At this writing, the current page and some of the previous pages of The Warstar Gambit storyline have discussed conflicting ideologies (Evolution and the idea the universe is billions of years old vs. Creationism and the idea that it may be only about 6,000 years old). While I intend to keep such sections brief (more on that regarding a reader’s concerns in a moment) in the interest of not becoming “preachy”, such topics and conflicts we see in the real world will indeed be woven throughout the entire saga. Tomes of Atlantis has come to the point that it is beginning to establish its identity beyond merely an attempt to do a military sci-fi adventure.
I fell in love with storytelling in third grade via Creative Writing exercises that my teacher had the class do every Friday. Being a child of the 1970s and 80s, I had the privilege of growing up with shows like Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation, G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero, Transformers, The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider, and Airwolf. I remember the awe I felt seeing Star Wars in the theater, and how I was blown away by a Reader’s Digest article written shortly after The Empire Strikes Back was released that said all of those iconic characters, vehicles, and locations came from the mind of a single man: George Lucas. While I readily admit that some of the aforementioned shows have aged better than others, it was nevertheless an awesome time to grow up, and my imagination was influenced heavily by the countless hours I spent watching them in front of our bulky, wooden-framed television. By the time I’d reached high school I had ambitions to do my own epic saga, and I spent more time than I’d like to admit in classes drawing conceptual art for The Star Hunters, which over the course of time would become Tomes of Atlantis.
During college I was presented with the first brutally honest critiques I’d encountered to my writing. While I initially bristled at the criticisms, I had to step back and realize that at the time my characters had faces but no souls, no real personalities beyond the odd regional accent here or there. They were cardboard cut-outs and stereotypes whose inspirations were clear, but they had no identity of their own, no motivations for why they did what they did. Why was one side in the Atlantis/Zentonia conflict “good” or “evil”, and what could possibly cause them to wage a war that has lasted millennia? I wrestled with such questions for a long time before I found my answer: I needed to draw from my own experiences and convictions, and I hit upon the idea of intertwining my story with real world history and topics. Religion and ideology would be key to the overall theme, but not in the sense of a vague spirituality that is commonly depicted in sci-fi. Instead there would be real-world beliefs and topics discussed; they will no doubt ignite some controversy from time to time, but that’s the price for daring to transcend mere allegory.
Developing my characters was at once painful yet immensely rewarding. In my idealism and naivete when I had initially begun drawing up my main characters, I wanted all the “good guys” to be Christians, to think and act alike. I loved every one of them, and though this may sound weird for talking about fictional characters, I had a really hard time accepting the fact that to reflect the way things really are, I had to make most of them lost. But after I took that step and I began to write the story, I found that giving them a voice of their own that was contrary to mine and that asked questions that real people would ask not only created tons of interpersonal conflict and storyline opportunities, but it made me care about them even more. I have friends and family who are not yet saved, yet I love and care about them nevertheless, and realizing that dynamic helped me to render all of my characters, even the most argumentative and agnostic ones, in a sympathetic light.
A reader recently told me that the discussion between zookeeper Jan Peller and the four Star Hunters on Page 117 made it appear as if they all became instant converts to Creationism and that George was made to “look stupid” by not being able to answer Jan’s “smoking gun” question regarding duplicating the supposed origins of life. By the current post (Page 121) Jack Surhoff has made it obvious that’s not the case; they don’t have answers for everything they’re seeing, but they’re far from prepared to accept the idea of a Creator. Nevertheless I felt it necessary to address the reader’s concerns regarding the Jan Peller/George Eaton exchange. George is anything but stupid; he’s an ex-US Navy S.E.A.L. and knows several languages. The same goes for the rest of the men, especially Jack, who sees the world through a pragmatic lens that’s dependent on observable data.
The reason the conversation is so brief was one of necessity, not because I only wanted Jan’s voice to be heard. Originally I had MANY pages of passionate debate happening, but I quickly realized that not only was it highly impractical for a comic (and admittedly the story’s pace has been slow for awhile anyway as the team tours Atlantis for the first time), but that if I lingered too long there it would turn off readers. People want to read an entertaining, engaging story, and it’s okay if it occasionally gives them something to think about, but being preached to is an entirely different matter. So I wrote a brief exchange, posed a couple of difficult-to-answer questions, and moved on in a single (still wordy) page. It wasn’t until the reader responded that it even occurred to me that I could have balanced the dialogue better, and for that I apologize. Much like the story itself, I’m a work-in-progress as a writer.
In the coming pages The Warstar Gambit is going to take some significant turns. The initial awe and sense of wonder will wear off and most of the newly formed Star Hunters will begin to consider the meaning of living in a society where suddenly it’s their own views that are the minority. Not only will some of them be less than pleased with the idea; there are going to be lots of interpersonal conflicts and outright suspicion between them and toward their hosts. Certain events will soon occur which will test the team’s very cohesiveness. Some of these conflicts may take many storylines to resolve, if they ever are at all; just as in real life, we typically tend to leave a lot of loose ends.
Look at any major science fiction saga and you will see the imprint of its creator(s), particularly their worldview. Gene Roddenberry pioneered such storytelling methods by way of using Star Trek’s episodes as (sometimes blatant, as in all the “Earth-like planets” depicted in the TOS series) allegories for topics of interest. Beyond the crews, the ships and technology, and the galaxy full of new life and new civilizations, the guiding theme was one of mankind’s ability to overcome our current problems and create a borderline utopian society. That theme, perhaps more than Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, or the U.S.S. Enterprise, is why the franchise still has legions of devoted fans long after his death. While I don’t share many of those views (Mr. Roddenberry was an agnostic if I recall correctly), I am able to enjoy and appreciate Star Trek for its many merits, and I learned a lot from his example. Tomes of Atlantis will obviously be guided by my own worldview, which is Christian. I understand that most of the world today doesn’t share my faith and indeed some are outspoken opponents of it, but I have to be true to my story’s vision as well as to who I am (a follower of Jesus Christ); however my hope is that you the reader, regardless of where you stand regarding worldview or faith, will be able to find this comic worth reading and perhaps a refreshing departure from mainstream secular ideologies found throughout most science fiction. But I will do my best to keep its underlying themes primarily in the background most of the time. Occasionally, just as in real life, there will be less subtle dialogue, but I will be keeping such exchanges generally brief so the story can keep moving forward.
Thanks very much for your continued readership and for your patience with me as I continue developing as a writer and artist. Speaking of which, come May you will begin seeing some changes in the way my human characters are drawn. This is in response to some kind constructive criticism I received from peers in the Webcomics.com community. The new style will have a more animated/cell appearance and uses fewer lines to accomplish its goals. Be sure to keep an eye out for it!
It seems that every time there is a mass shooting or excessively violent or disturbing act in the news, the gaming industry and the media outlets dedicated to them brace for the inevitable speculations that try to tie such acts to videogames, violent films, and guns. And let’s face it, the news in recent months and years has been so rife with high body counts, including those of children, that one has to begin to ask what exactly the source of the problem is. Have we literally abandoned respect for other human beings and their lives?
As inevitable as those assertions that violent media promotes violence are the rebuttals and dismissals from the gaming industry, the videogame journalists, and the folks who play said games. They get up in arms to defend the hobby and whatever form of “expression” a particular game might voice. The same goes for the NRA, who are quick to try to attempt to draw fire away from assault weapons and point at violent media. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY wants to even begin to admit that their passion might just possibly have the least bit of something to do with the issue at hand. It’s always the “other group’s fault”.
Now consider that less than a month removed from the Newton, Connecticut school shooting that left 27 people, mostly small children, dead and after their most recent finger-pointing at the videogame industry as a scapegoat, the NRA has announced a mobile videogame, NRA Practice Range. It’s free and appears to involve shooting skeets as well as tips on gun safety, but both the timing as well as the motive have been questioned.
Please let me state right here and now that I am a strong proponent of the 2nd Amendment and I believe American citizens should continue to have the right to bear arms. But I also believe that any right carries with it a burden of responsibility, and though I know many folks collect them solely for the pleasure of collecting, I personally feel that assault weapons have but one real, express purpose–to kill other human beings–and we really should heavily consider whether this category of weapons should remain under that protection. Far too many individuals have already abused it to the detriment and often death of others.
Let’s look at an example from the videogame industry, one which as of this writing the videogame publisher in question, Deep Silver, has issued a public apology for; it seems the public outcry even from the gaming community told them this particular promotion was a VERY bad idea. Here is the promo image for the UK Special Edition version of ”Dead Island: Riptide”.
When the videogame industry’s marketing departments think it’s a good idea to use things like this and then cry foul whenever someone calls certain games a possible bad influence or link to violence, I don’t think they’re exactly helping their credibility. Just look at this thing; yes, I know it’s an extreme example even in a FPS-dominated console generation, but even gamers who normally defend violent games seem to be in agreement that it’s offensive.
Now ask yourself who exactly would want such a display and why. The “why” is the most important factor, and it’s revealing about human nature. Somebody at this company thinks there are people out there who WILL want this thing, so they’re willing to put such a grotesque, morbid promo item front and center while simultaneously having the transparent duplicity to paste on a “warning” sticker that this product “might be offensive”. Personally I think that if a disembodied, bloody female torso didn’t get that message across then you weren’t going to care anyway, right? Utter hypocrisy.
Here’s the deal: companies are in business to make money, and they frankly don’t care how they come by it as long as people pay. Our culture has become a landfill where anything goes and everyone wants zero accountability for contributing to a toxic, ever-increasingly unsafe and “me first” society. Guns, videogames, violent movies…they’re mere symptoms of a bigger problem, one that mankind doesn’t want to confront about ourselves: we actually LIKE and DESIRE violence as entertainment, and as long as it never goes beyond entertainment we feel that it’s okay. We have a handle on it. At least we have a better handle on it than the Columbine shooters. And the Virginia Tech gunman. And the Aurora gunman. And Adam Lanza. And all these other psychos that are popping out of the woodwork at a rate our society has never, ever seen. Go ahead and look at newspapers from 30-plus years ago; there was violence then but this has come to a whole ‘nother level.
Most people who play videogames, even violent ones, will never murder anyone; the same goes for gun collectors and fans of R-rated movies. But the more we see certain ideas and images, the more “normalized” they get from a psychological perspective, and we get desensitized to it all. The problem is that we’re so desensitized that we don’t bother to see the wrong in them anymore, “as long as I can handle it”, even as the body count undeniably rises from individuals who obviously COULDN’T handle it. In closing please let me submit a question: if hypothetically making games and other entertainment less violence-centric would help to stem the real-life violence and overall nasty culture we see around us every day, would you consider it a worthwhile sacrifice? The answer is important, but even moreso is the “why”. It may just be that what we want to hold onto in the name of “freedom” actually has a hold on US.
Hi again, everyone. I hope you had a safe and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’s.
I wanted to clarify what’s been going on over the past few weeks, as I’m aware that there has indeed been some interest in the Weekly Videogaming Blog features. As you know, those posts have fallen off recently and it’s been awhile since I posted the last one. The reason is that I have been very busy doing my best to re-establish the emphasis on what gives this site its core identity: the comic. I do intend to post future videogame industry-related features as time goes on and enjoy doing them, but rather than being weekly, for the time being, I’ll put them up as I have the opportunity.
Over the past several weeks I have poured myself into making and scheduling new upcoming comic posts and Reference Pages. Last summer after I had been trying to keep a 3 updates-per-week pace for several months, I confess that I got burned out and had to cut back to a single comic per week. But I knew that a once-per-week pace, even with the heavy demands of a longform comic, would only add up to 52 updates per year and frankly would be insufficient to tell my stories in a reasonable amount of time. I also noticed a drop-off in readership for awhile after the cut-back, and I realized why: readers wondered if like so many start-up webcomics whether I was truly taking my work seriously and would finish what I started. Sure, one comic post per week enabled me to do additional stuff like the Weekly Videogame features, but at the expense of what this site has always been about: Tomes of Atlantis, its stories, its characters, and its readership. Ironically, I’d tried to attract new readers via the same method I had vehemently criticized the videogame industry for: I was trying to lure new readers in with material that essentially had nothing to do with my comic just as the gaming industry has been diversifying its marketing into non-game related stuff. The core of the matter was identity, and I realized that despite attracting new readers I was in danger of undermining Tomes of Atlantis’ identity and purpose.
Now, please let me be absolutely clear that EVERYONE who’s taken the time to visit this site is more than welcome and I’m delighted and honored to have you. And I sincerely hope you find reason to stay whatever your core interest. As I said earlier, I still plan to do more videogame-related posts when I can, but I have re-committed myself to this comic and to making the site the best it can be.
To that end, beginning the first week of April Tomes of Atlantis will be updating TWICE PER WEEK, on Mondays and Fridays! Twice the story, twice the adventure, twice the Tomes, each and every week. It hasn’t been easy rebuilding my buffer to the point where I felt confident I could do this, but I believe it will prove more than worth it.
Thanks for your readership and for your patience and understanding as I continue to strive to make this site one you’ll want to keep coming back to!
As another New Year dawns and we look ahead to its myriad possibilities, I figured that this installment of the weekly blog would be appropriate to gage where videogames stand currently as a hobby, what I’m personally looking forward to, and the directions things seem to be headed (at least for now).
WHERE WE ARE NOW
2012 was a year of distinct shifts in the nature and frequency of my gaming purchases as well as where I made them. At this writing the Wii U has already launched and the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 are presumed to be entering the final stretch of their time as their respective companies’ primary consoles. And yet as a hobbyist who’s poured more money into gaming than I’d care to admit and played countless thousands of hours across just about every platform since the Atari 2600, something just never seemed quite RIGHT about the way this generation was handled. Part of the problem was the de-emphasizing of games exclusively by console makers as they tried to use online capabilities (which only reached their full potential this console generation) to promote non-game related partnerships with the likes of YouTube, NetFlix, Amazon, Vudu, Hulu, and many more streaming services and apps. All of this was intended to make their console the “do everything” hub of our living rooms, and yet the more apps they added, the more they actually began to resemble each other, PCs, and another up and coming competitor, smartphones and mobile devices. By not sticking exclusively to games the console makers placed themselves in treacherous and highly competitive territory.
This past generation also certainly wasn’t kind to anything that wasn’t considered a “AAA” title (typically first-person shooters, sports titles, and third-person action games). Excellent games like Valkyria Chronicles were poorly marketed in favor of mediocre (but comparatively “safe”) mainstream titles, resulting in dismal sales numbers that effectively doomed any hope of future installments despite very enthusiastic word of mouth and high review scores. By the third or fourth year of this generation at the retail level, real-time and turn-based Strategy were both practically nonexistent (the last major RTS was Ubisoft’s R.U.S.E. in 2010), as were Schmups, Puzzlers, and old-school menu-based JRPGs. Longtime beloved series such as Final Fantasy and Resident Evil lost a huge amount of fan support and respect as their Japanese publishers attempted to appeal to Western tastes, namely throwing aside their established mechanics and storytelling narrative in favor of big-budget, non-interactive cutscenes and linear, button-mashing gameplay. It wasn’t that uncommon to see a studio work their butts off to produce an awesome game, as Ensemble did with Halo Wars, only to have their doors closed immediately afterwards. With only three or four genres dominating the gaming landscape there was lots of copying and even blatant plagiarism (example: the “God of War III Vs. Dante’s Inferno” debacle), and the immense pressure to rise to the top of an impossibly competitive marketplace killed a bunch of publishers, most recently THQ. The disparity between the huge devs such as EA nad Activision and smaller ones such as XSeed was made apparent by “Big Box” store chains like Wal-Mart not bothering to carry the games made by the latter.
And then there was the reality that dawned on gamers everywhere that online capability was in fact a Trojan Horse deliberately incorporated to make the games we play more expensive to buy and enjoy. Online Passes gained overnight popularity with publishers and utter disdain from gamers, as if you bought a used title that required an online pass you can’t even access any of its online features or multiplayer without paying an additional fee. Another industry “dirty word” was “Day One DLC”; while at first the idea of having the lasting power of a game extended via downloadable content (even if it required additional purchases) was very welcomed by gamers, things changed when people began to see that a lot of so-called “DLC” was already on the disc they’d just paid $60 or so at the store. In other words, they had to pay extra to unlock the use of something they’d already paid a lot of money to purchase. And as the next generation approaches, Microsoft and Sony have both indicated that they are going to “eliminate used games completely” via digital ditribution. While this is obviously to maximize the profits that publishers get from each game, it also means that from here on gamers will no longer really have any “ownership” of what they pay for any longer than a publisher supports it; the consumer will be left at the mercy (or lack thereof) of the videogame company. It will also spell the end of brick and mortar stores like GameStop and their thousands of employees unless they can find some means to adapt, which is frankly doubtful.
If all of this sounds “doom and gloom-ish”, it’s because personally speaking I have never seen a console generation with such astounding potential be undone by what amounts to corporate greed and a grossly short-term business philosophy. True, the Wii made a killing and attracted legions of new “casual gamers” by introducing motion controls (which have since been copied by both Sony and Microsoft), but the Wii U faces a very uncertain future. Longtime gamers have found motion controls to be very limited with regard to the types of games that benefit from them, and will the Wii U’s second screen controller be enough to woo those “casual” gamers back? Perhaps, but if I had to bet I’d say “No”. As of this writing the Wii U is the first new console I didn’t buy on Day One since the Sega Genesis, and I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get one. The same goes for Sony’s upcoming console and especially Microsoft’s; there’s simply very little left that appeals to me anymore among what’s being hyped annually at E3. And aside from “Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed” which I got in October, I haven’t purchased a new retail console game since Zelda: Skyward Sword in December 2011 with Christmas gift cards.
Time will tell whether the current state of console gaming will get any better or not, but 2012 saw me turning to digital games on PSN (which offered gems like Rainbow Moon, Vandal Hearts 2, and many other games that sadly wouldn’t have a chance to be placed on retail shelves right now) and even moreso to my PC and its ever-growing offering of awesome (and comparatively less expensive) games on services like Steam, Origin, and DRM-free sites like GOG.com. This trend looks to continue as I currently see more titles on the way for PC that I want to play, such as SimCity and the new Total War: Rome. That’s not to say that consoles no longer have any potential; Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for PS3 looks like a sensational JRPG, and I and many others still hold out hope for a local release of Daisenryaku Perfect HD once the game has released in Japan.
The initial sales reports for the Wii U will be something the entire industry pays attention to. Among the latest generation of gaming devices, the 3DS initially performed poorly but has since recovered nicely (especially in Japan) but so far the PlayStation Vita has been a disaster. If the Wii U also performs poorly sales-wise (at least as opposed as to what was projected), then it will have a ripple effect on the whole industry, including Sony and Microsoft’s upcoming console plans. I believe the landscape of the hobby and the industry is and will continue to change, and for now at least many of those changes could prove painful if not devastating. But there is also the possibility (and hope) that more developers will begin to once again consider the formula and the gamers who helped give them their previous success, and that they’ll return to them. Only time will tell.
In 2009 Ensemble Studios, the makers of the Age of Empires series, released a game for the Xbox 360 that was highly anticipated and yet was a risky departure for one of Microsoft’s core console franchises: Halo. Already a mega-popular sci-fi FPS series, Halo had established itself as a sales juggernaut with each new release. So when the awesome announcement trailer for Halo Wars debuted at E3 2008, fans were stoked but also somewhat skeptical. Could a tactical RTS really translate well from a first-person, individually-centered game?
Thankfully the result was a resounding “YES”. Ensemble crafted a game that not only brought both familiar and new units to the mix, but captured the ambience of the Halo universe itself and contributed in its own way to the canon. Set during the early years of the conflict with the Covenant before the original Halo games, there were several planets each with their own distinct climate and appearance. Everything felt genuinely new, but from the radio chatter to the weapons fire to the Elites’ guttural battle cries, it was Halo through and through.
While Halo Wars offered a Campaign Mode, the place where I spent the most time was Skirmish Mode. Here you could set up battles for anywhere from 2 to 6 players with any combination of human and AI opponents, and the game could be played online or locally via LAN. One on One skirmishes were intense, but the 3 vs. 3 battles really brought a sense of epicness. Those fortunate enough to have capable human friends to ally with could focus on building specific units that complemented each other to dominate a battlefield.
Little touches like the jumping ability and loose handling of the iconic Warthog helped make Halo fans feel at home.
Halo Wars sold over 1 million units, which makes it one of (if not the) best-selling console RTS games ever made. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save Ensemble from being one of the studios cut by Microsoft that same year. Since then there have been no announcements and very little speculation regarding any further entries for the franchise.