Extra Life 2014

As I write this, I am 8 hours into my Extra Life live stream. This being my first time doing this, I have already learned that I should have started advertising this way earlier. While I have surpassed my goal of a $100 I know it would probably be more had I gotten the word out sooner. So while it is very unlikely that I will shatter any records with my 24 hour run, the experience will prove invaluable for next year.

For now, I will keep going. I still have quite some hours ahead of me, so perhaps I will get a few more donations. And if not, well, at least I'm not giving up and I am already planning for next year's Extra Life!

What have been your mistakes the first time you participated in this? Perhaps you even have some great tips to share to help people in their first Extra Life donation drive.

For the interested, my twitch stream can be found at http://www.twitch.tv/dkazona and my Extra Life page can be found at http://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participantDonations&participantID=122347


Does it even matter?

This whole week has been one of torn feelings and mixed emotions. On Monday, much like everyone here, I found out about Ryan's passing. Unfortunately that wasn't the only piece of bad news to be received on that day. A few hours prior to me finding out about Ryan there had been two calls already. One to inform my girlfriend that her cousin had passed away over the weekend (in his sleep, like Ryan). The other was a call from my mom, letting me know that a close friend of the family (whom we had unfortunately lost touch with) had been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer and that he is likely to pass in the next few weeks.

Now, while it certainly wasn't easy having all that come our way in a single day, there is one thing that has me torn the most. We all know that Ryan wasn't exactly a poster-child for healthy living--far from it. So in that regard--and paired with his sleep apnea--it wasn't a huge surprise that his body would eventually give out. Obviously I am not saying that it wasn't a shock or that I wasn't devestated by the news, but even so, people on here had expressed their concerns regarding Ryan's health several times in the past already.

My girlfriend's cousin, however, was the complete opposite of Ryan. I had never personally met him, but from the stories told I knew that he was a healthy, fit young man. He had never smoked a cigarette in his life, never did any real heavy drinking, did his very best to stay in shape (he was part of the red barrets in the Dutch millitary), and generally lived a healthy lifestyle. And yet it made no difference because he, too, passed away in his mid thirties (36 to be exact).

So we have to people at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both died at far too young an age. And honestly, it made me doubt everything. On the one hand I don't want to let myself go and become grossly overweight and unfit, but on the other hand it seems like staying in shape won't make a damn bit of difference either.

When I found out about Ryan, my first instinct was to completely turn my life around and live nothing but a completely healthy lifestyle. Now I should point out that I am not living a unhealthy lifestyle. Sure, I go overboard sometimes and according to my BMI I am still slightly overweight, but I do work out a couple times a week and generally I eat healthy. But still, when I found out about Ryan, I immediately wanted to start going the extra mile and live super healthy.

But then I think about my girlfriend's cousin, who did just that, who was super healthy and fit. He died. The healthy lifestyle made no difference for him. So who's to say it will make a difference for me? What difference does it make whether I take up smoking two packs a day or never smoke a single cigarette? Or if I stuff my face with nothing but red meat or vegetables? I mean, we're just going to die whenever either way.

I seriously don't get any of it anymore. Are we really all just numbers in a giant, spinning, ball, and when yours gets pulled, it's over? Does anything we do really matter? I honestly don't know anymore.


Never surrender

Chase your dreams, and never let others sway you from the path of your desire.

See your ambitions through to the end, not to prove others wrong, but to prove yourself right.

Stop dreaming. Start doing.


Mass Effect 3 Review

It has been a very long time since I've written a review of any kind. So long, in fact, that I don't even remember what game I've reviewed last. For some reason, when I had finished with Mass Effect 3, I felt compelled to write something about it. So, that's exactly what I did, in the form of a review, which you can find by clicking on this little link.

Let me know what you think of it; I welcome any feedback.

Also, I'm thinking of writing an analysis about why, exactly, I felt unsatisfied by the ending and how I think Bioware could have provided a better one. Now, I know that there are already plenty of topics discussing the ending, but this will be my own, personal point of view on the matter, something which I think will be better suited to a blog post rather than an overly long wall of text in someone else's topic.


Where is my teamwork

I'm still loving Battlefield 3. Like most the campaign hasn't really been of much interest to me, but the multiplayer more than makes up for the underwhelming single player, which is saying a lot coming from a guy who tends to avoid most multiplayer experiences.

The one gripe I have with the game is that, like so many other first person shooters, there is still very little team play to be seen. While there are exceptions to the rule, for the most part everyone appears to be out for themselves. While Battlefield 3 certainly does its best to incentivize people working together, few seem to actually pay these things any heed, with the exception of throwing out med- and ammo packs.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm playing the recon class, focusing on sniping people from a distance, so I don't run with groups that much. But even as the definitive lonewolf I try to help my team out by spotting and using my soflam. Speaking of spotting, it varies wildly from server to server whether you're playing with people who will actually take the effort to hit that Q button. It's a real shame that people can't extend one finger more often to hit that button because it'd make life for everyone in the team so much easier.

I couldn't find an image about spotting, so here's a pic of a girl's ass that showed up when I searched for Battlefield 3 spotting

Now, my real gripe isn't with those small (but important) things, but with the utter lack of people working as a cohesive unit. Everyone just runs or drives in blindly, not even taking the moment to wait for someone to man the gun on their jeep, helicopter or tank. They rush in, die, and repeat the exact same process all over again.

One of the maps where this is very evident is Metro. That area near the escalators nearly always ends up playing out like a tug-of-war scenario. There is rarely a clear victor in those matches. Now, I realize that that particular map is nothing but choke points, making it very difficult for any team to assert dominance over the match, but I am convinced that if people took the time to strategize, to employ tactics more sophisticated than simply chucking grenades and running around, shooting like a madman, they could score a decisive victory.

Men! We will keep storming these stairs, no matter how many times we fail! Hooah!

What this game needs, most of all, is leadership. One or two people on a team who have a good overview of the map and the match, and who are able to guide other people on their team to victory. The problem there is, who is going to take advise from some random Joe on the internet about how they should play? I'm fairly certain that even the very best tactician would go largely ignored, no matter how sound their strategy might be. Unless it involves a serious clan, people simply do not like to be told what to do, even if the person telling them is right. Maybe we are just too proud to accept that what we're doing isn't working. Too proud to admit that someone else might know better.

It's a shame, too, because I guarantee that we'd all feel a hell of a lot more proud if we devestated the other team through superior teamwork.


Here's What I Wrote For NaNoWriMo

For anyone who's interested, I put the stuff I wrote for National Novel Writing Month up on google docs. It hasn't been edited in any way, so expect many a poorly formed sentences, bad use of grammar and a whole load of other things that desperately need fixing. In short, it's not very good, but it's there to read for anyone who wants to until I decide to take it down.


NaNoWriMo 2011

Yes, I am going to make a blog post just to say that I have won the National Novel Writing Month of 2011! I took the day off, and wrote for nearly 12 hours, and close to 7,000 words, but NaNoWriMo is now officially completed!

P.S. Zero comments on my other blog post? I sad panda.


Through a Writer's Eyes - Part 3 (Characters)

It's been a while since I did one of these. I've simply been far too busy to even give this any proper thought. But here I am, with part three! Now, let's take a look at one of the most vital pieces of a good story.

You Are Such a Character!

Yep, every story has them. Some have so many characters you can populate a small town with them, while others have only a handful of characters that bare mentioning. Is one better than the other? I think it depends on who you ask, but in my opinion, no, having more characters in your story isn't inherently better or worse than having only few, so long as you remember to take into account the possible pitfalls of each.

Just the Two of Us.... (we can ma... no I'm not gonna go there)

Take, for instance, a story with very few (central) characters such as Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. While other names are mentioned to remind us that, oh yes, there are indeed people living in this world besides the dashing young prince and the exotic princess, the entire game focuses on just those two characters. While it works in this particular game, it could have just as easily been its undoing. Because when you really think about it, what does that game's story have to offer besides the growing relationship between two characters?

And that's the biggest issue with having a small number of characters populating your story. You need to make them interesting to your audience. And not just that, you have to ensure that they continue being interesting all the way to the conclusion. We've all been there. We meet someone, and we are immensly intrigued by them, but as time goes by we bore of them. The things that first attracted us to them turn out to be the only thing they've got going for them, and that is not enough.

In truth, Prince of Persia is a triangle affair. The characters aren't just building a relationship with each other, they are also forming one with the player. And if the player doesn't like where the relationship is going, things will come to a premature end. So what do you do? Do you create the ideal character who has absolutely everything going for them and is guaranteed to be loved by all?

Only if you're a bloody idiot living on a constant high and you're always wearing rose-tinted glasses. If you are one of those people, please come here so I can smack some sense into you.

Your characters need to have flaws because the flaws of a person can be just as--if not more--interesting as their strengths. This applies to every story regardless of how many characters it has, but it is, at minimum, three times as important for a game where all the player ever truly learns about are just these two main characters.

Yeah, I'm the motherfucking hero. What of it, bitch?

What this means is that with a small number of characters inhabiting your story, you must be extra critical of them. If you have twenty or more different characters running around in your story (or walking, sitting, crawling, jumping, scratching their privates, whatever), and there's an inconsistency with one of them, no one is going to truly be apalled, unless it's such a big discrepancy that it hangs over your story like an angry Zeus, ready to hit you with a bolt of lightning up your ass.

But lord have mercy on your soul if something ever so minor is off about one of your characters when there are only two of them. Now I'm not saying that characters shouldn't change--change is good--I'm saying that whatever this change is, it has to come from somewhere logical. (Remember? I talked about the importance of logic in my previous post). In the way that we, as human beings, don't change overnight, you can't expect your audience to believe that the stuckup bitch of a princess became a woman of vast understanding within five minutes of meeting her either.

Basically the player needs to see these characters as human beings and not just code and polygons on a screen. And don't over-complicate things out of fear of making them boring otherwise, either. While things can often seem complex on the surface, they often are very simple. I am a very insecure person because I got bullied a lot as a kid. It's a simple as that.

So when you have a story with few characters, make them as human as you possibly can without forcing your audience to learn everything there is to know about them in the short time that they have. Give them a rich past, but don't make it so complex that the player feels like they'll have better luck unraveling the mysteries of the universe. Give them a future, but don't try to predict what's going to happen in fifty years. Make them grow, change, and evolve, but never, ever, force change upon your characters for the sake of forwarding your plot.

That's a Whole Lot'a People!

Try for a moment to imagine giving each character in Dragon Age who gives you a quest as much screen time as the two characters in Prince of Persia. The game would never end! And it would become such a horribly convoluted mess that not even Einstein could hope to make any sense of it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if he was still alive, and you asked him to decipher that mess, he would tell you to kindly go fuck yourself.

When you have this many characters in a story, you have to be willing to make sacrafices. As much as you might love every single character that you've conjured up in your mind, you are going to have to make a choice on which of them matters to you most.

A prime example of a writer who seems incapable of doing this is George R. R. Martin. While I haven't read any of his books personally, I have read the reviews on Amazon, and the general consensus for his fifth book for A Song of Fire and Ice seems to be that there are just too many characters and that George is too scared of letting go of them, forcing his readers to sift through an almost never ending pile of information that they neither care about, nor will they remember it by the time they come to the end.

What do you mean I am not that important?

So go ahead and populate your world with a hundred different characters. Hell, make it a thousand if you feel like it. But don't lose sight of who your main characters are in the process. Does this mean that everyone besides the main characters are just props to fill your world with, nothing more? No, of course not. You can still make a lot of them interesting enough that the player would like to know more about them, but in this case you can't go giving the player everything they want. Maybe you can in a side story someday, but not in this one. Even if you, as the writer, are one hundred percent sure that you can make sense of it all, I can guarantee you that nine out of ten people who experience your story won't be able to.

Likewise, be ready to cut characters out of your game entirely. After all, what good does it do your story to have a bunch of minor characters walk up the player, introduce themselves, and then disappear again? Such a distraction might be funny once or twice, but it'll soon start to wear thin. Obviously Dragon Age has a lot of characters that serve no real purpose in the story, but these should be viewed in the way that we view extras in a movie. They're there to make the world feel like a living, breathing, thing, but that is all the purpose they serve, and rightly so.

So in conclusion, whether you decide to have a hundred characters in your story, or just two, make sure that you are willing to do what needs to be done to make it all work in keeping your audience interested. After all, our stories, no matter how incredible, all rise or fall depending on their characters.


Through a Writer's Eyes - Part 2 (World Building Part 1)

Too Much or Not Enough?

If we look at all the games that we believe to have good stories, they all have something in common: they have a strong, believable world acting as the very foundation of the story we're experiencing. Even if everything that happens in the game is utterly from the realm of fantasy, and we know, deep down, that nothing like it will ever be remotely possible, the world behind the story is still the glue that holds it all together.

Let's take Bioshock for example. Here is a game that does more than just thrust you into the main plot and hope for the best. Through clever use of audio logs, the world and its characters are fleshed out, even though your interaction with them is severely limited. By letting the player delve deeper into the history of this fantastical world, they start to see things through different eyes. No longer are those splicers seen as mere obstacles on your path, but as actual human beings whose minds have been severely damaged. And while you know that you have no other choice but to kill them, your knowledge of their history is an effective way of garnering sympathy for these lost souls.

Sorry, but it's you or me

Does this mean writers should strive to answer every question, and explain every minute detail? The answer to that is a resolute no. Life itself is full of mystery and unanswered questions. One could say that not knowing is just as vital to our lives as knowing. And so it needs to be with a good story. By explaining every little thing you will eventually lose the attention of your audience, either because you're boring them with insignificant details they don't care to know, or because you are overwhelming them with knowledge of which the human brain can retain only so much.

In essence, by putting entirely too much detail into a story, you're no longer writing a story to be experienced, but college material to be studied.

The goal, therefore, is to find the right balance between not enough, and too much information. Stray too far to either side, and you will lose the captivation of your audience. But find that perfect balance, and you will have them hanging onto your every word, no matter how ludicrous your story might be.

Be Your World's God!

As a writer you must have an explanation for everything. And before you think I've lost my marbles and have started contradicting my earlier statement, let me clarify with a simple question:

If you do not fully understand the world which you have created, who will?

Ok, perhaps that just confuses the matter further, so let's see if I can explain it a little better.

As we all know, every action has a reaction. But one of the key things that we often tend to overlook is that every action has a motivation and a reason. Nothing we do is ever "just because". We might pretend we did something just because we could, but the truth is that something always motivates us to do something. Even our very basic instinct is a form of motivation that drives us to do what we do.

And it's not just us that logic and reason applies to. Just take a look around you, and you will come to understand that nothing exists simply because it does. Everything has a story, and nothing is without explanation.

And so it must be with the world you're building as a writer. While you might never explain exactly why certain things are the way they are in your story, you, the writer, must know. If you don't--if you lose sight of the logic behind your world--your story will begin to unravel. Details the would be believable otherwise will no longer make sense to the reader. By not having complete knowledge of the world you, as the writer, created, mistakes and inconsistencies will creep into your story. And while certain things might seem entirely trivial at first, even the smallest inconsistency can cause your carefully crafted story to collapse like a house of cards.

To bring this back into games a little, just think about all those moments where something happened in a game that made no sense to you whatsoever. I'm not talking about glitches, but about things that happened as intended, yet was completely inconsistent with your understanding of the world in which said game took place.

One good--and recent--example of this would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Without beating around the bush, the boss fights do not make any logical sense compared to what the game is portraying everywhere else in its world. All the potential of choice is suddenly stripped away, and the only option that remains is to unload on this single adversary until he or she falls. And while some will suffer through this contradiction in logic, others will not be able to look past this obvious flaw, and put the game down, never to pick it up again.

And you think this is weird? HA!

Okay! I think I've rambled on long enough. Originally all this was planned as a small precursor to explaining the act of building the world, but I got a bit carried away. So rather than add another wall of text, I'm going cut it off here, and pick it up again in the third part. Until then, I hope you all enjoy this little read, and I'm looking forward to writing the next part in which I explain the different ways one can go about creating their world.


Through a Writer's Eyes - Part One

We are frequently awe struck by amazing graphics, stellar gameplay or excellent audio. But that rarely--if ever--truly amazes us is the story. That's not to say that there has never been any good stories in games, but in all my time of playing, I have yet to come across anything that rocked my world. Coming from a guy who usually prefers to watch dumb action movies with little to no plot, that's saying a lot.

But, I am also a writer, and I know how hard it is to put together a well crafted story for a passive form of entertainment like a book, let alone an interactive form of media where you can never predict someone's reaction to the content you've created. And I think that is something we often overlook when we say that stories in games aren't of the same caliber as movies.

The intent of this series of blog posts, therefore, is to create some insight into the creation of a (good) story, and to find out if the whole interactive element really does add additional challenge to this process.

I have a dream idea!

Every story starts with an idea. Often this idea is so vague that it doesn't even have the detail to fill a single page in a book. So you need to build upon that idea, and flesh it out until you have something cohesive and detailed. But you can't just let your mind run wild, and throw in every little thing you come up with into your story. Well... you can if you want to create something like this:

Now, there are various ways in which to go about shaping this vague idea into something substantial. Some writers won't even begin penning their first chapter until they've created an complete outline. Others (like me), begin writing, and try to fill in the details as they go. And then there's the ones who build an entire world before they even start to think about anything resembling a proper plot.

Best movie ever! Oh wait, it's a game.

But what if you are a writer on a hundred man team for a triple A title? You sure as hell can't just lock yourself up in a room, and emerge when you have finally finished your masterpiece. We are talking millions of dollars here, and an adherence to a strict deadline. Sure, you can have a movie-like script ready to go before starting production, but a movie is something that people sit down and watch. It is not interactive, and you don't need to worry about striking the right balance between telling your story and not taking away control too much. I mean, if a player is going to spend more time watching cut scenes than they do actually playing the game, you might as well make a movie instead. (Kojima, I'm looking at you).

Which brings us to the next question. How much of your budget and time are you going to spend on the story? There might have been an increasing desire for substantial plots in games, but thus far, the act of playing the game still wins out over experiencing the story. And truth be told, with the rise of casual games, I fear that the story will be relegated to the backseat again.

Think about it. When you picked up Super Mario Galaxy II or the last Call of Duty, did you do so with the intent to experience the story? No, you bought it because you wanted to collect you some starz (yea, z instead of s, I went there) and shoot some people in the face. Having a deep, profound plot in the vein of Citizen Kane will only get in the way of you blowing shit up. So why should a developer pour an ungodly amount of resources into creating a story when, in truth, this is often the part of a game people overlook the most?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes part one of.... THROUGH A WRITER'S EYES! (Just imagine someone with a deep voice shouting that, with some amazing echo and reverb effects added).