My First Experience with Garry’s Mod

So, thanks to this year’s Steam Summer Sale, I’ve been able to better manage my budget and time for playing video games. Thus far, it’s included such purchases as The Shivah (wherein I play a rabbi trying to solve a murder mystery) and the much-acclaimed Garry’s Mod (wherein I wreak havoc on the physics of an open sandbox world).

It’s quite a pleasant world when you first appear, but really, that’s just an invitation to litter it with junk and blow up as many things as possible (or so depraved gamers like me think). First thing I want to do is get rid of my default old man avatar and try someone nicer. Like Chell from Portal 2, but with blue pants!

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And oh look, you can summon an NPC like Alyx Vance! Except something must have gone wrong when I tried out the face poser controls because oh dear God that’s way too much mass and too many angles for a human face.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And then one thing leads to another and you find that you can experiment with matching things together.

Exhibit A: a folding chair with wheels and a thruster. Goes nowhere, but it looks great! Kind of!

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Exhibit B: a high-backed leather office chair… with wheels and a thruster. Better-looking than the first construct and about as operational (which is to say, not very).

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And then the next thing you know, you’re tapping into user-created and pre-existing mods, and then you’re flying modified airboats across the maps, leaving devastation and brilliant colored vapor trails in your wake.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

I’ve got to say that I have some mixed feelings about these open sandbox games. I mean, I love the fact that I can go anywhere in a game environment instead of the pre-defined course from Game Start to Game Over. But on the other hand, having the whole world to yourself can be a little intimidating. When is it enough? How many hours do you want to spend trying to cobble together fantastic vehicles and buildings out of a million odd pieces when you could just be playing Half-Life 2 or any of the other Valve games that this mod was based on?

While it’d be easy to complain about camera angles and random glitches, I will say that Garry’s Mod ultimately leaves me feeling with an odd sense of satisfaction. I may not have gotten much done while I played it (at least, compared to other players), but I walk away knowing that I played and provoked my little virtual world for a few good hours and not a second more.

Which is a roundabout way of saying why I won’t ever be a Minecraft addict anytime soon. Plus, only in Garry’s Mod can you have endless fun blasting away watermelons with a Gravity Gun.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Garry’s Mod is available for download and purchase on Steam.

Update (8/1/2014): I’m taking a break for the rest of the month to focus on my job, catching up with old friends, and getting through my ever-growing list of shows to watch, games to play, and other forms of media that I’ll ultimately write a review for. See you all in September!

Bibliography: Garry’s Mod. Developed by Facepunch Studios. Published by Valve Corporation. Source (engine). Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux. Original release date: December 24, 2004.

Mourning in Manhattan with Pixelated Putzes: The Shivah

It’s not every day that I get to play a rabbi wandering the streets of Manhattan, trying to solve a murder mystery, but who am I to judge?

Puzzle games are often a treat for me and this one got my attention because it was the product of a game developer called Wadjet Eye Studios. They’ve produced one point-and-click game that I still hold near and dear to my heart, Primordia, where two robots wander the desert and into a major city to track down their stolen power source. It’s fascinating how both of these games share common elements, such as avenging a fallen comrade and trying to make sense of the world through the lens of religion.

The Shivah is the story of Rabbi Russell Stone, whose congregation of Conservative Jews has dwindled because of his bleak and uninspiring sermons. When he learns that a former member of his congregation, Jack Lauder, was murdered and left him several thousand dollars in his will, Rabbi Stone decides to pay a shivah call to Lauder’s widow. From there, the quest is on to find Lauder’s killer and make amends for driving the young couple out of his congregation eight years prior.

Copyright 2006 by Wadjet Eye Games

Copyright © 2006 by Wadjet Eye Games

While there are some similarities between this game and Primordia, such as 2D animation, clues to collect, and dialogue trees with multiple game endings, The Shivah is far more cerebral. Rather than test the player on how many parts they collect and what secrets they unlock with new combinations, you’re required to think more like a rabbi and see which responses get the best results from the people you question. You can be sarcastic, defensive, accusatory, consoling, polite, or straightforward. Most dialogues even include a “Rabbinical” option, which lets you ask probing questions to drive you toward the truth. These can be useful, but they can also infuriate, which can make for a poor course of action depending on which character you talk to.

Abe Goldfarb does a good job of voicing the world-weary Rabbi Stone; he sounds like your typical hardboiled detective, were it not for the occasional bit of Yiddish slang and the yarmulke on his head. Most of his lines are laden with sincere feeling, although I didn’t feel like I got to know this character as well as I did Horatio from Primordia. Rabbi Stone’s journey is less about self-discovery and more about making amends for a decision from the past.

As for the style and ethos of the game, it’s definitely steeped in Jewish lore, with plenty of Jewish humor, a klezmer soundtrack, and even a Talmudic duel at the end. Even the achievements—which are based on the decisions and dialogue options you choose in-game—are all based on common Yiddish phrases. The game brings Judaism to the fore without necessarily becoming a caricature. It’s an attempt to use elements of Jewish and rabbinical culture to tell a mystery story and build a puzzle game.

At the end, I’d say it’s an alright game. You care about Rabbi Stone and the plot, but the dry recreation of Manhattan doesn’t thrill me the way seeing the world of Primordia did and I felt the ending wasn’t as strong. Still, what could be better than a chance to learn a bit of Torah while playing a video game?

The Shivah: Kosher Edition is available for purchase and download through Steam and Wadjet Eye Games.

Bibliography: The Shivah: Kosher Edition. Designed by Dave Gilbert. Developed by Wadjet Eye Games. Adventure Game Studios (engine). Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux iOS, Android. Original release date: September 2006. Kosher Edition release date: November 13, 2013.

Why You Need to Go See The Guardians of the Galaxy Movie

Last weekend, I experienced something transcendent. Something that comic book fans, sci-fi geeks, and popcorn movie enthusiasts could only dream about before.

As both an installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and as a film in its own right, Guardians of the Galaxy is amazing.

Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Copyright © 2014 by Marvel Studios.

Where do I even begin? You want action? How about a thousand starships in a dogfight over the skies of Xandar, with a giant black warship in the background? You want romance? You’ve got the curious relationship between our young male lead, Jason Quill (Chris Pratt), and the sexy green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana). And if you’re looking for straight-up mayhem and wonder, I need only tell you about the following facts about this film (hopefully without too many spoilers).

You’ll get to experience:

  • A talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) firing a laser cannon off the shoulder of a massive roaring walking tree (Vin Diesel)
  • More colorful aliens and cyborgs than you can shake a stick at
  • Fine performances by Benecio Del Toro and Nathan Fillion
  • A space station built into the severed head of a slain god
  • One heck of a great soundtrack with such hits as “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “Moonage Daydream”

This is the kind of comic book movie that doesn’t try to be gritty or ultra-serious. It’s a thrill ride from start to finish, and yet, it’s got plenty of heart. Marvel could’ve just gotten away with making the Guardians a bunch of misfits thrown together for a simple purpose of fighting a fanatical Kree warlord (Lee Pace), but they didn’t stop there. As Peter Quill himself puts it, they’re people who’ve lost something and it’s worth every second of this film to see them fight hard and risk it all for a chance to gain victory in their messed-up lives in their messed-up universe.

Honestly, the only regret I have is the lack of “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum, which got a lot of play in the trailers, but doesn’t show up in the film itself. Also, the film opens with the death of Peter Quill’s mother in 1988, which is so heavy that it almost makes you forget you’re watching a movie with blue-skinned warlords and talking raccoons in space. But it’s a small price to pay for a rip-roaring action film that has a lot of spirit, brilliant comedy, and some memorable characters. I can’t wait to see how the MCU is going to try to fit these space oddities into the Avengers.

Guardians of the Galaxy is now playing in theaters and available through Marvel Studios.

Bibliography: Guardians of the Galaxy (film). Directed by James Gunn. Produced by Kevin Feige. Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Based on the comic by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Perf. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio del Toro. Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. US release date: August 1, 2014.

The Big Idea: Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson

Alex Willging:

While I enjoy John Scalzi as an author (thank you, Redshirts), I’m a pretty big fan of his blog, Whatever. In particular, I’ve always enjoyed reading his Big Idea posts, where fellow authors get a little space to put in their own words the inspiration behind their latest novels or other creative projects. More often than not, these kind of posts have been a big help for guys like me looking for something new and interesting to read.

That’s why I wanted to share with you all this great Big Idea by Arianne “Tex” Thompson, whose concept for her debut novel rocked my world this morning. It’s a story that addresses both the issues of introducing magic to the real world and also dealing with historical real-world issues (i.e., racism, class struggles, industrialization, colonialism). I wanted to share her enthusiasm and her keen look into a 19th century world where magic and modernity intersect violently.

So please give her Big Idea a moment of your time and then give her story a chance, too. I know I will!

Originally posted on Whatever:

When you introduce magic into a real-world setting, you don’t only have to deal with the problems that magic introduces — you have to deal with the problems that already existed in that real world setting. When Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson wanted to introduce magic to an American milieu in One Night in Sixes, she took all of those problems into consideration. Here’s how she made it work.


All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

“I’m tired of Euromedieval fantasy!” I thought. “I’m tired of swords and castles and straight white monocultures. I’m going to write a fantasy about MY country, and MY history, with eleventeen kinds of people rubbing shoulders – like in real life! – and it’s going to be AMAZING.”

And by “amazing”, I must have meant “an absolute landmine of racism, imperialism, slavery and genocide.” Because…

View original 735 more words

“The Hero’s Need” and Other Storytelling Issues

Stories are like opinions: everyone has one and some start to sound very much alike if you look close enough. Even with stories that seem like they have nothing in common, like Pride and Prejudice and Star Wars, there are fundamental rules that show why such stories resonate with the audience for generations to come.

One of those rules is perhaps the most fundamental of all:

A main character needs to achieve something despite several obstacles along the way.

Most people will tell you that conflict is essential for any story, like the heroic Rebels versus the evil Empire or the plucky young woman trying to escape the hideous monster. But a character’s need may be the most important thing to a story, and as I’m looking over several modern stories, I think I see why that is.

Now, I could ramble off a bunch of platitudes like “Human beings need things!” or expound on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But rather than do that, I’ll just ask this question. When you think about your favorite stories, what is it that the main character wants most and what do they do to get it?

In The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves need to reach the Lonely Mountain and take back their kingdom from the dragon Smaug. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker wants to fight the Empire and protect his friends from danger. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone wants to stay out of his father’s criminal empire, but still keep his loved ones safe. All these characters have specific, tangible needs, even if they don’t always get fulfilled or come off with good results.

I’ve begun to notice in some stories, however, that this overarching need just isn’t there. For example, in the first season of the CBS show Elementary, we understand that Joan Watson needs to help Sherlock Holmes solve crimes and deal with his tragic past as a recovering addict. By the end of that season, we have a strong resolution about his failure to save Irene Adler—which led to his drug addiction—and his present-day battle with the criminal mastermind Moriarty. By contrast, Season 2 of Elementary meanders without any clear point. There’s a conflict involving Sherlock’s brother Mycroft and some intrigue with a British intelligence agency in the finale, but the rest of the season doesn’t bring us there. We have Watson moving out, but we don’t get a clear sense of how this was building up from the start of the season.

And perhaps we’re more familiar with another flawed story: the infamous Star Wars prequel trilogy. Despite the hype that was thrown onto seeing Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader, we never had the same tangible need that we had in his son Luke. Yes, Anakin is haunted by the loss of his mother and turns to the dark side for fear of his wife’s death, but that fear isn’t present throughout the rest of the trilogy. It would make sense if we saw Anakin taking more drastic actions during the movies in order to protect the ones he loved (especially if those actions put him in opposition to Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi Order). Instead, we got a podrace in Episode I, rolling in some meadows in Episode II, and some moping around (right up until he kills his first Jedi) in Episode III. There’s no real progression based on his need. Anakin just reacts to things and then becomes evil.

By contrast, in the original trilogy, we saw how Luke lost his family and what he’s sacrificed in fighting the Empire. We know how much he wants to become a Jedi like his father and also how he’s willing to abandon his Jedi training for the sake of saving his only friends. We know exactly what kind of pain Luke is dealing with by the end of the trilogy when he has to confront Vader and not walk the same dark road that his father took. In the prequels, we were just relieved when Anakin became Vader, but in the original films, we cheered when Luke stood up to the Emperor and redeemed his father’s legacy, even when he had every reason to hate him.

Finding a conflict for any story is easy, but it takes real effort and commitment to bring out a character’s need in storytelling.