How To Make The Phantom Menace Not Suck

The Observation Deck blog on IO9 is asking a thought provoking question: what would it take to make Star Wars: Episode I not suck? I have a few thoughts on how one of the most anticipated movies in cinematic history could have ended up being one of the most beloved.

First, if you have the time and you don’t mind the NSFW language, the Mr. Plinkett review for The Phantom Menace actually delivers some really good commentary on why the film does not succeed from the perspective of a filmmaker. The video is worth watching, but the points are boiled down thus:

  • Too much exposition/not enough explanation: A lot of exposition comes from dialogue and characters talking about important things rather than showing them, such as was done in the original trilogy. Even with this over reliance on talking heads, core concepts like what the Trade Federation is are never explained. The blockade of Naboo is over vague “trade disputes.” Darth Maul has zero depth as an antagonist. We don’t really know why any of the events are happening.
  • No Every-Man Character: it’s important for the audience to have a character that is a surrogate for the audience’s own lack of knowledge and can ask questions like “what are the Jedi” and “what is the Force?”
  • No central protagonist: who’s the main character of Episode I? It’s not Anakin, considering how late he appears in the movie and his inability to control events around him. Things just happen to him.
  • Too much reliance on special effects.
  • Dissolution of tension: scenes that should be exciting aren’t, because the audience doesn’t know what’s going on or they don’t care. Compare the lightsaber duel with Darth Maul to the ones in Episodes 5 and 6 against Darth Vader.

It’s too late now, of course, but how could it have been done differently? Let’s assume that we need to keep the core movie the same, so we can’t just throw out the entire script and start fresh. Is the Phantom Menace salvageable under those conditions?

I think so. I think we could fix Episode I (and the prequels in general) in just two steps.

Step 1: Make the main character likable (and figure out who the main character is).

If the prequels are supposed to be Anakin’s story, it’s sort of problematic that he’s a nine year old kid in this one. It really limits his ability to have any sort of agency. If the idea is supposed to establish his callow youth and relative innocence to contrast his dark fall later, that can be done with an older Anakin. You’ll notice that Luke Skywalker is a naive, somewhat whiny wet-behind-the-ears kid in Episode 4, but still has the age and agency to be the protagonist.

Since that deviates too much from the established script, I think the protagonist lens needs to shift to Obi-Wan.  We’ll keep Kid Anakin, but focus on Obi-Wan. He’s the protagonist for this movie. What does that mean?

Qui-Gon Jinn needs to go. Let’s set aside the fact that I liked Liam Neeson as a Jedi Master. Dropping Qui-Gon removes a lot of the problems with Obi-Wan’s narrative arc in this movie. It eliminates the inconsistency from the original trilogy, in that Obi-Wan was supposed to be trained by Yoda and failed to mention the man that actually taught him how to be a Jedi.

For the purposes of the prequel, we don’t need to see Obi-Wan as a padawan, let’s just say he’s already a Jedi Knight. If we need a supporting character for him to play off, we can give him an apprentice of his own. That would do a lot for Obi-Wan’s narrative. It would fill the need for a supporting character.

We wouldn’t worry about why Obi-Wan might not have mentioned to Luke that Anakin wasn’t his only apprentice since that apprentice will end up getting killed by Darth Maul. We already know that Obi-Wan is a big fan of the “certain point of view” style of neglecting to mention relevant details when it comes to his own failures. It doesn’t make sense that he’d neglect to ever mention to Luke the name of the man who “really” trained him, but would would he cover up an apprentice that he failed to protect from the Sith? Yeah, I think so.

We need to do this for Obi-Wan because in the current version, it’s Qui-Gon who ultimately ends up getting all of the character development that would have made Obi-Wan more likable. It’s Qui-Gon who believes in the young Skywalker, it’s Qui-Gon who effectively tells the council to “eff off” when it comes to training the boy, and it’s Qui-Gon who takes action and gets things done throughout the movie.

Obi-Wan, in contrast, is the by-the-book guy who does what the council says and stays with the ship.

Hmm, imagine this; the maverick Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi trains an apprentice against the wishes of the council and that apprentice grows up to be reckless, headstrong, and ultimately falls, because although Skywalker makes his own choices down the road, the man who trained him had many of those same flaws.

We also need Obi-Wan to actually like Anakin so that when they duel to the death two movies from now, it’s heartbreaking rather than unsurprising. We need the Obi-Wan that doesn’t scoff at Anakin Skywalker and quip that they’ve picked up “another pathetic life form.” Imagine an Obi-Wan who believes in Anakin so strongly he’ll do anything to make the boy a Jedi. It’s an Obi-Wan who is a surrogate father figure to the boy who never had a father of his own. It’s an Obi-Wan who actually loves Anakin like a son, rather than just some unfortunate burden that he’s stuck with and has to train, ’cause my dead Master was gonna, so why not.

Qui-Gon ultimately serves to muddle the narrative arc for Obi-Wan’s own character. He gets the best developmental moments (such as they are) which are then wastefully spent upon his demise because he never matters to the narrative again.

What if it was Obi-Wan the Jedi Master who watched his first apprentice die to Darth Maul? Couldn’t you imagine how that would drive him to not fail with Anakin? Wouldn’t that create exactly the kind of passion and fear that leads to the dark side?

Remember, when we see Obi-Wan later in Episode 4, he might be the wise old mentor figure, but he’s also having to deal with the fact that he failed Luke’s father and created the monster that is Darth Vader. He done fucked up. 

It would fit his arc to show that Anakin wasn’t his first failure and it would make him that much more tragic as a result, but also that much more vindicated when Luke (his final apprentice) turns out okay.

Step 2: Create a compelling villain

Boba Fett might get away with being a fan favorite despite having only four lines of dialogue, but he’s not the main antagonist of his films. Your antagonist has to have a presence that fills the movie in a classic “good vs. evil” struggle like Star Wars. Episode 1’s dependency on the “ominous figure lurking in the background” means that we have no real idea who he is or why he’s scary. He’s never developed. Thus, he’s boring from a narrative perspective, even if he looks cool.

Vader goes through several stages of development. In the first boarding scene, he picks up a Rebel by the neck and chokes him, thus establishing his raw physical power. Later on, when he demonstrates the Force, we see that he’s also some kind of sorcerer and more than just a big brute. And so it goes. Scene by scene, Vader is constructed as a character. We see that he’s physically dominating and he also has magic. He takes care of matters personally. He kills people on his own side. And so on.

The entire prequel trilogy seems to be searching for its antagonist by creating one character and then disposing of him before he can really do anything meaningful. We go from Darth Maul to Count Dooku to General Grievous, with each character getting introduced and dispatched before they can develop into a meaningful threat.

The argument could be that it’s Darth Sidious who is the real antagonist all along, but he’s in the background for too long to fill that role. He’s the man behind the man, not the primary antagonist in terms of narrative structure. Which, you’ll notice, is exactly what he did in the original trilogy. He was the man holding Darth Vader’s leash. He’s the Emperor, but we don’t see him (aside from one brief discussion) until the last movie. But rather than search vaguely for a threat to fill the void created by the Emperor’s absence from the action, we have Darth Vader stomping around, choking dudes and scary-breathing and just generally being badass and terrifying.

Our antagonist has to be a Sith Lord, of course, so let’s go back to Darth Maul. Let’s rebuild the character like we did for Obi-Wan. We’ll keep his insane lightsaber skills and lethal agility as well as the scary appearance. Those things are good; they make him a physical and visual threat.

Let’s remove the borderline-mute characteristic. Sure, it worked for making Boba Fett cool, but it won’t work here for our antagonist. Instead, let’s give Darth Maul the charismatic presence that Count Dooku was supposed to project. What? You can’t imagine a guy with yellow teeth and scary face tattoos being charismatic? This is Star Wars! There are weird looking aliens all over the place. I’m willing to believe that in a universe filled with so many strange aliens that obese, immobile slugs can rule criminal empires, no one would look askance at a guy with tattoos and horns.

In fact, let’s not even worry about the physical appearance, because we already know it doesn’t contribute to a character’s charisma on the screen. We know this because Darth Vader wears a mask for almost the entire trilogy and his presence still dominates every scene he’s in.

I should note that I’m using charisma to define one’s force of personality, rather than just how likable the character is. Vader isn’t kind, he isn’t charming, and he isn’t likable, but he has a presence on the screen. He fills a scene both visually and vocally. Maul . . . doesn’t.

Hell, if Ray Park can’t deliver the lines with a forceful presence, just overdub him with someone who can. Let Park be Maul’s physical presence and a skilled voice actor be his vocal one. Once again, it worked for Vader.

Let’s give Maul all the scenes where he’s the one working the angles, driving the Trade Federation into conflict, terrorizing the Viceroy with what will happen if they fail. We will show Maul to be the driving force rather than the silent enforcer. Let him demonstrate his own power as a Sith Lord somewhere along the lines.

We won’t establish that he’s working for someone else yet. Let us speculate that he’s the true Sith Lord. We know that Palpatine is eventually going to be the Emperor, but let us wonder about how that will happen. We won’t reveal a “Darth Sidious” who just happens to wear a creepy hood just like the Emperor does/will. We’ll  make it a mystery. We know it’s eventually Palplatine who will become the Emperor and command the dark side, not Darth Maul, but how? How does Palpatine fit into this? Does he learn from Maul?

Let’s imagine the lightsaber duel with our rewritten characters Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and Sith Lord Darth Maul. They have their first duel and Qui-Gon (the young apprentice version, not the older Jedi Master version) is killed. Obi-Wan is heartbroken that he failed his first apprentice.  Obi-Wan wins the duel, but Maul escapes.

The Jedi are spooked by the emergence of a new Sith Lord. Where did he come from? Clearly, he has to be hunted, setting up the next movie.

Obi-Wan vows to train Anakin in defiance of the council, partly motivated by his own failure to prepare his first apprentice for the fight against Maul. His own need to absolve himself as well as bring Maul down gives him a drive that causes him to overlook the flaws in Anakin’s training later on. From Obi-Wan, Anakin will eventually learn to pursue the greater good at all costs.

This creates a narrative structure that will pay off dividends across the next two films. Eventually, when Darth Maul is killed in Episode III, we learn the horrifying truth: that he wasn’t the Sith Lord at all, but the Sith Apprentice. Oh shit.

Episode I tried to dangle this tantalizing thought at us during the funeral scene when the Jedi speculate whether it was the master or the apprentice that was destroyed. The mystery is wasted, though because the audience already knows that Maul was just the apprentice, just like we know that Sidious is the Emperor.

But what if we thought Maul was the true Sith Lord? It would fulfill the premise of there being a “phantom menace” since everybody would be focused on Maul even though he’s really still working for Sidious. It would fix the problem of escalation that occurs in the prequels, when you try to go from Maul to Dooku to Grievous. After the double-bladed lightsaber and the scary face, Dooku is almost disappointing as a visual threat, even with the dark side lightning. And then you have Grievous and his four lightsabers and you can just see they’re trying to top themselves from what Maul did, and not really succeeding at it.

The prequels need an antagonist with as much power and lethality as Vader, but isn’t a carbon-copy of Vader. Maul could have been that. He was agile rather than hulking. Vader might have been able to strangle dudes with both his hands and his Force power, but Maul is practically a ninja with his movements. Vader was strength; Maul is speed. In this way, we create a character that establishes himself while still playing to the archetype created by his predecessor.

Maul already has a lot going for him. He has a unique visual appearance. His double-bladed lightsaber is exciting. All he needs is a voice and an actual presence within the narrative the way Vader has and you have a solid character.

Would this fix everything? Of course not. But it’s important to remember that there are a lot of flaws with the original trilogy as well. From silly lines like “scruffy nerfherder” to Luke and Leia kissing, not everything about the original trilogy is perfect. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be perfect, so long as the characters are fun and interesting to watch. That’s how I’d go about fixing Episode I.

About That “Abuse Of Executive Orders” Thing

I didn’t watch the State of the Union address live, so I’ve had to play catch up in the past few days. Fortunately, the Internet makes this a very easy proposition and I’m now fully informed on, among other things, the current status of the union.

My initial thoughts: sounds like we have a lot of work to do as a union. That’s okay with me, though. Work is good, because work is progress and if there’s a term I love more than liberal, it’s progressive.

Another thought: is it just me or did this speech remind anybody of the Obama who ran for president in 2008? The man is a damn fine orator when he focuses on it. This speech felt like a return to form for the president which I, as a member of the liberal loyalist base, found especially invigorating. I think the base needed that shot of adrenaline after the debacle that was the rollout.

My favorite part, however, isn’t the speech itself, but the political reaction from the other side. I swear I’m not trying to intentionally poke them with a stick, but the Republicans make it so easy. There’s the three different official Republican responses to the state of the union; way to look like a unified and coherent party there, guys. Seriously, well done.

I’m glad we covered all the different flavors of the Republican party: there’s the Republican Party response delivered by Cathy McMorris Rodgers, then there’s the Republican Tea Party response delivered by Mike Lee, and of course, the Rand Paul Tea Party Republican Party response delivered by Rand Paul, because hey, why not.

But for my money, the best punchline comes from Obama’s abuse of executive authority. Dictator! Emperor! King! How dare the president abuse his authority in so improper a fashion! It’s the death of the Constitution! The end of checks and balances. President Obama is going to unleash so many executive orders that we might as well start melting down the gold and platinum to make the man a crown.

Clearly, that’s his aim here, right? He’s going to flood the republic with executive orders. Take a look at the number of executive orders Obama has issued so far during his presidency compared to previous presidents:


Wait, what?

Where’s Obama on this list? Oh, there he is: one up from the bottom.

I think it’s safe to say that if unleashing a tide of executive orders was going to be President Obama’s modus operandi, he would have already started to do so instead of waiting until the sixth year of his presidency. Just a thought.

As an aside, it’s also interesting to note how few executive orders George W. Bush issued. I would have assumed his number would have been higher. But that’s the great thing about dealing with facts and reality; if facts contradict your view on a particular topic, you change your view.

But Does It Project A Tiny Blue Hologram?

I am enough of a nerd to admit this: if Cortana is the actual name of Microsoft’s personal data assistant, I want one. If it’s just the code name for the project, I will be disappointed.

I hear people talking to Siri on their iPhones all the time, but Siri doesn’t remind me of one of my favorite Xbox games. I want to have a brief moment of Halo fan-thrill every time I need to find out something.

“Cortana, find me a restaurant.”

“Cortana, what’s the weather like today?”

“Cortana, what’s the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”

Is that dorky? Yes. Yes, it is.

Do I care? I still hold my hand out and pretend to be a Jedi every time I walk through an automatic door. You tell me.

The Potential Dilution Of The James Patterson Brand

Even though it’s trendy for bibliophiles to take potshots at James Patterson’s quality as a writer, that’s not what this post is going to be about. Regardless of one’s opinion of his writing, the man is a tremendous supporter of public libraries and reading in general. He’s donated money for scholarships and for awards to institutions to help encourage the love of reading. I may not care for his work but I respect his contributions to literacy and the love of reading. Honestly, albeit unrelated to my main point, Patterson does come off as much more of a classy guy than Stephen King does when the latter snipes at the former:

In an interview for USA Weekend, Stephen King referred to Patterson as “a terrible writer [but he’s] very successful”.[13] Patterson said of King in a Wall Street Journal interview, “he’s taken shots at me for years. It’s fine, but my approach is to do the opposite with him—to heap praise.”[14]

Though I don’t have a strong opinion on the quality of his writing, I do have a few thoughts on his prolific output and what it might mean for the future of his career. This opinion is informed pretty much entirely by my experiences working in a public library and conversing with several dedicated Patterson fans.

Patterson is one of those writers that I consider to be a brand unto itself. He’s not the first writer to do this; Tom Clancy turned his name into a brand years before his death. You knew what you were getting when you picked up a Tom Clancy book, whether it was one of his Jack Ryan novels or one of the series that were ghostwritten under his name: Op Center, Netforce, and Splinter Cell are the ones that come to mind first, although I’m sure there are others. Regardless, when you pick up a Tom Clancy book, you can expect a political/military thriller of some kind. It’s what people who read Tom Clancy want. It’s why they read him.

Originally, you could say Patterson fit into this same brand identity, albeit as a more general thriller. This is the advantage of the Patterson brand: if you like thrillers, you can reliably pick up books with his name on them because they’re going to be thrillers of some sort.

Scoff if you like, but this is a reliable way to sell books. Here’s why. Most readers don’t want to venture too far out of their comfort zone. I’m not being dismissive of this tendency. For many people, free time is at a premium. The time one has to spend reading is valuable and there’s nothing worse than spending that valuable, precious, limited time on a book that you’re going to hate.

You might only have enough time to read four or five books a year. Me, I try to pack in around 100 or so a year, but I have the kind of life and the kind of work situation where I can do that. I can read for an hour every day on my lunch break. I can read for a few hours when I get home because I don’t have kids or pets that require much attention. Not everybody has that kind of time.

Thus, if you’re a reader with limited time to spend on books, you’re more likely to stick with something you know you’ll enjoy. You pick up a Patterson because he always entertains. It’s a safe investment for your reading time.

The scope of the Patterson brand is growing. It’s also changing. In addition to his thrillers, he’s writing YA fantasy novels. He’s writing humorous novels about kids in middle school. He has a picture book. Romance novels. Crime novels. Some nonfiction.

You can’t look at the Patterson brand and expect to pick up a thriller anymore. And I have to wonder: is that a good thing?

Is the value of the brand harmed when the brand identity is diluted? Patterson’s strength is his prolific output and the fact that his name on the cover sells books. What if that output becomes so vast that readers with limited time/funds/attention lose what made him an attractive option? If you can’t trust the Patterson brand to deliver what you want, you won’t pick up a book or trust a book that’s carrying his name. That weakens the ability of the Patterson brand to sell books.

The widespread nature of what Patterson’s name has been attached to is also potentially weakening to the strength of the brand as a whole. While authors often like to spread their wings and try different things, few authors have ranged as widely in subject, theme, and appropriate age level as Patterson. Stephen King readers would likely not pick up a Stephen King book for their middle schooler, but Patterson has a few YA series. Do readers of his YA series also want to read his adult novels? Do parents reading his adult novels want their kids reading the adult books after finishing his YA fare? It’s hard to say.

Ultimately, I perceive a potential future where Patterson’s name is put on too many things and it loses its value to readers. Already, I hear rumblings from some of our more dedicated Patterson readers coming into the library. They can tell which books have his actual writing and which books are a ghost writer working from the man’s outlines and style guides (or at least, they think they can tell). It doesn’t matter if they’re right, because if that’s what they’re thinking, it’s already going to affect their browsing habits. If the Patterson brand loses its ability to promise entertainment, they’ll turn to different authors until they find someone who fills that need for reliability.

James Patterson isn’t going anywhere, not when he’s sold over 260 million books. He alienate thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of readers and still bring home a nice paycheck.

But could the success of his own brand turn off some of his dedicated readers? Could he become a victim of his own success? It’ll be interesting to watch and see what happens.

Mansplaining And The GOP

I’ve been trying to limit the amount of political commentary snark that I offer on this blog, but this one is just too amusing to pass up.  In attempting to prove why the GOP does not have a war on women thing going on, Mike Huckabee managed to prove that, no really, they do:

Thursday, at the annual meeting of the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C., once and possibly future presidential candidate Mike Huckabee became the latest Republican to step into the quicksand that women’s issues have become for the GOP. The one-time Arkansas governor and talk show host told a roomful of party officials that Democrats insult women by telling them “they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”

Robin Abcarian points out all the reasons why Huckabee is confused about which party is the one saying that. Hint: it’s not the Democrats:

Here’s a remedial lesson for Gov. Huckabee: That is not what Democrats tell women; it’s what Republicans tell them.

Republicans call women “sluts” because women tell Congress they want access to insurance-covered contraception.

Republicans talk about “legitimate rape.”

Republicans say pregnancies as a result of rape are a “gift from God” and should be carried to term.

Republicans say: “One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about is, I think, the dangers of contraceptives in this country. The whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Contraception’s OK.’ It is not OK.”

Democrats know that invoking women’s sex drives in conversations about healthcare mandates is demeaning, patronizing and wrong.

What Democrats tell women is that women have the right to comprehensive health coverage, which should include access to contraception — even if you work at Hobby Lobby.

What I would really like to know is how exactly Republicans like Huckabee can accuse their opponents of doing exactly what they themselves are doing and not perceive the inherent silliness of doing so.

After all, the opposite of “pro-life” isn’t “pro-abortion.” Do Republicans believe that if the Democrats had their way, abortions would be mandatory? That, at least, would be an example of Democrats believing that the government must tell women what to do with regards to their libidos and reproductive systems.

But since mandatory abortion is only something that exists in the minds of the most deranged Tea Partyers (Partiers?), we can safely ignore this silliness and remember which party actually supports the position that includes the word “choice.”

Cause, you know, giving people choices instead of taking choices away insults them. Somehow.

New Theme

After mulling it over for a few days, I decided to change the theme on the blog. I’m rolling with WordPress’s new Twenty Fourteen theme because it is, after all, 2014 now. I think it’s time for a new look.

I was a little hesitant since the description billed it as a “magazine” theme and I’m very obviously running a blog here but after trying it out for a while, I think it’ll still do the job I want it to do. It has the clean and minimalist lines that I appreciated from my previous theme, Coraline, which is good. I also like the way it uses its space differently. It feels more airy and open to me. The tight column that Coraline used for its arrangement was starting to feel cramped.

Do you like the change? Let me know what you think, although I should note that I’m still going to do whatever I want, regardless of feedback. I’m just selfish like that.

Virtual Worlds And Dreamscapes

I tend to have pretty intense dreams. Somewhat arrogantly, I attributed this to being a writer. “Well, of course my dreams are intense and vivid,” I’d think smugly to myself. “Mine is a fertile and creative mind, capable of spinning entire worlds into existence.”

I might be a bit premature in patting myself on the back for my wonderful, creative mind; it turns out my vivid dreaming might just be due to the fact that I play a lot of video games:

In her most recent paper, published in the latest issue of Dreaming, Gackenbach and her colleagues further solidified a key earlier finding: that so-called “hardcore” gamers were more likely than their peers to experience lucid dreams. Gackenbach first reached that conclusion in 2006, after noting that gamers and lucid dreamers both displayed traits like intense focus and superior spatial awareness in their waking lives. Indeed, when she surveyed 125 gamers and non-gamers on the frequency with which they experienced lucid dreams, Gackenbach found a strong association between the two.

Gackenback defines “hardcore gamers” as having “regular playing sessions of more than 2 hours, several times a week, since before the third grade.” Yeah, that’d be me. I do have lucid dreams fairly often, maybe on average of 2-3 per month.

Here’s the other thing from this study that really tracks well to my own experience:

And Gackenbach’s findings don’t stop at lucid dreaming. She’s also noted in other studies that some heavy gamers seem to be non-plussed by dreams that would qualify as nightmares — namely, those that present frightening or threatening situations. In fact, gamers seem to readily take control over (and even enjoy) such unpleasant nighttime illusions. In other words, while a non-gaming person might wake up in a cold sweat, a gamer would simply carry on with their slumber.

It’s actually a bit of a relief to learn that this might explain the frequency of dreams that would qualify as nightmares as well as my typically blasé reaction to them. Again, this was long something I attributed to creativity, but if it’s due to my predilection for virtual worlds, that’s cool with me.

One thing I’m especially curious is to see what effect the upcoming Oculus Rift has on the ability for games to influence dreams. I’ve played a few tech demos on an Oculus Rift dev kit. Dread Halls was my favorite. Even though the graphics were fairly dated, it was a terrifying experience and I legitimately screamed when I saw my first monster.

The strangest part is that I now have fully formed memories of being in a place that I know doesn’t exist. I can remember moving down the hallway and peeking around the corner to check for monsters. I can remember running. It’s very much like remembering a place that exists only in a dream, except that my recollection is flawless.

I can’t wait to see what prolonged exposure does to my dreams.

The Best “Rise And Fall” Stories Of The Video Game Industry

When it comes to the video game industry, I have a weakness for “inside-baseball” style stories. Obviously, it’s better  for everyone when a company completes its development cycle and successfully releases its game. The only problem with all the successes is that few of them make for interesting reading. “We all worked very hard and then we released our product” is rather dull, even if it’s the goal everyone strives to attain day after day.

No, what makes a good “inside the industry” story are the companies that don’t make it; the ones that go down in flames. What goes on in those companies is as interesting to an observer of human behavior as it is to speculate about their products and what could have been.

Obviously, taking an interest in this topic has to come with an understanding that these were not characters in a book, but real people whose lives and livelihoods were affected by these events. Nevertheless, the collapse of these two companies was, in my opinion, nothing short of spectacular. I think it’s worth revisiting the stories of their respective demises.

Ion Storm
Article: A hardcore elegy for Ion Storm (
Original publication date: Jan 2, 2002.
Choice quote:

No place was more aptly named. John Romero was the focus of this industry love-hate affair: his popular games and extravagant lifestyle made him an icon in the industry. But with great success came great antipathy, not just for John, but also for many of his employees.

What started out as a video gamer’s heaven turned into a public hell of walkouts, firings, lawsuits and litigation. Chat rooms and Web sites devoted daily commentary to analyzing, bemoaning or laughing at every move John made. He went from being one of the industry’s most respected figures to one of its most pilloried. Few bothered to defend him or the company.

 38 Studios
Article: End Game: Inside the Destruction of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios (
Original publication date: August 2012.
Choice quote:

Schilling’s harshest critic in the online exchange was Bill Mrochek, the vice president of online services, whose wife required a bone marrow transplant at the time their healthcare disappeared. “Are you going to admit that your stupid hubris, pride, and arrogance would not allow you to accept that we failed — and help shut it down with dignity?” he asked Schilling.

Mrochek was talking only about 38 Studios’ dramatic final weeks, but as interviews with Schilling, members of his former staff, and others associated with the company show, he might as well have been describing 38 Studios from the moment that Schilling — lacking any business experience, but full of the same confidence, bravado, and determination that made him a baseball legend — decided he could build a billion-dollar video-game company.

If you have any other stories of game developers or publishers collapsing in a dramatic fashion, feel free to share your links in the comments. I’d be interested in seeing what else is out there.

If you’d like an even deeper look at Ion Storm’s demise, I recommend Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner. It’s a fascinating read.

Had To Lay This Post Down

This post is going to be about motorcycles.

If you talk to a motorcycle rider long enough, it’s possible you’ve heard the phrase “laying the bike down” or some variation thereof. It generally refers to a situation where a rider is faced with a difficult choice: crash into some sort of obstacle or vehicle, or ditch the bike and intentionally crash to avoid the impact. It communicates a certainly steeliness that exists within the rider. It’s a willingness to make hard choices and to think quickly under pressure.

It’s an incredibly stupid phrase and I despise it.

I’ve dropped my motorcycle once. I’ve also fallen off my motorcycle once. I didn’t “lay it down” either time. I dropped it and I fell off it. The first time, I had no idea what I was doing and tried to turn far too slowly and sharply. The bike tipped and gravity took hold of 400+ pounds of metal and did the rest. It was tremendously embarrassing, especially since I hadn’t actually bought the bike yet. At least it was a used bike and the owner was my brother, instead of some stranger.

When I fell off my bike, it was exactly as it sounds: I was riding, I was inexperienced, and I tried to pull onto a shoulder and rode through a deep patch of gravel. The only thing I remember was having just enough time to think “well, shit” and then I was lying flat on my back on the side of the road. The only injuries were some bruises on my leg and my pride.

I didn’t lay the bike down, though. Let’s be clear on that.

The reason I dislike the phrase is that it implies that leaping off your motorcycle is some sort of valid defensive strategy, when really, it’s not. If you’re off your motorcycle when it’s moving, it’s a crash. Maybe it’s a small crash and does indeed avoid a bigger crash, but it’s still a crash.

The idea that you would have the time to see a dangerous situation oncoming, assess the situation, realize there was no time to swerve, brake, or otherwise evade the situation, steel your reserve, and then push yourself off the bike . . . does that seem realistic?

You know what’s easier and faster than jumping off a motorcycle while it’s moving? Hitting the brakes. You know what’s better than jumping off a motorcycle at 60 miles an hour and possibly getting crushed under your bike or run over by a car behind you or slide along the ground for a while? Braking first, so that even if you do hit something, you’ve cut your speed by 15 or 30 miles per hour.

It’s true, older bikes had inferior brakes to what’s available today. Maybe there was a time and a place when “laying it down” was the only viable strategy. But that’s come and gone and to suggest that it’s still a good idea is just ridiculous.

The fact is, most riders are too proud to admit that they fell off or that they braked incorrectly and locked the wheels. We need to start admitting that. Yeah, it’s embarrassing to say “I fell off my motorcycle” or “I crashed my motorcycle.” You know what’s not embarrassing, though? Following that up with: “even though I fell off my motorcycle, when I was physically able to do so, I got back on.”

New Laptop, Windows 8, and My Thoughts On Both

I finally made the plunge and purchased a new laptop. The primary motivation for this purchase was my little Acer finally succumbing to the dark forces that eventually claim all computers.

The Acer was a quick purchase meant to replace my dying Dell Inspiron, the computer that served as my main PC for so many years that I literally wore grooves into the plastic with my wrists. I wish I still had that computer so I could take a picture of it and show you. Alas, I do not.

The Acer served well in the fact that it was dirt cheap, having been purchased as a refurb from a friend for about $100. Unfortunately, it was also ridiculously tiny; I think the screen was roughly nine inches? The keyboard was cramped, even moreso since I’m a pretty big guy with accordingly large hands. Even worse was the fact that I just looked kind of ridiculous as I typed away on that little thing, because nothing is more important when you’re a writer than everybody knowing how cool you look as you write.

Here's the little Acer with a beer bottle (and a shot glass) for scale. It is tiny!
Here’s the little Acer with a beer bottle (and a shot glass) for scale. It is tiny!

It always seems like it’s the wrong time to buy a piece of technology. If you’re an early adopter, you get to enjoy finding all the problems that QA missed that won’t get fixed until version 2 rolls out next year. If you wait until version 2 or 3, you are virtually guaranteed that you’ll purchase a device that is on the verge of obsolescence because something new and exciting is about to be announced. This is commonly referred to by sociologists (not really) as “the iPhone Paradox,” in that all times are the wrong time to buy a new iPhone.

I was wholly uninterested in touch screens on laptops until I saw someone play Artemis on a touchscreen and immediately coveted such technology for myself.

My new toy is the HP Envy TouchSmart M6 Sleekbook. I only remember all of that because there’s still a little sticker on the corner telling me that’s what this machine is.

Size comparison for the Acer and the HP (and the beer bottle!)
Size comparison for the Acer and the HP (and the beer bottle!)

Having a touchscreen on a laptop is pretty awesome. Having to deal with track pads was always one of those things about laptop computing that was a hardship to be endured. Being able to flick through pages with a swipe is very satisfying, although there are particular actions (like clicking and dragging) that are still better on the pad. Having both means of control is nice, as opposed to being limited to one or the other as you might find on a tablet.

The downside of a touchscreen is the fingerprint smudging. I’m keeping my microfiber cloth that I use for my glasses in my laptop bag to clean the screen it still attracts fingerprints at an insane rate. If you’re the kind of person that can’t stand typing or reading through a dirty screen, this may drive you mad. I find that it only annoys me for things like watching videos or movies which are activities that don’t involve a lot of browsing. Nevertheless, I can already tell I’m going to be wiping this thing off daily.

Windows 8 has been a fascinating experience. I can now understand why sales are pretty abysmal at the moment. The transition from Windows 7 to 8 is unpleasant. For the first few hours, I was frustrated by my inability to do basic commands that were effortless in 7. The feeling was that the operating system just kept getting in my way which is something your OS should never ever do. Even after I figured out how to do something, the feeling was still that I could do it more quickly and easier in 7.

There’s definitely a learning curve here and I think that is 8’s biggest problem. I didn’t want to learn how to use Windows again. I already knew how to use Windows. In fact, one of the reasons I stuck with Windows rather than going to Apple was precisely because I didn’t want to learn a different operating system. That probably says more about me than anything else, but I imagine that the archetypal Windows user doesn’t want to interact with their OS any more than is strictly necessary. This might indicate that we’re all troglodytes compared to Apple users; certainly, it suggests that we don’t want to move outside of our comfort zone, which 8 forces us to do.

After a few hours, however, my experience with 8 improved considerably. There are several features that I think are really neat, like being able to swipe through screens very quickly. The Metro hub (or Start page, or whatever they’re calling it) is also nice. I like being able to customize that space, although I’m probably predisposed to liking the Metro tile interface since I’ve been familiarized with it through my Windows Phone.

There are still a few things that are very frustrating. Chrome hides the taskbar when it’s active which means I can’t see a clock while I browse. This is rather irritating and there doesn’t appear to be a fix available.

Is Windows 8 better than 7? Overall, I’d say no; my primary criterion for my operating system is that it stays out of my way was much as possible. I want it to be invisible and effortless; I don’t want to think about what I want it to do. Windows 7 is still my gold star because it just works and it works relatively quietly and unobtrusively.

I realize that this is a difficult feature to sell a product on (you won’t even notice that it’s there!) but that’s what I like. That being said, I don’t hate Windows 8. There are several features that I’m really enjoying, especially the complete integration between my Xbox and Zune accounts so that all my digital content is in a single ecosystem. 8 is designed with the touchscreen in mind, which is nice since I have a touchscreen; I imagine if I didn’t, my opinion would be considerably less sanguine.

Since I specifically wanted a touchscreen laptop, I think I would have gone for Windows 8 even if a Windows 7 version had been available. I still prefer Windows 7 for my desktop PC and I hope and pray to the gods of technology that nothing happens to my desktop that forces me to replace it with a Windows 8 machine.

One final note on the HP Envy itself; this is the first blog post that I’ve written on this machine and the keys feel awesome. It probably sounds strange, but any writers in the crowd will understand. There is a very large difference between a good and a bad keyboard. This HP has a very good keyboard and typing on it is a pleasure.