Tag Archives: Jack Black

What’s wrong with the VGAs

When Zach Braff (Scrubs) stepped on stage at the VGAs Saturday night, his face said it all. Escorted on stage by a model dressed as valkyrie warrior (or something), Braff sized up the tall vixen at his side, feigned fright, then appeared on the verge of laughter. He looked embarrassed. To begin his speech, he yelled, “Hello, fellow nerds!”

Last night as I watched the VGAs, a landslide of feelings poured across me, and like Braff, one of those feelings was embarrassment. I felt pride, happiness, and angst, too. But it’s the former emotion that raised my hackles. I was embarrassed by the very tall model having to wear those stupid get-ups. (She never spoke, but she certainly gave Braff a look.) I was embarrassed by the mention of the phrase “balls” more than a half dozen times, courtesy of Jake Gyllenhaal’s game of the year monologue and Joel McHale’s catchy little mid-show appearance. And I was angered by Hollywood’s general sense of embarrassment at appearing on the VGAs, while talented and hardworking designers and producers got on stage, unfolded their acceptance speeches, and bravely flashed their souls in front of millions of people.

Naughty Dog's Amy Hennig receives the game of the year award at the VGAs (AP).

The Video Game Awards (VGAs), the closest thing the video game industry has to Hollywood’s Oscars, still has a long way to go before it really makes sense of the videogame industry–and before it’s taken seriously by the Hollywood stars that line its runways. What I saw last night was a flashier, better produced, and certainly more star-studded show than ever before (with fewer gaffes, to be fair), but I still got the sense that, from a show about video games, video games are still very much Hollywood’s nerdy little cousin–and they still haven’t found their place on TV.

I wonder, is it possible to air a video game show without the constant flash of violence, big tits, and an endless array of explosions? The collage of images I saw Saturday night showed little intrinsic value to video games. Perhaps that’s why Braff, along with Olivia Wilde (who was thrown off her short script by calls from the audience), didn’t take it seriously. If there is anything genuine, human, and real about the video game industry, is there is any art, innovation, or brilliance, it wasn’t shown at the VGAs.

There were sparks of human emotion, and these were the few moments where I felt the show succeeded. It’s great, truly great, that Flower won the Best Independent Videogame Award and that Chair Studio won Best Downloadable Game. These weren’t even categories a few years ago. One of the most genuine acceptance speeches I saw all night was from the Flower team, where they briefly explained the absurdity of pitching a game about emotions and blossoming to Sony, and ended by asking all of the millions of laid off game makers to join them in indie development.

Naughty Dog creative director Amy Hennig gave a heartfelt acceptance speech, and because I have spent many hours talking with Amy about games, I could tell she delivered a genuine heartfelt speech that didn’t fit any mold or formula. I am so happy for her and her team. They fully deserve all the recognition they get.

It was great to see the Assassin’s Creed II team receive their award for best action-adventure game. The Ubisoft Montreal team spoke in both English and in French on stage, didn’t ham it up and, for anyone paying attention to the shift in talent traveling to Canada, represent some of our Northern neighbor’s growing top talent.

Perhaps the biggest win of the night was the best studio award. The guys from Rocksteady, basically an unknown English studio whose claim to fame was the totally ignored Urban Chaos: Riot Response, were grateful, excited, and earnest. Their success story is just fantastic, and their game, Batman: Arkham Asylum, is equally fantastic. It perfectly balances high production values and smart writing that shows the writers really get the Batman character and the universe, and an excellent balance of stealth, action, and adventure. Every comic book videogame from now on will have to reach as high as Batman Arkham Asylum from here on out.

When I think of the Oscars, I often remember the collages of movies and actors who have been a part of the industry’s success; the retrospectives about people who made a difference. When the great directors, actors, writers, and special effects technicians who excel at their craft are recognized and rewarded for their achievements, it puts in perspective what the industry has achieved in the past in comparison to the achievements its awarding today. When I saw the VGAs Saturday night, I saw a show that gave no recognition to its past, that gave no award to its founders, that didn’t seem to have a past or a future, just a right-here, right-now orgasm of action, flashing lights and…the Bravery. Yes, I too like action, flashing lights, and a little Snoop Dog in my cultural diet, but when I eat a meal, I don’t just eat steak by itself.

What’s perhaps equally disturbing is that all night I listened to invisible “professional announcers” guide me through the show. There was no guide, no host, no person, who represented the world of videogames to hold my hand, make me laugh, show me the history of the industry, and again, put the awards, and the industry, in perspective. What does it mean to win best shooter of the year? Who won last year? Are their any journalists out there who could be interviewed to put the games in perspective? One easy solution is to have the previous year’s winner present the current year’s award, informing the audience and passing the torch in a way that means something.

There is a reason no real host was called upon last night. That person doesn’t exist. For starters, actors regularly fail at representing the industry because it’s clear they get paid lots of money to act in films, and that they appear on videogame shows for charity or because of a contract agreement (with notable exceptions like Vin Diesel). Second, there is no charming gamer nerd with the savvy to get up on stage and ride the fence between games and film/TV with moxie, perspective, and charm. From the game industry, the closest anyone has come to nailing that perfect blend are Tim Schafer, Will Wright, Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski, and Ken Levine. I am sure there are other talented game creators and personalities around who could pull it off.

Perhaps the show could hire better, funnier writers, too. The joke Tony Hawk told about action adventure games created a dreaded void of discomfort afterward. Almost every actor who took the stage was given sub-par lines, and the Tiger Woods jokes were just plain terrible. Stevie Wonder’s appearance was smart and his challenge to developers to create games for the blind and handicapped will be remembered as a highlight of the show. Jack Black’s entertaining skit for mistaking his best game of the year acceptance speech was pure Jack Black–silly, ballsy, and fun. But in all, instead of being helmed by a person, the host-less VGAs were peppered with Hollywood actors who looked out of place, embarrassed, and itching to get off that stage.

In the end, the VGAs represent the video game industry’s struggle for acceptance in the mainstream world in just the same way movies and TV are accepted. The truth is, the video game industry isn’t the same as the movie industry–though with shows like the VGAs, it’s clear the desire to be like Hollywood still burns brightly. And while I understand last night’s show was fully sponsored by Mountain Dew (the night’s biggest message), and it has to make money and attract an audience, the game industry needs better representation than last night’s show. It needs smarter, funnier video game people and less Mike Tyson. It needs fewer embarrassed actors and more genuine ones. It needs better writing that doesn’t rely on mentioning testicles over and over again to show that the industry actually has balls, and it needs to show its rich heritage, interesting origins, and the stories and characters that made it what it is today. And I don’t mean just trotting out Nolan Bushnell again and again (although he is great in his own way), but getting Shigeru Miyamoto out there to give us a sense of where we started and have come. Putting Will Wright out there to share with us his rocket scientist vision of the future of games. Hauling out Jordan Mechner to put the upcoming Prince of Persia movie in perspective–and not just his happiness at its acknowledgement. What about getting Ken Levine on stage to show us his quirky brilliance? Or having David Jaffe up there? That man’s blog is a world of entertainment.

With a better mixture of video game talent, more relevant Hollywood talent (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jack Black = good; Tyson, Jersey Shore = bad), a perspective, and a smart host, the VGAs could really be something worthy of the industry it represents. As it is, the VGAs are just a sideshow in Hollywood’s ongoing carnival.

Check this story for the show’s full list of winners (a lot of news stories out there show incomplete lists).

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Brutal Legend’s Eddie Riggs Gets Demonic

Eddie in hie new form, Ophelia, Mangus, and Lars (you know that's Robert Plant).

Eddie in his new form, Ophelia, Mangus, and Lars.

Every time I see Brutal Legend demoed, and it’s three times now, Double Fine Studios reveals something far more interesting and surprising than I expected.

The assumption I am making, of course, is that Tim Schafer makes really funny, well-written, and entertaining games, but that as games, the mechanics and technology behind them aren’t always on par with the high level of hilarity, premise, or dialogue. I still haven’t played Brutal Legend yet, but not only is the concept extremely creative, and the dialogue funny, but each new demo I attend reveals new gameplay elements, like massive army battles, new gameplay elements, and surprising twists.

The Roadie from Hell

The first twist is that yes, the wild, big-fisted, square-jawed Jack Black dude turns into a bat from hell. Just look at him.

His transformation isn’t sexual or mystical or spiritual, like Raziel from Legacy of Kain’s Soul Reaver. No, during a scene that introduces the battle of the bands on a huge grassy meadow where Eddie is organizing troops, he suddenly falls in his knees in pain. “Ohhhh, my back,” he says. Ophelia looks at him and asks what’s wrong. Nonchalantly, he simply gets up and says “It’s nothing,” as if that always happens. That’s a little foreshadowing, of course.

Quite quickly, we learn it’s not just a backache. Deeper into the battle of the bands scene, Eddie falls down again, but this time he won’t just brush off the pain. Instead, he transforms. Dark purple-black bat-like wings sprout from his back, his skin deepens in color, and his eyes turn yellow. Eddie responds as if he’d always kinda wanted wings. “Cool! I’ve got wings! But don’t worry about it darling,” he says again to Ophelia. “I’m still the same me!”

And they say looks are deceiving.

My guess is that Eddie is the reincarnation of one of the Metal Gods brought back to life to save the Land of Metal, and he just doesn’t know it. Just a wild speculation, of course; but after having seen a jillion movies and played a more jillion games, I’m guessing this isn’t his last transformation.

Eddie wields the Separator to cleave his enemies.

Eddie wields the Separator to cleave his enemies.

Staging the Battle of the Bands

Following my earlier preview (on GameDaily), in which I detailed Eddie Riggs’ fighting techniques and the game’s combat moves, this preview explores how Schafer’s latest demo opens up into massive real-time strategy battles.

Once Eddie has freed the head bangers from the mines, and Ophelia has freed all the chicks (you were wondering where, in the Era of Metal, all the chicks were, right?) from the evil Pleasure Tower, he, rebel leader Lars, Ophelia, and Lars’ sister form a big enough resistance to confront Emperor Doviculous in the first of several massive land battles.

They recruit all sorts of strangers, such as Mangus, a stoner stage technician who helps build a heavy metal-themed stage, and form a battle plan. In the giant meadow Eddie sizes up his army of Head Bangers (short-range fighters) and Runaways (long-distance fighter “chicks”), and creates an assortment or weapons to further explore the “metal as power” metaphor. Remember Eddie’s hot rod, the Deuce? Eddie builds a massive hot rod–a tour bus–to help wage his war.

Behold--it's a fan geyser.

Behold--it's a fan geyser.

Then he looks out across the meadow and notices it’s peppered with dried up geysers. I believe that in order to activate these geysers, Eddie must play a guitar solo, which plays like the simplified Guitar Hero mechanic on screen, to summon the power of “the fans.”

The fans, in this case, are a tappable raw power, sort of like ore, wood, or coal in an RTS game. Once summoned, the lifeless meadow’s geysers burst with the ghostly white flow of “the fans.” Without missing a cue, Schafer then points out how building “merch” (merchandizing) booths will keep the fans happy and flowing.

Battle for BladeHenge and the Blowjob Leeches

Once you’ve organized your Headbangers, Runaways, and built your Thunderhogs and Tour Buses, and outrageous stage, summoned “the fans,” sprouted wings and learned to fly, you are ready to fight General LionWhyte and his army of equally bad-ass dudes.

General LionWhyte is the evil...super lame '80s hairband guy. Wait 'til you hear his voice.

General LionWhyte is the evil...super lame '80s hairband guy. Wait 'til you hear his voice.

Eddie and the headbangers cause a ruckus.

Eddie and the headbangers cause a ruckus.

Like it or not in our society, the color black usually represents evil and white stands for good. But that’s not the case in Brutal Legend. Black is the color of metal, after all. So when the evil General LionWhyte shows up to confront the resistance, he isn’t an evil, black, demonic looking dude at all. He’s an ’80s hair-band leader, decked out in white skin-tight leotards with black dots, and has the biggest most heinous hair you’ve ever seen. His hair isn’t just a prop, mind you. His hair is his means of flight. I cannot convey how utterly silly and likable this scene is, but let me just say, his voice and manner equally match the ridiculousness of his hair. His followers, you’ll also notice, are equally flamboyant, a not-so-subtle jab at ’80s hair bands.

When the fight begins, you realize why Eddie’s wings are important. With the ability to fly, he can quickly transport across the battlefield to counter attacks, wipe out losing fights, or take on Doviculous. In conjunction with flight, the first three Dpad commands (left to follow, down to hold, up to attack a specific object) are followed by the fourth one, right, which sets a beacon, calling all forces to swarm to it.

How else can one stop the fans? Fan Leeches, of course.

How else can one stop the fans? Fan Leeches, of course.

You’ll command your forces to various areas on the map, fight enemies with your axe and guitar, fly around and be a bad-ass, and finally, counter Lionwhyte’s overtly, hilariously, hard-to-ignore sex, erm… fan leeches. Yes, it’s hard to turn away from the male-female mechanics here, so let’s just call it what it is: a Blowjob Leech. Remember the flowing fans gushing forth from the geysers? Well, Lionwhyte has a counter enemy, giant flying leeches which look, yes, like giant leeches. These creatures have a massive mouth, wings, and fly vertically. Their only purpose, it seems, is to suck the white flowing fan fluid out of the geysers. And, just like black is not evil in Brutal Legend, it’s your job to prevent these leeches from doing their “jobs.” Otherwise, the fans will dry up!  Dear lord, how much fun is Schafer having with this game?

During the fight, when you’re not busy looking for the flood of metal and sexual metaphors, you’re fighting the good resistance battle. Being your first big battle, you’ll have the ability to direct your army types, or all of them together, call upon Mangus to fuel more merch power or whatever, and use your guitar to pull off crazy magic attacks. Eddie’s solos summon the Face Melter attack, the Make the Sun Rise attack, and the Chains Come Off attack. Each one is summoned with little Guitar Hero-like mini-games (which appear on screen horizontally like a little musical chart). Additionally, you can use your troops to fight in various ways, such as forming a “mosh pit” around you for protection.

This all appears in what looks to be the first hour or two of the game!

I still haven’t played this game yet, so I cannot describe the exact mechanics, but I will say that from what I have seen, my early assumption could be off base. If the game is as much fun to play as it is to watch, Brutal Legend surely will be a fantastic new game in Schafer’s growing repertoire.

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GDC 09 Art: The Brutal Art of a Legend

At GDC 09, Lee Petty, the art director for Brutal Legend, gave an inspired, energetic talk on how the art of his team is grappling with the creation of art in Double Fine’s upcoming metal-powered game, Brutal Legend.

Brutal Legend is an action-adventure game combining massive open-world conflicts with a strange blend of musical actions, and of all things, driving gameplay. Players step into the shoes of a Jack Black-voice-over character, complete with belly, sideburns, and oogly eyes, and confront the visually arresting, organic world of metal. In truth, the lead character looks like a blend between Jack Black and Tim Schafer.

I captured a few shots from Petty’s slideshow presentation from the conference to show what some of the art looks like.

What I especially like about this conference was how rowdy, supportive, and enthusiastic this crowd was for Petty’s presentation. The entire presentation was interrupted with hoots and screams from the filled-to-capacity room. After having attended this meeting, it’s clear to me that the attending game developers see Tim Schaefer and his team at Double Fine as heroes of independent development.

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