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by L.B. Jeffries

1 Oct 2008

There are a variety of barriers that come up when you try to coerce someone into engaging with a video game’s narrative. The first inclination is to have them roleplay a character that lives in that story. This has a few problems. For starters, the player might be repulsed by the role you’re asking them to inhabit. They might not like what they have to say and do in the story or game design. If you solve that by completely removing all traces of personality, then the player may be irritated at the lack of expression and feedback available to them as a deaf-mute protagonist. The natural solution to that dilemma is to give the player absolute control over their character’s appearance and personality, but this tends to alter the roleplay relationship into one of caring for your creation. Attempts like Mass Effect or Fallout are impressive, but they are still operating on a connection much more similar to a parent-child scenario than actual roleplay. The peak game of this parental connection, The Sims, illustrates this psychological shift best. It isn’t you inside that house, it’s your little man or woman or whatever. So it still leaves a fundamental question: is there some way to engage a player with characters and story in a game that circumvents all of this?

Yes, and it’s surprisingly simple: chuck the baby and keep the bathwater. Dan Benmergui’s Storyteller is a flash game in which you don’t play as any particular character. You instead control three separate characters in a three part story-panel. Depending on where you position the characters in the initial ‘Once upon a time’ panel will affect their presentation in the middle ‘When they grew up panel’. Put the girl on the poor, deserted half of the panel and she becomes an evil wizard. Leave one of the men on the green, white castle portion and they become an armored knight. The middle panel features a similar set of options: place the man inside the cage as the prisoner, make the woman the knight, and then dictate the outcome of her duel with the wizard (whom you created). You can use this character placement to dictate how the romantic relationships turn out in the final panel along with who dies and who wins the battle.

This engagement method is, like The Sims, founded along the principles of giving the player a dollhouse to play in. When you add a narrative though, a distinct shift occurs: I’m not guiding the characters to see what happens to them in the plot, I’m directing them to the outcome I’ve created for them. Frankly, given the amount of time I spent exploring and tweaking three little people and seeing the results, I’d say it solves the engagement problem quite nicely. You can find more of Benmergui’s stuff here.

by Nikki Tranter

1 Oct 2008

Ooh, to be Horace Engdahl this morning…

Engdahl is secretary of the Swedish Academy, the group responsible for selecting literary Nobel Prize winners. In a recent interview, as reported by the Independent, Engdahl referred to American literature as “isolated” and “insular”, further stating: “Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world.”

Did he really…?

He did, and the backlash has begun. New Yorker editor David Remnick is having a go, as is Harold Augenbraum, director of the US National Book Foundation. “I’ll send him a reading list,” Augenbraum is quoted as saying. (That’s my kind of threat.)

The larger issue here is the Nobel selection process, and just what US authors are supposed to assume upon hearing such grand dismissal from a key figure on the selection committee. An American author has not taken home a Nobel Prize for literature since Toni Morrison in 1993; Engdahl started on the prize committee just four years later… connection?

The latest winner will be annouced next week. Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth are said to be frontrunners. From the sounds of things, with all books in contention surely well and truly finished by Engdahl and his committee, the pair might rethink writing those just-in-case acceptance speeches.

by Rob Horning

1 Oct 2008

3 Quarks Daily linked to an interview with Sarah Palin conducted by conservative Hugh Hewitt. I don’t advise reading the whole thing, unless you want to vomit, but the bit highlighted by 3QD is fairly illustrative of where democracy in America is at:

HH: Governor, your candidacy has ignited extreme hostility, even some hatred on the left and in some parts of the media. Are you surprised? And what do you attribute this reaction to?

SP: Oh, I think they’re just not used to someone coming in from the outside saying you know what? It’s time that normal Joe six-pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency, and I think that that’s kind of taken some people off guard, and they’re out of sorts, and they’re ticked off about it, but it’s motivation for John McCain and I to work that much harder to make sure that our ticket is victorious, and we put government back on the side of the people of Joe six-pack like me, and we start doing those things that are expected of our government, and we get rid of corruption, and we commit to the reform that is not only desired, but is deserved by Americans.


This strikes me as total insanity. I am not sure what it would mean for “normal Joe Six-Pack” to be “represented” in the vice presidency, but I assume it means putting a “regular” person (as opposed to a “career politican”) in the position to illustrate some reality TV-like premise that anyone can be considered fit for governing and that being an executive in charge of one of the largest and most intricate bureaucracies the world has ever seen is just a matter of common sense and Christian values. It is the very essence of the problem with the Bush administration: the idea that competence is a fiction and any Joe Six-Pack can be put in charge and everything will be just fine. Basically, the implication is that the vice presidency, as well as every other leadership position in government, serves an entirely symbolic function. The figureheads in these slots don’t have to have any expertise; they simply need to represent some idea that appeals to some aspect of the electorate. Palin doesn’t even bother to deny that this is so. The whole point of her inclusion on the Republican ticket is to be average, to be the antithesis of capable, and to encourage voters to express their contempt for politics by electing a truly incompetent politician—someone who is just like us.

In the LRB, Jonathan Raban connects Palin’s glorification of Joe Six-Pack with Poujadism, the anti-intellectual movement inspired by French demagogue Pierre Poujade.

Sarah Palin has put a new face and voice to the long-standing, powerful, but inchoate movement in US political life that one might see as a mutant variety of Poujadism, inflected with a modern American accent. There are echoes of the Poujadist agenda of 1950s France in its contempt for metropolitan elites, fuelling the resentment of the provinces towards the capital and the countryside towards the city, in its xenophobic strain of nationalism, sturdy, paysan resistance to taxation, hostility to big business, and conviction that politicians are out to exploit the common man.

To placate this bloc of voters, it’s most effective to persuade them that government can be made to disappear, and they can all then be happy kulaks in their peasant paradise.

Given these dynamics, it’s futile to criticize Palin from any East Coast elitist like me would consider a rational viewpoint. Raban takes a shot anyway, highlighting what seems most threatening about her—her smug contempt for intellectual curiosity:

What is most striking about her is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought. When answering questions, both Obama and Joe Biden have an unfortunate tendency to think on their feet and thereby tie themselves in knots: Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile. In the televised game shows that pass for political debates in the US, it’s a winning technique: told that she has 15 seconds in which to answer, Palin invariably beats the clock, and her concision and fluency more than compensate for her unrelenting triteness.

But any attempt to highlight Palin’s failure to grasp the complexity of any issue facing America can be spun as being part of the “conspiracy” against ordinary people, but in this case the conspiracy is simply an acknowledgment of consensus politics as it must be exercised in a democratic government of any scale. Professional politicians are necessary to make government work, and the nature of the job—its ambiguities and compromises and negotiations; the stuff that requires actual deliberation and judgment—doesn’t lend itself well to glamorous portrayal in simplified stories about heroes and individual greatness. But when we vote—for most of us, the one great heroic act of civic participation we manage to muster the energy for every few years—we don’t want to waste it on a compromised character. Thus, we are better off knowing very little about the actual careers or evolving positions of the people we vote for; for the vicarious function of voting, an iconic nobody like Palin is perfect.

by Jason Gross

1 Oct 2008

Maybe not but it’s disheartening to see them file for bankruptcy.  Great publication that had quality arts coverage in it.  I’d even say the same about the New York Sun, despite its pathetically fawning coverage of Dubya.

by Rob Horning

1 Oct 2008

Good to see that former antichrist John Lydon is appearing in an ad for Country Life butter. Where would we be if punk hadn’t upended the establishment and ushered in a whole new set of values based on integrity, authenticity, and a refusal to support the status quo?

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