Archive for July, 2009

24
Jul
09

Martin Amis was right… writing and video games.

I know this post is late… I was holding off on a writing a post until I had played one particular game a little bit more, but I still don’t think I’ve spent enough time with it to be able to give an adequate post. So, today’s (yesterday’s) post is going to have to be on something completely untopical… like most things here.

We are going back to a gaming topic though! We’re going to combine my recent literary run on this blog with the usual gaming nonsense that I talk about. I’m just coming out of a two week gaming haze, so let’s talk about writing in video games.

It’s depressing if you really take the time to consider it; most video game writing is repetitive and uninspired gobs of dialog and cliche. The “story” of so many games today either comes off as a complete afterthought or just serves to clue the player in as to what previously established story they are loosely following (whether it’s the elite enforcement squad FPS or the magical rock collecting JRPG or whatever). It may be completely tired to say this in this current generation of consoles, but the emphasis on graphics can only go so far… the writing and story quality has, for the most part, completely flatlined over the last 10 years.

I’ve said before on this blog that I’m a challenge oriented gamer who is all about the endorphin release and being told by the game that I did the right thing. Really, I’m like a monkey with extremely good reflexes. I complain all the time that games are too easy and I search around for ridiculous challenges for no real reason. Every now and then though, I do want to be taken along on a truly interesting and involved story, or explore a completely new game universe.

The thing is, I have no idea what can be done to solve this problem. All I can really do is hope that the focus shifts a little more towards original storytelling… or at least sharper writing. I will offer a few hints about avoiding cliches though, just in case you have the ear of a game developer or two. These suggestions are broken up by genre, and most of the time they don’t even really involve an overhaul of the core gameplay, just a slight change in presentation.

RPGS – Find some other reason for the heroes to go through seven or eight consecutive and differently themed dungeons. Do away with long forgotten evils on the verge of reawakening and destroying the earth. I’m sure there can be a truly compelling villain and a truly sympathetic hero without having them both try to gather up a series of old artifacts that combine to create some ultimate power.

FPS – Come up with better protagonists and motivations. Most shooter characters are completely devoid of personality and sometimes even a name. You’re literally putting the player behind that character’s eyes… give them something to work with.

All genres – Use amnesia sparingly. I understand, the idea is to quickly get the player’s initial bewilderment from the interface and game world to match that of the character’s, but it’s completely overused.

Adventure games – Oh nevermind… the writing is usually one of the selling points of an adventure game.

Strategy games – This is a tough one since I recently had so much fun with Red Alert 3’s cartoonish storytelling. As a general tip, the generals and whatnot that the player interacts with should have a personality, and the player should have a better sense of the overall war in a campaign.

Sandbox games – DON’T chain the player to your story. The point is to let them run free, so let them do that as soon as possible. Let the story be there for those who want it, but don’t make it mandatory.

So, while offering no real solutions to the problem… there’s a tip or two.

What I’m saying is, the video games industry needs more english majors.

20
Jul
09

The Tragedy Of Monkey Dust

I’ve been rewatching one of my favorite TV shows of all time: Monkey Dust. It’s a British cartoon that aired for just three extremely short seasons. The show is made up of a bunch of little sketches from many different writers and animators. Some of them are one time sketches, others are long running and repeating ones.

Now that might sound interesting enough, but let me say this: Monkey Dust is probably the darkest comedy you will EVER see. It makes fun of suicide, pedophiles, islamic terrorists, and many different sexual perversions. Yet, it never feels like it’s being shocking just for the hell of it. This show should be used as a teaching tool in any course on satire. It’s fucking excellent.

As much as I love this show, it’s not for everyone. A few people I’ve mentioned it to have found it simply too dark for their tastes. Again, it’s not a matter of the show being too shocking, but more the show being too good at what it does. Some people will think the show is too biting to be funny, but it should still get points for being so affecting. Everyone else will find the show absolutely hilarious and suitably incisive.

That’s another thing, the show has some truly tender and true to life moments, you just don’t know when they’re going to come. Not every sketch is put up for the sake of a quick laugh, some of them might actually get through your defenses and hit your emotions for a moment or two. Monkey Dust is constantly changing in tone and feel, but it remains interesting throughout.

There are several animation styles, each one should appeal to a different type of audience. Some of them are very clean and refined, some of them have more of that Ren and Stimpy feel to them. I particularly like the somewhat old school feel of the studio behind the “Daisy Harris Murder Enquiry” sketch. Just to give you a feel of one of their running gags, this one brutally makes fun of the ineptness of law enforcement and the media’s fixation with missing white girls.

Some will say that some of the running gags are a bit too repetitive. This is only true a few times throughout the series, especially in season one. They get much better at mixing things up as the show goes on. Many times, they use the running gags to lure you in, only to go the other direction at the last second… these are often brilliant moments.

Oh, Monkey Dust also features one of the best opening sequences ever on a TV show. It has a bitchin’ soundtrack that heavily features Goldfrapp as well. How are you still not watching this yet?

The title of this post, the “tragedy” of Monkey Dust, is that there will never be a show produced for OUR country that is as funny as this. Also, Monkey Dust has stopped running since the death of one of the show’s creators, the legendary Harry Thompson. There are a few rumors of it returning for a fourth series though… let’s cross our fingers!

16
Jul
09

House of Leaves… Book of Pages!?

Let’s continue the mineshaft’s literary streak. I recently read Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a book that people seem to either completely love or completely hate. Oddly enough, I fell somewhere in the middle, so this will function less like a book review and more like a recommendation and some points of caution.

For those of you who don’t know, House of Leaves is a very complicated and very deliberate book. There is a book within this book, which is an essay discussing a documentary film about a haunted house. There are many different artistic forces in this book, from the description of the documentary film direction, to the book within the book, to the character who found said book, to the editors notes… all of them are talking, sometimes all at once.

So it’s confusing. But is it rewarding for those who want to take the time and read it and have that “figuring it out” experience? For the most part, yes. There are moments of this book that are absolutely brilliant. House of Leaves will really keep you guessing, and by just a few pages in, it becomes quite a page turner as well. At the book’s “most fictional” level – the level most distorted by disputes over fact and fiction and the many different voices, is the haunted house story. This is by far the most compelling part of the novel, and the book is worth reading just for that.

But what about all the extra stuff? Well… I found it to be a little hit or miss. Some sections I found to be really creative and interesting, others I found to be pretty uninteresting or needlessly obtuse. House of Leaves plays with the “parameters” of the novel as an object by playing with page spacing, font, letter coloring, and footnotes. Sometimes these will come off as clever, other times they come off as strange for the sake of strange.

I will mention now that I didn’t have time to read the many appendix sections, since the book had to go back to the library, but perhaps I will take the time to hunt it down again in the future. So, with that strange recommendation, let’s go to some quick points of caution and points of interest… depending on who you are.

– There are many new or at the very least newly presented literary ideas. Tons of experimentation. Writers and those interested in offbeat literature will find this interesting.

– The story of the house is quite scary. Not scary in a walls dripping blood way, or a screaming ghost face way, but in a very subtle and creepy way. It’s that kind of “there is something wrong with the universe… and it might be out to get you” fear… this will be a deal breaker for some people I’m sure, but I absolutely loved it.

– It’s really confusing. The question is whether you will believe it’s needlessly confusing or not. I fell somewhere in the middle on this topic as I mentioned. Some people will refuse to rest until they decipher the meaning of every little strange bit… others will shrug off the whole book as pretentious.

– The many layers of the story are often distracting, perhaps on purpose. I found during one section where the horror part of the book within the book was picking up, where many characters were in danger and there was tons of suspense, there were many long and dull interjections from the “unreliable narrator” who discovered the book within the book. It’s probably done on purpose, but I found it absolutely irritating.

– Footnotes. Footnotes within footnotes within footnotes. Many times, the footnotes are citations to essays that don’t exist, written by people that don’t exist. Sometimes they’ll take up a third of the page. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of summer reading, avoid this one.

So, House of Leaves is a unique book that I totally don’t regret reading. I hope this little post helped you ascertain whether you should check this one out and let it haunt your thoughts or not.

13
Jul
09

Favorite Novels – Part 2

Let’s continue my list of my favorite novels from last post.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas. I’m not enough of a douche to write out the French title instead. I’ve been recently rediscovering this book; it’s absolutely fantastic. For me, what makes this one great is the way in which it satisfies so many wishes at once. It’s an adventure story, a sprawling epic with lots of great characters, and a pretty serious revenge tale. I love this story so much that I’ll unconditionally love almost anything that models itself after it. If you haven’t read this one, check it out… it’ll be the fastest 1200 pages you ever read.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller. It took me a while to get around to reading this classic, but it completely belongs on this list. It might be the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s a strange kind of a funny too, that biting and revealing kind of funny that can be depressing to some. The book does take a turn towards the end as it becomes more serious and the full impact of the story sinks in, so just be prepared for that. This book did make me want to run out and read more of Joseph Heller’s work, since I don’t get the feeling he’s a one hit wonder, but I have yet to read anything else by him.

Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. What!? A fantasy book that ISN’T the Lord of the Rings on the same list as so many literary powerhouses!? Yup, it’s my list. I’m rather picky about my fantasy books, but as far as I’m concerned China Mieville is the best thing to happen to the genre in a long time. If you haven’t heard of this book, it’s an adventure tale set in a completely new universe that has equal parts fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Part of why this book lingers with me is Mieville’s ability to conjure up beautifully gross images. There are many many moments from this book that will stay with me for a long time.

High Rise – JG Ballard. I’ll be honest, this one was a total toss up between High Rise and Crash. High Rise wins only because it has what is probably my favorite opening sentence of all time : “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Liang reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months”. I’m just going to leave it at that, if that doesn’t make you want to read the book, nothing else will. I hear there’s a movie being made by the guy that directed Cube… awesome!

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick. I really don’t get most of the appeal of Blade Runner. There is kind of a legendary mineshaft post that is waiting to be written on that subject. I do like the source book quite a bit though. It’s one of those stories where even the little throwaway ideas are intensely interesting. One of these ideas, the concept of “kipple”, or junk and nonsense that just builds up endlessly is a really cool one. This is a must read for any appreciator of sci-fi.

Okay so that’s my list of my favorite 10 novels… I left a few out, but that’s what you have to do in a list I guess. It is subject to change, since I could be forgetting some, or I could find new ones in the future. I have a list of short stories as well, but I’ll save that for later.

I hope a few people go away from this with a tip or two as to what to read this summer. 🙂

09
Jul
09

Favorite Novels – part 1

Today we’re going to get a bit more literary than usual here on the mineshaft. For some reason, I’ve compiled a completely arbitrary top list of ten of my favorite novels. Unlike stupid Facebook though, i’m not just gonna list ’em… I’m going to talk about each one briefly. Keep in mind this is 100% personal taste and 100% subjective. It’s also quite possible that I missed a book that I love, in which case I’ll change this later.  I also decided not to number this list, so it’s in no particular order.

Brave New World. This is a pretty obvious contender in many people’s top list. I happen to think it has all (or most) of the awesome of 1984, but that it’s a whole lot better all around. The world building might be better in 1984, but the characters and story are so much stronger in Brave New World. There’s also far greater potential for humor, for me at least, in Brave New World. I like ’em both, but the edge goes to Huxley on this one.

Frankenstein. Oooh Mary Shelley how you slay me. One of the first and still one of the best science fiction stories. It’s now considered kind of tired to write a science fiction story where the general moral is “be careful! Science and knowledge can lead to eeeevil things!”. I think Frankenstein is one completely fair exception to this rule though. There’s a good amount of horror and atmosphere in this book, both the gross in your face kind and the slow and creeping kind. There are several paragraphs that you will read and WISH you had written them – and that’s one mark of good writing. Most people overlook Frankenstein, but it has some extremely powerful images. It also went on to influence a huge amount of popular culture, so there!

A Canticle for Leibowitz. If you haven’t heard of this post apocalyptic sci-fi story, quickly stop reading this because I really don’t want to ruin much of it for you. The reason this one makes my list is it has this strange kind of charm to it. It’s a mostly grim story, but it has plenty of sneaky and subtle ironies. The real beauty of this story is that it can be as soul crushingly sad or as darkly funny as you like. It really doesn’t push you in either direction or force you to remain consistent moment to moment either. There’s a sequel out too… I might have to check that out.

Watchmen. Aha! If Time magazine can put it on their list, so can I! There’s really nothing more to be said about Watchmen. I mentioned it in my movie review, I’m a super fan… as everyone should be. Just read the damn thing, you’ll love it.

Wuthering Heights. I don’t know why, but in my head this novel is embroiled in a cat fight to the death with Pride and Prejudice. It’s really not a fair matchup either, because Wuthering Heights absolutely destroys it. This one can be read for so many things: the love story, the complicated narrative, the study in evil, there are so many angles with this book. It has plenty of that gloomy “gothic” imagery as well.

Okay, looks like this is going to have to be a two parter. The other five will be in next monday’s post. See ya then!

06
Jul
09

The Black Donnellys should not have been cancelled.

I watched a fair amount of tv while I was knocked out for a week and a half with my illness. One thing I finally got around to watching was the Black Donnellys, a short lived NBC show about an irish mob family. I tried watching it back when it actually aired, but after I found out it was cancelled I bailed on it.

I finally got around to watching it all the way through, and now I have to say the cancellation of this show was criminal. The network pulled it after only 5 episodes, in order to air “the real life wedding crashers” … eew.

Anyway, the show is pretty good. There are some melodramatic moments and the soundtrack is at times a little too heavy handed, but it’s still better than 90% of what’s on TV. It probably doesn’t stack up that well next to the Sopranos, but I wouldn’t know… I’m not the TV geek of this household.

Why’s it worth watching? Great performances all around, solid writing, and good characters. I particularly like the character of Joey Ice Cream, who is the narrator of the show. Several of the episodes try to undercut Joey’s authority as the narrator, so it isn’t exactly clear how true all these events are. This is good, it allows for several cute little meta story telling moments, while also letting the producers get away with more than a little creative freedom.

It’s loosely loosely based loosely on the real life Black Donnellys. The time period is different and it takes place in Hell’s Kitchen… I’m sure there are many other changes as well. If you’re a stickler for details, this may bother you. I don’t know a whole lot about the actual history the show is based on, but I felt the need to mention that.

I suggest watching the first episode and seeing if it grabs you or not. It does have one of the strongest first episodes I’ve seen in a long time. It very quickly establishes all the characters, let’s you get to know them, and then throws them all into hell … all in one hour. Watch this episode and you will probably be on board for the rest of the series. It does slow down a little bit around the middle, where the Donnelly brothers and the “evil” characters on the show are at a bit of a standoff, but it builds to an action packed season finale.

Speaking of that finale… I’ll warn you now it doesn’t completely wrap everything up. There will be plenty of questions about the fates of several of the characters, but still it’s worth seeing. Without ruining anything it still ends on a strong note.

I won’t bitch about it the same way I do about Arrested Development or Firefly getting cancelled, but I will bitch about it just a little more than Wonderfalls. It’s amazing how short lived a show can be these days…

It’s only one season long, give The Black Donnelly’s a try.

02
Jul
09

The City and the city

So I’m back… I apologize for my missingness lately. It’s okay though, it let my FF7 post get a bunch of hits. I’ll be back on the normal schedule from now on. Today, we’ll be talking about one of my favorite authors these days : China Mieville. I recently finished his newest book, The City and The City (the second “the city” is printed backwards on all the covers I’ve seen).

What’s it about? Well without giving too much away, it’s a detective story. Like with Twin Peaks or Veronica Mars, it opens with the murder of an attractive and bright young woman, and a detective needs to figure out all of the questions behind the killing. However, this is a China Mieville novel, so of course it’s much more badass than all that.

The story is set in a completely new fictional world for Mieville. It seems to be roughly in the present day in terms of technology and it even takes place somewhere in normal Europe. The weird part is that it takes place in two parallel cities, called Beszel and Ul-Qoma. These two cities run together and have a very strange “cross-hatched” border system. Their cultures are similar in many ways, but different in many others. For example, some colors and architecture styles are illegal in one city and legal in another.

This is done to keep the cities distinct and separate. There is a mysterious force in play known as “Breach” that steps in and removes anyone who crosses the border between the two cities illegally, or smuggles something from one city to another. Is all of this fantasy logic involved in the murder? You betcha!

The thing is, as weird and detailed as this all sounds… it’s relatively restrained compared to Mieville’s other writings. The supernatural aspects of the story are presented more as a fact of life and they draw way less attention to themselves than in his other work. The “imagination per page” ratio is much lower than something like Perdido Street Station.

That doesn’t mean the book isn’t good though, just that it’s different for him. He clearly has a tremendous respect for the detective story genre. This story follows much of the same basic formula, but has just enough interesting little twists on it. There’s a strange kind of bureaucratic justice system thrown in on top of the already bureaucratic justice system of the two cities that makes the book consistently interesting to read. Mieville has a gift for constantly implying an even bigger degree of “world building” while developing his detailed worlds, and that is totally on display with this novel.

I would recommend this book to the middle of the Venn diagram of detective fiction fans and fantasy fans. Of course, it’s an easy sell to a Mieville fan already, but for anyone else I would recommend checking out one of his other books first. Some will find this one a little too tough to get into, but fans will have no problem with it. Check it out if you’re at all interested.