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by Andy Edelstein - Newsday (MCT)

17 Nov 2009

Hokey smoke! Rocky and His Friends (later renamed The Bullwinkle Show) debuted 50 years ago this week. This wacky Jay Ward creation — featuring the misadventures of a flying squirrel and a dimwitted moose (as well as features like “Fractured Fairy Tales” and “Peabody’s Improbable History” aka “Sherman and Peabody”)—remains one of the most beloved of cartoons, even if it’s not being broadcast on TV today (a crime in and of itself).

Here are five things you may not have known about the moose, squirrel and their pals:

—During the early stages of preproduction, the show was going to be called Frostbite Falls Follies, to reflect Bullwinkle’s hometown of Frostbite Falls, Minn.

—The show’s narrator was William Conrad, best known as the rotund TV detective “Cannon”.

—Peter Noone, the lead singer of the British Invasion band Herman’s Hermits, got his name because bandmates thought he looked like Sherman of Mr. Peabody fame.

—Bad guy Boris Badenov’s name was a pun from Mussorgsky’s opera, Boris Godunov.

—June Foray, who voiced Rocky, also provided the voice for Boris’ nefarious better half, Natasha Fatale.



by L.B. Jeffries

17 Nov 2009

A roundtable discussion over at EDGE online pits three different design philosophies against one another. Emergent, multiplayer, and linear narrative systems are all advocated by three different parties.  The conversation is worth reading, although in the comments it becomes obvious that readers felt it was a little bit biased against linear narratives. I’m a very big fan of Ragnar Tornquist’s work, but I’m not sure that adventure games can be considered the prime example of a linear story. As content delivery systems they are the most efficient at keeping long speeches and complex plot engaging, but interaction is not their primary tool for this exchange. They instead rely on a lot of cinematic techniques. Having varying artistic sensibilities for what a medium should do is very healthy, it allows for more diversity and variation in both subject and presentation, so with that in mind this is an argument for why linear stories in games continue to be valid. I’ve made the opposite argument before as well.

Much like the emergent and multiplayer experiences that are just now coming into their own, linear experiences in games are better crafted and designed than ever before in video games. Like an emergent or multiplayer game, it can be seen as a series of layers. Visuals stack onto sound which both represent plot which is all driven by an underlying game design. However, unlike an emergent or multiplayer design which can be seen as a large spider web of interesting choices, a linear narrative is a straight line.

The thing is that calling these games linear is a bit misleading. A good way of looking at it comes from the way people interpret a loose, abstract linear narrative like a poem.  William H. Roetzheim writes in his introduction to The Giant Book of Poetry that poems can be broken down into four levels, all of which a great poem offers to a reader. Level one is when a poem works for the casual, uninterested reader who can understand what the poem is saying on the surface. Level two gives the more focused reader something to chew on: carefully organized phrases, rhythm, and a real sense of mood and style. Level three offers a separate, “hidden” message to the reader through metaphor or symbolism. Roetzheim writes, “The message should be recognizable to the skilled reader, and should be obvious to the non-skilled reader when it is pointed out.” Level Four, which he argues is the most difficult to produce, is when a poem’s symbols and language can create a unique, individual meaning for each reader. A Level four poem, “has both literal and representative meanings and the representative meaning is flexible with the reader able to fill in the specific meaning that applies most closely to their personal life.” The foundation of this idea is that a good poem should be both literal and abstract. It can hold your hand and walk you through an interesting experience but should you choose to cut loose and apply your own interpretation it still works. A strong linear game narrative works under very similar conditions. Chris DeLeon writes in a blog response to Jesper Juul that what makes a video game unique is the combination of forces at work. It’s the controller, the screen, the sounds, the music, the design, all working in tandum. A linear narrative consists of all these layers working in tandum, which a player can engage with in any manner they choose.

Take the difficulty levels for a game like Halo 3. On easy it’s not difficult to plow through and relatively boring. On Legendary, which many players vow is the only way to play the game properly, you have to duck for cover and engage with the game in a very complex, skilled manner. There is also a Sci-Fi narrative going on for people interested in that, solid co-op play for when you have company over, and superb multiplayer. The linear narrative is a similar exercise in creating a multi-level poem. It is not just a narrative, that’s just one of many levels that it exists on. What a successful linear narrative does is create a straight path the player must walk but lets them choose things like difficulty or even observing the story. Consider a remarkable game like Grand Theft Auto IV. You can completely play and beat that game without listening to the story once. You can also pay attention to every detail. The ability to phase the information in and out and still be able to enjoy it in your own personal way is where the craftsmanship comes through. Even an adventure game presents this in a minimal fashion: you can decide whether to absorb details and take in the scenery or focus purely on the puzzles to progress.

From Far Cry 2

From Far Cry 2

In contrast, the multiplayer and emergent design approaches are attempts to emphasize personalized metaphors and experiences that will be unique to each player. They are an exercise in creating an artistic medium that relies on the Fourth Level of Poetry. They apply a system of enormous choice with random events and circumstances that enable the player to encounter or generate something that is unique to them alone. The problem with this design philosophy is that empowering player choice results in a kind of self-imposed private redundancy. Every single time I play Civilization IV, I do the exact same thing because that’s the most efficient way for me to win. Far Cry 2 stalls at about 70% progress through the game because there are no more upgrades and thus no new weapons to change your play style. I beat every single mission for the second half of the game by using the same tactic. I climbed on top of the highest point possible, broke out the sniper rifle, and then burn out the survivors before mopping up with heavy weapons. Far Cry 2 is mostly a struggle with all the random jamming and AI encounters that make this approach difficult, but this is making up for what linear design does automatically. Both games are breaking me out of my play style, but the linear one is just being forceful instead of using a random system. There are numerous missions in linear FPS titles where you wish they’d just give you a sniper rifle and let you clean up the area. You’ll even be able to see a lovely mountain where you could do it all from if the dropship pilot wasn’t an idiot. But that’s also the point: going their way is going to be much more tense and exciting. It may not be the best route, but it’s also the most exciting one. Consider Ben Abraham’s Perma Death In Far Cry 2, the series is mostly an exercise in reinforcing linear elements into the game. When he died, that was it, no reloading. He had to modify his engagement with the game to break the personal stagnation that comes with emergent structures.

In an excellent post on the issues dealing with interactive fiction, Emily Short makes note of the fact that with any single player game, an AI is never going to be an audience member to our conduct. They are never going to appreciate our heroism beyond an in-game reward. The in-game conduct is never really going to amount to an epic experience through any literal connections, what makes conduct epic is both the audience and memory. Short eventually argues that these matter more in her medium of choice. She writes, “the story (as opposed to the text) is constructed in the mind of the reader by the work.”

That’s ultimately the leap of faith one takes with a linear game, just as one does with any form of media. An emergent narrative might give us multiple options just like a multiplayer game gives us multiple people to interact with, but in the end each player is still going to have their preferred experience. That’s what justifies the confines of linear design and story: people do it to themselves anyways. A linear narrative and design simply recognizes this fact and instead tries to let the decisions about interaction be much more basic. A designer is saying that this is the best way to experience the level when they make you go through a passage or unlock a certain door before progressing. That’s going to be true if you’re playing it on Hard or Easy, with friends watching, or completely by yourself. It’s going to be true if you’re ignoring the plot or you’re hanging on every word. Linearity is a valid design decision because in games, more than any other medium, there is more than one kind of choice.

by PopMatters Staff

17 Nov 2009

R&B superstar Rihanna formally launched her new album, Rated R, last night in London. The album drops last week and she played her first live performance since this past February to kick things off in style. It was a big-time event meant to draw media interest with Jay-Z stopped by for two duets and Young Jeezy popping in for an appearance as well on “Hard” off Rihanna’s new record. Jay-Z performed his tune “Run This Town” with Rihanna and then joined with her on her massive smash “Umbrella”.

Here’s a snippet from last night’s festivities…

by Bill Gibron

16 Nov 2009

There is nothing in this world that could get me to sit through this week’s screening of The Twilight Saga: New Moon. My last experience with the faux fright franchise, a sorry excuse for turning Harlequin Romances into sappy tween terror, was so uncomfortable, so undeniably demoralizing, I never want to go through something like that again. I barely survived the experience. Forget all the studio mandates (no guests - though some in the local TV media ignored said restriction, an embargo seemingly crafted by the Department of Homeland Security) and the craptacular film itself. No, Twilight (the book, the fad, the mass merchandising uber-hype attempted phenomenon) has become a calling card of sort for all manner of lonely girls, Goth adolescents, misguided Mothers, and spinsters who’ve decided to live vicariously through literature - and they are a surly bunch.

They are known as “Twilighters”, worshipers at the pulp temple of scribe Stephanie Meyers and her less than mediocre muse (heck - even the best selling author of all time, Mr. ‘Big Mac and Fries’ himself, Stephen King, thinks she sucks!). They praise everything about the series, from its weird wish fulfillment which mandates that true love come from someone who’s undead, or a shapeshifter, to the cinematic interpretation of same. Some even subdivide themselves into ‘teams’, with Edward (the studly bloodsucker) and Bella (shallow audience surrogate) being the most popular. Trust me, said contingents were out in full force at the aforementioned sneak preview last year, shrieking like Paul McCartney and John Lennon had just walked onstage and dropped more than their mop tops. But there was something more belligerent about their vicious Vamp-mania. Indeed, nothing is worse than a throng going ga-ga over something unwarranted and unworthy.

There is no denying the franchise’s popularity. Hollywood wouldn’t be paying attention if Ms. Meyers was merely an isolated cult celeb. But an undeniable commercial response is never an appropriate gauge for critical perspective. If that were the case, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen would be this year’s runaway winner for Oscar’s Best Picture. No, success is measured in a lot of ways - with longevity being one of them. Right now, Twilight is sitting high atop a mountain forged out of clever promotion, demographic demand, and the nu-media’s ability to turn any minor conceit into a combination of mass hysteria and mob rule. It won’t last forever, but just long enough. We can’t just blame the Internet here. Everyone, from talk shows to serious news programs are jumping on the Bella bandwagon, acknowledging that with pandering comes ratings.

It’s the notion of recognized empowerment that drives the Twilighters to be tired, boorish, and dismissive. Argue with them about their fanaticism and they grow more so. Attempt to tear apart their passion and they become even more fervent. It’s as if their actual identity comes with being so betrothed to an icky idea Anne Rice had three decades ago. And now, with New Moon, we get the added idiocy of proto-hunky werewolves. That’s right; the main narrative thread has supporting player Jacob Black stepping to the fore as a lupine looker with a body so sculpted he makes gay pin-ups seem paunchy. Add in the “Volturi” a faux royalty vampire council capable of killing Edward and you’ve got a brainstorm that even Barbara Cartland would laugh at.

At this point in the process, I am already sick of New Moon. I’m tired of all the lame CG wolf transformations and ads that feature Robert Pattinson in full Robert Smith meets Morrissey pompadour pout mode. One day, a decade or so from now, when the young British thesp is a twice-rehabbed middle-aged “special guest” at a third rate Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention we’ll perhaps hear how it really feels to be the inadvertent idol of a million frustrated female’s latent fantasies. Until then, we get lots of pale-faced fawning and little else. Indeed, if the Twilight films were anything more than excuses for high school puppy love played out among the proposed cosmic consequences of a life in service of the supernatural, we’d have something more solid. As it stands, Meyers is just mimicking the lovelorn shtick from Dan Curtis’ far superior Dark Shadows - and doing a dreadful job of it at that.

Indeed, if there were any justice in this land, Barnabas Collins and Lestat de Lioncourt would rise from their own fictional coffins and drain this disaster of its crotch-moistening life force immediately. Even better, Bram Stoker and several other authors of note should take up undead arms against Ms. Meyer and teach her a thing or two about destroying the novel as an artform. While this may sound snarky, or even worse, incessantly mean, being bombarded day in and day out by PR people asking if you’d like “exclusive” access to interview and EPK material they’ve already leaked to dozens of other outlets can drive you to such fits of rage. Twilight is being sold so hard and so broadly that you can’t walk into a store of any kind nowadays and not see some symbol of its impact and influx. And again, it’s not like Twilight has tapped into something unseen before. Instead, it’s regurgitating what’s been already done - only this time with the omniscient help of Messageboard Nation to maximize the returns.

So I won’t be heading out to my local Cineplex come Wednesday to stand in line, check through security, settle into the press aisle and wait as numerous dimwits from local radio and TV outlets to work the 96% female audience into an absolute free film froth. I won’t have to listen to the lame trivia questions, the ear-splitting pleadings for one of only 50 available Twilight t-shirts, or the OMG reactions whenever someone mentions a main character’s name. Even with new director Chris Weitz behind the lens (as the man responsible for Down to Earth and The Golden Compass, he is only a middling improvement over previous helmer Catherine Hardwicke), I hold out no hope for the movie - and frankly, why should I. It’s not being made for me. It’s not being marketed to me. It’s not relying on me to show up and swoon over every literal translation from page to motion picture screen.

No, New Moon knows its audience, and knows you will come out in droves. They already have 30 Days of Night‘s David Slade turning over the next cinematic chapter - Eclipse - in the saga, and soon we will have a teaser trailer of that Summer of 2010 travesty to moan about. Even better, some theaters are showing the original Twilight the night before New Moon opens, the better to remind you of how horrid the first experience really was (and how potentially horrid this one could be). Rest assured, the Twilighters themselves couldn’t care less. They are simply ready to spend 120 minutes with their musk-soaked dreams coming to vivid Technicolor life. As with all trends and entertainment whims, it will soon be out of our lives and back in the embarrassments of a favorite now faded, where it belongs. Until them, count me out. Trust me, the makers of New Moon already have.

by Diepiriye Kuku

16 Nov 2009

Irreplaceable. That’s pretty much the length of commitment our music and lifestyle promotes. The mindset that people and relationships are disposable is the anti-thesis of marriage and commitment. Beyonce and Jay know that their public personae don’t match their private one, yet I, like Jozen Cummings at The Root.com, cannot forgive them for not being more conscious about their lyrics. They know the state of black America—they grew up with us—yet they still promote men as soldiers and providers, and the sexes as in complete competition, and opposition, with one another.

Of course, that Venus vs. Mars narrative cannot sustain a marriage, or any genuine relationship, including a solid friendship. Yet, friends and lovers, like a Louis or Fendi, are replaceable. It probably has not occurred to the hottest couple in music at all that they are empowered enough to not only shape their respective genres of music, but to move Black America—and therefore America—forward.

Jozen Cummings’s post on The Root.com was prompted by a recent study published by the Yale Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course, claiming that there were few marriageable men for black women, partially because black women were less likely than their racialized male counterparts to wed outside racial bounds. Still, anyone visiting a college canteen can see the ratio of black men to women. Luckily, patriarchal masculinity is not disrupted by this ratio, and in facts rewards men for “conquering all that pussy”, according to much commercial rap music, as well as big and small screens.

Moreover, “Women are penalized for waiting to get married, while men are rewarded for their patience,” exclaims Niambi Carter, PhD on NPR’s Tell Me More, who carried a conversation about the Yale study under the rubric “Black Women: Successful and Still Unmarried”. The study has caused waves.

Despite their riches, B. and Jay-Z are no more liberated, and therefore powerful, than they were as basic negroes on the grind. Jay-Z might feel that he has nothing genuine to offer; the dominant images of hip-hop—the materialism, violence, misogyny, and self-hatred—demonstrate that most have yet to decolonize their minds.

Jay-Z knows that he’s not irreplaceable. B. went from “Nasty, put some clothes on,” with her girls Kelly and Michelle, to a Sugar Mama swinging on a ho-pole, willing to pay a man for his services; “Damn, I wanna buy you a short set,” Beyonce says in her video and stage reproduction, sucking on a caner stick, laid out, out of breath. Neither seems to have comprehended their own potential impact. If their wealth were not so ephemeral, ethereal even, they wouldn’t need to brag about it. The same goes for stardom.

“It’s a lie,” says Madonna to fans during her Confessions concert tour, after singing a smashing, high-powered rendition of her hit “Jump”. “I can’t make it alone,” she repeats, sitting on stage, taking gulps from a bottle of water, contradicting the song’s refrain. Even above 50, the “Material Girl” is still the crowned queen of reinvention . Her album Ray of Light marks one of her most remarkable shifts. From then on, Madonna has remained fiercely critical of materialism, racism, homophobia, the perils of stardom, and especially hypocrisy in politics and morality.

Reincarnating her image has gained Madonna’s stardom the staying power of a Trojan—wood or rubber. If fame were not so short-lived and insubstantial, if fans and stars were not so caught up into reproducing stardom as an end in itself, then perhaps our popular culture would have more genuine artists—we would have more self-aware professional entertainers. Otherwise, pop stars just titillate—ass and tits, or pecs and six-packs—it’s all just diamonds and pearls to please the crowd.

The disconnect is that fans like us would like to believe that they actually are irreplaceable. And why should stars believe otherwise—we’re the same fans that turned our backs on Michael Jackson until it was too late. We treated him like he was replaceable until he was dead, and that’s far too late. Were rappers to value themselves rightly, fans would surely have a richer pool of positive, life-affirming images from which to chose and gain pleasure. Now, if we want a good beat, we simply settle for scraps and scrubs.

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