Monday, June 24, 2013

Movie Web Monday: Anton Yelchin

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the Nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Today we've got an actor that you've probably heard of for the wrong roles. Anton Yelchin began appearing in some top-notch productions at the age of eleven, delivering powerful performances opposite big name actors and still staying under most audience's collective radar. Then he starred in JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot as the most pathetically endearing iteration of Chekov yet, and that's easily his most recognizable role--and him stammering "nine five wictor wictor two" to the Enterprise's obtuse computer. But the three films I've got below show a good deal more of his acting chops, and I hope he continues to get diverse parts in future movies, as right now he's one of the most underrated twenty-something actors out there.

Anton Yelchin: More Than An Accent

Movie: Hearts in Atlantis (Rent It)

Anton Yelchin plays young Bobby Garfield in Hearts in Atlantis, which puts him in the shoes of the main protagonist alongside acting great Anthony Hopkins as Ted Brautigan. It's not the sort of role I'd envy for an unseasoned eleven year-old actor, but Anton holds his own, thanks in part to the film's magical script and also thanks to the tone of precocious wonder he carries throughout. Precocious wonder is an essential characteristic in a Stephen King nostalgia film--this is a film with brutal bullies, sexual trauma, teary reminiscence, young love, and eerie abilities, all with children as principals. So being able to register and reflect Brautigan's eloquent amazement at the world of children is invaluable. But still he remains a little boy at that age where he exaggerates childish silliness, especially when accused of being interested in his best friend, Carol Gerber. The cootie-shy Bobby retreats from Brautigan, defensively asking:



It's a fun moment that displays the mundane concerns of a child who is trying to fossilize his young notions, even while glossing over Brautigan's supernatural gifts. Which is really very much the central motif of Hearts in Atlantis.

Movie: Charlie Bartlett (Rent it)

I don't generally watch R-rated comedies. Most of the things that qualify a movie for R-ratings either don't interest me in a comedy or--more often--repel me in conjunction with humor. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are huge exceptions to this preference, but since they're British and functionally action/thriller movies as well, my rule of thumb holds. Charlie Bartlett really stretches that preference with its dramatic depth, magnificent acting, and exuberant characterization of the title character. As the title character, this has got to be Anton Yelchin's most impressive and enjoyable role. Gregarious, insecure, a compulsive manipulator, Charlie Bartlett is an almost schizophrenic character--ranging from shy to charismatic in scenes that are fun to watch and showcase the young actor's talent. This is really highlighted when he auditions for the school's production of Henry V by vying directly for the attention of Susan Gardner, played by Kat Dennings:



Or even better is when the plot of the movie is established by Charlie's descent into becoming an eccentric prescription drug-dealer and mock-therapist for the kids at school. His first step into becoming his school's pusher? Intimidate, then sympathize with the school's bully and drug dealer with a cleverly practiced speech:

"Maybe you got slapped around one too many times for your lunch money on your way to the bus. Maybe your pop's gotta booze himself up every morning so he can plow roads with a sense of humor, then, when he gets home, you're just a distant third to sloppy joes and a bad sitcom. Maybe the cheerleaders call you a scumbag behind your back. Maybe it's because the school's got you placed on the remedial track and your teachers are really good at making you feel like an idiot..."



This movie is dark, but let me assure you that the divisive-but-good-willed drug dealing quickly falls around Charlie's head, and he's completely devastated when he has to confront his own willingness to fake his own character and pander for the sake of popularity. Also, Hope Davis, who played Anton Yelchin's mom in Hearts in Atlantis, plays mother Marilyn Bartlett in this film, and her bad parenting is even more damning and hard to watch than in the King drama. On the flip side of the coin, Robert Downey Jr. delivers an awesome performance as the school's principal Nathan Gardner and father to love-interest Susan. He's an alcholic, ground-down, depressed wreck of a loving single father, and somehow Downey is able to make the character really fun to watch anyways:



Movie: Terminator Salvation (Own it)

I love the Terminator series without exception. I said it, and I mean it. Terminator Salvation pulls off a plot of epic combat in post-apocalyptia with confidence and consistency--I'm talking consistency of quality, not of plot, so just back off. What's great and unique about the fourth installment in the series, though, is that it's the only movie set in the future and therefore liberated by ham-handed social commentary. There's some ham-handed philosophical commentary thrown in at the end, but that doesn't even hold a candle to Sarah Connor's fatherhood narration in the middle of T2. But the characterization of the principal character is solid, and Anton Yelchin's masterful rendition of a teenaged Kyle Reese is no exception. First of all, he gets the real tagline of the Terminator franchise:



Similar to his portrayal of Bobby Garfield in Hearts in Atlantis, Yelchin's Reese spends his time cautiously absorbing Sam Worthington's heroic courage and worshipping his leader/idol/son's rogue radio transmissions. And in so doing, he straddles the lines of survivalist cynicism and youthful idealistic hope--basically Bobby Garfield with a twelve gauge and no lady friend to help him work out his issues.



Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Pregnant Pause in the Blog Sprint

Man, I take a week off and quite a lot of things happen. We had CliffyB proving he's the popped collar of the gaming industry, E3, more dismal Xbox One news followed by a surprise reversal, a couple of interesting new Kickstarter projects, and Free RPG Day this past week. Now, since I'm a little behind, I'm going to try to cover all these things briefly in one post, so I won't forget to mention them.

On the running Xbox One debacle, there's some mixed news. Specifically, on the questions of DRM, Xbox had been looking more and more arrogant and defensive. Enter E3 and Angry Joe, from the Angry Joe Show.

If you check out Angry Joe's (remarkably diplomatic with a low cuss-count) interview with Larry Hryb (Xbox's Major Nelson), you get a real good view of the sarcastic, patronizing, and disrespectful way Xbox is handling the concerns of consumers:

"Xbox One is the future. Do you want to come with me to the future?"

"I'm not a lawyer--are you a lawyer?"

"You're not on the development team, are you?"

And so forth in response to Joe's questions on the key concerns of the Xbox One's DRM policies. It's really worrisome, and the fact that convivial Major Nelson is shilling so hard for Xbox that he becomes this abrasive makes it all the more shocking to me. I mean, Angry Joe may be known for curse-filled rants and ripping apart bad games, but I think he's a teddy bear overall, and he's surprisingly forgiving of a lot of video games and their companies (I really think he drank Bioware's Kool-Aid on the Mass Effect 3 "extended ending"), and his interviews are really polite and respectful. Even when he's asking hard questions like he did of Major Nelson. Plus, Joe hasn't even gotten around to the really big implications of the Xbox plan. They are:

1) Microsoft's goal is to price control the console game market through trust-like activity between Xbox and game publishers. If Microsoft can make consumers swallow their DRM pill and anti-ownership assault on consumers, then age will be the only practical factor in determining the cost of a game. As it is, when a AAA game tanks, second-hand retailers get a surplus of returns that drive down not only the cost of used games but the new products as well. If they can cut out that consumer-based check on game quality, then Microsoft and Developers could form a closed loop for pricing their games so that you'd never be able to find a good deal for a game, no matter how bad it is. Heck, if price control wasn't the point of this policy, it'd be pretty silly of Microsoft to invest in developing their own re-vamped digital distribution system when they could've saved a lot of money by porting other services like Desura or Steam to their box. But by keeping it all in their hands, they control the prices of their games, and the only reason to lower prices would be to stay competitive with Sony and Nintendo. Maybe.

2) The daily check-in policy, while trumped up as an anti-piracy measure, is almost certainly a method to farm customer usage information. Let's just think about this for a second--there are a lot of ways to accomplish what Xbox claims to be trying to do: combat piracy through online verification. A daily online check-in is not necessary. Most simply, you could make it where installing a game from the disc itself requires an online handshake that flags that game as the 'active' version of the game, and deactivate any other installs from that game CD. So why have the daily online policy? To upload a cache of your Xbox's activity. Now, I'm not talking about some conspiracy theory where Xbox is interested in stealing your identity or anything, but the Xbox's TV and game-playing activity for millions of users would be tremendously valuable marketing demographics they could easily sell to advertisers, publishers, whoever. And don't bet the farm that Xbox would ever pass those new profits on to consumers through cheaper prices.


Then the heavens lifted and Microsoft's collective voice boomed from their emerald fortress: they would reverse their DRM and online policies, including their region lock, apparently. First of all, let that be a lesson to all you corporate apologists out there: us entitled raging nerds can make a difference. Maybe. Personally, I think it's just as likely that Microsoft backed down through a combination of investor pressure and the dire predictions of lawyers that they were going to get caught with their briefs down.

More importantly, however, look at Larry Hryb's comments, quoted above, just one week before the whole company reversed course. Granted he's a paid cheer-leader for Microsoft, but that kind of arrogance behind the project doesn't just go away. The certainty that these draconian measures are the "future of gaming" doesn't just go away. And the dishonest implication that this would be a difficult policy to reverse hints at a more insidious truth: if Microsoft decides that it's worth it, after the bad PR dies down and the first few waves of Xbox Ones have been purchased, to try to quietly reinstitute these or similar measures on a captive audience, they'll try. The way they're pulling back their vaunted Family Sharing Plan--which was generating some excited buzz--smacks of a bargaining chip to give customers when the other shoe drops.

And if you need anymore reason to retroactively hate Microsoft for what they almost did or might try to do again, here's some chaw in your maw: Cliff Bleszinski, the popped collar of the gaming industry, jumped in to defend Microsoft's plan to prune-squeeze gamers. CliffyB, as the wannabe Situation is known, is the creative "mind" behind the Gears of War franchise, and he recently stepped down from Epic Games to basically not shut up about his stupid cult-of-the-game-developer ideals. Now that Microsoft has about-faced despite his eloquent erroneous defense of their plans, he's sounding off that these developments will be bad for the industry and the consumer, predicting: "More studios WILL close and you'll see more PC and mobile games" Dun-dun-DUN!!! Wow, Cliffy, thanks for that realization, and thanks for trying to pin long-standing consumer patterns on consumers' reactions from last week. Cliff Bleszinski: don't be that guy. Also, don't be on the same issue as him. And if you're in the same region as him, check out the real estate market elsewhere.




Kickstart: Fanciful Bloodsport, Musical Mystics, & Frigid Freaks

Fairytale Games

What it is: Fairytale Games is a character-based card game of survival, exploration, and battles to the death. Set in a world run by the evil trinity of the Dark Queen, the Queen of Hearts, and the Snow Queen, the three tyrants secure their rule by persecuting any upstarts, especially those associated with the Enchanted Forest. Their method of persecution? A public bloodsport set in the wilderness of their kingdoms, pitting all sorts of classic fairytale figures like the Beast, Red Riding Hood, Alice, Pinocchio and 36 more in a Hunger Games sort of scenario.

Why it's exciting: The game promises to be a unique take on a lot of familiar figures, turning Pinocchio, for instance, into a tortured sort of Frankenstein's monster, and making the damsels into hardened survivalists that would make the originators of these violent fairytales proud (because most of the original fairytales are way more violent than Disney's sterilized versions). The mechanics involve laying out cards in a freely expanding grid as you explore the world, recruiting or killing off other survivors, finishing quests, and gaining items. And since it promises to support 1 to 10 players it is a rare game indeed that both features solo play and stabbing up to 9 buddies in the back in the course of one game. Very fun. They're nearly funded, and the stretch goals will potentially unlock a huge number of extra cards for backers--including a zombie version, or miniatures at the very highest stretch goal. I'm not a huge card gamer, but this set looks more like a dynamic battle game than a shuffle-fest, so I'm already in on it.



Anthymn

What it is: Anthymn is a typical Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game (MMORPG), where players take on the roles of heroes in a fantasy land in the midst of turmoil. Except all the players are mages in this game. And all magic is tied to music. So spells are actually uniquely composed tunes, and battles are actually special effects duels of music and fire. Players choose a faction based not only on gameplay style, but on musical play style--picking from classical, electronic, tribal, or other styles that have a specific look, culture, and magical power associated with them.

Why it's exciting: This Kickstarter campaign is not looking healthy. With less than two weeks to go, they are at less than $30,000 of their $600,000 goal. Which is a real shame, as this game shows a lot more imagination and guile than almost any other game being crowdfunded right now--they promise a rich, dynamic, player-created soundscape where players trade and teach others their battle-songs, and the core mechanics of the game sound like they will educate people on the basics of musical theory. Even if you aren't going to back this project, you should really consider spreading the word so they have good exposure and support should the worst happen. But seriously, back this. Where else can you be this frakkin' cool playing a trumpet? (Four years of band camp will tell you: nowhere--unless you count that football game where you finished half-time with the Braveheart speech and a trumpet blast)





Frozen State

What it is: Take a bunch of Russians in a necessarily wintry setting, add in some critters from John Carpenter's The Thing, throw in a global apocalypse and old school Fallout-style gameplay, and you have Frozen State, the best thing to come out of Moscow since Sean Connery. Created by Snow Arc, the computer game features an older style of RPG campaign, where you pick one of three preset characters and run them through an RPG where you battle the elements in addition to hostile survivors and things-with-too-many-mouths/limbs/bumpy-bits. The game will involve a non-linear campaign where seeking out resources and loot in devastated Siberia is a constant lure.

Why it's exciting: I really like the wintry setting, and the fact that survival will be a central element is cool. They're talking about making a meaningful day/night cycle where going out at night is dangerous due to weather and the creatures drawn out by darkness, which sounds atmospheric and crunchy. I haven't pulled the trigger on this one yet, though, as its funding is in British Pounds, and I've yet to back a pounds-based project. But with all the cool goodies they've got and the fact they're shooting for a Windows/Mac/Linux release, this might be the time to do it.



Free RPG Day

Last Saturday was Free RPG Day 2013. An annual observance since 2007, it's a chance for RPG publishers and retailers to team up to give players free demos, supplements, and teasers of their games in an effort to spread awareness of their games and promote the hobby in general. This year Pathfinder, Battletech, Star Wars, Cosmic Patrol, and more all got their free on at your Friendly Local Game Shop (FLGS). Make sure to keep an eye out for freebies next year, and support your FLGS. It's a great way to browse other systems and maybe add a few new games to your hit-list.




So what have I been doing while all this stuff was going down?

Getting daddied up.

Again.

Once more my irresistible procrastinator genes have so infected my offspring that my son cruised past his due date. So once more we got to schedule our son's birthday, essentially, by going in to the hospital to get induced. Man, you do not sleep well once your pregnant wife gets to her due date. Throughout the later stages of the pregnancy you start to look at her like a damp, full grocery bag--any sudden movement could tear out her bottom and wreck a whole lot of perishables. But once you hit that final week to deadline and go past it, things take on new severity. Like when Sylvester the Cat drinks the nitroglycerine in the old 1940s cartoon, every movement is sudden death. Needless to say, it's hard to sleep in that kind of environment. (And adding a second boy under 3 years old to our household probably won't help!)


Then, the next day, you go through a weirdly calm morning of getting things ready, shipping the kid off to the grandparents, and then try to have a nice brunch before going in to the hospital for the scheduled horror show. Few things in life are quite so unpleasant as trying to eat with a woman who's pregnant with a child other than their first. Something about that first birth and the 20 or so hospital staff touring her monstrous hoo-hah gives a woman the impression that everyone wants to hear about what's going on with their sensitives forever. For at least one year per kid, everything is mucous, membranes, and fluids, and any time you try to gracefully bow out of the all-access experience, you're instead rewarded with an eye and earful of something you'd rather believe was only the province of R-rated movies. There is no escape.

The build up is kind of mesmerizingly complex, but also tediously long, and you don't really feel like much of what's happening relates to what's about to occur. The little lady is thrown into a flattering hospital ensemble, hooked up to machines, and set on display in the middle of a sci-fi creche. It's like the Disney Alien Encounter, except the lights are on, nothing is sanitary, and the grotesque monstrosity in the middle of the room is the one doing most of the screaming.

And the main event--whew. First, there's a whole lot of doctors and nurses taking the Livingston tour of your baby's den, and then when he comes out, you're suddenly surprised that your huge wife was able to hold, feed, and pass the little Roswell alien. It's like Mary Poppins' hand-bag, except when it starts, everything improbable is going in, and then when something comes out it's totally different--though no less improbable.

So that's been my week. That, and spending the past week fending my two year-old away from the fascinating newborn. On the hospital ride home, he calmly tried to convince us that the new addition would be more comfortable back in mom's belly. But since she nixed that plan, he's stuck with a little brother. Poor guy.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

State of Decay...

...Running, Screaming, and Bleeding Through the Motions

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the Nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

I was originally going to save this post for a more polished Nerdview later on, but I figure now is as good a time as any to put my thoughts out there, since I've now spent at least a dozen or so hours playing it within the past week.

Expectations 'Odor': State of Decay is an open-world sandbox game in which the player controls a small community of survivors in a world overrun by zombies. The player directs the survivors in scavenging for supplies and building a base from which they hold the zombie infestation at bay. Gameplay involves stealth, vehicles, and straight up combat with the player collecting scores of found weapons from baseball bats to shotguns to fight the shuffling menace.

I love zombie games. I bought Call of Duty World at War specifically because I heard about an unlockable Nazi zombies mode. Dead Rising was one of the biggest factors in my original decision to get an Xbox 360 in the first place. Left 4 Dead will never be too outdated for me to forsake its twitchy thrill-kill gameplay and epic standoff sequences. And I've also pledged for a Kickstarter project for a game called Dead State, which will be a gritty "true zombie" (slow and no special forms) survival game in which the player takes up turn-based tactical control over his band of survivors as they raid nearby homes and offices in their small Texas town. Hrm...wait a second...

Yeah, it sounds like State of Decay is kind of a ripoff of Dead State at first. That, and the fact that this game had crept under my radar until a mere three days before it was to be released, had actually muted my enthusiasm for this game, fearing it'd be a cash-in on a heavily populated game genre. And that's not the mention the name, which is so similar to Dead State that it might as well be a senile Yoda trying to recite his game library.



Appreciation 'Beef': Boy, was I thrilled with the differences. While superficially similar to the tactical promise of Dead State, State of Decay is a much more stream-lined and light approach to its themes. At its core, State of Decay feels like a focused Rockstar gameplay experience--the animations, controls, and rendering style all draw from that studio's distinct style. I didn't see Rockstar's name anywhere in the credits for this game, but I call straight-up shenanigans on that--especially after playing Undead Redemption, the zombie DLC for Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption. The games are just too tactilely familiar.

The game has that classic Rockstar/Grand Theft Auto action-style gameplay with lite RPG elements thrown in. You level up your skills in Cardio (the first of many Zombieland references in this game), Powerhouse, Fighting, and more through the regular use of the skills, increasing passive benefits regularly and occasionally getting a new ability or move as well. They also track a few keywords about each character's personality traits, as the clash or harmony of characters back at base mean you might come back from a long day of head-smashing to find your teammates at each other's throats. Sigh... Ed, you silly Idol-watching sluggard, I knew I should have dropped you off in that zombie-infested trailer park.

The base-building element of the game gives small, regular benefits that you'll definitely feel, but since the different facilities you'll build are going to be static set-pieces dropped in empty areas of your homebase, they don't necessarily feel as interesting as they are useful. Not to mention that getting the resources to build the base add-ons are a lot more work than you might be prepared for. Expect to spend 20 to 30 minutes gathering resources to build an addition only to have it take another 15 to 30 minutes to build. And that's assuming there isn't a delay due to a shortage of a specific resource.

The open world map is quite spacious. I'd compare it to about the size of one of the states in Red Dead Redemption. The following picture shows about one-fourth of the world map in the game, and it is dense enough with interesting terrain features, lootable buildings and little zombie surprises throughout. It's a well-realized and interesting world, as testified to by how much time I spent in the first town alone before even bothering to explore the second third of the map. I still haven't gotten to the third major region of the map.


This is about one quarter of the total real estate in State of Decay

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Oh, it's been a while since I've played Red Dead Redemption or LA Noire, which are the games I'd compare most directly to this one in terms of primary gameplay dynamics. The zombies are typical video game undead in that their are several special boss forms and the rank and file zombie is given to running when they want to shake off the eerie shuffle of a true zed-head. Head-shots are the only way to take them down, however, and the rather clunky third-person aiming of the game engine means that dropping a zombie with anything but a shotgun blast takes a little practice and a cool head. And not trying to use the alcoholic accountant as a front-line scavenger.

I love it. The strategy of the game is really just a way to link your self-assigned missions with more narrative and importance, but it works for me. The coolest artifact that carries over from other Rockstar games, though, is the no-save gameplay. The only way to save your status in this game is to exit the game and fall back on your last checkpoint. And death isn't the safety net it is in other games, either. You command a whole party of survivors, or at least the ones willing to friend you in the game's trust meter. And when whatever character you're controlling gets turned into hickburger, your control shifts to whoever is left back at your base. It makes the game persistent and adds tension even when the zombies aren't that threatening. Because one screw up, one overconfident decision to press on to another mission without stocking up on meds, and your fiery assault-rifling Latina will get wishboned by a zombie. And then you'll have to replace her with Ed the American Idol fan.



General Enjoyment 'Cheese': By now you should really know if you'd like this game or not. It's well-crafted and pushes the genre forward in an interesting way, but it also doesn't break the rules or really surprise you, either. Sandbox fan? Get it. Zombie nut? Get it. Enjoy inexpensive games with high replay value? It's a $20 download through Xbox Live, and I find that the combination of base-building choices and character progression gives you a ton of different ways to approach the game. And the brutal way the game makes you lose vital characters and then just press on not only evokes the genre magnificently well, but it also makes you wonder whether it's worth it to restart from the beginning just one more time.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Nerd Citizen

Today's been a fairly lazy day on the Nerdery front. I've been working on several gargantuan blog posts that will take a good deal of work due to either the tremendous writing/editing load necessary or due to editing media I want to attach to the associated blog posts.

In particular, I've been stalled by the release of the addictive State of Decay, which came out on Tuesday on Xbox Live Arcade. I'm currently in the research and evaluation stage of writing a review for it (ie, I'm playing the game as much as my spazzy, tow-headed spawn will let me). That should be forthcoming within the next handful of posts, if all goes well the next few days.

The big news in the Nerdery, though, was a small package I received in the mail. Tearing into it, I dropped my engraved metal Citizen's ID Card, a beautiful little reward for most Star Citizen backers. Featuring my planned character's name, my founder and pledge status, and a really neat engraved circuitry design along the top and bottom, this is a first class bit of totally superfluous game bling. And I love it. I love getting collector's editions of games specifically because of these sorts of baubles. In the Fallout New Vegas collector's edition, for instance, you get a neat case with a starter deck of Caravan cards, a graphic novel, and a handful of poker chips from the casinos featured in the game. The Dragon Age: Origins collector's edition came with a fabric map of Thedas. Which is awesome because I can now say I've literally caressed Ferelden to my cheek. I love you, you hound-loving nation of malcontents.

Now Star Citizen is fast joining those noble ranks of uber-sexy nerd add-ons that make me unjustifiably enthused for the game beyond the promised gameplay experience. Plunking this plate down on my laptop keyboard, I then snapped a few pictures and threw together the following image. Later tonight I'll be reviewing my character's crew contracts, which will totally be used as an in-game charter for anyone wanting to serve aboard my Constellation-class merchant ship. Oh yes, I'm serious. In the coming weeks, I'll probably share my multi-page crew forms at some point in the future, as well as my detailed thoughts on space-mining as a potentially deep gameplay feature for Star Citizen.



In other nerd news, I've been taking baby steps towards cosplay ever since the euphoric epiphany that was the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo. I'm still at the point where I'm just testing stuff out as I research options and pick the brains of much more experienced and talented cosplayers. Most of the stuff I'm actually doing right now is helping out some other fine folks with a project of theirs while also using that effort as an opportunity to sponge up their methods and talents as best I can. But, I'm not just working on other people's stuff. You could say I've got some nerdy projects in the works.



I'm hoping to have something relatively wearable ready for my son within the next week, so if that happens as I hope you can bet you'll get some more images of it in the next few days. The idea is to present him with this as a novelty consolation prize for being ousted as the cutest thing in our household once his little brother is born. Of course, I think this makes him even cuter than any merely human son could ever be--he's not just cute now...he's supercute!


Friday, June 7, 2013

Kickstart: Lost Moon Men and Marines in Training

Kickstart Your Weekend: A series in which I occasionally spotlight Kickstarter projects that are ending soon and deserve a little nerd love. Also, I'll highlight some past projects as well, as you never know when these enterprises are going to turn up again.

Tonight I'm plodding along, continuing the blog sprint and vaguely entertaining the idea of keeping it going until post number 150. That's not terribly likely, as my wife is going to evict her 9-month old parasite any day now, but there is a chance I'll be able to keep the momentum going even then.

Speaking of momentum, Deadzone ended up pulling in a grand total of $1,216,482 in pledges this past week. That's nearly 300 grand more than Mantic Games' previous best Kickstarter campaign, and a full 100 grand more than I was predicting they'd pull in. Their final hours pulled in several hard plastic sets for backers to add-on to their pledges, and that probably really helped boost the final results of the campaign. Most Mantic models are resin or a trending new resin-plastic mix. As a model material, resin holds small details sharply and cleanly, but resin can be more difficult to glue and harder to convert due to being a bit more brittle and prone to cleavage. (Not that kind, silly mammal.) By offering a few optional sets of plastic models for the game's core units, Mantic gives players a chance to have more ambitious control in constructing their models. And if there's one thing wargaming armchair generals love--it's ambitious control. That and smack-talking their opponents.

Ryan Sohmer's second children's book, The Bear--A First Time Parent's Continuing Journey finished at a healthy $54,381 out of an original goal of $40,000. It doesn't compare to the success of the first campaign, but I can't fault anything with the second book on that score. I think the more muted success of book two speaks to how cogent and complete the first book was--there's simply not as much demand for something more. Still, the art for these books is beautiful, and I received my book from the first campaign promptly and in great condition, and you can't beat the wry observations and tear-jerk imagery of each and every page. Total dad-bait.

Dino-hunting survival game The Stomping Land ended at $114,060 blowing their 20 grand goal out of the water and securing extra funds for hiring extra part-time designers to expand the game environment. I was on the fence on pledging to this one--the gameplay really excited me, but I was kind of hoping for them to show more interest in Mac support as well as PC. As it is, though, I'm sure I'll get it sometime next year to play on my Star Citizen gaming PC--sitting in my high-tech simpit while running a caveman avatar around in a loincloth. Anachronism, your name is me.

The superhero-vs-mastermind board game Guardians Chronicles is poised to break 60 grand tonight, with a little over a week to go in their campaign. They slowed down a lot in the middle of the campaign, perhaps more so than is usual, but with the fact that they're picking up steam and about to unlock a dice stretch goal, I still think their ultimate stretch goal of $100,000 is within reach. More importantly, until June 13 they have a trivia-based game giveaway contest in which the grand prize is a complimentary $160 pledge level for the Kickstarter campaign. Check that out here. They've also posted full rules for the game and enough art that you can play a small demo of the game with your own miniatures/markers/old Tic-Tac cases as proxies for their characters.

Okay, so that's it for Kickstarter updates. So what's new this week? Well, not a whole lot. So today I'll share another two promising-but-failed Kickstart projects.



Shackleton Crater

What it is: Shackleton Crater wanted to be a near-future strategy computer game where players struggled to manage and create the first colonies on the moon's surface. No cover system, no alien invaders, and no secret uprising. A strategy game without violence, where survival and thriving would be challenging enough to keep players entertained. Building pre-fab modules inspired by real NASA concepts and designs, players would scour the moon's rugged surface for materials, conduct research, and hide from cosmic storms and the like. The game environment was based on the actual surface of the moon, and one of their listed stretch goals proposed that the game feature the entire frakkin' surface of the moon. That's a lot of solitary playground, yo.

What happened: I enjoy a good dose of violence in my entertainment. Most zombie games make me giggle rather than cringe at face-smashing finishing moves and the obligatory chomp-chomp-chomp deaths of helpless characters. But I also enjoy a harmonious game, too, where excellence doesn't have to come at the end of a gun or at someone else's expense. Challenge can go hand in hand with a relaxing experience. And I think that's what appealed to me about Shackleton Crater--I envisioned a game that was smart and well-balanced enough to provide a challenging experience, but while also being totally wholesome. And I suppose it's that last part that made it a tough sell. The game community as a collective doesn't want another Oregon Trail--not unless you make the final stretch of the journey a cannibalism simulator or you give players the option to raid trading outposts instead of, y'know, trading. About halfway through their campaign and at less than ten percent of their base funding goal, creators Joe Got Game cancelled the project, promising that they'd keep moving forward with development. Unfortunately, no news has surfaced for the past two months.




Interstellar Marines

What it is: Interstellar Marines has been in indie development hell for years. A science-fiction first person shooter being developed by Zero Point Software, they apparently started out with a mainstream publisher and partners but got cut off as their realistic, visceral approach to their setting seemed not enough Halo or Call of Duty. Since then, however, they've ingeniously switched their game code over to the versatile and inexpensive Unity Engine, which has allowed them to do something really neat for their game by making portions of the game playable on their website through your browser. It's a fun teaser of what they have envisioned, and it also enables the developers to actively troubleshoot and play balance their game one feature at a time.

What happened: The project had a decent start but quickly slowed down. It crawled along, and I think a lot of potential backers (myself included) were a little gun-shy to jump into such an ambitious game being developed for so long. All gamers have been collectively Duke Nukem Forever'd, and we're all scared of it happening again. But the game itself looks great, and I love that the premise for the prologue to their series was going to put players in the middle of a series of harrowing wargames as futuristic soldiers prepare for first contact with alien species. Which is pretty much never good. Their Kickstarter video was great too--it started off with a droll speech about the first interstellar beacon test, and then cut to the developers talking about their game in a sort of 12 Monkeys stream of hallucinations. Doesn't make sense? Well, it was funny anyways.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Myth Map Released

Just 'Cuz

Over the past week I had come to the decision, with a little encouragement, to release the full resolution version of my Myth map. Now, this might not seem too relevant, but as I quickly summarize my process and decision-making it might help you flesh out your own world-building process. You can feel free to use these maps for your own fantasy RPG--better than the generic D&D worlds, in my vitriolic opinion--or you can just use this as inspiration for one GM's process for map-making and world-building. First, a reminder of the official map with which I started:



I love this map. It's characterful and has a great texture to it, and the cartography does a great job of evoking the hand-made qualities of ancient map-making. Tolkien-forgive-me, but I think I like looking at this map more than most of the original Middle Earth maps. At the same time, however, it's an incredibly game-y and contrived map. Maps traditionally fit as much detail as possible into a confined space, and the sort of large gaps that define the map above would normally be indicative of a wild, uncharted region. And in the lore of Myth, that doesn't quite jive. So I'm left with a map that is attractive and evocative, but that at the same time pulls me back and says it's a game map.

When I sat down to change the world map, then, I wanted to ensure that there'd be a good and representative density to the map. If something was particularly bare, I wanted that bareness to say something about the setting. My tweak of the map was also going to be perfectly consistent: every civilized settlement of more than two thousand people would be on the map. This would assuage my anal-retentive GM obsessive compulsion, and it would mean that I could use the settlements on the map to estimate the population of the free world--very useful when your major antagonist is on a ten year plan to make it all burn. And finally, I wanted the map to be functional for journey-charting for the party. So this meant that as dense as I might make it, the map would still need to have enough space to mark it up.

Step one was figuring out the scale of the official Myth map. In The Fallen Lords, there's a quote that a runner from Willow traveled fourteen hundred miles to Rhi'anon. Of course, the quote might be dead reckoning or it might estimate the path the runner took. More useful, however, is another line that says Silvermines is one hundred miles away from Bagrada, the southernmost pass through the Cloudspine mountains. That let me scale the map and feel confident in slapping a scale key on it. Then, in determining how big the map would physically be, I wanted the map to be overlaid with a one-inch hex grid. Based on the width of the regions represented, I decided to make each hex 20 miles across. This would be an average day's travel, so for convenience the party might travel 1 hex per day.

The next major creative hurdle was filling in all the details. And that meant kicking up the number of named settlements on the map from about a dozen on the official map up to over 150 on the oh-my-gosh-how-long-does-Ben-plan-on-running-this-campaign map. First I had to add lots of small rivers and lakes to the map, though, because pre-industrial villages generally gravitate towards bodies of water. Yes, I really thought that far ahead. Once I had plunked down all the little land features however, I had a list of about 200 geographic sites waiting to be named. Poop. I hate being me. This is when a sane person would seek help and try to overcome their obsessive tendencies. But I just called it good GMing and started categorizing each feature by fictional ethnicity parallel. Yep, that simple. For instance, the Cath Bruig are the dominant human ethnicity in the setting. They have a number of character and place names gleaned from Celtic and Gaelic folklore, so I started pulling a list of other names I liked from there. I also happen to be madly in love with the Welsh language though, and it gives my inner sadist a GM-happy whenever I watch my players try to pronounce Welsh names, so I threw a ton of Welsh-inspired locations in the middle region of the map. The west was going to be a semi-independent former colony of the Cath Bruig, so I went the English route by bastardizing and crassifying the Bruig language to populate the Province. Yes, I meant to say crassifying. The northern tribes were straight-up Norse in their influence, and the easternmost kingdom of Gower was built around my wiki-knowledge of historical Turkish traditions. The dwarf kingdom and the forest kingdom of The Ermine required me to extrapolate my own language conventions based on what little we get in the official lore, in order to create a consistent standard.

Overall, it's a lot of work, and if you end up using it for your own games I'd love to hear that my GM lunacy saved you at least a little effort. So here's the long-previewed full resolution Myth map.


With Hex Grid overlay added

Note that I had kept this world map secret from my players until their characters bought a regional map at the first market town they came upon. This helped to reinforce the feudal ignorance I wanted to emphasize in my game, helped keep the players from feeling too overwhelmed, and made for a nice one-page print-up at full-resolution.

And yes, as I've reviewed the map for this post, it's dawned on me that I need to add more details here and there. I'm a sick, sick nerd.

UPDATE 7/31/2013: if the above images still aren't big enough for you, try this link.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Child Cancer Patients Given 'Supercure'


(Disclaimer: supercure might be advertising and/or chemotherapy)

Stolen from the Editor's Desk: There are a lot of opinion columns, write-in articles, and advice editorials in the greater medium of the written word. Virtually none of these advisors are particularly qualified, either. There's nothing to stop them from giving bad advice. Except me. Stolen from the Editor's Desk involves me taking some sort of advice column and tearing it a new one, all for your sake. Bad advice, meet the nerdery.

This "Stolen from the Editor's Desk" is a bit of a stretch, since this is in response to a proper news article. But at the same time it's well within the spirit of the series, so forgive the slight stretch in categorization.

A children's cancer center in Sao Paolo, Brazil is taking a novel approach to helping kids cope with chemotherapy. The hospital staff is telling their young patients they're getting a "superformula" and emblazoning their chemotherapy supplies with Justice League character symbols.

Warner Brothers' team-up with the Brazilian cancer center goes further than that. They're kitting out rooms of the hospital as superhero game-rooms with comic book decorations. Furthermore, they're penning a series of special comic book issues in which DC's title characters get cancer (or some similar ailment) and then go through their own version of chemotherapy, after which they promptly return to full crime-fighting health.

Now, one of the key problems with treating long-term patients is morale. There is a measurable correlation between optimism and recovery outlook. That's why hospitals all over the world engage in different programs designed to cheer up their patients--whether it's individual volunteers or organizations like the Make-A-Wish foundation. For children fighting cancer, they have to cope with invasive, painful testing and medical treatment as part of chemotherapy, so for them maintaining a hopeful and determined perspective is especially important. I get that.

But how do you treat those children in order to give them hope?

Do you make them as comfortable as possible and try to equip them to deal with any outcome? Or do you tell them that if they cooperate and do the right thing, well...look how easy it was for Batman? It seems to me like there are better ways to make kids have fun with the process--why not give kids the opportunity to customize their chemotherapy kits, rather than giving them commercially-produced kits that bear the promise of a brand.

And it's not like these superheroes are necessarily meaningful to the kids getting them. What if a kid asks for Captain America? Sorry, have Green Lantern--he's kind of a supersoldier. What's that little girl? Want a heroine who's not laden with a history of bondage imagery to encourage you to get better? How about Wonder Woman? Because all they have is the Justice League represented.

Which leads into the creepiest thing about this scenario: this is a commercial deal (however charitable) between a company and a cancer center. It boils down to placing advertising in a place of healing for children that are not only suffering, but are more likely to be the focus of news reports regarding their condition. I imagine the cancer center probably opted for this deal out of a chance to get a free or cheap way to meet their patients' needs, and that's admirable. But isn't it telling that this news is an international story so quickly? And what's even more damning, in my opinion, is that the attached video announcing this deal is in English, and the Portuguese version of the video was posted almost a week later. That's right, the version most likely to be viewed around the world was made first, and only six days later did they post a version in the national language of Brazil itself. And who's producing these Youtube videos in question? JWT, the fourth-largest advertising agency in the world. This is a transaction as much as it is a proper act of charity.

I'd like for this to be a Marvel vs DC issue, I really would. Not because I enjoy kicking DC when they're down--though sometimes I do--but because this is more an issue of the way these high-profile medical facilities' decisions get treated. Like when Penny Arcade strong-armed their Child's Play charity to reject donations from "Retake Mass Effect" because he disagreed with their message about a video game.

I don't know, maybe this should be a Don't Be That Guy article. Don't use sick kids as marketing gimmicks.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dream Game: Star Citizen

Today's post has been a long time in coming. Like 22 years in coming. Accordingly, it's super long.

A little while ago, I got to cross a big entry off my personal, nerdy bucket list. I got some actual stick time in a Mechwarrior Tesla Pod. Now it may be hard to appreciate why that was such a big life moment for me, so let me rewind things a bit. Say about, oh...two decades ago, more or less. When I was a lowly little five year-old with a whole nerdy life ahead of me.

My mother wanted to move down to Houston, Texas, where my grandfather was "living" at the time. I say "living" because after spending a summer and a half in Houston, I've determined that no one actually lives in Houston. At least not in the summer. Instead, they melt and dip in and out of a constant state of humid, clammy heat stroke while shuffling from one climate-controlled environment to another. Living in Houston in the summer is kind of like living in a state of reverse cryogenic freezing: you're only alive and active when in confined, artificially cooled spaces; the rest of the time you're in a state of quasi-death. And that's forgetting the insane proliferation of cockroaches in the area--huge, impossibly numerous, and insidious. Houston cockroaches are like R-rated versions of the Rad Roaches from Fallout. In any case, my family decided to move down to Houston. Out of ignorance. And my mother and I moved down there in May 1990 to start looking for houses while my brother and father tried to wrap things up in Illinois.

So the two of us moved into a small Houston apartment, and with no friends and only a handful of toys to play with, I immediately fell back on my favored tools of entertainment: pencil and paper. I up-ended a moving box and slid it against a wall in the corner, and then I began plastering images on my large, double-wide pad of drawing paper. The first drawing was a space battle, with X-wings detonating Tie fighters while Star Destroyers looked on helplessly. I taped that to the wall just above the cardboard box. I then sketched out the cockpit controls for an X-wing fighter, which I knew by memory (I vividly recall as a five-year-old considering every visit to the video store a tacit pledge to rent one of the Star Wars trilogy). The controls I taped down to the top of the moving box. Then, sitting in front of the wall, I piloted my hastily improvised space fighter into harrowing dogfights and epic space battles, hands holding an invisible control stick and pounding the scrawled out buttons in quick succession to realign my deflector screens and adjust my targeting computer. I'm pretty sure if someone would've walked into our apartment then, it would've looked like I was being punished--sitting in the corner, muttering to myself, and rocking back and forth--but I was having a blast. I grew up on Star Wars and old scratchy VHS recordings of Battlestar Galactica, and space battles have always kept me up at night.

"Houston cockroaches are like R-rated versions of the Rad Roaches from Fallout."

Another life support function in Houston was the arcade. In a region where the summer is full of weekly reports of heat stroke deaths, parents are rather less eager to pack their kids into plastic tubes in outdoor playgrounds, apparently. So everywhere we went in Houston we tripped over the most God-blessed bounty of video arcades I have ever known. Places like McDonald's substituted their playgrounds with attached arcades, and shopping malls had elaborate, sprawling video game arenas that compared to nothing else I've seen in my life except the ill-fated Disney Quest ten years later. Yes, Houston may have been the worst region to settle, in my opinion, but once there those Texans accidentally made themselves a nerd haven where you couldn't swing a stick without hitting a video game cabinet.

At the shopping mall my family went to, they had a massive arcade that featured a bank of eight Mechwarrior simulator cockpits that were the precursor to the Tesla Pods I've raved about in the past. They had surround sound, multiple monitors, and banks of sexy working buttons and control surfaces. I was in love. But my ten year-old brother, in a pique of superiority, informed me that it was way too expensive: a five minute match in the simulators would blow half of my arcade allowance. "And besides," he'd tell me in that big brother way, "you wouldn't know what to do with all those buttons and controls. It'd be a waste of money." But for my brother, apparently, it was right up the future pilot's alley, and the fifth-grade schmuck would proceed to hop into matches and whoop and holler and throw his Mad Cat mech into the thick of missile-firing fights and laser-burning bust-ups. He'd even had the audacity to occasionally pull some of my share of the arcade allowance to get in extra matches, and I was stupidly ensorcelled enough by the explosions and sci-fi gratification of watching from afar that I would usually let him.

"I'm pretty sure if someone would've walked into our apartment then, it would've looked like I was being punished--sitting in the corner, muttering to myself, and rocking back and forth--but I was having a blast."

We didn't move to Houston. My family collectively bailed out on the humidity capital of the country after less than six months. But the glories of the Houston arcade scene and the dream of the simulator cockpit (also known as a simpit) have stuck with me ever since.

Which I'm sure you've guessed by now.

That was also the year that a certain game called Wing Commander came out. A space sim in which the player got to slip into the cockpit of a fighter and partake in interstellar wars, it was the ultimate boon to my fevered brain, letting me fire blasters and pull extravagant maneuvers to shake enemies off my six. The following year, Wing Commander II came out, and we played that one to death, too. And when I say we, I mean I would harangue my brother into booting up the game on our cyclopean* DOS machine and then I'd bumper-car my way through space until he'd get fed up and take over. Which was often necessary, because I could get Angel killed in the easiest of fur-balls. Not to mention I had a knack for blasting through missions by the skin of my teeth and missing all chances for extra objectives and commendations. It was great. And it lasted for just one more year before we converted to a Mac family and my gaming life shifted to real-time strategy games like Warcraft and, eventually, Myth. Even when Wing Commander got ported to Mac, I didn't get as into it. Maybe it was no longer being threatened by my brother for every botched Immelmann turn, or maybe it was that the game lost its mystique when it wasn't hidden behind an inscrutable DOS command line, but I didn't keep up with the rest of the series.

Years passed and I always looked back on Wing Commander fondly. My brother and I got into Mechwarrior 2 and tossed around simpit ideas until he got fed up with my "strategy" of attacking his Atlas-class mechs with gnat-sized Elementals, which often resulted in five to ten minutes of me hovering around him, unable to cause any damage but impossible to hit with the mechanical titan. My brother joined the Air Force and relegated all our nerdy past-times to me while he went off and, y'know, flew actual planes. The Wing Commander movie came out, and I stubbornly still enjoy it no matter what the rest of the world says. Heck, I'm listening to its soundtrack right now. But there's been nothing like those years in the early 90s, when the Mechwarrior simpits and original Wing Commander games were freshly ingrained in my fantasies. Both genres declined--the first reduced itself to more and more shallow action games, and the latter faded away in the midst of game developer takeovers. Playing a worthy simpit game remained fixed on my bucket list, but it was such a dim hope I was barely conscious of it most of the time.

Then I got to play in the Tesla Pods last year, and reality didn't even remotely quench the nerd-fire that burned for simpits. It heightened its roar, and within days of that experience, I started in on ludicrous plans of building my own sci-fi simpit. I could start with a cockpit, and then maybe build off of that into having a simulated bridge for a capital ship--that'd be the ultimate family gaming experience, me barking out orders while managing damage control and ordering my son to launch a fighter and keep the bombers off us. Oh yes, that'd be sweet. I researched games that might fit these lofty ambitions, looking especially for ones that had good mod support so I could conceivably rework everything to fit my vision of space. There were a few that looked promising, but I passed on all of them for one reason or another. And then, most ridiculous of all, I began researching the idea of making my own game. Sure, it would be clunky and ugly as sin, but I could always make it look like a stylized icon system, right? It'd be just like the Command School from Ender's Game.

Not even my boundless enthusiasm could BS me for long, though. That was an insane idea that would never happen. I'd never make my own game, and no one was making the sort of game I wanted. Nothing was going to come along and justify the huge effort of building a simpit, and nothing would be worthy of it if I ever made one anyways. The space simulator genre was dead.

Then last fall brought with it a new dawn. A project popped up on Kickstarter called Star Citizen. It was the first game in ten years that Chris Roberts would be making.

Chris Roberts.

His name had tickled my ears the first time I saw the Star Citizen campaign page, but I didn't realize what I was in for until I watched the KS video and virtually soiled my actual chair:

"They said I was dead. They said console was the future. Now they say mobile and tablets are the future. I say to you, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I am a PC game."

Waaah! Glory shot of the Bengal carrier.

"And I am a space sim."


Oh, those first 30 seconds of that video grabbed me by my childhood fantasies and has not let go of me since. I can't watch it without getting excited. Chris Roberts was the creator of the Wing Commander franchise, and he was coming back to the game industry to make something gloriously ambitious. I pledged to the campaign immediately and followed the updates doggedly, as every new addition to the project's goals brought it closer to everything I've wanted from sci-fi gaming:

Sprawling, fully-realized ship interiors. Star Citizen is going to allow the player to explore larger ships, walking down the corridors and into the bridge of carriers and other capital ships. What's more, since the game is going to feature seamless transitions (ie, no load screens) from in-cockpit action to walking around your mother ship, the interiors of the ships are actually going to be consistent with the physical shape of the ship. Unlike the Normandy from Mass Effect, which is depicted as physically smaller and the wrong shape to accommodate the interior spaces you explore in the course of the game.

Out-of-cockpit gameplay. In addition to being able to simply walk around and idly explore in the innards of your big ships, Star Citizen is going to include a shooter-like experience for boarding actions. This integration and mingling of the two genres is going to be inspired, as you know I kept wishing for some space-combat crossover in the Mass Effect series and never got it. Now Star Citizen promises to give capital ship action, fighter brawls, and man-to-man gunfights in tight-packed ship corridors. It's like Chris Roberts has a checklist of my favorite recurring dreams. If there are cute redheaded witches, bottomless tubs full of spiders, and machine zombie hordes, it'll be official--he's ripping off my REM cycle.

A vast forking campaign based on performance and decisions. Long before Bioware ever gave you a non-choice at the end of an epic game, the Wing Commander series had them licked with a campaign that featured meaningfully divergent endings. Endings were based on direct plot choices and mission performance, so just barely clearing your mission objectives as opposed to wiping the board completely might change what your resolution was. They're going to be bringing that legacy back for Star Citizen, and since they've announced 50 missions for the main campaign of Star Citizen (called Squadron 42), I wouldn't be surprised if some of those missions were mutually exclusive based on what path you take your pilot through the plot. Tasty.

Persistent universe. The most exciting and lauded aspect of the game is Star Citizen's ongoing online experience. A variation of an MMO, Star Citizen proposes to let players shape a dynamic economy and play the game the way they want to play it. If that involves mining, trading, and exploring more than direct combat, that's cool with them. And that's very cool with me. I'm always a fan of games that let you go off the rails, even if I find myself not wanting to do so.

Playable capital ships. This was a later stretch goal met in the incredibly successful pledge campaign, and it promises to allow players to potentially gain control of ships as large as their mile-long carrier ships in the final version of the game. This goes hand in hand with cooperative and social play, as even some of their smaller ships are said to be nerfed if you don't have meat in all the crew seats. The 4-man Constellation ship, for instance, will feature two manned turrets and a detachable short-range fighter (a la the Serenity's two shuttles) in addition to the ship's pilot. Beyond that, you'd be looking at dedicated guilds needed just to get the most out of destroyer, cruiser, or carrier-class ship.

Mod support. With how great the core game is shaping up to be, and how visceral and engaging, I feel like this feature is almost perfunctory. But then I think about trying to model a full-scale battlestar in Star Citizen and scramble out in a viper (mk II, of course) to scrap a toaster onslaught. Ooookay...maybe I do still want mod support. And since they're talking about using that as a way to test the feasibility of fan-created additions to the game, I can definitely see me spending a lot of time turning some of my rough designs into something fully realized for this game.

Support for multiple monitors and multi-function displays (MFDs), TrackIR, and advanced controllers. And there it is. Star Citizen is going to support the ultimate simpit gaming rig with this simple promise. You want a three monitor display wrapping in front of you? Okay. How about a dedicated screen for your sensors? Sure. Joysticks, throttles, keyboards, and gamepads? Whoa whoa whoa now--you're a little nuts, aren't ya? That my friends, is a game that isn't simply worthy of the simpit I've been dreaming of these past 22 years--it demands one. Never mind that I'm a more artistic, fine detail sort of builder with minimal wood-working experience. Never mind that I've never wired anything like this before. Never mind that I will building the first PC of my very own from scratch to form the heart of the ultimate gaming rig (that I can afford). It is going to happen. It must happen. So let it be written; so let it be done.



Cloud Imperium Games is collectively working on realizing my dream game and the dream of tens of thousands of gamers all over the world. It's safe to say I'm going to be blogging more about the different aspects of this game in the future. I've already posted at least one article's worth on the subject of space mining in Star Citizen on the website's forums. I'll also be chronicling my progress as I work on my simpit and related projects for this game, so don't worry: I didn't run out of words with this article.

More's the pity, right?



*Seriously, Google spellcheck? You don't know the word 'cyclopean'?!?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Movie Web Monday: David Morse

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the Nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Today's Movie Web entry is focusing on an actor who, while not as prolific as some of the performers I've highlighted so far, is probably one of the most widely recognizable actors whose name you might not know. And, as a further distinction, this is the first Movie Web Monday installment where I don't own even one of the films showcased. And they're all great. Other movies that I do own that feature today's actor: The Long Kiss Goodnight, 16 Blocks, and Disturbia. I just didn't pick those because I wanted the progression to go a specific way, but you can't fault my nerd-cred for not having three movies with him in it.

No, you can't.

David Morse: Big Softie

Movie: The Green Mile (Why the heck don't I own it?!)

David Morse plays Brutus "Brutal" Howell in the prison tear-jerker. At 6'4" he's only an inch shorter than Michael Clarke Duncan, who played John Coffey, Brutal is easily a head taller than the rest of the guard staff in the film, and early on the joke is that John Coffey can't be bigger than Brutal. But his affable and wry sense of humor sets up the movie's motif of gentle giants when set alongside Coffey's exaggerated size. Unlike Coffey, of course, Brutal has a teasing streak in him that he uses as both a tool to torment the cruel antagonists of the film and to cope with his depressing job. For instance, he clearly enjoys tormenting the sadistic guard Percy Wetmore with the revelation that the mouse he had crushed underfoot is in fact resurrected. When Percy insists that it's a hasty prank, Brutal almost breaks out into open mirth, mocking the unhinged little man:



Morse portrays Brutal as very deliberately following the lead of Tom Hanks' character, Paul Edgecomb, to the point where he seems to be uncertain without the protagonist's guidance. While Edgecomb is a pretty typical lead character for a Stephen King story--affable, initially very reactionary, and fairly optimistic when meeting new people--Brutal seems almost like an okay man who is made considerably better by the company he keeps. There's less patience and good will between him and some of the other inmates. When he humors Delacroix's delusions of a mouse retirement community, he takes it almost to the point of mockery, and the glances between him and Edgecomb imply that maybe he would've gone a bit too far in other company: mocking the eccentric rather than setting his mind at ease. It adds a good layer of introspection to the film, peeling back the cast in layers to show how good company and gentleness inspires similar virtues in those around us.

Movie: The Rock (Rent it)

Once upon a time Michael Bay made mindless action movies starring big name, established stars. People didn't seem to mind that so much. Then, when he started making movies PG-13 and tried discovering or spotlighting young talent for his movies, the world cried out in anger and demanded his movies start looking like Christopher Nolan flicks. The Rock was an action movie starring Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery as two men trying to break into Alcatraz island to stop a decorated marine general from detonating bio-weapons over San Francisco in an effort to coerce money to honor soldiers killed in black ops missions. Yeah. And it's pretty enjoyable, too. Don't you feel stupid for complaining about alien ninja turtles now?

Spoilers on the way. But if you haven't seen The Rock by now, are you really going in to see a Bay movie to be surprised by the plot?

David Morse plays Major Tom Baxter, the right-hand man to pseudo-terrorist General Francis Hummel, played by Ed Harris. these two are your classic bad-guys with a heart of gold, which means that in the end they go down like punks, because the script never respects a bad guy with a heart of gold (Serenity's Operative a notable exception). Both marines of honor who plod through their violent, sketchy plot with reluctance and hand-wringing, Morse and Harris give a lot of needed credence to these kind of goofy characters. In fact, they end up forming a sort of opposing bro-mance to the main characters played by Cage and Connery. And I frankly enjoy watching Morse and Harris be all like "I respect you, man" a bit more than the twitchy odd couple of the protagonists. Although the leads make up for it by being almost infinitely quotable. At the end of the movie in particular, as the plot of the bad guys (and the movie itself, really) sort of collapses under its own weight, Morse and Harris shore up the production around their buddy-buddy awesomeness. Faced with three mutinous marines pointing guns at General Hummel, Major Baxter is given the classic ultimatum to pick sides in the middle of a Mexican standoff. Which is a really dumb time to pick sides, by the way. Baxter draws his pistol on his beloved commanding officer, and then gets all misty:



He then shoots Ben from the Night of the Living Dead remake and gets himself peppered for friendship, honor, and good vibrations as everyone starts shooting. Yeah, it's cliched and not well-wrought on paper, but the actors really pull through and make you care about these mind-bogglingly inconsistent characters.

Also, the car chase on the streets of San Fran was nuts. Avengers-level property damage done by a myopic Scot in a hummer?

Okay.

Sure.

Movie: Hearts in Atlantis (Rent it)

Another movie based on a Stephen King novella, Hearts in Atlantis falls into one of King's most popular sub-genres: the nostalgic kid drama. Alongside Hearts in Atlantis, Dreamcatcher, It, and Stand By Me all feature detailed flashbacks or grown-up narrative over particularly poignant childhood trauma and adventures. As the grown-up narrator Robert Garfield in Hearts in Atlantis, David Morse is in just three scenes that bookend the movie, plus a few lines of narration scattered throughout the extended flashback composing the plot. But his scratchy and raw nostalgia, at once reminiscing and romancing his childhood while also grappling with his own regret, does a great job of narrating the movie, and the direction of the movie does a great job of tying the emotional tenor of old and young Bobby Garfield together. As the film closes on a sober note, David Morse anchors his character to the conflicted moment when the daughter of his dead sweetheart snorts at him and relates that her mother, "said he was beautiful." He then snorts in disbelief and hands the girl a picture of her mother when she was a young girl, saying:



Morse is able to sell us on the emotionally mingled confusion Bobby Garfield is feeling. He's mystified by incredible events in his life, flattered by the offhand compliment to the boy he once was, and haunted by his abject failure to nurture the friendships that had meant so much to him as an eleven year-old. And you realize how much they still mean to him, even though he never followed through. Kind of an uber guilt-trip for all those summer camp friends you never wrote to, but with men-in-black and psychics thrown in, too.

Because, y'know...Stephen King.



Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Nerd Butter: LAN Parties

Nerd Butter: For everything, there is a qualifying level and then there is another, superlative, exemplary level. There are many Olympic athletes, but only a few medalists. You might be a sports fan, or you can be the guy in the stadium with baseball stitching painted in his beer belly. And so it is with being a nerd. There are nerd requisites--what I call Nerd Bread--and then there are nerd specialities--Nerd Butter. While just about every nerd should be into Nerd Bread, Nerd Butter is what sets you apart as a nerd of a special caliber. And in the end, it's the specialties that make being a nerd so much fun.

Tonight I'm going to talk about a very special piece of Nerd Butter: LAN parties. Ten years ago, I would've classified these sorts of get-togethers as Nerd Bread, but today it's a concept you have to explain to more and more people, even ones who consider themselves active gamers. A LAN party is an event where a bunch of people bring their video game devices (either consoles or computers) all to one location to play multiplayer matches over a Local Area Network--hence the term LAN party. It's a shared experience where gamers pool their resources together and condense a lot of play into a small amount of time and space.

Back in the 90s and even early 2000s (oh I feel old), LAN parties were pretty much your only safe bet to play most games with full sessions composed of your friends. Few games had dedicated servers supporting online play. Even fewer had more than the most rudimentary matchmaking systems to allow players to meet and gather on whatever servers were available. And worst of all, network connections were so spotty that playing anything more ambitious than a small strategy game was out of reach for a lot of people. Online play was prohibitive gaming for the most part. This was especially true of consoles as recent as the Gamecube/Xbox/Playstation 2 generation, where playing online was a bare-bones, on-the-rails experience without nearly as many options as gamers have today.

So LAN parties thrived as a sort of video gaming potluck. You bring your gaming rig over to a mutual location, usually packing them in side-by-side in someone's basement, and get to play your game in a totally singular experience--large scale gaming with only your friends. Usually there's also a lot of junk food and Mountain Dew involved, too, so it's even more potluck-like in that way as well. Plus, cussing out a twelve year-old over a headset is a poor substitute for being able to punch the person next to you or air-hump their head after a particularly gratuitous win. (What? Not everyone does that?) Today, LAN parties are a lot more rare due to how streamlined online gameplay is, but for a great condensed gaming experience there's still nothing like it. You can pool together 4 TVs and console easily enough, and that might support up to 16 people playing a game like Halo, for instance, allowing a lot of people who don't own the game to get a chance to play in a friendly ravenous environment.

Last month, I hosted a LAN party at my house as a small celebration of having a functionally clean basement for the first time since we moved in to our house a year ago. And if you're wondering, a functionally clean basement in this case means clearing out the den by choking out the game room with stacks of books. We were able to set up a couple of gaming rigs in the den setup side by side, and with our system setup in our living room, we were able to have up to twelve people playing at once. Halo 4 was the order of the evening, as we've all been fans of the franchise and got through our teen years making at least a couple of Halo matches a staple in every party. With a bunch of frozen pizzas and twelve packs stuffing our fridge, and bags of chips flanking it, it was a recipe for a bunch of twenty-and-thirty-somethings to relive their high school and college gaming days.

Flatulence and smack-talk included.

Since we had a pretty good setup for asymmetrical teams, with two experienced Halo players and the rest varying from moderately experienced to sheep-with-guns. We got in a few intro matches to get the sheep worked up and sharpen the wolves' teeth, and then we picked teams for that we stuck with for the rest of the night. And if that's sounds like the sort of social brutality of kids picking teams for sports, that is accurate and by design. I'm a nerd, and turnabout is sweet. Game modes played varied from Grifball to Capture the Flag and Dominion, but we also got in some fun custom matches in as well. Over the weeks leading up to the game night I'd made a couple of custom Halo 4 game and map variants. The one set was an extremely ambitious large-scale map with a variant on the Flood game type. I'd spent hours working on the map and testing quirkier game dynamics. And it pretty much flopped. After getting everyone to try it out they pretty much begged for Team SWAT. The other map and game variant, however, was a much bigger hit. It was a free-for-all game mode where the players where equipped with nothing but gravity hammers and thrown into a small symmetrical arena of death. The tight confines of the space made for great twitch gameplay that actually narrow the gap between the good and the bad players in our gaming group.

But don't take my word for it. Check out this little video I made of some of our game footage from that evening:



Yes, I was the thunderer in brown armor that dominated the match. And no, I didn't pick on the noob players deliberately. I'm not saying I didn't pick on them; I'm just saying I didn't do it on purpose. Also, if the game and map variants look fun to you, search for them online--I've uploaded them to my file share for general use. The map is called "grifophrenia" and the game variant is "grifophrenic". I'm always up for playing more custom matches, too, so if you enjoy them, feel free to invite me to a game some night after 9PM CST.

LAN parties. Good nerdy fun. Nerd Butter.