Archive for the Everything Else Category

The Hobbit: TDoS – Spoiler-Lite Brand Review

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2013 by trivialpunk

Well, look at me all posting twice in the same week. I just watched the new Hobbit movie: The Desolation of Smaug and I had to weigh in on it while it was still fresh in my mind. I had a couple of problems with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. To this day, it’s still hard to nail down what they were. Something about the cinematography reminded me too much of the LotR series. I mean, it makes sense, because they were in the same world and created by the same director. But, it felt like the style clashed with the narrative.

The Hobbit has always felt like a pretty personal story to me; it’s much smaller in scale than The Trilogy, even though it’s epic in its own right. So, the panoramic vistas and huge tracking shots felt weird. That’s the closest I can get to articulating my feelings towards the film. It’s not even 100% accurate, because, upon re-watching it, I can’t rightly say one way or the other if that’s a fair assessment. Whatever the issue was, it was completely gone by the time of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I don’t know if it was the relative size of the film or if the cinematography was different or if I’d swallowed some unusual mushrooms before viewing the original, but TDoS just felt right.

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I don’t know if it was because the story was a little more cut up, so there were plenty of cut-aways, or if the film itself just came into its own, but this instalment in The Hobbit trilogy is definitely worth seeing. If you were on the fence at all, then this is my textual shove in the “watch” direction. I’m not going to spoil anything here, because I want you to go check it out, but I will point out a few things I noticed that aren’t exactly plot-relevant.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: this isn’t the book. People going in and expecting to see the book are going to be a little disappointed. It doesn’t deviate wildly, but they added some things and changed the pacing a bit to make it more viewer-friendly. And I think that’s great. Too many book-movies will spend time trying to be exactly faithful to the original incarnation, oblivious to the fact that you can’t expect one medium to translate perfectly into another without an awareness of what the mediums do best and how the audience experiences them.

They added a couple of sub-plots in just the right places. The dwarves split up in Lake Town for an unspecified-here reason, which is appropriate, because it gives each dwarf a little more personality. They’re helping to hold up three movies, so you have to hope that they each get a little personal development. A heady task when your cast is 13 dwarves and a burglar.

Legolas makes his contractual appearance, but it’s not really obnoxious. It feels… right? Maybe that’s not the word, but it flows into the narrative pretty damn well. They put him opposite a female elf that gave me Brave vibes the entire movie. I can’t unsee it.

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I mean, am I crazy, or does anyone else see it?

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Green dress, red hair, bow and arrow, liberal attitude towards established authority, heart of gold, total bad-ass… Either way, she was a welcome addition to the cast. The fight-scenes with her and Legolas are sublime. The combat, in general, maintains its choreography par excellence status. It’s serious sword-play interspersed with some high-level ranger action and a little intense slap-stick.

Some effort is put into making the dwarves more sympathetic by making them fight for their homeland a bit more stringently. In the book, they just kind of show up and piss off the dragon, then let the lake-dwellers clean up the mess. Here, well, let’s just say the fight that caps the movie is cinematic gold.

I saw the film in 3D AVX, so the theatre could take advantage of the greater FPS of the cameras used to film The Hobbit trilogy. You might not notice it if you saw it in the standard theatre, because only some theatres are set up to take advantage of the increased frames-per-second, but the footage was super smooth. It was honestly a bit weird, at first, but, as I settled in, I started to appreciate the added fluidity, especially during the dragon sequences. Even the 3D was used to great effect, notably in… Mirkwood. uuugh… I don’t like things with 8 legs that move with hydraulic motion outside of water. I hid my eyes like a child for a few seconds at one or two particularly disturbing scenes. It helps that I’ve got a bit of a phobia of giant spiders.

But, even the portion with the bee on the screen was effective in 3D. Even so, I do have one particular request to make of film-makers: can you please stop doing the “thing stabs out of screen” shtick? It doesn’t look real. It doesn’t catch me off-guard. It just reminds me that I’m watching a film. Sure, drop something on the screen or have something hover in front of it: that gives us time to appreciate the detail or get caught off-guard by the impact, but nothing looks real -stabbing- out of a screen. I thought we figured this out in My Bloody Valentine 3D. That’s a tiny, irrelevant complaint, though, because the rest is done so well that I’ll forgive the occasional jolt out of the action.

The acting is on par with the rest of the series. Everyone possesses exactly the right amount of gravity and Gandalf is always appreciated. Thorin in particular carried his role very well. And Martin. Let me stop for a second and talk about Martin, because he sold it for me. Somewhere between awkward English slapstick and sheer determined Hobbitness sits Martin’s Bilbo. His scenes in the Dragon’s Hoard are particularly lauwkward (laughably awkward), and his moments as the burglar and the invisible sting are The Hobbit manifest. He’s not MY Hobbit in MY imagination, but he’s a damn good real-world equivalent, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Boondonoddle Cambridge-mat was a believable Smaug, and I have to wonder if those two are ever going to be in a movie where Benzedrine Cabbage-patch plays subordinate to Mr. Freeman (I guess we’ll have to wait for the new Sherlock to find out). In any event, I love their chemistry. Even if, well, the movie takes a very interesting approach to the heat that comes off of flames. And it never bothered me before, but I remember noticing that the ancient races of Middle Earth have a complete and reckless disregard for railings. I have to wonder how many more members of the Old Races fell to clumsiness before hubris. I guess that’s why the elves that remain are so nimble and the dwarves are so stout. Low center of gravity, ya see?

For a two and a half hour movie, it went by pretty quick. The only time it lags a bit is towards the end, but, by then, well… you’ll get it. The Hobbit’s approach to politics is pretty interesting, too. No one is portrayed as simply in the right. Greed is used as a powerful tool for good in the right hands, but it’s also an extremely destructive force. Just like real life! Speaking of politics, there’s a greater depth to the whole situation than there was in The Hobbit the book. Effort is made to tie the franchise to the LotR Trilogy and it succeeds to an admirable degree. Shhh… spoilers.

Also, the whole thing looks awesome, but you knew it would going into this. I’m not sure what they’re working with over in Hollywood, but it’s deep Magick. On that note, they cut out the fairies in Mirkwood, but, overall, the set is fantastic and largely excuses the lack of Fairy-folk. I’m guessing that the fairy dinner would have been a bit difficult to sew into the tone of the rest of the piece, but the manner in which they write it out is totally believable.

The final surprise of TDoS was Stephen Fucking Fry. I love this man in everything he’s in, and he played a right brilliant bastard this time around. I don’t know what your feelings towards the guy are, but he’s a treat in this film. Even comes with his own Wormtongue. In closing, go see TDoS and keep an eye on the number of barrels for me.

TDoS.
TDoS Run.
…RUN!!…

A Brief History of Trivial Gaming

Posted in Everything Else with tags , , , , , , on November 16, 2013 by trivialpunk

Welcome back. Today, we’re going to do something a little different. You see, I’m approaching one hundred posts on Trivial Punk, and it’s got me thinking. I know a hundred is a pretty arbitrary number, but it reminded me that I’ve been at this for a while. For almost two years, I’ve been bringing you weekly essays on video games, movies and horror. That’s a lot of time and effort being poured into any project. So, I’m starting to wonder, should I end this journey here and pour that into something else? The novel I’m writing, perhaps? Valid and Sound? PsychWrite? Forgotten? University?!

This is post number ninety-eight. In this post, we’re going to talk a little bit about why being a gamer has been amazing for my life. Ninety-nine, I think we’re going to review a game. For one hundred, we’re going to do… you know, I’m not sure. I’ve got a few things planned, but I’ll save it for the day. On that day, I’ll either recommit myself to the cause or tell you about where we go from here. Today, we’re getting a little personal, so here’s a picture of a younger me.

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Look at that guy. All in his dorm, getting ready to go out for Halloween with a little red star painted on his face. Do you think he has any idea what he’s in for? I’ve been a freelancer, a hotel manager, a sandwich artist, a cook, a baker, a candlestick recommender, a clerk, a bartender, a porter… it’s a long list. I’ve been a fiancée and a boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend and a bachelor (I’m reeeeally good at that). I’ve been a wanderer and a homebody, a hitch-hiker and a student. The one thing that has always remained consistent is gamer. I have always played games. From pogs to Pokemon cards, chess to poker, all before the age of six. I have vague memories of playing an adventure game on a black-green monitor in daycare and booting up King’s Quest on a computer with less total memory than my current CPU.

Its been a long ride. People sometimes ask me, “Don’t you feel like you’re wasting your time?” while watching Dancing With The Stars without a hint of irony. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting show, but it’s weird to judge someone on how they spend their free time when you’re spending it in an equally innocuous way. Has it, though? One of the things I’m interested in studying at University is the way in which playing games effects your brain. Yes, that’s the right “effect.” But, more than neurochemistry, how has being a gamer effected me?

Well, it’s definitely affected the way I compete. When I was in my early teens, my friends and I used to spend a lot of time and money playing games at our local LAN parlour: Fragz. We were teenage boys, so it was a pretty competitive scene. I still remember spending hours perfecting my rocket jumps and twitch-killing. I got pretty good at using unconventional weapons, too, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. When we played Counter-Strike, I would always start and play with a pistol then scavenge machine guns from the battle field, but you can blame Trigun for that one.

We played Star Craft a lot. Huge multi-hour, multi-player matches that taught me how to deceive and plan. In fact, a lot of my tactical management abilities came out of playing Star Craft. Getting the right units to the right place at the right time is essential to any management scenario, whether you’re running a Casino or crushing the Protoss (Zerg 4 life.). I wasn’t the best at any of these games, though. There were plenty of players that spent a lot more time gaming than I did. They had their game specialities, and I was trying to be pretty good at everything on a budget. I was playing Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic the Gathering at the time, so you can guess that I didn’t have a ton of cash lying around to buy game time with.

Still, there was a certain synergy to it all. Playing cards games is a great way to learn how to read an opponent, plan an overall strategy and execute logical functions. Seriously, when I studied Maths in school, nothing helped me more than the time I spent pwnings nubs and taking Life Points. Even here, though, I wasn’t the best. I didn’t have to money to buy the shiniest new cards, so I had to think differently. I had to start using unconventional strategies in every game I played to compensate for what my opponents were good at.

When you’re playing against someone that practically breathes rockets or trips over Ultra Rares, you can’t engage them on their ground. You have to get them to play your way. I started using the grenade launcher, because its insane projectile trajectories were difficult to figure out without the necessary experience, and their long fuses often caught people off-guard, especially in a game as fast-paced as Quake 3. Yet, when I really needed to unloaded some damage, a direct hit would cause the grenade to detonate instantly.

Card games were the same story. In MTG, I started playing Blue: the trickiest colour. I learned how to read my opponent’s expectations and violate them as often as possible. The expectations, not my opponent. When it came to Yu-Gi-Oh, I just built decks to beat the standard decks of the time, because there were like three of them. Nothing like a little imagination to slide past roadblocks to success.

However, even with all this, the most important thing I learned was not to hate my opponent. There’s a lot of vitriol that gets spewed on the internet, but that’s not just because those people are gamers. That’s because those gamers are mean-spirited or angry gamers (I know I’m simplifying, but run with me). When I was playing with my friends, we would have to switch around teams constantly. So, my greatest ally could become my deadliest opponent in the time it takes to press free-for-all. It was because of this that I learned how to learn from my mistakes and from my opponents. Love thy neighbour; love thy enemy, because we’re all playing the same game.

Now, when I play on-line, I don’t see some stupid nub who can’t play. I see someone whose schedule is too busy to play every damn day. I know that maybe they’re just having a bad game. Maybe they’re just starting out. I love games. I love playing games. If I want to share that, sometimes that means being patient. Playing at Fragz taught me that I don’t always have to play the way my opponent does, but the flip-side is that my opponent doesn’t always have to play the same way I do. We’ve all got our lives, but if we love games, then that should bring us together, not harass us apart.

Honestly, that’s been my experience. I read quite a bit as a youngin’… still do, actually… and reading isn’t really a social activity. Talking about and loving books can be, but the act of reading is usually a solo activity. Gaming was the key to breaking the shell around me that travelling in a literary universe helped erect. And it wasn’t just social gaming, the fact that someone was a gamer instantly gave us something in common. Let’s ignore sub-cultures for this and just think about it as connecting person-to-person over a common interest. In fact, I met my ex-fiancée because we both played games. I remember it like it was years ago…

She sat behind me in Chemistry, but my friend was sitting behind her. One day, when we were discussing Resident Evil, she piped up with, “Yeah, but Zelda’s better.” I stopped, mid-sentence, and stared. She said that she just didn’t like getting talked over and wanted to say something. From there, we just sort of clicked. Over the years we were together, we had the conversation that followed about the comparative merits of survival horror and action-adventure over and over again. On our third anniversary, I got her a Wiis on launch day, and she got me a PC. We even ran a WoW guild together, nurturing and nudging the newbs we recruited until they were a well-honed fighting force. Eventually, we broke up, but that’s just life. Whatever the reason for it, it was gaming that had brought us together. Let’s see… at about that time, I was wearing this Halloween costume:

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Aww cute. He’s all tuckered out from raving. I didn’t stop running the guild after we broke up, though, because it taught me responsibility. No matter how hard it was, I owed it to my friends and players to keep going. We’d worked too hard to build the Guild to just abandon it. Plus, and this is where things are going to get really strange, World of Warcraft honed my social skills to a fine point.

Do you know how long you have to establish good will when you’re the leader of a 25-person pick-up group or the tank for an instance? Minutes, even seconds. You have to make your players believe that they can trust you, depend on you, to get them to the end of the instance in a decent amount of time and, then, to distribute loot fairly. At the same time, you have to be able to correct people and chew them out without damaging their position in the group or hurting their feelings. Making people feel bad about a performance is NOT going to improve their play. Nerves and all that. It gave me my voice and taught me to be confident in my decisions. Even today, I can always use a little of that.

We can skip over what I learned about economics from the Auction House and mimetics from Trade Chat. Suffice it to say that I’ve written roughly five papers on topics gleaned specifically from World of Warcraft. MMOs are their own human ecosystems, after all.

Problem solving, social relationships, academic considerations… there’s no part of my life that gaming hasn’t touched. Even family. One of my best, clearest memories of my dear departed mother is playing Mario 3 with her. She did that thing that people do where they flick the controller while they jump like it’s going to help them go farther. I bet she would have loved the Wii. Tailor-made. My sister and I still talk about playing Wave Race on the N64. Even my dad helped me solve puzzles in Myst and learn how to catch a baseball. Together, we would play Chess and Go. And we all used to play cards. Poker, Bridge, Rummy… the whole family would gather round and play Sevens or Hearts. When I was eight, I won a lot of money at extended family gatherings from playing Rummy. Well, it seemed like a lot.

The important thing to me was the play, though. We might call it engaging today, but I just called it fun. We call it social media and social gaming, but the truth is that the social comes from us. It comes from players –People– spending time together, telling stories and enjoying each other’s company. That large family has sort of drifted apart. I’m far away in another city studying every day and writing posts, making videos and playing games. But, I still have that memory. Those memories. I have gaming to thank for that. I have my family to thank for letting me join in their play.

From all that, I learned the most important lesson of all: how to include someone. Gaming with my family, friends and significant others taught me that no matter what game I’m playing or who I’m competing with, the person on the other end is a human just like me. It’s shown me how to treat them like a person and, if need be, to help them learn how to play. Most of all, it’s ingrained in some deep, secret place of my self that games are more fun when everyone can play.

So, Dear Reader, while I don’t know who you are or what you’re about, I can appreciate that you’re a person. Gaming links us. Sports, cards, PC, Playstation or XBox, we’re all gamers. It’s part of the human condition. Now, the next time someone asks you why you’re wasting your time gaming, you can say, “Because I’m human, and it’s a thing we can do.”

And, you know, while I was going to wait and think about whether or not I should continue writing Trivial Punk, writing this post has made me realize that I should. Sure, it costs time, money and energy, but, like my Guild, I’ve worked too hard at this to just abandon it. So, many happy returns! And, just to show you how far I’ve come to get here, here’s a picture of last year’s Halloween costume… I’m sure you’ll recognize the mouth, if you look up.

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Uzumaki in its Medium: Mandelbrots and Death

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by trivialpunk

Welcome back! A little this and that before we get started. I did a rewrite of my oldest story for a creative writing class, and you can find that here. This week saw the introduction of two new Letsplayers to the Valid and Sound stable: DeathSarge and Alice Brady. You can find Deathsarge’s blog here. For Deathsarge’s introductory video, we played The Stanley Parable. Alice Brady’s introductory video was Organ Trail, the zombie-themed remake of Oregon Trail. This week, Alice and I are starting our descent into Alan Wake.

For those of you not familiar with Valid and Sound, it’s the collaborative label for my local group of nutty Letsplayers. We were going to call it Valid OR Sound, but we figured that, with enough of us in the room, we could cover both bases. Now, for the reason we’re all here: this week’s discussion of horror. Just before Halloween, I polled my Facebook friends for their favourite horror antagonist in any medium and the overwhelming response was The Spiral from Uzumaki. So, today, we’re going to discuss how Uzumaki’s medium enables its particular exploration of horror, as well as some of its more psychological aspects.

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There are a lot of complaints when a story changes mediums. Often, we blame the directors for ruining our book in the process of making a film. If you ask anyone that likes anime and manga, they’ve probably got a favourite expression of any franchise. Don’t word it like that, though, ask them: Do you prefer the manga or the anime? Almost unfailingly, they will have a preference. This isn’t always because one is of greater or lesser quality. Often, this is because the story was made for its original medium. Have you ever tried to sketch an oil painting or fry a cake? What you get out of it might be good, but it will also be fundamentally different.

This problem is exacerbated when we’re discussing horror, because horror is an experientially fickle genre. Translating a story from one medium to another takes a greater deal of skill and an understanding of the essential elements of the story. Look at Ender’s Game. I loved the book; it was one of the first novels that I read as a child. The movie, however, left me cold. It was a box-checking exercise. It covered all of the events of the book, but felt stunted and emotionally detached (I actually laughed at the inciting incident of the token conflict with Bernard). That’s not really fully the fault of the directors. They actually did some pretty clever things. How could they have done it better? Well, for starters, they’d have to strip down the story to its fundamental elements and focus on those. On the characters, the plot and the message.

However, again, that would produce a movie that would be fundamentally different from the book but that would still carry the same weight of experience. Lord of the Rings is a great example of this. Yes, they got three movies to work with, but they were also telling three books worth of story. A lot of stuff was chopped out to ensure that the movie’s world felt Gestalt. And it worked. It worked because the directors understood how to translate from one medium to another. Translation relies on two things: 1: The fan-base being open to changes (That’s where we can assist in the production process). 2: Having an understanding of why something works in a particular medium and how it could work within another.

That brings us back to Uzumaki. The story of The Spiral is an interesting one. Essentially, this town has been cursed by The Spiral. What is the spiral? Well, it’s a shape, but it’s not a self-contained one. It suggests the infinite within the framework of a circle. It spirals endlessly outwards and unceasingly inward. Well, at least, that’s what it looks like. In reality, it’s a self-contained shape, but it’s also visual short-hand for something that’s mesmerizing. It’s a drill. It’s a slump into depression. It’s the physical decline of old age. It’s the cyclical nature of history and human experience: roving in circles that are never quite the same. It’s a literal example of not being able to make ends meet. It’s a plume of smoke. It’s draining water. It’s hurricanes. It’s everywhere. It’s a physical manifestation of the rules of nature. It’s Mandelbrots and death

That’s what makes the spiral such a perfect antagonist. The Spiral appears to have a Will of its own, but it’s absolutely inscrutable. There’s no way to know the motivations of a force of nature that’s so enigmatically ubiquitous. Our lives are spirals. We are made, in part, by spirals. Yet, it’s sort of an odd shape, so it’s salient when we find it.

These things make The Spiral perfect as an antagonist. It’s both innocuous and vaguely disconcerting, but also fascinating and self-referential. This is the slow-building, existential horror that Japan traditionally does so well. Think Silent Hill or The Ring. As a person trapped within the Universes where they hold sway, there’s nothing you can really do to understand them, no matter how hard you thrash. Even James Sunderland’s revelations at the end of Silent Hill 2 do little to explain why it was all happening in the first place. There are hints and pieces of lore, but truly understanding the motivations of the town is beyond his ken.

That’s a lot like Uzumaki. What the hell does the spiral want? What’s its end-goal? Does it even Want? And if it’s unstoppable and insatiable, by virtue of having no actual goal, then we’re caught in a violent maelstrom of unreconcilable impossibility. Two of our greatest human strengths are pattern recognition and curiosity. Both are part of the search for meaning and The Spiral skewers us with them, because we find it fascinating. We can go mad trying to discern the patterned motivations of the spiral and fall to it through our unfailing motivation to understand it. In that way, it’s extremely Cthulhian. It turns our minds against us and hollows us out with the domineering surety of a drill. Ceaselessly and without motivation, it chips away at who we are.

Most disturbingly, it is us. The seeds of our doom are sewn in the very tools we would use to resist it. That’s what makes The Spiral so awesomely disquieting, but the method of presentation is important, too. Why does Uzumaki fare better as a manga than it would as a book, if Lovecraft exploited a similar vein of fear in literary form? Well, in part, it’s because the fear is visual. The manga includes some pretty disturbing images, like this one:

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Believe me when I say, this is pretty normal by the standards of Uzumaki. Yet, it’s not entirely the visual. Part of it is our attempts to understand the mind –the experiences– of the character. Third-person and first-person books often include a semi-omniscient narrator to allow us to look into the minds of  the characters within it. Uzumaki does something similar, because it shows us the characters. Whether you realize it fully or not, you’ve spent your entire life trying to figure out what people are thinking and feeling based on their postures and facial expressions. The manga format lets us do this, but it also plonks its characters into completely alien circumstances. What… how does the person in the picture feel? Sliding along the floor, dragging against the rough linoleum, eyes askew, depth-perception shattered. His skin isn’t his own, and his back has become a horrible burden. A burden of The Spiral.

We can, in a way, look into the mind of this young… man, but we can’t quite figure out everything about him. In fact, we’re disturbed and repelled by the idea that we might. Even, that we might try. This is the uncanny valley of psychological interpretation. Close enough to us, close enough to our edge of madness, to be enticing, but still so Eldritch that it’s beyond our comprehension. It’s unsettling how much that notion suffuses our experience of the story.

In the early stories of the series, we see more clearly the effects of the fascination induced by The Spiral, but the same uncanny valley rules apply. We can see the madness in their eyes, but we can’t experience it. We have to take it as rote that it’s there, whereas we might question it in a literary piece or a movie, when it would hinge on actor portrayals. Unless we can experience the force of the mental spiral downward into insanity through the medium, it will always seem stilted. Uzumaki’s visual element bypasses that by letting us see it in freeze-frames. We can see it happening, but we’re locked out of fully understanding its nuances. It’s the edge of the uncanny valley of understanding that we find disturbing.  This is why “Eldritch light” is always more effective than “vaguely fuzzy lights of unknown origin.” It’s fully understandable, but partially incomprehensible.

Yet, the story counts on the fact that we’ll try. Some of the story’s more visceral contortions are made doubly effective by the imagination of the reader trying to understand the feelings of the character. You’ll see what I mean as you read, but, for a more general interpretation, you know how you cringe when you see someone hit their head? That’s because you know what that feels like, and part of you has understood what that feels like. You’re fed the sensation theoretically, and, if your mirror neurons are firing properly, part of you felt the necessary movements to produce the effect. We’ve all been trapped in tight spaces before, so you’ll understand the effects of The Spiral just enough for it to disturb you.

There’s more, though. One of the most important elements of contemporary horror is timing. I’m sure you’ve noticed the flaring violin strings and building musical jump-scares that go into most horror movies now. For the veterans among us, this sort of thing can be annoying, because it basically warns us when something’s going to jump out. It’s a bit sigh-worthy, but the crescendo of the strings, the height of the musically inspired tension, is juuuust before the horror-trope is executed, and then it is held. It’s just before the stabbing. Just before the cat flies across the screen (So many fake-out scares are cat-related!!). In a way, the music is telling you when it’s time to tense up and think about what might happen. Manga doesn’t need that, though. Uzumaki requires your volition.

Turning the page of a book is an active process. In fact, reading a manga, at all, is an active process. You have to construct the scenes that occur between each panel yourself. You have to think about what’s happening in each panel, take it in and animate it. That plays right into Uzumaki’s hands. It uses detailed, highly unusual, somewhat disturbing images to provoke our imagination. This is the thing that helps to guarantee what I was talking about earlier. Because the onus is on you to animate the scene, you have to work that little bit harder to understand the motivations and situations of the characters. Often, that simply doesn’t happen when we’re being spoon-fed something on a screen.

In a way, comics are a nice compromise between mental animation and gratuitous information, with a well-defined mental distance between character and reader. It’s this specific type of engagement that makes Uzumaki so effective in manga form, surprisingly off-putting two-page spreads included. Besides all that, if it was on television, the camera would control what your eye looked at. It would trace the lines of The Spiral, and, personally, I think that would look a bit hokey. It would break the forth wall, because I would know that the director really wants me to get into the spiral mind-set. As a book, it would describe The Spiral, but it wouldn’t have the same impact of having to absorb it and its effects visually, mentally, the same way the manga does. Uzumaki, as a manga, asks me to sit and really appreciate The Spiral. I’ve caught myself, time and again, following its flowing, orderly lines to the edge of the page and into the void of ethereal madness beyond.

Why We Secretly Live in a Horrifying Dystopia

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello! So, the week of Halloween saw the release of another video and two new stories by yours truly: the longer Unfinished and the shorter While You Weren’t Looking. This week, in honor of my favourite holiday, and because I was sick through the whole damn thing, I thought I’d bring you, personally, a little of the horror that haunts my nightmares. The truth is that movie-monsters aren’t as frightening as they once were. I’ve simply watched too many movies. Right now, true horror lies in interactive experiences and real-life, which is, in a way, an interactive experience, except it’s unbalanced as butts. I mean, if we’re going to be doing open-world PVP, shouldn’t we balance the zones a bit better? Whatever. I’m sure there’ll be a balance patch any day now.

For me, horror lies in the little truths of life. The things we take for granted and try to forget always apply. Things like: We’re all going to die someday. I’m a bag of flesh-bones. My consciousness is a complicated illusion. I will never again feel as invincible as I did when I was a child. Every moment of my existence is part of the process of degradation that will eventually rob me of mind, mobility and metabolism. BUT, most terrifying of all: I live in a terrifying Dystopic Nightmare.

Oh, you don’t agree? Well, here, I’ll show you Why We Secretly Live in a Horrifying Dystopia. First, it helps to know that we’re all on the same page. A Utopia is a perfect civilization living through benevolence and love. Its attributes include: unending sustainability, a perfect balance of humanity and necessity and a loving, accepting society of equitable opportunity. A Dystopia, on the other hand, is a perversion of the idea. Yes, it’s perfect, but it’s not always benign. The advanced technologies and organizations that might have been used to create a Utopia are instead used to indulge vice and greed. Maybe you get to live a perfect life, but it’s only for 25 years (Logan’s Run). Maybe everything seems perfect, but that’s only because of the powerful hallucinogenic drugs you’re constantly being slipped (Futurological Congress). Maaaaybe it’s all actually amazing, but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi of personal agency (Brave New World).

Whatever the reasons for a Dystopia, it’s here, it’s bleakly soul-crushing, get used to it. The path to the realization of our personal Dystopia lies in the city. I know people romanticize country living all the time, and I’m right there with you: it’s silly. Living off the land included brutal winters, sweltering summers and the very real threat of starvation or sickness.  Naturally, we must be doing much better than our forebears did on farms, right? In some ways, perhaps we are, but in others…I’m going to be talking about my city in particular, but I’m sure you’ll be able to extrapolate.

First, I rarely interact with nature at all. When I go down town, or to the University, I’m walking on solid pavement or cement 90% of the time. The streets form, basically, a huge concrete island. Just think, for a second, how often you interact with any portion of nature for any amount of time. I’m not saying that we should throw off our clothes and flounce into the wilderness… actually, that’s kind of what we do on vacation. We’re so eager to feel anything natural– to interact with the Earth at all– that we’ll sacrifice time, money and dignity for a brief respite from the solid concrete borders we’ve erected.

Actually, I shouldn’t say solid, because the really creepy part of the city is how honeycombed with shops, rail-lines and maintenance entrances it is. If you stop for a second and look at an office, if you squint reeeeal hard, you can see it as an ant-farm. Glass windows open up onto hundreds of individual workers that scurry about important, personal tasks, running between cubbies and dens. Buildings themselves are like the artificial dens we constructed, because we’re too ashamed to dig in the dirt. Sometimes, when I stop and look, the entire landscape seems like an alien hive, honeycombed with chambers and passages. The hive is alive with us, but each building, each sign, is constructed with the sole purpose of directing our movements. They’re pheromone trails made manifest in print.

That’s not to say that each individual doesn’t direct his or her day-to-day movements, but if you step back, it’s eerie. Also, why would we dig in the dirt to build warrens when houses go up so easily now? No reason, it just sounded dramatic. But, that’s all just the surface layer of perturbing. Yeah, yeah, people live in a city like it’s a hive. We all knew that. To really get a Dystopia going, we need to denigrate the very foundation of our shared humanity: the value of human life. Did you know that there is an actual dollar amount associated with your life? What that value is varies depending on who you’re asking and what condition you’re in.

In America, before Obamacare, if you had a pre-existing condition and didn’t qualify for medicare, then you couldn’t get an affordable rate from an insurance company. In fact, you’d be lucky to get any rate at all. Yet, when reforms were put in place to make it so that anyone could have access to medical insurance, huge waves of people fought back against the idea. Obviously, it wasn’t the majority of people, but some did. Why was that? Well, many reasons, ranging from the ideological to the financial, but, at the end of the day, the real take-away is that human lives aren’t as valuable as money to a lot of people. Usually, it’s those people in control of a lot of people. Like insurance companies (man, they come up a lot), they’ve got to make some pretty tough decisions about what is acceptable in terms of realistic possibility. If they know that the cost of paying off accident victims is lower than the cost of doing a recall, then they won’t alert anyone. It’s a fairly well-known story, but it illustrates my point beautifully.

Of course, money can do many things. Things like feed the poor and educate the people (IF, you know, that’s what it’s used for). Money can build empires and destroy countries. So, it’s easy to see why it might get a privileged spot, if one sum can kill a million and another can save a thousand. Yet, it’s not just the money thing I find perturbing. It’s the commercialization of every aspect of our lives. I mean, as a blogger and part-time YouTuber, I accepted that notion a long time ago. It comes with the territory. But, the social media tools we use everyday– Have to use everyday –are just as invasive. The people who say you can just go without aren’t really considering the implications of not using social media. I got my last three jobs with Facebook posts and my current dorm through a Tweet. At the same time, though, we are being surveyed. And, I don’t just mean with surveys.

Did you hear about the kid who was arrested, thrown in prison and beaten to concussion because of a League of Legends chat post? How about the people that were fired because their Facebook profiles had pictures of them using elicit substances? What about the woman whose on-line soft-core-porn life totalled her teaching career? Yeah, we laugh at them and say they’re stupid, but are they really? If this was anything but our way of life, we’d be thoroughly disgusted by the surveillance and the level of penetration that the internet has into our lives. Between phones keeping track of your location when you post and sophisticated deep-web-trawling technology that can produce and organize a vivid portfolio about you and your buying habits with no prior tracking required, using the internet basically means you’re being watched. Maybe not actively, but this information doesn’t just disappear most of the time. Hell, our search histories alone would be worth their weight in gold to a marketing firm. Our Facebook Likes. Our Tweets. Whatever.

A lot of interaction happens on-line now. In fact, a large portion of our life is lived through social media. It’s a poignant expression of who we are. I’m sure you can see people’s personalities emerging through their profile usage. I know you and I have, at one time or another, posted something just a little too personal in a passive-aggressive Facebook rebuttal or a lonely-night hate-fest. It happens. It’s part of being human. Normally, that would be acceptable, but it’s not, because Facebook removes context. On-line, we’re rarely afforded the emotional states or extenuating circumstances that are the Hallmarks of understanding in personal interactions. That’s the other creepy thing: how well do you know the people you’re spilling your life to?

Personal privacy and the like are all on one hand. On the other hand, how often are we that personal… in person? If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a small cabal of close friends and a larger extended social network. Thinking back, it’s hard to remember spending the time to make the memories I have with them. A lot of the lives I’ve had brush up against mine have been experienced through pictures, videos and posts. My Facebook account does way more socializing and keeping up than I do. If it ever went rogue, it could ruin my life. Honestly. Also, you know, because A.I. My point is that we let machines handle a lot of our personal interactions. Even videos seem, to me, at times, terrified cries from lonely people locked within 1920×1080 collapsible screens.

One of our greatest advancements in medicine and general well-being was antibiotics. Unfooortunately, we really went to town with the stuff. Now, many of the most common diseases are producing antibiotic-resistant strains. Most often in Hospitals. I know, the place you go to get better. Worse than that, though, is that the antibacterial soap we’re washing into our streams in massive quantities is creating strains of similarly resistant bacteria in the wild. Whoops. Fear not, though, because bacteria is not the greatest health risk we have (Yet), Obesity is.

We’re a race of beings that is so successful that we can literally experiment with the fundamental elements of existence and life. We can shape our surroundings to a fine edge. In fact, that’s the only reason we can feed and support the population we have. So, what do we use this incredible power for? Letting our rich countries eat waaaay too much. Of course, over-consumption isn’t the only source of obesity. Inactivity plays a big role. Aaaand, what technology keeps us tapping keys to type in: “plz, can I haz reason not to move for 4 hours?”

Okay, let’s break it down a little faster now. Racial inequality. Sexual inequality. Class inequality. The mad pursuit of profit. People reduced to viewing figures. Rampant unemployment. Access to enough weaponry to destroy all life on Earth. Insane Dictators ruling through fear and power. The constant impingement of technology into every aspect of daily life. A complete lack of silence in most major metropolitan areas. Extreme levels of pollution. Artificially-induced climate changes that could be irreversible with our current level of technology…

Let’s recap: We’ve used our technological might to enslave people through force of arms and subtle, head-throbbing indoctrination. We’re so out of touch with the natural environment that it seems normal to rarely touch the Earth and to communicate the most important moments of our lives through digital renderings on social media sites. Our medical technologies have been over-used to the point of redundancy, and we don’t use them to treat anywhere near the number of people that need it. Homeless people are nearly forgotten, despite their singular humanity, because they don’t have… well, money. Our abuse of fossil-fuel-tech has created spiraling climate changes that could wipe out humanity, and we’re still fighting about whether or not it’s happening. We’ve destroyed our atmosphere. We’re never unimpeded, but we’re usually alone. Our most powerful, earth-shattering weapons are in the hands of the only people who would care to use them. We could end our global food shortage, but beef just tastes amazing.

It loooooks bleak. Well, it LOOKS bleak. I’m not sure it’s actually as bad as it looks, because I’ve got faith in people. Yeah, we can be stupid at times, but we never did wipe out all life on Earth during the Cold War. That’s something. A Dystopia is the nightmarish warping of something perfect. But, that’s just life. Nothing is ever actually perfect. It’s always just to the right of perfect. And, I think that’s fine, because we change with the world. Sure, we may live in a 1984-esque Dystopic digital Penopticon, but that was 1949’s definition of a Dystopia. We live under very different circumstances. Thus, the things we think are insane are a little different. I mean, when I was a human worm-spawn, the idea of an iPad would have blown my Trekkie mind. Yet, today, I’m using one to play videos while I write.

Tablets are just another fact of life, now. It’s easy to sit back and accept the way things are, because that’s usually a pretty sound strategy. However, every now and again, it’s worthwhile to compare our world with unchanging literary exemplars. It gives us perspective on just what our world means in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes, it can make our world look a hell of a lot more terrifying than it actually is. Other times, it shows us exactly how horrifying our lives really are. Either way, sometimes, it’s refreshing to take a step back and make an ant-hill out of an office building. Enjoy your Dystopic ramblings.

Addendum#SaveTheDay

Horrors in Their Mediums

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2013 by trivialpunk

Horror is not a plot-line, an aesthetic or a monster. Horror is an experience. In much the same way that a game is not an event displayed on a screen, but rather an experience had by a player, horror is a perceptual trajectory. You start out feeling, seeing and thinking one way and you end up in an entirely different mental location. Once, I had a discussion with a writing professor about a story I was working on. He said he didn’t appreciate being tricked into thinking or feeling a certain way by the format of the story. Really?

We don’t read fiction because we want the truth. We read it because we want to experience A truth. The best way to read a book or watch a magic show is with the understanding that you want to be fooled. If the production is good enough, you’ll forgive the minor annoyances and obvious realities in favour of the grand design. We know magicians aren’t psychics. We know writers can’t control what we feel. At least, we know that as long as we don’t allow them to. Much like hypnotism, the trick is in convincing someone that, yes, they want to –and can– go along with things. It places a lot of trust in the hands of the entertainer (magicians, writers, hypnotists), but that’s part of our covenant as audience and performer.

Last post, I rambled on about the creation of an environment for eliciting fear responses from players in role-playing games. One of the pre-requisites of that was knowing what kind of horror you were producing. I didn’t elaborate too much on that particular topic, because it’s almost as complex as a person is. The fears that plague our nightmares are grotesque manifestations of our hopes and dreams. They are us, taken to an unbearable extreme. Pain plays a harsh solo on our most delicate, life-preserving senses. Claustrophobia is the comfort of enclosure taken to an extreme we are extremely uncomfortable with; it crushes our personal space with its invasion. Psychopaths are the delightfully unpredictable nature of humanity twisted towards an unpleasant end… for someone.

Well, that’s one way to look at fear, anyways. It’s by no means the only way, and it’s not even technically correct, but it will give you a window into someone’s experience of fear. For us, for today, that’s good enough, because, today, we’re going to look into horror within its medium. No curtain held, let’s start with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

caligari

This is an old one, and we’re going back this far for good reason. Over the course of your lifetime, television and movies have changed drastically. However, as you are part of that stream of televised evolution, you might not be wholly aware of how the small differences in production, society and design have changed the opportunities available to directors. Most of them are subtle changes, but two obvious ones that have occurred recently are high-definition and passable CG. You don’t have to look very far back to see some pretty terrible CG monsters, and I’m sure we can guess how that would ruin a good horror movie. However, high-def is an even fouler culprit. Now, we can see way too much of the shiny, bloody bastards, so they’re not as frightening. I’m sure you’re familiar with the notion that exposing the monster too much ruins its mystique and takes away from the element of fear (You know, unless the monster is cleverly designed to be seen, but we’ll get to that…). Not only do we see each and every imperfection on a monster’s body, but with high-def came 60 frames-per-second movies. 1080p, 60 fps movies –initially– look unusual to us, because for most of our lives, we watch the 30 fps movie standard. Ironically, things just move too realistically, too fluidly, in 1080p; they look fake, because we’re used to seeing things a different way. You can see how tweaks to the presenting medium can change an experience drastically. So then, why Caligari? Because, it was made before the introduction of colour.

Look at the walls in the scene, the way the lines on them flow towards a single corner. Notice how they twist your perception of the frame slightly. The entire movie is like this, giving everything a subtly-overtly off feeling. Without the need for canted-cameras, we get a sense of the obtuse. Even the make-up is stark, deliberately so. Shadows are deeper, eyes more sunken, wrinkles far sharper. These are techniques used to get around the limitations of the day, yes, but they are also marked advantages.  The set, colours and tone allow the movie to be what it is. If you tried to paint a set in a similar fashion today, in high-def with colour, it would look like the bathroom at a rave.

Even the silent movie aspect allows for a sense of pacing and emotional reaction that would be impossible now. You don’t have to fill your voice with the quaver of convincing fear; you just have to look terrified. The fewer aspects you have to worry about aligning, the less likely you are to run into a detail that pulls the audience out of the experience. Also, not having to compete with dialogue allows the sound-track to do its thing at whatever levels are required by the emotional content of the current scene. I’m not saying that these things don’t also present their own difficulties, I’m just saying that this particular movie would not be experienced or created the same in today’s popular mediums. Thus, we’ll never again experience the sheer contortion that suffuses The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in exactly the same way. (Incidentally, you can still find this film. I’d recommend giving it a watch!) But, let’s step even further back…

lovecraft

To the era of Lovecraft. No, not the 60’s, I mean the author, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft and Stephen King are big names in horror literature, but, as you’ll notice, they each have very different styles. That’s influenced by many different things: personal style, type of horror, experience, society… yeah, almost everything plays into an author’s work, but some things that are easy to parse out are the places and things they describe and how they describe them. Stephen King, often, discusses very banal things. He works to reveal the insane with the mundane through the use of frightening events within familiar locales. Not only that, he’s often quite explicit. This is because the world King is writing for, our world, is bathed in the garish light of revelation. Now, the best way to frighten someone is to show them how terrifying that world can be. Lovecraft, on the other hand, was writing for a very different world.

Lovecraft’s horror is slow-building and ominous. His descriptions of strange, alien places, in themselves, make his work off-putting, in a fashion similar to the way The cabinet of Dr. Caligari used its backgrounds. I was actually discussing this with a colleague the other day. Aside from mentioning that the directorial style of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was perfect for a Lovecraft movie, she also mentioned something I found singularly enlightening. One of the passages in Lovecraft’s work describes an extremely exotic locale, full of fantastic sights and peculiar peoples. When she read it, she said she stopped for a second and said, “Wait, Lovecraft, that’s just Hawaii. I can hop on a plane and go there right now.” And while I envy the notion of freely travelling, I agree that the world of Lovecraft was still full of incredibly foreign notions.

At the time, English society was still enthralled with the mystic Orientals, the exotic Amazonians and the mysterious Egyptians. Of course, today, we can zoom around these locales on Google Maps, and I attend classes with people from each of these locations. The mysticism has faded from the world’s far reaches in our post-modern age. The strangest, most alien place that impinges on our everyday existence is space. The threats to our well-being are quite well-known, though, so the best way to scare someone now is to simply show them their home in a way they’ve never seen it. And, that could be why Lovecraft is still horrendously, awesomely readable.

Aside from being very well written, Lovecraft shows us our world through the eyes of a profoundly different society. It makes the world itself alien. I once wrote a work that ended up being similar in tone and style to one of Lovecraft’s works. It was criticised for the style of its language because it didn’t feel right next to contemporary references. Yet, it’s that very alien nature that makes the story readable. This comes back, in part, to what I was saying earlier about allowing yourself to experience something. As a contemporary author, people are pulled out of an experience I create with any linguistic style other than my own, but we are ready to accept Lovecraft’s tone because of his time, so we do. This alien acceptance and separation from our own society only magnifies the content of his work: the Eldritch and the Otherworldly. Things that are so absolutely beyond the scope of human experience that experiencing them rends our minds, or, failing that, are so far outside of our grasp that we can’t even perceive them properly. They’re indescribable. Strange, otherworldly geometries. Experience-induced madness. These are roads well-travelled by Lovecraft. This content resonates with the style of his work, amplifying its effect, regardless of the era you’re reading in. Hmm… but, let’s jump from one literary generation to…

Dawww

The wide-world of creepypastas! (If you like the picture, check out the watermark, it’s only fair). Creepypastas are horror stories for the age of the attention derelict. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I love creepypastas; they’re a great way to fit a horror experience into a short span of time. This might sound like a challenge (and it can be), but, again, it’s also an advantage waiting to be exploited. Remember how I said that seeing the monster often reduces its fear-effect? Well, that can apply to many fear-experiences. It’s like porn, most of the time, once you’ve seen the money-shot, the rest is just clean-up. Creepypastas are great for this in that they are almost all pay-off. They’ve got a short establishing section, then it’s right into the horror. Doing this properly can be a real challenge. I know, I’ve tried writing my share, and it’s difficult work.

Each and every section of a creepypasta is incredibly dense. Characterization, motives and monsters are squeezed down into an essential presentation. Yet, since it’s being read by someone ready to accept the world the story quickly presents, these essential elements don’t seem hastily executed on. They’re not being rushed; that’s the format. Even more advantageous, the quick-and-dirty characterization leaves lots of holes for people to fill with their own gooey ego-brains, making it much easier for readers to project themselves into the story. Convincing people to buy into a story, to think about it, and to search for meaning within it, is half the battle when crafting an experience. People reading short-form stories already know that they’re going to have to do just that, which is a huge bonus for any author. Enough foreplay, let’s skip over to games.

fatal-frame-1-screenshot-ghost-battle-capture-circle-ps2-xbox

Aha! You thought I was going to talk about the graphical limitations of the Playstation 2 as it applied to Silent Hill 2! Well, no, I’m not going to mention that the feeling of the oppressive nightmare world was enhanced by the fog that was implemented, in part, in order to deal with the limited draw distance of that generation. Not this time! (DAMMIT! >.<) Silent Hill 2 basically has its own section in this blog. Actually, I might eventually give it its own section, but, until then, we’re going to talk briefly about Fatal Frame, the FPS game about a small, ghost-busting Japanese girl. And, by first-person-shooting, I mean with cameras. Capturing the soul and all that. Sort of. The gist of its inclusion here is that Fatal Frame’s graphical limitations, and the graphical state of the industry in general during the PS2 era, allowed for vague, half-seen shapes and half-loaded polygons to flit, uncriticised, across the screen.

What do I mean by allow? Well, we could certainly create games that looked like PS2-era games, but they wouldn’t be received in nearly the same way. If horror is an experience, then it’s readily affected by expectation. You’ve seen that theme running through this entire post. Like the greater frames-per-second of high-definition, we’re influenced by what we’re used to seeing. What we’re used to seeing becomes what we expect to see. We’re pattern-reading beasts, after all. So, while we can still play excellent games like SPC-Containment Breach, Slender and Penumbra, they feel much less immersive than they would have in the year 2000. Still, if you’ve played Outlast, I’m sure you’ll agree that fantastic visuals aren’t all there is to a game, either. Speaking of, I thought we’d round this out with a brief discussion of the high-definition future of digitaining horror.

We may not have the advantage of iffy hardware excusing shadowy figures, but we do have the advantage of visuals that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Look at Outlast. That game looked amazing, and it was only a little bit of writing and some more organic game-play away from being unforgettably awesome (Still good, though). Even so, the graphical fidelity allowed for some pretty chilling visuals (Horror set-pieces, if you will) and a fantastic initial level of immersion. We can now create horror experiences that are eminently visual in nature. Yes, many horror experiences are ruined by the monster-money-shot, but, sticking with the metaphor, what about bukkake? By which of course I mean, what about horror based around the form of the terror? High-definition visuals don’t have to ruin an experience; they can enable it, too. Look at Uzumaki, the horror story about the spiral. Look at… well, just look at spiders. Clowns. (Getting your finger cut off in Outlast). There are plenty of things that scare us because they’re frightening to look at. We just have to find a way to make players see them as horrific in all of their high-definition glory. Also, we have to remember that it’s not ALL about visuals. Hell, you could copy-paste the game-play of Slender or SPC-CB into a game with better visuals and get positive results.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but it takes that simple idea to shift your focus from hiding the monster to displaying it proudly. It’s the same sort of shift that happens when you go from Lovecraft to Stephen King. They’re both clearly writing horror stories, but it would be difficult to derive one from the other. We need to learn from the wisdom of the past, not try to emulate it. I’ve got faith in our devs; they’re up to the task. That’s not idle speculation, either. This era of video games has several other advantages besides high-definition that developers are taking advantage of.

For instance, our physics engines are on another level compared to where they were only a decade ago, and they’re being utilized by games other than Dark Souls to scare our pants off. Paranormal owes its organic haunting experiences, in part, to its physics engine. Thus, paranormal experiences, bloody telekinetic murders and horrific deaths are entirely possible in today’s industry. While it’s still difficult to translate a physics engine into a decent horror story, our current technology can be used to improve the elements of horror that surround the central narrative. Even so, no one ever said that every horror experience had to have a plot. Sometimes, it just has to have a monster.

That’s enough for a multi-player experience and,  relative to history, our multi-player infrastructure is second-to-none. Look at Damned. A game like Damned (on Steam) would never have been able to exist in the pre-broad-band era. Yeah, we had large StarCraft, Quake and Counter-Strike communities, but that’s because… well, that’s most of what we had, besides a few MMOs. We didn’t have gaming platforms designed specifically to bring people to game lobbies. Okay, it’s a little annoying that the next-gen consoles are pushing the open-world, on-line, multi-player aspects of their games so hard, especially for those of us that want a tight, coherent narrative, but that set-up is also enabling some pretty awesome experiences. We just have to design them and find them.

The gaming landscape is changing, so horror experiences have to change with it. That doesn’t mean we abandon the past, though. No, it’s the best source of information on how we can adapt our current understandings of horror to the Eldritch world of next-gen gaming. Some people may say that horror is dead, but they’re just pessimists (When has that stopped a shambling grotesquery before?). Maybe the type of horror we once knew is fading into the shadows, waiting for another day to rend our flesh with its dripping jaws, but horror itself will persist as long as we do. From my perspective, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the terror we can render in 1080p.

GTAV, Art and Dat GameSpot Review

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

I’ll post the review I wrote later. This needs to be discussed.

Yesterday, I pulled up a video game review on GameSpot and read some of the comments related to it, both on Twitter and on the site. Some people seem to be lining up on two fictitious, dichotomous sides on this one, and I think that’s terrible. I also think that’s pretty normal, honestly. However, I do believe that we need to develop a dialogue if we’re actually going to do some good here, so I’d like to invite you to read the article first. Don’t worry, it’s for GTAV, so it’s topical. You’re not really going to get what I’m talking about unless you do, so I’ll wait. Read some of the comments, too. Select “Top Comments” if you want to get some more perspectives on this. At time of writing, they haven’t descended into drivel. … Got it? Good.

I’ve never had an answer to a question concerning art or society that didn’t come with a caveat. Life is a complicated thing; you and I both know this. Society is infinitely more so. Keep that in mind and always dig. Always ask questions; never be satisfied with an answer if it seems too simple. That’s what I’m here to do today: ask questions and ruminate a little. I invite you to do the same. This is still through my eyes, though, so feel free to add your own perspective.

GTA_5_WALLPAPER

If you read the article, then you’ll know by now that we’re talking about a review of GTAV by one of the ladies over at GameSpot. Apparently, she didn’t think it was perfect, so she gave it a 9/10.

That’s when everyone went crazy.

Of course, a gentleman over at the Escapist gave it a much, much lower score because the protagonists were depressing, and I have my own problems with the idea that we shouldn’t have evil protagonists, especially in a game where you pile up chopper kills like the vicious individual your character is, but that garnered a whole different type of hate.

The GameSpot review marked the game down for two points: 1. Being profoundly misogynistic. 2. Occasionally inconsistent character behaviour.

Now, if we’re talking about deeply flawed characters in a sub-culture that practically breathes coercion, I’m not sure you CAN have an inconsistent character. I have never met a consistent person in my life. Individuals piece together ideas of consistency and, in large part, we may appear consistent, but there will always be times in your life where you act outside of the norm for who you believe yourself to be. So, how can characters as fleshed out as they are in the game act inconsistently? I’m not sure, I haven’t played it through yet. Even so, it’s up to you to judge.

That’s only a side-note, though. We’re really here to talk about the idea that the game is misogynistic, how people reacted to the proposition and what kind of issues we’re really facing as an industry approaching an art-form.

Some people took this event as an opportunity to reconfirm their ideas about “femi-nazis.” Others took it as an opportunity to communicate the lack of attention women’s rights are getting because of how our society is organized. I don’t see a comprehensive answer in ignoring either of those perspectives. You see, when we approach society, we must always remember that it is a great, amorphous, fractured thing. As much as it’s unified, it’s also made up of billions of individual people that started their life, and therefore their development and experience within culture, when they were born. We’ve each got a limited perspective, and we’ve each had valid life experiences. Temporarily entertaining that notion is the price of entry into the next bit of this post, so I hope you’re on-board.

Is GTAV misogynistic? Does it hate women? That’s a complicated question. Do the characters in the game treat women well? When you see a woman, what is she doing? How are others treating her? How do you have the option to treat her? How are women, in general, portrayed? Why?

These are important questions, because misogyny is never about saying you “just don’t like them women-folk very much.” At least, it isn’t usually. But, that definitely happens. Misogyny is about organizing events and representations of women such that they are treated and perceived in a negative way. Everyone knows that literally not treating women as citizens was a dick move and obviously misogynistic, but misogyny has less-obvious forms. Depictions of women in films as either bitchy man-haters or flimsy stock-characters is a form of it. It might not seem like much, but those depictions help inform your understanding of society, and it WILL feedback into how you understand the people around you, especially if you see more television than people. You’re not stupid, though. You question those things when you see them, but you’ve glossed over some of them. I’m pretty sure most people have; I know I have. No one I know is perfect, and that’s okay.

So, I ask again, how are you invited to understand the women in this world?

We’re not done here, though, this is a deep, deep rabbit hole I’m inviting you down. The Escapist review of the game marked it down because the main characters were –using his word here– evil. So, based on that, how are you invited to understand the world’s men? Consider it carefully. Finally, let’s combine the two: how are you asked to understand people and their interpersonal dynamics? What relationships exist in this world to act as representations of humanity?

Okay, that’s the surface layer. As people, we must realize that there are many, many different lives going on all around us. The world teems with secret sub-cultures and worlds beyond our experience. As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time delving as far into as many of them as I can, and I’ve only barely scratched the surface of my –local– culture. That being said, somewhere, there are people similar in personality to the individuals in the game. As a series, GTA has always invited us to step into their strange worlds. These are lifestyles most of us won’t brush up against, let alone experience. This comes down to my next point: a sandbox is not necessarily an RPG.

Yes, we’re role-playing, but we’re not really character building. The scripted events and available choices you have will always narrow down who your character is for you, whether you realize it or not. Is there an option in the game to sit the fuck down and go to night-school while you work early mornings as a garbage man? Can you progress the storyline that way? No, I didn’t think so. For all the talk of freedom, we’re still limited, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s how you tell a story. A story about everything is a bad, impossible story.

While we are quite free, we’re still living in someone else’s life, in a sub-culture whose exploitation of women for money is, traditionally, stereotypically, beyond despicably common. That’s who these people are; that’s the story we’re telling. Could the game tell its story and not involve heavy layers of misogyny? Not if we’re going to be true-to-life. Could you do a protagonist sex-swap and tell the same story in exactly the same way? Not in the circles you have to run in in the game. I’m not saying that all career criminals are women-hating gadabouts, I know a fair few progressive ones, but the culture that surrounds the main characters is steeped in feminine exploitation. You’d have to tell a hell of a different story of clawing your way to the top.

Exploitation is an inescapable part of the game’s story, but how does the game itself handle it? Again, I can’t answer that for you.

I’ve heard that the game’s extreme celebration of masculinity is supposed to be satirical, and that’s definitely one way to look at it, and I’ll leave that to your interpretation, too. You’ll have to remember when you play it that an important part of satire is commentary. What is it saying? Is it saying anything? Are we to understand that the massive explosions and impossibly over-the-top story-missions are a portion of the commentary? Juxtaposition is a powerful tool, after all.

Another point I’ve heard brought up is that it’s just a game. It made me cringe a bit, but lots of people see games that way, even some gamers. There are a fair few people who see it as an emerging art-form, and I’m one of them. Again, sorry, the price of entry here is entertaining that premise. If games are art, then they need to be able to explore tough topics. They need to be able to show us and comment on uncomfortable aspects of society. However, that doesn’t preclude them from criticism; it invites it, in fact.  This game is a cultural artifact that has been created to represent our society, all of it, not just the salient, criminal aspects. More importantly, it’s an interactive artifact that invites us to live a portion of our life through it. This makes how it does so that much more important.

Again, though, we understand that it’s a game. It is something we experience and, so, something we judge. By experiencing the game, we can be brought to question, or we can be taught a way to think. This isn’t going to affect everyone universally. We are going to have individual reactions to the game. One of the reasons it’s a Mature-rated game is that it requires a critical eye to fully appreciate. After all, it wasn’t until much later in life that I asked why all the White Mages in Final Fantasy were women. It could be a world thing or a monastic Order thing. That’s not the present issue. The issue is that I didn’t notice or question it at the time. This isn’t exclusively a youngin’ thing, either. Humans can’t think about everything that crosses their path. They just can’t. Like, literally.

However, the difference between this game and Final Fantasy is that GTAV has direct manifestations within society. I’m not saying you’ll definitely be affected by it, but you must consider the idea.

Again, I’m not telling you exactly what I think. I want to stir discussion, not dispense a fully-formed opinion. So, how does knowing it’s a game affect your experience of the events within it?

You might be asking yourself, why is this an issue now? GTA has been a long-running series, and it hasn’t deviated from itself much. It’s still a ton of fun; no one is disputing that, but we can’t pretend it hasn’t been questioned in the past. The difference is, I’m not saying it’s a murder simulator. BUT, I am saying that if games are to be taken more seriously, then they Are going to come under harsher critical scrutiny. That’s one of the reasons gender politics have been popping up more and more in relation to gaming. Portions of the gaming community have a long history of treating women, both on-screen and on-line, poorly. Getting better, but still pretty bad. I’ve heard people say that it’s not enough and complain when people bring up examples of our progress, BECAUSE it’s not enough. I’m going to blow your minds: I think they’re right. HOWEVER, I do think that we need to acknowledge our strides.

It’s not the 1950’s any more. It’s certainly not the utopian future either, though. Either way, you can’t change the world, or people, overnight.

“Why do we have to bother with politics?” I’ve heard time and again, “It didn’t used to matter.” Well, actually, it did. Many of us just didn’t pay it much mind. We can’t really do that now. I mean, if you just want to play games, then more power to you, but the industry needs to pay attention. Art cannot divorce itself from politics. Of any kind. It’s the duty of art to comment, represent, pose questions and stir inquiry.

If nothing else, GTAV is doing that. But, what is it doing as a piece of art that represents society and allows you to explore it? In other words, what part of you is represented in GTAV? Take a minute.

Alright, let’s take a step back from that and return to the review. If you’ve been following along with my little questions, then you’ve got all these things bubbling away in your head. Bring up the part about how the game represents, and invites you to treat, the average woman within it. Now, how does experiencing that treatment make you feel? If you’re a guy, then how would that make you feel if they swapped all the sexes around? Really consider it.

Well, it didn’t make that GameSpot reviewer, Carolyn Petit, feel very good. Put yourself in her shoes. You’ve got a great game in front of you, but you can’t shake the feeling it gives you. What do you do?

It’s worth remembering that reviews are subjective things. You can’t actually do an objective review of the experience of a game. That –actually– doesn’t make sense. When I review a game (Yeah, it’s been a bit. Don’t worry, got some coming), I find it helps to start with how the experience left me feeling. I also record mid-game feels and pre-game expectations. Then, I dive into the mechanics of the game, what I know about the state/history of the industry and the story of the game itself. After that, I go through and try to piece together how that experience was achieved, where it fell short, where it excelled and why I felt the way I did.

Carolyn gave the game a 9/10, because she felt there was an issue with this incarnation of the series. I know we’re used to score-inflation, but 9/10 is amazing. I don’t think her integrity could have let her say it was perfect. I know if I had an issue I cared about, I wouldn’t say a game that I felt handled it poorly was perfect.

For example, one of my grandparents is from a group of people that experienced near-complete genocide. Do you think I could 100%-awesome a game that I felt treated it like it wasn’t a big deal, even if it was a tongue-in-cheek, satirical fantasy about something unrelated? No.

If the duty of a reviewer is to critique games. And being an art-form invites critique. And art cannot be divorced from politics. Then, Carolyn acted bravely and correctly. This is my conclusion. So, kudos from me to her, because she’s getting a lot of hate she doesn’t deserve. These may be the growing pains of a developing artistic medium, but that doesn’t lessen the force for those who experience it. Phil Fish would certainly agree.

Maybe she didn’t feel like anyone else would comment on the issue. Maybe she felt that she needed to stick by her guns. Maybe she felt like injecting the idea into the community. Maybe she believes we need to move forward in the same way I do. Whatever her reasons, integrity is what we want in a reviewer. Without integrity, we’re just for sale. The minute the content of our words is for sale, you can’t trust a damn thing we say.

You’ve been here for a while, so I’m going to wrap up with one last consideration. Should this game have been made to be accessible to everyone? Yes, art needs to be bold to make a point, but games are a special brand of art-form in that they’re also, directly, an industry. An industry in which GTA is a massive player. Rockstar Games KNEW that it was going to be released to, and played by, almost every gaming demographic. Did they have a responsibility to make it so that it could be comfortably played by everyone? Is being comfortable really what we want right now? To be complacent in an artistic medium can be dangerous.

Again, it’s more than an art-form; it’s also an industry. Making a separate campaign to appeal to another demographic would have been expensive. Would it be fair to ask them to spend even more money to realize another universe within the game? Should we question the artistic integrity of an industry that literally runs on money? Are we willing to judge it by its artistic merit and hold many interpretations in our mind? Because, like people, like society, the gaming industry isn’t universally consistent. It’s a fractured, amorphous thing.

We should expect that a piece of art as inflammatory as this will make some people uncomfortable. We should also listen to those people, because they may see something we don’t. After all, we can’t see everything at once. Maybe part of what we can take away from the reaction to this game is that we need to respect each other a bit more.

We can be a badass, cop-killing, helicopter-crashing, car-stealing mothafucka all we want in-game. It’s part of what the universe invites us to do. However, out here, respect means more than a double-tap. It means listening to and thinking about other people’s perspectives.

There’s no right answer here, no matter what anyone tells you. There are definitely better and worse answers, but we’re not here to judge. We’re here to inquire.

See you on the other side.

P.S. I invite you to openly critique my conclusions. Also, this week’s house-cleaning: The new story is up. Here’s another video. It’s part 2 of Psychonauts this time! Cheers!

…It’s Always Such a Pleasure

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2013 by trivialpunk

Things don’t always work out the way we want them to. My computer’s in the shop again, and my projects sit on it, unfinished. Even today’s post is in its embryonic form somewhere on my D: drive.  Thankfully, this week’s story was sitting on my Google Drive, so it went up, along with today’s Let’s Play.

The post? Well, we’re just going to have to wing it, aren’t we? You all know how I love to harp on old topics, so let’s talk about the critical responses to The Last of Us.

Enough time has passed since the game dropped that we’ve gotten quite a few opinions on the much-vaunted game. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Others are completely indifferent. Still others wonder why it was made within this generation at all.

I’m not here to comment on the game specifically. I still haven’t played it yet. Whoops! Did I type that out loud?

Unfortunately, I’m in a PC household now, so we didn’t have the hardware to play it. I was, however, privy to its critical reception. Again, I’m sure you can figure out why people liked it. Also, probably, why “the people that didn’t like it” didn’t like it. I read and listened to quite a few of them, but there was one thing that I wanted to discuss at greater length. That thing is the notion that the game was boring because it used stale mechanics.

Now, some of you might not have thought the game was boring, and that’s totally cool. I’m not here to reiterate the opinion. Again, I can’t possibly have one, because it’s a game I haven’t played. So much of a game relies on your engagement with it that it’s almost meaningless to write a review of a game without having played it. Sure, you can criticize things about it, but, as a holistic experience, you’ll be missing something if you don’t spin it up. Granted, you can rely on past experience to figure out what it would be like to play it, but you may still miss out on something integral to the game if you play it like a movie.

That over with? Cool, let’s talk about reusing mechanics. If you watched this Extra Credits video, then you’ll know that one of the best ways to start a game is to begin with a set of mechanics. This means that narrative is usually going to take a back-seat to game-play.

But what if you’ve got a story you want to tell? Well, you can use a franchise to do that. A franchise is a sub-section of genre, really. It’s a collection of mechanics that are wrapped up in an identity.  Look at the Halo and Silent Hill (you knew that was coming) franchises. The first games set the stage for narrative, but, more importantly, they also tested out the mechanics. Knowing how those mechanics would affect their audience, and how it would all fit together, provided the designers with the space to tell a story.

What if you want to tell that story without a franchise? Well, you can use the same techniques that Halo and Silent Hill used: you can learn from other games. As much as I hate to admit it, Silent Hill came after Resident Evil. RE dropped three years before the first Silent Hill. Games aren’t made in a vacuum, so you can’t possibly imagine that one didn’t affect the other.

In fact, if you really think about it, survival horror games would utilize the mechanics tested in the original RE game for years after its initial release. Few of them would truly add anything revolutionary to the formula, besides a new story. Now, I know that’s a pretty controversial statement, because games like Silent Hill 2 improved on the formula in many ways, besides through story-line, but you can see the similarities.

Fast-forward a little bit and we can see that trend blossoming behind us. We had the bloom of the first-person RPG, in the ancient days, with games like Deus Ex and System Shock. They would later evolve into the sleeker FPS with RPG elements of today, but that’s a different post. There was the era of the platformer, where every movie tie-in that had a story to tell became a jumping-puzzle game. Let’s not forget the Eldritch days of the point-and-click adventure. Or the sweet petals of the third-person shooter with RPG elements, still fresh upon the bulb.

I know, we didn’t really want another third-person shooter with stealth elements. Most of us have played Tomb Raider or Uncharted, so The Last of Us isn’t exactly fresh. I’m sure it doesn’t help that The Last of Us and Uncharted are both from the same studio. Nor that it’s a zombie game. If it smelled anymore like compost, we could use it to fertilize our vegetable gardens.

BUT, is that inherently a bad thing? Okay, sure, we can over-do things sometimes, especially in the video game industry. Playing through two very similar game-play styles in two different titles can be a bit of a pisser, because a video game is a long time commitment. Two similar movies, okay, that’s four hours. Two similar games? That’s at least twenty hours for two AAA titles.

Still, by all accounts, The Last of Us had a great story and solid game-play. Hell, I’ve read through it, and it made me wish I’d been able to play it, just to experience it. Maybe I’d have gotten bored after the sixth hour, I don’t know, but I can see what it was trying to do.

Video games get a lot of flack for telling bad stories, and that’s not undeserved. Many of the epics of our past are, from a strictly literary perspective, quite silly. Or simple. Even lame. Part of that is a haphazard approach to story-telling, and some of that is the result of completely disregarding it in favor of game-play. That’s not to say we haven’t had some amazing game stories, but Mario? Come on.

We don’t always need a great story for a great game. We can stitch it together through game-play or experience it through the world; that’s the sweet alchemy of video games, but what if you want to tell a story? A specific one. What if you look at a game and think, “I know exactly what story I could tell using that as a vehicle.”

Do we want to, on those grounds alone, muzzle creativity? Like or dislike a game all you want on its own merits. Maybe, you’re bored of the mechanics; that’s legit. Hate away. I think that’s awesome, and we can always use another voice asking for originality. However, I would caution anyone against pronouncing something stale simply because it’s similar to another thing. The deployment of a set of mechanics can be horrible, but the mechanics themselves are tools.

Don’t say that a mechanical paradigm is inherently dull. The industry listens to that kind of thing. Say that it was used badly. Say that this particular game could have benefited from X instead of Y. Say that you’re tired of hearing about zombies! Say anything, but remember that what you say will be heard. We’re part of the creative process. When we criticize better, the industry becomes better.

I know I hold this stance because of how important stories are to me. I admit that without any shame to provide you with full disclosure of my bias. I’ve read through horribly written books for a good story and vice-versa. I’ve watched terrible movies for analogical reasons: to learn something about them and myself. I approach games in much the same way. I believe that some games should exist because they tell a story. Others, because they are fun games. Other because we want to learn how to type faster while we kill the undead.

We wouldn’t have Megaman X without Megaman. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2 without Resident Evil. We wouldn’t have SpecOps: The Line without CoD… or SpecOps. You know where I’m going with this.

Actually, SpecOps: The Line is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Think about it. It wouldn’t exist without the games that came before it: without a profound understanding of the mechanics they used. Maybe The Last of Us didn’t utilize the mechanics it had perfectly, but if we didn’t try that sort of thing, we wouldn’t have games like SpecOps: TL. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2.

In other words, gaming would be the lesser for it. So, don’t get down on rehashing mechanics. Get down on doing it poorly. Or, just get down.

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Looking Forward, Looking Back

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , on July 17, 2013 by trivialpunk

Dear Reader,

It has been a long, long summer. The scariest part about it is that the majority of the work is still ahead of me, but the majority of the time is behind me. In a month and a half, I’ll be back in university, trying desperately to balance the work on this site with freelancing, studying and writing. It’s going to be ridiculous. Forgive me if I start going insane in the coming year. I assure you that it’s not you, it’s me.

Recently, I started thinking about how I got to where I am today. It has been a winding, convoluted path. It made me think about the past and the experiences that brought me here. I started remembering the worlds I used to imagine, the games I used to play, the things I sat down to learn… everything, really. Every story I didn’t write. Every chance I ended up taking. Mired in this pool of thoughts, soaking in my self, I was brought, inevitably, back to games.

Games have made so much of who I am. Even in the most horrific circumstances or outlandish situations, I’ve carried games with me. I spent years training with a wooden sword and rolling across the grass, because I’d done it as Link. Drunken nights in strange parts of strange cities have been, unwittingly, warmed with the thought that I could Hearthstone home. Now, I know that doesn’t make any sense, but the thought was infectious, especially after the sixth round. Puzzle games have helped me learn to problem solve. Game design has given me hours of rumination material. Games themselves have provided me with whole new ways to think about engaging an audience. To explore humanity. To have fun.

All of these things have suffused the layers of my being, but none more than video game culture. The experiences that we, as a group, share have introduced me to some of my greatest friends. The concept of the hero and the force of determination that I experienced by living through games have given me more than I can properly elucidate. Of course, there are elements to our culture that are less than pleasant: rampant sexism, griefing, toxic on-line behaviour, constant abnegation, intense nihilism… These things aren’t great.

They aren’t the totality of our culture; they are a part of it. There is no medium, no group, who can look upon the entirety of themselves and fully approve. There will always be disagreement among peoples. That problem goes deeper than being a gamer, though. That problem goes down to the core of being human. We will always disagree, and I have learned to accept that. That’s one of the reasons I feel justified in posting my opinions here. Not only do I get to share my ideas, but I occasionally get to share in a critique of them. I get to share in your thoughts.

This is our culture. This is part of what binds us. It’s what makes PAX so great. It’s what makes on-line multi-player so much fun. It’s what allows me to walk into a room full of people I’ve never met in my life, pick up a controller and play with them without fear. I know we’ve got some common ground, and I know I don’t have to hide that part of myself. I don’t hide it anywhere else, but I’ve heard that it’s still an issue for some people. Thankfully, I’ve got a wealth of neuropsych and cultural knowledge to bludgeon someone with if they attack that part of me. It’s not something I fear, even if my lack of caring is foolish at times. That’s fine.

There is a concern. The diversification of games is amazing, and it’s what makes writing about games so much fun right now, but it does mean that we risk leaving behind cultural choke-points. At one time, I could be sure that any console gamer I met had played Sonic or Mario. Most table-toppers I knew played D&D. My PC friends had all run through Star Craft and Half-Life, or engaged in Quake or Counter-Strike LAN marathons.

It’s scary to think that the console wars are wiping out our shared cultural history one generation at a time. Proprietary software and the march of time are leaving behind games that the next generation of gamers will probably never know. We’re looking at a future where that PC gamer has never heard of Myst or played Deus Ex. Casual gamers and Casudevs are breaking into the market and littering it with experiences that I’m totally unfamiliar with. I hadn’t played Angry Birds until this Christmas, seriously.

Yes, we’ve still got moments and games that unite us, like the Mass Effect series. However, occasionally, I’ll enter a room, see a Wii and wonder if I’ve played any of their games. It’s a scary thought, considering how much of my life has been spent with the assurance that I’ve played enough to relate enough. With the constant flood of games on the market, this is only going to continue.

And that’s not a bad thing. As maligned as the Casgams are, they are an essential element of the gaming community. They’re the future hard-cores and the latest adopters. They are, in a phrase, who I used to be when I picked up a controller instead of a D20 or a keyboard. We put a lot of stock in our input devices, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still gaming. I know enough about how the brain works to be thoroughly unimpressed with learning a game-play quirk to criterion. I’m impressed by the dedication and creativity it takes to achieve a mad skill-level, but I respect that person, not the score or the act.

I refuse to grade or quantify the value of my gaming apparatus. I’ll poke fun at consoles and make fun of technology, but that doesn’t diminish my joy at their creation or my wonder at their use. That doesn’t reduce the value of their exploration of humanity. They’re no less joyful. It’s no less human. You’re no less “gamer” for liking it.

With time, I’ve realized that that shared culture I talked about is in more than specific titles. It’s not about a game. It’s not about a type of gaming. It’s about gaming.

Yes, there are valuable experiences in the past, a shared cultural history. We are going to lose much of the information and many of the games of the past, unless someone moves to preserve it. That’s regrettable, and I’m in no place to do anything about it right now. That’s an unfortunate truth.

On the other hand, I don’t think I have to worry about losing that connection to the gaming community. At one time or another, we all threw down the shield of disinterest and decided to enjoy something. Even if it wasn’t with enthusiasm, a small part of us was given to the game and, in return, it became a part of us. That understanding, that potential for enthusiasm, is part of what it can mean to be a gamer. With that alone, we can forge a new shared cultural history with the pieces of the past and the stream of the future. Culture is an on-going process and so are we.

Now, not everyone will agree with me, and that’s fine. Players can and will judge others all they want; I can’t stop that. What I can do is recognize that common ground. No matter what you play or what you use to play it, if you’re a gamer, then we have something in common.

We game.

-Trivial Punk

Finding Nirvana – A Trip to The Lobby

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello again, dear readers. I know it’s been a week longer than I’d like it to have been, and I’d like to blame that on the birthday weekend I just had, but truthfully, I’ve been struggling a bit with the proper words to use. That, and a crippling addiction to Sonic Screwdrivers (Blue Curacao, Vanilla vodka and Lemon-lime soda, because I’ll always be a Tennant man). I know, I know, I should really be using my summer hours more efficiently, but we all need time off, right? Right. Let’s ignore the number of hours I spend playing games for this blog and the spin-off YouTube series I’m writing. That’s… that’s work ( >.>). Since I couldn’t think of a way to properly boil all this down to something pithy and worthy of a forgotten 200-word column in a newspaper bin somewhere, we’re going to try something new but stay within the boundaries of my trademark undisciplined style.

Last week, I stepped a little out of my comfort zone. I decided that, if I wanted to provide you guys with interesting content, I was going to have to try out some new things. From there, I got it in my head that it would be a good idea to try some interviews. Let’s keep in mind that I have no background in journalism whatsoever, besides a bout of my childhood that I spent training for the job should it be a requirement to become Spider-man, and dive right in to how this started.

As you may know, this was a blog I started to explore, criticise and deconstruct horror video games on narrative and mechanical levels. However, after a while, I realized that I was becoming a bit of a broken record. There were issues with the games that I was reviewing that couldn’t be explained by bad design alone. No, these were systemic. These issues were going to stem from convention. “But what conventions?” I would fret, “They were already in place in the earliest games I’ve played.” I thought on this and came to a conclusion. Unless there was a long-forgotten ColecoVision game from the Clocktower series, many of the conventions of horror games were going to come from horror movies (and books). A poor choice? Probably, games require their own style of thinking to craft. They’re primarily interactive experiences, after all.

However! You’ve got to start somewhere, right? Besides, there have been some decent games that use well-established television tropes. The Clocktower series is as close as you can get to Scooby-doo, while still having an 8 year old boy murdering people with 4-foot-long scissors involved. There was a Playstation 2 spin-off from John Carpenter’s The Thing that was pretty decent. There’s that Walking Dead game that only excludes itself from counting here because it involves zombies, and the day that zombies become scary again is the day they’re pounding on my door, demanding my tastier bits be highlighted in permanent marker. Oh, yeah, and that other Walking Dead game we’re just not going to talk about, because it sparks all kinds of silly debates. Why yes, I am going to skip over the terrible movie/show games and game-based movies, because we’d be here all day otherwise. The real point here was that I decided it was time to dive back to my roots and re-discover the horror movie.

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Luckily, there was a cult-horror-movie shop right down from where I was living when I made the decision. Unfortunately, there was also a giant library of movies in my home that manifested from the collector instincts of a group of middle-class pop-culture scholars (Read: gamers). So, I coasted along on Silence of the Lambs and Silent Hill. Little did I know what awaited me down the block.

Now, I can be a bit jaded at times. Between my Steam library, physical console copies and retro games, I own hundreds of different game titles and I’ve rented far more than that. I’ve also had the pleasure of playing and finishing 90% of them, so cracking a new game is often an exercise in comparison. Since the industry tends to focus on certain practices, and because the limitless void space that gaming’s potential hints towards is kind of scary, I can usually figure out what’s going to go down before the first Bargle-wargle monster shows up to try to catch me unawares. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree from Free Time University to figure that out. Only so many games get put out each year, and they’re all exercises in massive risk-taking on the part of the company that puts them out, so we get a bit jacked on the variation end of the art-form. Movies, though… they’ve got a long, varied history, especially indie-cult classics. That brings us to the moment I decided to hit The Lobby.

I want you to imagine this with me. You’re walking down the street. On your left is a shoe store, then a daycare… and, attached to the daycare, recessed in the wall, is a little push door with a hand-made paper sign. There’s a small standee outside and a window wall-papered with print-outs of movie covers. Pushing open the door leads you to a staircase going down to another standee and a door going off to the left. Hesitantly, you trudge down the stairs. The door at the bottom gives off a subtle red ambience, almost as if its contents are eager to bleed into the outside world. Stepping across the threshold brings you to a concrete-floored room full of wonder. Pinhead stands to your right, shelves full-to-bursting with movies struggle to support their payload to your left. Another step in reveals the rest of the shop, bathed in the same red ambience, which you now realize is the light reflected off the shiny shelves, walls and couch. To your right is an alcove with a couch and a television playing a piece of horror movie history. A coffin shelf holds memorabilia, as do the walls, ceiling and floors. You are inundated. Saturated.  Every one of these movies is a new-favourite waiting to be played. “They’re all horror,” you realize with a grin.

At least, that was my reaction. It’s a veritable playground of new experiences waiting to be had. Sitting right at the back, past the shelves and wonder, is Kevin Martin. Believe me, if the store is open, he’s there. Kevin is the owner-operator of The Lobby. At first, I’d wondered how many of the movies in the store he’d watched, but, after a brief conversation, it became clear that the answer was all of them. He’s friendly as all hell, too, so I walked out of that first visit with an armful of recommendations. I couldn’t have enjoyed the visit more, unless I’d also been offered a job designing the new Silent Hill game, but that’s hardly Kevin’s fault. Several months and plenty more movies later, brings us to last week.

I knew that, if I was going to try interviews, then The Lobby was where I wanted to start. So, on the way to return the key to my old house (I’d just moved), I dropped off my latest cache of films. While I was there, I decided to ambush Kevin with the idea of doing an interview. I was trying to sound casual, but I was nervous. Then, he said yes and time slowed down. My brain screamed, “What the HELL are you doing?! You aren’t the least bit prepared! You’ve got a recording device, some paper and a prayer, what are you going to do if you screw this up? You’ll never get to come back here again. What if there are SPIDERS in your BAG, NOW? Wouldn’t THAT be fitting punishment?!” Still, I also knew there was another voice quietly whispering, “You know enough about how this works. You’ve got questions you’ve always wanted to ask. You guys have shot the shit before, just think of it like that.” Thus, we sat down on the couch, and I did my first interview.

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Kevin, on the other hand, is an interview veteran. Besides owning one of the last video rental shops in the city, he also helps to organize and promote DEDfest, a cult-movie horror film-festival. It’s a time, let me tell you. His store is also being featured in a series of movies. You can check that out under The Last Video Store on CineCoup, or, if you just want to keep up on the news in general, you can join The Lobby’s Facebook group. So, he’s been asked a question or two.

Because I’m hopelessly predictable, I asked him about the fate of the movie rental industry. If you haven’t been suspended in cryogenics for the past couple years, you probably already know that many of the bigger movie rental businesses have shut their doors or switched to being whatever Rogers is now… some kind of amorphous mass of wires and connection issues. However, businesses like The Lobby have survived. When I asked Kevin about it, he said that it was thanks to his loyal customer base and serving a niche market. It makes good sense, after all, to not try and compete with the larger stores or Netflix. But, it also helps that he’s a devoted fan of the genre. I told you earlier that Kevin has -probably- watched all of the films in his shop and I meant it. This means that, if you’re looking for a particular type of scare, then he should be able to help you find it. There’s something to be said for coming in, looking at the titles on the shelf and having a conversation with someone who loves the movies you’re looking at. He doesn’t do late fees; his primary concern is that you get to watch the film. In short, ladies and gentles, this is someone who deserves our ear; he bleeds horror.

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We covered a lot in the hour and some long interview, which you can find recorded here, but a lot of it came back to originality. Originality is at a premium in the AAA industry today. As Kevin put it, despite his love for big-name movies, this summer’s line-up… “Sequel, sequel, based on a book, based on a book, remake, reboot, re-imagining…” He’s pretty right. There’s nothing wrong with that, really. However, when he went to see The Hills Have Eyes and Evil Dead remakes, he admits to feeling like he’s been there before. The friends he went with loved them and he enjoyed them, which speaks to their quality, but I feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong there. The very foundation of horror lies in the imagination. Reboots are nice, because we shouldn’t be afraid to update old properties with the benefit of our future hyper-tech and they’re new experiences for some people, but what about people like Kevin? He’s a die-hard supporter of the genre, so he’s seen these stories before. Doesn’t the industry owe him the opportunity to experience that feeling of omen, that sticks with you for days afterwards, that comes from being truly affected by something new? Yes, I understand that they’re interested in up-dating and snagging new fans, and that it’s hard to do something truly original in an industry that pumps out ideas faster than a fire-hose spews kittens, but, if a large portion of horror is socially contextual, then old properties aren’t going to cut it, even for newcomers. It seems silly to think that copying something, instead of producing something, is a preferable risk in a genre that runs on sparking dreadful wonder.

Still, if you’re going to do a remake, then how do you do it right? I asked Kevin that very same thing. He seems to think that it rides the line between being respectful to the original idea and making it your own. I don’t want to spoil the plots, but Kevin provided a few examples of good remakes: “John Carpenter’s The Thing” (1982) and” The Thing from Another World” (1951), “The Fly” (1958) and “The Fly” (1986), as well as, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978). In these movies, especially “The Fly,” what you already know going into the movie may work against you. If part of horror is about subverting expectations in the spine-tingling-est way possible, then a remake should use what you think you know to scare the crap out of you. It’s like what SpecOps: The Line did by making you think you were stepping into another brown-desert-shooter and taking you on a psychological-thrill-ride. Maybe what we’re really crying out for is a Sims-style Silent Hill game where you play a white, middle-class office worker that grows old and dies in obscurity. That would be true horror in a world cello-taped together by social media. Still, up-dating new franchises is only one of the ways to extend the life of intellectual property. What about sequels?

Kevin says he has a soft-spot for sequels, “but only if the sequel continues the story-arc of the first one…” and isn’t just a sequel in name only. That’s something I can kind of get behind for movies, but many of my favourite games were evolutions of the original formula and mechanics in sequel form (Silent Hill 2, Far Cry 3). I guess a gaming-equivalent would be expansion packs tarted up to look like sequels (Crysis 3). We’ll hit up that particular topic another time, though. Movies are singular narrative experiences, after all. The story is our core engagement. That’s what you’re supposed to be getting. Unfortunately, as Kevin mentioned, a lot of the time, what you’re buying with bigger-name  franchises is the brand. That doesn’t mean that all sequels are like that, but when you consider things like Freddy’s Nightmares, House 2 (not about the cynical, fun-loving doctor) or Friday the 13th: The Series, that’s all you were getting of the original IPs. They traded off the names of the original series’ to attract an audience (See BioShock 2 for that particular sin in a gaming context). You can make a good movie that way, but it’s a bit misleading. This is where sequels and remakes diverge. Yes, they’re both using the same idea, but a sequel is a continuation. It shouldn’t just use the original as a spring-board to do something totally different. That’s what reboots are for.  Good sequels? Kevin gave props to the Saw guys for their winding, unified story.

Then again, he says, the big franchise he watched growing up was the Friday the 13th series (not to be confused with the Friday the 13th television show mentioned above), “the more, the merrier.” He equates his love of horror to a drug. I can definitely relate. Even though you know going into a theatre that you’re not going to totally enjoy something, you still go. You have to. It’s the same driving force that got me through Cthulhu and made me instantly want to rent Dagon, even though it was unrelated to it, simply to see what they had done.

As a horror movie junkie, it can be hard to elucidate why you love a movie, or even the genre itself. After years of watching horror movies, you can get a bit desensitized to the same old business. It’s a problem that I’ve run into, even as I’m sucking back B horror movies and indie games like a voracious frat-boy with a tray jager-bombs. I could only imagine what it was like for Kevin. So, I asked him what he wanted to get out of a horror movie now, years after he fell in love, “When it comes to horror movies, I want to be entertained, or [watch] a movie that resonates with me. If it scares me, [that’s] even better…” That was something I really needed to hear someone else say. One of the scariest things for me has been losing my ability to be fully immersed in a horror experience, because I’m too busy studying the movie (fear of losing fear, how meta is that? >.< ). Kevin himself says that the edge started to dull a bit when he got into Fangoria magazines and the how-tos of special effects. Still, he finds the odd flick that still gets him. That, if nothing else, gives me hope that I’ll find movies that will once again rake my nerves over a smattering of red-hot razors and Lego bricks.

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I’d recommend listening to the original interview, which I’ll link again for convenience, because I didn’t cover everything or do Kevin’s quotes justice. You really have to hear this guy talk about his genre; it’s awesome. So, track down your local cult movie shops, if you can. It’s not because it’s cool to buy indie or, even, local, although you’ll find arguments for both. No, for me, it’s because if you’re still running a business like that now, you love what you do. You love your subject-matter and you show it in your business practices. Kevin, and people like him, are more concerned with giving you a great experience than making a buck, so you can trust their word on the things they enjoyed. That’s where you’re going to find your next truly fantastic experience… It’s like Reddit in real life. Except that it costs money. Money that will go to fueling the industry making the things you also love. See? One big, happy, terrifying community.

Evil Dead and Unrealistic Expectations of Blood-Loss

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2013 by trivialpunk

I’m, ostensibly, a horror game reviewer, but there haven’t been that many big, juicy targets pecking around the field lately to take pot-shots at, so I’ve just been making do with whatever scavenging game I can pick off from my comfy balcony in Manhattan. (Disclaimer: I don’t live anywhere near Manhattan). However, I realize that, even with my latest review up, I’ve got a perfect opportunity to talk about horror. Mind you, it’s not a horror game, but it is horror, so we’re on the right track.

Before we get down to Evil Dead (2013), I want to direct you to one of Chuck from Counter-Attack!’s latest posts about regimentally ordering games by their merit. I would say very latest, but he’s pretty prolific, so who knows what he’s churned out since then. Also, if you haven’t watched the movie, I’d say go give it a watch, despite what I’m about to say, it’s a pretty fantastic flick with an epic conclusion. Go on, I’ll wait…

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Welcome back! How was it? … Great to hear/sorry to hear that! When I went to see it, I was seated directly in front of a small child, so I was understandably worried that he might kick my seat and scream through it, especially given the fact that he kept telling his mom that he might end up screaming. Thankfully, he didn’t scream and he didn’t kick my seat… after I asked him to stop doing it in the first place. He learned, though, nice kid. The reason I bring this up is because he didn’t scream. I suppose he probably cringed, but he wasn’t brought to the edge of terror and, honestly, neither was I. While I have to admit that I grew up steeped in horror and lore, and that well made video games are probably more engaging in a horrific sense than movies, I still couldn’t see myself being frightened by the movie.

Oh, I cringed quite a few times. There were a couple scenes that were pretty hard to watch, actually. Well, no, but they made me grin through the anxiety they provoked, especially the scene where the one girl cuts off her arm with a meat saw. Then, there was the scene where the girl is carving her face with a piece of glass and you can hear the wet, sloppy sound of a rough edge cutting through flesh. Masterful scenes of cringe, let down only slightly by the obvious prosthetics they required, but you can’t really blame them for not cutting their own arms off; they would have passed out half-way through or bled to death. Aha! Herein lies the crux of my problem with this movie: the characters.

The script was alright, and many people liked that they actually contrived a reason for them to stay out at the cabin this time, but the characters all shared one problem: they were tough as fucking nails. I’m not complaining about their personalities, because those were alright, I’m talking about the amount of punishment they could take before they started to care. Some of them honestly didn’t react to it and, when the character on the screen isn’t passing out from blood-loss, then I’m just not feeling the consequences of the actions that took place. There are many emotional components to good horror and one of them is a sense of the consequences of actions. You got us going with the actual damage, part of us actually feels a ghost of the percussive force or physical pain, so you’ve got us anxious. All that remains after that is a sense of what happened to the character afterwards. Oh. Whoops. Let me recount to you some of the damage that one of the characters took: he smashed his back on a toilet, got stabbed with a needle, got stabbed with a long piece of glass, got shot with nails from a nail-gun in the arm, chest and leg, got wailed on by a crowbar, had his hand decimated by same crowbar, and was finally lain out by a stab wound to the stomach from a girl possessed by Satan. Holy crap! That guy was a tank! No… he was a skinny high school teacher.

You see what I mean? Any one of those things would have sent a regular person into some sort of shock, but he was up and about smashing heads with the best of them. Okay, he was acting injured, but not as injured as he was. Adrenaline can do a lot, but it doesn’t block out all pain, and it eventually fades. He wasn’t the only one, either. Maybe desecrated sites naturally increase endorphin flow, but I like to think it’s more the result of having a limited cast. You’ve got to make each member of your victim-list last, otherwise no one really has a personal journey to anywhere but a meat shop. It still takes some of the effect out of the effects, though.

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The male lead, if you can call him that (it was kind of an ensemble), was a bit thick, too. I understand the emotions and trauma that were affecting him, but that’s no excuse for being wilfully ignorant of everything going on around you. This happens until the other half of the good/evil dichotomy strikes a tree with lightning and he suddenly becomes uber-competent… if still a bit stupid. Dude, if the chlorpromazine didn’t do anything the first time, there’s no way it’s going to work when she can float on water. I’m really curious how he thought things were going to work out when he went down into that basement… whatever. Anyway, that’s the second problem I have with the film. Everyone was a little too good at everything besides staying alive; they lacked some humanity. Sure, one of them was a nurse, but the male lead dude was able to rig up a defibrillator from two needles and a car battery. I get that he was a mechanic, but he performs some serious triage over the course of the movie (with duct tape, hilariously enough) and seems a little too good with that shotgun. Then again, he was a mechanic, so some of that makes sense.  His sister is equally skilled, once she stops being possessed, in many others areas. I think it’s just the whole family.

They just didn’t feel human. One of my friends put it this way, “What do you expect? They’re horror movie protagonists; where they’re supposed to have organs, they just have more blood.” That’s all well and good, but I would have gotten out of the house when it was obvious that it had recently been broken into by a murder cult. Clearly, your sister shouldn’t be detoxing in this particular environment.

The rest of the movie was alright and the climax was excellent! (Pro-tip: Stay after the credits on this one) I just didn’t feel like there was much weight to many of the events, especially after one of the guys appears to murder his girlfriend in the bathroom and no one really suspects anything, but they still don’t seem to think the Satanic cult thing is a serious problem. Pick one! Either they think there’s something going on or they don’t, but you can’t have it both ways. Real people have emotions and make silly decisions, but they’re usually consistent and not script convenient. Also, if you want to scare us, stop panning around and screeching on violins before something is about to pop out. I know that music can help build tension, but over-exposure to anything makes it predictable. We’re pattern-reading animals, we’re going to get the message.

I hope this hasn’t spoiled too much, and if you think it has, then go see the movie anyway. It’s worth a watch, if only for the experience. Besides, it’s an Evil Dead movie, we kind of know what’s going on here already. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the splatter.