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by L.B. Jeffries

13 Nov 2008

The Graveyard is an art game about being old. More specifically, it imposes a series of motion limitations in conjunction with an interruptible cutscene and potential random event. The motion limitation is the limping slow pace of the old woman you control. The interruptible cutscene is when she crosses through a graveyard, sits on a bench, and muses about life while a song about death plays. The random event is that she could drop dead at any moment during this exchange. The game is over when you stand up and make it back to the gates of the grave yard.

The game came out in March and received quite a bit of press when it did, so this post is late to the party. What prompted this was a run-down by the company concerning their experiences with making and releasing the game. The objective of the game, as stated by the developers, “In many games, death is simply a temporary game state, a way for the game to express your failure. We were motivated by this shocking disregard for the meaning of death to make something that explores this concept more deeply. Not just your own death but also how we live our lives among people who will die or have died. Death is a fascinating part of life. We find exploring the emotions and contradictions triggered by it, interesting and moving.” Accomplishing this meant animating the old woman in such a way that her pace was slow and tedious. On all sides are tombstones while all the branching paths lead nowhere in particular. You go to the bench and the woman reflects about her life and you observe this. Before and after the sequence there is no music and the soundscape is mostly birds and your slow foot steps.

The reaction to this was fairly interesting. Manifesto Games, who represent countless indie games and distribute them for bargain prices, did not respond when asked to host the game. Steam, run by Valve and home to many classic old titles, was not interested. Even Jonathon Blow, maker of Braid refused to host it at his Experimental Games Workshop. The developers explain, “To some extent The Graveyard is disqualified beforehand because “it is not a game“…The gameplay in The Graveyard cannot be considered experimental/interesting/etc because it cannot be considered gameplay. Or something along those lines. There was another strange response that we heard from several game experts. When they realized that The Graveyard was a work of art, their reaction was to try and uncover its meaning. And they were confused when they didn’t find a clear message. It’s as if they, even when looking at art, couldn’t shake the inclination to deal with everything in the world as a puzzle to be solved.” In other words, because the player lacks the ability to affect the experience through game design, it is not considered a video game.

It’s easy to get pissy about these titans of the ‘Games as Art’ movement shunning a title that goes for such a remarkable experience but they also have their own visions about what direction that movement should be heading. The game is, at best, a piece of interactive fiction and attempts at poesy do not necessarily justify its failure to use the power of choice which makes video games profound. Even the Adventure Company’s Deirdra Kiai complained about the lack of any real understanding about the old woman and being irritated at the game’s slow pace. The issue it raises, both to the developers and the audience, is whether or not revulsion and distaste is a valid emotional response to a video game experience. Kiai complains that she wanted something affirming or interesting about the old woman to make the experience have some kind of meaning that dignified old age, the indie critics preferred Passage because of how the game design created sympathy for the characters as they grew older. Is their failure to find these emotions and meanings in the game a critical failure, considering it sought to explore the contradictions and mixed feeling we have about old age?

Perhaps not. Experiencing that getting old means you don’t have the ability to waltz around the graveyard anymore (and thus isn’t in the game) is disconcerting for most. Having the old woman’s song be little more than musings about frailty and people that have passed away hardly generates empathy. The fact that throughout this experience you may succumb to the very thing all around you, death, hardly allows for much of an emotional response except cynical fear. If there is a flaw to this game, it’s that it does not provide much for the player to experience except the feelings of frustration that Kiai had.

And yet, I am not sure I would expect much else from a game about old age.

by Rob Horning

13 Nov 2008

This is the last paragraph from David Leonhardt’s article yesterday about consumer confidence (I would have made it the lead):

It would be silly to insist that a few terrible months meant the end of American consumer culture. But it would be equally silly to assume that culture could never change. It might be changing right now.

Data and anecdotes support the notion that consumers are currently spending less and mean to cut back even more—Best Buy’s CEO declared that “rapid, seismic changes in consumer behavior have created the most difficult climate we’ve ever seen.” The FT’s Lex column today wondered whether “conspicuous aceticism” might become the “new ostentation,” producing “structually lower levels of demand across all areas of discretionary spending.” I’m still pessimistic, though, that this amounts to a rupture with the culture that is all any of us born after World War II have known.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that means Americans are incurably optimistic. One of the strangest things about the business press, and I’m still not used to it, is how optimistic is usually a complimentary term, a boon and a benefit. Where I come from intellectually, it tends to mean you are a useful idiot or a rube. That seems especially true when applied to consumers.

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, noted that his recent polls showed a sharp rise in the number of people planning to cut back on spending — but also a clear increase in the number who expected the economy to be in better shape next year. “What the American economy has going for it is the innate optimism of the public,” he said. “Americans get optimistic at the drop of a hat.”

We don’t need a reason to expect the best; we’re just dog-like in that way. Our masters are going to put something good in the bowl; we just know it.

Also, is shopping rather than saving really an expression of optimism? “I am feeling very positive. I’m going to go buy a TV set.” Seems like it is a preference for living for today instead of having faith or concern with tomorrow. I guess the idea is that confidence in our future earning capabilities makes us more likely to spend now, but I always (wrongly) interpret consumer confidence as meaning “confidence in the consumer way of life.” When it is high, it suggests to me a vote of no confidence in the possibility of meaningful work, of finding purpose, confidence, hope, etc. in making and doing rather than spending and getting. It’s as though consumers are surrendering by being confident in the pleasures of consuming, and that when consumer confidence falls, people are indicating that they suddenly enjoy consumption less. Falling consumer confidence seems like it should mean rising personal confidence. But that of course isn’t the case. They just aren’t confident enough about having a healthy flow of cash to support all the spending they wish to perform.

Still, the term consumer confidence seems to relegate people to their passive roles, whereas these same people also are part of the production process. But we are accustomed to thinking that the only role we take pride and pleasure in is our role as consumer; it’s through that process that we make ourselves with as much autonomy as we like—not the working world. What’s hard to take is how often disappointment in American consumers is expressed, for letting the economy down, for their thinking of other ways to make it through their days without ceaseless spending on consumer goods. How dare they? Have they lost their minds? Why can’t they be more optimistic and compliant?

by Rob Horning

13 Nov 2008

When business journalists mention the flight to quality, they usually mean investors shedding risky investments and buying government Treasurys, blue-chip stocks, gold ingots. But in a recession (consumer spending was down 3.1 percent last quarter, which is an astonishingly high number), consumers may make their own humble flight to quality as well. I was stuck by a line from this Economist article about American retailers’ coming struggles: “Among deep discounters, too, such as Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which have benefited from shoppers looking for the best possible value, the leaders are gaining at the expense of laggards. Even dollar stores are finding life harder, as customers are somehow finding their way to goods that yield their sellers the very lowest profit margins.” The word “somehow” intrigues me in that last sentence—the lowest profit margins probably come from the goods that give consumers the most value, and when their minds are focused by hard times, they can perhaps ferret out that value more ably. That’s a tall assumption—that use value correlates negatively with profit margin—but I’m going to go with it to indulge in some speculation.

It seems to me that in the 99-cent store, where there are no coherent efforts at marketing, branding, or promotion, consumers are at less of a disadvantage; some of the information asymmetries that marketing systematically tries to create are absent. And distortions of use value created by price signals are muted, since everything is priced the same. So without all that static, consumers can perceive the actual usefulness of goods more clearly. But in order for that to happen, consumers must overcome the initial disorientation that comes with shopping in such an arid retail environment. Marketing and branding, etc., all ultimately save us time and make our shopping at once more efficient and more pleasurable—we can fly into fantasy thanks to the narratives advertising has enchanted the goods with. At the 99-cent store, goods are disenchanted and bewildering in their profusion. We are forced into a different mind-set when we go there—a skeptical, distrustful attitude that has us interrogating the goods rather than open to being seduced by them. This is the opposite of what profit-seeking retailers generally try to accomplish: this McKinsey report summarizes what the typical goal is:

Retailers with good financial health in mature industries can also go on the offensive, taking actions to quickly grow revenue by driving traffic into stores through more compelling offers and ensuring that staff is ready on the floor for the assisted sale. For example, a North American soft goods retailer has reversed declining sales, improved customer satisfaction, and increased the frequency and average size of transactions by focusing on eliminating out-of-stocks, raising the effectiveness of front-line salespeople, and making small store-layout changes that help customers find the goods they want.


It’s worth remembering that these efforts improve the retailers’ bottom line, not the consumers’. (It has been Best Buy’s strategy in crushing Circuit City, which announced it was closing The consumers spend extra for the accessibility, not for quality; if they are trained by hard times to eschew that, then they can save what the ordinarily pay to spruce up the shopping experience while still satisfying their “needs”—that is, if you accept that there is such a thing as the difference between wants and needs.

by David Pullar

13 Nov 2008

Thanks to my fiancée working in a bookshop, I have been fortunate to discover a bizarre sub-genre of book that I would never have heard of otherwise: the cosy murder mystery.

The proliferation of hard-nosed TV cop shows of the CSI ilk has given me the impression that murder is a pretty grisly business.  Yet apparently there is a section of the populace that like their murders with a side of handicrafts and a dressing of soothing familiarity.

My first experience with this style of book was with the inimitable Laura Childs and her scrapbooking murder mystery Photo Finished.  Not only has Childs produced six murder mysteries set in a New Orleans scrapbooking shop (all loaded with helpful exposition on decorative edging), she is also responsible for a series of teashop mysteries.  Photo Finished is appallingly written and the plot is nothing short of absurd, but that all seems irrelevant when you discover that Childs is far from the only writer working in the genre.

The concept behind these books is not so strange.  After all, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books featured a cosy English village that was unusually prone to homicide.  Last century, butlers were notorious for bumping off houseguests in novels—possibly lashing out at their declining employment prospects.  Why should scrapbooking shops be any less popular locales for murders?

Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing combination.  Could there be anything less comforting than the prospect of being sent packing from this life while enjoying the simple pleasures of flower shopping (Shoots To Kill), drinking coffee (On What Grounds) or…gasp…teddy-bear collecting (The Clockwork Teddy)?  In fact, the thriller genre has been most effective when it has shown crime intruding into the safest places.

The trick with the cosy murder mystery seems to be to keep the murder part to a minimum.  Killings are brief, absent grisly detail and usually of incidental characters we have not had time to get used to.  I suppose this is one way to maintain the “cosy” vibe, but it does seem to defeat the purpose of a murder mystery.

I’m trying to work out what the existence of this genre says about humanity.  If we sidestep the question of why some people are so keen on scrapbooking that they want their murder mysteries to involve it, we’re still left with this: why people simultaneously crave the excitement of bloodshed and the comforting knowledge that it won’t happen to them and they can go back to their quilting afterwards.

Maybe decades of crime fiction has reduced murder to a simple plot trick.  We’re no longer interested in the procedure of detection or the psychology of crime.  We’re really just looking for an excuse for our characters to momentarily escape their lives and have an “adventure”.

That would at least explain why so many of these books are about really boring hobbies.  If you’re writing about skydiving or spear-fishing in the Marianas Trench, then you hardly need to bump off one of your characters with a pair of craft scissors—the thing is exciting enough as it is.  On the other hand, writing 200-odd pages about a group of cat-sitters would drive anyone to murder.

by Sean Murphy

12 Nov 2008

I. Personal

Remember when Born in the U.S.A. was ubiquitous? The album and the song. Bruce was already big, but he wasn’t over the top. Born in the U.S.A. put him over the top and, to a certain extent, he’s stayed there ever since. Of course, people in the know understood he was already a legend before the ‘70s ended; in the early ‘80s The River and Nebraska cemented that status, but Born in the U.S.A. ensured that no one could ever ignore The Boss.

I already owned scratchy LP copies of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as original (and shitty sounding) cassette copies of the oft-overlooked but brilliant first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle), so by the time Born in the U.S.A. hit the market, I was admittedly wary of the frenzied and new-fangled faithful joining the party. But other, more disconcerting forces were at play: the album, as good as it was, wasn’t that good. “Dancing in the Dark”, “I’m on Fire”, “No Surrender”, “My Hometown”? Eh. “Glory Days” was pretty much an instant classic, but (as is always the case with FM-friendly tunes, and never the fault of the artist) overplay hasn’t helped its staying power. But the big hit, the title track, the song that seemed to shoot through the dial 24/7, that one was a love or hate affair. I hated it. If ever there was an arena-ready anthem, this was it. And the muscle-bound Bruce from the video? Give me the spindly Serpico clone from ’78 any day.

(Interesting coincidence: Springsteen had a difficult time getting the track to sound the way he wanted it. Indeed, it was an outtake from his stark solo effort Nebraska. This is not unlike the origins of another overplayed song from the ‘80s, the Rolling Stones’ insufferable “Start Me Up”. That one was originally cut as a reggae-ish romp, before it devolved into the over-produced, if innocuous hit it was destined to be. “Start Me Up”, to be certain, is a lark, and it was—for better or worse—fated to be recycled for eternity at sporting events. “Born in the U.S.A.”, on the other hand, is actually a serious song and, as it happens, is much better than it sounds.)

Perhaps it’s my own fault, but it took several years before I even figured out the words Bruce was singing; perhaps it’s due to his overwrought delivery—equal parts marble-mouthed and shouting. Regardless, this is quite possibly Springsteen’s most somber song—and considering the era (Nebraska) it was written, that is saying a great deal. (And for the curious, it’s well worth checking out the (far superior) demo version that didn’t make the cut for the Nebraska album.) It made all the sense in the world, then, when Springsteen hit the road for his subdued Tom Joad tour in the mid-‘90s, he made the searing, stripped-down version of this song a centerpiece of the show. His hand pounding the acoustic guitar to simulate a heart beat at the song’s coda remains one of the most quietly powerful and emotional moments I’ve ever witnessed at a concert.

II. Polemical

Check it out:

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

(chorus)

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go

This song is, upon closer inspection, a staggering achievement. With few words and admirable restraint, Springsteen captures the cause and effects of the Vietnam war from the perspective of an ordinary American, the afflicted civilian. More, he moves the narrator into the here-and-now, making the uncomfortable point that the war never died for the people who managed to live. Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.

On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.

Travis Bickle, from Taxi Driver

III. Political

Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.

And so, even as our ill-advised adventure in Iraq reaches its inevitable endgame, we will only be in the initial stages of dealing with the veterans who need care and attention. We won’t count the ultimate cost of “mission accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars. This is reason enough to be grateful for an Obama administration (the irony that a genuine war hero, had he managed to win, would have necessarily been obliged to overlook those in need of help to pacify the string-pullers in his party, was, thankfully, too outrageous even for America to make possible). The Democrats can’t create miracles, but they can continue to ensure that the people owed the most won’t get the least.

Remember this, when the ankle-biters and small-government-soundbite hyenas crawl out of their tax-payer fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers. And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same craven war pigs will once again wrap themselves in the American flag;  these same armchair generals prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash the programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.

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