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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008
As requested, a quick run-down of all 10 parts of the ZA with definitions.

You call yourself free? I want to hear your ruling thought, and not that you have escaped from a yoke.


Are you one of those entitled to escape from a yoke? There are many who cast away their final worth when they cast away their servitude.


Free from what? What does that matter! But your eye should clearly show me: free for what?
      - Thus Spoke Zarathustra


I. Introduction and Basic Concepts
What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. What controls the player input? The game design. What gives meaning to the player input? The plot or backstory. All three need to adjust to a game’s purpose and be judged by their relationship together, not just one or the other.


II. Evaluating Game Design
The most objective gauge of depth in game design would be the number of options it gives a player. A deep game takes a lot more work and can end up only being enjoyed by an elite few. A shallow game needs either a deep story or friends over to pick up the slack. Deep game design should not be considered an inherently good or bad attribute of a game in a proper critical assessment.


III. Evaluating Game Plot
The plot of a game is the part of it you cannot change: backstory, who you’re friends with, etc. Judging a game’s plot boils down to assessing what the designer’s force you to experience and its overall merits. If you cut a player totally free, the game experience will lead towards self-fulfillment. If you shove too many awful experiences on the gamer, the game might be too dark and unpleasant to justify the experience. In either case, it depends on the game.


IV. Evaluating Player-Input
The player input is your connection with the game, your means of interaction, and this piece focuses on the silent protagonist method. A connection with a game requires two elements: you interacting and the game giving you feedback. You’re both actor and audience in a video game. Judging the player input is judging how well a video game establishes and maintains this two-way connection.


V. Four Forms of Video Games
It’s becoming nonsensical to identify a game solely by its design. We should instead identify them by which element is dominate in the game experience. The other two elements still exist in varying degrees, but one factor controls the others.


First Person - The Player Input is dominant. You control both plot and how you play the game. These generally tend to be RPG’s like Mass Effect.


Second Person - The Game Design is dominant. You win the game according to its rules and not by what you or the plot dictate. Peggle is a better example than the one I used in the essay.


Third Person - The Plot is dominant. All of your actions and choices are based on the story and have meaning within it. Zelda and countless others are good examples.


Fourth Person - The three elements balance out. No one element has complete control. A lot of RTS games and some open world games develop this out, like Starcraft.


VI. Exceptions to the Four Forms
These are in no way inferior to any other type of game, we’re just distinguishing their elements and what they consist of.


Simulation - A game without a plot. A game doesn’t have a plot if it doesn’t have an ending. Think Sim City.


Interactive Ficton - A game without any game design. A game doesn’t have a game design if there are zero options for the player besides the one that progresses it.


VII. Application of the New Approach
Three examples of how to approach a game in terms of the experience rather than one individual aspect. The key is to see what kind of experience the game is attempting to create and how all of the elements work towards that goal.


VIII. Factions of Gaming
The terms casual, hardcore, or ex-core are not really consumer groups, they’re philosophies about the purpose of video games. Casual players think a game should be fun. Hardcore think a game should be replayable and ex-core think the experience is what’s important. All 3 views have serious flaws. I probably would’ve been better off calling them something else, a lot of interesting stuff happens in the comments on this one. The point was to criticize the philosophies, not the groups.


IX. Flaws in Criticism Today
The culture of reviews is not the same thing as critically analyzing a game. Making jokes is fine but try to remember they still need to make a point. Most importantly of all, don’t create a bunch of pre-defined rules that inhibit people from experimenting or discovering new games. We need to give good feedback and proper explanations to reviewers so that games can get better.


X. Evaluating Game Experiences
Looking at a game experience means evaluating how the game allows you to express yourself in an experience. We have to ask ourselves what that experience is for and how can it best be used.



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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

Feel that heat? Summer is really starting to fire up. For 13 June, here are the films in focus:


The Incredible Hulk [rating: 7]


It has to be said that one of the most “incredible” things about this so-called reinvention of the Hulk is how close it is to Ang Lee’s vision.

When Marvel made the decision to take over the “creative direction” of the big screen adaptations of their characters, geek nation remained skeptical. After all, just because the company knows comic books doesn’t mean it understands the cinematic translations of same. Luckily, Iron Man has quelled a great many of those fears. It stands as Summer 2008’s greatest surprise. Now, hot on the heels of that success comes the reboot of the Incredible Hulk. Yes, Ang Lee already made this movie five years ago, but none except a few clued in critics enjoyed its psychologically-oriented narrative. No, what devotees wanted was a big green giant (and accompanying action “smashing”) they could comprehend and champion. This time around, they more or less got their wish. read full review…


Bigger, Stronger, Faster* [rating: 9]


...if anyone wants to have a serious discussion about the entire supplement situation, this excellent film is a good place to start.

Steroids - the word alone strikes fear in the hearts of sports fans and athletes alike. Thirty years ago, the anabolic hormone replacement therapy was a common, under the counter practice. Everyone from bodybuilders to professional football players hit the ‘juice’ as a means of getting bigger, training harder, and repairing physical damage faster. Such notable superstars as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan admitted to using the substance to gain that all important competitive advantage over others. But somewhere along the last three decades, steroids stopped being subterranean cool. They went from an accepted unspoken supplement to international pariah. In his masterful, sly documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, former power lifter Chris Bell discusses when he thinks the perception changed, and how little change such renewed awareness has actually brought about. read full review…


Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired [rating: 9]


Roman Polanski deserves his badge of dishonor, no question about it. This amazing documentary argues that others need to start sporting one as well.

Ask any casual film fan about Roman Polanski, the brilliant Polish moviemaker responsible for ‘70s classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, and you’re likely to get the following response: “Wasn’t he the guy who raped that girl and then ran off to Europe to avoid prosecution?” Indeed, eight years to the day that his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in the Helter Skelter rampage of Charlie Manson and his family, the director was to be placed on trial for the seduction, drugging, and ‘he said/she said’ sexual encounter with a 13 year old girl. At the time, it was a true tabloid sensation, a circus wrapped inside the most sizzling of scandals. Today, it’s a story relegated to the above-mentioned gross overgeneralization. Thanks to Marina Zenovich’s brilliant new documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the closest thing to the truth finally gets a much needed airing. read full review…


Other Releases—In Brief


The Happening [rating: 2]


Newsweek Magazine must still be smarting. Back in 2002, as Signs was gearing up for its box office assault, the publication called M. Night Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg”. Aside from the bald audacity of such a claim, the Indian born filmmaker had only made three films previous. Sure, The Sixth Sense was very good, and Unbreakable perhaps even better, but even the writer/director dismissed his first feature film, Wide Awake, as a failure. Still, many found the periodical’s claim to have some minor merit. With what he had accomplished in such a short time, Shyamalan looked like the real deal. Now he looks like garbage.The Happeningis destined to go down as either the kitschiest camp trick ever played on an audience by a former A-list filmmaker, or the last gasp in a career downward spiral so massive that Trent Reznor would be jealous. It takes a bad b-movie ideal, dresses it up in fancy framing and composition, and asks us to believe in its Bert I. Gordon goofiness. Even worse, it doesn’t appear that Shyamalan is simply having a laugh. Pre-publicity has commented on how the director is excited to give fans his first “R-rated” horror film. In interviews, he seems to genuinely believe that this will be a solid scarefest. Clearly, Lady in the Water wasn’t the only delusion this non-autuer suffered from.


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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

Ask any casual film fan about Roman Polanski, the brilliant Polish moviemaker responsible for ‘70s classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, and you’re likely to get the following response: “Wasn’t he the guy who raped that girl and then ran off to Europe to avoid prosecution?” Indeed, eight years to the day that his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in the Helter Skelter rampage of Charlie Manson and his family, the director was to be placed on trial for the seduction, drugging, and ‘he said/she said’ sexual encounter with a 13 year old girl. At the time, it was a true tabloid sensation, a circus wrapped inside the most sizzling of scandals. Today, it’s a story relegated to the above-mentioned gross overgeneralization. Thanks to Marina Zenovich’s brilliant new documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the closest thing to the truth finally gets a much needed airing.


What’s clear is that Polanski and Samantha (Gailey) Geimer did indeed engage in physical contact, forced or otherwise. While the director pled innocent during his initial arrangements, the discovery of a pair of panties led to a backroom plea agreement. What’s also clear is that, through her lawyer, Geimer and her stage door mother wanted this case concluded in the most calm and clandestine manner possible. The early ‘70s was still a time when “accusing the victim” could be used in courtrooms, and while Geimer’s name (and reputation) was not public knowledge in the US, she was already labeled a pariah throughout Europe. In addition, while prosecutor Roger Gunson and defense attorney Douglas Dalton were on differing sides of the situation, both acknowledged that Polanski would not be in self-imposed exile today if it weren’t for the fame whoring judge at the center of the case.


The late Laurence J. Rittenband is painted as a series of concerning contradictions, a man obsessed with high profile celebrity crimes who himself aspired to similar notoriety as the arbiter of same. He purposely asked to be on the Polanski case, and used it as the basis for his own surreal courtroom drama. Zenovich does a brilliant job of deconstructing the truth. As part of his plea, Polanski was promised probation. The judge felt such a stance would get him in hot water with the media. As a compromise, all decided on a 90 day stay at the State Prison at Chino. While it would technically be for further discretionary review, it was farcical formality. Once released, Polanski would be more or less free. And the director actually did go to jail. He served 42 days in isolation, administrators afraid of what the prison population would do to a convicted child molester.


Oh course, what many in the mythology don’t acknowledge - and in turn, avoid today as being far outside the current social stigma - is that Polanski’s case was always going to be probation. He was a foreigner, easily deportable, and rich enough to fight any attempt at long term incarceration. The victim’s reluctance to testify also factored in to the supposed resolution. The reason Polanski served any time whatsoever is that Rittenband wanted to look tough on crimes of this nature. He wasn’t going to let stardom alter his perceived course of punishment. It is at this moment when Zenovich’s story goes from fascinating to sensational, and then shocking. It is clear that the judge wanted nothing more than to maintain a certain reputation with the press. He felt pressure to make sure Polanksi merely didn’t “walk”. Of course, this meant violating every code of judicial ethics that there were by manipulating lawyers into doing what he wanted and reneging on deals that were sealed behind closed courthouse doors.


That both sides now acknowledge that this happened turns the story at the center of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired into one of the biggest miscarriages of justice ever. No one is denying that the director deserved punishment. Even when she intercuts information about Polanski’s past - his family destruction by the Nazis, the death of his wife at the hands of Manson - Zenovich never apologizes for what her subject did. For the filmmaker, his penchant for underage girls was clearly a carryover from a life on his own and a swinging ‘60s sense of invincibility. He never really denied the affair, just that it was rape. We even learn of the long term relationship he carried on with a teenage Natasha Kinski. Surprisingly, few in his homeland were up in arms over their May-December dalliances.


No, this documentary also indicts America, viewing it in the craven, prurient Puritanical light the country continues to be filtered through. Rittenband’s reactions are seen as the slightly insane ravings of a man perfectly in tune with how La-La land treats the truth. He overreacts when Polanski, on business for an upcoming movie, is photographed seated between two women during Munich’s Oktoberfect. When his very own Department of Corrections releases the director after less than half of his “sentence”, Rittenband takes it personally. Such invested irresponsibility is the real reason Polanski left. It wasn’t because he wanted to avoid further prosecution or his possible punishment. It’s because he could no longer count on getting a fair shake in a system that seemed to be making up the rules as it - or its representative, Rittenband - went along.


Sadly, it seems that no one really pays attention to the truth. Current reviews from Variety on down still tow a simplistic party line - Roman Polanski ran to France to avoid his guilt. In some ways, that’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what happened, substituting liability with legal logistics. Clearly, Zenovich made this movie to clear up the misconceptions, and with the myriad of talking heads she has at her disposal, her point is plainly and efficiently made. What remains is the ancillary belief that, no matter the amount of penance or perceived penance he paid, a severe lack of judgment forever altered the fate of one of film’s most important and influential auteurs. Roman Polanski deserves his badge of dishonor, no question about it. This amazing documentary argues that others need to start sporting one as well.


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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

Steroids - the word alone strikes fear in the hearts of sports fans and athletes alike. Thirty years ago, the anabolic hormone replacement therapy was a common, under the counter practice. Everyone from bodybuilders to professional football players hit the ‘juice’ as a means of getting bigger, training harder, and repairing physical damage faster. Such notable superstars as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan admitted to using the substance to gain that all important competitive advantage over others. But somewhere along the last three decades, steroids stopped being subterranean cool. They went from an accepted unspoken supplement to international pariah. In his masterful, sly documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, former power lifter Chris Bell discusses when he thinks the perception changed, and how little change such renewed awareness has actually brought about.


Bell believes, rightfully or wrongfully, that steroids are immoral. It’s a lesson he learned from his mother, in conjunction with a clear ‘80s kid connection to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No”. When he learns that his brothers “Mad Dog” Mike and “Smelly” Mark both now use the drugs (as part of a desire to be professional athletes) he goes on a performance enhancement spiritual quest, debunking the myths surrounding the subject while uncovering the causes for its continued demonization. One fact that Bigger, Stronger, Faster (wonderfully subtitled “The Side Effects of Being American”) uncovers is that many of the claims about deaths from steroid use are wildly overstated. While the main medical opponent of the substance continues his rallying cry, two other physicians challenge the lack of actual empirical evidence.


That’s the key to understanding Bell’s position. There is lots of anecdotal ‘proof’ that steroids cause numerous, near fatal side effects, and when combined with other elements in an athlete’s strenuous course of preparation, they may (key word - MAY) hasten death. But it’s compelling to watch the film deconstruct Lyle Alzado’s claims that he died as a result of his 16 years of use (there was never an established link between his brain cancer and the drug) or question Donald Hooton on his conviction that steroids led to his son’s suicide. When confronted with other possibilities, the still grieving father reverts right back to rhetoric, restating a non-scientific link over and over. Bell makes it clear that changing one’s natural body chemistry is dangerous at the very least, but by the end of the film, he’s done a decent job of taking the skull off of steroids mass murderer crossbones. 


Sadly, most people will focus on the seemingly pro-steroid message presented here and avoid the more personal problems. It is clear, at least from a contextually lax cinematic standpoint, that Chris’ brother Mike is a mess. After his brief stint as a semi-recognizable wrestling toadie (never a star, but the go to guy when the main event needed a patsy), he seems a broken man. Unable to settle down and longing for a limelight he never really got, he becomes Bigger, Stronger, Faster‘s most fascinating ‘character’. When questioned about his dissatisfaction, he has no real reason for being so unsettled. Later, when it seems his desire to be ‘better than average’ may never work out, Chris again asks about why he can’t be happy just being who he is. The look on Mike’s confused face says it all.


Mark, at least, seems more levelheaded in his pursuit. Recognizing the need to use steroids to compete with others in the pumped up world of power lifting, he makes a fragile agreement with his wife. After one more competition, he will quit. The reason is simply - they want to try and have a second child. Of course, a casual question from Chris reveals that, as of now, the pact is merely temporary. There is a clear undercurrent of addiction at the center of Bigger, Stronger, Faster - both a physical need for users to continue gaining mass, and a psychological edge that’s hard to shake. When the conversation swings around to sports, the concept of fairness is tossed around quite a bit. It seems to circumvent any discussion about the eventual mental and physiological longing involved with prolonged use.


In fact, as the subtitle suggests, Americans are equally part of the performance enhancement junkie culture. Ben Johnson, the Canadian Olympic athlete who was stripped of his gold medal when it was discovered he tested positive for doping, continues to be denounced. But the second place finisher, Carl Lewis, was also found to be cheating…BEFORE the games had started. Yet his results were covered up by the United States so he could compete in Seoul for the Red, White, and Blue. Jose Canseco, the crackpot ‘roid head with a penchant for backing into the truth, is seen as a smarmy savior to a sport that had a future president backing its “chicks dig the long ball” belief system. From Congressmen who are unsure of the laws they supported to high minded pundits proclaiming a knowledge of a substance that few truly understand, Bell argues that, as long as dingers are heading out of ball parks and favored teams are taking home championships, there are not real victims - only victors.


Of course, all of this leads to the crux of Bell’s position - if steroids are so unproven, so contentious in what they can and cannot be linked to, why are they so stigmatized. Again, sportsmanship is brought up, as is that ever popular politicians’ lament of “for the sake of the children”. The filmmaker may not help his case with his Michael Moore meets Morgan Spurlock intrusive irony. When he asks a male model about steroid use, or a porn star about liquid Viagra shot straight into “the source”, we see the point he’s making in obvious, slightly overbearing obviousness. Similarly, the heart-to-hearts with his distraught mother (very religious, she thought she “raised” her boys to be better than this) have no real payoff, the pain shuttled aside for more shots of Arnold and Sly.


In the end, Bigger, Stronger, Faster is not out to compliment or condemn its subjects. All jocks and jocularity aside, there is a strong core element of cultural brainwashing at work within the revelations. It’s now men who suffer from body image issues, the notion that machismo (and resulting sexual attraction) comes only from six-pack abs and bulging pecs permeating the skivvy social structure. Bell himself admits that as the short, fat middle child, bodybuilding was a way of gaining a certain style of acceptance. Now, years later, when none of that really matters, the fascination with physicality remains. Whether it’s for looks or to be the last man standing, it’s clear that somewhere along its trip from tonic to toxin, steroids have been misunderstood. Bell’s documentary may not change that status, but if anyone wants to have a serious discussion about the entire supplement situation, this excellent film is a good place to start.


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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

When Marvel made the decision to take over the “creative direction” of the big screen adaptations of their characters, geek nation remained skeptical. After all, just because the company knows comic books doesn’t mean it understands the cinematic translations of same. Luckily, Iron Man has quelled a great many of those fears. It stands as Summer 2008’s greatest surprise. Now, hot on the heels of that success comes the reboot of the Incredible Hulk. Yes, Ang Lee already made this movie five years ago, but none except a few clued in critics enjoyed its psychologically-oriented narrative. No, what devotees wanted was a big green giant (and accompanying action “smashing”) they could comprehend and champion. This time around, they more or less got their wish.


It’s been several years since Bruce Banner accidentally overdosed on gamma radiation, changing the entire genetic make-up of his body. Now, whenever he gets too excited, or angry, he turns into a monstrous behemoth, a creature capable of unbelievable strength and unconscionable violence. Just when he thinks he’s stumbled upon a possible cure, Army General Thaddeus Ross reenters his life. The man in charge of Banner’s initial experiments, he lost more than a potential weapon the day his subject went haywire. His daughter, the dedicated scientist Betty Ross, refuses to forgive him for what happened, and she’s now disowned him. When a Russian/English mercenary named Emil Blonsky decides to undergo a similar procedure, he doesn’t become the “ultimate solider”. Instead, he becomes an ‘abomination” that the ‘hulk’ must battle. 


It has to be said that one of the most “incredible” things about this so-called reinvention of the Hulk is how close it is to Ang Lee’s vision. Those who claim it far surpasses the 2003 original are merely applying their own form of aesthetic selective memory. Though Louis Leterrier has a limited pedigree as the creator of big time blockbuster fare, at least his time taking the Transporter franchise through the action genre motions means this version of the Marvel monster can really kick some butt. Sure, our French filmmaker is still enamored with a chaotic, quick cut style of cinema that renders carefully choreographed battles a blur, but there are moments in this movie where his constantly moving lens add authenticity to the otherwise fantastical elements. There is one sequence in particular where Hulk battles the military among the trees and grounds of a college campus. Here, Leterrier’s style clearly complements the ballistics.


The Incredible Hulk also gets an upgrade when it comes to casting. Edward Norton may not be everyone’s idea of a solid superhero, but he brings the right amount of humanity to the role. He manages to enrich even the most routine lines. Similarly, Liv Tyler trumps the zombie like zero that was Jennifer Connelly in Lee’s version. Sure, Betty is still reduced to emotional eye candy, standing by her shapeshifting man through thick…and thicker. But Tyler retains her dignity. Tim Roth’s arrival as the main villain, Emil Blonsky is okay, if nothing truly spectacular. After an opening sequence where he slaughters anything that moves, we never really experience his true evil. It’s just a given, considering the lengths he will go through to get to the Hulk. With William Hurt hilarious in a wry, smirk supporting moustache and Tim Blake Nelson as a helpful scientist with a secret agenda, this is a capable company of performers.


Still, there are parts of the script that can’t help but get in the way. If Banner says it once, he says the “weapons” line about 20 times. It’s as if Norton loved the idea of playing on the “military industrial complex” nature of the character and went overboard. Also, there’s no real backstory built in. The opening credits feature a recreated montage of material straight out of the old TV intro, but we never discover why Banner is in exile, how he has battled the armed forces to maintain his privacy, why Betty would be against his attempts at curing/helping his affliction, and how our hero could continue his research in what looks like one of the more squalid slums in Brazil. Between the initial encounter/take down with the factory worker bullies to the eventual arrival of superbeast Abomination, there’s a lot of interpersonal padding, material that seems mandated by Norton’s desire to tread as close to Ang territory without pissing off that other important Lee - Stan.


Still, when it settles into the standard comic book histrionics, when Hulk gathers all his might and lets out a bellow that raises the hairs on the back of your neck, this movie semi-satisfies. The CGI, used to render both the hero and the horror, looks surprisingly good, if still a little stiff. Unfortunately, no one is comfortable enough with the technology to allow for that all important full blown head on transformation money shot. There is an “almost” moment when Banner is undergoing the experimental treatment that may cure him, but Leterrier’s cutting countermands any awe. In fact, there is so much down to editorial earth control over the context that the cautiousness grows aggravating. We want to see Hulk live up to his past reputation and cause untold damage. Sadly, much of the ‘smashing’ comes a little too late.


There will be those who liken The Incredible Hulk to Marvel’s Iron Man and comment on how correct the decision to take control of their content really was. Granted, the comic company made many of the right decisions, especially when it came to allowing real actors and capable directors to helm their efforts. Yet before the accolades get too bulky, one thing is certain - this reimagining of the big green beast with unfathomable brute strength is not the success of his metal suited brethren. Depending on where Marvel goes from here, The Incredible Hulk will be viewed as either a decent, dependable hit, or a hint that things have yet to be perfected within the company’s still fresh business model. As usual, the box office will be the final determining factor.


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