Sunday, February 19, 2017

Shattered dreams of the return of the past glory

Dreams are a dangerous thing, especially if those dreams revolve around a comeback of something you hold dear. It doesn't matter if you dream of a new part for your favourite movie, or a revival of a TV-series, book, comic what have you. While that return might be applauded by some of the old fans and people new to it, it's also entirely possible that you end up disliking it. I don't want to use the word "hate" as it's such a strong emotion, I prefer dislike in this instance, as it allows more leeway in contrast of what level your disdain was, from mild annoyance to something stronger.

Think of Star Wars or Star Trek for an example. Those both are entities in popular culture psyche, which had tremendous obstacles on their path what comes to the acceptances of new entries. Lucas tried to shed more light on the world he created with the prequels and ended up vilified because of them. Now granted, I'm no fan of the prequels either, but some of the flack he got was toxic, far meaner than it seemed healthy for people to express about a fictional creation. It's okay not to like a movie, but it's hardly okay to make it ones life mission to trash them or their maker in every turn you get. Then Disney bough Star Wars and suddenly new movies were praised again even though some begun to look the prequels in new light shouting "See now... Lucas was the better choice... the house of the mouse has destroyed it."

So fickle is the human mind.

 Star Trek had been on a downward spiral for some time. It had lost its steam and some were hankering back the days of Kirk and Spock. And with the new movies that was what they got, played by different actors and in different alternative universe.  Some hated the new movies, some liked them. In good and in bad, that franchise was revived again.

In the early days of Kickstarter I too begun to dream of revival, but not of movies, of a company. Sierra to be more exact, as it happened that the grand old man of adventure games, Al Lowe jumped in and proposed a remake of Larry 1. Take my money. Then there was the Two Guys from Andromeda, Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe of Space Quest fame, with a new game SpaceVenture. And not forgetting about Jane Jensen of Gabriel Knight fame. Or the Coles, who did Quest for Glory games. Even Jim Walls of Police Quest fame tried, but failed, to get funding for a new game.

It was a goddamn Sierra reunion. Sure, they were all independent pieces, but still, the players were on the board, each tinkering something new. When it comes to adventure games, I've always been a Sierra man first and foremost, so you can probably imagine. A company long since dead was in a way resurrected when the old designers jumped back to the game.

I didn't end up backing Lori and Corey Cole, as I wasn't sold of their vision of a new game. And what I do know of their project, Hero-U, I'm glad I didn't back them, as it seems to be a troubled one. I haven't been that convinced of their current vision either, based on what I've seen of what they've managed to do. (Their first and second KS campagins for Hero-u)

Jim Walls, as I said, didn't make it. He never was a strong designer, but his game were fun because of the whole "stickler for rules" thing. You had to make everything by the book, because that's what being a cop is all about: rules. His pitch however wasn't great and he and his team just didn't see what the problem was, despite a lot of people tried to explain. They concluded that it was a fault in the platform, not in their sales technique, so they tried to create a half assed platform of their own, but no-one was biting. To add insult to injury, most of their updates were written by a doting fan, who had no idea what the game designers were actually doing. It was a good thing they didn't get funded, as it was a disaster in the making.

Larry Reloaded was the first to get through the gates. It wasn't an amazing remake, but a solid one in my opinion. It was trashed by the reviewers, pretty much mauled to the death and accused of being too stuck in the misogyny of the 1980's. And if that wasn't enough, the producer of it, Paul Trowe, managed to cause a terrible mess of his own with his antics, which ended up alienating the fan support he had, driving Al Lowe back to retirement and mad Josh Mandel, who was a co-writer of the remake, to take a long hiatus from game business. It was a mindboggling PR catastrophe, which ended all possible hope of any other future remake of Larry games involving Al Lowe. You can read some of it here.

Jane Jensen was the second to finish her project, which ended up being Moebius, a terrible game in all, narrative, gameplay and tech.  She and her team tried, but it didn't really feel like Jensen's heart was in the project and the team of her doting fans tried to be too clever and too ambitious with the game. Jenesen did a mistake of letting her backers decide what game to make. Surprisingly the fans didn't pick the game with the most elaborate and interesting sounding summary, they chose a game that resembled Gabriel Knight the most, despite it had the weakest synopsis.

As soon as they begun showing Moebius related updates I knew I should have dropped the project. I did end up giving them much less than I originally indented and I was glad that I did, as the Moebius was a disappointment. She did manage to create a remake of Gabriel Knight 1 as well, a bit lukewarm yet fully playable little thing. But after that she stepped away from games and is again pursuing a career in writing novels, including gay romances under a pen name Eli Easton.

Around the same time the Two Guys from Andromeda proposed their new game as well. That one was titled SpaceVenture and showed a lot of promise. Now 5 years later I have hard time telling where that project is at the moment. They have released one playable mini game of it as a separate entity in order to get more funds, but that's about it. I'm not holding my breath for SpaceVenture to come out any time soon. You can call me blind, but I'm not fully writing SpaceVenture off yet. I don't have high hopes and I do think it's more likely to be dead rather than that it will come out. But still, I'm not writing it out yet.

There's an old saying, be careful what you wish for, as you might get it in a form or an another. Return of the Sierra devs was something I hoped to see, but in the end it hasn't been a glorious sight. In the end the best new Sierra rekindling was done a new team called the Odd Gentlemen with their own re visioning of King's Quest. It wasn't a game without problems, but it still was a good one.

So fickle is the human mind.

Not all revivals of the past failed miserably mind you. Big Finish Games did a stellar job with Tesla Effect, a FMV continuation to old Tex Murphy, lead by Chris Jones, the creator of those said games. Shadowgate was a well done re-imagining as well from a designer of the old game. Neither were huge hits, but they both did show that not all old dogs are one leg in the grave. There's others as well, but this rambling was mostly towards Sierra developers. That's the misery I want to wallow in.

As a note, the Poisoned Pawn is a fanremake of Overseer. It's supported by Chris Jones.
 Past glory is a hard thing to recoup. In terms of pure tech, if people have been away for a while, their ideas might be outdated. Some are good at keeping tabs at what is happening, but some might be blind to change and base their assumptions on outdated ideas, like what happened with the Coles. As said, I didn't back their project, but a lot of the problems they encountered was based on their assumption about 3D graphics, which were drawn from their poor experiences during the 90's. 

With Leisure Suit Larry, time had just driven past the style of comedy he presents. To fully work, he should have been fully reinvisioned in order to fit in the modern era. The same happened with Jane Jensen, who couldn't capture the charm of Gabriel Knight again with Malachi Rector, but created an unlikeable asshole instead.

SpaceVenture. Only gods, and the Guys, know what's really going on with that. They got 500k in order to build it 5 years ago. Can that amount really sustain them to the end? And if it does, will the end result end up disappointing?

The old devs that have succeeded the best were those who were willing to take what made their past glory good and mix it up properly on what makes good things now. It's not a surprise that Brian Fargo of former Interplay fame is thriving on the crowdfunding platform, as he's a producer, who takes nostalgia and tries to modernize it, not doing the same old thing again and again. He understood, that while there was good things in the past, the past should govern on what you do today in terms of technology or storytelling.

And that's all for now folks. End rantmission.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Almuric (Howard, R., E., 1939, 1964)

Howard's Almuric has been on my read list for a good while now, since I first learnt of its existence after I saw a couple of panels of a comic that was made of it in the 1970's for Epic Illustrated magazine. It is a one off, light sci-fi story, originally published as a serial in 1939, later on as a complete book edition in 1964. Howard might have had further ideas for additional stories, as it does introduce the world of Almuric, but leaves a good partition of it unexplored. Further exploits of Esau Cairn were however left unexplored, as Howard had been dead for a good while before Almuric was originally published.

As such Almuric reminds me quite a bit of Burroughs's Barsoom series: just like John Carter, Esau Cairn is a man in wrong place. He's not ageless like Carter is, but even on Earth he's supernaturally strong and quick to anger, which leads him into problems. As he's as strong as he is, he can't even compete in professional sports, as he's afraid of hurting people. Hell, he has hurt people badly even with boxing gloves on. So one thing leads to an another, and Esau finds himself at odds with a local gangster he ends up killing. From here on his tale turns even more like John Carter's as he's then transported into an another world, Almuric.

John Carter did his travels on some sort of astral plane, never really explained, Esau Cairn travels via machine designed by professor Hildebrand. To him Esau also sends his narrative of his exploits on Almuric, but how he does this is also left unexplained, an another point which makes me think Howard was thinking of doing more Cairn stories.

From Almuric Cairn finds a more suitable home for himself: it's a savage world, filled with monsters and beasts. Its sentient inhabitants are stronger and more barbaric than those of his old home and with them Cairn doesn't have to hold back his immense strength as the best of them give more than a challenge to him.

Cairns adoptive people, Gura, are a curious race. Curious in the manner of, that the men are hairy, almost ape like brutes, who do field carbines and swords and daggers. Female Gura on the other hand look just like women on Earth. For this disparency a clumsy explanation is given, but it makes as much sense as the similarly divided people of lost city of Opar in Burroughs's Tarzan novels. But in any case, among them Esau finds his lady love Altha.

The main villains of Almuric are glossy ebony colored winged race Yaga's, who think of themselves as gods. They live in a high citadel, filled with slaves they take from the other races of Almuric. To add to their wholly unpleasant mind set, they also are cannibals and take pleasure from torturing of the lesser people.

Like I said in the beginning, it's pretty easy to see where Howard got his inspiration to Almuric. It has so many similarities towards Barsoom series, of which first stories were published in 1912 and a good bulk of them before Howard committed a suicide in 1936, that it's hard to believe it is a coincidence. Howard even emulates similar 1st person narrative as Burroughs did with Barsoom series.

A big difference between Almuric and Barsoom is, how the worlds are constructed. Carter's Barsoom is a dying world, build upon the bones of ancient civilizations. While the Martians try mostly survive, technology and invention hasn't completely died. Almuric on the other hand is a stagnant world, which hasn't seen progress in ages. Gura and the Yaga have reached their own pinnacles and are completely happy with that. They don't invent or build anymore, they just are. Even the weapons of the Gura are mostly just passed from generation to generation because they are so durable. They do know how to build them, but don't really bother doing so. This means that any progress of the world has just ended in a dead stop. Had Howard done more stories, the situation might have changed, given the possibilities of the other regions of Almuric, but as said, that wasn't in the cards.

While Almuric is an okay story, it's far from being Howard's finest hour. Esau himself is pretty straight forwarded and relative uninteresting main character. His driving personality is, that on Earth he was too strong, on Almuric he's on more even odds. That is repeated almost to ad nauseum. But then again, even on Almuric he's this super strong fighter, who can rip bolted shackles off a stone wall. Not that John Carter has superior personality, but at least with him there's this poorly hidden mocking superiority he has towards everyone else.

Almuric doesn't really have that much going for it, at least what comes to originality or personally. It feels like his stumbling attempt at creating pulp sci-fi series of his own, but as such he didn't seem to have that many ideas with it, even the science fiction part of it is so fleeting, that it could just as well not exists at all. The characters and the races of it are also pretty bland as well as feel copied out of other sources. In all, it isn't that big of a surprise that it was only released around three years after Howard's death, as he was already beginning to make a name of himself around the time, so there must have been some demand for new material bearing his name.

I hoped I could have enjoyed Almuric more than I did. It does have some good bits in it, but as a whole, it feels like an experiment not fully realized.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Gent From Bear Creek (Howard, R., E., 1934, 1937)

I tried. Not hard, I guess, but I still tried to read Howard's A Gent From Bear Creek. After one and a half chapter I came to a conclusion, that it just wasn't a tale for me. The main reason for me abandoning it was the language, as it's written as a first person narrative of an unschooled Nevadan hillbilly, who writes with a thick, rustic dialect. Now I grant that there was some amusing bits on those pages I read, but as a whole it felt too much of a struggle to read through the comedic misadventures of this young lad aiming to impress the gal of his dreams.

Yes, it is a comedy. Not really a style I know Howard for and definitely written in a very uncharacteristic manner from his side. I'm guessing the overly thick dialect was a direct way of making the narrative feel even more comedic, but personally for me it was a tad too much, especially because there's just so many words in there that I don't really understand, even in the given context.

So, what's it all about then? As I said, it's a tale of a hillbilly named Breckenridge Elkins, who comes out almost like a parody of Howard's own manly characters, who live in a harsh world, trusting only in the might of their own hands. Breckenridge is more good natured, yet also strong and stubborn.

His tale begins, when he goes to see the woman he loves, Glory, but ends up getting her mad in grounds of giving a beating to her dad and brothers. Glory promises to never lay her eyes on him again unless Breck makes something of himself, so this leads him and his mule to series of misadventures, when he's trying to make his mark in the world.

Originally the stories presented in A Gent From Bear Creek were published as short stories. As they were popular on their day, Howard edited them together in order to make a book out them, but he never did see the collected edition in published form, as that came out a year after his suicide.

And that's that. I reckon. Not really my kind of a thing. There's also a web comic adaptation of one of the tales, Mountain Man, by Gary Chaloner

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Hour of the Dragon (Howard, R., E., 1935-1936)

The Hour of the Dragon is fantastic Conan tale. I'd even say it's one of the best stories Howard wrote during his short career. It has everything you'd hope to see in a sword and sorcery tale like this: combat, treachery, evil villains, magic, secrets from the eons old murky past, adventure and triumph. It also is the only full length Conan novel Robert E. Howard wrote as well as the last of his published stories in his lifetime before his suicide in 1936 (he was only 30). The Hour of the Dragon has also been published with a title Conan the Conqueror.

The tale begins with a resurrection of an ancient wizard Xaltotun. He's been brought alive by a group of conspirators, who seek to use his talents inoverthrowing Conan, who's now a king of Aquilonia. Xaltotuns dark arts render Conan helpless and during a battle with Aquilonians rivaling nation, Nemedia, his troops are slain and he himself is captured. This leads into a military occupation of Aquilonia as the people believe that Conan has perished as well and he had no heir, so the people weren't willing to start rallying under the old lords of the realm.

Conan soon learns of the ancient evil raised against him as well as he learns of means how to battle against him. After he escapes from the dreary dungeons of Nemedia, he soon heads on the road to find the Heart of Ahriman, a magical artifact from the forgotten past, which was used to resurrect Xaltotun and which power can be used to render him back to where he came from.

Howard has two points of narration he uses during the tale, the first being the perspective of Conan, the second being the perspective of the usurpers. This makes the tale more compelling, as it saves Howard the trouble of giving out long explanations of how Conan finally rallies his allies in the end. What we see of Conan in the tale are the more interesting tidbits of his voyages in the search of the jewel. And when he finally finds it the perspective goes to the villains of the tale, who finally begin to hear rumours of Conan's return and start to rally up their own troops in order to defeat Conan for once and for all. During the final battle we see only glimpses of Conan on the battlefield, but the main focus is on Xaltotun and the Nemedians until the moment Conan finally triumphs.

If you are more familiar with Howard's work, you might notice some similarities with some of the situations in the story. That's because he did re-use bits and pieces from his other Conan stories, like the Scarlet Citadel. This does probably explain why some of his ideas in the tale do seem so well thought of in the end, as he was fleshing out material he had already toyed with.

While  The Hour of the Dragon is a full length novel, some of it still could have used some more fleshing up, as it does tend to throw Conan from one situation to an another and some characters are left underutilized and under explored. It might be the serial nature of the original publication or the fact that Howard was more accustomed to shorter form of writing.
So, if you are in a mood for some good sword and sorcery fantasy, the Hour of the Dragon is a great starting point, especially if you want to go towards Conan the Cimmerian. While it takes place on his later years, it still gives out enough information about him, so that even a new reader isn't left in the dark of what kind of a man he is and what kind of a world he lives in. Go read it and thank me later.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Planescape: Torment

As Torment: Tides of Numenera is getting closer to release, I decided that it would be a good time to play Planescape: Torment again., given that Tides is a spiritual successor to it after all. For me Planescape is the game. That one game I can return to and play it through again and again. It's like this one, great novel, which keeps giving something new each time I play it.

To compare Planescape: Torment to a novel is very apt: it is a game that is based on a strong narrative more than it is based on anything else. Sure, it is an RPG, but as an RPG it's not a very good one. In a matter of fact, there's only one proper character build you should use when playing it and that's a character with as high intelligence and wisdom as possible, because that way you'll be able to get most of the story, as revealing the past of the nameless one is strictly tied to these stats. Sure, you can play the game as a dumb fighter, but in the end, as far story goes, it's clearly written as a smart wizard in mind.

What always hits me is, how atmospheric game P:T is. Straight from the beginning it just oozes atmosphere. It's in the graphics, in the sound effects and music. It's in the sparse voice acting and it's in the writing. Everything about is just filled to a brim with atmosphere and it's not a hard task to let yourself drown with it. Waking up as amnesiac is an old cliche, but in P:T it just works. Letting the mystery of the Nameless One sweep over you is such a pleasurable task, that it's easy to sink hours into the story without realizing it. And most of that time is done by reading as in the end that's what P:T is all about.

As I stated, this isn't a very good RPG. While it's done with the Infinity Engine, which was also used for Baldur's Gate games, and utilizes D&D rule set, it never really does manage to work well as an RPG. The combat system is clumsy at best and most of the time I just keep running away from enemies, as it's more sensible to gain a ton of XP by just reviving the memories of the Nameless One. See, unlike many other RPG's out there, Planescape: Torment rewards you from being smart and talking to people. It rewards you from finding clues about yourself and your past. Combat in it is just a after thought. In fact the avoidance of combat goes as far as being able to win the game without a need to try to kill the main baddie. If you're smart enough, you can just talk yourself out of it.

In many ways Planescape: Torment would be better off, it wouldn't even have a combat system. I've always seen it as a story driven adventure game, more than anything else, that was tacked with a bad combat system just because it was done with an RPG engine and because it was based upon an RPG series. In a hindsight I think tacking on combat to it was a bad move, as it just doesn't really reward you from it like more typical RPG's do and it's a simple task to just avoid it most of the time.

In truth you don't even have to be a mage in the game. You don't even have to choose a class if you don't want to, as you begin the game as a fighter. All the other class options are scattered around the city of Sigil and you can fully ignore all of them. Your comrades can also teach you a trick or two, but in the end it doesn't really matter.  That same goes with a lot of the RPG elements in the game, as only thing that really matters, especially if you are interested in the full story, is that you are smart and intelligent. A couple of points in charisma does wonders as well, but in the end there's no real reason why Planescape: Torment ever needed to be an RPG and it doesn't even try to take itself seriously as one. Or if it does, it fails badly at that.

You could compare P:T system to something like the Witcher series, where you play olready existing charcater. But the difference is, that in the Witcher games you still have an effect on how and what kinds of Witcher skills geralt uses and everything has their good and bad sides. P:T just doesn't really encourage that kind of experimentation. It's almost pointless to create a full fledged warrior or a thief, as there's really no pay off from that.

I've always found it a bit amusing, that when sites and magazines do their lists of top 100 games ever or top 10 RPG's ever, Planescape: Torment is always there, even mentioned to one of the greatest RPG's ever. As I said, I love it to bits, but a great RPG it's not. A great game, a superb piece of interactive fiction, but all the RPG elements in it feel just tacked on: as a whole it would be just as good without them.

It's often said that great things are great because of whole of their sums. All things in them combined makes them great. In the case of Planescape: Torment I can't help but to disagree about that. It's a great game despite of the whole of it. Its atmosphere, characters, art, music and writing elevate what would be a bad RPG into a great experience. And that's, I think, is pretty rare.