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Disclaimer

03 Jan

Most of the people who occasionally (rarely) write on this web page are actually employed. For instance Daniel works at Riot Games. Fasih works at Crytek. The people who write on this page also have opinions. Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re happy… Sometimes they’re in love and sometimes they’re in hate… Regardless of their state of mind it is worth noting that their opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of their companies. In case they do something nasty by writing here, it is only them who are responsible. Not their companies. And in case they are responsible they hereby declare that the things written on this web page are filthy, filthy lies.

 
 

Games That Aren’t Games

27 Dec

What Gone Home learned from To The Moon, or why we do not play games out of chronological order, no matter how apropos it is to the subject matter of said games.

So I played To The Moon. I did not cry. I did smile broadly once or twice, and it gave me goosebumps, so it did, but that was it. I was too annoyed by the game to fully buy into it and when the beautiful inversions and reveals happened, I was suffering from a severe case of Verfremdungseffekt.

Obviously we need to talk about Bertolt Brecht. In his theory of epic theatre, the Verfremdungseffekt is when the audience is made aware of its distance from the narrative. Breaking the fourth wall, absurd turns of the plot, commentary on what’s happening: anything that’ll break the illusion of the play being a real thing that’s happening to real people. As the audience is made aware of the artificiality of what they’re observing, they gain the ability to critically judge what is before their eyes. That’s a good thing, according to Brecht. Unfortunately that also means what’s before our eyes affects us less severely, which is a bad thing, according to me.

In short, if you want to cry at an old man’s life story, it is better to be under the illusion that it is an actual life you’re watching than being acutely aware of playing a video game with all its limitations.

I cried at the end of Gone Home. I teared up multiple times before, I felt the indignity of the father on reading the grand father’s letter, I felt Sam’s suffering as she discovered her feelings for Lonnie, I felt for the mother’s helplessness. All of those things were real to me. Johnny and Joey, though? Pixelated contrivances that hit clearly identifiable moments of tear jerking and triumph. Why!

Well, let me start with the superficial. Drs. Watts and Rosalene are cynical and not very funny, while trying very hard to be. At least that was my reading. The actually good jokes (e.g. the JRPG send-up) happen outside the narrative. The poor attempts at humour that the characters make fall flat and had me roll my eyes more often than not. As an aside, by the standards of video game writing, the dialogue is sublime and true to live, but this is about games that aren’t games, and Gone Home happened, which means I’m judging these things by higher standards. True, as many people pointed out, Dr. Watts grows into more of a character toward the end of the piece. Ironically enough, this only happens when Eva takes away his agency and he gets to struggle against a turn of events the player never had a chance of influencing. But every time the writing in To The Moon tried to evoke a bit of silly / witty banter between the observer characters, I felt verfremdet: made sharply and awkwardly aware of the artificial nature of this entertainment and moved further away from the illusion of the narrative.

This isn’t the big thing, though, at least I don’t think so. In Gone Home, I inhabited an implausibly large mansion, full of implausibly convenient pieces of letters and diaries and notes, and yet I was firmly embodied in the house. I was THERE, I put cassette tapes into tape decks and listened to sometimes awful sometimes wonderful riot grrrl music, I explored corners and hidden documents, and even though it was a perfectly linear roller coaster of reveals and doors opening, it never felt that way.

In To The Moon, I clicked on a bunch of sprites in what felt like a predetermined order. I did not get to discover non-essential information, I did not get to skip anything, and it basically felt like I was reading a graphical novel that kept hiding its “continue” button in different locations all the time. At times I would miss lines of dialogue because I was spamming my left mouse button, trying to advance through the 500th instance of the very JRPG-esque “…” speech bubble popping up over a character (indicating, I believe, a reaction of any sort, be it surprise, anger, or dumbfoundedness). This is another weakness of To The Moon: you are twice removed from the action, observing the good doctors, who in turn are observing a memory reconstruction. Once against, this causes a Verfremdungseffekt. We’re practically reminded that this is a play, totally not real, nothing we should feel upset about.

By focusing on found documents (as contrived as their existence may be), enhanced by a voice-over reading out diary entries and enriching the entire thing with visual information in the environment (so many details!) Gone Home allows you to set your own pace and lose yourself in the house and the unraveling story. What’s more, you’re not just an observer. You’re Sam’s sister, and why did you go to Europe for a year anyway? What’s your part in all this?

To The Moon was a great game, and if I’d played it before Gone Home, I’m sure I would have loved it. There was nothing like it before (to my knowledge), and it did make me very happy in a few moments: sad-happy when we saw the alternate life unfolding with Johnny passing through scenes that were about him and River previously, now reduced to a random passer by, and happy-happy when the (admittedly cheesy and predictable) pay-off happened. I’m not sure why, but the Joey fragment did nothing for me, and I still don’t understand how restoring Joey helped–it just made everything sugary sweet and turned the final version of the old man’s memories into an exaggerated happy end, but I won’t lie: the shuttle taking off was a great moment, as was the scene of the young Johnny and River stargazing, and the moment when “And what else?” finally started to make sense. It’s a well constructed narrative, expertly told in reverse, but the video game trappings surrounding it have been shown to be very sub-par by a single game doing the same thing, only better in every way imaginable.

Still, we’re standing at the beginning of a new genre, the walk-about game. I believe there is room for some more player agency in this type of genre, but I’m not sure it’ll necessarily be improved by it. If I get another Gone Home every year from now on, I’ll be perfectly happy. A branching Gone Home? Yes please! Maybe even a To The Moon with more incidental detail, fewer needless mini-games (dear God, that running scene. Most superfluous 5 minutes of my life), more conversation options to discover back-story? Anyway. Games that aren’t games? Brilliant.

 

Story Review: “Brütal Legend”

27 Feb

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It’s just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.  

brutal-legend_00366796

Idea:

As it is with many other Tim Schafer games the idea here is pure gold. What if each and every single heavy metal album cover was actually a historical photograph? What if all the lyrics in those albums were actually talking about reality? What if all those things did happen and exist?

Schafer, here, creates a unique fantasy realm out of a musical genre which, in time, developed its own common language and myth, embedded into the psyche of the generation experiencing it. We all know about the gods of metal, how the painkiller saves humanity, how humanity broke the chains forged by demons etc. These were rather poor metaphors used by heavy metal artists so many times even they have eventually forgotten what they mean. Schafer takes these metaphors and constructs a solid world on them; a unique and modern fantasy world which is neither Tolkien nor Howard.

Rating: 2 out of 2

Setting:

Obviously the star of the show here is the setting, which is great in theory. The heavy metal age has a rich history with its own heroes, myths and gods. Icons of heavy metal have tangible power, with guitars calling down lightning bolts, tabs invoking magical spells when played, pistons and blades coming out of the very scenery. Each and every region of the world corresponds to a sub genre of the music.

What’s more, the society of the land is expertly matched with the fans of different sub genres of heavy metal. The history is a mixture of known album lyrics and actual, historical developments in the music scene. As such the setting provides opportunities for both great fantastic stories and great satire.

It’s all great, in theory.

The practice has its problems, and the possible culprit is probably the technology. Simply put, there is a distinct lack of population. On one side, the fauna, the unique creatures hunting each other and all the ruins and remnants of cities give the impression of a rich world. On the other side there is the simple fact that this wonderful world is unpopulated save for you and a handful of people. Early on when Lars tells Eddie that young people are enslaved and forced to work in mines, you expect that is where the population is being held. Not so… Even the post apocalyptic world of Fallout used cities as hubs. The myths you’ll encounter speak of great civilizations but there are simply no cities, no villages  and no functional settlements here. It is as if everyone in this world is living next to a camp fire eternally.

The same holds true for the battles you will fight in. We expect massive armies clashing, but what we end up with is just small skirmishes. Even before the invasion of Lord Doviculus it all feels like a bit too post apocalyptic.

Eddie wants to save humanity. But where is this humanity we’re talking about? How are they exactly suffering? Or is it all, just for the sake of a few people?

Rating: 1 out of 2

Characters:


Tim Schafer consistently creates memorable characters for his video games. Brütal Legend, is not an exception. However, here you’ll see that the characters are suffering from the lack of a coherent plot structure.

Eddie Riggs is the protagonist serving as an outsider traveling to a strange world. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book of fantasy fiction storytelling and it works here too. Through the eyes of the outsider we learn about this strange world. Eddie becomes our proxy and therefore there is a stronger sense of identification with him. Jack Black’s unusually subtle voice acting helps a lot. We like Eddie because probably we are like him. We miss the old times when music was much better and people really knew how to have fun. Together with him we travel to this land where the very nature of things are exactly like we used to love.

In theory Eddie is supposed to stay out of the spotlight helping Lars the artist, to fight against Doviculus the man. Eddie is a selfless knight all roadies are.  There is also a love triangle between Eddie, Lita and Ophelia even though as a setup it’s a lot less clever than the one in Uncharted 2. 

The ingredients are all here but the problem is the actual meal. Simply put, the characters are empty. They behave irrationally and often jump insane conclusions. Relationships fluctuate wildly and without proper reason. It’s almost as if things are playing out as a flowchart instead of a proper story. Lita, for instance has an unreasonable amount of mistrust towards Ophelia, but then again from her actions we can easily deduce that Ophelia is insane, so who are we to argue?

Suffering less from this problem is Lord Doviculus, by pure luck of not appearing a lot. Visually his looks may be ridiculous but when he acts it almost makes the audience root for the evil. On the other hand when the villain acts more logical than the rest of the cast, you have problems.

Consequently none of the characters prove to be as memorable as Schafer’s best. Even Eddie fails to reach the heights Ben did in Full Throttle.  The supreme dialog writing saves the characters a bit and ironically moves side characters such as Magnus to the spotlight of our hearts but still fails to illuminate the whole cast.

Rating: 1 out of 2

Plot Structure:

Here is where things fall apart. The plot structure has so many huge problems that it corrupts other elements of the story. This is quite unexpected for things start fairly well.

A heavy metal concert is suddenly cancelled due to the unscheduled appearance of an ancient metal god, who immolates the posers and sends Eddie the true metalhead back to the age of metal, where he’s instantly attacked  by evil druids. We’re then introduced to the lead lady in the story who proceeds to explain why Eddie is the chosen warrior who will save them all. (them all being a few people…) This is all great. But after the first major event about saving people from the mines, things very quickly stop making sense.

Which is a shame, for the events are all set up to reflect heavy metal history. If you were a kid who listened to heavy metal during the 80′s it is quite hard not to shed a tear when Lars explains how the young people are forced to live underground smashing rocks with their heads and how they cannot work outside because the society rejects them. When Lars asks what you can do with a bunch of kids who know nothing but bang their heads all day, you know the answer. “You start a revolution, Lars” says Eddie. There are great moments like this in Brütal Legend, however most of them are buried under the mess that’s the plot.

The main problem is pacing. What’s supposed to be an epic tale of revolution and personal discovery turns into bad Sunday morning cartoon with a horrible story. After the first few events, things simply happen too fast for too few reasons. Consequently events lose their emotional weight. When Lars dies it’s supposed to be a very sad moment. Yet we do not feel it much because we didn’t even come to like or respect him. We simply don’t spend much time with him. We don’t know how he thinks or why he’s important or why people chose him as their leader. We don’t even know who these people are… Similarly Ophelia’s reasons for leaving Eddie are really very very thin. What are supposed to be dramatic moments makes us feel as if the characters are morons.

Many potentially great characters get so little screen time you often forget that they exist. It feels like the main story was supposed to be padded by interesting side quests but except for one, those have very little to do with any story at all.  There is simply no sense of volume to the story.

The structural problems are too many to count. In the end, Brütal Legend, invokes a feeling of incompleteness. The length of the story, the pacing, the events and the character relationships are balanced so poorly that you feel like the story had to be at least 1/3 longer. And when you feel a story has to be longer, Edgar Allen Poe stirs in his grave.

Rating: 0 out of 2

Craftsmanship:

Supreme writing is the major thing that saves the horrible plot structure in Brütal Legend. As usual Tim Schafer delivers great dialog which makes both the story and the characters stronger. There are far too many quote worthy lines to list here. Schafer’s aptitude as a game designer may be a topic of discussion but as a wordsmith he’s almost peerless in this industry.

Also worth noting is the great original soundtrack composed by Peter McConnell. His moody, oddly subdued tracks along with licensed music are contributing a great deal to the atmosphere making the audience wish they were in the metal age.

Despite the obvious constraints of technology, the visual artists also succeed in both capturing the visual style of heavy metal and integrating semi comical characters with that background.

Overall a great achievement.

Rating: 2 out of 2

OVERALL: 6 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

 
 

Game Reviews Saga: Episode 1 – 101 Percent Awesome

23 Feb

Let us start with an amusing anecdote then…
Once upon a time, in the land where I live, there was a print magazine covering video games. Its name was 64’ler. People who’re familiar with the semi-famous German magazine 64’er may be excused to think that it was the Turkish version of the same magazine. It wasn’t. It wasn’t half as professionally done and though the articles in it were about the same kind of home computers the Turkish version was exclusively about games. Really… About the most similar thing between 64’er and 64’ler was the logo.

Of course, just like any magazine reviewing games, 64’ler also had a scoring method. They favored the percentage system in which the game would receive a score between 0 and 100. Plus a little percentage sign in front of that number. What that meant was anyone’s guess. We, the readers had easily figured out that the higher the number is, the better the game is… But what does it actually mean when a game scores 80%? Does this mean the game is better than 80% of all the games in the market? Or does it mean that 80% of the game is good and the remaining 20% is bad? One wonders, of course, in case the latter is correct, exactly which 20% of the game in question actually sucks…

When Cinemaware released their latest game “It Came From The Desert”, the reviewers of 64’ler got really excited; and rightfully so… The game was really good for its time. So good in fact that the staff working at 64’ler decided to give the game a perfect score of 100%. The reviewer also explained how this new game from Cinemaware could achieve such a feat. According to him there was nothing bad about it. It simply was perfect. It was the first and the only totally perfect game they have seen. It was both better than 100% of all the games in the market and 100% of it was really good.

But then something ridiculous happened. A few issues later a game called “Wings” was released and that game was also good. In fact the people at 64’ler thought “Wings” was better than “It Came From The Desert”. 64’ler was obviously filled with Cinemaware fans at the time. But back then it really was hard for anyone who owned an Amiga not to be a Cinemaware fan.
For 64’ler, “Wings” was so good that its review score was 101%.

This made sense for them. They have really thought “It Came From The Desert” was perfect. Their belief in its perfection and brilliance was so strong that they have seen fit to write 100% underneath the article which reviewed it. But now that they had seen a game which was obviously better than “It Came From The Desert”, the only logical solution was to give that game 101% percent. The game was so good that it was better than 101% of all the games in the market. I guess that means it was pro-actively better. It already was better than 1% of the games yet to be released… Or that its theoretical levels and missions which do not exist in our space-time continuum are good too.

We did not care… “Wings” was just THAT good. It was awesome. And no scale could judge awesomeness… At least not properly.

Percentage of the Germans

This case does not demonstrate the ridiculousness of the percentage system which is so popular among game critics today. But it’s ridiculous enough to get things started. Of course, 64’ler was a Turkish magazine and Turks are not exactly known for their superior planning skills. So in the hands of people who can plan and make up rules really well, this percentage system should work… Right?

It’s a loaded question of course. It would be the basest form of demagogy if I don’t make it clear right now that I believe the percentage system doesn’t work. I know… It’s not a huge revelation nor does it require anyone to be a rocket scientist to figure out. Still, for the few people who may not be familiar with the subject matter, let us summarize how things work:

A critic reviews the game and assigns it a score between 0 and 100. Maybe 1 and 100, I don’t know. Because if it’s really between 0 and 100, then 64’ler’s “Wings” review actually makes some sense. Anyway… The problem is the way this scale’s been used. The distribution of scores is not linear. Instead it’s like this:

If a game is good it gets something between 90 and 100. You can buy this game without thinking much. In most cases you won’t be disappointed.

If a game is average it gets something between 80 and 90. These games are merely not bad… You can buy them if you are a fan of the genre or if you are really interested in that specific game for some freak reason, but you last dime should better be spent on something else.

If a game gets something between 70 and 80, then it’s “meh”. These games are not really good. Under normal circumstances you should not buy them, but maybe you just like that movie and now you want to play the game, or maybe you’re a fan of the company who made the game, or maybe you’re a fan of the franchise.

That’s pretty much how it works. Oh… What about games with a below-70 score. Well, they’re all crap. They’re so bad that you should not even breathe the air which just so unluckily happens to be in the same room as a below 70-game.

So yeah… This is pretty much how it doesn’t work…
Germans tried fix this in a magazine called PC Player. Not the British magazine. The German one…
The legendary German print magazine PC Player which was published between 1993 and 2001 was intent on fixing the percentage system. Their usage of this familiar system was so different from their competitors that they actually warned the reader every month not to compare their scores with other magazines.

Their first rule was simple and logical enough. The percentage scale gives us a potential score between 1 and 100. So let’s use the whole scale for a change. Let’s stop giving 80 to average games. Instead let us give 50 to that game. Anything above 50 is a good game, for anything with a score above 50 is above average. Anything below 50 is a bad game. But the magnitude of the goodness and badness depends on its proximity to 50. 50 was never a clean cut line. So obviously there wasn’t much difference between 49 and 51. They were both average games. More or less…

But this wasn’t all.

The PC Player system declared beforehand that no game shall ever receive a score of 100, for no game is perfect. Regardless of how good the game is, 100 was just not to be given as a review score.
On top of that, during a calendar year, only a few games should get something between 90 and 100. One or two games… Maybe three… But that was it. These games were considered to be masterpieces; games which would be fun not only for the fans of the genre but also for those who are not fans of that particular type of game. They also received the PC Player Platinum Award. You’d know these games are really, really good.
Then there was the PC Player Gold Award. Every month, only a few games were able to get that, for games with a score between 80 and 90 earned a Gold Award. You also instantly knew that these games are really, really good.
For reference, games with a Platinum Award were top three games of that year and Gold Award games were runner-ups.

Done? No. These are Germans we’re talking about.

Every review had a chart displaying the scores of similar games together with the score of the game in question, so that the reader can quickly compare it to other games in the same genre. Yes, Gran Turismo is a good racing simulator, but is it better than Forza? Are there better games? Is this game my best choice?

All these questions were answered. But see, this represented a problem. Meditate on the problem below:

“Bushido Blade 2” was a really good fighting game back when it was released in 1998. But how does it hold up to “Street Fighter 4” today? Would you rather buy “Street Fighter 4” or hunt for a PSone and a vintage CD of “Bushido Blade 2”?
PC Player solved this problem by extracting 5 points from a game’s score for every year after it was released. So let’s say both “Street Fighter 4” and “Bushido Blade 2” received a flat 90 when they were reviewed. “Bushido Blade 2”s score today would be a mere 20. At least according to PC Player…
Yeah well…

But Does It Work?
Fooled you… You all know we’re focusing on the wrong problem here. The problem is not the percentage scale, or our ridiculous stars or letter marks…
The percentage scale DOES work, for the reasons I have stated above. All this info is known to both critics and gamers. Regardless of how “wrong” the language is on a technical level, when both parties can communicate errors in grammar are really irrelevant.
The scores are not the problem. They are a consequence. We get the scores… We all do.
What doesn’t work is the review itself. Not the score which comes after.
David Jaffe looks at all these AAA titles getting 90+ scores and wonders how we’re able to produce so many awesome games?
Are all these games really awesome?
Consider how the movie industry can produce a 90+ hit only every now and then. Check Rotten Tomatoes if you’re not sure about this.
Either our games are really, amazingly good… Or there is something wrong with the reviewing process our critics use.
But before we can even begin to determine what’s wrong with our reviews we should define our subject. We should ask ourselves a simple question.
WTF is a review?

 
 

Story Review: “Wet”

02 Oct

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It’s just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.  

Idea:

“Wet” is all about mixing crazy Hong Kong movie action with 70′s exploitation cinema. While this presents the developers a lot of opportunities for storytelling and stylistic purposes, there isn’t really anything terribly original here. The writers obviously did not delve deep into the films of the era they are trying so hard to mimic. So in theory the idea is good. If only it was in better hands…

Rating: 1 out of 2

Setting:

An otherwise pretty contemporary setting gets partly interesting for being free of the usual constraints of the laws of physics. This is your usual video game universe where people never suffer any injuries if they consciously jump from great heights, slow motion saves you from bullets and chainsaws are actually better melee weapons than swords.

There is no constant location here. True to form, this is a location hopping adventure. Rubi literally travels around the world. You will visit, Texas, Hong Kong and London. The problem is that none of these places have a distinctive look to themselves. The world in “Wet” usually consists of hallways and warehouses. The setting is neither interesting nor pretty to look at and it doesn’t help the story at all.

Rating: 0 out of 2

Characters:

Like my review of characters in “Batman: Arkham Asylum”, this is a tough one too. In theory things are great. “Wet” has a lot of interesting, larger than life characters like “Batman: Arkham Asylum” does. And they all have a pretty detailed background written for them. Especially on the visual side of things, it’s clear that a lot of care went into creating these characters. Rubi’s outfit is carefully constructed to be both utilitarian and sexy at the same time, but the sexiness is subtly male instead of pure female. For all intents and purposes we can say Rubi is a man in the body of a woman. Many of the character designs are so interesting that my research partner Dr. Gülin Terek Ünal, was especially interested in them and took her time to examine every single aspect of their clothing and accessories. Pelham, Tarantula, Ze Kollektor and even Dr. Afro are all interesting characters living in a 70s comic book version of our modern world.

The problem though is that there are simply an awful lot of them compared to the relatively short run-time of the story itself. So many of them have literally a few seconds of screen time. Some of them, like The Torturer, die right after they are introduced. It’s a funny detail that the life of some mobs in this game last more than quite a lot of supposedly major characters.

Side characters in a story are there to challenge the protagonist in different ways to invoke different character traits in her, so that we can get to know her and she can evolve. But the number of characters in this story make it very hard for any side character to be involved in the proceedings in a meaningful way. Consequently Rubi’s interactions with them are very limited. Combine that with horribly uninteresting dialog and at the end of the day you will realize that the wonderful visual style of the characters is gone down the drain and you don’t care about any of the characters at all.

Sure, Pelham is evil, but you don’t hate him enough because you don’t exactly get his motivation for doing that thing he did. Was it a threat directed towards William Ackers, was it payback or was he trying to frame Rubi? Why should I be surprised or impressed upon witnessing Zhi’s betrayal when he isn’t even established as a likable character I know or care about. Why should I be sad when the terribly generic Ming dies? You could have replaced him with a simple computer screen giving info. (minus the accent).

In fact the characters are so forgettable that I am struggling to remember their names even though the names are printed on screen with giant letters.

Rating: 0 out of 2

Plot Structure:

This is a fairly generic revenge story with no interesting plot development at all. Rubi is a “fixer” who does not really need any reason but money to do whatever she does. She is double crossed and fooled. She then gets angry and kills everyone on her path. And that’s pretty much about it. In spirit of fairness though, this isn’t any less than what was expected from the movies “Wet”s trying to mimic. Plot, here, is just an excuse for steering the characters to the next action set piece, and a very weak one at that.

On the plus side you have some nice plot twists thrown into the mix. The main mystery here is the reason why Ackers wants to save his son and then kills him. The fact that Ackers isn’t Ackers makes some sense. But it also proves how dumb Rubi actually is for not checking out who she’s working for exactly.

In general the plot follows a pattern. Rubi does some job. Things go wrong. Rubi needs info. Rubi finds info. Rubi does the next job. Redo from start. Insert combat between these sentences and you have the plot structure of “Wet”. It never pauses to develop character relations or conflicts. It has no tolerance for scenes in which you can breathe. Consequently this action roller-coaster turns into an action free fall. Action saturation makes you care less for the plot.

Some obvious opportunities for developing the plot are missed. There is obvious potential for a love affair between Trevor and Rubi for instance. Imagine the impact Trevor’s death would have if he and Rubi were romantically involved a few years ago. Imagine Rubi’s anger. Imagine how the final relationship between William Ackers and Rubi would be. And this is only one of the many missed opportunities here.

The plot here is simply not personal enough for us to care. It almost feels like there were previous episodes of Rubi’s adventures and we have missed them. This would have been okay in this genre but “Wet” doesn’t feel like a good Rubi story.

Rating: 1 out of 2

Craftsmanship:

Again in theory “Wet”s central idea is a great opportunity for the developers run wild with their craftsmanship. In practice it feels rushed and centered too much around the meta aspect of things. They went you to feel like you’re in a movie theatre. There is a grainy filter, visible flickering of the projector, commercial breaks and a great licensed sound track. The occasional red filter is done well too.

The problem with these ideas is that they are not always utilized correctly. Commercial breaks are not between acts and come off as random. Transitions are awkward. Red filtered scenes feel interesting for the first few times but afterwards you get tired of them. There are no other filters and even though it sounds like a nice idea to use the filter in a car chase scene, “Wet” uses it in the wrong car chase scene. You get to see a red haze in a spectacular scene which makes you want to see it in all its explosive glory.

“Wet”, also fails in writing department. This kind of story requires a lot of impressive one liners, punchlines and long dramatic speeches following the action. “Wet” fails in all of these areas and fails to use other attributes of the movies it’s trying to mimic. The dialog is simply forgettable.

Rating: 0 out of 2

OVERALL:  2 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: “Infamous”, “Batman: Arkham Asylum”, “Wet”

NEXT: “Planescape: Torment”

 
 

Less than entirely obvious

03 Apr

I want to talk about a scene in an episode of The Mentalist today.

The Mentalist is a TV show in which the titular Mentalist “helps” the police solve crimes. I won’t go into the general fiction of the series too much, but I just want to point out one thing to illustrate how the writers of The Mentalist feel about being obvious.

The “outsider helps police” trope always needs an explanation. Is he an author doing “research” for his book who hangs around because he falls in love with the pretty, sassy, unavailable detective? Does he discover a higher calling to use his talents, whatever they may be, for good? Those would be two obvious approaches. Revenge doesn’t seem to fit too well as a motivation for the outsider helping the police, but this is precisely what motivates Patrick Jane. A serial killer has taken his wife and daughter from him. There are no useful leads. By being part of the police in some way, he sees the best chance for Red John to be apprehended. This colours his relationship with most other characters on the show–he sees no reason to play by the rules, he makes no excuses why he does what he does, and he surely doesn’t hide the fact that, given half a chance, he will choke the life out of Red John with his own two hands.

The episode I want to talk about today is 3×18, The Red Mile. Let’s not preoccupy ourselves too much with the plot. The butler did it. I want to shine a light on the relationship between Patrick Jane and Dr. Steiner. We’ve seen Dr. Steiner before. He’s a medical examiner and a rather stuffy personage. Obviously, Jane played a practical joke on him when he first appeared in the show. This is set up early in the episode in the usual way for The Mentalist:

LISBON: We all know how much you like to make fun of Dr. Steiner. So don’t!

JANE: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

LISBON: No humouring yourself at his expense!

JANE: Is he that way? (walks off)

We know what’s coming: a bureaucrat out of his depth playing by the rules, Jane running circles around him, embarrassing him in inventive ways. And sure enough, a note appears on the deceased saying “You are about to think, what the hell? How did Jane do that?”

So far, so normal for the Mentalist. Soon enough, Steiner shows up at the office and asks to help with the case. The corpse has gone missing, he considers himself responsible, etc. Jane is very eager to have him help, and those of us who’ve seen a bunch of The Mentalist episodes before immediately start asking ourselves: what’s the play? What is he setting him up for? Has he understood that Steiner is involved in the disappearance of the corpse? Is this some convoluted practical joke? Lisbon asks Jane point blank, and Jane insists that Steiner wanted to be brought along and he said yes, and that was all.

Then, of course, we find out that Steiner is dying and that Jane understood this immediately upon seeing him at the crime scene. I kept trying to construct plot-paths that would end up with the “I am dying” bit being a lie; at one point, Steiner uses the fact that he’s dying to sell a solicitation for a bribe, saying essentially “why am I asking for $50,000 to keep silent? Because I’m dying, and I’d like to have a few days in comfort.” Immediately I wanted to say, a-hah! Jane has been coaching him for this. Jane has probably told him to mention the fact that he was dying in the suspect’s house so the butler could overhear it, and that would help sell the bribe. It wasn’t a convincing development, and the writers of The Mentalist are more cruel than me: Steiner is dying.

In the scene when this fact is revealed, Jane immediately reveals his motivation for bringing Steiner along: it’s a distraction. Something to keep his mind occupied. Keep him from thinking about the fact that he may not have much more than a month.

The case is solved. The butler and the mother-in-law are arrested. And then we come to the final scene. Jane is at Steiner’s house. Steiner says that he knows what will happen next. That it will be bad, and that it will get worse. Says he has no intention of letting nature take its course. “There are pills I can take.” Jane, being the pragmatic man that he is, just nods and says he understands. But, Steiner continues, the thought of him being the corpse on the slab being examined is something he can’t take. Highly irrational, possibly, but even Jane would probably allow a little irrationality in the face of death. So Steiner has found a solution: if his death were to be witnessed by a law enforcement official, no compulsory autopsy would take place. He is asking Jane to witness his suicide so that he does not have to be dissected.

And here we are. From a setup that reminded us of the practical jokes Jane played on this man a few episodes ago (including the abduction of a corpse to be used as a prop in tricking a confession out of a suspect), from an initial scene that seemed to set up further shenanigans, we come to this dying man’s home where he asks a final favour of Jane.

And Jane says no. The character of Patrick Jane is highly complex, and one of his many facets is that he knows exactly how much he can take. He does not overestimate his mental capacities. And clearly he’s made up his mind that witnessing a man’s suicide is not something he can stomach. As Steiner walks him to the door, apologizing profusely for having brought the subject up in the first place, Jane hesitates and asks if Steiner has tea in his house. This recalls an earlier scene where Jane offered Steiner tea at the CBI offices. Steiner rejected at the time, and we understand now that Jane wanted to create a private moment to broach the topic of Steiner’s sickness. This is a very gentle echo of an earlier plot point, but it gets better.

Now I pride myself on understanding narrative at a deep level. Most series that I watch, I can roughly predict most developments simply because they feel “necessary” to me. I can decipher motivations and immediately understand where scenes are going. The tea threw me, though.

Jane walks into the kitchen. Steiner tells him where the tea is. Adds that there’s cookies in the cupboard. Accepts the offer of a cup for himself. Then, and only now did understanding dawn on me, Steiner says that he’s going in the other room now. And that he’ll only be a few minutes.

When you make a plot development less than obvious, when you make it, dare I say the word, subtle, you manipulate the intake on the side of the audience. Jane could have said “I will pretend to make a cup of tea while you take the pills now!” and whereas that would have made absolutely certain that everyone in the audience understood, it would have been the equivalent of inserting a suppository with a well-aimed blow from a sledge-hammer: certain delivery, but a little all-at-once and not entirely pain-free.

Let me just for a second praise the acting here: George Wyner as Dr. Steiner and Simon Baker as Patrick Jane do a tremendous job of being less than obvious. The distress in Jane as he makes up his mind to stay after all, the gratefulness in Dr. Steiner–all these are handled deftly and carefully, with small movements and subdued facial expressions.

This was the point where the relationship between these characters had come to its final, logical stage: not only does Steiner trust Jane entirely and without hesitation, Jane has come to respect Steiner to the point where he does him a massive last favour. A lesser series would have cut to credits here. It’s clear that Jane will watch him die. A squeamish director would have ended here for another reason: what follows is emotionally brutal. But we linger.

In the final scene of the episode, Patrick Jane is sitting next to Dr. Steiner on his couch. Steiner has taken the pills. He is clearly fading. He asks Jane about the note. Did he have an arrangement with the deputy? Jane confirms that he did. And then we come to the final bit that prompted me to write this little piece here. Jane tells Steiner that he used to work with carnies, that he got a start in close-up magic. And he takes out a coin and demonstrates, vanishing and reappearing the coin in front of Steiner’s eyes.

And as he does this, it becomes absolutely clear to us that the relevant action of the entire episode is replayed to us in summary. Jane distracts a dying man. This is so subtle, so gentle, that it sinks into your awareness calmly and silently. When you realize that you understand, you feel the goosebumps. There was no rectal application of sledge-hammers; only a soft, gradual percolation of understanding.

STEINER: “Patrick. Thank you.”

JANE: “Just watch the coin. And it’s gone. It’s there… and then it’s gone.”

 
 

Pat Ingoldsby

20 Mar

I live in Dublin. It is a good city to live in: anywhere that’s worth going to is within walking distance of my flat (thank you Dublin, how very thoughtful), the architecture is pretty enough (as long as you keep your eyes high enough not to notice the piles of rubbish accumulating around the lower parts of the architecture), and the people. The people!

Since I don’t know much about architecture and everywhere I go I go for people, this post is going to be about the people. Or one that I met today, briefly. His name is Pat Ingoldsby, and he is a poet.

Here’s a thing that Kurt Vonnegut once said about humans:

In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.

And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.

– Kurt Vonnegut, the Books of Bokonon / Cat’s Cradle

He also said this:

God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!

– Kurt Vonnegut, The last rites of Bokonism / Cat’s Cradle

When I look at people around me and I feel a cynical thought (of which I have a great many in my head), I think to myself, what would Vonnegut have to say about that thought, if I were a character in a book he was writing? A direct consequence of thinking in this way is that I met a lot of other kinds of sitting-up mud. An indirect consequence is that I say “so it goes” way too often. So it goes.

Today I was walking Róisín, who has a lot of apostrophes in her name and is a very new friend indeed, to the train station. This proved harder than it sounds since there are a lot of people in Dublin on a sunny day like today, and she knows all of them. Every single one. Finally we left the very crowded Grafton Street area behind us, only to run into Pat Ingoldsby on Westmoreland Street, who was selling his books by the central bank. Pat’s a poet.

Now here’s the thing about clichés: they are valid and logical thoughts that died because they got thought too often. The starving poet is a cliché. The starving poet who has withdrawn from big media and refuses to have his work scrutinized by academia is a bigger cliché. But then you meet Pat, and it makes sense.

Buggies are frequently followed by a debris trail
Which usually includes a pink sock.

– Pat Ingoldsby, “A Beautiful Fact of Life”

You see, for the longest time I was labouring under an unfortunate misconception: that poetry, to be any good, would need to be cryptic and densely stuffed with meaning and metaphor and imagery. I blame it on my mind’s tendency to make its own etymologies, really: the German word for poetry is “Dichtung”, and dicht is German for dense. Which, of course, plays no role in Dichtung’s etymology: it derives from the Latin dictare, which is to speak in front of people.

As I was saying, I was walking around town with Róisín, who has a band in Germany called Róisín and the Beards, and who’s been making music for the longest time. Now Pat, he used to be on the telly here, doing a show for children until he apparently got fired for saying a bad thing. At any rate, Róisín had known his work for a long time, and she had written a song about one of his short stories.

If you approach someone who is holding
a JESUS LIVES sign and say – “Don’t be silly!”
you will sometimes get an amazing reaction.

– Pat Ingoldsby, “I have learned”

So we sat on the pavement and chatted about things. Róisín wrote down the lyrics of the song for Pat, and his reaction–I cannot do it justice. The thing when you are near a man like him is that you feel so much honest, genuine happiness that you ask yourself, later, when you’re no longer in his presence, if you don’t maybe misremember. Surely this man of 68 with a paralyzed arm who spends hours every day trying to sell his books on the street (and often sells none), who clearly should be but isn’t recognized as one of the great living poets of Ireland, surely that man can’t be this happy. But he is, and he is funny in a way that makes you happy too. Sure, he screamed abuse at an innocent-looking tourist girl who took a picture of his “Dublin poet. Anywhere else I’d be a God.” sign without talking to him first, but that, too, was genuine.

Realising that I had got a graveyard full of dead people
all to myself, I stood on a convenient pedestal
and said – “I’d like to start off today
with a little poem that I wrote myself entitled…”
Before I could go any further
there was a chorus of shouts and yells.
“Hey! Cut that out!”
“We’re trying to have a rest here!”
“Come back when you’re dead,” one voice said,
“You’ll be great then.”

– Pat Ingoldsby, “Dead or Alive”

I think Pat taught me two things:

  1. The starving artist thing is pretty cool, as long as it happens to others.
  2. Poetry is about talking to people. Sure you pick the moment and make sure it’s poignant, but don’t hurt yourself with the how. It’s the what.

This confuses and elates me. Pat scribbles poems in a cheap notepad all day long. He has a thought, turns it around in his head once, commits it to paper, and moves on. He does not compose. He scribbles.

Every time the bus-driver jammed on the brakes,
the old ladies shot forward on their seats
and finished up on the floor
but they didn’t seem to mind at all.
“Again!!” they shouted. “Again!”!

– Pat Ingoldsby, Just Do It

This is poetry. What can we learn from this for prose, for narratives, for stories in games and films and tv shows?

Nothing, really, because I’m sounding like an academic dissecting some imaginary ephemeral message in Pat’s stuff. There isn’t, and that’s the point. He’s an old man who’s lived a pretty interesting life and who never lost the fascination with it all. He observes and records life through the prism of his mind. That is all. It is that simple. It needs nothing more.

Stories don’t need to twist a hundred times. There doesn’t need to be thematic coherence and dialogue doesn’t need to be a clever dual-meaning commentary on the theme in the underlying action. Things should happen that are funny or sad or infuriating. You, the audience, should react. And it should be honest.

For extra credit, write a 2000 word essay on how the story of The Nameless One who lost his mortality (laced with theme as though it may be) is a hundred times funnier and sadder and more infuriating than the pointless exploits of Shepherd, the silly travels of Soap McTavish, and the empty rebellion of Jim Raynor combined.

“I don’t believe in me anymore,” said God.
“Oh shit!” said the cardinals with the big rings.
“It’s alright,” said God, “I was only joking.”
We’ll decide what’s funny or not!”
said the cardinals. “For your penance
say ten Hail Marys!”

– Pat Ingoldsby, “And Watch Yourself in Future”

 

 
 

Fuck you, grapefruit

01 Mar

Fuck you, grapefruit. Fuck you right in your sickly dark-red ass.

Grapefruits are the Nigerian spam of the world of fruit. Yay, I just got $20,000,000 off this Nigerian prince on the internet. Wait, why is my bank account empty? Yay, oranges! Wait, grapefruit.

In every way that oranges are awesome, grapefruits are awful. Just look at them! Oranges are joyful, bright, full of life–they’re orange! Grapefruits are the sickly pale hue of a nerd that sits in front of his PC 20 hours a day grinding quests in World of Warcraft. “That’s not all I do,” Grapefruits insist in their whiny high-pitched voices. “I have other interests! For instance, let me show you my 15 terabyte collection of racist hentai. I’m the only collector outside of Japan!” Go away, grapefruit. “This one is about a nazi officer who summons demons by raping Chinese mothers to death.” Fuck you, grapefruit.

Look at their flesh! Oranges are brimming with positive orange-ness. You can see all the sun they stored up, conveniently turned into TASTINESS for you. Even their flesh looks joyful and willing. “Yay!” it seems to shout. “Eat me eat me EAT ME!”

Grapefruits look like afterbirth.

And then you taste them. Oh my god, why would you do that to yourself? Oranges taste of summer and carelessness. Grapefruits taste like a fire in a chemical plant. Where your grandma burned to death. No, grapefruits taste like that horrible medicine you had to take when you had that embarassing childhood disease, and so you ate the whole packet at once just to get it over with, only to learn that those were suppositories. Grapefruits taste like something that is meant to go up your ass.

Guess what, oranges are good for you too. Only they don’t feel the need to punch you in the balls with every sip and every bite to drive the point home.

We must rid the world of this plague of grapefruits. We must destroy all of them and every last drop of the drink derived from them must be evaporated. We must exterminate all the juice.

 
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Eggsbox

21 Dec

I’m busy preparing for my thesis preview these days. So there may not be meaningful updates for a while. Until then this should make you realize why BBC rules (occasionally)

 
 

Welcome To The Future of Guitar

19 Dec

According to Misa Digital Instruments, their soon to be released Kitara is running Linux. Yes we are talking of a guitar running an operating system inside. You didn’t see this one coming Les Paul, did you now?

Inside a body of high-density injection-molded ABS polymer, Kitara contains an onboard digital synthesizer, MIDI controls and an eight inch multi-touch screen. It is the future of guitar or so we think. It will be released on the 3rd of April and will come in two variants. You can pre-order now. The regular edition goes for $ 850. For the limited edition though you’ll need to part with $ 2900. So what are you waiting for. Go, go, go!