Monday, September 8, 2014

Harassment and Hashtags

I'm not sure what's repeating myself, what's transcendently obvious and what's bandwagon jumping on something that every point I could make has been written about better by people directly affected and deeper in the community than I am. The first 17 minutes of this podcast are instructive.

Here goes: #Gamergate started off as a new edition of an old saw (games journalism is too dependent on personal friendships, inside sources, "exclusives," etc etc), if in fact, it was ever anything more than a way for Zoe Quinn's vindictive ex to get back at her. If I was a teenager now, maybe, if my life zigged and not zagged, I could see getting up in arms about "integrity" but as it stands, I'm not a teenager, so I don't have a lot of patience for the people that keep the hashtag going despite the persons from 4chan and random people interested in mayhem joining the hashtag.

As I did journalism in high school, I'm aware of the limitations of an enthusiast press, especially in a time when people don't want to pay for actual journalism by professionals.

I'm at a loss as to what to say about the persons who terrorize Ms. Quinn. They are the true and willful authors of her degradation, they are doing a thing they likely believe to be directly harmful to a human being. In this respect, they're bad people. I cannot see myself or any of my friends, no matter how warped by circumstance, terrorizing her.

The worst part is of course, the harassment and threats that Ms. Quinn faces hourly, if not minute to minute. The saddest part is that the people who terrorize her, if given distance and I imagine, a couple years to grow up, might be fans of her work. They're terrorizing a game developer, chosen because she's a woman with an opinion they don't like and can be brought via slander into the conversation.

Pause. The second saddest part is that the people who terrorize Ms. Quinn value the mealy and unappetizing present over the possibilities of the future.

Pause again. Were the world two degrees to the left, they're terrorizing a person who might have been their friend.

(Reminder: Terrorizing people is bad. You shouldn't terrorize anybody.)

Harassment of women with opinions will continue to be more visible on the internet, which allows us to recognize it publicly as abhorrent. Before this, the harassment of female developers wasn't so obvious. Given a timeline beyond my lifespan, the sexism will be corrected, slowly. While we live, we push the stone as far along as we can.

The rest is washing up: Ms. Quinn will live with this the rest of her life, regardless of whether she remains in the games industry. Her terrorizers will forget all about this next year. We hope that Ms. Quinn will continue to make games, we understand if she doesn't.

I suspect I'll write this next year and the year after that. I believe the year that I won't be compelled to write this is coming. I do not believe I will live to see it.

"Get the fuck out/here there's no interest in what you're about.../we're here together/we're here to stay" Three's A Party. Kid Dynamite. Short. Fast Loud. Hit play already. This post was edited at 7:30ish pm the same day it was published. It was edited again a couple hours later.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Shadowrun And The Glory

Shadowrun Returns is an cRPG videogame based on the tabletop gaming system of the same name. Shadowrun: Dragonfall is that videogame's expansion. Like most videogames, Dragonfall is the better game, since much of the trouble in making the first game is making sure that the gears and wheels under the hood work, but also, discovering what that game is. But there's one mission of Returns that is more memorable, for the right reasons, than everything from the expansion.

The Shadowrun setting is basically Red Harvest or $106,000 Blood Money dramatized by Lord Of The Rings characters. Death is cheap, people willing to do bad things abound, people willing to do good things usually aren't. Corporations run the world, and everyone employs mercenaries (Shadowrunners) for missions, which usually involve repossessing a rival corp's technology or board member. Often killing and hacking (called decking) are involved.
(A long aside on names. Shadowrun Returns is the base game, but Shadowrun: Dragonfall is the expansion. There's no semicolon in Shadowrun Returns. Ugh. Therefore, I'm referring to the base game as Returns and the expansion as Dragonfall because it makes my life and your reading experience easier.)

I'm going to be spoiling the coolest part of the Returns game, so if you actually intend to play it, turn back now.



It's one of my favorite moments.

I am currently right at the last mission in Dragonfall, so while I have not beat it yet, I feel comfortable talking about Dragonfall as a full experience. Perhaps the story will implode just before the finish line, but so far, the story is a defter thing than its predecessor. There are actual headscratchers in terms of "okay, what am I contracted to do versus what can I do versus what is the right thing to do versus what is the decision the genre demands?" and three or four of those headscratchers in Dragonfall.

But. There's a sequence in Returns that is better than anything in Dragonfall thus far and one that I have never seen on a game table or in a videogame.

The setup is this: You're on a run (what the missions are called) and the run is grab some things from a corp's office, fight through a big headquarters tower to get there. (It's a dungeon, inverted.)

Traditionally, in Shadowrun, these things end in only a couple ways: The party escapes or the party dies. You have variations on the theme (they barely escape with their lives, they escape, but one of them's a traitor, they leave a lot of dead, but a couple get out, they get out with not quite the information they were paid to get, it was a trap) but that's how those things tend to roll.

You die or you leave.

On this run, the group doesn't quite get what they need. That won't help out the customer, but they're so close and they can't wait till the next evening. So what do they do? They have the main character stay in the tower to complete the mission when everyone else shows up tomorrow morning for work.

What you do not do in videogames or Shadowrun, or at least the ones where you're an adventuring group, is stick around. (Unless you're Viscera Cleanup Detail, which, is a game precisely about what you suspect it is but cannot bring yourself to believe, a videogame about cleaning up the corpses left behind by the successful execution of a FPS level.)

The game is get in however you have to, get out however you have to. Returns compels you to stay.

Maybe I'm hyping this up a bit much. There's a save point, so it's technically a success state of one part of the mission and moving on to the next one, but I've never heard of a run continuing into the morning. Ever. 10:30 am in the Shadowrun universe might as well be genuinely unknown territory. Every run happens at night, at least all the ones I'm aware of. You're dead or you leave. You're alive and you're still there is new territory.

Remaining there into the morning completely changes how I feel about the space. That's new! As for the contents of the mission, I won't spoil that, except that it's good genre fun and you get to see the results of your work.

Taken as a whole, Dragonfall is surer. Dragonfall is more dexterous. Dragonfall is better in genre. Dragonfall's challenges are harder and its combat arenas better designed. Dragonfall's NPCs are more textured and one of those NPCs has a genuinely surprising backstory that actually lives up to the talking around it in the first two thirds of the game.

But Dragonfall, at least just before the final boss mission (or what appears to be the final mission) had nothing so daring as a corp building at 10:30 am. Dragonfall is a better videogame. Despite that, in five years, I suspect that I will sooner remember that moment from Returns than I will anything from Dragonfall.

A stand alone directors cut edition of Dragonfall is released September 18 for $15. I think and hope you'll like it.

This song is called Hunting For Witches and it is by Bloc Party. Go.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Stray Bullets: All My Friends Were Right

I bought Stray Bullets: The Uber Alles Edition (a one time only $60 collection of the first 41 issues) because three different people told me to do it, each of them coming from a different part of my life.

I'm about 16 issues through and I can say that this is one of the most powerful things I've read in the last five years. Elmore Leonard gives me a vocabulary to speak about these things, but I intuit a very powerful sentimentality in the early portions of the Lapham crime series.

The characters, alone! I'll spoil one story. Amy Racecar is a femme fatale in blue jeans, or a "bad girl" except reading her doesn't make me roll my eyes. She loves a man and does not trust him. The rest is inevitable and impossible to guard against. Of course it ends the way it does. I imagine a further influence of Westlake's (nee Stark) Slayground, though it could just be that the shootout happens in an amusement park.

Virginia Applejack won't take anyone's shit and learns quickly what that means. There are innocent boys given bad educations. There are bad men, in the grand sense, and in the sense of women speaking over drinks.

The characters are children pretending to be adults and adults misbehaving. They are eroded by liquor or sex or cocaine. Handguns make appearances, like movie stars on television. The violence feels real. By which I mean, the violence is never pretty. It is messy, wet and it changes the survivors. There is blood, but it isn't bloody. It is graphic, but not like a Geoff Johns splash page.

Stray Bullets makes me want to re-read Scalped, to see what influence must be there.

There is one major drawback. The binding on my copy of the Uber Alles Edition is abysmal. I described it to one of my friends as being done by an Image Comics intern with a glue gun. I'm aware the price was deliberately kept low, but the pages came unglued within the first thirty minutes of me opening the volume. I wouldn't buy the Uber Alles Edition if I were you, but if you see Stray Bullets on a comixology sale, then blow your money. All of it.

It was Adam writing about Stray Bullets that convinced me to buy the series, at bottom, and if you want convincing, then clicking this link may convince you.

You can read the first four issues for free here.

Patrick Kindlon was one of those three people that recommended I buy Stray Bullets, so a Self Defense Family song about the cops knocking Patrick's house down seems appropriate. "I choked out one word, and that word was 'bastards.'"

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Be Objective

Rebecca and I got together to talk about Ferguson on Sunday afternoon. It felt like things were getting less rugged out there and we had a full week's worth of news to digest. She said that she didn't know how to talk about it, and I suggested a timeline. Suggested is light. I said timeline and then went and yelled about what happened at what particular times for six minutes uninterrupted.

And that's good training from journalism and philosophy. (Yelling at a coffee bar notwithstanding...) Check your work, take individual pieces one at a time and not in big gulps, make connections from one piece to another, always. Back up what you say with facts. All well and good. Little pieces give you a thing to start on and build from. You build long enough like that and you'll have something that'll hold.

It sounded good and felt good on Sunday afternoon. Then, of course came Sunday evening, and it whatever good feeling I had from the conversation disintegrated. A hate group with a long history of murder that I won't link to announced they're going to show up to protect white businesses, whomever the police are this time around (normal St. Louis police? Ferguson police? Those MO state police that actually talked with people?) brought back their military weaponry and the same grisly play happened again.

As I write this, more anarchist collectives from out of town are coming in looking for a fight, against the wishes of the Ferguson community and just no. Please. no. Allegedly, Anonymous said they had something that would "blow up" Ferguson and I can't handle how terrible that statement is. Things down there are pretty blown up enough already. I don't think Ferguson, or the story of the murder of Mike Brown needs more blowing up. It's at that point that "something that'll hold" doesn't feel like enough.

How fucking objective do I need to be when I know that police are pointing guns at innocent people because they can't or won't do the work to walk into the crowd without pointing a gun or brandishing a weapon and distinguish peaceful protesters from looters and opportunists?

Some Luther Arkwright panels say it better than I can.

We've been objective. We know what this is. This is a convergence of:
1) a community knowing that X number of dollars worth of cigars is worth more than a black man's life (paraphrased from something El-P retweeted, IIRC)
2) that same community asking, peacefully, for a meager measure of justice and getting none (paraphrased from something Greg Rucka retweeted, IIRC)
3) the police escalating at almost every single opportunity
4) the police using that escalation as an excuse to crack down with their shiny new anti-terrorism toys
5) the mayor and the governor giving public statements that were either not enough or downright insulting
6) the police choosing to employ anonymity in an attempt to insulate themselves from accountability

Be objective feels like a sick, cruel joke at the expense of the person it is directed at. I don't know who said it was okay, but I just want it to stop, and be objective, it seems, does not get it to stop.

And I know that the careful collection of facts and their dissemination is what gets the bastards. Whomever they are. I want the people who said it was okay for the police to deploy with tear gas and rubber bullets to face a real inquiry. I want the people who gave the order to use those things to face a real inquiry. I want the officers who didn't interview any witnesses to face a real inquiry. I want the officers that used LRADs on those protestors to face a real inquiry. I want the people who decided for these police actions, the officers would go out without their badges or numbers on to face a real inquiry. (And so many more...)

And be objective will help get us there, but right now, God help me, it doesn't feel like enough.

"it's not too late! our kingdom is the earth and sky!" We make the road by walking. Aluminum Union by Strike Anywhere.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Wicked & The Divine, Alone

I think I'm scared to admit I have reservations about The Wicked & The Divine.

It's superficially about gods, but it's really about myth and the stories we tell ourselves to feel more confident.

To dispense with the obvious, the Phonogram team kills it. Everyone's on point, The Wicked & The Divine is a logical extension of the Sandman meets Plan B magazine aesthetic that the team's been aiming at since Siege: Loki. If there is a knock on this comic in my mind, it is not in the panel to panel storytelling.

Gillen/McKelvie-isms are there in abundance.

Head tilted away from a wine glass and a coy comment? Check.
Pop music? Check.
Divinity? Check.

There's a couple things I don't cotton to in issue number one, the first being the reaching out by the pop star and bestowing divinity ("she's really looking at me" v. "these are three chords, now form a band") , the second being Luci.

Luci is the most excellent Gillen/McKelvie-ism so far. Short for Lucifer, she slinks around the first issue, getting /almost/ all of the good lines. In that respect, I imagine her as the team's Spider Jerusalem. Luci is attacked by Christian terrorists and repels them. That said, I am not sure what I would do if the true and willful author of our ultimate degradation (I have finished A Theory Of Justice, yes...) made their appearance known in this world that I live in.

Luci, of course, is also Eleanor Rigby.

Issue two carries with it its own troubles. Lucifer is in prison. Her fingers are bound. Now, we pause. Gods can kill people with snaps of their fingers but apparently fingercuffs are enough to keep them in check? This seems telling. Again, maybe they're setting something up here, but it doesn't follow for me. Maybe I'm supposed to say "There's something off."

And we also find out that before Luci was let us say, anointed, she was a latchkey kid and it makes it harder to dislike this person. Especially when she does not appear to be  Shoot.

Luci isn't my real gripe, though, and what follows is:

The Wicked & The Divine, thus far, recycles something from Gillen and McKelvie's Young Avengers run in each issue. The first time, Luci stood in for Marvel Boy, turning her head back from a blasted open window to deliver a quip.

The second time, Luci straight up uses a Hawkeye line from the very first double page spread of Young Avengers issue one.

Which, okay. Artistic choice. But Christ. The Wicked & The Divine team is good enough that they don't have to do this. Am I missing something?

It feels lazy. It gives off (to me) the vibe of the early Image material. The history of that company which fans politely ignore whenever Image is brought up these days. The beginning, where reskins of better liked superheroes was literally the company line. Using the Young Avengers tricks again reminds me of that shortcut.

Maybe The Wicked & The Divine team is going somewhere with it. I don't know where, but again, I ought to keep that open as a possibility. Maybe it's no more than stealing shots, saying "I could do this better" or a rapper going over whatever the big beat of the month is with their own hot sixteen.

I like The Wicked & The Divine, though. Now that I don't know where the comic is going, I enjoy it.  But I focus on the grains of sand in the lotion because I feel I owe it to myself and my audience (pause for laughter) to acknowledge the things publicly that I talk about with Adam Witt, but also because I hold the Phonogram crew to a high standard. When I talk with Adam, I talk about all the things in Wic/Div that don't work for me. When I talk on the internet, I talk about all the things that do.

At bottom, I want the next thing from Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson. When The Wicked & The Divine clicks, it feels like the next thing. It feels exciting and the comic of this moment of 2014. But when it doesn't? I look for Miss America to punch a guy.

 A little Cursive. "Play it off as stigmata for crossover fans/Some red-handed slight of hand..." That sounds harsher than I intend it to. The song slays, though.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Money. The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

Longtime games writer Simon Parkin has a solution, but first he must convince us there is a problem.

His point in a piece for the New Statesman appears to be "we need to talk about creative successes as much as we talk about financial successes so indie* devs will feel comfortable pushing the boundaries of art."

(Summary is barbarism. I know, I know.)

In context, it's just as presumptuous. The artistic temperament is a thing that will create independent of critical pats on the head. If the further argument is potential devs will get blinded by the tall stacks of indie games dollars, I'm skeptical. If the argument after that one is the devs looking for truly insane amounts of cash or a seven figure PayPal account leave after their first attempt doesn't set them up for life, I'm not sorry to lose their creative energies. If the next argument is "but devs/artists won't create without being told their work is rainbows and unicorn giggles," (and I believe it is) Parkin's got a real low opinion of devs/artists.

Mr. Parkin is wrong four times over:
1) The critical discussion already exists on social media and outlets he no longer writes for.
2) Option paralysis is real and constraints often help jog creativity. (Doom 3's flashlight.)
3) Hearing developers talk about making their business sustainable at a conference for developers is a legitimate topic of inquiry and doesn't preclude serious discussion of craft.
4) "People come into an industry desirous of easy success" isn't a sign of the end times so much as a fact of of life in any human endeavor from art to sewage treatment.

In a comment, Parkin continues, his feature isn't about insulting indie devs, but instead around "the dominant stories around games creation."  Whether that's true or not, it contains the moralizing nugget that artists shouldn't be concerned about earthly lucre, they should instead concern themselves only with the thing that will enrich our lives.

This is precisely the opposite of what we should (I used the word should. I ought to tread lightly.) be telling artists. We should be telling artists, focus on money, not exclusively, but know what you want to say and know what vehicle is most effective in allowing you to subsidize your ability to express yourself. I trust that if you're an indie dev making a game, you're making something you want to make, putting out art into the world that you believe ought to exist in it. Parkin, apparently, does not.

What can you create that you can finish, polish and still have money left over to produce enough copies to sell? Remember: Art is a misnomer. Art is a mantle put on your work by another person. Phillip K. Dick only enjoyed mainstream accolades after his death. The Renaissance masters had patrons. Greek storytellers told stories for food, shelter and coin of the realm. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Yes, make it because it means something to you (I assume "you're" doing that already,) but don't get drawn into an art before commerce discussion.

Worrying only about art doesn't free you up to create, you'd be creating anyway. Perhaps your dreams might appear in higher resolution, but what matters is that those dreams get out at all.

Be cordially mercenary, because Art is fickle, critics even more so and the way you get to keep saying what you want to say is by releasing things. And "focusing on art" does not help with releasing games. And each thing you release, incidentally, is art. Maybe not incredible art. Perhaps not boundary pushing. But small releases grow your confidence so when you do feel your oats, you have the dexterity and experience to push your vision. But first you must get to the point where you have dexterity and experience and that requires money and stability.

To get crass: An unlimited budget without constraints gave us Duke Nukem Forever. A budget of roughly $1.2-1.5 million gave us Shadowrun Returns. It's clear which one is the artistic success, but let's not forget that it's also the financial success, too. Why? Shadowrun has less to recoup and hard knowledge about what they could make given a discrete budget. Harebrained Schemes gets to make another game. 3D Realms doesn't.

Focus on the best work possible within the deadline. Art (or a particularly elegant manifestation of your creative vision) will come as a consequence.
 *indie of course being a marketing term and a funding mechanism.

The title of this piece is a graphic novella by the illustrious Eddie Campbell. You know what this song's gonna be. Art Is Hard, by Cursive.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Blissfucker, Alone

Don't let that moron from The Needle Drop fool you: Blissfucker is great.

Darker Handcraft was a record I liked because it wanted you dead and wanted to get to killing you immediately. Since people in genre can recognize Left Hand Path but not Suicide Invoice, Darker Handcraft is a record that got defined with the idea of crust, those three grind-ish songs everyone praises but no one listens to, Evictionaries, and The Facts.

Blissfucker is more sludge. Now, sludge isn't new to Trap Them. Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds is the most obvious one to me, but Drag The Wounds Eternal and Scars Align are also precursors. Maybe Gutterbomb Heaven On The Grid also? What matters is that Trap Them is de-emphasizing grind on their most recent record. And it's hardly that, they're just writing longer, fuller songs!

Yes, there isn't the pulverizing four minute triptych at the end of Blissfucker. There's just that two odd minute blast beat frenzy as the second fucking track. And also the opening to Lungrunners? (And the first two thirds of Former Lining Wide The Walls!) If you want it, Blissfucker's still got you, but it's also doing different things. Ryan McKenney's broken glass yawp is still an assault on the listener's ears, but against the longer, more traditional metal of Blissfucker, his yawp changes the proceedings from ominous to actual danger.

Put differently, his vocals maintain a high threat profile. You can hear producer/engineer Kurt Ballou get more adept at recording by virtue of how clear Mr. McKenney's vocals come through. Mr. McKenney now fully sounds like the night terrors of whatever New Hampshire town he was born in. Mr. Ballou uses the old metal trick of burying the vocals in the mix, giving the listener the impression that they're struggling to get through.

My bandcamp download did not come with a .pdf of the art (and even if it did, band hasn't been putting lyrics in those things since Seizures…), but I'll throw a ten spot on the guess Mr. McKenney is yelling about the empty formalities of family/community ties, the horrors of violence and the broken humans left in the blast radius of war. Maybe zombies? That part I'm less sure of.

What I am sure of, and couldn't tell you why, is that Blissfucker feels like guitarist Brian Izzi's opus. Maybe it's the length. Maybe it's the fact that there's moments of solos, or something like them. Blissfucker feels new, even if I can point to places in earlier records that suggest this shift. Shift is the right word, but I ought to be careful on the emphasis. Trap Them remains a Swedish-style thrash band, anchored by a hardcore punk vocalist.

Blissfucker, as a whole, feels, strange to say, imperial. There's a grandness and scope to Blissfucker which previously was only an ambition in the band's discography. And if metal/hardcore/punk fans hate anything, it's ambition. The storyline of "grind/d-beat band makes another fast, obliterating full length" is easy. From Seizures... into ...Handcraft into Blissfucker, the songs have been getting longer, while maintaining that energy. Seriously. I listened to Seizures... for context. Blissfucker's got it.

It is a shame, of course, that drummer Chris Maggio is no longer with Trap Them. Whether it is my imagination or something approaching truth, his drum work on Darker Handcraft seemed to be hyperactive and kept the Trap Them machine moving at an exhilarating speed. Brad Fickeisen, the new guy, is no slouch himself (is that the second ex-The Red Chord member Trap Them's rotated in?) His steady work in my imagination makes it easier for Mr. Izzi to write his epic, but Mr. Maggio unleashed Trap Them in a way that leaves an impression. At the live show, of course, he fed off of and into Mr. McKenney's boundless, evil energy.

tl;dr Mr. Maggio is missed. Mr. Fickeisen is capable.

Former Lining Wide The Walls hides a melody in the final 40 seconds of the song that is worth the price of admission, upstaged by Mr. Fickeisen's delirious drum fills. The first two+ minutes is a thing I'd like to hear played at half time just to figure out how the hell they do it so precisely.

Seeing Blissfucker as a statement is seductive. Mr. McKenney abandons the "Day [NUMBER]:" portion of song titles, it's been three years since the last one, It's one and one half as long (roughly) as the previous record, there's maybe solos, and there's verbiage in the press release to support the theory. I'll agree, to a point. Less a statement than a reminder?

I know two things: I know Blissfucker isn't what I expected and I know I like it. Blissfucker is the full metal record that they've been threatening to write since The Iconflict. Blissfucker is what we believed and hoped they had in them.

Former Lining Wide The Walls, this time around. I've described it before, but just wait for that glorious, glorious swing.

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