Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Friday, February 20, 2015


When it comes to the "punk" collection of sub-genres my favorite of the bunch is diesel-punk.  That said, I do like certain aspects of the steampunk genre too.  It's a pity that it has foundered for the most part when it comes to video game adaptations.  In large part I feel it's because the genre's strengths and weaknesses are oftentimes not well understood.

To really illustrate what I'm getting at here let me point to one of the biggest steampunk productions in media history, Steamboy.  It's an animated film by the director of Akira that took ten years to make and at the time of its release had the largest budget of any feature length Japanese anime ever.  While some of the music and visuals are nice, the story and characters are utterly forgettable.  The technology on display is also unremarkable for the most part.  It's a common mistake for fans of the genre to get hung up on the visual athletics (i.e. wanting to cover modernity in gears and boilers thinking it will impress).  It doesn't really work because it just turns into the 1890s with today's conveniences.  Conversely, stuff like the monowheel seems to exist solely to have a piece of flashy gonzo tech that's purpose would have otherwise just as well been served by a much more mundane conveyance such as a horse, bicycle or handcar.  Actually the one and only truly clever piece off design in Steamboy, I would argue, is the steam ball.  This story maguffin is actually intriguing in that it helps address issues with a key aspect of steam power in general.  I believe the webpage on TV Tropes regarding steampunk sums it up nicely:
[A]ny Victorian-era society which actually tried to create steampunk technology would soon find itself in stark trouble. Barring magical intervention, the power requirements necessary to make real-world versions of steampunk devices (or at least Victorian-era versions of 20th century technology) would be enormous, and would soon exhaust all available supplies of coal and wood. A real steampunk society would have to either immediately transform into a fully modern society (with oil, gas, and nuclear power driving devices made of modern, lighter materials) or would quickly become, in all probability, a technological dead end. With this said, the recent development of a number of designs of rocket stoves beginning in the 1980s, have demonstrated that a highly fuel efficient steam boiler may in fact not be quite so impractical after all, at least on a small scale. On this point, it is also worth mentioning that the average contemporary power station still runs primarily on large coal-fired steam turbines, and that nuclear power still actually involves running a steam turbine as well, but simply uses the heat from (ideally) contained nuclear reactions to generate steam, rather than a wood or coal-fed fire.
So, now that we have a reliable (albeit fantastical) source of energy, what to do with it?  Well, as you can probably guess based on some of the artwork on display in this post, how about airships?  In reality the first steam powered dirigible flew in 1852.  Combine that with the major navel building programs that industrialized nations like Germany, the United Kingdom and (to a lesser extent) the USA embarked on toward the end of the 19th century and it's easy to see why/how something like this could come to pass.  Likewise writers of the late 1800s such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were telling stories featuring similarly imaginary pieces of technology based off real designs.  Reliable air travel could also lead to some interesting expeditions into difficult to reach parts of the world such as central Eurasia, the Heart of Africa, or even Antarctica.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is most famous for his stories about Sherlock Holmes, but he also wrote tales about lost lands and civilizations in remote corners of the globe.

Navel technology leading up to World War 1 progressed so rapidly regarding weapons, armor and propulsion that it was possible for a brand new warship to become obsolete after only a few years of service.  Unlike the highly specialized nature of more modern designs, pre-dreadnoughts carried a bristling armament of many different caliber guns meant to engage everything from tiny gunboats to protected cruisers, all the way up to huge vessels of equivalent firepower.  This lack of combined fleet thinking meant that warships often operated independently of one another.  Realistic engagement ranges were also fairly close.  So much so that some vessels were outfitted with ram bows.

Swapping out aquatic themes for aerial ones could also produce some interesting classifications and naming conventions.  "Skytanic" instead of "Titanic" might be a bit too on the nose, but "stormbreaker" instead of "icebreaker" sounds cool in my opinion.  Alternatively, it might be equally intriguing to see what real ships turn out to be if they were made to ply the skies instead of the seas.  RMS Oceanic would probably be called RMS Stratospheric if it were an airship, and the polar explorer SS Terra Nova might be better suited to the designation SS Caelum Nova.  Windjammers and Junks are kind of obvious choices for eye candy, but how about the IJN flagship Asahi, or British ocean liner Lusitania?  Maintenance and repair also present some interesting possibilities.  At the very least docking spires are need to safely transfer personnel and cargo.  Proper airship pens would have to be built into tall cliff faces or be free floating structures of their own supplied from the ground by cable lifts, elevators or gondolas.

So what would a game in this setting be about?  Two words for you, sky pirates.  No, not the generic "Yar, booty and grog!" kind of pirates, but more along the lines of privateers, who deal in smuggling and mercenary work as well as more honorable pursuits like trade and exploration.  Look no further than the Nautilus for an iconic example (just make it airborne rather than underwater).  Or for those desiring a more action packed experience how about a hunt for the Bismark scenario except in the air and all over the globe?  The exploits of the Kriegsmarine pocket-battleships or the fictional HMS Surprise from the film "Master and Commander: Far Side of the World" are also great sources of inspiration.  Players could get their hands dirty participating in real historical events such as aiding or suppressing the Boxer Rebellion.  Which in turn would allow the game to explore some of the prevailing attitudes and philosophies of that era.  All too often in steampunk settings characters have overly modern views when it comes to race and gender and even the villains are oddly free of prejudices common to the time period.  Regardless if the game is an RPG like Skies of Arcadia or something more abstract such as High Seas Trader, I think it could be a lot of fun.  Just don't set it in 1886 or make it a shooter...Damnation...the game, not the curse word.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Born of Blood

There are mysteries which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part.

- Professor Van Helsing

Halloween has come and gone, but Bloodborne is still on the way.  Unlike From Software's previous outings which were dark fantasy melting pots, game director Hidetaka Miyazaki has chosen to draw inspiration from the gothic horror genre this time around.  I have no doubt he has versed himself in stories like the Werewolf of Paris, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, in addition to the Savage Tales of Solomon Kane.  The book I read in preparation for the release of Bloodborne through was none other than Bram Stoker's most famous work, Dracula

It's surprising just how much this classic novel reads like the literary equivalent of a found footage flick.  The entire text is made up of correspondence letters, newspaper clippings, ship's logs, medical reports, memorandums, messages sent by telegraph, wax cylinder audio recordings made on phonographs, plus lots of journal and diary entries by no less than five different individuals.  The result is a patchwork narrative that leaves the nature of vampires shrouded in mystery.  Look no further than the TV Tropes page "Our Vampires are Different" for a comprehensive look at the incredible variety of sometimes contradictory abilities and vulnerabilities these undead posses.  In part this lack of codification is what makes Dracula such an intriguing story; it all plays out kind of like a game of chess except the way pieces move and where they are located on the board isn't always clear.  I've never come across a game that captures this aspect of the story very well.  Then again, when the most faithful video game adaptation of the property is an Atari Lynx exclusive that only covers the first couple chapters of the book...

So, getting back to Bloodborne, I think it's a safe bet to assume the player is going to fight "nosferatu" of some form, and might be one him/herself (or possibly a "dhampyr," if you want to get really technical with the terminology).  Regardless of that, I look forward to seeing what take the designer of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls has when it comes to vampires.  Here's hoping we get to experience something special, and not in a they-sparkle-in-the-sunlight kind of way.

The tomb in the day-time, and when wreathed with fresh flowers, had looked grim and gruesome enough; but now some days afterwards, when the flowers hung lank and dead, their whites turning to rust and their greens to browns; when the spider and the beetle had resumed their accustomed dominance; when time-discoloured stone, and dust-encrusted mortar, and rusty, dank iron and tarnished brass, and clouded silver-plating gave back the feeble glimmer of a candle, the effect was more miserable and sordid than could have been imagined.

- Dr. Steward

Friday, February 6, 2015

It Should Have Been A Game

Usually when I do these movies-that-would-have-been-better-as-games blog posts I select three titles for the sake of variety.  This time though, I want to focus on a single film (which is actually based on a book), Ender's Game.  It's got the word "Game" in the title!  On a more serious note though, I think it deserves more attention than I have given other movies because I want to emphasize a concept that I've alluded to in the past know as storytelling decompression.

Back in the early days of comic books the amount of real estate one could use to tell a story in was about two dozen pages. This was because collecting hadn't really caught on yet so readers tended to throw out older monthly issues of whatever series they were subscribed to.  The result was every story arch had to begin and conclude expeditiously.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is what if you want to create a work of fiction that doesn't fit within that framework?  Well, some things get cut or padded and the overall tale suffers as a result.  This especially applies to books and film.  I can think of a lot of door stopper novels that would have been much more enjoyable had they been short stories.  Conversely, movies can feel rushed when they try to cover to much ground.  Video games, on the other hand, can be as long or short as needed.

Enter Ender's Game, a sci-fi version of Harry Potter wherein Hogwarts is replaced with Battle School and Quidditch with the Battle Room.  Unlike Harry Potter's four houses though there are twenty-two "armies" that compete against one another.  In the film we only ever see eight displayed on leader boards and watch a few fights.  In a video game though this kind of thing could easily be the backbone of gameplay.  Players could spend hours learning the tactics of various army commanders and competing for top spot.  After all a huge theme of Ender's Game is the notion of being empathetic enough to understand your enemy yet sociopathic enough to exploit that understanding.  Granted it's bit much to expect the player to be a tactical genius, but once the mechaincs have been introduced in this hypothetical version of Video Ender's Game (get it?) things could be simplified to this commander likes to X while that commander always does Y.  Between battles time can be spent on fleshing out characters and exploring the setting in more detail.  Again, the events in the Ender's Game novel take place over a five year period (age 6 to 11) while in the film it's only a small fraction of that time (with Ender starting off much older to boot).

Now, before anyone starts talking about how ridiculous the premise of this story is remember that Ender, and pretty much all other kids at Battle School are the product of ad hoc eugenics.  Think of it as the Olympics except the events are stuff like Starcraft and Zero-G laser tag.  Children tend to excel at these kinds of things because unlike adults, they have less to unlearn.  Sort of like Halo except with  inspiration coming from the air force and navy rather than the army or marine corps.  Another important point of distinction to make is the universe of Ender's Game doesn't have FTL travel, although there are some sci-fi bits of technology mostly reversed engineered from captured Formic ships like artificial gravity, engines capable of interstellar travel and instantaneous communication via the "Ansible" (derived from the Formic's telepathic form of communication).  Then there's the Molecular Detachment Device or "Little Doctor" which creates an interesting dynamic between tight effective formations highly vulnerable to this super weapon versus loose ineffective, but safe fighter arrangements.

All this might sound a bit complicated, but in a video game there's plenty of time to work with.  After all, it's ostensibly a school so it would be easy to ween players on the intricacies of warfare in space.  Start off with players only controlling themselves as a "launchy" then bump them up to "toon leader" with a squad under their supervision.  After that it's full on army commander and once they graduate from Battle School it's time be shipped to Eros for simulator training.  Again, begin with individual drones, then squadrons with support ships, and eventually all the way up to whole fleets.  Both novel and movie skip over a lot of Ender's battles, but in a game players could command each and every engagement.  There could even be the option for co-op multiplayer here in the form of detaching battle groups to sub-commanders, much like Ender did with his former schoolmates.  Alternatively, managing your team of personality driven A.I. assistants could also be interesting.  Sort of like fighting against different army commanders in Battle School except in reverse.  Players would have to maximize the strengths of their subordinates in order to succeed.

I should conclude this by saying I've never read any of Orson Scott Card's other works aside from Ender's Shadow (which mostly covers the same events in Ender's Game but from a different perspective).  My understanding is he's a nutcase and bigot, but I don't see any of his reprehensible views on display in Ender's Game specifically.  If anything the overall vibe in Ender's Game is cosmopolitan (it's called International Fleet after all) with the Formic Wars being the result of misunderstandings rather than ingrained malice.  That said, I never much cared for the direction the series took after the first book.  In my mind it would have been far more interesting had Ender defected, taking the last Formic queen and raising her, instilling her with his tactical skill, then after the untimely death of his sister (his last connection to humanity) have him go off the deep end and charge his adopted "daughter" with getting revenge on his own species for all the injustices done to him in the past.  It would be a case of the series taking a radically different direction than it ultimately went, with abused becoming the worst kind of abuser, but I really just want to see the Human/Formic conflict continue.  Granted, this idea would never fly because it strongly implies the road to hell is paved with good intentions and I don't think that's something the author believes to be true.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Waiting for Version 1.0

Like it or hate it early access isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  In some ways that's a good thing in that early adopters get to influence a game's development, perhaps guiding the dev team away from some questionable design decisions.  However, there is a big problem with regards to burnout.  Simply put, play the game too much when it first becomes available and by the time the polished experience is released you'll be tired of the concept, thus missing out on the greater enjoyment you would have had if you waited and played the complete version rather than an unripened build of the game.  So if you're like me and have a lot of patience, but very little tolerance for bugs and half-baked features, then waiting would probably be the best option.

Darkest Dungeon, Massive Chalice, and The Forest are just a few games on a long list of titles I want to play once they're complete.  The thing is though, I have to ask myself from time to time, when is a video game really done?  Feature complete is a term I've heard used often enough to signify when a title goes gold, but what does that really mean.  An excellent example is Kerbal Space Program.  It's rapidly approaching version 1.0 with improvements made to everything from aerodynamics to deep space refueling.  Sadly, the solar system in which players explore is still in need of some major attention.  The Earth analogous planet Kerban doesn't have clouds, the ice giant Eeloo doesn't have geysers, nor does the desert planet Duna have dust storms.  Promised additions such as a ringed gas giant or proper internal views for all the cockpits have yet to be implemented.  The game is supposedly a complete and while I don't think it is, I feel the same way about numerous other "full retain products" currently available ranging from big triple AAA titles like Assassin's Creed: Unity to other small scale projects such as SpinTires.

Granted, I don't have a huge cause for complaint so long as updates and patches are not paid DLC.  When you consider the fact that MineCraft and Terraria still get major updates on a regular basis, free of charge, it becomes impossible to say when a game is truly finalized (especially when mods are taken into account). Maybe it doesn't really matter though as long as a game is done to a degree that is satisfactory to the player.  Of course where that line gets drawn will vary from person to person.  I might pick up the aforementioned Darkest Dungeon on Steam at some point before it leaves beta, but until The Forest has an update that allows you to rescue the child (taken captive at the beginning of the game) and escape, I'm content to withhold my enthusiasm for that survival game...and Salt...and Rust...and Stranded Deep...and The Long Dark...and all those other ones with zombies in them.  That's just me though, for everyone else, to each his (or her) own.