Ethereality News & Weblog

February 12, 2012

Finding simplicity and accepting challenge

Filed under: Books,Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings,Video Games,Writing — Rob Chang @ 9:51 pm

Ever since I’ve shifted my focus to writing novels in the last couple of years, I’ve found that my life’s gotten less complicated. No more fussing with troublesome high-tech gear, technical glitches, constant updating of software, learning new production techniques, trying out new plugins, following all the latest industry news, and so on.

Now, I just write. My concern is just the stories I’m trying to tell, and the words in which I tell them with. The tools in which I write with are much simpler than the tools I use for creating music or visual art, but the writing itself is actually much harder than composing music, drawing, painting, design, or working on any production of video game or film. Why? Because the story is the heart and soul of everything. Without a good story to tell, we wouldn’t have much to express in our movies, TV shows, video games, or songs.

While everyone who is fluent in a language can write, and everyone who has a half-formed idea can tell a story, it’s actually extremely hard to write a book that achieves these three goals:

-Tell a compelling story that has profound intellectual and emotional resonance, while still very entertaining.

-Have a masterful command of the language that strikes the perfect balance between being functional and having literary merit.

-Despite all the stories that has already been told in books, movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games, your story somehow still matters.

Writing novels is the hardest of all my creative passions, and it’s also the one that I can do on my own, without needing extra funding or relying on a team for manpower, and it’s also the most straightforward—just write and tell the story. No need to boot up Photoshop or Maya, dial in the perfect guitar tone, set up the microphone, wrestle with the DAW, or fuss with lighting equipment.

I finished reading Assassin’s Apprentice (by Robin Hobb) recently. It’s a low-key fantasy that focuses more on the emotional and psychological state of the protagonist, instead of the plot-driven narrative that is more common in genre fiction.

I thought the premise of a prince’s bastard son trained as a royal assassin was interesting, and the prose was enjoyable, but in terms of storytelling and pacing, it was slow-paced and unsatisfying in the conflicts and resolutions. I’m not one of those people who needs to have big epic battles and constant melodrama in a fantasy book in order to be entertained, but I do want some kind of satisfaction—be it the emotional journey of the character, the dramatic progression, or the fulfillment of a theme.

At the end of the book, I didn’t feel any satisfaction, and I can’t say I really cared for the protagonist—someone who I thought was a real drag and whose head I didn’t enjoy being in. If I had to describe the entire book with one word, it would probably be “drab.” The protagonist had no sense of humor whatsoever and was just a miserable and depressing person. As a personal preference, I much rather be around people with a sense of humor, no matter how bleak their lives seem. If a person doesn’t have a sense of humor, he should at least be interesting. Unfortunatly, Fitz, the first-person point-of-view character, just wasn’t interesting as a person, while everyone else around him had more distinct personalities.

I recognize that this is often one of the problems of reading a series—that often you don’t get a satisfying sense of closure because the first book is just setting the stage for what’s to come in the sequels. I don’t think it’s necessarily an inherent characteristic of a series though, because I have read first books of series that I really enjoyed, and today’s exciting television shows prove that every season’s finale can be very satisfying, and don’t have to feel like the writers are withholding the good bits for later seasons.

I read the synopses of the later books, and they seem more interesting than the first book, but right now, I’m more eager to read other books that are on my must-read list.

I really wanted to love Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but after a few hours, I was bored out of my mind. The stealth aspect of the gameplay was boring, and the action aspect wasn’t all that exciting either. To date, I have never finished any of the Deus Ex games, because at some point, they all became too boring and I just couldn’t be bothered to continue. The sad thing is, this franchise has one of the most interesting premises in video games, yet no developer has nailed the execution. If they could just hand this game over to a developer who really kicks ass at addictive gameplay and immersive storytelling (say, Valve or Bioware), then maybe there will be a Deus Ex game I could actually enjoy.

I gave Gears of War 3 a try for a few hours, and I just didn’t feel like there was a point to finishing it, because it was the same damn thing like the previous two games, and the testosterone-drenched dialogues just became too cheesy for me to stomach, especially after having to endure it in the previous two games already. It’s like watching a bunch of cartoon gorilla’s making noises at each other, and I felt like my own IQ was diminishing by the minute as I played the game. I kind of want to finish it just because I’ve finished the previous two and they were fairly enjoyable (despite all the ridiculous macho posturing), but with so many other games fighting for my attention, it’s hard to justify spending more time on a game that didn’t have anything compelling to offer.

On a whim, I gave Shadows of the Damned a try, and it was mildly interesting as a horror game with juvenile, grindhouse humor. But beyond the circus freak show, I didn’t feel compelled to continue after a couple of hours.

After feeling unsatisfied with the above three mentioned games, I decided to go for something that I knew would be amazing. I had watched a friend’s video playthrough of Dead Space 2 a while ago (when I was stuck somewhere without my gaming rig for a couple of weeks, and it looked like a lot of fun. I loved the first game (one of my all-time favorite games of all time), so now that the memory of his playthrough has faded a bit, I’ve decided to go for it.

And yes, Dead Space 2 it’s a far better game than those previously mentioned ones. I’m about three hours in, and I’m kind of dreading it ending, because then I would have to go through more mediocre games until I come across another engrossing game like Dead Space 2.

Quickie TV/Movie reviews:

Homeland (season one) – Excellent drama/thriller. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the whole season. Claire Danes has improved a lot as an actress since I last saw her in a movie. I really wanted the bomb to go off in the finale, but looks like the writers are setting it up for deeper government infiltration.

Downton Abbey (seasons one and two) – I really loved most of season one, but towards the end of the season, I started to notice the cracks in the writing. In season two, the cracks got bigger and bigger, and eventually veered into daytime soap territory in some plotlines. That one scene with Matthew sitting by Lavinia bed–Dan Stevens’s acting was so bad in that scene that I had to wonder if they did so many takes and still couldn’t nail it, and the director just said, “Fuck it,” and used the take that sucked the least.

American Horror Story (pilot) I was disappointed by the pilot. It was too gimmicky and disjointed, and had no suspense building in the pacing at all. I won’t be watching any more of it.

Polar Bears: Spy On the Ice – I Can never get enough of these nature shows/documentaries. The scene where the female polar bear was getting all sexed up for the male had me in stitches. I had no idea polar bears could do centerfold poses like that.

The Sacrifice (Offret) – I looked forward to watching this, since I really loved Solaris, but this final movie by Tarkovsky was a slow, plodding, and a pretentious mess. I couldn’t wait for it to end.

Cowboys and Aliens – Disposable popcorn entertainment. Good fun, but nothing worth recommending to others.

The Square – A slow-burn thriller that gets keeps on escalating until the dramatic conclusion. I would have preferred a more optimistic ending, but I understand why it had to end the way it did. Claire van der Boom is such a cutie, with those soft, doe-like eyes. I actually sought out this movie because I was quite taken with her when I saw her in the new Hawaii Five-O TV series.

Fright Night Superior to the original in every way. I usually don’t care for Colin Farrell because he’s always playing the protagonist while exuding this douchbag aura. As a villain though, he’s great. He should just play villains from now on.

Little Man Tate – Interesting take on the subject of precocious children. It drives home the point that precocious children and child prodigies are still just kids, and sometimes the best thing for them is to allow them to remain children.

December 26, 2011

Odds and ends

New Kitty Cat Diary entries are up:

I just got these Husky slippers:

I was searching for a pair of bear paws slippers, but came across these Husky slippers, and yelped with delight. I just HAD to get a pair. They are pretty comfy, and don’t impede with my walk that much, except when going up the stairs, they get in the way a little bit–nothing serious though. If a gigantic klutz like me can walk with them on, so can most people.

A couple of photos:

I’ve recently moved to Scrivener for most of my writing needs (although I still use Writer’s Cafe for plotting, since the multiple lane Storylines feature is indispensable during the outlining phase). I’ve customized it to match my needs, and it looks like this:

If you also use Scrivener and wants to use my layout, you can download the .scrvlayout file on this page. If you’re on the Mac, I also provided the customization numbers for the colors on that page, so you can replicate my layout.

I’ve been trying to catch up on some games that I’ve missed out on in the past. Here are some impressions:

The Witcher – I heard a lot of good thing about this game, and now that I finally tried it, I was disappointed. The game just doesn’t feel very polished in terms of storytelling and presentation. I keep reading about how the story is sophisticated and the moral grayness is its strength, but the way the story is presented is so clumsy that I just couldn’t bother to continue after the first few hours. The game expects you to know the books it’s based on and doesn’t bother trying to build a premise for you to be immersed in. The transition from the opening chapter at the Stronghold to the outskirt of Vizima was so sudden that it felt like the game glitched and skipped a cinematic or a transitioning area. The writers also did not do a good job setting up the the relationship between the characters–I just didn’t care about any of them, and felt no bond with them.

The gameplay was also a bore-fest. All you do is click on an enemy and try to chain attacks together by clicking again when the cursor turns into a flame. How is waiting for a cursor to turn into a flame icon and then clicking it interesting? You have a few fighting styles to choose from, but all you do is match them to each enemy, and that’s it–there’s no other strategy beyond that. There are magic abilities, but it’s nothing interesting–more like what Jedi’s do with the Force.

Another thing that I didn’t like about The Witcher is you don’t feel that sense of camaraderie between characters such as with Bioware’s group system, where characters banter and actually feel like living personalities. I don’t mind lone wolf type of adventures, but it has to be compelling, and The Witcher just didn’t compel me.

I tried watching some “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube and realized the story just didn’t interest me. Having plot points and characters and conflicts is not enough–there has to be emotional resonance, and that, is what is missing from The Witcher.

As a writer and a gamer, I think Bioware’s RPG’s are far stronger in emotional resonance, and I’ll gladly replay any Bioware RPG before ever trying The Witcher again, or bother with its sequel.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords – The first KOTOR game is one of my favorite RPG’s of all time, and I have always wanted to play the sequel. I had tried numerous times previously but due to strange technical issues on the PC, I never was able to run that game smoothly–I always got stuck during the tutorial level. Recently, after discovering a patch, I was finally able to run the game, and I’ve started playing it.

I was surprised by how dated it looked, and how clunky the combat and GUI felt. For all the bitching and moaning that PC gamers do about how console games dumb down the gameplay and GUI’s of RPG’s, I actually think it’s a good thing to make gameplay and GUI as streamlined and intuitive as possible. Seriously, was it ever a good thing to have dozens and dozens of commands mapped to a QWERTY keyboard? Customizing and learning the keyboard layout of a new game was always a monumental task and I never enjoyed that aspect of PC gaming. The only time it works well is for mapping individual weapons/powers of twitch-reflex games–that’s when instant access really matters. For RPG’s, I actually prefer console-styled controls more than PC ones.

I haven’t gotten very far yet in the game, so I don’t have anything to say about it yet, although it started a lot slower than the first game, and I don’t particularly like slow beginnings unless it really draws you in, which this particular beginning doesn’t.

The Longest Journey – This is one of my favorite games of all time, and recently I thought I’d play through it again to feel that nostalgic magic again. This time around, I noticed things that I was much more willing to forgive ten years ago when I first played it–for example, how slowly the characters talked. The voice acting is great, but everyone just talked too slow, like they have all the time in the world.

On a whim, I searched for “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube, and sure enough, there they were. So I think I’m just going to watch the rest on Youtube instead, since it’s not the kind of game you play for the gameplay–it’s all about the story. There are no multi-branching endings, so you can just sit back and watch someone else play. I’ve already solved the puzzles tens years ago too, so I don’t really need to do it again. Besides, I always hated puzzle-solving in adventure games, because they often have the most contrived and annoying puzzles out of all the games.

If you have never played The Longest Journey and its sequel Dreamfall, I highly recommend you watch the “Let’s Play” videos for them on Youtube. The writing for these games are excellent (although TLJ can get a little silly at times, while Dreamfall is a lot more mature overall).

Cathrine – I have no interest in playing puzzle platformers, but the story for Catherine seemed interesting, so I just watched the “Let’s Play” for it (skipping all the actual platforming).

Despite a cast of Caucasian characters and based totally in western culture, there’s that Japanese-centric storytelling, dialogues, visual style, and includes even a question about whether the player gets nosebleeds if he is excited/aroused. I wonder if the writers even knew that’s a totally Japanese thing and westerners have never even heard of such a thing except when they see it in anime and manga?

The story really isn’t anything all that interesting, and felt more like a much shorter story being padded to hell to make it last much longer.

The only thing about the game I really liked was the voice of Catherine (voiced by Laura Bailey). Now, that is a really cute and sexy voice. Laura Bailey’s natural voice doesn’t sound anything like that though (there are videos of her doing panels at Comic Con), but I guess that’s why she’s an awesome voice actress.

Syberia/Syberia II – I tried playing Syberia years ago and was bored by it. Now, I’m watching the “Let’s Play” for these two games, and I’m still bored. There’s just no emotional resonance in the storytelling, and some of the voice acting’s just awful. I can’t stand it when they use an adult to voice a child character, and the voice actor sucks at doing children’s voices–it completely destroys the suspension of disbelief.

November 25, 2011

Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium review

I recently added a new sound card (Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium) and graphics card (Zotac GeForce CTX 550 Ti) to my “General Purpose” desktop computer.

Originally, I did not plan to use any of my current computers for any kind of gaming at all, since I’ve migrated over to consoles (Xbox360, Playstation 3) for all my gaming needs in the last couple of years. But it always bugged me that I just can’t play fast-paced FPS on consoles, because there’s no way to play with the kind of twitch reflex such games require as I could on the PC with keyboard and mouse. To make it worse, games like Unreal Tournament 3 for the console is actually slowed down dramatically from the PC version to accommodate that drawback. So essentially, it’s like a double-dumbed-down version of what it should be.

Ever since I became a gamer, I’ve always felt the need to have at least one twitch-reflex FPS in my gaming line-up at all times; it helps me unwind after a long day of hard work. Currently, nobody makes twitch-reflex FPS games anymore because consoles have taken over gaming (today’s FPS are more about realism than speed/reflex), so I can only go back to games like the Unreal Tournament series or Quake series to get my twitch-fix, and the only proper way to play them is on computers with keyboard and mouse.

I tried running UT3 and UT2004 on my “General Purpose” rig (I always preferred the UT series to the Quake series), but I couldn’t get surround sound due to the whole OpenAL problem in Windows 7. After researching, I chose the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Platinum for the Creative Alchemy feature, which restores the surround sound for games using OpenAL. I tossed in a new graphics card too, so I don’t have to run UT3 on anything less than the max settings just to get decent framerate (using the Core-i5 2500K’s built-in GPU, I had to use lower resolution in order to get around 25~30 FPS). With the GeForce GTS 550 Ti, I’m able to max out all settings at highest resolution, and still get 60+ framerate. Although I can max out all UT3 settings on my “Music Production DAW” computer too (it’s a Core 2 Quad Q6600 with a GeForce 9800 GTX graphics card), I really don’t like gaming on my music-production computer (since I only turn it on to work on music, and to turn it on just to play a quick session of gaming becomes inconvenient), and also, the lack of surround sound via OpenAL is still a problem.

So, after abandoning the PC for consoles for a couple of years, I’m starting to game on the PC again, despite the technical troubleshooting that I hate about PC gaming. For twitch-reflex FPS, there’s just no substitute.

Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium review:
Overall, the Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium sounds fine–its specs are no worse than typical pro audio interfaces, and its ASIO driver ran solid when I tested it in Sonar X1. What’s a bit alarming is the noise floor though–it’s noticeably higher than my old Audiotrak Prodigy 7.1 sound card when the volume is turned up high, and I can hear obvious interference along with noise floor that I did not hear with the Prodigy 7.1. But since I’m not using the X-Fi Titanium for any critical audio work (I use the TC Electronic Konnket Live for that), I’m not really concerned. I won’t hear the noise floor at all when fragging enemies in a twitch-reflex FPS.

One of the main selling points of the Creative Sound Blaster products is all the fancy effects, but I never bother with the more gimmicky ones–only typical consumers who don’t know much about audio will use features such as the X-Fi Crystalizer, EAX, or SVM. They don’t know that those gimmicky features do far more harm than good to the quality of the audio, and the only purpose such features serve is to impress people who probably aren’t picky about audio fidelity in the first place.

It’s kind of funny and ironic that Creative likes to tell people their X-Fi Crystalizer makes MP3’s sound better, when in fact it only severely colors the frequency response by giving it that dreaded “Disco Smiley” EQ curve, which any entry level audiophile would have grown out of in his first month of learning about audio fidelity. Creative is banking on the fact that most people have no idea just how transparent MP3’s sound these days with superior encoders like the LAME algoithm. For 99% of the general public, they can’t tell the difference between the original CD and an MP3 encoded at even moderate constant bitrates like 160 kbps or 192 kbps, let alone variable bitrates or max bitrate of 320 kbps. So if someone can’t tell the difference between the original CD and the MP3 in double-blind listening tests, what the hell is there to “restore” with the X-Fi Crystalizer? All it ends up doing is making everything sound grating and exaggerated in the treble and bass.

The CMSS-3D is essentially like Creative’s version of Dolby Pro Logic II and Dolby Headphone, and they work pretty much the same as the Dolby counterpart. I have Dolby Headphone from the JVC/Victor SU-DH1 hardware unit I use for surround sound headphone gaming, and I also have Dolby Pro Logic II from my Logitech Z-5500 surround sound system, and I think the two competing technologies are pretty similar in terms of results.

The Creative Console is so clumsy and slow that I never use it–I just use the shortcuts in the Creative Volume Panel to turn stuff on and off, or the Creative Audio Control Panel, since it has most of the settings of the Creative Console, but without the slow reacting graphical GUI that takes forever to switch between modes. It’s a shame that often the most popular companies out there with the highest market share are the ones who are the most clueless when it comes to designing products that are easy, fast, and intuitive to use.

Although both the sound card and the graphics card are doing what I purchased them to do, the unfortunate side-effect is that UT3 is now crashing all the time. I’ll have figure that out. UT2004 runs flawlessly though, but it’s quite dated graphically, so I don’t enjoy playing it as much as I used to. I prefer to get UT3 sorted out, if I could.

I recently sold my Stax headphone rig (SR-007mk2, SRM-717). It’s a great sounding rig, and the most expensive rig I owned, but I just don’t use it enough to justify keeping it. As some of you know, I don’t trust any headphone out of the box–I always create custom EQ curves to make them more accurate/neutral, and this is true even for expensive four-figure headphones. Once I EQ my headphones, they all end up sounding much more similar than different, which makes it really hard to justify keeping the really expensive ones when the cheaper ones sound so similar. In my case, my Audez’e LCD-2 (Rev.1) sounds close enough to ideal with my custom EQ curve that I really have no need for other headphones anymore (except a pair of closed-back for tracking).

BTW, here’s the latest version of my custom EQ curve for the LCD-2:
lcd-2 custom EQ curve

You can’t just look at it without knowing the context of why it looks that way though, so here’s the measurement for my LCD-2, which provides the proper context:
LCD2 frequency response graph

The thin white slanted line is basically what’s widely considered the ideal upper-mids to treble response from 1KHz to 20KHz (headphones shouldn’t measure flat in that frequency range, since headphones are different from speakers), and I basically EQ’d the LCD-2 to that ideal (while also using test tones like sine wave at regular frequency intervals, pink noise, and comparison to other headphones and speakers). At this point, I would say my LCD-2 sounds about as good as I need a pair of headphones to sound, and beyond that, it’s just unacceptable diminishing returns.

I would sell my Sennheiser HD650 too, but I’m keeping it as a backup, in case one day the LCD-2 dies on me and it takes a while to decide on what to replace it with–I’ll at least have another trustworthy headphone to use in the meantime. The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 will always have a place in my studio since it’s great as a tracking headphone, but I’d never use it for any kind of critical audio work since I just prefer open-back headphones in general.

I finally finished playing Dead Island, and it was much longer than I thought it would be (I think around 59 hours or so for me). I had mentioned previously that the game has some glaring issues, but despite those issues, I had a ton of fun because the gameplay was so immersive–especially once you get into the city. I’m not going to repeat what I already mentioned before, so I’ll just add that the ending was decent, and that final run through the prison was really tense. It’s not the kind of game that would win any awards for storytelling though, that’s for sure.

The technical glitches were unforgivable, such as during the ending cut-scene, the characters had no irises–just the whites of their eyes showed. Throughout the game, the facial animations were some of the very worst I had ever seen in a modern video game, and the voice acting ranged from pretty good to bad. The inventory bugs were less annoying than they could have been since I was careful to work around them.

For such a flawed game, it was a lot more fun than it had the right to be.

Quickie movie/TV reviews:

Breaking Bad (season four) – Again, Breaking Bad proves it’s one of the very best shows on television. Masterful dramatic structure, complex character developments, and very effective pacing. It also has some of the best acting on television too.

True Blood (season four) – Season four was somewhat disappointing, and while the love story was cute, the way the season concluded made me a bit nauseous. What is it with these female writers having such clichéd fantasies of multiple hot males (vampires and werewolves) fighting over the main female lead? Twilight and Vampire Diaries both do this too and it’s just laughably predictable and shallow.

Why can’t we have a female lead where male characters aren’t just tripping all over themselves to fall in love with? And to make it worse, not all of these female leads deserve such adoration. Sookie is perhaps the least deserving compared to the other female leads. Anna Paquin when compared to Nina Dobrev looks absolutely unremarkable and homely, and even compared to Kirsten Stewart, looks bland and common. As a character, Sookie isn’t as sharp or elegant as Elena, or have that brooding allure like Bella. Other than the required kindness and courage that all lead protagonists are expected to have, the only thing unique about her is her stupid faery blood. If it wasn’t for that, she wouldn’t even have the adoring vampires fighting over her.

Alexander Skarsgård was a pleasure to watch though–I’ve been a fan of his ever since Generation Kill. It was especially satisfying to see him play a very different Eric in season four.

African Cats – A sort of sanitized family version of a nature documentary with Samuel L. Jackson narrating the story. I’m not really fond of this style of documentary where we anthropomorphize and idealize animals with sentimental narration. I also don’t care for Jackson as a narrator–he sounds so out of place because I keep expecting him to say something that we’re more accustomed to from a bad mofo like him.

Smart People – These types of indie flicks have such a distinctly similar flavor to them that I find writing about them almost about as predictable as writing about mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Aren’t indies supposed to represent uniqueness? But why do so many of these indie films featuring socially awkward but smart characters all seem like they were written and directed by the same person?

Super 8 – This was an interesting blend of classic adventure movie storytelling meets modern action film sensibilities. I really enjoyed the young actors, and the scene where Elle Fanning stunned the other kids with her innate acting talent just took my breath away. The last act became a fairly standard Hollywood blockbuster affair, and lacked the kind of heart that it aspired to, such as the classic 80’s Spielberg adventures.

Bad Teacher – The best moments in the movie were already shown in the trailer, and the rest of the movie was just filler. If the entire movie was as irreverent and biting as the trailer, then it would’ve been much more entertaining.

Battle For Terra I got about half way through the movie and then my attention began to wander. I started cleaning up around the studio for the rest of the movie, and it never regained 100% of my attention. The movie was essentially like watching a sterile and boring version of Avatar with low-budget visuals.

The Expendables One more movie that couldn’t hold my attention. The last act lost me, with all the fighting scenes boring me to the point where I stopped caring who was punching who and who was shooting at who. These fights were choreographed to be as entertaining as possible, but they just felt kind of pointless. I tend to favor more realistic fighting scenes such as in the Jason Bourne series, instead of the over-the-top action hero stuff. The realistic fighting scenes feel much more immediate and dangerous to me, where every single move could potentially kill or maim someone. With these testosterone action flicks, you never really feel like the heroes are in any danger, because they take a hundred punches and kicks and just keeps on going. It’s so 1980’s and so outdated, but what do you expect from Sylvester Stallone?

Because of Winn Dixie – I watched a bunch of children’s movies lately, since I usually ignore these types of movies, and I wanted to see what I was missing (thinking of them as research as a storyteller). As it happens, AnnaSophia Rob is in most of the recent ones, so it became a kind of mini AnnaSophia Rob marathon. This Win Dixie flick wasn’t very satisfying, especially the final conflict seemed to have come out of nowhere and had no real sense of gravity in the dramatic structure. AnnaSophia is certainly very cute, and although she may not be as good as Dakota or Elle Fanning was at the same age, she’s good enough for these types of simple movies. I don’t think she’s good enough for much more serious films by auteur type directors though.

Bridge to Terabithia – The story itself only became interesting after the sad plot twist, but by then, the movie was almost over. The fantastical elements almost felt tacked on and didn’t resonate emotionally. I never read the book so I have no idea if that’s how it was in the book as well. During the scenes where the kids are playing make believe, I had to wonder if the young actors thought it was all very silly, because it sure looked that way to me, but it probably didn’t look that way to the target audience.

The Race the Witch Mountain – By this point, I was a bit tired of seeing AnnaSophia’s big, earnest eyes. I also got tired of these children’s films, because they just aren’t very compelling–they’re either too safe, too simple, or too sentimental. I think the problem is that people who make these films don’t ever try to take risks and do something truly unique and remarkable. I much rather see mature movies ABOUT children than movies made FOR children.

The Spiderwick Chronicles – I did not care for Freddie Highmore at all. I think he’s a very minor talent that gets casted because of his good looks. It also doesn’t help that I absolutely hated August Rush with a passion (for a movie about the love for music, it was the greatest unintentional insult to musicians I’ve ever seen in my life). The rest of the cast I actually liked, and they made the movie bearable for me. At this point, I’m done with these children’s movies–they just aren’t very compelling. I consider my research done and I’ll never return to this genre again unless there’s phenomenal critical acclaim enticing me.

Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon – I can’t stand these type of movies, but I force myself to watch them as research–to keep up with what’s happening in the mainstream cinematic landscape.

This latest movie in the franchise was the worst one yet, where the main character has become this immature, obnoxious, and unlikable douchebag. I mean, really? This is what passes for a leading protagonist these days in epic-budgeted mainstream movies?

I really don’t need to rip this movie apart since there are no shortage of scathing reviews out there. I’ll just say one more thing though: “The Ark” is a ridiculous name for an alien ship, because the Autobot’s alien culture has no biblical connection to our world whatsoever, so the parallels are completely wrong in context and illogical.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. It didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, and it created emotional resonance without overbearing and simple-minded sentimentality (which is what most mindless Hollywood blockbusters do). It had the kind of sophistication fitting for mainstream movies that I wish was more common.

November 11, 2011

Deficiencies of mainstream American comic book narrative

Filed under: Comics,Film/TV/Animation,Video Games,Writing — Rob Chang @ 2:01 pm

I have tried to force myself to read The Walking Dead comic book series twice now, and I just couldn’t get into it (and I’m saying this as a huge fan of the TV series based on it).

I tried reading it once years ago before the TV series was even being planned, and it just didn’t take. As a life-long zombie fiction fan, I didn’t find the vibe all that compelling. Now that I’ve watched the TV series and tried again to read the comic book series, the original just pales when compared to the adaptation. In comparison to the TV series, the comic books lack the depth and nuances I love about the TV series.

This perhaps isn’t a criticism of The Walking Dead comic books specifically–it’s more about how American comic books in general tend to have a specific convention of narrative and visual storytelling that never really appealed to me (yes, there are exceptions, but I’m talking about the average American comic book). The 24-pages per issue paradigm is terrible for building atmosphere, mood, subtlety, emotional depth, or allow the pacing enough breathing room so the entire narrative feels more like a natural organism instead of a bullheaded charge to check off plot points and dialogues before the page count runs out.

In comparison, mangas and European comics are much better in that regard, with far more breathing room for introspective moments and to build up atmosphere and mood, as well as a more sensible distribution of amount of dialogues per panel, accompanied by matching facial expressions, body language, and a variety of camera work.

With American comics, it’s common to have a barrage of dialogues all happening in one panel. It becomes this talking heads situation, where the flow of natural perceived time stops and we’re looking at a static image with tons of dialogues pasted in every empty space the illustration allows, sometimes even overlapping important parts of the illustration just to cram more dialogues in. This keeps happening page after page, and what’s worse, characters will spout off long dialogues even while in the middle of extraneous physical activity–such as punching the crap out of each other or in life or death situations. This kind of insensitivity to nuance, pacing, and context is detrimental to the perception of timing and atmosphere, and clumsy in its lack of subtlety and finesse.

Visually, I’m generally also not a fan of most American comic book artists’ choice of stylization. Many of them have this glaring deficiency when it comes to depicting normal looking characters; they either look like grimacing bodybuilders and pouting sex kittens, or they look like freaky psychopaths and inbred mutants. There’s very little subtlety, elegance, or charm in general. I would say that American comic book artists overall have much less evolved aesthetic sensitivity.

The truth is, I never really liked mainstream American comics all that much, even during the 8 years I worked professionally in that industry. I much preferred the indie stuff like Love and Rockets (the stuff by Jaime Hernandez, not his brothers), or the sophisticated adult stuff by guys like Neil Gaiman and the art school types like Jon J. Muth. As for art, other than the previously mentioned, I also like guys like Adam Hughes, Steve Rude, and a few others who draw in more natural styles that are relatively more elegant and graceful.

The reason I chose a career in comics in the first 8 years of my professional life as an artist and writer was mainly because of influences from mangas like Appleseed, mature comics like Sandman, and indie comics like Love and Rockets. The mainstream superhero stuff and the general storytelling and art style of typical American comics were always a negative aspect for me, and its dominance of the American comic book industry was part of the reason I eventually dropped out and never returned. I was always a part of the indie scene, and after a while, it just got tiring always being on the fringe and being disinterested with the majority of the developments in the industry that I never felt completely a part of. (There were other reasons too–you can read about them in my bio in the About Me section.)

I tried playing Star Wars: Force Unleashed, and I was surprised by how bad some of the animations were. The character animation was unnatural to the point where I wish they had just mocapped it all instead of using the clumsy looking key-framed animations. I think most people tend to think a big-name franchise would have very polished production associated with it, but that’s not really the case. The game feels a bit too simple–almost like a kiddie arcade game. After a couple of hours, I just got bored of it. I’m probably not its target audience in the first place.

I have been enjoying the hell out of Dead Island. Even though it’s got some obvious issues such as weird bugs, or terrible NPC facial animation, not much of a story, and lots of side-quest fillers, it’s the gameplay itself that’s got me hooked. If you only played the resort section, you won’t understand this, but in the city section, the game becomes a lot more intense–especially later on in the city when you are constantly surrounded and overwhelmed.

I love the feeling of running scared and looking for a car to jump onto when multiple infected are shrieking and running full speed at me from all directions. Very few games can make me panic like that–where I actually fear for my life. Even the loss of money when I die is enjoyable–a form of motivation to try as hard as I can to survive.

I also really enjoy the weapons system–to be able to modify them, and maintain them with repairs, or to upgrade them. With so many weapons available, you have to constantly make decisions on which ones to sell off, drop, upgrade, or keep. Some weapons have much longer reach than others, and I always make sure I have at least one, so when I’m on top of a car, I can still hit the zombies. Shorter weapons cannot reach them at all, but they tend to be more deadly in general. Guns are surprisingly weak compared to melee weapons, but then again, the way the weapons are ranked in the game makes no logical sense whatsoever anyway.

I just made my way into the jungle (finally! Took forever, and it’s very frustrating to not be able to advance a quest due to the “triggering” event happening so much later in the game. This is a glaring design problem), and I think that’s the last third of the game. After I finish it, I’ll likely start Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Quickie TV/movie reivews:

Entourage (series finale) – This show has been a guilty pleasure, and I’m a little disappointed by the way the series wrapped up, since the plot development was a bit abrupt. For example, the entire courtship between Vince and his wife-to-be was completely skipped over, and that could have been an interesting development to see Vince finally growing up and find true love. I really liked the final scene though–where Ari is once again being tempted by ambition and power, after what seemed to be a final wake-up call and enjoying life in the sun. I think he’d go for it, because a leopard can’t change its spots.

Soul Surfer – Although this film may be more mainstream than I had expected, I thought it was well-made and entertaining, and despite not getting into the darker side of the lead character’s emotional turmoil too much, still depicted a moving story. I didn’t really recognize AnnaSophia Robb until I looked her up later and realized I’d seen her in a horror movie with Hilary Swank before when she was younger.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. – This is one of the most enjoyable romantic comedies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s got more heart, more wit, and better writing than most of the romantic comedies I’ve seen in the last few years. The cast was also very endearing–I loved everyone in it. The scene when Emma Stone was at Ryan Gosling’s house–how can anyone not love that scene? I haven’t seen chemistry between two people portrayed that well since…I can’t even remember. When I think back on how other romantic comedies try to portray chemistry between two leads, they seemed forced and lacking the natural ease and endearing quality of the Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling scene.

Bruno I just couldn’t force myself to sit through this low-brow farce. See, Borat had a certain kind of charm, and the humor had wit, and I mostly enjoyed that movie and like Borat as a character. Bruno was just a complete low-brow, crass, and revolting mess. It had no subtlety, no likable characters, and its stereotyping of gay men was just so offensively over-the-top that the only people who would find it funny are the kind of people who would probably commit hate crimes against gay men. I don’t know what the hell Sacha Baron Cohen was thinking. He should have done an Ali G movie instead (even if he keeps saying that character is too well known already).

Happy Accidents – I watched this because of Marisa Tomei, and it’s an okay romantic comedy with a sci-fi premise as a gimmick. Marisa is a cutie pie as always, and a joy to watch.

The Promotion – This comedy had an odd, subdued tone to it, especially when today’s comedies tend to be in your face. It almost feels like more of an indie flick, but the characters and writing in general aren’t quite quirky enough for an indie effort. I enjoyed seeing the two lead actors playing more normal characters instead of the typical cartoon characters they tend to play.

American Teen I couldn’t get past the first fifteen minutes because it reeked of contrivance. I hated how the editing, the music, and the overall presentation tried to make it look like some teen drama–it’s as if the people being filmed were shoehorned into the roles they’re supposed to play. Maybe I was being too critical and should have sat through it, but as I skipped forward at various intervals, I didn’t see anything worth watching. I already know the kind of drama these kids go through–we’ve seen them everywhere, and we’ve lived them ourselves, and none of these people were spectacularly different from the people I already knew in my life that I’d want to spend any more time with them.

The Simpsons movie – If you like the TV series, you’ll like this. It’s basically the same as some of the more epic episodes of the TV show, but longer and with better production quality.

The problem with movie versions of a TV series is that almost always, we’ve seen better stories from the TV series at some point. It’s as if the writers blew their wads on the TV show and the best of their work has already been done. Sure, the production quality is significantly higher due to bigger budget, but the stories themselves are never better than what we’ve already seen on the small screen–and didn’t cost us a dime.

October 6, 2011

Inhumanly sensitive?

Another batch of Kitty Cat Diary entries are up:

There’s this quote by Pearl S. Buck about what it feels like to be a passionately creative person, and I have always liked it very much. It goes:

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.

To him… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that
without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

Some people might read the quote and roll their eyes, thinking it’s just emo hyperbole and glorifies the creative types too much, but unless you are a very serious and passionate creative person–the type the lives and breathes what you perceive to be your mission in life–be it a composer, a writer, a filmmaker, a painter, a dancer, an architect, a designer–you won’t understand how it really feels.

There’s a line that you cross when going from being a hobbyist to someone who has decided to dedicate his whole life to creative endeavors, and it’s when you cross over that threshold that you really understand how it feels, and yes, it often feels just like that quote. I know at least for me, I have felt that way since puberty, when I decided I was going to dedicate my life to multiple creative disciplines and excel in all of them to the best of my abilities.

If you consider yourself a passionately creative person, do you agree with the quote?

The other day, while walking into a bakery in Fuzhou with Elena, this middle-aged guy hocked a humongous wad of loogie and the sucker landed on my leg. I was wearing shorts, so it was absolutely disgusting–the entire front of my calf was covered with his slime. I quickly pulled out a few sheets of paper that bakeries have for you to grab stuff with, and used them to wipe the damn thing off, and then Elena pulled out a few sheets of wet antibacterial napkins for me to disinfect my leg with.

I was furious, not because the guy just walked away, since he might not have known his loogie landed on someone (I didn’t exact get all vocal about it); I was furious because this is so common in China. Despite all the public signs everywhere telling people to not spit, people still spit like llamas just about anywhere. This isn’t to say that every single person does it, since the better behaved people don’t do it, but enough of the population does it that it’s one of the things you’ll notice right away when you spend any amount of time in China.

Anyway, I haven’t ranted about living in China for a long time because I’m mostly over it by now–it is what it is, and we’re not here because we like the country.

I have always found it very interesting the way different segments of the people in the music industry relates to DJ’s. For example, pop stars sing about DJ’s in a way that is very submissive, always asking and begging the DJ’s to “put the music back on,” or “play that song,” as if the DJ’s had all this control over them that they’re powerless against.

Contrast that against the bands and indie artists who tend to have a strong dislike for DJ’s, often mocking them and deriding them in their songs, such as when Morrissey of The Smiths sang in the song “Panic”:

Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play

What’s clear is that the pop stars are submissive to the DJ’s because they tend to identify with the average fans of music, as many pop stars aren’t actually serious musicians, while the indie artists and bands are usually serious musicians, thus placing themselves above the Disc jockeys who just play records, yet wield so much power as to make or break other people’s musical careers. (DJ’s with more advanced skills like the impressive hop-hop DJ’s are not what I’m referring to–I’m talking about the “record player players,” as Henry Rollins once called them).

It all makes a lot of sense. Mainstream pop is all about identifying with the average people, while indie and more esoteric genres are more about individual expression and viewpoints apart from the popular mainstream.

But at the same time, some indie artists and bands feel indebted to certain DJ’s, because those DJ’s played their music when no one else did, and in turn, propelled them to greater recognition, and eventually stardom.

Anyway, it’s just something I’ve observed and thought about.

I recently played and finished Homefront. I had forgotten that John Milius wrote it until I finished the game and read the credits, and thought, “Oh yeah, of course. It’s just like Red Dawn.”

The premise was compelling, but unfortunately, the game was short and the narrative too simple, without any compelling plot points that elevate it above simple “point A to point B sequence of firefights” set pieces. But then again, it’s just a straightforward shooter and not a RPG or adventure game, so maybe it’s unfair to ask for more? Other than the premise of the story, the game was just another run-of-the-mill FPS, without much else that makes it unique.

The A.I. was pretty bad in general, but this is the norm in videos still at this point. Good A.I. is something of a rarity and perhaps the only time A.I. should be mentioned at all is if it’s particularly good?

The abrupt ending to the game was a letdown, and in this regard, a lot of video games today are still lagging behind in terms of understanding the importance of a satisfying pacing and a sense of closure. It’s almost as if the moment they run out of budget and development time is when they decide to suddenly end the narrative, instead of having a painstakingly crafted narrative like the games Valve develop. I guess if everyone was good at it, then Valve wouldn’t be the standout developer.

Quickie TV/movie reviews:

1 Litre of Tears / 1リットルの涙 – I watched this mainly for Sawajiri Erika, the very cute actress/singer who’s the lead character. It’s always disappointing when actors in real life are nothing like the charming and lovable characters they play, but despite all the controversy around the actress herself (accused of being arrogant and rude), it’s impossible not to like her character in the TV series–the kind, sunny, courageous, and adorable 15-yr old high school girl with an incurable disease that eventually paralyzes her completely. It’s a tear-jerker, and if you have watched Japanese doramas before, you should already know what to expect (over-the-top acting whenever there are any comedic elements, heavy sentimentality, and tragic endings).

The Man In the Moon – A surprisingly simple and moving coming-of-age drama, and the first starring role for Reese Witherspoon (she was 15 at the time). It has a classic vibe to it, and later when I saw that it was directed by Robert Mulligan, the same director of classic, To Kill A Mocking Bird, I thought, “Of course. Makes perfect sense.” The Man In the Moon was his last film.

I’ve always been kind of indifferent to Reese Witherspoon, but I was impressed with her acting in her first film, perfectly capturing the emotions of a young teenage girl in love for the first time.

Priest – I’ve gotten more strict with the time I spend watching movies, so if a movie displays unforgivable blunders in the first fifteen to thirty minutes, I’ll switch to a different mode where I start to do other things while letting the movie continue to play, only giving it attention here and there to see if anything interesting has happened. If it’s really bad, I’ll just turn it off altogether.

With Priest, it got stupid pretty soon, such as a beginning scene with terrible continuity where a character was totally out of breath, and then the next shot he wasn’t. Shit like that is just unforgivable–that’s filmmaking 101 stuff, and the kind of mistake that no established Hollywood director and editor should be making. Then, there was a scene where the sun went down so fast that there was no twilight at all–just sun setting, and then total darkness. It was like, WTF? Add to that card board characters and a bunch of clichés, I just couldn’t take the movie seriously at all.

I ended up doing photo-editing while letting the movie play in the background, and glancing up every once a while to see if it gets any better. It didn’t.

Devil – Fairly enjoyable supernatural thriller. It’s not particularly clever or compelling, but it was entertaining.

I’m not a M. Night Shyamalan basher since I find his films typically at least as good as the average movie out there, and almost always at least above average. I think people like to bash him because he’s wont he Academy Award before, and that’s the level they expect from him every time.

The Troll Hunter – Another movie that just didn’t hold my attention, and I ended up fastforwarding most of it. It wasn’t nearly as compelling as the other fake-documentary styled action/thrillers I’ve seen, and the whole idea of trolls is just kind of silly to me, because they look so much like cartoon characters. Maybe Europeans feel differently about trolls due to tradition and legends, but for me, I’ve never found them compelling, just like how I never was interested in goblins or dwarfs or elves.

The Dead Outside – One more movie I just couldn’t make it all the way through because it just wasn’t good enough. Like I said, I’m a lot less patient these days with movies–I’ve got a huge pile of literally hundreds of movies I still haven’t watched, and I just don’t want to waste time on movies that are less than good anymore.

While The Dead Outside has its moments, the execution just wasn’t very exciting. Also, right away it bothered me how the main character was looking around in an abandoned, sinister looking house with one hand holding a filtration mask the whole time. Why would anyone do that? The damn mask had elastic bands and he could just wear it normally, so he could have both hands free in case something jumps out at him or he needs to grab things. That kind of bad direction and illogical storytelling details is one of my pet peeves.

Hall Pass I watched this mostly for Jenna Fischer, but I’m finding that my attraction to her is really due to her playing Pam in The Office. When she’s not playing Pam, she’s not nearly as adorable.

I enjoyed the bromance aspects of the movie, but not so much the chick aspects. Bromances are fun because it’s like watching cartoon bears bumbling around and knocking things over, bumping into each other, and making dorky noises. Chicks being chicks is more like watching nervous lap dogs yapping and whining, or cats hissing at each other. That is why I can’t stand Sex In the City or anything similar to it. (Yeah, that’s probably the most “guy” thing I’ll ever say in my life. I’m generally not a “typical guy” at all.)

Adaptation I’m not one of those people who worship the ground Charlie Kaufman walks on. I like some of his stuff, but I found Adaptation a bit pretentious, and the last act sort of jumped the shark for me in terms of tone and plot development.

Limitless – A fun and entertaining thriller with a very intriguing premise–one I can totally identify with. I have often thought about what I’d do if I didn’t need to sleep, or could optimize the usage of my brain, or multiple myself. As someone who tries to master multiple creative disciplines in one lifetime, I would be all over that drug.

Summer Wars – An enjoyable anime with an interesting premise, although the characters weren’t quite developed and the story a bit hard to believe.

X-Men: First Class – With all the hype, I thought it would be even better than any of the previous X-Men movies, but I’m not sure if that’s clearly the case.

I enjoyed some aspects such as the main leads, but I found January Jones quite boring as Emma Frost. It almost seemed she telephoned in her performance, but then again, it’s not as she had a lot to work with in that role. Even then, just the physicality of her performance felt wrong–the way she walked seemed wooden and clumsy. That’s now how I imagined Emma Frost would carry herself at all.

I was quite surprised by Jennifer Lawrence, because her mannerism was so different from the character she played in Winter’s Bone that I barely recognized her. Now, that’s what good acting does.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 – I probably should have waited so I could watch part 1 and part 2 back-to-back, because there’s no real sense of closure from just part 1 alone. I did enjoy the much darker tone, and I look forward to part 2. I’m not exactly a fan of the franchise and I never read the books, but I’ve seen all the movies since they’re all fairly entertaining. Hermoine was always my favorite character, because she was witty, feisty, kind, loyal, and smart as a whip. It’s been a joy to watch Emma Watson’s grow from an adorable little girl into a beautiful young woman.

Precious I’ve been meaning to watch this, but I was wary because I suspected it to be poverty porn, and unfortunately, it was. I found the effort to depict the main lead’s transformation was weak and uninspiring, and the scenes where she was fantasizing was particularly jarring and annoying. Ironically, I avoided this film because of the poverty porn aspect, but that was the aspect the film succeeded at the most.

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