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by Mike Schiller

11 May 2009

It is a slow, slow week on the gaming front, but as is ever the case, a little digging reveals a few gems among the coal. Did you like that metaphor? No? I’ll try harder next week, bound to be another slow week in this, the doldrums of the gaming year.

This week, Sacred 2: Fallen Angel hits the consoles, having been out on the PC for the last six months or so.  The PC version was somewhat derided for its bugs, but hopefully the many delays that have hit the console versions of the game indicate a commitment to ironing out whatever bugs were there.  It’s been nine years now since Diablo II, and even the most devoted Diablophiles will be hungry for something just a little bit different.  Sacred 2 borrows Diablo‘s isometric viewpoint and punishing difficulty, and adds a world that’s a little bit brighter and, perhaps most importantly, a little bit funnier. Don’t be mistaken—if you’re new to this sort of game, you’ll find the difficulty of it awfully oppressive; stick with it, however, and you find a game that actually doesn’t take itself too seriously, making it an awfully pleasant diversion that may just last you until Diablo 3 shows up, unicorns, rainbows and all.

The PlayStation 2, perhaps surprisingly, has another potential cult classic on its hands thanks to Atlus, who will be releasing the oppressively titled Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon on the still-slowly-fading system tomorrow.  The game’s got style—you can see that much simply from the few trailers that are out.  If it can have half the narrative strength and beautifully balanced gameplay of Atlus’ Persona series of games, PS2 hangers-on are in for another treat.

Desktop Tower Defense is arriving on the DS this week, which seems like a perfect fit for the little system, even if the low resolution of the tiny screen might have made for a difficult implementation…it’ll be interesting to see how it translates from PC to portable.  If Left 4 Dead fatigue has set in, Killing Floor is another zombie shooter that’ll be seeing the light of day on Steam this week.  And, of course, Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball finally arrives on the Wii this week, a game whose name, well, it speaks for itself.

Me? Aw, hell, I’m playing Halo 3 this week.  The full release list, and a trailer for Sacred 2, is after…the jump.

by Lara Killian

10 May 2009

It seems impossible to me but it has been 18 months since I first blogged about Amazon’s electronic book reader, the Kindle. At the time I waxed enthusiastic about the possibility of storing 200 books on one device.

And it was only in February of this year that Amazon put the Kindle 2 on the market. Upgrades included the ability to store 1500 books and better screen resolution.


image credit: John Pastor

Amazon has just announced the release of the third iteration of the device for pre-order, now called the Kindle DX. An unusual thing has happened, though: the newest Kindle not only has more storage and capabilities (including a built-in PDF reader, which should placate many critics) – but it is larger than the second generation Kindle. Stop the presses, hold the phone. A next generation device that is bigger than its predecessors? Pictures show that the QWERTY keyboard at the bottom of the Kindle DX looks more usable, with buttons just about large enough to actually use (the image here is of the first generation Kindle). That’s a good thing. But is a 10.4” tall device going to be as portable as the original smaller size? The Newsweek on my desk is 10.5” long, while the latest Interweave Knits on the table clocks in at almost 10.9”. So the DX is actually magazine-sized. What will that be like? And how many different versions of the Kindle will be on the market before we hit the saturation point? I tend to throw a magazine in my backpack so I have something to read while I wait for the bus. No, I do not have an iPhone, or obviously I would be reading stuff online on that instead. I’ll be honest, after a few days and a few trips around town, my Newsweek copy is a bit the worse for wear. So what would it be like to have a magazine-sized e-reader in my backpack instead? I’m not sure I’m ready to take care of a device that big – I’ve gotten so used to a small camera, a small MP3 player, a small cell phone. I’ll be interested to see how the DX does as Amazon rolls it out in this summer. Are you reading PopMatters on your Kindle right now?

by Bill Gibron

10 May 2009

Someone posed an interesting question to me the other day. “Why,” they asked, in classic essay intro parlance, “are audiences and critics going so insane over J. J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film?” The question wasn’t one of contempt but pure curiosity. You see, Hollywood offers dozens of entertainment options every year, and few if any resonate with elements both inside and outside the industry like this one. Of the 221 members of Rotten Tomatoes who’ve reviewed the film, only 10 have disliked it - and outright dismissals are rare amongst even the contrarians. Similarly, the film was projected to only do about $50 to $60 million at the box office over the 8 May weekend, and yet managed to rake in close to $77 million.

But my friend wasn’t quite finished with his inquiry. “Could it be,” he sniped, a small amount of sarcasm creeping through his typically serious demeanor, “that J.J. has done the impossible - that is, made a really good movie in a current realm of unmitigated mediocrity? What I mean is, could Star Trek‘s popularity in whole or in part be chalked up to the fact that, when inundated with junk for 364 days a year, the movie-going public will take a good old fashioned well made ‘movie’ any time?” In essence, the argument is this: Abrams hasn’t made a masterpiece, just a highly sophisticated and expertly helmed piece of pop culture eye candy. It was/is specifically created to please the widest majority of the populace, and will keep the Star Trek name on studio heads minds for sequels to come.

by Bill Gibron

9 May 2009

This is not meant as an objective overview. This is also not meant as some definitive list. As J.J. Abrams literal reinvention of Star Trek prepares to beam onto movie screens worldwide this weekend, I thought I would take a moment and offer my ten most prominent memories from my four decades in the making fandom. You notice the lack of an adjective like “Best”, or descriptive phrase like “Most Memorable”. Instead, these are the images that flash before my mind’s eye when I recall first finding this amazing sci-fi series, and the reactions/distractions I had/picked up along the way. As you see, some aren’t even directly related to the show, though it’s hard to look through my entire aesthetic catalog and not find a link to Kirk, Spock, and the rest of Gene Roddenberry’s merry crew. It will be short and sweet without a lot of metaphysical heft, but that doesn’t diminish the value of any entry here. So without further ado and in no particular order, here are my 10 Trek moments - for now:

William Shatner’s The Transformed Man LP

It was the Holy Grail for us ‘70s syndication fans, a copy of the Enterprise Captain’s seminal sonic assault on what people might call “music”. From the brilliant deconstruction of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, to the near Billboard blockbuster success of “Mr. Tamborine Man”, the non-singer’s style could be best described as poetry readings on horse tranquilizers. When a copy was finally located, it was share and share alike. I still have my cassette of the album, right next to my mandatory CD translation.

by Rob Horning

9 May 2009

I attended the opening ceremonies for the Blowing Up the Brand conference at NYU yesterday and heard Rob Walker give a talk about branding’s current status as a kind of governing cultural metaphor. Not only are lay discussions of how successfuly or ingenious marketing has become commonplace now, but the “self as brand” has become a ready-at-hand way of conceptualizing our motives for ourselves, for organizing our incentives and our goals. It seems an offshoot of the building preoccupation with identity and self-actualization. It’s no accident that “authenticity”—which came up a bit in the Q&A with Walker after the talk—features prominently in discussions of brands and self-fashioning. (In fact, I wonder if brand managers could get a PowerPoint presentation out of reading Stephen Greenblatt.) The properly groomed brand image will reveal the enduring truth about us that others will invariably recognize, or alternatively, in will supply others with the raw material (or perhaps the playing field) with which to shape the meaning of our social being. In other words, the transaction involved in brand recognition is now the way we understand how we affect and are affected by others; the brand is what we imagine gets fixed as permanent about ourselves after series of social interactions. If that is so, then—and I took this as Walker’s point—it will be efficacious to self-brand. People will recognize what you are doing, will interpret it properly, will slot it in with a set of values that have (through the ubiquity of brand talk) established themselves as creditable. But, as Walker suggested, we are also in danger of reducing our own complexities and the nuances of our relationships to the shape of the brand, to the commercial verities of guarded and proprietary corporate communication. Self-actualization becomes perpetual self-promotion. And worse everyone collaborates to keep it limited to this—every one agrees to “follow you if you follow me.” (Fittingly, in such a culture with so many mutual followers, there can be no leaders.) Technology plays in to this because it supplies us with a way of measuring our reach, of rating ourselves the way a TV show is rated by Nielsen. We degenerate into vulgar utilitarians. This drives us to be fixated on our metrics, and ultimately necessarily nebulous concerns about quality are shunted aside for an overriding concern for quantity—which is far more convenient to wrangle with since it is so cut and dried. (This is also the problem with positivism and enlightenment techno-rationality.)

My own thinking about the brand begins with this: Branding coopts a vital and socially necessary process—signification; negotiating and fixing the meaning of signs—and commercializes it. Rather than work to fix meanings (as do signification processes traditionally), branding tends to render signs permanently provisional, always open-ended, so that they can be adapted to whatever commercial purposes suit a given moment. But the commercial aura of this kind of communication gives it a kind of validity that the onslaught of postmodernity had threatened to strip from signification. This vindicating, validating authority from branding as signifying practice derives from its association with structures that in capitalist society come to seem eternal and primary—the market and a fundamentally “rational” selfishness. (For example: If one can see what a person has to gain by saying something, one understands the “truth” of that statement.) Brands makes us believe the uncertain process of signification has been professionalized.

So brands are always indeterminate, negotiable, but they also aspire to connote permanence, stable meanings. I think this has the effect of making us experience or consume brands for this specific feeling of permanent truth—we consume the permanence they signify and suspend our knowledge that that meaning is an illusion born in the moment of consumption. We suspend our concern with the fragility of meaning, with its fundamental ambiguity, which seems banished by the clarity of commercial exchanges. Brands offer us a series of engagements with the promise of forever in a transitory moment. The best of both worlds.

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

READ the article