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Making The Dean's List

Some weeks ago I sent a followup question on an article posted online by Dean Takahashi, author of Opening the Xbox and gaming columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

Takahashi had made a reference to the still as-yet-unannounced sequel to Halo 2, which everyone assumes is currently being prepared for the Xbox 360 by Bungie Studios as we speak. And we have to do the speaking, because at the moment, Bungie isn't saying much.

At any rate, Takahashi had matter-of-factly mentioned the game as if he knew something the rest of us didn't, and I wanted to check if in fact he had heard something solid from Bungie.

He hadn't-- he was just making the same logical conclusion that most of us have made; that Bungie wants to lie low until the game is closer to completion before making a big fuss. Hopefully, after setting two dates in stone for Halo 1 and Halo 2 and getting games that, while great, many Bungie fans still see as leaving room for being... well.. even more Bungie-like in their greatness, Microsoft will let them really ship the game "when it's done" instead of just paying lip service to the idea.

At any rate, I was pleasantly surprised when I received a set of questions from Takahashi last week, asking my opinion about Microsoft's plans for the Xbox 360, launching later this month.

Takahashi has written a feature story about Microsoft's ambitious plans for the Xbox 360. Along with that feature, there are several Reader Views pieces, the first of which is mine.

Initially I was afraid that I was being far too verbose in my answers and that they might have to be edited, but I was gratified to find out that what I wrote was reproduced in full, even to the extent of including a typographical error I missed that was pointed out by a sharp-eyed Rampancy.net reader.

Yours Truly-- And Pie

We're Doomed: Game Over, Man, Game Over

WARNING: Spoilers follow, but if finding out what happens in the Doom movie stops you from seeing it, I'll consider it a job well done.

Deej at Tied the Leader already did a pretty good job at pointing out how the Doom movie failed to live up to even its own modest goals. For the most part, I agree with his criticisms. He points out a lot of the plot holes and unanswered questions. Therein he sees a conservative conspiracy of sorts. For my part, I don't-- I think that a conservative ideology is just one thing one might propose to make sense of a story that otherwise makes little sense-- rather like making out the shape of Jesus in a spot of mold growing on a refrigerator door.

Like many fans of the Doom franchise, Deej gives it to the film on the chin for messing with the key elements of that world, nonsensically exchanging demons from Hell with some genetic mumbo jumbo.

I'd like to take a look at that for a minute.

The real reason to license a property like Doom is because it has a built-in audience. If you're going to license a property in order to access it's audience, you should probably at least try and please that audience a little bit. You might have to make adjustments to widen your target audience, but if you change things too much, you might offend the original audience.

Sadly, it does not appear to me that the changes made to Doom were made for this reason. In fact, I cannot for the life of me imagine why these changes were made, or why anyone would consider them improvements. These changes seem to have been made purely for the sake of change.

As Deej rightly points out, the Doomiverse has never been big on context. The original game had a scant few pages of poorly-written text as interstitials between levels. With Doom 3, Id Software had a chance to really flesh out the universe around the game's conflicts: the UAC base, the people working there, the demons, and other characters. They added a mad scientist character, so there's a more personalized fight going on. They added a fellow marine who turns on you (Sarge) to vary up the boss battles a little bit. They kept all the action, the creepy atmosphere and the satanic imagery that the first game was famous for.

The film took all of that and threw it in the rubbish. If they meant to say that Doom's story was trite, hardly original, and needed a rewrite in order to create some compelling emotional drama and drive a two hour movie watching experience that is, by very definition, more passive than blasting your way through Doom on your own, I would have to agree with them.

Except that what they replaced it with was far worse.

When it leaked that the movie wasn't even going to be set on Mars, the trouble started. Spin control went into action, and now the movie is, in fact, set on Mars. The fact that it is set on Mars has absolutely no impact on what happens. The strongest visual evidence that it is on Mars comes at the beginning of the movie, with the display of the Universal Pictures logo in front of the red planet. After that, you get a mere few seconds of uncompelling external views of red dust.

In later portions of the film, the vague phrase "this planet" is used a few times (at least in the translation I heard) instead of "Mars" leading me to believe that the film basically underwent no modification at all to put the events back on Mars.

Teleportation is kept in the movie; except now, rather than the teleporters being the experimental mistake that open the gates of Hell, it's what allows humans to travel to Mars at all. Apparently, a teleportation gate to Mars was discovered in the Nevada desert, providing a link between Martian and Earth cultures that, aside from the appearance of a genetically enhanced, but otherwise human-appearing skeleton on Mars, the film makes no use of.

In fact, the only reason the teleporter seems to exist is to provide one of the film's only two special effects. Although to anyone who saw James Cameron's "The Abyss" way back in the day, there's nothing "special" at all about this effect.

What's even more inscrutable is the security doors in the UAC base, which are unlike anything seen in the games. It's a special kind of force field, that is translucent when open, opaque when closed, and is naturally devoid of any and all safety features, such that when it closes on an object passing through it, said object is frozen in space with a door through it's head-- much like the elevator in the movie's opening sequence, which is such an advanced elevator that, unlike the primitive lifts of today, it completely fails to detect when a human limb is trapped within its jaws, and blithely takes said limb to the floor of its choice, sans owner.

As for the force fields, somebody should have sent a note to the filmmakers that there already is a kind of device that is transparent when permeable, and opaque when impermeable: it's called a frigging door, morons. Unless it's lost on you, the reason why science fiction universes sometimes imagine force fields used as doors is because such fields have an inherent advantage over regular doors, especially when used for incarcerating prisoners. Unlike a normal opaque door, you can see what the prisoner behind it is doing (usually, trying to escape). Not so these magical Doom doors. When it's open, you can see through it... sort of. When it's closed, you can't. Completely useless.

Once the marines arrive on Mars, we see that the UAC base strongly resembles the arcade of a shopping mall, especially in being populated primarily by what appear to be civilians completely unawares of what is going on. At times, the marines shuffle to and from dark, wet, dangerous hallways where they fight slimy monsters by going through this lobby. After a few trips, some of the civilians seem to catch on, but not enough to save them all (including those back home in Nevada) from being turned into zombies themselves.

Deej called the Pinky demon "terrifying". I have to take exception to this. Frankly, I thought it was cool, perhaps the only cool-looking thing in the flick. The idea of having the wheelchair-bound techie turn into Pinky was perhaps the only ounce of imagination in the entire film. Plus, wheels are easier to animate than legs.

Terrifying? Hardly. It couldn't have been less terrifying than if it had emerged from a monster closet. Almost any random encounter from a good horror survival game, such as Silent Hill 2 or even Fatal Frame 2, is scarier than the scariest moment in the Doom movie.

What's wrong with that sequence is that it's really the only recognizable thing from the Doom game that made it into the movie at all, aside from the game's titular logo and the UAC computer interfaces everywhere. None of the relatively few and rather unimpressive looking monsters the marines have to fight look anything like anything from the game, and I've seen more impressive looking blood and gore in ten-year-old X-Files episodes. The Doom movie's bad guys look like a few hundred pounds of latex rubber soaked in Karo syrup. Which might be scary as a dessert, but not as a horror movie.

Remember the Cacodemon-- the huge, floating, spiked eyeball? Yeah, he's not there. The Lost Souls-- flying, flaming skulls? Yeah, they're gone, too. The ubiquitous, fire-flinging Imps? Gone. Barons of Hell? Well, they're there, sort of-- except seemingly half as tall and impotently dripping slime instead of wielding green fireballs. And forget about any of the more exotic characters, either from the Doom 3 remake or from the original series: revenants, mancubus, cyberdemon... all gone. If there wasn't a mask for it down at Wal-Mart, it didn't make the cut for this movie.

Of course, the stellar lack of variety in the badguys is consistent with the movie's change of direction. These aren't demons from hell, they are human beings infected with the mystical 24th Chromosome, which turns bad people into monsters and good people into supermen. As Deej pointed out, it appears that status applies only to our hero. And the only thing different about him, compared to the rest of the cast of characters, is that his parents were killed on Mars.

Not that we care. We never see them, alive or dead. We're treated only to a few seconds of flashback during a short external shot of Mars, and some echoing screams. If we're supposed to somehow empathize with this guy, I have to say the filmmakers failed on this count, too. Even if they had, why this qualifies Grimm "Reaper" to be the only human on Mars who successfully survives the infection by the 24th chromosome without turning into a monster is really beyond me.

That mechanic alone seems not to have been thought out at all. How the heck is this supposed to work? And why such a change from the more detailed plot of the third game?

In Doom 3, the scientists working for UAC, as well as most of the marines who are sent to Mars afterwards, are victims of Hellspawn arriving to Mars from Hell as a result of a gate unwittingly opened by teleportation experiments. The real bad guy here is the mad scientist, Betruger, who it seems has been possessed by some force while he was in Hell, and he's come back to Mars for the purpose of helping the demonspawn make their way to Earth.

Yes, it's true that the UAC was trying to collect specimens from Hell for research-- there is the whole monsters-as-biological-warfare angle there, right out in plain view, ripped straight from Alien and Aliens. Doom 3 managed to put an interesting spin on it by positing an ancient Martian race that once endured such an attack from Hell, by inventing a weapon and investing it with their souls. Perhaps not genius, but at least you don't hear that every day.

That idea? Gone with the Martian breeze. There's no "mad scientist" in the celluloid version. The chief scientist, named Carmack after the game's developer, views the opening sequence's elevator accident and apparently goes catatonic at that point, only to turn into a monster later. There's no evil plan here, just the least compelling version ever of the infection-as-enemy story.

The conversion of Sarge from a marine, to an asshole, into the game-- ahem, the movie's-- final Boss is one of the few non-computer-interface elements taken from Doom 3. It was the least interesting sequence of the game, and it fares no better here. In fact, here it's done on the cheap. Whereas in the game, Sarge becomes fused to an automated tank that takes on the player inside an enclosed arena with a shifting floor, The Rock takes on our hero at the climax of the film with nothing but his muscles and his acting ability, with predictable results.

The movie makers here took a straightforward, if perhaps unimaginative, scenario for a shoot-em-up with a few satanic visual touches and turned it into a worse-than-pedestrian, uninspired, confused mess of an uninteresting story with lackluster special effects, virtually no solid thematic links to its original source material, and little respect for the few links it keeps. Much has been said about the penultimate sequence, shot in the first person perspective. It's not overlong, not at all interesting, but not as painful as the rest of the film leading up to it. The bigger problems are that the story has no emotionally compelling characters or conflicts, creature effects and sets that look far cheaper than the film's budget would indicate, and a cast of marines and scientists that obviously stand no chance of surviving because they've already been turned into zombies by the script.

Head for minimum safe distance, Doom fans. Then nuke this film from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

Remembering High School

I never, ever do these, but I do read a few livejournals and other blogs, and they all seem to do these "meme" things fairly often. This one, and mercuryeric's responses to it, sparked my interest so I thought I'd give it a try. He got it from carabosse.

Austin Preparatory School, North Reading, Class of 1989

What were your three favorite bands or musical artists?

  • Boston (What's not to like about a band led by a MIT Ph.D. who designed the analog amplifiers his band used on tour? Tip: only listen to the first three albums, avoid the later ones.)
  • Rush (starting from Moving Pictures onward)
  • Sting (the solo stuff, starting with The Dream of Blue Turtles. I had not been a Police fan when they were popular in the early 80s, although I did appreciate them later.)

What was your favorite outfit?

The school had a dress code (shirts and ties, later relaxed to allow polo shirts) so this doesn't really mean much. I do remember having a very wide brown tie I was particularly fond of. That.. and corduroys, OH MY GOD the corduroys...

Anything was OK as long as it was black, grey, or red. Sneakers also weren't allowed, so I had a pair of brown penny loafers that I actually put pennies into.

What was up with your hair?

Short but greasy. I wanted to sleep late but had to make the bus by 07:15, so I frequently washed my hair the evening before and then just rolled out of bed into clothes the next morning.

School dress code did not allow hair longer than collar-length. In college I let it grow much longer.

Who were your best friends?

Greg Bix, Al Costa, Joe Magnifico, Jeremy "Z" Delorean, the rest of the chess club.

Where did you work?

Memorial Hall Library in Andover, as a "page"-- fetching books and magazines from storage, reshelving books.

Did you take the bus?

Yes.

Who did you have a crush on?

All boys' school, so in my case, no-one, although other students did have the hots for the Spanish teacher, Ms. Bartoletta.

Did you fight with your parents?

On a recurring basis. Usually about doing chores, completing homework and TV privileges.

Who did you have a CELEBRITY crush on?

No one springs to mind. Gillian Anderson of the X-Files didn't come along until much later.

Did you smoke cigarettes?

Nope; didn't get into anything like that until college.

Did you lug all of your books around in your backpack because you were too nervous to find your locker?

Lockers were far too small to hold all the books you needed. Plus, they were all on the first floor of the school, and many of my classes were on the fourth and fifth floors. Plus, there were exactly three minutes allowed between classes. So, yeah, I carried pretty much all my books. During the free periods and lunch periods you had time to use your locker or eat something-- but not both, usually.

Did you have a 'clique'?

If you can call the chess club a "clique" then I guess so.

Can I increase my geekiness quotient if I mention I was once a chess team alternate for all of five minutes?

yeah... I thought so.

Did you have "The Max" like Zach Kelly and Slater?

I have no idea what this means. MercuryEric wrote:

I assume this is some "Saved by the Bell" or "Degrassi Junior High" reference to an after-school hangout.

If so, then no. After school I got on the bus and went to work or home. In my senior year I drove to school, but invariably I was driving to work or home after school. Not many students hung out after hours.

Admit it, were you popular?

Hell no. Dean's List, chess club, Latin Club...

Adventure, excitement... popularity. A Jedi craves not these things.

Who did you want to be just like?

Doogie Howser.

Where did you think you'd be at the age you are now?

A research biochemist. Wow, guess that turned out OK, eh?

Merry Christmas!

[image:1183 left hspace=5 vspace=5 border=0] Happy Holidays from Kazakhstan!

Key Kazakh Reformer Quits Government -Source

Grigori Marchenko, who has apparently resigned as deputy prime minister, was formerly head of Kazakhstan's national bank and was a key figure in the transition of Kazakhstan into an independent state with its own currency.

Key Kazakh Reformer Quits Government -Source - AP via ABCNEWS.com Apr 14 2004 10:39AM GMT

Central Asia In Film, Part Two

For my part, I never knew Ivan The Terrible had been filmed in Almaty.Film Comment - The rise of Central Asian cinema began during this period. At any given point in its prior history, different republics or states have predominated.

Kazakhstan Probes Into Nuke Black Market

Out of Prison, Kazakhstani Journalist Shrugs Off Government Pressure

Out of Prison, Kazakhstani Journalist Shrugs Off Government Pressure - OUT OF PRISON, KAZAKHSTANI JOURNALIST SHRUGS OFF GOVERNMENT PRESSURE

Olivia Allison:

1/26/04

Though he has been released from prison, Kazakhstani opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov continues to experience pressure from authorities. Despite the possibility that he could be re-jailed at any time, Duvanov says he will not be deterred from investigating government corruption.

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