Monday, August 13, 2012

The Idea of Stealing a Game

This article has been cross-posted from where it was published on Player Attack


Zynga is in the news again, and this time it’s not because its major investors dumped a bunch of stock prior to the share price plummeting. No, this time it’s because EA is suing them over similarities between The Ville and The Sims Social.
Skin tones from both The Sims Social and The Ville
Comparison: The Sims Social and The Ville
This feels like an old debate, especially because we’ve had it before . It seems to be a well-known fact that you can’t copyright an idea, but if there are enough similarities in the execution, a case can be made. That’s exactly what EA is doing, and exactly what it’s entitled to do. It’s just a shame that it took so long, and that the company making the claim is EA.
I understand, really. NimbleBit is only a little guy, despite being beloved by its fans. It can’t take on a (now-failing) corporate giant and win. While moral outrage is still a minor currency, getting enough of it to reach critical mass is virtually impossible. And, the fact remains that, as with any subset of the online world, some people just don’t care. Now, if they’d managed to log the individual IPs of all the people playing Zynga’s Tiny Tower rip-off and flier-drop a statement into their home mailbox… Well, they’d probably be sued for stalking. But it would have gotten results. Creepy results.
Apart from that, what can you do? Unless you’re EA, of course. In some cases – and I’m about to be controversial here, yo – the clone can be better than the original. There was some discussion over whether Tiny Wings was a rip off of Wavespark. Probably. But I don’t enjoy Wavespark, and I do enjoy Tiny Wings. There have been bunches of copies of Tiny Tower – e.g. Pixel Story and Lil Kingdom – but I enjoyed both of those games for the improvements they made, and even the fantastical settings.
As to whether making a similar game on a handheld devices rather than a home console is really copying, I’m not sure. If you want to play Halo on your phone because, well, you love not being able to see who you’re shooting at, good for you. Someone has filled that niche, and if the game is suitably high-quality and differentiates itself by showing some level of ingenuity, then sure. Go right ahead. People will complain that any game is a copy of an older one anyway (“OMG did u c behtesda totes ripped off Daggerfall w/skyrim? Lol n00bs!”).
 
Comparison: Tiny Tower and Dream Heights
But what does this mean for games, as a whole? Let’s stop for a moment, and seriously consider the implications. EA is suing Zynga over similar animations, similar assets, similar ideas and a similar look. Understandably, their argument would be the same as other lawsuits in the past, including the recently successful suit against Mino, where if the two games could be confused when played side-by-side, the defendant can be considered to have copied the original. The reasoning behind this is pure business – a similar-looking product could draw users away from the original and cause a loss of income.
Let’s take this to its next logical conclusion, though – I can shoot in both Fallout 3 and RAGE. They’re both set in a post-apocalyptic universe that includes mutants. And perky female NPCs! No way! What a rip-off!
Uh, no. But that’s already being claimed by irate fans, of pretty much every game ever made. When it gets scary is when lawsuits, like the ones from The Tetris Company and EA, start appearing and the courts start limiting just what is and isn’t covered by copyright law.
The real reason it’s scary? Because small devs still won’t have a chance to fight back against large companies that copy their games – precedent is fine, but you have to have the money to get to court, first – but when the precedents are set, those large companies will have a set of rules that define what they can copy. If some aspect of a game is dismissed in these court proceedings as having minimal value to the overall recognition and therefore success of a game, guess which parts will be targeted from now on?
Sometimes, by attempting to discourage, you only provide the means to work around the law by giving a roadmap to what is and isn’t acceptable. The problem being that, while a precedent for copying the execution of games is intended to protect developers, a precedent establishing which parts ‘don’t count’ is going to be just as difficult to overturn.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reward Your Early Adopters: A Consumer’s Tale

This article has been cross-posted from where it was published on Player Attack


It’s in the nature of current social games to be adaptable. It’s easier than ever to update, and push that update to thousands of customers. Facebook games are always up to date; iOS games will let you know when an update is available. This allows for an unprecedented potential of bug-fixes and gameplay adjustments to be made based on user feedback, almost instantaneously. We’ve never been closer to our devs. And yet, this ability to constantly update is also encouraging studios to put out products that are less than ideal.
Outernauts

Every Facebook game I know has ‘beta’ somewhere on the title screen. The problem is, these games never move out of beta, because they’re constantly being updated. But I’ve also played a lot of social games that have basic functionality and nothing else. It’s only six or even twelve months later that they begin to resemble games, and by then I’ve long forgotten it.
The problem for me is that I enjoy giving feedback. I will find an email address and write to devs with suggestions for improving their games. I don’t expect or receive any replies, but when I see the word ‘beta’ my brain replies with ‘playtest!’ so it’s difficult for me not to see the potential of what’s in front of me, even if currently all I can do is pat a duck.
I get the feeling that many other early adopters must be the same, because many Facebook games (Country Story and Pet Society are examples of this) improve by leaps and bounds months after their release. Troublesome UI gets culled, interactions take fewer clicks, and tasks are more rewarding. These are the changes made by listening to user feedback. Yet there’s nothing more disappointing in my mind than logging into a social game you’ve been playing for six months, only to see your friend who just signed up is ahead of you in every conceivable way.
Country Story

I use Country Story and Pet Societyas examples of this, not because they’re bad games, but because I did enjoy them, once. Country Story was incredibly difficult to understand if you hadn’t already played Harvest Moon, but I stuck with it and eventually grew my farm to an amazing 12 plots of land. Twelve! I was so giddy with joy that I spent all my worldly currency to acquire a duckling, which cheeped and hopped around and made me ever so more giddy. I noticed one of my friends had finally accepted my invitation, and, with the new social system in place, I could visit him. I clicked, and was destroyed.
In Pet Society, originally you could earn 30 coins by washing your pet – if you did a really good job and were consistent with your stroking motion for around 20 seconds – and buy new furniture for your pet’s home. But at 300 coins for a shelf (the most basic item of furniture) it was back to hoping your pet would get dirty so you could wash them, or running races in the stadium, which were limited to 10 a day. Yet again, I stuck with it, and eventually had a whole two furnished rooms and 3 different outfits for my pet. I clicked on my 6-year-old cousin’s house to visit her pet, and immediately closed my browser.
Why such an adverse reaction in both circumstances? The answer should be clear: my friends had surpassed all of my accomplishments by simply making a new account.Country Story now gave the user 8 plots of land, a duck, a chicken, and three trees, just for signing up. Pet Society gave new players a completely furnished room filled with items that weren’t available for purchase, and the new rewards included clothes and more furniture. These were all suggestions I and other players had made to the devs at one point or another, but we weren’t allowed to have the improvements we’d championed. The soul-crushing disappointment of this discovery may seem moot, but let’s just say I didn’t return to those games afterward.
So what can devs do? Improvements must be made to draw in new players, since, as I said, what’s usually released first is basic functionality and the fun comes later. Players now expect updates, and any game that remains stagnant for too long will find its user base dropping sharply. The answer is not to stop improving your games, but to reward the players who stick with you and make those improvements possible.
Unfortunately, examples of this kind of thinking are hard to come by. The only game I know of that’s already following this plan is Trivia Adventure. After a recent update made a bunch of changes that provided greater rewards to new players, in line with comments from current players, they provided their early adopters with a bunch of free random loot, some of which was pay-for currency. Needless to say, it’s one of the few Facebook games that I still visit.
The answer, to me, seems clear: keep your players updated, and give them the same rewards as everyone else. If performing a particular action daily suddenly rewards twice as much XP, ask a seasoned player next time they log in if they’d like the appropriate amount of extra XP for having performed that action X number of times. If combat suddenly becomes easier based on user feedback, give long-standing accounts a special weapon or armour, or even a non-combat pet, to show that you appreciate them sticking with you. It’s about loyalty, not from your customer to you, but the other way around.
After all, we’re choosing to play your game above everything else we could be doing. The data gathered from the first run of players is invaluable in determining your future feature list, so reward your early adopters for their patience. Without their support, you wouldn’t have a game to improve.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Science of Evil and Dragon Ball Z



 Count Rugen: "Have you been chasing me your whole life, only to fail now? I think that's the worst thing I've ever heard. How marvelous."

I'm currently reading The Science of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen, on how empathy affects our everyday lives. He seeks to bring a scientific view to human cruelty, and so far, is succeeding in convincing me.

I've long wondered at how to write evil characters. As someone with a surplus of empathy, I find it difficult to create a character who can do the kind of things I want them to do, while providing them with adequate motivation. "He's not evil, just misunderstood!" is a tale for Sesame Street, as far as I'm concerned. And yet one of the reasons I've also been really enjoying Dragon Ball Z Kai recently is because the characters in it are so breathtakingly immoral. But how, and why? Spoilers to follow.

First, we have Vegeta. As a prince of the Saiyan race (and one of, say, 4 Saiyans left in the universe), he's a pretty powerful guy. In season one, he kills everyone, including the hero, who has to run back from heaven (Chinese mythology is awesome) to fight him again. Vegeta kills his own minion for getting beaten, unceremoniously wipes out four other fighters, breaks every bone in the hero's body - hence why he dies - and then starts beating up a child. Wow. As villains go, he's pretty scary.

For an example - and ignoring the irrelevant title the poster has given it - this clip on Youtube serves as a relatively good example of Vegeta's disposition.

Then you get to season 2, and you meet Frieza. Holy crap. This guy makes Vegeta look like a fluffy kitten. He interrogates an entire race of people, and kills them whether they tell him what he wants to know or not. Then he summons the universe's elite band of warriors to come and kill a child and a midget (sorry, Krillin). Vegeta is there too, being a little evil, but he also saves the kid at one point, essentially because he knows he's got no hope of beating Frieza alone and the kid might be able to provide a distraction, but sure. The end result is still a positive.

Then things get nasty.

Frieza is powerful. This much is obvious. In a series where the hero has achieved a power level of 180,000 after months of rigorous training in x100 gravity, Frieza's power level in his first form is 1,000,000. Well, damn it. There's a child who can heal his enemies. Frieza kills him. A warrior is defending the secrets of his people. With one arm behind his back, Frieza breaks the warrior's back and leaves him to die in the dirt. He shoots Krillian through the heart with a bolt of energy for interfering in his fight with another character, then mocks Gohan (the child) by blocking his way and refusing to let him save his dying friend. Frieza then beats the crap out of Vegeta, who he has raised as a surrogate son, just to prove he can. When Vegeta talks 'too much', Frieza kills him.




He doesn't even use his hands, or his superpowers, to kill Krillin. He's that much of a jerk.

But, most of all, when Goku, the hero, has finally arrived and decided to sacrifice himself so his son and friend can escape, and they're already on their way to safety, Frieza grabs the newly-healed Krillin, hoists him into the air and forces him to explode because he can.

Here is a being with no morals. Krillin is a main character - he was killed by Vegeta, then resurrected, so given the lore of the universe, the next time he dies, he stays dead. Frieza doesn't care. Likewise, Vegeta has been serving Frieza loyally for years, and only recently found out it was Frieza who destroyed his homeworld and made the Saiyans an endangered species. Vegeta then resolves to fight him... and fails. One of the episodes is subtitled: "Tears of a Proud Saiyan Prince." This character, who raised Vegeta from the age of 6 and has been lying to him all this time about the fate of his planet, kills him because he 'talks too much'. After beating the crap out of him. After telling him his entire life has been futile. And after Vegeta has purposely come close to death several times to increase his power level, all in a bid to take revenge.

Man, Frieza is a jerk.

But the surprising thing is not how evil he can look, which is like this:


But rather than he inspires fanart and merchandise like this:



Um, what?

This is not entirely at odds with the show, either. Frieza's most innocent expressions come when he's surprised, like this:


He seems genuinely confused that anyone would ever want to hurt him. His entire life, he's always been the strongest, so he assumes the people who can't beat him just aren't trying hard enough.

On Baron-Cohen's empathy scale, he definitely falls at the 0 level. In my opinion the reason the fan art and merchandise portray him as cute is because the alternative is too horrible for us to comprehend. I have that plushie, and it makes me feel a whole lot better about him as a character, to think he can be reduced to something cute. He's not evil, he's just a little childish.

But, if we start to think that way, we get into the question of whether children can be evil,and that's a whole 'nother topic entirely. So suffice to say, my understanding of evil is this:

Hurting people with no remorse and undervaluing life.

Ultimately, as Mike Laidlaw once said, being evil is the same as being selfish. And, man, does our society have some problems if that's what we believe.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Option D: Skip Everything


Hi there. I’m a games writer, but I’m just gonna come out and say it: I hate dialogue in games. If I can’t skip it, I’ll ragequit. However, chances are if I do have the option to skip, I won’t. Why? Because I don’t like being told what to do with my time. You don’t control me, game.

I sat at this screen for hours.

But you know, I can’t think of a single mechanic I haven’t hated at some point – combat, jumping puzzles, hidden object scenes… Man, I must really hate every single game out there. Unfortunately for my bank account, that’s not true. In fact, I’ve dedicated my career, and most of my life thus far, to games and making them better for future generations. Why? Because I love them. I just don’t love all of them, all the time.

Sometimes I want to jump on a TF2 server and W + LeftMouse Pyro, while continuously screaming for a medic. Sometimes I want to talk to an imaginary person in Dragon Age because, at the end of a long day, as least they’re predictable. And sometimes I want to be that cool detective who solves all the paranormal cases, so I load up Mystery Trackers and click through hidden object scenes like a Diablo player on crack.

Stop hacking my account, Leoric!

And yet, I feel like I’m missing out. I don’t know the story of Halo, or Gears of War. I only know Dead Space and BioShock and their sequels because I have very patient friends. And, oddly enough, despite the crippling anxiety I feel while my friend Steve is calmly shearing limbs off nearby necromorphs, Dead Space 2 is one of my favourite games. I just wish I could play it.

The problem is, I suck at combat. It’s not for lack of trying, either. Playing Ocarina of Time with enemies that respawn every damn time I enter or leave a room drives me to throw my 3DS at the wall with alarming frequency. I’m just lucky my husband is a good catch (hur hur puns). If I could explore the Water Temple without worrying about random underwater bat-fish attacking my groin every time I try to navigate around this one set of spikes, I would be so much happier.

Pictured: What they should have replaced the Water Temple with.

There’s another problem. You know I love you, Fallout 3, but sometimes I just want to fast travel without having to discover the destination first. The same goes for you, Skyrim. I’m even an Explorer type (according to my idol, Bartle) but there are days when you just want to get to the dragon’s lair so you can shout at it until it dies.

Children, this is what we call ‘conflict resolution’.

But none of those are the real problems. As the Escapist series Unskippable (which highlights custscences that force us to watch them) points out, sometimes you just have to let the player skip your hard work. My problem is that, so far, this only applies to storytelling.

Playing God of War 2, I died the most often because I misjudged a jumping or swinging section, at which point the game would mock me by offering to decrease the combat difficulty. Thanks. On the other hand, I’m in love with Super Mario 3D Land because it gives me the stupid invincible tanuki suit when I die too much. I usually die for the same reasons as I did in God of War – bad spatial perception – but at least I have a chance of recovering from a misjudged leap. And I sparkle, and that makes everything better.

Have fun trying to get that image out of your head.

Hidden object games, in my opinion, have got the big games beat. Playing on casual mode, you can skip every puzzle, and if you can’t find most of the hidden objects by randomly clicking (if you really don’t want to look for them) you can just wait for the recharging hint, which will tell you, without judgement, where every single item is. You can even skip the story segments. What’s left, you may ask? Not a lot, but that’s what you get for playing the game like a jerk.

So why can’t I do this in other games? I would love the option to have a Fallout 3: Pacifist edition. If I could toggle a button for “short version, please” in Mass Effect, I might have gotten past the Citadel. An option to simply play a sequence containing the remaining story moments (i.e. all of them) in The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom would be nice.

It’s sad when you have to Google still images from a game based on a silent movie to get the plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand. Dead Space 2 without the combat would be a very short – and somewhat weird – game. Alan Wake would be half the experience without the risk-reward motivation of finding those missing manuscript pages on Nightmare mode. But you know what these games would be? My choice.

I’m tired of missing out on all the good stories because I have the reflexes of a wet dishcloth. A very dear friend of mine worked on Halo: Reach, so I bought it and tried to play it. Guess how far I got. That’s right, I died in the tutorial. Repeatedly. Really.

Sure, I’m not going to get better without practice, but you know what? I don’t want to practice that. I’m just not good at some things, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is being forced to get better (or get better friends?) if I want to indulge my Nolan North obsession and play through the Uncharted series. Let me turn off combat. It won’t be the experience you wanted me to have, but we live in a post-modern society anyway. The death of the author has already been established. Let me play the version of your game that I want, even if it may as well be a movie. That’s my choice, not yours. Stop taking it away from me.

I am in for this, by the way.

The Futurama game on PS2 already did it. They included the game disk and a DVD containing all of the cutscenes and salient sections of gameplay to link them all together into one mini-movie. I ended up buying the game just to watch the movie. I never played the game, but they got my money, and I reckon they’d call that a win.

The point is, we can already skip most of the cutscenes and dialogue available in games. We’re still at the stage where we have to do the puzzles ourselves, but at least there are walkthroughs. There are no walkthroughs for sucking at combat or having poor depth perception. Even if causing all the Darkspawn to flee from my presence when I turn off the option for combat causes a Benny-Hill-style montage of foreshortened tactical retreats, I’m okay with it. Or what about allowing the game’s AI to take control of my character during combat in BioShock 2, even if it means I don’t always come out with the most ammo or the most health, but I come out alive? Both of these are still better options than what I could accomplish alone. Sad it may be, but that’s the way things have been for 20 years. I don’t seem ‘em changing any time soon.

So I vote that every game should include an Option D: skip everything. Make each standalone element fun or successful in its own way, then let me choose which ones I want to engage with. Who knows? If your combat’s as much fun as your exploring, I might even give it a try.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Deus Ex and Memories of Love

Spoilers.

It's a side-quest back in Detroit that leads you to Ms. Walthers. Alone in her well-furnished, but surprisingly bare apartment she waits, sitting on her couch, for the delivery of her dinner. The kitchen shows no signs of use, the trash no wrappers or other signs of habitation. You wonder how long it's been since she last ate, when she confuses a six-foot cyborg with her local friendly 'Rolling Meals' representative.

She speaks slowly, but gently, full of fondness for a child she once knew and the memories of him that must seem closer now she's in the ever-deepening mists of dementia. Photos spark more memories, of a child so beloved that, instead of killing him to stop his DNA from being used to inoculate another generation of children into super-soldiers-to-be, his parents set their own research, and all records of him, on fire. Ultimately, they died there, leaving their child in the arms of his nurse.

Here she pauses - there were other children, other infants who didn't survive. Other cribs that were already empty. Only Adam remained. Only Adam was able to be saved, in turn saving further rows of cribs from becoming empty. He was adopted, by a lovely couple who raised him as their own. Ms. Walthers has been saving money for him, for all the birthdays and Christmases she missed. He must be 12 or 13 by now. Buy him something nice, won't you?

Her story reminds me of another old woman I visited, in my guise as an investigative journalist. She couldn't remember what happened to her children, but she was worried they thought she had abandoned them. She would have liked a television in her room, but they told her she didn't have enough money. It's a shame. She likes television. She used to make origami dogs for her sons, and they would always be called Max. She loves orchids. Her sons used to bring them to her from the garden.

Why is it that these figures are so tragic? Surely they're happier in the worlds where their sons are alive and the boy they rescued is still whole. How can it be that we mourn them while they live, alone and alive in the memories that sustain them? Perhaps it's because they're not present, because they don't know what has happened, but I think, as is always the case, we mourn them for ourselves. These people loved us once, but they can't love us now. They don't know who we are. There's a power in that, in the duality of being remembered and being forgotten, all at once. It's a gap we can never cross, of time and neuroscience and an infinite field of yesterdays.

They're stuck in the past, and with every day we're leaving them further behind. We can't bring them with us. And always, as parallels real life, there comes a moment when you have to admit that sometimes there are people you just can't save.

Monday, June 18, 2012

In slight defence of Hitman: Absolution

I wanted to reiterate, for those who don't know me, that I have no problem with the Hitman team, or even the cinematic team that created the videos that have caused so much discussion. To that end, I would like you to consider the following:

Here is a still from the much-beleaguered S&M nuns trailer:
Yeah, that's not cool.

Here, however, is a still from the less-beleaguered (though more disturbing in its own way) Diana-in-the-shower trailer:
Shot and garotted? Overkill much?

However, if you take out the BEWBS and compare only the faces, you'll see something that I was quite surprised to notice:

They have the same facial expression.

For those of you who missed the comments on the S&M nuns video saying 'lol you wanted equality you got it, women', I'm actually looking at the man in the above picture. This is the first time I've seen a male character with such a vulnerable, sad look on his face. For a game that's about killing people, it seems like an odd choice. But the animators have decided, quite consciously I would say, to show that, in death, we are no different. Each experience of that final breath is the same - slightly baffling, ridiculously upsetting and unfathomably sad. I applaud them for viewing the death of a person, rather than the death of a gendered person. In this, they have done exceptionally.

So my issue is not with the Hitman team - and I hope you will agree with me after the following - it is with society. And society prefers that this:
This is a woman who is designed to SLAY DRAGONS.

Should be re-rendered as this: 
She's not slaying anything except her own reproductive capabilities.

Or even this:
What's she meant to do? Boob them to death?

So, Hitman, we don't blame you. You exist in a culture where sexism is the norm. We just wish you'd been a little more discreet. Maybe next time you can champion women with realistic body types who wear normal clothes, like Uncharted tends to. Then we won't have to feel as though we ought to hide your game box at the back of the cupboard.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hitman: Absolution & Anita Sarkeesian

Simply put: others have already said it far better than me.

Read this, then this. You can find the Hitman: Absolution E3 trailer on your own. To reinforce Meadows' claims, I refer you to this and this.

If you need an explanation of why I have a problem with that last clip and not this one, let me remind you that there is sexy, and there is sexual. Sexy women make other women feel attractive themselves. Sexualised women make other women deeply uncomfortable in a place no one should be able to reach.

Try explaining to a man the deep-seated terror of the 2-minute walk from a dark bus stop to your front door, and you will be met with a skeptical stare. The worst part, for me, is that this fear is so completely ingrained that I don't even notice it most of the time. This apprehension of the world at large is exhausting. When you have to plan every aspect of your life around weighing up safety against either convenience or a desire to explore - as in foreign cities when travelling alone - you will quickly come to rely on the safest route, even if it is mightily inconvenient/far more expensive.

To put this in perspective: near where I used to work until 2am, on my own, at an arcade frequented by drunks, a woman was raped. Not late at night, not in a back alley - 20 metres from a main concourse, at 10am on a workday, she was raped, in plain sight, and no one helped her. There was a police station 50 metres away. She should have been safe. She was not.

Of course, this says nothing about games, or about gamers. This says a lot about our society. But what does it say about games that even they aren't safe spaces - places where people go to escape reality - for women to hide from the reality of their existence? That entering a world that is supposed to be a relief confronts women with the very thing they fear most, all the time?

Some will call me paranoid, and, indeed, I have wondered if a constant fear for my safety is paranoid. But no one can dictate how I feel, or tell me it's wrong - if I am uncomfortable, that is how I feel, and no amount of 'you're stupid and you shouldn't feel that way!' is going to change it. Telling me to stop getting upset about rape being used as a gender-specific bludgeon to keep women in a place of fear is like telling a burn victim that setting people on fire is a valid form of self-expression.

So I guess I did have more to say. But it falls far short from a drop in the ocean of the helpless rage years of online gaming have built into my resigned acceptance of such ridiculous and constant misogyny. So if you disagree with me, keep your comments to yourself. I've had a lifetime of them already.

And, if by some miracle, you'd like to do something to help create a safe online gaming space for the other half of the planet, please feel free to donate here (or here after the Kickstarter is closed). Your daughters and nieces will thank you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prometheus: One Fan's Perspective

You know you have a problem when the defining feature required by your protagonist is whether they have a uterus or not.

So this post is going to be spoiler-iffic. I will cover everything that I think went wrong with this movie, both from the perspective of someone who loves both Alien and Aliens, and as a writer. Now, after a brief break to figure out where to begin, I'll begin with a series of dotpoints and see where that leads me.

1. It's a monster movie with no monsters

Oh, sure, there's the occasional eye-snake and a very out-of-place zombie, but apart from that there's no sign of a monster until the very end and then, to paraphrase one of the funniest Futurama end-shorts ever: IT TURNS OUT IT'S MAN. No reason. In fact, the main character goes off on her never-ending quest at the end not to bomb the ever-loving crap out of their home planet with their own biological weapon, but to ask them "Whyyyyyyyy?" I'm sure she'll stamp her little foot and pout prettily when she asks.

But if you want a real answer: the idea behind the Alien originally was that it was based on human genitalia - you know, that stuff we never look at - so it would make the audience feel uncomfortable. The extendable jaw came from the Moray Eel which, well, never let it bite you. All of the monsters in Prometheus appear to be based on marine animals, which renders them slightly less scary because, get this: we recognise sea monsters less than we recognise our own dangly parts. It's that simple.

Keep it close to home, guys. Closer than we're comfortable with. That's the key to horror - not something bizarre, but something familiar in a setting that renders it obscene.

2. The female protagonist isn't

So Noomi Rapace had an incredibly hard act to follow, coming after the character of Ripley, and I don't fault her at all for the script. Her performance was captivating, especially set in a world where Charlize Theron is apparently hired to play a human who only acts like a robot. Noomi was beautiful and vulnerable, yet she still kept going when she had no reason to. Again, I do not fault her for this. I fault the writers for a rubbish plotline that reduces a woman's worth to her ability or inability to have children.

So, to this end, the protagonist isn't proactive at all. They go exploring, something happens, they go back to the ship. Repeat. Repeat. End movie. The only proactive thing she does is to rip the alien fetus from her own body, and that shows a remarkable sense of self-preservation that she seems to be missing for the rest of the time. One of my more recent posts (recent, ha!) centred on the movie Splice, wherein the female scientist was so enthralled with her own creation that she let it live, even when it was clearly dangerous. I'm glad Dr. Shaw didn't fall into this category of "it's different and new, so it must be wonderful", and she acted appropriately traumatised - for all of 2 minutes. How she managed to get suited up and leave the spaceship after dosing herself with 4 lots of heavy-duty anesthetic and having her beautifully-sculpted tummy stapled back together is something no number of strong-willed actions can account for. Even at the end, when everyone else is getting killed, her defining feature is that she manages to run away. Ripley went into the alien queen's lair with a flamethrower that she duct-taped a grenade launcher to. Really, Spaihts and Lindelof? The best you could come up with is that she ran away?

3. The philosophy is entirely ignored

There are fascinating questions in Prometheus. What does it mean for a Christian to find out our race was created by someone other than God? How can one hold onto their faith in the lieu of such a discovery? What does it mean that humans created androids? If we believe androids don't have souls, does that mean humans, as a created race, don't have souls either? If an android supposedly incapable of feeling is capable of cruelty, is that the same thing? And, of course, one of the lines delivered by the android himself: Don't we all want to see our parents dead?

The problem here is that no one seems to be aware of the philosophical meaning of these comments, even as they make them. Alien was revolutionary for having a ship full of people doing ordinary things, and a lot of the memorable dialogue from Aliens comes at the beginning, when the marines are interacting with each other. This human interaction is integral and necessary to this particular brand of sci-fi, where we question what it means to be human. Instead, Prometheus answers this quandary in a very glib and unsatisfying fashion - when David, the android, asks the protagonist why she wants to know why their alien creators decided to wipe out humanity, she says, essentially, "I guess that's why I'm human and you're not." Wow. Way to sucker-punch your only fellow survivor in the place where it so clearly would hurt him.

Obviously there's some mistrust there, given all that David did to her, but there were far better ways to handle it that didn't involve tipping your hand to show you don't understand sci-fi at all.

4. The android acts more human than the humans

One of the problems with a big cast is that the audience has no time to get to know them, so when they inevitably die, it's harder to care. Alien had a cast of 7. Aliens upped that number to 16, but had the decency to kill off more than half of them in the first alien encounter. Prometheus apparently had a crew of 17, but I have no idea who they were. I have trouble even remembering the name of the protagonist, because it's too common. As an aside, let's compare some names from these films:

Alien:
Ripley, Lambert, Dallas, Ash, Kane, Parker

Aliens:
Newt, Hicks, Burke, Bishop, Hudson, Vasquez

Prometheus:
Elizabeth, David, Meredith, Peter, Charlie, Fifield

Aliens had a very militaristic feel, which meant everyone went by their surnames. This made things interesting. But even in Alien, the names are memorable, for reasons neuroscience could explain better than I can, but probably because they're not names you hear every day, while the names in Prometheus are so forgettable that I had to look them up, an hour after I saw the film. This makes the people these names are attached to just as forgettable.

That is, except for David, the sociopathic android. No one in their right mind would build a robot capable of doing the things he does, but then again I'm sure the same would definitely be said for Ash from Alien. The fact of the matter is that David is cruel and hateful, while hiding it under a veneer of servility. Ash seemed perfectly reasonable until he went crazy and tried to shove a rolled-up magazine down Ripley's throat (suggestive? not at all!). Bishop gave his life to save Newt's. David was a jerk to everyone for no apparent reason - never mind that Weyland sent him to find aliens that would give him eternal life, how does infecting one of the crewmembers with an unknown substance enhance that goal? - and then he gets his head ripped off, which doesn't stop him, but apparently sure as heck stops later models made 100 years later. They sure couldn't have learned their lesson, either, considering no one made it back to Earth alive. So why doesn't it work now?

Again, these are not the real problem. The real problem is that David acts the most convincingly human, even if his motivations are paper-thin. He has a desire for freedom, and a desire to hurt those who oppress him by their very existence, and, in the end, a very well-honed sense of self-preservation. Remind me which of the other characters possessed more than one of the three traits, again?

5. Horrible movie tropes ahoy!

The captain is selfless and goes down with his ship, despite being an amiable drunk at other times. The protagonist's boyfriend selflessly gets himself killed, knowing that his girlfriend will try to save him and whatever infestation is growing inside him if he doesn't. That guy with the mohawk is a total bogan. The annoying biologist is apparently a complete idiot about everything biological, and tries to make friends with something that very closely resembles an adder about to strike. The hard-as-nails female officer gets called a robot, totally proves she isn't by having sex with the captain which, actually, results in the deaths of the aforementioned be-mohawked man and his gawkish companion, then she gets crushed by a giant spaceship for disrespecting her father. Whew, I think I just had a misogynist overload from typing that last sentence. Give me a second here.

This isn't even including the german doctor or the woman who became a scientist because she can't have children. This thing reads like a playbook for How Not To Write Emotionally Engaging Characters. Honestly, if every other film that will ever be made took a look at the characters in Prometheus and said, "Yeah, let's not do that" then the world would be a much better place (narratively speaking).

- - -

There are a bunch of other questions that have no answers (some of which are answered here to my relative satisfaction) but one of my other main concerns is hoping that people will remember that Alien is set on LV-426 rather than the LV-223 that Prometheus is set on. This has sparked a lot of unnecessary angst from people saying, "But it's not the same ship! Where are the eggs? How did they get there?" when, really, it is a completely different planet that Ripley and her team go to. No reason why the ships in Prometheus contain urns and not eggs but... Well... I give up.

How would the proto-alien born from the combination of Mega Starfish and Angry Man have had anything to mate with to create its own facehugger army? What were the weird snake things that rolled around in the black goo, had a love affair with that guy's mouth, and then never appeared again? How wildly homophobic was that scene (even more so than the original Alien)? Sure, maybe those snake things came from the earthworms, but where did the earthworms come from? Why did the jars of goo start leaking in the first place? That's a really poor way to store something you're planning to transport to another planet. Why have a giant statue of a man's head? Was is a (very hidden) Ozymandias reference? Why were the holographic engineers so terrified of the black goo if the guy at the beginning was happy to drink it? What were they running from if it was already in their skin? Why did it make bogan-man a zombie? Why didn't the biologist have his own little facehugger baby? Why are horror directors of the last few years so fascinated with women's wombs?

So many questions, and no answers at all. When someone writes something for the sole purpose of being enigmatic, there's a problem to mirror the first - without knowing your ending, you can't create a good beginning. Prometheus has neither. And I'll be writing to the distributor to request a refund.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Get Lamp : Lamp Got

First, I have a confession to make - as much as I love games, and as much as I love writing, I've never really been big on Interactive Fiction. I have my reasons - mainly based in the fact that, when I was learning about interactive writing, it was called Hypertext Fiction and, to be frank, a lot of it was weird because people were exploring the limits of the new medium. Then again, at that point, people still thought books were hypertext, so I don't know.

I have enjoyed the occasional wander through the texty land of storytelling - such as The Baron, which won 1st place in the 2006 Spring Fling - but I suppose, like many, my days of typing to a computer that talked back ended with the remake of Quest For Glory 1, or the arrival of King's Quest 5. Sure, there was still guesswork involved, but at least you only had 5 verbs to choose from, rather than an entire vocabulary's worth.

It seemed - and still seems - so much easier to follow a set of rules that determined how you could interact with the world though, true to form, the mouth icon in KQ didn't always mean 'talk'. It was more like a range of verbs shuffled under a heading than a direct translation of a single word into an icon. Would I recommend someone who's never played an adventure game play Monkey Island as it was originally intended when there's the point-and-click remake floating around? No. Even my fianceƩ, who's only three years my junior and at least as computer-savvy, has trouble with parser input. It takes a special kind of practice, and a lot more patience than most games I've played.

So I'll admit I was watching Get Lamp for my Masters, hoping there would be some insights I could apply to dialogue writing in current commercial computer games. I was thrilled when Dr. Bartle appeared on-screen (he's the nicest man, though I've only met him once, especially so because he put up with my fangirl attitude and let me take a photo with him). I felt a little ignorant, not knowing who all these other people were, since they were famous enough to be in a documentary about a field I should be relatively well-versed in. I recognised Ernest Adams and Steve Meretzky, and that was it.

And, in the end, I came away a little disappointed. Not because the documentary wasn't about something wonderful, which it is, or wasn't upbeat, because it was. Even when enthusiasts are describing how the IF community consists of only 2,000 people, and only about 250 of those people have enough time to vote in the annual IF awards, there's still a note of hope in their voices because, as one of them states, at least the people who are into IF are the people who really like it for what it is. And, as another says, the barrier to entry is so low that it will continue to exist, even in its limited scope, because people can access it so readily.

I do agree that IF has excellent educational applications and, yes, we spend a lot more time reading than we think we do, and yes, it's good if you make someone think. The Baron certainly made me think. But I felt the documentary as a whole, while well-meaning and stocked with helpful and valid viewpoints, failed a little in its application. The main problem, I feel, is that it's a documentary made by a community, for a community, an aspect that is reinforced when it's revealed that the original funding came from the IF community.

I can't help but feel this damaged its message in a small way. When you make something to tell other people how great something they love is, it really loses its impact. You're preaching to the converted, to make use of an over-used phrase. Sure, IF is amazing and we know it, and the documentary did a reasonably good job of explaining why, but why is it relevant now, beyond 'art forms never die'?

Sure, the book is still around. It may be an eBook, but it's still a book. Then again, a book is highly portable. My laptop and internet connection aren't as easy to slip in my pocket. When I'm reading a book, my family know to leave me be. When I'm on the computer, my time seems to be fair game.

And, let's not forget, the computer is the king of multitasking. To be brutally honest, I was reading my email, catching up on industry news and playing Solitaire while 'watching' Get Lamp. When on the computer, I feel like I need to make my time super-productive because I can. It's the same thing I have to avoid doing when I'm Skyping with my Grandma - remembering, of course, that divided attention never makes a whole. But while I'm reading a book, I'm away somewhere else. Perhaps if I treated IF the same, I would feel the same, but the fact remains that it's a program running on a computer that's also connected to the internet, which means chat, email, Facebook and lolcats. How will it hold my attention with that kind of competition?

Or maybe I've just become part of the ADD generation. But I doubt it. I recently played through the original Leisure Suit Larry and King's Quest, for fun and research. They're still excellent, by the way. I'd forgotten just how easy it was to die, but that's the price of fading memory. And I do love the assembly factory where they make more Larrys.

So, what did Get Lamp accomplish for me? For the moment it's drawn me away from the lure of learning to code in Ren'Py, mostly due to Dr. Bartle's wonderful assertion that "No matter how far you take graphics, eventually, the farthest you can get is text." He's right, you know. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but I'm a writer, not an artist, so I'll work with what I've got. And, if what I've got turns out to be any good, I'll post the results here.

Having spent the majority of my career writing for a visual medium, it will be interesting to be back in the realm of the text-visual. I do adore Adam Warren's use of alliteration, after all. And, who knows? Maybe this is the answer to my 'why can't I make a game without an artist and a programmer?' whining. Now I have no one to blame but myself if I never get anything done.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games - live!

Or, you know, as live as it gets, sitting in a Gold Class theatre with my favourite blanket, sipping a soy flat white and wringing my hands in anxiety. But still, for a good two hours, I was there - in the world of Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games.

I've waxed lyrical about the series before. I'm happy to say I have no reason to redact my opinions now. The movie was handled with aplomb, respect, and a wonderful use of subtext. So wonderful that I wonder if many of the audience members - who, apparently, had not read the books - would understand the entirety of what was going on.

Since I'm unabashedly a fan, however, that didn't concern me. What I did find is that, for a film that I've been waiting to see for almost a year - strenuously avoiding any behind-the-scenes or interviews or trailers, which turned out to be a wise move - the thing that concerned me the most was how much I just didn't want to watch it. When I got into the cinema and I sat down, apprehension overwhelmed me. When Katniss is singing her sister to sleep, just two minutes in, I was already crying. You see, I know how it ends, just like everyone else. Maybe not this movie or even the second, but the third. I know. And the creators went out of their way to let me know that they knew, too.

When I spoke about the Hunger Games previously, I doubtless mentioned how heart-breaking it is. How every aspect of the story is designed to feel like the ripping away of a firmly held belief or dear friend. The movie was no less of an emotional grinder though, as I said, it pales in comparison to the events in Mockingjay. There were certain sacrifices made in characterisation to allow for a cleaner story, none of which were overly destructive. I do however, look forward to the deleted scenes in order to discover what they chose to leave out, because I imagine most of what was removed will cater to the fans' interests.

It's not often I see something with which I am so thoroughly enchanted that it's difficult to find fault. The Walking Dead is another example of storytelling that I find particularly poignant. After I got over my nerd-rage, I thoroughly enjoyed Game of Thrones and I can't wait until Season 2 begins in April. Now, I'm hoping the TV show will make sense where the books so clearly don't (cue the flame comments - I'll rebut anything you can throw at me with an example of why the storytelling went downhill after book 2).

The point of the matter is, for a hardened cynic like me, it's becoming a little bit of a disappointment for all these wonderful stories to exist. I'm running out of things to complain about - or perhaps I'm just not spending as much time watching things that annoy me. Still, while I'm sure there must have been good book adaptations Back In The Day, the increasing number of print-to-screen revelations that have enhanced, rather than destroyed, the original source material is looking promising. Maybe producers are finally starting to get it, or maybe it's just that authors are starting to make enough money that they can take an active hand in their own creative endeavours.

I don't know what Suzanne Collins did to get so good at storytelling, but I'll take five of whatever she's selling. Perhaps it's those years writing for children's TV shows that makes her books so punchy, but I'd say that other writers can learn a lot from her example. I just hope I can, without dissecting the books so much that they lose their ability to affect me. And, as an added bonus, I have another two movies to look forward to. This must be my lucky day.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Terra Nova vs. Falling Skies: One Writer's Comparison

This was originally going to be a post about how Terra Nova could improve, but I've found an example: Falling Skies.

For those of the tl;dr crowd, the answer is simple - show, don't tell. (Or, alternately: add Noah Wyle.)

For those who want to know why, read on.

I loved the Terra Nova pilot. I could not wait for Episode 2. When it came out, I thought, "Okay, they're still hitting their stride, it'll get back to the same level of the pilot." This equates to Homer and his flying pig - "It's still good, it's still good!" Ah, how sad we are in these moments. I watched another 6 or 7 episodes, but after that, I gave up, and even my enthusiasm waned after episode 3.

I recently gave Terra Nova a chance to redeem itself by watching the two-episode season finale. I figured if they were going to do something big, it would be here, where they need a cliffhanger to keep people wondering until the next season comes out. Alas, again, I was wrong. So let's look at my disappointment, and see why Falling Skies managed to reclaim my wandering sci-fi attention.

Terra Nova has a couple of large problems. One is that they never introduce subordinate characters with sufficient depth to make us care about them, so they don't have anyone expendable to use to raise the stakes. Another is that it assumes we care about the environment. Well, sure, but this is a show about dinosaurs. Where are they? Third, it assumes we care about a future we haven't reached yet - 2149, in fact, a date that most of its viewership won't live to see. Set it in 2055 and I would care a whole lot more. And the final, and biggest problem, is that they just keep telling me what's going on without ever showing me. It gets real old, real fast.

Examples from the season finale: main character's son has girlfriend he has to leave in 2149. Boo hoo. We know it's bad there, because they've told us (see what I did there?) but that's all we know. Everyone wears respirators, and there's a strict two-child policy, so it's still better than Beijing. Anyway, he makes stupid plans to get her to Terra Nova because he promised he would. Never mind that he has a hot new girlfriend, he's honourable or something, so okay. She comes through, she dies. Oh no!

But wait! What do we know about her? Um... Her name is Kara. She gave him a necklace. And... that's it. Does she have any family? Anyone to miss her as she takes the supposedly-one-way ticket to the past? We don't know. How long had they been dating for? Was it serious? He's only 18. Were they engaged? How did they meet? What have they got in common? Given the son's lack of characterisation, i.e. he has no hobbies except moping, what could they possibly have in common (except moping)? In short: why should we care? Answer: we don't. There's another facet to this that I'll return to shortly, however.

Oh, the environment. How important are you? Well, pretty important, but this aspect suffers from a lack of clear goals on the part of the Terra Nova project. They say that Terra Nova exists in a different time stream, so nothing done in the past can affect the future, blah blah blah, but why are they there? Is it an evacuation? Are they trying to learn from the mistakes of the past and not ruin the ecosystem as carelessly as they did before? How long do they plan to stay here, and to what end? It's all very, "Well, of course it's obvious!" so nothing is ever clarified.

Cue the Big Evil Bad Guys wanting to come in and strip-mine the place to take everything back to 2149, something that was supposed to be impossible. They want to use explosives to destroy all the fauna and flora within a huge radius so they can get at deposits that would be buried hundreds of kilometres underground, if they even still existed in the future. Cool. Let's go.

But noooooooo, we can't let them do that! Why? "Well, of course it's obvious!" It's Bad. You Do Not Do That To The Environment. If You Disagree You Are A Bad Person. Come on. Give me something more to chew on than this. How does this relate to any of the characters I'm supposed to care about? Oh, right: it doesn't. Never mind. This also relates to the same point I'm going to make later, but I'm still getting there...

Why should we care about the future? These future people clearly ruined their world, not us. Are we supposed to feel guilty because they didn't know how to turn off the lights? As bad as the way we're treating the ecosystem is, there's nothing in my mind that says we're going to wind up in eco-domes in 187 years, and even if we do, even my children will be long gone by then. It's a selfish outlook, sure, and not one I actually ascribe to, but it's the part of my brain that rebels when a sci-fi TV show wants me to feel bad for something I didn't do. So they lose points for that as well as the final, biggest loser...

SHOW ME. Kara died? I didn't see it. They want to pyro-bomb the crap out of some landscape so they can mine it better? Don't defuse the first bomb they ever plant. You want me to believe things are really bad in 2149? What have I seen, apart from eco-domes and respirators and everyone wanting in on Terra Nova? Where is my proof, dammit? Why are you making this so hard?

And that's really what it comes down to. Too many things happen off-screen. Here is a brief list of things that happened in the season finale that we weren't allowed to see: the warp point was destroyed and a private army flooded through, taking out the meagre defences around Terra Nova; 26 civillians were killed in the fighting; Kara died; the main character was tortured; a reign of terror descended on the inhabitants of Terra Nova, captained by Commander Taylor's son Lucas; Lucas and Skye had a thing; she convinced him to spare the main character's son's life (how?? He calls her 'dear sister' - what?); the leader of the Sixers went into the Badlands and returned with something interesting (revealed at the end of the show, but it loses bonus points, because - ); the money-grubbing exec finds a substance from her trip to the Badlands and says, "Do you know how much this is worth in 2149?" to which the audience answered, "No! What is it?" and the answer was [SPOILER] lol wooden ship parts from the 18th century lol? [/SPOILER]. Add to this the fact that one subordinate character did die, but her death was pointless, and you have a pretty disappointing finale. On the scale of I Want to Cry It's So Bad to Freakishly Awesome, this falls closer to I Want Those Two Hours of My Life Back.

Now, Falling Skies. Oh man, the subtext. I adore it. I adore it so much it hurts. Just go watch it, and you'll see, but for the record, here are some of the things it gets right [WARNING - SPOILERIFFIC] - one of the main characters gets dragged away by another character's mind-controlled younger brother, who they were trying to save; a less-than-good physician mentally tortures the main character by suggesting that if his wife didn't love him so much, she would still be alive, then also tortures a captive alien, apparently just for the heck of it; a female character shoots two of her rapists and saves another main character from the same fate (mega bonus points: she survives and becomes a kickass soldier); a jerk of an ex-con puts down enemy-drawing flares in the middle of a civilian encampment to speed up negotiations; the main character ponders the significance of an alien race that has 6 legs creating bipedal mechanical robots when we ourselves originally imagined robots that would look like us (hence bipedal and not six-legged) and what this might mean in terms of what the aliens are trying to do to humans psychologically; children are murdered to make a point; religion is treated respectfully, without being an overriding theme; the show itself is funny.

I especially want to address the religion point, because I think Falling Skies does something special in this regard. Leaving out whether you're for or against religion, it is a big part of some people's lives. Mine not so much, and I usually get pretty angry when what looks to be sci-fi turns out to be moralising thinly disguised. But Falling Skies covers the topic elegantly, by having a very sweet girl whose faith remains unshaken. She prays for the missing, not to help them, but to make herself feel better, and she remains in an attitude of thankfulness, despite their poor circumstances. She doesn't go around preaching, but especially at the end of episode 4, it's easy to see that her optimism is catching - she raises the spirits of those around her, simply by reminding them that even being alive is something to be grateful for. Whether that's religious or not, I don't think it matters. What matters is that she's a positive influence, and I think that's nice, whatever angle it comes from.

There are many lines I found particularly memorable, but none of them work out of context, so let's just say that the writers are doing an excellent job. Also excellent is the direction, something that I believe may have been the cause of the fall of Terra Nova - the first two episodes (the pilot) were directed by Alex Graves, and the rest by other people. The first two episodes shine, and the rest not so much. Falling Skies also sees changing directors, but my hopes remain high, simply because of that consistency of dialogue. Where many of the actors and their lines in Terra Nova are flat - apart from Skye and Taylor, the only two characters who act in a consistent, believable manner - Falling Skies seems to have picked up a more mobile cast, at least in terms of facial expressions. You'll noticed I can't even remember the names of the main cast of Terra Nova. I only omitted the names of the main characters from my recount of Falling Skies because I imagine most people haven't watched it yet.

So, to sum up, let's compare the posters for these two shows, and some character shots of the same role, filled in each case. Because I like visual representations of why I'm right, is why. Enjoy!

Logo:

 ... enigmatic. Or something.
Sweet! This show is sci-fi!
So... safari time? With the perfect family?
Post-apocalyptia? Awwwwww yeah!
Main heart-throb? Uh... pass. They have showers - why is his hair still so messy?
Dude wears camo, carries a gun and rides a motorcycle. I know who I'd count on more in a dangerous situation (i.e. dinosaurs!).

Okay, that's my hate vented. Feel free to tell me why I'm wrong in the comments (I'm not, by the way). :) 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Where Dead Space: Martyr (and most other prequel novels) fail

I have no particular bone to pick with Dead Space: Martyr. In fact, it scared me so much in the first 30 chapters that I had to put it down for a couple of months, which was a welcome feeling, given my love for the game. My problem with it is that it falls into the same trap as many other prequel novels, and therefore became more of a disappointment than a normal book, simply because I had been enjoying it so much.

Again, before I get started I know it's hard to write something in a universe that isn't entirely pinned down, perhaps where its own creators don't really know what's going on. I get that. I do that for a living. What I'm attempting to say is how this kind of disappointment can be avoided, and to do that, I'm going to spoil a whole bunch of things.

The overall concept of the book, I liked. The core idea is that Altman is not a prophet, and in fact is fighting against the Marker, but he's murdered by 'the government' and turned into a martyr to further the cause of Unitology. No real surprises there, given Unitology is based on a similar-sounding religion created by a similarly ill-fated prophet (though the government assassination is up for grabs in that case).

My problem with Dead Space: Martyr, and with most prequels in general, is this : just because you know what has to happen doesn't mean you can't put a twist on it. We all know Altman is seen as a saviour. It's interesting that he wasn't, and as I said, I liked that part of it, and it was inevitable that he had to die, but his death could have had meaning. No meaning that anyone else could ever have found - he was supposed to be assassinated, so people would follow his teachings without him getting in the way. But he could have died for something he believed in, rather than dying because the story dictated it. I shall give an example.

In the book, the way he dies is this : two of the other characters salvage data and recreate the necromorphic material that comes from feeding the Marker's projected signal into dead tissue. They make a monster, using one of the other dead characters. They throw Altman in an arena with it, with only a spoon to defend himself. Presumably, this does not go well.

Altman's last thoughts are of the evil that will be done in his name, and how awful it is to know ahead of time what's going to happen. Personally, I probably would have been thinking about something else, like the people I love (e.g. his dead girlfriend) but, hey, I'm just going to figure that's where our understandings of the character differ. However, the fact remains that Altman dies essentially because he has to, and for no other reason. He doesn't make a heroic last stand, or stare into the eyes of his killers as the monster bears down on him, or show any shred of moral fibre. He simply dies.

And this is where I take issue with a good many prequels. I've played Dead Space, 1 & 2, read the comic and watched Downfall. I know what's going to happen. I'm not surprised Altman dies. I was expecting it. But it could have been something more. In other cases, where I haven't known a book was a prequel, the deaths seem even more ridiculously far-fetched, because I don't understand the causality. There's a simple reason for that : causality is working backward.


Instead of saying, "Here is the story I want to tell, and here is the outcome I would like it to have," it seems most prequels begin with the endpoint, then work their way to the beginning. Not that this is necessarily a bad way to write - I myself almost always begin with my ending in mind, so I know which direction to face - but when it constrains the story to illogical depths, it becomes a problem.

I'm thinking here of A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. The ending of that book, for having not read A Fire Upon the Deep, is excruciatingly unfulfilling. A beloved character does the Oatesian manoeuvre, stepping out into a blizzard because, well, why not? Another character succumbs to a type of madness because... well, why not? And a third character... Let's just say you've probably guessed where I'm going with this by now.

There are similar cases of such, like Robert Jordan's New Spring, or my own eagerly anticipated stab to the heart, Mouse & Dragon, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. Mouse & Dragon tries to set up the futures of the other characters in their universe by having the main character - my personal favourite - comment on things that will never be fulfilled. For example, at one point a young boy is affecting the dice in a strange way. The main character says, "You'll have to show me more about that, one day." Then, suddenly, the book is over.

I understand why they do this. It's to add dimension and depth to a pre-existing world, and to reference events that have already passed, in most people's minds, even though chronologically they're yet to happen. But show me one person who likes obvious foreshadowing, and not for its humorousness, and I'll show you a person who doesn't understand story.

Spiderman 3 : "They're my friends. I'd die for them." Good work signing your own death warrant.
Event Horizon : "Where we're going, you won't need eyes." This is not even foreshadowing. Stop it.
Every RPG ever : "I sure hope I don't turn evil someday." Well, great.

Foreshadowing can be done well. It's essentially like writing a good murder mystery. All of the clues have to be there from the beginning, but they should only make sense when the proper context comes into play. In this way, killing a character in a prequel novel makes as much sense as, "The butler did it!" There's no motivation, no emotion, and no closure. It just is, and that's not what stories are about. If stories were just facts, they would be textbooks, and we would hate them.

Prequels that do foreshadowing well, I hear you ask? Well, now, there's a doozy, but let me give it a shot. Dead Space: Downfall, the animated movie, actually does a very good job of setting up what takes place on the Ishimura moments before the beginning of the first game. Local Custom and Scout's Progress, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller and set in the same universe as Mouse & Dragon, are both prequel novels, but self-contained and thoroughly enjoyable. The fact that Mouse & Dragon is the sequel to Scout's Progress, making it a prequel between prequels, is part of its confusion, but equally confusing is that they managed to get it so right, then so wrong.

Less well-known, but no less brilliant, is the tie-in prequel Visser, by K. A. Applegate, in the Animorphs universe. And, in terms of games, Professor Layton and the Last Spectre seems (so far, to me, at least) to be fulfilling the role of prequel very adequately.

What did all of these works accomplish? It's very simple. They told a story, a moving story, a logical story, a self-contained story, that just happened to be related to something else. And really, that's what every good prequel should be.