My Derby Name would be Hell Gibson

So here’s a news flash, Internet: Roller Derby is awesome.

No, it’s true.  I’m sure you have a million completely valid ill-informed misopinions on the subject.  “It’s staged.”  “It’s just fat chicks on skates.”  “It’s just ugly chicks on skates.”  “It’s just stupid grrl power crap.”  Well, those are all not only untrue and somewhat offensive, but also wrong and incorrect.

First of all, while Roller Derby used to be staged, like wrestling, the modern interpretation is not staged in any way.  Derby started out in the 1930′s as kind of a silly wacky faux-sport and eventually got some TV play and so on.  But in the early 2000′s, there was an amateur revival in Texas that soon spread across America and then around the world.  Despite some hiccups along the way, it’s emerged as a true DIY (do it yourself) athletic movement with a punk rock aesthetic.

As to the “all those chicks are ____” stereotypes, that’s not only incorrect, but also not the point (and seriously, offensive).  Despite the costumes and pageantry of it, and terms like “derby dolls” – that stuff isn’t for you.  It’s for them, the skaters.  The empowering personas let them leave their everyday life – whatever it is – behind and be free on the track.  They’re not playing Derby to look hot or be seductive.  They’re doing it to be part of a team, or feel strong, or to do something exciting, or any other number of reasons that don’t involve being objectified somehow.

Which makes it sound all grrl powery, right?  But it ultimately doesn’t come off that way.  They’re not out to exclude men (plenty of male coaches, referees, and fans) or to shove how capable women are down anyone’s throat–they’re just women being capable.  I’m sure for a lot of derby girls it’s a personal grrl power thing but “Roller Derby” as an entity is not out to change your personal political views on feminism.  It just does its thing which happens to be rad girls being rad.

    

So okay, maybe you were wrong about Roller Derby.  But what exactly makes it awesome?

Awesome Thing # 1 – It isn’t Baseball

I’m just not that into sports.  You think I would be, liking video games and rules and such, but they just don’t appeal to me.  I have no desire to keep track of statistics or follow teams or pay a bunch of money to make a dude throw a hotdog at me.  Roller Derby isn’t like that (though I am sure someone, somewhere is keeping track of statistics).  The DIY nature of the whole thing results in a nice non-pretentious crowd environment.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Nobody is going to get lynched in the parking lot by the other team’s fans.  There is a “community event” aura about the whole thing, like little league or a high school drama production.  Everyone’s a friend.  (I dunno, it’s like X-Games meets UFC… or at least punk cynical Nascar.)

Awesome Thing # 2 – It’s Inclusive

Anyone is welcome to watch Roller Derby.  You don’t have to be a certain age, or into a certain scene, or (again) know every player’s statistics.  Someone trying it out on a lark is going to have just as much fun as some guy who goes to every match and has all the girls’ autographs.

On the same note, anyone is welcome to play Roller Derby.  Despite the image of the pierced, inked banshee–girls from all walks of life lace up the skates.  There are baristas who do it, burnouts who do it, pastors who do it, lawyers who do it, and so on.  And on the track they’re all family.  That’s pretty cool.

Awesome Thing # 3 – There are Puns

Derby Names are awesome.  To put the final touch on their persona, each girl comes up with a name.  They could come from anywhere… childhood nickname, a term of endearment, or just something random.  But they’re normally super great puns, like Cherie Bomb, Ivanna Cocktail, or Lollerskates. You do not get better than this.

Awesome Thing # 4 – It’s Hilariously Difficult to Explain

So there are rules, right?  Well, I’d love to explain them to you but they’re more complicated than Quidditch.  Well kind of.  Once you know them, they’re incredibly simple.  But that doesn’t make them any easier to learn.  One of my favorite parts of any Derby match is that they start off by playing this instructional video so newcomers can follow along.  The humor being that it doesn’t clear things up at all.  If anything it makes it seem even harder to understand.  Whenever I take someone to Roller Derby I have to assure them it’s not as scary as the video makes it seem…

By all means, see for yourself.

A better way to explain it might be this diagram (because I made it myself)

 

There are 5 distinct phases of watching Roller Derby, and I’ll go through them because it’s fun to make lists.

  1. Being completely intimidated by the video and thinking Derby is complicated.
  2. Learning the rules and thinking Derby is entirely too simple.
  3. Recognizing the subtle strategies and being frustrated the girls aren’t doing what you think of.
  4. Realizing it’s because things are incredibly fast-paced out there, geez.
  5. Joining the team (girls), volunteering to Ref (boys), or posting about Derby online (me)

So if you’ve ever been even the least bit curious about Roller Derby, I encourage you to look up your local team and check it out.  It’s a blast, even if you only go once.  …though I personally guarantee all you ladies will at least consider signing up after that first night.

If you’re intrigued but still shy, check out Whip It.  It not only holds to this week’s theme of integrating Juno into my posts, but it also happens to be pretty decent.  (Though it fudges the rules a little bit.)

It didn’t win any awards or anything, but it’s an inoffensive story about a girl who finds herself by discovering Roller Derby.  It will also give you an idea how the game is played and the type of things involved.

It does focus on Banked Track Derby rather than Flat Track Derby (which is what I have experience watching).  They’re basically the same thing, but banked track approaches the sport from a different angle (get it? angle).

And, you know, the general plot isn’t exactly uncommon in the Derby world.  I know of at least one girl with a similar experience.  But remember: punching isn’t actually allowed.  Solid B, would watch again.

Believe it or not, Konami made a Roller Derby game of sorts back on the NES – Roller Games!

Unfortunately it’s a brawler (?) based on the Japanese version of the old cheesy staged Derby, so you won’t be encountering any super rad names like Contra-diction, Zoey Ender, or Heather May Sin.

(Photos taken from the OC Roller Girls website, also featuring Whip It poster and Roller Games title screen)

I feel like the only one who noticed…

 

5 years, 7 silent hills, 3 other series later…

5 years ago today, I started working at Konami.  That makes this my longest-running employer (I was at Atlus for 5 years, 1 month–but a lot of that was QA where I’d be on-call for long periods).  It seems like just yesterday I told my MGO buddies I’d be taking a job with Konami and they got weird and quiet and stopped talking to me.

Ah, memories.

What a busy 5 years!  I’ve gotten to work on a lot of great franchises like Contra, Castlevania, and of course Silent Hill–which is amazing.  I never imagined I’d be the second-most prolific SH staff member (right behind Akira Yamaoka).  It’s humbling and a great honor.

That said, let’s talk about games somehow…

One thing I’ve learned during my time here – well, had hammered home – is that the key to making a compelling game experience that draws people’s attention starts with a simple premise.  This is no different from making a book or movie–everything needs a SIMPLE, but COMPELLING premise.  Think about some of your favorites:

  • Down-and-out boxer rises to the top.
  • Man tries to solve wife’s murder, but can’t remember anything longer than 30 seconds.
  • Castaways are lost on an island.
  • Assassin is betrayed by her old boss and sets out for revenge.
  • Man dresses as a bat to avenge parents’ murder.
  • Two brothers go on a road trip to fight demons.
  • Boy is trapped on raft in the ocean with a tiger.

    The world as we know it is actually a computer program.

If you can’t sum up what your game (or movie or book) is about in a few words to a sentence, nobody will ever pay attention to it.  Your boss won’t approve it, customers won’t notice it, and nobody will effectively talk about it.  (There are obvious exceptions but work with me here).

This is because a good premise is a starting point – not just for creating the work, but also for experiencing it.  A movie can go all kinds of crazy places, but only if the audience is onboard at the premise.  As long as someone knows where they started, they’ll be able to follow the narrative.  It also informs the events, keeps them in context, and hopefully keeps everything focused.  When an author (team, etc.) forgets this, things go off the rails and cohesion breaks apart.

Reality is still a computer program and now we know about it so the computers are mad at us. It's... like the first movie with a different setting.

Sometimes the key to a premise is how it’s described.  If you wanted to sum up Inception, you’d say: “People can go inside someone’s dreams and implant their own ideas.”

Well that sounds interesting. I want to see that movie.  However we all know that person who would describe it like this: “So there’s this guy Cobb and he wants to see his children because he isn’t allowed to.  He’s kind of like a freelance detective or man-for-hire and what he does is goes inside of someone’s dreams to find things.  Well he gets this big job–that’s what the movie is about–and he has to perform an Inception, which is implanting an IDEA in that dream that actually affects what the person does in real life.  He knows about this because of something with his wife–she’s crazy.  He needs help to do this thought, so he recruits a bunch of people, like Juno, and they all have a different job, and then the dream has to be multiple LAYERS and those are like levels in a video game.  It’s really great and intense – you should see it.”

I'm sure there's a simple explanation for this.

The problem is it sounds too complicated to follow, kind of weird, almost derivitive, and a little boring.  The MOVIE is about going inside dreams.  The STORY is about a man’s redemption / facing his demons.  The NARRATIVE is the events that bring these people together for the big job and how that goes down.  Narratives and Story are a dime a dozen.  We’ve seen ‘em all before.  The pieces all get broken down and re-assembled to be interesting, and you can get really inventive with that–but it’s the premise that puts our butts in the seats (or the actors or a director or–fine I’ll move along).

So! Games!  This is going to hurt a lot of people here, but: GAMEPLAY is more important than STORY in games.  It’s the reason they aren’t movies.  Adults without long stretches of empty freetime aren’t going to slog through a crappy game just to see how the story turns out.  I had a console RPG phase through college too, but when I can read a great book in less time than I can beat a mediocre game… I need something else to draw me in.  Gameplay is what makes fun/good games.

Achievement Unlocked: Authorial Intent

So you need a great premise to draw the gamer in… and good gameplay to keep him playing.  The story is not important–because if you’re letting him PLAY and it’s FUN, whatever man.  It’s the PREMISE that informs him what he is/what’s going on.  The narrative “why” is less important in games because the real answer is “because it’s fun” “because I like pogo jumping off dudes” and so on.  It’s less important why the CHARACTER is doing something because it’s the PLAYER doing it.  (NOTE: The story should still be good and a lot of thought should be put into the narrative.  I’m not advocating lazy/crappy game stories).  The fact of the matter is, the game’s story ends when the player decides he’s done playing–it has absolutely nothing to do with the protagonist’s current motivation.

Silent Hill is a tricky beast here.  Because the “gameplay” isn’t really hitting things with pipes – it’s taking in atmosphere, being scared, and exploring.  Things like inventory size, attack options, and movement speed are TOOLS we can manipulate to provide a scary experience.  Story and Narrative ARE important here because we need you to connect and empathize with your character–both so you understand his limitations (scary) AND care about what happens to him.  We’re not putting the player into an idealized unstoppable god character here.  In many cases we’re asking you to role-play someone you wouldn’t like very much in real life.  An interesting premise is KEY – and I’ve found the best Silent Hills have the simplest premises.  It’s something I really focused on for Downpour and Book of Memories.  One advantage is that “Silent Hill” the town is now a known entity, and can enhance the premise by existing.  Let’s look at some:

  • Man’s daughter is missing in scary town.
  • Man comes to scary town because he got a letter from his wife–who is dead.
  • Man is locked inside his apartment and can’t leave.
  • Prisoner’s bus crashes just outside Silent Hill.
  • Player has a book containing every moment of her life… and can rewrite it.

The importance of premise is obvious when you look at something like Homecoming.  It SHOULD have been “Soldier finds himself in Silent Hill” – anybody who’s played an SH game can see that going all kinds of awesome places.  However, that premise is betrayed later on and every element created after that tends to be a little rocky–and opinions on the game are decidedly mixed.

Oh, oh wait, I know... So they find out WHEN the machines will attack, and then they have to make a deal with this one program and Neo has to go back and see the Oracle. Remember, that spoon lady? She's in the game too - this would make a lot more sense if you played the game first, and--

The lesson to take away from all this is that if you spend Halloween ’06 watching Jacob’s Ladder for the first time, you really will get to work on Silent Hill a few weeks later. (and before one of you does the math and freaks out about “top secret 7th SH game” – I’m counting Collection twice)

(Images taken from Matrix, Matrix Reloaded, Inception, and Silent Hill Homecoming)

Happy Halloween

So, it’s Halloween everyone!  What Castlevania game will you be playing to celebrate?

That’s right, despite being “the Silent Hill guy,” it’s not Halloween for me without a good Castlevania.  I think the lighter tone (fantasy? whimsical?) of those games is a better fit for dressing up and getting candy than the serious psychological horror of SH.

I think I’ll be enjoying the NES original this year.  Last year was pretty big with Lords of Shadow and all, so it will be nice to get back to basics.  Also the music is super rad.  Since I’m only playing it tonight, it’s a lot easier to get a full experience on the NES version.  Even if I don’t finish it (I anticipate reaching Dracula then not having time to beat him), it’s still a lot more progress than I’d make in a modern game in an hour.

Here are two articles I’ve written about Castlevania for GameSpite.

Though I guess I’ll be playing a ton of Silent Hill at work, so… that counts, right?

Politics

 

 

Heads Up

I’m sure a lot of people are tuning in expecting loads of content to sift through (and why wouldn’t you–this is the internet!), and they’re currently frothing because… seriously?  ONE post?  What was I thinking?

Well!  May I direct your attention to the Page bar (above this post, below the banner).  See where it says “Gamespite Journal”?  Click there.  Behold!  30-some-odd articles I’ve written about video games!  Instant content.

(For those of you who already read Gamespite I don’t know what to tell you…)

Boo!

Surprise, Internet! Tomm has a blog, and you’re reading it.  Rather than doing an intro, I’m going to jump right into content…

As you probably know, I make horror video games.  Oddly enough, it’s very rare for horror entertainment to scare me, or even creep me out. Which happens to be the biggest obstacle to making truly frightening horror games: different things scare different people.  With all the horror “styles” out there, how do you pick the one perfect approach?  Simple answer: you don’t.

Ideally you pick something that appeals/creeps YOU out, and try to draw as many people into that style.  Personally, slasher/gore type horror doesn’t do anything for me.  It’s just a bunch of imagery onscreen I wouldn’t really choose to look at.  I gravitate more toward interactive horror–something that involves me, the viewer (player) in the process.  Now, even this can be broken down into different tropes, techniques, and styles.  At its base, it’s a matter of making a protagonist relatable, so the audience is somewhat invested.  Going beyond this, you can kill that character (or a fakeout character) within the first ten minutes to prove to the viewers that nobody is safe; anything can happen (the first Silent Hill game took a stab at this).

However, my favorite recent example is the Paranormal Activity series, which forces you to FIND the horror for the first half of the movie, at least.  (Disclosure: my opinion is heavily informed by the fact I’ve watched all of these at home, rather than in theaters.)  The premise is simple: some people have a haunted house and they set up a night-vision camera to record goings on in hopes of finding proof that something supernatural is afoot.  How this translates to the audience is tense minutes examining blue, grainy footage–leaning in, staring, trying not to blink, paranoid that something horrifying MIGHT happen.  Suddenly you realize… wasn’t the fan moving in the OTHER direction a minute ago?  Now comes the key moment.  You look at your wife (or husband, or brother, or parent, etc.), wide eyed.  “Did you see–?”  And one of you reacts.  The movie and its characters become secondary to the creepiness you witnessed because you went looking for it.

"Did you see that!?"

Now, I’m not saying the Paranormal Activity movies are perfect.  Most people find the characters anything but relatable, and each film so far has had at least one completely obvious flaming ouji board that a character refuses to tell anybody about for no discernable reason.  BUT!  For me personally, you can’t top the “spot the horror” experience.  It has the viewer questioning his own perception but he can’t look away, which is how we’d all probably feel if we thought our houses were haunted.

It also touches on another horror trope I find creepiest of all: voyeurism.

Face it, voyeurism is really really squicky.  The feeling of being watched is universal, and the thought of a stranger in your house, witnessing your most private moments is horrifying.  However, even weirder and more uncomfortable than that is accidental voyeurism–overhearing or witnessing strangers and being unable to do anything.  Maybe it starts out innocently–you can hear people talking through the wall so you lean against it out of curiosity… then they begin to argue.  Or, you overhear your neighbor with a woman… but his wife is out of the country until next week.  I find these situations really unsettling.  So did Hitchcock.

But why is this so weird?  After all, they’re strangers – they don’t affect our lives at all, do they?  I actually think this disconnect is why it’s so frightening.  Everyone has an outward appearance they present to the world – a different persona for friends, family, and so on.  We’re at our most guarded when we’re around people we don’t know.  So if we stumble into an instance where a stranger is at his most raw… we don’t have any reference of what that person is capable of.  Who are they? What are they going to do?  What if they find me?  The unknown is the root of fear.

     

Finding notes and witnessing echoes of the past – Silent Hill and voyeurism go way back.

If you’ve played Shattered Memories you know most of the game is spent examining things and looking for stuff… and most of the time you find messages and echoes of things that have little to do with you.  This is Silent Hill at its best: finding notes and memories of horrible events about “the town” rather than your character.  It establishes the world as somewhere that creepy, bad stuff happens.  And it slowly dawns on the player… if this is a world of terrible people and events, and he’s in it… what does that say about him?

 

(Images from Paranormal Activity, Silent Hill, Silent Hill 4, and SH: Shattered Memories)