Games

Through the Looking Glass: Games and Curiosity

Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark Zero (Microsoft Game Studios, 2005)

Games are driven by a curiosity over what’s in the next level, what’s in the next chest, or who the next boss will be.

One of the strengths of “low-art” popular fiction like the comic book, the summer blockbuster, and the video game is how openly they explore themes on a surface level. Mike Joffe discusses this in a recent series on comic book characters:

I find super hero stories interesting because, at their core, they are about exploring real emotions and personalities through completely fantastical, often nonsensical, experiences and events... These concepts are all explored through metaphors that, when looked at in isolation, are some of the most ridiculous ideas imaginable (a boy tries to establish himself as a man by hiding his face behind a wrestling costume and fighting science goblins), and yet somehow that very ridiculousness allows the character and psychological studies to become heightened. ("Comic Characters – Cyclops", Video Games of the Oppressed, 3 May 2014)

I think the same can be said about video games. I’m not bold enough to suggest that games aren’t capable of subtlety, but their subtleties don’t resemble the kinds valued in other media. Vocabulary and wordplay, perspective, and melody and tempo are pretty much directly transferable from their native artforms, but “gamey” nuance comes in exploration.

As integral as story (Nick Dinicola, "A Little Bit of Story Goes a Long Way", PopMatters, 2 May 2014) or camera work (Eric Swain, "Cinematic Framing in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons", PopMatters, 5 November 2013.) can be to a game, games are at their best when they are used to create context for navigating space. This is especially illustrated in Zolani Stewart’s exceptionally thorough "Let’s Critique" of Perfect Dark, in which he analyzes the unusual patterns and structure of Perfect Dark's level design. Much of Perfect Dark is set in casual locales like homes, airplanes and streets, but levels are filled with awkward, dead “useless” space and arranged in angular corridors. The added space gives a larger sense of scope, as if the level is more a home to be lived in than a level to be walked through. Meanwhile the bizarre angles give a sense of otherworldliness, which matches the campy, late '70s James Bond tone of the game.

The key here is that the player is compelled to wander and observe. Similarly, the best moments of Deus Ex are those that most resemble Gone Home. Sleuthing through offices, scanning personal emails, eavesdropping on conversations and combing the streets for the next clue feel like participating in a world. Gun fighting is exciting, but it’s alienating because it punishes observation or movement that deviates from the objective. Both the first Deus Ex as well as Invisible War and Human Revolution are strongest when they permit -- or insist -- that players stop and stare at the world around them. It's difficult to stop and enjoy a moment when a kill squad is emptying anti-aircraft rounds into your cool black trenchcoat (Mark Filipowich "Too Much Play to Pause", PopMatters, 7 March 2012.). Alternately, Metroid Prime’s opening level provides almost zero exposition or instruction. Instead, the game immediately hurls the player into the experience so that that player can gradually discover that experience themselves (Steven O'Dell, "Metroid Marathon: Metroid Prime’s Magic Moments", Raptured Reality, 21 August 2011).

I bring this up because games can be especially meaningful in the flow of information trickling in, in how clues connect to build a deeper, wider world (Stephen Beirne, "Exploring A Dark Room", Normally Rascal, 11 March 2014). Christine Love’s visual novels Analogue: A Hate Story and its prequel, Hate Plus, while evincing all the qualities one would want from a novel, only really work as games because they are driven by exploration. The separate plot threads form a coherent narrative once the player does the work of connecting them together. Seemingly disparate strangers are seen to have profound unseen influence over one another as the player slowly discovers more of the game.

All of these games progress linearly and most of choices don’t change anything, but the moment-to-moment progression in each of them is driven by the player’s discovery. Even objects can be imbued with content to be discovered by a curious player (Oscar Strik "An Ode to Objects", The Ontological Geek, 8 May 2014). Like comics, many games portray fantastical, even absurd worlds and over-the-top caricatures. Their silliness is a strength, though, when guided by a curious player quietly drinking in the spectacle.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in what a game should be or what it should look like, and nothing would do games more harm than coming up with a solid template. But all the swords and sorcery, spaceships, and power fantasies that modern mainstream games create are only a response to curiosity. Games are driven by a curiosity over what’s in the next level, what’s in the next chest, or who the next boss will be. It means so much more when games pique that curiosity instead of stringing players along a series of next big things.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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".

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