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May 31, 2005

Discussion: Classics You Love and Classics You... Appreciate

Metropolis The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Watching them, I felt that Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are two films that film buffs really should see, but in this case, my reactions were totally different. With the former, I found a lot to like; I was entranced by the spectacle, I was caught up in the story, I found myself really following what was going on in the emotions that the actors portrayed physically and with their expressions. With Caligari, however, I found myself cut off a bit -- partly because of some of the film-making techniques (especially the close-ups that illuminate only a circle in the center of the screen, Victorian portrait style), partially because of the pacing (which has the glacial pace also found in Lang's M), but largely because the characters seem mere caricatures¹ not enough to carry a whole film but only a short story. That said, the scenery is excellent, the set design is really wild and great and helped to set the tone in an incredible way.

While I was watching each of these, I was trying to think of games that I would recommend people play either to appreciate or to still enjoy. Having recently replayed through most of The Fool's Errand, I can agree with Tea Leaves' assessment -- this is a game that you can still really enjoy, that can still really grab you. That is, if you enjoy puzzles. I feel this way a bit about many of the old LucasArts' titles as well -- I think it's important for developers today to understand that part of our history, and with those games in particular it's not just eating your vegetables. In a lot of cases, the humor still holds up, even though the gameplay seems thin by today's standards.

One of the games that I think is hard to do more than simply appreciate in this day and age is actually Resident Evil, which I played in remake form on the Gamecube. Knowing as a I do how much people appreciate save anywhere these days, I nonetheless think it's worthwhile to know what you sacrifice when players can save anywhere -- and not only does RE have checkpoint saves, but it has resource-based checkpoint saves, meaning you can't even save at checkpoints as often as you'd like. What gives the game its sense of terror, though, is exactly created by lengthy play sessions, which is reinforced by the lack of the ability to save frequently. Playing the game, I set aside time to really experience it, and thus really enjoyed it, but I would have a hard time recommending that to people. It's an enjoyable experience, if you can spare the time; it's something you can appreciate as a game designer if you can put in that time.

After watching Metropolis and thinking a little bit about the games that are still lovable and those that are to be appreciated, I was reminded of a pair of EGM articles in which they focus-tested classics like the original Zelda or Pac-Man. Really funny reading; but they've clearly taken kids with a lot of exposure to games already².

So, what are the games out there you'd have a hard time recommending, except to gain an appreciation? MAME stuff? Maybe one of the games I've mentioned here? Let's hear 'em.

¹As I write that last bit, I realize that they should be caricatures, given the end of the film. Hrm. Maybe I'm judging it too harshly, but while watching it, I just didn't feel engaged. It actually feels like a much better film now that I reflect upon it, but I couldn't get that while I was actually in the midst of it.
²I sometimes wonder whether my own kids are missing out on something coming to gaming in our era of beautiful graphics. I started out with text adventures played over a 200 baud connection -- the modem was two foam cups into which the phone fitted. It unlocked my imagination and arguably made me a game developer. But all this is a subject for another post.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:29 PM | Comments (2)

May 22, 2005

Ah, well

I was going to blog a bit today, but my hard drive crashed last night, so I am without a 'net, so to speak. This phone isn't great for posts.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:52 AM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2005

Six on four yields two to eight

Mario Kart Double Dash

It's back to Mario Kart this morning for a brief note: my kids are still playing a lot of MK:DD. Lately, we've been trying out the "versus" modes, or rather, Luc and Jordan have.

It's interesting how this game can level the playing field. Usually, Luc's two year advantage in age gives him the upper hand in any contest, but in Mario Kart last night they played Balloon Battle for the first time and Jordan dominated, winning 8 out of 10.

I have to say, for kids, I love these kinds of competitions -- not who can kill the other the most, but who can take the other's balloons, or who can hold onto the "shine" the longest. I wish there were more such games. If anyone knows of a few that the kids would enjoy (platform not an issue, although I've only one PC), please send your thoughts my way. I'm looking for games which are E for Everyone and would possibly extend to E10+¹.

¹Hey, not familiar with game ratings? Check them out at the Entertainment Software Review Board's site.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:42 AM | Comments (0)

May 20, 2005

Discussion: Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket

Lately, everything is coming up Psychonauts. I've already started thinking about what I want to write about the game, which will probably fill several posts. Before I get started on that, though, let me touch briefly on this early Wes Anderson movie.

I'm actually a fan of Wes Anderson, having seen everything he's done except for his most recent movie, which I think has just recently come out on DVD. Although I wasn't a huge fan of Tenenbaums, I'm generally a fan of his work and Bottle Rocket was no exception.

Bottle Rocket described the interaction between a few slightly off-kilter characters in their quest to become genuine heist-pullers¹. Their leader is Dignan, a young man with a dream and no sense of reality. Like many of Anderson's movies, it's a difficult movie to describe and in some ways hard to recommend to anyone but your equally off-kilter friends. I really liked it.

I guess what I'm noticing at the moment is that I'm drawn to the quirky these days. While I can appreciate the fun of a lot of different games, the ones that really draw me in are the ones that aren't necessarily the big sellers (though to be fair, some of them are).

The latest and greatest case in point is Psychonauts. As I mentioned, I'm going to be writing this up quite a bit more, but I want to go ahead and say to everyone: Get out there and buy this game! It deserves your support, not only because it's different, but because it's great!

This isn't like one of those quirky movies that I think would be good for more people to see -- it's a great game that people claim they've been crying for. "Oh, it's all licenses and sequels, yawn", and yet, the sequel to the execrable Champions of Norrath sold about as many copies last month, and that was a game that ranked more than 10% lower than the 90%-ranked Psychonauts and came out four months ago².

I've been playing Tim Schafer's games for as long as he's been making them. I can only hope that, like Wes Anderson, he'll get to keep doing them. You can help! Please help!

¹Side note: this is exactly the sort of fake hyphenated word which you can create in English and makes sense, but which I expect has an actual term in German.
²Yes, I have used nearly every form of emphasis in this post.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:58 PM | Comments (4)

May 18, 2005

I think I'm back

Grief sapped my will to write for a little while there, but I think I'm back. Thanks for everyone's kind thoughts.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:35 PM | Comments (0)

Discussion: Absolute Friends

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.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:29 PM | Comments (2)

May 04, 2005

Discussion: Sin City

Sin City

I was actually pretty excited about Sin City, but when I actually sat down to watch it, I found it insipid and weak. Basically, my thoughts about this movie were similar to my thoughts on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was so stylized that any bit of interesting content had more or less been polished away. It was entirely about image.

I've read that Rodriguez borrowed so heavily from Frank Miller's comic books in terms of framing and shot selection that he gave Miller attribution as co-director (and even left the Director's Guild over their refusal to recognize Miller as co-director). For me, most of what really annoyed me about the movie was how much it looked like the director had taken a panel by panel approach to directing a comic book -- but the intervening film frames didn't work cohesively with that. It was a little bit like watching the first Spiderman movie in that respect, where he would be fighting and you'd have these great iconic poses, and then a bunch of what looked like backyard wrestling¹.

What's interesting to me about this is how I feel like I can respond, internally, to Roger Ebert's remarks about the movie, which he gave four stars. When he says, "This isn't an adaptation of a comic book, it's like a comic book brought to life and pumped with steroids," I feel like I can respond, "Yes, it's so pumped with steroids it hardly feels like it can move at all. The movie feels like it's about to have a heart attack."

I rarely feel this way about game criticism; at least, not the mainstream game criticism that would be akin to Roger Ebert, with his television show and his large weekly readership. Take Grand Theft Auto III, a game which I didn't particularly enjoy. Then read the reviews; I took Gamespot as an example, which gave the game an equivalent of four stars, 9.6 out of 10².

I'm not going to quote line after line, but basically the format is this; I re-read the review before posting to make sure my recollections were correct. There are two types of paragraph in the review.

  • "Feature X is really fun." Facts about Feature X.
  • Facts about Feature Y or Outline of Story Element Z (really just facts in a different form, yet without the cursory topic sentence).

There's so little to work with here. You can say, "I didn't find that fun" but other than that, there's no dialog at all.

There's been a bit of talk lately about the New Game Journalism. The problem I find with New Game Journalism is that we don't really have any old-fashioned criticism to stack it up against. I rather like reading some of this new stuff, but without the good old-fashioned sort of criticism it falls a little flat for me. It's like a conversation between an avant-gardist and a bicycle pump; entertaining for a little while, but a bit one-sided.

One thing that I found really positive about Sin City is the look, which for the most part I found very captivating³, and almost enough to carry the movie on its own terms. It reminded me a lot of Sky Captain in its attention to a certain type of aesthetic, this time inspired by the two-color comic books from which it came.

I had been beginning to get a little disappointed with the "realistic look" games are having all around us these days. After a superbly charming Wind Waker aesthetic, the fine folks at Zelda HQ are turning around and giving us their realistic look. Prince of Persia took a wonderfully fantastic look and then drenched it in black and brown, making it look more like Quake and at the same time draining out a lot of the visual life I loved so much in The Sands of Time.

But then, just when I'm getting all disappointed in how games seem to be visually normalizing to a bleak, boring universe, along comes Psychonauts!, which breathes new life into character and level aesthetics. There are some folks who aren't afraid to have asymmetric characters nor to use the whole color palette!

I'd love to see more of this. In an industry which can bring to life our wildest dreams, why do we limit ourselves increasingly to nightmares?

¹For the perfect example, watch the scene where he fights the Goblin on the balcony. Note too, of course, that the scenes in which he actually is more or less acting as a backyard wrestler are more or less exempt from this criticism.
²Which, don't get me started. Film criticism's 7 or 8 distinctions about how good a movie is are more than enough. Can the average player distinguish between a 9.6 game and a 9.7 game? If not, what's the value in that? I've always preferred OPM's five discs. It's great, it's good, or it's not really worth your trouble.
³One thing I didn't care for was the portrayal of blood spatters, which looked a lot like paintball paint to me, or perhaps latex paint. It was everywhere, in great globs that just didn't look right. It may be accurate to the comic book, but it felt really jarring with the rest of the hard-boiled visual style.

Posted by Brett Douville at 06:39 AM | Comments (0)

May 02, 2005

Discussion: Double Vision

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.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:38 PM | Comments (7)