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by L.B. Jeffries

24 Feb 2009

One of the inevitabilities of doing critiques of video games is encountering a game that has an interesting design but dull story or good story but bad design. In the former’s case, it’s not really necessary to finish the game because after a few hours you’ll have learned the gist of the system. So I’m going to be frank and admit that I didn’t finish The Thing, but saw a lot of interesting ideas going on. I ended up quitting at about the same point as Alec Meer in his retrospective piece at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.  After the tenth time of doing the same 20 minute battle only to fall off a piece of scaffolding and start over, I’d had enough. A brutally distant save point system combined with too many awkward insta-kill puzzles resulted in a game that was too tedious. The plot itself is what would happen if you took the script of Aliens and swapped out all the words with ones from The Thing. Minus the interesting female lead, motherhood overtones, and space travel. But, beyond all of that, there is a very interesting squad game design along with an excellent illustration of misusing cutscenes.

Like any survival horror game, this is a system of managing finite resources. Going outside drains your stamina, meaning you can only be out for a certain period before you start to freeze to death. Ammo and health packs are often in short supply while enemies are in abundance. What gets added to this mix is squad mates who each have a specific job. One is a glorified key card (they’re the only ones who can fix certain electric panels), another is an unlimited source of health, and the third is an extra gun. What’s interesting is that your squads have both a trust and sanity bar. Most people you meet will think you’ve been infected by the alien (and thus under its control) so you have a variety of ways to earn their trust. What’s interesting is that all of these involve sacrificing resources. You can give them a gun, heal them, etc. This trust can also be lost if you accidentally shoot them, hide from a fight, or just ditch them. No trust means they don’t accept orders, and in the case of the medic or engineer you often need them to. The catch is that anyone you come in contact with may also be infected by the Thing. So when you’re handing over health kits to keep a squad mate alive, you might find out a few minutes later that the whole thing was a giant waste. This is a perfect example of a game design using two conflicting needs to create tension. On the one hand, you can always use an extra gunner and the medic is obviously handy. On the other hand, they are eventually going to get infected and turn on you. You can get your ammo and gun back from the corpse after you kill them, but the much rarer health kits will be long gone. Making that choice adds an unexpectedly unique kind of resource management to the game. The game does destroy the replayability of this feature by making the infections linear. The people in your party will either die or cross an invisible line and instantly become infected. There is no keeping them intact after a certain point, making it possible to maximize resources when such an ability shouldn’t exist.


Another interesting thing about the squad game design is the sanity meter. Whereas the average player may be quite desensitized to gore and swarms of aliens coming after them, the AI of your squadmates is not. Walk by a shredded corpse and someone on your team might vomit. Leave them in the blood filled room with human entrails and their fear will spike up. They typically tend to be less responsive to orders and less able to handle their weapons when they are frightened as well. If they get scared enough they’ll either curl into a ball crying or worse, shoot themselves. What’s remarkable about this is that the system forces the player to be aware of all the violence and gore. Most research into how games desensitize people is fairly suspect, but the more probable reason the player gets desensitized is that they are seeing the same death scenes and visuals repeatedly. To someone whose never played GTA IV, watching someone screw around with a rocket launcher might seem horrific. To that player, it’s just the same reaction they’ve seen dozens of times. Preventing that desensitization from happening, that tuning out of the game’s themes and focusing purely on victory, is a laudable goal. Every time the player notices a squad mate freaking out, looks around, and thinks “Hey, This is pretty gross”, that player is dragged back into the experience. Every time I’m getting swarmed by enemies and one of my squadmate wets their pants (this will happen) I’m reminded of how crazy the whole situation has become. Finding a new way for the game design to communicate what the plot is telling me is a remarkable accomplishment for any game.

The game suffers from a classic case of ‘I wish I was a movie’, and you get this sense from the constant barrage of cut scenes that aren’t induced by player input. Mixing cutscenes with a game is a tricky work because they always need to be voluntary, never an interruption. Given the intense difficulty the design creates, there’s no need to turn it into a cutscene every time I see someone that wants to talk. The player probably going to be willing to hear them out just to get their help. Since they don’t resemble any of the other enemies, you’re not going to accidentally shoot them like in a game full of humans. The trust meter will also deter this kind of conduct since accidentally shooting another person means they won’t take orders. If the game has to keep taking control away from the player because they don’t care what people are saying, that’s a foundational problem with the design, not an excuse to force something on the player. Any incentive to obey a game’s plot is always going to seem artificial when you look at it purely from the design perspective. You can’t let the engineer die because you need him to open a locked door. You need health so you need the medic. The motivation isn’t the much pleasanter “I can’t let him die because he’s a fellow human being” that the plot is conveying, but is that really a flaw? Every good story has basic rules of conduct and morality governing it. A system of rules is not going to generate an emotion by itself anymore than the Penal Code of your home country is going to make you love everyone because murder means going to jail. The rules establishe a mode of conduct that you cannot engage in without consequences, the people you meet and personally enjoy are what generates the higher emotions of concern. That’s how the plot/art/sound and game design interact, the design is the skeleton, the rest is the flesh & blood that gives it life. The cookie cutter plot, parade of grizzled soldiers, and the generic plot twists make The Thing do little for this idea of games. Its skeleton, however, is quite a remarkable piece of work.

by Mike Deane

24 Feb 2009

When I first head Secretly Canadian’s re-release of the second Zero Boys album, History Of I was not blown away.  I thought it was OK, but I’m no ‘80s hardcore completist, and for me it sounded like a mix of early Black Flag, DOA, and a less playful Descendents. That’s the problem with ‘80s hardcore and punk releases; a lot of the time they don’t stand up musically to the more popular bands of the time. 

For every Minor Threat there were a thousand lesser hardcore groups that have been forgotten, and for most of them it’s probably best that they’re not remembered. Though there’s the mind frame with record collectors and DIY historians that the forgotten are the most important, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is most important, but as historical artifacts there’s a lot to learn from these forgotten bands.

Craig Finn of the Hold Steady illustrates this point amazingly well in his article for the Guardian—where he talks about the importance that the Zero Boys held for him as a Midwestern hardcore fan in the ‘80s.

Taken from

Taken from

Finn really paints a picture of what it’s like to be an ‘80s Midwestern punk fan, and all the excitement that went along with the burgeoning hardcore scene.  Finn also clearly illustrates the necessary progression of punk fans and how it’s inevitably detrimental to the scene.

After reading Finn’s article, one can understand the cultural importance of the forgotten, even if it seems they’re a copy of the more popular bands of the time. Not to say Zero Boys fall into this category—they’re competent at what they do and the lyrics and intensity really shine a light on ‘80s Midwestern malaise. Though they’re not the best hardcore band of the time, they stand out as Midwestern trailblazers and Finn’s article will make you understand their importance. This article is a must read for all hardcore/punk fans, all that were raised in the middle of nowhere, all the punk fans that grew up and got disillusioned, and everyone that considered punk rock the only music as a teen but felt alienated by it as a young adult.

by Jason Gross

24 Feb 2009

As the hopeful monopoly of Ticketmaster/Live Nation approaches Washington for approval, Hitsville has gathered together a good list of questions that Congress should ask them.  Whether they do get grilled this way as they should is up to our Senate reps.  If you’d like to suggest that they do ask T/LN about these important issues, feel free to contact your reps right here (the upper right corner has a drop-down box that says “Find Your Senator”).

by Diepiriye Kuku

24 Feb 2009

Feel Good live in 1972 on Soul Train is an awesome performance of an awesome song. I have always dreamt of being a Soul Train dancer, a dream that was shattered when I realized that most artists lip-synch on the show anyway. Yet, with Ike and Tina Turner I knew that the moves would be fierce and worth a click. I lucked out and caught a live show.

The close-ups of Tina clearly show that she could barely open her right eye. It was swollen damn near shut. Once I saw that, a homegirl rolling on the river had a much loftier protrusion, sitting watching the complicated energetic dance moves and precise lyrical steps. I imagined Tina getting away from that abusive man, and he being made to spend the rest of his natural black life looking for every which way to make amends to a whole generation of Soul Train fans who innocently came to see them on stage, and are confronted with a battered woman and a batterer!

Feel Good.

Searching through the YouTube’s ‘related videos’ on the sidebar reveals a host of other famous, infamous and even legendary bits of showmanship, like Marvin Gaye, live and likely ‘under the influence’. Then there was this mysterious video called “SOUL TRAIN LINE - WE THE PEOPLE 1972.” The title was unfamiliar, and boasted of no star act, which heightened my curiosity to see what lie between the lip-synched acts. Besides, I consider Soul Train lines a quintessential aspect of any folk gathering, much like west African dance at weddings, baptisms, and funerals—the drums challenging the dancers challenging each other for a faster, funkier beat. This is the legend of the Soul Train Line, or even popularized line dances like the Electric Slide, all of which can be seen on YouTube these days.


Of course, the outfits from this ’72 performance would appear strange to viewers now. One sister had a blond Afro the shone like a halo. Those fly Afros seems to have come back in style in the meantime. Another sister wore, well, I am not sure what she had on, but it covered her from her platforms to neck. Her outfit had lines and circles like an abstract art canvas. Most folks wore such fitted clothes that one could never tell where tops and bottoms began and ended. Then there was some guy, I swear I saw a sissy, twirling his arms as if he was whirling a baton. This Soul Train dancer was leading cheerleading camp.

I am a bonafide soul searcher. I grew up on soul music on the car radio, at home, and in relatives houses. Soul music made home. And we LOVED soul music. Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle, Anita Baker, Stax Records the list is endless.

My aunt Shirley had anything George Benson ever put out; She kept a cupboard of LP’s, but Give Me the Night was usually sitting on the floor resting against the wall near her stereo. I loved looking at the plain looking black man pictured on the cover, wearing a simple pullover and an honest grin. My aunt Johnetta loved her some James Brown, and just as naturally, Prince. She adored JB’s leadership and considered him a maestro. My uncle Wayne had Morris Day and the Time, and still rocks Frankie Beverly and Maze Live! Eugene, a classmate at Oberlin who lived and worked with me in Seoul, could break down all the reasons why even white soul singers like Bobby Caldwell say “Aaih” in place of “I.” Additionally, I hear Fela in the background and imagine my father packing up his albums for his voyage to America; clothes, Gari, addresses and Fela albums all had to accompany him. This Feel Good video has taken me to all those places. This almost slight appearance on Soul Train was a funky kind of soul that I had not heard in a while. Listening too it again, knowing that this sister can barely open her left eye, leads me to soul searching, again.

Who are we to know life so intimately yet take it so carelessly? Who are we to judge the decisions of another when it is clear that their actions are based on self-love? Who are we not to draw those close to use nearer to us, especially when they are in need. Who are we not to empower one another to aspire to do better and to want more happiness out of our lives despite and perhaps in spite of our lots? Don’t it Feel Good the way Tina plucks her shoulders as the bassist strums and heaves. Feel the really good deep base down in your hips. Bend over and let that base get in you. Snap like she do’ er’time Ike tells the man to hit the beat. And what a beat! Stomp, like Tina stomps and know that this feels real good.

by Rob Horning

24 Feb 2009

The Oscars are ancient history by now in the blogosphere, but I came across this post by Matt Feeney at The American Scene that makes an apt point about “Ocarness” that was absolutely borne out by the by and large predictable outcome.

For a long time, the Oscars have lived within a self-aggrandizing self-contradiction, in which “best” is unofficially hedged up and down with considerations of commercial success and a kind of Oscar-approved moral grandiosity, to the point that nobody thinks the “best” films and performances are actually the best and the whole conversation deteriorates into horse-picking that is implicitly cynical and also besotted with both the celeb-spectacle and the presumption of the awards’ cultural importance. I.e. the awards wouldn’t be so worthy of the emphasis placed upon them if it wasn’t pretended that they award true merit, but if they really did award true merit, they wouldn’t take up the cultural space that they do…. the Oscars routinely reward films that openly game the Oscar logic, and this is now coming back to haunt them. It gives us the prospect of an Oscar show that is fatuous and boring precisely because it is so thoroughly self-referential.

This is why you can generally pick the winners of each award if you haven’t seen the films or even read about them. You just have to put yourself into the Oscarness mind-set and think about what ideological duty the film industry imagines itself as being commissioned to perform. This year, it hoped to send a message about gay marriage and about the significance of India as a country, a 5,000-year-old culture that may as well have begun when Danny Boyle’s plane touched down in Mumbai, for all Hollywood is concerned. 

The Oscars is nothing if not self-referential—just witness all the pointless and near incomprehensible montages of past nominees from last night’s show, and the soporific spectacle of previous winners delivering encomiums to the current nominees. The point is not to honor the year’s best films but to celebrate Oscars themselves as a cultural force. Feeney’s description of the contradiction at the heart of the show is right on as well; it has just enough credibility to not be entirely creditable—it defines the unstable middlebrow culture that has recently vanished from publisher’s lists with the demise of popular literary fiction.

It makes you wonder if the Oscars’ days are numbered. The show felt pretty irrelevant last night, and the employment of a throwback song-and-dance man like Hugh Jackman smacked of a desperate reach for old-time Hollywood glamour from the days when it was still hegemonic. But films seem behind the curve of TV and online media these days; it seems that it arrives late to the zeitgeist, putting out movies, say, about identity theft after the threat already feels stale.

I still make a point of watching the Oscars though, in part because I love the red carpet shows, when extemporizing sycophants collide with often painfully shy nullities and they talk past each other in painful, raw encounters. The celebrities seem so diminished, surrounded by their peers and dwarved by the insane media hoopla, chaotic and annihilating—it’s an almost abject spectacle as the stars re-enter the womb of hype that has made them. I find this weirdly fascinating; all the participants seem on the knife-edge of madness, one banality away from going schizo.

The Oscars also provide a glimpse at a purified secular piety that no one subscribes to personally, but which we all end up willing to entertain as being someone‘s belief system. By virtue of it being a par ethos calculated to be a common denominator for the vast audience the film industry hopes to reach, it takes on a kind of credibility. It’s akin to the cynicism Feeney describes, which leads to our not being at all surprised when inferior, barely watchable films like Crash and A Beautiful Mind are called the “best.” Few think these films are the best films, but we accept somehow that society needs to call them as such, for obscure ideological reasons that we’d prefer not to investigate all that deeply. Instead it’s just vaguely reassuring to know that the highest echelon of the film industry is so fatuous, and takes its mediocrity so seriously, that it can’t ever really endanger the public psyche with anything truly upsetting or challenging in its entertainments. We aren’t missing anything epoch-making there; the revolution will not be showing in your local cineplex.

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