My name is Zachary and I'm a new media artist from Philadelphia.

I create engaging content... websites, videos, games, apps, that sort of thing. I work at a University of Pennsylvania think-tank and I'm responsible for projects such as the political literacy site FlackCheck.org and the teaching tool Civics Renewal Network. My work has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, PBS, MTV, USA Today, and tons of other places. I use this website as a process blog. Click here to view my portfolio.

Process Shot: Despill

Sequence 01 (0-00-31-22)

When we were brainstorming concepts for this music video, someone mentioned “bad green-screening” as an aesthetic. So I’m trying a really spotty despill with a huge pre-blur, which leads to this interesting semi-opaque fuzz over the figure. Sort of grimy.

Process Shot: Pagination Check

CRN Pagination

I always forget about pagination. Which is especially hazardous because most CMSs (Drupal, in particular) have butt-ugly pagination styling out of the box.

Mythos, Ethos, Invisible Airplane

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Maybe this is obvious since this blog is already nerd central, but: I like comic books. Not just the super hip Pantheon allegory of the week either. I like comics that have people in costumes mindlessly punching other people in costumes. I like Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, no matter how ridiculous they may be.

I like superheroes because they are familiar, reliable and occasionally surprising. There has been a new story about  Batman published every month for the entire time I have been alive. And, barring some kind of cataclysm that destroys the entire planet, people will continue to write stories about Batman long after I am dead. He is iconic, and his core character is widespread enough to make him immortal, if only in the abstract.

This massive cultural penetration also makes it easy to serialize the adventures of such a character, independent of the medium. People know that Superman is from Krypton, that he’s invulnerable, and that he’s a boring Boy Scout. People know that Batman’s parents were murdered, that’s he has no super powers, and that he’s as goth as my eighth grade girlfriend. A writer doesn’t need to reiterate this constantly; he can assume the reader is familiar with the character. There are reasonably permanent motivational traits for these heroes and villains that were established long ago. This allows an uncanny freedom from a storytelling standpoint; it allows the writer to shape the character uniquely and tell the story that they want to tell.

Which is more or less the opposite of how writing for a video game works. As an uneducated casual gamer twelve steps removed from the actual creative process of developing a video game, I feel qualified to make such a statement. I have gained a magnitude of insider knowledge about the average development process after that one time I drove through Boston and kinda sorta saw the Harmonix headquarters from Interstate 93. Let’s look at this list of MURDERFACTS™ I’ve compiled on the subject.

  1. Mass market video games are developed by teams of trillions and cost infinity dollars to make.
  2. Games have to be engaging on a ludic level above all, otherwise the narrative element will not be experienced by the player.
  3. The lead designer of Far Cry 2 once got into a bar fight and totally ate the other dude whole.
  4. Franchises become franchises due to strong sales, and tampering with the formula doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Especially when a company has infinity trillion dollars on the line1.

So we are left with this cycle: a game is made, the game sells well, and then the game is remade again and again with partial tweaks to the formula.

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In 1986 I got the Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas, packaged with Super Mario Bros. I had to rescue the princess. 23 years later I’m still doing the same goddamn thing in every Mario platformer to hit the market. Legend of Zelda titles try to innovate a bit (Majora’s Mask was an excellent experiment in the defamiliarization of routine2), but they always boil down to collecting equipment in order to overthrow some incredible evil.

I’m all for tradition, but I like these characters. I grew up with them and I want to see them in interesting situations. I want to react to what they’re doing (or rather what my input as a player is allowing them to do) and be completely engrossed, on the edge of my seat. Like I am with comic books. When I heard that Batman died, I freaked the hell out, got sweaty palms and started thinking about what that means for Batman3. Because I like Batman and writers aren’t afraid to tell interesting stories with him as the vehicle.

But there is an issue with adapting such an approach for gaming (aside from the square root of negative monies). That issue is you and I, reader pal. When a creative type tries to abstract the narrative from tradition in an established gaming franchise, the internet explodes. It can be gruesome.

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“WHY IS SONIC A KNIGHT WITH A SWORD AND STUFF? WHY IS HE A WEREWOLF IN THAT OTHER GAME? THIS IS LITERALLY WORSE THAN THE HOLOCAUST.”

Well… why shouldn’t he have a sword or be a werewolf? Do people care enough about this character to be insulted by a variance in style and tone that was conceived to make the game a worthwhile experience? Sonic is a blue hedgehog that runs fast. That’s about it. I think he might have a pair of red shoes and an interspecies life partner. I’d like to encourage the developers to explore areas such as lycanthropy and Arthurian lore if it means the game might end up interesting. It’s not as if Sonic games are flawless examples of gameplay and such narrative freedom would lessen the entire work. There are only so many ways you can say “move to the right side of the screen to win.”

The evolution of a superhero story is almost like a fugue: interpretations drift around the central theme, borrowing various elements, but each iteration is distinct. The Superman that debuted in Action Comics #1 is very different than the Superman you or I have known through our lifetimes. Every writer and artist has their own interpretation of a character; they can choose which aspects of the mythology to include or ignore and just focus on telling the story they want to tell. And then we, as readers, can experience stories about animal rights and free will. Or cigar smoking imps from the fifth dimension. Whatever, you can pick and choose.

So how’s this:  the Electronic Entertainment Expo last May hosted a few surprises.  Hideo Kojima, creator of Metal Gear Solid 2 (and I guess the other games in the series), is overseeing a new Castlevania title. Team Ninja, responsible for games involving ninjas, are developing a new Metroid game.

Without knowing any details about either game, I will say that this is good news.

I’m a huge Metroid guy (the header on this blog might give that away), so my natural fanboy reaction was to flip out and troll message boards naked.  This Team Ninja interpretation could be terrible!  But it could also be great.  While I’d obviously be very upset if they turned the main character into a telepathic pole dancer, I appreciate that the owners of the property are reaching out to fresh talent and letting them try something new.  I think we’re at the point where developers can start exploring Samus Aran’s other adventures. You know, things that don’t involve hunting metroids… a species that has gone extinct roughly eight times. She’s a bounty hunter, after all. Her character has been defined well throughout the series: she is focused, efficient and deadly. So let’s run with that and throw down some awesome stories.  Before the characters I grew up with bore me to tears.

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COUNTERPOINT! Games based on established intellectual properties have the notoriety of being terrible.  Why is this?  Is it because the motivations of a character are seen as limitations when trying to develop mechanics?  Does working backwards, from aesthetics to core gameplay, hinder the creative process? Do designers just break down when trying to make a video game that features a protagonist who does not kill?

Tune in for the answers to these questions and more after I’ve had a chance to play through Batman: Arkham Asylum.  Same Murder time, same Murder channel!

Or, you know, just work that one out in your head, since I’ll probably forget about this blog post tomorrow morning.

  1. Wonderful Thought: You know that board game Risk? Every time I’ve played it, who would win was obvious within the first thirty minutes of the game, but we kept playing for three more hours doing the same crap over and over again until no one had any assets left. That game is just like real life! []
  2. Does that even make any sense?  There’s a lot to say about Majora’s Mask, but I think the way it makes you aware of the repetitive nature of games by presenting a literal routine that you can slow down, speed up, or rewind is jaw-droppingly awesome. []
  3. Oh, um, SPOILER ALERT: Batman died. Or, more accurately, he was displaced in reality by an Omega Sanction. That’s geek speak for “dead until sweeps week.” See Final Crisis for more information. []

Zoo Review: Duels of the Planeswalkers

Zoo Review is a monthly feature at Murderblog 3D in which our esteemed review panel pores over the hottest new game and breaks it down into a score that you can understand.

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Fair warning: I’m about to drop a major nerd bomb up in here.  Even my cat thinks this stuff is lame.

I’m of the opinion that Magic: the Gathering is a pretty great game. Not because I’m into crazy elf ogres or wizards doing wizardly stuff, but because the mechanics are so very rich. If you’ve never played Magic before, just imagine your favorite RTS1 played with cards. Strong focus on micromanagement, requires quick mental reflexes and it favors adaptation over long term strategy. You can control your own resources and how they work for you, but you can’t control how your opponent will respond to your actions. Which, obviously, is a staple of most competitive games. Magic makes it a bit different by adding a slight randomization aspect. Those cards, your resources? They’re shuffled.  You have no idea what your opening hand will look like, and that will affect how the game plays out.  It also gives you a go-to excuse when you lose (“I could have killed you on the first turn, but I shuffled badly and didn’t draw the card that kills you on the first turn”).

I played the game when it was first released and had a lot of fun with it.  Dragon summoning and counterspelling and all that.  Then I discovered girls and the whole thing went to hell.

Now that I’m an old man and the gentle touch of a woman is but a distant memory, I’ve gotten back into Magic.  It fills the void.  The game is a bit more balanced than it was fifteen years ago, for various reasons2.  But it’s still just as fun if you have the patience for it.

When I was in college I discovered a PC game called Duels of the Planeswalkers that had been developed by Microprose. It was actually one of the last titles Sid Meier worked on at Microprose, according to internet lore.  This game was full fledged Magic, containing a deck builder and every card that had been printed at the time of the release (with thirty plus pre-configured decks built in).  It was so goddamn wonderful.  You know how some people play Minesweeper while talking on the phone?  I did that with Duels of the Planeswalkers.  Just hit the random duel button and my mouse hand would do the rest.  The game was fast, fun and simple (well, as simple as Magic can be).  I still have a copy installed on my laptop, and I play it regularly.

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Last week Stainless Games and Wizards of the Coast released an Xbox Live Arcade title called Duels of the Planeswalkers.   It’s not a port of the PC game, sadly.  It’s… well, it’s Magic as a video game.  The umpteenth version, actually.

How am I supposed to Zoo Review a title like this?  Do I consider it a standalone game or take into account that it’s an adaptation of something bigger?  I mean, I don’t want to give it a lowly aardvark when it could be a cephalopod class game for those who are already fans.  Let me use the power of example:  when dissecting a digital poker game, does one consider the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em, or do they just try and figure out if the game communicates those rules properly?

Big Media would probably just have a paragraph that started with “If you’re not familiar with Magic: The Gathering…”  Screw that.  If you’re not familiar with Magic: The Gathering, you’re probably not reading any of this. Well, you’re either a fan of Magic or a fan of this blog (if it’s the latter, I want you to know that I love you very much, Mom). No one stalks out impressions on games they have never heard of before.   Case in point: the results from the E3 Game Critics Award.  It’s franchise city.  It takes a mindbogglingly original game like Scribblenauts3 to break up the sequel party, and even then it’s not nominated for Best of Show.  A developer could make a game that cures cancer and no one would touch it because it doesn’t feature Solid Snake.

I just read that last sentence back and realized that we are probably doomed.

Uh, much like my opponent in Magic: The Gathering: Duels Of The Planeswalkers was doomed when I cast my 4/4 air elemental!  Back to the review.

This XBLA game is Magic, more or less.  It’s what you’d expect Magic to be if it was a ten dollar downloadable game.  It actually provides a number of smart solutions to the issues that make the paper game frustrating.

The main concern for players is that Magic can be expensive. Four new sets are released a year, each with hundreds of new cards, and a pack of fifteen random cards will run you $3.99. By using only pre-configured decks and not allowing you to customize them (beyond adding in a few cards from your sideboard), Duels of the Planeswalkers avoids that problem. You buy the game for ten dollars and that’s it. New cards are unlocked as you play through the campaign. I’m sure there will be downloadable decks, but I like to imagine those will be bundled with challenges and other additions to the campaign, not just thrown out there as a couple of cards to add to your collection. The presentation here completely kills the collector mentality that makes paper Magic not so fun. If you’re ever in a situation where the rich kid doesn’t win, you’re probably stuck in a teen slasher flick and you should run away as quickly as possible.  More money almost always means a better deck.

One of the smartest design decisions made was the focus on planeswalkers rather than just decks. You are not playing against a mono-red aggro whozywhatsit deck, you’re playing against a wizard who casts spells, summons creatures and is actually represented by an avatar. I thought this was going to be a terrible idea when I saw the list of cringe worthy names. Liliana Vess? Ajani Goldmane? Garruk Wildspeaker?! It’s like a Canadian strip club was sprinkled with pixie dust.  But the concept of putting a face to each of these decks works well.  The single player campaign is almost like a string of boss battles.  It adds not only tension, but also a sense of accomplishment when you defeat these opponents.

You, the player, are a planeswalker as well, which I guess is someone who can’t stay seated during a commercial flight.  I honestly have no idea; the lore behind all this stuff is either not that memorable or eclipsed by the strength of the game mechanics.  The cards have all this stuff going on, and half of it is meaningless stuff meant to inject flavor into the game.  Here’s a breakdown of your average Magic card.

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The only things I really care about there are how much damage it can give and receive in combat, what its abilities are and how many resources  it takes to get into play.  The rest is fluff.  I could really give a damn about how some dude wrote a book on skeletons in this fictional world.

The choice of only pre-configured decks also helps avoid the metagame problem. In Magic (as well as any customizable game with competitive focus), trends emerge based on the recently released sets and whatever card combos can be exploited. Video gamers might call such things cheap or broken. But if you want to play in any sort of sanctioned setting (e.g, not with just your friends at the kitchen table), you need to keep up with these things.  It’s disgusting.

People who care about the metagame are not the sort of people I like to play with. They are jerks who want to always win, as quickly as possible, and make millions of dollars from the comfort of their own homes using pay-per-click advertising. I want to have a good time. Get married to someone sweet. Maybe have a few kids, retire to a goat farm in Maine.  What I’m trying to say is:  the best part of Duels of the Planeswalkers is that you can play Magic without interacting with other Magic Players.  The single player game is the draw here, at least for me.

There is something else I should mention:  Magic is a very, very slow game.  Imagine playing solitaire and having to wait five seconds every time you flipped or moved a card.  The 1998 Duels of the Planeswalkers game solved this problem by letting the player choose what phases of the turn they wanted to stop at.  This new title does not.  Instead, you’ve got a limited window after every action to respond.  Play a card and a little dial counts down to when the active player can perform another action. Maybe this is good solution for the online multiplayer section of the game. I wouldn’t know; I prefer playing my nerd games without the thrilling homophobia and racism found on Xbox Live. I do know that this is not a good solution in the single player campaign.

Imagine With Me: you are playing a Japanese role playing game.  There is endless dialog that you probably don’t care about.  Would you rather have the game advance to the next line of dialog when you hit a button on the controller (regardless of if the dialog is finished), or would you prefer to have it automatically move the the next line after ten seconds (with no way to skip through it)?  I realize that your answer is probably turn the game off and play Picross instead, but I’m trying to make a point here.  Those little response windows in Duels of the Planeswalkers may only be a few seconds long, but they drastically slow down the flow of the game.  And when you’re playing what is otherwise a solid strategy game by yourself, that’s a major bonerkiller.  Nothing is worse than being dealt a terrible hand and having to sit through the longest game ever just to end up losing.  That kills the game for me.  I still love it just because it’s Magic, but I find myself getting incredibly bored halfway through longer matches.

So,  back to the original conundrum.  What if you’ve never played paper Magic before?  Will this game appeal to you?  I have no idea, because this stuff is in my blood.  But the tutorial seems very concise and well implemented (“Press B to not show this tip again”), the difficulty curve is fair, and the game itself is mostly quite fun.  Though if you’re a veteran Magic player (or someone with a lot of real time strategy experience), you’re better off tracking down the 1998 Duels of the Planeswalkers PC game.  It’s faster, more robust and you can probably find it for under ten dollars on eBay.

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  1. That’s “Real Time Strategy,” which is a type of game that’s similar to Magic: The Gathering, expect played without cards. []
  2. Every tournament legal card seems to stand on it’s own as a playable card, there a plethora of pre-configured theme decks so you don’t need to spend much money to get involved, and the upcoming core set Magic 2010 (you know, like Madden) is a “reboot” which eliminates the more confusing rules and takes the game back to a more Tolkein-esque presentation. []
  3. Oh man, I wonder if, in Scribblenauts, you can write “Magic The Gathering” and the onscreen characters will totally throw down.  Scribblenauts seems so awesome that such a situation is entirely possible. []
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