Game of Thrones

Last week I watched the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO with H. I had been avoiding it for months because I was sure I would be disappointed. But it turned out to be a surprisingly good book adaptation. H even liked it. GoT is a long book, and they managed to fit it neatly into 10 hours.

For the most part, the writers followed Mike’s First Rule of Book Adaptations, which for the unfamiliar is simple: Don’t add anything, but cut as necessary. The reason for this is that great long books work because they are more than the sum of their parts – disrupt the pattern too much and you destroy what made the book great in the first place. Insertions hurt far more than clippings, as any book has fat to trim.

I reread the book this weekend to see exactly what additions/subtractions had been made. I approve of the bulk of the subtractions, but some of the additions are questionable.

I didn’t mind the additional sex scenes, most of which are at least suggested in the novel, but a few scenes fell flat because of their added nature. In particular, there’s one late in the season where Cersei and Robert discuss their marriage that felt both forced and useless. I can see the desire to make Cersei seem less one-dimensional, but events later in the series will do this. Ditto for Theon.

The confirmation of an affair between the Knight of Flowers and Rely worked better, providing an explicit reason for the brief scene where Rely asks Ned for help. Less impressive, I’m not sure why the confrontation between Ned and Jaime was turned into a duel. Was getting his leg crushed by a horse not heroic enough?

Other minor changes actually worked. Most of them involve Tyrion, The trial by combat that allows Tyrion to escape the Eyrie, for example, was originally two separate chapters. The series combined them into one and it worked dramatically (not to mention saving money from having to construct another lavish set for a single scene!). Also, in another clever cost-saving measure, the battle that Tyrion takes part in within the book happens off-screen, as Tyrion gets knocked cold before it even begins.This reminded me of how the destruction of Anthony’s fleet in the Rome miniseries was handled – we only see the end.

Other changes I can’t explain. The origin for Khal Drogo’s mortal wound, for example, or why Littlefinger tells Sansa the tale about the Hound’s scars rather than the Hound himself.

Some parts that I thought were particular respectful of the book were the fate of Arya’s fencing-master, the killing of Bran’s would-be assassin, and the closing scene with the dragons (though I could be nitpicky and point out that her hair didn’t burn off).

Back to the good. Casting was mostly excellent. Tyrion, Jaime, Jon Snow, Arya, Sansa, Cersei, Joffrey are spot on. The only ones that might be miscast are the actors for Ned and Cat, who are clearly older than their mid-thirties characters, but they make up for the difference in skill and gravitas as the characters act older than their age in any case. A few other characters are at liberties with appearance – Mormont’s son, for example, and possibly Tywin.

Dark Souls

Picked up Dark Souls for the PS3 over the weekend. It’s a dungeon crawl with an interesting design philosophy. Namely, after the first ‘level’, all handholding stops. The player is given absolutely zero direction on which way to proceed, what to do, how best to survive, how to defeat opponents, etc. There are no maps, no quests, no directional markers, no signs. Nothing but a multitude of paths, all with dangerous enemies, most of which can kill you very easily. All the helpful narrative technologies developed in games over the last twenty years are completely absent.

The question is this: does this make for a better game?

Skyrim might be its polar opposite: another dungeon crawl, but that game is positively stuffed with directions on how to proceed. Pick a quest from an extensive menu – you can never run out of quests in Skyrim, it seems – and you will be pointed directly where you need to go as if you had a semantic compass implanted in your skull. Having trouble even with that? Ask a helpful NPC for advice, or peruse the many shops for helpful items. You can save your game anywhere at any time, so difficulty is greatly reduced. Enemies that can kill in one blow are very few and far between.

There is room for both kind of design philosophies, of course, but I wonder how much each game is a commentary on the other. Skyrim suffers from information overload at times – it has so many things to do that sometimes I feel overwhelmed, as if I were at work with a massive do-list, and checking off an item on the list only means I get the joy of moving to yet another. Yippee. Dark Souls does succeed in focusing the attention with its harsh penalty for death and emphasis on difficulty – there is only one direction, one quest, and that is forward into the jaws of doom. Success means more as a result. But I have to say that Skyrim hasn’t made me dash my PS3 controller against the floor yet like an hour of Dark Souls did, where the usual pushovers of the dungeon crawl genre – skeletons – owned me about 14 times in a row until I realized I wasn’t meant to fight them yet.

I think both games suffer from being at polar extremes. Skyrim is too expansive and easy, and Dark Souls is too focused and difficult. Reading reviews online, they both have fanatical followers much in the same way Camero and Mustang owners think their pony car is the best. It seems to me, though,  that real greatness in gaming is the ability to appeal to the hardcore gamers as well as the casual ones (as ‘casual’ as playing Skyrim allows, of course).

Mass Effect 3, and 2 redux

As Mass Effect 3 comes out on March 6, I went looking for my Mass Effect 2 saved games last week – and I couldn’t find them. Possibly they were a casualty to a hard drive transfer. So I decided to replay ME2. My old review still stands, but I should add a few things, having my endgame saved files safely in hand again.

The first time, I was impressed by how events in ME1 were constantly referenced. On the second go-through two years later, I noticed in how many places the design of the next game is suggested or hinted.

Most notable is the epic buildup of a rift between Shepard and Cerebrus, and the temporary nature of the victories in ME1 and ME2. So I would assume in ME3 I will have to not only beat untold numbers of Reapers, but also fight xenophobic humans.

Less epically, for the soap opera fans, the inability to maintain the same love interest from the first game hints to a built-in triangle for ME3.

Encouragingly, the return of a vehicle in the DLC suggests I will never have to probe a bloody planet for minerals again (it was fun the first time, but not the other 16, 345 times), unless it is, of course, Uranus.

Speaking of DLC – a model for making money that I do not endorse or approve of – sampling what’s available for ME2 also gives various hints.

I had thought that Baldur’s Gate was the most epic ensemble  story told in PC gaming, but I sense that ME will beat it out by a good margin.

Reading, writing, gaming

I’m writing this to take a break from cleaning the house. The task took longer than I had anticipated due to the drain trap under the kitchen sink coming loose and creating a mess. Fortunately, I was right there.

Some good news – S=C is going to be published, though likely under a different title. Star and I put the call for proposals out in late 2010; it’s amazing how long it takes to get things out the door in academia, but hey, we’re getting things done.

There is a dearth of good games out right now, and my enthusiasm for Skyrim has waned. I didn’t even play it once over the break, despite specifically purchasing the PS3 version so I could do so. I did play through the re-release of Shadow of the Colossus and thought it was spectacular, maybe in my top ten despite its brevity and that damnable horse; I’m not finished with Ico yet.

I’ve been reading/re-reading through the older fiction of John Varley. The Golden Globe, Mammoth, Millennium recently. Some of it I’ve encountered before – Steel Beach, for example, I’d read years ago, but I didn’t realize at the time that it was part of a much larger fictional universe. His short stories are pretty strong and the great bulk of them have not dated much, which is always impressive. The John Varley Reader collection is excellent, and contains a lot of interesting asides about the circumstances of this or that composition, in a way that reminds me of one of Zelazny’s collections where he does the same thing, though far more briefly.