The fate of the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane – it’s 1995, DOS is still the predominant operating system and the computers are as large as cardboard boxes. The first ever E3 is just around the corner, as is the first PlayStation, and companies like Remedy and BioWare are just being established. Gaming’s formation period hasn’t ended yet, but the potential is there and so is the passion. Enter New World Computing’s Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest, a spin-off of the successful Might and Magic series. The game receives praise for combining elements of adventure, simulation and strategy, as well as offering an accessible, yet hard to master, gameplay. A year later, in 1996, Heroes of Might and Magic II comes out, improving upon its predecessor in every aspect while only taking a fraction of the time to develop. It’s the first in the HOMM franchise to receive an expansion, possibly due to 3DO’s purchase of NWC earlier that year. And then Heroes of Might and Magic III comes along on February 28, 1999.

homm 3 (1).jpg

See, HOMM III was a truly special game, one of those games that live on in the hearts of their fans for decades and are remembered fondly by everyone who’s experienced them. The third installment of the franchise was by far the best one yet, and  arguably one of the best turn-based strategy games ever created up to that point. It was bigger and better than the prior iterations of HOMM, building on the concepts of the previous games and improving upon them. The number of units was doubled, the graphics were tremendous for their time, and, as customary for the franchise even to this day, the soundtrack was absolutely beautiful, professionally made and easy on the ears. Heroes of Might and Magic III remains, to this day, one of the greatest achievements of the strategy gaming genre.

homm 4.jpg

3DO made an attempt to capitalize on the success of their game even further, releasing two expansions and the episodic series Heroes Chronicles, which utilized the same engine. Sadly, this marks the beginning of The 3DO Company’s end. The turn of the millennium brought nothing but the realization that the situation was becoming ever more dire by the day. The expansions weren’t selling as well as they’d anticipated, Heroes Chronicles was practically invisible on the market. Production of Heroes of Might and Magic IV began around the beginning of 2001, but soon it became obvious that NWC wouldn’t be able to finish the game quickly enough and, thus, it was shipped early, unfinished and unpolished, prior to post-release patches and changes. Critically, the game did rather well, but the fan base was split in half. Some absolutely abhorred the complete change of pace from HOMM III, while others loved the new features, though the latter group was a minority at the time and even more so now. Heroes could now take part in the battles, the combat view was changed, the UI slightly modified, just enough to throw even the seasoned veterans for a bit of a loop. The spell system was different, the atmosphere was off, the list went on and on. The result was a commercial flop, despite the critical success. This was, arguably, the final blow for 3DO. The expansions did even worse, understandably, as the player base either moved away from HOMM IV and back to the previous game or completely gave up on the series.

The 3DO Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2003, just a year after the release of HOMM IV. Employees were laid off without pay and the company’s intellectual properties were sold off to the highest bidder. The Heroes of Might and Magic and Might and Magic names were bought by Ubisoft. NWC ceased to exist following the dissolution of their parent company, and that was the end of Heroes of Might and Magic as we knew it.

HeroesV_Gameplay.png

Ubi announced their plans to develop a fifth game almost immediately after buying the franchise. The producer was to be Fabrice Cambounet and the game would be made from the ground up, despite Ubisoft gaining access to NWC’s prototype of the next game in the series. NWC’s version was true to the legacy of the franchise, featuring the familiar 2D graphics and interesting artwork. What Ubisoft created was nothing like the previous games, be it visually or in terms of the gameplay. It received favorable reviews and was generally regarded as a soft reboot of the series, thus not prompting any serious backlash from the already dwindling HOMM fan base. The game, in my eyes and in those of many other players, had done away with the charm of its precursors. The 90s feel was gone, and so was the lightheartedness. The rest of the games in the franchise, the sixth and seventh installments, received negative reviews and low sales numbers, and despite this there is no indication of Ubi trying to return to the classic feel of the series in order to rekindle the passion that gamers once had for it. And why would one of the biggest corporations in gaming attempt such a thing? HOMM is relatively cheap to develop and, at this point, the expectations are so spectacularly low that even the faintest sign of progress and improvement would be regarded as a step in the right direction by the big gaming news outlets that seem so inclined to heap praise on even the most hastily produced and mechanically shoddy triple A release.

The story of Heroes of Might and Magic is telling for the path that the gaming industry took in the early 00s. All semblance of innocence is gone, and most of the old-timers have either adjusted or dropped out, leaving only the big sharks to compete. Yes, independent development is alive and kicking, maybe even more so that ever before, but one can’t help but feel that the spark has gone out of game development, that the passion is only observable in those small developer teams that make games on the side. Big titles are made in boardrooms now, amid discussions of optimizing sales and preventing any possible controversy. The actual creative process takes a backseat to the PR departments and all the other white collar employees whose job it is to maximize the shareholders’ profits.

Under 800: The Mist and religion

The Mist is a movie written and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) and based on Stephen King’s eponymous novella. It tells the story of a small group of people trapped inside a supermarket while a supernatural mist envelops the outside world. At a glance, one might think this is an incredibly cheesy premise that would most likely be dead on arrival if it weren’t for Darabont’s involvement in it, but this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

Don’t go into this movie expecting a “modern” horror flick. The tension comes mainly from the interactions between the characters and the relations that form between them within the tight confines of a small town supermarket. There is gore, yes, and there are plenty of creatures that inhabit the mysterious mist, but they aren’t the main focus – they serve as a means to steer the characters into a certain direction, so they could in turn host an interesting, if somewhat biased, discussion on religion and the depths of despair.

Mrs. Carmody serves as the main antagonist. Mentally unstable and deeply religious, she maintains that the mist is God’s wrath, his vengeance and his punishment. Her idea of the big man in the sky is that of a spiteful deity, one that requires sacrifices and exacts his revenge upon those who have wronged it and its followers or refused to acknowledge its existence. Mrs. Carmody quickly begins spouting her religious drivel with all the fervor that a bipolar ultra-conservative nut can muster and makes some vague predictions for the future. When one of her prophecies comes true, some people in the supermarket begin taking her seriously and very soon she amasses a sizable following, a group of the weak and frightened. Among them is Jim, a simple man who is one of the first to encounter the monstrosities that lurk inside the mist and, during the first few days of the crisis, proves to be a proactive member of the temporary community. It is only after his trip to the pharmacy, where two of his companions meet their demise in a rather gruesome manner (hint: mist spiders are much nastier than regular ones), that he succumbs to fear and joins Mrs. Carmody’s ravenous group of followers.

Fear is the driving force behind Carmody’s cult. In general, continuous fear, sooner or later, becomes desperation. And, to quote Alfred in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” In this case, Carmody takes The Joker’s place as the wild card that the regular antagonists turn to after being faced with an insurmountable obstacle, in this case an event that seems so outrageous and ridiculous that it takes them time to so much as consider the truth of their situation. Her strong, commanding personality turns her into someone that could easily convince the fearful of her own power, of course aided by the outlandish claims of being God’s vessel, His prophet. And this is exactly how religion has functioned in the past and continues to do so to this day, albeit in a more grounded and subtle manner. The fear of divine retribution sits at the heart of every belief system associated with deities that have complete control over us. The protestant work ethic is based on the fear of falling out of God’s good graces, Christianity as a whole exists solely due to man’s innate fear of pain and punishment – let’s face it, no one would want to spend the rest of eternity in Hell, it truly does sound like a rather dull and dreary place. Those inclined to believe the stories are also more inclined to give in to their baser instincts and surrender themselves to the will of someone stronger than themselves. Authority and fear go hand in hand, the latter births and props up the former, while it in turn maintains and feeds the latter. It is a vicious power cycle that has proved a useful tool in the hands of the wrong people (see most current Islamic theocracies, as well as Western dictators like Franco who were heavily influenced by their respective churches).

And, as every self-respecting authoritarian ruler would do, I will now change the narrative completely and drone on about how wonderful the movie itself is and how mind-blowing the ending is. Or I won’t. The movie’s fun though, go watch it.

A quick look at Kendrick Lamar’s HiiiPoWeR movement

Kendrick Lamar has solidified his place at the very top of modern hip-hop, releasing not one but four critically acclaimed albums since 2012. His style has changed almost yearly since the beginning of his career in 2004, switching from the hard, underground style of hip-hop typical for most artists early on to the jazz and soul influenced To Pimp a Butterfly and to the weird mixture between modern and old-school rap found in DAMN., his latest release. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about Kendrick throughout the years and that is the manner he carries himself in off-stage. He keeps his personal affairs more or less private and stays out of the spotlight, despite being one of the most popular artists of the decade. He rarely shows up on TV, because he rarely does anything that would merit any public attention, unless of course he announces a new album. For a man of his caliber of fame, Kendrick Lamar remains a surprisingly private person.

A good explanation for this is his stated philosophy around the time Section.80 dropped. HiiiPoWeR, as he describes it, is a movement, a sort of religion. The three ‘i’s stand for heart, honor and respect, virtues that he and his cohort think man should live. As Ab-soul explains in one of his songs, the idea behind it is to inspire the betterment of the current generation within what he sees as a chaotic and destructive society. In an interview for The Come Up Show, Kendrick summed the idea up rather neatly: “Hiiipower, it basically is the simplest form of representing just being above all the madness, all the bullshit. No matter what the world is going through, you’re always going to keep your dignity and carry yourself with this manner that it don’t phase you. Whatever you think negative is in your life. Overcoming that and still having that self-respect.”

Now, with all this in mind, it becomes rather apparent that the HiiiPoWeR movement isn’t actually a new phenomenon. In fact, it resembles the ideas of stoicism, a philosophical school of thought that emerged and grew exponentially during the 3rd century AD in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. In a nutshell, stoicism teaches self-control and mental fortitude in the face of the whatever perils one may face in the world. Stoics aimed to cleanse themselves of destructive emotions like envy, fear, anger and hatred, and live in agreement with nature, or the outside world in general , if one were to appropriate the ideas to the modern world directly.

The parallels are all there, though HiiiPoWeR lacks the other aspects of stoicism (ie naturalistic ethics, logic, etc.). What Kendrick, and everyone else involved with the movement, espouses is the belief that a better world can be forged by a generation of people who live in complete harmony with both themselves and the randomness of the world around them, and in that sense he certainly does his best to lead by example, or did, as the current status of the movement remains unclear and neither Kendrick nor close friends of his like Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q have, to my knowledge, so much as mentioned it in the past few years. Maybe that’s exactly the point; maybe the idea doesn’t need to be stated in order to exist, maybe Kendrick and co. merely planted the seed and left it to grow. Another possibility is that it always has and always will exist in one way or the other – according to Kendrick, HiiiPoWeR was a way of life for many influential figures of the past like Huey Newton, Martin Luther King Jr,  Marcus Garvey and Tupac Shakur. The thought of Kendrick, Tupac and Epictetus sharing the same, or a rather similar, philosophical view of life is a rather amusing one.

On Snowpiercer and subtlety

It’s been four years since Snowpiercer hit cinemas around the world and by now it has been all but forgotten. To be sure, the movie is not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination – the dialogue feels clunky and unnatural, the CGI is at best serviceable and at worst is so ridiculous it completely destroys immersion, there are plenty of inconsistencies and plot holes that are blatantly obvious to anyone paying attention; in the words of Slavoj Žižek “and sho on and sho on”. Snowpiercer is a fundamentally flawed movie, though one might be inclined to cut it some slack considering its B-level budget of just 40 million dollars.

But what Snowpiercer lacks in pacing and general film making merit it makes up for in the way that it presents its story and builds its world. Excluding a few moments that might throw you for a loop, the train and its inhabitants offer much and more in terms of visual storytelling. Yes, there are large info dumps on occasion, but they aren’t particularly well thought out or written and prove to be much less useful than the seemingly unimportant interactions between the characters.

And that brings me to the main point of this article – the art of subtly delivering your desired message to the audience. The world of Snowpiercer revolves around class conflict, and this main theme is made abundantly clear in the very beginning of the movie. But the true reason for this conflict, the underlying issues that drive the age-old battle between the rich and the poor, in our world as well as that of Snowpiercer. The symbolism is fairly easy to decipher, provided you can stomach through the movie without succumbing to the desire to chuck yourself off a bridge.

In short – the train that is the last safehaven of humanity, the Snowpiercer, represents our planet, our only home that is slowly running out of resources and, not so slowly, becoming a victim of our inability to come together and act for the good of our species (and I know, this one is weird seeing as the actual Earth in the movie is already uninhabitable due to this very reason, but that is just a consequence of the poorly planned premise; seriously, why would what’s left of our race board a train that they know will take them on an endless merry-go-round with no hope of a better future?). The engine is “too big to fail” theory. Now, one cannot be sure of what exactly director and writer Bong Joon Ho had in mind while creating the script, but to me it could only represent one of two things – banks or capitalism. Plenty has been said and written regarding the idea that some banking institutions are simply too big to fail, so instead of diving into the issue myself, I will direct you to a helpful article by Business Insider that should give you a decent idea of what exactly the phrase means. I’d like to look into the questions that Snowpiercer posits regarding capitalism and, more importantly, its effect on us as individuals. And this is by no means something that hasn’t been discussed to death within the film industry. Fight Club is one of the movies that spring to mind immediately, and it offers an alternative to Snowpiercer’s approach. Where Bong uses symbolism to plant the idea in the viewer’s head and let it grow naturally, David Fincher utilizes inner monologues and pointed dialogue between Edward Norton and Brad Pitt’s characters to lay bare the underlying themes. Fight Club explores what Palahniuk, the author of the source material, sees as a failed generation of consumers, of blind followers who have keeled over and allowed themselves to be walked over by those above them in the social hierarchy. Ed Norton’s character, who remains unnamed throughout both the book and the movie, is a cog in the capitalist machine’s wheel, a man who is completely void of personality and uniqueness. It’s a story that most of us can relate to at some point in our lives, when we realize that our time is wasted doing something completely meaningless for someone we honestly do not care about just because we would rather not die of starvation. Or maybe because we’re simply used to our current routine. Whatever your interpretation, the message is very on the nose.

Snowpiercer does the opposite. We’re aware of the main source of conflict, the driving force of the story, and the movie runs its course in a fairly straight-forward manner, pretty much exactly what you would expect from an action movie with a limited budget, but the underlying reasons for the emergence are only hinted at. For the unobservant, Ed Harris’ character might be the ultimate evil on the Train, with his nonchalant disregard for the struggles of his fellow man, despite his vast knowledge of everything that has gone on, both before and during the time frame of the movie. But that assumption would be missing the point. The children being put into the bowels of the engine to replace broken parts aren’t there because of humanity’s evil nature,they’re there because certain humans are trapped in the loop of attempting to fix a system that, while once proving incredibly useful, is broken beyond repair and is in need of a drastic overhaul. The kids are the panicked effort of the scared upper class to revitalize the dying source of their superiority. But hold on, isn’t the upper class too busy taking drugs and partying? No it isn’t, because that isn’t the upper class. And that is the most interesting part of Snowpiercer’s social commentary. The so-called elites are presented as a bunch of young people looking for a good time. They’re caged in in just the same way as the poor in the opposite part of the train. While the poor resort to cannibalism, the rich turn to drugs to mask the actual horror of their predicament. A few people at the very top oversee the processes that take place and shape the world they live in, but they seem unable to control or influence them. It’s a wild ride that no one can stop and no one quite understands, with the possible exception of Ed Harris’ character who could be seen as a sort of faux-benevolent dictator, or what they called an absolute monarch back in the day, especially the type that got their heads lobbed off by angry crowds of commoners.

There are many more points worth analyzing in the movie, like the fake eggs, the empty guns, the pregnant kindergarten teacher that goes commando on the group of people from the tail section of the train, Tilda Swinton’s servile character. The list goes on and each of these examples represents a different aspect of our modern lives and ties into the more personal story of the shortcomings and harm of an unrestrained capitalist world that has done away with all pretenses to equality and equal opportunity. A runaway train with no stop in sight.

If nothing else, Snowpiercer is an interesting movie and certainly has a lot to say. It has that weird B-movie appeal to it, while still featuring actors like the late great John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Chris Evans. Its flaws are obvious and frustrating, but Snowpiercer remains a decent watch and well worth a try if you don’t mind its thematics.

Under 800: Six years of Terraria

Terraria has long been hailed as the video game industry’s biggest indie success story and today, more than six years after the initial release, it’s easy to see why.

Much and more could be said of the game itself. It has it all – satisfying mechanics, interesting artwork, beautifully simplistic world design. But the one thing that truly sets Terraria apart is the sheer breadth of content within its 240 MB size. An immense multitude of monsters and friendly NPCs make each stage of the game new and interesting. Going into the battle against The Wall of Flesh, one might begin to think that they’ve seen everything the game has to offer. And they’d be completely wrong. Defeating the Underworld boss ushers in a new era – suddenly the world becomes a dangerous place once again. Enemies hit you like a ton of bricks despite your wearing that ‘good’ Molten Armor set you spent hours putting together. Your weapons turn into toothpicks, no longer capable of one-shotting any regular monster that was unfortunate enough to cross paths with you. The cave bats you’d started seeing as a nuisance rather than a threat take a bite out of Alice’s muffin on opposites day and become more akin to pigs with wings. Terraria keeps you on your toes and consistently throws a challenge at you even as you trick yourself into believing that you’re at the top of the food chain and it’s all ‘been there, done that’ from here on out.

Tens of bosses, hundreds of enemy types and variations, multiple NPCs, each with their own quirks and unique look. Dungeons, biomes, random events that turn your home into a difficult to defend stronghold. Couple all of that with the hundreds of different armor, weapon and accessory sets, as well as the pets and mounts, and you begin to realize that there is a Marianna’s trench worth of content underneath the sympathetic 16-bit graphics. The sandbox nature of Terraria makes for some surprisingly immersive environments and allows the player to create their own storylines. With a nigh on endless catalogue of blocks and decorative items to choose from, you’re free to create any structure your mind can conjure up.

An unexpected aspect of the game is its Lovecraftian influence, and how well said influence translates into the game world. Many of the bosses are gigantic creatures with unusual proportions and, in some cases, vaguely humanoid features. All of them are mysterious beings that dwarf the player character in both size and ability. The Moon Lord, for example, gives off a peculiar vibe, that of something ancient and immensely powerful, with knowledge that far surpasses our own. Skeletron’s dungeon is a cyclopean structure, made of a type of brick that is unbreakable before Hardmode, adding to the feeling of wonder and fascination. The examples pile on and on as the game makes the player feel like an insignificant part of an independent world. What’s beyond the ocean? What’s in Terrarian space? Where do all the creatures come from and where do you, the player character, come from? It’s impossible to answer these questions, possibly because the answers are beyond the player character’s comprehension. Terraria offers an authentic, if heavily simplified, way of experiencing Lovecraft’s ideas.

It’s hard to scratch the surface of Terraria in less than eight hundred words while also successfully convincing those uninitiated that it’s worth their time and money. A good way of gauging the quality of a piece of software is by looking at how dedicated its creators are to improving and enhancing it. Re-Logic is still working on the game, pumping out updates on a semi-regular basis, and seems inclined to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. The developers actively interact with the community and make changes and adjustments based on popular demand.

Twenty million sales later, Terraria remains true to its roots and hasn’t fallen into the trap of adding useless features just for the sake of not admitting that the game has completely lost its direction and is as a result fading into obscurity, much like the decade’s gaming monolith that Terraria was most commonly compared to in its infancy.

The game can be found here.