Friday, August 21, 2015

Fantastic Four movies, Doctor Doom and Impossible things

In the past few weeks, the newest Fantastic Four movie came out.  While I haven't seen the film yet, my understanding is that was disappointingly horrendous, made doubly upsetting by where we are culture-wise when it comes to superhero movies.  Up until Fantastic Four, I believed that Hollywood had gotten to a point where current gen superhero movies (2008-now) were like pizza:  Meaning they're FANTASTIC when they're good and still pretty enjoyable when they're 'bad'.  However, the behind-the-scenes fiasco and poor quality of Fan4stic is not what I'd like to talk about today.

I'd like to talk about Doctor Doom.

Doctor Doom is one of the most feared villains in the Marvel Comics Universe.  Originally the arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four, Victor Von Doom's ambition and wickedness is boundless to the point where I feel that he's almost wasted upon the Fantastic Four.  He's the ruler of the country of Latveria, a mad scientist on the same level as Tony Stark or Reed Richards and one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world.  He is also one of my absolute favorite supervillains ever.

I explain this to you, dear reader, because if you have seen the films but are unfamiliar to the comics, this information would be lost upon you.  The Fantastic Four films (Both the 2004 one and the apparently worse 2015 one) have forgone Doom being a mad scientist wizard dictator and made him.....a guy that shoots lightning and a glowstick man?

Pictured Above: Two People Doctor Doom could mop the floor with.
While the treatment of Doctor Doom by Hollywood is disappointing, it is hardly surprising if you understand how Hollywood scriptwriting (or rather, the scriptwriting business) works.  In any sort of professional writing book, workshop or class, you are taught a specific rule.  In Blake Snyder's fantastic book Save the Cat it is referred to as "Double Mumbo Jumbo", but it was taught to me as the rule of "One Impossible Thing".  The rule states that in order to keep audiences from getting wildly confused, every movie is only allowed 'one impossible thing' in their plot, which usually ends up being a driving force in the film.  For example, let's look at the popular sci-fi movie Men in Black, where a super secret organization defends the Earth from extraterrestrial threats.  The existence of aliens in Men in Black is our one impossible thing.  If the Men in Black dealt with demons, werewolves and zombies as well as aliens, the studio would have deemed it too confusing for audiences and wouldn't have gone with the script (despite the fact the comic Men in Black is loosely based on has them dealing with all those threats and more.)

Now, the Rule of 'One Impossible Thing' is by no means gospel.  The Avengers has numerous impossible things and was a smash hit.  However, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an entirely different animal.  Each 'impossible thing' (i.e: the Avengers themselves) had their own film that established them in their collective universe, and most movies (especially Fant4stic, if the stories about pre-production are true) don't have that kind of time or budget.  So the rule of 'One Impossible Thing' remains in effect.

Now with that knowledge, look at Doctor Doom.  As a dictator of his own country, a mad scientist who builds near perfect robotic replications of himself constantly AND one of the most powerful sorcerers on the planet, he is at least two impossible things in and of himself.  That's not even including the impossible thing that must be in any Fantastic Four movie: the cosmic rays/interdimensional phenomenon that give the Four their powers in the first place!  Thus, the awesomeness that is Doctor Doom gets lumped in with the same origin as Reed Richards and his friends, thus keeping both the 2005 film and the 2015 film down to One Impossible Thing.

So how can one translate Doom to the big screen with this limitation?  Well, I'm sure the people at Marvel Studios could whip something together if the property were to be sold back to them, but that's a best case scenario.  Assuming we are not tied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and STILL limited to One Impossible Thing, there are two big things we can do to make sure Doom is done right:

1) Put Victor in the movie, but not Doctor Doom. Pick Someone Else for the movie's villain

Doom is too precious a character to the fanbase to make into "the fifth wheel who turns evil".  The Four have numerous other villains who aren't Doctor Doom, so have one of them be the fifth person transformed by the cosmic rays (My suggestion for this position: Mole Man).  Doom can still be in the movie, but as the friend of Reed Richards and a scientist who helped them in their expedition to space/another dimension.  You could even have him design (or help Reed design) things like the Fantasticar.  Certainly show Doom's darker side, but at a time when it had yet to develop into full blown supervillainy, perhaps due to the influence of Reed.

2) In the movie's third act, have Doom suffer a terrible fate.

Perhaps in the final battle with Mole Man, have Victor Von Doom supposedly die in the explosion caused by the destruction of Mole Man's world conquering machine.  Maybe have him and Sue Storm fall from the Fantasticar during the final escape, and Reed only has time to save one.  I could list scenarios for days, but the important thing is to make the Four believe that Victor died in the final fight.  You can even hint at his survival in the post-credit scene, because.....

3) You have the sequel focus on Victor becoming Doctor Doom

With the sequel of any film, the Impossible Thing counter is reset.  The Impossible Thing from the previous film is now possible (obviously) so a new impossible thing needs to set the plot going in this one.  Have it be Doom's magical abilities, since his super science will have been established in the first film.  Have the film be about him amassing a force in his homeland of Latveria, using his scientific knowledge and newly learned magic to conquer and rule his homeland.  Of course, the Fantastic Four will find out about a dangerous rebellion in Latveria (probably learning it from the US government) and be asked to intervene.  You can even have a whole "Magic vs. Science" thing going on in the dialogue involving Mr. Fantastic, one of the best scientists in the Marvel universe.  The main focus though, will be on the origin of Marvel's greatest supervillain.

Obviously, this is not enough to make an entire movie off of, and I'm sure a writer better versed in the Fantastic Four could probably come up with an even better idea for a movie.  This is just my observations on why my favorite comic book characters cannot be translated to cinema and how he might better be put onto the big screen.  If you have a better idea for putting Doctor Doom into the movies, I'd love to hear it.  Until then, this is the best idea I got.  And from what I've heard, it's a hell of a lot better than the newest Fantastic Four movie.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Witcher, Race, Fantasy Worlds and Other Controversial Things

Wow, it's been a while since I wrote here.  I'm going to make a conscious attempt to update this more regularly.

Anyway, recently the game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was released, with rave reviews from nearly everyone.  However, the website Polygon also published an editorial criticizing the video game's lack of characters who aren't white (I've yet to play the game, but to the best of my knowledge the only nonwhite character is a succubus).  The article isn't exactly starting a witch hunt over race here, in fact it continues to praise the game.  It's basically saying "Hey!  This is an awesome game and I love playing it.  But for the next one, how about a more diverse set of characters?  That'd be even cooler!!"  Naturally, this reasonable criticism of a video game met with the usual metric ton of vitriol and hatred that has come to be expected on the Internet.

While I'm all for more diverse characters in video games, I chose to listen to a few arguments to why the world of The Witcher should remain whiter than a snowman's coke habit.  I heard a lot of pretty silly one's about historical context, but one had a rather interesting point to make.  The Witcher was based on the stories of Andrzej Sapkowski, which in turn were based on Polish mythology.  Long story short, the argument was that because Polish mythology involved white people, so should these video games.

This brings up an interesting point:  should a game attempt to be diverse if the subject matter involves regionally based mythology?  The inclusion of  (for example) white people in a Prince of Persia game wouldn't make any sense,  and while the God of War series has included people from Persia (as little more than people for Kratos to slaughter, but that's to be expected), it wouldn't make sense for Native American characters to suddenly show up in the middle of ancient Greece.

This would solve the issue with race in The Witcher 3......if it was regionally based mythology.

To the best of my knowledge, the world explored by Geralt in his games is NOT Poland.  It is a unique world based on the legends of Poland, much in the same way Marvel comic's Thor is based on Norse myth.  While there are certainly many things taken from Nordic myth (probably more things than The Witcher has from Polish myth), that did not stop the casting of Idris Elba as Hiemdall or Tadanobu Asano as Hogun the Grim.  The inspiration for The Witcher need not prevent the guys over at Projekt Red from including a more diverse cast, especially when the game setting covers an ENTIRE world rather than a single country.

This issue of race also brings up interesting issues about other fantasy settings.  Lord of the Rings is strongly inspired by Slavic myth, and while it's silly to ask for a diverse cast from a book written in the 30's, is that an excuse for Peter Jackson's films?  I've often said that because LOTR is such a coveted fantasy world among fans and LITERALLY the first example of modern fantasy, it gets a free pass in terms of race.  Now, I'm not so sure.

We can also look at the world of Rokugan in The Legend of the Five Rings RPG and CCG setting.  Rokugan is heavily based on Japanese mythology (with a little bit of Greek myth thrown into it's creation myth), and to the best of my knowledge is only populated by 'Asian' people.  Does Rokugan get a free diversity pass because Asians are less represented than white people?  A similar argument can be made for Poland, who've had a rough history to say the least.  Are they truly any more represented in video games than Asian Americans due to the color of their skin?

These are just a few of the things I've thought about since this controversy involving The Witcher was brought up.  I don't really answer these questions because I don't know the answer.  In the end, it's up to Projekt Red if they want The Witcher 4 or future DLC to include nonwhite characters.  As long as they know that many of their fans would appreciate this attempt at diversity, I think myself and the writers at Polygon have done their job.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What I'm Trying to Say: A response to Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn and all the Crazy happening out there

I wrote this for a post in a Facebook group I was a part of.  We were having a discussion about the recent events in the gaming world, and admittedly I was getting a little flustered in my discussion.  the comments were coming at a mile a minute, and it was hard to keep up, plus I am absolutely livid about the subject.  Eventually, a member of the group told me to stop, take a deep breath and told me to type out what I wanted to say.  This is my response.

I'm saying that none of this should be happening.

I'm saying that Anita should be allowed to express her poorly researched opinion without fearing to sleep in her own house.

I'm saying that despite the poorly researched videos, there is rampart sexism in the gaming industry.  I'm saying that even with her poorly researched points, she makes me want to see video games do better.  I watch her videos and I wanna see games that refuse to rely on the tired tropes that she brings up (poorly researched or not, these tropes exist).  And I'm saying that even if I found absolutely NOTHING of value in Anita's criticism, she should be able to exist in the same world as ANY shitty gaming critic without idiots harassing her on a nigh constant basis.

I'm saying that I'm angry that this whole thing is making the video game community look like a bunch of immature brats who are acting like they're being forced to let a girl into their clubhouse.  I'm angry that people constantly bring up how Sarkeesian's videos suck, that's supposed to be some sort of magical excuse that suddenly makes all this abuse seem fine.  I'm angry that an indie dev's slut shaming is being exposed as 'corruption' when actual corruption is happening in the game industry at a corporate level.  I'm angry that Phil Fish can take up a stance in defense of someone like Zoe Quinn, and then gets his entire website hacked in response.  I'm angry that Phil Fish (a developer I really enjoy despite his questionable antics) is not only completely giving up on video games, but is telling people who WANT to get into video games to completely give up because it's not worth the legions of neckbeards spewing constant bile.  A talented, successful indie developer has gotten to the point where he said that despite all his game's success, it's NOT WORTH IT.  That is absolutely heartbreaking.

But most of all, I'm angry about people like me.  People who WANT to try their hands at video games, but are scared because of the vocal minority scaring them off.  Can you imagine how many Phil Fish's, Tim Schafers, or hell, Shigeru Miyamotos we've lost because they, like Fish, think that it's not worth all the hate?  I firmly believe that video games are an art, and every person has their own artistic vision no matter what the medium.  Because of this awful awful ordeal, there could be dozens (maybe hundreds) of artistic visions we will never see.  Because a bunch of assholes didn't like someone criticizing their hobby.

Sarkeesian may have issues with her web series, but I'd rather stand up for a sub-par video about feminism than ANYWHERE NEAR the assholes standing against her.  Because if the trolls/neckbeards/MRAs win, then more talented people will think like Phil Fish and decide "It's not worth it".  And we could lose the next generation of great game devs and artists, both male and female.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Movie Review: God's Not Dead

Thus far on my blog, I have been pretty kind to the films, video games and tabletop RPGs I have reviewed.  This is mainly because I'd rather tell you about the things I like over ranting about something I don't.  I feel it's more important to make sure you learn about the things that I think are  awesome, so you can go out and experience the same things.  However, occasionally something passes by me that I feel deep in my heart of hearts must be criticized, even if I probably will not like it.  And given the popularity of the film God's Not Dead, I felt I owed it to myself to watch the polarized movie.

I will be doing this blog entry a bit differently.  Rather than writing it after I watch a film, I will be typing it free form as I watch the film, edit it for the viewers and then post it.  For the sake of being far, I will try to remain as neutral as possible in the ultimate theological discussion of Christianity/Atheism or whatever.  I have not mentioned my religious beliefs on this blog, nor do I plan to.  Though I will start by saying that my opinion on 90% of Christian media is rather negative.  This isn't because I hate religion, mind you.  It's mainly because 90% of Christian media sucks.  Religion has inspired many art, plays, literature and other great things, but the nauseatingly repetitive genre of Christian Rock isn't one of them.  However, I promise I will give this movie a chance.

So here we go.  Here's your SPOILER ALERT!!!


00:00-00:28: The film opens up introducing Josh Wheaton, a college freshman starting his first semester, which he appears to be attending with his girlfriend.  It also introduces an exchange student from China, a Muslim girl whose father makes her wear a hijab which she takes off when he's not looking, a reporter dating/married to a big businessman (played by Dean Cain), and another woman who's mother has Alzheimer.  You'll notice that I don't name the other characters, it's because honestly at this point I don't know their names.  The movie introduces all these characters so fast that you barely have any time to learn anything about them.  The Chinese kid and the Muslim girl thus far have only had two scenes each.  I don't mind movies that have multiple stories that somehow interconnect, but so far I feel like it would have better served the film to just focus on Josh Wheaton's story (which is what I'll be doing right now).

Josh is taking a philosophy class being taught by a professor played by Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules fame).  At this point in the film, Sorbo's character only has two defining traits: he's an atheist and an asshole.  He begins the first class by making all his students sign a paper which says that God is Dead in an attempt not to waste time on theological discussions,.  A bit unrealistic for a man who specializes in teaching the study of great thinkers to write off numerous Theist philosophers, but whatever.  Josh, being a Christian, refuses to sign the paper.  Which leads to Prof. Hercules saying that he must prove that God's Not Dead (see what they did there?) in their next three classes, giving him twenty minutes at the end of each class to speak to the class about it.  If he cannot, he fails the class.  Josh accepts the challenge, despite the fact that his girlfriend doesn't want him to (saying that failing the class could keep him from getting into law school).

That's where I am when I decided to start writing.  Moving on.

00:28:  Ms. Ryan, the reporter (who appears to be atheist due to her interview with one of the Duck Dynasty guys) is receiving news from her doctor that she has cancer, but keeps stopping him when her phone rings.  I'm starting to see a pattern here with how the movie portrays atheists, and there's a big problem there.  Thus far I have met two atheists, and they both seem to be rude assholes.  I know plenty of atheists who are rude assholes, but I also know many Christians who are rude assholes.  My assumption was that this movie was trying to establish a dialogue between Atheists and Theists, but demonizing one group is not the correct way to do it.

Oh, apparently Ms. Ryan is too busy for cancer.  Chasing down Duck Dynasty stars and snidely insulting them seems to take up a lot of her time, apparently.  Seriously, who wrote this....

00:32:  Josh's girlfriend of six years is upset that he is 'wasting time' proving his faith, saying that it could cause him to lose focus on other classes and ruin their future together.  I already hate Girlfriend.  She seems clingy, controlling and manipulative.  They're most likely going to break up at some point in this film, but here's hoping they don't get back together.  For Josh's sake.  He seems like a good guy (meaning he hasn't given me a reason not to like him).

Cut to Prof. Hercules teaching his class, ending his lecture by declaring God a celestial dictator and calling Theists 'flat earthers' in his smarmy sarcastic tone. Josh begins Day 1 of this crazy assignment by stating that the Bible was right about the Big Bang Theory, while before scientists believed in a constant universe.  Not exactly hard evidence in the existence of God, but I like Josh so I'll let it slide.  Professor Hercules does not though, and is smirking and shaking his head through the whole lecture.  He then proceeds to name drop Stephen Hawking, talking down to this poor kid that he plans to fail, then threatens him after class to destroy any hope he may have of a law degree.  This isn't common behavior of an atheist.  This isn't common behavior of a professor. This is what Dick Dastardly would be if the other Wacky Racers were deities.

00:43:  Girlfriend is angry about Josh defending his faith and breaks up with Josh.  Josh proceeds to tell her off for being selfish.  Good for you, Josh.  She's no good for you anyway.

And Muslim Girl comes home and her little brother catches her listening to (GASP) the Bible on her iPod!!!!  This movie is starting to seem extremely mean spirited now.

Ms. Ryan tells her boyfriend (Business Superman, played by Dean Cain) that she has cancer.  He proceeds to be an asshole about it, saying that love doesn't really exist and getting mad at her and breaking up with her.  Right now I'm imagining a supervillain team up between Business Superman and Prof. Hercules.  So many thrown buses.....

00:53:  Ohhhhhhh, so the girl with the mom with dementia is Business Superman's sister.  *GASP* and she's dating Prof. Hercules!!!  M. Night Shayamalan has nothing on this twist!!   Again, all the atheist characters in this movie are missing are mustaches to twirl.  It's getting quite ridiculous.  Now he's got a bunch of professors over for a dinner party, all sipping wine and laughing at the stupid student who DARES believe in God!!!!

1:03:  Day 2 of Josh's scientific fight to prove God exists!  At this point I'd like to point out that any professor who's as big an asshole as Kevin Sorbo is portraying at this point would never have made tenure.  Josh refutes the Hawkings quote that Hercules gave on Day 1, quoting John Lennox.  He also claims that Darwinism was started and controlled by God.  He seems to be avoiding Creationist logic, which is good since Hercules would tear him apart like.....well, Hercules.

And in another after-class smug-off, Kevin Sorbo reveals that he knows the Bible as well, and supposedly gave up on his faith when his mother died of cancer when he was 12.  So.....he's not an atheist, but a Christian who's mad at God.

1:12:  Muslim Girl (named Aisha, I could swear this is the first time we've heard her name)'s secret Bible readings are found out by her father, who proceeds to beat her and kick her out of the house.  Again, this is a VERY mean spirited movie, and I would probably be offended if I was Muslim.  I'm kinda offended as a non-Muslim.

This is a pretty slow point in the film, so I'm going to point out how ridiculous it is to try and prove God exists.  Not because he doesn't, but because the very definition of faith is to believe something to be true despite having no evidence.  To quote God in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "Proof denies faith.  And without faith I am nothing."  Christians don't need to prove god exists or doesn't exist, that's the whole point of faith.

Anyway, Kevin Sorbo's girlfriend broke up with him.

1:20:  Hercules claims to be changing things up for Day 3, which begins with Josh talking about how evil exists because God allows free will.  Oh jeez, now he's saying that without God, morality is unnecessary. I don't know if all Christians believe that, but it's a very scary thought if they truly do...

Hercules, after a 'heated' discussion, admits he hates God, which ends Josh's three class report.  Now the class must decide for themselves if he fails or not.

And the winner is.......JOSH!  BY A LANDSLIDE!!!!

*Wild Cheers*

1:30:  Buisness Superman is revealing that he's angry at God too for giving his mother dementia.  This movie has no atheists, just people angry at God!!!  Just a bunch of people who are assholes because something terrible happened in their lives!  You are not representing this group of people well, movie!!

Now Amy Ryans is sarcastically interviewing a Christian band (Because atheists can only speak in sarcasm, apparently).  She admits to the band she's dying of cancer, and reveals that she is actually hoping that God is real.

So we have THREE atheists in this movie who don't actually end up being atheists, just spiteful and angry.  I cannot express how terrible and ignorant a message like that is.  There are people out there who are aren't perpetually angry and sarcastic and don't believe in God.  I'm good friends with a few of them, and they do NOT think like this.  This is propaganda, and harmful propaganda at that.

1:40:  Holy Shit!  Kevin Sorbo just got hit by a car and is dying!!  A priest (who had his own sideplot involving a trip to Disneyworld through the whole movie, but I ignored talking about it cause it's the weakest part.  And that's saying a lot.) gives him a deathbed conversion.

So should the movie be called "God's not Dead.....but Hercules is"?

1:43: the Duck Dynasty guy is telling the people at this Christian Rock concert (where everyone is right now.....except Kevin Sorbo) to text everyone that "God's Not Dead".  Cause that's not going to annoy everyone on your contact list.  It looks like Josh might start a relationship with Aisha (Muslim Girl), although where she is now living I couldn't tell you.  Her storyline doesn't really have an ending besides "I listened to terrible Christian Rock, now it's better."

Everyone in the movie is getting the "God's Not Dead" text, including Kevin Sorbo (who let me remind you is DEAD!) and Dean Cain.

End of Film: .....That's it?  Does Aisha resolve things with her dad?  Does Dean Cain have a conversion too??  DOES THE PRIEST MAKE IT TO DISNEYWORLD OR WHAT?!?!?  This movie started five different plots and only ended one!!  God, I'm done with this....

Final Thoughts:  This movie is terrible on way too many levels.  Kevin Sorbo is kind of ok, but everyone else's acting is extremely wooden.  The dialogue couldn't be more cheesy if you sprinkled with parmesean, and most of the characters are either complete unlikable assholes or victims.  The only character I really liked was Josh, and that's because he was neither.  Only one of the many stories they start really has any sort of satisfying conclusion, and it involves the antagonist dying horribly in a random car accident and the protagonists unknowingly celebrating!

More importantly though, this movie is mean spirited propaganda.  I can't understand how this movie is enjoyable to so many people.  It's offensive to atheists, it's offensive to Muslims.....Heck, it's offensive to Christians!  It doesn't understand the people it's trying to demonize, and it perpetuates the myth that one of the largest organized religions in the world is being persecuted.  Hopefully in a decade or two (hopefully less) this will be put aside as offensive entertainment we're trying to forget right beside the racists caricatures that plagued early 20th century cartoons.

Don't see this.  It doesn't deserve your attention, and I'm sorry I gave it mine.

Final Final Thought:  Is it ironic that a man known for playing the greatest hero of a Pagan religion is starring in a film about Christianity?  Or is that just funny?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

If anything, the fact that this movie even exists shows how invincible Marvel feels they are now.  Here we have a film made up of superheroes who even hardcore comic book fans are unfamiliar with, built to be a colorful comedic affair over the grim n' gritty stylings of Man of Steel or The Dark Knight Rises, and given a budget rivaling some of the most expensive summer blockbusters.  While Warner Bros. is too terrified to come out of their shell and make a solo Wonder Woman movie, Marvel Studios is giving us a movie about a gun-wielding talking raccoon and his living tree sidekick going on adventures in space.  Let me repeat that:  Warner Bros. won't give one of their Holy Trinity of superheroes her own solo film while at the same time Marvel is making a film that, in concept, sounds like something a kindergartner would draw.  This.  Is.  Insane.
Ranting aside, Guardians of the Galaxy tells the story of  a ragtag group of space-faring rogues who come together after they're thrown in prison.  The main character is Peter Quill, a man who was abducted by aliens as a boy and has been trying to be a legendary space outlaw (dubbed Star Lord by himself) ever since.  While in prison, he meets a beautiful 'living weapon' named Gamora, a super strong tattooed alien named Drax, a talking gun-crazy talking raccoon named Rocket and his walking tree sidekick Groot.  The group at first wishes to obtain a mysterious sphere and sell it for an insanely large bounty, but quickly decide against it when they find out that it is actually a super weapon planned to be used by an alien zealot to destroy a populated planet.

Let's get the problems out of the way right away.  The plot is pretty bare bones.  It's not bad, but it's not going to be winning any awards for originality any time soon. Ronan the Accuser, the main villain, just seems like a generic lackey to Thanos and his motivations (while clearly explained) for destroying the planet Xandar could easily be mistaken for "evil for the sake of evil".

However, despite these flaws, I found the film to be better than The Avengers.  Yeah, I said it.

The bare-bones plot is almost entirely hidden by hilarious characters.  Rocket and Groot are hilarious right off the bat and Peter Quill truly feels like .  However, the show stealer is Drax, who comes from an alien race that takes everything literally.  This leads to numerous confusions involving metaphors and figures of speech, which would be lame in the hands of a lesser writer, but come off quite funny here.  Another show stealer in this movie is Doctor Who's own Karen Gillam, who plays Thanos's daughter Nebula.  Playing a dangerous alien warrior (essentially the mini-boss to Ronan the Accuser's end boss),  Karen shows an acting talent that surprised me (having only really seen her in Doctor Who) and I look forward to anything else she might be in after this film.

The visuals are also fantastic, using a wonderful combination of CGI and special effects makeup.  Rocket Raccoon and Groot both fit in amongst the 'real' actors and actresses almost seamlessly, and both major and minor aliens have gorgeous makeup effects.  The sets are also very well done, being very distinct and interesting in design.  My favorite area was Knowhere, a space colony built inside the skull of a long dead Celestial.  It all just looked cool and colorful, which is a wonderful change from a lot of summer blockbusters (such as the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film or last year's Man of Steel.)

Guardians of the Galaxy is what a summer movie should feel like:  loud, colorful and fun.  While it is certainly not perfect (no film truly is), it is highly enjoyable and easily one of my favorite films I've seen this year.  It understands that these characters are relatively unknown and manages to make them as unforgettable and lovable as any one of the Avengers.  Topped off with great special effects, awesome fight scenes and a post-credits scene that will blow the minds of even the most hardened of Marvel fans, Guardians is a movie that would be foolish for you to miss.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Video Game Review: Shovel Knight

Nostalgia is a tricky thing to nail down in a video game.  On one hand, relying on it too much will keep you from using new ideas and making your game unique.  On the other hand, it should be the goal of every video game developer to capture the feeling you had as a child when you sat down and experienced a game for the first time, to try and beat a game because it felt like a real adventure and you truly wanted to see what was coming next.

In my opinion, this is where Shovel Knight (a Kickstarter-funded game by Yacht Club Games) truly succeeds.  It truly makes you feel like you are a little kid, where beating every level in a game was not just a hobby, but a rewarding accomplishment.

You play as Shovel Knight, an adventurer who forsakes traditional weaponry to fight with a shovel.  Years before the start of the game, Shovel Knight's adventuring companion Shield Knight was lost when they tried taking a cursed amulet from the Tower of Fate.  Now Shovel Knight must return to his adventuring ways (after years of grieving) to fight a new force of darkness:  the Evil Enchantress and her band of rogue knights known as the Order of No Quarter.  The rest of the story is revealed through exploring and the brief dialogue between Shovel Knight, the villagers and the knights of the Order of No Quarter, and for a game that takes such a minimalist approach to storytelling, the plot of Shovel Knight is absolutely fantastic.  You'd be surprised how much you can learn about your hero, his enemies and how they relate to each other when you forsake pre-rendered cutscenes, voice actors and other elements that have become a staple in modern video games.

The game feels very original in design, despite borrowing elements from classic NES games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man, Legend of Zelda 2 and Duck Tales.  The game has an overworld map, which you unlock more of as you beat more members of the Order of No Quarter.  There are villages where you can buy power-ups for Shovel Knight, bonus levels to collect more treasure (usually which require a special item) and even "road bosses" in the same vein as the Hammer Bros. from SMB3.

Shovel Knight has two main attacks with his weapon of choice.  He can swing his shovel like a sword (or a shovel, I suppose) and he can do a mid-jump downward thrust/pogo stick jump almost identical to Scrooge McDuck's cane in Duck Tales.  Obviously, you can also dig with your shovel to uncover other treasures (or hidden monsters if you aren't careful).  All of these moves are useful, and the levels are built to make the player rely on them (especially the pogo stick attack) to advance to the boss.  Along the way, Shovel Knight will also collect relics to use with his limited supply of magic.  These relics aren't necessary to complete the game, but you'll need them to reach hidden areas and some of them are more than helpful in defeating the knights of the Order (The Phase Locket and the Troupple Chalice will be your best friends in this game).  It creates a great reason to explore and re-explore the game's levels and it's really rewarding to experiment with items until you find one that gives you the upper hand against a tough boss.

My favorite element of the game is the character design.  The villagers (a mix between normal humans and animal people) all have a unique look to them and even the shopkeepers all have their own personalities to them.  Each level also has a unique set of enemies, and even the 'color swap' enemies have a unique attack or element to them (such as the exploding green 'plague rats' or the different colored 'knight' enemies you find in each level).

However, some of my favorite characters are the Knights of the Order of No Quarter.  Each knight has his own element or theme, similar to the Robot Masters of Megaman.  Each knight is extremely difficult in it's own way, and has an awesome original design.  For example, Specter Knight floats around in a Grim Reaper cloak, raising skeletons from the ground and throwing his giant scythe at you.  One that took me by surprise was Tinker Knight, a short boss who clumsily trips around the room throwing easily dodged wrenches at you.  The boss fight seems extremely easy until suddenly the floor beneath you collapses and the weak knight falls into a GIANT mechanical suit of armor, complete with rocket launchers and a giant drill hand.  Thanks to the pre-fight conversation between Shovel Knight and the boss knight, you can also see some minimal (but effective) character development, showing the backstory of these knights and how they knew Shovel Knight before they joined up with the Enchantress.  It all makes the characters and the world they live in feel more real, like they're actual people and not just pixels on a screen.

Overall, Shovel Knight is a game that borrows a lot from other classic video games, but never in a way that makes it feel like it's ripping off something more successful.  Every element 'stolen' from a classic game is made unique, whether it be the flawless mesh of level design and character abilities, the advanced but fair difficulty or the well designed bosses.  It is a difficult game, but never in a way that feels like the game is broken, and the minimal dialogue tells a wonderful story with an ending that is easily one of my favorite in recent memory.  In many ways, Yacht Club Games has captured the essence of an old school NES game, by making something that ultimately stays with you and becomes part of your general video game lexicon.  Had it been released in the heydays of the NES, I have no doubt that Shovel Knight would be a franchise still going strong to this day, and I can't wait to see what the future has in store for this IP, because it's too good not to expand upon it with a sequel or two.

Go out and play this game.  FOR SHOVELRY!!!!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Video Game Review: Among the Sleep

While there are a lot of scary games in existence, few things can capture the fear of what really scared you when you were a child.  The world was big and scary, monsters still existed around every corner and the only thing that could protect you was your parents.  Krillbite Studio has taken on an enormous endeavor in an attempt to recapture that period of your life with their newest Kickstarter funded game Among the Sleep.

In this game, you play as a two year old child.  The opening of the game takes place on your birthday where you learn the controls of the game in your nursery by playing with your new present:  a teddy bear who comes to life when your mother leaves the room. After 'playing' with the teddy bear, you are put in your crib to sleep sweet dreams, only to wake up to find your mother gone and your teddy bear urging you to find her.  An exploration of the house leads you to a strange world, seemingly made from the young child's memories.  While there, you must collect the fond memories you have of your mother in order to open up new paths and eventually reach her.

This game is similar to Slender in that you have no way of defending yourself from any danger.  However, while this made arguably little sense in Slender, a two year old child would have no way of defending itself in real life. As such, the game is purely about exploration, mainly solving puzzles that involve finding items and putting them in a specific spot.  At the point I'm at in the game, the puzzles have not been extremely challenging, the hardest part being actually finding the items in order to advance.  Finding said items requires you to explore the strange world in Among the Sleep.  It truly looks like a child's nightmare: playgrounds stand in dark, creepy atmospheric environments.  Strange, nightmarish swamplands are populated with seemingly oversized chairs and furniture, making you feel small and helpless as you try to find your mother.

This is where Among the Sleep truly excels: in atmosphere and immersion.  As I played the game, I truly felt like I was taking a step inside a child's nightmare.  I felt like the young child I was playing as, trying to make sense of a world I didn't understand.  I felt scared to death every time a tiny sound was heard just outside my field of vision or when the game's monster (I've only seen one monster thus far, and I have yet to tell if it's the same monster over and over or multiple creatures that look the same) stalks by and I'm forced to hide in a closet clutching my teddy bear (the flashlight mechanic in this game) so I have just enough light to see that I'm not in danger.  You fear for yourself and you fear for the child you are playing as, and you can never be sure if the perceived scary thing is just atmospheric or if it is an actual danger, which makes you feel all the more like a young child.  And because you are experiencing the game from the eyes of a two year old child, there is a pretty deep mystery towards the actual goings on in the game.  Is the creature just something out of your nightmares, or were those nightmares inspired by something out of the baby's short life?  Are these just creepy environments, or are they how the baby perceives the world around him?  I have yet to finish the game (I'll probably do a follow up to this review once I do), but the unknown elements of this game are enough to compel me to keep going even when it gets scary enough that you're digging through your old stuff trying to find your own stuffed animal to clutch out of sheer terror.

If you are not a fan of horror games where the protagonist is completely defenseless to the dangers around him like Outlast, Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I doubt Among the Sleep is going to change your mind about the subject.  However, if you can get over the element of being helpless in a strange world, then this game might be one of your games of the year (At this pont for me, it's easily in my Top Ten of 2014).  It's immersive in ways most Triple-A games can only dream of and it proves that the horror genre in video games is fully alive and well.  Do not miss this game.  It has set a new standard for horror games.