Archive for the Everything Else Category

These Wars of Mine

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by trivialpunk

     It has been a long, strange journey. I’ve considered picking up the metaphorical pen again many times, but there’s never been anything I’ve considered worth saying dripping off the end of it. Tonight is a little different. Tonight, I’m thinking back to my time with This War of Mine. It’s not so much a review as a look at what games can do for us. It’s a bit personal, so fair warning.

"Are you gonna kill us?"

“Are you gonna kill us…?” the old man asked.

 

     Let’s begin with the game, because none of this is going to make any sense unless you understand what I’m talking about. If you aren’t familiar with the Metacritic darling, This War of Mine is a side-scrolling survival-strategy game inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo. You control a variable number of survivors that are using a bomb-torn house as a shelter. The day-time segments are spent inside to avoid the eyes of snipers; your characters spend this time improving their shelter and taking care of their daily needs. You’ve gotta cook food, filter water, build beds, clean up rubble, break down or reinforce walls, construct a grow-op in the basement and make liquor to sell for more sugar to make liquor. If you’re successful enough, you’ll be able to supply an entire neighbourhood with cigarettes and home-made vodka. But, you’ll hoard it and trade it for medical supplies.

     Becaaause, the night-time segments are spent gathering the very limited resources from the surrounding buildings. There’s very little food left in This War of Mine. There’s very little of everything, and what’s left is hoarded, guarded or rotting in ruined shelters. So, in the spirit of adventure, you can send a character out at night to do some jolly looting. It’s dangerous, though, and these fragile characters often have very limited inventory space. If they die, you lose everything they’ve gathered, an entire night of looting, a useful set of hands, and a very dear friend. It’s an insane, but necessary, risk. Your character can be shot dead or break a leg. They can be attacked by other looters or become insanely depressed by the proposition of stealing from helpless senior citizens. War-time is a dark, dangerous time, and your characters are twisted by their war into horrible, selfish shapes. It remains to the player to decide what you take and if you take it, but your choices will end up killing people either way.

     This War of Mine is a stark world, and it is unforgiving when it comes to compounding failure. If you lose a good scavenger, then you’ve gotta send out someone else with fewer slots and a slower run speed. You have to make crucial decisions about finding chances to sleep, preparing water to drink, and reading books to steel your sanity. Everything takes times, and time is the most important resource in the game. Scavenging resources buys you time. Finding food buys you time. Recruiting survivors increases or decreases the survival time-value of your remaining resources and the number of things you can do with that limited time. Your entire goal is to outlast the war, to survive it. That is the war in This War of Mine: a tooth-and-nail fight for both your flesh and your humanity. You will lose chunks of both, but you can survive. You will not always do well, but you may do better. It all comes down to how you use your time. That brings us to my metaphorical war.

     This war of mine was more about surviving a financial crisis. In the last few years, I’ve gone through many ups and downs. I went from my friend’s couch into a single room, through a bachelor suite, and now I’m snuggled into a one-bedroom apartment. It was shortly after I moved into this apartment that this story takes place. I quit my Tim Hortons job to start my dream career as a writer that supports people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. It was gonna be great! Exceeept, they called and said they didn’t need me after all. I was fairly heartbroken and extreeeeemely unemployed. I had just paid my rent, so I had some time. I went over my finances. There was no way to pay next month’s rent, and I couldn’t sink any of it into my bills. I’d need food and bus tickets, resume paper and clean clothes. I didn’t know how I was going to manage it all.

     I looked at the numbers I’d written down. The duration of my survival quantified before my eyes. It was like staring death in the face again. I would have to make my bed on the street or hope to use someone’s couch, again. I’ve done it before, and it’s never pleasant, but it’s always enlightening. My anxiety welled, and I felt the dread wash over me, a great surge that left me shaking like a leaf. I held on and let it pass through me. Fear overwhelmed me, frothed like a raging hurricane, then subsided. There was much to do. It was time to survive.

     That night, after handing out dozens of resumes, I double-streamed Saint’s Row 4 and This War of Mine to ease my mind. For someone in my position, it was a real relief to solve my financial problems in Saint’s Row with the elegance of violent theft. This War of Mine, on the other hand, seemed to resonate with the same atmosphere my life had taken on. It became a mascot for my financial struggle and a vague reassurance that survival is possible. The rhythm of This War of Mine is a lot of setting instructions, planning while you wait, then reaping the benefits of those plans. That low-key pattern is intercut with sections of tense stealth and violent death, which proved both engaging and oddly relaxing. It was a perfect heat-sink for my anxieties. It helped me think about my own survival in more proactive and productive ways. I rationed out my remaining food with greater care and made smarter purchases with my remaining funds. I contacted my local foodbank and made my first ever withdrawal. Most crucially, I asked for help from my friends in a way I never had before. And they fucking came through.

     My city was in the midst of a terrible job drought. None of my unemployed friends could find work. There was a local group of us that would check in with each other to see how the hunt was going. Like the traders in the game, we had developed a support network, exchanging information and providing solidarity. It was rough. I never actually did find new work at the time. Later in the month, the agency I’d dreamed about working for called me back. They had room for me on the team, now! Which was great, except that I would never get paid in time to make rent. I would get my first cheque three weeks later, exactly two weeks too late to save my apartment. I was devastated, but I would survive. I would start looking for a new one-room place in the morning. I left a post on my facebook about it and went to sleep. When I woke up, an old, dear friend had sent me a message. She’d read about my troubles and wanted to help. She straight-up gave me the remaining seven hundred dollars I needed to make rent and stave off my bill collectors that month. No strings attached. “Pay it forward,” she said. Never tell anyone who did this. I’m not gonna, but you still saved me.

     Now, all I had to do was ration my food and bus tickets through five weeks of work: three weeks to pay my rent and two weeks to get money for food. My cousin, who also happens to be one of my two god-mothers, was in town and took me shopping for groceries. Thinking back, I did better than I had that first time I’d been given a timer and some resources. I remembered everything I had learned from those days with This War of Mine. There are no guarantees in life, and you will not always do well, but you can always do better. The goal of survival becomes more nebulous outside of the framework of war, especially when the harbinger of your doom is Capitalism. However, the game’s mechanical assertions that patience, planning, humanity and community are crucial to survival rings true in every setting.

     “Games are imaginary spaces where our decisions are evaporative,” and that makes them a perfect mirror for the kind of logical considerations that make your blood run cold in the real world. I had trouble facing the spectre of my own imminent doom, but I could assist a world full of animated puppets with their struggle to survive. Using that space, I was able to be more honest with my circumstances and overcome them more efficiently. It all fell to shit again later, but that’s another game for another time.

All-New Advertising Gimmicks Really Aren’t Much

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by trivialpunk

I’m shared between the rich and clever;
I’m the heart of each endeavor.

I gleam in every artist’s eye;
I’m the awe that fills the sky.

I am love, both old and new;
I’m the reason you can “do”.

Despite our clashing; I’m your friend, too;
You’ll use Me to figure out if that’s true.

Who am I?

The first letter of my name is the first clue.

The second letter begins the Tweet that holds the second clue. It’s the only one from June 26, 2014 that begins with that letter.
Ditto for the third letter.
The fourth precedes the beginning of the end;
And, even though it’s jinxing the entire thing, it refuses to move.

Yes, I absolutely put this together to spoil the title of my first ever web-series.
If I must advertise, then I want it to be enjoyable and challenging for everyone involved!

Good luck!

Marc Married to WTF: Attention Grabbing Title

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , on June 25, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hi! So, we’re trying one of those smaller posts that I said would be interspersed among the longer ones. For consistency’s sake, let’s also plug a video while we’re here. My YouTube channel has a new trailer! I’m vaguely excited about it, because it’s the first time I’ve ever been caught on tape playing guitar. And, it was an accident. And, as an act of self-flagellation, I posted it.  Because, I need to get over myself.

Speaking of me, I review a lot stuff on here, because I explore many different facets of the lovingly putrescent diamond that is pop-culture. I’m sure you’ve noticed some themes in the things I write about, but I try to keep my mind as open as possible. “Try”, not always successfully, I’ll admit, but the first step is always admitting you have a problem. So, it’s time to admit that I love comedy.

I’ve been watching it since I was a small child, almost as long as I’ve been immersed in the world of horror, actually. Maybe I was dealing with intense psychological trauma, or maybe I only had a few television channels. I’ll let you decide. But, I thought I might use some of these shorter posts to briefly review some comedians. One per post. And today, we’re talking about Marc Maron.

I’ve been listening to a lot of WTF with Marc Maron lately. He’s an older, experienced comic that was a pioneer of podcasting. Still is, if we’re being honest. I’ve learned a lot from the show. I mean, I’ve learned a lot of interesting things, but the things are not the only things that are relevant. (Stay with me, here.)

Marc and I disagree on a lot of “things”, but his method of self-inquiry is infectious. It’s brash and unassuming, humble, passionate and silly. Even if someone thought the whole thing was an act, the act itself is bold. And, I’ve enjoyed every second of the process of deconstruction that the show makes me go through.

If I’m being honest, and if that string of accurate fan-boy adjectives didn’t already suggest it, I’ll consume most media that Marc Maron puts out. Comedians, generally, have a touch of the auteur about them, but Marc’s an auteur of self-reflection, so, I’m always surprised by the way he spins things, because the loom he’s working from is so intricately refined. Coupled with his honest acts of self-reflection, he lets me see the world through his eyes without asking me to buy into it. And, that’s refreshing.

But, he’s not for everyone. Like most auteurs, it’s easier to digest their ideas if they resonate with you on some level. I enjoy his act, because comedy has been a part of my life for so long, and he spends his time deconstructing it in a novel and interesting way. For me, that’s awesome.

So, I recommend checking him out through either his podcast or his stand-up (I haven’t watched his television show, yet, so I can’t comment on that). If you enjoy his comedy “drive-shaft”, then I’d also suggest Dylan Moran and Louis C.K. because they’re also consummate comedic story-tellers. I know these are big-name guys, but if you’re a comedy neophyte, then they’re great places to start. Cheers!

Digital Humanities: Double the Entendres, Thrice the Parable

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , on May 19, 2014 by trivialpunk

I’ve had trouble explaining some of the core tenants of the Digital Humanities directly, so here’s a parable of one of its ideas:

This is Newsman 1. He knows a lot about A. There are a lot of letters in the alphabet, though. 26, to be exact! That’s a lot of letters to pay attention to at once, especially since A splits off into Aa, Ab, Ac…

Now, there are plenty more letters than that, and the combinations get pretty divergent. But, Newsman 1 knows that the people reading him are really only interested in Aa. He knows a lot about that, and there are enough people in the world that want to read about Aa that he can continue writing about it specifically. So, he does. He gets quite a following, which invests him with authority when speaking about Aa.

Now, there are also the people that listen to Newsman 1 because he can explain the news precisely and concisely. He speaks clearly and organizes his thoughts very well. And these people need someone like that, because the amount of information available to the average news-reader has increased exponentially. The number of things they have to know about is insane, especially if you consider that some of them are experts on B-Z. So, they rely on informed individuals to explain the complex nuances of things like Aa and Ab.

That’s a pretty efficient system for sharing information, but it has considerations that must be addressed. For instance, a lot of people who listen to Newsman 1’s  opinions about Aa also write about A or Aa. So, now Newsman 1’s opinions and ideas reach much farther than they did before. Some people credit him, some people don’t. That doesn’t matter for our purposes here; you can’t stop the signal.

This can be a good thing, if Newsman 1 is well-informed and even-handed. But, no one can know all things, even about something as specific as Aaa, let alone anything as generalized as A. That’s fair, though. We can’t expect people to be more than people, especially when they get to something they’re unfamiliar with. Or, when someone comes up with a new idea, like Aab.

Aab is kind of radical. Or maybe it’s counter-intuitive. Or maybe Newsman 1 just isn’t a fan of Aab. Either way, he says Aab is stupid and Aaa is obviously the superior idea. The people that listen to him take that negative impression into consideration when they’re talking about Aab. Now, Aab is always addressed from the angle of being compared to Aaa, which it might not have anything in common with, besides their shallow resemblances or context.

But, how could Newsman 1 know that? He writes what he knows and approaches that as thoughtfully as he can. Maybe he’ll change his mind, who knows? Maybe it’s a political idea, and he’s more on the fence than he lets on, but he has to have an opinion when he reports it. Whatever the reason for his disinterest in, or ignorance of, Aab, he is merely a dot in the chain of the spread of information. Whether he changes his mind or not, that perspective has spread through the web based on his authority on Aaa.

You might be thinking, “Yes, but aren’t there many different Newsmen. Surely, there are people who will provide coverage on the perspectives that Newsman 1 misses.” Absolutely true! But, what do you think the ratio is between people who interpret, then report, on A and those who read about it? It’s minuscule. The ideas of the many are being funneled through the visions of the few.

We rely on those people to be even-handed and informed, to report in an unbiased manner, but they’re already starting from a perspective. Unbiased reporting is a dream; good reporting takes bias into account as much as possible, but it will never try to convince you that it’s objective. Unless the reporters are lying to convince you of their opinions.

This parable represents a type of group-think on a scale that we could have never imagined before. Remember, in a world as chaotic and filled with information as this one, being even a little bit salient is a massive leg-up. It’s also a big responsibility. And it can be hard to know what information you’re actually spreading, some of it’s pretty tacit.

For instance, I used “Newsman” this entire parable. But, there are Newswomen. And, if I wanted to be truly thoughtful, I should say “Newsperson,” because I see the Gender Binary as an emergent, but artificial, social construct. But, if we ever get Androids to do the news or a member of an alien race, then “Newsperson” becomes a thoughtless generalization. And here’s where it gets tricky, if I say “Newsperson,” then will you ever imagine an alien doing it?

And if you never think of it, if it stays a strange, foreign idea, and you’re opposed to it, then how will you ever grow comfortable with it? Or even be exposed to it?

In a world as complex and chaotic as ours, as full of possibility and diversity as the bottom of the sea or the farthest star, the information people don’t address is just as meaningful as the stuff they do. A drowning man thinks only of the air-pocket, but ignores the ocean at his own risk.

So, that’s it: my triple parable. I don’t necessarily agree with all the ideas I put forth. And maybe later, I’ll realize I was being a newb and reconsider. But, for now, this makes sense to me.

The Titans Come

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hi! I just have to get this all out of my system, don’t worry about this becoming an exclusively Titanfall fan-site. I was working on a Titanfall fan vid and I thought: “Let’s procrastinate and make some Titan load-outs!” So, here are some of the things I came up with…

 OGRE-BP

The Hardpoint

Arc Cannon
Vortex Shield
Multi-Target Missile System/Rocket Salvo
Tactical Reactor/Regen Booster/Dash Quickcharger
Big Punch/Core Accelerator

Deployment: This is an end-game Titan and an important piece in any ground-engagement. As a giant hunk of metal and shielding, your battlefield presence is already impressive. But, augmented by your Kit load-out, you’ll be a persuasive force of battlefield control. The Over-shield Reactor ability always comes in handy, especially so when you’re taking some hits for your team in a narrow city-scape. Then again, there’s nothing like the ability to send a Titan flying with a single punch. Use your dash judiciously, or depend on your shields. Particle walls suit other load-outs, but you’re the mobile tank. You can’t afford to be unguarded on any side.

Don’t forget your true purpose: Staying alive and getting attrition points. Pilots, Spectres and Grunts are easy targets for the Arc Cannon’s chain-lightning. And every encounter you survive is another five attrition points denied. Be the shield. Live to tell the tale.

STRYDER-BP

Blaze of Glory

Quad Rocket
Electric Smoke
Rocket Salvo/Cluster Missile
Nuclear Ejection
Auto-Eject

Deployment: You are a missile that shoots rockets. Explode directly AT your opponents. Get them in clusters. Get them alone. Blow up from every available turret. This Titan is a sinister bet: that you can give more damage than you get. Calling this Titan down virtually guarantees your opponent five Attrition Points. But, that’s okay if you gained fifteen in the process. Or, if your team is getting spanked in the Titan game, and you need to level some Titans to level the playing field.

Nuclear Ejection is a powerful ability. Most Pilots are ready for it, but not everyone’s thinking about how much room they have to escape the blast. And, keep in mind, they might not be able to eject if you catch them, weakened, in the epicentre of your nuclear detonation. So, more points for you! But, try to make sure Auto-Eject has the air-space necessary to save your life, or you’ll bounce off the ceiling and back into some serious fallout. Don’t let giving up five points turn into giving up nine points.

ATLAS-BP

My Titan

40MM Cannon
Electric Smoke
Rocket Salvo
Fast Autoloader
Auto-Eject

Deployment: This is My Titan. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. It’s your basic Swiss-army knife. Does well at ranged combat, close-combat, Anti-Pilot combat, and leaves you alive to tell the tale… or to blow more things up. Control Line-of-sight with Electric Smoke, or use your agility to force a Titan into stepping inside the deadly vapor by dashing behind them and applying your fist. Once you’ve dropped their shields, hammer them with cannon-fire, liberally.

Your cannon doesn’t do a LOT of damage at once, but keep it firing and aim for weak-points carefully. A salvo of rockets should drop most enemy shields or tear a sizable hole in their life-bar. Either way, if their shields are down, shoot for the red until they’re dead.

OGRE-BP

The Hoplite

Triple Threat/Mine Field
Particle Wall
Cluster Missile
Regen Booster/Tactical Reactor/Nuclear Ejection
Survivor/Big Punch/Core Accelerator

Deployment: Not every mission calls for mobility. Sometimes, you’ve got to dig in. Hop in and become a wall. Clear buildings with your grenade launcher. Set the line in the sand with your Particle Wall, Mine Field and Cluster Missiles. Watch your enemies weather it all, then Big Punch them back through it.

It’s your choice. Depend on your shield, your Particle Wall or just raze the earth in the wake of your destruction. It doesn’t matter how, you hold that ground!

Good luck, Pilot.

Combat Evolved

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! It was just my birthday! Which means I’ve passed the threshold necessary to be +1 years old. I marked it on my character sheet this morning. (Make one for yourself; it’s nerd-cool >.>) So, in honor of my newly gained age, this week, I’ll be up-dating The Gift Box with a new game every 26 hours. (If I can’t get to it in time, I’ll double-post the next one!) Also, I’m going to teach Valve a thing or two by releasing some third instalments: Final Fantasy 14: ARRDark Souls and Titanfall

I was going to do another post on Titanfall, but I figured that you might want me to punctuate the giant robots with a little something else before this site becomes free advertising for Respawn. So, let’s do some free advertising for Microsoft, instead. Playing Titanfall got me thinking about next-gen game design, which, of course, brought me back to the first time I noticed a shift in design principles in my games: Halo: Combat Evolved. Now, I know a lot of people deride Halo as the beginning of the boring, cover-based, two-weapon shooter, but I protest. I don’t think you’re quite remembering it right.

That sort of thing started with people misunderstanding the thrill of the adrenaline-fuelled five-minute tactical fire-fight. A limited number of guns makes sense in that situation, because you’re never going to need more than one, really. You can switch between spawns and try new strategies with very little down-time. Stretching that hot-zone of bullet-riddled chaos into corridors of pop-up targets is what not to do. So, what do I think Halo did right? What problem do I think they were trying to solve? Let’s get to it.

Halo-combat-evolved

As with every post of this nature, I’m purely speculating. These are things that make sense to me, but life is rarely so orderly. But, let’s step back in time, nonetheless. You’re playing Doom. You’re low on ammo and high from blood-loss. The sounds of explosions and feral death-dealers aren’t far behind. You’ve got no health. You fucked up. Now, what if I were to auto-save the game for you, right there? Crap. Well, I guess you’ll either have to master the game very quickly or restart. That sucks.

It does, indeed. For gamer and developer alike. Because, gamers have to play around it, but if situations like that are too plentiful, then it could break your game. Worse than that, your franchise, and the work you put into it, might suffer. So, developers have to plan their levels around situations like that. Health-packs, ammo dumps and obvious save-points/quick-save features are a few solutions. However, the necessity of each of those features is going to limit what you can do with your levels, and, therefore, your game.

There are games that just don’t handle the injection of quick-save features very well. Choice or story-based games come to mind, especially if you want to increase re-playability by weaving a complex, swerving narrative into one story. But, challenge-based games can also have their flavour changed quite significantly by the ability to restart from any point within the challenge. Sprinting an entire kilometre is an impressive feat of human perseverance, but not if you stopped to nap every fifty meters. It loses something in the process.

So, if you don’t want a quick-save, and you don’t want to be limited by weapon/health availability, what do you do? You ensure that your player can easily return to their full-health/ammo resting state at any point in the game. And, we facilitate that with the use of energy shields and limited weapon capacity. No, seriously, a limited number of weapons, and the similarities between the human and Covenant weapons, can encourage players to switch tactics mid-combat. You can’t really run out of ammo, because everything you kill drops a weapon. You’re not hoarding ammo, because you’re not carrying an armory on your back. But, your weapon might run dry, encouraging a quick swap. Done correctly, this can add variety to the combat.

If you remember, the first Halo game wasn’t quite ready to dump health bars altogether. Which I was alright with it, because it encouraged me to play intelligently to be pressured by a waning life-total. But, the shield bar did allow the devs to know approximately how much health you were walking into a given situation with. This allowed them to plan accordingly. Now, they could fine-tune the levels to any challenge level they wanted. Do you remember that structure from when you first crash-land on the planet? It was basically a mini-fort guarded by aliens.

I remember it as being challenging, but not impossible. As I ramped up the difficulty, the number of enemies increased, sure, but their placement became more thoughtful, as well. Phalanxes of Jackals protected Elites, as the Grunts swarmed forth unto death. It was neat. Each time I played it, the challenge remained robust, until I got to the point where I’d played it into the ground. And I think a lot of that has to do with a well-tuned challenge curve that benefited from a design that suited its deployment.

Am I saying that shield bars are better than health meters? Not even a little bit. But, there are benefits to shield bars that health bars don’t possess, unless they regenerate (very small practical difference, at that point), and vice versa. All I’m saying is that the mechanics craft the game-play, which is used to craft the experience. And the experience, here, is being Master Chief.

As a character, Master Chief was designed as a mobile weapons platform. His visual design echoes a tank for a reason. But, he’s not just the fire-power, he’s the intel, too. Cortana, his tactical A.I, gives him the tech-presence to also be a mobile command post. His whole deal is being a walking army. An unstoppable force wielding an immovable object as a shield. And what game-play style reflects that? Fast-paced, wit-fuelled, weapon-swapping, on-the-fly tactical combat. And when you were deep in the on-line melee or had it cranked up to Legendary, it could start to feel like that. Yup, that sounds like the right amount of bad-ass to me.

That’s not even mentioning what the increased processing power of the next-gen might have brought in terms of level-design freedom. But, honestly, I don’t know if it played much of a role, so we’ll say no more about it.

Every mechanic is another piece in a developer’s tool-kit, but not every tool is right for every job. Thinking about how those tools can be used to best effect has brought us some pretty excellent games. It’s given freedom to devs and allowed them to craft more thoughtful experiences. Sure, some people use mechanics thoughtlessly because they seem well understood, but when someone brings it all together to make something new, I call that next-gen. Graphics and processing power are fantastic, but next-gen is just an idea. So, ideas are its heart and soul.

Remember Me: Human Revolution, Part 2

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hey! It’s been a long time again! Long enough that the “Remember Me” portion of the title holds a lovely double-meaning. This is where we normally do a little house-keeping and then move on to the article, but there’s way more house-keeping than article this week, so we’re going to do things in the opposite order, and that will make sense in a minute.

One of the biggest downsides to writing two-part articles separately is that you never know what will strike between setting down one collection of type and the next. It’s the risk we take in indulging serialized media. I’m sure we all know what it’s like to have something simply cease (#Firefly Feels). But, that’s the dread truth of life, isn’t it? The systems, patterns and truths we use to live our daily lives can betray us at any moment. Not that they will, but they can. And we have to live on in spite of that sonorous unknown. We have to, and we do.

Yet, even benign undulations affect us, which brings us nicely back to where we should have been all along: Google. Search engines are a pretty fascinating element of the internet, because they seem to exist as a clear window of exploration. But, even that’s a clever trick. “What trick?” you might ask. The trick of appearing unbiased and helpful while still encouraging a homogeneity of thought. Whether that’s good or bad, I’ll leave to the scholars.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go off on some paranoid tangent about big-brother and the NSA. The internet does that enough on its own without me gracelessly adding to it. Believe me, if I had something interesting to say, I’d be all over it, but think of what we’re discussing here as a technology that is related to the algorithm that lets someone build a psychological profile from your browsing history. I’ve beat around the bush enough, so let’s make sure the question that leads to the actual discussion is a mirrored crystal: How does Google decide the order and availability of search results, and how does that affect knowledge distribution, as well as understanding?

This question, and those related to it, are part of a growing sector of academia called the digital humanities. The Humanities, if you’re not familiar with them, are all areas of study that are related to humans, culture and history. This includes Psychology, English, Sociology, History, Anthropology, etc. The Digital Humanities is a sub-set of the Humanities that focuses on how the advent of the computer is changing the ways we understand things. The information sources we rely on. The mediators through which we experience culture. The gate-keepers that control the flow of information that informs our daily life.

Because, if we could be said to have experienced an Apocalypse in the last few decades, then it’s definitely the Rise of the Machines. Computers, obviously. You, as you are right now, sitting in your chair in front of a high-def computer-screen with a touch-phone in arm’s reach, have probably grown up with the idea of computers and the internet, but it’s a serious historical game-changer. Or rather, it could be, but that depends on how we use it. Completing the circle of blather and bringing us back to…

Google is the most popular search engine on the internet. It’s capable of delivering millions of search results in a matter of seconds. It organizes those results based on your prior viewing history, anticipating what you’re probably looking for. Typing in “Titan?” If you’re an anime fan, then you’ll probably see “Attack On Titan” as an option. More of a Final Fantasy 14 aficionado? You’ll probably find an entry or two about his boss fight, if not get an outright suggestion in your search box as you’re typing. Then again, there’s always the Titan missile. A Wiki page on The Titan Rocket family (Yes, I’m Googling as I type…). The Teen Titans. The Titans of ancient legend. Personally, the first thing that popped up for me was Titan, the moon.

But, remember, it’s not just the things you’re most likely to enjoy. Google uses a process that orders your search results based on the viewing habits of other people. That’s why Wikipedia is usually one of the first results you get: everyone goes there. This is a pretty neat system, but it’s got a few obvious problems. The first is that it encourages group-think by increasing the chances that we’ll all be seeing the same information. Which sounds bad, but it also makes it easier for us to communicate, because we’re more likely to have seen the same entries, so we might have some common ground. Just think about the sheer amount of legitimacy and authority that being the first search result alone would lend you as a result.

Of course, it takes a lot of views and a lot of traffic to become the very best. So, if you’re peddling grass-grazer gas, you’re probably not going to get there. It’s a sort of quality-control thing, but it’s not perfect. Then again, what is? It can certainly be manipulated. When I’m working as a freelancer, one of the primary things people worry about is SEO (Search-Engine Optimization). This basically means writing the article such that it’s more likely to be picked out by a search algorithm based on its content. Basically, they want mimetic density in the first paragraph. (If you knew how much I was over-simplifying, you might want an apology. If you do know, then sorry!) If you’re writing about sausages, you’ve gotta make sure you squeeze in every sausage-related tid-bit that might be important to the sausage community into the article. Even your jokes should be sausage-based. Pro: Top results are more likely to be related to your topic. Con: It could just be pandering propaganda.

Again, though, it’s hard for pandering bullocks to hold a slot. Eventually, the popular, the informative and the useful rise to the top. And, it’s not like there’s going to be a standard search-result screen; it’s an active, adaptive process. Come on, admit it, Google is elegant as balls.

So, now that we’re on the same page, you can see how easy it would be for Google to alter the course of human understanding. Hell, even Wikipedia could become a hive of scum and questionable sources. We rely on their integrity and the work of a bunch of anonymous fact-checkers to ensure that the information that guides large portions of the digital world is reliable. We’ve all learned to be sceptical, though, right? You always follow the blue links at the bottom of the Wiki article to make sure it’s not just bollocks? Because, I sure don’t.

So, to be 100% clear, Google is controlling your mind by showing you: the information you already know you want, and therefore already agree with, and exactly what everyone else is looking at. It’s a truism that no one looks past the first page of search results, but it could also be reality. The real question is: do we use Google because we trust them or do we trust Google because we use them? It’s the main problem with having one source of information or a Total Institution. Churches, Schools, Prison systems, Legal Systems, they all face this reality with greater or lesser denial and greater or lesser concern.

Come on, though, it’s not like you only get information through Google. And it’s not like you can’t trust them. I do, wholeheartedly, but I know how easy it is for me to simply accept the information and understanding that I’m given, so I’m wary. It’s even easier if you think you ‘re the one that found the information in the first place. Remember, though, you didn’t: Google did.

Where is all this unhealthy scepticism leading us? Right back to the two games we were discussing in the first post. The reason that a search engine needs to be subjected to that level of scrutiny is that it is the tool you use to explore. To perceive. On the internet, Google is like one part of your sensory system. It feeds you information that you can use to direct your behaviour. It also functions as an extension of your body, as a literal tool, because the functions you can perform are restricted and enabled by the engine. Weird, right? Let’s go further.

Now, say, instead of Google, we were talking about a set of prosthetic legs from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And, let’s say it’s a bit after the game, so we’ve gotten a little creative with our designs. Now, instead of your flesh-sticks, you’re rocking a set of quadruped robot-legs! Pretty cool, right? It’s not all walking up buildings and winning three-legged races, though. The change is going to fundamentally alter how you understand your ability to shimmy. The design of the legs themselves, the way they bend, their length, size and weight, are going to affect how you can move with them. As a result, your understanding of your body and your relationship to the environment will change.

Bringing it all together… What about your mental environment? If you’ll remember, last time, we talked a bit about mental augmentation, storing memories digitally and increasing processing power by fusing metal and flesh. Now, the issue at hand. Take what we said about Google and apply it to your memories. Your brain. Your understanding of everything you are and will be. Make one memory salient and bring someone to their knees. Make the memories of a sickness seem to last too long and you can shatter someone’s resolve. Associate stomach flu and a food, then BAM! Instant life-long distaste. It goes without saying, then, that the search protocols we use in supplemental prosthetic memory must be under even greater scrutiny.

I can’t stress this super obvious, but easy to underestimate, idea enough: your brain and body enable and constrain everything you are. The tools we use, both mental and physical, refine those abilities even further. From those copious refinements comes a multiplicity of interactions that create you. Change any one of those elements and you’ll change the end result. When we start augmenting people, we’ll start changing what we consider to be human.

Deus-Ex-Human-Revolution-Wallpaper-Wallpaper-2

Okay, stop, I’m going to break the 4th wall even harder, right now. This is all I can really remember from the original post I had prepared. However, looking back, I can see I put a couple points in the wrap-up that I promised to cover, so I’m going to do that, now. But, I’m going to talk to you in my own voice, instead of Triv’s. I know it’s a small difference, but there is one. Trivial Punk can’t discuss Trivial Punk with you, and that’s what I want to do. But first…

Procedural memories are those you use to perform actions and tasks. Think of your procedural memory as an instruction booklet for your motor systems. There are two things that immediately shake out from this concept, based on our discussion here; 1: Changing your procedural memory will change how you perform actions. If you could hack into that digitally, we’d have… issues. 2: More applicable to robotic augmentation: if you change the tools used to perform the actions, then your procedural memory will develop very differently. Obvious, again, let’s go deeper. What do we use procedural memory to do besides just perform actions? Inform understanding.

We have a complex empathy system that lets us try to guess at the intentions and motivations of the people and things around us. We know when people are happy, because they smile, but we all know that smiles can mean different things under different circumstances, and we know that, because we’ve smiled. We’ve smiled under hundreds of different circumstances in many different ways. But, what if you didn’t have a mouth? How would you interpret a nervous foot-tap if you didn’t have a foot. Or legs. Or a body? Don’t worry, you definitely can, but you might experience the interpretation of the gesture differently. The memories you use to do the interpretation might be more symbolic than kinaesthetic. Obviously, I’m in full speculation mode, at this point.

In the coming generation, we’ll have to begin talking about the strictures of the human form as we begin to download minds, or human-like minds, into currently inhuman forms. That’s enough to consider on its own. Usually, this whole piece would come down to questions of whether or not they’re human. I don’t have that question; I don’t really care if they’re human or not. If they have minds, then we should unite around that commonality. But, you know, xenophobes will be xenophobes. And maybe they won’t care about us silly flesh-babies, but that’s another future to be decided on at a later date. Any ways, the question I’m eager to ask is: should we place any restrictions on form?

Your first answer would usually be, “Of course not!” That was mine, too, until I really thought about it. If we extend those potential-minds people-privileges, and we DAMN-WELL BETTER! (No, seriously, let’s try to never be slavery-genocide stupid ever AGAIN! That’s going to be the social problem of that age, you heard it here 4, 940, 342nd!) Okay, so let’s say we do extend them those privileges, and we can control their physical form, then how far are we away from slavery? No, seriously, if you give something a mind, but only give it the ability to Roomba around a house, then you’re purposely constraining its physical form in order to ensure that it does your chores. It’s a topic to approach carefully; those are some serious future-crimes.

But, okay, maybe you don’t care about robots, so I’ll leave you with this culmination of these ideas. The human brain is a remarkable processor. I actually don’t know the words to make you realize how amazing it is. It contains a universe that actively understands itself based on electrical signals. Seriously take that all in, now look at yourself… your existence is amazing. Moving on, have you considered the computational abilities of your brain, apart from when it’s actually doing mathematics? Each of us is a phenomenal information processor. You know where I’m going with this. You could take the brain of a developing human, a child, and insert it into a system a ‘la The Matrix, but instead of harnessing bio-energy like an inefficient newb, you control the brain’s environment such that the brain develops into a pure information processor.

Between the man-machine interface we discussed last post and this post’s ramblings about how your physical form affects your mental understandings, can you see the rows and rows of bodies? You don’t need the skin if they’re in a tube. You just need to keep the brain nourished and the nerves alive. Or, maybe you don’t. Maybe you just need it functioning and you’re controlling the nerve-inputs, because they’re inefficient. Plato be damned, brains in vats could represent more computing power than currently exists, if you could access it properly.

Or worse, you could end up a helpless, motionless tube that feels and digests food for another set of organisms, depending on how inefficiently we’re running this thing. So, be glad of your body! Never let anyone tell you that your body is your humanity. And always accept augments from strangers.

Okay, let’s get to that house-cleaning now that there’s a way longer post than I intended to write in front of it!

As you might know, I went on a little hiatus to knock my head-brain around a bit. I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. I want to write stories. I want to make short movies and silly letsplays. There are so many ideas that I haven’t dared try, yet. You know, standard creativity-dreams. However, I’m also kind of a science-nerd, in some respects. Academia could provide me a life doing the thing I find most interesting: thinking. This year, I’ve got to make a decision about where I begin my future. And, as of right now, Trivial Punk isn’t shaping into a career.

Don’t get me wrong, I do this because I love it. And I’m taking the chance to keep doing it, because I want to make interesting ideas and the primal grips of fantasy the central conceits of my life. I want to encourage people to dream, because the future is forward. It’s up in space. It’s beautiful, terrifying ideas about the nature of our developing consciousness. It’s equality as a given, not something we have to continually fight for. It’s finding humanity in the post-human and hope in our most crushing defeats. And if I write nothing more for the rest of my life, or if you read not one screed, not one iota, more of my writing, then, please, accept this final plea, “Don’t give up on what we can be.”

In the spirit of that idea, I’m going to spend the summer working on videos, articles, letsplay and the like with my friends. We’re still learning, but we’ll put all we have into it. All I ask is that you share the things you like. I’m one person; I can’t do much on my own. But, if each single person does just a tiny bit, then we can accomplish great things. Or plug our work, either one. I don’t like talking, or even thinking, in a mercenary fashion. I don’t enjoy self-promotion, unless it’s too true to be manipulative. So, that’s what I’m doing here. Please, share the stuff you like so that I can do this with my life.

Regardless, I’ll still finish the novel I’m writing. We’ll still make videos and put in the time. It’s up to us to make this work. But, let’s be honest, all my work means nothing if nobody sees it. That’s it, cards on the table, honest. Any number of things could change in a given life, so who knows if any of this will hold true in the long run. Literally no one can say. But, it will always be helpful to share the things you like on the internet.

I’m sure you’ll notice some new stuff in the next couple of weeks; here are a couple of new things I’m trying, let me know what you think!

Dead Space Letsplay – Trying something a bit different with this one. Let me know what you think! Did you have enough time to see them all? Were they in the way? Entertaining? Funny? Existentially disturbing?

Doom 3: BFG Edition Letsplay – Simple and sweeeeet.

Dark Souls Letsplay Turbo Preview – The best and fastest way to see us die over and over again.

That’s it for today! Thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the other side.

Dead Men Tell No Tales; They Drop Beats

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , on February 21, 2014 by trivialpunk

I know you were expecting a Part 2 for Remember Me: Human Revolution, and you’re going to get it. But, not today, and, you’ll shortly understand why. You see, among the things stewing in my brain is an ongoing fascination with our digital lives. There are so many aspects to it that aren’t readily apparent. For instance: a lot of the things we say hang around longer than we realize. Pictures we put up, videos we up-load. Comments we make. At one point, I almost lost a job over a frustrated post about bureaucracy in the work-place. Many people have lost jobs because of the aforementioned. There are many famous cases, you can look them up at your leisure, but just take my word if you’re not privy to it all. (If you want phrases to Google, go with “teacher fired for” or “woman fired for” and you’ll find your controversy)

Just the other week, I watched a Twitter snafu develop between two individuals over a new comment on an old, old Tweet. Totally understandable, I’m not here to judge one way or t’other, but I will note that it has to be incredibly jarring having someone comment on something from over three years ago, especially if social media is second nature to you. You get used to just tossing thoughts into the aether when you think they’re worth sharing. So, this situation would be as if you were approached in the street by a stranger and questioned about an off-hand comment you made in a bar one time, word-for-word. I’m not sure if we have any etiquette for that sort of thing, but we might consider starting a conversation about it somewhere. Or, joining in on the on-going one, whatever’s your style.

That right there was going to be the heart of a discussion I was going to post next week about how permanent a lot of the stuff we throw into the annals becomes when computers are involved. There are pictures of me drinking absinthe in a questionably smokey room floating around on-line somewhere. Not incriminating in the least, but if I were to be competing for an important office, you know someone would dig it up. There’s more out there than your voluntarily posted stuff. Google Search Histories, old e-mails, posts in random forums from when you were 14, off-handed remarks from the early days when Godwin’s Law was hammered out… Some of it’s still out there.

We don’t tell children this enough; we don’t tell adults this enough. The internet being a fairly new thing, it’s hard to tell exactly what the long-term ramifications are going to be for our culture and, quite honestly, our very being. How you understand yourself is morphing as you use the internet. Don’t worry, your understanding of yourself morphs all the time, so it’s nothing new. But, it is important that we consider how we’re changing, not just acknowledge that it’s happening.

All this would have been fascinating conversation fodder, but something else came up just last week. A good friend of mine, an incredibly creative, unquestionably kind man, died of a gun-shot wound outside of the town where we met for the first time, many years ago. Now, I have to approach this thing from another direction, because I can’t think of anything else. I’m going to try to keep this light so it can escape the black hole that my heart has become. That’s not to say I don’t have one; it’s just pretty heavy right now. Bah-ZING! Don’t go off on me about density and weight being different things; now’s not the time to look for the truth in puns.

I discovered that this terrible tragedy had occurred via the internet. In fact, we had done most of our interacting through the internet over the past few years. We’d both moved around a lot and only saw each other about once a year. Your standard long-term Facebook Friendship. You know, the people you keep around because they’re too precious to lose, but your life is too insane to comfortably accommodate. I went to his page, because I felt I had to confirm what had happened. It was immediately strange; it held the muted calm of a graveyard in brightly lit text-boxes. It had become a shrine.

The life that my friend had lived had come to pay its respects. Pictures and videos poured in from people that had known him. They posted their favourite memories and said their farewells. It was touching. I kept scrolling, a tear fighting its way through the mounds of cynicism and unreality that were protecting me from realizing that he was actually gone. That is, until I scrolled down far enough to reach his final post. It was a link, posted two days before his death, to an album he’d just uploaded to sendspace. I finally felt his death with his final post, and, yes, that’s the link to the album. Dead men tell no tales, I’ve realized; dead men drop beats.

It made me reflect for a minute on all of the things we leave behind. The great works left for us by fantastic masters of craft. Lives bottled in miniature. Books that let us see with fresh eyes the days long past. Music that sums up swathes of human history. Movies had hold in a suspended mixture the essence of a moment. Games, like SH2, that let me stalk the streets of my fondest memories. Each life leaves something behind, though, even if it never leaves a discernible mark on our social fabric. I know it can be hard feeling heard on this massive planet, but we do have voices. And, now, we all leave echoes.

What happens to our Facebook accounts when we die? How long should they be maintained? Do we pay to preserve them like a memorial in a graveyard? More disturbing… to me, my friend’s life was revealed through an on-line profile that came to represent him. Now, he’s gone, but the profile remains. His life, to me, at least, has left a distinct stamp that I can still access. Everything about it for the last year has been shared with me digitally. All the information about his life and death were represented in a similar manner. I have no proof of that life one way or the other, except his Facebook profile. Which says to me that it’s a pretty important part of life.

How many MySpace pages exist in this fashion? How many memorial pages persist in the annals of Facebook’s digital library? What is Facebook’s responsibility here? What do we do with those pages, as a people? On the one hand, they’re a disturbingly visceral reminder of the past, like having a corpse you can visit from your screen. Unmoving, dead. On the other, it’s alive with the memories of the people who can visit it. Because, when someone has moved on from this life, a digital symbol is as valid a representation as a physical one, albeit, arguably less sacred. Don’t believe me? You have on-line banking, don’t you? You should really get it.  Memories locked in vines? True enough for me.

If there’s this much of you left on the internet, the record of your life, and, if the internet can destroy something as fundamental as your livelihood with its digital memory, then we must conclude that the internet, and Facebook in particular, is an integral part of your life. But, it is unlike any other part of your life. It leaves a trail of the changes you make, unless you unmake them. Information that you’ve completely forgotten existed is in an old e-mail somewhere or on a weird back-woods forum. How do we deal with the implications of this? Do we put a statute of limitations on these things? You change a lot in five years, but the words you wrote then are just as fresh and accessible as they’ve ever been. Albeit, inconvenient to find, unless stumbled upon accidentally. Which happens, because internet.

People discover old works by artists that were posted over five years ago, and, if questioned, how should the artist be approached? That’s a long time in a life, really. Hell, when I was 13, I thought I was assembling a harem. As it turns out, I was just cheating on a load of people at once. But, if you questioned me, now that I have a brain more in control than my testicles, I would say that I acted like a complete prick. I can’t go back and change that, or anything that shook out of that, but I’m a better person now. Although, if we’re being 100% honest, I’m going to leave you doubting that that story ever happened. There, that’ll do it. Let’s say it did, though.

If I was doing it on-line, there’d be a record of it. People could come by later, see it for the first time, and judge me all over again. They don’t know me; they haven’t been privy to my life so far. As far as they know, today, I’m a pimp in Paris dealing cards at a mob game. Worse still, what if I was being rhetorical? Or joking? Taken out of context, the Sochi Problems meme seems really arrogant. Just first-world people complaining about first-world problems. What about the people who have to live under these conditions? What about the lives that go on within Russia that have to deal with these problems first-hand. Tainted drinking water isn’t a first-world problem; it’s an everyone problem.

Then, you realize, that that’s the purpose of the Sochi Problems meme. How do you get people to pay attention to something on the internet? You make fun of it. Make it cute, marketable and readily understandable, and hope it catches on. With the attention of the global community focused on Sochi, it was going to catch on. Russia is a country that’s a massive player on the world-stage, and maybe we need to pay it more attention than we have been.

And that’s what I’m kind of doing here. Reminding us to pay attention. My friend was a really good person. To me. To everyone I’ve ever seen him interact with. I don’t know what happened to him exactly. I don’t know what his life has been like for the past few years. All I have are the things I saw and the life I let slip by me. Maybe I should have spent a little more time with him, but that’s a regret we always have. So, I put forth, maybe we should concern ourselves with the physical problems masked by the Sochi Problems. I don’t know; I’m not a politician.

What I do know is that the life we create on-line is non-trivial. Even a punk like me leaves a mark, but what happens when I’m gone? How much of me is even real to you? With over a hundred posts on this site, you could, theoretically, re-live my entire blog for a long time before you ever had to face the fact that I wouldn’t be writing any more. I may be here, right now, typing in a room, but there’s a lot of me out there, too. To you, that might be all I am. Surely, each line is infused with a bit of my essence at the time it is written, but I am not that man any more than I’m still the child who soiled his diapers. What happens when those servers go dead? Do I die with them? No, but what if I’m already gone? Do I live in those pages or just in the memories they evoke? For how long?

Do I die with my history? Does my history die with me? Does silencing my history kill a portion of the living person? If you destroyed my Facebook account, I would be diminished. If you trashed Trivial Punk, I’d lose all I had written down. Those memories would die in your head and in mine. The difference being, those memories are MY history. These are strange questions that we must consider. Or, you could let them pass you by, but they will affect your life. Might as well join in the conversation.

R.I.P. Dear Friend. I’ll see you on the other side.

Critically Critical

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! We’re back on schedule this time! Who saw that coming? Apparently, you did, because here you are, all polished and shiny. Or maybe that’s just my new keyboard. Sorry, I spend so much time with this thing that it’s kind of a big deal to me. It also means that I won’t have to use my mechanical keyboard for everything (as much as I love it to bits and bytes), so I’ll be able to stream and letsplay previously unplayable games. Anyone that’s watched any of my old series will know what I’m talking about. Before I went full gamepad, it was pretty clacky on the “Trivial Punk Fun-time Roughly 30 Minutes.” Now, you’ll get to see what you’ve always wanted: me playing Half-Life. No, I don’t know, but I’m excited to get started.

In the meantime, here’s part 2 of the Silent Hill: Homecoming letsplay that’s up and running on my channel. I hope that it engenders a little love towards me, because we’re going to approach another topic that I want to get out of the way before I get back to game reviews. I know, I should just do both. Maybe I will! I’m not the boss of me! Oh… er… anyways, this came up because I had a pretty obnoxious conversation over dinner last night with an associate of a friend of mine. Vague association, I know, but let’s continue on to the actual topic: Criticism.

I know that a substantial portion of the people who come here to feast on the mind-worms that droop from my slackened, pit-marked skull once a week are game critics. Or movie critics. Or book critics. A lot of the reason for that is that criticism is one of the things I enjoy, so I spend time reading about other people’s perspectives quite a bit. It’s good for me to see something through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes, it can completely change my view of something. Thus, it only makes sense, based on the laws of collision that I just made up, that critics are who I would meet on-line. Love the work, keep it up! This isn’t directed at anyone in particular, but I felt that in the age of Internet Criticism, we should discuss why and how we critique things.

Now, this is going to be a pretty big discussion. Obviously, a lot of the meat of critique is personal and subjective, so I can’t make sweeping generalizations and expect to do any good. Even though I probably will end up doing so, human weakness and all, I want to try to be as fair as I can. In the spirit of that commitment, I’m going to be honest: this is going to be 100% subjective. There are the things I’m personally tired of reading, like “B sucked because it didn’t A,”  but that doesn’t mean they should be abandoned. It’s complicated, because the road to that example conclusion is a legitimate way to interrogate a work. From my point of view, the crucial element is when the technique is employed. Let’s dive in and I’ll show you what I mean.

Let’s get this out of the way first: no one will ever be truly objective. (Not “can”: “will.”) It’s simply impossible. Which is too bad, because it would make criticism that much easier. Every experience a person has is influenced by all their previous experiences, how they’re approaching the present, whether they’re hungry or not, how many times they’ve experienced something… Let me give you a for instance. I loved most of The Lord of the Rings the first time I saw it. It was truly awe-inspiring. However, I felt that same way when I watched Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. Did you hear that? It was the sound of a hundred collectively gasped breaths, followed by a slow, deliberate move to the unsubscribe button, but hear me out.

When I first watched SWE1, I was eleven years old and, while I was a huge fan of the original trilogy, I wasn’t committed to the integrity of the Star Wars universe. I watched it with my Dad, which was kind of a special treat, because it was something we could both enjoy. I saw it in the theatres, and I wasn’t immersed in the internet culture that so derides the trilogy we whinge about today. And, let’s be honest, the first movie wasn’t as bad as we think it is today. It was fun, exciting and had Jedi, so I really enjoyed it. If I had put together my review then, it would have been a glowing recommendation written about as well as a Engrish translation.

What about The Lord of the Rings? Well, by the time I watched those movies, I was a little bit older and pretty committed to being a pop-culture junky. I had almost the same reaction to it, because the circumstances were pretty similar for what I was expecting from a movie at that point. Hell, JRR’s The Hobbit was one of the first books I ever read. Even so, I still spent a good deal of the movie comparing it to the book. It’s a pretty common practice now, and, having grown up doing it, it’s one of my least favourite past-times. Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but it didn’t have Tom Bombadil in it, and that’s what I wanted to see the most. Kind of soured the thing for me a bit. Eventually, I got over that and saw it for the good movie it was.

Until… years later, I’m sprawled on the couch, half-and-half vodka-coke in one hand, hangover threatening to pound its way through the booze wall I’m hastily erecting, memories of my recently lost girlfriend drifting through my head… Naturally, I put on a movie to distract me. That movie was… you guessed it… The Fellowship of the Ring. And I HATED it. It was too long, over-written, stuffy, pretentious, needless, unrealistic, unfaithful to the source material and a bunch of other mean things. Legolas was a pretentious jerk; Gimli was an annoying bag of hair that should have died too many times to count. You get it. I believe none of those things, but if I had written a review right then, I would have said it was terrible. Ironically enough, one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy it was that I’d loved it enough to have watched it too many times.

See what I mean? I chose an extreme case because I wanted to illustrate it as clearly as I could, but this occurs to a greater or lesser extent all the time. And it’s quite alright. I’m not saying we shouldn’t hate on movies, games or books. That would be silly and unrealistic. It can be a lot of fun to make light of the things we enjoy or hate. After all, we spent money to experience them, and they have a pretty big impact on our society. If that’s what someone wants to do, then I’m totally behind them (unarmed, even). But, I would suggest that we always ask “why.” I’ll illustrate with the conversation I had last night.

The basics of it were that Starship Troopers, a campy poke at Fascism and the military melded with over-the-top drama and action, was not like the book. Also, my associate thought it was a bad movie. Okay, that’s a legitimate opinion, but why is it important that the movie be like the book? Could a movie ever be exactly like a book and still be a good movie? You can capture the essence of something, but why does that mean we need to follow along blindly behind it? (SST Irony) Ideas can be used as vehicles for other ideas, after all. And they really should be, because some things just aren’t as relevant to popular culture as they once were. Or maybe we want to deconstruct them with a goofy movie. Basically, why is A movie THIS movie, and why do we want it to be a different movie? I could go on…

There are a lot of “whys” there, and I’m not going to go through all of them or we’d be here all night, but I will address the most important question I would ask: why are we proffering this criticism? I’m not saying that rhetorically; I’m asking what the end-goal of the criticism is. That’s a pretty essential question to answer, because it informs everything you do with your critique. It’s not something you can answer once, either. You have to know, going in, what you want to communicate for every critique. For instance, last night’s conversation would probably be akin to arguing personal movie preferences, because neither of us managed to have our opinions altered. We weren’t calmly discussing the merits of the movie; we were arguing over whether or not it was good based on our personal preferences. All well and good, but does that help anyone else? Only if you can explain yourself and provide a recommendation.

You see, to me, a personal preference review is one that’s helpful to people who are familiar with your preferences or, and this is optimal, someone who shares your preferences. That way you can provide helpful advice for anyone interested in that piece of cultural ephemera. But it probably wouldn’t be helpful to anyone actually making the film. On the creation side of things, you’re familiar with the fact that not everyone will like your film. You don’t make your films for everyone, and you’re aware of the diversity of opinion. I mean, you could try making movies for everyone, but then people just complain that they’re bland, which kind of defeats the purpose if there’s a large group that doesn’t like them. (Still, it might make a lot of money)

Thus, a lot of the time, the why you’re reviewing something comes down to who you’re reviewing it for. On this site, I try to peer into gameplay mechanics, poke at playability, flirt with experience and languor in story. All so you can decide if you want to buy it or not. Also, a part of me wants to influence how you look at games and movies. When I wrote my review for The Hobbit: TDoS, I did it because I loved the movie, yes, but also because I knew some people might get taken aback by some things if they went in expecting the book. Essentially, I wanted to help craft the mind-set you went into the movie with. Mind-set is a big part of getting everything you can out of a movie. You don’t want to watch an arty foreign-language film at a kegger (or maybe, hmm…) and you don’t want to watch LotR sprawled on the couch with a life hangover. (Still…) I vehemently believe that personal context matters.

At the same time, I occasionally focus on portions of a game that I felt affected the overall quality. Maybe there’s a setting I think would improve an experience or a level that I think could be better. At that point, I’m trying to get other designers, players and producers to think about if it could be improved, my recommendations be damned. Or, maybe I’ll do a review strictly to make a point, like I did with Super Hexagon and learning curves.

One thing I will never do is seriously denigrate the things I purport to love. I’ll always poke fun at EA, but I’m glad they’re around to draw capital and attention to gaming, and I genuinely enjoyed Dead Space. I didn’t like the second Star Wars prequel, so I didn’t watch the third one. I didn’t need to show up to hate it. And that’s what made last night’s conversation so needlessly obnoxious: “Okay, we’ve said our pieces about the film. Now what?” I’ve seen people work for hours to prove that something was bad, but what does that accomplish if that’s the end of it? Last-night-dude seemed hell-bent on convincing me that SST was a bad film, but all he did was convince me that he didn’t like it. It’s not just him, either. I’ve done it. I see it all the time on-line. We’re stating our opinions, and that’s great, but I think we should draw the line at trying to suck the fun out of it for other people. That’s not a critique, after all. Oh dear, did I not mention? I don’t believe that A critique = A review, but they’ve got a lot of things in common, so I figured I’d leave this segue here.

A critique is like a nuanced review. It takes into account past cultural incarnations (Read: prequels), current trends, multiple preferences, multiples perspectives, historical relevance, contemporary relevance… It basically situates the cultural artefact (Ex. movie) within its context and approaches it on its terms. Then, it discusses what all of that implies to us. It’s done to help the producers of the work to improve, the consumers of it to appreciate it and the critic of it to develop their abilities further. Again, that’s just my opinion, and we’re into semantics here, but that’s what I believe to be the purpose of a comprehensive critique. But, it’s not like every critic has all that background knowledge, especially starting out, or all that much room. I’ve seen some pretty poignant review Tweets, after all. And you don’t have to know or do all this to be a critic. The only reason I bring it up is because I believe it’s what we should shoot for when really diving into a piece of pop-culture.

To me, you should always approach something on its own terms; it really improves the experience. Because I have to approach many different types of popular culture, I’m not familiar with all of them, and I don’t always appreciate them off the bat. However, at some point along the way, I realized that I would never learn to enjoy new things if I always judged them by the standards I already had. I would always data-feed myself things I liked, narrowing my preferences further, until I couldn’t see anyone else’s opinions through my own miasma. I would believe something for so long that I’d begin to think it was true. If I didn’t try, if I didn’t work to cultivate different perspectives, I wouldn’t be much use to you today.

That’s kind of the heart of it. The standards by which we judge things are our own, and if we truly want to criticize something on its own merits, then we need to be aware of how those standards are formed and what they communicate. Just whinging about something doesn’t really forward the cause of improving its overall quality, unless we’re talking about affecting viewing figures and preferences. In which case, complaining about Michael Bay films hasn’t done much to affect their revenue. If someone hates those films, then maybe they’re not for them. I hated Transformers the first time, because it was a fandom movie made for someone other than the fandom. They knew the fandom would already come, so they made the film to appeal to everyone else, so they could get their business, as well. When I approach it with that in mind and a pint of beer, then it’s really not so bad. It’s the same way I watch Elementary on television and just pretend it’s a detective show about a guy who just happens to be named Sherlock Holmes. (If anyone’s a poster-child for the changes wrought by contemporary relevance, it’s Sherlock Holmes… or vampires)

More and more of us are flocking to the internet to give our opinions on movies, games and books, and I think that’s wonderful (That’s why I’m here, after all). A culture of criticism can really do some good, especially if we can add something to the reader’s experience. However, I think we should be extra aware of why we’re personally critiquing something and what we hope to communicate about it. After all, we’re going to be leaving these Tubes to the next wave of critical thinkers someday, and they’ll be looking to us to figure out how to approach criticism. For my piece, I want to leave them a tradition that’s positive and thoughtful. Cheers!

Happy New Years!

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , on December 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello! So, I was thinking about it, and you might be happier knowing the date of my next post. You see, I spent my holidays recovering from this year. Resting and fighting the mid-twenties, graduate-year angst of what I’m going to do with my life. I’m doing much better now, but I’m on my way out the door and I’ve got plans until after New Years. You know me.

So, the next post from Trivial Punk will come on January 5th, 2014. I’m not sure what it’ll be about, but I’m thinking about what kind of stuff I do here and trying to decide how best to proceed in 2014. I’ve worked on quite a few projects over TriviPunk’s life-time. Some were put aside. Others were quietly released. This year, I’m thinking of simplifying and focusing.

Stuff I’m hanging on to that you know about:
Trivial Punk on YouTube
Trivial Writing (Story section only)
Gloam (I’m nowhere near done it yet)

Stuff I’m hanging on to that you don’t know about:
An Unannounced Novel
The Binder
Code-name: The Pilgrim
The LOMG

Stuff I’m letting go:
Duel (The Online Version) -no funding, no staff

I would also like to offer my sincerest apologies to Recollections of Play and CheeeseToastie, both of whom nominated me for awards: The Versatile Blogger Award and Blog of the Year awards, respectively. Thank you for your nominations, and I sincerely apologize for having a brain too full of frappe’d guacamole to accept in a timely fashion. I feel that it’s been far too long for me to accept them properly, but I’m grateful for the mention. Go check them out! There’s a reason I follow them.

Good luck to you in this new year. Kick some ass! You know, metaphorically.

Here’s wishing you many bright days and High Scores in 2014! Stand steady against the flow of the years, and I’ll see you on the other side.

-Trivial Punk

Oh, and here’s a little something just for you. My name, Trivial Punk, has many different meanings and ways to shorten it. Trivial Punk was something I thought of as a throw-away name for on-line Go games. I wanted something that reflected my awareness of my own insignificance, but also something that would be ironically poignant if I ever became successful. It also gestures towards my love of trivia.

So, Trivial Punk is a reference to my state as a single, unimportant being, my love of things trivial and the irony of how we think of things of relative unimportance. And, if you’re reeeeal good, it shortens to Tri-Pun, for obvious reasons. What’s in a name? Oh so very much and nothing at all. It’s Trivial.

Happy New Years 😀