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by Christian John Wikane

19 Feb 2009

2009 is shaping up to be busier than 2008 for Cyndi Lauper. Following her Grammy nomination for the acclaimed Bring Ya to the Brink (2008) album, the tireless LGBT activist has a book, movie, and concert tour in the works, in addition to establishing a foundation named after her chart-topping hit from 1986, “True Colors”. Amidst all her projects, she found a moment to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
It’s not a new movie – I think it came out in 1999 – but I just loved it. It was called Joe The King.

2. The fictional character most like you?
Huck Finn.

3. The greatest album, ever?
I can’t pick just one.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek.

5. Your ideal brain food?
Edamame.

by Mike Schiller

19 Feb 2009

If there’s one thing Rockstar Games knows how to do, it’s get its product noticed; anyone who’s been following the rollout of their just-released expansion to massive 2008 hit Grand Theft Auto IV knows that such a maxim even applies to downloadable add-ons. 

What Rockstar has here is a news brief from “Weazel News”, the fictional news station dreamed up for the Grand Theft Auto universe.  It functions well as a trailer because it sets up the story of the add-on in a fairly unconventional way. Where it slips is in the bookended news flashes, whose juvenile brand of sub-Onion humor simply exists to make teenage boys guffaw and their moms gasp in horror. Granted, this sort of “shock” humor is par for the course when it comes to Rockstar, but at least they’re presenting their game in a way that sets it, and them, apart.

by Mike Schiller

19 Feb 2009

Note: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords’ Wii version was reviewed by Jason Cook last year.  With the sequel (Puzzle Quest: Galactrix) imminent, I wanted to explore just what made the original so arresting.

The valiant knight and the ferocious minotaur speed toward each other, running full-bore toward what will surely be a fierce, violent battle for the ages. The knight’s sword is drawn, the minotaur’s horns bared and brandished, and those who may have been battling around them are now unable to avert their gaze from the spot at which the two warriors are destined to meet. Some seek cover, others exhort the heavens, but all recognize the epic scope of the clash about to take place…

...and as they approach each other, a table falls out of the sky, the two combatants pull previously unseen chairs out from some undefined space behind them for the sake of sitting at the now-landed table, and a board game ensues with the understanding that the winner gets to slit the loser’s throat.

While it may sound ridiculous, this is exactly the sort of imagery that comes to mind when one starts playing Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords for too long on too many late nights.

This is also the sort of imagery that brings to mind Clint Hocking’s “ludonarrative dissonance”; that is, the artistic phenomenon unique to gaming that places the gameplay at odds with the story. We’re taking part in a large-scale narrative that deals with warring lands, Homeric journeys and arduous quests, and yet, whenever we’re asked to do something important, we do so by playing a game of Bejeweled. One really has nothing to do with the other, except that winning means winning, so whenever there is a situation that calls for an explicit win/loss state, a ferocious casual game breaks out.

What’s interesting about this particular example of gameplay’s conflict with the narrative is that it seems to have enhanced, rather than degraded, the player’s experience. Puzzle Quest was all but universally acclaimed when it was released back in ‘07, at a time when a rather large portion of the gaming populace had already given up on the type of game from which the majority of Puzzle Quest‘s structure is derived: the JRPG. You walk around the world, occasionally getting into pseudo-random battles, doing quests and side quests for the various people you meet along the way, increasing in power as you gain levels through battle and good deeds. It’s a JRPG through and through, infused with constant Bejeweled-style battles instead of constant turn-based attack/defend/magic-style battles.

Why then, despite this apparent disconnect in genres, is Puzzle Quest such a success?  It was even in the game-of-the-year discussion for a couple of platforms in ‘07 (hello, PSP!).

Part of the reason may be that the story being at odds with the gameplay is an issue inherent in the battles of the turn-based RPG genre anyway. Instead of playing out confrontations, say, Devil May Cry or God of War-style, we’re asked to imagine the majority of the action as we slowly and deliberately decide whether our avatar(s) will attack, run, or perform one of a select group of spells. The story says the stakes are high and the action intense, while the gameplay is almost passive in its non-urgency. As such, replacing one dissonant set of actions with another actually feels like innovation, every battle its own little game-within-a-game rather than a set of almost inconsequential button presses followed by a usually predetermined outcome.

Another reason for the success? Quite frankly, adding Bejeweled to anything makes it feel more accessible. At this point, Bejeweled is an almost universal symbol of casual gaming, something that even those who run screaming from people who identify themselves as “gamers” have at least had some experience with. By introducing a Bejeweled-style battle mechanic, players who typically identify exclusively with the casual side of the game spectrum are introduced to an adventure style that they may never have had the inclination to previously attempt.

What developer Vicious Cycle seems to have done, then, is embraced the dissonance, deciding that if play befitting the narrative is not a priority for the genre anyway, why not make it more interesting?  By embracing, and even highlighting the story/gameplay disconnect, they’ve created something that somehow manages to feel innovative despite the utter lack of innovation that each portion of the gameplay presents on its own.

Perhaps this explains the game’s fascinatingly addicting quality, something that’s inexplicably ensnared this writer (in the face of things I should be playing) for the last two weeks straight. Either that, or there are just a whole lot of Bejeweled lovers in some serious denial.

by David Pullar

19 Feb 2009

For what sounds to most like an extraordinarily arcane issue, parallel importation of books is generating a lot of concern among Australian authors.  In fact, many of them are being driven to rhetorical heights unscaled in their regular work.

In submissions to the Productivity Commission review, Kate Grenville warns about becoming an “impoverished and stunted society” and Gary Disher forecasts a loss of local flavour to “cheap mass culture from overseas”.  Matthew Reilly’s heavily underlined and italicised submission warns that parallel importation is “tantamount to legalising copyright piracy”.

What is it that has made them so worried?  What is parallel importation?

Like many English-speaking countries, Australia has copyright rules that protect the local publishing industry from cheap overseas editions.  Essentially, publishers have 30 days following international publication of a book to release a local edition, after which that edition is the only version to be sold in Australia.

There are moves afoot to remove this rule, allowing importation of books from anywhere in the world—the philosophy being that people do it via Amazon anyway and in theory it would make books cheaper.

On the other side of the debate, local authors are concerned that this will make Australian books uncompetitive price-wise with overseas works, that it will relegate local publishers to mere importers and that their books will be swamped in the market by remaindered foreign editions for which they receive no royalties.

In reality, both the promise of lower prices and the threat of local industry collapse are likely to be overstated.  Australia allowed parallel importation of CDs ten years ago and while this has led to some discounting, most new CDs are still in the range of $25-$30 (US$17-$20).  Regarding the feared consequences, Australian music is just as successful as in the 1990s, if not more so.  The rise of labels like Modular, with their global-impact roster of artists such as Cut Copy, shows how little difference the end of protectionism has had.

Making a living as an Australian writer is hard and maybe it’s about to get harder.  Perhaps the protection of the local sector has fostered any number of brilliant authors who might otherwise have given up their career for something more lucrative.  But as with too many public debates, the argument is verging on shrill.

The track record of protected cultural industries is not good.  Australia’s film industry had a taxpayer-funded golden age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but over time fell into a rut of making mediocre films perpetuating the same national stereotypes.  Much our subsidised arts scene is irrelevant to average, or even culturally-savvy, Australians.  Australian music is in a healthy state, but this is hardly the result of years of mandatory Australian content on the radio stations that simply pick local imitators of mainstream US acts.

The fact is that there will always be a market for good books and good writers.  For generations, Australian writers have struggled with the small size of the local market, the need to connect with overseas audiences and the frequent necessity of moving overseas to chase success.  Yet authors keep coming along, telling stories people want to read and making a living (or at least a part-time wage).  To attribute all this to a single element of copyright law is simplistic.

There may be no need to fix something that isn’t broken, but I suspect that any change won’t stop Australia from giving the world exceptional writers.

by Jer Fairall

19 Feb 2009

Submitted to the Unnecessary Remakes of 2009 Sweepstakes: Tony Scott’s amped-up-looking cover of Joseph Sargent’s great 1974 thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. With Denzel Washington as Walter Matthau and John Travolta as Robert Shaw.  In theaters June 12.

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