Saturday, May 25, 2013

Album Review: Daft Punk - "Random Access Memories"

Let me just get this out of the way right now, before we even talk about music. "Random Access Memories" is quite possibly my favorite album title of all time. It's clever, it fits with the theme of the band and the album itself, and it's a computer joke. As soon as I saw the ad that ran before my theater's showing of "Iron Man 3" (though most people apparently saw it on SNL) I knew I had to buy this album for the title alone.

I was also struck by how different it was from Daft Punk's usual sound. I grew up with Daft Punk, first exposed to their music in the same way a lot of nerds my age probably were, through the music video for "One More Time" that aired on Toonami a lot.

Aside from just being really catchy and cool, the ending of the video was incredibly maddening. I was a high schooler at the time and my Google Fu was still too weak to find out that this video was the beginning of the larger project, "Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem". Still, Daft Punk were more or less my first exposure into electronic music, and despite my love of technology, I'm generally not all that fond of electronic music outside of Daft Punk.

And to be perfectly honest, while I liked a number of Daft Punk songs, I'd never really say I was a "fan". When I was younger, I tended to listen to mixes of popular singles, so I tended to pick a very narrow sampling of Daft Punk's music. "One More Time", "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger", and "Technologic" were pretty much their only songs that I heard more than once.

Once I got into college, I started listening more to entire albums rather than just playlists. I'm not sure what changed about my tastes, but if I had to guess, it probably had something to do with my sudden appreciation for "Coheed and Cambria". As I said in my review of "Afterman: Ascension" (and I'll review "Descension" eventually, I promise), the best way to listen to CoCa is to take in each album as a whole thing. That's the only way to absorb the story, the emotion, the themes, and things like that, and most of the songs don't really stand particularly well on their own. And as I started moving back to artists other than CoCa, I found that I suddenly liked listening to full albums of other artists for some of the same reasons. Not all albums hold together quite as well as others, but most good albums have a central theme or style that I like to marinate in. Plus, some songs are hidden gems that never get any radio play because they show up towards the end of an album and maybe require a number of listens before they work their way into your soul.

So it was during this time that I finally found "Interstella 5555" and got to see Daft Punk try to tie a narrative through the entire album of "Discovery". And while the narrative itself was a little... dull in parts, the album itself was really solid and cohesive. It also made me realize just how far down electronic music had fallen since Daft Punk left the scene.

"Human After All" doesn't hold together quite as well, but I give it a lot of slack because I really, really love "Technologic".

I just love how completely in-your-face this song is from beginning to end, how it's repetitive without being maddening, and how the video is a literal depiction of the most uncanny-valley-looking robot ever designed becoming self-aware of how horrifying and soulless it has become.

This video is actually kind of how I imagine Daft Punk felt about electronic music in the 2000's. As electronic as some of their music got, it always had a really solid foundation built on disco and pop. Mostly disco. But as years went on and auto-tune became trendy, electronic influence began to be used as a crutch by people who didn't understand it. Instead of being its own thing, it started to homogenize pop music into this perfect-pitch synth slurry of stupid. And by the end of the decade, things only got worse.

When we needed them most, Daft Punk were nowhere to be found. Instead, they were working on the original soundtrack for "Tron: Legacy", and I am still pissed that they didn't even get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score that year. A lot of people went to see that movie almost entirely for the soundtrack. And it was an amazing soundtrack.

But after 8 years, Daft Punk finally put out another album. And here we have "Random Access Memories".

If I were to put into words why Daft Punk's use of electronic sound works while's doesn't... it would have to be like this:

Daft Punk are robots trying to be human. is (purportedly) a human trying desperately to sound like a robot.

Daft Punk are trying to find the music in what most would probably consider to be "noise". just took music and turned it into actual noise.

So when they decided to come back, it's not surprising that they decided to tone down the electronic. It's still there, but most of the songs involve a lot more music from normal singers and standard electric instruments. This was to be their "back to roots" album.

This isn't unusual. After they've been around for a while, bands like to create albums to explore their roots. However "Random Access Memories" is different.

See, Daft Punk never forgot their roots. They've always loved disco and they've always paid homage to it, even in their most electronic music. No, we are the ones who needed the reminder. We are the ones who forgot that electronic music was not supposed to be this over-produced shit.

In a world where "artists" use technology to make themselves sound more talented than they are, Daft Punk decided to take them on with an album that used as little technology as possible to prove that good electronic music (and good music in general) is built on a solid foundation of musical understanding and ability.

The goal of "Random Access Memories" is very plainly stated with the very first song on the album: "Give Life Back to Music".

As for the album itself... it's good.

I'm not going to lie, much like Daft Punk themselves, I think I like the concept better than the music itself. That's not to say it's bad, far from it. I actually really enjoy this album, probably more than any of their other albums. But I can't say I love it. I love what it stands for, I love the band that produced it, and I love the title and the aesthetic. And I love a number of the songs.

"Giorgio by Moroder" almost feels like a documentary in music form and it's probably my favorite track on the album. "Touch" is trippy and almost feels like it belongs in a stage musical, and I mean that in the best possible way. "Get Lucky" is a great single and probably the best disco track in decades.

But I found that almost all of the songs I really loved on this album were the collaborations. The few songs that don't feature other artists simply aren't as good as some of Daft Punk's earlier work. "Motherboard" in particular feels like an empty void. It's not bad, just forgettable.

Also, when they do dip back into electronic, it almost feels too familiar. Like, I love the vocoder interlude of "Get Lucky", but it feels very musically derivative of some of the parts of "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger". Maybe that's part of the point? To show the underlying disco roots of some of their songs? I dunno.

And I'm not saying that Daft Punk have run out of talent. Not even close. I think they just work best when they have a mission. With "Tron: Legacy", they had a narrative to build around. With their collaborative tracks, they had other artists to merge styles with.

To speak in more technological terms, Daft Punk are machines (metaphorically-speaking) and machines work best when implemented by people. If left on their own, they tend to produce the same patterns and are fairly easy to dissect and predict. But while collaborating, they show a very powerful understanding of what their music is capable of and use it to enhance the quality of whatever they're collaborating with without diluting it.

It really does raise this question of the fate of electronic music. What merit does the human element truly have? As much as Daft Punk clearly love technology, they clearly don't want it to replace what they consider to be the soul of music. But are they right?

I certainly think that a lot of artists are abusing technology without fully understanding it, but I do think that there's nothing wrong with throwing out the rulebook and making an entire song through bits and boards. For some reason it all reminds me of this little speech from Battlestar Galactica:

Regardless of the place technology has in the music to come, this album still reminds us of the place music of the past had in influencing it. For that reason alone, I would highly recommend this album, even if it's not something I necessarily love completely from beginning to end. But even saying that, this album has more than enough great music to make it worth the purchase.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Kinectophobia: Xbox One and the End of Privacy

In the wake of Microsoft's disastrous reveal of the Xbox One, there are certainly a lot of things to hate. Not only did they leave out backwards compatibility, they seem bizarrely proud of that fact. The console requires an Internet connection in spite of how much a required online component has kneecapped the launch of several recent games. They appear to be leaving indie developers out in the cold. You don't need me to tell you that the Xbox One looks really dumb and that Microsoft has an uphill battle ahead of them.

But there's one complaint that keeps popping up from both commenters and industry writers that I find a bit... extreme. Or at the very least a bit reactionary.

Specifically, a lot of people are overreacting a little about how the new Kinect is apparently a required component in the Xbox One. It comes with it, it's always on, and the system doesn't function without it.

Now, I actually agree with this criticism for the most part. Requiring Kinect does seem a bit excessive and daunting. The Kinect can be a pain in the ass to set up. If you're just bringing your console over to a friend's house for a party or something, being required to also set up the Kinect might be enough of a reason to leave the behemoth at home. Also, as a Kinect owner myself, I'm curious if the new Kinect has gotten better at detecting people who are sitting down or people of varying body types and shapes. Will people without four limbs be able to use Kinect? The biggest barrier for the Kinect in my opinion is how it seems to work best in very limiting situations: In big, spacious rooms, looking at averagely-proportioned humans standing upright and in full view. So I'm less interested in what new tricks the Kinect can do and more interested in whether or not it can do those tricks under most reasonable circumstances.

But questionable functionality and cumbersome implementation aren't really the reasons why some people appear to be upset about the Kinect requirement. No, some people are merely upset that the Kinect is always on, even if the Xbox One is off, so that it can wake the Xbox One with your verbal commands.

On top of that, the Kinect doesn't just see you with standard IR and RGB cameras anymore. No, it is way more sophisticated now:

People seem to see the always-on Kinect as some kind of Orwellian nightmare.

If you have concerns about Microsoft installing an always-on microphone and camera in your living room, better invest in a veil for the camera and some way of muffling Kinect's "ears." Owners of the next-gen console will need to accept Kinect is watching thee and there's little privacy. [Alexander Sliwinski (Joystiq)]
I’m not sure I like the idea of a piece of hardware that’s hooked up in my living room listening to me on an ongoing basis. [Ben Kuchera (PAR)]

And these are both actual journalists who I imagine use an above-average amount of technology in their daily lives. These aren't tin-foil-hat-wearing octogenarians who think that iPhones cause cancer.

Look, I don't have to explain why this particular complaint is more than a little bit paranoid. If the Xbox One is off, it likely won't be able to communicate over the network, so it's not like there will be a direct feed that would be accessible from the Internet for people to spy on you with. It also probably wouldn't be able to store any data to the hard drive to send later. Besides, Microsoft barely has enough time to respond to technical support questions. You think they have the time to perpetually observe Xbox customers, even if it were possible? I can pretty much guarantee that anything the Kinect sees/hears while the console is off is strictly between you and the Kinect.

However, I get the impression that this is more than just concern over what the Kinect sees when it is off. I feel like this stems from a much deeper concern over why Microsoft wants the Kinect to be omnipresent.

Specifically, even if they aren't exactly saying so, I think people are probably more concerned about how this technology might be used while the system is on, not while it is off. They just choose to express that concern in a very limited scope in order to not sound technophobic. Rather than say, "I'm frightened over how invasive Kinect seems to be," they merely say, "I'm not sure why Kinect needs to be on all the time." It's like if you suspect your friend's brother is a drug dealer, but you don't want to come right out and say that without evidence, so instead you just say, "Your brother sure has a lot of cash on him. What does he do for a living again?" You ask a smaller question with weighted implications to get your point across without seeming irrational. But even if that smaller question has a plausible answer, that doesn't do much to change your deeper suspicions.

Honestly though, I wish more of the people who are bothered by Kinect would just come right out and say that the implications of a ubiquitous Kinect make them uncomfortable, because that's actually a pretty reasonable fear, even if there isn't really anything to support it other than speculation. They're nervous that game developers and Microsoft will use the Kinect to basically collect information from the players, even if Kinect is not required for a particular game. A device that can detect the mood and engagement of a player? Their heartbeat? Probably also able to estimate things like age, gender, living arrangements, number of pets? AAA game developers love their metrics and Kinect will allow them to collect metrics from literally everyone who uses their games. If Kinect and the Internet are both required for the console to function, they can know for certain that anyone playing their game on the Xbox One will be visible to the Kinect and that they can collect whatever metrics they like from it, within the limits and parameters set by the law and by the Kinect SDK.

And if you think you'll be able to just put blinders on Kinect, I wouldn't be so sure. After all, it seems like the Xbox One uses Kinect in order to identify and log in specific users, so I wouldn't be surprised if obscuring its vision would cause various gameplay issues. I could be wrong about that, but at the very least, now that developers know that all of the Xbox One owners will have a Kinect, they'll probably start using it more, if only for things like optional voice commands.

Don't freak out too much, though. They probably won't be able to collect actual sounds and images, at least not without explicit permission in one of the EULA's for the game. Your house is private property and it is illegal to record individuals without their permission on their private property. But they really don't need to. They just want the data that Kinect gathers. Images and sounds take space and time, but statistics and metrics are easy to transfer and compile, and you can bet your ass that every marketing department in the industry will want to take advantage of this.

I can imagine the meetings now:

"Our metrics show that 95% of players expressed visual shock and increased heart-rate after the jump scare in the first level, but subsequent jump scares seemed less effective, increasing overall disengagement and only rendering visible shock in 45% of players by the end. Furthermore, our demographic..." yadda yadda yadda. Numbers! So many numbers! And we aren't talking sampling sizes anymore. We're talking everyone. Everyone will have a Kinect, everyone will have an Internet connection, and everyone will be counted. And they don't have to ask you how you feel. They can just read your expression. It might not be 100% accurate, but it'll probably be much more informative than what they rely on currently.

And that's just off the top of my head. Honestly, there's probably no reason why game developers couldn't use the Kinect to know just about everything about their player base, so long as it is something Kinect is capable of determining.

What's more, with Microsoft trying to push the Xbox One as a ubiquitous portal for TV and streaming video, you can bet that cable networks and advertisers will be interested in these metrics too.

To put it simply, Microsoft can't and won't look at you while you play video games in your underwear. However, they will probably know that you play video games in your underwear. They will probably generate spreadsheets and pie charts saying that you and 34,216 other gamers played "Call of Duty: Ghosts" in your underwear, and that those gamers also had a higher than average probability of drinking Pepsi rather than Coca-Cola.

I'm pretty sure that's what people are really terrified about, and I understand that. Privacy and anonymity can be comforting and anything that trespasses that comfort-zone tends to be repulsive. It happens all the time and it's a very human reaction, no matter how comfortable with technology you might be.

Even recently with Google Glass. In Engadget's review of the first released version of the device, they dedicated a whole section to discussing their privacy concerns, specifically with the video recording capabilities:

The point can certainly be made that it's possible to take a picture or video of someone these days without their knowledge, but the situation here is a bit reversed: nobody knows if you're not taking a picture or video of them. This will, at first, result in some good-natured "Are you recording this?" comments in conversations but, as time goes on, as a wearer, you'll notice that people will be acting a little more cautiously around you. [Tim Stevens (Engadget)]

Again, this is a journalist who writes for a website dedicated to news regarding technology and gadgets. This is not a technophobe, and you don't have to be one to find the idea of someone with Google Glass walking into a locker room with the video feed turned on more than a little skeevy.

But this is the world we're moving towards. And we've been moving towards it for generations.

Privacy is a luxury and a privilege, but I think a lot of us actually take it for granted. When something invades our privacy, our displeasure is expected and inherently justified. But why? Why is our privacy so important to us?

Well, that's usually when people start bringing up Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury. If governments and businesses know everything about us and we can't hide anything from them, what's to stop them from controlling us absolutely? And this is perfectly reasonable, but the inherent problem in these fictional dystopias isn't just that the citizens have no privacy, it's that the citizens have less privacy than the ones in charge. Big Brother sees all from the shadows, but if Big Brother is as exposed to the citizens as the citizens are to Big Brother, suddenly the dynamic shifts.

The future we are moving towards isn't a future where the government or the corporations know everything about us. It's a future where everybody knows everything about everyone. My congressman might be able to see my embarrassing Facebook photos, but Congressman Weiner will never live down his infamous crotch-tweet. Do you think Orwell imagined a world where a picture of Big Brother's erection would be immortalized in the public consciousness? Our future is a future where privacy isn't a luxury possessed by the ruling class, but a luxury possessed only by those who refuse to embrace technological advancement. If you don't want people with Google Glass to record you in the locker room, you'll either have to get them to take them off or you'll have to somehow change the way they function in certain rooms. Either way, the only way to protect your privacy is to find some way to prevent this technology from being used. And if the technology becomes more and more popular, that might get harder and harder to do.

Sure, we might create laws that make it illegal to wear AR glasses in areas with specific designations. But what happens when it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between AR glasses and normal glasses? What if they develop AR contact lenses? What if everyone starts using AR glasses? How do you enforce that sort of thing? Do you turn all locker rooms and bathrooms into dead zones that scramble all wireless communication? Would people be willing to stop using their mobile devices in the bathroom if it meant knowing that they wouldn't be recorded by someone with AR glasses? Would the next generation be willing to? Would the generation after that?

Similarly, we might create laws that say that companies can only gather metrics based on information gathered by Kinect with the express permission of the owner of Kinect, but how many of us actually read EULAs? And what if I agree to an EULA but my Kinect gathers metrics about my roommate who never agreed to anything? How would Kinect be able to distinguish between us? Would our government even care enough or understand technology enough to try and pass this sort of law? Would any judicial body care enough to enforce it?

This is why I think that even if we initially resist these sorts of technological advancement, we won't be able to stop the tide from coming in eventually.

In the course of history, when has new technology ever been completely resisted and done away with? When have we ever invented something and then decided that we shouldn't have it, and thus outlawed it and gone back to the way things were before? Have we ever done that? We invented a weapons defense system that can literally kill the entire planet, and as much as we all seem to want to, we cannot do away with it.

The technology in Kinect is simply too useful not to be used. We can and should do everything in our power to prevent it from being abused, but this technology will be used, and it will probably be used in the earliest of launch titles.

If this scares you, don't worry. This future without privacy won't come quickly. But it will come, generation by generation. My generation was the one that discovered Facebook, and when it became ubiquitous, we feared for our privacy. But we didn't stop using it. Even so, we coined terms like Facebook-stalking, customized our settings so that only our most trusted friends could see our personal information, and immediately started freaking out when our parents and employers started friending us.

In stark contrast, the younger generation seems to have a different relationship with Facebook. They seem to generally like the idea of having all of their information out there for the world to see. They don't care about seeming clean-cut or particularly intelligent. They are much less filtered and seem to embrace it. Maybe that will change as they grow older, but I think it may prove to be a major generational difference.

Really, this is the way it has always been. With each new generation, clothes become skimpier, sex becomes wilder, words become shorter, and lines become blurrier. "Kids today" will always disregard the things we always just assumed were universally sacred because they approach the world without our preconceptions.

While you and I might feel that the concept of a camera in our bedroom or our bathroom to be terrifying and violating, I can't guarantee that the next generation will feel the same way, particularly if that's the world they grow up in. "So what if there's a camera in my bedroom? There are cameras everywhere!"

And frankly, there are parts of this somewhat troubling future that I find intriguing, exciting even. Yes, Microsoft and EA will probably know far more about their customers than ever before, but you know something? I expect they'll probably be surprised at what they learn. What they might have always assumed was conventional wisdom about their audience will probably prove inaccurate. I expect a lot of executives will sit around a table, look at charts and be surprised at how many gamers are women, or African-American, or middle-aged, or physically disabled. With this wealth of information, they'll know exactly what their audience is like without having to assume. They'll know what their audience responds to, both positively and negatively, without us having to write incredibly overwrought diatribes on our blogs that they'll never see. And while some people find this creepy, I think that it's exactly what the industry needs right now: A better understanding of the diversity of its audience.

Too much of the industry is focused on a very specific kind of gamer within a very conventional demographic, and it's been hard to change that because there's no reliable way for a game developer to know what kind of people are buying games these days. They bank on the same tired and out-dated demographics because anything else involves too much risk. They don't want to target niche demographics because they don't know enough about them.

And game developers are already using a lot of metrics in their games and learning things they might not have initially expected. For example, BioWare tends to collect metrics based on what sort of relationships their players choose in their RPGs. This led them to implementing a lot more LGBT options in these games without feeling the need to apologize to "offended" straight male gamers. To quote:

We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content in DAO and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant… [David Gaider (BioWare)]

This is the sort of thing that I like. Gaming will no longer be represented exclusively by idiots and 17-year-old white boys who think that their money is worth more than the money of the people they supposedly outnumber. Each gamer's voice will be heard and hopefully represented in turn, not out of compassion, but out of the same capitalistic greed that foolishly ignored them in the first place.

I know a lot of people take issue with the idea of targeted advertising. Even Microsoft itself has used this to try and bash Google in a painfully stupid advertisement for Outlook:

Obviously there is no creepy, blue-faced individual at Google who goes through all of your e-mails and sends you ads, like this video implies. It's all done anonymously through computers and algorithms.

But still! It's creepy! It's an invasion of privacy!

Maybe so, but you know what? Advertisements are a lot less annoying when they're for products I actually want. And it also makes them more effective, which makes them more profitable for the people using them, which means people who rely on advertising for a living (basically anyone who makes a living on web-based content) get paid better. And Google, who make almost all of their billions of dollars through advertising, use their capital to also fund innovative research and development that benefits the world on a daily basis. You may not like Google, but few could imagine an Internet without them.

A lot of us have been around since the Internet first exploded in popularity, and part of what we tend to find appealing (or at least reassuring) is anonymity. To us, anonymity is an intrinsic part of the Internet, for good or ill. But I'm here to tell you that it probably won't be that way forever.

That might be disturbing to think about, but there's a positive side to it as well. As we become more and more visible on an individual level, each and every one of us has a more significant impact on the world we inhabit. Rather than make us all homogenous, we'll actually become more distinct. More varied. Each voice will be heard and processed and added to the pie chart. And most of us won't even notice the difference.

Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? It will probably be both. Technology is inherently neutral and people are capable of both good and bad. All we can do is try and minimize the bad without sacrificing too much of the good.

So sure, let's all be skeptical. Let's all be critical. Let's find out exactly what Kinect will be used for. But let's also understand that just because something crosses a line, it doesn't necessarily follow that the line was important. And let's also understand that caution and hesitation is not always the same thing as wisdom.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Shadow of the Eternals: Why It Deserves a Chance (UPDATED)

Since I have a bad habit of burying the lead in my blog posts, I'm just going to come right out and say what my intended goal is here. There is a Kickstarter for "Shadow of the Eternals", a spiritual successor to "Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem". A lot of people are unwilling to give it their support for reasons I'll delve into here. While I think they have some merit in their skepticism (again, I'll get into that), I ultimately think that if you've ever considered yourself a fan of "Eternal Darkness", H.P. Lovecraft, or video games in general, you owe it to yourself to chip in $5. It's only $5, it gives you access to the first episode of the game, and if it comes out and you hate it, then go ahead and write this project off. Even if I don't convince you to give Precursor Games the benefit of the doubt by the end of this blog post, I can't imagine that $5 is really all that much to ask, even for a company that you might not have any faith in. Think of all of the crap you spend $5 on everyday. Can you tell me the possibility of another "Eternal Darkness" game, even if you believe the possibility is slight, is worth less than that?

Anyway, let's get this show on the road.

Whenever anybody ever talks about the best games developed for the Nintendo GameCube, almost everyone always jumps to "Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem" as their #1 choice. For a system that was largely written off as "just for kids" or a vehicle for sub-par third-party titles, "Eternal Darkness" stood as a shining example of the opposite. A thrilling horror title with a complex, mature plot developed by Silicon Knights. It was heavily-steeped in the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, it had a unique and interesting magic system, a complex meta-narrative, and a brilliant system of demonstrating the loss of sanity within the game by messing with the player.

For years, gamers have begged for a sequel to the game, and while Silicon Knights often seemed interested in developing one, it never came to fruition.

However, earlier this month, a new company primarily composed of previous Silicon Knights employees called Precursor Games announced its intentions to crowd-fund a game called "Shadow of the Eternals", a spiritual successor to "Eternal Darkness".

Now, given the still-popular nature of crowd-funding in the gaming industry, and given the massive cult following of "Eternal Darkness", one would imagine that even with the game's lofty goal of roughly $1.5 million, it would achieve funding within no time at all. After all, Double Fine achieved twice that amount with their Kickstarter and they didn't even know anything about the game they were fundraising, simply that they wanted to make an adventure game.

So imagine my surprise when I saw that this game had raised only a few tens of thousands of dollars, and even at this point, about two weeks later, it hasn't even raised one quarter of its intended goal. As someone who often follows Kickstarter projects, I know that most projects receive the highest volume of donations at the beginning and at the end of the fundraising period.

At first I thought the reason was because the project was being funded through PayPal rather than Kickstarter, but for nearly a week the project has had a Kickstarter page and it has only managed to raise about $75 thousand. Something is clearly wrong.

Why People Are Skeptical

I couldn't help but wonder why. Why was a game that everyone wanted getting so little support? Was it because the intended goal was too high or because the company itself was a new start-up comprised of employees from the now-defunct Silicon Knights? Well, that seemed insufficient since the recent Kickstarter for "Shroud of the Avatar", the successor to the "Ultima" series, also had a high target goal and was being developed by a new, unproven company. Was it because Silicon Knights put out two very crappy games, "Too Human" and "X-Men: Destiny", forever smearing their reputation? Well, again, before shutting down, Origin put out the embarrassing "Ultima IX: Ascension" before floundering for another 5 years solely surviving on the revenue from "Ultima Online", one of the first majorly popular MMORPGs ever (and actually the first one I ever played). Richard "Lord British" Garriott attempted to release another MMO called "Tabula Rasa" that was critically middling and shut down two years later due to lack of interest. None of this apparently deterred the loyalty of "Ultima" fans who doubled the project's intended goal.

So what made this game so special? In an age where gamers will willingly crowd-fund games and gaming hardware with dubious prospects, what about "Shadow of the Eternals" went over the line?

Well, first of all, "Too Human" and "X-Men: Destiny" were very recent failures, at least comparatively. Also, while "Too Human" can probably be compared to "Ultima IX" and "Duke Nukem Forever" as a game with high ambition that got continually shifted between teams, platforms, and engines so many times that the only possible result was miserable failure, "X-Men: Destiny" shared a different, more complicated fate.

Recently detailed in an exposé published by Kotaku, it is said by a number of anonymous sources that Silicon Knights was suffering under shady mismanagement at the hands of Denis Dyack, the creative force behind "Eternal Darkness" and "Blood Omen" as well as the founder and CEO of Silicon Knights. As shown in the video above, Dyack is also an executive at the new Precursor Games.

While I'd encourage everyone read the article in full, I'll summarize briefly for people who don't have time to read it. Essentially, the impression given is that Denis Dyack was having Silicon Knights develop "X-Men: Destiny" solely for the financial support from Activision, secretly siphoning off resources to develop a sequel to "Eternal Darkness" and putting very little effort into actually developing XMD. It would appear that Dyack was hoping that Activision would cave and give them more time and money when faced with a sub-par product and a looming deadline. However, Activision was more interested in shipping the game, regardless of whatever state it was in, and by attaching the Silicon Knights brand to the game in plain view, they essentially made it clear that if SK was going to deliberately half-ass the game, they'd be the ones to suffer for it.

In a desperate attempt to salvage the game and their reputation, the company worked their developers to the bone, put the work for ED2 on hold, and drove a significant amount of their staff out of the company. They discredited a number of those employees, giving them only a "Special Thanks" credit on the game itself. In the end, the game was universally derided and was the last game SK would develop.

Within that exposé, we get a brief glimpse of how far SK got on ED2 before Activision forced them to abandon it:

Yet despite this reportedly split effort, the ED2 demo also failed to come together in a satisfying way, sources said. "The farthest they got with it when I left SK was, literally, one two-level church interior," says one former employee. "It was really bad, as I recall. It took the side-team a long time to even get that far. Bad tech, combined with a team composed of people who had not shipped a title since Metal Gear really hurt that demo. Other than that, I can't explain why things went so poorly for them [except that] a lot of key people responsible for the original Eternal Darkness are long gone."

So when Precursor Games released an 8-minute gameplay demo of "Shadow of the Eternals", a lot of eyebrows were raised regarding the content.

As you can see, the "gameplay" consists largely of a character walking very slowly through a two-level church interior, interacting with a very limited variety of objects and characters, before reaching a horrifying hell dimension and collapsing. While everything looks very shiny, it comes off as a video that merely shows off the game's assets without showing any combat.

On top of that, there was the legal battle regarding Silicon Knights and Epic Games over the Unreal Engine. Towards the end of the very troubled development of "Too Human", it was decided that the game would be redesigned to work in the bleeding-edge Unreal Engine 3. However, difficulties with the early build and lackluster support for the official release build caused a number of development issues that further impeded the development of the game, causing Dyack to deprive Epic of their royalties and sue them for their failed support. Epic counter-sued and eventually bled Silicon Knights dry.

So to the majority of the gaming community, here is what is largely believed to be going on:

Denis Dyack went crazy. Drunk with power, he turned "Too Human" into a boondoggle that left his company in danger. Desperate for money, he threw together a smoke-and-mirrors demo to court Activision into letting them develop "X-Men: Destiny" solely to keep the company afloat long enough to develop "Eternal Darkness 2", which he hoped would save the company. After the series of failures regarding XMD and the suit with Epic Games, Dyack faced a large number of financial issues and no one in the industry would bail his company out, so he started a new shell company, hopped onto the crowd-funding bandwagon, and is now attempting to extort money from the gaming community by showing them a glossied-up version of the crappy demo his team developed years earlier and promising a sequel they'd been wanting for years, when in reality, Dyack is just trying to rob his fans of money to get him out of his financial situation.

Given the evidence that has been made public, and how Dyack is generally not big on making public statements about the nitty-gritty of his company's inner-workings, it's not surprising why people are skeptical.

However, even knowing all of this, I still decided to back "Shadow of the Eternals". Why? Well that's what I'm here to write about.

Dyack Is Not the CEO

Despite being the founder, President, and CEO of Silicon Knights, Denis Dyack is not the CEO of Precursor Games. He fulfills the role of "Chief Creative Officer". The role of CEO actually falls on a guy called Paul Caporicci, who used to act as a major developer and programmer for Silicon Knights.

As I'm sure many of you are eager to point out, he's still a former Silicon Knights employee and therefore his presence supports the belief that this is just the same company with a new paint job. Well, there's one rather noticeable hitch in that theory.

Remember earlier how I said that during SK's disastrous push on "X-Men: Destiny", a lot of employees were laid off or left voluntarily and were summarily discredited from the game, mentioned only in the "Special Thanks" section? Well, one such individual was Paul Caporicci.

That's right. One of the guys who was fed up with the horrible mismanagement of Silicon Knights is the guy with supreme control over this company and this game in question.

In his own words in a recent statement:

"I can't comment on Silicon Knights. I can only comment on me. I was laid off...I was really disappointed and I just wanted to turn that into a positive, so I reached out to other people to see if they're interested in doing a brand-new company, and it kind of snowballed from there."

So there you go. This isn't some yes-man sock-puppet that will bend to Dyack's every whim. He clearly is the one who approached Dyack and Dyack is pretty clearly the one answering to him.

More importantly, almost all of the negative things I can say from what I've learned about Dyack is that he was very bad at managing his business. He wanted to focus on his pet projects and his own creative work and disregarded the business aspect of it as the unpleasant side that he had to do to make it possible. He half-assed it as much as possible because it's not what he wanted to do.

But it should be said that Dyack has always been talented. Even in what I've glimpsed from "Too Human", the concepts of the world and the gameplay were very good in theory, but executed with staggering incompetence.

So really, making him Chief Creative Officer is the perfect role for him. He can focus on thinking in broad strokes and leave the programming and business side to people who are actually interested in those aspects.

This Is Something Precursor (and Dyack) Clearly Care About

Another part from the "X-Men: Destiny" story that really stuck out to me was how Dyack was essentially scamming Activision to get "Eternal Darkness 2" made.

While this is obviously a bad way to run a business, I can sort of understand what Dyack was thinking. Having burned his bridges with Nintendo and after failing to make "Too Human" a success, really the only way they could have managed to make ED2 a reality was to make a demo to show to publishers. Since this was before crowd-funding was a thing, Dyack likely took any high-paying job that his studio could get, and so he landed XMD. He used the funding to produce an unfinished ED2 demo before being forced to abandon it to do the thing he was being paid to do.

Aside from painting a very unflattering picture of Dyack, it does make one thing very clear: He REALLY REALLY wants to make another "Eternal Darkness" game. He wants to make it so badly that he basically extorted money out of Activision to make it happen. So badly that even after his public humiliation at seeing his life work crushed by his own hubris, he was still willing to come crawling back to a man he severed ties with in order to make this project happen.

He knows there is an audience waiting for this game, so he sees this as the only way he can make it happen, particularly now that his own company is pretty much comatose. All of the people worth a damn had left and without the ability to make any revenue from "Too Human" and "X-Men: Destiny" after losing the lawsuit, he basically had no choice left but to go through Precursor Games and crowd-funding.

That may not seem like a good thing, but it means that the guy is humbled and desperate. If the rumors of his unrealistic approach to development are true, he doesn't have the power or the means to really pull that shit this time around. They have no publisher to extort. No ultimate authority. If I were him, I'd count myself lucky that I was being given this chance at all.

While I can't say with certainty that the game will ship in a satisfactory state if fully-funded (that possibility always exists in crowd-funded products), I have little doubt in my mind that the people at Precursor Games, Dyack included, are not interested in taking our money and running. They desperately want to make this game and have wanted to make it for years, and they know that if they fail, they basically will have nowhere left to turn.

This Is The Only Way We'll Ever Get Another Eternal Darkness Game

This is probably the biggest reason I'm still willing to put my money down on this game, even considering Dyack's checkered history. The fact remains that this team produced a number of very good games, including the original "Eternal Darkness". These people understand the game better than anyone and are probably the only ones truly equipped to make it. We cannot change the past. Dyack will always have done a crappy job in managing Silicon Knights. But if we want another "Eternal Darkness" game, that's something we're going to have to forgive, even if we never let him forget it.

More importantly, this is a company that is essentially rebuilding from the ground up. It's been suggested that people might be more willing to support this game if the team proved itself with a different title first. Well, that's pretty much the strategy that Crystal Dynamics took with "Too Human" and "X-Men: Destiny". They tried to establish new relationships with publishers in order to get enough capital and interest to develop projects they were passionate about and they failed. "Too Human" was what they hoped would be a new major franchise that would get them back in the black and prove themselves to Microsoft, but for a number of reasons, it was a non-starter. In the case of "X-Men: Destiny", the main reason they failed was because at the time (and to this day), the only game they were interested in making was "Eternal Darkness 2". If we tell them to make a different game first to earn our trust, it will inevitably turn out bad because it's not the game they want to make. And even if it was good, it probably wouldn't be successful enough to support a game as ambitious as "Shadow of the Eternals". There's no sense in them beating around the bush. This is the game they want to make, and this is the game we want to play, so this is the game they are pitching us.

While it's certainly possible that Nintendo would be interested in giving the license to some other team, and they could conceivably do it well, I frankly don't want to play that game. At best, a fan developing a successor to a franchise they had no hand in developing is like a chef trying to replicate a dish they've only tasted. They may be able to make something similar enough to satisfy fans, but it will not have the insight necessary to take it in new and interesting directions. Only Dyack and company can do that.

More importantly, while "Eternal Darkness" was critically successful and has a dedicated following, it was not exactly a big seller. The GameCube didn't have a major adult audience and wasn't a big seller to begin with. It is one reason why Silicon Knights eventually dissolved its relationship with Nintendo and was picked up by Microsoft, much in the same way Rareware did (and then subsequently turned out terrible games).

If Nintendo did find a developer interested in making another "Eternal Darkness" game, they would probably attempt to give it a broader appeal to attract a wider audience than the original game. Even if the developer did have interesting ideas, Nintendo would probably be very creatively limiting.

Silicon Knights is dead, and that's probably a good thing. What we have is Precursor Games and they are actively interested in continuing this franchise. All they need is additional support from the people who want it.

I get that people are skeptical, and that's perfectly reasonable. But honestly, this is probably the only way we'll ever get another "Eternal Darkness" game. If it fails to get funding, then we'll likely never even get the chance to see if it might have been. If it gets its funding and still fails to get off the ground, then Precursor will be obligated to reimburse the backers and we'll know for certain that this team is no longer capable of making decent games.

But if it gets funding and Precursor fulfills its promises, then we'll have exactly what fans of "Eternal Darkness" have always wanted. To me, that possibility is more than worth the risk.

Am I entirely convinced? No, not really. Like many of you, that demo doesn't inspire a lot of faith in me and is pretty clearly just smoke and mirrors. But they are very, very pretty smoke and mirrors, and if this demo is based on 5-year-old work, they managed to polish that turd to a mirror shine with the CryEngine. To me, that shows at least some level of competence and understanding of the engine they're working with. If they could take 5-year-old assets and make them into that with next to no substantial funding, I'd say they've got something worth investing in. It's certainly more than what Double Fine gave us when we supported their Kickstarter. They didn't have concept art, a title, or even a premise. Yet we gave them more money than they knew what to do with. The Ouya's potential was questionable and the company had little to support its high ambitions, yet they received overwhelming support and have generally produced exactly what they said they'd give us. Kickstarter gave us "FTL", which turned out to be an excellent title.

Of course there's risk involved here. Possibly more than usual. But this is "Eternal Darkness". I'm willing to potentially lose $25 just for one last shot at seeing it. Hell, can't you guys even throw down $5? Then you get to play the first episode of the game and if it fails your expectations, you've earned the right to say, "I told you so" and it only cost you about the price of a McDonald's breakfast.

I can't say for certain that Dyack deserves another chance and I can't say for certain that Precursor Games deserves a chance. But it should go without saying that this property deserves this chance. In an industry where survival horror is all but forgotten, I think that if nothing else, it's important for us to show that even if the developers cannot inspire a terribly large amount of confidence, the desire to play another "Eternal Darkness" is enough to earn the slightest bit of our attention.

UPDATE: It seems that Precursor has finally come out to address (some of) the controversy:

While I'm not sure I necessarily believe him (at least not regarding everything), the mere act of him coming out and making a statement pretty much proves that he's not the guy in charge and that he's capable of taking orders. While I doubt this video will convince many people that the Kotaku article is fictional, I hope it will at least convince people that Precursor is not simply a shell company invented and controlled by Dyack.

That said, the fact that these anonymous sources apparently described the ED2 demo to a tee suggests to me that the anonymous sources were probably actual ex-employees. I wouldn't be surprised if they provided the Kotaku writer with information they heard rather than things they themselves experienced, but I imagine not all of the negative things they brought up were completely fictional.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Comic Book Adaptation: Betrayal and Fidelity

First things first, this post involves MAJOR SPOILERS for "Iron Man 3". This isn't a review of "Iron Man 3" mostly because I don't really think writing a review of "Iron Man 3" would be much fun. It was a rather good film, but it didn't fill me with an overabundance of glee or excitement as I left the theater, not necessarily because of any specific failings, but because it was altogether a rather nice, self-contained film without any major lingering plot threads or big questions that are meant to resonate.

But the reason I bring up "Iron Man 3" and the reason I'm going to spoil it big time is because there's a twist in the film regarding one of the characters that is a very substantial deviation from comic book canon, and it has a lot of comic book fans up in arms. Really, that's what I'm here to talk about today.

When is it OK for a movie or TV show based on a comic book to alter the source material and when is it unnecessary?

OK, here we go. SPOILER time.