Friday, April 26, 2013

Newspaper Comics #11: Wizard of Id

Over the years I've collected various books with newspaper comics in it.  I've got the Complete Far Side books, massive tomes that bend my bookshelves with their sheer weight, a half dozen Garfield books, and an old book of Peanuts comics.  But one of the odder ones turns out to be the first published book a comic, which is wild considering it's been around since 1964.  And of all things, it's the Wizard of Id.

Id was originally the product of the work of two men, Brant Parker and Johnny Hart. Hart is basically known for one of the great old zombie comics, B.C.  I likely won't ever talk about B.C. because, well, I don't read it.  Parker, however, is the main force behind Id, until he died, so Id is kind of a zombie too.  As I've said before, the line between zombie and legacy is very fine, and as of late, it seems it's leaning more toward legacy, but for a while, it was a zombie, just going through the motions.

Of all these older comic reviews, it's really rare I actually get a chance to read the earliest strips.  I've read early Garfield strips (old Garfield is a strange beast, literally), and seen some early Family Circus strips (but only a few), but most of these really old comics are pretty much forgotten.  Having not just some of the early strips, but an official collection of such strips is actually quite a treat for me.  Whether they are the first strips or not is hard to say (I suspect they are), but it is still something to have, and then to be able to compare it to the modern strips thanks to Go Comics (and not my local paper) makes this review kind of a no brainer.

The modern strip is very much a standard comic.  Setup, joke, punchline arrangement is normal and the gags only occasionally link up with current events.  I won't call it a bad comic, it isn't, but it does feel very generic.  It has gotten away from the worse of it by focusing more the Wizard himself as of late, as if the Wizard was always the focus of the comic that they had gotten away from (it's not BTW).  New ideas are good for these kinds of comics, it did wonders for a lagging Garfield which is now actually readable after a decade of mediocrity.  Still, it's very much a "staple" comic, one of those strips that just appears in the funny pages but no one remembers when or how it got there.

Those early strips, though, feels much lighter.  It's still an old newspaper comic, strips rarely follow one another in any form of continuity, but there is a great sense of "let's try this and see if it works."  I get that feeling from a lot of young gag strips, and it's here too.  It's weird how refreshing it feels in this early work, and how I would happily read this comic even now.  Don't get me wrong, I don't HATE the current version of Id, but I'd love this version more.  It's rawer, has a much sharper edge than the current comic.  Not that it's particularly sharp, of course, it's still a newspaper comic, but there's a lot more implied death here.  The King does NOT take anything, more than willing to order the execution of children for simple games at the drop of a hat.  No, I'm not kidding on that either.  He is a tyrant, through and through here, where he only KIND of a tyrant in the modern strip.

Are these changes bad?  Well, yes and no.  No, because I really like these early Id strips, they feel like, well, some webcomics I've read.  Yes because it's still being published since it debuted in 1964.  Softening the edges off made it appeal to a wider audience and kept it in the papers for decades.  Did it make the comic weaker?  Yeah, it did, but some changes worked out in it's favor.  For example, the King has COMPLETELY changed from his original version which was more akin to a playing card king and thus more distinctive.  The artwork as a whole became smaller, probably as the space for comics shrunk over the years.  They're still identifiable between the versions, but you can tell there's a difference there.  The personalities, though, are virtually unchanged, so these are the same characters.  And there is a solid core of them, unlike Beetle Baily and it's mountain of characters, there are relatively few in Id and they each have there own roles to play.

Wizard of Id is a pretty generic comic any more.  Nothing special or great about it, but nothing godawful either.  Occasionally it's quite funny, but usually it's just a passing glance.  It's a shame, given it's edgier roots, but even those roots aren't THAT edgy.  There are worse comics out there, and there are better.  The only real thing I can say about it is that it's a great example of people working together to create something new, even if Parker went on to run the comic alone.  Beyond that, it's there, and that's about it.

Next time, I have to do some touching base.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Breaking the Character

The Dreamfall review had me thinking about characters.  Specifically of April Ryan, the protagonist of the original game and her change from stressed out art student to damn near suicidal rebel in Dreamfall.  It's quite a departure, so why did they do it?

Well, it's character growth, kind of.  Character growth is a catchall term for development of characters.  In essence, it's about taking a character's beliefs, ideals and dreams and challenging them.  The character grows by facing the challenge and either reinforcing their beliefs, changing them, or abandoning them all together.  This is a complex process and many characters often don't completely grow throughout the course of a single story, but they often do enough that one can see where the character should be going, and that's often enough.

What happened to April, however, is an extreme method of character growth.  Breaking a character is NOT character growth in and of itself, but it is a possible step.  Instead of merely challenging a character's beliefs, it actively destroys those beliefs.  Think of it as instead of just daring a character to prove their faith in a random god, to taking that god, showing it to them, then cutting it's head off in front of the character.  It's brutal, and can radically change the character in unexpected ways.

This is what happened to April.  The root of her destruction was planted at the end of The Longest Journey, the very end, but that wasn't necessarily the moment things broke down for her.  As the character is reintroduced into Dreamfall, only hints as to what happened in the 10 years between games are given.  If anything, it's more general than anything else, but the result is obvious:  the perky art student has been turned into a hardened killer.  The thing is, and this is a key point with broken characters, that perky art student isn't completely gone.  Some of her are still there, but they're disconnected and clogged, and almost doesn't fit with the hardened killer at all.

On the webcomic front, there's a couple of characters I can think of that have been broken.  One is from my go to comic for these things, Torg from Sluggy Freelance.  The character that started the comic is certainly not the one that's currently running around, but it's more than that, and it comes back to the story That Which Redeems.  In it, Torg is pulled in to save the Dimension of Lame from an invasion of the Dimension of Pain.  The result is something Torg isn't used to:  He's the most competent man in the room.  It wears on Torg throughout the story, especially as Lame versions of his friends are put into increasing danger and he does what he can to help them, alone.  Then, Lame Zoe is killed, and Torg breaks.

It's no secret that for most of the comic Torg has had a kind of crush on Zoe, they've gotten pretty close at times as well throughout up to this point (with only situations and Oasis being in the way).  Losing a version of Zoe, not even his Zoe, just a version of her, took a heavy toll on Torg.  He really wasn't the same afterwards, pushing his Zoe further away and getting far more serious than he should.  When his Zoe disappears and "dies," (it's complicated), he points himself to denial, and focuses on his plans.  The eventual result will be the version of Torg in the 4UCity storyline, a much harder, much more willing to sacrifice lives to meet his goals kind of guy.

The other webcomic character is Thomas from Between Failures.  Like April, we don't see him break, but we are introduced to him as a broken character.  As I said in my original review, I didn't like him much, but grew to like him as the comic progressed.  Why?  Because he's in a rebuilding phase of a character.  Only hints are given to exactly what happened, but unlike April there's no baseline to build his original character from.  Only now, as the current storyline brings the character that triggered Thomas' destruction back into the story, will answers be given.  This will be the next step in rebuilding Thomas' character, something that started with a kiss.

Rebuilding the character, that's the goal of breaking one.  If there's no rebuild phase, then the destruction was wasted.  None of these three characters has been rebuilt, yet.  April was still in the process of being broken (her last act in Dreamfall does it).  Torg has been built up again, a bit, but he's got a long way to go, and Thomas is probably the furthest along toward being rebuilt.  What will these rebuilt characters look like?  Hard to say, but often they'll share traits between their original forms and their broken forms as well as more mature traits.  What will fix them?  Torg, I think, is admitting his love for Zoe to her will probably do it.  Thomas, I suspect, might be more confrontational, and April will have a much longer journey ahead of her than behind.

Breaking a character is not to be done lightly.  It WILL change them, and many people will hate the change.  In the long run, if done right, the character will be better for it.  It will make for a much more interesting story.  After all, old Torg doing the Minion Master story wouldn't have been half as interesting, and having April being the same girl despite the changes to the world around her would have felt out of place.

Well, that's enough for now.  Until next time kiddies.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Taking this week off

Not sure on the next article and I need a bit to recharge.  Plus, the nice weather is staring to come in, so I want to enjoy it a bit.  I'll have something next week, I hope.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Not Comic Review: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

I really should have had this category all along given I've done a few of these now.  The other day I sat down and finally played Dreamfall:  The Longest Journey.  I've owned the game for about 6 years at this point, and I never installed it.  Initially it was because I couldn't run it, later, I just found other things to do.  So I finally sat down and finished it and I'd like to talk about it a bit.  And I'll be linking to Let's Plays of these games because I like links, though I encourage a playthrough first.


Before I get into this, I need to talk about the original game, The Longest Journey.  TLJ is on of my favorite games of all time.  It's an old school point and click adventure game, kind of like Grim Fandango.  The adventure follows a girl, April Ryan, who discovers that there is more to the world than just the Earth we know, that it's all in danger of being destroyed, and she has a role in saving it.  The story isn't all that special, honestly.  Kind of a standard heroes quest sort of thing, but not quite.  What really drew me to the game was the world it created.  Or worlds as the case may be.  It drew me in and stuck with me.  I mentioned last week that I've written a few fanfictions in my time, and one of them, the only one that went very far, was for this game.  So I REALLY liked the game.  The game ends with the world saved, April's destiny not quite what she thought, and her stepping into a portal leading her somewhere.

Dreamfall is a half sequel.  Since the original game was wrapped up pretty well, with very few, if any, loose ends.  As such Dreamfall is free to build practically from scratch in the same universe.  New game, new main character, new story, all that kind of stuff.  We'll get to the story and characters in a moment, let's talk about the actual game itself.  From the perspective of game play, this is not a good game.  It's not godawful, but it's not good.

At it's heart, Dreamfall is an adventure game like TLJ before it.  That means puzzles, but compared to TLJ, the puzzles in Dreamfall are a complete joke.  This is kind of on purpose from what I've read, as there were a few puzzles in that game that were so convoluted as to stop people from getting very far.  Hell, one is damn near infamous.  So they made Dreamfall easier.  That's fine, but they went a bit too far.  On top of that, they provided a couple of mini-game puzzles that were shockingly underused, to the point of silliness.  At best, the two games are used a grand total of 6 times in the entire game.  Maybe it isn't so bad, given that the game is paced much quicker (it's shorter for sure) and the mini-games only work for effectively half the game anyway, but I still feel they were underused.  Otherwise the puzzles generally hand hold the player through them.  Only a couple of times I got stuck, either due to the hint not being all that clear or the camera not helping me see the issue (and then there was the music puzzle, I hate those and look them up instantly, I'd be terrible at Loom).  Of course, Dreamfall doesn't just have puzzles, and this is where things start getting odd.

Dreamfall has a combat system.  This is an old school adventure game with at COMBAT system.  And not something like out of Secret of Monkey Island.  No, there is actual fighting, with potential of loss in this game.  It's stiff, hard to perform, and as sporadic as the mini-game puzzles.  There are maybe 5 battles in the entire game that HAVE to be fought, with two optional fights that can be done via another method, which I'll get to shortly.  It kind of makes sense from a story perspective, but it's so clunky and underused that it surprises the player and results in a lot of button mashing for each fight.  It's not strictly hard, but it feels awful and really kind of drags the game down.

And then there's the third gameplay element, stealth.  Yeah, a stealth mechanic is in this game.  It kind of works, but I've seen it done better (actually I've seen all three done at the same time better, I'll get to that).  From a story perspective, again, it kind of makes sense, but it also adds undo stress, especially when it's combined with a puzzle.  Oh, and more instant death, how wonderful.  It works, not well, but it works.  It just feels, well, not great.

Combined with odd controls and a poor camera, this should be a complete mess of a game.  Want to see a game that does all these things together and does it well?  Go try Beyond Good & Evil.  It does everything this game does, but does it right and makes it easily a superior game.  Of course, it's not perfect in those regards, it just does it better than Dreamfall by miles.

And yet, this isn't a bad game as a whole.  Why?  It all comes down to the story, which is pretty good.  Very good actually, and one that is a bit deeper than one could expect for such a game.  The original game drew me in with a world, but not so much the story.  Here the world is established, for the most part, and so the story had to take charge.  It came through, except for the ending, as it were.

In many ways, I'd compare this series to Star Wars, the original trilogy (prequels don't count).  Like the original Star Wars (call it A New Hope if you must), TLJ is a complete story, with a solid beginning and end.  There's a journey, hints of a greater purpose for the lead character, etc, etc.  Dreamfall falls much more in line with Empire Strikes Back.  There are two active stories going on here, one for each world.  These stories cross each other at important parts, but for the most part are independent and about the growth of the characters.  What's more, the story does not end on a positive note.

The separate stories makes me wonder if the writers could have written them completely apart.  The crossing points between them have little effect on the two stories as they develop, so much so if there were no crossing points, only a little bit of work could break the two completely apart.  I do suspect for the larger tale, the crossing points are important, and will be necessary in the next sequel.  This indicates that there was a great deal of planning involved in the creation of the story and game, though leaving a bit of a cliffhanger was disappointing.

This planning is also reflected in the overall theme of the game.  That theme is actually spelled out in an interview, and I won't go into it here (go play the game first to see how it works).  The fact that there was a unified theme, despite 2 separate stories and 3 main characters, makes the story that much stronger, though one wouldn't necessarily notice the theme in playing, I certainly didn't.  I suspect that the writers didn't necessarily plan to reveal the theme as they were creating, hoping the game would reflect it a bit better.  I think one could suss out the theme with enough diligence, but sadly a lot of us, including myself, can't read that much into things.  The extra bump helps me appreciate what the writers were going for, and I better understand why certain events happened as they did.

And the best part of the planning, is that there are few continuity gaffes in the game.  In fact, I can only recall one that was pretty blatant.  Otherwise, every action either had a consequence or was mentioned.  My favorite, on watching the Let's Play I linked, is at one point there is a choice to fight or sneak around a particular bad guy.  When it's mentioned later, the dialog reflected the choice quite clearly.  I was very pleased with that, and it wasn't the only time such a thing happened.

The writing as a whole was quite good.  Dialog flowed quite well, despite some stiff, and probably poorly directed, voice work.  There's a bit of fun in some conversations, just as in the original game (where there was a LOT more dialog).  Choices were pretty clear, but sadly sparse.  The last couple of in game chapters were actually devoid of choice or options, which made me a bit sad in the long run.  I get why, any dialog options would have all been chosen or gone over the same territory anyway, but I would still have liked some control.  Though my favorite encounter is when two of the main characters meet just randomly on the street and strike up a conversation.  The fact that the game lets the player choose the direction BOTH sides take in the conversation is quite amazing, and I enjoyed it and would have loved to see more of that kind of thing.

So overall, the game is, well, good.  Perhaps not great, and certainly not one of my favorite games of all time.  The gameplay is bad, but there are moments with the story and the direction of that story that elevate it far beyond where it should be.  If the gameplay had been better, more in line with Beyond Good & Evil (whose story is far more pedestrian in comparison), it easily could have been incredible.  I'm glad I finally played it and will remember it for some time, but I don't think it'll have such a strong influence on me as TLJ did.  Or maybe it will and I just haven't felt it yet.  Have to wait and see on that one.

Until next time kiddies.