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by Bill Gibron

1 Sep 2009

It seems to get harder every year. As Tinseltown continues to micromanage the box office down to a dollars and cents science, turning out more product that pure cinematic wonder, coming up with a list of five or - god forbid - ten favorites becomes a Herculean chore. Frankly, we’d rather clean out a few stables or slay some Stymphalian birds than rack our brain making a decision. And 2009 made the situation even more of a struggle. It seemed like the entire season was either front or back loaded, greatness coming at the start or toward the end with very few offerings plodding around somewhere in the middle. Indeed, it seemed like the titles from May to August were either great, or groan-inducing - very few in between.

Still, we sorted through the nearly 50 films we tackled over the last 16 weeks and came up with something like a consensus. Certainly, we didn’t see everything (sorry Moon, Paper Heart, Big Fan, Taking Woodstock, etc.) and there were definitely movies that remained enigmas, needing another viewing (or two) before their lasting value could be calculated. As a result, the lists below feel a bit incomplete. Yes, we got to Final Destination 3D and Halloween II. No, they wouldn’t be making an appearance anywhere today (much to many readers chagrin, surely). Indeed, as with any collection of favorites, it’s all a matter of opinion. Instead of getting snippy about it, why not offer up your own choices. Perhaps your picks are just as debatable.

by L.B. Jeffries

1 Sep 2009

When they are first starting out, all forms of media borrow from other forms until they are able to stand on their own two feet. Movies mostly often recreated plays and books for their first few decades to give a recent example. At a certain point, this act of borrowing becomes problematic because the medium must eventually rely on its strengths, yet appropriating new ideas is always a useful tool for innovation. One of the most interesting borrowing of techniques that’s going on in video games is borrowings from graphic novels. For a variety of reasons, abstract concepts in the form of visual symbolism are constantly applied in video games. This is something that is still relevant to both 8-bit graphics and the still awkward characters seen today. Matthew Gallant pointed out in the comments of the above post that Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics develops this concept and lately I’ve been seeing a lot of game designers reference it in their blogs. So, here’s a breakdown of what the book brings to video games.

The most important thing McCloud outlines in his book is how abstraction works in comics. A photograph is an example of something with no abstraction; it is a visual approximation of a person’s face. A smiley face is the ultimate abstraction because it could potentially represent anyone. As McCloud explains, “The more cartoony a face is…the more people it could be said to describe.” (31) Most comics fall somewhere in the middle of these two standards because abstraction allows a person to psychologically project themselves into a character. Citing Marshall McLuhan’s research into driving and inanimate objects, this concept can even extend to vehicles. They become “an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car.” (38) This is extremely important to grasp when looking at a video game. They are constantly balancing between enough abstraction that you project yourself into the avatar while at the same time supporting more realistic graphics and art styles. Many developers balance out their graphics with techniques like the silent avatar or by never letting us see a character’s face. Others rely more heavily on comic book styles by keeping the visual environment that characters inhabit within a comic book or anime template. In all games, some degree of abstraction is needed to allow for projection.

The more complex levels of abstraction come from communicating a projected identity back to the player. McLuhan’s car example is a good one for understanding the inherent problems in this process: nothing physical is actually happening in the game. This relates to the second point that McCloud makes in his book on how symbolism works. The letters that you are reading right now are technically phonetic symbols strung together that represent what these words sound like when spoken aloud. This is only one kind of symbol, another example would a the red circle of a no smoking sign or the icons on your computer. These are visual representations. The phonetic symbol is less abstract than the visual symbol. There is nothing to project into when you are looking at the written word, instead you are thinking about what it means and internalizing that. As McCloud explains, “[Visual] icons demand our participation to make them work. There is no life [t]here except that which you give to it.” (59) He uses the example of a drawing of only his upper body, explaining that our mind is filling in the rest of the details and thinking of him as a whole person despite the literal depiction. 

In terms of games, the most readily applicable place for these ideas is the HUD. A bar that decreases until the red better communicates the player’s health rather than a sentence saying “You are hurt.” One is more abstract and requires our mind to engage with it, while the other is just informing us of information. Where this representation really starts to come into play are in complex RPGs and other games that have extensive interfaces. A game like Fallout 3, which relies heavily on numbers, has to balance this quantatative infromation with other elements like coloring and bars. Sound effects and direction indicators for where damage is coming from also build on this principle of finding ways for the player to project into the game. A fully realized abstract interface should be able to allow the player to visually observe information and physically flinch in a manner relative to that information. The sizzle and dwindling health of your character when they fall into lava, the flash of red when a bullet tags you, these are all ways of feeding information back to the player more smoothly and thus make them “feel” it more.

This is possible because of a principle in comics that McCloud refers to as “closure.” That is, I don’t have to punch you in the face to make you sense a mild approximation of that feeling. Take the example of only seeing part of McCloud’s body yet assuming he is a whole person and transfer that to the notion of action itself. A picture of a man swinging an ax at another person can be followed by an “EEYAA!!” without having to show me an axe mutilated corpse, I can infer the action that has occurred. McCloud explains, “Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An equal partner in crime known as the reader.” (68) In film, this would be the same thing as showing a couple kissing and falling into bed before cutting to a shot of the next morning as they lay sleeping together. You don’t have to show the audience a scene of the couple having sex to get the point.

In application to video games, closure highlights yet another reason why comparing film and video games breaks down fairly quickly. Cutting the player’s visual feedback for any reason is problematic, much less removing the visual reaction to an act that they have performed. The player is going to want to see the ax connect, the couple having sex, etc. because they instigated it. Where closure does kick in is explaining the bridge between seeing a bullet hit my avatar and inferring that I have been hurt. The abstract symbols of the HUD, along with its visual representation, communicate that the event happened. The process of closure, due to the abstractions creating it, is what makes the player feel this moment. Like seeing the visual image of a man swinging an axe at a person and feeling horrified, seeing a bullet hit our avatar is communicated through our imagination. The player must actively participate with the game’s imagery and HUD for it to create an immersive experience.

Other portions of the book are interesting but difficult to apply to games. McCloud touts the importance of balancing words and imagery and relying on both to properly communicate a story (156). He highlights several techniques for doing this and the cultural origins of them. The final chapter presents a useful diagram for how an artistic creation starts (idea), develops through a tool (a pen for comics), is observed by a reader (eyeball), and leads to them forming their own ideas. He explains, “Media convert thoughts into forms that can traverse the physical world and be re-converted by one or more senses back into thoughts.” (195) He considers this process a kind of artistic gauntlet and laments how hard that it is to maintain an artistic vision as one makes their way over all of these hurdles.

One can’t help but wonder what a visual diagram for a video game would look like. There have been attempts at it numerous times, but it always ends up a jumbled mess of circles and lines going between developer and player that all connect into a giant explosion in the middle. A few things do remain consistent though. As with all other media, eventually the game leaves the developer’s head and has quite a journey to make before it becomes an idea in the the head of the player.

by Rob Horning

1 Sep 2009

At Design Observer, Michael Bierut mentioned the High Line—an old elevated railway track in New York City that’s been turned into an awkward, real-estate-value enhancing gated-park space—as an example of “when design gets in the way.” The case he presents for that struck me as a bit incoherent—the High Line is so well-designed that it has become too popular for its own good, while the ad hoc utilitarian set-up in Times Square (recently closed to automotive traffic) works just as well to please people. Should the High Line have been made less appealing so it wouldn’t become overcrowded? Should it have been renovated on the cheap since people might have used it anyway?

I want to agree that design has indeed gotten in the way, because when I visited it last Friday before I left for the shore it made me very uneasy, but I’m confused. I think his point is that design can be more spontaneous and require less bureaucracy. My point would be that designy-ness itself, whether the product of a well-meaning bureaucracy or a marketing firm, is suffocating; its fastidiousness seems to close off user interaction even when it has seen fit to try to engineer it in advance with various heavy-handed interventions. At the High Line everything seemed so thought out in advance that I could only conclude that I was not invited to do any thinking for myself while I was there. It feels less like a park than a useless piece of installation art meant to impress us with its ingenuity. I half expected to see people walking along applauding. I felt corralled into performing the piece’s cleverness by traversing it, but I didn’t want to perform (unlike the guys conspicuously doing yoga in the middle of the narrow platform). I just wanted a refuge from what is at street level, which is designy-ness harnessed to marketing purposes. Up on the High Line, there’s just a more concentrated form of that deisigny-ness, elevated to civic duty, vindicating all the shop windows down below. 

The friend who accompanied me to the High Line thought its design was a little oppressive also—she pointed to the lack of seats in the shade, and the lack of assembly spaces. Its design—by necessity I guess, given the constraints—streamlines away the possibility that it might serve as a public place of protest. It’s a park for an orderly, obedient people content to walk in single file and stay within the prescribed boundaries. She noted also the fact it can be locked up to bar undesirables, and the way it seemed to mock the death of manufacturing in the city. In terms of what the city produces, manufactured goods have been supplanted by the dissemination of design ideas—a transition the High Line commemorates with no consolation for the losers. Once the rails moved actual goods and anchored working-class jobs; now they are purposely overgrown, archaicized, dressed up to make the condos for the wealthy built all around the tracks more aesthetically pleasing. But it seems doomed to feel dated (it’s very much of the eco-conscious zeitgeist—like a Method detergent bottle), and after its vogue fades, it will probably become this weird, depopulated albatross we must continue to maintain, a Christo exhibit that never goes away.

by Matt Mazur

1 Sep 2009

Looks like a rare funny movie will get some traction this fall—with George Clooney, Ewan MacGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges heading the cast, The Men Who Stare at Goats trailer feels like a mix of the Coen Brothers and David O. Russell, with a major wink to the current “bromance” trend in film.

by AJ Ramirez

1 Sep 2009

This past week saw the public debut of material by Bad Lieutenant, as the band uploaded the track “Sink or Swim” on its MySpace page.  Bad Lieutenant is the new group formed by singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner, after the dissolution of his previous band New Order by bassist Peter Hook in 2007.  The breakup is an interesting story in of itself, as Hook went around telling interviewers that the group was over while his bandmates expressed surprise and bafflement over his remarks for months on end.

While the group features latter-day New Order guitarist Phil Cunningham and contributions from stalwart Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris, the impression is that Bad Lieutenant is very much Sumner’s band.  “Sink or Swim” is a decent start, if not a particularly striking one, not sounding out of place among material by British indie bands more than half Sumner’s age.  The song takes advantage of the fact that a bassist of Hook’s caliber is not laying down the central melody, instead letting guitarist Jake Evans weave winding leads throughout.  While Sumner has never been the greatest singer in the world, there’s a certain charm to his soft, average-guy-singing-in-the-elevator voice, and it suits the song perfectly.  Despite the song’s downer lyrics, Sumner sounds quite pleased to be surrounded by so many guitar parts.

The song gets a physical release on September 21, with the group’s debut album Never Cry Another Tear due in October.  Meanwhile, Hook has remarked to The Quietus recently that material by his long-gestating Freebass project (featuring fellow Manchester, England bass legends Andy Rourke of The Smiths and Mani of The Stone Roses) is due for release around the same time as Bad Lieutenant’s record.  He’s even gone as far as to refer to his potential showdown with his former bandmate as “a bit like a fat version of Blur and Oasis”, referencing the epic UK chart showdown between the Britpop titans for the number one single slot in 1995.  Will either of these releases chart that high?  Not likely, but at least Bad Lieutenant has so far given the public a glimpse of something promising coming out of the unfortunate end of New Order.

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Cage the Elephant Ignite Central Park with Kickoff for Summerstage Season

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