Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Critic Conundrum

There once was a time where I naively thought I would crank out one of these a month, maybe three every two months or so if I happened to find the free minutes. Sadly, almost a couple months straight of fifty hour work weeks, a month dealing with a sinus infection, and just wear and tear in general showed me the error of my ways. This happened to the point where this piece - a dissection of my time as a comic book "critic" and something I've had in mind for a long time now and figured would be a compliment to the sad, sad passing of Roger Ebert - just kind of went on the back burner for a few months. The reason why this really came to the forefront is that Mr. Ebert was really one of the very few (if not only) persons in the field of criticism that defied the usual "shooing" away by people with the "what do the critics know?" line of dismissal. It has always be my experience over the years that no one ever trusts what the critics have to say on a matter of media entertainment, until that viewpoint actually happens to coincide with their pre-and-post conceived notions of whatever piece of media they are going to or have consumed. At the end of the day, when it comes to the idea of the "critic" all that person is is a mouthpiece for an opinion, and the only opinion about something, anything, that matters in the end is that of the person who is forming that opinion. Therefore, when people get told that the generalized, disembodied voice of "The Critics" either liked the same thing they did or hated it, those same people either give faint praise to the verdict in a "of course they did, it's a good ___" manner, or further dismiss it as yet another blunder from a bunch of hypocrites who have (typically) never created anything in their lives passing judgment on something they have no business commenting about. And, honestly and truly, I completely agree with these lines of reasoning, as someone who could be labeled a critic given my experience, that what I say should not have any effect on your opinion and your experiences and that I probably am a bit of a hypocrite being someone who places commentary on pieces of art without creating it myself. Put on your shocked faces people, the ride is about to begin...


Here's my blast of honest to goodness when it comes to what I do, what I do being roughly 1,000 words a week about a new comic book I read in the previous seven days, the occasional creator interview (that I up front always admit to being terrible at) and sometimes a podcast or an article handing out imaginary awards to people ungodly levels more talented than I wish I could ever be: You should never listen to a word I say because I have no clue the amount of work, effort, technique, etc etc that goes into making one of these pieces of media as, yes, I have never made one of my own. Here's where the self-deprecating worm turns though, because maybe, just maybe, you should at least entertain my opining, even just a tad, because I absorb a metric fuckton of this material and because of this tend to believe that over the years have developed a feel for a "good" piece of work after years of doing this, and continually hold myself to a high standard of breaking down the work in (hopefully, oh god how do I hope) constructive and entertaining ways each week in order to help not form an opinion in post-consumption mode by my readers, but to help you catch a whiff of a plot that you may find intriguing, or a character type that you enjoy, or a backdrop you could use more of in your habits, and on and on. And sometimes, yes the ever present sometimes, this also precludes steering you, the reader and potential purchaser, away from an item on the shelf. I do no do this out of spite, or malice, or bias; I do this because sometimes I read a comic and feel it has flaws and that, at least at the current time, these flaws are detrimental to an experience that you will have to pay hard earned money to derive for yourself and I wish to save you the time and money, both resources I promise I will do my mediocre damnedest to find a worthier venture to spend them toward.


I guess my case, sadly, sadly, have mercy on my soul comes down to "I read/play/watch a lot of shit" and "I try really hard to tell you how good/bad all this shit I read/play/watch ends up being." The first part is irrelevant because we all consume media these days given our culture and our thirst for escapism; it's just all degrees to which we go to sate our appetites, mine being at the high end of the spectrum. The second part, though, is really what differentiates us in all our life aspects, not just in what we choose to drop our discretionary income upon. Like I stat-dropped before, I probably put 1,000 words of effort into each of my AICN column contributions and, to continue the excitement train of numbers going, probably put in, eh, call it 45 pieces a year. Keep those calculators out for a bit longer and tab that up by the, fuck, I think it's eight years now I've been at the gig and I have roughly 360,000 words dissecting my weekly habits for our readership under my belt. A quick Google search tells me that's about four, average-sized novels of me professing what I think and hoping against futility that anyone gives two tugs. Alas, I hope they do, because I like to think that despite being a filthy hypocrite who hasn't made anything for and of myself (except, apparently, enough words on the Internet to drown a digital kindergarten) that I've honed my writing and analysis skills all these years and have relevant things for everyone to read. I hope that I'm at least competent in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of these works, that I can breakdown what it is in front of me that I think makes it work, why these items are special and worthy of attention, and that I'm even a bit of a futurist in that I can see why these aspects are going to continue to develop in ways that make the work in question something to keep on the reading pile. Sadly, sometimes the opposite conclusion is the one I have to bring to the readers, but that's why I angle to be as properly analytical as I can: Constructive criticism can still be worthwhile, even if it is coming from a produce-nothing hypocrite.


There's also one underlying purpose that writing these pieces should be accomplishing - and this is my real fear beyond being hoping I'm insightful and descriptive enough - and that's to be 1,000 words of weekly entertainment. Yes, I want to help people decide what is and is not worthwhile of their dollars (And here's a dirty little secret kiddies, of course I want to pimp books that gear toward MY tastes and MY opinions because I want to see more comics on the shelf that I want to buy. Power of the press yo) but if I happen to fail in that mission I at least hope to make you chuckle a few times and maybe see a greater point about the medium or draw attention to a trend or any of other things a well written column of any sort should strive to accomplish. I don't want to be seen as some stuffy, snarky asshole raining his not-so-witticisms on the world (again, yes, we're called @$$holes but that's not really what we ALL do) because I've seen those columns and they're as pathetic as the people crying out for attention from behind their keyboards because they know they can capitalize on fanboy/girl schadenfreude. Does it feel good to come up with a super-sharp line about a book's deficiencies? Sure, it's always nice to insert something clever to be remembered by and referenced to in your piece. Should it be pointed out when a piece of anything is deriding or blatantly insulting their audience, especially in the world of comics and their yearly "you'll fucking buy it despite the quality and you know it" event comics to the point of raining a little vitriol on them? Yeah, then it's part of the job then, to "fight back" on the part of your audience. Overall, though, the name of the game is constructive criticism and public service and any good critic should always be honing their craft so they can help others build theirs.


A few weeks ago Ryan Davis of the Giant Bombcast crew suddenly passed. This was tragic for all the standard reasons; he was obviously a kind and caring guy, his recent newlywed status, just his younger age in general, and numerous more things he was probably a special guy to know if you happened to be in his world. But it was a loss that myself and I'm sure many more of the regular listeners of that podcast who had not met him felt because of how much his personableness came through each week through our iPods. While he was doing what he did he just carried such an enthusiasm for a mutual interest we all had and had a jovial way of letting the world in on his opinions, whichever way they may fall. For three hours a week, though, it was hard not to feel like you weren't in the room with him and guys (and not to dismiss what those other gentlemen do they have soldiered on in keeping up this same atmosphere despite their loss) just shooting the shit and debating the merits of a geek hobby we all enjoy. That, I feel, is how things are supposed to be done. I may not have always agreed with Davis' assessment of some of the games he discussed (and some of this came down to personal taste, a point I can never nod to enough when it comes to the idea of "judging" a critics verdict) but dammit he drew me in and made me see his points in a witty and entertaining matter, which is what any critic worth their salt should hope to achieve any time they put their thoughts out into the ether. Rest in peace big man.


Look, I know for the most part I'm just another voice on the Internet aka "the most opinionated place ever" and there's a bazillion people that run review sites, podcasts, etc. That does not mean that I don't take the gig seriously and try to be better at it every new thousand words I put into digital print. The "conundrum" I'm talking about in the title is how much people are willing to buy into what my peers and I are selling. As much as people want to take all these words as gospel so they can either use it as justification for their own opinion or to condemn these "no nothing, high horse critics!" on theirs any good critic doing their job is just trying to give relevant information to those who are interested in receiving some. Yeah there's a market for snark, or just plain meanness, and quite frankly those people can kind of go fuck themselves because I guarantee most of them are Rush Limbaughing it: They're in it for the hits. But I genuinely believe that if anyone is "successful" at this gig, whatever that even means in such an era where anyone can put their critical wares out there, they are so because they are the personality that the Ryan Davises are, or they have just that razor sharp insights that Roger Ebert had. And whether you agree with them or not you never feel you wasted your time listening to their three hour podcast or watching them on TV for a half hour a week or taking five minutes to read their thousand words. If I can feel like I've put forth relevant information, provoked a chuckle or two, and (this is the big one) sold someone on a product that I think is great or saved some cash on a subpar effort, then hey, that is not a terrible feeling. Now, if only I could figure out some damn way to get paid for my entertaining and enlightening you animals. A boy can dream... and then overanalyze that bastard and then ramble on and on and editorialize about it and... yeah, I'm done. Cheers...














Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Console Conundrum

Literally within the day of my rebooting this piece of Internet paper (which was almost a month ago which, yes, I'm a lazy bastard who never keeps his promises) Sony had a rather lengthy presser that was essentially the "shot heard 'round the world' letting us know the next generation was coming (to any Wii U owners in the house getting ruffled over this line of thought all I have for you is a "that's cute").  For an industry that has had the longest running cycle in its history and a consumer base that seems to becoming more restless as they feel the current product lines becoming a little thin at the least, repetitive with untold sequels at the most, this was really what every one was waiting to happen.  Developers and publishers would now finally be able to start showing off their wares they've been working on ever since they felt the generation was coming to a close and those not already on with Sony would watch the company's pitch as to why they should hop on board. Fans, of course, would finally get to satiate their ravenous appetite for new hardware and finally get a gander at what the next generation would look like (y'know, if they haven't glanced at a PC game in the past 18 months). Basically, it would be a learning experience of advancement in graphical prowess, if Sony was going to go deeper into the gimmick side of things (i.e. "motion" or some other schmancy control scheme), and basically what their open arms approach would be on the business and consumer relations side of things as the industry starts heating up over the next year. Personally, I learned arguably the most valuable lesson about the industry after the conference was over, and that was the video game "fanboys" are now the world's most pathetic group of humans and are a blight on society at large.


Holy shit, I do not think I've actively seen so much forced whining out of a group of humans as I did post-conference for the PS4. The floodgates opened almost immediately, with the "worry worts" worried that Sony was coming for their old game libraries via the exclusion of backwards compatibility and the claims that Sony developed tech to nullify previously owned games (in fairness, they were correct about former and Sony has developed the latter though some analysts believe they will not bother using it). Then came the PC-only gaming crowd to brag about how the graphics on their rigs with $2000 in the latest video cards and cooling systems can already do what was being shown and to also prove once and for all the PCers are the hipsters of the gaming industry and should be stoned with full cans of PBR. Then came the standard affair, Sony fanboys being way too excited about what was there (which, I'll say now that I thought it was a really good conference that had both its pluses and minuses that I'll get to later), the XBots where there to rain vitriol on everything shown and talk about how "their" next console is going to reign supreme again, and the Nintendo guys were still waiting around waiting for Pikmin 3 to FUCKING FINALLY come out. It was all a cavalcade of individuals showing that they do not understand the meaning of the word "objectivity" and that in fact it may have been systematically removed from all their dictionaries.


This is the main conundrum I alluded to in the title in that console makers are now going to have to deal with some of the most entitled, aggravating consumers out there these days. I legitimately feel bad for console developers moving forward because their market is a beast that constantly wants fed and wants their meals catered exactly to each of them, despite their enormous numbers. Part of this is the console maker's fault of course; this past generation more than ever, as the market has exploded, the makers have tried to make their machines all things to all their buyers and done whatever they could to get consumers to latch onto their brand in an era where people use such devices as their status symbols. These buyers need to be tied into everything now via these devices, entertainment apps that let them use their favorite TV/movie watching programs, they need to be tied into their social networks, have the marketplace for the newest games for downloads, have online integration and on and on. And that's fine because that's the way things are; that's where the marketplace is and that's the price of doing business. They also want their backwards compatibility, because that's a thing they had on three consoles ever and it's a travesty of justice that all the stuff gamers bought for a generation are now obsolete; as it has been with almost every single piece of tech down the ages, from 8 track to cassette, VHS to DVD, Laser disc to the trash bin and so on. Never mind that in order to make this happen with the PS4 the architecture would have to be built with two systems of chips in place and would immediately cost upwards of $600/700 to buy, because that's also a no go since the world will end if this system comes out higher than $500, if the outrage of the $599 launch PS3 was any indication.


Alas, because Sony also realizes this is another piece of steak the beast feels it is being withheld from them, they are probably working on a way to bring all those old games to these new systems via the Gaikai streaming program they purchased last year.  But this is where we're at; console makers have been promising their users the world for a generation now (like a bunch of idiots) and now gamers expect the world (because the term "realistic expectations" does not exist in society any more). And this is why I simultaneously would not want to be in anyone's shoes at these gaming companies and why I do not feel any pity for them at the end of the day as the next generation rises on us. I simultaneously feel some old school remorse for Nintendo as their new system flounders after creating what I feel to be a pretty nifty new controller device but have to shake my head at them not learning after the past three years of the Wii's irrelevance that gamers buy consoles to PLAY FUCKING GAMES on them, games being the thing that Nintendo did not bother to bring to the table in five months of Wii U's being on shelves now. I don't pity the decision Microsoft will have to make with its next console as well, as it has the tough decision of how much it will want to push its Kinect tech in the next cycle, the Kinect being either the key to that system's differentiating itself in the market besides whatever online tweaks they make since they're the still the top of the heap in that regard. Really, I don't pity any device maker as the tech industry - mainly since the prevalence of smartphones and tablets has hit - has willingly (stupidly) become makers of items that now have to be all things to all people and those people are definitely out to hold them to that standard.


Oh, yeah, I guess I should actually cover what all Sony said during that two hours as well. Heh. In all honestly, I guess I found it somewhat tedious in its amalgamation of trying to be both kind of an info dump on what the system will do and a business presser in trying to give developers and investors and idea of what they plan in the market and hope to achieve with pushes in social media and whatnot and then also balance pulling in interest from gamers for the event by, y'know, showing some goddamn games. Like the wall these systems may hit in the future, the press conference suffered from trying to be everything to everyone. But, all that said, I did like what I saw even if it was sometimes (understandably) boring. But, hell, I've basically written presentations like this during my MBA classes, I'm shocked it was as packed with interesting stuff as it was on top of all the time spent trying to convince me I care about the "Share" button.  I liked the specs they gave us and appreciate that last minute jump to 8GB of RAM and think that's a good sign Sony plans on being in this next gen for a long while. And I like what we saw on the games front. Yeah, I wasn't exactly excited by some of the properties I saw - never really have any intentions to play another Killzone again and I really wasn't much of a Halo guy so I could care less about the new Bungie product - but what else are they supposed to do when launching a new system? Familiar properties - especially ones like those two projects that are very graphically intense - are pretty key when rolling over into a new generation and I think they balanced things out quite well by announcing some new IPs and delivering on continuing game lines I already love like inFamous.


I will admit though, in full disclosure, is that if I do have any "fanboy allegiance" it lays with Sony right now, so I was not a particularly hard sell on their new unit, as long as they totally didn't cock up this presentation. Yeah, they fucked up royally with the hacking incident almost two years back (the way they held their data AND the bullshit slow way they kindly let us know about it) and the system was pricey, but those have really been the only hiccups in my experience with Sony product since they entered the market back in 1995. I've owned many a Nintendo product and honestly have to admit they just haven't really catered to my interests in gaming experiences for a while (which is fine, they get by just fine with what they do, it's just not usually my swag) and I personally just am not a fan of Microsoft's business model (I'll be damned if I ever find myself ponying up $60 a year for the "right" to play my games on an Internet connection I already pay $60 a month for) and the failure rate this generation was very off putting, even though they made right on the warranty front. Really though, what it comes down to me and console loyalty is games, pure and simple, and I just happen to believe Sony has the best assemblage of In-House studios in the industry right now and that extra hit of three or four system exclusive properties a year makes a big difference for me on top of all the Third-Party ware that hits alongside them. And, to round this out, nothing I saw at this debut for the Playstation 4 led me to believe this not be the case going forward. Now, if Sony comes forward with an announcement they want the same $60 a year Microsoft is getting, I will officially lose hope for gaming at large. I guess we'll see by November. Cheers...








Wednesday, February 20, 2013

It's Always a Good Day to Die Hard

Alright, yeah, we're doing this again. I do not know why it is always so hard for me to maintain one of these. I've always plenty to say (probably too much as most people that encounter me on a daily basis would say), I've got the gumption to write my nonsense down (so no one will read it), I apparently just do not have the ability to create enough hours in the day to prioritize this against all the other shenanigans I use to burn my life hours away. Craft beer has become a rather large hobby of mine and I want to incorporate that more into my Internet brain dumps. Video games are still very much a thing and with a new console generation finally lumbering forward that should become something I can ramble on about. And, of course, there's still the comicy books.  Most recently, though, there's been the return of some Yippie-Kay-Yay action to the world and I do not think anything turns me into a ten-year old schoolgirl quicker than the words "Die Hard."


As most children of the 80's I imagine/hope did, I grew up believing John McClaine to be the quintessential action movie lead. The "grounding" of his character (as much as any big screen character can be grounded in these circumstances) is what really sealed him and that first movie as hallmarks of the genre. What becomes a story about terrorists and bearer bonds and bloodshed starts out from a story about a man trying to save his marriage which, I would have to imagine since I was seven when this movie originally hit, was an odd scenario at the least. I grew up on those action movies after the fact as well but they were always your usual merry go round of ripped special forces gents - martial arts skills optional - whose range of emotions went from straight lipped as they faced the villain's obstacles to "two millimeter smirk" as they impaled him with a pipe or whatever else was handy. Up until that point the most range that was really seen past the blood spatter were probably in the forms of John Rambo and Martin Riggs what with their anti-social behavior and PTSD. Of course, they were still special forces badasses and trained to kill everything in sight, which they did, but it was still a step forward. John McClaine, however, happened to be a literal and figurative leap ahead from their progress.


The "problem" with John, these days is that he has somewhat become one of those badasses. Much like after you first tour slogging through the shit and mud and getting into firefights like the Riggs, Rambos, and any character Schwarzenegger ever played did and survived, I would imagine you tend to learn something. John learned how to survive another day and grew enough to apparently save him marriage, albeit temporarily, and then he blew up an airplane. Then he drove around New York like a madman and blew up a helicopter. Then he blew up a helicopter, a jet, and had a bloody natural gas plant come down around him. Yeah, it's kind of become outrageous, stylish but outrageous, to the point where some of the old "Die Hard purists" have more or less called shenanigans on these newer installments as they've essentially become those actioners where the lead is a bad ass and knows it and is out to kill the bad guy in the most outlandish way possible. Much as I love the original Die Hard, much as I feel that it is indeed the top of the Action movie heap, I have become fine with this development because, a) I do enjoy myself the occasional over-the-top pile of explosions and gratuitous slow-mo as long as they are well executed piles of both and b) I still think the character is evolving on a personal and broader level, just not the nuanced version we've seen in the first three films.


More or less I am seeing this character evolve in essentially the way we all evolve as people; he's getting older. The first Die Hard presents us with a guy who was in his early-30's (I assume they were going with Willis' actual age, not the age that the character the book the movie evolved from was because I believe he was in his 40's and was trying to reunite with his daughter) and still figuring life out for himself. He had a very early stumble in his adult life with a marital separation which lead to kids he never sees, which leads to him having to do shit like shoot at Carl Winslow's patrol car as he digs deep into himself and improvises the hell out of his survival in the situation. Shitty and extreme as it was though, hanging Eurotrash by a chain and smashing their face into a cinder block wall is good life experience apparently as in the second movie we get a John McClaine who is significantly more confident. He's back with his wife and think he has that aspect of his life hammered down, until naked tai chi guy tries to mess this up for him by slamming his wife and a couple hundred other people into snowy tarmac. When this shit happens to the same guy twice, John is WAY more proactive than the guy who was hiding in air ducts and was sitting around as the LAPD put their RV out for rocket practice in the first movie. This is why the third movie comes as a shock (and is perfect in its approach) because we find this guy who we thought had it all together with the job and the wife and kids has apparently squandered all the good will killing three busloads of baddies earns you and is again separated from his wife and kids, is on suspension from his job, and has become a bit of a boozer. "Die Hard With a Vengeance" may as well read "Mid-Life Crisis With a Vengeance" because that is what is transpiring. He's had a setback - a pretty major one too when you having to stand in Harlem with a racial epitaph strapped to you - but as the movie progresses and John once again finds himself and his temporary partner Zeus scrambling across New York City for the right to keep almost getting blown up he begins to realize with the help of the angry black man that things are never too late to reconcile.


It's this type of progress that makes me able to bite on the adrenaline pieces these last two movies have become and how John approaches them and what is left of his personal life. No, he did no get Holly back but he realized he's survivor - both emotionally and my god physically - and he's content to go ahead. In the fourth flick he's putting his energy into getting his kids back and is starting with his daughter. And even though the logistics behind Timothy Olyphant's computer death plan are sketchy as hell as soon as you put some scrutiny to them, I appreciate that as a foil. What do you throw at the man who has had literally everything thrown at him by now? Technology and a fucking fighter jet, that's what. Tell you what, I love the man and think he is one of the smartest men I've encountered in my life, but after helping my seventy year old father with figuring out his new tablet the past couple of months I can indeed say that technology is evil incarnate for a guy like John McClaine, despite all that he's conquered so far. That's why I can buy into the extremes John is starting to go to when the bullets start flying and the "fire sale" goes off; it's what he knows and he's spent the last twenty-five years of his fifty-plus years of life facing it, knows immediately sometimes you just have to take things to the extreme to beat these assholes and he knows he's going to beat them. At this point of his life and career, it's just experience. This is what he does; this is the kind of confidence I know I hope to exude in twenty years once all the bullshit that is building up your life has passed and it comes down to living it.


And now we're down to John McClaine in Russia. I will say this, as far as all the beats I just described above go, I was completely into this latest installment. It's John doing what has become his life now and picking up one of the final pieces of his life as he goes to look in on his son who has found himself in a McClaine sized pile of shit in the  Motherland. The action is extreme, which I completely enjoyed, it really had good familial beats like the last one did, though sadly the plot wasn't quite as extravagant as the Die Hard standard had set twenty-five years ago. It's serviceable and works as a backdrop for the real plot of father-and-son shenanigans, but it's notable (mainly in the runtime) that this took the backseat to having the McClaine boys shoot a bunch of assholes. It worked for me though, particularly because I felt the action to be well-shot (sans a couple instances of way too slow slow-motion) and I still become a fourteen year old at a Bieber concert when I watch John McClaine ice some guy in an improbable way wearing his standard dirty and bloodied shirt and a smirk. If they do one more of these where John finally brings it all together and gets the last of the clan, Holly, back I think that would make for a fine arc. Either way though, I'm going to be there. John McClaine may now be more like his contemporaries than he was when he showed up at Nakatomi Plaza and turned the genre on its ear but he is still the most enjoyable action lead to watch even as his time is winding down.


So, yeah, all that happened. I don't know how often I plan to keep this up again this time, I just know it's something I never should have wavered on. Basically I need to get better at just talking about something for a couple paragraphs instead of feeling I need to wait until I have a bloody treatise in my head I need to get put down on "paper." We're approximately five and a half hours away from Sony looking to shape the next generation of consoles so I'm sure that'll get me back here relatively soon. Alright, that's that. Cheers...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Image 20th Anniversary

Since I have been shilling for this company for several weeks now on the AICN site with reviews of many new Image books, I figure it's time for a bit of a talky talk about what this company is doing right now and why I like it so much. Basically to breakdown their position in the industry, which I think finally a realization of what the company could have/should have been at launch, but now twenty years on. It is not all peaches and cream I would argue - and I'll get to why - but the intent of what the publisher was when it launched, that of some of the biggest talents in the business having a home to do their own thing, is coming into its glory. The irony, I would argue, being that I never for once thought of the original Image staff was realizing the "height of their creative freedom" or however you want to phrase it.

What I mean by that last part is that, well, look, I grew up with those books. I read pretty much all of them as they came out - WildCATS, Youngblood, Spawn, etc. - because they were the "Big Thing" on the block. And it was pretty well obvious to even fourteen year old me that they were what they were; and that was Jim Lee drawing the X-Men again with a space theme, Liefeld doing the Avengers with more blood and guts and so on. Obviously they weren't all like this, SAVAGE DRAGON was and still is a prime example of what that company was supposed to at its heart. Hell, a lot of the three of you who may read this post may even disagree with this line of thought in general and say they were really letting their creativity flow with this jaunt (and I would agree with that from a literal artistic point, i.e. linework) but I'm just calling it the way I saw it then and the way I see it now in hindsight. And, yes, I bought all 14 parts to Extreme Prejudice, which I a prime example of why I do not think I have to go any further saying that most of these talents were going with what they knew in that in hardly any time after Image was launched, they were doing giant ass crossovers designed to get you to buy most of their books.

Twenty years on and Image's biggest seller, THE WALKING DEAD, is also a hit TV show. Now, that is also partly a sign of the times as much as it is a realization of what the company has become, but either way it is a big deal. Whereas the company was founded by talent moving from the "Big Two" of (mostly) Marvel and DC Comics, now it seems like it is the place those companies go when it comes time to root for talent. Jonathan Hickman, Rick Remender, Matt Fraction, and even the biggest name in the business, Brian Michael Bendis, all had if not their starts their big breaks with books they moved with the big "I" on their covers. Sadly (well, okay, that's probably harsh because I've like what they've done since with some of my favorite characters) lots of those names have left and stayed gone but, again a sign of the times (I hope), it has prompted one of those two companies to make its own imprint for creators to house their own stuff. Oddly enough though, not many have taken them up on that offer. Hmm....

There is a slight downslide to the prominence Image has seen in the past couple years, some of which I think can even be attested to the success of WALKING DEAD, and that is if there is any sort of "speculator boom" going on in the world of comics right now, usually it resides with the Indy publisher. Since this is the place that Hollywood is now looking first for optionable properties, it is also the place people willing to drop three or four bucks on a new #1 are going to in hopes they may get ten even twenty (and right now in the case of TWD almost two-hundred) times their money back. Obviously this is not going to be the case all the time - the issues going for over a grand, not the speculation part - but that it has happened to one series and may happen to another (CHEW #1's are going for over $200 now and it is also in TV development) which could easily be enough get people who do no normally buy Image books to start paying attention, for less than stellar reasons. I also doubt this would reflect on the Editorial Staff of Image's scouting policy, i.e. trying to find more of these "hits" out of pitches that look like they could be appealing to a network, but I could also see the temptation being there. Just because you're adamant about being faithful to your husband, it doesn't mean that if shirtless Tim Riggins happens into your life that that ruleset does not immediately go out the window.

Right now, though, I think Image is actually becoming that bright spot in the industry of just burgeoning creativity. Not that the other Indie producers out there - Dark Horse, Oni, Top Shelf, IDW, etc. - are not doing their own quality workload of creator goods, but every month it seems like Image is in overdrive and bringing six new pieces of creator owned content to shelves. There's a great diversity of books there, from Noir to Fantasy to Horror to long-running serials (hell, The Darkness still exists even, and has had some really good runs) and on and on. They are not always winners, that's the downside to the volume aspect of things, but it's rare that the new #1's flowing out of the company are not worth a look, even as just a campy piece of genre fiction. I'm as differentiating as anyone when it comes to my tastes and my Image pulls now are double that of my Marvel or any of the other Indie companies I mentioned and equal to that of my DC pulls which are pretty high right now as I'm flush with New 52 titles. And it looks like more will be getting added to the mix as some big name talents in the industry, Brubaker, Hickman (who never really went away from the company) and Brian K. Vaughan are starting to make their home there. If it's good enough for some of the biggest names in the business that should have no problem getting their creative-owned work published through the Big Two, then that should be an indication of how well things are going over there. If that is not a sign of success for the original mission set forth twenty years ago, I really do not know what could be.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Immersion

The above is a term that I have heard brandied about pretty regularly the past few months amongst the video game podcasts I listen to about those digital distractions, to the point where I found myself dissecting it in my head whenever I had spare moments for thought. It's also a term that seems somewhat "contentious" to me because there is a lot of personal interpretation in the word. Not a strict definition of what the word means, mind you, but how it is implemented , which in and of itself seems like a big bit of clusterfuckery saying it like that. Basically, everyone has their own idea of how you get immersed in a video game, or what a game does that is immersive to them, without any dispute that being immersed means to more or less be enthralled by what you are playing. That defining of immersion is kind of what I wanted to discuss with this.


The common discussion about immersion has been coming up a lot recently because of really one title, and that's Skyrim. Given trends on that word coming up though, it seems the idea of open-world games in general is the big culprit in garnering the label, which I believe is immediately unfair. "A lot of shit" going on does not necessarily an engrossing experience make. If filling a world with lots and lots of "shit going down" was all it took to create a riveting piece of media, Michael Bay would be THE filmmaking genius of our time, walking stereotype Autobots and all. I personally feel that Skyrim is immersive because of its breadth and, more importantly, the quality of storytelling within its massive confines (and the contradiction of those two words should show how special that particular game is).


The world of Skyrim can be overwhelming, sure, but I think that is more a case of the game giving you a ton of freedom to let it become overwhelming if you let it. You don't have to take all those quests, but they are there for the taking and exploration is such a big, wonderful, sometimes powerful experience (try and tell me you don't get a little twinge of epic swelling whenever you come up a mountain crest to the sound of the Nordic bellowing and a Dragon swooping over all the gorgeous landscapes you see before you) that it's very easy to do nothing but explore and stockpile missions like a crazy cat lady does feline companions. And in that world there are some great big storylines to partake in, there's tiny errands you can do that make the town feel more alive, besides the activities the NPCs are always one and lines they are spouting and so on. One of the best examples of how that game drags you in is a little cabin I found about twenty hours before I hung up the game until DLC time. All it is is the fire-gutted shell of a one-room place in which you find a charred corpse and a scroll about an immolation spell. It's one little microfraction of an aspect about the game and it tells you a little story in a world full of them waiting for you to discover.


But there is caveats to all of what I just typed, as there are definitely chinks in the armor of a game that I personally find immersive but has elements that can take you out of the experience. The combat is not exactly though most in depth of mechanics and does not engage you in combat terribly well. While there is a mega crapton of things to do in the world of Skyrim, the main story is not particularly the most momentous one to show up in a video game (though it does have its moments), to the point where I logged in 130 hours on the game and did not even finish the main quest. Some of the level mechanics as well, particularly the Smithing and Enchanting chains, are basically a grind as well, and ones that can "break" the game by making your character too powerful too early. Speaking of breaking, I really doubt it goes without typing more than a line here to acknowledge the bug issues the game had on launch, which could literally break the game for you. A black screen is not exactly the most immersive of experiences, as The Sopranos has taught us.


All those items could be perceived as an assemblage of arguments as to why even such an immense, content littered world could not be immersive to some. I personally think the sum is greater than the parts and have not had any hands on experiences with bugs that ruined my experience. But this all bleeds into my point that more content does not exactly mean more outlets to immerse the player with. I have played plenty of open world games and have been felt completely underwhelmed with all presented before me. Truthfully, one of the biggest release of this current generation - Grand Theft Auto IV - left me pretty cold. While that particular version of Liberty City was also massive, I thought there was also some pretty massive gaps between what was interesting and worth doing and not. The mission designs were pretty top notch, as Rockstar has been the trendsetter for open-world story missions since the PS2 era, but pretty much everything else in the city I found lackluster. The NPCs were about as empty as a trip through the Jersey Shore, the "Friendster" stuff that took up the brunt of your side mission time was twice as annoying as it ever was entertaining, and... okay. I'll leave it at that because I feel like I'm piling on at this point. My point, essentially, is that the game was a big ol' bag of shit to do, and not much of it, I felt was worth doing.


Taking all of that big pile of letters above and let's start to move into mechanics, which is where I really think this discussion is make or break. Mechanics alone can make an immersive game, in my opinion, but that never lasts. I've spent hours upon hours of my youth with the Tetris, in several incarnations, and as those little tiles are falling faster and faster and you're just begging for a straight piece to finish off four lines. First thing I did when I received my Kindle Fire for Christmas (thanks wifey!) was download Angry Birds (and yes, I see the irony in welcoming in a spanking new piece of tech with a "welcome to 2009" event) and waste a handful of hours hurling some poultry at some pork. But these experiences are always finite; eventually a great mechanic is going to wear thin, most likely sooner than later without something else to bring them together. A riveting story mayhaps? Or a big old open world with a multitude of things to do so that you can connect average mechanics without having to rely on one or two highly polished ones? That's the ticket.


If you take everything negative I said about GTA4 a paragraph ago, replace it with hunting, poker, horse wrangling and a (again, in my opinion) the early 1900's Western Frontier, you now how what I believe to be one of the best and most immersive games of this generation: Red Dead Redemption. Instead of NPC's that are just walking streets saying occasional bland lines, you have cobblers, saloon regulars, people on the trail who are trying to ambush you. Instead of "friendster" phone calls, you are hunting grizzlies and cougars, lassoing and breaking stallions, hunting treasure, etc. None of those mechanics as I experienced them were the greatest thing ever, but they all had their couple hours of fun before jumping to a different one or going back to story missions, made the world much more real, and really helped with the breadth and tone of the story, which was also excellent. Mechanics are just as important as setting and story, it's just a sliding scale how much you want to lean on them as far as making highly polished ones that are the highlight of a shorter, more focused game, or lots of little ones that help realize the much larger world of a much grander game.


That is going to bring me to the last point that I think is highly important in that immersion factor and that's execution, execution, execution. It's not just finding that swath of mechanics to use, it's motivating the player to use them and avoiding repetition to the point of over saturation. It's integrating them into your story and, obviously, pulling off that story with quality characters, plot threads, pacing, etc. Atmosphere is a plus too. Bioshock, I personally believe, is one of the best and most immersive games ever, and you can boil down the mechanics to being a somewhat mediocre shooter, minimal character customization via the tonics, and a pretty decent hacking mini-game. But Rapture is probably the most realized and unique environment I have ever played in, the story is... well, we all know how amazing that is (despite overstaying its welcome by probably an hour). If you can completely sell the highlights while keeping your less enthralling mechanics and gaming points to the bare essentials they need to be in the game, you can easily have that immersive experience.


Alright, time to shut up about this (I always love how long winded I let myself get on these things, when I know no one's really going to read it, but I like to type away sometimes). The last idea I wanted to put forth about the subject is that I think it is safe to say you don't have have an immersive experience to be a great game, but all great games are immersive experiences. I've played a lot of games (a fucking lot, with a lot more to go so says the stack of gaming boxes as tall as my cat here) and the ones that I consider truly great pull me in completely while I've noticed that the "almost greats" always seem to be just lacking somewhere. Maybe the story did not hit as high a notes as the others, maybe I was not as whimsically lost in the setting as I were those others, maybe it was a bunch of mechanics that worked well but did not feel made the game stand out, and so on down the line. Like a great movie, a great, immersive video game I absolutely lose track in, lost all sense of time with until it's over or a realize, fuck me, that's the sun coming up. But like a "pretty good" movie, a game that is doing lots of things well but not completely selling me, I'm checking the time, I'm waiting for this bit to end so I can hit the pisser, I'm actively watching the time because I have other stuff I could be doing, but I'm overall having my moments with the experience. That's why I think this is a concept worth discussing and breaking down to see if there is a method to it all, or if it is just one of those things that you have to place on the true creative geniuses of a medium being just that. You cannot replicate it but you can study it and learn from it as you try and bring out your own masterpiece.