Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hey, everyone! It's Bob and David!

Back in 2002, I made a pilgrimage to see Mr. Show live in a production called "Mr. Show: Hooray for America!" This was several years after the cult sketch show had been canceled by HBO, but in the time since then DVDs had started expanding the series' popularity, and there was increasing excitement online for a renewal of the show, either as a movie or in another form.

Hooray for America! was fantastic, somehow managing to maintain the non-sequitor absurdity of the 30-minute show, while also weaving in a surprisingly coherent plot that kept the 90-ish-minute production cohesive and propulsive. In retrospect, it was shockingly prescient: anticipating the Citizens United verdict by nearly a decade, it depicted a United States where corporations could spend unlimited funds to influence elections, and as a result, the GloboChem company (famous from a variety of appearances in Mr. Show) nominates David Cross for the Presidency and manages to get him elected. This sets off a series of events that end with Earth a largely uninhabitable shell of a planet, while the wealthy and powerful are able to escape into space. It was dark and cynical and hilarious, and at the time I thought it was the last chance I'd ever have to see these talented and funny people together.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case! Many years later, I was able to catch Bob and David in their recent mini-tour supporting their new book, "Hollywood Said No!" It was a looser production than Hooray for America!, but that's a good thing... I enjoyed the messiness and honesty of it. Our show even included some memorable technical glitches, most amusingly when David Cross stepped into the spotlight to deliver his "Linus speech," only to have all the lights killed and the room plunged into utter blackness.

Unlike the earlier show, "An Evening with Bob and David" combined several different elements. They did a couple of "classic sketches" from the show, but as you might expect, they were done in a subversive manner. On the off chance they continue the tour or release a video, I'll refrain from spoiling the jokes, but they did a really funny montage that channeled single lines from famous sketches through a lens of incomprehension, and brought some audience members on stage to act out other sketches (none of which lasted longer than a line or two). I thought this balance was done very well: they knew many of us were there because of our love for Mr. Show, and they kind of honored that, while keeping the overall focus on the show on their new material.

Speaking of which, the new material was quite good, not least because it was new. At least one sketch brought back a favorite character from the show's original run, updating his schtick for the more technologically advanced 21st century. Most of them were completely new, and had that nice combination of satire and timelessnes that marks Mr. Show's best sketches. In the original run of Mr. Show, they would run the sketches live several times before finalizing and shooting them, and I imagine that these sketches were about halfway along in that process... they were all funny, and could probably be tuned a little more to sharpen their endings.

There were quite a few differences that kept this from feeling like a long episode of Mr. Show. Everything was live, so they didn't have any pre-recorded video segments (which had played a big part in the TV show and in Hooray for America!). Also, they didn't bother transitioning between every individual sketch. That was one of the most amazing things about Mr. Show: the insane convoluted logic that would lead an episode from sketch to sketch. There were a couple of those here, but also many times where they would just drop the lights and change the set. (That might sound like a complaint, but isn't meant as one. The show's transitions relied heavily on video segments and editing, neither of which are available in a live stage show. The approach they went with emphasized the live-ness and specialness of this production.)

I was delighted to see that John Ennis was in the show! Only Bob, David, and Brian Posehn were billed, so I had thought this might be an intimate affair with just those three. A few sketches into the program, though, the others popped up. It took me a while to confirm that the other man was actually John - I thought that it was, but he's grown a mustache in the years since I last saw him. Anyways, that was great. Ennis might have been my favorite supporting actor on the show back when it aired, so I was really happy to see him again. They were also joined by Stephanie Courtney, who I didn't recognize, but Google has since informed me was a member of the Hooray for America! tour. So, that's cool!

 In the years since Mr. Show, David and Brian have become primarily known as stand-up comedians, and they (and Bob) got to run short stand-up sets within the program. David's was really interesting. I like him as a comedian... in modern comedy, every stand-up comic maintains an illusion of, "Oh, hey! I just wandered in off the street! Hey, here are some random thoughts that just occurred to me!" In reality, of course, comedians work really hard to craft their routines, and put a lot of effort into making it look like it's effortless. Well, David's standup is just about the only I know of that actually sounds like he's making it up for the first time. He says "Um" and "Uh" a lot, laughs at himself, goes back and corrects himself. In a lesser comedian, that would be a sign of a hack, but in David's case it underlies the realness of his set. In a typical joke from him, you'll need to follow him for a while as he meanders through a thought or an anecdote, not knowing exactly where he's going and not having many opportunities to laugh; but once he hits the point, everything suddenly crystallizes, and you can't help laughing loudly at the wholly-constructed idea.

This show was a bit unusual, as David said himself at the very beginning of his set: rather than run through his jokes, he wanted to tell the story of the worst show he'd ever done in San Francisco. He said that this was his first time ever telling the story, and I believe him, though he had the details down well enough that it seems like he's replayed it in his head many times since then. He described the really bad mental place he was coming from (ex-girlfriend in the audience, feeling ill and depressed), his purposefully offensive jokes (joking about Princess Diana a few weeks after she had died, and some Holocaust-related jokes), the first heckling shout coming from the audience, and his subsequent meltdown and termination. There's another wrinkle that David withheld until the very end, which recast everything that had gone before in a different light, and made the whole thing even funnier. After that he ran through a few shorter bits from his routine, including a terrific moment of self-realization he had when confronting a threat at his remote house in upstate New York.

Brian's standup came a little later, and was as hilarious as you would think. Some of his material was similar to what he'd delivered when I saw him at Cobb's a couple of years ago (which hadn't made it onto The Fartist), but I think he'd tweaked it some, and in any case it was all really funny. Brian has a couple of topics that he enjoys revisiting through the years and keeps getting more material from: comic books, Star Wars, heavy metal music, smoking weed, and so on. Most of this set was based around his physical appearance, and included a great (and simultaneously horrifying) tour of his body through the ages. (Louis CK does some similar stuff, but when it comes to body self-critiques, I think Brian has Louis beat.)

Bob's standup came last, and was close to the end of the show. I'd been re-watching some Mr. Show episodes in the leadup to this live program, and had been struck again by how different everyone's sensibilities were, and how surprisingly well they all melded. In the years since then, their careers have gone on very different paths, and they have further differentiated themselves. David Cross has passionately pursued standup, was one of the first comedians to start criticizing President Bush after the Iraq War run-up began, and has become famous for tangling with other comedians and entertainment icons who he dislikes. Bob is kind of the opposite of all that. He's mostly stayed behind the camera, directing several films, writing a lot of scripts, and acting as a kind of mentor or talent scout to young up-and-coming comedians, discovering groups like Tim & Eric and The Birthday Boys. When he does comedy, he maintains his Midwestern affect, generally coming across as genial and reasonable (which, of course, only makes it funnier when he explodes and starts yelling). Anyways: I don't think of Bob as a stand-up, and was glad I got the chance to see him in that element. Everything about his delivery was different from David or Brian's: he sat down in a chair the whole time instead of walking around the stage; he had a music stand with some notes on it; he complimented his audience (he called us "smart"!); his material was focused on his life as a father, exploring his relationship with his kids and how it changes as they grow older. It was all really solid, and makes me curious if this is something Bob does often and just isn't well known for.

The show ended with a fantastic final "sketch", with Bob browbeating the others into acting out his latest screenplay, using layered dialogue and botched cues and failures-to-hit-marks that all made the final product awful/hilarious. It was a great note to end things on.

Except, it wasn't over! After Brian amused us one last time, Bob and David came back on the stage to greet us and hold a brief Q&A session. It started out on a surprisingly touching note, with David finding a dollar bill that someone had thrown on the stage ("He knew that I was Jewish so this would get my attention"), and reading a message written on it out loud ("'Dear Bob and Dave.' Well, screw that!"), finding out that he was a sergeant in the Iraq and Afghan wars ("Not so funny now, is it?") who had appreciated getting back to base after a firefight and watching DVDs of their show. They brought him on stage and thanked him, which I thought was awesome. Honestly, for a while there I thought it was a bit, but as far as I can tell it was as spontaneous and heartfelt as it had seemed. They hugged him and said "Thanks" ("We were just screwing around back home"), and everyone clapped. Very nice!

Heh... they also called out a guy a few rows back who apparently had fallen asleep several times during the show: "I'm sorry we woke you up there. We were trying to be quiet. I'm just curious: tickets to this show weren't cheap. Why would you pay to come here if you were going to sleep?" Bob gently schooled David: "Well, rent is really expensive in San Francisco, so it's actually cheaper to buy tickets to shows and sleep in the theater than it is to rent an apartment." That got one of the biggest laughs of the night. I did the math later, and Bob is actually right - as expensive as this show was, you could buy 30 tickets a month for much less than a studio apartment.

Questions and answers! A young lady (eventually) asked Bob what it was like emotionally to stop playing Saul Goodman: "How do you handle having such an awful scumbag sleazeball inside your head?" His answer: "It isn't hard. I'm not a very nice person. I just kick a kitten."

One guy mentioned that David had done voice acting in some video games in the early 2000s, and was curious if that was just to get a paycheck, or if he actually enjoyed them. David said that he, and the rest of the Mr. Show cast (other than Bob) were all enthusiastic gamers: they used to play Goldeneye for hours, and when the show was going on, Jay Johnston would host parties at his house with 4 separate rooms each with their own TVs, and they would play 16-person Halo matches until 6am. Anyways, David was drunk and ran into Sam Houser, and told him how much he loved Grand Theft Auto and offered to play any role they would have. Hence, his fantastic appearance in San Andreas (those damn RC planes!), one of my favorite games of all times.

One person asked what it was like getting back together, and if they thought they would do more collaboration in the future. This is a pretty stock question, and they have a predictable answer. Logistically, David lives in New York and Bob lives in Los Angeles, so it's hard to get together. They have collaborated since Mr. Show, including making the pilot "David's Situation", and would like to do more, but the logistics are challenging.

Hm... there might have been one or two more questions, but not many. All too soon, our time was up and everyone said goodbye. (There was another show coming up at 10 that night, and I'm a bit curious if they were able to stick around longer after the latter show.)

So, that was great! Rumors are floating around of a larger reunion tour in 2015 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Mr. Show, and I would love to see that happen. There was so much incredible talent that came out of that group, and as far as I can tell its alumni are still friendly and would be up for getting together again. Just imagine: Paul F Tompkins, Scott Aukerman, Brian Posehn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Dino Stamatopoulos, John Ennis, Tom Kenny, Jill Talley, Jay Johnston, BJ Porter, or some combination thereof, sharing a stage again! And they could maybe even pull in regular contributors like Jack Black and Sarah Silverman, who were unknown before Mr. Show started.

Anyways. That's speculation for the future. I wasn't expecting to ever see these people together again, and feel so fortunate that I get to live in a city where this kind of thing happens!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Simple Things

It's time for another mini-roundup!

When I pledged to Shadowrun Returns, one of my rewards was a PDF of a short story anthology. Honestly, I wasn't expecting a whole lot out of this - game fiction prose tends to be rather poor, and it didn't have any A-list authors attached. I just recently finished reading it, and was pleasantly surprised by how well it turned out. Each story stands on its own, but when taken together they weave together to tell a surprisingly epic story, which in its own way is just as dramatic as (and simultaneously subtler than) Dead Man's Switch.

It does reveal some crucial plot twists from the main game, so I wouldn't recommend starting it until after finishing the game. If you do read it afterwards, though, there are a lot of treats for you. Some of them you might expect, like getting to know more of the backstory of various characters like Cherry Bomb, Jessica Watts, and Dresden. Others are some surprising changes from the initial concept of the story to the version that ultimately shipped in the game. The world depicted in the anthology is much more, uh, adult than the game, particularly where the Seamstresses' Union is concerned. In the game, it's a bar with some attractive bartenders. In the book, it's a brothel. In the game, it's overseen by Mrs. Kubota. In the book, it's run by Madam Sinful.

The best part of it, though, is how the book broadens the scope of the game's story. It takes a long time to piece together the meta-plot, but when you do, it not only makes many of the other stories make more sense, but also shines a new light on some elements in DMS that felt like red herrings at the time. The NTSB, for example, was a great setting in the game but felt a bit superfluous, important only because it was the site of a murder that could have occurred anywhere. In the book, though, you see how the NTSB is involved in a much more subtle and long-running plot, which adds a new color to the scenes you spent there.

Oh, and in addition to the stories, there's also some really fantastic concept art, as well as a huge portrait gallery. The latter is actually pretty directly useful to me, since it's an easier way to locate good NPC pictures than browsing through the filesystem. Anyways, I think you can pick up the anthology as part of the Deluxe package on Steam.

In other Shadowrun news, I got my physical rewards! The Doc Wagon card looks and feels great. It even links to a funny video that is certainly the corniest, cheesiest thing ever created in connection with Shadowrun (and there's a lot of competition for that title!). The T-Shirt looks nice too, with a good quality fabric and great image transfer. I know that some folks aren't fans of the new blue/green Shadowrun skull logo, but now that I'm used to it I strongly prefer it to the original red skull logo.

In less cheering video game news, I picked up the new Ultima tablet game and found it wanting. I wasn't really surprised. I'd initially been ecstatic at the news, back when I thought that it was BioWare remaking Ultima IV. Since then, I'd learned that it was actually another division within EA who was working on it. (There was a brief period of time when it seemed like EA was trying to cannibalize BioWare's good name by transferring it to unrelated studios. That seems to have stopped, though I don't know if it's because BioWare complained, or if EA thought that the brand is less powerful in a post-ME3, post-DA2 environment.)

I still think that a remake of Ultima IV could make an awesome tablet game. Those early RPGs had relatively simple controls and maps, and so could be a perfect match for today's tablet interface and hardware. At the same time, it wouldn't take a ton of effort to streamline the gameplay to conform to modern sensibilities: cut down on the grinding, maybe add some high-res portraits for the NPCs, etc.

In the short time that I played Quest of the Avatar, I didn't really notice any similarities at all with the plot of Ultima IV. There is a plot, to be sure, but it's something about a, uh, psychic sickness or malevolent evil force or something. The Virtues, which were the cornerstone of Ultima IV, are present here, but in a weird form. The game starts with you answering virtue questions like you did in most Ultimas, but since there are only two classes available they don't really make any difference to your gameplay. The questions themselves seemed more jokey than I remembered, though that might just be me turning into a crotchety old man. In-game, you periodically encounter virtue quests that demand you to make a choice (e.g., show Justice and send a dying criminal to prison, or Compassion and let him die in peace), but they didn't really engage me.

The worst aspect of all, though, is the Free-to-Play structure. Once again, I should not have been surprised. I have never enjoyed a F2P game (with the sole, shining exception of the excellent Fallen London), and Quest for the Avatar seems to combine the elements I most dislike about this genre.
  • It aggressively tries to tie in to your social network.
  • It encourages you to play daily, but discourages you from playing for very long (without paying).
  • It consistently pings you to spend money to improve your game.
  • It throws you into semi-forced, low-quality play with other humans.
 The main mechanic they use is "keys". You are awarded some keys within the game, but the system is set up to encourage you to spend money to buy higher-quality keys. Having keys and more valuable keys results in more-powerful items, which allow you to progress more through the game. Worse, items actually degrade as they're damaged, and you need to spend (you guessed it!) keys to repair them.

I went through the tutorial dungeon, met Lady British (which was a fine change on its own, but really underscored how this plot has nothing to do with the original Quest of the Avatar), went into a dungeon, got invited to join a party, and swiftly quit and uninstalled. Sigh.

On the plus side, I have since learned that the Commodore 64 version of the original Ultima IV has just arrived on iOS, so it looks like I will get to check that out soon! I'll probably never get the remake I wanted, but I suspect that the unaltered original will tickle my fancy more than its complete transformation into a F2P game.

Heh, my gaming landscape has changed drastically between when I started this post and starting this paragraph. To wit: GTA V has arrived! I've had almost no time to play it, thanks to an unusually aggressive confluence of time commitments, but am eagerly anticipating diving into it. I think this is the first game I've pre-ordered since Dragon Age: Origins.  My expectations are simultaneously high and measured. San Andreas is my favorite installment of the franchise, and GTA IV was the most impressive technically, so a combination of the two has the potential to become one of my favorite games ever. It looks like they're shifting slightly back towards San Andreas's RPG-ish elements, including tons of customizations and upgradeable skills (though no more fat, alas, alas). And the setting itself looks gorgeous. That was probably what I missed most in GTA IV: I adored the open countryside in San Andreas, being able to blast down an open freeway along the coast with Radio Los Santos blasting through an open convertible, or riding a dirtbike down Mount Chiliad, or flying through the desert on a dune buggy, or... well, yeah. As much as I appreciated GTA IV's taxi innovations and the ability to get from Point A to Point B quicker than ever before, I also really like having interesting land to travel between those points.

The aspect of GTA V that interested me the least in the press build-up was probably the multiple-characters angle. Of the three, only Franklin really stood out as someone I would want to play as. In the brief time that I've tried V, I've come to appreciate Michael much more, and can see some interesting possibilities in his character. He's kind of in a position where other GTA characters would be 15 years after their own games ended: he's married, with two kids, living in a huge fancy house, and absolutely bored out of his mind. So far, the thing I like most is seeing the very different ways that Franklin and Michael express their rage. When Franklin crashes into someone, he'll yell at them. When Michael crashes, he's quiet for a second, as he calmly collects himself... and then proceeds to very deliberately express his hatred in measured, violent tones. It's a great example of maturity affecting attitude in an unexpected way.

So, yes. GTA V will be my big gaming project for the next while. I'm sure I'll have more opinions on it. I'm kind of dreading meeting Trevor; based on his appearances in the previews, he looks like an entertaining character to meet, but I don't know if I'll be comfortable playing as him.

Hm, what else.... oh! Kickstarter! The Sunless Sea has been funded, and can use your help to reach its first stretch goal!

This comes from the fine folks who created Fallen London, and shares some of the lore, but is a totally new game. It's a 2D top-down exploration, trading, and strategy game. It's semi-procedurally-generated, has a system of officers that will allow for party-building, and will include embedded stories within the action (in the tradition of something like Castles). They call out some fantastic influences like Sid Meier's Pirates!, FTL, and roguelikes.

I was one of the people who voted for this concept when Failbetter ran a survey a few months ago, and am really looking forward to its becoming a reality. There's already so many great concepts to (literally) explore, like Hunter's Keep, the Elder Continent, Corpscage Islands, the Tomb-Colonies, and tons more. The game mechanics seem clean and fun, a set of manageable systems that will allow for tinkering and experimentation without requiring micromanagement. And, of course, knowing that Failbetter writers are producing the content makes me very optimistic about the quality of story. (They're one of the few companies out there with a good track record for producing asynchronous, semi-randomized stories, and they do it well.)

There's just over a week left to go, and they still have many slots available in the upper tiers if you want to go nuts. I know that I personally was kicking myself after Shadowrun Returns came out for not pledging at one of those top levels to be immortalized in a game. Here's a chance to do that if the concept appeals to you.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I don't know what's more embarrassing: that I've gone more than a month between updates, or that my new update is basically a repeat of the old one. Sorry about that.

When I wrapped work on Antumbra, my mod for Shadowrun Returns, I wasn't really planning on making any more. Like I said at great length in my last post, making mods is hard, and there's lots of other stuff I'd enjoy doing in my increasingly limited free time. I didn't want to leave people hanging, so I deliberately made Antumbra a fairly self-contained story with a beginning, middle, climax and conclusion. I did leave behind a couple of little hooks, just in case I ever did decide to pick it up again, but wasn't really planning to continue that thread.

I'd committed to maintaining Antumbra, and so spent a fairly easy week releasing updates, mostly cleaning up some minor graphical glitches and trying to smooth out the combat. While most comments on Antumbra were very positive, almost everyone who disliked it was upset because they got killed at the very first fight. I now realize that I would have been better off making it easier, or at a minimum adding some easier fights in. In the original design, there were only five mandatory (and two optional) fights in the game, and each of them were very different and had their own unique mechanics and strategy. That appeals to me from a design perspective, but in terms of player reward, it's better to include some more boring and easy combat in there so they feel a sense of power and progression, rather than making every encounter a challenge. (At least, that's the take-away I got from my users' comments. My personal tastes still lean more towards FFT than FFVII.)

After doing that for about a week, though, I was feeling giddy enough with the reaction Antumbra was receiving to start thinking about a sequel. People left really, really nice comments, and upvoted it, and altogether Antumbra racked up something like 3,000 subscriptions. More than the raw numbers, I was pleased by the specific notes people would send, like "I'm not playing the sequel unless Dalmin is in it j/k!" and "Can't wait to record my demo!" All along, my goal had been to make a fun little story and not just a set of fights, and that kind of reaction made me feel like I was succeeding.

I followed much the same process for Antumbra 2 as I did on the original. I started out in an open-ended brainstorming period, jotting semi-random ideas down in Google Docs and scraps of paper as they came to me. I'd set Antumbra near the Seattle Sprawl, partly because it's a region most players are already familiar with and that has a lot of documentation. Now that I had some story elements of my own, though, I felt like I had a little more leeway to travel farther afield. I'd come across some lore about CalFree (the autonomous California Free State of the 2050's), and loved the idea of setting a campaign in San Francisco, so I started researching that setting and combining it with some real-world elements that I really love. The "California Free State" sourcebook from FASA proved invaluable, detailing the tense metaracial situation in the Bay Area, as well as the complicated web of authority that included an impotent government in Sacramento, de-facto military rule by the Japanese Imperial Marines, and the even-more-de-facto supremacy of the megacorps. I also trawled the Web for references to the 2060's and beyond, which alerted me to some upcoming events like General Saito's coup that I could start to foreshadow in this time period.

Shadowrun Returns is a great little engine, but since it's a tile-based isometric game, it does not do hills, which meant I'd be missing out on many of the iconic SF settings like Coit Tower, Nob Hill or Pacific Heights. Fortunately, I've been here long enough to know what flat areas would work well in the game. The Embarcadero really helps establish SF's peninsularness, and I knew that it would be fairly easy to recreate using the existing map tools. I also went ahead and built out The Mission as a map. I know, I know, it's very cliche and hip and trendy, but hey, it's flat, and worked well from both a story perspective and a design perspective.

Along with locations, I was starting to pull together some plot ideas. Hm, maybe I should classify these as:


I started with characters, then began thinking about ways to combine them. The original Antumbra could end in multiple ways, and some important characters (most notably "Mr. Johnson," Carver Wells) could die. However, Kali would always survive, albeit in a state of triumph or disgrace. I figured that she would be my link from Seattle to the Bay. If you sided with her, then Antumbra does so well that she starts expanding her business empire and opening new locations outside of UCAS. If you opposed her, then she's hounded from Seattle by her creditors, then pops up in San Francisco to try and rebuild from scratch. That way, I could keep a single setting for both plot forks, and just change the dialogue around it.

For companions, Dalmin had seemed to be the most popular from Antumbra, so I decided to bring him forward. He's really fun to write for, so I was happy to work on him again. I thought it would be boring to have all of the companions show up again, though, plus it would strain credulity for everyone to randomly show up in SF at the same time, so I decided to omit Turm as a companion this time around. On the other hand, though, I wanted to give her a cameo so people who picked her in Antumbra would be able to see her again. I ended up designing what I think was a fun, somewhat complex encounter: if she died in Antumbra, she would stay dead in Eclipse; otherwise, she would show up as a mercenary on the other side; if you traveled with her before (or had the right skills), you could convince her to switch sides and fight along with you again.

With Turm gone, I would need another samurai. I didn't want to repeat myself with a troll, so I decided to get an ork this time around, and a male to contrast with Turm's female-ness. What should I name him? It was at this point that I realized that, entirely accidentally, I had already kicked off a trend where my hireable runners' names were alliterative with their races: Dalmin the Dwarf and Turm the Troll. So, ____ the Ork. After playing around with a few different names, I settled on Orion. Street Samurai are typically big, dumb brutes, so I decided to mess with that stereotype and make Orion a thoughtful and loquacious scholar. He's kind of a marxist of metahumanity: he's convinced that metaraces will inevitably replace humanity. However, his certainty leads him to a zen-like calm: he doesn't get too worried about any particular fight or alliance, because he knows that in the long run history will lead to the same conclusion. Orion was also really fun to write for, since he's very thoughtful and rational even when making arguments I personally completely disagree with.

Lastly, I knew that I wanted to add the Matrix in this time around, so I would need a decker. I already had two dudes, so I wanted a female for this role. Available races were elf or human. I decided on human, since that would give more insight into what it felt like on the other side of SF's metaracial divide. Continuing my dumb-but-fun naming convention, I dubbed her Hailey the Human. I made her a native San Franciscan, a famously rare breed even in our own time. Where Dalmin is a funny and jaded runner, and Orion a serious and earnest man on a mission, Hailey is bubbly and ambitious, a little naive but a quick learner. I eventually decided to dual-archetype her as a Decker/Rigger, a class combo that my brother Andrew alerted me to that can be very powerful in this game.

For NPCs, I had a flash of inspiration fairly early on: why not include one of my all-time favorite people, Emperor Norton? People might associate him with Discordianism or Neil Gaiman, but he's a real (and fascinating) historic person rooted in San Francisco, and so intrinsically interesting that it wouldn't take much effort to make him a (hopefully) compelling character. I played around with a couple of ideas before settling on a futuristic representation of the man. Much like the historic Norton, my Norton ("Emperor Norton IX, Emperor of CalFree and Protector of UCAS") would be insane, but benignly so; he would be humored by those around him; and he would have a clarity of insight into the world around him. Scenes like the historical Norton's pacific defense of ethnic Chinese from a pogrom would point the direction for how a new Norton might behave in an atmosphere of anti-metahuman persecution fostered by Saito's supremacist ideology.

On a mechanical level, I decided that Norton would best be represented as a Shaman; that seemed to fit his skewed, not-quite-of-this-world position. I've gotten more comfortable commissioning portraits from artists on DeviantArt, and I decided to splurge and have a drawing done of Norton. By far the best unofficial portraits I've seen so far have come from KARGAIN, who has done a fantastic job at matching the proportions and style of the official portraits in Dead Man's Switch. I sent him some old photos of the historic Norton and a brief description of my concept, he asked a few really good clarifying questions (the nature of Norton's insanity, his role in the story), and came up with a fantastic portrait.

I really love this. It's recognizably Norton without being a copy of the source material, and perfectly captures the essence of the character. I especially appreciate details like the very subtle smirk he has.

By now, some rough outlines of a plot were falling into place. In this time period, Colonel Saito would be one of the most influential individuals in SF, although he would not be taking direct control for several more years. Much of the source material on the Bay Area describes the increasing segregation across communities, with humans (particularly those of Japanese descent) clustered in San Francisco, orks and trolls in Orkland, dwarfs in Halferville, and metahumans of all types scattered throughout the East Bay. I didn't want to directly include Saito himself - he's a huge figure in the history of Shadowrun, and I was worried that I'd mess up his portrayal - but I started playing around with the idea of a conflict between Saito and the metahumans driving much of the plot.

I'd still need a way to link this all back to Antumbra, though. You ended the first game in one of two ways: either as a loyal pawn of Aztechnology, or an opportunistic ally of Mitsuhama. From my reading, I knew that Aztechnology was in a fairly rough position in CalFree. Ever since Aztlan invaded from the south, Aztechnology had officially been banned from California. In practice, they continued operating through a set of shell companies, such as Pyramid Operations in SF; but still, they had to contend against the powerful Japanese megacorps that had made headquarters in SF, and so, while globally Aztechnology is one of the most powerful entities, in this local area it was believable that they would feel threatened by their rivals.

So, I started sketching together an overall plot arc. You would be lured down to SF from Seattle in pursuit of work. Using your contacts from the first game, you would participate in an invasion of the Aztechnology Pyramid (which I like to think is the Transamerica Building, though it's probably actually an arcology). Depending on your loyalties, you were either leading a plausibly-deniable rival raid, or defending against such a raid from Mitsuhama. From here, you would be swept up into the conflict between Saito and metahumans; as in the first game, you would need to make choices about what faction to support. Demonstrating loyalty to one side early in the game would give you access to reinforcements later on to help you complete the job.

I'd initially thought of having different villains in the endgame depending on your loyalties (in one extreme case, either attempting to assassinate or save Saito himself), but eventually realized that this would take a ton of work and add more time that I'd rather spend on enhancing a core storyline. Instead, I settled on a single villain, a troll mage rebel named Shavarus. Your relation to him would change depending on your choices, but you would always end fighting him.

The story evolved as I proceeded into the writing phase. I came to realize that, if I were playing this, it would be a no-brainer: Saito was so despicable, and the resistance so pure, that I would unhesitatingly side with the metahumans every time. In a bid to make the choices tougher, I made the opposition much less sympathetic. Shavarus wasn't a high-minded individual like Orion battling oppression; he was a violent (albeit charismatic) extremist, not only eager to kill mankind but even willing to sacrifice large numbers of innocent metahumans as collateral damage in order to create an atmosphere of fear that would prompt the humans to leave. This story was turning nasty and brutal... perfect for Shadowrun!


I followed the same pipeline process for Eclipse as I had for Antumbra, but the bigger scope meant that it took quite a while longer. On paper, it didn't look so bad: I was just going up from 4 maps to 6 maps, though the scene count was increasing from 6 to 11. In practice, it was a lot more. I'd initially envisioned the office building as a single map containing three separate floors, and actually went far enough to implement it as one (including a cool elevator system), only to realize in playtesting that it was taking too long to beat, and a late death would set you back frustratingly early. So, that got split up into three separate scenes. PLUS, I had decided that I wanted to implement the Matrix this time around, so I had two separate Matrix subnetworks for the office building, plus another one in the final level. All of which was awesome, but took a lot of effort to build, and even more to polish and test.

On the other hand, I'd learned a lot of lessons from Antumbra that made some things easier. One of the biggest things I berated myself over in Antumbra was my Everett map, the one outdoor map. It took me a long time to build, almost as long as the other three interior maps combined; but, even though you visited it twice, you barely did anything in it. There was a single conversation in the first map, and a single conversation at the end, and that was it. Great for atmosphere, but on replays most people will run through it in 30 seconds. The work-to-result ratio for that map was insane, so this time around I was careful to make sure I could get enough out of each map. Of my six maps, three of them were set outdoors, and I set up the story so I could plausibly visit two of them twice each, helping justify the time these maps took to build. Likewise, for each map I made sure that there would be enough conversations, combat, and puzzles to make them worthwhile.

I was also able to avoid a few gotchas that can crop up on you late. I always do my music, lighting, and effects last, which works great from an optimizing perspective, but when building Antumbra it wasn't until I had added my point lights that I realized they made overlapping floor tiles look weird. Up until then, I'd cavalierly been laying them on top of each other haphazardly in order to produce a rugged, asymmetrical look for an underground cavern. It was a annoying to go back and totally redo those floors when I thought I was already done. This time around, I carefully took my time up front to avoid any tile overlaps, and as a result my lighting phase went much more quickly.

Speaking of which: I've learned the hard way that illuminating a particular prop, or making light appear to emanate from an on-screen element, is incredibly hard. Even the folks at Harebrained Schemes basically just say, "Keep trying different things and adjusting them until it looks right," since the editor is really bad at showing where light will illuminate. On the other hand, though, point lights that seem to project from above or below (such as from a lamp or a puddle of ooze) look great, and are infinitely easier to set up properly: just drop your point light in the center, and boom, you're done. So, when designing maps I always preferred props that would cast omnidirectional light (lamps, ambient magic, candles, streetlights), only using a smaller number of props that would require more fine tuning to light (neon signs, alarm panels, vending machines). I think the overall lighting looks at least as good in Eclipse as it did in Antumbra, and light-for-light it probably took less than half as much effort.

There was more complexity in Eclipse than in Antumbra, so I spent a lot more time testing it even before handing it off to my ever-dedicated alpha tester. Antumbra had one major branching story decision, a choice between two companions, and a handful of smaller choices to track. Eclipse has three major branching choices (albeit one of which only comes at the end), three companions who can be selected (and re-selected if they survive) over the course of three separate runs, and many more smaller choices including several optional side-quests, some of which don't come to fruition until later on. Fortunately the editor's debug tools are really good at letting you quickly set and test story variables, so I was able to find and clear up any plot-related problems fairly quickly.

Companions were trickier, and yet another reason why I was glad to have finished the more limited story of Antumbra before moving on to Eclipse. Shadowrun makes it really easy to test the status of another runner as long as you're still on the scene where they joined you; but if you want to carry them forward across scenes (which I definitely do!), then it gets way more complicated. As far as the game engine is concerned, by the next point they are just "PC1", "PC2", and so on; there's no way to link back to the original actor "Dalmin" or "Orion". You can still figure it out, but it requires managing story variables, which makes the logic somewhat fraught: IF I hired Dalmin for this run, AND he is NOT dead, THEN I can start a conversation between PC1 and PC0 using the Dalmin dialogue. (That's the secret reason why both Antumbra and Eclipse only allow you to hire a single companion runner. Managing the logic to test multiple companions, and map them onto their PCx identity at runtime, grows exponentially more complex and would be extremely error-prone.) Again, though, since I knew the limitations, I didn't need to waste a lot of time trying stuff that wouldn't work, and could focus on producing content.

Balance was my bane in Antumbra, and I spent a lot of time worrying about difficulty in this outing. Based on the feedback I've gotten so far, I think I've largely licked it. Part of the problem was that Antumbra started you as a beginning character, with very limited karma and resources, so if you didn't optimize your build you could easily get taken down. It helps that in Eclipse you have more karma and nuyen, so you can be more resilient against lucky critical hits. As noted above, I also redesigned the flow of combat, creating more encounters and making each individual fight easier. (Not to say that the whole thing is easier. In particular, I had a lot of fun designing the boss fights, and a couple of the battles have fun elements like ad-hoc allies or respawning enemies.)

I think I spent too much time worrying about something that wasn't that big of a problem. Each Shadowrun module can let players create a new character, import an existing character, use a pre-made character, or some combination thereof. Antumbra only let you create a new character, so it was relatively straightforward to test and tune for a known karma range. For Eclipse, I wanted to let you import your Antumbra character, but also to create a new character (using a process somewhat like imports in my beloved Bioware games). There was a problem, though: there's no way to tell how much karma a character has. Now, I could pretty easily check to see if the character had completed Antumbra by checking a plot flag that gets set at the end of that game. But, I couldn't really distinguish between a new character created for Eclipse with 59 karma, or a character imported from the end of Dead Man's Switch with 150 karma.

Like I said, in the end it wasn't that big a deal. I whipped up a little fourth-wall-breaking appearance from yours truly at the start of the game in the case where I detect that you're using a character who didn't beat Antumbra, and give a gentle reminder that they might want to check it out. (I didn't want to push this too hard, though, since you can't really beat Antumbra as a rigger or a decker, and both of those archetypes can be pretty decent in Eclipse). My original plan had been to selectively adjust the player's starting nuyen depending on their character origin: imports from Antumbra would get a little, new characters would get more (to compensate for their lack of starting gear), while high-karma imports would get nothing. In the end, though, it wasn't worth the worry I put into it. If someone wants to "cheat", that's fine... it's their game, and if they want to proceed after I warn them that it will be less challenging and fun, hey, they can do what they want. (That said, it sounds like the next update of Shadowrun Returns in October will finally add the ability to read a player's karma variable, which will let me at least remove the nag screen for newly created characters.)

Anyways! It was really fun to make this. I still like how making a mod stretches me both creatively and technically. It also makes me even more in awe of the work that goes into making a video game. I feel increasingly reluctant to criticize video games (though that won't stop my next post): the mere fact that a company could finish something is impressive, and should count as an achievement on its own.