Latest Blog Posts

by Jason Gross

1 Jul 2008

Just wanted to give the nod to two good organizations related to music.  The first is the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which is headed up by a number of R&B artists (including Jerry Butler, Gamble & Huff) to help out musicians and performers get by in an industry that rarely takes care of its own.  For more info, see their website.  Then there’s (RED) which this NY Times article describes as “a nonprofit organization that arranges for companies to contribute a share of profits on certain products to fight AIDS in Africa (which) is starting a digital music service for that purpose.”  For more info, see (RED) at their website.

by Rob Horning

1 Jul 2008

In his essay about the Eiffel Tower, Roland Barthes seems somewhat dazzled by its singularity, but part of what he says about it seems true not just of the tower but of much of totemic goods circulated in our consumerist economy.  Barthes points out the essential uselessness of the tower, which makes it a “pure signifier, i.e., a form in which men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will from their knowledge, their dreams, their history).” The key to its usefulness as a signifier is its functional pointlessness. “In order to satisfy this great oneiric function, which makes it into a kind of total monument, the Tower must escape reason.” In this, it resembles our advertising discourse, which is increasingly desgined to achieve our blithe acceptance of illogic as a matter of course and is likewise aspiring to the level of “total monument”—its monolithic presence and fluid adaptability offers everyone a reason to become wrapped up in it. Barthes continues, “The first condition of this victorious flight is that the Tower be an utterly useless monument.” But since we are under the illusion that ours is a pragmatic, rational culture, we are scandalized by this apparent lack of function, so, as Barthes points out, we supply alibis enumerating its usefulness to science and engineering. These are “quite ridiculous” since they “are nothing in comparison to the great imaginary function which enables men to be strictly human.” 

It seems to me that what Barthes is saying about the Eiffel Tower is very similar to what Rob Walker argues about various brands in Buying In. Hello Kitty and Red Bull are gloriously meaningless in and of themselves, which make them adaptable to whatever personal uses we want to put them to in order to conjure our identity into being through the language of goods—before this articulation identity remains notional and inchoate, something we can’t define or prove. Once we make our identity manifest in the goods, we need to broadcast our ownership of the goods to make the identity functional in the social sphere. So the Eiffel Tower is not useless, it’s just that its purported use masks its real one, the same way that Red Bull (or Coca Cola for that matter) pretends to be a beverage while truly offering us a malleable symbol—a lifestyle or personality building-block. What’s more, if Barthes is right, the prevalence of these symbols is not a blight but the essence of our humanity, that which “enables men to be strictly human.” One wonders if there are any alternatives to the commercial brands for the sort of symbols that can be at once deeply personal and near-universally recognizable—through which, as Barthes describes the Eiffel Tower, “one can feel oneself cut off from the world and yet the owner of a world.”

From what repository did such symbols come from in the past, before consumerism? Were people simply human in a different, more circumscribed way? Would we want to return to it, even if we could?

by Nikki Tranter

1 Jul 2008

How’s this for cool? Three teenagers from Arlington, TX, have started a rock band as a tribute to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight book series. The girls, aged 14 and 15, have composed original tracks all dealing in one way or another with Meyer’s vampiric works.

On Wednesday, an MTV camera crew will film one of their performances at the George W. Hawkes Central Library in Arlington.

The Star-Telegram has an update on the event here, which also includes an interview with the bandmates. Their comments about discovering in the Twilight books a way to define themselves and their teen-ness are rather fascinating. One of the girls is quoted: “I really admire [Meyer’s] her ability to get human nature right. The way that she shows people in this amazing, true light is really inspiring to me.”

After the Wednesday show, the girls will perform on 1 August at Arlington’s Parks Barnes & Noble store to celebrate the release of the fourth book in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn.

Bella Cullen Project’s MySpace page is here. Skip around the CD player a bit ‘til you find the song “Switzerland”. It’s great.

by L.B. Jeffries

1 Jul 2008

Despite how seemingly obvious the concept may be, there is actually a great deal of discussion about how difficult a game should be. Why should a game be hard if the goal is to get as many people playing as possible? The original purpose of having challenge comes from the arcade days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Games weren’t even meant to be beatable by the average person, just to be interesting enough to earn a set amount of money. On the Pickford Bros. blog, Pickford remembers the break from this model with the first console game he made. The publisher simply requested that the game be winnable. Now games have to have a last level, Mario actually gets the right Princess eventually, and the game has a point where it finally ends. How do you balance the desire to have the player beat the game with the need to make that accomplishment satisfying?

 

Tailoring difficulty for a player’s enjoyment is a much tougher task than it sounds. The traditional method of counting quarters was a simple gauge of success for a game; you knew the game was fun because people were playing it. Now a developer has to factor in a huge number of variables. For starters, the players themselves don’t always know where they stand with a game. The easy mode for Devil May Cry 4 may be highly appropriate for someone new to the series, while easy in Bioshock is borderline boring for anyone even remotely skilled at games. Chris Bateman explains in a fascinating blog post how tricky this balance becomes even if you have the alternative of making the game adapt to the player. With adaptive gameplay, the best strategy is to lose a few times so the game makes itself easier. If the player gets killed too many times before they have learned how to play, by the time they figure it out and are ready for a challenge it’ll be too easy. Finally, there is the simple problem of some players enjoying difficulty more than others. Challenge and overcoming it is still a source of satisfaction for some people. Bateman ends the post with the lament that there is simply too little information for developers to really know if they’ve got the right level of difficulty for their audience.

Beyond balancing difficulty is the simple question of whether it serves any purpose in the game at all. Back at the Pickford blog, another article goes into the various game design options that let a player break down the difficulty at their own pace. Although these games still utilize difficulty to a certain extent, there is always a way out. In some games, you can just level grind until your characters can overpower a boss. Interactive fiction or puzzles rarely maintain their difficulty because you can always check for hints online. The origin of such accommodations in these games was to make sure that someone who enjoyed the plot would always be able to get to the end. After all, as Pickford notes, when you’re telling a story, getting to the conclusion is the reward, not overcoming a tricky boss fight. Using GTA 4 as an example, Pickford notes that keeping up both challenging gameplay and also having a compelling narrative then becomes problematic. We all want to know what happens to Nico at the end, but doing those last couple of missions over and over can ruin the pace of the story. They just become annoying. Where is our way out if we don’t care about the satisfaction of saying we beat the game? If we’re there for the experience, is any difficulty that stops it really appropriate?

 

Yet just because the difficulty is hard to get right doesn’t mean it can’t serve another purpose. What if we used difficulty in conjunction with the plot? A more organized approach beyond just making everything have more health or deal more damage. For example, going back to Bioshock, if you play the game on Easy, hunting the Big Daddy becomes a light affair. Yet that’s contrary to their role in the story as fearsome protectors, which you appreciate more in the higher difficulty settings. You don’t really get the full narrative experience if you play it on a low difficulty. If you play the game on Hard, a Big Daddy is a very difficult, strategic affair that can take several tries. Would it have been better, for the sake of the story delivering an experience, if the Big Daddy was still hard to kill even on Easy? The method seems to work in more free-form RPG’s like Fallout. If you pick a fight with a super mutant in that game, rather than talking your way out, it is always guaranteed to be an unpleasant exchange for you. That’s consistent with the story and the setting: the super mutants are extremely dangerous and poised to take over the West Coast. Yet in the couple of instances where the game forces you to engage in direct combat with them, it offers a lot of help to lighten up the exchange. What one game does and the other doesn’t is that they adapt the difficulty with the plot. A person who is represented as a badass stays a badass.

Such considerations of difficulty become even more prevalent as multiplayer becomes a huge feature in video games. Why develop a brilliant A.I. or carefully balanced difficulty system when players can just go online and fight real people? Rankings and choice of opponents give a player the same set of options that developers spend years developing themselves. It also lets them feel that sense of accomplishment that beating a tough game provides as well. In an article with ‘The Escapist’, Kieron Gillen muses that challenging games are quickly becoming the equivalent of ‘80s metal. They’re such an acquired taste and appeal to such a small group that they aren’t able to find a home anywhere except the underground scene. This seems like a loss in terms of what difficulty could potentially add to a game if there was a bit more thought behind it. The satisfaction of beating a difficult game or having the highest score will always be there for players. It cannot hurt to wonder what other uses challenge in games may have for creating a game experience.

by Bill Gibron

30 Jun 2008

Universal’s Despereaux Gets a Trailer/Teaser Site
For anyone lucky enough to see WALL*E on the big screen over the weekend, this trailer is already old news. Yet with crowds keeping many from Pixar’s latest, here’s a look a the CGI tale starring Matthew Broderick as the voice of a little mouse with big ears and an even bigger spirit. Check out the clip HERE, and if you get a chance, head over to the official site. It’s still in the early stages, as Despereaux doesn’t bow until December 2008.




Disaster Movie Trailer Debuts
Just when you thought humanity was safe from the stupefyingly lame spoofing of this series comes this horribly unfunny trailer. Watch at your own risk:



Paramount’s Eagle Eye Also Gets a Sneak Peek
Everyone’s least favorite Indiana Jones wannabe returns to contemporary fare with this tale of a mother and son coerced into carrying out a terrorist’s horrific plans. A reteaming of Shia LeBeouf with the man who made his career (Disturbia director D. J. Caruso), this thriller looks like it has potential. Check out the trailer here.(EPK TV)



Hostel III? Without Eli Roth?
First, there were rumors that Lionsgate was looking to continue the torn porn classic, and wanted some involvement from franchise creator Roth. Now a decidedly uninterested Eli is out, and Scott Spiegel is in. Plans are for the Evil Dead 2 scribe to helm the sequel, with the results going direct to DVD. Look to Bloody Digusting for more details. (Bloody Disgusting)




Mrs. Lovett May Join John Connor’s Fight for the Future
Hot off her Oscar nomination for the role of Sweeny Todd’s meat pie slinging accomplice in crime, Helena Bonham Carter has expressed interest in a role in the upcoming Terminator sequel. While her role is unknown - for now - it is said to be “substantial” to the future shock storyline. She would be joining Batman’s Christian Bale as robot battling lead. Read more here. (The Hollywood Reporter)




James Bond is Back with Solace Teaser
Fans have been foaming over the title of this latest 007 installment since it was announced a few months back. Now Moviefone has a peek at the tantalizing teaser. All name issues aside, this looks like another winner for new Bond Daniel Craig. Catch the clip here. (Moviefone)



Smith’s Porno Stuck with NC-17…For Now
Proving once again that they have it in for anything revolving around sex and sexuality (violence is another issue all together), Kevin Smith’s latest comedy, the supposedly non-graphic Zack and Miri Make a Porno, has landed the dreaded adult-only rating from the demagogic MPAA. Star Seth Rogen discussed the situation with Rotten Tomatoes, suggesting that language, not skin, may be the problem. You can read more here. (Rotten Tomatoes)

 


DVD releases of Note for 1 July

City of Men
Drillbit Taylor
Get Smart: Bruce and Lloyd - Out of Control
Heaven
My Blueberry Nights: Read the SE&L Review HERE
Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns
Vantage Point


Box Office Figures for Weekend of 13 June

#1 - WALL*E: $63.1 million
#2 - Wanted: $50.9 million
#3 - Get Smart: $20.2 million
#4 - Kung Fu Panda: $11.7 million
#5 - The Incredible Hulk: $9.6 million
#6 - The Love Guru: $5.3 million
#7 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $5.2 million
#8 - The Happening: $3.9 million
#9 - Sex and the City: $3.8 million
#10 - You Don’t Mess with the Zohan: $3.2 million


Films Opening This Week:

General Release:
Hancock - Will Smith plays a reluctant superhero that gets a media makeover thanks to PR guru Jason Bateman. Charlize Theron is the easy on the eye candy. Rated PG-13
Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl - It’s the Depression, and budding reporter Kit Kittredge helps her family run a boarding house as she investigates claims against the local hobo community. Rated G

Limited
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson - An insightful look into the amazing writing - and bizarre personal antics - of one of nu-journalism’s greatest treasures. Rated R
The Wackness - It’s 1994, and Luke Shapiro is coming of age. Of course, his means dealing a little dope, dealing with his crumbling family life, and falling for the daughter of his pot-smoking psychiatrist. Rated R

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Moving Pixels Podcast: Unearthing the 'Charnel House'

// Moving Pixels

"This week we discuss Owl Creek Games's follow up to Sepulchre, the triptych of tales called The Charnel House Trilogy.

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