Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dark Souls

Dark Souls is built from the ground up for the "hardcore gamer": the kind of person who is always telling you they value gameplay over graphics and they don't make video games like they used to in the good old days, even if they personally were 4 years old during the good old days. The kind of person who treats gaming as a hobby, a thing you spend lots of time and money on in order to have really high-quality fun. For this audience, it surpasses expectations. If you already know what major games are coming out this year and how you feel about each of them, Dark Souls is right up your alley, and well worth your time.

Almost to a man, reviewers gush with praise over many aspects of the game. The art and sound design is fantastic, perfectly executing on the core premise of a dark fantasy world that is rich and varied yet creepy, twisted and ruined. This is good, because the music is almost nonexistent, appearing only at key moments or during boss fights where you will not be paying attention anyway. The mood is laid on thick, with heavy use of color and sound filters to convey the emotional tone in a largely isolated world. (In one enormous banquet hall, even the menu sounds boom and echo.) In a particularly oldschool turn, the story is not in the player's face whatsoever; key plot points are hidden away inside the item descriptions submenu, accessible by pressing Start, A, D-Pad right, D-Pad down ten times, X, X. The world is chock-full of secrets, hidden passageways and unique encounters, to the point where the player can be genuinely surprised after upwards of 50 hours of playing time - a rare feat for any media, not just games.

All this moodiness and inaccessibility is balanced out by a very "realistic" core gameplay system and a well-defined, voluminous set of animations to match. "Realistic" is one of those words that gamers say when they don't know how to describe an experience that is weighty, that has the ring of truth about it even if it does not match the real world in any way, that responds consistently and well to the player's desires. What they really mean about the medieval combat that is the core of Dark Souls is that it is sufficiently awkward, violent, difficult, and deep that the player has a glimpse of what it actually means to charge an enemy knight with your shield and spear. A big part of this feeling is the player's fragility: the same enemies you can dispatch with one well-timed parry and riposte can do the same to you, except that you are required to take on a half-dozen of them, each armed with a different weapon and fighting style. Even the lowliest zombie, barely clutching the broken hilt of a sword, can pose a serious threat to a reckless player who charges in headlong.

As I write, the online system is incredible in concept but broken in practice, thanks to the kind of trivial design decision that is easily overlooked in the rush to polish a voluminous work. Theoretically, other players leave you helpful messages or lie to you; you see their ghostly forms as they die, learning from their grisly demise which kind of terror awaits you in the next room; you can summon them to assist you or see them invade you in search of your hard-earned money. You can join elaborate covenants with specific goals, like "steal ten Dragon Scales from players who have killed dragons", or "enact vengeance upon the previous group," or "set traps for unwary players at the risk of being ganged up on by three irate victims". All of these provide a great sense of community, of variety, and of human interaction in a forbidding and austere world. Unfortunately, the population is inexplicably split among several servers, so the world feels extremely empty, and many of the multiplayer options require players to be fairly close together in terms of game progress and to use rare items to play, further decreasing the potential helpers. This could easily be fixed by increasing the tolerance for the game to contact other players, and hopefully developer From Software will pay attention.

Because Dark Souls is so captivating, engaging, and frankly such a long game - 50+ hours even for skilled players - it is held to a very high standard. As a result, what would normally be niggles and nitpicks are magnified to the status of full-fledged design flaws. Here are the ones I found:
  • Human form (the core resource of online play) is lost when the host dies, instead of being recoverable after death like the game's other resources; this is the single largest contributor to the small pool of online players
  • Enemies are too difficult to stagger or interrupt, meaning defensively-oriented weapons like spears and rapiers have an advantage over offensively-oriented weapons like clubs, arrows, swords, axes, halberds, katanas, scythes, magic wands, etc.
  • It is too easy to be effective with techniques and equipment requiring no long-term commitment or specialization from your character, such as lightning or pyromancy, compared to those which require a dedicated plan to use, such as heavy armor or magic spells or longbows or chaos.
  • The level designers use players' ability to leave messages as a crutch, hiding extremely important game elements in places no sane person would look, and giving the player several opportunities to accidentally miss out on content.
  • The engine programming is, frankly, bad. The framerate is a mess, especially in Blighttown and the Painted World, where it feels like the artists ran over their texture budget and the game has to cycle things to and from disk all the time. This shouldn't happen, and frankly the places where it does are not the game's prettiest or most fun parts anyway.
  • Several reviews note that the game sometimes drops inputs or pauses before executing inputs. I've noticed that this happens when the player is interrupted; instead of clearing the input buffer at this point, sometimes the game will just keep the buffer around while the animation plays (which could take two seconds or longer) and immediately execute afterward. This is completely wrong and very frustrating when it happens, because the game is otherwise so consistent and so demanding that the player do all their inputs correctly.
  • The enemy AI is incredibly stupid, and the game is crafted around this. For example, a half-dozen bull demons will be sitting around on a flat plain looking vaguely in your direction, and when you shoot one in the eye with an arrow, only one of his fellows or maybe none at all will notice you even exist. This never breaks the game, as you are sure to die if all half-dozen see you, but it breaks the verisimilitude that the rest of the team worked so hard to create.
  • Snuggly the Crow uses the same awful, tedious barter mechanic that wasted over an hour of my life looking at the loading screen in Demon's Souls. The user should never be required to quit and restart the game to progress, especially when the desired action could easily be accomplished without it.
  • The late game wastes a lot of the player's time, and clearly was not as well-tested as the early game. Early merchants will move to the central hub once found; early areas unlock shortcuts from the central hub allowing you to bypass most enemies; early bosses have interesting strategies and create tense moments. Late merchants stay several minutes of running away from one another; late areas are heavily linear and very far away from each other; late bosses are either incredibly easy using techniques the previous boss just tested, or so high-level that unimaginative brute force techniques are required to succeed.
Please keep in mind that these gripes are the result of a product being subjected to intense, withering scrutiny over the course of 100 hours (see previous entry). It's like reading Lord of the Rings for the third time and realizing that Tolkien's writing style is turgid and dense, or watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and pointing out the plot holes. There are legitimate criticisms to be made, but they are simply not the reason that people enjoy it or seek it out in the first place. Similarly, Dark Souls is a remarkable achievement and creates a deep sense of fascination and satisfaction that few other things in life can match, even as it will enrage you and make you roll your eyes. It's like that one relationship you had in college, really.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dark Souls (not a review)

I have spent an awful lot of time playing Dark Souls in the last three weeks, resulting in the following breakdown:
  1. First time playing the game, largely alone and offline: 50 hours
  2. Second time playing the game, after reading the wiki: 25 hours
  3. Achievement hunting and grinding: Additional 5 hours each playthrough
  4. Abortive third playthrough: 6 hours
  5. Talking to others about Dark Souls: 6 hours, from dates to birthday parties to water cooler chatter
  6. Reading the wiki, online reviews and other helpful guides: 10 hours
I think I am done for now with the game after finishing the second playthrough; I want to leave some content fallow (strength, intelligence, PvP, Black Phantoms) for a later go-round once my initial memories have had a chance to fade, rather than strip-mine it for all its fun right this instant. But it is difficult to tear myself away. So let's explore why the game is so compelling.

It is difficult to be objective about something which has its hooks so deep in me. Dark Souls is The Wire or the T.S. Eliot of video games: highbrow, moody, exacting, tedious, and meticulously crafted to appeal to the connoisseur, not least by instilling a sense of elitist satisfaction. "This game isn't hard!" you will tell yourself, after you are finished, in the same way that Richard Feynman used to call engineering problems "trivial" if they could be solved with applications of existing theory. If you play games for mastery and exploration, rather than for socialization or escapism, you will probably love this one. (If you are a fan of socialization and escapism, I hear this year's FIFA is pretty good, and doesn't require you to win 5-0 against Barcelona to unlock them.)

To a reviewer, Dark Souls is a never-ending parade of misery, practical jokes upon the player, and brief shining moments of victory and elation that makes your imminent crushing defeat to the next challenge even crueler. To a designer, the game world is carefully crafted to give paranoid, observant and informed players a leg up on the competition. Will you be crushed by a giant rolling ball from Indiana Jones while walking up an innocuous stairway? Yes. Could you have predicted this by looking at a big spherical dent in the opposite wall? Always. Are there objects of incredible power that are accessible only through arcane and finicky means? Yes. Are there game systems in place to inform the player anyway? Yes. Does the game waste untold amounts of time making you walk back and forth through a sprawling open world? Often. Do strategically placed shortcuts open up at particularly difficult areas? Usually, although there are a couple notable exceptions. In this way, exploration feeds into mastery, providing tangible reminders of your progress. The game is even more aggressively focused on gear than its predecessor Demon's Souls, so a deficiency in mastery can even be made up for with exploration, and vice versa. The game is careful not to crush your spirit, except during boss fights, with many systems that reward you for making a small amount of progress and then dying.

The final piece of the addictive puzzle is the death mechanic, the primary driver of tension and compulsive behavior in the game. Essentially, you are not given a bank account, and you drop your wallet when you die. (You will die often, especially when exploring a new area.) You only have one spare wallet, so you must venture forth immediately to the site of your demise or forfeit everything. To gamers used to a steady diet of affirmation and steady difficulty curves, having to walk away from up to an hour's worth of progress or run away with your tail between your legs is gut-wrenching. This mechanic has the qualities of greatness: easy to learn, hard to master, encouraging behavior (giving the tough spot another try) that helps push the players on to completing the game.

A proper review is forthcoming, which you can expect to follow my usual pattern of offering suggestions for improvement.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Early Bird

Over the last few weeks, I've been playing a lot of iPhone games. They largely fall into two categories: ports of console games and bite-size touch screen games. There is intense, brutal competition in both, and the cream of the crop tends to be both genuinely enjoyable, replayable, and extremely cheap, ranging from $1 to $5. But not every game is healthy fare, and that's where Early Bird comes in.

Early Bird is clearly inspired by the smash hit Angry Birds, where a swipe determines the angle and force of your projectiles as you attempt to knock down buildings for points. Early Bird similarly tasks you with carrying the bird to its destination via swipes, with various bonus points awarded for side goals like "bounce really high on this coiled spring." The cutesy art style, help-a-baby-bird and bouncy sound design are similarly echoes of Tiny Wings, but touch the ol' heart strings all the same. Like seemingly all iPhone puzzle games, there are lots of levels, each of which can be completed in 5 minutes or less, organized loosely by theme. An additional charmingly unique factor is the end-of-level report, where a surly worm (presumably, the one you just enabled the early bird to get) congratulates you in semi-ironic fashion with messages like "Yippee."

Unfortunately, this attractive package is wrapped around a vicious shell of bad design that hollows out the game in a way only veteran players will spot. It is the Hostess Cakes of bird-based puzzle games: tastes great, no filling, leaves you sick to your stomach at the end. This is a serious charge, so I'll detail my reasoning:
  1. The scoring system (from 1 to 3 stars) is completely broken. There are lots of small, inventive bonuses that make you feel good about finding the right solution, or salve you for getting stuck in a bad situation, adding up to ~4000 points per level. There is a time bonus, to the tune of ~1500 points. There is a bonus of 5,000 points for a bullseye. Then each unused swipe gives you 10,000 points. It takes 20,000 points to get the maximum 3 stars, and each level is designed to be solvable with 2 unused swipes. I like to call a scoring system like this Quidditch Syndrome. Lots of things are happening, but every game is won or lost by Harry Potter. This removes the rewards they carefully built for the player in favor of a single metric that is the same for every level. In other words, it removes strategy and variety, without providing any benefits, in a system that is very easy to fix.
  2. The level design is extremely linear and holds the player's hand to an astonishing degree. The ideal path for every level is marked with floating bugs in the exact arc the player should swipe, and other paths are carefully blocked off. Usually, there is a complicated series of springs, fans, bouncers, etc. that can be completed in one perfect swipe or 5 smaller ones, and the ideal path will hit every single one of them - there are no red herrings. In later levels, instant death spikes adorn areas next to your target path, removing what little leeway you have. Because of the scoring system above, there is no chance of success with anything but the fewest possible number of swipes, so you are basically riding the Early Bird train every single time for 100+ levels. This is probably a deliberate design decision, but it could also be simple incompetence.
  3. The "pinball bumpers" mechanic, appearing at level 25 or so, seems designed to bring tears to the eyes of easily frustrated players - you know, the kind who would appreciate all the hand-holding and simple score system I discussed above. In a momentum-based game, tightly spaced obstacles which give you lots of negative momentum can range from a +1 swipe tax to instant death depending on the level. Only a perfect shot will get through them, and because the levels are bird-powered Rube Goldberg machines, you usually can't even see the proper shot before you make it. This trial and error instantly sapped the remaining fun of the game from me. Again, it is easily fixable simply by increasing the space between bumpers so that a shot at 40 degrees instead of 45 would still make it past.
There is room in the iPhone market for a bird-based puzzle platformer. Early Bird is not this game, and the tragedy here is how popular and acclaimed it is, largely because it is so easy. Almost every review mentions either the cute graphics or the surpassing lack of difficulty, or both. It's just empty video game calories. Hey, at least it doesn't make you grind for points!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee - The Rama Series

Popular Wisdom: Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is a science fiction masterwork, full of the wonder of space exploration and the humbling, mysterious presence of a superior alien race, if rather short on character development. 20 years later, Clarke teams up with co-author Gentry Lee for a followup trilogy (Rama II, Garden of Rama, Rama Revealed) which is so bad it almost retroactively ruins the original.

My Take on Rendezvous with Rama: This is a near-perfect example of "hard" sci-fi: a plausible extrapolation of current science and cosmology, a relentless celebration of the imagination, with a clear and brisk writing style that efficiently conveys the sense of exploration and unearthing secrets that makes one want to become an archaeologist. In brief, a motley spaceship crew sets out to explore a colossal, apparently deserted alien spacecraft, dubbed "Rama." The ship is a hollow cylinder, 16km wide by 50km long - a colony ship, spinning to create artificial gravity so that looking up will reveal the other side of the world overhead - and Clarke hammers home the incredible, stupefying size of such an object at every opportunity. As Rama nears the sun, the lights come on, the frozen sea begins to thaw, and the crew discovers they are in for more than they imagined - anything more would be spoilers. The mystery has been sufficiently built up by the end of this short book that it makes me immediately want to rush out and buy the other volumes, even though I knew they would not match it.

My Take on the Rama Trilogy: Like all amateur reviewers before me, I feel a strong desire to blame all the bad parts of the Rama trilogy on Gentry Lee: the awful writing which is eager to tell rather than show, the hundreds of pages spent on soap opera with one-dimensional characters, the ham-handed social messages, and a letdown at the end of the series so bad it's virtually all I remember from the first time I read this series, maybe 15 years ago. This allows us to credit Clarke with all the good parts, namely the overpowering sense of scale and the genuinely imaginative yet mostly plausible aliens. But this is too shallow a view; it is ultimately Clarke's fault as editor that the Rama sequels consistently find the least interesting angle on some genuinely marvelous content. How does a six-year-old react after having been put to sleep for 15 years and waking up as a young adult? It's difficult to tell, because no one ever asks or talks about it, except for a few offhand comments in the interior monologues of our impossibly competent heroine, Nicole. What would be different about a society where the staple food of one sentient species is the surplus eggs of another? Author-insert hero Richard barely has time to discover this great concept before both species are wiped out by the moustache-twirling human villain. Et cetera.

Ironically, while the trilogy sets up and answers a lot of big questions, and much of Rama Revealed is spent with long information dumps explaining the society, culture and technology of different advanced alien races or even the history of the universe, the actual answers that a reader of Rendezvous was looking for turn out to be pat and disappointing. There is an awful lot of character interaction, mostly several generations of one spacefaring family, but everyone talks and thinks in an incredibly logical and clinical fashion which is almost impossible to map onto human nature, meaning scenes which are intended to be tearjerkers end up as cold and distant. I felt like I was playing a Bioware video game through most of these books: detached and wondering what the implications of various life-shattering events would be for these characters I barely knew. The first time a child is born to the last remaining human couple, or a shotgun wedding is announced before some implacable alien deadline, or a daring escape is made into the arms of a mysterious alien race, it is touching and impactful. The fifth or sixth time this happens, with the exact same reaction from everybody, not so much.

The only character that breaks the spell is Benjy, the retarded child with a heart of gold, who is honest and brave enough to say what all the characters should have been saying and feeling the whole time. Lee is much better at writing children and robots than he is at writing people. Kudos should also be mentioned for having the heroine of the story be a French African doctor fond of dreams and visions, not a square-jawed skeptical space marine.

Final Verdict: Rama, like so many other nerdy franchises, has a bad case of sequelitis, for which there is only one cure. Read the original, which won virtually every award the science fiction community can give, and try to forget they ever made a sequel.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Ender Quartet

The Verdict: There is only one ur-review of Orson Scott Card's Ender Quartet, and it goes like this: "Ender's Game is an incredible and thought-provoking sci-fi novel. Speaker for the Dead, the sequel, is confusing and totally different, but still a good book. Xenocide is long, boring and has a terrible deus ex machina cliffhanger ending. Children of the Mind is just dreadful, except for the last 100 pages where the plot threads from the previous books are finally wrapped up." Reviewers who read Card's copious introductions/afterwords will add, "Originally, Xenocide was the final volume of a trilogy, but the book ran too long, so Card split Children of the Mind off. This is a big reason why both the books are unsatisfying." There may also be a caveat that Speaker for the Dead was actually not as good as everyone says it is.

In a broad sense, this narrative is true, but I'd like to offer an alternative explanation.

Ender's Game is now an indispensable part of the school English curriculum (I remember sitting in the gifted program in elementary school listening to 3 different book reports on it), and for good reason. Card writes very simply and his omniscient viewpoint is very aggressive, so that Ender's thoughts and feelings are very intelligible to a young reader. The key plot threads all resonate with gifted kids: Ender is always younger, smarter and more vulnerable than his peers, and he is always thinking of new ways to trump the established wisdom, and all the adults consider him Very Important but they don't tell him what's really going on until it's too late. (The reader, meanwhile, is also keeping tabs on Ender from the outside via minor characters.) It's also cracking good sci-fi, with a fun futuristic game/sport and a great use of space technology without faster-than-light travel and an incredible twist ending that's foreshadowed just enough. The last chapter is clearly there to set up for book 2, but it provides a nice sense of closure to the story by letting our heroes take a breather.

Speaker for the Dead is the rare sequel that is almost completely unlike the original. It is 3000 years in the future, Ender is a 40-year-old man looking to settle down and get married, the starships-and-intrigue action is replaced by ethical dilemmas and interesting alien biology, and the book is littered with thoroughly unpleasant characters to act as a foil for Ender, who is pretty much ready for sainthood from page 1. That being said, it's still a very good book, and frankly science fiction needs more books with intense character-driven drama instead of yet another version of Top Gun or Master and Commander in space. There is still a twist ending, but there's also like 50 pages of denouement afterward to set up for book 3.

Xenocide and Children of the Mind are basically one very long sequel to Speaker, painfully separated in a way that does violence to a story that already spent way too much time mired in philosophical discussions, detailed descriptions of various Eastern cultures, and characters repeating the same things they said 500 pages ago. The core problem is Card's decision to split up the books chronologically, which means that what is by now an incredibly intricate plot with dozens of characters needs to be rehashed every so often even though Card has run out of interesting things to say about it.

The split should really leave Children of the Mind the entire main plot line, which involves a government effort to destroy the planet Lusitania, which contains a deadly super-virus as well as all the main characters from Speaker plus two different alien species, and to kill Ender's AI sidekick who is jamming their transmissions. This contains Card's pet story idea that the soul is a subatomic particle, and love is a real physical force that creates instantaneous bonds between and within people. This turns out to lead to a ridiculous deus ex machina involving faster-than-light travel and the physical manifestation of Ender's good and evil sides, but still there is eventually closure for all the long-running plot threads.

This frees up Xenocide to focus on the philosophical parts of books 3 and 4, which take place on totally different planets (Planet China, Planet Japan, Planet Samoa) with totally different characters who are frankly much more interesting than listening to Ender's family rehash their grievances and their stupid decisions again. Without several hundred pages of setup, the sudden intrusion of the impossible into the frustrating and repressed life of our heroine, Si Wang-mu, becomes lively and exotic again. With some forced mystery added, the awkward side of these novels could be an intriguing surprise, instead of being rehashed in every conversation in a vain attempt to make the books on the same reading level as Ender's Game, which is not even remotely true.

So basically, I'm proposing that Xenocide could have been a really cool book, if it were totally rewritten. That's the rundown: Flashes of brilliance and some cool ideas, overshadowed by a huge cast of generally irrelevant characters, needless lengthening of the plot, and above all the bloated expansion of the final volume of a trilogy into a convoluted mess.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I picked up Rift’s free trial mode after the link was published in Penny Arcade, played for a couple hours, got frustrated by the tutorial and starting zone, and turned it off. After talking with Austin and Matthew about it, I decided to give the game another shot, this time making it several hours in (level 12) before real life intervened. I don’t particularly feel the need to sign back on, although I might try to see a full-scale invasion (which I mostly missed because I was questing at the time). So this review is not exhaustive; then again, there’s a good reason for that.
Final Verdict: Rift is a cover band who finally made it big, with a slick record deal and a professional engineer. It looks great, it runs very well on my mid-grade PC, and virtually every genre feature that everyone has said, “I wish that were present in game X!” about is present and accounted for. This puts it several steps above most other online games, but from my interior perspective, it just means I’m not seething in frustration. Everything is fairly polished, although the basic feedback loop is rather slower than I’d like. Everything is executed adequately, and no further than adequately. I would recommend this in a vacuum over World of Warcraft, simply because it is newer and shinier, but there is absolutely no reason to double up between them unless you have friends in both places.
For Non-WoW Players: Rift is a Western MMO, a “Massively Multiplayer Online” game, extremely similar to World of Warcraft (WoW). This means you will spend several dozen hours doing menial labor to build up your character, either alone or with a small group of friends. Virtually everyone you talk to will have a task for you to complete, such as “Those wolves are killing our sheep. Kill six wolves and bring me their pelts!” or “Our supplies of leather pants are running low. Sew a dozen pairs for me and I’ll pay you!” or mostly, “Vorenclex the Wicked in his futile but bitter feud with Alvala of Ergeron has cursed our beloved trees. Pray at these three shrines to shine the holy light of cleansing upon them!” Each of these actions rewards you with increasing amounts of experience and loot, and slowly lead you to explore the enormous map and build up your character into a unique and special snowflake. (Or, more realistically, you will be Legolas Knockoff #47913.) Meanwhile, several thousand other people are doing the same thing at the same time, so you will often pass them in the wilderness, helping them out of a jam or waiting for them to finish killing wolves so you can take your turn. This creates a mindless but entertaining feedback loop during which you can easily listen to background TV, talk to friends, or just numb the pain of an uncomfortable existence by escaping into a world where your actions are always positive and someone pops in every hour or two to announce that you’ve earned some new toy. Like Facebook, the only real value in this game is being a social lubricant. If the idea of signing up to kill some demons with Bob and Linda, or with 4 people you’ve never met, is an exciting way to help people out while relaxing, Rift is an excellent tool for this purpose. It’s very easy to join a group either formally or informally, and your computerized allies’ incompetence creates frequent opportunities to save them from the slavering demon hordes, so enjoy. If you want something you will be having deep thoughts about in the car tomorrow morning, look elsewhere.
For Current or Former WoW Players: Rift is virtually identical to WoW, except it looks prettier and the titular “rifts” are semi-random, optional opportunities to join a temporary group to fight in a miniature dungeon. There is absolutely no reason to recommend it unless you quit WoW for reasons unrelated to the game itself (stopped being single, grew apart from your friends, etc.) because it is only slightly less tedious than what you’ve already seen. There are no evolutionary leaps forward here; it earns a solid B for “Meets Expectations” in every category.

Timothy Zahn - The Conquerors Trilogy

This trilogy represents Zahn at the peak of his popularity and power, with his trademark mix of space opera, diplomatic thrills and military action, plus an ambition to prove his wildly popular Star Wars books weren’t just a flash in the pan. It’s largely successful, and I couldn’t put it down even on a third reading, which marks this series as one of my all-time favorites. Plus you’ve gotta love a series where at least one person per book pulls out a diplomatic carte blanche and it’s a bigger deal than being shot at.
Story: The basic premise involves a war between humans and the alien Zhirrzh, both of whom refer to the other guys as “The Conquerors”. Both sides are set up as a mirror image of the other, with a large and well-connected family on each side and various political higher-ups playing a central role in the conflict, and a pervasive fear that the other guys are unbeatable. The plot starts with first contact and quickly breaks into parallel lines following a human POW, a daring and illegal attempt to rescue him, an occupied border world hiding a piece of the top-secret human superweapon, a second feuding pair of alien races with ulterior motives, a high-ranking politician with a grudge against our heroes, and a journalist being pursued by Military Intelligence – and that’s just book 1. There are lots of sudden revelations and subtly foreshadowed plot twists, leading into a climax with upwards of a dozen major characters on three planets, all on the same interstellar conference call, trying to negotiate a cease-fire before the fleet reaches Earth. This is the rare space-military story where everybody involved would rather not be fighting, and much of the labyrinthine plot ties directly into world-building features that leave you feeling like these events are totally natural and explainable. It’s a great ride, basically, and I noticed my heart rate speeding up towards the end, which is a big accomplishment.
Design: Zahn’s simple prose and complex plot doesn’t leave much time for character development or visual descriptions, but propels you along so quickly you won’t notice. The central conceit of the trilogy presents the first book, Conquerors’ Pride, from the human perspective as they struggle to understand the alien culture, and the second, Conquerors’ Heritage, from the alien perspective, with the third book, Conquerors’ Legacy, switching rapidly between them as the two sides meet. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Zahn tried to cram a superb four-book series into three books, resulting in some very rushed portions and virtually no chance to ask what the characters are thinking and feeling. A modern publisher, having learned that books sell well no matter how many pages they contain, would have given Zahn the space he needed to avoid skipping all the falling action, for instance. I also found the use of language and neologisms to make the aliens sound less human (like saying “cyclic” instead of “year”) to be aggravating, although you might find it a charming way to reinforce cultural differences.
Best Feature: The alien Zhirrzh are one of the best humanoid aliens I’ve ever read. They’re a genuinely new idea, and their civilization and attitudes are well thought out considering their physical and technological differences from humans. Even the names are instantly readable but unpronounceable tongue twisters. By the end of the series, I found myself rooting for the Overclan Prime, plucky scientist Thrr-gilag, and amateur spy Prr’t-zevisti more than the humans.
Worst Feature: Too much foreshadowing. The camera almost never cuts away as a secret is revealed or a plan is detailed; instead, the reader usually knows more about what’s going on than any individual character. At its best, this works like a Greek tragedy. At its worst, you are left impatiently tapping your foot while the cast smells something fishy, then decides to investigate, then finally discovers something you’ve known about for 500 pages.
Overall Verdict: I picked these up off Borders’ used book section for a total of $3.50. At that price, it’s hard to say no. Although if you prefer a little angst and soul-searching in your sci-fi, you should definitely look elsewhere; Zahn’s characters are too busy evading pursuit atop a sentient vine.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Black Swan

Plot summary:  Struggling ballet dancer Natalie Portman is cast as both the innocent White Swan and the lustful Black Swan, and the role slowly creeps into reality as her sanity disintegrates under the pressure.

Word on the street was that this movie was really good but "intense" and "disturbing." One out of these three descriptors is true: it is a very intense film that did a good job of keeping me on the edge of my seat during the climax. That's pretty much the high point, though.

First, the good parts: The two best performances come from Natalie Portman (who has been playing similar roles for a while now) and Tchaikovsky, whose score for Swan Lake imbues the cliché-ridden and heavily padded plot with undeserved gravitas. Actually, the casting is good overall, but the scope of the action is so narrow and the motivations so hastily sketched that it's tough for anyone else to make an impression.

After discussing Black Swan with a couple friends, the consensus was that this movie had a lot of potential but failed to deploy it, due either to the script or the director. I'm inclined to lay the blame at the feet of Darren Aronofsky, whose determination to imbue every scene with the themes of Sex, Black vs White, Reality Distortion and Parallel Characters breaks the suspension of disbelief about halfway in. Like a video game where the secret island base is patrolled by blue ninjas instead of the red ninjas you fought at the dojo, the first couple sex scenes were dramatic and sensual but the next ones trigger only a raised eyebrow.

Another key limiting factor is the script's unwillingness to show character development that isn't summarized in the first four lines of the movie. Bad girl Mila Kunis is eternally (for no apparent reason) eager to make friends with our heroine, whose level of craziness is pretty much the same for the entire film. Other standard ballet movie tropes (the sexually irresistible teacher, the creepy domineering mother, the jilted rival, the ambitious climber, the contrast-heavy backdrops, arriving late for practice) stay at the same level of dramatic intensity throughout, and it is only Portman who manages to make us care. Again, this is a failure of directing, as the same eerie music and shaky-cam shots are given to the petty coincidences of minute 5 as the full-blown crazy of minute 90. The pacing is also off: several scenes have no relation to the plot but were just too good to cut, so they are haphazardly thrown in

This isn't to say that Black Swan is a bad movie. It's just that you can see glimpses of a great drama behind it, and I'm frustrated that it never really gets there.