Batman Knows Everything

BatmanKnowsEverything

I generally like Batman, though occasionally the absurdity of his existence, and his entire broody-guy know-it-all shtick are hard to ignore. 

I was playing playing Batman: Arkham Knight and something started to bug me. The Arkham game series gives you a grim-dark "mature" version of Batman, growl-speaking words like "Batcomputer" with a straight face. That in itself is enough to break the whole thing into ridiculous pieces. But what really got under my skin was the way it casts Bats as a complete know it all. He literally knows everything about everything and not a single person--not Alfred, or Robin, or the Penguin, or anyone--calls him out on his bullshit. 

No one ever says, "How do you know that?" Or, "No Batman, I can't do that for you, creating a cure for a genetic disability takes more than two hours." How is he an expert detective, a super black belt ninja, a software developer, an engineer, an architect, and also built like a linebacker? If Batman were software, he'd be suffering from some major feature creep. He can do it all! 

I think I can buy Sherlock Holmes knowing everything because every take on the character spends significant time on the things he actually doesn't know. They show you the downsides of his hyper intellect, and make a great case for having Watson around. But Batman knows everything and needs no one. He's kind of a douchebag. So I made some comics about that in my spare time, then slapped them all together in the above image. Enjoy!

Iron Man 3 postered!

I successfully got Bioshock Infinite out of my brain by making the posters. Unfortunately I replaced it with making posters. So I made one for Iron Man 3. This time, instead of the Saul Bass and Olly Moss style minimalism, I went with my own style--cartoony. I like it. I wanted to do something that fit the trailers, which all seem to fixate on a pretty bummed out Tony Stark. Cheer up Tony!

IronMan3poster_small.jpg

Closing the book on Twilight

"So, what brings you to Seattle?" It was an automatic question. Something the rental car clerk was probably taught to spit out while shuffling through paperwork. Idle chit chat, because people like chit chat. It's friendly.

"An absurd devotion to my wife."

The clerk stopped for a second, but didn't look up. I like to think he appreciated my honesty; maybe it caught him off guard. Or I was the 17th "cute" answer he'd received that hour and he was debating whether or not it would be worth it to just go ahead and punch me in the face. Could have gone either way.

"Go outside, take a left, then go up one floor. That's our lot. Look for the Economy sign. Pick the one you want and drive out--keys are inside." The clerk gave me a curt nod and then motioned to the person behind me to step forward.

We picked a tiny white car—a Chevy Sonic, I think—because it looked most like Edward Cullen's Volvo.

And so began our trip to Seattle.

Some background: Brooke’s discovery

In 2008, my wife discovered Twilight, three or four weeks before the final book in the series came out. She loved it.

I was thrilled. I'd been trying to get her to like reading for years, but nothing ever stuck. Something about Twilight grabbed her. She chewed through the first three books in a week and then waited in line at midnight for the final one.

I have a policy with my entertainment: at least twice a year, read/play/watch something you normally wouldn't. And so I read the Twilight saga, though not as quickly as Brooke. Wasn't really my cup of tea (Team Jacob baby!), but I could see why Brooke liked it. It was a story about high school sweethearts. It reminded her of us (except I was not, nor do I plan to be, a vampire). That was kind of sweet, I guess.

The important thing, at least for me as a writer, was that Twilight jumpstarted Brooke's reading appetite. She quickly outpaced me, reading more books per month than I ever had. She gobbled up everything in the booming YA market, searching for that next sweet forbidden young love fix.

Years went by. Brooke's Twilight love never waned. Through an interesting series of events (chronicled in other blogs), Brooke was able to visit Phoenix in 2009 and Italy in 2010 (Volterra, a city featured in New Moon, was one of our many stops). She'd already been to Florida years ago. That put her one city away from this bumper sticker:

TwilightBumperSticker

Christmas 2011: A far off gift

I promised to make that sticker a reality. On Christmas day, I told Brooke She would see the final Twilight movie in Forks. The plane tickets were already purchased. She cried.

Eleven months later, we left our son with his grandma and our dog with a friend and headed for the Pacific Northwest. Turns out Forks is super tiny. No airport to fly in to and no movie theater to watch Breaking Dawn in. So we stayed in Seattle, which was fine by us. I grew up all over the country, but I've never seen the Pacific Northwest. Being three hours away from Forks would give us a chance to see more of the area. And what a beautiful area it is.

Chasing the Cullens

We started with Seattle. We wondered around Pike's Place, grabbed coffee at the first Starbucks, saw two (!) movies in the middle of the day without hiring a babysitter, did a good bit of shopping, and got rained on, a lot. Just being together, free of set plans or baby schedules, was wonderful.

On our last day, we drove onto a ferry early in the morning and made the three hour journey through the winding mountains to Forks. It might have been one of the most scenic and pleasurable road trips I’ve ever taken. The constant changes in elevation, the towering trees and still lakes, and the way our tiny rental car hugged each turn—I felt like I was inside one of the many driving video games I’ve played over the years. It was too pretty to be real.

roadsidestop

Forks is a small town. Like, 3,000 people small. It's right up there at the edge of the state, alone in the piney moutains. It's a secluded, sleepy little town, and a perfect setting for a story about light-averse vampires. We covered the whole thing--jumping out to take pictures at all the Twilight landmarks--in about an hour. It was goofy, to be running around a little town where people work and live, as if we were on a scavenger hunt, snapping pictures that would mean nothing to anyone other than Brooke, and Twi-hards like her. But it was fun and silly. I’m a firm believer and doing silly things from time to time.

After the pictures we stopped at a crummy diner on the edge of town. The roof was leaking and the burgers tasted like they came straight out of a high school cafeteria. I sat across from Brooke, who unlike the many other Twilight fanatics we'd seen (and there were many), was dressed in normal clothes. Still, you could tell she was there for Twilight. Despite the rain, the mediocre burger and the chilly air, she radiated pure joy. She was glowing. You might even say she sparkled. She had that exuberant look of nerdy satisfaction. It was nice to see it on her. God knows she's seen it on me over the years:

-The time I was flown to Arizona and treated like a celebrity just for illustrating a book for a non-profit.

-The time I stood 15 yards from Jack Johnson, my favorite musician, as he sang a few songs in the area near the snack bar before his concert started.

-The time I talked to Ben Caldwell, one of my favorite artists, at Heroes Con and got him to critique my art portfolio.

-The day I heard I was going to get paid to write game reviews as a freelancer for Gamespot.com.

She's been down some nerdy roads with me. She's listened to me prattle on (and on, and on) about video games and how they're made, my writing and art dreams, and so much more. Unlike the Twilight saga, there's no end to my geekery. I figured it was only fair to help her see hers to its conclusion.

We finished our trip at La Push, a beach on a Native American reservation featured in the books. It was absolutely stunning, wild, untouched land. Pictures can't do it justice. Growing up in the Navy, I've stood on a lot of beaches. This one was different. This was pure, unfiltered nature. Standing there almost felt wrong, as if we were intruding. As if we weren't meant to see that cold, powerful, solitary side of the world. Standing there while the wind whipped a mixture of freezing ocean water and rain at us, I felt small. It reminded me of that Kimya Dawson song. I've rolled my eyes and poked fun at my wife's obsession for years. Standing at La Push, I was glad for it.

Before we left, Brooke grabbed a smooth stone as a memento, and I recorded this quick video in the car.

And that about sums it up. We drove back, grabbed another ferry to Seattle and crashed in our hotel room. We returned home to a grueling week--Brooke had her thyroid removed on Tuesday and because her vocal chords seem to be temporarily paralyzed, they kept her in the hospital through Friday. The hospital Thanksgiving food was...underwhelming.

Her voice still isn’t back. It might be a few weeks, maybe even a few months. It definitely sucks to have my famously talkative wife silenced. But the silence has brought reflection. We’ve both spent more time in our heads. Time we’ve used to think about the ups and downs of our lives and what’s really important. Like trips to Twilight-ville, USA.

Yesterday, on our way to Brooke’s post-op check-up, she turned down the radio and whispered to me, “I’ve been thinking a lot about our trip. It was really great, just hanging out with you. Thanks for taking me there.”

She didn’t need to tell me that of course. But I nodded along just the same. “Yeah, it was really great.”

My Influence map

This is a meme that's been around for a while, but one well worth participating in. We all have different creative influences in our lives. These are mine. They aren't in any order--some influenced me more than others depending on where I was in my life at the time. Some of them continue to influence me, even inspire me at times. What does your influence map look like?

Update: Jim asked if I’d explain my influence map, so here it is:

Numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, 9, and 11 are my art influences. You may notice some stylistic similarities between them. They all have a cartoonish, heavily stylized look to them, and they all emphasize smooth flowing lines and detail through simplicity. Number 1, Bobby Chiu, is the most practical influence because I took a class at Schoolism.com taught by him. He gave me personal instruction and tips that helped improve my art a great deal. The art of Penny Arcade influences and inspires, mainly because I’ve been reading the web comic for years and I’ve watched it improve, which is cool. The artist at Penny Arcade, Mike Krahulik, has mentioned Stephen Silver (9) and Ben Caldwell (3) as influences for his art as well. As for Disney’s Aladdin, that was just a watershed moment for me when I was a kid. The animation, the story, the computer animated magic carpet ride (which hasn’t really aged well); it was all amazing to me. I was the only eight year old raving about the quality of animation and design in a movie.

Number 5, video games, influenced me in a number of ways. From the music I listen to, to the stories I’m interested in. I’ve been playing them since I was old enough to grip a controller, so I’m deeply ingrained in game culture. Video game magazines like EGM and Next Generation got me interested in writing and journalism. Watching the technology, storytelling opportunity and industry grow over the years has been a lot of fun. Video games inspire and excite me and it’s great to be a part of the culture as it grows and matures with me. 

That leaves my writing influences.

Number 2 is Stephen King and particularly his book, “On Writing”, which I consider a must for would-be writers. I’ve also always admired King’s characterization skills. He can craft some amazingly deep characters, especially villains.

Number 7 is Christopher Moore. He writes humorous novels, and I’ve read most of them. I like Moore because he writes comedy with heart. He can pull off crass and heartfelt on the same page. His book “Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” is hilarious, well-researched, sad, heartwarming and, like many of his books, a tad bit insane.

Number 8 is mythology in general. I took a course on mythology in grad school and it shifted my entire worldview. There’s a weird connectivity in mythology that spans cultures, classes, religions and continents. It’s fascinating. Joseph Campbell, the author of “The Power of Myth” and other influential books on mythology, spent his life drawing meaning from and interpreting mythology. His work has influenced numerous storytellers, most famously George Lucas and the original (as in, not the crappy one) Star Wars trilogy.

Finally there’s number 10, “Life of Pi”. It’s one of the few books I’ve read multiple times, and the only book I have more than two copies of. I think I read it at an important time in my life, because Pi’s journey struck a chord that continues to resonate. I enjoy his quest for spirituality—with his earnest and honest mixing of religions—in the early part of the book as much as I like the harrowing journey at sea with the tiger.

There are other influences I could have included, but I tried to narrow it down to the biggest influencers. I also had to really think about which things influenced me and which inspire me. My inspiration map would be much larger and feature some of the artists and writers above. 

My Top Ten Games of 2011

2011 was a fantastic year for video games. This year we saw a lot of sequels, which some would call stagnation. I call it maturation. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are nearing the end of their life cycles, and the franchises that started when those consoles were new came to a close. Many of the games we saw this year had numbers attached, in fact only two of the games on this list can be considered "new", but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think the games of 2011 did a lot for the industry and the medium. Through thoughtful iteration, the 2011 games showed us new ways to tell stories, new ways to make old mechanics fresh, and new designs that will bring in new players. Here are the top 10 games I played this year. 

 

10. Assassin's Creed: Revelations

 

There's not much to say on this one. If you've played either of the previous two Assassin's Creed games, you know how this one plays. It's more of the same, yes, but I still enjoyed my time with Assassin's Creed this year. The final chapter in Ezio's story was a good send off, and I think some of the incremental improvements in this year's game were excellent, particularly in terms of story delivery and mission design.  I'm ready, and excited, to see the series go in a new direction.

9. LA Noire

Looking back at LA Noire, it's easy to see the faults. The story falls short in many places, and there are all kinds of head scratching narrative and gameplay quirks. But when I think back to my first four or five hours with the game, I remember how amazing it was--the facial animation, the acting, the adventure game style gameplay, the staggering attention to detail, the faithful rendition of 1940s LA--the wow factor is hard to deny. Since the studio behind the game shut down not long after the game was released, it doesn't look like we'll ever see more LA Noire, which makes this experience all the more unique.

8. Bastion

Bastion is a tough game to stop playing. Whether it's the story, doled out piece by piece through brilliant narration,  the unique levels, perfectly created for in and out play sessions, or the cool weapons, which come fast and frequent, there's always something new just around the corner. The lush art style, twangy music and neat story development are backed up by solid action gameplay. Bastion was made by a very small team, and its high quality is a testament to the hard work, dedication and passion of those people.

7. Infamous 2

Like Batman and Assassin's Creed, Infamous 2 is one of those games that makes the simple act of traversal fun. There's something about the super powered locomotion in this game that never gets old. I enjoyed the first Infamous, but it felt too rough around the edges. I also hated the main character, Cole. Whether you played him good or evil, he was still an unlikable douche. That changed in Infamous 2, along with a number of other things. Story segments got a huge upgrade, with better animation, emotion and camera work, and the characters were more likable, and often kind of funny. Who would have thought that liking the main character would make him more fun to play as? Duh. There were still some rough edges in Infamous 2, but they weren't as prominent this time. I have high hopes for a sequel if they ever do one. After the improvements made in this game, I'll be first in line to play the next.

6. Batman: Arkham City

As superheroes go, I've always found Batman insane. He has to be right? Someone killed his parents, and instead of therapy (which he certainly could have afforded), he lets the trauma bubble inside him until he becomes an adult, and then funnels it into an unhealthy obsession with justice. Also, he wears a bat costume. I've always seen his struggle against the crime lords of Gotham as a crazy man against crazier people, not a hero against villains. Arkham City reinforces this a bit, painting a picture of a Batman that has way too many gadgets, too many bad guys to beat, and is deadlier than any sane man not employed by the US Special Forces should be. I found the tone of the game inconsistent, constantly flitting between the realism of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movie and the over-the-top zaniness of the comic book world. The story was still fun though, and it had an excellent ending--somehow, despite my knowledge of the Batman rogues gallery, I didn't see it coming. The gameplay is top notch, by the way. The combat alone makes this game worthy of a spot in my top 10. The longer you play it, the better it gets. It's accessible and deep at the same time, rewarding those that want to button mash, and those that want to be precise.  It looks awesome too, with smooth transitions and bone shattering hits.

5. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I didn't think I'd like this game as much as I did. The doofy gruff voice acting and Matrix-like appearance of the main character was a big turn off for me. But I pressed on anyway, and I'm glad I did. The cyber-punk world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is dense and thought provoking. The choices you're given in how you develop your character are great, as is the grimy Blade Runner-esque visual style, but what really struck me was the "nowness" of the story. The themes running through the game--the haves vs. the have nots, playing god through science, the double sided coin of danger and revolutionary discovery technology is constantly flipping--they all felt relevant. There was a lot of social commentary going on, some of it subtle, some of it obvious. Still, it sucked me in. It might be set 30 or 40 years in the future, but something about the game felt very 2011, if that makes any sense. I went in to Deus Ex expecting some kind of futuristic adventure, where my decisions impacted the main character and those around him, just like most games. I didn't expect to be blindsided by very real themes, struggles and decisions extrapolated from the problems currently (or soon to be) plaguing our culture and society.

4. Gears of War 3

Gears 3 came out one week before my son was born. On my final weekend before becoming a dad, I blasted through the game and its various modes. It was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy as far as the story goes, and it was a satisfying end to my video game playing...for a while. It's weird to think that the whole shooting dudes from behind cover thing wasn't really a thing until the first Gears of War several years ago. So many games have cribbed that mechanic in such a short time. While Gears 3 isn't nearly as influential or revolutionary as the first game, it's still a ton of fun to play. The developers at Epic have polished their cover-based shooting game design to perfection. You do one thing through the entirety of Gears of War 3--shoot dudes--and it remains fun the whole time. I came back to Gears 3 on Christmas with my brother. We have a tradition of beating every Gears game on Insane. We didn't make it all the way through in the time we had, but we covered a lot of ground, and had a great time.

3. Uncharted 3

The Uncharted games are all about the set pieces, and the third installment does not disappoint. Sure, the story falters in some key areas, and that's kind of a bummer, but the set pieces man! On Christmas Eve I went to see Mission Impossible 4, and mid-way through the movie it really hit me how much playing Uncharted 3 is like playing an action movie. The game puts you in some amazing situations and always makes sure you're in control. Even if you're just holding up on the stick to escape a sinking ship, or chase a bad guy through a middle eastern city, you're still there, taking part in the action. Where other games take control away to show your character doing something cool, Uncharted 3 keeps you in it. In ever pulse-pounding, adrenaline fueled moment, you're behind the wheel, and that's awesome. To me, the plane crash sequence and the desert wandering sequence that follows it, are two of the best scripted moments in video games this year. This is a game to get a Playstation 3 for. If you already have one, this is a game you show your non-gaming friends, and then watch their jaws drop.

2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I'm about 20 hours into Skyrim, and I've only scratched the surface. I think when that fact sinks in--for me it was around the 10 hour mark--is when most people realize how amazing this game is. Yes, this game has a massive amount of content, and that in itself is incredible. Twenty hours is enough time to play most games on this list twice. But what's truly remarkable about Skyrim is the quality of all that content. There is so much going on, and so many different systems at work that it really feels like you're a part of a world. The character customization is so deep that it feels like your specific Skyrim experience is unique. Sometimes I forget that millions of other people out there are playing the same quests, because I feel like the ones I'm pursuing play out in ways unique to my character, which is partly true.  I can't wait to play them again as a different race/class/gender/species. I had some fun with the last Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, but it didn't hook me like Skyrim. The improvements made to this new game are vast. The combat and magic, the storytelling, the atmosphere, it's all better. Skyrim is a rich universe on a disc, and it's a joy to discover.

1. Portal 2

Portal 2 is a game that makes me proud to be known as a video game nerd. It sits on the perfection shelf next to Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Super Mario Bros. 3. I love everything about it. Starting with the writing, which is sharp, witty and genuinely funny--thanks in part to the phenomenal voice acting (Stephen Merchant as Wheatley is my character of the year, in any medium). It's rare that a game makes me laugh out loud. I remember calling my wife in the room several times saying, "Come here, listen to how clever this is!" In true Valve (the developer) fashion, the story unfolds through excellent dialog and atmosphere. They are masters of showing.

And that's just the story, mere window dressing to the mind bending puzzles. I've heard that Valve focus tests the mess out of their games, and it shows in Portal 2. Every puzzle is just right in terms of difficulty. Just hard enough to make you feel like a genius for solving them, but never hard enough to make you quit in frustration. The cooperative two player puzzles are even better. Finally, if you're as big a nerd as me, playing through the game a second time with the developer commentary on (something more games should do) is a real treat. You get to see how much thought went in to every design decision. Every action teaches you something about the gameplay, the world, the story and/or the characters. Nothing is wasted.

Portal 2 is  my game of the year because it's so well-rounded. It does everything right, and it satisfies every facet of my personality. As a writer, a storyteller, an artist, a gamer and a geek, I love Portal 2. It's more than just a video game, it is an example of what the medium can do, a champion for our expensive electronic hobby, an amazing experience.