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by Mike Schiller

19 Feb 2009

Note: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords’ Wii version was reviewed by Jason Cook last year.  With the sequel (Puzzle Quest: Galactrix) imminent, I wanted to explore just what made the original so arresting.

The valiant knight and the ferocious minotaur speed toward each other, running full-bore toward what will surely be a fierce, violent battle for the ages. The knight’s sword is drawn, the minotaur’s horns bared and brandished, and those who may have been battling around them are now unable to avert their gaze from the spot at which the two warriors are destined to meet. Some seek cover, others exhort the heavens, but all recognize the epic scope of the clash about to take place…

...and as they approach each other, a table falls out of the sky, the two combatants pull previously unseen chairs out from some undefined space behind them for the sake of sitting at the now-landed table, and a board game ensues with the understanding that the winner gets to slit the loser’s throat.

While it may sound ridiculous, this is exactly the sort of imagery that comes to mind when one starts playing Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords for too long on too many late nights.

This is also the sort of imagery that brings to mind Clint Hocking’s “ludonarrative dissonance”; that is, the artistic phenomenon unique to gaming that places the gameplay at odds with the story. We’re taking part in a large-scale narrative that deals with warring lands, Homeric journeys and arduous quests, and yet, whenever we’re asked to do something important, we do so by playing a game of Bejeweled. One really has nothing to do with the other, except that winning means winning, so whenever there is a situation that calls for an explicit win/loss state, a ferocious casual game breaks out.

What’s interesting about this particular example of gameplay’s conflict with the narrative is that it seems to have enhanced, rather than degraded, the player’s experience. Puzzle Quest was all but universally acclaimed when it was released back in ‘07, at a time when a rather large portion of the gaming populace had already given up on the type of game from which the majority of Puzzle Quest‘s structure is derived: the JRPG. You walk around the world, occasionally getting into pseudo-random battles, doing quests and side quests for the various people you meet along the way, increasing in power as you gain levels through battle and good deeds. It’s a JRPG through and through, infused with constant Bejeweled-style battles instead of constant turn-based attack/defend/magic-style battles.

Why then, despite this apparent disconnect in genres, is Puzzle Quest such a success?  It was even in the game-of-the-year discussion for a couple of platforms in ‘07 (hello, PSP!).

Part of the reason may be that the story being at odds with the gameplay is an issue inherent in the battles of the turn-based RPG genre anyway. Instead of playing out confrontations, say, Devil May Cry or God of War-style, we’re asked to imagine the majority of the action as we slowly and deliberately decide whether our avatar(s) will attack, run, or perform one of a select group of spells. The story says the stakes are high and the action intense, while the gameplay is almost passive in its non-urgency. As such, replacing one dissonant set of actions with another actually feels like innovation, every battle its own little game-within-a-game rather than a set of almost inconsequential button presses followed by a usually predetermined outcome.

Another reason for the success? Quite frankly, adding Bejeweled to anything makes it feel more accessible. At this point, Bejeweled is an almost universal symbol of casual gaming, something that even those who run screaming from people who identify themselves as “gamers” have at least had some experience with. By introducing a Bejeweled-style battle mechanic, players who typically identify exclusively with the casual side of the game spectrum are introduced to an adventure style that they may never have had the inclination to previously attempt.

What developer Vicious Cycle seems to have done, then, is embraced the dissonance, deciding that if play befitting the narrative is not a priority for the genre anyway, why not make it more interesting?  By embracing, and even highlighting the story/gameplay disconnect, they’ve created something that somehow manages to feel innovative despite the utter lack of innovation that each portion of the gameplay presents on its own.

Perhaps this explains the game’s fascinatingly addicting quality, something that’s inexplicably ensnared this writer (in the face of things I should be playing) for the last two weeks straight. Either that, or there are just a whole lot of Bejeweled lovers in some serious denial.

by David Pullar

19 Feb 2009

For what sounds to most like an extraordinarily arcane issue, parallel importation of books is generating a lot of concern among Australian authors.  In fact, many of them are being driven to rhetorical heights unscaled in their regular work.

In submissions to the Productivity Commission review, Kate Grenville warns about becoming an “impoverished and stunted society” and Gary Disher forecasts a loss of local flavour to “cheap mass culture from overseas”.  Matthew Reilly’s heavily underlined and italicised submission warns that parallel importation is “tantamount to legalising copyright piracy”.

What is it that has made them so worried?  What is parallel importation?

Like many English-speaking countries, Australia has copyright rules that protect the local publishing industry from cheap overseas editions.  Essentially, publishers have 30 days following international publication of a book to release a local edition, after which that edition is the only version to be sold in Australia.

There are moves afoot to remove this rule, allowing importation of books from anywhere in the world—the philosophy being that people do it via Amazon anyway and in theory it would make books cheaper.

On the other side of the debate, local authors are concerned that this will make Australian books uncompetitive price-wise with overseas works, that it will relegate local publishers to mere importers and that their books will be swamped in the market by remaindered foreign editions for which they receive no royalties.

In reality, both the promise of lower prices and the threat of local industry collapse are likely to be overstated.  Australia allowed parallel importation of CDs ten years ago and while this has led to some discounting, most new CDs are still in the range of $25-$30 (US$17-$20).  Regarding the feared consequences, Australian music is just as successful as in the 1990s, if not more so.  The rise of labels like Modular, with their global-impact roster of artists such as Cut Copy, shows how little difference the end of protectionism has had.

Making a living as an Australian writer is hard and maybe it’s about to get harder.  Perhaps the protection of the local sector has fostered any number of brilliant authors who might otherwise have given up their career for something more lucrative.  But as with too many public debates, the argument is verging on shrill.

The track record of protected cultural industries is not good.  Australia’s film industry had a taxpayer-funded golden age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but over time fell into a rut of making mediocre films perpetuating the same national stereotypes.  Much our subsidised arts scene is irrelevant to average, or even culturally-savvy, Australians.  Australian music is in a healthy state, but this is hardly the result of years of mandatory Australian content on the radio stations that simply pick local imitators of mainstream US acts.

The fact is that there will always be a market for good books and good writers.  For generations, Australian writers have struggled with the small size of the local market, the need to connect with overseas audiences and the frequent necessity of moving overseas to chase success.  Yet authors keep coming along, telling stories people want to read and making a living (or at least a part-time wage).  To attribute all this to a single element of copyright law is simplistic.

There may be no need to fix something that isn’t broken, but I suspect that any change won’t stop Australia from giving the world exceptional writers.

by Jer Fairall

19 Feb 2009

Submitted to the Unnecessary Remakes of 2009 Sweepstakes: Tony Scott’s amped-up-looking cover of Joseph Sargent’s great 1974 thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. With Denzel Washington as Walter Matthau and John Travolta as Robert Shaw.  In theaters June 12.

by Rob Horning

18 Feb 2009

I was sent down memory lane by this metafilter link to an archive of the work of the New Republic‘s comedic fabricator, Stephen Glass. I can understand why other journalists and pious publishing types vilify Glass, but he was an extremely engaging writer, and I can testify that his pieces single-handedly convinced to me to renew my TNR subscription back in 1998. I used to look forward to his pieces because they were funny, and—thanks to the invented sources—coherent and compelling. There was always a punch line quote from someone to punctuate any of Glass’s rhetorical points. They were so effectively constructed that I used some of his pieces as models back when I was teaching composition at the University of Arizona. I may have done so even after he was exposed as a fraud. (I wished my students could make up stuff that good, and even better, know how to deploy it in an essay. Indeed.  would have preferred that they make up suitable supporting evidence for their arguments, if only to see that they actually understood the concept of “evidence.”)

Since I never regarded his pieces as much more than entertainment, nothing about what Glass did ever bothered me particularly. It wouldn’t surprise me if the sorts of things he did still went on all the time in the press, perhaps in less elaborate ways and to slighter degrees (yielding less interesting stories, in the end). Now and then, journalists, most of whom are in good faith, I’m sure, record some heinous wrongdoing and document it for history, and perhaps these efforts will bear fruit at some point in time. But such achievements seem like by-products of professional newsgathering. Readers of any news publication are naive if they believe that they are getting some form of verified truth there. Even when it is fact-checked, it is still biased by the nature of the medium itself, and the commercial information gathering process. In the presentation of news, obviously, there are conventions writers and editors adhere to in order to whittle down events and shape incidents into a recognizable product. The boundaries that separate this institutionalized process from what Glass did as a maverick is somewhat arbitrary. Sure, Glass didn’t do straight reporting; he pioneered a more fascinating reality-TV-style of reporting—only he didn’t have the luxury of doing a casting call to find the people that would fit into his prefab narrative frame.

Obviously there are exceptions, but some reporters are little more than diligent stenographers, following a ethical code is primary purpose is to garner them access to powerful sources who know they can trust the reporters to say what they want the public to hear. Few publishers have the resources to fund investigative reporting anymore, and most readers don’t especially want it, when there is celebrity gossip going on 24/7. It’s also hard to look past the fact that throughout the Bush years, investigative journalists were tirelessly exposing scandal after scandal, and in the end it didn’t change a thing. In part, this may be because the surfeit of information and the panoply of outlets makes it all meaningless as anything but a distraction. It sometimes seems that there is next to no venue in which a story can run where it will have a transfiguring impact on how the world is perceived, that would galvanize some sort of resistance or overwhelming unified protest. Instead, any “important” story may be buried with a flood of new details and reactions and interpretations and repudiations, and ultimately all that comes through is the commercial purposes that all this dissemination of information—all this brokering of audience attention—serves. An “important” story is simply one that delivers a lucrative audience segment to an advertiser.

Glass seemed to grasp this superlatively cynical perspective intuitively, and he transformed it into gold—even if it was fool’s gold, no one had really mistaken its value. His editors knew that his stories would entertain readers like me, readers who didn’t want to change the world or have their policy presumptions or political biases tested. I wanted my biases confirmed with implausibly perfect and uproariously funny examples of what I already thought was happening with DARE programs and young Republican groups and hackers and all the other juicy topics Glass confabulated about.  By spinning engaging tales out of his near-pathological desire to be liked and to earn approval, Glass hijacked the organ of the press for his own piddling purposes; he brought TNR down to the level of a Facebook page, avant le lettre.

by Jason Gross

18 Feb 2009

Reporting on the recent mess at indie mavens Touch & Go Records was a tricky proposition today.  I blew it and so did several other scribes.  The story leaked out bit by bit which seemed to say that T&G was going under… or it was just gonna do back catalog… or it was cutting off distribution.  In the Net age, everyone wants to rush and get the info out first but the problem is that sometimes that means getting the story wrong, which ain’t a good balance or compromise.

I saw a notice posted in a mailing list about T&G’s demise, confirmed by an employee who said that they’d been laid off there.  Because of the later, I thought it was safe to tweet (you know, a Twitter post) about it.  So did several other journos on Twitter.  And so did Pitchfork, who reported the story on their site, but then had to update the story twice after that.

The real story, confirmed by T&G’s head, came from the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot and can be read here

And how did Kot get the real story while the rest of us were scrambling around?

“Word started trickling out over the weekend. I made a few calls to some contacts in and outside the label. Lots of rumors, a few salient facts from people who had actually spoken to Corey Rusk. Most saying the label was going down. I checked with Corey on Tuesday once I had assembled enough information to at least ask him some relevant questions that weren’t completely based on hearsay. Corey asked me to wait a day until he had informed most of his employees, and he would tell me what really was happening. The gist of what he told me Tuesday in asking me to hold the story was that most of the stories out on the street and the Net at the time were bullshit. But he wanted to hold off until he could tell most of his employees. ‘I don’t want them reading about this in the paper before they hear it from me,’ he said. He called the next day and simultaneously emailed his statement to me and Dero at the Sun-Times. We happened to be at Sound Opinions taping the radio show at the time, and briefly discussed the matter with him on the phone and asked some follow-up questions, then went off to write our separate stories.”

So chalk one up for the MSM or old media.  All of us Net pups could learn a lesson here…

//Mixed media

The Hills Are Alive, But Nobody Else Is in 'The Happiness of the Katakuris'

// Short Ends and Leader

"Happiness of the Katakuris is one of Takashi Miike's oddest movies, and that's saying something.

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