Friday, July 20, 2012


Yeesh, that was a long post, just then. Sometimes I get excited about things and write too much.

Here are some shorter, more bite-sized brain bubbles.

Metalocalypse ended its most recent season last Sunday. That show is as bizarre as always. A definite high point was its incorporation of Werner Herzog. He did voiceovers at the beginning of almost every episode (though I think maybe not the 11th, or it might have been cut off for me), and had a really long, interesting, surreal monologue in the finale. (Spoilers ahead, I guess.) This season has largely turned its back on the concept of Dethklok that it has nurtured through the previous part of the series. Up until now, the whole point of the show has been the hilariously unbelievable larger-than-life aspect of Dethklok: they're more powerful than any military, more influential than any religion, wealthier than Wall Street. They're gods on Earth, free to indulge their slightest whim without even thinking of consequences. Throughout this season, we've seen them alienate their fans, experience life as an underclass, lose much of their money, and even lose the respect of the world. I'm still not used to seeing Dethklok as the underdogs, even though the show is finally adapting to the dramatic arc that pretty much every other work of fiction ever has done.

I just finished a blazing fast read through "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud, thanks to a generous brother who gave it to me after I'd confessed that I've wanted to read it for years. It's got to be the most-quoted book about comics ever. It's very interesting, thoughtful, and pretty persuasive. McCloud peers into the mechanics of how comics work and how they're distinguished from other art forms; for example, he talks a lot about the role of "Closure," and how the comic forces your mind to create a continuous story that incorporates the discrete points it displays. A few of the ideas he plays around with feel less convincing to me - his incorporation of "the picture plane" into a perfectly fine continuum between representation and meaning strikes me as awkward - but even stuff like that fits perfectly into the exuberant, bubbly style of his presentation. He's simultaneously engaging and humble, frequently pausing to disclaim that this matches his understanding of how things work, but it's perfectly possible that there's some other solution.

I actually got into this a bit more in my previous post - and no, don't ask me what a 20-year-old book on comics has to do with the latest installment of a popular sci-fi RPG franchise - but I think it's really helpful to think about comics as an art form, and to separate the form from the content. Very few critics would say that, because Garfield 2 was horrible, Metropolis cannot be a good work of art; or that since Fifty Shades of Grey is bad, Ulysses must be dreck; and yet, one feels that works like Maus and From Hell can't be taken seriously because of the other examples of bad art done in the same medium. I'd argue that video games occupy a similar cultural ghetto, where many critics can't bring themselves to discover the wonderfully clever, revolutionary things being done with the form, since they can't see past the mass of lame and unimaginative commercial product out there.

In other Bioware RPG related news: I was stunned to read that Bioware is rebooting the Ultima franchise, starting with "Ultima Forever," a recreation of the seminal Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.  This has the potential to be amazing: my favorite fantasy RPG series of the 20th century is being restored by my favorite RPG creators of the 21st century! I think IV could gain a lot in a remake - while I enjoyed IV, and replayed it less than a decade ago, it didn't have the emotional depth and richness of Ultimas VI and VII, which I still think are two of the best games ever made. That said, I'm a bit leery of what I'm seeing so far. It looks like it'll be more action-oriented; it may have only two classes (they just list Fighter and Mage) instead of the eight of the original game; and it will let you "travel alone or with friends", which makes it sound like a social game. Action and social COULD be good things, but I have a knee-jerk reaction against those words being applied to RPGs. Basically, I just hope that they don't get rid of Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre, and replace them with your Facebook friends.

It'll also be interesting to see what they do with the Virtues. Richard Garriott was a trailblazer in creating moral systems in video games, and while his system was better than the vast majority today, it's quite different from Bioware's usual approach. Ultima games technically gave you the freedom to do whatever you wanted - you could steal from people, murder peasants, try to kill Lord British, etc. - but there was a very clearly defined "right" way and a "wrong" path. In many ways, that was the entire point of Ultima IV: you needed to be a virtuous person, not defeat some big bad monster. In contrast, the major RPG franchises of our day (Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect, Star Wars: KOTOR, Fallout, Elder Scrolls) have morality systems generally based on an axis between good and evil, with players actively encouraged to go to one extreme or another. (Baldur's Gate technically uses two axes, although Order/Chaos is far less important than Good/Evil; Mass Effect's axis is much more interesting, but still a single dimension.) Ultima's system of virtues is more complex, more interesting, and just BETTER... it's interesting by exploring all the different ways in which you can be a good person, instead of trying to increase replay value by encouraging you to play the game again as a bad guy.

Anyways. I've registered for the beta and Fan'd (ugh) it on Facebook, so I'll be interested to see what comes of it. So far, it FEELS like they're tracking the substance of the game and not cashing in on the name recognition, so hopefully that's a good sign.

And, I forget whether I've already mentioned it on this blog, but Baldur's Gate is getting a remake of its own. Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition will be keeping the story, but rebuilding all the graphics and music and stuff from the ground up. They'll also make it possible to play the BG series on Mac and the iPad, which is a great idea; I think traditional RPGs are a natural match for the tablet form factor. Bioware isn't involved in this, but apparently some of the original developers are involved. I'm in favor this project, but I'm very curious if and how they will support modding for it. BG was a great series that became transcendentally good by tapping into the creative output of its fans. If they can find some way of making WeiDU mods work in the new game, well, it just might be the best thing ever. More realistically, I imagine that they'll require new graphical assets and such to fit with the new game engine, but I hope that they keep the underlying script engine as similar as possible to make it relatively straightforward to port things like the romance mods into the game.

Tour de Peninsula is coming up. I don't think I'll be cycling in it this year, but I'm delighted to have been a part of it last year; that ride gave me a huge incentive to build longer cycling trips into my routine, and I wouldn't be riding as far and as happily as I am now without the prompt it provided.

I've been a kickstarting fiend! CLANG barely squeaked in under the wire. Shadowrun Returns went gangbusters, and I've highly enjoyed getting all the updates for that game. I was a bit bummed when I first read that we wouldn't get an actual in-game depiction of the Matrix, but as long as I can play a Decker I'll probably still be happy. There are other Kickin' projects that I'm watching with keen interest but not yet joining. High on that list is the Penny Arcade Kickstarter. Back when I was in college in the early 2000's, I actually was a member of the Penny Arcade Plus (or whatever they called it) where I kicked them a few dollars via PayPal and got an occasional exclusive strip or something. So I totally get the emotional appeal of returning to a fan-supported model. The problem is that the ads on the Penny Arcade site are just so darn good, that it's one of the few sites on the Internet that I DON'T block with AdBlock Plus. Now that they've added some of their stretch goals, I may be able to justify contributing in the service of supporting a cool new project.

I got tickets to Patton Oswalt AND Louis C.K. shows! I'm super-psyched! Louis CK was a team effort, but we worked together and managed to snag eight of them.

I'm almost done with Deadwood.

I'm re-watching Chappelle's Show. Good lord, I'd forgotten how hilarious it was. It holds up extremely well, nearly a decade later.

That's enough for now. Hooray for things!

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