Dastardly: A guide to Writing Strong Villains

All villains exist to serve a function of the plot. Only the great ones are compelling characters.

Continue reading Dastardly: A guide to Writing Strong Villains

The Sad Ending to the Avatar Universe

No, I’m not talking about anything having to do with James Cameron.

The sequel series to Avatar: the Last Airbender ended last month. The Legend of Korra enjoyed a finale that many critics and fans loved, with some calling it “the best series finale of 2014.” For my part, I initially was not a big fan of Korra‘s final episode. While I liked the events of the finale, the – everything that happened – portion of it, I was disappointed in the ‘how.’ It just all felt rushed. From the two-minute “forgive me ’cause I’m an orphan” speech by Kuvira to the sudden and controversial final moments between Korra and Asami, I walked away feeling like the season could have really used another episode to explain and flush out the resolution.

We get it Kuvira, you did not have a great childhood. That really does not justify your basically being Hitler this season.
We get it Kuvira, you did not have a great childhood. That really does not justify your basically being Hitler this season.

I actually began writing a post that was dedicated to exploring the resolutions in “The Last Stand,” but my research compelled me to drop it (at least for now). The reality is that something far sadder than a series finale occurred last month. This very likely is the end of the Avatar universe, at least as far as creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino are concerned.

The two masterminds behind the Avatar universe.
The two masterminds behind the Avatar universe.

There is a reason that season four of The Legend of Korra feels like it is missing an episode. It is.

After the immensely poorly handled fiasco that was season three, Nickelodeon felt compelled to interfere again with Legend of Korra. The show’s numbers had evidently fallen (surprise, surprise; when you yank season three off the air halfway through the season and then release season four a month later with little promotion). Nickelodeon must have been losing too much profit for their liking, so they responded by slashing Korra‘s animation budget.

Konietzko and DiMartino apparently received an ultimatum: lose an episode or some of their staff would be let go. Rather than firing anyone, the two came up with a compromise: a clip-show style episode that heavily reused animation. Nickelodeon got to save on costs, no one lost their jobs, and the series did not have to completely lose an episode…

Even Varrick's hilarity could not save Remembrances from feeling really useless.
Even Varrick’s hilarity could not save “Remembrances” from feeling really useless.

Well, they still did. While “Remembrances” (as the clip-episode came to be called) is not in itself completely terrible, it is by far the worst episode of both series. Simply put: not enough happens in it. It is hard, however, to be overtly critical knowing the limitations that were faced. Nothing could happen in this episode, they did not have the money.

This means that Legend of Korra, an extremely fast-paced and tightly written story, lost twenty minutes of storytelling. Audiences can only imagine what the original, uncut, season four storyline might have looked like. Talk about treating one of your highest rated programs with complete disrespect. That would be like if HBO cut Game of Thrones set budget.

Do you really need all those extras? Do they need to be wearing armor?
Do you really need all those extras? Do they need to be wearing armor?

As if the mishandling of season three and the mistreatment of season four weren’t enough interference, Nickelodeon was apparently very limiting in another aspect of the show:

They're bisexual - you gotta deal with it.
They’re bisexual – you gotta deal with it.

Yes, it turns out that (spoilers) bisexuality is not an identity that Nickelodeon promotes. In his comments addressing the show’s ending, Konietzko handled it as politely and publicly correct as possible: “while they were supportive there was a limit to how far we could go with it.” That’s the nicest way possible of saying they were restrictive. If you are at a table with someone who has cookies and you ask for a cookie, they can be as nice as they want… while still not giving you the cookie. They can support your decision to want a cookie til the cows come home but you’re still hungry at the end of the day.

What is more troubling is the timing of Nickelodeon’s mishandling of the series. Reading the creators words on the dubbed “Korrasami” relationship (isn’t the internet just so clever?), it becomes clear that the idea of the two having a romantic relationship become much more concrete after season two. Seasons three and four were meant to be the set-up. Hmmm, now what two seasons did Nickelodeon really interfere with? I am not accusing the corporation of homophobia, but it is a little unsettling to have these timelines line up.

Suicide? That's fine, just make sure the two women don't kiss!
Suicide? That’s fine, just make sure the two women don’t kiss!

Regardless of what happened, one thing is clear: Konietzko and DiMartino have grown too mature for Nickelodeon. Who can really blame them after everything that happened with Korra? It does not sound anything like the successful partnership that occurred with Avatar: the Last Airbender. You can bet the two have a future project planned, they have said as much themselves. The sad news is: it is not Avatar related.

The two are moving on, likely to a studio or network (Netflix, HBO) that allows more artistic freedom. While this is likely a great move and I eagerly await their next series, it is sad that this is how the Avatar universe ends. There will be more comic books, which is nice I guess… but it appears unlikely that Nickelodeon will ever produce another series (after some feel that they tried actively to kill Korra) and even less likely that it will involve the two creators. This was an incredible universe that spanned two extraordinary shows. Even if its “cartoon” status prevented it from earning the acclaim of Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black, both Korra and Avatar accomplished something truly special.

It is just a shame that this good-bye tastes so bitter.

"Hey cheer up, at least Michael Bay hasn't made a movie about us yet."
“Hey cheer up, at least Michael Bay hasn’t made a movie about us yet.”

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The Ultimate Mixed-Bag: Dragon Age II

The release of Dragon Age: Inquisition is upon us. Bioware‘s third in its series of medieval fantasy role-playing games looks impressive, and has already amassed a slew of favorable reviews before its release.  This is the first Dragon Age game since 2011. It is odd in this day to find such a high-budget video game release being given so long a development schedule. To put it simply: four Call of Duty games have been released in that time. Of course, the counter argument could be that EA lets Bioware take longer to develop their games but… that is not true.  Mass Effect 3 was released just over two years after the initial release of Mass Effect 2 (not including the dlc release dates), and that title was delayed. Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s long development time might have a lot more to do with the reaction to its predecessor, 2011’s Dragon Age II.

Dragon Age II received positive reaction from critics, but to look at the game’s user feedback is a different story. Many fans of the series condemned the sequel, calling it a rushed, cheap cash-in attempt on the first game. While not all the response was that critical, it came as a personal surprise to me. I am a big fan of Bioware, I love their games and quite enjoyed playing through Dragon Age II when it was released. That said, the game undeniably has weaknesses. While video game taste will always be a matter of perception and personal taste, there are a few areas where it is very possible to be objective. Let us examine the definite negatives and positives of Bioware’s most controversial release.

Level Variety

This is the first and largest negative aspect of Dragon Age II. The first game, Dragon Age: Origins, was known for its sprawling world and massive amount of dungeons. Last night, my friends and I tried to remember all the different dungeons in Dragon Age II. We concluded that their were basically six… in a game that took at least twenty hours to beat. The number is not the problem, if each dungeon was vast and took a lot of time and felt unique, that would be one thing. Dragon Age II recycles the same six small dungeons over and over again for its quests. The player better enjoy each dungeon’s design, because they will be seeing them a lot. True, there are a few others that are called in for special occasions but really it is difficult to overlook the impression this leaves. Reused dungeon design gives the definite feeling of a rushed game and chips away at the feeling of immersion. “Let’s go into this alley? Oh, you mean the alley that looks identical to every other alley in the city? Sure… why not.”

Get used to the one cave outside of Kirkwall that you revisit over and over again before the game is done.
Get used to the one cave outside of Kirkwall that you revisit over and over again before the game is done.


Glitches can make or break any game. The best video game’s can be tarnished and company’s reputations ruined over releasing products full of bugs. Unfortunately, Dragon Age II is such a game. Having completed multiple play-throughs, I personally encountered multiple glitches both times. These were not simply graphical errors either, where the models and textures go wonky. On several occasions, the game encountered errors which prevented quests from being completed or even attempted. In a game where going on quests is essential (the main drive of the entire video game), this is unacceptable. What made it worse was that Bioware and EA put out several expansions of paid dlc… without ever fixing the bugs in the main game. Don’t worry, the downloadable content contains errors too. It is a tough sell to continue to support a game that its own maker can’t even be bothered to fix.

I encountered a glitch in one play-through that prevented me from completing any of Fenris' side missions. An entire chunk of the game was removed due to this error.
I encountered a glitch in one play-through that prevented me from completing any of Fenris’ side missions. An entire chunk of the game was removed due to this error.

These are the only two clear failings of the game but – they are large failings. Whether a player liked the story is subjective. Whether a player liked the companions is subjective. Not being able to complete quests due to poor design – that is a very objective complaint. But anyway, about those companions…

The Companion Archs

Not to say that Dragon Age: Origins had poor companions, it did not. That said, certain mechanics of the system felt tacked on and were easy to manipulate. Companion loyalty simply came down to gift giving, it served to undermine the organic nature of forming a party. This was thankfully no longer true in Dragon Age II. While still not perfect, the companion system felt more natural this time around. Everything came down to how the player protagonist interacted with the companions. Gifts still played a role but it was reduced. The resulting effects caused the player to more carefully consider their options, especially given that companions could turn to enemies given the right circumstances.

Like its predecessor, each character had their own personality. Unlike its predecessor, there was no magic way to make them instantly all your friend.
Like its predecessor, each character had their own personality. Unlike its predecessor, there was no magic way to make them instantly all your friend.

The Art Style

Like it or not, there is no denying how much more creative the art style appeared in Dragon Age II. Each race became more distinctive looking. Quanari, for instance, became much more easily identifiable. While Origins was not weak on design, Dragon Age II did a lot to improve it. The game is definitely stylish.

Each race grew more distinct in 2.
Each race grew more distinct in 2.

Ultimately, Dragon Age II is bizarre in the fact that it is exceptional in both respects. What works in the game works very well and what does not fails miserably. There was no middle of the road in Bioware’s second fantasy epic. At the end of the day, however, this game might be one of the finest mixed bags ever made. It is certainly one of the few I can honestly say I would recommend to people looking for high quality… just watch out for the low.