Games

Hard Boiled Heroism For the Kids: MySims Agents

The game is less interested in presenting a building simulation (as the previous games in the series were) as it is in presenting a world of mystery where persistence, not problem solving, is key to resolving a mystery.


MySims Agents

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Players: 1
Price: $49.99
Platform: Wii
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Release Date: 2009-09-29
URL

There are also a few badly-scared champions of the formal or the classic mystery who think no story is a detective story which does not pose a formal and exact problem and arrange the clues around it with neat labels on them. Such would point out, for example, that in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story) because the reader is kept thinking about something else. Yet in The Glass Key the reader is constantly reminded that the question is who killed Taylor Henry, and exactly the same effect is obtained; an effect of movement, intrigue, cross-purposes and the gradual elucidation of character, which is all the detective story has any right to be about anyway. The rest is spillikins in the parlor.
--Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

In attempting to distinguish the hard boiled detective story from the kind of “parlor” detection of traditional British detective fiction, Raymond Chandler suggested that a distinct difference emerges in the interests of these two subgenres of mystery. The latter “classic” form is concerned with solving a formal problem. Hard boiled or American crime fiction is more concerned with setting a tone and resolving mysteries through movement, intrigue, cross-purposes, and the elucidation of character. What this difference boils down to in practice is that detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot become logicians that draw conclusions based on careful studies of evidence and formal problem solving all while sipping tea in the parlor. Detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade don't so much investigate by reasoning out solutions as much as they get their hands dirty by wading into the muck of the world that a crime takes place in in order to see what might shake out.

The British detective is brilliant, insightful, and driven by logic. The American detective is persistent.

EA's new iteration of the MySims brand distinguishes itself in a number of different ways from its predecessors, MySims Kingdom and MySims Kingdom 2. While the prior two games featured Sims-style gameplay for kids that focused on resource gathering and building to solve puzzles, MySims Agents has taken a decidedly different approach to the Sims formula by focusing on the very things that Chandler describes as being fundamental to American detective fiction, creating relationships with people in order to sort out and allow intrigue to develop and following up on evidence by getting your hands dirty. As a result, solutions tend to make themselves apparent not through careful consideration of clues and piecing together a puzzle but merely by pounding the pavement. Additionally, the game is less interested in presenting a building simulation (as the previous games were) as it is in presenting a world of mystery where persistence, not problem solving, is key to resolving a mystery.

It should be noted that MySims Agents as its title suggests is really not exclusively wed to the detective story as its dominant narrative style. It includes (and satirizes) any number of genres that are related to mystery, including paranormal investigation (think the X-Files, haunted mansion mysteries (think Haunted Honeymoon), and spy fiction (think James Bond. All of these genres are presented in a manner accessible to kids (in the instance of presenting an X-Filesish case to the player, the investigation of the disappearance of a young man results in an absurd and funny encounter with a very friendly Yeti), but nevertheless, the game does play less like traditional mystery games where logic and drawing conclusions becomes the paramount vehicle for play, but instead, these mysteries are investigated merely through the dogged pursuit of leads that point directly at an inevitable solution.

In a sense this makes this game less “educational”, perhaps, than what parents want a kids game to be. However, it also makes the game much more fun by focusing the player not on formal solution but on the elements that make American crime fiction so successful, the story, its events and characters. In that sense, the game is best at creating situations where the mechanisms of storytelling can be appreciated and admired more so than in trying to get kids to perform didactic, logical problem solving.

While many of the mysteries suggest themselves as multifaceted with a variety of potential solutions (the opening case that the protagonist solves has to do with figuring out who a dog belongs to, a little girl or an old man, and either possibility when investigated suggests that either of these individuals could be the true owner), nevertheless, branching lines of inquiry always end up proving that one solution is the correct one (when enough clues are “collected” by tracking down footprints, questioning witnesses, or finding pieces of evidence, the game will prompt the player (by checking off a fixed number of clues necessary to resolve the problem in your detective's notebook) to return to the client that initiated the case to explain its solution. As a result, the player cannot draw unique conclusions. False leads might exist but that means that not enough evidence can be collected to justify these red herrings. The plot cannot advance without the persistence of the player leading inevitably to a correct solution. MySims Agents then suggests that mysteries are not solved by brilliant insight but by having the endurance to follow a problem to its natural solution.

In that sense, the game is very American. Its anti-intellectual tendencies place it firmly in the tradition of a rugged and dogged work ethic that is more meaningful than effete high mindedness and assumption. We like our heroes to be men of action, not men of reflection or meditation.

The purpose of this style of play also manages to lead the player to an experience that is nearly as pleasurable as reading a great example of American crime fiction, enjoying the interesting characters presented and the wildness of the events that they take part in rather than in worrying about whether or not the crime will be solved. After all, we already know that it will if the problem is tackled through a commitment to sweating it out rather than pondering it over.

This principle is also reflected in another new feature of the game, building an agency that can resolve minor cases while the protagonist is occupied in solving the cases that form the main story arc. While these subplots do require a bit of analysis on the part of the player (hiring agents that have different skills and then matching them to cases where those skill sets are required does mean that some basic problem solving skills are necessary, especially since these traits can be modified by supplying those agents with gadgets and gizmos that enhance those traits), nevertheless, like the hard boiled plots that Chandler describes, these subplots are still not determined by reasoning but by designing men and women that are simply “right for the job”. While some logic must be used in matching personalities and skills up to the mission at hand, the advice that these agents request of the protagonist while they are trying to solve a case “off camera” is not really relevant to success. Advising agents to attempt to get a cat out of a tree by climbing it or simply waiting for a ladder to arrive modifies a degree of success in the mission, but it is the “character” of the agents assigned that dominantly alter the probability of their success. Reasoning is not sufficient to solving these cases, force of character is.

MySims Agents is a rather wonderful anesthetic for encouraging hard work and effort for kids. The laughs that it generates and kooky characters that it presents are a fun way of prodding kids into embracing sticktuitiveness as an ethic of value and a developer of character. As Chandler suggests, elucidating character is really the only subject matter appropriate for detective fiction. All of this business about solving formal problems is just spillikins in the parlor. That is just a game; this is dirty work made decent and desirable. This is hard boiled.

7
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image