Latest Blog Posts

by L.B. Jeffries

29 May 2008

I found this game via Brenda Brathwaite at her blog Applied Game Design and it proposes an interesting take on how to generate moral dilemmas in games. One of the major dilemmas with pushing games into more complex experiences and art forms is that games don’t necessarily generate any kind of consequences. Unlike shooting someone in real life, which leads to both moral and literal consequences, in a video game it either doesn’t matter or can be undone. If I accidentally say something awful to someone in Mass Effect and we get into a fight, I can just load my game. Few people are going to allow something like making a mistake impair their enjoyment of a game experience. They want the best items, the ‘best’ ending, and for things to generally work in their favor. So even games that do feature choices just inevitably devolve into asking someone to make a choice and then letting them keep answering until they get the right response.

There are two solutions in games to this problem. You can make the plot entirely linear, in which case the player isn’t responsible for the consequences anyways. Or you can make either choice a valid one. Although that’s an interesting solution for a morally grey scenario, it becomes problematic when we get back to the fight in Mass Effect. Sometimes what the player did was wrong, there are serious consequences to such actions, and they should be punished for them. And the only real way to do that is to take away the save game feature.

As the commenters at Brathwaite’s blog note, part of what makes the player reaction so interesting is how much they dislike the decision forced on them. Either quit the game or shoot the victim. You know shooting is bad, the game clearly warns you that there will be consequences, and then it forces them by making the little man be dead even after you restart the game. Some players just re-installed the game and made the “correct” choice and others denounced the entire process. Despite the wisdom of ‘War Games’, most people aren’t really inclined to consider quitting the game a valid choice.

This isn’t the first time a game has attempted the “Quit or Do the Wrong Thing” game design. The brilliant Immortal Defense offers a similar dilemma towards the final levels and tends to produce the same mixed-results from the player. Would it be better if the game gave me two wrong choices? Would it be better if I made the wrong choice but later on I was able to redeem myself? Whatever the game design people come up with to create consequences and morality, the greater issue almost seems to be directed at the players themselves. If we are prepared to allow a game to teach us a moral, what kind of game designs are we going to have to accept that create the consequences needed for such a lesson?

by Rob Horning

29 May 2008

Why are oil prices so high? The obvious answer would seem to be because we are running out of it. Peak-oil enthusiasts have argued this for years, but the idea is creeping closer to the mainstream. In the New York Times Paul Krugman argued that prices were based on fundamentals of supply and demand in this column from a week ago. He was responding to the idea that commodity speculators are wreaking havoc on the natural play of economic forces, an argument that fund manager Michael Masters recently presented at a Senate committee hearing. He blames “index speculators” among institutional investors, whose demand for oil futures rivals China:

According to the DOE, annual Chinese demand for petroleum has increased over the last five years from 1.88 billion barrels to 2.8 billion barrels, an increase of 920 million barrels.8 Over the same five-year period, Index Speculators’ demand for petroleum futures has increased by 848 million barrels. The increase in demand from Index Speculators is almost equal to the increase in demand from China!


At his blog, Steve Waldman takes an elaborate look at Masters’s view and asks this pertinent question: “But what if the price-setting speculators are not momentum-driven index funds, but ‘traditional speculators’, correctly predicting that prices are below long-term fundamentals? Then limiting commodity speculation would prolong the mispricing, and cause us to waste resources that are kept artificially cheap.” In other words, we would keep wasting fuel because regulators would be keeping its price artificially stabilized (kind of like they do in Venezuela and Indonesia).

Of course, there are high political stakes in this argument: if it’s speculation and not peak oil that’s driving prices, then we needn’t worry so much about conservation or build any expectation of permanently higher fuel prices into our economic decisionmaking. That would make American automakers happy, at least, and supply political demagogues with an easy target as Americans suffer through “the summer driving season” paying prices at the pump ($4+ a gallon) that they have never dealt with before. As Krugman points out,

Traditionally, denunciations of speculators come from the left of the political spectrum. In the case of oil prices, however, the most vociferous proponents of the view that it’s all the speculators’ fault have been conservatives — people whom you wouldn’t normally expect to see warning about the nefarious activities of investment banks and hedge funds.

Why? Because the conservatives want to pretend America, in its glorious exceptionalism, need not change a thing about its wasteful behavior.

The surprising shift Krugman notes could actually be seen as the return of the old alignment of economic liberalism with political liberalism on one side, and economic conservatism and government intervention on the other, as it was before the Industrial Revolution, when society’s elites (if you accept Polanyi’s thesis in The Great Transformation) attempted to forestall the market’s overwhelming society and all its established mores. In this sociopolitical configuration, conservatism is not about guaranteeing a free market but about preserving the existing distribution of power. For a while, a free market served that end, but conservatives have never cared about freedom per se. Our coming energy problems may make then more than abundantly clear.

by Nikki Tranter

29 May 2008

Holy crap.

Moments after I hit the PLAY key, I thought it was a joke. Children’s theatre, perhaps, performing Day of the Dead. But, no. It’s the sneak peak at the Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel, Let the Right One In (published in America by Thomas Dunne as Let Me In).

I’m a sucker for a good (or bad) book-about-to-be-a-movie, so this one goes right up my To-Read list. It’s been sitting around here for months, daring me to read it. I’ve held back due to the book’s subject matter—I’m not so into young adult vampire novels, especially those addressing big-person themes like paedophilia, prostitution, and murder. This one, I thought, would be like I’m Not Scared—an engrossing, horrifying read—and you need the right mood for such a story.

It’s a mood hard to come by sometimes. This trailer, though, might just get me there…

by Chris Barsanti

29 May 2008

After all the rumors and innuendos about the various now-defunct shows of HBO’s Golden Age—you know, the ones that ruined us for the increasingly decrepit art of cinema—being turned into theatrical fare, the film of Sex and the City is finally upon us, and its success (or lack thereof) could well determine whether or not we will see the continuing multiplex adventures of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Jimmy McNulty. Obviously there is no single template that HBO would have to follow for film versions of any of these shows, but if such a thing did in fact happen, there are worse models they could follow than Sex and the City. In his wrapup to the half-hour groundbreaker of a sitcom that began on HBO a full ten years ago, writer/director Michael Patrick King takes about two or three season finales’ worth of tears and OMG jawdroppers and whacks them together into a big, sloppy, gooey sundae of a film that is, for better or for worse, just like the show … only longer.

The magnifier of cinematic size does things to the new adventures of this quartet of middle-aged Manhattan ladies, mostly of an unfortunate variety. While it’s all well and good to catch up with them a few years after the show’s conclusion, the pratfalls and complications of a half-hour TV show can seem either trivial or downright crude in a film. The show’s penchant for the occasional bit of embarrassing physical humor is played up here (a protruding gut when one of the ladies overeats to quell her anxieties, rumblings when another has bowel issues) but not in a way that comments on women’s insecurities, simply as a way of playing gross-out for the back row.

It also doesn’t help that King has shot and edited Sex and the City just like the show, only with cruddier cinematography and lousier music cues; where there should be glitz and perfection is only bad lighting, hand-me-down sets, and the occasional visible boom microphone darting down from above. For a story so obsessed with style and glamour, the end result is depressingly downmarket in appearance, looking like the poor second cousin of The Devil Wears Prada (which updated the show’s considerations of women and work so well that it almost makes this film entirely redundant).

All that being said, the whole point of the Sex and the City film was not to make a lasting piece of art, but simply to squeeze more life out of some characters that its audience couldn’t quite let go of, being sick to death of watching the butchered episodes re-running endlessly on TBS. On that front, at least, the film succeeds for the most part, concentrating on running the ladies through an obstacle course of betrayal and dashed expectations, dangling the rose of a happy ending continually just out of their grasp.

For those who have been dragged to the theater by friends or spouses and have never seen the show, a recap of the characters’ basic traits is quickly (if not deftly) handled by clip montages during the opening credits. After that, it’s back to the basics of making love last in the big mean city. In short: Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is living in married bliss, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is out in Hollywood managing her boyfriend’s career, Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) marriage to Steve (David Eigenberg) is struggling, and Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is moving in with Mr. Big, aka John (Chris Noth).

After a rough opening section where things go just a little too smoothly for too long, the hammer gets dropped and three of the women fall into their own little puddles of discontent. About a half-hour in, King finds the right rhythmic mix of discord, romance, and humor, after which the remainder of this surprisingly long film (148 minutes?) zips along with due speed. There are rough patches where it feels as though the script is struggling to shift from one episode to the next, and a surprising number of the characters are given little to do. Charlotte and Samantha play essentially one note and plotline for the entire film, while Steve and Mr. Big (practically the only male characters from the show to have left much of any impression) are only given the minimum necessary lines to break Miranda and Carrie’s hearts, not enough to give people new to the story any idea why these women care for them.

We all know that Sex and the City is really all about Carrie—one of the only freelance writers in New York who apparently can afford to hire an assistant (Jennifer Hudson, flat)—and her search for romantic bliss but was it really necessary to make Miranda even more of a miserable, cynical shrew? There’s a real ugliness to King’s treatment of Miranda, one of the only women here who evinces any intellect, but that’s par for the course with the show, and since the film is nothing but a retread anyway (Sex and the City: The Further Adventures of Carrie) such mean-spiritedness shouldn’t come as any surprise.

As a well-calculated remix of an enduring television landmark, Sex and the City fits the bill, leaving naught but a quickly dissipating champagne buzz. The fact that it stands well above just about any romantic comedy that’s been popped out of the Hollywood jello-mold in the last year or so isn’t so much of a compliment as it is a sign of how devalued the genre is.

by Sean Murphy

29 May 2008

Nothing gold can stay, wrote Robert Frost. And believe it or not, he wasn’t actually talking about the Greasers and the Socs, or even Ralph Macchio’s ability, post Outsiders, to convincingly play high school kids well into his mid-20s (making the other ageless wonder, Family Ties era Michael J. Fox look like Methuselah by comparison). Frost, of course, was speaking of more poetic matters, like springtime and flowers and innocence and all that CliffsNotes crap.

What he was not talking about, since it had not yet been invented, was rock and roll. So he could not have known that he was providing a very prescient epitaph for what is often the rule and seldom the exception with every great rock band: they age poorly. Aside from the requisite stints in rehab, the Botox and the damage done, and the increasingly profitable reunion tours, not a lot of memorable music gets made after age 30. Consider how many groups have blazed like fevered comets into the public consciousness, then flamed out, leaving a body of work—and sometimes their bodies—behind.

Not counting the careers cut short by death (think Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain or Clapton…wait, Clapton didn’t die? Never mind), and not cherry-picking the no-brainers like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Who, it’s actually easier to identify the groups that have managed to produce work worthy of their salad days—much less work that is worthwhile. The very recent efforts by Portishead and the Breeders, as well as the fairly recent masterpiece by Sleater-Kinney (please come back!) prove that it can be done. The fact that those three bands are fronted by females is noteworthy, and fodder for further discussion: women rock harder and make better music, after 30, than men? It would seem so. Then again, King Buzzo might have something to say about that, although he is probably too cool to even be considered human, much less a man.

But why is this so rare? Certainly the impetus of lean and hungry desperation (not to mention drugs) inspires rock music in ways not especially amenable to other types of art, like literature. Robert Frost was 49 when he dropped Nothing Gold Can Stay; Pete Townshend was 20 when he wrote “I hope I die before I get old”. By the time he was 49, The Who were already recycling their better days on the arena rocking chair circuit.

There are still some legends thrashing about in the mud and the blood and the beer: Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, for instance. Their best days are undoubtedly far behind them, but at least they’re still trying. And yet, the issue isn’t really about trying, it’s about an end result that passes the smell test (mosh pit or mothballs?), regardless of intent or integrity. Perhaps it’s appropriate that one elder statesman who is defying the trend is the golden god himself, Robert Plant. While the world waits to see if the mighty Zeppelin will glide again, Plant paired up with the beguiling Alison Krauss to create Raising Sand, an effort that, not so ironically, sounds better with time. In fact, it surpasses just about anything Plant’s peers have been able to manage since John Bonham died (doing his part to ensure that the best band of the ‘70s would not embarrass themselves in the ‘80s). Granted, Raising Sand is not (nor is it pretending to be) rock music. Perhaps that is the entire point. To be a rock and not to roll? Perhaps this is what Plant meant, way back whenever. Or perhaps it is just the forests, echoing with laughter.

TO BE CONT’D.

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