Monday, September 29, 2008

The Most Overrated Game (Of All Time)

Halo. Everyone is familiar with this gaming phenomenon, and everyone seems to have nothing but praise for this apparently revolutionary shooter. It sells as if it had been forged by a limitless supply of solid gold and was blessed by the Pope himself. Master Chief has been carried up the sacred mountain of gaming by the critical community on perfect 10’s to stand alongside other and better legends like Link, Mario, and Sonic.

Halo is the most overrated and undeserving game series of all time.

Maybe it's because when I had heard that Microsoft was going to make a video game console, a significant portion of my heart turned black, never to regain its former luster. A computer company sticking with computers?—isn’t that just a old-fashioned concept? Maybe because the game is more mainstream than My Little Pony, and my games-are-art streak simply can’t handle that. Maybe that’s why I just can’t seem to bask in the alleged "glorious" Halo.

Or maybe it's because the game is more unbalanced than a cross-eyed toddler, offers no distinguishing features that separate it from the universes and capabilities of any other FPS (First Person Shooter for you n00bs), has a completely generic and unrewarding single player campaign, and boasts the most annoying and repulsive online community the world has ever seen.

Let me address some of the backlash I can already hear coming:

"Yeah, the single player isn't all that, but it's a multiplayer game and the multiplayer i5 4\/\/3z0/\/\3! XBOX Live roxs!”

First off, if it's a multiplayer game, then why did they bother with a single player campaign? Secondly, if the single player is mediocre at best, then why is the game getting perfect 10s!?

There's nothing innovative in Halo. Anything that Halo feels proud of has been done before, and often better. Dual wielding? Goldeneye 007 did it in special circumstances, and Perfect Dark did it standard. Master Chief? The whole taciturn hero thing has been done many times before with more memorable and interesting characters, and the only thing that keeps Master Chief from looking like every other space marine from Starcraft to Warhammer 40,000 is the fact that his power suit boasts a helmet with a cute little brim over the visor. Mixing up elements from previous distinguished games and then failing to improve these elements in any significant fashion does not make a game innovative.

I mean, really, what about Halo gameplay is so new and different? The weapons, though interesting designs, are never implemented in ways that are interesting or useful.

This brings me to the problem of game balance, which for me was the fatal flaw in Halo. After having played it a while back at my brother’s house, I came to realize that I wasn't losing so horrifically because I was a bad tactician or bad at shooters. I was losing for two reasons: 1) Somebody had a sniper rifle, and 2) bad respawns. Good Lord, does this series have some awful respawns! You don't even get a single measly second of invincibility to compensate for being placed right in death's merry path.

I remember playing Halo, dying, and then remaining out of the game for the next twenty seconds as I died six times in a row without being able to take more than three steps. Of course, the respawns wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the blasted sniper rifles. If you've ever played Halo, you know how good the sniper rifles are. They're supposed to be ineffective at close range, but we all know that's a fib. Unlike any other good FPS, any weapon in Halo that isn't a sniper rifle, sticky grenade, or beam sword is worthless. Until you get your hands on any one of those three weapons, you might as well be running around furiously blowing bubbles.

The sniper rifle has absolutely no mitigating factors. Sniper rifles are supposed to bestow the benefits of long range and precision accuracy in exchange for high recoil, low rates of fire, small magazines, longer reload times, and complete uselessness at short range and in tight spaces.

Because of these facts, Halo's sniper rifle can be shot while running, jumping, or falling out of a vehicle from deadly heights, and in any of those situations can be fired at full zoom without suffering any penalty to accuracy. You could be spinning like a top and the bullets you fire will still go directly to the spot your crosshairs were pointing at the moment you pulled the trigger. These bullets can also ricochet twice and still have enough killing power for a one-hit kill.

Halo-Halo 3 are broken, and yet they still garner incredible critical acclaim. What they see in the Halo series, I have no idea. I don't need overpowered weapons blowing away heads made of cotton candy to make myself feel like a gamer.

Bottom line? Don’t buy. Don’t rent. Don't even look at it.

Being True vs. Being Right

Characters are funny things. I think just about any writer will tell you that there have been times when a character took on a life of his own and refused to do the things the writer planned. As the character develops, his personality develops until when the writer gets to the point where Harriet is supposed to marry Peter, the writer realizes that there is no way in hell Harriet would do such a thing. And then she has to write a half dozen more novels worth of character development to get them both down the aisle.

It's rewarding when this happens, because it means that the character has become more like a real person than simply a cardboard puppet for the author to manipulate; and that means that the character and the things that happen to him are more likely to be meaningful to the reader.

When my characters are obstinate and refuse to follow my elegantly-constructed plots, I generally let them have their head and adjust my story accordingly. I've got plenty of practice doing this running RPG's with my wife.

But sometimes I come across a related problem. What do you do when your character has opinions and beliefs that differ greatly from your own?

Usually it's not that big a deal. It's a common situation, after all. Imagining what it would be like to be a person other than yourself is pretty much a prerequisite for being any kind of a writer. If a character of mine has different political views or religious beliefs or moral outlook than my own, we can agree to disagree for the space of the story.

I will admit that sometimes I am not above mocking such a character and use my perogative as author to poke fun at his misconceptions. The biggest temptation of all is to convert the characters. Robert Heinlein once said that there were only three basic plots in fiction, one of which being "The Man Who Learned Better." Growth of understanding is what character development is all about; and what better way to develop the character than to have the story be about how the character learns that his former opinions were wrong and comes around to the Author's way of thinking.

Except... when you put it that way... Gee, that sounds awfully egotistical. And worse yet, it reduces the character back to being the cardboard puppet again, dancing for the author's amusement.

I'm not saying it can't be done, but to do it right, the writer needs to show the character's conversion developing naturally out of the character.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in Spiritualism, and once wrote a story in which his character the bombastic Professor Challenger has a dramatic encounter with the ghost of a former assistant which converts him to a belief in the afterlife. Doyle wrote no such story about Sherlock Holmes, in which the Great Detective renounces his skepticism about the supernatural. It would have out of character for him; it would have seemed contrived; it would have seemed false.

I was once is a similar situation many years ago. I was playing a character in a Victorian Era monster hunting game named J. Hamish Broadstead who was an arch-skeptic. He completely rejected the supernatural and had made it his life's mission to debunk fraudulent mediums. He was your stereotypical late-Victorian scientific materialist, and I admit, I played him as a pompous buffoon. After all, since there really were vampires and ghosts and such creatures in the campaign, his obstinate refusal to see this was a running gag.

I decided to draw a comic book "origin story" for my skeptic, explaining how he became so obsessive about debunking the supernatural. I framed it as a dream in which he is guided through his past by another of the characters, who was loosley based on the Phantom Stranger. ( "This isn't going to be like that wretched Dickens Christmas story, is it?" "I'm afraid so, Professor." "Can't stand Dickens. Always taking legitimate social concerns and sentimentalizing them." )

So, I had Broadstead's spirit guide show him selected scenes from his youth culminating in an incident where as a young man he exposes a fraudulent medium at a senance and the shock of the revelation causes his sickly, invalid sister to fall into a swoon. She dies shortly afterwards, and Broadstead blames the charlatan. Secretly, though, he harbors guilt at the thought that had he not unmasked the fraud, his sister might still be alive.

At that point in the story, I realized I needed to come up with some kind of resolution. There had to be some reason for Broadstead to relive his tragic past. I needed Broadstead to find Redemption.


I couldn't buy it. It just didn't seem right for Broadstead. I'm a Christian, and Redmption and Forgiveness are a big deal for me; but Broadstead was an athiest. Given his background and his personality, I could not picture him having a religious experience; it would not ring true. Even if he ever did have such an experience, he would almost certainly interpret it in purely materialistic terms.

So how would I respect Broadstead's character without seeming to validate a world-view I disagree with? How can I be right and stay true at the same time?

In this particular story, I had the spirit guide offer Broadstead the chance to speak with the ghost of his sister and resolve their issues. Her ghost appears behind him, arms outstretched and beckoning to him. But Broadstead banishes her with a grumpy "Poppycock!" without ever seeing she was there. He doesn't need anybody's help and he is perfectly capable of dealing with his own guilt issues by himself, thank you. Besides, if there is an afterlife -- which he does not for a moment concede -- then his sister certainly has better things to do than to come back here. To the end, Broadstead remains proud and self-sufficient and true to his personal philosophy and code. And yet... his sister was there, if only he would see her. And the story ends with him standing quitely by her grave. Praying? Pondering? Only he and God knows.

I'm not exactly sure if I succeeded in striking the balance I wanted in that story. I thought it worked pretty well at the time, and had some nice bits of dialogue; but in summarizing the plot, it seems rather weak. Sometimes a story works, sometimes it doesn't.

I'm in a similar situation again; I'm working on a story in which the central character is going through a crisis of faith. But I have to work out exactly what the character believes and how that will change through the challenge he's undergoing -- without being able to use my own beliefs. Having him convert to Lutheranism would just be too improbable, even if I could work a character into the story who could explain Justification by Faith to him.

No, I have to be true to the character; otherwise he'll come off as phoney. I have to find what aspects of my own beliefs he would understand and be open to, so that what he comes to believe flows and develops from who he is and what he knows.

This is the story I should be working on instead of writing this.

Ah well. Chewing through the problem has given me a couple ideas; and I'll work on it some more.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What happened to my MMORPG?

Frankly, anything that has a title so long that it has to be shortened like that is rather scary. I mean…the shortened version is almost as long as the regular version. So, what is happening with the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG for medium)?

They suck. That’s what’s happening. Stay with me folks. Most MMORPGs out there today suck. They’ll claim they don’t suck, but they do. They will also claim they have come a long way, but they haven’t, really.

Now, I don’t mind MMOGs, don’t get me wrong. It’s the MMORPGs that are just…wrong. But what exactly is wrong? Let’s start anywhere, anywhere at all…oh, how about magic? Magic systems in use in most fantasy-themed MMORPGs today are by and large the same magic systems pioneered by D&D games nearly two decades ago. There are flashier, prettier, and have some bells and whistles added on the side, but the way magic affects the characters and players within the games has remained exactly the same - it seems game developers have read a single fantasy book and never bothered with another one. Magic is offensive, defensive or utilitarian (make my rusty kettle shiny again). It's usually bound to a single magic meter of some kind (I wonder if Gandalf the Grey had one), and it doesn't interact with the environment.

Fire bolts fly into dry brush without so much as a spark and ice bolts leave green grass unperturbed. No one seems to want to bother to really explore things like complex interactions of multiple spells, creative ways of using defensive spells offensively and vice versa. No one is considering the possibility of using that shiny kettle spell on your shield to reflect fire bolts. No one is considering what actual sources of magic (other than the stupid MP bar!) it might be interesting to represent. How about directly using the environment to source magic power? Like drawing magic power for water related spells from lakes and streams, fire related spells from lava rocks and the sun, air spells from windy gullies…

How about we look at questing? The thing that is commonly referred to as “quests” in modern day MMORPGs is a shame upon the true meaning of the word. When exactly did running between towns carrying useless objects between useless NPCs has come to be known as a quest? That is a $3 an hour job for bicycled teenagers, not a quest. Neither is killing rabbits by the hundreds, or wolves by the dozen. No, not even Charr. Not a quest. Sorry.

What is a quest? A quest is an involved, perilous, unique adventure; an adventure, mind you, that is usually undertaken by a character because it is part of his own story, his place in the world, his belief system. NOT because he needs that 70 platinum for a new piece of armor he is saving up for. It's no wonder that so many of the older, more mature gaming demographic never stick with an MMORPG for too long: a world that defines your place in it by assigning you deliveries is not exactly something that people who look for more than just “hack and slash” in their gaming experience want to keep coming back to. World of Warcraft made a very tiny, but ultimately important step in the right direction in the area of questing - but very, very much more is truly needed.

Though, I am reminded of a story about how two people were going to have their wedding on WOW. Seems that a bunch of people who played orcs or goblins got wind of the wedding. While the ceremony was taking place, they trashed the wedding and killed everyone.

I really wish I could have seen that.

The fact of the matter is, proper “questing” could be implemented in any current MMORPGs without so much as a new line of code - all it would take is a dedicated, motivated community of players coupled with a little visionary leadership from those running the game. Literature is chock full wonderful adventures, intrigue, and mystery - core components of a true quest. I don’t want any more “trading sequences” in games.

The examination of the questing problem in particular leads us to a useful generalization, which is that the problems with the current batch of massively multiplayer RPGs lie with the very factors that are supposed to make MMOGs such a unique genre - massive-multiplayerism (this is now a word) and world persistence. Many of these games make such poor use of the massively multi-player aspect, they become, from the player interaction point of view, little more than glorified chat rooms augmented with rudimentary combat and item exchange. To make things worse, even this benefit usually comes at the price of greatly dumbed down gameplay mechanics as compared to most single-player PC RPGs. As a result, most serious RPG fans are better off with just a regular role-playing game.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

He has answered your question, and yes, he is Gay...

Clay is gay , Others are as well

It might seem odd that a site that is about the foundations of popular culture, through myth and arts and politics, and the like would discuss the announcement that a singer of some popularity is gay. Clay Aiken is gay. He announced it in an interview and all the hounds that have been chasing him can now search for another target. It is news in that by announcing that he is gay another popular culture figure comes from a world unlike the center, the mass of culture. But that doesn't change his voice, his views, his value does it? No. Whatever made him able to sing so well prior will continue. Will he be able to play the role of a macho male in a film with violence and testosterone supreme? Well no, probably not, but he really couldn't prior. However, many people who are GLBTI can cross many boundaries and do many things. It shouldn't be a surprise.

But the point here is two things, one it is news. That suggests that people from different sexual or gender orientation are outside of the mainstream in the mainstream's views. Rightly or wrongly, that is. Whatever the mainstream thinks is not necessarily truth, say for instance when the normative behavior in Nazi run Germany was to serve and participate in government, the military and the general society well knowing that Jews were hated, and that is not a normal moral behavior. Mainstream does not mean correct, it means felt or thought by many.

Secondly, we exist in a world that is moving beyond the past considerations of normal. I am not a fan of Clay Aiken's music, but to suggest that he is anything but wildly talented is foolish. He could very well continue to sell millions of CDs despite what used to be considered a career killer. He can thank others who walked in his steps before him, but it nonetheless required courage to step out of the darkness of privacy and secrecy and into the bright lights of society.

I am not saying anything about the morality of Clay Aiken, because in my mind morality is about decision making, and sexual orientation is about who we are drawn towards and romantically love. Far too many people do not understand that human quotient, that when it is boiled down, we are talking about a private, and heartfelt aspect of humanity. When Clay Aiken chose to evade prior questions about his sexuality he said that it was a private matter and a question that at its root is rude to ask. I agree.

So let us move forward. Next question?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Discomfort of Art

I was told the other day by someone of respectably high intellect that they didn’t approve of a great deal of modern art because it was impossible to enjoy. They cited the National Endowment of the Arts as being a force in changing art from pleasure to self indulgence. Which led me to question their political values, not aesthetic values. You see, I understand the argument the person was making, that if the art work cannot be enjoyed it is not something that should be called “art”. But I disagree with that. I believe art should make you uncomfortable if that is the desire of the artist. I believe art should comfort you if that is the desire of the artist. Art, especially of the past century and current one, has drawn all the lovely flowers there are to draw. The lovely children and lovable clowns are all painted to near delirium. But Guernica by Pablo Picasso captured an event in emotion. People looking at it were unlikely to think it beautiful but couldn’t stop looking for the pain and horror it presented. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ struck a chord in people as a work that both could be an argument that the artist was mocking Christians and mocking their symbol by submerging it in urine, or served a greater purpose in creating a work of art that merged both the event that Christians remember as being paramount, and placing it in a container filled with waste, which is certainly how many non-Christians treat the crucifixion. You can ask yourself which concept you think the artist is suggesting, but my point with both works, is that by getting people to think rather than just admire or be mentally soothed, some art serves a greater purpose. I will return to this theme soon, but it won’t be limited to the visual arts. In what way can music express bad things and still be good for the soul? How can we hold in our hearts anger and express that and it is good? All will be revealed, but for now just remember that while art is all about the intent of the artist, you can of course still enjoy works for whatever strikes your tastes without a shred of worry.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Well we asked for your favorite music, how about movies?

What film inspires you? What film makes you cry? What film makes you feel rowdy? What film allows you to work with it in the background?

For me my list is very flexible, I have numbers just because this is how it poured out of my brain, but I would say the first three especially are accurate.

I like stories about the growth in human courage and hope. I like big angry monsters. I love human intrigue and relationships that aren't sappy crap. There are films on my list that function as comfort food when I am sad, or lift my spirits when I am tired. There are silly films, and nostalgic ones. What are on your list?

1. Shichinin no samurai (1954)
2. Amadeus (1984)
3. Excalibur (1981)
4. From Here to Eternity (1953)
5. Blade Runner (DIRECTOR’S CUT) (1992)
6. Where Eagles Dare (1969)
7. The Mummy (1932)
8. The Crying Game (1992)
9. Gladiator (2000)
10. Last Man Standing (1996)
11. Black Rose, The (1950)
12. M (1931)
13. King Kong (1933)
14. A Christmas Story (1983)
15. Alien (1979)
16. Say Anything (1989)
17. Metropolis (1927)
18. Gojira (1954)
19. King Kong vs Godzilla (1963)
20. Das Boot (1981)
21. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
22. The Misfits (1961)
23. Soylent Green (1973)
24. Andromeda Strain (1969)
25. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

What is it about that girl?

You know who I'm talking about.

Hannah Montana. I'd say she qualifies as "popular culture" right now. What is it that makes people go crazy over her? Why must her face be plastered on EVERY OTHER THING in Wal-Mart? I'm serious, people, she's everywhere. And the only reason is because of her father! She sings okay, but not enough to have her face on everything! Okay...before this turns into a rant, let's get started....

Why is she so popular? I asked myself this profound (sure, Brynna) question while stocking some of her wigs/purses/jeans/skirts the other night at good ol' Wally World.

And I think I know the answer. Well, at least part of it anyway.

The whole premise behind the Hannah Montana show is that Miley Cyrus has this "secret star life" where she's this great singer. I've never actually seen the show myself, but I know the basics. No one knows she's Hannah. She's just Miley at home.

And that's the beauty of the idea. That's why it works so well. That's why girls from -9 to 15 love her.

She has a secret life. Where she's this famous person. Who wouldn't want that? In every girl's mind, she wants to have a secret life like Miley Cyrus. Where they are famous and loved. Instead of the same old stuff everyday.

But a deeper thing is also in Hannah Montana. I know, I just used the word "deep" to describe a part of a show on the Disney Anyway, the deeper thing is this.

Almost everyone has a secret life. The stuff you don't tell anyone. The stuff you want to keep to yourself because you're either embarrassed about or people won't understand why you like to do certain things (mundanes anyone?). So, Hannah relates to the teens who have that "secret" lifestyle.

What do you guys think?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Mighty Mythopoeic Manner

Recently I read an essay by C.S. Lewis on the 19th Century fantasy writer George MacDonald. Lewis was a great admirer of MacDonald’s and was deeply influenced by him. He said that reading MacDonald’s Phantasies as a young man “baptized my imagination”.

“I have never concealed the fact that I regard MacDonald as my master, indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”

But Lewis also admits, somewhat defensively, that MacDonald is not a terribly good writer.

“If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank -- perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic, acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling.”

Literary critics have made the same charge against Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, and against Lewis himself and against many authors of fantasy: “Yes, but they’re not good writers!”

(If you want to start a fight some time, just mention Harry Potter in a room full of lit teachers).

To which Lewis counters, “What he [MacDonald] does best is fantasy -- fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic.”

The term “mythopoeia” comes from the Greek and refers to the process of creating myths. Tolkien was fond of the word and used it as a title of a lengthy poem he wrote to Lewis early in their friendship defending the practice of myth-making.

Lewis had a deep, abiding love of myth, especially the Germanic and Scandinavian myths that he associated with “northerness”. They contained a mysterious quality which stirred something deep inside him, something he called “Joy”. It was his own search for “Joy” and his attempts to analyze and understand it that, by his own account, led him back to Christianity.

Here, in his essay, Lewis is not just talking about inventing gods and artificial cosmologies; he uses “mythopoeia” to refer to a story which moves the audience in the same way that our ancestors, and sometimes we ourselves, are moved by a myth. To use Joseph Campbell’s phrase, it’s a modern story which conveys the Power of Myth.

“We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version -- whose words -- are we thinking when we say this?

For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of any one’s words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember has told this story supremely well. … What really delights me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all -- a mime or silent film. And I find this to be true of all such stories.”

Lewis vindicates MacDonald by raising the Plot and the inventiveness thereof over the Prose by which that plot is conveyed.

“In a myth -- in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters … any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, ‘done the trick.’ … To be sure, if the means of communication are words, it is desirable that they be well-chosen, just as ot is desirable that a letter which brings you important news should be fairly written. But this is only a minor convenience, for the letter will, in any case, go in the waste paper basket as soon as you have mastered the contents and the words … are going to be forgotten as soon as you have mastered the Myth."

He goes on with an example.

"Of this I had evidence some years ago when I first heard the story of Kafka’s Castle related in conversation and afterwards read the book for myself. The reading added nothing. I had already received the myth, which was all that mattered."

I know of writers who would object strongly to this point of view. After all, writers live by their words; ideas are a dime a dozen by the writing is what puts money on the table. And arguing Plot versus Prose completely overlooks Characterization, which in my book is just as important as the other two. But to be fair, Lewis is talking solely about Myth.

But the essay made me think about what our modern myths are:

The last son of a dying planet is sent by his parents to Earth where he uses his extraordinary powers in a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.

A child watches his parents be gunned down by a thief and vows to dedicate his life obliterating crime; and since criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, he strikes fear into them in the guise of a giant bat.

A geeky, gawky adolescent gains amazing abilities as the result of a lab accident. When his early attempts to use his abilities for personal gain leads to tragedy, he learns that with great power must also come great responsibility.

None of these stories may be great literature; but they are great myths. They lie in our cultural DNA along with Jason and Hercules and Robin Hood and Tarzan; they have a quality which resonates in our popular imagination.

Which is what good myths do.

Consider attending this convention, of popular culture

(Please click the image to read the print more easily.)

I will be there, selling works of my own, and review books that I have reviewed, and my own purchased works that I am now selling.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Assassin’s Creed

Oh Middle Ages, you were ever so fun. What with the plagues, wars, and shoddy science, it's a wonder anyone survived to tell us about the good ol' days. In the world according to Assassin's Creed ye olde times went something like this... Assassin's good, Crusaders bad, people who want power for the sake of power very bad. And so, with that premise in mind we jump into the world of death and mystery that is the Middle East: 1191 A.D.

The story of Assassin's Creed is a sort of sci-fi conspiracy tale mixed with revisionist history. While you play the game as Altair, a disgraced assassin, you are really only reliving his memories through Desmond Miles, his present-day descendant. Your job is to assassinate a particularly important Crusader, a close advisor to King Richard. Altair, being a cocky guy, saunters right up to the fellow and tries to poke him in the eye. Sadly, Mr. White-Christian-Knight-Who-Says-Ni doesn't take too kindly to this, and a fight breaks out. Returning to his master in shame, Altair is stripped of his rank and sent on nine separate missions in order to reclaim his honor.

As Altair and Desmond get closer to figuring out what exactly is going on, the story starts to draw you in, but then it spits you back out again. Violently. While your original assassination targets turn out to be rather complex individuals who may not really deserve their sudden deaths, later targets revert to being power-hungry, schizophrenic jerks who deserve what's coming to them. Also, the "modern day" storyline doesn't really pay off either, as the game ends not with a big reveal or a cliffhanger, but just a rather boring conversation and some non-helpful information. It feels like the developers were getting ready to finish the game, but just before they could get to it some well-meaning but inept intern took the disc off and it went gold before they could stop it.

Before Altair can perform his deadly duties, he must gather information on his target. You see, to an assassin knowledge is power. If you told kids that if they paid attention in school they might get to stab people in the neck for a living then you'd solve the education crisis overnight.

Info gathering includes interrogating and roughing up familiars of the person you're hunting, eavesdropping on conversations, working with informants to get juicy details, and pick-pocketing locals with valuable maps. You can also climb up really tall buildings to get a lay of the land, as well as rescue citizens from bullying guards in return for help escaping later on when you're being chased.

For the first few missions you'll be having so much fun with these tasks that you'll likely take care of every little objective dot on your map just so you can get the full experience. And then, around the fourth or fifth mission though, a sad reality will sink in: you're doing the EXACT same thing over, and over, and over again. There are no missions where you can choose one investigative path over another, and the levels play out the same way every single time. Ultimately, the game suffers one of the worst fates imaginable, as it eventually becomes just plain boring.

The title's control system is very ambitious, perhaps even too much so for its own good. Each face button controls a different body part, with your head, legs, and each arm being assigned a specific place. It sounds complicated, but it's really not too bad, and it won't take any time at all before you're squeezing through crowds, running from guards, and engaging in fancy swordfights.

Where things fall apart, however, is in the "free run" mode, especially when Altair is being chased. You see, normally you stay in "low profile," a mode in which Altair walks slowly, gently pushes people out of his way, and generally does whatever he can to keep from drawing attention to himself. As long as you are being courteous, guards are unlikely to attack you, and you can come and go pretty much as you please.

Things take a turn for the worst in "high profile," however, which is the mode which you must use to pull of Altair's attacks and more impressive acrobatic maneuvers. Things get downright impossible when you are trying to escape from a gaggle of guards and every move counts. Oftentimes as you're sprinting from danger you'll accidentally run up a wall or grab-leap onto a ledge you didn't mean to snag, costing you precious time and usually allowing soldiers to get in a few cheap shots. Ultimately, the controls are functional, but far from perfect.

Aside from the issues already mentioned, there are several more gripes to be had with this title. Firstly, the voice acting for Altair is terrible. Most of his lines are delivered in a somewhat robotic tone that make him sound either hypnotized or deeply under the influence of something. It really stands out because the rest of the voice crew does a very fine job, which begs the question of how his character could be so botched.

Bottom line? Rent. Don’t buy.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A view of popular culture from the retail perspective, Comics Part II

James Robert (Bob) Smith was a comics retailer for over 20 years. He had shops in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Today, he is completely out of the comics industry and works for the US Postal Service in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a published author with dozens of short story sales, two novel sales, and one movie option sale. He has a website at: JamesRobertSmith.Net and a blog at Til The Last Hemlock Dies.

Russ Stewart was a comics retailer for almost 6 years. He ran a store in Duluth Minnesota. He was also a city councilman, a college professor, and my best friend. He is still a couple of those things. He is currently on sabbatical and will return in Spring to his main job, teaching ethics and logic to people at Lake Superior College.
What made you go into the comics business to begin with?

James Robert Smith: I fell into it, actually. My dad had owned several used bookshops in Georgia and Tennessee. Over the years he accumulated about a quarter of a million back issues. Prime stuff, too, since he started buying used books and old comics in 1965. So the bulk of the stuff he had was Silver Age and later Golden Age. By the time I opened my own shop I had inherited his vast stock of old comics which formed the basis of my own retail business. Then I fell into the sales of new comics when I was around in the early days of direct sales. Over time, most of my sales went to new comics and less and less of my total figures were generated by back issues.

Russell R. Stewart: I've always had a love of bookstores, comic shops, game shops, etc., you know, the fun, eclectic places that have a one of a kind feel to them. I've also worked in a couple different bookstores, so I knew something of the business. Finally, I wanted to create the kind of place that I wish I'd had when I was a kid. Growing up in a small Minnesota town left me only with the local dime store or drug store, which had little of interest to my thirsty mind. So I thought about the kind of place would have wanted to go to when I was, say, 15 years old, and that's what I tried to create.

What were some of the surprises you experienced when you got into the work of retailing comics?

JRS: Hmm... Surprises. None, really. Maybe, in the early days, the sheer sales numbers generated from direct sales comics. Even when most of my sales were in new comics, I still preferred back issues. It was back issue sales that had the most appeal for me. And when you own a retail store that buys and sells old comics, you will generally have about three or four great collections walk through the door every year. Really nice stuff that makes your heart beat faster and your blood pressure rise. The smell of pulp was addictive and the one thing that I miss about retailing are those three or four wonderful back issue discoveries that I would make each year.

RRS: The biggest and most unfortunate surprise was the discovery of a couple of major bookkeeping errors in my first year of business. This set me way back financially and left me in a scramble that I never really got out of. Other than that, I guess I was surprised by the passion that the customers have both about the products and about the store. It was tough to keep them from badmouthing the competition (another local store that we had a good relationship with) or games or comics they didn't like. The Warhammer players and the Magic players seemed like they were in an endless feud. For a place to go to have fun, a small number of people just liked to go their to demonstrate their superiority.

On the other hand, we also had a surprising number of great customers who put in a ton of volunteer hours in the game room. They went way beyond the call of duty on several occasions. One time they painted the whole game room because they knew that I didn't have the time to do it. They even bought the paint!

What are some of the sources of frustration for a person selling comics?

JRS: Well, since I'm very happily not in retail sales anymore, there are no current frustrations from that sector for me. In the last days of retailing, my greatest single frustration was the monopoly that Steve Geppi made of the business. It's very unhealthy for one distributor to control the entire direct sales business. That's too much power in the hands of a single entitiy and I'm convinced that Diamond Comic Distributors is a monopoly that should be shattered and scattered. Nothing good can come of all of that wholesale power in the hands of a single company. Well, nothing good for customers and retailers. Much good for Herr Geppi.

RRS: The biggest frustration was dealing with the monthly comics. With a small store like I had, it was almost impossible to order with any kind of consistency. One month we'd sell through a title, so the next month we'd order more only to find that we'd sell only one or two copies. Once a monthly is on the rack for 90 days, it is dead wood. And of course very little was returnable. That gets expensive and kills cash flow, which is the life blood of a retail store.

On many occasions I considered cutting out monthlies altogether, instead stocking graphic novels in greater depth. In retrospect, I wish I had done that. I think my cash flow would have been a lot better. The shelf-life of a graphic novel is much longer than a monthly. I guess I was afraid of upsetting my base of monthly subscribers. In truth, I wasn't making money on them anyway. I was always too nice to the subscribers, allowing them to build up “holds” in excess of 100 comics. Again, that's dead wood. And often they would decide (typically after 3-4 months) that they didn't really want half of them anyway.

If I had just gone graphic-novel only from the beginning, I think I'd be rolling in dough today!

What did you do to try to modify the system to your own needs?

JRS: Hmm ... Like most retail comic shops I ran an in-store subscription service. It worked well for years, until the comic book implosion of the early 90s. When sales of new comics began to slide precipitiously I had been finding my way into the sales of other collectibles, most notably collectible toys. Honestly, Star Wars toys and Mego figures kept my last store going for about five years!
RRS: I'm not really sure that “the system” can really be modified by the retailer. At least not by isolated, small retailers. A large chain might be able to command enough market share to make some substantive changes in the distribution system.

What role did Diamond play in your business success and then business failure?

JRS: Pardon my French, but Diamond sucks ass. I have nothing good to say about that monopoly, and anything else that I could add might get me into trouble with that corporate mosnter. That said, they weren't the only reason for the collapse of comic book sales. One experience I vividly recall is this:
I had an entire family who read comics and spent a LOT of money in my shop. (This was toward the end of my retailing experience, in the mid-90s.) Every week they would stop in and pick up their in-store subscriptions, routinely spending, collectively, anywhere from $50 to $100 every Thursday or Friday, sometimes waiting until Saturday to get their books. Well, one week they didn't show. Then a second week passed and they didn't show. Third week, no family. Since they got a LOT of books, their holds were piling up. Finally, one day the mother called and cancelled the subscriptions. All of them. Alas. One day, a couple of months later I happened to bump into them in a mall. They were very friendly and we sat and talked for a bit. I finally asked them why they didn't buy comics any more. The answer:
Video games. The money that they were once spending on comics they were now spending on video games.
"Why read about Spider-Man when you can actually be Spider-Man?" the mother asked me.
Why, indeed.

RRS: Diamond is a horrible company to deal with. They have a monopoly on the monthly comic market because they have exclusive distribution rights for all the major publishers, including Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse. This means that if you want to sell monthlies, you have to go through Diamond.

And the system places all the risk on the retailers. Diamond solicits comics before they are printed, and they report their order numbers to the publishers. So Diamond knows they'll sell all the stock that they get from the publishers, because it's all been pre-ordered by retailers. The publishers also know that they'll sell all that they print because it's all been pre-ordered by Diamond. The only one in the chain who doesn't have guaranteed sales is the retailer. So the retailer takes all the financial risk while the publishers & distributors take none. It's definitely a flawed system.

It is possible to order graphic novels, games, and novelty products from other venders, but Diamond's discount policy makes it very costly to do so. They give a bigger discount when you order more product from them. Since a comic dealer has to order monthlies from them, it is pretty foolish not to order your other stuff from them as well in order to enhance your discount. It is a real racket.

This is another reason that I should have only sold graphic novels from the beginning. I would have had a much greater choice of vendors, and I would have had much better control over cash flow.

The reason cash flow would have been better without Diamond and without monthlies is simply this: if you sell monthlies, you get a weekly shipment from Diamond 52 weeks per year. They're all pre-ordered months in advance, and you can't stop them. Your customers expect them on Wednesday.

This is can be a real problem for cash flow, because if sales are slow you want to slow the orders, but with Diamond, you're pre-ordering so far in advance that it is virtually impossible to be responsive to fluctuations in the market. Sometimes we'd have to skip a weekly game order so that we could pay for our comic shipment, even though the games would have sold better and been more profitable.

I'm getting frustrated writing this! In retrospect, selling monthlies really looks idiotic. I'm trying to imagine what I was thinking at the time, and I'd have to say I was engaged in some serious self-deception. I kept thinking “ things will turn around.” They just never did, and I was unwilling to make the only decision that could have saved my business: stop selling monthlies.

What would you suggest could be changed to make the system work?

JRS: I think I already mentioned shattering and scattering Diamond. Plus leveling some massive fines on the major investors and owners of that corporation. Squeeze them dry. If there were a number of competitiors in the field of direct sales, it certainly couldn't hurt, and would likely lead to a diversification of the comics industry. More companies, more genres, more creators. Just my opinion, but I'm convinced I'm right.

RRS: The comic business needs to remake itself in the image of the book business. When I buy a novel, I don't buy a chapter at a time, I buy it all at once. It should be no different with comics. I think the stand-alone comic shop will largely die out in the next decade or two. The reason is that as the graphic novel industry matures and becomes more like the book industry, major book retailers will more fully stock graphic novels. This is already occurring. Big chain bookstores can sell graphic novels at their discounted prices and still make money because of their sales volume. And notice that they don't sell monthly comics!

The other reason the stand-alone comic business can't really survive is the difficulty of selling back issues. Once upon a time, if you wanted to read a story arc from a few years back you had to scour comic shops for back issues. Now you can either pick up a graphic novel or buy the whole run on eBay for a fraction of their cover prices. And of course you'll probably buy the graphic novel from a bookstore. That leaves the stand alone comic store selling back issues on eBay for pennies on the dollar. This is not a good business model.

So in the long run, as high quality graphic novels continue to be produced, more bookstores will expand into this product area. I think this will be good for the industry, and bad for the stand alone stores.

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

JRS: Well, there's nothing I could do, really, to have stopped Diamond Comics Distributors from becoming a monopoly. And, yes, it's my considered belief that the Diamond monopoly was probably the single greatest cause of the comic book implosion of the 90s. Yes, you can lay some of the blame on comic speculators from the card hobby, but far worse than that was the collapse of the direct sales distribution system into the hands of a single man. I think there was a very brief moment when a handful of the most influential comics creators and publishers could have made a stand and ensured that there would still be a number of distributors. But none of those people and companies had either the courage or foresight to put a stop to that hideous occurance. Diamond absorbed everyone else, and there you have it. Probably the worst single thing that ever happened to the industry. Frankly, because of that, I'm glad to be out of comics retailing. I try not to put any money into the hands of Steve Geppi.

RRS: I think I've already spelled that out: Don't sell monthlies.
How did downloading of comics from the web affect your business?
JRS: I was gone well before that happened.

RRS: I don't think this had a noticeable affect, but I think over the next few years this will be the preferred way to get serialized stories. It is the ultimate in low production costs. The trick is to get people to pay for things like this!

Everyone knows that retail stores deal with theft, it is an unpleasantly common occurence, did your store deal a lot with that and to what extent did it affect your success or failure?

JRS: Yes, there was always theft. Some theft hurt. Store break-ins were the worst, but insurance kept that from being too hideous a problem. Petty theft bothered me, but never threatened my retail existence. In addition, I had the reputation for physically beating the shit out of folk that I caught in the act of stealing. Any adult I caught stealing got my foot up their ass. And, no, I'm not kidding. Any kid I caught stealing got carted off by the cops.

RRS: Stealing was a huge problem, both with customers and employees. I'd recommend installing a good security system right away. I never really had a good system, and yet I still caught people stealing literally hundreds of dollars worth of product. I hate to think about how much just walked out the door. This is another advantage that online retailers have. It's hard to shoplift on the internet.

The most painful thing was catching friends stealing. I hired a buddy part time. This guy was in my weekly RPG group, and I considered him to be good friend. Well, my manager told me he thought my friend was stealing. I was pretty skeptical, but when confronted with the evidence, I had to admit it was happening. I had my manager fire him because I just couldn't bring myself to do it. The guy called me up right away with a bunch of BS excuses. I basically told him how disappointed I was. We also kicked him out of my game group.
What would you like to do now in the world of comics if anything?

JRS: I still make pitches to various comics publishers from time to time (I'm a published author and I have an abiding love of comics). I have a certain amount of disposable income that I like to spend on back issues that mean a lot to me. I've almost completed a run of all of the Ditko-created issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. I buy other back issues from time to time. Purely reading copies. No investment grade stuff for me. I like to read them, and I let other people read my old comics, too.

RRS: I still love the comics medium and I'm interested in scripting a story. I've got a plot kicking around in my head. I'm studying the comic greats to learn about pacing, dialogue, layout, etc. I'm going to script out a few issues and then try to hunt up a penciler. Who knows where it will go? I'm excited to give it my best shot and see what happens.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

FOOD as popular culture

I love cooking shows. But I do not love reality television shows, in fact, they seem to me to bring out the worst of humanity, and celebrate that. So you might think that I watch but do so as a guilty pleasure Gordon Ramsey's television series, Hell's Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares and assorted specials. I do not. Food to me is not the result of a high stress speed race to excellence. It might be, mind you, but when I watch chefs cook it is generally accompanied by soft music in the background a chef who speaks quietly. The idiom about sausage making should not be watched, is a true one, for more than food. Gordon Ramsey is someone I would likely get into a fight with, even if I were to therefore lose the competition. So the anger and loudness his shows have are not my style, however much they reflect the truth behind the doors of the kitchen of a major restaurant.

There is something to be argued for regarding watching the skills of chefs, and there is a joy in the expression of invention, of expertise, and of knowledge of food. I am far from an expert, but I can say that when I've ventured into meal making I've found some help in the food shows I've watched. But I've never cooked for many customers, all demanding excellence. So I do find watching Iron Chef and its cousins to be interesting, if not helpful in general. The foods created all reflect a need to create something from very little, and in that it is something to appreciate. Much like when I cooked in college, making ground turkey into ground turkey loaf. You make do, and if you are able, you make do and it is good.

The chefs I've learned most from are the ones who described flavors and textures, so that when I cook even if I am not a fan of what I am preparing for my wife, I can know it is good. (Salmon for instance.) Jeffrey Smith, the Frugal Gourmet was a chef who mostly shot his program in one take, being a person who wanted the effect to be as amazing in result as it was a miracle to have worked. Many episodes show mistakes, as you will no doubt make in the kitchen. My very favorite show about cooking was TWO FAT LADIES, which celebrated the greatest things about food and beverage and the family meal. They never counted calories, never worried, for them it was about life. Martin Yan and Stephen Yan are two chefs who cooked in a very entertaining way, and they showed me how to cook as well. I appreciate mostly Stephen Yan as his food definitely looked amazing.

Justin Wilson, homestyle Cajun chef was fun and entertaining, but I did not learn a lot from him. Christina Pirello uses whole foods, and teaches as much as she prepares cuisine. I like that a lot. And Tommy Tang is someone who makes cooking look easy, and his food looks amazing.

Food though, however good it is, is an expression of abundance, even affluence. You would not see celebrations of food where people are starving, they just eat it gratefully. I think it is important to remember this when watching food shows, that it is only because we have so much, that we can celebrate it so much. I am not trying to preach, here, if I were I'd link to THIS.

Enjoy your dinner, food is good.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


(Images here are not meant to challenge any ownership or copyrights and are intended solely as fair use.)

Media and culture shape perceptions. There are heroic images caught on camera, and there are tragic ones. Heroic images remind us of why we fight, or go to war, the tragic images remind us of the cost. Some people, rightly or wrongly, have argued that modern wars are now fought on the domestic front by media presentation of the war, the Government’s control of images produced by the war, and the perceptions that arise from the release of those images.

Popular culture does not create the images, but perceptions are planted and grown by seeing the images. There are moments in history that are not related to war or tragic event that are caught on film, and they are generally awe striking. But while they are rightly remembered, it is the photos that strike at the heart of our discontent and fears that change the world.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, it was almost surely fueled by the photographs that captured the emotional abuse and humiliation. When photos came back from Vietnam of a monk burning in protest and the wife of the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem calling it a sort of human barbecue, Americans were shocked, and horrified.

Popular culture is woven from many strands, images that burn into our collective memory are one strand of that tapestry.