Saturday, June 30, 2012

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: 3

Not a book this time, but a game; one which by all rights shouldn’t even exist, but here it is anyway.  If you don’t know what Penny Arcade is, then I can’t even fathom why you’re on the Internet reading this, although you may or may not have heard of their foray into actual game design.  This was originally designed as a four-part episodic series, and the first two installments came out back in 2008, before developer Hothead Games decided to work on other projects and the series basically died the death.

I played those first two back when they first came out, and I found them to be entertainingly written and actually quite enjoyable.  The first was a little rough in spots but the second one was very good indeed, and so I had high hopes for the next games in the series.  But after four years it didn’t really seem like they would ever get made, so I can’t say I wasted a lot of psychic energy pining for it.
Anyhow, enter Zeboyd Games, indie developer of retro-RPGs Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World.  They have a knack for marrying pseudo classic plots and graphics with some much more modern game design and tactical gameplay, and when I heard that they’d signed on to finish up the series I thought it was an altogether grand idea.  Incidentally did I mention that Zeboyd also sells all their games dirt cheap?  They do.  That’s nice also.  So I grabbed this on Steam on day 1 and have now gotten through the whole thing, on normal difficulty, anyway.

This is unquestionably the best Zeboyd game made yet and if you liked either of their other two offerings or just are interested in this sort of gameplay, then you will not regret spending the $5 this game costs.  I can’t go quite so far as to say that this is the best Penny Arcade game ever made, though.  So let’s go through this.

If you played Episode I or Episode II, you probably remember that you had Gabe and Tycho as playable characters and also a third character who you could customize, so possibly an avatar of yourself or favorite rock star or whatever.  This one is more or less traditional JRPG style by giving you a more-or-less permanent four person party composed of Gabe, Tycho, Jim (their roommate, currently deceased) and Moira (whose connection to events is explained as soon as she appears, but I’ll let you find that out for yourself.)  Each of the main characters has a base class, which grants class abilities.  (In case you’re wondering, the base classes are, respectively: Brute, Scholar, Necromaster, and Gumshoe.)

Unlike Zeboyd’s previous titles, you don’t get to choose your level up bonuses, rather you proceed through the traditional method of gaining set abilities at set levels.  You also, relatively quickly, gain the ability to equip “class pins” which grant each character up to two more classes.  If you want, you can swap these among the party, and in fact it’s a good idea to experiment with this a little bit.  In traditional Zeboyd fashion, the pins are given to you in two batches, so you don’t have to go through a bunch of tedious fetch-questing and rock-turning to find them.  The classes level up independently and offer different passive bonuses and abilities; they level up alongside your base class and conveniently level up even if you don’t have them equipped, albeit at a slightly lower speed.  Some of them are pretty useless, or at least, not as useful as others.

Anyway.  Like in the previous Zeboyd titles, the party regains maximum HP after every battle.  The magic system is altered so that each character starts out with no magic points and gains 1 MP per round, which means that you’re able to use your best skills and abilities more often.  Items are also reset at the beginning of each round; instead of collecting a bunch of (say) potions, once you get a potion you can use it a certain number of times per battle, with the ability to level up the effectiveness and number of uses of the item.  You can save anywhere, not just at save points.  There’s also no – or at least not many – random encounters.  The enemies you face are right there on the world map and they don’t respawn when you leave.  And there is a huge number of varied enemies for such a short game, including tough fights against sub-bosses, minibosses, and a number of rather impressive bosses (including, of course, the optional secret boss.)

With all those gameplay elements smoothed out, what is the point, you ask.  Well, that point is to whip your ass with tactical fighting and not wasting your time with level grinding and similar BS.  It may look like a traditional RPG but it’s really more of question of how to get through these fights within the combat system.  On tougher fights you’ll have to creatively use the timing system to disrupt the enemy’s attack, and as the fight continues the enemy will increase in its stats and speed, eventually overwhelming you.  If you’ve got the wrong class pins equipped or don’t use your abilities wisely, then you have to recognize that you have a reasonable chance of getting killed by any given encounter, even if it’s not a boss fight.  Since they don’t make you grind and they restore you to health every time, they have the freedom to treat every fight like a knock-down fight, and they do.  I like that.

Now if I have some criticisms of the gameplay, and I do, it would be that the stripped-down nature of the fighting does narrow your options somewhat.  Since long fights are much to your disadvantage, you basically need to inflict as many life-draining statuses on tough bosses as you can, of which only three are available (Hobo, Bleed, and Poison), and since those are only available with one class each, I believe you’re basically insane not to equip those classes before tough boss fights.  You’re also risking it not to equip Cordwainer (which can increase the entire party’s speed) and by that point you’ve only got two classes left to choose from.  In short it’s tactically interesting but not necessarily tactically deep, primarily with hard fights.  You have way more options with “ordinary” encounters.  My other issue is that the game is really short.  I know, most Zeboyd games are short, but Cthulhu Saves the World also had some collectibles, an alternate campaign mode, and other goodies that are sorely lacking here.  In fact there is an obvious bonus area that a character tells you isn’t finished yet.  Maybe they’ll release some DLC later.  If they charge for it, that will be a little disheartening.

With that said, let me also say that I found the story to be a little disappointing.  There was a text story outlining the supposed plot of the third game written at some point during the period it appeared that the series would never be finished, and the game follows it pretty slavishly.  There are a lot of funny parts to the game, but they tend to be the parts that weren’t in the story, and revolve around typical Penny Arcade style absurdist humor (e.g., the identity of a caller who leaves a ten-minute silent message before being cut off by more silence).  As I’ve found myself saying a lot lately, the issue is tone.  The base story tries to be a Neo-Lovecraftian pastiche, which basically worked coherently in the first two games but doesn’t really mesh well with all the other stuff they’re doing here.  A good 20-30% of the game actually takes place in parodies of other genres which are fun areas, but don’t have anything to do with the main plot and don’t thematically fit with the rest of the plot.  And while I’m pretty sure that I understood what Tycho was up to and what basically happened at the end, it was pretty poorly explained and could have used more visuals, less text walls.

I hope writing the fourth one from ground up as a game will cure my complaints for the last one, which I’m still anticipating.  But I’m pretty sure people aren’t playing this for the plot, and if you just ignore it and enjoy the tactical fighting then it’s absolutely worth the cost. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tales of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is one of my favorite short-story SF writers; he’s pretty prolific in that format, and Gardner Dozois likes his work, so I’ve tended to come across him in Dozois’ annual collections.  He’s also got several collections of his own work available as well.  He’s won the whole gamut of awards for his various works, and this collection itself was up for a Nebula.  Suffice to say he’s the real deal.
Since I’ve never reviewed any of his work before here I’ll also plug a few of his novels, which have also been generally well-received but aren’t as numerous as his short story offerings.  I can’t really say enough positive things about Stations of the Tide, Swanwick’s examination of a nameless bureaucrat sent to stop a murderous con-man magician on the eve of a natural disaster, and both The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel are very good indeed.

Swanwick excels both in the technical aspects of writing and also subverting genre expectations.  For instance, the fantasy world he creates for the latter two novels contains the usual assortment of elves and other staple fantasy critters, but the world is grungy and shabby and contains clear parallels to our own world without beating the reader up about it too much.  And in Stations of the Tide you’re pretty sure that the bureaucrat, while well intentioned and ostensibly in the right, is fighting somewhat out of his weight class in his flashy opponent (which turns out to be true, but not in the expected way.)  Someone with such precision in writing as well as a bit of a mean streak is likely to excel in short story form, and that is the case here.

There are a few standouts in this collection.  I really liked “Scherzo With Tyrannosaur”, where a paleontologist goes through all sorts of paradoxes in a world where time travel exists.  He’s dealing with promotion to management and personnel problems; there are actually so many plot twists here that even describing it too much would probably spoil it.  Suffice to say that several unexpected things occur, followed by a nice un-resolution.  So that was good.  I also was a great fan of “Radiant Doors”, which deals with (again) time-traveling, only this time it’s refugees coming from the future where they are fleeing some sort of oppressive totalitarian state.  It becomes apparent that some of the refugees might not be simply the victims that they appear to be, though, and this one really delves into the concept of becoming what we try to avoid, without going overboard on the message.

One of the stories that lays it on a little thick was “The Dead”, which deals with a future where most work is done by literally animated corpses, and although it was well written it was somewhat aggressive about the point it was making, almost to the point of distraction.

They’re not all message pieces, though.  “Mother Grasshopper” is just sort of fun, and “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy” deals with a literal train trip to Hell from the eyes of one of the staff, a soul who was undeservedly assigned to Hell, and then can’t catch a break despite always doing the “right” action.  Although it may work out for him in the end.

All in all, a nice solid short story collection, and worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas by John Scalzi

Dramatic tension comes from expectation of potential consequences, and the best way to show potential consequences is to demonstrate them on somebody.  Hence if you need to establish a deadly threat to, say, Captain Kirk, and the team consists of Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and some random unnamed extra, you don’t need an episode guide to tell you who’s gonna die.  If you know what a “red shirt” is, you can probably guess what Redshirts is about, and be mostly right within an order of magnitude.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  This book is by John Scalzi, who probably doesn’t need any introduction, or at least if he does he doesn’t need one by me.  He’s got a very prominent web site, appears to be omnipresent in the SF community, and has been blogging since well before blogging was cool.  Furthermore he appears to be a guy who Gets It, whatever It happens to be (e.g., adapting to trends in publishing, getting his stuff accomplished on time, sympathetic toward gender issues, understanding that cats sometimes suffer lack of bacon, etc.)  I’m not sure that I’d like to hang out with him as such, since we don’t know each other or anything, but he does seem to be awfully similar to people I do like to hang out with, and we share similar cultural markers.  That said, while I certainly understand the love, I don’t always feel the love.  My favorite works of his are The Android’s Dream, which I adore, and The God Engines, which I really enjoyed.  I respect Old Man’s War, but didn’t really think that highly of the sequels, and I haven’t gotten around to Fuzzy Nation yet.  (I do also really enjoy Judge Sn Goes Golfing.)  However, even when I don’t personally enjoy something Scalzi writes, I can usually see the appeal.

The sample chapters of this one were intriguing so I took the plunge.  Did I like the book?  Yes.  Did I dislike the book?  Yes.  Can I say, on balance, that it was a positive experience?  Not sure.  Let me quote the old nursery rhyme:  “There was a little girl with a little curl on her forehead.  When she was good she was very good, but when she was bad she was indistinguishable from an all-night freshman year bullshit session”.  I will explain further below.  Mild spoilers ahoy!

Although Star Trek may be a particularly egregious offender, the red shirt phenomenon is older than any of us, and probably older than dirt, considering that it shows up in the epic of Gilgamesh, which as far as I’m aware is the oldest existing story – when the gods decree that one of the two of Enkidu and Gilgamesh have to die for killing Ishtar’s bull, well, you know it ain’t called the Epic of Enkidu.  Or all those Ithicans who didn’t make it back home with Odysseus.  So this character exists to die in order to demonstrate how badass the hero is by eliminating the threat that the red shirt couldn’t, or to provide an emotional scene for the hero, just to establish that the hero’s in deadly danger, or even to goad the hero into a new paroxysm of hero-ness.  I guess you could write a story where the hero dies 90% of the way through for no particular reason and someone unnamed solves the problem of the hour, but that probably would be deeply unsatisfying to read and probably hard as hell to write, and it would go against all narrative tradition while you were at it.

So when Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, he quickly discovers that life is nasty, brutish, and short if you don’t happen to be one of five or so major officers, and that one’s odds of death when being around these officers go up to an alarming degree.  As an aside, it’s also not that great to be astrogator Lieutenant Kerensky, who somehow manages to survive flesh melting plagues, being repeatedly shot, buried under debris, and alien possession on a regular basis and come back for more.  Although he’s also had three rounds of sexually transmitted infections, so apparently it’s not all thorns for him.  Anyway if you’re on an away mission with Kerensky then the same horrible thing is going to happen to both of you except he’s going to survive and you are not.  The captain and the superintelligent, standoffish first officer are likely to emerge more or less unscathed.  (Quick shout out - I really liked how Scalzi didn't go for the low-hanging fruit here.  These officers actually aren't the terrible people that you might expect and seem as puzzled as anyone why they don't fix the consoles so they don't explode in the crew's faces all the time.)

Most of the stuff in the first third of the book deals with the characters, Dahl and four of his red-shirt buddies, coming to grips with the increasing weirdness of their situation and possibly their impending demise.  Much of it is genius, especially to anyone familiar with SF television series.  For instance, there’s an explanation of how, given a six hour deadline, the science section can come up with a cure for anything, but not until the five and a half hour mark.  Also, the packed ship appears empty when a major officer comes around because the crew members sensibly hide, not being complete suckers.  The ones that can’t get away stride purposely around hoping to avoid eye contact or being asked to do anything or, God forbid, be asked on an away mission.

I really liked this section of the book.  I was really entertained and actually laughed out loud a few times, something I don’t often do while reading.  Where it began to go off the rails for me a little bit was when they realize that they’re probably characters on a really derivative television series and decide to confront their creators.  They decide to do this by commandeering a shuttlecraft and flying it into a black hole, an action which I approve of.  However, at this point, I was aware of a metatextual issue which Scalzi (to his credit) later addresses as well, namely this:  once you focus on a supporting character he’s no longer a supporting character, he’s a hero.  Tom Stoppard dealt with this in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but only by the expedient of having the “main characters” accomplish precisely zip throughout the show.  In the opposite vein, Terry Pratchett tried to write a book about the sort of guys who come out when the local tyrant yells for the guards and ended up creating Sam Vimes and Carrot and a large number of his best and most loved characters.  So, while some random people might get horribly killed by Borgovian land worms and ice sharks, once Dahl starts being proactive you’re pretty sure that whatever he has in mind is actually going to succeed and he probably won’t just up and die.  Especially after he manages to make it through a couple of “episodes” more or less intact.

I won’t say if Dahl actually makes it or not, but it’s not an unreasonable thing to think that he will by the midpoint.  Scalzi actually toys around with this a little, by suggesting that whether it’s true or not is up to him, which is of course both obviously true and a little unfair to explicitly point out.

It’s also not that uncommon for fictional characters to meet their makers.  Animal Man met Grant Morrison.  Job met God.  Many of the everyday details in this section were also funny and seemed very true to life in California circa 2012.  But it sort of drifted closer to the event horizon of navel-gazing and then crossed over it at some point for me.  Perhaps not everyone would have that same reaction, but as the story progressed I found myself guessing pretty accurately where we were going with the narrative (excuse me, Narrative) and at that point I found myself losing interest, although I will note that Scalzi did not himself appear as such, which was where I feared we might be headed with it.

Perhaps the source of some of my discontent was that the book itself (and the codas, especially) ended up being more of a manifesto on the proper treatment of fictional characters as opposed to a self-contained story in itself.  As an extra, Dahl doesn’t have a lot of personality, just a thin veneer of a background story.  The same is basically true for the other redshirts; they aren’t strong characters, although I do understand that they don’t want to die.  Nonetheless, while the scenes of them sitting around being sarcastic at each other stopped being funny for me at about the point I realized that there wasn’t going to be a lot more detail given about them, and when the highly structured scenario meant that literally anything could happen at any point.  The manifesto itself is sort of interesting, but coming from a man who once had his extra characters have to fight some advanced aliens in a death match, it’s probably more penance than anything else.  I guess I’d be in a more forgiving mood if these questions were presented in a more novel way, but I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me.

I guess it does seem a little unfair to blame a novel about people who are extras by definition for being weak characters, but hey, they’re supposed to carry their own story here.  And they don’t quite manage it.  I couldn’t help thinking that I would have unreservedly enjoyed this if this had been a novella and stopped before we learned whether their stolen shuttle plot had any effect or not.  So, take that as you will and make your own choice; happily, no Narrative is forcing you to read or avoid anything.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Runyon on Broadway by Damon Runyon

Before I begin talking about this book specifically, let me explain why I’m reading a vintage 1975 British edition of a quintessentially American author in the first place.  The reason is the stupid copyright system currently in place; Runyon died in 1946 and did most of his writing in the 1930s, and the copyrights on his short stories will not expire (under the current regime) until 95 years after their publication date.  Therefore the last of his short stories will enter the public domain in 2041.  I’m not sure if this is intended to encourage Runyon to write more or what, but its practical effect is to prevent me from reading what I really want to read by him, namely a huge anthology of his entire short story output.  Yes, I know that book would be about the size of an encyclopedia but I’d still shell out for it.  And since nothing like that exists, I have to pick up these anthologies where I can find them, because Runyon was nothing if not a frequently collected and anthologized author, and hope that they contain a story that I haven’t seen before (since each editor has a slightly different idea about what constitutes the best of his output.)

Anyway, the book of Ecclesiastes states that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.  Runyon agreed with this, but pointed out that you should bet that way anyway since “all life is six to five against”.  That tells you pretty much what you need to know about Runyon, who was a newspaperman and a short story writer and apparently excelled at writing about baseball and horse racing, but especially the short story writing.

Runyon’s not obscure, exactly, as everyone’s heard of “Guys and Dolls” and some of his stories still show up in collections, but I think it’s a shame that he isn’t more widely read (but some of it may be his own fault, as explained further below).  I’m fond of short story as an art form and, to my mind, Runyon did it better than just about anyone else and certainly had his own inimitable style.  If you’re not familiar with it, he wrote in a bizarre slangy argot which completely eschews contractions and all verb tenses except the present.  It’s not so much dated as affected, since no one ever in the entire history of the world has spoken this way.  It contains enough Americanisms that this British anthology contained a glossary, but the editor pointed out in the introduction that you’d have to be pretty dense to not understand what he’s talking about, except possibly if you don’t know that a G is a thousand dollars and a C is a hundred.

Ecclesiastes also states that there’s nothing new under the sun, and the na├»ve reader, not realizing that ironic detachment wasn't invented in the 1990s, may be a little surprised at how sociopathic these stories can be, although almost always to comedic effect.  They don’t have any swearing and no explicit content besides a little bit of offhand kissing now and again, but man can they be cold blooded.  Witness this exchange between the nameless narrator and a character by the name of Jack O’Hearts discussing why Jack gunned down a member of the narrator’s singing quartet in “The Lily of St. Pierre”:

'I suppose,' he says, 'I owe you guys an apology for busting up your quartet when I toss those slugs at Louie the Lug?'
'Well,' I say, 'some considers it a dirty trick at that, Jack, but I figure you have a good reason, although I am wondering what it is.'
'Louie the Lug is no good,' Jack says.
Well, of course I know this much already, and so does everybody else in town for that matter, but I cannot figure what it has to do with Jack shooting off ears in this town for such a reason, or by and by there will be very few people left with ears.
'Let me tell you about Louie the Lug,' Jack O'Hearts says. 'You will see at once that my only mistake is I do not get my shots an inch to the left. I do not know what is the matter with me lately.'
'Maybe you are letting go too quick,' I say, very sympathetic, because I know how it annoys him to blow easy shots.

In another case a problem gets resolved by a dude getting knifed in the neck, an unfaithful wife ends up in a sack, a group of citizens hires a scary Italian hit man to take out a local thug, and in general there’s quite a lot of mayhem going on, none of which surprises or unduly puts out anyone.  In one story the narrator and one of his friends come across a loan shark who has been stabbed, and are very taken aback to see him this way – they figured that someone would shoot him and are “very angry to think that there are guys around who will use such instruments as a knife on anybody”.

All the Broadway stories are told from the first person perspective of an unnamed man who alleges that he’s no one in particular and that everyone and sundry considers him to be “just around”.  He also claims to have a nervous disposition and hate the company of desperadoes, which must cause him much distress as apparently that comprises most of his associates.  Nonetheless, he gets invited to swank parties and people make confessions to him all the time of all sorts of felonies, he’ll show up in the company of strong-arm men and although he never commits any crime of violence he manages to show up at a couple of robberies and swindles.  But mostly what happens is he’ll relate a tale from some associate of his, of whom he has a large number.  Surprisingly, some of them are even related to real events – “Lonely Hearts” is based on the true-life story of Belle Gunness, and there are other contemporary references in there that I’m sure sail right over my head.

Anyway, these stories are seriously funny in that classic New York deadpan way.  The narrator never judges and only criticizes those that aren't around or can't fight back - maybe explaining why everyone wants to tell him their stories.

They aren’t perfect by any means, though.  Although the slang dates these stories, they are so stylized that it’s not even really a problem; what really dates these works are some truly backwards social views that were unfortunately all too typical of the time.  There are some bright spots – the author mentions that he speaks some Yiddish and there are some minority characters spoken of favorably (or at least are not any more unfavorable than all the other lowlifes), and in one story the author points out that you shouldn’t refer to Jews or Italians by various ethnic slurs since they are by and large as good as anyone else (and also because some are likely to take offense and beat you up).  Unfortunately while this sort of tolerance also extends to Puerto Ricans it doesn’t exists to blacks, who are conspicuous by their rarity and in cruel, insulting dismissals when they do turn up.

Also Runyon’s gender relations are summed up by the idea that pretty much every woman is referred to as a “doll” without any exceptions that I can think of, and once they’re married their individual stories are more or less complete.  Although at least one widow does get revenge for her dead husband by drowning three guys simultaneously in the ocean, and another waits for a cad to become a success and then shoots him in the head.  The narrator is still somewhat coldly dismissive toward “dolls” and frankly I could see how women might be pretty turned off by it.  As a straight white guy it’s pretty easy for me to just say to overlook it and enjoy the humor value in the writing, but I don’t know, maybe some people just can’t get past it.  If it’s any consolation I’m not sure we’re strictly intended to take anything the narrator says at face value, since he’s pretty unreliable.

In any event, the only story in this collection which I don’t think I’d previously read was “Tight Shoes”, which was okay.  If I ever do get my complete Runyon set I’d probably find that I’d read the best ones already, but that’s all right, it would be entertaining enough.  At that.