Author Archives: John Calhoun

Super Dungeon Tactics

Super Dungeon Tactics is the late 2016 release from Underbite Games. Created in partnership with miniatures design company Soda Pop Miniatures and board game maker Ninja Division, the game draws from the tabletop lineage of its patrons to build a vibrant, turn-based fantasy.

At first blush, Super Dungeon Tactics feels like a game for the young at heart. Calling back to the earliest of turn-based strategy titles, players are set in a world of bright colors and chibi-like sprites. The starting heroes, a dwarven warrior and an elven mage, are enthusiastic and excited about their battles.

Honestly, I did zero background on the game before booting it up. When I realized it was a turn-based strategy, I immediately began to compare it to The Banner Saga. That was unfortunate, given how different these games are. While the Banner Saga is a depressing, Viking-inspired tale of woe with roots in games like Oregon Trail, Dungeon Tactics is cut from a more upbeat, playful cloth.

The aesthetic reminded me almost immediately of early Final Fantasy games or, perhaps, the Legend of Heroes Franchise. Dialogue is often between two or more colorfully animated portraits with a shifting array of facial expressions. However, the actual game world and combat stages are nicely computer rendered.

Once you’re situated, the player gets to develop a guild as part of the broader mission to save the fantasy world of Crystalia from the forces of darkness. That mechanic includes several unlockable heroes who can be equipped, developed and deployed for your missions. While not ground-breaking, I did enjoy the ability to name my heroes. I couldn’t resist at least a slight grin whenever a character referred to my mage, KayFlay, or my dwarf, Post Malone.

Rounds of combat are punctuated with random dice rolls that do something good or bad to your heroes. For example, a dice roll may give the player +1 health, which can then be applied to the character of their choosing.

The game is technically proficient, though not perfect. The music is exactly what you would expect; though I had trouble recalling what it generally sounded like once I walked away. The extended prologue can be a bit of a slog, but does a solid job walking players through party play and environmental interactions. Both I and a friend sampled Super Dungeon Tactics, and if we had a single complaint, it was menu organization. Mission setup can feel tedious and, even within the game itself, button clicks are cumbersome. For example, the tutorial instructs you to drag your character to a location rather than click the square you want him or her to move to. After dragging, the game confirms the move. Alternatively, there is an unstated option to double click, but this causes the character to complete the move without confirmation from the game.

Dungeon Tactics also appears not to be optimized for touch screens, but players can still paw clumsily around. This is a non-gripe, as it doesn’t really take anything away from the experience, but touch controls would have opened some interesting possibilities.

Overall, Super Dungeon Tactics is a great pick. Solid gameplay and a vibrant setting make for an adventure that feels both a bit like a board game and an heir to the classic turn-based strategies of old.

Links and Extras:

Underbite Games

Soda Pop Miniatures

Super Dungeon Tactics’ Steam Page

Ninja Division

The Cool Ship was provided a copy of Super Dungeon Tactics for review purposes.

 

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Magic: The Gathering: The Return

MagicFor me, Magic: The Gathering is a little like an old friend that never matured. I get older and the details of my life change, but Magic stays more or less the same.

It seems a little wild when I realize that I’ve been playing the game on and off for about 20 years now. My dad picked up the cards on a lark back in the dark days of the 90s. It was a short while after my parents’ divorce started, and I think he was looking for us to have something in common.  

I didn’t play Magic regularly until I was a little older, but as soon as I made friends in junior high that played, that was it. If it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something, I probably earned a Ph. D between high school and college. 

Sometimes I wouldn’t play for a few months or a year. After I finished undergrad, I pretty much stopped altogether.  Aside from the occasional booster draft at GenCon, it’s been at least six years since I’ve played regularly. A part of me never thought I would again. 

And then an actual friend came along and dared me to buy a booster box of cards. Or maybe I dared him. Who knows? But we ended up with three booster boxes (108 booster packs) between the two of us. 

And now I have so many questions. How do plainswalkers work? And why do people keep telling me the next core set is the last core set? What are these weird symbols in the text boxes of some of the cards? Did they change stack rules for instants and abilities? 

Other things have changed too. I’ve never played this game while having a full-time job and disposable income. It’s now possible for me to spend a shocking amount of cash on cards if I’m so inclined. At the same time, I’ve never had less people to play this game with. Three weeks later, even the friend that I bought the cards with has yet to build a deck. 

So this could turn out like the other games I buy annually at GenCon. Things like The Adventure Time card game come home with me and sit on a shelf collecting dust. I certainly don’t enjoy playing with strangers or squaring off against 8-year-olds all that much.

Maybe it’s an opportunity to make new friends. I guess time will tell. 

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Is Daredevil A Perfect Show?

Marvel’s Daredevil series on Netflix has set_daredevil_netflix_640gotten a lot of praise since its release earlier this month. I have actually only seen one article run counter to that trend. Not bad.

Aware of how positive the reception has been, I posted said article on my wall to see what would happen. And I’m glad I did. The ensuing social media melee, while generally cordial, did get me organize a few stray thoughts I’ve had about the show. Things that hadn’t occurred to me, in part, because of the group-think mentality surrounding the show’s reception. Everyone loves it, so it’s probably good. 

And it’s hard to consider Daredevil without looking at its peers. Up to now, the CW has offered the most competitive non-cartoon superhero shows on television. I suppose Agents of SHIELD deserves a nod, but I was so bored with the first season that I never went back.

That’s not the only way to measure a show. Certainly, there are programs like True Detective that stand well above Daredevil in terms of gritty realism, plot execution and character depth. Sherlock does a far better job dramatized crime-solving. I’d even argue that some of DC’s animated properties better explore the moral complexities of vigilantism.

Still, comparing against peers means going apples to apples. CW is a modern superhero television pioneer. Smallville was well-past the syndication point when the Marvel Cinematic Universe started. Arrow and The Flash are successors to that legacy. But at their core, those shows are still about character drama (and non-stop lying to friends for no reason) that moves the plot rather than the reverse.

That’s something I really appreciate about Daredevil; the willingness to skip the BS in order to tell a tighter story with more interesting characters. A part of me wonders, however, if the bar isn’t set too low to have an honest conversation. 

To be sure, there’s definitely a good show here. For example, I really appreciate the show’s take on Wilson Fisk. He’s a fantastic inversion of the sympathetic villain. Fisk plays complicated and morally nuanced when, in truth, he’s just a bad guy that thinks the rules don’t apply to him. He has no empathy for similarly situated people, getting bent out of shape when someone involves his family or steals from him, while extolling about how he wants to do something good. His story is a pretty blatant power grab from a monstrous character. He is uncomplicatedly evil.

Fisk’s actions don’t appear in any way to be intended to better the city. He certainly does things and says they’re going to help, but he and the show never really connect the dots. I’d like to believe that’s because Fisk, like an alcoholic,  rationalizes his actions with excuses that in no way reflect the reality of the situation.

Except for Vanessa. He seems to genuinely care for her; though, it’s hard to say if it’s out of self-interest (wanting to be loved and have a family) or actual caring for her well-being separate of himself.

There were also genuine disappointments. Foggy’s discovery of the Devil’s identity played out in a very by-the-numbers way for me. We’ve seen a version of all parts of the ensuing argument over and over again. I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on them, the secret identity trope is so old it’s hard to do the reveal differently, but I expected more. 

Karen Page is a flat character for me. I actually couldn’t remember her name, even heading into the season finale. It started promising, with her saving her own life in her initial episode. That’s a big deal in a superhero show, but somewhere along the way her arc started feeling like a time sink. 

This post is a bit if a false flag; there is no perfect show. Daredevil is probably the strongest showing we’ve seen in live action television since the superhero boom started. There’s certainly room for improvement, but it stands well above its predecessors.

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Are The Jedi Religious?

obi-wan-kenobi-the-empire-strikes-back-_144169-fli_1378671413In honor of May 4th, I thought I would attempt to tackle a Jedi question that’s been tickling my brain lately. For most of my adult life, I’ve operated under the assumption that the Jedi are a religious order. Largely because of the parallels between them and Templar knights and that throwaway line from A New Hope:

Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient Jedi religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you enough clairvoyance to find the rebels’ hidden fortress…

 

But it occurs to me that the Jedi Order doesn’t seem all that religious. On its surface, most of the common religious components are missing. There appears to be no deity, no stated code of morality, no prophet or enlightener, and no philosophy about life after death (excluding certain Jedi). Without these components, it seems like you can have secular Jedi. Or Jedi that follow specific religions not associated to The Force. 

More importantly, most faiths strive to be inclusive and and to spread. Theoretically, if the Jedi practice a religion, other non-Jedi people should also be able to practice it as well. I can’t recall any normals ever celebrating the vague notions of The Force.  

Then again, Buddhism is a non-theist religion, so perhaps God(s) aren’t a necessary component. And there are Jedi that live on as ghosts after their death. So there is verifiable proof of an afterlife; though the Jedi are oddly silent on the issue. The Force, it could be argued, might be a component of an enlightened state or spiritual experience not unlike Nirvana… that only certain people can have. Together, these things could be called spiritual components of… something. I mean, everyone remembers Luke’s walk into that cave to face his fear. It certainly looked spiritual. 

So perhaps it’s still vague. It’s possible there are more details that aren’t expressed in the films (without having to enter EU territory) that come together with these elements, and poor writing just didn’t get us there.

But my gut tells me that the Jedi aren’t practicing a religion. There doesn’t appear to be any referential material that practitioners can use for guidance. Normally, the faithful can look at a sanctioned, curated tome and discuss components of their faith. The Jedi don’t seem to have a consensus on what is morally correct, seemingly allowing or engaging in murder inconsistently. The only real moral good the Jedi appear to believe in is stopping other force-users from using their power to conquer. That and the whole thing about loving relationships and family being bad. 

On a larger level, religion is supposed answer the big, existential mysteries. The Force and the Jedi philosophy behind it has almost always been about the how things work rather than the why. The bigger questions about creation, the universe and are place in it aren’t addressed here.

No, I think the Jedi have a distinct lack of spirituality… most of the time. 

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Princes of the Apocalypse Review

I really like Dungeons & Dragons 5th imageedition. Having sampled 1st, 3rd, 3.5 and 4th (as well as a long stint in Pathfinder) I’m happy to report that this is my favorite version of D&D. There is a simplicity and elegance to the system that was missing in 4e and, arguably, Pathfinder. At the same time, the uniformity of the mechanics is intuitive enough to avoid many, though not all, of the rules-lawyer-style arguments that I’ve… enjoyed with D&D’s more classic iterations.

Which is why it seems like Princes of the Apocalypse, Wizards of the Coasts’ third module for the system, is as good a place as any for me to try running the game. As an important note, I have never in my entire life run a game module– pretty odd for someone with more than a decade of RPG experience.

I appreciate that the book begins by giving a broad overview of the setting, plot elements and factions in the module–even if they are difficult to track in the beginning. Princes of the Apocalypse takes place in the varied locations found in the Dessarin Valleys, which is somewhere Northish in relation to Waterdeep. This section illustrates one of the beginning challenges for me as well: there are a lot of details to keep a hold of right from the outset. Some, like the relation a specific place may have to another point of interest in the world aren’t super important. Others, such as the names of cult leaders, faction motivations and such totally are, and it’s up to the reader, with the assistance of the book, to prioritize. 

This is something I don’t like so much, even though it’s a good start for a large, dynamic world. My temptation is to throw all of it at the players instead of pacing myself and, by association, the adventure. I like mixing it all up, which is a discipline issue exacerbated by all the options.

I do like all the different origin options for the players. Princes of the Apocalypse includes over a dozen different origins that are tangentially associated to a character or event happening in the valley. Some of these options would make a good preamble for an established party’s adventures or work as an origin for a new group’s formation. It also reminds me of Dragon Age: Origins.

I also like the accessibility. The campaign is set for groups from level 3-15, but it makes allowances for 1st level players as well. 

For me, it all comes together in chapter three, when the adventure portion of the book starts. I’m a completionist when it comes to RPGs–I want to know every little detail about the setting to make sure the players have all the opportunities possible to run into a stray plot thread or discover an interesting clue. So, of course, I’m going to read the whole book, and at specific parts of the adventure, I can allude to other interesting things or throw out components I don’t like. For the first time ever, when I’m running this campaign, I won’t have to keep meticulous notes about the plot I’ve written and what the players did in the last session. 

Overall, I’d say this book has a lot of potential. It’s kind of a heavy lift for DMs interested in chaotic, “wing-it” style adventures, but for the folks willing to put in that time and do their homework, this is a top-notch set of tools for a great adventure for beginners and experienced groups.

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Go See Interstellar

Insterstellar. Look, tinterstellar.thm_he title doesn’t say it all, but it gets the broad strokes. Every few years Christopher Nolan drops a special treat on us, and this film is no different.

The visuals are amazing, the scope is epic and the music is… Hans Zimmer because Zimmer is to Nolan what Elfman is to Burton. Zimmer knocks it out of the park with the score. Chris Nolan has a way of turning interesting concepts into gripping, engaging plots that never seem gimmicky (see Out Of Time) while serving the narrative–instead of the other way around.

Granted, this is a Nolan film, which means there are plot holes. And any Nolan fan worth her salt knows romance isn’t ever a strong point. And any Batman fan knows the fight scenes aren’t all that engaging. Nolan has always been more interested in what the fight is about symbolically and literally than what it looks like. I’ve never gotten why it can’t be both, but whatever.

Nolan, true to form, creates a film that overcomes or sidesteps most of these problems while doing cool new things. Without getting too spoilery, I love the robots in this movie, aside from an unintuitively useful design (shocked they were so useful). I always get a little bummed when the machines turn evil or have a duplicitous function. I like thinking that robots can assist humanity in exploration rather than just infect us with xenomorph semen.

And there’s a lot of stuff just under the surface. Themes about family play against ideas of humanity’s abstract future, and there’s more than a hint of spiritual metaphysics playing against a very specific scientific ideas. And more than a few ideas about man’s struggle against his own inner demons. Not to mention all of the homages to other great science fiction. And that suspense, right? I was on the edge of my seat the whole movie.

So yeah, go see Interstellar.

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Life After “The Fappening”

Something crazy happened this month. The details and idle speculation got ubiquitous, so I won’t do the play by play.

Instead I’m going to talk about what I learned. And I’m going to call it The Fappening despite some well-argued points for why I shouldn’t. That name says something important about what happened. The news actually reported it as The Fappening. That’s history now.

First, there’s the obvious. Sexism and misogyny are still doing quite well in 21st century America. The cycle of shaming and victim-blaming continues even now.

Speaking of victims, I also learned that, despite years of leaked celebrity photos, stars are still willing to be photographed performing private sex acts. That seems a little silly to me, but it doesn’t mean that Jennifer Lawrence and the other women deserve this. While nude photos aren’t the smartest play, these women did nothing wrong and they are victims. It’s not unlike someone breaking into your computer and publishing your tax information. It’s wrong.

The difference, to the prudish, is that it’s sexually risqué, which is akin to deviance for some. And there will always be a segment of the population that enjoys seeing deviance punished.

I learned that there might be a secret market for celebrity photos that has been operating to the benefit of a ring of shadowy collectors for years. That is kind of insane to me.

I learned some things about people too. Despite it being so easy to simply not look at the photos – literally all we would have to do is nothing – millions of people seek out those photos. Perhaps thousand swill continue to celebrate a massively public violation. There will be memes, jokes and Twitter recriminations of the famous. There are people out there who want it to get as crazy as possible and savour the mayhem. Moments like these make me reflect on a famous quote from The Dark Knight.

As an exercise in morality, people should be able to not look without reward or threat of punishment. This makes me think there are far too many people that won’t do the right thing without incentive. It’s a dark entry in the debate about whether people are evil.

I also learned a lot of people are more passionate, positively or negatively, about a video of Jennifer Lawrence performing a sex act than about about important things like ISIS or voting. Cynical though it may be, watching the Internet community come together around this issue (as opposed to our water shortage in the western US) and work in concerted effort to catalog and promote “The Fappening” was something else.

I also learned something about myself. If I were a teenager, I would almost certainly be obsessed with spoils from the leak. Seeing a famous person naked, much less having sex ,pretty much would have blown my mind in a way only teenage immaturity can. Thankfully, I’m an adult. After The Fappening, I didn’t find my feelings about any of these women changed. I don’t think that Jennifer Lawrence is any less talented or Kaley Cuoco any more so. I don’t think any of these women are morally wanting. If anything, they are a little more real to me as I try to imagine what it must be like to be afraid you’ve been redefined by something so private.

Mostly, I find myself relieved that I really don’t care.

GenCon: Day 2 – In Comic Con’s Great Shadow

Every year GenCon is more popular. With better than 50,000 this year, the event is on track to be the largest ever. I’d like to think it’s because the things that we love to do – playing games – are more popular. Geek fair’s stock has never been higher.

And that comes with good and bad. Greater popularity means more products that we get to try and, for those with the ambition, more opportunities to earn a living doing something they love. It also means a far better chance of finding people to play with when you go home. One of my great laments every year is how many purchases I make that will never be played.

But that popularity also comes at a cost. TJ and I discussed at some length if GenCon could ever be too big. The annual struggle our sisters and brothers in geek pursuits face during the great pilgrimage to San Diego Comic Con is a passing interest to us. It is nothing short of what I imagine hell looks like.

The lines. The waiting. The endless hours in an amazing city camped out hoping to see/get some swag. I usually draw comfort from the differences between these two conventions. Where SDCC is about seeing celebrities and sitting in on panels, GenCon is a game-driven show – the guests reserve their events ahead of time. Theoretically, GenCon can expand infinitely and because most of the events are run by businesses trying to promote their products we’ll never see insane lines. As consumers grow, events should grow with them.

And it’s a comforting thought until you try to buy something from Fantasy Flight on opening day. Words cannot describe this line. I could tell you how long it is in minutes (3 hours) or feet (thousands) or people (also thousands) or Cthulhu sanity points (10), but it doesn’t really express what your mind experiences when you walk the length of this line. And those lines are becoming a more regular thing.

And there’s the other stuff too. Gen Con’s opening ceremony this year included a lengthy (and obligatory) notice about harassment. And there are those moments when you step out of the charm and you see the people for who they are. While exploring the exhibits today, one of the cosplay girls schilling sexiness for a business looked down at her bust line (which was quite low) and made not-quite-a-frown. I couldn’t help wondering what she was thinking.

Was she reflecting on the outfit? Or maybe thinking about how much money was changing hands or how sex sells? Maybe she was checking for a nipple slip or just wanted to go home. I’ll never know, but up until that point, I only thought of her as scenery.

As our pastimes become more popular andgen-con-logo more mainstream, it raises the profile on what our communities do, right or wrong. If we’re good, it’s an opportunity to face those questions. Will we drive the money, or will the money drive us? How can we be better? What kind of community do we want to be?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’m busy buying loads of swag, but I think GenCon’s next 10 years are going to show what we’re made of.

And Another Thing About RPGs

I’m gonna tell you what I hate about MMOs, and why I think the industry is going to continue a year-long decline into mediocrity. I’ve gone over it before, but in light of some recent experiences, and TJ’s post, I want to get into really specific detail about what bothers me.

And to do that I need to talk about tabletop role-playing games.

Tabletop RPGs are, broadly, a collective storytelling device with a probability mechanic. The most ubiquitous being D&D or some other iteration of the D20 game system. It’s fair to say that without the tabletop pioneers of yesterday, digital RPGs wouldn’t exist today.

The singular element of any RPG, whether a single-player adventure or a massive online world is that you can chose the general direction your character takes. This is usually represented with class and character building options, being able to decide where your character goes, and sometimes being able to impact outcomes in the game.

That last one is becoming more and more important.

I’ve played quite a few RPGs since high school, and whether it’s an online game with thousands of players or just 4 friends around a table, I’ve only seen two approaches to world-building. Ever.

I’m going to call the first approach the Static Setting Approach, which I would like to illustrate with a story. I played a game with some friends once where we had to go somewhere and stop some guys from exploiting some folks. So the party met those folks, got the mission and went to the place to have it out.

FiatThrough the process of trying and failing (or otherwise not being allowed to try) it became clear that this fight was inevitable. This was the way the adventure was written and, like hitting the invisible wall in Skyrim, there was no getting around it. Nothing we players could have done would have changed the fact that we had to fight.

This approach is sometimes called the railroading because the Game Master is keeping his players on the rails to do what he or she wants.

I’m going to call the second approach the Dynamic Setting Approach. This is an approach characterized by unpredictability and the appearance of choice. I say appearance because a good GM can probably get you where he wants you to go (most of the time) while making it seem like the player’s idea. A great GM responds to your choices with lasting changes.

It’s a harder road for a game-runner. It may entail meticulous notes, multiple endings, personalized relationships between characters and on and on. But, going back to the example above, it would have been a lot cooler if we could have bribed the thugs. Or joined them. Or avoided the combat altogether and changed the trajectory of things.

There’s nothing wrong with either approach. Both are totally legitimate, but my leading descriptions have probably telegraphed my preference.

Railroading begs certain questions. Like, if you’re forced into a fight by design, the GM isn’t really allowed to build a fight you can lose because he made you have it. Is the fight really anything other than a chance to roll some dice? If that fight had never happened at all, would anything really be different?

And that’s how all MMOs have approached world-building. Instead of a dynamic world full of people that need things, it’s an environment where players click on one faceless NPC after another. Every MMO is on the railroad, which is too bad because I think tabletop static settings are mostly a result of time constraints. Some folks are good on the fly, but the rest of us don’t have endless hours to fill a sandbox play area.

But companies have time. And money. And there is an opportunity here to spend less and get more. Pathfinder Online is in the works and they have a novel approach. What if all the non-starter armor comes from player crafting?

It seems innocuous enough, but if done right it could be a huge deal. That’s the foundation for a player-driven experience. Instead of killing the same mob over and over again for a drop (excepting material collection), you have to engage in business with other players. Players who have built characters to be skilled laborers. Characters who maybe ask for payment in services rather than money.

DragonBall

Yes, it’s still just Wow in a different flavor.

Those laborers could be other adventurers, but with some MMO creating permanent housing, why not allow them to have shops in villages or remote areas? Throw in some deadly serious PvP, and you’ve got the makings of a world where the players are cooperating in a community with each other – creating their own stories instead of following quest chains.

So what am I getting at? Well let me just quote me in a recent chat I had about Bungie’s Destiny:

That’s what I want. I want this game, with skills that I can use to create an in-game business to found a city. And then start an armada to protect my city. And then get impeached by my councilors. And then take my stolen imperial dreadnought and bombard my own city.

#@&%! That’s what I want!

And on and on I go. Look, what I’m really saying is I want off the railroad. Until that happens, I’m willing to say that all MMOs (possibly excluding EVE) are the same tired trick. Even the ones that look kind of different from each other. Instead of a game that asks me how I want to customize my outfit as I bounce aimlessly between exclamation points, how about a game that asks me how I want to customize my community?

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The Last Days of the MMORPG

Only now, at what feels like the conclusion of more than a decade of Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Gaming am I starting to get a sense of how strange and grand these games really are. Watching their inexorable decline makes me think of the elves of Middle Earth preparing for their journey west. In some ways, I feel like we never really understood their mysteries.

Wow. So geeky.Shipples

I’m not saying we don’t understand how these games work. Quite the contrary. Creating “the one chosen hero” and then grinding levels while making friends with all the other chosen heroes is old hat.

I mean to say that where these games fit in our lives is still an evolving question. A question that gaming companies have lost quite of bit a money attempting to answer.

One of the most interesting modern examples is where The Elder Scrolls Online comes in. With a rumored budget of $200,000,000 (sometimes you need to write out all the zeroes) the game is quite possibly the last attempt a game studio will make at a AAA MMORPG. During TESO beta testing before the April launch, I gave  the game a whirl. After my excursions in the newest iteration of Tamriel, I was left with one question. Will this be the biggest gaming disaster of 2014?

More importantly, is this the last roar of the genre?

Yes, there will still be other MMOs in one form or another, but I don’t think they’ll be massive the way we’ve understood it. At its height, World of Warcraft had somewhere between 10 and 12 million subscribers paying them $15 a month. That’s a truly insane amount of money. So much regular cash, in fact, that WoW spawned satellite industries. At one point, thanks to resource farming, WoW gold was worth more in US dollars than the Mexican peso. Even today it has a better exchange rate than some world currencies.

And since that wild, and completely unforeseen success, challenger after challenger after challenger has attempted to be the “WoW killer.” But in the 10 years that WoW has dominated the market not a single game has come close to topping it’s player base.

The cards are stacked against TESO.

I had the opportunity to give the game a try, and I think I walked away with some valuable lessons. In theory this game could operate a lot like Skyrim, but with other players. The graphics are almost on par with Skyrim and, to the game’s credit, it is quite beautiful. And at the end of the day, Skyrim is a whole lot like a single-player MMO. You get quests from individual NPCs  and then you go out and complete them. So you should get all the stuff you loved with Skyrim while enjoying the company of many other players.

And I think Zenimax is playing it that way. The voice cast for the game is positively ridiculous for any game, much less an MMO.

I mean, come on! John Cleese? Kate Beckinsale? Those are some serious guns for MMO dialogue, which we can expect only a portion of the players to get if they are faction specific.

But TESO still feels like an MMO. And all the MMOs since WoW have had one key problem: they are all basically WoW. Having button bars on the bottom of the screen and grinding quests through different zones is something we’ve seen before. It feels like the same game I’ve played before, with a different skin. As a matter of fact, most MMOs I’ve played, with the exception of EVE, have felt like variations on the same game.

And that’s really what I’m getting at. I’m not looking to snipe TESO. Honestly, I haven’t even kept track of the game’s success since its launch. But I do wonder if this massive investment in cash signifies a change in the dynamic.

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An Incendiary Note On Doctor Who’s Retcon

Sitting at my day job, as I sometimes do,  my mind wanders to all manor of things. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the X-wing Miniatures game and Green Lantern Comics. Sometimes I also think about how weird the 90s actually were. Sometimes I wonder if we would have achieved this level of technology if the planet was only 2 tenths water instead of 7.

For some reason I feel like the answer would be no.

Last week I started reflecting on The Day of the Doctor. It’s been a while since it came out, but I got there eventually. I mean (spoilers) how cool was that episode? How completely amazing was it to see the Time Lords back in play? And Billie Piper was back as an alien super-weapon’s conscience. I mean, bangarang Rufio what?!?!

And while Tennant is one of my least favorite new Doctors, I always love seeing him along.

But as I reflected, I started thinking about the logistics of the Time War and all its subsequent events. And it strikes me, as I try to focus on my work, that The Day of the Doctor makes no sense. Like not even a little. Here is my list of grievances because I would love to argue about it on the internet.

My understanding of The End of Time is that the Time Lords are trying to break out of the Time Lock using the signal they implanted in the Master’s mind. So I believe they are already timelocked or whatever it is that the The Doctor remembers doing when John Hurt pushed the big, red button. I’m assuming he only remembers pushing the red button to activate The Moment since #9 and #10 only recall burning Gallifrey. I mean, if Gallifrey was just hidden in a pocket universe and all the Daleks killed each other in the crossfire, how did Dalek Caan pull Davros out of the time lock to rebuild the Dalek Empire and steal Earth during the 10th Doctor’s run?

And if there was no time lock how was the Lord President of the Time Lords back in The End of Time to wreck everyone’s day?

And how is it that the Doctor has always remembered Gallifrey being both timelocked and burned? In The Day of the Doctor there was a discussion about how many children were on Gallifrey when it burned. So why time lock the war if you’re going to kill everyone?

And why did 10 believe at The End of Time that all the crazy from the war would come back? He talked about the Nightmare Child and the Would-Have-Been King and a million bajillion Daleks. I get that The Doctor’s memories were confused because of… actually I don’t really get it. There’s some timey wimey about all the timelines being messed up and John Hurt, 9 and 10 not remembering this stuff. Still, my problem is not with hand-waving away his missing memories, but with the idea that both happened.

And what the hell is a time lock? I assumed that it was a point in space-time that was put in a big bubble that other people can’t time travel to. Again I ask, if it’s locked up, why burn everything? And if you’re gonna burn it, guess you don’t need the lock, right?

God I miss Babylon 5.

God I miss Babylon 5.

Also, what the hell is up with the time lords? This was THE last great war that almost swallowed the whole universe and made a man committed to fixing things talk himself into fake genocide. I was expecting some next level space wizard s***. I wanted some science-as-magic themed super soldiers a la Babylon 5‘s technomages, but even cooler.

What I didn’t expect was a generic-combat-armor-scifi-film-wardrobe-are-these-guys-cosplaying guessing game. And for my money, I’m thinking Wing Commander or the Lost In Space remake with Matt LeBlanc. Also, how did they get Gary Oldman in that movie? Wait, that question probably belongs somewhere else.

How is it the Doctor’s own people conduct a war in much the same way I would expect us to? I’m not saying they should be better at it, but one could make the argument being alive for billions of years damn well ought to make them better at it. I’m not saying they should be better in the sense that they should be morally above our kind of warfare. Part of the reason John Hurt pushed the button was because the Time Lords had become monstrous. I’m saying they should look cooler doing it. I want laser screwdrivers that look like wizard’s staves and war TARDIS battles with clever time-shift tactics.

Also, did Gallifrey actually get destroyed at one point? Is this like, it always was burned until this first time when Matt Smith changed his mind? Or is it like it never got burned and John Hurt, 9 and 10 just remember it weird because the Time lines crossed the streams or something?

Just saying.

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If I Made GOTHAM

For a little while now, I’ve been unexcited about the concept behind FOX’s upcoming Batman prequel, GOTHAM. I don’t know if it’s because Smallville teased me for a decade or because I was more excited for Heroes than I have ever beenabout any other show. Ever.

You should note that these criticisms have nothing to do with what we’ve seen of GOTHAM at all. And that’s fair. The cast looks great. The trailer actually looks pretty amazing.

But I guess I just don’t see the point. I wouldn’t be shocked if some of the show had been inspired by Gotham Central, which I quite enjoyed. The premise being what super crime in Gotham looks like from the street view the cops have.

But the takeaway of these stories for me is that there need to be superheroes. Which I totally agree with, but why would I want to watch a show that doesn’t have any?

A Different Kind of Show

So if I were doing GOTHAM, I think the first thing I would do is get rid of Gotham City. It’s too well-known and the idea of Batman is so provocative you risk creating a Batman babies program with kid Catwoman and young Joker. I say forget that noise. Instead, I would do a completely generic police procedural like you see on TNT. There would be dramatic scenes, compelling music, and beautiful, brooding protagonists staring directly at the screen a la Rizzoli and Iles or Cold Case.

And I would keep it completely mundane for the entire first season. Just the typical one-shot criminals and police drama. And then in the second season, a few episodes in, I would hit the protagonists with their first supervillain. No one knows where he or she came from or why they do it. All the cops know is they’re darn near unstoppable and they barely run them out of town.

At this point, careful observers might have noticed the tiniest hints of weirdness around the edges of the first season that foreshadowed something else going on. And then the show would go back to normal for a little bit while everyone wondered what the #$?! was going on.

And the show would carry on like that for a while. Normal police procedural that occasionally sees a supervillain pop in a do something crazy. It would be a subtle escalation that tests the limits of our heroes and gives a true view of what everyday life looks like when you have to live in a world with superpowers.

And then around season 4 the first superhero would show up. Just out of the blue, after the cops are getting used to just barely winning and seeing friends die at the hands of super crazies, a masked vigilante shows up and changes the game.

And this is where it gets really interesting. The show turns out to have been a hero origin story the whole time, but from the perspective of our dynamic police force. And like the cops, the show doesn’t reveal who the hero is or how they became what they are. Instead we’re left guessing if it’s one of the supporting cast or some bit criminal from season 1. Could just be some guy no one knows.

Maybe eventually the police even form an alliance, if they ever figure out he’s not just another nut job and stop trying to arrest him.

GothamAnd I would have the story arcs for each season pre-written, so we could lay down clues and foreshadow events years out.

At least that’s how I would do it, with nods to sources like Gotham Central, Irredeemable, and Nemesis –works I’m stealing from in spirit if not directly.

It would be a long con for sure, and I expect no basic cable station would want anything to do with it in the age of instant gratification television. And if it did get a first season, there would be the constant threat of cancellation. But imagine audience reaction once it started to get real. And maybe this kind of show is too conceptual for modern television. Hard to say, but I do think we live in an embarrassment of superhero riches. As the genre’s creative boundaries stretch further and further, maybe some enterprising, young artists will read this and steal it.

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Welcome To Dystopia

 

His acting is almost human too.  Yuck Yuck Yuck!

His acting is almost human too. Yuck Yuck Yuck!

Almost Human is rounding out its mid-season finale, and I have to say that it was, mostly, pretty stock police action with a smattering of I Robot. Neither pleased nor disappointed, maybe this one checks off enough of the requisite boxes from the odd couple drama to meet Fox’s mediocrity threshold and not get cancelled.

It is, mostly, pretty standard dystopian fair. Which should be right up Karl Urban’s wheelhouse since he’s been in all of them. His resume includes Dredd, Riddick, Priest, Doom, and the newest Star Trek, which gives off an ominous dystopian vibe even though it’s based on a Utopian society.

The show calls back to a lot of other near-furure-with-ubiquitous-robots settings we’ve seen and the parallels with Blade Runner are hard not to notice. But Blade Runner also took place in a dystopia, so maybe that’s just a function of the genre.

Dystopia is odd to me because it is generally like the world we live in. As if you took modern scifi and added just the tiniest dash of post-apocalypse. And yet it’s somehow so diverse. 1984 and Starship Troopers are both in this category.

If I had to describe the quintessential element of dystopia in one word it would be alienation. Whether it’s Robocop or Mad Max (which I would argue is a post-apocalyptic dystopian future) it’s about feeling lost in a world we used to know. For me, these almost-but-not-quite-home settings are a an exercise in exploring disposability.

Usually these places have overbearing governments and horrible crime. They’re places where the people feel powerless and utterly disposable in the face of massive social institutions. Bar codes and omnipresent supercomputer networks are prominent themes because the everyman is just a number. The people are as much commodities for use as they are human beings. Maybe more so.

Some films, like Day Breakers and Elysium, set up the disgruntled protagonist to fight the system and bring the world a little closer to something we recognize. Dystopia represents the alienation we feel in our own lives. It’s that feeling you get when The Man tells you to wait in a 3 hour line at the BMV or informs you you’re behind on your mortgage payments.

Dealing with these systems we are, often literally, a number in a computer. Your handler (they often prefer to be called customer support) doesn’t know your story and wouldn’t care if they did.

It’s no coincidence dystopian fiction is relatively new. Authors like Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley wrote about great systems of alienation in response to the changes brought on by industrialization. Never before had such large numbers of people been concentrated in urban areas. Communication and organization on such a large scale had never been seen before.

Many of these fiction writers wrote about systems that would change the way we relate to each other. Things like empathy and comradary aren’t part of the sterile relationships produced by bearucratic systems.

For much of modern history there has been a fear that the product of human industry would dehumanize our relationships. And it’s not unfounded. We can do a lot these days without having meaningful attachments to other people. And if our internet communication are an indicator, we seem to be drawn further apart by the technology of the future.

So enters the grizzled, old-school protagonist doing his work in the context of social forces he neither enjoys or fully understands. He’s us, just trying to do the best he can in a world that just is.

This is the other thing about Dystopia. You get a few Ethan Hawks and Matt Damons, but many of the protagonists aren’t fighting to change the system. They are just fighting in the system against some of the symptoms.

 

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The Sociopath

There’s a special place in our hearts for villains. We have a capacity for empathy and adoration of the bad guy that goes beyond the rational and occasionally ventures on idolatry. I’ve argued that the villains we idolize are usually not evil as much as they are bad-boy stereotypes on an epic scale.

But then there’s sociopaths. Not just the run-of-the-mill killer types from Special Victims Unit. I’m talking about THE sociopaths; the killers that let us touch evil. In particular, I’m interested in protagonist psychos.

I’m talking about Dexter Morgan, Hannibal Lecter, late stage Walter White, Sylar and, most recently, BBC’s new Sherlock Holmes. These characters inhibit a lack of empathy, disconnect from other people, shallow or absent emotions, poor impulse control, routine manipulative behavior and various other qualities generally thought to come with antisocial behavioral disorder.

Breaking people has never been so sexy.

Breaking people has never been so sexy.

In short, they are something akin to a robot… with a fascination or excitation towards homicide. Sociopaths are constantly pretending and manipulating because they don’t feel human emotion in a strong, meaningful way. Not unlike a robot or an alien. And in the absence of concern towards others, all that’s really left is selfish desire and a drive to win. I think this is why the best sociopaths on television come off as alien. And it’s creepy the same way as a robot that kind of looks like a human is creepy. All the parts are there, but something’s not quite right.

These characters, like everything else on television, exhibit romanticized qualities that don’t reflect actual psychopaths (interchangeable with sociopath) and other antisocials. And since I’m not an expert in psychology, I’ll stick to the characters of popular fiction.

These characters are serial serial killer killers. No, you didn’t misread that. And that’s an important distinction because they enjoy the ruination of others and find ways to legally experience that joy. Dexter Morgan is the perfect example. He needs to kill, but was taught by his father to only kill other murderers. More than one Dexter arch has dealt with what happens when he goes off the rails. The character struggles with being good so as not to get caught, while feeding his killer instinct.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you can call this range of psychotics a spectrum, is Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. He doesn’t kill, but he exhibits a trademark lack of empathy and manipulative behavior to the point of clearly not understanding why people find his behavior abrasive. And his grandiose sense of self is pitch perfect psychopathy. Watch as Sherlock calls out a friend for getting him a gift.

Everyone is uncomfortable (me included), and he just doesn’t get it. Sherlock does it all the time because he is always bored (another psycho trademark), he doesn’t actually care and the only joy he derives is from besting someone to the point that they are ruined.

These characters are a morbid fascination that fill several different rolls at the same time.

They remain an outlet for the traditional power fantasy that villains often serve. You get to do evil deeds and flout the traditional system that we spend so much of our real lives being trapped in without actually being evil. The methods are questionable, but the final result is positive.

And the thing I didn’t mention in the last villains article is that we celebrate barbarism. Consider one of our recent national holidays: Columbus Day. The Oatmeal has a pretty great graphic of how Christopher Columbus actually performed genocide and, arguably, was the father of the international slave trade. And for all that we celebrate him with a federal holiday.

I’m not saying Columbus was a sociopath, though his biography reads like he may have been. I’m saying that most celebrated historical figures engaged in violence on some level to do great things. Patton. Washington. Caesar. Odysseus. Almost every founding father. There are a few MLKs here and there, but the majority are celebrated for what they did in conjunction with violence.

Now look at pop culture. All our greatest, most popular heroes are violent. Every now and then we get an Oscar-worthy film about someone accomplishing something through peaceful means. It wins a ton of awards, even though virtually no one sees it, but the most popular fare remains Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, or anyone in a cape beating good old American values into the situation.

I talk about this all the time. These stories are an affirmation of our values. The good guys almost always win because it feels wrong when someone does the right thing and still loses. Our tradition has trouble reconciling against the idea that you can work hard, be the good guy, go to church and have it all seem meaningless. As a matter of fact, I’ll even quote myself:

At the end of the day, most movies are about the affirmation of common values. These are largely Judeo-Christian ideas about the triumph of good over evil and the sacrifice of the individual for the salvation of the people. In a way, films like these  (and TV shows, books, and comics) are a religious experience. The “good guys”, who we tend to recognize as good because they believe what we believe, shouldn’t win so often. By all rights they shouldn’t even walk away from crazy without trauma from what they’ve seen. The implication is that they win because their cause it righteous and because the big guy upstairs has his pinky on the scales.

We watch movies that reflect our beliefs. And if all our action heroes use violence to employ good, what does that say about us? More importantly, if the most idolized character of 2013 is Walter White, what does THAT say about us?

Enter the Sociopath. There is a lot of stuff going on here, but at the forefront is true barbarism. Psychopathic protagonists are the purest way to use violence for goodness sake. You could even say these characters are a kind of avatar for our own fetishism towards violent causes. What’s better entertainment than absolute moral victory through absolute destruction? Like the sociopath, the audience NEEDS a story with action and ruination. We’re hungry for it.

And neither of us will stop.

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Your Dad’s Star Trek

It’s a good thing I love Star Trek because I don’t have Showtime or AMC, so I’m sitting out the conclusions of Dexter and Breaking Bad. And since I don’t watch professional sports, I am poorly equipped to talk about anything that’s popular right now.

Except Miley. I can always talk about her.

Resigned to being Twitter irrelevant, Star Trek is my fallback obsession. And boy do I love it. So much, in fact, that I have been in more than one drunken, impromptu Star Trek trivia dual.

So it’s been TNG all the time in my house and I forgot how amazing that show is. Which is a good thing because JJ Abram’s Trek marks the end of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.

And that’s ok. Nothing lasts forever, and by my count Star Trek had 28 years and 11 movies excluding the two most recent reboot films. That’s an amazing run. More than half the time Doctor Who has been on the air. And I think we are all aware that less than half of Doctor Who has been as good as Star Trek. By my record, that puts the franchise that hasn’t aired on television since 2001 ahead. It’s such a long body of work, with so many fantastic characters, that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be upset about a new vision.

Especially when you consider the market really doesn’t have a place for Star Trek as we’ve known it. What’s popular on television today? It’s all reality TV, police procedurals, gritty adult dramas and genre mashups. Is it really a surprise when we have a Star Trek that’s less interested in philosophical questions and problem solving than in having someone kick the ship’s engine until it starts moving again?

Seriously. Kirk seriously kicked an antimatter engine to get it to work. That is quintessential American grit right there. A TV trope should be named after that–if it’s not already.

Let’s think about when the last truly successful space opera was. Outside of video games, I would probably call it Battlestar Galactica in the mid 2000’s. That was a show that captured the imagination, but was almost cancelled more than once before actually being cancelled. In terms of cult popularity you could probably give it to Firefly... which had 12 episodes and a movie. But both those shows have been out of play for a while and, as I recall, Star Gate Universe was the last memorable attempt at the genre.

And none of these shows are like Star Trek. They are each and everyone darker, more ragged stories about survival. This is what I think JJ Abrams doesn’t get about Star Trek. The show isn’t just about fighting against the odds to win the day. That is a component, though classic Trek preferred to out-think a challenge rather than out-fight it. Still, while episodes vary, the themes tend to be philosophical in nature.

In the broadest definition, Star Trek has been about what we ought to do instead of what we have to do. In any given episode Star Fleet and the Federation are usually the most powerful people in the room because it’s not about beating the big bad. Notable exceptions include the Borg, The Dominion and (if you really want to reference Voyager) species 8472. But whenever that does happen, questions almost always remain about what is appropriate; where the line we won’t cross is.

Except here. Action hero Picard just wanted to kill some Borg. 

It’s almost always about understanding the situation and acting in accordance with our values. Better than our values, really. In Trek humans have generally “evolved” beyond things like greed and genocidal rage.

It’s completely different from the more popular fighting in defense of our values we often see or the do as much cool shit as possible approach to television. In that form, heroes fight as hard as possible doing whatever they can to survive in the name of standing for defending their families, standing for America or just generally protecting their way of life. In Trek it was worth the extra risk or the possibility of losing to remain true to your principals.

Trek is introspective. Outsiders like Spock or Data are constantly making the characters consider why it is they do what they do. And, now and then, they call them out on their BS. In the TNG episode Measure of a Man, Data is ordered to turn himself over to Star Fleet to have his brain disassembled in an attempt to make more of him. Oddly enough, Picard was totally fine with following those orders until Data pointed out that no human would be required to be dissected for government research.

Or the episode where Data creates f****** life in the form of another android. Artificial life creating artificial life! There are so many philosophical considerations. Can an android teach another android? Should an android teach another android? Is that the beginning of a species? Do they have rights? If we try to pull the plug, would we end up in The Matrix or Terminator?

Every Star Trek has one of these characters because the show has always been interested in exploring exactly how we understand the universe and why it is we do what we do.

And we are the better for it. In Star Trek humanity is simply better than it has ever been in real life. I’ve said before that the franchise has an overly optimistic sense of exploration. Real colonialism resulted in genocides, slave trades, horrible diseases and hundreds of years of consequences we still feel to this day. Yet the intrepid crew of the USS Enterprise goes out to explore with generally positive results.

In spite of these flaws and the entire seasons of Trek that could be thrown away, I’m willing to say that I am satisfied with what we got. I’ve come to terms with never seeing another like it in my lifetime. And you know what they say about all good things.

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Superman Doesn’t Kill

justice_league_22

Who the hell is this guy?

Last week I engaged in a Facebook melee about whether or not Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a fair representation of Superman. As someone who believes Superman would be on the slippery slope to total f***ing bonkers, I find myself not at all enjoying the dark, brooding Superman.

Honestly, it’s not that big a deal. I like Superman, but I’m not too invested in his movie franchise. So, for the most part, the fact that Zack Snyder’s vision of the Man of Steel is joyless doesn’t faze me much. Whatever sense of wonder the movie elicits is completely subdued by the dark, broody fighting and collateral damage.

And that’s fine. What I can’t get past is Superman killing, especially so soon in the new franchise. Superman doesn’t kill. Period. And instead of voicing the reasons why I feel that way on Facebook, it makes more sense to do it here.

Superman Is The First

Superman is the first superhero. Ever. That’s a huge deal. He is the originator of the comic book golden age and I believe because of that he, more than any other hero, has largely maintained his sense of innocence. While golden age comics were for kids and the audience now is quite a bit older, Superman remains the standard for iconic superheroes. Some heroes have reinvented themselves or have been retconned, but Superman remains largely the same. Some of the details have changed, but standing for justice hasn’t.

In the golden age, heroes didn’t kill. Generally speaking, villains didn’t kill either. Through the silver age and the iron age into modern comics, I’ve only found one instance where Superman purposefully took a life. Any Superman fan worth their salt might, at this moment, point at Doomsday and say “he killed that thing!” And that is true, but I’m not convinced that was his intention. Like a punch-drunk brawler, a delirious Superman was just trying to end that fight.

There have been a few accidents here and there and we’ve seen some collateral damage and reprisals, but Superman has only ever chosen to kill once. In Superman #22 he poisoned an alternate universe version of Zod and two of his lieutenants.

And it destroyed him.

Superman realized that he had become something he didn’t recognize and left Earth. He had to do all this soul searching and come to terms with what he understood was a completely wrong act. Being the first hero and an avatar for what we think of as truth, justice and the American way, he’s special. Superman is different than all other superheroes because of that history.

Which is why when he does choose to kill, as he did in Superman #22, he stops being Superman. He becomes something else.

Superman Isn’t A Villain

Sometimes people suggest that Superman or another hero should just kill their villains and save the thousands of lives that are otherwise lost by entrusting them to the criminal justice system. I’ve even argued that Batman probably should just kill the Joker. And I stand by that because I would argue it’s just as heroic for a man to sacrifice his own values to save the world as it is to sacrifice his life.

Killing is just too easy for a man that can shoot lasers at you from space. Batman doesn’t believe in guns and would have to get close in many circumstances–not to mention all the planning and critical thinking about how to take that life. Superman, meanwhile, can snuff out thousands of lives by knocking over a building. Killing shouldn’t be that easy. Justice and democratic principles have always been against one man being judge, jury and executioner.

Inviting Superman to kill without consequences (unless you call the minute of sobbing he did after de-lifing Zod a consequence) is inviting a police state through fear where criminals and potential transgressors are subdued by the thought of Superman rather than a government by the people for the people. And since Superman can see and hear everything at all times, that fear would be so much worse.

And it’s about free will. Doing good or evil is dependent upon having a choice. If I make all the right decisions because I know Superman will erase me if I don’t, it’s not really my choice. And since he can be anywhere at any moment, I wouldn’t have a reason not to be on my best behavior out of fear. Which really leads into my next point.

Super Murder Signifies Something Is Wrong

You could write entire books about who the real Superman is. Is it the original imagining by Siegel and Shuster? Is it the carefully cultivated image maintained by DC Comics? Are they all real?

supes-kills-joker

Is this Superman?

I’m not a purist, but I would argue that most movies, television shows, video games and books outside the main DC titles can be considered re-imaginings. These things are new stories told by different people based on the icon blueprint of the character’s history.

You would be hard-pressed to find a version of Superman that kills and is still Superman. The recent Injustice: Gods Among title includes a Superman that kills and is basically a despot. Clark Kent killed on Smallville, but that was to drive home the point that he wasn’t Superman yet. Cartoon Network’s Justice League included a “Justice Lord” Superman that killed President Lex Luthor… and and also became a despot. Oh, and don’t forget DC’s own Superman Prime who, in an effort to return home, sparks a space war and becomes one of DC’s most dangerous villains.

The bottom line is that when Superman kills, it always indicates there’s something wrong with his character. Which makes perfect sense because of how central to the Superman mythos not killing is. A mythos, I might add, that’s meant to do more than illicit awe for his power.

Superman Is Supposed To Inspire

The point of Superman is not just to do stuff for us. As several iterations of Lex Luthor have argued, that idea of Superman makes the rest of humanity obsolete. What would the point of any of us be if we settled for letting our resident god-like entity worry about everything on our behalf? What’s great about the Man of Steel is that he is supposed to inspire us. He is supposed to represent an ideal that we can never achieve, but constantly work at.

Glorifying killing isn’t in his character; he shouldn’t make us think having to take a life is ok. Instead he inspires us to to better. His example can save us from ourselves.

For all the junk people say about Superman Returns, this is something Bryan Singer got right.

Superman couldn’t save us all in the sense that even if he spent 24 hours a day doing super things, some of us would still have bad things happen to us. That’s the calculus of one Superman and 7,000,000 people.

No, even when Superman fails to save individual people, his example can save us from the worst parts of human nature. Given a choice between a world full of hope and a world where Superman kills, I know which one would bring out the best in me.

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The Long Con

Another GenCon Indy has come and gone. In celebration of surviving the annual pilgrimage, here are some quick tips for outlasting four or more days of pure indoor living.

Strategic Food Outcomes

By stigma and stereotype gamers, comic book fans and geek aficionados are not considered the healthiest demographic. Couple that with a nerd culture that is damn near synonymous with Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew. Now consider that thousands of people enjoying accommodations in the hospitality industry with commercial vendors and restaurants as their only food source.

What you have is a perfect storm of garbage eating. You’re going to have the strong temptation to eat whatever is delicious (because hey, it is a vacation after all!) and whatever is readily available. During this last con I had Starburst for breakfast and at least one day where I ate 1500 calories worth of pasta, pizza, breadsticks and Cherry Coke at a Fazoli’s.

This isn’t a preach about eating better or losing weight. The simple fact is that the best four days of gaming is a marathon, and you need to do whatever you can to stay energized for maximum satisfaction. Half a week of chips and candy will bring anyone to a crawl and dehydrate you. It will also carve a hole in the wallet where sweet games, comics and merchandise could go instead.

Go in with a food strategy, stay hydrated and bring snacks where possible for the best results.

Pack For Bear

Aside from the snacks and water you should already be toting, you’ll need enough space for your phone charger, spare clothes, entertainment, and all the swag you are going to buy/win and any other essentials you find necessary. That means you’ll need a pretty serious bag. And you need something you can carry around for up to 18 hours of standing and walking.

My suggestion is a backpack, which we do see a lot of at conventions. Tote bags, hand bags, fanny packs, plastic cases and pretty much everything else can be spotted at a sizable con, but a backpack is, pound for pound, the best choice you can make if you’re in it for the long haul.

You Need The Me Time

Most of us only get to go to a few conventions a year. When we go, we want to go hard. During our trip we would wake up at five or six in the morning and not get back to the hotel until midnight or later. By Saturday, members of our party were hurting for some rest. Unless you’re a vendor or someone else there to promote a brand, it’s a great idea to plan out some time to decompress.

Not to mention a great way to alleviate the aches of walking all day. Almost anyone, regardless of physical fitness level or convention veteran status is going to be feeling it after a couple days, especially if you’re following our second suggestion.

Pick a morning to sleep in or take an afternoon to play some games with friends. Read a book or listen to some music. And definitely get away get out of the artificial lights and Cheetos stank of the convention center for a while. Most conventions take place in landmark cities that deserve to be explored.

Con With Purpose

During GenCon this year there was a Dance of the Dead masquerade. It was held in the ballroom of Indianapolis’ Union Station area. While 20130819-162610.jpgdancing and mixing it up with other guests, I noticed a body sprawled on the ground next to the dance floor. For a moment I thought someone had literally died, raising the irony level considerably. That was until he refreshed the screen on his Nintendo DS and I realized he was gaming.

If you’re going to make a full trip to a convention, do it with purpose. Figure out what it is you like and find it. It may very well be that our friend lying on the dance floor was taking my advice to get a little me time, but it struck me as an odd location. And it also made me think that was time he could be spending doing something not normally available at home.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Con Alone

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Nothing sounds worse than traveling to a strange city alone for a massive convention.

I look forward to next year knowing that The Con is a marathon and I need to stop sprinting.

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Gen Con II: The Wrath of Con

In which we avoid crying cat girl, meet John’s GenCon crush and defeat the scourge of metropolitan parking.

Day One of Gen Con is always a chaos. You always forget something. Sometimes something really important. And you always struggle with Indianapolis traffic, regardless of day or time.

However, yesterday was delightful as me and TJ, and newcomers Tyler and Miranda, got our bearings at Gen Con 2013.
Per the usual, parking was a 40 minute affair. Not one, but two garages put “full” signs up only minutes after we entered. Still, we did find something for only ten dollars. Having defeated parking, we strode into Gen Con like the kings and queens of promise.

We started the Con in a line. The line, however, was much shorter than last year. I was able to pick my badge and tickets very quickly, and by the time I was done there, the others were finished in their queue.

So, we hit the exhibition hall. So much stuff to buy. And I couldn’t believe the lines. Paizo, the makers of Pathfinder, had a line around the booth, and Fantasy Flight Games and Privateer Press had some of the longest lines I had seen outside of Space Mountain and Disney World. (Hyperbole!)

After wandering about and buying things we didn’t really need, we tried our hand at learning Mage Wars. It’s an awesome combination of a board game and a card game. I really wish I could have spent more than an hour with it.

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I was also haunted by a living meme. We saw a crying girl in cat cosplay and immediately became fixated. Why are you crying, crying cat girl? From where does your suffering come and is it part of your costume? Will you still take photos with my friend or is it weird now?

And then she vanished into the throng of people.

I would also like to take this moment to begrudging compliment Indianapolis. The core of the city is a beautiful, bustling metropolis that does a great job masking the horror that is rural Indiana.

Except for the homeless girls sleeping in the church doors across the street from The Con. That hurt my soul.

 

We also got a photo of TJ with my GenCon crush, Marie-Claude Bourbonnaise. We saw her last year in full anime garb and failed to get a photo with her. NEVER FORGET.

I thought it was gonna be a whole thing where we search and search and keep missing each other and just at the end, when we are both leaving, I see her and walk up. She would look at me and I would look at her…

And I would come up with a really good lie about liking whatever cartoon she was dressed as and then she would take a photo with TJ.

But I spotted her in the first 2 hours and we got it done.

So I guess I need to ratchet up my bucket list.

We also played Magic: The Gathering and I actually won all three of my matches. My winning strategy was to take all the green cards and black cards I booster drafted and add land. And now I’m the champion (one of several) of the 5pm Beginner’s Level 2 No Elimination Tournament. No doubt I’m blowing up on Twitter (@jcal101) right now.

Today’s recommendations:

Skull Kickers by Jim Zub (@jimzub). Though freely available on the Internet in web comic format, a hard copy is worth a look with beautiful art and extras in the Image Comics hardcover version I think it’s worth the investment.

Star Trek: Attack Wing by WizKid Games. I have to qualify this by saying I haven’t actually tried this game yet, but it looks great. For fans of Star Trek that want to do miniature battle without actually having to paint them this is worth a look.

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Coming Back From The Hangover

If I said to you, “I’m going to give you $100 million to make a sequel to The Hangover.” What would you do? How would you make it? What would you want the story to be?

Bare in mind the original was the 6th highest grossing film of 2009. It remains the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time, beating out Beverly Hills Cop‘s 25-year record. It is the 3rd highest grossing R-rate film ever.

When you take the time to really consider it, it’s a ridiculous request. The Hangover was a smash success in no small part because of its novelty premise and extreme, frat-style circumstances. There have been other movies like it, but I can’t recall a single one that embraced the grittiness of the party lifestyle to such a degree. It was a little like lightning in a bottle.

Not to mention the hurdle you have to leap to make this thing profitable. The first film grossed $460 million world-wide, but when movies get big profits, they don’t all go to the studio. The numbers vary from country to country, but American producers generally pull down half or less of their films earnings while the rest goes to local theaters and entities.

As it turns out, both sequels got $100 million budgets–the new math of the film industry. This is part of the reason Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predict Hollywood will become financially unstable. While we should take it with a grain of salt, given these guys gave us the Star Wars prequels and Indiana Jones 4, there is some truth to the idea that budgets north of $100 million risk huge loses if they aren’t a blowout.

In the case of The Hangover: Part II, $460 million made the first film a critical success and while the third was a box office bomb at $350 million. I’m not really here to talk about how movies make more money than they should, like when a crappy sequel follows a modern success, tricking audiences into shelling out millions, or how ridiculous it is to give a comedy film that big a budget.

No, I’m here because I really want to talk about what happened to The Hangover franchise. If you’ve seen the sequels you know that director Todd Phillips opted to replace the inherent humor of the story with dark moral lessons.

Particularly in the third film, where more than 4 characters are killed. The movie’s format, which has situations that could have been filmed for humor, but feel much more like plot points from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Imagine this scene:

Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis’ characters walk quietly into the presidential suite from the balcony where Leslie Chow is hosting an all-night hookers and blow party. Lights strobe, making it difficult to see. Half naked women are observed in the corners of the room, wandering past marble columns, eyes glazed. Cooper holds a syringe in his right hand while Zach nervously grabs his upper arm. Black Sabbath’s N.I.B. is playing loud enough to make speech difficult. Both characters give each other an uncomfortable look before walking down a darkened hallway.

From the shadows, Ken Jeong’s Chow kicks the syringe out of Coopers hand and draws a gun. Cooper grabs his arm and slams him against the wall, causing the weapon to fire. Chips explode from the ceiling as Galifianakis ducks in fear. Cooper slams Jeong against the wall once, twice and three times to knock the gun away, but is stunned when Jeong headbutts him and runs into the shadows.

This isn’t a film-noir fan fiction I wrote. This is actually in the movie. What the hell? Cooper and Galifianakis end up chasing Chow to a casino sex dungeon full of stolen gold, scared women and cocaine.

Not funny.

Not funny.

I should probably take this moment to say I actually like The Hangover: Part Three. It’s really grown on me since I first saw it for none of the reasons that I liked the first movie. I enjoy the dark, gritty story and I’d like to think there’s a reason the director chose to make it this way.

At first I was perplexed. Gone is the idea that these characters have to piece together their shenanigans from a forgotten night. John Goodman’s Miller kidnaps Doug and says he’ll shoot him in the face if the wolf pack doesn’t bring Chow in three days. That’s quite a departure from “We need to find Doug in time for his wedding.”

With almost no consideration to The Hangover: Part Two, which I have trouble remembering, I actually think this is kind of an interesting choice. I’ve always viewed The Hangover as a kind of a frat boy turned 30-something film. It’s basically about a bunch of guys that live out a pitch perfect weekend of college-esque vacation debauchery: the modern equivalent of a questing adventure.

It is a an example of the ideal type of wild night that we envision. Things got a little dangerous, but it’s was mostly about how completely ridiculous the situations were and, for the main characters, it was fun upon retrospect.

If that first movie was a kind of avatar for the perfect out of control experience, The Hangover: Part Three feels more like a metaphor for all the bad consequences that come from partying too hard. People that do bad things with bad actors long enough find themselves trapped in a world they only want out of.

And I argue that is where the wolf pack finds themselves. This final film is a kind of hangover from their first movie. Zach Galifianakis is the character through which we finally see them let go of the crazy in exchange for a more conventional happiness. Chow’s somber farewell is a striking counter; a man who’s embraced a terminal madness for fun sake.

I can’t say that The Hangover: Part Three is a good film on its technical grounds. It falls flat whenever it goes for funny and the stories outrageous premise doesn’t fit the darker tone. In spite of all of that, it was the more interesting choice.

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Our Villainous Love Affair

Annually, we get to live in a post-San Diego Comic Con world where questions about who won the convention,whether Kaiju movies can work as a modern film and OMG HOLLYWOOD IS IMPLODING are speculated to such a minute degree and with so little information that it will all be hilariously wrong by SDCC 2014. Plus all the cosplay in the world.

One tidbit of information gleaned from this year is that Tom Hiddleston (as Loki) will not be in The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, but may find himself in other projects during phase 3. The new Thor trailer came out yesterday, and it’s becoming clear that he is still a central character to the universe.

That is a testament to the love we collectively have for the character. People enjoy Loki so much that he was featured as THE major villain in two of six phase one films with a supporting role in at least one phase 2 film and rumors of phase 3 involvement. Not a bad run.

It’s curious to me that the character is so popular because of what it says about the way we consume entertainment. We love this villain. We find him so engaging/charismatic/handsome/sexy that he’s worthy of being the reason The Avengers assemble.

Why is that?

Loki attempts genocide. If you’ve seen the new Thor: The Dark World trailer, you know Natalie Portman gives him the big slap for what he did to New York. And suddenly you realize that she is the only person acting appropriately under the circumstances, and just barely. He tried to do the same thing that made Hitler the go-to villain of the 20th century (with honorable mentions to Stalin and the cast of Batman & Robin). He kills indiscriminately for, seemingly, no reason. He wants to rule the world because his dad didn’t love him or something.

The character is a counter to everything we hold precious. In choosing a career as a loner sociopath, he implicitly says that having a job, falling in love, being part of a community and deciding that a life without violence is not good enough. His purpose is the destruction of all human society. He is, at the least, a terrorist.

And Loki is not alone. He comes from a growing stock of similarly apocalyptic villains that we glorify them for being the coolest of the cool.

So I have to ask. Why don’t we see this when we look at these characters?

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The big freak out was that people thought this glorified the persona of a terrorist, and yet we find ourselves glorifying the personas of would-be terrorists. Granted, there is an obvious difference between the two kinds of villains I’m talking about here. One is a fictional character and the other is a probable bomber. One ruined actual lives while the other helped earn $1.5 billion worldwide.

But is that all there is to it? Killing real people is a good reason to condemn Tsarnaev (or anyone), but doesn’t explain our endorsement of his fictional counterparts. And I, like most people, experience Tsarnaev and others like him indirectly. Abstractly even. We can all agree that what happened at the Boston Marathon was horrible and should never happen again, but for many of us it’s a news story, not a personal tragedy.

The victims exist in a space not too far from the mass-murdered of Darfur or the collateral damage in Afghanistan. We agree that these things are terrible, but they are distant and, to many of us, totally unreal in our everyday lives. When you don’t know the names and faces, real becomes relative.

My point here is to illustrate that the two characters aren’t so different, both being abstracted forms of evil for those of us not personally touched. Both kinds move beyond being people and represent a threat to what we hold valuable. Even accepting the difference between the two (and I do believe there are differences) why is it so easy to idolize fictional would-be murderers?

A part of it is we understand that even the most realistic movie is still farce. It’s not just an awareness that no people were harmed, but that none of what is happening in anyway matters. But is that enough to explain why fictional killers are such popular costumes?

At the end of the day, this guy is dressed like a person who’s cool for killing.

I think something else altogether is happening here. Loki and his proxies don’t register as evil in a sense we can relate to. For all his malice, Loki doesn’t actually kill many people. Coulson dies in The Avengers, but not really; we’ve been hearing rumors of his return for months. The Joker killed some people, but they were mostly other criminals and corrupt police. Rachel Dawes died, but for some reason no one cares.

Compare that to Kevin Spacey in Seven. The bright colors and choreographed fights are absent. Instead we see, in graphic detail, what the life of a murderer looks like. The gritty realism makes Spacey a little too similar to things we actually fear–to crimes we actually have to read about. We will never have to worry about an alien/Norse god trying to conquer the planet, but we have to worry about walking alone at night.

Villains that aren’t strictly evil can become sympathetic. Many of our nasty terrorist-style ne’er-do-wells have tragic back stories and secret pains that explain why they do what they do. Loki does.

Sympathetic villains are easy to turn into fantasy. As an audience, we have the luxury of putting ourselves in the shoes of both the hero and the antagonist. Loki and his like represent a life free of being told what to wear, where to go, how much money electricity costs, what we ought to look like, who we should love and a million other things that mark the boundaries of a social world. These larger-than-life villains can make us feel free without having to feel evil.

A friend of mine says it’s a power fantasy. Taking a human life is the ultimate power. That rings true, but also gets at the core of my question: why is that a fantasy worth having? We could cosplay as doctors that cure diseases or solve water scarcity, but we don’t. We don’t because the fantasy is about the cool we derive from violently achieving ends. That’s why, for every random guy dressed like Thanos you see at a convention, there will be twenty dudes dressed like Loki.

We love the flirtation with being out of control without actually being evil.

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