Friday, January 31, 2014

Testing the waters

Last night, my wife was gracious enough to let me use her as a test subject in my continuing obsession with Fate, and I had my first experience going through character creation and running a scene.

Conclusion: I am horribly unprepared to run a game yet.

Explaining the concept and purpose of character Aspects proved more difficult than I'd anticipated, but that's partly due to my own vague understanding, and occasional confusion of the invoke/compel terminology. Nailing down a High Concept proved especially tricky, though the rest of it went far quicker as we both got the hang of things - and I think I got a little better at explaining things.

Fortunately she's helped a lot with the overall game scenario, so she had a strong idea of the kind of character that would fit into the world; my real players won't have been as hands-on with the backstory, so that's something I'll have to keep in mind when they're making characters.

The fight (that most basic of RPG interactions) started off badly, from a GM perspective. I should have done more to encourage or enable interesting actions, but I'd neglected to write out any environment Aspects for the characters to Create Advantages with.

I also had Catherine go first, and without my lead to go on her only real course of action was to hit things, which quickly got... well, kind of boring. It turned into attack/defend rolls so fast that I'm stunned I didn't see it coming.

Things improved when we adopted the mantra of "explain what you want to do, then worry about how you do it" - initially we were both approaching the fight in terms of mechanics rather than narrative.

Once we were thinking of cool ways to hit our opponents and use the environment everything started to flow better, we had a wider variety of skills to roll and got more interesting outcomes when we did. (One of my thugs tried to move over a bed rather than around it; his Athletics Overcome roll failed badly and he knocked himself out.)

The biggest takeaway from the evening is that "explain your goal" idea. It's something I'd already been trying to work into the missions and sidequests I've written - give the party a clear objective, then let them figure out how best to achieve it - but it never occurred to me that it would be so important for every exchange in a scene.

Tangentially related to that is making sure I have plenty of Aspects for them to Create Advantages with, which will also hopefully distinguish one fight from another, and making sure plenty of different kinds of actions make sense - so there are obstacles to Overcome rather than just Attacking all the time.

It took basically until the last thug was defeated for me to get a proper sense of how an exchange is supposed to flow. There are still plenty of thing's I'm unsure of - boosts are a big question mark for me, I'm not sure how to apply "costs" to failed and tied rolls, my sense of passive opposition difficulty needs tweaking, and I have a feeling that encounter would have been laughably easy for a four-member party - but now I feel much better about trying it again.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Making distractions

If there's one conclusion I've reached while trying to write a compelling tabletop RPG plot, it's that videogames have it easy.

One idea I've had, to try and make the city feel more alive and make travel more interesting, was having a stack of "random encounters" to pull from every so often - short, incidental missions and exchanges to pull the party off-course temporarily (if they feel like being charitable - I imagine the magnitude of their current primary objective will affect their willingness to assist strangers in the street).

But how do I make short, incidental missions that are interesting, that the party will want to (or have no choice but to) get involved with, and which aren't just combat?

I'm having real difficulty coming up with interesting sidequests and mission types. Sure, they can be interesting from a story or character angle, or help build up the world for the players, but there are gameplay tropes that videogames can take for granted which I just can't see being anything but boring at the table.

Take, for example, that humblest videogame staple: the Escort Mission. Travel with a computer-controlled character, defend them from attackers, reach your destination safely.

There's a lot of variety to be had in a videogame with that - whether they have to stop temporarily to perform a side-task, whether you're in close-quarters or open spaces. To me, trying to convert that into a tabletop encounter, that just sounds like combat interspersed with "and now you're in this alleyway!" - boring.

In videogames, particularly the sort with escort missions, it's widely accepted that your primary method of interacting with the world should be violence. Need to open a door? Shoot it. Need to get through a barrier? Run it down with your car. That NPC look at you funny? Kick his teeth in. I want my players to do more than roll to hit and roll for damage.

Even traversing the environment can be mechanically engaging in a videogame - you've got moment-to-moment decisions to make, essentially hundreds of skill checks a minute to avoid traffic. In D&D? "I walk to the tavern". I can't make them roll for every footstep.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cold

I have some kind of illness setting up residence at the back of my throat. It started over the weekend, but it's really settled in over the course of today and I have a horrible feeling it's going to have kicked my ass when I wake up tomorrow.

We finished Battlestar Galactica last night, and just like the first time through I quite liked the ending. Apart from the ill-advised, overly-preachy epilogue, obviously; that's a lecture too far. And it commits the Return of the King sin of having several "fake" endings as each character's story is tied off. It seemed a much more coherent work the second time through, too - I remember feeling, while the show aired, that parts of it felt out of place or rushed in, but knowing the shape of the overall story helped.

The new PlayStation Plus games dropped today - the PS3 gets Metro: Last Light, which I'm quite looking forward to trying out, and Bioshock Infinite which just goes down in my estimations as time wears on. I've still not got properly stuck into Dishonored, which I bought in the PSN January Sale, yet though. I'd like to write a more complete review than "meh", but I've barely scratched the surface yet and that's all I can muster.

The Vita remains primarily an OlliOlli machine - I managed to scrape into 7th place on the Daily Grind today, miraculously breaking 100,000 on a surprisingly short course. I'm still inching my way through the challenges; only one star missing from the Junkyard levels, but it gets much patchier after that. I'll probably give Dynasty Warriors a shot at some point, but despite installing ModNation Racers I can't see myself summoning the enthusiasm to give it much attention.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Avoiding Fate

The closer I get to having a solid grip on this Fate campaign, the more I notice myself putting it off. I spent 45 minutes this evening padding out the religion section of my reference doc (which I'm planning to give to players as an overview of the world); I've still yet to spec out any of the NPCs from the early encounters.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I don't want to have too little content - but having never played a game before, I have no idea how long what I've got already is going to last. I have basically a "pilot episode" planned out to introduce the world and hopefully the system, but beyond that I'm kind of drawing a blank apart from the major story beats. I don't even know how to get from plot point to plot point.

The plan is mostly to have some kind of open-world thing going, where the party can get missions/quests from various factions in the city, but that means I've got to have a bunch of different mission types for them to do, that I can skin or tweak to change them up a bit. But again, not knowing how long any of them are actually going to take to play, I've got some that are likely to be 30 minutes and under, and one that I'm pretty sure could stretch over a couple of sessions.

It's kind of paralysing. We're heading back home at the start of next month, so I might see if I can rope my wife, my brother and his wife to help playtest a bit. Even if we don't do them in the right order, having some experience wrangling a party through combat and social encounters would do a lot to give me a foundation. I've not even played in a Fate game before; at least when I tried my hand at D&D4e I knew what DM'ing looked like.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Broken Age, Act One

Well that's not a bad cliffhanger.

I can't help but wonder, though - was this always planned for the story, or were plot points massaged to get things into place for this act-one closer?

I'd been neglecting Broken Age since I got OlliOlli (although PC games always take lower priority over basically any other platform, for me), but after being urged by a friend to see it through - mostly just so he had someone to talk to about it, I think - I sat down this evening to polish off the first part.

The writing keeps up a magnificent quality throughout, and the puzzles - especially the ones that frustrated me enough to look up a solution online - had me facepalming at how obvious they were in hindsight, which is always the mark of smart design.

My mind's still turning that ending over and over, trying to figure out what it all means, but mostly I'm just desperate for the second installment, now.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Detail oriented

The photo at the top of this post is the map for a tavern I've designed for the Fate game I'm trying to write. I've drawn more than four draft versions of it, and then at least two "final" versions. It's from possibly the earliest planned-out scene in the game, and I'm totally fixated on it.

It's not even a plot-important location (at least, not yet). I'm not planning for there to be any combat in the place. The specific layout of the rooms is of no consequence. But I've redesigned and tweaked it several times.

This happened the last time I tried to run a game, too. I became obsessed with the details, including plenty of stuff that I'm pretty sure the players didn't even notice. To the point that I ended up railroading the adventure really badly; I quickly realised how badly it was developing and packed it in.

The root of this fixation is almost certainly a desperate attempt to retain control over the scenario. I've spent the last couple of years thinking of this story, and the last couple of weeks whipping it into an actual narrative.

The closer it gets to being ready to play, the more I'm realising that my directions for the story are going to be almost-instantly derailed by the players - through no fault of theirs. It's just the way these things go; unlike a videogame, tabletop RPGs support wild experimentation and unorthodox approaches, and having the arbiter in the room to argue with just encourages you to try something different.

Rolled into that with Fate is its idea of "collaborative storytelling" - how are you supposed to plan a long-term campaign if it's also got to support story threads and subplots from the players? I could try to direct the character creation into stuff that helps my established "canon", but that seems to be missing the point.

So I'm fixating on this tavern, telling myself I don't have to run the game until it's perfect. That way, my work can never be rendered obsolete by something as messy and unpredictable and fun as player choice.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Untitled

Today has been relatively uneventful, although I also feel like I've accomplished quite a lot. "Quite a lot" being a relative term, obviously.

I've five-starred all of the Urban levels in OlliOlli, the Normal and Pro versions at least, and have made it to the second last "world" - which so far, has been kicking my ass. I even managed to post a score for the Daily Grind today, although my paltry 938 is well out of the top 350 (the top spot is sitting on 1.3 million). Some of these challenges are proving incredibly difficult, too - although revisiting the earlier levels I'm finding the total score and combo targets easier.

Worldbuilding for my RPG setting has also come along pretty well; I bored my wife half to death this evening talking through some of the backstory problems I've been trying to figure out. I've now got a better idea of what's going on behind the scenes, although figuring out how to get the players into the world in the first place is still proving elusive.

I have a ton of ideas of how I want things to work and where I want the story to end up, but moving backwards from that point is a daunting task. At least building Fate encounters seems more straightforward than the complicated XP budget method 4e tutorials seemed to prefer, although I've yet to try actually writing any yet so that might change.

I'm quite looking forward to playing the system, though - I'm sure the first couple of sessions are going to be a real learning experience for everyone, but I'm reasonably confident my lore will hold up even if I need to scrap and rework encounters on the fly.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

OlliOlli

Maybe it's because we didn't have a PlayStation growing up, but the Tony Hawks franchise never made much of an impression on me. On the handful of occasions I have tried my hand at the skateboard genre, I've been so overwhelmed by the names of tricks - let alone how you actually perform them) that I inevitably resort to just grinding on stuff until the timer runs out - assuming I'm able to muster the competence to manage even that.

With that in mind, I'm not sure what caught my imagination so much with OlliOlli, a 2D interpretation of the genre. Whatever it was, I'm really glad it did stick out so much; while it's not going to convince me to try the 3D versions again - I'm having enough trouble mastering a flat version without having to navigate an environment on top - this has got its hooks in me bad.

The one thing guaranteed to pull me back for "one more go" in a game is a list of optional objectives per level. Tearaway had its hidden presents and papercraft models to find, rewarding repeated visits and exhaustive exploration. OlliOlli's aren't quite so straightforward, ranging from beating a score for the level or single combo, up to near-gibberish goals like "Pull a Frontside 360 Shove-It out of a Noseslide".

Even once I've reached the end of the level, I re-check the objectives list and there's always one that's just in reach with my new experience of the level. I might get it this time.

And then there's the Daily Grind - a lengthy set of rails and obstacles to negotiate, with a new level and a new leaderboard daily. You get unlimited practice runs on the course, but only one go at setting your score. I played today's level a dozen times or more in practice, getting my score up to around 123k (still nowhere near the current top score over 521k, but respectable enough for a beginner).

When I tried it for real, I bailed on the second set of stairs. My entry for the day is a majestic zero points.

If there's a way to play this game more strategic than spamming random quarter- and half-rotations of the stick to pull off tricks, I'm never going to master it. I've yet to get to grips with the difference between landing a trick on the ground (pressing X) and grinding a railing (pressing any direction on the stick); so far my performances have been enough to get me through the first two locations but I'm starting to reach the limits of my abilities.

But what makes it so addictive, at least as much as the great controls, level design and soundtrack, is the speed of the restart. Wipe out? Hit restart. Fail to grab a collectible for an objective? Hit restart. Mess up a landing and ruin your highscore? Hit restart. You're instantly back at the beginning of the level. If there was even a fifteen-second loading screen there'd be time for your brain to consider giving it a break for now, but look - I'm right there, ready to try again. Just one more go.

And while I might be feeling stretched by the increasing speed and complexity of the levels, I already know that I'm better than when I started last night. I can land Perfect grinds and tricks more frequently, I'm better at judging speed and distance, and I know - I know - if I just give this level one more go I'll beat it.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

World building

For years now, I've been trying to write an RPG setting for an on-again off-again group I've played with since the Realtime Worlds days. We played mostly D&D4e, but since starting up again we've played the start of a Dragon Age campaign and a couple of D&D Next games1.

I'd been inspired to put this thing of mine together by a map I found online, from a published setting called Freeport. I'd originally envisioned something closer to a Grand Theft Auto mission system than the usual linear(-ish) tabletop quest progression, with the whole thing taking place in one city rather than the far-reaching adventures we'd previously played.

But then Realtime disappeared and we stopped playing for a while, so I put it on the back burner, occasionally having flashes of inspiration about the character and setting I wanted to put together.

The Dragon Age game we played put the idea back in my head, though; and when I found the Fate system, I was hooked on the idea of trying it out. Then last night was the first installment of our new D&D Next game, in a setting written (I believe) by the DM, which has really given me a kick to try and wrangle this thing into a usable state.

It's bloody hard, though - even though I'm building on top of the Freeport lore that already exists, there's a lot about the setting I want to change or just remove entirely. For starters, I want to kick it down the road a few centuries to more of an early-Victorian era rather than the Elizabethan age of pirates. I'm also ripping out magic (almost) entirely.

I'm still not sold on multiple player races; given the diversity of cultures in the real world, Humans alone seem like they should still offer plenty of character options. Though I do like the idea of amphibious Elves, for some reason - I want to split them between freshwater and seawater varities, like river and sea dolphins. And my first ever 4e character was Dragonborn, so I kind of have a soft spot for those.

What sold me on the Fate system is that it's much less roll-reliant than 4e was; I'm a notoriously low roller, and a shift to a mechanic that not only minimises the use of dice but also generally assumes success (with rolls determining the extent to which you succeed or face unforseen consequences) holds a lot of appeal.

There's also a lack of complicated stats to track; you get bonuses to certain skills, you have stunts that allow you to add more bonuses to those skills in certain situations, and you have character Aspects, which are like backstory hooks that can be either beneficial or a hindrance to your character's goals.

It seems a little more roleplay-heavy than the action focus of 4e, but the Dragon Age game got me into my character's head (disturbingly enough) more than any other game we'd played before, so I'm not as terrified by the idea as I used to be.

Still, coming up with an entire world is a daunting task. I'm hoping my enthusiasm for the system will drive me to actually get it together this time. The last game I ran was a 4e campaign that I now realise was a horrible railroading effort, so hopefully the move to a more collaborative system will let me relinquish control a bit.

I'm further in the process than I ever have been before. I have a proper notebook and everything, with colour-coded entries and postits of additional information (and rough NPC work). I have a broad sketch of the story planned out (to a point), and already having a city map to plan around means I don't have to come up with loads of new locations.

The next step is to try and write some actual encounters - figure out how the story starts, how the characters get pulled into it, and who's trying to do what on the NPC side. I'm really keen for it not to be a simple "here is the one big bad guy, go stop him" plot, but I've also got to keep in mind that I've never done anything like this before and maybe I should just start small.

1 We're hopefully going to cycle between them; the Dragon Age game was really fun, and the arc we've played culminated in my character slaughtering most of a village, two other PCs being killed by the city guards and the fourth party member hunting me through a forest in the dead of night before I managed to kill him (I was left with one hit point).

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Nothing new

Welp, there's my first missed day of this year's effort.

I'm trying to figure out why it's so much more of a struggle to get things down this time around. Maybe it's the pressure I'm putting on myself after "failing" last year, but I'm starting to wonder if it's just that I'm not doing enough new stuff.

At the start of 2013 I was still getting back into anime "properly", so there was a lot of catching up to do. But now I feel like I've seen everything I want to, from the years I wasn't following new releases. There's still plenty on my MAL Plan To Watch queue, but finding the time and enthusiasm is getting difficult the longer they stay on there (and the older the show is generally).

The stuff I'm watching at the moment, I've already written about or doesn't seem like it's worth discussing at any length.

Even games seem to have fallen by the wayside; I've tried picking up Dishonored, but I'm finding it more a chore than would be ideal. I've yet to finish the first episode of Broken Age (which I've already posted about anyway), and I'm struggling to think of anything else on that front that I've put any time into.

I'd talk about work if I could think of a way to explain the problems I'm solving (read: finding answers for on Stack Overflow), thought they were broadly interesting, or could separate them from the specific project. I'm lacking the confidence in my programming abilities to make much of my code public in any case.

Man, I can write a lot about nothing. Why isn't it this easy to write about a specific subject?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Space Dandy, revisited

There seems to be a common rule in anime circles that you should give a show three episodes before you make your mind up on continuing it. I don't generally subscribe to the idea, but it's often the case that you get enough of a sense from those early episodes to judge how much you'll like the rest.

Three episodes into Space Dandy, I'm not sure it's worth sticking with.

It's maybe a bad show to try the 3 episode rule with, being more episodic than anime tens to be, but after a stunning first installment I've just not found the subsequent stories to be all that interesting.

I'm not sure what the problem is, though. The characters and jokes are funny, the designs are fantastic and the animation is brilliant; while I'm not keen on the level of fanservice, it's certainly lower down the scale than KILL la KILL.

It's just not clicking for me. Without a stronger long-term story it's more difficult to get invested week to week. Maybe it'd be worth skipping a few weeks and marathoning several episodes at once.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Slow day

A long, uneventful day watching anime and Battlestar Galactica has left me without much to say.

I stand by my opinion that all of us expecting a hard sci-fi or at least non-religious ending to Galactica must not have been paying attention, because rather than toning down the destiny/God's plan stuff in the third and fourth seasons, they've really gone all in.

My memory of the show turns out to have been much patchier than I'd thought, though; I remember the Opera House visions starting much earlier, and I'd forgotten entire arcs.

Still, from what I remember of the show's ultimate ending, it seems like it's a lot less hare-brained than some people have given it credit for. Not every thread is going to get tied off but, with the exception of Kara Thrace and Sam Anders, I think every character gets a reasonable resolution.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Third Law

This image was posted in our company-wide group Skype chat earlier today, and my immediate reaction was anger towards the person who posted it. It's ignorant, it's stupid, and it's offensive.

I don't know how to bring it up with him. I can't think of a way to phrase it that won't get me immediately dismissed, or actively ridiculed1. I wonder how many women would have to work here before it no longer seemed like appropriate workplace banter?

I'm so aware that I'm in the minority on this. It's so easy to dismiss this shit as harmless - and yeah, nobody in the office is being directly hurt by it - but at some point we, as decent human beings, need to have the fucking empathy to realise that there's something deeply suspect about the "logic" in that image.

The guy who posted it has daughters; is he okay with perpetuating this idea, that tells them, "every emotion you feel is excessive, unnecessary and an inconvenience to the rest of us"?

I think the most disappointing thing, though, is that I wrote this instead of calling him out on it.

1 There's a not-insignificant percentage of the workforce here that, while maybe not an entire generation above me, are certainly from a different era (or at least perspective). The idea of confronting some of them on this reminds me of probably the most heated conversation I ever had with my dad, about why he found Richard Branson's dressing up as an air stewardess funny.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Broken Age

I've never been a massive adventure game fan. I've only completed The Secret of Monkey Island, Broken Sword and Grim Fandango; I usually get stuck, then frustrated, then bored and abandon them.

Basically, I'm not any kind of authority on the genre - but Broken Age, I like.

I love the character-swapping mechanic. A couple of times I've gotten stuck in one story and jumped to the other just for a break, but the new perspective lets me progress further to the next apparently impassable hurdle - at which point I switch back and discover what I was missing before.

I can't help wondering how you construct puzzles like this when writing or designing an adventure; maybe it's my recent attempts to write an RPG setting that makes me appreciate the complexities better, but one chain of events in particular tonight had me in awe of the cascading discoveries, conversations and inventory items to progress. How do you put this together without it feeling totally illogical? The solutions are so specific, but getting there, when the flow is going, feels totally organic.

The script, too, is great. There's a very different tone in the two stories; Shay's mostly on his own in familiar locations, or with characters he already knows, while Vella has covered much more ground and met many more people. So far I think I prefer her adventure; some of Shay's has felt more mechanical, with repeated "missions" and a minigame I'm already dreading the return of.

I have to keep reminding myself that this is only the first part of the story, though. I'm trying really hard not to get so invested that the inevitable cliffhanger will make the wait for episode two unbearable.

I've already got enough of that with The Walking Dead.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

All That Remains

All that remains

It's difficult to talk about even how the latest installment of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead made me feel, let alone what actually happens in it, without major spoilers. Not just for the first season or its 400 Days DLC, decisions from which inform the world in the second. Even the earliest events in this new episode deserve to be seen with fresh eyes; reading anything about the story, however minor a plot point it may seem, can't fail to have an impact on your interpretation of it.

What surprised me the most about Clementine - or myself? - in All That Remains was how different she is now that I'm in control. Detached and, in some ways, mercenary. Her own survival was all that mattered, whatever the consequences to the other characters. I wanted to be a better person than I ended up, but faced with the difficult decisions, threats real and imagined, my priority was to protect Clementine.

I'm not sure what the strongest motivator was for that coldness. The finale of the first season still triggers something in me when I think about it, and the experience must have affected me somehow - Lee's fundamental motivation to look out for this little girl informs every action and response. There's also a scene early in this episode that so thoroughly pulled the rug from under me that I treated every situation afterwards with suspicion.

One of the central threads of the first Walking Dead season was the trust between Clem and Lee - at first necessary and unsure, but by the end unconditional and unwavering. I'd assumed that relationship would have a lasting effect on Clementine, that she'd see the good in people first and not resort to just looking out for number one. But without Lee's presence to reassure her - to reassure me - that things would ultimately be okay, the walls are going up.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

True Detective

All I'd heard about True Detective going in was an almost off-hand tweet comparing it, favourably, to The Wire. After only one episode it's too early to say how well that comparison will hold up, long-term, but what a first episode. Slow-burning but purposeful; interesting characters with real personalities and histories - it's easy to forget how bad most TV writing is until a show like this comes along to kick everything else in the ass.

Despite being framed by a narrative device that basically is exposition, the unfolding story never feels like you're being spoon-fed. Cutting back and forward between the 1995 investigation of a murder and the detectives' deposition interviews in 2012, it's stunning how little of the plot is actually told rather than shown. What isn't said is as informative as what is; one cop's admission that it was "nearly three months before we had [my partner] over for dinner" is a statement loaded with implications about their professional and personal relationship.

If there's one thing bugging me about the cast, it's that my mostly-comedic experiences of Woody Harrelson are getting in the way - but that was also a concern with Bryan Cranston early in Breaking Bad and that turned out okay. Matthew McConaughey's outsider - he comes to the Louisiana State PD from Alaska by way of Texas - has some convoluted dialogue to get through, unusual and theatrical compared to the other characters, but it helps build the character's "different" air, alongside his unfamiliarity with local customs and politics.

My only other complaint about True Detective is that it's not due to reach the UK until Sky Atlantic picks it up in February. Who are we going to talk about it with until then?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Anger and imaginary internet points

I often accuse other people on the internet, usually behind their backs or on social media, of needing to lighten up. Of taking things too seriously. However, I am almost incapable of saying "no" to an argument (unless the other person's position is "yes"), and am starting to notice myself taking things far more seriously than I should online.

I've not been an active Reddit user for long, as my karma score will prove, but I'm fairly certain its constant stream of up- and downvotes isn't helping my ability to distance myself from a disagreement. There's something about the implicit approval of (anonymous) strangers that's oddly effective at bolstering my self-confidence, but I'm starting to worry that it's also inflating my sense of how much my own approval/agreement is worth.

There are a couple of arguments I'm just unable to avoid - ship-to-ship combat over Golden Time, and the idea that the fanservice in KILL la KILL is "equal-opportunity". The first one, I'm usually able to say my piece and leave it at that, but I've gotten into more than a handful of multi-comment arguments over the second, largely because I'm genuinely annoyed by it.

This is where I need to learn to stop myself. Downvote the jerk perpetuating that stupid, stupid lie and get on with my day. But I can't. I can't leave it. I have to tell them they're wrong.

I need to lighten up. It's only a cartoon, and it's only a person I don't know, will never meet and who will, in all likelihood, forget about it in ten minutes anyway.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Helix

This has to be the worst TV show I've seen in years.

It reminds me, more than anything else, of the ill-fated Threshold, except that had Carla Gugino and Peter Dinklage keeping things interesting, and a much more interesting and unpredictable infection. Helix just has a cast of people who look almost but not quite like other, more famous people.

I don't have a reason to care about these characters. Even if they fail, the deadly contagion they're fighting to contain is deep in the Antarctic, in a facility that's a 200-mile helicopter journey from the nearest inhabited area. These characters are the only stakes we're going to get.

And I'd love to know who insists on every science fiction show having a shadowy conspiracy angle. Nothing bores me faster than two shifty types conversing in hushed tones about "the people we both work for". Can't you write some interesting group dynamics instead?

I was quite excited to see Hiroyuki Sanada in the cast, but it's disappointing to see him become the closest thing to an antagonist the show has - especially as he's the only non-white character.

Ugh, I just know I'm going to end up watching the whole season.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

This is legitimately disappointing.

Nothing to write about today. Have a draft in die need of editing/rewriting, but it's nowhere near ready for semi-public consumption.

Didn't think I'd find myself phoning one in this early in the year. I considered trying to limit myself to just three a week, bit then I'd still feel obliged to stick to some kind of update schedule and at least daily posts keeps me in the habit (in theory).

Still find myself trying to write about "worthwhile" stuff, rather than just writing. I should probably do more with drafts, just so I don't get to half eleven and raise I'm totally stumped. Having three or four possible stubs could help.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Space Dandy - A Dandy Guy in Space

It's unusual to see a show come out swinging with the force Space Dandy has; to have it come out so soon after KILL la KILL could be a coincidence, or just a sign of trends in the anime industry at the moment. The confidence on display isn't the only common ground, either - both Bones and Trigger are unfazed by fanservice, although Dandy doesn't seem to be making any attempt, yet, at building a case for nudity-as-metaphor the way KlK is.

The opening half of this first episode seemed weaker on my second viewing; I'm not sure if it's that the dub script didn't capture the same spark as the Japanese (which I saw first), or because it was technically the third time I'd seen the first ten minutes. There's a lot of dialogue and setup in the opening act, while the second half's action focus is much more immediately engaging.

It's hard to dissect this first installment having seen it in both languages, though. While most of the dialogue is essentially the same (a small furore over one joke aside), there's a much more knowing tone to the English version. The narrator in Japanese is over-the-top and unnecessarily serious despite his ridiculous exposition (when he can be bothered to finish it), but in English he's seemingly aware of how dumb his lines (intentionally) are.

Notably, Space Dandy was broadcast in America before the Japanese premiere, on Cartoon Network's [adult swim] block. If this isn't the first time such a thing has happened, it's certainly the most high-profile; it normally takes months or years for an anime show to get licenced, translated, dubbed and released in the West, and with Shinichiro "Cowboy Bebop" Watanabe's name attached, I would normally have expected a lot of distributors clamouring for the rights.

I'm not sure if this earlier-than-usual US broadcast meant the dub had to be done more quickly than the usual process, but the script does feel unwieldy in places. It's the first time I've ever really appreciated how difficult comedy is to get across in translation - and in addition to making the joke work at all, there are timing and animation considerations that further limit your options.

I think I found the jokes in the Japanese script marginally funnier, but the delivery is something that the English version managed to edge out. The sideways remarks and reactions seemed more natural, though that's possibly just as a result of my own native language.

Given the ludicrous and excessive finale to the episode, it's anybody's guess how they're going to get even one more episode out of the plot - let alone a 24-episode series. But it feels like a while since I watched a show that's so singularly colourful, both the visuals and the story, and which doesn't take itself at all seriously, so I'm in for the long haul. This season seems like it's going to be a low-profile one generally, and Space Dandy is definitely a cure for that.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Before my body is dry

Cropped cover

I made a flippant comment on Reddit that my favourite track on the KILL la KILL OST was "whichever one is playing at the time", but the more I listen to the album the more accurate that statement becomes.

Not only are there no tracks that I dislike, there are no tracks that I'm indifferent to. They're all great, in a variety of ways. The rock stuff, the dramatic orchestral stuff, the weirdly un-weird pop songs - you can pick any piece at random and I'll be pleased with your selection.

I pre-ordered the OST months ago, before the first pressing bonuses were announced, and never bothered to check back to see what they were. It's a gorgeous package - the outer box has a dramatic shot of Honnouji Academy from above, with the logo embossed along the bottom.

The big surprise was the bonus booklet - a complete score for several of the tracks, including the Reddit-famous "Don't Lose Your Way" (officially titled "Before my body is dry", and with an unfortunate rap section in the full version), which I almost immediately set about transcribing to tab but sadly doesn't sound quite the same on an acoustic.

That's one of maybe three tracks I recognised from the show; I'm surprised at just how many of them are unfamilar. I'm tempted to use this as an excuse for rewatching the show, but I've got a bunch of other stuff to get through (I'm determined to see if Shuffle! has any kind of payoff) and the new season's about to start.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Hmm

I was going to write about the (relatively) new Perfect Blue Blu-ray for today's entry; I've got a big text file with notes made as I watched it this evening. But I sat down to type it up more coherently and remembered I wrote about it less than a year ago.

So now I'm out of ideas.

I realised tonight that it's really hard for me to write critically about Perfect Blue anyway; I've seen it too often to separate my love for it from the film itself. I tried to keep a more detached perspective tonight, but by the time Mima shoots her first Double Bind scene I was pretty much totally absorbed.

Which isn't to say I don't have criticisms. As I mentioned last time, MiMania's character design is too grotesque to really be effective; if he looked more normal (and didn't have such a prominent place in the opening CHAM concert), there'd be room to play him as a figment of Mima's imagination more consistently.

And this time, the nice bow on the ending bugged me more than it has before. Considering how obtuse and incoherent the film very deliberately tries to be in places, it's odd to have such a resoundingly optimistic ending.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

I'm curious!

I'm pretty sure I figured out what was really going on in Hyouka at the exact same moment as the main character. This is rare in anime, and especially in mystery shows - generally speaking the audience is either way ahead or way behind the characters, thanks to the uneven distribution of information available on each side of the screen.

Succinctly described to me on Twitter as "a mystery show about nothing of any consequence", Hyouka follows the Classics Club, dragged through puzzle after puzzle by the infinitely-curious Chitanda Eru. Their secret weapon is Oreki Hotaro, supremely observant and insightful, but also hopelessly lazy (or as he'd call it, "efficient"). The mysteries they solve are ultimately irrelevant even to those directly involved; a 60-year-old school expulsion, unimportant items missing from the cultural festival, a hot springs "ghost".

None of the cases matter much to the plot either, except for the way they bring the characters together and force them to change or re-evaluate themselves. The hot springs episode, remarkably restrained for anime generally and especially a KyoAni production, flipped a switch in my brain; I'd been enjoying the show up to that point, but one scene clicked the point into place in a way I couldn't have seen.

High in the running for my favourite anime scene of all time is the haircut scene from Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid. It's not action-packed or even especially well-animated, but the characters' history makes the atmosphere electric. There's a bottle episode of Hyouka that stretches a similarly-charged emotional current out over the entire 22 minutes.

The final scene in the final episode is one of the strongest emotional gut-punches I've seen. Incredibly sad, beautiful and hopeful all at once, it still gets my heart racing to think about it. There's no indication of a continuation yet, and with the shift towards anime-as-advertising1 we might never see more - especially since there's only one more novel to adapt at the moment (the 22 episode series covers four).

The slow-burn nature of the show could be offputting for some, but even when they were spread over three or four episodes, the characters made everything worthwhile. They're almost mysteries by themselves; there are suggestions and hints at the backstories of and between the Classics Club members, and I had more fun trying to work them out than the cases they were trying to solve.

1 The increased number of shows based on manga and light novels isn't (simply) a drought of ideas, but instead the animated versions are used to promote the higher-profit-margin original source material. Which is an awkward position - if the anime doesn't increase sales of the novel, there's no point investing in more; if it does, then the show did its job and why bother with a second season?

Monday, January 06, 2014

DmC Devil May Cry

I want to like this game.

Despite the trying-slightly-too-hard punk aesthetic and UE3's best efforts, I really like how it looks. The story feels oddly like a movie adaptation of a videogame, somehow, but that's still better than a lot of games manage.

I am really bad at it, though. These sort of action games have never been my strong suit, for much the same reason as beat-em-ups - combos are simply beyond me. I can't remember them in the middle of a fight well enough to execute them, and I don't have sufficient reactions to dodge (even when I remember what the dodge button is). I end up sticking to the same basic four-hit smacking, trying desperately to defeat all the enemies before they take me out - a recip for boredom and frustration more than anything else.

The reason I started playing DmC was as a palate cleanser after I'd finished P4G and was finding it difficult to get into Ni no Kuni, but it's also been on a couple of GOTY lists so I figured it should be worth a look anyway. It's just not for me, though - like every other game in the genre, it's just not clicking right.

I feel some kind of weird obligation to see the story through - maybe I'll drop the difficulty - but have no idea why. It's not that special, and a combination of online comments and obvious foreshadowing means I'm pretty sure how things are going to play out anyway.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Shuffle!

This is probably the worst show I have ever seen.

It looks bad, sounds terrible, the story is happy to ignore its central conceit for episodes at a time, and the characters are painfully cliché. It attempts to create dramatic scenes based on the revelation of information that both the audience and cast already know and take for granted.

The one thing keeping me going is that the show was recommended to me in a r/anime thread about School Days, which the episode-preview screenshots on our media server back up - they suggest something shifts significantly towards the end of the series. I'm not expecting a Nice Boat ending, but any kind of subversion of the tropes Shuffle! is dragging itself through can only be an improvement on what it's doing now.

But it's getting tougher with every episode. I've been told that #18 is when things start to get interesting, but that's still seven episodes away (God help me). If any aspect of the show was even slightly better - there's a lot of side-story bullshit that could easily be trimmed to get this down to 13 episodes, which would help immensely - I think I'd be close to enjoying the experience, but every element is so dreadfully executed.

Back when I ran my anime site, there were times I'd have to force myself through a series for a review. I'm not entirely sure why I'm still watching this one, since I no longer have any such obligation - even self-imposed.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

All This Has Happened Before

If only there had been some sort of clue about the religious leanings of the series.

I will admit to being a little disappointed with the ending of Battlestar Galactica. Not as disappointed (or enraged, as the case may be) as some "fans" were when the final season came to a close, but it did feel like the religious implications made by the finale were somehow out of place with the rest of the series.

Having rewatched the first season-and-a-half over the last couple of days, I'm not stunned that any of us expected anything other than a faith-heavy conclusion.

There is so much stuff that can only be explained by supernatural forces at work, if not full-blown divine intervention. Gaius Baltar's continued existence can only be the result of either the least-believable chain of unbelievable luck, or the hand of God. The visions of Laura Roslin and the predictions in the Scrolls of Pythia are too perfectly-aligned to be mere coincidence.

I suppose the "dumb luck" theory could hold more weight if there was any evidence in the show of anything other than divine intervention that could possibly explain how Gaius knows the things he does ahead of time (told to him, in most cases, by Head Six - who calls herself an Angel of God's Will on at least one occasion), how Leoben predicts the fleet's discovery of Kobol, or any one of the dozens of prophecies that come true.

I recall the third and fourth seasons drifting away from the spiritual focus of the first two, so maybe the shift to "proper" scifi was a bit of a bait-and-switch. But sitting through the early part of the show again, the ultimate ending seems much more appropriate than it did at the time.

Which isn't to say it's perfect; I don't like how upbeat a lot of it is, and the modern-day coda with the Baltar and Six angels in New York is really dumb.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Kill La Kill

You don't know how difficult it was to find a SFW image from this show.

Cards on the table: I f--king love this show.

Even knowing that it's a product of the minds behind Panty and Stocking and Gurren Lagann, the energy, style and above all else the confidence exploding out of every frame is incredible; the fight choreography is a step above almost anything I've ever seen in animation, even if the budget doesn't quite do it justice.

But there's a lot of subtext to the story that makes me… not uncomfortable exactly, but unsure of my footing.

Spoilers follow.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

So much for that plan

I started off 2013 with the intention of writing something - anything - on this blog every day. I didn't even manage three whole months. I missed one day in March, four in April, and after that I just kind of ran out of steam.

I have an idea why. Part of the reason I wanted to try writing more regularly was because of a website project I had turning over at the back of my mind, but it would be a big commitment and I wanted to make sure I could keep up the volume of writing it would require. I also wanted to get better at writing, and that means writing more. The down side of this approach - writing for a purpose, rather than just for the sake of it - is that I wanted everything I posted to be interesting. I should have just sat down and picked something and wrote about it and published that. Of course, you need feedback for that, and I can't take critism well, so I never really told anybody that I was doing it, never asked for feedback, never shared what I'd put up here.

Another side effect of the "wanting to be interesting" thing was the number of posts I started, abandoned and deleted because I couldn't say exactly what I meant consisely; I didn't want to have thousands of words of anime backstory before I could explain my dilemmas about Kill La Kill, but getting my point across for a reader unfamiliar with the show is difficult (another problem: I don't know what, if any, audience this thing has). I've had a post about agnosticism sitting in draft status since February 7th, 2013 because I can't figure out how to explain myself.

In 2013 I published 138 posts - which is one every 2.64 days. I don't think I ever expected to actually reach 365, but I'm still disappointed that I didn't get more done. Still, that's almost as much as I wrote between the start of 2005 and the end of 2012, so I'm not thatbothered.

I'm going to try again this year. Hopefully I'll make it longer than the 29th of March before skipping a day, this time.