Archive for reviews

Cutting Commentary in Velvet Buzzsaw

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by trivialpunk

I never said I was consistent. The horror aesthetic is in right now, and creeping doom is on every horizon, but that’s more the state of the gaming industry than its content. Perpetual experiences and micro-transactions don’t lend themselves well to producing horror games, even if they do inspire dread. So, it was either ride the Dark Souls wave or write about the only thing more horrifying than creeping existential horror: politics.

Not here, though. No, the personal is political, so I can excuse the evening off from charting our winding path into a coiling snare. There are so many things in this world that would bind us and use us that one can hardly keep track. Sorry, got kinky there for a second, but it speaks to the question that faces most artists in today’s market.

Capture.PNG

There are many ways to read Velvet Buzzsaw, and I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding outside interpretations of the movie, except the initial review that led me to it. I wanted to remain surprised, because I was promised a character-focused horror movie with great cinematography and a twist. I got a lot more than that, though, and I want to give you the same opportunity I had to enjoy it. So, here’s your spoiler-warning. From here on out, I’m going to be spoiling major plot-points and the central gimmick of the twist, as well as dissecting what I see as the ethos of the film. There will be no coming back from these spoilers, soo…

SPOILER WARNING!!!!

That being said, let’s start with the exploiters of artists and the gate-keepers that enable the scarcity they profit off of. I mean, the cast. Morf Vandewalt is a renowned art critic that is insulated by pride, pretence and pomp. He acts as a gate-keeper of value in the artistic world that “assesses out of adoration,” but the film goes out of its way to demonstrate his profound naivety towards the powerful people and institutions that profit off his work. This is a great example of the lighting direction and framing coalescing with the narrative at the perfect moment for a story beat.

Capture2

Up until this moment, Morf has been framed as a suave, sophisticated socialite whose words can move mountains. But here, for one moment, his hair is under-lit to make it look like a bowlcut, as Morf is saying something that we know isn’t accurate with absolute confidence. He is, in truth, incredibly childish. You can see it in his demands and complaints. As a critic, Morf is being used to promote dangerous items for dishonest people, as well as destroying the careers and lives of countless artists to further his cachet. He excuses his actions by claiming that his opinions are honest, and they do seem very genuine, but he does tear down Ricky for Josephina. He knows it is wrong, though, and he even gets moments of moral indignation by refusing to sell out his personal beliefs. Morf is not morally corrupt, but he’s not overtly critical of the systems off of which he profits.

You know who is morally corrupt, though? Rhodora Haze, former punk artist turned wealthy socialite. As the owner of the Haze Gallery, she deals in modern art and Machiavellian politics. She’s manipulating Morf behind the scenes, holding contracts like switch-blades under the throats of other characters and stage managing the launch of the Vetril Dease Collection: a series of paintings that were discovered after the artist’s death. Since the artist is dead and the owner of the art is under her thumb, she is free to lie about the paintings at will. She squirrels half of them away to increase their scarcity value.

Rhodora’s mirror-mirror doppelganger is Gretchen. As a newly-minted art advisor/gate-keeper, she’s trying to survive in the same world of money and perception as Rhodora, but she’s nooot as good at it. In her stumbles, we see the ugly seams of their art scene come blatantly to the surface. She tries to bribe Morf to point her to “under-valued, pre-review art,” because she sees Rhodora profiting by buying pieces before Morf’s favourable reivews go live and increase their value. Of course, Rhodora isn’t bribing him; she’s spying on him. Despite Morf’s integrity, he exists in a system where his favourable reviews can be fore-casted by the people who profit off of them. An uncomfortable reflection of the game review space I left all those years ago? Maybe that’s why we’re here…

Let’s not get TOO meta, TOO fast. Where were we? Josephina is another inductee into the world of power and politics. As an employee of Rhodora, she stumbles across the paintings of Vetril Dease on the evening of his death. Recognising his brilliance and claiming them for herself, Josephina empties the man’s apartment of his life’s work. It’s clear that Rhodora took her under her wing as a employee, but is in the process of demoting her when she’s tipped off to the existence of the Dease collection. Josephina is strong-armed by Rhodora, under threat of contractual litigation, into handing over management rights for the Dease Collection in exchange for wealth and prestige. She agrees, because she has no choice.

Jon Dondon is a competing art dealer that learned well from Rhodora. He spends his days trying to poach artists from the Haze Gallery and sabotaging their stars. Jon Dondon puts considerable effort into undermining the reputation of the Dease Collection before meeting his bitter end. His body is discovered by Coco.

Coco is the mirror-mirror opposite of Josephina. She’s working an entry-level position at the Haze Gallery and learning how to navigate the choppy waters of a cut-throat industry. I have a fan-theory about her. I think she sabotaged Josephina in the opening act of the movie by calling her Right before work to tell her about her cheating ex. When Josephina was moved off the front line, Coco got her job. A job she immediately lost, because Rhodora uses and discards people at will, but it’s clear that she’s learned how to undermine people in order to advance her interests. Yet, the film doesn’t totally condemn her for her actions. Coco’s trying to survive in a harsh market, and it’s causing her to compromise her integrity. At the mid-point of the film, she reveals that she’s been spying on Rhodora, and the information she gleaned gets her a new job. So, she’s dishonest, buut…

Capture3.PNG

Which is really more of a condemnation of the system she wants to profit off of than her as a character. At least, in relation to the other characters in this little psychodrama. She keeps losing her job, because her employers keep dying for their sins, but she survives, even if her dream is broken.

That’s most of the main cast. There’s the blue-collar Bryson, who exists as a stereotype both so broadly drawn and utterly eclectic that I can only call him a douche-hipster. Piers is an established artist that is struggling to find creative truth in a system that values constant exploitable productivity. Damrish is an emerging artist from the streets that wants to find a place where his work can mean something, caught between financial success and cultural relevance.

The last two members of the important players are almost uncredited. They are the representatives of the Museum of Modern Art, and only one of them gets a name. It’s Jim, and his unnamed partner says one of the most important lines in the film to Gretchen: “…If you wanted to ram more of your collector’s hoard down our throat to increase their value, you should have done so before the Dease deal was locked…” You see, there’s only so much room in a gallery to show off cultural artefacts, so curators have to be careful with their space. As an artistic institution, the museum has a responsibility to the integrity of the art world, but the leverage provided to Gretchen by the inflated value of the Dease Collection gives her power over their investors. The wealthy gate-keepers of the art world have lent her the pictures and capital necessary to dictate what cultural artefacts will be displayed as valuable in the museum. She does to them what Rhodora did to her by packaging Dease with another artist named Minkins. In this scene, the film is saying that the power structures that profit off of exploiting artists do not elevate art based on its cultural value but on its ability to be exploited for profit. Therefore, the exemplars of this cultural space did not gain ascendancy through cultural relevance, but  through systems of power. Even if the art is only valuable for the moment:

Capture4.PNG

From EA to Disney, this is the relationship that most artists find themselves in today. The gate-keepers of artistic value are propped up by towers of money, and it seems like the only way forward is to sell-out for profit. As Gretchen says, “Look, I came to the museum, because I wanted to change the world through art. But, the wealthy vacuum up everything, except crumbs. The best work is only enjoyed by a tiny few. And they buy what they’re told. So why not join the party?” These are not evil people, but they’re still profiting off of a system that locks culture and the ascendancy of artistic vision behind pay-walls and monetary access. So, what should an artist do in this environment? What is the point of art if nobody sees it?

It turns out that the film has really optimistic answers to both those questions, but I want to address two very important aspects before we get to those answers. The first is that the paintings are haunted by the ghost of Vetril Dease, because he literally put his blood, sweat and tears into his work. His pain and madness are seared into his tormented works, and their raw manifestation is what ensorcells both critics and artists alike. This life of misery, “A howl for answers and a resolution that never comes,” is the fascination point off which the galleries will profit. They’re capitalising on the dead man’s pain.

The second aspect is the way in which Dease’s media is altered for consumption. Not a single stroke on his paintings is changed, but when they are removed from the context of his tiny, ramshackle house, they lose their connection to their meaning. Dease faced serious abuse, and his work was a means of processing that trauma. His howl for answers reveals the depth of that pain, but that depth is completely removed by transplanting it to a gallery space for safe consumption. In a gallery, people see the brilliance and clarity of the emotion, but they are insulated from its impact. Capitalism sanitizes media and removes it from the consequences of its context, a point which the film makes extremely explicit:

Capture5.PNG

Everyone thinks that Gretchen’s death is part of the exhibit, so they’re removed from the reality of the situation. The children in this scene think it’s fake blood; they assume that everything in the gallery is safe for consumption, so they are protected from its implications. The paintings and sculptures in this movie could stand in for any form of media. By removing media from its context and making it safe for capitalistic consumption, we are insulated from its true meaning, thereby allowing the framers of that information the power to control our perception of it. Which gets even more interesting when you consider that Damrish is a culturally-relevant Black artist being tugged away from his artist’s collective to pursue success in a mainstream gallery

Capture6.PNG

It should not be ignored that the history of African Americans in most artistic mediums includes a long history of exploitation. That the gate-keepers of power in this movie are primarily white, and that systemic socioeconomic differences are of key importance in relation to their access to power. No one in this movie is anything close to racist, but they are unquestioningly profiting off systems of exploitation built on inequality. You could not have an honest psychodrama about the flaws inherent in media exploitation without bringing up the rotten foundation on which it is built. This applies to all vulnerable populations across the media landscape, from Freddy Mercury to the Jackson 5. While naming those two makes it seem like these were relationships of mutual profit, we’d do well to remember the barriers they faced and the artists of all stripes and orientations who see nothing for their life-times of work. The more vulnerable you are, the easier you are to exploit, which is why some populations are targeted more explicitly than others.

Everyone in this movie is duplicitous to some degree. They’re all stage-managing personas and stabbing each other in the back behind warm smiles and “Kisses!” They are the perpetual manifestations of this psychodrama, profiting with cold brutality as they devour warm bodies with neat, sanitized pretence. It’s the same cheerful nihilism on display when the News feeds us justifications for murdering people and presents the deaths of thousands as an engaging tragedy. There is no human way to easily digest the deaths of that many people, but when it scrolls by on your news feed, it feels like one more point in a burning world. Something you can accept and “deal with.”

The personal is political, and the most important point of conflict in the daily lives of most people watching this movie will be fighting the apathy bred by comfort. The most important weapon against action is the idea that everything will be okay. By making things safe and digestible, we never feel the true weight of the tragedies happening around us. There is an art to insulating us into inaction, while at the same time justifying murder. It is the howling storm into which we all must scream.

That brings me back to the haunted paintings and my two final questions. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? I think the film answers that rather handily on multiple occasions. An artist’s primary concern should be the act of creation. “All art is dangerous,” which is to say that all art is powerful. Dease created otherworldly paintings as a byproduct of using art as a tool for exploring his trauma and grief. He survived a life of torment through art, even while definitely committing some murders along the way.

At the end of the film, we have an extremely human moment with Rhodora as she hands the keys of her beach house to Piers. Piers has been struggling with alcoholism and the media-driven idea that artists flourish by sacrificing their sanity to addiction and mental illness. Grappling with the raw honesty on display in Dease’s work, he wants to keep the “easy answer” at arm’s length, while he “tries to get back to creation.” The art world only values him as long as he’s creating work that they can sell, and it seems like the only answer to creating that work is sacrificing his mental well-being. Which is when the ghost of another dead artist steps in. Rhodora’s old girlfriend Poly -who was killed by a similar life- whispers a quote into the chill winds of history that saves Piers, “Dependency murders creativity. Creativity plays with the unknown, No strategies exist that can enclose the endless realm of the new. Only trust in yourself can carry you past your fears and the already known.”

Dependency on liquor and the financial approval of others is murdering Piers’ creativity, while the addiction slowly kills him. Rhodora tells him to take a break from the art scene, because she’s aware of its potential for toxicity. He needs to heal. She tells him to go somewhere and do something for nobody but himself. Because, at the end of the day, You always see your art. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? None, but the artist always sees their work. Art is a tool for expression and self-discovery. The finished product has inherent value to the artist and naturally reflects the time-period of its creation. At the beginning of the film, Rhodora posits that her art world has been thriving since a caveman charged a “bone to see the first cave painting,” tacitly suggesting that art and capitalism are inherently intertwined. Which perfectly reflects her world-view, but it has nothing to do with reality.

While it’s true that pretty shells and intricate carvings have always been traded as valuable, the drive to create is inherent to the human experience. Whether it’s ancient, crumbling paintings or lines in the sand swept away by the tide, the act of creation is inherently valuable. When we place importance on the exploitability of the finished product, rather than the act of creation, we murder creativity. So, what should an artist do in this environment?

Damrish’s story-line follows this logic to its fruition. The personal is political, so we should create for each other in an accessible space. Instead of allowing ourselves to be exploited for personal economic gain, we should look to the good we can do in our community as artists. If you have a voice, then we should use it with thoughtful purpose. At the same time, the collective in the film suggests that if this is the case, then the community needs to be there to support these artists. As someone who wrote free articles for years, I can tell you that you can’t dine on artistic integrity. We need to respect each other and our art, because our creations hold value. Both for ourselves and the future generations that will try to understand us through the exemplars of our culture.

Then, there is the other artist: Vetril Dease. The vengeful spirit left to toil in obscurity, exploited after death without the consent of his personal demons or consideration for the private pain it would unearth. His flesh was sold at auction with each painting, his literal body of work was violated for profit. Artists often sign away the right to control their work in exchange for the ability to create it, especially in the gaming space. Their legacy as creators is controlled as if they were a meaningless incident of its creation. The sole reason I’m writing this review, now, is that I kept asking myself one question: “What is the motivation of the paintings in this movie?” What injustice do the demons locked away behind Dease’s rage seek to correct? In looking for this answer, I came to my thesis for the film: “By making media fit for consumption by cultural institutions propped up by capitalist markets, we sanitize pain and profit off of death. Art that is both personal and culturally relevant/transgressive will/should undermine the power structures that enable the exploitation of art and humans, so that no more people must die in painful obscurity while the rich profit off their work.”

Each death in the movie reflects this motivation. Bryson was supposed to take the Dease paintings to be locked away in a warehouse, but he clearly died on a country road in the middle of stealing them. Rhodora kept Dease behind lock and key, both preserving the paintings he wanted destroyed and setting his work up to be exploited. Josephina stole his work and sold it, despite his wish that it be destroyed. John Dondon dug up Dease’s tragic past, but he was killed before he could use it to undermine the value of the work and profit off the destruction of his competitors through it. Gretchen was killed moments after threatening to use Dease’s work to destroy the hopes of emerging artists, keeping undiscovered artists like Dease in the dark forever to profit off the increased the value of Dease’s posthumous work. Morf kept emerging artists from the public’s eyes by judging their work to be valueless, profiting off their destruction to the point that one of his targets killed himself. Further, Morf stood to make millions from an exclusive Dease book-deal. Before dying, he publishes a tell-all article on Dease’s tragedies and the deaths connected to his work. It is telling that Morf was assumed to be corrupt by people like Gretchen, and that his credibility was only ever destroyed when he told them a bizarre, uncomfortable truth.

Damrish and Piers don’t die, because despite their exposure to the work, they never exploited it. Coco kept losing her job, so she never made a dime off it, either. She lost her dream but not her life. She’ll return home and find something new. And Dease’s art? It’s still out there, circulating out of stolen crates. Which makes me wonder… out of the context of these exploitative systems, will his art still be dangerous, Or was his art most impactful/destructive within this system, because it sought to tear down the power structures that exploited it? Am I reading too much into this? Possibly.

These paintings reflect a dark theme that stretches all the way back to “The King in Yellow.” A terrifying work that inspires heights of artistic excess or the lows of human suffering. Artists often see in works of this amorphous, eldritch nature a kind of creeping wonder. Am I divining something that exists or creating an idea from whole cloth? Kind of meta in a sense, because it comes back to why I’m here and often not here.

I created this blog to “forward the realm I analyze,” as Morf would say, but I found myself in the same position a lot of the time. Discussing gaming at this moment is putting support behind companies that are busily exploiting and destroying the works and artists that I admire. I couldn’t allow myself to be part of that anymore, even if the encroachment of larger investors opened the doors for greater profit. I have zero desire to be chewed up and spit out by an ungrateful industry, but I will always love gaming.

Yet, in my absence, I’ve seen the work of people like Jim Sterling and others pushing back against the glorification of exploitative excess, and I see in that movement a future for gaming. We’ve been here before, so maybe it’s better to stand and fight. These exact same historical beats have been playing out over time, from 3-D to the syphilitic collapse of the AAA Industry from its moulding throne. As we know, from the ashes of failure rise the Embers of a new age, and I’ve been heartened by the growth of the indie scene on Steam. Its gluttonous collapse after Steam Greenlight seemed to me the absolute excesses of Dark Souls’ Humanity. Even I’m back here, writing about the revolutionary potential of an above-average horror movie churned out by a corporate mechanism designed to respond to Disney’s global I.P. Power Grab.

Still, we must shout into the howling gale. We must not place the value of creation on the exploitability of the finished product. In this life, we must live and create, finding joy and integrity where we can make it. I have no mouth and I MUST scream.

Also, I wanted the opportunity to clear up a misinterpretation of my earlier assertion that reaction-time was an important consideration in relation to tank-controls on early survival horror games. Yeah, the tension-and-release cycles are still effective, even when the controls are fluid, because they speed up the monsters, too. The point isn’t the movement of the characters on the screen. The point is the experience of the individual reacting to them. So, if both characters are slow, then tension rises as the character prepares to react, then executes and experiences the results of those actions. The timing of that cycle is the important thing, not the speed of the pixels on the screen. When you’re running away from Pyramid Head’s attack in Silent Hill 2, you have a fraction of a second to react, then pick a direction and run. The tension exists in the execution of the maneuver, even if success or failure are decided at the beginning of the reaction when the startle reflex kicks in. It doesn’t matter if you get hit; it matters that you panicked for a second while you tried to react. That’s part of the build-up of physical tension that accompanies the game’s psychological anxiety.

The Hunters in Resident Evil are the same way. They cross vast distances in one jump, but your reaction to them is hurriedly finding a horizontal axis to safely cross their straight leap. This allows you the time to turn around and launch grenades at them. The controls were slow, so the tension came from thinking quickly. Now, you can react more quickly, but the startle reaction is still there, so more of the mechanical tension has to come from the staging of the game-play sequence.

So, yeah, Velvet Buzzsaw is a psychological revenge-drama where art goes on a killing spree to avenge an exploited artist. Give it a look if you’re still interested. Even with everything spoiled, it’s worth watching. Hell, maybe I’ve been over-analyzing things this whole time, and you’ll find something different in viewing it. That’s the nice thing about art: we each get to decide its value to us. I’ll be back if I feel like I have something else worth saying. Until then, I’ll just be enjoying things for their own value, because…

Capture7.PNG

Critically Critical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Uzumaki___Spiral_by_Tailed_Fox

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:

uzumaki-1136762

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.

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!

End of Summer Pop-Culture Run-down!

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , on September 5, 2013 by trivialpunk

Remember all that time I took off from writing? Well, I wasn’t idle during that time, but I wasn’t exactly working on projects. You see, I had just gotten Sherlock (my PC) back and started back in on my projects when I realized that this summer was drawing to a close and, between this, other projects and a full-time University course load, I wouldn’t have time to enjoy myself if I didn’t do it now. You can’t just let those summer months float by unacknowledged! So, I thought I’d do a quick pop-culture run-down of what I’ve been viewing and playing to bring you up to speed.

This last week, I was camping, so I didn’t get much watched. However, I did nail out quite a few short story frameworks for the coming month. I realize that this week will have to be a double-post to make up for the stories I’ve missed, but that’s okay. (And here they are! Actionable ContentSolitude and another revamped classic: About A Ham Sandwich) They’re ready and waiting for a final edit. I also got to play some Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn!

FinalFantasyXIVARealmRebornBanner

Apparently, Squenix acknowledged that the original FF14 was tripe, so they built a new game from the ground up and gave everyone that bought the original a free copy of the new one. Now, that’s taking responsibility for your mistakes, and it’s a company policy I can really get behind. In my mind, they bought so much good will for themselves with that move that I’ll forgive the initial server outages and realm roll-out problems.

The game play itself is pretty standard. My friend and I rolled a Thaumaturge and a Marauder to compare the combat styles and how they’re dealt with. They’ve got pretty simple built-in rotations that won’t blow the mind of anyone familiar with World of Warcraft, but they’re functional. The game itself is beautiful. They didn’t use the always-in-season cartoony-WoW approach. They went for a full-on Final Fantasy graphical style. I know that sounds redundant, but anyone familiar with the FF art-style will know what I’m talking about. The biggest surprise of all wasn’t in the actual game-play, though. It was in the controls.

Your user interface can make or break your game, because it’s the set of tools through which you invite your player to explore your world. If your system isn’t fun or engaging, if it turns your game from an experience into a slog to grind through, then you’ll swiftly lose players. This is one of the reasons that PC games have had so much trouble adapting to console waters: the interfaces are just so different. Developers have tried to solve this problem in every way, from console keyboards to PC controllers, with greater and lesser success. FF14 solves this problem rather elegantly by using the bog-standard keyboard interface for the PC and a sleek, intuitive controller design for the PS3. Unfortunately, the 360, at time of writing, doesn’t support cross-platform play very well, so you won’t see a 360 release of FF14 any time soon.

The console controls are as follows: analog sticks to move, single buttons for simple commands, like targeting, and shoulder buttons + arrow-pad/ shape buttons for hot-keyed commands. Between this UI and the uncomplicated rotation I mentioned earlier, the game sets itself up for lolling couch-play rather nicely. There are options, but they add more than they complicate, at least during the level-range we played. There’s a Job system and cross-class-actions to build up; unfortunately, the game’s one fault is how poorly it instructs you to deal with these matters. But, as this game is a deep rabbit hole, we’re going to stop there and move on to…

movies-the-worlds-end-poster

The World’s End! This is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years, even among the host of best-movie-I’ve-seen-in-years that have been released this summer. It’s funny without being crude and true without being too crass. It’s an overwhelming satire of itself, as well as notions held by both dominant cultures and sub-cultures. It’s both prophetic and, quite honestly, rather fair. Its deeper, harder-hitting points are masked by smashy-smashy-eggman fun and double-talk that seeps from its every pore. As insane as it seems, every aspect of it has been carefully crafted to add to its artistic value, satirical outlook and subversive humour. It’s a send-up of able-ism, digital imperialism, whining-without-doing, mass consumerism, personal psychology and brand creation. It even finds time to mock apocalypse movies and self-righteousness.

I’m not sure where it got the time to do all that, but it’s one of the best written movies I’ve seen in years. It quite honestly follows on from the previous movies in the trilogy, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, in spirit if not plot. There are the usual meta-jokes and your old-favourite cast of characters. I’m starting to wonder if British actors are always in the same movies together because of some cultural carry-over from the acting-troop days of old or if it’s just a writer-director preference thing, because after watching Spaced, I’m constantly having “OH! It’s you!” moments. Martin Freeman even shows up to assure us that he’s more than just a furry-toed hobbit that hangs around with a detective. I promise you: you will enjoy this movie. Everyone brought their A-game.

Castle-promo

Speaking of detectives, I went all-in on Castle this month, and it just keeps getting better. He’s somewhere between Jessica Fletcher and Sherlock Holmes. Fletcher because he’s a crime-solving writer and Holmes because his primary strength is creative consideration of the many horrors committed on one man by another. To top it all off, he’s played by Nathan Fillion of Firefly, Captain Hammer and Neil’s Puppet Dreams fame. Also, Nathan Fillion is from my home city, so I like him that much more. The basic premise is that Castle’s a famous mystery author that has, through his connection with the mayor, been authorized to shadow Detective Kate Beckett, while she investigates homicides, in order to do research for new books. I know it sounds a bit crazy, and it is. It only gets more absurd as the series progresses, but that’s okay.

It both does and doesn’t take itself seriously. It never lets a little thing like plausibility get in the way of a good story, but it’s not so out to lunch that you’ll switch off in disgust. Its creativity deserves your suspension of disbelief. The gender politics are interesting and the characters feel real. They may be larger-than-life, but they’re also very human, flaws and all. When someone’s misogynistic, it’s because that character is, not because the show’s outlook is. It’s a balance that’s rare and hard to maintain.

There are some portions that are a bit too sensationalized, but that only serves to reinforce the quasi-pulp feel the show occasionally swerves towards. At times, it’s exactly like reading a trashy crime novel, which is appropriate, wouldn’t you say?

I also started up Papers, Please: a simple little indie game on Steam about working at a border checkpoint station under a thinly-veiled, oppressive, Communist regime. The mechanics are simple, the moral choices poignant and the stories compelling. If you’ve got some time to kill and you want to think about what you’re doing a lot harder than you need to, then pick it up!

I started watching Raising Hope. It’s pretty funny. Not to be taken seriously. Watch with liquor in hand.

Speaking of liquor in hand, Outlast dropped today and I’ve been itching to finish it up. Before I go, though, I want to talk about a pet peeve of mine: default keyboard controls. To me, Outlast and Final fantasy 14 are clear indicators that part of the industry is made up by people who game, because their input systems make intuitive sense to me as a gamer. The interface for FF14 was a refreshing surprise, but the default keyboard layout for Outlast actually made me smile.

It’s clearly set up with WASD and a simple mouse in mind. I always tweak a couple of things, but this time I really didn’t want to. It made me realize how often I’ve had to. So, I’d like to address the people who make these default button maps for a second:

Dear Designers:

I know it’s tough figuring out exactly where to put what buttons, but it’s important. Sit down and really get into playing your game before you make that decision. After all, you’ll need to have a game built before you have a default set-up, but, failing that, let me give you a word or two of advice as someone who has played games for many years:

1. Just because “crouch” starts with “C” doesn’t mean it’s the best button to bind crouch to. I know Warcraft did the first-letter-hotkey thing, but it doesn’t make sense in an FPS. There are going to be times you need to hit the crouch and enter commands at the same time and, given that “E” is usually enter, you’re going to get a lot of finger movement out of that one side. WASD should do for gamers what home-row does for typists: provide a safe place to return to. Try pressing “C” to crouch, “E” to enter and “W” to walk forward at the same time without moving your basic hand position. You can do it by moving your thumb up from the space bar, but you’ll either need to look to see the specific key for your thumb to press or know the area very well by muscle memory. With something like crouch, I could have all the time I need to check, such as when I go through a vent, or I might need it to hide like a scared fox when the twisted monstrosities come calling (Or, if you like, guys with guns that I need to take cover from). Give the pinky something to do: Keep crouch as control.

2. Consider the rate and urgency with which people are going to be pressing buttons relative to their position. If I have to hold a button to run, then don’t bind it to a finger-key I’ll want to do multiple things with, because running is a pretty big part of any game. Likewise, don’t bind it to a finger that never does anything simply to give it something to do. The ring finger on my left hand is highly untrained. Be kind to it. Also, if I’m going to need to switch off my flash-light quickly to hide a lot, then “G” is not the best key.

3. Use toggle keys judiciously. If I’m going to be toggling something a lot (like run), then make it convenient. If it’s more like the walk function in WoW, then not so much.

4. Lean functions are cool, but, unless they’re an integral part of game-play (like in Outlast), don’t mess with my “E” key.

5. Giving someone the option to have a “You just bound “_” to A, but A is already “__” You’ll be replacing “_” Are you sure?” pop-up on the control-binding menu would be nice for more complicated controller layouts.

6. Bind Journal to “J.” It’s what all the cool kids are doing.

7. Be very careful with where you put high-value buttons. My only problem with Outlast was that Reload was bound to “R” which is right next to Lean, which is “E.” So, when I went to Lean, I instinctively skipped over “E”, because it has been my Enter key for the last 20 years of gaming and reloaded my camera, wasting precious batteries. I rebound the key to “Caps Lk,” which solved the problem, but always consider  game-play layout precedents and the habits your players might have going in. It’s okay to shake up the formula when you do it well, like Outlast did generally, but I’ve seen it done poorly enough times to have to mention it. Also, if there’s a button we’re going to be pressing a lot, then it’s sort of a bad idea to place a button that wastes a valuable resource right next to it. Until I made the switch to “Caps Lk,” I wasted three batteries. For a psychotic survival-horror player like me, that’s unforgivably shameful on my part.

Thanks for your time and good luck with your game.

Okay, I knew I wasn’t really writing a letter there, but it would be rude not to sign off properly.

Speaking of, this has been Trivial Punk and I’ll see you on the Other side.

Pacific Rimshot – Taking the Good with the Not Quite as Good

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on July 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Okay, I didn’t want to write this. I really didn’t. I look at horror games, and I can really only justify stretching to horror movies for this blog, because they’re related. Also, movies with zombies in them. Or, alternatively, just games I like. Okay, so I’ve got plenty of precedence for a pop-culture romp. I mean, pop-culture is pretty much what I do. And yeah, some of the monsters were a little scary. But, still, I didn’t want to write it. Pacific Rim is getting enough attention without me sticking my nose in. However, it has gotten so much positive attention that I feel I’m justified here. Enough of that, let’s sink our teeth into…

pacific-rim-movie-banner-striker-eureka-jaeger-vs-kaiju
The reason I felt like I had to write this was because every time I recommended it, I wanted to put an asterisk on the end of my recommendation. I’ve told people over and over that it’s awesome, and it is. However, for some people (The pop-culture obsessed psychotics like me), there are going to be some issues. That’s why I’m here to warn you about them now, so that you can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the robots. I probably shouldn’t have to tell you that I’m going to be unleashing a spoiler-cane here, but I will any ways.

Not that there’s much to spoil. Pacific Rim is a largely visual movie. Stunningly visual, actually. I felt like my eyes were going to melt out with joy when it fired up. It didn’t hurt that the theatre was mostly empty, because it was a Thursday night, so it was as silent as I could have wanted. I got totally absorbed in the film. Well, mostly. You see, there are still going to be plot-holes to fall into. Huge ones. That’s what I’m talking about. I fell into them, and it interrupted my enjoyment of the film. I don’t want this to happen to you. Before we get to that, though, we’re going to talk a bit about culture. I know, right?

It’s debatable pop-culture wisdom that some of the primary differences between American and Japanese video games is the approach these cultures have to weapons and combat. Bushido (I’m not kidding with the reference) tends to stress responsibility and wholeness. As that approach to combat trickled down through the ages and culture, it manifested in games, representing a bond with one’s weapon during combat. The power lies within-without. Conveniently enough, there’s an Extra Credits video that explains the concept better than I could. Conversely, the idea of the citizen soldier, of great individuality, manifests in the American Zeitgeist and, consequently, its video games.

This was easier to parse out early on, before the world became so globalized. If you want video game examples of this, then, for Japan, think Megaman and Vanquish (Gundam Wing, Evangelion). For America, on the other hand, think of Doom or Duke Nukem (Independence Day, Die Hard). That’s what makes Pacific Rim so interesting as a study of culture. It’s about the bond between people. In this movie, strong connections are the pre-requisites to stopping the end of the world. Stop me if this gets a little too “real.” To me, this represents something that today’s movies are approaching again and again: we need to work together as a world to survive. It happened in World War Z. It’s happening again here. It’s actually a trend that I love. The internet should bring people together.

That mush aside, Pacific Rim’s pilots connect deeply to one another, while also melding with their machine. It’s a perfect blend of the two concepts. The deep connections between the Jaeger (giant robot) pilots enables them to fight the Kaiju (giant monsters).

One of the things that has bothered me so much about this movie is that people are calling it totally original. I know the idea of originality is fluid, at best, but I didn’t make the references to Evangelion and Independence Day lightly. If you mashed those two movies together and added revolutionary special effects, then you’d get Pacific Rim. That’s not a bad thing; they’re fantastic and so is this. Once you think about it, you won’t be able to unsee it, though. The speech by the commander. “Today, we’re cancelling the Apocalypse.” … “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day.” It’s spooky.

Okay, that all aside, let’s talk plot-holes, because they’re going to bug you. So, let them bother you now. That way you can just enjoy the movie. Okay, if the Jaeger program is a failure, then why are the coastal cities surrounding the rift so unusually intact? Why cancel it at all, especially in favour of that wall. Oh yeah, their big plan to replace the Jaegers is to build a big wall from California to Alaska. Aside from the fact that that won’t cover anything, it’s a dumb idea. I mean, we get to see a Kaiju rip right through the wall in the middle of the movie. We’re also made privy to a flying Kaiju (hereafter known as a Fly-ju). So, who approved this plan?! To me, it evokes the image of a bunch of tired, old bureaucrats sitting around a table, looking at financial charts, when one throws up his hands and says, “Fuck it! We’ll just build a big wall!” Right, because anyone that served on the Maginot Line can tell you what a great idea that is. On the car-ride home, we came to the conclusion that the only way to think around this glaring plot-hole was to assume that said bureaucrats had the same agenda in implementing it as the movie-makers had in putting it in the movie: to raise the stakes. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it makes more sense than the wall. There were trying to push humanity into coming up with an actual solution.

Near the end of the movie, they discover that the reason they haven’t been able to get a nuke through the rift between worlds, where the Kaiju are coming out of, is because it’s only a semi-permeable membrane. Like a cell, it reads an incoming object and decides to accept or reject it. This is a perfectly serviceable analogy, because it certainly looks like a cell on the inside. *Double Spoiler Alert* Once they get the explosive through, one of them ejects to escape. This makes sense, since the rift hasn’t closed. However, once the other once ejects, the rift is collapsing, and it’s safe to assume the other side of the rift closed. So, how the hell did he get through? Oh well, think your way around it again!

You see, the aliens are “colonists.” They come to other worlds to strip them of their resources. However, given how many resources are available in a single solar system, let alone a galaxy, for a resource-rich society like theirs, why wouldn’t they be flying around the galaxy gathering resources instead? Well, if you think about it, it might be easier to rip a rift between adjoining dimensions than to develop fast-than-light capabilities. Maybe the rift was already there, or even weakened. Otherwise, I think they’ll be back. Even a thermo-nuclear device isn’t going to put a scratch on the kind of resources it would require to create and sustain the Kaiju. Back to Independence Day again, the scene where the explosion goes off in the alien’s face is almost the exact mirror of the nuke-the-mothership scene from Independence Day. Only now, it has four eyes.

Further assisting us is a pair of comedy-scientists that are competing to solve the Kaiju problem. One clearly representing Biology and the other repping Physics. Sort of. In the end, they learn to work together, Jaeger-style. Woot. (Aww, if the sciences cooperate, then everyone wins. It’s a good message.) The reason I bring this us is because the physicist discovers a pattern: a count-down (No, I’m not making another Independence Day reference). That count-down is leading to an unleashing of Kaiju like we’ve never seen before. The time between emergences has been shortening by a predictable factor. He uses that model to predict a double-emergence. Now, why does this make sense? Time-dilation, of a sorts. As the universes move closer together, the time it takes to travel between them, relative to each world, shortens. On this side, we see them coming out slowly. However, I have a feeling that on the alien’s side, they’ve been just pumping them in one after another. That’s why it takes them so long to adapt. They don’t realize that they need to re-adjust their tactics until they’ve sent a few through, because it’s happening immediately for them.

This also explains why the gate lets our hero through. On the human side, the gate may have been closing immediately, but, because of his direction of travel, the human side to the alien side, he arrives on the alien side, drops off the nuke, then comes back before it ever closed. Remember, the time between each emergence was shortening, suggesting that it’s now faster in this direction. So, that explains that.

The troubling thing is that if this is true, then there should still be Kaiju en-route, unless they were caught in the collapse of the rift, which seems likely. Also, and you won’t understand now what this means as a plot-hole, but eagles can lift some deer. You’ll understand.

Things move a bit fast, but that’s okay. We’re trying to tell an epic tale of robot smash-ups in a limited amount of time. The entire tale is actually quite expansive, and I’m thoroughly impressed with how they brought it across. The one thing I’m still divided on is the ending. Dude-buddy-pilot pops to the surface (with a wicked case of the Bends, I assume) and embraces his lady-love. Everything’s good! Saccharine and happy. I was kind of hoping a shark would eat him, because mundane threats still exist, but oh well.

On the one hand, I believe you should trust your audience enough to deliver them a sad ending. A dose of reality. On the other hand, I’m on-board for a happy ending. It would be a grievous shift of tone at best for our hero to just die at the end, especially after all the crap he went through. “Save the world and die” is a pretty anime thing. Sacrifice for the good of the whole is a decent message. However, if Halo has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t like our armoured heroes to stay down. And, if this movie showed us anything, it’s that you can still sacrifice a lot and live to tell the tale. It’s a nice fusion between the concepts.

So yeah, go see Pacific Rim. It’s a great film. I’ve heard it’s even alright in 3-D. You may come across some plot-holes or things in the movie you didn’t like that I didn’t cover here. I only wanted to go on so long. Just ignore them or make a game out of explaining them. Often-times, movies ask us to suspend our disbelief. To look past their flaws at the diamond underneath. I’m not always willing to; a movie has to earn that. It has to give me something worth looking past the crap to see. Well, Pacific Rim has my respect. It’s fantastic. Go see it.

One last question remains: what is a Jaeger’s feet made out of?!? Do you know how much impact it’s handling? It’s insane! Also, look for cameos from GLaDOS.

Addendum: In many areas, it’s also quite a clever film. It respects you enough to not have to explain every little detail of itself. Just another thing that makes it great.

Crying Over Cry of Fear

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

After spending a few days immersed in the Gloam universe, I decided to pop my head back up and play some games. If you follow my Twitter, then you may remember that I said I was cracking open a bunch of indie horror games a little while ago. You may have wondered, briefly, why I’ve been so silent on the subject in my blog. Well, the truth is that I didn’t find many worth talking about. If you were around in the early days of Newgrounds and saw those, “Scariest Thing Ever” posts, where some scrolling text tells you a vaguely creepy story and a picture flashes up to the sound of an entire orphanage of children rejecting their broccoli, then you’re familiar with what I went through for roughly three games and counting. I’m not going to point fingers, because I’d prefer to talk about good games than stomp all over developing ones.

With that in mind, today, we’re going to talk about Cry of Fear, because it was pretty damn decent. It began its life, “Dear Esther” style, as a Half-Life mod from Team Psykskallar. Now, it’s a stand-alone game that you can download from Steam for free. Pretty snazzy. Although, honestly, I’m not sure if I’d recommend the game. If you’re really hurting for survival horror, then it might give you a dose. It’s not fantastic, though. Well, it has its moments. Ah bugger, let’s just get into it.

542476_308446645887233_104860890

It starts by dropping you into an alleyway with a mysterious text message. From there, you just follow a bunch of corridors until you hit the end of the game. The plot isn’t exactly deep, and it jumps around a bit, but it is fairly compelling. Juxtaposing the wacky antics of the protagonist (Read: critically flat voice acting) with the situation makes you want to figure out exactly what’s going on. However, as you go through the game, I’m sure you’ll start to feel like you’re walking through a piece of another survival  horror I.P. It seems that large cities have many of the same problems that haunted lakeside towns do. Disappearing corridors. Spontaneous, intrusive surgery. Populations on the verge of utter insanity. Puzzles. Health bars. A dark, mysterious parallel universe streaked in blood and rust.

Basically, what I’m saying is that if Cry of Fear isn’t directly related to the Silent Hill series, then one of its parents must have had a wandering eye. There are some differences, though! Cry of Fear is a first-person game. Unfortunately, it was clinging on to its bastard siblings’s arm so hard that it took melee mechanics along for the ride. Because of the technology its working with, its hit detection is incredibly dodgy. Or, maybe not dodgy enough, depending on your perspective. There is a dodge button, but the game’s stifling corridors aren’t conducive to avoiding the flailing arms of vague monstrosities. You’ll end up taking a few more hits than you ought to and miss more than your share of attacks that should have connected. In fact, overall, the combat is the weakest part of the game.

The creatures you fight run right up to you, so there isn’t much time to consider the implications of engagement. There’s no dread. In fact, most of the creatures in this game pop up like whack-a-moles. It’s trying to freak you out like the aforementioned Newgrounds fodder, but that’s not really frightening. After the first couple of times, you’re more than ready for it. “Ooh, the lights flickered. I’m assuming that means we’re going to have to bash something back into the ground soon.” They just move too bloody fast. They’re in your face, instantly. Blam wham bam. Next.

cry-of-fear-15-700x438

Counter-intuitively, there’s a positive aspect to their movement, even while their movement speed is detrimental. The character models jerk and spasm like good anthropological horror creatures should. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the creature design was my favorite thing about this game.. There are these monsters that have their arms attached to their chest with big, iron staples. As you whittle down their life, you break open the staples, and they can attack you with their arms. There’s another creature I like to call “The Aborted” and the usual rambunctious pick-and-mix of disfigured knife-wielding toddlers and hammer-wielding psychos. The boss creatures are pretty interesting, too. They require you to think a little bit before you unload your pack of buckshot into them.

There’s one creature that made me turn the game off and write this review without finishing the game, though. Well, it’s more of a situation. You’re in a long stretch of alleys and a (well-designed) standard chain-saw wielder pops out of a door to chase you down the alley. This one part combines all of the worst aspects of the game into a big barrel of blah. The shady hit detection ensures that you can never be sure where he’s swinging, so dodging is pointless. Even if you could dodge, he moves so fast that he’s back on you in a second. The linear corridors don’t provide you much room to maneuver, and they dead-end a lot. Obviously, if you get caught in a dead-end, then you’re meant to panic and turn around. Unfortunately, as with most chainsaw wielders, he kills you instantly. So, you’ve just got to run through a few times to get it right; it’s just trial and error. He’s killable, but I unloaded my entire arsenal without managing it. You’ve got a sprint bar, so you’re going to have to half-run, half-back-peddle to make it through, because you run out of it pretty quickly. Optionally, you can load yourself up with morphine when you run out of sprint and get another bar to use. Still, if you run by something you want to go back to, he’ll just kill you.

The design of this area really needs work. The first time it’s scary. The third time it’s not. By then, it’s just dull and frustrating. Plenty of things could have improved this portion: adjusting his run speed, giving you an adrenaline boost, not making you watch the cut-scene, giving you room to work around him, not putting a tantalizing machine gun behind him, making him a two-hit killer, not using fake-out corridors with one-hit kills, not baiting us with doors… the list goes on. Many games, as far back as Clocktower, have tried to implement returning baddies for the sake of oppressive fear. You have to do it right, though, and this doesn’t qualify. If I could say something positive about it, then it would be that he’s visually creepy, and he bugs a lot. If I wasn’t so interested in actually playing through the game, then I’d just have let him bug out and be past it already. Maybe the buggy movement was left in to make him manageable. I’m not sure. His sound design is quite good, as well.

Actually, the sound design is probably the strongest part of this game. The track list is certainly immersive. Earlier, I mentioned that the monsters pop up a lot. In the earlier portions of the game, when it’s still trying to build tension, they use sounds to herald the coming of monsters frequently, and they do so quite well. Of course, even this is used to try to freak you out when the jump-scares come, but what can you do? Moving forward with praise, the lighting is well put-together. Your cellphone doubles as your flash-light (Just like in real life!), and it casts a downwards-facing light when you’re not holding it. This makes the upper portions of the game darker than the bottom ones, obscuring the movement in the distance and making you choose between safety and surety.

Aesthetically, it fits the bill, and I’ll admit to being freaked out a couple of times, but it’s not scary. It’s not even really engaging. I found myself slogging through the game, trying to finish it so I could develop a balanced opinion for you, but it just wasn’t enough to counter my frustration. It has lost too many points already for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Maybe I’ll log back in and find my way past chainsaw face using a bug, now that I’m done with this, but it won’t feel like a victory. I just want to see the end. Still, if it has a good ending and a strong latter portion, then I might change my overall opinion. We’ll see.

Before we wrap up, I want to address the puzzle aspect of the game. As I’m sure you’re well aware, you can’t have a game that’s all combat, especially a survival horror one. Different types of engagement are key to keeping your audience interested. Of course, you don’t want to go the Modern Warfare 3 route, but mixing it up a bit will give you a better game. As is traditional, Cry of Fear uses odd puzzles. However, it doesn’t use them very well. The first “puzzle” is two sheets of paper that are lying on the ground on opposite ends of a small area. Once you pick them up, they give you the name and password for a computer that’s in a nearby shop. Don’t worry, you’ll find it; it’s the only shop with an open door. Once you log on to the computer, a messenger window pops up with a previous conversation on it. It’s just one post: a door code. Oddly enough, there was a locked door that needed a code at the beginning of the area… hmm…

Now, this is kind of neat, but it’s sort of an eye-roller, and it’s a huge missed opportunity. The game could have provided us with some context for why the code was being posted, maybe even hinted at what was going on. Hell, it could have tried for full over-the-top oddness, which, when juxtaposed with both frightening and mundane situation at the same time, leaves you with a vague feeling of surreality. Think: the fridge in the hospital in Silent Hill, the coin puzzle in Silent Hill 2 or the Shakespeare puzzle in Silent Hill 3. This puzzle makes mundane sense, but it’s a bit flat, even while it’s unreal. There’s no frightening magical logic. It vaguely alludes to the idea that someone left those there purposefully, but it fails to make that point meaningful. “Okay, someone might be following me, or I might be losing it. But, why a computer? Why keep them separate?”

To really flesh out what I mean, let’s look at another “puzzle” in Silent Hill 2: the lock-box in the hospital. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Clearly, an insane someone wrapped this thing up tight. It has four separate locks, two of which require keys and two of which require combinations. Each key has a story behind it. Each code is delivered to you in an off-putting way (written in blood on a wall awash in the red stick-icky in a panic cell and on the carbon paper of an insane note in a typewriter). By the time you crack the box, you’re reeling with possibility, “What’s in the box?!?” Any of you that know the puzzle I’m talking about will probably chuckle at the Seven reference here, but it’s the right amount of surreal. It follows the video game’s logic and pulls you deeper into the world. If nothing else, it engages your imagination.

By comparison, Cry of Fear fails to feel like anything but a fetch-quest. Yes, if you dig right in, if you force yourself to, you can find interesting moments to puzzle over and different points of foreshadowing, but the game-play doesn’t highlight them effectively. Many of the problems with the game can be traced back to the engine. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to make this game on, but they did and that deserves some praise. Still, the game should have changed to reflect the tools available. Instead of stuffing a concept into a set of mechanics, you need to make the concept fit to what you’ve got available.

It’s okay. It’s not really a bad game, and the voice acting makes sense, because it originated in Sweden. Honestly, I’d be a bit off-put if they had good voice-acting; terrible dialogue is kind of a survival horror tradition. I’m still going to finish it. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy about that fact, but there it is. At the end of it all, I give it 3 Slightly Stale Donuts out of A Cute Dog in a Dead Homeless Man’s Hat. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the other side.

World War Z: The Movie – One Goal, No Soul

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

Alright, I wrote a really long pre-amble to this post, but then it went on a little too long, so I posted it as its own thing. So, for this one, we’re getting right down to business!

world_war_z-wide

If you want to see a zombie movie, then don’t go see World War Z. If you’re a fan of the book and want something equally as intelligent, then don’t go see World War Z. This is not the utter condemnation it sounds like. It’s a recognition of what World War Z is; in many ways, it’s not your traditional zombie movie. There are things it does right and things it does wrong. So, by now, you’re waiting for me to do my “I know it’s not horror, but it has zombies, so swiggity-swool, I think it’s cool,” but no, we’ve got to get right down to it. Right now. Now. …

Contemporary pop-culture wisdom states that zombie movies are not about zombies. You could replace the zombies with anything (flood, bandits, slow-moving, overly-aggressive girl-scouts), and it would still ring as a zombie movie. Zombie movies are, at their core, about the walls of society breaking down. That’s a bit trite, so let’s elaborate. They’re about the decisions people make when no decision looks good. They’re about selfishness, avarice, hope and courage. The outside world is hostile and bursting to get in, but you do everything you can to keep it out. Meanwhile, your society is rotting away from the inside. Think “The Divide.” That’s a zombie movie that includes absolutely no zombies. I’m not recommending that you watch it, because it’s incredibly depressing and so focused on delivering a message that it skips right over character depth. It explores interesting portions of the human psyche, but it does not explore gestalt humans. The complexity that the characters do have isn’t complemented by much. It’s just all bad, all the time. Even the light that manages to squeak through is yellowed with grime and fly corpses. Then again, terrifying situations do tend to focus your priorities a bit. I’m just not sure it’s as black and white as all that.

That’s the freedom that zombie movies give us. They let us take people to the edge and comment on what they find there. World War Z is a bit… unusual, in this respect. First of all (and SPOILERS, btw), it’s all about Brad Pitt flying around the world looking for a cure and appreciating different set-pieces. Its schizophrenic presentation is a bit reminiscent of Modern Warfare, which isn’t necessarily bad, and it’s helped by a fairly decent framing mechanism. The problem is that World War Z, the book, is told in vignettes. They’re small pieces of exposition, told within a larger short story, that combine together to form their own story. Making a movie out of this chaotic approach would be impossible, unless you went full-on mockumentary (truth be told, I wanted THAT movie, but…). They did the best they could. They wove in references and set-pieces fairly competently, even if the driving plot is a bit absurd. I mean, that’s a lot of resources to be spending on one man, especially one without the means to posit a solution.

Speaking of plots, they stripped out references to the Redeker Plan. I think it’s because it didn’t fit in to the world they were trying to create. If you’re familiar with the book, then you know that the Redeker Plan is the extremely pragmatic, controversial solution to the zombie apocalypse and that it was implemented during World War Z. Essentially, it talks about who to save, why, and how. Then, it talks about who should be sacrificed and why. It’s about the greater survival of the species, even if the survival of our humanity is a bit more questionable. The book was an indictment of popularity and policy. It was a harsh criticism and a noble celebration of our greatest endeavour: politics. You can laugh at that statement all you want, but working on the level of “society” is incredibly complicated. It’s like House on Haunted Hill with a room full of socio-paths, and the occasional psychopath. However, this approach would have been a little too dark for the movie we got.

The World War Z movie, as it stands, is about the hope and bravery inherent in the individuals working to make society run again. It’s about the small acts of kindness that can mean everything to someone. It’s about what we can accomplish when the world bands together. (If you’re familiar with the book, then it’s one of the two versions of The Hero City movie.) It’s incredibly saccharine, but that’s not a bad thing. I’ve got loads of movies about how people suck and only your best friends will help you kill a werewolf, but in the serious AAA world of adult zombitainment, I haven’t seen anything like World War Z in a while. Once in a moon, it’s nice to have someone rip off the cowl of cynicism and talk about how good people can be. When we approach the apocalypse, we often talk about how shit humans are going to be to each other. Maybe that’s true, but it’s nice to see a little something from the other side. (Maybe we won’t be the architects of our destruction. Maybe there are things larger than us) Yeah, it’s tragic and all, but it’s sparkled with so much bravery and magical realism that I can’t help but feel that the events of the movie are being held at arm’s length. It’s like I’m literally watching a baby eat his mother’s face, while she holds him close and smiles, and all I can think is, “Aww, wook at his wittle teef!”

So, that would be a bit detrimental to any oppressive atmosphere it could try and build, but there’s more than that. The movie goes about itself with a sense of camp that’s charming, despite being occasionally cringe-worthy. There was some brilliant advertising, as well, that pulled me out of it still more. For me, though, the zombies killed the feature more than anything. They don’t make sense within the book’s own universe, or ours. If you read my post on realism and its uses, then you’ll be familiar with this, but offering an explanation is always a huge risk. It’s extremely important that you do it right, because, otherwise, you risk breaking the covenant you made with your viewers. Let’s look at a small scene from the movie…

hqdefault

The Israeli wall scene. Visually, it’s quite striking. Even in the movie, this scene is pretty well executed. For those of you worried about CG zombies (like me), then be happy that they actually used it to do some good. They didn’t use CG because they were lazy (in terms of production costs, that doesn’t even make sense) or totally technophilic. They did it because scenes like this one would be impossible without CG. To put your mind at ease a bit more, they used practical special effects whenever they could. As you would expect from the budget and talent on the project, they did a great job. Most movie extras ever, I think? Any ways, the reason this pile doesn’t make sense, and another reason I don’t think this qualifies as a zombie movie, is because it’s not zombie behaviour. It’s hive behaviour. The zombie behaviour in this movie was modelled after locusts. It’s pretty cool watching the tides of humans race around like insects, but, zombies, they are not.

Each individual zombie, according to the canon I’m familiar with, is a unit onto itself. However, all zombies have exactly the same desires and response-patterns, so you’ll always get predictable, centralized behaviour. It’s kind of like how fan-site message boards work. For this scene to make sense, the zombies would have to all be drawn to one spot on the wall. Fair enough, but these zombies are climbing in a controlled fashion. Sure, maybe they’re following a single stream of least resistance, like water, but that’s not really very zombie. Zombies are stupid, mindless drones. These drones are quite intelligent. In fact, and I’m about the spoil the end of the movie, so be wary, they’re intelligent enough to surge, in a coordinated manner, around sick children, so that they don’t run into them. That’s right, zombies won’t bite terminally ill people, because that would weaken the strain. What terminally ill means here, and how the zombies know you’re terminally ill, is tactfully avoided. We’ll get back to that in a second…

Why is this important? It implies an awareness on the zombie’s part that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Water behaves in patterns because of the rules governing it. Locusts communicate and behave in tandem because of an awareness of their surroundings. Zombies, on the other hand, walk off the edges of buildings. This scene right here is problem solving. It’s an efficient path. So, that doesn’t make much sense. The zombies that surged around the crouching child, ostensibly, did so to avoid being slowed down or hurt by him. Earlier, I saw a zombie leap – catapult, really – through the air to catch a helicopter. Continuity would be nice.

That’s the risk we run when we explain ourselves. You have to, otherwise you’re not really saying much, but it’s a careful, treacherous undertaking. World War Z shows how tactful it can be by not getting into the specifics of how zombies sense the terminally ill or what terminally ill means. That would have been a clusterfuck, especially since the pretense didn’t make much sense to begin with. The zombie virus kills them. No heart-beat, no infection. That’s almost a direct quote from the movie. So… yeah… science and continuity aren’t the movie’s strongest points, but, in the post-apocalypse, at least zombies will be able to become part of the triage process.

These aren’t haphazard changes by lazy artists, though. The book was an epic tale about humans in the zombie apocalypse. It represented the looming dread of a coming menace and our inadequate ability to face it, initially. It’s about growing. It’s about keeping the outside at bay while your society rots from within. In short, it’s a zombie story on a global scale. The movie is NOT that. So, the rest of the movie had to change to reflect the differences in pace and scale. Fast zombies kept the action and the infection-spread intense. When you’re trying to explore a world as large as that of World War Z, there’s not a lot of time to wait at the gates for the zombies to surge in. In many ways, it’s difficult to imagine a slow-moving swarm taking out a city in the time it would take to read the book, let alone the world, in the span of the movie.

Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. You can’t make the movie about Redeker because of the tone you want to set, the themes you want to explore and the amount of time you have to express it. So, you have to find something new. It’s the beginning of a proposed trilogy, so you can’t solve the whole thing, either. However, you’re only making another one if there’s interest and you (blessedly) don’t want to leave anyone hanging, so you need something vaguely end-worthy. Medical research is an arduous process, and you want to depict it with some respect, so you don’t make Brad Pitt a researcher.  There would be no reason for him to be out in the field. They even kill off the crazy guy whose idea it was to find patient zero, like you could actually do that in the zombie apocalypse. Like it would actually matter in this case. His death is pretty silly, look for it. What do you do? You glom on to something that sounds sort of scientific and has a background that makes sense, even if it’s mechanically ridiculous. You don’t explain that, though. You just run with it.

And why not? We don’t berate Frankenstein for the weakness of the science in it. We don’t roll our eyes at Osmosis Jones too much. Yes, the movie was about science and relied on science for an explanation that didn’t make sense; and that’s grating, but let’s allow them some creative license.

It’s politically correct as butts. It’s saccharin, wholesome and scientifically inaccurate to a startling degree, but it’s a good movie. We can’t look at things and just judge them by the standards that we have. Sometimes, we have to create new standards with new labels to discuss them properly. Meet them half-way. I don’t have a new label for this, but I’ll reiterate one thing, World War Z is not a traditional zombie movie.

Addendum: …but that’s okay; it’s still awesome.

Dread Space Another One

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

Contrary to the words I wrote mere seconds ago, I’m going to be starting my penance next week. Right now, I’ve got way too much of a headache to focus on reading. Why am I typing, you may ask? Well, Dead Space 3’s demo came out recently, and I’ve got to say something about that shit! As my regular reader may know, I’ve got kind of a thing for the horror genre. If it were a lady, I’m pretty sure we’d be moved in, vowed and raising three li’l ones by now. However, recently I feel like most of my lovely courtesans have been getting bored with the shock-a-day lifestyle, and seem to be flitting towards the action-adventure genre. I worry, because we’re starting to have less and less in common. They’re out and about with slimy space-monsters wearing leather jackets and exploding their way over cool jumps, and I’m sitting here on the kitchen floor mournfully cradling a cleaver. It just feels like we’re both going to end up having extramarital affairs sooner or later. Either way, there will be blood, and maybe that’s enough. To that end, let’s peek into the diary of the Dead Space franchise and see what the little minx has in store for us.
Image

Things started off a bit worryingly when the snow animation looked a bit 1999. Not the sky-boxes, mind, but the snow trailing around my feet. My jealousy became aroused even more when a couple of enemies came screaming out of the door of a hangar, flailing their arms and praying for bullets. BUT, what really caught my breath in my throat, wrenching my heart in a vice-like fashion, was the weapon customization. Let’s break down why I’m jealous, then maybe The Note will make more sense when it shows up next to our bloated bodies.

Part of what kept Dead Space consistent was the level design. Not the way it was put together, but the aesthetic. It was all pretty samey and shippy, with the occasionally rocky mesa to spice things up a bit. As a result, there wasn’t much to worry about with regards to keeping all of the animation on the same level. With the introduction of snow into the environment, the programmers had to be very careful to make sure that its graphical and animation quality matched that of the rest of the environment. It did not. The whole thing almost pulled me out of the experience before I’d even got a chance to pick up my first stasis pod. I can only comfort myself with the hope that they’ll have improved it by the time the final product ships.

If that snow animation thing seemed a bit small to bring up, then I should probably back up a bit further. Horror is a genre that’s centered around creating an emotion, evoking a response. You’ve got to know your audience and craft the experience accordingly. Any little thing can pull you out of it. Of course, a tense, well-drawn story-line, and the rest of the bloody game, can make up for the odd quirk (see: Resident Evil… Survival Horror Voice-Acting), but that requires a considered approach. Dead Space 3 eschews that by throwing more over-baked bacon-crab monsters at us right off the bat. There’s no sense of build-up. There’s very little time for tension, because we’re too busy smacking them around with the God-Hand and Boot of Isaac. I know it’s hard to create tension when everyone already knows what all the bloody monsters look like, but maybe that means we’re done here. I’m sure you could use some of these monster designs in other games.

Image
Speaking of monster designs, Dead Space sort of packed it in for me with the troops. You fight soldiers. With grenades. Sometimes, they’re fighting you because a squid-baby nestled its way into their armor with all the grace and elegance of Earthworm Jim, but a monster should be disturbing on more than just a cognitive and visual level. Let me explain with an example from my favorite series: Silent Hill 2.
Image

This monster, shown here in high-definition, is the manifestation of the hatred one of the other characters has for her abusive father. The game makes this quite clear through dialogue, cut-scenes, and game-play. It’s just… strange. It makes unusual noises, it moves in a weird, languorous, counter-intuitive manner, and it leaves a thought-provoking corpse. However, it also represents something disturbing in relation to what it represents about the character’s past, a fact that is made more disturbing by its face-rape method of attack. Lastly, it’s either thrown in your face, or it hangs out, just out of sight, taunting you with its… sound. It’s a good creation. However, it only really shines because of how it’s presented.

Let’s contrast this to the mildly disconcerting baby-head squids. It shows you how they take over a soldier’s body, which, while mentally unusual, leaves nothing to the imagination. Here, imagination is your most powerful tool. I’m not left thinking, “Oh man, what’s he doing to me?!?” It’s more akin to shouting, “Oh fuck, I’d better kill this thing before it tries to use me as a host.” I understand that, and I’m not afraid of it. The whole game is about killing shit that wants to kill you. Oh, and we can go anywhere to fight soldiers. We know soldiers. We get grenades. That’s not going to turn any heads, or any dreams, into nightmare-vessels.

So, the monsters aren’t anything new, but the pacing doesn’t really give us a chance to appreciate their inherent creepiness, anyways. Of course, someone brought up that, being a demo, it’s probably trying to shove us straight into the action. If that’s the case, then what are they trying to show us? How much like Resident Evil 6 they want to be? Even if it is parachuting us in, in medias res style, then aren’t they giving a bit much away? No matter how it starts, I now know that I’m going to end up on some shit-cold mining world fighting soldiers. If part of horror is what you know, then I know too much now. I can only hope they’ve kept the best for the reveal. Some of the cut-scenes certainly let us glimpse gems of glinting potential, but I feel like the multi-player could seriously undermine the whole thing. Think about it. Isaac has always been alone, and that’s part of what gave Dead Space its feeling of oppressive desperation. Adding another character into the story, or even having to balance it around there being one or two players, is going to be difficult, and take an infinite amount of finesse. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if they end up being another hallucination, then I’m packing this franchise in for myself. That’ll be the end of it. I’ll have to fold my arms and wait for “A Machine for Pigs.”

If it seems like I’m being a bit harsh, then it’s because I love this genre so, and this series enough to call it back for at least another sequel. However, I just don’t feel like it cares any more. I’m afraid it’s just going to start phoning it in. There are additions, though. Dead Space has always added something neat by way of movement mechanics, and this game is no exception. While it’s not zero-gravity, it does have a lot of potential. They put in a climbing-rope for you to belay down. I look forward to the giant pits it will ask us to climb down, and the quick-time events therein. Honestly, it could be neat. Dangling on the perspective edge of oblivion, with only a small rope holding you up, as the ground begins to shake, your grip-bar weakens, and you’re forced to fight for your life against the coming onslaught. Or is that Shadows of the Colossus. Either way, I look forward to seeing how it’s implemented.

Lastly, I want to talk about weapon customization. It looks deep, or at least complex, but I don’t think that’s really a point in its favor. The original weapons had elegant designs that fit well into the theme. Even the plasma cutter made some sort of sense, as well as being an awesome weapon for intersecting the perpendicular plane created by a monster’s flailing arms. In fact, most monsters are designed with that sort of mechanic in mind. So, either the weapons will have some constraints, to the point where it’s all just a bunch of cool-but-pointless faffing around, or the enemies are going to be so needlessly varied ( or more likely, so vanilla-chilla) that it’s hardly going to matter. Striking a good middle line will take some skill, and I’m hoping they’re up to it. Of course, the whole thing smacks of a change of tone. We’re not desperately searching for the closest tools that will allow us to survive, plasma-cutter-style; we’re actively building an arsenal. We’re confronting this alien enemy, and fighting it to the last. The minute that’s scary is the minute that I start exclusively reviewing CoD games. Hopefully, that’ll fall into line, too, but there’s an awful lot of “hopefully” in this review.

Oh, and if multi-player might compromise the experience, then throwing everyone’s favorite motion-peripheral into the mix can only make matters worse. I’m just saying.

I was a bit thrown by the demo. I really liked the series, even as it leaned towards a more action-oriented play-style. It kept just enough of its horror-theme to maintain a certain level of respectability. Now, though, I’m not too sure. I’ll have to play the game to form a full opinion, because there are cut-scene glimpses of superb competence, but I’m not sure. Maybe Resident Evil 6 has left me feeling a bit jaded, but I’m still going to try the game, so that should say something, too. If Dead Space wants to be a super-gory action game with bizzappy weapons, then that’s cool. It’ll do a good job! If we’re shooting for horror, then, well, we’re going to have to aim a bit higher, aren’t we?

Mechanical Metaphors and Monopoly

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2013 by trivialpunk

Today, I want to go back to basics a little bit. This is, most assuredly, not because I spent the last week playing Dark Souls and don’t have a comprehensive opinion yet. No, this resulted from a conversation I had earlier today about Monopoly. Boiling it down, the conversation had two points of interest: Monopoly is a terrible game, and it’s a bleak, some-might-say accurate representation of unmitigated capitalism. I’d like to take some time out of your schedule to examine those two claims.

Image

The first point is a little hard to justify. Clearly, it’s a game that has been around a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, no matter how much we hate sitting down with the family to roll dice for three hours. Then again, that sentence itself kind of deconstructs the whole experience. It is pretty much just a dice-rolling game, with a few exceptions. I’ll get into those in a bit. There’s not much depth, or complexity, to the game, except what you add yourself. There are multiple variants, house-rules, and board games, but the essential experience is the same. With a game this old, and a system this simple, how can Monopoly possibly be relevant in an age of complex table-top gaming and high-res, high-quality video games? It’s because, despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, it can deliver a truly focused experience with a well-developed mechanical metaphor: fuck players, get money.

This plays directly into the second point: the representation of capitalism. On the face of it, capitalism is about acquiring money, re-investing it, and making more of it to re-invest, and crushing anything that gets in your way. Well, that’s a simplified, cynical vision of capitalism. I’m not going to get into the finer points, because this isn’t an economics blog. We’re here to get our game analysis pants on.

All of the various aspects of Monopoly communicate the need for competition. The limited resources ensure that you’ll be struggling over them with the other players. Consuming those limited resources strengthens your opponents, so any loss by you is a gain by them. This is what’s called a zero-sum game. These resources are, of course, properties, but they apply equally well to the currency system, as well. It has been shown that games with the $500 Free Parking rule go much longer. This is because there are more resources available in the overall pool. Running out of resources ends the game. This also adds a running clock to the system and reinforces the value of both currency and property.

So far, so simple, right? This is a deep rabbit hole. Each and every piece fits together to inform the experience. Take Go for instance. Passing it allows you to collect $200 dollars. Its placement on the board is a well-calculated decision. Immediately after you pass Go, there are cheap properties, with low costs and low rent. However, as you loop around the board, the properties get progressively more and more expensive (This adds another layer to the Free Parking space, because it acts as a padding gate for your entrance into the more expensive areas). So, by the end of your trip, you’ve probably spent the money you made by passing Go. In fact, there’s a chance you might be knocked out by the green and blue properties in the end-game before you get a chance to collect it. This is fine for the first few rounds, but it has an interesting effect later in the game. It separates players into a couple different categories, two of which I’ll discuss here: the haves and the have-nots. Simple and elegant naming aside, these two categories reflect two different economic life-styles: living pay-cheque-to-pay-cheque and collecting dividends. For the well-invested, the end of the month, or cycle of the board, is simply a chance to add to their pool of resources for re-investment. For others, the less-than-lucky among us, it represents one of the only sources of income they have. So, it’s a kind of windfall. Of course, that’s just a stalling method, because they’ll eventually be bled dry by the best invested players.

I mentioned luck earlier, and it’s a pretty big part of the game. Rolling high on the dice makes your trip around the board shorter, and increases the number of overall times you’ll get a chance to pass Go. Luck also dictates what properties you land on and when. Probability will ensure that the disparity between different players on the total number of spaces they move each game will be low. However, when and where you land is important. Moving around the board can be seen as moving through time. High rollers will get past more obstacles faster. Metaphorically, this is like getting through a month without incurring any extra expenses. Landing on a property in an early cycle of moving around the board is the best, because you get either a chance to buy it, or don’t have to pay much. However, as time passes, and the players cycle around the board more, there are fewer and fewer available properties. Needing a set of three properties to build houses also ensures that expenses will only mount as time passes. This side-effect of cycling around the board also ensures that the metaphor of dwindling resources, and getting in early, is clearly represented.

This might be a dig at capitalism, as well. When you land on a property, so when you “get in,” is essentially randomised, or, at least, largely luck-based. There’s a money-management component to the early cycles, but it usually amounts to buying every property you land on, and hoping for the best. Again, high-rolling players will get to the better neighbourhoods first, reducing the total number of available high-price properties available to those that come afterwards. On a purely probabilistic level, it’s always better to get there first, and roll higher. Of course, it’s not all about high rolls. Landing on Free parking, the rail roads, and un-rented property takes all kinds of rolls. Equally so, landing on Park Place with four houses can be the result of any roll. Notice, also, that there’s a gap between each two-property set. This ensures that you can always get to the second property from the first with a well-placed set of snake-eyes. Again, good for initial investors, but a capital sink for those that come after.

Image
Jail is an interesting beast, as well. There are many different ways to play Monopoly, but, given the simplicity of the system, there’s a pretty clear end-goal. As a result, those in an unenviable position, pricks, or the very young, may be tempted to play outside the rules (read: cheat). I’m hoping that you can see how this parallels reality pretty well. When you don’t have, then you’ll be tempted to do anything to win or survive in a zero-sum game. That is, if you commit into its all-or-nothing, tooth-and-nail mechanical environment. Expanding further on this, depending on your position, going to jail can be either a good or bad thing. Right now you’re saying, “But Trivia, that doesn’t make sense! Cheating in real life doesn’t land you in jail in the game!” That’s true, assuming you’re using standard rules, but it does highlight the costs and causes of cheating. If you’re doing well, then you’ve got a lot to lose, so you’re not quite as likely to cheat (unless that’s how you got there). Whereas, if you’re not doing well, then you’ve got little reason to stop yourself from taking an extra hundred from the bank when no one’s looking. Similarly, being in jail stops you from moving around the board, but, more importantly, it also prevents you from paying or collecting rent. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Doubles! Doubles! Doubles!… JAIL! Now that we’ve looked at jail, we can talk about this rule. As we’ve established that quick movement is desirable, and that snake-eyes will generally land you on property of the same set (assuming you’re on the first square), we can see why doubles would be awesome. So, rolling a lot of doubles is desirable. You will either be moving a large number of spaces, or very few. Compared to any random combination of numbers, doubles is generally superior. You’re either moving a large number of spaces (8, 10, or 12), staying in the same general rental neighbourhood (2), or ensuring your escape from a set of well-developed properties that you’ve already landed on, or are close to (4, 6). These results can be replicated by a random, non-paired combination, as well, but doubles are solid rolls. As a result, rolling a lot of them can be akin to doing a little too well in the business world (insider trading, anyone?). That, and it once again shines the spotlight on randomness and its ability to land you in the dog-house.

Speaking of trading, I haven’t yet mentioned how you make most of your sets. If you were lucky enough to land on a set of properties and snap them up (statistically more likely if you got there first), then you don’t have to worry about it. However, if you didn’t, then you’re going to need to trade. This aspect of the game adds a certain level of depth to the proceedings because you’ve got to save all your dickery for after you’ve eliminated your need for your opponents. That’s why most of the time people: save house-purchasing until after all the properties have been bought, and have a trading-phase once the last property has been nicked. So, you either hold onto properties and deprive your opponents of a much-needed resource, or you leverage your opponent’s need into an advantage. this also preserves every property’s value into the end-game. Yes, the rent on Marvin Gardens may be low on its own, but it beats the hell out of landing on Virginia Avenue with a hotel. How you deal with your opponents is up to you at that point, but I should also point out that grinding your opponent into dust puts their properties up for auction, allowing you to snap up that property you need in the wake of their fall (depending on who does the auctioning in your house-rules, you might also have to play two-faced with your opponents all the way through to avoid pissing off the auctioneer). This further cements the feeling and drive to compete and destroy.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Well duh! Monopoly is about competition! Thanks for wasting a couple thousand words illuminating that.” You’re welcome, because that thought brings us full-circle. The rules and mechanics of Monopoly all work together to serve the overall metaphor and purpose of the game: driving competition in an environment of luck, initiative, and strange bedfellows. As games become more complex, it’s occasionally difficult to see the forest for the trees. The basic elements of every game come together to create the overall experience. A well-crafted game will communicate its meaning on every level of design. From the different pictures depicting Mr. Moneybags, to the rules and mechanics of the game, and the lay-out of the board, the entire Monopoly experience is shaped around its message. Even children, who barely understand the concepts we’re bandying about and actively deconstructing, grasp, just through play, the strategies and meanings of the game. Nothing will convince you of this more than the blood-thirsty cackles elicited from their sweet, innocent mouths as you land on their well-developed properties and they get to drain you of your last cent.

So, is Monopoly a bad game? Well, it lacks a grand level of strategic depth, but it certainly communicates its point well. So, if I can give SpecOps and Silent Hill 2 a break, despite their mechanical sketchiness, because they’ve got an excellent , unified aesthetic, then I think I can do the same for Monopoly. As a metaphor for capitalism, it’s a bit bleak, but not necessarily untrue. Maybe inaccurate, but those are different things. As for relevant? I think everyone should play it at least once, or twice, even now. As gaming, and the gaming community, moves forward, it’s always worth a little retrospective. There’s a lot to be learned from simplicity, and the mistakes of the past. We’d do well to remember how Monopoly, with a board, some dice, and some cards, managed to create an experience so immersive and comprehensive that, given the chance, you’d buy your Grandma’s property right out from under her without a second thought.