Archive for October, 2009

Review: District B13 and Delivering on Promise

District B13 is not a movie I expected to be good. Not by a longshot. What I expected was a B-grade film encapsulated in ridiculous martial arts and parkour action. This is not what I got.

Parkour, also know as free running, is a recent vogue pseudo-sport. Essentially it involves moving rapidly through urban landscapes and performing acrobatics to get from one place to another without stopping. It’s stunt-running, basically. Or, better still, it’s what you know Jackie Chan to have been doing for decades now. A clip from the film itself gives you a good idea here. This is another compilation of parkour stunts. Silly? Maybe. But you can see how it could make for some pretty slick film stunts.

District B13 (Banlieue 13 in the original French) is a film written by Luc Besson of The Fifth Element and The Transporter fame. Say what you will of the sequels (and you you should say they are awful), the original Transporter kicks a fairly major amount of ass and was the first film that sold Jason Statham as a hardcore action guy in my mind. Accordingly, I was hopeful that District B13 would have a similar sort of action-packed flavor.

Not so.

For a film whose only selling point was the parkour-action bent, District B13 is remarkably anemic on action. It’s about 80 minutes long, and there’s maybe 15 or 20 minutes of action in the whole affair. That might seem like a solid percentage (almost 25%), but it’s not as if the space in between the action sequences is pulse-pounding. The action sequences stand alone, and if excised the film would still track start to finish as a complete story. What you end up getting is action and then a hard drop-off in adrenaline into a lot of talking heads and preachy, yet non-specific dialog about how government treats its people from time to time. Instead of steadily rising tension, the film is filled with peaks and troughs and the net effect is that it barely feels like an action film by the time it ends. You get the impression that’s exactly what Besson wants, and the action is really the vehicle to deliver his message into the hearts and minds of the viewers, but the film is entirely B-Movie fodder outside of the action. Watching the American dub doesn’t help, but I know schlocky dialog and delivery in any language.

District B13 didn’t really need to do much to win me over. It just needed to deliver on its promise. I didn’t want or expect it to be good, I expected to see a dude run on walls and jump between buildings and kick people in the head. I just didn’t get much of that, and so I felt cheated.

Now, Onk Bak, that’s a movie that delivers. It’s probably a C-grade film in all regards except for the action, which is just astounding. Tony Jaa is superhuman and his stunts are amazing and his martial arts are brutally impressive. It’s a movie to gather your friends and cheer around because it’s just non-stop. Fight scene to chase scene to fight scene—anything in between is simply prelude to another action sequence. It’s a film that knows what it is.

So, when you’re writing something, realize what it is, and deliver on that. If you’re writing a comedy, it better be funny. There should be regular, constant jokes. If you want a sports story, well… there should be a lot of action on the field. This might sound like the most obvious advice in the world, but many writers lose their way in the process. Inspiration may change the direction partway through the project, but if the entire thing isn’t course-corrected, you’ll end up with a disjointed and unsatisfying affair.

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Flash Games and Life Goals

I’ve learned quite a bit in my short time working in Flash gaming. And I use that phrase in the loosest of senses. I’m at the absolute fringe of the industry, but even from this vantage point there are some axioms I’ve picked up regarding how people work. Of course, this information may be skewed by the preponderance of 12-year-olds zerg rushing the internet, but I think its fairly useful and fairly telling regardless.

People on the internet don’t really want quality, at least not in the realm of flash games. They want kudos. I’ve seen more than a few pretty decent to very good games get buried and ignored simply because they don’t offer gamers what they want, which is very different from what many developers think they should be providing. A quality game experience very frequently isn’t as welcomed as one that is familiar. And a lengthy experience will almost certainly be glossed over.

Internet gamers want titles that they can pick up and play immediately. They want fast input and fast output. They also want a steady trail of breadcrumbs to entice them to play. Take what I will call the “kitty cannon” style of games. This is a game where you basically launch an object, using a cannon or slingshot or something similar, and attempt to reach maximum height or distance. Kitty cannon games are almost always huge hits on flash portals. Toss the Turtle recently had 1,152,388 plays on Kongregate.com. It has 1,820,189 on Newgrounds.com. On both sites the game has won player ranking awards. It is not, per se, a good game. It is a very mediocre game that simply applies a new graphical skin to a kitty cannon game concept. There is absolutely nothing original about the game and it even has some faulty controls (the game says you can steer in mid-air — I was never ever to figure out how).

So why is this game such a smash? Nearly 4 million plays on only 2 websites. The breadcrumb trail of positive reinforcement is the trick. The game has 40 different trophies you can earn, and this is separate from any point incentive the site hosting it might give you to increase your ranking as a member on their site (both Newgrounds and Kongregate use this concept—voting on games and reaching certain gameplay milestones will earn you points which gives you higher levels on the site—what does it earn you, functionally? Absolutely nothing).

The awards in Toss the Turtle are essentially entirely passive. With the exception of a couple, there’s virtually nothing you can do on purpose in the framework of the game to earn them. The idea is just to keep you playing the title, and to keep you coming back to it after you’ve stopped the first time. (This is the real value of any Flash game, by the way. No one cares how long you play it once, they care how often you play it again) When you hit a certain number of obstacles, you get a trophy. When you play the game a certain amount of time you win a trophy. If you hit the dancing banana you win a trophy. Since placement of these objects is random and you have no control over the character that can be meaningful (the game blurs nearly everything you could see except background to simulate speed) you’re not really earning these trophies. They’re just sort of appearing for you. And you love it. You love it more than 4 million times.

I could spend a good deal of time griping about how this is going to lead to a collapse and, if we’re lucky, eventual Renaissance in flash gaming, but for now back to my point: this tells me something about people. And, since I’m people (and I earned 37 of the 40 trophies in the game, dammit), it means I’ve learned something about me.

I like to be rewarded. I like presents. I like it when they show up and I don’t expect it. This is why I enjoy getting mail so much. “Oooh. What is it? What is it?” This is also why, on the other hand, I still find myself dangerously addicted to checking things for updates (e-mail, forums, applications, etc.). However, life doesn’t really have fun waypoints with treasure set up for anyone. And that’s why I believe it’s important to provide them for yourself.

It’s a point I’ve made briefly before, but I’m going to spend a bit more time on it here. Most goals in life are not simple to achieve. Otherwise they would just be “stuff to do” and not “goals to accomplish”. I recommend, to avoid lowering the dropout rate, that you either set up points along your journey that you’ll be rewarding yourself (a new comic book, a movie rental, a milkshake, whatever) or you recruit someone else to help shower you with praise and goodies for fighting the good fight.

We see things as a game. It’s not just because it has a cool name that game theory is a growing field. We like to balance pluses and minuses and figure out what our maximum gain and enjoyment will be. And, surprise surprise, many game theory experiments show that people will get themselves into a very bad situation early on by trying to maximize short-term gain irrelevant to long-term dangers. For many hard projects, the short-term gain is just to quit. So hide some Easter Eggs around to discover. Come back for a few more plays, that’s where the real value is.

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Friday Fiction: The Worst Thing, plus previews!

The first thing for today is just a little funky exercise. I was trying to think of something to write and having a tough time. And so… this came out as a sort of “just keep writing until you have something”.


This has got to be the worst thing I’ve ever written. No joke. I’m not a fan of a lot of the crap I churn out, but this takes the cake. The crap cake.

What the hell was I thinking?

It’s like a million monkeys with typewriters, but they all have goatees and stupid little ponytails and they want you to read this screenplay that they wrote about redemption. Is there anything worse than pretentious monkeys?

This. This is worse than one million pretentious monkeys. How do you even tell if a monkey has a goatee? It’s not like they’re normally running to the store to see just how many blades you can fit onto a single Schick. Nice imagery there, ace.

What inspired this? I don’t even have the crutch of drugs or alcohol to fall back on with this one. Wouldn’t it be nice if when people read this I could laugh and wink knowingly and say to them, “Crystal meth, you know how it is.” And then they would laugh and pat me on the back and nod because they do know what it’s like. Who doesn’t succumb to a good meth-bender from time to time?

It’s even breaking the fourth wall. There’s not even a wall to break; it’s a theater term. That’s how awful this is. Who am I talking to? The guy next to me at the coffee shop playing World of Warcraft on his laptop? He’s not listening. He has a headset on and keeps bitching that someone needs to “just pick a target, dammit”. He’s busy.

What, are people going to clap me on the back and tell me how very clever it is of me to write something about how I’m writing something and about how that something is so very bad which both manages to absolve its inherent shittiness and make me charming and witty and attractive to all peoples. Through the magic of metaphysical prose I will find success. Oh god. It’s not getting any better the longer it goes.

Do I keep writing and hope that somehow I can meander my way out of this deathtrap? Literary quicksand. You keep wriggling about hoping that you’ll be able to reach that vine over there, the one being dangled by the orangutan, but all you’re doing is increasing the vacuum sucking you closer to inexorable, gritty doom. And that orangutan’s not helping. He is a dick. He’s probably got a goatee and a ponytail.

It’s all pretty fruitless, I mean, it says right at the top that this is the worst thing I’ve ever written. How do you escape from that? It’s right there on the page; you can’t change that.

Well, you can’t change it. You’re either reading it on a webpage or printed out. You can close the window or cross it out with pen (why did you print this? Don’t you know how expensive printer ink is?), but it’s there, man. Sure, I could change it to say “This is the best thing I’ve ever written”, but, come on, let’s be honest with ourselves.


These next two items are a couple of previews for other items I’m working on and hope to have posted up in the coming weeks.



The Changeling

I have never known my true face.

There are no portraits or photographs made by a doting mother and father and hung above a mantelpiece, lit by the warm caress of lamplight and the glow of parental affection. The man and woman I could most accurately call parents have long been quit of me. They raised me as long as they felt was necessary; they couldn’t bear to be associated with “my kind”. I laughed when they started to use that phrase. They knew what I was as well as I did, which is to say that they had only the faintest inklings. It was about all we had in common.


Saga of the Techno-Viking

The world was forged of the defeated corpse of Ymir. It is tribute to the power and foresight of Odin, who would indeed spend his eons contemplating his fate in Ragnarök, that the defeat of a great foe could become the means through which our world would be born. The blood of Ymir became the rivers and seas, his bones the mountains and his skin the earth itself. The heart of Ymir was set aside for a special purpose.


Many of you may already know the glory that is the Techno-Viking. If you do not, you may educate yourself here. He dispenses his justice about 40 seconds in.

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