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by L.B. Jeffries

14 Apr 2009

One of the more interesting by-products of the internet is that games are continually exploring topics beyond the usual blockbuster action romps. Not needing to make a profit, easy distribution, and low technical requirements are proving to be the perfect recipe for games to start abandoning conventions and pushing the medium forward. Of all the things to get cut first, length is probably the most welcome. Rich Carlson explains in a column about creating Strange Adventures in Infinite Space that cutting the playtime of the game not only made it much more fun to play but also easier to make. They rely on the basic structure of a game like NetHack, numerous random variables with clearly defined goals, and base your score on meeting a certain time limit. The result is a kind of abbreviated Star Control 2 where you explore the galaxy, occasionally uncover a plot (it’s random if it even occurs), and generally finish all of this in ten to twenty minutes. In some games you will save the galaxy, in others you won’t get enough gear and will get blasted apart before winning. You don’t build ships, diplomacy is mostly random, and huge chunks of the story can be missed with no real loss to the game. The sense of loss that we’d normally feel is gone because of the low time commitment and the fact that you can just start playing again. What’s telling about this shortened game is that although they rely on the basic structure of the larger game, in order to cut back on length they also cut back on the game design options.

by Bill Gibron

13 Apr 2009

There’s a concerning discussion going on at one of the websites I write for (not this one, another), which has me thinking about the role of the writer in post-millennial media. Not the fiction scribe who is locked in some literary retreat somewhere, desperately trying to fashion a third act out of the personal memories of his time in boarding school and the girl that got away. Nor are we discussing the still viable journalist, the newspaper (or site) scribe whose job it is to get the facts straight and the story right - though part of what he or she does will apply. No, what needs to be differentiated in today’s messageboard morass is what readers want, what purists expect, and how someone who doesn’t really care about either can survive within such weak geek conceits.

The issue at hand seems to center on what information needs to be included in a DVD review. If you look at such pieces within PopMatters, you will see very little technical discussion and a lot of critical thinking. There’s no kibitzing over aspect ratio, additional content, or picture quality. For us (and I speak more for myself than the rest of the staff), the purpose behind a DVD review is to give the film/TV show/band/music/material in question another, more in-depth look. We are not out to guide consumers on when and how they should spend their limited cash. Now, let’s look at a site like DVD Beaver. Almost exclusively, their reviews run under 200 words - and most of the time, it’s nothing more than a plot overview followed by a “good/bad” certification. Where Beaver earns its bacon, however, is in the audio/video bottom line. They post images, list scientific breakdowns, and try to do as many compare/contrasts of differing versions as possible.

So on the one hand you have a readership that clearly could care less if the latest release of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is nothing more than the 20th Anniversary Edition spiffed up with a plastic Lament Configuration collector’s box. Then there are those who want such an assessment to go beyond the movie and discuss each and every item that makes up the disc content proper. I call this the difference between being a “reporter” and being a “critic”. Again, I am not necessarily referring to the correspondent who sits on the sidelines of world events and attempts to make sense of it all. In this case, ‘report’ should perhaps be followed by the word “book”. It seems like, more and more, 21st century audiences want a basic, barebones, by the…you know, breakdown of everything, including the most minor or unimportant minutia.

And they have a point. With discs running between $10 and $30, and their Blu-ray counterparts costing even more, informed decisions are necessary before heading over to the nearest brick and mortar. This is especially true with genre titles. Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead have been released (and rereleased) so many times, in so many different ways, that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all without a website devoted to the various format permutations. But how much is too much, meaning, how far does someone who writes for a living have to go to appease this particular arena. In my case, Fox sent a Screener DVD of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and I always mention in my reviews that I do not have final product, and therefore cannot accurately comment on final tech specs. In most cases that’s enough. But apparently, such a sentiment is confusing for those outside the craft.

The main comment coming from readers has been “So what is on the various versions of the title? All the extras you mention? Some? None?”, and I am forced to write back with the simple sentiment - I don’t know. True, Fox released single, two disc and three disc versions of the title, but all I have is a screener. After that, if the questioner wishes to pursue the exchange, I usually get a response with something like “Well, a Google search will clear things up.” Oh really. Let’s dissect this suggestion for a moment, shall we. In essence, what the reader is requiring is this - that I, the person with nothing more than a prerelease copy of a film in my hand, should head out onto the World Wide Web, find someone else’s review or overview of the movie, and then copy/rely on/steal from them. For the audience, this may seem practical. For myself and other writers, it’s called plagiarism.

Now I’m not suggesting that the reader wants me to literally repeat the text I find while digging around the ‘Net, but he or she certainly wants me to use the work of others for my own benefit. Instead of offering up my own experiences and takes, I am to draw consensus from the rest of the community and then call it my own. Again, remember the suggestion - don’t rely on what you have in your own hand. Hit Google, get more information, and then report that. In actuality, it’s nothing novel to individuals in traditional media. News organizations frequently lift content from elsewhere, except in their case, they ascribe all attributes and footnote the fudge out of their sources. It’s standard operating procedure. But with the online writer more or less lost in a Wild West wilderness of rights and wrongs, what constitutes “research” and what constitutes theft.

It’s not surprising that within a realm of file sharing, bit torrents, and other forms of information misappropriation that this would be the suggestion. Bloggers frequently post content that they did not “originate” and yet call it their own, while some websites keep on critics who literally rob their reviews from other writers, merely changing the names Dragnet style to protect the less than innocent. In some ways, this is all connected to the ever-changing face of letters. On the one hand, there are reporters, people who simply regurgitate the most elemental of information and leave it at that. Then there are the critics, individuals who try to put such data into a kind of analytical perspective. They may not mention every fact, but they do try for a balance between both. And then there is the writer, someone who can be a bit of both, none of either, or a surreal smash-up of truth teller, sage, and spoiled sport.

I consider myself to be part of the last category. I am not in this to give you the A/V breakdown on the latest format releases. I do offer such insights, but I will not go out of my way to make sure that every single DVD I tackle gets the suggested Google once over. Have I ever used the online source as a means of solidifying a position on a disc? Yes. Have I ever borrowed or “believed” anything another writer has said to bolster my own opinions? Never! I consider myself a writer first and foremost. If I can’t get my point across creatively, maybe it doesn’t need to be made. That won’t make the people who pester me relentlessly about my lack of “completeness” happy, but frankly, that’s not the point. Differing approaches does not lessen the value of each and it also doesn’t make any one more “valid” than another. The next time you’re unhappy with the tech specs someone offers you in a DVD review, practice what you preach - do a Google search. That should solve your problem, right? Right.

by Rob Horning

13 Apr 2009

I found this NYT article about the alleged resurgence of thriftiness as an ethic strangely depressing. Isn’t this what I had been hoping for in writing all these screeds against consumerism, that there would be a return to some more sensible set of values once the waste and frivolity of status consumption was revealed to all? I don’t know, maybe; but it’s hard for me to overlook the inanity of this:

The gleefully frugal happily seek new ways to economize and take pride in outsaving the Joneses. The mantra is cut, cut, cut — magazine and cable subscriptions, credit cards, fancy coffee drinks and your own hair.

In San Francisco, Cooper Marcus, 36, has started choosing recipes based on the ingredients on sale at the market. Mr. Marcus canceled the family’s subscription to Netflix, his premium cable package and a wine club membership. He uses a program on his iPhone to find the cheapest gas and drives out of his way to save 50 cents per gallon.

“It seems a little crazy,” he laughs, then adds: “I’m frugal and loving it.”

by Rob Horning

13 Apr 2009

I went to n+1‘s “What Was the Hipster?” panel discussion at the New School on Saturday, but went away a bit unfulfilled. There was little evidence presented that hipsterism is over, that it was a concrete product of specific historic moment, and no coherent theories for what might supplant hipsters. The participants never really made much of an effort to establish a stable definition of what a hipster is, despite n+1 editor Mark Greif’s valiant effort in his opening remarks. He wondered if the white-trash-worshipping 1999 model of the hispter (the one that wore trucker hats, listened to redneck music, and oozed an aesthetic derived from a largely hypothetical and imaginatively reconstructed 1970s rec-room amateur porn) was the hipster qua hipster, the only one deserving of the title, the way those from the late 1950s and early 1960s who fit the Maynard G. Krebs caricature were the only actual beatniks, and the San Francisco arrivistes in the 1967 were the only true hippies.

by Lara Killian

13 Apr 2009

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Recently I finished reading the young reader’s edition of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea (2009). The original, ‘adult’ version of the book still tops the NYT bestseller list. Since the book is ultimately about the education of children in poor villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s wonderful that this text has been adapted (by Sarah Thomson) for younger readers.

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