Monday, May 24, 2010

Review of "The Fifth Elephant" by Terry Pratchett

Over the years, no author has been recommended to me as often as Terry Pratchett. My geek circle loves him. His Discworld series has spawned thirty-seven novels and a GURPS supplement, so it's obvious that many feel the same way.

I tried the first book a few years ago, "The Colour of Magic", and was unimpressed. I found it very difficult to read, it was boring, nothing was happening, I didn't care about the characters. I wrote off Discworld as something I just wasn't going to get. Then, one night, my wife plugged her iPod into the car stereo and began playing an audiobook of "Thud!", one of his more recent novels. I was instantly enchanted. The characters were all funny, quirky and well-developed. The pace of the story was great. It seemed like a book tailored for me, specifically, to love.

I decided that Terry Pratchett needed more investigating. As I loved the subject matter of "Thud", it was natural for me to seek another book in the same series about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Hence, The Fifth Elephant, the 24th Discworld novel and the 5th about the City Watch.

Ankh-Morpork is a town which reminds me of the Italian city states in the Renaissance. It has no King, but is ruled by a Lord. It is filthy, depraved and smelly but a hub of culture and science. It draws people from the countryside with its opportunities, forcing ancestral enemies to live and work side-by-side. It is hated but needed by its neighbors. It is huge, complicated and crime-ridden and the only people who can sort it out are its police force, The City Watch.

At the centre of these stories is the Commander of the Watch, Samuel Vimes, who also happens to be the most interesting and complex character. Most of the time, his role is that of the straight-man who must control the madness around him, always ready with a caustic remark, an intimidating scowl or just furious rage. Yet underneath his crusty exterior beats a sentimental heart and schemes the keen mind of a detective.

By the fifth book, he has married the Duchess of Morpork, and is therefore the Duke. He is sent to the forbidding land of Uberwald, a country run by an unsteady confederacy of Dwarfs, Werewolves and Vampires. His mission: secure a trading contract for the fat mined in the region. The residents of Uberwald all hate each other and like Ankh-Morpork even less. It's a political minefield and, well, if Sam Vimes was to tread it perfectly it just wouldn't be an interesting novel.

It's an good story with an exciting plot. It just takes wa-a-a-y too long to get rolling. The book jacket describes Sam fleeing a pack of werewolves alone in the night. It's a great scene, but it happens three-quarters of the way through the book. The previous three-quarters is pretty much all exposition. Pratchett spends pages and pages describing Uberwald, Vampires, Werewolves, Dwarfs, the mindsets of each race, local politics, dwarf ceremonies and it just goes on and on, sapping interest from the story.

For instance, the book introduces Igors, a race of identical hunchbacks that recycle each others' body parts. A funny idea, to be sure. Pratchett just takes up a lot of story-time building the mystery around various hunchbacks disappearing and reappearing in places they couldn't possibly be before Sam finally figures out what's going on.

By contrast, in "Thud!", an Igor is working at the watch and the concept of Igors as a race is addressed very briefly and without ceremony, then story moves along. I wonder how much of the exposition in the Fifth Element would have been better just told rather than shown, specifically the exposition unimportant to the plot. Yes, I know all writing teachers say to show, not tell, but it's a lie. A good writer knows what to tell to save time.

The wife tells me that the exposition problem is an issue with all Terry Pratchett novels. I'm prepared to put that theory to the test: I recently purchased Night Watch, the 7th City Watch novel, which I will read at a later date. For now, I'll say that the Fifth Elephant is full of funny quips and hilarious concepts, but the plot languishes under layers of flabby information, piled like so much elephant fat.

2 1/2 cynical remarks out of 5

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ten Video Game Cliches that must be sent to Hell

The human brain loves to categorize things. It's a survival instinct. When we see certain things happen multiple times, we file them with a little mental card on what to expect in that situation and how to behave next time. For instance, primitive man learned quickly that things that mastodons stand upon get squished, therefore one ought not to get trampled. An expectation is established, the brain reacts, and hopefully the next time that event happens, the human involved will profit from it or at least not get squished/burned/killed/humiliated/cheated. The establishing of expectations is integral to scientific method. It's worked out pretty well for us.

When it comes to human expression and art, we still love our expectations. They're comforting. Art is all about playing with what people find familiar and knowing when to surprise them. Too much surprise and the work is confusing, too much predictability and it's boring. And, believe it or not, video games are Art. They're getting more artsy all the time.

Video games have their own array of symbols. For instance, for the PlayStation systems, X means "yes" or "go ahead", Circle means "no" or "go back", and one can usually expect that R1 or R2 is going to fire a weapon. The symbols go beyond the controller. For instance, it is universally understood that the red bar near the top or bottom of the screen getting shorter means that the character representing the player is getting hurt. The symbolism also expands to what the character can meet in the environment. For instance, all gamers can recognize a glowing green lake as something not to touch.

However, sometimes symbols and expectations become tiresome. The following list is a compilation of cliches that are unrealistic but gamers take for granted. Many concepts have already been junked, for instance "lives". Many more need to be retired. First-person shooters are particularly bad for perpetuating this bullshit, but all genres are guilty. Burn them, destroy them, send them all to hell.

The Double Jump: For many years, action video game characters have been able to jump, then leap even higher using mere air as a springboard. Seriously. What the fuck? Why did this get started? Why does it keep getting programmed over and over again? Sure, I could see a ninja doing it. He's magic. And I can understand Mr. Starkiller of the Force Unleashed being able to do it. He has the Force. But Captain America? Leisure Suit Larry? I thought the video game industry was supposed to be creative.

The Lamethrower: In videogameland the flamethrower is a short-range weapon used to quickly roast enemies a few feet away. News Flash: in real-life, flamethrowers can scorch targets 100 feet away. They're also really heavy and make you move slowly. Watch the video:

Tickling Bullets: Top-end ranged weapons in video games are missile launchers and energy blasters that melt everything within sight. However, characters rarely start play with them. They must be earned or scavenged. Most players spawn or begin their adventure with a lowly pistol, assault rifle or machine-gun. As these weapons are at the bottom of the firepower food chain, they have to suck a little to encourage players to grab something different. The result is ludicrous situations where players empty their clips into each other, reload and keep firing. This might make sense in ultra-tech armour, but I've often seen futuristic warriors with bare muscles bulging taking bullets like Rasputin. If people could take bullets like they do in video games, World War I would have been very different. Tickling bullets are often paired with three sub-cliches, listed below:
The oddly realistic knife: In a world where getting shot is similar to being pelted with rocks, why does it make sense that when you get clubbed by a rifle butt or stabbed you die instantly?
The Sneak Attack Critical: I think we have Dungeons & Dragons to thank for this little rule. My friends, getting hit by a bullet hurts just as much if it comes out of the blue as if you were expecting it. Yet your hapless video game foes will die instantly if they didn't see you hiding there. Sometimes it sucks to be a bad guy.
Magic Head Shots: Spray a guy with bullets and he doesn't flinch, but if one of those bullets hits his head, it's all over. Why? WHY WHY WHY? Yes, getting shot in the brain is lethal. But so is getting shot in the heart, kidneys, upper spine, carotid artery and femoral artery. It's also worth noting that your head is not all brain: there's plenty of face and jaw that should be able to sustain tickling. All I ask for is consistency!

Proactive bullets: Uh-oh... you've reloaded your submachine-gun compulsively after every burst. Surely you've run out of full clips. Surprise! The rest of your 251 bullets have magically re-assembled themselves into perfectly sized clips! What a relief!

Blind, Deaf, Anosmic, Retarded Guards: It is a well-known saying in the military that if you can see the enemy, the enemy can see you. This is not so in any video game which incorporates stealth as a part of gameplay. In such games guards stroll about while the player flits in and out of lightly shaded areas or through their peripheral vision, occasionally saying stuff like, "What was that? Probably nothing." Every guard becomes near-sighted. The sounds of footsteps, silenced weapons and knives and bullets whizzing past their heads and hitting the wall make no impression. Yet if something interesting like a rice-ball or windup toy is tossed in their general direction, their senses sharpen just long enough to notice the distraction and turn their backs to the player, backs which usually end up with swords in them a few seconds later. Often they tread over the bloody corpses of their buddies without making any connections. It's actually worse in many MMORPGs, where baddies stand around waiting to be aggro'd while their friends are being slaughtered ten feet away.

Extremely Nutritious Food: Food is good. It's full of vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre. Eating is therapeutic. However, I've yet to come across a turkey dinner that seals bullet wounds.

Me-Time: Yeah, I have bad days. Sometimes I wish I could just hide from the world. I curl up in bed with a book for an afternoon and feel better by evening. The same thing happens whenever I get shot. I just hide behind some boxes for about six seconds, my vision clears up and I'm good as new.

Hop to Victory! Less-seen nowadays, but still present. Basically, players jump up and down as they run across the battlefield to avoid getting shot. My God, why isn't hopping a part of basic training for all modern militaries? Think of the lives that could be saved! Seriously, nobody hops in battle, people. Designers, if you want to prevent hopping, just make it realistic: it's very energy intensive, most people can't hop six feet in the air, nobody can change direction mid-jump and there are no guarantees you'll land perfectly. Or better yet, does your game really need a jump key?

Lazy Water: Movement is a tricky issue in video games. Nobody likes moving slowly. It's boring. That's why most video game characters run everywhere. However, water always presents a poser. Realistically, wading in even two feet of water makes you move slower than even walking. Most game designers just ignore this. Characters either charge through waist-deep water at running speed or swim faster than Michael Phelps. Or, the ultimate in laziness, water = instant death. This isn't the only indignity water has suffered. Most video-game water is poorly rendered and has no love. It's always an afterthought. Water must have it's due!

And finally, the winner (or loser):

The Exploding Fucking Barrel: From the first moment I shot an exploding barrel next to an imp in Doom, I knew I loved her. The creature's flesh melted so exquisitely. And then there were the chain-reactions: hundreds of exploding barrels setting the battlefield aflame! O exploding barrel, I loved you. But you have to go. You had a good run, old girl, but now it's time for the glue factory. Get in the truck.

In conclusion, you video game designers, stop being so lazy. These cliches are beyond lame. They blow mummified goats. By including them in your video game, you are making your game blow mummified goats. So get your creativity flowing and try to think of original, fun ideas that don't defy physics or common sense. Please?