Friday, January 7, 2011

The Official Handbook As You've Never Seen It Before

The magnificient kazekage has recently completed an absolutely brilliant takedown of Marvel's Official Handbook circa 1980-something-or-other.

THRILL! To the Hulk trying to explain the nature of Ronan the Accuser's "Universal Weapon"!

GASP! At the risque description of Captain America's motorcycle!

LOL! At haikus revealing the hidden link between Karnak and Johnny Carson!

"But Diana," you ask, "how much does such an amazing package cost?"

Well, friends, you're in luck! Act now and you can read the Whole Damn Thing here for the low, low cost of $0.00! You can't beat those prices! Not even with Ronan's Universal Weapon!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brand New Brand New Day

There's really only one appropriate response to this:

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Game Review: Dragon Age - Origins (Part 1)

Note: This review has grown to the point where I've decided to split it. Part 1 is Introduction/Setting

Well. It seems my plans to resume a more regular review schedule have been utterly derailed, as I spent November and some of December in an intense playthrough of BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins.

Make that two playthroughs, actually.

So... where do I begin?

I actually had "Dragon Age" installed on my PC about six months ago; I'd put off playing it because I couldn't risk distractions during the concluding phase of my graduate project. But BioWare games have intrigued me for quite some time, specifically RPGs such as "Knights of the Old Republic", "Mass Effect" and "Dragon Age" where the player's ability to determine various courses of action supposedly leads to a more immersive role-playing experience.

In fact, one thing I enjoy about these "Western" RPGs is that, in theory, I'm able to formulate my character before starting the game: if I want to play the part of an honorable hero or a self-serving prat (or something else altogether), I can make those choices consistently throughout the game and emerge with a coherent character arc. It all depends on the extent to which the game world and the plot accomodate my decisions.

My first experience with a BioWare game didn't quite produce the desired result. I saw "Knights of the Old Republic" as a way to resolve an old beef I have with the "Star Wars" franchise: my player character would be a powerful, intelligent female villain. The Anti-Daala, as it were.

Unfortunately, being a "Star Wars" game, choices in "Knights of the Old Republic" are largely based on a simplistic moral binary: you're either roleplaying the Jedi equivalent of Mother Theresa or the Sith equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer. And the game practically requires you to embrace one extremity or another, since the efficiency of talents such as Force Lightning and Healing are directly proportionate to your position on the Light Side/Dark Side scale. As a result, playing a villainous character meant making truly despicable decisions - appropriate for the cartoonish Emperor, perhaps, but not for the type of character I wanted to play.

"Dragon Age: Origins" is a much more subtle and flexible creature. I should note that I'm doing a great injustice to a very complex and intricate story by summarizing, but for brevity's sake it goes something like this: the kingdom of Ferelden is on the brink of destruction following a disastrous defeat at the hands of the vile darkspawn. You and another survivor are the last remnants of the fabled Grey Wardens, and you are tasked with assembling a new army and stopping the darkspawn incursion before they devour the entire realm. Naturally, every possible source of aid is currently neck-deep in its own troubles: the forest-dwelling Dalish Elves are under constant attack by a mysterious clan of werewolves, demons have overrun the Circle of Magi, the dwarves are a breath away from civil war and the human knights of Redcliffe have scattered across the land seeking a mystical cure for their dying leader.

Broadly speaking, that's all par for the course with RPGs: you have to solve other people's problems before they'll help you. But what's truly great about this game is that there are multiple solutions to the major quests, and unlike "Knights of the Old Republic" these options aren't based on morality per se, but rather a sort of cynical pragmatism versus idealism. For example, after a long trek through the underground ruins of the dwarven empire, you discover the Anvil of the Void, an ancient artifact capable of forging powerful golems. The Anvil's creator begs you to destroy it, as it requires a constant stream of living sacrifices to do its work. What's more, you may have a golem in your party that has described to you, in vivid detail, what basically amounts to an eternity of servitude. On the other hand, preserving the Anvil means the golems' raw might will benefit both you and the long-term survival of the dwarves. There may very well be a moral component at work, but it's not at the heart of the dilemmas you face.

Exploring Ferelden (and, by extension, the world of Thedas) was something of a marvel to me, as it's a world that defies the preconception of fantasy as simplistic literature. Unlike Middle-Earth or its derivatives, the existence of evil is treated more like an incurable disease than a tangible threat: the darkspawn and their corrosive Blight are beaten back again and again, but can never truly be eradicated. Ethereal demons from the dreamlike Fade can possess anyone with the slightest magical inclination, at any time, for any purpose. And there is no traditional solution to any of these problems, no keystone that instantly results in the enemy's destruction. This lends much credibility to the moral ambiguity permeating every aspect of the storyline: the thought of executing innocent mages should seem absolutely reprehensible, until you realize that there are no preventative measures that can be taken against possession. And since mages are arguably the most powerful class, both in story and game terms, the possibility of wiping them out "just to be safe" isn't something that can be set aside so easily. But is their current situation - a lifetime of virtual imprisonment within the Tower, under constant guard by the templars - any better? There are no easy or "right" answers, which ultimately means that the player's choices really count.

Ferelden's rich history is communicated to the player primarily through various Codex entries scattered across the world. Even the apocryphal material makes for pleasant reading, though some pieces of information (ie: the more detailed summary of Andraste's crusade and her death, or the profile on high dragons) can prove unexpectedly vital. You can certainly understand the plight of the elves better if you learn what really happened to them, and one of the major villains in the game becomes somewhat sympathetic in light of what the Codex reveals about his past. It's not an ideal scenario, since you're not likely to pause the game in the middle of a fight to read five paragraphs about the creature trying to crack your skull open, but it's far superior to twenty-minute infodump cutscenes.

The player is actually able to experience a part of the world before the story properly begins: character creation includes a choice of five possible backgrounds, depending on race/class. These serve as "prologues" to the main narrative, and are set in various regions across Ferelden, some of which you'll revisit during the major quests. Aside from informing how your character is perceived by others (a human noble is treated differently than a city elf or a dwarf commoner), these prologues also help root your character within the setting. You'll recognize NPCs who participated in your first adventure, who may have even fought at your side. While the world itself isn't much changed by your decisions, you may still find yourself more emotionally invested and immersed in the game. It's a clever device, and it works well enough that you'll probably find yourself creating new characters just for the different initial scenarios.

It's also worth noting that various DLCs add new locations and sub-stories, most of which are seamlessly integrated into the overall narrative, but I'll be reviewing those in a different segment.

Ultimately, I think what I most appreciate about the world of "Dragon Age: Origins" is that it actively resists many of the tropes and conventions that have become overly familiar and stale. The foundations are the same: humans and elves and dwarves learn to set aside their differences and unite against a common enemy, one that just happens to be a faceless horde of monsters. But once you're drawn in, the subversions become more and more evident, and what you're left with is an incredibly compelling world that breaks the right rules and upholds others.

Thedas: a great place to visit. But you wouldn't want to live there. Seriously. Everything wants you dead. Yes, even that. Especially that.

Next segment: Characters/Gameplay

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Postcard From Thedas

Playing "Dragon Age: Origins".

Much to say.

Can't stop long enough to write.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

And apropos of "Mad Men"...

Sometimes I could swear that CollegeHumor is reading my mind...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Mad Men

This one's been on the to-do list for a while now: the show everyone's talking about, the show kazekage has been urging me to watch for months - and that counts for a lot, given how much I enjoyed the last series he recommended (Gargoyles).

So, just to start things off properly: sorry, love. Couldn't make it past six episodes.

I give the creators of "Mad Men" due praise for their recreation of 1960's New York: every detail radiates authenticity, even though I'm sure some liberties have been taken in terms of historical accuracy. And, as predicted, I've developed a major crush on Jon Hamm.

(Take note, CW bleach-babies - this is what a real man looks like!)

But frankly, my problem with this series has less to do with style and more to do with substance.

I'll preface the following review by admitting that my standards of evaluation aren't what they were a year ago; back then, if a somewhat-flawed series caught my interest, I'd stick around for at least a full season to see if things got better. I'm still watching (and enjoying) "The Vampire Diaries" because it's improved significantly since its initial mediocrity.

Unfortunately, I find myself sitting on a rather intimidating pile of books, movies and games at the moment, all of which I'd like to check out (and possibly review), which means I have considerably less patience for stories that don't hook me after a reasonable amount of time.

So I gave "Mad Men" six episodes. Is that fair? I'd like to think so - six hours is more than enough to present one of the two things I need in order to stay invested in a narrative: interesting characters or an entertaining story. (Years of substandard television have taught me never to expect both at the same time, but to be highly appreciative if they do show up hand-in-hand.)

Part of the problem may be hype backlash - more than any series I'm currently aware of, "Mad Men" has gained near-unanimous praise from critics and viewers alike. And yet, the one word that springs to mind when I try to describe this series is "joyless": taking into account that the whole point seems to be ridding its viewers of any nostalgic idealization of the period, there just isn't any fun to be had here.

It's the story of an ad agency, at a time when advertising was on the cusp of transforming into what it is now. And the entire cast is deeply screwed up, somewhere between Jackie Peyton and Nancy Botwin on the Arkham Asylum Scale of Batshit Lunacy.

Except that with Jackie and Nancy (and Tara Gregson, and Dexter Morgan, and Abed Nadir) there's so much more to the characters than just their idiosyncratic craziness. Dexter has his sardonic narration, Nancy has her equally crazy family and so on. With "Mad Men", there's no getting away from all these unhappy people being unhappy. There's no humor, no adventure, nothing but a sense of gravitas so immense and overwhelming I can practically feel myself being pulled towards the screen. For example: watching Pete squirm in episode 4 probably would've been gratifying if I found Roger or Don to be even mildly likeable. But of course, they're as miserable as everyone else.

On a final note, I don't think this problem has anything at all to do with the writing per se - the dialogue is crisp, story developments make sense, and there's enough characterization to give me a fair-to-decent grasp of the main cast in a relatively short amount of time. It's a well-told story, but that story doesn't appeal to me as a viewer. And while it's entirely possible that the atmosphere becomes a bit more balanced at some later point, I'm not going to drag myself through the depths of abyssal angst to get there.

A Few Words on Comics

Yes, stop the presses, Diana has something to say about the funnybooks again.

I'm at a point where my monthly reading list is down to almost nothing: I've got Mike Carey's "X-Men: Legacy", "Fables" and "Jack of Fables", and Peter David's "X-Factor", and to be quite honest, I could probably drop the latter three without feeling too badly. It's been a year, almost down to the day, since I quit the Savage Critics out of sheer apathy for the mainstream. I don't even bother with the news websites anymore.

In short, I've lost faith in comics. There was a time, not too long ago, where it seemed like a more mature, sophisticated kind of storytelling was on the rise; talented and unorthodox writers were pulling various properties out of stagnation and telling new, interesting stories. Instead, the past six or seven years have been spent in rapid regression across the board, with Marvel and DC degenerating into a distressingly-warped fraternity mindset that panders not to its audience but to itself. I've seen instances of bad judgment that utterly confound me: Batman pissing himself, Spider-Man selling his wife to Satan, Superman reconnecting with America by walking around, rage kitties, radioactive sperm, costumes with spikes on the inside, and more contrived writer's fiat than the Bible.

The days of "X-Statix", "Runaways" and "Alias" are long gone.

But every once in a while, I get curious and pick up a new miniseries, just to see what's being done. Nine times out of ten I find nothing of interest, but sometimes I catch a real gem like "The Umbrella Academy" or "Iron Man: Noir". It's worth the effort.

This week I picked up the second issue of "Neonomicon", written by Alan Moore.

Now, I have a complicated relationship with the works of Alan Moore. On the one hand, his stories have changed the way I perceive comics - and I'm not just referring to the obvious ones. No, I'm talking about "Miracleman", "The Ballad of Halo Jones", "Top 10" - stories that have nowhere near the level of recognition you'd find for "Watchmen" or "V For Vendetta", but are powerful and brilliant works nevertheless. On the other hand, it's no secret that Moore's apparently gone mad, content to publish lesbian slashfic and utterly impenetrable odes to Victorian literature.

I should also note that "Neonomicon" is published by Avatar, which I'll admit should've set off some warning bells. But still, I thought, it's Alan Moore. Surely he's got something clever up his sleeve - or at the very least, something worth reading.

What I found was a nonsense plot that aims for Lovecraft and hits Uwe Boll, concluding with a horrific gang-rape scene that goes on and on for five pages. It's explicit, it's vile, it's gratuitous, it's something Garth Ennis would've claimed as his own with great beaming pride.

Brought to you by Alan Moore.

The fact that I find myself physically disgusted by the work of a creator I once idolized is rather depressing. The thought that I can no longer distinguish between an Alan Moore story and a Garth Ennis story seems even worse. Like a death knell for... not the glory days per se, but the hope that the glory days could come around again. Instead, the old titans have gone mad and their replacements are puerile twats, and right now, as I desperately struggle to forget this awful, awful book, I can't help but feel like it's just one more justification to be done with the mainstream once and for all.