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I just got a box full of swag!

In April I enteredthis imageinto a Mass Effect 3 pixel art contest at Gamespot.com and I won. Today, my prize came--a box full of Mass Effect 3 swag. Check it out:

That's me in one of TWO N7 hoodies, holding a sweet N7 mug. As a fan of tastefully geeky game memorabilia, this stuff is great. The N7 hoodies look like athletic gear (like I said, tastefully geeky), and are made of some surprisingly high quality material. These things are incredibly comfortable. Shame it's 86 degrees in Charlotte right now!

My lovely wife wearing the other hoodie (it's kind of huge on her) while displaying the N7 Playstation 3 armor. It's an N7 chest piece that actually goes on the PS3. Also comes with a cool back side and stand so you can sit the PS3 vertically.

Here she is again holding what is probably my favorite piece of swag: The Art of the Mass Effect Universe. As an artist and a huge Mass Effect fan, finding this at the bottom of the box was a real treat.

Here's the whole haul. Two hoodies, two shirts--one button up, the other a t-shirt--the PS3 armor, a N7 mug, and the Mass Effect art book.

This was a wonderful surprise to come home to today. Thanks toSynthiaandJodyfor putting on the contest and sending me this mega awesome box of swag!

A Softer Side: Wolverine

I didn't get to see The Avengers this weekend. I learned a good lesson about seeing movies when you're a parent: if you went through the trouble of securing a sitter, go through the trouble of buying movie tickets in advance. Anyway, I had superheroes on the brain, so I took this image of Wolverine I sketched a year ago and decided to paint it in a Little Golden Books styIe. I hope this will be the start of a mini-series of pictures. The softer sides of some hard edge characters. Not sure if I'll record them all, but I did this one. Check it out!

Vote for my pixels!

A few weeks ago I took my first foray into pixel art. It was something I always wanted to try, but never got around to. Actually, that?s not true, I used to do it all the time.

Back in like, 1995, my parents bought a computer that had MS Paint on it. I spent hours and hours drawing pixelated pictures with that clunky old mouse. Of course I wasn?t going for a pixelated look then, I wanted them to look realistic. Computer generated imagery was all the rage?1995, it was the year of Toy Story! I had an entire drawer filled with floppy disks, each one packed with goofy pictures (I think 11 year old me called them masterpieces). Sadly that drawer of floppies was lost to time. Sure would love to see some of those pictures again. I remember being particularly proud of an epic portrait of Macho Man Randy Savage.

Anyway, I went back to pixel art for Gamespot.com?s Mass Effect pixel art contest. It was the perfect excuse to give it a go?I like Mass Effect, pixel art and winning stuff. I was super busy with other freelance artwork, so I didn?t get to spend as much time on it as I wanted, but I think it turned out all right.

I discovered while I worked on it that pixel art is a ton of fun. I?m really happy it?s making a bit of a resurgence (for reference see Fez and Sworcery). Making it hits a creative and nostalgic sweet spot. The only downside is that when you?re done, you can?t play it. Once I finished ?de-making? Mass Effect into an old school 2D RPG, I was kind of bummed, I wanted it to be real.

I think it might be fun to de-make more games. Maybe I?ll do a whole de-make series and post it on my website. I might be able to squeeze in one or two a month with my other work (maybe, heh). Any de-make requests? Leave a comment of the game, and the genre you?d think it would fit in?like Uncharted might make a good 2D platformer or Call of Duty as a Contra-styIe shoot-em-up.

Oh yeah, if you have a Gamespot.com account, make sure to swing byhereand give me a vote in the comments, mine is Image 2. Thanks!

Five games to keep you running on Android

Smart phones game developers didn't invent the continuous motion or "running" game genre, but they definitely popularized it. It's a genre perfectly suited for mobile play--fast and easy to get in to, and they require minimal input (in most cases). Most people that are into mobile gaming know the big names in the genre, Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride, both of which are excellent games. If you've already played those, here are five more you might find fun.

Note: The Google Play Store is littered with me-too clones and bad running game rip offs. I played several in the genre, and these represent some of the best.

Stellar Escape

Stellar Escape puts you in the shoes of an astronaut fleeing an alien base. You'll jump, slide, vault and climb around a variety of obstacles through a set of increasingly difficult levels. The exaggerated cartoony animation is superb, definitely my favorite thing about this game. The button layout is under the on-screen action, not on top, so your thumbs don't get in the way. Though when things get hectic, it can be easy to hit the wrong one.
Price:Free
Micro-transactions?Yes, but only to upgrade to the full version, which unlocks a few dozen more levels.

Wind-Up Knight

Maybe the best looking game on the list, Wind-Up Knight is difficult but rewarding. Seriously, if you can play perfectly, the game rewards you with free gear and level packs. Of course you can pay to unlock levels and gear too. I aced the first set of ten and got the second set free, but I'm not sure I can do the others without losing my sanity. The game has a steady stream of ability unlocks—double jumping, shield guarding, rolling, etc.—to help mix things up and keep you on your toes. The only fault I can find with this excellent game is that the control buttons are a little on the small side.
Price:Free
Micro-transactions?Yes. You can purchase additional level sets as well as in-game points, which you can use to outfit your knight with better gear, e.g., a helmet that can take multiple hits.

Mr. Legs

This one is just plain weird. You play a strange person-like creature with extendable legs. The further you extend them, the faster you move. You raise and lower Mr. Legs to avoid birds and bombs and eat cherries. Simply tap the screen to start moving, and then slide up and down anywhere to extend and retract his legs. The unique art styIe, quirky music, and easy controls make this one worth playing.
Price:$0.99
Micro-transactions?No.

Temple Run

Temple Run has eaten up most of my mobile gaming time lately. It's one of the few running games that isn't from the side or played in landscape. You play an adventurer, dashing through ruins with a cursed idol, while strange monkey-like creatures chase you. The levels are randomly generated and feature a nice bit of variety. You tilt the phone side to side to lean your runner and collect coins littered about the world. Swipe up to jump, down to slide, and left or right to turn 90 degrees. This one has me hooked because of the achievement and upgrade system. Like many games, you can buy more in-game currency with real money, but in Temple Run, the upgrades are just low enough to make you think if you stick with it, you can make enough on your own. And so you try, and try, and try.
Price:Free
Micro-transactions?Yes. You can buy more coins to aid in the purchase of upgrades.

Winter Walk

This simple little game is absolutely delightful (picture at the top). As the name implies, it's not about running. You play a charming British man in a top hat, out on his evening constitutional. Controls are simple, tap the screen to start him walking through the snow, tap and hold when the wind blows to make him clutch his top hat. The goal is to make it as far as possible without losing your hat. I love this game's presentation. It's simple and silly, and the pixel art visuals and retro 8-bit music are great. I also love the polite and pithy ponderings that pop-up as you walk.
Price:Free
Micro-transactions?No.

Deus Ex Machina: Well that was convenient

Have you ever read a book, watched a show/movie or played a game (ahem…Mass Effect 3) and were hit something really weird at the end? Like something that doesn't fit? Something that's way too convenient; a strange, out-of-place person, character or circumstance that wraps the conflict up in one confusing swoop? Congratulations, you may have just come across a deus ex machina, one of the cheapest literary devices this side of the clich√©.

I think TVtropes.com defines it best:

ADeus ex Machinais an outside force that solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in an extremely unlikely (and, usually,anticlimactic) way. If the secret documents are in Russian, one of the spies suddenly reveals thatthey learned the language. If the writers have just lost funding, a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their movie, and offers all the finances they need to make it. IfThe Heroisdangling at the edge of a cliff with a villain stepping on his fingers,a flying robot suddenly appears to save him.

The term is Latin forgod out of the machineand has its origins inancient Greek theater. It refers to situations in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right, often near the end of the play. It has since come to be used as a general term for any event in which a seemingly fatal plot twist is resolved by an event never foreshadowed or set up.

Based on all the online vitriol surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending, you'd think this was the first time gamers have come across this lazy storytelling tactic. But it's everywhere:

From books:Tolkien wasn't above it. Didn't you think it was odd how many times giant talking eagles came to the rescue?

To TV shows:Every other episode of Doctor Who seems to have one:

"Oh no Doctor, earth is doomed."

"No it's not! I've got a supersonic earth-saving wiggly wobbleator!"

Movies:Watch any pre-Daniel Craig Bond film. Amazing how Q always gives Bondthe exactgadget he needs to get out of a very specific situation later on. It's never a general-use spy gadget. It's a pocket snorkel that lets him breathe under water for five minutes, which is the precise amount of time he'll be stuck in a shark tank later on.

And of course games:*UNCHARTED 3 SPOILER WARNING* Toward the end of Uncharted 3, Nathan Drake picks up a portable rocket launcher that looks like some kind of weird prototype. Minutes later this launcher miraculously fires two rockets under water, which result in the large-scale destruction of the massive underground facility the bad guys are occupying. Also, it saves Sully and closes the door on the mysterious container they were hauling out of the water. Convenient!

Look for it and you'll find it everywhere. It's annoying, aggravating and often completely unsatisfying. And yet, it does work in some places. If the story is funny, cool, or quirky enough, sometimes you can overlook it. It's a gamble for the writer to take—you have to trust that the majority of your audience will swallow your silly twist. Shows like Futurama and 24 are both littered with deus ex machina's. The former makes up for it with absurdist humor while the latter (mostly) makes up for it with Jack Bauer's general badassery. Yes it's incredibly stupid that Angelina Jolie's character saves the dude in Wanted with one impossible bullet when he's surrounded by gunned-up bad guys in a perfect circle. Stupid, but kind of awesome, and it fits with the rest of the absurd, fourth-wall-breaking vibe of the film, so it gets a pass.

I was disappointed with Mass Effect 3's ending just like everyone else, but to me, it wasn't a petition-worthy offense. Maybe it's because I write for a living, or because I consume a lot of stories, or because I knew it was coming, but the ending didn't rile me up. I shook my head, uttered a long sigh, and then started a new game. They went for a silly slightly-literal deus ex machina, a god out of the machine. The Matrix trilogy tried the same thing, but it was worse there. Then again the Matrix trilogy took a turn south long before the ending. At least Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic game all the way up to those last 10 minutes.

Anyway, this wasn't meant to be another blog about Mass Effect 3, the internet has enough of those. Just thought I'd highlight the narrative device they used, for those that don't know. It's actually in more places than you might think.

I think, most of the time when it appears in games, it's through a cinematic or through level design ("Look at that, someone left a mounted turret near this enemy encampment"). Throwing in a gameplay-specific deus ex machina would be difficult, because it could require a new mechanic or extra development. Game developers are economical. Why create something the player only gets to use once?

That's not to say it's never been done. There are games that feature single-use items or mechanics that completely shift the tide of the battle or story. At the end of InFamous 2, Cole can pretty much fly. Would have been convenient to have that power earlier on.

Now, the fun part! Movies and shows are easy. What other games can you think of that had a deus ex machina?

Results from the break

Ever take a break and realize just as it ends that it was exactly what you needed? That's how I felt last night about my creative spring break. I still worked on the art I was obligated to do, and I still wrote (a lot) at work, because that's my job, but other than that, I took it easy. I think some great things came from it. Here's some stuff that happened in the past week or so.

-I did the Cooper River Bridge Run. It was fun, as always, to run with 40,000 other people. They were pretty unorganized this year and the race started a full hour late. My feet hurt before I even started running. But that's okay, I still had a great time and the weather was nice.

-I beat Mass Effect 3. I thought about writing a blog about it, but enough has been said about that whole ordeal. I didn't think the ending was that bad, certainly not worth starting a petition or filing a claim with the BBB. I'm not going to remember the ME series for its final 10 lackluster minutes, but for the hours and hours of enjoyment I got from its rich universe and exciting fiction. Years from now, even the haters will look back on the Mass Effect series and see it as a landmark achievement for video game narrative. I can't wait to play it again.

-I rooted my old Droid Eris and then paired a PS3 controller to it for some emulator action. I didn't actually get to the emulator part, but it's ready for that should I choose to pursue it. I always wanted to try rooting my phone, but I was nervous I would screw something up. Now that it's just sitting in a drawer, I figured it couldn't hurt. Turns out rooting is easy, once you sift through all the message boards, wayward download links and jargon-filled developer comments.

-I tried out theBlueStacksbeta. It's a bit laggy at times, but still really neat. I played some phone games using my mouse and keyboard and got to try out Posebook on a much bigger screen.

-I got an idea for an online story/etsy shop. Brooke's been telling me I should open one for a while, but I wasn't sure what I'd actually sell. I found a niche I could fill over the break. Still not sure if/when I'll open the store—gotta find some time for that.

-Way back in 2006 I started an online novel. One chapter a week, for about four or five weeks. It was called "Stranger Things". If you've followed me online for that long, you might remember it. I took it down after a few people told me I should make a go at turning it into a full novel. I did that, but eventually puttered out--that was long before I discoveredhow to build a story. Inspiration struck me during my run last weekend and I think I'm going to resurrect Stranger Things after I finish my current book, "The Unfortunate Wishes of Matthew Watson". I'm going to start from scratch, but some of the themes, characters and ideas from that original book will be in there. I love this stage of the writing process. When every idea feels like it could be the best thing ever and little bits of dialog and scenes flash into my mind.

-I came up with a new work schedule for freelance projects and art/writing development. Since having Parker I was kind of just working when I could, and it wasn't efficient, for me or the family. I've discovered that life with a baby works best when it's heavily scheduled. Babies respond well to routines after about three months. Everything gets slotted into a predetermined space—laundry, cleaning, freelance, lawn work, TV time, etc. It can be tough to adjust to if you're not crazy about routines, but it frees up the brain space you'd normally use trying to figure out "when am I going to get this done?"

-Best of all, I spent some quality time with my wife, son and puppy. On that note, you should watch the documentary Being Elmo on Netflix. It's an endearing, inspiring little movie about the man behind the famous red puppet.

Definitely a good break. My creative battery has been recharged and I'm ready to get back to it. If you create for living or for a hobby, you should definitely look into taking one. Stop being a creator for a bit, just relax and consume someone else's creations (read a book, watch a movie, play a game). It's good for you.

Creative Spring Break

It's spring time! That means two things:

-I'm heading to Charleston for theCooper River Bridge Run
-It's Creative Spring Break!

That second one isn't really a thing. Until now, that is. I need a break from making things for a bit. Let my creativity recharge.

Currently I'm writing my second book, shopping my first book around to agents, doing the art for a video game, sending art samples to children's book publishers, designing wedding invitations for brides, working on a freelance art project, writing two blogs a week, and trying to improve my art in several different areas. All that on top of a day job, and my responsibilities as a husband, father and puppy owner.

So for the next week or two, I'm not doing any of that. Okay, I'm doing some of it—I'm obligated to work on/finish some of those things. But hopefully scaling back the others will help me catch my breath so I can come back strong and make some real progress on my goals, like finally finishing my second book.

That means I won't be blogging for a bit, but I'll probably still be aroundon Twitter if you want to follow me there. I'm actually really excited about this. I have this creative ambition swirling in my mind that makes not working on things almost impossible. I have to be doing something, all the time. It can be exhausting, and the weird thing is, because I make money off most of my hobbies, and I enjoy doing them, I sometimes don't realize that, creatively, I'm running on fumes. The last real break from creation I took was almost two years ago, when I went to Italy for ten days.

So I'm off to Charleston, to run across a bridge, and jumpstart my creative recharge. See you after spring break!

Mass Effect 3's excellent middle

I've been super busy lately working on way too many things at the same time (I know, what's new?), but I'm still finding time to play Mass Effect 3 when I can. I think I'm closing in on this notoriously bad ending now. I've avoided spoilers, but haven't avoided the never-ending conversation about it. Every game site, twitter feed and podcast has talked about it. By now my expectations are so low I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy it.

The one thing that bums me out with all this ME3 talk is that no one seems to focus on what was done right. The game might have a bad ending, but it has a fantastic middle. Here are some improvements over the previous two games I've noted and appreciated while playing:

-More talky talk.They scaled back the chatter in ME2, to the point that the only time you heard from your companions was if you sought them out. In ME3 they have more to say to you and to each other. They talk during missions, spit out quick quips and observations, they bring up past escapades, even call each other from different rooms when they're on the ship. You also see them out when you're on the Citadel, doing their own thing, sometimes hanging with other members from the crew or people from past games. The ME3 crew is a lively bunch.

-Better level design.There's nothing in the codex about the universe discovering ladders between ME2 and ME3, but I'm glad they did. The levels in ME3 are more dynamic and vertical and the backgrounds often depict scenes of epic battle. There's a richness and depth to them that make it feel like you really are a specialized crew weaving in and out of a greater conflict. A couple of the missions easily outrank anything the first two games did, even the well-regarded DLC missions for ME2. There's particularly cool one with the Quarians and Geth that offered something completely different while delivering some great story bits.

-It's like a movie!Remember when the first Mass Effect came out and we all flipped over the conversation wheel and the cinematic camera angles that framed your talks with aliens? Well the improvements in cinematic presentation made in ME3 (compared to ME) are like the difference between a crappy indie film and a big budget action movie. People walk and talk, camera angles shift multiple times in a conversation, set piece moments have some nice shaky cam to up the immediacy and urgency. How come no one is talking about that stuff? Look at the cool quick videos in the shuttle as you fly out to a planet. Shepard checks a computer screen, walks to the cockpit, talks with the pilot, chats with his companions, then hops out and starts shooting, all of it in-game. Also, lens flare!

-Multiplayer is fun.When the multiplayer was first announced, I wasn't outraged like some purists, but I couldn't say I was excited. It's not what I go to Mass Effect for. Turns out it's actually a lot of fun. You know how Call of Duty borrows some of the RPG-like level progression in its multiplayer? ME3's is like that, but deeper. You get the same powers and guns as you do in the single player, and you level up skills on branching trees the same way too. Plus you can play as aliens. No it's probably not going to unseat Call of Duty as the world's most popular multiplayer, but it's still a lot of fun.

So the ending isn't great, oh well. I've read plenty of books and seen tons of movies that didn't end well (Wise Man's Fear anyone? What about the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy?). Maybe I'll have more to say when I finally see it, but for now, I don't regret my time with Mass Effect 3 or my purchase. And I really don't like the idea of Bioware caving in and changing the ending. That creates a bad precedent, and all the petitions make gamers look like a bunch of whining, self-entitled douchers.

Just like the last two games, I'm already planning my second play-through. There are some parts in the middle of this game I can't wait to see again.

On a related note, Gamespot is holding a Mass Effect pixel art contest. I've never done pixel art, but it's something I always wanted to try. Here's my entry, a 2D "demake" of Mass Effect. Pixel art can be extremely tedious, but it's a lot of fun to figure out how to use the limited space to convey as much information as possible.