Wednesday, February 27, 2008

lost girls

My favorite birthday present last fall was a copy of Lost Girls, an erotic graphic novel by Alan Moore (writer) and Melinda Gebbie (artist). It's a beautiful, hardcover 3-volume set that depicts the sexual adventures of three famous fictional characters: Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Wendy from Peter Pan. The narrative is set in a historical context, on the cusp of World War I, and the three meet in a resort hotel in Austria where they quickly become friends, tell stories, and engage in all manner of sexual exploration with each other. In this sense, the plot utilizes the common literary theme whereby disparate characters meet in a safe haven and engage in story-telling to pass the time. For other examples, see Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Poe’s "The Masque of the Red Death", and Neil Gaiman's Worlds' End.

The writing and dialog is quite good but obviously the focus of these novels is the pornographic art. Taken in small doses, it's breathtaking and arousing. Here's a panel from the re-telling of Dorothy's tale, in which the tornado carries her to the land of Oz. The tornado outside is reflected in the whirlwind of fear and ecstasy that she provides herself through masturbation. As she orgasms, she "emerges" into the land of Oz, which may represent something like her newfound sense of control and sexuality.
I found the story of Dorothy, and the artwork depicting her, particularly exciting. Alice's tale is more disturbing, as she describes being taken advantage of by an older man, a friend of her father: likely a reference to the suggestions that Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. Wendy's tale is also intense, with Peter transformed into a highly sexualized, Dionysian figure who introduces Wendy to the world of sexual pleasure - including an orgy with all the lost boys. Part of me found this appealing, as my last reading of Peter Pan left me thinking that Barrie had purposefully incorporated sexual overtones in his work and meant the tale to be an allegory of sexual awakening in a young teenage girl.

Note the very different artistic styles in these panels I'm posting - this facet of Lost Girls makes it all the more impressive. Gebbie moves back and forth between techniques, often adopting the style of various authors and artists of the period: including, Colette, Aubrey Beardsley, Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfons Mucha (one of Aili's favorites!), Oscar Wilde and Egon Schiele, Pierre Louÿs, and Franz von Bayros.

So is this for you? Maybe, maybe not. As a piece of art, I think it a great success. The erotic depictions are explicit, but rendered with such artistic care and in beautiful color that the images wash over and immerse you. If you consume too much at one sitting, you may feel a little nauseated and disturbed. But taken in morsels, especially with a partner, Lost Girls achieves its goal of perverse titillation. For an interview with Alan Moore, visit here. For some other reviews, including Neil Gaiman's thoughts, visit here and here.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Lately, there's been some positive buzz in the gaming community about another indie project called Audiosurf. It won a couple nice awards at the 2008 Independent Games Festival (losing out to Crayon Physics Deluxe for the Grand Prize), including Excellence in Audio. Funny thing is, Audiosurf doesn't really come with any developed audio: it's all yours. Let me explain.

In Audiosurf, you load up a music file (it accepts most formats) and it converts the song into an abstract, psychadelic racetrack. Here's what happens when you choose Radiohead's "How to Disappear Completely." The slope of the track tells you how fast it will run, so in this case, about half the race will be a leisurely uphill climb and then it'll speed up a bit into the finish.

Compare to The Chemical Brothers, "In Dust We Trust." Uh oh. All downhill, and fairly steep. This would be a much more challenging and intense race. This is the unique, innovative way that Audiosurf handles the classic idea of difficulty levels. You choose your own difficulty through your choice of song. If you pick Mozart or Miles Davis, you can sit back and enjoy the ride. If you choose DJ Shadow or The Crystal Method, prepare not to blink for a while.

You pick a car to race with and jump on. As your song plays, you speed along the light highway picking up colored boxes (which the game calls "cars") using either your mouse or arrow keys. When you line up at least 3 of the same color (in any direction, except diagonal), you score points. The more boxes that match, the more points you earn. The "hotter" colors, like red and yellow, also score higher. There are special cars and interesting power-ups along the track, which you'll have to explore for yourself. Here's a video from You Tube of someone playing The Mars Volta:

The intensity of the game matches the intensity of your song in an impressive manner; note how the boxes often appear in time with the beat. You have to be careful not to allow boxes to build up and overload a column, or you'll "die" and lose points. If you play in "Ironman" mode, this means Game Over.

At the end of a race, Audiosurf will post your score onto a world-wide High Score board for that particular song. It will show you people who've played that song globally and locally (in your state). Of course, it's fun to play songs that no one has scored yet (just pick something a little obscure) and see your name up there all alone. You can also visit the Audiosurf forums to find suggestions for really fun songs to play. But most likely, you'll discover these on your own. To date, my favorite experiences have been Soundgarden's "Jesus Christ Pose" and Modest Mouse's "Cowboy Dan" (the latter swings back and forth between mellow and ripping insane). Literally everything by Tool or Radiohead that I've played has been complex and enjoyable.

A couple caveats before you try out the free demo here. If you've purchased most of your music collection through Itunes music store, you will first have to burn your music onto a CD to load it up within the game (unless they're DRM-free). Since this is an indie project, it doesn't have a lot of the bells and whistles you might expect in a high-end project. An in-game music organizer to cue up several songs in a row would be particularly nice. For such a music-focused game, the lack of equalizer is surprising. Finally, this isn't your typical game in the sense of "winning" or "losing." If you're into the whole competition thing, the High Score board is all you've got - and be aware that there are people out there with a hell of a lot more time than you.

The demo only lets you play a few songs (of anything you own), so choose wisely. Most likely, you'll be like me and want to pay the $10 to get the full product after you see the potential time-wasting here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


So one of my (many) guilty pleasures is indie pop/rock. I'm pretty gung-ho and not close to burnt out on creative retro-revival-indie, epitomized by bands like Stereolab, the White Stripes, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Modest Mouse. Sure, there's a lot of garbage out there - isn't that always the case? - but after suffering through the Green Day induced pop-punk of the mid/late 90's, I'm just happy that music seems to have rediscovered its spirit.

Over the past couple years, one of my favorite bands to listen to has been Electrelane, a British experimental indie-pop group with a penchant for deep electronic sounds, pianos & organs, driving rhythms, and soothing female vocals. If you're curious, I suggest starting with their 2004 release, The Power Out. Right off the bat, the slow, building momentum and French lyrics of "Gone Under Sea" suggest you're listening to something different. "Birds" is perhaps my favorite song on the album, and how could you not love it with lyrics like this:

I loved you in the morning, before the sun would come
You were the dawn to me
I loved you in the evening, while the birds were still singing
You gave every song to me

Or try out the dark melody of "This Deed," whose lyrics solely consist of a quote from Nietzsche's The Gay Science:
"Diese Tat ist ihnen immer noch ferner, als die fernsten Gestirne, und doch haben sie dieselbe getan! Hände hoch!" (This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars, and yet they have done it themselves! Hands up!). Pretentious, perhaps, but it's the music that matters and their sound is spun silver.

If you like the eclectic feel of Stereolab and are willing to sacrifice some of that band's weirder, Japanime soundscapes (don't ask me why they remind me of Japanime, they just do) for something a bit poppier, try Electrelane. Their songs tend to start slow but eventually take over your EEG.


01 Gone Under Sea
02 On Parade
03 The Valleys
04 Birds
05 Take the Bit Between Your Teeth
06 Oh Sombra!
07 Enter Laughing
08 This Deed
09 Love Builds Up
10 Only One Thing is Needed
11 You Make Me Weak at the Knees

Sunday, February 10, 2008

moral fiber

I spent many hours last semester experimenting with felt. Lou took me to a sheep farm outside of Utica, and I left there with an enormous garbage bag full of colorful wool. Making felt from raw wool is a time consuming process. Some days LW would come over and we'd sit in the kitchen drinking tea and make felt balls all day, like little old ladies. And then some days were less ladylike, when I'd move the furniture and cover the kitchen floor with a tarp so I could make a big wet woolly mess.

I have been fairly interested in felt since going to Mongolia and seeing the gers (yurts) that are commonly lived in there. I found gers to be remarkably comfortable. The walls are of felt, which is made by laying out swathes of wool, wetting it, rolling it up tightly in canvas and pulling it with horses. The friction helps the fibers mesh together. It's a similar effect to what happens when you wash a wool sweater in hot water. Some of the felt work is pretty basic, but at times complex decorative patterns are used. The dense layers of wool make for a relatively good insulation, and the transportable aspect of the materials is what makes it so useful in nomadic culture. Just take it apart, roll it up and set it on the roof of your jeep and move on the the next good pasture land. Watch a video of Mongolian felt making here.

Several websites show some highly entertaining examples of felt work. Lately I've become obsessed with, which is an online marketplace for artists and crafters. Etsy is a great way to support small businesses, for those of us who want our money to go to something less empirical than Wal-mart. The quality ranges from the ridiculously playful to the exquisite, and you can find anything; woodwork, jewelry, games and toys, clothing, paper crafts, and fiber arts, to name a few. Here are a few samples of felt that can be found there:

(click for larger images)

Some other interesting felt artists I've come across on the internet: Blythe Church has some wonderfully whimsical everyday objects made out of felt, including the typewriter pictured here. Horst is a Cleveland based artist who makes some incredibly intricate felt clothing. After the many hours it took me to make one felt coat, I can appreciate how much work this guy must have put into each of his pieces.

For other worthwhile needle crafts, check out the radically political knitting of Lisa Anne Auerbach at Steal this Sweater, the hip embroidery at Sublime Stitching, and examples of truly horrendous knitting at the hilarious You Knit What? .

PS. Speaking of crafts, my brother's handmade arch-top guitars, mandolins, woodwork, knives, and archery equipment can be viewed here, here, and also on here. Also look at Carrie's lovely jewelry here.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

armageddon empires

I've mentioned in a couple previous posts that I'm playing a computer game called Armageddon Empires. It's a unique piece of work in the current video game environment. For one, it was designed and programmed by a single individual, Vic Davis, who is attempting to get his own independent game company (Cryptic Comet) off the ground. His primary sources of inspiration are boardgames and collectible card games (CCG's). Armageddon Empires is programmed in Adobe Director, which makes it a little unwieldy. The graphics are nondescript - most of the time, you're staring at a hex-based map dotted with uninteresting icons or sets of virtual dice rolling (seriously). The play is turn-based: slow and deliberate and far from flashy. Some have complained that the learning curve is a little steep, and there's no in-game tutorial to help you learn the ropes. Finally, there's no multiplayer option, so you can't take it online and pit your strategies against other human opponents. For this reason, the success of the game is heavily dependent upon the ability of the artificial intelligence(s) to put up a good fight.

After reading all that, many of you might wonder why in god's name anyone would play the damn thing. But it's simply one of the best strategy wargames I've ever played, in any format. The critics seem to be agreeing: Games for Windows gave it 9/10 in a recent review, PC Gamer UK gave it 84%, and Gaming Trend picked it as their Best Strategy Game of 2007. This kind of press for a small, indie company and comparatively ugly turn-based game is simply unheard of.

Armageddon Empires (AE) is set on post-apocalyptic Earth, where there are four races vying for control of the wasteland: the Empires of Man (the final remnants of the massive human industrial-military complex), the Machine Empire (think Terminator and the Matrix), the Xenopods (think Alien), and the League of Free Mutants. Each race possesses some minor strategic differences: for instance, the Empires of Man have a strong air force, while the Free Mutants are designed for guerrilla hit-and-run tactics. I particularly enjoy playing the Machines - they start off slow and their units are expensive, but their Mech's are insanely intimidating and they can develop game-ending WMD's.

The goal of the game is very simple: destroy all your opponents' headquarters. Play occurs on a square, brown hex-map (you can choose small, medium, large, and huge sizes). You put units into the field, form armies, march them around the wasteland, engage enemy armies, and eventually attempt to assault their HQ.

One of the many unique aspects of the game is its use of a card-draw mechanic. You start the game with a deck of virtual cards and begin with an opening hand of seven. These cards represent units (your infantry, armored divisions, artillery, mechanized units, dragons, etc.), facilities (laboratories, academies, intelligence centers, etc.), and heroes (generals, spies, scouts, and administrators). As an example, to the right is one of my favorite Xenopod units, the Psyker Team. Every unit costs something to come into play and possesses a number of defining attributes, like: attack rating, defense rating, hit points, and special abilities. The Psyker Team can use Confusion against biological units, causing them to attack members of their own army. As you might guess, these guys work great against the Empires of Man but are worthless versus Machines.

Another defining aspect of this game is its use of Action Points (AP's) to determine how much you can do each turn. This is a common gameplay mechanic in many boardgames, and even some turn-based RPG's, but you don't often see it in the modern climate of RTS base-building and resource-gathering. It costs AP's to draw cards, play units, build armies, move armies, conduct research, assassinate enemies, sabotage facilities, etc., etc. The number of AP's you have each turn is determined by an initiative roll that each side makes; the result of this can be influenced by spending resources. Therefore, on some turns you might want to accomplish a number of different things - like, converging several armies onto a single opponent's base after conducting an air attack - so it would behoove you to spend some resources to try and win that initiative roll. But if you do that, you'll have fewer resources to spend on units, facilities, and research.

To really get a feel for how AE works, you have to see a game in action, or pick up the demo and try it yourself. I took some screenshots from my most recent game, and will try to show off some of the more innovative aspects of the game in this sequence. I'm playing as the Xenopods on a huge map against two AI opponents: the Empires of Man, and the Machines.

Early game: reconnaissance, HQ defense & resource gathering

This screenshot shows the opening turn. The cards in my hand line the bottom, and it's not looking good. I don't have any cheap recon units or scouts/spies that I can get into play quickly. One of the strongest aspects of AE is its emphasis on reconnaissance to combat the "fog of war." You don't know where the enemy is, nor where anything interesting might be, and the only way to find out is to get some recon units into the field ASAP. If you fail to use recon effectively, you will quickly fall to a massive AI army marching through your backdoor. The green coloring represents my "supply range." Any unit or army of mine that falls outside this zone will suffer major penalties to its attack potential. It is therefore crucial in AE to extend your supply range if you wish to strike out into the wasteland. More on this later.

On a positive note, the terrain is helping me. If you look to the northeast of my HQ, you'll see a mountain range. This series of mountain hexes makes it difficult for me to explore, but it also means that I'm less likely to get attacked from that direction. I can now concentrate on setting up recon and defense to my northwest - and placing a single recon unit in the mountain pass to the east. Too bad I don't have any recon units to play. My best hope is the Gangrel, which not only has recon capacity but also stealth and commando. He's a one-man (one-bug?) wrecking machine, designed for quick strikes at resource gatherers behind enemy lines. The problem is that he's too expensive - I won't be able to bring him out for at least another 5 turns.

Midgame I: build an army & establish a forward base

Ok, we're progressed quite a bit. It's now around turn 25 and I've successfully built a small army, established a forward base, and garrisoned some defense at my HQ. In addition, I've built a nice variety of resource gathering facilities in the southwest quadrant of the map. Imagine the spice-gathering machines from Dune. They have no intrinsic defense and are easy targets for enemy commandos, so I like to post a small, mobile army that can at least scare off little recon units from trying something stupid. What you've unfortunately missed is my recent battle with the Empires of Man. They actually attempted to establish a forward base in my neighborhood but I easily defeated their engineers with a Monstrosity.

My goal at this point is to solidify my position with more units, place recon in the desert pass (between the 2 mountain hexes) and send a spy north to find out where the Empires of Man HQ is located. Luckily, I've drawn this fellow. Mi'go is a master saboteur, with the stealth ability to sneak past enemy recon. Eventually, using Mi'go, I locate the Empire's HQ. I first use him to sabotage their local resource gatherers, thus reducing the amount of resources they can bring in each turn. I then plant him right on the enemy HQ - because he's stealthed, the AI can't see him. He now provides me with some excellent intel (I basically get to see who the Empires of Man are putting into play), and I start to sabotage their local facilities and research laboratories. This is so satisfying, I can't even express it. The way that AE handles espionage is absolutely incredible - far more interesting and useful than the espionage in Civilization, for example. In addition to saboteurs, there are assassins (who can kill heroes) and spies with the Espionage ability. I'm actually the victim of Espionage right now: a stealthed enemy spy is sitting on my HQ (I can't see him or do anything about it...yet) and is disrupting my homebase operations (for one, he made it more expensive for me to form armies for a period of 5 turns).

There are two ways to counter spies. Slap down some heavy recon and hunt for them. There are even some Bounty-Hunter heroes that can help you with this. I choose the other path: building an Intel Nest in my HQ. This not only makes it harder for enemy spies to conduct espionage on me, but it also makes it easier for me to "sniff" them out and capture them. As soon as I play this card onto my HQ, I don't hear any more from that pesky enemy spy. Sweet.

After winning a major victory against the Empires of Man in the field, Mi'go is showing that their HQ has lackluster defense. It's time to strike, and strike fast. I take my single army, led by a hero named Nya'lrax, north to siege their HQ. Because of my forward base, their HQ lies within my supply zone and I don't have to worry about any penalties. But attacking an enemy garrison is usually a little tricky, and I'm hoping there are no surprises waiting for me.

Midgame II: eliminate an opponent & develop war industry

This is what a battle looks like. My army is on the bottom of the screen, composed of a Corrupter, Psyker Team, Monstrosity, Enzyme Thrower artillery unit, and general Nya'lrax. Units in your back row are usually out of range of enemy fire, so this is the place to keep your general and artillery. The Empires of Man army is without a general, but has a decent infantry unit (the Emperor's Own) and a hard-core Mech, the MeBU-II Vengeance. Normally, I'd be a little freaked out by this one but I've got a strategy in mind. Because I have a general leading my army, I win initiative each combat round and get to attack first. I use my Psyker Team to confuse the Mech, causing it to attack and destroy its own infantry support. Then I just use my Monstrosity and Corrupter to take out the Vengeance before it has time to figure out what happened. The Empires of Man HQ is mine and they are eliminated from the game.

I build more resource collectors in this region of the map, and place some basic defense in my newly conquered garrison. Meanwhile, back at my own HQ, I've built both an academy and a lab, and put some scientist-heroes into play. I have them researching tactics and genetic enhancement. This process basically gives you additional cards which you can then attach to units in play. As with most things, AE gets research right - you really feel like you're developing new abilities that may turn the tide of war. Here's a screenshot of the administrators and scientists working for me in my HQ:

Note that I have my Queen card in play. She provides me with some great bonuses, and is really necessary if you want to get the most out of your scientists. I begin work on a Plasma Blossom bomb.

It's time to focus my energy on the Machines. They've been relatively quiet this game. Every now and then I catch one of their Spider-Bot recon units moving into my territory, and I quickly air-raid them to oblivion before they can spot my HQ. But a little exploring into the center of the map reveals that the Machines have not only established a massive set of resource collectors, they also have their Colossus unit in play, under the command of one of their most dangerous cyborg generals. This is something to worry about, and I decide to play aggressively and push forward to their HQ to try and end the game before they get their Colossus over my defensive mountain range.

Endgame: final push, air raids & WMD's

We're looking at the Northeast corner of the map now. My HQ (for reference) is far to the South. There are 3 Machine armies maneuvering near my first base, and if they take it they'll have an effective launch point for an invasion. The good news is that they've left their HQ relatively poorly defended. I have a couple options here: I can march an army in and try to win with the brute-force approach, or I can try and blow up their HQ with my Plasma Blossom. Just for kicks, I go with the latter. I attach the bomb to a Pod Hovership that has the ability to fly close range to the Machine's HQ hex. I drop the thing, roll the dice, and damage their HQ for 18 points: more than enough to destroy it. I win, game over on Turn 51.

This was a pretty fun game: my opening hand and terrain set-up provided an interesting challenge, and I just barely got an army out in time to repel the Empires of Man. Once I won a crucial battle in the field, taking their HQ was relatively easy. As for the Machines, they made the classic error of leaving their backdoor open and putting all their strongest units out into the wasteland, searching for my bases. It was a simple matter for me to avoid their minefields, and drop a god-damn plasma bomb on their head.

Herein lies my primary issue with AE: the challenge of the AI's. They're decent, and trust me, when you first begin playing, you'll struggle to win. But once you learn the dynamics of the game, the AI's just can't handle the processing power of a human brain. Vic Davis is promising further development of the AI, along with a free expansion pack, within the next month. The expansion pack will focus on the Independent forces in the wasteland. They didn't play a role in the game I described to you, but they can shake things up periodically. You might encounter Snake Plissken, for example, leading a ragtag band of raiders out in the desert - and maybe convince him to join your side, if you pay enough cash. Or you might run into a horde of Rad Zombies, protecting a junkyard of useful parts. I like the Independents, but they could certainly play a greater role in the game.

Hope you enjoyed this brief (!) overview and game report. There's obviously much more to AE than what I've described here, but hopefully this gives you a sense of the strategic and tactical depth of the game. There are dozens of cards for each race, and you can design and tweak different decks to your heart's content before starting a match using the in-game deck editor. Try building an Empires of Man deck around tactics and tank divisions. Or a Mutant deck with kamikaze troops. There's so much flavor here, by the way, it makes your mouth hurt... if you're into post-apocalyptic shit, that is. Which, obviously, I am.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

kill car

I don't remember when my childhood brain first conceived of a post- apocalyptic world. I do recall being afraid of mutual nuclear devastation as a 7-8 year old, and my parents' intense negative reaction to Reagan's "Star Wars" defense initiative only heightened this anxiety. Somewhat interestingly, my primary emotion (at least if you go by my pre- pubertal journal entries) was one of disappointment in the human race. I felt that we didn't really deserve to live alongside the peace-loving kitties, fireflies and narwhals.

But at some point I began to see the creative possibilities in the post- apocalyptic landscape. My obsession with fantastic, Tolkein-esque worlds was fundamentally rooted in a desire to move backward in time, away from the cruelty and complexity of the modern age. Nothing was more satisfying to me than imagining myself as Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising or Bastian in The Neverending Story saving the world from some vague evil force, which nearly always represented the negative aspects of modern culture and industrialization. Responsibility to parents/school/civilization evaporated, providing an exhilarating and addictive freedom (which I still enjoy, by the way, every time I read a good otherworldly novel).

Post-apocalypta, it turned out, could also offer me this lease from responsibility - and perhaps more satisfyingly, the probability of these worlds emerging was actually above zero. After all, no matter how badly I wanted it, I could never actually live in Terry Brook's Shannara. But the world of Mad Max was feasible; one day soon, I could be Feral Kid!

Vehicular combat: early history

It all began (for me) with the Commodore 64 classic, Wasteland. Released in 1988, I was 15 years old and ripe for a darker and more cynical imaginary realm. [BTW, this was when games came on actual 8-inch floppy disks and my C64 drive was starting to make noises like a broken blender. Wasteland basically broke my computer and I never even got to finish the game. I'm still bitter about this.] Wasteland was a role-playing-game (RPG) set in a gritty post-apocalyptic world. You built a character, sent them out into the wasteland to battle mutants and biker-gangs, collect new weapons and develop skills, and proceed through the story. It was devastatingly hard. Rarely are modern games designed so that your character will die repeatedly in combat, just to emphasize the danger of the environment. But when you wandered the wasteland, you took no chances. The screenshot here still sets off a host of negative emotions, including fear and frustration; these fucking radioactive rats killed me at least a thousand times.

Wasteland spawned another RPG classic, Fallout (1997), which some of you may recognize (and FYI, Fallout 3 will be released this year by Bethesda). And of course there was Mad Max, and The Stand, and an innumerable number of sci-fi stories that I began to consume with great joy. Ultimately, what appealed to me the most from these alternate realities (and trust me, I liked it all: the radiation, the mutants, the punk hairstyles, the shotguns, everything) was the very real and dangerous possibility of vehicular combat. Strapping on a flame-thrower to your souped-up frankenstein of an Interceptor and riding out into the wasteland to find more gas - so that you could drive around some more, kill mutants, save women from being raped, and find more gas.

Modern cultural manifestations of vehicular combat owe a great deal to this memorable sequence from Mad Max 2: the Road Warrior (1981):

Pure awesome. The original Mad Max (1979) set up a frighteningly realistic post-apocalyptic landscape in which the collapse of civilization (left mostly unexplained) is still in progress. Max is a a police officer, and has a nice house, with beatific wife and angelic child. But by the Road Warrior, Max has become much more nihilistic and self-serving, and basically hires out his significant driving/fighting abilities for resources. And, of course, the plot centers around a tanker full of gas.

Oddly enough, it would take programmers a significant amount of time to successfully translate the visceral experience of vehicular combat into a video/computer game. There are several early instantiations of this concept (see this Wiki entry for a nice list), but the modern history of car combat gaming begins with two titles: Twisted Metal (1995) and Carmageddon (1997). I'll actually start with the latter. Advertised as "the racing game for the chemically imbalanced," Carmageddon broke some of the previously established rules within the car-racing genre: first, running into other cars is bad (remember Pole Position?), second, pedestrians don't exist. Not only did Carmageddon introduce pedestrians, it encouraged you to run over them as they provided a significant point bonus. This concept is hardly shocking to our modern Grand Theft Auto psyche, but it certainly caused problems for Interplay when the game was released - enough so that in some countries, the pedestrians were replaced with zombies or robots (as "killing" the undead or automata is considered to be less morally repugnant - an interesting topic for discussion if there ever was one).

Carmageddon was based upon a cult movie classic, Death Race 2000 (1975), which Aili and I recently watched . We both strongly recommend it. Starring David Carradine (fresh off his Kung Fu success), Sylvester Stallone (who sadly demonstrates a broader acting range than in most of his later movies), and Mary Woronov (of Andy Warhol's Factory), the plot centers around a transcontinental race that takes place within a vaguely dystopian absurdly-futuristic America. The five racers compete to get from New York to Los Angeles, and score points for running over people along the way. Here's the breakdown:
  • Male adult: 20
  • Male teenager: 40
  • Male infant/toddler: 70
  • Female (any age): 10 more than men in any age bracket
  • Senior citizen (regardless of gender): 100
As I said, strongly recommended.

Twisted Metal

But the fact of the matter was that Carmageddon, the game itself, mostly sucked. I played it when it came out for maybe 10 minutes and quickly got bored. In contrast, Twisted Metal had some real potential. The success of the original Playstation title spawned a series of sequels, and many gaming connoisseurs consider Twisted Metal 2: World Tour (1996) to be the height of the series and a true Playstation classic.

The gist of the game is relatively straightforward: a mad genius known as Calypso is hosting a vehicular combat tournament, promising to grant the winner a single wish. The contestants include a very large black man mysteriously imprisoned in a massive 2-wheel contraption (Axel), a female cop (Outlaw 2), and a Ghostrider rip-off (Mr. Grimm). However, the series' posterchild quickly became Sweet Tooth, a psychotic clown with flaming head who drove an ice cream truck.

Twisted Metal established some of the fundamental principles of the genre:

1. There should be multiple vehicles, each with different tactical attributes. Nearly always, vehicles are defined by 3 characteristics: a) speed, b) armor, and c) firepower. The relative weight of these characteristics defines a particular vehicle. Axel's 2-wheel contraption (shown in the left screenshot above), for example, had terribly low armor - you really couldn't afford to get hit very much. To make up for this, his speed and maneuverability were high and his weapons were quite devastating.

2. The environment(s) should both provide a limited combat arena (you can't drive off in one direction forever), and interesting interactive possibilities. Without the latter, you simply have a demolition derby.

3. There should be powerups. Health/repair icons, minimally. Energy shields. Maybe even something to temporarily boost speed. But most importantly, special weapons. For instance, Axel could pick up a Shockwave weapon which when detonated damaged opposing vehicles to differing degrees depending on their proximity. Its potential as both offensive and defensive weapon, as well as the visceral satisfaction of its use, made it a crowd favorite.

I played TM2 for the first time at RAW's apartment, and even though the PC version was crappier and some of the maps were too large or poorly designed, I was completely drawn into the action of the game. For the first time, I was getting to act out, in real time, my desire to strap on missiles to a vehicle and blow the shit out of other cars.

Vigilante 8

The next stage in the evolution of the genre came with the introduction of Vigilante 8 (V8) in 1998. In my mind, this is still the pinnacle of vehicular combat games. It took the basic design of Twisted Metal and improved nearly every aspect. The graphics were significantly better. The maps possessed a more complex and intelligent design. Certain aspects of the environment were destructible, sometimes for strategic benefit. But most importantly, the vehicles were impressively balanced and the combat absolutely thrilling.

I can't tell you how much we played this game in graduate school. It's disgusting. I'd have probably been able to publish another paper or two if this (and Half-Life) hadn't been around. But it was worth it. The creativity was astounding: one of the characters (left screenshot above) was Molo, a retarded school-bus driver who's special weapon was a devastating black smoke that poured out of the exhaust. If you could get your enemies to chase you and unleash that attack, they'd first stall and then explode within a few seconds. I saw BD win maps with 12 opponents in under 5 minutes with this guy. Fucking crazy. Another character, Beezwax, would release a torrent of killer bees to bounce your car to death. And John Torque, in sublime blaxploitation style, would remind you to "Always bet on black" after clearing out a map.

In addition to a rarely used machine gun, five main weapons were available to all characters/vehicles: mines, a mortar, a turret cannon, guided (blue) missiles, and interceptor (red) missiles. The red missiles, in particular, could really mess someone up. While driving (for real) in Santa Barbara, BD and I used to regularly have the hallucinatory experience of "feeling" red missiles attached to our car, and wanting to press the B-button to blow the hell out of an offending BMW or Mercedes in front of us. Depending on your socio-cultural opinion of video games, this will either make you laugh or make you really really scared. There was a sequel of course, Vigilante 8: Second Offense, released for both Playstation and Dreamcast. The Dreamcast version touted even smoother graphics, but I found the driving physics to be disappointingly slow and consequently barely played the game.

Demolition Racer: No Exit

These were the days when AF had figured out how to mod the Dreamcast to allow for ripped copies of games. We were regularly renting and copying, occasionally discovering jewels amidst the vast miasma of mediocre titles. One such jewel was Demolition Racer: No Exit.

I won't claim that DR is a classic in the vein of TM or V8, but it certainly achieved its own level of greatness within our household. Unlike its predecessors, DR eschewed weaponized combat to place greater emphasis on racing. At first, I remember, we were extremely disappointed with this. It seemed to defy one of the basic principles of vehicular combat. And yet, DR was (is) an extraordinary game. The speed of play was ramped up. You were still strongly encouraged to attack your competitors by ramming them whenever possible. The more damage you did, the more points you received. You received big scores for...
  1. hitting a car so hard it started an engine fire
  2. destroying them (and receiving a satisfying "Kill Car" message)
  3. hitting them at a 90-degree angle (called a "T-Bone"; see right screenshot above)
  4. landing on top of the offending car, instantly destroying them with a "Death from Above"
Powerups were spread throughout the course, and you needed to become proficient at picking them up without significantly reducing your speed or deviating off course. There was a great deal of unlockable content that kept us playing for many months. And, of course, there was the constant battle over high scores.

When it came to V8, in all honesty, I'd put my skills and BD's at about an equal par. I mean, we both just kicked that game's ass. But when it came to DR, nobody - and I mean, nobody - could beat BD. He could get 3 Death-from-Aboves in the same race. He knew the location of every powerup. He knew the exact speed and angle you needed to get a T-Bone, at any particular turn. This is domain-specific knowledge, my friends, and knowledge with no real appreciable value.

The present

Sadly, we're nearing the end to our story. The genre of vehicular combat, both within film and games, is in limbo. A couple years ago, NCSoft released a massively, multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called Auto Assault, which focused almost entirely on vehicular combat. The idea of it sounded absolutely awesome. I avoid MMORPG's like the plague, for both monetary reasons and because I don't find the principle of a level-grind particularly appealing, but this one almost won me over. Imagine a game where you get to design your own car, build it from the ground up, and take it out into a well-developed wasteland where there are 1000's of other players - all forming gangs and guilds. Perfect, right? Well, it was released with lots of bugs, and never generated the necessary player-base to justify continued support and development. As of August of last year, the plug was officially pulled on Auto Assault, a mere one year after its introduction. As far as I know, there's nothing similar in the works and I have yet to see a new, ground-breaking vehicular combat game for the new generation of consoles.