Bioshock Infinite: A Few Thoughts

bioshock-infinite-logoLast week I finished Bioshock Infinite. I’m not a first-person-shooter fan, or even a fan of the Bioshock games. My water phobia knocked me out of the original Bioshock when I entered a tunnel with a leak that slowly filled up with water, and I couldn’t advance without freaking out. I’ve picked up the important parts of Bioshock since then — I know what “A man chooses, a slave obeys” means — and I’d been watching Infinite for a while because I knew that Bioshock was a really good game, and I don’t have a thing about the sky like I do the ocean.

I’m also not a regular player of first-person-shooters, which is to say that I’ve played two FPS games since Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. For the record, I thought Resistance: Fall of Man was a damn good time, bought the sequel when it came out, and never played it. And so it goes.

When Bioshock Infinite got a ton of perfect scores from reviewers, I decided to try it out. I liked it, but not as much as they did. I don’t think they were wrong, which is a sentiment I have seen crop up around the internet as of late. There are things in Bioshock that really got me, especially the ending, but there are parts that just didn’t go that great for me. Throughout this, I’m going to compare Infinite to Dishonored, which might not be very fair to either of them, but the comparison came to mind early and often for me.

Columbia

I honeymooned in Disneyworld in 2008. There are three folders on my computer full of pictures from my trips to the Magic Kingdom, of dancers in Epcot, of animals wandering the miniature savannah at the Animal Kingdom, or Lego sculptures and bassoonists in Downtown Disney. There are pictures of every country represented in Epcot, of an ambulatory trash can following me around the park, of my wife and I hugging Minnie and Mickey at the end of our time in the park. I used my camera as a kind of anchor, something to prove to myself that I spent a week and a half in this place that never felt quite real, a place that honestly did feel magical and wonderful.

I took a lot of pictures in Columbia.

I’m celebrating my fifth anniversary this fall in Disneyworld. Lately I’ve been looking at satellite photos of Disneyworld on Google Maps, and I’m amazed at how well the parks are laid out. There can be a few feet and a fence separating the park-goer from the employee parking lot, from the rows of trucks that handle the equipment, and you never know. The parks are constructed in such a way that you forget you’re even in an amusement park, and the reality of the park becomes your actual reality. It’s incredible.

I tried to open a lot of fake doors in Columbia.

It felt like a Disney park, which probably means it succeeded. But I think I wanted more. I wanted more of the game to be about this incredible floating city in the sky, and I wanted to interact with it and come to know it more than I did. I don’t feel I came to know Columbia like I did Dunwall in Dishonored. I know that here I’m comparing games that are different genres, that I shouldn’t expect the same level design and verticality in a first-person shooter as I would in a Thief-like game, where they have to build multiple routes through the same area. But I wanted to spend more time in Columbia.

Skulking about the shadows of Dunwall, slipping in and out of multiple buildings, listening to the Heart’s whispers in my ear, hiding in shadows and listening to people talk to each other, I cam eto know Dunwall. Dunwall became a character in that game, and probably the best character in that game. Journals, diaries, bits of story picked up here and there, the world itself changing in accordance with my actions. The curious nature of the world built into the game itself, with the in-universe distrust of the charms, the plague being a constant force hanging over the game, all that came together to really make Dunwall a real place.

Columbia felt close, but everything too big, too garish, too loud, and then too brief. I could walk around the opening of that game for hours, and probably will load up that first level a few more times, just to see Columbia again. It’s an incredible theme park (right down to the roller coaster skyhook rails around the shooting galleries), but I kept pushing it for something it wasn’t going to be.

Violence

The first act of violence in Columbia is Booker DeWitt grabbing a man by the head and shoving his face into a rotating metal hook. It was deliberately chosen to be harsh and brutal to be in stark contrast to this pristine floating utopia. It was horrifying, as it should have been. I looked away.

Later acts of regular violence include burning a man’s flesh off of his body, sending enough voltage through a man’s body to pop his head off of his shoulders where it then detonates, taking over a man’s mind and making him kill his friends and then himself, cutting a man’s head off with a regular swing from your own rotating skyhook, shoving that same hook into a guard’s face while you hold him still as one of the game’s “execution” moves, a murder of crowd tearing a man to ribbons, and slicing a man’s face off, leaving a bloody hole in the middle of his head.

I played Infinite either at extreme range with the machine gun or the sniper rifle, or recklessly with the Charge vigor, filling my screen with as much noise as possible to distract myself from the gore. I understand the thematic reasons for having a violent scene like the first. I have a harder time justifying intense violence in games, just for myself. Had there been a toggle for reduced violence — the game has a 1999 mode for increased challenge, you could come up with another catchy name for a version that keeps faces attached to heads — I would have had a much better time with it.

Dishonored had violence – plenty of it, in fact. But I could play that game through in a nonlethal manner, which I did, so I never saw any of the violence. That’s even better than a blood toggle, as the game world built itself around my choice there to not kill anyone. Not every game can do that. Not every game wants to do that. That’s fine. But it still leads to me favoring Dishonored’s approach to the matter.

This is incredibly personal and subjective, and I’m not calling for all games to be made less violent. But I would like the choice.

Shooting

90% of my interaction with Columbia is shooting people. The other 10% is picking up audio logs and telling Elizabeth to open tears or locks.

I wish this game had been more. That’s probably on me — I can’t rightfully ding a game for succeeding at something that it’s not trying to be. But when the story is working, when you’re unraveling the mysteries behind the tears, when you’re wandering through that magical opening, and when you’re trying to make sense of the insane ending, Bioshock Infinite is up there with the best games I’ve ever played.

Just not as much during all the “game” parts.

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(Incredibly) Early Impressions Of The Bonehunters

I picked up The Bonehunters, by Steven Erikson, at the library over the weekend. I try not to judge a book by its cover very often, so instead I’m going to judge this one by the first 50 pages. That’s better, right?

Within three minutes of picking up the book, a 15-letter word with an apostrophe in the middle assaulted me. Surrounding this word were multiple other apostrophe-laden words, most of them places, some of them people, all of them confusing. These words dominated the first few pages, and then left, presumably never to return.

I have a thing about apostrophes. I hate them. I hate them and everything they represent in my history of reading fantasy writing. Superfluous apostrophes are lazy Elven gibberish meant to make names sound exotic, foreign, and Elven again. Is that what they are doing here? I have no idea, honestly, I’m only 50 pages in, but I cringe every time I see a fantasy word with an apostrophe somewhere in the middle.

Why did I presume I’d never see those words again? Because, fifty pages into this book, I have changed viewpoint characters and scenes about seven times, and I have yet to return to the same character. These characters are introduced rapid fire, little to nothing said about their backstories or even their appearances, and then they are gone, leaving me flailing in a desperate attempt to figure out who that was and if it was important.

I do know their names. In fact, I know the names of everything, though I would be lying to say I remember a single one of them. The first four pages of the book are maps, covered in place names. The four pages after that are all names, names of people with a few-word descriptor after them. I do not believe I am exaggerating when I say that there are at least a hundred names on those pages. I haven’t counted, because I’m honestly still kind of stunned. Most of the scene breaks start with City, taken by Army in Year, from Army who had held it since Age through Age and Age, with a little bit of This and a whole lot of That and Whatnot and now here’s Dude, son of Dude, friend of Dude and Dude, and it goes on like this. And then they are gone and I have no idea if it’s important or not.

I’m going to read this for at least twenty more pages, as I have adopted the 100-age page count system for when to give up on a book. But I don’t expect to keep reading this after that.

It has come to my attention, thanks to reading Wikipedia, that this is book six of a series. My copy says nothing about that, anywhere on the cover or in the first few pages. I couldn’t even get a list of his other books to figure it out on my own, so I thought it might be like Discworld, where there’s an order but you can really read them by themselves as they’re all stand-alone. That still might be the case, but this is as bad an opening as I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Music In 4d4 Time

One-Winged Angel. Dancing Mad. The Extreme. Clash On The Big Bridge. Vamo Alla Flamenco. Chocobo. Esper Battle. Final Fantasy is a series defined by its music as much as anything else, to the point where a chief complaint many had with Final Fantasy XIII is that it had no crystal theme or victory fanfare. When you load up a Final Fantasy game, you expect incredible music from start to finish, and anything less than that is unacceptable.

That is an expectation I placed on myself when I started running my d20 Final Fantasy game back in 2003, and while I don’t know if I’ve succeeded thus far, no one can accuse me of not trying.

As of this second week of February 2012, we have had 235 formal sessions of Final Fantasy Omega, with probably another 25 or so uncategorized solo sessions that didn’t get an official number on them. In those 250+ sessions I have played 546 unique tracks of music, according to my sounds directory. At least 60 of those are recordings I did for the big arena tournament, because there is always a tournament in Final Fantasy games, and I felt compelled to record myself giving professional wrestling-esque introductions for every team and person competing. If I had any shame, that could have been embarrassing.

What started as a way to make my players excited when they used big attacks, like playing their character’s theme song when they hit their limit break, evolved into something a lot more detailed than I ever anticipated. The party members have their own musical cues and themes beyond their one theme song. For instance, summoner Naoko Kyuudou’s theme song is Ryoshima Plains from Okami, mixed so part 1 leads quickly into part 2’s drums. Okami’s soundtrack has a very strong Japanese feel to it, signature flute and strings over staccato beats and a bunch of other instruments that I would recognize instantly but could not begin to name. I’ve used other pieces of music from Okami for important things to Naoko — a few of her summons have music from Okami, as does her uncle, an important NPC (not EVERY character has their own theme music, it just feels like that). I now follow Rei Kondoh to find more work she’s done, so I can mine from those soundtracks for more Naoko-specific plot ideas.

Another character has an acoustic-guitar focus, from when he picked Bur Said by Cusco as the theme for his abandoned home. I’ve used that a time or two since. Another has a growing focus on the militaristic drums and rising strings of Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his work in Final Fantasy XII and Valkyria Chronicles. The first character there has a piece of music done by Hitoshi Sakimoto with acoustic guitar, and it is the theme for the closest thing they have in common.

I have built a villain solely around Liberi Fatali, the opening theme from Final Fantasy VIII, and the dozen or so versions I have of it from official releases, covers, and remixes tracked down online. One single aspect of my main villain is built around the soundtrack to NieR, the most captivating music I’ve heard in a game in the last five years, because the otherworldly vocals fit that mood perfectly.

My players don’t have the same ear for video game soundtracks that I do, because they’re not insane. But I know I’ve done a good job with music when I can slightly modify a theme and get private messages from all three of them going “Oh shit what have we done?!”

The best gift a player can give his GM is crippling fear and abject terror, and if I have to mix Powder with Gangrel’s WWF theme music to make the theme for Anima to get that fear, I will. Because when it works, when I can set a song playing and see all three of them scrambling to find a way out of the immediate area, that means I’ve done my job well.

And they hate me for it.

Dododododooododododooo.

Popular Anarchy: Tools of the Trade

I first got interested in writing in high school. I had an assignment to write something creative for my ninth grade English class, and I wrote a short story where my English teacher hunted down and killed every member of our class for various reasons. I think I died because I thought I was witty, yet was sorely mistaken. This story got me an A, the adoration of my teacher, and a trip to the guidance counselor. If I wrote that story today I imagine I’d be suspended and the teacher would be fired, so I’m glad that didn’t happen, Mrs. Jones! I hope you are doing well.

I still remember writing that story, sitting in my bedroom and typing away on a computer made sometime in the 1700s, using whatever text editor was available on Windows 3.1, typing in Arial font and trying to figure out what was happening whenever I used the world “I’ll” in a sentence. The computer I have now could probably load a few thousand instances of that program side by side while playing Skyrim with no slowdown, but I’m not posting this afternoon to talk about how old I am (29) or how easy kids today have things (so easy). I’m posting to talk about how I write, which is basically unchanged from that freshman high school assignment.

Popular Anarchy was written using Google Docs, mostlly because I can access my files from work, desktop, and laptop. Most of my writing has happened on lunch breaks and before work, though I’ve pushed some nights to midnight or later because the scene is working and stopping it would be silly. I know there are programs that are supposed to be of great help to writers — Scrivener is one that I hear a lot about from my friends — but I don’t really understand what those changes would be. I imagine once I actually sit down with the program I’ll wonder how I ever got by without it, just like how I felt with Google Docs after I stopped emailing Wordpad files back and forth to myself whenever I wanted to work on something.

Editing Popular Anarchy has been much more difficult. My preferred method of editing is to print the document out and make notes by hand, but every printer I have ever owned has died within a month and I don’t think I can get away with printing 120,000 words of novel out at my office. Crocodoc worked pretty well in theory, but in practice updates kept crashing my browsers and made editing much more of a chore than it needed to be. I took to editing with two pages open, with the story in one window and my notes on the other. It did not go well. I’m still not pleased with the editing, and if anyone has a better solution I’d love to hear it.

I’ve always been interested in how everyone actually writes. My wife writes longhand and transfers it to the PC once she’s done. Another friend of mine doesn’t sit down to write until he knows he’s ready to do the final project, and doesn’t write first drafts or big outlines, just the final story itself. My editor writes via typewriter and mails me my stories marked up with red ink with a handwritten note explaining that he doesn’t hate me. Another friend of mine writes on his laptop after disabling his wireless connection so he’s free from distraction. I can see the appeal of that last part; I remember looking up the official names of parts of a sword one afternoon and finding myself reading up on the history of Pac-Man less than an hour later. It’s not even that interesting. Wikipedia just does that to you.

While trying to find an image for this post (so many words!) I went on Wikipedia to look at “writing” and see what they have. I’m already on Sting’s page by way of Botticelli’s painting of St. Augustine writing. I’m just closing the browser now before somebody gets hurt. No image!

Worldbuilding And The Art Of Careful Appropriation

So I wrote a book. It’s called Popular Anarchy. I’m going to talk about it now.

The title itself is something I came up with as an angry teenager about twelve years ago. As most small-town teenagers with big dreams and an even bigger ego, I wanted nothing more than to get away from the idiots and the sheeple, man. I don’t know what perceived injustice I was railing against when the title hit me, but I kept it with me for a long time after that, wanting to do something with it. I had a few false starts over the years, but two years ago I finally sat down and started ironing something out.

As you’ll see elsewhere on the site (eventually), I run a homebrew d20 roleplaying game every week for my friends. It started seven years ago and has run ever since (January 2012 at the time of this post), minus a two-year gap in the middle where I burnt myself out on gaming and didn’t want to work on it anymore. It’s Final Fantasy, which makes me the King of All Dorks, but it’s fun, and it’s an original world that I built myself, in the FF tradition.

I was considering running a followup to that game back before it ran for 200+ sessions, and I started creating a world in which to place that game; a high fantasy world with multiple nations and races, a world that skipped the industrial revolution and instead had a magical revolution, a world with an actual reason for airships and passenger trains to exist, a world where I could have swords, sidearms, and sorcery side by side. And other things that begin with the letter s. Long story short, I decided not to run a Final Fantasy game in this world, but I did decide to do something with the idea. I took the Final Fantasy out of the world, removing moogles, tonberries, Ronso, Espers, and blatant references to four warriors of light and other in-jokes like that. In their place, I started worldbuilding.

Someone once said that there are no new ideas in writing. Every good idea has already happened, and now we’re all just writing the same story in different ways. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I did see some hints of that in my worldbuilding. For instance, the first thing I did was take one of the races I wanted to use in the Final Fantasy game, tonberries. I changed them from green to blue.

Completely original! No one will ever crack that code.

But that’s only the start. The next step is to take a look at what makes a tonberry a tonberry. (Slow speed, nightlights, and a penchant for stabbing.) Now I have to modify each of those in such a way that it’s no longer a tonberry and is, instead, something original. Once you get going, it gets easier. Instead of being a primarily physical race, I change them to be magical. From that idea comes a strict class system based around what kind of magic each one uses, a set of Houses that then corresponds to all of their society, and from there I’m sketching out a brief history of what caused the class separation to begin in the first place. In that sketch is the founding of their capital city, which leads into the design of their city, which leads to their need to trade with another race to bring in enough goods to make their country viable for long-term settlement by their people, which leads to a myth about what would happen if they were ever to abandon their home, which leads to…

Not every idea springs fully-formed from someone’s head like a literary Athena. Sometimes it starts as small as a blue tonberry. There’s no shame in that.

Plus, if Blizzard can get away with Zerg vs. Tyranids, I’ve got nothing to worry about.