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Monday, Apr 7, 2008
L.B. Jeffries kicks off his ambitious series on the state of gaming with the question of how a game can develop its own unique identity.

As the need for a critical language in assessing the art of video games becomes tantamount, the most logical place to start looking for such a language is by addressing the question of what defines the essence of a video game. What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. The interactive nature of video games is what defines them as different from other mediums, and thus arguably it defines what a game is about as well. The story and game design are certainly factors, but they are both portions of a whole. Despite the claims of wanting video games to have more sophisticated stories, good stories in games only solve half of the problem. You’d need to adapt the game design to the topic as well. Put another way, no amount of renaming the chess pieces on a game board after my childhood friends is going to make the game about my childhood. No amount of saying there are political overtones in your FPS title is going to change the fact that your game design is still just shooting people. Staging Hamlet in a game with giant mechs probably isn’t going to capture the essence of the play (but it’d be awesome if someone tried). A game’s identity is not a matter of the plot or design, it is a matter of what the player is doing.

So what then do we have the player do? How does that relate to the plot and game design as they apply to a game’s identity?

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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

Recently I finished Lilli Thal’s Mimus and was reminded throughout the book of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series, and not just because both authors are translated from their native German and appeal specifically to teenagers with a burgeoning interest in fantasy.

Each author possesses an astonishing ability to outline a fantasy realm, people it with fantastic characters, and quickly provide a believable set of rules and boundaries that the action must follow. All this while not adhering to established tenets of fantasy: elves are fair, graceful and strong, dwarves are miners and love nothing more than precious metals, etc. Thal and Funke each give a fresh feel to the genre.

These authors provide a perfect starting point for young adults who grew up liking a good fable or story, but who are intimidated by thick novels or fantasy and science fiction authors with dozens of titles under their belts, each transpiring in a specific paradigm with little space given to background for new readers. Both Thal and Funke certainly know how to tell a story, and one that appeals to most ages above grammar school.

Although Mimus is Thal’s first work to be released in English, Funke’s novels are widely available. In fact, I was introduced to her fiction about two years ago while browsing in a Tokyo bookstore’s massive English language section with a friend of mine, a Japanese teacher of English who loves recommending YA fiction to me. Her testimonial was so emphatic, I bought my own copy of Inkheart, rather than borrow hers.


Coincidentally, I looked up Funke while writing this post and see that in breaking news, the cover for the third installment of Inkheart, has just been released today. Inkdeath has a release date of October 2008, so if you’re already a Funke fan, you can look forward to that.

As for Thal, with three previous award winning young adult novels released in Germany, I expect we’ll be seeing more of her work in translation as well.

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Monday, Apr 7, 2008
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waoby Junot DiazPenguinSeptember 2007, 352 pages, $24.95

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
September 2007, 352 pages, $24.95

The big news this Pulitzer year is Bob Dylan’s Special Citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”. That and the Washington Posts‘s near sweep of the Prize’s journalism section. The Post was rewarded for excellent public service, feature writing, national and international reporting, breaking news reporting, and news commentary.

There’s something rather gratifying in Dylan and the Post sitting atop the same cherry pie this morning, side by side, in recognition of their work: America’s brain rubbing elbows with its heart and soul. I like it.

As for the Letters and Drama Prizes, I found myself surprised once again at the list of winners, but happy Pulitzer hadn’t played into critic’s hands and deliver the obvious victors.

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took the fiction prize, with my assumed winner Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke a nominated finalist. And Saul Friedlander’s Year of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945 won in the non-fiction category, with—how great is this?—The Rest is Noise by the wonderful Alex Ross a finalist.

Diaz is quoted today in the Miami Herald on his win:

I’m completely astonished ... For a Dominican kid with illegal parents to win a Pulitzer, a kid who grew up in New Jersey in a neighborhood where nobody gave a shit about us, a kid who delivered pool tables throughout college ... wow, man.

Diaz grew up in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic before moving with his family to New Jersey in 1974 at age six. He attended Kean College in New Jersey and Rutgers, majoring in English. He obtained his MFA from Cornell,

He is well-known for his short fiction, with stories appearing regularly in the New Yorker. His first book, Drown, is a collection of short stories. He is the fiction editor of the Boston Review.

Read enough interviews with him and a picture forms of an honest, unaffected artist who colourfully says what he thinks. He tells the Bostonist: “I think that the intellectual life is amazingly lonely in a country like ours.” And goes on to call his fellow MIT professors “fuckin’ genius[es]”.

He talks to Bookslut about the differences in effort writing novels versus short fiction: “People are always asking, ‘Did it take you so long because writing a novel is really hard?’ I’m like, dude, it took me seven years to write one story, one 20 page story.”

At Slate, he discusses his position as a so-called “Latina writer”:

We’re in a country where white is considered normative; it’s a country where white writers are simply writers, and writers of Latino descent are Latino writers. This is an issue whose roots are deeper than just the publishing community or how an artist wants to self-designate. It’s about the way the U.S. wants to view itself and how it engineers otherness in people of color and, by doing so, props up white privilege. I try to battle the forces that seek to “other” people of color and promote white supremacy. But I also have no interest in being a “writer,” either, shorn from all my connections and communities. I’m a Dominican writer, a writer of African descent, and whether or not anyone else wants to admit it, I know also that Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen are white writers. The problem isn’t in labeling writers by their color or their ethnic group; the problem is that one group organizes things so that everyone else gets these labels but not it. No, not it.

Strange that an author to watch, with one novel under his belt, should also be a Pulitzer Prize winner. But what a great day for the award, that a new novelist with such exciting vigor, insight, and humour should be listed beside Mailer, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Now that’s big news.

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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

Madonna’s “Four Minutes to Save the World”

Madonna: Come on boy, I’ve been waiting for somebody to pick up my stroll.
Timberlake: Well don’t waste time, give me a sign, tell me how you wanna roll.
Madonna: I want somebody to speed it up for me then take it down slow. There’s enough room for both.
Timberlake: Girl, I can handle that, you just gotta show me where it’s at. Are you ready to go, Are you ready to go?

Wow. I mean, really, wow. It’s one thing to watch the insipid video, which has unnerving, tranny vampire visual of Madonna spread eagle on the hood of some luxury brand automobile while the world crumples into a void behind her. There, at least, the viewer is rewarded with a morsel of symbolic truth. When you actually see the lyrics of “Four Minutes” flatly stated, it’s lobotomizing how empty this song is. Even superficially, it’s difficult to press this song for content. Is it simply her Mrs. Robinson pop claptrap, initiating young Timberlake into the Q&A game that is getting her to orgasm? It certainly sounds like she’s the Goldilocks of cradle robbing:  not too fast, Justin, not too slow. That she would connect her sexual gratification to “saving the world” says much about the tired, engulfing narcissism of cobwebbed Mega-Stars. If pop music ever had the kind of urgency suggested by the chorus, Madonna has certainly done her fair share to lesson its cultural impact beyond the fading, cyclical variations of style. But, wait, there’s more:

Madonna: Sometimes I think, what I need is an intervention, yeah.
Timberlake: And you know I can tell that you like it. And that it’s good, by the way that you move, ooh, hey hey/
Madonna: The road to heaven, paved with good intentions, yeah.
Justin: But if I got a night, at least I can say I did what I wanted to do. Tell me, how bout you?

Is this a transcript of their text messages to each other?  Even as traded flirtation, this song sags. It’s actually representative of Madonna in interviews where clichés, or variations of clichés, are supposed to be read with metaphysical weight. “The road to heaven, paved with good intentions” makes absolutely no sense in or out of context in this song, but gives the listener the illusion of wit by inverting a common phrase with a new, but imprecise meaning. Does she mean that Justin’s sexual desire for her will help him achieve everlasting afterlife, even while this song has exactly zero shelf life?  Or does she mean that having good intentions is just as good as doing good works, which would be the first criticism that I would level at her entire contribution to the pop canon. Either way, if the song wanted to be dirty, it would do well to have us not debating heaven’s asphalt. Where is the dirt of this liaison that dallies in abstractions or sideshow references to interventions and theology for dummies?  This entire track seems like an implosion of Madonna’s insecurities about her persona. She wants to be pervasively sexual, but enlightened in a desexualized mother-figure way. She wants to continue to rake in the cash of her image, but wishes to recast herself in this sacralized savior role. In the end, we get a song that’s ostensibly about screwing some young upstart for a handful of seconds in order to save the planet from impending destruction. If only.

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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

In an interview with Holly Golightly back when I was working on a zine (i.e. the analog blogs), she said that she didn’t like so much of what was currently called “garage” rock because it had none of the spontaneity and d.i.y. disposability of the original idea of a few friends with a few chords pooling their lunch money for a limited run 7” single.  I think “Shalalalalove”  by the egregiously named Sonic Chicken 4 captures all the sloppy, playful propulsion of garage rockers like the Mummies with the added confection of having a Mo Tucker soundalike slipping in to drop sweet refrains on top of power chords that have demolition derbied into one another.  Especially golden are those pop primal nonsense sounds in the chorus,  “shalalala”, so close to those first attempts we all have at grappling with language (a.k.a.,  getting what we want):  “baba”, “dada”, “mama”.  Yes, the secret to a great song is simply artful infantalization.  I’m kidding, but I do think this songs secrets have everything to do with having no guile, pouring sugary guy-girl interplay on scuffed guitar and having a chorus that inspires infectious Muppet-dance energy.

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