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Wednesday, Dec 24, 2008
A company called Zendesk stumbles into the sublime.

This is the Sam Poh Buddhist Temple, located in Malaysia and dedicated to Zheng He, a Chinese admiral:


...and this is a picture of Zendesk’s “Buddha Machine Wall”, based on FM3’s little plastic box known as (predictably) the Buddha Machine:


The second is said to be inspired by the first, though it’s difficult at a glance to see how.  The Sam Poh Temple is an ornate, reportedly well-kept structure filled with Chinese artwork, Buddhist statues, and myriad flowers of types atypical to that stretch of Malaysia.  The Buddha Machine Wall is a minimalist, almost Warholian webpage consisting entirely of a series of Flash applications.


Zendesk is, apparently, a developer of help desk facilitation software.  Beansbox, which actually created the wall under the direction of Zendesk, is a web solutions company.  Is any of this making sense yet?  The cryptic blog post that Zendesk published announcing the creation of the machine doesn’t really seem to help matters, except perhaps the bit about the “Zen encompass[ing] you”.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe the connection is inner peace and stability, as influenced by outside forces.  Sure, the connection is kind of tenuous—okay, really tenuous—but if there’s a connection to be made, that’s it.


That said, I was rather taken with the Buddha Machine a few years ago, and still bring it to the office on those occasions when i do need some calm, some music designed specifically for the background.  That it never changes or ends unless I ask it to is not only a peaceful feeling, but that the listening experience depends entirely on the listener lends the listener a sense of environmental control.  Not to mention, people love the thing—it’s always a source of questions and conversation when it comes to the office.


Despite the odd motivation (or lack thereof) in putting it together, the Buddha machine Wall is nearly as inspired.  While the novelty of the artifact disappears in a haze of flash applications, the sense of control is heightened; you still get the satisfaction of controlling when it begins or ends, but you also get the even greater satisfaction of “composing” what it is you’re listening to.  Rather than being limited to the nine loops of a single machine, one can instead build a beautiful, layered thing that still sounds like drone.  The minor-key chords of the first go wonderfully with the sparse melody of the fifth, the second tends to overpower things if used more than once, and I still haven’t found a use for the ninth.  Perhaps your experience with it will be totally different.  That’s the beauty.


What’s truly amazing is that after three years, the musical possibilities of a machine that contains less than three minutes of actual unique sound are still being explored in new and fascinating ways.  Unlikely as its source may be, the Buddha Machine Wall is at least worth a visit, and maybe even a bookmark.


LINK: The FM3 Zendesk Buddha Machine Wall


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Tuesday, Dec 23, 2008

L.B. Jeffries’ column is on break until Tuesday, January 6, when PopMatters has resumed its regular publishing schedule.  In the meantime, you can check out more of L.B.‘s work at the Banana Pepper Martinis blog.


Alternately, you can check out the most recent edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast, hosted by fellow PopMatters writer Michael Abbott, on which L.B., Michael and I each talk about one of our favorite games of the year (here’s a teaser: three of the four picks on the segment where L.B. and I appear can currently be bought for 15 dollars or less…and the other one’s an expansion).  Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, scope out the rest of Mr. Abbott’s blog while you’re over there—it’s worth a regular visit and then some.


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Monday, Dec 22, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-12-22...

Know what I’ve been doing this weekend?  Well, while I really wanted to be playing all the latest games and delivering some top-notch journalism action to you, the readers, I was actually shoveling and snowblowing all damn weekend.  As with any major snow event, the coverage on CNN starts with Buffalo, so go ahead, follow the link, and feel sorry for me.


How is this relevant?  Well, as it turns out, shoveling your driveway would be more productive than paying much attention to this week’s release list.  The Wii’s putting out a couple of games on WiiWare, but I’ll be honest, they’re both dwarfed by the release of Phantasy Star IV on the virtual console, one of the better Sega Genesis RPGs out there, but still dwarfed by Phantasy Star II.  Those who picked up Phantasy Star II back when it got “Virtual Consoled” are probably still working on it anyway, so it’s hard to recommend another huge classic RPG download.


I suppose if you’re a new-release junkie and you just have to pick up something new, Mystery P.I. is a decent way to kill some time.  It’s an expansion of an online release which is basically a big Where’s Waldo experience, and the take-home versions for the DS and PC look to be more of the same.  Want to give it a go?  There’s a one-hour demo download of the New York edition of the game, which may well be all of it you need to play.  I had fun for my hour, and I’ll also be OK if I never see it again.


Moving Pixels is going to be quiet for a while after this, so enjoy your holidays, all.  The full release list is…well, it’s right here:


Nintendo DS:


Dreamer: Horse Trainer (23 December)
Dreamer: Puppy Trainer (23 December)
Mystery P.I. - Portrait of a Thief (23 December)



PC:


Mystery P.I. - Portrait of a Thief (23 December)



Wii:


Fun! Fun! Minigolf (22 December, WiiWare)
Phantasy Star IV (22 December, Virtual Console)
Tiki Towers (22 December, WiiWare)


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Thursday, Dec 18, 2008
Konami's late entry into the rhythm wars has the pedigree, but the execution just isn't there.

The current craze of plastic peripheral-based rhythm games clearly started with Guitar Hero, but realistically, Guitar Hero wasn’t the first of its kind.  Konami has been producing music video games for years, through their Bemani division.  Though there were clear arcade roots, many successful ports were made, scaling down full featured, custom arcade setups for home translations of titles. However, very few were ever released in the United States.


It may be that Konami didn’t choose to pursue these properties in the United States because of a perceived lack of interest.  Alternatively, they may have thought the pervasive J-Pop soundtracks integral to the experience, and not transferable to American musical tastes.  In any case, Guitar Hero was not only able to adopt the Bemani formula, but also, by focusing on the American affinity for rock music in particular, was able to successfully make the title interesting to American gamers.  This was particularly notable given its relatively high price point.


Now that Rock Band and Guitar Hero have achieved full-on icon status (with an incredible 8 titles between them in the 3 years since the first Guitar Hero was released), Konami has chosen to try its hand at the same market with Rock Revolution.  Clearly Konami has the pedigree to create enjoyable music games, and Guitar Hero and Rock Band have essentially created a successful template for them.  Yet Rock Revolution is largely a disappointing effort, mainly because it doesn’t follow this template very well, and the specific ways in which the game departs from it serve to be fairly frustrating.


Rock Revolution has a fairly meager song list, and as yet, the available downloadable content does not contain anything on the level offered by Rock Band.  While a drum, bass, and guitar are supported, there is no support for voice, arguably one of the most enjoyable aspects of these games in a party setting.  The now ubiquitous presentation of notes arriving from the horizon has been eschewed in favor of a classic Bemani look, where the notes fall vertically from the top of the screen.  This approach allows for far fewer notes to be on screen at the same time, making difficult sections even more challenging.  One of the things Rock Revolution does right, however, is that it accepts various third party peripherals, making it unnecessary to purchase expensive instruments just for it.  In fact, the only branded Rock Revolution peripheral is a drum set, but critical response to this kit has been overwhelmingly negative.


As of this writing, Rock Revolution is available from a variety of retailers for $19.99, a full $30 off its original MSRP.  Already a budget title to begin with, perhaps this better positions Rock Revolution to essentially function as a song pack for people with existing Guitar Hero or Rock Band peripherals.  In fact, its open acceptance of various peripherals potentially positions it to be just that.  Still, whether players will be willing to sacrifice the overall polish and experience they’ve become accustomed to from the competition for Rock Revolution simply for a few extra cover songs remains to be seen.


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Wednesday, Dec 17, 2008
A few thoughts on Jason Nelson's latest art game.

Whenever someone tells me that video games are superficial or generic it always feels a bit like having someone who only watches MTV tell you that all music is shallow and commercialized. Yes, if you only pay attention to AAA games made by companies who want to appease the largest set of consumers possible, you will probably notice that there is rarely much experimentation or issue pushing. They never totally make you happy nor do they totally piss you off, they just get the job done.


A lot of funny things start to happen to video games once you ditch the desire to make money, make people happy, or care about review scores. You start seeing games that are using the player to protest a trend in games. You start to see games that spoof their history. And sometimes you see a painting of Mega Man made out of a woman’s menstrual fluids. All signs indicate the rabbit hole keeps going after this.


Which is why Jason Nelson’s latest game I Made This. You Play This. We Are Enemies. is a welcome addition to the scene. Mixing a bit of social commentary with basic gameplay and massive amounts of abstraction, the game runs very similar to his last project game, game, game, and again game. As noted in the interview with Nelson that Popmatters did about a year ago, the principle purpose of the game design is to get the player to engage with the art. Not rack up a score, not make you feel pleasure at beating the level, and certainly not at figuring out the solution to Nelson’s nebulous art. There are a couple of basic elements that anyone playing will quickly notice. Your avatar moves in a pattern that is very similar to how your eyes travel when viewing each of the different websites being spoofed. The Yahoo News site moves up and down on platforms like one reads the columns, the Fark website moves in horizontal lines as you traverse down the page. Although being sent back to the level only mildly figured into game, game, etc., here it plays a massive role in communicating how a website sucks you in by constantly dragging you to the start. The mental trap of being stuck in ‘F5’ mode expresses itself throughout the game. Layered throughout all of these levels are Nelson’s signature eccentric videos, scribbles, and cryptic poetry.


I’m as late to the party as ever with this game, if only because watching it make the rounds is almost more interesting than yammering about my own analysis. The principle thing most websites looking at it seemed to struggle with was whether it was gibberish or something really clever that they didn’t quite understand. Which might be one of the most interesting new developments in video games outside the mainstream. While it’s certainly true that player input is what makes these things video games, there is still quite a bit of room to explore in regards to how exactly one should be treating the player. Perhaps the thing that wears people out so much about AAA titles is that they are always treating the player like royalty and rolling everything out in a nice, neat package. One doesn’t have to drag themselves through a film like Vanilla Sky to know that part of how people define their pleasure from an experience is by contrasting it to the things that they didn’t enjoy. In Nelson’s case, chucking the player into the chaotic confusion these websites manifest through an abstract video game interpretation is not really about being clever or using gibberish as an obstacle. It’s just a part of the grander experience of not always understanding what’s going on around you.


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