Monday, March 29, 2010

What I want out of the PlayStation Move

I've heard some Wii Call of Duty players claim that, if they could somehow magically link their online with the PS3 or 360 versions, they would totally smoke those pad players with their Wii Remotes. There has never been anything technically preventing Wii first-person shooters from including traditional control options, but, as far as I know, no Wii FPS has offered this. So the one thing I really want to see with the PlayStation Move is a shooter that will let these wand players try and prove, once and for all, that their motion controls are superior to dual-analog pad controls. Maybe the same game could even offer keyboard-and-mouse controls, since there is nothing technically preventing that on the PS3. Of course they wouldn't be playing against me in any case, but I'd still be interested in the (hopefully hilarious) results.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chubby Rain

Gotcha, suckas! It's actually heavy rain!

Yes, let me tell you all about Heavy Rain, David Cage and Quantic Dream's much-ballyhooed PS3-exclusive really-not-a-game work of interactive fiction. I don't have it and won't be playing it until long after the horse is dead and devoured. Obviously, these last few months have been unusually packed with hot new releases, and so my plate is presently full. But I did find time to check out the Heavy Rain demo, and I know you're all just dying to hear my impressions.

In the first part of the demo, you play a private investigator, asking questions and looking for leads. As you walk the short and direct path to your one destination, the feel evokes old-school Resident Evil, complete with tank controls and fixed camera angles. The scene concludes with an action sequence that is like a less cheap version of the knife fight from RE4--essentially a branching string of pre-choreographed cut scenes, with the player only having to press the right button in time at each cut to come out ahead. As was the case with Resident Evil, it's a questionable design choice to communicate such dark and serious material through the most hilarious mechanics imaginable. In fact, Heavy Rain is even more slapstick, since virtually every action, from opening a door to engaging in dialogue, is handled through a fiddly quick time event sequence.

Nevertheless, I actually did really enjoy this part. It felt almost like the developer made Heavy Rain as a movie first, then just added button prompts any time the protagonist was supposed to do something. That's a gross oversimplification, but I don't know if I would even object to that sort of interactive movie game anymore. I do enjoy an action-intensive session of Bayonetta or the occasional numbers-heavy RPG, but my stamina is not boundless, and there are times when I would welcome something less technically demanding. And I personally don't really mind QTEs. As frustrating as it was, I truly believe that the RE4 knife fight could not have been done any better. The interactivity was sufficient to convey the unforgiving tightrope walk that was their combat, and the scene would have lost a lot of impact, had the sophisticated stunt choreography been replaced with repetitive gameplay animations. Moreover, Heavy Rain shows off the versatility of the QTE as a mechanic that can be applied to any action, allowing for gameplay experiences that do not rely just on pressing buttons to make characters attack. In the future, this could lead to character-based games in genres other than action. Of course I'm not advocating a future full of interactive movies, but maybe Heavy Rain is the sort of casual game that I could appreciate in moderation.

The second half of the demo is much rougher. This time, you play a different detective as he investigates a murder scene. It is here that Heavy Rain reveals itself as an adventure game in the vein of Deja Vu. Whereas the first segment basically proceeded on rails, this second part leaves you on your own to thoroughly scan your surroundings and pick up clues. Of course, Resident Evil was basically an adventure game with limited action elements, and I can still enjoy Phoenix Wright, but Heavy Rain seems to combine the worst elements of each--the directionless tedium of point-and-click investigation with the uncooperative controls of Resident Evil. It's a rather jarring switch to this from the interactive movie of the previous segment, and it kind of made me want to stop playing.

After too many minutes of meandering with no idea what they want you to see, it's enough to make you throw up your hands and admit finally that, yes, these controls really are terrible, and, yes, pointing and clicking would be better. And it's all too much and you find yourself just running away, no idea where you're headed, and it comes to you staring down a dark and dirty alley, ready to fall, to succumb, to embrace oblivion. But there is no embrace, no gentle fade to black, but the most violent, senses-shattering slap to the face, so that all becomes just the budda-budda-budda of the still-racing heart they tore out of you. And the controls don't respond and the console doesn't respond and finally you just have to shut it down the hard way. And that, my friend, is love Heavy Rain.

Now bring on Super Street Fighter IV already. I wanna play as that oily guy.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Earth Defense Force 2017

To date, Japanese developer Sandlot has made nine games released by six publishers. That just covers their Japanese releases, although it so happens that very little of their output has made it out of Japan. Far from being hired muscle, they really only develop games in a very peculiar genre that they themselves created on the PS1 with Remote Control Dandy. Remote Control Dandy cast players in the role of a human character who would have to defend the city by remotely controlling a giant robot. That design was expanded upon in Robot Alchemic Drive, Sandlot's first North American release and also my favorite PS2 game. More fully realized in its ambitious design than any other game I've played, RAD pit giant mechs against giant aliens in colossal clashes that always left the urban environment utterly devastated. It went largely unnoticed in America, but Japan would get a few more remote-controlled city-destroying robot games out of Sandlot. Perhaps the developer's most successful games, however, have been the Chikyuu Boueigun or "Earth Defense Force" titles, which basically took the RAD engine and removed the robots. The first two installments quietly posted up some decent figures as budget-priced releases in Japan and Europe, but only the third Chikyuu Boueigun title made it to North America, where it again became a sort of sleeper hit budget title as Earth Defense Force 2017 for the Xbox 360.

So, how does Sandlot's signature design work in a game that is missing the one element--the giant robots--that it was built around in the first place? Well, although the remote-controlled robots are gone in EDF 2017, you can definitely trace the game's lineage back to RAD and Sandlot's other robot games. The game's most notable aspect is its sense of scale--not just the size of the enemies but the extent of the destruction that enemies and players alike can wreak. As players battle as human soldiers on foot against giant ants, as well as sinister robots that tower forty stories tall, the real delight is in seeing how much of the city you can level within a stage (before it is all miraculously rebuilt for the next level). Even small arms tear into skyscrapers as though ripping through paper, and city blocks collapse like houses of cards into smoke and rubble which you can then walk triumphantly over. Yeah, the game's flimsy, almost nonexistent story tasks you with defending the earth from alien invaders, but, unlike in RAD, nobody keeps a tally of the collateral damage, and when the robots start dropping from those UFOs right into the middle of the city and begin unleashing their rapid-fire laser cannons, the urgency of the situation does not afford us the luxury of choosing where we bring them down. They fall where they fall, and if that happens to be on top of the residential district, then we can't really be held accountable for the losses of life and property. Or if a shopping complex gets between you and your target, you're not seriously going to waste time making that long walk around, are you?

For sure, it's an impressive game for its budget, and the spectacle of Gort's big brothers laying waste to the city during actual gameplay consistently inspires awe as perhaps no other game does. Even without great production values, Sandlot has no equal when it comes to depicting outlandish sci-fi titans enacting over-the-top violence upon a startlingly realistic setting. But let there be no delusions that this is more than a budget release. EDF 2017 boasts a similar commitment to its gameplay premise as RAD, but that premise in this case is far simpler. This is a game about the purity of blasting alien bugs that go flying on impact and explode into massive clouds of green goo. With nothing else to distract from the arcade-style experience, the game promises a sort of primal satisfaction but is overly shallow. Whereas RAD stood out because of its ludicrously convoluted yet incomparably brilliant control scheme, EDF 2017 is about as simple as it gets (which is probably appropriate, given that the series is part of D3 Publisher's "Simple" line in Japan). It's an exceedingly spartan third-person shooter, where you run around a city and wield some clumsy but explosive firearms against hordes of bugs and robots. Against these enemies with little AI but great numbers and/or health, you just fire away as rapidly as you can in their general direction. It's ultimately an even more mindless version of Dynasty Warriors, with bigger effects and better draw distance but fewer meaningful characters or objectives. With over fifty levels and five difficulty settings, it's a value package with a lot of content to keep players busy for a long time, but most of the missions offer exactly the same experience. In nearly every stage, the only goal is to eliminate all enemies, which doesn't require any great skill or strategy. Knocking down buildings is fun at first, but the lack of any related score, even a negative one as in RAD, makes it all kind of pointless pretty quickly.

As disappointing as the lack of depth to the gameplay is the absence of any zany anime-inspired story as found in RAD. It starts out promising with a quaint cinematic of some alien spacecraft ominously descending upon the city. Before any alien life forms are even visible, the government dubs them "Ravagers" while wondering if they might be friendly. They're not, of course, and first contact is made with missiles. That's the extent of the story, however, and from there it's just mission after mission of the nameless "Earth Defense Force" troops dispatched to intercept the alien invaders with little in the way of exposition. Frequent hammy background chatter from unspecified EDF comrades ("They're huge!" "We can win this!" "Now let's go kick some alien butt!") adds charm and completes the cheesy presentation, but the incessant explosion and gunfire noises wear on the ears.

Backed by Enix's money, Sandlot showed that it could do great things with RAD. EDF 2017 exhibits flashes of brilliance that you wouldn't expect in the budget range, but it feels like a minor project to keep the developer going between its "real" releases, much in the way that Square Enix keeps the Kingdom Hearts series active via portable side story games between major console titles. Sandlot's latest game is Nintendo's Zangeki no Reginleiv, notable as the first game to be packaged in Japan with the new black Wii case for releases rated at CERO C (15+) or over. By all accounts, the game is Chikyuu Boueigun with Wii MotionPlus controls and a vaguely Norse mythological theme. It's a decidedly Sandlot game, which doesn't give it very good chances for a North American release, but, after playing EDF 2017, I'm not planning to start any petitions. Of course I'll play it if Nintendo does decide to bring it over, but I'd be much more interested in seeing Sandlot going back to its more complex and experimental robot games.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Wakeboarding HD

"Wakeboarding HD Coming to PSN March 25"

When I first read that headline, I thought it said "Waterboarding HD." Though I thought it somewhat tasteless, I shrugged and did not read the press release. It took me seeing the announcement reported on a couple more blogs before I realized what the actual title was. I guess we're not quite there yet.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Just an animal."

What have I been playing lately? How about Haze? Yes, Haze.

Surely, you must be thinking, there are better things I could have been spending my time on than this two-year-old turd that was panned by virtually every publication except Famitsu (of all places). Indeed, after playing the demo, I had concluded that Free Radical's swan song was nothing but wasted potential. But, having played shooter after shooter since then, I had yet to come across any other game that dared even acknowledge the questions Haze raised. While Gears of War and even Army of Two were surely more playable products, there was a lingering itch they could not scratch. I honestly never stopped thinking about Haze, and finally I guess I just had to know. More than that, when the game dropped to ten dollars, I figured I owed it that much. I mean, people pay that much for Wii Play. Even if Haze wasn't a success, surely it deserved some credit for trying.

To recap, Haze is the story of Sergeant Shane Carpenter, dispatched by the multinational Mantel corporation to liberate a South American country from a rebel group led by Gabriel "Skincoat" Merino, so called because he supposedly eats his enemies and wears their skins. Carpenter and his fellow Mantel soldiers are aided by the drug "Nectar," which enhances their fighting abilities. For example, Nectar sharpens their battlefield vision, highlighting hostiles as bright orange targets against a gray landscape.

Carpenter's Nectar administrator begins to malfunction, however, causing him to glimpse the world as it really is. Mantel doesn't seem interested in liberating anyone, and the squad's only priorities are recovering stolen Nectar and punishing the rebels who stole it. Far from enhancing his senses, Nectar actually dulls its user's awareness, presenting him with a sanitized view of war. When Carpenter's Nectar administrator goes haywire, he sees unsettling flashes of reality--the littered bodies of those massacred by Mantel, which become just piles of blankets when Nectar vision is turned on. Carpenter begins to have doubts, and when he tracks down Merino, who is not the skin-wearing animal described by Mantel's media, the charismatic rebel leader again offers a righteous cause to the adrift wannabe hero so desperately in need of one.

Going back and reading some of those negative reviews, I find the criticism of the story to be largely off-base. I think a lot of reviewers missed the point in taking it simply as a heavy-handed commentary on war propaganda and programming. To be sure, that stuff is there on the surface and quite shallow, but beneath it is an equally incendiary subtext that perhaps goes overlooked only because we have trained ourselves not to think about it. Haze is a story that could only effectively be told through a video game. It does as so many first-person games purport to do, turning the camera on the players to make the story about them. It is not, however, about what we would do when confronted with some contrived ethical dilemma but, rather, about what we are every time we play these games, before we even realize that the decision is before us. Haze is a game about gamers and how we organize internally the blurring lines between our real and virtual selves.

I don't know if gaming has had its Citizen Kane yet, but it sure as hell has had its Lord of the Flies. It's called Halo. And Call of Duty. And Quake, Counter-Strike, Unreal, Battlefield, etc.--basically every online multiplayer shooter ever released. At least, that's been my experience with these games. I imagine that anyone who has logged on for a round of deathmatch has had the displeasure of getting fragged and then insulted by some foul-mouthed racist hick twelve-year-old. Maybe he was even on your own team. It is, after all, a lawless wilderness of savagery and cannibalism out there. Or is everybody so far gone that that qualifies as normal?

Haze may be the only game I've encountered that actually recognizes that there may be something a little off about the way things are. Taking on the role of Shane Carpenter, players should find fighting as a Mantel soldier to be uncomfortable even before Carpenter does. Your comrades are bloodthirsty, brainless, crude and homophobic. There is no romanticized brothers-in-arms fiction of doing it for the man next to you. Rather, you wish constantly that the man next to you will be the next to die. Perhaps you'll even want to help him along with that.

For many reviewers, these over-the-top meatheads were simply too much. Critics found them so shallow and obnoxious as to undermine the story's perceived attempt at political commentary. There was no depth to the narrative's exploration of the moral ambiguities of war, because the argument was so painfully one-sided. It was too obvious who the bad guys were, or so some complained. I personally think that's where Haze went over a lot of players' heads. You see, your Mantel buddies were supposed to be shallow and imbecilic first, evil second, because of what they were really caricaturing. They are tactless braggarts delighting in how crazy fun it is to kill, announcing to the world how bad they are, and laughing at the feebleness of their enemies. Does none of this ring any bells? Surely you've heard it all before. Why, these virtual cretins exhibit all the wit and complexity of that twelve-year-old's smack talk over the headset (between yelling "BOOM!" every time he fires his shotgun) during a match of Call of Duty. So, seemingly conscienceless hicks, spewing all-too-familiar slur-laden trash talk, as they merrily mow down enemy targets that blink out upon defeat--the story of Haze is the reality of every online multiplayer shooter we play. Now, are the real-life meatheads evil, insane, hopelessly idiotic, as their monstrous fictionalized counterparts appear? Or is that what the rush of gaming--our own form of Nectar--does to us? That is the question that Haze principally wants us to consider. Why do we turn so easily into monsters when consequence is taken off the table? And what if reality could be made more like a game in that respect? Maybe today's FPS fanatics are the same types of personalities that will go on to fight our real wars. If so, then that certainly is a frightening prospect.

Haze poses some tough questions and provides no answers. That in itself is not a failing in my book, but the story does have to resolve itself somehow. Haze does so, unfortunately, through a series of uninspired action sequences that make the back half of the game both a chore and a bore. Really, within maybe the first 2-3 hours (of 5, minus all the time I wasted getting lost), the game seems to run out of things to say about the issues it introduces, and it does settle into more predictable political commentary. It is not without a few twists, however, as it still warns against accepting gameplay and storytelling conventions without question, all concluding with an ending that should leave you wondering, why did we ever think violence was the answer?

You could argue that trying to communicate the horror of war through film is basically a futile endeavor, because any depiction of violence is inherently exhilarating. Going by Haze, I would have to say that games stand a much better chance at imparting an antiwar message. As I played Haze, I was always on the verge of throwing up, not because of any graphic imagery or grotesque concepts, but because the overall experience was just so terrible. Trudging through that first jungle stage was the stuff of my nightmares. I was perpetually lost, running in circles, and unseen enemies were yelling and firing at me from all over. All I could do was shoot blindly into brush, never stopping as I spun 'round and 'round. Sometimes I hit friendlies by mistake. Sometimes they hit me back. Sometimes I would fire a rocket and have it blow up in my own face because I apparently didn't know how to use my weapons. Many 3-D games, shooters especially, have pathfinding issues, but the messy stages in Haze seemingly didn't even have paths. If there was a map or a radar, I never found it, so all progress was me stumbling madly until somehow I found myself at a checkpoint. Playing Haze was simply never enjoyable on any level. I couldn't imagine anyone even contemplating joining the army after a round of this.

So, yeah, the game plays like a pile and, no, I don't believe that is what the designers were going for. Even as he was trying to sell the edgy script, writer Rob Yescombe was also insistent that Haze should be fun to play, which it just isn't. Free Radical was formed by many of the people that developed the legendary GoldenEye 007, and the Haze team included such key GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark staff as directors David Doak and Stephen Ellis, artist Karl Hilton, and composer Graeme Norgate. It's sad to see that such talents, once at the top of the game, apparently could not keep up with where the game had evolved to, or perhaps they only had so many great works in them. Maybe Haze's overall assiness should not have been surprising, considering that the similarly bad Perfect Dark Zero had about an equal number of GoldenEye 007 alumni working on it.

Frankly, it's unbelievable that this came out well after Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, and BioShock and was probably in development for at least as long. Devoid of any cool or original weapons, the gunplay is generically competent, which is practically the kiss of death in this overcrowded genre. Level design is atrocious, AI is laughable, and objectives are tedious and often unclear. There is a literally alarming amount of pop-in. Art is equally deficient, with all faceless Mantel soldiers looking the same in that ridiculous uniform. Maybe the music is okay, but it's all drowned out by the same few battle cries repeated ad nauseam by your allies and enemies. The worst of the many gameplay glitches saw me inexplicably crushed to death by the very truck that I was supposed to provide escort for. Worse yet, the checkpoint would every time restart me practically inside the truck and into the process of being trampled, causing me to always die again on respawn. If I hadn't been playing co-op with a second player who was able to spawn safely, that would have been game over by progression-halting bug.

On the bright side, the Nectar system is initially a neat mechanic that works well with the narrative. As a Mantel operative, you can juice up to boost your senses and recovery. Practically a necessity in those early jungle stages where enemies are so hard to spot, its use becomes addictive, which is surely the point. Use too much, however, and you'll OD and lose control, firing wildly on friend and foe alike, which is again clever, both mechanically and narratively. Then, when your administrator starts failing you during live combat, you cannot help but panic, much as Carpenter does. Finally, when Carpenter is cut off and reeling from withdrawal, there are some effectively trippy (and horrifying) moments. It's all seriously undercut, however, by how little the game really changes once you get clean. Because all the Mantel soldiers are decked in the same bright yellow uniform, they make for glaring targets by default, so, ironically, fighting is probably easier when you're playing off the stuff as a rebel.

Perhaps the one cool moment came when my nameless co-op partner and I were able to drive separate cars at the same time. Like many co-op shooters, Haze has vehicle sections that allow one player to drive and the other to man a turret. Due to the poor driving mechanics, these are all terrible. But I personally had never played a shooter that allowed multiple user-controlled vehicles, and that idea of a convoy really excited me. Of course, because the driving controls are so dodgy, my would-be escort almost immediately fell into a ravine. Then I also fell in.

Haze is not the greatest game ever made. It's not even a good game. It poses some interesting questions that it is not altogether successful in exploring, and a lot of what it does well gets buried under all that it does so poorly. I'm not going to sit here and recommend that you spend even ten dollars and five hours on it. It does touch on some important social, not political, issues that more games ought to, however, and I think we should at least acknowledge the attempt and encourage more developers to try to do it better. For now, I'll just try to spread awareness of Haze by sharing some videos that highlight the good bits. Mind you, non-interactive video cannot adequately capture the full miserable experience of Haze, but, on the other hand, the full experience is pretty freaking miserable. SPOILERS, of course, if anyone gives a damn.

Meet Sergeant Morgan Duvall, your new best buddy:

Of course, there are two sides to every conflict:

Thursday, March 11, 2010


To me, it's no different from foie gras!

. . .

. . .

. . .

is a boss monster in Metroid Prime. I totally wasted him. One could say, I eat chumps like him for breakfast. Something else food is foie gras. No, I don't eat it for breakfast. Or at all. But if I wanted it, foie gras wouldn't be able to stop me from eating it. It was the same with Flaahgra.

Moving right along, it's pretty darn demoralizing, I tell you, to progress to a seeming dead end, to observe that there is a hidden passage that requires the ball-form bomb ability to bust through the wall, to return later to that wall after having acquired said ability, and to break through only to find that the sole reason for being there is a missile upgrade that still cannot be obtained without some additional vertical roll ability. The only thing I accomplished on that trip was to change the status of that hidden room to "explored" on my map, which is actually a bad thing because it means I now have to remember on my own to return there once I get the next ability, which I can only hope is the last one I'll need. It makes me wish there were some way for players to add their own notes to the in-game map.

On the other hand, because there is a detailed map, because all doors are clearly visible, and because every room, no matter how large, is still distinctly enclosed, the game is free of the pathfinding issues that have consistently been my chief obstacle in all of the more linear 3-D shooters I've played. So even though I often can't tell where I should go next, I can at least grasp pretty quickly where I can go.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Oh, the Pokemanity!

So, last time, I had to go through quite an ordeal to download an exclusive Pikachu-colored Pichu from GameStop. This time, again through GameStop, Nintendo was offering the legendary Jirachi. Thankfully, there were no unanticipated difficulties. Only the usual shame of being a grown man standing alone in a GameStop store and playing Pokemon on his Nintendo DS. Did I mention that I actually have to download these things four times to my four separate copies of Pokemon? Yes, thank you, I am hardcore. And yes, I have become painfully well-acquainted with the twenty-second start-up sequence for these games. The worst part is that I just found out that Nintendo is now making the Pichu download available over wi-fi for anybody who missed the GameStop event, so I need never have embarrassed myself (twice) for that thing. No word yet on whether Jirachi will be offered the same way, but I really do hope that this is the beginning of the end for my (Pokemon-related) public humiliations.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Baccano! originally ran on Japanese television for thirteen episodes in 2007. FUNimation then started distributing it in North America at the beginning of 2009, in the form of four staggered, overpriced four-episode DVDs. It was one of the last releases to follow that doomed distribution model, before the current phase of legal online streaming and more affordable "season" box sets. Since its arrival here coincided with the collapse of the North American anime industry, Baccano! might easily have been overlooked by American consumers. But the show is good enough and unique enough that it should endure against the normally high turnover of television anime. In fact, I think it's one of the best anime TV series of the last decade.

Based on a series of light novels by Ryohgo Narita, Baccano! is set primarily in Prohibition-era America as it follows a large and varied cast of unrelated characters through a number of interconnected storylines. In 1930, amid a turf war between rival crime families, an innocuous-looking package is incidentally fumbled back and forth into the hands of thugs, thieves, and gangsters, none of whom realize its true value. In 1931, characters separately board a train that gets hijacked by multiple different interests. And in 1932, everyone is looking for a small-time hoodlum who has seemingly vanished without a trace.

This is a story without a protagonist, or rather one where, as FUNimation's website states, "Every Dick and Jane plays the lead." The opening credits sequence highlights no fewer than seventeen named characters. Too many faces in the opening credits is often a sign of trouble for a series, especially one with only thirteen episodes to spend on all of them. Remarkably, in Baccano!, almost none of these characters feels underutilized or extraneous. Granted, neither is every character as major as their prominence in the opening credits might suggest, but, among the eight or so viable leads that still leaves us, we've got the fearless young camorrista, the compulsive crybaby with the unconquerable heart, the flamboyantly sadistic hit man, and the Bonnie and Clyde couple that seems as much inspired by Bugs Bunny. These then have their own supporting casts, and the story shifts back and forth between these different characters and factions. There are even a few major "sleeper" characters not named in the opening sequence.

What makes Baccano! so uniquely compelling is that all of these protagonists hold their own. To have so many charismatic characters existing within the same story and without compromise is truly a rare accomplishment. It is nothing out of the ordinary for a show to feature multiple characters and angles, but, as paths inevitably cross, you figure usually that someone is going to have to defer, and that will be the story's way of letting you know who the real main character is. That is how ensemble shows like Lost and Heroes typically operate. The other characters may be more than traditional supporting cast, but, no matter how strong they may be in their own feature episodes, at the end of the day, each of those shows has a single unquestioned main character. Or have you ever noticed how Superman's IQ seems to drop several points almost any time he's in the same story as Batman? It happens because the writers don't know how to make Batman useful in those team-ups unless he's smarter than Superman, and the easiest way to make Batman seem intelligent has always been to make those around him stupid. Or even in a self-contained novel or film, so often is it the case that a story will build to an epic showdown between two characters, only to have the conflict ultimately resolved by one of them acting just ever so slightly weaker, slower, or dumber than they had been up to that point. Few things in fiction annoy me more than when people are made to act out of character in order to write the story out of a hole or satisfy a nonsensical plot twist. When the characters are portrayed inconsistently, the spell is broken for me and I can no longer believe anything that happens. Baccano!, on the other hand, is a case where the personalities are so starkly established from the outset that characters seemingly take on lives of their own, and it is the story, perhaps even the writer, that becomes subservient to their wills. These characters never deviate from who they are, and, when paths collide, they do not budge an inch unless a decisively stronger force makes them, and still it never happens easily.

Despite its constantly shifting perspective, Baccano! is not an anthology show. Although the characters' stories are separately fascinating, each only forms part of the whole. You do not watch to follow specific characters, but to witness the fateful incidents that bring them together and the explosive results of their interactions. The feel is vaguely evocative of the classical Chinese novel Water Margin (AKA Outlaws of the Marsh), which tells in turn the unrelated stories of 108 heroes who become outlaws for different reasons, only later to be assembled for a common cause. It might even more accurately be compared to Joseph Heller's Catch-22. As in Heller's great work, it is not only the perspective that is constantly shifting but also the setting, both place and time in a nonlinear, puzzle-like narrative. Characters often refer to events before they are depicted, and watching the picture gradually get filled in is the other addicting draw of the series. It even makes for a great second viewing, to spot all the connections you would have missed the first time.

The format can be intimidating at first, and the show is not helped along by its first episode, which focuses on two oddball characters, not among the main cast, examining the events from the outside and deliberating on how to present them as a story. Ironically, their attempt to dissect a story that the viewer is not yet familiar with only makes the show seem far more confusing than it actually is.

Also, there is admittedly a degree of redundancy to the cast, maybe because the subject matter limits the range of personalities, maybe because the author leans toward certain types, or maybe because there are just more main characters than there are archetypes to build from. As a result, we have more than one aloof female, more than one mysterious wild card, and more than one bloodthirsty psychopath. This doesn't harm the show too greatly. While similar in personality, they are given different backstories and actions, and the show moves quickly enough that you aren't likely to be distracted by any redundancy unless the characters are placed side-by-side, as when the two psychopaths engage in a philosophical debate that was a little much for me.

Packed as it is, the show is over all too quickly. It does have a reasonably satisfying ending, but something's gotta give when you're talking about adapting a still ongoing series of novels into thirteen twenty-minute episodes. The major storylines do all come to some kind of resolution, but it's also clear that there's more story left to tell. For the home video releases, three bonus episodes were produced and tacked onto the end of the run. Taking place after the train hijacking scenario, these highlight some of the more neglected characters and threads. For fans still wanting more past the original thirteen episodes, these are a welcome extension, but they feel almost more like DVD extra features than full-on episodes. They basically depict the characters unwinding between more climactic events. But Baccano! is a show full of big personalities meant for big situations. Removed from the life-or-death scenarios of the original thirteen episodes, a lot of these characters simply aren't that interesting. It would be like a Batman story that focused only on Bruce Wayne's love affairs. He may be the hero that Gotham City needs to fight crime, but his madness would, at best, be unacceptable in civilized society. At worst, it would be boring.

Episode 16 does, however, provide a nice bookend for the series, and the first thirteen episodes alone make Baccano! essential viewing. I would recommend that any anime fan give it a try, keeping in mind that the first episode is not a great representative of what the series has to offer.

(Baccano! can be viewed online at FUNimation's site, at Anime News Network, or even at Hulu. Hulu only has it subtitled, however, and this is one of the rare anime that I think sounds much better in English.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

One of these days...

Passed an Entenmann's truck on my drive to work this morning and thought, That's full of cookies and donuts, isn't it?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rude Awakening

I had a dream that I was watching TV in a hotel room. Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away was on the free HBO, and I had tuned in just in time for the final act.

This was not the first time I had had a Cast Away-related dream, which should not be surprising, since I think it is one of the better movies. But the version in this latest dream was not quite what I remembered.

In the alternate dream cut, after five years of living alone on an island, Tom Hanks finally made his way back to civilization. But there was nobody waiting to receive him home, no press event celebrating his miraculous return. Essentially a ghost, he spent the next few days looking up Helen Hunt's whereabouts and working out what he would say to her, determined that their reunion would be as perfect as the dreams that had kept him going over the last five years.

She had remarried of course, but she was at that moment vacationing, sans husband, at her father's vineyard. Pretending to be a wine connoisseur, he arrived there while she was out walking, and he waited for her to return. Hours later, she finally appeared on the horizon, and, as the distance between them shrank, she saw and recognized him but did not appear surprised. She just smiled. There was then a montage of them frolicking and enjoying some sweet moments together.

Next she beamed and said, "I better call my mom to let her know that I won't be able to keep my promise." I understood that she meant she would have to leave her current husband.

She was lying on the ground, leaning forward on her elbows and staring up at him in his easy chair. She looked suddenly younger and happy. He was reflective, troubled, disappointed somehow.

"You took lovers while I was gone?" he asked. He already knew the facts, but he still needed to hear her answer. He needed to know that, all those lonely nights he had spent thinking only of her, she had also been thinking of him.

She didn't take it well. She suggested that perhaps what he really wanted was to know that the last five years had been just as miserable for her as they had been for him. Perhaps they had both been fooling themselves, and the true loves of their increasingly idealized memories were never who they really were.

The harsh speech went on for some time without resolution. Then they both just stopped talking.

At first it seemed like they had simply run out of words, the argument having exhausted them, but, as the awkward silence stretched on for minutes, the disillusionment on their faces turned to puzzlement, which turned to boredom. Even though it was nearly a decade-old film, it was as though the moving picture people inside that box had lost their lines, or perhaps they had reached the extent of an unfinished script and didn't know how to proceed from there. The movie just cut back and forth between shots of them each staring downward, looking out-of-place. For me, the viewing experience was like having a computer hang, its gears grinding noisily and interminably on an impossible load. I think I must have lost interest eventually and turned off the TV.

I don't remember anything more, but it must have been the bitterest movie I had ever seen, because I was still bummed when I woke up.