Why Making DLC Pre-Release Isn't Bad

So over the course of the past several years I've seen a lot of myths about game development start to go away. This is due to the increase in crowd funding and crowd sourcing through the likes of Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. For example, crazy beliefs about the costs of making a game have been replaced by more informed opinions as people try to understand the business side of things before they put money into a Kickstarter project. Meanwhile the practice of releasing games to the public very early in development has given players a better understanding of how a game evolves over the course of development. All of this is great. Gamers blame developers less for delays, and they can at least understand the reasoning behind why a publisher might either cancel a game or force it to release before it is ready when a developer goes over-budget.

One thing that continues to mystify gamers, though, is the practice of starting the process of making DLC before the core game is finished. There are generally two arguments behind why this practice is bad. First, gamers feel that developers should finish the main game before transferring resources over to DLC, and secondly they think that any DLC announced before a game is released should be ready at the same time as the core game and thus be included with it. Now I want to completely debunk the former theory and at least show why the latter may be wrong in specific cases.

I think the core of this issue comes from a misunderstanding of the development process. Gamers tend to think of a studio as a single entity. But a studio is just a company staffed by game makers of various sorts. Now here is the thing. Different developers have different jobs that need to be done at different points in development. A concept artist, for example, will do much of his or her work in pre-production and early production. Most of the concept art duties are done by the halfway point of development. For most major current gen games that means there is a year or more of development left before the game is done. For a game releasing in November, by E3 of that year (June), production should have largely wrapped up. Games need to be done by September to press the game to disc and ship it around the world. So there are only about three months between E3 and the day the disc needs to go to press. At that point about 70% of the staff has completed either the entirety or the vast majority of their work. Systems designers are likely still balancing things, programmers are squashing bugs and optimizing the code, and artists and level designers will need to fix any issues found during testing, but in the case of those last two fields there is a lot of down time as developers wait to see if there are any problems that need fixing. These two fields also happen to be the two fields required to make most DLC.

During these final couple months level designers and artists need things to do. Remember these people are still getting paid full time, and to keep them on as development winds down they need to be worthwhile. So if you think of game development as a bit like an assembly line, first concept artists are finished with their work. They can then start on drawing up DLC based on a plan set forth by the creative leads at the beginning of development. Then, as more and more art is finished for the core game, modelers and environment artists and so on can then make these new assets. Mind you at this point when they are beginning this process of making assets the core game is likely only three or four months away from being in the hands of gamers. Meanwhile level designers can start making maps or single player levels while the levels from the core game are tested and fine tuned. And systems programmers can begin programming any new systems, again, in between fixing existing problems. And once the game goes off to manufacturing there is still a couple months before the game actually comes out. At this point some developers can work on any patches that need doing, while the others can then work on any design needed for the DLC.

So as you can see, the actual development of the core game isn't hindered in any way by the creation of DLC. The way development works certain developers can be working on the DLC without impacting the development of the core game.

Now for the second, and I think more contentious issue, which is the release of DLC. Now I want to start by saying that if DLC is ready day one then it should be a free download for those who purchase the game. That is just consumer friendly business practices. Understand, though, that just because DLC is ready day one does not mean that it was ready in time for the disc to be pressed and shipped. Remember that is at least a two month long process while uploading some DLC on the Internet is a two hour process. Of course if the DLC is on the disc then that isn't true, but any DLC you have to actually download on day one almost certainly wasn't ready when the disc went to press. So that is why you might in certain cases be required to download content. Again, that content should be included for free with your purchase, but don't make the common mistake of saying that if it was ready to download day one then it should be on the disc, because that is definitely not always the case.

Now for DLC that isn't ready day one, well that obviously can't be included in the game. Now you could say that the game should then be delayed until that DLC is ready, but as I said several paragraphs back, at any point in time a developer needs a project in production and one in pre-production if they want to continue to employ all of their staff. DLC lets them do that before the release of a game when a sequel may not have been greenlit yet. To those who think that three or four months shouldn't be enough to make an entire DLC, you are right. That is why those artists and level designers start on the DLC several months before the core game is finished, and many others start work before the core game is released. Six to eight months is enough time to make most DLC, outside of maybe some very expansive single player content. And, again, as a developer finishes work on one piece of DLC he or she can move on to the next, or be transferred to the next full game the studio is working on. Not everyone is working on the same project at the same time.

So the overall point is that if DLC is not ready day one but is ready a month or two after day one that isn't some sort of conspiracy to steal your money. It is the nature of the development process. Now of course this isn't always the case. There is DLC on the disc that is ready day one and the publisher will still charge money for it. And there are publishers that have different studios work on DLC than those that work on the core game (Activision is famous for doing this with Call of Duty for example), but be aware that in most cases DLC is released as soon as possible.

Hopefully this helps shed some light on the process of making DLC. Enjoy!

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An Old Humble Playthrough: Daikatana

For my third entry in my Old Humble Playthrough blog series I am taking a short break from Hitman to discuss one of the absolute worst games I have ever played. I first played Daikatana around 2000 or so. It was relatively new at the time, but still could be found in bargain bins for under $5. I didn't make it past the first level. It was that bad. So with its inclusion in the Humble Square Enix Bundle I thought I would give it a second chance. I really tried to get through that first level. But every aspect of the game was just so downright unenjoyable that once more I simply gave up.

Before you even get to play you are subjected to a lengthy cutscene that sets up the story. It involves some sort of time travel mumbo jumbo that makes about as little sense as you would expect from a late 90's shooter. Except it takes itself far too seriously. Having a cutscene that seemed to last at least five minutes if not longer and contained no action whatsoever as the opening to your game is just poor design. Once you finally get to play the damn game you find that it might have been better if they stuck with the cutscenes. For one the actual mouse movement just seems off. Maybe this has to do with the game having been tuned for mice made 15 years ago. But no matter how I tuned the speed or sensitivity I just couldn't get it to feel right. I turned off mouse smoothing. I turned on mouse smoothing. Nothing seemed to work. It just felt off. But as I said, that could have less to do with the game and more to do with it being designed for obsolete mouse hardware. But the problems didn't stop there. You start out using some pea shooter ion gun that neither looks nor feels especially powerful. You use it to shoot dragon flies and frogs. It's some of the most mundane combat I can imagine. Soon you are being killed by what seem to be invincible turrets. The game meanwhile has given you no objectives nor any clue what your are supposed to be doing beyond the grand scope of killing some dude who has a really powerful sword.

I might have been able to at least reach the second level if the save system didn't require you to collect crystals for each time you want to save. Sorry, this isn't a survival horror game. This is a first person shooter. Let me save whenever I want or at the very least put checkpoints after every battle. So after having to restart at the beginning of the level for the dozenth time after being randomly killed by something I didn't even see (I honestly don't know what killed me. The game simply said "You failed at life - Game Over" while I was just walking forward) I called it quits. Suffice to say that Daikatana absolutely deserves its place on the various worst games of all time lists. It's not fun. It insults you when you fail to avoid its unavoidable traps. The starting weapon is a weak single shot laster that you use to kill bugs. I really tried my best to at least make it to the second level of this game. But without the prospect of a substantially better experience to drive me forward I decided it just wasn't worth it. If I were you I would avoid this turd of a game at any cost.

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An Old Humble Playthrough: Hitman 2

Continuing on from my blog last week, tonight I continued my playthrough of the Hitman series with Hitman 2. Square Enix was nice enough to include Contracts and Blood Money in the update to the Humble Bundle today, so now I am the owner of every Hitman game. Hitman 2 sees some major changes from the first game, almost all for the better. The original Hitman had no mid-mission saving regardless of difficulty, an insane control scheme that bordered on completely broken even with extensive fiddling, and a scoring system that made many victories anything but. The sequel fixes every one of the these issues and generally improves on the first game in just about every conceivable manner.

In Hitman 2 the titular assassin actually controls like you would expect. You can now hold down a key to run instead of having two different keys for run and walk. Switching between weapons is much easier and quicker, as is interacting with objects. From top to bottom the control scheme has been entirely reworked and it is a vast improvement. Also new is the ability to save your game mid-mission a limited number of times. The money system from the previous entry that punished you for your sloppy play doesn't seem to have carried over from what I can tell. I appreciate not having to worry quite so much about my methods, but as far as I can tell there doesn't seem to be any reward for getting through a level without killing someone.

The improvements to the controls also mean that it is now possible to shoot your way through some parts of levels, whereas before getting seen meant you might as well just restart. Visually the game is a marked improvement over the previous entry although I had to download a mod to get the game to work on my computer. Overall, though, while I simply couldn't enjoy the first Hitman in any way, I found myself liking the second game a lot more. I likely won't play the game through to completion. It was okay, but still not that fun, but for those who enjoy stealth games more than I do, Hitman 2 holds up well over a decade later.

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An Old Humble Playthrough: Hitman

So over the past year or two I have begun to amass a pretty staggering collection of games at least a decade old. These games usually come as part of bundle including newer titles or other old titles I have fond memories of. Thanks to the Humble Bundle among others I have grown a collection so large that I will likely never play through the entirety of any of these games. But I want to give them a chance. At least say I tried playing some of these games, even if in the end I don't finish them. And the only way I am going to stick with a mission like that will be if I write a blog about my experiences. Now I could begin with any of a handful of games but I thought I would start with my most recent pickup, the Humble Square Enix Bundle. I have played at least portions of Deus Ex and its sequel in the past so I thought I would start with the Hitman games. I have played Absolution but never any of the earlier titles. So I decided to start at the beginning and tonight I played Hitman: Codename 47.

Hitman was first released in 2000, making it almost 15 years old. While certain aspects of it are quite impressive for a 15 year old game, others have aged about as poorly as all natural grapefruit juice left out in the Sahara Desert. The controls were the very first indication that this game came from another era. By default I was supposed to use the number pad to control Agent 47. Even switching to the default ASDW option required a ton of fiddling. In Hitman hitting W runs while hitting S walks forward. D and A perform tank turns as if this was some bad PS1 horror game. Z and X are your default strafing keys. Reloading your weapon requires you to hit 1. F drops whatever you are carrying and the spacebar is used to interact. After changing virtually every control option to something I could at least kind of use I realized that because walk and run were separate keys I was not going to be able to map things to standard controls. I eventually put walk on Q so that I could quickly switch between a walk and a run as needed.

Luckily the AI didn't seem to mind if I ran through the levels, and there are as far as I can tell no non-lethal ways to take out opponents. So while I could sneak up behind an enemy, it doesn't seem to change anything if I shoot him in the back. So I mostly just run. The other half of the coin is that this is one of those old stealth games where getting seen might not automatically fail you (or it might depending on the level) but continuing on will likely be more of a chore than starting over. Hitman takes things a step further than most other stealth games in that each person you kill deducts from your total payment for the mission. And you have to pay for every piece of equipment you bring into a mission. So it is possible to "beat" a level but earn no money for it, meaning you might start the next level with nothing but the clothes on your back. Unlike newer entries in the series which have items you can pick up within each level to perform kills, in this original game there are very few objects you can interact with in the environment. Since you can't use your fists to take down enemies, at this point you are basically screwed and might as well just replay the previous level. Possibly even worse is when the deductions end up being higher than your earnings. At that point the game will tell you that you have failed the mission. That would of course be after you completed the entire mission, not when you actually hit the fail state.

Now many purists will tell me, and probably rightly so, that this is a stealth game and if I am having these problems then I am not playing the game well. And I will absolutely agree with those people. But this is a game where there are no mid-mission checkpoints. You can revive once or twice if you die but that doesn't reset any of the actions you have taken. Some of these missions can border on being an hour long on your first time through. The current mission I'm on involves assassinating a Triad leader. The mission has several different components that each require you to perform several steps to complete them. The problem is that if you die after completing 3/4 of the components you are still sent all the way back to the beginning of the mission. And you then have to go through half an hour of content you have already played just to get back to the spot you failed on before. And being an old stealth game built around trial and error, you are almost as likely to make another error at the same spot and have to do everything again before you figure out what the game actually wants you to do. And you have to go through this every step of the way. The game wants to support experimentation but I find myself just using tried and true methods because a single mistake could have me going through half an hour or more of the level again. And those tried and true methods usually include shooting a guard that might see me and taking his clothes. It's a safer method than trying to just sneak around. So, no, I am not playing the game well, but I don't have time to play each mission in this game dozens of times to get it right so screw the purists.

If you can manage to get through the incredibly frustrating mission structure you'll find some decent ideas that have of course been since improved upon by the later entries in the series. And the visuals are pretty impressive for a game this old. The AI has problems but compared to what AI was doing in other games in 2000 it is pretty impressive stuff. Mainly, though, Hitman feels like the first entry in the series that it is. Everything works but it also all needs to be expanded upon. As such Hitman is an interesting look at an early attempt at the stealth genre but is not something I could find enjoyable as a game 15 years later.

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Season Pass Ruins Balance?

One of my only issues with the first Bioshock was how easy it was. Even on the hardest difficulty the Vita-chambers meant that you could brute force your way through any battle in the game. And on the easy or normal difficulty it was likely that you would never even need to make use of them in the first place. One of the few things I thought Infinite did better than the first game was its combat. While none of the enemies were as fun to fight as the big daddies, even the weaker enemies could take you down if you were careless enough on the default difficulty. It wasn't a hard game by any means but I found myself back in Booker's office at least once or twice each level while that final battle took me something like an hour to get through. Step forward a year and I finally got the season pass on the Steam sale. I decided that instead of jumping straight into the Burial at Sea stuff I would replay the main game to remind myself of all the complicated elements of the story and also to pick up the audio diaries I missed the first time around. I didn't even realize that the season pass included a bunch of bonus items for the core game until I started. Suddenly I had five infusions, four pieces of gear, and two super-powered weapons in my arsenal. Now I am used to games ruining their balance with pre-order DLC. But usually the pre-order stuff will help you for a level or two before you get better stuff. This was the case with three of the pieces of gear, but the fourth piece gave you a ridiculous 75% increase in ammo for every weapon. Combined with the over powered machine gun I managed to take out even Handy Men with ease using that starting gun (upgraded over time of course) from beginning to end of game. The 5 infusions were maybe even more of a balance issue. There are a limited number of infusions in the game. I got the achievement for getting every one of them and including the 5 bonus ones I was ranked at 9/10 on health, salts, and shields. What that means is that you are getting a significant bonus with those 5 infusions. Again, using the handy men as an example, I was able to beat every one of them by just standing in place and firing at them until they died. I could survive a one on one firefight with the George Washington lookalikes, again without moving. I had just so much health and such a strong shield that nothing could take me down.

That final battle which previously took me an hour? I beat it in a single try and never even had to have Elizabeth summon any health packs for me. Now obviously playing a second time meant I knew more of the vigor combinations and what vigors worked well against what enemies, but that shouldn't have let me beat the entire game without dying a single time. Only once was I even downed (Elizabeth saved me) when under fire from a handy man, two of the George Washington dudes, and like a dozen other opponents. I am also not especially good at shooters. I tend to play Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo on easy and die quite a few times per level. And I am rarely within the top 50% of players in a multiplayer match in any online shooter. So I'm no savant or anything. I'm honestly pretty bad. I was just shocked at how the combination of 5 infusions and a 75% ammo bonus made a game I felt was generally well balanced (and quite hard at the end) suddenly a cakewalk.

I guess I should note that as I said I did get every infusion in the game, and also attempted to collect all of the money I could find so I was about as upgraded as I could have been by the end of the game and, again, knowing what vigors were most effective meant that I didn't waste any money on upgrading vigors I knew I wasn't going to use, and quickly upgraded the ones I knew would be most useful, but that alone shouldn't have made that massive of a difference.

So my question to you guys is: Did any of you play through the game both with and without the season pass bonus content? Did the season pass stuff make the game super easy for you? Or did knowing what vigors to use and what vigor upgrades were important make that much of a difference for me?

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Anime Films For Anime Haters

So I was watching the One Piece quick look yesterday and I noticed both Dan and Jeff making many of the sweeping generalizations I often hear from people whose experience with anime doesn't extend far beyond the 500+ episode shows generally localized by Viz Media. The problem is that Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, One Piece, Inyuasha, and the various Mech focused anime such as the Bandai made Gundam don't in any way represent the entirety of the medium. In a way it is similar to what non-gamers do when they assume all games are violent murder fantasies like GTA or Call of Duty. I think most people here can name plenty of games that would disprove that belief, but there are many more casual anime fans who want to convince friends to give the medium a chance, but maybe don't have much more experience beyond the shows I just mentioned. Many people point to the films of Hayao Miyazaki when trying to get people into anime, but most of his films are distinctly Japanese and reference Japanese folklore in a way that manages to alienate those who are going into an anime expecting to hate it.

So I challenged myself to come up with a list of anime films that would convince your Otaku hating friends to give anime a chance. I ended up not doing any shows simply because I just couldn't think of any decent shows that didn't at least somewhat feel like what an anime hater would envision an anime show to be. So to be clear, this isn't a list of the best anime out there(although I would include a couple of these films on such a list). It's a list of the best anime that follows none of your standard anime tropes. You'll find no mechs, ninjas, Japanese folklore, or complex sci-fi here. None of the characters in the films listed here have ridiculous proportions beyond the realm of belief. All romances are at least no less realistic than what you would find in an American film. It is exceptionally tough to find anime starring adults. Virtually all of it involves teens in some form or another, and that is even more true when you leave behind the combat focused anime that so many view as the only form of anime out there. So, yes, this list does in fact include quite a few teen focused stories, but I managed to include a handful of films focused on adults as well. I'm going to split these into a couple of genres so you can easily choose a film that will appeal to that anime hating friend of yours. So here we go.

TEEN ROMANCE

The following films involve teens getting their romance on. While these films don't feature explicit sex or nudity, there are some more sexual scenes that those not used to non-American animation might be surprised to see. I'll try to note those films as they come up.

1. Whisper of the Heart

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Yoshifumi Kondô

Summary: This mid 90's Studio Ghibli film was one of the first not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takhata. It is a pure romance involving a girl who connects with a young man through their shared love of books. She learns that he has been checking out every book she has read and being a girl in a romance movie finds this notion romantic not creepy and goes in search of her true love. Features some great American songs including heavy use of John Denver's Take Me Home. A little bit of mysterious fantasy stuff but nothing at all far fetched. This is your standard teen romance film. Well done and occasionally moving and funny. Full American dub is available in the US through the Disney import and is of decent quality. Nothing exceptional, but far better than what you might normally see in Anime. Kondo tragically died after making this film. It is his only film as a director and absolutely worth showing your The Notebook loving girlfriend.

2. The Secret World of Arrietty

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Summary: This film is based on the classic British children's book The Borrowers and tells the tale of a family of pocket sized people living beneath a farm inhabited by a normal sized family. As it so happens the daughter of the small people (called borrowers as they get their home and food by taking the tiny things that the normal sized people won't miss) is a teenager of similar age to the son of the human family. Despite her parents telling her to stay hidden, the daughter doesn't listen and soon the two teens are in love despite the impossibility of any sort of physical romance occurring. This film features absolutely stunning art and animation that has a distinctly British flare. Both an American and British accented dub are available, with Disney doing the American version which includes several big name actors like Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. The dub is solid and the British origins of the story means that it manages to be a bit fantastical but in a way that Westerners should easily relate to. And, again, I can't compliment the absolutely incredible art and animation at work here enough. For those who like a dose of fantasy with their romance.

3. From Up on Poppy Hill

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Goro Miyazaki

Summary: The last Ghibli film for this category (any again not directed by either Miyazaki or Takahata) is a bit more somber of a romance. It takes place shortly after the end of World War 2 and involves a girl whose father died during the war. She lives in a small seaside town and ends up falling in love with the most popular boy at school. Said boy runs the school paper and is also leading the school clubs in trying to save their clubhouse from demolition. I wrote a review of this film which you can read here if you would like more detail. This film is quite well dubbed and acted. It is the only Ghibli film of these three not released by Disney in the US. The honor there went to GKIDS, a distributor any fan of animation should become familiar with thanks to their excellent US releases of foreign animation too mature for Disney to want to touch. For those who want a great plot beyond the romance or who have high school nostalgia.

4. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Studio: Mad House

Director: Mamoru Hosoda

Summary: Based on an acclaimed Japanese young adult novel, this film is not quite as good as the Ghibli films above and should maybe be used as a follow up film after those Ghibli films for teen romance lovers. It is about a girl who can quite literally leap through time and the relationship she forms with a fellow time traveler (that may be a spoiler. I can't remember when we discover that so maybe don't tell your friend that part). It's a sweet romance with writing that maybe isn't quite up to Miyazaki standards (he wrote the three films above despite not directing them) but still well done overall. Great music is the highlight of the presentation which again isn't up to Ghibli standards but is still quite solid. The film was released by Bandai in the US. It features their usual crappy packaging and lack of extras. The film is great but maybe a rental would be smarter than a purchase.

ADULT ROMANCE

The following films are romances featuring people older than 20 and have a more mature and layered tone in general.

1. 5 Centimeters Per Second

Studio: Comix Wave

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Summary: This romance follows a couple over the course of several decades as they drift together and apart. The title is in reference to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall and as is typical for a Shinkai film, this film involves the effects of time and distance on a couple. Unlike Shinkai's other films which mix romance with fantasy or sci-fi, 5 Centimeters Per Second is set in modern day Japan. It's maybe the most visually impressive film on this entire list. Shinkai is a master background artist, and his work here is as stunning as usual. Character work isn't as solid, but there is great music and a solid dub. This is another Bandai joint, so I would again maybe suggest a rental for this. It's a great film, though.

2. Only Yesterday (Europe, Australia, and Asia Only)

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Isao Takahata

Summary: This film, which has sadly never seen an official US release is a fantastic late-bloomer coming of age story from Ghibli master Isao Takahata. While his films are far from your standard anime, most focus very heavily on Japanese folklore or pop culture, making them difficult for those outside of Japan to understand. This film, though, is a romance about a woman in her 30's who goes on a summer vacation to the countryside. A city dweller, she ends up finding herself in the peaceful farmlands and also manages to find love. It's truly tragic that Disney won't release this film (or at least surrender the rights so someone else can) as it is an incredible piece that is distinctly Takahata and distinctly unlike the films of any other anime director out there. There is a British dub for those who don't mind importing but note that this film does contain nudity. It is not sexual in nature (it is a bath scene featuring a child) but, again, for Americans any sort of adult content in an animated film can be a bit of a shock so be prepared for that.

Drama

The following films don't involve romance at all. They are simply real world dramas.

1. Tokyo Godfathers

Studio: Mad House

Director: Satoshi Kon

Summary: Before losing a battle with cancer, Satoshi Kon made some of the most unique and fascinating anime out there. This film is maybe the most unique of the bunch but also the most approachable. It is about three homeless friends who find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. The friends include a transvestite who immediately wants to mother the child. The three form an unlikely family and protect the child. For parents with open views about sexuality (the transvestite also suffers from AIDS) this film is actually pretty family friendly and ends with a great message about Christmas spirit and about how God views all of us as his children, despite sexual orientation. It's truly a great film that feels like it could have been made in Europe. For those who want something completely out of left field that will convince even the most cynical that anime has a range larger than combat and terrible teen romances. Highly recommended. Features a great dub and was released by Sony in the US.

I'm not going to put it here as it is a little too strange for this list, but once you have your friend indoctrinated you might want to follow some of these films with Kon's excellent film Perfect Blue. It's a murder mystery that is a little too obtuse to be a first foray into anime but is absolutely worth watching.

2. Grave of the Fireflies

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Isao Takahata

Summary: It's fitting that the only director with two films on this list is one of the most unique directors in anime history. With films unlike any others, Takahata uses animation to express his concerns with Japanese society and nowhere does he do it better than in the devastating Grave of the Fireflies. If your friend loves dark, tragic war drama than this film is for him or her. It's about two children orphaned during a fire bombing of their village towards the end of World War II. It's maybe the most powerful cartoon ever made. Roger Ebert claimed it also was the greatest war film of all time. It's truly mesmerizing and packs a greater punch than most any other war movie out there. For those art house cinema buffs you know who consider anime trash show them this and then ask them what they think of anime. It is a masterpiece and not only one of the greatest anime ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made no qualifiers needed.

Upcoming

So you've gone through this list and are looking for more? I wanted to highlight three films that have yet to be released on DVD or Blu-Ray in the US(and one I just haven't had a chance to see)

1. The Wind Rises

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Summary: I couldn't end this list without at least mentioning a Miyazaki film, and his latest film is probably the most approachable for the non-anime fan. It's a true story about the man who designed Japan's fighter planes during World War II. It mixes this drama with romance and Miyazaki's usual dose of social commentary. I have yet to see the film so I can't comment personally on its quality, but the film got an Academy Award nomination, and was awarded at numerous film festivals and year end award shows throughout the world. It will be out on DVD shortly.

2. The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Isao Takahata

Summary: This film is based on a classic Japanese folktale and I couldn't tell you how easy it will be for westerners to understand as it has only recently been released in Japan. I wanted to highlight it because instead of your standard anime art style the film instead attempts to mimic the look of classic Japanese paintings. This is absolutely not the place to start, but for those who think anime has only a single art style I have a feeling this film will at least be a bit more approachable than Takahata's My Neighbors The Yamadas which also looks nothing like your standard anime but makes virtually no sense to anyone outside of Japan.

3. Garden of Words

Studio: Comix Wave

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Summary: This film has been released in the US I just haven't had a chance to watch it yet. It is a romance between a young man and an older woman. He is an apprentice shoemaker and in standard Shinkai form time and distance both draw the lovers together and threaten to separate them. Unlike most other directors on this list Shinkai does not have a flawless track record. His films are just as often duds as they are great. So view this at your own risk.

4. When Marnie Was There

Studio: Studio Ghibli

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Summary: And we'll end with a film not even released in Japan yet. It's a ghost story based on a British novel and that is about all I know about it. So look forward to knowing more about that.

And that brings us to a close! Hope this helps you find an anime film for that anime hating special someone in your life.

EDIT: Edited to fix some grammar and spelling errors.

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A Honest To God Good Piece of Internet Journalism

It's exceptionally rare to see well written articles on the Internet these days. Even major news outlets seem to hire staff based far more on their on camera persona than for their writing abilities. It's saddening to go onto supposedly reputable news sources and see articles more akin to a Buzzfeed list than an actual thought out piece of writing. I love Giantbomb, and the editors here are great, but it feels more and more as if this site is becoming part of a shrinking oasis in a desert of shoddy journalism that extends to every subject matter. Far too often I see articles filled with grammar errors, typos, and half formed sentences. And more and more I read articles that 20 years ago wouldn't get you through a High School English class much less get you hired at a international news organization. So it sadly shocks me more with each passing day when I see an article so impeccably written, insightful, and powerful that I actually care to look up the other works of the author. Today I read one of those increasingly rare articles and I've been trying to share it with as many people as possible and while it isn't directly related to games, it is related to social media and the effects of technology on relationships, so I thought it was relevant enough to share. Plus it is just so damn good and something that I think will hit far too close to home to any number of millennial. So only read if you are willing to cry at a piece of Internet journalism, but know that this is one of those rare writings on the Internet that remind you just how great writing can be.

So without further ado I present for your reading pleasure

She's Still Dying on Facebook.

Enjoy it or not as you wish.

EDIT: Link is now a link again. Dunno what happened there.

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Animation Review: Journey to Agartha

Over the past 10 to 15 years Japanese animation, known in English speaking countries as anime, has become more popular than ever on the worldwide stage. One would think that the increase in both profits and legitimacy would drive new and talented filmmakers to enter the anime fold, yet for most fans, the greatest anime shows and films have remained constant for quite a few years.

One of the most common quests among executives in the anime industry is to find the “next Miyazaki,” referring to the greatest anime director and Studio Ghibli head Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki has the habit of announcing his retirement after the completion of almost every film he makes, only to revoke said retirement several years down the line when he finds a new film he wants to make. But the time it takes him to unretire has grown longer and longer over the past 15 years. Of the 10 films Miyazaki has made at Ghibli, only four have been released over the past 15 years, with seven coming the 12 or so years before that. Point is, the search for a new animation master has grown ever more intense in Japan.

Many thought the “new Miyazaki” had been found a decade ago when Makoto Shinkai singlehandedly created one of the greatest animated short films ever made in Voices of a Distant Star. Hailed as a newly minted master, Shinkai has unfortunately been unable to recapture that magic in the decade since. His latest film is entitled Journey to Agartha in the United States and it retains many of themes and stylistic touches that have come to both define and haunt Shinkai over the past 10 years.

Shinkai’s films are almost invariably romances of some sort. They also almost always deal with the effects of loss and loneliness on one or both of the lovers, and that loss and loneliness is almost always caused by the effects of time and distance between the lovers. Voices of a Distant Star was the most pure expression of these themes. In it a young woman is forced to travel to a distant solar system to fight off an alien invasion, leaving her lover stuck on Earth. Due to the nature of lightspeed wormhole travel, time passes much more quickly on Earth than it does in said wormhole, meaning the girl remains in her mid-teens as the boy grows into a man. The film, in my mind, is the most powerful anime ever released of any sort. And since that time Shinkai has been desperately attempting to weave similar themes into other stories.

Journey to Agartha is maybe Shinkai’s most ambitious film yet. It’s fantasy trappings are highly reminiscent of the majestic worlds seen in Miyazaki’s works. The story revolves around a young girl, Asuna, and her middle school teacher. The lonely girl spends her after-school hours in the forest surrounding her town, while her mother works lengthy shifts at the local hospital. Her father died when she was a toddler, and Asuna is left to mostly fend for herself. One day she is attacked by a strange beast only to be saved by a mysterious young man with super strength and a glowing amulet. The man, who is named Shun, dies shortly afterwards, and through her teacher, Asuna learns that Shun was likely a denizen of Agartha, a world that exists below ground and in which lies the gate between life and death. Her teacher, Ryuji Morisaki, who is referred to simply as Sensei throughout the film, wishes to travel to Agartha to reconnect with his dead wife. Asuna joins him for some unexplained reason. They encounter Shun’s brother Shin, who was sent to bring back Shun’s amulet, which is what grants access to Agartha, as well as a cat named Mimi who was left behind by the dead Shun to guard Asuna.

Why did Shun wish to guard this girl he had never met before? Why does Asuna up and leave her home and travel to a dangerous land with her Sensei? Journey to Agartha does not answer these questions, or many of the other questions that pop up during the course of Asuna and her Sensei’s adventure. Why is Agartha dying? What exactly would happen if Morisaki brings his wife back from the dead? Shinkai chooses to only hint at the answers and let his audience decide for themselves what is going on. It’s not a horrible way to tell a story. Any fan of Stanley Kubrick will tell you that. The problem here is that too much detail is left out, making it difficult to care about the characters. It’s incredibly tough to balance detail and ambiguity in a script such as this, and Shinkai makes the error of revealing too little while not providing enough of interest to make the audience want to figure out the rest. The result is a muddled tale with too many plot threads and characters too undeveloped or too uninteresting to care about. Morisaki is the typical Shinkai character here, and he is the best written and developed of the bunch. But the focus of this tale is Asuna, and she feels like a Miyazaki outcast. She’s a strong girl thrust into a difficult situation, but she lacks the depth that Miyazaki heroines possess, and her foil, the rash Shin is nowhere near as interesting as the complex male leads found in Miyazaki’s best work. In almost every way, Journey to Agartha feels like a pale imitation of Miyazaki’s best, with the addition of Morisaki to provide that signature Shinkai story.

While the story and characters pale in comparison to their obvious inspiration, the art on display here is easily equal to Ghibli’s best work. If one wants to compare Shinkai to Miyazaki in a positive manner, probably the greatest compliment you could give is that Shinkai’s films are as distinctly his as Miyazaki’s are. The absolutely gorgeous background art that defines Shinkai’s films has never been better. Judged purely from that standpoint Shinkai’s film is truly a masterful piece of work. As usual the character design and animation is the weakest point, and it is only in that aspect that Shinkai’s work is in any way worse looking that Miyazaki’s. Still, fans of gorgeous animation should take a look at this film if only to see one of the greatest background artists and animators in the world at work. The music here is done by Tenmon, who has scored all but one of Shinkai’s films. His work here is as gorgeous as usual. From an audiovisual standpoint Shinkai’s works truly are worthy of the Miyazaki comparison.

Of course pretty sights and sounds are only half of an animated film. And until Shinkai can tell a story as well as Miyazaki, the comparisons to the master are far from warranted. At nearly two hours long Journey to Agartha has more visual splendor than seen in almost any other animated film I can think of. And because of that I recommend it to any animation fans. Just understand that you are going into this for the visuals and the music, not for the muddled and poorly paced story that tries and fails to emulate Miyazaki’s best works.

2/5

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A Problem With Horror Games?

Recently there have been a handful of previews for Shinji Mikami's new survival horror game The Evil Within. There have been very mixed reactions, with most critics commenting on how the game seems to mix classic survival aspects with a lot of scripted scene shifting that almost feels like an entirely different game. One preview very specifically mentioned not liking how he was unable to fully explore an area after the game decided to whisk him away to some other location once he hit a specific trigger. These types of comments made me think about a film that many consider to be the greatest example of horror fiction ever created, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.Bare with me as I explain what it is that makes The Shining such a masterful piece of horror.

There have obviously been dozens, if not hundreds of interpretations of The Shining over the years. What makes the film so great, though, is that it actively defies any and every attempt to explain it. No matter how you try to explain any aspect of it, there will be at least one scene, or one line that contradicts that theory. To give an example, almost everyone believes by the end of the film that Danny's finger friend Tony is some sort of supernatural entity. The main argument for this is that if Tony did not exist then how would Dick (the black chef that Danny speaks to at the beginning of the film) know that the family was in trouble? The thing is that people merely assume that Dick knows the family is in trouble. At no point in time does Dick actually claim he is trying to rescue the family. People tend to assume he is hiding his psychic link from people, but not once does Dick actually admit to having any sort of link with Danny, and he is killed as soon as he gets to the hotel. Therefore the entire supernatural element of the film can be explained away very simply by saying that there is never anything beyond a hint that anything supernatural is occurring in the hotel. The conclusions audiences draw from the film are based on similar sequences in other pieces of fiction. Kubrick uses those assumptions to draw the audience into making possibly false conclusions.

Another famous example are the twins seen throughout the film. Many assume these twins are the ghosts of the murdered daughters mentioned earlier in the film, but again this is Kubrick using people's expectations against them. The murdered daughters are very specifically mentioned as being different ages. Therefore they could not be twins. Virtually everything you think you know about The Shining can be deconstructed in this way. Did Jack nearly strangle his son to death? Plenty of people can point to very specific reasons why he did or didn't. Yet every single one of those reasons on both sides of the argument come from assumptions people make that are never confirmed or denied in the film itself.

It isn't only the story that is filled with contradictions upon closer inspection. The very hotel the movie takes place in makes no sense whatsoever from a purely physical perspective. Even the most cursory examination of the possible layout of the hotel shows a building that defies the realms of physical possibility. Rooms seem to overlap one another. Hallways lead to nowhere. In the opening of the film guests come and go from the shot to and from halls and rooms that simply can't exist. And even when you think you have something figured out, Kubrick will purposefully place a room in a spot that is so obviously incorrect that it simply cannot be a mistake. The Torrance's room, for example, somehow has a Window leading to the front of the hotel when the door that leads into the room is off a hallway that seems to be in the back of the hotel. Many claim that it is a goof that there is snow outside the window yet no snow is shown from the inside at the end of the film(this is even listed under the goofs section on IMDB). This is not a mistake. It is Kubrick's way of making something that does not make sense make even less sense.

Maybe the scene that most defies explanation is the scene where Jack is locked in a pantry at the end of the film. Some say that this scene is the undeniable confirmation that someone or something else exists in the hotel beyond Jack and his family. Yet the room he is locked in is a room that doesn't seem possible. At the beginning of the film Dick shows the family the pantry in the kitchen and this pantry's door is located on the corner of the room. Yet the pantry Jack is locked in at the end (a different pantry) is located on the exact same corner. The door is just on a different wall. So the pantry he is locked in, again, cannot actually exist. There is simply no way to explain this climactic scene. Kubrick seems to have ended the film intentionally with a scene that defies every explanation of the film one could come up with up to this point.

So what does all this have to do with games and The Evil Within? Well in a game players expect a set of rules that remain largely unbroken throughout the course of the game. If something works once then it should work again. They expect a map of a location to not only make sense, but be accurate and useful as well. Yet the scariest thing for most people is the fear of the unknown. It is the basis behind religion, behind science. We as a species demand to understand the world around us. We want an explanation. We want an answer, and we would prefer some sort of nonsensical magic to no explanation at all. And games, even horror ones, tend to give us this information. And for good reason. Pacing is the most important aspect of a horror film or horror game. And pacing is ruined entirely if the player cannot figure out what to do or where to go. And that right there is the basis for why horror games seemingly have to fail. To be truly scary a game must not follow its own rules. Yet by not following its own rules the game will almost certainly cause a player to lose his way, therefore ruining the tension and pacing that are so important to horror stories.

I don't know how to solve this problem as it is a problem that seems inherent to the ways games are made. But I would be interested to see a developer successfully break the rules of a game consistently without hindering the pacing.

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Animation Review: From Up On Poppy Hill

So with blog series about Pixar and Disney under my belt I know the next animation studio people want to hear about is Studio Ghibli. I promise I will get around to blogging about the history of Japan's greatest house of animation, but I want to first watch the final films from Hayao Miyazaki (The Wind Rises) and Isao Takahata (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter). The former sadly wasn't released in theaters around here while the latter has yet to even hit theaters in Japan. In the meantime, I thought I would take the time to write some reviews about animated films. And what better way to start than with the latest Studio Ghibli film to hit home media in the US, From Up On Poppy Hill. I watched the film tonight in its native Japanese with English subtitles, something I would recommend everyone does when watching foreign films of any sort. Here is my take on Goro Miyazaki's latest.

From Up On Poppy hill is the second feature from Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki's son, Goro and it is a vast improvement over the animation master's prodigy's first film. Whereas Tales of Earthsea managed to butcher one of the greatest young adult fantasy films out there, From Up On Poppy Hill successfully adapts the manga of the same name. It might help that this film was not written by Goro but by his father and co-writer Keiko Niwa. Taking place in the early 60's the film tells the story of a group of high school students attempting to save their clubhouse from being demolished in the lead up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. At the forefront is Umi Matsuzaki, a Junior who is pulling double duty by also taking care of her family while her mother is away in the US. Her father was a naval captain killed in the Korean War and the film focuses on both the challenges she faces taking on far too many responsibilities and also her burgeoning romance with fellow student Shun Kazama. Shun is leading the charge to save the Clubhouse, and his over the top antics have made him the school's most popular boy. Umi begins working with him on the school paper and decides to enlist her friends to help restore the clubhouse in an attempt to convince the school's owner of its worth.

It's a slight story that lacks the grandiose fantasy typically found in Studio Ghibli films. In fact it is the first film worked on by Miyazaki to have no element of fantasy whatsoever. In that sense it feels in a way closer to the works of fellow Ghibli helmer Isao Takahata. Like Takahata's films and shows, Poppy Hill focuses on social and family issues, not grand adventures. This film though thankfully lacks the heavy handed approach often seen in Takahata's films, managing to not let the message get in the way of the characters. Umi is a delightful heroine, the type of strong young woman that tends to characterize so many of the best Studio Ghibli films. Likewise Shun is a great foil, a caring and compassionate young man who is fighting for a cause he believes in. A twist partway through the film provides the main element of conflict between the two, and very nearly derails the film, but the Miyazakis manage to keep the melodrama reigned in, letting the characters and the story flow naturally and avoiding the over the top conflicts that manage to infest the majority of American made romances. The pacing overall is tight, the dialogue highly natural, and the characters believable. To anyone who says anime can't do pure high school romance, make sure to point them in the direction of From Up On Poppy Hill.

Of course this wouldn't be a Studio Ghibli movie if it wasn't filled with exceptional art, animation, and music. The highlight here has to be the clubhouse itself, a lovely mess of a building that feels immediately worth saving. The character art is pure Ghibli, that is, it is the best in the business and the animation has a level of fluidity and detail not seen in any 2D animated film not made by Ghibli or Disney. Suffice to say that while the setting may not let Ghibli's artists create their normal array of fantastical creatures, it nevertheless is one of the most stunning pieces of animation to come out this century. The score, by first time Ghibli composer Satoshi Takebe, is also excellent, as are the various songs sung throughout the film.

From top to bottom From Up on Poppy Hill is an excellent addition to the Ghibli canon. While it lacks the imagination and sense of adventure that has made many of Hayao's films international classics, it does what it sets out to do incredibly well and at the very least gives hope for a quality post-Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata Ghibli.

4/5

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