What’s Your Ideal Video Game?

Not too long ago, I was struggling through a replay of Star Wars Republic Commando (an excellent FPS game, in my opinion) and I happened to read through an article on Homestation Magazine about the current trend toward curbing gamers’ frustration with advancing through or winning a game. It made me feel a bit guilty (at first) about not being as dedicated as some hardcore gamers to beating each level sans cheat codes and scoring every possible point and achievement there is.

Source: CLP Nation http://clpnation.com/i-told-you-so-4-reasons-video-games-are-good-for-your-health-per-american-psychological-association/

Source: CLP Nation

But the more I thought it over, the more I came to realize that I don’t need to be that kind of a gamer. Certainly, the majority of people playing video and mobile games aren’t. And then I wondered if it wasn’t so much what kind of gamer I was, but what kind of games I’d much rather play.

For me, there’s 5 essential points that a game needs to hit for me to really enjoy myself.

  • It has to be fun to play (and replay).

Most video games, in an abstract way, are meant to be fun, whether they’re a first person shooter, an RPG, a puzzle game, or an endlessly repeating flash mobile game like Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. But for me, “fun” is more than the actual content of the game than the style of the gameplay. I’m not the kind of person who will spend hours trudging through an FPS game, getting mowed down by enemy soldiers and racking up kills. I don’t have that kind of patience. I’d much rather jump or fly around the map, tricking enemies or ambushing them in comical ways. I’d rather explore or do something funny (like bash a robot over the head) than get lost in a gritty urban map with a BFG and a horde of enemies.

  • The in-game environment should look good.

I’m well aware of the kind of pressure that a lot of game developers are under to release new titles every year, so I can be a little forgiving of the occasional glitch or bug. But what really gets me into a game is how good each map looks, whether I’m in the bright stark white testing chambers of Aperture Science or the grim, mean streets of Liberty City and Los Santos. What I don’t want to do is trudge my way through yet another brown and gray urban environment that’s indistinguishable from a thousand other FPS titles.

  • Points and speed don’t matter.

I’ll admit that I’ve spent a considerable amount of hours trying to score achievements in different games, but racking up points and achievements matters less to me than the actual fun I have playing through a game. At the same time, I don’t work well under pressure, which is why timed missions or escorting NPCs are a nightmare for me. Some people have better reflexes than me, so that’s fine if they enjoy such gameplay, but I’d rather be doing something less constructive, like exploring the map or solving a puzzle challenge.

  • The soundtrack should be engaging.

Most of the music that you hear in games is pretty standard, from the MIDI tracks of classic Nintendo games to the dramatic orchestral scores of Halo and its thousand spiritual successors. But sometimes, a score is good enough to be enjoyed on its own. It’d be easy for me to name something like Portal as an example, but I can also think of the lovely retro soundtrack of a game like Fez. It’s great when the music really adds to the atmosphere or creates one of its own, even if you’re listening to the tracks without playing the game.

  • A little intellectual challenge is good.

Now here’s the part where I imagine a lot of readers going, “But I don’t want to think! I just wanna play!” And I agree with you—to an extent. But we’re talking about my personal style of gameplay and I enjoy a little strategy or puzzle-solving. Nothing that would require a PhD, certainly, but something that would tease the brain without actually breaking it. Some games require you to search and collect several items, and that’s fine, but I’d also like the kind of game where you need to apply either a bit of logic or some imagination to get yourself out of a situation.

Looking at all these points, I suppose I’m describing a game like Portal or any of the Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. There’s enough comedy, action, atmosphere, and puzzles in those games to go around, and when it comes to either of the Portal games, I’ve definitely logged over 100 hours.

None of this is supposed to be taken as some final manifesto of demands to be submitted to game developers everywhere. If there’s a market for games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Fruit Ninja, then who am I to complain? All I’m outlining is the kind of gaming market that defines me—and perhaps a few of my readers, too.

So, readers, what kind of games are your personal favorite? FPS? Puzzle platformers? Open sandbox? Don’t be shy; be proud. Let us know in the comments below.

Edit (9/30/2014): The link to the original HS Magazine article has been removed, owing to the website closing down.

It’s Weird Up North (And I Love It): Gravity Falls

Copyright © 2012 by Disney Television Animation

Copyright © 2012 by Disney Television Animation

Have you watched a show that seemed cute, but 15 minutes later was taking you down a dark, twisted, and ultimately amazing road?

I have. That show’s name is Gravity Falls.

This animated series on Disney X.D. centered around the brother and sister duo Dipper and Mabel Pines. After their great-uncle Stan takes them in for the summer, they end up exploring the mysterious occurrences in the strange town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. Everything from gnomes to zombies to eldritch conspiracies abounds in this bizarre series, along with an equally colorful and evolving cast and a mythology centered around an ancient set of journals.

As entertaining as Dipper is for a protagonist, he’s also a bit of a deconstruction of your typical Boy Wonder or amateur sleuth. For one thing, it’s increasingly obvious that hunting mysteries tends to bring about more pain for everyone involved, with only the occasional life being saved by a hideous monster or a young psychic megalomaniac named Gideon.

The real show stealer, however, is his sister Mabel. She is one ball of cheery delight, full of odd jokes, random lines of thought, raw cuteness, and a surprising level of depth when push comes to shove. She offers the benefit of being both a distraction from the more serious plot and a handy companion to Dipper’s mystery hunts.

Copyright © 2012 by Disney Television Animation

Copyright © 2012 by Disney Television Animation

I also love the supporting cast. “Grunkle” Stan is an awesome blend of cynical con artist and a begrudingly nice uncle, with one or two earth-shattering secrets somewhere up his sleeve. Soos, the local handyman, is entertainly dumb, but has a good heart. And then there’s Wendy, the tall redhead whom Dipper fixates on with a precocious crush. However, the show does a fine job around Season 2 of showing the reality subtext behind that crush and why those romances wouldn’t necessarily work out.

One of the things that first attracted me to the show was how much it reminded me of Invader Zim, a short-lived but popular Nickelodeon cartoon. The two shows share many things in common, including a penchant for black comedy and horror elements, a town full of very stupid or gullible people as its setting, and a very catchy theme song during the opening titles.

The other quality that keeps me cemented as a stark raving fan of Gravity Falls is the show’s impressive mythological arc. It raises so many questions while offering a few tantalizing clues. Why does the town of Gravity Falls attract so much weirdness? Who wrote Dipper’s journal and why? And what in the name of all that is holy is Grunkle Stan doing in his secret room in the basement? The showrunners have done a fine job of throwing in actual bits of cryptography and esoteric symbols to both give a conspiratorial atmosphere and keep the fans guessing.

It might not sound like it based on some of the divergent turns I’ve taken, but Gravity Falls is a pretty cool show for both kids and adults to enjoy. It’s got tons of adventures and colorful visuals for children, a bit of romance and drama for teens, and a heady blend of adult humor and mythological references to keep the whole thing a bit more coherent than the usual fare.

So why are you still sitting here and reading this? Go and watch it already.

Gravity Falls is available through Disney X.D. New episodes air on Mondays.

Bibliography: Gravity Falls. Created by Alex Hirsch. Directed by John Aoshima, Aaron Springer, Joe Pitt, Rob Renzetti, and Matt Braly. Produced by Alex Hirsch, Tobias Conan Trost, Brian Doell, and Rob Renzetti. Disney Television Animation. Disney Channel (2012 – 2014), Disney X.D. (2014 – present). Original run: June 15, 2012 – present.

Wasteland Heroes and Hijinks: Desert Punk

After sinking my teeth into the joy and drama of a good anime adaptation like Steins;Gate, I decided that I needed to broaden my horizons a little. Take a stroll into some straight-up comic, full-action show set in the middle of a giant desert, with plenty of explosions, shootouts, and gorgeous girls to go around.

So… that’s basically why Desert Punk exists.

Copyright © 2011 by Gonzo and FUNimation

Copyright © 1997 by Usune Masatoshi

The story is set in some distant future wasteland called the Great Kanto Desert, where survival is a daily battle and outlaws roam every corner. One such bandit is Kanta, better known to the locals as “The Demon in the Desert” and “Desert Punk.” With his iconic mask and hat, he spends his time collecting bounties and debts, and more often than not getting others into trouble while he tries to score big on cash prizes and to score at all with large-breasted women like his rival Junko. But the real heart of the story is Kanta’s apprentice, a young girl named Kosuna, who wants to become the toughest mercenary around.

Going in, I was prepared for a pretty standard anime with a halfway decent English dub. What I didn’t expect was that the dub would be so good. Eric Vale really earns his pay and brings the main character Desert Punk to life with one-liners and rapid dialogue. And I’m impressed that the studio responsible for translating the anime from the original Japanese even went to the trouble of translating and recording English-language versions of the opening and closing title songs.

The English dub also allowed for some interesting changes to the show’s humor. Some elements are translated word-for-word, but some of the jokes definitely got an alteration, adding a more Western style of humor. In particular, I laughed pretty hard at a fourth wall joke thrown in during a firefight in the very first episode.

“Remember kids, a smart man knows when it’s time to RUN LIKE A LITTLE BITCH!”

However, even rapid-fire comedy and visual gags can only do so much. As the series went on, I started to lose interest pretty quick. For one thing, so much of the beginning arc consists of filler, with a long time before we hit anything resembling a consitent plot. It’s good for establishing Desert Punk’s character, but even then, there isn’t much to work with. By the time it got to the dramatic side of things, I was half tempted to give up.

Another irritant for me was the constant use of boob jokes and daydream sequences of a mini-Kanta bouncing up and down on some giant pair of breasts. I get that it’s probably poking fun more at the dreamer, but by the fifth or sixth episode, that gag was growing stale for me. I’d would’ve rather seen that time better focused on the actual plot and developing said female cast members.

Looking back, the whole series reminds me a lot of another high-end anime set in a desert: Trigun. Both shows follow comedic protagonists (whose English dub voice actors do amazing work) across an endless wasteland populated by colorful mercenaries and bizarre gun battles, all with the specter of a shady past looming overhead. But the real difference is that I found it much easier to care about Vash the Stampede than I did for Desert Punk. Vash’s story was comic when it wanted it to be, but it never felt weird or depressing when it slid toward a more dramatic angle and it added depth to Vash’s journey.

Trigun‘s theme was more about the value of pacifism in a cruel world whereas Desert Punk is more of a romp through violence with a cast of morally questionable comedic characters. Still, the show’s redeeming qualities can be found in its animation and its voice acting, especially around the first few episodes. It’s not the worst anime ever made, but it won’t be anywhere near my Top 10 List anytime soon.

The English dub for Desert Punk is available through FUNimation.

Bibliography: Desert Punk (anime). Directed by Takayuki Inagaki. Gonzo (studio). FUNimation Entertainment (US). Starz Edge (network). Original broadcast run: October 4, 2004March, 30 2005.

Getting Lost in the Good Old Days: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Copyright © 2011 by Stephen King

Copyright © 2011 by Stephen King

Some would consider Stephen King one of the greatest authors of our time. I don’t buy into hyperbole that much, so I’ll say that he’s certainly a very talented writer. I loved reading through his book On Writing and it was in that spirit of good vibes and curiosity that I decided to try reading one of his novels.

Naturally, I went to the one about time travel.

11/22/63 is a very long story about an English teacher in Maine, Jake Epping, who comes across a wondrous discovery: a portal in his friend Al’s diner that sends people back through time to the year 1958. While he tries to fix the tragic childhood of a janitor at his school, Jake soon sets his sights on a much larger goal: stopping the JFK assassination and forever changing the course of history. Of course, this is a tall order and comes with all sorts of terrible consequences, both for Jake and the world.

For some stories, the use of time travel can make or break the whole narrative. What King does well in this story is show off the research he’s done that brings the past to life. He’s not content with just telling you it’s an older time with no Internet and different race relations. Through the eyes of Jake Epping, we see the world of 1958 in all its glories and warts, with better-tasting food and subtle touches of anti-Semitism, with Cold War paranoia and small town comforts. I really felt like I was back in the Fifties and Sixties myself.

However, this can also lead to a major problem that I had with this book: namely, the pacing. As much as I got lost in each setting because of Mr. King’s details, I also lost track of the overall plot. The main focus is on one man’s quest to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK, but there’s a good chunk of the novel devoted to his early attempt to fix a janitor’s life by stopping his father from going on a murderous rampage. Not to mention Jake’s romance with a woman in the Fifties, and how this complicates his travels. They’re not the worst elements in a story, but it was hard to care so much about the JFK plot with all these digressions.

It’s a funny coincidence (or maybe not) that I happened to start reading this novel around the same time that I started watching an anime called Steins;Gate, which also has to do with time travel. In fact, both stories follow a similar premise about a bold man experimenting with time travel, only to try to reverse the changes he’s made to save the life of someone he loves. But if I had to pick, Steins;Gate did a much better job of making me care about the main characters and revealing the time travel crisis at a much more dramatic pace.

It should go without saying that none of this is a slam against Stephen King. He can write good dialogue, his characters are all passionate, and he’s no slouch when it comes to getting the facts straight and building in the details to his own little worlds—even if some of those worlds keep resembling the same small town somewhere in Maine.

11/22/63 is available for purchase from booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York, Scribner, 2011.

The Dark Knight Rises: Take Two

Like many filmgoers, I was a big, big fan of Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman film franchise, giving us wonderful dramas like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. However, the third installment, The Dark Knight Rises, still leaves me with fuzzy memories and a bad taste in my mouth. Compared to the first two films, Rises had little to no impact for me.

Think about that. A live-action movie starring Bane, Catwoman, and the goddamn Batman failed to have an impact for me. What went wrong?

I think the problem was that Nolan and Co. didn’t pick up enough inspiration from the Jeph Loeb trilogy of graphic novels like they did with the first two Batman films. They put more energy into big-budget explosions than they did into a compelling and emotional story, which they did perfectly well the first two times and still had box office success.

So I’d like to try my hand at my own rewrite of The Dark Knight Rises, taking inspiration from such comic books as the Knightfall arc and Batman: Dark Victory.

Act I: Shadows

We begin over a year after the events of The Dark Knight. The last of the classic mob families are gathered in secret under one roof for an emergency meeting. However, masked supervillains assault the meeting, including the Scarecrow and Victor Zsasz. Their leader emerges once the last bodies hit the floor: a masked man known only as Bane, who declares his complete control over Gotham City.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne’s social life has deteriorated since the deaths of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent. He’s become distant from his current girlfriend—the socialite Andrea Beaumont—and he shows up less at work, devoting more time and energy as Batman to fighting criminals like Bane and other costumed villains taken over after the collapse of the old gangs.

Elsewhere, Jim Gordon and the police investigate a series of murders, in which it appears that Batman brutally killed several gangsters and corrupt cops. However, Gordon knows better and puts a young officer named John Blake on point in locating the Dark Knight—not to arrest him, but to ask for help in stopping this new killer.

When Bane learns about these murders, he decides to end the Dark Knight once and for all. He breaks out prisoners from Blackgate and Arkham Asylum, flooding the streets with maniacs. Batman spends weeks prowling the Narrows, even taking on a deputy: a charming thief named Selina Kyle, also known as “The Cat.” Because she figured out Batman’s true identity (as a mission for Bane), Bruce drops the act with Selina and straight up hires her to be his ally, using his wealth to secure her loyalty and steal her away from Bane’s side.

Act II: Broken

While rounding up criminals left and right, Batman finds himself running into Officer John Blake, who becomes his lone ally on the police force. Blake begins to pick up some tips from the Dark Knight, including stealth and brute force moves. He’s also one of the first to see how the crime wave is taking its toll on Batman. As Bruce Wayne, he feels regret for alienating his fellow board members at Wayne Enterprises and losing touch with Andrea Beaumont. Even Lucius Fox asks Bruce to reconsider his mission, telling him point-blank: “Your life shouldn’t be spent standing over someone else’s grave.” Alfred hears this and sees that Bruce is, in fact, still motivated to avenge the single crime that took his parents from him.

With Selina’s help, Batman tracks down Bane’s headquarters and infiltrates it with ease. However, Bane’s waiting for him. Having figured out his true identity, Bane proceeds to beat Batman in a fistfight, overwhelming him with raw strength. We learn that Bane was the last true leader of the League of Shadows and that he wants revenge for the death of Ra’s al-Ghûl. After breaking Batman’s back, Bane stands triumphant, only for Selina Kyle to intervene and steal Bruce away.

Meanwhile, a new figure emerges. Gordon confronts the mysterious killer in the act, giving us our first glimpse of the Phantasm, a cowled assassin with a metal mask that resembles the Dark Knight’s own. The Phantasm nearly kills Gordon, but Blake saves his life using Batman’s tactics. Once news of this gets out, Bane redirects all his efforts into finding and killing the Phantasm to secure his control of the city.

Act III: Dawn

Now crippled, Bruce retreats to the Batcave and sends out a call to John Blake. He tells the young man that he needs a successor, someone with the will and stamina to be a living symbol of justice. Over the course of three weeks, Blake trains hard under Bruce and Selina’s direction, mirroring the progress Bruce made while training with Ra’s al-Ghûl.

Meanwhile, Gordon can barely contain the violence spreading through Gotham City as Bane’s men hunt down the Phantasm. It culminates in Bane launching a direct attack on City Hall and killing the mayor. He sends an open challenge to either Batman or the Phantasm.

Blake, now taking over as the Batman, appears at City Hall and takes down several of Bane’s man. He challenges Bane himself, surprising him with his youthful stamina and ferocity. Of course, after his defeat, Bane reveals a deadman’s switch on his body linked to a series of bombs underneath the city. Blake leaves to disarm half the bombs, while the city’s SWAT Teams disarming the rest—all but two. While being led into police custody, a weakened Bane dies at the Phantasm’s hand, activating the penultimate bomb and destroying a nearby football stadium.

Bruce finds the last bomb underneath Wayne Tower. With Lucius’s help, Bruce is able to regain some mobility through an experimental series of nerve-linked medical braces. He leaves to disarm it, donning a Batsuit one last time for protection, but encounters the Phantasm, who leaves the bomb in place. After a brief fight, we learn the Phantasm’s true identity: Andrea Beaumont, who wanted revenge on the mob and the corrupt police for the cruel murder of her father. Bruce reveals his own identity to her, pleading for mercy. He echoes a line from Lucius: “Your life shouldn’t be spent standing over someone else’s grave.”

Andrea refuses to apologize for the lives she’s taken, but allows Bruce to disarm the bomb. Then she disappears into the shadows, never to be seen again.

Months later, Bruce has retired as the Dark Knight, leaving it in the hands of John Blake, who resigned from the police force with Gordon’s blessing. Bruce has finally taken full control at Wayne Enterprises and pursued a meaningful romance with Selina, finally committed to being Bruce Wayne and the secret sponsor of the legendary Batman.

If my readers have any thoughts or suggestions of their own about how the Dark Knight Trilogy should’ve ended, by all means leave a comment.