Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ride the Lion

Have you heard of the Lujan Zoo in Buenos Aires? I was just made aware of it today.

Apparently, for fifty American dollars, this zoo will allow you shockingly hands-on interaction with the animals, including petting bears, feeding tigers, and riding lions. The zoo insists that the engagements with these legendary predators are entirely safe, but the extent of the precautions seems to be the accompanying presence of some human trainer who stands off to the side as you straddle a deadly man-eater. But the lawless operation has drawn greatest protest from animal rights activists, who have condemned the subjection of these majestic beasts to such decidedly unnatural activity.

It is easy for adrift bleeding heart liberals spoiling for a cause to condemn Lujan's unorthodox handling of its animals as cruel and immoral. But then I imagine that starry-eyed child, for whom the incomparable experience of riding a lion will forever be among the most cherished moments in a long life. And I say, what gives anyone the right to taint that memory by suggesting that it was animal abuse?!

If a man can ride a horse, why not a lion? If you can domesticate a dog, pet it, hug it, dress it up in people clothes, and ride it in your backyard, I ask you, why is the lion off limits? Better yet, allow me to quote renowned German philosopher Neinhalt Sieger, master of the fist and author of the existentialist manifesto Ich Habe:

"Let whoever would preserve the lion's pride above a man's renounce his own in accordance with his principles and take the lion's place between my legs."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Larger Perspective

Of course I wouldn't leave it simply at that. Seriously, the Call of Duty implosion has been one of the more exciting stories in the industry, even for someone like me, who has never played a Call of Duty game. If you haven't been keeping abreast of the latest developments, however, I've gone ahead and drafted this rough chronology of events pertaining to the case and the history of the parties involved:


Frustrated by Atari's policy not to credit the actual developers of the games it publishes, four programmers leave the company to form Activision, the world's first third-party publisher for game consoles.

Activision's determination to release games for the Atari 2600 without the console manufacturer's blessing leads to litigation between the two companies that will not be settled until 1982, when Atari agrees to allow third party publishing in exchange for royalties. The decision leads to a massive boom in the number of software publishers and consequently the number of titles on the market, ultimately leading to the video game crash of 1983 due to oversaturation.

After years of continuous decline for Activision, since renamed Mediagenic, the company is finally acquired by BHK Corporation, an investor group led by Bobby Kotick. Under new CEO Kotick, the company is completely restructured, the Activision name also restored to mark a vigorous reentry into the games market.

Activision acquires Neversoft Entertainment, developer of Apocalypse (AKA "that Bruce Willis Robotron game"). The studio's next project is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater for the PS1. The game is an immediate sensation and is quickly followed by a sequel the next year.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 ranks as the best-selling PlayStation game of 2000 in the U.S. Released to universal praise, the PS1 version remains also one of the highest-rated games of all-time.

Through 2007, Activision continues to release one Tony Hawk title per year (plus spin-offs), to progressively lower scores and sales.

Activision acquires Treyarch, developer of, among other things, a couple of entries in EA's struggling Triple Play baseball series.

EA releases Medal of Honor: Allied Assault for PC. Developed by 2015, this third entry in gaming's premier World War II first-person shooter series receives near-universal acclaim.

Twenty-two employees of 2015, including Medal of Honor: Allied Assault project leads Vince Zampella and Jason West, leave to found Infinity Ward.

Activision acquires Infinity Ward. The studio's first title is Call of Duty for PC. The well-reviewed World War II first-person shooter receives multiple "game of the year" awards.

Meanwhile, through 2007, EA releases nine more titles in the increasingly irrelevant--only one of them is for HD consoles--Medal of Honor series.

RedOctane releases Guitar Hero, developed by Harmonix. The surprise hit demonstrates the market potential for both rhythm games and peripheral-based games.

Activision releases Call of Duty 2, developed by Infinity Ward. Another WWII FPS, it is the best-reviewed and best-selling Xbox 360 launch title. Speaking for Infinity Ward, Vince Zampella later reveals that "With Call of Duty 2, we were dead set against it being World War II, but Activision really wanted it, the compromise sort of being that we'd get some dev kits for consoles in exchange for doing a World War II game."

(Among its fans is a co-worker of mine at my game testing job. In his first week on the job, this eighteen-year-old son of a soldier declares the FPS the only worthwhile game genre and Call of Duty the best FPS, bar none. He announces that, on the day Call of Duty 3 comes out, he will skip work to pick it up and spend all day playing.)

While PC and 360 players enjoy Call of Duty 2 proper, PS2/Xbox/GameCube owners get Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, a slightly less lustrous offering from developer Treyarch.

Activision releases Call of Duty 3 for PS3/360. The console-exclusive WWII FPS is developed by Treyarch instead of Infinity Ward. The game receives markedly lower scores than Infinity Ward's titles, fueling the perception of Treyarch as a B-team, brought in so that Activision can keep pumping out Call of Duty on an annual basis while still allowing Infinity Ward a two-year development cycle for each of its projects.

(My young co-worker does not end up skipping work to play Call of Duty 3, but he does pick it up. I ask him how it is. His former exuberance for life since tempered by the game test environment, he offers only a defeated laugh at himself.)

Activision acquires RedOctane and, along with it, Guitar Hero. Later in the year, MTV purchases Harmonix.

Activision releases Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock for Wii, 360, PS3, and PS2. The title is developed by Neversoft. Meanwhile, MTV releases Rock Band, developed by Harmonix and distributed by EA. Rock Band receives higher scores as a more significant step forward for the genre, but Guitar Hero III is nevertheless the more successful game at market. It is Activision's biggest release yet, eventually becoming the first billion-dollar game and the second best-selling game since NPD began tracking unit sales.

2007 also sees the release of Activision and Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. To much applause, CoD4 finally moves the series away from WWII. Despite coming out weeks later to much less hype than Halo 3, it finishes the year with more units sold (across all platforms) and even overtakes the Xbox's signature game as the most popular game on Xbox Live. It also earns several "game of the year" awards, even up against the likes of Halo 3, Super Mario Galaxy, BioShock, Mass Effect, and Portal.

Looking back, Vince Zampella says, "Activision also did not want Modern Warfare. They thought working on a modern game was risky and 'Oh my God you can't do that, it's crazy!' They were doing market research to show us we were wrong the whole time."

Adds Jason West: "We had to fight for everything."

In its biggest year ever, Activision merges with Vivendi Games, which additionally owns Blizzard and Sierra. The new Activision Blizzard surpasses EA to become the world's largest video game publisher.

EA releases Skate for the PS3/360. This more realistic skateboarding game receives positive reviews and outsells Tony Hawk's Proving Ground. EA will release two more Skate games, plus one spin-off, over the next three years.

For the first year since it debuted, there is no new installment in the Tony Hawk main series.

Tim Schafer's Brütal Legend, originally to be published by the now defunct Sierra, is among the in-development titles dropped by Activision after the merger with Vivendi. When EA later announces its intention to publish the game, Activision attempts to block its release. The parties eventually reach a settlement, and EA releases Brütal Legend the following year.

EA releases Dead Space to wide critical acclaim. Along with Mirror's Edge and the EA Partners program, the release paints a new and improved image of the monster publisher as committed to pushing new IP and non-sports titles.

Infinity Ward's heads renew their contracts with Activision. The new agreement reportedly includes the possibility of Infinity Ward developing a new IP that it will control.

In the meantime, Call of Duty returns to WWII and Treyarch with Call of Duty: World at War, built off Infinity Ward's CoD4 engine.

November 6, 2008
Noah Heller, senior producer at Activision, promoting World at War as something that builds on CoD4: "In the previous Call of Dutys it might take three or four shots from a bolt action rifle. We made sure that a single shot center mass would kill that opponent because that's the expectation of the player."

November 7, 2008
Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward's community manager, taking issue with "Senior Super Douche" Noah Heller's comments, posts the following on his personal blog:

"Bolt Action rifles are one hit kills in every Call of Duty we (Infinity Ward) made!!

"I won't compare it to World at War's Bolt Actions, I can't speak to that because I don't work there. Just like you don't work here, so please stop talking about our games."

November 11, 2008
Activision releases Call of Duty: World at War days after and with considerably less hype than Gears of War 2. Despite some perception of World at War as the B-team Call of Duty game, the 360 version by itself finishes the year with more units sold than Microsoft's biggest exclusive.

(It is actually with this development that Call of Duty first grabs my attention as a heavy hitter in the stratum of Halo and Grand Theft Auto, if not beyond. Expectations are obviously high for the next "real" Call of Duty.)

March 26, 2009
Activision debuts the teaser trailer for Infinity Ward's "Modern Warfare 2." The Call of Duty name is not attached. With Activision apparently committed to this schedule of alternating year-to-year between Infinity Ward and Treyarch-developed titles, some speculate that Infinity Ward wanted to avoid any possibility of their work being confused with Treyarch's.

July 9, 2009
The latest artwork reveals that the Call of Duty name has been restored for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is most likely Activision reacting to surveys that showed lowered consumer awareness after the Call of Duty brand was dropped.

Robert Bowling insists, "We still call the game 'Modern Warfare 2.'"

The final retail packaging features the Call of Duty name on the standard edition, but not the enthusiast-oriented premium editions.

August 5, 2009
Bobby Kotick from the Activision Blizzard earnings call, on the high pricing on peripheral games: ". . . if it was left to me, I would raise the prices even further."

September 14, 2009
Bobby Kotick at the Deutsche Bank Securities Technology Conference: "I think the goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks that we brought in to Activision ten years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games. I think we definitely have been able to instill in the culture the skepticism and pessimism and fear that you should have in an economy like we are in today. And so, while generally people talk about the recession, we are pretty good at keeping people focused on the deep depression."

Kotick also envisions a future "untethered Guitar Hero" that will bypass consoles and hook up directly to televisions.

September 15, 2009
At a Modern Warfare 2 press event, Infinity Ward seems to poke fun at Kotick's "skepticism, pessimism, fear" speech.

October 30, 2009
Infinity Ward slips in a homophobic slur in a YouTube video using Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels to promote Modern Warfare 2. The poorly received video is pulled the next day.

November 10, 2009
Activision releases Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Selling nearly five million copies on the first day, it is the biggest launch in entertainment history.

The Activision logo, while on the box, is curiously missing from the game's boot and intro sequences. Furthermore, the Activision section in the end credits is sped through in thirty seconds following five minutes of Infinity Ward credits.

Activision also releases Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Reflex, a Treyarch-developed Wii port of the first Modern Warfare.

EA cuts 1,500 jobs and announces that it will refocus on iterating upon established franchises.

November 17, 2009
Activision releases Tony Hawk: Ride, an attempt to reinvigorate the franchise by tying it to a motion-sensing skateboard peripheral in a $119.99 package. The game and its use of the peripheral are widely panned.

Activision poaches Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, executive producer and senior development director of Dead Space, to form wholly owned developer Sledgehammer Games.

December 2, 2009
EA announces the return of Medal of Honor in the form of a reboot set in modern times. The first trailer elicits more than a few comparisons to Modern Warfare.

December 22, 2009
Activision releases Guitar Hero: Van Halen for PS2, PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360. This follows Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, Guitar Hero 5, Band Hero, and DJ Hero for the aforementioned platforms, all in 2009. Meanwhile, Harmonix and MTV remain staunch in their support of Rock Band 2 as a platform, powered by new downloadable tracks released on a weekly basis. Having said that, they then release two new Rock Band titles in 2009 (The Beatles: Rock Band and Lego Rock Band), plus three retail track packs.

Revenues for both Guitar Hero and Rock Band are down compared to last year, and the $373 million drop accounts for approximately half of the $720 million dollar decline the industry faces as a whole.

February 11, 2010
Activision shuts down Neversoft and RedOctane, attributing the closures to market conditions that see the publisher more than halving the number of music games it will be shipping compared to last year.

February 18, 2010

Bobby Kotick at the DICE Summit: "I don't know how this happened, but all my life I was the rebel flying the Millennium Falcon or the X-Wing fighter and suddenly I wake up and I'm on board the Death Star."

Kotick admits to having made some mistakes in the past. Looking back at Activision's acquisition of RedOctane for the Guitar Hero brand, he recalls that he knew of Harmonix as "somewhat a failed developer of music games." He regrets that he did not meet to do business with the eventual developer of Guitar Hero's direct competitor.

Summarizing, he says, "If you have a company and you want to protect your creative freedom and the integrity of the creative process, if you want to retain your identity and culture, if you want the support of the mothership and the resources of the mothership, we're a really great mothership. But if you want to sell out and move on, there are definitely other companies to talk to."

March 1, 2010
Less than two weeks after Kotick shows that he might actually be human, Infinity Ward heads Jason West and Vince Zampella are terminated on charges of insubordination.

March 2, 2010
Activision announces its plans to expand the Call of Duty brand, scheduling three games by three studios over the next two years, including an "action-adventure" take by Sledgehammer Games.

March 3, 2010
West and Zampella file suit against Activision. Contending that the publisher terminated them only to avoid having to pay royalties due from Modern Warfare 2, the pair furthermore allege that their original arrangement with Activision granted them control of the Modern Warfare brand.

April 9, 2010
Activision files counter-suit, calling West and Zampella "self-serving schemers," who had secret meetings with Activision's unnamed Northern California competitor.

Activision provides evidence in the form of this uncovered correspondence:
Dunno how to scan secretely 13 [sic]. . . . [IW Employee's] computer down. . . . [IW Employee] did it for me last time. .. .Really. No paranoia about it being in [IW employee] user folder? Her comp down anyway now. . . She had a secret area it scanned into. . . . Probably better to just photocopy and fedex. .. .Can scan or photo - your call. . . . Boom boom pow. Away.
(Censoring hides almost anything incriminating, but that "Boom boom pow. Away." bit seems evidence of douchebaggery.)

Asked for comment, the Northern California-based EA says, "We don't have the time to comment on the many lawsuits Activision files against its employees and creative partners."

Other members of the Modern Warfare 2 team, including all of the design leads, depart Infinity Ward and Activision over the next several days, extending into the present.

April 12, 2010
West and Zampella form Respawn Entertainment. The independent studio is funded by EA, who has partnered with Respawn for exclusive distribution rights.

April 22, 2010
Seven other Modern Warfare 2 team members confirm that they have joined Respawn.

Activision says that the hefty bonuses now forfeited by West and Zampella will be redistributed among employees who remain with Infinity Ward.

And on it goes . . .

UPDATE - April 29, 2010
Amid all the bad news and lawsuits, Activision announces its exclusive ten-year publishing deal with Bungie Studios.

(So much for Inifinity Ward . . .)



1. Activision knows how to run a hot property into the ground.

2. So does EA, but it may be changing its ways.

3. Certain people at Infinity Ward may have had a problem with authority.

4. Bobby Kotick is a douchebag.

My expanded take:

It's easy to paint Activision as the monster in this story (because it is and has been), but there's another way to look at things.

Less than two months after they were fired, West and Zampella now find themselves backed by another powerhouse publisher while still remaining supposedly independent as a studio staffed by employees that they have effectively stolen away from Infinity Ward. Why, isn't this the very scheme that Activision accused them of plotting? Having also won the public's sympathy over "the man's" mistreatment of them, West and Zampella really seem to have gotten everything they wanted. And while litigation is far from over, Activision was basically unable to do anything to stop them.

I suppose Activision could have made them a better offer--not just more money than EA is giving them, but also the freedom afforded an independent studio (which is maybe what the fans want also)--but wouldn't that have amounted to bending over for your own subordinates at what was supposed to be a negotiation? Some say that, after delivering Modern Warfare 2, West and Zampella should have been treated like kings by Activision. I'm guessing maybe they were acting like kings anyway, able to get away with anything, which essentially they have. Even if they were your greatest asset, how intolerable a situation would it be to constantly have your own employees disrespecting you? Would you really want to give them even more power and autonomy? Up against that kind of attitude, maybe all Activision could do was remain firm to the unavoidable end.

No, I would never be on Activision's side. But why on earth would anyone feel sorry for Jason West and Vince Zampella? I might feel bad for the remnants of Infinity Ward. Hell, I even wonder where this leaves the Medal of Honor team, given that they are essentially developing a Modern Warfare clone for EA, who is now wining and dining the creators of the real Modern Warfare. Or what about DICE, who in the midst of all this put out EA's Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which some players said was better than Modern Warfare 2? If Respawn is going to carry on 2015/Infinity Ward's military first-person shooter legacy, does that mean EA is going to be publishing three such similar games simultaneously? I think its own history should have taught EA better.

Of course I hope that everybody does well and puts out quality games. This story will probably be just lawsuits and LinkedIn profile updates from here on, so I guess all that's left to look forward to are the actual games that will be coming out of these companies. On that note, I suppose maybe I should finally play some of those Call of Duty games and see for myself what all this was over.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I bought Call of Duty

I guess that makes it okay for me to chime in now on this Infinity Ward debacle.

Activision's sudden terminations of Infinity Ward studio heads Jason West and Vince Zampella, mere months after they delivered the biggest launch in entertainment history, has been gaming's second most scandalous story of the year (right after "South Korea rocked by StarCraft betting scandal"). With Activision determined to keep Call of Duty and Modern Warfare going even as Infinity Ward crumbles, gamers will have to decide whether it is the name on the box or those in the credits that matter. The vocal hardcore have certainly made clear whose side they are on, even comparing the treatment of West and Zampella to Jay Leno and NBC's screwing over of Conan O'Brien. We'll see if their deeds are as strong as their words once the next Call of Duty hits.

My take: Seriously? Was Conan acting like a homophobic yayhoo?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Double Down

I can't believe those boys at KFC finally went and did it.

Yes, the Double Down, KFC's new item that sandwiches two strips of bacon and two slices of cheese between two fried chicken "buns," has now been dropped upon the nation, after having made news and become an Internet meme while just being test marketed in Rhode Island. After all the warnings/ridicule, I had hoped for some sense of self-preservation, if not simple human decency, to prevail against this launch. But now here we stand at the gates of hell. Look, I'm usually game for the latest limited edition fast food items, but this is just . . . apocalyptic.

Then again, some reports suggest that the Double Down is not unusually toxic within the realm of fast food, so maybe it's time I learned to stop worrying and love the Colonel Sanders.

(I actually wanted a picture of the colonel in full regalia riding a Double Down. Then I realized that I can't draw, so I whipped this together instead.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Avengers Assemble?

I don't generally pay much attention to casting rumors and announcements because, after all, why worry prematurely about things that are entirely out of my control? It makes more sense to wait until after having seen the finished product before criticizing the decisions that went into making it. After seeing the post-credits sequence in Iron Man, however, I could not help wondering, as soon as I got out of the theater, who could possibly fill the roles of Thor and Captain America.

The speculation was exceedingly inane, as it always is. Despite how well Robert Downey, Jr. worked as Tony Stark, I thought it would be best to cast unknowns for his fellow Avengers. In the case of Captain America, I was mostly reacting against the notion of a Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio as America's proudest son. It would be a huge role, yet I felt that having a megastar fill it would work against the iconicism of the character itself. As for Thor, I simply could not think of anyone with both the physical presence and majestic dignity of Marvel's version of the god of thunder.

Not long after seeing Iron Man, I had a dream that Sean Bean was cast as Thor. It was a dream only about the announcement of the casting, followed by my incredulity. When I woke up, I still thought it a ridiculous dream. Sean Bean was way old, not nearly buff enough, and too associated with villainous characters. But then, in the months that followed, any time somebody brought up the future Thor movie, I was reminded of my dream. Before long, I started to picture Sean Bean in the role, and I actually kind of liked it. I realized that the movie Thor did not really need a physique anywhere near as exaggerated as in the comics, as that was in fact one of the reasons I always had a hard time picturing the character in live action. What Sean Bean had was the gravity and a proven flair for delivering lofty dialogue, as well as a certain facial resemblance. As for his age, I never thought of Thor as a young man. Like the other senior Avengers, he was an adult, well past the more adolescent concerns of Spider-Man and the X-Men. So if they could have only worked through the fact that he was a mere ten years too old and maybe three inches too short, I think Sean Bean would have made for a fine Thor.

As for who should play Captain America, it dawned on me that I had neglected to consider that whoever got the part would ultimately have to hold his own while sharing the screen with Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, and maybe even Edward Norton. In that case, maybe an unknown would not have been the best choice. Somewhere along the way, it was suggested that Matthew McConaughey was in consideration for the role. As an actor best known for romantic comedies and other "weepy piffle," he was maybe not the first name that came to mind. But McConaughey is kind of the quintessential American country boy, he's always in good shape, and he is handsome with honest features. As to his suitability for an action movie, his performance in Reign of Fire was not far off from the really hardcore Ultimate version of Captain America.

Well, now we have final word that Captain America and Thor will be played by Chris "Human Torch" Evans and Chris "Kirk's dad from 2009's Star Trek" Hemsworth, respectively. I know I should at least wait for images of them in costume before passing judgment, but I have to admit that I am somewhat disappointed.

These guys are, first of all, both very young. Even if Robert Downey, Jr., who is almost twenty years their senior, could play ten years younger than he is, I still picture Hemsworth and Evans as looking like his kid brothers, and I don't think that's the ideal image of the founding Avengers. While I'm hoping that relative newcomer Hemsworth will surprise me, I'm more concerned about Evans, especially since I expect his role will be more pivotal in the eventual team-up. He was certainly not the problem with those Fantastic Four movies, but I wouldn't say he stood out either. He showed toughness in Sunshine (yes, Danny Boyle's shameless ripoff of Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon), but not so much the charisma to inspire other men. Face it, the Super Soldier Serum isn't worth a damn next to a Norse god and a genius whose Sunday best is a jet-tank hybrid. Captain America contributes to the team with his leadership and experience. If Chris Evans cannot sell those aspects of the character, he will be worth less than the James Marsden Cyclops, who at least could still fire beams from his eyes.

*sigh* Well, it's irresponsible of me to be going on like this, so I shall now return to my original position of waiting and hoping it all turns out well. I loved Iron Man and I liked The Incredible Hulk almost as much, so Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have earned a degree of faith from me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why isn't the brown M&M represented?

I know the tan M&M was replaced with blue some time ago, but did they get rid of the brown one also? Or is it just being marginalized for some reason?

(Yeah, I know, they're all just the same inside, right?)

Sunday, April 11, 2010


As to more current anime, the only winter series that I followed through to the end of the season was Durarara!!, which is now beginning its second half. It may well end up the only spring series that I watch, now with the simulcast experiment an evident failure, going by the much reduced number of new shows on Crunchyroll this season compared to last. But enough dreary talk about the demise of (legal) localized anime, which can probably be attributed back to the concurrent decline of the industry in Japan itself as much as anything else.

Durarara!! is another work based on an ongoing light novel series by Ryohgo Narita, author of Baccano! Again, I can't comment on the source material, it being unavailable in English, but the animated Durarara!! is courtesy of Brain's Base, the same studio that adapted Baccano! It must be a good fit, and, at first glance, Durarara!! seems exactly like Baccano!, only younger and more Japanese. Like Baccano!, the series has no single main character, instead shifting perspective in overlapping episodes starring a large number of equally eccentric characters, which the opening sequence highlights in freeze frames. It's clear right off that director Takahiro Omori wants Baccano! fans to recognize Durarara!! as the next show from the same staff and creator. It even does the same trick of integrating the "previously on" segment into the middle of the opening animation.

Within a few episodes, however, it becomes apparent that, for better or worse, Durarara!! is not simply Baccano! with high school students and a present-day Ikebukuro setting. I previously insisted that Baccano! was not an anthology show but a puzzle show. Durarara!! may be both, with a format perhaps more comparable to Boogiepop Phantom or Paranoia Agent. Many of the early episodes act as vignettes, with the connecting thread somewhat in the background. Whereas Baccano! focused on a few specific key events as the nuclei for every episode and every character involved, Durarara!! seems just kind of vaguely about the day-to-day craziness that goes on in this fictionalized Ikebukuro. There's a headless rider who can't remember who she is, a bouncer with superhuman strength and anger control issues, a giant black guy selling "Russian sushi," and any number of wicked schemers and psychotics, yet because it is not consistently about any one thing, it often feels as though it is about nothing at all. Perhaps because it is getting nearly twice as many episodes, Durarara!! also proceeds at a much more relaxed pace than Baccano!, at times maddeningly so for someone who loved the manic energy of that series. I suppose it's rather reminiscent of the extra episodes of Baccano! that were added just for the home video releases, where, removed from drastic scenarios, many of the characters turned out to be, not only uninteresting, but rather unlikeable. So it is with Durarara!! for much of the first half, but the story does eventually reward viewers who stick with it, and as all the pieces finally come together, its content and subject matter may have more in common with an ostensibly unrelated anime: Kenji Kamiyama's Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Following in the footsteps of Masamune Shirow and Mamoru Oshii, Kamiyama presented in Stand Alone Complex a hard science fiction story of a future where rapidly advancing technology had completely and irrevocably transformed society and our established ideas of life, human, and the individual. Kamiyama's take questioned how the state was to cope with a formless enemy, in a world where cyberbrain networking had led to a parallelization of thought, resulting in movements without need of leaders or organization and composed of unrelated individuals who were operating independently yet somehow in concert. Kamiyama pursued the idea further with a second Ghost in the Shell series and, most recently with Eden of the East, he brought these ideas nearer to the present with a less ominous vision of a connected society.

Back to Durarara!!, a recurring motif in the show features just a computer monitor displaying an anonymous chat room dialogue that serves as a cryptic sort of chorus to the action of every episode. The thematic significance of these segments is not initially entirely apparent against the supernatural stories of the headless rider and whatnot, and at first it could almost be taken as just a cheap/clever trick to save on the animation budget. By the end of the first twelve episodes, however, it becomes clear that it is not destiny, not coincidence, and not some master planner that links all the characters, but rather, as in Kamiyama's stories, in a society so run on technology and online networking, people cannot help being connected. But whereas Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex takes place in the near future, and even Eden of the East features technology that verges on fantastical, Durarara!!, grounded in simple texting and chat, seems utterly plausible in its depiction of today's wired world. I was frankly startled by how feasible the idea of a headless network consciousness superseding the state, which I had mostly shrugged at in Kamiyama's fairly ponderous works, became in my mind as I watched the more vital Durarara!! In fact, I look at 4chan and Anonymous and I think that this might already be starting to happen all around us. A society as simultaneously alienated and connected as young Japan may just be further along in this transition.

I consider how social networking sites grow ever more prevalent in our culture at the same time that democracy seems to grow less meaningful. I picture a post-politics, post-religion world, where Facebook is the state and Twitter the church. At the end of this flow perhaps lies the destruction of the individual, as the network's coalescing of all our ideas into one collective consciousness diminishes discreteness of egos. Where Internet forums once seemed the domain of geeks, it is now those who consciously resist assimilation into the network that appear on the fringe. I don't know that it's necessarily a good or bad change, to be feared or fought, or rather just society working itself out, but I am beginning to truly believe that that is where we are headed.

Perhaps I'm getting carried away. There are certainly other stories in Durarara!!, and I suppose we'll see in the second half how pertinent my reading even is to the whole. There is also still plenty of time for this show to fall flat on its face, but I'll keep watching in the meantime.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

No More Superheroes

Among my many geeky interests, the pursuit of ongoing superhero comics is one that comes and goes. Usually, by the time some film adaptation reignites my interest, I can no longer remember why I stopped reading. So it was that, following the very exciting releases of The Dark Knight and the Iron Man movie, my enthusiasm for superhero comics crested again, and I thought I would try to get back up to speed on current stories.

This went on for some time, but eventually I was reminded that, while these stories could provide occasional thrills, they were mostly pretty juvenile dead ends, and I didn't care enough to read twenty books a month, let alone pay for them. Until just recently, I was down to following only four superhero titles. On the DC side, I was reading Green Lantern and the Blackest Night crossover event. Similarly, the two Marvel books on my reading list were Thor and Siege, Marvel's big crossover.

Well, no more. As of now, I will not be buying another new issue of a superhero comic (unless you count Ex Machina, which I only read in collected editions). After seeing Marvel's equivalent of Superman literally rip a man--a god, actually--in two, I felt only intense shame. Seeing this incredibly graphic, on-panel mutilation as the centerfold of Marvel's biggest title, I was compelled to take a look behind me and check if I could even still see that line that we crossed over--way over--without my realizing it.

Who exactly is this stuff marketed toward? I would never dream of letting a child read today's stuff, yet neither does it come close to my idea of adult. I can only picture some geeky, emotionally stunted manboy getting off on these images, but I'm not sure if I'm picturing the reader or the writer. Why is it that the so-called mainstream titles of American comics seem to be the ones that target only the most deviant subculture? What kind of backward industry is this? I cannot pick out any single image quite as shocking on the DC side, but the overall attitude is the same. If its biggest, most high-profile titles may be considered representative, then the superhero genre has come to a self-perpetuating cycle of machismo and superpowers pornography. God, why did I ever think that stories of flying men in tights could be anything greater?! The stories are more complicated today than they were fifty years ago, but I wouldn't say they are any more artful or sophisticated as literature. I won't deny that the action can be titillating, and even after Marvel Superman made a piñata out of a fellow hero, I did still read the next issue, which turned out to be stupid. Titillation is fine, and I will not think less of anyone who goes into superhero comics looking for that. All I'm saying is that I personally am done paying $4 for five minutes of dudes in capes clobbering one another; there are cheaper and/or longer-lasting thrills that I would rather waste my life on.

Understand, I still like superheroes, and I remain excited for the movies. But if some budding fan should come asking me for comic recommendations after seeing Iron Man 2, I will maybe suggest some story from the '70s.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Crossroads

Continuing right along with the discussion of games that I won't be playing any time soon, reviews for Final Fantasy XIII suggest that it may be the JRPG that I've been wanting for a long time. The thing is that many of these reviews are lukewarm or even negative, and the game's current Metacritic score of 83 is the lowest of any original numbered Final Fantasy in the site's database, which goes as far back as FFVII on the PS1.

Final Fantasy has been a contentious title for as long as it has been popular, but, even so, the massively multiplayer online FFXI is the only other main entry to have received less than a 90 Metascore. When FFXII released to strong scores but little discourse, it seemed that the gaming community had finally split into those who were fans and those who did not care at all, with a fair portion of gamers having perhaps transitioned with age from the former camp to the latter. A year ago, I wondered if I myself had left the series behind, or if it had failed to keep pace with me as I had grown into adulthood. FFXII's minimalist narrative left me cold, while the unintuitive mechanics and uncharacteristically hardcore progression left me weeping. Because it seemed so entirely the opposite, not only of what I wanted from Final Fantasy, but also what I expected based on the series's history, I ultimately concluded that my problem was with FFXII specifically, and I rested easier knowing that the next game would be something different. But FFXIII is now a game that has divided the Final Fantasy fan base itself, and apathy has no place in this conversation.

The debate centers around the extreme linearity of FFXIII, as a large percentage of the game's dungeons are reportedly literal straight lines that simply connect cut scenes with finite numbers of enemies to battle. Meanwhile, genre standards such as an overworld, towns and townspeople, side quests, and any kind of free exploration have been jettisoned. You apparently can't even select your party members for lengthy spans of the adventure. It sounds almost more like a menu-based action game than anything recognizable as an RPG, which has got many a traditionalist in an uproar, but it also sounds like the design I've been calling for since at least as far back as Parasite Eve. That game was also extremely linear and never let its focus on narrative get bogged down with random enemies and townspeople. There were no notable side quests and no open world to explore, and I didn't miss any of it. I've always hated forks in the road. I do enjoy towns, but as sets for events (think the Active Time Events from FFIX), not as locations for conducting business and talking to nameless NPCs. I'm the guy that turned on "Encounters None" as soon as possible in FFVIII and never looked back. The things that have captivated me in the Final Fantasy games I've enjoyed have been story and combat--not so much the fighting itself, but the unit development and management aspects that actually decide most battles. So I'd be all for a game that distilled the experience to just those elements.

I'm not out to defend a game I haven't played. Rather, I feel like I need to defend my long-held opinions on the genre now, because I am frankly shocked to find that so many of my fellow JRPG fans would actually miss things like level-grinding, getting lost in dungeons, and getting sidetracked by globetrotting fetch quests that stall the narrative. Even some of the more positive reviews seem to note the game's linearity as a chief weakness, yet nobody can really articulate why linearity is necessarily a bad thing. Amid the controversy surrounding FFXIII's design, the implication has been that, because I have never shared these feelings, I should be classified as a mass market gamer and casual RPG player. If my credentials are at issue, let me just say again that the first RPG I ever completed was The 7th Saga. That is NOT a soft game. The last RPG I finished was Persona 3, and the best has been Suikoden II. Among the other fifty-or-so RPGs I've completed have been nine numbered Final Fantasy games. It's true that I did not come to the Final Fantasy series starting with the first game, but I am a fan, with a fair bit of experience.

Taking FFX, XI, XII, and now XIII into account, I can think of no other series that continually reinvents itself so dramatically from one major installment to the next. Yet also no other game (except for maybe Metal Gear Solid 2) seems to have to fight so hard against the players' image of what it is supposed to be. Much as we may be attached to those Roman numerals, maybe it's time Square Enix finally retired the numbering system, since it only seems to enslave the series to a set of expectations that both the developer and community should have outgrown. I myself could not get behind the departures represented by XI and XII, but my disappointments have since made me even more appreciative of the series's "non-sequel-ness," which means that, whether I like it or not, I can always expect something different from each new installment. I think that's something to be applauded rather than lamented. And I know that Square Enix can still make a good game, as it did recently (well, 2007 . . .) with the very excellent and similarly streamlined The World Ends with You.

That said, I of course have not played FFXIII, and I must balance my enthusiasm for its daring design with the requisite skepticism concerning anything new and different. I'm obviously in favor of a more streamlined JRPG experience, but when you take away all the side quests and exploration, then you're basically investing everything in the story, which must consequently be that much stronger. You might think that the opposite should be true for someone like me, who doesn't enjoy all that stalling and wandering--that the more of those tedious elements there are, the better the story must be to make up for them. The reality, as I'm sure many game designers are well aware, is that, when you're made to endure hours of grinding in order to overcome just the latest difficulty-spiking boss, that cut scene that follows feels like a reward, no matter how mediocre it really is. On the other hand, in the case of Parasite Eve, much as I admired its stripping away of genre chaff, that game does not rank with my more favorite Final Fantasies, simply because the mediocrity of its story is so exposed by the absence of anything else to distract from it. Back to FFXIII, I don't know very much about its story, but the trailers certainly give me cause for concern. It may be difficult to convey much about a forty-hour adventure in a five-minute trailer, but Final Fantasy has traditionally always been a high-concept epic. Yet the best Square Enix could do this time was fling about foreign terms that suggest nothing without context, which the trailers do not provide. They're not just weird made-up words, but barely pronounceable ones of no meaningful etymology. It's not at all clear what the heroes are fighting or why, as they moreover utter trite, hammy dialogue. You could argue that Final Fantasy has always been full of melodrama, but FFXIII sounds mushier than I can recall any previous entries being. Maybe the voice acting just makes it all more apparent nowadays. There are some cool Avatar-esque otherworldly visuals, but emo children (and young adults) cannot compare with the instantly iconic image of Akihiko Yoshida's screen-dominating Judges in FFXII. And those FFXII trailers were edited together out of a game that had almost no story or characterization to work with, so what do FFXIII's trailers suggest about it?

Well, I don't really know, but I suppose I'm cautiously optimistic. FFXIII's universe at least appears more original than Parasite Eve's, and if it can combine the accessibility of that game with the epic grandeur of Final Fantasy, then that would be enough to excite me. It's not one of those games that will cut to the top of the queue, but it is on my list of games to play.