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by L.B. Jeffries

18 Mar 2008

For all the fantasy trappings that dominate video games, it’s kind of surprising that there aren’t many games that push the boundaries of what magic could do in a video game. I’m going to operate on the loose definition of magic as “a supernatural ability to interact with your environment” both for the sake of argument and to illustrate a greater problem with video games & magic. Simply put, a supernatural force that is supposed to give me the ability to do anything does not, in video games, seem to do much except be an elaborate light switch.

Every RPG that comes out, every action game that uses magic, is confined by one simple paradox: it’s only for combat. In Hexen magic was little more than a different kind of gun that the player used. In games like Final Fantasy or Baldur’s Gate, magic mostly served as a different method of attack. In both Diablos, it can’t even be used inside of town, much less for anything besides killing. All that magic really boils down to in games is variations on attacking, healing, shields, flying, fear spells, etc. Okay, flying is cool, but BESIDES that, you start to get the idea that most wizards in video games tend to be very bloody minded people. Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic comes to mind as an exemption, but it was little more than a dialogue option that tended to kill the conversation in that instance. I’m not shitting on magical combat in video games, mind you. I’m just noting the fact that all elements in combat, whether it be an RPG or a shooter, involve kill or be killed. You’re either hurting someone or enhancing your ability to hurt someone. Again, that’s not a problem, but for something with the interactive potential of magic to be reduced to a boomstick…it kind of leaves you wondering. After all, a gun does not have a lot of variety even in real life. You’re either shooting it or you’re not, leaving it to be little more than the interactive equivalent of a light switch. Why should magic be trapped along the same principles? Would it be possible for someone to feature magic in a game that wasn’t expressly pre-determined to just go boom (or help me go boom) all the time?

by Bill Gibron

17 Mar 2008

South Park has always been a show about contrasts. On the one hand, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have loved to wallow in the infantile juvenilia that make a series about foul mouthed grade schoolers so much fun. It’s a combination of toilet humor and gross out gratuity that these men have truly mastered. But there is also the savvy, satiric side to their work, a clear cut social commentary conceit that often cuts to the very funny bone of otherwise sensitive, hot button issues. It’s why, unlike Seth McFarlane and other Family Guy pretenders, Parker and Stone remains solid comic geniuses. Clear proof of this exists in the three-part trilogy from Season 11 entitled Imaginationland. Turned into a direct-to-DVD “movie” by Paramount to capitalize on Park‘s continued success, it stands as one of the best things this animated anarchy has ever accomplished.

When fussy Eric Cartman bets cynical Kyle Broflovski that leprechauns do exist, the stakes are rather severe. If Cartman loses, he owes his nemesis $10. If Kyle loses, he must suck Eric’s balls - literally. When a mission into the local woods turns up one of the Irish imps, it looks like the wager is won. But the leprechaun was supposed to warn far off Imaginationland of a terrorist attack, and when he fails to arrive, Al-Qaida starts kicking fictional character ass. Unfortunately, the mayor of the whimsical region has just brought Park boys Stan Marsh, Jimmy Volmer, and Leopold “Butters” Storch for a visit. As Cartman continues his efforts to get Kyle to “pay up”, everyone but Butters escapes. He is used by the terrorists as a tool to open up the gates of the evil side of Imaginationland. In the meantime, the government gets a Stargate style idea to infiltrate the pretend place and put a nuke directly in the Islamic extremist’s way.

For anyone who wonders why, after 12 seasons, South Park remains the best animated show on television, something like Imaginationland is all the proof any defender requires. Drop dead brilliant from beginning to end, and successfully applying the patented production approach of meshing the retarded with the regal, this hour long expanded episode stands as a shining moment for all involved. Parker and Stone have been flawless before, bringing their strangled, surreal sensibility to their big screen First Amendment romp Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and delivering definitive episodes (“Timmy 2000”, “It Hits the Fan”) throughout the course of their decade long run. But nothing can prepare you for the epic scope and sense of fun found here. Digging through a list of fictional characters that everyone recognizes (Raggedy Ann, Mickey Mouse) is one thing. To include religious icons and social symbols pushes everything one step closer to a full fledged masterpiece.

The premise is just as transcendent. The notion that terrorists have “infiltrated our imagination” and that, as a result of their actions, our “imaginations have run wild” resonates as so provocative and profound that it’s amazing no one has thought of it before. The added element of the evil entities provides a solid subtext, as it makes the viewer wonder, what’s worse - a suicide bomber or an unleashed Freddy Krueger. Al Gore gets another Manbearpig moment, and everyone’s favorite Satanic wildlife, the wicked Woodland Critters, show up to soil everything with their amoral attitude. Indeed, it is during these moments, the times when fuzzy little squirrels and cuddly little bunnies are suggesting abominable acts that Parker and Stone really shine.

The bawdy “B” story is equally redolent. Cartman’s obsession with his genitals may seem sick, but as the creators note on the almost full length audio commentary (the longest they’ve ever done, by their own admission), there is nothing sexual here. Instead, it’s all about power and humiliation. Even when our portly provocateur goes to great lengths to double entendre his way through a discussion of Kyle’s contractual obligation, he’s not out for jollies. Instead, it’s a moment of schoolyard triumph - undeniably severe, but like a Momma joke taken to a mouth to scrotum extreme. Parker and Stone want to shock. By doing so, they lay the perfect foundation for their more meaningful ideas.

And Imaginationland is chock full of them. From the government’s over the top reaction to the terrorist attack, to the conspiratorial plan that is supposed to save the day (even if underlings can’t stop giving away its secrets), we see a sensational slam on current US policy throughout. Everything in 2007/2008 is about reaction and armed response. Military lingo and rules of engagement dictate all of our diplomatic positions. When former Vice President Al Gore’s worst nightmare shows up, the baffled generals can only fall back on the atomic remedy. It’s a classic send-up, showing how out of touch with the rest of the world America really is. Even in a fictional domain, it can do little except pick a fight and bring in the big guns. Avoiding the heavy handed approach that most of their contemporaries take, Parker and Stone continue to be some of the best political satirists working today.

But that doesn’t mean Imaginationland lacks the requisite amount of animated awe. The battle scenes between the good and bad characters are excellent, especially when unexpected icons from the past (the Hawaiian Punch pitchman, He Man’s floating wizard buddy Orko) show up to tussle. Blood and cartoon body parts fly! This is the kind of experience one can revisit again and again, seeing something new in each and every viewing. Even better, the provided commentary traces the show’s origins, answers questions about its structure, and suggests that Parker and Stone are equally adept at producing great work both under intense deadlines and when they have plenty of time on their hands. Paramount even tosses in a couple of complementary episodes (“Manbearpig” and “Woodland Critter Christmas”) to make the presentation complete.

With Season 12 just underway, and the series signed up through 2011, here’s hoping our duo has more amazing installments like Imaginationland up their sleeves. As they’ve said in the past, they love to play with the show’s format, finding equal time to let their characters be kids while tackling the major issues of the day. As a pristine example of this mindset, the three part extravaganza stands as one of South Park‘s best. For something that no one thought would or could last this long, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are proving that, just like a certain yellow skinned family from Springfield, the boys of a certain backwater Colorado town could be around for a very, very long time.

 

by PopMatters Staff

17 Mar 2008

Bauhaus
Too Much 21st Century [MP3] (from Go Away White released 4 March)
     

International Bullet Proof Talent [MP3] (from Go Away White released 4 March)
     

Cadence Weapon
Sharks [MP3]
     

Jaymay
Blue Skies [MP3]
     

Foals
Balloons [MP3]
     

Brimstone Howl
Cyclone Boy [MP3]
     

Howlin Rain
Dancer at the End of Time [MP3]
     

by Mike Schiller

17 Mar 2008

L.B. Jeffries posted a review of Steam’s excellent, groundbreaking downloadable game Audiosurf today, a game that we just can’t get enough of at PopMatters Multimedia HQ.  It’s nice to have a music-based game that doesn’t rely on any sort of latent musical talent, and the ease with which it can incorporate any piece of one’s MP3 collection is astounding.

Having played around with it for a while, we’ve found that Underworld’s “Dirty Epic” is a fantastic candidate for a fast-paced but relaxing ride (and a ten-minute one, at that), Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” is fun if you’re the type who likes rolling hills, and pretty much any spoken word piece (think audiobooks) is fun if you’re the type who thinks hopping curbs in your 4x4 is a good time.  Oh, and people seem to be enjoying “Through the Fire and Flames” a bit, too, as they’ve finally found a way to play that song that lets them hear the end.  No experience, however, has so far matched the good time to be had by playing the game with Akron/Family’s “Ed is a Portal”, which crests and falls so smoothly, building huge amounts of momentum for six minutes or so, after which you get about a minute of coasting up a hill for a cool down.  The combination of fantastic song and fantastic track is a sort of synergy that has, until now, been nearly untapped in gaming.  Download the demo, and try to tell us that the ten bucks for the full-on experience isn’t worth it.  Once you’ve dropped your Hamilton, come back and tip us off to some new musical experiences that we might not have tried yet.  We’ll be eternally grateful.

by Jason Gross

17 Mar 2008

OK, here’s the official word straight from editor Fred Mills.

Harp Magazine Discontinues Publishing after Seven-Year Run

March 17, 2008, Silver Spring, MD: Guthrie, Inc., the company that publishes Harp magazine, announced today that it has discontinued publishing Harp, effective immediately. The last issue sent to subscribers and newsstands was the March/April issue with Dave Grohl on the cover.

Founded in 2001 by editor-in-chief and art director Scott Crawford, the magazine entered into a partnership with the owners of JazzTimes in 2003. The result was a sophisticated rock and pop magazine that was critically acclaimed and well-respected in the music industry for its candor, style and breadth of coverage. The magazine’s web site—www.harpmagazine.com—was also well-received. The site included nearly all of the magazine’s content, as well as daily news updates and special contests and promotions for music fans. There are no plans to continue publishing the magazine in digital form.


The first issue of Harp in the fall of 2001 featured a cover story on Alejandro Escovedo. Among the artists who subsequently graced the cover of Harp during the last 7 years were Grohl, Cat Power, Ryan Adams, Wilco, Bright Eyes, Nick Cave, The Stooges, Drive-By Truckers, My Morning Jacket, Liz Phair, Tom Waits, The Roots, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Neko Case, Modest Mouse, Jay Farrar, Mars Volta, Devendra Banhart, Steve Earle, Pete Yorn, and Howe Gelb. The magazine also did several Vanity Fair-style gatefold cover sessions, including the artists of Bonnaroo and “Rock of Ages” with pop icons and their mentors, and multi-artist conceptual covers like the recent “Kings of Comedy” edition.

However, according to Glenn Sabin, Guthrie’s CEO, the publication struggled to become profitable. “We purchased Harp in 2003, and it quickly became a first class product that was highly acclaimed for its often irreverent editorial approach and strong graphical package. Unfortunately, Harp’s critical acclaim never translated into sustaining commercial success. Harp’s lifecycle was ill timed with the precipitous decline of the music software industry, coupled with the consolidation of the consumer magazine newsstand business and rising paper and postage costs.”


Sabin saw Harp’s demise as reflective of the changes both in the music industry and in print consumer publishing. Sabin continued, “This story isn’t new. Print consumer publishing and the music industry are undergoing a revolutionary period. Legal digital sales are not even close to making up for the loss in physical product sales and the pervasiveness of illegal digital downloads. And with smaller revenues, labels are inevitably spending less money for print and other forms of advertising and promotion.”


Crawford, who provided the magazine with its creative vision, expressed his pride for what the magazine accomplished in his tenure as its editor-in-chief and art director. “We were able to establish a much-needed niche within the crowded marketplace. Ultimately we tried to create a magazine with substance and style—and on that level, I’d like to think we largely succeeded. I can’t thank our supportive advertisers and readers enough,” continues Crawford. “Your years of enthusiasm have always made Harp worth every last drop of blood, sweat and tears for all of us.”

Notable Harp Cover Features:

• June 2006: “Rock of Ages” ­ pairing iconic rock stars like Thurston Moore, Steve Earle, Michael Stipe, Conor Oberst, Emmylou Harris, Tom Verlaine and others with rising stars in a Vanity Fair-like gatefold cover captured by renowned photographer Danny Clinch.
• Sep 2007: “Kings of Comedy” ­ an ensemble cover article featuring Flight of the Conchords, David Cross, Patton Oswalt and Eugene Mirman—photographed
and interviewed together.
• March 2008: “Dave Grohl for President” ­ featuring a mock presidential run by the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl.

Fred Mills
Remote Editor At Large
(a/k/a The Artist Formerly Known As Harp Managing Editor)

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