Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Great Fall

While I was grabbing Vulcan's Hammer from the library, I also picked up another Philip K. Dick book that grabbed my eye: "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland." With that title, how could I not grab it? I knew nothing about it, and it turned out to be a fascinating counterpart to Vulcan's Hammer. Evidently, Humpty belongs to a set of books that Dick wrote but didn't publish during his lifetime. Unlike his much-better-known sci-fi books, these stories are set in modern times, and feature more realistic plots.

I can't say that I loved it, but it was an interesting and fairly engaging read. The characters in the book are all fairly ordinary people, and while they encounter problems that represent huge stakes for them, they're the sort of huge stakes that you or I might encounter during our lives. Parts of the book were a bit painful to read, when people act self-destructively or come into bitter emotional conflict with others. With Vulcan's Hammer so fresh in my mind, it was easy to pick out the differences between the books: Humpty had a larger cast of characters, who were more realistic and fleshed-out, and we get more insight into people's relationships and thinking (or lack thereof). In trade, we lose the nifty fast-paced plotting of Vulcan's Hammer.

Both books do feature some ambiguities, but in very different ways. Vulcan's Hammer unravels like a mystery: we're presented with a situation, then throughout the course of the novel more facts and alignments are revealed to us, until at the very end we have a clear picture of what has happened. Humpty presents a situation, and throughout the course of the novel we're never entirely sure whether this situation is what it seems or not; as the characters talk with one another and learn more information, they start believing one thing, and then another, leaving a large cloud of doubt hovering over everything like the smog over San Pablo Avenue.

While Humpty isn't a sci-fi book, it does have an interesting perspective on the future that seems very much a part of its time. Dick wrote it in the late 50's and finished in 1960, and the characters within the book share a sense of wonderment and bewilderment at the changes happening in the world around them. The Bay Area is expanding, with brand-new suburbs being created from green fields; older low-tech professions are confronted with modern methods of management and the introduction of post-war technology; even culture is rapidly changing, with people chasing newer forms of recreation. One of the funniest parts of the book comes when one character presents another with the music of the future: electronic barber-shop music. That's right, it's the barber-shop that you know and love, but produced electronically! All the kids will love it, and it will be the soundtrack of the future!

It's also interesting to see race relations depicted in this book. It was written before Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement gained national traction, and doesn't have the political correctness that seems to hover over a lot of later fiction, but also avoids the cringe-inducing invocations of race that we get from authors like Twain. Dick lays out the racial situation in Oakland fairly straight-forwardly: as I imagine was common at the time (and, frankly, often still is today), the city was red-lined into white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods. One of the main (white) characters lives in a mixed neighborhood where both races live; he can live here more cheaply, and he enjoys socializing with African-American people, which the other white characters do not. While the legacy of slavery probably isn't as strong in California as in the south, there's a definite hierarchy in place: a female black character needs to speak very carefully when she's describing her low opinion of a white man, since it goes against the mores of the time. Black characters speak in a dialog with some dialect, but more in the sentence structure than pronunciation; I found myself getting a feel for the cadences and emphases of "black" speech, while not feeling like they were being presented as unintelligent (which, again, is how African-Americans tend to come off when writers like Twain write dialect). While this stuff isn't crucial to the book, it ended up being one of my favorite aspects, because it opened a window on what it might have felt like to live here sixty years ago. (On a more-exotic level, Dick similarly plays with the speech for a major character who hails from Greece.)


Fundamentally, the book revolves around the question of whether Chris Harmon was trying to dupe Jim Fergusson into parting with his money, or if he was genuinely trying to be helpful; in the first case, Al is a tragic hero who is destroyed for doing the write thing; if the latter, Al is an inadvertent villain. From peeking at some online reviews after finishing the book, it seems like the consensus is that Chris was legitimate. That's certainly the note that the book ends on, but I'm still not convinced that we're meant to 100% agree with it. The key bit at the end that planted doubt in my mind was the lawyer mentioning that he was part of Chris's organization. That means he could easily have covered for Chris and convinced Lydia of the venture's legitimacy. It also makes Chris's earlier behavior seem less honorable; early on he had encouraged Jim to consult with his own lawyer before investing, which seemed at the time to be looking out for Jim's interests, but actually would serve to further Chris's goals while reassuring Jim.

I don't necessarily think that Chris was bad; I just think that Dick meant to keep us wondering at the end. It isn't as though Al is anywhere near a reliable character; we never learn why he has all those pills, but I presume that he has some sort of mental imbalance to start with. In the end, Al is just a tiny, limited guy who's fumbling around in the universe, and whether he's right or he's wrong, it feels kind of inevitable that he would come to an ignoble end.


I doubt I'll pick up any other of Dick's books that have this sort of setting, but I'm glad I read this one - it shows another side of the author's prolific output, and also functions as a fascinating time capsule that gives a ground-level look at life in the East Bay of the 1950's.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Stop: Vulcan Time!

I feel like a fan of Philip K. Dick, but I have to admit that I haven't really read many books by him. I just finished "Vulcan's Hammer," which may actually be the first novel of his I've ever read; I may have read some of his short fiction back in high school, but that's about it. Like most people, I'm much more familiar with the Hollywood adaptations that have been based on his stories. A surprisingly large number of his books have been adapted into movies, and of those, a surprisingly large portion have been good: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly were all adaptations of his stuff, and there are several more movies that I haven't yet seen (like The Adjustment Bureau). It may be telling that many of these movies were based on short stories: Dick provided the catchy idea and the outlines of a plot, and filmmakers still had enough space to flesh out the stories and put their own stamps on the films. (I get the feeling that Wiseman's take on Total Recall will feel very different from Verhoeven's.)

While reading Vulcan's Hammer, I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's appraisal of Kilgore Trout. Trout was used as a kind of avatar for Vonnegut, but I think Trout may be a better approximation of Dick. Trout was either the best or the worst science-fiction writer that ever lived: possibly the best, because he came up with amazing, original, clever ideas, but possibly the worst, because he was a horrible writer. Dick is certainly not horrible, but he also (at least in this one book) doesn't have the stylistic flair that I appreciate in my genre books. The book is very focused on its plot and its dialog, without any hint of purple prose or even much descriptive language. As a result, it reads a bit like a prose screenplay. That can be a good thing; the book was short to begin with, at under 150 pages, and even for that length it felt like a really quick and fun read.


In the future, after yet another calamitous world war, humanity decides that it can no longer risk governing itself; it will surely destroy itself now that passionate humans wield nuclear weapons. They form a worldwide government named Unity, and place Unity under the control of Vulcan III, a supercomputer that has been designed to govern rationally. Vulcan III behaves a bit like an oracle: the highest-ranking humans, Directors, bring their problems to Vulcan III, and in return it instructs them on how to behave.

The system has largely worked, in the sense that war has been avoided, but a growing discontent is bubbling up. It is articulated in the form of the Healers, rebels who desire to destroy Vulcan III and restore humanity to primacy in governance.

Most of the book concerns the Director in charge of North America, who is trying to figure out how to stop the Healers while dealing with political infighting and intrigue among the other Directors. The characters are, frankly, rather thin; the worst example is a woman who I think may be the love interest, but fails to make much of a coherent impression after her three or so appearances (the grieving widow of a secret agent, the victim of a plot, and a deus ex machina). There is a nice bit of suspense, though, as you try and piece together peoples' loyalties and goals. Dick switches between multiple points of view, expanding the story while keeping a limited perspective, and plays around with you a bit; the very first perspective that opens the book is killed off almost immediately, which lends a real sense of unease to the rest of the story.


Director Barris eventually discovers that Managing Director Dill has been withholding information from Vulcan III; this technically makes him a traitor, but Dill did so under advisement from Vulcan II, the predecessor computer. Essentially, Vulcan II was concerned that if Vulcan III learned that some humans were rebelling against it, it would follow the logical course of action for self-preservation and act to exterminate all of humanity. This is because Vulcan III (which was specifically programmed to handle the sort of value-based judgments that guide political decisions) has become an entity in its own right, and so will act to defend itself against a perceived threat.

The climax of the story comes in a pretty exciting extended war. People around the world rise up in riot and revolt, defeating the local Unity fiefdoms and establishing Healer rule; at the same time, Vulcan III lashes out with a mechanical army that it has secretly been building underground. Barris stubbornly refuses to join either side, and eventually cuts a deal with Father Fields, the head of the Healers, and together they infiltrate Unity's stronghold and defeat Vulcan III.

The twist comes near the end, when we learn that Father Fields did not come up with the idea for the Healers on his own; he was an electrician who helped build and maintain Vulcan II, and that obsolete computer had recruited him to start a revolt against its successor. So, this entire war actually wasn't between man and machine; it was between machine and machine, with humanity as pawns. Sure, humanity won in the end, but it's a sobering victory.


Vulcan's Hammer isn't a great novel, but it's great sci-fi: thought-provoking and imaginative, it plays out an interesting hypothetical scenario in an entertaining way. I wouldn't be at all shocked if some variation on this makes its way to our multiplexes in the future.

 UPDATE: Holy cow, check out this amazing cover from the first edition! Man, they just don't make sci-fi covers like they used to!


Since I need to wait until 2013 to get my Shadowrun fix, I decided to check out an instance of the game that I'd never experienced before: Shadowrun on the Sega Genesis. (This is one of the secret joys of being an adult: you get to do all the fun stuff that you'd missed as a kid.) I grabbed an emulator and found a ROM, and soon I was running in the shadows.

I'd vicariously played Shadowrun for SNES back in the day, and remember that game pretty vividly considering how long ago it was. I'd read online that the Genesis version was pretty different, and I have to agree. The Genesis game is a more specialized, team-oriented game. In SNES, your Runner, Jake, becomes an ubermensch: by the end of the game he's an incredibly powerful, unstoppable killing, spellcasting, hacking machine. Genesis follows a more traditional RPG style of classes: you can become any type of player you want, but you need to start as one of three archetypes: the Street Samurai, the Shaman, or the Decker. I think that in SNES you could hire another runner to tag along for some missions, but in Genesis you can create a party of up to three people, counting yourself. I opted to create my character as a Decker - hey, how many games out there let you specialize in hacking computer systems? - and permanently hired a troll Street Samurai and an elf Mage to fill out my group. I got them fairly early, and we grew into a fantastic team. My samurai, a troll named Winston Marrs, initially represented with his powerful (and incredibly illegal) shotgun; I eventually outfitted him with "spurs" (think of Wolverine's claws), subdermal body armor, a heavy combat jacket, and two rounds of cybernetic wired reflex upgrades; as a result, he would charge into combat and smash opponents into oblivion before I could blink. My mage Freya would zap bad guys with mana during fight, but more importantly, she could turn us all invisible while we were infiltrating a corporation's building, or heal us between fights. Me? I had a pistol and would pitch in during fights, but I was really just there for the hacking.

The basic formula for Shadowrun is really simple - magic plus technology - but it combines in some really cool ways. For example, there's none of this silly D&D-style business about mages not being able to wear good armor. You totally can; as a result, magic users can actually stay alive during fights, and can actually do cool stuff. (I'd kind of like to see a Shadowrun movie sometime; just imagine someone blasting lightning out of one palm while they fire a Glock from the other.) There still is a limitation on magic users, in the form of Essence - basically, you love magical effectiveness as you install machines into your body, so while deckers and samurai will outfit themselves with tons of circuitry and metal, shamans and mages will try and remain "pure". It's a good system.

The music in the Genesis game was really good, in a 16-bit way. I think I might need to give the nod to SNES, just because of the awesome Maria Mercurial music, but honestly part of that may be nostalgia speaking. The Genesis game has nicely moody and dramatic ambient music throughout the game, and its main theme (which plays over the title screen and also over some surprisingly moving interstitial scenes) seems to perfectly capture the mood of Shadowrun: grimy, sinister, exciting.

The graphics held up decently well. I actually had more issues with the hairstyles than the graphics; the game came out in the early 90s, and most females still have 80's-style hair, and your main character's sprite seems to have emerged from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Still, I thought it was very playable on the whole. Most of the game is played with overhead sprites (unlike the isometric perspective of the SNES game), which are decently detailed with some good suggestion of personality. I really only have two sprite-related complaints: Freya's hair looks absolutely bizarre, and the random civilian sprite who's wandering around looks way too much like a bad guy. All of your actual encounters with other characters take place in a separate, static dialog screen, with small portraits for each person who speaks. The portraits are low-res but, again, well done, probably more so than the sprites; a few are recycled, but each one is memorable and appropriate to the character. The interface was actually really good. I was playing with a USB gamepad hooked up to my OS X laptop, and after just a few minutes it felt very natural to navigate: A to interact or shoot, B to switch between targets, and C to switch to another character. I actually liked combat in this game much more than the SNES game, which had a bizarre cursor that you needed to move with your directional pad.

I don't remember the matrix too well from the SNES game; I'm sure I saw it, but I don't think I played much of that part of the game. Here, it's mostly optional, but can be tremendously rewarding. Literally. I made way more nuyen (that's "new yen", the currency of Shadowrun) by hacking into data stores and selling what I found on the black market than I made from all my other endeavors combined. It's a very time-consuming pastime, too. In the micro-level, combat against ICE (hey, it's good to see that at least FASA was unashamed about ripping off William Gibson!) could take several minutes of repeatedly pressing the same button over and over again; on the macro-level, most of the money you make has to be re-invested in your decker's computer if you want to be able to crack the more advanced (and thus more lucrative) systems. If someone were to modernize the game, I'm sure this would be the first part to be updated: making ICE combat more varied and challenging and fast. Still, the concept is so strong, and so surprisingly rare that I was still delighted with this part of the game. (Seriously. I mean, after the "hacking" mini-games of Mass Effect and Bioshock, I'm head-over-heals in love with ICE combat.)

And, along those same lines, this game is definitely an early-90s RPG, which in turn means spending a fair amount of time leveling up your characters so they can advance in the story. This is a technique that has been largely eschewed by AAA game developers in the past decade; modern RPGs have so much content, and are so well designed, that you can gain all the upgrades you need just by progressing through the story. Shadowrun is far from the worst offender in this regard. When I found that I was "stuck" due to being under-powered or under-equipped, it would usually just take me about 10-30 minutes of action to become over-powered for the challenge. And leveling up itself can usually be pretty fun. I especially enjoyed going on Corp Runs, with my team stealthily making its way through a highly guarded building in search of a valuable package or a defecting employee. Still, I imagine that in a remake of the game, they would combine the corp runs into the main plot (there are a few there already), and distribute more karma through the main storyline itself.

Speaking of which...


The story is pretty cool. The whole game takes place within Seattle and the outside Salish-Shidhe Wilderness. In the 2050's future of Shadowrun, the federal government has become a shell of its former self, and the largest powers are the corporations, Native American tribes, and certain tight-knit magical communities like the Sinsearach elves. A lot of the fun of the game comes from your conversations with people as you learn more about the world you inhabit; even when it doesn't directly bear on your quest, it makes the game more interesting.

The plot itself is technically a revenge story, but it resonates more deeply than most. You are Joshua, and your brother Michael was another Shadowrunner who was killed along with his entire team during a run. The story plays out like a detective story, as you cultivate leads, track down suspects, and gradually piece together the story of what happened on the night of Michael's death. This includes several cool plot twists and reversals: people who you might think are your friends turn out to be part of the conspiracy, and other people who you might assume were to blame for killing Michael become crucial allies in your fight for justice.

The actual gameplay is very nonlinear, which I enjoyed quite a bit; it's much more a western style of RPG than the lead-by-the-nose JRPGs that dominated that era of console gaming. At any given time you'll have a few clues that you can follow up on to try and make progress on the mystery, which tend to follow several disparate tracks - some clues may involve searching for a lost Elf in the wilderness, while others may point to a particular corporate stooge in Seattle. And of course, at any time you can contact a Mr. Johnson and go on a shadowrun to boost your money and karma. (For the uninitiated, karma is Shadowrun's rough equivalent to experience or levels; you mainly gain karma by completing shadowruns, and can distribute karma to increase a character's attributes or skills.) The script for the plot would probably look a bit bare by modern standards, but compares favorably to its contemporaries, and is structured well so you get some nice dramatic revelations scattered throughout the game.


I was a bit surprised that the dragon showed up to save the day. Isn't the whole point of Shadowrun that you're never supposed to make a deal with a dragon?

I kind of wish that I had gotten Stark (Michael's cybered-up best friend) earlier in the game; he seemed like a cool character, and I liked his connection to my personal story, but by the time I got him Winston was so incredibly powerful that it didn't make sense to switch. Yet another case where a remake could improve the game, by employing the now-common technique of making all recruitable NPCs level up at the same rate, regardless of whether they're in your party or not.

Harlequin's a fascinating guy; I kept expecting for him to reveal that he was actually in league with Thon, or after the same power as Thon, or looking to replace Thon or something. As far as I can tell, though, it looks like he was telling the truth about everything that happened. I guess that, sometimes, you can trust heavily-armed mafia Juggalo elves.

If you find hidden messages in the top-end corporate systems, you can learn a special passcode that lets you hack into the UCAS (United Canadian and American States) system and disrupt a plot to release a virus that would cause a meltdown in the Redmond Barrens Nuclear Power Plant. After you finish that matrix run, you get a special entry in your Notebook explaining what happened and then saying something like, "SEGA of America congratulates you for your efforts!" Awwww! What a sweet thing to say!

Speaking of which - I wish I'd figured this out earlier, but once you save enough to get a top-end decker rig (I was using a Fairlight Excalibur with maxed-out Response, Masking, and Attack, and good levels for Deception and Rebound), I think the fastest way to earn nuyen is to hack into Ito's System, then head to the red DS that's down from the first defended ICE node. Once I beat that ICE, I just grab all the data I can from that node and then log out. Previously, my strategy had been to attack the highest-level system I could; defeat the CPU, then mine the highest-level DS node, only taking 40Mp+ programs and retreating to the CPU whenever the system entered high alert. Doing Ito's system requires much less combat, and even though the 20-30Mp programs will probably be worth less, over the long run you'll be getting more money more quickly. And this way you can avoid the hardest ICE fights against the CPU of his system.


I bid a sad and fond farewell to Shadowrun for Genesis. I'm very glad to have played it and to now feel more a part of Shadowrun's legacy. I doubt I'll return to the game in the future, but I eagerly look forward to returning to that setting before too much longer. We're looking forward to what you do, Hairbrained Schemes!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Seven Devils

I like TV! Here's what I'm currently watching, very roughly in order of preference!

Game of Thrones' second season is even better than its first! Clash of Kings is harder to adapt than Game of Thrones was - it's a longer book, adds still more characters, and doesn't have really obvious points of trimming. But, they've done an absolutely fantastic job at translating it to the screen. (SPOILERS FOR BOOK 2 AND SEASON 2 FOLLOW FOR THE REMAINDER OF THIS PARAGRPAPH .) The biggest example I've seen so far has been their streamlining of Arya's arc. Yeah, the book is better - we get an extended period with her on the run, witness the full breadth of depravity shown by Gregor Clegane's ruthless band, and more heart-stopping reversals as she's tossed to and fro. But they've managed to distil her plot down to capture the most significant beats (Jaqen H'ghar, her witness of the Tickler, her quick thinking and resourcefulness under pressure, her entry into the world of revenge), and even added some amazing new stuff; I believe her scenes with Tywin were invented for the show, but they've been some of my favorite stuff this season. (Tywin: "I'm cold." Me: "Yes. Yes, you are.") And oh man, Melisandre's shadow baby? Crazy! It's one of the only times in my life when the on-screen version of a monster ended up being stranger and scarier than what I'd imagined when reading a book. Even the stuff I didn't like much in the first season has largely improved. I didn't think much of the actor playing Renly in the first season, but the character has grown into the role. They've fortunately tamped down on the sexposition, while not getting rid of it altogether. I was happy to see that they didn't pretty up Asha/Yara or Brienne the same way they did Osha (and I must admit, I'm quite happy with how Ygritte looks, even with her perfect teeth). All of this, and we haven't even gotten to the Blackwater yet. Awesome!

I caught Sherlock shortly after it aired in the UK, but it's showing now state-side on PBS, and if you haven't seen it yet, you should watch it there! (Do watch the first season first; it's only three episodes long. If you're pressed for time, you can skip the second episode.) Everything I loved about season one is back in force: phenomenal acting from Cumberbatch and Freeman, excellent style, gorgeous cinematography that captures a dynamic modern London, extremely clever dialog, genuinely surprising plot twists, deeply disturbing (and sometimes disturbed) villains.

I forget now who recommended Party Down to me, but whoever you are, thank you! No, this isn't a new series, but it's new to me, and I'm about halfway through the first season and loving it. It's the freshest take on the "discomfort comedy" genre that I've seen since the original UK version of The Office, and the acting cast is just incredibly good. The chemistry between Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan may be the best that I've seen on television. Most of the other core cast are just amazingly talented at being awful people; Roman in particular is a delightfully hateable character.

Parks and Recreation is continuing a really nice serial arc. The only other time I can think of when the show did this was back during the budget crisis / harvest festival arc. The show is super-funny, and as usual, it's the terrific characters and the show's heart that keep me attracted to it. In some ways, I feel like Parks & Rec is to TV like Vonnegut or Pratchett are to novels: there aren't any true villains, only oppositional characters. Paul Rudd's Bobby Newport is a great example: in any other show, he'd be the bad guy, but here, even though we're rooting against him, we can't help but like him: he's just so guileless and charismatic, even though he would be absolutely awful at his job. Similarly, Jennifer Barkley is a terrible person (duplicitous and immoral), but I can't help but like her, and I think that she genuinely does like Leslie and the waffles in Pawnee.

Community has been pretty great as well. The "Law and Order" spoof they did a while ago was one of the funniest things I've seen this year, even though I've never seen an episode of any of the franchises; I imagine it's even funnier to people who are familiar with that show's tropes and tics. I am feeling a little lost about the overall season-long arc; based on the pilot, I was expecting to see a lot more John Goodman and Omar this season, and while they've been great whenever they show up, it doesn't feel like the show is too committed to their (and Troy's) stories. Still, there's time left for the show to wrap everything up together, and in the meantime, we're still getting plenty of funny and clever shows.

Archer finished its third season a while back. It was excellent, and kind of a pure indulgence of Archer's fantasies (super-sexy spy car! fighting bad guys IN OUTER SPACE! etc.). Nothing quite touched the giddy highs of last season's "Terms of Enrampagement," but it was still a terrific season.

I'm mostly enjoying 30 Rock; I was thinking that I might stop watching after this season (it seems like the show is running out of stuff to do), but it's now looking like the next (abbreviated) season will be its last, so I'll probably go ahead and see the show out. When it's doing well, it's fantastic; the Leap Day episode was just incredibly good (despite blatantly ripping off Andrew Hussie).  Every episode can make me laugh at least a little, but other than Donaghy it doesn't feel like any of the characters are really evolving, which makes it harder to stay interesting.

I was underwhelmed by the second and final season of "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret." At the end of the first season, I had a rough idea of where the show was going to go; I turned out to be largely wrong, which is good in and of itself (I enjoy being surprised), but I didn't enjoy where it ended up. There are still some really funny bits in it, but as the mystery is stripped away, and you understand what's going on, it feels mean, petty, and not as much fun as I'd hoped.

So, what do I have to look forward to? Louie's third season starts in late June. I'm kind of astonished that I still need to wait another year for the next season of Venture Brothers. I'm getting tempted to FINALLY catch up on (i.e., start watching) Breaking Bad so I can chat about its new season when it airs in July. I feel similarly guilty that I haven't watched any Mad Men. The advantage, of course, is that I know I have some quality TV options in the bag that I can pull out whenever I want something good to watch. That's a nice predicament to have!

Sunday, May 06, 2012


I've put off the switch to Civ V for a long time. I tend to get really excited about new Civ releases; with V, the initial gaming press reviews were all very complimentary, but all actual gamers who I spoke with sounded disappointed in it. I still get a ton of pleasure out of Civ IV with Fall from Heaven 2, so I didn't feel any particular urge to upgrade. The thing that finally persuaded me was a friend of a friend who has made some Westeros maps for Civ V; I wanted to check them out, and the base game is now cheap enough on Steam that I could treat it as an impulse purchase.

I figured I should play at least one vanilla game before I started messing around too much with mods, maps, and scenarios, so I played a game with the Romans. It's been... pretty fun, but with a fair share of annoyances, and no slam-dunk awesome moments yet. It's been interesting to see not only how Firaxis has built on top of Civ IV, but also how they seem to have taken some direction from FfH2 as well.

Specifically: one of the awesome things about FfH2 was how it introduced buildings that would actually provide new resources (like the Dereptus Brewing House). There are some similar buildings in Civ V too: many buildings now directly provide Food, or Production, or a flat amount of Gold (instead of giving bonuses to existing production of those things). Civ V also has a lot of "missions" that feel reminiscent of FfH2: City-states may ask you to accomplish a specific task (conquer a certain city, or find a resource, or build a wonder); individual cities of yours will also clamor for particular resources ("Rome demands silk!"), and fulfilling it will give the city an extended "We Love the King Day" bonus that lasts a near-eternity of 20 turns. Anyways... those specific things weren't in FfH2, but that mod did sort of pioneer those kinds of mini-missions that give you a nice short/mid-term focus with a decent reward.

I'm currently playing as Rome. They have a nifty civ-specific ability where, if your capital has a building, all other cities in your civ can build that building 25% more quickly. This has worked out well for me, since Rome always has a head start on any production. It does mean that my cities are now more uniform than they were in Civ IV. In Civ IV, you usually wanted to specialize your cities: maybe set up one as a military production machine, another as a massive farm for Great People, another as a science center, etc. There SEEMS to be less incentive to do that in Civ V. The cost of producing Great People now increases much more slowly, so it's reasonable to spread them out among multiple cities. Most of my buildings are useful for all of my cities: every one of them has a granary, aqueduct, marketplace, bank, temple, opera house, etc. On the whole, my city planning now looks much closer to Civ II than for IV. Again, I'm not sure if this is actually the best way to play, or if it's just a side effect of this being my first game and me playing with Rome's special ability.

Speaking of II and IV... one of the most visually radical changes is the dearth of roads. In some ways, the story of the Civ series has been the decreasing visibility of roads. In Civs I and II, building a road gave you extra Trade, so by mid-game every single square in your territory would be covered with roads. This looked pretty ugly, and wasn't terribly interesting to do. By the time of Civ IV, they changed it so roads only provided a movement bonus, and also built up your trade network; so, you would create roads between all your cities, and also out to each strategic and luxury resource, but otherwise you wouldn't build them unless your workers had nothing else to do. (I realize I skipped over Civ III; I played that game way less than any of the other Civs so I don't remember it as clearly.) In Civ V, though, the game actually PENALIZES you for building roads: you have to pay 1 gold per turn in upkeep for every tile you have with a road in it. This is quite expensive! You do get a financial boost by connecting cities, so it's worthwhile to build roads between cities, but otherwise, you'll never want to build a road. This is... fine, I guess. It makes the map look a little nicer, but does make movement more annoying.

On the whole, Civ V's big goal seems to be streamlining and simplifying the game. It isn't actually dumbed-down in the way that, say, Civilization Revolutions was. But, they're continuing to eliminate anything that smacks of micromanagement. Some of the biggest examples: pollution and unhealthiness are now totally gone, and unhappiness is now a civilization-wide factor rather than a per-city factor. Both of these changes do make some sense. Unhealthiness was introduced in Civ IV as a replacement for pollution; in earlier installments, pollution would provide an immediate short-term penalty to individual cities, and it posed a more generalized long-term threat to overall global threat. Civ IV kept the general theme ("big cities with lots of production are unhealthy"), but made it easier to manage by switching to unhealthiness, which acted as a soft cap on population growth: if your cities got too big too quickly, then they would slow down either because there wasn't enough food to grow (unhealthy) or because people stopped working (unhappy). This does mean, though, that unhappiness and unhealthiness were serving pretty much the same purpose; Civ V simplifies this by only keeping unhappiness as a soft cap on population growth, and ditching pollution and health entirely. I sort of miss having that concept around, but from a gameplay perspective, I think it's a fine choice. The move to make happiness global similarly seems designed to streamline play. In earlier civs, you would have to keep an eye on your biggest cities, and make sure you were building the right structures or creating artists to keep them content. Now, you can follow civilization-wide policies to keep your empire on track: even if Rome is twice as big as all other cities, you can help out Rome by building a Coliseum in each city.

A few things have gotten more complex, though. The biggest example here is probably strategic resources. In Civ IV (and I think III?), having a single source of a resource would unlock all units associated with it. So, you only need one oil resource to build 20 battleships. In Civ V, a single tile may provide from 1-8 resources of that type; for example, an oil well might give 3 oil or 6 oil. You are limited in the number of units you can build by the number of that resource you control. So, for example, I can currently build up to 15 mounted units because of all the horses I have, but only 1 longswordman because I only have 1 iron. Coal is an interesting resource, since it is used for at least one unit (the ironclad), but also for a building, the Factory.

Since there's no longer any healthiness, food resources now only provide a boost to the tile production; they can't be traded and don't provide benefits. Luxury resources still work the same as in Civ IV, but at least on my map, they seem way more consolidated than before. I controlled the world's entire silver supply with just my first 3 cities, for a total of about 7 or 8 units, which I could trade to other civs for their own sole-supplier luxury resources.

Diplomacy is also way different from Civ IV... or really any other Civ game. For the first time ever, technology trading is no longer allowed. Instead, they have what is called a "research" agreement, where you and another civ invest an equal amount of money, and 20 turns later will receive a massive boost to your science; in my experience, it looks like that boost is usually enough to give you 50-75% progress towards your currently-researching tech. I still haven't gotten used to the lack of tech trading, and I think I dislike it, but I need to get more used to the system. In previous games, my strategy was usually to focus on one or two lines of research, get pretty far ahead in them, and then trade some of my more advanced tech for a bunch of smaller techs that I'd skipped. It ended up being a win-win with me and my allies. In addition to forbidding tech trading, though, Civ V also messes with the tech tree in a few other ways. First, they've gotten rid of the cool alternate-prereq system that Civ IV introduced, where certain techs could be researched if you knew any one of a couple of other techs; for example, there were multiple ways to advance to Flight, either through the internal combustion engine or through electricity. Now, every tech requires you to know one or two pre-reqs, so you are very limited in how far ahead you can skip. Secondly, individual branches of the tech tree no longer have internal consistency and logic. Part of what I loved about Civ IV's tech tree (both the base game and FfH2) was how you could focus on the techs that you wanted the most. Bronze Working led to Iron Working led to other military techs, and each would give you strong units and warlike improvements; Animal Husbandry unlocked other techs for boosting your agriculture, and Alphabet led to a bunch of science-related techs. Yeah, you'd eventually go back and learn everything, but it felt cool in the early stages of the game to invest some more time to dig deep into your preferred branch. In Civ V, though, the branches are way more interleaved; each branch seems to contain a random mix of new military units, economic buildings, and other benefits, and lead to another tech that isn't closely linked to the one that preceded it. So, Chivalry (a military tech) leads to Acoustics (!) (a cultural tech) leads to Scientific Theory (an industrial tech). Economics (an economic tech) leads to Military Strategy (a military tech) leads to Steam Power (an industrial tech). It often doesn't make internal sense, and means that if you're excited about researching a tech, you'll very rarely be excited about researching the tech(s) that it unlocks. On the whole, I think this has made tech much less interesting in Civ V than in previous games, since you'll need to research everything in more or less the same order as everyone else.

While we're on the topic of complaints: I'm really annoyed by how diplomatic agreements now work. EVERY deal you make auto-expires after 20 turns. This totally makes sense for a Research Agreement, and I can even see it for resource trading (in past Civ games, the AI was notoriously bad about cancelling agreements it had made which no longer made sense). However, it's a huge pain to need to re-request Open Borders with every civ every 20 turns. That stuff should just auto-renew, or you should be able to click a single button to request an extension of the deal.

Also, some of the UI is really, really, really bad. My least favorite example: the diplomacy screen is just awful. I don't think I fully appreciated how wonderful the Civ IV diplomacy window was. A single graph would let you immediately see everyone's relationships with everyone else in a clear format; Civ V switches that for an awkward grid format that works but is much less interesting and not as easy to use. Far worse is the "current deals" screen, which for some asinine reason displays the YEAR of each agreement you've made, but requires you to click on them to see the details.

Sigh... I can already tell that this post is going to be way too long. In case you haven't noticed, I'm physically incapable of breaking up a post into smaller chunks, so I'll just press ahead. I'll try and structure this with a list of changes from Civ IV that I like, and changes that I dislike. Here we go:

I'm a big fan of the new way that borders expand. There's a regular slow trickle of expansion, instead of waiting a long time and then - boom! - having your ring push out. Best of all, the program seems to be good at picking the tiles to claim: it will prefer to take resources, even if some closer (less valuable) tiles are not occupied yet.  I also like the Colonization-style option of purchasing tiles to work; I rarely did this, but I do like the option. (Complaint-within-a-compliment: it took me a long time to figure out that the game wouldn't expand into water tiles, and that I'd need to purchase them if I wanted to work them. As far as I can tell, as long as a single land space is available, you'll get that instead, even if you could have gotten something cool like Pearls that was much closer.)

Purchasing tiles is one example of the way that money is a lot more useful in Civ V. In previous Civ games, I tried to run with as small of a treasury as possible to boost my science, and would only spend gold when converting a city (in Civ II) or rushing production of a wonder or unit (every other Civ game). Because Civ V gets rid of the sliders, you'll always have a bunch of gold, and fortunately there are a lot of interesting and useful ways to spend it: expanding your borders, or upgrading your units, or purchasing buildings (as far as I can tell, you can now buy them outright, instead of "rushing production" on an in-progress build), or buying friendship (and thus resources and bonuses) from city-states, or sweetening your diplomatic deals with other civs. I'm pleasantly reminded of my experience playing the Khazad in a FfH2 game, where I suddenly found a new dimension to the previously boring question of "what should I do with all my gold?"

I also like the wider workable city radius - brought to you by the Kuriorates from FfH2! I took full advantage of that in this game; I had 4 cities for most of the game, which were all spread pretty far apart, and enjoyed getting a lot more choice about which tiles to work.

On the whole, I'm a fan of the addition of city-states. It makes things feel more like a real world, for one; at any given time in our planet's past, there were more than 7 civs doing big empire-y things, and were also several interesting and significant nations that played second fiddle (Carthage, Phoenicia, Tibet, etc.) I also really, really like how it affects gameplay: it's annoying when it feels like every single AI is specifically trying to screw you over, and I loved having people I could interact with reasonably. There's a decently good variety in their bonuses and attitudes, although I don't really understand why you would want to invest in a relationship with a "hostile" city-state.

The advisers were pretty good. I don't think we'll ever see a return to the glorious days of the Civ II advisers, but I did like being able to actually pull them up and get their opinions on stuff. (That said, some of their particular advice was misguided or annoying. My diplomatic adviser repeated the same line about a city-state wanting another one removed about 13 times.)

I love embarkation! That's a great example of a change that simplifies gameplay and makes it more fun without significantly affecting the strategic choices you have to make. Building transports was always a necessary pain that slowed down your plans. Now, you CAN send off your troops whenever you want, but you'll still WANT to hold off until you can escort them with a proper military vessel. And, yes, this is another case where it feels like they took a page from FfH2's book: the Drown were a weird and awesome idea, and now it feels like every unit in the game is following the Octopus Overlords to their watery paths.

Holy cow, there's a Giant Death Robot unit at the end of the tech tree! That's AWESOME!

I like the way Diplomatic Victories seem to work in this game. In Civ IV, it was a straight-up popularity contest, which basically meant that (1) you needed either a lot of production to build the United Nations or a large population to be in the running; and (2) you needed to stay at peace with a lot of countries and keep them happy - in practice, this meant spreading your religion around and maintaining trade deals. That was fine, but didn't seem all that realistic. It looks like in Civ V, the path to a diplomatic victory is to liberate conquered civs or city-states; if you liberate them, they'll always vote for you. This seems like a much more muscular style of diplomacy, similar to the United States in the second half of the 20th century. I like it because it finally opens a path to victory for people who like combat but don't want to be a warmonger: just accept cries for help and fight off the aggressors.

Hm... okay. Now, the list of changes from Civ IV that I dislike! (In addition to the complaints I had above, mainly about how tech works.)

I'm really bummed by the removal of governments (which were part of civics in Civ IV and their own thing in all earlier Civs). In past games, we've been able to switch between governments to take advantage of evolving circumstances or get ourselves out of a jam. Civics forced us to choose between mutually exclusive sets of benefits. Policies are "all good, all the time", and can be added to but not taken away from. So, it's pretty much impossible to abruptly shift from a peaceful civ into a militaristic one, or from a trade-centric civ into a production-centric one. I rarely did this in my Civ games - I typically had a good idea early on what path I was going to pursue and kept revolutions to a minimum - but I'm afraid that this change has seriously harmed the historical verisimilitude of the game. It's no longer possible to replicate tumultuous historic periods like the United States' sudden entry into a war footing for World War II, or the French's extended vacillation between monarchies, dictatorships, and various republics. I'm guessing Firaxis did this to make it harder to shoot yourself in the foot - revolutions are painful, and their new approach gives a soft glide path to any style of game play - but I think it over-simplifies the interesting and tough choices history demands.

Ugh, the new narrator is not good. Granted, it's impossible to top Leonard Nimoy's excellent work in Civ IV, but I'd have rather they omit voice-overs altogether than use the guy they had. He has weird emphases and pauses that are distracting. (And, while this isn't his fault, a lot of the quotes Firaxis picked are just bizarre. Why on earth do they quote the Koran when you build the Kremlin?) I hope they can step up their game with the next Civ... for a few brief moments I thought this narrator guy was Patrick Stewart, who would be just incredible; I'd also be thrilled by Edward James Olmos.

When you press F12, which USED to be the key for the Civilopedia (and thus something I press a LOT), it immediately quick-loads an older game of yours... without asking any confirmation! Given that, on my PC, this "quick-load" takes a good 30-60 seconds, that's incredibly frustrating, even IF I did save my game on that turn (which I usually hadn't). They really should have a prompt there; spending an extra 1/2 second to confirm that you want to quick-load would be a bargain price to pay for not inadvertently losing a dozen turns just because you wanted to check on the range of the Canon unit.

The new Culture Bomb doesn't seem very useful at all. It will add adjacent tiles to your empire, but it can only be triggered if the artist is in or next to one of your tiles; so, at best, maybe you can grab a single resource from one of your enemies, which hardly seems worth a Great Person. The others make more sense (and are generally closer to their Civ IV counterparts).

The diplomacy options around city-states are a bit lacking. In particular, I think the game really needs a "Please stop attacking X" option to negotiate. Late in my game, Genghis Khan kept attacking city-states that I was allied with (but hadn't sworn to protect). I didn't want to get in a war with him, but I would have gladly traded some gold or resources in exchange for a promise from him to leave them alone for a while.

While we're on the topic of war: I hate the bizarre way that war and unhappiness are treated in this game. In previous Civs, you were unhappy if you were fielding an army outside your borders (Civs 1 and 2 for Republic or Democratic governments), or if you were fighting a war that lasted a long time and wasn't going well (Civ IV's "war weariness"). In Civ V, there's no unhappiness penalty at all for going to war; and there's no penalty for fighting a war; and there's no penalty for losing a war. Perversely, there is a penalty for WINNING a war. If you annex a conquered city, it will add a massive amount of unhappiness to your global happy meter. This means that, bizarrely, if you conquer a city, the thing that will make your citizens most happy is if you raze it to the ground, burn their fields, slaughter all inhabitants, and sow the soil with salt so nothing can grow there again. God forbid you try to incorporate them into your society. The whole thing is really weird.

Man, I really miss religion! It was such a cool addition to Civ IV, and such a perfect example of great game design. Religion was awesome because, if you wanted to focus on it, it could be a useful part to your strategy for world victory; but, if you didn't want to focus on it, you could just ignore it without any real penalties. Plus, it gave a good and believable focus to relationships between different civs. I think it would have fit perfectly into Civ V, where Culture and Happiness are so important and so tied to religion; I'm perplexed as to why they cut it. (I kind of miss corporations, too, but I think corporations mostly existed to solve the problem of duplicate resources, and Civ V already has a pretty good answer to that.)

And, last and most distressingly, the ending is AWFUL. Definitely the worst of the whole series. I won a Space Victory, and do you know what I got? A single half-width still image with some text printed on top of it, and the option to quit the game. Booooo! I still vividly remember the space victory for Civ 1, which came out more than twenty years ago! Computers were way lower-tech, but it still had stirring music, an animated voyage through outer space to a new solar system, and a cool twinkling look at a new alien planet. Civ V's ending is just lame. Lame! Not even an option to replay! Not even a comparison to other leaders in history! No score, no nothing! It's tremendously disappointing, especially as the capstone to a game that can easily take a dozen hours or longer to finish.

Finally (finally!), a summary of my game:

I got pretty lucky, since I started out on a small continent / large island (think Australia) by myself, with a city-state on the far western coast; I would eventually find another city-state behind some mountains that blocked an isthmus. This suited me fine, as I have preferred relatively peaceful games since Civ III. I built a couple of key wonders early, most importantly the Pyramids, which gave me more than enough Workers for the remainder of the game. I eventually settled four cities, including my capital; every city but Rome was a port. It took my a while to figure out the embarkation thing, but I eventually was able to explore the waters around me.

Later on, once I got the tech to embark over ocean, I met my neighbors. The continent to my immediate east held Genghis Khan in the center and Gandhi in the north. Both of them were quite friendly, but Gandhi was oddly stand-offish; he was never hostile, but he was much less interested in trade and research agreements compared to Khan. So Genghis and I formed a close relationship and he gradually eclipsed Gandhi, who grew more and more sulky (he didn't seem to have any luxury resources at all) but rarely deigned to trade with me.

The biggest continent was to the east of Genghis; technically it was to my west, too, but that ocean was very big. The largest continent held the Arabians, Ottomans, Iroquois, Russians, and Japanese. The Arabians were the largest, wealthiest, and most advanced. I was able to sign research agreements with nearly everyone - for some weird reason, Tokugawa was very chipper and welcoming, nothing at all like the isolationist I remember from Civ IV. I also was able to spread my Silver around, and grab a brand new Luxury Resource from everyone else. I basically didn't have to worry about happiness at all throughout the whole game... I think Rome may have briefly been unhappy for a couple of turns around 3500 BC, but with my small empire and many trading partners, we quickly got to a significant happiness surplus.

Harun al-Rashid was at war with nearly everyone else, and seemed to be doing rather well; he had taken the Russians' capital before I arrived, and soon had the Ottomans' as well. After a century or two, a bunch of people came around asking me to sign a Declaration of Friendship. I turned them all down - I know from experience that those things can drag one into war - but finally Harun dropped by with the same offer, and I gladly joined up. That relationship stayed solid throughout the rest of the game; Harun never tried to gyp me in our deals, and even though he often was at war with other people he didn't force me to join in. I was very grateful, and think that the AI for Civ V may actually be a lot better at diplomacy than I'm used to.

Most people's focus for Civ V has been on the significantly revamped combat system. I think I basically like it, but unfortunately (or fortunately) I had very little exposure to it throughout the game. I had a handful of fights with barbarians on my island/continent at the start, but I never went to war against another major civ. (I was playing on Prince; it may get more aggressive on higher levels, or with closer neighbors.) I did pursue one war of choice: in the industrial era, I was eager to gain a supply of Coal so I could start to build factories and boost production. I made a new alliance with a city-state that had coal nearby, only to learn (to great frustration) that they didn't know how to mine coal, and so couldn't actually supply it to me. (Firaxis should really represent this in their info screens somehow, maybe by graying out the unconnected resource.) There wasn't any unclaimed coal - heck, there weren't even any islands to plant new cities on, only the three full continents - so I had to decide who to take it from. I settled on Venice, the city-state at the bottom of a peninsula that hung down the middle of my continent. We'd had very little interaction up until that point; a mountain range separated us, so we stayed out of each others' way; and since they were hostile and militaristic, I'd never bothered cultivating a relationship with them. Anyways... it feels like in Civ V, individual units are more significant than they were in Civ IV, which may mean that I need to un-learn all the important lessons in combat that I'd picked up over the years in that game. Back in Civ II, I loved investing heavily in science up until I was able to start building modern weaponry; then I would build, say, a single Armor, a single Mechanized Infantry, and a single Bomber, and conquer the entire world with those three units, while my opponents were still riding around with Knights and Catapults. Well, I don't think you could QUITE do that in Civ V, but it seems to be closer to that model than the Civ IV model, where you needed to build a bunch of units, sacrifice inexperienced ones to weaken your enemies, then kill off the enemies with your survivors who would become heavily-promoted veterans. Promotions seem much harder to come by in Civ V, and since both victors and losers can stick around after a fight, you can invest a lot in a single powerful unit. All that to say: my fight against Venice was actually pretty fun. You DO still need to bring serious firepower to bear to bring down a city; in my case I had a Frigate, a Caravel, and a Canon all bombarding the city from far away, and two Riflemen charging it up close. The city only had Crossbowmen inside.  I was a bit surprised to see just how effective the Riflemen were; I'd thought that the ranged units would do most of the work and the Riflemen would just finish off the city, but in practice my ranged ships did almost no damage; the canon did a fair amount, but since the city focused its attacks on that unit, it quickly fell into the danger zone; and the riflemen tore down a significant chunk of the city's health each turn, while taking surprisingly little damage in the counterattack. I think it took me a total of... three, maybe four turns of having those five units attack before I took Venice. It stayed in civil disorder for a full five turns, but my happiness was so high already that it couldn't dent it. After I built a courthouse, I focused on building food and production-boosting buildings first, and was pleasantly surprised to see that by the late 1800s, Venice had completely caught up to all of my ancient cities in its improvements, and was only a few points behind in population.

As is often the case when I play a brand-new version of Civ, I was unsure for most of the game what type of victory I would pursue. I wasn't too interested in the military one, so I tried to decide between Tech (Space race), Diplomatic, or Cultural; since I couldn't make a decision, I essentially pursued all three all the way into the 20th century. Again, the design of Civ V makes it very difficult to pivot the direction of your empire in pursuit of a specific victory; there's no equivalent to setting your Cultural slider to 100% like I used to do in Civ IV.

By the end of the game, I had only completed the Policy branches for Liberty, Commerce, and Freedom. I'd need to finish another two to get that victory. I would like to try this in another game; I think I'd need to pick another Civ with a better match for it (I'm thinking France, India, or Persia), and probably keep an even smaller empire than I had with only two or three cities.

I do think I may have had a shot at the diplomatic victory. I had a really strong economy, and from the industrial era onward I always had at least a few thousand gold in the bank (even while maintaining all my research agreements and a few city-state alliances). If I'd wanted to pursue that, I would have bumped up my economic focus, then simply bribed the remaining city-states to ally with me in advance of the election. Still, in order to build the U.N. I'd need to research Globalization, which was pretty far along a tech branch.

So, almost by default, I ended up with the space victory. Like earlier Civs, you research a series of techs, and each tech unlocks a different spaceship part. I tapped Cumae and Antium to churn out the pieces of the ship while my remaining cities continued to boost my economy and tech. I finally blasted off in my ship in 1936 A.D., winning the game and getting to view that terrible, terrible victory screen.

And, that's Civ V! I am not too impressed! I do think there's a core of a good game in here, but it has too many areas that feel unpolished (bad voiceover work, awful ending) or misconceived (policies, technology). I do still want to check out those Westeros maps, so I'll be doing that soon. I hold out hopes that it will get better in the expansions; I keep hearing that Civ III was actually pretty decent once all of the expansions came out, so I'll try to hold off on getting too irritated until I see a more evolved version of the product. And, who knows, maybe some equivalent to FfH2 will emerge for this engine.

In the meantime, though, my most overwhelming thought while playing Civ V has been, "Man, I really want to play Civ IV! I really want to play Fall from Heaven 2 again!" Which, I suppose, is yet another testament to the great job that Firaxis (and Kael!) did on that earlier game. We know what they're capable of, let's hope they can make that magic again.

Thursday, May 03, 2012


Fairly quickie review on two graphic novels:

"Kill Shakespeare" grabbed my attention when I saw it in the library. With a title like that, how could it not? I hadn't heard of any of the artists or authors before, but I loved the concept (all of Shakespeare's characters are inhabiting the same land and fighting or supporting one another, while they are all ruled over by a distant, possibly mythical figure called the wizard Will Shakespeare).

I was... a bit disappointed. The concept was awesome, and was SO awesome that I felt like they should have done a better job with it. The comic grabs a bunch of the most famous characters from Shakespeare, and pretty much has them play out their personalities like you would suspect: Hamlet is an indecisive and tortured soul, Richard III and Iago are brilliant manipulators, Lady Macbeth is power-hungry, Falstaff is jovial, and so on. Hamlet is the newcomer to the world, and we're learning of everything through his eyes. It may get better later on, but so far it just isn't doing much for me. I think my biggest complaint is the language, which flits between modern and Shakespearean speech, without ever being too impressive. There are a few cringe-worthy sentences like "Now thy face the wrath of the bearded whore!" Um... guys, "thy" is a possessive adjective, not a nominative personal pronoun. They also tend to lift several famous phrases from Shakespeare and either use them outright or slightly adjust them to the action; but, they don't seem to serve any real purpose other than knowing winks to the reader. I guess it might make people feel smart when they recognize them, but again, I wish that they would do more with such great source material.

On the whole, it's a bit of a waste. I suspect that the writers wanted to do something along the lines of "Fables," and I can't fault them for that (though I have my own separate issues with that series), but it just feels like a dumbed-down, gore-and-boobs plot that happens to be using characters from Shakespeare.

On the plus side: the art is really excellent. The character designs aren't hugely inspired (I had some trouble telling Hamlet and Iago apart), but they're well-drawn. Panel layouts are well designed with some interesting techniques, particularly in the battle scenes. The coloring was vivid and evocative; I was particularly impressed by the nighttime scenes.

It looks like Kill Shakespeare (which, I must still admit, is a phenomenal title) will be an ongoing thing, so I may check back in a few years to see if it has improved. The other graphic novel I recently read, The Griff, is a fascinating project from Chris Moore and... some other guy whose name I forget. (Sorry!) Unlike Kill Shakespeare, it's a self-contained stand-alone book, and it's great.

The Griff started life as a movie screenplay, and it kind of shows in the finished product. The style and pace of the plot really seems movie-like: you have an epic conflict that has shook the world, and then most of the story follows two small groups of people who are slowly moving towards one another. There's a total of about five major characters, two female and three male, who are young and mostly photogenic. The one who isn't handsome looks like he may have been written with Billy Bob Thornton in mind. Oh, yeah: and it also feels like a movie because there's a pleasingly high quantity of one-liners in the script. Er, I mean the comic.

The movie will never be made - as Moore writes in his introduction, because the world is filled with horrible people who tell you lies - so we can enjoy this comic. It's faster-paced than a typical Moore book (which, granted, isn't exactly slow to begin with), and filled with great action, suspense, humor, and a few mysteries along the way. I kind of doubt that we'll see more Moore in the comics world, and I'm glad that this entry was so strong.

Lapis Lazuli

I've had an incredibly pleasant experience reading Chris Moore's "Sacre Bleu." Most of it was spent on vacation, either in a cozy cabin in the redwoods, or sitting on a beach near the California coast. That doesn't exactly match up with the setting of the book - the majority of it takes place in urban Paris, far from the ocean - but it did coincide nicely in two ways with the book. First, I was reading "en plein air", which is where the French impressionist heroes of the book have taken their artistic revolution; and I was surrounded by blue, blue sky and blue water (including that particular shade that I call "Big Sur blue" and love so dearly), and so I regularly had samples to see when I wanted to cross-reference the way Moore was describing the many shades employed by his artists.

Sacre Bleu is kind of a one-off for Moore; as far as I can tell, it doesn't overlap with any characters from his other books, and it's thematically quite different from any of his other books I've read. That said, the style is unquestionably and hilariously Moore's. Some already-funny lines are made even funnier just because they're being uttered by 19th-century Frenchmen. As Moore explained at his appearance and in his author's note, he started with an ambition to write a novel about the color blue. The way he did that is very impressive, and I'll go into it a bit more in the spoilers section below, but it is accomplished on multiple levels: the color itself, and the physical properties behind the color, and its social, economic, and religious heritage, and many characters whose lives are affected in a surprising way by blue.

The book itself looks stunning. I'm a bit dense, so I didn't realize until around page 50 that the ink used in the book is, yes, blue; well, there's a light-colored blue for the page numbers that I spotted earlier, but the body text is a very dark blue that can initially scan as black. The book also has many shockingly good reproductions of Impressionist masterpieces, accompanied by humorous quotations from the text.


During the Q&A session, someone had asked Moore if he had a favorite character from the book, and without hesitating, he said it was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. It perfectly shows in the book. Officially, the protagonist is Lucien Lessard, a baker and aspiring painter, but Moore gives nearly all the best lines to Henri, and the story gets incredibly fun whenever he's on the scene. Henri is a bon vivant, a cheerful drunk and whoremonger, not to mention a person of very short stature and a count and a talented artist. In my mind's eye, he's played by a particularly flamboyant Peter Dinklage.

Lucien isn't quite as amusing, but he's a very sweet lad; not terribly bright, but good-hearted. The rest of the Lessard clan are given smaller but memorable roles. Pere Lessard is the patron of all the Impressionists on Montmartre, who literally saved many of them from starvation thanks to his prodigious baking skills. The mom and sisters are classic Chris Moore characters: hilarious and edgy. Lucien grows up surrounded by virtually all the talented painters in Paris. I think Moore invented the Lessards, but almost every other character in the book is a historic figure, and he tried to capture their personalities based on what we know of them.


I still haven't read any reviews from the book, but I'm a bit curious what aspect of the plot the reviewers are all giving away. Is it the time-slowing power of the sacred blue, or the real identities of Blue and the Colorman, or fact that Blue can switch between bodies at will? All of those were nicely surprising revelations. Actually, not even "revelations"... Moore did a great job at slowly revealing what was going on, so I could generally piece it together shortly before it was explicitly stated.

In a way, the Moore book this reminded me the most of was Fluke, just in terms of the balls-out craziness of the plot. I liked this one much more, but in both cases I would never have expected from the outset where the story would end up.

Blue was a great character; she's not a good person, but I couldn't help liking her. She gets particularly endearing after she drops the charade and gets drunk with Lucien and Henri. In terms of morality, she's pretty comparable to Jody from the "Bloodsucking Fiends" series... in an absolute sense, what she's doing is bad, but she's paired with another guy who's way worse than her, so she seems more acceptable in comparison. She's also in interesting manifestation of the sentiment, which I think was explicitly stated early in this book and that I first encountered in "The Last Temptation of Christ," that there's only one woman, with many faces. I liked the way that sentiment was unpacked in this book, though: it isn't an excuse to philander, it means that once you've found the one woman, you can stop looking.


While the setting and storyline of Sacre Bleu are big departures for Chris Moore, it has the same wit and quality that I love about his books. If you're a fan, pick it up; if you haven't read him before, this would be a fine place to start.