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Kazakhstan On Line

Many people living in Kazakhstan spend a lot of their time on line. Shopping, banking, voting, even medical procedures, all require going on line, sometimes for extended periods.

In case you hadn't guessed, I don't mean by using the Internet. I mean by getting in a line-- or at least what passes for a line in the former Soviet Union.

Back in kindegarten one of the first things I recall being taught was how to line up single file. We lined up when the bell rang so we could file into the school. We lined up single file to go in to lunch. We lined up single file to leave school at the end of the day. We lined up single file to get on the bus to go home. Thankfully it was not quite the military. No one ever requested that we line up alphabetically by height.

Of course, even the most sedate and orderly of children (if those words may even be applied) know the difference between being at the front of the line as opposed to the back of the line. Sometimes being in the front granted no advantage whatsoever-- with each student assigned their own permanent desk, there was little incentive to be at the front of the line to file inside in the morning, unless the weather was cold. Lining up to leave was usually done alphabetically to avoid competetion for the first spots heading home.

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AutoDuel: Driving In Almaty

So after living in Kazakhstan for seven years, I'm now doing something I always said I'd never do here: driving a car every day in Almaty.

The reasons for not doing so earlier have changed over the years. Typically, employers provided a company car with driver, and personal drivers were always available as well. In addition, Almaty has quite an extensive system of public transportation, including buses, minibuses (called marshutkas) electric trolley buses, and two electric tram lines. Besides all of that, until the past two or three years just about every private car on the road was potentially available for hire as a taxi to go anywhere in the city for a few dollars.

Things have changed since then. In 1999, there were far fewer cars on the road. Most cars were of Soviet make: Zhiguli sedans, Niva jeeps. There were also quite a few decade-old German or Japanese sedans. A late-model foreign car was something to stop and stare at.

In the past couple of years, all that has changed. The number of cars in the city has absolutely skyrocketed. Almaty now has legitimate traffic jams. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a Porsche Cayenne SUV or something far more expensive, and those driving BMWs and Mercedes sedans from the 1990s are beginning to feel like they're slumming it a bit.

Everywhere you turn, there's a teenage girl driving a right-hand-drive jeep brought in from Japan via Dubai.

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What's the big idea?

Recently I found Patrick Curry's blog Thoughts on Game Design, where as an exercise he's promised to do a game idea every week. Already he's up to 26. He describes each idea in terms of high concept, platform, the reasons to make it, a more detailed description, and why it would be fun.

As someone who does little more for games than describe what I do or don't like about them, this idea struck me as brilliant. I'm not a 3D artist or a programmer, nor do I think it likely I'll ever be one. On the other hand, to do little more than be a critic seemed a little too facile.

So I thought I would also give it a go to come up with a few game ideas of my own. I'll be posting them here, rather than at Rampancy.net, because that's more specific to Bungie and the Xbox platform than it is to gaming in general.

Curry's ideas are all very specific, detailing setting, plot, and sometimes characters, and even what platforms are best suited to the game. I thought what I would rather do is try to come up with some of the underlying archetypes that already exist on games and find ways of putting a new spin on them.

Journeys and Escapes

Lots of story ideas, whether in literature, movies, or games, involve journeys of some kind. You create a character in a setting and then invent a reason for that character to leave that setting to go somewhere else, which provides opportunity for conflict and drama. Maybe your character has to return to a long-forgotten home. Maybe he's lost and is returning where he came from. Maybe he has to leave his home and find a new one. The journey might be to do battle or to destroy some evil object, LotR being one of the most identifiable examples of this.

One of the lesser-used variations of this journey theme is escape. Setting this up can be a little bit more complicated. It's usually easy to understand why a character has to leave a pastoral setting-- because such settings don't have the conflict and drama needed for an interesting story or interesting gameplay. All we need to do, for instance, to send Frodo packing from the Shire in Fellowship of the Ring is identify the Ring as an object of evil that evil forces will attempt to find, steal and control. As such it threatens not only the characters in the story but their entire world. It sets up the contrast between the Hobbits and their Shire and the rest of Middle Earth in general and Sauron's Mordor in specific.

Escape takes more setup and perhaps more care with the ending because it reverses the direction of the journey; you first put your characters in immediate peril and they have to find their way out. The conflict exists before the characters are set up, so your audience may not identify with them right away. It may also be necessary to explain why and how your characters got where they are. A common setting for an escape story is some kind of prison. Since the audience isn't going to automatically empathize with a prisoner, you've got to take time to create that empathy.

Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games play with this idea a bit; nearly all of them begin with the protagonist being a recently-released prisoner with no knowledge of his past. It's an interesting device, and calls to mind other games with protagonists with mysterious sides-- such as the security guard in Marathon who may, or may not, be a cyborg killing machine manufactured from the corpses of dead soldiers, and the similarly (if less gruesomely) enhanced Master Chief of the Halo series, whose face we never see in the games and of whose background prior to his abduction and training in the Spartan II program we know very little.


I think an interesting twist to put on an Escape game would be to vary the kind of gameplay needed for each phase of a multi-stage escape.

The player would start off inside a solitary confinement cell in a high security prison. At this stage, the player has almost no resources at his disposal and no knowledge of the background story; he or she may have been drugged, injured during torture, lobotomized-- anything.

Gameplay at this stage might closely resemble the Flash-based series of "escape from the room" games, where through a combination of manipulation of objects at hand and assistance from an unknown outsider (a guard? another prisoner?) the player must find a way out.

Once outside the cell, though, the prisoner is still trapped inside the prison. Now, with more freedom of movement but still not much in the way of resources, we could have gameplay heavily based on stealth, where a premium is put on staying in shadows, being quiet, perhaps changing costumes at appropriate times in order to make your way outside of the prison.

Once outside, though, the player discovers the prison itself is just the worst part of an oppressive police state. Still there are controls on movement and material, but outside the prison the player may find allies. To what use he or she puts those allies to use will be up to them.

The key conflict here may be that now, at last, more traditional conflict-based gameplay is available; weapons and allies. However, the player may have to choose between taking this more traditional route, or taking another route to help discover why they were put in the prison to start with. It may not be what you think. The best variation of this may be to have what the reason is change depending on various other choices the player makes along the way, much as the endings of some of the Silent Hill games are similarly variable-- although I think care should be taken so that these "choices" are not as minor and arbitrary as they are in some of those games.

In the endgame, the player might choose to lead a prison break and free all the inmates, perhaps as part of a general rebellion against the police state. They might instead lead an expedition to escape from the walled city into the wilderness beyond, and leave the society behind. Or, the player might choose to eschew deploying large-scale force and instead try to unravel the mystery that led to his imprisonment at the start-- and each of these approaches may be incompatible.

The name for the idea, Matroska, I took from the famous Russian doll where inside each doll is an even smaller doll, to evoke the situation the player finds himself in at the start-- trapped inside a cell inside a prison inside a walled city inside a repressive society, with different skills and actions required to escape from each.

A Bat In The Belfry

Okay, so a second floor walk-up doesn't qualify as a belfry. So sue me.

That didn't stop a small brown bat from somehow zeroing in on a tiny kitchen window less than a foot square last night while we were working on our computers, and finally finding its way into our living room where it circled the ceiling lamp almost silently a few times before settling down into the folds of our curtains.

While my wife quickly gave the alarm and scrambled for cover, I couldn't decide for myself what the thing was for a few seconds.

Aeon Fans Fluxed Over By Paramount

I intentionally avoided reading reviews of Aeon Flux starring Charlize Theron before viewing it last night. In retrospect, it was a good choice. Had I read even the smallest sampling of reviews, I probably would have spared myself the trouble. But that would have deprived me of the opportunity to write this review. So I'll call it even.

Despite not seeing any reviews, my expectations were fairly low from the start. Aeon Flux's beginnings on MTV's Liquid Television show, as well as its run as a series in its own right, marked it as an avant garde work. It regularly flouted narrative traditions, featured confusing and sometimes disturbingly adult themes, and flat-out refused to provide a neatly wrapped up explanation of what you had just seen. It not only challenged conventions of storytelling, it also challenged the audience to question themselves-- about why they like it (or dislike it) and what we actually mean when we say "story".

This is not the stuff of Hollywood films. It is no longer the stuff of MTV, if it ever was. And in the pursuit of what one can only assume were purely financial goals-- goals almost assuredly to go unattained unless they involve tax writeoffs-- Paramount made a live-action adaptation of Aeon Flux while specifically choosing not to involve Aeon's creator, Peter Chung:

Chung's input didn't factor into that large-scale effort. Other than a few script notes he passed on to the filmmakers — notes he claims that they "really didn't pay that much attention to" — Chung was not a part of the production. In fact, he actually had different hopes for the property.

"I wanted to make an animated feature. That's what I lobbied for. I wasn't really sure if the fans of the show wanted to see a live-action version. I think [MTV's] thinking was, 'We're not going to just make a movie that's for fans of the show. We want to really open this up to a wider audience.' I guess they figured that live action was the way to do that."

From TVGuide.com

The questions that leap first and foremost to the mind of an Aeon Flux fan are answered here. Why wasn't this animated? Chung wanted it, Paramount didn't. Was it to save money? Perhaps, but unlikely. The film reportedly cost between $55 and $75 million dollars, almost none of which can be seen on the screen. Despite evidence to the contrary, not only does the film not look that good, but it looks nothing at all like the animated serial on which it is based:

In the upcoming film, Aeon is played by Charlize Theron, and in answer to the two key questions certain to emanate from the fanboy quadrant: yes, and yes — her short, jet-black hair and her skin-tight, jet-black bodysuit have made the transition from Chung's remarkable small-screen animation to the big-budget, live-action theatrical release with nary a change.

From MTV

This person: A) has never seen Aeon Flux the animated series, B) has never seen Aeon Flux the movie, C) saw a version of Aeon Flux the movie far superior in production value to what was actually released, D) is blind, or E) is lying.

In no way let the fact that the above text is hosted on MTV's servers impact your answer to the above question. I'm assuming that Ben Cosgrove is blind, as are his compatriots Larry Carroll and James Montgomery, who provided "additional reporting". If this were not so, surely each of them-- or indeed any of them-- would have noticed that the flat black fabric with which Theron is clothed for the majority of the movie in no way resembles the attire of Aeon in the animated series. The lustrous, almost ultraviolet look of the animated series-- something that looks like a cross between leather and PVC-- is nowhere to be seen on the big screen. Most of Aeon's outfits look like a child's Halloween costume. One half expects to see her break out a pair of cat ears at any moment. And the hairdo? Don't even start.

These are not the only details in the Aeon Flux movie that not just different from the animated series, but so vastly different in word and spirit that it is difficult to imagine them being related at all. It is as if Paramount took a group of writers, locked them in a dark room with copies of the animated series, but gave them enough time to view only a small portion of them all, and then required them to write their notes about the series in crayon on the back of index cards. These index cards, out of order, were then handed to a completely different group of people, who then went on to make this film.

The screenwriters practically admit this themselves, in MTV's own promotional materials. It's as if they know that the film they've made is not Aeon Flux. It isn't even Aeon Flux Lite. It's Charlize Theron cosplaying Aeon Flux through a tired screenplay that at its very heart is something the animated Aeon Flux series never was and the animated Aeon Flux character always refused to be: conventional.

"What Peter did with that show," Manfredi says, "and what he did with his animation was so unique that, in a sense, there was no way to make that into a live-action film. And so our goal, the whole time, was to make something that stands beside it, as a companion. The two visions complement each other."

With companions like this, who needs enemies? Having freed themselves from the obligation of even making a good faith effort to translate Aeon Flux to the silver screen, Paramount then went on to create a star vehicle for Theron.

That's how it feels; like a hollow star vehicle. Characters and themes from several different episodes are mixed and matched with reckless abandon and predictably dismal results. The writers seem to have confused the idea of being deep, which the series surprisingly was, with being confusing, which is what the film leaves us with.

The only time this film does break the rules, you wish it hadn't. "Show don't tell" gets a bullet to the head in the first few seconds, as the entire back story of Bregna gets spelled out in a way that never was in the shorts or the series, removing every bit of mystery from the agent's dystopian universe. The need to have explained what need not be explained-- what must not be explained-- consistently ruins the vision that ran through the original work. In its place, we get a second-rate remake of Logan's Run, a far better film, in which the last remainders of the human race cower inside their last walled city after the world was ravaged by a virus that destroyed most of the human population and left the remainder infertile, necessitating the constant replenishment through cloning, something that is not common knowledge but is quickly discovered by Aeon shortly after her sister, Una, is killed.

Una, of course, was a character from the series, most prominently in the epside Isthmus Crypticus. Except she wasn't Aeon's sister and died in a completely different manner. But nevermind.

It would only be normal, at this point, to assume that some of the negative reaction to the film, especially coming from self-avowed fans of the original series, is less an even-handed appraisal of the film and more a knee-jerk reaction to seeing any changes made to a beloved work. One might even begin to wonder if, even a scant ten years from the original show's release, a bit of nostalgia might be creeping in, imbueing the original with greater depth and quality than it actually had. Or else might might wonder that those at MTV and Paramount simply didn't understand the material they owned, and might be forgiven for thinking it was a simple action movie property and therefore adapted it as such.

Let's blow those assumptions right out of the water here and now with the words of Aeon Flux producer, David Gale:

The show, as you know, is built on a kind of an anti-narrative. It’s about questioning straightforward narrative. So what we talked about with Peter – Peter Chung was here for a set visit recently. We didn’t talk to him during the process but Karyn [Kusama, the director] and David talked to him for years now about this, where our ideal is that these two things exist as parallel worlds to each other. For us we’re really conscious of the responsibility you have when you try to adapt something that’s very special. The show itself is very special. A way to protect it is to do your own thing that tries to do justice to the thought and the feeling of the original, but you take it in such a new direction that the two things can exist on their own. The movie isn’t a bastardized version of the show. The movie is its own thing.

From CHUD.

So, right from the horse's mouth we get that Gale does understand what Chung's original work was about: deconstructing the idea of narrative. He knows that some fans are going to hate it. He knows, in effect, that this is a bastardized version of the show. He wants to escape having it labeled as such by calling it a completely separate work, but yet somehow still call it Aeon Flux.

Gale, if you didn't want us to call this out as bastardized, you shouldn't have put "Aeon Flux" in the title.

Of course, once the film has committed itself to being a throughly conventional spy thriller, it immediately starts to conflict with the few remaining vestiges of the Aeon Flux universe that remain. Such as, if Bregna is indeed the last remaining city.. where do the Monicans come from? The episode which shows rebellious Breen trying to escape to Monica has been discarded, but somehow the Monicans survive. How a band of rebels that are so secretive that they hold drug-induced rendezvous within their own minds can run about all wearing similar clothing is beyond comprehension. That part of Aeon Flux's style makes sense within Chung's original. Here it's just baffling, and not in a good way.

The Monica-Bregna conflict only got fleshed out when Flux transitioned from shorts to series. But just like the plot elements that Id Software added to Doom 3, for the transition to the screen, Hollywood just thinks it knows better:

Mtv gave Chung the opportunity to develop the character further with a ten episode series which aired in 1995. Here is where Aeon Flux was given a voice and became and interesting character. Initially she began as an expendable member of a resistance movement, but with her own series Chung made Flux an opportunist who was neither bad nor good. Her playground was not only Bregna, but the rival nation of Monica which existed just over the wall. Her episodic illegal crossings into each territory were deadly excursions inspired by Chung's experiences in North and South Korea. Aeon aided the side that served her needs and occasionally made a moral choice or two. Leather clad and nimble female saboteurs may seem like old hat after "The Matrix", but Chung's heroine is an obvious source of inspiration to many.

From Latino Review.

The Matrix's Trinity might owe much to Chung's Aeon, but the "wider audience" that Paramount is appealing to is going to see the shoe on the other foot, no doubt.

When the animated original transitioned from being short pieces to a half-hour series, there were changes that were made that were controversial. The originals were, for the most part, without dialogue. There was no plot thread that joined the shorts together, so no one story was sustained for as long as twenty-two minutes. Aeon Flux often died, either at the end of the short or sometimes much earlier.

The episodes of the series become something else; it became the story of two major characters, the rebellious Aeon Flux and the megalomaniacal dictator, Trevor Goodchild. But the series still made you question everything. Were they enemies, lovers, or both? Was Aeon a patriotic rebel, a vicious terrorist, or both? Was Goodchild a benevolent despot, a scientific genius, a lunatic-- or all three and more? The series became the story of the relationship between these two, embedded in layer upon layer of reversals, betrayals, revelations and self-realizations.

The film does away with all of that. The film's Trevor is a teddy bear. They go through the pretense of portraying him as the bad guy for about fifteen minutes before revealing that the real enemy is his brother. How original. The story becomes how Aeon Flux and Trevor Goodchild are going to revenge themselves on Trevor's brother for attempting to usurp the former's place and succeeding in killing the latter's sister, along the way discovering, as in Logan's Run, that the world outside the city is, in fact, livable, and that the human race is not, in fact, infertile, and that Aeon and Trevor's ancient ancestors were, in fact, husband and wife. That this last detail was also plundered from something suggested in the original series only adds insult to injury, as this revelation comes bereft of the many hours of intrigue that preceded it in the animated series.

In the series, Aeon and Trevor spend most of their time together physically at each other's throats, just on the edge of falling in love. During the film, they spend most of their time in each others' arms, on the edge of falling asleep, which puts most of the audience to sleep, and makes me want to put my hands around their throats.

The film similarly mines other items and themes from the series. Aeon's sometime co-conspirator, sometime rival Scaphandra, who lost her feet running a machinegun gauntlet surrounding one of Goodchild's lairs and had them replaced with hands, which she preferred, returns in the film, inexplicably renamed Sithandra. I'm told that at least for the Russian speaking audience, this makes at least some sense, as her original name sounds like a gender-bent version of the word for "spacesuit". What's more important here is that Scaphandra isn't given anything interesting to do with her modified manipulators except to pick up a gun with them once, and the gauntlet-running sequence that could have been lifted right from the series, shot for shot, is re-imagined in a way that makes it much less interesting.

For those who don't remember, that episode-- also the one that featured Trevor's cloning machine-- featured the lab protected by automatic guns that surveyed a wide expanse of labyrinthine concrete. Aeon can't make it in and out by herself; she needs Scaphandra's help to infiltrate it by distracting the guns. One of them moves at a time, quickly darting out and then finding cover. While the guns remained trained on the last moving target, the other one makes a run for some cover, and in this way, eventually the two make it across.

The film takes this simple concept and manages to screw it up. The automatic guns are still there, although now they're inexplicably reimagined into spike-firing fruit trees. And despite the fact that they open fire nearly as soon as the two agents appear, they are both always moving, even while Scaphandra uses her feet-hands (hand-foots?) to climb one of the trees and commandeer the deadly fruit to take out other nearby trees. What the rest of them are doing while she's doing this is unclear. A concept from the original series that was so simple as to be nearly idiot-proof clearly ran into a better bunch of idiots here.

The only thing memorable about this sequence is the only decent stunt, and the only frames that are at all evocative of the original character. At the end of the gauntlet, Aeon makes a nearly impossible leap, landing spread-eagle with her nose inches from some nasty-looking grass-like glass spikes. Scaphandra, having already come face to face (face to foot? Hand to foot?) with the sharp tendrils, leaps in at the last moment to pull her away. For that one brief second, Aeon's impossibly suspended body, inches from certain death (or at least disfigurement of Theron's pretty visage) reminded me of the contortions of the original Aeon. But the resemblance begins and ends there.

The film has clearly been dumbed down to reach not only a wider audience than what the original series appealed to, but to be more child-safe and get a PG-13 rating. The series' Flux was ruthless and amoral, even to the point of being willing to consider killing innocents to achieve her goals, even when her goal was nothing loftier than proving that no one can tell her what to do. If you don't believe me, watch The Purge from the original series-- what might be called Chung's adaptation of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, where Trevor implants those of his citizens he considers morally deficient with an artificial conscience he calls a Custodian. The episode shows you a range of moral choices made by Aeon in a variety of situations, and then gives her a chance to make one more in a game-show setting with Goodchild as the host. The trick is, we don't know at that point whether or not Aeon was implanted with a Custodian or not. And when the episode ends-- we still don't know!

There are no such moral dilemmas in the film. Flux is ordered to kill Goodchild, but fails to follow through, not because of any moral quandary, but because she can't shake the feeling that she knows him from somewhere. Of course, a reel later we realize the bad guy is really Trevor's brother, not Trevor, paving the way for the two to become both lovers and co-conspirators, free of any of the conflicts that made the show so interesting. It's as if the first act of Romeo & Juliet had ended with the Capulets and the Montagues allying themselves against a third family made up to order, and urging their rug rats to get hitched to seal the deal.

Utopia or Deuteranopia from the series features some of its more bizarre imagery, as Trevor has apparently kidnapped the rightful governor of Bregna, and with the help of a nameless device that seems to distort reality through vibration, is building what looks like a love-nest for himself and Aeon inside a red-curtained room he reaches by opening the Governor's chest with a device that looks like the key to a chastity built and crawling through.

All that remains of that in the film is the vibrating device, except here, it's used only to conceal the hidden laboratory that Trevor is supposedly using to help save the human race from infertility, an objective he somehow manages to pursue without an ounce of sexual chemistry between himself and the film's protagonist. The other problems with that scene are that the laboratory itself is concealed in a hidden library so secret that it opens up right in front of Aeon automatically when she walks over its entrance, and that the device that reveals the library's true nature as laboratory is hidden in plain sight; in fact, the device practically mugs her as soon as she touches it, as if begging to reveal its secret.

Once revealed, the lab itself looks like a half-dozen mail-order chemistry sets spread out over a single table. The entire lab is destroyed in a fight between Aeon and one of Trevor's henchwomen only minutes after she finds it. But later in the film, we still have to go back there for Trevor to retrieve his research-- only to find, of course, that his brother's henchmen have gotten there first and burned it all.

Once that's done, the film needs some other location to fixate on, which turns out to be the jellyfish-like zeppelin that floats over the city. Aeon sneaks aboard once to find that it's a repository for all the city inhabitants' DNA, and is used to recreate them through cloning after they die. Naturally, the first thing she wants to find out is where the reincarnation of her sister is. After she's assured herself that her sister is now safe and alive again, of course her next reaction is that she is supposed to be a nihilistic terrorist, so she has no choice but to destroy the entire cloning operation, which leads me to believe that the screenwriters have confused the word nihilistic with the word nonsensical.

The film climaxes, if that is the right word, with a hilarious shootout where Aeon Flux stands near-motionless, on low ground, in the center of a small garden, surrounded by conveniently masked attackers, all of whom fall prey either to her dual-wielded machine guns (which look like nothing so much as a ripoff of Halo 2's Master Chief with dual SMGs, despite the fact that she seems to fire only one of them at once) or to the sniper rifles of the other Monican rebels ensconced in the nearby towers, seemingly ready to assassinate Aeon and Trevor. At the last moment, a tearful appeal from Aeon convinces Scaphandra and the other Monicans to off Trevor's brother instead. In the ensuing firefight, despite the advantages of distance, height, and scoped weapons, each of the snipers is picked off in turn, the last by Trevor's brother in his dying moments, with a rocket launcher. Meanwhile, the much easier target-- Aeon herself, armed with only two measly spray-and-pray weapons and inexplicably still for long periods of time-- escapes unharmed. Suspension of disbelief doesn't come close to covering it. This requires you to check your brain at the door, Doom-style.

One can make an argument that at times, the original animated series opted for style rather than substance, and only had a chance within 22 minutes to hint at themes it couldn't truly explore in that format. Aeon Flux the movie cuts through that Gordian knot easily by failing to have either.


Kazakhstan Takes 2nd In WCG Counter Strike Tourney

[image:1266 left hspace=5 vspace=5 border=0] On November 20, 2005, Team k23 from Kazakhstan grabbed second place in the Counter Strike:Source competition at the World Cyber Games 2005 competition, falling in the final to Team3D from the United States.

The first game, on DE_Inferno, was a close 16-12 win for Team3D. The second game, on De_Dust2, was more one-sided, wwith Team3D defeating k23 by a total score of 16-3.

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.

Happy Birthday Saltanat!

[image:1241,left,hspace=5,vspace=5,border=0] July 19, is my beautiful wife Saltanat's birthday. She turns 27 19 today. Wish her a happy birthday!