Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ronald D. Moore: "Building a Better Battlestar"

First off, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA really is as good as everyone says.

If you're not watching it yet, Netflix the miniseries and see for yourself. It's a drama set in a science fiction world, rather than being a sci fi drama, and the writing staff are fearless in their story choices, going for rich, authentic, and complicated over tidy, false, and cliche every time.

Ronald Moore was this year's keynote speaker for the Vision track of the Game Developers Conference. The connection between the hit Sci Fi Channel series and games might seem a bit tenuous, until you remember how many games are built on franchises or properties from other media. The GTA series got a sea-change facelift with GTA3; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time gave that franchise a kickstart.

Using "then" and "now" video clips for illustration, Moore outlined how, in creating the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series, he went back to the original show and broke down its elements to their fundamental architectural and dramatic purposes. Those elements then were altered or reinvented to fit the show's new, more realistic approach.

To quote from the speech's program description:

"Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of science fiction television. We take as a given the idea that the traditional space opera – with its stock characters, techno double-talk, bumpy-headed aliens, thespian histrionics and empty heroics – has run its course and a new approach is required. That approach is to introduce realism into what has heretofore been an aggressively unrealistic genre...”
– Ronald D. Moore, the Battlestar Galactica Series Bible

My notes (and some SPOILERS, newbies!):

Premise - The Cylons' genocidal attack on the colonies and the desperate flight of the survivors. Pretty dark stuff. Genocide isn't fun. Moore wanted to keep the attack realistic and serious, in contrast to the laser-heavy 1978 scenes, and focus on how the assault is experienced by those living through it.

Family - The Adama family unit is central, but the family is less literal than in the original, more situational, and more rife with conflict. In the original, Adama's children are posted with him on Galactica (hardly realistic) and their relationship is strong and healthy. And boring.

Apollo - Brought onto Galactica with plenty o' baggage.

Commander Adama - Reframed as an active military man, fallible, with imperfect relationships with his children.

Zack - Still dead, but in a way that informs the current relationships.

Athena - Gone. But the daughter role is still there, occupied by someone else...

Roslin - Instead of an ineffectual, supporting-cast old man, the President is a very present woman, the fleet's mother figure, a balance and foil for Adama. She's also an emblem and reminder of the apocalypse: every time you see her you see someone who's in her position due to horrifying, cataclysmic events.

The government - Moore's impression of every Council of Twelve meeting:

COUNCIL: Let's trust the Cylons!

ADAMA: You're idiots!

Rather than a useless gathering of old guys in robes, the new Galactica's government is a civilization at war, with all the associated thorny problems and uprisings and sacrifices and making-do.

Starbuck - Adama's true daughter. Dirk Benedict's Starbuck -- a gambler and drinker who had problems with authority and slept around -- got by on charm and assured the audience that everything was going to be okay. The man lit his cigar off a Cylon's helmet in the credits, for Pete's sake!

So the new Starbuck? A gambler and drinker who has problems with authority and sleeps around. These, Moore says, when painted realistically are the characteristics of a very screwed up person. Starbuck is high-functioning in this military crisis environment because it's the only one in which she can function.

Tigh - Moore didn't want to write another Riker, the "I agree!" guy. In the real Navy (in which Moore served briefly; I'm a Navy brat me own self), the XO is the guy who makes you work. The CO is kinda lofty and you may not get to talk to him, but the XO is all up in your grill.

The XO, in short, is hated. Give that guy a drinking problem and buckle up. Tigh is also an indicator of Adama's fallibility: Adama cares for the people who serve with him, and has a blind spot to their flaws.

My additional two doubloons is that Tigh is far too old to still be an XO. The fact that the show opens with him still without his own command says something about his ability and career path.

Boomer - The original Boomer was a pretty boring utility player, just there to go on occasional missions or patrols. The new Boomer was intended to be young, naive, not yet super-proficient as a pilot, and in an inappropriate relationship with a noncom, someone more experienced and worldly. Boomer's a window for the audience into the story's new world. The decision to make Sharon a Cylon came, Moore said, after finishing the miniseries script. "You wanna know what'll make sure the series gets picked up?" Moore says David Eick asked him. They added the reveal at the miniseries' end without changing any of the previous scenes with her.

Cylons - The decision to make them look human was initially made in response to the limitations of TV. Given the expense, use of physical or digital effects would have to be severely constrained. Necessity's once again the mother of invention, and with human-looking Cylons we get all sorts of creative doors opened. Cylon social structures, cosmology... I particularly love the paranoia that pervades the series due to this one fact.

Baltar - Moore wondered, as I remember doing too, just why the hell the original Baltar betrayed the colonies. I mean, what was the point? In researching "Great Traitors in History," Moore learned that betrayals derive much less from ideology or abstract ideas than they do from the most concrete and base of motivations: (1) Greed and (2) Sex (money and women, in Moore's words).

The new Baltar is a smart, rich, accomplished man pleased with his place in the world, and susceptible to a female presence who bolsters those perceptions. "Yes, you're smart, yes, you're accomplished." So susceptible that he sells out the human race without even really noticing.

Vipers - The team thought these were cool as is, so they're in the new series largely unchanged.

SpaceCam - Moore said he found that unrealistic camera shots always brought him out of a story, such as the impossible tracking shot of the rocket lifting off in APOLLO 13. The fx crew on BATTLESTAR is directed to construct space scenes as if a real cameraman is there, placed realistically, and having to do things like refocus when shifting to a new depth of field and reacquire a subject lost while following.

Interiors - Real places where real people live and work. The CIC doesn't have some crazy pointless rotating platform or a highly vulnerable picture window, it's deep in the best-protected part of the ship.

And why, sci fi TV veteran Moore has repeatedly asked his production design folks, do people who live in space have pictures of space on their walls? None of that here. Personal mementos, yes, rugs, tapestries, yes. No nebulae prints.

The universe - The galaxies of BATTLESTAR are empty and lonely. Much less populated than in the original series. No space bars full of foxy alien dancers with more than the usual number of eyes. Without the "planet of the week" the story can turn inward and focus on the characters and their predicaments.

The search for Earth - Moore showed the two series' clips of Adama addressing the fleet about their new plan to find Earth. The scenes are quite similar, even down to the staging. The chief difference is that in the new series, Adama presents a lie, one told to preserve hope.

The talk ran long, but Moore graciously stuck around for a bit to answer a few questions. The only real interesting one asked how the episode's stories are structured. Moore said he looked to HILL STREET BLUES as an inspiration, and built the stories this way:

A - Weekly story, typically event/situation-driven
B - Story over 2-3 episodes, mostly focusing on character issues
C - Big season-long mythology, such as Season One's political explosion

Pretty frackin' good talk, I have to say.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

GDC Wrap Show

A grab bag of thoughts from the Game Developers Conference, which just ended:

An interesting dichotomy of trends this year. The convergence between Hollywood IP and games emerged as one big theme (several sessions on writers and storytelling alone, in fact), with the burgeoning casual game industry the other. The big vs. the small.

A little odd/concerning to me that most of the casual game sessions were about the business side of things, rather than design thoughts and what makes a good casual game. A lot of starry-eyed developers seeing only shorter production cycles and lower start-up costs may be in for a nasty surprise when they try to unload the 300th knockoff of Bejeweled into the market.

I missed most of the keynotes this year except for Ronald Moore, who gave an excellent talk on reinventing BATTLESTAR GALACTICA which I'll write up in its own post.

It's no great hardship to miss the marquee sessions, really. Will Wright is always brilliant, and I heard interesting things about the PS3 and Nintendo speeches, but the keynotes are the most likely to get rebroadcast online and blogged six ways 'til Sunday.

Had to leave halfway through the Independent Games Festival/Game Developers Choice awards ceremony because I've been ill with some sort of pulmonary death phage (fine, a cold), but I knew I was at a hip videogame awards show and not some dusty old-media awards show because the model chick they had handing trophies to the presenters was in a blood-red cheongsam and had an armful of tattoos. Edgy!

The awards at this shindig are lucite blocks on a little arc of metal. Again, edgy! No twee hood ornaments here. Videogame awards look like something you could encode the human genome on and bury to later repopulate the planet should Armageddon come between clip montages.

Speaking of the genome, there must be something in our DNA that makes us incapable of correctly exiting a stage after accepting an award. Lots of that at this show too. Luckily there was Tattoo Girl to do that "this way, nimrod" arm-gesture thing.

The Darwinia guys wore tuxedos. A class act.

I saw Ronald Moore on the Expo floor a couple of times, talking to few enough people that I probably could've gotten in there and chatted for a bit. However, thanks to my pulmonary death phage I sound like a congested moose with a cough and I didn't want to be remembered to Mr. Moore as That Moose-Sounding Fangirl Who Gave Me Her Cold.

I'm getting worried about the size of GDC. The huge number of attendees makes it hard to move through the crowds of black-t-shirted devboys, sessions are slanting more toward general-interest topics, and hit overflow numbers quickly. A couple of sessions got started late because organizers had to herd us into a larger room. Nothing like last year's Will Wright Spore talk debacle, but things are getting bad.

The Expo floor is nowhere near E3 excess, but the elaborate booths and swag are headed in that direction. There were even some actual booth babes (gah), along with one waggish nod to same: a mannequin in t-shirt and baggy khakis with a laserprinted sign reading "BOOTH BABE" around her neck.

Latecomers to the boxed-lunch line were stuck with the vegetarian option and got very grumpy about not getting their chicken or roast beef sandwiches, which made me laugh. It's a sandwich. Grilled vegetables will not kill you.

Anyone wondering why the game industry has a hard time being taken seriously had only to stroll past the entries in the "Graphic Impact" concept art contest, fully 80% of which were improbably busty chicks. Some of them even had clothes on. Freud would've been bored out of his kopf, with all the large guns and menacing snakes in evidence.

I'm driving a really weird rental, a dumpling-shaped Ford that looks like a cut-rate clone of the PT Cruiser. The Boyfriend calls it the PT Loser. I call it the Ford Grub.

Saw bunches of Grubs in the San Jose Convention Center parking garage, which leads me to believe that Ford just dumped a whole fleet on Avis with a "we can't move these fuckers!" throwing up of hands.

I really hope Ernest Adams never stops giving his traditional final-day lecture. It's always thought-provoking and inspiring, and the perfect note to end the week on. This year he posited an interesting take on interactive stories, which I will also probably go into more detail on later.

Overall, a good year if a little thin on meaty sessions. The Austin Game Conference is definitely on the rise as a better, more leading-edge industry event, and it focuses on online.

The best part of GDC is reconnecting with industry friends and colleagues, some of whom I only see once a year. Fabulous to catch up with those of you I saw, and sorry I missed those of you I didn't. There's always next year. And E3. And Austin...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I Know the Way to San Jose

Headed up north later today for GDC. Catch y'all in a few days!

Monday, March 20, 2006

ARGs Go to the Big House

A pair of Spanish dotcom millionaires have opened a live prison break game inside an old bank in Madrid.

15 Euros gets you solving puzzles, ducking laser alarms, and clambering through metal ducting. Adventure game meets boot camp obstacle course, wrapped in a futuristic escape fiction.

Nifty, if lawsuit bait. I bet there's more than a few waivers you need to sign before hitting lockup.

I have a vague memory of a live ALIENS game in Europe -- Belgium? The Netherlands? -- where you and your ill-fated party ran around in subterranean tunnels chased by a guy in a rubber Alien suit. Anyone recall that?

What's particularly cool (to geeky me at least) about La Fuga is the database and positional tracking they use to see where all the "inmates" are inside the gamespace, and how this data is used to do things like change your future experience of the game. You might get tracked into a more difficult area the second time through, depending on how well you did on your first escape.

Now, all they need is the hot Wentworth Miller clones as extras! Maybe for the planned Times Square version?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

So Not the Drama

Do we ever need to have another character anguish over his compatriot's prone, bloodied form, "Don't you die on me!"?

How about, after Bloody Guy dies, having Anguished Guy raise his tear-stained face to the heavens and yell, "Noooooooooo!"?

Yep, never.

Jane Espenson recently posted on comedy lines that are too shopworn to be funny anymore.

Allen B. Ury had a similar article in Fade In magazine's email newsletter about overdone dramatic motifs, such as the protagonist being dead but not knowing it, and the mentor who turns out to be eee-vil.

These two got me thinking about lines in non-comedies that have been so bled of impact through repetition that they need to be officially retired, if not set out on an ice floe to die.

In particular, the "Big No" is so knackered that it's even stale when satirized, but that doesn't stop filmmakers from going to its dried-out well. I'm looking at you, George Lucas. Vader yelling no at the end of Episode III only made the audience want to scream along with him.

Me, I can't stand "Can you zoom in on this area here?", which commits the double sin of being played-out and technologically wrong. I also think we need to find new ways of saying "What've we got?" when the cop/CSI/psychic detective shows up at a crime scene.

What are your (least) favorite overused dramatic lines? I bet you scriptreader types have a few...

Monday, March 13, 2006

Do You Like To Watch?

Last week Microsoft announced their 5000th patent, a system for enabling robust spectator functions in online games.

This is vintage Microsoft, claiming an excellent, existing idea as their own. Spectator mode is not new. Players of online shoot 'em ups like Doom and Unreal Tournament have been able to do that for decades.

But an observer mode that allows pans, cuts, and other devices common to filmed sports (and film in general for that matter), however, must be novel, right?


No less than the US Government has been working on this for some years. Replayable after-action reviews, complete with cueing, annotation, and varying camera angles, are already being developed for a number of military simulation games.

However the patent spaghetti sorts out, those behind this idea are undeniably onto something. The US may not have the spectator-gamer culture of Asia (yet), but making games viewable and accessible to people who want to watch instead of play -- or want to watch as a precursor to playing -- is an important and compelling expansion of the player pyramid:


There are lots more folks at the bottom of this pyramid, just as there are millions more people who watch professional football than attend live games or play.

The gamers at the top of the pyramid, the scary-dedicated ones, are really good at what they do, and watching them is fun. I'd much rather see two elite Battlefield 2 squads go at it then get my n00b azz mortared as soon as I log in.

And I'll never live to see the high-level content on World of Warcraft in person, but it'd sure be fun to watch some level 60 players romp through it. Those EQ and WoW raid videos are popular for a reason. Leeeeroy!

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Lighter Side of Hell

Because I don't want to go into the weekend on a grumpy note over that CDC nonsense, here's some Friday goofiness.

This World of Warcraft as text adventure piece is both hilarious and alarmingly accurate.

And who doesn't like mean cats? Be sure to read the captions.

Elf Needs Lobbyist, Badly

Let's see, the bird flu is coming, obesity is on the rise in children, and New Orleans is awash in contaminated ground sediment, so what do Senators Lieberman, Clinton, and other bipartisan supporters want to task the CDC with?

An exhaustive study on the "impact of electronic media use."

The CDC?!

Videogames and movies don't make me want to go postal. But ill-informed political posturing?

The misappropriation of an agency who, frankly, has bigger and more lethal fish to fry?

The first step of anti-videogame legislation (because, let's face it, that's what this is about, not movies or cell phones) masquerading as research?

Those make the IGDA, the ACLU, and the angel puppies cry.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Look! Up in the Sky! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's... a Methodist!

From the Too Much Free Time Department comes an exhaustive list of comic book characters and their religious affiliations.

For extra fun, check out the catalog's visual reference. The most pathetic supergroup has to be the Legion of Lutheran Superheroes, which consists of Mastodon and, um, Jimmy Olsen.

Orchestrating Gold

The LA Times has an interesting article on how CRASH won Best Picture.

No crazy conspiracy theories here, just careful research and marketing by Lionsgate, who treated the race for the Academy Awards' top bauble like a political campaign.

CRASH won, the article asserts, because the right people saw it, specifically LA-based actors and editors, two key voting blocs.

The network effect also comes into play: Paul Haggis and the movie's large cast have been in the business for a long time, with associated relationships and friend-of-friending.

Relationships alone won't guarantee a vote, but word of mouth is perhaps the most powerful type of marketing. I'd wager that World of Warcraft is the first of such games for many millions of its players, who got into the game because a friend recommended they try it out.

Of course, no one's going to vote for a movie they think is terrible, even if it is set in LA, highlights actors, and a friend recommended it. Lots of people didn't like CRASH, but lots did, and Lionsgate made a strategic effect to connect to those lots.

Those 130,000 screeners, a joke in some circles when they came out, seem much less foolish in the cold hard light of post-Oscar March. The CRASH DVD was at #3 on Amazon when last I looked.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Oscar, Warmed-Over

The Boyfriend and I visited Hollywood and Highland on Saturday to see the preparations, which was pretty nifty. The carpet is pinker than it appears on TV, and the swooshy faux-deco set pieces fronting the enclosed tent (security check? Car wash?) far more chintzy looking.

Yes, the Oscars are held in a mall. They hide it all remarkably well on TV, but directly above the grand, gold-swathed entryway you can grab a plate of nachos before you hit the Sunglass Hut.

Various young, apple-cheeked show workers were snapping the occasional picture of each other in front of giant Oscar statues, which I found endearing. Even if you're on the other side of the velvet rope, it must still be pretty magical.

The techie-roadie-Teamster types were rather less enthralled. A par can is a par can, no matter whose boobs it's lighting up.

What impressed me the most at the Kodak Theater was the incredible cross-section of onlookers who were crowding the area, both American and international. The movies this year may not be the mass market's bread and butter, but glamour and celebrity clearly are compelling and evergreen to a wide swath of humanity.

I was going to live-blog the Oscars for all three of my readers, but between errands and squeezing in a song or two on Guitar Hero I ended up TiVo-speedwatching the whole thing.

The masses of people at Trader Joe's were either doing the same thing, or -- gasp! -- did not care that the Oscars were unfolding mere miles away while they bought their Two-Buck Chuck.

Onto the show itself...

So CRASH won Best Picture. I can't say I'm not disappointed.

I need to see CRASH again -- I first watched it on a laptop on a plane, admittedly not ideal viewing conditions -- but while I thought it contained some strong scenes and performances, I found it overall manipulative, safe, and too redolent of movies that came before such as MAGNOLIA and SHORT CUTS.

Okay, many movies are manipulative, but I find CRASH's flavor really hard to watch, because it's full of a pervading sense of menace that finally erupts to destroy the person who least deserves it. I knew who the redshirt would be by his second scene, the poor bastard.

And yes, safe. The message? Racism is bad. What's risky about that?

And while the movie poses a challenge to the viewer, it doesn't offer any suggestions or solutions either, and precious little hope, other than to contrive to get yourself into a charged conflict with someone of another race and therefore Come To an Understanding. Either that or hug your housekeeper.

That's another thing: there's a slight whiff of the misogynistic about CRASH. The female characters are all either one-note racial sketches, bitchy, and/or victims of personal violence.

I do think time will vindicate BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, as well as the bumper crop of other excellent movies from 2005 like CAPOTE and THE CONSTANT GARDENER.

Other notes on the night:

Jon Stewart was fine but not nearly as funny as he can be (a Bjork/Cheney joke? Dusty stuff). Loved the attack ads, though.

Huh. The orchestra is playing that go away music as the winner starts to speak. That sound you hear is Oscar peeing on your special moment, kids!

Yay! Go Rachel Weisz! A great character in a great movie. Way to leave that THE MUMMY RETURNS stink behind.

Amy Adams was also amazing -- go rent JUNEBUG right now -- but she'll have more chances, I've no doubt.

Can George Clooney really be that classy and charming and politically aware? Gads, I hope so. And I hope the cloning people start with him.

Naomi Watts' dress looked like a manic badger was set loose on it.

Holy cats, did those interpretive dancers just recreate the assault scene from CRASH during the Best Song performance? Kill me now.

I didn't know Tim Burton was dating Elizabeth Taylor.

Sucked for him and the Wallace and Gromit guys, stuck in the cheap seats by the sound board.

Were Keanu's eyes always that teeny-tiny?

Hated Charlize's look. Like Brigitte Bardot being attacked by someone's home ec project.

Meryl Streep's intro of Robert Altman with Lily Tomlin went on too long (we get it, already, it's Altmanesque), but they were gracious and looked fabulous. Terrific dress on Meryl.

My inner snark was kind of hoping that Altman would unleash a little on Hollywood, an establishment he's famously been at odds with for many years, but he took the high road, as befits one of our greatest directors.

Jessica Alba needs a sandwich.

When will they abandon that horrible creepy-cheesy moment when the animated characters du jour "appear" onstage to present an award? Stop. Just stop.

The stuffed penguins were cute, and the movie was lovely, but MURDERBALL should've won best doc.

Yay! Cleaned-up pimp song rocks the house, despite yet more sketchy interpretive dancing. Seriously, I thought there was a moratorium on that stuff.

See, Larry McMurtry is a writer. He's in jeans.

And in closing, what is up with all the gum-chewing? Half the stars they showed in cutaways were chomping like Holsteins.

Get some class, Hollywood. We're watching. Well, except the mob at Trader Joe's.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Greatest Game Never Made?

The rumors are true! There really was an unreleased Penn & Teller Sega game. Smoke and Mirrors is (was? Would have been?) a collection of postmodern minigames in the inimitable P&T style.

Chief among them is the fabled Desert Bus, in which you drive a bus across the Nevada desert to Las Vegas-- in real time. Make the 16 hour roundtrip, the legend goes, and you score one point.

Screenshots, commentary, and a torrent for the brave on Something Awful's forums.