CFP: The Legacy of Radiohead's 'The Bends' 20 Years On [Deadlines: 29 Jan / 12 Feb]

 
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Wednesday, Feb 17, 2010
Video games might be a more inherently democratic medium than many others.

Wallace Stevens’s poem “Study of Two Pears” is, as the title suggests, a description of a painting of two pears.  The poem carefully describes the composition of this painting and the shapes and colors that the painting contains.  It also suggests that the painting is so clearly rendered that the images of the pears can not be interpreted as anything but what they are intended to represent: “The pears are not viols,/Nudes or bottles./They resemble nothing else.”  However, as the first line implies the poem is intended as an “opusculum paedagogum” or a “little bit of instruction”.  Thus, despite its mostly descriptive qualities, interestingly the closing lines of the poem suggest that what this well described still life teaches is how framing an image is authoritarian in nature: “The pears are not seen/As the observer wills” (”Study of Two Pears”, Poetry Foundation), implying that the choice of how a subject is seen is derived from the design of the work’s creator, its author.


This kind of authoritarianism, the ability to control what is seen or how we are to know a subject, though, is implied in some way in the way that we conceive of authorship in the first place.  The word authority is derived from auctoritas, which among other things suggests “influence” and “command,” and from autorite, “a book or quotation that settles an argument” (Douglas Harper, “authority”, Online Etymology Dictionary).  We think of artists, like authors, as those who influence how we see things, and as Stevens implies about visual authorship or artistry, they do when they command what we see through drawing a line.


A similar claim might be made about the author of a novel that chooses the details that we are intended to “see” as they set a scene for us.  The claim may be somewhat more difficult in fiction, though, in which visualizing details might allow for a degree of subjectivity or misinterpretation.  We might imagine how some details might appear if the author has not specified them. However, it is, indeed more difficult to make the claim about the authority of visual arts in that it is very difficult to make your eyes “see” something that isn’t there. 


(Try it – imagine that there is a frog sitting on the edge of your computer screen.  Now, believe it, really believe it.  Tricky, no?).


Nevertheless, Stevens point may still be relevant in general about authorship, since even in written fiction, the author is at least “drawing the eye” to see details that approximate his or her own version of reality.  “Seeing” the New York skyline over the shoulder of Odysseus is imaginatively possible, I guess.  However, when you are reading The Odyssey closely, I would think that you are probably more likely visualizing that Cyclops that Homer told you was there.  Authors, then, at least “frame” the world to some degree, and through observation of what they have chosen for us to see, we (and our imaginative faculties) become subject to their influence.


Interestingly, by their very nature, video games appear to be a more democratic medium than many others.  While similar claims can be made about the “authority” of game designers in generating worlds for the player to view, nevertheless, the kind of authority that the film camera might have in choosing the subject matter for a viewer to focus on for a particular scene or that the literary author might have in setting a scene by telling the reader what details to focus on in it is less present and tyrannical in most games.  While I might be limited to viewing a suburban neighborhood in The Sims, because some of the tools of authority have been loaned out to me, the camera and building and purchasing tools, I can choose how to see the scene and add or subtract elements in the scene in a way that even literary fiction does not provide.  These changes are not merely imaginary, they make me complicit in authorship itself, adding and subtracting from a fictive and viewable reality in a substantial way that is not merely imaginative.  Video games challenge “author”-ity because they don’t force us into the “frame” of the author.


The game is often, at least in part, seen as the observer wills.


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Wednesday, Feb 10, 2010
“I wouldn't say that games are the ideal way to experience literature. I think literature has done that quite well. That being said, games offer the opportunity to ask interesting questions and allow the player to answer them in a way that transcends previous mediums.” -- Jordan Thomas, Creative Director, Bioshock 2

On February 5th, 2010, some of the development team responsible for Bioshock 2 took part in a conference call with the gaming press.  Questions were asked in a moderated forum to a group that included creative director Jordan Thomas, lead designer Zak McClendon, and lead environment artist Hogarth de la Plante.


Most of my own interests in taking part in the forum regarded how the philosophical concerns and ethical choices that made the first Bioshock so compelling might or might not be continued to be explored in the sequel.  Interestingly, while the first game grappled with the notion of how creating a society on the libertarian and individualistic principles of Ayn Rand’s objectivism might look in the aftermath of its dissolution, the second game seems to change direction with an eye to considering utopianism of another sort, that of the utilitarianism of collectivist thinkers like John Stuart Mill.


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Wednesday, Feb 3, 2010
How does effort fit into the romance equation?

It was 1984, and I was one of those kids whose mother worked at my school (she was the school secretary).  What that essentially meant was that I had to be at school earlier than anyone else (other than my fellows in suffering, the teachers’ kids), and I would never be able to see anything but the first 10 minutes of an episode of Inspector Gadget before me and my piece of toast would have to be out in the car and off to school.  Luckily, there was the Apple II and Karateka.  God bless you, Jordan Mechner.


Much like other games of that decade, for me Karateka was largely a study in gaming as trial and error.  Featuring a robust combat system (within the context of the mid-‘80s), Karateka offered the opportunity to step into the shoes of a martial artist with six distinct attacks: low, medium, and high punches and low, medium, and high kicks.  The protagonist of Karateka also had two stances, a combat or defensive stance, which allowed the player to punch and kick along with a highly vulnerable running stance, which allowed the player to stand erect and then advance rapidly within the game world but had the disadvantage of the threat of a one shot death if the character should be hit while running.


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Wednesday, Jan 27, 2010
Playing a video game is fun, watching it, not so much.

Folks have noted that the aesthetics of video games have crept into Hollywood for a number of years.  One of the first times that I can recall someone discussing the idea of video games influencing film was back in 2002 at a media conference.  In a presentation called “Placing the Dominoes: The Issue of Free Will in Run, Lola, Run,” Angela Stephens noted that the titular character in Tom Tykwer’s film essentially “gets three lives” in the film to accomplish her run and that this notion may be derived from the pseudo-immortality of video game character “lives.”


While Stephens wanted to suggest that this notion complicates our own sense of free will because of how such illusions might alter our sense of how much control that we have over our own lives, such complicated readings are probably less common than the simple observation that the visual aesthetics of video games (especially action sequences) have often influenced cinematic visual aesthetics.  For instance, I recall watching Revenge of the Sith and thinking how much the sequence with Obi Wan and Anakin fighting over a lava field on chunks of rock resembled a platformer like Mario.


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Wednesday, Jan 20, 2010
Death and dismemberment is a given in stylish action games of this sort, but the manner in which death and dismemberment occurs is a different matter.

While I focused last week’s blog on the hypersexual and ultraviolent spectacle of Bayonetta (as many game critics seem to be doing, like Chris Dahlen and Leigh Alexander), I wanted to briefly mention a little detail about the game that I admire beyond its audaciousness, something much less spectacular at first glance: the loading screens.


Loading screens are usually viewed as an irritation by most, and most players would like to see them removed or shortened as much as possible (as my colleague, L.B. Jeffries wrote about not too long ago).  While I am no fan of staring at loading screens, I have found that occasionally they serve a useful purpose in my gaming experience.  Sometimes they teach me something.


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