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by Nick Dinicola

26 Jun 2009

The opening scene in Indigo Prophecy is one of the most memorable moments in gaming for anyone that’s played it. The main character, Lucas, goes into a trance and kills a man in the bathroom of a small restaurant. Play it once and it seems fairly unremarkable: You clean up the murder scene and flee out the back door. Not much happens. But on a second try, when the player realizes the wealth of options available, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of wonder. Clean up the murder? Hide the murder weapon? Wash your hands? Pay your bill? Call someone? The vast number of small choices is impressive, but the real accomplishment of this scene is that all these choice are presented to the player without any moral implications. There aren’t any “good” or “bad” options. Cleaning up the murder doesn’t make you a bad person, and paying your bill doesn’t make you a good person. The game presents the player choice without morality.

Unfortunately the rest of the game failed to live up to that level of ingenuity. The story of Indigo Prophecy was split into several scenes, and while each scene has its own variety of choices, their consequences had little effect on the next scene. The game was structured like a series of sandboxes, giving players a false sense of control when really we were being pulled along a traditional linear narrative. For all the choices we had to make, the consequences ultimately didn’t matter.

A karma system would have fixed this dilemma by putting our actions in a larger context. Even though players would essentially be leveling up their character with arbitrary points, we would at least know that our actions were contributing to something greater than our current situation. A karma system lets us know where our actions stand in the grand scheme of things. If game doesn’t use arbitrary points to give our actions consequence, than that consequence must come through in the story: The consequences of any decision must directly affect the story for the player to feel like their input genuinely matters. If we can see the results of our actions on the plot or the characters, than there’s no need for a system of points.

The flash game Storyteller by Daniel Benmergui takes this approach to consequence in games. It’s beautiful in its simplicity: Told in just three panels, it distils the classic adventure story into three pivotal scenes and three pivotal choices. It revolves around three characters, and depending on how the player rearranges them within each scene, the outcome of the story changes. Does the knight kill the wizard or does the wizard kill the knight? Does the prince save the princess or does the princess save the prince? We could make a story with no conflict and a happy ending, or one in which all the heroes die. There’s no need for a karma system because we can immediately see the short-term and long-term consequences of our actions on the lives of these characters. The downside to this is that there’s not much of a story to tell. The characters have no names and there’s no plot, the only real story is the one we make up and it can be as complex or as thin as our imaginations let it be. Bernmergui is giving up authorial control in order to let us experience the full breadth of choice and consequence.

So consequences free from morality must affect the story, but giving the player too many choices can dilute the story. A middle ground can be found in Mass Effect, which strikes a nearly perfect balance between these two options. We don’t have nearly as much control over the story as we do in Storyteller; Mass Effect, like Indigo Prophecy, is very linear. When we’re finally able to explore the solar system, we can only choose the order of which story-progressing missions we accept, but we still have to complete all of them before we can advance. We can change how the story is told, but not the story itself. To make up for this we’re given choices at key moments with dire consequences, such as the possible deaths of central characters. Since death is a real possibility, the tangible consequence of our actions can be felt in the main story. There are also several short stories within the game whose endings are entirely dependant on our actions. There’s the mourning man who wants the military to give him his wife’s dead body, the gambler who wants us to test a device that will help him cheat, or the waitress worried about her sister working as an undercover agent. By giving the player choices within these short stories, and consequences that play out with these minor characters and sub-plots, we don’t notice how little we actually affect the main story.

But there’s no ignoring the fact that Mass Effect does have a karma system. Every choice we make gives us either Paragon points or Renegade points, and for most gamers these easily translate into “good” and “evil.” Such associations are unfortunate because the Renegade options are hardly evil. Some actions may make Shepard act cold, but never truly evil. The game does a commendable job giving us a range of emotions in our choices without making those choices blatantly good or bad, but the presence of the karma system undermines everything the game does right by separating all the consequences into only two categories. Sometimes the Renegade option is the best choice, but it may be difficult to convince a player trying to play through the game as a good character to go with that option simply because of its unwarranted assumption of being “evil.”

The karma system is a narrative shortcut: Instead of writing consequences into the story, a player is given points and measures consequence by how full the “good” or “bad” meter is. Yet it’s become an established feature of open ended games, sometimes to the detriment of the game. Even though it’s a relatively new mechanic (at least in its more comprehensive forms) it’s already outdated as games like Storyteller and Mass Effect prove it’s possible to represent consequence without the morality.

by Bill Gibron

26 Jun 2009

Up until this point, they had avoided responsibility. They lived like nomads, sequestered from family and friends while indulging in their own insular (and happy) homebound careers. But biology - like money, and power, and the possibility of same - changes everything, and for unmarried couple Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph), the lack of a legitimate home for their newborn child brings about the need for change. But with only the slightest connection to the rest of the real world, such a massive personal modification will require a point by point breakdown of the possibilities. Thus begins a road trip which takes the couple back home (to his parents) to Arizona (her friends and family), Wisconsin, Montreal and Miami - and in the process, our expectant parents learn that home is not necessarily where the heart is. It’s actually where true happiness dwells.

For Sam Mendes, such cinematic ground seems strikingly similar to the territory he traversed with such suburban nightmare masterworks as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. This time around, however, instead of equating ennui and malaise with an upcoming interpersonal Armageddon, the English filmmaker finally finds a funny bone. Scripted by A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius scribe Dave Eggers (along with wife Vendela Vida) Away We Go first appears to be a collection of Americana clichés. But then it actually evolves into a telling statement on growing up, taking charge, and realizing that life cannot be a constant struggle to continuously stray off the beaten path. Sure, the examples that Mendes and his collaborators use seem arch in their stereotypical approaches. But with each chestnut comes a rejection, and a realization.

The trip begins at the Farlander house, where SCTV‘s Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels give middle age wistfulness a wacky, uneven coating. One moment they are celebrating their son’s upcoming parentage. The next they are abandoning him for a long planned pilgrimage to Europe. To the Farlanders, two years seems like nothing. But to new mom to be Verona, it’s like a declaration of grandparental abandonment. Things don’t get better in Phoenix, where ex-coworker Allison Janney puts on one of the worst displays of post-modern maternal cool ever conceived. In both of these sequences, Mendes relies on a kind of Caucasian white face, a blanket denouncement of white man’s culture combined with obvious sitcom types. But by making Burt and Verona disgusted by such outbursts, by giving them the silent critical eye the material mandates, the movie manages to override the Galleria burlesque.

Things change radically once we get to Wisconsin. Maggie Gyllenhaal practically steals the film as LN (“Ellen”), a New Age joke who buys into every organic composting conspiracy theory in the realm of ridiculous hands-off guardianship. Along with her semi-conscious partner Roderick (underplayed brilliantly by Josh Hamilton), they provide Burt and Verona with the chutzpah to finally stand up for themselves. Up until this point, our leads were likely to sit back dumbfounded, politely nodding as one ridiculous idea after another is fostered toward their future. But the minute LN starts her frazzled family bed routine, a light bulb goes off in our heroes’ heads. This is the where their formerly unfriendly and close realm mindset will lead them - into a similarly styled space filled with made-up philosophies and arguably insane pronouncements. And their dinner table reaction to all the hedonistic nonsense is one of Away We Go‘s greatest comeuppances.

At this point, Mendes can no longer avoid the melancholy. Montreal sees the couple facing mortality - both their own and the still unborn child’s - with uneasy trepidation, and an emergency mission to Miami underlines the fragility of their common law relationship. It’s interesting that Away We Go champions such unconventional ‘marriages’, offering Burt and Verona as the far more spiritual and centered pair in a whirlwind of crude and incomplete couples. It’s the same with almost every aspect of the film. As Mendes mocks child rearing and prenatal psychobabble, he gives us a duo that seem so present, so completely in tune with each other and their situation, that we hope none of this nascent negativity sticks. By the time they realize that they simply have to take that necessary leap of faith (during a conversation on a trampoline, no less), we wonder where the jump will take them.

In the end, it’s not very surprising where they land. What’s really amazing is how moving the revelation becomes. For all its jokey upscale jive, the occasional smug self-satisfaction Burt and Verona use to calm their frazzling nerves, Away We Go provides the kind of closure that elevates our ongoing worries. They may not have it all figured out, and there are moments when even their soothing tone of optimism seems blind and unbelievable, but the bottom line remains - these are two people who realized they were wrong and then tried to do the right thing. They took on the list of social requirements for happy families and found the flaws in each and every one. Luckily, Mendes has an amazing cast to collect his thoughts. Krasinski’s Burt is beautiful in his deadpan directness. He doesn’t mince words so much as carefully pick the ones he know will do the most damage. Rudolph elevates her status as a legitimate movie star, looking both stunning and scared as the portal from which all the promise - and problems - commence.

Yet the final shot is something worth celebrating, a moment of perfect peace after 90 minutes of pinball emotions and crisis-like upheavals. As Burt and Verona sit, their arms interlaced, they appear to finally realize that they can have it all - social acceptance and isolated exclusivity. They don’t need to be unhappy married making fun of their own offspring, or miserable martyrs to some unspoken sense of personal diversity. They can be themselves while still seeing the best that the real world has to offer. They are smart enough to accept the good and conscious enough to reject the bad. It may be tough to tell if their arriving daughter will recognize the lengths they have gone to in securing her future. Luckily, they’ve done the leg work for her - and the journey is well worth taking. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Jun 2009

She’s the alien in the other room, the otherworldly creature riddled with a mysterious disease that is, somehow, destroying not only her, but the entire family. Dad maintains an aura of disconnect, while only son Jesse spends far too much time on his own. Mom runs herself ragged seeking any and all answers to her child’s debilitative state as youngest daughter Anna decides to shake the very foundations of what her entire existence has been built upon. You see, this little girl was never truly meant to be. Instead, she was engineered, created to act as a biological bank for her dying sibling to draw upon. And while the figure in the other room shows occasional signs of recovery, Anna is convinced it’s no longer worth playing savior - or perhaps martyr.

As an example of the age old Hollywood weeper as post-modern semi-serious character study, Nick Cassavete’s My Sister’s Keeper is too safe to be wholly successful, too powerful to be merely pushed aside. The basic plot finds Abigail Breslin’s Anna rejecting her role as part of Kate’s (Sofia Vassilieva) fight against leukemia. Ever since her mother and father (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric, respectively) engineered the girl to be a perfect genetic match for her sister, she’s been poked, prodded and pilfered for anything that can help the curative cause. Now nine, she wants to be medically emancipated, capable of making her own decisions about what can be done to her body (the crisis this time? Kate needs a kidney).

So Anna seeks out the services of reputable shyster Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) and files suit against her parents. This places Cassavetes in a narrative bind that is almost impossible to get out of. Since we are dealing with a scenario playing out in current circumstances, My Sister’s Keeper must constantly rely on the flashback to fill in details we do not have. Even worse, Casavettes overindulges in the musical montage, avoiding actual conversation and confrontation with any one of a number of somber pop songs. What we want from this material is Ordinary People, the pain of dealing with death pent up and channeled in choice suburban WASP-ish tidal waves. Instead, we get VH-1 and lots of music video vagueness.

At least Cassavetes doesn’t go for the easy cinematic manipulation. Kate is never really treated as anything other than special and spirited, even her last act pre-corpse routine rendered ecclesiastical by an ever-present pearly white smile. Similarly, Breslin, for all her hand wringing and secret keeping has to maintain appearances as well. She cries a river and never once misses her emotional beat. But like much of My Sister’s Keeper, we keep waiting for the denouement, the reason we have to witness all this pain and personal suffering. Even Diaz, delivering the kind of nuanced performance that’s been missing from much of her work, does the arm’s length thing. How this woman can be so tireless and yet so blind to the needs of the rest of her family is flabbergasting.

What sets this movie apart from other examples of obvious tear jerking is the desire by Cassavetes to keep everything serious and somewhat understated. We don’t get the scene of massive Method histrionics because the filmmaker is doing what his Dad did best - let people be people. Patric is not some chesty conquering hero. Instead, he does what he can and escapes to his job as a firefighter when times get tough. Diaz may look like a diva in housewife drag, but she’s actually playing the perfect combination of arrogance and individual delusion. She so believes in what she is doing that there is never a crack in the façade, never a moment’s doubt or self-analysis. While Kate gets a couple of normal kid moments - including a romance with the ridiculously perfect cancer kid Taylor - she’s all flawlessly executed scrapbooks and dreamy, dilated pupils.

Fans of the Jodi Picoult novel will truly be devastated by the changes made here. Gone is Guardian ad Litem character Julia Romano. In her place is a grieving judge essayed with quirky grace by Joan Cusak. More troubling, the film cops out with its ending, avoiding the book’s more ironic conclusion to keep things nice and above the marquee neat. It’s hard to say if staying true to Picoult’s version would have made My Sister’s Keeper more well rounded. As it stands, the entire experience feels like a vigil, a cinematic wake simply requiring a body for finalization, and then a funeral. This is not to say that Cassavetes and crew can’t captivate or even more. There are several scenes that will choke up even the most cynical of moviegoers. But as the story shuffles through its clumsy courtroom antics, as issues are left hanging and unresolved, what could have been excellent comes up merely acceptable.

It also has to be said that this could have been the most cloying of syrupy schmaltz, the kind of bleary eyed Lifetime fodder that makes audiences ashamed of falling for the forced affectations. Cassevetes could have let Diaz do the whole overwrought heroine routine, collect his ample paycheck, and go home. Instead, multiple musical observations aside, he sets the stage and lets things play out organically. After that, only the material and the members of his company can undermine him. Luckily, the entire cast is up to the job of jerryrigging this formula into something a little less generic. It’s more than likely Picoult’s fault that this film doesn’t feel more complex. She sets up a simple idea - a little girl wants to decide what to do with her body - and then adds in a number of unnecessary clichés that tend to take all the gravitas out of the concept.

Still, for those who’ve long given up on the five handkerchief experience, who sense that Hollywood only understands the emotions of greed and envy, My Sister’s Keeper will be a welcome return to some semblance of form. We don’t quite understand the ongoing anxiety over Kate’s continuing decline, why over the last 15 or so years some manner of resolution or reconciliation with the situation hasn’t been reached. This is a movie that feels like its missing parts, a couple of song cues taking the place of necessary clash and explanation. Still, with her pale figure, bald head, black eyes, and freak physicality, Kate makes for an intriguing, unusual center. Luckily, the movie surrounding her is better than one might imagine. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to imagine one better.

by PopMatters Staff

26 Jun 2009

On the eve of next week’s release of Wilco: Wilco (The Album), Jeff Tweedy and the boys dropped by The Tonight Show on Wednesday to play this new song.

by Jonathan Garrett

26 Jun 2009

My mom only had two albums in her car when I was growing up—the Eagles’ Hotel California and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And given how many soccer practices, guitar lessons, and tennis matches I was shuttled to as a child, I can pretty much hear these albums from start to finish in my head.  In fact, if I’m being honest, I’ve probably heard Hotel California and Thriller more than any other two albums in my life.

But at some point in my early 20s, Thriller vastly eclipsed Hotel California—and all others for that matter.  Rightfully so.

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