The Ambiguity of The Witcher

You know what makes good game dialogue? Ambiguity. Take the Witcher 2 for instance. That game is full of morally gray characters saying morally gray things. They show who they are without saying what they're about. It's a simple trick that, when used correctly, creates complex characters. Let's look at an example:

You play as Geralt, a human hybrid, or witcher, who has some funky powers that make him a natural for the freelance fighting of monsters. Early on in Flotsam, the first town in The Witcher 2, you can convince Loredo, sort of the town sheriff/commissioner, to release your friends from the gallows. This might make you think Loredo is an all right fellow. He won’t hang innocent people, he can be reasoned with.

In many RPGs, a good action denotes a good character. You pick the good replies to the good characters because that's how it's supposed to work when you're playing a hero. It’s all very binary. Good choice, bad choice. Mass Effect 3 is a great example. The good answers are on top, the mean answers are on bottom, and occasionally a neutral answer appears in the middle—that usually pops up to give you an out when romance is an option and you don’t want to trash your love-crossed crew member. If you’re playing as good guy, you can, and probably should, always pick the top answer.

Not so with the Witcher 2.

Later on Loredo, the man that spared your friends from execution, is kind of a dick to you and said friends. He also tries to short change you on a payment for a dangerous task you undertake for him. So maybe he's not the great guy you thought he was. It’s here in most games that you’d turn the binary switch. He’s bad now, so now he gets the bad responses. But…he showed kindness earlier, so is he all bad? Could he redeem himself? In real life, many of us would take the wait and see approach. Maybe later on, when things shake out, he’ll prove himself to be a man you can count on. The Witcher 2 lets you wait and see, to an extent (it’s a game, and does still have limitations).

When Loredo questions you about your knowledge of what’s happening in town, you have a few options. You can tell him what you know, change the subject, or deny knowledge. Ambiguity is at work here again with a very small but important spin. Like Mass Effect, Dragon Age 2 and other fully-voiced RPGs, the Witcher 2 doesn’t display the exact text your character will say. Instead, it offers the gist of his response. This system keeps the pace of dialogue snappy, and makes it less repetitive—it’s no fun to read an option and then hear your character say the exact same thing (as the first Witcher game did). In this particular example, the dialogue option is something like, “I don’t know.”

Now in most games, if you were to select “I don’t know” you would also be selecting to remove knowledge from your character. For the sake of the binary dialogue system, he or she would literally not know what was happening in town, even if you, the player, knew. But pick that option in the Witcher 2 and Geralt replies with something like, “What I do in town is my business.”

How ambiguous! You didn’t remove information from his head. Geralt knows. He’s choosing to withhold information. Loredo was a jerk earlier, despite his initial kindness, so maybe he doesn’t need to know what Geralt is up to in town. This ambiguous response doesn’t hurt the flow of the storyline or the quest, but does add a layer of complexity to the character. It also changes how you feel as the player.

The Witcher games put you in control of Geralt, and it’s up to you to choose his skills, control his actions and play his story. But you aren’t Geralt. You’re more like his director, the angel and the devil on his shoulders, maybe even his conscience. The ambiguous dialogue implies that he is his own man. Think of that pause in the conversation—the one that pops a selector on screen for you to choose an answer—as a reflection moment for Geralt. That’s when you appear, on either shoulder.

“You know what’s going on in town Geralt, but Loredo is a tool, don’t tell him.”

Vs.

“You know what’s going on in town Geralt, and Loredo should probably know, he is the sheriff after all.”

You pick, Geralt listens. You feel in control of the story, even though it’s not your story. This is what excites me about video game storytelling. Imagine watching a scary movie, and right before the character goes down the dark hallway where the killer is waiting, you yell, “don’t go down there” and she doesn’t. She listens, and lives to see the next scene. Was that decision to keep her alive a good one? You don’t know yet. You’re the director, but you haven’t read the whole script.

Again, that bit of ambiguity is a very subtle difference. The Witcher is still working on the same “If this, then that” system that powers every other game, but the smart writing and language muddy it up a bit, make it less apparent. That is the brilliance of The Witcher 2, that is why, if you have any interest in what can be done with video game narrative and dialogue, you should try it.

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A Softer Side: Wolverine

I didn't get to see The Avengers this weekend. I learned a good lesson about seeing movies when you're a parent: if you went through the trouble of securing a sitter, go through the trouble of buying movie tickets in advance. Anyway, I had superheroes on the brain, so I took this image of Wolverine I sketched a year ago and decided to paint it in a Little Golden Books style. I hope this will be the start of a mini-series of pictures. The softer sides of some hard edge characters. Not sure if I'll record them all, but I did this one. Check it out!

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Try This: Fez

I’ve been bouncing between three very different games the last couple of weeks—all of them refreshingly unique. This week I’ll share my impressions of these games, what makes them different, and why you should try them. Last time I talked about Trials Evolution. This time it’s Fez.

What is it?

Fez is a puzzle platformer with a mysterious secret. On your first run through, it’s a pleasing collect-a-thon with a retro art style and a neat rotation mechanic. But that’s only half the game. After completing the initial challenge, you get a peek into a vast web of secrets scattered all over the game world. Truly finishing the game requires cracking a cipher, understanding the game’s hidden language, scanning QR codes, and all kinds of other weird things.

What’s so special about it?

There’s some crazy stuff in Fez, and if you’re up for playing along with a notepad in hand, you’ll likely find it to be a rewarding experience. Games like this are few and far between. It hearkens back to a day before helpful tutorials and map screens. Back when you had to get out some graph paper and draw your own diagrams to solve puzzles. During the week of release, the online gaming community was buzzing with theories and possible answers for the game’s many mysteries. It was sort of like an intellectual scavenger hunt, a communal race to the game’s hidden finish line. If you missed that, no worries, you can still give it a go on your own, or read through FAQs for clues and prompts to help you find the answers.

Five reasons to try Fez

1. It looks great. The pixel art in this game is fantastic. Every rotation reveals another fantastic 2D scene. There are also a number of nice visual flourishes that pay homage to classic games from the 8 bit days.

2. Clever platforming. Jumping around the environment is never very difficult in Fez, but it’s still a joy to do. The way the level changes depending on rotation leads to a lot of little “ah ha” platforming moments.

3. Soothing sound design. There’s a zen-like quality to the sound and music in Fez. From the calming to the creepy, every sound draws you in with a soothing subtlety.

4. Fun for the whole family. Fez is broken into two pretty different games. Before you get to the mysterious stuff, it’s just a charming puzzle platformer. It’s not especially hard, and to be honest, not all that entertaining if you play it in long stretches, but it’s fun enough if you’re looking for a laid back game full of pixelated eye candy. Those that want to dig deeper can, and will be rewarded for it. Because of a change in basic maneuverability, your second time through the game is very different.

5. The great mystery of Fez. I’ll be honest, I didn’t do any of this stuff. I have a baby and a puppy, and a day job, plus ongoing freelance work. I just don’t have the time to sit down with a notepad and stare at a game for hours on end. But just because I can’t do that stuff, doesn’t mean I don’t respect that it’s there. I think it’s really cool that Fez has so many mysteries hidden inside, waiting for the diligent gamer to find. It’s like The Da Vinci Code in a game.

You might like Fez if…

There aren’t a ton of games like Fez, but there are games that have parts like Fez. If you liked the charming presentation and puzzle platforming of Ilo Milo, you might like Fez—though the early puzzles aren’t near as challenging as what you’d find in Ilo Milo. If you couldn’t get enough of the esoteric hidden puzzles in Assassin’s Creed 2, you might be interested in hunting down the solutions to the crazy puzzles in Fez after you beat the game once.

Fez is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for $10 or 800 Microsoft points. Try it! I’ll be back this weekend with the last game in this trio of impressions: The Witcher 2.

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Try This: Trials Evolution

I’ve been bouncing between three very different games the last couple of weeks—all of them refreshingly unique. This week I’ll share my impressions of these games, what makes them different, and why you should try them. We’ll start with Trials Evolution.

What is it?

Trials Evolution is the sequel to Trials HD, but familiarity with the previous game isn’t required. In fact you’re better off skipping the first game entirely. Trials Evolution plays the same, but has a gentler learning curve, more variety, better level design, and a thriving online community. Trials Evolution is a fantastical take on the real world sport of motocross trials, which is sort of like parkour on a dirt bike. Your goal is to drive through insane courses filled with impossible obstacles, while attempting to stay upright on your bike.

What’s so special about it?

Trials utilizes a mostly realistic physics engine that gives you direct control of your rider and bike. While playing you get the sense that they are two distinct entities operating in the game world. The slightest change in rider position or throttle pressure can mean the difference between a perfect run and a bone shattering face plant. This is a game the rewards skillful play and punishes sloppiness.

Five Reasons to Try Trials

1. Fun tribute tracks. There are several tribute tracks scattered throughout the game that pay homage to XBLA hits like Limbo and Super Meat Boy and movies like Inception and Sin City.

2.Creative level design Aside from the tribute tracks there are dozens of creative tracks that are worth the price of admission alone. These tracks range from a crumbling dam to a medieval castle. I have a lot of favorites, but nothing beats the first time you speed through Titan Graveyard.

3. Ridiculous minigames. The silly skill games are a fun change of pace. There’s a wide variety of games to play, including a Marble Madness-like game, an explosion based game inspired by XBLA hit Splosion Man, a skiing minigame, even a game that puts you in pilot seat of a UFO.

4. Versatile level creator. If you’re in to making your own tracks or minigames, you’ll find that the pro editor is quite a capable tool. If you’re like me and don’t have time to make your own, you can enjoy the insane creations of the passionate community. Two weeks out and there’s already a first person shooter, a top down shoot-em-up, a jetpack joyride type game and much, much more.

5. Multiplayer for everyone. You can compete online in head to head races, go solo against the ghosts of the best players, or battle for dominance on each track with your friends. Trials is constantly making you aware of how you stack up to others, and it pushes you try a track one more time.

You might like Trials if…

Did you enjoy the punishing challenge and fast pace of Super Meat Boy? If so, Trials will scratch that masochistic itch (you crazy person you). Trials might have dirt bikes in it, but it’s not a racing game. This is a platformer on two wheels. A test of dexterity and skill every bit as challenging, infuriating and rewarding as Super Meat Boy.

Trials is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for $15 or 1200 Microsoft Points, try it! I’ll be back later this week with game number two, Fez.

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Vote for my pixels!

A few weeks ago I took my first foray into pixel art. It was something I always wanted to try, but never got around to. Actually, that’s not true, I used to do it all the time.

Back in like, 1995, my parents bought a computer that had MS Paint on it. I spent hours and hours drawing pixelated pictures with that clunky old mouse. Of course I wasn’t going for a pixelated look then, I wanted them to look realistic. Computer generated imagery was all the rage—1995, it was the year of Toy Story! I had an entire drawer filled with floppy disks, each one packed with goofy pictures (I think 11 year old me called them masterpieces). Sadly that drawer of floppies was lost to time. Sure would love to see some of those pictures again. I remember being particularly proud of an epic portrait of Macho Man Randy Savage.

Anyway, I went back to pixel art for Gamespot.com’s Mass Effect pixel art contest. It was the perfect excuse to give it a go—I like Mass Effect, pixel art and winning stuff. I was super busy with other freelance artwork, so I didn’t get to spend as much time on it as I wanted, but I think it turned out all right.

I discovered while I worked on it that pixel art is a ton of fun. I’m really happy it’s making a bit of a resurgence (for reference see Fez and Sworcery). Making it hits a creative and nostalgic sweet spot. The only downside is that when you’re done, you can’t play it. Once I finished “de-making” Mass Effect into an old school 2D RPG, I was kind of bummed, I wanted it to be real.

I think it might be fun to de-make more games. Maybe I’ll do a whole de-make series and post it on my website. I might be able to squeeze in one or two a month with my other work (maybe, heh). Any de-make requests? Leave a comment of the game, and the genre you’d think it would fit in—like Uncharted might make a good 2D platformer or Call of Duty as a Contra-style shoot-em-up.

Oh yeah, if you have a Gamespot.com account, make sure to swing by here and give me a vote in the comments, mine is Image 2. Thanks!

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Five games to keep you running on Android

Smart phones game developers didn’t invent the continuous motion or “running” game genre, but they definitely popularized it. It’s a genre perfectly suited for mobile play--fast and easy to get in to, and they require minimal input (in most cases). Most people that are into mobile gaming know the big names in the genre, Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride, both of which are excellent games. If you’ve already played those, here are five more you might find fun.

Note: The Google Play Store is littered with me-too clones and bad running game rip offs. I played several in the genre, and these represent some of the best.

Stellar Escape

Stellar Escape puts you in the shoes of an astronaut fleeing an alien base. You’ll jump, slide, vault and climb around a variety of obstacles through a set of increasingly difficult levels. The exaggerated cartoony animation is superb, definitely my favorite thing about this game. The button layout is under the on-screen action, not on top, so your thumbs don’t get in the way. Though when things get hectic, it can be easy to hit the wrong one.

Price: Free

Micro-transactions? Yes, but only to upgrade to the full version, which unlocks a few dozen more levels.

Wind-Up Knight

Maybe the best looking game on the list, Wind-Up Knight is difficult but rewarding. Seriously, if you can play perfectly, the game rewards you with free gear and level packs. Of course you can pay to unlock levels and gear too. I aced the first set of ten and got the second set free, but I’m not sure I can do the others without losing my sanity. The game has a steady stream of ability unlocks—double jumping, shield guarding, rolling, etc.—to help mix things up and keep you on your toes. The only fault I can find with this excellent game is that the control buttons are a little on the small side.

Price: Free

Micro-transactions? Yes. You can purchase additional level sets as well as in-game points, which you can use to outfit your knight with better gear, e.g., a helmet that can take multiple hits.

Mr. Legs

This one is just plain weird. You play a strange person-like creature with extendable legs. The further you extend them, the faster you move. You raise and lower Mr. Legs to avoid birds and bombs and eat cherries. Simply tap the screen to start moving, and then slide up and down anywhere to extend and retract his legs. The unique art style, quirky music, and easy controls make this one worth playing.

Price: $0.99

Micro-transactions? No.

Temple Run

Temple Run has eaten up most of my mobile gaming time lately. It’s one of the few running games that isn’t from the side or played in landscape. You play an adventurer, dashing through ruins with a cursed idol, while strange monkey-like creatures chase you. The levels are randomly generated and feature a nice bit of variety. You tilt the phone side to side to lean your runner and collect coins littered about the world. Swipe up to jump, down to slide, and left or right to turn 90 degrees. This one has me hooked because of the achievement and upgrade system. Like many games, you can buy more in-game currency with real money, but in Temple Run, the upgrades are just low enough to make you think if you stick with it, you can make enough on your own. And so you try, and try, and try.

Price: Free

Micro-transactions? Yes. You can buy more coins to aid in the purchase of upgrades.

Winter Walk

This simple little game is absolutely delightful (picture at the top). As the name implies, it’s not about running. You play a charming British man in a top hat, out on his evening constitutional. Controls are simple, tap the screen to start him walking through the snow, tap and hold when the wind blows to make him clutch his top hat. The goal is to make it as far as possible without losing your hat. I love this game’s presentation. It’s simple and silly, and the pixel art visuals and retro 8-bit music are great. I also love the polite and pithy ponderings that pop-up as you walk.

Price: Free

Micro-transactions? No.

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Deus Ex Machina: Well that was convenient

UPDATE: We're talking about the narrative device Deus Ex Machina in this post. Mass Effect 3 is mentioned, BUT THIS IS NOT A POST ABOUT MASS EFFECT 3. So if all you have to add is a curse-filled comment in all caps about how much you hate ME3 or ME3 related posts, don't leave a comment. It's literally pointless to do so. Now, on with the post...

Have you ever read a book, watched a show/movie or played a game (ahem…Mass Effect 3) and were hit something really weird at the end? Like something that doesn’t fit? Something that’s way too convenient; a strange, out-of-place person, character or circumstance that wraps the conflict up in one confusing swoop? Congratulations, you may have just come across a deus ex machina, one of the cheapest literary devices this side of the cliché.

I think TVtropes.com defines it best:

A Deus ex Machina is an outside force that solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in an extremely unlikely (and, usually, anticlimactic) way. If the secret documents are in Russian, one of the spies suddenly reveals that they learned the language. If the writers have just lost funding, a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their movie, and offers all the finances they need to make it. If The Hero is dangling at the edge of a cliff with a villain stepping on his fingers, a flying robot suddenly appears to save him.

The term is Latin for god out of the machine and has its origins in ancient Greek theater. It refers to situations in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right, often near the end of the play. It has since come to be used as a general term for any event in which a seemingly fatal plot twist is resolved by an event never foreshadowed or set up.

Based on all the online vitriol surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending, you’d think this was the first time gamers have come across this lazy storytelling tactic. But it’s everywhere:

From books: Tolkien wasn’t above it. Didn’t you think it was odd how many times giant talking eagles came to the rescue?

To TV shows: Every other episode of Doctor Who seems to have one:

“Oh no Doctor, earth is doomed.”

“No it’s not! I’ve got a supersonic earth-saving wiggly wobbleator!”

Movies: Watch any pre-Daniel Craig Bond film. Amazing how Q always gives Bond the exact gadget he needs to get out of a very specific situation later on. It’s never a general-use spy gadget. It’s a pocket snorkel that lets him breathe under water for five minutes, which is the precise amount of time he’ll be stuck in a shark tank later on.

And of course games: *UNCHARTED 3 SPOILER WARNING* Toward the end of Uncharted 3, Nathan Drake picks up a portable rocket launcher that looks like some kind of weird prototype. Minutes later this launcher miraculously fires two rockets under water, which result in the large-scale destruction of the massive underground facility the bad guys are occupying. Also, it saves Sully and closes the door on the mysterious container they were hauling out of the water. Convenient!

Look for it and you’ll find it everywhere. It’s annoying, aggravating and often completely unsatisfying. And yet, it does work in some places. If the story is funny, cool, or quirky enough, sometimes you can overlook it. It’s a gamble for the writer to take—you have to trust that the majority of your audience will swallow your silly twist. Shows like Futurama and 24 are both littered with deus ex machina’s. The former makes up for it with absurdist humor while the latter (mostly) makes up for it with Jack Bauer’s general badassery. Yes it’s incredibly stupid that Angelina Jolie’s character saves the dude in Wanted with one impossible bullet when he’s surrounded by gunned-up bad guys in a perfect circle. Stupid, but kind of awesome, and it fits with the rest of the absurd, fourth-wall-breaking vibe of the film, so it gets a pass.

I was disappointed with Mass Effect 3’s ending just like everyone else, but to me, it wasn’t a petition-worthy offense. Maybe it’s because I write for a living, or because I consume a lot of stories, or because I knew it was coming, but the ending didn’t rile me up. I shook my head, uttered a long sigh, and then started a new game. They went for a silly slightly-literal deus ex machina, a god out of the machine. The Matrix trilogy tried the same thing, but it was worse there. Then again the Matrix trilogy took a turn south long before the ending. At least Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic game all the way up to those last 10 minutes.

Anyway, this wasn’t meant to be another blog about Mass Effect 3, the internet has enough of those. Just thought I’d highlight the narrative device they used, for those that don’t know. It’s actually in more places than you might think.

I think, most of the time when it appears in games, it’s through a cinematic or through level design (“Look at that, someone left a mounted turret near this enemy encampment”). Throwing in a gameplay-specific deus ex machina would be difficult, because it could require a new mechanic or extra development. Game developers are economical. Why create something the player only gets to use once?

That’s not to say it’s never been done. There are games that feature single-use items or mechanics that completely shift the tide of the battle or story. At the end of InFamous 2, Cole can pretty much fly. Would have been convenient to have that power earlier on.

Now, the fun part! Movies and shows are easy. What other games can you think of that had a deus ex machina?

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Mass Effect 3's excellent middle

I’ve been super busy lately working on way too many things at the same time (I know, what’s new?), but I’m still finding time to play Mass Effect 3 when I can. I think I’m closing in on this notoriously bad ending now. I’ve avoided spoilers, but haven’t avoided the never-ending conversation about it. Every game site, twitter feed and podcast has talked about it. By now my expectations are so low I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it.

The one thing that bums me out with all this ME3 talk is that no one seems to focus on what was done right. The game might have a bad ending, but it has a fantastic middle. Here are some improvements over the previous two games I’ve noted and appreciated while playing:

-More talky talk. They scaled back the chatter in ME2, to the point that the only time you heard from your companions was if you sought them out. In ME3 they have more to say to you and to each other. They talk during missions, spit out quick quips and observations, they bring up past escapades, even call each other from different rooms when they’re on the ship. You also see them out when you’re on the Citadel, doing their own thing, sometimes hanging with other members from the crew or people from past games. The ME3 crew is a lively bunch.

-Better level design. There’s nothing in the codex about the universe discovering ladders between ME2 and ME3, but I’m glad they did. The levels in ME3 are more dynamic and vertical and the backgrounds often depict scenes of epic battle. There’s a richness and depth to them that make it feel like you really are a specialized crew weaving in and out of a greater conflict. A couple of the missions easily outrank anything the first two games did, even the well-regarded DLC missions for ME2. There’s particularly cool one with the Quarians and Geth that offered something completely different while delivering some great story bits.

-It’s like a movie! Remember when the first Mass Effect came out and we all flipped over the conversation wheel and the cinematic camera angles that framed your talks with aliens? Well the improvements in cinematic presentation made in ME3 (compared to ME) are like the difference between a crappy indie film and a big budget action movie. People walk and talk, camera angles shift multiple times in a conversation, set piece moments have some nice shaky cam to up the immediacy and urgency. How come no one is talking about that stuff? Look at the cool quick videos in the shuttle as you fly out to a planet. Shepard checks a computer screen, walks to the cockpit, talks with the pilot, chats with his companions, then hops out and starts shooting, all of it in-game. Also, lens flare!

-Multiplayer is fun. When the multiplayer was first announced, I wasn’t outraged like some purists, but I couldn’t say I was excited. It’s not what I go to Mass Effect for. Turns out it’s actually a lot of fun. You know how Call of Duty borrows some of the RPG-like level progression in its multiplayer? ME3’s is like that, but deeper. You get the same powers and guns as you do in the single player, and you level up skills on branching trees the same way too. Plus you can play as aliens. No it’s probably not going to unseat Call of Duty as the world’s most popular multiplayer, but it’s still a lot of fun.

So the ending isn’t great, oh well. I’ve read plenty of books and seen tons of movies that didn’t end well (Wise Man’s Fear anyone? What about the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy?). Maybe I’ll have more to say when I finally see it, but for now, I don’t regret my time with Mass Effect 3 or my purchase. And I really don’t like the idea of Bioware caving in and changing the ending. That creates a bad precedent, and all the petitions make gamers look like a bunch of whining, self-entitled douchers.

Just like the last two games, I’m already planning my second play-through. There are some parts in the middle of this game I can’t wait to see again.

On a related note, Gamespot is holding a Mass Effect pixel art contest. I’ve never done pixel art, but it’s something I always wanted to try. Here’s my entry, a 2D “demake” of Mass Effect. Pixel art can be extremely tedious, but it’s a lot of fun to figure out how to use the limited space to convey as much information as possible.

PS- If you're here to comment on the post. Please clearly label spoilers for ME3. Some people have jobs, and a new puppy and a baby and several freelance projects and they don't have time to finish games two days after they come out. I mean...that's just some people.

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His name is Koopa

This is our new dog. His name is Koopa. Yes, it was my turn to name the family pet, and yes, I went with a video game name.

Koopa is an Olde English Bulldogge, not to be confused (although he regularly is) with a regular English bulldog. Our last dog, Berkeley, was a regular English bully, and we’ve already noticed some small, but dramatic, differences.

Put simply, an Olde English is a healthier version of the regular English. They are a course correction for the breed, an attempt to bring the bulldog back to what it used to be. The current standard put forth by the AKC for English bulldogs rewards unhealthiness, calling for a massive under bite, bowed legs and a swayed back. As a result, English bulldogs have a slew of health problems and their life expectancy is ridiculously short, just 6 to 9 years. They are high maintenance dogs; some people call them walking vet bills. We’ve met bulldog owners that have paid thousands to keep their dogs healthy—hip surgery to relieve the pressure on their overburdened joints, eye surgery to fix droopy eyelids, nose surgery so they can breathe better, and so on.

Berkeley wasn’t bad as far as bulldogs are concerned. He had some skin allergy issues and that was it. The bone cancer that took his life wasn’t breed specific, in fact according to the vet specialist, it was rare for a bulldog to have that type of cancer, especially so young. So yes, our first dog died way too early, but in terms of bulldog health issues, we dodged a bullet. We really love bulldogs—they have the best personalities and they’re awesome with kids—but we weren’t keen to try that again.

Shortly after Berkeley died I read this New York Times article about bulldogs and how the AKC refuses to budge on English bulldog breed standards. Breeders are effectively driving the breed to extinction, one miserable health defect at a time. That kind of sealed the deal for me. As much as I loved Berkeley and love the breed, I couldn’t support what amounts to slow burn animal cruelty. Lining the pockets of another English bulldog breeder would make us part of the problem.

That’s when we found out about the Olde English breed, which is not recognized by the AKC. A guy at Brooke’s office breeds them and he gave us the low down. They’re taller, have longer snouts (which mean they breathe easier), have more stamina and better proportioned limbs, and still have that goofy bulldog charm. They also have a longer life expectancy, 11 to 14 years. We searched around for a while but couldn’t find any available, especially for our budget. We came very close to adopting a chow mix puppy from the local shelter, but then Koopa found us.

He belonged to a breeder in Charleston. She was getting out of breeding to spend more time with her kids and Koopa was her last pup. Brooke exchanged several emails with her and found out that she started breeding Olde English bulldogges 12 years ago when her regular English died just two months after her first child was born. When we told her that Berkeley died two months after Parker was born she responded with, “Oh, you need this dog.” She was happy to see him go to a family and not another breeder, so she offered us a huge discount.

We picked him up last weekend and he’s awesome. He’s the exact opposite of Berkeley in terms of personality. Where Berkeley was hyper (for a bulldog) and rough, Koopa is calm and gentle. He doesn’t drool, get fatigued or snore as much as Berkeley did either. Parker loves him. He lights up when Koopa trots into the room, and Koopa seems to love the taste of Parker’s feet. He’s a great addition to the family.

I guess I’m sort of an advocate for the breed now. I really love bulldogs, which is why I won’t ever get another regular English bully. At least not until some things change with the breeders and the AKC. If you’re interested in bulldogs, I recommend going with healthier alternatives like the Olde English Bulldogge, the Victorian Bulldog or any of the American Bulldog variants.

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Posebook by Silver, you should get it

A few months ago Stephen Silver released an app called Posebook. I wanted it badly, but it was only available for iDevices. That changed this past week. You can now pick up Posebook for your Android device through the Amazon App Store. If you’re interested in improving your art, I highly recommend it.

Posebook is exactly what it sounds like, an electronic book full of poses. You get several costumed characters in a crazy amount of poses, plus silhouettes, hands and faces. Each pose has multiple angles and you can zoom in and flip every image. The app also comes with some short tutorial videos from Stephen and a gallery of images created by talented artists who used Posebook for their drawings. The videos are excellent and I wish there were more of them. They’re really just there to drive you toStephen’s Schoolism class, which I’m sure is fantastic (side note: if you’re interested in taking a Schoolism class--and you should be because they're awesome--use the link on my website for a discount).

The only downside to the app is that it can be a bit too sensitive when navigating the menus. The UI and overall design feels just like an iPhone app, meaning it was quickly converted and thrown on the Android market. Other than that tiny nuisance, it’s a wonderful app. It looks great on my Droid Razr’s big screen, and until the BlueStacksbeta starts, I can use the HDMI out on my phone to see the pictures bigger on my computer monitor.

Here are a couple sketches I did other night.

There are so many poses to choose from. I’m seeking out the ones that I don’t normally draw, stuff at weird angles. Posebook is split into two apps, one has males the other has females. Each app is $10. I’m going to get the female version after my $10 Amazon credit comes in from pre-ordering Mass Effect 3. Even at $20 it’s a great value. The absurd number of poses, the tutorials, and the ability to flip and zoom images elevates Posebook above its traditional paper-bound counterparts. If you have a compatible device and you want to improve your figure drawing skills, get this app.

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