Saturday, September 19, 2015

Never Odd Or Even

The new play by Title: Point Productions, NEVER ODD OR EVEN, is a show inspired by palindromes, those weird little phrases that are the same spelled backwards or forwards.  Do geese see God?  Some men interpret nine memos.  No trace, not one carton. 

Palindromes are fun to see, they're fun to say.  But say too many of them, and all sentences start to assume their weird, lurching diction, where sentence construction is purely suited to the arrangement of letters.  The usual concern of diction– what is being communicated?– falls away, and a purely systemic logic takes over.  It's unsettling, because it raises the question of how much day-to-day expression is indebted to the needs of the system, rather than the needs of the user.  

Palindromes are the spectacle of a system confronting its own limitations. We use a very small number of symbols to write phonemes; when you have only a few pieces, those pieces will sometimes fall onto the board in comically surprising ways.  We don't like to think that we're just dropping pieces randomly on the board.  When we write Hamlet, it's because we wanted to write Hamlet, not because we're one of an infinite number of monkeys.

Systems have a way of drawing attention to their own limits.  The paradoxes of infinite set theory seem at once impossible and plainly true– as Georg Cantor said, "Je le vois, mais ne crois pas."  These paradoxes happen because math is not a physical thing that exists, subject to all reality's laws of logic and causality: math is the abstracted signifier of an order at once implacable and unreal, a set of manipulable symbols, and abstractions have a way of getting away from their source.

But it's not just an abstraction, right?  Math works.  It has to work.  The mathematical principles work whether you're holding up a concrete bridge or a cotton blind.  To witness a system eating itself is to question the system's value as signifier.  Anyone who does that deserves to be thrown off one of our nice, solid, dependable bridges, into the systemless chaos of water particles surging coldly below it all.

Palindrome are prison, hallways with no beginning or end.  They cannot be refuted, because they have no logic.  Like Zeno's Parodox, an infinite-set paradox that makes it impossible to take a single step, a palindrome makes the very possibility of momentum seem absurd.

But we don't live in palindromes.  We may fear or welcome historical cycles, cycles of violence, the reliability of human nature, the comfort of dependable genre films, the implacability of destiny.  But our lives can only be cracked palindromes.  Our end is generated by our beginning, but they are not the same.  Death is nothing to be welcomed, but it's an effective refutation of the horrors of infinity.  Nothing is infinite, really, because nothing lives forever.  Much as we might, in our presumptuous imaginations, wish it to.

Our lives are a tension between our galumphing, unpredictable, infinitely varied bodies, and the graceful, dependable, tightly-bounded ouroboros we've constructed to keep us going within them, like the crisp beam of a projector washing across an actor's lumpy torso.

The play is also really funny. And scary.  And it looks cool. It's a good play.  It's a good life.  But it's scary.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Candida Royalle, 1950 - 2015

RIP to a dearly beloved friend, Candida Royalle.

Candice was one hell of a filmmaker, in a genre that doesn't usually acknowledge that talent.  Her porn films were super hot, and proudly feminist, but what always got me was that they looked genuinely great, with a sensitive eye for color, smart compositions, cleverly selective lighting, and camera setups that really evoked the subjectivity of the women on screen.  Nearly every scene Candice shot had some clever visual idea– a bit of costuming, a well-chosen angle, a nicely placed shadow– that made them charming as well as sexy.

Candice's films were porn from a woman's point of view, but just as importantly (and just as rare), they were porn from an artist's point of view.  You could always sense visual and cinematic intelligence behind the camera.  If you want to see just how good a porn movie can be while still being plenty effective as porn, check out UNDER THE COVERS– shot on video, with a starvation budget, and it still manages to be both great-looking and plenty hot. 

Candice was a great friend, a wonderful human being, and an inspiring entrepreneur. She transformed porn in ways that porn still hasn't caught up to.  But most of all, she was an artist.  And I will mourn, and miss, the artist as much as the friend.

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

Inherent Vice

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.


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

Thomas Was Alone

These days, it's no longer revolutionary for a game to use its gameplay systems as narrative devices.  But doing something really well is always rare, and while Thomas Was Alone is pretty visibly influenced by Portal and Braid, it's influenced by their smartest aspects.  Like those games, it uses the foundation of the puzzle-platformer genre as a place to build a cleverly cohesive fusion of gameplay and narrative.

From Portal, TWA gets the idea of making a story out of its own construction.  Most puzzle games are set in stylized, often deliberately "computery" worlds, so the player just accepts their conventions without too many questions; no one's going to ask whose engagement ring these three matching gems are for.  But Portal was set in a realistic 3D environment, so it needed some explanation for why the universe was a series of just-barely-transcendable barriers.   The game's story of a person who had to make her way through computer-operated tests was a series of gentle pokes at the fourth wall, jokingly putting the player in the same position as the character, though with a bit less risk of falling into a fire pit.

Thomas Was Alone is visually nearer to Tetris than Portal, which makes it a touching act of gratuitous creativity that that designer Matt Bithell gave it one of the better game narratives this year.  We would have just accepted that the little dots have to get to the outline because the outline is the right size for a little dot, but TWA turns the progression through levels into drama.  TWA's tale of computer-generated dots getting to the end of a program raises the bar on Portal's metafiction by openly acknowledging that all its characters are not just in a computer-generated environment but are themselves computer-generated.  There's a thrillingly modernist, even Marxist materialism in such frankness.

It helps that the story is told with a narrative compression that a lot of big-budget games could learn from; there's just enough information to spark the player's imagination without drowning us in irrelevant detail.  And despite the deliberately crude visuals, Bithell cleverly built character traits around each dot's abilities--- the jump-assist character is too eager to please, the low-jumper is jealous, and so on---so that I found myself somehow feeling like each dot looked exactly like that character would look.  Which is a neat trick when they're all a bunch of colored pixels arranged in an inexpressive line!

Better still is TWA's use of game mechanics as vital narrative elements.  As the verb tense suggests, Thomas Was Alone is a game about the shift from solitude to society, with all the attendant risks and rewards: companionship, mutual aid, obligation, betrayal, and the simple irritation of having to deal with people who aren't like you.  You start the game controlling a single character, and you're gradually joined by more as the game shifts from heroic quest to ensemble drama.  Initially, as I had to switch between multiple characters in the quest for the goal, I found myself instinctively trying to play like I did in the early levels---get a dot to its goal, go back and get the next dot to its goal, and so on.  But it quickly becomes obvious that the dots can only get to the end by working together, and the act of discovering that the characters must work as a team nicely forces identification with the characters learning the very same lesson.

As gamers, we're used to investing personality into what are really just a bunch of lights.  Usually, designers work to obscure that from us, lest we become ashamed of our anthropomorphizing sentimentality; Thomas Was Alone makes that the point of the game.  Even more striking, it does so while making a bold attack on the thematic foundations of typical video games.   Most single-player gaming is inadvertently, and perhaps inescapably, driven by a sort of sociopathy.  Everything you meet in the world must answer only one question: "How can you benefit me?"  With gentle, sweet-natured good humor, Thomas Was Alone nudges the player to a much more human question: "How can we help each other?"

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Thirty Flights of Loving


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

How to create custom teams in Worms Revolution for the Xbox 360

News you can use!  I just reviewed Worms Revolution for Slant, and for the most part, I loved it.  But!  But!  But the game has a terrible system for making and playing with custom teams.  So that others may profit from my example, I hereby give you step-by-step instructions for playing with custom teams in Worms Revolution on the Xbox 360:

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


I still can't get used to the idea that Charles Johnson, of Little Green Footballs, is now one of the good (or at least decent) guys. But ever since his "break from the right", he's been relentless in reminding people why he broke, cataloging right-wing bigotry and ugliness with a thoroughness you can only do from the inside.

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

Sonic Memento Mori

Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are breaking up, and I am sad, sad, sad.

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

"The New Yorker: Tabloid of Record"

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?