Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

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Well – fuck me running sideways. They did it.

I’m sitting here in front of my laptop absorbing the knowledge that I live in a world where a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner exists, and that that sequel is not only a worthy successor but a terrific film in its’ own right.

Blade Runner is an important film to me. I know a lot of people regard it highly, but – well fuck it. If you want to see what a crazy, unabashed Blade Runner fan I am go read this forum thread from a few years ago in which I debated whether or not Deckard is a replicant (I’m Musashi in that thread, by the way…). It goes on for a bit, but I think you’ll get where I’m coming from.

You back? Okay – I know you didn’t read that whole thing, but whatever. If you read any of it you’ll see I’ve spent a lot of time watching and thinking about Blade Runner. When a sequel was announced a couple of years ago I was immediately suspicious. How in the hell could any film do the original justice? The only glimmer of hope I had was that Scott himself wasn’t directing but instead had handed the reins over to Arrival director Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve’s visual style, as evidenced in the aforementioned first-contact story and his drug-war epic Sicario, is every bit as nuanced and remarkable as Scott’s early forays…or perhaps Andrei Tarkovsky. Scott’s latest work hasn’t done much for me, so the original director stepping aside to make way for a talented newcomer sparked a little interest in me.

Yesterday I sat down in aisle O seat 8 at the Cinerama theater in downtown Seattle to enter the world of Blade Runner again for the first time in 35 years, and I’m here to tell you – Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely the followup we deserve.

There were a million ways this thing could have gone wrong. My biggest fear was that the studio would demand a slam-bang brainless action film that betrayed the original’s cerebral leanings. To say Villeneuve has delivered the polar opposite of that is an understatement. Blade Runner 2049 is smart, brave science fiction – the kind we rarely see these days from major studios. It demands patience. It aims high and doesn’t shy away from asking big questions, some of which it doesn’t answer. It doesn’t feel like pointless fan service, which – given the love nerds have for the original, would have made the studio a ton of money at the expense of churning out a hollow shell of a film.

Somehow, Blade Runner 2049 manages to avoid those pitfalls and deliver an art film on a Hollywood budget, one with all the smarts and heart it needs to live up to its storied predecessor. Villeneuve’s film will probably lose points with some audience members – I’ve already seen some dismiss it as overly long, or tedious. Some have said the plot is murky. I say these are virtues. Villeneuve has delivered a methodical and meditative film about very thought-provoking subjects, a film that demands patience and deep consideration. There’s little action in Blade Runner 2049 – if I have any complaints it is that the action scenes that do exist feel perfunctory, designed to satiate the desires of those who come to sci-fi looking for pulpy action and eye candy. Frankly I could have done without most of them, preferring the long, languid shots and lengthy, meditative sequences. Some have complained at the film’s running time, but at two-hours and forty-three minutes I think it’s doggedly persistent in its desire to slow us down, and force us into a state of contemplation. (By comparison, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was thirty minutes shorter and I was checking my phone for the time about 30 minutes before the end, after having my senses pummeled for two hours straight).

At this point you’re probably wondering about the details. I’m incredibly hesitant to give anything away – it really is best seen with as little foreknowledge as possible. Regarding the performances – I liked Ryan Gosling. I liked him a lot, actually. Before La La Land I had primarily been familiar with him through roles in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives, and he brings some of that quiet energy to ‘K’, the film’s Blade Runner protagonist. He’s impressive, projecting emotion in measured doses until he needs to burst. Robin Wright as his superior officer (referred to as ‘Madame’) is likewise solid, even though she’s given little to do but play the role of ‘constantly exasperated police chief’. Harrison Ford returns as an older and, if it’s even possible, more world-weary Deckard. It was great seeing him in character once again, even though he’s not given much to say or do – but he delivers where it counts. Ditto Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, the corporate menace who is successor to Tyrell’s Replicant tinkering. I have to admit that his strangely disaffected and glacial delivery worked for me. The big standout in the cast is Sylvia Hoeks as Wallace’s assistant, Luv. Without going into details she is a frightening presence, indeed.

Of course, the visuals and music are going to be under a great deal of scrutiny as the original is widely considered a classic on these two points alone. Jordan Cronenweth’s deft handling of future Los Angeles in the first film has defined urban sci-fi dystopias for the better part of three decades at this point and to say he leaves big shoes to fill is an understatement. Roger Deakins, of course, is no slouch himself, having worked on a number of Coen Brothers classics including Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou as well as Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Michael Radford’s 1984. Blade Runner 2049 is Deacon’s second outing with Villeneuve (the first being the aforementioned Sicario) and by god, he’s nailed it. Somehow he manages to bring us back into the world established by the original while simultaneously building on top of it. It’s a remarkable achievement. Adding to Blade Runner‘s dark, rainy urban sprawl we now have post-apocalyptic dust bowls and garbage-strewn vistas. Even the familiar cityscape of Blade Runner is dragged 30 years into the future, with a flyover of the city showing city streets crammed into canyon-like scars and the husk of the familiar Tyrell building. It’s every inch the world we know from Blade Runner, but with the edges pushed back a bit so we can see a little more.

Musically, Hans Zimmer’s score is haunting and beautiful, although not quite as groundbreaking as Vangelis’ work was in the original. Still, we get callbacks to themes from the first film that feel appropriate. I enjoyed it, even if it won’t be remembered as fondly as Vangelis’ synth-work in years to come.

It’s clear that no detail in this film wasn’t thought through carefully and with consideration for what it means in context with the original. Screenwriter Hampton Fancher was brought back to pen the new story and he has achieved a work that honors the original film, adds context to it, and then delivers something new. There’s a subplot involving a love affair with an AI (think Spike Jonze’s Her dialed up a few notches) that I found to be both thought-provoking and touching, and the plot thread that links both films is compelling in what it says about the events of the first film, as well as the questions it raises about K.

I applaud his ability to achieve all three of these goals; I had long ago written off Blade Runner 2049 as a failure waiting to happen and to see it work, much less work well, is a testament to his skill and love for Blade Runner.

In fact, that’s something I could probably say for everyone involved. It’s clear that all parties, from Ridley Scott and Villeneuve on down, care deeply about Blade Runner and wanted to give the world a proper sequel that would do it justice. Despite long odds, I’d say they succeeded.

(Oh, and Deckard is totally a fucking Replicant and if you disagree you’re 100% wrong.)

 

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Blade Runner ReCOILed

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You may recall, a while back some dude created a version of Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ using autoencoding software – essentially asking an artificial intelligence to recreate the film based on fragmentary memories, filling in the blanks as best it could. The process is detailed here:

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/blade-runner-autoencoded-barbican-terence-broad-artificial-intelligence-ai-neural-net-a7763801.html

Long story short – after finding a copy of the re-encoded film I went in and added a soundtrack by experimental music group Coil. You can download the film here:

Blade Runner ReCOILed Link

It’s not a perfect piece of art – the music wasn’t intentionally sync’ed in any way with the visuals…I just tried to layer in appropriate music cues and fill the space up. But it does often result in some pretty cool audiovisual overlap. The end result is a strange, dreamlike experience.

…aaaaaand now I’m wondering what this would feel like if one watched it under the influence of some mind-altering substances. I might get back to you on that one.

Do Your Homework

A couple of weeks back there was some chatter going on around the intarwebs regarding an RPG adventure released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess that took home a well-known industry award. That adventure, Blood in the Chocolate, garnered its author – Dungeons and Donuts blogger Kiel Chenier – a Gold Ennie for Best Adventure.

My immediate response was ‘Oh god, here we go again…’ followed by some disappointment and even a little bit of anger. I had planned to write a response to the kerfluffle (such as it was) in the midst of the noise but I held off…partly because I was so damn busy but also because I didn’t want to dash something off in the midst of a pissy moment. So – I set it aside.

Then I watched this:

Bishop’s talk catalyzed the thoughts I’ve had in my head since that eruption of discontent a couple weeks back. At the time, I went after Kiel’s critics generally – and specifically landed on picking a fight with those who drop the term Edgelord into debates over content as a dismissive stroke. I’ll re-iterate: I fucking hate the term ‘Edgelord’. My chief reason is that it serves the very same purpose calling someone an SJW pejoratively does – namely to categorize someone so that their opinions or thoughts can be brushed aside without consideration.

I think there’s a huge problem with this. I think we can all agree that internet discourse is often pretty ‘bottom of the barrel’ stuff. I’m fairly certain the amount of times any such discussions have actually come to a mutually satisfactory conclusion or resulted in positive social change is vanishingly small, if not entirely non-existent. (Okay, you twat in the back row – I can already hear you heckling me with ‘Well why are you writing this, then?’ Call me an optimist, I guess.) In any event – despite the already terrible quality of online chatter…why do people insist on shitting it up with decidedly witless title-slinging? I suspect for some it’s a means of self-elevation. Defining oneself by what one is not is pretty low-hanging fruit from a polemic standpoint. It’s just another means of turning someone you don’t like into a distasteful ‘other’ which can then be dismissed out of hand. Real clever work, there. Honestly – whenever I see someone using ‘Edgelord’ or ‘SJW’ to demean someone I immediately start to question everything else they say – mainly because, by some weird form of mental jiu-jitsu, in seeking to define someone else they’ve mostly succeeded in defining themselves. Funny how that works.

Anyway, to the larger point at hand.

Context.

It’s all context, isn’t it? Some time ago I wrote a thing about Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom – easily one of the more unpleasant film experiences one is likely to find. Clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours, Salo is essentially wall-to-wall footage of children being sexually abused and murdered. (Lest you think Pasolini’s film is not nearly dark enough, try reading the book sometime…trust me…Pasolini lets you off light.) Naturally, the film has been dismissed by many since it’s 1975 release as sadistic trash, unworthy of serious consideration as art. Of course – the opposite is true. And the reason for this is context.

Pasolini’s film, as abhorrent as the content is, is a commentary on fascism – and more specifically at the fascist creeps who served in Italy’s government at the time. And no – these weren’t garden-variety right-wingers who stylized themselves as fascists – these were actual fascists who served in the Mussolini regime during World War II and who had managed to hang onto power  for the next three decades. Pasolini’s film was a grand ‘fuck you’ to the monsters who were untouchable by any other means.

While I won’t claim that the gaming industry has yet produced a work under a similar creative atmosphere, I think the overall takeaway here is that all art is created under some kind of context, and that if we dismiss things out of hand because we find them repulsive or offensive we often miss the finer points.

I want to make myself clear at this point. I am not in any way saying that people shouldn’t criticize things. God knows, I’ve gone on record many times voicing my attitude that we don’t criticize things enough. But I think the means by which we discuss creative works is stunted and counterproductive.

Allow me to circle back to that ‘Edgelord’ thing for a moment. ‘Edgelord’ is often used to dismiss people who produce or promote work for the sake of being dark or edgy. I won’t say that there is no single person who does so, but I think such people are few and far between. The fact is – yes, there are people who by their nature produce work that is ‘let’s set it out on the coffee table for grandma to look at when she comes over for tea’. But most of those people do so for a reason, even if that reason is self-satisfaction.

I tend to be such a person. For years I never really gave much thought to why my mind drifted towards the consumption and production of work that many might find objectionable. Two years ago I had a nervous breakdown, however, and in the midst of this state I began to examine my own thoughts a bit more closely. As I did so I came across a book, a slim academic work entitled ‘The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness‘. In this work, author Stanton Marlan has quite a bit to say about the dark side of creativity and why people choose to examine it.

In short, many people use art to deal with inner trauma or pain. Indeed, some of this art is uplifting and joyous, but others see it more as an exorcism – a means of sorting out one’s inner inventory of bad shit. Sometimes people don’t really understand that this is why they do it. Certainly for me that was the case for many years. Clearly this is but one reason of many possible reasons for the creation of so called ‘edgy’ works (clearly Pasolini had other things in mind) but I know for myself this is definitely part of my desire to wallow in dark, violent imagery.

While I was recovering from my breakdown I embarked on a series of interviews about depression with other game designers and found that many (not all, but many) of them shared my same thoughts and ideas about depression and darkness and its’ relation to art. The fact is – not everyone who produces this kind of work is dealing with trauma or depression, but some do…and that’s enough for me to ask some simple questions when faced with this stuff. Why does it exist? What is the writer or artist’s intent? What are they trying to say?

I’m well aware that many people find certain themes and content personally disturbing – often because they have trauma or issues of their own that are exacerbated by engaging with this kind of work. On the other hand there are people like myself who are soothed by it in some weird fashion. Everyone deals with this stuff in a different manner and I think that’s great – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

199571You know, Kiel was one of the people I interviewed for my blog. I got to know him not as some faceless person on the internet or a name on a byline in some game product – but as a person. He was very gracious and candid and I like to think that our chat gave me some insight into why he wrote Blood and Chocolate…why some of that content is in there and what it means to him. When I see people taking him to task over it, and making judgements of character based on that work…it frustrates me. Because I see people dismissing something out of hand without taking the time and effort to understand why it exists. Instead, Kiel is dismissed as an ‘Edgelord’ for no good reason.

I’ve never met Kiel in person, but I like to think I have a good sense of who he is. I don’t think anything in this adventure was written out of spite or because Kiel is some kind of closet miscreant. And if this is true of Kiel, I imagine it’s true of most of the people whose work I see.

Do the work, people. Don’t read some bullshit post on SomethingAwful and run with it. If you feel compelled to say something about the work online, do the author a favor and read it. And if you feel something bothers you about it – do the decent thing and just ask them. Engage with them instead of spreading some bullshit about them on someone else’s say-so. If you still feel it’s something you don’t like, then by all means – have at it. Speak your mind. But at least you’ll have done the legwork instead of becoming someone else’s mouthpiece.

 

 

 

 

Some Thoughts about Broodmother

broodI’ll never forget the day I started working on Broodmother SkyFortress. Not because the day was remarkable in any fashion. It was a Sunday. I was sitting at home with the wife (now ex-wife) and kids. I had just introduced my brood to Pee-Wee Herman and we were watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I remember sitting there plowing through all those tables, fighting to make them fit nicely on two-page spreads (Jeff Rients loves his tables, man…) and shaping Jeff’s wonderful text into shapely forms. I remember hearing my kids giggle at Large Marge while I taught myself how to reproduce Silver Age cosmic Kirby-Crackle and turn it into page borders. I remember sending those pages off to Raggi and thinking ‘Oh, man – he’s gonna hate this shit…’

Two years later I was putting the final touches on that book at the Lakewood Public Library, roughly 2,400 miles away from my kids. By this point I had received Ian MacLean’s amazing art and Jez Gordon’s phenomenal maps and had been reading Zak’s anticipatory posts on Google Plus and – despite the apprehension I always feel when sending a publisher a final file – I knew we’d done something pretty cool.

Last weekend at Gen Con Zak read a letter of acceptance for Broodmother SkyFortress at the Ennies and I smiled ear to ear hearing Jeff’s words and seeing Zak, James, and Jez accept the medal on Jeff’s behalf. It was a nice moment and I wish I’d been there to share it with them.

Moreover, it was a reminder of how different my life is now than it was when I first received the manuscript for the book. Between the time I started the InDesign file for Broodmother and the moment Zak read Jeff’s words I had been divorced, attempted suicide, spent a week in a mental institution, been diagnosed with Adult ADHD and Bipolar Disorder, got rid of almost everything I owned, moved to the other side of the country, got a job, lost a job, and started making real headway as a gaming industry freelancer.

None of this stuff makes me unique – lots of people go through this stuff. And frankly, since my diagnosis I’ve learned that there are a ton of people in the game industry who suffer from depression and various other mental illnesses of some sort or another. This isn’t a blog post intended to show how my various setbacks set me apart from my peers, but rather to remind everyone that – behind many of the gaming books you have on your shelves – lie similar stories. So many projects that emerge from small publishers are dragged kicking and screaming across the finish line, often in defiance of many aggravations: having to juggle the demands of raising a family, hold down a job, and pursue one’s dream, struggling against illness and poverty, advice from well-meaning (and often not-so well-meaning) folks who urge you to set aside your efforts for something more practical. And yet – somehow the wonderful people who make this stuff happen keep churning out release after release…because gaming is something that inspires them, and seeing the efforts of others – instead of turning them toward churlishness – inspires them to create works of their own. It creates friendships and bonds between people who may never meet in ‘real life’ but who are driven to share their creative visions with one another, and perhaps someday with the world at large. They teach themselves how to write, how to draw, how to use publishing software, how to assemble a book, how to playtest and improve. And someday a book comes out the other end. And they do it against a tide of misfortunes that would turn away a less passionate group.

The love these people have for their hobby is nothing short of breathtaking. I know it because I feel it too.

And on those days when I’m feeling like the world is tuned to produce nothing but sadness and hardship I look around me and see the amazing, wonderful, weird things my friends are producing.

And I smile.

 

Why ‘Wizards’ is the Anti-Fascist Film We Need Right Now

(NOTE: This post will spoil a few things for you if you haven’t seen Wizards, particularly the ending.)

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia have sane people everywhere asking once again ‘How the fuck does this happen?’ Seeing Swastikas being borne down American streets is always a shocking sight. An estimated 60 million human beings died as a result of World War II. The actual number ranges from 50 to 80 million, but I think it’s safe to settle on the median figure. Six million of those were butchered in concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis, who committed an ungodly array of atrocities until they were decisively hammered by the combined forces of the Allied powers. The flag they marched under was the very same one we saw carried aloft by American National Socialists / Alt-Right / White Supremacist protesters this weekend. But you know all this. We are all painfully aware of the terrible acts perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II – so much so that seeing it being waved around as a symbol of pride by anyone (especially by Americans) is damn near existentially perverse.

And yet – they do.

Witnessing it happen, and the violence it begets, calls into question our ability as a society to bear the weight of history. Of course, Fascism never went away. It was always there, lurking in the shadows waiting for the right confluence of events to spring into existence like a metastasizing tumor. And like cancer it will surely rot us from within if not destroyed without mercy.

Fantasy, as a genre, is often painted as escapism. Not serious enough to tell us anything meaningful about the world we live in. I think that’s bullshit – although frankly, I think this has as much to do with the consumers of fantasy as anything else. All too often we are given what we demand…and I suspect we demand far too little from our culture to expect anything meaningful in return. Thankfully there are artists out there who reject the impulse to feed people what they want and sometimes give them what they need. Ralph Bakshi is one such artist.

A native of Israel whose family escaped persecution during the war by fleeing to the United States, Bakshi has for his entire career challenged and pushed the boundaries of animation. After working his way up the ladder in the traditional animation industry, Bakshi’s first feature film – Fritz the Cat – was a shot across the bow of anyone who considered animation as being strictly a child’s medium. Based on the work of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, Fritz the Cat is raunchy and uncompromising…in other words, exactly what you’d expect from an animated film based on Crumb’s work.

Bakshi would follow his controversial debut with two more works, each increasingly savage and raw. Heavy Traffic was a slice-of-life drama set among the Jewish and Italian communities of New York City…something Bakshi, who grew up in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, knew well. His third film, Coonskin, was his most controversial yet. Often misinterpreted as a racially insensitive sideshow (which resulted in disruptive action from Al Sharpton and members of CORE), Coonskin is actually a mirror of American racial prejudice – taking the worst stereotypes of African-American culture and laying them bare…rubbing White America’s nose in its own shit, so to speak.

Therefore, it was a bit of a surprise when Bakshi’s next feature turned out to be a kids’ film. Originally titled War Wizards when pitched to 20th Century Fox (the name was eventually shortened to Wizards at the request of George Lucas, whose own debut was on the cusp of release at the time Wizards hit theaters), Wizards is a colorful Science-Fantasy film which takes place in a future Earth which has recovered from a devastating nuclear war. With the wane of 20th century technology magic once again reigns supreme, bringing with it Elves and Faeries – beings whose existence was presumably diminished by the rise of scientific advancement.

This is not a paradise, however. Many lands still burn with radiation and give rise to hideous mutants which, while terrifying, are also too inept to truly threaten their neighbors. Into this world are born two Wizards – brothers – one pure of heart…the other corrupt and scheming. The siblings feud and eventually the good Wizard (Avatar) defeats the evil Wizard (Blackwolf) in a magical duel, sending him into the world to lick his wounds and re-consider his demeanor. Of course, Blackwolf does no such thing. Instead, he spends a good long while trying to figure out a way to inspire his mutant minions. Blackwolf unearths an enormous amount of 20th century technology which his army of monsters can use to defeat their adversaries – but what really turns the tide is a trove of Nazi propaganda films which he uses to fire up his troops. Thus armed, Blackwolf stands to threaten the world and it is up to Avatar and his companions to put an end to him once and for all.

To tell this tale, Bakshi assembled a talented crew of animators and artists that included comic book legend Mike Ploog and illustrator Ian Miller (whose work will be instantly recognizable by anyone who has spent the last few decades playing Games Workshop stuff). The result is a visually distinct adventure yarn that has stood the test of time. While many who have discovered the film recently consider it to be a bit crude and rushed, I’d advise those who hold such an opinion to re-assess in the knowledge that Bakshi and his ragtag animation studio worked on a shoestring budget to assemble their vision, overcoming obstacles that would have deep-sixed many other studios. The oft-noted rotoscoping is one such shortcut that had to be undertaken when 20th Century Fox withheld much-needed resources to film the movie’s elaborate battle scenes. Faced with doom, Bakshi took to hand-reproducing hundreds of frames of stock footage, adding embellishments to create the film’s unique look. Anyone who accuses Bakshi of cutting corners would be well advised to consider the technique’s descendant – computer motion capture – without which many modern films could not be made.

Wizards 002.png

Taken on its’ own merits, Wizards has well-earned its reputation as a seminal classic of 70’s genre cinema. But with everything that’s happening in current US politics I can’t resist the urge to re-assess the film as a prescient warning siren about what happens if we become complacent about Fascism. After all, Blackwolf’s understanding of the potency of images is keen – and not one hair off the mark. People rally around symbols because they offer a simplification, and a symbol which both explains the world in stark black and white terms but also empowers those who fall under its’ sway is potent indeed. Such is the strength of Fascist symbols and ideology. They promise a bulwark against one’s enemies. Strength in unity, rallied against a common foe. The fascist marchers in Charlottesville – like Blackwolf’s armies – draw strength from the past, chanting ‘Blood and Soil’, a chilling reminder of the German fascists who chanted Blut un Boden, the rallying cry of pure blood and national pride. These are not merely a pack of White agitators who are acting out some Twitter-fed aggression. These are Nazis, pure and simple, marching down the streets of a modern American city without shame.

Bakshi’s film stands as a potent reminder of just how tenacious these beliefs are. We see Bakshi’s rage against the bootheel of militarized hate in a synagogue massacre, on a carcass hanging from a meathook branded with a Star of David. We see it in Blackwolf’s desire for a ‘pure’ child, in his rapidly growing war machine, in his mutant subordinates wearing SS uniforms.

But Bakshi also shows us how to properly deal with Fascists in the film’s final climactic showdown between Avatar and Blackwolf. There’s very little banter. No cleverness or fair play. No – when Avatar finally confronts his brother, rather than an elaborate magical duel, he simply produces a pistol and puts two rounds in him. Give them no quarter. Do not talk to them. Eradicate and destroy them without mercy.

I often find it remarkable that Wizards is Bakshi’s idea of a kids film. It’s packed with violence and suggestive sexuality, laden with ideology, and unapologetic displays of fascist aggression. But – it’s also brave film making. It’s the kind of kids film most are afraid to make these days. And it’s also the kind of kids film that doesn’t shy away from delivering a moral message.

Given the state we are in as a country, I can think of far worse things you might expose your children to.

RPG Retrospective: Five Reasons Why James Bond: 007 is One Of The Greatest RPG’s Ever Made

007rpgSee that book? The one with all the cover creases and taped, frayed spine? Of all the game books I own, this one has managed to stay in my collection the longest. 34 years, believe it or not – through multiple moves, from one end of the country to the other. To say that it is special to me is an understatement. I have other copies of this game, but this is the one that holds the most meaning.

It was a Christmas present I received when I was 13. Bear in mind – when I was a kid, my parents handled Christmas presents a bit differently. My father would take myself and my brothers toy shopping a couple of months in advance and give us a budget. We would pick what we wanted and then my father would put everything on layaway.

I don’t recall now if I saw the game sitting on the store shelf (the mere thought that you could buy niche-y roleplaying games at a neighborhood toy store is pretty odd these days, now that I think about it) or read about it in Dragon Magazine…but regardless I enthusiastically added it to my stack of gifts for Christmas 1983 and endured the intervening weeks until I could tear into it.

The game blew my mind.

I’d been gaming at this point for five years. My introduction to roleplaying games was a stack of Dragon Magazines and some assorted 1st Edition AD&D adventures given to me in 1978 by a fellow my mom was dating. I remember being enthralled with the contents – clearly this was a form of gaming I had never experienced and the prospect of being able to engage in it somehow was magnetic. Not owning any of the books I ran a number of games for friends and my siblings by reverse engineering the rules from the adventures…I have no recollection of what those games were like, but I presume the sessions were something of a hot mess. But we had fun.

Eventually I got the books and learned how to play properly (well, as properly as anyone played 1st Edition at any rate) and as usually happens when the gaming bug bites I started consuming every single RPG I could get my hands on. Traveller was another big one – primarily because I’d read David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers and Traveller Book 4: Mercenary was my ticket to re-enacting all that hot military sci-fi action.

Until that point most roleplaying games were, for me, a means of escape into one kind of fantasy world or another. Anyone who’s seen Stranger Things at this point knows what I mean; having grown up in the early 80’s the sight of basement carpeting and wood paneled walls brings back fond memories of rolling dice with my friends until the early hours of the morning. We even dubbed my friend Bryan’s basement the Basement of Justice because surely we saved the world enough times down there for it to have earned the title. And I can say with some pride that many of those world-saving adventures featured the M.I.6 agents my friends and I cooked up for James Bond: 007.

Published in 1983 by Victory Games, a subdivision of wargame publisher Avalon Hill formed entirely of ex-SPI staff – including designer Chris Klug (who had previously worked on Universe and DragonQuest Second Edition) James Bond: 007 eventually spanned a core box set, 11 adventures, and several supplements – even a hex-and-chit wargame called Assault which allowed you to recreate some of the film series big action scenes, such as the volcano battle at the end of You Only Live Twice.

When asked about my favorite RPG of all time I never hesitate to gush over 007. It’s one of those designs that is so wonderful and elegant that you ache to run it the way Bond must feel behind the wheel of his Aston Martin DB-V. There are few games in history that have done such a wonderful job at creating the kind of experience you expect from its’ subject matter, in this case high-stakes espionage action in the mold of James Bond. And – it must be said – the game features what I consider to be, hands’ down, the greatest set of chase mechanics ever designed.
Fine, you’re saying – give us the skinny. What makes this game so damn good?

For starters, 007 features a wonderful core mechanic that – almost without fail – is used to resolve nearly every task in the game. While this is commonplace today, in the early 80’s that wasn’t necessarily the case. In 007 all actions rely on determining a percentile chance to succeed. This is found by multiplying a character’s Primary Chance (often associated with a Skill) by the Ease Factor, which is anywhere from 1 to 10. Lower Ease Factors are harder, while higher ones are easier. After you roll, if you succeed you compare your roll to a chart which reveals your Quality Rating (1 through 4, with 1 being best and 4 worst). That’s pretty much the system in a nutshell.

In Combat, better Quality Ratings means more damage. When using skills better Quality Ratings reduce the amount of time the attempt takes (useful when Safecracking, for instance). It determines how easily targets of Seduction resist your efforts. How much information you gain from interrogating captives.

While there are sub-mechanics for determining things like the aforementioned Seduction and Gambling, they all extend from the same core rules. If you grasp how to arrive at a Quality Rating, everything else is easy. While many get a little cross-eyed when presented with tables these days, I find that designer Chris Klug’s system is fast and efficient at the table – not something that could be said for a lot of games of this era.

Where does the ‘Bond’ feel come from in all this, however? What is it about this set of rules that makes it – in my estimation – one of the greatest examples of genre emulation in the history of roleplaying games? And what makes it worth playing over three decades after its’ release – and three decades after its’ demise?

To answer those questions, here are five things I absolutely love about the James Bond: 007 system.

Those Chase Rules

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Bond leaping over a hapless J.W. Pepper in ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’

Yes, I’m putting the chase mechanics front and center. And it’s the right thing to do because, even if all else about this game were forgotten, the chase mechanics are so gorgeous and clever that they’ve yet to be surpassed. And given the necessity for any good Bond game to feature a robust and dynamic set of chase mechanics, I think it can safely be said that James Bond: 007 nails this perfectly.

The heart of the chase system is the Bid mechanic. During a chase, each side bids the Ease Factor at which they want to attempt a maneuver, with each successive bid lowering the Ease Factor. This goes back and forth until one side or the other concedes. The winning side chooses which side goes first, maneuvers are chosen and resolved, then (if both sides are still in the chase) gameplay continues.

This is brilliant as it perfectly mirrors the way chase participants push each other towards ever-increasing mayhem. It’s tense, it keeps the players and GM on their toes, and best of all it’s easy. To represent the handling of various cars, boats, etc. each vehicle has a ‘Redline’ statistic which is the lowest Ease Factor you can safely bid while operating that vehicle. Bid lower and you automatically have to make a Mishap roll after your maneuver, whether you succeed or not. The GM is also encouraged to narrate the various events that occur during the chase on the fly. There are a small pair of tables to give the GM some ideas for various Obstacles, like a festival parade that suddenly blocks traffic, etc but any resourceful GM could conjure a host of suitable bits of narration. This keeps the action flowing without the need to refer to a map, figure out topography, and whatnot.

It’s worth mentioning that the chase mechanics, while built around Klug’s rock-solid foundation, were actually crafted by designer Greg Gorden who many will remember as the architect of the DC Heroes RPG for Mayfair Games, and thus what is called today MEGS – the Mayfair Exponential Game System. I don’t have the space to delve into a full-discussion of MEGS, suffice to say it’s clear that Gorden’s knack for elegant system design is on full display here.

Hero Points and Survival Points
These days roleplaying games which feature some kind of narrative currency through which the Player Characters can influence the plot are a dime-a-dozen. Bennies, Fate Points, whatever. James Bond: 007 was doing this in 1983. When you garner a Quality Rating of 1 for a roll (outside of combat) you are given a Hero Point. You can then use this Hero Point to affect the game in various ways; you can increase the Quality Rating of a roll by one, or decrease the Quality Rating of a GM roll if that AK-47 burst is about to cut you in half. You can also use Hero Points to directly affect the world around you, such as placing a piece of wire suitable for opening handcuffs within reach. As you increase in rank, and thus increase the chance of attaining Hero Points, you become a more heroic character – which models Bond’s crazy-good luck throughout the film series.

Likewise the GM has access to Survival Points, which provide the means to pull various strings to keep heavyweight baddies alive. How else does Blofeld keep showing up time and time again? Again – while games featuring currencies for narrative stuff are commonplace nowadays, they were were rare (if not non-existent – I’ve been trying to think of an earlier example of ‘bennies’ and am coming up empty) in 1983.

The Adventures

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Clue hand-outs for the ‘Goldfinger’ adventure.

While the rules themselves are wonderful, the game was supported with a truly marvelous selection of adventures that give the players an opportunity to thwart evil plans across the globe. Most of these were adapted from existing movies / books, although a couple were wholly original (or rather, followups to previous adventures – namely Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice). Every time I take one of these off the shelf to give it a read-through, either in preparation to run it or just for pleasure, I’m taken aback with just how well constructed they are – delivering in spades on the promise contained in the game rules.

Most of the adventures, being based on well-known story lines, served a dual purpose – to provide an experience that feels like the source material while also providing a challenge to those who know it back and front. Goldfinger, for instance, gives players the opportunity to engage Auric Goldfinger in the centerpiece golf scene from the film – while also including a lengthy jaunt to South Africa to investigate one of Goldfinger’s mines. Indeed, players who try to mirror Bond’s footsteps would often trip themselves up, requiring them to play the adventure as if they knew nothing of the film or book. And yet – each one captures the spirit of Bond’s original adventures perfectly. One touch I was fond of: every adventure came with a manila envelope (thoughtfully stamped to warn that the contents are classified) stuffed with prop clues to be handed to the players at the appropriate time. These clues contained key information which could be used to direct them towards solving the mystery at hand and were always a pleasure to pass out. Not only did they reinforce the player’s sense that they were on the right track, they also were a source of great fun to try and figure out what information would guide them to the next clue. There’s even a solitaire adventure, based on the Lazenby film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I have yet to delve into that one but when I do I’ll be sure to blog about it here.

Fame
Remember that scene at the beginning of You Only Live Twice where Bond fakes his own death to throw off his adversaries’ continual interest? James Bond: 007 plays with this idea, giving each character a Fame score. Indeed, during character generation you can gain points back for being very attractive (thus increasing your initial Fame score) or paying extra points for being nondescript (thus lowering your Fame score). A character’s ongoing exploits will add to their Fame score, as will being scarred due to an injury. All those points add up, eventually, making it harder and harder for them to wander into an enemy-owned casino for a game of Baccarat or to not be recognized in a crowd. A character can attempt to use disguises to mask their identity, but eventually a character may want to lower their Fame, and the game provides a number of ways of doing so – including faking their own death or, in dire circumstances, retiring them from the field and making a new character. It’s a nice way of modeling the effect the character is having on the world around them, and is completely consistent with the way Bond is portrayed in the films. It’s not uncommon for him to approach his prey in full knowledge that they know who he is, often as a means of unsettling them.

Gear

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Ahhh – the PPSh41g…

While the main rulebook contains a solid selection of equipment players can use in the field, the Q-Manual is by far one of the coolest accessories ever written – 137 pages filled with exotic cars, explosive-filled watches, surveillance equipment, firearms, and more. Every entry is properly statted out for use, but the real kicker is Q’s commentary. Every single item is accompanied by a ‘Q Evaluation’ in which M.I.6’s acerbic quartermaster gives you the skinny. Take, for example, his description of the Japanese Taisho 14 pistol:

“A pistol which tested well against the Walther PPK, but rejected due to its heavier trigger pull and bulkier shape. 003, shot when trying to draw the weapon, would still be an active agent had he been using the easier drawing Walther PPK at the time – Q”

Honestly – the book is a total joy to read, and is worth owning even if you’re simply a fan of the movies or books. The Q-Manual is also liberally decorated with tons of lovely artwork, rendered in a technical yet descriptive manner. Again, Greg Gorden took the reins on this book, displaying an ample flair for translating Bond’s world into game mechanics.

Alas, despite all the quality of the game, James Bond: 007 lasted a mere four years with no subsequent revisions to the system. Largely the game is a fond memory for gamers who encountered it during its brief lifespan in the early to mid-80’s. Frankly I believe the game was incredibly innovative and deserves credit for many of its innovative features. Any nitpicks I have with the system are minor: being a point-buy system, character creation is a bit time consuming. And the game suffers a little from a lack of SPECTRE, the villainous organization that gave Bond so many runs for his money. The latter problem stemmed, of course, from Kevin McClory’s legal shenanigans regarding his hand in writing Thunderball and his running legal battle over ownership of SPECTRE. (It’s this same concern that would see Bond unceremoniously dumping Blofeld down a smokestack shaft at the beginning of For Your Eyes Only as kind of a fuck you to McClory.) I thought the replacement organization, TAROT, was kind of cool – but I sorely missed Blofeld and all his cronies.

I still play 007 now and then. Indeed, one of my all-time favorite gaming memories occurred about ten years ago while re-visiting the game with some friends. We were playing the Goldfinger adventure and the villainous Auric Goldfinger had captured the PC’s. He was threatening to kill one of them in the fashion you probably remember from the film (the bit where Sean Connery’s Bond is strapped to the laser table). The PC in question, being played by my friend Bryan (yes – this occurred in the aforementioned Basement of Justice), was trying to convince Goldfinger that they were better off as prisoners and he had to roll absurdly low to convince him – if I recall he had a roughly 10% chance to succeed. So Bryan rolled.

This anecdote is better if you know that the percentile dice Bryan was using were the kind that displays the tens as two digits on one die and the ones as a single digit on the other. You know what I mean – so a ‘33’ reads ‘03’ on one die and a ‘3’ on the other.The dice clattered on the table and…Bryan rolled a 7. A ‘00’ on the tens die and a ‘7’ on the singles die. With that ‘007’ roll Auric was convinced.

Do you blame him?

(A Couple of Notes: Mr. Klug was gracious enough to guest on my old podcast, Geeky and Genki, where we discussed his career and the 007 RPG at length. You can hear that episode here. It was an absolute blast to speak to Chris and I believe you’ll enjoy it.

Also – a retroclone of James Bond: 007 exists. Designed by Joseph Browning, Classified is available on RPG Now. If you can’t get your hands on the original game via the secondary market, Browning’s game is a wonderful re-creation of 007 and is recommended).

Film Review: Paterson

Brody-Paterson-1200Paterson is a unique piece of work. As I described to my girlfriend last evening it’s a movie that somehow manages to simultaneously be about nothing and everything. It’s a beautiful zen koan of a film in which nothing happens but the vast wonders of life emerge in the details. This is a very, very deeply Buddhist film – it is a meditation on mindfulness and being. It’s about art, creativity, love, despair – all the Big Issues…while remaining grounded in a simple plot revolving around the life of a city bus driver.

And it is absolutely wonderful.

The film takes place entirely in Paterson, New Jersey and follows the daily routine of a quiet, unassuming man (Adam Driver) similarly named Paterson (whether Paterson is his first or last name we never learn, and frankly it’s not relevant). Paterson has a routine life. He drives a bus. He lives with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) – a sweet, creative woman with a strange artistic bent who can’t resist decorating everything in sight (including her clothes) with black and white patterns. He has a dog, Marvin, who like all dogs is demanding yet lovable. He also writes poetry.

Notice I didn’t say ‘he’s a poet’. This is not a film about classification. Like the zen koan about the pitcher Paterson is engaged in the act of writing poetry, but does not call himself a poet. He is. Contrast this against those around him – like the lovestruck actor pining after his childhood love in the bar, or even Paterson’s wife who spends several hundred dollars on a guitar because she wants to be a country singer…or the co-worker who is constantly wrapped up in his problems. These are all people projecting their desires into the future seeking happiness through things outside themselves. Paterson, however – just is.

He wakes up every morning, shares a quiet moment with his wife Laura, drives his bus, writes his poetry, comes home from work, takes Marvin for a walk, has a beer at the bar, then goes home. We follow this routine for a week and in doing so are treated to an exercise in mindfulness…in being in the moment, experiencing the world through Paterson’s patient eyes. As he composes his poems, either at the bus depot, at a picturesque waterfall where he spends his lunch breaks, at home…we see the words scrawled across the screen and hear his voice intoning them. Sometimes we hear the poems several times as he hones in on the perfect phrasing, trying to capture his thoughts just so. His wife implores him to publish his work, despairing that these beautiful thoughts stay locked up in Paterson’s journal – but Paterson clearly doesn’t write poetry for the world. He writes poetry – just that. The act itself is what is important to Paterson. As he says to his wife late in the film ‘They’re just words – written in water…’ Indeed – his journal represents something of a sand mandala…ephemeral, impermanent beauty destined to be washed away by time.

The film is full of strange details – notice, for instance, the reoccurring twin motif. Or the black-and-white swirls and decorations that Laura obsesses over (suggesting duality, perhaps representing Paterson and Laura themselves). Paterson (the film, but I suppose also the man) is a strange little mystery – indeed, a koan in film form – which demands patience and attention…not unlike meditation.

Adam Driver’s performance is pitch-perfect. Understated and reserved, often enigmatic…while Iranian-born actress Golshifteh Farahani brings a wonderful energy to Laura, serving as something of a counterpoint to Driver’s contemplative calm.

Like Solaris and Wings of Desire, I believe Paterson is a film I will return to time and time again to remind me that the truly wonderful things life has to offer are less about the grand achievements but rather the simple pleasures inherent in the act of being alive.

Paterson is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years and is highly, highly recommended.

Movie Review: The Void

the-void-movie-poster-2017-2-989839The last few years have been really good to fans of classic 80’s horror. Last year Netflix Studios’ Stranger Things turned E.T. on its’ head, delivering 8 solid hours of nerdy terror and now we have The Void, an unabashed homage to John Carpenter and the Hellraiser movies which features copious amounts of honest-to-satan practical monster and gore effects.

I’ve been hearing a lot of hype about The Void, most of it centered on the aforementioned effects work and thus my expectations for the film have been quite high. Luckily the film has been granted a limited release here in Seattle so I was able to catch a screening last evening.

Is it good? Yeah, it is. But before I delve into the movie itself I feel compelled to gush a little bit about the venue in which I saw The Void.

The Grand Illusion is a tiny little hole-in-the-wall theater located in the middle of Seattle’s U-District. When I say tiny, I mean it – the capacity can’t be more than 50 and the screen is probably no larger than your living room wall. That said, this really is a theater run by film lovers for film lovers. The Grand Illusion is entirely run by a staff of volunteers and operates as a non-profit – the upside being relatively cheap ticket prices (even cheaper if you spring for a membership) and a great selection of interesting films. I’ve scanned the showtimes in the past and seen lots and lots of terrific stuff – everything from trashy Japanese pinku eiga to highbrow documentaries. Honestly, if someone asked me to design a theater to my specifications it’d probably look and feel a lot like the Grand Illusion. The projection quality is decent – bright, hi definition digital image accompanied by better-than-expected sound. It’s not a ginormous IMAX experience but honestly the place feels like a labor of love and that’s something no widescreen spectacle will ever surpass in my opinion. If you love movies the way I do you really owe it to yourself to give the Grand Illusion a visit.

Anyway, about the movie.

void_4guide__large-e1474646262477The Void is everything I wanted it to be. It’s got gore, monsters, and surreal weirdness oozing out of its’ pores. It doesn’t waste any time, either – quickly escalating from a gruesome murder in the film’s opening minutes to an all-out siege scenario as a small-town hospital is surrounded by a flock of mysterious, hooded cultists.

What the cultists are up to is kind of a drawn-out affair – the filmmakers (Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie, two Canadian chaps whose previous work apparently includes stuff like Manborg) play their cards close to their chest and when you do finally get an explanation it’s a tad underwhelming. That said the fun here is not in the brilliant plot but in the execution. Much has been made of the film’s reliance on old-school effects and I have to say they’re really effective. Peeled faces, tentacles, animated corpses, gore splattered mutant hellbeasts…it’s all here and it all looks terrific. A great deal of it is shrouded in gloom, preventing the audience from getting a clear look at anything – the cynic in me says this is possibly to hide some of the effects’ shortcomings but honestly it works. Nothing on display here looks cheap or half-assed.

I also loved some of The Void‘s more surreal moments, which echo the crazy reality-warping sequences in some of the Hellraiser and Phantasm movies. There’s an obvious Lovecraftian influence here, with references to ‘ancient things’ that pre-date mankind, etc. – and while paying lip-service to HPL is by no means groundbreaking (and hasn’t been for decades) it’s always fun to see someone wallowing in their influences to good effect.

The cast is uniformly good – genre fans will recognize Twin Peaks‘ Kenneth Welsh (who portrayed Windom Earle) and Ellen Wong (Knives Chau in Scott Pilgrim vs The World), but really there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. I found the lead a little annoying, but that’s no fault of actor Aaron Poole. He does a fine job as Officer Daniel ‘Worst Police Officer in the Known Universe’ Carter but honestly the character’s ineptitude and constant lack of initiative kept me on the verge of lunging at the screen and throttling him. I think that’s part of the character’s arc, though – numerous times it’s mentioned that he’s not half the cop his dad was and from moment one you realize that everyone who says it isn’t wrong.

Bad stuff? The plot, as I said, is complete nonsense. I won’t give anything away but suffice to say it’s pretty bog standard stuff…albeit goofy, batshit WTF bog standard stuff. But as the late, great Roger Ebert once said: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” And that’s definitely true where The Void is concerned. The pacing is also a bit off. Really good horror films know how to build and release tension. There’s definitely an art to this sort of thing and Kostanski and Gillespie, as good as they are at crafting some terrifying visuals are not particularly adept at keeping you on the edge of your seat. They seem content to let the visuals do all the heavy lifting. I mean, look – remember Carpenter’s The Thing? (I guarantee you that Kostanski and Gillespie do.) That blood test scene is a fucking master class in how to do a good horror scene. Carpenter knows exactly how to prime an audience, make them shit their pants, and then laugh about it afterwards.

I don’t think there was a single scene in The Void that came close to this for me. It was cool to look at but I don’t think I was ever legitimately scared.

There’s also zero levity in The Void. None. I think there was a single amusing exchange at the beginning of the movie but after that it’s all hategoredeath from start to finish. That’s not always a bad thing. The Green Room was similarly unrelenting in its’ grimness but The Green Room gets a pass because it’s so much better at doing the tempo thing than The Void.

Okay – so, I’m kvetching a bit now. And I really shouldn’t. The Void is a solid piece of work. It’s not perfect – but if you go in with your expectations set accordingly it’ll deliver.

And by god, if you live near Seattle or plan to visit…go see something at The Grand Illusion. It’ll do your soul some good.

Why You Should Love Devo

(Note: This is yet another blog post recycled from the old website, but I felt a need to dredge it up thanks to a video posted by my friend Daniel Swensen…seriously just go watch that really quick then come back here…)

nnii0c6fih9iniiiAnyone who knows me will be well aware of my undying love of the 80’s weirdo mutant musical act Devo. Despite being known primarily (only?) for their strangely successful hit ‘Whip It’, Devo’s entire career – which continues to this day – was one of incredibly trenchant subversion.

Mark Mothersbaugh and his cohorts were no mere one-hit-wonder pop group; they were provocateurs of the first rank….serious-minded artists who used humor and wry intelligence to cast memetic molotov cocktails into American culture by way of the 80’s defining cultural artifact – the pop song. Mothersbaugh himself was and continues to be fascinated by the concept of mutation – the idea that unexpected change occurs within every system, no matter how rigidly controlled.

Devo exemplifies this concept – on the surface they look and sound like any number of oddball synth-pop bands of the era. The fact that they flew under the radar so well is actually a testament to how successfully they subverted the zeitgeist in which they thrived. Perfectly capable of churning out seemingly disposable, yet incredibly catchy, three-minute pop songs, Devo’s catalog is actually a full-on assault on the shallowness and banality of American culture.

Look at ‘Freedom of Choice’, for instance:

The opening lyrics suggest a world of endless possiblity…hey, you’ve got Freedom of Choice! You can do whatever you want!

A victim of collision on the open sea
Nobody ever said that life was free
Sank, swam, go down with the ship
But use your freedom of choice

I’ll say it again in the land of the free
Use your freedom of choice
Your freedom of choice

But it quickly descends into a cautionary tale about an uncomfortable truth of human nature: having Freedom is a burden…a burden most of us don’t really want.

In ancient Rome
There was a poem
About a dog
Who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead

Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want

There’s a good chance most people who heard this song never gave the lyrics much thought, and sometimes that’s the danger in subversive art…when you get so good at the form that the function goes unnoticed. In some ways that may be Devo’s biggest crime…they were so goddamn good at writing pop music that most people just accepted what they did at face value.

Here’s another example – a bit more on the nose, but no less incisive.

Censorship sucks, m’kay? And by the way, you’re all fucking perverts – you just won’t admit to it.

Of course, this brings me around to the absolute zenith of Devo’s creative work, ‘Beautiful World’.

‘Beautiful World’ is perfectly written to mirror a pop song in structure and tone, but at every possible turn it subverts the very concept of a pop song – skewering the shallowness and pointless, useless cathartic-light sentiments typically sold as comfort or depth. It even has a hilariously perfunctory guitar solo 3/4 of the way through prefaced by Mothersbaugh intoning lamely (as one does in a pointless pop tune):

Hey you with the new clothes on
You can shake it to me all night long
Hey hey

I mean, here…just watch.

That bit at the end? ‘It’s a beautiful world. …for you. But not for me…’ That’s fucking savage – an absolutely perfect knife between the ribs of lame ‘It’s Morning in America‘ faux-optimism and in every way to the entirety of American popular culture.

And yet, they gain almost no recognition from the general public for this. Which, perhaps, does more to prove their point than any single message they could shove under anyone’s nose.

…but hey, look. Here’s a neat little artifact that might serve as a good coda to this weird reminiscence. In 1982 Devo was drafted to take part in a televised live performance – the hitch being that it was an experiment in 3D television. And, while the show was really fun the technical requirements and hoops Devo were required to jump through to participate were apparently pretty galling…so annoying, in fact, that the band chose to call out the program’s producers during their closing number…’Beautiful World’. Mothersbaugh, having adopted his Booji Boy stage persona, belts out the song with freakish gusto then proceeds to give the program runners a nice tongue lashing…all while maintaining his Booji Boy falsetto. It’s a wonderful example of watching some of the music world’s All Time Champion pranksters take a choice opportunity to bite the hand that feeds on live television.

…and, oddly…sometimes it really is a beautiful world…

The clip in question (which I shared on G+ last night sans context).

…and here’s the full performance, featuring opening act Wall of Voodoo.

 

Your humble narrator…and an energy dome.

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Brain Games

I should be happy right now – ecstatic, really. Two big projects (Broodmother Sky Fortress for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Mike Evans’ Hubris setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics) which I’ve sunk a combined four years of my life into are hitting store shelves in the very near future. Together they represent a big step forward for me as a professional in the RPG industry and yet – I can’t shake the feeling that I’m worthless and unskilled. That anyone looking at those two books will know what a shitty hack I am and that all my faults and failures will  be there on the printed page for all to see.

This shouldn’t be read as an indictment of either of those books from a quality standpoint. Everyone I’ve talked to says they really like what I did and that I should be proud of my work – and yet…I can’t.

I hate myself for feeling this way. Every time I go into a project all I can see are the myriad ways I’m going to stumble and make a hash of it. That I’ll forget some niggling technical detail or that my depression and anxiety will overwhelm me again. Or that my skills aren’t up to the task. Every endeavor I undertake is done so under a cloud of dread and sick anticipation of the failure that lies ahead.

I gave my contributor copies of the last big release I worked on, Towers Two, to friends. I couldn’t stand to look at it. Didn’t want it on my shelf telling me what a fuckup I am, and how much better it could have looked if I wasn’t a worthless piece of shit.

It becomes something of a feedback loop after a while. My brain is an echo chamber containing a perpetual motion machine that generates anxiety and self-loathing. I feel like I’m a second-rate character in a Daniel Clowes comic, bumbling through life…surfing on a crest of deep-seated anguish and at any moment I’ll collapse and drown.

wilson-p21I hate being like this. It’s not just about the freelance work…it rigidly defines everything about me, from the failure of my marriage to the flat career trajectory which keeps me stuck in a Groundhog Day of endless low-wage jobs.

Thing is – I know I’m not unique. We all face challenges in our lives. Some face the very same obstacles I do…and in some part I suppose that’s why I’m writing this.

I know quite a few people in this industry, and more than a handful share my problems. I know this because after I was diagnosed with depression and ADHD last year a good number of them opened up to me privately and publicly and frankly…I was astonished.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: working on RPG’s is largely a labor of love. Very few people who work in this business do it full time. A great many of them, mostly freelancers – but also some independent publishers – maintain day jobs because the money pool in RPG’s is very, very small. But they do it – in the evening hours after the kids have been put to bed or on the weekends when they could be doing a vast array of other things. Often squeezing time for gaming projects into every spare nook and cranny of their lives. They do it.

That’s why I do it. It’s why, despite the fear and nausea I feel at taking on work, despite all the voices in my head that tell me I’m a fuckup – that the next project will be shit and that it will be shit because of me – I keep at it. My love of games and the people who make them are what sustain me – even though I haven’t really played anything in nearly two years…my lifelong desire to be part of this weird culture keeps me going. And I’m not alone.

Keep that in mind the next time you sit down with your friends to create some stories.