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.

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, 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.