Friday, October 31, 2014

Bendy Mama Moth-er

I'm not a big fan of horror movies. Oh, I don't hate them as an idea. I'm OK with the violence and the gore and a good directing  / editing job can really turn up the tension when you know to expect violence. Still, most horror flicks are so insultingly simplistic in their use of instinctive triggers (kids in danger, damsels in distress, pornographic set-ups, villains gradually pacing toward their hiding victims, etc.) that it always seems I'm expected to do the work of working myself up into fear and bloodlust. For hinging so much on prodding the audience into reacting, they have remarkably little to prod with.

Mama isn't much of a horror movie. Sure, it's scary and at times somewhat violent, but it lacks that half-assed softcore porn sleaze and cheap reliance on sudden noises and scatological accompaniment we've come to expect from "edgy" horror. So hobbled, it makes do as it can with a touching ghost story in the style of old fairy tales, visual flair and meaningful, decently acted characters. I know, I know, such a letdown.

It should be noted that Guillermo del Toro's name is on the box simply for marketing purposes, but for once I'm not sorry I fell for the "from the producers of" scam. The Muschiettis adopt a similar style to his at any rate. Mama's scares are of the moody, nostalgic variety: the musty, fungoid, detritic remnants of past lives. Much as in Bradbury's October Country stories, instinctive human interpersonal demands and expectations form its backbone. While staying true to ghost story form, scene after scene sneaks in much more illustration than one might expect of our mammalian devotion and possessiveness.

However, to me as a connoisseur of geek counterculture, two random elements dominated my viewing of Mama. One is the recurring moth gimmick which reminded me very strongly of Tim Burton's association of moths or night butterflies with decay, moonlight and subtle grace in Corpse Bride. The second is Mama herself with her subaquatic "bendy ghost" look which seems entirely too similar to The Secret World's ghosts.

Forget who copied whom. More likely than not, some of the visual artists involved simply attended some of the same seminars a decade or two ago. What I'm wondering is whether these will become trends now. Will we be seeing more bendy night-time haunts associated with fragile, wistful night butterflies? Will these become the next tiresome trends replacing flaming zombies and chainsaw murders?

Two decades from now, am I going to be raving about the welcome freshness of, say, a half-naked damsel in distress tripping while running from a vomiting zombie? It happened with The Matrix and all that aerial kung-fu. We were so damn glad to see action heroes keeping their feet on the ground after a few years of that...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sim Schmuck

"Remember what the dormouse said;
Feed your head!"
Jefferson Airplane - White Rabbit

I've been trying to enjoy Space Colony. Having given up on SimCity over a decade ago when Maxis started spinning its wheels and trying to milk The Sims for all they could, trying to monopolize the female gamer market by making them play house, I've been wondering when some other company's going to step in and fill those shoes. None seem willing to do so - or at least none able seem willing and none willing seem able.

The Sims always carried a certain degree of base, sadistic, sociopathic creepiness: controlling individuals' actions, emotions and level of thought, puppeting them about a cage, staging their every up and down, insinuating one's totalitarian control into every and all minutia of their mundanity, and all of it sold as beneficent in that you were maneuvering those puppets toward greater social acceptance in the form of good grades, a higher-paying job, that big plasma-screen TV and other status symbols. Yet aside from its smirking erasure of personality and individuality, the game snuck another greatly detrimental feature through disguised as a mere limitation, this time affecting the game industry specifically.
The Sims was petty - not just descriptively small or mundane, but teleologically petty, "mesquin", denying vision and scope, diminuating and stultifying by design. How far Maxis had already fallen since their glory days...

Sim City 2000 was one of the first three games I bought once my family had its own PC. Admittedly I chose it partly to convince my mother that I wasn't turning into a bloodthirsty little psychopath interested only in blood'n'guts war games, but I quickly grew to love the city-building in itself. If I'd been paying enough attention I might've caught this little Easter-egg tucked away in my sims' town library - but then of course, I hadn't yet heard of Neil Gaiman. How weird, isn't it, that game designers might... "ruminate" on the nature and fate of cities, that such poetic ramblings might play a part in some active decision process about the product they're making? Stranger still that they might have consulted James Lovelock years before that for SimEarth? That was then and this is now. Then game designers designed strategy and immersion, challenges and interactive stories, and even simulations. They dreamed of the matrix. Now they manufacture games.

Space Colony is a pretty old game in itself. It looks to have been quickly slapped together to leech some scifi fans off The Sims back in 2003. Of course they'd never admit to being nothing more than "sims in space" so a few extraneous elements were tacked on. You can buy space soldiers to shoot space bugs, or build space hotels for space tourists. Much of this however happens quite outside your control - which was a growing problem with simulations.
While Maxis itself was making Spore for instance, they gleefully released a sample of their wildlife interaction simulation as part of your pre-order package... and that's the last you saw of it. Spore itself was not a simulation, at least not from the player's perspective. Oh sure, there were a lot of fancy numbers governing the footsteps of the animals around you, but it was all programmer masturbation, and you weren't invited even to watch. Your environment was determined completely invisibly before you ever stepped into it, to save you the trouble of thinking. You didn't get to simulate jack! Behind the interface, Spore was one of the most impressively detailed and extensive games around. From the player's seat it was, well... a family of Sims to micromanage.

Sim City 2000 was not just about building roads and schools and being well-liked as a mayor. It was about making a map that was all mountain peaks or river gorges, or tornadoes ripping your infrastructure apart and you fiddling while your city went up in flames, and if you felt like it you could make it about launching several million people into space in jet-propelled Launch Arcologies. It was grand. It was about that Gaimanesque Neverwhere vision of a city as a shifting, personified, schizophrenic superorganism, and that, I can't find again. Cynical copycats like Cities XL don't just lack that old-time Maxis humor. They lack its progressive attitude. Being rich and popular is the only point to your existence, and you become such by screwing the poor over and catering to your city's "elites" by providing them with luxuries while letting your overcrowded slums choke on smog and sewage, all the while building "landmarks" like branches of Kodak and Carrefour.
This is in itself no different from Space Colony's "sims in space" routine. You spend your time making sure you(r sims) are well-liked by each other. Each has material preferences neatly taken care of by preset material goods, but what you're really supposed to be chasing is that heart icon next to their names which tells you just how well each is getting along with the others. That's all there is to it. They have no goals. You're treated to no poetic daydreams on the nature of civilization. There's no driving force. And sure, Space Colony attempted to poke fun at itself, tried to pass everything off as caricature, but at a certain point farce tends to dip from humorous into grotesque. Laughter is among other things a defense mechanism, a mask, and what's masked here is yet another game that should never have been made, a clutter of half-implemented features which run pretty much without player input, propping up a sickly carbon-copy of something that sells.
Not an idea, not a creative process, just... stuff. Stuff we saw other guys have that we might sell too. So we can be popular too. Welcome to the industry. Welcome to Generation Facebook.

You could get more interesting characters and events in SimAnt.

What grates especially in this case is computer games' close relationship with science fiction. This was supposed to be the virtual world, damnit. We are in the future we dreamt once, and we should admit that we would've despised ourselves for this. Science fiction is the dreamers' genre. Want to make a "sims in space" game? Fine, wonderful. Give me the crew of an exploration vessel. Give me a crew of idealistic, discordant psychopaths. If we've lost the sweeping grandeur of the old simulation games then let's at least not get bogged down in such disgustingly normalizing tripe about capitalist backbiting, getting one's paycheck and mutual validation and maintaining the status quo. If, post-Sims, simulations have become a slice of life, at least make it a slice of the life of interesting people.

Virtuality is our wonder-drug, our escape, but it need not simply render us comatose. Dream big. Move!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Listing Along

I wish I had some screenshots of various vendors from City of Heroes. Though I'd complained before about unsortable, cluttered lists in World of Warcraft and various single-player games as well, CoH was the first time I truly realized just how ridiculous it is for game designers to ignore such a basic requirement. While pumping endless work-hours into glitzing up game interfaces they ignore basic functionality. Is this an attempt to justify the graphic design work which went into those character selection screens and NPC vendor windows by making us spend as much time as possible trudging through them? Is this a brilliant new form of timesink which is supposed to mask a lack of content?

Let's take Defense Grid 2, for instance, a small tower-defense game which Valve is promoting in order to cut into Blizzard's potential derivative products. It's not a bad game overall, but it blatantly ignores a very basic design principle: no menu should ever be more than two layers deep.

That doesn't look too bad at first, but you can't actually click on any of those buttons directly. You have to go through the whole touchpad screen selection routine, flicking from one of those categories of buttons to another, bringing up one category at a time. Of course once you select something, the submenus follow the same routine. The setting menu alone has six submenus you have to click through from side to side, one at a time, without being able to see more than three. How in the world did some airhead of a graphic designer even sell this notion? How do you justify a separate window for two buttons, especially when you've got an all-purpose submenu right next to it labelled "more"? Well, of course, that's the Steam rip-off window. It's just THAT important.
Here's a thought experiment. I'm your customer, alright? Right. I paid you for a tower defense game. When I activate your product, do you think I want to play a tower defense game or your brand-new exciting, revolutionary adventure in menu-surfing?

Let us not assume by any means that such amateurish bungling afflicts only small niche-market developers. Some of the most stunning lapses in interface design come from the richest companies around. By the time it launched CoH NCsoft had already gotten obscenely wealthy off the Lineage games. Blizzard was, well, Blizzard, but WoW's market system was still almost devoid of filters. Turbine is owned by one of the fattest megacorporations in the world, and here's LotRO's NPC vendor window:
You can alphabetize things, which is cute. It might actually be useful if the most expensive or most powerful item was called the Alpha Aegis and it was followed by the Beta Bludgeon and the Gamma Gutter and Delta Dagger and so forth. You can also filter items from a certain quality downward, which is admirably nonsensical for a game in which you're always trying to find the latest trash greens you looted from among all the greens you're using.
Don't even dream of actually dragging things from your inventory (where you can maintain some organization) to the trade window (where everything is rearranged nearly randomly.) What do you think this is, ummm, every other game? If you want to sell a rusty goblin helmet in middle-earth, ya gotta work for it!

Not to be outdone in underdoing, Funcom seems to have invented its own unique brand of faceless interface. I mean, usually you can chalk this stuff up to laziness. The dev team slapped something half-functional together then cut costs by not developing it further. Work-hours cut into management's profits. Sometimes though, the omissions are so laughably basic as to imply sheer stupidity. Case-in-point, TSW's guild roster:


Exhibit A, the yellow bubble - is just a bug. Which would be excusable, if this screenshot hadn't been taken two years after the game launched.
Exhibit B, the white bubble - is stupid. Not just an oversight, not just a lapse in judgment, not just cost-cutting, but stupid. Your hundred million dollar a year company's product... can't count? Do your programmers need to be taken back to junior high and be reintroduced to the concept of significant figures?

But whose stupidity is it? Not Funcom's, or Turbine's or Blizzard's or NCsoft's or Valve's. They're raking in your cash while you're too busy kissing their asses and creaming your pants whenever a developer seems to pay the slightest attention to you. You're the idiots. You, the customers who never complain in the slightest about the blatant rip-offs you're buying. You know why the game industry is such crap, why they can afford to ignore even the most basic notions of design?
That'd be you, dear reader. You're to blame. It's your complacency that's causing this. Sorry, did you miss that because you were too busy scrolling through an endless unsorted list in some game?

It's your fault. Call them out on it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ai the Kawaii but not the Origamaii

"Old world underground, I never knew you
But I've seen your face everywhere"
Metric - IOU

The delineation between RPGs and Adventure games, aside from a shallow expectation of isometric third-person view or retro-style 2D images, centers on choice. Adventure games are linear and do not offer the player a choice of identity, and are thus much more focused on interactive storytelling than actual game-playing. On some level you can play D&D-based cRPGs as a number-crunching exercise, min-maxing and exploiting to your heart's content, and still walk away having gotten something for your money. The less choice offered, the larger a work-load the game's plot must carry, and getting the player emotionally involved and immersed in that plot is crucial.

Making things personal is... tricky. You have to know your audience. You have to choose an audience. Universality is bland. Back on New Year's day, I wrote a post I somewhat regret now, deeply critical of the ending to an amazing game. Yet this strong reaction on my part implied great praise of The Cat Lady: it hit me. It was the first game to have truly hit me emotionally in years, and did so by playing on its chronically depressed target audience's precepts of hope and hopelessness. Hit 'em where it hurts, by all means. This is emotional Art with a capital "ah" and must be addressed in games alongside the more cerebral gamesmanship of combat mechanics.

So I've been spending quite a bit of time in The Secret World recently, getting my character caught up, pedaling that insipid gear-farming treadmill while at the same time savoring and being disgusted by the game's first major expansion, the Tokyo zone. Too much of it is recycled or perfunctory, from the copy-pasted, crudely re-skinned jet-black versions of mobs from previous zones to their all too uniform distribution and predictable respawn patterns, to the "farm 150 monsters" daily mission, etc. As an RPG, TSW still barely qualifies and boils down to the same level-based grind as every other so-called MMO.

TSW at its core is, however, an adventure game: puzzle-solving, pixel-hunting, linear, cinematic interactive fiction. Though grossly, criminally overpriced as such, some of that price-gouging does seem to get derailed from its straightforward route toward Funcom's executives' pockets into some higher production values than we normally expect from adventure games. TSW has well-rehearsed, professional voice acting and character models which allow for some detailed, if not very varied cinematics. Unfortunately, the game's creative side seems to get very little support from its technical side. New missions which would warrant new mechanics are instead forced into old molds.


When I first accepted the "Love and Origami" mission for instance, I was downright... jazzed. Being asked to piece together tokens of unrequited love, to fold loneliness into itself, now that sounded like some damn fine storytelling. I logged out without beginning it because I wanted to come at it with a fresh rested mind in the morning. Sadly, when I tried folding that imaginary piece of paper in-game, I found there was no way to do so through the interface. A player cheerfully informed me that I had to print the image and fold it in real life.
No.
I cheated my way through the mission by looking up the answers and have no intention of ever re-visiting it. This oxymoronic "alternate reality" crap is one of the most detrimental fads TSW has picked up. Games must be self-contained. Everything must be handled by the game interface, and if it's not, if you can't get your corporate overlords to allocate the funds for a programmer to give you the new interface elements to handle that, then you know what, fuck it. Forget your admittedly novel idea for now, leave it shelved alongside the rotting concept of a persistent-world MMO and don't make customers pay for content you have no intention of delivering.

Yet in contrast to that idiocy, Funcom's writing team continues to populate its "secret" world with delightfully touching characters, from a rockabilly worshipping the holy trinity of Gaia, Amaterasu and Elvis to a lascivious toad to children who fear nothing. Given their audience of online gamer nerds, however, the most promising Tokyo character so far has been Harumi the l33t haxz0r.

You do not wanna frag with her!
Harumi is every psychotically upbeat junior-high girl deluding herself into high social standing via booking faces and feeding twits. By extension she's every gamer nerd sitting in a college dorm room bragging about his K/D ratio and how he hacked into his roommate's computer and every thirty-year-old loner blogging commentary nobody will ever read. Harumi's diamonologue was so deliciously over the top that it hurts to listen to. I wanted to smack the little snot, and myself by implicit association... and damn that feels good.

More. Give me more of that self-punishment, more poignancy and iconoclasm. Work with what you have, keep everything in-game, stop breaking immersion by asking me to minimize my game client, and you can do great work with TSW. Just remember the game has to be an activity in itself, independent of the shithole lives we're trying to forget by logging in. I'm paying you for escapism, not to be kicked out of that escapism.

You're trying to bill yourselves as creative, as the undercurrent of artsiness in a conformist medium. Fine, wonderful. But your output has to actually work within its context.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ozy and Millie

The vaudevillian two-man act left a heavy mark on American comedy, including comic strips and their derivatives. It seems impossible for webcartoonists to write any daily strip centered on two characters without some reader blurting out "why, this is just like Calvin and Hobbes" but let's remember, Laurel and Hardy were there first. While reading Ozy and Millie, it's tempting to see them as a classic straight-man and funny-man pairing, but far from detracting from the strip's worth this awareness simply makes their many deviations from type all the more interesting.

Actually, if the title didn't flow slightly better as-is, I'd recommend retroactively switching the names around. As the duo's active, prankster half, Millie's much heavier burden of driving action and dialogue forward while Ozy reflects seems like it should win her top billing. Through those gags-a-day we get a lot of poignant commentary on the difficulty of personal growth within a mercilessly homogenizing society. From simple set-ups during the strip's early years to surprising amounts of character growth later on, Ozy and Millie's success in expanding a stage act into a full-blown chronicle in the lives of intelligent children would be enough by itself to make the comic noteworthy.

Topics varied but mostly revolved around the difficulty of growing up brainy. Millie and especially Ozy sneak and scramble their way through the hellish minefield that is public schooling while retaining, through activism or stoicism, some measure of individuality. Politics makes frequent appearances, as the strip was written during the rule of the child-king Bush II and the public's shameless adulation of bald-faced militaristic, totalitarian, reactionary dogma during those years (more so than usual) begged opposition. More often though, the writing slips into a light-hearted linguistic comedy style which keeps things from ever getting too serious.

This comic was not a wildly creative adventure in the medium. Yet, it was funny and self-conscious, poignant and relatable material for anyone who's felt the constricting reductionism of human stupidity coiling 'round. Still the author always maintained a dogged optimism about the possibility of finding someone to laugh at one's jokes. There's a Millie to drive Ozy and an Ozy to gently yield to Millie, good parents to offset bad teachers and tiny sparks of worth even in the worst of one's peers. It may not be the world we actually live in, but it sure was nice to visit for as long as the strip lasted.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why TF2?

While playing The Secret World recently I mouthed off against its sad, tacked-on excuse for a PvP system. If I want to PvP, I said, I'll do so in a game where the interface actually gives some freakin' feedback, like Planetside 2 or Team Fortress 2. One player retorted with a fairly standard line:
"Why would anyone play TF2?"
And unfortunately before I could wind myself up into a full-blown rant, another, believing he was defending TF2, answered:
"TF2 is just mindless fun."

Ouch. Really? As opposed to grinding your thousandth zombie in an MMO, or farming the same mission for the thirtieth time, all the while pressing the same seven buttons in the same order? People who burst an artery if they catch you deviating in the slightest from the basaltically-fixed routine they've learned by rote in an instance run think an FPS is mindless. I disrespectfully disagree.

So then, why TF2?
Because it works.
Oh, sure, it presents a couple of positive qualities as well, like the wide variety of minor variations on the weapons you can use or the playable classes' parody of action-movie machismo, but TF2's quality shows largely in its lack of negatives. It's reliable: lag, crashes, bugs, cheats, exploits, the dirty laundry list associated with most multiplayer games, all blissfully absent here by comparison. Its interface cleanly and unobtrusively outlines the objectives of the game, instead of making you ask "wait, what does that symbol mean?"
You know what, though, let's cut through the flimsy pretexts and get to the core reason why so many turn up their noses at TF2. You've heard it before, about Heroes of Might and Magic, about World of Warcraft and many others, a superficial complaint dredged up whenever players attempt a social coup by declaring themselves above a game without actually understanding anything about it.

Cartoonish.
Cartoons are, pretty much by definition, less visually detailed than film. Thus they are popularly denigrated as a childlike form, intended for those too young to have acquired many concepts complex enough to require a more nuanced form of expression. Of course, that's missing the point of the larger work of which those drawings are but one part. Cartoons offer both clarity and flexibility of expression. Just as cartoon characters' exaggerated motions and expressions can more easily carry the flow of a story, our 'toons' exaggerated features are meant to be flexible enough for manipulation. Dozens of player actions require dozens of animations to set them apart. Defensive and offensive features must be discernible. There must be no room for accidental, abusable concealment.


That caricature up above represents yours truly in the role of a TF2 demoman. You can instantly tell I'm a demoman by the size, shape, posture and movement patterns of my character model. You can tell one of my main abilities, and my likely intentions toward you in the next few seconds, by the clearly delineated weapon I'm holding.
You're gonna wanna step back right about now.
If I were holding a shield as well, you might want to dodge left or right or get behind cover instead.
If holding a grenade launcher, you'd run into the open and bounce around counting to four of my shots then charge into me.
If I were holding a wider-looking grenade launcher, you'd turn paranoid and start scanning for bombs stuck to the floor or walls instead.


Games are an interactive medium and the graphics serve to illustrate that interaction. What this means can differ from game to game. Single-player games, in which you interact with static landscapes and algorithmically-driven NPCs, need to bank on precision and detail in order to make that more predictable content entertaining. In multiplayer and especially PvP, players must be able to discern and react to each others' choices. Graphics must be flexible enough to clearly convey what is happening. Clarity can mean simplicity, yes, but it can also be the vehicle for complexity. In this case TF2s outwardly simple graphics are meant to allow the player to carry out the sort of fast-paced and varied gameplay which a greater amount of visual detail might obfuscate.

Valve knew this. Give the bastards some credit, they may be a bunch of scheisters when it comes to marketing schemes, but their games are professionally designed. TF2 was delayed for over half a decade. As processors and video cards were rapidly improving around Y2K, FPS games were pressuring each other for greater and greater "realism" and at first TF2 seemed to be hopping that wagon. Had it done so, it would have been hopelessly lost in the swarm of FarCries or Calls of Duty or every other carbon-copy FPS intended to make the players feel like action-movie stars. Instead, TF2 not only parodies the machismo of pretending to be gun-toting hired muscle, but brings the concept of a multiplayer FPS game back to reality.

Cartoonish reality? Why, yes. The reality of a game is that a game is not a movie. It is interactive. Its visuals illustrate that interaction. TF2 functions, cleanly, clearly, smoothly, cleverly, with frills denoted as frills and core features unburdened by overbuilt accessories.

And you know, maybe that's what really makes people uncomfortable. Maybe it makes them realize that when they're buying a gen-u-ine military-modeled automatic rifle in some other game's cash shop, they're actually no better than the people buying funny hats and deadly candy-canes from Valve.
From many players' point of view, the worst thing about TF2 is that it works so well.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bronies

Is this stupid fad over yet?

If this reaches anyone lucky enough to be have heretofore been spared this tripe, I'm talking about the mostly U.S.-based fanbase for a children's toy marketing device, a cartoon.
I don't care about the cartoon. Never seen it. I'm not particularly opposed to seeing it. I've never stopped consuming material supposedly intended for children. I read comics, watch cartoons, play cartoonish video games, whatever I feel like. I just don't feel obligated to watch this particular show, and there's the respect which makes calamity.

I'm reminded of businesswomen in the 80s. Watch some TV shows from back then. This was the time when pop culture became fascinated with the image of the woman entering the higher ranks of business... but you had to look pretty hard to discern any chick out of a crowd of suits. The women who tried to make it in the old boys' club did so by abandoning femininity and adopting the facade of the dominant culture: short hair, pinstripe suits and padded shoulders all around!

Well, it's thirty-odd years later and the old 1950s phalocentric, patriarchal culture which seemed so entrenched back then has retreated to the boondocks, leaving the would-be trendy and modern city-dwelling male in the hopelessly inferior social position of playing scapegoat for the sins of his fathers before him. It is wrong to be male. From cradle to early grave, the modern world screams our moral inferiority at us. Masculine stoicism and direct confrontation are decried as barbarian relics at every step while moral relativism, white lies and emotional manipulation are lauded as evolved. At the same time women are finally managing to break the control over sexuality which society had imposed on them, they are giving no ground in their sexual control over males, and reinforcing this with institutionalized guilt and shame over male sexuality. We have accepted the original sin of our ongoing thought-crime: is not the "male gaze" a vicious assault on women? You're as good as a rapist. And you know who else had a male gaze? Hitler.

In the face of such derogation, modern man is reduced to merely modern, bending to the whims of a feminized mass-media, anxious at every step of stepping over the invisible line which the women around him keep shifting arbitrarily to create more social capital, a higher high horse for themselves. Then modern man must finds a horsie of his own, neh? I should have seen it coming, but I didn't.

I was quite happy to spot the first few outbursts of My Little Pony fandom a few years ago. It was healthy. It allowed many girls to break the image of the modern woman as domineering, sneering ice queen and incorporate girlishness into their persona. I was then perplexed at the first few "bronies" who popped up here and there (male fans of the show) but eventually got to admire them for being willing to fly in the face of the male backlash against feminism, against the rampant machismo undercurrent still threatening "faggots" and "pussies" with ostracism and outright violence. Yes, damnit, if men decide of their own accord they like something which happens to be girly, then they damn well better be able to say so openly. I will howl in a pink font if the mood so strikes me.

However, this whole brony thing has jumped the shark. Over the past couple of years it has become a trend, a fad, a bandwagon. It has become a sort of Stockholm syndrome for insecure men who seek the approval of the women dictating the moral imbalance of contemporary pop culture by hopping the girliest trend they can find, a sick, servile debasement. There are ponies in spaceship games, pony fanfics, pony-launchers in FPS games, pony avatars for every forum, a male character in every webcomic taking up pony fanaticism, pony spin-offs and pony this-and-that, pony up because you apparently owe it to women to make yourself as girly as possible.

It's no healthier than those ridiculous 80s businesswoman shoulderpads, but at least those women were making money hand-over-fist for subordinating their psyche. Are you suckers glittering yourselves up now at least getting laid for your trouble? Probably not. Regardless of what they say, women will still always fawn over the cut-throat, domineering alpha-types.

Friendship is magic, but it can come in the form of male camaraderie. Revive something like Gargoyles if you're just looking for an old children's cartoon about lasting friendship. Otherwise, at least admit that trading patriarchy for matriarchy, condemning masculinity instead of femininity, yang instead of yin, does not constitute progress.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Stiff

The Stiff is back up!

Yeah... you heard me. The stiffy's back up. I'm not un-writing that and you can't un-read it, so there.
But what's so momentous about this event? Well, the last time we saw this comic (with a "to be continued" label on it) was back in 200-6ish?

You see, would-be creators sometimes trail off their would-be-created works. Of course, I as a stalwart model of willpower, focus and stickittoyouness would never actually have this problem, but I hear many of you out there tend to abandon your attempts at artistic expression. This is especially true for anything started without an actual commitment, like say... webcomics. Whether it's because of writer's block, waning interest, writing oneself into a corner, writing oneself into a cornerless spiral, or just due to interference from life, the universe and everything else, projects attempted online often peter out or stall. The first few times you see this happen it may grate a bit, but soon you learn to simply accept these little gems' brief presence without asking for more. Names like Ballad, Ice or Return to Sender merely take their seats in the back of your consciousness as reference points for future works.
You don't actually expect them to come back from the dead.

The Stiff is a zombie story. Now, zombies litter contemporary pop culture like rotting corpses, putrefying creativity into reeking, subcategorized cliche upon cliche. We dicker over terms for the various cut-and-dry zombies from cheap B-movies like "runners" or "shamblers" to file these into taxonomies of shallow sensationalism. We mow down zombies by the thousands in video games. We automatically count the seconds between bite and undeath. Despite is mainstream triviality, this topic has bred so much fascination that new twists and slants on the old "braaaains" motif keep popping up.

I know The Stiff is a zombie story because the author keeps throwing zombie references at you every few pages or so... a book the characters are reading, a movie they're watching, a joke they tell, etc. Yet it went on for hundreds of pages without a single actual zombie showing up. It's got one of the slowest wind-ups I've ever seen in storytelling without actually losing the thread. It comes at the concept from a weird angle. Can you spot the thematic similarity between zombification and repressed teenage sexuality?

It's there. You can glimpse it, just as you can glimpse the zombie outbreak through the little hints slipped through the overwhelming focus on character development. You can hear the ghoulish moans in between the lines of dialogue, drawing closer. Yet still, by the time it stopped and was taken offline, The Stiff was still just a high school story.
And now it's back.
And the zombies are coming.
I hope there are sawed-off body-part zombies. Those are my favorite.
...
Though given the comic's focus so far, I dread to think which body part might get sawed off and zombified.