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by Sarah Zupko

7 Apr 2009

The Dukes of Stratosphear was a side-project of XTC in the mid-‘80s meant to pay tribute to the ‘60s psych pop of their youth. Andy Partridge’s Ape House label is re-releasing the two Dukes albums 25 O’Clock (1985) and Psonic Psunspot (1987) on April 21st and they’ll come with copious liner notes and a host of musical extras. Sample a few songs and videos until then.

XTC as the Dukes of Stratosphear
“My Love Explodes” [MP3]
     

“Brainiac’s Daughter” [MP3]
     

by L.B. Jeffries

7 Apr 2009

Since video games must often devote a lot of time to teaching the player how to play, it is rare to see a game that relies on variety to engage the player. Beyond Good & Evil does not just teach the player one specific skill set and then have them apply it in new ways. Each level is a stream of new activities and skills, combined with a world map that we are continually finding new ways to explore. Combined with this game design is a narrative composed of layers. Our impressions of these characters and factions is continually refuted as we uncover more of the conspiracy, until even the protagonist herself is ambiguous. As the game’s title implies, it is borrowing form Nietzsche’s notion that the true scholars are ever-questioning of morality and society. Inspiration to work on this game came from Michael Abbott’s Vintage Game Club or VGC, whose discussion I did not participate in often but I drew on heavily for this essay. Their forums are a great resource for any careful analysis of a video game they’ve discussed.

The game begins with a news broadcast explaining a classic video game story: alien invaders are besieging the planet of Hillys and only the army can stop them. Our view is of the planet itself during this exposition, before the camera zooms down to the surface and we see the protagonist, Jade, practicing Yoga over a glowing sunrise. Right on cue the aliens attack and yet the army is nowhere to be found. The player takes control as the aliens abduct several of the orphans and our friend Pey’j. The tutorial defines what will be the teaching motif for the rest of the game: you learn a skill as soon as you need it. Jade is surrounded by aliens, you learn to fight by pressing A and swinging at them. You need to use your super move to beat one of the monsters, so you then learn to charge the attack. Narratively we are taking on the role of savior to these characters which will be played with later by our failure to fulfill this task. The army arrives once the crisis is over and the reporter we saw in the opening credits has no interest once Pey’j is frank about how useless the soldiers are. The tutorial continues by providing another need for the player: we’re broke and we need to restore power to our home. To do this we must take pictures of various wildlife, being paid per photo. The photo design is the game’s strongest feature, they introduce it early and provide incentives to keep taking pictures to the player. Doing this means that every animal, friend or foe, has a name to the player. Every tiny detail in the world that would’ve gone unnoticed or unappreciated will instead be photographed. Contrast this to Bioshock’s camera, which lacked both non-hostile creatures to appreciate and offered a weak reward for taking the picture. The design was introduced so late in the game and gave such a minor edge in combat that it mostly goes forgotten by players.

Eurogamer did a decent retrospective on the game where they aptly summarize the game’s variety of activities, “The secret to the success of the game’s differing approaches is the simplicity. This does occasionally lead to a muddling of the controls, with multiple options assigned to buttons, switching in and out as the circumstances require. But it also means Jade’s capable of an array of different styles without your needing a third thumb.” In the vehicle sections you can explore the map, go racing, blast through obstacle courses, and eventually fly. Most of the driving sections all rely on the basic skill of driving but the third-person portions of the game vary things up much more extensively. In terms of playing as Jade you’ll do platforming puzzles, stealth, close combat, sniping, dialogue options, and even a few mini-games. What binds all of these activities is that they are typically easy to handle and require only a single button. The game’s missions can be boiled down to 4 levels mixed with exploration in the larger world map. Each mission is to take certain incriminating pictures of the Domz to reveal the greater conspiracy to the public. After Jade proves herself capable at taking photographs and dealing with the Domz she is recruited by the IRIS network to investigate the corrupt military.

User baf from the VGC points out that Jade handles a great deal like the princess from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, pointing out that both games were made at the same time by the same studio. Jade can slide through cracks and access portions of the map the brawler partner can’t. Adding to her range of skills is an engaging NPC who adds more abilities. What this NPC does is enable an additional layer of puzzles and interaction that don’t actually involve the player. Just as the game is filled with numerous activities that can be directly solved, it adds variety by having the NPC be a necessary component as well. You need Pey’j to open certain doors or Double H’s slam ability to knock enemies off the ground. Part of how the game avoids needing the player to learn a dozen commands is by having other characters be the source of them. This relationship with the NPC is built up in a variety of other ways. The narrative creates a constant banter between the two parties. The game design requires us to give our heart containers and health to them, connecting the player in a literal way by actively caring for them. When Jade leaves Pey’j behind temporarily, he reminds us to not forget him. The level design mirrors this by having a puzzle where we need Pey’j appear almost immediately. After Pey’j’s abduction, Jade rescues her new partner Double H from the Domz just as she did Pey’j at the game’s start. The game design has us rely on them in combat and puzzles, connect by giving them health & items, and the narrative matches this by having them take on roles where they depend on you.

This is a game that brings its premise alive with details. The Alpha sections scream propaganda whenever we enter the city about how Hillys needs the army. With each mission, these propaganda statements become more intense all while protests form thanks to your photographs. By the time you’ve fully documented the corruption, you will even begin to recognize the people in the crowds. Like any hub game, there are countless items to collect or animals to photograph. Equally refreshing is the fact that the game brings out these moments without the use of quick time events. Smaller levels such as catching raiders or breaking into the Alpha sections warehouse in the city are both easy and fun break-aways from the main plot. When Jade is fleeing the Alpha sections the outcome is pre-defined but the player is put in a miniature race course. As lasers and soldiers race after her, the player feels a real sense of chase before she crosses the invisible line and the cutscene kicks in. The game’s flaws are usually when these invisible hands don’t quite work. Stealth sections often have linear solutions which are enforced through insta-kill turrets, leading to constant trial and error while you figure out what the game wants. The level design occasionally spoils the story itself, as Kimari points out at the VGC. If you’re going to have a character supposedly die yet I’ve seen a puzzle that requires them to solve it, the player is going to know that they will be back eventually. A tricky fight that should occur just before you discover the orphans have been kidnapped can potentially be missed if you run into the house directly. Having the combat before Jade’s dramatic speech about failure is essential, otherwise the feeling of hopelessness falls flat from facing against the tricky flying enemies.

The last level does away with most of the stealth and combat sections in favor of a different experience. Complimenting the sense of smallness and inferiority that Jade has struggled with, the final level has huge spaces and sections of running across long distances. We are made to feel what Jade is feeling as she tries to rescue Pey’j. Our own photos are used in the final cutscene as the populace finally sees all of the Domz corruption, leading to an uprising. The ending’s final plot revelation is that Jade herself is the source of the Domz. She is the reason they have been attacking Hillys and her humanity is only a sham to cover up her true nature. This ambiguity and role-reversal is shown in the game design by having the controls suddenly invert. Just as Jade is now suddenly the source of the conflict, up is down and left is right. Freezair noted that she potentially even infects Pey’j later on with the Domz, using her powers to heal him and subsequently corrupt him. When she defeats the final boss and uses her powers to heal the abducted orphans, Jade demonstrates the core idea of the game’s title. Just as Nietzsche argued in Beyond Good & Evil that the true hero can see beyond morality or social conventions, Jade can see past the revelation about her own origins. She does not blindly accept the Domz’s desire for power or that she is a part of it. What has been true throughout the game has been her friends, so that is what she sticks with despite her origin.

by Diepiriye Kuku

7 Apr 2009

In case you haven’t heard, Vogueing is back. Madonna brought it to the mainstream, sealing the 80’s sloppy fate with classic club anthems ushering in a whole new breed of contemporary social dance. Yet, this again was an appropriation of Black sub-culture, in this case queer. Indeed, Vogueing is as old as Betty Davis and as American as apple pie, shown even with a quick perusal of the docu-films ‘Looking for Langston’, or even the voyeuristic ‘Paris is Burning’. More interesting, perhaps, or at least speaking from a more liberated voice, would be the 2006 film ‘How Do I Look’. At any rate, Jody Watley made it hot on the charts back in 1987, three years before Madonna, with one of Prince’s bassist Andre Simone’s most fly guitar rifts and synthesized melismatic beats, Still a Thrill. The normally high-pitched diva adopted an androgynous baritone voice for the lyrics, teasing viewers even more. The video was off the chain, and yes, an early dose of this black-n-tan boy ‘House’ dancing. How appropriate that Watley chose a Parisian style ballroom set for the video, and one of the genre’s early champions, Tyron “The Bone” Proctor, as her co-star.

by Bill Gibron

6 Apr 2009

Has it really been ten years since Chris Seaver, the savant of homemade horror comedies, first introduced us to the world of Low Budget Pictures? Has it really been that long since we first laid eyes on that simian lothario TeenApe, that hate crime in the making known as Mr. Bonejack, or the demonic delights of Filthy McNasty? Over this decade of decadence and debauchery, we’ve come to understand the wonders of womanly bits, the hilarity of excessive gas, and the greatness that is John Stamos. Why he’s not more well known will remain a Comic Con conundrum for eons to come. Still, this fascinating fringe maverick continues to amaze us with his growing canon of exciting, eclectic schlock.

Thanks to Sub Rosa Studios, we are getting the opportunity experience more Seaver sensations. This time around, it’s the one-two punch of Terror at Bloodfart Lake, and the sword and sandal spoof Deathbone - Third Blood Part VII: The Blood of Deathbone. In each case, Seaver relies on a recognizable type - the former is a slasher satire, the latter takes on everything from Rambo, The Lord of the Rings to the entire Conan legend. Sprinkled in between is the director’s own unusual fairy dust, including shout outs to favored rock and ska bands, nonstop motion picture trivia, and just enough toilet humor to keep things comically crude. While the latter loses something in the wizards and warriors translation, the slapstick slice and dice could give Apatow and his gang a run for their frat farce money.

Terror at Bloodfart Lake

When a group of teens head to the legendary Bloodfart Lake for a little late summer R&R, they are totally unaware of the horror they are about to face. Seems a horrific crime some years before continues to haunt the vacation spot, and our motley crew of metalheads, Goth chicks, wannabe actors, and dim bulb losers are destined to face the wraith’s wrath. But it turns out that creepy groundskeeper and all around killjoy Caspian will be a bigger threat to their mini-vacation than some psychotic corpse in a scarecrow costume who suffers from a severe case of talking villain’s disease. If they can live through his party pooping fey ways, they might just survive a few days of random bloodletting.




The Terror at Bloodfart Lake is indeed one of the best things Chris Seaver has ever done - and this is the dude who delivered the remarkable masterworks Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker, The Karaoke Kid, and The Film Crew. It combines the most memorable parts of his past perversion epics while continuing to strive toward a more mainstream maturity. For someone who used to utilize a point and shoot style of filmmaking acumen, this is a very accomplished picture. The visual element is exceptional and Seaver experiments with framing and angles like never before. Even better, his writing has become smarter and more assured. Instead of going for the gross out gag every couple of seconds, he relies on characterization, repeated riffs, and pure situational set-ups to fuel his funny business.

In fact, watching how he’s grown over the years, it’s comforting to see the kind of polish and professionalism he now shows. In the past, Seaver could be criticized for being the most insular of moviemakers, gathering together his high school friends to make private comedies that few could follow or fully comprehend. Now, as humor has come around to his way of thinking, the oddball asides and direct dives into genital juvenilia work wonderfully. Even better, for those of us who stayed the course, the depth of his slightly skewed world view is obvious. This is not just some geek who spent too many hours in front of the TV, soaking in everything his VCR had to offer. This is someone who has absorbed all of popular culture, from Star Wars to Star Search, from random rap rhymes to epic fantasy metal and manages to make them his own.

Oddly enough, when he tries to mimic others, he sometimes comes up short. While not as drop deal hilarious as Terror at Bloodfart Lake, Deathbone is another triumph for the talented auteur. Yet since he is using a wealth of recognizable films and types for his translation of the macho Middle Earth actioner, the farce doesn’t seem so fresh. Still, this story of an elfin girl who goes on a dangerous journey to seek the help of her kingdom’s mightiest warrior is a wonder to behold.

Deathbone - Third Blood Part VII: The Blood of Deathbone

You see, despite his rather doughy physique, Deathbone is the fiercest, most ferocious conqueror in all of Mucklark. He even has his own nubile assistant and freelance troubadour. When a young elf asks for his help in rescuing her friend and freeing the valley from the ruthless reign of the Goblin King, he can’t refuse. Along the way, they will face all manner of hideous beings, including trolls, monsters, and a fat friar with revenge on his mind.




As he did with Mulva 2: Kill TeenApe, Seaver once again relies on a recognizable film type to foster his wicked wit. Unlike the previously mentioned movie, however, he is far more successful here that in past attempts at parody. Maybe it’s the type of film he’s fooling with - the hero vs. evil conceit is rife with its own sense of implied ridicule - or the performance of a puffy and bloated Billy Garberina that seals the deal, but whatever it is, Seaver is rock solid. Sure, he lets the movie go on for far too long (at almost 100 minutes, this is like his Gone with the Wind) and indulges in elements that don’t fully payoff (the cliché contest). But unlike his Tolkein trip-up Quest for the Egg Salad, the combination of Stallone stupidity and a hip-hop Magic: The Gathering really works - even if the action scenes are more chaotic than well choreographed.

Again, Seaver flawlessly utilizes the camaraderie of his cast, and their chemistry really shows. Especially effective is longtime LBP player Meredith Host, who has to carry most of the exposition and audience identification. She also is the brunt of Deathbone’s many personal putdowns, and she takes them like a trooper. Elsewhere, the always engaging Travis Indovina makes a wonderful wandering minstrel, especially when wielding an “axe” (read: electric guitar) as part of the mayhem. This is also one of the best looking films Seaver has ever helmed. There’s a lot of location work (including mostly outdoor and exterior scenes) and a real sense of scope. With professional level make-up F/X and lots of ludicrous gags, Deathbone - Third Blood Part VII: The Blood of Deathbone is a cut above his other purposeful parodies.

As he enters his next ten years, as marriage and fatherhood have radically altered his priorities and his proclivities, one wonders what Chris Seaver will dream up next. He already has something entitled I Spit Chew On Your Grave making the convention rounds (can somebody say redneck revenge splatter film???) and he promises to continue cranking out the LBP product as long as the audience wants him to. Judging from his continued growth as a filmmaker, as well as the overreaching talent on display, Seaver should have several more decades in the limelight. Anyone who doubts that need only check out Terror at Bloodfart Lake and Deathbone - Third Blood Part VII: The Blood of Deathbone to understand why. 

by Rob Horning

6 Apr 2009

James Kwak of the Baseline Scenario, an economics blog, draws a natural conclusion about Facebook:

Incidentally, I don’t understand the Facebook model. They seem to be trying to get people to use and enjoy the Internet within the tight confines of Facebook. This reminds me of the old days of CompuServe and AOL. Ordinarily when I work I have about 10-12 tabs open on my browser, and at most one of them is Facebook. There is so much stuff on the Internet, why would you limit yourself to the stuff your friends posted? Besides, I find their user interface non-intuitive, and with each iteration they make it less powerful - and I used to work at a software company.

The portal strategy, the idea that you choose to access an internet within the internet, has never made much sense to me either, mainly because I don’t trust tech companies to filter my online experience so obviously. (Yet I am content to use Google, which filters what I see in the name of searching.) At first the portal is convenient, but then the companies who control it eventually betray users trust, and they realize that nothing is stopping them from stepping around the gated community but their own laziness. Eventually, it would seem to make a lot more sense for us to simply have our own websites (eg, the nonexistent robhorning.com) so that the information we generate won’t be exploited by a corporation for ends we don’t agree with or aren’t aware of. Having used Facebook for a few months now, I still don’t see what value it adds as a company. Instead, its meddling seems to make the idea of connecting with friends online more joyless and fraught with ulterior motives—servicing other people’s nostalgia or chasing our own temptations to self-aggrandizement while our behavior gets leveraged for the inevitable advertising push to come once our data is properly analyzed and the links we’ve formed decoded into demographic data for marketers.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Culture Belongs to the Alien in 'Spirits of Xanadu'

// Moving Pixels

"The symbols that the artifact in Spirits of Xanadu uses are esoteric -- at least for the average Western gamer. It is Chinese culture reflected back at us through the lens of alien understanding.

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