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Posts tagged “cyberpunk

Flash Fiction: When I Change Your Mind

Chuck’s Random Song Challenge had me shuffle my music, and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “When I Change Your Mind” came up first. I decided to try my hand at some Netrunner fiction while smacking this challenge around. Please enjoy!


When he wheeled himself over to his rig and pulled out the lead, he questioned again if he had a legitimate shot at changing things. The world was big, and getting bigger. The Corps were getting their tendrils into more and more aspects of daily life, and the masses were buying into the fiction that everything was awesome more and more every day. Runners, like him, were definitely in the minority, and everybody ran for different reasons. Anarchs ran to tear down the system, and Criminals ran to make money. Shapers, like him, ran because they could.

In his case, he ran because he had to. He had a mind to change.

Seamus (or as he called himself in Runner circles, ‘R0bR0y’) gently prodded his scalp with his fingers, the lead in his hand. The access port was down near the base of his skull, the terminal of the spinal drive that interfaced with his nervous system. The bank of towers and monitor systems in front of him would, theoretically, protect him from any Corp backlash from his run. It was theory, at this point, because like most Shapers, he’d built the thing himself. So for all he knew, the moment he jacked in, it would fry the rest of his body, leaving it as limp and useless as his legs.

He slipped the lead into the port. He leaned back into his wheelchair and closed his eyes. Sirens sounded far away in the city, and closer, he heard throbbing beats of music, the clatter of pans as someone frantically made dinner, shouting, laughter, cursing, lovemaking. He held on to that memory of the real, the tangible, the living. Then, Seamus flicked the old-fashioned toggle switch in the center of the rig.

His senses immediately were overwhelmed by an ocean of static. Like the rising tide, the data pulled him under. For a long, timeless moment, he was spinning away from everything, his mind lost in the bits, absorbed into the ones and zeros until Seamus ceased being his own individual self and he was one with the vast expanse of untamed information.

And then, R0bR0y rezzed on the outskirts of the local Haas-Bioroid branch and their monolithic servers.

Each rose like a featureless black titan against the backdrop of sickly green cascades of numbers. Their surfaces reflected the data, encased in layers of thick, slippery Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics – the famous ICE Corps used to protect their servers. Walking on the legs his avatar had rezzed, R0bR0y moved from server to server, peering at their ID tags. The remote servers were mostly obscure, but a tip he’d brought with him told him the one in the center contained current cybernetic trial records. He took a deep breath (unnecessary here but old habits die hard), dropped into the stance of an Olympic sprinter, and bolted towards the server.

The initial layer cracked and shattered the moment he hit it. It was like the layer of frozen water on top of a deep snowbank. The sound raised the alarm. The first real ICE R0bR0y encountered took shape before him. A faceless thing, its limbs too long to truly be considered human, weapons sprouting from its forearms and shoulders. The label on its chest read “VIKTOR.”

R0bR0y reached behind him, to where a highlander would wear his scabbard. The blade came into his hands, glowing white-hot, bits dripping from its edge. Despite its appearance as a sentry, this ICE was a code gate, awaiting the proper passcode to disable its damaging subroutines. Instead of trying those infinite combinations, though, the Runner gave a howling battle-cry and charged. The blade, dubbed ‘Gordian’ by its creators, seared through the body of the bioroid before it could take proper aim. It collapsed into a bloodless pile of broken bits, and R0bR0y charged forward.

Out of the darkness of the next layer came a figure in a long coat, adjusting its hunter’s cap and lighting a pipe. It looked up at R0bR0y with a curious expression.

“Now, who are you and what business do you have here, I wonder? Oh, don’t bother speaking, I can deduce the answers soon enough.”

Despite his digital nature, R0bR0y felt nauseous, and he tasted peanut butter. A trace! He reached behind him, into the programs installed back on the rig, and produced a glowing lotus in his hand. The Sherlock sentry cocked its head to one side, the trace momentarily forgotten. R0bR0y triggered the self-modifying code, and from the lotus burst a human-sized spider, a black-bodied arachnid with glowing red eyes and long, spindly legs. It pounced at Sherlock, the Sentry backing away to fight it off as R0bR0y sprinted past. The server was close enough to touch.

“HALT.”

R0bR0y skidded to a stop, a third figure now barring the way. It was tall and wide-shouldered, bearing an imposing sword and a helm tipped with horns.

“I AM THE GUARDIAN OF THIS REALM. YOU CANNOT PASS.”

Heimdall. He’d heard of this ICE. Like Viktor, it was not the sentry at it seemed. It was a barrier, and a hard one to break at that. Fortunately, R0bR0y was not without friends, and one of them had loaned him something for this task. He snapped his fingers, and a lithe, somewhat ethereal woman faded into view beside him. She took one look at Heimdall, and a confident smirk slowly blossomed on her blood-red lips.

“Ooo,” she cooed, sauntering towards the barrier. “You’re in trouble, now.”

With a grin, R0bR0y ran past the pair and into the server itself. He found the file he was looking for, edited the lines, and looked over his shoulder at the distant, faded point of light from where he’d begun.

Seamus snapped awake. The rig’s fans began to wind down as he gingerly pulled the lead free. The sensation of walking, of running, slowly faded as he breathed, letting the real world return to his senses.

And then, the phone rang.


Flash Fiction: Magnum Damage

Courtesy Alistair Cunningham
Courtesy Alistair Cunningham

For the Terribleminds challenge, Somethingpunk. I think this qualifies more as laserpunk than cyberpunk, but you be the judge.


Jack Magnum was never more at home than he was on the ground, a warm beamer in his hand, goons on his tail.

The incandescent neon of the street illumination and the various store signs were a counterpoint to the lances of hard light that sliced through the night. This had been a nice neighborhood once. Before Manhattan had been co-opted by the Cyber-Mafia, it had been making a comeback from the various financial failures of the early 21st century. That was before America got carved up and sold like so much cake at a desperate bake sale.

But Jack Magnum hadn’t given up on America.

“Jack! Two more on your nine-o’-clock!”

“I know.” The AI in Jack’s head, which called herself Artemis, was helpful in some situations and irritating in others. His cyber-enhanced senses and on-board radar could communicate with him at the speed of thought. There was no need for Artemis to engage his inner ear speaker to give him information he already knew. Still, there was a hard barrier between them when he was conscious, so he understood her desire to keep him safe. After all, if his body failed, she’d cease to exist.

He swung his .75 caliber heater in the direction and squeezed off two rounds. The projector snapped off two flashes of steel-melting light, and one assailant found his faceplate burned off, exposed circuitry sizzling and its CPU melting down its chin and faux leather jacket. The Cyber-Mafia liked to dress its goons up like bikers, so the human populace didn’t blatantly see the mostly robotic terrors that kept them in line and fed the syndicate its cash and bodies to maintain business with the struggling and laughable US government.

“That’s three total still on our tail, Jack. What’s the plan?”

“There’s a hoverbike 100 meters ahead. Can you hack it?”

“I’m on it.” The wireless transmitter in Jack’s skull hummed as Artemis tried to access the hoverbike’s security and key it to Jack’s DNA. Jack fired behind him, and heard a surprised, robotic squawk as another foot soldier got blasted. Two to go. If he couldn’t blast them, he could outrun them, and keep the information packet in his hard drive out of Cyber-Mafia hands.

“It’s ready, Jack!”

“Thanks, babe.”

He turned and sprinted backwards, taking his gun in both hands, firing a shot that melted the gun-arm off of one of his pursuers. The other opened fire, chewing up pavement just behind Jack. He had to turn quickly and jump, lest the half-molten pavement slow him down. The neon of the airbike snapped on, and Jack leapt onto it. He holstered his heater and revved the drive, getting the fans up to speed, and kicked hard off the ground. Standard airbikes didn’t have much in the way of altitude, but the hop threw off the aim of his pursuers. He whipped around the corner and tapped the holo-projector in his right cybernetic eye to call up his GPS plotter.

“They know your face, Jack. It’s going to be hard to get off of Manhattan.”

“The CIA didn’t hire me because this would be easy, Artemis. Now find me a chopper or a boat.”

“I’m on it. I’m just saying, they’re going to shut down the island rather than let you off.”

“I don’t get what the big deal is.” Jack swerved around a truck, which honked at him on general principle. “All I have is the shipping manifests for the Cyber-Mafia’s airplanes and boats for the next six months, and a detailed list of every government document to which they have access.”

“Which means they can no longer blackmail the government into holding Manhattan, I know. It’s what they wanted you to get.” Jack’s map was replaced by a holo-representation of Artemis. He knew it was a replication of one of her designers, a petite young woman with bangs, short hair in the back, and a form-fitting suit. “But Jack, the Cyber-Mafia’s been in control of the island for almost a decade. They have a private army. Hell, for all we know they have an air force by this point. How do you plan on getting around them?”

“If I can’t, I’ll just go through ‘em. Just like in Casablanca.”

Artemis rolled her eyes. “Jack, after Casablanca, your organics were barely alive and your system was shot to pieces. You had to crawl onto the rescue boat and it nearly sank!”

“We’ll be okay, Art. Trust me.”

She sighed. “I hope you’re right.” She brought his GPS back up and plotted a course through the streets to a dock. Smiling, Jack revved the engine and made a sharp turn.

Minutes later, he brought the bike to a halt near the dock. He blasted the lock off of the gate with his heater, and made his way down to the boats. Artemis had picked out a small speedboat, rigged up for water skiing. It was a derelict, a relic from before the Cyber-Mafia. Artemis walked him through getting the engine running and disengaging the rig that could slow them down. When he looked up, he saw spotlights in the distance.

“Artemis, tell me those are CIA choppers on the other side of the sea wall.”

“Negative. Cyber-Mafia attack choppers on an intercept course. Three of them so far.”

“Well, shit.” Jack pulled out his head and checked the charge. 50%. Probably enough to take down one chopper with a well-placed full-power shot. He looked down at the boat. “Artemis, I need to know how to drive this thing like a pro.”

“Jack…”

“Look, we’re the only hope the country has of getting back to what it was. It has to start with us. We have to at least try. Agreed?”

“You mess up, you’re going to get us both killed.”

There was a pause. Then, suddenly, a rush of information, part head-swimming kiss from a beautiful woman, part searing shock of straight whiskey.

“So don’t.”

Jack Magnum smiled. “Trust me, darlin’. Just hang on. It’ll be fun!”


IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Akira

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

{no audio this week – sorry for the inconvenience!}

Many authors have speculated that we as a species are walking a knife’s edge between transcending our previous limitations in terms of body, mind, and spirit, and falling into an inevitable downward spiral of self-destruction we’re simply too lazy to avert. It’s a resonant message and especially popular in the genre of cyberpunk, where near-future technology that pushes the envelope of human potential is often juxtaposed with the plight of have-nots struggling to keep up with the haves. Films like Blade Runner, books like Snow Crash and games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution drive these points home in stunning ways, and to that list I would add the 1988 Japanese animated feature Akira.

Courtesy Pioneer

The year is 2019. Tokyo, having suffered major losses during a cataclysmic event in 1988, has been rebuilt as Neo-Tokyo. Violence is breaking out on its streets between rival biker gangs the Clowns and the Capsules, the latter lead by a young upstart named Kaneda. His friend, Tetsuo, nearly runs over a small child in the course of a fight, but the child turns out to be a psychic, the result of experimentation by the military in the wake of Tokyo’s destruction. Tetsuo, in turn, is discovered to possess a great deal of psychic potential himself and is taken for testing. While Kaneda hooks up with an underground dissident movement to help his friend, the military moves to stop the experiments on Tetsuo by killing the boy, lest he realize his potential which mirrors that of the child who destroyed Tokyo in the first place, the child named Akira.

Like many works of its type, Akira began life as a manga in the 1980s. Rather than hand the 2000-page magnum opus to someone else, the production team ensured that the author, Katsuhiro Otomo, wrote and directed the film adaptation. The result was something new for the art houses of anime. Notorious for cutting corners and running out of money before production was complete (look no further than Neon Genesis Evangelion as evidence of this), Akira boasted not only a robust budget but fully lip-synced dialog and animation as fluid as possible, resulting in a film that holds up in terms of both style and substance over 20 years later.

Courtesy Pioneer
Didn’t Edna Mode say something about capes?

With golden pixels each costing the price of a meal flying around in modern productions, seeing hand-drawn animation this detailed and imaginative is incredibly refreshing. Watching Akira unfold, either for the first time or on repeated viewings, makes the skill and dedication of the artists at work obvious without them needing to impose themselves upon the work. Even when the film delves into its more symbolic and psychological elements, the crux of the film remains the narrative and the characters, allowing the theme and mood to speak for themselves rather than making them overt elements in the storytelling. I know a few auteurs who could take notes from this kind of film-making.

A large part of Akira‘s success is due to the characters being fully realized individuals, not just cyphers. Kaneda and Tetsuo clearly have a strong bond, even if the gang leader picks on the smallest member of his crew quite a bit. It’s realistic dialog that conveys a great deal of emotion and history without needing to dive into overlong exposition or diatribes on feelings. The stoic, pragmatic Colonel at the heart of the experiments that unlock Tetsuo’s powers may seem one-dimensional at first, but his relationship with the test subjects and utter contempt for government corruption quickly deepen and expand his character. Even minor roles, like the dissidents and other members of the Capsules, have a force of personality that helps Akira proceed in a very natural and straightforward manner, even towards the end when psychic powers start going incredibly haywire.

Courtesy Pioneer
You wish your ride was this sweet.

There’s been talk of a live-action adaptation of Akira since Warner Brothers acquired the rights in 2002, with the typical rumors of casting flying around even as it waffles between in-production and shut down. Personally, I don’t know how one could pull off an effective adaptation of Akira in the United States. A big part of Akira‘s success is its haunting callback to being the victims of nuclear assault and needing to rebuild in the wake of terrible cataclysms. While there’s a lot of interest in the States in terms of cyberpunk, civil unrest, delinquent youths, and the nature of corruption and maturity, we would approach these things from an entirely different perspective and I think Akira would suffer for that. The film as it is tackles each of these themes within its running time without feeling dull or overly preachy. It presents human nature, terrifying and limitless and raw and wonderful all at once, as it is and as it could be.

Given that the film is so thoroughly Japanese, from its themes to its soundtrack to its setting and culture, I would recommend watching Akira in that language with subtitles. Many nuances of the language can get left behind even by the most skilled dub artists, and there’s also the fact the film was re-dubbed in 2001 which inevitably can lead to arguments over which version is best. Regardless of how you watch it or in what language, however, Akira is undoubtedly worth your time. It’s a superb blend of action, intrigue, and young existential angst, all conveyed with some of the finest hand-drawn animation you’ll ever see. Over two decades after its release, it still holds up. After all, where else will you find a movie that, without skipping a beat, contains magnetically-driven motorcycles, freaky child psychics, space lasers and the true meaning of friendship?

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.


Game Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

A few months ago I finally got around to reviewing Deus Ex, a RPG-shooter that empowered a player to make choices while being unfortunately hindered by its technology. After a sequel that didn’t go over as well for many reasons, it would be a while before a third installment would come along. With a decade’s worth of improvements under its belt, Deus Ex: Human Revolution arrived last year with promises to deliver an authentic experience for fans of the old game while introducing new players to something with a bit more depth than your usual modern military shooter. These promises, along with the knowledge that this is actually a prequel to the original game, made me a little trepidatious when I first booted it up.

Courtesy Eidos Interactive
I like how the shades are the projection surface for your HUD.

The year is 2026, and prostheses once limited to medical applications have expanded into the realm of human augmentation, allowing those with the means and a tolerance for constant maintenance and drug intake to do things normal humans could only dream of. At the forefront of this new push in technologies is Sarif Industries, and its security is the responsibility of Adam Jensen. On the eve of a landmark hearing before Congress, Sarif is attacked by augmented mercenaries and Adam is mortally wounded. Saved from the brink of death by the very technology he tried desperately to protect, Adam must undertake the task of tracking down the metallic murderers and uncover their employers.

As it bears the Deus Ex title, you can expect Human Revolution to contain similar conspiracy theories, locations envisioned for a near future and interesting character turns. To its credit, the game does hit all three points, but it doesn’t quite reach the depths of the original. The plans of the opposing forces in Adam’s life can often be discerned relatively quickly. There are not as many locations to visit, and in fact you revisit the two main hubs once apiece rather than going to new places, an unfortunate result of a budget or deadline getting cut during production. I’ll deal with different character points as we go along, as this is likely the place where Human Revolution both shines the brightest and needs the most polish, if that makes any sense.

Courtesy Eidos Interactive

The good news for fans of Deus Ex, or in fact any stealth-based game, is that you will be rewarded for tactical thinking and moving unseen. With multiple routes to reach an objective and a system that rewards experimentation and improvisation, the core gameplay is incredibly solid, even the cover system and the finishing moves – which can be very satisfying to pull off on an unsuspecting guard that just walked past you reporting everything’s clear. The non-lethal weapons work just as well as their lead-slinging counterparts, making the challenge of completing the game without taking a human life actually seem appealing (at least to me). And the best boss fights happen in the form of conversation trees, where discerning the other person’s emotions and choosing the right response becomes just as arduous and fulfilling as shooting them.

One of the unfortunate concessions that had to be made to new players was a limitation on the number of role-playing game options available. While the augmentation system does allow a measure of customization early on, allowing players to purchase upgrade points as well as giving them as XP rewards yields more than enough elbow room to round Adam out in every area, especially considering some of the upgrades are completely useless. Speaking of Adam, his conversation animation and those of other characters occasionally felt a little jilted or unfocused, a problem that thankfully never occurred during one of the aforementioned talk bosses. The rest of the gameplay is so good, however, that these flaws can be overlooked without too much trouble.

Courtesy Eidos Interactive

The non-talk boss fights are perhaps the biggest problem I (and many others) have with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. With a game system that offers a plethora of ways to approach an obstacle, limiting one’s choices in a boss fight to “shoot the bastard” feels like a major dumbing-down of the source material. There are a few ways with proper planning beforehand to make these fights less of a chore, but at first blush they really throw the game off of its otherwise excellent pace. The ending of the game, as well, feels watered down. Rather than building up to a climax that empowers the player to make an informed choice through conversation, we are presented with a series of big red buttons. Getting railroaded in this way really undercuts the freedom of choice espoused in the original, to this game’s detriment.

While many of the decisions made in bringing this game to players disappoint or even infuriate, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is enjoyable to play for 90% of the time and does offer real replay value, outside of any DLC. On its own, it’s competent and executed well despite some glaring flaws; when compared to some of the other modern shooters out there, it shines like brushed chrome. It’s a much more worthy addition to the Deus Ex library than Invisible War, and I’m looking forward to playing it again, on the hardest difficulty level, without killing a single human being save for the boss fights.

Hoo boy.

Stuff I Liked: Adam’s a much more sympathetic protagonist than your run-of-the-mill soldier or space marine. He has support characters that are interesting without being irritants. Stealth gameplay is executed well and I liked getting little XP bonuses for taking the time to explore and taking down enemies quietly. And it’s always fun to move things like vending machines and copiers around in an office building or housing complex just for the heck of it.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The boss fights and ending made me feel railroaded and didn’t quite jive with the Deus Ex vibe. Some of the animations aren’t as smooth as they could have been. A couple stereotypical accents eek through here and there.
Stuff I Loved: A well-balanced main game engine underscored by an excellent soundtrack and beautifully rendered aesthetic. The talking bosses were a great departure for normal shooter gameplay, lending even more concreteness and immersion to the experience. Writing high above average for modern shooters and a definite respect for the original Deus Ex without being pandering or an act of fan service.

Bottom Line: It isn’t perfect, and some of the aforementioned flaws may seem like deal-breakers. But if you go into it with the right mindset, Deus Ex: Human Revolution will definitely scratch the itch that hasn’t really been scratched since 2000. It’s definitely worth your time to check out if you’re a fan of the original or of good RPG-shooters in general, especially if you can pick it up on sale.


Game Review: Deus Ex

Shooters can be curious beasts. Any game that pours you directly into the perspective of someone holding a gun empowers you to make choices, even if it’s just the choice of which weapon to pick up to fill one of your two precious slots in Halo. The more choices the player is called upon to make, the more a game from the first person perspective resembles a game centered around character and story instead of bullets and bloodshed. Balancing shooting action with role-playing can be difficult, and the urtext for it comes to us from an older game entitled Deus Ex.

Courtesy Ion Storm
Yeah, I sang the theme song with Yahtzee’s lyrics, who hasn’t?

Welcome to the future, where New York’s been attacked by terrorists and cybernetic enhancement is quickly becoming normal, even fashionable. Our hero is JC Denton, a man employed by the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition and blessed with a variety of nanotech augmentations that aren’t just for show but let him punch bad guys in incredibly efficient ways. While taking the battle to streets it quickly becomes obvious that JC’s being manipulated, and we slowly realize that there’s a vast global conspiracy going on and it’s up to us to put a stop to it. Or, perhaps, decide how to take it in a better direction than these bozos are.

Deus Ex joined the pantheon of PC gaming back in 2000, and was quickly elevated to one of the highest seats there thanks to a game engine that actually supports balanced character building instead of just gluing new bits onto your guns. Modern games may spoon out achievements when you reach milestones but Deus Ex provides in-game rewards known as ‘skill points’ which are used to raise skills such as rifles, electronics and swimming. Which is a good thing, because without these point JC wouldn’t be able to hit the broad side of an oil tanker with an assault rifle, acts perplexed when looking at an electronic keypad and only holds his breath underwater for about 90 seconds. The last one isn’t quite so bad and considering how much swimming you’re likely to do, you’re much better off teaching yourself to pick locks more efficiently and keeping your rifle scope steady.

Courtesy Ion Storm
It was a dark and stormy night in New York…

The way the game supports your character-building is by presenting you with options for dealing with obstacles, from locked doors to boss fights. There’s almost always a way past a sealed entryway, be it a vent or a different door with a different locking mechanism, and most of the time if you’re not up for fighting a boss character you can just run your ass away. It’s also the sort of game where there really aren’t any invisible walls, and your health only regenerates if you choose to make it at the expense of your bio-electric energy reserves. It’s entirely possible to lose one or all of your limbs and to need to wiggle your way to a nearby health kit without being spotted by the cops.

Player choice also becomes a factor in conversations you choose to have. JC can be generous and make attempts to be personable, or he can be the sort of withdrawn, terse individual that just guns down the bad guys like many modern shooters show their heroes to be. I say “make attempts” because the voice acting and dialog in Deus Ex isn’t out to win any awards. JC sounds like he’s been gargling gravel for the last year or two and most of the other characters have hysterically stereotypical accents. The way the characters speak to one another is the first in a pair of pretty major flaws.

Courtesy Ion Storm
He’s a ladies’ man.

The other is the graphics. It’s an older game, so of course it’s not going to have the glitz and polish of something created last year, but Deus Ex looks bad even for a game from 2000. The designs of the levels and characters alike are blocky and rigid. There are a limited number of character skins and mouth animations are incredibly stilted. While I’d like to think there’s more to games (and people) than their looks, processing the visuals in the game can sometimes be a real chore.

However, under the horrendous appearance and occasionally terrible dialog is a plot that not only tries to influence the player but allows them to make an empowered decision. While quoting philosophy and whatnot is part of the dialog, when it works it shows a world where invisible powers are struggling to control mankind, and all of them want JC to operate as their scion in the conflict. But JC, and the player, are their own creature and will only obey the tenets of their own will. When we arrive in the endgame, JC does make the occasional quip intended to be clever, but also debates the pros and cons of his decisions with intelligence. How the game ends is entirely up to us.

Thus, from start to finish, Deus Ex puts the onus upon the player instead of taking them by the hand and pulling them through the plot. Instead of relying upon the fiction trope for which the game is partially named, we are given a set of options that allow us to become, for the would-be rulers of the world, a deus ex machina ourselves, appearing from the machine to give one of the powers exactly what they want. And that notion is more empowering than just about any firearm you’d care to name.

Stuff I Liked: Decent soundtrack, actual RPG structure, multiple approaches to obstacles and a near-future setting only slightly far-fetched.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Even with modern texture updates the game’s a bit of an eyesore in places. A good portion of the dialog’s hard to swallow and I saw a couple plot twists coming a mile away.
Stuff I Loved: A decent amount of non-linearity calling upon the player to decide how to proceed, from the very first level on Liberty Island to the final decision to determine the ending of the game and, by extension, the fate of the world.

Bottom Line: For those nostalgic for the likes of System Shock 2 and for shooter fans looking for a game with a bit more depth than Halo or Modern Warfare, Deus Ex delivers. If you go in prepared for some of the dated material in the game, you won’t be disappointed.


Flash Fiction: Walking After Midnight

Courtesy some ministry in Tampa

For the Terribleminds flash fiction challenge Sub-Genre Tango Part II, here’s a mix of cyberpunk and sword & sorcery.


“Man, I don’t know about this. We’re static if we get caught.”

Van looked over his shoulder at Anton. The shorter youth’s outburst had been no louder than a hiss, but it sounded a bullhorn at this hour. It was after curfew and the Street Sweepers would be on patrol, ready to stasis-bolt anybody wandering the city. If you were really lucky, you’d awaken in a cozy cell with no lights and a bucket in the corner. Anton had been there before, one of the reasons he was so nervous.

“We won’t.” Van grabbed Anton to yank him close. “Not if you keep your taco-hole shut.”

Anton nodded, nearly dislodging the rig attached to his temples. He’d been locked up before due to his propensity for jacking into civil government relays through innocent public kiosks. He was brilliant, but about as calm as a ferret high on sugar and amphetamines. Van brushed dark hair out of his vision and held a finger to his lips.

Anton obeyed, stepping closer to Van in the shadows of the alley. A Street Sweeper hummed softly as it floated by, held aloft on its hover-fans, the men manning the cannons inscrutable behind their dark helmets. To serve and protect was emblazoned on the vehicle. Van waited until it turned the corner to pull Anton back into the street with him.

“Look. I know those bastards scare you. They give me bad tingles, too. But you want to get Sarah out, right?”

“More than anything. I know I was in a bad place, but hers is even worse.” Anton blinked. “Are you sure this is going to work?”

Van shook his head. “Nope. But we’ve already tried remote unlocks and direct runs on their bulwark servers. We gotta go seriously old-school to get in there.”

Anton and Van resumed their quiet walk down the street, on the lookout for Street Sweepers or night cops on foot. Every time he looked south, Van saw the Grand Citadel. It had started life as just another skyscraper. Now the glass gave way around the 50th floor to bright white marble, reaching up to spires and wind-snapped banners. The whole thing had a glow around it, making it even harder to see the stars. The media pundits loved to talk about its warmth and promise of peace, but Van knew the glow was as cold as the corridors in its sub-basements.

“We gotta get her out of there, man.”

“We will.” Anton managed a smile. Van put an arm around Anton’s shoulders and kept him closer as they walked. Finally, after another couple close calls with Sweepers, they came to the address Van had written down.

Anton wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Don’t look like much.”

The row of brownstones were all run down. The one they’d stopped at had boarded-up windows, the first floor featuring bars on top of the boards. The box next to the front door looked like it hadn’t been touched in about a century. There was only one name on it, barely legible: Crystal.

Van exchanged a look with Anton and pushed the button. A burst of static made both youths cringe.

“It’s after curfew, you fool! What in the Hells do you want?”

The voice sounded shrill, at war with the static. Van cleared his throat.

“We’ve come to see Crystal.”

“Oh! Come to point and laugh at the witch, have you? Piss off. Readings happen during normal business hours. And no, I don’t care that my reading lead you to ruin, you‘re the one who interpreted the cards.”

Anton glanced around the street in wide-eyed terror. Van took a deep breath.

“We’re not here about a reading. We’re here about a rescue.”

“I beg your pardon, young man?”

“My sister is held by the Citadel as one of their workers. We need to get her out.”

“Van…” Anton tugged Van’s jacket. Feeling the pull on the leather, Van looked over his shoulder. A Street Sweeper swung into view.

“Oh, frak.

The door clicked open. Van pushed Anton inside, reaching under his jacket for his gun. It was an old autoloader, a crime in and of itself since all non-Citadel arms were heavily regulated. Van aimed at the door.

“She’s on the third floor. Keep moving.”

Anton scrambled up the steps, Van close behind, as the door came open. The night cops were carrying man-portable stasis rifles, shouting for them to stop. Van fired a couple rounds to keep the cops’ heads down and turned to follow Anton. They made it to the stairs outside the door to the third floor space before the cops opened fire.

Van’s hand went numb and the gun fell from his fingers. It was a glancing shot but it’d deprived them of their defense. Anton was putting his hands up when the third floor door came open.

Standing in it was a woman as tall as Van, but full-bodied where he was gangly. Ringlets of red hair fell around her face and blue eyes blazed with fury. A silver sword was in her hand and she pointed it at the boys.

“Get down.”

They did. Lightning snapped through the air over their heads and caught the lead cop in the chest, knocking him and his friends down the stairs. Anton scrambled inside, and the woman grabbed Van to pull him past the threshold. The door closed.

“Van, is it?” Her voice was far less shrill in person, more like dark velvet. She lifted his chin to get a look at his face. “Not bad for growing up hard on the streets. Is it your sister in there?”

“And my girlfriend.”

She lifted an eyebrow at Anton. “Good for you, then.” She straightened, resting her hands on the pommel of the sword as it rested point-down against the floorboards. “We’re safe for now, boys, but if you want to head back out after the girl, we’ll have to make a deal.”


IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Ghost in the Shell

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Back in the days of the late 80s and early 90s, when the excess of the previous decade were giving way to the ‘edgy’ goth culture that emerged to dominate a lot of the media in the next – The Crow, Spawn, A Nightmare Before Christmas, etc – America was getting its first real dose of animé. The Sci-Fi Channel, back when it was called ‘The Sci-Fi Channel’ and didn’t worry about its Google page rank because, well, Google didn’t really exist yet, ran a few animé features every year or so just to whet our whistles for what lay in store for us on the other side of the Pacific. The first round included Lensman, Casshan Robot Hunter and Vampire Hunter D, which while visually stunning and unique in their aesthetics, amounted to pretty standard but well-done action flicks. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that we were introduced to the truly introspective and headspace-violating works such as Akira and this week’s review fodder, Ghost in the Shell.

There’s also the fact that none of those three ‘early’ animé features are available on Netflix, which is a shame because Lensman is a great reworking of E.E. Smith’s novels, Casshan is one of the best treatments of a Mega Man-style protagonist I’ve ever seen, and Vampire Hunter D is… hmm? Oh, right, Ghost in the Shell, sorry about that.

Courtesy Production I.G.

The year is 2029. The world is connected by a global information network that is to the Internet what a Peterbilt 378 is to last year’s Ford pick-up. In Tokyo, the government has divided its various responsibilities into sections, and Section 9 is their covert operations and network security division. Top badass amongst the ranks of Section 9 is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who along with being a crack shot, an expert martial artist and pretty damn smart in terms of both brain and mouth, is also a full conversion cyborg, meaning that other than her brain and most of her spinal column, her body is entirely robotic. A case involving a hacker called ‘the Puppet Master’ falls into Section 9’s lap, and the investigation leads Motoko to question the nature of her own existence even as she tries to unravel the mystery as to who this hacker is and what they’re after.

Ghost in the Shell, like a great deal of animé, is based upon the manga of the same name. The manga was crafted by a guy named Shirow Masamune, and in the interest of full disclosure, I need to make the following statement: I love Shirow Masamune. This is the guy who brought us Black Magic, Appleseed and Dominion, which might be better known by the animé feature called Tank Police. His work is, in my opinion, best described as ‘camp cyberpunk’, a marriage of the mentality behind such works as Blade Runner and Snow Crash with balls-to-the-wall action and genuinely funny humor that has mechanized characters like Briareos from Appleseed acting far more human than some humans do in similar works, even his own. There’s plenty of philosophy, sociological commentary and bits of political satire woven into his stories, and they’re told and drawn well enough that you’re having just as good a time contemplating what he’s trying to say as you do watching cops with tanks blast their way through the bad guys. Ghost in the Shell is exemplary of this style, with discussions on the nature of human existence occurring almost simultaneously with cybernetic supercops doing battle against advanced walking tanks.

Courtesy Production I.G.
The big guy’s Battou. He’s awesome.
He gives us the phrase ‘standard-issue big gun’ among other things.

The action from the manga exists almost intact in the animé feature. Instead of trying to wow an audience with laser guns or giant fighting robots, Ghost in the Shell keeps the action, for the most part, on the human level. While the Major is super-strong, very fast and well-experienced in combat, when the action takes place it happens on a scale to which an audience can relate. I mean, seeing a space battle happen in, say, Star Blazers or Robotech is exciting, but a great deal of that comes from our relationship with the pilots of those fantastic vehicles. Without characters that we like and can relate to, it’d just be so much sound and fury like the opening of Revenge of the Sith. The grounding of Tokyo 2029 in reality, coupled with the interesting characters involved in the combat, lends it weight and makes it more exciting, ramping up the tension as the stakes get higher.

Unfortunately Ghost in the Shell doesn’t have the pace or the occasional tongue-in-cheek aside of its manga source material. Some bits of the film just drag, especially when it comes to Motoko’s navel-gazing. It’s like watching a tense episode of Law & Order: SVU only to have Stabler & Benson stop in the middle of tracking down a serial rapist to discuss the sustainability of the world in general and New York City in particular. It’s interesting, sure, but we didn’t come here for moral philosophy, get the hell on with the detective work. Instead of weaving these questions into the narrative, director Oshii Mamoru stops the action dead to have us ruminate on the nature of human existence.

There’s also the fact that the Major inexplicably gets naked any time she needs to use her cloaking device. “Therm-optic camouflage” didn’t require nudity in the manga, and even in the film a guy is able to use therm-optics just by pulling up the hood of his jumper – he didn’t have to whip out his junk to turn invisible. I don’t object to the idea of seeing Motoko in her skivvies, even if she is a cyborg, but the gratuity and lack of necessity for it in context kind of bugs me.

Courtesy Production I.G.
Sad cyborg is sad.

Ghost in the Shell was ground-breaking for its time. Now, “ground-breaking” is not entirely synonymous with “good”. It’s also a phrase that can get abused by people in the marketing world. Sonic Unleashed, for example, could be described as ground-breaking in that video game series because never before as a hedgehog that runs fast turned into a hulking fur-covered pile of rage and sharp bits that’d be called a ‘werewolf’ if it weren’t a complete misnomer. The DaVinci Code broke new ground for anti-Church conspiracy theorists, but the book is at its best when it’s wedged under a piece of furniture to keep it from wobbling. Twilight was ground-breaking in both its existence as genre fiction aimed at young female readers and the psychological and sexual implications of its characters, but it seemed like the flat characterizations and plodding story pace were set to drain vampires of all of their menace and mystique until the advent of Daybreakers. Incidentally, one has to wonder the fun that could be had if the aforementioned vampire hunter D came across the Cullen household. Hilarity would ensue, I’m sure.

Anyway, Ghost in the Shell is not only a ground-breaking work in terms of cyberpunk animé and post-modern information-age personal philosophy but also pretty damn good as a story. Long treatises and monologues aside, this is a seminal work of the genre and definitely worth seeing if you have any interest in well-done hand-crafted animation that isn’t afraid to be violent, sexy or intellectually interesting for adults. The thing about the film which ultimately works against it is, as good as Shirow’s work is, it tends to be dense, with layers of philosophical and socio-political commentary layered between the character development and action sequences. It’s a similar problem that we have with the recent adaptation of Appleseed, and I suspect that if Black Magic or Dominion were to be revisited as films, it’d be no different. Trying to cram everything Shirow does in his works into a two hour film without a careful hand in the editing process can leave the final result feeling disjointed and lead to some problems with pace. Ghost in the Shell is pretty much the best example of this, but it’s also a fantastic example of the counterpoint to the problem with adapting Shirow’s work to film.

Courtesy Production I.G.
Even today, scenes like this are gorgeous.

Even when there isn’t anything going on, it’s extremely well-drawn or well-rendered nothing. Even if you’re not an animé fan and just have a passing interest in things like cyberpunk action, artificial intelligence that doesn’t want to destroy the world or just characters that are both intelligent and badass, you can do a hell of a lot worse than Ghost in the Shell. And if you like it as a feature, go read the manga or, better yet, check out Stand-Alone Complex, an animé television series that stays a lot closer to Shirow’s original vision. You can expand on a lot of the themes and subjects in those inner layers when you have a dozen hour-long episodes to work with instead of a feature with a ninety minute running time. I mean, imagine if you tried to take one of the many, many themes from a tv series like Star Trek: The Next Generation, let’s say relocating a native population for the sake of governmental whims, and condense it into a feature film that’s accessible to the masses as well as diehard fans. The result would probably be a total disaster! I mean, who would be so stupid as to…

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

…Wait…

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.