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by L.B. Jeffries

30 Jun 2009

Discussing The Path without discussing spoilers is mostly an exercise in generalizations. The entire game design is a weirdly subversive content delivery system and abstaining from explaining that content doesn’t really do the game justice. Spoilers Abound, as always. The Path is a video game variation of the oldest known version of ‘Little Red Riding’ which you can find here. The moral at the end explains that girls who are just reaching maturity and are taken advantage of by, “The Wolfe, I say, for Wolves too sure there are of every sort, and every character. Some of them mild and gentle-humour’d be Of noise and gall, and rancour wholly free”. The wolf in the story is a metaphor for those who relieve young girls of their innocence, often as the story notes often by acting nicely as well as cruelly. The game is a literal manifestation of this: you play as six different girls walking to Grandma’s house. The game design entices you off the trail to discover a wide collection of secrets, one of which will prove to be the end of the child’s journey and the beginning of another.

The game design is setup to give the player a few key choices about how to conduct themselves. If you stick to the path you will make it to grandma’s house and see your young self sitting on a bed while an old woman still lies dormant. Off in the corner is a wolf frozen in motion. The game will rattle off all the secrets you missed and point out that you did not encounter the wolf. It is preying on the typical gamer habit of collecting secrets and the curious power that telling a gamer “You didn’t win” seems to have over them. Fire up the game again and you can wander off the path into a forest full of secrets. There are 144 randomly placed flowers that can be collected along with a set number of unlockable secret events for each girl that are unique. Throughout this exploration section a girl in a white dress will run about who will occasionally take you back to the path if you engage with her long enough. The forest itself is disorienting and visually difficult to navigate but eventually a mapping system takes over in the form of symbols of various wolf sites. Running causes your view of the surroundings to go away because the camera moves up so the best way to travel is walking very slowly. Depending on how many secrets you collect the final montage at the end of the game will change, particularly if you find the wolf event.

Finding a concrete interpretation of the game is surprisingly difficult for two reasons. The first is that the wolf varies from being metaphorical to literally drinking a few beers with a guy before the screen fades to black. Dark and disturbing noises follow before the girl wakes up on the path disoriented and walking slowly to Grandma’s house. Inside the house a linear rail sequence starts up that has you looking through a variety of disturbing rooms while lights flash that all echoes of David Lynch cinematography. There is, to put it lightly, a great deal of room for interpretation about what this is supposed to imply. The other problem is that all of this symbolism changes depending on how many secrets you chose to discover. 8 Bit Hack argues that each girl is a stage of the grandmother’s life. He explains, ““Each of the Riding Hoods play the role of one stage of the old woman’s young life, from the bright eyed Robin to the learned Scarlet. The wolf, in his many forms, represents the betrayal and cruelty waiting out in the world when you stray from what you know, what is safe, and what is easy.”

We got into an argument about how many of the girl’s scenes were implying rape (a similar one came up at Brainy Gamer) and realized that we had both seen very different imagery. Whereas he saw one of the girls tied up with razor wire and bleeding, I saw an image of a scarecrow chasing children underneath a bed. This then becomes problematic because although I usually tried to get two or three secrets per girl I rarely bothered to find every single one. Given how difficult such an act would be, the designers seem to have created an interesting method for insuring their imagery always remains vibrant or unique for each person. With the exception of the wolf scene, the game is actually quite open to interpretation because the game design generates its images based on the player’s actions.

It is also worth noting that the game plays with your relationship with these girls in a very unique way. The initial tropes of the game start off as role play, we empathize with the girl in the way one normally does with their avatar in a game. The initial shock and horror begins to fade as one becomes accustomed to the system however, leading to a certain kind of transformation in the player. The 99th over at Play This Thing! argues that the player themselves are becoming the wolf. He explains, “The core gameplay involves figuring out what the 3rd person characteristics are of each of the girls. Figuring these things out enables you to say “ok, I bet this girl would interact with that object”, which leads to results.” In this way we are a kind of seducer, studying the girl and taking her to the places we know will resonate with her. We discover little bits of information about them through poetic reactions to the items they discover or by what they’re wearing. And with this knowledge we guide them to their inevitable wolf, their violation and loss of innocence.

What is at the core of these numerous choices and unlockables is a story about the loss of innocence. When Scarlet sees flowers she opines about how dirty nature is, when she approaches a piano in the woods she muses, “Art is where the nobility of humanity is expressed, I could not live in a world without it.” As the grey haired musician teaches her to play the screen fades and we awake outside Grandma’s house. The final scene is to a clapping audience, a green curtain rising up, and a thud as the screen goes to black. Her juvenile views of music and art are gone, the child that would’ve been sitting on the bed next to the dormant old woman is gone. The young Robin contemplates, “People die. It’s hard to imagine for a kid like me. They die and we put them in the ground. Like flowers.” A hulking wolf wanders about the graveyard when we approach and Robin leaps onto his back just as she does every secret she has found in the woods. As funeral bells begin to ring out, wolf carries us to the top of the hill, and gives out a great howl in triumph. The final scene is us falling into a dark hole, a grave. Robin’s innocence is lost as she realizes the true nature of death and its inevitability. So it goes with the other four girls offering a new take on a development in a person’s life. Impressions about art, death, and for several sex are all explored.

I would ignore reviews that complain it is not a game or who take the imagery literally. Death is symbolically the mechanics of change in people, the current personality must die in order for the new one to grow and take effect. Michael Abbott once wrote that you can’t ever dictate the meaning of imagery to someone in a game because our relationship with these things is always unique. The point has merit, particularly in a game like this that is full of so much nuance and ambiguity. You can, however, accurately predict people’s relationship with game design elements. There is a path and if you stick to it the game will tell you that you did not discover all sorts of secrets. Irked, the player will go exploring on the second round, collecting items and trying to navigate the confusing forest. Making the controls minimal and passive will generate uneasiness in the player while large amounts of conduct and action continue to happen with little input from them. Eventually, you will be placed in a situation where you have no control at all and can only watch as the inevitable happens. Like a dream where the subject is helpless, The Path is a game that frightens you not with thrills but instead with how it makes you feel.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jun 2009

We all have our causes. Animal rights. Kinky sex. Health. Gay and/or National pride. Religious zealotry. Artistic expression. Self-actualization. And within said philosophies are a million individual interpretations, paths that can be followed (or ignored) no matter how odd or unusual they may seem. Passing judgment on how one fulfills their sense of social commitment - or in the privacy of their own boudoir, a more highly physical concept of identity - seems pointless, but as one rather rotund member of Springfield, USA once said, it can also be a lot of fun. Just ask filmmakers Isaak and Eva James. With their latest film, Hungry Years, the plights of the homeless, the autistic, the injured and the overweight are tossed into a whirlwind of big city egocentricity that’s so fresh, so effortless, that you wonder why more artists don’t tap into such a zoned out zeitgeist.

In this anarchic Altman-esque world, Ellen is a Restricted Calorie nutritionist. She believes that by severely limiting your food intake, you can live much longer - and healthier - than the average person. Her clients include Dale, an oil company CEO with a secret passion for sniffing soiled undergarments. He has a wife, Joyce, who has written a controversial self-help book that proclaims autism as the next “evolutionary” step in human development. She is aided by an assistant, Martha, who uses the aforementioned illness as the basis for her critically panned one woman performance piece - and her ongoing kvetching about life in general. Her brother Neil is also a self-absorbed loser, living at home and trying to drum up interest in his idea of building a self-contained robotic landmine sweeper. But with no money and little support from his aging parents, he has few viable prospects. Separately (and eventually, together) they try to overcome their personal issues while still supporting their varied social aims. 

Isaak James is clearly the future of sophisticated, smart cosmopolitan comedy. He’s Woody Allen without all the Me Decade angst, an incredibly talented hyphen (writer-director-composer-actor) who infuses the already idiosyncratic indie motion picture with his own uniquely observed sense of quirk. With partner Eva along for the ride, he finds the hilarious and often ridiculous truths in such outlandish ideas as mental illness, culinary self-sacrifice, and weak-willed altruism. With the flawless mock-doc Special Needs already under his belt, and a wide open window of creative opportunities present, the man who made the handicapped into heroes is now out to take down the haughty and the high minded. But just as he did with his previous satiric statement, he uses the know-it-all and the narrow-minded against themselves to brazen, brilliant effect.

At first, Hungry Years might seem like a cruel slam of all those people who believe too passionately in their own sense of charity and empathy. We see how Ellen faithful follows her regimes (and how devastated she is when others don’t). We witness her misplaced outraged reaction to a fly-by-night attorney’s desire to help the homeless by teaching them insurance fraud techniques (like he says, what are their options?). From the horrified face she makes at a friend’s dinner to the circumventing of a Meals on Wheels plan for the elderly (she delivers her own carefully prepared foods instead), she’s a walking, preaching example of everything that’s wrong with such personal prostylitizing. But because she is just one of many in the James’ joyful jesting, we learn to sympathize and even identify with her blinkered beliefs.

The rest of Hungry Years’ cast of crazies offer their own sets of unusual issues. Ashlie Atkinson’s Martha is perhaps the best clinically depressed diva ever to spout the F-word, while James himself plays Neil like the naïve nincompoop the man-child clearly is. Perhaps the best performance comes from Karen Culp, the deluded “doctor” who unleashes, Dr. Phil style, a kind of New Age nonsense about autism being a favored childhood ‘gift’ that’s horrific in its touchy feely foolishness. The near Messianic glint in her self-satisfied eyes more than makes up for Michael J. Burg’s pervert on the prowl pantomime. With equally strong work from the supporting players (and a couple of clever Special Needs cameos) and a script that is strong in both character and comedy, Hungry Years definitely defies the odds.

Most mainstream audiences think independent film is all navel-gazing and familial dysfunction. When it’s not indulging in a kind of post-traumatic stress stridency, it’s working through personal problems a therapist would have a hard time deciphering. But in the James’ cinematic purview, people and their peculiarities make the best subject matter, not the pain one experienced during potty training. Like Special Needs, Hungry Years is all about the set-up and the possible pay-off. It’s about the hubris and the comeuppance. We can’t wait to see Ellen put in her place, to see Martha and Dale and Joyce get raked over the coals by a public clearly capable of seeing through their ruse. But like the great artists they are, Isaak and Eva don’t go for the easy punishment. Instead, fate steps in and deconstructs the situation. No one really suffers, but we witness the hilarious realignment in all its secret-smashing, ego dashing glory.

The most important thing to remember about Hungry Years, however, is just how funny it really is. Unlike many proposed comedies, this is a laughfest that actually evokes the intended response. The Jameses do not go for the easy joke. They don’t produce gags just to knock down the predicable punchlines. Instead, this is observational wit worked into a stellar social commentary, an intelligent denouncement of the ‘new’ Me Decade baked into a cruel, creamy cupcake. You will see a lot of post-modern misanthropy here, anger that stems more from a position of personal defeat than communal criticism. No one here is a failure - they are just a mindlessly misunderstood winner. And just when things can’t get any more bizarre, Neil’s mom will show up and obsess on her adult son’s choice of pants. It’s all part of a controlled cleverness that reminds one of the days when a certain cinematic mensch would deliver his annual dose of Manhattan malaise.

With only his second film, James has literally redefined the concept of outsider creativity. Where most fledgling auteurs try to do the best they can under financially and artistically restrictive circumstances, he and his collaborators throw out such notions of struggle and simply make the finest, more cutting and imaginative film possible - budgets be damned. It’s clear that, sometime in the near future, this is someone whose name will be mentioned along with other important to big screen comedy. For now, Judd Apatow and Sasha Baron Cohen better take heed. Isaak and Eva James are coming with Hungry Years in tow. In a year that’s already seen several bright example of cinematic wit, this may be the brightest - and best. 

by Diepiriye Kuku

29 Jun 2009

Most so-called feminist critiques of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reduce men to husbands, and women to wives. Even progressive movements like the struggles converging on marriage for same-sex couples, centralize this biblical relationship, and in a biblical way, there’s nothing progressive about that. If we sincerely count gender and gender relations, we should count correctly. It may be a Christian fixation that prioritizes the heteropatriarchal marriage over all other relationships as individuals and with kin and Klan. In addition, in the Things Fall Apart society, these other relations were contributors to individuals’ identities. Certainly, this is riddled with conflict, the same as any relationship faces conflict, and perhaps confrontation. One might even argue that the misogyny in the pre-colonial society was, too, an unresolved conflict—a narrative within a narrative of conflict resolution.

Over four books, Achebe demonstrates a spiral of conflict and resolution, layering these stories, and having them mirror one another. This means that the internal conflicts mirror the ones the characters face in the world, and brilliantly, Achebe breathes life and depth to his characters by demonstrating how their internal dialogue informs their views of themselves as well as their actions. So, fate is a clear matter of cause and effect in the Things Fall Apart cosmological world.

by Rob Horning

29 Jun 2009

Paul Kedrosky links to this article by Harriet Hall at the Skeptic about the placebo effect. The upshot is that placebos don’t do anything physiological but instead shift a patient’s awareness of their own symptoms. In the article’s terms, it separates pain from suffering. So placebos are less substances than performances staged by creditable authorities (or at least people we are temporarily willing to credit, if we are delving into the world of Reiki healing or homeopathy (“the ultimate placebo because its remedies usually contain nothing but water”) or macrobiotics or what have you) to persuade us that something transfiguring has taken place. Placebo effects are essentially rituals to distract us from our pain, keep us preoccupied while our body tries to repair itself.

The article mentions a recent study that intended to debunk the placebo effect:

In 2001 two Danish researchers, Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter Gotzsche, published a paper entitled “Is the Placebo Powerless?” in the New England Journal of Medicine.3 They reviewed studies that included a no-treatment group, and they compared the improvement with placebos to the improvement with no treatment. They “found little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects.”
For studies with a binary outcome (improved versus not improved) there was no significant difference between the placebo and no treatment groups. For studies with continuous outcomes, there was some apparent effect of placebo; but not so for objective outcomes that could be measured by someone else, such as blood pressure, but only for subjective outcomes that depended on self-reports, such as pain. They weren’t even sure about that, however, because the effect was greater in smaller trials, indicating possible bias.

This seems to reinforce, though, the hypothesis that placebos distract us from pain, that they are in essence conjuring tricks staged by a (witch) doctor.

And some tricks are more persuasive than others:

We not only know placebos “work,” we know there is a hierarchy of effectiveness:

  * Placebo surgery works better than placebo injections
  * Placebo injections work better than placebo pills
  * Sham acupuncture treatment works better than a placebo pill
  * Capsules work better than tablets
  * Big pills work better than small
  * The more doses a day, the better
  * The more expensive, the better
  * The color of the pill makes a difference
  * Telling the patient, “This will relieve your pain” works better than saying “This might help.”
In one study patients were given the same aspirin in either a brand name bottle or an unlabelled bottle; it worked better if it was labeled as a brand they recognized. Our pharmacy used to stock two different brands of allergy pills that were made in the same factory and were identical except that one was green and the other was blue. When a patient said it wasn’t working any more, we’d switch him to the other brand and it would start working again.

That’s amazing to me. It’s like a grammar of analgesia.

The reason I’m fascinated by the placebo effect is that it reminds us how limited instrumental thinking is—the idea that this object has this effect. Instead, the context has enormous ramifications on our experience of things, an effect that sometimes we seek to ignore because it is impossible to control or even analyze thoroughly. As Hall points out, the pills are less important in treatment than the doctor-patient relationship. One could extrapolate and argue that this is true of objects generally. When we expect them to change how we feel, they are merely proxies for relationships, which ultimately have the most effectiveness in altering our moods. How we feel about ourselves, to a large degree, is a social construction—is determined by how the feeling is constructed in our interactions (real or imagined) with other people.

Also, I think that advertisements attempt to work in the same way as placebos, staging a performance that shifts our perceptions, so that inert products suddenly have magical effects. Cigarettes suddenly do make us manly; beer suddenly does “taste cold.” If that’s the case, then we need to trust the authority of advertisements to let them work. Authority could be established just through the sheer brute force of salience, spending tons of money to make a product prominent in the media. Ubiquity becomes its own argument for quality. But we may consent to believe in the authority of marketing, simply because it feels better to be fooled—much in the same way we suspend disbelief to enjoy magic shows or novels or Michael Bay films. It’s no accident that many of the earliest advertisements were for patent medicines—the ads lay the groundwork for the medicines to “work.”

The depressing conclusion I draw from this is that ads, as much as they seem contemptible, fulfill an important function in authorizing pleasure, conditioning us to its possibility, and staging the ritual that allows it to occur. They foster “expectancy” effects, whereby what we expect to happen seems to happen. Granting ads credibility makes it easier for us to find pleasure, but of a degraded sort—they supply simulacrum relationships that supplant our need for real ones. Another way of putting that: Ads allow for a kind of pleasure revolving around objects that perhaps crowds out other forms of pleasure that demand more from us but are ultimately more satisfying. With our willing consent, they teach us to enjoy ourselves in superficial, highly contingent ways and prompt us to forget that other more durable and self-nourishing ways exist.

by Chris Conaton

29 Jun 2009

If you travel in the right musical circles you’re probably familiar with at least two of these albums. The third is mostly forgotten, but still a personal favorite of mine.

cover art


The Decline

(Fat Wreck Chords)

By the end of the ‘90s, NOFX was well-established as the good-time jokesters of the punk rock circuit. Sure, they occasionally tossed out more serious songs, but generally they were about sarcasm and silliness. So 1999’s EP The Decline came as a shock. This was an impassioned rant against gun-lovers, Christians, big corporations, and the complacency of the public in general without a joke in sight. And it was all contained within a single, 18-minute-long song. For a band that rarely managed to get beyond the three-minute mark, this was something very different.

The Decline burns through an album’s worth of guitar riffs over its substantial running time, constantly changing tempos and styles along the way. The lyrics are equally wide-ranging, as lead singer Fat Mike takes on a bevy of social and political issues. Despite all these changes, though, the mood remains consistent: angry. It’s that impassioned anger that allows the song to really hang together. Unlike prog-rock and metal bands that regularly go above the 10-minute mark, NOFX had very few templates to follow as they created the piece. Most riffs and themes don’t return once the band moves on—there’s no carefully constructed rock opera background at work here. But somehow, the band makes it work.

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