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by L.B. Jeffries

16 Feb 2009

Ralph Koster coined the term ‘game grammar’ to describe the basic systems that the average gamer becomes familiar with and relies on when trying a new game. The skills involved in moving in a 3-D space, the way interactive objects behave (as opposed to static ones), and just a fundamental grasp of game stats are all things a player learns and then relies on when trying new games. Indeed, as the smoke clears and the initial skirmishes of the console war settle into the long march Nintendo’s victory is being attributed to the fact that they invented a console which excels at teaching these mechanics to new gamers. Far from being simply casual, Nintendo has instead created a system that is playable by people who have never touched a video game in their life but would like to. Although there is still some contention on figuring out what this newfound audience wants to play, it occurred to me that perhaps we could begin work on bridge games that might draw them into the more complex genres. Lacking the ability to actually make said games, I thought I’d opt for the next best thing and try to explain the basics of gameplay to someone who has only played Wii Sports at this point in their development.

 

Moving in 3-D Spaces: In a video game you’re typically in charge of both your avatar and the camera observing him. You’re welcome to think of yourself as the “director & actor” but that’s kind of meta. Being able to maintain a decent angle on your character that lets you see the most information is the best camera angle, so it’s better to imagine that you’re a very bad cinematographer and a very good stuntman. Some games simplify this by making themselves a “First-Person” game in which your camera is lodged in your character’s skull, but those get tricky because you have to precisely aim the camera at the person you want to kill. Left analog stick controls your movement, right analog stick controls your camera. You’re always going to be pressing or moving your character in most games, so navigating in 3-D Spaces is mostly learning when it’s time to change your view.

Taking Damage: In order to help connect you to your surroundings and develop a meaningful relationship with the things in a video game, designer often make it so they can kill you. Activities that can kill you often correspond to their real life counterparts and thanks to several advances in animating these moments will often gratuitously resemble them. If the character you are moving around is slapped with a brick, this will adversely affect their health just like it would affect yours if this happened in real life. Unlike real life, you will typically be able to absorb a large but still finite amount of visually accurate injuries.

Health: Rather than correspond to a medically or physiologically sound concept of health, games tend to think of health like a pizza. Taking damage means a certain number of slices are taken away. Yet also like pizza, slices can be replaced very easily and generically since it’s all just pizza anyways. When the pizza is gone, you will be forced to revert back to a moment in the game when you still had some pizza. Various games will allow you to replenish your pizza through items in-game that you either step on or go to a “menu” to use. Newer games, realizing that this is very troublesome for new gamers, have made it so your pizza will just grow back.

Missions: The purpose or goal of a game can vary wildly and may involve paying attention to the plot. A group of high-profile Existentialists initiated a Humanist Ontological Movement back in the early 90’s to break the nihilistic pain worshippers that came from the elitest arcade scene. These people sought to apply an outside logic to the meaningless chaos of beeping and pixels that constituted most video games. Adopting a narrative structure similar to our own psychological need to think of things as stories, these games created “missions” that the player would perform and then receive the existential leap of being released of their mortal coil and experiencing life free of all purpose, all non-purpose, and only being one with the divine urge of both purpose and fulfilling that obligation to the universe.

 

Game Items: Objects in games can typically be broken down into three categories: objects you can’t affect, objects you can pick-up, and fire barrels. An object you can’t affect will often be very deceptive and unlike taking damage, does not reflect its real life counterpart. The average tree in a video game, for example, can survive numerous grenades and heavy machine gun fire. These objects must, like death, be accepted as a part of the game. Objects you can pick up typically glow. Depending on the ease that the developers are attempting, these objects will either glow brighter than a Christmas tree or only blink when you’re looking at them. Fire Barrels are part of an international conspiracy by the game developing community to protest oil and fuel industries. In order to maximize profits and encourage people to not drive their cars by staying home and gaming, all things gasoline are highly dangerous and this subconsciously makes the player become filled with dread whenever they near a gas station. 

Sandbox Games: Not to be outdone, the nihilist arcade groups reorganized themselves into a sect of agrarian evangelical anthropromorphists and created the sandbox genre out of which the human spirit can “truly grow and prosper”. In these games the play is often confronted with a huge array of options and is encouraged to pursue them all until they discover the one “true path” to full growth and expression by following the plot missions. Their motto, “The right to die in a game is the right to succeed”, can often be found dispersed throughout their works.
Experience Points: A Japanese sect of neo-confucianists who believe in life as a series of diegetic levels created a type of role playing game in which your engagement with dull day to day tasks provides the ability for you to go on greater and more exciting missions involving the plot.

 

As you can see, there really is nothing at all to playing the more advanced games in the medium. So long as you understand the cultural trends and values going on, you should be able to start pwew pwewing in no time! If anything, part of what makes games so fun is that the player input allows you to assign your own values to the game. One person’s love interest is another person’s baggage, one person’s epic plot is another person’s skipped cutscene. As The New Yorkers write-up on Cliff Bleszinski illustrated to many readers, the meaning in games is often personally derived instead of broadcasted by an arbitrary author. While Cliff made a mission that was about going home to a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, many just players chainsawed apart another alien in co-op mode. How you play games is a part of how that meaning is derived, how you learn that play is an intrinsic part of the experience. That’s both what makes video games so profound and yet still capable of entertaining the most basic impulses and desires. It’s a good thing too, or else some batshit critic could just post a bunch of nonsense and act like he was making a point.

by Lara Killian

16 Feb 2009

Recently I finished reading Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn, the winner of Canada’s well-respected Governor General’s Award  for Children’s Literature in 2004—or “The GGs” for short. Recommended to anyone who loves a good shipwreck story and has a sense of adventure, this tale takes place in a slightly shifted reality.

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Matt Cruse was born in the air, and he only feels at home and free while sailing as cabin boy on the Aurora, a luxury airship that caters to wealthy travelers and makes long journeys from continent to continent. When Matt rescues a dying hot air balloonist, he unknowingly embarks on a new sort of journey, where his life and the Aurora herself are caught up in a fantastic adventure. Kate de Vries is a privileged teenager and the granddaughter of the hot air balloonist, accustomed to getting whatever she wants and determined to understand what her beloved grandfather went through before he died. Before she can find what she’s looking for, the Aurora is plundered by deadly air pirates, and damaged seemingly beyond repair. Matt gets caught up in Kate’s explorations of the tropical island the ship lands upon, even though his first instinct is to help with the ship’s rescue. Filled with unlikely adventure and yet realistic emotional drama, this is a wonderful story of soaring beauty and dedication to one’s beliefs, no matter the consequences.

Matt is likable and dedicated, and reading about his love for flying and crippling fear of being grounded is enthralling. Matt has his hopes for promotion and desire to work on the Aurora’s sails, maybe even captaining his own ship one day. This book has some other wonderful characters, like the charismatic yet deadly pirate leader Szpirglas and the snippy but humorous head chef Mr Vlad.

Interestingly, the male characters are more believable and fleshed out than Oppel’s female characters, possibly a reflection of the author’s gender. Kate and her chaperone, Miss Simpkins, are less fully developed than Matt, Captain Walken, and the pirate Szpirglas. The male characters seem to get more complexity, while the females stick to stereotypes in a great fashion: Kate is stubborn and willful, Miss Simpkins is hysterical and controlling. It’s worth looking beyond these simplifications for the enjoyment of a well-told story.

Matt, however, vacillates between his devotion to the Aurora, frustration at being passed over for promotion in favor of a wealthy outsider’s son, and the desire to be close to his father, who worked on the Aurora herself until his death. Matt works hard, and is rewarded for his loyalty, but things don’t always go his way, and when he comes up against difficulties, the reader discovers how resourceful and clever Matt really is. I look forward to reading the rest of the Airborn series!

I find that the dead of winter is a great time for a tropical adventure. Have you read any good escapist fiction lately?

by Rob Horning

16 Feb 2009

Catching up in my RSS reader, I’ve come across a few things that would have been nice to mention in previous posts. So I’ll mention them now, and make this sort of thing a regular feature. (Please let me know if this is worthwhile or not.)

1. A few days ago I wrote about the Amish in response to a Kevin Kelly post about their relationship to technology. This Boston Globe piece by Jonah Lehrer from January (Andrew Hearst’s link reminded me of it) about overstimulation in the city seems relevant to the exploration of technological withdrawal (in both senses of the word). Lehrer reports on research that has found that the overstimulation we face in urban environments hampers our mental functioning.

After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting—that’s why Picasso left Paris—this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

Just as the urban envornment dulling, nature is an essential refresher for our minds. Apparently, the mind needs trees. I personally find this sort of hard to accept—I felt half-alive until I moved to New York City, and the thought of going camping seems like living death. Lehrer notes that “the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory—the crowded streets, the crushing density of people—also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the ‘concentration of social interactions’ that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists.” But it seems that the city is a machine not merely or innovation but for creating impulsive individualists, the anti-Amish.

Related research has demonstrated that increased “cognitive load”—like the mental demands of being in a city—makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.

Does innovation in practice, in capitalist society, simply mean the production of impulsiveness? Is there another way to incite innovation without the capitalist structure of mandated competition? Is that need for innovation what produces cities? These seem to be the questions the Amish present to us, and it boils down to this: Should society reject unfettered innovation in an effort to preserve a certain harmony among a given community? Or is it better to promote a maximum amount of innovation, even if it has deleterious consequences for the community? A general thrust of Marxist theory is that technology will improve to the point where it will rescue authentic individuality from the depredations of class struggle. It’s one of the chief attractions of his philosophy, this ideal of finding individual integrity at the heart of community. As Kolakowski describes it in Main Current of Marxism, Marx believed that “The abolition of dependence on alienated forces will restore to man his social nature, i.e. the individual will accept the community as his own interiorized nature. But the community, consciously present in each of its members, is not intended to be a merging of personality in an anonymous, homogenous whole.” But that sounds a little like the Amish, when they are idealized by outsiders. But rather than the faith in technology to galvanize proletarian struggle and achieve an individuality never before realized, the idealized Amish glamorize the rejection of technology altogether as a way of escaping alienation and preserving an individualism not yet lost. Both seem like fantasy projections of the alienated soul trapped in the egoism of capitalist subjectivity.

2. In the NYT, media analyst David Carr wrote about the same insane CNBC clip with Nouriel Roubini and Nassim Taleb that I mentioned in this post. Carr notes that in the recession, “Being a financial news anchor must seem like owning an ice cream parlor where spinach is the only flavor on the menu.” This is because tehy are not in the business of reporting news but of conveying hope and good feelings.

The news media in this country are often accused of being contrary and pessimistic, but rarely is that the case. Amid carnage, economic or otherwise, reporters are trained to look for “glimmers of hope,” “signs that the worst is behind us” and “miraculous tales of survival,” especially those that involve a baby — or in this case, a 401(k) — somehow making it through a hurricane, tornado or mudslide.

This makes it pointless to try to keep oneself informed by watching commercial TV, which has long since figured out that it is profitable only to entertain audiences, not inform them. Pessimism doesn’t help a show’s sponsors.
What strikes me as insane is the cynicism. Carr talks to all these business jounralists who all note how awful the cheerleading coverage of the stock market is, yet nothing has changed. And TV stock pickers just seem to act as though what they are doing is performance art:

To engage their audience, business journalists need to act like things are changing all the time. As it turned out, what didn’t change much was the fundamental lessons: have a diversified portfolio, don’t buy more house than you can afford, don’t take on more debt than you can support, or trade on the margin.
But that’s not what we want to hear from the experts. “You aren’t doing your job right if you don’t have an in-box full of hate mail,” said one financial columnist who didn’t want to be identified. In this market, who does?

Maybe audiences should not need to be engaged about finance; their “skin in the game” is encouragement enough. In fact, if the news outlet is trying to engage you, you have to be skeptical about the bias in the information you are getting; they are trying to reach spectators, not participants. That is why the WSJ seems so dubious these days. I knew it had changed irredeemably when A-Rod’s picture was on the front page the other day.

3. I wrote some theses about Hipster Runoff a week or so ago. This seems insufficient. So I’m planning to start a side project offering some exegesis of Carles’s ruminations, in the same spirit as Marmaduke explained. I hope to get the first few entries up some time this week.

by Bill Gibron

16 Feb 2009

Outcasts rarely have a bully pulpit from which to preach. For the most part, those so afar from the maddening crowd are meant to stay there. Yet I find myself in the unique position of being one of those outsiders with a regular gig to spew my own specific point of view. This past weekend, I reviewed Friday the 13th 2009, the remake/reimagining/revamp of the moldy old ‘80s slasher epic. In said article, I stated that the film was a reverential and relentless exercise in horror from a man - director Marcus Nispel - who really understands the core concepts of fear on film. Awarding four out of five stars, I claimed this recent version of the Voorhees story was a “classic” and went on to tackle more imposing problems - like Confessions of a Shopaholic. As you can imagine, the hate has since been hot and heavy.

Over at Rotten Tomatoes, that collection of overall critical consensus, I am currently only one of 34 writers who enjoyed this post-millennial update. The rest of the 117 opinions - meaning 83 negatives for those of you who are math challenged - range from minor dismissal to outright rage. The overall feeling was that, as a scary movie, Friday the 13th 2009 was not very much of the former and barely the latter. Many complained about the failure of the film to match the merit of the original, while the standard anti-terror bias appears in spades. Naturally, I stand by my version of the facts. I enjoyed the movie from the moment it started and loved how Nispel maintained a serious, no nonsense tone throughout. Like the Dawn of the Dead remake, the Texas Chainsaw redux (also by Nispel), and Rob Zombie’s tale of the hallowed Halloween, Friday the 13th is a new kind of modern macabre masterwork.

So the question is begged - how come I am so outside the majority view on this film - nay, the SUPER majority perception of this motion picture? Am I really that out of step, or is there something far more sinister and conspiratorial going on. Granted, I guarantee I see more horror movies per year than the average mainstream critic. Looking over the 300+ titles I took on for 2007-8, a good 17% (or about 50) followed the typical genre format. Some were wide release theatrical experiences - Quarantine, The Eye, The Strangers, etc. Others were independent efforts from unknown quantities, while more than a few - [REC] , Let the Right One In - were amazing foreign fare. But the sad fact is that, for every great experience in fear and dread, I spent many a night bored out of my skull. Let’s face it - most horror films suck and suck hard.

This creates a sense of expected anticipation. As I have written about before, the very hit and miss nature of the category creates a kind of unfair if pragmatically warranted predetermination for critics. Most fright flicks are going to be bad, just as most so-called comedies are going to be lacking in the laugh department. Drama is more or less universal. What sends the shivers up your spine, or the jollies through your belly is a totally personal and subjective experience. Oddly enough, it’s a lot like pornography. Some people won’t even recognize XXX material as valid. It’s a stance very similar to how some audiences view horror. As an emotional experience, being terrified is not considered pleasant or positive. For them, Jason and his haunted hockey mask might as well be Jenna Jameson and her lewd, loose virtues. 

And it’s not just among the masses. Most mainstream critics HATE horror films. I know from anecdotal experience. For them, a scary movie is the cinematic equivalent of a hair in your soup, a green-tinged potato chip in your bag of Ruffles, or a squawking brat at a public/press screening. They are things to be avoided, and if forced to confront them, superficially considered and then quickly cast aside. Since the genre doesn’t have the greatest track record for consistent success, such a belief is simple workaday shorthand. It’s an easy way to approach a review - expect the worst and be nonplused when your hunch is correct. After a while, the 400 to 600 words write themselves.

Now many have accused me of suffering from something quite the opposite. Since I see so many horror films, and find so many of them lacking, I apparently appear to latch onto the first thing that doesn’t absolutely disappoint. That would explain my love of the aforementioned remakes. But the truth is that, because of such a vast perspective, I believe I have a keener eye than most on what works and what doesn’t. A critic who sees two or three fright flicks a year has little to base their opinion on - especially the print person who doesn’t seek out and pay for the latest movie macabre when a studio doesn’t stand up and offer a free screening. The reciprocal nature of the treatment and the title is something the studio can blame itself for. If they really believed in a project, they’d put all bad word of mouth jitters aside and preview all of their movies, no matter the genre.

Fans are just as bad. Instead of broadening their scope and seeing more than one kind of horror offering, you’ve got your zombie-philes, your vampire addicts and your ghost geeks. There are audiences who would never ever favor a foreign fright film and visa versa. There are even those who dismiss the classic works of the past for being too tame and cinematically lightweight. Once again, such narrow-minded viewpoints can’t offer a truly considered response. Instead, it has to be viewed like those with an already established anti-horror bias - their opinion is tainted by a tendency toward only appreciating one kind of dread. Naturally, a response could be made that a person proficient in slasher would be the best critic for this latest installment in the slice and dice dynamic. But without a wider view of everything the genre has to offer, any such statement would still be suspect.

Marcus Nispel has made an excellent example of the type. He doesn’t offer up some goofy tongue-in-cheek charade or pretend to appreciate the seriousness of the subject. His Jason is brutal and animalistic and his treatment of the narrative is inventive and iconic. In essence, he delivered exactly what was expected. He doesn’t turn Jason into an abused child looking for an FBI profile to fill out (as Zombie showed with Michael Myers) or an extension of George Romero’s social commentary. Instead, he views the genre basics, breaks out the viciousness, and goes directly for the throat. Those who find this over the top or offensive haven’t seen many horror films. The Hostel series (again, some very potent motion pictures) is far more cruel and craven. Besides, Nispel needs to stay within Sean Cunningham’s original hack and slash objective. Had he turned this into some exploration of Jason’s psyche, the devoted would be chomping at the Inter-nation bit.

Perhaps this is more of a mea culpa than anything else. I truly enjoyed Friday the 13th 2009 and have since paid to see it again. I await the arrival of the Unrated DVD, knowing that Nispel does not disappoint when it comes to digital packaging and added content. I do admit that my overexposure to crappy horror might make me more susceptible to something borderline good/bad, but I don’t think that applies here. I can see and argue the artistic qualities that Nispel brings to all his projects and the overall effectiveness of the film itself. If the original movie was merely 80 minutes of waiting until the wonderfully whacked out Betsy Palmer shows up to wreck her own brand of batshit vengeance, so be it. This movie is all bad-ass Betsy from beginning to end.

So brand me a crackhead or someone capable of only clouded critical judgment. Wonder out loud what it means that you agree with me on certain films but not on this particular bit of slasher superiority. Granted, Friday the 13th 2009 is not Suspiria, or The Exorcist, or Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. No, it’s a serviceable scary film with a bite and a bravura that’s rare within the industry. Hate the movie all you want, but deconstructing the messenger because they disagree with your disapproval seems silly. This is all opinion after all, not assertion. There is a difference. History will bear out who is right and who is obviously influenced by their own particular point of view. For now, I’ll play the outcast. It’s not so bad - especially when you know you’ll probably be proven right somewhere down the line.

by Mehan Jayasuriya

16 Feb 2009

In the past, Eric Elbogen, a.k.a. Say Hi, has proven difficult to take seriously, despite his knack for writing tightly focused indie-pop gems. He traded under the sophomoric name Say Hi to Your Mom—since shortened—a name that evoked the Ashton Kutcher school of frat boy humor more than it did lo-fi character studies. He put out records about vampires and robots and referenced both Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least if he had embraced his Internet meme-loving audience by releasing a record about ninjas and pirates.

Since moving to Seattle from Brooklyn, however, Elbogen has matured considerably. The Wishes and the Glitch, his fifth self-released album, featured songs like “Northwestern Girls”, a simple yet undeniably catchy love letter to the ladies of the Pacific Northwest. On Oohs & Aahs, Elbogen’s forthcoming album for Barsuk (his first on a label), his songwriting has grown even more confident. His voice has shriveled into a resigned sigh, not unlike that of fellow Seattleite David Bazan (Pedro the Lion, Headphones). While he’s got a ways to go as a songwriter before he’ll be penning narratives as rich as Bazan’s, Elbogen seems to have settled into a lyrical persona that suits him well. Unlike Bazan, he’s an unabashed romantic, though a hermetic lifestyle has allowed cynicism to creep into his view of the world outside of his window. 

“November Was White, December Was Grey”, perhaps the best track from what is undoubtedly Say Hi’s finest record to date, serves as the perfect example of Elbogen’s newfound maturity. His voice, double-tracked and wrapped in a thick blanket of echo, feels heavy with the weight of his words. “I’ll feel better when the winter’s gone”, he repeatedly moans over a palm-muted major chord melody. It’s the perfect anthem for these last waning days of winter. Just try not to forget that spring is, indeed, just around the corner.

Say Hi
“November Was White, December Was Grey” [MP3]
     

TOUR DATES
03-06-09 @ Neumos—Seattle, WA
03-12-09 @ Bottom Of The Hill—San Francisco, CA
03-13-09 @ The Echo—Los Angeles, CA
03-14-09 @ Beauty Bar—Las Vegas, NV
03-15-09 @ Plush—Tucson, AZ
03-17-09 @ The Longhorn Saloon—Ft. Worth, TX
03-18-09 @ SXSW—Austin, TX
03-19-09 @ SXSW—Austin, TX
03-20-09 @ SXSW—Austin, TX
03-21-09 @ Austin Convention Center / SXSW Daystage—Austin, TX
03-21-09 @ The Parish (SXSW | Barsuk/Merge present)—Austin, TX
03-22-09 @ Hi Tone Cafe—Memphis, TN
03-23-09 @ The End—Nashville, TN
03-24-09 @ The Drunken Unicorn—Atlanta, GA
03-25-09 @ Plaza ‘Duckpin’ Bowl—Richmond, VA
03-26-09 @ The Black Cat—Washington, DC
03-27-09 @ Johnny Brenda’s—Philadelphia, PA
03-28-09 @ The Bell House—Brooklyn, NY
03-29-09 @ The Mercury Lounge—New York, NY
03-30-09 @ The Middle East (Upstairs)—Cambridge, MA
03-31-09 @ Garfield Artworks—Pittsburgh, PA
04-02-09 @ Circus—Columbus, OH
04-03-09 @ The Beat Kitchen—Chicago, IL
04-04-09 @ 7th Street Entry—Minneapolis, MN
04-05-09 @ The Slowdown—Omaha, NE
04-06-09 @ Hi-Dive—Denver, CO
04-07-09 @ Kilby Court—Salt Lake City, UT
04-08-09 @ Neurolux—Boise, ID
04-09-09 @ Holocene—Portland, OR

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