Monday, 2 June 2014

Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” Should Have Been a Video Game

The notion of adapting works into different media has always been prevalent in popular culture, although this is often a cynical attempt to make money from brand recognition more than anything else. I recently watched a few episodes of the Joss Whedon TV thing, or “program”, if you will, “Dollhouse”, and it inspired me to write an article.

For those of you who don’t know, the “program” is about a company that effectively deals in slaves, or “dolls”, in modern America. The dolls, however, have willingly signed up to have their minds wiped, and then have new personalities inserted to suit the needs of the customers. This can range from fulfilling sexual desires or emotional needs to making them into temporary assassins or spies, depending on the client. After they have done the job, they have their mind wiped and reset back to their default mode. After a few years of servitude they are given their old personality back and sent back out into society. If I explained that badly, feel free to do a quick Wikipedia check.*

Joss Whedon, showing off his new banister.

 Whilst I think the “program” is okay, I couldn’t help thinking it was a missed opportunity. The creators clearly put a lot of time into devising a unique and interesting premise, and then building a world in which this premise can be explored in different ways. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that this premise would have been far better suited to a video game.

There are two good reasons for thinking this. Firstly, the idea of interchangeable personalities within the same character is a brilliant gameplay concept. Not only does it give a narrative explanation for why one person can do so many diverse things (unlike, say “Grand Theft Auto” or “Fallout”, where we just accept that a talented murderer is also brilliant at flying planes or fixing satellite dishes), but it also gives excellent progression and limitations on a character. It can also be used to explain why you lose useful abilities between levels, as your character has been reset and can no longer hack computers or speak French. Compare this to the “Metroid” games, which have to come up with increasingly convoluted ways of explaining why Samus has none of her equipment at the start of each game.

Such as the incident at the start of "Other M", where Samus loses her character traits, empowerment and likability.

The second reason I think the “doll” idea would work so well is the narrative potential. Throughout the course of “Dollhouse” we learn more about the previous life of Echo, the central protagonist and one of the dolls. Whilst I think “Dollhouse” does a decent job of exploring her past and her motivations, I think this could have worked far better in the form of a video game. A confused perspective works to a degree in a television “program”, but when we experience that character’s confusion in an interactive way it becomes far more engaging. There is an episode of “Dollhouse” where Echo has memories of breaking into a laboratory, and these break through her memory loss, helping her artificial personality do it’s job. This is fine to watch, but I feel it would have worked a lot better if we were playing as Echo, and had the choice between relying on her amazing but artificial skills or her personality, something that is a central and seemingly invincible part of her. This tension seems so much more exciting in a video game format.

I think it’s such a shame that there is a perceived cultural hierarchy, that seems to suggest that film and television are always the best formats. It is a simple fact that some ideas suit some media formats better than others. Should fans be constantly pushing for a “Halo” film? Would “Citizen Kane” work as a television series? Could “Watchmen” work the same way as a film?

I'm pretty sure Alan Moore loves it when his deconstruction of an entire medium is reduced to "ooh, look at her bum".

 Well, at least for the last one we know the answer. And it’s no.

*A fun game to play with Wikipedia with a friend or friends is to hit “random article”, read out the title (and nothing else) and then you all have to draw your interpretation of that title in 5 minutes. Jak and I have spent many an evening playing this, and I now have a whole stack of drawings that look like the holy book of the shittest cult ever.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

103% Board Gaming - UK Games Expo 2014 Survival Notes

I'd never been to the Birmingham NEC before, nor the nearby Hilton Metropole hotel, but my Weekend Pass to the UK Games Expo, a three day event for all things board, card and roleplaying games clearly stated that it was meant to be here someplace. I mistook the luxury goods fair in the NEC for the expo, and a proper well hard security guy asked me what I was trying to find. I said I was looking for the gaming event, to which he replied "Is that the Yu-Gi-Oh! event?" which he said with no detectable hint of mockery but I still recoiled at being asked, selectively forgetting that I at one point in my life clocked up more hours than I care to admit on am emulated copy of the Game Boy Advance version of the card game. I quickly informed him that I was taking part in the far more sophisticated tabletop gaming event. He gave me some directions. 

Some people go to T in the Park. I do this shit with my weekends.

The Hilton Metropole is a large ass building and as I approached it I wasn't sure whether I was even remotely approaching the right part of the building. I saw guys two with long greasy hair, spectacles and unmistakably whiny voices smoking outside and talking to each other. One was wearing a T-shirt featuring a pixelated 8-bit Mario sprite, where all of the pixels were made to look like a plumber shaped section of the Periodic table. The other guy's shirt just said 'Bazinga!' on the front. Sigh. I was in the right place.

Like delving into a rulebook of a new board game, the expo itself was initially daunting. The entire ground floor of the massive hotel was dedicated to various trading rooms, playtest areas, seminar rooms and tournament areas. Myself and two gamer friends of mine were using the expo as a reunion venue and just as with any seemingly baffling situation we've been in before, we just bumbled our way around it the best we could until we got the hang of it and within the hour we were clued up as to the lay of the land and were expo-ing like champs and we were trying and buying new games out with the best of em... sort of.

One poor woman tried to teach Dan and I how to play this. Never felt more stupid in my life.

My first pro expo tip is simply to bring your own food. You would be surprised how effing hard it is to acquire cheap meals at these things and we got shafted with expensive cafeteria prices. It sounds petty but as any tabletop gamer will tell you, food and snacks are a wee bit important to say the least. You've been warned.

Second of all. If there's a games library, you should just spend most of your god damned time there. It was by far the best part of the weekend for me. There was a dude with a wealth of slightly used but perfectly playable board games that we could rent on a 'one game at a time' basis for absolutely no charge at all. I managed to play all kinds of games I didn't own, but had heard so much about. The much praised 7 Wonders was enjoyable with three of us, but I regret not inviting four more players for the full seven player mega-game with a 'friend flag', which is expo code for 'please play with us'. There were some guys sitting alone with such flags awaiting friends to play games with, bless 'em.

We got to play Kingdom Builder, by game author Donald X. Vaccarino of Dominion fame, which was a very enjoyably light but sufficiently cunning strategy game to keep us interested. Speaking of Dominion, we played a railway themed deck-building game simply called Trains which also features a double sided board representing the Osaka and Tokyo regions of Japan, which was actually quite a lot of fun despite having particular naff box art.

I also ended up buying a quirky game called Quantum,which sees 2-4 players racing to extract quantum energy from planets as quickly as they can. It involves big chunky colourful dice which represent different space ships depending on what number is showing and each number has a special ability associated with what how it can move and attack other dice-ships. It's bonkers and weird and I was most glad to take it home with me, along with some other swag that I've got my hands on, including expansions for games I already own, such as Netrunner.
Speaking of which, there was a fairly intense sounding tournament taking place for Netrunner, which apparently has a booming tournament scene in the UK. Not that I was paying attention to any of what was going on. I was too busy being bewildered by the sheer amount of choice on offer in terms of new games to buy as well as play. It quickly became obvious that as much as I've really enjoyed getting into board gaming over the past year or so, I am just not that hardcore! I've played Netrunner about a handful of times so far with friends at home who learned to play using my core set and I still find myself fumbling over how to build a half decent deck.

It's well worth the purchase though. Never had a dull game of this.

Contrast this to the men's loos between tournament rounds that were going on and I heard various pro hackers and corp players talking all kinds of dense nerd lingo that I had no chance of understanding which was enough to make me go running away to the lovely nice and whimsical world of Dixit where I didn't need to worry about the massively deep intricacies of asymmetric card games!

Not that it mattered. I really don't know where the past two days have gone! Between playing board games, browsing the various stalls on offer and ignoring as much sunlight as possible, the time just evaporated, as did fair amount of my disposable income. No doubt I'll be pestering people to come around and play Munchkin (insanely popular, never tried it) and a Carcassone expansion I picked up. There was something very pleasing about seeing a huge room full of people at tables enjoying each other's company over an endless variety of increasingly inventive boxed games that really got me in the spirit of the event. It's nerdy as all hell (there were fully human operated Daleks) but it's about as pleasant as a geek-out weekend as I could have wished for. I'm all gamed out and barely able to write this post so I'm going to sign off for now. Game on!


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