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by L.B. Jeffries

18 Aug 2008

I was skimming some of the pieces that have gone up for Banana Pepper Martinis here at PopMatters when I noticed something: I tend to rag on Bioshock a lot. I’m not alone in this; most critics pull it down from their dissection shelves and point to it when they are making a case. Do this, avoid that, this could’ve been better. It’s just that…there are so few games that have ever attempted to engage with art or philosophy, and here’s this game that had the guts to do it. And a lot of that criticism doesn’t just get aimed at the game, it goes to the figurehead behind it, Ken Levine. I’m guilty of ragging on him excessively as well. Ever since the GDC lecture on plot in which he advised developers to simplify their game plots, I’ve tended to call him Ken “Make The Plot As Dumb As Possible” Levine in forums. This, of course, is taking the quote totally out of context, and I’m being hypocritical because I tell people to write plainly all the time. But I’m gonna make it up to him. Folks, we’re going to talk about how awesome Ken Levine’s impact on video games has been. And best of all, I’m not going to mention Bioshock once while I do it…starting now.

The first two major games Levine helped to create used The Dark Engine, which was developed by Looking Glass Studios. A great deal of credit goes to the programmers and designers for creating a game engine that allowed the artists to independently create in-game assets without technical help. They could design and create character actions and plot elements on their own. In conjunction with a brilliant sound-detection game design, Levine got a chance to flex that writing muscle on his first game Thief. Before we get into that, there some basic themes to Levine’s writing you learn to recognize and appreciate. As a former screenwriter, Levine has a good edge with dialog and he relies on it heavily in all of his games. The plot is usually delivered via heavy-handed narration with interesting fictional quotes mixed in about the environment itself. Most action sequences are left up to the player, but when the game does have a cutscene with action, the moments are appropriately full of nuance and powerlessness for the player. Levine is a writer who is very aware of the fact that he’s writing a video game and always uses static instances when the player’s input would be irrelevant anyways. His games usually feature two morally complex philosophies in conflict, you’re usually stuck in the middle, and no one comes across as a good guy. It’s a moral predicament that Levine seems to like and it is in this setting that he evokes the settings of his games.

by Rob Horning

18 Aug 2008

I’m still thinking about wrongness, purposeful attempts to alienate an audience through a kind of puerile repetition or offensiveness that on its face contains no politically subversive content. Pop music has been a fertile ground for breeding wrongness, as PopMatters’ recent list of Detours, unlikely albums by established artists, makes plain. Wrongness may be defined as the attempt to reject aesthetically or repudiate the constraints of popularity after the compromises to achieve it have already been made. (Think Metal Machine Music or Jim Morrison’s Miami performance on March 1, 1969.) Since it is so self-referential, it tends to be politically and artistically sterile. The appeal of such wrongness is limited mainly to connoisseurs of disillusionment and cynicism, and more important, to those “true fans” of the contemptuous artists. By sticking with performers no matter how much hatred they direct at their audiences, these fans prove they are not dilettantes. 

But the 1990s may have been the heyday for wrongness, as college rock became indie rock, which became alternative, which became profitably embedded in the established mainstream of pop genres. Efforts to preserve indie credibility and maintain integrity in the face of commercial success were played out at the aesthetic level at the very moment when what had first been seized upon as the sign of integrity—grunge—became a highly marketable and easily duplicated commodity. Elaborate simulacrums of lo-fi ineptitude became a calling card in alternative rock and graphic design. Grunge could connote integrity and/or authenticity without its purveyors needing to have any. But, of course, that has been true of many up-and-coming commercial forms emerging from various subcultures. What was interesting about the 1990s was that authenticity for the first time became the main appeal of the new style, its basic substance and message, the organizing principle for all its hallmarks. Hip-hop moved in the same direction, fetishizing authenticity as an end in itself rather than serving as an ex post facto description of a style that was ultimately “about” something else.

When grunginess became a mainstream cliche, something more heinous was necessary to demonstrate how alternative you meant to be. Hence, wrongness, or being “brown” as ‘90s alternative rock band Ween called it. Around the time the band made the quintessentially “wrong” move of putting out a straight contemporary-country record replete with the genre’s cliches and lyrics full of derogatory stereotypes—all the while insisting they were fully in earnest—it would play shows featuring limit-testing 20-minute versions of b-side “Vallejo” and “Poop Ship Destroyer,” an epic tribute to brownness. These were the antithesis of hippie jams (though Ween ironically would later become embraced by the jam-band scene), meant not to be expansive and pleasing to drug-altered minds, but to be abrasively tedious and mind-numbing, forcing observers to question when, if ever, it will end, and cleasing the mind of all remembered pleasures in the show, perhaps so the band could start fresh afterwards, trying to re-earn the audience’s trust and approval. In this was an analogue to all indie bands’ predicaments, having full knowledge of their own selling out and wondering if it were possible to regain integrity somehow, through some purifying ritual of awfulness.

Anyway, with the Family Guy‘s success, it may be that wrongness of this sort is in the process of going the way of grunge. What will the new oppositional aesthetic be now that wrongness and purposeful annoyance is losing its ability to repel?

by Jason Gross

18 Aug 2008

September 3, 2002 is an important date for the music industry. That was the day that Napster was effectively shut down by the courts after punishing lawsuits by the major labels. It’s also the day that the same labels started to seal their own fate by killing off a service that could have helped to save it as Napster was desperately trying to make deals with the majors while these lawsuits were going on.

Not content with that, they’re now in the process of killing off not only Pandora service, which has been a great way to hear and learn about music, even for hardcore music nuts like yours truly, but will also probably mean the end of other Net music services who can’t afford the licensing fees. Because of punishing royalty rates that they can’t afford and pushed on them by SoundExchange and the Copyright Royalty Board, it looks like Pandora will be out of business soon, as detailed in a Washington Post article.

SoundExchange insists that its demands are fair but like many online radio stations who won’t be able to afford the new rates they’ve set, Pandora can’t afford to meet their demands. The end result is no music and no service then. So the labels can be happy that they’ve driven another music service out of business, not to mention one that was playing by their rules. Ultimately when services like this disappear, music fans will be driven to more of the unauthorized P2P services that the RIAA is trying to shut down. But obviously this strategy isn’t going to work if the legit services can’t survive themselves. Also, the labels won’t be too thrilled when they ultimately realize that once Pandora and other streaming music services are driven out of business, they won’t be able to collect ANY revenue from them anymore.

The end result is another example of the industry and labels stupidly killing themselves off. But don’t worry, they’ll be sure to scapegoat everyone except themselves. And ultimately it won’t matter because they’ll be shrinking and bleeding more each day. Good sound business policy it ain’t.

FOLLOW-UP NOTE: One thing I forgot to include in the post above was another blog entry that I did two years about Pandora. I was really impressed with how well the service worked with finding music similar to what I liked and even more impressed that it came up with a bunch of surprises when doing so.  That alone makes me hope that the service will find a way to stick around for a while.

by Lara Killian

18 Aug 2008

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The Enchantress of Florence
Salman Rushdie
Random House
May 2008

Sir Salman Rushdie’s latest work of fiction, The Enchantress of Florence, is another sumptuous feat of storytelling. The author layers story upon story in a muddled palimpsest that meanders through time and jumps geographically so that the reader cannot completely follow the chronology of events or pin down the relationships between characters. It always feels like an accomplishment to finish a Rushdie novel, but the effort is well worth it.

The center of the universe in this novel is a woman named Qara Köz, the “hidden princess” of India in the Middle Ages. She is constantly choosing her own destiny in a world where men usually make the rules, and she uses the people around her to achieve her goals. Qara Köz is a woman capable of entrancing all who cross her path, all who see her, even those who only imagine her existence. Her magic is like a whirlpool, drawing in the men and women in her periphery and merely casting them aside when their purpose has been served if they are lucky; the unfortunate are destroyed.

Piece by piece, the princess’ story is revealed to her distant relative, King Akbar, who struggles with his place in history, wondering what will be come of his dynasty, and curious about the workings of the world as well as arrogant about his power to control it. Three Florentine childhood friends play key roles in the travels of the princess, and the descendant of one of them is the storyteller who enlightens the emperor in his capital city of Sikri. After hearing the conclusion of the tale, Akbar muses,

No woman in the history of the world had made a journey like hers. He loved her for it and admired her too, but he was also sure that her journey across the Ocean Sea was a kind of dying, a death before death, because death too was a sailing away from the known into the unknown.

The life of The Enchantress of Florence is a fascinating one, and Rushdie admits  that this, of all his works, is the best researched. Though some may find his writing overwrought, I always enjoy it, and look forward to his future efforts.

by Mike Schiller

17 Aug 2008

While I’m not the type of person who subscribes to the idea that a gaming system or company has to have a mascot to survive, it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Despite its tremendous stable of long-running characters, Mario will always be identified as the true symbol of Nintendo.  Sega, for better (the ‘90s) or worse (the ‘00s), will always have Sonic standing at the forefront of its stable of games (maybe the angry fella at the center of MadWorld can take over next year).  At one point, Sony had Crash Bandicoot out front, but his star has lost a bit of its luster over the last 10 years or so.  So who’s taken over in the Sony stable?

Some might say that the torch bearer of the Sony brand has now become Solid Snake of the Metal Gear Solid series, and that’s not a bad guess—Snake’s current incarnation of the old man showing the kids how things are done seems particularly à propos for the place that Sony is attempting to take in the modern gaming market.  Still, no series has offered the sort of consistency and quality (not to mention a whole pile of releases) as Ratchet & Clank.  The two of them combined may well be the current face(s) of Sony; immense firepower, copious cunning, and Ratchet’s ever-present smirk seem as though they would serve Sony well, if Sony were ever to push them to the front of a marketing campaign.  They’re even kid-friendly, at least in image, which would help the company cut into the Wii family market.  Are you listening, Sony?  Everyone who was going to buy the PS3 because it’s also a Blu-Ray player has already bought the thing.  It’s time to shift your target.

The Ratchet & Clank series is relevant right now, because the latest iteration of the series is on its way this Thursday as a PlayStation Network download.  I’ve spent a lot of time this month extolling the virtues of the Xbox Live Arcade, so it’s almost as if it only seems fair that I would highlight a PlayStation Network game this week; Ratchet & Clank surely gets the nod over an(other) updated version of Galaga no matter what the updates to the latter.

Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty isn’t so much a new game as it is an episode in the mythology of the duo. as it’s only a three-to-four-hour game.  Still, despite the short length, the consensus so far is that it continues the traditionally consistent and engrossing experience of its predecessors, and that anyone who still likes to play the old pseudo-platforming action/adventure style of game will be richly rewarded by the game, even if the high won’t last all that long.

Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing

Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing

Elsewhere, the ever-controversial Too Human is on its way this Tuesday, a game whose controversy stems not from any objectionable content, but from the tremendous length of its development cycle.  Advance word says that the roundabout way that it eventually came to be may have hurt the play experience, but it still seems like an interesting (and graphically impressive) enough experience to warrant a look, even if it might be destined for bargain bins sooner than later.  Deadliest Catch: Alaskan Storm makes its weekly appearance on the PC release schedule (perhaps it’s time to let it go…), and hey!  It’s Anibus, for the Wii, which surely must be a…sequel?  Prequel?  Who knows?  But chances are, it has something to do with last year’s shovelware stink fest Anubis II.  So there’s that.

Looking forward to anything else this week?  The full release list, and a trailer for Quest for Booty, are after the jump.

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