Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Love For Dark Water

It was recently announced that the complete series of "The Pirates of Dark Water" is being released to DVD. Wired.com is having a little contest to win a free copy of the DVD, so rather than spend my money to support one of the most important pieces of media in my life, I will put wear my heart on my sleeve instead. I mean, I don't have to write about only video games, right?

"Dark Water" first appeared as a 5 part kind of mini-series on afternoon TV while I was in the 5th grade. I remember the Monday it came on the air: I was home sick with laryngitis, which was such a shock to me at the time because I had never had it before. So I basically got to sit at the house all day playing with toys and video games and watching TV. By Thursday I felt fine, but the show was being aired at 2:00 and school didn't let out until 3:00, and after four days of sitting around in pajamas watching this new amazing show I wasn't about to miss the last episode so I lied and said I was still sick. That was the first and only time I missed a complete week of school, and it was a serendipitous one.

5th grade was my height of fascination with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I had fashioned myself as an artist amongst the kids at school and extensively drew Ninja Turtles, and only Ninja Turtles. And then came Dark Water...

I remember being immediately amazed by this world. It was fantasy, but it didn't feel like what I thought of as "typical" fantasy worlds like The Hobbit or Legend. I never liked horses, never cared for fairies, and didn't like how everything felt old-english and ostensibly in the middle ages of Earth. The setting and tone of Dark Water shaped my create sensibilities to think of fantasy worlds and picture them as planets in other solar systems. To pull worlds and ideas from something like Star Wars (with binary solar systems and forest moons) and think of those worlds in their respective ancient times. By and large the look and setting of the show really made me more of a critical thinker in terms of fantasy and inspired years and years of world and character development which now comprises dozens of sketchbooks and multiple filing cabinets in my home.

Of course these lofty aspirations had a very carbon copy starting point. I don't remember the specific time, but either the week of the show's first airing or the following week I broke from the mold of TMNT and drew my first "original" concept. I called it "(Austin Ivansmith's) The 4 Rulers of Izon: the Three Rubies of Zarkon." I was elated with the work I had done. It was my first attempt at drawing humans, coming up with original names for them, and naming the world itself. And most of all, I did it all in one try without much erasing or re-dos. It was a complete success from start to finish, and I imagine if I had messed up in any major way I would have given up and never tried again. As any good 5th grader would do, I drew it on yellow lined paper and stapled all the sheets together to make it a complete set to show off to friends and family.

I created a cover page, complete with the signature sword which looked nothing like the one in the Dark Water logo.

The four heroes sail the globe in their own ship, getting into adventures along the way. From left to right:

Longwing was like Niddler, but with an attitude. He was sick of monkeybirds being complete morons and wanted to prove there were a few brave souls amongst them. He is outfitted with a crossbow and even wears a stylish medallion.

Martin is the son of the king of Izon but does not know it. He is a great warrior with a sword, bow and arrow, or even a knife. He has a small stud and small hoop earring in his left ear, and his fashionable shirt features the red forked tongue.

Gardeina is not your stereotypical woman. She is a tough fighter but still wears a pink outfit. Really my first foray into the idea that a woman does not need to be helpless. When I created this name I was sure it was 100% original.

Arrowhead is a master marksman. He was once a warrior for Cleaton (as you can see by his elbow and knee pad) but has changed his ways. He has bigger hooped earrings and his hair covers his eyes.

Then there is the group of enemies (which I stapled before the heroes page. Good job me)

Cleaton is the baddest dude in all of Izon. He captains his own ship and has a slew of soldiers at his disposal. He of course has a bare chest and beard, the signs of a brutish evil man. His right eye is dead and petrified, and looks like a piece of onyx in the socket (really the only cool thing I came up with.) He is not big and fat, because I didn't feel that added any fear to the equation.

Sluth is a vicious right hand man to Cleaton. Despite him being of very small stature, I never thought of it as a disadvantage to him. I gave him a deformed face because it made him look more evil, like the monsters from the Last Starfighter. And the peg-leg is made of metal like the arm of Colossus from Marvel comics. I never pictured him being scrappy in any way, just shorter.

Cleaton's Soldiers have a uniform which has some kind of padded chest armor, dark pants and shirts, and some kind of evil hockey masks. I liked this idea a lot because it reminded me of Stormtroopers or the Foot Clan; faceless drones.

This little piece of art really was the impetus for years of character and story development. I spent countless hours drawing in class when I should have been taking notes. I failed many tests and a few classes because I preferred to draw over doing anything else. I was offended when someone called it "doodling", because each drawing had a purpose; each character was integral to the world, and each drawing I made told their story and spoke volumes to their importance. After graduating from high school and not having any boring classes to draw in during lectures I found myself drawing less and less, and spending more time helping to take care of the family (and grow up, I guess. But I still have all the stories in the back of my head and plan on putting together something featuring them, someday.)

I really owe a lot to Dark Water because it was the first, biggest influence on me creatively, inspiring me to create worlds of my own and pursue the idea of being more than just a passive viewer; It drove me to be creative. The unique worlds and style really set a creative tone for me I carry to this day, always looking for a more unique approach for any unique piece of art or story I create. I always loved the show and knew it was important to me, but I never really tried putting it into words before and I am glad that I did, because now I know more than ever how important Dark Water is to my life and I will cherish the memories of it forever.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why all the swearing?

Recently I was touting the amazing time I am having with Monday Night Combat to my buddy at work: "Oh man me and the wife were playing split screen and shooting a bunch of robots and it's so worth the money because can play online or locally" and then my jaw melted and fell of my face. So yeah, it is a face melting good time, but he asked "Can I play it with my 7 and 9 year old kids?" Sure there is violence, but is there any swear words in the game? I think the answer is "no" and that it is safe to play in that regard, but should swearing be the deal-breaker?

As for me, 10+ years ago I played Perfect Dark with my younger brother all the time. I was somewhere around 20 years old at the time, and he was about 8. Our favorite thing to do was team up against a couple of tough sims, handguns only, and turn on slo mo. It allowed him time to react to what was going on around him and created some really intense moments while waiting for the aiming reticule to make its way across the face of the opponent. All around a lot of laughs were had, some digital blood was shed, all the while not a swear word was heard (not even during any of my temper tantrums.) Now if the game had swearing in it, we would never have played.

To some people this may seem odd: why would someone care about swearing and not about the guns, violence, or death? To me the answer is simple: The violence in games, no matter how realistic they are trying to be, is stylized, but words are not.

Swearing is relatively new to the gaming industry. Early on the only games which prominently featured swearing were also full of other adult themes. Games like the Grand Theft Auto series where characters talked about having sex, doing drugs, and killing. The game was already so full of adult content that the swearing fit right in, both in the narrative cut-scenes and in the everyday shouting of the people roaming the streets. It felt as natural as watching the Sopranos or the Godfather; the swearing accentuated the tone of everything. But some games with swearing just feel like a 13 year old trying to be cool by swearing a lot but not really saying anything.

There are two things recently which really made me think about the swearing in the content: Nip/Tuck and Crackdown.

Nip/Tuck was a series on FX featuring a lot of sex, a lot of drama, some killing, and a lot of graphic plastic surgery. My wife only recently started (and not long-after stopped) watching the show on Netflix, and I got suckered into joining her on a few occasions. By all accounts the show is incredibly adult in nature, but there is really no more swearing to speak of compared to other shows on network TV (other than the ONE "shit"-bomb per episode they are allotted.) I sat in amazement as characters grew more and more angry at each other (or when a sexy nympho looked into the eyes of the hunk of man-meat star just before banging), and I waited for their lips to make a ripped paper sound with their upper teeth against their lip, but the fffff's never came. It is strange to see, but the kicker is: it works! Shows like this, and some good network dramas, illustrate that swearing isn't necessary to add impact to language.

Which brings me to my other example: Crackdown. For the sake of argument, lets compare Crackdown to Halo. Both games do not feel like M rated games to me. The colors are bright, the characters are heroic, and the deaths of the enemies are very "ragdoll" and only occasionally have a blood splatter, but the splatter feels small, quick, and insignificant; to me they feel no more violent than a good PG-13 action film. I can play Halo online with the TV blasting at any time of day and not worry about offending prudes in my vicinity. But Crackdown is another story. Random pedestrians drop the f-bomb on numerous occasions, and it feels completely out of place for the tone of the rest of the game. Friends of mine can't play that game in their home during regular hours of the day because random profanity coming from the speakers will go against the house rules they set up with their families, but they can play Halo without any problems.

No matter what your opinion is on the subject (IE: "You're an idiot for not caring about violence." Save it, Dr. Douchebag Phd, I've heard it all before), developers need to recognize this as an issue for their customers and pursue simple, low-risk, low-impact solutions. I myself am someone who enjoys swearing, almost too much, but don't feel that those around me need to be forced to feel the same way, especially people who will be playing the games I make. So what are our options?

Developers can replace swear words with silly words, but I am personally against that option. Sure there are your Battlestar Galactica's, Firefly's, and Pirates of Dark Water's with their Fraks, Gorams, and Noiji-Tuts, respectively. But there are only so many times I can hear "fudge" or "hecka" without wanting to throttle anyone in my vicinity. (If you need an adverb that bad, just say the word, you sound immature.) Or they can cut whole lines. But either way you do it, simply make it an option for the player.

There have already been measures made to adjust violence in games; turning off gore or blood in violent games allows players to still play the game but with less elements of realism in terms of the violence, and the same could be done with audio with ease.

The developers of a game like Crackdown could easily set a flag to all of the phrases in which the pedestrians swear. Then when the player chooses "No Swear Words" from the options menu they won't be surprised by random f-bombs being dropped. For games like this, or online shooters like Modern Warfare, players can play to their hearts content with their TV volume turned up without offending someone in another room with profanity (or in some occasions, being offended themselves.) And while this is easy for most of the sandbox elements of a game where there are multiple, interchangeable phrases, a story section like in the GTA series wouldn't be able to simply drop whole lines of text, so the developers would have to record alternate lines with different words or phrases. A pain in the butt, I'll grant anyone that, but it is not that complex of a solution.

Ultimately, no matter your own personal opinions, this is a medium full of options and choices for the end-user, and it would be great if consumers who are concerned about such things could benefit from these options and still enjoy fun games without having to worry about being offended by profanity.