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by L.B. Jeffries

22 Jul 2008

When the New York Times takes the time to comment on E3 being dull, you know it’s going to be a slow year. A bunch of games we already knew were coming, a couple of games anyone could’ve predicted were coming, and Microsoft having a very bizarre ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ interface for Xbox. So…what upcoming games should we get hyped about? Hype is an integral part of the video game world, even if it has proven to be a bit problematic. Beyond the odd effect it can have on fans, hype can even be blinding to the actual critics involved. Mitch Krpata points out that critics can be so dead set on a game being good that they’ll list off dozens of flaws yet give a high score anyways. To give you an example of how ridiculous this can get, whether you loved or hated GTA IV, I can’t think of many players who would seriously consider comparing it to ’The Wire’. But it can’t be denied that hype can do a lot of good by getting the word out. So how do we pick we pick what games to hype?

 

William Gibson coined the term ‘cool-hunter’ in his book

Pattern Recognition

and it’s a very apt description of what a game critic needs to do when selecting which game to hype. You need a developed sixth sense that allows you to stare at a sea of clothes, movies, music, and advertising and detect the one that’s working. Gibson compares it to watching the snow on a television and being able to see an image in it. It’s a good term because it recognizes that there is a certain mystical element to spotting a cool game before it exists, something that is never going to be possible to put into words. Acknowledging then that some games are definitely going to be awesomely kickass and it can be predicted, it stands to reason that we should get out there and support it. The developer and producer need to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible, before shelf-space demands pushes the game into the bargain bin. We want to reward creativity and boldness in games, right? Even looking past the desire to economically help your favorite game, there is still something to be said for hype being fun. Over at Brainy Gamer, there’s an interesting post about enjoying hype as a kind of celebration. Soon enough video games will be the mega industry the analysts are predicting and everything will be a sea of jaded “It’s good but not great” reviews. We’ll all just be comparing them to old classics and not even caring about new releases anymore.

So what are some games that should be hyped? We’re entering the realm of subjectivity here but I’ll explain what makes these such stand-out games. I found The Nameless Game at Steve Gaynor’s blog and must admit the pitch is fascinating. They basically took the idea of ‘The Ring’ and applied it to a video game. What if there was a haunted cartridge game and whoever played it would find themselves horribly cursed? I’m basing this purely off the two trailers and Gaynor’s observations, but little touches like the 8-bit game within a game being buggy and glitchy are just the tip of the iceberg. One of the themes in both trailers is the cross-over of games into reality. In the first trailer, you pick-up a DS. The trailer comes to an abrupt end there, the fourth wall being shattered as the person playing a game is now confronting that very fact. In the second, there is a transition from incessant 8-bit music to the humming of a real person in the same tune. It’s this transition of the virtual into the real that both horrifies and fascinates us that the game is capitalizing on. What if our entertainment, our escape, became real? Sure, the graphics look fine, there may be some pacing issues and the puzzles may be dull. But this is a game that no matter what flaws there may be, it is still a very interesting concept.

 

Another game that has several interesting things going to for it is Red Fly Studio’s Mushroom Men. A studio comprised almost entirely of artists, one look at the game will convince you that it’s totally unlike anything else aesthetically. It also explores the mostly uncharted landscape of being a tiny person in a 3-D human landscape. Levels include a trailer, shed, and the underground world of the mushroom people as they face off against everyday creatures like rabbits, spiders, and moles. Sounds good, right? Here’s the kicker: Les Claypool of Primus is making the soundtrack. It’s extremely unusual for the selling point of a video game to be its soundtrack and yet the time seems ripe for it to happen. An interview with game composer Richard Jacques outlines the culture of game soundtracks today. The once level-based themes that composers knew would be heard countless times have been replaced by long epic scores that support narrative and tension. Games are just now entering a phase where they are moving past that orchestral phase and are looking for new ways to incorporate music into games. It’s safe to say Les Claypool is your man for that kind of job. Again, no matter what problems this game may have, it’s trying to do something new and it’s doing it with a whole lot of style.

 

The first piece of hype I ever read was for the game Monkey Island. It was a sprawling six page spread, with screenshots that showed snippets from every part of the game. Fighting the swordmaster, digging for treasure, and Monkey Island itself were all featured and captioned. It completely fascinated me, this world they were describing and the experiences I would have there. My obsession with the game was rewarded heartily when I finally managed to play it some months later, but looking back I can still remember that hype article very clearly. I’d played a lot of interactive fiction games before and I’ve played a lot since, but I think what made it so special was that I’d never played anything that was about pirates in the Caribbean. With so much unexplored territory still left for video games, it seems like the best thing we can do now is support the people who are doing the real exploring.

by Bill Gibron

21 Jul 2008

It was all the Internet buzz last week. No, it wasn’t a further dissection and/or dissertation on the then upcoming Christopher Nolan masterwork, The Dark Knight. No, that sensationalized ship sailed about the time the mainstream media was exploiting Heath Ledger’s performance/death. The latest geek cause celeb was, in fact, a first glance, a chance to see a storied title finally brought to the big screen. With the success of his Dawn of the Dead remake and the sublimely stylized 300, Zach Snyder still remained an odd choice to bring Watchmen to the silver screen. Far more flamboyant filmmakers had struggled with the material, most notably Python ex-pat Terry Gilliam. A project long standing in his inconsistent artistic output, there was a time when his version had Kevin Costner and Robin Williams attached.

Thank god for the passage of time (and pop culture fancy). In fact, in 2008 the only true impediment to seeing the fabled graphic novel made, aside from certain technical issues, is the source itself. Writer Alan Moore has never been happy about seeing his work translated to the big screen. With From Hell, V for Vendetta, and especially The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen frequently failing (sometimes completely) his vision and approach, he has written off participation in any future film adaptation. As a matter of fact, Gilliam gave up on this project when he approached Moore about how he would translate the text to film. “I wouldn’t” was all the brusk Brit had to offer. Call it curmudgeonly spite or a true desire to protect his work, but Moore makes no bones about his belief in this - or any other - visualizations of his ideas.

That doesn’t mean Snyder has simply stepped in and deconstructed Watchmen. Indeed, from the very beginning of pre-production, he promised to stay as true to the comic as possible. Naturally, there are issues outside his control - running time, studio contracted concessions, the always awkward process of filtering pages of ideas into a single screenplay - but with a fanbase eager to tear him a new as…pect ratio, this is one director who wisely wants to follow the Peter Jackson/Guillermo Del Toro geek appeasement path. From blog posts and visits to the set, the amount of information about this upcoming release has been handled in a cautious, yet creative manner. Let’s face it, whenever you can get moviegoers excited about something with just a couple of photos (which is exactly what happened a few months back), you know you’re doing something right.

Still, the pressure is on to deliver, and this initial glimpse of what Watchmen has to offer will be that all important determinative “first impression”. So what can or will both sides of the coin - the inside and the out of touch - make of this trailer? Does it satisfy the faithful while inspiring the uninformed? The retro styled narrative, using real world events (Watergate, Vietnam) in a fictionalized ‘80s where superheroes - or as they are referred to, “costumed adventurers”/“masked vigilantes” - are forced to hide their identity, is definitely a hard sell, and the cast (Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup) while exceptional in many ways, doesn’t contain a real A-list tent pole name. From either side, things do look promising…at least, for now.

From a Watch-Maniac’s Perspective
On a recent SModcast, indie icon Kevin Smith, a true comic book bad-ass, had a series of superlatives for the Watchmen preview. After admitting to obsessing on the clip for most of the weekend, he argued that it was a “flawless” representation of the world Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created. He stated that it was like watching a trailer for The Catcher in the Rye and that Snyder visualized elements from the novel so sublimely that the noted Clerks creator was developing a bit of a ‘gay’ mancrush on the filmmaker (his description of said passion was, in typical Smith fashion, far more X-rated). For him - and one assumes other Watchmen devotees - the images offered mimicked Moore’s universe expertly. Smith even suggested that the disgruntled writer might embrace what he saw, given the trailer’s truth and attention to detail.

Since Snyder’s primary hurdle has always been to satisfy the true Watchmen demo, it would appear that he has passed the first of what will be many obsessive’s tests. Smith may not speak for the invested masses, but one has to imagine that he does offer one of the more learned, schooled impressions. Smith admits to loving the comic ever since he first read it back in the late ‘80s, and his appreciation has only grown since then. Looking over the blogsphere and messageboard domain, it seems that many who also love the book share his enthusiasm. Naturally, there are those who want more, and others who envisioned Moore’s message in a slightly less slick, big screen blockbuster manner, but for the most part, the fans are in.

From a Watch-Meaningless Perspective
This is the much harder pitch, especially in light of recent superhero films that have failed to live up to overhyped expectations. While some might argue over the delineation, Alan Moore is far from a household name (Simpsons appearance or not), and when people hear that he was responsible for From Hell (decent), League (disaster), and Vendetta (undecided), such heritage doesn’t inspire much confidence. Snyder himself is also a creative wildcard. Both 300 and Dawn were not definitive mainstream hits, since each one inspired most of their love from the specific genre mavens. They don’t cater to your average Joe Filmgoer. And Watchmen will only be his third theatrical effort. Again, it’s a track record that inspires some confidence, if not outright acceptance.

Of course, some spectacular images can change all that, and the Watchmen trailer does look amazing. From the opening sequence where Crudup follows his character’s nuclear fate to the closing moments where a clockwork object rises up from an alien landscape, the two minutes offered provide the kind of provocative, ambiguous visuals that get tongues wagging and chatrooms yakking. Anyone unfamiliar with the material will wonder what or who the glowing blue muscle man represents, the identity of the fetching leather outfitted babe, why angry mobs are protesting against vigilantes, and whose being buried with full military honors. Of course, as with any indistinct approach, what fails to fully enlighten may simply be unclear to begin with. While saving most of the plot for future teasers is understandable, getting the newbie on board should be Watchmen‘s principal aspiration.

The most aggravating part is that, aside from a couple more trailers and a full blown sneak preview/feature or two, we will have to wait until March of 2009 for the final answer. Until then, conjecture will run side by side with educated conclusion, each hoping to get a handle on this event movie before it finally hits theaters. And who knows, maybe Snyder will pull it off. Maybe he will create the post-modern comic book movie that everyone is anticipating. Then again, perhaps Alan Moore has a right to be bitter…and worried. We’ll just have to ‘watch’, and wait.

by Mike Schiller

21 Jul 2008

It’s not particularly surprising, nor should it be surprising, that the week after E3 is just as sparse as the week of E3 (which we will briefly wrap up later this week) when it comes to the depth of the game release schedule.  It’s tough to concentrate on the releases of yet another entry in the Kidz Sports series when you’re concentrating on, say, new screens for MadWorld.

STILL—some of us are simply not inclined to want to enjoy the fresh air that comes with this time of summer, and so, to the release list we must LOOK:

Fans of idea recycling will no doubt be rather thrilled at a couple of the bigger releases for the week, including the one that I’m most likely to end up with at some point: namely, the Nintendo DS remake of Final Fantasy IV.  Back when Final Fantasy IV was known to us Americans as Final Fantasy II (you know, before Final Fantasy VII went and confused everybody for a while), it was winning hearts and minds as one of the most influential RPGs of its time.  The fully-developed story, an active turn-based combat system that probably seemed as close to perfect as you could imagine at that point, and some of the baddest baddies in role playing at the time made for a play experience that somehow managed to make 30 hours seem short.

For the sake of the DS, the entire world of Final Fantasy IV has been given a complete and utter overhaul, with character models that move far beyond the sprites of the SNES version (or even the Game Boy Advance remakes), complete with three-dimensional modeling and completely redone towns.  While it’s still the same game, it looks completely different, which may well be all we need to give this classic another playthrough.

Also on the recycled material front is 1942: Joint Strike for the Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network, which scores bonus points not just because it’s a shmup but because 1942 is a classic (total classic!).  Hopefully the updated version can live up to its name, and hopefully those big planes still take an obscene number of shots to down.

MLB Power Pros 2008 could be a nice alternative to the baseball sims that pervade the sports market, because really, all we want is R.B.I. Baseball for a new generation, right?  Dungeon crawler fans may well flock to Atlus’ latest as well, as Izuna, the unemployed ninja herself, gets an improbable second go on a new portable.  That’d probably be a nice second step in the genre for those attracted to the genre by those Pokémon dungeon crawlers a couple months ago.  Otherwise…well, there’s just not much to speak of.

Looking forward to anything this week?  Let us know!  The full release list and a trailer for the new Final Fantasy IV are after the JUMP:

by Lara Killian

21 Jul 2008

One thing I love to keep an eye out for in the summer is a good book sale. Not only do brick-and-mortar bookstores tend to put out more sale items in sunny weather to get window shoppers to pause in their strolling, many libraries choose this time to raise funds and shed excess inventory or donations.

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image credit: austinevan

After the cold months of shopping online for books, the tactile experience of picking up books and flipping through them at random, weighing the heft of them in your hand, finding a hidden gem at the bottom of a pile—there’s nothing like it in the Internet book-selling world. Not all book sales are created equal. Last week I went to two library book sales in my county; these events often take place around the US Independence Day holiday, the first long weekend in July. I hit the first book sale late in the day, and as it was clear that the porch of the library contained many tables piled high with books and there was also a gazebo filled with children’s books, plus a separate tent with hardcovers on the lawn, I hoped to find some good deals. I was stunned to find that the library wanted $2.50 for a used hardcover and $1.00 for trashy romance and sci-fi paperbacks.At a yard sale I would expect to find the latter for a quarter. I should mention this public library is one town over, in a very touristy area, but I wondered as I wandered, does everything have to be expensive here? I quickly gravitated to the $1.50 ‘large paperback’ table and tarp-covered fringe piles, as these were for the most part recent releases, and in good condition—like airport reads that were enjoyed once on the journey and donated upon their temporary owner’s return. With three copies of Snow Falling on Cedars in plain view, it was even possible to be choosey about the condition of some books, which made the buck fifty a little easier to swallow. I ended up with quite a good pile and was glad I had enough cash with me to bring them home. I was delighted to pick up a copy of Carl Honoré‘s In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (2005). I swooped upon a copy of A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990) which looks as though it has never been opened—I always look at the spine of a paperback to see if it has been ‘broken.’ A hardcover copy of Byatt’s book was located on another table, but it was in poor shape and cost almost twice as much, so I stayed with the paperback version. A pristine copy of Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose flew into my hands (with an uncreased spine as well), and for a bit of fun, The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004) by J. Maarten Troost. All in all, I think I came home with about a dozen books, and all the money goes to the upkeep of the public library, so there’s a sense of supporting that venerable institution as well. A few days later I stumbled upon another book sale of sorts, or the remnants of it. My local public library had a sale going on in the beginning of July and once the piles had been picked over, they moved the remnants to the side of the lawn closest to the parking lot, covered the lot with several tarps, and left it all outside for anyone to take whatever they wanted, gratis. Granted, there didn’t seem to be much left that was worth hanging on to (the library no longer wanted to store these leftovers, so ultimately the majority of these titles were destined for recycling). Naturally I couldn’t resist checking things over, just in case. A respectable copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth (1991) turned up, and a paperback copy of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (1988) that I couldn’t allow to be consigned to pulp. A beautiful navy blue copy of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, embossed with gilt, also joined my small pile of rescued books. Now if only I could find time to read each of my new treasures. Have you found any good summer book sales this year? Keep your eyes open, and let me know what you find.

by Anthony Henriques

20 Jul 2008

Testify

I find it disappointing that a lot of reviews from other publications have called this out as one of the album’s weaker tracks, like Nas’ whole purpose here was to condemn his suburban white fans for not truly supporting his cause. In my review of the album, I called Untitled Nas’ Blood on the Tracks. I didn’t mean that so much in terms of concept but in terms of career context. If we talk in terms of concept though, “Testify” is this album’s “Idiot Wind”. It’s the frustrated, mournful breakdown of an artist in the midst of an emotionally complex situation.

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