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Monday, Jun 23, 2008
L.B. takes a look at some of the issues raised in the ZA comments about assessing a game in the culture of rabid fans and supporting new video games.


Much derision and digital ink has already been spilled on the topic of fanboyism and video games. One cannot post a negative review of Smash Brother Brawl, no matter how popular you are, and not expect a mountain of steaming hate to be heaped at your door. The same goes for countless other revered games, be it Halo 3 or Twilight Princess. Any attempts to pose a poignant and insightful criticism of a game that has been hyped by the media is generally a good way to get kicked in the back of the head. Yet give it a few months and the tides always roll back, the fans move on to another game. Or even better, they calm down enough to actually notice the flaws in the game and maybe agree with you. What kind of relationship do we then establish with this “no negative thinking allowed” approach to criticizing newly released games?


 


The first question is what exactly is motivating these people to rabidly defend this stuff. The always-illuminating Brainy Gamer had a great essay and several comments that hit at the heart of the issue. The average underage gamer probably only gets one or two games a month along with one console. There is a natural instinct to defend that purchase as the best choice because it is, no matter what, that gamer’s choice. Abbott also makes the distinction between a critical piece and a review, since one involves the cultural importance of a game and one involves whether it’s worth shelling out the cash. One is looking at the game’s importance in terms of the growing canon of video games, the other is looking at how much fun it is. These do not always coincide nor do many consumers necessarily care. Zork is a historical landmark in video games. The average player should look at it to gain a better understanding of the medium’s origin and appreciate the clever dialogue. But I can’t imagine many people advising someone to shell out twenty bucks for it just to play for fun. When we tell people they really need to play a game, how much should that advice be conditioned to our wallets? Because once someone drops the hefty price on a game that’s fresh out the gate, that’s it.


 


Another observation on fanboys is Leigh Alexander’s oft-cited piece the Aberrant Gamer essay, which outlines the problems in expecting any kind of objectivity from gamers or reviewers anyway. We are psychologically conditioned because of our familiarity with a mascot to like a game. We trust Mario, we like Master Chief. Anything they do is going to garner a more favorable response than something entirely new. It’s also inherently a part of gamer culture to identify with its symbols and icons.


Yet beyond the rabid screaming posts of death that makes many journalists quiver, there is also the fear that giving a game a bad review is like giving video games themselves negative input. GTA IV received so much press and attention from non-gaming media that for the brave few who pointed out flaws in the games, it almost comes across like they’re insulting video games themselves. They’re insulting our public image by criticizing our daring attempts at being art. Which makes dealing with the fans all the more difficult when you know you’re shooting them and your beloved art form in the foot.


 


All of these issues are something a critic should be aware of before ripping into a newly released game: some people like a certain title no matter what, there will be plenty of time to say a game isn’t a classic, and the standards of greatness are not the same as the standards of marketability. And like it or not, game critics play a role in developing an artistic medium in our slightly disturbing way. The final issue with these problems is the outcry that objectivity is the ultimate solution. The problem being…people who want this don’t quite understand what they’re asking for. Objectivity is not about being unbiased, it’s being able to accomplish a task without any emotion or concern for the consequences. A truly neutral reviewer is perfectly capable of explaining why a game deserves a 1/10 just as much as they are capable of explaining why a game deserves a 10/10. They do not see a game or art, they see a thing. What the objective viewpoint then asks is what they want the thing to do. Do they want it to be good? Bad? Irrelevant? And in my personal experience with lawyers and objective thinking, most people are horrified, disgusted, or confused by this. Not only is the objective opinion fully capable of agreeing and supporting everything you say, it’s capable of making your opinion look stupid and idiotic at the same time. An objective opinion may look at a game neutrally, but it is still being steered by something.


 


Unlike Sergeant Slaughter, who wisely advised me as a child that knowing is half the battle, I believe that being aware of these issues is pretty much all of it. What you choose to do with your writing while being mindful of these issues is up to you. Between the gamer who has already spent cash on a game they now must like, the personal prejudices, and the dangers of objectivity…how do we talk about video games? Lester Bangs, a prominent music critic, once wrote, “Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.” It does not seem so great a leap to conclude that the problem with fanboyism is that they are looking at one face and game critics are looking at another. Destructoid’s 4.5 for ‘Twilight Princess’ comes from the lack of innovation and how quickly the game will be forgotten. 1UP’s perfect score of 100 for the same game comes from how fun and rewarding it is for Zelda fans thinking about buying it. Such a system of dual-perspectives on video games is not just necessary in terms of proper critical assessment, it’s about being fair to the games themselves. Not every game can change the way we think and play video games. There can only be so many breakthroughs like Ocarina of Time per decade, per century. For a critic looking at both sides of a game, perhaps the higher standard of the future can wait for the right time.


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Monday, Jun 23, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-06-23...

Wow.


You know, I’ve seen a lot of summers at this point, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that video game publishers generally don’t like to release things in the summer.  It’s probably a matter of something like, oh, too many kids playing outside, or perhaps not enough gift-giving holidays in the season’s general proximity.  Whatever it is, I’m used to the summer being a slow time, a time when I can catch up on games that I didn’t give a fair shake the first time around, on games for which my Gamerscore is a highly mockable, measly 5/1000 (Hello, GTA4). 


Not this year.


This year, summer is a season of life, of flowers, of party games and shooters and the requisite movie tie-ins that usually make up the majority of the summer schedule, now relegated to the background in favor of triple-A releases given a chance to shine in the sparse desert of releases.  Except that this year (or, at least, this week), it’s not even close to sparse.


How about a little love for Tom Hamilton, am I right?

How about a little love for Tom Hamilton, am I right?


Of course, my house will certainly end up with a copy of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, loathe as I am to admit it.  Whether I buy it at full price ($59.99?!) now or wait until it gets a bit, oh, cheaper is another story.  Hail to the Chimp looks to be a fantastic way to capitalize on election mania in party-game form, on the off-chance you’re not utterly sick of election mania yet.  Battlefield: Bad Company is the one getting all of the advertising dollars, and the advertisements have me this close to buying it, though I’m still waiting for a sense of the buzz on it to make a final decision.  Sports nuts get Top Spin 3, just in time for Wimbledon.  And there’s even plenty for the kids, what with WALL-E making its way into homes tomorrow and even an American Girl game coming out for the PC this week.  There is, in the most literal sense, something for everyone this week.


Of course, there’s nothing I could possibly be more psyched about this week than the upcoming release of Atari’s reimagination of the Alone in the Dark series.  This is a series I’ve been playing since it originally appeared on the PC in…jeez, 1992, and none of the games have really approached the wonder of the first.  Perhaps it’s because the original was the progenitor of the cinematic style that is the series’ trademark (using polygons instead of hand-drawnsprites was a pretty big idea at that point), and the rest couldn’t help but live in the shadow of the first’s definitive style and innovation, but it hasn’t quite been the same since the original adventure of Edward Carnby.


The new Carnby wields a mean sword.

The new Carnby wields a mean sword.


The new, 2008 version of Alone in the Dark appears to be trying its darndest to follow in the footsteps of the original game’s innovation, but not in the graphical arena, given that graphics are sort of plateauing right now.  No, this new Alone in the Dark has a gameplay innovation: it’s episodic, and in an interesting twist, players can play the episodes in whatever order their little hearts desire.  Want a true blockbuster experience?  Play it from beginning to end.  Want to turn it into Memento?  Play it in reverse.  Want a Tarentino-esque experience?  Play the middle episodes first.  It doesn’t matter!


What would be interesting to see is just how many people play for a while starting at the beginning, eventually get frustrated, and skip to the end.  Not that I ever would.  No sir.


The full release list, and a trailer for Alone in the Dark, is after the break.


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Monday, Jun 23, 2008

For our generation, George Carlin and his comedy album Class Clown were like God (or maybe Moses) and his Bible (or at the very least, the Ten Commandments). Surrounded by prophets and other daring disciples like Cheech and Chong, the members of Monty Python, Richard Pryor, and other masters of the LP format, his irreverent observational takes on everything from baseball to language defined an entire legion of adolescent humor. He was the drawstring back to the ‘60s, the decade which saw him switch from standard, partnered comedian to the Hippie Dippie Weatherman. Long haired and bearded, he was the counterculture wrapped up in an Establishment acceptable package. It would prove to be the perfect juxtaposition to fuel his five decade long career.


And now he’s gone - dead from a heart attack at age 71. As usual, he was preparing another HBO special, his 15th, and weighing in on the upcoming Presidential election (though he rarely if ever voted). Carlin was as political as he was prosaic, a stern proponent of the First Amendment who saw his classic routine “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” creating a legal stir that found its issues dragged all the way to the US Supreme Court (Carlin won a moral, if not complete, victory). At the peak of his powers, he was likened to Lenny Bruce and his ‘70s co-conspirator Pryor. By the ‘90s, he was viewed as a creaky old school curmudgeon, no longer really relevant in an arena overrun with self-imposed irony, ethnic specific slams, and the last remnants of Steve Martin inspired absurdism.


Yet Carlin stands for much more than just wit and wisdom for the Woodstock crowd. He represented one of the first stand-ups to stay totally in touch with his life and times. As the world went from Eisenhower conservatism to proto-peace and love, he left his friend and performing colleague Jack Burns (himself a future humor Hall of Famer) to pursue his individual muse. Frequent appearances on the nation’s top two variety shows - Ed Sullivan and the Johnny Carson helmed Tonight Show - brought him more and more mainstream success. 1967 saw the release of his first album, Take Offs and Put Downs, and as his act developed and grew, he substituted more acceptable stints at colleges and ‘happenings’ for the radioactive glow of the boob tube.


As his material (and appearance) became more controversial, broadcast television was definitely less of an option. This is where his records came in. Like many comedians in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Carlin defined himself by those 33&1/3 long players. It was the only way that audiences outside the major nightclub circuit could ‘see’ contemporary stand up. Alone or in groups, turntable tracking the various bits and themes, these forefathers of the post-modern funny man turned rec rooms and bed rooms into shadowy, laugh-filled forums. By the time of his peak in 1975, he was the symbol of subversive humor, so much so that the then fledgling Saturday Night Live had Carlin on as its first ever guest host.


And just like that, two of his brethren ended his reign. Richard Pryor made swearing special, weaving the words Carlin had championed into pointed deconstructions of urban and racial blight. As he was mining that material, the aforementioned Wild and Crazy Guy turned stand-up into rock and roll, relying on visual gags and over-intellectualized non-sequitors to redefine the artforms approach. By the end of the Me Decade, Carlin was seen as a hold over, a famous face from a bygone era given time by those entities - cable, concerts - that could still accommodate his firebrand ballsy takes. It didn’t help matter that in 1976 he went into a five year self imposed exile, rarely seen outside the burgeoning vistas of HBO.


Oddly enough, Carlin couldn’t translate what he did best into any other medium aside from albums and TV variety. Film often saw him floundering, minor rolls in Car Wash and Americathon trading more on his grizzled groovy looks than anything remotely resembling character. In the ‘80s, his turn as Rufus, the time traveling guru to Valley dorks Bill and Ted brought the comedian back into the limelight, yet he never could capitalize on the fame those two films offered. Kevin Smith, a longtime fan, found room for him in Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Jersey Girl, but by the new millennium, Carlin had given up on the movies, only managing a few prime cartoon voice-over gigs (Cars, Happily N’Ever After) before turning in his cinematic credentials.


He also couldn’t make a go of tradition television humor. His one and only stab at a sitcom, 1994’s self-named series, lasted 27 episodes. Set in a bar and featuring Carlin as a taxi driver, it tried to incorporate the comic’s wicked observations within a classic storyline setting. It didn’t work. Oddly enough, he did find fortune in children’s domain. From 1991 to 1998, he was the American narrator of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine series from Britain. He parlayed that stint into a similar bit as Mr. Conductor, overseer of the Shining Time Station (he took over for another ‘60s icon, The Beatles’ Ringo Starr). Between regular cable specials and a few literary collections (Carlin published five books of his material overall), he was never completely out of the picture. 


His personal life, however, was a well guarded reality. He married Brenda Hosbrook in 1961, and the couple had a daughter together, Kelly. In 1997, his wife succumbed to cancer. After nearly 36 years of marriage, Carlin was again single. While he loved to maintain a rock and roll persona onstage, few knew that the comedian was secretly battling several addictions. By 2004, he could no longer control his problems, and quietly checked into rehab. Last week, complaining of chest pains, he entered St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. A victim of several previous heart attacks, Carlin died a short time later.


For many of us tuned into his marauding mindset thirty plus years ago, the loss of George Carlin physically means very little. It’s devastating, but when you can recite, verbatim, the entire riff regarding ‘Special Dispensation: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo’ (“Purgatory is for un-baptized babies because…it wasn’t their fault”) or the scientific facts regarding the artificial fart under the arm (otherwise known as the “bilabial fricative”), it’s clear where Carlin’s legacy lies. He questioned religion in ways that few in the era would even approach (it sailed smack dab in the middle of the Jesus Christ Superstar sentiment) and brought profanity to the fore in a mannerism that future stand-ups took for granted.


Now he’s gone, though clearly not forgotten - and there are some fans who followed him all throughout his rollercoaster career. They never gave up on his confrontational cynicism, embraced his attacks on authority, and held onto the belief that, in a world filled with frivolous, superficial humorists, Carlin was smart, articulate, and continually cutting edge. He will be missed, but more importantly, he will be remembered, especially by an age group that discovered the truth about the world (and how it worked) through his caustic, creative views. He was a man obsessed with words, and it will be words that best manage his lasting myth.


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Monday, Jun 23, 2008

This was a predictable development: People (music snobs, mainly, I’m guessing) are starting to buy vinyl albums again, despite the ubiquity of low- to no-cost MP3s. Some of these folks may have the kind of hi-fi setups necessary to take advantage of the higher audio fidelity of vinyl, but I think a fixation on sound quality is secondary. The appeal is likely in the thrill of physical ownership, of having a cultural object that gets personalized, acquires a patina, through one’s personal pattern of usage. It becomes something that can’t be duplicated, and digitization has made all such unduplicatables rarer and therefore more valuable to us.


There is also a totemistic appeal to albums. I can remember sitting in people’s dorm rooms listening to records, staring at the covers, held in thrall by the object itself. And the ritual of picking a record to play from a shelf of by flipping through records in a box simply conjures an entirely different feeling than selecting it from what’s essentially a spreadsheet. The article notes “Whether it’s inspecting a needle for dust or flipping the record over at the end of a side, LPs demand attention. And for a small but growing group, those demands aren’t a nuisance.” These may be the sort of voluntary limits we impose on our cultural consumption to make it more managable, to keep the avalanche of digital culture from burying us.


(Via PSFK)


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Monday, Jun 23, 2008

As a tech-head, I can’t resist the blissful imagination of articles like this one from PBS where they consider the idea of a Technological Sabbath for all of us to take.  For anyone else who is wired to the Net day and night, there’s definitely some appeal in such an idea.  When I go on vacation, if a cyber-cafe is around and it’s not too expensive, I admit that I go check my mail and news for a 1/2 hour or so- that’s not too bad, right?  But similarly, if I go with my friends to a cabin that’s far from any Net access, I don’t go through withdrawal if I’m not online- I just dread coming home and going through 100’s of messages, trying to sort out what’s trash and what I want to read.  Part of the problem for us overwired folks is that too much of our lives take place online, making it more difficult to disconnect.  As much as we may curse and complain about the Net, the fact still is that we’re heavily invested in it in many ways- we have a lot of friends and family that we connect with and a lot of work that we do online only.


The problem with trying to disconnect, even temporarily, is that technology is constantly chasing after you, looking to permeate your non-Net world.  It isn’t just that TV’s are becoming more and more wired (as explained in this recent Broadcasting Cable article) but also that we ourselves are spending more time online watching videos and less time with our ol’ TV sets as explained in these articles from Variety and Times Online.  ADDENDA: as is typical with the Net now, even though eyeballs are migrating online, as this excellent SF Gate story explains, there’s still confusion about how to make money there.


Add to that the cell phone companies that are trying to cram more and more music and video content into their products and there’s no escaping it- all forms of media are ready to take with you everywhere and anywhere (and we’re not just talking about iPhone either but also every other provider, especially Verizon).  And how much are we going to resist the temptation with the Net being portable?  Bored for a minute?  Want to find some info quick?  How easy it is to whip out a phone and just look up everything. 


I don’t think it’s necessarily for the worse though.  Not just the boredom factor but also the ability to look up useful info (weather, locations, events) is something that we all have a need for at some time or another.  The thing I wonder about is how it’s going to change our lives if we’re always wired and connected.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist who’ll tell you that da man is going to be able to track us but I do think there’s gotta be some implications about how it will effect us socially on a personal and societal level.  Lots of room for head scratching here but it’ll definitely be interesting to see how this pans out.


Back to the idea of the tech sabbath though… It’s a good idea in theory but it’ll be harder and harder to do obviously.  I do think we all need a break from our small screens every now and then throughout the day just so we don’t go loopy and our eyes don’t bug outta our heads.  A tech break is definitely warranted through the day and necessary, not to mention more realistic.


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