Friday Feature: Ingress

We missed this week’s main post, but fear not, we’ve got your geekworthy recommendations still coming at you every Friday (mostly).

It would definitely not surprise me if you’d never heard of a genre of game called “AR” or “augmented reality.” Even with my enthusiast-level commitment to games, I’ve only encountered a few (one notable one was the AR game run by Steam/Valve leading up to the release of Portal 2).

Augmented Reality games integrate game experience with the real world to give the players the sensation that the (clearly fictional) events of the game are a part of the real world – hidden just out of sight of everyone who isn’t playing. As a result, many AR games are often centered around revealing information, piecing together puzzles, and collaborating with other players who are trying to do the same.

I recently discovered an AR game that operates in an entirely new and interesting way from anything I’ve ever seen before: Ingress.

The main crux of the game is around a fictional substance called Exotic Matter. It’s brought to earth by a mysterious alien race called the Shapers. Following the game’s framework, some humans believe the Shapers are benevolent beings, using exotic matter to uplift humanity into a new enlightenment. Thus they call themselves The Enlightened. On the other end, there are humans who believe the Shapers are here to use exotic matter to enslave humanity. They call themselves The Resistance.

No matter which side you’re on, the practical objective of the game is to capture and hold Portals through which exotic matter makes its way to earth, and then to link portals together and create portal fields where humans are either exposed to Shaper influence (in an Enlightened-controlled field) or protected from it (Resistance).

What makes Ingress an augmented reality game, however, is that the portals are tied to real-world locations (often monuments, public art, or historical buildings). The game utilizes your mobile device’s GPS signal to pinpoint your location on a street-view map (which, I think, uses Google’s framework) which reveals nearby portals, links, fields, and inventory items (which can be dropped on the map and picked up by other players).

Some Enlightened-controlled portals trying to make it in the middle of a large Resistance-controlled field.

New players, called “Agents” in the game lore, can move around their town capturing neutral portals, but by and large, taking down enemy portals is something that can only be done by teams of cooperating higher-level agents. That means using the game’s in-app comm system or, more likely, using a Google+ hangout or some other more “secure” (as far as in-game counter opps are concerned) channel to organize and coordinate an attack on enemy portals.

The Ingress in-game interface. Each portal is tied to a physical landmark.

Even leaving the story lore aside, you’re left with a pretty entertaining game of capture-and-hold played across the entire world. Portals are more dense in more highly populated areas, so if you’re living in a big city, you’re really missing out by not playing. My town isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to have a good handful of dedicated agents – most of which are helpful and excited to see new agents pop up in the comm.

Friday Feature: Wonder Woman (New 52)

For as many justified criticisms that can be levelled at DC in the past couple of years (their tendency to alienate fans, their seemingly arbitrary editing that alienates creators, their “event” cycle that tends to exhaust readers with crossovers, etc.) there are a few gems that really stand out in their line-up.

One of those is Wonder Woman. Since issue #1 of the New 52, almost every issue of Wonder Woman has been gold. With the exception of the occasional appearances of Orion (a character I don’t really get), writer Brian Azzarello has kept Diana largely separated from the rest of the DC universe. That’s actually a good thing for Wonder Woman’s character, since her story of Paradise Island, the Amazons, and Greek deities  can get pretty confusing when set in the middle of the science fiction world of Superman, Green Lantern, Batman, and Flash (and the whole gang).

But even though Diana’s stories don’t always play well in other settings, Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang have proven that a perplexing superhero, heavily modelled from Greek Mythology, can be updated in clever ways. Chiang draws the pantheon the twenty-first century needs, not the one it deserves. All of the gods and goddesses are given unique looks that suit both 2014 and the spirit of their characters. My personal favorite is Ares, who seems to have been modelled after Azzarello himself.

Left: Brian Azzarello. Right: Ares.

This current run of Wonder Woman isn’t without its flaws, but it’s also one of the best comics of the New 52. In the way that Star Wars is a fantasy space-opera, Wonder Woman is a sci-fi myth-opera. The best drama comes in the interplay between the constantly-feuding deities in the middle of which Diana or her friends are always finding themselves. If that appeals to you, then don’t miss your chance to read Wonder Woman. Volumes 1-3 are on sale now, with volume four showing up sometime this spring.

The cover of Volume 1. A very good place to start.

Cloaks and Daggers – Catharsis Through Digital Storytelling

Catharsis: the act or process of releasing a strong emotion; especially by expressing it in an art form

 

Sometimes you just need to feel something…anything really.

Sorrow.

Joy.

Happiness.

Rage.

 

So, sometimes I just put in a game…

——————–

I didn’t know how long we had been traveling together.  We had met in the desert, and though we said very little to each other, we both agreed that the company was nice.  Most of the world had fallen into ruin, and rumor was that there weren’t many of us left.  I guess that is why we stuck together.

Maybe we just didn’t want to be lonely…

We had kept heading towards the mountain; remembering the legends of the hope that resided on its distant peak.  He never had to say he was going there too.  Of course he was going there, where else was there left for any of us to go?  That question seemed to haunt us both.  Neither of us had a good answer, and so we had chosen to continue traveling despite our reservations.

Fear hadn’t gotten the best of us yet…

The desert was only the beginning.  From there, an abandoned tower gave us a moment of respite and reflection, but that was short lived as best.  Our pilgrimage took us through a cavern of beasts such as the eye had never seen; both terrifying and awe inspiring all the same.  Yet, still we travelled on and still we watched over each other.  Many a moment came when one of us might have died and left this world were it not for the other.  Through the silence and the stoic looks, something had developed between us.

A bond, perhaps? Brotherhood, then?

It is a dangerous thing to allow yourself to have such thoughts; it breeds recklessness.

For many different reasons…

As we reached the snow line, we had stumbled upon the ruins of a fallen city.  It had seemed that the ancients had hoped to live in the light of the mountain, but the mountain had rejected them for their arrogance.  My fellow traveller decided to step ahead, to scout the area and determine our next move.

He disappeared into the snow, as I continued to search through the rubble; hoping to find some new piece of information about who we were and where we were going.  He was always the more adventurous type, but I was fine with that.  It was what made us work.

When I looked back up, I saw him coming back towards me, smiling as best one could being covered in snow.  I guess, for that same reason, he wasn’t able to see the look of horror on my face as I saw what was coming behind him.  One of the creatures that we had thought we had left behind in the caverns was rising overhead.

I screamed.

I screamed over and over again.  I called out his name.  Tried to warn him in any way I could, but through the harsh wind of the snow storm I knew nothing I could do would get through.  All I had to do was get him to turn around, to see what was coming up behind him, and I know we would make it.  We had made it through worse things, there was no way we weren’t going to get through this…So I kept screaming, trying to reach out to him.

Until, still with a smile on his face, the beast took him…

Tears filled my eyes.  I felt myself still screaming, but I no longer heard anything coming out.  Regardless of my own safety, I ran out, hoping that something was left, that he was left.  It was a stupid thing to do.  There were more creatures in waiting, and where I thought there was just one, there were now five.

I didn’t want to move, but I knew I had to.  I saw an opening in the ruins, a safe haven, and so I ran.  I heard the monsters behind me, heard their ominous howl and heard in it their desire to destroy all who came near.  Nonetheless, I made it to the entrance and I stopped…and allowed myself to weep.

There was no hope on this mountain…

—————-

What makes certain games magical are the stories that come out of them, and the emotions that it can draw out of the player. This is one of my stories that grew out of my experience with Journey on the PS3. What makes the game so intriguing is that though there is a small narrative thread that goes through the whole game; the majority of the story is pieced together and created by the player during one’s play through.  Everything that happened, the emotions I felt, were all because of my actions and how I responded to the world I was given.

Journey and games like it don’t have an atypical narrative; they have one that you help create along the way via the player’s interaction within the world.  It is in that creation that the story becomes all the more personal to the player and more memorable in the telling. This type of process is more commonly called “emergent gameplay,” or “player driven storytelling.”

Unlike other forms of entertainment, games don’t have to abide by a strict narrative construction.  Whereas films and novels have a set series of events that always play out the same way for the characters, many games give the player the ability to shape their own story and have it play out differently in each subsequent playthrough.  It is the experience and the player’s feelings that become the story in many of these cases. More simply put, the story/gameplay emerges out of the player’s actions, as well as the player’s emotional responses.

Note: The game is actually about survival + NSFW Language

Games like Rust and Day Z have no discernible story of their own outside of what the player base creates for them. The “story” of those games are the personal tales of the players and how they interacted with others while in that world. Of course, for every game of this nature there is a Last of Us or Bioshock: Infinite that has a very specific story to tell, and proceeds to follow a standard narrative path.  This is not a bad thing. It shows the depth and breadth of gaming as a medium for different styles of storytelling.

Even in a game with a more directed narrative, a genuine emotional catharsis can be achieved, if done well. The Last of Us is a fantastic example of this in the AAA space; and Thomas Was Alone shines in the indie arena. In one game it is the story of loss, redemption, and questionable morality; and the other is about small geometric cubes, friendship, and the nature of truth and sacrifice. Despite their differing styles and mechanics, by the end of both I had felt emotionally drained and had shed tears on multiple occasions.

To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, just because something isn’t “real” doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful.  Games can have the ability to reach into us and draw out emotions and responses that other mediums cannot; because we help craft the story.  By making the choices our own, by creating our stories within the world that has been handed to us or acting out or part in the greater narrative; we invest in the moment and engage in a way that no other form of entertainment can match.

To put it simpler; the more we put in, the more we get out.

So like I said…

…sometimes you just need to feel something.

To have a good cry.

To work out some anger.

To remember why we should care about others.

No matter what it is, try a game next time. You’d be surprised what you might get out of it.

As the kids say, “enjoy the feels,” everyone.

Suggested Play: Journey, The Unfinished Swan, Thomas was Alone, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Dear Esther, and Gone Home

Friday Feature: Don’t Starve

I’m not sure I can explain why, but the past couple of years have seen a rise in the popularity of so-called “survival” video games.

As a general rule, these games drop you into an unfamiliar, hostile environment with little to no instruction on what to do next. Sometimes you have some equipment that might indicate your first action (“here’s an axe, and there are some trees”), but just as often you have nothing.

Games like Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, DayZ, Rust, and Don’t Starve have taken hold of the industry and with upcoming games like The Forest in 2014 it looks like they’re here to stay.

Don’t Starve, right now, holds a unique spot in the survival game pantheon in that it (unlike Minecraft, Terraria, and Starbound) isn’t really a sandbox game where building your house is just as, if not more important than “surviving” and (unlike DayZ and Rust) isn’t an online game where 99% of what “surviving” means is avoiding other players who are better equipped than you and want to kill you for whatever resources you’ve gathered.

Don’t Starve drops you into the unfamiliar terrain and gives you only the instructions that its title does. You have the recipe for an axe, but you’re left on your own to find saplings and flint to make it. By the beginning of the first night you also need to have built a campfire. And I hope while you were hunting for flint you also scavenged some food, because within a couple of game days you’ll have starved to death.

Don’t Starve has a degree of difficulty that will be a turn off to many new players. As a general rule you’ll have to begin a new game and die three or four times before you really get the hang of what you’re doing, so it requires some patience, but it pays off.

In my opinion there’s a lot to love about this game. It’s charming because of its stylized game art which looks grim and hand-drawn in many cases. It’s endlessly unpredictable and replayable because of the randomly generated levels. And it’s challenging, partially because of the esoteric information about the game that you can really only access by playing it (or using a guide, I suppose, but that saps a lot of the challenge out of any game).

If what I’ve described doesn’t sound appealing, then maybe Don’t Starve isn’t for you, but if you’re already a fan of high-degree-of-difficulty gaming or survival games as a genre, then Don’t Starve needs to be on your must-play list.

Camping It Up and Geeking It Out

I have found The Hobbit movies pretty entertaining so far. There’s no reason for the story to be stretched out over three movies, and they don’t attain the quality of the Lord of the Rings films, but I’ve enjoyed revisiting Middle Earth in the theatre.

There is one thing The Hobbit movies have uniquely contributed to my life.  And that is…

thranduil

Thranduil.

When I first saw him on screen, I involuntarily became possessed by the spirit of RuPaul and audibly declared in the theatre, “Get it, girl!!” It was instantly clear to me that this is his world and that everyone else only lives in it.

The screen representation of Thranduil is like a glorious hybrid of Pepper LaBeija and Cersei Lannister, or in other words, my cup of tea. The high camp stylization of Thranduil has not gone unnoticed by the geek community; just search #thranduil on Tumblr.

The celebration of his fabulousness is not an anomaly. Camp has always been present and adored by many in the world of sci-fi and fantasy.

The appeal of the camp aesthetic is hard to describe to those who “just don’t get it.” It’s not good, in the way that Citizen Kane or a similar work of artistic virtuosity is good. It’s not really “so bad it’s good” either, like The Room or other work that displays an utter failure of artistic ability. It’s something a little bit different.

In her essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag wrote that camp sees the world “not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” It is “the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

sunset_blvd_normadesmond1

Norma Desmond epitomizes artifice and exaggeration in Sunset Boulevard

Good examples of camp include Mommie Dearest, the oeuvre of John Waters, and the art of drag. They represent, in Sontag’s words, “the good taste of bad taste.” They are so excessive that they circle back around to being perversely beautiful. The camp-loving viewer isn’t ridiculing camp art; s/he is taking delight in their disregard for societally accepted definitions of good taste.

tumblr_l55884q0zH1qc93qfo1_400

Divine, star of many John Waters films, out-drags all drag queens in her excess and audacity.

One of the classics of camp is also a pillar of geek culture: Star Trek. Its colors are overly vibrant, embracing the new medium of color television with a drag queen’s unbridled enthusiasm. The dialogue is often delightfully overwrought, equaling anything ever uttered by Norma Desmond. And of course, it is crowned by performances from the king of camp acting, William Shatner.

kirk-uhoh-thumb-550x417-71985

The 1960s Batman TV show, with its unapologetically bad jokes and ubiquitous Bat-prefixes, is another great example of geek TV camp. But for my money, the best of geek camp comes not from television, but from comics. And the master of comics camp is Chris Claremont.

46384c_lg

The X-Men comics, especially of the Claremont era, are often described as superhero soap operas. Their stories hinge as much on love triangles and each character’s inner anguish as it does on superheroics.  94narm

Claremont is famous for his melodramatic narration, best showcased in the classic Dark Phoenix Saga.  dark-phoenix-1

As shown here, Claremont’s over-the-top dialogue is beautifully complemented by the art of John Byrne, which is romantic in form, overflowing with the energy of the melodramatic tone.

The campiness of the Dark Phoenix Saga hits its stride with the Hellfire Club, from Sebastian Shaw’s ginormous codpiece to the drag-queen realness of the fur and corset clad Emma Frost, the only character in existence who continued to sport white lipstick into the 21st century. And it’s delicious to see perennial good girl Jean Grey transformed into the BDSM-inspired Black Queen.

black-queen

In an age when comics, fantasy, and sci-fi are gaining increasing legitimacy and attaining high levels of artistic excellence, it is important not to scoff at our campy roots. Not only does camp speak to the decades-long connection between geek culture and queer culture (a historical link that is obscured by the mainstream stereotype that only straight white males like geeky stuff), but the camp sensibility is very closely tied to the geek sensibility. To again quote Susan Sontag, “There are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture.”

Geeks don’t need society’s permission to enjoy unique creative sensibilities — even those that exist outside of the boundary of “good taste.” We know the joys of giving into unbridled enthusiasm, no matter how silly it looks to those standing on the sidelines.  

tumblr_mhczmzW9pr1r25pnuo5_500

Friday Feature: Buzzkill

In a world where new ideas have almost entirely ceased to exist, and old ideas seem to get browbeaten into absurdity, it’s really awesome to see something fresh take hold.

This week’s feature is a Dark Horse Comics miniseries that recently concluded that I believe really shows off something fresh: Buzzkill, from Donny Cates, Mark Rezineck, and Geoff Shaw.

The core concept isn’t exactly new. The protagonist is a superhero who gains all of his powers from drugs and alcohol. Superhuman powers that come from substances are old hat, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels feature “metal burning,” where every different metal alloy gives certain people different powers when consumed. Even illicit substance abuse giving one powers has been done before, a la Drunken Master.

What’s new about Buzzkill is that the guy who is “super human” because of his substance abuse is trying to get clean. He’s quitting the chemicals and, as a result, trying to quit the superhero game.

The really remarkable and fresh thing about Buzzkill though, isn’t that the protagonist is trying to get clean, it’s that in no point during the story is his addiction the setup to or punchline for a joke. It’s not funny. The character legitimately wants to get clean. He relapses from time to time, like anybody would, but he copes with the regret, too, like anybody would.

The book isn’t completely devoid of comedy. The hero’s sponsor is like some sort of twisted combination of Dr. Strange, a motivational speaker, and the most obnoxious hippy you’ve ever met. He’s good for some yuks, but even he doesn’t mess around with the fact that the guy he’s looking after is in a self-destructive pattern and needs to get it straightened out.

Ruben’s sponsor. Weird guy…

Ultimately, at only 4 issues, Buzzkill is too short. I would have loved if they had made it a bit longer and fleshed out a bit more of the backstory, but really that’s a good problem to have. It leaves you wanting more instead of ruining it’s own concept with over-saturation.

If your local comic book shop has a good selection of backlogs, dive in and see what you missed. Otherwise, look for it in trade sometime in April.

The Isolated Geek

Like a fuzzy mammalian beast emerging from it’s winter cave, the Promethean Playground writers have had our fill of holiday meals and down time, and having hibernated successfully, we’re eager to hit the ground running with a whole new set of profound thoughts  for 2014. Happy New Year!

As we go into a new year and I look forward to all the new geeky things that are coming down the pipeline, I’m sort of amused to think about how mainstream my cultural niches are becoming. Comic book movies now run with the big dogs in the summer blockbuster lineup and video games are now so popular that nearly everybody I run into considers themselves a gamer.

This really is the era of the geek. Despite the best efforts of insulting shows like Big Bang Theory, King of the Nerds, and Heroes of Cosplay to ridicule us wholesale, it remains pretty socially acceptable to be a devoted fan of sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, and video games.

Maybe I just know the right places to look now, but when I was younger, it was incredibly rare to find someone with whom I really shared interests, and I always felt the need to keep many of my favorite things relatively secret. As a result I had few true friendships, but those I did have were deep and long lasting.

In between the times I could be with my good friends, I often felt a little isolated. (Before I move on, I should say that this doesn’t mean I had a “bad” childhood or anything. I was never bullied, really, and occasional loneliness is a reality of many lives.) I can’t be the only one that felt this way, and I think it probably resulted in a lot of really good geek art.

What jumps immediately to mind is the work of Jeff Lemire. His writing (and art, for that matter) in The Underwater WelderLost DogsSweet Tooth, and, more recently, Animal Man shows a profound understanding of isolation that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.

It’s clearest in Underwater Welder, where the protagonist relives his past while walking through a deserted parody of his home town.

It’s hard to avoid the imagery in this book. The protagonist does his job (a welder for an offshore oil rig) while trapped in waterproof armor, surrounded by silent water, connected to the rest of the world only by a thin strand.

For a person whose greatest fear really is long-term isolation, Underwater Welder is an emotional, difficult book to read. But it’s beautiful all the same. In a feeling that definitely isn’t schadenfreude, reading a book like this gives a person the relief of knowing that someone out there knows what it’s like.

So in this way, I feel like Lemire and I might be the last of a fortunately dying breed: the isolated geek. (Apologies to Mr. Lemire for making so many assumptions about his life.) I haven’t experienced that kind of isolation in years. In fact, in the room I’m sitting in now I’m surrounded on one side by group of people younger than me happily trash talking as they play a Marvel vs. Capcom fighting game, on another side by a guy perfecting a deck of trading cards, and on another by a couple with a pair of 3DS’s dueling each other in Pokemon X/Y. None of them have the trepidation I would have had when I was a teenager about doing the things they love in public. It’s wonderful.

But before we hang up our hats, turn off the lights, and enjoy our new social station, it might be worth remembering that all of geekdom isn’t as welcoming as the coffee shop I happen to be in right now.

Without getting into the exhausting details, I just hope that when we play Limbo, when we read The Underwater Welder, when we experience geek art that emphasizes the painful reality of isolation, we make every effort to make sure no other geek has to feel that isolated.

Let’s make it so every every one of our niches is as welcoming to others as this place is to us.