June 29, 2012
The Father-Son Summer Reading Experience
This summer my elder son and I are trying out what we’re calling “The Father-Son Summer Reading Experience 2012,” which involves the two of us sharing our reading experiences over the summer by each reading what the other reads.
The way it works is pretty simple: we maintain a list of books that the other has finished. Whenever one person finishes a book, he looks at the other person’s list and if there’s something there that he hasn’t read yet, he reads that next. Otherwise, he’s completely free to choose whatever strikes his fancy.
I’m taking it easy on my son this first summer (and probably for several summers to come, if it’s something he continues to be interested in), and not putting everything I read on the list. Since school released its charges out to wreak havoc on parents’ schedules and occasionally their patience, I’ve read six or seven books, but only put two of them on the list: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories selected from R is for Rocket and The Golden Apples of the Sun. He has finished both and embarked on a second John Grisham novel, Playing for Pizza; it’s fun to follow along with what interests him as well as exposing him to some of the things that interest me, or which I particularly enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m hoping one or two will catch fire with him and make him dive deep -- he has previously read Fahrenheit 451 and I think he’s interested in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe now, so something’s catching on.
I’ve got quite a few books on my list of things I think he might like. Next up for me it A Tale of Two Cities, because Dickens is a totally favorite writer who I’d love to see him fall in love with, and after that it’s things from the list below, though I haven’t picked out an order:
- Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn: Can’t decide which. Both are fantastic, though the latter is I think the far superior work. The former is probably a bit more accessible, and may not have time for both. Maybe Sawyer this summer and Finn next?
- Foundation. While I have the whole first trilogy in a single edition, I figured I’d just start with one and if he really liked it, he’d keep going. I’d have no problem revisiting those three by any means.
- Something by Stephen King. In the summer after sixth grade, I read all the long-form fiction Stephen King had written up to that point, which included Carrie, Cujo, Firestarter, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, and ’Salem’s Lot and maybe even Christine and Pet Sematary, though those might have been the year after (his alter-ego, Richard Bachmann, had also published a bunch of novels but the pseudonym wasn’t revealed until later). I remain a fan, though I haven’t read one of his novels in a few years and will probably try to get to one or two before the year is out.
I’m really torn here, as all of these I liked, though some are a little more problematic for me to recommend than others and I’d almost rather have him discover them on his own (there’s a bit of uncomfortable sexual stuff in Cujo and Carrie, for example). My son doesn’t believe a book can really scare you, not like a movie, so I’m somewhat leaning towards ’Salem’s Lot, which had me sleeping with a crucifix by my bed for weeks when I was eleven. The other front-runner is The Shining, which I think is perhaps his best book altogether. Decisions, decisions...
- The Old Man and the Sea. I love, love this novel, and have been holding off from my infatuation with Hemingway’s work from earlier this year so that I can share this one with my boy.
- Girl Parts by friend John M. Cusick, a modern YA science fiction story about a robot girl, as far as I can tell. I'm looking forward to it.
- Casino Royale. I sort of like the idea of introducing him to a good spy novel of the old school, and I think starting him with the very earliest James Bond might be the way to go. Not decided on this one.
- The Catcher in the Rye. Not sure about this one either... might be totally boring for him but you never know what will connect.
That’s the list so far -- it’s already the end of June, though, which just leaves two months. Maybe I’ll write a follow-up post come September and let everyone know how it turned out.
September 01, 2011
Discussion: Sunset Park, in progress
Note: the following will contain spoilers for the first fifty or so pages of Paul Auster's Sunset Park, as it largely contains my impressions after reading that far.
One of the things that strikes me about Paul Auster is that he is able to easily inhabit these narrators who are on the surface both somewhat unappealing and also apparently different from you or I. This time it's a young man named Miles Heller, who has been walking for miles in his own privately imposed Hell since he was involved in the death of his brother Bobby -- an accident by even Miles' account, but his guilt won't let him believe that.
Auster is like this, so very on-the-nose with some of his naming and metaphors that his stuff actually works at times. It has a sort of a charm to it, and on balance his books succeed at pulling off little magic tricks that surprise entirely on the basis of everything having been done in plain sight of the reader. When the narrator's girlfriend asks if the Heller Publishing on the back of a book he's loaned her is any relation (it is, though he doesn't admit it), he replies that Heller is actually a pretty common name, when you get right down to it -- Auster pointing out here that quite a few people are actually also in Hell, it's a common thing.
As for unappealing, well, Heller is involved in a relationship with a young woman who is seventeen and therefore he has been committing statutory rape, though there are no direct depictions of such. Here, too, Auster is working in plain sight, because the fact of this relationship will propel the plot forward in very short order. Heller has cut himself off from his former life, maintaining only a single connection with his old life in the form of a friend still in New York, someone who can give Heller occasional glimpses of the life he's left behind, and who can give him an opening to return.
All of this directness, this nothing-up-my-sleeve, makes me wonder if Auster is indeed going to pull off a sort of magic trick at the end.
It's not as if you don't see this elsewhere. One of my favorite films this year, Midnight in Paris, has a character named Gil Pender, pointing out the fact that here's a guy who hasn't quite got his life going yet, despite a certain amount of success. With a film, however, I'm more likely to consume it all in one sitting, whereas reading fifty or so pages of a book at a time is more my habit, allowing for reflection to sort of come along the way. And so, the meaning of Pender's name sort of comes with my later reflection on what I've seen, and lends the film a sense of inevitability and helps hold the whole thing up.
There are other obvious bits in Sunset Park, such as the fact that Heller's job is something called "trashing out," by which banks empty out foreclosed homes of belongings and clean up after messes left by the mortgagors who abandoned their payments¹. This is a direct reflection of what Heller himself is doing with his personal life, fleeing the tragedy that left him so full of guilt, abandoning comfort and certainty for an attempt at Zen-like removal of emotion.
The games it has most called to mind thus far has been Passage, of course, which attains a sort of "everyman" status by both its aesthetic and its algorithmic choices, and also a little browser game by MollieIndustria, Every Day the Same Dream. In the former, the pixellated presentation and abstracted characters do so in a fairly direct way. In the case of games like these, though, which are meant to be consumed in a matter of a few minutes, the meaning comes through in a different way -- we either get it through repeated play, or through the impact of a single experience. I've played each of these more than once, but Passage I've played dozens if not hundreds of times². Passage achieves its "everyman" quality by abstracting about as far as one reasonably can -- its characters are male and female and apparently Caucasion, sure, so they are at least that particular, but beyond that there's not much. Every Day the Same Dream goes after an archetype, the working cubicloid who repeats day after day after day -- it's not far to abstract that to anyone who's in a particular rut in life.
I'm super busy right now shipping a game, but thought I'd drop a line here to let people know I'm not dead (yet).
¹Perhaps themselves to move on as Heller has, or enter another circle of their own private Hells, who knows.
²I kind of use Passage as a sort of memento mori at times. I've gone through periods where I play it once daily.
November 09, 2010
How a genre means
Astute readers of this blog¹ will note that over the past few months I've been reading the old Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald. They've shown up in the sidebar and in the "books I've read this year" file.
As I was working on my art-game earlier this year, I was wondering about the question of how games mean, which was posed directly in that form by Chris Hecker in the last few years and by others as well. I read a few things on the topic, including Rod Humble's Escapist article. (I also read Steve Gaynor's excellent post "Noir" again, which doesn't address the question of meaning, but which is worthwhile reading nonetheless.) These questions started me asking how other media mean; Hecker sort of took it as read that we know how other media mean, but I'm not sure I've ever really thought about it in directly that way. Taking a little riff on Gaynor's article, I decided to think a little bit about how genre novels mean.
I didn't choose them because there was some direct parallel between how genre novels mean and how games might mean. I simply sought out machinery of meaning in another medium to understand it and wonder at whether those lessons might be applied to our own work.
But I did pick genre fiction specifically because I think it occupies a similar place in it's cultural firmament as video games do in the culture at large. Just as games are often wrongly derided as things for children or the immature, genre fiction is often derided in similar ways by those who consider themselves literary - it's "beach reading" or draws comments along the lines of "at least they're reading."²
It's worth noting that while the McGee novels are terrific genre novels, they could not be confused with the deeper works of the classics, nor with each year's best books as judged by the New York Times. They are essentially revenge fantasies, violent, lurid, and somewhat sexualized³, much like Fleming's Bond stories or any number of other entries in the genre - essentially, these are its hallmarks. They don't plumb too deeply into the reality of the human condition, at least, in the essentials of the plot. The interior lives of the supporting characters are not explored, the villains are often shallow, and the only character we know in any detail is McGee himself, though after several books we have been introduced to a few recurring characters who we see through McGee's eyes.
Where, then, is the meaning in these books? As it turns out, the meaning here can entirely be found in the character of McGee, in what he stands for, but even more so in what he opposes. McGee decries the choices of Americans who slide into mediocrity, filling cubicles every day until they fall over dead, the constant chasing of a Dream which is cookie-cutter and bland, the constant falling into spouse, house, dog, kids, golf on Sundays and retirement dissolving straight into the grave, without ever having a thought along the way. He chooses instead to pick his way through life, enjoying his retirement in installments while he's young enough to enjoy it, sun-bleached and when the time comes, working hard and at great risk to earn his pay.
But even as McGee stands against the blandness of the middle class, in occasional asides as he meets such characters, he also doesn't believe in man's worst impulses, to connive to steal property from its rightful owner, and he fights against that in the work he chooses, as a "salvage consultant." McGee goes after those who have used legal means for theft, acting as a corrective to naïveté on the part of that same middle class for which he has no real other use. While he doesn't agree with the mindless mediocrity, still he works to protect that class of people - though admittedly, he takes half of what he recovers, on the theory that half is a lot better than nothing for his clients.
In his conquests, too, McGee has his own sort of meaning. For him, he can only truly explore a woman sexually when he truly has a love for her. His love will never be bent to joining that middle class, and so these relationships inevitably end, with both parties having learned something more by the experience. He cherishes these women, even as he knows that they will likely last only briefly in his life.4 Here, too, he stands in opposition to a sort of casual sex culture that was prevalent in what might have been called the counter-culture at the time the books were written, the bulk of them in the late sixties and early seventies. He can't simply use sex as a release, and isn't simply looking for notches in the bedpost. He seeks meaning in his encounters.
I think this holds for much of this area of the genre spectrum. In private detective stories, the protagonist stands apart from the society his clients come from, but he works to uphold right and wrong from his place on the shadowy side of the street. In police procedurals, the police stand against the chaos of crime, using a rigid set of steps to pursue criminals. In the drawing room mystery, the sleuth is an intellect standing against the disorder and apparent impossibility of the crimes. In the Bond series, Bond stands for Queen and country by doing those things we don't want society to do, and acts as a bulwark against those without such qualms.
What does this mean for games? I don't know for certain, but this sort of meaning through opposition to the status quo is very interesting to me. Often our game heroes stand in opposition to the big threats, enormous evils which threaten worlds, or seek revenge against a dastardly foe. Better and more lasting stories might come from setting our game characters against smaller targets, perhaps even ourselves, and in doing so, ensuring that we allow something of those characters to come through.
In the end, I'm going to spend more time with Travis McGee; that's how I think about it. I'm not going to delve into more revenge-driven plots. I'm going to spend more time with Travis McGee. We need more characters like him and his friends in genre fiction, so our forgettable plots don't matter so much.
¹Allow me to assume that you are not only a plurality, but are in fact non-zero.
²I'm not making such statement myself, though I was at one point in the frame of mind where I would have (and likely did). I'd still call some of the stuff I read "beach reading", which is probably snobbish but I mean little by it.
³Inevitably, Travis will take some beautiful woman into his arms for a time, sometimes his client and sometimes a woman he has met along the way.
4I recall one exception to this later in the series, but I think it's better to read them in order and thus have that relationship carry more meaning in contrast to all that has gone before. It's towards the end of the series.
October 02, 2007
The Slim Follow-Up
In the last few months, I've had the opportunity to read some new novels by favorite authors. The differences are legion: Lethem is an American writer whose musical tastes tend towards the distinctly American, Murakami is a Japanese author with an interest in jazz; Murakami writes in a strange landscape of the unexplained supernatural, where there's apparently a universe right next door that touches our own in unusual and distinct ways¹, whereas Lethem writes with an approach to his supernatural that while no more explained, somehow feels more rational in its approach. Lethem's leads are out at the extremes, unusual and quirky, with Tourette's or the ability to fly, whereas Murakami's main characters are often almost bland, fairly ordinary people who are nonetheless a little cut-off from their fellow man², almost unknowable, though often they touch on more interesting characters.
But one thing they have in common is that both have released rather slim and relatively uninteresting follow-ups to their best novels.
In Murakami's case, that means after dark, a novella-length story encompassing a single night which I was able to read in a single sitting. Compared to last year's Kafka on the Shore, it's a bit of fluff, sort of like a four-star chef preparing an amazing meal for you one day, and then making you cotton candy the next. Kafka was so inspired that I spent hours and hours with it last year while on vacation, sitting, racing through to the end at the water's edge in New Hampshire, and spending the next few days wishing I had more of it. The ending, in particular, worked on so many levels, and left you supremely satisfied by the work. After that, after dark's confections are startlingly minor, like a marathon runner being too tired out from his latest race to do anything but follow it up with a 3K. I can't fault him for it, but I can't help feel a little disappointment, and hope that the next has more substance to it.
So it is, too, with Lethem. His astonishing 2003 Fortress of Solitude explored race relations among school-age Brooklynites in the 1970s (along with family turmoil), and paired that with a supernatural ring that granted his protagonist the power of flight. The book completely caught me by surprise: I had read a good hundred pages before the story took off, quite literally. To think that this was the follow-up to the very solid Motherless Brooklyn of 2000 or so was pretty incredible.
And then comes You Don't Love Me Yet: A Novel, which seems to have that subtitle just to make you think it's not a slightly inflated novella. I wasn't fooled. The characters never completely worked for me -- the shorter length necessarily meant less depth, especially considering how many characters we're introduced to so quickly. Four band members, a conceptual artist, and a guy who calls on the phone; a subplot involving a kidnapped kangaroo³; the main storyline being a girl-meets-boy that tries to tie several of these elements together. Probably the only thing worth reading in the book was the scene where the band makes a great debut at a party hosted by the conceptual artist, who brands it as an "Aparty", where attendees are supposed to wear individual headsets and listen to Walkmen separate from everyone else -- indeed, that character is probably the most interesting, and I don't even recall his name.
These short novels particularly disappoint because of Cormac McCarthy's excellent The Road, a very short and spare novel that nonetheless may be McCarthy's best. It's certainly the most interesting of these three novels by far, and maybe the comparison is unfair. But I just want to point out that slender needn't mean shallow.
The only analogue to games I can think of in recent memory is of the example of David Jaffe, who is most well-known for his design work on God of War. After God of War, Jaffe turned to do something a little smaller in two different ways: one was a handheld project that was cancelled (called Heartland, I believe), whereas the other was his PlayStation Network title Calling All Cars. Jaffe was famously (and understandably) fed up with making epic linear story games, and ready for a challenge of a different sort.
The nice thing about games, of course, is that in this case we got to have our cake and eat it too -- even though Jaffe had moved on from the God of War series, the team was still there and able to put all that great work to use again in a very compelling sequel, much in the way that Naughty Dog continued without Jason Rubin, for example, or the Halo folks continued without Alex Seropian. The nature of games as being such a huge collaborative effort makes this possible, allowing those that follow to have a good chance to deliver on the promise of a first title, or even a second4. Indeed, God of War II, in the hands of another project lead is arguably a superior title, much like Star Wars was followed by the best film in the franchise under the able hands of another director, Irvin Kershner helming The Empire Strikes Back.
I don't particularly mind that gaming doesn't have its rock stars, in that sense, those named folks who are very visible to the mainstream. The mainstream knows Steven Spielberg, but it doesn't know Jaffe. Perhaps Wil Wright has penetrated the public consciousness a little more now, with appearances in venues like Newsweek and Time, but I suspect that Spore won't cross over like The Sims did largely due to the alien weirdness that will be on its front cover. Until we have a much larger audience, designers' names will rarely mean anything to the public -- it will continue to be brand-based, title-based, rather than individual-based. I think this is fitting; hobbyists and fans will continue to know more than the public at large, and may make buying decisions along those lines -- I know I'm interested in anything Jonathan Blow has to say (or sell), or Wil Wright, or Meier, or Seropian, or even Jonathan Mak (creator of Everyday Shooter and immensely entertaining indie figure), or for that matter Clint Hocking or any of those designer folks you see on my sidebar (yes, even Longo).
Some day we'll get there, I think, but it's going to take a long while. And that's okay.
¹These are themselves interesting due to the themes they sometimes take. Glass is interesting to him; this latest features a television that somehow is involved in the endless sleep of a young woman, and I recall a mirror in one of the short stories in a collection this year. There are also animals: a missing cat in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and a sheep figures prominently in A Wild Sheep Chase, and they occasionally sprinkle . (back)
²This is, of course, a large part of why I enjoy and identify so strongly with Murakami's work, particularly in the last couple of years. (back)
³What is it with him and kangaroos? I seem to remember them figuring somewhat prominently in Gun, With Occasional Music, though the overall plot of that novel is fairly lost to me now. (back)
4This can, of course, backfire entirely. Sometimes people run with a series for too long and it needs to be sent off to a whole fresh team to do it justice. Tomb Raider is probably the most notable example of this. I continue to be interested in what those folks will bring out next with Lara, they've done so well with the recent titles. Although it certainly doesn't hurt that I have friends at Crystal Dynamics either. (back)
November 30, 2005
And the Winner for this year's Nobel Prize in the Interactive Experience Is...
If you've been paying attention to what I've been reading over the last several months, you might have noticed José Saramago's name come up a few times, and if you have not been paying attention, I feel certain that at some point, you will come to your senses. In any case, I first read All the Names towards the beginning of the year and have been steadily making my way through the rest of his œuvre¹.
It's amazing how well set apart Nobel literature often is. When I began reading All the Names I was unaware of Saramago's status as a Nobel laureate, but while reading it I knew immediately how important it was, how strikingly original it was, how it spoke to the human condition. I knew within the first twenty or thirty pages that I would be systematically tracking down everything he had written, and would consider learning Portugese if any of it turned out to be unavailable in English. It's that powerful to me; his novels are written in a style which lulls me into the rhythms of his particular story, jocularly told by an avuncular omniscient narrator, and just when I'm least on my guard, he'll sneak in some bit of wisdom, such as this piercing line from Blindness, delivered just after the narrator has led you to a room where two people are making love:
Even if this instant of supreme pleasure should last you a lifetime, you will never become united as one.
That sentence snuck up on me, as I played the voyeur, following a character who was herself a voyeur, and delivered a statement of a fundamental loneliness inherent in the human condition in a way that I had never experienced before. Even at our most vulnerable, if our whole lives are spent extending a moment of connection, we will never fully break out and connect the darknesses inside our separate skins.
There are a number of other authors on the list who have that power. I spent a lot of time reading Solzhenitsyn, for example, back in the last couple of years of high school. Camus exerts that kind of influence over me, or at least he did, back when I was still capable of reading him in French. Steinbeck, Coetzee, and Marquez are all compelling to me. And there are a number of authors on that list who are on my reading list² that I will get to one of these days, such as Halldór Laxness, Naguib Mahfouz, and Kenzaburo Oe.
I won't claim that everything on the list has aged well. I don't think Pearl S. Buck has, particularly, and though I enjoy Kipling, he doesn't pull me in like the winners I mention above³. Tastes change.
In reading these novels and considering the impact they have on me, the way that they change my point of view on the human condition, I wonder if there will come a time in our art form's growth where we will actually be able to have an honest debate about which of the games of the previous year "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind," in the words of Nobel's will, which established the funding for the Prize in 1895.
Setting aside the likelihood of such a Prize ever being conferred4, achieving any significant benefit to mankind via a game is quite a lofty goal, especially when you consider that the means of measurement for our closest kin amongst the Nobel categories (i.e. the novel) has typically been of increased understanding of the human condition.
Like Ron Gilbert did in a recent post, I often wonder what kind of game it will take to make me stop and think about life in the way that Saramago does. Something that gets in my head for a few days, and won't let go; something that makes me look at something in a new light.
I entirely think games will be able to do this. And, in fact, I think some designers actually have a message that they want to send, or an idea they want you to think about. Will Wright, for example, talked frequently about the motivation behind The Sims: the fact that of all the resources that we might have at our disposal, the one we need to be most conscious of is often time.
It's really cool to consider a game making you think about that, much like Blindness or All the Names makes me think about loneliness, or The Double causes me to reconsider what comprises our identity, what boundary really defines us given our social structures (among other things).
The thing is, though, I would not have taken that away from The Sims were I not made aware of Wright's idea by being a conscentious reader of various sites and magazines devoted to videogames. In other words, I know that's what Wright was getting at only because he mentioned it in an interview somewhere. Whereas just reading these books causes me to stop and think; indeed, they often cause me to full stop and find a piece of paper to jot down the page number so I can later return and copy out a quote wholesale, such as the one above chosen for brevity.
I suppose it's entirely possible that I am simply not literate enough when it comes to games; I'm willing to entertain the possibility. After all, Wright describes something akin to a vision, and I can see that as something that one could take away from the product. But there's never a point where I'm going to be looking at the game saying, "Hey, I just realized that the one resource I can't create more of for my Sim is time," and I am equally unlikely to apply that moment of meaning to my own life. That said, this is true of any high school student who has ever browsed some Cliff's Notes to get the underlying ideas behind Hemingway, or Faulkner, or any of a number of literary authors we're exposed to early on. At that point, you simply haven't the reading experience to draw that out of the books you read.
But really, to get a lot out of a Nobel laureate requires more than book knowledge, in many cases. It relates a lot to experience; I would not be drawing what I have from Saramago's work this year if not for the life experiences I have been having away from the books. I feel like I have sufficient wisdom to pull a message from a videogame, and probably enough gaming experience to cover the literacy argument as well. I'm left thinking that we simply haven't found our ways to make lasting and meaningful statements, statements which "[confer] the greatest benefit on mankind."
We will, though. We'll have to. Otherwise, we're likely to collapse under our own weight. Having something definite to say will be the strongest defense we can make against those who would lock us away or treat us forever as kid stuff.
Join me on Saturday or so when I'll chat a bit about prostitution as I've seen it represented in a few different ways in different media.
¹Admittedly, this is just an opportunity to throw in the word œuvre. Well, not entirely. It's also an opportunity to use a ligature. I tried to find a natural way to work in Æsop as well, but it was beyond my abilities -- it just has to reside here in the footnote, I guess. (back)
²Lamentably, my reading list is already of a length which might take me the rest of my lifetime to read. On the other hand, I will never lack for anything to read. (back)
³I admit, I was thinking of throwing in the name of Selma Lagerlöf to see if anyone was paying attention. There are a fair number of early winners I've never even heard of; Lagerlöf is definitely one of them. (back)
4It should be noted that the Nobel Prize categories are not fixed, though they may seem to be. The Prize for Economics was endowed in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden. (back)
November 25, 2005
A few months back I finished listening to Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks. It's a novel about the Plague, the capital-P Plague that had eliminated a large portion of Europe in the Middle Ages, though this book isn't about that particular breakout of the plague¹. This book is about Bubonic Plague striking a small village, which decides to quarantine itself to prevent transmission to others. It's extraordinary in part because it is inspired by real events: there was a real village in England which undertook similar steps to halt the spread of infection. Though they knew little about the vector of the illness, they knew that fleeing in large numbers would only increase the suffering of others, and they took it upon themselves to prevent anyone from entering or leaving once the plague was identified.
It's really interesting, as a modern reader familiar with the basics of the transmission of this particular epidemic², to watch that play out in fiction. There is the visitor, an itinerant tailor, who comes from London and takes a room in the home of a local widow. There's the dead animal found by a couple of children -- who themselves take sick. There is the minister who brings them all together in prayer, perhaps causing more rapid transmission, but who compels them to quarantine the village, and thereby save countless others.
I think there's an interesting game or two in there, if you can get past the squeamishness. There's something thrilling about the discovery of a new type of disease, of the steps taken in identifying and isolating it, in tracking down the vectors of transmission -- it's why books like The Hot Zone or And the Band Played On³ or The Coming Plague find wide readerships. So, a game in which you are tracking down viral or bacterial vectors sounds like it'd be pretty cool.
The flip side seems even more interesting, though. I can imagine a game in which you're scored on how well you can tailor a disease vector to the characteristics of a disease and population. The Plague spread like wildfire because it was unleashed on a population with poor hygiene, inadequate sewage treatment, and an enormous rat problem; finding the right analogue in a particular population seems like an interesting sort of challenge, sort of a Sim-Plague. Such a game could even have a real-world benefit; designing diseases and vectors is a practical intellectual exercise for someone about to start work as an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control.4
I can't post this without at least mentioning a couple of the most interesting in-game diseases.
In 2000, players of The Sims who installed a guinea pig in its cage discovered a strange feature: if you didn't clean the pet's cage before you played with it, your Sim might get bitten and ultimately die of "Guinea Pig Disease", although there were in-game mechanisms to avoid that fate. It was a little bit too much for some players, however, who were devastated to see Sims who had been lovingly nurtured for hours and hours catch colds and die, often spreading the "virus" to other Sims.
More recent and in many ways more interesting was the recent World of Warcraft Corrupted Blood epidemic. While The Sims' guinea pig disease was directly engineered to have exactly the effects it did, the Corrupted Blood plague was a side-effect of existing game systems, just like a real epidemic. In this case, the disease was a highly effective damage-over-time effect which was usually quickly fatal to those who contracted it from a high-level monster. However, strong players with enough health potions could use hearthstones to return themselves quickly to cities and spread the disease quickly to a dense network of players and NPCs, making it a virtual disease well-tailored to its hosts. If that's not a case of art imitating life, I'm not sure what else qualifies.
See you all next Tuesday for a little treatise on games and awards.
¹Though, if you're looking for a novel about that particular incident, I can wholeheartedly recommend Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book, which received both the Hugo and the Nebula in the year in which it appeared, if I remember correctly. (back)
²Fleas, borne primarily by rats, but which then crossed over to other animals and eventually, to the human population. (back)
³Admittedly, this one covered a lot about the politics as well... (back)
4 I admit to already having some ideas here which might be a little too twisted for a public already thinking there's something wrong with us violent gamers. I can imagine detecting a particular level of efficacy on the part of the player and rewarding him with newspaper headlines, news reports, etc. On the other hand, I can also imagine such a game making a statement, perhaps playing out some of the political scenarios which accompanied real-world epidemics like HIV, which was not the Reagan administration's finest hour, if it had one. (back)
October 24, 2005
The Tragic Hero
Note: spoilers ahead!
Earlier this year I listened to House of Mirth on my way to and from work. It chronicles the fall of its heroine, Lily Bart, from the social scene of New York at the turn of the century.
Lily is getting to be of an age where she risks becoming an old maid -- and without a rich husband nor means of her own, she also risks social ostracism. She has been raised in a such a way as to prepare her for the life of high society, bred to its charms and its mannerisms, with every expectation that her face and figure would win her a husband.
The book's central conflict is between Lily's heart and the heartlessness she would need to stay in society. Though stacked in debts racked up playing bridge, she pretends ignorance of gambling to gain the favor of a rich, if morally uptight, gentleman, only to lose it when she recklessly spends time with the man we believe she truly loves, Lawrence Selden. In an attempt to gain enough money to buy time, she asks a rich man to invest her interests for her -- only to later learn that he has been merely giving her money of his own, and expects to be repaid in ways she'd rather not. She spurns a suitor due to her distaste for how mercenary he is¹.
In a lot of ways, Lily is playing a game, but a game she cannot win due to her character; what we take as something close to moral strengths are weaknesses in the field she plays. The stakes are high, and grow higher the longer she tarries at the game -- mounting debts, the slow decline of her good looks, the gathering of enemies amongst the society ladies whose ranks she seeks to join. The end is a fitting one -- to one who can't be ruthless enough to play the game by the rules, and to play to win, there is only death. It gives the story an incredible punch, to have Selden arrive on her doorstep the morning after her (admittedly ambiguous) suicide; he came seeking to propose marriage, and instead finds her beauty coldly preserved in death.
When I was playing God of War, I came to believe that death might have been an honorable end for the hero. The only prize he sought from the gods was denied him -- that of forgetting the horror he had wrought against his wife and child. Had he descended to Hades and thrown himself in the River Lethe² rather than ascending to Godhood, the story would have tied itself up in a rather more interesting way. It would have maintained the questions of destiny and fate, and provided the hero with a different out in choosing oblivion over a lifetime of painful reminiscence. It would also have been in better keeping with Greek stories -- such as that of Oedipus, who puts out his own eyes when he learns what he has done. Even Achilles, the greatest hero of his time, died in battle to assure his immortality in verse. Raising a mortal to the status of a God wasn't a common aspect of the mythology; but then, neither was slaying one.
I've been looking for another game to treat its protagonist in this way, much like Nameless was at the end of Planescape: Torment, choosing eternal, meaningless, punishing battle for his sins.
It's not that God of War offers a bad ending -- far from it, it's very fitting. But since we distance ourselves from the characters we control, we should offer those characters the full range of experience, so that players can enjoy a broader range of stories. I wonder if they even considered that end for him -- perhaps they could have retooled that whole "fighting-your-way-out-of-Hell" into a "slay as many minions of Hades as you can on the way to the River Lethe". A level where the goal is the death of the character to cleanse him of his sins... it's interesting, anyway.
Anyway, no conclusions to these thoughts (which is why it's taken me so long to post about it, I've decided to post and conclusions be damned!), but to say that given the breadth of experiences we can give our players through these characters, why exclude the full breadth of human experience. Is it really just too much of a bummer to witness a character's mortality, no matter how justified?
¹This particular bit is a little distasteful in this day and age -- the character in question, Simon Rosedale, is Jewish, and faces a steep climb into society because of it. He seeks Lily's hand purely as a way of securing his claim to high society. The sentiments against Jews may have been appropriate to New York society of the turn of the century, but I squirmed through these sections. (back)
²River of Forgetfulness -- save yourself a trip to google or the Wikipedia. (back)
September 15, 2005
Art and Product, Creators and Consumers
Peter Carey's very absorbing My Life as a Fake is a really extraordinary update of the tale of Frankenstein. In this modern retelling, the monster is born of some literary tomfoolery when a middling poet named Christopher Chubb creates a literary hoax: a fictional poet by the name of Bob McCorkle, who composes amazingly literary and allusive poetry despite his (faked) background as an apparently uneducated bicyle mechanic. After an apparent suicide by the magazine editor who was the target of the hoax, Chubb discovers that his creation has become real, and much of the novel unravels the mystery of the creation and the interplay between the created and the creator.
Much of the novel contains twists on the original story which became almost instantly a sort of myth¹; I don't want to go into them in any great detail, but they drive the plot forward inexorably. Bob McCorkle is a monster driven by a desire to fill the holes that are in his backstory -- he has all these tremendous ideas and a remarkable gift for poetry, but it can take him a good time to identify the use of simple implements like rakes or hoes or what have you. For in creating Bob McCorkle, Chubb didn't give him a full childhood, merely the barest outlines of one, and Bob made flesh feels the gaps as great pains in his soul. He is a consummately understandable monster; in the light of his lacks, he is pitiable, though we can still despise his actions.
It's a really great read, though perhaps not as good as The True History of the Kelly Gang, which I would recommend first.
I've been thinking about the book a lot lately in preparation for posting about it, and I had settled on a sort of generic discussion of the relationship of a creator to his creation and drawing parallels and differences with books (single author) to films (a collaboration of a few artists with a large support staff) to games (a collaboration of several artists in different disciplines). But then someone else out in the blogosphere provided me with just the little jolt I needed to cement my thinking.
The thing about the games industry these days is that while it is increasingly mainstream, it hasn't yet reached the kinds of numbers where we can regularly pair high production costs and quality with risky or quirky themes and designs. While every now and again someone comes out and says how games have hit the mainstream because our business has surpassed the box office in terms of revenue, it's an oversimplification. While the business has grown dramatically since the rise of the current generation of consoles, we're still reaching out to a much smaller audience than films, because movie tickets cost about a fifth of the cost of a top game and DVDs aren't even factored into the film revenues we're usually compared against. Nor are international box office nor international DVD sales; really, it's gone beyond apples and oranges to be apples and orange groves. We are still dwarfed by the collective market of film.
(Incidentally, I take all of the above more or less as read -- I don't think I'm really saying anything particularly new or interesting, but it's a first step in my thinking on the issue and thus I share it with all of you.)
At this point, then, high-expense, high-profile games are products. While there will always be the surprises that break out and do something interesting in the marketplace², most of what we do is all about making a good product that gives players a dose of good fun in a way with which they're already pretty familiar. That is, if we want to tap into the mainstream and deliver a really gigantic hit. And particularly if we want to do it year after year, which is the model that Electronic Arts has used to make itself the first 2 billion dollar company in the business.
Part of what sparked my thinking about this was a post I saw in another blog. The blogger, a designer by trade, was admonishing an NFL football player who had spoken out and complained that in adding some new feature to the latest Madden the game had gotten harder and less fun. His response was something along the lines of, "Well, buddy, you do your job and I'll do mine."
Frankly, I was pretty astounded. I was taken aback, because that customer wasn't having fun. And that customer had even gone so far as to think about why he wasn't having as much fun. And that customer was summarily dismissed, as if the designer knew better whether the customer was actually having fun.³
When I was developing games at LucasArts, I had the good fortune to work with a director/lead designer who took entirely the other approach: he actively solicited as much feedback about the play as he could, from the team, from test, and from blind testers. He went out of his way to train people to sit and watch blind testers, to teach them to ask open-ended questions about what they were seeing, what kind of notes to take. Not only that, of course, but he took that feedback very seriously, even if it went against his own sensibilities.4 His feeling was that we need all the feedback we can possibly get; in development, we play our game so many more hours than any customer ever will, and we no longer have any idea by the time it ships if it's really any fun. We can only sort of judge that it's probably more fun than it was before we polished this or that feature, or before we balanced this or that stat. He got it, in my view.
Because what we're peddling is fun5, especially to the mass-market that is most of our business these days, given our budgets. We sell a product in a fairly narrow space, compared to novels or movies. We deliver fun, not even the more general "entertainment". We occasionally sell fear, horror, suspense, but in the safe way rollercoaster rides do -- as good, safe, sitting-down fun.
This is a little different from what books or movies can offer. The economies of scale there are enormous -- so a director can create something that more than 99% of the viewing public won't really like or get, and still find an audience and even receive critical acclaim.6 A lot of my friends probably wouldn't enjoy a book like My Life as a Fake, but it's still viable, Peter Carey is off making a living at it, capturing a vastly small percentage of the market, certainly less than 1% of people who buy books7. Imagine if we took a 12 million dollar game with 8 million bucks of marketing8 -- at 10 bucks a pop for the publisher, hitting less than 1% of the 100 million PlayStation market means a loss of more than 10 million dollars9. Ugh. With movies and its multiple revenue streams, it's closer to books in terms of cost to break-even numbers, though it's probably not exactly the same. That's why both these media can afford to deliver such a wide variety of types of entertainments, including presenting extremely difficult material.
We need to be honest about what we're delivering at this point in our development. And frankly, we need to be thankful for any feedback we can get, and do everything we can to get more of it. Because right now, there aren't enough people playing for us to scoff. Right now, our players are just as much the authors of the experience as we are -- they're the ones who ultimately need to have the fun, since that's all we offer them, all we can afford to offer them at this stage in our development. If you think you can afford to dismiss that, I suggest you find another line of work -- at least, until our market is really larger than the movies, in terms of actual people buying games, and not the revenue they generate.
¹Frankenstein is, of course, very well worth reading, not for nothing is it a classic. My recollection of it is of it being less about horror and more about the relationship of the good Dr. von Frankenstein with his creation -- the responsibility that the creature comes to believe Frankenstein owes him. Very compelling.
²Yup, Katamari Damacy, The Sims; in my view, these are analogous to film surprise successes like The Blair Witch Project or Four Weddings and a Funeral.
³I should note at this point that I don't believe the designer in question was in any way responsible for Madden. But I think the point still stands, because the author himself identifies himself as part of the brotherhood of game designers.
4As lead programmer or the gameplay programmer on those projects, I'm proud to say I often got in his face about that. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost, but we always had great arguments about design. In the end, I hope the players won, regardless of which of us drove the design in those particular cases.
5Yes, this is another blatant plug for the sort of game I'd really like you all to go out and buy, please.
6To judge by the ridiculously small sample size of the folks I saw it with, Broken Flowers was such a movie.
7Of course, the install base of people who could buy books is enormously large. The hardware requirements are essentially a pair of eyeballs; while economics are a factor, they aren't a huge factor, since libraries buy up a substantial number of copies to boot.
8These seem like reasonable numbers to me, given the next generation hardware; the marketing budget comes out of what I guess you'd want to spend to ensure your very big bet.
9The PS2 may not have hit these numbers yet, I'm not really sure. The PS1 certainly did. But the math stands -- I'm certain that the PS2 market is more than 50 million worldwide, which means that 1% of the market is break-even on a $20M title.10
10That said, budgets on current PS2 titles haven't quite hit that number, but they're not that far off, really. Next gen economics don't make a lot of sense unless the attach rate11 is very high or the hardware sales go through the roof.
11Attach rate means the number of people who have the hardware actually buy the game.12
12I believe I have now crushed any personal best as far as number of footnotes for a single article goes. In addition, I've also added footnotes to footnotes, which is a Wallace-ian condition I never aspired to attain. :)
July 29, 2005
Discussion: Disparate Materials
The literary mainstream fiction that I often find myself reading finds ways to smash together lots of disparate elements to make for engaging tales. For example, The Mammoth Cheese ties together several things going on in a small town: large multiple live births (i.e. as in due to fertility treatments), cheese-making and the plight of the agrarian lifestyle, and Thomas Jefferson and historical re-enactment. It's an interesting mix of elements. Reading it, I recalled the unusual mix of stuff that went into Tishomingo Blues, with its high-diving and Civil War battle re-enactments alongside the more traditional Leonard bits. Sheri Holman's book was interesting in that it asked and attempted to answer what sort of person was drawn to being a "Living Historian", and how that same person might grow away from that. It also spent quite a lot of time developing themes surrounding how we sometimes put aside our ethics because of things we want very much to believe, and having these distinct elements woven together allowed the author to touch on that theme from multiple angles.
I immediately think of two ways to talk about this subject when it comes to games.
The first, of course, is to draw the direct parallels to the stories in games. In this case, games draw up pretty short: there are very few games I can point to over the years that pull together a significant set of divergent themes into a single game, and two of them are by Tim Schafer. Grim Fandango paired tons of elements from film noir with the art style, themes, and mythos of the Mexican Day of the Dead. The narrative richness the game was able to achieve was remarkable. I felt similarly about Psychonauts, but I've talked about Psychonauts enough lately and I don't want to bore you all.
I'm not the first to lament our narrowness of vision in videogames, and I'm certain I won't be the last. It seems we spend a lot of time on one particular kind of story, and we do it again and again and again. Even those games whose storytelling I really like tend to immerse themselves in the same sort of materials: end-of-world scenarios, hero's journey scenarios. Are we likely to achieve the storytelling depth and thematic investigations that can surround elements such as cheese-making, living historians, and multiple live births? I don't know; I suspect we won't for a while. I don't think the market's there¹.
One game that occurred to me while writing this that did a little bit more, in a small but interesting way, was Dark Cloud. It had an interesting element whereby villages had been turned into collections of tokens which were held by various monsters in the nearby dungeon. After collecting these, you could repopulate an area Sim City-style with the buildings you had found. The story element that came into a little bit of play was that occasionally people who lived in these buildings had requests for where their homes would be placed and reasons behind their requests. Some would like to fish, others wanted to be near some friend. It was a limited source of story elements, but it was interesting. Not deep enough or pervasive enough to be called major themes, but it kept the play fresh enough until I got to a boss I couldn't beat (one of Jamie's "shelf-level events").
That said, I wouldn't mind at least seeing more depth in the elements that we use again and again. I don't know how many deaths I encountered in my reading of The Iliad; in a way, it seems that the point of them is simply how many there are. That said, every single one was just a little bit different. In a couple of lines Homer could let you know the history of the dying man, who his parents were, what mother would weep to learn that her son was never coming home. It carried a force all its own, separate from that of the tale of Achilles and Menelaus and Helen and Paris and the rest of them. When I play God of War², I kill oodles of minotaurs, for example, and every death is the same. Some of this is due to production costs, but at the very least, we should be getting to a point where making changes to these animations and models should be possible on the fly. In Homer, there's this amazing sense that every death is at once meaningful and meaningless. I don't expect games to achieve that any time soon, but making each death a little less forgettable doesn't seem like too much to ask.
But I promised you two views of how multiple themes can be considered in games.
The other, and I think somewhat fairer comparison, is to consider the actual elements that make up games -- the interactive bits. And here, games have been faring better and better as time goes by.
Lately, I've been playing some Sly 2, a competent sequel to the original, though the slightly more straightforward level structure of the original is a little more appealing to me³. Both games pull in a variety of play elements, from old school 2D videogame goodness to great platforming action to racing4. The variety of fun things to do in the framework of the platformer is great, and you're constantly engaged -- it does a terrific job of fighting player fatigue5.
While I find this really admirable, and I'm glad that games are doing this to the level of polish that Sly does, I don't feel like incorporating these multiple elements grows me all that much as a person. At best, it might grow me a tiny bit as a gamer, though often these elements are things that I've seen before in different forms.
What say you? Am I cracked, wanting more disparate elements incorporated into my game stories? Anyone out there want to fund a game which incorporates cheese-making as a significant story element?
¹I've talked about this before, looking for deeper interactive entertainment as I get older.
²And this is not to diminish the achievements of that game, which I finished, enjoyed, and will blog about at some point in the future.
³Look for a discussion on that one once I've finished the darn thing.
4Though I wasn't particularly a fan of the racing last time out.
5See Hal and Noah's talk from the Game Dev Conference a few years back. (So much for fighting footnote fatigue, that's three in this paragraph! I begin to reach Foster Wallace proportions.)
June 30, 2005
Fortress of Solitude
I thought that I had lost my capacity for surprise while reading; it's rare indeed that a book takes me by surprise in its plot, and rarer still for a movie. But I had been reading for a good hundred pages of Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude when the story made a dramatic right turn. I think my reading pace doubled when that happened, and possibly trebled. The novel I thought I had been reading, which was a slice-of-life piece about a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, his mother estranged from him and his father lost in his art, suddenly changed enormously into a story in which heroic powers were possible. I couldn't believe it, Lethem had hoodwinked me, with his first hundred pages. I was enormously surprised; sure, the title indicates the possibility, but the content of the novel up until then had led me to believe that the boy's fortress might be graffiti, or a friendship, or even just comic books, or some mix of three or four elements. And in a way they were, but there was this otherness embedded within the story.
When I originally wrote this post, I spent a good hour on it, and then accidentally closed the browser window -- a real hazard with Movable Type, I'm finding, and also with wikis¹. But I'm actually kind of glad I did, because thinking more on it, I think I've changed my thinking entirely.
The original post lamented how rare surprises are in games. But I've had a change of heart, now that my brain got working on the topic; part of it is that I've thought back on things that genuinely surprised me as a gamer, and it broadened out a lot beyond story. Here are the few surprises that occurred to me originally.
- Story Surprise: The ending of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was not only sublime but amazingly beautiful and self-contained. I felt like I had been presented with a gleaming jewel in a way few game stories have ever been able to do. And it fit so perfectly within the context of the game that I couldn't do much more than sit in awe, looking at the TV, where I had been returned to the start menu. Brilliant.
- Gameplay Surprise: I've rarely had such an amazing spark of surprise as I had when reaching the section where you get to control the ant-lions in Half-Life 2. The game was filled with interesting bits, but I pushed my chair back and stared in awe when I reached that section.
- Gameplay/Story Surprise: Jamie recently commented on the bit in Paper Mario 2 where you become the boss you've just defeated, and you sit there looking at the screen, wondering what's gone wrong. The game managed to simultaneously deliver a satisfying sense of completion and tweak your nose at the same time. Brilliant.
But there are really so much more, and I feel privileged to be working in this industry right now. I read a lot of death knells about how games are just sequels and licenses these days. But I've been surprised by so much more in this last generation of titles that I think more of them are worth remarking:
- Ico. I loved this game -- who would have thought that a game with basically the "save-the-princess" story would be so worthwhile?
- Jak & Daxter introduced a continuously streaming world, with stunning vistas crossing the map. Who would have thought that a platformer, which could have simply stuck with the tried and true, would have done that so completely well?
- Mario Kart DD finally came along and showed other Kart racing games what they were missing, delivering innovation where everyone else had simply imitated.
- God of War actually presented a nice story/gameplay surprise -- when Kratos battles the many copies of himself to save his wife and child. Immensely satisfying.
- Resident Evil made me realize that every good game design decision can have an equally compelling reason to be made the other way.
- Spiderman 2 (a license and a sequel) delivered webslinging so fun that I would often come home after a long day crunching and just swing about for half an hour to unwind. I never expected that hypnosis.
- Psychonauts portrayed a hugely winsome world -- and basically made me wish I had gone to summer camp, albeit a summer camp where I developed psychic powers.
There are other examples, too, such as SW: KotOR's story (I'm going on reputation here, but I've heard that there's a great story twist at the end), and I think SW: Republic Commando offered some interesting gameplay surprises to mainstream players (specifically, the maneuvers). Sly Cooper's twist on thief-platforming surprised me too.
So, I've come full circle. Although I'm very cautious about what the future begins -- the costs of next generation development worry me both as a developer and a gamer -- I feel like gaming still delivers more surprises than the other media I enjoy. And that's pretty great.
¹We use one at work and the number of times I've lost work borders on the ridiculous.
June 05, 2005
Discussion: Sports books, sports games
Listening to Michael Chabon's Summerland, I felt like I finally got a glimpse at what sports games have never had for me. The book presents an unlikely young hero who puts together a nine from the four worlds and ends up having to save the Universe from the depravities of that Trickster, Coyote. Along the way, there's bits about father-son relationships, a sasquatch, giants, dwarves and fairies. It's an interesting book, told a bit unevenly (it draws on so many myths that the cohesion that exists between a single set of myths is kind of lost), but entertaining nonetheless and full of good lessons about baseball.
Simulated games for me have always missed the ball: they're caught up with stats and the current players and the licenses and the ball physics and all that, and they miss out on why we play them, why baseball remains our national pastime¹. Sports games don't tell stories, at least, not the ones I'm interested in. They don't teach lessons other than the practical lessons available from any simple playbook or a good announcer's patter.
Granted, teaching kids that there is value in a game which is largely about paying attention is probably best left to little leagues and summer leagues and sand lots, but I'll be damned if I have any interest whatsoever in playing a sports game where I'm moving around characters from real life.
Summerland presents a game or two with giants; I don't mean metaphorical giants like Joe Dimaggio or Ted Williams, but actual flesh-and-blood giants. They throw incredible fastballs from a hill which serves as a pitcher's mound, and there are miles between the plate and first. Their reach is enormous. They are easily angered.
Now that's a baseball game I'd like to play, something that makes me feel like I can play on that scale. That'd be heroic, and a story to tell.
Side note: I picked up Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour to try out with the youngsters. I'll let you know if it scratches this particular itch. I like golf, though I play infrequently, and I've never really been able to sustain interest in a golf sim past a hole or two. In fact, the most fun I ever had playing computer golf was with Sid Meier's Sim Golf, which is mostly just quirky humor and lots of just one more greatness.
¹Baseball went through a bit a slump there a few years back, but then Sosa and McGuire came out slugging and put it back to the forefront. Sure, it's a lot more about the hitting right now, but it's going to swing back the other way eventually.
May 18, 2005
Discussion: Absolute Friends
John Le Carré's latest novel, Absolute Friends, weaves its way through the Cold War and into the present day, in essence preparing us for a discussion of how civil liberties can and will be abused in the presence of fear, or in the attempt to create an atmosphere of fear. Without straying too far into spoiler territory, let me at least make it clear that the last section of the book is intended as a scathing attack on the current administration. And, in fact, a rather clumsy exposition follows the main denouement which makes that fact plain, in case anyone wasn't following it.
There aren't tons of games that deal much with politics, at least in terms of making statements about them, but there are a few. There are also a few games which deal with things like the electoral process, and there was a great game years ago which involved détente, Balance of Power. Plus the strategy games which you could argue are an abstraction of politics, such as Diplomacy.
In some ways, of course, you can't get away from politics. Whenever three people get together, you have politics¹, and so many games make political statements directly or indirectly. RPGs are great for this, and so were some adventure games. The one game I worked on that didn't ship involved a storyline that took a stance on environmentalism, and involved some characters who you didn't need to squint at too hard to see the corollaries on our national stage. So, it's out there, certainly.
But in this specific case, I've read a couple of books lately that are shocking in the directness of the case they make against Bush. The first, of course, is Absolute Friends. The other was Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, which caused quite a hullabaloo since the plot revolved around a man who was engaged in conversation with a friend about his intent to assassinate the President that very day. Granted, there were some clear flaws in his plan (the man was a bit off his rocker), but it was a concrete attempt to present how angry people get about politics these days.
I read both of these books and found them a little clumsy -- they are so overt in their distaste or hatred for the current administration that they lose some credibility, though le Carré less so.
I did a little searching of the memory banks and came up with a couple examples of exactly this sort of thing in games, and the reaction to at least one of them is similar². JFK Reloaded purports to be a historically accurate portrayal of the JFK assassination. (The other games which I won't discuss in any real detail are the Kuma/War games, one of which purportedly presents Kerry's Swift Boat mission in Vietnam.)
I'm really of two minds about this sort of portrayal -- on the one hand, it seems extremely crass to present that in an interactive setting, but on the other hand, no more crass than any number of books and movies about the same subject (Quantum Leap, anyone?). Deep simulation of a single event could open up so many angles on the scenario to make it an interesting object of interactive inquiry. It doesn't really seem all that different from showing JFK autopsy photos in far-larger-than-lifesize relief on the big screen, as Oliver Stone did, and I'm sure Stone would claim that there were artistic forces at work, an attempt to make America confront the death of a President who is very fondly remembered.
I'll say one thing for it; the furor over the event certainly belies any claims that videogames are no different from boardgames (and thus not protected by the first amendment). If someone made a boardgame about a presidential assassination, you can bet it wouldn't get quite this attention. Part of that is due to the smaller market that board games represent -- but I suspect the larger part is due to concerns of the impact of such an interactive simulation.
And hey, even art in bad taste is art, which is about as close you'll ever hear me to calling John Waters an artist.
¹Note: Someone used to say a phrase along these lines to me, "two people are x, three people are a committee(?), and four people, that's politics" or similar. If anyone can provide me with the original aphorism, it would allow me to check off one thing that is keeping me awake wondering and searching my memory at night. I think my brain needs defragmenting, the random access isn't as fast as it used to be.
²Yes, so a disclaimer: I haven't played the games, just read all the hype and stuff. I am mulling over playing one of them, just to see what they're all about. Also note: this is an absolutely abominable interview, in my view, since the interviewer clearly has his own agenda. He frames a lot of questions in a way that doesn't invite open dialog.
May 02, 2005
Discussion: Double Vision
In my thinking about Double Vision, I had finally got around to thinking that I would talk about grief. The book follows the stories of the wife and colleague of a photojournalist who died covering the war on terrorism, off in Afghanistan somewhere. There were a lot of different things that I thought it touched on -- including things like last year's Beyond Good and Evil, the interweaving of two stories that touched on similar themes and expanded our understanding of them, the ways in which people are damaged by emotional events beyond their control, and how they nonetheless end up dealing with it.
But I had decided on grief. Here was an emotion that games haven't really touched, and may never be able to touch. They aren't at fault -- it's difficult to experience true grief without a lasting and sustained connection. Usually, movies and books which deal with grief don't try to engender it. It's rare indeed that a book can make you feel grief. Grief is something you have to experience first-hand, and it's difficult to even properly recall later on.
Tonight my dog died. She was a beautiful tricolor Border Collie named Maggie. She had adjusted well to our recent move to Maryland, and was still extremely spry at nine years of age. I figured we had another five years together, and hoped for ten, even though I knew that to be a long shot. I never expected to lose her before she reached ten.
Maggie was really something special; everyone who ever met her would admit to that. I've never met, and will never meet, a smarter dog. When she was about six months old I learned that she had a vocabulary, that she had been learning from my references to her various toys around the house. I was a graduate student then, and often home during the day. I wandered around looking for one of her vinyl toys, with her looking at me expectantly. I looked down at her and said "Hey, just where is your Daily Growl?"
She looked at me, cocked her head just a tiny bit, and then raced off and found it under a table somewhere.
This was about the coolest encounter I had ever had with a dog up until then. I soon learned that she knew the names of all of her toys, eight or ten or so. I asked her where her "tennis ball" was, and she looked around the living room before I said, not believing it was even possible, "I think it's in the bathroom."
She raced up those stairs and into the bathroom like a tri-colored streak of lightning, before returning to the head of the stairs and looking at me quizzically.
"Have you tried the bedroom?"
Off she went, soon returning triumphantly with tennis ball crushed in her jaws.
The coming weeks brought more surprises. I learned that she knew to get her hedgehog when I was ready to grind the beans for coffee -- she also knew the words "coffee" and "grind the beans". I think I must have talked to her a lot while she was growing up, since I was around the house alone a lot, working on my computer remotely to the University. Having her jump up and down squeaking those vinyl toys in her mouth while I blasted some aromatic beans to smithereens was one of life's small, pure joys.
When some friends came over for a barbecue on the back porch and tossed her a hard frisbee, she put another toy on the frisbee and used it like a tray, carrying around both. This was a dog who could figure out how to use tools.
I felt like I might own the dog that nobody knew about on the Internet. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a Border Collie named Maggie.
Tonight I came home and gave out the whistle that said, "Maggie, I'm home." She usually races down the stairs at this, all excited to go out and play, to race about the yard after a frisbee or tennis ball. She slunk into the kitchen slowly, but I didn't think much of it -- in the last couple of weeks she had strained one of her hind legs and was still resting. Also, she's usually napping when I get home, and I wake her with my whistle.
I reached down to scratch her under the chin, since she was looking at me so expectantly. It was soaking wet with froth, and I knew something was pretty wrong. I pried open her mouth but I couldn't see anything -- but her tongue wasn't the pink I expected, but instead a pale blue grey. She had clearly eaten something around the house she shouldn't have, and her own retching wasn't producing anything. I packaged the boys off as quickly as I could to a neighbor, and got her on a blanket in the car. She was moaning.
I got about a mile before I finally hit a red light. I reached back to comfort her, to say, "Maggie, we're almost there, just hold on, girl."
But she was already gone.
I cried. No, really, I wept, long and unconsolably. I found a place to stow the car and I called my sister and cried out loud over the three hundred miles that separated us, even though I couldn't hear her over the keening of my own grief. I called my mother and cried some more, sobbing while she, too, sobbed. I finally got in touch with my wife, who had been unreachable at work, and had to break it to her, knowing that soon I would also have to break it to my sons, 6 and 4 years old.
This is grief. It is fortunate that we feel it relatively infrequently, and that we can forget just how it feels, how it really really feels, to be in the throes of it.
A few times on this blog I've lamented the inability of games to penetrate some of our deeper emotions. With grief, I'm glad no interactive entertainment will ever engender it. This grief is mine, something I can share with others who knew my wonderful dog, but something which remains uniquely mine, experienced deeply and in my own way.
Magellan "Maggie" Douville
February, 1996 - May, 2005
You were loved.
April 28, 2005
Back when I was a researcher at the Center for Human Modeling and Simulation, I was thinking a lot about educational software. The software package we employed was based around human factors issues¹, but was branching out into behavioral issues as well. Ultimately one of those issues was developed into a Siggraph paper, which gave me one of the few published papers I have from my graduate work².
In any case, all of this is a long-winded introduction to an idea I had at that time, which was just a bit after 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing here in the Americas. My thinking was that it would be an interesting educational tool to build a simulation where you could walk about on one or all of the three ships, speaking with people who did different jobs on board, seeing their travails from disease, death, weather, having a chat with Columbus himself, whatever. The idea wasn't to be specifically entertaining, but to instead offer a richly informative experience which gave you the opportunity to view the issues of mid-millenial ocean crossings more or less first-hand.
At the time, I was very interested in some work a professor of my undergraduate acquaintance was doing on CD-roms, then an emerging "multimedia" platform. Come to think of it, his prototype might have involved The Grapes of Wrath. While I liked the idea of a sort of hypertext, multimedia Annotated Alice, I didn't think it went nearly far enough to really bring the source material alive -- everything he had to offer was passive, except for the actual reading (but then, as now, books are better on paper) and the clicking of various links.
In a lot of ways, Kathryn Davis' Versailles is the book version of such a project. We get to interact with Marie Antoinette from a number of vantage points, including her own both pre- and post-mortem, and also through some moderately varied media, in the forms of little vignettes structured like plays. It's an interesting format, and it's really interesting is how the multifaceted approach brings a richness to the material. It's a welcome departure from the more standard formats, such as used in A World Away.
I still think a Columbus project such as I describe would be an interesting application, though granted, probably with a gross market of only slightly higher than Thomas Watson's original projections of the computer market4. What would be really entirely interesting to me would be to start off with the basic interaction mechanisms, and then extend it out to include a sort of "historical journey" mode, which would cover what we know of the paths he took and the historical record of what happened on the way. After that, why not turn it into a fully interactive simulation, with you leading the tiny fleet to find the spices of India? Sort of an updated Oregon Trail.
For a long time I didn't really know what to make of this book, as far as games go -- I had just regrounded the blog at about that time and was finding myself wondering if I shouldn't just drop it. But listening to The Mammoth Cheese today with its "living historian" character (more on that later), I suddenly remembered my own ideas about how to bring history alive.
You see, history for me has never been a hugely interesting subject; or at least, it hadn't until just recently. Lately I've been having encounters with it a little bit in my reading, and those encounters have both been making me take a greater interest and also taking me back. Having never been a history buff, but always being interested in technology, I spent a lot of time wondering, back when massive storage started becoming available to PCs, how to really bring that stuff alive. I think it's really doable -- I don't know if there's a market large enough to support the idea, but I think it's doable, and could maybe win history some converts.
¹I use this term loosely. Software is something that really needs engineering, not constant piling on of stuff. A bunch of graduate students slaving away for years without any engineering discipline beyond what they themselves put in place is no way to build a useful piece of software. To give you the sort of idea of what it was originally built for, an early project was sponsored by John Deere who wanted to know what kind of visibility there was from within a CAD model of their next prototype bulldozer.
²Some of my co-authors are still at it; a new paper appeared in last year's Siggraph about a substantively similar talk. Which ties this back to games again, since they used SSX' Zoe as their conversational agent.
³I attended the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences, and then returned to the Ph.D. program in Computer Science, in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
4If you're not familiar with the reference, IBM's president Thomas Watson said in 1943 or so that he thought that "... there is a world market for maybe five computers."
April 24, 2005
Discussion: The Grapes of Wrath
I've always loved Steinbeck; well, not always, it wasn't there a priori in me or anything, but I've loved him since I encountered East of Eden at the start of my junior year in high school¹. I read a couple of others at that time: Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley. Before long I had moved on to another passion in reading, as I recall, but Of Mice and Men was a great book and one of the more memorable forays into literature of my young adulthood. In fact, it may have been the touchstone of my current literary life -- the reason behind some of my later literary marathon reading sessions that occasionally gripped me through college². I don't have time for that kind of reading anymore, but I loved it while I could get it. So many books, so little time.
That's a rather long-winded introduction to talk about how, years later, I've returned to Steinbeck to listen to The Grapes of Wrath during my commute. For those of you who haven't read it, I want to talk a little bit about its form, because it's germane to the discussion at hand.
Steinbeck alternates between long chapters about an Oklahoma family moving west to California to work as migrant farmers and shorter, tighter chapters about different aspects about what was happening in the United States at that time -- the economic pressures, the congolomeration of small farms into what would eventually become agribusiness, the life of the road, the economics of migrant farming (and the landholders and guilds which would set the price for an hour of work), what cotton does to earth. Steinbeck has it both ways, focusing on the small, personal story of one family and still capturing, through a multitude of voices, the large story of a huge change in the American economy, away from small farms to the more efficient and less humane large ones. It makes for compelling reading -- while you are caught up and driven forward by the perseverance of the poor Joad family, you nonetheless understand that for a country of this size, efficiency in our agricultural practices is enormously important. You rail against the heartlessness of capitalism's forces, and the market, while knowing at the same time what those changes in our economy permitted. It's an extraordinary novel. You feel sympathy for those who were swept up in it, and at the same time, rationally understand what progress demands. You hope that we'll never see times like those again, while secretly fearing that we are seeing similar forces today, with the movement of jobs oversees, and wondering what brave new worlds our new efficiencies will bring us, if any, and wondering if the extraordinary compensations top executives receive actually squanders a great deal of that efficiency. And then you wonder if maybe I've digressed a little too much into the political here, so let's move on.
That said, there could have been a lot more humanity in what happened in this move to more efficient use of our resources. The conditions that migrant workers faced were inhumane in the extreme. Capitalism has a very ugly side, and Steinbeck unmasked it mercilessly. He was faced with criticisms that he was a Communist sympathizer -- but he did a great service in shining a light at the dark corners that our economic restructuring was creating, hiding in the most sun-bleached geographical areas of our country.
Quite a book.
In the couple of weeks since I finished it, I've been nagged by the suspicion that this form appears in games, and it finally occurred to me where I've glimpsed it. It's there in some of the console RPGs, in particular; Final Fantasy IX has almost exactly this sort of form. You have an implacable, cold, unfeeling foe in Fate, hidden behind mortal actors, and you see glimpses of the machinations of those mortal actors throughout the story. You see bits and pieces of what the political upheaval does to the ordinary folk. You even have persecution of one of the characters, the little black mage, Vivi.
There are definitely differences, and these come from what we want from games, apparently, and what we get from literature³. The biggest and most important of these is that Zidane and his company can face the forces head-on: they actually encounter and defeat Fate. It's as if Tom Joad could walk out into the Platonic Form-World and smack Capitalism over the head with a Sledgehammer. While we'd love to ease the Joads' pain, we know that life simply doesn't work that way -- in the case of the Okies, many would die of simple starvation or malnutrition at a time when we were producing more food than we actually even needed.
But of course, we turn to games now to feel empowered, to overcome inexorable forces. But do we have to? Can we turn to games instead to better know ourselves, to better understand the human condition, even if that knowledge is painful? I read The Grapes of Wrath because I knew that I would come out of it knowing a little more, being a person capable of greater understanding, of perhaps touching a little bit of truth.
But the really crazy thing of it is, I actually really liked Final Fantasy IX. I was very moved by the ending, and I loved the way it turned in on itself at the very end. I sat through those 15 or 20 minutes of cutscenes and was moved.
But then, at that point, the game was already over. All the interacting was done. I may have pressed a few buttons to move dialog along, but there was no gaming. I was watching the story, and the story had very little to do with all the actual play -- the selection of Phoenix Downs and special Sword Attacks and whatever that made up each of a thousand little battles. In fact, any of the stuff that really moved me in the game had little to do with the game at all. It was all just the story, the skippable bits. The loops didn't contain the emotion at all; it was all safely non-interactive.
I suspect that's because we know how to do that. We know how to make non-interactive content that grabs us emotionally, we've been doing it for thousands of years, long before we even wrote it all down. What's keeping me up nights4 is whether we can get that emotional grab from the interactive bits. Well, not really whether -- I believe that we can -- but how. Does it lie in interactive storytelling? In the interesting work they're doing down at Cecropia? How can we build it?
And if we build it, will they come?
¹It would probably not make Mr. Rainnie happy to learn that I had merely read enough of the book to be able to make him believe that I had read the damn thing over the course of my summer break, along with some other novel which I've since forgotten. That said, it would probably then please him that having invested enough time to read 200 or so pages in a marathon session the two days before I was to discuss it with him, I then went on to finish the book at just as feverish a pace. Man, I loved that book. I may have to read it again, now that I think about it.
²After seeing the Anthony Quinn telemovie of The Old Man and the Sea, I went down to Van Pelt and checked out the book, returned to my dorm room, and read it cover to cover. It was only 150 pages or so, but I started at 11:30pm or so on a Sunday night (and I had a 9:00 class, I think), and read it through. I read Portnoy's Complaint a month or so later, in a single sitting. I was voracious. I hit the limit on the number of books an undergraduate was permitted to have out from the library at one time, which was around 50. Thankfully, they upped it for me.
³Though I hope you've read between my lines enough by now to realize that I'm hoping that games (or interactive entertainment, if you prefer that rubrick) can aspire a little higher, in time, hopefully in time for me to see and enjoy it.
4...aside from a bad caffeine habit...
April 10, 2005
Discussion: American Splendors
When I read the American Splendor anthology, I found myself getting thoroughly curious about the film version. After all, here was a collection of what? vignettes? short fiction? ruminations? from a single author and a hodge-podge of illustrators. The stories, such as they are, are remarkably episodic, not really lending themselves to a particular logical thread from which a movie could be constructed. So I moved the movie up near the top of the queue and popped it in the day it arrived.
"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff", says Harvey as he excitedly describes his ideas for a comic book to his friend R. Crumb, progenitor of the underground comix movement which started in the 70s. And so it is. From the moment I read the first story in the anthology, in which Harvey discusses his discovery of a second and then a third "Harvey Pekar" in the Cleveland phone book, I was hooked. Here was a guy who was taking ordinary events and presenting himself as a character, fairly wide open for everyone to see.
The film is no less interesting. Harvey Pekar himself appears in it, as narrator and as a subject of interviews, and of archival footage¹. We're introduced to some of his "characters," who are real people -- the portrayal of Toby in the comics and on-screen seems too strange to be true, until the real Toby is introduced discussing the categories of "genuine Jelly Bellies" and we realize that art is no match for life where strangeness is concerned.
The movie, the comic, both are uncategorifiable. Both are biographical, sure, but not really biography or autobiography. They have a sense of real-time flow about them -- even when events from the 70s are juxtaposed with events from the 90s. Like life, these are pretty complex works.
Yes, life is pretty complex; lately I feel more and more like videogames can't capture that, and yet, I want them to, I want this entertainment that I love to have a deeper dimension. I want games, in all their seriousness, their serious play², to evolve into something that can teach me more than the muscle memorization needed to beat the Emperor Ing in the Sky Temple in Metroid Prime: Echoes³.
It's like when I was young and read tons of science fiction and fantasy books, and then grew up and now read classics and literary fiction, I want that next step to come from my games, but I just don't feel that level of complexity coming.
Sure, I think that part of it is that our industry is young. But movies were tackling difficult subjects almost straight off the bat, once all the "look, we can watch someone sneeze" experimentation was done with. In our era of more, better, faster, you'd think we'd get to more interesting, better investigation, faster than other industries that have preceded us.
I wonder sometimes if the paucity of ponderance of real and interesting questions is due to the very nature of our medium. Our strength is our interactivity -- it's what distinguishes us. But it's also a tough weakness, because something that can deliver a powerful experience in our medium demands someone capable of participating in or even generating a powerful experience.
I don't know what to do about it -- you can't come here and expect answers to all of life's persistent questions -- but when I think about the power of these other media to involve me and make me grow, and contrast that with a medium in which I am even more actively taking part, I end up thinking that games should be able to deliver far more than they are. I came into this industry thinking about how important it was to be a part of the beginnings of this exciting new medium, to help explore its potential. I'm seven years in and haven't really had that opportunity. I've been playing even longer -- and the games, with a few exceptions, aren't hugely different from what I played on the Apple II and early PCs, though they are definitely prettier.
I don't want to sit and bemoan our industry; far from it, as I still take a lot of pleasure from it, and I don't think it has to be defended as an art form -- it already is. I also think there are a lot of factors here. After all, anyone who can afford a couple of legal pads and a pen can write a novel. It doesn't cost that much to get into film anymore. Even a person who can't draw can manage to produce a series of comic books, as Pekar demonstrates (and incidentally, as he inspires me to do). But game development at high production quality is "pretty complex stuff" too -- and expensive as all hell.
Modding starts to address this question. So does The Sims (hey, google "Sims Stories" and you'll see what I mean). I can tell from reading a few of these that they are important to the people who are writing them, that they have a lot invested. And so, maybe there's some potential there. In the case of modding, though, there's a huge bar for entry -- technical know-how, ability to glean what you need from the web, tools that don't often work as advertised. And in The Sims it's clear that the depth of interaction is pretty limited -- what they've decided to model and not model implicitly places limitations on the play space. I don't want to spend time making sure they get to the bathroom and don't set their houses on fire. (Aside from people like A. M. Holmes and Michel Houellebecq, you're not likely to find much of that in "serious" literature.)
This post has probably gone on long enough, and yet I'm still nowhere near knowing what to do about this; in fact, I'm finding myself thinking about all sorts of other things with regards to this issue. (E.g., in role-playing games we are sometimes able to involve players in more powerful stories -- but at the cost of interactivity, and through the medium of film -- what to do about that? If we treat games only as wish-fulfillment, can they ever be a medium for growth? Should I go out and hustle up a copy of the Sims, even though I have concerns about all this other stuff?) So, I'll leave it for now, and I'll be coming back to it. After all, I love this medium.
¹Indeed, the film contains a masterstroke moment of film-making in which Paul Giamatti (as Harvey) leaves the backstage ready room of Late Night with David Letterman. The camera tracks what we figure to be his movement, mostly tracking across a blank wall, until it catches the TV monitor in the corner of the room... where Harvey Pekar walks out. If the rest of the movie had been bad (and it wasn't), it thorougly would have been redeemed by this one moment.
²Thank you, Daniel Hillis, for your impassioned speech at GDC on our behalf a few years ago.
³For non-gamers -- yes, that's a real example from a real game. And yes, I feel a little ridiculous describing it.
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 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 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 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 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 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.
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.
February 22, 2005
Review: A World Away
I read a fair amount of Stewart O'Nan. In fact, I think I've read all but one of his novels, and I intend to read that one as well. But after reading A World Away, I'm ready for a bit of a break.
I think that part of it is just how awash in World War II stuff I am right now -- we've been watching the most excellent Band of Brothers, and I finished off Call of Duty last month, and there's probably a handful of other movies I've also watched in the last year. It's a lot, and seeing yet another view of the conflict -- this time, mostly from the point of view of folks at home -- is just kind of war overload.
The story, such as it is, surrounds a family and how they are affected by the war. The father is a conscientious objector, and so was the elder son, until he lost a friend and signed up. The father was having an affair before, but he's not any more, but the mother has started having one, partly out of retaliation. The younger son is a bit confused by all of this, and he's trying to make do with the tools he has to comprehend everything -- his chapters are the best. They are living with the father's father, who is dying; the mother's grandfather died not so long ago.
The novel, which is very symmetric in its storylines, though often with symmetries displaced in time, moves from viewpoint to viewpoint of its major characters. We are the young boy, delivering papers and seeing a beautiful girl, seemingly for the first time¹. We are the old man, his body giving out. We are the young man in combat, doing his best to patch his soldiers back together out in the field. We are the mother, cheating on her husband, feeling like a woman again.
This form for the novel doesn't work for me -- it's too impressionistic. By the time I'm really vested in a character, I'm moved on to another. When something really interesting starts to happen, I move on to another viewpoint. While the form works to capture a kaleidoscope of a family's fears, concerns, and actions in war-time, it disassociates me from them too -- I'd rather spend time with just one than jump around like this.
So, I guess in the end, I have to recommend something else by O'Nan in place of A World Away. I loved A Prayer for the Dying and The Speed Queen. Read one of those instead.
** (out of four)
¹This is actually pretty touching -- I can remember being a boy just that age, seeing a girl in just that way for the first time. I think it just may be a near-universal experience for boys, though the gender of the target of affections may differ.
February 17, 2005
Reviews: Shame the Devil and Hard Revolution
I guess it would be fair to call this a review of George Pelecanos, since I'm going to hit a couple of his books at once.
It was very interesting reading¹ these books in the first couple of months after moving to suburban Maryland. These books are set in and around Washington D.C., and would frequently refer to, for example, Georgia Avenue -- which I drive on a bit every day during my commute. It was great to kind of get a flavor of the urban center not all that far southeast of me, and a little bit of its history.
The two books are related only in location. The first is contemporary, set in 1999 or so, and concerns a crime in which a robbery goes somewhat bad and several people (including a child) are killed -- and the eventual fallout from that some years later. The other is set in the late 60s, and could be said to be about Derek Strange, a series character for Pelecanos who appears in some of his other more contemporary novels.
I think it's fair to say that Pelecanos is to urban D.C. what Ellroy is to L.A. and Hollywood; both deal with a gritty, almost noirish style incorporating elements from their locales. Each weave stories from multiple threads involving people from several walks of life. Each involve lurid or heartbreaking crimes. But Pelecanos has a sparser style, in contrast to Ellroy's flamboyant (and wordy) one; Ellroy is a tabloid, while Pelecanos is reserved and strictly the facts, ma'am.
Of the two novels, Hard Revolution was the better book -- I found Shame the Devil a little less intriguing though no less a character study than the other. Revolution draws from a larger canvas, however, and perhaps that's why it struck home a bit better -- it's set in the weeks just prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I came away wishing I knew more about the history of that period. It also left me wanting to read some of the other books about Derek Strange, though only just -- I'm unlikely to pick up any other books by Pelecanos because, having read two, it seems that they'll all be much the same.
A final note about the audio book -- I found the reader fairly unintelligible for the first few chapters. His voice was very gravelly and when he would slip into voices for some of the characters, I found him extremely hard to follow. (A hard Revolution indeed.) This definitely colored my enjoyment of the book -- while I was able to appreciate its construction and style, I got less enjoyment listening than I might have reading.
¹Yes, reading and listening to. It's hard to talk about a book that you've read and a book that you've listened to together. Let's just say they were "read", and be done with it.
February 01, 2005
Review: True History of the Kelly Gang (Audiobook)
True History of the Kelly Gang purports to be the real tale behind the rise and fall of Australia's most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly. Kelly is to Australia what Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid are to America; in a manner of speaking, True History is to the Kellys what George Roy Hill's movie was to Butch and his partner.
Peter Carey develops a very distinctive voice for Ned Kelly; a rough man, to be sure, but very much a product of his environment. Ned was an Irishman born and raised in the Australian colony, under the thumbs of the English, who thought them lower than low, given the circumstances which had generally brought their parents there. Colonial rule was not often kind to Australia, and discrimination against Irishmen sailed with the English masters and magistrates who administered Queensland, New South Wales, and the like.
Ned's father was himself a convict who had spent a good deal of time behind bars in a torturous environment; he left Great Britain to make a fresh start in the colonies, though it did him little good. Ned, the eldest of his large family, was orphaned of his father when he was but 12, and he took over the burden of caring for his mother and siblings.
That's just the beginning. By the time he was 26, he was the most famous outlaw in Australia, and every lawman was gunning for him and his gang. It's an extraordinary tale, expertly told, well worthy of the Booker Prize it won in 2001.
What's brilliant in this telling is two elements. First, the form in which the story is told, as a series of "parcels" written by Kelly himself as narratives to his baby daughter perfectly depicts the story, and even moreso, the character of Ned Kelly. Because of his audience, he is careful to avoid swearing, and instead liberally substitutes in "F this" and "adjectival"¹. Carey has dreamed up in Ned Kelly a character like few others -- he grows before our eyes into a man, and a leader, and ultimately, a burdened leader. He captures the romance of the character, while still giving the sense that Ned isn't entirely reliable as a narrator -- after all, what he does is illegal and immoral, though to hear him tell it, "there weren't no other way". There's almost a sly wink in the way it's told, making me think of Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday in Tombstone's shootout at the OK Corral. It's not entirely disingenuine, nor cynical, but it might be -- that ambiguity and subtlety shines through.
The second amazing element in this particular form is the reading by Gianfranco Negroponte, an Australian. Negroponte does remarkable justice to Ned, his family, his gang, the British lawmen, and all the other characters various and sundry who appear². I never thought I'd say this, but in this case, I think the Audiobook may be the ideal way to take this book in, if only for Negroponte's performance.
¹Only once in the whole narrative does he actually swear, by my recollection, and it came as a shock.
²I wouldn't have been able to hear this many voices in my inner ear -- usually I'm only good for a half-dozen characters before they all run together.
January 27, 2005
Review: Murder on the Leviathan
Boris Akunin is currently one of the most popular authors in Russia, if the dust jackets of his recently translated Erast Fandorin novels are to be believed. Even were they not, they should be, for in Erast Fandorin, Akunin has created a Russian diplomat very much in the image of Sherlock Holmes, albeit without the benefit of a Dr. Watson.
Last year, I read The Winter Queen, the first of the Fandorin novels and the first translated into English. Since then, at least two more have been translated into English, the second of which is Murder on the Leviathan. The translator is once again Andrew Bromfield; I cannot say whether he accurately translates from the Russian, but the style of his translation is very much in the spirit of a Victorian writer, so it exactly matches my expectations.
Though The Winter Queen is a finer book, Leviathan is not completely a sophomore slump -- it is entertaining and reminds one of a cross between a cozy and a Holmes pastiche¹. Akunin is a bit fairer in his presentation of detail -- unlike in Doyle's stories, you have every bit of information to solve this mystery well in advance of the final pages, which was not always the case with a Holmesian story. I confess that there was little in the way of surprise about "whodunnit", though there was far more supporting detail to the mystery than I had gathered together.
The setting for the plot is as follows: having found evidence at the scene of a horrific crime which incriminates either a passenger or a crewman of a cruise ship, a French Inspector is purchased a first-class ticket by the gendarmerie and boards to find the killer. Among the suspects is our hero, Erast Fandorin, who joins with the rest of the suspects in an on-board salon for meals and conversation over a period of several weeks while Inspector Gauche² seeks out his killer.
The particulars of the murders which start off the novel are suitably horrible as to excite our attention, and events on-board escalate suitably -- at points this is quite an adventure. Occasionally I need a good murder mystery, and this certainly fit the bill.
¹There is even a section wherein Fandorin identifies details about fellow passengers only via his observations of them. And the setting: pure Christie, see Death on the Nile.
²A perfect name for this policeman, who is a bit of a buffoon -- every great sleuth needs his foil.