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.”

The Roguelike Renaissance

If you’re a gaming enthusiast, you may have heard the term Roguelike thrown around in the past few months. That’s because the genre (if it can be called that) is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. What’s a Roguelike? It’s a generic term used to loosely define games with characteristics similar to the game Rogue. It’s sort of like how every first person shooter was referred to as a Doom clone in the early days of that genre.

Rogue was a dungeon-crawling adventure game with randomly generated monsters, loot and maps. It was released around 1980. The goal was to get to the bottom of the dungeon in one go—fighting monsters and collecting loot on the way. If you died, you lost everything and had to start over again.

According to Wikipedia, the characteristics that make a Roguelike so much like Rogue includes: level randomization, permanent death, turn-based movement and dungeon crawls. Just as the industry eventually left “Doom clone” behind, I can see it doing the same with Roguelike. Most games carrying that label have ditched the turn-based movement (though a few are keeping it alive), and the dungeons have been replaced with more diverse environments.

Indeed, the only characteristics that tie the games below together are permadeath and randomization. Most of them exist within different genres—twin stick shooter, action, strategy, adventure, etc.

But That Doesn’t Sound Fun.

I imagine a boxed copy of Binding of Isaac with the pull quotes, “Totally random!” and “death is permanent!” on the front would give most buyers pause. Which is why I think most Roguelikes live just outside the spotlight, thriving on download services like Steam. They’re fun games, but you kind of need to experience them first. Box quotes can’t do them justice.

Playing a Roguelike is sort of like playing a sport. You understand the rules and the tools at your disposal, but the way the game will play out is going to be different every time. You can know all there is to know about how to play basketball, but you’ll never have an identical game.

A good Roguelike has a special blend of random luck, a hard set of understandable rules, and enough wiggle room in the gameplay mechanics to let skilled players succeed, even when they’re unlucky. In other words, they’re still fun, even if you’ve been dealt a bad hand.

The random element combined with permanent death ramps up the intensity too. You tend to be a little more careful when you know one wrong move could undo all your hard work. On the other hand, the sting of dying isn’t as harsh when you know that your next play-through could be even better. It’s like gambling without the potential for crippling debt!

I’m On Board. Where Do I Start?

The Rougelike genre is growing and expanding. Developers are using permanent death and randomization as foundations to build interesting experiences across genres. Here are a few, wildly different games, that each offer the same Roguelike fix.

The Binding of Isaac

A twin stick shooter with a crazy Biblically influenced story and grotesque imagery. This came out right around the time my son was born. I remember doing runs at 2 in the morning, rocking the baby in his basinet with my foot, half delirious from lack of sleep. Good times.

Dungeons of Dredmor

The most Rogue-like Rougelike in the list. Dredmor has you crawling through a dungeon one square at a time taking on enemies in turn-based combat.

Spelunky

A platformer with extreme randomization. From what I’ve seen this one can be punishingly difficult. It’s free on PC (with a cool pixel art style) and $15 on Xbox Live.

FTL

Command a starship crew as you explore the galaxy, on the run from the rebels. Move crew members, divert power from your engine to your shields, upgrade your weapons system, and more. It’s like all the exciting scenarios in Star Trek one after the other.

Tokyo Jungle

This mega weird Japanese game has you playing as a variety of animals in post-apocalypse Tokyo. Keep your hunger and energy levels high as you mark your territory, seek out mates and avoid predators. It’s on the edges of being a Roguelike, so it’s a good place to start for newbies.

A bazillion phone games

You know those endless running games popularized by Canabalt? They’ve started bringing in some Roguelike features. They already had the permadeath and randomization, now many of them have loot too (which is, unfortunately, often gated behind micro-transactions). Agent Dash, Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run are great representations of the endless running genre with Roguelike characteristics.  

Some would argue that Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are Roguelikes, but I’m not sure I would. The environments are the opposite of random (in fact, memorizing them is the key to succeeding), and while you can permanently die, there are ways to recover your loot and progress.

I would like to see Roguelikes enter the third person action genre. Maybe a brawler like God of War with random environments and enemies? Or what about a shooter? Imagine a game with diverse gun loot like Borderlands mixed with the fast-paced randomness of Binding of Isaac.

Roguelikes aren’t for everyone. They’re more “gamey” than most video games. There’s usually not much of a directed narrative, and the permadeath ensures that you’ll have little to show for your time (some Roguelikes do have achievements that measure your progress and reward you with new starting benefits, like a new character, or a permanent starting stat boost). But you’ll build your own stories from your experiences, and you’ll have a good time doing it. If you haven’t tried a Roguelike, check out one of the games mentioned above, they’re cheap, easy to get into, and hard to put down. 

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.