Sunday, April 27, 2008

Appleseed: Ex Machina

Well, I finally got around to checking this movie out. I swear I added it to my Netflix queue not long after I first got a PS3, but it took forever for it to become available. In fact, even this copy had to be mailed from Massachusetts or somewhere like that, which means that they didn't have it in stock anywhere closer to me, and probably that they had gotten tired of it sitting at the top of my queue and had given up on it showing up anywhere closer to me. I was, of course, pissed at them for sending it across the country because that takes an extra couple of days.

I was extra annoyed, though, because it also takes them an extra day just to ship it (so it didn't even get shipped until I was expecting it to arrive and then didn't arrive until around the time that I would normally expect to be receiving the next movie on my queue after returning it). Oh, yeah, they actually did that with two of my movies this past week, so I pretty much lost that week as far as movie watching is concerned.

On the other hand, Persona 3: FES came out on Tuesday, so it's probably not a bad thing that I didn't have any movies to distract me from the game (it's looking grim, I'm starting back over from the beginning, which means I'm planning to sink at least another 80+ hours into it, not to mention the 30+ hours of additional content they've added).

Not that this is relevant at all, but the other movie was Dan in Real Life. I actually wasn't able to watch it all the way through. It's a very painful movie to watch. So, yeah, if you ever plan to see it, make sure that the option to just stop it is available, because I swear there must be a point where everyone has to just say, "Wait, I can't handle anymore uncomfortable situations. Please, just stop. Seriously." Or maybe it's just me. But whatever, I'm supposed to be talking about Appleseed: Ex Machina. not Dan in Real Life.

So, yeah, Appleseed. It was an interesting experience. I remember watching the first one, probably two years ago. I remember not recommending it to friends. Or rather, I remember not recommending it to people who like movies as a storytelling medium. I probably told most people who asked that it was visually extremely interesting, if also rather schizophrenic. But, so if you haven't seen it, and, well, you probably haven't, then I should warn you that the story sucks. This made watching the sequel a little challenging because I had more or less forgotten the story, because it sucked. Luckily, they gave a 15 second or so recap of what was going on: you know, some sort of dystopian, post-apocalypse world with an isolated utopia populated by the survivors of the devastating world war, run by synthetically designed and produced humanoids incapable of emotions and protected by cyborgs and human piloted robot suits (because there's always robot suits, or samurai, which is why that series Samurai 7 was such a breakthrough, you know, having samurai fighting robot suits, that's on the same order as pirates fighting ninjas). Anyways, I felt right back up to speed.

But, lets forget about the story for a moment (ha, I already did). That first one was an interesting experience because of the visuals. The idea behind it was to try to combine three different animation styles in one movie. There were normal, hand drawn anime visuals, computer generated visuals, and then this third thing that's a mixture of the two (which is also done with computers...I don't know what it's called, but if you've seen Richard Linklater's movies Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly, then it's kind of like that only not trippy). The result was kind of odd. Now, it's fairly common to see the robots and spaceships and stuff done with computers while the characters and backgrounds are animated. The difference here was that they thought they could switch between the two using that third style.

The best example of this would be when the main character, some cute chick who kicks lots of ass, pulls out a gun. She's an anime character, so when she pulls it out, it appears hand-drawn. However, as she pulls it out and the lights shine on it, the metal glistens, which is done using that third strategy. Then, the camera cuts to her firing it and it's fully computer generated against the anime background, and, for that matter, attached to an anime arm.

So, I've now seen the next one, but in high definition, which is clearly worth something. From the looks of it, the producer people made the command decision to cut down on the anime-style stuff and do most things either with that in-between option or full CG. The main difference, though, is that this in-between option has gotten significantly more advanced since the previous one. The result is that it's really more CG, only it ends up with a very hand drawn look. The only way I can describe it is to tell you to go check out the cut scenes from that game Rogue Galaxy that I talked about a while ago, because it used the same style in its CG cut scenes.

So, this one primarily uses that style for its characters, instead of the anime style, and then switches back and forth on the backgrounds between CG and a hand drawn style. So, it's still fairly schizophrenic, but overall the look is a bit more unified.

Anyways, it was a rather odd experience to watch it. This animation style comes out looking very, very similar to today's graphics quality on a PS3 game. I very much imagine that most of the action we see in the movie could be done in real time during gameplay on the PS3, with a fairly minimal drop in quality. So, watching it felt a lot like watching the cut scenes from a game (for that matter, the story could have come from a game too, a bad game, just to be clear). I think I preferred the style from the first one, since at least it was unique, even though it was uneven.

The other kind of weird thing to realize is that I am totally a sucker for video game girls. Because every single girl in this movie looks like she could have come out of a video game, I was pretty much thinking to myself, "Oh, she's cute" over and over and over again. It was kind of surreal. I'm not sure if it was the hair (the classic, this is CG so we're not going to waste our time trying to render millions of individual strands), or the super smooth skin, but they all reminded me of Rinoa Heartilly (FFVIII, which is not to say that I'm any particular fan of her or even that game, she would just be the video game cutie that they all reminded me of).

One cool thing about it, though, was that John Woo was involved. So, of course, there had to be doves somewhere. And, so, well, it was a robot dove sending out some signal to take control of the general population and have them attack some building or other. I smiled. Also, the actions scenes in general were cool and well choreographed and stuff. I'm almost certain I liked the action in this one a lot more (I'll admit I don't really remember the action scenes from the first one...yeah, I don't really remember anything from it). Definitely the main advantage to doing CG action movies like this is that you can really play with the camera and this did a very good job of that. Of course, there were still times when the characters seemed weightless, especially the robot suits (you have to wonder how maneuverable a giant robot suit really is, especially if that means it's capable of dodging bullets in a mid-air battle), but at least the actions was gorgeously done.

But, yeah, otherwise it wasn't too memorable. I guess if they make another one, I'll add it to my queue. I don't have the will power to stop myself. And, besides, every single female character in it is cute, that's worth something.

That is all.

Francis

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Forbidden Kingdom

So, I just saw The Forbidden Kingdom. And, well, it was really fun. Totally awesome watching Jet Li and Jackie Chan playing around and having fun. Of course, there were totally cool fight scenes and plenty of funny lines and general silliness. So, yeah, I liked it.

There were some interesting things about it. For one, I have no idea where the title The Forbidden Kingdom comes from. I'm tempted to say that the Weinsteins are poking fun at themselves for re-purposing Hong Kong kung fu movies and giving them ridiculous unrelated titles. If that's the case, um, that's kind of weird. But kudos for them for being self aware enough to recognize that they're doing it. Now all they need to do stop giving these types of movies completely random names and we'll move on. On the other hand, maybe there actually was some sort of Forbidden Kingdom somewhere and I just missed it. Yeah, that's probably it.

The most interesting thing, though, was the fact that they felt the need to anchor this movie with a young white male. Yes, that's right. You take pretty much the two most famous and popular martial arts movie stars alive today and put them in a movie together and still feel the need to add a white guy to make sure that it appeals to American audiences. That is sad. Admittedly, they spend the first half of the movie just making fun of that very fact. I mean this literally by the way. Jackie and Jet spend massive amounts of time laughing at poor Michael Angarano (or something like that...the star of Sky High, if you ever saw it, not Shia Lebouef...or something like that...even though he looks kind of like a shorter, stouter version of him in this movie...and that was a terrible use of pronouns, just for the record). In fact, there's one fight where Jackie uses him as a weapon (which is pretty awesome)...and as a cushion on occasion as well.

Of course, they still eventually train him and he becomes of semi-capable fighter or whatever. At least they make the decision to never put him anywhere near the level of those two. He becomes good enough to handle the random henchman, which I guess is the minimum for him to be able to keep up at all. And, of course, he proves his value and blah de blah. They come to respect him and are proud of him and yeah, it doesn't matter.

Anyways, why does it have to be a white kid? Story-wise, there's no reason for it at all. It's literally done entirely to make for easier viewing for white audiences. But that's stupid since we've seen that movies with entirely Asian casts are quite capable of making money at the box office (think of that Crouching Tiger movie or those artsy Jet Li movies...or maybe Memoirs of a Geisha or whatever, I didn't actually watch the full thing so I can't say for sure that there wasn't a random American geisha or something hanging around). So, really, it's just done because the Weinsteins are stupid. I guess we all knew that though, so whatever.

Seriously, though, if I were Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and we were going to star in a movie together, I would want that movie's young star to be some charismatic martial artist who will one day become as renowned as me. I would take this as an opportunity to show off somebody who's going to be a star and put them in front of the whole world. I wouldn't want that role to go to some American kid who has relatively little fighting experience. But that's how it went. Which kind of sucks.

On the other hand, the kid did a decent job in the role, so I have to give him credit for that. Not that he had to do much besides get laughed at, but I don't mind.

I was also a little dissatisfied with the flow of the movie. They kind of had this formula where we started by watching them travel to a new locale (bamboo forest, desert, lake, burned village, cherry blossoms, or whatever), then we had a scene or two with Jackie, Jet, and the kid which were awesome, then we had a pointless, forced, kind of awkward scene with the love interest. And then we were back to traveling. This was typically interspersed with a scene checking up on the bad guys. And that was the vast majority of the movie.

From that description, you can probably tell what made me dissatisfied with the flow of the movie. Yeah, the love interest was completely pointless. Her only reason for existing, at all, was because these movies are required by law to have a kick ass girl who starts out thinking the boy is useless and embarrassing (because he is) but eventually realizes that there's more to him than what she first saw. I mean, even freaking Balls of Fury had to do that, and it's just using ping-pong to make fun of the American martial arts movie form.

I did kind of like how the kid would eventually start hanging out with her at each of the locales because he'd be tired of Jackie and Jet laughing at him and beating him up. So he'd retreat to her while she'd be playing one of those string instrument things and typically be a good boy a sit quietly and listen...okay, and stare at her. But, it was still not really a fun way to develop her character and it was an entirely ineffective way to develop their relationship of sorts.

Of course, having them be sparring partners would be even more clich├ęd so I guess I shouldn't complain too much. I guess if I were making the movie, I would have had him listen and then try to actually start a conversation with her, maybe even learn about her (while not staring at her). Instead of their way, where he listens and then she randomly volunteers information, probably just to end the awkward silence created by him staring at her. You know what, it would have been better if they just didn't have him staring at her the whole time (at points it honestly seemed like he was drooling a little bit).

But, whatever, what's done is done. The despite these shortcomings, the sheer awesomeness of watching a movie with Jackie Chan and Jet Li easily outweighed them. Most importantly, though, it was clear that they were having tons of fun making this movie and that really comes out while you're watching it. So, yeah, good job guys. You should make another one. Minus that ridiculous Monkey King hair on Jet Li, that was a little much.

That is all.

Francis

Monday, April 14, 2008

New Amsterdam Finale

Well, New Amsterdam's over now. I'm not certain, but I'm suspicious that Fox Network has no intention whatsoever of making a second season. To be honest, I don't think they ever did (I think they were embarrassed that they paid for someone to make the first season). But whatever, I wouldn't mind if they let it keep going (read as: I would probably keep watching it). Overall, it was pretty decent.

Structurally, I think I kind of liked it. I'm pretty sure I mentioned this before, but I'm not really a fan of police investigations, so I liked that there was a lot more to the show than that. I liked the period piece interludes, where Amsterdam is invariably seducing/falling in love with another woman. I think they typically worked pretty well and helped to give him a reason to care (since he always seems to care).

I wasn't really into the side plot with him finding the woman of his dreams. The most interesting thing, for me though, was how he simply tossed her aside when he found out it wasn't her (which makes his getting shot in her presence a no-win situation for her: either he dies because she made him lose his immortality or he dumps her because she didn't). In his defense, he can't waste his time on the wrong girl since he believes that the right one must have been present when he had his heart attack. Still, it was surprisingly heartless and cruel of him. I appreciated it.

It did suck that she never believed him when he told her he was 400 years old. I gotta be honest, but that should have been his first clue that she wasn't the right one. I mean, would you want to be with someone who denies that, like, 90% of your life ever happened? Of course not. I have no idea why he put up with her for so long (okay, fine, she was kind of hot).

As for his partner, I'm not sure how I feel about her. She's decently hot, and she's got a pretty kick ass attitude and a swagger about her that's certainly fun to watch (not in a dirty way, mind you). I just don't know what purpose she serves. Admittedly, he basically works alone so she just tags along when he fills her in, so I think she has to wonder what her purpose is as well. But, I guess she fills the role of new comrade in his life who has to slowly be filled in on his history and personality so that the viewers can get caught up. But what happens after that point (which should have been the end of, about, episode four)? Well, we're still waiting.

Also, there's his new boss. She's definitely something. Probably more fun than him, actually. Only, where did she come from? I swear I never saw her introduction (or maybe I wasn't paying attention), but suddenly I started seeing her going around telling Amsterdam what to do and stuff (not that he ever listens to her). I guess she's Cuddy (I have no idea how to spell that name, weird) to his House...but that better not mean he's got some weird, contrived crush on her. That would make me sad, although it would be understandable.

Otherwise, this season ended just about how things are supposed to: back where we all started. Of course, that means that if they do make a second season, they're going to have to come up with a new plot, because the search for his "real" true love is going to get old pretty quick (ha, let's be honest, it was old from the beginning). And, besides, him actually finding his true love would be just about the worst thing that could happen to the show (because then he could die and that would take away the only thing that makes him special). So, I guess we'll just have to see if things ever get to go anywhere else. In any case, this show was way better than Journeyman. And that's all that matters.

That is all.

Francis

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Portal

Well, I finally got around to playing Portal. Yeah, I'm slow. Oddly, the thing that motivated me was that they're releasing the ending theme song, "Still Alive", on Rock Band for free next week and I wanted to have beaten the game before I got the song. So, I bought The Orange Box and played through Portal (yes, I spent $60 dollars so I wouldn't feel guilty listening to a free song). And, well, it was pretty good.

I mean, I feel like some of the praise might have gone a little far, but it was certainly well done. For one, the writing really was top-notch. Definitely no argument there. I couldn't help but hang on to every single word GLaDOS said. In true Half-Life style, all the story is told during the gameplay, which would make the style more like Shadow of the Colossus than Assassin's Creed. Admittedly, since it's a first person shooter, I guess it's more of a hybrid since you get both player control and camera control (since they're one and the same), however, I'll say that it's closer to Shadow of the Colossus since the concept is closer to that one (retaining control of the player's eyes).

But the important thing was the words she was saying. It was beautifully extraneous, and yet perfectly relevant. Little morsels of information within tons of...well, talking. This is just about the opposite of most games' writing. They either separate important information from the filler or they don't bother with filler at all (my favorite is when they highlight important words, so the player can just read those). Nobody would dare to hide the important information within extraneous stuff because that requires players to pay attention. Even more, they would most definitely never only provide the information once. But, well, I guess that's how the guys at Valve roll. And you know what? I like it. I should have to pay attention when I'm playing a game, especially a puzzle game (admittedly, this is a fairly action oriented puzzle game).

Ironically, it wasn't GLaDOS's dialogue that I liked the most. It was the sentry units. Those things were amazing. I loved their little sing-song voices as they were searching for me, as well as the cries of fear when I picked them up. And, best of all, when I killed them, they forgave me. I mean, how often do you get that? Little childish creatures (well, inanimate objects, anyway) that are having fun trying to kill me, but are self-aware enough to be understanding when they lose the little game we're playing.

The other parts of the game weren't quite as awesome. Obviously, the game mechanic of creating portals is awesome. However, the puzzles were just okay. It really felt like the whole game was teaching me how to use the mechanic, but they forgot the part where they challenge me to come up with cool and clever things do with the game mechanic. They shouldn't teach me every trick they're going to make me use, they should eventually force me to come up with some of my own tricks. After getting out of the test facility, there was only one instance of this happening: a rocket sentry unit that can break glass and then using portals to get his rockets to the glass I want to break...and even this one was just teaching me a new mechanic that I'd use against the last boss.

Admittedly, I think their idea was to give players the opportunity to figure out awesome clever uses for portals with the level challenges (like trying to finish the levels using as few portals as possible), but teaching players to be clever shouldn't require playing the same areas over again. Well, I guess I'll just have to wait for the sequel for more challenging levels (I would love to have levels that require me to think for longer than 40 seconds to beat).

Also, what is up with people's obsession with the Companion Cube? I mean, seriously, how could anyone care about it at all? It's a box. With little pink hearts on it. A female voice tells you that you should love it because it won't hurt you and you use it for a grand total of, maybe 3 minutes, and somehow you develop some kind of emotional attachment to it? Why? It's just weird. Even in the course of using it, it gets all banged up and stuff, so do people mind having to do that to it too? I don't know.

I had a much harder time killing GLaDOS than I had incinerating the cube. By the end of the game, I had developed a relationship with her, not the cube. Admittedly, she's clearly psychotic and quite ready and willing to kill me, but it was a lot harder throwing her pieces into the fire. Especially how each individual piece had it's own personality. I really felt like I wish I could have just thrown away that angry, violent piece and kept the inquisitive and cute one (and, of course the morality one, that one would probably be useful to have around too). But no, I had to destroy her. She didn't deserve it. I wish there were a way I could have explored and eventually found the cake. The tasty cake. I was glad that, in the end, they revealed that the cake was not a lie. I just wish I could have shared it with her.

Sorry about that, I got a little sentimental there. I can't help but miss her a little. I was glad to know that she's still alive and doing science.

So, yeah, that's my reaction to Portal. Good job guys. Next time, can you add in the ability to actually throw objects? I really missed it.

That is all.

Francis

PS - What was the deal with the random scratchings in the office walls about jellyfish? I didn't really understand that part. Unless, maybe it's because GLaDOS is kind of shaped like a jellyfish, so the office workers referred to her as the jellyfish (and when she started killing them, they started referring to her as the bad jellyfish...). Hmm, food for thought, indeed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sci-Fi, Westerns, and Jericho

Well, I started watching this TV show Jericho about two weeks ago, today. Ironically, the day that I started watching was also the day that it was canceled (note that I started watching with the help of Netflix, I did not start with the final episode). And, well, I've been pretty much blown away by how good this show is. In fact, I think it's probably the best show I've watched since Firefly.

For a little background, Jericho is basically from the same genre as tv shows like Lost and Heroes and Battlestar Galactica. In other words, it's a fairly large ensemble cast with a very continuous storyline. All these shows are also sci-fi shows to at least some extent and Jericho is no exception. In sci-fi terms, it's a near future post-apocalypse story.

Now, the primary thing that makes Jericho stand out from the shows I mentioned above is the story. Story is really important to this genre and it is Jericho's story that stands out above almost all the TV shows I've ever watched. To put it simply, if Jericho were a book, I would read it. In comparison, Lost could never function as a book and BSG would just make a boring book. Heroes would be readable, but just okay.

I think having a story that can actually function as a book makes a lot of sense to this genre. These characters are being developed in a very similar manner as a book and they truly benefit from having their stories be told that way as well. For example, I never even finished the first season of Lost, for many reasons, but one of them was that the character development style was really ineffective. Initially, the idea of having each episode be full of flashbacks informing us of the background to that character was fun, but it pretty quickly got old. This was because each character's development had to happen in spurts, rather than over the course of the season. I also pulled out because I started realizing that there would never really be answers to the questions being raised and that things would just get weirder and weirder as the writers tried to keep viewers watching while not actually doing anything (to my knowledge, things are progressing along that path still, but don't quote me on it).

In comparison to Lost, Heroes, BSG, and Jericho all having multiple storylines going, fleshing out as many characters as possible simultaneously. This is how books are typically written as well, because character development should happen concurrently with plot development, not at a cost to it.

In fact, the only episode of Jericho so far that has faltered at all for me was an episode that goes over what everyone was doing the day before the nuclear attacks. Throughout this episode I was bemoaning the fact that this pointless break in the story did nothing to develop the characters (since if you hadn't figured out what the characters were doing prior to the attacks, then either you weren't paying attention, or it didn't matter anyway) and took away the momentum that the story was currently enjoying. Multiple times now, Heroes has also had an episode like this, and every time I scream to the Heavens "Why!?" Because, once again, it hurts the momentum of the story and it wastes our time with information that we either could have figured out without them telling us or which could have been explained in seconds without giving up an entire episode.

But, so if all three of these TV shows are using story properly, then why is it Jericho's story that stands out to me? Because a near future post-apocalypse story is a sci-fi version of a western, and I'm something of a fan of westerns.

Now, Firefly was special because that was a western in a sci-fi setting, but there are lots of sci-fi takes on westerns. The difference between these two ideas, for the record, is not just semantics. Firefly was, first and foremost, a western. It used the language, the imagery, the ideals, even the plots of a western (for example, smuggling cattle). It just added spaceships, but at heart it was a western (in fact, it was a romantic western, rather than a modern day western, or at least westerns post-Unforgiven). In comparison, a sci-fi take on westerns normally has a handful of the ideals and archetypes from westerns and that's all. Star Trek would be a decent example of this (you know, that whole "Space, the final frontier" thing is a very western theme).

Jericho uses a post-nuclear America as the new frontier. In this world, there are such dangers as outlaws posing as lawmen, vigilantes, resource shortages, and just plain ol' desperation. These are all classic dangers in the modern western. Character-wise, we have the prodigal son (with a tragic history and a shady past), we have the mysterious stranger, we have a farmer, we have the town elder (mayor, in this case, but he could just as easily be Sheriff), we have both the damsel in distress and the kick-ass girl, and we even have the child whose been forced to bear responsibilities beyond his years due to the untimely deaths of his parental figures.

It's just, wow. This is a modern western. I mean, compare this setting to Firefly. Admittedly, Captain Mal has the properly sad, almost beaten, past that he hides through a sarcastic and often mean attitude, but otherwise, their stories are more like the adventures of Robin Hood than the lives of people constantly living in hiding due to the risk of discovery by the law. In Jericho, though, the theme is how this group of people is managing to still live human lives even as the world around them is torn apart by people no different from them (that's a theme in westerns, by the way, the way that suffering and desperation degrades people as well as the desire to rise above that suffering).

I love how well westerns can transplant themselves into other genres. For the record, obviously Japanese samurai movies and most old English stories of chivalry are variations on the same themes as westerns as well, so it's not like westerns are even the original westerns (in fact, Mushi-shi is following many of the classic themes of the romantic frontier western, which is probably why I'm such a fan of it as well...not to mention Cowboy Bebop, but that's too easy). I especially like seeing that the maturation of the western genre is also starting to be transferred to those other genres as well. Modern westerns are some of the most beautiful stories of heroics, particularly because they focus on being both down to earth and larger than life at the same time (think of 3:10 To Yuma as a great example of a western that was heavily influenced by Unforgiven, but managed to still be full of the romanticism that makes westerns so touching). And, well, Jericho really has the potential to reach some of those heights.

I hope CBS finds a way to renew it, since I absolutely want to see what they do with the world they've created. I want to see the town slowly fall into the degradation of the rest of the world and I want to see them slowly rise above it. I want to see the prodigal son win the heart of the damsel in distress and I want to see the mysterious stranger prove to his family that he's worthy of their trust. I want to see the town elder eventually die, sacrificing himself to help bring redemption to his town now that his town has forsaken him for a leader who will bring them to violence one day. I'm sure some, or even many, of these things have probably already happened (I haven't even finished season one, yet), but I especially want to see where things go after that.

This show is a really intelligent play on one of my favorite genres and I love what they did with it.

That is all.

Francis

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Kanon and Clannad

So, you know those topics that you have something to say about, but you don't want to admit that you have something to say about them? Well, this is one of those. I think both these animes are interesting to discuss and analyze, but I would much prefer not to ever admit that I'd ever even heard of these, let alone downloaded them and watched them in their entirety. I mean, discussing these things isn't just admitting how lame I am (which I feel like I do decently often, so I don't really mind), but is basically proof that the only thing I put in my description of myself isn't even accurate (my description says that I'm a guy, but I can't imagine a guy actually watching these unless he had some really serious obsessions with Japanese schoolgirls and high school dramas...and I would prefer admitting that I'm not actually a guy to admitting that I have an obsession with Japanese schoolgirls and high school dramas...but that's probably why it's called denial).

Anyways, I started watching Clannad, then Kanon, then Clannad again, on the recommendation of the dude from Megatokyo (why do I keep admitting that I read that?). Both these series were made by the same animation studio and are based upon some semi-old Japanese highschool dating sims made by some other company (the name is something like Key, but it doesn't matter). Anyways, the Megatokyo dude recommended Clannad and Kanon while they were still releasing Clannad, so I checked it out and thought it seemed kind of interesting and then I wasted some time by watching Kanon, and then went back and watched Clannad (actually, I haven't finished it yet, I think I have like three episodes left, but I'm going to assume those episodes don't change my opinion of the show at all).

I mentioned the order that I watched them in, because it's actually relevant, by the way. When I started watching Clannad, I found it interesting because I liked the main character (who is almost the only guy we see, besides his stupid sidekick friend who can never get any girl to give him a second glance and only exists as fodder for jokes). I was impressed because the main character was actually a kind of cool dude. He was angsty and somewhat depressed, but also sarcastic and funny and more than a little mean (so, yes, he reminded me of myself). However, since at this point there were only two episodes, that's about all I knew about Clannad before I switched to Kanon.

Upon switching to Kanon, the first thing I noticed was that this main character was not nearly as interesting as the guy from Clannad. Basically, he had no personality at all. Keeping in mind that this anime originated from a Japanese high school dating sim, this made sense. I imagine the main character in the game is also pretty much a blank slate, which allows the player to imprint himself in place of the character as a way to experience the game. This doesn't really work for the TV show, though, since I prefer main characters that actually have personalities (obviously, I actually prefer TV shows where the main character has a similar personality as my own, so that I can imprint on him as a way to experience the show, but that is totally not the point).

However, while the game was targeted at boys (well, male nerds, at least), the anime is clearly targeted at girls (and guys who are obsessed with moe or whatever...and, yes, the fact that I just used the term most likely means that I'm one, but it's not true, I swear). They structured the series to follow this guy as he develops relationships with, like, 4 or 5 different girls, one at a time, and helps them with with their problems and then moves on to the next one. Each one gets her own 4-6 episode arc, where she is almost really the main character.

These girls, of course, each have unique and exciting personalities, which almost clash with the main character's own lack of such things. This makes sense, though, because I'm sure the game gave these girls those big personalities because that's what their audience wanted (probably along with some cute outfits and things like that, but the personalities are a big part of it too, I imagine, since I'm clearly not part of the target audience of the game). Ironically, the female characters all having fully developed stories and personalities fits really well with the target audience of the tv show (girls, which apparently I've decided to admit being).

So, the experience of watching Kanon is a little odd. And, well, I didn't particularly like it either. Of all the girls, there was only one that I actually liked (she had a sword and fought monsters...okay, I guess I kind of liked his cousin too, but that's just because I'm a sucker for blue hair), and the guy ends up with the least interesting and most obnoxious of the girls he interacted with. All in all, it was interesting to watch and contemplate about what worked and what didn't as the creators used the same story but targeted an entirely different audience, but it wasn't enjoyable. And this was largely because of the protagonist, which made me excited for Clannad.

But, then I watched Clannad. Clannad clearly makes a bigger effort to step away from its game roots. For one, like I mentioned early, the main character has a fun personality and can actually carry the show. Also, it doesn't really follow the individual arcs for each of the girls that I assume you would get if you pursued the girls in the game it's based off of. Instead, it primarily follows the arc of a primary love interest throughout, while sporadically inserting varying amounts of the story arcs of the other potential love interests from the game. Some of them seem to get the majority of their arcs, while others merely hint at what could have been. The idea behind this is that the story as a whole is meant to be more cohesive, I think. Personally, I liked the other strategy more.

This structuring is just frustrating because unless you actually like the primary girl (and she is, once again, of course, the least interesting and most obnoxious love interest), then the main character doesn't pay that much attention to the girl you like. Even when we do enter a multi-episode arc where he takes care of some girl, he's not doing it out of interest in her. He pretty much only has eyes for the primary love interest from the very beginning (although, I guess there are still 3 more episodes where he could change his mind...if I wish hard enough).

This sucks, though, because we get all these fully realized "meet cute"-type interactions, but they can't go anywhere because the main character only has eyes for the one girl. In the other structure, each girl actually gets to be the primary love interest for a couple episodes, before he moves on (and eventually finally settles on the least interesting and most obnoxious girl). Admittedly, since this is a tv show for general audiences, his cousin doesn't get to be a primary love interest for any time (but she does have her own arc in the game, and they do at least hint at it in the show).

On a side note, I find it interesting that the games' plots, where a guy meets a girl in need and finds a way to help her and eventually realize herself, was done to fulfill the fantasies of the shut-in male players, while the TV show is able to take that same fantasy and make it a chick flick, because it's presenting this prince of sorts who arrives and helps the girls to reach her potential or whatever (an odd empowerment fantasy of both sexes, I guess). Of course, this breaks down a little bit because in the game, the girls reward the guy by sleeping with him (I assume...also, I hear this caused a little controversy due to the plot arc with his cousin), but in the female fantasy version of it, she doesn't have to give him anything in return (or rather, she wants to, but he isn't interested, he was merely helping her).

Also, and here's where Clannad almost certainly is diverging from its game roots, we see the guy's relationships with these girls start improving him (which shows the TV show's creators are doing a better job of satisfying the target demographic with additional empowerment fantasies). He goes from being the rather angsty and somewhat depressed, but sarcastic and funny to the point of mean, guy to something a lot tamer. They try to motivate him to do something with his life and to rebuild his relationship with his family and to stop playing cruel jokes on them. As the show is coming to an end, I find myself missing what he was before the girls started improving him. But, well, I'm not in the target demographic, so it's not like my dissatisfaction matters. However, I'm would be fairly surprised if the guy had to do anything like that in the game (but, maybe it's not crazy, I don't know).

Anyways, I watched both these shows. They were interesting. At times, they were actually enjoyable, well, Clannad was at least. I'm not sure Kanon was ever really able to transcend from an interesting thought exercise to true entertainment, but Clannad's scenes where the main character is being mean were very funny. So, I've admitted it. And, well, maybe I can on being a guy (I would like that). I'm still not admitting any obsessions with schoolgirls or anything like that, though. Just to be clear.

That is all.

Francis

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Digital Distribution

So, I've been kind of kicking this around in the back of my head for a while, and it seemed like a good time to finally get around to writing it down (I think I first started contemplating this in, like, mid-October, or something). Anyways, all I hear in the tech press is how someday (in the near, but not too near, future) we're going to be moving away from physical media and digital distribution is going to be the way of the future. Now, personally, I think this is crap.

Before I begin, I would like to point out that I am in no way whatsoever qualified to make any sort of judgment about this at all, so feel free to take this with a couple grains of salt (of course, I'm not sure I've written a post that I was qualified to pass any sort of judgment on, so that should probably be a general tip for reading this blog, but back to the subject at hand). The only reason I can provide for why my opinion is worth listening to is that I'm one of the people who is actually going to be buying this content, so I might have something to say about what I'd want to be buying.

In case you haven't noticed, I'm kind of an entertainment whore. I go through multiple Netflix DVDs and Blu-ray discs a week. I bought a PS3 and am averaging a new game purchase every 2-3 weeks. I even buy additional content through the little Playstation store thing. I thought the iPod was the coolest thing I'd ever heard of from the moment Steve Jobs announced it (but I didn't convince my dad to buy me one until the 3rd generation...obviously, it took a significant amount of bugging him). I've downloaded music both legally and illegally, while the vast majority of the music on my iPod is content I ripped off of CDs I've bought. I've copied movies and TV shows to my iPod illegally and I've bought music and TV shows from the iTunes store (and I've even downloaded a legal copy of Night of the Living Dead to my iPod since it isn't protected by copyright). I regularly download anime fansubs, but I also buy anime DVDs and I also rent them from Netflix (both on Blu-ray and on DVD). I watch TV shows when they play on TV and I'll go to the network websites to catch up on episodes I've missed (but I don't illegally download those). I buy trade paperbacks of comics and I also read webcomics online (and I've even bought trade paperback versions of webcomics I read online).

In other words, I'm a major consumer of this industry. I absorb media in a huge variety of forms and I am willing and able to do it both physically and digitally, as well as legally and illegally (although I try to prefer the legal strategy whenever possible). So, the important thing to recognize is that whatever the future of entertainment distribution turns out to be, it will be people like me who have to be sold on it. And, right now, I'm not really seeing how people are going to sell me on digital distribution.

Most argument about digital distribution are simple: it's already happening to music and sort of starting to happen with TV shows and so therefore it will eventually translate into similar models for movies and video games. End of story.

If they want to make it sound extra-convincing they'll talk about the cost reduction of not having to product physical media and eliminating the middle man like GameStop and Best Buy or WalMart or whatever.

But, I don't think video games and movies are necessarily going to go the way of music, and it's not even clear that TV shows necessarily are going to truly go that way, either. Music is very well-suited for digital distribution. For one, the buyer is likely intending to experience this media many times in a variety of situations (as background music around the apartment, while jogging, in the car, at work, whatever). So, not having to carry around a physical version of this media is useful (I really noticed this when I went to college with my entire music collection in my pocket).

Compare this to movies and video games which are typically going to be experienced at a limited number of places (your TV, or the TV of someone you know). They don't need to travel conveniently, and they especially don't need to travel together (if I'm taking a copy of Serenity over to a friend's place to convince him that Firefly is amazing, I don't need to bring everything else with me).

In the future, this will supposedly be dealt with by providing a set-top box on the TV, much like an Xbox360, or PS3, or AppleTV. Since the media is very nearly stationary, having a stationary box for it (as opposed to the transportable iPod) should be an effective compromise.

But, this solution creates a new problem: space. Movies and video games take up a lot more space than music. A compressed music file takes up not much more than a megabyte per minute of music. A dvd quality movie takes up closer to 30 megabytes per minute of video. For those counting, that's an order of magnitude more space. Of course, a high definition movie costs closer to 600 megabytes per minute of video (note that this is another order of magnitude).

Now, clearly, the files can be compressed some, but we're still dealing with a situation where I will need two orders of magnitude more space for growing my video collection than my music collection. For comparison, my music collection on my iPod only takes up about 15 gigabytes, which in this day and age is not much more than spare change. On the other hand, I just counted and I own over 100 DVDs (most of these are collections, and over half of them are due to the fact that I own the entire X-Files TV Series). So, we can estimate that as costing about 500 gigabytes of space. Now, these days 500 gigabytes is nothing to scream about, but that is starting to create some storage concerns. Here's where it starts getting scary, though. Since I bought the PS3, not much more than 2 months ago, I've bought 5 games for it. Assuming 50 gigabytes per disc, that's 250 gigabytes of storage. In less than 3 months.

As for PS2 games, just for comparison purposes, I own approximately 20, but that's my collection on a student's budget. I wouldn't be surprised if I had bought well over 30 games for my PS3 by the end of it's life cycle (if not 50...hopefully not 100, because that would be a lot of money spent on video games). So, in short, if I wanted to store the video I currently own in a standard definition format on my set-top box connected to TV, I would probably want a minimum of 1 terabyte, but more likely I'd prefer more than 2 terabytes, unless the cost was completely unreasonable. And that's standard definition.

Now, as a consumer of said future digital media, there is no way I would even consider buying something in standard definition. It would be a waste of my time. I spent a significant amount of money on a glorious 42 inch TV. My purchasing decision is pretty much HD or bust (and, admittedly, due to the cost of HD stuff, I often opt for bust, but that is neither here nor there...or rather, that's what Netflix is for). And, if I wanted to store a digital collection of content in high definition, I would probably need a set-top box with storage capacity closer to 10-20 terabytes at minimum (and assuming there's some major compression going on).

Now, there's two ways to deal with this problem. The first solution is to say: well, large scale digital distribution won't be feasible for at least 5 or 10 or 15 years, so by that time we'll be knee-deep in terabytes and people will be talking about exabytes or whatever and it won't be an issue anymore since a typical hard-drive will have more than enough space for all the movies and video games you could ever want to download. The second solution is to say: we'll store it on the server side and either stream it to the users on demand or allow them to download it at will and watch it and delete it at their convenience.

Both of these solutions provide the next point of challenge: getting the content to the consumer. We're talking about distributing file sizes that are in the 10s of gigabytes. Currently, I'm ecstatic when I'm pulling down just 1 megabyte per second on my broadband line (at that rate, I can download 1 gigabyte in just over 15 minutes). So, downloading a dvd quality movie is going to take about 4 times that long, or about an hour, which is long, but not unreasonable. Now multiply that by 10. That should be closer to the file size for the high definition version. For the record, 10 hours is getting to be a long time to download something.

Obviously, this can be remedied by speeding up internet connections (if we can get average transfer rates up to 10 megabytes per second in 5 or 10 or 15 years, than the high definition version won't take any more than an hour). However, how exactly do you go about speeding up internet connections? You do that by convincing ISPs that they want to build out new connection technologies with faster data transfer rates. Maybe in 15 years somebody'll make that happen, but it's not going to happen fast. That kind of extensive build out is costly as all get out, and there isn't really a clear way for the ISPs to benefit from it (besides attracting additional customers...and then price gouging them, which I'm not necessarily a supporter of, by the way).

Also, content providers will have to actually create, support, and maintain the infrastructure to maintain servers to distribute the content to the consumers, long after the customer has purchased the content. This is the case for both instances of digital distribution, but it will be much more intense if the second solution is used (that is, if we don't continue along the exponential growth curve for hard drive size and so people can't obtain multiple terabyte hard drives in a couple of years down the road, and I'll admit that it's a toss up for whether we can actually maintain the growth rate for hard drives, but I imagine there must be a limit sometime). The second solution puts a huge amount of burden on the servers to be able to serve all the customers their content on demand, which would probably necessitate it to become a subscription service, rather than a single payment (think of Xbox Live, where you're paying for the service and the content). Now, personally, I'm not interested in a subscription service, and don't really intend to ever be (aside from Netflix, which is kind of a special case...and digital cable, I guess I subscribe to that as well...and, well, I guess I'm an internet subscriber too, but that's totally not the point).

In any case, I don't really like the idea of paying someone to store my stuff. I especially don't like the idea that if I stop paying them, I won't get to keep my stuff (which is the same reason I'm not interested in subscribing to any music services). That second strategy for digital distribution sounds a little bit too much like that kind of future, and I can't imagine that this would succeed. There's too many people who are like me and want to be sure that they own what they bought, and they don't just own the right to download it so long as the service is running.

So, that's the situation. In order for digital distribution to really be feasible, there needs to be major progress in two industries that don't have much of anything to directly benefit from changing between physical and digital media (aside from selling more of their services if digital distribution becomes the norm, of course, which is hardly nothing).

On the other hand, I see little reason why Blu-ray discs shouldn't be the culmination of physical media for video, kind of like how CDs are for music. CDs contain the uncompressed audio in detail that far surpasses the human ear's capabilities to distinguish. We can compress the files significantly (as in down to mp3) and most people still can't hear the difference, but the trained ear can (to at least some extent...note that I'm hardly one of those trained ears). Similarly, unless TVs start getting a whole lot bigger (which I'm kind of doubtful they'll do), 1080p is pretty much the limit that the human eye is going to be able to distinguish the details from as well. So, there should be no reason for us to ever need higher definition video, but once we've seen HD video, it's very hard for us to go back to standard definition.

So, I think Blu-ray discs are going to be hanging around for a long while. At least as long as CDs hung around before digital distribution kicked them to the curbside (although I still prefer to buy a CD and rip it to my iPod over downloading the CD from iTunes directly). And, well, maybe I'll even buy one someday (and stop just renting them). Also, for the record, the idea of renting HD videos, which would eliminate both the ownership challenge as well as the client-side space problem still faces the download time/infrastructure challenge. Admittedly, right now I'm waiting two days between rentals of my Netflix movies, so if they were to find a cost effective way to provide HD digital rentals, it's possible I might start sniffing around (considering that 10 hours is already a lot less time than 2 days). The challenge, though, is that it would have to be no more expensive than Netflix (but, it would be okay for it to be a subscription service...I guess).

That is all.

Francis