Saturday, December 29, 2012

Favorite Songs Of The Year

Mandatory overtime, 120 hours (and counting) of Resonance Of Fate and a house full of puppies haven't left me with a lot of spare time for writing. I'm going to try and knock out a couple more Favorite ______ Of The Year posts before the end of the year, so keep an eye out for them, Imaginary Person I Think Is Reading This. Up first, my favorite songs of the year. Favorite, not Best Of, because... well, I'm uncomfortable with the semantic difference between "Favorite" and "Best." This is the stuff that most interested me and, as most people aren't into throwback 70's style rock and gay bounce music, I'll make a lame play for being humble by not trumpeting them as The Best Of The Year.

Burning Love - "Hateful Comforts": My issue with punk rock, even going back to my teenage years, was that most of it was exasperatingly vague about what, exactly, we should be rebelling against. Mostly it was just an excuse for mohawks and facial piercings and I'm sorry, The Offspring, but I don't need your permission for a tattoo to bum out my parents. This is where Burning Love frontman Chris Colohan comes in. "Hateful Comforts," off of their sophomore album Rotten Thing To Say, is the most exhilarating four and a half minutes of punk rock I've heard in years. The lyrics and vocal performance are mostly what sells the song for me. It is painfully specific about post-9/11 paranoia, witch hunts, and the easily led cable news junkies. This is everything punk rock should be aiming for. And, goddamn, that guitar solo...

Future Of The Left - "Beneath The Waves An Ocean": Most people who have heard Future Of The Left's most recent album, The Plot Against Common Sense, would probably argue that "Robocop 4 - Fuck Off Robocop" should be the song you mention first. (Actually, they probably wouldn't argue, they'd just mock me, but... shut up.) While I think it is some of Andy Falkous' best work, the lyrics overpower everything else in the song. "Beneath The Waves An Ocean" feels like a more even balance. Catchy as hell with the entire band firing on all cylinders. Falco's arch delivery and the fuzzed out bassline from Julia Ruzicka really sell it.

Local H - "Sad History": Saying that Local H is the most underrated and under appreciated band in rock music would probably be cold comfort to singer/songwriter Scott Lucas. Every Local H record feels like it could be the last one, it's been that way since the 90's, but "Sad History" could very well be the swan song for a couple of puckish Midwesterners who never quit. While most of his peers have been reuniting for club shows to help pay off their mortgages and drug addictions, Lucas has never stopped writing and touring. He's never released an album that was anything short of rock solid. As a songwriter, there's no one in America who wields bitterness and cynicism the way he does. As a live act, they're still a freight train... thanks in no small part to Brian St. Clair's monster drumming. That said, Lucas has never seemed more tired than he has on this song and this album. Even if the lyrics could easily be about the band themselves, he still ends on a note of hope. Because if Scott and Brian have proven anything, it's that writing them off is a bad idea.

The Afghan Whigs - "Lovecrimes": The idea of Greg Dulli and the recently reunited Afghan Whigs covering a Frank Ocean song only sounds like a strange idea for about the first ten seconds. Dulli has covered everyone from Bjork to Billie Holliday to Kanye West in his other band, The Twilight Singers. His rough, working class soul croon never sounds better than when it's paired with Rick McCollum's instantly recognizable bluesy guitar. They may have broken up more than a decade ago but no moss has grown on them in that time. If the real criteria of a cover song is whether or not a band can make the song their own, this is a success. It sounds like the exact kind of dark psychodrama Dulli was always fond of. I'd never have known this was a cover if they didn't advertise it. It's also a free download on their website, so there's no excuse not to pick it up.

Diplo feat. Nicky Da B - "Express Yourself": New Orleans Sissy Bounce is a subgenre of a subgenre but it's also been some of the most irrepressible dance music I've heard since Baltimore club music was in vogue several years back. Built around lo-fi, homemade beats and repetitive chants, and anchored by openly gay or transsexual emcees like Big Freedia, the gravelly voiced Sissy Nobby and Katey Red, it somehow manages to be dirty as hell and unselfconsciously fun at the same time. Probably because it doesn't have the macho douchebag energy straight men seem to take with them wherever they go. Diplo wisely maintains the basic aesthetic of sissy bounce but gives it a budget and clean production while Nicky Da B jump onto the track with confidence and control. Straight up the best dance music I've heard all year.

Psy - "Gangnam Style": Nope, still not sick of it yet. Usually, when there's a foreign language dance craze, like the Macarena, we can all agree that it was always ridiculous and it's charming or enduring for exactly that reason. Not only is Psy the only real Asian pop star who broke through in America despite several tries (sorry Utada), he was legitimately funny AND in on the joke. Nothing he does will ever be remotely this big again, but damned if it wasn't entertaining while it lasted. And without Psy, I wouldn't have had the single most panic attack inducing four minutes of my life.

Baroness - "Take My Bones Away" / "March To The Sea":  Most people I know seemed leery when Baroness went on record about going in a more hard rock direction for fear of permanently scarring the vocal cords of singer/guitarist/lead songwriter/artist John Dyer Baizley. I was not. I got turned onto the band when they released their first EP (yeah, yeah... music nerd bragging rights) and while the heavier-than-thou sludge metal was part of the appeal, you could never deny their songwriting chops. Take out the sludge and you're still left with some very solid, catchy rock music of a sort that doesn't get made anymore. Hesher music of the highest order.

Unsane - "No Chance":  It's always gratifying to see a band perfect their artform, whatever it is. Unsane have honed in on a very specific brand of angry, working class noise rock. The stark lyrics, the awesomely distorted bass guitar... no one else could pull it off with this kind of velocity or single-mindedness. A good Unsane song barrels right through you and "No Chance" is one of their best.

Pigs - "Give It": There's no part of the Unsane trio that's less integral than the other but Dave Curran's singular bass tone tweaks the pleasure centers of my brain the way nothing else does. When I found out he had a side project (this time on guitar and vocals) I jumped at it immediately. The album is still very much in the noise rock template but it opens up a bit more than his other project. It's less suffocatingly bleak, but only just. "Give It" could stand alongside the best Unsane track without question. An excellent song on an under-appreciated album.

Golden Void - "Atlantis": All you had to do was mention guitarist Isaiah Mitchell and my ears perked up. A guitar hero in the purest sense of the word, his other project, Earthless, is the essential modern psychedelic rock band. Songs stretch out for twenty minutes or longer, enough to break the patience of any casual listeners. However, the hypnotic repetition and guitar solos that seem alternately endless and far too short help it go down easy. They hinted at what they could do in a more conventional song length on a three way split with Danava and Lecherous Gaze last year and now we have Golden Void. It's an excellent album that I'll write more about later but it culminates in this epic track, incorporating my favorite of Mitchell's guitar work yet.

Aesop Rock - "ZZZ Top" / "Zero Dark Thirty": The thing that jumped out at me first about Aesop Rock's new album, Skelethon, were those killer live-sounding drum samples. They knock hard. I wasn't expecting a huge change in his sound jumping from the "B-boy brainiacs" at the much missed Def Jux to the Minnesota-based Rhymesayers crew, and the star here is still Ace Rock's flow, but Skelethons is definitely funky in a different way than his previous album, None Shall Pass. "ZZZ Top" (incidentally my favorite video of the year... go Patti Li go!) and "Zero Dark Thirty" are probably the best examples of this. Ace is every bit as dense and dizzying as always but this new vibe gives him an extra kick I haven't heard from him before.

Killer Mike -  "Reagan": I'd heard of Killer Mike before this year's awesome El-P produced R.A.P. Music but this album was a revelation. Not many emcees would be able to jump from axe murdering with Bun B & T.I. to taking down his own culture and the government that enables it and oppresses it at the same time, but Killer Mike managed it with aplomb. In addition, it contained El-P's most accessible production work, marrying boom bap with the sort of layered darkness he uses on his solo work to outstanding effect. The best track on an excellent album.

Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats - "Death's Door": Adding this song is a bit of cheat. It came out in Europe last year but was only released in the States in November, giving me a chance to talk more about it. Willfully mysterious, this Cambridge trio are gaining a lot of momentum. The entire album is a strain of doom metal of a type that's been out of fashion for awhile. They've been lumped in with bands like the Merciful Fate devotees Ghost, but Uncle Acid prefer to wallow gleefully in the B-movie themes and grimy lo-fi production. The rickety vibe and the hazy claustrophobia gives the entire album a unique 70's vibe I never get tired of. Essential listening.

Graveyard - "Goliath": There's something about Sweden. No other place can reproduce discarded and marginalized genres of music with so much faithfulness and soul that it doesn't come off like some kind of rote mimicry. There's desert rock Kyuss worshippers like Truckfighters, Astroqueen, Dozer, etc. (Are there even deserts in Sweden? I don't think there are any deserts in Sweden...) Then there are the 70's rock revivalists like Spiders, Horisont, Witchcraft, and Graveyard. Their previous album, Hisingen Blues, was flat out brilliant. It was everything I love about what is usually dismissed as dinosaur rock in an updated form without coming off like some lunkheaded, lowest common denominator-baiting Jet single. Lights Out aims for a tighter, more streamlined version and mostly knocks it out of the park. In a mainstream where The Black Keys are seemingly the only remaining rock band people take seriously, the world needs more bands like this.

Monday, November 5, 2012

PCG Media To Gamers: Stop Projecting Rape Onto Lara Croft

Today I found an interesting, if wrongheaded, take on the "Lara Croft attempted rape" controversy from a few months back. I wrote a blog post about it then, so I figured it was worth checking in.

Here's the link:

And here's the trailer that got everyone worked up (the grope happens at about the 2:18 mark):

The author's overall point seems to be that if you saw anything rape-y in that trailer or the comments by the executive producer at E3 then YOU are a rape-obsessed sicko. Which is facile and ridiculous. I'm all for bashing Kotaku now and then but they weren't the only people covering the story. I found it initially through Digital Spy and Eurogamer, which eschewed the rape innuendo for some generally creepy quotes about the character from the executive producer. (I see what he was trying to say but, man... gah! He sounds like a mouth-breather.)

My gripe with the scene has always been the utter laziness of using a sexual assault against a woman as a cheap shortcut to building character. For one thing, it's the kind of trope that would ONLY be used on a female character. Rape as a trope in fiction is entirely fair game, it's just not for beginners. How many times have you seen a movie or read a book where a woman overcomes sexual assault to become a stronger person? Now how many times have you seen a male character overcome molestation or sexual assault the same way? There's no comparison. It's a giant, neon-lit double standard: women in fiction can only be strong because of men.

The only instance in a video game they can bring up involving dudes is the attempted prison rape in Mafia II, which you can see here (and try not to laugh when you see a bunch of guys in a prison showering in their boxers):

I understand that some outlets saw a headline and leaped at the Tomb Raider story. ("Lara Croft In Island Rape Hell" is kind of a funny title.) I even understand people being genuinely angry. I'm just annoyed that people still haven't learned how to tell a story with a strong female character. I find this comparable to the annoyance I felt at Metriod: Other M for utterly neutering a strong character like Samus by making her dependent on a male character she had a crush on. It utterly and completely misses the point.

The "torture porn" label, while not entirely accurate, does kind of fit. Seeing a woman get shot, stabbed, beaten, bloodied, cut, groped, tortured, and fall from great heights has an inherently different context then a guy. Especially if she's being portrayed as a young, naive girl going in. Unfortunately, there is a dance to writing a strong female character you have to do. It's not a matter of right and wrong, it's reality. Christ, in America we still can't decide if a woman should legally have control of her own body. Jumping straight to "felt up by a creepy dude in a video game" is just a fundamentally bad idea.

Writing a strong female character can be done without pandering. It's actually not that hard and it doesn't have to be entirely the work of female writers. Comic writer and novelist Greg Rucka is pretty great at it. My rule of thumb about writing strong female characters in video games still stands: when in doubt, look at Naughty Dog. Uncharted is still the high water mark for strong female characters in video games. They aren't the lead, but they are strong through their words and actions, not because of their proximity to a guy.

I understand the argument that this is her origin story and you need to build her up but there's ways to do that which don't involve torturing the living hell out of her. It can be done with something as simple as a look... instead of, y'know, throwing her off a great fucking cliff or stabbing her with big stick in the torso or something.

The bottom line is: female characters, particularly in games, are coming from a weak position. There's not many of them and most developers don't want to take the chance on them for fear of losing their young, male audience. They are still very much the princess who needs to be rescued or the girlfriend/wife/mother/child you are avenging. With more and more women joining the gaming community, more emphasis is put on the few remaining heroines we have to give them some sense that they are being represented. Female protagonists don't need to be broken down and built back up again, they just need to be built up. That means a lighter, smarter touch... and Crystal Dynamics haven't exactly given us reason to believe that they are the people for the job.

This is all a shame because Tomb Raider looks, in a visual sense, like a really good game. The idea of a female Nathan Drake has amazing potential. It's just that, from a storytelling standpoint, everything I've seen about the game makes it look like it was plotted by a hyperactive twelve year old boy. In the trailer, she actually says "I hate tombs." Which was maybe intended as an Indiana Jones "I hate snakes" moment if the line delivery sounded like it had a sense of irony about it. Instead, it just sounds obvious and groan-worthy and forehead-slappingly inane. And it's that impression that makes me leery of dropping sixty bucks on it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


It's kinda crazy how many dudes I've choked out while they took a pee. Don't get me wrong, it was fun. Still: lots of dudes were waking up in dark corners with their pants around their ankles. I try to rationalize that their confusion and sense of violation was earned by the fact that the clockwork heart I've been carrying around keeps telling me that they are violent, fascistic douchebags. They kind of deserve it.

These are the kinds of thoughts you might have during the course of Arkane Studios excellent stealth/action game, Dishonored.

As stuffed with ideas as the game is, they never overwhelm you with exposition or cut-scenes. It's a world absorbed through books, visuals and overheard conversations. This allows for people like me, hiding in nooks and crannies, to develop my own story as I play. For instance, I used an item given to you towards the beginning of the game as a way to track down collectibles, the aforementioned clockwork heart, as a way of weeding out the people just doing their jobs from the willfully evil and visiting bloody retribution upon them. As events in the game turned and I got more invested in the fates of certain characters, I found myself getting more and more unhinged and violent, silently wiping out anyone and everyone until the entire level was empty except for me, blinking across the rooftops in search of more prey.

Keep in mind, this narrative was entirely in my own head. The clockwork heart spits out a series of canned responses whenever you click it on someone so you'll hear the same phrase repeated over and over again. It just seemed like a neat way to approach a game that offers so much freedom in how you approach it. Once you enter a stage, there's no hand-holding whatsoever. You can explore and find optional side missions and collectibles that enhance your abilities or you can beeline right for your target. The game becomes whatever you want it to be. I chose to create my own story-within-a-story to go along with my "avenging angel" playstyle. By the end, my desire to burn down the entire dying, corrupt city and everyone in it was reflected by increased guard patrols, plague-infected Weepers and swarms of carnivorous rats. Once I became conscious to how my approach to the game was changing, I embraced it. I did a completely non-lethal second playthrough but damned if the game didn't give you plenty of good reasons to murder everything in your path.

That's not a coincidence either. Morality is a very important aspect of the game. As Lord Protector Corvo Attano, framed for the murder your Empress, you are always given a choice on how to go about achieving your vengeance. People are watching you and some react to you differently depending on how much death you deal out. Every main target has a non-lethal option, usually fates worse than death, if you can find out how. I knew how far down the rabbit hole I had gone when a young girl I talked to told me that she wanted people to fear her the way they feared me. From that point on, I knew there was no going back.

The game allows a bit of leeway between, as they call it, Low Chaos and High Chaos. You only have to do a completely non-lethal route if you want the 100 point/Platinum achievement. Otherwise, a couple of deaths here and there, by accident or necessity, can be tolerated, so you don't have to worry about absolutist morality. Between the overarching story and some of the things you read and overhear, you'll probably find it hard to avoid wanting to toss these people screaming into the Void. A minor complaint would be that the High Chaos route feels more fulfilling, not in the sense that YOU are acting as an agent of their death but that the characters who have wronged you meet ends more appropriate to their levels of ego and hubris. (It didn't slip by me that my initial attempt to kill only those I felt deserved it was eventually twisted into something much darker, making for an excellent symmetry at the end.) The final scene of the Low Chaos path has a nice, well-acted monologue about what you lose in pursuit of what you think is right when you stop considering the consequences of your actions but it felt comparatively anti-climactic when compared to the more brutal High Chaos route. Seeing the people responsible for your misery and betrayal implode and destroy themselves felt more appropriate. Being a witness to other people's well-earned self-destruction might have made a better ending than the people involved just sort of... giving up.

Another complaint about the game is some very hit or miss voice acting. Dishonored boasts a very high powered cast of actors that, unfortunately, reinforce the idea that great actors don't necessarily mean great voice actors. John Slattery (Mad Men's Roger Sterling) does an excellent job as the resistance leader Admiral Havelock and Chloƫ Grace Moretz (a/k/a Hit-Girl from Kick Ass) does the unthinkable by making a child character in a video game likable and someone you actually want to save. Others don't fare so well, including Susan Sarandon badly miscast as the insane Granny Rags. There isn't a whole lot for her to do, so she doesn't do much of anything. A professional voice actress might have given the doddering yet dangerous character a little more... well, character. Compare that to voice actress April Stewart (one of the go to cast for South Park) who gives a chilling performance as both the Empress and the clockwork heart and you wonder why people would rather hire "name" actors versus people who do this for a living. However, in a world so fully realized, it's pretty small quibble.

I've seen some criticism about the game being too overstuffed with ideas but I think they're coming from the wrong point of view. The Steampunk-ish setting, the magic, the whale oil, virulent plagues, the capricious demigod figure, teleporting assassins in death masks, the stilt-waking robot men firing explosive arrows... it can all be a little too much but it felt more to me that Arkane Studios are trying to world build here. Any one of those aspects could be central to another game in the series. Given that even surefire concepts can fail once the game is in stores, throwing every single fucking thing they can think of at you given them plenty to build on in sequels. The game even goes out of it's way to tie off Corvo's story with a big red bow, so they aren't forced to use him as a protagonist in any future games. (He's treated as a player avatar and not an actual character, so there's no great loss there.) Arkane now has a very interesting world to revisit depending on it's success.

The gameplay itself is solid but has some curious choices. The game is presented in the first person so you are unable to lock into cover and rely mostly on leaning in and out of cover to get a sense of your surroundings and enemy routes. There's a designated stealth/crouch button but the game gives no clear idea as to whether you're able to be seen. Twitchy enemy AI has led to multiple situations where I can either sidle right up to someone from a position where I should be in their line or sight or others where an enemy spots me from behind cover from across the room. It doesn't occur very often but using the convention of a blue screen tint or on-screen prompt to designated being in stealth mode would have solved a lot of problems. When stealth fails, combat holds up pretty well. Put a couple levels into stopping time and you'll easily slice through any unfortunates who catch you creeping around before they can raise an alarm or call for reinforcements. You'll probably rely on your sword and crossbow more than anything else but there's also proximity devices and a pistol for more desperate encounters.

The actual set pieces are never less than strong. You have multiple points of entry and lots of variety in how you approach your targets. Usually, you aren't just restricted to a lethal or non-lethal option. Many stages have varying modes of dispatching your target. Sure, you can creep up behind him and slit his throat but maybe you can sneak into his room and trick him into drinking poison or possess a guard and get him to do your dirty work for you. I was partial to siccing a swarm of rats on them and letting them get eaten to death while screaming for help that never arrived. (I did warn you about my propensity for bloody retribution.) One standout moment was during a mission where you infiltrate a costume party. You're dressed as yourself, the creepy killer terrorizing the city, but the nobility at the soiree simply compliment you on your provocative costume. After doing my dark business, I sauntered back in, signed the guest register in my own name, and walked casually out the front door. Much evil cackling was had.

Little moments like this, things you could easily never catch, make the overall experience that much more fun. All missions are available from the stage select screen at the main menu after completion. The only thing the game is really missing is a proper New Game+. I didn't have much trouble on Normal difficulty. Enemy AI is dumb enough that you usually only have yourself to blame for mistakes. You can decimate an entire barracks worth of guards and the last remaining guy will just note that more people should be patrolling and never change their routine. This is something I wish more stealth games would rectify on harder difficulty levels. Having your enemies react to squadmates who disappear would promote better situational awareness, planning and quicker, more decisive action or just force you to not engage anyone at all.

Taking my time and exploring everything I could means my initial run took me almost twenty hours, including restarts. Having a firm idea of enemy placement means my non-lethal speed run took me less than eight hours but I've heard people have been able to beat it in as few as five. The length of the game will be entirely dependent on your approach.

I keep coming back to the worldview of Dishonored when I think about it. The writers managed to hit just the right notes. It doesn't matter what political views you have but throwing such sharp criticism onto the idea that the kinds of people who actively seek power being the ones least qualified to hold it is an idea I think a lot of people can rally behind. Not only is the world of Dishonored very full and fleshed out, the ideas behind it work just as well.

Ultimately, this is an odd game to review since so much of it's story is dependent on whatever is going on in your head (which was pretty fucking fantastic, thanks) and your patience for waiting around for the best time to strike. If you approach this as an action game and stealth elements, you'll likely find it short and unsatisfying with a perfunctory plot. As a stealth game, minus some small issues easily ironed out in a sequel, it offers a lot of very satisfying sneaking and combat. Dishonored might very well be the best new IP of the year.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Pig Destroyer - Book Burner

Music, for me, is all about searching out some kind of authentic experience. I have no patience for cheap imitations. Guys like Nick Cave and Tom Waits can hide behind all the theatrics and artifice they want, but the truth of their music is always staring you in the face. PJ Harvey hits every bit as hard on Dry as she does on White Chalk or Let England Shake, it's just a question of where she chooses to punch you. Nothing makes me feel joy the way The Meters or a live James Brown performance do. Suffocating dread and menace? Unsane. Unwavering strength in the face of adversity? It's got to be Black Flag or Converge.

But if you want the purest form of utter nihilism and viciousness, you go to Pig Destroyer.

There's no Devil worship or Satanic masses in Pig Destroyer's world or any of the other typical iconography associated with the genre. You get the sense reading their lyrics that Satan is as big a joke as everything else and his name would only be invoked in order to piss off the squares. There's no costumes here. If you want a glimpse into the worldview that gives P.D. their engine, vocalist and lyricist J.R. Hayes' short story included in the deluxe edition of Book Burner is the place to start. Dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, "The Atheist" is more of a rough sketch than an actual story but it's a perfect example of where these guys are coming from. One man, smart, educated and alone, in a survivalist paradise running from a theocracy gone insane. It's everyone's biggest fears about the direction of our country put in plain language and shoved right under your nose; a Ted Kaczynski manifesto as fiction.

Five years on from their last album, Phantom Limb, the Pig Destroyer sound has gotten fuller, more lush. They've retained the fury and velocity of a 747 spiraling to the ground but the addition of noise man Blake Harrison and the experience of guitarist/producer Scott Hull has given the music an extra dimension. Seth Putnam's joke that "grindcore is very terrifying" no longer seems very funny. This is harrowing stuff.

There's a lot of other good grindcore bands working today but the intelligence and unpredictability of Pig Destroyer is what puts them at the top of the heap. No one else in metal can match the compact yet detailed crime scene photos that are J.R. Hayes' lyrics. There's no political agenda and no right answer. We're all fucked. We're going to die scared, alone and covered in our own blood. And when you listen to him tell you, you believe it.

Songs like "The Diplomat" and "The Boston Strangler" are lengthy for a P.D. song and give them time to stretch a bit and explore while other songs like "Eve" or "Burning Palm" run roughshod in under two minutes. Track by track descriptions sort of miss the point. Grindcore is abrupt and crushing by nature. You're getting nineteen tracks that clock in at just under 32 minutes. The band has clearly broken drummers in the past but Misery Index drummer Adam Jarvis acquits himself nicely in his first album with the band

Not much else needs to be said. Along with Saint Vitus, High On Fire and the new Converge, this is one of the best metal albums of the year. All veteran bands at the peak of their powers. Miss this record at your own peril.

If you pick up the album, be sure to get the deluxe edition. Not only does it include "The Athiest" but also a bonus EP of classic punk covers called Blind, Deaf And Bleeding. It includes covers of the mighty Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Negative Approach, Minor Threat and a really killer version of Angry Samoans "Light's Out."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Problem With Silent Hill...

Contains light spoilers for Silent Hill 2 and heavy spoilers for Silent Hill: Homecoming and Silent Hill: Downpour!

Last month, I was lucky enough to attend the anime convention Saboten Con after hearing at the very last second that video game composer and producer Akira Yamaoka would be performing songs from his legendary Silent Hill soundtracks along with collaborators Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Joe Romersa, and Troy Baker as well as doing a Q&A. Not only is this an extremely rare occurrence in the States, it's extra rare for a place like Glendale, Arizona. Having followed the series since it's initial release, I showed up without hesitation.

The Q&A ended up being mostly about sound design but Yamaoka-san did answer one question in a way that I found fascinating: when asked about technical limitations that may have hampered previous games and what he'd do now, he responded instead that the lack of limitations were the problem. Given my hearing problems and the J-Rock show going on the next room, I'm pretty sure that he was trying to make a point about horror games that many have made about horror movies as well: with an unlimited budget and the ability to create anything, how do you find the scares? Horror is about being in some sense confined, inside the game and out. Without deliberate limitations, there's no fear. For a psychological horror series like Silent Hill, one that's been looking down the barrel of declining sales and quality for at least the last decade, I'm wondering if the series isn't in the best possible place for a resurgence.

Survival horror games filled a hole in my life I didn't know was empty. Back when my brother and I were renting Playstations from the grocery store for the weekend, Resident Evil was a constant. The atmosphere, the helplessness, the long odds of survival, it hit home for me in a primal way. I never did beat the game. I never felt like I had to. Silent Hill was the same for me, but moreso. With all the goodwill in the world, Resident Evil did had a level of cheesiness to it that was hard to dismiss. Silent Hill felt more grounded... just a normal guy looking for his daughter and dealing with all of this insanity that's just thrust upon him. I never beat that game either.

I did beat Silent Hill 2, though. Played it right through to completion without a second thought. Not only was I in a dark place in my life personally, it also tapped into that post-9/11 sense of doom that seemed to pervade everything. The story, a man returns to a haunted town after receiving a letter from his dead wife, worked in a way that very games had at the time. While it did have problems (the original voice acting was pretty flat) it represented everything that video game storytelling could be in a world that was, and still is, dominated by cookie cutter shooters. It was a psychological horror game in the truest sense of the word: the enemies were drawn straight from the lead character's subconscious fears and desires. Akira Yamaoka also turned in his best soundtrack of the series, with his usual range going from pants-wetting industrial clangs to sad and gorgeous guitar solos.

Silent Hill 3 was a return to the original game's rather convoluted mythology, which was fine, but it didn't resonate with me the way that the second game did. It was more notable to me for introducing Yamaoka to his musical muse, voice actress Mary Elizabeth McGlynn. Her voice, alternately smoky or strident depending on the mood, matched perfectly with what Yamaoka had been trying to accomplish in his instrumentals.

A more experimental approach went into Silent Hill 4: The Room but not necessarily to it's benefit. I have a bit more fondness for it then other people I know. The first person sequences caused a bit of head-scratching but I liked it's return to telling a story independent from the earlier mythology. Yamaoka also turned in another brilliant soundtrack including a dark seven minute hymn about hating your mother, "Room Of Angel," that ranks up there with the best in the series. Sadly, this was Team Silent's last game in the series as they dissolved after the tepid response to the game.

I never played Silent Hill: Origins, largely because it was initially a PSP exclusive that was ported to PS2 after my system had gone kaput. I've tracked a copy of the PS2 version down but until I buy a replacement PS2 system, I'll hold off on talking about it.

Silent Hill: Homecoming represents one of the lowest points of the series, only eclipsed by the most recent iteration, Downpour. While Double Helix had a good grasp of atmosphere, spurred on by Yamaoka's (arguably weakest) soundtrack, the story was very, very flimsy. The Silent Hill series has used the "children in danger" trope quite a bit but Homecoming and Downpour hammer it right into the ground. There was a time you could use it for an easy bit of sympathy but it's since been overused to the point of being meaningless. It only works if we're given a reason to care about the child, something that Homecoming and Downpour forgot. Instead, we spend the game chasing the idea of a child, which just doesn't work. Unless you're going to take Telltale Games' approach to The Walking Dead games and actually let us spend time with and bond with the child that's in danger, I don't think you can get away with it anymore. Not easily, anyway.

But Homecoming has much bigger problems then just that. The lead character, Alex, is initially presented as a soldier returning from war looking for his missing little brother which leads him to a bigger mystery involving the children of all of the town's founding families. Alex is presented as a sure-footed fighter, both in melee and firearms, due to his "combat experience" but, in the game's bid for a twist, it's ultimately revealed that he's an escaped mental patient, not a soldier. So why was he so good at combat if he's spent his adult life doped up in a mental institution? Moreover, the game introduces actual human enemies for the first time, which Alex dispatches as easily as the monsters. These human enemies are representatives of The Order, a shady group of people who... y'know what? It doesn't matter. It boils down to Double Helix trying to explain something that no one wanted explained in the first place. If you know the basic rules of how the town of Silent Hill operates, that's all you need. Conspiracies and cover up's and convoluted explanations just complicate things and ultimately lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. (Ahem, "midichlorians.") It slipped, a couple years later, that Double Helix wanted to position Homecoming as the first in a trilogy of games and I think that Silent Hill fans really dodged a bullet there.

This is why I found Silent Hill: Shattered Memories to be such a breath of fresh air. A Wii exclusive, Shattered Memories, is the strongest entry into the series since the third game and very underrated. The biggest hit the game took from critics was completely removing combat in favor of occasionally annoying chase sequences and, while I see their point, it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the game at all. Shattered Memories turned out to be Akira Yamaoka's final soundtrack in the series and he went out on top. Despite how little blood there was in the game (to the point where actually seeing it became a little startling) the developer's use of snow and ice and Yamaoka's oppressive soundtrack lent it a lot of atmosphere.

The game reuses the premise of the original (Harry Mason searching an abandoned town for his missing daughter) and instead focuses on puzzles and exploration. It was the first time since the second game where I found myself questioning whether or not I wanted to open the next door. They present "psychological horror" as a literal thing, using a framing sequence of a visit to a psychiatrist, to bookend the chapters. Even more than that, the game is recording and cataloging how you play the game and offers you an ending (and occasionally costume changes) based on numerous, completely invisible, factors. Much like the second game did, just to a much smaller degree. Because you don't have the option of a binary choice, your ending feels more authentically yours, instead of just reloading a save to see what was behind door number two. And it works. Spend too much time in the brothel staring at pictures of scantly clad women? Spend too much time staring at the asses of the couple of women you meet in town? You'll get an ending that represents that. And so on. I got what I assume is the "good" ending and it actually made me misty eyed. That is a helluva success. During the credits, the game actually lists off an actual psychological profile based on your choices, which, while not entirely accurate, is a cool addition. (You could write a dissertation about Silent Hill and it's attitude towards mental health. Shattered Memories is the only example in the series of psychiatry not being presented as evil.)

One of the boldest sequences, which I won't spoil, follows the idea of making a player helpless to it's logical conclusion. An event happens and you are literally trapped. There is a longer-than-you-might-think period of time where you can't do anything. That initial panic of "what am I supposed to do!?" slowly gives into "shit, I'm fucked." Which is as close to an honest representation of what you'd actually feel in that situation as a video game could give you. The only downside is that, in an world of online walkthroughs, most people would probably see this as a puzzle and that they're just missing the right piece. Still, it takes balls to force a player to stop playing the game and my hats are off Climax Studios for it. While it wasn't a hit, hopefully it will eventually reach the cult status it deserves.

Which brings us to Silent Hill: Downpour, which I just finished yesterday and... it's pretty bad. Not broken, just bad. Much like Homecoming, the game has a strictly straight-to-video plot, paper thin characters, and a serious deficit of tension or scares. It's by no means a total loss... there were some aspects of the game that worked: the addition of a UV light to help with certain puzzles. The graphics look great. As your progress through the game, the loading screen starts adding phrases like "She's lying to you" or "They know what you did" in-between the tips and tricks. And there are a couple of good sequences here and there. Unfortunately, the game can't seem to capitalize on even the things they got right. The UV light is never used beyond a bit of puzzle solving. The graphics don't matter if they have the most boring representation of the Otherworld yet. And the best sequences in the game are optional side quests and easily missed. Not to mention "a couple good sequences" being not nearly enough for a 10 to 12 hour game. Much like the creepy loading screen phrases never build to anything, neither does the entire game. It's perpetually halfway there.

As the first game without Akira Yamaoka's score, Dexter composer Daniel Licht had really big shoes to fill and, in the end, was not equal to the task. He's fine for atmospherics but whenever the game needs your heart rate above normal, particularly in the Otherworld sequences, he's nowhere to be found. Part of the joy of Yamaoka's soundtracks were the effort that went into playing with sounds designed to make you uncomfortable. There's no sense of that in Licht's work. It's standard horror score paint-by-numbers. This pervades the entire game, including the endings which (in addition to the story problems already there) are almost silent. Worse, someone had the bright idea to waste good money hiring KoRn to do a song for the soundtrack. Putting aside that the song they turn in is really cringe-inducingly bad, if the idea was to attach a name to the game to get some attention, why on Earth would they use a band that hasn't been relevant for at least a decade? If they wanted an inappropriately emo band for the soundtrack, My Chemical Romance would have been a more timely choice and even their popularity is fading fast. Poor Mary Elizabeth McGlynn is reduced to a couple of tracks of humming.

The problems with Downpour are systemic. Nothing in the game is better than mediocre. The melee combat is perfunctory: block, wait for an opening, hit, repeat. All melee weapons are breakable and, apparently, breakable at exactly the same rate. Wooden sticks break exactly as often as lead pipes and metal axes. Gun combat is occasionally broken. I've missed enemies with a shotgun blast at ultra close range because my reticule wasn't just so.

The story is a mess. Everything about it is surface level. I was one step ahead of the story at every turn. Much like Homecoming, the protagonist is a sort of masculine ideal: a "soldier" or a prison inmate. Manly men. Not easily relatable and not as prone to being scared as you should be in a survival horror game. Nobody's reactions make logical sense. Murphy's first reaction to the Otherworld is practically non-plussed. The only time he shows any emotion is when he's being hurt during an Otherworld chase sequence (and his screams sound a lot like Homer Simpson) or when he does the groan-worthy "fall to his knees and scream at the sky" bit. The other characters fare even worse. The only female character in the game never gets to do anything other than screaming, threatening to kill you, or crying. The radio DJ is introduced and forgotten, never to be seen again. They even have a Magical Negro character. It's like reading a laundry list of every horror/suspense trope you can think of.

The game introduces side quests, all of which are easily missed but provide some of the game's best moments. There's a sequence where you play a gramophone backwards to see a murder scene in reverse that might be the best scene in the game. But unless you have a particular item and notice a second floor light on, you'd never see it. There's another cool sequence in a cinema that ends with you going into the screen to look for an item, complete with an old school survival horror control scheme. Other side quests are utterly pointless. They're provided with no context and no payoff. Maybe you get an item or two but for a game that should be trading in scares, what does an extra Medkit matter?

The Otherworld looks dull and the your time there is usually just puzzles or chase sequences. You're not even being chased by a creature but a translucent red ball... which is hardly the most threatening visual in the world. Other than a couple homages to that old silent movie Safety Last! there's nothing any real interest there. The "normal" world is appropriately dessicated but lacks the nuance to drum up anything other than the odd tense moment. The game allows you to peek into a room before opening it but then does nothing with the idea. Gone is the handheld radio that spits static whenever monsters approach despite really needing the extra level of tension not present in Licht's score.

Creature design? Again, completely surface level. Silent Hill 2 had all manner of weird monsters representing parts of James' subconscious, from the enormously phallic Pyramid Head to two pairs of women's legs connected at the hip. The man clearly had issues with women right down to the Mary/Maria thing. What does Murphy Pendleton have? Uh... prisoners? Which represent... umm... his time in prison? (Seriously, when the big prisoner guys put their arms out and do the "Come at me, bro!" move, you will laugh at loud.) The Screamers and the Weeping Bats are just generic designs. They have nothing to do with his dead son or the child molester or the prison guard he may/may not have killed. They're just sort of there.

Everything caps off with seriously lunkheaded endings that actively work to undo the character's journey. Both "good" endings shake out with the truth that Murphy wasn't responsible for killing the child molester that murdered his son OR the prison guard who tried to help him. In which case, what was the fucking point? Silent Hill exists to force you to come to terms with the things you try to hide from yourself and the people around you. Or else. It's about forcing you to take responsibility, in the most traumatic way possible. If you eliminate that, you've killed the character's entire arc and his reason for being there. You're then turned loose by the female character to... what? Spend your life on the run for a crime you didn't commit? Thematically, it doesn't fit. It would have made much more sense for Murphy to own up, go back to prison until he's cleared of assaulting the guard, and once he's out of prison, he can be truly free.

The "bad" ending has Murphy being put to death for the murder of the guard AND his son, even though the guy who raped and murdered his son had already been caught, charged, and imprisoned. He's injected, his eyes close... that's it. Cue credits. There's nothing to suggest that it's the town's influence at work. No hints of Otherworld influence. No stinger scene. Not even any music. It just sort of farts out there and that's that. Yet another wasted opportunity. I'm not even going to get into the special "surprise" ending which is neither as amusing or non-sensical at the previous ones. The only ending that works is the "Full Circle" ending where Murphy is caught in a loop and has to do the whole thing all over again or the ending you get if you fail the final scene where the female guard is forced to take your place. Those, at least, made sense.

The worst part is that all of these endings change through strictly binary choices. At a couple of points, the game stops and presents you with the option of trying to save someone or killing them/letting them die. Ultimately, your choice doesn't matter, (that would open a can of worms I don't think Vatra could handle) it just boils down to whether or not you're willing to try. The only other factor is whether or not you choose to kill the enemies you fight or simply leave them twitching and unconscious. This doesn't work for a couple of reasons. One, it flies in the face of ingrained gaming logic that says that enemies need to be killed or else they'll just get back up and keep attacking you. If it felt like the devs were trying to make a larger point about violence in gaming, that would be one thing but instead it just seems like an arbitrary choice. For another, not killing the creatures doesn't matter. They're not humans. They're not even alive. They're constructs that are (supposed to be) created from Murphy's subconscious. That means that there's no moral quandary about killing them which invalidates the idea that finishing them off is somehow "bad." Like everything else, it doesn't seem like a thought out decision but an easy way to tabulate what ending you get. Compare this to games like Silent Hill 2 or Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where your ending would change based on things as esoteric as not slowing down so a character could keep pace with you or letting your gaze linger too long on pictures of some scantily clad women. It's hard not to see it as step back or a lazy design decision.

Am I being hard the game? Yes. Does it deserve it? Also, yes. It's a game full of missed opportunities, unfulfilled potential and half-assed design. If you want an idea of exactly how luckless the Silent Hill franchise has gotten, note that Downpour was meant to be one part of an entire Silent Hill themed month this March along with a Silent Hill HD Collection and a PS Vita game called Book Of Memories. Well, as it turns out, Downpour was extremely mediocre and undersold. The XBox 360 version of the HD Collection was a buggy mess that Konami REFUSES to fix and Book Of Memories was delayed until next month, presumably to be in sync with the new movie (which looks Resident Evil movie level bad).

So, yeah, things are about as bad as they can be.

But they can get better.

Survival horror, as a genre, has faded into the background. The best work in the genre is being done by smaller indie developers, which I think validated Yamaoka's feelings that limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, are where the scares lay. Look at Slender, for instance. The last man standing for big budget console survival horror, Dead Space, has given up and gone action. Other than Frictional Games, the field is nearly empty. It's all about mainstream multiplayer games now. Silent Hill will, in all likelihood, never reach the heights it once had.

So stop trying.

You can do what the Silent Hill movies seem to want to do and throw a bunch of potentially scary images at you with no logic or context, hope people don't notice and just milk those diminishing returns as long as you can. Or you can lower the budgets, hire on passionate, talented fans looking to tell stories in that universe and let them loose to make the scariest, darkest things they can think of. Lower your expectations and focus on quality storytelling. Build up a reputation for pants-wetting scariness and make your money from your cultish audience willing to follow you anywhere and buy anything with the Silent Hill name on it. Even if it isn't the biggest selling series in the world, make it mean something. And, for Christ's sake, get Akira Yamaoka back.

That would be the smart play. Now for the realistic one:

Developers and publishers need money... and since there's nothing about the Silent Hill premise that lends itself to space marines, giant explosions, and cover-based gunplay, they're limited on how to exploit the franchise to their best ability. Multiplayer is, according to EA anyway, a mandatory component of gaming now. Find some kind of creative way to integrate it into the franchise. They seem to be attempting that with Silent Hill: Book Of Memories but, if Downpour is any indication, I'm not so much against the idea of a non-canonical four player action co-op multiplayer Silent Hill game as I am suspicious of their ability to pull it off. PS Vita's don't exactly have the largest install base right now so even if it does well, it's only doing well for a PS Vita game.

Don't make the mistake of going co-op. It's easy and fans see right through it. Look to how Dark Souls and Dragon's Dogma used multiplayer and work from there. Allow other players to invade a person's world and cause havoc or act as some kind of invisible director, setting traps and enemy spawns. Think outside the box. The name Silent Hill still means something, even if it doesn't have the same meaning to kids as it does to 30-somethings like me. That should be enough to at least get you the benefit of a doubt.

It's crunch time for the franchise. Downpour was disappointing enough that there's only enough room for maybe one more game before people like me, people who have been in since day one, give the franchise up for dead. Bad movies aren't helping. Handheld co-op games aren't helping. At this point, only a "reinvention" could get enough people talking for it to matter... but for that you'll need more creative people on board then you already have. Go big or get small, just don't settle for mediocre.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Borderlands 2's "Girlfriend Mode" & Feckless Journalists

Working up to the mid-September release of Borderlands 2, Gearbox Software has been in full on PR blitz mode. It has all the earmarks of a smash hit. The original was a fast, funny and addicting mix of first person shooter and Diablo-style loot farming. Everything they've released about the sequel so far makes it seem as though they've worked on their weaknesses and expanded on their strengths. I don't think I'm jumping the gun by saying that it's going to be an excellent game. Unfortunately, gender politics in gaming has been picking up speed (as well as pageviews) this year and Gearbox has had to deal with a few mini-crises as a result.

First there was the release of Duke Nuke'em Forever, which was a terrible game by anyone's estimation and really missed the mark on everything, including some creepy scenes involving Duke's bimbo hangers-on. Not kitschy, tongue-in-cheek, exploitation stuff either but legitimately mean and unfunny crap better left unused. Gearbox mostly scooted past criticism because the game was mostly done when they bought it from the defunct company who had previously been developing it. It was a Gearbox game in name only.

Then, a couple of months ago, Gearbox decided that they weren't going to add female Marines into the Aliens: Colonial Marines multiplayer that's due out next year. The assets were there in the single player but for as-yet-undefined reasons, they won't be included in the multiplayer. Women are fundamental to the Alien mythology, both thematically and in characters like Ripley and Vasquez, so their absence was curious. You can get skins of Aliens characters like Hudson and Apone as a pre-order bonus from GameStop, but no Ellen Ripley? A dedicated fan started a petition to have women added that went well beyond expectations (and garnered articles about it on most of the major gaming news sites) but Gearbox is still silent about the issue.

Most recently, in an interview by Eurogamer, lead designer John Hemingway referred to a skill tree for the Borderlands 2 DLC character class, The Mechromancer, as "girlfriend mode" for it's ability to essentially dumb down gameplay for beginners. Because... haha... girls are pretty bad at games. Am I right, guys? Right? Up top! Yeah! Crack a brewski!

It's pretty clear in the interview that Eurogamer was not needlessly sensationalizing Hemingway's comments but merely reporting exactly what he said. At no point did they editorialize, they just printed his quotes. It didn't stop Gearbox head Randy Pitchford from taking to Twitter to defend Hemingway, referring to his use of the "girlfriend mode" phrase as a "personal anecdote" and doing some old fashioned "blame the messenger" PR moves.

To be fair, on the continuum of sexism, Hemingway's comments rank somewhere alongside your average issue of Maxim magazine. As a guy, it seems like a fairly standard dudebro thing to say and I'm not particularly offended by it. The sticking point seemed to be his lunkheaded insistence on repeating the phrase several more times in an attempt to sell the non-joke. Fine. Poor choice of words, questionable judgement, no big deal. A good opportunity to continue the discussion of women in gaming but not all that dire of a situation.

However, if you look at the same article on other sites, the "Girlfriend Mode" comments were completely removed. They just wrote around it. Some sites reported the kerfuffle others, predictably, went the other direction and decried the evils of political correctness that are presenting a clear and present gamer to the future of gamizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. For instance, the typically facepalm-able defense from IGN's Colin Moriarty. (Because it wouldn't be IGN if they didn't find some way to blame the fans for the industry's problems.)

Just as a sidenote: How about we wait until women are better represented in games before we jump straight to the apoplectic shrieks of political correctness killing gaming? Women now represent around half of all gamers but there's no way you'd know that from the games come out every week. The fact that people like Moriarty overreact to even the notion of discussing sexism in games is a pretty clear sign that we're on the right track. It means that the section of people who reflexively fear change are getting worried. That's a good sign and, if nothing else, the precursor to a lot of primo schadenfreude at their expense.

Since I started this blog, my two biggest fascinations have been sexism in the gaming industry and the failures of gaming journalism to accurately represent the fans. This "Girlfriend Mode" issue is a good example of both. Developers and publishers have a reputation for being astonishingly petty and defensive. Give a bad review or bad press and you can kiss your previews, exclusives, review copies, and ad buys goodbye. They can ostensibly hold you hostage for telling the truth. That means that dissenting opinions happen mostly on smaller sites where they are open to smirking accusations of pandering for pageviews. (For a recent example, see Gamefront and the Forbes bloggers in the wake of the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy.)

I'm cynical enough at this point to know that it's not going to change anytime soon. Until developers and publishers start thickening their skin (and stop pretending that they don't know when they're releasing sub par products) and journalists start toughening up and ignoring comments sections trolls and Twitter threats and write for the silent majority, your best bet is supporting the smaller, hungrier people whose sense of self-preservation hasn't kicked in yet. Or making sure you support places like Eurogamer when they refuse to back down for doing their job right. Those big sites aren't going anywhere.

The ball is already rolling in regards to treating women better in games and it will only pick up steam as it goes. The real turning point will happen when enough women join the industry that the casual misogyny that comes with working in a male dominated industry becomes untenable. (And you can believe that guys like Moriarty will be dramatically shaking their fists at the sky the entire time.) This is still a very young industry in a society that still has a bad habit of treating women as weaker or lesser than.

Likewise, the gaming press has a hard route to travel trying to balance staying in the good graces of tetchy developers with being honest with their very mercurial readers. The industry already has a very bad habit of blaming fans to cover for their own fragile egos. It's an easy excuse and usually disingenuous bullshit. In that respect, fans aren't the only ones who need to grow up a little. The difference is that a lot of the worst offenders amongst the angry fans are young enough to possibly learn better. One article with one developer's loose tongue doesn't matter much one way or the other but it's still a conversation worth having, however inconvenient it might be.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Walking The Room

New Media has been pretty awesome for comedians in the last few years. Twitter has proven to be a meritocracy where people like Megan Amram and Rob Delaney can build followings out of one liners. Podcasts have gone from a substitute for terrestrial radio (The Adam Carolla Show), an opportunity to do some long form improv (Comedy Bang Bang) to career rehab (WTF With Marc Maron) and career kickstarters (You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes). Now it's being used as a cheap way for comedians to hone their talent and hang with friends while also, if you play your cards right, being a testing ground for TV show pilots. Comedy Bang Bang is already running on IFC with pilots by guys like Paul F. Thompkins, Jimmy Pardo, Pete Holmes and Marc Maron in various stages of development. Adam fucking Carolla is in the Guinness Book Of World Records because of his podcast.

And then there's Walking The Room.

Y'know what? No. Fuck it. Too easy. I'm going to be that special kind of asshole who talks about comedy seriously. (I'm expecting to write for The Onion A/V Club any day now.) The term "walking the room" is comedic shorthand for bombing so badly that people walk out on you. Cuddlahs, the nickname for hardcore WTR listeners, know all the lingo but I need to ease you in. If I just start blathering about how I'm clown from the neck down and I saw a hobotang shoving oranges into his meat pockets screaming "You got friiiiien'" while wearing Grip-'Em-Ups you're going to think I'm a fucking idiot.


Walking The Room is a comedy podcast starring Greg Behrendt and Dave Anthony. They've been friends and stand-up comedians off and on for (and I have no intention of looking this up to make sure it's accurate) I'm going to say about two decades. It's crass and sweet in almost equal measure. More than most podcasts, they talk almost about their lives. This isn't an interview show or an excuse to do long form improv. This is two (sometimes three) funny people sitting in a closet making each other laugh.

About a year ago, I was looking for some new podcasts. After listening to Adam Carolla every day at work for more than a year, I was getting worn out. He used to talk a lot about how friends and family tuned him out after awhile and I found myself doing that exact the same thing. He had a finite number of stories and repeated themselves regularly so I was looking to jump off. All I had known about Greg Behrendt at the time was that he was the He's Just Not That Into You Guy and that he did Loveline with Adam once and allegedly wasn't funny. However, after seeing Greg on Jimmy Pardo's Never Not Funny be very goddamn funny thanks, I reconsidered. Then I heard about Patton Oswalt's tweets about the show and that pushed me over the edge.

With the first episode I listened to, #56, all it took was sitting at my desk and work and listening to them joke about not being mad at Greg's wife for possibly leaving him because she would be "jumping out of the toilet mid-flush" and I was sold. Then, after making Greg laugh so hard he couldn't speak, Dave started shouting "Are you dying? YES! DIE! FINALLY!" I had to run and hide in a bathroom stall for five minutes because I was laughing so hard that people were popping their heads out of their cubicle to stare at me. That was it. I dived in completely. At a rate of about four episodes a day. Which, in retrospect, may not have been either healthy or wise.

Greg and Dave's willingness to talk about their lives, their foibles, neuroses, and career worries is part of what makes the show unique. Greg achieved success with a couple of best selling books (one of which got turned into a movie) and a daytime talk show that spun out of something that wasn't really part of his forte: self-help. He'd been a professional stand-up for over a decade by that point but when he achieved popularity, it wasn't for the things he'd been working at for so long. He could have probably rode the self-help thing into the ground but instead he's been focusing in his surf/ska band, The Reigning Monarchs, and fashion. Trying to find some kind of balance in his post-self-help guy career between comedy and other pursuits is a regular source of content.

Dave, on the other hand, had a lot of promise as a young stand-up but also a penchant for anger and self-sabotage that kept dragging him down. (For a more detailed explanation, you can listen to his episode of Paul Gilmartin's excellent Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast.) He's since course corrected and now has a wife and son and finds work as a writer, stand-up and occasionally a commercial actor. There's also the L.A. Podcast Festival he co-founded that starts in October. He's also an absolute beast on Twitter. Always more the aggressive of the pair and less willing to take shit from people, they get a lot of material out of Dave reacting to other people's stupidity. (It rarely ends well for them.)

When you put them together, the result is a pretty classic comedy dynamic... provided you can take it. The twisted stories that Dave opens most episodes with are designed to weed out the weak and easily offended. Chances are, you'll know in the first five minutes if the show is for you. Compared to shows like Comedy Bang Bang or The Nerdist which, by virtue of their format, keep you at arms length and away from the personal lives of their hosts, WTR gets you uncomfortably close. Their family lives are usually a prominent feature. As you'd expect from comedians who've known each other for so long, their ability to annoy each other is unparallelled. (Listening to Greg get under Dave's skin by merely making a noise is always a joy.) There's also precious little Rogan/Carolla-style macho chestbeating. As you'd expect from a show recorded by two grown men in a closet, there's a lot of aggressive male energy but it's never misogynist or homophobic. Guests like Jen Kirkman, Karen Kilgariff and Nikki Glaser more than hold their own.

One of the most endearing traits about the show is how they don't seem to put themselves above or separate from their fans. You're right there in the clown car with them. Insulting Greg and/or Dave as a joke is practically an initiation ritual. They're accessible via their forums The Hot Dog Thunderdome and The Hot Dog Thunderforum. They're both on Twitter and Facebook. Bonding through failure and sadness is what the podcuddle is all about. There's a lot of other podcasts out there that are just a couple of dudes talking, but the pedigree of Walking The Room and the frankness with which they talk puts them well above the rest. This is mandatory listening for all comedy fans.

Walking The Room - The homepage which features updates, a webstore and a handy glossary for catching up with all of the in-jokes and short hand that's popped up over the course of over a hundred episodes.

The Walking The Room Tumblr page

The Walking The Room YouTube Channel

The Walking The Room Libsyn page - Direct downloads for those who don't want to subscribe via iTunes.

Suggested listening:
#22: Hobo Orange Thieves - WTR's greatest contribution to the English language, "hobotang," begins here.

#24: Candy Insanity & No Snitching Ellen - Probably the best episode to start with and the easiest way to figure out if the show is for you.

#44: Brian "Piranha" Posehn & Hobotang Skin Pockets / #50: Patton Oswalt / #81: Patton Oswalt & Drop Some Bass: Three more good choices for beginners who need the safety of more popular comedians to help ease them in. Pussies.

#43: Wheelchwitz & The Heckler

#56: Mid Flush Jump & Elephon

#59: A Lift To Babytown & Get Off At Murder

#86: Junk Pics & Napalm Dixon - One of my favorite Greg bits: "He's good, he's good, he's good, he's dead."

#114: Wood Master Paul Gilmartin - In which Dave asks the single worst question of all time.

Live Cuddle #2: What Can Brown Do For You? - A live show for $2 on their website where guest Dave Holmes tells possibly the best shit story of all time.

Get into it, Cuddlah!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mass Effect 3: Failure To Communicate

Spoilers! Everywhere!

Okay, so I deleted my initial review of the Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut. Honestly, it hadn't been sitting well with me since I posted it. It was cathartic at the time but, in retrospect, it wasn't fair to the things BioWare got right and only harped on them for the things they got wrong. In my defense, I wrote it after being awake for about 30 hours non-stop... which isn't helpful for anything let alone gathering your thoughts and writing about them. I hadn't allowed myself time (or a good night's sleep) to think about what I had experienced, I just went straight for the throat. At any rate, it was a bad, hacky piece of writing and I'd rather it went away. So I deleted it. I still want to write out my thoughts but in a slightly less sleep deprived, angry and spiteful way. So let's try this again:

More than three months, eighty thousand dollars donated to charity, sixty thousand plus Likes on the Retake Mass Effect Facebook page, countless blog posts, news story comments, and message board posts, BioWare has released the final final word in their landmark sci-fi/action/role playing trilogy Mass Effect 3 with the Extended Cut DLC. It comprises of some additional scenes, dialogue choices, an epilogue sequence and a brief additional ending fleshing out a finale that many felt was perfunctory at best and broken at worst.

BioWare and EA were hammered for months by outraged fans on every front. While there was a lot of disappointment over their previous offering, the rushed, buggy and unsatisfying Dragon Age II, those feelings never really went beyond message board posts and the occasional middling review. This was another beast entirely. Over $80,000 was donated to charity in protest. Fans organized letter campaigns, cupcake and M&M drives, and even reported them to places like the BBB with complaints of "false advertisement." Very much against their will, gaming websites were forced to cover the story ad nauseum. It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that BioWare had to offer some kind of substantive response. They were understandably defensive in the press, citing the plethora of critical praise they received and passive/aggressively blaming fans for not understanding the ending. (For more on how gaming journalists failed gamers on this subject, see my first entry in the archives from March.)

It wasn't always like this. BioWare was a much loved company with a lot of experience mixing storytelling and role playing into memorable games. They're also one of the most progressive companies out there in terms of portraying women and the LGBT community as equal to men. They were often mentioned in the same breath as companies like Bethesda, Valve and Gearbox for their commitment to quality and their close relationship with fans. For things to go this badly wrong this fast, BioWare had to act. But is it enough?

Well, as with everything on the internet, it's seen as a mixed bag. For the people who really only wanted clarification and a proper epilogue, the fight seems to be over. They're as content with the endings as they can be... in the sense that it's gone from abominable to merely bad. For everyone else, like myself, who see a much bigger, deeper problem with the endings, we have to resign ourselves to calling the game an artistic failure.

The problem with the endings starts at the beginning. On the run after the Reapers (the Big Bads of this universe who are bent on consuming and repurposing all organic life to their own ends) the hero, Shepard, meets a young boy hiding in a vent. The boy makes a portentious statement about not being able to be saved and runs off. Later, as Shepard is leaving Earth, he sees the boy again as he crawls into a departing spaceship... which is then destroyed as it tries to escape. This apparently affects Shepard deeply as he has nightmares over the course of the game where he's chasing after the kid only to see him go up in flames.

This is where they screwed the pooch. Not only does it foreshadow the events of the ending but also the exact mistakes BioWare will end up making.

It's a good scene and illustrates the horrors of war in an effective way... but making the assumption that all players care deeply for this anonymous kid they've known only for a minute shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of game they were making. Mass Effect is a series built around the concept of player choice. The only way it works is if you don't force the players to accept your own morality. By presenting them with different options on how to unfold the story, they get to choose how they feel about things. The writers and developers are simply following those choices to their logical conclusion. The idea that Renegade Shepards who have willingly sacrificed friends, teammates and innocent lives in the pursuit of destroying the Reaper threat will suddenly be struck with this heavy guilt because of one kid is silly. Even my Shepard, a humanist who is loyal to his friends and innocents, willing to give a second chance but merciless towards his enemies, didn't spare an extra thought to a single dead kid. Until they forced it on me. Naturally the game had to get you into the chute and sliding towards the endgame but there are hundreds of ways to do that without speaking for the player.

It's telling that between the Mass Effect games, Shepard is always put on ice somehow. In Mass Effect 2 he was dead and in Mass Effect 3 he was grounded and confined to quarters following the destruction of a star system. As a character, he does not exist until you pick up the controller. He doesn't have a life that he's living in-between games. BioWare have gone out of their way to make sure you think of Shepard as an extension of yourself. Which makes their sudden decision to force guilt onto you for narrative reasons all the more confusing and wrong-headed.

Fast forward to the last ten minutes of the game. Shepard is presented with three options by a Virtual Intelligence in the form and voice of the dead child from the beginning of the game. Two of them are poison pills that will end the Reaper threat and the last is presented as the best ending despite have the creepiest subtext. It breaks down like this: Control (a/k/a The Creepy Space Jesus Ending), Destroy (a/k/a Genocide) and Synthesis (a/k/a Happy Happy Good Times With Puppy Dogs and Rainbows). Again, BioWare makes the same mistake. Either all of the endings need to be poison pills or none of them. For one ending to be the "perfect" one, you're tacitly punishing players for choosing anything else. It's no longer their ending, it's the wrong ending.

It doesn't help that the implications of the endings are all an utter mess.

Let's start with Control. Control is what the secondary villain, The Illusive Man, has been after since he was introduced in the second game. By controlling the Reapers, Shepard dies and has his consciousness added to the Reapers where we will take control of them and use their power to rebuild the galaxy. Now, put aside the fact that there are exactly zero people in the universe who would trust the Reapers just because they stop killing everyone and say "Oh, hey, it's cool, bro. It's Shepard. I got this." We have watched every single character over the course of the series who has come in close contact to the Reapers become "Indoctrinated." No matter how strong they are, if you're too close to them for too long the Reapers will eventually turn you into a slave via mind control. It's implied that Shepard may be immune to Indoctrination due to events in the first game but it's never made implicit. And considering the voice over narration that happens during this ending of Shepard with a dead, monotone, slightly auto-tuned voice and the creepy music that accompanies it, you have to wonder if Shepard doesn't eventually lose it. It's not actually Shepard in the Reapers, it's just a copy of his consciousness so it stands to reason there's a finite length on his control. In which case the Reapers come back and kill everyone all over again. So clearly, for those reasons, Control is not the "good" ending.

Destroy. This is the option I think most people would like the best if not for the elephant in the room: you have to kill all synthetic creatures in the galaxy, including your teammate and friend EDI, in order to do it. It's easily the cleanest, most utilitarian option. You kill the Reapers, everything goes back to relative normalcy. The cycle of violence is broken. There's even a chance Shepard survives, though it's only a brief scene where a body lies in rubble and takes a breath and only really seems to be there to make that choice a little less bleak. The Destroy ending won't be a problem if you've chosen to play a Renegade Shepard where the ends justify the means, but if you're a Humanist and you're not interested in impregnating the galaxy with your essence against their will or becoming an immortal synthetic space God, this is clearly the best ending.

This illustrates the other big problem with the endings: BioWare's insistence that "Synthetics will always be at war with Organics." Over the course of the series there have been conversations about the role of synthetics and missions involving VI run amok and the centuries long conflict between the Geth and the Quarians. The Reapers themselves are even synthetic/organic hybrids. The problem crops up because the game always gives you more than one way to resolve the issue. Most famously, in the case of the Geth and Quarians, the third game allows you to broker a peace between them. Which means the game actively works against it's own assertion.

The entire idea is incredibly arbitrary and naive. If Mass Effect is a series that allows us to essentially build a universe out of our own actions, why is BioWare stepping in at the very last second to yank it out of your hands? Why is it working against itself to present a flawed premise that is easily dismissed? Most of the excuses organics use to go to war (religion, money, land) are completely useless to synthetics. The Geth only went to war with the Quarians because they were pushed into it. What's more, so what if synthetics will eventually go to war with organics? Organics will always go to war with organics. It's our nature. It's the risk you take for having free will. If you take the route of giving the Geth the ability to self-determinate, to give them "souls," then the biggest distinction between synthetics and organics is rendered moot. Because they can think for themselves, you'll never get the full force of the Geth going to war, you'll get a faction of them. Which also fundamentally ruins BioWare's point. The idea that they're putting all their weight behind this idea is forehead-slappingly ridiculous.

It doesn't help that the Starchild itself is an untrustworthy character. It created the Reapers and has a vested interest in seeing it's own ends brought to fruition yet BioWare uses it like an omniscient narrator and not an antagonist to be overcome. Which is what he actually is. Worse, it openly advocates a particular ending: Synthesis. This goes back to the problem at the beginning of the game of BioWare essentially forcing their morality on you. If Synthesis is the ending that BioWare wants you to pick, what's the point of having other endings? Not only does the Starchild want you to choose it, it's only available if your War Assets rating is high enough, making it "special." Both in execution and content, the other endings are clearly inferior. Synthesis is the reward, Control and Destroy are the punishment.

So let's talk about the Synthesis ending. Creepy, creepy Synthesis. BioWare positioned the endings to make a case for capital "A" Art, so I don't think I'm out of line judging the series as such and picking through it looking for subtext. Because what's important to note about the creepiness of Synthesis isn't on the screen, it's just underneath the surface.

What Synthesis means is essentially that all sentient life in the galaxy is smooshed together to create a single hybrid race of synthetic/organic beings. BioWare uses this as a jump off to tell you that everything turns out great: no more war, everyone likes each other and is now immortal. Yay! If all you are looking for is a generic happy ending, nevermind the subtext, this is the one to pick.

Unfortunately for BioWare, they can't have it both ways. They don't get to make Art and then tell us to ignore the obvious ramifications of their "happy ending." What they don't tell you in selling you the Synthesis ending is that you are making this change for every sentient being in the galaxy against their will. We're talking about genetic rape. Forced eugenics. It's presented as a Utopia but the whole thing reads like a sci-fi Nuremberg deposition. Hilariously, it's also what the main bad guy of the first game, Saren, wanted. So essentially the guy you killed a few years ago was right all along. Oops?

Either they didn't know what they were saying (in which case it's crystal clear that the writing team at BioWare was fighting way above their weight class) or they actually believe it... in which case: ugh. Until one of the writers is willing to comment otherwise, I'm going to assume that they just didn't see that pretty obvious spin on what they presented. They wanted a rainbows-and-puppy-dogs happy ending and thought that this was somehow the best way to go about it, heedless of the really, really obvious subtext. Which makes me wish they would stop using the words "artistic integrity." They haven't earned it.

It feels like a bunch of people living in a bubble, working insanely long hours and drinking the corporate middle-management Kool Aid of "everyone should get along and work together and everything will be great." It's painfully naive and has no real application outside of a corporate culture. Hell, I work for a big corporation and even the people promoting "synergy" don't believe it. It's a tool they use to keep people in line. That's it. It's not about kindness, it's about control.

If we were all a part of some big, homogenous society, then there's nowhere you can go from there. You need differences and diversity. You need conflict. That's how you grow and learn. This is ultimately where BioWare's failings lie: hubris. Ego. If they had made all three of the endings "happy endings" then there would be plenty of room for speculation and discussion about the merits of each one versus the others. Instead, BioWare chose to advocate one over the others and it's blown up in their face.

None of this was a foregone conclusion. The former lead writer for the Mass Effect series, Drew Karpyshyn, had a much different idea on how to end the series but he left halfway through the development of Mass Effect 2 in order to work on Star Wars: The Old Republic before retiring from BioWare entirely to focus on his own work. In his place, BioWare installed Mac Walters as a lead writer. This is purely a matter of opinion but, having read some of Mac Walters solo Mass Effect work, the best thing I can say about it is that it's "workmanlike." I've personally found it to be very stiff and boring with very generic characters. The character in the third game he's most responsible for writing, James Vega, is the definition of a generic space marine. His only real personality trait is his propensity for giving people nicknames. He was salvaged somewhat by a good voice acting performance from Freddie Prinze, Jr. (yeah, I just said that) but he's hardly the most popular member of the cast.

Corporations are not a meritocracy, and I'm sure the position of Head Writer is as much about management as anything else, so it ultimately doesn't matter. Maybe he's just a really good Big Picture guy. Compared to Karpyshyn however, a talented and well-respected sci-fi writer, it's hard not to see it as a step down. The end results go a long way to proving that theory. Especially when it was hinted that he and Executive Producer Casey Hudson wrote the endings separately from the rest of the writers. BioWare and the writer who allegedly talked out of turn have both denied that it was him but... well, that depends on how much trust you have in a company that was already in serious damage control.

Neither Walters nor Hudson have endeared themselves to fans in the time between the game's release and now by insisting on sticking to their "artistic integrity" and passing off the litany of problems with the game by passive/aggressively telling fans that they didn't get it. I have never met a writer who was completely confident of his writing. Not once. They almost universally think they could have done something different or better. So when Walters and Hudson refuse to show the slightest bit of humility or humanity by addressing angry fans like people and not children, they've only made the situation worse. Fans are baying for blood and no amount of free multiplayer DLC is going to change that.

This situation casts a pall over the entire Mass Effect series, over BioWare's next game Dragon Age III, and over the entire company going forward. This is an albatross they'll be dragging around for ages. It also didn't help their parent company EA won Worst Company In America while the controversy over the ending raged. To paraphrase a writer I'm quite fond of (who, ironically, liked the endings), corporations are beasts... and beasts need to be fed. If you don't feed them enough, you become the food. When you consider the amount of money BioWare left on the table with Mass Effect 3, you better believe that someone at BioWare is going to become a snack.

If they had stuck the landing to this game, BioWare would still be doing victory laps. They'd be on all the year end Best Of lists. Good word of mouth would sell even more copies. The multiplayer packs they've been releasing for free could easily have been sold for five bucks a pop and if I enjoyed the game all the way through, I would have been happy to pay it.

Artistic integrity doesn't keep the lights on. While they have paid single player DLC lined up for the future and micro transactions in the multiplayer, there's a lot of money that BioWare isn't making right now. The game was marked down to half price about a month into it's release (to compare, Bethesda's Skyrim was released in November and still sells at the full $60) and stores like GameStop were coming up with all kinds of desperate marketing to get people buy it.

I deliberately avoided mentioning that final ending BioWare added to the Extended Cut until now for a reason. It's the Refusal ending and, intentionally or not, it's BioWare blowing a raspberry at fans. One of the most popular complaints was that no matter what, you had to blindly follow the Starchild's choices even though it didn't seem logical and none of them were appetizing. Not having the option to just say "no" seemed really out of place. To that end, you can now either shoot the Starchild or plead your case to him. As a result, he tells you "so be it" in a creepy voice and walks off. The entire galaxy then goes down fighting. The epilogue involves a beacon left by your teammate Liara giving all of the information on how to defeat the Reapers for the next cycle which they use to defeat the Reapers on their own. It was revealed in a tweet from one of BioWare's community managers, though, that the next cycle doesn't somehow preempt the Reaper invasion, they build the Crucible and use it themselves. Which means that not only does Shepard doom the galaxy, he dies a coward who couldn't pull the trigger.

What's interesting about the ending isn't so much the content but the meta idea behind it: fans now have a chance to give BioWare the high hard one and reject the game and all of the botched endings it contains. It gives you a chance to beat the game your way and damn the consequences. You're not just rejecting the game, you're rejecting BioWare. Despite the low blow they give you on your way out the door, you still get to walk away. It was probably the most cathartic ending in the game to me. Their petulant reaction to your denial ("So be it!") actually made me feel better for choosing it. Like BioWare was saying "Fine! Screw you! Just leave! We don't need you! We don't need any of you!"

Regardless of the critical praise heaped on it (mostly by journalists who have vested interest in staying on EA's good side) the ultimate fate of Mass Effect will always be seen by fans as a giant, glaring missed opportunity. Ambition is a motherfucker if you can't pull it off. While the stakes for the Dragon Age series aren't as high (they don't have the benefit of a single protagonist or overarching conflict that players have been sitting with throughout the series) we will hopefully see a game that learns the lessons of Mass Effect and makes a better game for it. Then maybe BioWare can start to win back the fans they so badly let down. If not? So be it.