Why I Heart Isaac Clarke

Look at em! Ahhh, this guy's a coconut...

Sleep much?

This post containers spoilers.

The thing that makes Isaac Clarke so great is how flamin’ ordinary he really is.

You see, a lot of heroes tend to be these one-of-a-kind characters with skills and abilities above and beyond those around them. A lot of video games are made on the premise of being someone or some group’s last hope for no other reason than being unique during a time of great need.

For example, the Master Chief from Halo was the last Spartan. Captain Titus of Space Marine had some strange resistance to the power’s of the warp which helped him, on top of being one of the rarest soldiers the Imperium has to offer. In Skyrim, your character is dragon-born. In the Castlevania series, the Belmont clan has a long standing tradition of opposing vampires while Alucard is Dracula’s only son. And many main characters from the Final Fantasy series, such as Cloud Strife, Zidane Tribal and Terra Branford, all are incredibly unique and rare for a variety of reasons.

They can do it because no one else can.

But in Dead Space, there’s nothing super unusual about Isaac Clarke. Oh sure, he suffers from dementia from exposure to the marker (which is more a curse than blessing), but he’s not the only one and probably won’t be the last either. He stands up to the Necromorphs, but he’s not alone there. Nor is he the only one who can destroy the marker, as I’m sure both the Unitologists and EarthGov can. Only they choose not too.

Nope. Isaac Clarke’s quest is a bloody one of self-discovery and healing, but its overall effect on the world around him is fairly minimal, despite how huge it must have seemed at the moment of completion to the player. The player only explores the world around the eyes of Isaac in the main Dead Space series. We only ever see this world of political intrigue and struggle through the eyes of Isaac, whose condition made him highly useful, but not irreplaceable.

Indeed, Isaac is caught up in that long going struggle between church and state. Much like the Dark Ages of Europe where the popes and kings sometimes allied and sometimes struggled against one another. Neither side is particularly interested in Isaac’s welfare. Today, whether the conflict of church and state continues is a matter of personal opinion. But just about everyone knows what it’s like to be sandwiched between two power hungry giants in some shape or form, be them political, economic, religious or otherwise.

Also, Isaac is a nerd.

Even without super powers or unusually beneficial aspects, gruff soldiers are a common enough hero type. The Master Chief, Marcus Fenix of Gears of War, Commander Shepard of Mass Effect. All these games make the player feel remarkably qualified to save the world.

Not so with Isaac, who carries on a growing tradition similar to Gordon Freeman of Half Life. He’s not a soldier, he’s bloody tech support. He’s the guy you call when your hard drive crashed or you need permission to install the latest version of an application, or when your engine is on the fritz. His weapons? Mostly modified mining tools. His mission? Fix the damn engine before we get charred falling into the atmosphere.

And like many nerds, Isaac Clarke doesn’t seem to have much luck with the love life either. I just don’t see a happy ending for him. Like, ever. The first game was a sick joke on the man, when he find sout that his girlfriend, who he thought was alive and helping him, was actually dead. And the second game, he wrestles with dementia as the memory of long dead Nicole tries to kill him. Oh and the new girl? Poor gal loses her eye babysitting a guy for Isaac. What a lousy first date.

So yeah. It’s a shame that Dead Space 3 maybe the last we see of Isaac Clarke. It’s generally acceptable that we have to move on from characters after a while, after their story is told and the challenge has been overcome. But I’ll bet that the archetype of Clarke will endure. It’ll be thought on, reinvented and introduced in future games, books and movies.

I’m sure Dead Space 3 will do fine for itself. It’ll be a good game that is remembered, but not the break out smash hit that the series never was. At least for now. Sometimes, today’s moderate successes are tomorrow’s greatest hits.

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Pen, Paper, Processing

A lot of the earliest pencil and paper roleplaying games have tended to ease their formulas to provide the right mix of complexity with ease. A lot of basic math is applied to calculate certain values, which are then the basis of desired values for an act of chance, the results of which are reflected for better or worse in the game.

“But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action.”

The appeal of these roleplaying games has always been the sense of legitimate adventure confined more by the scopes of human imagination than the limited scopes of a digitally designed world. Combine this with a sense of social interaction these games require and you have a fun and flexible product to be shared with friends.

The computer and especially the smart phone have opened up new possibilities of complex skill-based calculations, story telling and dungeon creation. This ease of use often comes at a cost, as many of the worlds created in larger titles have been the signature of someone else’s vision.

The ordinary dungeon master in his room often has access to some tools for creating his own world, such as dungeon designers and map building applications. But to apply one’s pure, artistic mark to the creation using these tools is overshadowed by the visions of the artists who created them in the first place.

There’s no real solution to this. The difficulty here is art and science versus engineering. The artists focus on creating something, the sciences on discovery. But the engineer is bound by these visions, working within the confines of what is available. These dungeon builders and systems are tools for game engineering, and they are useful if not necessary. But creating original art is much more challenging, and there is no real way to formulize it.

It requires a vision that the machine isn’t able to provide, at least at the moment.

“Exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling.”

Going back to my original point, I’ve noticed that people enjoy these complexities of game rules. Forums are awash with break downs of how the math of Diablo II worked. Some fans grumble at the lost RPG elements found in Mass Effect, taken away and replaced with a simplified system combat and no real adventure elements outside of where a conversation can take you. Discussion of the value of skills and stats in the Fallout series is a major consideration.

Simple and accessible is certainly nice. But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action. Fighting and violence is not going anywhere. But the explorative nature of alternatives can breath a lot of addictive elements into a game, as a result of discovery.

Why is this? Probably because exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling. Maybe hacking that terminal will give you easy access to your goal, or bring security down on your head. Perhaps there’s nothing in that cave, or a mountain of treasure. When you open that door, you have no idea what’s behind it. Maybe it’s an army of guards. Maybe it’s the princess. Maybe it’s One-Eyed Willy’s rich stuff. Maybe it’s a rolling boulder. Who knows? Absolutely no one, until you find out.

For a while, that’s the direction that games were evolving. Sometimes we’re still moving in that direction, or at least toying with the concept. But I have a vision to create a world of infinitely renewable adventures. Where there’s always a story oriented goal, another door to open, a mountain to be climbed. No attempt at it has satisfied me thus far. Call me mad, but I know it can, and will, be done.

The Best of All Worlds

demand this in wallpaper form. It’s like Mass Effect meets Team Fortress 2‘s Pyroland meets Portal. Snowballed into goddamn AWESOME EFFECT.

There was a picture posted here early, but I decided to remove it out of respect for the artist. I wasn’t asked, I just changed my mind.

Goodbye July

What is this I don't even...

What is this I don’t even…

I’ve already covered issues about my car yesterday. But the truth is far more sinister. The whole month of July… sucks. 

Besides the vehicle, my cable and internet provider has been unable to assign a decent time to come over and repair my internet. I can get it done on Saturday, but they won’t do it after 5 on the week days, when I’ll be at work. Although they’ve refunded us for the month, Diablo III and Team Fortress 2 are out until it is fixed. 

Thus, with reluctance, I cracked open Mass Effect 3, one of the view recent games in my collection with optional online elements. 

It’s not that I wasn’t looking forward to it. But I wanted to savor the time I had to myself, not playing the game.

Once Mass Effect starts, you can’t really divert time away from it. After playing through the original game twice, once as a “Good” Soldier Shepard and again as an “Evil” Engineer Shepard, I decided to try a femshep (female Shepard). But I stopped, recognizing a very addictive new experience.

Y’see, I barely started and it was already a different experience, as Kaidan Alenko was hitting on me.  “Man,” I tell myself. “I’ve barely started and this is only ME1. Everyone’ll be humping down my door once I hit ME2.” 

It’s true. Play ME as a man and the women will be coy and make you chase them. Play it as a woman and they’ll be after you. In gaming, the choice to play as a woman is often more like choosing your favorite Barbie doll to play an MMORPG or Diablo. But being a woman in an intricate storytelling experience like this? That’s something else. 

But if I’m going to play a woman, I’m going to do it from the ground up. Which means going back to Mass Effect and slugging my way back up. 

My impressions after 20 hours of ME3 are pretty basic. I like how they dropped the obnoxious resource-searching for a game of Reaper tag. The combat is tight as ever. The “explory-telling” is nice, but I keep wishing I could take the story off of the rails: Options to use charm or threaten are rare, the tale doesn’t let you go about things in any order you choose (the first game was great at this) and I get the feeling that, at this point, everything that happens is barely my decision and more the consequences of my actions from the previous 2 games. 

Choice is an illusion once you’re facing the consequences.

My hunt for a new roommate continues, but I’m closing in on a few likely prospects. I also meant to bug the writers of my anthology yesterday night about their progress, but decided to wait until tonight when I had access to Gmail and a regular computer (not my phone).

I’m half through Brunner. I was hoping that the stories would become more simple for movie making purposes, but that is not the case. His arsenal also expanded, with a new Skaven repeating crossbow, a hatchet and Drakesmalice, some kind of magic longsword. Therefore, I’ve picked two prospective stories which would be ideal for a short movie: “What Price Vengence” and “The Money-Lender’s Price”.

Two new horror stories coming out for a different anthology soon. Hope to be done this weekend.

Mass Effect Thoughts

Because no one ever suspects Richard Nixon Shepard.

Because no one ever suspects Richard Nixon Shepard.

I finished Mass Effect 2 last night. Don’t worry. No spoilers in here.

I found the overall structure of the game interesting. Unlike the first game, which paced you along with about five or six major plot arc missions, this one kind of dangled a major challenge in front of you. All the other missions are completely built around this one challenge in the end. There’s little room for side exploration.

And I mean that. One of the things I found myself missing from the first game was the exploration. No, I absolutely do not miss the Mako. But when you went down to the planet surface for some assignment, you go straight into the action. No Mako drop, no drive out there. The game really pushes you along, and if you leave many of these assignments there is no returning. Except for reloading the mission, the game is pretty bad about letting you recheck certain areas.

For every one thing I miss from the first game, there are two things I don’t.

For starters, the inventory system. What your party can and cannot equip has been streamlined, while the upgrades to your gear with a few quick clicks on the research team. This is so much easier than before, where you would have to go through the inventory screen, find the best weapon, equip it then find the best ammo and upgrades and then do this for every weapon slot and armor.

I also really like how each weapon and armor has unique properties with regard to firing rate, damage per shot and ammo capacity. There was no variety with this from the previous game, but having experienced the FPS options you get from Brink, I still feel there wasn’t enough of that firearm variety in this game.

I love how the weapons and armor upgrades are universal and applied everywhere immediately. But not before some tiring planet probing. It was like they had to add a grind in there somewhere so why not here? The mini-game aspect of it isn’t that bad, but after a while of it you get bored. So note to self, if I ever create a game (and I’ve been thinking about one helluva one for sometime), I will:
1) Allow the mini-games to be nicely spaced throughout the main game.
2) Make them completely optional, but considerably rewarding.
3) Find a way to add the character’s personalities to them to spice it up.

The grind isn’t fun, and isn’t as rewarding as regular gameplay. Not many games have figured this out, but in my opinion RPGs should be grindless, like Diablo 2. There’s so much satisfaction derived from slaying monsters in that game, and the loot system is the perfect Pavlovian response to keep you going.

But there are game rewards, and real rewards. Not just things that help you survive but the humor and joking that you get to keep post-game, and sometimes share with the nerds you call friends. When EDI gave me sass for probing Uranus, I laughed so hard. That’s the quips I could use while I play. Like so.

Don’t misunderstand me. I know that these kind of great quirks and scripted moments are not as developmentally scalable as loot or resources (although Team Fortress 2 pushes this out a new gag with every new item they sell). But they make the game unforgettable.

Believe it or not however, I really miss the leveling system. In the previous game, it was kind of like a little reward. The abilities each character has in this game make them more unique and intriguing, but they didn’t reward me fast enough. Choosing your team’s abilities in smaller increments can be quite satisfying. However, I did like how each ability ended in one of two choices to make them more powerful however, adding a nice twist on reaching the top.

Combat was a definite improvement. I feel as though they snatched an idea or two from Dead Space, like having these in game HUD displays for ammo. But I cannot chide them for it: A good idea is a good idea. Anything to reduce UI clutter. The cover system was also greatly improved; I actually used it now, and used it extensively. The clumsiness of the previous game’s fighting is gone, although I was shocked that I have to collect ammo.

Mass Effect 2 was full of interesting changes compared to the original game, and most were improvements. But I kind of worry that the considerable number of changes can risk a game losing sight of what made it so great. Sometimes it’s these tiny details of how the game is played that make it awesome. And if those features are lost with nothing better replacing them, it just feels different and not quite right.

Parkour, Mass Effect and More Writing

Spoooooky...

Spoooooky...

While cruising IGN today, I was surprised by an article that some Mass Effect 3 fans were angry about the ending (no spoilers in the link). I have no idea what their issue is, because I’ve only just finished Mass Effect and have no plans to get the second until I’ve unlocked every achievement. But this news certainly makes me want to step on the gas.

But before I really go crazy on Mass Effect, I want to finish my anthology. The good news is that I’ve gotten positive feedback on my first two stories. One story seems about fine, might need perhaps a few hundred more words to expand the protagonist’s background. The other story could make do with another scene to further expand the antagonist.

But the good news is that both stories require expansion andnot rewriting and story “refactoring.” Writing a plot is like writing code. And like code, if there’s a fundamental flaw in the design, the entire program is doomed to failure. But the news is good and I am feeling confident that the story will turn some heads.

Inspired by Brink, I have added basic parkour to my morning workouts while jogging. I’ve actually been doing this for two months and it is a great way to expand the workout regime. But I’m careful not to do anything that would tick off pedestrians though, nothing crazy like leaping off the wall and pulling myself on the overhanging platform above the theater (despite how often I daydream about it). Just leaping over low fences, rolling in the grass of the park.

But you know that phrase, “Skateboarding is not a crime”? To my knowledge, I’m the only guy in my town who adds parkour to his jog. But if more people start, then accidents and damage can occur. Too many people start parkour and suddenly the local county government will ban it.