Monday, October 21, 2013

Funny how things turn out.

I'm working through a sinus headache right now, trying to figure out ways to deliberate responsibilities for my team to create a design document for a video game prototype that will be done by February 14th, 2014.

If you told me that would be happening to me, two years ago, I would say that my future self is an idiot and ask him what bug he caught that made him try to do something so insanely big.

I'd shrug at him. "Why not?" is the easiest cop-out. There are lots of reasons why not, including:

  • Pain and suffering 
  • Anxiety related to professional, academic, and social commitments now thrust upon you as someone with responsibility
  • Responsibility
  • The halting of all other aspects of your life
  • Caring about something
  • Mental health
The list could very well go on, but I'll end it there. This blog has had stints of activity and non-activity so much that the only guaranteed aspect of its existence is that nothing is going to happen for a long period of time. Just refer to the side-bar and you can review embarrassingly written prose entries about my high-school self, or conceited movie reviews that are only ever just circle-jerking my favorite genre flicks. 

The point is, what I have to say, that I want to share, has become intermittent for really only one reason: I have nothing of significance to say.

Most of what I write is stream-of-consciousness, and from up until I started this thing to about, the end of September, nothing that came out of that stream was of particular importance to anyone. Given that, I was well aware of that fact once 2011 hit, I still kept going because, who's going to judge what you have to say, if you type it in a blog post? 

Well, significance hit me in the face at the start of this semester like a ton of bricks and now there's some issues with dealing with the aftermath. 

I am making a video game. 

I love video games. 

I love telling stories and hearing stories and reading/watching/playing stories.

I am making a story that will be told through said video game.

I'll try not to reduce the importance of my existence at this very moment to those four sentences, but I'll be damned if those aren't the four sentences I remind myself of more often than not lately. The idea is still absurd. The process is overwhelming. By February 14th, the reward could be... dare I say...

Significant? 


Sunday, July 14, 2013

REVIEWZ (of Movies!) | Pacific Rim (2013)

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Screenplay by Travis Beacham & Guillermo Del Toro
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi & Idris Elba
Produced by Legendary Pictures
I was twelve years old again for approximately two hours.

Like the Jaegers and Kaiju that compose of this film, Pacific Rim puts its heart on its sleeve right out of the gate, and dares you not to smile, at least a little bit, and think, 

"Alright, this is pretty fucking awesome."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

R3VEWWz (of Video Games!) | The Last of U... Damn, man.

"We're shitty people, Joel. It's been that way for a long time." 
Developer: Naughty Dog
Creative Director: Neil Druckmann
Game Director: Bruce Straley
Lead Designer: Jacob Minkoff

There's not much to say about this thing that hasn't been said already. I'm only saying those things that everybody's been saying because you don't finish playing a game like this and have nothing to say about it.

That being said, the ending of this game left me pretty speechless.

Rightfully so. The folks that brought us the Uncharted series, with each installment pushing the "games as art" debate into more mixed, ambiguous and dangerously arguable territory with its state-of-the-art cinematic ability at the time. 

No question here, that if Uncharted 1 through 3 were a testing grounds of how to push gaming technology towards untapped potential, The Last of Us is a product of that endeavor. 

Game mechanics, level design, art, UI, AI, multiplayer, DLC, content distribution, back-end, front-end, and all that other crap - yes, that's the bones of any video game anybody's ever made, from Candy Crush Saga to Heavy Rain

They're the innate bread and butter. Without one or the other, it's not a game. At least Metacritic won't say it's a good one. So what do players look for in a good game? What's missing from the bread and butter? It's not rocket science.

It's called storytelling. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Humble Return

If there's one thing to say about 2013, it's that nobody and everybody cares about you, often at the same time.

We're halfway through the year, and things are coming to a head. Graduating in less than a year now should give any sane twenty-something bouts of uncontrollable existential dread and chronic anxiety up until you're throwing your convocation hat into the air... but it's strangely quiet on this front.

Call it my persistent, now pseudo-notorious apathetic streak, or call it grim realism, or call it not giving a fuck, but there's no crippling, crumbling feeling regarding my near future, as there probably should be. 


Worry about the Little Things

My hard drive broke when I moved back home. All of my pertinent, high-quality video data was stored on it as a back-up, so it's fitting and divinely ironic for my back-up to stop working when I needed it most: when I have nothing to do for four months of my life. 

That being said, it was less of a back-up and more of a primary storage device that seemed indestructible but I got it from the Apple Store, so that's my bad. At any rate, these beautiful entries have yet to be followed up on:





It's a shame, because I was starting to have fun talking about things that nobody cared about but me. Moving back from the city to the suburbs, I've concluded, quite literally sucks the soul from your bones. 

You find out quickly that having nothing to say (in my case especially) doesn't bode well in any situation. They'll be back though, eventually. 

My writing notebook is literally hanging by threads, but it was a very nice birthday gift from someone I bumped into from high school walking down Bathurst, and it reminded me of "The Little Things" which is all romanticized so perfectly when you're almost twenty and living in the city for the first time, and ~~**anything can be yours if you dream it**~~~. 

Now, it's breaking because I'm using it too much, and not because I haven't been treating with proper care, like I was a few months ago. It could be a reflection in my jarring and sudden change in perspectives after physically changing locations into, what I feel, are two extremely dichotomous states of being. 

The nearest thing to me is a Starbucks that's always busy, because everyone who is bored goes to a Starbucks. Next to that, a Wal-Mart. Choose your door, your prize awaits. I usually come out of said doors poorer in my pocket and my soul. 

Yet, I worry about these things, because it's nice to think those are the only things to worry about. They're not; no, not by a long shot. But they fit the bill of acceptable losses in the face of that dreadful cliff of adulthood. Jump, they say. They never tell you how far down you gotta go. 

So you grab at the tangible things. The empty wallet, the shitty internship, the tattered notebook. Yeah, these things I can care about. You can't care about the stability of your future quite like you can care about how much caramel the barista put in your latte. Try, I dare you. 

The Little Things? They're the branches you grab as the abyss of darkness rushes at you while you're falling down that cliff. Beautiful analogy, isn't it? It's not? Well, fuck you. Cliffs are great analogies. 

Tell me my dreams are near unattainable, and like the sheep I am I'll be calculating how much it costs to commute home today, and say "What was that again?"


Nobody Cares

I check that "Connections" tab on my Twitter homepage frequently. I don't know why, none of my tweets are particularly notable or witty. The subtextual grab of importing the question, "Does somebody care about me today?" so directly into one click on a web page is brilliant on Twitter's part, come to think of it. 

Nobody cares, yes. Cold hard truths are usually the easiest to figure out. Climate change is happening. Dinosaurs walked the earth. Gay men do indeed get it in the butt.  

And nobody cares (I mean generally; people do care about global warming). 

Doesn't mean you shouldn't. I guess, the 2013 distinction is sort of moot, but I feel it inclusive to the context of the 'nobody cares' sentiment. Mind you, this is outside of a connotation of disdain, nihilism, or outright negativity towards myself or others. Think of it as a a buzzword, or a hashtag. #nobodycares. 

That's definitely already a hashtag. 

Nobody cares in the context that everybody cares at the same time. Everybody is an ephemeral body of water, floating around the internet, inserting itself into the gaps between our online identities and the platforms we use to craft them. Eventually they press up onto our screens like an aquarium octopus and say "Here, this is EVERYBODY. Look at them ALL." There's so many, aren't there?

Each suction cup is an old high school acquaintance.
Everybody cares about that status you posted. Everybody loves that cake you took a picture of. Everybody knows you love the cottage. Everybody cares to the extent that they don't have to care about anything outside of what's dictated of them. 

So, nobody cares about the fact that you may be feeling torn between career paths or personal freedoms and what you want to do. Nobody cares about the secrets you're holding that you can't trust anybody with. Nobody cares about your fears, your anxieties, your hopes and dreams. At least, there aren't any likes on Facebook to show that they do. Ain't that a bitch?


Everybody Cares

It is a bitch. Jay-Z got it wrong, that one problem-- hell, all 99 other ones, they're all bitches. They're snippy, you can't win with them, and they usually leave you in a bad mood and take something of yours you probably won't get back for a while.

Bitches, man. 

It's the big one, and she's called "life". I like euphemisms - they're like bite-sized ways to take in really hard concepts to grasp, sometimes. Everybody cares about life, cause we all want to keep it, or have it. Or live it. 

Yeah, nobody knows that you have all these hidden, suppressed, and often troubling personal problems that only your therapist talks to you about, but everybody is probably experiencing something similar. They all care about those problems of theirs, cause life serves it to them on a silver platter every day. 

Everybody cares that reality is filled with tragedy and hurt and pain and suffering. The Little Things keep us occupied though. The other 99 problems, so we don't have to pay attention to the Big One, the one with the Cold Hard Truths and the absence of an answer. 

Find those alone, and I'll throw you a party. It means nobody cared enough so that the only person that mattered was you. Great. Keep the victory to yourself, but share the answer with the rest of us: the everybody. 

Then, the likes and subscribers and retweets will mean little when the only currency that matters, the currency of human relationships, is cashed in for you. And then you realize everybody cares and nobody cares. 

But, in the end, you care. 

What is existence but a convenient set of contradictions? 

Boring, for one. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

EPIC Music Video of the [Insert Time Period]

The "of the week" theme is now kind of misleading. But on the plus side, it's like playing safe Russian Roulette with guessing when there will actually be new updated content on this blog. Just keep pressing F5 guys! Speaking of which, if you have been playing, congratulations, you've struck gold (or possibly just shot yourself, if we're making a direct analogy).

This week, we're taking a look at Nosaj Thing's new music vidoe for "Eclipse/Blue", a pleasantly calming track with accompanying choreography and uniquely designed visuals. Take motion tracking out of the games/entertainment industry bubble for a second, and you might turn some heads. The performers here are moving in real-time as the shapes and lines track and react to their dance. The result is a mesmerizing technological and artistic feat: a combination of performance and new media.


Get with the times folks, this is becoming standard practice. Painting and shit better move aside.

[via. Motionographer]

Saturday, December 1, 2012

REVIEWS! (of Video Games) | The Walking Dead


 Developer: Telltale Games
Lead Designers: Jake Rodkin & Sean Vanaman
Platforms: iOS, PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 

It's been three days since I finished the final episode, No Time Left, of the five-part episodic zombie survival series. Several times throughout those three days, I have become deeply troubled because I kept thinking about this game. I ate a clementine today, which only made it that much harder to swallow. I realized early on that this was the only game to forge such a strong connection with me, deeper than just a superficial desire to play it out of enjoyment. I kept playing this game not because of it's fun factor, because frankly there is no such instance in any of the five episodes out there where fun is ever factored in. You play it because you have to. Like finishing each episode, getting to the end, and sacrificing everything with the choices you make is the only possible thing you can do. 

This is a game that will be discussed in online forums, lecture halls, and gaming websites for a long time. From a developer that's been in the down-low for quite some time, known for several sub-par games (Back to the Future? Wut?), and some memorable ones (Sam & Max), Telltale surprised absolutely everyone when the first few episodes rolled out. Because it just kept getting better. And rawer. And unbareably addicting. What this video game has done for the industry, it is not something to be ignored. 

It is a revolutionary gaming experience. Here's why:

THE STORY

By far, the greatest virtue of The Walking Dead's offering to its players. This is a compelling, loyal story to the source material, and yet it offers something completely new -- it takes advantage of the medium that its produced on. The wise choice to make a new narrative set in the same universe opened up an entire new canvas of possibilities, and the writing team took advantage of it, by the spades.

Set right at Day 1 of the zombie epidemic, instead of watching Rick Grimes in comatose in a Georgia hospital, we follow Lee Everett, a college professor stuck in the back of a squad car, on his way out of the city. The slate is clean. We know nothing about this guy. But at the end of No Time Left, the tether between character and player, avatar and human, it's closer than most games can ever hope to achieve. 
 
The second central character, Clementine, is the lifeblood of this series. She is the core -- Lee might be the player's avatar, the main influencing factor within the game's story, but Clementine is cleverly constructed to be absolutely everything to the player -- the core, the goal, the emotional center. From Episode 1 through to Episode 5, Telltale's story team has been able to strengthen and reinforce that notion with each single dialogue choice for Lee. And her presence just drives the motivation to finish the game, however you're playing it. The amount of investment we put into this nine-year old girl is through the roof. I furiously clicked my mouse button if any zombie or human went anywhere near her -- I felt genuine anger when her life was threatened, and I wanted to hug her to death myself whenever she was sad. One of the best non-player characters in gaming history, and definitely the most deftly-written, organic and complex child characters in any story I've ever read, played, or watched. 

Each episode deals with a chapter in Lee and Clemetine's trials for survival, from the original survivor group of Episode 1 in the drugstore, switching to the motor inn, down to the dairy and eventually into Savannah in the hopes of sustaining Clementine's search of her parents -- its a mirroring of the comics that works so ubiquitously that there is no detachment from the structure of the story. It takes the context of both the comics and the television show, and imparts its own elements, given by the nature of the video game medium, and molds those mechanics to serve the story. The separation of these chapters are natural, gripping cliffhangers. And The Walking Dead is nothing without character deaths -- and they come a-plenty. They are all left-field. They all made me gasp, sometimes yell. They are all heart-breaking in some way or another. There is no extra air being wasted -- all these characters have a part to play, and they're all essential to the story; of course, this being a game structured around player choices and their effects on characters, that's a necessity. And nicely done it was.
Walking Dead screenshot There was never a point in the game where I stepped out of the story. The immersion was deep and satisfying, emotionally draining because of the subject matter, and relentlessly manipulative. Players never get away with a story choice that won't have consequence later on. The 'hints' to notify the player that an NPC will 'remember' certain things -- that's the tease that gives the added tension of the gameplay mechanic. But story-wise, it's an incredible achievement for this amount of immersion to come from a point-and-click adventure, and I truly think its because every element of this game's development has always served the story. By the fourth and fifth episodes, Telltale had mastered that to the tee. And the result was an ending sequence that collectively punched every player right in the feels.

The best part about this story? It wouldn't work in any other medium. It is distinctly a product of its constraints and its opportunities set by the nature of the video game. The interactive storytelling, the branching character outcomes, the poignancy of player choice -- all gone if you transpose or adapt it into another environment. Like the comic takes advantage of the ever-lasting storyline, or the show takes advantage of the power moving images can do for a story, the game puts all its cards on the table.

THE GAMEPLAY


The technical aspects is where a lot of critics would have had parts to nit-pick, but it all becomes moot by the further episodes, where Telltale really figured out how to handle their limitations in an effective and terse way. Using the repertoire they had, they turned simplicity into a complex player-centered experience. The playing of a point-and-click adventure has that level of nostalgia that early gamers in the 90's love, but there was never a Walking Dead kind of brooding storyline to accompany it. What do you do to mesh the two together?

A lot of the studies coming in about why exactly the game is just so good keeps coming back to the decision mechanics of the player. The dialogue options, and the dialogue itself, is the core of the gameplay here. The adventure elements of searching for interactive parts of the levels, or the short action sequences are always there as effects of the initial choices that players make, through these instances where they must make a choice to decide the direction that Lee and Clementine should take.
 
Rooting them in the themes of the game, instead of the progression towards a goal, is how Telltale solved the point-and-click risks. Each dialogue option represents a way to respond to characters that would change their disposition or attitudes towards Lee. The player being in control of these decisions places a unique kind of responsibility in their hands -- not like an sandbox shooter, or a platformer, where the level of detachment is clear and accepted. The Walking Dead is an intimate, personal experience. The detachment instead comes in the form of control. The pre-ordained selections for dialogue are going to be Lee's thoughts, players choose the kind of Lee they feel is the right one for the job. So, players maybe aren't in the shoes of Lee Everett, but are responsible for constructing his attitudes. That sense of responsibility towards a character drives the gameplay.

Everything branches from the choices. The emphasis on full-circle, karmatic foreshadowing help hammer that down for the player. And without a doubt, it becomes one of its central themes - and also it's one of the themes of both comic and television show. Gameplay serving story.

Most of all, it's simple. Icons to represent points of interaction. Four directions of movement within an environment. Optional hints. Everything designed to minimize the focus of the player's attention on what they're doing, but rather, why they should do something.

THE DESIGN


 Aesthetically, the stylized, comic-book art design of the game is the best choice Telltale made right from the starting gate. Importing that connection with the comic book universe not only settled down antsy comic book fans, but it aided the construction of that universe tenfold. It just looks straight out f the pages. Immersion factor multiplies quickly. The gore is so prevalent, but it's never over-the-top, never kitschy or silly. The raw and the grit is there, not in the detail, but the atmospheres and the soundtracks and the colours. Complexity hidden under simplicity is a running visual theme here. The faces emote so well for stylized faces, but the expressions are heightened by the weight of everything that's going on.



The sound design obviously gives the dimension it needs. Jared Emerson-Johnson's sombre and ominous background score punctuates just about every major decision with a melody that, on cue, will bring you back to those fateful decision in a heartbeat. By Episode 5, it's a cue for waterworks.  


The locations are fittingly TWD-esque. The drugstore - enclosed, encapsulated, a boiling pot for tension, waiting to fall down. The motel is wider, but way more dreadful. Dilapidated and tired - just like its characters. The dairy farm's idyllic falsehood represents just that -- there is no safe haven from what they're experiencing. The train is a much more direct thematic connection to the story, and it has a lot of good story moments. Pushing forward to the end, full steam. Until Savannah, with the sewer system, Crawford, and the mansion, it's a variety of locations to evoke a variety of moods and feelings, with all the characters running amok between them, the sense of evolution and emotional progression is supported by steel-thick design and aesthetics that augment just about everything.

THE VERDICT. 

Game of the Year for 2012, it should win all the awards. Just the context of having a second-rate, pseudo-indie developer come out with this gem, it's a direct display of story overpowering flare, sales revenues, marketing prowess, or franchise profitability. Just tell a fucking good story, and keep that goal with every artistic, technical or gameplay choice, and you'll have an amazing game.

In a way, this is the best fan-fiction in the world. The collaborative nature is undeniable - players themselves get to impart their own thinking into the outcome, sort of, of how Lee and Clementine end up. The developers took everything they knew about The Walking Dead, and kept their vision sound and loyal.

Buy this game, if you've never played games before. It's simple to understand and unbelievably addicting from the first 10 minutes in. If you're gamer, play this game because it's not like any other game you've ever played. If you're a person, play this game because having the chance to feel this kind of emotion from fake people gives you a refreshing break from the simplicity of real life.


The Walking Dead will make you feel alive with conviction and motivation. Play it, and you'll know why.

Friday, November 9, 2012

R3VIEZWs!! (of Movies) | Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Written by Derek Connolly 
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson & Karan Soni

THE RUNDOWN  

  • A Festival Entree
  • Anti-Typecasting Gem 
  • Disparate genres working like glue
  • An indie filmmaker's indie film
THE BASICS

"From the producers of Little Miss Sunshine - When an unusual classified ad inspires three cynical Seattle magazine employees to look for the story behind it, they discover a mysterious eccentric named Kenneth, a likable but paranoid supermarket clerk, who believes he's solved the riddle of time travel and intends to depart again soon. Together, they embark on a hilarious, smart, and unexpectedly heartfelt journey that reveals how far believing can take you."

THE BASES

I've already watched this film twice this week. The first watch was complete immersion and emphatic bliss. The second was a deep appreciation for the process by which this film executed its thematic premise, and each of the cogs of the machine that helped pave the way for its well-deserved critical acclaim and Connolly's warm reception at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where he took how the Screenwriting Award for his work on this movie.

There are few movies out there that have truly, "something for everyone". Any movie needs that target audience, and banks on the formulas and story beats that ensure a proftiable turn out for that said audience. We're talking Hollywood machine here -- indie films have it better and worse. The creative control gives you a sandbox of opportunity to play and create. The limited budgets and unreliability (and probably consistently crippling doubt of one's own capabilities) is a necessary trade-off. But if, by divine intervention, the stars align, a movie like Safety Not Guaranteed is the result.

First off, the casting: As director Colin Trevorrow and producer/actor Mark Duplass have stated in multiple interviews, this was before Parks and Recreation had started its legs and skyrocketed Aubrey Plaza and her enigma of a personality into a net-generation sensation. And this was before New Girl even existed for Jake Johnson to be wooed by a huge fanbase. Good thing they did, because they for sure noticed the acting chops these two had. And Mark Duplass' expansive career as just a filmdoer (producer, director, writer, actor) helped in it as well -- and probably his character is the most impressive part of this whole endeavour. But these main guys, including the introduction of Karan Soni -- which again, kudos to the casting director for making such conscious and effective choices in the retrospect -- make this movie bounce off the screen and into your heart. For reals.

The story ties directly into these performances: Connolly has written one of the slickest scripts I've seen on screen. In terms of handling the romance of these characters, it's an onion. Layers on layers. Mark Duplass's character, Kenneth Calloway, screams off the page as this guy who could possibly be the most ridiculous fellow and push this movie into slapstick territory, but as directors and producers have stated in several interviews, Duplass managed to ground him in an honest humanity that captivates you the more screentime happens. Conolly crafted him as the tonal core of the film, and seeing all three characters orbit around him is such a fulfilling experience come the end of the film.

The best movies have recognizable and relevant themes to them, but they're not shoved up into the surface. They float below the water, and you need to change perspectives to actually catch a glimpse of what lies underneath (like a shark. Fuck yeah, sharks). And this is a film that forces you to change perspectives, look at things differently and, if it's possible, take a step back and be aware of that change going on. Connolly does that, in my opinion. And the result? Feels.

This is a story about believing, about the importance and power it can have over someone. It's about what we look at in ourselves when we see our past, our present, and our future. It's about regret, love, and loss. It has some amazing monologues that hit home, universally, and some amazingly funny scenes of physical comedy. The dialogue is razor sharp with wit and spark. These performances heighten everything about what was written. And let's get to the visuals of these brilliant peace:

THE BRASS TACKS

The film was shot on-location in Washington State, and after signing on to be cast, Duplass became executive producer and connected the crew to names he knew in Seattle. As a result, the first half of the film becomes the style I like to call "cinematic tourism" in the cinematographic sense. Static shots of obscure, tacky, tourist-y locations. The Ocean View location gives the film a calmness to it that never takes away from the energy happening over top of it. The forests and horizons are just visual treats you can't get enough of. Put a very pretty Aubrey Plaza in it, sassed up in costume design that got my roommate quite hot and bothered (can't say I didn't either), and you have some bonafide wallpaper material. It's a visual tribute for Seattle -- a noble goal indeed.

It's all slow edits, graceful pacing, and then bouts of innocent energy supported by the characters and the quirkiness of their actions. If you find this explanation pretentious, then go test it out for yourself, and see if you can find a better description of it. The visuals reflect the interior changes going on in each of these characters, and I love how seamlessly the film juggles around the dramatic changes going on in each of our characters' lives. They're intertwined so well, the satisfaction factor is high come the final act.

The original score, supplied by Ryan Miller has that emphasis on subtle energy as well, with up-beat acoustics accompanying the plot most of the way. The action-y scenes even require that touch of sincerity that keeps it away from the fine line of goofballness it could have crossed. Again, costume design worked very well to exemplify these personalities, from Jeff's wearing farm-plaid to fit in with his former high-school girlfriend's lifestyle, to Plaza's all-purpose grey toque -- not to mention Kenneth's mullet and jean jacket -- give those bursts of character right from the get-go. The production design was ubiquitous, always sitting away from the spotlight to let camera and character play within. All tools to make a great sculpture. All sucessfully pulled off.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius Britt in Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)THE TAKE-AWAY

Sundance loves this shit -- it was made for that festival. There's so much there for the indie crowd, and it's not conceited in any way, that's just the nature of the film's style and tone. For a beyond-modest budget of under a million, what else can you expect? These were stars-in-the-making, unknown of their talent, committing to a strong, unexpected stoy (with a taste of reality in it, making it all the more awesome). A director and writer team with film-school comraraderie and trust (NYU Grads). Watch this film for its theme, its story, or its characters. They're all winners.  You'll cry. You'll laugh. You'll hold your heart out for them. Movies like this?

They're why I love movies.

Monday, November 5, 2012

R3VI3WZ!! (of Comics) | Saga Vol. 1

Written by Brian K. Vaughn, Art by Fiona Staples
 THE RUNDOWN
  • Space is a big, scary place.
  • Human-Animal combination animels are the best kind
  • FEMALE ARTIST.
  • Concept, you're doing it right!
Comic books are a weird thing, it's so much series to create a new kind of story, an original set piece that could be inspired by different predecessors or contemporaries, but ultimately a creator is making a new kind of story to introduce into the plethora of content saturating the modern comic book market.

And yet, with the power of the Big Two driving most of comic book sales, we have cross-overs, team-ups, cameos, company-wide events, relaunches, reboots, ret-cons, and a ton of other tactics to keep these ninety-year old franchises alive. Well, cause they have too -- there is no world without Superman or Spider-Man (just accept it).

So when a guy like Brian K. Vaughn comes along, or a guy like Robert Kirkman, hash out crazy successful series like Y: The Last Man and The Walking Dead, it's a blessing. Image itself has become one of the indie publishers that get right into the new content to tell audiences, which I am so glad for. Today, there's even more presence of original series not associated with preconceived franchises than ever before. It's such a breath of fresh air for comic book fans. And here's where a story like Saga comes into play.

Vaughn's second big project with artist Fiona Staples is a space epic set against the backdrop of inter-planetary war, though it's technically not, between a planet and one of its moons -- both civilizations are locked in conflict that is heated and never-ending. Unless, a solider on one side and a prisoner on the other end up falling in love and having a kid -- then things get complicated.

The premise of Saga itself is a complicated and nuanced experience. There's a huge reliance on close, human themes amidst an insanely high-concept story world. There's robots, bounty hunters, royalty, secret agencies, magic, wings, horns, and a mixture of genres that dips its toes into everything it can. And it comes out a cohesive read. Brian K Vaughn's conceptual ability is something to be marveled at, and without a doubt, respected.

He ties it together with two central characters that jump off the page immediately -- from panel one. Strong characters are a glue that can hold even the craziest concepts together, and the read gets only more enjoyable form there. Alana and Marko are two backstories that couldn't create more inherent drama even before hearing and seeing them -- they are the proverbial 'star-crossed lovers', only one is feisty as hell and has insect wings on her back, and the other his a horn-bearing magic-wielder who gets into fits of rage when those he loves are put in danger.

If anything, read this book for the cast alone. I love how Vaughn and Staples have gone the route of character designing these foreign worlds in the human form, not only to bring the themes into more relatable territory, but it's just refreshing to see a unique take (ironically, consideirng they're more human than alien) of extraterrestials. It places the plotline in a weird place with these almost-human characters encountering noticably more alien experiences. But a supporting cast of weird-ass bounty hunters and robots with television screens for heads just adds to the intensity of Vaughn's world.

BRASS TACKS: THE VISUALS

Fiona Staples is quickly becoming one of my favourite comic book artists. The fluidity of her linework and how casual it all comes together, not to mention doing the coloring for the first volume as well, is a huge selling point. One could demand a visually overwhelming, double-page spread kind of sci-fi book to boast the story world Vaughn's created, but Staples kind of goes in another direction.

All of it's loose and light, and yet it still jumps off the page. But when those spreads do come, Staples manages to piece together some outstanding images that stick in your mind long after you've turned the page. Her command of movement and pacing in those key action sequences -- trying to wrap your head around armed battle mixed with medieval-style magic in one page is pretty damn hard. But for me, I was stuck on certain pages, finding detail that I would have missed if I didn't browse the goods. And there are a lot.

The last thing that should sell you on this book if nothing else, is Staple's cover art. Of this particular volume, it's just beautifully designed. Simple as that. It puts Vaughn's incredible characters in the centre to pique the reader's interest, and the title and background give enough hint to what a reader can expect. And it's just super pretty too look at.

Note: Female artists in the comic book industry deserve this kind of recognition. Cause they're out there and comic book fans have to motivate more female artists to try it in the industry. It's been long enough that we've either unintentionally, or more disappointing, intentionally ostracized an entire potential audience. Support female comic book artists and writers!

THE VERDICT

The price tag on this awesome book is a measley $9.99 at your bookstore or comic book store. This isn't even a debate. Vaughn and Staples are sacrificing the revenue stream for more of a readership motivated to pick up a brand new property from an independent creative team. This is the definition of bang-for-your-buck. The story is fresh, it's rejuvinating and it captures you from page one. The art is pristine and flows in sync with the storytelling extremely well. The story world is one to marvel at. And it's only $10. Go get it, read it, and follow this book because it's going to blow up very soon.
  
 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lessons (A Personal Pseudo-Essay)

"Hunter-32, Hunter-32, this is Fanboy-7 requesting confirmation of target, are we clear to drop payload, over?"

"This is Hunter-32, target confirmed. Fanboy-7 you are clear to drop Some Personal Shit." 
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There was a quote from a movie I watched recently, one featuring the budding comedic genius of Adam Scott alongside the J.K Simmons called The Vicious Kind, which was ultimately a film about people making their choices, and subsequently living with said choices. And it's not a pretty film. There's pretty people, but you get to see the ugliness inside them. It's not that popular, but I'm positive its on Netflix.

Any Adam Scott fan should check it out, because his performance is the best thing about that movie -- you haven't seen his acting range until you've seen The Vicious Kind. Some awesome accompanying songs from Radical Face, who's amazing, to compliment the raw, bare energy of this character drama.

I'm telling you about this because I watched Argo at Rainbow Cinemas on Front and Jarvis a few hours ago; caught the late show after 8 hours of studying today for my midterm tomorrow, that I don't partcularily care about now that I've retyped my five weeks worth of notes. You know, I took Science Fiction for the hell of it, not even sure I'd get the credit. But I took it to learn something. And my professor -- but she likes to be refered to as Doctor -- opened her mouth the first week of class and ever since then she's chipped away at the only thing I really love in life. Thanks, university.

I mention The Vicious Kind firstly because of a quote that's pretty potent in thematic significance that JK Simmons' character says to his son (the one who is not Adam Scott-misogynist-crazy-version).
"Sometimes people do things they know they are wrong, but they just do them anyway. Because doing the right thing would be too painful." 
Thematically, that movie was strong as hell. This quote doesn't relate to the film, it directly relates to my life personally, and (indicating that the writer did their job with this specific line) every other person that watches this film. It's almost a universal truth, in my humble opinion. 

We are humans. We are capable of thinking intelligently -- but intelligently doesn't necessarily mean an objective moral structure of right and wrong dictated by some scripture, or rulebook, or words uttered by a mentor, mother, father, or teacher.

Thinking intelligently is dictated as to what that individual considers intelligent. People are intelligent in different ways, we're wired like that. We can read people well, we can have powers of social manipulation, we can study and memorize with outstanding capability, we can gush out charisma on a whim, or we can sit in a room and ponder life's questions, and be able to actually figure some things out without losing our minds. We are all intelligent in that regard. Some people just use their intelligence stupidly.

I'm being coy because I see it in the real world. Here's where I go into Argo, that, by the way, is Ben Affleck's best film he's ever made, and proves that the man has artistic and directing talent that surpasses a lot of people older than him in the big industry. I won't spoil the details, but I found the themes of the plot centered a lot around the relationship between fiction and reality. Story and life. The fake and the real.

That quote from The Vicious Kind? That's something pretty real. The way it was constructed and manufactured to be communicated to you? Complete fabrication, but it's more real of a sentence you'll here coming out of someone's mouth (let alone JK Simmons') than you've probably ever experienced in your life. I know that's the case for me. While the way it was said is fake, unsurmountably an illusion made by a team of people, what's being said remains true to the core. That is the essence of theme, probably included in the definition of it when relating to storytelling.

But the medium is the message, as they say. What is reality but another media that we percieve the world through? I mean, this day and age, the lines are blurring -- how are your eyes not just another screen you see the world through. How fake is that? How real? My point is, reality can be extremely fake -- it can fool you into believing things, trick you into feeling things, uproot your understanding of things, and change the trajectory of your emotional state, mental state or physical state in a minute, even a second.

We never trust reality, and we rarely trust the characters (actual people) that inhabit that neverending show of This Fucking Life. Unpredictably breeds the desire for reassurance of purpose and direction. Something true amidst all the chaos of fakeness...

Stories. Argo told me that reality and fiction go hand-in-hand in the human experience. One will drive the other, under a symbiotic relationship. Stories can save lives. They can inspire entire passions. They can sooth pain, create excitement, generate genuine emotion. Make those endorphins run rampant through your neuroses. Fire the receptors. Feel something true. It's the drug without the side-effects.

The side-effect of partaking in the experience of a story, is learning something about yourself and the world around you. That comes from a construct of imagination and hard work, made for an audience that craves the drug of feeling and emotion. You sit in a darkly lit room and pay eight dollars for candy and pop for that. You set your DVR in the morning for that. You wait a week for that and complain about it and then come back every week after, for that.

So what's more real? The reliable versus the unreliable. What you can touch, taste, smell, or what you can feel -- not just on the surface, the superficial experience. The interior, intrinsic. The sinking pits in your stomach, the butterflies, the goosebumps and the lightness in your chest. The true.

We say, "life is sometimes like a movie" because of those feelings that are generated. I ache for the day that my life can resemble the fiction that I read, watch, and play. For a fraction of my existence, there's a structure and a cadence to the rhythm of my actions -- that plot points emerge that I can read and analyze and piece together into a fulfilling final act. Roll credits. Happy ending. And there we go.

Sometimes people do things that are wrong... because it makes them feel things more real than their realities. It alleviates the pain of being stuck with the reality that we have, and take that solace, and that escape, of the possibility of getting something more. Of feeling something else. Feeling like in the movies. 

Feel like the characters we so blatantly worship in boxes with blinking lights and strings of data pieced together for a two-storey blank canvas.

I say this to my friends who are going through a tough time, or a tough break-up, or a tough day.
"Characters are what people want to be." - Anthony Suen, Self-Righteous Modern Messiah
Characters, at their core, have definable, categorizable qualities. They have the perfect balance of flaws and virtues. The weighing of their beliefs against their vices, and a carefully planned out exploitation of those elements to create their path towards their end goal. An objective -- characters have that consicous or subconscious dramatic need that always pushes them to go that extra mile.

People? We're reflections of the lives we inhabit. The realities we're stuck with. Our objectives can change on a whim or a bad night out or a worse morning after. They can be as simple and insignifcant as getting a fucking job or as vague and unattainable as changing who the fuck you are as a person. There's no defined path, no grand writer building our character arcs. As much as we want to be a puppet with a purpose, there are no strings attached to what we have, right here, right now.

The wind has purpose, it blows currents and temperatures to where they need to be and stabilize our climate, hopefully for a bit longer than scientists posit, but they do what they're told to because nature tells them too. So, not even "feeling like the wind" in being aimless and ungrounded in your desires is a fitting analogy. You can "storify" anything with symbolism and meaning because that's our biggest vice as a humans -- we embody the qualities we want, or rather the qualities we can't have, in absolutely everything that exists. Again, that's how we're wired.

Reality is worse than wind, it has no course, and no currents that it follows, no crowning namesakes that you can identify and plot on a map. Personal experience is being in a dark room with oven mitts, earplugs, and a blindfold on trying to find that proverbial needle in a room full of shit-all.

Okay, I twisted that one a bit. But my analogy ("storifying", woo!) gets to how story and life, reality and fiction, need each other on a basic level, in our brains and thought processes. Stories plop in that lightbulb with the hanging little string, that you can pull in that dark room full of nasty stuff, and the one singular needle that could very well be your very own dramatic need.

It grounds us. Anchors us. Much like many of my close friends do. My post a few posts ago talks about not letting go of your past for anything, because your past defines who you are right now, and will inform who you are going to become in the future. The past is your story. History, personal or as public as the entire world's existence, is one big stage play. The world's a stage, just like Shakespeare said.

And we, The Players, are stuck acting for as long as we're on it. So you stick together -- you make the most of the story you're in. The reality and the fiction that you're creating parallel to each other. So when you do the things that are "wrong", you have The Players to anchor you back to the "right" path.

JK Simmons' character is right, in some regard. And Argo as an entire movie has it right too -- it's painful to do the right thing -- the thing that a character, and not a person, would do. Not what your friend would do, your father, your mother, your siblings, the person you slept with, your ex-boyfriend, your secret lover, your teacher or professor, your past crush, your boss...or you.

We struggle to be that character we wish we were. The ideal version of ourselves. The camera-ready, script-memorized, fully in-character fictional representation that always made the right choices, the decisions that turned out well for everybody, the paths in life that lead to the least people hurt, and the most smiles made. The one with a destination. A destiny.

But no, we don't have that privilege, or that luxury. We cope with reality against the hope for something fictitious to occur. Our dramatic need is to survive the lives we live with the ability to say, you did it the way you wanted to. There is control out there, control that you and I have, and it's sitting in reality, waiting. It's not fake. Not like everything else around us, out there.

Story versus life. Reality versus fiction. The make-believe versus to actual. What's the damn difference?

Me and you. Your experience and my experience. What's inside there, past the organs and the brain signals. The butterflies and the daydreams. It's not about difference, it's about similarity.

There's a story in everything and everyone. Just pick up a pen and write it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

EPIC Everything About This of the Week

 Science. 

YouTube's server just crashed from the traffic of watching the live stream of Felix Baumgartner, Austrian pilot and parachutist, breaking the world records for highest balloon ascent and highest freefall, funded by the Red Bull Stratos project.

A man jumped out of a tiny capsule, into empty space, with the curvature of the Earth in his line of sight. If there is any image that represents singular human ingenuity, courage, willpower and inventiveness, it could be this one. But hey, an Olympic athelete ran track with prosthetic legs and we have a robot on Mars collecting valuable space things. So add this to the list.

The world's a shitty place, which makes moments like these all the more sweet. History was made today.