Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Some Thoughts On Military History

I was thinking recently about how things have changed for nations over the course of military history, and what was required of them to fight and win wars.

In the days of ancient military history, wars often came down to a single climatic battle or a small series of such battles. While generals had their roles on the battlefield and in planning the fight, the winner was often determined by the training and courage of its soldiers. Casualties in those days were generally limited to the front lines. Once these lines were smashed the others would turn and run. The side that held out longer was usually the victor.

In the time of Rome war became one of campaigns. Multiple battles across wide territories decided the war. Generals and their strategies were the deciding factor. Consider the Punic Wars and Hannibal's march through Spain and across the Alps into Italy. Or his opponents brilliant strategy of avoiding combat until Hannibal's army died on the vine.

Then in the Feudal era war became a contest of money. Which king owned the most land, could raise the most levies, keep them in the field the longest or build the most castles. In the Industrial era war was won by production. Which side had the most railways. Could manufacturer the most rifles, ships, or planes. The American civil war, World War I and II were all ultimately decided by production, logistics and economic output.

These things of course all build upon the other. Factories won't run and goods won't flow without money. All the money and equipment in the world won't matter if you don't have capable commanders controlling them and good men using them.

But I think now, in the modern age, war is not decided by any of these things. War is now decided by people and their will to fight.

Take the United States for example. Right now the United States owns as many aircraft carriers as the rest of the world combined. They are economically and technologically the leading power on the planet. There is nothing, economically or military speaking, stopping them from conquering all of Central America and the Caribbean. Even if the other nations of the world streamed their combined navies against the United States, there would be no clear winner to that fight. The other nations could try and embargo the United States and move away from the dollar as the standard, but they'd be causing significant harm to their own economies in the process.

The only major roadblock to an American Empire, is the American people. They simply wouldn't allow it. Even given a call to action, a Pearl Harbor or 9/11, is no guarantee. How long until they decide that casualties are too high, that the cost isn't worth it? The Unites States has some 5,000 people on board a single aircraft carrier. If one were to be sunk with a total loss of personnel it would be equivalent to the casualties sustained during nine years of fighting in Iraq.

Compare that to the people of Iraq or Afghanistan who continue to fight long after their governments and military have surrendered, after their economic and industrial capabilities have been destroyed or removed. They fight against an economically, technologically, industrially and militarily superior foe out of sheer will. Whether or not they are "winning" that war is debatable, but it shows no matter what side you are considering, it all comes down to the people's will to fight or not.

The day in which a nation can rely on their propaganda, or a public determined to dig in and fight to the last breath is over. People no longer hold onto the purely racial or nationalistic motives to fight. A nation can't simply paint their adversary as being a rape thirsting barbarian without some kind of evidence to back it up. The inter connected nature of the world's communication simply won't allow for painting the enemy as some sick "other" that must be slain for the good of all mankind.

As the nation moves toward bigger, better and more sophisticated weaponry, toward making sure we can fight large conventional armies and insurgents alike, perhaps we should look toward our own people. What good are the world's best weapons, if no one is willing to use them?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bioshock Infinite Review

The Lighthouse

     Bioshock Infinite is a wonderful, beautiful, finely crafted masterpiece of a game. That may come across as hyperbole, but it isn't. The bottom line is that Bioshock Infinite raises the bar for what games can be. It shows that the medium can be more than mindless, bland shooters that look and feel nearly identical to one another. Everything about this game raises it above the pack. Its world building and artistic design are miles ahead of what anyone else is doing in the genre. Its sound design and music go beyond simple ambiance to reinforce the narrative, cement the player in the world and most importantly, is so damn good as to stand on it's own. And the story is a touching journey of a broken man perfectly wrapped together in themes of religion, patriotism, obligation, and the limits of reality.

    Everything about this world pops. The introduction to the floating city of Columbia, the games setting, takes place during a fair. We are exposed to this society during one of it's most colorful and joyous occasions, while its darker prejudices are swept away in the shadows. Posters and displays perfectly echo the time period as simple carnival games not only endear us to the town and its people, but serve as a brilliant tutorial that is both hidden and optional. The game's operators call to the player to test their skills and destroy the wooden representations of the evil Vox Populi as an a cappella group sings from a floating barge. Simply walking around in the world made me feel like a kid in an amusement park. I am not the kind of person that smiles easily, but walking around in this wonderful land of early Americana gave me no choice in the matter. I couldn't help but stop and look around at the shop displays, posters and fine detail that marks ever corner of this world. The full realization of this game's world building serves not only as an example to every other developer out there, but creators in any medium.

    The themes goes beyond simple window dressing, they permeate every fabric of the society, from the songs of playing children, to a store run on the honor system in a religiously motivated society. On the surface is a world of affluent, god fearing whites of proper heritage. Underneath is a land of segregated bathrooms, servants and Irish factory workers. One of the most memorable moments for me was walking through the squalor of the under city. I stopped and listened as a poor black woman sat on a stage used for prisoner stocks. She sat on the edge and bellowed out a beautiful and haunting version of CCR's Fortunate Son that is bound to stick with me for quite some time. The slight touches of futuristic technology and tears in the fabric of space time create wonders that leave the player breathless, such as mechanical horses, a robotic chaingun wielding George Washington and Cyndi Lauper's girls just wanna have fun being pumped through an old gramophone. Every part of this game leaves and impression on the player, from  the stark contrast between the bathrooms of whites and blacks, to the sounds of Chopin warped through loud speakers of the oppressed workers of Fink Industries.

Bring Us The Girl and Wipe Away The Debt

    The original Bioshock was known for its incredible story of a man washed up on a lighthouse, sent below the waves to a magical city under the city that had been ravaged in a civil war by the very people who built it. In the original the player was a voiceless puppet, proceeding through the game at the behest of Atlas with no voice of their own. Bishock Infinite bucks the trend of the silent protagonist in casting the player in the shoes of Booker DeWitt. A washed up veteran who's seen better days. The mission to wipe away his debt takes him to a lighthouse where the atheist is launched into the clouds. Instead of finding God, he finds himself surrounded by the religious iconography of a madman and is branded with the label of false prophet. While the city's propaganda proclaims itself a paradise in the sky, Booker sees clear signs of racism that was all too recently an everyday occurrence in America. While the town's people speak of an economic land of plenty, Booker witnesses the starving poor and workers at Fink's Industries forced to bid in an auction for jobs, not for how much they will do the job for, but in how fast they can do it.

    Having Booker DeWitt as an actual character, as opposed to a silent protagonist allows for a commentary on the events, as opposed to the player quietly moving between each vignette. Booker feels like a real character in a real situation, as opposed to a floating camera along for the ride. While the game does offer limited choice, in having the main character be an actual person it leads to a great consistency in their actions and stronger impact on the narrative. I saw this while playing Sleeping Dogs as well, and hope it catches on.

Damsel in Distress

    The game's narrative revolves around Booker rescuing a girl locked away in a tower, and bringing her back to his client in New York. The idea of a game long escort mission left me with a sense of dread, but I'm glad to report that Bioshock handles this quite well.

    When you first meet Elizabeth, your head is swirling from all the things you observed in Columbia so far and the rumors of the "lamb" and her place in society. Instead of finding some defenseless fairy tell princess, you find an actual person with her own desires and personality.  Irrational made a very smart decision in never forcing you to protect her. Elizabeth is immune in combat, can never be hurt and actively aids the player. Both in bringing in allies and supplies through "tears" and in throwing Booker ammo and other supplies in combat. Through the story Elizabeth is elevated from a simple errand to a partner, and eventually into an individual agent with goals and desires that separates her from and in some ways conflicts with Booker's.

    Most importantly, she's a real person. A fully realized character that the player feels increasingly attached to during the adventure. She serves not only as a model for a strong female in games, but as a wonderful supporting character that is every bit the hero in her own right, as opposed to be constantly downgraded to the level of sidekick for the player's enjoyment.

More To Life Than Carrying A Gun

    What's most telling to me about Bioshock Infinite is we're at the end of the review I haven't even brought up the shooting, Infinite's primary combat feature. The shooting, whether with guns or vigors is fun, and tighter than in the original Bioshock. But really, it's the least interesting part of the game. And really, how often do we say that? Normally the combat is just the biggest selling point, it's the only selling point. The music, the art direction, plot and world building are all secondary. A coat of paint to make the core experience more compelling.

    This is what makes Bioshock Infinite more than a good game, more than a great game. Every aspect is of the highest caliber. No one part stands above the rest. In most games the combat and graphics may be great, but the music and plot lacking. Or the parts may be really good individually, but disjointed. Bishock Infinite not only maintains the highest quality in its components, but weaves them together masterfully into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is not only one of my favorite games in the past year, it is one of my favorites for this generation. My only regret was this I didn't get to spend more time in its world, more time exploring Columbia and its people. This is one game I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel too.

    If you decide to pick up this game, and you should, take your time with it. Walks around and smell the roses. Read the posters and listen to the town folk's dialogue. Rushing past it would cause you to miss one of the finest crafted world's in all of gaming.

I played Bioshock Infinite on a PS3.

I'd like to make a special thanks to my Brother, who got me Infinite for my birthday.

You can follow me on twitter: @MadnessSerenade

Or leave a comment below.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sleeping Dogs Review

Troubled Past

    Sleeping Dogs, released in August of 2012 began its life as the third game in the True Crime series. For those who don't remember, True Crime was a Grand Theft Auto clone released in the last generation with the twist that you played a cop as opposed to a low life criminal. From what I recall True Crime: Streets of L.A. (the first in the series) was decent, but mostly forgettable. The sequel, set in New York did poorly, and left the franchise in much need of a reboot. This was supposed to be True Crime: Hong Kong. The project was canceled by Activision - Blizzard in 2011 only to be saved by Square Enix who swooped and renamed it Sleeping Dogs.

Just Another Clone?

    The True Crime series was blatant rip off of the GTA open world style adding the gimmick of being a cop to attempt to give some semblance of difference. But that was way back in 2003, now the open world style has progressed beyond the standard GTA clone into a genre of its own with games like Saints Row on one side and Infamous or Prototype on the other.

    Open world games have become pretty popular, offering the player the chance to explore freely and the promise of a large experience with lots of hours of content. With so many games in this space, including the Mafia series and games like L.A. Noire, one has to worry about more than the comparisons to GTA. They have to carve out their own space in an increasingly crowded genre.

A World Away

    This is what makes the decision to base the world in Hong Kong so smart. The open world genre, and most of gaming for that matter is full of western influences. Modern games take place in New York or L.A. Fantasy games are set in European medieval worlds. Even futuristic sci-fi shooters show strong western influence. In the rare case a game is set somewhere else, such as the middle east in military shooters, it's done from the view point of westerners. Setting the game in Hong Kong gives us the chance to see something fresh. A rich culture too rarely explored, and customs different than many westerns are used to. Not to mention the kick I got as an American driving on the wrong side of the road.

    In a lot of ways the game straddles these two world of east and west, having a main character that was born and raised in Hong Kong but lived for a long time in the states. The setting of Hong Kong also gives a strong excuse for the amount of English in the game due to its history of occupation and foreign influence. While the story they chose to go with could have easily been set in another setting with the changing of a few names, I really enjoyed the bold decision of setting the game far away from more conventional choices. It helped give the game an identity that former titles in the series lacked.


    Any one who's played an open world game in the style of GTA will be right at home with Sleeping Dogs. Missions are given through beacons identified on the map and often revolve around driving and combat. Side missions litter the island in the standard side quest/racing/relation ships format with lots of collectables to find along the way.

    Missions are split into to two general categories, with one half advancing Detective Shen's cover with the triad, and the other has Shen helping fellow Officer Teng close cases. During each mission actions cause Shen to gain triad points for rough actions and lose police points for damaging property or hurting innocent bystanders. These points, translated into XP allow Shen to level up and unlock various abilities and perks. The also add in a free running element and the ability to "action hijack" that is hijack a one vehicle from another, but most of this is pretty normal fair.

Don't Hate The Player (or the part where I tell you what I liked)

    So is it good? Yes, to put it simply. But it's not great.

    It took me a while to get drawn into Sleeping Dog's story. While its story hasn't been explored to a great extinct in games, it's well traveled terrain in other mediums. Shen returns to his old neighborhood as an undercover cop to take down the triad. An old friend named Jackie is the stand in wanna-be thug that serves as your entrance into the criminal scene. From the opening moments you see exactly where this story is going. While it tries to throw a few surprises in the mix, they all come across as expected for anyone who's seen one of the many variants of this story before.

    That's okay though. While the plot is predictable and the dialogue often weak, strong voice acting and well developed characters managed to pull me in. Soft handed touches like Shen's paranoia becoming evident in his reports, or the echos from dead friends and foes as he sleeps give depth in what would otherwise be a shallow pond. What begins as a simple gang pissing contest grows into a political game of chicken amongst the leaders of the triad thus side stepping the loss of interest that comes with many of GTA's story lines that focus entirely on a mostly pointless rise to the top.

    Casting the player in the roll of an undercover cop also gives great justification for all those side missions that pop up. In most open world games, and seemingly every GTA, a player needs money or has to impress someone or there is some other flimsy excuse given to have the player learn to race. This serves as the introduction to the mission type and opens up the side missions for the player. While tasking our undercover detective with racing in an effort to learn more about illegal racing rings is just as flimsy, it at least makes sense with the character and story being told.

    Through the story enemies becomes friends and friends enemies, but strong personalities from the characters help the choices they make feel real, and help the player connect to the world they are trying to infiltrate. Detective Shen finds himself drawn into the struggles of the people he's trying to undermine, and you as player find yourself caring right along with him.

    This is added to by the developer crafting a single story through the game. Unlike a lot of recent titles that arbitrarily force you to choose between two paths (see Far Cry 3) Sleeping Dogs has a single narrative throughout (with a fantastic use of the bookend trope). There is limited player choice in some scenes, but overall the player is directed through a single story. This allows for a stronger central character and a satisfying conclusion to their journey, as opposed to diluting the waters across two streams.

    The voice acting is great, bringing in well known actors including Emma Stone, Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson and Kelly Hu. Will Yun Lee does a great job in the leading roll as Shen as does Edison Chen, who plays Jackie, the childhood friend.

    The game won't blow any one away graphically, thanks in large part to an old console generation. The tired textures are saved by good design and use of lighting. The slums of Hong Kong tower above the player, and your clothes actually look wet when it's raining in addition to  puddles forming on the streets.

    Tiny things add to the experience. Allowing you to walk or drive while reading the reports on your phone or kick starting a motorcycle help the world feel alive. Hell, when getting a car from the parking garage the attendant puts away his newspaper before addressing you.These simple, but subtle touches bring the world alive in a way that shiny graphics never could.

Hate the Game (The part where I nag about the things I didn't)

    But as I said, the game isn't great. And while it's many of the games smaller touches that help elevate it from being just another clone, it's also the little things that drag it down from Mount Olympus into the lands of mortals.

    While the combat is fun throughout the game, featuring a mostly hand to hand system very similar to the Batman Arkham games or Assassin's Creed, it lacks those game's polish. Especially Batman's. The game attempts to go for the same camera and sounds tricks that the Arkham games employ to add a visceral feeling to the combat, but slightly miss the mark. They achieve the martial arts action movie feeling they're going for, but slight latencies in attacks and misfired combos left me wondering if it was me, my controller, or the game causing me to take an enemy's punch. I never had that problem with the Bat.

    Gunplay is loose, which is not uncommon for the genre, but could have been tighter. Having the two combat systems also causes the problem of areas being separated into binary sections of hand to hand combat and gunplay. I would have loved for there to be a system that incorporated the two elements together, though I admit I don't know how they would have done this.

    Free running is nice, but again is generally limited to pre defined paths and for some reason won't allow you to climb up ramps, forcing you to find their front (especially troubling when swimming.)

    Also, you have a phone and there are cabs in the game that allow fast travel, but no way to call cabs. True, you get the ability later in the game to have a valet deliver a car to you anywhere in the city, but it still baffles me how they left out the option of calling a cab when both elements are in the game.

    The mini-games. My god the mini-games. This game has all of them. Hacking? It's in there. Lock picking? Yep, has that too. How about a combination lock game, karaoke, planting bugs and triangulating phone calls? All in there. That's what, six mini games? Often thrown at you for little reason and with zero explanation out side of the prompts given to you at the time. Don't worry though, cause they are all mind numbingly, tediously easy. Hacking is a simple game with one optimal solution that anyone should be able to realize with a little logic. The combination locks tell you their combination simply by turning a dial. The others follow in similar ways making them more of a chore than an enjoyment. Oh, and there's poker. I forgot about poker. And drug busts, where you point a camera at a high lighted enemy and press a button. Way too many mini-games.

    And quick time events. This game loves quick time events. And for the life of me I can't figure out why, because there is no challenge to them. Zero. Some take place in combat, and these actually work well. If a fat guy grabs you from behind you can press X (the attack button) to kick people in front of you or Y (the counter button) to escape. These work well as they mirror their same actions in combat. Though for some reason B (grapple) allows you to roll out of the way when the fat guy is trying to stomp your face.

    What makes less sense is when you jump from one car to another and have to suddenly press Y to "recover," that is, to prevent your dumbass from falling off the moving vehicle. These happen randomly but a simple press of the Y button causes you to hang on. You're given ample time for this so there's never any danger. Why have it in the game at all? Or the "smooth talking." At certain points in a mission Shen is tasked with persuading his way past a guard or other human shaped obstacle. Once again all the player has to do it wait until the button prompt appears on screen and press it. No effort required. During the game I died in combat, I lost races and failed missions. Never, not once in the whole game, did I fall off a car or fail a "smooth talking" segment. Come to think of it, I don't even know if you actually fall off the car when failing to press Y, as it never happened. All they end up doing is padding the run time of the game, and highlighting how shallow the gameplay can be.

    Face Meter. The game has it. It's a meter that fills up in combat for doing combos and not getting hit. When it fills all the way some enemies back away in fear from you. And that's pretty much it. You can unlock some abilities for it by doing side quests that earn you face points, but the whole thing is pretty pointless. It feels tacked on, as if the developers put it in there because they thought they had too. A simple addition of special abilities or being invincible for a short time would have helped justify it's existence.

    Which brings me to the points. At first the points make sense. The character, Detective Shen, is divided between trying to be true to the law and being a legitimate criminal to avoid the suspicions of those he seeks to stop. Beat the crap out of people or damage things and the bad guys like you. Hurt innocents and the cops don't. Simple, logical, fine.

    Problem is it breaks down pretty damn fast. It has zero implication on the narrative and only serves to unlock certain abilities. The triad meter or points have to be earned, while Shen starts a mission with a full cop meter and points that can only be lost, rarely challenging the player and often penalizing him. These games use random engines for things like pedestrians, often putting the player in situations where innocents will get run over, and penalizing the player for no reason. Speaking of killing people, damaging a street sign will cost you five points. Kill an innocent person? Fifteen. You could kill a half dozen innocent people and still get cop points for the mission. You can also get penalized cop points for "clumsiness" which happens you mess up a jump while free running. I would love for someone to explain to me how that makes any sense. The whole system was in need of a major reworking. It's my guess that it was left in as a hold over from the True crime series and justify the unlocking of abilities. I would highly suggest they go back to the drawing board for this mechanic in a sequel.


    The game also has collectables. Probably because having an open world game without collectables is against the gaming Geneva Conventions or something. Health shrines scattered about the world serve as nice scenery and activating five of them give the player a health boost. Lockboxes are the main collectable and have money, clothing and occasionally weapons inside. Most are also guarded by gangsters, which are fun to beat up.

    My favorite however are the Jade Statues. Shen finds these throughout the game and can return them to his old martial arts instructor, who will then teach him moves and combos. Each time the player delivers a statue they are rewarded with a short conversation between Shen and his former Master. I really enjoyed these, and felt they added to Shen's character.

    To me, the collectables seem to sum up everything that works well and poorly within the game. The health shrines are a smart use of an old convention. Tasking the player with finding them but also providing an actual gameplay benefit with a good aesthetic bonus. The lock boxes are standard fare with a pointless mini-game and covered with a few bad guys to give the appearance of depth. And then we have the Jade Statues, again something that reinforces the game's aesthetic,  but also one that adds to the narrative and reinforces the game central theme of being torn between worlds, both in the complexities of the past, the opportunities of the future, and the tough choices of the present.


    Sleeping Dogs wasn't a blip on my radar. I had zero interest in this game when I saw the trailers for it. I only picked it up based on the positive buzz of those that had played it. While it isn't a great, triple A title, it is a solid second tier game. If you see it on a steam sale or in the bargain bin for twenty bucks, you will defiantly get your money's worth, but I have reservations at recommending it at the full sixty buck price tag. I enjoyed the game a lot, more for its soul and what it's trying to do than for what it actually did and can't wait to see what they do with a sequel.

I played Sleeping Dogs on PC using a controller.

You can follow me on Twitter: @MadnessSerenade

Or leave a comment below.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Character Study: Wesley Wyndam-Price

Over the past couple of months I've been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer all the way through, and re-watching its spinoff, Angel. This re-introduced me to one of my favorite characters, Wesley Wyndam-Price. Wesley has a wonderful arc across his time on both shows, not only developing and evolving but somehow also managing to stay true to himself.

Significant spoilers for both shows are coming. You've been warned.

We first meet Wesley, played by Alexis Denisof, in season three of Buffy. After Rupert Giles is deposed as Watcher (read: mentor) to slayers Buffy and Faith, Wesley is sent by the Watcher's Council as replacement. In those early days he serves a foil for Giles. Where Giles is often stuffy and forced into the roll of restraint and experience, Wesley is new, but very arrogant. As head boy he exhibits every preppy, academic nancy boy trait to the maximum. Giles is often reserved and shy, Wesley thrusts himself in to the forefront, only to gloriously fail out of clumsiness or inexperience. In Wesley we are introduced to a smart, but insecure fellow who is constantly trying to prove himself.

Over the course of his arc, Wesley will make many mistakes, but almost always from trying to do the right thing. First we see him struggling to assert his position of superiority over Buffy and Faith, neither whom have any notion of falling in line with anyone, let alone a nerdy pretty boy from across the pond. Wesley comes into the situation seeing that Giles has given Buffy to much leeway, and he's not wrong in that assessment, but over compensates. Buffy ignores him in favor of her old teacher, and Faith goes inevitably rouge. Faced with losing control of a super powered teenager, Wesley conspires with the Watcher's Council to abduct and reform Faith. This goes less than smoothly.

We next find Wesley in the Buffy spin-off Angel. After his numerous failures in Sunnydale, Wesley was fired from the Watcher's Council and drifted to L.A. to become a 'rouge demon hunter.' He wears a leather coat, carries weapons and tries again and again to be a bad ass, only to fail miserably. After yet more miss steps he joins Angel in his detective agency, serving as resident occult expert and the brains of the early group.

This is where most shows would have left him. In the office with his books and manuscripts, serving as a nice vehicle for exposition when the plot demanded it. But the writers of Angel decided to push the character farther, putting him in situation after situation just to see how he'd act. We soon see his loyalties pitted against each other when the Watcher's Council offers Wesley full reinstatement if he will only betray Angel and allow them to recover the wayward slayer, Faith. Wesley refuses, turning his back on his past and stepping out into a new future, one about helping people rather the accolades of the Council or his father.

Soon after we see Wesley sliding into a position of leadership at Angel investigations. His old clumsy ways recede as his natural leadership abilities and overall competence takes center stage. His countless scrapes with demons and Watcher's training mold him into a capable fighter. Friends with their own issues help him break out of his shell and become more confident. We see the character truly growing.

Again, this is where many shows would have left him. A valid arc of growth, from the bumbling British rich boy, arrogant and inexperienced, to a true instrument in the fight against evil. Then comes one of Wesley's most defining moments. When a prophecy declares that Angel will kill his son, Wesley does everything he can to disprove and discredit it, but sees time and again that it must be true. With no other options he enlists that aid of Angel's enemy, Holtz, not to betray or hurt Angel, but to protect his son. Once more Wesley's best intentions end in tragedy. Holtz (not surprisingly) betrays Wesley, has his lackey slit Wesley's throat and runs off with the kid.

Wesley is expelled from the group of heroes. After recovering from his injuries, Wesley strikes out on his own. He becomes a true Demon Hunter instead of merely fancying himself one. He even puts a loose crew together, often taking care of jobs that Angel's group missed, and working with them, albeit reluctantly, several times. It serves as a particularly interesting conflict because both Wesley and his former friends at Angel Investigations have equal reason to feel betrayed and wronged by the other party.

During this period we also see Wesley's relationship develop with the evil lawyer, Lilah. What starts out as an affair of self loathing and comfort develops into genuine affection as Wesley's pure heart can't help but grow attached. It is in this moment that we realize how far Wesley's come. From insecure comedic relief, to a tortured and troubled soul. One that has been darkened by multiple conflicts and twisted by his constant attempts at doing the right thing turning to ash in his hands. This isn't helped when Lilah is fed upon by Angel, now once again Angelus (long story,) and Wesley is forced to chop of her head to prevent her from potentially becoming a vampire.

Eventually Wesley rejoins Angel and his group, albeit as a completely different person. The boyish naivete is long gone, replaced by a collapsible sword wielding badass with little light to hold onto after chopping off his girlfriend's head and his true love, Fred, still dating Gunn.

Time goes on and in the final season of Angel we see the team taking over the evil law firm, Wolfram & Hart. Wesley fights against the places corruption along with the rest of the team, but almost seems more comfortable there, maybe because of his flirtations with the dark side, or his relationship with Lilah. The idea of boyhood, insecure Wesley is permanently put to rest when Wesley's Father comes to visit. Wesley is reverted to his clumsy, weak self and unable to adequately preform in front of his Father, even accidentally activating a bomb (or so he thinks.) His father betrays him, leading to one of my favorite scenes in the entirety of the show.

Wesley and his Father have a stand off on the roof. They argue and vent built up rage at one another. Wesley's Father demands his son to hand over a powerful artifact that could be used to mind control Angel, and Wesley refuses. In a desperate move, his Father attempts to take Fred, Wesley's long love, hostage. He never gets the chance. The second he moves toward her Wesley opens fire, gunning down his Father without a second thought. It turns out to actually be a robot, but Wesley had no idea of that when he shot him. (Again, long story.) This cements Wesley's rise as a truly remarkable individual and forever severs his ties with his past.

At the end of the show, Wesley and Fred finally admit their love for one another, only for Fred to get a serious infection and quite literally be destroyed from the inside out. She dies a very painful death in Wesley's arms, only for a powerful demon to walk around in her body. (And you thought the robot thing was weird.) Wesley is forced to not only see a constant reminder of his one true love, but also to deal with her killer. How does he react, what does he do? This man who had been through so much, who had his throat slit and several of his dear friends die? The man who started out as a pompous book worm, turned want-to-be demon hunter, turned actual demon hunter?

He helps her. He helps the demon after she has lost everything, after her kingdom has been turned to dust. He helps her find her way in a world that confuses and frightens her. Does he do this out of some desire to see Fred again? No. He is told point blank that her soul is gone. And when the demon adopts Fred's appearance, Wesley challenges her for the first time, warning her to never do it again.

So why? Why does he help the twisted evil thing that burned the love of his life from the inside out?

Because it's the right thing to do.

This a quote from the episode "Lineage."

Wesley: "The perception is that I'm weak. That's why they went for me."

Angel: "They're wrong. You do what you have to do to protect the people around you. To do what is right, no matter the cost. You know, I never really understood that. You're the guy who makes all the hard decisions, even if you have to make 'em alone."

Doing what's right, no matter the cost. Alone.

That is Wesley Wyndam-Price. From Head Boy, to Watcher, to Rouge Demon Hunter.

He was a character who fought the good fight, when he had nothing to show for it, when it cost him everything. Various jobs, his friends, even the love of his life. For no other reason, than because it was right.

I hope you enjoyed this article.

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Characters, Dialogue and a House of Cards

Today we're going to talk about a new show on Netflix called House of Cards. The political drama starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara was originally a book and then a British miniseries. Now its America's turn, and if you haven't already watched it, do so. But don't worry, this won't contain any spoilers (I haven't finished the show myself) Instead I wanted to break the show down and look at what makes it so good in the first place.

For those not in the know I'll quickly sum up the show by saying it's a political drama about a man who gets betrayed and decides to get his revenge. I resonantly described it a friend as Game of Thrones without the fantasy if Lex Luthor was the main character. That doesn't quite do it justice, but it conveys the notion that this is a show about bad people, clawing and biting at each other to get ahead. One of the things I love most about the show is that they''re all so damn good at it.

The show's writing is outstanding, the directing and cinematography superb and the acting top notch throughout. But the thing that really ties this show together isn't the wonderful performances or the whip smart dialogue, with every line polished to near perfection, it's the characters. Every character in House of Cards is a multifaceted bag of strengths and weaknesses constantly churning against each other, struggling within each of the characters for dominance. This not only adds tension in their own lives but serves as constant reminder of how fragile their high stakes game truly is.

Take the main character for instance, Francis Underwood. Francis helped the President get elected on a promise that he would be the next Secretary of State, and as the show demonstrates again and again, promises in the world of Washington politics is everything. People are only as good as their word. How else could you sort through all the flattery and lies? However when the day comes, the White House goes with someone else, completely breaking its promise. To further tear open the wound they even steal Underwood's chosen slogan without giving him an ounce of credit.

In hindsight, not a very smart thing to do to a man like Francis Underwood. A man who seems to live only for power and the games that bring it. Francis spends his time building connections, forging tools and setting up favors to be called upon in an hour of need. His whole life is geared toward achieving ever more power for no reason other than he likes it, even going so far as to use his wife as simply another extension of himself, another tool to be used.

This is Francis' greatest strength and in many ways, his most crippling weakness. Though he's accustomed to pulling off miracles, all his mistakes can be attributed in one way or another to his own hubris. Over extending, pushing allies to far until they inevitably become enemies. Even his beloved wife, so accustomed to the game, chafes under his constant needs and the blow back from his adversaries.

Speaking of his wife, what a fascinating character she is. Claire Underwood, played by the stunning Robin Wright is a mess of tangled contradictions. She runs a growing charity to help people, yet has no problem with discarding her workers, crushing their lives when they serve no more use to her. In the early episodes she takes a trusted friend, one she's worked with for years and makes her fire half the staff. After a day of dealing with crying, angry and betrayed people, what is this loyal worker's reward? She too is fired. Claire, like her husband constantly manipulates those around her to get more, seeming to consider them only as resources to be mined until the vein is tapped. However, unlike Francis, who seems to come more alive with every battle, who thrives on the smell of blood in the air, Claire seems to be slowly dragged down by it, to question the choices she's made.

The relationship between her and her husband is also far from simple. They genuinely seem to love and care for each other. What at first appears to be a marriage of mutual benefit, a cold calculation of strengths gained gives way to show a marriage of two people who not only care for one another, but know every facet of the other person. They understand one another's strengths and weaknesses completely, a total knowing of the other person that serves to only cement their bond. Early in the show one gets the impression that either maybe cheating on the other, and this turns out to be true. But instead of exposing a twisted web of lies and deceit, we see that this too is known. After spending the night with another woman, Francis returns home and tells his wife exactly who it was with. Claire's only concern is how much they, as a couple, gain from the arrangement. Just another tool, another connection in a web of lies and intrigue.

The list goes on. Kate Mara's character, Zoe Barns, fights to be a prominent, respected journalist but gets her big scoops by her affair with Francis. But like so many other things in this show, it goes beyond that. Francis and Zoe seem to love their cat and mouse game more than the work benefits they gain from one another, and Zoe herself is less the naive younger woman being taken advantage of, and more a serious player in her own right. One that could pose a serious threat to Francis.

There's Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly. He acts as Francis' right hand man setting up meetings and taking care of the dirty jobs that Francis can't be tied to. In the beginning I got the impression that he was there for many of the same reasons as Francis, for his own success. But later on we see several other sides to him, sides that show this is not a cartoon henchmen blindly serving the interest of his master, but someone with his own twisted world view of right and wrong.

Peter Russo, played by Corey Stoll. A weak man plagued by self doubt, weakness and addiction. A fly that the gets caught up in Francis' wicked web. First smacked around, used and discarded, then forced to break a promise to his home town. The promise not only crushes his supporters back home, it destroys Peter himself. Then when it seems Peter will spiral out of control, Francis swoops back in to build him up. Not because he cares, but because Peter could prove useful down the road.

House of Cards is delicious mix of evil, competence, and boardroom drama that tickles all the right parts of the brain. The characters, so well built and fleshed out serve to remind us that life is more than simple good and evil, and that one's hands are never clean. All this work into the characters is constantly reinforced by the brilliant lines of dialogue and beautiful directing, many parts of a complicated whole that brings the entire enterprise to live.

Much like the characters themselves.

You can watch House of Cards on Netflix.

And you can follow me on Twitter.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Rant: More Accessable Vs Losing Your Core

This is a Rant. It will be less organized and more stream of thought than my other posts. You've been warned.

Over the past say ten years or so there's been a large argument in the video game world between the "hardcore" and the "casual," "dumbing down" and "accessibility."

On one side you have gamers who rightly or wrongly feel that they are being ignored by the developers, that in an interest for ever more money and higher profit margins they have been forsaken for the brain dead masses. On the other you have companies that quite frankly are trying to survive in a tough economy, stagnant gaming cycle and astronomical development cost. Now some of those cost are their own fault, but that's a rant for another day.

I've seen a lot of these arguments, both from friends and from game journalist and I think there's a lot to be said for both camps, but what really pisses me off, and the bases for this rant is when companies simply mistake what making a game more accessible means, and fundamentally alter their games to meet some unknown common denominator.

There were two games I played this past year that really brought that to bare. Splinter Cell: Conviction and Hitman: Absolution. I want to say right off the bat that I liked both these games. While neither is perfect, I think they were both solid, fun, enjoyable experiences. (At least for Hitman it has been so far, haven't gotten all the way through it yet.)

Both of these games task the player with sneaking around environments and stealthily taking out bad guys.  Both come from beloved and long standing franchises. Both have always been middle of the pack popularity wise. Almost everyone knows of them, has played at least one in the series. But I can't ever recall a time when they sold hand over a fist or topped game of the year list. They're part of the B-list of gamedom, and that's okay.

But the companies need money, either to survive or please their shareholders. They want a bigger audience and to do that they have to round some of the sharp corners on their product. I get that. I'm okay with that. I think every gamer, no matter how hardcore they think they are, has put in a game, played for five minutes and then gave up because things were too confusing or the menus too dense.

This mostly happens to me in strategy games. I love me some strategy but I hate the long tutorials. Having played games since I was a toddler I can generally load up a game and figure it out as I go. But sometimes I see menu after menu and a hundred icons and all I want to do is buy some soldiers and fight somebody. I give up and move on to something else.

I understand why even though a game like Hitman or Halo or Skyrim may be second nature to me and an undecipherable mess to someone else. And I get why a company would want people to be able to get into their game, even without the money problem. Creators like people to see their stuff, shocking I know, but it's true.

Back to Hitman and Splinter Cell.

The older games in these series featured big open levels, especially the Hitman games. They were all about exploration, non-linear problem solving and experimentation. I have deeply loved that series since I first played Hitman 2. The amount of freedom it offered in finding clever ways to take out an enemy without being noticed or gunning everyone down. It was a unique experience I couldn't get anywhere else.

The first three game were never big on story, which is a shame, but they largely fixed that with Blood Money, the fourth entry in the series. Blood Money featured even bigger, more open environments with options upon options for play. The game could be hard, but you really felt a sense of tension and satisfaction from sneaking your way through its levels. They were even able to tie in a decent story without disrupting the flow of the game.

Now we have Absolution, which feels more like they wanted to make a Hitman movie than a Hitman game. The large open levels from the previous games have been split down into smaller, largely linear segments. Yes there are still the creative ways to kill someone, but they seem much smaller, more immediate than in previous games.

One of the best Hitman levels of any of the games and I think one of the best designed levels in any game is the opera house mission from Blood Money. Your tasked with infiltrating a building, killing the star of the opera and some fat cat who's there to see it. At each step your presented with challenges and tasked to over come them. How do you get inside? Steal a pass from a guest's coat? Take out the maintenance man when he goes for a leak and steal his clothes? Brute force?

You get inside. Now you have to get the actor. Break into his dressing room and choke him out between rehearsal or replace the blank in a prop gun with a real bullet? What about the fat cat in his protected balcony. Distract the guards to get him alone? Lure him out and sabotage a chandelier to crush him?

It was one massive level seemlessly broken into segments, true, but keeping it as one level gave it a weight and heft that the new missions lack. In the new game each section of the level is blocked off by doors. You go through one area, complete it, then move on to the next. The sense of openess and complexity is gone.

A few missions in and I've crept through hallways and rooms, passing goons only to get to an exit door and move on to the next section. Does it make the game easier, less painful to restart when everything goes horribly wrong? Sure. But I think it loses some of the magic in the process.

You see this in the newest splinter cell too. Instead of the multi-teired levels of previous games, and wide open environments you get walled gardens, separate and secure. Both games put a much larger emphases on storytelling and cenimatics. Which is nice, don't get me wrong. As a writer I tend to put story above all else. But in gaming, unlike other mediums, a lot of times the play, the interaction with the game is the story.

The story in a Hitman game has a lot less to do with whatever the hell Agent 47 is up to and lot more about how I sniped the Secret Service's star witness from a neighbor's tree house. Or dressed up as a clown for the target's birthday party and stabbed him in the face.

Good times.

These developers seem to think that easier gameplay and more linear storytelling is the key to the heart of the masses. Instead, by cutting off what makes their games great they end up with identical boxes giving me no reason as a consumer to spend money on the same experience over and over again.

They lose the things that make them so special, the very reasons we played them in the first place. They go from being a one of a kind experience to one I've had a dozen times over. They lose their niche and starve in the middle of two camps, unwanted by both.


So what's the answer? How do you make games easier while retaining what makes them so special in the first place. How do you gain new markets and not alienate the one you already have?

To that I give a big, fat, shrug. I'm not a game developer. If I was though I'd start with save systems. In this newer, "more accesable" Hitman they have checkpoints. Why the hell wouldn't you give them the option to save anywhere?

How many of us have played an Elder Scrolls game, gotten to some guy that we thought we could take and then stopped, quick saved and then attacked. Knowing that if we were wrong and the wizard turned out to be a total badass we could reload the game to the same spot, having lost nothing. No experience, no in game currency, no time. What better way to promote experimentation than taking away its cost?

You want to put story in your games? Do it in the level design. Do it with the little things. All you need is a soft touch. One of my favorite parts of earlier Hitman games was the newspaper at the end of each level that would describe how well you did the previous mission. If you were a truly silent assassin there would be a small column about an accident. Go on a blood thirsty rampage and you would earn yourself a headline and gruesome cover shot.

Blood Money was able to weave a story in between missions without upsetting the flow of the game. There's no reason why they couldn't continue along this route.


The point is to know your audience. Your company may not set the records of a Grand Theft Auto or a Call of Duty by releasing quirky games that only a few like, but it will survive. The best way to go bankrupt is to ignore the people that bought your games in the first place.

They played and loved those early games for a reason, don't ignore that. It doesn't mean you have to sacrifice innovation or never do new things or go in new directions. By all means, do so. It helps keeps things fresh, prevents stagnation. But changing what you are, and what makes you great for an extra buck is never the way to go.

If you want a larger audience you have to show them why your thing is great, not pander to them and make your thing mediocre in the process.

Unique things are remembered. Mediocrity seldom is.