Jun 29, 2010

My Thoughts on Plants Vs. Zombies

Zombies have not yet reached their full saturation point for me. My obsession with the undead has been all-consuming since I was a little kid. I watched the movies (Dawn of the Dead, Return of the Dead, Evil Dead), played the video games (Zombies Ate My Neighbors - What Up!), collected comic books, and began, at some point to write short stories about them. I can't to this day describe exactly what it is about the walking dead that intrigues me, but something keeps bringing me back.

Plants vs. Zombies, a tower defense game developed by PopCap, takes my fondness to a whole new level. Who knew rotting corpses could be so adorable?

I resisted PopCap games for the longest time, Bejeweled being the first and most prominent example. Everyone who has ever had a cell phone has had a trial version of the Tetris-like puzzle game (though not really) on it. Bejeweled didn't impress me. I didn't find it addictive. I didn't find it entertaining. I found it tedious and cheap, but I may have wrongfully overlooked it.

Then came Peggle. Though I initially didn't make the connection between Bejeweled and Peggle, I ignored it nonetheless. Both ostensibly possessed the same "casual game" label, and I was much too busy head-shotting aliens and (of course) zombies to be concerened with shooting a ball into a screenful of blue and orange dots.

But I played it, and, like usual, found out how idiotic I had been. Not only is Peggle fun, it's seriously addictive, and not just in a "casual", this-is-easy-to-pick-up-and-play sort of way. The developers at PopCap Games have found a magical formula for both grade of difficulty and transition between levels to keep the player glued to the screen for hours. A whole week went by where I don't think I watched an hour's worth of television due to this beast. It consumed my life, and I almost felt guilty after the obsession had passed. Almost.

Having been baptized into the revealed religion of PopCap, I recently dove headlong into Plants vs. Zombies, even though I had no idea what in the hell a tower defense game is. Ostensibly, what the player does is set up obstacles for an attacking army (zombies, in this case). If the zombies make it all the way across the screen and into your house, you lose. In PVZ, the obstacles take the form of plants. As the zombies track across the screen, the plants attack them. Planting sunflowers, for example, yields bits of sunlight - 25 pts a pop - which can be used to purchase other plants, like Jalapenos, which explode and kill an entire row of zombies, or pea shooters, which fire repeatedly at advancing enemies, until their heads fall off and they fall double-lifeless to the ground.

It sounds strange, and yet it works. The key to PopCap games is that they definitely do not take themselves too seriously. And yet, the developers seem to take them very seriously. The games themselves are very well put-together, and the player gets way more than the purchase price out of them, which many triple-A titles can't even boast. I paid ten bucks for PVZ, and I've put well over thirty hours into it. I'm starting a second go-round, using the different plants I accumulated over the course of the game, and so far I don't see myself slowing down whatsoever.

Jun 28, 2010

The Game Developer's Approach to Editing a Novel

In between bouts of compulsively checking Reddit and trying to get the achievements in Plants Vs. Zombies, I have been editing my most recent novel, Boogie House. The writing and editing of the book has been a long process - I started the first draft in January of 2009 - and I am finally, Finally, FINALLY, coming to the end of working on it. I had several compositional setbacks - like grad school and planning a wedding - which made the last year and a half go by with some quickness, so I hope all the time spent on this beast has been worth it.

I like the book, but then again, I wrote it. I should like it. Whether or not it is any "good" (in any sense of the word), I have no idea, but it will be done in the next few weeks, and I can start sending queries to publishers and agents.

Writing a novel is quite easy. Don't let anyone tell you that it's very hard. Putting down 90,000 words is only a matter of consistency of purpose. Editing, polishing, deleting, revamping, over-thinking, comparing to other better works, making the ending a fitting one, changing characters to make them more lifelike, refraining from plotting and allowing the character to make their own decisions, these are all very, very difficult, and I have suffered from every one of them in the last eighteen months (jeez, I had no idea it had been that long).

Right now, the action is ramping up for the final confrontation, and my only hope is that the ending fits with the general arc of the story. I've already re-edited the novel twice, so any changes made after this point will consist of little tweaks and fixes. The first edit consisted of changing major plot elements, cutting down long scenes, taking out corny bits of narration or dialogue (of which there was plenty), and just generally trying to get a feel for how the novel flowed. I got bogged down three quarters of the way through and didn't really "read" the novel so much as re-write it.

I tried again a second time, going almost instantly into the editing process. I found the novel to be much better this time, and yet I saw so many plot holes that I instantly went about stitching the edges together to make everything more clear and believable. This second edit hasn't been quite as difficult as the first one, but it's still been a slog of sorts. I'm almost done, and I can't wait to be rid of this novel for a stretch.

What I can say is that I've almost taken a game developer's approach to editing Boogie House. Game developers spend a great deal of time working on their games, polishing the graphics and gameplay until everything is as immersive as possible. I have spent time fleshing out characters and injecting backstory and trying to set the novel apart from all of the hard(ish)boiled detective novels out there. As much as I despise editing, this last go-round has taught me that the editing process is where the book simultaneously takes on a life of its own and becomes "my book." I look forward to finding this newest draft utterly readable. Fingers crossed.

Jun 24, 2010

Hey, I'm Back - A Honeymoon Blog

So, yeah, I got married without telling the internet. My bad. Anyway, I'm back from the honeymoon and ready to take up blogging again. I can't say that sitting here is more exciting than skimming around Europe with my new wife, but getting back to business is really worth being back in America.

Let me take a moment to get all mushy on you. I have a renewed sense of life, and my approach to living will change, hopefully. Even though I'd been with my wife - even now it hasn't sunk in - for almost six years before we were married, there is something distinctly different about it.

From now on, it won't just be "me," and that has changed the way I view the world. I've got to be honest about that. Even while engaged, the shared experience of life isn't quite the same. I feel like I've joined an exclusive club - albeit one for which extrication from its bounds can be achieved for five hundred bucks, if the billboards along I-20 are correct - and I actually look forward to the nuances of married life. My wife is the best person I know, and we survived traveling together in Spain and France for a week and a half without threatening annulment, so I guess it's so far so good.

Now, on to Europe, figuratively speaking.

I took somewhat extensive notes throughout the honeymoon, scribbling on a little leather-bound notebook in diners, cafes, and bars along the way. I tried to account for each day, though the wealth of experience cannot be simply put into words. And yet, I'll try my best.

I'll do a few posts on the blog about the trip, but I'm thinking of writing a (short) account of the honeymoon as a single slim volume to be downloaded online. It will include our adventures on the honeymoon, thoughts on life and writing, and a little background about the places we visited. Look for that in the near future, both on the blog and in print form.

Glad to be back.

Jun 7, 2010

Watson Is Creepy: Game Demo

Jun 6, 2010

Thoughts On: Infamous (PS3)

I know I'm late to this show, but getting back into video games has been a recent mission of mine, so forgive me for discussing out of date titles like Infamous. Overall, I'd say it's a flawed but *fun* game, if you're into superhero sandbox situations. The climbing, jumping, sliding, and shooting mechanics are all easy to master and satisfying to perform. Nothing beats being able to climb a stories-tall building, only to jump off and then slam into the concrete like a character straight out of Marvel. Even though the three islands are a bit samey in their visual styles, when compared to the tedium of stealing a car in GTA, being able to jump from building to building and slide on rails in Infamous is a dream. There are very few restrictions on what can be grappled, so the environment feels truly free and open for the player. I've wasted hours in the city under the auspices of looking for hidden items, and it's an honestly satisfying experience. The game designers placed needed emphasis on making the dynamic of climbing quite enthralling, and it pays off.

What's not very enjoyable are the side missions. Once you've played through the ones on the first island, there's little reason to continue the practice on islands two and three. They're the same exact missions but with different henchmen as the targets. Needless to say, the game becomes quite repetitive, unless you play straight through the story missions. I would imagine those remain more fresh if not hampered by the repetition of certain small goals.

In addition, some of the tasks are inane or quite frustrating (a few of the "satellite uplink" missions almost drove me to replace the game in the sleeve and send it back immediately, lest I break the disc into a million pieces and set those pieces on fire). In retrospect, the game isn't that hard, but some of the missions seemed absolutely ridiculous. Despite being invulnerable to bullets to a certain extent, your character is somewhat easily killed in specific situations, especially missions involving large numbers of enemies, who become deadly accurate when in large groups, for some reason.

I did like the game enough to play all the way through to the end (as a good guy. I am incapable of being evil in any video game, for some reason). My fiancee (countdown: six days) can attest to the fact, though, that from two-thirds of the way through the game on, I threatened to pack it up and move on no less than a dozen times, which is astounding, given how patient I can be with even the most frustrating gaming experiences.

Overall, though, Infamous is worth a rental, at the very least. Don't think it's going to throw anything extremely new at you after about five hours, though, and you'll probably be satisfied.