Thursday, June 18, 2015
My Splatoon review is up at Slant. Tl;dr: It's really cool, and totally original, but we'll see if it's sustainable. I did have a couple of save-it-for-the-blog thoughts, though, so… Here's the blog!
The lack of voice chat is a real shame, not just because chatting is fun, but because it really pushes against the game's best qualities. A game this unusual demands new strategies, and without voice chat, it's almost impossible to try new things. So games too often descend into either standard online dynamics or a bunch of colorful monads, which is both less enjoyable and less interesting than the bizarre plans people might concoct to master this very odd game.
But it's worth noting how very Nintendo the online experience is. You don't talk to the people you're playing with; your main interaction is in the pre-game lobby, where you can see other people's characters decked out in unique costume items and displaying Miiverse drawings. The only bonding experience is that everyone who plays must watch the day's unskippable video broadcast, which lays out what today's maps will be. Nintendo has always been mistrustful of the internet, but it's really something to make a 2015 game that's visibly nostalgic for broadcast media!
The general good cheer of the Miiverse means it's friendlier than most online games, but it's also asynchronous, so instead of getting to know people, you see what they're wearing and try to get that style for yourself; there's even a sketchy back-alley character who makes knock-offs of clothing designs you just have to possess. This is the first Nintendo-made game to have such an interest in clothes that they release official– and pretty good-looking!– fashion shots.
This is a very different mood from other major Nintendo games. While franchises like Legend of Zelda and Mario World are suffused with nostalgia for a rural idyll, Splatoon is gleefully urban in its emphasis on fashion, speed, and the anonymity of a crowd. But it's very Nintendo in its commitment to recreating a specifically Japanese experience. Most games follow the American model for online interaction, where the virtual game space is like a midwestern mall: cliques of young people talking shit and getting into fights, while respectable citizens try to enjoy the entertainment. Splatoon's world is more like an online Harajuku, where anonymous individuals pose for each other but you're all basically alone.
Monday, January 26, 2015
The graininess of Inherent Vice makes every frame backwards-looking; the story's nostalgia for 60's dreams mirrored in director P.T. Anderson's nostalgia for 70's filmmaking, and for celluloid itself. But it's also well-suited to the movie's own story and themes. After all, film gets grainy when you're losing light.
Inherent Vice is a movie about left-behind people. They're scuttling around the fraying edges of the counterculture, trying to stay warm by the dying embers of their past, trying not to notice the shadow of money and power as it slowly covers their entire life. Doc Sportello's stoner paranoia is a funny, sad attempt to imagine there's more to the story than the oldest story in the world: greedy assholes taking everything that was free and selling it.
** ALL KINDS OF SPOILERS BELOW **
The plot kicks in from the first scene, when a Doc's lost love Shasta Hepworth shows up with a story about her married boyfriend whose wife is plotting to get him institutionalized so she can take his money. When Doc first sees Shasta, he comments on how she's done herself up all respectable-like, not knowing just how sucked into the system she is; the plan is for a legal kidnapping, the square's version of a heist. The wife isn't mad about his habit of boinking hippie girls, which is just standard bourgeois infidelity. But she's determined to stop his hippie-influenced plan to give up building expensive condos and start building free housing. We can only imagine the delight she takes in making a flower child's honeypot part of her reactionary scheme.
One of the major themes of the movie is a world where all the things once free are being packaged for sale. And the commodification of free love is a big part of that. The scenes of a wanna-be-hip dentist swapping easy sex for good coke may play as a laugh riot, but it's a lot sadder when you consider that these snow bunny deals are being made in an office complex built on top of the vacant lot where Shasta and Doc were once drugless, in love, and free. Making it all the more pointed that Doc is distracted by coke and ass as anyone. As in Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, joy and freedom can only happen in the empty places where money has not yet begun to scheme, and as soon as anyone with power notices, they'll be plowed right under so that someone can sell admission.
And in the movie, as with the historical 60s, ubiquitous sex is the promise that gets suckers through the door. Doc gets a free preview of the pussy eater's special, but the girls are just trying to distract a guy they think is a cop. A closet full of naked-lady ties is a souvenir of all the bodies that real estate money can buy. And when Shasta strips, it's a sure sign that something terrible is happening. Black revolutionaries and Aryan bikers may be the era's rebel motherfuckers, but they end up pawns as surely as the hopeless junkies who will always be good customers "as long as American life was something to be escaped from."
Eventually all the interlocking stories are revealed as a plot of The Golden Fang, a vertically integrated 60s-eating monster, encompassing hard drugs, new age therapy, cosmetic dentistry and pricey real estate– everything you need to build the white man's Los Angeles. The Fang came into the 60s like Dracula drifting in by sea, and sucked the optimism out of the 60s with teeth made of precious metal. But the moneymen washed in on a wave of teenybopper sex, all those drugged-out, hope-addled girls irresistible victims for the dealers, the hustlers, and the frequently name-checked Charlie Manson. Doc's got a good heart, and he wants to save everyone. But he can't stop listening to his dope and his dick, and they keep him wrapped up in obscurantist insights and too-easy pleasures, never seeing the pattern that's right on the surface.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Sunday, January 20, 2013
I wouldn't want every game– or even most games– to be like Thirty Flights of Loving. But I'm really glad that Thirty Flights of Loving is.
Brendon Chung is sort of the Marcel Duchamp of video games; he's less about providing the pleasures in which his chosen medium specializes and more about creating artifacts that force the viewer to question the medium's definition. Like Duchamp (and unlike most of his imitators), Chung's art is saved from sterility by his seemingly instinctive aesthetic talent.
TFoL is pretty willingly an interactive short story rather than a game. You run from place to place absorbing narrative information, with nothing to really test your ability. Even in the one area where you get to shoot stuff, it quickly becomes obvious that the bang-bang is just there to propitiate gamer reflexes, with no real impact on how the story progresses.
So it's exactly the kind of thing that inspires Steam reviewers to grumble about "hipsters". Previous interactive narrative experiments, like Dear Esther and The Path, were frustrating even to my artfaggy self, as their eschewing of combat or puzzles seemed to be part and parcel of a generally dour dislike of kicks, joy, entertainment value... In short, they seemed to have a sneering contempt for fun, which games should be!
Like those games, TFoL wants to tell you a story rather than challenge you to a battle, but unlike them, Chung understands that a story is fundamentally a machine for creating delight. You'll only be playing it for about 15 minutes, but those 15 minutes are full of color, music, groovy sights, funny jokes, never-seen-that-before techniques, and charmingly irrelevant tangents.
The immersiveness of the experience is cemented by the sturdy reliability of its stories: a heist gone wrong and a love triangle, two templates guaranteed to rope in just about anyone who's ever wanted to be rich or have sex. Because those stories are so familiar, the viewer can't help but try to guess at much of the information that Chung revels in not providing. And if you're the sort of pervert who likes having their brain coochie-coo'ed, coy narrative elision is a potent fan dance.
Trying to figure out what happened in between the game's smash cuts is far more engaging than navigating any of the game's spaces. Which suggests that TFoL is not so much eliminating challenge as shifting where it happens. In most games, getting from one end of the level to the other is difficult while following the story is (insultingly) easy, and in TFoL it's just the opposite. Games are defined by their most challenging aspect, so while most video games are about figuring out fighting patterns with some story as background, TFoL is really a game about figuring out the shape of a tale with some running around corridors as background.
In this brave new era of theory-informed, progressive game design, even a number of big-budget titles have experimented with allusive storytelling. Though Bioshock conveyed plenty of narrative through bog-standard voice-overs, many of the most interesting subplots, like Fontaine's bible-smuggling operation, were suggested by environmental details and other small aspects of the game. The faint whispers of story were the most interesting thing about Dark Souls, imbuing its battles with faint suggestions of tragedy like a utopian monument fallen into ruins.
But in every case, the suggestive storytelling never quite becomes gameplay, because it lacks the pass/fail mechanical demands that more or less define what's important to a player. What's needed now is a game where figuring out the story has in-game consequences, making the act of figuring out a story inherent to the game. Perhaps a role-playing game where you interact with NPC's differently based on conclusions you've made about their background, with consequences for different guesses? Of course, such a mechanic means a developer has to commit to a right interpretation of story hints, which risks undoing exactly what's so interesting about these subtle fragments. Is there a way to make the act of figuring out a story as open, compelling, and challenging as running through a combat zone?
Friday, October 12, 2012
1) In the Xbox dashboard, sign out all controllers.
2) Sign in a controller with a secondary profile. Use that profile to start Worms Revolution
3) In the game's main menu, go to Customization, and create a team with your noms de guerre of choice.
4) Exit the game. If you want multiple teams, repeat steps 1-3. Remember, every profile can only have one custom team.
5) Now sign into Dashboard with the main controller.
6) Start Worms, and go into deathmatch.
7) Using the main controller, "Add profile" for each player.
8) Using the main controller, click on the first secondary profile.
9) Using the controller for that profile, select each worm, and replace them with a custom worm.
10) Repeat steps 7-9 for each player.
That is how you play deathmatch with custom teams in Worms Revolution on the Xbox 360. And good Christ is that stupid!!!!! I loved Worms Revolution, but did no one at Team 17 even test in-room multiplayer with custom teams?
Monday, February 13, 2012
Going through comments looking for nuts is unfair, of course, and a lot of internet commenting is people deliberately saying the worst thing they can imagine because they're in a no-consequence environment. It doesn't even mean they believe it, just that they're getting off on breaking the taboo---any old punk who recalls Sid Vicious' and Siouxsie Sioux's Nazi armbands can understand the thrill. But all those caveats aside, jesus, this is ugly stuff---it's good to be reminded sometimes that there are thousands of people in the country, people sufficiently integrated into society that they have internet connections and time to leave comments, who write and maybe believe the kind of knuckle-dragging racist craziness that would seem over-the-top if it was dialogue in a Spike Lee movie.
A lot of the right's rage at liberals is basically textbook projection: taking one's worst attributes, and insisting they are the defining attributes of your enemy, so as to cleanse your own self-image. This kind of thing suggests that one of the many acts of projection is the constant complaint of "If Islam isn't evil, why won't moderate Muslims condemn terrorism?" Anyone who's paying attention knows that every time there's a terrorist incident, or even an act of censorship from the Islamic world, organizations like CAIR rush to issue press releases condemning it, mosques have "teach-ins" explaining to kids why this is wrong, and Muslim scholars go on television to explain to anyone listening why this is not okay.
But when the right erupts in bigotry and madness, moderate conservatives don't dare to condemn it publicly, and those who do (like Johnson) are immediately thrown out of the movement. I begin to suspect that the bleats about moderate Muslims not condemning hatred aren't just excuses to maintain anti-Muslim bigotry in the face of evidence, but are in fact desperate attempts, by conservatives who know how wrong their movement has gone, to assuage their guilty conscience.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
As all good people with minimally-acceptable taste agree, Sonic Youth made a great deal of the best, most original, most interesting rock music of the 80s. I first came on board with Confusion Is Sex---tracks like Freezer Burn and Protect Me From You suggested a world much darker and weirder than the Misfits albums that had previously been my black standard. The Misfits aren't actually the worst comparison point---just like Glenn Danzig was a great vocalist because he always implied vocal energy beyond what he was expending, Thurston Moore could somehow hit a single unchorded string in a way that implied a whole range of counter-harmonics of the sort that would drive a Lovecraft character mad.
But as with any major rock band, the image was as much part of the story as the music. The most punk thing about Sonic Youth was their contempt for the bad-boy mythos of rock ideology: a conviction that being a hard-drinkin' wild boy was exactly what the industry wanted, but being crazy artists with a stable marriage was the biggest bird you could flip to the system.
As The Clash quoted, the overclass always wants to turn a conflict between rulers and ruled into a generational conflict, because generational conflicts fade away. Like protégé Kurt Cobain, Thurston and Kim wanted to prove that you could be in a healthy grown-up relationship without turning into James fucking Taylor, that anger at the world didn't have to be directed at the person you're having sex with, that living well was the best revenge. Sonic Youth rarely sloganeered in their music, but their commitment to each other was inherently political, and the feminist subtext of their songwriting duties, where Thurston tended towards the introspective and Kim towards the aggressive, was unmistakable.
Mainstream rock ideology is enamored of doomed, self-destructive rebellion, because mainstream rock exists to take youthful energy and countercultural anger and render them harmless, and nothing is more harmless than a corpse. That sense of rock ideology as a co-opting was at the base of the punk rebellion, and Sonic Youth was always gleefully snarky about punk bands they saw as dragging out all the old Jim Morrison bullshit. Many a hippie has criticized punk for its nihilism, but the truth is that punk built more infrastructure for sustainable countercultural life---'zines, indie labels, even communes---than the 60s generation ever conceived of. The hippies, raised in wholesome, stable families, always imagined that if they just looked at the powerful with big enough doe eyes, they'd be given what they wanted. The punks, children of a divorced generation, knew that you would only get as much life as you could build yourself.
A marriage is the ultimate collaboration, and the ultimate counterculture---two people forming their own nation, and learning every day the most basic and most important lesson: How to treat another person as though they're as important as you are. Thurston and Kim's commitment to being collaborators, equals, and partners while making angular, smart, deadly, pissed-off noise, was an inspiration to everyone who thought mutual love could be the fulfillment of one's individualism, not the end. The end of this particular marriage doesn't mean that's wrong---what ended this marriage is ultimately none of my damn business, not least because all the fantasies I've spun based on their image has very little to do with these two actual people---but the failure of these two people to keep their partnership together makes me even sadder than all the dashed hopes that will soon be shuffling away from Zucotti Park.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
This is honestly the most visually interesting thing I've seen all week. It's the Church of Scientology's response to the exposé of the Church that recently ran in The New Yorker, and it's like a perfectly concise catalog of contemporary propaganda visuals.
In the first few seconds, you get an artificial aged film effect, a smug and angry voice-over that sounds like the South Park parody of a smug and angry voice over, harshly lit and hastily assembled 3-D animation. Then it suddenly takes a turn into 1950s newsreel style actors mugging disinterest and a Zhdanovite spiel insisting that the multi-Oscar winner is an unknown nobody.
The fact that it's incredibly clumsy just makes it all the more interesting. As Stephen King noted in Danse Macabre, less artful productions are often more useful as historical documents than good films. The hackish filmmakes lack an artist's individual voice, which means you get a much clearer sense of what was considered proper visual technique at the moment. This clumsy thing is unlikely to convince anyone---it's not a creative visual masterpiece of innovative propaganda techniques, like Triumph of the Will. It's more like an evening watching Fox: defamiliarize for a second, and you'll see all kinds of genuinely odd and obvious visual tropes that the blinkered filmmakers and audience regard as perfectly normal. And how weird is that?
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
"Like Dziga Vertov's films, Mondrian's paintings, or Balanchine's choreography, BIT.TRIP FLUX presents the spectacle of a medium reveling in its essential properties, offering an aesthetic experience that wasn't possible until the form was created to engender it."
And then that led to an interview with Gaijin Games CEO Alex Neuse, which is chock-full of interesting practical tidbits and the occasional matzoh ball of conceptualism.
"Usually games teach the player how the game world works and stick to it; like when I'm playing Halo, I know a Grunt isn't going to suddenly split into four slower moving Grunts. But BIT.TRIP is all about simple visual elements that could do anything, and a lot of the humor of the BIT.TRIP games comes from that kind of surprise attack."
"I'm quite happy to say that social responsibility is more a negative than a positive virtue. That is, no artist is obliged to deliver "a positive message", but you are indeed obliged not to be actively evil. Y'know as if you were a person---you don't actually have to do missionary work, but you should refrain from yelling "ching-chong-Chinaman" every time you see a Vietnamese person on the subway. "
And finally... I've been writing regular game reviews over at Slant, which has been great---writing something that feels lower-stakes than my usual creative output is incredibly effective as a confidence booster. And occasionally, I get to write something as fun as my review of Pokemon White.
"So how does someone old enough to have voted for Paul Tsongas end up playing the new Pokemon game?"
Sunday, March 13, 2011
So I ignored the bad reviews Red Riding Hood got, especially since most of them seemed like more lame boynerd Twilight-bashing. The tendency of male critics to gleefully embrace power/revenge fantasies and scream in indignation when confronted with fantasies of romance is just embarrassing, almost as embarassing as the Dungeons & Dragons-rulebook grumblings that the McCullen clan aren't "real vampires", whatever the fuck that means. I kept hoping that Red Riding Hood was going to be the movie that turned Catherine Hardwicke into Kathryn Bigelow, a female director who can make Hollywood genres seem new again via sharp intelligence and a unique perspective.
No such luck. Red Riding Hood is unforgivably dull, routine, and worse yet, appallingly professional. The problem isn't the panting romanticism, but rather the lack of same. An early flashback scene mixing bunny-slaughter and pre-teen lust takes place in vast beds of studio-built, brightly artificial flowers, and the first ten minutes had me looking forward to more Guy-Maddin-for-girls production design and unhinged, Almodovar-esque melodrama. But that visionary quality is lost the instant the movie proper starts. From then on it's all tediously "good" shots, in which every pan begins with a vertical movement, ends with a horizontal movement, and focus-shifts from foreground to background on an important beat. It's all quite proper and utterly numbing, and there's no way for wooly, hairy, slavering romance to break out when every beat is so carefully manicured.
And the orange-and-teal! Oy, the orange-and-teal! You don't get a sense of timelessness when your movie looks exactly like every other goddamn piece of digital color correction in the last ten years. Shot after shot is built around an orange thing in the foreground, teal in the background and then---OMG!!!!---rack focus to an orange thing in the background! Red and white are perfectly good colors to use in this story, and the occasional cameo appearance by purple suggests that someone in the production design department wants to make the movie look a little more interesting, but ultimately the color choices, like the camera setups, are indistinguishable from any other Hollywood action movie, part of the appalling homogenization that computerized industrial filmmaking has wrought.
Even Seyfried is reduced to typical young-actress mummery, wandering around with big eyes and a half-open mouth instead of making her character into a convincing human being. But then, nearly everyone in the movie suffers from the same lack of individuality, which I largely attribute to Hardwicke's refusal to let any of the actors decide clearly whether they're inhabitants of a medieval world completely different from our own, or basically modern people who just happen to be in the middle of nowhere. It doesn't help that the scriptwriter seems to think that the villagers are living before the invention of subtext; every line expresses exactly what it says, leaving the actors with no choices worth making. Only Gary Oldman gets to do anything other than be tediously sincere, perhaps thanks to English actors' inimitable knack for ignoring bad direction and breaking off bits of scenery to nibble when given nothing better to do.
Worst of all, although the movie early and often hammers on the theme that Valerie is set apart from the others by an inner darkness which gives her a unique connection to the Wolf, the script never, ever lets that be expressed through action. In some misguided attempt, perhaps, to make her "relatable", the first scene's intriguing hints of sadism are immediately dropped, and she's never allowed to have so much as an uncharitable thought. The movie seems to want to rebuke the fairy-tale division of victimized girl and threatening male by locating the Wolf's darkness within Valerie, but her only moments of violence are harmless (and ineffectual) gestures of self-defense. So while the movie is built around the Wolf's desire to make Valerie his consort, his temptations never seem very tempting to this Good Girl, and the suspense becomes purely external---WHO is the werewolf? WHAT was her wanna-be boyfriend doing when the attack happened? WHICH herring is the red one?---rather than character-driven. Suspense built around character choices deepens the audience's involvement in the story; suspense built around narrative conditions is merely screenwriter preening.
I had hoped that getting booted from Twilight would inspire Hardwicke to make something loopier, more intense, and more personal, but instead, she's trying to be Chris Weitz, making movies as polished, professional, and of-no-possible-interest-to-anyone as The Golden Compass. Every shot is nicely composed, Hollywood-busy (that is, full of background activity that never threatens to catch the viewer's interest), and perfectly un-striking. A fairy-tale movie needs to seize the viewer, either through unexpected grungy realism or wildly expressionist eccentricity, and force them into the kind of childlike credulity that movies and fairy tales can conjure. They need love, sex, blood, and profound weirdness. Red Riding Hood's clock-punching won't give anyone nightmares, fantasies, or even something to think about on the drive home. What a waste.