Thursday, January 27, 2011

Valhallan Studios new title

I squinted at the little flat panel navman screen. It was hard to look at with all the glare from the Western New South Wales summer sunshine assaulting my white station-wagon, seemingly from every direction. According to the tiny screen I wasn't on any road. Brown nothingness surrounded the green arrow that represented my car. I hadn't heard the navman's eloquent, female voice for over half an hour, with it's calm, condescending perfect diction. She had shut right up since I went off the highway, down this ruler straight dirt road. I knew I was somewhere east of Wagga. The property I was looking for must have been somewhere in this general area, but wherever it was, it was off the grid. I was on my own. I pushed the accelerator and kept going, trailing dust and flicking gravel.

Immeasurable time passed. Out there it felt like half an hour, but it was probably only ten minutes. I was just about to turn back, to look for an off road that I must have missed, while glaring angrily at the GPS, when all of a sudden I saw a structure cresting the horizon of the impossibly flat landscape. The structure was a wall. Tall and concrete. Rimmed with wire of the barbed variety. I followed the gravel road right to the mouth of the only visible gate in the wall. The lens of a small security camera up on the wall above the gate spun as it focused on me. The iron gate swung open. A stocky gentleman, with a bald mango shaped head stepped out and marched up to my drivers side window. I wound down my window, perspiration dripping from my face, despite the air con howling flat out.

"Is this Valhallan Studio--" I tried to ask, but was cut off mid sentence.

"Go through the gate. Park near the white building on your left," the man said, deadpan, the glare off his bare head forcing my face into a squint.

I obeyed unquestioningly. I was clearly at the right place, and something about this guys emotionless, pig eyed stare told me not to argue. I had been told that Valhallan Studios, a small independent Australian game developer, had set up shop on a large acreage, not far from Wagga. But in actuality, this place was more like a 'compound'. The large concrete wall went right around the handful of buildings, creating less of a farm feeling, and more that of a youth detention centre. I was there to see their new title, still under development.

I parked where I had been instructed. As I opened the door and stepped out of the car two more bald headed, pig faced men came marching out of the front door of the white building purposefully towards me. They stopped with their glaring faces uncomfortably close to mine, hands at their side, fists clenched.

"Are you the blogger?" the first man said, spitting the word 'blogger' with contempt.

"Yeah, hi..." I managed.

"Chad is inside," he said matter-of-factly.

"Thanks," I muttered as the two men stepped apart to let me past. I strolled up towards the front door of Valhallan Studios, peering around the yard as I went. All I saw were the two men, eyeing me like angry pitbulls.

"G'day," came the greeting, somewhat over-enthusiastically, as I stepped inside. It took a second or two for my eyes to adjust. I managed to focus on the looming figure in front of me. If a man could be a wall, this man would be a granite wall, with stainless steel reinforced girders.

"Hullo," I said stupidly to this monster of a man.

He thrust his club like hand around mine, in what to him, was apparently a handshake. "I'm Chad VanLuen, head of P.R. here at Valhallan."

It was true. Chad had the telltale great white shark like smile of a public relations guy or a community manager. "So this is where it all happens, eh?" I quipped, waving a hand at the dimly lit room.

"Yeah, mate. Come through to the old 'war room'," Chad said, with a zealot grin.

I followed the walking bulldozer down a corridor and past an open door. I caught glimpses of more angry, bald men programming furiously at desktop computers, a patriarchal project lead standing over them, cracking the whip. Chad led me into a meeting room, empty except for a large desk and a half dozen chairs. On the desk was a flatscreen television and an X-box 360. One of the old white ones. The walls were adorned with promotional posters of Valhallans past library of games. 'The Decapitator', 'RPK (or Rape, Pillage, Kill)' and 'Axt Töten Fetisch' were among them.

"So, your new game..." I started once we were both comfortably sat down, my mini digital recorder on the table, taping.

"Jackboot Jack 3," Chad said proudly.

"Oh, a sequel?"

"Yeah. It's a sequel. We didn't develop those games, though. We just managed to secure the rights to the series recently, which is a big boon for us. Jackboot one and two were pretty big overseas. Especially Europe."

"I've not heard of, um, Jackboot Jack is it? Did it ever get an Australian release?"

"Well almost," Chad grimaced. "It was just about to come out here when the government had it declared a hate crime."

I paused a moment. "Sorry...did you say the game was declared a hate crime?"

"Yeah..." Chad said, nonchalantly. "You know what the government is like. Always sticking it's big nose where it's not wanted. Always trying to suppress honest, white Australians free speech."

"Um, yeah," I said as sympathetically as I could. "So tell me about Jackboot 3."

"Well, the series is traditionally a side scrolling shooter, but we're taking it in a different direction."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. Two words," Chad said with suppressed enthusiasm. "Open world."

"Oh. Cool." I said with suppressed under-enthusiasm.

"The cool, new thing about the current gaming generation is player freedom. Thats what we want in Jackboot 3," Chad said from the edge of his seat. "Jack's only real abilities in the original games were his punch, kick, jackboot stomp and pigsticker."

"I'm sorry, pigsticker?" I interjected.

"Yeah, mate. Pigsticker. It's a really cool lookin' fifteen inch blade," Chad said as he thrust a piece of paper in my face. It was a some concept art for the Valhallan redesign of the 'pigsticker'. A long, leather handled knife with a serrated edge and bloodstains on the business end.

"Cool." What else could I say?

"Yeah. Well Jack had all those things before but we want total player freedom this time around. That means more abilities. More weapons. We wanna give the player free reign over the game world." Chad was almost salivating as he talked up his game.

"Do you have any examples of new stuff?" I asked reluctantly.

"Well the cool new ability that we are all excited about is the curb stomp."

"Ah, cool."

"Yep. Just run up behind an enemy, stun 'em with a punch to the back of the head, and then you can drag 'em over to the edge of a road, then then a context sensitive action button will flash, and hey presto; you can perform a curb stomp!"

"Wow. What else?" I asked, knowing I was going to regret it.

"Well gunplay is going to play a much larger role in Jackboot Jack 3. We got all kinds of cool guns, modeled on real world versions of themselves. All the NPC's that populate the game world will have detailed location damage, and they are all deformable."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah. Why don't I show you. I have a small demo level set up here," Chad said, picking up a wireless controller and unpausing the Jackboot Jack 3 demo he had ready for me. "This is the mosque level. It's pretty early in the game."

I looked at the screen gingerly. There was Jackboot Jack. Fully rendered, light effects reflecting off his polished, knee high, spiked jackboots. The bald, leather jacket wearing avatar held a metal pipe in one hand. Chad started working the controller. He moved Jack into what looked like a nicely rendered Muslim mosque.

"Check this out," Chad grinned.

He moved his character down to the other end of the mosque, Jack running with a determined, athletic animation. Chad found a skinny, crooked backed, Muslim priest, kneeling and praying. With a pull of the right trigger button Chad directed Jack to club the priest with his metal pipe. Chad then switched weapons to a pistol. It was a Luger. Chad then proceeded to 'show off' the character deformation by emptying a clip into the priests face. Soon there was nothing but a bloody, pulpy stump where the man's head should be. Chad, the mountain of a man, giggled hysterically. I felt nauseated.

Chad proceeded to show me just how much 'freedom' was in the game.
Edvard Griegs 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' played in my head as Chad feverishly outlined all the different ways you could club, shoot, stab, stomp, mash and bash Muslims, Jews and hippies in the game.

"So Chad," I finally asked, "besides all the killing are there any non-violent ways to get through the missions in Jackboot Jack 3? I mean does the player have the freedom to play in a more subdued way?"

Chad stared at me blankly, the veins in his tree trunk neck pulsating. "Missions? There are no missions. This game isn't about any of that sort of thing. This is a world simulator. It's meant to give the player a 'sandbox' world to play in, with total freedom to do whatever you want."

"So, I mean, can you finish the game without brutalizing people?"

Agitation crawled across Chad's face. "I told you, mate. You got the freedom to do whatever you bloody want. But there is no 'finish' to the game. It's just an open world sim. With total freedom. You can fight melee, shoot, do vehicular killings. Total freedom. Get it, mate?" Chad spat, red faced.

"Oh yeah, I think I get it now." I said, glancing at the door.

I listened to Chad's diatribe about Jackboot Jack 3 a little while longer, then thanked him graciously for his time. Once back in my car I left the Valhallan Studios property as quickly as humanly possible, while trying to look as calm and at ease as humanly possible.

Chad VanLuen told me the Jackboot Jack 3 is set for a 2012 release, and is totally open world where the player is free to freely do whatever they want.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Check the twenty-five most played tracks on my ipod, and you will see some live Ween tracks, a few songs from Nick Caves 'Murder Ballads', and a slew of pieces from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' soundtrack for 'The Social Network'. The score is pretty amazing. It's dark, different and stands as a great piece of sonic entertainment, independent of the David Fincher film. Reznor and Ross mix delicate piano pieces with with bassic, rolling synth samples, expertly layered to give the tracks weight and depth. There is even a slight retro 16-bit gaming feel lurking in some of the tracks, such as 'Intriguing Possibilities and 'In Motion'. You will even find a rendition of Edvard Griegs 'In the Hall of the Mountain King', done with a dark, eighties, electronica feel, that Fincher cued his regatta race scene to.

It's pretty wonderful when an artist you love, like Reznor, streches his wings and does something so unexpected like this score. I've been listening to it almost obsessively lately. I would have to rate it highly among my favourite 'left of centre' film scores. It's totally original, and Reznor and Ross are even getting some very well deserved recognition from Hollywood, with a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination. I can't recommend the album enough for any fan of dark electronica.

If you want some alternative and different film scores, there are several others that step away from the typical 'orchestral' score, also created by well know artists, not normally recognized for writing film music.

There Will Be Blood - The story of an oil tycoon slowly losing his grip on sanity throughout the movie was scored by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. He captures Daniel Plainview's greed and mania with seething violins and strings. This is a score that will immediately grab your attention sounds totally unique.

Fight Club - Written and performed by the Dust Brothers, this a cool score. It thumps along with an almost electronic, dance music tempo, mixed with a dark, synth undertow. This is a score that doesn't go along with the program. It's as different and brilliant as the David Fincher film.

Into the Wild - A folksy, rootsy score, written by Pearl Jam front man, Eddie Vedder. This score is understated and fits the film perfectly. Director, Sean Penn, gave Vedder almost free reign over the soundtrack, which helps drive the story about the American wanderer, heading into the wilds of Alaska.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Multiple nerdgasm's

If there's one thing the contemporary video game industry loves, it's sequels. Franchises are a big deal these days. Publishers love 'em. That's why we look set to see a new Call of Duty game every year why Bobby Kotik still has blood pumping through his veins. That's why the most hotly anticipated PC game is Diablo III. This is why Mario is a cultural icon of our generation. We all watched the sweet, fat, stupid little Italian grow from a hand full of barely animated pixels to a fully realized polygonal character.

But there are some franchises out there that are ripe for a sequel. When you can't take another CoD campaign, what games would you like to see receive the next gen sequel treatment. There are some games that are aching for a follow up. Here are the top five that would give me multiple nerdgasms.

5. X-Wing Vs. Tie Fighter - The original X-wing vs Tie was an amazing game. It was basically a fighter sim Star Wars style. It controlled amazingly and the shield/weapons/engine power triage was really fun to manage. Throw a next gen sequel on 360, live multiplayer with a top gun leader board, maybe the ability to form persistent squadrons with your friends; how could it be anything but awesome.

4. Full Throttle - Take the classic Lucasarts dystopian future biker adventure game, pretty up the graphics (retaining the awesome cartoonish artstyle), make it an action/adventure hybrid, maybe even make it open world if you want to get really crazy. Explore the highways and byways of the Full Throttle world, upgrading your bike, fighting biker scum on the backroads, but keep a strong story component. Now that's a sequel.

3. California Games - With the current popularity of sports compilation games, on all manner of motion controlly, remote jibby jabby systems, this one is a no brainer. A cool gen-x styling, with the more extreme, totally rad sports on offer. Kinect hang gliding. Wiimote hackey-sack. Tell me this wouldn't work.

2. Thief - I loved the original Thief games. The dripping atmosphere, the dark, mysterious setting, the excellent stealth gameplay, taking out guards with the good 'ol blackjack. These games need a sequel. Make Garret a little more mobile, ala Assasins Creed, give it a dark, gripping story, and make the stealth interplay with the surrounding world and it's inhabitants complex and challenging, maybe through in a Splinter Cell Conviction style co-op campaign. What is the sum of these parts? Total gaming gold.

1. Syndicate Wars - Syndicate Wars is a special game. Take a dark, futuristic cityscape, some cybernetic hatchet-men, a truckload of ultra cool weapons (pursaudertron anyone) and throw them into a complex, squad based strategy game and you have Syndicate Wars. This game had destructible buildings ( I mean every building on the map), a totally cool Blade Runner esqe setting and some really fun missions. I think a new Syndicate game would be kind of cool in the form of a Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter style tactical squad based shooter. I think I'm about to nerdgasm.

Monday, January 17, 2011

'X' marks the spot

As the world gets smaller and smaller it starts to feel like all the secrets out there have already been found. Google Earth has well and truly filled in all the blank corners of the map. The cultural secrets of all the lost civilizations have been found. Just when it seems like the only avenues of human discovery are outward bound, extraterrestrial, someone finds something pretty amazing. Apparently 'x' never, ever marks the spot, but there are still lost treasures out there to be found.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hey whitey...

White people. Love us or hate us we're here to stay. I recently read an article about a white power group that held some kind of white power music festival somewhere in Queensland. The festival was called 'Hammered' and was run by the North Queensland chapter of the white supremacist group 'The Southern Cross Hammer Skinheads.' As much of a charming bunch that these guys sound, that, to me, was a little shocking to read. Sure; I've seen Romper Stomper and Ed Norton was great in American History X, but I sometimes forget that neo nazis are real people, living in real places. Not just overseas in Europe and America. Not just characters dreamt up by some script writer. They are real and are living all over Australia. I had kind of resigned people that scary, dangerous and small minded to other places. Anywhere but in my backyard. But yes, they are out there. Ceaselessly dedicated to hatred and intolerance. One spokesperson for the Hammer Skinheads defended the festival stating that 'black power groups have their festivals so why can't white power groups?'. The answer, as far as I'm concerned, is because of the hundreds of years of imperialism, slavery, murder and persecution perpetrated by white guys. It's hard to act all sheepish and innocent when you read a little history. White guys had a terrible modus operandi for a long time of scarring foreign cultures irreversibly. Usually cultures of people with different coloured skin. You can reason that all that was a long time ago, that it wasn't the current generation that got up to that kind if thing or that we're all really sorry, but if you ask me us whiteys have a few generations more of shutting the hell up and taking whatever the rest of the world wants to throw at us. It's just a shame that just when it seems things are getting better with the state of racial relations the world over, a group like the 'Hammer Skinheads' have to go and hold 'Hammered' and piss everybody off, anglo saxon or otherwise. Oh, and Coalition troops shooting brown people left and right in the Middle East doesn't exactly help either but let's not get into that.

There is another bone I have to pick with the current crop of white supremacists, however. During the Cronulla riots in 2005, an embarrassing blight on Australian history, I did notice that these white bogan knuckleheads had taken it upon themselves to claim the good old Southern Cross, symbol of Australian patriotism, the mark that stands next to the Union Jack on our national flag, the constellation that fills the Southern night sky, as their own banner of intolerance. The white Australian rioter's were using tattoo's of the Cross as their badge of honour while trying to club foreigners over the head with beer bottles. To me the Southern Cross has always represented Australia, Aussie patriotism and the symbol of our racially diverse country. Now the Cross has become such a mark of white intolerance that tattoo artists have been stated as saying that they have seen a massive drop off in popularity for Southern Cross tattoo's, mainly due to their association with white, beer swilling thuggery. You have to feel sorry for any honest, non-racist that got the tattoo pre 2005. I say tolerant, free thinking people need to take the symbol back as their own.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Grand Prix Continental Drift

J.R.R. Tolkein, in all his legendary literary genius, wanted to create a 'mythology' for his country, England. It was to be inspired by the classical Greek and Norse tales of old. Beowulf. The Norse Sagas. These were the templates he used for his time out of myth for Britain. Thus was born the sprawling epic mythology of Middle Earth. Middle Earth lived between myth and history and gave a cultural flavor to England's hypothetical past. One could almost believe that hobbits and orcs have their rightful place in human mythology as much as the Greek satyrs and Norse dragons.

This is all well and good. But I'm not from England. I'm from Australia. What about Australian mythology? Down here we, of course, have a native mythology. The Aboriginal 'dreamtime'. A time in myth when the world was formed by gods of the sun and rivers were carved by giant serpents. A time of bunyips and willy willys. The explanations of the world were spun by moralistic fables, used to make sense of the vast world by its native inhabitants.

But what if a writer that could approach Tolkein in talent and imagination was to create an alternative mythology for our land down under? What if, like Tolkein, a writer picked a template and used it to spin his own fantasy mythology for Australia? Enter Terry Pratchet. Undeniably one of the contemporary greats. A legendary English writer and creator of the eternally popular 'Discworld' series.

I've recently been listening to 'The Last Continent' on audiobook again. The 22nd book in the Discworld series. If there is any piece of modern literature that encapsulates Australian culture and spins it with a fantasy motif it has to be this book. If Tolkeins template for Middle Earth was ancient mythological stories, Pratchet's was 1990's Australian culture. Take that, put it on it's head, add some fantasy tropes, some hilarious characters and Pratchet's typical Discworld 'charm' and you are getting close to The Last Continent.

To boil down the plot; Rincewind the not so magical wizard, one of the original Discworld characters, finds himself on the shores of 'XXXX' or 'Four X', the titular 'last continent'. A vast, sunburnt country that never gets rain, is 40 degrees in the shade and used to be covered in deadly snakes, but the snakes were all killed by the even more deadly spiders. To quote the book on XXXX; 'It's hot. It's dry... very dry. There was this thing once called The Wet, which no one now believes in. Practically everything that's not poisonous is venomous. But it's the best bloody place in the world, all right?'. Rincewind is then thrust reluctantly on a cross country journey to save the world, meeting a cast of characters along the way that all poke fun at Aussie culture. There's a mad dwarven 'road warrior' in his armored carriage who declares that 'hay is life' out on the road. There's a group of female impersonators known as 'Petunia the Desert Princess' and Crocodile Drongo, barkeep at 'Dijabringabeeralong' pub. Along the way Rincewind, try's to run away from his destiny but instead runs towards it. He manages to invent thongs, Vegemite and is wrongfully arrested for sheep theft. Then there is a the story of the Unseen University senior wizards meeting a 'god' and teaching him about evolution. But that's another story.

The Last Continent points a loving finger at contemporary Australia, but in typical Pratchet fashion, has a depth and heart that hooks you unexpectedly. If there was ever a book that could become legend, and represent a mythology for Australia I vote for The Last Continent.

So remember the old XXXX adage; They say the heat and the flies here can drive a man insane. But you don't have to believe that, and nor does that bright mauve elephant that just cycled past.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A gaming legend...

I recently did an interview with Quest for Glory creator Corey Cole. The man is a classic PC gaming legend. I geeked out when he replied to my e-mail. I was raised on Lori and Corey Cole games. You can find the interview here.