Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Prepping for 2011: Getting the Word Out About Mo Stache

One of the things I need to do a much better job of in the next year is drawing attention to the webcomic I write, Mo Stache. Series artist John Cordis and I have been putting a weekly page of Mo out since September of 2010, having just hit our 60th page a little while back.

When we first launched the comic, I was somewhat hesistant to do a full court press to get the word out, as I didn't know if we'd be able to keep to our schedule, and we wanted to build up some content first. As we head into this year though, we are halfway through our overall story, and we want to get more eyes on it as we head down the home stretch.

So, in addition to where the comic posts weekly, I've set up a Google+ page, which can be found here. The G+ page will be a place for news and updates, and I may even start posting chapters of the comic as photo albums.

Our goal is to collect the whole story in one print volume when we're done, which will be sometime in late 2012.

So, if you haven't checked Mo Stache out yet, head over to or our Mo Stache G+ page and let us know what you think!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I Finally Finished Dark Souls

When I first began Dark Souls, I was determined to write a series of posts chronicling my adventures through the massive, brutal masterpiece of an RPG. After four installments however, my writing was completely taken over by National Novel Writing Month, which ran from November 1st through he 30th. I actually played a good amount of Dark Souls during November, both as a reward for hitting my word quotas and as a means of inspiration (I wrote a horror/supernatural novel for NaNoWriMo). Once I had completed NaNoWriMo, I took a break from writing and motored through the rest of Dark Souls, finishing this past weekend. So, while I didn't get to do the session-by-session series I was planning on, I do want to take some time to properly look back on what I think is one of the best games of this generation.

For the uninitiated, here's a very superficial overview of the game--From Software's Dark Souls is a roleplaying game where your character is an undead warrior on an epic quest to either bring the fire of life back into the world, or become a god-like being yourself (or at least, that's what I took out of the story). The quest takes you through the various locales of Lordran, a land where every enemy you encounter could easily kill you. Each of the main locations in Lordran culminates in a boss battle against huge and terrifying creatures. By defeating enemies and bosses, you gain souls, which are used to level up your character and upgrade your equipment. Souls are a precious commodity, and when you die int he game, you lose all of the souls you are carrying. You must make it back to the location you died to reclaim those souls before dying again, or they are gone forever. In addition to the penalty for dying, the checkpoint system can be unforgiving which means that you will be repeating sections of the game several times before finally beating them. The game punishes sloppy play mercilessly, and rewards strategy and precision.

If you want a feel for how the game plays out in a given section, check out my third and fourth posts about the game, where I detail my first few hours. In general though, I would tackle each section by battling to the last checkpoint before the boss and resting, mainly to replenish spells for my magic-based character. After the last checkpoint, I would do a test run or two between the checkpoint and the boss area, until I knew how to get to the boss while conserving as many spells as possible. If I couldn't beat the boss by myself after a few tries, I would then try to summon in an ally or two to help me. This strategy worked pretty consistently throughout the game, and there were only a few areas during my 98-hour playthrough that really frustrated me. In fact, it wasn't until the second-to-last boss that I almost snapped my controller in two. Instead, I resorted to consulting a walkthough online, and realized that I needed to change the equipment I brought into that battle in order to be successful.

So now I've finished the game, and there are a number of things about the experience that have stayed with me over the past few days. First is the sense of reward and accomplishment that comes with completing the individual sections of the game, and then finishing it overall. Dark Souls is truly challenging, and not for the faint of heart or easily frustrated. It took me nearly one hundred hours to complete, so it's not something you can casually expect to finish whenever--you need to dedicate a sizable chunk of time to conquering the game. Secondly, the game is masterfully designed. I have never played a game (except maybe for its predecessor) that combines level design and enemy design in a way that achieves such a balance of challenge and reward. Each section of the game is exactly as hard as it should be to push you to your limits without being unfair. There is a solution to every problem, a way to take down each enemy, and you can figure it out. But get impatient or sloppy, and you will die. A lot.

What I love the most about Dark Souls however, is the completely unique approach the game takes to multiplayer. There is truly nothing like it, and I love every aspect of it. For starters, it's almost completely optional. You can choose not to summon players into your game, and you can remain in "Hollow" form, which keeps other players from invading your game. There are only certain times when you need to reverse your "Hollow" status, like when you want to bolster a checkpoint to give you more benefits, or when you want to summon someone into your game. Essentially though, the multiplayer is optional. you can solo this game if you want. And when you do decide to team up with other, it's completely anonymous, and the only way to communicate with your allies is through gestures. Because of this, even though you are playing with others, there is still an aspect of soloing to it. When you complete an area, your allies disappear, never to be seen again. Similarly with invading characters, you will either defeat them, or they will defeat you, and then they disappear. The whole summoning allies into my game thing really added an aspect of roleplaying to Dark Souls that I loved. I adopted a "pay it forward" mentality, where I would be sure to help other players through areas that I had received help in. There were hours at a time where I would just wait for another player to summon me, help him or her beat a boss, and then go back and wait for another player to summon me. By engaging in the multiplayer, you sort of enter into the brotherhood of people who have decided to take up the challenge of Dark Souls, and you rely on each other to get through it. It's such a different dynamic than in every other multiplayer game, and I would love to see others adopt something similar in the future.

As if the experience of completing Dark Souls wasn't enough, the game is designed to be played through multiple times. You get to carry all of your gear into the next playthrough, but enemies and bosses become substantially more difficult as well. As much as I thought I would be done with the game after one playthrough, it has sucked me back in. I'm already a few hours into my second go around, and I'm loving every minute of it.

So, while none of my posts about Dark Souls has been a typical game review, let me just say that it's an amazing game, and easily my game of 2011. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Louis CK Experiment

This past week, comedian Louis CK may have started a revolution.

For those that are unfamiliar with him, Louis CK is one of the most successful stand-up comedians in the industry today. He’s got his own show on FX, and he’s widely considered to be one of the most hard-working, innovative comedians to come along in years. If you’ve never seen him, I think this tribute he did to George Carlin (one of my all-time favorites) will give you a good idea of what he’s all about.

Anyway, Louis CK filmed a brand new, one-hour comedy special and decided he was going to make it available through his website for the asking price of five dollars. For five bucks, consumers get a DRM-free download of the special, which they can play on any device they want, burn to a DVD, etc. All of the material in the special is brand new, and he made it available to his fans for five dollars.

In four days, Louis CK has sold over 110,000 copies of his comedy special, and made about $500,000. The video and website production cost him about $200,000, and factoring in other expenses, he has made approximately $200,000 in profit.

Louis wrote a great post about all of this on his site, but the gist is this: if you make something great, sell it for a reasonable price, and make it as accessible as possible, people will but it from you rather than steal it. His little experiment is proof of this, and it’s a philosophy I’ve always held.

There are other examples of this out there that are working. The Double Feature comics app is another shining example of putting out a high-quality product at a low price and being successful. Issues of the comic feature two stories, tons of extras, and are released monthly for $.99.

I think it’s important to acknowledge success stories like this, because in my opinion, these types of business models reduce or remove entirely the barriers between the creator of content, and the people who want to enjoy that content.

Congrats to Louis CK, and viva the revolution!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Favorite Christmas Story--Night of the Meek

This time of year, we all have our holiday favorites when it comes to music, movies, tv shows, and books--the stories we return to again and again to remember what the holidays are supposed to be all about.

My personal favorite is a story that you might not be familiar with. In fact, I hope you aren’t, so that you can experience it for the first time this year. The reason it’s not as well known as many other holiday tales is that it comes from an unlikely source--The Twilight Zone. Thats right, the anthology series known for being creepy, twisted and in many cases outright scary gave us one of the greatest Christmas stories of all time.

The eleventh episode of the second season of The Twilight Zone is called “Night of the Meek.” In it, the legendary Art Carney plays Henry Corwin, a department store Santa with a drinking problem. When he gets fired from his job, he explains to his manager that the reason he drinks around the holidays is because he can’t bear to see all of the hopeless children and poor families go without each year, and he is saddened by what Christmas has become to most people. He just wishes that for one Christmas, he could be Santa Claus, and give the people in his neighborhood something to believe in. Through the magic of the Twilight Zone, Henry gets his wish, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity.

Art Carney is fantastic in this episode, and it’s truly a great reminder about the hope and joy the holidays can bring if we remember what they’re supposed to be about. It’s my favorite Christmas story ever, and I would encourage everyone to check it out. If you have Netflix, you can find it in the Holiday Favorites section right now. Or, you could just watch it in the players below--but I would hurry, before some Scrooge comes and takes it down.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I Love the Muppets

This is not a review--I just had to write about what I experienced the other day.

I grew up with The Muppet Show. I was two years old when it started, and for over five years, I spent every Sunday night with them. Watching The Muppet Show every week with my family is one of my fondest childhood memories. Like most people my age though, I lost touch with the Muppets as I grew older. The first couple of movies were great, but the later ones were pretty mediocre, and none of them captured the magic of what those Sunday night shows were like.

From the first trailer I saw for The Muppets, though, I had hope. I love Jason Segel, and when I found out how much he did to make this movie a reality, I began to get excited about how good it could be. The the reviews came out last week, and were almost universally positive. I was really happy as I sat down in the theater with my two kids the other day, thinking about how cool it was going to be to see a new, fun, Muppet movie.

Within the first five minutes of this movie however, I was literally crying tears of joy. because this movie is absolute magic. I am not going to spoil one moment of it for you, because you need to go see it. Like right now. If you have ever liked the Muppets, you will bawl your eyes out during this movie. It is a complete love letter to my childhood, and I was shocked at how emotional I was to see all of these characters again. On top of that, you can see the love that every person involved has for the Muppets--it oozes from every single scene.

I sincerely hope that we will see a revival of the original Muppet Show, because there really isn’t anything on TV like it, and there hasn’t been since 1981. If this is as close as we get however, at least I was able to share with my kids this amazing experience.

The world is a better place with the Muppets in it. Go support this movie.

Monday, November 28, 2011

NaNoWriMo 2011 Is Complete!

As I clicked the button to validate my NaNoWriMo novel on Sunday, two thoughts were running through my head. On the one hand, I was really proud of myself for completing the grueling challenge of writing a fifty-thousand word novel in a month. On the other hand, I was kicking myself for waiting four years to participate in NaNoWriMo again after first completing the challenge in 2007.

I approached things a little differently this time around, though. Whereas in 2007 I had only the roughest idea what I was going to be writing about, I went into NaNoWriMo 2011 with a plan. I had a strong vision for the main characters and the world I wanted to create, and I had a general outline for the arc of the story. That outline, though I deviated greatly from it several times, kept me true to the vision I had when I started the book, and led to a more coherent story overall, in my opinion. When I wrote my final words on November 26th, I had shattered the fifty-thousand word mark by eight thousand and change, and I was satisfied with how the story turned out. Don’t get me wrong--there is a lot of editing and rewriting to be done before the book is ready to see the light of day, but it’s a solid first draft to work from.

There is something so great about pushing yourself to write at a breakneck pace, never stopping to edit or second guess until you cross the finish line. Every day of NaNoWriMo is filled with unfettered creativity--I just go, because I can’t afford not to. And when I do that for an extended period of time, I realize just how often I have gotten in the way of my own creativity in the past. I have dozens of story ideas and half-finished pitches that have sat in obscurity because I pick them apart before I even get started. Case in point--the NaNoWriMo novel I just wrote is based on an idea I had for a comic in 2008 that never came to fruition.

I can say without reservation that both times I have participated in NaNoWriMo have been two of the most unique creative experiences I have ever had. Even more important to me than the experiences themselves is the lesson they reinforce--get out of your own way and create.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

NaNoWriMo Update--50,000 Words and Counting!

I just wanted to give a quick update about my NaNoWriMo progress--I've hit the 50,000-word mark! The 50k mark is the goal that participants set out with at the beginning of the month, as it is the accepted threshold for qualifying as a novel. When I completed NaNoWriMo back in 2007, I squeaked over the 50k, line finishing with about 50,200 words. This time around, I really didn't have any trouble hitting the word count goal, which I think was an indicator of how much I wanted to tell this story. My work is far from over however, as I have at least two more scenes and an epilogue to write before the story will be complete. But, I wanted to take a moment and celebrate the fact that I stuck to my daily goal of 2000 words, and that allowed me to break the 50k barrier before Thanksgiving.

Now I can focus on bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, and really enjoy the last week of NaNoWriMo. This has been an awesome experience so far!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Year Without War (Gaming)

I’m taking a break.

Since the arrival of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, I have been an active participant in the yearly cycle of military-themed first-person shooters. CoD: World at War, Battlefield: Bad Company, CoD: Modern Warfare 2, Battlefield 1943, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, CoD: Black Ops and even Medal of Honor--I bought and played them all. I also spent countless hours in the competitive multiplayer modes of those games, and I have some great memories of playing with friends over XBox Live until the wee hours of the morning.

Over the past few years, I have come to like the Battlefield series the most, as I am not very good at first-person shooters, and the Battlefield games reward you for playing supportive roles, as opposed to just killing enemies. So it stands to reason then, that I was really excited to play the multiplayer beta of Battlefield 3, which I downloaded and checked out as soon as it was available.

A funny thing happened while I was playing the Battlefield 3 beta a while back, though--I realized I don’t really give a crap about these games anymore. They’re all basically the same now. You run around a map, killing bad guys and capturing strategic points. You get experience points for doing so, which you use to unlock new skills and weapons. You do this over and over again--wash, rinse, repeat. The maps in each game pretty much fall into the desert area, snow-covered area, jungle area and urban area categories.  It’s all the same, and I just don’t care about it anymore.

So, I’m taking the year off.  No Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 for me. It won’t be easy, because every single one of my gaming friends has these games right now, and  every Friday and Saturday night they invite me to play.  But I will stay strong, and I will devote what precious little gaming time I have to games that I really enjoy. Dark Souls, Saints Row 3, Batman: Arkham City, Skyrim, Uncharted 3--all games that have either immersive worlds or interesting storylines (or both) that I can get lost in.

Am I forsaking shooters? No way. I can’t wait to download the original Crysis on Xbox Live or check out Id’s post-apocalyptic Rage. As I write this, I have Gears of War 3 sitting on my gaming shelf, and I will absolutely be playing through the campaign and enjoying the cooperative modes with friends. I’m just done with the cookie-cutter, competitive multiplayer, military shooters (CCCMMS) for now.

Who knows? A year off may rekindle my enthusiasm for the CCCMMS genre. Or, I may never come back again. Time will tell.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Holy Power Outage, Batman!

It’s been a while since I updated the site, and the primary reason for that is because I have not had power for the past eight days. An October Nor’Easter brought down hundreds of trees in the New England area, and left hundreds of thousands without power. The damage was so extensive, we did not get our power (and heat) back until this afternoon, eight full days after it first went out. It’s been a hectic and trying week, but through the support of family, we came through okay.

On a positive note, I have been jamming on my NaNoWriMo novel whenever I’ve had the chance, and I’m on pace to hit the 50k word count by the end of the month. I’ll post more about that in the weeks to come.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dark Souls Playthrough--Part 4 (Adventures in the Undead Parish)

I didn't get much of a breather after beating the Taurus Demon, because right around the corner, a giant red dragon named Hellkite was blocking the bridge I had to cross. After being roasted to a crisp the first time I tried to cross, I scoped out the area a little better. I ended up running into an NPC--a knight named Solaire, a sun-worshipper that represents one of the factions you can join in the game (more on that later). After talking to him, I went back up to try and cross the bridge again. The trick to getting through the area is to dive into the stairwell that is about halfway across the walkway on the right. It leads to an area that takes you under the bridge, so you can avoid the dragon altogether. There’s also a shortcut you can unlock that takes you back to a central part of the level, which came in handy later on.

As I made my way under the bridge, I could hear the dragon bellowing and see it’s tail swinging above. Having read about a cool weapon I could get here, I took out my bow and repeatedly shot the dragon’s tail. After about thirty arrows, the tail actually fell off, and I was rewarded with a powerful weapon called the Drake Sword. Early on in the game, this weapon proved to be a lifesaver, due to the high damage it delivers. I would need that, as the rest of the Undead Parish is pretty brutal.

Rounding the corner, I came to a series of open air staircases that led up to the parish itself. Guarding the stairs were a bunch of soldiers and a gigantic armored boar. The soldiers were easy enough to dispatch, but the boar charges for huge damage, so I had to lead it into a bonfire a few times to take it out.

Before heading into the parish itself, I went and found the nearest bonfire to save at. There is also a blacksmith near the checkpoint, so I was able to have my equipment repaired before heading back out. Then it was on to the parish.

The parish is tough all the way through. Coming through the side entrance, I immediately caught the attention of a giant, mace-wielding black night. One crushing blow from his mace knocked off about three quarters of my health, so I died a few times before finally figuring out his patterns. Luckily, he is one of the few enemies that don’t respawn when you save a a checkpoint, so I went back and healed up before going back in.

After quietly avoiding some undead knights on the first floor, I made my way upstairs and was forced to confront an undead knight at the top of the staircase. After felling him, I walked into an absolute beatdown. A mage was standing amidst a group of undead, and he cast a spell that sent them into a frenzy. The swarmed me, and I was overrun before I knew what hit me.  I had to start back at the bonfire and fight my way up there again, where I lured the mage out and killed him before confronting the horde.  The secret to defeating the frenzied undead was to keep them bottlenecked in the hallway so they couldn’t overwhelm me. After finishing them off, I was ready to head up to the rooftop to fight the bosses--the Bell Gargoyles. I’ll get into that next time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dark Souls Playthrough--Part 3 (The Undead Burg)

After beating the first boss and getting into the main hub (Firelink Shrine) of Dark Souls, the game starts to open up. You can choose to enter into different areas, although the game gives you some guidance on where to start. I was following the strategy guide’s suggested route through the game, as it’s brutally difficult enough without going through the hardest areas first.

After resting at a bonfire (the game’s version of checkpoints), I headed up the side of a cliff into the Undead Burg. As the name implies, this place was teeming with zombies and skeleton warriors, each more than capable of killing me with a couple of strikes. Immediately I was reminded of one of the golden rules of Dark Souls--always have your shield ready. Enemies love to ambush you from around corners, and some of their attacks are more easily blocked than dodged. No matter what class you play, you should have enough points in the appropriate stats to wield a shield effectively. Blocking and attacking are both tied to Stamina, which is a limited resource that needs to recharge after a certain number of actions. My first several encounters led to me dedicating more points to my Endurance score to increase Stamina, as I was frequently having my guard broken due to running out.

My initial strategy of using ranged attacks to soften enemies and then finishing them with melee was met with mixed results. In Demon’s Souls, most enemies would not stop and heal themselves during an encounter. In Dark Souls, it happens all the time. It was frustrating to use a few of my finite number of spells to do some initial damage, only to have an enemy be back at full health by the time I closed then gap for melee. So, I had to adjust my strategy. Instead of sniping from afar, I had to lure enemies toward me, use a quick ranged attack, and then close on them before they healed. This lead to more close encounters than I would have liked, and more deaths early on. Whereas I relied heavily on ranged attacks in the first game, I had found so far that mid- to close-range was where most of my encounters were happening in Dark Souls. Making things more dangerous was the fact that enemies often appeared in groups, and it wasn’t as easy to lure them out one at a time as in the previous game.

A few hours into the Undead Parish, I squared off against the next boss--the Taurus Demon. He’s a giant minotaur that literally vaults over a tower onto a castle walkway to face you. Taking what I learned from my first boss encounter, I climbed up one of the towers and dropped down on him for extra damage a few times, then sealed the deal with ranged spells. Of course, it took me four tries to beat him, and I spent about four hours overall getting through that section of the game. My most notable death of this section--one time I had the Taurus Demon down to almost no hit points, when I rolled to avoid an attack and plummeted thousands of feet to my death off the side of the walkway. It took me a half hour just to get back to that boss fight.

Such is Dark Souls.

Taurus Demon defeated, I pressed further on into the Undead Parish...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

NYCC Was a Blast

This week I went down to New York for the mammoth New York Comic Con. My good friend Vin Ferrante put Matt and I up for a few days and let us operate out of his booth at the show. We scored over 25 interviews for the podcast, which will be posted in the coming months. We also saw a lot of old friends and made some new ones.  Some of the people I interviewed:

Kim Harrison, NY Times bestselling author of The Hollows series;

Dan Abnett, one half of the Abnett and Lanning writing duo that have done amazing things with the Marvel Cosmic U, Heroes for Hire and many more projects over the past few years;

Mike Norton, artist extraordinaire and creator of Battlepug;

Jason May, creator of Rob Bot and co-host of Cartridgecade, and;

The aforementioned Vin Ferrante, creator of Witch Hunter.

We had a blast at the show and we posted a ton of pics over on the Secret Identity Facebook page. There will also been plenty of stories up on in the next few weeks about everything we saw and heard.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dark Souls Playthrough--Part 2 (The Undead Asylum)

Having finally settled on a starting character, I was ready to begin my Dark Souls experience. The opening cut scene was fairly confusing, but from what I gathered, you start off in an asylum for the undead. You are unlike the other undead however, as you’re not a mindless, shambling zombie. The first area of the game features you fighting your way out of the asylum and battling your first boss, a sort of jailor demon who watches over the asylum. That’s when I knew that dark souls was going to live up to the hype. In the first game, you ran into a boss right away who killed you, sending you to the main hub of the game--you weren’t expected to be successful against him. In Dark Souls, you have to complete a proper boss fight before you can even access the hub area of the game.

So, after a few crushing defeats at the hands of the demon, I figured out you could do extra damage by dropping down on top of him for a critical hit. That made the fight go a lot easier, and I finished him off with ranged spells after the initial attack. Needless to say, my decision to start as a Sorcerer paid off.

I probably spent about 1.5-2 hours in that initial area, after which I went to the starting hub for the rest of the game. In that time Dark Souls confirmed that it wasn’t going to make anything easy for me.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dark Souls Playthrough--Part 1 (Getting Started)

Dark Souls is not a game that I could do justice with a typical review. So, I decided that I'll be chronicling my journey through the game in a series of posts here on the blog.

My love for the incredibly difficult RPG Demon’s Souls is well-documented. I have also been telling everyone I’ve come across the past several months how much I could not wait to get my hands on the sequel Dark Souls, that arrived in stores this week.

On launch day I happily went to my local GameStop and picked up my beautiful collector’s edition of Dark Souls, as well as the mammoth 400-page strategy guide that Future Press put out. This time, I wanted to be prepared as I headed into a grueling but rewarding 50+ hour experience.

A funny thing happened as I got ready to start Dark Souls, however. I hesitated.  I couldn’t decide what class I wanted to start with, and I kept perusing the strategy guide, hoping for a level of insight that wasn’t there. As it got later that night, and the window of time I could have spent playing closed, I realized something--

I was actually scared to start playing.

Not actually scared mind you, but anxious. Knowing what I knew after having played Demon’s Souls, I found myself obsessing over how to start the game. Should I go magic or melee-based? What character has better starting equipment? Should I do a better job of building a character that can handle player versus player situations?

All of these questions were still swimming around in my head the next morning, and I spent the day mulling over my strategy. By the time I got home from work that night, settled the kids in bed, and saw my wife off to the gym I finally put the game in and created my character.

I decided to go with the Sorcerer class, because in addition to being able to cast ranged magic spells, the class is decent with a blade and is pretty mobile. In Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls, class really is just a starting point, as you can level up your stats to access all magic and weapons no matter what class you start at. My reasoning for picking Sorcerer was because the class starts with a ranged spell called Soul Arrow, and my play style from Demon’s Souls was to soften enemies up at range and then finish them off when they get close.  As I would find out later though, some of my strategies from Demon’s Souls would need to be tweaked in order to be successful in Dark Souls.

Tune in tomorrow for a recap of my first couple hours with the game.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Amazon Will Give Apple Some Stiff Competition with the Kindle Fire--Updated

Before Amazon’s big announcement yesterday, I was expecting them to come out with a decent $250 Android tablet. Instead, they fired the first real shot across Apple’s bow since the so-called “Tablet Wars” began.

First, the details--Amazon’s upcoming Kindle Fire is a 7-inch tablet that will run a customized version of Android. The tablet will have Flash support (which the iPad does not), and will be connected to Amazon’s suite of services (Kindle, Cloud Music, Prime Streaming, etc.). The tablet will feature a 7.5-8-hour battery life, and will be able to sync wirelessly. The Fire will be wi-fi only (no 3G), and will not include a camera or a microphone.

The most important detail, however, is the price: $199. Or, in my opinion, the magic price point that will destroy pretty much every other 7-inch tablet and grab a good chunk of potential iPad sales.

Is the Fire an iPad killer? No--it’s smaller, and clearly doesn’t pack in the features that the iPad does. But, it does have one thing that has helped allow Apple to maintain a stranglehold on the tablet industry over the past few years--an ecosystem.

Two of the reasons that both the iPhone and the iPad have been so successful is because of their user interface of their devices and the ecosystem that is iTunes. It’s a one-stop shop that allows users to seamlessly move between different types of content (movies, TV, music, books, podcasts, games, productivity apps).

Assuming Amazon gets the user-interface right (which they did with the Kindle already), they have a similar, and in some ways superior ecosystem to offer their users. Amazon has a full-fledged Android app store, a music store that allows you to store and play music in the cloud (with cheaper prices than iTunes), a first-party streaming video service (no need for Netflix), and the world’s leading online bookstore. Not to mention, Amazon itself is already the world’s biggest online department store. The only thing Amazon was lacking was a mobile device that would allow you to access their entire suite of services, and now they have that in the Kindle Fire.

The iPad may be more feature-rich, but for most content consumers, being able to get all their music, video and books in the same place, in addition to shopping for anything else they need through Amazon will provide the type of seamless experience that only the iPad has provided so far. And the Fire will provide this for $199, as opposed to the cheapest iPad, which is $499.

So, I could buy two Kindle Fires, and $50 worth of content for each of those devices, for the same price as the cheapest iPad.

Think about that for a minute.

Regardless of whether or not you’re excited about the Kindle Fire, you should be excited about what Amazon just did. In a “Tablet War” that has so far been all hype and no substance, Amazon may have just changed everything.

UPDATE (10/5/11)--I was reading a few stories today that estimated Kindle Fire pre-orders at over 250,000 already. With a month and change left before the Kindle Fire launches, the tablet could sell more than the 300,000 the iPad did in it's first day.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Planning for NaNoWriMo: Switching Points of View?

So, I am kicking around some ideas for NaNoWriMo this year, and I have a few solid ideas. One idea I have in particular is a comic pitch that never got off the ground, but I would love to develop into something publishable. In order to use this aprticular concept, I have to make a big decision up front--should I write the story in the first-person, third-person or both?

The way I had envisioned the comic is that it would feature the storylines of two characters that would start out separately, but would eventually converge into one. One of the storylines featured a character narrating in first-person, and the other was presented in third-person. The problem is that it's much easier to switch perspectives in a comic, due to the visual nature of the medium. If I maintain the "switching perspectives" model when turning this idea into a novel, I run the risk of confusing readers. I've read a lot of articles on this subject recently, and it seems that switching perspective is generally frowned upon.

So, I've got a big decision to make. Do I ditch the multiple-POV idea and just go with a third-person throughout? Or do I run the risk of confusing readers but maintain the original vision I had for the storyline?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why I Don't Want to Write Game Reviews for a Living

I’ll say this comic fans—I give you a lot of crap on the Secret Identity podcast about being fanboys. Marvel vs. DC flame wars, continuity nerds, the whole shebang. However, there is an area where game fans take the whole fanboy thing to another level, and it actually hurts the entire hobby. I’m referring to game reviews, and the way that both fans and reviewers behave when it comes to reviews is the reason I’m not interested in reviewing games for a living.

Before I get ahead of myself, I want to provide some context for those who don’t know about my freelancing work. From 2008-2010, I did freelance game coverage for Comic Book Resources. Most of the work I did at CBR involved interviews with game developers and comic creators that were working on game-related projects. Of the 100-plus articles I have written for CBR, one of them is a review (“Batman: Arkham Asylum”). I’ve recently been looking for some other opportunities to do some freelance writing about games, but not in the review arena. So why don’t I want to get paid to write game reviews? Because for the most part, the entire concept of game reviews is completely broken right now, and gamers themselves are mostly to blame for that.

Here’s a little experiment for you to do that illustrates the problem. Go to any gaming site and read a review of any recent release. Then read the comments that are in response to the review. How many comments did it take you to get to the one that claims the reviewer is completely biased because of reason X, unqualified to review games because of reason Y, or paid off by company Z for giving the game the review they did? I would guess less than five. That’s pretty much par for the course on any game review.

Another issue is that many review readers focus only on the score a game is given, not the actual content of the review. Once a reader decides whether or not they agree with the score, it doesn’t matter whether or not the reviewer justified the score they gave. They are judged as either a genius or an idiot based on that number and how it compares to the number in a reader’s head. Many review readers also expect a certain “paint by numbers” style to a review. Every review has to talk about controls, graphics, story, etc. Omitting any of these things or straying from the formula is discouraged by review readers, which results in reviews from multiple outlets all reading like they were written by the same person. So, deeper discussion around things like narrative are discouraged, as many people just want the “paint by numbers” review and the score.

“So what?” you might say, “People respond to comic reviews the same way.” And here’s where gamers take the whole fanboy thing to another level. In many cases, once a reader disagrees with a review score, they make it a personal mission to discredit the reviewer and/or the organization the reviewer writes for. This often involves referencing previous articles the reviewer wrote, taking things out of context, and trying to prove some bias or lack of credentials. People take screenshots of a reviewer’s Xbox Live or PSN stats to show just how much of a game the reviewer completed before writing a review, and then use that information to discredit them. The list of nasty misinformation tactics goes on, but you get the point. The sad fact is that the same people a reviewer writes for are the ones trying to discredit him or her. It gets so bad that you find gaming sites and magazines having to respond to fan comments by trying to further justify why a game got the review and score that it did.

By now you might be thinking “Why the heck do sites even review games? Why not just focus on features, interviews, and other aspects of games?” Because unfortunately, it’s the reviews that get the most traffic on gaming websites, and the traffic drives the ad revenue that sites get. The deeper features and non review-related articles are generally read by many fewer people than the reviews. So a gaming site that wants to remain financially viable needs to write reviews. It’s a catch-22, and a lot of game reviewers would tell you they’d love to ditch reviews entirely and just focus on features, but they can’t.

There are other negative aspects of writing reviews as well, specifically around the public relations side of things. Many PR companies and people get paid according to how well a game reviews, so there is constant pressure on them to try and influence reviews to be as positive as possible. Advertising is a big issue as well, as much of a game site or magazine’s advertising comes from game publishers and developers. Maintaining a good relationship with those companies is important, and negative reviews can affect those relationships. But, that’s a discussion for another day.

My long-winded point is that I really enjoy writing about games, talking to developers and getting behind the scenes of how games are made. I choose to focus on those aspects of my hobby as opposed to reviews, because writing reviews for games today is a losing proposition. I am also very fortunate to have Secret Identity as a place where I can review games informally, as I don’t get paid for those reviews, and subsequently don’t have to worry about a lot of the issues I mentioned above. We also have a great community here that can respectfully discuss things we don’t agree on, which is rare on the internet these days.

So, while I truly hope that you’ll see my name out there in the future, talking about games and celebrating what’s great about them, I don’t think you’ll see me doing a lot of reviews. I’m just not interested in exploring reviews as a freelance writer until the current culture around them changes for the better.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Time to Start Thinking About NaNoWriMo Again

Every year at this time, I start thinking about National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it’s more affectionately called. For those that don’t know, NaNoWriMo is a yearly challenge that takes place from November 1st through the 30th. The goal of the challenge is simple—write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days.

I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2007, and it was an experience I will never forget. Aside from the stress of trying to write 1600-2000 words a day, there is something really freeing about the challenge. You have no time to self-edit, second guess or look back. You just write—every day for thirty days. NaNoWriMo is a great way to give your writing skills a workout and a tune-up at the same time.

For the past few years, I told myself I was too busy writing for Comic Book Resources, Secret Identity, and now the blog you see before you to participate in NaNoWriMo. I’m busy this year as well, but I’m starting to think I need to make time to participate this year, as there is really no other experience like it.

Back in 2007, I wrote a Lovecraftian, B-horror movie style tale about an evil cult that was trying to bring their god from another dimension into ours. It was a lot of fun, and I swear I’m going to go back and do something with that story in the future. This time around, I really have no idea what I want to write about. I’m thinking of taking some comic pitches I’ve had sitting around and writing a bunch of short stories. I also have one issue of a comic written that could be a good jumping-off point for a novel. I’m not sure yet, but the more I think about it, the more excited I am about taking up the challenge this year.

By the way, if you want to know more about NaNoWriMo, check out their official website at

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The High School Reunion Project

I can't believe I'm saying this, but my 20-year high school reunion is coming up in 2012.  We haven't had a reunion since our fifth one, and we really want to get people to participate. So, I'm thinking of taking a broader approach to our 20-year reunion. Instead of just focusing on that one event itself, I'm thinking of trying to make the next year a celebration of our senior year. I have some ideas about how we could do this, and it started with me going back to my old high school and taking some pictures today.

I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Going Back to My D&D Roots

One of the things I've been talking to my gaming friends about lately is using the new Google+ service for some good, old-fashioned pen-and-paper roleplaying. With the G+ Hangouts feature, you can video chat with a group of people pretty easily. So, I am going to be running some old school D&D modules, starting with the very first one published for the old red box D&D Basic Set--In Search of the Unknown.

I just bought the module on ebay for ten bucks, and shold have it in the next week. While I already have Keep on the Borderlands and Palace of the Silver Princess, I wanted to start from the beginning of the Basic mod series.

Once we get underway (likely in September), I will probably post a campaign journal here on the blog.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Marvel's 'Comics for Comics' Program is Classless

This week, Marvel announced their latest Comics for Comics initiative, which allows retailers to send in covers of unsold comics to Marvel in exchange for a rare variant cover edition of Fear Itself #6 that they can sell in their store. That may sound pretty cool on the surface, except it’s not unsold Marvel comics retailers are being asked to return--it’s unsold DC comics.

For every 50 covers of selected Flashpoint issues that retailers submit, they get an Ed McGuinnes variant cover issue of Fear Itself #6. So, Marvel is asking comic retailer to rip the covers off of 50 DC comics and send them in to get a free Marvel book.  Here’s what Marvel Senior VP of Publishing, Sales and Circulation says about the initiative:

“In these tough economic times, we feel it’s our duty to help. After the overwhelmingly positive response to our Comics For Comics programs, through which we received tens of thousands of covers, we’re excited to provide retailers with the chance to help their stores through selling an ultra-rate variant."

Personally, I think that’s a bunch of garbage. For some reason, Marvel thinks it’s cute to design incentive programs that are a direct attack on DC, and then coyly act like they are doing this to support retailers (they did a similar promotion with Blackest Night and Siege). No one falls for it, least of all retailers, and fans are getting sick of it too. This type of move just comes across as childish. Marvel is already the market leader in terms of comic sales, and these types of arrogant stunts will potentially have the exact opposite effect Marvel is hoping for. I’ve read a lot of forum posts this week about fans dropping Marvel books in the wake of this, and a lot of retailers are railing against it as well.

If Marvel wants to truly support retailers, they should use their own books in these incentive programs. How about for every 50 Fear Itself tie-in covers you send in, you get a free copy of a Daredevil #1 variant? Support the retailers that support you, don’t undermine them by having them take another company’s books off the shelves. Retailers need to sell those books to survive, and you’re forcing to take a gamble that your “ultra rare” variant will bring in more money than the comics they destroyed to get it.

I’m not sure Marvel is aware of this, but no retailer is going to survive in the comic market by selling only Marvel books. If DC disappeared tomorrow, Marvel would follow soon afterward. I would much rather see Marvel focusing on improving the quality of their books in order to justify the $4 price point, than taking shots at DC, who is actually making bold moves and shaking up the status quo (i.e. $2.99 comics, day-and-date digital and the upcoming relaunch).

I have been a lifelong Marvel fan, but in the past couple of years, I’ve felt like DC has gone about their business in a much more professional, fan-friendly way. Marvel spends too much time patting themselves on the back, and not enough time on making sure they are putting out a quality product. They should pay more attention to their own house, as they might not be number one for much longer. They certainly won’t be in the month of September, and fan backlash against Marvel could give DC the momentum it needs to keep the top for some time to come.

Monday, July 25, 2011

I Just Downloaded Karen Kilgariff's New Record and You Should Too

You might remember Karen Kilgariff from the amazing Mr. Show, although she's also an award-winning comedy writer and has done a million other things. She just released a 5-song album called Behind You for $3, which you can preview right here. If you love it like I do, please click the link and buy the album for $3.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Game Developers are Turning the iPad into a Legitimate Gaming Console

“Hardcore” gamers like to eschew claims that mobile devices, particularly Apple’s iOS devices, are legitimate gaming platforms. What a lot of gamers don’t realize though, is that developers absolutely consider these devices gaming platforms, and they are working harder than ever to create content for these platforms that will be able to stand toe to toe with other platforms that gamers consider more “hardcore.”

IGN posted a video last week of EA’s FIFA developers showing off a version of the upcoming FIFA 12 for iPad. This year’s iteration of the game will allow players to use other iOS devices (iPhones and iPod Touches) as controllers for the iPad game. The video also demonstrated how the game looked on a big screen, using the iPad’s HDMI connector.

In other words, the devs demonstrated how they can turn the iPad into a traditional console via the software they are developing. This has already been done with other games and apps on a smaller scale. But, it’s easy to imagine that if FIFA 12 will have this capability, other EA games will end up having it too.

I’m not suggestion that my iPad/iPhone combo will replace my current consoles, but when you look at how consoles are trying to incorporate some of the best parts of mobile tech, and mobile tech is starting to provide console-type experiences, the lines between the two are starting to blur. Personally, I for one can’t wait to see more games with this functionality, because it pretty much means I’ll have a portable console made up of devices that I already carry around with me on a regular basis.

And that’s perhaps the most interesting thing about what’s happening right now with iOS devices and gaming. It’s like a spy movie, where the assassin gets past event security because he’s broken down his weapon into multiple pieces and then assembles it once he’s inside. Apple has basically snuck a new game console into iOS users homes piece by piece. First the iPod, then the iPhone, and finally the iPad. Then they bring them all together to form the console.

Crazy stuff, and I can’t wait to see what’s coming down the road. One thing’s for sure--I’ll be buying FIFA 12 on iPad on day one.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Google+ Offers a "Do-Over" for Facebook Users

Google’s latest attempt at a social network to rival Facebook is getting a ton of great buzz so far. Google+ invites are few and far between right now, as Google is slowly rolling the new service out. I’ve been dying for an invite, but have had no such luck yet. So, I’ve been reading everything I can get my eyes on about the features of the service, as well as the early feedback from the lucky users that have gotten in.

What I’ve gleaned so far, is that Google+ is a lot like Facebook, right down to the design of the user interface. There are difference of course, and the most glaring one right now seems to be the intuitiveness of the service, and the grouping system called “Circles.” The system allows you to separate your contacts into categories, and determine the level of information/content that you share with those groups of people. That to me is the single most exciting thing about Google+, as it gives me a chance to take what I’ve learned from using Facebook, and use that to create a brand new social network.

Think about it. How many of us wish we could go back to the beginning of our FaceBook days? Would you approach things differently? How many of us have blurred the lines between our personal and professional lives because we’ve “friended” everyone from general acquaintances to business clients, to our spouses? The biggest problem with Facebook for me right now is that I’ve reached a point of no return. It is what it is, and short of “de-friending” half of the people on my account, it’s hard to back out of what I’ve already done there. To be fair, Facebook does have ways to separate your friends into groups, but it’s not as intuitive as what Google is doing with Circles, and since I’ve never done it before, I would be going back through all of my current Facebook friends and trying to classify them, as opposed to doing it up front, as I’ll be able to with Google+.

Knowing what I know now, and seeing the potential of Google+, I am really excited to get another chance at setting up my social network from scratch. I don’t think I’m alone in that mindset, and I think that’s one of the factors creating so much excitement around Google+. I don’t think that people want another social network so much as they want a chance to start over.

What’s your take on Google+, and why are you excited (or ambivalent) about the new service?

P.S. Here’s a quick video about Circles:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How DC Comics Inspired a Secret Identity Relaunch

A couple of weeks ago, DC Comics rocked the comic industry with news that they would be relaunching their entire line of comics in September. During that month, 52 new comic series will be launched with new #1 issues, and many of DC’s characters will have new designs, and in some cases, new backstories. For an industry that likes to take baby steps, this is a huge move that is both exciting and risky at the same time. Anytime you make major changes to the status quo, you risk alienating your established audience.

But man, is it a breath of fresh air. The more I thought about it, the more excited I was about the idea of making something new again. And then I started thinking about Secret Identity, the podcast Matt Herring and I have done since 2006. In the past five-plus years, Matt and I have published over 1000 hours of podcasts, which have covered everything from comics to games to pretty much every area of geek culture. We’ve interviewed over 300 creators from all of the aforementioned industries, and in the time we’ve been doing the show, we’ve never taken a week off.

Over the first couple years, we tweaked the format of the show, and refined our website ( We settled on a format a few years ago that has largely remained unchanged, and that has worked for us and for the people who listen to the show.

So why fix it if it isn’t broken?

Well, for one reason, we’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. While neither Matt nor I feel like things have really gotten stale, we both feel like it’s just a matter of time before they do. We don’t want to end the current run on a whimper. We want to close a chapter with our heads held high, and then start a new one. Issue #350 of Secret Identity will be the last one in the current version of the show. That’s a great number to end on, and a great body of work to be able to look back on.

We also want to address some consistency issues moving forward. Right now, the second episode of each week is a pot-luck style episode. The problem is, there hasn’t been much variety there lately. Some of the other segments we’d like to do in that show rely on us being able to coordinate and record with other people, and that has not happened consistently. Our new approach to the show will help remedy that problem. The result will that people will know what to expect with each show, and we’ll be able to consistently deliver on what we set out to do.

Finally, one of the biggest reasons for the relaunch is because it’s really fun and exciting to get to have an opportunity to take everything we’ve learned over the past five years and use that to take another shot at launching Secret Identity. Everyone has things they’ve done that they wish they could go back and do over again. Because Secret Identity is something Matt and I created, and it’s such a big part of our lives, we are very excited to have another go at it.

In the next few weeks, I’ll talk more about what the actual format of the new show and website will be. Rest assured, we’re not getting rid of anything that people have come to know and love--in fact, we’re building on it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Familiar Heartache of a Lifelong Sports Fan

Last night, my beloved Vancouver Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins. I've been a Canucks fan for over 20 years, and the last time they made the Finals was in 1994. They lost an epic 7-game series to the New York Rangers, in what I believe was the greatest series of all time. This year however, these Canucks lost in shame. They were shut out on their home ice, completing a series in which they really weren't in since the third game. It was painful to watch a team lose the last game of the Finals and not even put forth an effort. It was sad.

For me as a sports fan, it continued a lifelong streak: No professional sports team I root for has even won a championship. The San Diego Padres have been to the World Series twice since 1969, and lost both times. The San Diego Chargers went to the Super Bowl in 1994 and were crushed by Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers. And I rooted for every team Charles Barkley played on during his NBA career, only to seem him retire without a championship. To top that off, I grew up a Hartford Whalers fan, a franchise that toiled in mediocrity until it left town in 1997, only to go on and become the Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes.

I'm writing this as a form of therapy today, because last night's loss is so painful that I don't know if I can be a sports fan anymore. I realize that a couple weeks from now, I'll move on and focus on the rest of the baseball season (and my sub-.500 Padres), but right now it just hurts.

I root for a lot of underdog franchises, and I always have. With that comes a lot of losing. But every once in while, when one of those franchises gets a shot at a title, just once I'd like to see them get it.

It wasn't to be for the Canucks last night, and who knows how many years it will be before another shot comes along.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tornado Hits Springfield, MA

Wednesday afternoon, a tornado hit Springfield, MA and surrounding areas. My family and home were ok, but many of my friends and neighbors were not as lucky. We just recently got power back, and the neighborhood is slowly recovering from what happened.

To see the formation of the tornado that hit Wednesday, check out the video below.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Why Double Feature is a Digital Revolution

In April, the guys at Four Star Studios (who include Mike Norton and Tim Seeley) launched a brand new venture called DoubleFeature ( The idea behind it is that each month they will put out a two-fer of creator-owned short stories for a mere $0.99. Issue #1 of DoubleFeature is entitled Action, and showcases Mike Norton's "The Answer" and Tim Seeley's "Jack Kraken." Both stories are fantastic and you will hear me review them on Issue #325 of Secret Identity. What really blew me away about Double Feature was how the iPad app really shows the potential of digital comics. Built into the app are a few simple but amazing features. First, there is a creator commentary that you can select, which offers notes on each page of each story by Seeley and Norton.

Second, and most awe-inspiring, is the option to see each page of each story in its penciled, inked and fully colored and lettered formats. Let me repeat that--YOU CAN TOGGLE BETWEEN THE PENCILED, INKED AND FULLY-COLORED AND LETTERED PAGES OF EACH STORY. You can do this on the fly, toggling back and forth as you read each page.

I'll let that sit in for a minute.

What these guys are doing cannot be done with print comics. Period. Sure, in some trade collections you might get sketches and some creator commentary, but not integrated like this. So much of the conversation about digital comics revolves around how they are inferior to print comics. People who think that way need to take a good look at what the Guys at Four Start Studios are doing with DoubleFeature. It is amazing and it deserves your support. I will be talking about this for a long time to come, and I look forward to reviewing each issue of DoubleFeature on Secret Identity. I am hopeful that other creators will be inspired to think differently about the power of digital comics as well. If the guys at Four Star decide to license their app as a platform, I would have Mo Stache on this thing tomorrow.

If you don't have an iPad, you can go to right now and download the PDF version of DoubleFeature #1 right now. As with the iPad version, it will cost you a mere $0.99.  The second issue of DoubleFeature, entitled "Horror," just released last week.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Writing and Running

While I have not been updating the blog over the past couple weeks, I have been busy. Mo Stache is still going strong--we're on our way to page 50! I recently posted reviews of "Portal 2" and "Thor" over on Secret Identity. Outside of writing and podcasting, I have also taken up a new hobby--running.

Don't get me wrong, I hate running. But, my wife is really into it, so I decided to see if it was something we could enjoy together. After talking to some friends who are also running fanatics, I was directed to a great running program called "Couch to 5k." The program is designed to take a non-runner and get them to be able to run a full 5k in nine weeks. I'm currrently in week three of the program, and I really like the way it's structured so far. Each week of the program consists of three running sessions, and you basically alternate running and walking for specific periods of time during each session. Over the course of the nine weeks, you do more running and less walking, until you are running the full 5k.

Since I am also a big nerd, I tracked down an iPhone app based on the program. The app is cool, because you can be listening to your favorite music or podcast, and the app breaks into tell you when to switch from walking to running. I love it, because then I don't have to keep track of anything.

So, to recap: still writing, started running. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The In-Depth: Demon's Souls (Part 3 of 3)

While there are several factors that make "Demon's Souls" stand out from other RPGs, perhaps the most unique aspect of “Demon’s Souls” is the way the game approaches multiplayer. From the moment you start the game, you are online. As soon as I began exploring the first area of the game, I noticed there were glowing markings scrawled on the ground in a lot of different places. Upon further inspection, I learned that these markings are actually messages that were left by other people who are playing “Demon’s Souls.” Sometimes the message was a warning about an enemy lurking around the corner. Sometimes it was a hint that treasure lies ahead. And sometimes it was a plea for help from someone who was in trouble in their game. So the first layer of multiplayer in “Demon’s Souls” is the idea that you can leave messages for others, and they can leave them for you. Even better, you can rate other people’s messages, and a good rating actually helps heal that player in their own game. So that player looking for a little help? I might have saved his or her life by giving their message a good rating. You do have to exercise some caution however, as players can leave misleading messages, but almost all of the messages I’ve encountered have proven to be accurate.

Another layer of the multiplayer in “Demon’s Souls” is the ghostly visions of other players that populate your game. At any time, you’ll see an apparition of another player run around a corner and engage in battle with unseen enemies. You are literally seeing what’s happening in their game right at that moment. You’ll also see the ground littered with bloodstains throughout the game world. Examining a bloodstain shows you a ghostly vision of how that player died in battle. Both the apparitions and the bloodstains can be extremely helpful, as you often can find out what’s waiting for you and what strategy did or didn’t work by watching what other players have done. The great thing is, you can also ignore these, and even the occasional apparition running by you is never too distracting or intrusive. I loved it, as I could imagine all of the other worlds where players were battling through the same scenarios, and I felt a kinship to them.

While the first couple layers of “Demon’s Souls’” multiplayer are somewhat passive, the last layer is much more aggressive. In simple terms, other players can enter your game under certain conditions, and they don’t need an invite from you.

On the one hand, there is an invite system where you can invite other players into your game, and they can help you battle both regular enemies and bosses. You must be in Body form (full health) to summon others into your game, and you use a particular artifact (Blue Eye Stone) to do so. These players are referred to as Blue Phantoms. They get to keep the souls they acquire while helping you, and if they defeat a boss with you, they get revived and go back to their own game world.

The flipside of the invite system is the invade system, and it’s devious, frustrating and amazing at the same time. It boils down to this: when you are at your strongest (Body from), and you are in a level you have not yet beaten, it is possible for other players to invade your game and try to kill you. Let me say that again--OTHER PLAYERS CAN ENTER YOUR GAME AND TRY TO KILL YOU. These players are referred to as Black Phantoms. I have had three experiences with this system during my time with “Demon’s Souls,” and each of them was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had in a game.

My first experience with a player-controlled Black Phantom caught me completely off guard. I had just defeated a boss, which means I revived from my Soul from into my Body form (i.e. I got all of my health back). I had just started running down a long bridge into the next area, when all of a sudden a message started flashing on my screen: “Player X has invaded.” My heart almost stopped. I had no idea what that even meant, until I saw it--off in the distance, charging toward me, was a ghostly visage of a well-armored night racing toward me, it’s form outlined in blood-red.

I immediately panicked and ran back to the beginning of the level, trying to use the transportation stone to teleport back the safe zone. The message I got in response was terrifying--”Can’t return to Nexus while in multiplayer.” I felt like I was in a “Friday the 13th” movie--I was locked in this level with a homicidal maniac, whose only goal was to hunt me down and kill me. Resigned to my fate, I took a deep breath and decided I was going to go down swinging. I armed myself with the most powerful spell I had at my disposal, and then stepped out of the room I had ran into, facing the charging Phantom. When he got close enough, I fired off a spell--and hit him. I quickly fired another, and hit him again. And then something magical happened--I became the hunter, and he became the prey. He was clearly not prepared for a magic battle, and so he turned to run away. I bolted after him, firing spell after spell as I chased him. He tried to put some cover between us, but my character was much faster, and after a few more blasts, his character keeled over and then faded away, sent back to his own world. It was amazing. I had honestly never had an experience like that in all of my years gaming.

The second time someone invaded my game, it didn’t go so well. I had just defeated a particularly difficult enemy, and he dropped one of the rarer items in the game. right before I went over to pick it up, I got a flashing message that someone had invaded my game. I panicked, left the rare item on the ground, and started looking around for my new enemy. I was up on a ledge and the invader ran up to the area below me. This guy (or gal) had clearly done this before, as he started his attack by casting an ‘acid cloud’ spell that immediately broke all of my weapons and armor, rendering them much less effective. We then played cat and mouse for a while, before he finally cornered me and ran me off the side of a cliff. When I respawned back at the Nexus (the safe zone), I had to pay about 3,000 souls to have my armor repaired. Worse still, when I went back into the world I had been in, the a rare item I forgot to grab was gone, never to show up again.

My last confrontation with another player happened in a really cool way. At the end of one particular level (The Tower of Latria), the boss you face does not fight you himself--he summons an actual player into the game to face you for him. As you make your way through the final part of the level, you know the other player is waiting for you. Again, this is one of those experiences I’ve never had in a game. The anticipation/anxiety was palpable as I made my way to the area where I was to face my opponent. I thought I had prepared well, taking my experience from the previous two online encounters into this battle. I was wrong. The player I faced was faster than me, and my spellcaster with ranged attacks was no match for his dual axe-weilding melee character. I gave a good fight, but ultimately lost. When I made my way back again for another fight, I faced an NPC controlled by the game, presumably because there was no one online to summon at that point. I beat my opponent and moved on.

I can’t say enough about how effectively “Demon’s Souls” implements the online portion of the game. While you can avoid being invaded by remaining in Soul form (but sacrificing some of your health), you have to face another person at least one time, and that’s a good thing, as it’s an experience that should not be missed.

In closing, over the course of my 58 hours with the game, I came to love “Demon’s Souls.” It’s a shame that many were turned off by it’s excruciating difficulty, as there are so many things the game does that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s truly an achievement to complete the game, and one I will remember for a long time. I began my second playthrough almost immediately, as the game lets you carry over all the levels and gear you’ve amassed the first time through. Of course, the enemies are substantially more difficult the second time around, but what else would you expect from this game?

So, are you up for the challenge? If so, you just might run into me sometime...