Archive for October, 2011

Not one, but two shows debuted this fall, concerning fairy tales in the modern world. Part of the inspiration for this blog, in fact, involved looking at these shows and how traditional stories and their heroes have carried forward in modern times.

Fighting out of the blue corner...

In the spirit of states hosting their primaries as early as possible, ABC debuted their fairy tale show first: Once Upon a Time. I had high hopes for this show. The premise is that all fairy tale characters inhabit a small town in the real world (Storybrooke,  Maine), brought there as the result of the Evil Queen’s curse. That’s the Evil Queen of Snow White fame, who’s now also mayor of Storybrooke. And she makes apple cider. Set against her is Snow White’s daughter, now a bail bondsman.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in the first episode, but the crux of the story is that Snow White’s daughter and the son she gave up for adoption (adopted by the Evil Queen, of course) seem to be the only ones who know about the curse. The fairy tale characters don’t know they’re fairy tale characters, yet (unless I’m mistaken) they are unable to leave Storybrooke. They must need to mail order quite a few things.

The mash-up of fairy tales had interested me the most. Mash-ups are great fun (see also the Avengers, the Justice League of America, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Munsters, and Eazy-E vs. Johnny Cash). Fairy tale mash-ups are also the premise of the excellent graphic novel series, Fables. Unfortunately, the execution of the show feels more like one of those network mini-series they used to run which took place each night over the course of a week. The acting is fairly wooden (cue Pinocchio joke), and the storyline hasn’t drawn me in. Robert Carlyle as Rumplestiltskin can’t save everything.

And fighting out of the red corner...

And then there’s Grimm, NBC’s contender for modern day fairy tale show. Here we have a detective who’s newly discovered to be in the Brothers Grimm family line, who apparently wrote their fairy tales as actual documentation of monsters in the world, and now wage war against them.

So if Once Upon a Time is to Fables, then Grimm is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just replace vampires with werewolves and other monsters, and you have the basic gist. Which isn’t necessarily a knock against it. The acting is superior, and the characters more compelling. Sure, we’ve already had the chief of police revealed to be the big bad in disguise, which wasn’t all that surprising, but I’m far more interested in where this story might be going. And also, to see what other fairy tale monsters they might involve. If it’s just werewolves and vampires, then it really will start to feel like a Buffy rehash.

In any case, I feel it’s a stone cold lock that only one of these shows will continue next season. Until then, is anyone planning to watch either show?

The Game Master

Posted: October 31, 2011 in General, Heroes, Monsters/Villains

I hear good things about this book.

I talked games where one of the players takes the role of “it”. Then there are games where one of the players takes on the even more involved role of game master.

When I was a kid, “game master” was the person who knew the rules of the game, taught it to the rest of us, and played the role of arbitrator when it came to resolving rules issues and settling disputes. The person who’s usually the banker. In other words, dad.

Sometimes though it’s mom, or older sibling, or a friend who owns a game you’ve played before. It’s a role that depends on neutrality and impartiality, even (or especially) when the game master is also an active competitor. The kid that takes on this role, but then bends, twists, and interprets the rules to his benefit rarely stays in the role for long. Or the game in question is rarely played again. You need a chance to win in order to have fun.

Then there are games that have evolved “game master” into the more confrontational role. As mentioned (thanks Dave), games like HeroQuest and Descent have a game master that takes the part of the opposing monsters. The rest of the players work cooperatively against the game master; even if there is one (or more) winners amongst the players, it’s because they’ve overcome the opposition that the game master has managed.

Finally there’s Dungeons & Dragons, a game I’ve been playing in one form or another since I was 7 years old. In this game, the players work cooperatively to achieve a common goal (usually to kill monsters and take their stuff). The game master here takes up the role of the monsters, but in most cases, he or she is not really in opposition to the players—rather, he’s more of an omniscient narrator, who plays all of the other roles in the adventure, whether helpful, harmful, or neutral. He’s both damsel in distress and
fire-breathing dragon holding her captive.

It’s an odd role. You don’t win by defeating the players. You also don’t lose when the players defeat the monsters and complete their goals. Your satisfaction largely comes from establishing the story and adjudicating the game as it unfolds. A very loose equivalent, I suppose, might be something akin to game show producer/host.

I asked before if there are games in which one player is in the role of villain. Now, I want to ask if there’s any other game (aside from RPGs in general) where one player is solely in the role of impartial game master.

At the end of Betrayal at Game Day, I asked what games had one (or more) of the players in the role of villain—not just opponent, but actual villain. I couldn’t think of any outside of Betrayal at House on the Hill (unless you count playing as the Axis powers in Axis and Allies, but that’s obviously a stretch).

As pointed out, however, there are a good many games that make use of the villain role. Two people mentioned Scotland Yard—I’ve played this one myself several years ago, and remember enjoying it immensely. In it, one of the players takes the role of Mister X, whose task it is to stay hidden find the other players searching for him.

In this case, the villain is playing the role of “it.” If we accept that “it” is a villain, then it’s as classic a game villain as ever there was.

Sometimes being “it” is a passive role, like in Scotland Yard or Ghost in the Graveyard (a game I loved playing as a kid). Sometimes it’s an active role, like being the searcher in Hide and Go Seek, the shark in Sharks and Minnows, or the first kid with the ball in Bombardment (conversely, a game I hated playing as a kid). There’s probably something very important to be said about kids taking on the role of “it” from time to time (not that I can think what that is; my coffee hasn’t kicked in yet).

You sir, are now "it"

Perhaps the most passive version of being “it,” I suppose, is Clue. One of the players is the murderer, but even he or she doesn’t know it. They might even end of accusing themselves. J’accuse!

When it comes to active versions of “it,” while I’ve never played the Lord of the Rings board game, I love Battlestar Galactica. In that game, one (or more) of the players starts off as a hidden Cylon agent. They are “it,” but the other players don’t know who these traitors are, at first… at first. Each round, players throw in cards to help accomplish some task, with the traitor throwing intentionally bad cards to try and sabotage their success. It’s a very clever mechanic—not only because it works for the game, but even more so because it fits with the story of Battlestar Galactica so well.

Oddly enough, I hear Edward James Olmos—hero of Battlestar Galactica—has now taken the role of villain in Dexter. So even he has turned as well. J’accuse!

Betrayal at Game Day

Posted: October 28, 2011 in General

It's called "betrayal" for a reason

Yesterday was game day at work—at least for our team. Just one of the benefits in working for a game company: sometimes you spend your afternoon around a table, surrounded by cards, dice, and in today’s offsite, legos. (If you’ve never played Creationary, I highly recommend it. Think Pictionary, with legos. And who doesn’t need an excuse to play with those?)

This game day, we also ran through the 1978 version of Family Feud (and yes, it was awesome), followed by Betrayal at House on the Hill (appropriate for Halloween), and the very obscure Wiz War (where competing wizards throw spells at one another in an effort to steal each other’s hidden treasure). Fun times—Card  Kingdom in Ballard has an excellent space for gaming events.

Playing through these, it was evident (in fact, outright stating the obvious) how most games we all play are either direct competition (you against everyone else: Wiz War), or team competition (your team against an opposing team: Family Feud).

Betrayal at House on the Hill takes a slightly different approach. Players start out cooperatively, exploring a haunted house room by room and discovering events, omens, and items as they go. Then at a certain random point, one of the players suddenly becomes “it.” Their task is now to hunt down the other players. Hence, the betrayal.

It’s a brilliant game, in part because of its replayability. The house is composed of room tiles drawn from a deck, so that the gameboard, in effect, is different every time. There are also dozens of scenarios, so when the one player becomes “it,” this might mean revealing themselves to be a vampire, werewolf, axe murderer—or in today’s game, a demonically creepy girl who wants you to stay and play with her forever. And ever.

Likewise for the players, depending on the threat, they have different conditions they need to meet in order to win. Defeat the monster, for example, or in today’s game, find a rowboat and escape the house before it sinks away into the swamp.

What strikes me about the game is also the concept of “it.” It’s not odd that players are competing against each other. But rather, that one of them is now very clearly in the role of villain (and not just competitor). I’m trying to think of other games that have a clear villain, but none come to mind. (Even games as simple as hide-and-go-seek. Is the seeker really the villain? I’d say he’s just the seeker—and usually, a terrified one at that).

So—are there any games where a players is in the role of the villain?

If My Dog Had a Blog

Posted: October 28, 2011 in General

It would go something like this:

daddy daddy daddy daddy food food daddy daddy food daddy food daddy food food daddy.

And that would be a perfect understandable narrative for her. Of course, it leaves out the part where the cat leaps out from under the bed on a nightly basis and attacks her—but really, the dog simply doesn’t have the words to describe that.

And the cat doesn’t keep a blog.

Bill Gates is to Edison, as…

Posted: October 27, 2011 in Heroes

Nikola Tesla

Yesterday, I wrote about the loss of the inventor as hero. There are exceptions. Steve Jobs is one of them.

Here’s where I see the accolades being given to Jobs. In many ways, he’s celebrated his success as a businessman, for bringing the Apple brand to such prominence. However, he’s also celebrated for his role as“inventor”—bringing us the Apple computer, iPhones, iTunes, iPad…

Not that he invented these by himself, of course, alone in his laboratory (the equivalent of flying his kite in a storm). He ran a massive company, employing very many inventors (designers/developers). And perhaps that’s where his acumen as a businessman comes in, helping direct a global brand and still make it feel so highly, and personally, innovative.

Take the obvious counterexample, Microsoft. How are they so different that there is such an perceived dichotomy between these two companies? Simply because they are competitors?

This may be oversimplifying things, but it seems to me that Apple and Steve Jobs have done a far better job of creating advocates out of their customers. Where Microsoft innovated, but often sought to enforce their identity onto consumer mindshare, Apple gained this mindshare largely through the evangelizing of its own customers.

So if there’s an analogy between the two, if Bill Gates is to Thomas Edison, then Steve Jobs is to Tesla. (Tesla deserving of his own blog entry at some point — aside from inventing AC, the man also invented a death ray!)

Heroes… of Science!

Posted: October 26, 2011 in Heroes

When I was a kid, I remember very distinct heroes that were impressed upon us back in history class. There were Revolutionary War heroes, probably first and foremost. After that, the main heroes were inventors.

Sure, their inventions helped shape the course of history—but it the focus seemed to be just as much on the inventors themselves. Of course, maybe that was a needed approach to personalize history. (After all, how excited could an average 5th grader get all the excited about the cotton gin? The steam engine? Even the polio vaccine didn’t really mean anything to me But everyone likes the story of Ben Franklin flying his kite in the storm.)

I wonder if the inventor as hero is a concept we’ve moved away from. Nowadays, there seems to be more a celebration of DIY culture—of small, personal craft being done more for personal satisfaction than profit. (Or at least, huge profit; etsy is a good example of the craft industry working extremely well on a small scale.)

Perhaps there’s also the sense of invention, of really game-changing invention, requiring entire organizations rather than a single, lone inventor to which we can readily associate their discovery. From Ben Franklin and Eli Whitney, we’ve moved to NASA, where individual contributions are largely unknown.

If there are individual heroes when it comes to space exploration, they are of course the astronauts. After all, who would you rather be as a kid: Spaceman Spiff, or the guy who invented his rocket?

On Dopplegangers

Posted: October 25, 2011 in Monsters/Villains

Better than any CGI monster

Last night’s dream may have come courtesy from my viewing of The Thing. John Carpenter’s The Thing (in preparation for watching the most recent version).

In the dream, I was on a cruise ship and one of the attractions was a living dinosaur found encased on a block of ice. The ice was partially melted, revealing the dinosaur’s head and tail, but only at the rate of 1 cm/year—so it would be some time before the dinosaur was completely free. Until then, little kids on the ship would throw pebbles at the dinosaur’s head, in order to get it to roar and thrash its tail. Mean, I know, but that’s little kids. When I was a little kid, we used to throw rocks at each other for fun. (There was a big pile of gravel near us, during some construction project. The game ended, predictably, when one of us went home crying.)

The Thing (in the movie, also found trapped in ice) represents a kind of monster I haven’t mentioned yet: the doppelganger. It’s a particularly cunning monster, more psychological than physical. Sure, the doppelganger in The Thing does hunt people, but the better parts of the movie are in the dark paranoia that quickly infests the station. And from watching the Thing make its dramatic reveals, of course.

The doppelganger is a tough monster to pull off, but when done well is extremely effective. There’s Batman’s Clayface, D&D’s changelings, the agents in The Matrix (who could jump from body to body)…

Although the concept of the doppelganger goes back quite a ways, there’s the modern version, I feel, in clones. Unless I’m mistaken, clones are never portrayed benevolently. Even when they’re initially useful (as in Multiplicity), they end up a cautionary tale. (If you’ve never listened to the This American Life podcast on the kindly bull ‘Chance,’ and his clone ‘Second Chance,’ it ends as predictably, or at least as pleasantly, as our kids’ game of throwing rocks. The hopeful farmer winds up gored through the genitals.)

Just like nobody wants to meet their doppelganger, nobody would ever want to meet their own clone.

Although I’d never heard it before, looking at the Wikipedia entry offered me the tale of Abraham Lincoln’s doppelganger. A good late October read.

Deciduous Parrots

Posted: October 25, 2011 in General

Apropos of extremely little (except pirates), I’ve wondered about another long-standing pirate motif:  the parrot on the shoulder. It’s been there ever since Treasure Island (as a kid, even one of my G.I. Joe action figures, Shipwreck, came with a tiny plastic parrot).

Poking around, it’s thought that pirates really did collect parrots on their travels, as the birds were a relative rare commodity and could be sold for profit. As for having parrots for pets, that seems less likely. Far more useful would have been a cat, what with all the rats onboard. Of course for style points, nothing beats Pirates of the Caribbean’s undead monkey.

On a mildly related note. Driving into work today, it made me wonder why trees get all the fun of fall color. Suppose there were deciduous parrots whose feathers changed colors every year, before falling out for a brief, unglorious winter, and then growing back in the spring. Or deciduous cats, who changed their fur.

Now those would be some truly rare finds to bring back from the new world.

On Pirates

Posted: October 24, 2011 in Heroes

The greatest pirate ever: Black Bart!

I mentioned the Dread Pirate Roberts yesterday, in my Superman dream. It’s a great premise (and also a plausible fan theory for James Bond).

On the topic of pirates. My new favorite factoid (again, from Cracked): The reason why pirates are depicted with eyepatches? It’s not because they lost their eyes in battle more than any other seafaring people (the British Navy aren’t likewise depicted). Rather, pirates supposedly wore eyepatches while boarding enemy ships. Then, when storming the dark holds below deck, they would switch the eyepatch to their other eye—the patch having preserved their nightvision in the covered eye, allowing them to see better in the dark.

That, and we seemed to carry forward just about every pirate motif, real or invented, as depicted in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island.

Modern day pirates have claimed their own resurgence in the news. They’re still being reported out on the high seas, hunting ships, capturing cargo, holding captives for ransom.

We don’t like these pirates. We cheer when the Navy SEALS pick them off in daring rescues.

But then there are the internet pirates. Not online scammers or hackers, but pirates. How we feel about them, or at least online piracy, is much more complicated. I’d wager that most companies have no choice but to assume some measure of piracy when trafficking in digital “booty,” be it books, movies, or music. But does that make the piracy any more acceptable because it is so widespread?

These are the pirates we’re not sure about. Piracy itself is bad (I work for a company helping make content I want protected from  piracy)—but the Pirate Party won a not insignificant 7% of the parliamentary vote in Sweden, and 8% of the vote in Germany. Clearly they are seen as representing a portion of their communities—who back them strongly enough to elect them to help govern their nations. (I can’t imagine we’d ever have a Blackguard Party or an Unrepentant Murderer’s Party, but somehow we’re OK electing self-proclaimed pirates.)

Whatever your views on internet piracy, I’m simply interested here in how the term “pirate” has seemingly evolved to take on both positive and negative connotations.

Perhaps this is no better expressed than in the character of Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow. While he’s the protagonist, is he also the hero of these movies? We accept that Capt. Jack is a pirate—he revels in his reputation as such—so can we assume that he too hunts ships, captures cargo, and holds captives for ransom?

And even if he does, we still root for him—he is charismatic, bold, and fortunate. He is the rogue, the trickster spirit—neither hero nor villain, but somewhere in the same company as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Conan, Han Solo.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also portrayed by Johnny Depp, acting the socks of the character.