Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Thursday, May 27, 2010
Drawing back from my own empathy for Wake, I think that most reviewers agree that, jerk or not, Alan Wake redeems himself by the end of the story.

I really loved Alan Wake. I mean both the game and the character of the same name. My Moving Pixels comrade, G. Christopher Williams, was a little harder on the game than I would’ve been, but the differences between us come down to taste and not any disagreement about what the game does well and what it doesn’t. When we discussed Alan Wake on the upcoming episode of the Moving Pixels Podcast (which you can catch on Monday), I was surprised to hear Chris, Tom, and Nick all basically agree that in the beginning of the game they thought Wake was kind of a jerk. I didn’t think he was a jerk at all. Indeed, I entirely empathized with him from the beginning.


Which is not to say that Wake doesn’t have his problems or that he doesn’t do some jerky things. But one of the game’s many virtues is that we get deep inside Alan Wake’s head, mostly filtered through the narration of the novel that we’re living with him. Alan’s a successful, super-famous novelist who’s suffering severe writer’s block and hasn’t written a word in two years. That’s some serious stress, and he’s maybe not handling it as well as he could, but he’s not terrible either. Late in the game we witness a scene in which he stays out all night and comes home drunk, but his wife is both angry and understanding. The two of them clearly have a decent, working relationship and genuinely care for one another.


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Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Much like telling an erotic story within a Victorian backdrop seems ever so sexy, human depravity juxtaposed against a seemingly golden age of good, moral values is darkly comic and that much more disturbing.

In the future, the ‘60s never happened. Or at least, that’s what we are led to believe in the alternate history of Bethesda’s Fallout 3. While set in a post-apocalyptic America in the 23rd century following the events of a devastating war in the 21st century, curiously most of the post-war artifacts of Fallout 3 look and sound an awful lot like the artifacts of a post-World War II America, as if American culture somehow became frozen in time around 1959 and maintained a seemingly cheery and idyllic image of the ‘40s and ‘50s up until that great disaster.


Of course, this notion of creating a static image of post-World War II America is not exclusive to the Fallout universe. The underwater city of Rapture in 2K’s Bioshock literally finds its progress halted on New Year’s Eve 1959, and the similar images of a ruined society juxtaposed against the relics of a culture of the ‘40s and ‘50s also make up the bulk of 2K’s game.


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Tuesday, May 25, 2010
One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby.

One of the interesting points that Scott McCloud raises in his seminal text Understanding Comics is on the nature of abstraction and how people psychologically project onto graphic images. The simpler and less detailed the image, the more a person fills in the gaps themselves and can relate to the character. In video games, those gaps aren’t just visual, it can be something like the avatar never talking or never letting the player see their face. (L.B. Jeffries, “Applying Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’”, PopMatters, 1 Sept. 2009) Spotting features like that raise the question of what makes a good, psychologically pliant video game avatar. One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby. A fantastic balance of empowering game design and art, Kirby embodies all of the elements that make for a game avatar which can easily fit into any person’s psyche.


From a visual perspective, Kirby is a McCloud abstraction. As the original NES game explains in the opening section: to depict Kirby you just draw a circle, some nubs for arms, shoes for feet, and then add a face. You can project anything you want into that because the face could be anybody’s. It’s interesting that the original game and several others have stressed and even encouraged people to draw Kirby. It taps into other aspects of people’s imagination because they can recreate Kirby however they like outside of the game. A quick doodle of Kirby looks just as much like the little pink ball as an expert rendition, there is no skill barrier to drawing him. Contrast that to something like Mario or Link, which people still love to draw, but can potentially be disappointed when their work doesn’t look like the original. Being able to draw Kirby easily removes a barrier to the avatar so that people can feel a greater sense of authority and control over it. I don’t mean to imply that every video game avatar ought to be easy to draw, just that it’s a potent feature in Kirby’s appeal.


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Monday, May 24, 2010
Assassin's Creed realizes brutal historical realities within the boundaries of simulated spaces.

The worlds of the Assassin’s Creed series are layered ones. Simulations of historical times and places are nested within a near future world of corporate intrigue and a broader vision of history defined by an ages old battle between templars and assassins.


Our podcast contributors spent this week unravelling these worlds within worlds as well as exploring their interelatedness. Join the Moving Pixels podcast for a discussion of simulations within simulations, historical recreations, and the presentation of worlds both familiar, mysterious, and most often brutally realized.


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Friday, May 21, 2010
Choice is meaningless unless we’re weak enough to be affected by it.

Choice is clichéd. We’ve been presented with so many different kinds choices so many times that the average gamer can look past the immediate conflict, whatever it may be, and see the machinations going on behind the scenes. From what suit we wear, to the survival of townships, to the outcome of wars, our choices change the world. All that power seems necessary. If the world doesn’t change, then our choices are meaningless, but that power also dilutes the consequences because nothing ever (or rarely) happens to us, the player. It’s the world that changes, and we feel the consequences indirectly.


In Fallout 3 we can save or destroy Megaton, and no matter what we do, we come out the other side pretty much unchanged; it’s everyone else whose life is at stake. Even in Mass Effect 2, in which our choices from the first game carry over into the sequel, only those directly involved with the original choice cause us to face any kind of consequence in the future. There’s a very linear progression of consequences. Nothing ever spirals out of our control.


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