Wednesday, 27 August 2014

"Seconds" by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Aaaaaaaaaaaah blog blog blog I missed you so much! I haven't written anything in you for months and I'm sorry. It may seem like I left you for that cute new Tumblr thing but I barely post anything there either. Truth be told, I've gone from working on a really heavy, tiring job (see it here and here) that took up all my weekends and energy for a good couple of months, to taking time off all paid work to immerse myself in a personal project for the first time since uni. It will be seen eventually, and it isn't going to be anything grand but I know the exercise will have been productive.

Today, however, I am taking a break from that project to write in here. I recently picked up and read Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds, a one-off graphic novel which is his newest work after Scott Pilgrim. I'd never actually read the latter (only having seen the movie, always a shameful thing to admit to for me), but Joe Sparrow specifically recommended Seconds to me, and the man knows me very well so I had to pick it up.


This isn't going to be a "review". Such things have their place, but many will have written reviews about this book (I haven't read any of them), and it's not my intention to write a brief summary and a watered down opinion for the benefit of people who might be considering picking the thing up. I'll be writing about some specific reactions I had to it, and will assume throughout that the reader has also read the book. Thus, spoilers will be everywhere.



On the whole I really enjoyed it. In particular the story tapped very potently into thoughts I've had for years about regrets and mistakes and owning your decisions. O'Malley's art is good, too.


However, there were two major aspects of the story that felt misjudged somehow. They were Max, and the other house spirit (or witch, or shadow, or mirror, as it is variously referred to).

When I first read through it felt wrong to me that Katie ends up back together with Max at the end. At first I wrote this off to my own emotional baggage around breakups leading me to feel that once you've broken up with somebody it's clear that it was never meant to be and you just have to move on no matter what. However, as I thought about it more and reread the book, I now feel certain that aspects of how Max's character are portrayed aren't quite right.

In order for it to feel thematically correct for Katie and Max to be together at the end, we as the audience need to believe that he is truly valuable, important, and healthy in her life. However, I never felt like the story was convincing me of this. The first time we see Max he frankly comes off as a smarmy shit. He gives Katie his sparkly smile and she melts. We are shown that Katie is infatuated with him, informing us that we're supposed to like him too. However, nothing in this first encounter makes me, at least, like him at all. The story seems to be suggesting that even Katie's feelings for him are entirely superficial, as her reaction is all passion, hormones, irrational emotion, not an honest response to him doing positive things for her as a person. In fact, their whole interaction seems wrong to me given the backstory. It doesn't look like two people who were in a relationship for four years (by which time most couples have moved from the "passion" stage to the "commitment" or "companionate" stage) and then broke up, but who still sincerely love eachother months later. It looks like a girl talking to her high-school crush. However, we're supposed to buy into this vague, nebulous, unconvincing magnetism Max has for Katie. And her feelings are so apparently shallow that she blows him off immediately.

One could say that this first encounter is maybe too brief to establish anything more than this. For Katie's part it's maybe not unreasonable: her avoidant nature (the key aspect of her personality as far as the story is concerned!) is coming out and she's pushing him away. However, I don't feel that this is an excuse from a storytelling point of view. Max ends up being central to the plot, arguably the chief external influence in Katie's descent into her mistake-ridden mess, so the first scene in which we see him, in which his entire relationship to the protagonist is set up, and in which all our expectations and perceptions of him are established, deserves more than these insubstantial four pages.

Subsequent sightings do little to improve my perceptions of Max. The second time around is more of the same: smarmy smile, gets cut short, again with a plot excuse. The third time we actually get to see the backstory. This is the point at which, even if we allow the brevity of the previous encounters, we can expect to really see what Max is like as a person. However, that still doesn't happen. We get to know that he was, in fact, a smarmy cock, and that he and Katie conversed easily before boinking. And somewhere in there a four-year relationsip hahppened. But we're told this, not shown. I finally get the goods on what went down between them, and I still don't love him as much as she does. For crying out loud, the most prominent part of this story is when Katie says "I guess what we had wasn't that strong". The first honest-sounding thing she's said about or to him so far.

And then Katie figures out that she can fix their relationship with the magic mushrooms. This is where things start to feel really off. She's seen him twice so far in the novel, and both times she blew him off within a minute (the second time was during a revision, but it still counts). Hell, both times he was actually trying to talk things over maturely and she still petulantly pushed him away. So suddenly being expected to believe that she still loves him enough to immediately get back into bed with him is a bit much.

(By the way, compare all this to Katie's relationship with Hazel, which we see develop organically and which provides Katie with important emotional outlet and feedback, and the one time we see signs of it breaking down, when Katie neglects the friendship for just a couple of days and finds their conversation suddenly awkward, it comes off as far more poignant and well-observed than umpteen iterations of "I need him to love me")

Now, up to this point I've been commenting retroactively. I'm calling aspects of Max and Katie's interaction "off" or "wrong" based on my knowledge of what comes later (that their relationship is fulfilling). However, in the vacuum of reading the story for the first time, there is actually nothing fundamentally wrong, at least from a storytelling point of view. Because it seems like Bryan Lee O'Malley is setting something up. And as Katie makes more revisions, and things start to spiral out of control, and in particular when she changes things relating to Max, this seems to be reinforced. She finds herself lying next to him in bed, they're still together, living together, and even married. She finds herself stunned at having his stuff in her room, and indulges herself by huffing his clothes in the wardrobe (a physical, hormonal response). However, many things are wrong. Though having boy things in her room is exciting, she is visibly unsettled by the compromise of her personal space, even as she denies it to the narration. Even less progress has been made on Lucknow, her new restaurant, than in the original timelines. Max is running the proceedings on it, not her. The servers at Seconds all love him and not her. She has compromised important aspects of her life for her obsession with Max.

And as she makes more revisions things only get worse. Based on his suggestion, she revises the decision to set up the new restaurant at Lucknow, and instead goes with Talmadge. And having retroactively ceded more control to Max, she finds him invading her life further. It is no longer "my" restaurant but "ours". The look, the feel of it is being done according to his wishes, wishes that, by the way, she literally cannot imagine herself agreeing to (and this is a man she went out with for four years?). The restaurant will now bear their shared initials, instead of her name. Her boundaries have been compromised. More revisions, and she compromises them still further, letting him get ever more stiflingly close, obsessively telling herself that him still loving her at the end of every day is the most important thing. It gets so bad that the world itself seems to start falling apart, and even familiar, comfortable, immutable Seconds starts getting changed according to Max's alien tastes.

These are all clear signs. Max is a destructive, negative influence in Katie's life. Focusing on him is a mistake. Every single thing we see of him in the story indicates that he is not just a red herring: he is the red herring. She makes the most sweeping changes to satisfy her need to be with him, and it ends up literally destroying everything. That is why, in the end, when she gets back together with him, I felt unsatisfied. One could make the argument that the problem was Katie's attitude towards Max, rather than Max himself, that her relationship with him was only destructive when she allowed her boundaries to be compromised for it... but I'm honestly not convinced the nuance is there.



The other confounding aspect for me is the other house spirit that Katie accidentally brings in from Lucknow. Simply put, I'm not sure it's actually a necessary plot element at all.

Thematically, the focus of the story is owning one's mistakes. rather than worrying about undoing them: to instead accept the consequences as a natural part of one's life. The crux of the plot is that the protagonist finds a method that allows her to erase and redo any mistakes she makes, but she abuses it, and finds that it ends up creating a convoluted, confused mess of a life that leaves her less happy than she started. It's a fantastic idea for a story, the kind of thing one imagines practically writing itself.

However, in order to start the degeneration of reality that builds up to the climax, O'Malley makes use of a plot device I'm not sure was ever needed. Katie finds an ancient pot or cauldron in the site of her up-and-coming new restaurant, and decides to take it home and, on a weird whim, uses the dirt in the bottom as some kind of fertiliser for the magic mushrooms that enable her to erase mistakes. It turns out that the pot was carrying the house spirit of the Lucknow building, and it uses the mushrooms itself to tear apart reality in bitter revenge for having been forgotten and neglected for hundreds of years.

Thematically this just doesn't seem relevant. The story is about mistakes. Does this mean that taking some old pot with dirt in it and pouring it over some mushrooms is a mistake? No, it's meaningless. A mistake is distracting your best chef from his kitchen and causing one of your servers to get horribly burned. A mistake is pushing away the person you love. A mistake is compromising your personal boundaries. Pouring some dirt on some mushrooms is not a mistake.

The shadow is used as the motivating force for things to start going truly wrong with the world. As Katie finds that her revisions are tying herself in knots, the shadow is getting stronger, and is using the mushrooms to tear reality apart. The angst of the protagonist is framed against a larger crisis involving the entire world, a well-trodden storytelling tool. However, I don't feel the other house spirit was a necessary device to enable this. It would be perfectly believable for reality to start buckling simply because Katie is using the mushrooms too much and to make too big changes. In fact I think it would feel more organic, as the further she goes back to make revisions the more confusing and alien the new world seems to her anyway: it would make sense for reality lose its grip on itself as Katie loses her grip on her life.

Ultimately she has to placate the shadow in order to right things. She talks it into calming down and letting her bring it back to its proper home. She has a face-off with its horrifying final form, and while this certainly provides a nice climax, the dialogue doesn't feel like it's really tackling the themes of the story as directly as it needs to. We get that in the epilogue, but the final "battle" just feels... divorced and irrelevant. And to be honest I don't know that we needed this second house spirit to provide a scary final boss either. The shadow could just be the amalgamated spectres of all the Katies from all the abandoned timelines or something. That would feel way better.

Again, what is the story about? Is it about house spirits? Is it about placating some superstitious belief? No, it's about believing in your own choices. The idea of house spirits is perfectly fine plot device to kick things off, but having one be the final boss as if that's the whole point is just weird.



So that's my thoughts. Again, it's a good comic and I liked it. I'm just picky. I'm sure if you've read anything I've ever written you know that.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Tumblr bumblr

So I gave in and registered a Tumblr a little while ago and I decided I should finally start posting things to it. For the moment I've mostly filled it up with older art I've already posted here but there is one new thing (near the bottom). Also a bunch of reblogs. This doesn't mean I will discontinue this blog, just that artwork will be going on the Tumblr, and written things will be going on here. It might be redundant to post this notification here since I generally operate under the assumption that nobody really reads this blog (mostly because I don't update it regularly, also I think this platform is dead?).

Anyway here's the link.
http://jonathantheharris.tumblr.com/

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Friday Saturday not hourly comics

There's this thing called Hourly Comics Day where people draw a comic documenting what's happening every hour for the waking part of the day, and some people I know and like have done it (most notable for me are Katie Tiedrich and Joe), and it seems fun, so even though it wasn't Hourly Comics Day I decided to do some myself last Friday and Saturday. I didn't post them before since I wanted to give that last post some space. Anyway, they cover watching the Kill la Kill finale, playing some videogames, and then a Pathfinder session the next day! It turned out to be hilarious so it was a good 24 hours to cover. However they're not actually hourly at all and are also hilariously rough and I drew them too small plus I am malcoordinated so you might not be able to read the words. I was going to clean them up in Photoshop but in the end I didn't even so much as tweak the levels. Fuck the police. They were fun to do and kind of therapeutic. I'll have to do them again some day. Oh yeah, the first and last ones contain Kill la Kill ep 24 spoilers in case anyone cares.



Sunday, 30 March 2014

Kill la Kill

A preface: this post is about Studio Trigger's recently concluded TV anime Kill la Kill. It will contain spoilers so if you haven't watched it and intend to do so, be aware (I will also be spoiling Gurren Lagann while I'm at it, though that's years old by this point). Also be aware that this is a heavily problematic piece of media, and could very easily be called "Female Objectification: The Anime". Though it features alot of male nudity and skimpy outfits along with the copious female skin on show, the former is almost always played for humour and the latter just as a matter of course or for titillation (and though aspects of it are plot justified, that doesn't solve the problem). I mention this only to say that this is not what I'm going to be talking about in this post, but I am nonetheless aware of it.







Kill la Kill's final episode was frustrating. So frustrating that when I think about it too much it makes me want to cry. I say this not because it was bad: it wasn't bad, it was good, and I had almost nothing but fun watching it (all three times in the last three days). I say this because the series itself was unbelievably good, but I felt like the final episode just didn't quite conclude the themes as well as it could have. I had a feeling this would be the case in the run-up: episodes 20 and 21 drove the emotional stakes to a height that I was convinced would be umatchable in the finale; the show had also been very rough around the edges for much of its run, replete with interesting ideas but having trouble stitching them together into something that felt truly complete. I knew that even if the last episode were a total wash it would still have been a fantastic ride. Even so, I damn well know Kazuki Nakashima can do better than "HUMANS ARE HUMANS! CLOTHING IS CLOTHING!"



I haven't gone out of my way to read other people's writing about this but given that it's the same director/writer duo, and the similarities in tone, comparisons are obvious and I will assume they have been made between Kill la Kill and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. That won't stop me from making some of my own. Kill la Kill had strengths that Gurren Lagann didn't. It didn't have a whole central character who felt like they threw off the tone, whom we were supposed to like but was actually pretty unlikeable (that being Nia). It didn't suffer from the glut of supporting characters that we didn't have room to care about properly. Even though Gurren Lagann was not short of emotional gut-punches, I think Kill la Kill topped it there, and while Simon turned out to be a pretty good protagonist, Ryuko was even better, more endearing and more believable. And somehow, despite the fact that she had already pulled two face-heel turns up to that point, her third villainous stint in episode 21 was genuinely frightening in a way I never imagined. Comparing Kill la Kill to Gurren Lagann, the former has, to me, many marks of something produced by a more experienced and, crucially, more confident, director, as the whole thing was executed with a sheer bravado and style that topped its predecessor at almost every turn and practically sold the package all by itself.

However, Gurren Lagann had a thematic completeness that I haven't seen in any other piece of media, full-stop. Taking the ridiculous sounding idea of drills as its basis, every possible avenue for this concept was explored and exploited, from digging and breaking through things to spirals, unending cycles, infinite escalation, DNA, evolution, and progression. These themes were all made use of in the grand finale: the final mecha being the biggest ever seen; the Anti-Spiral being a race that had halted their own evolution to bring an end to the infinite outward progression that they believed would end the universe; Lord Genome's sacrifice, embodying the idea that the previous generation needs to make way for the next; Simon's final speechifying, monologuing on the nature of a drill, turning round and round and making progress with each revolution, tying into the double helical shape of DNA and the growth that represents. What was most important, however, was Simon's actions after Nia's dissolution. Presented with the option to use Spiral Power to revive all those who died in battle, he refuses, mirroring Lord Genome's final words and stating that the dead should remain dead in order to make way for the next generation. In a story whose defining principles have included near blind resolve, hot-bloodedness, and growth, the ending, the ultimate solution to the ultimate problem, is insight, sensitivity, and restraint. This is the reason Kamina had to die, and why Simon had to take the helm. This is the completion of his character arc: he had what it took to drive Spiral Power to its potential and defeat what needed to be defeated, but most importantly he had the wisdom and the calm to see when it was time to stop, to hold back. The bit in the epilogue with the kid trying to drill open a coconut reinforces this. Simon's advice to the child is to drill more gently, and the fruit yields when he does so.

Kill la Kill's ending doesn't really achieve anything on this level. The central theme has been clothing, but it felt like the most important parts of the finale didn't make clever use of it. Ryuko dons the Goku Uniforms of every other character in order to power up for the final battle, which was great, but while Senketsu Kisaragi's design does look awesome it doesn't feel like a true progression, or reflect the fact that it represents the contributions of many different people the way Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann's does.

Ryuuko finally reconstructing the Rending Scissors was cool, and I'm not actually even mad that they proved useless, but the way she ultimately turned the tide of the battle was by some backhanded "I get stronger when I'm closer to death" asspull and an alien absorption technique rather than anything to do with actually wearing clothes. She and Senketsu speechify heavily on the fact that each of them is neither human nor clothing, while being both human and clothing, but holy shit it doesn't fucking mean anything, and Ragyo lampshading it doesn't excuse how sloppy that writing is. (Also, it seemed so obvious that I just assumed it was the case, and I've seen it stated on wikis, but is it even stated in-universe that Senketsu has any human, specifically Ryuko's, DNA in him?)

There were good aspects to Kill la Kill's ending. Ryuko, rather than simply trying to destroy her mother after unraveling her scheme, offers her the chance to surrender and come home peacefully. This signifies an important concluding step in Ryuko's arc: she has progressed from a juvenile delinquent wracked with self-loathing and bent on revenge to someone willing to forgive a completely unforgivable person. However, this whole concept was given a single line of almost throwaway dialogue, and I think it's more important than that. Senketsu's final speech was actually excellent, and made heartbreakingly poignant use of the clothing theme, but it's not quite enough.

What makes it most frustrating is that I can honestly think of a better way to have done it. We've had the reveal that Ryuko is a Life Fibre/Human hybrid, and plenty was made of it from an emotional standpoint (her terrifying face after learning of her true nature is one of my favourite moments in the whole series), and it heralded a significant boost in power and growth as she came to terms with it, but the obvious implication was never touched upon in a meaningful way. She's both human and clothing, but what is clothing? It's something a human wears. So what if, when she impaled herself on Ragyo's massive spike, instead of just absorbing Shinra Koketsu, she enveloped Ragyo completely, becoming her clothing? That, to me, is an interesting and clever solution, and also would do much better to signify that Ryuko has truly come to terms with herself than did the mindless shouting we got. It would actually have been thematically relevant. And then that can lead into a sequence reminiscent of what happened when Ryuko had Junketsu forced onto her in episode 21, only without the squick, the creepiness, the manipulation or insincerity. We can see Ryuko really, truly trying to reconcile with her mother and even her half-sister, Nui. Both these characters are flawlessly detestable villains and every second they looked unhappy was delicious candy to me, but I would have loved to have seen Ryuko really going to lengths to try to absolve them. Of course, they can reject these advances. Ragyo can struggle out of her clothing, and then the rags of Shinra Koketsu recoalesce into Ryuko and Senketsu's form, and now she's absorbed the Absolute Submission ability so the ending can continue as we have it now.

I know what I just typed is essentially a big load of fanwank. However, I feel I need to state it to get my point across regarding what I think was wrong with the ending and how I feel it could have been done better. I always feel bad saying stuff like this because Hiroyuki Imaishi is a genius and I'm a lazy hack, a mediocre animator, a crappy draftsman, and a terrible storyteller, but I have to get this off my chest.

None of this is to say that I think Kill la Kill as a whole is bad. If it weren't for the problematic aspects I noted above it would be a 9/10 series easily. I'm just frustrated because I think it could so easily have been a 10/10.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Brilliance of Undefined Fantastic Object's scoring system.

In the last two posts I made about games I talked about level design in the Touhou series, and also mentioned two other facets of games, mechanics and avatar design. I only briefly touched on these other two aspects with respect to Touhou. I addressed that ideally I think a game's mechanics (in this case, its scoring sytem) should allow players' relative skill to be distinguished at all levels: it should be relevant both for the hardcore, high-scoring nerd and the just-trying-to-survive casual gamer. I also said that, of the ones I'd played, the Touhou games didn't really have scoring systems that excel at this. However, at the time I hadn't played the 12th installment in the series, Undefined Fantastic Object. I think this game has a system that is rewarding and intuitive, and is also useful at all levels of play.



In accordance with the title, it is focused around little cartoon UFOs that appear when specific, marked enemies are destroyed. These UFOs come in three colours, blue, green, and red, and some flash between the colours in that order.

See that big fairy in the top left with the green UFOs above its head? That contains one of these things.
The rightmost UFO is a flashing one, as indicated by the white border.

If the player collects three UFOs of the same colour in a row, a larger UFO of that colour appears (alternatively, collecting one of each colour will produce a flashing UFO).



This UFO remains either until it leaves after twelve seconds or the player destroys it, and while it is present it will draw any items dropped by enemies on the entire screen into itself (these consist of red Power items which increase the power of the player's shots, and blue Point items which award points). If it is destroyed any items it sucked in are automatically awarded to the player with a multiplied value, another small UFO of the same colour is released, and a specific bonus is given depending on the colour of the UFO. Additionally, if it collected at least a set number of total items, a further colour-dependant reward is given.

This system is useful to the player. Usually, in order to collect items they must either be touched directly as they fall down the screen, or the player must move above the Point of Collection, an invisible line about 1/4 to 1/5 of the way from the top where all items are automatically drawn to the player character. This is also the point where Point items, which are worth more the further up the screen they are, reach their maximum value. Thus, using UFOs to collect items offers a convincing alternative to this risky strategy, especially since they automatically escalate Point items to their maximum value and give a potentially hefty multiplier on top. The element of risk isn't eliminated though: in many levels the bullet patterns seem specifically designed to offer a challenge to those aiming to grab swerving UFOs, and given how many of them there might be on screen at a time, and that one off-colour collection will screw up your combo and thus your next UFO timing, excessive greed can still lead to death. Not to mention that it is perfectly possible for a UFO to simply leave before you can destroy it if you get too greedy with getting items into it, in which case you simply lose everything it had absorbed.

I think this is a good system because it feels rewarding. It offers specific things that you have to do, and tangibly rewards you for doing them. Contrast this with the game with my least favourite scoring system, Mountain of Faith. In this, the maximum value for Point items is determined by your "Faith", which is increased by collecting Faith items that are dropped from enemies in the same fashion as Power and Point items. However, your Faith also drops rapidly if you haven't collected any items for a couple of seconds. As well as often rewarding menial conservatism rather than bursty risk-taking, it feels like it's designed to punish you for not doing things, instead of rewarding you for doing things. It's important to note my use of the word "feels" here: there's technically no difference, as lost oppurtunity cost is the same whether it takes the form of directly losing resources now or losing potential resources in the future. However, I know which one feels less enjoyable. It's acceptable to feel punished for an obvious mistake, such as losing a life, but trying to figure out ways to stagger enemy destruction and item collection through dry periods feels arbitrary and tedious. By contrast, the UFOs are obvious and satisfying. They're a clear, shiny carrot on a stick, and the gratification for collecting them is near instant.

What's really best about this system, though, is that the different colours give different effects. Red UFOs grant extra lives (1/4 of a life each for filling the UFO with items and for destroying it). Green UFOs grant bombs (1/3 of a bomb for destroying the UFO and a whole bomb for filling it).

The player's stock, showing lives on top and bombs on the bottom, along with current fragments.
Flashing UFOs turn Point items into Power items, and vice versa, as well as giving two small UFOs instead of one. Blue UFOs grant the biggest multiplier to the value of collected items (8, compared to the 1 to 4 of the other colours). Lives are obviously of most interest to the casual gamer, just trying to get their 1 credit clear. Points are mostly only relevant to the high level player. Bombs have usefulness for both, as using them to avoid death means you can either get further into the game, or avoid the inevitable oppurtunity cost of dying, depending on your goal. Flashing UFOs are mostly only relevant for scoring, but must be used in very specific ways to be worth it (either for turning a large number of redundant Power items into valuable Point items, or for allowing a specific timing to get a Blue UFO in the future, due to the extra small UFO they drop).

This means that not only does the system cater to players of all levels, but it allows distinct styles of play. A very inexperienced player can focus on red UFOs, as extra lives are the most obviously useful resource to them. However, a slightly more canny player will realise that green UFOs are potentially more cost-effective (1 1/3 bombs per green UFO, compared to 1/2 of a life per red UFO), but only if they can make proper use of what they get from them: if they can successfully bomb at every occasion where they would otherwise lose a life, collecting green UFOs is an effective strategy; if they lose all their lives with 8 bombs still in stock, it obviously isn't. A player can even choose to forgoe the UFOs entirely, focusing only on dodging bullets.

And for those aiming for high scores, there is still more subtlety to the system. It might seem most sensible to focus on maximising the total number of large UFOs, to get as many x8 blue bonuses as possible with the odd flashing UFO for Point/Power item conversion when relevant. This would mean allowing excess small UFOs to bounce around the screen until a current large UFO has departed, allowing another one to be summoned instantly. However, collecting a small UFO while a large one is on-screen, rather than going into the UFO gauge and contributing to the next large UFO generated, will instead permanently increase the maximum value of Point items by 1,000. Thus, on early stages it is actually better, in the long-term, to focus on collecting as many small UFOs as possible during the duration of the barest minimum number of large UFOs. Figuring out the cut-off point, where one should start maximising Point items collected over increasing the value of future Point items, requires intimate knowledge of the spawning patterns of the UFOs, the number of Point items actually available, and a thorough understanding of the limits of one's own abilities.

When I first started playing Undefined Fantastic Object I thought the UFO system seemed a bit arbitrary and gimmicky. However, once I understood it a little I realised that it opened up a ton of fun and varied possibilities. It allows you to feel clever once you've worked out a strategy that exploits the system, and applied the skills to execute it.

This is me a bit less than halfway through stage 5 on what would ultimately prove to be my 1CC run. Note the maxed out lives and bombs. At this point, I felt like an unstoppable badass.
And this is seconds after barely taking down the final boss in stage 6, my stock long since exhausted. You can have all the Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free cards you like: in the end you're still going to have to dodge a bunch of bullets.


Thus, it is definitely my favourite scoring system in any Touhou game I've played so far.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Up

Up is a terrible mess, a sodden waste of a film that fails to achieve any of the things a story is supposed to achieve.

Its first, and probably biggest problem, comes before we even enter the story proper. We are shown an introductory sequence of Carl's backstory, showing his interest in exploration and relationship with his deceased wife Ellie.

Telling the backstory before you tell the story is a very simple way to lay somethinmg out and can work, but the way Up does it is lazy and patronising. By showing this oh-so-sad thing that happened to the main character, complete with insipid emotional music and soft cross-dissolves, the film is basically telling us that we have to feel sympathy for him or we're a bad person. Well, frankly I'm a bad person. I'm not falling for that shit. You have to do the real legwork of spending meaningful time with a character before you can trick me into feeling sorry for them. Even Bambi is more sophisticated than this. It uses the cheapest sympathy-grabbing trick that exists - killing off the main character's mother - but it at least has the decency to do it a good way into the movie, after it's put some genuine effort into making me believe she meant something, rather than resorting to a soppy montage right at the start. If the Star Wars films had been directed like Up, the opening crawl at the beginning of A New Hope would have read something like this.

"It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire, which is super mega evil. It's so bad, they kill children and punch old ladies. Really, that's actually what they do, they're the most horrible people and you hate them. You have to hate them, you're a good person, right? You wouldn't want to not be a good person, would you? Yeah so you'd better be really invested in these good guys right from the get go, or you'll be sorry..."

This is obviously insulting, insipid, and stupid, but it's not above Up. It's like reading about a self-insert Mary Sue character in a piece of fanfiction, who is half-elf half-human half-Saiyan, and whose parents were killed in front of her while she was raped by the bad guy, so you have to care about her now right??!!

Before it's even began, this film has managed to insult its audience.

And unfortunately this telegraphs further problems. The character arc for Carl really begins, I think, from when the bird is encountered. One could argue it's from when he meets Russell, but the first supposed "dilemma" comes when we learn that the bird has chicks and wants to get back to them, and this would require Carl to diverge from his journey.

Now, the bird, for its first few minutes on screen, was actually legitimately amusing. Every action it does in that time is clever, surprising, and funny, from its gratifying mimicry of Carl to the spontaneous way it lets Russell rock on its feet. However, for all the cleverness of these comedy bits, Up makes the grave mistake of thinking they equate to making me care about its chicks. Kevin's antics are certainly endearing, but as soon as that plot element is introduced, I basically know that this character is no longer going to be allowed to be fun. It's gone from a cartoony, inventive character to a cloying plot device, and while it's perfectly possible to have a character function as both, the transition here is jarring and depressing. It's a funny bird that makes me laugh when it goes "Waaaak!" You're not tricking me into being sad about its babies.

At this point I feel like I've been insulted twice, so any further attempts to glean my sympathy are ill-fated. The two most important things for me, the audience, to be made to care about have only induced frustration, and all of the dogs' well-observed doggy actions and mannerisms and the "exciting" action climax can't change that. As a film about a bunch of characters on a joint journey to reinvent their lives, my ability to buy into it is completely dependant on my caring about those characters, and quite frankly it fails to do that in spectacular fashion. After that, everything else is irrelevant. So the rest of the experience is spent in quiet resentment that I have to spend another hour or more watching these ugly, inconsistent character designs bounce around the screen. I understand the desire to make Russell and Carl look different, to show their contrasting outlooks on life. However, when it makes them look like they don't belong in the same film, the same world, something has gone wrong. In fact, every character in this film seems to have been designed by a different person for a different project.

Normally, if a film has good things to say about it, that equates to getting a couple of points out of ten. However, Up's plus points all serve to exacerbate or remind of its flaws. Dug is funny sometimes... but that just reminds me that Kevin was funny once too, until The Plot started and she wasn't allowed to be funny anymore. It's as well shot and cut as you'd expect of any AAA movie... but that just reminds me of the all-too-slickly-executed opening sequence, perfectly formulated to induce sadness in naive people.

For being an insulting, frustrating, bait-and-switch film that grates on my eyes at the same time it tries to give them candy, that somehow manages to be both utterly bland and jarring and unbalanced, Up deserves no more than 0/10.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Let's talk about Wolf Children

 

A bit over two weeks ago I went to the Anime All-Nighter with Joe. They were showing the three Eva Rebuild movies and Perfect Blue, which both of us had seen before but wanted to rewatch in a cinema setting. However, the real draw was Mamoru Hosoda's newest offering, Wolf Children. I liked The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and mostly enjoyed Summer Wars, so I was interested. I had seen some animation from it since somebody at a place I worked at who had worked on it had left their card on the desk I was on and they'd posted a few line tests and stuff on their blog. Thus I mostly knew the sort of thing I was signing up for (supplemented with my existing knowledge that Hosoda's films err on the saccharine side). Joe didn't have this privilege so he came out saying it was "the most committedly furry thing I've ever seen". I wouldn't disagree with that view. I did enjoy it on the whole, but that is by taking the average of a really enjoyable first half and a rather tiresome second half.

I will add, before going any further, that I cannot be bothered to talk about this film while keeping my writing spoiler-free. Thus, if you haven't seen it but have any serious plans to do so and don't want to know all the details don't read this.

To give a brief summary, college student Hana falls in love with a man who turns out to be a wolf-man, able to freely change between wolf and human forms, or even meld partway between the two. They fall deeply in love and have the two most adorable children in the universe. However, he dies in a tragic accident soon after. Hana then has to contend not only with raising two very young children by herself, but also the fact that, as a human, she has no idea how wolf-children are supposed to be brought up.

The development of the story mostly concerns the children's learning about their bodies and their identities. In their infancy they have little control over their wolf-human transformation, prone to shifting when upset, excited, or asleep. Much of the drama and the charm of the first half of the film is built around this, and I think it works effectively on both fronts. Yuki, the daughter, almost carries the first two acts by herself for me, she's so well-observed and so adorably animated and voice-acted that even my vague cynical guardedness around Hosoda's particular brand of sweetness just can't hold up. There's one scene where Yuki has swallowed a pack of silica gel, and Hana walks in to find her contorted sideways on the floor vomiting. The unpleasant belching, retching sound she makes is so spot-on it brings back ancient memories of my little sister in similar situations. Interestingly, Joe, who is a dog owner, said it reminded him of the sound of a dog throwing up.


The dilemmas the situation creates for Hana, whose desire to provide a safe, healthy upbringing for her children is matched only by the need to guard their secret against the world, also make for effective storytelling. And as the children start to grow older and become aware of their uncomfortable place in the world I feel the film is building up to something quite clever. A particularly poignant moment comes when Ame is reading a picture book, and the story is about a farmer chasing wolves away from his livestock. He asks his mother why the wolves are always the bad guys, and she is simply at a loss to respond. It reminds me of the kind of thing one might read about the slaughter of native American Indians, and at the time I felt it was a quite a mature idea for a cute fantasy film to be touching on. There are also shades of the issues faced by mixed race people, who might feel like they don't belong with any particular branch of their own ancestry.

However, I don't think the second half really lives up to these lofty hopes of mine. As the kids grow up and learn to control their transformations, they become less cute and the film becomes less fun. This is understandable. However, I feel that the story didn't really go where I hoped it would go. The way it works out is that the children basically have to choose between being a human or being a wolf. This feels deeply unsatisfying to me, as, if one reads the film as touching on multiracial issues, the choice it presents is false. Well, somewhat false. If it were a cynical story about how society oppresses the different it could serve as an effective commentary on that. However, the choice is presented as being the children's alone. It is not that they are unforunately forced by other people into effectively giving up half of their heritage: it is a necessary, inevitable, and good thing for their development as individuals. It's as if Hosoda is trying to say that any mixed-race person eventually has to choose whether to be black or white or Asian or whatever, rather than ever being happy to just be mixed-race. One could say that I'm reading too much into it and "it's just a story" but I don't consider that an excuse, ever.

I also think the characterisation of Hana falls apart in the final act. As her son, Ame, grows, he becomes more introverted and spends more and more time as a wolf communing with the animals in the forests around their home, eschewing school to do so. However, there comes a point where it seems clear that he plans to leave home and live as a wolf permanently. Hana is understandly terrified of the thought of losing her 10-year old son, and beseeches him to stay in the house. Soon after, a typhoon hits while Yuki is at school, and Ame, concerned for the safety of life in the forest, ignores his mother's please and goes out. Hana almost loses her mind with worry, and goes looking for her son. Her actions would be believable and sympathetic, were it not for two things. One: Ame has been going off by himself in the same way for weeks if not months prior, and nothing bad has happened. And two: her daughter is waiting at school to be picked up, and thanks to her mother's neglect ends up being left there overnight. Ame does himself no favours here either, as when he finds his mother lying unconscious in a rainy ditch in the forest, he just leaves her in a random car park, nowhere near home or apparently even the school, and then buggers off to be Wolfman Guardian of the Jungle forever.

There's also the uncomfortable way the film handles of the trope of the whirlwind romance. It's something that I feel is well-worn but subtely dangerous the way it's been built up in our cultures. It suggests the idea that the ultimate love comes not from a stable, mutually beneficial relationship founded on understanding and commonality, but instead in the form of a rapid turbulent adventure that might leave your life ruined but oh boy those 6 months of true love and the adorable kids who've left you forever sure were worth the loss of any chance of a career or a life around other people. In fairness, what we see of the wolf-man makes it clear that he is compassionate and loving. However, this just makes it even weirder that we never get to know his name, or that Hana apparently never spoke to him at all about his family, or his upbringing, or any aspect of his history that might have equipped her to properly bring up their children. The character of the wolf-man (a diligent husband and father) feels uncomfortably at odds with the way he is framed in the story (the mysterious, seductive stranger).

I didn't have a more elegant place to talk about this part so I'm sticking it awkwardly at the end. The bit that Joe is referring to in his tweet above is the part where Hana has sex with the wolf-man. Although it is dealt with in a discreet way, it is made clear that he is in half-wolf form at the time (still bipedal, but covered in fur and with canine extremities).

I stole this image from someone else's blog and I'm not even a little bit sorry.

It's a distinctly narmy moment. This is unfortunate, however, because I think any alternative would've been a cop-out. The whole film is meant to be about the awkward junction and disjunction between wolf and human, so having that scene take place between two apparently complete homo sapiens would be pointless.

Like any opinion, all of this is fluid, and I might think differentLy upon watching the film again (and I'm likely to do so). In spite of my moaning I did enjoy it overall. I'd recommend it to anybody who's liked Hosoda's work in the past, or who likes cute things and doesn't mind weird human anime eyes on wolves.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

What is it that I want out of my entertainment these days?

Recently I saw Pacific Rim. It was decent, but in retrospect I actually felt a bit disappointed with it. I'd seen comparisons made between it and things like Diebuster and other robot-centric cartoons, and people seemed to be saying it was different to all the very serious, gritty special effects films we've been getting for years now, so I think I was expecting something other than what it was. As Joe put it "It still wanted to have its grim-dark cake and eat it too" (or words to that effect).



I mean, it was fun and dumb, but I felt like it was still trying to play itself too seriously, too apologetically. It didn't feel to me like it was fully commiting to a really bold idealogy or idea, it was just sitting kind of in the middle of cartoony and serious, treading water in both but not taking the plunge in either. I don't really want to say that Guillermo del Toro wasn't being sincere in making the film, but somehow that's the impression it left on me.

In the aftermath of this I remembered that the Speed Racer movie was a thing, and I got a chance to watch it.


I felt like it satisfied the itch that Pacific Rim had failed to scratch. It knew exactly what it was and didn't offer a single apology for it. It was cartoony, it was sincere, and it was fun pretty much the whole way through. Even when it had its "serious" bits, I somehow felt like it fit better than it did in Pacific Rim. It let them sit in isolated, believable segments that had a proper context, rather than permeating the whole film with this weird out-of-place grittiness. I even believed in the story the whole way through.

However, let's make one thing clear: it's a kid's film. Not just "a film that kids could watch", it's clearly meant strictly for children. It has obnoxious sound effects, silly music, garish colours, and a monkey. Given all this, I have to ask myself if I would've given it the same chance had I watched it outside the context of "being disappointed that Pacific Rim wasn't cartoony enough". It also makes me wonder if there are fundamental limitations in doing cartoony live-action films. Maybe they only truly work (for me) as kid's films. I've definitely become very burnt out on all the super serial superhero films that've been coming out for what feels like forever now. I couldn't bring myself to care enough to watch The Dark Knight Rises, even though I actually enjoyed the first two. The apathy I feel for the new Wolverine whatever is near unquantifiable, though I may get pulled along to see it anyway.

On the other hand I'm finally watching Cardcaptor Sakura and I'm loving it. Even though, knowing all the tropes of the magical girl genre, its age is very much apparent, I'm enjoying its simplicity and honesty. I'm using words like "sincere" alot in these paragraphs, so maybe that's the theme of this post. I feel like I'm having trouble with certain things that are referencing older stuff and "modernising" it or "reinventing" it, and I don't doubt the sincerity of people's liking for the things they're referencing but just... egh. Hell, even watching CCS all I can think of is "wow this is so much better than Madoka and Nanoha". Actually CCS was probably exactly a new take on the magical girl genre so now this paragraph just sounds kind of ridiculous. I like Gurren Laggan and Eva too, which are a tribute to and reinterpretation of the super robot genre respectively.

I've not been actively watching or reading things too much for the last few months. Admittedly this is largely because I got into Dota 2 so my free time is often spent on that rather than sitting down to watch a movie or cartoon or anime or play a new game. I should get back into consuming things again since that helps provide fuel for creating things as well. I took a couple of months off from paid work because I needed to move house (now done), and also wanted some time to work on that comic I mentioned before. I did work on it, but I realised that two months isn't even close to enough time for me to finish a comic, as I simply don't know how to solve the problems that emerge when trying to tell a story. Or rather, I don't even know how to identify what the problems are. That is to say, I'm stuck, I guess this is what writer's block is?

I don't really have a conclusion, since this was only ever going to be a directionless stream of consciousness, so you get another awkward ending I'm afraid.

Oh wait, I did edit a new showreel together recently, you can watch that.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A Theory of Game Design

This is a framework for thinking about game design that I've been mulling over for a little while now. I was considering including it in my last post about the Touhou games, but I quickly realised that it was getting big enough to merit its own entry. It consists of three categories into which I think all the primary aspects of a game fit: mechanics, level design, and avatar design.

Mechanics covers how a player controls the game and what their objectives are. In a platform game, it concerns things like the acceleration of the player character and how gravity affects them, or how a stage is beaten (usually "reach the end"). In a multiplayer real-time strategy game, it can cover things like unit selection and control, resource management, how technology trees work, and victory conditions (destroy all of an opponent's buildings, eliminate their army, kill their commander etc.) The mechanics essentially dictate a game's genre, and their level of refinement defines how pleasing it is to play on a basic, ergonomic level (compare Cheetahmen to Super Mario World). I would label this the "primary" of the three categories: any changes to the mechanics will usually necessitate changes to the levels or avatars. In general, the better a game's mechanics, the more depth it has.

The second aspect is level design. The world "level" here is used as a catch-all term for the arena or arenas in which the game takes place. Its significance is obvious in the context of, say, platform games, but I also use it here to refer to, say, maps in a strategy game, or raid dungeons in an MMO. Some games don't have different levels. Street Fighter II, for example, has different stages on which one can fight, but the differences are strictly cosmetic: they are functionally identical (Vega's stage being the one exception). Levels can be created in a modular fashion after a game is "finished" without any changes to the mechanics. This can take the form of mission packs for an RTS, fan-made hacks for platform games, and so-on. Generally speaking, the number of levels available in a game defines its length.

The third aspect could be called either character design or avatar design. The first sounds a bit less stuffy, but is not as precise, as it suggests a visual design component. This concerns the controllable characters available to a player. Many games have only one avatar. The first Sonic and Mario games are good examples. Later installments of both series introduced more options. Avatars are a core aspect of many competitive genres, such as fighting games. In a real-time strategy game like Starcraft, I would consider a race, rather than a single unit, to be an avatar (races and units are analogous to characters and their moves in a fighting game). As with levels, it is possible to add avatars after a game is released (this was largely the motivation for Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, for example). Speaking loosely, the more avatars a game has, the more breadth it can be said to offer.

These three aspects can be defined seperately but they are inextricably linked. The levels can only make sense within the context of the mechanics, and must be accessible for the avatars, the avatars must have abilities that give them options within the levels, and so on. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a great showcase of the necessary synergy between characters, levels, and mechanics. Playing the game as Sonic, one can see a certain amount of every level, but upon trying out Tails or Knuckles it becomes apparent that there are parts of many stages that only they can access. Knuckles can climb walls to reach higher areas that Sonic can't get to, and can smash down certain walls that are impenetrable to other characters. However, his jump is subtley lower, and since he can't climb on spikes and certain other surfaces there are still places he can't go that Sonic can.

Knuckles cannot climb on these platforms, and, unlike Sonic,
his jump is too low to get on top of them.
However, there is a secret wall here that only Knuckles can break down.
Tails, meanwhile, can fly. This has distinct advantages and disadvantages compared to Knuckles's climbing. Tails can move upwards through the spike-lined shafts in Marble Garden, impassable for Knuckles.


Tails, however, can only fly for so long at a time before tiring out, whereas Knuckles can climb infinitely given grippable surfaces. Thus, there is a tall vertical shaft at the start of Sandopolis Act II that only he can traverse.

Knuckles can get all the way up here no problem.
But Tails can only get this far before running out of steam.
Compared to all this, Sonic seems disadvantaged. However, certain mechanics are made to privilege him in different ways. There are 3 elemental shields that can be collected as powerups, which offer protection to all three characters. However, Sonic gains extra moves by picking them up. These maybe aren't as powerful as the abilities of the other characters, but they let him do things faster. The fire shield's dash doesn't cover potentially infinite distance like Knuckles's glide, but it does provide a more immediate, gratifying speed boost. The electric shield's double jump and the bubble shield's bounce may not go as high as flight or climbing, but for the places they can reach they're alot more immediate.

On top of this, one of the game's secondary objectives, the Chaos Emeralds, favours Sonic. Upon collecting all of them, every character can make use of a more powerful "Super" form. And in short, Sonic's is the best. Super Sonic's acceleration, top speed, and jump height are far superior to those of Super Knuckles and Super Tails. It even affords him access to a whole level that neither other character can enter, the climactic Doomsday Zone.


Thus, the game's three avatars offer truly different options for a player, and reward different styles of play. Compare this to Sonic Advance. In this there are 4 characters available, the familiar trio plus Amy Rose, who uses a squeaky hammer as a weapon and pole vault for higher jumps. However, the stages do not offer any interesting alternative paths or secrets for any character. There's the odd shortcut one can make, but they seem to be accidental rather than intentionally designed. There's essentially no part of a level that can't be accessed by every character. In short, it feels like the levels were designed around Sonic, and then the alternative avatars were added as an afterthought. The mechanics are still solid (the physics are pretty faithfully copied from the Mega Drive games), but the level design fails to take advantage of the avatars offered.

This framework offers some perspective on Starcraft, a game whose design has possibly undergone more scrutiny than any other's, especially in relation to its successor, Starcraft II. The former is highly revered by almost anybody with a general interest in competitive games, and while the latter has gained some coverage, if you ask somebody familiar with both as to its actual competitive quality you will usually get a lukewarm response. You can find complaints fitting into all three of the categories I've suggested. In mechanics, one can look at things like "deathball syndrome" that is ironically caused by a pathing algorithm that is too good.

Deep, tactical combat.

Or the economic tools that often seem to balance a race on the razor edge of unplayably underpowered or gamebreakingly overpowered.


For level, or map, design, there are the destructible rocks that many felt were a dull gimmick to delay base expansion possibilities, or the high-yield gold minerals that had apparently broken synergy with Terran's high-yield mining tool, the Mule, (until their interaction was patched) not to mention the long transitional period from Blizzard's tiny maps that resulted in games that were too short, to huge league created maps that went to the other extreme and created dull stalemates. And for race/unit design, there are the Terran Marauder and the Zerg Roach, which feel against the core design principles of their own races, resembling Protoss units more than anything else, or the Protoss Colossus and Sentry, which only seem to reduce possibilities for good tactics and control.

Welp, guess the Protoss wins this fight. Again.
Players and leagues are trying to fix the map design problems by continuing to create new maps, and Blizzard are trying to fix the unit design problems with constant balance patching and new expansion, the first of which, Heart of the Swarm, is already out. However, if one understands that level design and avatar design are always subservient to mechanics, it's clear that if the problems truly lie in the core design of the game then these are merely patchwork solutions.

The relation to my previous major post is probably clear by now. I wrote a bit about the mechanics of scrolling shooters as a whole, and then focused on the level design in the Touhou games. I could also talk about the avatar design in these games, since for a long time they have offered a selection of characters with different shot types, bombs, and other gimmicks, and they do expose a few clever design traits in some installments. However, it's not what I feel is the strongest aspect of this series, so it's not what I focused on.

I hope some of that was interesting. Nothing I've written here is really new, but I think it's a neat way to categorise ideas. Also I'm sorry that alot of my examples are probably impenetrable to those not familiar with the games I'm talking about, but the only way to avert that would be to make this post way too long. If nothing else, I hope this provided some food for thought.

In other news, here's a drawing.

It's our party from the Pathfinder campaign I'm currently playing! From left-to-right-top-to-bottom: Pan, Catherine's human rogue/ranger, a little urchin who's already got us into trouble with her unchecked thievery; Robomir, Sam's human fighter, Pan's uncle, generally trying to safeguard his niece's supposed innocence; Jammy Dodger, Blanca's gnome summoner/alchemist (or jamchemist), plus her eidolon, the marmalooze, she specialises in chilli bombs, handbag slinging, and mage-hand hair-pulling; Dorfbram Boozelmite, my dwarf-revering gnome barbarian/boozehound (for the record, there is no good reason to ever play a gnome barbarian); Slok, Joe's half-orc druid, specifically frogwarden, who we thought was going to be overpowered but whose squadron of giant frogs have turned out to be largely a liability (R.I.P. Kruk). It's really hard to make such different characters mesh in an image. Especially when people have such disparate colour sensibilities. My progress on this drawing was essentially logarithmic, and even looking at it now I can see more stuff I want to try tweaking, but I should stop here for the sake of my own sanity.