Bullet Train

Silence. Astounding speed. Sheer, absolute calm.

100,000 kilometers to target.

The engineer pressed a button on his suit. Magnetic slivers on the center of his suit began, slowly, to reverse. The effect was two-fold: first, the color of his suit started to change from black to white. Second, the altered polarity reacted to the magnetic tunnel the engineer was traversing.

90,000. 80,000. 70,000. 65,000. 60,000.

More slivers joined the first strip, and the polarization started to spread out in a less linear – but still highly methodical – progression. Miniscule, spread-out changes presented minimal risk of injury to the high-velocity engineer.

The engineer’s eyes passed briefly across the view. While impressive for the first few hours, panoramas in space eventually lost their astounding charm. The stars were as beautiful as they were unexciting and constant. Planets looked more or less the same this far into nothingness. Smaller details of anything were indiscernible at such speeds. His eyes flicked back to his helmet’s screen overlay. The last information the station had relayed before sending him out was tagged red and locked at the top corner of the display. Anomalous vibration from left track of inward line. Cable slack at 0846 Earth GMT. Assigned engineer KL-33 to locate anomaly and repair if feasible, else commencing reel at 2030 Earth GMT.

KL-33 checked the time – 1858 Earth GMT – and then the distance again. 45,000 kilometers to target. A red light blinked on his right glove. The proximity light. KL-33’s eyes widened in horror. He flipped the safety off his brake button and slammed his whole gloved fist into it.

All the technology in the universe couldn’t have saved him – alone in a one-man space suit – from blacking out.

With magnetic protestation, his suit balanced itself in the magnetic field at 84% white and 16% black. He came to a complete stop. The top right of his display showed 43238.01868 kilometers. The proximity sensor on his glove remained lit.

After KL-33’s heart rate had slowed sufficiently, his suit recognized that he was unconscious, and delivered a quick pulse through him. A soft warning tone hummed in his ears as he regained consciousness.

He looked around. He told himself that it was too far from the target, and after checking that he was in no immediate danger, he very nearly resumed his trip. Then he saw the train.

The inward and outward lines were set two kilometers apart, and for good reason. Both were built out of thick cable, two tracks each, and had chair-sized magnets implanted at regular intervals in them at a forward angle. If the lines were too close, their opposing magnets would latch onto each other. The trains themselves were designed with loops on both sides of the front three sections. The track cables ran through these. Only the foremost section – nicknamed the engine simply because drivers and crew sat there – would actually be magnetized during travel; this helped avoid conflict if a carriage were to sway even slightly. The rear section was equipped for braking only, but relied on electromagnets to do so. Emergency brakes lined the entire train.

From KL-33’s perspective, though, one thing was immediately apparent: the train was almost completely horizontal. The tail end of the train was what had set off his proximity sensor – it was tugging at the magnets of the outward line KL-33 had traversed. The train wasn’t long enough to bridge the gap completely, but tug it did.

And all the lights were out.

KL-33 then noticed that the train was still moving. The front was nosing forward at an agonizing – he did a burst of arithmetic in his head – roughly 200 kilometers per hour. Judging from the train’s distance from his target point, the tail’s magnetism must have been slowing it for quite some time. At its current speed, the train wouldn’t reach Mars for another 5,600 days at least. Trains were usually equipped for a few months at best.

Then he caught a clear glimpse of the front of the train. It was thoroughly wrapped in track cable. The magnets had latched onto the carriage somehow. That meant that one of the cables had come loose or snapped somehow. With the lack of magnetic balance, it was no wonder the tail had swung out so far.

With his suit magnets balanced, KL-33 slowly pulled himself over to the line at his left – closest to the train – and wrapped his arms around it. He shifted his way around to the outside of the magnetic field, and adjusted his suit to cope with the change in polarity. Then he ran another calculation, lined himself up with the tail of the train, and pulled a trigger at his side.

A chemical reaction licked briefly out of a pack strapped to his back, and propellant sent him floating sluggishly toward the tail of the train. As he neared it, the magnets started to tug at him and pull him in faster. He compensated for the pull to avoid heavy impact.

When he connected to the tail of the train, he polarized his boots to allow himself to walk along the carriage. In this manner, he made his way to the nearest service hatch. He ensured no one was inside the transition chamber, then flipped open an engineer access panel and dialed a lock override for the outer door. The hatch slid open. KL-33 swung down inside, closed the hatch above him, initiated atmospheric restoration, ran quick verification that the air was safe, and slowly detached and removed his helmet. The carriage was empty of life.

The panels worked fine; the train appeared to be in working order. His wrist panel told him that the power levels were steady. He turned the train’s internal lights back on.

KL-33 went to the door to the next carriage and opened it. The first passenger carriage. The scene before him starkly contrasted from the one behind him; there were people in this carriage, and they were a mess. Blood, bones, and clothes formed a sickening heap on the forward-left side. Most would probably not be physically recognizable ever again. Nothing moved.

KL-33 staggered and squeezed his eyes shut. This was caused by the train’s sudden stop. There were supposed to be safeties for this kind of thing. Procedures. Knowing that those must have been in place on the vessel (the inter-planetary rail service was implacably strict) didn’t ease KL-33’s stomach. He took a deep breath and another step forward.

For the briefest of moments, a tiny eye blinked at him. His skin crawled. His heart battered his ribs. His mind flicked back to all the science-fiction he had read over the years, and he wished he had a lazer gun. And that they existed. Then he spotted the eye – a CCTV camera – and breathed again.

One of the twin chairs had a holographic board still switched on. A chess game. White’s turn. Four moves from white claiming check-mate, KL-33 noticed – if the player was cunning enough. He re-evaluated. No, not four. A single move. He considered making the move, to help settle his mind, but decided that the unfinished game might accommodate his mind better than the pile of corpses. He swallowed, and took another deep breath. He needed to find the train’s security footage.

He briefly disabled the gravity compensation in the carriage, then gently pushed aside the sticky compilation of what seemed to be the remains of three passengers to clear the doorway to the next carriage. He returned gravity to the train before proceeding.

This time he was a little more prepared for the gruesome sight; it nearly mirrored that of the carriage behind him. He returned his thoughts to the game. If he was playing as both players, he… no, the result would still have been the same. White had the upper hand. Black had been foolish enough to lose both knights. He wondered what turn they had been at when they died, but the movement possibilities were endless.

Then his blood chilled. He heard something.

His breath staled in his lungs while he listened very, very carefully.

Thud. Thud.

The sound was muffled. Cushioned. It was coming from the middle of the carriage.

Thud.

KL-33 steadied his breathing, steeled himself, and walked straight toward the source.

Thud-thud-thud.

One of the safety pods was sealed: a Type-10 Kulov with a modified strap. A child seat! Only a god – though which one was up for constant review – would damn fortune such that a child should see the ruin of its parents before their time.

He ran to the pod and pressed the emergency release. A young boy looked up at him with pale green eyes and a stark white face. KL-33 flipped through the passenger records on his wrist panel. Daniel K. Sarthers. Born in France. Four years old.

“Speak English, kid?”

The child made no response, in English or otherwise. The only indication he gave that he’d heard anything at all was by blinking.

He then looked around the carriage. “Maman?”

“Come this way, kid,” he said, and beckoned as he walked toward the next carriage. The engine. He hoped the boy wouldn’t go the opposite direction.

He checked the environment controls for the cockpit before opening the door. No breathable air. Pressure leak. Damn it. He motioned for the boy to wait, but found that the boy was still sitting in his pod. Glancing at the previous carriage to make sure it was closed, he put his helmet back on and sealed his suit, then opened the first door, stepped into the pressure chamber, and sealed the door behind him.

The second doorway hissed as the air was sucked out of the pressure chamber. The temperature dropped immediately. KL-33 stepped through the gap.

Debris clung to the back of the carriage. Shards of glass, dented metal mugs, a book, and the two drivers. A small cabin on the right housed the engineer, and a longer one on the left was for the steward, stewardess, snacks, and beverages. The front of the carriage featured the panels and instruments used to control the train. Most of these were shattered and splintered. The loose track ran across and through the middle of the train’s nose. The tail of this appeared to have pierced the engineer’s cabin, rending any emergency pressure system in that room non-functional.

KL-33 pounded his fist against the doors to the cabins. A faint ping returned from the left cabin. He opened the engineer’s door, pushed the floating corpse gently aside, and reached for a canister marked “Xeseal”. He then switched the environment controls to reboot and sprayed all the cockpit’s holes with the canister’s long nozzle. Air started to gush back into the room via the ventilation and hiss out through a couple of gaps he’d missed. He continued to layer the spray over all the shattered surfaces until the hissing stopped.

After half a minute, the environment controls beeped at him. He took his helmet off and opened the left cabin door.

A stewardess stared up at him from where she lay on the floor. Her left arm and leg lay limp and crooked.

“Do you know what happened?” KL-33 asked.

She shook her head slowly.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” he recited.

He flipped open a medical pack on the wall, pulled out a stabilization needle – he didn’t know the technical term for the needles, only that they worked – and tossed it to the woman.

Then he went to the drivers’ seats and connected to a maintenance data port. He played the archived footage. Spinning, turning, winding through space. Hours of it. It had taken that long for the slack to be detected at the Mars port.

He rewound to until he found the crash anomaly. The train had been gliding along as normal, until – with the replay slowed to thousandths of seconds – he saw it. A snap in the track. The broken track latched onto the whole one. And the engine carriage hit it at full speed. A split thousandth of a second where KL-33 saw the jagged end of the track. He paused the footage. Impact damage. A comet, perhaps, or some other large debris. An unlucky hit. A near miss in the infinite expanse of space. A few billion dollars of repairs. Not to mention the cost in lives.

KL-33 set to work narrating his report while repairing what he could and preparing the ruined train to be towed home.

Guild Wars 2

GW2_Logo

It’s time to tackle a big one. An MMORPG. Take a deep breath and relax.

To be fair, I’m going to approach Guild Wars 2 as a sequel to Guild Wars 1, even though the gameplay differs quite a lot. I’ve followed the trek of the Guild Wars teams since just after Eye of the North was released, and I racked up ~2k hours in the original before its sequel came out.

As a sequel to Guild Wars 1, the opening of Guild Wars 2 was a trip through story lane; lots of things happened and lots of things changed in the world. Many lands became inaccessible through politics or other means. Some kingdoms isolated themselves. Some races got over their differences (this began in Eye of the North). Some places (like Lion’s Arch) remained in the game for nostalgic/historical purposes. Lore-wise, the intro presented a pretty reasonable and curiosity-raising transition.

A few minutes into the game, it becomes chillingly apparent that you are (apart from the occasional human you bump into) completely alone. This is less troubling in explorable areas, but story gameplay and the very way your skills are designed beg the question: where did all our little AI party buddies go? It was quickly made clear that to survive, we would need to rely on a single, profession-specific self-heal skill. No tanking DPS while a monk tops us up, no making conditions backfire on casters, and very limited capacity for restoring party health. Guild Wars 2 is a lone-wolf design. Sort of. More on that later.

Guild Wars 2 tried, somewhat over-ambitiously, to market the idea that each player could (to paraphrase) have a different story. It’s neat that they thought so, but it simply didn’t happen. The game is an MMO, which logically cannot provide different stories to its players. Not unless a lot more thought is put into the design. Sure, you can branch out and choose which race to play as (this gives you about two hours of slightly disconnected story gameplay) and then the sub-faction you want to follow the main story with. This allows you to hear slightly different conversations, but the gist and the plot remains pretty much identical to every other player’s. Don’t get me wrong – it was a neat idea, and I pick the The Vigil every single time – it just can’t feel as organic as it was marketed, because if your world instance looked different from other people’s, synchronization of the MMO world would be pretty tricky.

Dungeons are strange things. They’re fundamental to the MMO experience, and they’re challenges for the semi-educated gamers to hone their co-ordination and tactics… but I’m not convinced that GW2’s combat system is designed for them. I’ve yet to see a dungeon taken conventionally (okay, I did see it happen once, but I’m not sure if players are supposed to die quite that often in any game except Dark Souls). Dungeons are run using hack-style mechanics, like stacking in tiny corners or pulling single enemies at a time and praying (with crossed fingers) that ArenaNet has not buffed the dungeon mobs yet again. With the recent expansion, dungeons also (for no apparent reason) became unprofitable. When both unsupported by combat mechanics and unprofitable… dungeons became unpopular places. I’m not sure if ArenaNet quite understands that players choose to use hacks simply because the experience isn’t fun to play conventionally. They certainly didn’t realize people were primarily running dungeons for the gold.

To support my concerns regarding dungeon combat in GW2, I ought to discuss the combat system next. Combat changed heaps between GW 1 and 2. Some of the changes made things smoother – combat flows better in GW2, for instance, and combinations such as shooting arrows through walls of fire (which makes fire arrows) are nice features – but a lot of things were made worse or removed. There is less synergy and less customizability in GW2. Skills are determined primarily by our equipped weapon, which generally has a couple of decent skills, a couple of mediocre ones, and the “spam 1” – an attack chain that defaults with auto-attack as it has no cooldown and replaces the basic attack from GW1. Each character can equip three class skills, an elite skill, and a single heal skill. For most classes, this is strictly a self-heal (rangers are an exception). Guardians can strap on a couple of level-based sidegrades to add minor healing to some of their AoE skills, and they have an optional elite skill (more on these shortly) that fully heals themselves and up to four other players. Elite skills are a disappointment. In GW1, elite skills were these fantastic skills you could obtain by defeating an enemy champion (which involved both a hunt and a battle challenge). They weren’t the be-all-and-end-all in battle (they aren’t in GW2 either), but they felt like they made a difference and made your character significantly more useful. They also acted like improved versions of regular skills. In GW2, elite skills are obtained by leveling. They are useful, but generally underwhelming. Most particularly, though (and unlike in GW1), they take a very, very long time to recharge. You won’t be using them twice in a fight. Maybe not even twice in two fights. Your character’s usefulness is shaved by an entire skill slot every four to six minutes. Water combat is still viewed on the whole as something of a joke. It’s a 3D, weightless combat system that generally allows you to spend all your skills without hitting anything due to average visibility and could-be-improved targeting on AoE skills. But as to the feel of combat, it certainly plays smoother in GW2. It’s a pretty nice feeling to be able to cast/attack/use skills while moving. You generally don’t have to stand still unless channeling something big.

When it comes to teamwork, it feels like the ArenaNet chaps groaned and said “if we have to”. Apart from a few combo effects, characters are designed to function on their own. There are very few support skills, and there’s no way to target specific allies with your skills (any skills you have that affect allies will prioritize your squad, so long as they’re within range). Targeting, supporting, buffing, and assisting were all key elements in GW1. If you didn’t work as a team you’d likely fail. This was because mobs in GW1 usually came attached to groups. None of this “one wolf spawns in the middle of nowhere and waits to be killed” stuff; foes came in squads, and generally were capable of buffing/saving each other while your group tried its best to do them in. GW2 comes with a “live alone, fight alone, die alone” feel, which effectively kicks teamwork out the door.

The maps are quite pretty. Ascalon (and north of it, in GW1) was my favorite landscape in the Guild Wars universe until the Charr came along and conquered it and then settled it, but it’s still the most charming biome in the game. It’s the way a fantasy kingdom should look. Big trees with leaves that turn orange and red and purple around harvest, rolling hills, rivers, fields, castles, keeps built into the sides of cliffs. Praise aside, though, I feel like GW2 is small. A lot of the places we had access to in GW1 were removed, and only some were replaced. As an explorer gamer, I really want that space back – and some more places to visit! (Pardon the pun, but one reason I went from GW2 to Elite: Dangerous was to explore more – the game is, quite practically, based in space.)

To showcase the new (and controllable) jumping mechanic in Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet set up jumping puzzles. It’s a little challenge with a souvenir at the end (usually just an achievement and a chest of stuff worth a couple of silver). Nice idea, as they are completely optional minigames. There are a couple of jumping puzzles that take hours and hours to complete because of that one jump you can’t make, but that just makes it all the more worth it when you make it to the end. Pity the rewards don’t scale based on how many times you fell down and died or nearly died.

Crafting is the economy driver. Gather resources, sell them to crafters. Crafters take materials, make junk, sell it cheap, then level up and sell things of more value. Higher level materials are (generally) worth more, so the higher the tier, the more return for gatherers, and so on and so forth. Crafting isn’t foolproof (the workbench does not have the most user-friendly layout), but it’s fine. Average. Nothing worth any special praise.

Guild Wars 2 has an average trade function (I’m pretty impressed by the paid-mail system in Elder Scrolls: Online). Trading in GW2 means either sending things directly to other players and not expecting anything back, or listing on the trading post. This is (amusingly) taxed heavily. In-game money, sure, but what in the world does ArenaNet do with the 10% of in-game money profit they tax on transactions (not to mention the listing fee)? In GW1 you could trade from person to person. Granted, you had to stand next to them, but that’s a small price to pay compared to 10% of a nice fancy 40-gold item.

Guilds are not as big a focus as the game’s title makes them out to be. Emblems are cool, guild halls are damned pricey, tiers are average and (nowadays) grindy, but it is nice to have guilds simply to collect your friends and fellow gamers. Guilds are chiefly hamstrung by one thing, in my opinion: items are one of the following: not bound, account-bound, and soulbound. There’s nothing for guilds specifically. There’s guild halls (kind of), but they don’t appear to be incredibly useful (yet?). Basically, guilds are just friend lists with politics.

World vs World is something I found to be a lot of fun. Ever wanted to play out a 100 vs 100 medieval fantasy battle? I did. And I had a ball doing so. Waves of allies crashing into banks of foes, pulling back, smashing into them again, popping buffs and consumables, crashing into them again, forcing them back, cutting off their retreat, circling and wheeling and crippling and knocking your foes down until the battlefield is littered with foes and little bags of loot (not kidding – WvW player kills actually drop items called bags of loot). Recent updates cut WvW back slightly, by replacing a nice map with an unattractive (well, some like it) and unpathable (I’ve yet to see someone say it’s fun to navigate)  map. Still, WvW is the focal point of guild fights, and almost lives up to the game’s title.

ArenaNet recently (well, last October) released the Heart of Thorns expansion for GW2. It added gliding and it added jungle maps. I’m not a jungle fan, but for the sake of somewhere new to explore I took them on. A lot of minigames were added to the new maps, as well as a lot of map restrictions (removed by progressing huge, map-wide events). It’s pretty tricky to get anywhere unless the map is highly-populated – and that brings us back to combat, which was not designed for teamwork. But gliding was a lot of fun. ArenaNet later added gliding to the vanilla maps as well, which is refreshing when traversing favorite old maps.

 

Pros

  • Good optimization for PC (this was hamstrung by the Heart of Thorns expansion, but hopefully that will be fixed by the time you read this)
  • Living World events and quests
  • Nice musical scores
  • Nostalgic locations reimagined and redesigned
  • Pretty landscapes
  • Solid, consistent, enjoyable setting
  • Smooth combat mechanics

Cons

  • Combat and teamwork hindered by restrictive skill design and capacity
  • Low focus on guild play (other than farming guild hall materials)
  • Poor selection of trade mechanics
  • The world feels small after its prequel
  • Tons of items that don’t need to be soulbound/account-bound
  • WvW has had some poor design choices, even though it is one of GW2’s most unique aspects

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Be forewarned: as with any review or reflective piece, this is wrought with spoilers. For better or for worse, I am making my position on the new Star Wars film clear.

I’ll start by explaining that there are two types of Star Wars fans: dabblers and live-ins. Dabblers watch the movies, sometimes, and maybe buy a Star Wars t-shirt or coffee mug. Live-ins watch, read, write, etc, and can cite various numbers of authors, titles and stories (not to mention countless film or book details word for word) from the series. The latter fans are now sitting in dark corners, sobbing their hearts out. Their world has been mercilessly obliterated.

Star Wars has lost its heart. Probably the biggest thing about any Star Wars story (this is why the X-Wing or Bounty Hunter spinoffs were so-so) was the sense of nobility. Whether it was sith or jedi, there was always something noble. Sith were coldly noble, something like Alexander or Julius Caesar. Powerful and cunning and aloof. Jedi were Arthurian knights, noble brothers in arms following an honorable and ancient code. But that’s all gone now; jedi, sith, droids, tusken raiders, they all act the same. Everyone and everything acts base and bland. It’s that beautiful Hollywood principle of flattening the playing field, I guess.

Next, Star Wars has turned to clichés and repetition. For a moment Han Solo brought his familiar, fresh feel and voice to the scene, but I guess the director got sick of letting him say non-bland lines, because a stop was quickly put to that. But what was with using the exact same lines to reintroduce the Milennium Falcon? Why did that even need to happen? Anyone watching the new film will either 1) know the ship already and be confused at how it got lost or why it was lost or what in blazes it was doing out of Han’s possession for so long or 2) not give a damn about spaceships and their general state and certainly not spare a thought about whether or not it is a bucket of bolts. Needless to say, there were many pointless lines that were directly stolen from the movies that directly prequelled this film. The Force Awakens uses countless recycled Hollywood lines (I mention this later as well) rather than original Lucas lines. This isn’t Die Hard X or Jurassic X.

Logic was spilled all over the floor and swept under the carpet from scene one. The very first glance we get of the stormtrooper, he is stunned by the death of his comrade. He goes utterly haywire about it. But two scenes later, without any misgivings, he’s blowing his comrades-in-arms away willy-nilly from the secondary gunning seat aboard a TIE fighter. What happened to the trauma induced by his dying partner tracing a (as in a typical zombie scene) four-finger trail of blood across his visor? But I’ve moved ahead of myself here – the first issue started with the yellow text. Luke has run away for no good reason – he’s fled! He was confronted by darkness (he’s faced that before as he’s had to face his own father in combat) but this time he fled, and for some unexplained reason left a map to his whereabouts (a galactic easter egg hunt) which all his friends and family have to solve if they are to survive the onslaught of their enemies. Back in Return of the Jedi, Luke learned pretty darned well that fleeing was not the way to solve anything. All his friends got in big trouble when he left. So now he’s done it again? The next thing that confused me was the swordplay. Everyone is a master swordsman. Several duels occur during the movie, and somehow sith have fallen beneath even stormtroopers in martial training. Not to mention that the lady of the story (not Leia, although it was nice to see her back) was even able to master a selection of force maneuvers after knowing she had force attunement for approximately a single day. It took Anakin and Luke Skywalker many years to even slightly channel their abilities, even though they were two of the most powerful jedi later in their lives. And why is the rebellion only four wings of X-wings big? They lose nearly ten X-wings and then everybody’s screaming that half the fleet has been wiped out! They’ve had more than twenty years without the emperor or Darth Vader around to build up their forces and contacts. The Empire was in shambles at the end of Return of the Jedi. Not to mention that they never brought in any Y-wings for the bombing runs – X-wings can stock a torpedo or two that can replace a bomb in a very tight pinch, but Y-wings are actual bombers. Any Star Wars fan knows that! And Ben (although Disney, you ought to realize that his name was actually Jacen), switched between two ultra-odd modes. Without his helmet, he cried and cried and cried all the time (very sith of him). With his helmet, he became stronger but for some reason his voice modulator was perpetually broken; it was nigh on impossible to understand anything he said. It’s not like he has voice issues like Anakin had when his body had been ravaged by flame until he had to be reconstructed, so what was that all about? I can go much, much further into logic issues here, but I’d better leave the rest up to you to find for now. This post would be a few thousand words longer if I included them all.

Acting. I’m not sure if this was due to the Star Wars acting competitions or not (budget talent), but so many of the actors appeared to be over-dramatizing non-dramatic scenes (adding unnecessary melodrama). Wide eyes, tense voices, urgent attitudes, all the time. Even in the dead calm of desert solitude, Rey acts sullen and pouty. Why? She might have been apathetic or losing hope. She instead looked like she just got rejected from… cheerleader tryouts? I’m glad for everyone who got to act in such a once-beautiful franchise, but maybe they could have used some direction and/or makeup? This wasn’t the first draft of a web series or a new series. It’s a new instalment into one of the most highly-acclaimed sci-fi franchises in existence.

The canon decanonization was a brutal slap-in-the-face. Timothy Zahn wrote some absolutely epic books for Lucas. The Hand of Thrawn trilogy, to name one series. Jude Watson also wrote fantastic stories for Star Wars. Is Disney really so illiterate that its people cannot take good stories from the existing canon and have to instead blacklist them as unofficial to make their own (severely lacking) story stand on its own feet? Timothy Zahn already laid out thrilling, logical, exciting sequels to Return of the Jedi. The material was there. The story was simple. Instead, Disney scrunched lines from Die Hard and Taken and Jurassic Park (“you’re keeping raptors here?”) and other thriller films and needlessly crammed them into Star Wars. Star Wars didn’t need recycled lines. Words aren’t about to add to global litter or anything. People may have groaned at Lucas for some things, but originality was never one of those reasons.

Will I say anything good about the new film? Sure. The landscapes were gorgeous; the desert panorama of wrecked destroyers, for instance, was simply breathtaking. But concept artists have always done a good job. Seriously. And effects are pretty run-of-the-mill now – they stopped being special after The Matrix 3 and Transformers.

So come on, Disney: was this a joke? Should I have left the cinema laughing? Honestly, I’m not generally one for crying, but this brought me pretty close. You’ve trashed the most fantastic sci-fi & fantasy universe that was ever realized. Just knowing that you’re in the process of making further sequels is carving me up inside.

George Lucas, please… can’t you take your work of art back? I adored Star Wars.

We’re Alive – A “Zombie” Story of Survival

werealive

Do you like zombies? I don’t. That doesn’t stop me reading, watching, or listening to the occasional zombie story.

We’re Alive is a solid zombie story. It’s told from a combination of two styles: personal reflection and conversation. Various characters from the story talk about events and setting as they write their various journals, and when action scenes take place, characters are constantly conversing, talking about what is happening, and generally going crazy. It’s done well.

For a fairly small publisher (as far as I can tell), Wayland Productions does a remarkable job with this story. It’s an audio drama that is complete with hundreds of sound effects and dozens of good voice actors. And a half-decent story.

As far as stories go, it is episodic, and therefore has to keep tossing bait to the audience to keep us invested. This appears in several ways: the “zombies” get stronger or smarter, which presents more challenges for the heroes; the vicinity’s supplies wear thin; heroes are kidnapped or get lost; criminals pose ever-increasing threats to the heroes – and each of these elements intensifies gradually, with each tension rotating focus per episode.

Character is a strongpoint for We’re Alive. Each of the heroes is told to keep a journal to both help them stay sane and keep each other informed about things they learn from the changed world. Some of the characters like this idea, others aren’t so interested. All of them do. Their opinions about other people and things are all different in unique and very interesting ways. Some of the characters are called to lead. Others wish they were in charge. Some of them resent the current leadership. All the characters have backstories and “start of the end” stories. Some of the characters are very attached to certain things they salvaged when the world ended. Every voice is different, and not just because there’s a different voice actor reading the script.

The setting is very much zombie-esque. Every corner is tense. Every abandoned car could be a death-trap. Every fuel station is pure horror waiting to happen. The cities are broken. Utilities are minimal if they exist at all. Something I found haunting was that even the water was dangerous. Two of the heroes step onto a boat at one stage. They never try that again.

The audio side of the story exceeded several professional standards. Everything was clear. Sure, some conversations were slurred – but when is conversation ever completely clear? The sounds were crisp, solid, gritty. It felt like everything was recorded specifically for the audio drama. No stock sounds. No Age of Empires owl noises. No Command and Conquer death cries. And the strongest point of the audio was the calls of the… uh… “zombies”. They were haunting. Their baleful howls still echo in the recesses of my mind, and I haven’t heard them for quite a while now. Think of something of a cross between a Jurassic Park tyrannosaurus rex and a wolf. Well, that was the big ones. The smaller ones had slightly different noises.

The “zombies”. They weren’t exactly zombies, which is probably why the subtitle is “a ‘zombie’ story of survival”. Zombies are overdone, so this was neat. Some of them are human in appearance, but from the characters’ descriptions of them and their noises, there are different mutations. My mind pictured an array of mutations: some like dinosaurs, some like wolves, some like people, and more. Definitely more appealing than the standard array of zombies who just need a good coffee to put them straight.

All in all, I highly recommend We’re Alive. It’s a chilling tale, but well worth the haunting. Everything feels fresh, and it’s professionally produced. Keep a good blanket nearby, and maybe leave a lamp on, but definitely have a listen.

Mass Effect

Mass Effect. There’s an awful lot that can be said, some things that oughtn’t be said, and a few things that don’t need to be said. I’ll take the series as a whole rather than focusing on one game at a time.

First impression: wow, this is amazing. Everything feels smooth and epic.
A few story choices later: this sucks. Everything feels locked in and alienated from us.
Sober realization (days in): hmm, that was okay. The game was not terrible overall; bad design choices stopped the game from achieving true greatness, but they didn’t completely destroy it.

Mass Effect tried to market itself based on narrative choice (freedom to design your own story) and a personalised character. Well, if freedom means a choose-your-own-adventure book (the kind where every choice we make you ends up with our character in a trap or eaten by wolves), sure. The only choices we can actually make are ones like:

  • Do you want to kill Character A or Character B?
  • Do you want listen to Character C, which will make Character B hate you forever and leave your story?
  • Do you want to destroy Nation A or Nation B?
  • Do you want to give an order that makes no sense and you know will kill either Character D or Character E?

You get the point. The choices are ultimately rigged, and not in “this could work out either way” kinds of ways, either – in blatant, “we know both choices are really bad, but to continue the game we have to choose one” kinds of ways. There are some choices in the game (such as inadvertantly rescuing a famous admiral) that allow us to open up more intelligent options when we make bigger choices, but saving the admiral meant sacrificing Group F to save him anyways. Same problem.

Also, the choices are all made during cut-scenes. In other words, if a cut-scene comes up, we know there’s going to be a choice. We don’t know anything about what the choice will entail or involve, but we know we will have to make one.

On the lines of a story sold based on narrative, the whole thing is a (spoiler) world-is-ending tale. Never been there before. And this one was even worse, because it made very little sense and completely took all meaning out of the choices and gameplay we had gone through. Come on, BioWare, did you just give up on the story? Why else would you implement an all-powerful, unrelated character who simply states that you made a bad game?

Did I start out hard? Yep. BioWare has such a grip on the market that starting out hard is necessary. And it’s not going to get a whole lot easier yet.

The gameplay was, well… amusing. If there’s one thing I’ve complained a lot about in Mass Effect, it’s the fact that combat was a glorified version of whack-a-mole. You heard me. We sit behind a bench, wait for the gunfire to calm down a little, stand up, wait for them to pop their heads up, spray a round, and drop back behind our shelter. This is 60% of the game. Oh yeah, and our guns create their own ammo, but somehow (in Mass Effect 2 and 3) they run out of it. BioWare liked to explain it by saying that we actually have to replace the heat pack in our guns, and we collect heat packs to replenish ammo, but hey – what if we only fire one bullet every ten minutes? How are our guns heating up so badly? I’m not against the idea of having players try options other than guns, but in whack-a-mole combat, melee fighting is completely out of the picture. Seriously. Also, the movement limitations were sad. Mass Effect played out in a beautiful sci-fi setting, but all we can do is kind of walk, kind of sprint, and kind of dodge. No jumping, no extra pathing (unless it was scripted), no swimming through void in zero gravity. Mass Effect 1 had an issue with repetitive planet surface scenarios (land, drive, drive, drive, get out, clean up enemies), but rather than improve on this element, Mass Effect 2 and 3 completely removed it. We could scan the planets, but that was it. No beautiful landscape view, just a planet on a screen.

Relationships. This was almost the only reason Mass Effect was rated M, and yet it was brutally mechanical. A relationship is so much more than just following someone around with your tongue out until they turn around and say “let’s do it”. The relationships in this game reminded me of Harvest Moon DS. Just find the flower the girl of your dreams enjoys most (or, if you want to save money, a trinket from the mines you can dig up on the top level) and keep handing stacks and stacks of them to her until she starts blushing. Fantastic representation of reality. Works every time. Oh, but then you have to go save lots of pixies (by a lot, I mean more than a hundred) one at a time before you can proceed. Mass Effect made relationships a lot simpler. Just keep clicking the dialogue option that says “I want you”. Takes about three conversations.

Yep, that was harsh. But Mass Effect wasn’t all bad.

The scenery in Mass Effect was gorgeous. Much of the game was set on planet surfaces, where we got to see aliens, awesome panoramas, spaceshipwrecks, secret labs, ruined monasteries, and much more. It was (as I already said) gorgeous. The textures were done well. The game’s musical score complemented the setting perfectly. Haunting, beautiful melodies. Sci-fi electronic tracks. Songs that seemed to complement the very stars in the sky. But was it too little too late?

In conclusion, Mass Effect was beautiful. But while aesthetics alone may suit drawings or movies, a game needs much, much more. The cultures and characters you encounter make for an interesting game. The story and gameplay strip that away a little bit, but if you are looking for a game purely because you love sci-fi settings and music, definitely go for it. If you are hunting for intuitive gameplay and love a good story, don’t play it.

 

Overall layout of the game:

60%: whack-a-mole
30%: spontaneous, genocidal choices
5%: robotic, Harvest Moon relationships
5%: other (galaxy map travel, upgrading weapons, complaining about lack of ammo)

 

Pros

  • Smooth combat control
  • Science fiction locations and people in a fascinating setting
  • Beautiful galaxy views and scenery
  • Haunting-yet-charming musical scores
  • Decent optimization for PC

Cons

  • Repetitive, whack-a-mole combat
  • Extremely limited movement, no zero-gravity moments
  • Trainwreck ending

Story Structure

I’ve got this thing against people swearing by a single story structure. I don’t quite know why it is, but – oh, yeah, I do. Watched a new Hollywood release recently? Seen it before? I have. Seen it too many times before? Me too. And I just can’t get over the idea that while each and every release has a thread – or maybe even two threads – of potential, someone or something is throwing it away.

And then another movie comes out. Same story. Quite literally.

Cinema has so much potential, what with all the tech, all the costumes, all the actors, and the studio community. It strikes me as odd that production teams with so much skill and experience just settle for basic, over-used stories. I don’t like being able to predict absolutely everything that is going to happen during the film. Maybe I’d like to just think of myself as some kind of gifted prophet, but I can’t – other people seem to have the same gift.

It happens a lot with books, too. I used to like to say “it’s all the fault of our teachers”, but if they were anything like my teachers (that’s you, Earl), then they were giving us good structural advice for when our stories are in trouble. In other words, you’re going nowhere. Kaput. Not as an “if you don’t use this structure, you aren’t writing a story” statement. Writers who took any kind of course all heard the fantastic and miraculous tale of the ultimate structure: The Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell). We’ve probably all seen Kurt Vonnegut talk about three simple story structures. And then, if we still read books, we see it in action.

So when I bumped into the short stories about Geralt of Rivia (who some of us know as the witcher), I was thrown off my feet. They weren’t particularly fantastic. They weren’t extremely comprehensible. Heck, they didn’t even seem to be in any particular order when I first read The Last Wish. But they were interesting. They were unpredictable. What I saw in them was a kind of new potential for storytelling: little snippets of adventure. They felt more like events than structured stories. Instead of reading through them and thinking “ah, yeah, so now he turns around and goes sad about life for a few minutes before someone sets him back on his feet”, I found that the stories were organic. Sure, there were small overdoses of heroism, but that’s nothing compared to overdosing on story structure. I’d rather see a (kind of) invincible character doing interesting things than slog through a story where a true-to-life character runs through the motions (and yet, is that really true to life?).

That’s not to say that I like superhero stories. They are endurable, sometimes (except that most of them follow the same story structure anyways), but I’m talking about something else. I want to read interesting stories with relatable characters.

Hence the title of this blog post. I’m working on episodic stories. They are more for interesting content than any kind of structure. Sure, I might slip into some kind of clichéd structure for one or two stories, but my focuses are content, setting, action, world. Organic storytelling and interesting content.