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by Rob Horning

10 Feb 2009

Rob Walker’s latest Consumed column in the Sunday NYT magazine looks at criminally overpriced chocolate as a vehicle for “compensatory consumption.” Professors at Northwestern University found in a study that “subjects who had put themselves in a powerless frame of mind were willing to pay measurably more than the other group for high-status items” and that “individuals who felt less powerful showed a preference for clothing with larger and more conspicuous luxury logos.” In other words, our status anxiety may register to us as a lack of autonomy, as powerlessness, and we may compensate by exercising the sort of autonomy with which we are all familiar—making a wasteful shopping choice to prove that we can. Hence, spending $8 on a chocolate bar.

If this phenomenon of “compensatory consumption” holds, there would be seem to be incentive for marketers to make us perpetually anxious about our status, in good times and bad, and to make sure that status remains a meaningful social category with as much salience as possible. This implies that there can be no end to the social barriers derived from class as long as there is a robust advertising industry. That industry, of course, is not so robust currently; unfortunately, its services in making us anxious about our future are not especially necessary right now.

Could the chocolate taste so good that it would be worth that much? That question is irrelevant, as it is for wine as well. The causality must be reversed; it tastes better because we spent the extra money on it, because we are eating our own sense of power.

Because I live in a neighborhood where cheap imported chocolates from Eastern Europe are readily available, I have a different relationship with chocolate. I get to enjoy not the ersatz thrill of pseudo-luxury spending but the ersatz cosmopolitanism of consuming unusual imported goods. Apologists for consumerism tend to celebrate this sort of access to goods as a kind of “power,” but really the variety of goods is not improving my life so much as it is further articulating the status hierarchy. In this case, the status boost I get comes not from my sense of extravagant spending on an overpriced chocolate with a fancy brand name but from a different sort of privilege: the undeserved sense of superiority that comes from living in the sort of neighborhood where I can find Bulgarian and Croatian candy bars that other Americans can’t get so casually. Nevertheless, I can’t give you an honest appraisal of whether this chocolate tastes better or worse than Hershey’s for the same reasons mentioned above. On the level of relative obscurity, they rate highly. What I worry about is the way the status value masks the flavor; it becomes hard for me to tell the relative “objective” worth of things in the ordinary course of life. I would have to go through life blindfolded to really taste anything as it is.

by Mike Deane

10 Feb 2009

I always felt like this should’ve been the first single off of 2008’s You & Me. Even though it lacks the awesome organ swells of “In The New Year”, the percussion is infectious and the misleading chord progression always satisfies.  The video is pretty good—the still-motion stuff is interesting but there are so many beautiful scenes and scenery in the video that, at times, I want everything captured smoothly.  Overall, it looks really nice, and there’s something refreshingly ego-less about a band who doesn’t appear in their own video. (video via Pitchfork TV)

4/19: Agannis Arena, Boston, MA
4/20: La Sala Rossa, Montreal (Solo Headline)
4/21: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON
4/22: Palumbo, Pittsburgh, PA
4/24: Patriot Center, Fairfax, VA
4/25: Spectrum, Philadelphia
4/27: Constant Convocation Center, Norfolk, Va
4/28: Koka Booth Ampitheatre, Raleigh, NC
4/30: Bojangles Coliseum, Charlotte, NC
5/04: St Augustine Ampitheater, St, Augustine, FL
5/05: UCF Arena, Orlando, FL
5/07: Bank United Center, Miami, FL
5/08: Sundome, Tampa, FL
5/10: North Charleston Coliseum, Charleston, SC
5/12: National City Pavillion, Cincinnati, OH
5/13: Tower City, Cleveland, OH
5/19: Mesa Ampitheatre, Phoenix, AZ
5/21: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, CA

by Matt White

10 Feb 2009

Pet Shop Boys fans finally get a taste of the duo’s forthcoming album Yes and they should be pleased. It’s cold, catchy, synth-pop and it’s what the Boys do best. Produced by UK production team Xenomania and featuring a guest spot from Johnny Marr, Yes is out March 23rd. The “Love etc.” single is out March 16th.

by L.B. Jeffries

10 Feb 2009

One of the curious byproducts of video game narratives is that the person you are investing your time and energy into must inadvertently always remain relevant to the plot. The dilemma that comes up is that you are now having a character who can blast their way through dozens of foes and has saved the world several times over. Assuming it’s monsters all the way down for the game, you can either adjust their backstory to explain why they are the ultimate badass, have everyone remain bizarrely oblivious, or break up the narrative into playing as multiple characters. The problem with the first option is that it ceases to make sense for the player to ever lose if they are indeed this badass, the second is just painful, and the third means crafting a game design that doesn’t suffer when different characters are played. What makes Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem interesting is that it takes the third option and runs with it. You play a wide range of sometimes strong and sometimes weak characters. What links them together is a common goal spanning several centuries to try and prevent an ancient God from taking over our world. Incorporating the idea of building a legacy instead of one individual is what makes Eternal Darkness stand out even today.


The game opens with your Uncle extolling the impenetrable mystery of life and how we are often too little aware of the consequences of our own actions. Roivas explains that our perceptions do not change reality, but rather color them. To commiserate this sentiment the game uses a similar tactic to Silent Hill 2 by dropping us into a combat situation before it explains any controls. Alex is locked in her room, surrounded by undead, and trying to figure out how to use the shotgun in her hand. The outcome is pre-defined, but because the controls require you to hold R1 before you shoot you can’t just button mash your way out of it. This turns out to be a nightmare but the introduction’s horror of the unknown has been established using the game design. Alex Roivas, who could be considered the game’s overall protagonist, awakens from this nightmare to discover that her Uncle has been murdered. The police don’t understand what happened to him and the detective bumbles his way around talking to us. Making the conversation more poignant are his half-hearted attempts to hit on you, emphasizing the insecurity the player feels after the game’s nightmarish start and Alex’s own vulnerability. Control is finally handed over to the player and we are given free reign over the bottom floor of the mansion. Outside it is eternally sunset, a thematic nod to the game’s setting of an approaching darkness that will corrupt the world.


A few simple puzzles later and the game’s basic structure is underway. Your character discovers the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Each time they read it or find a page, a brief level is unlocked where you become a different character. Starting all the way at the beginning of the mystery, you slowly uncover the full story of how the Roivas family got caught up in a god’s attempt to return to the corporeal realm. The abilities won and even mental trauma accrued in each level will build back onto both Alex and subsequent users of the tome. In this way the book itself acts as the accumulated power and experience of the player rather than any individual character. You’re not upgrading a person, you’re building a legacy through the book. Each character in a mission is summoned to the book and must act out their part in its history. Complimenting the themes of horror and struggle is a combat system that never quite grants the player an enormous edge. In terms of fighting, each character is going to pick up a different weapon, have a different level of health & magic, and have a different kind of combat scenario to face. There is no stockpiling ammo or saving the best weapon, your circumstances are always changing from level to level. It is the accumulated knowledge of the book that the player is building, not any one particular hero.


The opening chapter begins with how the entire problem got started: a lone Roman Centurion whose blind loyalty to one Emperor ends with his enslavement to a new, bigger one. Pious is willing to exchange freedom for power, humanity for knowledge, and feels no doubts about this conduct. He is the only character you play who does not experience sanity loss at the monsters, reflecting his own indefatigable faith in himself and his actions. After his body is changed and he becomes the servant of one of three Gods, he is shown still loyally wearing his centurion armor. He will wear it all the way to the end of the game. Elia, the second character, is shown reading a book full of fanciful myths that echoes Alex’s own position as reading a book about fantastic events. She is equally burdened by a God and loses her life as a consequence. A messenger trying to foil a plot to kill Emperor Charlemagne, a Persian treasure hunter, and your own ancestors make up just a few of the characters you’ll play as. What binds these characters is not their inevitable discovery of a conspiracy we are watching manifest from afar, but the realization that their individual contribution is not enough to defeat the darkness. Elia is murdered and forced to spend centuries as a lost spirit, only to be found years later by another adventurer. Bianchi the architect is dumped into the Hellish tower of tormented souls he helped to build. It is not until the Iraq War that a firefighter stumbles upon the tower and recovers the essence of a God that Bianchi found. Paul Luther, a Franciscan monk, discovers Pious’s machinations only to be killed by the hideous beast he is concealing. 431 years later a reporter during World War I discovers the same conspiracy but is able to stop the monster. Your ancestor Maximillian discovers a huge underground city underneath his mansion, but he is locked in the mad house when he tries to warn others. Your grandfather came close to sealing the city underground forever, but not close enough. The fragility of the player, the people involved in this vast mystery, and the constant struggle to make any positive progress creates a genuine sense of uncertainty. You never know what’s going to happen to each of the characters you play as. In this way the mystery is slowly unraveled in reverse for Alex, a nod to the Roivas name itself which is savior spelled backwards.


Helping to generate a sense of continuity between all these characters is a consistent theme of place. Although you might play as twelve different people, you will be consistently exploring four different environments. A Sumerian temple in Iraq, another temple in Cambodia, a large Cathedral in France, and the Roivas Mansion in Rhode Island. Each one is depicted during different periods of history that allow for just enough changes to make them interesting to visit repeatedly yet are familiar enough that the player is able to feel competent revisting them. Since there is no sense of progression by developing an individual character, Eternal Darkness creates one by allowing the player to develop the same familiarity the tome is providing to people within the narrative. They are relying on the knowledge they developed playing as other characters just as within the narrative characters are relying on what they have read in the book. The repetition of levels also allows the developers to make these spaces believable. The Roivas mansion is not some Resident Evil style palace with more rooms than Xanadu, it is a fairly large country manor with rooms and locations that seem plausible (until you head underground). The cathedral and temples follow similar suit; they’re large and have their trap rooms but they are just small enough that they don’t become ridiculous. The video game crutch of larger than life levels with incredibly ridiculous traps is no longer necessary thanks to the game’s setup, it instead relies on switching locations and time periods to facilitate a sense of progress. Paintings of each location are placed around the mansion, along with various artifacts and puzzles that were solved back while playing as another character. Having identifiable details to each area is fleshed out by placing those details in other locations and having them serve as reminders to the player.


What really makes this game stand out though are just the little touches. The torches will randomly pop, continually making the player jump out of their seat. The connection with real world events makes the game’s plot become more grounded than the average fantasy. The ominous whispering in the background, the incessant banging on doors, and the book itself make up the true scares of this game. Every character who uses the book must walk through a long hallway. Along each side is a person who has sacrificed their lives in its service. Along the walls and floor are their screaming faces, the pain and suffering the book causes for all who wield it. The common link between all of these people is not their abilities or their accomplishments, it is their mutual suffering for a greater task. This theme of building a legacy, of a dozen people contributing to a battle with a growing darkness, culminates in the Mansion. Depending on the player’s actions, the best sword in the game along with the artifacts she needs will be delivered by the last character in the book, who received it because of the actions of the others as well. In the final boss fight Alex uses the book to summon each person and have them attack Pious while he defends the summoning ritual. That the game design communicates this final battle as a legacy’s culmination, instead of an individual accomplishment, is what makes Eternal Darkness such an interesting take on survival horror.

by Bill Gibron

9 Feb 2009

A watch works on balance. It’s a combination of mechanical function and a jeweler’s sophistication. Old world craftsmen strove to create art within the springs and gears of a gentleman’s timepiece, forging a lasting symbol to that most immortal of elements - the passage of eternity. Take one apart, and the various components confuse as to their import and purpose. Yet when moving together in synchronized control, tension and fluidity forced to perfectly coexist, the universe is kept in check. Alan Moore’s amazing Watchmen graphic novel is a lot like the noble chronometer. In the book, the title refers to a band of rogue vigilantes, the masked avengers inspired by comics to become the guardians of justice and the scapegoats for a society gone mad. But as a work of literary triumph, it’s a series of seminal sections that, when combined, create one Hell of a majestic whole.

The story is told in twelve chapters, each section involving many layers, asides, subplots, suppositions, and conflicting character beats. The main thread sees famed hero The Comedian killed, and a former fellow crime fighter, Rorschach investigating. He believes that the current cultural climate suggests a possible plot against all masked heroes. He fears for the safety of such unusual champions as The Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Silk Specter, and the only one of them with true super powers, Dr. Manhattan. After looking to a past nemesis for answers, Rorschach is framed for murder and arrested. Then the all blue doctor decides to leave Earth to its own devices and takes up residence on Mars. Nite Owl and Silk Specter hope to free Rorschach, and with his help, discover the truth about the Comedian’s death, who was responsible, and what it might have to do with the possible end of the world.

Alan Moore has a right to be pissed, especially when it comes to the big screen interpretations of his pen and ink masterworks. He has seen such stellar titles as From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta turned into less than successful dilutions of his ideas. While often matching the visual panache of the artists Moore pairs with, these films find little of the prosaic magic the man offers with his words - and Watchmen appears to be no different, at least from this prerelease arms length appraisal. As a book, it’s a beautiful puzzle, a complicated set of strategies and storytelling devices driven into each other with skill, intelligence, and a sheer force of personal resolve. How Zach Synder will recreate that element in his otherwise faithful version of the tome will be telling indeed.

But there’s more to Moore than simple words. Watchmen is a work of definite ideas, of contrasting geek nation knowledge superimposed over the old Joseph Campbell concept of heroes. Moore makes it very clear, right from the beginning, that we are dealing with a world so paranoid, so bereft of options either diplomatic or rational, that a glowing blue man with unlimited control over matter gives the US the perfect “God and Country” power trip conceit. It’s like reliving the Cold War except that America has aliens as well as nukes. Similarly, the internal fabric is shredding since masked vigilantes are no longer allowed to prowl the streets (by government edict). Moore stresses the differences between the two, using the frailty of humans as the underlying message about the state of the planet and the ineffectualness of individuals like the heroes.

For support, Moore tosses in parts of a proposed autobiography, an incomplete edition of the Right Wing rag The New Frontiersman, a few clippings about the character’s past, and most intriguing, a Tales from the Crypt style funny book featuring a sensationally sick story about a sailor, a shipwreck, and a rescue raft made out of dead, bloated corpses. Of all the material utilized by Moore, this is the most unusual and confusing. We initially see the storyline as a comment on the desperation of man. But as the narrative takes nastier and nastier turns, some of Moore’s message gets lost. In the end, he seems to be suggesting that, no matter how hard it tries, humanity is destined to destroy himself by his own insane hand.

In fact, much of Watchmen is a cleverly disguised anti-nuclear arms race rant. The Nixonian US with its McCarthy-esque ideals, the ineffectual Europeans with their roll over and hide mentality, a still vital Soviet Union relying on Communism as the “great alternative”, and existing within them all, a group of people who used to run around in handmade uniforms, their desire to protect the people perverted by a newfound love of power, popularity, and publicity. Only Dr. Manhattan seems centered and stalwart - and he’s a human A-bomb waiting to go off. Within Moore’s multilayered argument, we see that the pursuit of goals doesn’t necessarily lead to the achievement of same, while showboating strength (and preserving those who can back it up) turns into something very sinister.

But Watchmen is also about characters, about unique individuals with everyday problems that seem to pale in comparison to their alter egos’ grand designs. Moore sets the stage for films like The Dark Knight here, digging deep into the psychology of someone who used to save lives as a career. Most intriguing is Nite Owl (otherwise known as Daniel Drieberg). A fan of ornithology, he becomes the winged crusader when the original hero retires. He still longs for the days of flying in his Owl Ship and acting as the face of justice. Of course, now such actions are illegal, and without them, Dan is lost. He even takes up with Silk Specter partially out of attraction and partially out of a need to reconnect with his crusader past.

All of the ex-heroes here have issues. Rorschach is horrifically antisocial. The Comedian appears to be a wet dream for anyone in love with jingoistic patriotism and Soldier of Fortune magazine. Even the ethereal Dr. Manhattan can’t avoid the sting of losing the one he loves - even if he can foresee the break-up happening before it actually does. Such striking contrasts and intricate narrative devices make Watchmen a magically read (even for those of us not used to having illustrations along with our text). It also makes it a potential problem come movie sign.

Synder and company must find a way to keep the story shuttling along while bringing the depth and diversity that Moore managed on the page. If they can do it, then Watchmen will be more than just a great graphic novel. It will be that celluloid rarity - an adaptation that does the source material proud. If it fails to fulfill its promise, it will be yet another reason why Moore hates film. It’s all a matter of meticulous management and clever creativity. Like the balance of a great timepiece. Like the work of Alan Moore.

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