Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Pros and Cons of Journaling

Pro: You are writing something every day.

Con: You are not necessarily writing any fiction every day.

Pro: Your life has some legitimately funny moments in it.

Con: Your life is dull as dirt most of the time.

Pro: You'll have happy memories to look back on one day.

Con: Dropbox ate your happy memories.

Pro: You have a backup drive for your happy memories as well.

Con: Your happy memories just got leaked on 4chan.

Pro: No they didn't.

Con: People are laughing about the bit with the cat. And not in a good way.

Pro: You're just trying to bring me down.

Con: I think your pretentious little journal is doing that for me.

Pro: At least I'm doing something. When's the last time you did any work on the Dead Empire book?

Con: Worldbuilding is a slow, painstaking process.

Pro: And it's a lot slower when you never open your Scrivener file.

Con: Hey, fuck you buddy! I didn't bail on the book to write a story about a painting magician.

Pro: Well I can't twiddle my thumbs while you fuck around with the finer points of fantasy geography, now can I?

Con: Oh, yes, it's so helpful having you use up his headspace on a short story that's not going anywhere. Remember the one about the girl on the ceiling? How's that going?

Pro: I finished the first draft.

Con: Which you're not editing.

Pro: Pot and kettle, asshole.

Con: Fuck you!

Pro: Fuck you!

Scuffle, shots fired, sirens wailing.

Ahem. Sorry about that, the stream of consciousness took over.

Anyway, I've been doing a daily journal for the past month, roughly. Just details out of my day, occasionally a bit of a rant to let off steam. Lots of stuff about my son, naturally.

I'm not writing every day, although I am going back and filling in missing days when I slip up. I don't think I'm writing fiction any better or more often, but I don't think I'm doing worse on either of those fronts either. The most I can say is that I am writing something which I find valuable for its own sake on a regular basis.

Which is nice.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Playstation TV Review

Yes, wildly off-topic again. If anyone's interested, I've got a short story I'm working on with (what I think is) a really neat emotion-based magic system to it, and I may have cracked the code on my long-suffering "Anita Blake becomes human again and goes on a rampage" book. Which is good for everyone, because the original thought train has expanded into an urban fantasy epic I'm going to write one day, I swear.

But for now. Playstation TV.

Background: I started a diet plan a few months ago that was designed to work on a modified swear jar system, where I'd reward myself for good behavior (eating meals from home, eating fruit and vegetables) and punish myself for bad behavior (take-out dinners and drinking soda). The reward cash would go toward a Playstation Vita, because I wanted to play Persona 4 after watching the anime and I'm scared to go into the closet and look for my old Playstation 2. (Also, Persona 4 Golden, the Vita one, has new content I wanted to see that's not in the anime.) Punishment deductions went to my wife for whatever she wanted.

The end result was that my wife got a ton of cash and I didn't lose any weight. Poor diet design, plus the motivation fizzled after I did the math on how long I needed to keep up the diet to get the Vita, which with mandatory accessories and the game runs about $260. Then I heard Liam talking about the Playstation TV on the Super Best Friendcast, and how it's the perfect device to play Vita RPGs on if you're on a budget.

And it is. It really is!

The cost of the system plus the game is $99, and a bundle with a game download (the LEGO Movie game), a Dualshock 3 controller, and an 8 GB memory card is $139. (This is a deal even without the game - Playstation controllers and memory cards are notoriously expensive.) With Persona 4 added in that's about $160 for me, which coincidentally I'd actually managed to save up through the diet system by the time I found out the Playstation TV existed. So I declared the diet on hiatus and picked up the system.

Rear-view of the device. Don't put it on your TV, the cables will drag it down.
The Playstation TV is about the size of a Raspberry Pi, or a larger cellphone. Really tiny. I can hold it in the palm of my hand. The guts are the guts of a Playstation Vita, minus the touchscreen or any screen at all. It plugs into the TV via HDMI and has an Ethernet port plus wireless capabilities. The controller plugs in via USB, but only to charge and do the initial sync-up with the system. You can plug in up to four controllers, though I'm not sure how many of the games will support multiplayer.

Initial set up is fairly easy. You will need a Playstation Network account to get full feature access, and the website's a bit of a pain to deal with. (You also can't register the hardware yet for some reason.) But if you just want to get started playing a game all you have to do is insert the game chip, turn the system on, answer a few questions and you're good to go. Or you can download the day one update, which will add most of the system's features to your front page.

What the hell am I looking at?
The menu system is not pure crap, but it's pretty bad. There's no rhyme or reason to the way things are laid out, and games (you know, the things you'll actually want to play) are all hidden off the front page by default. And there's no intuitive way to rearrange things unless you go online and read the manual. There's also a news feed you can't get rid of, apparently, whether you want it or not.

Go away!
Actually gaming is much better. The Dualshock 3 is a solid controller (my toddler is already a big fan), and Persona 4 Golden (above) looks great on a big screen. There's a compatibility list for the Playstation TV that covers the games you can play on it, and you will want to give it a look. If you like role-playing games, then you're pretty much set - the Playstation TV supports most of the Vita RPGs. If you sign up for Playstation Plus, you also get access to a few free games, which right now means Spelunky (technically a PS4 game, but it at least installs), Pix the Cat and Rainbow Moon. A new set of games turns up monthly (I think The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is out next month), and you keep everything as long as your Plus subscription is current. I signed up for a 14 day demo and I'll probably get a full membership.

As a media center, you've got much better options. Even the 3DS has better app support than the Playstation TV right now, although Sony swears the apps are coming. I still have my 360 plugged in for Netflix and the like, so this really doesn't bother me.

Overall, for what I want it to do the Playstation TV is a great little bargain. It's not for people who want next-gen graphics or lots of streaming apps, but if you just want to play some Vita games without shelling out for a Vita, I'd say go for it.

*sees Disgaea 4 on the compatibility list*

*runs off whooping*

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fall

I love fall. Always have, probably always will. It's the time of year when some relief comes from the dog days of summer, when the air turns cool and a man can go for a walk without drowning in his own sweat. The grass is still green, but the leaves have burst into orange and yellow and red, and the sky tends to cloud up and you get breezes, breezes you don't get during the rest of the year. There is nothing better than a stiff breeze under a cloudy sky, when the air is charged with the potential of great change. You can go outside and stand on the edge of the world, close your eyes, and breathe deep.

The dog, naturally, doesn't share my appreciation of the edge, and would much rather hide indoors any time a bit of wind comes along. My son gets it, though, and wants to spend his time in the evenings outside, toddling around with a broom three times his size and making me catch him when he goes marching off the side of the deck. It's nice, when he's not testing gravity, to sit in a chair and "take it all in" with him.

And thank God for those quiet moments, because the rest of the world seems to be somewhere over the edge, about a hundred feet down and picking up speed. Everywhere you look there's some new form of madness taking root. I understand the need to keep informed, but I'm finding it harder and harder to cope with the deluge of fear and horror coming out of the news these days. 30 years of war, police brutality, innocent people imprisoned and men guilty as sin allowed to walk out of court free and wealthy... to quote Hunter S. Thompson, "How long, oh Lord, how long?"

I could go on, but it's late and I need sleep more than I need to ramble on about the state of the world. Suffice to say we're standing on the edge, all of us; and it's best we take our bearings before we step over. But before that, go jump in the leaves, give your family a hug, and take the time to breathe deep.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Update on Patrick McLaw

More details are coming out about Patrick McLaw, the author of two books about school shootings who was removed from his teaching job last week. It now seems that Mr. McLaw was removed because of a number of issues, mostly centered around a letter he sent to a school official that was described as "suicidal". From there authorities performed a limited search of Mr. McLaw's home, which he consented to, and found a model of a school building and some more material they deemed worrying. Currently Mr. McLaw is not under arrest, although no one can reveal where he is or whether he's permitted to leave, citing HIPAA.

I'm a bit torn on this one. On one hand, the school seems a bit more justified in wanting Mr. McLaw vetted, and there's no indication as of yet that he's being held against his will or treated badly. Also, the State's Attorney claims that everyone knew Mr. McLaw had authored his books back in 2012, which is heartening; if true, it would tend to rule out the idea that Mr. McLaw is being persecuted for writing fiction.

On the other hand, if this is all above board then the details of the investigation were released/leaked in the worst possible order for the school and the officials involved. And I'd note that Mr. McLaw has no recorded history of violence, certainly nothing that's been reported, and he's an upstanding and well-liked teacher. That he's been "disappeared" is troubling, though it's likely his family knows where he is and, if he actually needs the help, it's far better that he have his privacy than not.

The official narrative is that Patrick McLaw is cooperating with authorities while they do due diligence on a bunch of minor but troubling incidents. No one's accused Mr. McLaw of being an actual threat up to now, thankfully, and there isn't much evidence that anything illegal or abusive is being covered up by authorities. I still think it's likely the risk posed by Mr. McLaw is being overestimated, but as heavy-handed tactics go we've seen a hell of a lot worse in the past few weeks.

I'm going to keep an eye on this and see how it develops. There are a few petitions on Change.org to the school superintendent and the county sheriff, if you feel like signing them; otherwise there doesn't seem to be much that needs doing. I do hope everything turns out well, for Patrick McLaw and everyone else involved.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Patrick McLaw and the Terror of Words

This story crossed my feeds today and scared the living crap out of me. Short version: author Patrick McLaw also works as a middle school teacher. He wrote two books set in the United States two hundred years in the future, dealing with a pair of school shootings. When school board officials found out about this, Mr. McLaw was put on administrative leave and taken in by the police for an emergency psychiatric evaluation, while the police searched the school for bombs and guns and came up empty. He's also been banned from county and school district properties.

Another story. In high school I wrote a short story for my school's literary magazine. The story involved two friends blowing up a chihuahua-focused dog show. It was a dumb comedy, really a rip off of Mark Twain's story Tom Quartz, in which a cat gets blown up in a mine shaft. I don't know where the chihuahuas came from. I expect if I read it now I'd be happy with the voice and nothing else.

The story was published without incident, and a few months later the Columbine shooting happened. A few days after that, I was called in to see my guidance counselor, who asked me a few questions about the story and myself to make sure I wasn't planning to shoot up the school. Luckily I was an AP student with no history of misbehavior, and that was the end of it. (Nobody really knew I played video games, including Doom II, all the time at home.)

Now, all that happened to me was I got talked to for a few minutes, and it was still one of the scariest experiences of my high school career. I was worried I could be suspended, maybe even expelled.

Today, that would be the least of my concerns. I would be immediately escorted off school property, temporarily if I were lucky, and handed over to the police. I'd be charged with issuing threats and almost certainly end up in court, with the full weight of the local legal system gunning for me. Saying that I was ripping off a story from the 1800s to practice my writing and had no intention of doing anything wrong would be no defense. I would be doomed and damned, my education cut short and quite possibly locked away for years.

Patrick McLaw wrote two books and self-published them. He did not write a manifesto, or a lunatic chatroom screed. He wrote two pieces of fiction and sought to sell them for money. So far as anyone knows that's the extent of his crime. He was nominated for Teacher of the Year and helped a student self-publish his work on Amazon. There is no hint in the stories I've read that he had a truly violent impulse in his body. Yet he's been banished from his workplace and detained, while police stand by in his district's schools to make sure he doesn't come back.

I understand the need to prevent school shootings. I don't see how throwing a respectable teacher onto the street does that. I'm relieved, and sick, to think of what could have happened to me. And I'm terrified to think of what could happen to my son in a few years, in an environment where even pointing a finger and saying "Bang" can get you suspended or expelled.

Mr. McLaw's book, The Insurrectionist, is still available on Amazon. It wouldn't be a terrible idea to give it a look; at the moment I have no idea what else can be done to help the man. But I wish him better luck than he's had so far.

Correction: Police searched the school, not Mr. McLaw's home. This post has been corrected.

Correction again: As of yesterday afternoon police have searched Mr. McLaw's home.

Monday, August 11, 2014

On Female Superheroes and Wonder Woman

I went on a lengthy stream of consciousness rant last night on female superheroes and Wonder Woman. I'm not sure what the hell I was thinking. I'm not solving anything. But there is some stuff I'd like to see in there, a few insights that might be worth something if they were developed, and what I think is a valid point about the way Diana Prince has been handled for the past few decades.

So, enjoy! Or not. As you will.

Image courtesy of paintmarvels.deviantart.com

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Best Laid Plans

"No plan survives contact with the enemy." Alexander of Macedonia said that, right before he was killed by Ebola-laced elephants.

I propose a variant truth: "No plan survives contact with an infant."

I have determined, after incurring a brand new car bill, various medical expenses, repeated housing repair expenses, and numerous oversized grocery bills (not to mention how ridiculously expensive crabs are this year), that I would like to start making actual money with my writing. Which means writing for publication, in addition to endlessly tweaking the epic fantasy novel squatting in my brain meat.

In preparation, I've been reading Six Figure Freelancing, by Kelly James-Enger. It's a first edition copy, which means it's a bit dated (written in the days where the Internet was only a research tool and Word hadn't devoured every feature of word processing), but it still has some valuable insights on the level of persistence and organization a writer needs to freelance successfully.

I took the book to heart and declared that I would get organized. I set myself a goal for my first week, namely that I would take half an hour a night to sit and write without doing anything else. To hell with the dishes, laundry, and dog! I would set aside all my chores at 10 p.m. for a half an hour and just write.

I told my wife about my declaration, because that's how they work, and she did everything she could to help me cut down on my chores for the night, God bless her. All I had to do was put Ben to bed at his usual time, between 9 and 9:30, and I'd be set to get started.

So naturally Ben developed a mild cough and wet himself three times in a row, then refused to stay asleep when I put him in his crib, then passed out, then woke up again, then sucked down his third bottle of the night and drowsily threw himself upside-down in my lap in some non-Euclidean baby sleeping position that led to me half-lowering, half-plonking him into his crib, whereupon he tossed a bit before he gave up and passed out at the stroke of 10:30.

Now it's 10:45, and I'm finishing up this post to tell you, Dear Reader, that it is never wise to leave an infant out of your calculations, especially when he is sleeping on your chest.

Fifteen minutes to go. Onward! Upward! And stay asleep little buddy!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

On Trying New Writing Things Forever

This blog post is procrastination. I am supposed to be writing a novel; specifically I am supposed to be writing the second draft of a novel. To do that I am supposed to be reviewing and revising the first draft to see what bits I can keep, going over my character, location and plot notes to flesh things out, and sketching out background, timeline and geography notes to try and make everything fit together. To do that I am supposed to be collecting notes and snippets strewn across three different formats of writing project into one cohesive whole I can look at without going stark raving mad.

This blog post accomplishes none of those things. But I need to confess. I'm a sinner!


I started the current novel... dear God, is it a year and a half ago? For NaNoWriMo, getting an idea down that had floated in and out of my head for awhile. I succeeded in that and finished a first draft. So far all well and good.

But editing, man, like, whoa. It's staring into the maw of insanity and knowing you created utter chaos, and furthermore that you won't get your dessert until you clean this shit up. And dessert is sopaipillas. That's a dessert worth eating.

I had a first draft, but I didn't have a fucking novel. So I had to fill things in. Character. Notes. Backstory. Cut the shit plot, add new plot. I lost two months trying to sort out geography because I had a plot that demanded my main character walk from one side of this forest-covered island to the other, and I didn't know if he would make it or how long it would take him. Two months.

Fucking mountains, how do they work?
And then, inevitably, I fucked up. You know, more.

I listen to Writing Excuses, which is normally a great source of inspiration and comfort to the writer. Not this time, though. This time the topic was story bibles. Howard Tayler and Brandon Sanderson swear by maintaining a wiki as a story bible. These are writers who write a super-long-running webcomic and a ridiculous amount of epic fantasies, respectively.

I'm writing an epic fantasy. First in a trilogy. And I'm currently up shit creek in my revision precisely because I do not know the details that are necessary to make this book hold together. Clearly I need my own story bible!

Now, all evidence to the contrary, I'm not a complete idiot. I'd done the first draft in Scrivener and I was creating a fairly competent note pool in that project. But I was running into a couple of problems with that, the first being that keeping a story bible in the same project as the actual story would fuck my reuse for the next two planned books. The second being that I'd been importing images into the faux bible like mad and it had bloated the project files to unmanageable levels.

A wiki sounded like the special sauce I needed. I would update it as needed and have a handy reference ready anytime I had to look for some valuable information. What could go wrong?


For starters, I work cross platform. I need wiki software that just works no matter what I'm writing on. That means an online solution 9 times out of 10, but because wikis are supposed to be collaborative, most of the ones freely available are public and can't be set to private. That's not suitable for a story bible for maybe a thousand different reasons.

Wikispaces was an ideal solution because it was free and it didn't require you to make your first wiki public. So I settled on that and took the time to import my story bible into the wiki. Cue: massive amounts of reformatting, because wikis don't generally do WYSIWYG cutting and pasting from a Rich Text document. But I did it, I got the story bible uploaded and I got to work and I actually made some progress...

...annnd I lost access to the wiki.


Eventually I got access back but I was all like "Screw that! Local storage for life!" And cross-platform wikis that work locally are not easy to come by, let me tell you. But there is one, and it is called TiddlyWiki and it is a pretty neat little bit of HTML and Javascript running a one file wiki, which I urge you to check out for the sheer geek factor.

I didn't like the interface, but my options were severely limited at this point so I gave it a go. And I imported all my stuff into TiddlyWiki and out of Wikispaces, and I got everything nice and neat, and...

I froze.

Why? Because I'd just burned I don't know how many weeks fiddling with this bullshit and I didn't know what to do now. Any momentum I had in the main text was long gone and I hadn't written any significant new background material. And the TiddlyWiki interface was really getting to me. Cool factor aside, my brain locked up any time I opened the damn wiki to add something to it.

Also, fun fact? Wikis demand a lot of cross-linking. Great way to waste valuable writing time.

Eventually I just started jotting down all my notes long hand, vowing to type them up into Da Bible later. Then I even dropped that pretense, and popped the notes into - you guessed it - Scrivener whenever I felt it necessary. After awhile I looked at the TiddlyWiki again, checked for an update, and found out the devs had done a complete overhaul that would blow my wiki away if I tried to use it.


Finding out that I'd locked myself into an obsolete piece of software that hurt my brain and took way too much time to use was the final straw. The final hay bale, really. I started a new Scrivener project, dumped the notes I thought were important into it, and moved on. Or so I thought.

I am now at a point where I want to review my new notes and my old notes, my original draft and the new text. And I can't wrap my ahead around the different places that stuff is stored now. Online wiki, local wiki, two or more Scrivener projects and probably a few Word documents haunting my workspace.

I know I need to take time and get everything lined up so I can look at. And what does that mean? More time not writing.

It's a little hard not to be demoralized. But! The book continues to demand release and I'm not giving up on it anytime soon, even if I have to wade through a mountain of discarded Moleskines and Post-It notes.

So what have I learned? First, don't chase fads, at least not for a major project. A wiki might work for Tayler and Sanderson, and it was worth trying, but not on an already-troubled novel. Just, no.

Second, don't chase fads, period. There's always some new tool or software that will make your writing go so much easier ohmyGOSH! It won't. Which is to say it might, but you can't make that determination in less than a year and you have other things to work on. Try stuff out, but don't waste a lot of your time on anything less than brilliant.

Third, for the love of God practice prewriting and organizing and the other things that NaNoWriMo overlooks. Especially the organizing piece. Get yourself a comfortable project layout and workflow, one that won't bother you when you're banging your head against a desk working on the actual book. The less extraneous things stressing you out the better.

And now I have to go pass out so I can tackle these damn notes in the morning. Again.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In Reluctant Defense of Ubisoft

I really don't want to write this blog post.

I don't like Ubisoft all that much. uPlay annoys me. The last Assassin's Creed game I played was III, and I didn't finish it. Didn't finish Far Cry 3, either, though that was solely because my wife and I spawned a tiny Overlord and I dawdled on side quests. I'm not likely to play anything they put out in the next few years unless they make a massive push on the 3DS.

And Ubisoft fucked up. No question there. But my day job is developing software and, God help me, I'm sympathetic by nature to a coder on a deadline getting yelled at for leaving out That One Feature. So brace yourselves, here we go...

In case you're not familiar, it came out during E3 that Ubisoft had left playable women out of the multiplayer modes for both of their upcoming big franchise games, Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. They wanted to include women in the games - Scout's honor! - but didn't have the resources to pull it off in time. This excuse has understandably pissed a lot of people off, much moreso with Assassin's Creed because the last few games have included multiplayer modes that did have multiple female characters.

And I get it, and I'd jump on the bandwagon except I see a lot of people saying that the developers are being "lazy", or that they just don't care about female gamers. Which is not, I think, the reason to be pissed off.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 is apparently a reason to be pissed off.
 Let's be clear right off the bat: both multiplayer features at issue here are cooperative, meaning they're part of the single player experience. (Assassin's Creed's earlier, female-friendly multiplayer deathmatches got dropped entirely.) A friend, or three, can jump into your game, or you can jump into their game, and help out with single player missions that tie directly into the main storyline of the game. And all the avatars involved are, at this moment, male, and Ubisoft is being raked over the coals for not letting players play a female.

I'm seeing a lot of angry comments in the form of "This is bullshit, it's super easy to turn a male model into a female model, Ubisoft are fucking liars." And that would be true if all the new model had to do was run around killing people. But in a properly implemented coop game that's not the case anymore, because Bioshock Infinite is a thing that happened.

You can't top this!
Your buddy has to support you, has to be able to team-kill with you, has to hand off items and witty repartee as you mow down the enemy A.I.s. If Plot happens, your buddy is no longer allowed to vanish, they have to contribute to the Plot, have to have lines, make a meaningful impact on events, or at least not fuck up verisimilitude by disappearing into the Aether.

And if you want your buddy to be male or female, that really does double the workload. You have to hire an extra voice actor, you have to write and record new dialogue, you have to animate new body language, new facial expressions. And all of that shit has to be added to the test cases, along with what happens if maybe you have two different buddies at different times who want to play different genders. How many ways, at how many different points, can that completely break the million-dollar title that's due out in a few months? Because they add up.

Oh God, take off the turban! Take off the turban!
"Bioware does this all the time", you say. Yes, they do, with blank-slate characters that represent the player and her choices. They don't do it with characters that have distinct personalities that make their own impact on the plot. Ask Bioware if you can pick the genders of every member of your supporting cast as well, and see how long it takes them to descent into apoplexy.

I am ready to be corrected on this point, but I cannot think of a game that implements a plot-relevant gender-swappable coop character with a distinct personality. The closest I can come to what people are demanding is Gears of War 3, and that isn't close at all - you could only choose a female character when the plot made them available, and if everyone wanted to play a woman, tough shit. Or there's the latest Resident Evil games, where you choose between a well-developed male or female character, but your buddy had to be the other gender and nobody got to customize anything.

Not an option, sadly.
And yes, I'm crediting Ubisoft that they're implementing cooperative gameplay that's closely tied into the story. That's because these are next-generation games adding cooperative gameplay to game storylines that are traditionally strongly character-focused: no blank slates. If Ubisoft is just doing another implementation of the Amazing Disappearing Coop Buddy who fucks off whenever anything storyline relevant happens, then the resource excuse really does not hold up at all.

See, I'm not trying to exonerate Ubisoft as a company here, because if they delayed the game or management had made gender diversity a priority from day one they could have gotten this done. I just don't like seeing people blaming the dev team for this fuckup. They're coders and artists under the deadline gun for a multimillion dollar title running on a brand new engine on brand new hardware and working in an industry where employees are routinely getting laid off en masse. For Assassin's Creed, you just have to look at the Clone Quadruplet Assassins they did put in to see that something went badly wrong during development that limited them to one playable character model for the entire game. And on top of all that, every interview I've seen with the developers suggests that they loved the idea and they're genuinely disappointed they couldn't get the job done.

Which is another thing: Ubisoft hasn't been great at having female protagonists, but they've been pretty consistent in including strong female characters in their games. Compared to Call of Duty's complete lack of women, or characters like Quiet and whoever the hell this Zelda villain is, Assassin's Creed has been downright progressive for years. So I'm a bit disappointed that Ubisoft's catching more hell for trying to do the right thing and failing than companies that didn't bother to try and address the issue at all.

You know what you did, Team Ninja.
With all that said... I'm not going to say lay off Ubisoft. At a minimum they've mis-prioritized a feature gamers obviously wanted (and not just female gamers, I like playing as a woman sometimes myself), shitcanned it rather than delay the game just long enough to get it right, and committed a massive P.R. fuckup all around. Even if they're telling the absolute truth, it's moronic to say that you were five minutes away from putting in a feature and just didn't quite make it. Jim Sterling skewers them heavily here, to the point where I can't believe Ubisoft is lying about what happened - they'd have been far better off just saying nothing at all.

So please, scream and yell and tweet and write letters demanding playable women, because it's a thing that should happen and if it's not in the next Assassin's Creed and Far Cry games then Ubisoft deserves everything it has coming.

Just give the devs in the trenches a bit of a break, mmkay? Or at least the benefit of the doubt.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Religion

I'm having a lot of trouble with this Hobby Lobby thing. Maybe someone can help me out:

- Using contraception is a sin. Okay. I can accept that as a sincerely held belief, even if I don't agree with it.

- Paying for someone else's contraception is a sin. This one's harder, since you're not actually fornicating, but I suppose encouraging someone else to sin is sinful itself - it's like giving a drunk vodka. So I can understand not wanting to, say, buy condoms for a horny hobo. But then...

- Paying for an insurance plan that might pay for someone else's contraception is a sin. Um... sorry? You're buying insurance. That's not a sin. That's actually a good Christian act. And, like it or not, there are legitimate reasons that an insurance plan would cover contraception, beyond a legal mandate. For example, some birth control pills help prevent women's ovaries from exploding. True story! And you have to pay a lot for those pills because the pharmaceutical companies know when they've got you over a barrel.

Seriously, who's checked the theology on Hobby Lobby's Supreme Court case? Has any Catholic provided an explanation for how buying insurance is sinful? Because I'm pretty sure Obamacare is not going to send Steve Green to Hell.

* * *

I was raised Roman Catholic. Catholic school and church every Sunday until my parents got divorced and I moved away from our church and went to public school. (Actually I think my sister and I complained enough that we dropped Mass before the divorce. Memories are hazy.) I took Communion but was never confirmed.

Through grade school I was pretty much a casual-to-lapsed Catholic: not going to church except very occasionally, but broadly in line with the Ten Commandments. Then in college I started going to our campus church. They served pizza afterward and it felt good to stop being a heathen. Eventually though I stopped going. It started with a Mass by a priest who talked about "this Catholic thing", which I thought was intolerably disrespectful to faith; and who confessed during the initial wave of the big child sex scandals that he'd felt so scared he'd had to hide his collar when he went out in public. I'm lapsed, but I'm pretty sure my faith preaches courage under adversity. And more to the point, the church had clearly fucked up big time. So how dare any priest hide from that and continue being a priest?

I stopped going to Mass for a few months, but eventually went back, and the first Mass featured a lengthy condemnation of abortion - and it was an election year, so there was an unspoken hint that good Catholics should be voting a certain way. That was the end for me. I think abortion is horrible, but I'm not going to dare tell anyone with reason to seriously consider it what they should do, and I'm certainly not in favor of throwing them in jail. And I was going to church to practice my faith, not to hear a priest condemn people.

Since then it's all been downhill.

* * *

My son is eight months old. I haven't had him baptized yet. I'm scared to.

I still consider myself Catholic, but I'm very far from the Church and I'm scared to subject my son to a religion I don't recognize anymore, preached by priests who might very well be whack jobs or even sex offenders. On the other hand, Catholic teachings were a huge part of my youth and influenced the person I am today - I like to think in a good way. I don't want to rob my son of that experience, but I don't want to expose him to some demented monster on the pulpit either.

And I hear about a diocese lawyer saying that a priest who molested children was not a priest when he molested children, because he was molesting children. And I hear about an Archbishop lying and saying that he didn't know sexual abuse was a crime, at the same time he was sending out emails discussing how long the statute of limitations on child abuse are. I hear about eight hundred dead children in Ireland.

And I am scared of my church.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Five Writing Lessons From Edge of Tomorrow

The wife and I went to see Edge of Tomorrow today. It's pretty damn good military science fiction, and one of the best movies I've seen this year. (I'd probably rate it a shade above Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) The movie is based on a Japanese novel, All You Need Is Kill, and features Tom Cruise as a soldier living a Groudhog Day time loop that resets every time he dies. It's grim, sometimes funny and definitely action-packed.

It's also got a few good writing lessons to teach us. Brace yourselves for some spoilers, folks.

Listen up if you don't want to die again, privates!
1. Throw the jerk to the wolves.

Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, a smarmy P.R. officer who tries to get out of combat duty by blackmailing a superior officer. He's oily, has no discernible morals and is a blatant coward, so we're not exactly sympathetic when he's arrested and tossed into a front-line squad of grunts. Then we see him running through a combat zone, aliens butchering everyone around him, in a suit he's not trained to use (with the safety on!), and we're on his side. We want him to live, even if he is a dick.

He probably threw up in his helmet at some point.
If you're writing an asshole protagonist, putting him through undeserved hell is a good way to generate a bit of sympathy from the audience. Deserved hell is an entirely different thing, and should be reserved for the villain of your work. To generate sympathy you want extreme, disproportionate retribution befalling someone you otherwise wouldn't care for. (Beauty and the Beast is a solid example.)

2. Keep your pseudoscience simple.

The science behind how Cage keeps coming back to life is hideously complicated, if it has any validity at all, and is almost entirely not discussed. But the rules are told to us, and they're simple: When Cage dies he wakes up the morning before he dies. He remembers everything that happened. If he bleeds out too much and survives, he stops coming back to life, so if he gets injured he has to make sure he dies.

Death 587: Alcohol poisoning.
If you're writing hard science fiction detailed explanations of the weirdness are almost mandatory. But if you're writing what some term "science fantasy", or treating science like futuristic magic, going into too many details risks overcomplicating your story, contradicting yourself, and confusing the hell out of the audience. Be clear about how your science magic works, insofar as it concerns the story, and leave out the unimportant parts. Your audience will enjoy using guesswork to fill in the blanks and your story will be stronger for it.

3. Remember that your mentor did things.

Major Cage is guided through his efforts to save the day by Rita Vertaski, a veteran soldier who had the same talent Cage has and lost it. Throughout the movie we get references to her time as the Angel of Verdun, to people she loved and lost, to adventures she had and the horrors she's been through. It takes a badass woman with a big sword and makes her into a complex figure, someone the audience gets to know in some ways more closely than Cage himself.

But still a badass. Don't call her Full Metal Bitch to her face.
If you're going to write a mentor figure into your story, try to remember that they had a ton of their own adventures before they ever met the hero. Wisdom doesn't come from nothing. Take into account the experiences your mentor has had, and if they turn out to be plot relevant so much the better!

4. Take away your hero's cool thing.

Edge of Tomorrow gets a lot of mileage out of Cage's reset button, including a long sequence where Cage just dies in humorous ways for my sadistic amusement. I got used to him being able to survive whatever's thrown at him. So when the enemy started trying to kill him in a way he can't come back from, I got nervous. And when Cage lost his resurrection trick and had to save the world with no way to come back, I was on the edge of my seat. Because I no longer knew that Cage was going to survive. The movie got me used to what Cage could do and then took that away from him. By removing the primary advantage Cage had, it raised the stakes immeasurably. Cage was in more danger than ever before and nothing was certain.


Waitohshit
If something makes your hero special, force him to get by without it, either temporarily or permanently. Let Clark Kent save the day instead of Superman. Send King Arthur into battle without Excalibur. Or give your furry-footed protagonist a magic ring that lets him sneak by anything and don't let him use it once he actually gets into enemy territory.

5. Deus ex machina is a maid service.

Edge of Tomorrow ends with Cage and Vertaski sacrificing themselves to end the war. That would be satisfying ending on its own, but also a real downer. Fortunately an alien deus ex machina crops up that lets Cage launch one final reset and give us a happy ending. And believe it or not, it works! Doesn't feel like a cop out at all. The reason is because the day has already been saved without assistance - the heroes won on their own, playing entirely by the rules. All the deus did was patch the "Pyrrhic" out of a Pyrrhic victory.

To be fair, Europe is still dead.
Most authorities would say you shouldn't use the deus ex machina. I say you're allowed to use it, but don't use it to win the day for your heroes; that's guaranteed to piss off your audience and make your ending feel cheap. Let the heroes win their own victories, then have the deus descend and clean up a bit, maybe throw your heroes a bone. They've had it pretty rough up until now, the audience will understand that they've earned a moment's consideration and appreciate it. But just this once!

And finally, bonus lesson number six:

6. Weird-ass aliens are awesome and we need more of them.

Seriously, I don't know what the Mimics are but just look at the damn things:


WHAT THE FUCK

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Slenderman Problem

In Wisconsin two girls stabbed their friend nearly to death so that they could run off to live in the woods with Slenderman.

Okay.

Let me be clear up front that I have no idea if the girls are lying or to what degree, if any. I know only what is stated in the article behind that link. It's quite possible the girls are selling bullshit to try and cop an insanity plea or some damn thing.

But what if they aren't?

In case you aren't familiar, Slenderman is an urban legend that got its start online. Slenderman is a tall man in a suit with no face who appears most often in the background of old photos and apparently abducts, terrorizes or kills children. Also Slenderman is not real. He or it was created by a Something Awful forum poster named "Victor Surge". This is known Khaleesi.

And yet somehow, two children decided that Slenderman was real enough to try and kill for. Which begs the question: How do you convince someone he's not real?

One of the original Slenderman photos. He's over there.

More and more we live in a world where The Truth is a subjective thing. The Internet, if anything, is exacerbating the problem. For every fact online you can find a document stating the fact is bullshit, and offering a competing view of the world. Not all of these views are valid. Some of them are insane. But on the Internet facts and bullshit are treated the same. It's up to the reader to discern one from the other. And not everyone has the tools to do that.

Children believe. They believe in Santa Claus, in the Tooth Fairy, in Bloody Mary. As they grow older we expect them to develop enough critical reasoning skills to tell fact from fiction, but that's not guaranteed. And it's made a lot harder when facts and bullshit are commingling in the same places, with authorities or "authorities" sticking up for both alternatives.

And once you've accepted something as fact, it's hard to change your mind. Confirmation bias is the tendency to put more weight on information that supports an existing belief. It's a hard-wired component of humanity. Even if the "fact" is total crap, you'll look for information that "proves" it is right. And on the Internet, you'll probably find some.

The sum of all human knowledge no longer trends toward increasing accuracy. Falsehoods and propaganda are entering the electronic hive mind and while they are being challenged, we have no way to eject them from the collective consciousness. As our species moves to a global shared knowledge base, that knowledge is becoming delusional. It's a problem we're going to have to cope with before we start killing each other over bullshit. Yet again.

Creepypasta, the "home" of Slenderman, was obliged to release a statement that Slenderman is not real. That's something. But inevitably there's still someone out there who thinks "maybe he is". Or thinks "of course he is". Or is out in the woods hunting for Slenderman right now.

Hopefully that's the only point where this person loses touch with reality.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How to Take Writing Advice



IT LIVES

Young Ben has gone to bed remarkably early, the dishes are done, the dog is walked, and I have half an hour before I should be in bed and an hour and a half before I usually go to bed. So I feel comfortable blogging again.

Boy, it's been awhile. How am I doing? Tired, mostly. I'm operating under a self-imposed requirement to write 100 words or more per day and have been for the past month. That's netted me 2,600 words, which sounds good, but I'm supposed to be at 3,200, which means in the race between the tortoise and the hare I'd be the snail that fell off the turtle's shell twenty feet back.

Which is all irrelevant because I'm here to talk writing advice.

I consume a lot of it. I've read On Writing by Stephen King, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead by Ariel Gore, and How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card before he went publicly loopy. I subscribe to Chuck Wendig's terribleminds, I listen to Writing Excuses every week - basically I could write a convincing book of writing advice without having published a book beforehand. *stares suspiciously at past blog posts until they shuffle away*

So is all this stuff helpful? Well it's no substitute for practice. Stephen King can tell you that he plots by letting his characters figure out what to do next and following them, but understanding what he's doing doesn't mean you can do it. You have to try it, suck at it, and try it again until you reach an acceptable level of suck; or try it, suck at it, and try something else until you find something you feel comfortable sucking at, and then polish that skill to an acceptable level of suck.

Either way, just reading or listening to some advice won't improve your writing. What it can do is point you in the right direction, or give you an idea of what you need to work on, or put you on the right brain frequency to come up with an idea you need. For example, The Kick-Ass Writer at one point discusses mind maps as a plotting technique. I read that, decided to give it a try (hello XMind), and generated a few maps based on The Novel. Not only did that solidify a few character details for me, it set off a few plot ideas and thoughts on new characters that have opened up huge story possibilities. The actual advice didn't much help - the technique doesn't quite fit me - but giving it a try was a huge benefit.

It doesn't have to be advice from a King Hell Published Author Persona, either. Awhile back Wendig threw down the gauntlet and demanded elevator pitches. The responses to mine were brilliant, reminding me to refocus on the core premise ("a boy and his demon") and helping me work out quite a few plot snarls I'd been staring down for weeks. So consider this a thumbs up to writer's forums, if you can find a good one; and I'm always taking recommendations, hint hint.

What else does writing advice do? 99% of the time it validates that writing is a good thing, and encourages you to keep doing it. The benefits of that really can't be understated, especially when you're trapped under the Writer's Block and you keep getting interrupted from chiseling out of it by your son launching projectile vomit across your living room. Even if you can self-motivate yourself to keep writing 24/7 forever, having someone tell you that it's right and true can give you a little extra "oomph."

So use writing advice when you need it. If you're feeling unmotivated, read a favorite passage from a good advice book to help get back on the ball. If you're stuck, try out an exercise or a new technique and see what shakes loose. Never feel obligated to follow the letter of whatever advice you get; if you lock yourself into outlining everything because someone else told you you have to, you're fucked, even if you like outlining. But try a bit of this and a bit of that and form your own crazy mish-mash process. Then write down what you did and sell it to Writer's Digest so you can poison the minds of future generations. For money. Muahahaha.

And if you have any good advice, or know of good advice, toss it in the comments. Spambots will be summarily executed as soon as I get Blogger to let me do that.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Invincible Moment of Clarity

Invincible, if you don't know, is a superhero comic published by Image and written by Robert Kirkman. Invincible is Mark Grayson, the son of the world's greatest superhero, who inherits his dad's powers and sets out to fight crime. I've been reading the entire run and now, at 110 issues in, I'm seriously considering whether I want to keep reading.

When Mark first put on the tights the tone of the book was optimistic, practically Silver Age. Over time, bad things happened to people, and people did bad things, but the book did maintain a sense of humor and a joy in superheroics that made it fun to read. But then things just kept getting darker and darker, and the fun moments grew further and further apart.

Issue 110 is pretty devastating for the main character on multiple levels, which I'm not going to discuss because A. SPOILERS and B. the details aren't important to my point. Suffice to say it crosses a pretty big line the series hasn't crossed before, which is saying something in a book where this happened:

Our hero headbutts a man to death.

Which did not give me a lot of pause, strangely enough. But I finished reading 110 this evening, and when I put it down I thought to myself: "Do I really want to keep reading this series?"

Technically there's nothing wrong with the writing, let me make that clear right now. Kirkman's treating superheroes honestly and the dialogue is always spot on. Kudos to the man.

What bothers me is twofold: one, the book has gotten so dark that I have trouble enjoying maybe half the issues I read, and two, the central conflict of the series has gotten so muddied that I can't see an end in sight. Mark's spent most of the series preparing the fight the alien Viltrumite Empire, and

SPOILER ALERT FOR THE LAST TWO YEARS OR SO OF INVINCIBLE

at this point he's basically won. The Viltrumites are vanquished and under new management, Earth is as safe as it ever gets and who cares if everything goes to shit in a thousand years? The only central conflict left seems to be whether Mark himself will go bad, and well FACEPLANT! I don't mind dark moments if they're escalating towards a resolution, but a bloody slog to nowhere in particular is not something I enjoy.

I should note that Kirkman is also the author of The Walking Dead, which has been running for about as long as Invincible and catches similar accusations of getting unreadably bleak. But The Walking Dead is a damn zombie series, it's supposed to go that way. I jumped onto Invincible and read it this long because it showed the happy fun side of being a superhero. Now it leans more towards the Happy Fun Ball side of being a superhero.

I'll probably read at least the next issue, because - like I said! - Kirkman's got me wanting to know what happens next. But I can't help wondering why.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How I Met Your Mother's Ending Works

SPOILER ALERT YOU FOOL WHY ARE YOU EVEN READING THIS FLEE FLEE FOR YOUR LIFE

I'm seeing a lot of Twitter and blog disgust for the finale to How I Met Your Mother, so I just wanted to get my thoughts about it down before they got all scattered.

Contention: As a series How I Met Your Mother is structurally and narratively sound, and ends the way it needed to end.

First, let's go back to the beginning. How I Met Your Mother (hereforth HIMYM) is a romantic comedy. That's a love story where the main couple gets together at the end of it. And the very first episode established Ted and Robin as the main couple. So, much like on Friends with Ross and Rachel, they were going to get together at the end, Mother or no Mother.

"But aren't Ted and the Mother the main couple?" you ask. No, because narratively that sucks. You're asking the audience to root for two characters to get together where one of them hasn't appeared on the show until the final act. Name me a romantic comedy where that works!

No, it's Ted and Robin, and the point of the show is to get the two of them to a place where they work together. At the start of the series Ted's need is for a grand love story and a stable, loving family, while Robin's need is for a successful career. They might love each other, but the two of them can't meet each other's needs, so the relationship can't work.

HIMYM spends a lot of time getting Ted and The Mother together - of course! - but The Mother is a quirky, enjoyable, and ultimately two-dimensional character. She's Ted's ideal woman, and that's about it. Her purpose in the story is not to be the romantic lead, but to fulfill the needs Ted has that Robin can't meet.

Of course to get Ted and Robin together, that means the Mother has to go. And because Ted's the ultimate romantic, that means she has to die. Which is very Woman in Refrigerators, but a divorce doesn't fit Ted's character and it doesn't meet his needs. The great love stories don't end in divorce. And once Ted's lived the great love story, there's nothing holding him apart from Robin.

As to Robin: the show makes us think that her and Barney work together, but they don't meet each other's needs either. Barney might play the man of the world, but he's a lifetime New Yorker whose needs all come down to his issues with his father. He didn't have a father growing up, so he spends the show consciously wanting a father and unconsciously wanting to be a father, usually expressing that need by appointing himself Ted's mentor. Robin is attractive to Barney as a female "bro", but she doesn't meet his needs.

And Barney certainly doesn't meet Robin's needs. Primarily that's success in her career, but she also has a need for a stable family - something she didn't have growing up. But she can't admit that need to herself, and for most of the show uses The Gang to meet it. It's not until Robin becomes successful and the Gang falls apart that she can admit what she actually wants, and it's at that point that Ted becomes a valid romantic partner for her.

So Ted and Robin get together the only way they could: at 40, when they're both unattached, after they've both met the needs that kept them apart.

Does that make for a good finale? I liked it, for what it's worth. It didn't "wow" me, but it had solid moments and I thought it worked for the show. It certainly topped Seinfeld, and I liked it a lot more than I liked Friends at the end. And if Ted, Robin and Barney didn't work for you, Marshall and Lily remained a solid traditional love story from start to finish.

Overall I think the show's going to be memorable for its humor, its insane timeline and structure, and a hell of a lot of touching moments. And the finale isn't going to ruin that. If you liked it, fine; if you didn't, give it a while and see if it works better on the rewatch. And if you still don't like it, you can never watch it again and the rest of the show will hold up.

Thoughts?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Twin Kiss

My latest publishing credit (ho ho) is a letter to the editor of the Maryland Independent, quoted down below. This was written per request of my dad, who's been using the Bel Alton post office for as long as I've been alive.

I remember riding there in his truck to pick up the mail when I was in elementary school. The building is very small, practically one room, painted white on the outside. It's just down the road from some railroad tracks and one of John Wilkes Booth's hideouts. Inside the post office is wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling brass boxes, except for one wall that's a counter to pick up packages.

I'd walk in with my dad and watch him open the box to get the mail. To me the box was really high up and my dad was a giant. If someone he knew was there they'd stop and shoot the shit for a little bit. Someone was there more often than not.

That post office is closing, because of some fuck up with the lease and the fact that the United States Postal Service is always looking to streamline and save money.

Up 301 from Bel Alton is La Plata. Nobody in Maryland can pick out Bel Alton on a map unless they live there, but La Plata is known to some, being near Waldorf which practically everyone knows. There was a little diner there - I want to say it was Danny's - with these wonderful bar stools upholstered in green bean green that spun in place. They made delicious meatball subs that I ate all the time, until I nearly choked on one, and terrific crispy french fries.

A hurricane blew through La Plata while I was away at college and wrecked a lot of the buildings along 301. All of them came back; a lot of them came back different. I'm not sure that was the actual death knell for Danny's, but it's gone now.

Between Bel Alton and La Plata there was a restaurant called Twin Kiss. Maybe soda shop is the best term for it. It was a red brick building, distinctive. One half was black-speckled white tables and chairs and a counter to the kitchen where you could order burger and fries - it's the only place I know of that would serve crinkle-cut fries and make them work. There were arcade machines too, Galaga and Pac-Man and for a while a Simpsons arcade machine, which back then was premium gaming. The other half, past a line of tables near the windows, had a different counter that served soft ice cream twisted up high on a cone, with sprinkles if you liked. You could even drive up to a window to pick up your treat, or sit on the benches outside and watch the cars drive by.

Twin Kiss endures, despite changing owners and names and styles fifty times over. Something in the place refuses to die. It's the Texas Ribs & BBQ now, the crinkle cut fries are most likely gone, but they still proudly serve Twin Kiss ice cream to passerby and presidents alike.


I don't make it back to Charles County very often, usually only to see family for the holidays. A lot has changed over the years, a lot has gone. But there's something comforting in knowing I can go home and get a tall cone of soft ice cream, even today.

Postal service needs a solid plan 
When I was a child, I went with my father to the Bel Alton post office to pick up our mail. We lived well off the beaten path, where delivery wasn’t an option. I’d watch my dad collect our letters and chat with whomever else might be there. It was a good place for members of the community to keep in touch. 
Now the post office is closing, for no apparent reason, and customers like my father are being left in the lurch. Will they be able to get a post office box at the La Plata branch? Will they have to change their addresses? No one seems to have answers. 
If the U.S. Postal Service can’t keep the Bel Alton office’s current building open, there are alternative locations. Couldn’t it rent room at Bel Alton’s school? The building has space available. Wouldn’t it be better to keep a local community center open, at the very least until there’s a solid plan to replace it?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why The World Needs Nintendo To Survive

If you're a regular reader of this blog then thank you! Also this post is wildly off-topic but hey, still writing.

Video game blogs and journalists have been making a lot of hay over Nintendo's awful sales figures over the past year. The Wii U is not selling and crazy good sales of the 3DS aren't enough to pick up the slack. The venerable company's war chest, once flush with Wii cash, has been badly hit and the sharks smell blood in the water. People are talking about Nintendo reorganizing, maybe following Sega's lead and becoming a company that just makes games for more successful platforms.

To which I say, fuck off! If you think Nintendo should become some hired gun developer for Apple or the XBone then you're failing to understand Nintendo or the games industry at all.

Listen: Nintendo is not a floundering console maker. It is, and always has been, the driving force of innovation in the console industry. Losing Nintendo would be the greatest blow video games could suffer, and would doom gamers to a dark age we haven't seen since the collapse of Atari.

I know that look. Don't go. The crazy man has wisdom to share...

Think back on the recent history of consoles developed by other companies. The XBox, the XBox 360 and the XBox One. The Playstation 2, 3 and 4.



They're not really all that innovative, are they? (The naming systems certainly aren't.) I mean yes, better graphics, okay, but we're practically at photorealism now and it's not resulting in better games. Call of Duty Battlefield Madden Halo NBA Killzone Jam 2014 is going to come out and you'll be able to see the vascular systems of the plants you're running past while lobbing yet another grenade at that spawn camper who won't leave you alone. But that's a gameplay experience we've had for over a decade and nothing much is changing, even though a new game keeps coming out in all these series once, twice, or three times a year.

And the consoles themselves, from a pure gaming perspective, are pretty well locked down. You have a controller you hold in both hands. There is a D-pad, four buttons, two analog joysticks, shoulder buttons, and a Start and Select button. That's been true for three hardware generations now.

Meanwhile Nintendo went out and made the Wii, and people laughed at them until they played the thing and realized how much fun waving a little stick with buttons on could be. Sure the graphics weren't next-gen, but Nintendo put out games that did things that you could not do on any other console. Microsoft's Kinect is, I'm sorry to say, a solid idea that's been implemented as a bad joke twice now, and I'm not sure anybody ever bothered doing anything significant with the Playstation Move. The Wii became a must-have console because it was a new experience, it was enjoyable for hard-core gamers and casual gamers alike, and the developers focused on making the games fun.

Fast-forward, and people are laughing at the Wii U, admittedly with better cause. The graphics are now two generations behind the curve, the new gamepad hasn't caught on in the popular imagination, and Nintendo's not doing itself any favors by putting its third party developers through hell, and releasing the kickass games it's known for a year after the console came out. At this point the Wii U may be a legitimate, unrecoverable flop.

But, look, it's still an innovative flop. The idea of being able to tap a button on your controller, move the game on your television to a screen on the controller, and keep playing while your spouse watches Downton Abbey is a pretty damn good one. So good, in fact, that Sony outright stole it for the Playstation Vita.

And it's not like Nintendo completely punted on this generation. The 3DS, Nintendo's handheld, was the top-selling console last year, has a killer game library, and beats the pants off the competition for price.

I've heard certain people poo-poo the 3DS, saying that the mobile phone/tablet market has made it obsolete. These people are on crack. Taking a look at my iPad, I've got Plants vs Zombies 2, fifty versions of Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and some ports from the fucking Nintendo DS, the last-gen handheld. The rest of the games on the app store are... well, not worthless, but you absolutely get what you pay for, and sometimes not even that. Don't get me started on the grand mal fuckup that is Final Fantasy VI.

Phones and tablets are fine for casual games, but they don't offer anything beyond that except maybe the occasional port from last-gen or earlier Nintendo consoles. (And yeah, it's generally Nintendo, and yeah, that's not an accident.) And frankly, touch screen controls are shit if you want to do any sort of active gaming, up to and including just moving someone around a screen in real time.

And the 3DS... let me offer an anecdote. It spoils the beginning of Bravely Default, so skip this paragraph if you're concerned. I turned the game, the hot new Square Enix RPG, on, and was told to show it an AR card. That stands for Augmented Reality. I didn't have the card, so I put the console on a flat surface as told and waited. The screen used the built-in camera to show me my kitchen. A jewel appeared and floated up, out of sight. I picked up the 3DS and moved it around until I could see the crystal in my screen again - keep in mind the damn thing appears to be floating in my kitchen. Then there's a flash and this girl, this 3D girl, is standing in my fucking kitchen. She walks around, bemoaning the end of the world and begging me for help, until the floor of my kitchen cracks open and she falls in, screaming. At which point the actual game starts, because that's just the first three minutes!

Every phone and tablet has the potential to do this and not one game has tried it. I can't stress enough that the 3DS blew my mind without breaking a sweat by using the available tech to do something completely insane. Apple and Google aren't even close.

And for innovation that's true all around. Sony hardware can push pixels like nobody's business, but they rely on third-party game developers to take advantage of that and they sure as hell don't like to experiment with the controls too much. Microsoft tries to innovate and spits out things like the Kinect and Windows 8 - kudos for trying, but the shit doesn't work. Apple was innovative with Steve Jobs at the helm, but now he's gone and they seem stuck iterating minor improvements to the hardware and software they have - much like Google, unless Glass takes a massive leap forward. All the smartphone players are locked into form factors that are suboptimal for gaming - at the very least you need a standardized controller if you want developers to get serious, and nobody is biting.

Nintendo's the only company that can regularly produce innovative gaming products, because they're the only game company in the mix. Making a game console does not make you a game company, and Sony, Microsoft, Google and Apple all make their main profits elsewhere. Nintendo, on the other hand, just makes games and hardware to play games on, and they have perfected this over decades of excellence.

Nintendo's problems now come from a lot of things. The graphics curve is a biggie, because it's not profitable for third-party developers to backport their games to two-generation-old hardware. That means the Wii U is missing out on a lot of popular games. And then there's Nintendo's self-inflicted wounds from their release schedule, their failure to cope with networked, social multiplayer effectively, and some frankly horrendous marketing in the past few years. (Do you know what a 2DS is? Have you seen one? And are you even aware the Wii U isn't just an upgraded Wii?)

What is not fucking them up is innovation, and that's why Nintendo can't dare go the way of Sega. Nintendo makes excellent games because they know their own hardware and they know exactly how to get the most fun out of it. Trying to port even the classic Mario games to every goofy-ass mobile and console platform that comes out would dilute the quality of the games to the point where it's hardly worth the effort. Can you imagine playing Mario with a touchscreen? And God help us if Nintendo were to try licensing out their intellectual property again.

Please, no.
And beyond Nintendo's fate as a company, their contributions to the gaming industry in general are legendary, essential, and continue to this day. We can't afford to lose them because they are, so often, at the forefront of the best gaming can be. Without them, it won't be long before we fall into a stagnant pool of rich multimedia set top devices that offer subscription services to football league and military simulator channels, accompanied by high pixel density tablets that, very occasionally, play puzzle games.

God help us all.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Blatant Nintendo Advertising

This is the Nintendo 3DS. I got one (the XL version) from my wife for Christmas. It is the single greatest device a new parent gamer can own. Let me tell you why.

The 3DS is small, but not too small, and the XL version is a solid size without being too large. You can carry them both in your pocket easily, and you can hold one up and play it well enough even if you have, say, an infant sleeping on your chest.

The 3DS flips closed, which makes it durable. Cracking the screen is a mean feat. Odds are good your infant will not sneeze, spit or vomit on your 3DS screen, and he can gum it with relative impunity.

The 3DS is one of the cheapest game systems on the market, even the high end versions. The games are all cheaper than console games, by at least $20. Even game downloads can be had cheaply if you catch the right sale.

The 3DS was built from the ground up to deal with interruptions. For any game, you can flip the 3DS closed and it will pause. Flip it open and you can start playing again - easy as that. If you don't get back to it for a few days, the battery will probably still be fine. Standby mode is awesome and needs to be a thing on every system possible.

The 3DS has a switch to turn the 3D effect off. If you like 3D, more power to you.

The 3DS has a ton of games in all genres. If you don't like them, it also plays all the old DS games. If you don't like those, you can download classic Nintendo games. You will not lack for games to play.

So needless to say, I'm enamored with my new game system. Having a handheld lets me take advantage of Ben's naps to game without booting my wife off the television when she's trying to wind down after a work night. And the games are pretty sweet. Here's what I've played so far:

Super Mario 3D Land: I'm not sure I really have to explain why a main Mario game is awesome, but imagine Super Mario 64, updated and improved in every way, and set up for classic Mario levels, and you'll get a pretty good idea why I'm already in World 7 on this one.







The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds: The classic A Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo was one of my favorite Zelda games. This one has all the same charm and gameplay, and adds in challenging  puzzles and dungeons for a completely new experience. I'm already in the "Dark" world, and I can't even describe the twists they've put in there without spoiling things.





Shin Megami Tensei: I honestly downloaded this because A. it's supposedly one of the best RPGs on the 3DS, and B. it was $20 off the list price (and still is until tomorrow), even compared to Amazon. Hard to pass that sort of deal up. I've been too busy with Mario and Zelda to get very far into it, but it's looking good so far. Update: Oh my God this really is Atlus hard!






Bravely Default (demo): I'm not sure how to Brave or Default yet, but Square put a hell of a lot of effort into the demo, making an entirely separate quest line from the main game that gives you some advantages when it comes out. I'll be exploring this demo in more depth over the next couple of weeks to decide if I'll play the actual game.






Fire Emblem: Awakening (demo): This actually seems like a pretty sweet strategy game, based on the demo. The controls and actions aren't overcomplicated, but the relationship function between your units promises loads of complicated strategy trickery. On my list to pick up later.






Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies: Pretty sweet game, with a strong sense of humor and an interesting (if completely unrealistic) legal mechanic. I'll be picking this up when I have a free slot.








That's the good stuff. There are a few other demos I've tried, but they haven't been great:

Super Mario Dream Team (demo): I immediately glom onto Mario RPGs, and never finish them. The demo for this one demonstrated funky controls involving controlling Mario and Luigi at the same time, so no thanks. I might try out the Paper Mario game later if the price is right.







Resident Evil Revelations (demo): I tried the demo for this on the XBox 360 and the 3DS, and gave it a pass both times. The weird squid monster enemies (no zombies!) and tacked on gimmicks threw me off. I watched a video playthrough of the game and I'm satisfied with that.







Project X Zone (demo): The total opposite of Fire Emblem. It should be crazy awesome and full of Capcom characters I love, but the actual gameplay in the demo makes no sense and doesn't interest me and the Capcom characters I either don't recognize or don't care about, except Ken and Ryu. Kind of disappointing. Also why is the demo limited to only five plays?








2 Fast 4 Gnomez (demo): A running game. Go right, collect socks. I could download 50 versions of this same game on my phone. No thanks.




Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate (demo): Apparently an attempt to make a 2D Castlevania game with the 3D engine, characters, and requirement to hit enemies way too many times to kill them. I outright hated playing this well before I found out a Belmont can take fall damage so no, I won't be picking this up.






And there are other games I'd like to play, but I'm determined to keep myself in check until I've finished the ones I have. Which includes a playthrough of the Final Fantasy IV remake for the DS.

So if I say on this blog this year that I don't have time to write? Blatant lies.

*runs off to scribble down notes on a little girl's spooky best friend*

*and play Zelda*