Category Archives: Consuming Media

Three New Space Quest Fan Games

Growing up, I loved the Sierra On-Line video games. They were the first adventure games I played that had graphics. Oh, the graphics they had! Sixteen colors! (Assuming you had an IBM PCjr or a Tandy 1000, like me.) And the music! Blippy bloopy music! Plus instant-death and read-the-designer’s-mind puzzles!

Look, it was the ’80s. We took what we could get.

They had several series, but my favorite by far was Space Quest. The early games had a serious science fiction setting contrasted with a bumbling protagonist named Roger Wilco who, like Inspector Clouseau, managed to succeed despite himself. If you want an idea of what the early Space Quest games were like, read through this “Let’s Play” transcript from Space Quest I.

Space Quest 1 and the washing machine puzzleI blazed through Space Quest I…until I snuck on board the evil Sariens’ spaceship. I hit a point where I was skulking in a laundry room when a Sarien came in and shot me. I hid in the washing machine, only to have the Sarien turn on the washing machine. I assumed that that killed me, since the game was as full of instant-death moments as a deep-fried turducken is of cholesterol, so I reloaded and tried to find another solution.

I failed. I failed so hard that I scraped together my allowance and bought the hint book. Imagine my surprise when I read the clues for this puzzle to find out that hiding in the washing machine didn’t kill me, it magically dressed me in a Sarien uniform.

Even today I remember how stupid I felt.

Despite that moment of dumbness, I kept going and ended up being a fan of the Space Quest series. Now, nearly two decades since the last Space Quest game was released, there is not one, not two, but three fan-made sequels. In one month. This is akin to finding a twenty-dollar bill in the couch and pulling it out to find two thousand-dollar bills taped to the twenty.

Space Quest 2: Vohaul's Revenge Remake screenshotThe first is a remake of Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge. The creators have replaced the original game’s text parser (which was fiddly at the best of times) with the icon-based interface Sierra used in its later adventures, updated the graphics, and added voice acting. I loved SQ2 when I was wee, which means that it’s probably a terrible game that you should never play. Nevertheless, if you play only one SQ2, this remake should be it.

Space Quest: Vohaul Strikes Back screenshotThe second is Vohaul Strikes Back. It’s an entirely new game in the Space Quest universe that’s set after the official series ended. By all accounts it’s somewhat self-referential but still playable even if you’re not already a fan of the series, and has a lot of the humor you’d expect from a Space Quest sequel.

Space Quest: Incinerations screenshotThe final one is Space Quest: Incinerations. This is the one that I find the most intriguing. For one, all of the graphics look like rotoscoped CG characters. For another, the scope of the game is much larger and more epic than the others — it’s Space Quest on a more truly interstellar scale. It also appears to fit tightly into the Space Quest universe, with many plot elements from earlier games making an appearance.

Richard Cobbett reviewed all three games for Rock, Paper Shotgun if you’d like to learn more — and I know you do. Me? I’m going to be playing Incinerations this weekend.

This SOPA/PIPA Protest Thing is Way Overrated

If you paid attention to the internet at all yesterday, you probably saw people complaining about the proposed US bills SOPA and PIPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act are designed to help content creators fight piracy.

Oh, sure, there’s been a lot of whining from the usual suspects about how it will stifle free speech and be used as a club by the entertainment industry. Sure, the bills are worded so broadly that they could be used for all kinds of nasty things. And perhaps content creators from Hollywood editors to authors have said that SOPA and PIPA are like fighting piracy by burning all of your boats.

That’s all balderdash, as my Disasterpiece Theatre co-hosts and I are here to show you. While you were doing silly protests and calling congresspersons and writing letters, we recorded an episode that demonstrated how SOPA and PIPA have no effect on content creators.

So there.

but what if i’m the bats guy

While I was deep in preparation for Dragon*Con this year, artist Katie Cook had a flash of insight: what if Bruce Wayne actually thought he was a bat, aided and abetted by Alfred? It all started with a tweet.

[blackbirdpie id=”103272093067657216″]

From there Katie soon had a rogue’s gallery of villains from an actual scarecrow in a field to a choose-your-own-adventure book. It’s one of the best Batman pitches I’ve read in a long time. Plus there were drawings!

Drawing of Alfred agreeing that Bruce is a bat

Comics Alliance and Newsarama have the full list of tweets. Katie later created a three-panel thumbnail of BATS. Seriously, go read this. It’s highly entertaining.

U2 in Nashville

The first time I heard U2 was 1986. A friend let me borrow “The Unforgettable Fire” on cassette tape. I fell in love with “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and was pretty much hooked.

This is my view from the 27th row last night:

The show was UN. BELIEV. ABLE.

It was made better by getting to go with some of the people who know me better than anyone in the world.

Gals, let’s not wait another 20 years to see them again, huh?

Portal 2 Has a Great Adventure Game Story

(This essay, needless to say, is going to spoil Portal 2 like the recent tornado and subsequent power outage did to the food in my refrigerator. Don’t read if you haven’t played the game.)

Almost four years ago, Valve released Portal, a little game stuck in The Orange Box alongside much more eagerly awaited games like the new episode of Half-Life 2. It became a surprise success, and I fell in love with it. Portal 2 isn’t the astounding surprise package of awesome that Portal was, but it’s still a triumph in its own right. The single-player campaign is wonderful and a joyful celebration of puzzle-solving, the co-op campaign is well-crafted and provides an experience that echoes the newness of the original game, and the whole game exhibits great game design from the sound to the visual cues to the writing. What intrigues me the most about Portal 2 is how it has the best adventure game story I’ve seen since adventure games died1.

Continue reading Portal 2 Has a Great Adventure Game Story

Why the Dead Island Trailer is Exploitative

The trailer for the game Dead Island is striking both in content and presentation. The trailer’s focus on a young girl turned into a zombie has sparked debate, so of course I have to weigh in!

Be warned: the trailer is gory and disturbing.

The trailer is for a game but it functions like a film trailer, seeking to establish a mood and evoke emotion while giving an idea of what the game is about. It uses a filmic shorthand that people are familiar with. The trailer’s down-tempo piano music performs the same function as Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” has since it showed up in The Elephant Man: provide an elegiac soundtrack signaling that Very Sad Things Are Going On. The slow-motion effects re-enforce that mood of sadness and inevitability. The story centers on the death and zombification of a little girl in front of her parents to provide an emotional wallop, especially to those who are parents themselves. It’s no surprise that they chose to make the kid a girl instead of a boy, since our cultural narrative is that little girls must be protected while little boys can be adventurous.

The trailer’s structure adds to the sense of inevitability. It’s a short scene about a girl running from zombies before becoming one herself, attacking her dad, and being thrown out of a window to land dead on the ground below. The scene is shown simultaneously from the beginning moving forward and from the end moving backward, until the two narrative strands meet at the turning point of her being bitten. It’s like the Greek concept of tragedy without the hubris: you know what’s going to happen and you don’t want it to happen, yet you watch it happen anyway. And that last image before the titles, with the dad moving backward in time away from his just-bitten daughter, symbolizing the theme of the whole trailer — man.

What’s notable is that this trailer for a game never indicates that it’s for a game. It’s a short film that shows no gameplay and doesn’t even indicate that it’s for a game. I’m betting that that’s because we don’t yet have a common visual shorthand for games and gameplay. We do for films, though, and the developers chose to borrow that language to gain attention for their game.

Some have called the trailer exploitative, especially since the developers chose to center their scene on a little girl’s death. It is undoubtedly exploitative, but in much the same way that many film trailers are. It’s aiming to cause a gut reaction, and using everything it can to get that reaction quickly. Three minutes aren’t a lot of time to develop characters and get us to care in the people being shown without having them be archetypes. If that were all there were to it, I wouldn’t be concerned. Here’s the thing, though: is this trailer what the game is about? Everything I’ve read about the game indicates that it isn’t. The game’s a standard zombie survival one where you run around smacking zombies around with lead pipes and axes. Jason Schreier at Wired.com spoke to the game’s publisher, who confirmed that it’s a film that “takes place in the world of Dead Island.”

That’s why I think it’s exploitative in a way that’s beyond normal game and movie exploitation. It’s using the images of a young girl dying not because it’s central to the game or necessarily indicates its theme, but because it’s attention-grabbing. When I look at this trailer, I see something technically proficient that has a hollow center.

Super Awesome Robot Action Sequence Go!

Are you ready to have your skull opened up, your brains scooped out, and your cranial cavity filled with awesome? Then take a look at the following collection of the most awesome action sequences involving a robot ever committed to film.

Those are scenes from Enthiran, a 2010 Tamil SF movie about a robot who, of course, malfunctions. There is more to the movie than what’s shown above. For instance, the compilation leaves out the part where the robot and the leading actress sing heavily Auto-Tuned songs to each other while what look like Cylons dance around them.

Have I mentioned that I love the future? Because I do.

What a Fiasco!

Fiasco bills itself as “A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control”. It’s a one-shot role-playing game that helps three to five players tell a neo-noir story along the lines of the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo, Jackie Brown, Bad Santa, and Out of Sight. It requires no game master, takes about three hours to play to completion, and is a tremendous amount of fun.

You start with a playset, a list of relationships, locations, needs, and objects. The playsets evoke a particular feel, such as a small southern town or mobster London, and are the Lego blocks out of which you will build a story of messed-up people doing terrible things. You roll a bunch of dice and use them to choose elements from the playset to create the story. Everyone has a relationship with the players to either side of them. They range from family relationships (siblings, parent and child) to romantic ones (current spouses, former lovers) to criminal ones (gambler and bookie, embezzler and accountant, drug supplier and dealer). Each relationship gets an additional detail like an object (“photographs, possibly incriminating”), a location (“the ball field”), or a need (“to get rich through the death of an elderly person”).

This setup phase is a blast in and of itself, and starts setting up the dominoes that will fall one after the other as the game progresses. To give you a feel for how the setup helps guarantee mayhem, here are the relationships we had in our game:

  • Richard “Dick” Williamson and his wife Kiki, who have a secret side-business selling marital aids “for educational purposes” in their little Alabama town.
  • Kiki and her old friend Junior are secretly selling illicit Viagra from the back of Junior’s panel van he also uses as his mobile pawn shop.
  • Meanwhile, Junior is palling around with his drinking buddy and parole officer, Ronnie, who is a mall ninja with a penchant for saying, “Say, have I shown you my new baton?” He spends a lot of time telling Junior about how he wants to get laid by his childhood sweetheart (not played by a player) and not telling Junior that he has erectile dysfunction and has never had sex before.
  • Dick works for Mary Beth, owner of Vantage Services, a medical claims processor and the largest business in town. Dick’s had a crush on Mary Beth for the longest time.
  • Meanwhile Mary Beth and Ronnie are making extra money by processing fake medical claims for several of Ronnie’s parolees, who are in no position to argue with Ronnie. That’s slow money, though, and Mary Beth and Ronnie are looking to get rich faster. And wouldn’t you know, Ronnie knows a guy who’s dealing in illicit Viagra….

Right away we’ve got a love triangle, two sets of people competing for the same drugs, and a whole bunch of lies that need to be covered up. As you might imagine, it only got worse from there. As the game played out in two acts, including a twist in the middle (known as the Tilt) that made things go from worse to worst, everything snowballed to the point that Mary Beth and Ronnie planned to steal Viagra from Junior and Kiki to sell it at the local old folks’ home, not knowing that Junior had topped the Viagra off with similar-looking pills of rat poison. In the end Junior was dead, shot after accidentally hitting Ronnie with his panel van and interrupting Dick’s attempt to beat Ronnie to death with his own baton. Kiki ran off but was arrested for drunk driving, though in jail she met the real man of her dreams. And Mary Beth, master manipulator and schemer, got off scott free and was rewarded with a windfall of money.

You’ve probably noticed that the game, like the movies after which it is modeled, tends to be fairly unsavory. It lends itself to mordant humor, and its stories are set in a universe where the undeserving are often rewarded while everyone else’s lives are left in shambles. It’s also a more demanding game than some RPGs, requiring collaborative storytelling, free-wheeling improvisation, and a willingness to roll with the changing story. But the reward is great, as our game of Fiasco, like the others I’ve read about, was hilarious in all the wrong ways.

Bully Pulpit Games has released thirteen free playsets to keep the game interesting, and have provided a free sample of the book to give you an idea of what you’re in for. The PDF only costs $10, or for $25 you get the PDF and a printed book. Even if you don’t play Fiasco, the book is worth reading. If you do play Fiasco…well, I imagine you’re in for a wonderful time making your terrible characters meet horrible ends.

Reading Negative Reviews Just Beacuase

There can be a joy in reading negative reviews where the reviewer appears to have seen some Earth-Two version of the novel, movie, or game in question. Charlie Stross recently revisited Amazon one-star reviews of classic books. One of my favorites is from Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons”:

It is long and boring. I was uninterested in reading this so called play as soon as I read the first page. It is lame and slow. I highly recomend discarding this play before you realize what I have realized…….it is not worth your time and effort!

Author John Scalzi went a step further, encouraging authors to own one-star reviews of their books. However, if we’re going to talk about negative reviews viewed as entertainment, nothing beats Dot Dot Dot, in which a badly-written negative review is read aloud and set to kinetic word art.

Now that is a negative review.

Sokka vs Xander as Comic Sidekicks

Earlier this week I finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I was struck by how much the character of Sokka reminded me of Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both Sokka and Xander are comedy sidekicks who, over the course of the series, evolved into a more serious role. They were normal guys in a group of people with supernatural powers, all of whom kept leveling up and getting more powerful. Many episodes involved their romantic interests. The big difference between them is that Sokka’s character arc was handled much better than Xander’s. Sokka had a clearer role, was given more interesting things to do, and became a strong contributor to the group’s overall success.

(By the way, I’m going to spoil both Buffy and Avatar. I’m also focusing on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and not its continuation in comic books.)

Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Xander Harris was the everyman to Buffy’s super-powered slayer. He was goofy and jokey. He often got the worst from monsters and magic, from an insectoid teacher who planned to mate with him and then kill him, to a love spell that went awry and caused all the women in Sunnydale to chase after him. As part of the Scooby Gang, he remained in his regular-guy role throughout the series. The Scoobies began as the comparatively ordinary friends who helped Buffy, but as time went on that shifted. Willow learned magic, as did her girlfriend Tara. Buffy dated a vampire, a highly-trained soldier, and another vampire. Newcomers to the group had supernatural powers and connections to the supernatural world, like Oz the werewolf and Anya the ex-vengeance demon. Only Xander remained without either.

The writers never seemed sure what Xander’s true role was, despite him helping defeat several of the series’ big bads, the major villians of each season. In season four he was the “heart” component in a spell to defeat Adam, that season’s big bad. In season six, his love for Willow stopped her from destroying the world. He was variously identified as having heart, as seeing truly, and as having courage, but those characteristics shifted throughout the series and left him without a well-defined role. He spent most battles on the sideline. He provided moral support, not insight or fighting prowess or knowledge.

The other Scoobies were also unclear about Xander’s role, something made explicit in the Xander-centric episode “The Zeppo”. In it, everyone but Xander was occupied fighting some world-ending terror. Xander was left to fetch donuts and fret about not being cool. During the episode he manages to lose his virginity to the slayer Faith, pal around with a psychotic undead student, and stop that student from blowing up Sunnydale High. This gives him new-found confidence, but none of the others learned what he’d been up to, or even really noticed his absence. Only the audience sees what has happened, and also gets to see how melodramatic and over-the-top the Scooby Gang’s efforts are without Xander’s leavening humor.

Sokka from Avatar the Last Airbender

Sokka has a lot of similarities to Xander. Everyone in his group has crazy strong elemental bending powers: Aang the Avatar and Airbender, Toph the Earthbender, and his sister Katara the Waterbender. Their enemies are similarly powerful benders. Sokka provides comic relief, spending many of the early episodes grumbling about not having enough meat to eat, making sarcastic asides, and often being the butt of slapstick events.

Sokka diverged from Xander in how he developed skills and talents that gave him a very specific and needed role in the Avatar’s group. Sokka’s inventiveness and native curiosity led him to create several useful weapons. His planning made him the group’s tactician.

Like Xander, Sokka had his own soul-searching episode, “Sokka’s Master”. In the third season Sokka felt that he wasn’t contributing to the group, and so ended up studying with a renowned swordmaster. He trained with the master and became a credible swordsman, even creating his own sword out of metal found in a meteorite. In his absence while he trained, Sokka’s friends noticed he was gone, in marked contrast to Xander’s. The group discovered that they needed his planning and missed his joking.

Nowhere is the difference between Xander and Sokka more pronounced than in the Avatar series finale. Sokka contributes directly and importantly to the fight to stop the Fire Nation. His plan brings down the airships raining fire on the Earth Kingdom. Towards the end he stops two Firebenders from killing him and Toph by throwing his boomerang at one and his meteorite-metal sword at the other in a striking display of martial prowess.

Sokka also maintained his comedic role throughout the series, even as his serious contributions increased. Xander became more mature as Buffy went on at a cost to his comedic impact. Sokka, however, was both comedic and serious. In the finale, at the climax of his plot, he knocked a Firebender off of an airship by throwing his sword at him. As he watched his sword tumble to the forest below, he plaintively cried out, “Bye, space sword!”

Sokka was a much more satisfying character than Xander. He evolved and became a more deeply-realized person throughout the series without downplaying his sense of humor. He contributed directly to battles, making Sokka more of an equal to his companions than Xander was to his. Avatar’s structure undoubtedly made this easier: the series had a definite end, allowing the writers to craft a satisfying character arc for Sokka without having to deal with an open-ended series. The character of Xander points out some of the pitfalls of taking a sidekick known more for comedy and putting him or her in a more serious role; the character of Sokka shows how it can be done.