Text 13 Jul Testing the iPhone Waters

Played half an hour of NCAA Football 2011 at GameStop tonight. Got so carried away the employees didn’t even make me want to swallow live bees. Might need to make that a purchase.

Posted by John

Text 2 Jun Oh My God What If David Denby Googles This

I’ve never really cared about what’s been happening with the Prince of Persia franchise after 1994’s The Shadow and the Flame, Mechner’s sequel to his original game. I was obsessed with the first two games as a kid, playing the first one over and over again in the company of several friends I briefly made in some kind of week-long summer computer camp my parents enrolled me in. I don’t even remember the ostensible goal of this camp or program, it was so long ago, but I do remember it involved extended periods in computer labs where we were free to play a variety of games, ranging from some bleak, monochrome edutainment horseshit, to the aforementioned original Prince of Persia (surprisingly, I don’t remember Oregon Trail being an option, despite how most other people remember it as a staple of those sorts of programs). This was also my first experience with the way in which single-player games can morph into a shared experience - we would play in tandem, side-by-side, exclaiming and looking over at intervals, offering advice and warnings, or we would gather around one member in particular of our little clique to watch en masse, or swap seats whenever one of us got stuck. I never stayed in touch with the kids I met there, even after that week, but the memories were vivid enough to compel me to get the 2nd game, which I also played to death. It was fun, but I largely remember the game for the fact that I got stuck at one particular puzzle halfway through the game. It was a picturesque puzzle, in which you exited the open-air, unroofed ruins of an alabaster Persian palace, into a long vista of dunes slumbering under the purple twilight before passing an enormous statue of a rearing horse. Some distance beyond the horse, you came up short against a gaping ravine spanning the width of the entire screen, far too wide to jump across (the beautiful, invaluable VGMaps has a PNG rip if you’d like to see for yourself - it’s Level 9).

The puzzle enraged and consumed me, as I could think of no possible way to cross the ravine. I spent hours trying everything, but there was no powerup anywhere in the temple that would enable the jumps necessary, no way to finesse the jump with a proper run-up or adroit timing, no secret passage under or around it. The solution that haunted me had a wonderful (if infuriatingly illogical) dream-logic of its own - of course, if I jumped on the statue of the horse, perhaps it would awaken into life and carry me across. I say dream-logic because I quite honestly saw this image in my dreams, such did the game gnaw its way into my subconscious. I dismissed it partially because the jump onto horse’s back was also tricky to the point of impossibility, and because the idea was as ridiculous as it was appealing -so I eventually abandoned the game. It wasn’t until over a decade later that it occurred to me to search the internet for a solution to the problem that had bedeviled me in my pre-dialup youth, and of course, yes, you have to jump on the horse, which will carry you across. I could just never manage the jump.

All of the foregoing isn’t terribly relevant to the ostensible subject of this post - it’s just a story I like to tell, that I thought I would document on this blog, so I can maybe stop telling it. It’s just part of the explanation for why I lost touch with the series after 1994 - never played any of the other Prince of Persia games, never had much of a desire to. The other part, of course, is that the Sands of Time reboot, as well-praised as it was, felt conceptually and tonally different from the earlier series to me, and was the product of a different team, whatever amount of presence Mechner had on that team. It wasn’t an issue of 2D-vs-3D, necessarily - it just seemed a little less ornate and vividly-tinted in its design, a little more like a standard action-oriented platformer than the first two puzzle-platformers (this was just my impression - like I say, never tested this impression against reality). So I’m not that emotionally invested, either, in the recent Bruckheimer film adaptation that’s come chugging into the theaters. I think part of what makes me suspect that the film is/will be even shittier than it has any right to be is Jake Gyllenhaal’s hair, which pretty much exactly reproduces the hair of the prince in the videogame. That floppy middle-parted bullshit teen action hero thing he had going on was inexcusably awful even for 2003, even for a videogame with a whiff of corporate groupthink in its visuals - it’s what you would expect to see in an early 90s Xena-type TV show on a wisecracking sidekick. The design sensibility it embodies is “corny enough to be limp and boring and terrible, not corny enough to be funny and over-the-top and self-aware.” It shits my mind to think that with millions of dollars to blow on production design they thought that was worth keeping or somehow integral to any kind of Prince of Persia gestalt.

Anyway. The occasion for this post, the spark that set all this off, is this comment that David Denby makes in his New Yorker review of the movie, in discussing the effect that the MacGuffin time-shifter dagger has on the plot: “The quick reversals that add to the fun of a game make nonsense out of the loyalties and desires of flesh-and-blood characters.” What I thought so notable about this was the awkward but careful and inadvertently honest way that Denby avoids using a definite article. The fun of a game, he says, for all the world as if all games of whatever type, electronic or otherwise, involved manipulating the flow of time. Obviously “the fun of the game” is what Denby was looking for, but then that would generally imply that Denby has had some experience with the fun afforded by that one specific game. One somehow senses that Denby does not come to us with thumbs sore from a marathon session of playing The Sands of Time, all agog to deliver his insight on how it compared to the film - from the tone Denby adopts towards videogames in general, which is almost too uninterested to approach the level of condescension, I don’t think it would be unfair to suspect that Denby has barely touched a videogame in his life.

Which is cool and everything, in general! Loads of people don’t play videogames. But it’s why, of course, that one sentence struck me as so obnoxious - Denby, casting about for a club to beat the movie with (understand that I have no problem whatsoever believing that the movie deserves derision), decides to compare it to a videogame, to the film’s disadvantage, without being able to exhibit the spark of curiosity that might lead him to - yes! of all things! - actually playing a videogame, and affording himself some groundwork to base his judgment on (I’d hate to think, really, that I’m being unfair to Denby in this regard - but again, it seems only natural to me that one would mention some details about the actual game if one had the faintest interest in the medium). It’s a pretty limp sort of gesture. But on a second look, there’s something faintly encouraging about Denby’s throwaway line. As Denby himself correctly notes, “For twenty years, audiences have been noticing the similarity between big action and fantasy movies and video games,” although he might have hit the nail more squarely on the head if he had said “critics” instead of “audiences.” Go to Metacritic and read a review of any of the big explosion-oriented blockbusters or sci-fi movies of the past decade, and five’ll get you ten the critic will have written a sentence extremely similar to “Blockerbuster X looks like a videogame, but since you have to watch it and can’t play it, it isn’t even fun.” It is, indeed, a very time-worn trope in the critical arsenal at this point, and most often it comes from critics similar to Denby, and has the same faintly insincere, lazy feel to it no matter who it comes from - the picture you get is of critics who have seen, out of the corner of their eyes, their children playing videogames from time to time, and who need a conveniently snide putdown. The “not even as good as a videogame” trope kills two birds with one stone, in fact, in the way it simultaneously implies that the movie is so trashy and vulgar and stupid that it’s basically like a videogame (the ne plus ultra of the trashy, vulgar, stupid ways that our saggy-pants-wearing children entertain themselves), while also deflecting the jeers of those who would attack the critic as a prim egghead incapable of enjoying himself, by implying that the critic in question is not completely above appreciating something as demotic and mindless as a videogame (irrespective of whether or not they do enjoy videogames, which like I say, in Denby’s case in particular, is hard to believe), provided that videogames are kept in their proper place, properly understood as purely contentless vulgarian detritus.

The problem with this, for the critic who deploys this rhetorical trick while still hoping that the unspoken implications of his words will keep videogames contained in their proper place in the hierarchy of the arts, is that it does actually ring true, in delineating one of the central strengths of videogames. That is, just as films can take (say) a love story that would seem flat, shallow, or naive if related in a novel (does Casablanca really portray the psychology of love with the same detail and incisiveness that Proust displays with Swann and Odette, for example?) and still invest it with the breath of life, videogames can take (say) an adventure story that would seem familiar on film and invest it with the sense of immediacy and engagement with the world that actual participation can grant. Now: to anybody who’s paying attention (or, you know, to anyone who’s already played any videogames), the idea that this distinction, this tradeoff between various strengths and weaknesses, implies a necessary aesthetic hierarchy, an inherent weakness or cheapness on the part of videogames, will eventually be impossible to reasonably maintain. The willingness to grant some level of legitimacy to video games, even if only insincerely, as a means towards pouring scorn on other media, can only be accomplished by grudgingly acknowledging the genuine outlines of the medium’s strengths, and thus plays a part in normalizing for the general public the idea that video games do have something to offer, and are a novel but unexceptionable form of creating beauty, producing pleasure, and reproducing observations about the world. Notice how Denby, after all, is stalemated into his awkward phrase - he wants to introduce a comparison to videogames, but is aware on whatever level that he can’t actually come out into the open about having no familiarity with the game in question - so instead, he opts for a straddle that will hopefully convince an inattentive reader that Denby knows what he’s talking about. Denby has - seemingly against his will - internalized this normalization!

Now please do note, at this juncture - this isn’t meant as a way of arguing that videogames are art. In my opinion, anybody who likes videogames should avoid putting a dog into that fight as much as possible, for the simple reason that the challenge being offered (to “prove” that videogames are art) is offered entirely in bad faith, from start to finish. Plainly and incontrovertibly, under a value-neutral definition of art (“the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions,” as Wikipedia, for example, a reasonable guide to humdrum value-neutral assessments on subjects of such general interest as “art” are, would have it), videogames are art. When someone asks you - “But are videogames art?” what they are actually asking you is: are videogames good art, or high art. My own prejudices, for what it’s worth, incline me to believe that high art is nothing but the set of gambling maneuvers meant to increase a given artwork’s commercial value by appearing to hold all commercial values in disgust, and that truly good art can only be discerned as such (or, as likely, designated as such - which does not necessarily diminish the value thereby assigned) by the passage of centuries, so again the question is moot to me - but those positions would take greater effort to defend than are appropriate to this blog post. The common-sense objection that the majority of videogames are ephemeral crap on some level, is, very obviously, generalizable across the entire range of established artistic forms.

Anyway - what’s nice about all of this is that it means I’m largely writing this post for my own edification, and for the pleasure of hearing myself think out loud. It’s been mildly frustrating (although also of course, at the same time, heartening) to me to read the flood of rebuttals after Roger Ebert’s comments on the subject, because of the way it could show videogame aficionados to be excessively thin-skinned, implying a fundamental anxiety on our part about the proposition we are outwardly so vocally confident about. Paradoxically, part of what makes the guardians of established art-forms so suspicious of newcomers is the countless special pleaders and defenders that a new artform attracts, which smacks (to the guardians) of a concerted campaign to hoist error and forgery above its natural resting place. The attitude of the guardians is: If it’s so damned good, then why the hell don’t think it’s any good?

It’d be nice, in a way, to close this post with something along the lines of a swaggering insult to the Eberts and Denbys of the world - e.g., We know you’re having a tough time up there distinguishing friend from foe, being a guardian of the arts, but don’t worry, we’ll send some new guardians along in a little while to relieve you, and they’ll know what’s up and put the stamp on videogames’ passport. This would be unkind, of course, as well as self-defeating - obviously aesthetic values are in constant flux, but in their hearts nobody really enjoys imagining that it’s just a generational power struggle, and that our opinions in their turns will be ruthlessly savaged and shredded by our own children. Some cynics do indeed, loudly proclaim that this is the precise state of affairs, and that nothing more can reasonably be said on the matter. I think most of us feel there’s something ugly and profitless in taking this attitude, and would like to believe there’s some kind of spark of aesthetic meaning that never really vanishes from a worthwhile work of art, once it’s been completed - but if this is true, much better to look for it in the close examination of individual works than in cage matches between abstract ideas of the printed page, the celluloid reel, and the game controller. 

Posted by Peter, the Other One

Text 21 May Touring the Galaxy Again

Outside of putting hours into the Backbreaker demo to be released Friday morning, the only thing I know for sure about this weekend is that I’ll be getting up fairly early on Sunday morning to pick up Super Mario Galaxy 2.  I have a birthday coming up in a little more than a month, but major Mario releases do not sit in a queue for me.

Though I happen to agree with most of the knee jerk praise of the first Galaxy from 2007 (namely the assertion that it’s better than Super Mario 64), I do have a few complaints that I hope have been addressed.

Purple Coins
I hated having to beat the game before unlocking access to these fifteen star challenges.  I’ve never understood the need to beat the boss and go through the rigmarole of sitting through credits and reloading your save game only to finish the game to ultimate completion.  I most recently had this issue with Final Fantasy XIII, where (spoilers!) you have to beat the final boss and save the human race before you can even access a major portion of the game by time warping back before you fight the boss so you can return to Pulse to complete all the side quests.  Ugh. (/spoilers!)  The 100 Purple Coin challenges don’t bother me in and of themselves, but I say “nay” to the lack of access until beating the game.

Secrets on Secrets
What made some of the 2D Mario games an absolute joy to play and revisit tens of times were the secrets that took some serious thoroughness to uncover.  It seems with each playthrough of Super Mario World, I’ve found something I didn’t remember from previous experiences.  It’s a beautiful thing.  Super Mario Galaxy didn’t have enough of this.  There were secrets, sure, but there weren’t secrets piled on top of secrets.

What gets me excited about Galaxy 2 is the indication that my qualms from the first installment have been fixed.  I’m still very interested to know if the “240 stars” figure is a Mario/Luigi thing like the last game or if it’s referring to 240 unique challenges.  I want Galaxy 2 to be the purest gameplay extension of concepts introduced in the first title — more gravity elements, more nostalgia, more variety, etc.

Briefly, I remember reading somewhere that Super Mario 64 shows up on “most overrated game” lists with alarming frequency.  This offends my senses.  I can totally empathize with those who place Final Fantasy VII in that category — that particular title feeds directly into the pleasure centers of my brain, but it definitely is more visible than other (superior) Final Fantasy titles.  My big issue with these silly lists is that I rarely see Ocarina of Time in those ranks, but yet I see Mario 64.

Go back and play those titles.  In fact, play the successors to both — Super Mario Sunshine and Majora’s Mask.  Tell me that Sunshine holds up better than 64 and Majora’s Mask is a step backward from Ocarina of Time.  I would be surprised if you reached that conclusion.  I’m astounded with how well Mario 64 holds up to today’s gameplay standards.  So many I come in contact with obsess over the idea of remaking classic JRPGs, but I have to say my most desired graphical overhaul would be the seminal 1996 N64 launch title with the jovial plumber.  All that game needs is a fresh coat of paint.

Anyway!  If you own a Wii (or know someone who does), get out and rejoin the Mushroom Kingdom (Mushroom Universe?) this Sunday.  Don’t ask questions.

Posted by John Warren

Text 21 May 1 note Backbreaker Demo

Backbreaker, the Euphoria-infused football experiment from Natural Motion and 505 Games is out in demo form tomorrow for Xbox Live Gold subscribers.

I cannot tell you how excited I am for this game, this demo.  Unlike the jokes of demos the EA crew has released for Madden in the past few years (1-minute quarters with two selectable teams last year), the Backbreaker demo will feature three modes (Training Camp, Tackle Alley, and Exhibition) and six teams to choose from.

Here’s some info:

You have to respect how ballsy Natural Motion is being with this major demo.  For what many are guessing will be a glorified physics demo, a game demo that features all of the gameplay one can expect from the full title is risky.  They must really think their customization options are something to behold — from everything I can tell, they have a right to be excited.  I am just going to shit if this game is half as rewarding as I think it could be.

Quick shout to the fellas at Death Before Taxes (http://deathbeforetaxes.tumblr.com/).  Even though they don’t lose their minds over The National’s new album High Violet (I thoroughly recommend it), they know their stuff.  Check it out.

Posted by John Warren

Text 21 Apr Games Can(not) Be Art

Roger Ebert’s most recent diatribe regarding games as art:

Mike Thomsen’s rebuttal:

Brian Ashcraft’s rebuttal:

Kellee Santiago’s rebuttal:

It’s not even that these rebuttals do a great job of getting to why Ebert’s recent essay turned me inside-out with rage, but it’s nice to get a few viewpoints.  I think Thomsen got closest for my money — pointing out that Ebert is making his assertions upon viewing brief streaming videos.  It would be akin to calling Citizen Kane “boring drivel” after watching the original trailer (if there even is one).  For the record, Citizen Kane might be boring drivel.

It might be.  Don’t jump down my throat.

Ebert seems to be confused why gamers are interested in his opinion.  I wasn’t interested and I’m still not, really, but when I hear a bollocks argument about the credibility of something I love from someone in a high-status position, I tend to pounce.

Ebert offers a parting argument that is so laughable in its construction that I almost feel sorry for picking on it.  He notes that games cannot be art because, for a game to be successful (according to Santiago’s presentation about games as art), games have to involve things like financing, marketing, executive management, etc.  By that logic, only the most amateur of student films would classify as art — films that are never seen, never distributed, never marketed.  He’s an idiot for asserting that marketing (which some would say is the great artistic medium of the 20th and 21st centuries) kills art.  Some may disagree, but the box office gross of a film does not make it less artistic, and vice versa.  Art is subject to evolution, and Ebert is looking an awful lot like a creationist right now.

That’s all I got right now.  I can feel my ocular fluid starting to boil.

Posted by John Warren

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