Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Who Ya Gonna Call? My Time as a Ghost Hunter

I mentioned way back in my early biographical posts that I've done quite a few interesting things over the years, but one of the experiences I've had that I still get the most questions about is the years I spent as a Ghost Hunter (1999-2002.) The success of overproduced cable shows that wildly distort the processes used and experiences of a paranormal investigator were years away when I got my start, but I suspect my story is an unusual one.

I've read books about real life ghost stories since I was a very young man. I can remember that one of the first books I checked out of a public library was on the subject, and the very first book ordered in school from the Scholastic catalog was about ghosts. (Incidentally, I believe the second was a book on Greco-Roman mythology, I was an odd child.) I'd read about haunted sites, seen photographs of mists and orbs and the rare (and almost always fake) photos of an actual apparition, and I wanted to take one of those myself. One of the gaming groups I was in had someone in it with a similar interest, and we knew of a supposedly haunted site not far from where we gamed.

First book on hauntings I ever read.

After various sessions of D&D, my friend Mark and I would load up our cameras and get into either his car or mine and head to Robinson Woods in Norridge, IL. The site is an Indian Burial Ground, literally, with a headstone marking the grave of Pottowatami Chief Alexander Robinson not too far in. Now and again, we'd look around, take a few rolls of film... we didn't really know what we were doing. One night, we arrived at the site and saw two suspicious looking individuals already there, my friend and I acknowledged the pair, but not knowing if they were drug dealers or not, we moved deeper into the woods. From behind us, we saw a camera flash, and realized the pair was there for the same reason we were. We moved back to speak with them, camera in hand, and the taller of the two, dressed in a trenchcoat laughed, saying “We thought you guys might be drug dealers!”

To be fair, I was likely dressed like this.

That night the four of us went out to eat at a late night Denny's (an American restaurant that serves breakfast 24 hours per day in many places) and talked about our experiences. This is how my friend and I got started with Haunted Chicago Paranormal Research and Investigation. The pair we'd met were the last two of a group of investigators who'd had a personal falling out, and were about to “give up the ghost” (pun most definitely intended.) We agreed to go with them to a few other sites that the two of us had planned to visit someday anyway, and after a few months of weekly trips, we were officially inducted into the group.

At the time, we structured our group to be different from most other ghost hunters in the Midwest, and particularly in Chicago. Most other groups used ghost hunting as a way to sell books, or run October bus tours, or otherwise make a living. We didn't want to sell anything. We wanted to have strict controls on the data we'd gather, and come at the subject in a manner that would please people like us, interested skeptics. We did photography experiments to have examples of equipment malfunction, water on the lens, lens flare and a host of other entirely normal phenomena usually cited to debunk haunted photography. For every photo that made it to the website, we'd discard 10 with results that weren't good enough to satisfy all of us.

One of the shots I took that was most often linked-to and discussed, as drops of water
and lens flare don't move, and specks of dust don't move that fast.

We created forms, tracked down and used night vision goggles, electromagnetic field meters, ambient temperature gauges and lots of cameras. We visited virtually every site in the Chicagoland area, graveyards at night, forest preserves, the site of the Eastland disaster, Resurrection Cemetery (Of Resurrection Mary fame) and the alley where a man who may or may not have been John Dillinger was shot to death. We spent a lot of time in Bachelor's Grove Cemetery and we met our share of drunken teens, other investigators and angry policemen ready to chase us out. We took data. Lots and lots of data. We may not have been proper scientists, but we were going to take our research many steps closer in that direction than anyone else had.

The process of being a paranormal investigator is a lot like I've heard being in law enforcement is... hours of boring routine punctuated by moments of excitement. We heard and saw unusual things on rare occasion, but they were difficult to test in a scientific manner. We recorded abnormal EMF readings, sudden drops in air temperature and took photographs with anomalous results. However, for every experience like this, there were a hundred that were either entirely normal (and kind of dull) or suspect, in that they might have an alternate rational explanation. In the end, we had a lot we couldn't explain, but our findings were inconclusive.

A photo I shot in the infamous Bachelor's Grove Cemetery.

We did have several television appearances, I gave a few interviews before cameras and our group was profiled on a cable show or two, before they realized that the groups not using rigid standards of data collection and a healthy dose of skepticism made for better TV. We even did a few home investigations and had conversations with many of the other well-known personalities of “the scene.” Our largest project to fall through came after we had drinks with a paranormal investigator in New Orleans, who gave us a tour of a graveyard she had the keys to. An arrangement for a Haunting-themed train trip on the City of New Orleans run from Chicago with presentations at either end from members of our respective groups fell apart due to poor communication.

Over the years, group members drifted apart, we went on fewer and fewer trips out as other things in our lives took priority, and now I rarely see or hear from any of them besides Mark, who I knew well before becoming involved. It was an interesting experience, and I came away with it with a hypothesis that didn't quite get enough testing to call a theory. I believe based on what we saw and recorded that certain powerful emotions can leave an imprint on a place. Not talking about psychic energies or any other New Age kind of stuff, I mean an actual measurable change on the environment, in particular in naturally occurring levels of Electromagnetic Fields. EMF has unusual interactions with people, making them feel things, see/hear things and can even move objects or distort photography. Unfortunately, that doesn't sell as many books or blocks of television time as spirits of the restless dead.
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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Unemployed Geek Cooks – The Basics: Sauces.

I've had this idea for a second blog for quite some time, but I don't have a decent digital camera and the style of blogging demands that you do. The food blog. Besides writing, gaming and other geeky pursuits, the only thing I do that isn't sleeping or looking for work is making food. Now, most of the time, I eat like a bachelor despite being happily married, i.e. eating canned spaghetti straight out of the tin, ramen noodles and microwave treats or frozen entrees. However, either my wife or I cook on occasion, and I've had the time to refine my craft a bit in these last few months, so rather than hold out for a future spinoff blog, I'll take advantage of the Memorial Day holiday to talk about my style of cooking and do some brief discussion about it, while my collard greens for tonight's meal simmer.

Too many men decide from the outset that the only cooking they'll take pride in the noble art of grilling. I have nothing against a well-grilled steak, burger or kabob, but a grill isn't always practical, and I've found there are plenty of masculine styles of cooking that can be done indoors. My personal cooking styles take cues from the American Southern blues musicians/Soul Food, New Orleans-style Cajun food and Mexican-American or Tex-Mex cuisine. These styles have a few things in common. They were first made popular with simple, inexpensive ingredients by poorer people, they use more spice for flavoring than many other styles of cooking, and they are very “manly.”

I know some think he's a huge D-bag, but his cooking and mine are pretty similar. (Guy Fieri, of the Food Network)

In traditional cooking schools, the French method is the most commonly accepted structure and form followed when training to become a chef. This method of cooking involves a brigade system of different cooks with different responsibilities, and under the Head Chef and Sous Chef, the highest stratified position is the saucier, responsible for sauteéd items... and their sauces. Sauces are the thing that you can do right and cover a multitude of other sins in the kitchen, and if you do them wrong, the flavor of the dish is unsalvageable.

I'm not a trained chef, and many of my sauces come out of a bottle, but gathering the basics for my style of cooking and understanding when to use each and how to combine them was key to becoming a good cook. Getting this stuff down is like the difference between memorizing lines and acting, or practicing scales on an instrument and really playing. I could write pages and pages about the history of various sauce types, but I want to focus on a few kitchen essentials: oils, vinegars, savory sauces and hot sauces.

Oil and vinegar are combined to use as a dressing or condiment, and form bases for many, many different sauces. I keep no fewer than three different cooking oils around at all times, as in addition to being ingredients in various sauces, cooking meat is easier with a bit of oil in the pan. I stock at all times olive oil, peanut oil (roasted, in my case) and canola oil. Vinegar gives a distinctive tangy flavor, and is an important component in cooking many meat and fish dishes, as well as an ingredient in virtually every other bottled sauce. I keep bottles of white vinegar, malt vinegar, apple cider vinegar and balsamic vinegar in the kitchen at all times.

One of my secret ingredients, the base oil for cooking chicken and sausage for my Jambalaya.

Many savory sauces are used as ingredient and/or condiment, from the simple tomato ketchup to a wide variety of barbecue sauces and European seafood sauces, most notably Worcestershire Sauce. I prefer to cook and bottle my own barbecue sauce (a process that deserves an article all its own), but I also keep around at least 1 bottle of Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue, and when I can get it (which isn't often enough) Dreamland Barbecue sauce from Alabama. In addition to the staples listed above, I've recently begun to experiment with a seasoning sauce called Maggi, popular in certain European countries and down in Mexico, but virtually unknown here in the States. It tastes like a cross between a high-quality chinese soy sauce and a well-cooked steak.

If you must use a grocery-store BBQ sauce, you could do a whole lot worse.

Hot sauces. Pages and pages have been written about pepper sauces and their role in cooking, but I'm not interested in heat for heat's sake, so I typically don't bother with the spicer varieties. Anything made out of a habanero pepper is likely too hot to not overwhelm most of what I cook, so the sauces I keep in the house are on the wimpy side of the Scoville heat scale. (All Scoville units below approximate.)


  • Frank's Red Hot (870sc) : A Cayenne Pepper sauce most well known for being an essential ingredient in the original Buffalo Style chicken wings (along with butter). One of my go-to sauces in cooking and as a condiment directly on food.
  • Tabasco - Traditional Red Pepper (2500sc), Green (800sc), and Chipotle (1500sc) : The basic Tabasco sauce is little more than vinegar and red pepper, which makes it a better “add heat” ingredient than anything, Green is a much milder jalapeno pepper sauce, and Chipotle is one of the most useful sauces in my whole collection. Very low heat, incredible smoky flavor. I highly recommend replacing any use of “liquid smoke” with this sauce, as the smoked peppers are perfectly balanced in this, and I use it in all three of my cooking styles.
  • Sriacha “Rooster Sauce” (2200sc): A Vietnamese sauce designed to be a condiment on restaurant tables, this combination of red pepper and garlic flavors in a thicker sauce has gotten much love from the internet lately, and the flavor explains why. Since I bought a bottle of this, it is replacing Frank's as the sauce I'm most likely to put directly onto food as a condiment, and my wife (who isn't a “spicy food” person, uses quite a bit of this as well.

    I only really discovered this one this year, since I've been out of work.

I know that there's a whole lot of other sauces out there, even some that fit into my styles of cooking like a molé or creole tomato, even a New Orleans béchamel or other roux based sauces, but I'm more talking about  "stock the kitchen" basics here.  Since this isn't really a proper "geeky" topic, and it is a bit of a stretch to link this to being unemployed, this may be an anomaly as I don't want to regularly go too far outside my niche. Let me know what you think. Want to see more of this as an occasional backup feature when I'm struggling for an idea, or should I say "damn the torpedoes" and try to do a spinoff "Geeky Guy Cooking" blog even without a decent camera?  
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Friday, May 27, 2011

Fallout – Mutants and Radscorpions and Ghouls, Oh my!

War. War never changes. From those four words, fans of the franchise who hadn't read the title of today's post would still know what I'm writing about. I've had a long and complex relationship with Fallout, most of it good, soured near the end, but with hope for a happy reconciliation someday. I already talked about the only blemish on the franchise in my experience here, (basically, the ending to Fallout 3 practically ruined the game for me) so I can devote the rest of this article to the good times.

I still reinstall and play this and Fallout 2 every few years.

Black Isle Studios was a development house, frequently confused with BioWare as they both produced RPGs for Interplay in the late 1990s – early 2000s. They are best known for PlaneScape: Torment and Fallout 1 & 2. Due to differences of opinion in how the team should be run between team members and Interplay, key members of the dev team left to form Troika Games in 1998, leading to the rest of the division being laid off and Black Isle was officially defunct as of 2005. The inspiration for the first Fallout game, released in 1997, was an earlier Interplay RPG called Wasteland, released nearly a decade before.

The pen and paper RPG roots of Fallout are apparent in the character creation and improvement screens, and feeling like a tabletop roleplaying game was by design. Initially, the developers planned to use Steve Jackson's GURPS for character creation, combat and skill resolution, but the amount of violence in Fallout was a primary factor in the licensing agreement falling apart. Instead, the developers came up with their own in-house system, named SPECIAL (an acronym for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck, the primary attributes of any character.) In addition to purchasing points in these attributes, a character had to spend initial character resources to buy ranks in skills, and one or more “perks” which gave a character abilities not covered by his/her skills and attributes (not unlike feats in D&D or talents in WoW.)

PiP-Boy, the Fallout series mascot (and whipping boy for some of the more gory perks.)

The post-apocalyptic wasteland in the Fallout titles gave the character an overall goal with a time limit, but beyond that, a great deal of freedom in choosing how to complete that goal, as well as other side quests and subgoals encountered during play. Many challenges could be completed with stealth, violence or smooth talking, and consequences for attacking or allying with any of the various power groups out in the wastes would have an effect both later in the game, and on the ending (at least in Fallout 1&2). In the first game, the player takes the role of a dweller of a vault, a self-contained “bomb shelter” of sorts that insulated itself from the apocalypse, but exploration becomes necessary when the water purification chip in the vault becomes defective. The 2nd game features a descendent of the original Vault Dweller, now living in an imperiled village out in the wastes.

Many elements of style, from the Iconic Pip-Boy to Nuka-Cola (a bottled soda whose caps become the default standard of currency) and iconic creatures like genetic mutants and the radioactive Ghouls persist throughout all Fallout titles. Bethesda Softworks (of The Elder Scrolls games) acquired the rights to develop new Fallout titles, starting with Fallout 3, which dropped the top-down isometric perspective in favor of a first-person view more in keeping with their other games. Though the thematic elements were in keeping with the original games (your character in Fallout 3 is, once again, a Vault Dweller on a quest), series purists derided the newer games as “Oblivion (Elder Scrolls IV) with Guns.”

These games actually got me into listening to Louis Armstrong.

The combat systems in the original Black Isle titles and the Bethesda games were significantly different from each other. Fallout 1&2 featured turn-based RPG “action points” style combat, controlling multiple party members from a tactical perspective. Fallout 3 and later Bethesda titles did away with this system, preferring instead combat more like a first-person shooter, with the ability to zoom in and use “action points” to target specific creature body parts to allow a weapons skill roll to handle to hit and damage calculations, with a lot of extra damage assigned for hitting a vital spot. Both combat systems had their own advantages and disadvantages, the degree of precise control and tactical perspective in earlier games appealing to RPG gamer not fond of first person shooters, and the faster pace and improved graphics appealing to gamers who don't mind action elements in an RPG so much.

I really hope that this game is as good as I've been hearing, it'd be nice to look forward to Fallout titles again.

Overall, I prefer the older titles to the newer offerings by a wide margin, even though I don't mind RPG-action hybrids in the slightest. I appreciate how much work went into the newer titles to do a classic setting justice, but I fear that in the rush to modernize the franchise that some essential depth was lost. I've heard very good things about Fallout: New Vegas, in particular that it addresses some of the specific concerns of fans of earlier games with regard to deeper storytelling with more choices and potential consequences. I'll be sure to give the newer games a look once I can manage it. Bethesda obviously has a lot of respect for getting the Fallout “feel” right, and now that they don't have to completely reinvent the wheel, maybe they can recapture some of that Black Isle magic.
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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Return of an Old Friend. Mountain Dew Pitch Black is Back! (Now what to do with my other two wishes...)

I spent quite a bit of my day running those types of errands that absolutely require one to leave the house for a few hours, and my time spent outside was far from wasted.  I don't refer to social interaction with the public at large, or indeed anyone beyond my wife and the few folks who make it over to the house.  Eh, I've been to a friendly barbeque recently enough that my in person social skills haven't suffered too dramatic a degradation.  What saved a day spent in otherwise frustrating traffic and waiting in lines full of strangers was the return of something once thought lost.  I am, of course, talking about Mountain Dew Pitch Black.

I almost put an image of Vin Diesel here, but it seemed a silly joke.

I'm not much of a soda drinker, but like most gamers here in the US, I've had a special relationship over the years with Mountain Dew.  The caffeine and sugar rush from this particular soda has gotten me through more than a few marathon gaming sessions, and I've endeavored to at least taste their annual limited-edition flavor experiments with the stuff.  These have ranged from the quite good (Game Fuel red) to the positively putrid (Game Fuel blue,)  but none have ever held the crown besides Pitch Black.  Honestly, it kind of ruined me for soda, and it was discontinued over five years ago, and I'd held little hope of ever seeing it again.

I think the length of time it was completely unavailable added to the mystique surrounding this stuff, but tasting it again reminded me of why so many of us were desperate to have it back on the market.  There's a "bite" on the end of the flavor that makes it a little more than a caffeinated grape soda, and that factor was lost when they briefly brought it back as "Pitch Black II" in 2005, messing with the formula to attempt to make it more... sour.  The five bottles I purchased today are, thankfully, the original variety, and two are already gone.  Drinking this bottled nostalgia made me think about some of the other discontinued soda flavors.

Now that Pitch Black was re-released, Surge probably holds the crown for "most wanted discontinued beverage" in the soda world.  This neon green soda was released to compete with Mountain Dew, but rather than being a knock-off, I remember it having a distinct flavor all its own. It was a citrus flavored drink not completely unlike Mountain Dew, but also had a flavor similar to Green River (which is not gone, we just only see it around St. Patrick's Day in most places) in there somewhere, almost a  taste like lime Jell-O. It is apparently still available in Norway, and the closest approximation now is the Energy Drink named Vault, also  bottled by Coca-Cola.

Cans of this stuff still sell like mad on eBay, unless you live in Norway.
My personal favorite no longer available soda is the "berryclear" variety of Sprite remix.  As a "mixed berry" infusion of the popular lemon-lime brand, it was one of the few sodas to not really have anything else quite like it, without being just plain weird, like many of Pepsi's now-discontinued brands.  Anyone who's has mixed berry Skittles has a pretty good idea of the flavor behind this one, and I think the only reason why I didn't obsess over this flavor  the way I did about Pitch Black is that I didn't actually drink very much of it when it was available. I mentioned that I don't drink much of the sugary carbonated stuff as it is, but I drink virtually none of it if there's no caffeine involved.  Still, I have fond memories of having made an exception for this one.

And I never did get to mix this with anything stronger, which is now my only use for no-caffeine soda.
Plenty of articles have been written by many bloggers about Pepsi's own missteps in the goofy soda world, and their subsequent disappearances from store shelves.  Crystal Pepsi, Pepsi Fire and Ice, and many other unusual flavors available only seasonally or in countries outside the US have been part of the failed experiments, but only one that I recall  was so foul that I literally spit it out.  Pepsi Blue.  All of the color of spray window-cleaner, but somehow managing to taste worse than the average sugar-infuse cleaning product, without the accompanying sweet release of death.  Yeah, you could say I didn't care for it. For what it is worth, Pepsi Blue delivered on its promise, to combine cola with the "blue raspberry" fad so popular in children's drinks at the time.  This however, was a case of no one asking "Just because we *can* do this, *should* we?"

Not fit for human consumption.
I'm sure there are missing soft drinks worldwide that my readers outside the United States have their own fond memories of, and there's certainly a few here in the US that I didn't profile.  Did I not write about your favorite? Let me know, as I think a third bottle of Pitch Black is calling. Maybe I'll try it with Jaegermeister before it vanishes back into the mists once more. Best Blogger Tips
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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Would You Like a Jelly Baby? - Doctor Who Throughout the Years.

Of all characters in modern science fiction, there is not a single one that compares to the longevity of The Doctor, of the British Sci-fi program Doctor Who. Through television programs, movies, radio shows, spin-off novels and comic books, Doctor Who has existed in one form or another since it first aired in 1963. The show's continuity as a single entity distinguishes it from other classic science fiction movies and television programs that experience a “reboot” or other retelling. Series elements such as The TARDIS (The Doctor's time traveling device), villainous aliens including the Daleks, and the character of The Doctor himself have persisted throughout the decades of the show.

The TARDIS, bigger on the inside than on the outside.

From the beginning, The Doctor was a mysterious figure, a time-traveling alien with a human appearance who adventured throughout time and space. He was first played by William Hartnell from 1963-1966 until the actor's failing health required his departure from the series, but he provided one of the key concepts behind The Doctor before he stopped playing the character. As an alien, Hartnell reasoned, why could The Doctor not “regenerate” himself into another body when near death? The Second Doctor first appeared in the fourth episode of the Tenth Planet serial, and several important aspects of the character were immediately established, most notably that in each incarnation, The Doctor not only looks, but behaves slightly differently.

As the show continued to release additional series on television over the years, The Doctor's face changed many more times and Doctor Who became more popular worldwide, in spite of parent criticism that it was too violent and frightening for children. The Doctor continued to adventure with one or more companions throughout time and space in the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) device, which unlike the doctor retained its external appearance as a 1950's era British Police Box. Throughout the series' middle age, the actor who played The Doctor the longest was Tom Baker, portraying the Fourth Doctor, whose trademark long scarf and unusual demeanor made him one of the most immediately distinct characters in the show's long history. For many people, the Fourth Doctor was the definitive incarnation of the character, a status he would hold for over 25 years.

For many, he is the only Doctor that mattered.

The backstory of The Doctor and his alien enemies the Cybermen and the Daleks, was fleshed out and filled in a bit at a time over the years. The metal Cybermen are a race that replaced organic material bit by bit with cybernetic parts, and frequently come into conflict with The Doctor. The Daleks are an alien race of mutants bent on conquest who house themselves in a tank-like shell and have eliminated all emotions save those useful for conquest and the extermination of all other races. The insane metallic cry of “EXTERMINATE!” has persisted throughout the history of appearances by the Daleks. The Doctor himself was revealed to be a member of a race known as Time Lords, from the planet Gallifrey, though The Doctor himself seemed to be something of an outsider even to his own kind. This relationship with his people set the stage for another series recurring villain, a renegade Time Lord called The Master.

A classic joke was that the easiest way to defeat Daleks was stairs. This was later resolved, as they can fly.

The program went off of the BBC in 1989 as the network attempted to organize funding for future series featuring the characters, unsuccessfully attempting a revival with the lone appearance of the Eighth Doctor in a Television Movie in 1996. Throughout this period it was also discovered that in the 1970s over 100 episodes of early Doctor Who programs were forever lost as the original archives from the first six years of broadcast were destroyed to save space. Nearly 17 years of bad news for Doctor Who fans came to an end in 2005, when a revival starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor came to television screens.

The 2005 revival was tremendously popular, despite Eccleston only playing The Doctor for thirteen episodes, in no small part due to the overwhelming popularity of the Tenth Doctor. David Tennant was cast as the Tenth Doctor before the first episode of the 2005 series aired when it was made clear that Eccleston would play the character for only a single series. His regeneration was a major part of the first series' finale, and his portrayal of the character for the next five years proved so popular that he was the only actor to beat Tom Baker more than once in fan polls of “Greatest Doctor of All Time.” Aside from an episode here and there in the 1980s, it was Tennant's role as The Doctor that hooked me into the show personally and got me to track down the episodes I'd missed from 2005 on. Tennant continued to plat the character until 2008 when Matt Smith, the youngest actor to ever portray the character took over as the Eleventh, and current incarnation of the character.

My personal favorite Doctor, just barely edging out Tom Baker.

Personally, the episodes revisiting classic who villains are some of my favorites, but my all time favorite episode was “Blink” from 2007, featuring the Weeping Angels and barely featuring The Doctor at all. Throughout the years, historical adventure, sci-fi action and horror scenarios have made the show unique and consistently interesting, and several successful spin-offs have had runs of their own. Most notable among these is Torchwood, a show about an organization in Britain made aware of time travel and alien threats to Earth by the appearance of The Doctor, and their determination to defend against these threats at all costs. I'm still a few seasons behind, so I don't have much of an opinion about Matt Smith yet. I'm going to try to catch up this summer however, as I want to watch all of Torchwood in preparation for the Torchwood series “Miracle Day.” I'm sure when that premieres, I'll be right here to review it.
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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What if DocStout Wrote About Alternate Marvel Universes? - A Look at Marvel's "What If?" titles.

Even back in the late 1980s when I started reading comic books and following several storylines, there was a whole lot of catching up to do for anyone just getting started in order to fully understand what was going on. No one had thought of publishing trades to collect popular stories and the internet wasn't yet up to the task, so hanging around the comic shop looking at back issues and listening to the conversations of older comic geeks was one of very few ways to fill in major events in comic continuity. Fortunately, it wasn't the only way, as one of my very favorite titles Marvel ever produced showed key events as they happened... and then examined what would have transpired if things had gone differently.

The very first issue, nearly as old as I am.

What If? from Marvel has run off and on as a regular series or limited editions (one shots or short runs) from February 1977 through a five issues published in December of 2010. The cover typically shows a classic moment from Marvel history with some shocking twist, and the question is posed 'What if...?' things had gone just a bit differently, and in many cases, the point of divergence seems minor or very nearly happened in this alternate way, and the story is taken to a logical, if extreme, conclusion. Typical rules set up for characters in Marvel stories do not apply in the alternate universes and fan favorites can (and do) die, commit murder, destroy worlds or realities, etc...

For quite a long time, Uatu, a member of an alien interdimensional race called The Watchers who observe all realities but whose laws permit them from interfering, served as the series' narrator. The first few pages of each issue would provide a concise summary of events as they really happened in the Marvel Universe, which is what drew me to the title initially, and then the story focuses on the point of divergence. Uatu walks the reader through the tale pointing out important events necessary to comprehend the changes in the alternate story, and usually wraps up the story whether the ending is happy, tragic or bittersweet. Uatu himself has appeared in many other titles over the years, most notably in Fantastic Four comics, where he has broken his non-interference oath at least once.

For a character that turns up mostly as a plot device, he's been in a lot of  comic books.

More recently, the standard framing and plot device of a character narrator and focusing on events as they happened and a point of divergence has been phased out over time. After the end of What If? as a regular monthly or bi-monthly title, individual issues may have a narrator or not, and frequently the issue covers are made to look like issues within the comic series they are diverging from. On occasion, realities focused on in particularly popular issues of the comic have returned for “sequels” of a sort, where a new tale is told in the world that resulted from a particular What If? scenario. One of these, “What If?” #105 told the story of Spider-girl, daughter of Peter Parker, and spawned the MC2 spinoff continuity.

I found through the years of reading What If? that I had a better grasp of key moments in a lot of titles that I never collected than some of the fans of those particular comics did. Character motivations become clear when you see the same hero thrust into many different crises, some with no possibility of any happy resolution. The issue that hooked me initially was titled “What if Wolverine Had Become Lord of the Vampires?” and it made the strengths and relationships between a host of different heroes and villains apparent in the rise of a Vampire Lord with all Dracula's powers as well as all of Wolverine's tenacity, instinct and his admantium skeleton. This series, and how it captured the imagination was the precursor for Marvel events like Marvel Zombies. Showing how a hero fails sometimes tells you more about them than consistently seeing them win.

Aside from 1990s Ghost Rider comics, this was one of the most important comic issues for me, ever.

More recently, the title has been revived for limited runs of one-shot comics, typically giving the alternate universe treatment to whatever major Marvel event is taking place at the time. These titles will likely fall into the “must have” lists of the collectors who seek out every issue in crossover events like Civil War or House of M, and I would expect that within the next few years we'll be seeing a What If title for Fear Itself (which I'll return to once enough of it has come out to warrant a full review.) Other one-shots have returned to the classic formula with titles like “What if this was the Fantastic Four?” featuring Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider and Hulk, which was dedicated to the passing of Mike Wieringo in 2008.

I haven't read this one, but I like to believe that it is really
"What if Tony Stark wasn't such a douche during the Civil War story?"

It has been a little while since I gave out more of my 10 required nominations for The Stylish Blogger Award, so I figure I'll take this opportunity to nominate two more. Another link back here (near the bottom) to the “strings attached” rules for this award, and congratulations to the deserving recipients!

First up, we have The Lead Will Walk The Earth, an amazing blog about zombies, and more particularly gaming with zombie miniatures. Great photgraphy, scenario battle reports, and lots of rotting flesh.

My second nomination is to Rob's Nerd Blog, which goes from Song-a-Day to movie reviews and quite a few miscellaneous interesting articles.

Check these guys out, let 'em know I sent you, and sound off in the comments about Marvel's What If? or anything else in today's post.
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Monday, May 23, 2011

Legionnaires, Flintlocks, Intrigue and Dark Fantasy - a Profile on the World of Arcanis.

Of all the fantasy settings I've spent time playing in, writing for and reading about, one has had more impact than all the others. Shared interest in gaming in the world introduced me to my wife, and for many years even when money was extremely tight, we'd make an annual pilgrimage to one of the larger gaming conventions to participate in events. I'm talking about Paradigm Concepts' Arcanis – The World of Shattered Empires. When I first encountered this setting, I'd already been gaming for over 15 years, and I would have told you, if asked, that there was no room in my gaming life for another fantasy roleplaying setting. If I'd said that, I wouldn't have known what I was talking about. I was already jaded when I first gave Arcanis a try, and it pushed all other gaming for me into competing for 2nd place.

Classic Arcanis Logo.

What makes Arcanis different from other fantasy settings? This is a very complicated question, that takes more than a few sentences to answer. It is a world where the First Imperium of Man has long since fractured into many kingdoms, some of which war on each other, and even the last echoes of that ancient empire, The mighty Coryani with its vast resources and legions seems to be headed into twilight. The Mother Church tries to guide the faithful in their service to gods who have gone silent generations ago, while staving off heretical cults and perversions of the faith. In this world, a singular theme is repeated over and over again. Actions have consequences. The world reels from these consequences of choices made both recently and in the distant past.

The technology level of the world is a fusion of Ancient Rome and Late Medieval Europe with the additional “blessing” of blast powder allowing for cannons and flintlock weaponry in the hands of the very few who can obtain it in any significant quantity. The well-developed and distinct human cultures tend to determine common types of weapons and armor with specific local flavor, from a Coryani (similar to Rome) Gladius and Lorica Segmentata, to an Altherian (think Moorish) flintlock rifle, or the Milandesian (roughly most like German/Hungarian Knights) heavy plate and Tralian Hammer. The perspectives, secret societies and politics of the various human nations alone would make Arcanis distinct.

An Altherian man, complete with Flintlock Pistol.

Fantasy races in the world of Arcanis are also different takes on traditional swords and sorcery humanoid races. The Noble Val, who are very similar to humans, only tinged with the blood of the divine and imbued with some small portion of the powers of their family's patron deity are often the highest caste in the human nations. Val look human aside from the color of their eyes which indicates their capacity for psionic abilities (or lack thereof,) and they can and do marry and breed with normal humans. The reptilian Ss'ressen are the few members of a race that coexist with humanity out of a species that most typically belongs to the hostile and destructive Ssethregoran Empire, perpetually at war with other races. They follow the path of the Fire Dragon, rather than the Ssethric Dark Gods and often lend teeth, claw and tail to the human empires which their lands exist in or near. The Dark-Kin are remnants of a time when Infernal Lords tortured and enslaved humanity in the time of terror, and the demonic tainted blood made its way into human bloodlines creating something... else. Despite their dark heritage and sinister appearance, Dark-Kin are not universally evil, and many who fall to that path do so out of the fear and hatred they encounter at the hands of others.

A Val'Mordane of Canceri, sitting upon his dark throne. The Val'Mordane are
scions of Neroth, Lord of Undeath and Master of Pestilence.

Even standard fantasy races have their own unique flavor in this world, as elf, dwarf and gnome are represented in unusual ways. The Elorii are a people once enslaved by the reptilian Ssethregorans; legends say they were created by binding powerful elemental lords and fleshcrafting their powers into a species of slaves. Now free, each of the long-lived and graceful beings serve the elemental gods whom they share affinity with, and nearly all revere the fifth aspect named Belisarda, the Eloran Goddess of Life. Dwarves labor in their enclaves generation upon generation, revering the human pantheon and trying to atone for the sins that cursed them with their current form. They were charged in ancient times by the human gods to safeguard the human race when they walked the land as Giants, but betrayed their vow by setting themselves as tyrants over the humans. The punishment for their sin of putting themselves above humanity was the curse of the stunted dwarven form, and the denial of dwarven souls to paradise. This curse will only be broken by the dwarven enclave who creates the singular perfect item in the sight of the gods, so they serve their penance, and they craft. Gnomes are twisted abominations, nearly universally reviled as the unnatural and obscene progeny of a human and a dwarf. They have no distinct culture, no lands, and frequently no place in any proper culture.

Religion and Lore, especially in the human/val/dwarf pantheon has a major impact on the feel of any fantastic world, and it is particularly important in Arcanis. The gods have their individual priesthoods and orders of Holy Champions, and there is a greco-roman sort of familial divine hierarchy that defines each deity as a personal being. Every god or goddess has concepts within their portfolio (Nier: the Lord of Fire and War, Iliir: Father of the gods and Lord of Light and Truth, Sarish: Lord of Blood, Secrets, Oaths and Magic, etc.) and have immortal beings which serve them. These servants, the angelic/demi-godlike Valinor each serve a particular god and represent an aspect of that god's personality. Should one of these beings be lost or slain somehow, the god loses that part of themselves.
Elandre Val'Assante, Matriarch (think Pope) of the Mother Church.

These ideas were originally a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, but over the years, Arcanis has outgrown the edition changes and restrictions imposed by linking the setting to another company's system and have created their own game. The company has in the past, and continues to produce and sell source material, and supports their creation through the maintenance of a global shared world campaign. Players create and track characters as they play them, often with different other players and gamemasters at home, game shops or conventions as they run through adventure scenarios offered for free download to whoever is willing to run as GM. Major events such as Live Action Roleplaying Scenarios and massive Battle Interactives (wars played out with dozens of tables fighting indiviual actions in a larger conflict) determine the future development in the metaplot of the world, allowing players to have a direct impact on the setting with their personal play.

The cover for the Arcanis RPG, releasing this summer.

I played the D&D version of the “Living Arcanis” campaign from start to conclusion, and very recently got to try playing in the world using the new rules. I don't quite feel well versed enough to give a satisfactory review of the new system yet, but my early impression is positive, and once I've had a few more sessions under my belt and an in-depth look at the full rulebook (releasing late June 2011) I'll return to this topic for an evaluation and discussion of the mechanics of Arcanis post-D&D.
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Friday, May 20, 2011

Fairy Tales and Heavenly Bodies - An Early Look at Once Upon a Time and Charlie's Angels coming to ABC This Fall.

Occasionally, a blogger catches wind of something. I write about entertainment, in general, and the types of entertainment that people with my particular geeky tastes enjoy in particular. That said, I was excited to get access to a preview of Once Upon a Time, which will be coming to ABC this fall. Packaged together with that preview was another early release trailer for Charlie's Angels, which returns to TV in a sort of “reboot” of the 1970s classic. I'll likely spend a little more time talking about the former, as I think it appeals more directly to me (and most of you), but they both warrant a mention.

If the finished show is half as good as the trailers, I'll be following this one weekly.

Once Upon a Time is a dark fantasy dramatic take on classic fairy tales and their unusual connection to a small community in New England. The writing team is comprised of the same folks that brought us LOST, which I watched from start through the finale, so my interest was already piqued. It appears from the early trailer that a device similar to the “flashbacks” in LOST will be used, breaking up sections of drama in the “real” world. Instead of a flash to the past (or future, or “sideways”) however, we'll be treated to glimpses into the world of the fairy tale, with each character in the town of Storybrooke appearing as a fairy tale alter-ego... some of them familiar names.

Jennifer Morrison (of House fame, only she's gone blonde) is starring as Emma Swan, a young woman drawn to Storybrooke when she is contacted by the son she gave up for adoption, now 10 years old. The maternal instincts of the bail-bondswoman kick in, and she uses her professional skills to find her estranged child, who she hasn't seen since he was an infant. He confesses that the reason he contacted her begging for help is a little unusual, as he believes that the world in his book of fairy tales is real, and that Emma is the only hope for that world. Even though she doesn't believe him, she can sense that something is a little... off about the town of Storybrooke, so she sticks around.

Normally, when a brunette or redhead actress goes blonde, I don't care for it. It kinda works for her.

The setup is interesting, but the dark fantasy visuals of the Fairy Tale world are what drew me in. The show looks like it could have been pulled directly from the pages of Neil Gaiman's work on Sandman, where magical worlds lurk behind our own and they affect each other in interesting and sometimes creepy ways. We have an Evil Queen, dashing princes on horseback ready to cross rapiers with any who stand in the way of their quest for romance and justice, and more unusual magical beings, all of whom seem to forget who they are and settle down for small-town New England Life, even if some of them look sad, but don't seem to know why.

Of particular interest is the casting of Robert Carlyle (best known for his work in Trainspotting and The Full Monty,) who plays Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin. His delivery is creepy, subtly menacing, but also cheerful, not unlike a re-imagination of Puck from a Midsummer Night's Dream. It is hard to tell from the limited information that has been released, but early videos seem to indicate that there may be more to Mr. Gold than meets the eye, and he may know more about what is going on than the other residents of Storybrooke. I will not at all be surprised if he turns out to be my favorite character, even if it turns out he's a villain.

A long way from a Scottish comedy about being a male stripper to playing Rumplestiltskin.

While Once Upon a Time mainlines a bunch of elements that are big draws for those of us that are into comic books and/or fantasy, if action movies are more your thing, the return/reboot of Charlie's Angels might be more what you are looking for. The classic action/spy television show from the 1970s got a major shot in the arm with the movies in 2000 and 2003 starring Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore. The new television show uses the format of the classic series, but seems to owe more to the films.

This isn't all that surprising, as Drew Barrymore has a producer credit on the new TV show, and any modern action show (or movie, for that matter) will have benefited from over three decades of technical achievements in filmmaking since Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith were Angels. The setup is the same, three women hired by the mysterious benefactor “Charlie” working in an agency of sorts helping people in need, which means James Bond style subterfuge, car chases and more than a few fight scenes. The new Angels, played by Annie Ilonzeh (Kate Prince, former crooked Miami Police officer), Minka Kelly (Marisa “Eve” Valdez, an illegal street racer) and Rachael Taylor (Abby Sampson, a rich girl turned master thief/con artist) are, as should be expected, extremely attractive young women.

They are hot, they can kick ass... I hope they get scripts that are as well polished as the trailers.

This time around, instead of being a goofy geek, Bosley (played by Ramon Rodriguez) is a womanizing technical expert, and some eye candy for female viewers. As a goofy geek who has little use for male eye candy myself, my knee jerk reaction might be negative towards this change, but I think a reinterpretation of the character is fine, so long as all the other pieces fit into place. This is a show that is going to succeed or fail based on the execution of the individual mission scenarios in each episode. The trailer I watched showed some really cool stuff, but I'll need to see a complete episode or two to render a final verdict.

I know I'll be keeping an eye out for both of these, but I'll be particularly interested to see how Once Upon A Time executes on its interesting concept. The great casting, solid writing team and big network budget put all the necessary components for a real hit together. Either of these, or maybe another show coming this fall that has you excited? Sound off in the comments.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

So... What *is* Next, Anyway? - This Blog, and Other Projects To Help Me Not Starve.

I've been thinking a lot about the question posed by the title of this blog... What's Next? For anyone who hasn't been with me from the beginning, I started this project not really expecting anyone besides me would ever read it. I wanted to sharpen my writing through daily practice and cope with losing a job that had meant a lot to me. The URL “Getting My Head On Straight”, referred to my original first post, the text-heavy biographical introduction in those days before I learned how to include images and links. Don't worry, this article won't be me whining about my situation in a desperate play for sympathy. I'm happy with where I am, but I posed a question to myself about where I'm going... and that one isn't quite answered yet, so bear with me as I talk about upcoming possible projects, the future of this blog, and I'll be back to writing about specific bits of geek culture tomorrow.

Traditional wisdom says not to blog about yourself very often, as you aren't the most interesting
person to the average person in your audience, they are.  I do this rarely, so here's a picture of the man behind the blog, and the wife behind that man... smushing my face into an unusual shape.

When traffic and readership started to grow quickly (I've only really been doing this since late February, though it feels like longer) a question I was asked quite a bit was “So how long can you keep this up?” and the corollary “That's neat, but what are you going to do with it?” I've got plenty of ideas left in me for articles, I don't see that becoming an issue anytime soon. If I got a traditional job tomorrow, I'd no longer be "The Unemployed Geek", so what would happen to this site? Someone suggested that my new career could be “blogger”, and I joked that if this became my job, I'd no longer be unemployed, so I'd put myself out of work... Then I'd be eligible to start again in a never-ending recursive cycle.

I plan to keep this blog going indefinitely, regardless of what my situation is. I might post less frequently if I had less free time, but I'd like to believe that I have the discipline to continue regardless at near my current pace. As for making a living writing for my own site five times a week... it is a pleasant dream, but one that I'll only believe in once I have evidence that it is possible. Once daily traffic gets to a certain point, I'm not above adding a PayPal donation box, but until I'm satisfied that I provide sufficient value to a large enough audience to justify it, I'm holding off on that. If I bring in a few dollars here and there from this someday, that'd be nice, but it really isn't about the money.


Malcontent Blogger
Credit to Blaugh.com on this comic, hits close to home(less.)

So... What is next, then? I have a few projects that I've been kicking around, and the last time I wrote something like this, (about being unemployed) I talked about non-traditional methods of income. I suspect that if I can finish one (or more) of these ongoing projects, I might be able to carve out something resembling an income before I've run out of unemployment benefits. Here's what is currently on my plate:

No fewer than three longer form writing projects, one a collaborative effort with my wife. In no particular order, they are:
  • A fantasy novel told from the perspective of an elite squad of investigators called in by royalty to handle crimes that the typical City Watch strategy of holding a torch aloft and yelling “Who goes there?” can't solve. (Think: modern investigative crime show a la CSI meets Lord of the Rings.)
  • A horror/fantasy novel set in a world with industrial/steampunk elements (though most of the technology runs on toxic fuels with nasty side effects) featuring an agent of the Council Government who specializes in dealing with religious cults who stumbles down a path that has already claimed the lives of thirteen individuals trying to stop an ancient horror before him.
  • A tongue-in-cheek semi-autobiographical work talking about how, when I was a single man, I learned to talk to and attract members of the opposite sex using ideas similar to those “pick up artists” use, only translated into gaming concepts and a lot less sleazy. (Think: Neil Strauss' The Game meets World of Warcraft.)
When any of these are finished, I'd like to release them as e-books for the Kindle store, taking advantage of generous royalty options. I figure talking about my ideas publicly gains me more in gauging which ones are legitimately interesting, over the typical new author's fears that letting the ideas out subjects them to possible theft. I'd be disappointed to learn someone stole one of my ideas and made a fortune off of it, but I have confidence in myself to continue to come up with and develop creative concepts.

I also have a three-quarters finished design for a board game where each player hires a team of mercenaries and equips them, and competes to be the first team to establish a base of operations and take down a Warlord in a Banana Republic. I'd need to start a Kickstart project for funding to complete this one, at least to get it to the prototype stage, with rewards for supporters including naming a Merc after someone who donates a certain amount. The concept is most like “Jagged Alliance meets Arkham Horror.”

One of my favorite games of all time, and I think hiring mercenaries in a "Questing"
style boardgame is one I'd like to play, so I'll have to make it.

Regardless of what I pursue to completion, I'll also be quietly working on a redesign for this site, as I have enough articles that people keep coming back for to justify a magazine-style layout someday, maybe making the jump to a custom domain name at the same time. Anyone find one of the things I'm working on to be of particular interest? Someone think I made a horrible mistake by putting unfinished concepts out there where someone could steal them? This is one I'll be eagerly watching the comments on. If there is enough interest in one or more of these projects, I could post status updates here, or in a second blog expressly for that purpose. Your input, please.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Malazan Book of the Fallen - Dark, Complex... Worth a Read?

A lot of the time I spend not writing or playing games is spent reading, typically fantasy novels. I've had an uptick in reading activity of late, which is not surprising considering that my Kindle is still very new. One series in particular has dominated the vast bulk of my time spent with the Kindle, and I'd like to talk about my early impressions of it now that I'm well into the second book. The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Stephen Erikson (and additional novels set in the world by Ian C. Esselmont) is a dark fantasy epic comprised of 10 books published between 1999 and 2011. The series final book, The Crippled God was released just this February.
Cover art for the first book, showing Andromander Rake, a character reminiscent
of a cross between a drow and Elric of Melnibone.

Many people start as I did, with the first novel, Gardens of the Moon, and never make it through. Malazan books are surprisingly heavy reading in a genre whose critics often chide it for being too light and bereft of any real substance. The setting is complex, the cast of characters is huge, and the exposition is nonexistent. As a result, many readers struggle to keep track of all of the different characters, their motivations and alliances, and the lack of background means that even when the action isn't hard to follow, sometimes the purpose behind it is. As motivations become clearer and details slowly fill themselves in from context, I don't necessarily consider these statements a downside to the series.

The books have been compared most often to Glen Cook's The Black Company series and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the series that inspires Game of Thrones). Like Martin's Westeros, the world containing the Malazan Empire has a deep, rich history and the story presented in both follow a large number of viewpoint characters through complicated and often political plots. The stark, gritty and sometimes overwhelmingly dark tones are reminiscent of Cook, and there are characters similar to the grim mercenaries of the Black Company in the Malazan world, both series of books also present magic as an incredibly powerful and often destructive force, capable of wiping out armies or even nations.

The final book in the 10 part series. At least one fantasy series completed before the author's death.

A lot of summaries of Malazan novels start as I have, talking more about what the novels are like, rather that what they are about. This is because the question “So what are the books about?” is harder to answer. The backdrop for the stories presented in the books is the Malazan Empire's war of conquest and its internal struggle to wipe out the memories of the last Emperor, as the current Empress assassinated him and usurped his position. Powerful beings involve themselves in the conquests surrounding the Malazan Empire, including surviving members of nearly extinct founding races (one of which survived, after a fashion by becoming undead) and the gods, who are similar to the Greco-Roman Pantheon in terms of their direct interference in mortal affairs.

The high magic and intricate cultures presented in the novels come naturally from the origins of the creation of the world in which the novels are set. Erikson, a trained archaeologist and anthropologist from Canada created the world along with Esselmont as a campaign setting, first for Dungeons and Dragons, and later to be used for tabletop gaming using the GURPS rules. Gardens of the Moon was originally a screenplay written by both men, who unsuccessfully pitched it as a feature film. Erikson rewrote the screenplay as a novel, with much of the original material appearing as the book's third act. As more distinct cultures with their own traditions, worldview and distinctive feel appear in the books, it is easy to see the influence of Erikson's academic training in anthropology.
Stephen Erikson, reading a book much smaller than any of the ones he's written.

Overall, I've really enjoyed the books so far despite (or maybe because of) how difficult they are to read. My main criticism of the work at this point (and I may change my opinion as I get further into the series) is that plots are frequently resolved through Deus Ex Machina. The frequent timely interventions and convenient turns of fate are somewhat forgivable in the first novel, given that the god(s) of Luck are personally involved in the events described. The sudden appearance and intervention of one of these gods or other powerful beings sometimes damages the tension created in storytelling, as it is hard to maintain suspense when you know that the character whose story you follow may be saved at the last minute or have their plans dashed to bits by an ultra-powerful entity at any moment.

There have been a few moments, elements and characters that have made pushing through the series page by page all worthwhile. I particularly liked the assassins' rooftop war, at one point turning into a three-way conflict between groups of highly-trained killers with powerful wizards supporting them, which is a main feature near the end of the first book. I also really like the concept of the Jaghut, an ancient race who eventually decided to go their separate ways and live in isolation, as they believe that community leads to a desire to exercise power over others, and Jaghuts are susceptible to the lure of tyranny, often leading destructive empires of slaves for many years until they are destroyed. The Deck of Dragons, a tarot-like magical fortune reading device also predicts and explains some of the main events in the story when it is used, especially in a funny scene where a group of soldiers is using it to play cards with a “wild talent” dealing as they gamble, their hands revealing important events many miles away.

Artist rendering of the start of the rooftop war, something unpleasant en route to the fan.

Many people have strong opinions about the series when they first encounter it, most either decide very quickly to love it or hate it. Even with my few objections, I'm coming down in the “love it” camp.
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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: Terraria - When Samus Aran and Simon Belmont Go to Minecraft.

Usually, I have some idea of what I'm going to write about daily in any given week, or at least a range of topics. Also, typically, if I'm interested in purchasing a computer game, I've followed the development cycle for some time and I'm anticipating the release date either to wait for official reviews, or damn the torpedoes, I'm buying it. Sometimes I get blindsided, and yesterday was one of those times – on both fronts.


A little independent game called Terraria launched on Steam yesterday, when I happened to be checking for sales. I watched the trailer for the hours-old release and something about it immediately grabbed my attention, as it appeared to be a fast paced platformer with RPG elements, with... what's this? Randomly Generated Worlds and... a crafting/building system? A quick couple Google searches later and my interest was piqued. What little information I could find mostly described Terraria as “Minecraft in 2D.” A side-scrolling retro platform action/RPG with the ability to dig up resources, craft tools and weapons, and build your own custom structures with a day/night cycle, nighttime being dangerous. Uh oh. Here we go again. With a price point of $10, I took a chance, and eight hours of my day mysteriously vanished.

The comparison between Terraria and Minecraft is natural, as much as the diehards in the emerging Terraria community across forum posts, message boards and wikis hate it. There are a lot of similarities between the two games, but to call Terraria a “Minecraft clone” is a misstatement, as though the two titles share many common elements, at their respective hearts they are about different things. Terraria owes at least as much to classic NES titles like Metroid and Castlevania as it does to the father of the sandbox building/exploration genre of games that is slowly expanding beyond creepers and pickaxes. Minecraft, and the soon to be released clone FortressCraft for XBox Live are, at heart, about building, with other elements present for variety's sake. Terraria is a game of exploring caves and dungeons, fighting monsters and getting treasure, with crafting and building as means to an end. I'll come back to this point later.




Terraria starts with a simple character customization process, with a few outfits and hairstyles and the ability to color hair, skin and clothes however you like on RGB sliders. Then, you select whether the world is to be small, medium or large (there is an end to these worlds, they are just massive) and let the program create it randomly for you. You start in familiar territory. Fresh world, a few basic tools, chop down trees to get wood, make a crafting bench and start cranking out slightly more advanced items, dig down to collect dirt, ore and stone... The first difference a player familiar with Minecraft will notice is that there are monsters in the daytime... and they are relentless. Luckily, you can make a simple sword quickly.

There is a LOT less digging and rooting about needed to find the sorts of cavern complexes and dungeons that are at best uncommon treats in Minecraft. As an RPG gamer, taking this bit of a game I already love, showing me why it was my favorite component of Minecraft, and putting it on center stage is how Terraria hooked me in. The dungeon exploration feels a LOT like Metroid Prime, except imagine being able to play that game with the ability to blast or tunnel through any wall or floor. Treasure chests have interesting (and sometimes very powerful) items, rare crafting resources and coins and they are worth the effort to dig them up. Breakable pots containing lesser treasures and crystalline Heart Containers a la Legend of Zelda round out dungeon exploration, which also features a wide variety of monsters, depending on how deep you go.

Screenshot of midgame combat from the Terraria Wiki.  Minecraft doesn't have lasers!

With all this dungeoneering, what's the point in building a house at all? It is just there “because I can?” No. The building system in integrated into the gameplay in a few key ways. First, building rooms or structures that are furnished and have walls (side walls/roof made of stacks of wood or stone and a “back” wall which is a texture placed on the background of the area) some light and a door will attract NPCs. You start with one NPC, The Guide who follows you until he is given a home and who dispenses “tips” which will clue you in on some basics. After fulfilling certain conditions, provided there is a space for them to live, others will move into your town/fortress/2D condo. Those coins I mentioned? Various NPCs selling goods and services including the Merchant, Nurse and Demolitionist show up and move in. Defending these structures and the NPCs in the game's random events is another twist on an already solid set of mechanics.

Some nights, a Blood Moon rises, which allows zombies to spawn faster, and lets them kick in the doors to your buildings and attack whatever is inside. Even more rarely, a Goblin army complete with mages who teleport through walls and thieves who pick the locks on your doors attack intent on wiping you and your NPCs out. These events are random, deadly and exciting. Boss Monsters very rarely spawn randomly, usually having to be sought out and defeated, but when they do, they will also attack your house/town. Boss Fights represent the mid/end game and from the relatively easy Eye of Cthulhu to the nasty Skeletron, they drop loot and crafting materials worth the effort to kill them.

The Dread Eye of Cthulhu, the easiest of the Bosses.

In addition to being a product launching with all of these features, the multiplayer component shown in the early “Let's Play” YouTube videos is working, and mostly stable with only a few latency related glitches scratching the paint of what, for many players, will be the draw for this title. Multiplayer is brutal, especially with fewer than four players, as there are MANY more monsters and they spawn faster. It allows for drop-in drop-out play, and virtually any game where users can change or build in the world tends to be more fun with friends. I have high hopes for multiplayer to be tidied up, as Terraria is promising regular balance and content updates, so we should also see more random events, more items, maybe more bosses and monsters too!

Overall, this is $10 incredibly well-spent, the retro sprite graphics and core gameplay has been smooth so far, bugs have been rare and mostly non-intrusive and the music, changing depending on where the character is and the time of day/night (with special themes for events and bosses) has been solid. It has a steep learning curve, but to be fair, so did the games it pay homage to. I think I'll be playing this one for a while.
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