Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Full Frontal

"The language of images—maybe not threatens, but directly changes actual lived life. I mean, consider that my grandparents, by the time they got married and kissed, I think they'd seen people kiss ... maybe a hundred kisses. My parents, who'd grown up with mainstream Hollywood cinema, had seen thousands of kisses by the time they kissed. Before I had ever kissed anyone, I had seen tens of thousands of kisses, of people kissing. And I know that the first time I kissed, much of my thought was 'Am I doing it right? Am I doing it according to how I've seen it?'"

—David Foster Wallace—

Though it's been accused of being unfeeling, intellectual, and abstract, Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal is actually a sterling example of a genre usually derided by highbrows: the romantic comedy. What makes it great is its refusal to take the conventions of the romantic comedy for granted, along with its nagging fear that the attempt to represent romance through these conventions might be an act with real-world consequences. In the last minutes of Full Frontal (spoiler alert, I suppose, though if you can't guess this then you've never seen a rom-com) when the Plucky Single Gal finally meets A Nice Guy, she muses "It was just like a movie." But the question Full Frontal worries at obsessively is: If we imagine love through an unreal medium, does that threaten the reality of our love? It's the question Soderbergh has been asking ever since Sex, Lies, and Videotape: How can we be present for each other with all these screens in the way?

Full Frontal's many characters orbit around Gus Delario (David Duchovny), the producer of the romantic comedy Rendezvous, Full Frontal's film-within-the-film. Gus is a sleazy, life-hating pervert, exactly the kind of guy you'd expect to be behind a movie like Rendezvous, a phony piece of shit that, like most romantic comedies, seems a deliberate attempt to destroy any ability people might have to understand their own emotional lives.

Rendezvous tells the story of an entertainment journalist, Catherine (Julia Roberts), and an up-and-coming actor, Nicholas (Blair Underwood), who fall in love. Or rather, are shoved into it—even the actors comment on how little chemistry they have together, and Rendezvous pushes them into each other through bizarrely manipulative means, including a mysteriously-appearing love letter, an arbitrary fainting spell, and a sudden confession that's clearly coming from the screenwriter rather than the character.

The artificiality of the romantic comedy is made clear visually as well as narratively. The opening scenes of Rendezvous, handsomely shot on 35-mm film, with the enveloping colors and volume-defining light of a Hollywood feature, are followed by scenes from the life of Rendezvous' screenwriter, Carl Bright (David Hyde Pierce), presented with almost over-determined visual cruddiness. When Carl's wife starts her day by flinging open the bedroom curtains, the frame fills with the whiteout wash of digital video, and all the non-Rendezvous scenes thereafter are characterized by graininess, shaky camerawork, and flat lighting.

The deglamorized presentation of Carl's morning with his wife, coming just after the slickness of Rendezvous, invites a reading of the Rendezvous scenes as representing smiling unreality, and Carl's life as The Real. Only that contrast doesn't remain stable either. Just as things are getting heart-tugging, with Carl recalling a dream in which "I had no effect on anyone" while his wife ignores him (awwwww!), little jump cuts forcibly remind us that this, too, is a scene, assembled from multiple takes. The digital video, quick zooms, and echo-y sound make it look like a reality show, but it's definitely not reality, and woe to anyone who mistakes a movie—whether it's Rendezvous or Full Frontal—for the real thing.

The genre of the reality show—the ultimate in tricking the viewer into believing that the manipulated is authentic—is invoked again by Adolf Hitler (Nicky Katt), who's introduced singing the theme song to the TV show COPS. Okay, it's not actually Hitler, it's an actor playing Hitler, performing Carl's play The Sound and the Fuhrer in a tiny downtown theater. Then again, he's referred to in the credits simply as "Hitler," so maybe it really is Adolf himself, now an egomaniacal actor in L.A. rather than an egomaniacal actor in Germany.

Though the only real antagonist in Full Frontal is sheer postmodern malaise, Hitler is the one character the film has no sympathy for—he's a monster, an utter waste of air. And much of what makes him so evil is that he's a creature of pure performance, convinced that his starring role puts him at the center of the world. He preens and demands attention, he name-drops actors as though he knows them (with that horrible L.A. habit of using famous peoples' first names—"It's like Al said—Al Pacino"), and worst of all, he brags that "I broke up with my girlfriend when we started rehearsing this play." Ed (Enrico Colantoni), the director of The Sound..., says that his interest in a play about Hitler came from the idea that "It's evil, it's monstrous not to have feelings," and here, Hitler commits Full Frontal's idea of the ultimate monstrosity: sacrificing love on the altar of performance.

Performance, though, is not just the business of actors. When Ed is opening the theater, musing about his Internet dating profile, he says "It's a place where I can lie" just as the lights come up on the black-box stage. The juxtaposition of a dating-site profile and a theater is a provocative reminder that everyone who has ever looked for love—which is to say, everyone—is putting themselves on a stage, making themselves into a performer, and they naturally look to other performers for inspiration. Similarly, Linda (Mary McCormack) seems to have no connection at all with the movies, but her job as a masseuse makes her take a fake name and a fake persona, and an awful encounter with Gus lands her in a hotel hallway in a slinky dress, mistaken for a hooker by the maid (who isn't exactly wrong)—the performance becomes the reality, the mask becomes your face.

Throughout Full Frontal, characters find themselves in situations where they have to perform at a person rather than talk to them—a job interview, a meeting with the boss, a journalist covering a celebrity, a pitch session, and so on. Carl's wife Lee (Catherine Keener) is a corporate VP tasked with interviewing a company's staff to decide who'll be downsized, and the pressure of testing people rather than interacting with them is pushing her to a crack-up—she's behaving in ways that break the scripted interactions of an interview, and threaten to make something real spill through the cracks. At one point she shocks an employee by asking "Do you find me attractive?" Asked "In what way?" she replies, "In a human sort of way." But much of what's maddening Lee is that there is no "human way"—there's no interaction that isn't the product of a network of expectations, and no way to get at the person under the performance.

Or maybe there is one way—as Carl says, "You can't pretend to be having sex with someone when you're actually having sex with them." Just before he says that, the screen fills with the words "A VOW by Carl Bright," like a husband's wedding vow to his wife. But the camera pulls back to reveal that the text was the headline of a fluffy celebrity profile, the conversation is an awkward flirtation with an uncomfortable co-worker, and the subject under discussion is porn movies, the ultimate in transforming the act of love into an image of itself.

But then, romantic comedies are equally guilty of transforming emotion into performance, as the Rendezvous scenes keep reminding us. Even within Rendezvous, the tension between a performance and a person keeps the characters from connecting: Nicholas' a cappella rap halfway through the film was lambasted by critics for its stiffness, but that's part of the point—we're seeing two people go from talking to each other to performing at each other, and it's a terrible thing to behold.

But the greater tension comes from the pull between love's unphotogenic reality and the demands of a visual medium. The final moments of Rendezvous dramatically objectify this tension, as Catherine and Nicholas go for their big kiss, but instead turn their full faces to the camera, their lips unable to touch because they're so busy giving themselves to its devouring eye. The love story is destroyed by the demands of the movies; Julia Roberts' superstar smile becomes the grin on a corpse.

Rendezvous starts realistically and gradually collapses. Full Frontal moves in the opposite direction: it starts with voice-overs, jump cuts, and strange visual non-sequiturs, but the alienating devices mostly drop away as we become more wrapped up in the characters and their stories. In the final scenes, when Linda and Ed meet, we're presented with the difference between a movie love, sealed with snappy dialogue in the world's most well-lit food court, and a real love, created with awkward jokes in a much less flattering airport.

And then, at the last moment, the rug is pulled out from under us one more time, as Soderbergh steps back from the happy couple to reveal that the airplane they're meeting on is every bit as artificial as the airplane where Rendezvous blows itself apart. Throughout Full Frontal, the movie teased the possibility of breaking through itself into our world, as when Francesca Davis (Julia Roberts), the actress playing Catherine in Rendezvous, starts a romance with a theater tech, a romance that mirrors the actual story of Julia Roberts familiar to any reader of People Magazine (Soderbergh seems to have a particular love of playing this sort of game with Roberts; the funniest moment in Oceans' Twelve is when the gang hatches a plan to have Julia Roberts' character help them with a robbery by pretending to be Julia Roberts, over her objection that "I don't look anything like her!"). Soderbergh's characters are all struggling to achieve a moment of connection—Carl's spiritual progress can be measured by comparing his creepy, manipulative flirtation near the beginning of a movie to his simple openness with another woman near the end—and like them, the movie keeps trying to break through the forest of images to the people on the other side.

But of course, that isn't possible. When the camera pulls back to reveal a movie set and Linda says that falling in love is "just like a movie," there's a trapped and touching sadness to the moment—the movie, like Linda, like anyone, is never free of the obligation to perform. Like James Spader in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a world is built around the idea that an image on a screen makes it possible to apprehend a person.

It doesn't.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Man From London

The paradox of most feature films is that they are at once two contradictory things. They are, mostly, fictions---extravagantly untrue stories that thrive on glamour and bullshit. But, with the exception of animation, every film is also a documentary of the absolutely true---a photograph of this particular thing at this particular moment.

Much film style works to bring the latter in line with the former, using lights, camera position, and actorly charisma to turn ordinary sets and locations into fabulous facsimiles of themselves. But some films, like Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, make the authority of the real the thing that the fiction must rise to meet. A relentless insistence on the sheer is-ness of what's in front of the camera defines the film's style, and the defenses a person develops to protect themselves from even the most engaging lies are stripped away; the movie becomes convincing in the way Samuel Johnson's kickable stone is convincing, and the story is something experienced rather than watched.

This is a hell of an achievement, which is why Werckmeister Harmonies is one of the best films of the last decade. But it's also a hell of a responsibility, which is why his new film, The Man From London, is such a disappointment.

The plot of The Man From London is a pile of foofraw you've heard a thousand times before---Crime! Violence! Some schlub grabs a suitcase fulla cash money! Someone wants it! Pursuit! This standard-issue thriller plot overlays the domestic drama of Maloin, the aforementioned schlub who wants to use his accidentally-gotten gains to buy things for his daughter, a girl so unsparingly, uncomplainingly, and colorlessly oppressed by everyone in the movie that her treatment plays as a production design decision rather than an injustice.

Worse still, the conventional plot makes Tarr's grand style seem like so much huffing and puffing. Werckmeister's story-- -a small industrial town sinks into chaos under the influence of a demagogue's carnival---had an epic scope. It's expansive resonances imbued Tarr's cinematic gestures of patient-but-dramatic camera moves, long shots of people walking and eating, abrupt surges of music--- with metaphoric weight, and it helped, too, that the impeding apocalypse gave it a solid dramatic engine; the last half of the film plays like the climax of an action movie slowed down to realtime. Because The Man From London feels like a movie, rather than a myth, the attention-grabbing style degenerates into a series of tics---arbitrary rather than inevitable. Tarr's direction seems mannered and self-amused, and when he deploys audience-assaulting gestures, like the screen going black for a full minute while repetitive hammer-blows are heard, or a major plot point happening soundlessly behind a closed door, they seem bratty instead of affecting. In Werckmeister, the slow, strange shots seemed like the only way the story could possibly be properly honored. Here, they just feel like a director poking us with his own cleverness like an unwelcome erection at a prom---yes, I know you can do that, but why should I want you to?

The visual style, too, is enervated. Tarr's long (long, long, long) takes work best when the shot contains a wide range of elements, particularly textures. The presence of nature, especially, brings his shots to life, as our eye takes in the countless details of waves, leaves, and rocks, and our minds become conscious of all the detail in the world that we normally overlook. But in The Man From London, the featureless boat hulls and smoothly-paved streets that take up the frame just leave the eye bored. A long take is never dull if there's something to be looked at, but here, there's often nothing interesting to focus on, either for the eye or the brain.

For all its disappointment, the movie's not a total loss. Every so often, its restricted vocabulary of repetitive camera movements, and its eagerness to rest on unprotected faces, creates a genuinely affecting mood. By the end, the film rises to a real threnody of grief for a world where money can't buy dignity, but only sends waves of pain at everyone in its orbit. But if there's one thing made clear by Werckmeister Harmonies, a movie which spent great amounts of time watching people walk, it's that how you get to your destination is what gives you a right to be there. Up until its final moments, The Man From London feels like Tarr knows, deep down, that this movie isn't serious enough to command his belief, and I pretty much felt the same.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dead Rising: Repetition, Iteration, Repetition

So I finally finished Dead Rising, a game that came out a couple years ago for the Xbox 360. When I say "finished", though, I mean finished twice. Because that's the only way to say I've finished it. Or at least, finished the story. A story. Let me explain...

One of the less-explored components of games as a medium is replayability. As has been explored a lot in visual art, a basic fact of a medium that takes place in computers is that computers are very good at reproducing data. In fact, space and memory limitations mean that repetition of elements is a major aspect of building a digital environment.

In games, that means you have to deal with a lot of very similar-looking items, enemies, and environments. But also, because of the mission-based structure of nearly every game ever made, you frequently have to replay events that happen the same way each time. Obviously, that's true in shumps like The Belgian's beloved Galaga, which are all about learning the patterns. But it's equally true in games with more narrative pretensions---even in a game that's ostensibly a linear narrative, there's always parts that you have to play through again due to dying, which means tediously enduring the cutscenes and dialogue one more time, with the compensation of knowing in advance about the rocket-launcher guy around the ridge who killed you last time.

Dead Rising, though, plays with the option and necessity of replay in an interestingly self-conscious way, making the repetition central to the gameplay experience, and even to its storytelling. Which is appropriate for a game about zombies, those poor, shuffling, post-death bastards, driven by "memory of what they used to do."

In Dead Rising, you play as Frank West, a sleazy photojournalist who's gotten a hot tip about a mysterious outbreak in a small American town. You end up trapped in a shopping mall, together with various survivors and a couple of Dept. of Homeland Security agents who seem to know more than they're telling. From there, you have 72 hours before you're evacuated from the mall (the game happens in realish time, with 2 hours of real time corresponding to one day of game time). At the end of those 72 hours, the game ends, no matter what you've done---it's considered winning the game as long as you just survive the 72 hours, even if you don't do anything else.

Not that there isn't plenty of else to do. The game's missions come in two flavors: story-based missions that reveal the plot, and side missions where you save survivors of the outbreak, put down people who've gone crazy in the mall, or look for "scoops", where you can get dramatic pictures of the carnage.

The problem I initially had with the game is that doing any of the above is really, really difficult. The first time I tried to play through, I was approaching it as one does a game: When given a mission, I would try to complete it, and I pretty much gave up when mission after mission was just too! fucking! hard!!! Fortunately, a gaming guru I know explained the zen of Dead Rising to me: The first time you play, you're not supposed to finish most of the missions---what you're supposed to do is level up in anticipation of the next playthrough.

Y'see, you start Dead Rising with stats for strength, speed, inventory size, and other attributes. Throughout the game, you get experience points (XP) to boost your stats, which makes it possible to finish missions that were too hard before you leveled up. Once you finish a 72-hour play-through, you can then restart the game from the beginning, equipped with your new, more powerful stats, which lets you complete missions that you had to ignore previously. This option is even available within the game---any time you die, you're given the choice of reloading your last save, or restarting the 72 hour period with your most recent stats.

There's a few different ways to get XP in the game. One---the most common---is by taking pictures (photojournalist, remember!), with extra points awarded for composition and content of the pictures (a delightful twist on the first-person view that I wish more games would try). You also get lots of points for finding survivors scattered throughout the mall and convincing them to follow you back to safety, with still more points awarded if you get them there.

But the thing is, on your first play-through, you don't have a chance at actually saving anyone---you just don't have the mojo to keep the zombies away. So if you really want to max out your level points, the winning strategy is to find survivors, promise to get them out of the danger zone, lead them to someplace really exposed, then run to high ground, and... take pictures as the zombies eat them.

And that's every bit as horrible as it sounds, especially since each survivor has their own individual screams and death animations, all of which are quite blood-curdling. This is totally horrible, and you feel like a bad, bad person, even though it's really the parameters of the game that have forced you to make such a dreadful choice.

But it also means you get immensely more satisfaction on your next run through the game, as you find the people you previously condemned to death, and save them from the fate you've already seen. It's sort of comparable to the time-scrambling of John Travolta's death in Pulp Fiction---the medium trumpeting its ability to defy death, even as it makes you aware of the artifice needed to resurrect the dead. Amusingly, my wife (who insists that I refer to her on this blog as "The Fuzzwife") flatly refuses to accept this logic, saying that these people are dead and it's my fault, even though they're alive on the most recent playthrough---the very idea of arguing about whether the first or last playthrough is the real one gives you some idea of the questions of narrative ontology that this game brings up.

A similar logic applies to the game's story missions. The first time through, you won't be able to complete even the first day's missions (the story missions happen in time with the in-game clock---if you're too late to a key spot, you'll miss out on the story). So you develop a mentality of "I don't care why the zombies are here; I just want to survive." But each time you play through, you'll be able to learn more about what's going on, and learning about events often changes the course of them dramatically---the last day in the mall is very, very different based on how many of the story missions you've completed.

Since you can take different missions each time through, each with their own cutscenes, the narrative of each playthrough becomes very different. The first time you play, Frank is a monster, cynically seducing people from safety so he can take pictures of the deaths he causes, all the while ignoring the real story that he's supposedly here to investigate. The second time, Frank becomes a hard-boiled detective, pursuing the big story while mostly ignoring the saps who don't have his abilities, except the occasional survivor whose plight especially moves him. And the third time you play, Frank is a superhero, saving the innocents while ignoring the big picture.

In keeping with this approach, the game's cutscenes are very smart about keeping Frank's character ambiguous---he's presented as a self-important sleazeball with glimmerings of conscience, but whether the sleazeball or the conscience wins is determined through your play. There's few games, in fact, where the double meaning of "play" is so appropriate. You "play" Frank West very much like a movie star plays a role---you settle on an attitude to the scripted events, and move through the narrative that's been laid down beforehand, changing it through the application of your personality.

A lot of games create interactive narrative through the strict application of choice, but the choice is usually fairly binary---kill or save this character, investigate this or that path, and the like. What's neat about Dead Rising is that its narrative choices are much more of a continuum---you can be somewhat good, or somewhat bad, with a lot of gradations and varieties in between. You have the option of doing many vile things, like taking pictures of suffering victims, but you can also not do them, or do them and then make up for them by saving said victims. And unlike many sandboxes, Dead Rising keeps you very conscious of the moral implications of your choices, with Frank's lip-smacking photo critiques or survivor's pleas constantly heard based on your actions.

Even niftier is how it makes the repetition of missions, which is a basic component of most game-playing, inherent to the overall vision of the game. In order to really see what the game has to offer, you have to play the same parts in different ways. And because each approach gives you different cutscenes, including a different end, none is the complete or correct version of the story---all are equal options, and all are the real story.

I'll leave it for others to answer why zombie stories so often end up surprisingly artistically ambitious. But Dead Rising is definitely yet another example of a gory little shocker that turns out to have much more up its tattered sleeve. Much as I liked the storytelling of Bioshock or Mass Effect, Dead Rising ultimately seems like the more exciting and experimental approach to interactive narrative, laying down paths that few other games have tried to follow. It's foregrounding of choice and its awareness of repetition makes it the most genuinely medium-specific approach to narrative I've seen in a videogame, creating a story---or stories---that I really can't imagine being told in any other medium.

Plus, you get to run over zombies with a lawnmower. What's not to like?

Friday, June 6, 2008

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Inspired by The Belgian seeing it for the first time, I spent some time last night re-watching one of my favorite movies, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Originally, the plan was just to watch some key scenes, but of course, once I'm ten minutes in, I know I'm gonna make it all the way to that final travesty of a gunfight, and notice lots of things along the way that I'd never seen before.

A movie like this sort of makes for bad blog fodder, as I quickly lose the ability to say anything smart and can only stutter and gawp: Those performances! That cinematography! All those fantastic faces! So no attempt at a thesis here---just a few observations, and perhaps we'll get The Belgian to chime in at the comments.

When I first saw McCabe in college, the professor talked about the classic Western narrative of the guy who built the town being unable to live in it. But actually, the film's even crueler than that: McCabe really doesn't build the town at all. He shows up, buys up some property, and starts a business, but the one thing he brings that wasn't there before---a classy brothel which serves as the movie's ironic symbol of civilization---wasn't his idea at all; he just put up the capital that Mrs. Miller put to work. Ultimately, McCabe is a good-time irrelevance---not only can he not adjust to civilized life, he's not much use on the frontier either. Fortunately for Altman, he's got the immense charisma of Warren Beatty on his side; otherwise it'd be awfully hard to pay attention to what's ultimately the story of a great nonentity.

McCabe's uselessness is further highlighted by Altman's trademark generosity with minor characters. In the background of McCabe's bull sessions and drunken card games, we get glimpses of the people who are doing the real building of the town, and it's striking how different all of them are from the palefaces who would be the heroes, rogues, and general moral centers of a previous era's Westerns.

There's the Washingtons, a sedate African-American couple who mostly steer clear of the white folks' crazy fights. Instead, they do their jobs---they're the ones who actually bring in the ladies that are Mrs. Miller's capital---and keep their heads down. The most respectable citizens in town, they get the last "townspeople shot" in the movie, walking away from the celebration after the church fire has been put out; having done the work of preserving public order, they're visibly uninterested in the debauchery that keeps endangering it.

We only get a few glimpses into the Chinatown that's already taken root when the town's roads aren't even done, but they're terrifically suggestive, and the Chinese workers in Mrs. Miller's "gooseberry ranch" similarly remind the viewer who's actually building things in this outpost. I would love to see a whole feature Western set in one of these frontier Chinatowns, with the cowboys as the mysterious presence that keeps making trouble.

Meanwhile, the one member of the white-boy brigade who does try to build something resembling a real life, Bart (played by Bert Remsen, Altman stalwart and favorite of my estwhile co-blogger) can't keep his drunken temper and overinflated sense of honor (which would be a mark of virtue in many guy-flicks) under control, and gets himself killed in one of the dumbest streetfights in movie history. As a result, his mail-order bride (Shelly Duvall! Those eyes! Those lips!) immediately makes a beeline for Mrs. Miller in the hopes of some more lucrative work, which is, as Mrs. Miller declares in no uncertain terms, a much better deal than being Bart's wife ever was.

All this abnegation is especially appropriate considering the general mood of alienation from America-building that must have prevailed on set. McCabe was shot in Canada in 1971, and a significant number of crew and performers were draft-dodgers who'd settled in the Canadian wilderness, and could hardly have resisted the joke of playing the original American cowboys creating a land that the counterculture was increasingly giving up on.

On a completely other note (I warned you there wasn't going to be a big thesis...): I do so love the sheer muzziness of the visuals, appropriate for a movie whose protagonist is slobbering drunk most of the time, and regularly caught in the rain. This is often exaggerated beyond all reason, as in McCabe's big entrance at the end of the credits sequence, when Altman and his cinematographer decided that all the "flashed" shots just weren't fuzzy enough, and shoot McCabe's entrance through a pane of dirty glass.

It's also interesting to note how much of the movie's visual progression is built around the introduction of color. The early scenes of the movie are a thousand shades of brown, with a look that subtley evokes sepia-toning. We then get black and white for the journey down to Bearpaw, with color mostly visible on ties and houses, symbols of civilization that seem out of place in the vast wilderness.

But once Mrs. Miller enters the picture, a whole new palette of colors opens up. Her high-class establishment, while still somewhat desaturated, has a much wider range of colors and tones than Sheehan's murky bar, in keeping with the wide range of possibilities it offers as its main enticement.


Similarly, the thugs from the mining company bring with them a bright, hard light, very different from the diffuse glow we saw earlier. This unsparing brightness, like being born into a world McCabe's been in hiding from, reaches its apotheosis in the final snowbound gunfight, where we return to a limited pallete, but this time with a light that's sharp, clear, and merciless.


My final thought on McCabe: If it does nothing else, it really makes you realize how miserable it must have been to settle the Pacific Northwest. You're riding on horseback for days, living in shacks and tents, it's raining all the goddamn time! Unlike the majority of Westerns, which are set in the deserts of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, McCabe takes place is a world where nature is always asserting itself, not with spectacular flash-floods of disaster, but with a constant thudding of misery and muck.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Grand Theft Auto: Girlfriend Experience

Grand Theft Auto 4. Been playing it, like everyone. And, y'know... I love the girlfriend mechanic. Loved it in GTA: San Andreas, loved it in Bully, love it here.

Early in GTA4, you have to post an online dating profile to complete a mission. Once that's up, you can meet various girls through the service, each with a profile that tells you about their personality. Once you've, ahhh, met girls on the internet (GTA4 is a game famous for its willingness to let you kill time in-game by surfing the web, listening to talk radio, or watching TV, among other amusingly ordinary activities), you set up dates with them. They grade you on your clothes and your car (their profile gives you hints about what kind of man they like), and decide whether you get positive or negative points for the date. In GTA:SA, they also graded you on your body, which you could make fatter or thinner based on what you ate and how often you went to the gym---a mechanic that a lot of people seem to have hated, but which I thought was a riot.

Much of the hilarity of Rockstar's funny, funny games comes from the whole concept of translating social behavior into the rules-based world of a video game. The process of translation often yields a vision that's both amusing and disturbing: kisses are a unit of currency, cynically exchanged according to strictly laid-down rules, and the whole process of living in the game world is about learning what those social rules are.

Smooches (in Bully) or sex (in GTA) thus becomes like money, points, or any other pellet handed out to keep you playing a video game: the basic unit of which game narrative is composed. By layering story elements (the character of the girls, and the activities you have to do to please them) on top of that, the interaction of narrative and story produces some very funny results.

Like for example: In Bully, kissing girls restores your health. Giving girls flowers makes them like you, but you have to give them flowers many times for them to like you enough to kiss you. You can make them like you more by giving them chocolate,but buying chocolate at the store in town requires more money than just stealing flowers from the teacher's garden, so you have to get a paper route to pay for it... and so on. Better yet, if you complete Art and English classes, you gain abilities to talk girls (and teachers, and bullies) into liking you, even if you don't have any gifts.

Now, comedy is relative, but to me, the whole concept of deciding to increase your sex appeal via either Art class or a paying job is, like, pure satiric genius.

Among the many bummers of the Hot Coffee foofraw was the loss of the Hot Coffee sex minigame in GTA, which really was a shame---it's low-res minigameness, in which your ability to sexually satisfy your partner was based on your ability to listen to their, ah, verbal cues to determine how fast to hit the buttons, was the perfect jaunty, mean-spirited cherry on top of the game's view of a man's relationship to the world.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Buffy and the Democratic Primary

Yeah, yes beanbagfrog, we have indeed been negligent in updating. There's a few things I might post on soon, but in the interim, here's a little filler, the fruits of an IM conversation between The Belgian and I.

A blogger recently posted a pretty amusing comparison of the GOP candidates to the villains of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Which inspired us to slot the Dems to the Scooby gang. Results are:

Very powerful, and Chosen, but gets less likable the longer we see her. Takes criticism very badly.

Can we trust him? Who knows? But we loooooooove him.

A hero by other means. Will never actually be in charge,but makes a great #2. Sometimes too clever by half, but one hell of a snappy dresser.

Sounded perfect, but made a bad first impression. And then, just as we start to like him again, he's gone.

His heart's always in the right place, but no superpowers- and you know, that's okay too. Somehow winds up with a hot S.O. nonetheless.

Some mistakes in his past, but the only adult with the vast repository of expositional knowledge about the History of Everything. Sometimes seems to have lost the plot, sometimes we even wonder whether he even really likes us deep down. Dropped out after season 5. ( see. Lieberman = Ethan

Chris Dodd=Oz?
Not there to win the race, you frankly forgot he's even there. Has an economy of words, but does the right thing. Then suddenly one day... FILIBUSTER!

Gore=Wesley Windham Price.
An absurd know-it-all when introduced, until he had his throat cut and came back as a jaded bad-ass.

which of course leaves...

Bill Clinton=Angel

to Hillary's Buffy.