the story: the first major “plot point” doesn’t really occur until roughly the 50% mark, but there is enough happening with setting the groundwork of Martin’s character, establishing and illustrating his techniques and patterns, and foreshadowing the events of later in the book that you never really feel like there’s nothing going on. Something Missing isn’t a Life-Changing Masterwork, perhaps, but it has not ambitions to be. It’s a fun, enjoyable read about an interesting protagonist, and considers that to be enough.

The Ugly

As I’ve been doing with so many books recently, I read this via the Kindle app on my iPad: and like everything I’ve read this way, there are the rare few spurious line breaks or superfluous hyphens. But there’s nothing wrong with the writing itself. Readers may find the conspicuous appearance of brand names for everything to be jarring: Stop And Shop, Liquid Plumbr, Rice-A-Roni. It’s a deliberate device the author uses to illustrate Martin’s character: Martin is very specific about every little detail, including the particular brand of any item he may come in contact with. But after a while it reads like product placements, particularly as most modern readers have been trained to hear about generic items rather than specific ones. It isn’t a real problem, but it does stick out and once you notice it you can’t stop seeing it every time it happens.

The Final Verdict

Something Missing is a fun book and I recommend it to anyone who is intelligent, introverted, or has inclinations towards benevolent larceny. It’s a fast read, but one that rewards paying attention to the details. If nothing else, it will make you a bit more aware of your home security…

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Writing)

The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel (Thursday Next Novels (Penguin Books))

Is it police procedural? Is it alternate history? Is it zany surrealist fantasy? Is it literary fanwank? Is it some variety of steampunk? Is it time-travel weirdness? Is it tongue-in-cheek tall-tale? No. Or, well, yes, but not exclusively yes to any of these.

It is The Eyre Affair, the first novel of the “Thursday Next” series, by Jasper Fforde, and it is … well … hard to pin down. And like the book, this review will also be hard to pin down. Was it an entertaining romp? Was it an impressive literary achievement? Did it have fundamental problems? No. Or, well, yes, but not exclusively yes to any of these, either.

Where to begin? The year is 1985 (as opposed to 1984, presumably) and the place is an alternate-England which is still the most powerful nation in the world, has never known Winston Churchill, is in a cold war with the Republic of Wales, and in a hot war with the Empire of Russia over the Crimean peninsula. The protagonist, Thursday Next, is a literary detective, tasked with keeping original manuscripts safe from fanatic academics or would-be kidnappers and generally protecting the extremely-book-minded people of Britain from the scourge of literary crimes. Next is born of a remarkable family that includes her time-stopping rogue temporal cop father, and her uncle Mycroft who invented a pencil with a spell-checker and is working on a sarcasm early-warning device. When one of Mycroft’s inventions, a portal that enables you to literally step into or out of a book, is stolen by Acheron Hades (the third wickedest man in the world), Next must stop the kidnapping or assassination of literature’s most beloved characters, including Jane Eyre herself.

And this, mind you, is the bare-bones description of the plot. We won’t even go into the vampire hunt gone wrong, the black hole that opens up over the freeway and tears a hole in spacetime, or the running subplot about who actually authored Shakespeare’s plays.

The Good

Lest I be too ambiguous for my own good, let me state clearly: I very much enjoyed The Eyre Affair and if the description above sounds like the kind of thing you’d enjoy, I recommend it without hesitation. The characters are well-drawn and plot clips along at a good pace, and around every turn of the page there’s a new nifty bit to discover. This is a book that’s packed full of interesting ideas thrown at you in rapid succession, so you’ll never be bored. Thursday Next is a likable and believable protagonist, which is a key feature considering how many other things the book asks you to believe as well. The book is very thoroughly, almost achingly, postmodern … if there was such a thing as post-postmodern, this book would be it. Some might consider this a bug, but I consider it a feature, at least in this particular case. I don’t always want books going all Ferris Bueller on me, but if a book is going to, then I want it to do it as well as The Eyre Affair does.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the further away you get from Next, the less believable the characters come to be. Almost everyone in this book has a clever shtick, whether in the form of a joke name (recurring annoyance/semi-antagonist Jack Schitt, earnest but put-upon fellow cop Victor Analogy, and of course the villain himself Acheron Hades) or in the mere oddness of their existence (such as Felix7 and his replacement Felix8, who are simply the latest in a series of Hades’ henchmen to have the same face grafted on in memory of the original Felix). After a while it can become hard to keep thinking of these characters as actual characters, because they’re more like a series of funny ideas that have been given dialog.

This also makes motivations start to come off wobbly. Characters find themselves in love a lot here, except with all the usual steps (meeting, learning each others’ name, actually talking to each other for more than a sentence) all being handwaved into the backstory or just left offstage entirely; not just one but two romantic triangles are introduced and then dropped again like hot potatoes. The villains of the piece are just as sketchy: Hades is just born bad and likes it; Jack Schitt aims for the moral gray-zone but doesn’t ever really sound like he means it.

Finally, the sheer weirdness of the setting also undermines the book’s core premise: in a world as over-the-top as the book’s is, how could an essentially realistic work such as Jane Eyre even exist, without also being a reflection of the weird world it inhabits? In a setting where demonic arch-criminals walk through the walls and you occasionally find yourself jumping back in time six months by accident, why aren’t there jetpacks and dinosaurs running around in the works of Charlotte Bronë?

Still, none of these things kill the book by any means, they’re just things that struck me while I was reading. Keep in mind that I have a very analytical mind, and so I pick apart everything as I go. If you’re more inclined to just jump in to a book and ride it like a rollercoaster, these things probably won’t bug you at all.

The Ugly

Very little to say here; as befits a book about bibliophiles, the language is clear and crisp and even when things go all pear-shaped you can generally follow the thread. I read the Kindle edition and there were a few odd typos in the form of hyphens that didn’t need to be there or paragraph breaks erroneously shoved into a sentence, but nothing truly egregious. I will warn the reader that there are a few spots where the text gets even more meta than it already is, and so if you suddenly think you’re reading the most badly-proofread book ever, you aren’t. It’s working as intended.

Final Verdict

On the whole, I found The Eyre Affair to be a very readable, enjoyable tale of quirky adventure, and I plan to pick up the rest of the series forthwith. (In fact it was my scooping up the newest book, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, on a whim last week that led me to grabbing The Eyre Affair.) I’m eager to have a new series to follow, and this is certainly a promising start. I already handed my copy off to a friend who is a notorious Terry Pratchett fan, with confidence that he’ll get a kick out of it.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Default)

Rango is good! Go see it!

More details later when I have time.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Yog-Sothothery)

So I finally played Lupus In Tabula (a.k.a. “Are You a Werewolf”) at Further Confusion, and last night we finally broke out Arkham Horror. I suppose now all that’s left will be to play Settlers of Cataan and my initiation will be complete. (NOTE: I may have actually played that and forgot.)

What to say about Arkham Horror…? Well, first, it’s long. Really long. Really, really long. Being a bunch of newbies, we chose Yig, the Ancient One specifically mentioned as making for a “shorter” game, and we still went from 7:00ish until midnight.

Have I mentioned that it’s long?

The other thing is that it’s complex. Really complex. Pointlessly complex. Why bother with money, for instance? With all of the “Gotta find a clue! Gotta seal the gates! Gotta get back home from the Plateau of Leng — again!” going on, the time spent getting to a shop and then actually shopping there, hardly feels worth the effort for what you get out of it. There are lots of other ways it’s pointlessly complex, but that was the one that most felt like extra baggage to me.

This is a game that’s packed to the gills with stuff. There are something like 16 characters, each with their own sub-rule, eight Ancient Ones, each with their own sub-rules, 10+ different decks of cards that all do different things, six different skills to make checks on, modifiers to every check, rules about how many monsters can be on the board, rules about how to fight or evade monsters, horror checks to see if monsters drive you insane, rules for which shops close down in which order as monsters start to take over town, rules about what order you have encounters in, rules about which player goes first on any turn, rules about how many times you may change your characters’ skill allocation, rules about different ways the different monsters move, fight, or lurk around — oh, and the cultists all have different stats depending on which Ancient One you’re fighting, and so on.

And yet, with all that, we still ran into situations where the rules didn’t cover it and we had to come up with an answer. Specifically, at one point my character (the nun) encountered a monster. Being a nun, my character couldn’t fight worth a tiddlywink and the only weapon she had was a cross — which was only useful against undead. But she did have a spell that negated damage from a single source, and cast that. So she couldn’t hurt the monster, but the monster couldn’t hurt her, either.

And so … what? The combat system in the game assumes that the monsters generally beat the snot out of you unless you manage to single-shot them. So normally if you can’t hurt a monster, it just means you get mauled. They don’t seem to have a contingency for what happens if the monster can’t hurt you either. We took a vote around the table and decided to treat the encounter as if I’d evaded the monster instead, just to keep the game going.

During the first hour or so of the game, half of the people around the table were saying, “This should be a computer game!” because of all the fiddly stuff to keep track of. Honestly, tho, I can’t imagine it being a very fun computer game, even if I can totally see how that would work. Progress is too slow and too nebulous — “Am I doing well? Am I doing poorly? Am I just wandering around wasting time because I don’t know what I should be doing?” I realize that, being based on Call of Cthulhu (which is in turn based on Lovecraftian horror), that “slow, nebulous, and uncertain” is exactly what they’re going for. But y’know, I could get that just from running an actual game of Call of Cthulhu and do a lot less dice-rolling and card-shuffling.

So, net result? Unless people specifically ask for it, I doubt we’ll be doing Arkham Horror again; the amount of fun delivered doesn’t justify the amount of work.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Rastan Kill Monsters)

Until recently, when I heard the phrase “The Big Mistake” in reference to gaming, my first thought was of the release of 4E, which I dislike intensely. But when I heard they were going to use the same system as a framework for a new edition of Gamma World, I decided it would be worth a try. After all, a lot of what irritates me about 4E — characters are a random bunch of powers that don’t really make any sense, storytelling has been systemically shoved aside in favor of a series of pumped-up encounters that may or may not be related to each other, and so on — are actually core conceits of Gamma World and have been since 1978. And though I’ve been a gamer since the Reagan administration, I’ve never actually played Gamma World before, so it seemed like a good time.

The premise of Gamma World, for those who don’t know, is that reality broke a long time ago (nuclear war in previous editions, a “Big Mistake” with the Large Hadron Collider in this one), and your characters live in the crazy post-apocalyptic world that arose from it, encountering mutants, monsters, and wacky high-tech stuff in the ruins of Ancient cities and installations. And of course, reality is still a bit wonky, causing you to mutate randomly during the course of play. It’s two parts Logan’s Run, two parts Escape From New York, and one part The Muppet Show, although you could also think of it as Fluxx: The Roleplaying Game.

The new boxed set includes a smallish (and a bit flimsy) rules booklet, a deck of Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards, a sealed booster deck of same (more on that below), a pair of battle maps showing several encounter locations in the starter scenario, two sheets of heavy cardstock character/monster counters, and some (smallish) character sheets. Aside from the usual selection of gaming dice, the box contains all you technically need to play, although I recommend you download the character sheet and print it at full page size. A 4E D&D GM screen might also be handy, and as I have a wide variety of miniatures, I used those instead of the counters, but that’s a personal preference.

Character generation, at least if you do it “right,” is completely random. (The game allows for you to have some choice, if you really insist on it, but has no qualms about calling you a big baby if you do.) Thus, my players ended up with:

  • Lee: A gravity-controlling android with a high Charisma and a Dexterity of 4, named Downshift.
  • Jamie: A permanently-on-fire cat-anthro, sort of a furry version of The Human Torch, named Blaze.
  • Josh: A radioactive swarm of rats who share a hive mind, named Mick.
  • Laurie: A huge human with telekinesis, named Gina.
  • Me (NPC): A superfast human who can create duplicates of himself from alternate realities, named Buzz.

Due to the random generation of gear, almost everyone in the party ended up owning 5 gallons of fuel — but nobody had a vehicle aside from a couple of horses. Mick (the rat swarm) did have a canoe, which I thought would make a cool chariot pulled by the horses, but he traded it in for two rolls on the Ancient Junk table, ending up with a boardgame and a string of Christmas lights, which he actually liked much better. (“I can make them light up, see!” *bzzt*)

Unfortunately, one big problem Gamma World shares with 4E is a philosophy that “roleplaying is that boring stuff that happens between encounters,” and this is reflected in the starter scenario. A paragraph informs you that robots have been randomly bothering “the village” and so your characters are on the first encounter map because they’ve tracked the robots up here.

Um, what village would that be? Why should the characters give a flap about that? What is the world like when there are no dice involved? The game doesn’t care. Heck, they didn’t even bother to give the main “boss” of the starter scenario a name. That annoys the heck out of me, because I care a lot more about that stuff than I do about whether combat is balanced or not. So, in the two hours or so of prep time I had, I whipped up the village of Dozer Hole, including a saloon called “Let ‘er Rip” and its hawkoid owner, and even (*gasp*) came up with a working name and backstory for the baddies.

With the help of the randomly-determined gear the party was carrying, we worked out that they were a traveling band of adventurers who used to have a car, but that it underwent some sort of catastrophic existence failure. So they scavenged the fuel and are now looking for another car, which is what brought them to Dozer Hole. However, Dozer Hole operates almost entirely on a local currency called “bucks,” which the party naturally had none of. Fortunately, Kaziza (the owner of Let ‘er Rip) would extend them 500 bucks worth of credit if they’d take care of the problem of robots trundling down out of the hills and blowing up at their town.

A couple of skill checks in the book provide a little more information, but not much. There are raiders in the hills; the robots are products of “Stupendico” (Kid-Tested, Mom-Approved!). A while back some people came around Nameless Village asking about robots and were rebuffed. If I’d had more time to flesh out this part, there could have been a lot of wacky fun interacting with the colorful postapocalyticish eccentrics of Dozer Hole — but the book didn’t provide any and I didn’t have time to come up with ‘em. So we breezed over this bit and went right to the first encounter (and by extension, right to the first fight).

I won’t detail what they found in the mountains to avoid spoilers, but Gamma World is powered by the 4E engine, so combat, apart from being just a hair sillier, felt pretty much the same. Lots of random shifting, lots of trying to figure out some kind of power to bring to bear instead of doing a “basic attack,” and so on. Although one improvement here is that doing a basic attack feels less like “a turn wasted” in this version; I think this may be because there are fewer powers generally (and no feats at all).

There is also a lot less fluctuation in hit points; although you can still take a Second Wind, there are no Healing Surges — and no cleric — so for the most part hit points go in only one direction: down. This means you have to be a lot more careful about surviving any given encounter (and take your second wind as soon as you’re bloodied), because there’s no healer to pull your bacon out of the fire. On the other hand, you regain all of your hit points whenever you take a short rest, so assuming you stay up longer than the bad guys do, you’ll be fine at the beginning of your next encounter.

“Treasure” is awarded in the form of draws from the Omega Tech deck, representing high tech stuff you find either on your dead foes or lying in the corner of the room ignored. Omega Tech tends to be stuff that alternates between being very useful, or blowing up in your face, such as the little buddy robot Downshift found, which follows him around and shoots at his foes, but if it misses his foe shoots at him instead. (I used a miniature of K-9 from Doctor Who for that — it seemed appropriate.) At the end of an encounter, any piece of Omega Tech you’ve used has a certain chance of breaking, although some of them are salvageable as less-powerful permanent versions of themselves. The idea is that you will gain and lose and gain and lose Omega Tech cards a lot over the course of the game.

Similarly, Alpha Mutations (powers which are things like growing an extra pair of limbs, or suddenly developing laser beam eyes) change at the start of every game session, during every extended rest, and can theoretically change during the course of the game if there’s some triggering event (referred to as “Alpha Flux”). The powers are on cards, and whenever Alpha Flux occurs, you discard your current one and draw a new one.

Players can (and the WotC marketing department hopes they will) create their own personal deck of Alpha Mutations or Omega Tech by buying booster decks — and is anybody surprised by this? There are rules as to how a personal deck must be built, so you don’t just build yourself a deck of nothing but Fusion Rifles over and over, but it does allow you to create a themed deck that will work with your character. If you’re a psychic, for instance, you might build a deck heavy on psionic mutations. Of course, if your character croaks and you then roll up a timeshifted seismic, all those psi cards are going to be less useful. But given that it would probably take three or four booster packs to build a workable deck, you’ve probably got spares to reconfigure with.

So! What’s the overall impression?

The Good

If you’re an old-school gamer, you are probably already familiar with Gamma World, or at least familiar enough to know if you’ll like it or not. Jamie, who is an old-school GW player, says that it works much better with “a more modern rule system,” and certainly the inherent weirdness of the setting is the only thing that can make 4E work for me. The fact that the critters are on-level compatible with those from D&D is a big plus — all you need to do to create a funky new mutant for your characters to face (since there are only two modules announced and they won’t be out for months) is pull something out of a 4E adventure and re-skin it with more psychotropia added.

The Bad

The starter scenario included is, in a word, weak. It’s a super-linear dungeon crawl designed to escort players from fight to fight with no background to speak of and almost no flavor at all. Considering how wild, crazy, and awesome the world is described as being, this is a very lackluster way to introduce people to it. The rules are 4E nonsense, but the world is also nonsense, so it fits. I will say that although the idea of booster decks of cards is a very blatant “Actual Game Sold Separately” mechanic, it doesn’t bother me because the game is perfectly playable without it and the constant fluctuation of powers and gadgets is part of the world. I can also see how, if you’ve been playing a while, seeing the same cards over and over would quickly get tiresome. Whole splatbooks full of nothing but new origins for players who don’t want to be another mind-reading hawk-man would not be out of line for a hardcore group.

The Ugly

The stat blocks for several monsters are wonky at best — I was transcribing foes from the adventure into WordPerfect so I could have a print-out handy instead of having to flip pages during the course of the game and I encountered badly-calculated ability score bonuses so many times that I had to double-check they hadn’t changed how those were figured. Who knows what other, less-obvious problems there were! I didn’t have time to refigure stat blocks, so I don’t know how off the numbers actually were. (The good news is, at first level at least, +1/-1 either way is probably the largest variation, so it wasn’t really an issue.) Also, the main book is small (5″ x 7″ -ish) but was clearly laid out for full 8.5″ x 11″ size — so the type is tiny and can be hard to read. On top of that, the binding is cheapy … one read-through and the spine was already broken.

Final Verdict

It’s OTT, silly fun, and is worth rotating in to your game schedule. However, at least until the modules come out, you’ll have to do a lot of the heavy lifting of making a viable campaign out of it, and if the starter scenario is any indication, you’ll still have to do a lot of the heavy lifting then. On the other hand, character development tops out at 10th level (no Paragon or Epic Gamma World, it seems), so campaigns will tend to be short and sweet, which is probably for the best. Like the MST3K mantra says, “Just repeat to yourself, it’s just a game, I should really just relax.”

-The Gneech

PS: Josh’s mini-review. Same conclusions, many fewer words. ;)

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

April 2017

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