Games

Fairness Is Overrated

No one really wants to play a fair game. Video games are unfair, but in our favor, which is what makes them fun, right?

No one really wants a fair game. For the most part, we want a game that skews to our advantage so we can finish it and move on to the next game. It’s unfair, but it’s unfair in our favor, which makes it fun. Generally, when a game is unfair to our disadvantage we call this out as a negative, something to be rectified with a patch or update. However, after having recently played Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation, I’ve come to appreciate how unfair those games can be. They prove that balance and fairness are overrated because the most exciting moments in these games stem from the systems that are stacked against us.

In Shadow of Mordor there are times when you’ll get into a fight that you simply cannot win. This is especially true in the early game, when we’re missing many of our more powerful abilities. There is the inevitable moment when things spiral out of your control, and your hunt for a single weak captain turns into a fight against five strong captains and the horde of orcs that they'll be bringing with them.

No fight starts off this way. No fight begins beyond our control. Rather, every kill, no matter how lowly or lonely our victim may be, has the potential to escalate a situation to the point of inevitable disaster, and those larger conflicts are disasters, make no mistake. We are outgunned and out maneuvered, with no time to attack between dodging the spears and arrows and swords and explosives hurled at us. It is all we can to just to survive, but we can only do that for so long. It’s a chaotic and confusing battle, with so much stacked against us that it feels legitimately unfair, but that’s what makes it exciting: That escalation of scope, that slow unraveling of our perfect plan. This is a game that forces us to participate in a train wreck of a fight that we can’t escape from.

What’s exciting about Shadow of Mordor is that for once in a big-budget game, we’re a genuine underdog and our survival is not guaranteed with a magical “Continue from checkpoint.” Well, okay, it kind of is, since we do just come back to life after defeat. However, my larger point is that we’re allowed to die and fail and that there are actual repercussions for that failure to give it meaning. Time doesn’t reset when we respawn, it continues forward to our disadvantage.

This imbalance is a good thing. People like it when the odds are against them. It’s a testament to our love of imbalance that people are actively trying to make Shadow of Mordor harder, that they’re disappointed by our ascent into orc-killing-machine, and that they would prefer to keep themselves the underdog for as long as possible.

Similarly, I find it odd that one of the major criticisms of Alien: Isolation is that the alien seems at times to be unfairly prescient, that it seems to know where you are even as you hide silently. Horror, of all genres, should be unfair. Fairness and balance implies a predictable system, and anything that's predictable isn't frightening.

Isolation actually reminds me a lot of Homesick, a game I highlighted a year ago during Indie Horror Month. In Homesick, we're stalked by a crazed killer in a dark house. We have to find several keys in order to escape, but their locations are randomized, so we open every drawer, closet, cupboard, or desk that we find, knowing that at any moment that the killer could appear. The catch to Homesick that differentiates it from similar games like Slender is that Homesick is happy to screw you over. Slender has rules about sprinting and light-use and can be gamed to give you an advantage in fleeing when Slenderman inevitably appears. In Homesick, we have no such advantage. All you have is luck, and as such, it's a game that reveals just how much divine/authorial intervention is required for any protagonist to survive a horror story.

Alien: Isolation is a big-budget game with that same indie ethos. The developers refuse to intervene and assist with your survival. It's just you against a far more powerful foe, and as such, it's natural that we die more often than we live.

Isolation is an honest take on what an Alien encounter would be like. In the movie, Ripley only lived because the story demanded it. We players don't have that narrative protection and that exposes us to the sad, horrifying truth of our situation -- a truth that most modern games would rather ignore in favor of accessibility and fun -- the truth that we are oh so fucked and that there's nothing we can do about it. Isolation embraces that truth and makes it a cornerstone of gameplay, which certainly makes the game less fun, but it also makes the game more frightening.

Fairness only really matters in competitive games, when we're meant to match our skills against other players in some virtual arena, though even then there's been a slow rise of multiplayer games in which one player is given a hefty advantage, and it's up to several other weaker players to take that player down (see: Evolve). In a single-player narrative context, the idea of fairness is meaningless because the mechanics of such a game should reflect on the story. They shouldn't be a closed ecosystem unto themselves.

Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation both eschew "fair" systems in favor of systems that make for a more memorable experience.

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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