Monday, April 28, 2008

Welcome jRySix to the squad!

Sythbane Squadron has added an important member: my brother, jRySix. I invite all of my online friends to add him to your friends list, too, and I'm sure you'll enjoy having him aboard.

So far, he's been learning the rappel ropes of Rainbow Six Vegas 2, playing some campaign missions with me. He's also dived into Forza Motorsports 2. He was a big fan of the PS2's Gran Turismo 4, so he's an excellent virtual driver right out of the starting grid in Forza. Keep an eye out for him in your rear-view mirror!

I'm going to have to buy an Xbox 360 steering wheel controller so I can race him. I'm totally inept on driving games without a steering wheel controller, but jRySix is good at it.

He also has a peculiar talent that some of you might discover soon, when you join him for a game.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

No glory for Mandos

I just finished reading "Star Wars: Republic Commando -- True Colors" by Karen Traviss. I'm generally a fan of Traviss' writing. I admire her keen observations about the nature of clone troopers and the moral corruption of fielding a "slave army" of clones. The book is engaging and has virtues consistent with her other novels, but I found "True Colors" ultimately dissatisfying. If you intend to read the book, please note there are a few spoilers below, so you might want to skip this post until you've read the book yourself.

I forgave Traviss her tendency to skimp on battle scenes with her first foray into the Mandalorian mind in "Hard Contact," the novel that was spun off the video game "Republic Commando." Her observations were fresh, and I like how she developed Mandalorian culture. In the second Republic Commando book, "Triple Zero," I grew impatient with her for misplacing these soldiers, making them do detective work, dwelling on low-key investigations. What a waste of talent and skill! Wouldn't there be actual detectives to do detective work? Commandos should do commando work.

As much as I like Karen Traviss' writing, with "True Colors" I have to say, "Enough already." Have the Star Wars novel publishers forgotten that the Star Wars sage thrives on action? By the end of "True Colors," she has her favorite character, Kal Skirata, actually baby-sitting. All these elite commandos do is walk around and talk, walk around and talk. She has reduced the toughest, smartest, deadliest clone commandos of the Republic to introspective soap opera characters.

Besides the fact that the book is a soap opera rather than an action novel about commandos, I have problems with the soap opera plot itself: I find it completely unbelievable that Jedi Etain would give up her baby. Moreover, despite the author's consistent drumming on the theme that clone troopers should be respected as men, her own characters don't even respect Darman enough to tell him that he's a father.

It's a sad fact that fathers and mothers go off to war in Iraq and leave their children behind every day. So why do Kal, Etain and the rest patronize and disrespect Darman so horrendously to keep such an important truth from him? It's inexplicable, and the story loses authenticity on this point. It appears that they're setting up another Force user to be raised without his parents, and we've all seen how successful that is.

(Just don't even get me started on the Jedi's craven aversion to attachments, namely families -- families which could nurture balanced, mature adult Jedi who would use the Force as most of use it to the best of our ability: to protect our families. For most of us, that means our immediate families, but for some brave souls it also means the larger families of the nation and of humanity itself. But that's a whole different discussion from the one at hand ...)

I won't dwell on these difficulties in the book's plot, because they are not the real problem with "True Colors." What's missing is combat. It's a series about the two most elite commando squads in the Republic, Delta and Omega, yet we never see the teams working together in combat, which was the very essence of the video game that spawned the Republic Commando stories. We never see them doing what they were quite literally born to do, which is to fight. They are commandos, not a vice squad on a stakeout or a bunch of baby-sitters. Traviss need not have left the action out of the story in order to explore the emotional growth of the commandos, and their discovery of their place in Mandalorian culture.

After some reflection on the book, I've realized what I'm missing in reading "True Colors," besides the simple excitement of the action. It's what Traviss and her editors have forgotten, and it could have -- should have -- emerged from combat narrative.

"True Colors" has no glory moment. A glory moment is something we've all felt when watching good movies about soldiers, or reading a good book about them. It's a visceral thrill when we recognize the best and bravest in action in their defining moments. It's when we get goose bumps, shed a tear, clench our teeth or punch the air. It's when we recognize and admire the heroic self-sacrifice of protecting the weak or defending a comrade, the ferocious clash of combat itself and the deadly grace of the warrior.

"True Colors" needs an infusion of testosterone, the merest drop of Chuck Norris' sweat. Navy SEALs inspired the Republic Commando game, yet we never see the Republic commandos, nor the dangerous Null ARCs, do the kind of things that SEALs are famous for doing. Give me character development, certainly, but also give me some pages like a "Demo-Dick" Marcinko book.

Ordo, Mereel, Boss, Sev and the rest are out of their element. It's pathetic at times, like it was to watch CC DeVille on on VH1's "The Surreal Life." Walking around in that house, CC was sadly awkward, a fish out of water. But when you see him shredding his guitar onstage with Poison, the guy is swimming in his own sea and he rocks!

A song styled to be a Mandalorian hymn, "Vode An" (Brothers All) plays in the game menus in Republic Commando. That song captures the characters. The Mandalorians are like Spartans, and they would be moved by battlefield heroism, and maybe they would even admire a "good death" like the men in "300."

I started brainstorming scenes like I'm talking about -- the kind that is missing from "True Colors" -- and I started ticking off a list. These scenes are in movies and we're talking about a book, I know, but you still get this kind of moment in books. I figured most of you would remember these scenes, so they would illustrate my point. So, to suggest the kind of scene that the Republic Commando series needs, the kind of visceral response it should evoke at least once per book, I offer this list of glory moments:

- The entire film "Gladiator," especially two scenes: The prelude and battle with the barbarians, when we see Maximus charging from the forest behind the dogs of war; and then in the Arena when Maximus barks orders and points directions with his gladius from the back of a raring white horse. Those scenes, with the soundtrack, are magnificent.

- The scene in "Glory" when Private Trip (Denzel Washington) says, "... we men, ain't we?" Poignant and stirring.

- "Band of Brothers," the entire series, and especially the scenes with the Currahee suite music as they train, and the scene of the C-47s droning toward Normandy for D-Day, and then the battle for the gun emplacement when Buck Compton throws the grenade like a baseball. And also in the Battle of the Bulge when Capt. Speirs runs through the German lines and saves the day. I get goose bumps just thinking about that scene.

- The sniper, Private Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper) reciting Bible verses as he fires his Springfield in "Saving Private Ryan."

- Conan, his body streaked with black ash for camouflage, flourishing his sword as he squares off with Thulsa Doom's henchman.

- In "The Last of the Mohicans" when Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) runs through a battlefield to try to reach his woman to save her, hooking his tomahawk under the ankle of a Huron and charging through the chaos.

- "300," King Leonidas in battle, carving up Immortals with his sword and then raring back to hurl a javelin like an image from a classical Greek urn. And come to think of it, notice how the Spartan's helmet visor is shaped. Looks like a certain Mandalorian helmet, doesn't it? It also matches the Republic Commando armor.

- The charge of the Light Brigade.

- "Serenity," when River says, "My turn," and proceeds to cut the reavers to ribbons to defend her fallen brother and comrades. She's like a goddess of war incarnate.

- The armored samurai emerging from the misty forest in "The Last Samurai."

- The premiere of "Battlestar Galactica," when Starbuck bellows with impatient rage and charges alone into the teeth of the attacking Cylons to defend her tribe, with a drumbeat accenting the primordial emotion.

- "Platoon," Sgt. Elias running through forest like a deer, slaying enemies right and left as he fires his M-16 from the hip.

- Boromir's last stand defending the hobbits in "The Fellowship of the Ring." This scene of Boromir's redemption, his utter ferocity in defending his childlike companions, never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

- Eomer's cavalry plunging down the mountain in a flashing cascade of steel to smash the orcs besieging Helm's Deep in "The Two Towers."

- The host of Rohan lined abreast to charge into the Pelennor Fields at the siege of Minas Tirith, and King Theoden's ride along the line, tapping the swords and lances of his men with his own sword. "The Return of the King."

- "The Outlaw Josey Wales" gunfighting, and when he parlays with the Indian chief who says, "There is iron in your words."

I'm still a fan of Karen Traviss. I'll buy her next book and read it, because I'm really curious how her characters will respond to Order 66. But for now, I'm going to read some Robert E. Howard and eat some beef jerky.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Out on a limb about nudity in games?

After my essay "A game of double standards" ran on the commentary section front of last Sunday's newspaper, I expected some controversy. I was going to really get flamed in the letters to the editor, I figured. But what happened?


The only reaction I got was a smattering of compliments this week. My wife liked the essay. She was the one who encouraged me to submit my blog post "Severed heads, naked breasts and video games" to the newspaper in the first place. She said the staff at the restaurant where she works generally agreed with it. My mother-in-law said she liked it and agreed, and my dad liked it, too.

Thinking that the newspaper's video-game-oriented readers might have missed the essay (which ran with no pictures) in the commentary section of the web site, I reposted it on Techcetera, the newspaper's video gaming blog, with some photos, hoping to tap some more readers and maybe stir up some reactions. Still nothing.

Later in the week, MTV Multiplayer game journalist Patrick Klepek, who has been diligently tracking the issue of censorship in video games, posted an update on an ESRB edict about the ratings of downloadable content. Mandatory game downloads such as patches must keep the same rating as the original game, he reported, but optional downloadable content could carry a different rating than the core game. I couldn't resist the urge to respond, posting this comment:

"Does that mean that “Adults Only”-rated optional, downloadable content might become available on Xbox Live? Microsoft bans AO-rated games, but since the core game’s rating remains the same, the ban would still be upheld. After all, R-rated movies (and unrated director’s cuts) are already available on the Xbox Live Marketplace. And what’s to stop game makers from likewise offering “unrated” optional, downloadable content?"

Then, as you can see, a guy responded to my comment, basically dismissing my notion as pie in the sky. That torqued me up for another soapbox speech, hoping that MTV Multiplayer would reach a wider audience than my humble Sythbane Squadron blog, or even the newspaper's gaming blog. I posted my second comment:

“Dr. Proctor” might be correct in predicting how this ESRB edict will be applied. However, as an adult consumer of video games, I’m angry at being patronized by the ESRB, by Microsoft and by game makers.

The status quo will remain until sensible consumers stand up to say the emperor has no clothes: Microsoft’s AO-game ban is hypocritical in light of the R-rated and unrated movie content available for download on the Xbox Live Marketplace. The video game industry must assert itself and offer grown-up “R-rated” content if it ever wants to be taken seriously as a grown-up entertainment medium and not merely a kiddie venue. We game consumers would support more choices with our wallets, if ever given the chance. And as a parent, I don’t need the ESRB to tell me what I can and can’t allow my kid to see or play. Just describe the content, and I’ll
make that decision myself, thank you.

The key to understanding media coverage is the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Media coverage of adult content in video games has developed the way it has because sensible people too often have allowed themselves to be shouted down in public discourse. In the Mass Effect controversy, voices of truth and common sense rose up against the outright lies that were being tossed around by hysterical people, and the media coverage (led by the gaming press) dutifully shifted to hear those voices. It is possible for common sense to prevail, but the industry continues to pander the hysterical people who know nothing about games, on the assumption that they are more politically powerful. I believe the truth is that the hysterical people are simply louder, not more powerful.

Why are there are no checks on the ESRB’s apparent iron-fisted authority in controlling our entertainment choices? And why is there still no video game content rating analogous to an R? The ESRB is not a government agency with police powers, yet no one challenges its decisions. I understand the subtle role it plays in allowing the industry to regulate itself, by deflecting calls for government regulation of games, but it oversteps its role when it keeps the entire industry from growing up. Surely some way can be devised to allow adult video game consumers more choices, while maintaining suitable content labels and warnings for parents. This new ESRB stance on downloadable content could allow a way for that to happen.

This comment has yet to generate any more comments, and likely won't since the original post has descended on the blog.

All of which leaves me to wonder: What's going on here? If what I'm saying is met with widespread agreement, why are things the way they are? Why is violence accepted and nudity rejected in video games? How can the natural and beautiful image of a woman's breast -- that which nourishes us in our infancy and provides inspiration for much of the greatest art in the world -- is banned as pornographic, while the revolting sight of a butchered human being, a severed head, is socially acceptable for even children to see?

My dad suggested, "Maybe they just haven't thought it through."

So despite my efforts to help people think it through, the lack of response suggests that maybe it's just that nobody cares. Gamers must be perfectly happy with the ESRB's puritanical tyranny over game content, and the elephant-in-the-room hypocrisy of retailers, console makers and game makers about AO games.

Is everyone really content with the authenticity and realism of the Playtex-style bras and panties on the women of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion?

Was no one else frustrated by the black screen that popped up when you finally managed to bed your mate in Fable, instead of a real love scene?

Nobody else was disappointed by the absurdly tame love scene in Mass Effect, after all the hype about its inclusion in the so-called "mature" game? What you see at left is the extent of the nudity in the scene -- a side view of Liara's bare blue hip, revealing not much more than a bikini at the beach would reveal. The scene caused much ado about nothing.

Nobody else finds it outrageous that this censorship is practiced with such draconian zeal in the video game industry, yet you can download R-rated and unrated torture-porn flicks such as "Saw IV" on the very same Xbox that bans you from seeing a harmless breast or butt in a game? (The perverse illogic of this must be what drives me nearly to obsession on this issue, I think.)

Does anyone but me look forward to the day when a role-playing game is really realistic? When you can strip your character down to the flesh in the equipping screen, just as you do with the real-life "equipping screen" of the bathroom mirror? Wouldn't it be fun to tattoo your whole body like a Celtic berserker and go into battle naked in a game like Fable or Oblivion? Maybe your ancestor did that for real 1,000 years ago. Where else could you do something like that without getting arrested, except in a video game?

Does anybody else hope we'll someday see an honest-to-goodness love scene like you'd see on HBO or "Skinamax" when a love scene occurs in a video game? Not crass pornography, just something like the love scene between King Leonida and Queen Gorgo in "300."

Doesn't anybody else hope for the day when a fantasy video game will really look like a sexy, beautiful painting by Frank Frazetta, or a description in Robert E. Howard's "Conan" novels? At right is a thumbnail of "The Moon's Rapture" by Frazetta. I'd love to have a framed print of this painting. But art like this is considered way too "dirty" for video games, even the ones that only adults are allowed to buy.

Maybe other gamers really are content with the way things are. Perhaps nobody else yearns for video games that respect us as adults.

It sure is lonely out on this limb.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Naked breasts vs. severed heads, Round 2

A previous post I wrote on Sythbane Squadron called "Naked Breasts, Severed Heads and Video Games" reached a wider audience today. A shortened version of it called "A Game of Double Standards" appeared in the newspaper, in the Sunday Commentary section of today's Birmingham News and on

The essay was shortened for space and toned down a little, but the theme is intact. It is expresses my dismay at how retailers have no problem with selling movies laden with brutal violence and torture, and despite their shrill condemnation of video games that depict nudity as indecent, nobody cares that they show a grotesque decapitated head on a DVD cover at kid's-eye level on the shelf. Even though such horrific violence in movies is routine, nudity and sensuality in video games are almost completely banned, even for games that are sold only to adults.

The condescending censorship applied to video games outrages me as an adult consumer. Why are video games with content analogous to R-rated movies banned? Nobody should be able to tell me that I can't buy a video game that includes some grown-up content. I can readily purchase an R-rated movie, but content that would give a movie an "R" would earn the "Adults Only" rating for a game -- which means it would be banned from the major game consoles, and it would be banned by major retailers.

More than the censorship issue, it appalls me that our society deems a naked human body more obscene than a butchered one.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Game Hard

"Walk Hard" is a movie that speaks to me, mumbling like Elvis, leaving me confused and laughing until my stomach hurts.

To see what I'm talking about, read a few lines from Dewey Cox's song "Royal Jelly," and I know it will touch you the way it touched me:

Mailboxes drip like lampposts in the twisted birth canal of the coliseum
Rim job fairy teapots mask the temper tantrum
O' say can you see 'em
Stuffed cabbage is the darling of the Laundromat
'N the sorority mascot sat with the lumberjack
Pressing passing stinging half synthetic fabrication of his-- Time
The mouse with the overbite explained how the rabbits were ensnared
'N the skinny scanty sylph trashed the apothecary diplomat
Inside the three-eyed monkey within inches of his toaster oven life
-- Dewey Cox, "Royal Jelly"

Three-eyed monkey indeed, Dewey. Three-eyed monkey, indeed!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Darth Talon art worth framing

The new "Legacy of the Force" Star Wars Miniatures series is out now. I have only three boxes so far, and the characters are cool, especially the red-armored Imperial Knights.

The box art is incredible. The painting of Darth Talon that graces one box is worth framing as an art print. Now I'm going to be looking for a print! In the meantime, I'm going to use some of these box covers as backgrounds for shadow boxes to display my collection. The other two boxes feature Boba Fett and Luke Skywalker.

I buy all my Miniatures from Double Header Sports Cards in Gardendale, Alabama. It's a mom-and-pop shop, and my friend Greg keeps all the latest Star Wars stuff well stocked. Go buy some Star Wars stuff from them and tell them Sythbane sent you!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Jackasses hurt gaming's bottom line

My theory that being a jackass in online gaming is a bad thing is bolstered today by a new article on Gamasutra by a game developer. Bill Fulton, who worked on Shadowrun, asserts in his essay, "Fixing Online Gaming Idiocy: A Psychological Approach," that online jerks are hurting the game industry by driving new customers away.

Research shows, he says, that new players would rather not play at all than subject themselves to all the verbal abuse. Fulton advocates engineering game features to create a social environment that discourages jerkism.

Not long ago I wrote about "Gamers at their worst," where I vented my outrage at the rampant use of the "N-word" in online games. It's encouraging to see that game companies have a financial incentive to build games in such a way to discourage awful behavior.

The bottom line is the only reason companies ever do anything. If they can make more money by creating a social environment online where it's uncool to spew racist, homophobic and generally crass babble, then more power to them.

I am frustrated, though, that withdrawing from a game early is classified as jerkish behavior. Many games penalize you for leaving early, and Xbox Live gamers can "avoid" you for it. I've been subjected to people leaving the game for no apparent reason, which can be annoying, but there are MANY legitimate reasons for leaving a game. The phone rings and it's an important call. The dog has to go out. Your wife needs help with the groceries. Or, you might want to check out of a game because the room is full of jerks spouting the N-word. You leave, because you're sick of hearing it, and then some jerk labels you a quitter.

What's the answer to that dilemma? Looks like some social engineering is in order, Mr. Fulton.