March 29, 2005
Discussion: Every Day is Mother's Day
Hilary Mantel's Every Day is Mother's Day is a very odd little book. There are sort of two plotlines going on: one involves a woman who believes she is a psychic and her moderately retarded full-grown daughter, the other a man originally from the same neighborhood who is cheating on his wife with a younger woman. The two storylines kind of crash together at the end of the book, but I guess I'm getting ahead of myself just a bit.
The more interesting of the two plots is that of the mother and daughter. Social workers are dispatched with some regularity out to the house to see how the daughter is getting on; the mother, who is about as instantly and persistently unsympathetic a character as you're likely to meet in fiction, does her best to avoid them, but is eventually buttonholed and is convinced to send her daughter to a sort of day camp.
The woman treats her daughter horribly -- believing her incapable of any thought whatsoever, she constantly berates her, perhaps thinking she'll have forgotten each insult as soon as it passes by. She is truly abhorrent, and so we feel somewhat sympathetic to the daughter, who is pretty inaccessible to us as well. It's a conundrum, but soon we know for sure that our allegiances should probably be with the daughter -- she has been getting back at her mother quietly for months by using her apparent infirmity to her advantage. Her mother, convinced that the house is haunted by lost souls, never stops to consider that it is her own daughter that is moving things about in the house, making noises, and finding her father's coat and hanging it in the hall.
I never felt that this was out of a sense of revenge -- at least, not the sense of revenge I might feel. The daughter is simply too alien in her thought processes for us to really understand what is motivating her -- it may not even be revenge.
I've tried to imagine what kind of game mechanic comes out of that sort of story, and the best I can come up with is a mechanic in which you can exert power on the world as long as you do it in secret. Manipulation of the world comes as a secondary effect by the responses you provoke in characters.
It seems to me, this mechanic actually has been used a bit -- though usually against the player. After all, genres such as survival horror make use of fear as a primary driving force for the game, and depend on darkness and other forms of secrecy to create the atmosphere which drives the fun. Anticipation and horror are bred from the unknown and the unknowable, the secret and the hidden.
Is it possible to turn it on its head? Let's dismiss, for the moment, board games in which hiding information is required to hide strategy. These aren't really what I'm talking about -- in these cases, we are not trying to provoke emotion, but to foster a winning strategy based on feints. Have there been good games in which the player's ability to act in secret results in secondary effects that are the proper subject of the gameplay? Of course, to match this, there has to be the chance of a discovery which removes the power of such effects.
Certain stealth games certainly approach this: in Thief, you can manipulate the environment to produce a navigable path -- extinguishing torches, dropping moss on the floor, etc. Indeed, these are less effective or even ineffective if the guards see you do them -- so it comes close. You're not provoking an emotional response, but the topology of the gameplay seems closely matched to the mechanic I describe. Is there a game as good as Thief possible where the landscape you're navigating is the emotion of an antagonist, or group of antagonists?
The other half of the book has another sort of secrecy going on -- keeping secrets from your wife. I think that this sort of game has probably been done, in Japan, land of the dating simulator...
March 28, 2005
Discussion: Band of Brothers
Band of Brothers is a fantastic miniseries about the real soldiers who made up the 101st Airborne, who got dumped all over Normandy on D-Day, who fought the Battle of the Bulge, who took Hitler's Eagle's Nest. These were extraordinary men. This is an extraordinary series. But then, you probably already know that, since I'm probably among the last of the folks my age who hadn't yet seen it. Karen and I started watching it while we still lived in California, and finished up a few weeks ago.
Band of Brothers gave me a new appreciation for just how horrible war is. It's something I think we tend to forget as we storm the beaches again and again and again in games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor.
The thing is, I'd like to have a better understanding of the sacrifices of these extraordinary (and at the same time, ordinary) men; I'd like to know and understand the bond they feel for one another. I'd like the games I play to be less a reflection of the television shows and movies, and more an investigation into the deep, scarring, and yes, even exhilarating emotions of real combat.
It's not that it doesn't happen at all. There was a moment in Call of Duty, near the beginning, where I was pouring through a French village, fighting off German soldiers coming from what felt like all sides. My whole unit pushed forward, and I ducked into some sort of shed or something, with a window. I was taking my bearings, preparing to dash out again, when a head popped up in the window -- and so, I shot it. For a short moment, I was genuinely pained, for the face that popped up in that window was one of my own mates; I had shot one of my own men, hitting him before the green text that identified him as friendly faded in. And then, he popped up again and moved on.
For that one moment, before the illusion was shattered, I felt the tiniest fraction of emotions that men in combat must have felt every day, maybe every hour or minute at times. It was frightening, compelling, overwhelming, and it was exactly what I wanted from the game. The rest of it I could have done without, really, most of it has completely faded away -- if not for the historical grounding of the game, I'd have forgotten it altogether, except for that one moment.
It's not the only time I've ever had that sort of connection with a game, that brief glimpse of something better. One other compelling moment was in Baldur's Gate, five years ago or so. I was moving along the main story arc and there was some side quest to get some artifact¹ or other from this bear cave. The bear cave was situated behind a tribe of Xvarts², and I started moving up through them to get what I wanted. Naturally, this caused them all to turn on me, to mob after my little band of four or five, and we started in to slaughter.
That's when one of them, perhaps the chieftain, cried out, "Why do you come and kill us? How have we harmed you?" or something similar.
Something about the timing and writing totally hit home with me (not enough to make me remember the line verbatim, but still). Here I was, mass murdering my way through a village of critters that hadn't really done me any harm. And it really bothered me, for a moment, the game paused -- until the gamer took over and I moved on through, looking at it as a barrier and a goal.
What bothered me about it was not so much the killing -- I mean, really, a bunch of blue critters that are composed of only so many bits -- but the fact that I had no other options. I'm pretty sure I had dumped a bunch of points into charisma and the like; I'm one of those rpg weirdos who tries out the boundaries of what your characters can be³. I like to have options. And in this case, I had none. What caused the moment to lose its impact so quickly was that the apparent lack of choice -- spurning side quests is a sure way to end up without the ability to finish the game (which happened to me anyway in that one), and there was simply no other way through.
I guess what I'm getting at is that games are able to provoke in me the strong emotional and moral responses that I'd really like them to provoke -- they are just too rare and entirely too fragile. They happen, there is a moment of real connection, and then they fade away quicker than you can say "blueberry pancakes". Well, not that fast, but pretty fast. Whereas a film or book, where nominally I have even less investment, can pull the strings like crazy.
I'm not sure what to do about this, but I felt like Half-Life 2 was doing a much better job. It's time for me to go back and figure out why, now.
¹No doubt, something really trivial like a +1 sword, which is something you need early on and they make you work for it.
²Yeah, I know. How do you even pronounce that? I think I have to turn in my geek tokens on this one, I had never heard of them, and I played D&D for years.
³A word to the wise: Don't play Neverwinter Nights as a bard unless you also take as your main weapon a one-handed sword or perhaps a mace or dagger, and not a rapier. Trust me.
Regrounding the Blog
So, I've been thinking lately that while writing what I think about various books and movies is fun and all, one of the things I'd like to do, at least for a little while, is re-ground some of my thoughts in terms of what I do for a living as a game developer and as a game player. I'm going to give it a try for a little while, at least.
Some books & movies may have nothing to do with what I do, and yet may still have applications to what I do. Some have quite a lot to do with it, even directly, due to subject matter or whatever (as with Band of Brothers, the first entry to follow this new thinking).
Anyway, let me know what you think. Cheers.
March 24, 2005
Review: Gun, with Occasional Music
This is the sort of off-kilter novel that is an easy read, constantly engaging, really fun, and entirely forgettable. I really liked the Chinatown, Chandler flavor -- tied together with the dystopian future of a book like Blood Music, for example. The pacing is marvelous, the plotting a little spotty (or at least, a bit hard to follow and/or swallow at times), the characters fit neatly into their archetypes (albeit with the science fiction twist of some of them being "evolved" animals, but in this case it just personifies animals, rather than gangsters being portrayed as animals, a neat twist).
The story deals with the Karma police nabbing the wrong man -- in the future, your current Karma rating is what keeps you from getting put into deep-freeze, which is sort of a futuristic punishment; our hero, former Inquistor himself, now private, bets his own Karma to save him. In this future, everyone uses their own special blend of a mix of different drugs, with names like Forgettol, Addictol, and the like. The world is strange and getting stranger. Drop in some fast-grown children called babyheads, a nasty slave trade, and an even tougher form of drug and you have quite an eclectic mix of... um, weird science fiction elements that Lethem manages to weave into a pretty good hard-boiled detective novel, while a little too kooky to work entirely as a science fiction novel.
This was Lethem's first novel. I've since read his latest short stories (Men and Cartoons), his more traditional noir novel (Motherless Brooklyn¹), and have plans to soon read what is apparently his magnum opus, Fortress of Solitude. His first novel is worth your time, especially if you're a fan.
¹If one can describe a noir novel which has a Tourette's Syndrome sufferer as its protagonist as a traditional noir novel.
March 23, 2005
Review: Ed Wood
There are two reasons to see Ed Wood, and three if you're generally a fan of Tim Burton. I'm generally a fan, but lately Burton hasn't had a lot to offer me so I haven't been as interested¹. Still, he's in that category of someone whose movies I'm more likely to see than not, because I feel like the auteur of Edward Scissorhands and Pee Wee and Beetle Juice is likely to come up with something I'll enjoy. Big Fish is another I need to see, it's in the queue.
Anyway, other than a Burton fetish, there are two reasons to see Ed Wood. The first of these is the amazingly compelling portrait of Bela Lugosi by Martin Landau, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor for his work here. This is a performance of amazing subtlety, and incredibly accurate to at least my memories of Lugosi and his work. He plays this old actor knowingly -- this is an old man who desperately needs attention and money and heroin, and is willing to do whatever he needs to do to get those. Often, I think, he substitutes the heroin for the attention and even adulation he's really seeking. Landau captures all of this, and gives us a picture of what it must be like to be an actor, to be capable of nothing else because acting defines who you are, and to be unable to pursue that any longer, due to age, infirmity, and yes, addiction. He's a needy, greedy, but also sympathetic and likable old man.
The other reason to see this film is for the interplay of the motives of a young man who clearly deeply admires Lugosi and was perhaps even inspired by him, and who also seeks to make films (and therefore money) from exploiting this very same man. That sounds more callous, I think, than it really appears on screen, but it's clearly there, it's clearly an undertone. Even as Wood films Lugosi for the last time, you feel both halves of this -- Wood is simultaneously exultant that he is able to provide this final adulation for the old man, and already thinking of what he can do with the footage. The man's body is barely cold before he's planning "Bela Lugosi's last picture" -- and we know at the same time that his passing is difficult for Wood.
It's a complex relationship, and really compelling to watch. But it leads me to the single one thing that makes me reluctant to recommend this movie: the sheer goofiness of Ed Wood, Jr.
I don't know a thing about Ed Wood that I didn't see in this movie. I suspect that it's a rare moviegoer who knew all that much about him before the movie was made. So why, why must he be so true to his original character -- he was simply too goofy to be believed, so I have to assume that this was how the man actually was. I came away thinking I was watching (at least in part) a Burton fairy tale, which didn't fit with the rest of the film, the more compelling bits. It left me puzzled at the choices Burton had made in making the film. It left me a bit soured.
Overall, I'd give it a cautious recommendation. The bits that are good are really, really good -- the flaws, however, are with the main character, which are naturally pervasive.
**½ (out of four)
¹I mean, Planet of the Apes. Good God. What was he thinking?
Trash Talk Starts Young
Last night Jordan and I were playing SpongeBob Squarepants Uno¹. Jordan is four, but I guess I've been rubbing off on him. After a hand in which he got me with a couple of Draw Twos and a Draw Four, I said: "That's it, Jordan. You're going down."
To which he replied, "No, Daddy. You're going downer."
I'm going to be in real trouble when these boys have a real command of the language.
¹Highly recommended. Classic Uno with the addition of four "Super Absorbency" Wild cards -- the person with the fewest cards, thus the most absorbent, draws a card from each nearby source -- the player on the left, the player on the right, and the deck.
March 22, 2005
Damn the Spam
I had turned off unregistered comments due to getting too much spam. I hate not having them on, so I've re-enabled them. Be warned that there may be some occasional spam I need to clear out until I've found a better solution.
March 21, 2005
Review: The Corrections
The short version of this review is that while this is really quite a good book, it's not as good as the author thinks it is.
Much was made of Franzen's refusal to have The Corrections selected for Oprah's Reading Club. Honestly, other than him thinking that his book was better than it was, I can't see why. After all, Oprah has since had Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and East of Eden, to name but a few -- very good company, elevated company for Franzen, in fact. A bit above his place. In the end, I think, he acquiesced -- some time after his initial selection.
At one point, I was listening to this book alongside All the Names, and I couldn't help but draw some comparisons. One was a quiet little book that I mightn't have heard of if not for the New York Times Book Review, the other was this publishing behemoth that had been generating buzz (including a profile on the author in the New York Times Magazine) for months. And yet the former is by far the better book, with lasting, timeless value.
It's hard to know where to start with The Corrections; it is large and boisterous, very American in its sensibility, a sprawling book in plots, subplots, tragedy, comedy, characters, places. I was laughing out loud more frequently than I would have expected, with Franzen's clever turns of phrase, or spot-on characterization, the perfect pitches of the voices and motives of his creations. I was heartbroken at spots. I was as frenzied as Denise in my wanting more book at points, at my desire to just keep reading even though I had arrived at work (a few minutes more permissible here) or at school to pick up Luc (nope, no spare minutes there). I was bowled over by changes in circumstance amongst the characters. I was impressed by the narrator. I burned with embarassment for his characters when he degraded them¹. Like I said, it's a sprawl -- very very American in its sensibilities, like a suburb that in its enormity embraces both conformity and hidden perversions.
The book reminded me quite a lot of A Confederacy of Dunces -- like that book, it had great bouts of humor, but it also came off as fairly confectionary. It was a sweet that I loved consuming, and indeed frequently longed for more of, but which ultimately left me seeking something with more substance and sustenance. I thought often of David Foster Wallace, that amazingly talented young man who I feel often squanders his talents on trickery and gimmicks, who must have something more to say, given his amazing abilities at saying things. Franzen doesn't stoop quite to such gimmicks as Wallace, and he also reminds me a bit of Chabon² -- his novel actually has a plot, and though enormous, a good one.
In the end, I've come away glad to have listened to it, and also somewhat glad that it takes Franzen a while to write his books. I'm not going to be ready for another one for a few years.
¹Moderately unforgivable, in some cases. There are things I don't need to think about, and he lavishes some attention on them. If you read it, I'm sure you'll feel the same way, and probably about different things.
²Albeit without Chabon's fondness for gay men emerging from their shells, and also without Chabon's charm.
March 17, 2005
Review: The Final Solution
I was entirely unprepared for Michael Chabon's latest novel, which is surprising, given that I'm pretty sure I read the review a few months ago.
The Final Solution of the title refers to two things, and it's the latter of these that is the more surprising. The first, of course, is that infamous Final Solution -- which threads as a sort of undercurrent in the book. You know it's there, you know it's part of the mystery that's going on, but it's the part of the mystery that remains hidden, the large and terrible part of the iceberg you never see.
The surprising Final Solution is that of Sherlock Holmes -- for this is a pastiche of Holmesian novels; this is his last case. In this book, Holmes is extremely aged, now that it's early in the 1940s. England is at war with Germany, of course, and the Americans have only just begun to enter the war. That Holmes is engaged in rescuing a parrot for a young, German, Jewish boy who has lost his powers of speech and is moderately dumbstruck by something. He is an orphan, but he has as a companion this enormous grey African parrot, who rattles off sequences of numbers.
This is a good little book, not up to par with The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but that's a very high bar indeed. Recommended, especially for Ray Bradbury and Sherlock Holmes fans. The book had the feel of Bradbury, in its brevity and its subject matter (that is, a young boy who doesn't speak, with a parrot). A nice treat until Chabon serves up another, more sizable opus.
March 16, 2005
Discussion: All the Names
There is an amazing moment in All the Names when the protagonist, Senhor José¹, is deep within the Central Registry and his flashlight goes out, leaving him in total darkness, surrounded by immense and somewhat threatening piles and mounds and shelves of documents. In this moment, he ultimately gains control of himself by describing the darkness outside of himself as no different from the darkness inside himself, merely separated by a skin. This was such a profound shock to me that I immediately had to write it down: "they are two darknesses separated by a skin".
This slim, fairly abstract, even Kafka-esque volume has many such moments. Just a few pages later, I am reading a description of photographs as being of people who no longer exist, who would observe us looking at them and say "who's that looking at me sadly", and I wonder, taking a moment to look sadly at the photograph of the author on the dust jacket, if José Saramago fears death. This is a book filled with the poetry of loneliness, but in a subtle way, a way that sneaks up on you and fills every pore, making you wish you had listened to E. M. Forster's admonition to "only connect".
The emotions I felt reading this book were extreme. I'm still not entirely certain that they could have gripped me so; it was like reading Marquez, or Borges, a mental labyrinth which seized me, held on, wouldn't leave me be, even now two weeks after I've finished reading it. At one point I was seized by a powerful urge to put on my boots and coat, gloves, hat, and walk to the grave of my grandfather, some three hundred miles distant, he dead just under a year and a half, and stand before his grave and reminisce and perhaps cry, he being the only person I've known who is now dead and with whom I felt a close connection, a person I feel I understood in some small way, even knowing that I didn't, I couldn't, we never can. After all, two skins separate each of us from the other.
I read this and think that people might find me a little mad, to write these words, to let it spill out over the blog like this, and perhaps I am, perhaps I am. But I read this book and I think that it would have been a crime to have awarded the Nobel Prize that year to anyone but Saramago. I read this book and he immediately jumps up near the top of my list of people who I'd really like to meet, to have lunch with, to get to know. How can I not tell you all about that, how can I let that pass, how can I not share with you a book that I will read several times, perhaps once every few years just to mark my own growth against it. The answer is that I can't, I won't, even though it might make me look a fool, or mad.
We all have books, movies, media² which combine with our present selves and touch us in expected, overwhelming, and deeply lasting ways. This was mine; if you read it and aren't similarly impressed, please don't tell me, don't even mention you read it, I won't want to know.
¹The novel is translated from the Portugese.
²I continue to doubt that a game will ever touch me in this way. I very much wish to be proven wrong.
March 14, 2005
Review: Ripley's Game
I watched Ripley's Game a little over a week ago; I was piqued in interest by Roger Ebert's answer to a Movie Answer man question about a year ago.
Now, I've only read one of the Ripley books, the first -- and I thoroughly loved it. I also could see a lot in the portrayal by John Malkovich -- though Matt Damon's rather featureless approach to the role seemed much better suited to the actual character when he played opposite Jude Law and Gwynneth Paltrow a few years back¹. While the other film featured a delicate counterpoint of the sun-washed life of Ripley's victim and the dreary gray life of Ripley himself, this film offers no such interesting contrasts, visually speaking. Malkovich plays the character in an understated way -- this is appropriate -- but you don't feel the seething otherness which seeks out the light as I did with Damon's portrayal.
The film gets off to a very good start, however. A secretly dying man who insults Ripley (in an well-filmed and awkward scene in the man's home) is set up by Ripley to become a murderer for hire. An extreme scenario, to be sure, but not entirely unbelievable here, knowing what we know about the perversions of Ripley's character, the way he can be slighted by a word and wreak his vengeance. Ripley manipulates him well, plays off on his fears for what he leaves behind for his family, and all behind intermediaries, only to show up at the scene of a murder. This introductory first half really captures the soul of the film, and I was really excited for the second half.
The last half, however, doesn't fare nearly so well. It becomes a sort of action pic, though still a bit understated. Ripley and the man, now somewhat friendly, perhaps due to an understanding each now has of the other, prepare to fend off an attack from Russian mobsters. It is itself a bizarre counterpoint to the earlier insinuations and manipulations of Ripley's character -- and even if it's true to the original novel², it jars here, and grates on the nerves. Why the sudden testosterone? Is it there just to drive us to the simple finale? If so, it didn't work for me. I was puzzled -- I wanted more of the first half of the movie, not this guileless simple plot.
The first half of the film left me expecting a lot more from the second half -- and the second half failed to deliver. I can appreciate the structure of the film, but it was hard to be enthralled by it. I almost wished the film had simply ended shortly after Ripley appeared on the train -- just before he told his "victim" why he had done what he had. With Ripley, the mystery and otherness is always better. Keeping us guessing is what keeps him interesting.
**½ (out of four)
¹In fact, if you want to see a better film with both of them than Sky Captain, this is it.
²I've no idea; I've always wanted to read the others but haven't yet got round to it.
March 10, 2005
Review: Tishomingo Blues
The audio edition of Tishomingo Blues is just another reminder of how a really good performer can elevate an audio book. I've been really lucky lately, for the most part, in the narrators of the books I've listened to during drive time¹.
The story is classic Leonard -- high diver Dennis Lenahan gets into all sorts of trouble after he witnesses a murder. Enter the Dixie Mafia, Detroit gangs going franchise in the rural South, a risk-taking casino manager, and of all things, Civil War battle re-enactors, and you have this sort of popcorn mix that only Leonard can serve up. It's completely light fair, excellent for the drive -- but I'd probably never actually sit down and read Leonard any more.
Part of the reason is that even now, only a week or so after I finished it, the book is completely fading from memory. I feel this way about a lot of popular novels, when I read them -- they just don't sick with me. Compare that with All The Names² -- written by a Nobel prize winner, it's still sticking with me, haunting me after the same amount of time.³
That said, I'll remember Muller's performance for a long time, and mourn the loss of his talented readings. His voice was extraordinary. If you're going to be in the car for around 7 hours any time soon, this is a great way to pass the time. Just don't expect to be able to say much about it later.
¹Extended footnote: In this particular case, the narrator's story is a bit of a tragic one. In 2002 this reader, Frank Muller, was in a very bad motorcycle accident which has left him badly damaged in eyes, speech patterns, short-term memory, focus, and lucidity. It's very sad -- he may very well be the best audiobook narrator I've ever heard. He is perhaps best known for his narrations of Stephen King's Dark Tower series -- and indeed, King commemorated his work in the Afterword of one of the recent updates to the series.
³I almost don't want to discuss the book -- it's somehow highly personal.
March 07, 2005
Man, PA Really Loves RC
Penny Arcade¹ gives Star Wars Republic Commando some more loving. Thanks again, guys, your positive thoughts are very heartwarming.
¹Previous disclaimers as to overall Penny Arcade content still apply.
March 04, 2005
Discussion: Animal Farm
This will be pretty brief. If you haven't read Animal Farm, you probably should -- I mean, take the three or four hours¹ out of your life and read it, it's not at all long. If you haven't read it since junior high or whatever, I'd recommend re-reading it. It's an arch and occasionaly darkly comic allegory of the rise of Communism, but with animals. It's every bit as good as 1984, while less oppressive, and if you know a little bit about history, you'll find yourself nodding knowingly at any number of moments. It's like Babe crossed with the last hour or so of Reds.
There were any number of times, though, where I was puzzled -- what did this represent, what did that represent? The ways in which Orwell covers the story thoroughly, down to minute details, is wonderful, but he still leaves room for questions and further investigation. It's a truly great book, and given its length, high bang-for-buck. If you need further inducement, consider that old George is getting a bit of a revival these days.
¹From personal experience, the audio edition runs just over three hours, and is quite good.
March 03, 2005
Brotherhood of Mini
I bought a Mini shortly after I moved to Maryland -- I knew I was going to be in the car a lot, and after driving a Civic for 10 years, I decided to treat myself to something a little higher-end. So, as most of you know, I've now got a "liquid yellow" Mini.
So, now, as I'm driving to and from work, I often find myself seeing another Mini -- and exchanging a little wave. The best waves are the ones that come through the front window -- it's not like an afterthought, but like belonging to a club with a secret handshake. It's fun! Call it the Brotherhood of Mini.
What it reminds me most of is the random buffs you get and give in World of Warcraft¹. You're running along, you target someone and buff them, they maybe whisper thanks -- and you move on, a little happier, just in a tiny way. Feels good; it's not actual community, but it's communal feeling, and that's kind of nice.
So, to the gentleman in the blue Mini today, and the woman in the chili red one with the white bonnet stripes -- hey, thanks, you raised me up for a minute on the long drive. And thanks, too, to the high-level troll who buffed me last night; sorry, I didn't get your name, you were moving too fast.
¹Obviously, not unique to that, just what I personally play.
PS. In other news, Brent Sienna drives a Mini. Welcome, my cartoon brother. /wave
March 02, 2005
Quick Plug: dionysus logged out
So, I've mentioned Jamie Fristrom here a couple of times. Those of you who read his site know that he wrote a novel and self-published it this past year.
For those of you who are geeks like myself¹, dionysus logged out is worth reading. It's set in the late 80s; teenagers and chat, suicide and picking up the pieces. I read it last fall and enjoyed it. Check it out; I'm also happy to lend out my copy to anyone who asks, so long as you tell Jamie what you thought of it and so long as I can find it in the boxes of books that are still packed.
¹I.e. Mom, Dad, you probably won't get it.
More on Quality: The Role of Critics and Criticism
So, a while back, Jamie Fristrom was talking about yardsticks of quality in measuring videogames. He pointed out the problems with various other metrics (game sales, user reviews, how much my friends like it, etc). Yup, all of these have problems.
Right now, I think that videogaming suffers from a dearth of good criticism. Yes, I know, I know, nothing particularly original in that thought. The problem is, I don't think there's a significant market for it -- a co-worker¹ came back from DICE recently and mentioned that some editor or other was up there saying that "We don't write more serious-minded critical reviews because our audience doesn't want that."
You know, it's completely true. When I was 17, I didn't care much about what Siskel and Ebert were saying about a movie, I just liked to watch them argue and ultimately just went with the thumbs up / thumbs down -- essentially a ratings system with only three stars. Of course, when I was 17, I also went and saw nearly every movie that came out, so I wasn't exactly exercising my critical faculties most of the time. What I'm getting at is that our audience, young as it mostly is, isn't terribly interested in deconstructing Mario, Lara, Samus, or Master Chief.
So, having said that, I'll go on to the value I find in criticism these days. My criticism mostly comes from a couple of sources: for films I use Roger Ebert's website, and for books I read the New York Times Book Review.
With Roger Ebert, I'm relying on someone with whom I often agree -- and who can discuss film at a level that's comfortable for me. I definitely often disagree with him -- he gave Sky Captain four stars, whereas I only gave it two and a half², and I can't even conceive what he was thinking when he gave Blood Work three and a half. On the other hand, I never would have even thought to check out an old silent film billed as a horror movie had he not convinced me it was worth my time. We're in rough concordance more than we're completely off, and his vast knowledge of film gives me some pointers that I might not otherwise know about.
So, with Roger Ebert, I'm relying on a critic who has a pretty vast knowledge of the subject, who often points me in the right direction. I never find that in game critics -- game criticism hasn't been around all that long, really, and game critics seem to move around pretty quickly. There used to be a few at Computer Gaming World whose names were recognizable, but most of them have moved on.
The other thing about building up a relationship with a critic about games that is daunting is that it takes a long time for me to play a game. Ebert's reviews come out once a week and feature around half a dozen movies -- and I could conceivably go and watch all of them myself that week³. Movies are around two hours long. Games range from ten hours to over a hundred. There's just no way I'm going to be able to even remember what a critic said about that experience unless I go and look it up, whereas I can always remember the general gist of what Ebert had to say -- which bears again on the quality of the criticism. Most print reviews are short enough that they present no meaningful information to me, no mental outcroppings I can grab onto and remember three or four months later when I maybe finish a game. Without those, I simply can't remember enough about a review to think back and agree or disagree with it, or with its author.
My other main source of criticism is the NYT Book Review, which I've been reading for years, although I often get far behind and have a stack of them sitting somewhere. (Books get dated over a longer period than games.) What I respect in this source is the institution itself; the Book Review has been a voice in literary criticism for a long time. For a book to be considered seriously, it probably needs to be reviewed there; it's a mark of distinction to be considered "notable" by it.
In this case, I'm also going on a relationship -- it's pretty rare that the Book Review steers me wrong -- though not with a particular person, with the institution. But the institution extends great editorial effort to matching interesting books with interesting and appropriate reviewers, and even here, there are reviewers' names I've seen many times, or there are authors whose books I've read and admired who are themselves reviewing books.
This case is also similar to games, in that there's simply no way for me to consume that much reading material in a given week. Even were I to give up work and probably sleep, I don't think I could guarantee I could get through everything in any given Book Review in a week (heck, most weeks I can't even get through the whole Review). But there's still that hook that I remember that I read about it in the Review, and that I thought it was interesting enough to stick it in my PDA so that I might some day pick it up at the library. With games, there really isn't that kind of source -- no institution I turn to and say, "Well, hey, they liked this and even though I've never heard of it, I'm gonna give it a go."
Well, that about rounds up my available blogging time for this evening, and I still want to put out one other brief entry. Next time I revisit this subject, I'm going to actually work out what I think quality in games really means, coming towards a definition, instead of doing all this talking about how to measure it.
¹A word I still find funnier hyphenated as cow-orker. But then, some things easily amuse me.
²Where he saw innocence and camaraderie, I saw shallowness and lifeless archetypes. We agree about how pretty it is. Of course, the movie has a role for Anglelina Jolie, of whom Ebert is a big fan.
³That is, if I wanted to give up games, since I'd have to go and see late shows every night due to having two young kids, etc, etc. But very possible if it were a priority to me.
March 01, 2005
Review: Wuthering Heights
It's hard to know where to start when discussing a classic; I'm going to talk a little bit about the form of Wuthering Heights, because I'm not really certain why it takes the form it does -- perhaps someone out there in the ether can answer my question or at least propose some theories. This was the first time I had 'read' Wuthering Heights.
At the beginning of Wuthering Heights, our narrator Mr. Lockwood describes his first encounter with that rascal (and perennial winner of Male Romantic Lead with Most Troubles¹), Heathcliff -- and it's a rough one, leaving Lockwood very curious to know more about this tough individual. This and, as far as I can tell, all of the book occurs through Lockwood's journal, leaving us at least one remove from the action that takes place later on.
Soon, Lockwood is back at the home he is renting from Heathcliff, Thrushcross Grange, with a cold due to some ill weather on his return. He seeks out the background story of Heathcliff from Ellen Dean, a maid at the estate, and she tells it over the course of a few sessions. So, now, we have the story at a second remove -- and often, at a third, as characters relate events that happened to them.
I'm a bit puzzled by all this withdrawal from the actual story. The story is a good one, and perhaps a bit shocking in its day. Heathcliff is a perfect blackguard, perfectly drawn: he is the way he is because he was treated badly by his adopted brother, and sought to have more control over his life. He turns even blacker due to the marriage of his love to a man he feels vastly inferior, Edgar Linton; Linton lacks the fiery passion that Heathcliff believes characterizes himself and his love, Catherine. This is all set against a background of propriety -- the Victorian era, where there was a definitive code of moral behavior. You need to at least keep that in mind while you read; today, Cathy might have simply divorced Edgar Linton and run off with Heathcliff and his money to America, without even worrying about the pre-nup.
So Heathcliff does all the bad things we know about him -- marries Linton's sister so as to get an heir to the Linton fortune by her, marries that son off to Catherine Linton (Edgar and Cathy's daughter), and sets about making a mess of everyone's lives, which he accomplishes, drawing some comparisons with The Count of Monte Cristo.
In the end, Lockwood has departed Thrushcross Grange for London for a time, and returned to discover that Heathcliff is dead and how he died. The portrait of Heathcliff wasting away, possibly mad, is less compelling for, once again, we have the story by two removes. And in the end, Heathcliff has made his mark and it is slowly being eroded -- Edgar and Cathy's daughter Catherine (nice confusion there) is going to marry Hindley Earnshaw, despite Heathcliff's efforts to destroy their respective happinesses utterly.
So, someone out there, tell me. What's with the form? Why all the removes? Was the idea of treating this a bit more up-close-and-personal simply something that wasn't done in the Victorian era? At the beginning, Lockwood's approach to the story is similar to ours -- and we share his curiosity, so the form there makes a lot of sense. Is everything else simply an extension of that? We hear so much from the perspective of Ellen Dean that we begin to suspect that she's not telling us everything, necessarily, and always putting herself in the best possible light. Is this what Bronte's trying to achieve, this questioning of the motives of the storytellers? Anyone think that Wuthering Heights might have been more compelling from different viewpoints, or an omniscient narrator? Discuss; and enlighten.
¹cf. Thursday Next.