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by L.B. Jeffries

15 Sep 2009

One of the most interesting questions about video games is, if they are art, how do they communicate a message to a person? How do they cross from what Roger Ebert once described as “sport” into making a plausible statement about the world in a game? A book recommended to me that extensively handles the topic is Alexander Galloway’s Essays on Algorithmic Culture. The text is very short, 126 pages total, and consists of five modified essays Galloway published in various journals. I’m going to focus on his points about political games and player vs machine relationships for this essay. Chapter 2, ‘Origins of the First Person Shooter’, is a comparison of the cinematic techniques of the First Person and how video games build on these. For a variety of reasons, I personally don’t agree with this argument. Intellectual pissing matches where one person cherry picks convenient quotes and attacks another author rarely produces anything useful, so I’m going to just focus on the parts of Galloway’s book I found persuasive. You can read the book and make up your own mind about the rest of it.

From Final Fantasy X

From Final Fantasy X

That said about his heavy reliance on film theory, Galloway is an interesting critic on video games for that same reason: he doesn’t necessarily organize a game by ludic and narrative components. Instead he relies on a series of arbitrary distinctions between types of events in a game. For example, there are machine actions and operator actions. He writes, “The difference is this: machine actions are acts performed by the software and hardware of the game computer, while operator’s act are performed by players. So, winning Metroid Prime is the operator’s act, but losing it is the machine’s.” (5) He acknowledges himself that the distinction is meaningless in most games, falling into the lava in Super Mario is just as much because of the operator as it is the machine’s depiction of a loss scenario. To Galloway though, this cinematic interlude is, “a type of grotesque fetishization of the game itself as machine. The machine is put at the service of cinema.” (11) These moments are our windows into the world of the game, the point at which we are allowed to look at the machine as a whole rather than just plot or identifying something on the screen. This duality of machine depiction as well as narrative depiction are essential. These machine elements are depicting non-diegetic (outside the film’s world) information. He uses Final Fantasy X as an example, the way that you see all the numbers and stats despite the fact that they are never acknowledged in the plot. A game must continually do this in order to make the player aware of the algorithms that govern its world so they can modify their behavior to become better at play. This is where literary theorists like Derrida become relevant to video game theory, there are multiple layers of what is going on in the game and what is specifically ‘real’.

From http://literature.sdsu.edu

From http://literature.sdsu.edu

I’m probably going to bungle this summary of Derrida’s points, the man’s writing is ‘Go F*** Yourself’ hard to understand, but as Galloway puts it there is no central meaning to a video game. It’s not just the plot and it’s not just the ludic elements, it’s both interacting. Derrida, while discussing literary theory, was making the point that the meaning of words and historical events changes over time and from person to person. Little House on the Prairie read today is fairly racist towards Native Americans but in the past was considered a heart-warming story, to give an example. Derrida uses the word ‘play’ to then describe how the meaning of a text is generated; it doesn’t come from one source but rather is bouncing off the person, history, social stigmas, education, etc. The meaning of a word is constantly being adjusted and played with by a reader. Galloway writes, “So while games have linear narrative that may appear in broad arcs from beginning to end, or may appear in cinematic seques and interludes, they also have nonlinear narratives that must unfold in algorithmic form during gameplay. In this sense, video games deliver to the player the power relationship of informatics media firsthand, choreographed into a multivalent cluster of play activities.” (93) In a video game the process of generating meaning through play is made very literal. There is a game’s narrative meaning and then the player constantly playing with those values through the game design, bouncing around these interests.

From SOCOM

From SOCOM

Galloway goes on to explore the discrepancy between realistic graphics and realistic action in a video game using these ideas. Ordering a pizza in The Sims looks like a cartoon but in terms of action it is more accurate than SOCOM’s storming of an enemy base despite the fact that SOCOM has better graphics. That’s not really how you storm a base but it looks more realistic than The Sims, which features plausible conduct. So the distinction between realism is not really one of visuals, but rather how much you are properly coercing realistic behavior in a player. (73) He writes, “I suggest there must be some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context that transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one’s thumbs, into the game environment and back again. This is what I call the “congruence requirement,” and it is necessary for achieving realism in gaming. Without it there is no true realism.” (78) This is where Galloway draws the distinction between a game depicting a fantasy and one depicting reality, “it boils down to the affect of the gamer and whether the game is a dreamy, fantastical division from that affect, or whether it is a figurative extension of it.” (83) A strong example of this would be Duncan Fyfe’s explanation of why Call of Duty 4 is a fantasy. There are no civilians in the game. There are no complications to any battle except whether or not you’re playing well. Unlike a real war, which requires that you manage all of these complications, the game is just a fantasy war scenario where there are no innocents. It affirms Galloway’s point: the game design is what makes something realistic, not the graphics.

From The Sims

From The Sims

This brings us to Galloway’s ultimate point about how a game communicates a message to the player. Almost every game in existence, whether you’re stabbing dragons or driving cars, presents a depiction of reality. It does this by making its rules transparent in the non-diegetic moments. (93) Rather than the way a film communicates a political message, which is to just have us observe a story and its various characters at work, a game shows us the process and has us go through it ourselves. In this way games often reveal political bias, racism, and other ideologies. Native Americans in Civilization, for example, have a technology handicap that builds on their stereotypes. He adds, “The other great simulation game that has risen above the limitations of the genres is The Sims, but instead of seizing on the totality of informatics control as a theme, this game does the reverse, diving down into the banality of technology, the muted horrors of a life lived as an algorithm.” (103) The game becomes a message about the horrors of suburban life as you engage in meaningless task after meaningless task for a win condition that doesn’t exist. Galloway concludes, “the interpretation of gamic acts is the process of understanding what it means to do something and mean something else. It is a science of the “as if”. The customary definition of allegory as “extended metaphor” should, for games, be changed to “enacted metaphor.”  (118)

The final chapter of the essay explores the opposite approach of delivering a game’s message, rather than focusing on changing the rules you change the visuals. Galloway sees this mostly occurring in the mod and indie scene, something that was just coming into existence when he was writing the book. He notes one quirk about the mod scene, “aesthetic experimentation often trumps interactive gameplay…the three aesthetic realms most often modified in artist game mods are space, visuality, and physics. Modding the flow of gameplay itself is less common.” (118) Galloway cites a few examples like using glitches in the game’s visuals to make you more aware that you’re playing a game or tinkering with the physics so that the visuals become very reflective of your actions. This portion has dated a bit but I think he nails the core force driving the indie scene even today: redefining the concept of play itself for gamers.

by AJ Ramirez

15 Sep 2009

Retrospective accounts of British alternative rock circa 1991-1992 have it that the domestic indie scene was filled with faceless hordes of shoegazers with no ambition until Suede emerged to kick off the Britpop movement. That’s a bit unfair; while there were quite of few interchangeable UK alt-rock bands at the time that couldn’t hold a candle to top-flight contemporaries like the Stone Roses and My Bloody Valentine, they could still crack out the occasional great song.

Adorable’s “Sunshine Smile” is a perfect example. The Coventry, England group was one of the lower-tier acts on Creation Records wiped off the map in the wake of the rise of Britpop. While now forgotten, the band did manage this fantastic 1992 single that steadily rolls out and envelopes the listener over the course of its five-minute length.

Adorable’s debut single starts out simple enough, with a chiming lead riff that is delivered at a leisurely pace. However, after the first verse the song’s unassuming nature gives way to loud, swooping chords and swirling leads. Throughout, vocalist Piotr Fijalkowski sings the song’s sun-kissed lyrics in a relaxed, contented manner that allows the peaks and the valleys of the music to float around him. The apex of “Sunshine Smile” is its outro, where the group increases the tempo and wraps the tail-end of the song in coils of pedal-drenched melody.

At its core, shoegaze was psychedelic rock reconfigured for a new generation. Adorable did its forbearers proud by crafting this kaleidoscopic pop gem full of lovestruck optimism (and the group earns bonus points for throwing in a reference to “How Does It Feel to Feel” by The Creation). For a band characterized as arrogant in its press interviews, Adorable definitely had at least one thing worth boasting about.

by Stuart Henderson

15 Sep 2009

Navigating through a major international film festival is never easy. First of all, it involves a great deal of planning if you intend to see a lot of stuff. The Press and Industry schedule for this year’s fest is a complex grid of competing screening times, multiple locations, and frustratingly few showings of key films. Many of the movies that everyone wants to see are playing only once in theatres not quite big enough for all of us to get in. There are, in fact, two lines for many of the movies: one for the Priority Press (which means, sort of by definition, not me) and one for the Other Press (including a correspondent for the Huffington Post who was decidedly nonplussed about finding herself there, and who made embarrassing noises about it, like, in front of the rest of us, as if she didn’t realize that what she was upset about was that she was being treated just like the rest of us, all of which led to an awesome moment when a youthful festival representative came over to deal with her and admitted that she wasn’t familiar the HuffPo. “Canadians have never heard of the Huffington Post!” the critic responded, indignant and amazed. “No, I have never heard of it.” Yeah!) And so but anyway you have to wait in line a lot, and thus you have to plan to be at screenings long before the scheduled start, which means that you can’t safely bump from one show right into the next. Though I have, so far, been able to get into everything I’ve lined up for, I certainly haven’t been able to see everything I wanted to see. I mean, one of the theatres is a subway ride away from the other two!

There are two basic ways to approach a film festival. On the one hand, you can go to a fest with the intention of seeing every major film that stars lots of famous folks and which will invariably set you up for the big releases for the next few months (which, for reviewers, is good because a head start is nice). On the other hand, you can go to a fest planning to see only little movies which might not find a distributor, and thus may never again play on the big screen, in the hopes of discovering some unwashed gem. This latter option happens to be the “cool” way to go to a fest, since all I have overheard from “cool” looking film people is how they didn’t go to see some Hollywood flick because they can “see that anytime” and instead watched something weird, quirky, and interesting, that hasn’t got a hope in hell of being picked up for distribution. And, while I am drawn to that approach, I am also acutely aware that the former option provides the best possible chance of catching Golden Globe and Oscar stuff before the rest of the world gets in there, which is kind of thrilling. Anyway, there are actually three ways of approaching a film festival, since you can also just plan your days around what stands out when you thumb through the program, and then do the math to make your day work time-wise. This is what I decided to do. I was told by some guy when I said that I sat through Jennifer’s Body instead of seeing a semi-obscure French film (that he adored) that I was going to “regret” this approach. Film people can be very weird.

by Eleanore Catolico

14 Sep 2009

Juliette Lewis is like that woman in the bar who’s gotten into fights (and won) and ain’t no fool to a man’s game. She infuses this feral power into her high octane rock ‘n’ roll, however cheekily hyperbolic it may be. On The Late Late Show, Juliette Lewis talks about her new album Terra Incognita, released this week on The End, and produced by Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez Lopez. The interview’s loud vs. louder tone makes for some comedy, but give credit to Ferguson for being one of the few TV interviewers out there who actually lets their guests speak without being patronized or victim to a barrage of verbal assaults. When Lewis describes herself as “a Little Prince in a Mad Max world”, it is incredibly apropos.

Adopting a tundra of Bat for Lashes-like garb with a hard rock edge, Lewis thrusts into a maelstrom of screechy vixen vocals, menacing guitar riffs, a torrent of drums, and eerie romanticism on Terra Incognita. Distinct from her past work with the Licks, lyrics of brazen debauchery are superseded by Lewis’ outcries of despair and longing. In “Noche Sin Fin”, Lewis’ terror in the night ends with declamations of immortality, “I, I, I, I will never die”, and is one of Terra Incognita‘s stronger tracks. Lewis will go on tour for Terra Incognita in the fall, beginning on September 11th in Toronto. Backed by new band, the New Romantiques, Lewis’ performance of Terra Incognita‘s “Fantasy Bar” maxes out her pixie-bizarre card, prancing around like a rock ‘n’ roll Alkonost in midnight blue:

by Tyler Gould

14 Sep 2009

Mika
The Boy Who Knew Too Much
(Casablanca)
Releasing: 21 September

Once known as We Are Golden, Mika changed the name of his second studio album to satiate his desire for “something a little more ridiculous”. He teams up once again with Life in Cartoon Motion producer Greg Wells, and shares a songwriting credit with Imogen Heap on track 8, “By the Time”.

SONG LIST

Standard Edition
01 We Are Golden
02 Blame It On The Girls
03 Rain
04 Dr. John
05 I See You
06 Blue Eyes
07 Good Gone Girl
08 Touches You
09 By The Time
10 One Foot Boy
11 Toy Boy
12 Pick Up Off The Floor

Deluxe Edition: Disc 2 Mika Live at Sadler’s Wells
01 Grace Kelly
02 Lady Jane
03 Stuck in the Middle
04 Lonely Alcoholic
05 Blue Eyes
06 Toy Boy
07 Billy Brown
08 Good Gone Girl
09 Over My Shoulder
10 Big Girl (You’re Beautiful)
11 Love Today
12 Blame It on the Girls
13 Happy Ending
14 Lollipop
15 My Interpretation
16 Rain
17 Relax, Take It Easy

Mika
Blame It on the Girls [MP3]
     

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