Latest Blog Posts

by L.B. Jeffries

19 Jan 2009

About a year ago, I was playing Trilby: Art of Theft and I noticed that it led to me doodling characters from it. That experience didn’t repeat itself again until I played the indie game Iji and started doodling the various aliens from it. The games are fairly different from each other except for one shared trait: the art for both is simplified and resembles 8-bit aesthetics more than modern games. Why is the simpler and more abstract representation enticing my subconscious to reproduce and modify what I saw more than any modern game with complex art and graphics? At a glance, the basic idea behind abstract art can be seen by flipping through this flickr group. You have the basic idea or concept communicated in the lines and coloring but you leave out enough detail or coherence so that the viewer still has to interpret. The audience gets to have a limited amount of input in what they’re viewing because the artwork remains silent on certain details. Looking at the urge to doodle that was suddenly springing back up after playing these two abstract games, is this an area of player input that is being under utilized in today’s graphical advancements?

 

Part of how these graphics create a connection comes from looking at the various techniques games use to draw you in. Your health bar, weapons, and abilities are tools for creating a connection with the avatar on the screen. In an essay on the subject of ideological worlds in games the author (can’t find the name on it, sorry) comments, “games forge what James Paul Gee (2003) has called a projective identity, whereby the player adopts the perspectivity of the avatar, developing a sort of empathy for the character on screen. Clinton shows how icons and representational bars attune players’ perceptions in the world to those of the avatar by making precise the character’s perceptual state.” In other words, the HUD, health bar, etc. constitute the player’s method for projecting onto the character by giving us a way to see what they are feeling. The essay and the quote are both about the ways players connect and project themselves into video games and it raises an important point: what player input is really about is giving you ways to project yourself into the character through game design. One of the reactions to that formula is to presume that interacting with the narrative then becomes the primary or even only way a person can project themselves into the game’s characters. The ambiguity that abstract art relies on could then also be considered a fair way to allow a player to interact. The player is able to interpret what their protagonist looks like, how their attacks look, and can manipulate those images to whatever their preference is with their imagination. This is something different than a character editor because unlike the finite options of Fallout 3 or Oblivion, with abstract art the player is unlimited in defining the meaning of the simple images.

About two years ago there was a fairly nonsensical false critical movement that games which didn’t feature realistic graphics were inferior to their cartoony counterparts. Mostly a byproduct of ad men selling games and HD TVs, the counter argument was to point out that there are countless games which rely on cartoony and non-literal depictions with great success. A good example of someone arguing this point is a Kombo article defending Wind Waker and pointing out that there are many unrealistic elements that make videogames fun such as physics or unrealistic reload times. The author also brings up a variety of games with more realistic graphics like Resident Evil 4 and points out that they are a lot less visually exciting. Grey, brown, mud, dirt, and equally drab monsters populate these environments. Yet video games already featured boring and grey environments in their 8-bit form without these complaints being noticeable. Numerous older games have the same kind of factory level or repetitive swarm of enemies that are equally dull. The fundamental difference is that modern brown worlds graphically leave nothing to the imagination. There is no abstraction for us to play with in our minds. An entire area of player input has been cut off by our very own desire to have things look sharper and Hi-Res. I don’t doodle Leon from Resident Evil 4 because I don’t have anything to add or interpret, that’s what he looks like and my horrid drawing abilities are never going to do him any justice.

Artistically, the division between a literal depiction of something and an abstract division can be read like the difference between a symbol and a sign. Carl Jung, in his book

Symbols of Transformation

explains, “A symbol is an indefinite expression with many meanings, pointing to something not easily defined and therefore not fully known. But the sign always has a fixed meaning, because it is a conventional abbreviation for, or a commonly accepted indication of, something known. The symbol therefore has a large number of analogous variants, and the more of these variants it has at its disposal , the more complete and clear-cut will be the image it projects of its object.” The giant parasitic man-monster in Resident Evil 4 is a sign. It’s a depiciton leaves no question about what it is thinking, feeling, or what its actions look like. The 8-bit Mega Man or pixellated King Graham are symbols of themselves. We are able to dictate how they look and act in our minds, we are able to apply our own input to even that fundamental level of the game’s narrative thanks to their symbolic nature. Instead of a character, they are a symbol that can be adapted to whatever the player wants it to be. Obviously the artistic quality and impressive efforts that developers put into their modern games is here to stay and should be applauded. But for those games that take a more abstract approach with their work, the possibilities of such art should not be underestimated.

by Nikki Tranter

19 Jan 2009

Hallie Ephron is an author, teacher, and book reviewer. She writes a monthly column for the Boston Globe entitled, “On Crime”, and spends much of her time traveling the country teaching writing workshops. Hallie is the author of the books, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style and 1001 Books for Every Mood. She has co-written several thrillers with Donald A. Davidoff under the pseudonym, G.H. Ephron. Her latest page-turner is Never Tell a Lie. The book centres on David and Ivy, a pregnant couple doing some Spring cleaning in their new Victorian home. The prospect out of “out with the old and in with the new” begins promisingly, until an old friend shows up at David and Ivy’s yard sale. This friend, Melinda, informs the couple she used to play in their big, old house as a child. Melinda takes time out to have a look around, and disappears causing concern that the couple may have done away with her. What happened to Melinda? Of course, as in the best mystery novels, all is not as it appears. 

Hallie Ephron is today’s Re:Print Special Guest, here to tackle our Five Questions About Poe:

Describe your first Poe experience.
For me, the poems came first. My mother was a playwright and screenwriter, but I think if it hadn’t been for Broadway and Hollywood, she would have been an English teacher. She loved to read aloud, relished the sound of a well-turned phrase, and at dinner when I was growing up she’d recite stanza after stanza of poems like Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo” (“Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom!”) or Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevey” (“... child of scorn…”). Soon, I knew them by heart, too. Poe’s poems had pride of place—particularly “The Raven” (we’d chime in, quothing the Raven, “Nevermore”), “The Bells” with its echoing refrain (“Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells), and the sad sweet rocking rhythm of “Annabel Lee”.

So it wasn’t Poe’s horror or that seduced me, it was the music of his words.

What would you consider Poe’s greatest work, and why?
I’m not a Poe scholar, but by far my favorite of his stories is “The Cask of Amontillado”. Something about that narrator. As he sets the last brick in place and the story reaches its terrifying crescendo, the reader realizes this guy’s stark raving mad. Talk about an “unreliable narrator”. It’s utterly chilling.

Never Tell a LieHarperCollinsJanuary 2009, 271 pages, $24.99

Never Tell a Lie
HarperCollins
January 2009, 271 pages, $24.99

How has Poe’s work shaped you as a reader/writer?
When I was writing “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel”, I reread The Murders in the Rue Morgue. It’s credited as the first detective story and I’d hoped to find in it some new insight. The story, for me at least, is largely unreadable. Take its opening line: “The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis.” I’ve read those words over and over and still I don’t know what that narrator is going on about.  On top of that, the plot preposterous. I mean really, the orangutan did it and stuffed the bodies up the chimney? Still, in the middle of the muddle, there’s C. Auguste Dupin using “ratiocination”, examining evidence, and convincing an eyewitness to spill all. Voila, sprung whole from Poe’s pen is crime fiction’s detective. Seems to me there’s a straight line from Dupin to Sherlock Holmes to CSI’s Gil Grissom, and from all of our fictional detectives back to Poe and Dupin.

Which of your own works owes the largest debt to Poe and why?
Never Tell a Lie. As I wrote it, I was constantly aware of the mystery-horror boundary which, in Poe’s work is rather porous. I also tried to take a page from him by creating an unsettling situation and allowing the unease to build gradually before delivering the shocks and secrets. And, of course, like Poe, I gave my story a narrator who sees events through the distorted lens of emotion.

If you were hosting the celebrations for Poe’s big day, how would have your guests celebrate?
The guests arrive to find the door locked from the inside, a window open. They must break in and figure out who ate the birthday cake. The clues, like those in The Purloined Letter, will all be hiding in plain sight.

Hallie is currently on tour around the country. She will appear at BookMania! in Stuart, Florida on 23-24 January. Visit her website here.

by Jason Gross

19 Jan 2009

On June 1, 1999, a then-recent college drop-out, who didn’t even finish the first term of his first year, unleashed a seismic force which rewrote all of the rules for the entire entertainment industry—that was when Shawn Fanning released Napster to the online world. 

Even though the original company/software would be shut down one year later, things were never the same after that.  Suddenly, the old model of power and control resting in the bosom of the major labels was gone—why bother paying for music, especially if you don’t like every song on an album, when you could download it for free?  In the worst kind of short-sightedness, the majors ganged up to sue Fanning out of existence without thinking about how to tap into the millions of users who were already on the service, and didn’t even come up with a plausible alternative for music downloads.  It’s only been in the last few years that these companies finally caught up and found more reasonable ways to reach consumers but by then, it was too late for most of the music fans out there.  Even with all of the faulty and disgraceful lawsuits that the RIAA perpetrated to try to stop unauthorized music downloads, many studies say that it’s continued unabated.

The end result reverberated throughout the music industry.  Not only were majors forced to cut back and lay off but soon, retailers and chains were on the ropes too.  The big players in the game were getting cut down to size (desperately trying to merge or sell off) and were scrambling for answers.

Artists starting looking for other ways to keep afloat and slowly began making deals with commercial sponsors, software companies, video games.  To some fans, it sounded like heresy but it soon became so widespread that it turned into the norm.  After all, why stay on a sinking ship like the majors when there were plenty of other more promising and lucrative opportunities out there? 

This power shift also meant that many artists, including multi-platinum ones, also had incentive to leave the major labels and set up shop elsewhere, getting their albums distributed and promoted outside of the majors.  As these cash cows drift away, the labels are left scrambling, trying to figure out how to stay alive.

That’s been the story of the music biz in the new millennium so far and it promises to keep getting interesting.  With the majors on the wane now, it’s a good time to look back (and look forward) at the new kingpins of the music biz who are exerting more and more influence there, taking over the roles that the big labels once filled.  This is going to be an on-going series, looking at these brash companies that are now the important players in the industry.  Because the biz is changing so rapidly, everything chronicled here could (and will) change quickly and some of the players will sink or rise but that’s the nature of things now…

APPLE
For the moment, they’re still the king of legal downloads though with their tiny profit margins for song sales, they’re really selling iPods to make their profits (and doing damn well at it). But it’s no secret that the major labels hate Apple even as they continue to do business with Jobs and friends. 

The main contention had been Apple’s inflexible pricing—99 cents for all songs.  The labels had been saying that the price should be lower for old items and higher for newer, hotter items.  Up until recently, Jobs had the upper hand but the labels made deals with other companies, hoping to find more revenue elsewhere and to chip away at Apple’s lead. 

Since the introduction of the iPod in 2001, Apple has had rock star status not just in the music world but also the tech world as evidenced by the frenzy over the iPhone and the drooling anticipation that comes with each of Apple’s new announcements.  Since they captured most of the digital-player market, they’ll be a force for years and how long they stay there may depend less on a real iPod killer coming along than a slip-up in Apple’s next generation of players/phones (i.e. something that works as badly as Microsoft Vista). 

Apple’s usually been too smart and careful for the later to happen but the notion of real competition probably isn’t going to come from another music player (i.e. the ill-fated Zune) but another type of media industry that’s honing in on the territory, like Verizon and Rock Star Games. Another obstacle that they may face is their reluctance to offer Ala Carte service as Napster and Rhapsody do- so far, it hasn’t proven to be a huge money maker but as they’re squeezed more and more by labels, they might have to offer this option also.

The big shift for Apple and iTunes happened at the beginning of this month when they announced that not only would they finally offer their music files up without any DRM (digital rights management) attached to it but they would finally implement tiered pricing plans, staring in April.  That represented a huge sea charge as Apple not only finally caved in to the wishes of the big labels but also likely recognized that the same plans were being used by competitors like Amazon so effectively, that it would be only a matter of time before they fell behind if they kept being stubborn about pricing.

As for a post-Jobs Apple Corps, they’ll need someone brash to push whatever their latest product is but as long as they retain designer Jonathan Ive (responsible for the sleek, stylish look of the the iPod and iPhone), they’ll continue to have a leg up on the biz.  But Jobs’ recent admission about his health problems (which seemed to be obvious to anyone looking at recent photos of him) sent the company’s stock downward, not only prompting possible lawsuits but also ramping up the question of whether Apple could thrive without him.  As such, they’ll need not just another good planner like Ive but also a good showman like Jobs to keep the momentum going.

LIVE NATION

Previously known for promoting shows and owning venues across the country (i.e. House of Blues), LN started in 2005, working hand in hand with Ticketmaster up until last summer, when they announced that they would be handling ticketing on their own, thus becoming a rival to TM.  Though they promised to be more transparent about the much-hated added-on ‘handling’ fees, LN didn’t lower the price for tickets (they just tacked on the fees to the regular ticket price).

But LN wanted more than just to sell tickets- seeing that the future bucks in the music biz wasn’t necessarily going to come from album sales, they rushed in to secure everything else from a group of top-selling acts, creating ‘360 Deals.’  Major labels should be very nervous about this because as music sales become less and less central to the biz, this promotion monolith is making important strides in one of the few areas that hasn’t been hurting, even in a bad economy.  With Jay-Z, Madonna, Nickleback, Shakira and U2 signing on to LN for huge touring and merchandise deals, there’s obviously an enormous change happening in the concert industry—look for more big acts to sign on with them too.

Don’t that that LN is totally giving up on album sales as a way to mint cash though.  The deals signed with Madonna, Shakira and Jay-Z include not just mersh but also new albums that they put out once their label contracts expire.  But as of last summer, there were reports that LN might actually go back to the majors for help with putting out future albums for acts (i.e. Madge).  LN is also reported plowing forward by selling non-DRM MP3’s from their own site, thus putting them into competition with iTunes/Apple, also figuring that once they hook into fans with tickets and mersh, they might be able to sell some tunes off to them also. 

Still, LN’s had some recent set-backs, which raise big question marks about their future.  Their Instant Live service, where they offer burned CD’s of the show you’ve just seen, ran into trouble when they tried to press the issue of copyright for the service, eventually letting it lapse in 2007.  Also, while they sold off some divisions to concentrate more on music and LN have recently reported good ticket sales, there’s questions about whether the withering economy might put a damper on ticket sales, aka LN’s bottom line.  And while Irish entrepeneurs U2 bought up a bunch of LN share last October, the superstars then sold off their stock recently, swearing that they still had full confidence in the company.

But what are LN’S future prospects and how will this big deals pan out?  Unknown.  Taking big financial risks like these that might pay off handsomely but it remains to be seen if the initial investments they’re making in artists will be easily recouped.  The end result might be that they reap huge rewards, leaving everyone else in the music biz in the dust. Or… The deals might not pan out as LN finds that the huge investments they’ve made in artists aren’t getting balanced out by the money that LN gets back from mersch and promos.  And though a good case can be made for LN’s all-encompassing monopolistic grip over numerous facets to the music biz, the incoming prez and his staff haven’t given any indication that they’re troubled by this.

UPDATE:  As this Reuters story details, LN is looking to merge with their competitor Ticketmaster, only weeks after trying to beat them at their own game.  Not a good sign for them…


SOMEONE PRESENTLY-UNKNOWN KID IN A BEDROOM OR DORM ROOM

Rest assured that as you’re reading this right now, there’s some computer geek tapping away at their laptop, churning out code for whatever’s gonna be the next hot piece of software in the realm of the music biz.  It will be a faster, easier (and fun) way for music fans to communicate and trade tunes.  It’ll get written up in blogs, tweeted and eventually noted by tech-savvy publications.  The kid will start selling adds and making good money. Initial investors will timidly rush in.  Majors will waffle between cutting deals with the kid or getting out the lawyers to sue, likely going the later route and only realizing how stupid they were when it’s too late.

NEXT TIME…
We’ll delve into the video games that look to swallow up the attention and bucks of music fans but which also face their own problems and limitations…

by Joseph Kugelmass

19 Jan 2009

Lil’ Wayne’s success has reached such a phenomenal peak that at one point, as I was about to turn the radio to a hip-hop station coming out of Boston, my friend could say “How about some Lil’ Wayne?” and be absolutely right. I can’t remember if the station was playing one of his songs or if it was a guest spot, and it doesn’t matter. Between guesting for everyone who makes anything even related to hip-hop or R&B and making a huge score with Tha Carter III, Wayne’s voice is everywhere, and it’s so distinctively hoarse that it seizes for itself—and also flattens—whatever sound is behind it.

That flattening effect is part of the reason Wayne has so completely overshadowed every other rapper around him. He doesn’t sing on top of beats. He eats them, makes them irrelevant. On Tha Carter II, his previous non-mixtape album, the production by T-Mix was focused on distorted soul samples. T-Mix gave soul choruses the rough, dissonant sound of music played too loud on cheap speakers. Wayne took it too easy on the vocals, particularly during the verses, but he still sounded great. On this new album, the soul samples are mostly gone in favor of crunked-up electro, but when they do make an appearance (like on the Jay-Z duet “Mr. Carter”), the switch is barely noticeable.

Wayne demolishes these beats by singing so hoarsely that the noise of his voice, like a blue shirt on a blue-eyed person, pushes forward whatever noise is latent in the music, making it sound dirty and messy. Then he sings all around the beats, basically ignoring where the stresses ought to go, in such a random way that the song’s meter melts down. Sympathetic producers on Tha Carter III build this into the very structure of the songs, so that when Wayne suddenly announces “Bitch I’m the bomb like tick…tick” on “Got Money,” Play-n-Skillz stops the music. Wayne is singing in his own post-detonation vacuum. The point here is that Wayne doesn’t care what he sings over, because he’s just plain hungry to rap. In his and our world, a radio station like Power 105.9 in Los Angeles will reduce everything to equivalent “hip-hop” anyway.

by Mike Schiller

18 Jan 2009

I missed a week!  Ack!  OK, here’s last week in a nutshell: Moon.  If anyone can do a first-person shooter on the DS, it’s Renegade Kid, who put together the actually-pretty-excellent Dementium: The Ward last year.  It’s been pretty well-reviewed so far, and DS gamers don’t have a ton of options for when they want to shoot things.  You can shoot things in Moon.  Have at it!

EA\'s Skate 2

EA\‘s Skate 2

As for this week, there are plenty of sneaky picks that look awfully interesting.  Skate 2 follows the very well-received inaugural edition of EA’s big new Tony Hawk-killer, which so far has lived up to such a title by actually making video game skating feel like something worth doing again.  SimAnimals is a new Wii “Sim” experience that ditches the humans, which might actually be the smartest thing that EA’s done on the franchise for the Wii…human simulation is a little too much for the little console that could, so why not coerce the veterinarian in all of us out for a while?  I have no idea what The Maw is, really, but the stills I’ve seen from the Xbox Live Arcade title look pretty interesting, and the PS2 continues its JRPG renaissance with Ar Tonelico: Melody of Metafalica, a title that’s probably pretty profound in context, but looks kind of meaningless right now.

Even so, it’s a different Japanese import that’s got my eye this week, one that may not sell many copies, and may not turn many heads at all.  It’s a little something being put out by budget publisher UFO Interactive, with a truly nondescript title: the Wii-exclusive Ultimate Shooting Collection.

Karous

Karous

Ultimate Shooting Collection is actually, as you may have guessed, a collection of three games, two of which have never been released in the United States.  The one that has been released in the states is Chaos Field, which sounds like the space-shooter equivalent of Shadow of the Colossus, basically a collection of space shooter boss fights one after the other.  Radio Allergy was almost released in the states—it was supposed to be one of the last GameCube games, if not the last, but it was cancelled before it could see the light of day.  Finally, there’s Karous, a game whose art style has fascinated me since I first caught wind of it back when it was a brand new Dreamcast game being released in the very un-Dreamcasty year of 2008.  Yes, I’m going to go ahead an pretend that un-Dreamcasty can be used as an adjective.  It’s actually the reason I bought a Dreamcast in the first place.  Of course, once I did, I could no longer track down a copy of the game.

Now’s my chance…and yours as well.

Is anyone else out there as excited for the Ultimate Shooting Collection as I am?  Going Skate-ing this week?  Perhaps the PSP Star Ocean remake is more your speed?  Check the full release list after the jump, followed by a trailer for, yes, Ultimate Shooting Collection.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Mr. Robot: Episode 6 -- "Br4ve-Trave1er.asf

// Channel Surfing

"When episode six opens to find Elliot in terror and panic, it is soon confirmed that he should be.

READ the article