Wednesday, September 16, 2009

the eXile

I'm borrowing my supervisor's office for a few weeks, while he's away on leave. Several benefits accrue on that account – not least of all that I'm writing and revising my thesis in the same room in which my undergrad work has received so much criticism and assistance, which lets me channel my indolence into a constant stream of improvements to grammar and expression – but the best part of it all is the immediate presence of all the books an old-school Modernist could ever want, with particular emphasis on Lowry, Beckett and Joyce. And sidelines on Nabokov, Flannery O'Connor, Dante, John Fowles, Graham Greene, et cetera, ad infinitum.

My casual reading list has been much richer for all of this, of course – last week it was Lowry's Selected Poems and the Conrad Aiken-inspired Ultramarine. (Lowry named the novel after Aitken's Blue Voyage; Aiken suggested the more fitting title of Purple Passage.) Then I moved on to a book of essays on Joyce's "The Dead"; the hard-to-find (at a reasonable price) Faber edition of Eliot's manuscript for "The Waste Land", with plenty of annotations and strikethroughs by Ezra Pound; Brian Boyd's take on Nabokov's Pale Fire (and then Pale Fire itself); Borges' Inquisiciones and Other Inquisitions; and yesterday, to a book I didn't think I'd find here – The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia, by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi.

There was a flurry of interest in the eXile around these parts in 2003, when Critic landed an interview with Dr. John Dolan, who'd left the University and the woes of what was then English 124 (now ENGL126) behind him in a cloud of dust, and headed off to co-edit the newspaper. Critic's then-news editor (later editor for real) Hamish McKenzie wrote this feature on Dolan and the eXile, complete with gratuitously long quotes with so much gold that there was nowhere to cut or paraphrase:

"Listen, I taught the first-year med students at Otago for EIGHT YEARS!!! You think I'm scared of death? Death is nothing! Those terrible lectures in ENGL 124 on Monday afternoons - those were the test for me. I remember that nightmarish first year - I came so close to bolting from Castle 2 one time. The valium prescription had run out on me about halfway through the lecture and I saw in full intensity the serried ranks of those mean, med-student faces sneering lazily down at me from the nearly-vertical rows of seats. People at Otago don't know how strange the atmosphere there really is by comparison with most real universities. I had been teaching at [University of California] Berkeley, where students of 18 are grown-ups and pleasant, witty, trusting grown-ups at that. To be faced by eight or nine hundred vicious, provincial adolescents staring down at you on a sleety Monday evening ... you think that after surviving that I'm going to be scared in Moscow? Death is easy; the med students are scary. Those were the most vile, evil, worthless excuses for human beings I've encountered in a long and checkered life. It's a pity they can't all be put to work shovelling the water out of the Leith with colanders."
...
That's Dolan for you - give him an inch and he'll write a column lambasting everything that's wrong about the society you live in.

The book (Grove Press, 2000) has a foreword by Edward Liminov in almost-broken English that sets the tone:
[The] female condition in eXile is worst than in poorest Bedouin family wandering in the deserts of Israel.... The eXile's crew is also arrogant, and making fun of authorities. They have questioned Russian men: How much money would you have to be paid before you'd fuck Madeleine Albright? Russian men declined proposition.
What are political beliefs of Ames and Taibbi? they are totally politically incorrect. they are extremists of a new brand: leftists and right-wingers in same time, they are racist red communist agitators worst than three-key people, bloodthirsty as Chikatilo, about women you know.

But damn it's a great read. Ames and Taibbi clip in dozens of articles from the newspaper as sidebars, slander their workmates and each other, come up with new and curious ways to get some serious libel happening, and slam idealistic expatriat Americans to the ground. Wonderful stuff – if related by potentially unreliable narrators – it's depressing and scary, all the more so because it's exactly like the alternative press should be anywhere in the world, strugging for funding to stay afloat, jumping from scandal to libel to the horrors of everyday politics, and it's nothing I'd have to guts to write myself, regardless of where I lived.

The eXile is gone now, shut down over a year ago after an "unplanned audit" of its editorial content; scared investors promptly pulled their funding. “The government does not need to jail or shoot people,” Mark Ames told Carl Schreck. “All they have to do to keep people under control is say ‘Boo!’" Here's Owen Matthews, writing for the Moscow Times:
Is the paper guilty? Hell yes - at least by the puritanical standards of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The eXile was a biweekly dish of political gossip (often surprisingly incisive), grim reports from the country’s underbelly and amphetamine-fueled vitriol against Middle America. It was also heavily laced with pornography, satirical graphics and outrageous club reviews penned by a series of fictional correspondents. This was the paper that created the “Death Porn” column, a compendium of the week’s most gruesome crimes illustrated with police photos. Its most recent issue hailed the early arrival of “snapper season,” complete with photos of naked provincial girls taken from the “Dyevscovery Channel.”
The original website's still up, apparently still shilling for donations to stay afloat, while new content has shifted to http://exiledonline.com/. Gems from the eXile's new home include Tal Sutsa's article "Memphis: where Steve Jobs goes to eat his fellow Americans" (link) and Mark Ames' new radio show (link). The eXile is a model for controversy, fun, an incidentally increased readership and doing absolutely everything you can't do if you get that internship at Fairfax.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

À droite

Having exhaled (exhumed?) the lowbrow products of procrastination (below; backdated), a few things are jumping around for attention. This article is still remarkably fresh in my mind, for example, if only because it's so delightfully derivative of Borges' "Benares" (1923, Fervor de Buenos Aires):
False and impenetrable
like a garden traced on a mirror,
the imagined city
which my eyes have never seen
interweaves distances
and repeats its unreachable houses.
The sudden sun
shatters the complex obscurity
of temples, dunghills, prisons, patios
and will scale walls
and blaze on to a sacred river.
Panting
the city which a foliage of stars oppressed
pours over the horizon
and in a morning
full of steps and of sleep
light is opening the streets like branches.
At the same time dawn breaks
on all shutters looking east
and the voice of a muezzin
from its high tower
saddens the air of day
and announces to the city of many gods
the solitude of God.
(And to think that while I play with doubtful images
the city I sing persists
in a predestined place of the world,
with its precise topography
peopled like a dream,
with hospitals and barracks
and slow avenues of poplars
and men with rotten lips
who feel the cold in their teeth.)
Or, at least, derivative of the paraphrasing I was doing around the poem in my thesis. I'm still riffing on parallel structures, though, and this morning chewed through Urn Burial's fifth chapter again, where Browne turns from cataloguing the virtues and idiosyncrasies of funerary customs to melancholy: "'Tis too late to be ambitious," he sighs. "The great Mutations of the world are acted, our time may be too short for our designes." But the point is, really, that it has always been too late to be ambitious, and it always will. Which leaves unspoken the problem of Art; the significant absence, perhaps, as obvious as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"'s footnotes about Tlön's "scandalous" materialism leaving the problem of material.

All of which is, effectively, the Borges-narrator resigned to the rise of Tlön and hiding in his uncertain translation of Urn Burial. In what will be a fusion of Quevedo's satire and Browne's reflections on mortality, the narrator of "Tlön, Uqbar" is writing the equivalent to the story in which he exists. Circularity rocks. And, one assumes, rolls.

Browne, for all his subtle gloom, managed to find something positive, although it's mildly undercut:
Darknesse and light divide the course of our time, and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremeties, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables.
Oh, and despite Borges' avowed love for Urn Burial – he name-checked it in 1925's Inquisiciones, wrote "Tlön, Uqbar" around it, and translated Chapter V for Victoria Ocampo's Sur in 1944 – I still haven't found any articles linking Browne's style to Borges'. There's plenty of thematic junk, and I'm sure adding to the pile, but nothing yet on the way the semi-colons balance the omissions, distortions and contradictions, and, mostly, assist the underlying pragmatism. Although it may be too obvious to mention without being a little gauche.


Apropos of nothing, or perhaps of the trend towards the gauche, I just flicked past Choire Sicha's review – and fitting proposed subtitle – of the new Transformers film, Michael Bay's very male gaze and Megan Fox:
All on her own, she is reeling back twenty years of gender and film studies textbooks. While we may have thought the male gaze was wilting or troublesome, Megan Fox proves that (for her and a select few others, at least) the male gaze is just some flimsy and pitiful little ray to rub her flesh up against so as to keep warm her nearly-exposed rump. She is hard to believe, with the soft kitty-cat stripper ways of a Gina Gershon melded with the hard machineness of a Linda Fiorentino.
Snap.

And finally, this whole thing jumped out at me in my daily headline filtering this morning. I'd heard all about Neda Agha-Soltan's death, I thought, and by now everyone has, but I'd like to know why it hit a little harder than the other deaths of protesters in Iran, or anywhere. That a video camera was right there? Her wide eyes when she lay on the street? Or the Persian meaning of her name – "voice", "calling" or "divine message"? I'm going to leave it there, because trying to answer that brings me right back to the gauche. And, to make the stupid pun I promised myself I wouldn't, I'd rather aim for the adroit.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Afro Samurai

Namco Bandai Games

PS3, Xbox 360

If part of the review process involved adding subtitles to games, I’d probably settle on something like Afro Samurai: Lost in Adaptation. (Unfortunately I was beaten to the punch by the slightly more entertaining Afro Samurai: I've Had It With These [expletive deleted] Samurais On My [expletive deleted] ‘Fro!) Year-old memes aside, it’s pretty clear that the transition from anime series to video game hasn’t been terribly kind to Afro Samurai. It’s uncommon for a slavish reproduction of any form of media to pay off, but this game could have benefited from slightly more cribbing from – and less free interpretation of – the original series. Not to say that the charm of the manga and the anime isn’t present in spades in the IP’s third major outing, but for all of the effort put into reincarnating the storyline, the beat-em-up game suffers from minor misteps.

Cell-shaded and coloured with the same muted tones of the anime series, the game plays like an extended episode – although at roughly six hours, it clocks in at three times the total length of the series. And for all of that time to expound on just what the hell is going on, Afro Samurai still doesn’t get the story across. Moreover, while it has polish in spades and Samuel L. Jackson returning to the fold, portraying both the kick-ass Afro and his constantly swearing sidekick Ninja Ninja, the game soon wears thin. Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t pay through the nose just to listen to Sam Jackson talk to himself for six hours, but there’s a limit to how much of the same hack, slash, rinse and repeat I can put up with.

While you gain experience throughout the game and learn new moves, you don’t need them. There isn’t a boss that cannot be beaten with repeated taps on the heavy attack button, occasionally interrupted with a judicious block-and-evade combo. Killing enough of the cookie-cutter enemies (among them assassins, bulky guys with clubs and half-naked stripper-ninjas) gains focus, which can be spent in chunks to slow down time, or blown all at once to engage in a one-hit-kill spree to clear large crowds of enemies. The game plan is set in the first battle scene, and in contrast to the poorly explained and ever-changing plot, it stays constant throughout.

RZA’s influence, so vital to the anime series, is back in force on the beats, even if he couldn’t be personally involved in the process. Too busy to score the game himself, RZA offered up his notes and samples to composer and producer Howard Drossin.

The battles are highly stylised, and it sure is fun to slice and dice in time with the music, dismembering waves of enemies in new and interesting ways. And for a while, the combat is utterly brilliant – RZA’s melding of C-movie samples, soul tracks, Wu-era beats and laconic raps is the most complementary music possible for the game. Until the point where, through my own ineptitude and unwillingness to spam the heavy attack button, the battle lasts just a little longer than anyone had planned, and there’s a pause. Silence. And the same track starts up again, and momentarily jolted from your violent reverie, you continue.

So here’s the kicker: players can’t draw out the intensely enjoyable combat, aiming for enemies’ heads and thrilling in the cinematic qualities of the slow-mo finishing moves, without experiencing a little hiccup that says two things; first, an inference on your lack of skill, that you are remiss for not having killed everything on screen; and second, that the durée of combat is shattered, and is no longer the graceful, rhythmic and interactive moment-as-continuum that it should have been. All of which is to say that lacking the simple addition of a bridge or looping track, enjoyment can go downhill very quickly.

All in all, Afro Samurai is a collection of opposing statements, a rebuttal of its own marketing bulletpoints. The game apes the cinematic sense of the anime, but the camera can be poorly integrated at times; it uses RZA’s music to great effect in battles, until the end of each track; and while the epic story is present, it’s shifted almost beyond recognition. There’s little explanation as to whether you’re in the game’s present, or playing through a flashback scene, which adds to its disconnect. This one’s strictly for fans of RZA, afro-toting and cigarette-chomping martial artists, Samuel L. Jackson saying motherfucker, and the inevitable Venn diagram intersection of the three.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine: Uncaged Edition

Raven Software

PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (‘Caged’ available on PS2, Wii; ‘Neutered’ for DS, PSP)

Wolverine is one of the more popular characters in the Marvel multiverse, but before now he hasn’t been well represented in videogames (other than in Marvel Vs Capcom, which was alone in getting absolutely everything right). X-Men Origins: Wolverine aims to change that, grafting an experience tree and basic RPG elements onto stock-standard action-adventure fare. It’s been scaled down and cutesified for Wii and handheld consoles, but the full blood-and-guts editions are about as lifelike as a game based on a movie based on a comic can get.

For a game that’s apparently all about origins, there’s startlingly little originality involved; Wolverine mixes the rich tropical forests of Uncharted, the illogical and simple puzzles of Tomb Raider series, and a combo and experience points system similar to that of 2007’s difficult-to-master but entirely underrated Conan. And yet, despite its pick-and-mix modularity, at least Wolverine pulls its inspiration from the right places – the combos are easily chained together, even flicking hits back and forth between different enemies; the environments are sufficiently lush and rich to distract from their linear nature; and while the environmental puzzles aren’t anything to write home about, they separate the endless lines of fodder for Wolverine’s adamantium claws.

And that’s really what it’s all about – the ‘Snikt’ sound effect that never gets old, the animal roar, and cutting enemies to shreds. Chaining together light and heavy attacks lets you eviscerate and decapitate any number of generic henchmen; there’s even a lunge attack to quickly close the gap between you. While this works wonders on the low-level fighters you’ll come across at the start of the game, tougher bosses will easily swat you out of the air, necessitating slightly different tactics.

Given Wolverine’s mutant healing factor, you’ll find that the health bar refills within a couple of seconds of withdrawing from the fight; the ubiquitous auto-healing hero finally makes sense. Graphically, too, the healing factor works wonders – you can see Wolverine take enough damage to reduce parts of him to a bloody pulp, and then to bone, but if you can get out of danger for long enough, he’ll heal up. Just as the lunge attack removes the annoyance of having to walk to the next enemy, the healing factor removes all fear of taking damage. It suits the source material, but makes for an easy game – the normal difficulty setting is a breeze, and even the hardest game mode is only a slight challenge.

There are few epic battles in the games – most involve a whirlwind of sharpened adamantium encountering flesh – but the battles with the Blob and a Sentinel do manage to get a little adrenaline pumping. The latter is particularly impressive, but not exactly representative of the rest of the game, which is mainly spent lunging between different groups of fodder and activating the odd quick-time event.

The major criticism of most third-person action games is that they’re not similar enough to God of War, but Wolverine does manage to surpass SCE’s creation in some ways. It’s a matter of swings and roundabouts, though – Wolverine’s healing factor makes the game too easy; the lunge, while cool enough the first few times, encourages a kind of laziness and doesn’t punish a beginner’s lack of skill.

Damning the game with faint praise, it’s been widely touted as one of the best movie adaptations ever. But while both the film and the game take liberties with comic book source material, the game makes very little sense. It’s internally incoherent, which is disconcerting for anyone who likes a reason to cut heads off with retractable claws. X-Men Origins: Wolverine: Too Many Subtitles has little connection between its ludic and narrative elements other than, of course, the ever-popular ‘Snikt’. If you think a single sound effect justifies a game – and you’re probably not alone – consider Wolverine justified. Otherwise, borrow or rent the thing before you commit this week’s student loan entitlement to it.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

ShiftSpace: Wikifying the Web

Annotation is the red-headed stepchild of research, it sometimes seems, and yet so much relies on it. Without level-headed (or contrarian) commentary on a text, too much can be taken for granted as true; some of the most reliable books I’ve borrowed from lecturers and students have been annotated so much that there’s more pencil than ink on any given page. Of course, annotations can be as suspect as the printed word – if only there were some way to toggle annotations on or off, depending on who wrote them…

Enter ShiftSpace. A simple plug-in to the Firefox web browser, ShiftSpace (currently at v0.14) has been annotating the web for a few years now, and has morphed into a pretty stable wee script, containing multiple ‘Spaces’ for users to ‘Shift’ webpages. Users can annotate pages using the ‘minor’ Spaces by highlighting certain words or terms, and adding sticky notes to certain sites – both useful for group work and note sharing – or go the extra step and work with two major Spaces – SourceShift and ImageSwap.

ImageSwap lets users switch out certain images or logos and replace them with others – you can, for instance, Shift otago.ac.nz by replacing the pictures of happy graduates with a picture of a burning sofa, as seen above. (Or a kitten, if that’s still your thing.)

SourceShift, alternately, is a blessing for anyone with rudimentary html skills, and enables users to freely alter the source code of a given website, adding annotations like videos (copy and paste the embed code from YouTube), pictures, or additional text. Once you’ve made a Shift, you can save it – anyone coming to the site in future will have the option to view your Shift, create their own, or view the page it its original format.

While there’s scope for abuse, ShiftSpace isn’t all about hacking or parody. For example, searching for “falun gong” on google.com will give a different result than google.cn, as Falun Dafa is censored in China. ShiftSpace includes a note on the Chinese results acknowledging that they have been censored, and offers the uncensored top search results of falundafa.org. ShiftSpace lets viewers stake a layer of freedom over the web, even over proscribed content.

Public annotation can, I think, be an art form in itself – assuming one draws a similar distinction to that between vandalism and street art. The already-vocal commentariat can be let loose from the bottom-of-page confines of comment threads, and respond directly to the page’s content, on the content. We can, with the simple addition of a layer in a browser window, return to the panoply of views that the internet purports to represent.

It’s locative art turned mainstream, framed in a browser, and from an aesthetic standpoint, ShiftSpace recreates the consensual hallucination of the web – Gibson’s proto-matrix be damned; ShiftSpace is a layer of textual awareness that can be toggled on or off, can be altered to suit any viewpoint, twisted to support protests or reinforced to back up arguments with insufficient evidence. It certainly results in a confusion of annotations and pranks, but it reclaims the web as public space, and making an already democratic medium slightly more fluid and open to re-creation is never a bad thing.

A How-to Guide

(Instructions and all links are also on shiftspace.org/install)
  1. Download and install the Firefox browser.
  2. Install the Greasemonkey plug-in for Firefox. This lets you run small Javascript programs to modify websites, from annotations like Shiftspace to user scripts and tweaks of Google’s email/calendar/docs ecosystem.
  3. Head to shiftspace.org/install and click on the link to install ShiftSpace, then refresh your page, update to the latest version, and you’re good to go!
  4. While browsing, you can call up the ShiftSpace console and view all public Shifts made by other users, then toggle them on or off.
[This article first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Halo Wars

Ensemble Studios

Xbox 360

For all of the caterwauling about the lack of quality real-time strategy games on home consoles, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a ready market for the product. Ensemble Studios certainly thought so: they’d even decided to bring the RTS genre to living rooms before they received genuine Bungie-grade manna in the form of the Halo license. With a control scheme designed from the ground up to work with the Xbox 360 controller, Ensemble made a great start on the project, before coming slightly derailed in its execution.

On the face of things, the Halo universe seems ripe for the RTS plucking – it even comes complete with a three-way tie for galactic domination by way of the UNSC, Covenant and Flood forces. (Think Terran, Protoss and Zerg respectively, if that helps.) But the questionable decision to restrict the campaign mode to the slightly prosaic UNSC forces in campaign mode, and not allowing gamers to play as the other two armies does limit the game’s single-player mode. And while the Covenant can be used in multiplayer, the Flood isn’t playable at all, which kind of takes the appeal out of things – the insect / zombie / biohazard races always offer the most visceral fun. Sometimes literally. Of course, gamers with a rainbow connection to Master Chief may disagree, as the thrill of seeing multiple Spartans take on the Covenant masses will likely overwhelm all pretence of reason.

Combat in Halo Wars is balanced with the now-traditional rock-paper-scissors approach, where infantry units are beaten by ground vehicles, ground vehicles are beaten by aircraft, and aircraft, somewhat bizarrely, are beaten by infantry. There are slight variations on the theme, for better or worse, but that’s the basic idea. Missions are tightly scripted, with less room allowed for player decisions (base placement, technology trees) than traditional RTS titles, although the game’s restrictions do tie well into its cinematic qualities – you’re playing through a story much more interesting (and marginally more profound) than anything Command & Conquer could come ever up with, time-travelling Russians be damned.

I’m a fan of damning games with faint praise – or concealing barbs behind a turn of phrase, if the opportunity presents itself – but it’s hard to be oblique enough when I’m talking about the controls. They’re adequate, but radial menus on analogue sticks aren’t anything groundbreaking. I’d go out on a limb and say they do the job, except the job is such a stripped-down version of what RTS gamers are used to that it’s like the Xbox 360 controller has a completely different vocation in mind. You can’t assign units to custom groups, you can’t set different rally points for different unit types, and you can’t access the build menu without the ‘eye of god’ being close to your base. The tricks of the trade, then – the elements of strategy that have evolved from playing in a hectic skirmish-filled real-time gamespace – are moot. Halo Wars might serve as a passable introduction to the genre for those gamers who didn’t cut their teeth on Starcraft, but its value extends little further than prolonging the story until the Halo 3 prequel ODST drops later this year.

With the upcoming release of the ‘Strategic Options’ add-on pack, though, Ensemble are about to add some value to the title, by tacking on three extra game modes, available in both skirmish or multiplayer game types. There’s a CTF play-alike mode called Keepaway, where teams fight to capture a free-roaming Sentinel drone, an army-building race to supremacy called Tug of War, and a battle for constant one-upmanship called Reinforcement, as battle units arrive in waves and you are forced to adapt tactics to suit different situations.

The DLC adds another four Achievements, worth 100 points in total, but hasn’t yet been priced for NZ release, or dated more specifically than ‘in the coming weeks’. Halo fans will likely seize upon anything that extends the life of the title; others may resent buying new options that do little other than bring a slightly substandard game up to par.

All of which is to say, Halo Wars isn’t for hardcore strategy fans, who would likely be much more at home practising South Korea’s national sport on their home PCs. If there were such a category as medium-core experimental cinematic fan service, though, that’s where I’d place the game. It’s a buzz if you’re caught up in the Halo universe and mythos, and the sheer appeal of controlling a bunch of UNSC Spartans from the sky – like unto a god – carries a lot of weight. I’m left wondering, though, if God wanted me to really enjoy an RTS game on a console, why can’t I just plug in a keyboard and mouse like He intended?

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: LittleBigPlanet

Media Molecule

PS3

LittleBigPlanet was released in late October last year, making its inclusion in this first May issue of Critic questionable, if we’re still pretending to keep up with the new media releases. But in our defence, it has taken a few months for the game to settle down, in a sense, for the crowd-sourced content to reach past a saturation of dick jokes and approach something resembling quality.

Not to say that the single-player mode – stripped back with a designer’s eye for simplicity to pre-Super Mario Bros. controls – isn’t a bucket-load of joy in itself. The game sure is fun, and zipping through the fifty or so levels put together by people paid to transform design documents into virtual superstructures is a hell of a way to spend an evening, but the fun really starts when you shrug off the shackles of developer / consumer hierarchy and download a shared level from a fellow gamer. Life at the bottom of the distribution pyramid has never been this much fun.

Media Molecule, in an extended fit of designer pique, threw a couple of layers of authorship onto the game disc, and both the single-player jaunt and the inclusion of the robust level-design toolsets are equally elegant. There’s an almost overwhelming profusion of things you can create using a simple dual-analogue controller, but the sheer fact you can publish your finished (and partially finished) creations for the rest of the PSN-connected world to share is reason enough to invest a few hours in the game. Play. Create. Share. The tagline says it all.

This is a big step for console games, although one with which PC gamers will be much more familiar. Bethesda, for example, has offered toolsets to each of its Elder Scrolls games for the past ten years; Counter-Strike had its roots in a heavy mod of the Half-Life engine. The primacy of modding on computers over consoles was partially because of the need for complex controllers, input devices, and internal storage, but it’s been happening for a long time. Hell, even before Quake offered level editors, there were unofficial (but tacitly supported) mods of Doom remade with The Simpsons character sprites and sound effects, hackable at its most basic level for anyone proficient enough in MS Paint to put a smiley face on every single brick texture.

But we’re not exactly talking about mods, here. LittleBigPlanet does offer that capability, of course – you can alter the ready-made levels at will, but why would you want to stop there? Why not set up a Gradius clone side-scrolling shooter, or make a working calculator as part of your level, anything but the predictable (and soon-to-be-redacted) penis levels. Or, if you’re still mired in cupcake SNES nostalgia, knock up the inevitable SMB 1-1 map. But like the ‘offensive’ levels, that will get pulled by Sony’s team of copyright infringement police soon enough – better to invest your time in a little bit of real creation. Make Tolstoy happy: transmit some feelings, make your level the vector for an emotional state. Art is infectiousness, after all.

As such, short of comparing LittleBigPlanet to the latest outbreak of H1N1, I can’t say enough about the game. Suffice it to say that my magnum opus of a level, set in the beige confines of the Critic office, is almost complete. A storm of diatribe submissions battle for the player’s attention; errant apostrophes, misplaced semi-colons and the ever-hazardous em-dashes rain down in a hail of doom. Sackboy teeters on the edge of a precipice throughout; the dual and opposing chasms of journalism and academic life await on either side. It is not until the player reaches the back left-hand corner of the office that he or she realises the banal and atrocious existence of the black hole where time itself cannot escape. Also, it turns out the princess is in another castle.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Siren: Blood Curse

SCE Japan Studio

PS3, PSN

In reimagining the PS2 stealth horror game Siren in downloadable episodic and later Blu-ray form, SCE Japan Studio also made some alterations to the game’s plot and structure.

It’s still a haunting slow walk through the village of Hanuda, which is itself still as creepy and implacably horrific as it was in the last console generation. Reported to have engaged in human sacrifice more than thirty years ago, the villagers are now shambling horrors, all ready to kill any American film crew stupid enough to wander into town. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a reality TV crew on its way.

Siren: Blood Curse offers a more linear narrative to the game than its predecessor, despite it being split into twelve chronological episodes. Even playing as different characters, the story progresses in an orderly fashion, and each character has clear primary objectives in each chapter. The only secondary objectives serve to fill in the game’s archive, and chipping in parts of the backstory. Hidden in the chapters are items like diaries and logbooks, all of which are only accessible outside of the game. It creates a curious perspective on the action, having to withdraw from the narrative to delve into the supporting structures of the diegesis, but it’s nonetheless engaging.

Also adding to the immersion is the split-screen sightjack system, which lets characters ‘lock on’ on the sight of nearby enemies and friendly characters. Seeing their vision side-by-side with that of you character is at first disconcerting, but the practice is a useful one, enabling you to sneak past enemies and clue in on their cycling attention spans.

Picture that old practice of reading a serialised novel chapter by chapter, of paying off an encyclopedia set volume by volume, and only having a complete set to reference at the very end of the exercise. Similarly, the game’s chapters aren’t great value for money separately, but PSN also offers the chance to buy them as a set, or as a full set on a disc.

The trouble is that at a certain point, you need to have the whole story in front of you if you’re able to appreciate its smallest parts. And since it’s the small parts that are supposed to make Siren: Blood Curse so accessible, we’re in a bit of a bind. The only answer here is to get hold of the whole game, or don’t try it at all. There’s little resolution at the end of each chapter, and the only thread tying the first few chapters together is the (hopefully) inevitable curiosity of the player. Assuming you feel like protecting an American reality television crew, that is.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Motorstorm: Pacific Rift

Evolution Studios

PS3

While you spent the Easter break healthy and hale, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine – or perhaps replanting native forests in some hippy wonderland – I channelled my own brand of pragmatic indolence, and deformed the virtual “interactive” foliage of Motorstorm: Pacific Rift. And, well, if the virtual native birds were foolish enough to flutter near the virtual track, they got churned up along with the mud.

While the pacing and features of the original Motorstorm suffered for being rushed out the door to meet the PS3’s launch window, the extra couple of years have been kind to Evolution Studios, as the modified graphics engine and bells and whistles of follow-up Pacific Rift proves. Racing against a field of five or six different vehicle types still feels subtly wrong – how can it be fair to beat a dune buggy with a big rig in a race? – but it’s a credit to the game that it’s possible to win with each vehicle class. Pacific Rift adds monster trucks to the mix, and offers many more shortcuts on each track, as well as more streams, lagoons and lava – that staple videogame hazard.

Tracks are split up into four element-themed zones – earth, fire, air and water, each with their own pitfalls and challenges. Water tracks allow greater use of the engine-heating boost system, while the fire tracks are a threat to its use. Deep water is a hazard to all but the biggest vehicles, but these vehicles are threatened by their own top-heaviness, requiring a steadier hand to avoid being flipped by a stray rock, or a nudge from opponents. Air tracks are better suited to lighter vehicles, where their low mass means they’ll jump (and boost) further.

Evolution have stripped down the load times for Pacific Rift and beefed up the feature set, while keeping the tactical gameplay mechanics of its predecessor. Chief among those, of course, are picking the best racing lines for each vehicle type, and mastering the shortcuts with judicious use of the boost system. Small vehicles stuck behind the pack late in the race can often recover lead positions by following the heavier trucks, which can knock down dense vegetation on shortcuts.

Cribbing from the Burnout playbook, Pacific Rift has minor attack moves mapped to the L1 and R1 buttons, but these attacks are no more than minor swerves – there’s no real culture of destruction and no grievous penalties for crashed vehicles. This can actually work in your favour when combined with the many shortcuts on each track, and perhaps the low aggression of the other racers matches up with the lack of any real benefit to attacking, bar a quick shove for the sake of imaginary vengeance.

Despite the improvements in this incarnation of the Motorstorm vision, there are some minor niggles. Traction on different surfaces (or different wheels) feels remarkably similar, regardless of whether you’re racing on loose scree or plank bridges. Physics is another weak point, as the weight and turning speeds of the vehicles just won’t map to your initial expectations. Additionally, the sheer range and length of tracks means your failure rate (death by cliff edge) will be very high until you memorise the right lines to pick, by which time you’ll be racing by numbers. Four-player splitscreen racing makes up for these problems somewhat, adding some value to the weak attack buttons, and Eliminator and Speed modes do add replay value to the sixteen tracks on offer.

Overtaking both DiRT and Pure in the current-gen off-road racing stakes, Motorstorm: PR both kicks the tyres and lights the fires. What it lacks in vehicular combat stakes, it gains in a richer palette of racing environments than its competitors – to its lasting credit, it’s no monotone desert racer.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Killzone 2

Guerilla Games

PS3

For gamers firmly entrenched in Sony’s hardware ecosystem, the Killzone series has been a blessing doled out every few years. After the initial Killzone was released in 2004 for the PS2, its first sequel Killzone: Liberation followed two years later on the PSP, trading in its FPS roots for a top-down, isometric melange of genres: primarily a sci-fi dungeon-crawler with a healthy injection of guns, upgrades and action shooter DNA.

Enter the third game in the series, Killzone 2, and the noble fight is taken to the Helghans’ planet, Helghast. There’s a fair resonance with more contemporary political warfare here, as you oversee a group of marines taking on the indoctrinated troops of a charismatic leader. There’s a stolen experimental nuclear weapon tossed in the mix for good measure, although it feels more like a token WMD justification to invade the planet.

Having missed the first instalment in the series, I suppose I didn’t buy into the game’s revenge theme – taking the fight to the initial aggressors of the interplanetary war – but strangely enough that worked to my advantage, as there suddenly appeared shades of policy I wouldn’t otherwise have considered: this wasn’t my war, one might say, and yet there I was, trying to dismantle the military power of a questionably sane foreign leader, one red-eyed enemy soldier at a time. All Killzone 2 needed for a more uncomfortable resonance would have been a fight over a resource more tangible than propaganda and more believable than a super-nuke.

It is propaganda and the impact of martyrdom on warfare, however, that forms the central moral to the game – it’s a subtle take on the morality and consequences of war. Without giving away too much of the ending, it’s patently obvious that ending a battle is much more difficult than beginning one. (Another sequel or two should wrap things up quite nicely, though.)

To survive on any but the easiest difficulty setting, you’ll need to master the game’s cover system, aim accurately, and predict enemy AI – pretty much par for the FPS course, apart from the fact that Killzone 2’s enemy soldiers are damned smart. They duck quickly, weave unpredictably, and hold cover positions better than any NPCs I’ve seen, and put paid to any thought of traditional run-and-gun tactics.

Killzone 2 outshines even its stellar campaign mode in the multiplayer arena: the 32-player matches include support for four 4-player squads on each team and offer seven combat classes to choose from, although the unlocking system to reach the different classes and abilities takes grinding to a new level. Multiplayer maps spread both horizontally and vertically, and offer a surfeit of cover, ambush spots and atmospheric wreckage for some of the most exciting PvP combat you’ll see this side of the console divide.

There are remarkably few shortcomings in the game (though the omission of co-op play through the campaign is foremost), and even the tacked-on sixaxis controls – mostly for interacting with set-pieces in the game environment and keeping your reticle steady while sniping – don’t detract terribly much, laggy as they are. Level design is stellar, with alternate ways to approach different situations and clever use of architecture as dividers and channels for the game’s action. Where Bungie famously designed the Halo series around 30-second bites of action, Killzone 2 seems to be set up around two-minute set-pieces – enough for players to get breathless and stressed out, but not too much to deal with at any one time, despite the bullets-akimbo nature of each minor battle.

The gruff stereotypical manly-men are certainly present and (for the most part) accounted for, but where Gears 2 offered glamour and glory, Killzone 2 brings the grit and the guts. If you’ll pardon the belaboured analogy, the comparison between the two games could be roughly equivalent to that between their two native consoles – Microsoft throws enough money at its target market, and some of it sticks; Sony throws enough money (and development time) at a franchise, and suddenly there’s a solid first-person follow-up to Killzone. Not that either games are the product of first-party developers, but it’s still telling to see the sorts of games that each console attracts as exclusive releases.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Resistance: Retribution

SCEA Bend Studio

PSP

For the first handheld outing in the Resistance series, Retribution doesn’t do such a bad job. Despite the natural controller shortcomings of the PSP – most notably the single control nub instead of two analogue sticks – the game overcomes the potential miss-step with a competent aim-assist mode and an automatic cover system that rarely misreads your intentions. This faint praise aside, even being helped out this much doesn’t make the game too easy, as the steady stream of angry enemies, often requiring a quick switch in weapons or attack tactics, keep you busy.

Controlling cockney soldier Lt. James Grayson, you’re after revenge (what else?) following the death of Grayson’s brother in a Chimera conversion centre, which adds a certain frisson to the action. Sure, Grayson may look like biker who failed his gang initiation, and he tosses out lame cockney one-liners without pause (or reflection), but at least he’s a skerrick more interesting than the original Resistance’s Nathan Hale, who pales in comparison to this new loutish protagonist.

If you’re enough of a fan of shiny black plastic to own both a PS3 and a copy of Resistance 2, you’re able to hook up both systems, enabling an ‘Infected’ mode, where you’re given regenerative Chimera powers and new weapons for the campaign. While it’s hooked up, you can also play through the campaign with your PS3 controller, assuming you keep both machines connected while you’re playing. Using the more precise controller, the aim assist mode is turned off, but the novelty enables a more natural mode of play mode.

Multiplayer content in Retribution is very well supported – using either ad-hoc or infrastructure network modes, you can easily set up eight-player games. There’s even support for clans and headset chat, and of course, you get bonus geekery points if you can convince seven other people with PSPs to play the game at the same time as you. Good luck with that.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]


Thursday, April 2, 2009

A literal repackaging of pagan symbols [Inadvertent video post]

So it turns out context is everything ...


... and it only costs $3.49 at the Warehouse here in Dunedin, just in time for Easter. I appreciate the misuse of inverted commas, and will endeavour to use air-quotes all 'weekend'. 'Hilarious'.

It's also nice to see that the manufacturers – straight outta RD6, Warkworth – are offering prizes if you can correctly identify the relationship between God and Jesus, and the Easter bunny. "Although Jesus was dead and buried, [blank] raised Him back to [blank].... Christians rejoice that, because of what happened that first Easter, people can now have a special [blank] with God our [blank]. How amazing!!" they say, with two earnest exclamation points. Correct entries go in the draw to win one of five $100 Warehouse vouchers. It's tempting to fill one out with my left hand, for added child-like veritas, but I think I'll pass.

Now I'm just holding out for the inevitable chocolate crucifix in a retail setting, and the incredible, edible body of Our Lord and Saviour – dare I say it, the immaculate confection. Aww yeah.


Not that Jesus wasn't way cool, at least according to King Missile:



Oder auf Deutsch, Jesus war so cool:



Und finally, Beck responds, circa 1992:




Edit: Turns out Tom Waits got there before me with that immaculate confection joke. Bullhorn and prancing auto-confetti performance below. Ignore Letterman, if you please.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Gears of War 2

Epic Games

Xbox 360

Ultra-gruff ultra men growling gutter insults at the comically inept girl-man rookie? Cutscenes designed from the ground-up to make pubescent gun-loving USA-chanting retards feel warm and fuzzy inside? Killing, killing, killing in a world of beige and cat-vomit gray?
- Michael Jensen

The above comments from my compatriot offer the kind of illumination only a weary gamer can shed upon Gears of War 2. Overly tinged with what we think is existentialism, our response to the game is a little too like a Peggy Lee song for comfort: is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Or, you know, complaining about the fact that we’ve grown up and games – obviously – haven’t. Damnit.

Gears of War 2 is all too much – too many guns, too many explosions, too many subterranean monsters hell-bent on crippling the human race. There’s a vestigial story hidden somewhere in the melange of ultra-violence and gore, but for the escapist market CliffyB and Epic have been aiming at, it’s really outlived its purpose. After all, even Unreal started with a story, before devolving into various states of tournament FPS gibbing and ultra-gruff muscles with heads facing off against scantily clad minxes whose steel bikinis provided damage resistance equivalent to full-body armour. Even odds that Gears will do the same, before yet another hastily assembled grunts-versus-aliens plotline is hashed together to do justice to yet another interminably shiny graphics engine.

This is what happens, presumably, when you hire the writers last. And with the gameplay so relentlessly pure, fast-paced and, dammit, fun, you might well ask, who needs writers? Racing games like the Burnout and GT series don’t need them – they’re all about the cars and the crashes. Puzzle games arguably don’t need them – how much of a story can a match-three-blocks game require? (Puzzle Quest notwithstanding, I hasten to add.) Singstar has never needed a protagonist. But there’s an acceptance implicit in playing those titles – that blurredly fast cars, matching more than three blocks in a row or massacring ‘Take On Me’ in front of your tipsy flatmates are all that’s important to you: that’s what you like; that’s the thesis statement for the game. If you’re happy playing a game that is about killing, about the glories of Epic’s new pixel shader, about a consistent adrenaline rush being more important than a narrative arc, then Gears 2 may well be the game for you.

It’s not rocket science. Gears of War 2, for all its narrative flaws, is one of the most complete third-person shooters on the market. The game is everything a shooter has become, and at a potentially backwater stage in the Xbox 360’s lifecycle, it’s all you have any right to expect. And now that it’s over, can the adults in the room look forward to a new genre, perhaps with some kind of story attached? (We won’t even call them “games,” we promise – they can be “second-person protagonist explorations,” “interactive novels,” “industrial meta-fictions” or some shit.)

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Distributed gaming

The Games Development Conference has been raging for the past week, and amongst the exaggeration, misrepresentations and flat-out lies of the PR blitz, one company is offering something that could (gasp) change the industry as we know it – after seven years in ‘stealth mode’, OnLive is promising gamers with amazing broadband connections the chance to play console and PC titles, all without the need for an expensive disc-based console. Yeah, they get all the luck.
With high-end computers running at the server-side, and video feed being pumped through the ether to your television or computer screen, it’s the equivalent of cloud computing. The bandwidth issue might hold back the service from these shores for a while, though – a 1.5Mbps connection is required for standard-definition content, while a whopping 5Mbps connection is necessary for HD-quality footage. There are two main hardware options as well – running the service through a PC or intel-based Mac will be cheapest as OnLive can be run through any browser window, but if you’re playing on a television, you can buy a cheap “microconsole” (pictured, with the ugly controller) to relay the signals from the cloud to your television. Controller issues have also been addressed, and OnLive is promising 1-millisecond ping times and a magically minimal signal latency. Demos at the show looked promising, but there’s no proof that the problems of streaming high-res video and managing controller feedback have been solved.
The company is also promising a raft of community features, including spectator support for all users, brag clips from any game you’ve played and friends lists with video-based avatars. OnLive’s promises may sound suspiciously like those of the Phantom console (R.I.P.), but the new service already has the support of nine publishers, including Atari, Codemasters, Eidos, EA, Epic, Take Two, THQ, Ubisoft and Warners. With little chance of software piracy, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t sign up and try to tap that mythical untapped market of gamers with spare money but no consoles.

Best of all for the new company, OnLive doesn’t really have any competitors. If it takes off, this distributed gaming thing could be huge. That said, pricing tiers for games haven’t yet been rolled out, and subscription fees to the service could be prohibitive – and without competition, there’d be little incentive to decrease their prices or offer non-restrictive terms and conditions to consumers. And we’re not even beginning to address the question of ownership of non-corporeal digital games. Still; it’s exciting times, the future is now, but where’s my flying car, et cetera.

Edit: Eurogamer smashes the OnLive dream here.

[This article first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mistkunst



I should probably write about Das Roq Opera, just because Aaron's pretending to be modest, but conveniently overlooking the fact that he's plugging it every morning on air. Not without reason, though – it's the best thing I've seen at the Dunedin Fringe so far. So here's a collection of my unformed impressions.

It's a 'what-if' conversation spun out of control, a rock (sorry, roq) opera fusing digital art, song, dance, techno melodrama and Greek myth, with hip-hop narration of grandiose proportions, all compressed into just over an hour. Oh, and there's a guy in amazing skin-tight gold pants made up in an odd mix of silent film eyeliner and vaguely Bowie-like Egyptian kohl. So, you know, bonus.

Hitting the Dunedin Fringe square in the face with an open palm, Das Roq Opera opened last night to a sell-out crowd at the Globe Theatre. It starts off, as all the great rock operas do, with a silent film-style montage, which results in a girl being locked in a cellar by her over-protective and Teutonic-tempered father. (Unable to resist a dig at the ODT, I'll just note that the Fritzl parallel had their staff frantically googling DRO to see which real newspapers in real cities had mentioned it.) Riffing on the Medusa myth, there's a voyage, several set-piece scenes with flawless (flawless!) digital sets and a live band accompanying the whole thing. Electro-funk creeps in on the action whenever it can; there's a 'Nights in White Satin' solo for no apparent reason; and there's not a hint of seriousness about the whole thing – as Hannah Gould's dance number at the end would suggest. It's just good, slightly unclean, all-singing, all-dancing operatica. And based on just a scant paragraph in the Fringe line-up, there was a full audience. Granted, we're talking about the Globe, but still.

There were people sitting on the floor in front of me (I would have offered my seat to one of them, but I'd got there early for a reason), I saw a small crowd turned away at the door after the house was full, and everyone loved the show. Kudos to the band, kudos to the dancers (especially Leigh, who danced up a fucking storm), and kudos to all the singers. Likewise to Pip Walls, the director / producer and of course, the writer – Henry Feltham.

There's a recorded interview (courtesy of RDU) with Feltham here, if you're wondering who would script such a preposterous idea. Mac users should force-stop the unresponsive scripts on the page, and anyone should ignore almost every question/comment from the interviewer, who keeps coming back to the Fritzl angle. (All that's over in the first ten minutes of the show, anyway.)

But damn, it was cool. It's showing tonight and tomorrow (Fri and Sat) at 9.30pm – doors opening at 9.00pm if you want to beat the others to a seat – and there's even a double-header on Saturday night - a Late Night Half Drunk Rock Opera Bonus Level, with doors opening at 10.30pm (show starts at 11pm). And in my humble estimation, it'd be arguably more entertaining with a bottle of wine in hand, ready for covert swigging every ten minutes.

Check out the ticket info at www.dunedinfringe.org.nz, or just laugh at it here. Regular tickets are $10 – cool. Concession tickets are $10 – oh...kay. And if you're in a group of six or more? Well, no-one really cares. It's still $10 each. That's just how they roll. And, presumably, roq.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Is Resident Evil 5 racist? It’s hard to say. Is it great fodder for a po-co FIME dissertation? Hell yes.

With the recent release of Resident Evil 5, we head back to Africa, the cradle of life, to find out more about the origins of the series’ mysterious (and oddly recurrent) T-virus. This necessitates, with transparent videogame logic, the requisite zombie horde to be black. Except, when you’re playing as a white man in army fatigues, with a light-skinned African woman at your side, it feels more than a little uncomfortable to go around targeting the dangerous black zombies.

Former Newsweek writer and gaming pundit N’Gai Croal – gaming journalism’s great hope, now pursuing a career in private consulting for developers – took issue with the game’s first trailer, noting his first reaction (“Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game”) and pointing out that the images “dovetailed” with classic racist imagery.

Not that black zombies are necessarily the problem, according to Croal – rather, the game seems to “tap into … racist iconography,” as even the pre-zombified villagers are depicted as somehow sub-human, and lacking in any empathy compared to the white main character. There aren’t even, as he points out, any African characters you can save – men, women and children are all depicted as dangerous, and they all have to be destroyed.

Early review copies of certain $140 (!) games, it seems, aren’t forthcoming for student magazines, but based on a rushed play-through over the last week, not to mention the torrent of videos showcasing scenarios in the game, RE5 certainly hits squarely in a grey area, skipping any overt discussions of black and white. Which is all too face-palmingly convenient, really.

Shade of anti- and post-colonialism will linger here, I think. Zombie films traditionally eschew racial boundaries while propagating the idea of a completely different sub-human state, and Resident Evil games always pit a few brave souls against soulless multi-nationals and their attendant zombies; RE5 blends the thorny issues of race relations and meddling white Americans with the “Othered” zombie. The shock and horror of these zombies isn’t their juxtaposition with unaffected humans – there’s none of that Land of the Dead zombies-in-overalls-pretending-to-pump-gas schtick going on. RE5’s zombies have red eyes and dress in rags, playing up the mythemes of darkest Africa; the savage and the Other.

But the game’s supposed to be scary, you might well argue; and how better to get that across in this setting than tap into those very mythemes? It’s all too bluntly obvious, to be honest. That Africa is being victimised by pharmaceutical companies is a less readily apparent (but much more meaningful) theme; the idea that Africans are the victims of the colonial powers’ grand plans and that anti-colonial feelings exist, are both present and accounted for. And who can blame these zombies for wanting to fight back against cultural imperialism?

The game’s certainly been a latent firestorm in a forum tea-cup, though, and a potential PR nightmare for the developers at Capcom, should the racism arguments either prove to have merit or spill out into the mainstream press. (Capcom, for its part remaining oblivious to the vaguest possibility of scandal, has been promoting the game’s release by leaving a trail of body parts throughout London – the person who collected the most valuable body parts won a trip to Africa. Arms and legs were worth two points each, torsos were worth three, and a head was worth five points. Some body parts, peppered with chicken liver for added realistic gore, went “missing” during the competition, which didn’t faze the organisers in the slightest.)

Resident Evil 5 was released just over a week ago for PS3 and Xbox 360, so the commentariat will be able to make up their own minds and then construct rational arguments about race, colonialism and gaming. Or they can start new flame-wars. Even odds, I’d say.

[This article first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Flower

thatgamecompany

PSN, $15.50

Developer Jenova Chen doesn’t play games any more, doesn’t see the attraction of first-person shooters, and doesn’t like wasting his time on games that don't create an emotional connection. Good, then, that he and thatgamecompany have spent their last couple of years of development time tending Flower, a “visual tone poem” of a game that is a natural successor to thatgamecompany’s PSN hit flOw.

Using the PS3’s motion controls, you direct a gust of wind towards flowers in a series of increasing gloomy meadows, aiming to make the world a brighter place and, perhaps, beautify a city overgrown with spiky power pylons. Maybe. The themes all get a little muddled, which is, I suppose, the wont of poetry.

It’s easier to assume that there’s no direct moral to the game – there are traces of commentary about the benefits of renewable energy and the ugliness of traditional pylons as compared to wind turbines, all mediated through the dream of a flower on a windowsill. Certainly it isn’t really made clear until the last couple of levels, where somehow flowers and the wind can eliminate “bad” electricity and replace it with bright colours and the good stuff. Poets, right?

The motion controls work well, if only because there’s no time limit on completing levels. This means mistakes or a missed flower in a sequence aren’t punished, and the only thing you’ll miss is hearing the accompanying note (or later, chord) in the right sequence. Again, no great loss, and it’s a testament to the visual characteristics of the game that it’s often more interesting to “wander” around the levels before making all of the flowers bloom, simply because, well, it’s so damn pretty.

All up, Flower will last for a couple of hours, which is probably about as long as I’d want to spend rotating a PS3 controller before my wrists give up on me. That it ends before the pastoral conceit gets old is a nice touch, although the relatively small levels mean that there’s no real free play mode – I’d happily flick to the game on a whim if I could tool around a level for as long as I wanted without encountering a menu. flOw managed this admirably – although given its origins as a Master’s thesis in game design on the “flow” state of play, that’s hardly surprising. Flower doesn’t allow quite this level of interplay between different levels, but nor does it have any gradation of difficulty – great for validating its purchase to non-gaming flatmates, perhaps, but there’s little reason to go back to the game after it’s been completed.

The levels through which you progress, controlling a gust of wind, are slightly less open than you might expect – it seems that even a powerful breeze can’t get past certain wooden fences. But the budding flowers are spread out over hill and dale, which lends a degree of veritas to the motion as you puff your way along rows of flowers and bring foliage to barren fields (after a couple of hours play, the lyrical aspects of the game begin to overwhelm and influence, as you may well notice).

Flower confuses electricity generation with perennial propagation, but the con-fusion is revealing. Flowers on windowsills dreaming of brightening a dark city, pollen controlling a breath of wind, or a heuristic “she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not” petal-picking solution to global warming – when a game (or poem) is paced so well, the presence or absence of grand themes don’t really matter. All that’s necessary is an enjoyed moment in time – the promise of an objective correlative for the experience – and Flower supplies those moments in spades; even the overuse of colour saturation and rampant bloom (see what I did there?) can be part of the game’s conceit. All it’s really lacking is a rhyming couplet to round things off with a flourish.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Monday, March 23, 2009

All the best fields lie fallow for months, I'm sure.

A couple of months into the thesis, and I'm already seeing Borges everywhere. I worry, briefly, that it's like the Discordian rule of five - that certain themes becomes more apparent the more I look for them. (Then I just shrug my shoulders.)

But having seen a couple of solid films in what passes for our friendly neighbourhood baroque theatre (just without the friendliness from anyone on staff, and as an added bonus if you're sitting downstairs, with a pinch of drunken screams from the nearby alley), I'm starting to think that certain filmmakers are cribbing from the same playbook.


First of all - Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth. Without more than a cursory viewing, one can see each of Borges' four kernels of fiction: the double, the travel through time, the story within a story, the contamination of reality by a dream. Having read Labyrinths et al altogether too many times, the references to Zhuangzi and the butterfly at the end of the film felt tacked on, an unnecessary throw towards explaining the conceit, but I'll take it. (In an ideal world Matt Damon wouldn't fuck it up with a bit part, but I'll still take it.)


More glorious, however, was Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. (Wired covered the hell out of this movie last November, publishing a meta-article on Kaufman, and letting publishing geeks the world over see the sausage factory at work. The creative director detailed his part in the process here.) But the film? A play within a play, mirrors upon mirrors and progressive regression until the withdrawal from reality and subsequent death of the creator – check. Most strongly resonating with me, though, was the Borges quote that wasn't even mentioned in the film, but applies almost beyond words: "Through the years, a man peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face."

So much so, that I drove home repeating the final phrase in my head over and over - "the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face". The part stands for the whole, the general stands for the specific. I'm so enamoured of this that a couple more weeks on Petrarchan sonnets wouldn't go amiss at this stage.

That nothing bothered me more than the dissonant references to Schenectady, NY, probably says more about me than the film. Although if I'd known of the city beforehand, it would have been smoother sailing. Balance, the demand for a more and more structured mimesis, and the abrupt ending (fade to white FTW!) made for the high points, and only the fact that the inward focus meant the ideal repetitive world didn't subsume the rest of New York keep the film from eating into more of my thesis mind-space.

Speaking of re-using the big four ideas and constructing fresh narratives from them, I'm turning over in my head the idea of a circular show about people working for some under-funded or mis-managed association. Key to this is the notion of having no sympathetic characters, the ready co-existence of the banal and the atrocious and a pervasive and depressing subtext that branches into the dialogue. I can do con-fusion, apparent idealism, and a pervasive lack of coherence like nothing else. Surely there's a market for this outside of comparative literature....

~

This week I wrote something stupid about Resident Evil 5, and something slightly more glowing about thatgamecompany's beautiful Flower. Next week I'm skipping the review basics entirely and instead writing about narrative in my 'review' of Gears of War 2, and hopefully after that I'll be free enough to start some source material comparisons with Beowulf and Conan, and their most recent hack-slash incarnations. Leading up to, of course, the inevitable travesty of Dante's Inferno (tagline: "Go to Hell". I'm not kidding.) Dear Lord. Dante's all up in the demons' faces in the trailer, below, stabbing ghouls with a crucifix. No word on whether the ultimate goal of the game would be, but I presume it's not saving Beatrice from Lucifer. Otherwise we'd be retreading Ghosts 'n' Goblins territory.



Granted, the nine circles of hell would lend themselves to game levels rather nicely (the dark wood as a tutorial level, perhaps?), and there's a built-in trilogy option if it takes off, but goddamn if it doesn't look like a poor man's God of War, with extra crucifix.

Anyway, work, work, and more work. But if you're up for what passes as banter around these parts, you could listen to 91FM (Dunedin) at 8am and 9am weekdays. (If there's no banter on a certain day, sorry. We're not particularly chatty at the best of times, and certain brands of topical humour began and ended with Murphy Brown.) Alternatively, you'll hear the day's top news stories read out loud, then slightly undermined or roundly castigated, which is probably the best way to do it.