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American Horror Story: A Recap of the Pilot

In another one of my crazy hair-brained schemes to do some more writing, I've decided to try some recapping here.

Part of this was because, as I was watching American Horror Story, I realized that this was quite possibly the most over the top thing I have ever seen, and that I had far much to say about it without becoming the really boring guy who spends half an hour telling you about a tv show.  I already am that guy, but I do make an effort not to be.

So anyways...I started writing and plopped out 2000 words before I really knew what I had done.  This hasn't happened to me for awhile.
At this point I'm not sure if I'm going to keep doing this with American Horror Story or not, but I'll probably try since this ended up being just too much fun.

Quite obviously this has a spoiler alert.

Also it has a flow chart.

I do flow charts now.

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Review: Dragon Age 2


Apart from Batman: Arkham City, Dragon Age II was at the top of the “games I must have” list for 2011.  After the first Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, I’m pretty much willing to buy anything Bioware produces, such is my confidence that it will be a satisfying, meaty game that I can sink my teeth into.  And for the most part, Dragon Age II has lived up to my expectations to it, though it’s not without some serious flaws.

We’ll start with the good: with the first Dragon Age, Bioware managed to build a fantasy world filled with an almost staggering level of depth and history.  It took the typical races (Human, Dwarf, Elf) for a fantasy setting, and created a solid level of tension among them, but rather than just briefly explain “humans and elves don’t get along” it created a complex, rich history for each race explaining exactly why they don’t get along. Each race had its own distinct cultural, religious and social identity, with an almost ridiculous amount of detail given into each within the books and notes you find on your quest.  Dragon Age II keeps this up, creating a fully fleshed out city state within that same world (though not in the same country).  There’s an almost unheard of focus on the political realities that would be present in such a city: different interest groups are constantly in conflict with one another, and part of your job is to navigate between them, picking sides and affecting the city with your choices.  As someone who minored in political science, this is interesting ground to see covered in a video game: an exploration of how one individual can change their society for better or worse, and how sometimes no matter how much you do, there will be things you cannot change.  A significant portion of the plot also focuses on the Qunari, a race which was only really glimpsed at in Origins.

Likewise, Bioware continues to do an excellent job in terms of character development.  The main character Hawke, is fantastic.  The fact that he/she actually has a voice in this game (the first dragon age had a wider choice of main characters, making it a little unfeasible to provide a voice) gives him a lot more personality to connect with, though you still have a great deal of control over what that personality shapes up to be (I say “him” because I chose to play as a male, but you can choose a female as well, also fully voiced).  Some people have expressed disappointment in the companion characters because in some cases they fall short of the great characters from the first one.  Personally I think this speaks more to the tremendous strength of those characters than a weakness in the new ones.  The characters in Dragon Age 2 have their own quirks and charms and while there isn’t anyone quite as irresistibly infuriating as Morrigan, trying to make an equivalent to her would feel cheap and uninspired.  So I applaud the choice to pursue creating characters who have their own merits.  Also they’ve managed to take Anders, who was a solid but fairly forgettable character from Dragon Age: Awakening, and make him much more fleshed out and brilliantly complex.  Also the dialogue system is greatly improved.  Using a dialogue wheel, which uses icons to help you better understand the “tone” of what you are choosing to say (an olive branch appears to signify diplomacy for example), is a vast improvement over the first installment, where you would occasionally choose something that sounded quite innocent and then realize too late it was actually sarcasm.  The one drawback is that this makes the romances a lot easier to pursue, whereas the first game was frustratingly realistic in that you really could never be sure of the right thing to say in order to win someone over.

The graphics have gotten a much needed facelift too.  The distinct races are now actually distinct rather than just slightly different from one another, and that really helps to understand the tensions between them, as well as make things a lot more fun and colorful to look at.  Combat is much more interesting too: your characters leap around and slash much more full heartedly, making it a lot more fun to watch. 

It’s a shame that with all of this focus on redesign that the environments didn’t get the same treatment.  While the first game presented a vast, varied world on a scale that suited its epic quest, the second game, more modest in its story (we’ll talk about that in a minute) is also much more modest in its surroundings.  In the first 10-15 hours of Origins, I travelled through deep winding forests, vast ruins from a forgotten civilization, snowy peaks and city slums, and there’s even more past that! Everywhere you went felt unique and interesting.  In the first 10-15 hours of Dragon Age 2, I saw….the city of Kirkwall, a mountain, and a coast.  And that’s pretty much all you’re ever going to see.  The areas feel much smaller, and you find yourself constantly going back to the same places.  Now some of this is due to the smaller scope of the story, which doesn’t require as much far off questing as the first story did.  I also realize that this is a budget issue, and that if gamers expect 70 or so hours worth of gaming for the same price as a much shorter game, some corners are going to get cut.  But still, it takes a bit away from the experience when you start immediately recognizing the same back alley layout in a completely different part of the city. After 20 hours you start saying “oh look…we’re here again” with alarming frequency.  Even a couple more environments would have eased this situation.

In the end, the story is probably going to be the most divisive part of this game.  It’s a strange thing: simultaneously larger and smaller than Origins.  It takes place over a much longer period of time (10 years) but is a much more intimate story, focused mostly on a man trying to make his mark upon the world.  For most RPG gamers (or really most gamers) who are used to epic quests where the fate of the whole world lies in the balance, I imagine this will be a bit jarring.  Sure, at points the fate of the city lies in the balance, but the stakes aren’t nearly as high.  Personally I like this concept.  I think it speaks to the growth of video games as a form of storytelling.  Bioware creates a fully fleshed out world, and then basically lets you plot your own way through it, giving you the outline for the story, but really letting you be the one to create it.  Also, I like that it focuses on a part of the story rarely told in video games: after catastrophic events like the ones presented in the first game, how do people carry on? How do they rebuild?  Not every game has to be about saving the world.  I think it’s a bold step to try and move game storytelling in a new direction.

The one drawback to this approach is that not having the world in the balance really takes a lot of the urgency out of your questing.   It feels a lot more episodic, and there’s less of a through line to things.  This is the aspect of it that I think might turn some people off.  Personally, I was so absorbed by the world and the moral challenges presented at every turn that I didn’t so much care about the fact that the plot was less involved than the original, but in the future I suspect Bioware will have to try to create a bit more of a balance between the two.

I’m not sure I liked Dragon Age 2 as much as I liked Origins, but it still manages to prove that in terms of building fully fleshed out and immersive worlds, Bioware is second to none. 

Radiohead of the Week: OK Computer


Before I get going here I’m just going to direct people to this video, which actually sums up beautifully previous points I’ve made and will likely continue to make:
 


I swear in the Kid A years I witnessed that conversation take place at least a hundred times, almost verbatim, in a discussion board format.

Moving on:

I really should have seen this coming.

I mean you wake up one day and decide “hey, here’s a great idea: I’m going to write about every single Radiohead album! I love Radiohead! This will work great!”   Only when you start doing it do you realize how bloody hard that is.  This is a band that’s analyzed to death, and adding anything to that is near impossible.  I tried when I was talking about The Bends, and I gave up and just spewed something out before I went insane.  And now we come to the big one: OK Computer…and honestly, what’s left to be said about it?  So here I’m probably going to get a bit more autobiographical about things because almost anything about the music has been said a thousand times before.Read more...Collapse )

As I mentioned previously, I got into Radiohead in earnest in the OK Computer period.  Before then, I imagine I had heard “Creep”, “Just” and probably “High & Dry”, but they hadn’t registered as much more than little blips on the radar.  The first time I listened to Radiohead in earnest would have been early 1998.  I had gotten the Big Shiny Tunes 2 CD (Remember Big Shiny Tunes?) with my Christmas money. Buried somewhere on the later parts of that CD was “Paranoid Android” (It would, among certain friends of mine at the time, be known as ‘the really weird song on Big Shiny Tunes 2”).  It took me at least a month to actually listen to the full song.  I didn’t get it.  The opening two minutes were slow, strange and more than a little unsettling (this was before I came to appreciate unsettling).  It was also incredibly out of place between Wide Mouth Mason and Age of Electric…I was fifteen, and thus incredibly fickle in my music choices… I would skip to the next track.  So for at least a month I was completely unaware of the fact that there is an absolutely massive guitar riff about halfway through “Paranoid Android”.  It wasn’t until one day that I was listening while playing Mario Kart, and too lazy to get up and skip the track that I actually listened to the whole song.  And when that riff came, seemingly out of nowhere, it practically opened up a new world.  After that I started gathering up as much Radiohead music as I could get my hands on.

I think anyone with more than a casual interest in music has “that” album: the album that changes how you view music.  Before OK Computer, I was mostly interested in the emotion behind the music, and not necessarily the construction of said music.  But listening to OK Computer, there are so many different things going on in the background, I swear to this day when I listen on headphones there are still new things that I’m picking out: little percussive noises in the background, layers of guitar buried way back in the mix of “Airbag”.  Before OK Computer, I think I can honestly say I wasn’t really aware that guitars made sounds other than “loud” sound and “quiet” sound. I remember obsessing over this album, trying to discover all the secrets in it, taking apart the jewel case to find the hidden message inside the tray liner. For me and a lot of people my age, this was where music stopped being just something to listen to and became something to get lost in. 

A lot of attention is given to the depressing nature of Radiohead’s music, and to be fair, they brought a lot of that upon themselves.  It’s very easy for someone to listen to “Exit Music (For a Film)” or “No Surprises” and conclude, as one newscaster shown in the documentary Meeting People is Easy does, that this is “music to slit your wrists to” (That film doesn’t exactly help their “most depressed band on the planet” image too much either).  But I’ve always felt that that’s a far too narrow approach.  For me, this album’s always had a bit of a strange idealism to it.  It’s a frustrated idealism to be sure, and it only peaks out on occasion, but it’s definitely there.  The album opens with “Airbag”: a song about reassessing one’s life in the aftermath of a near death experience and its chorus is “In an interstellar burst I am back to save the universe!”  Sure the world is crumbling around him, but there’s an overarching theme throughout the album of trying to overcome the alienation and disconnect of the world around us and connect with one another.  For all its anxiety about the world going to hell, it doesn’t have to be that way.  The last words on the album are surprisingly common: someone shouting at a person rushing by to slow down.  But rather than it being an angry accusation, it’s more of a plea: slow down so you can see what’s going on around you for once, be a part of the world rather than just rushing past it.  If OK Computer can be said to have a “goal”, it isn’t to bring people down, but to wake them up to how they interact with the world around them.  The world could be a beautiful place if we would just recognize what’s actually important.  A surprisingly hopeful message that for a lot of people gets lost in the din.

Radiohead of the Week: The Bends




 

If Pablo Honey was Radiohead’s quest for the perfect rock song, The Bends is where they achieve that goal.  Several times over. 

It’s interesting looking back on some of these albums, particularly in terms of how they are received by different audiences.  I had a conversation with a teenager the other day about Radiohead and he commented about how ‘normal’ it sounded.  He was used to the ‘weird’ Radiohead of OK Computer and beyond, so something that sounded so commonplace coming from them was jarring to him.  Of course, at the time it came out, this sort of thing wasn’t commonplace.   In 1995 there were still really two dominant sounds in rock: American Grunge and Britpop, both of which were largely dominated by male aggression and swagger.  The Bends on the other hand is a lot more introspective and fretful.  While it certainly has its loud guitars, they come across as skittery and anxious: a panic attack as opposed to a swagger.  The overall sound of acoustic guitar combined with an aching falsetto would soon come to dominate Britpop (Side note: if you ever want to have fun with a Radiohead fan, comment on how much they sound like Coldplay and watch the sparks fly from their ears).  It’s easy to point out how much other bands have copied Radiohead, but it’s also easy to understand why they do: The Bends is still the most gorgeous sounding record they’ve made, and listening to it you almost have to ask “who wouldn’t want to copy this?”

I could easily go on for several pages about all the beautiful music on this album (“Fake Plastic Trees”, “Street Spirit”, “Black Star”) but a lot of that’s already been said, much better, by other people.  Instead I’m going to focus a bit on what the imitators commonly leave out: the rougher edges.  See, for all the talk of beautiful melodies and gorgeous arrangements that goes on around the bends, a lot of people seem to gloss over just how much tension there is on this album.  The Bends is widely understood as the band’s reaction to sudden fame and their frustration with being considered one hit wonders after the success of “Creep”.  That frustration bubbles under the surface of every song, but for me the best moments on The Bends are when it explodes, suddenly and violently in the midst of all the beauty.  The way the soothing “Nice Dream” gives way to that threatening guitar solo towards the end, or how the chorus to my “My Iron Lung” comes on like a sudden seizure.  “Just” remains, to me, the ultimate Radiohead guitar song with all three guitars having a competition of who can make the most noise/cram the most notes into the song, with Thom in the end struggling to be heard above the din.  To me, that struggle to get one’s message across in the midst of chaos, is the mission statement of this album (and possibly of the overall Radiohead discography).  Coldplay (I actually have no real dislike of Coldplay, for the record:  they’re just the most obvious example to use here) have done a fine job of carrying on the more gentle aspects of this style, but for me the thing that keeps them from being truly great is that they’ve never really captured the dynamic range that a band like Radiohead has: they’ve always come across as just a little too timid to make the bold statement.  They always just seem to play on the safe side.

It’s remarkable, given the fact that this is only their second album and the pressure they were under at the time, how confident and self-assured Radiohead sound here.  In retrospect, you can see them starting to forge their own path, to push the boundaries of what a rock band is, though obviously it leaves no clues as to how far down that path they would later travel.  For better or for worse, depending on who you ask, Radiohead would never sound this accessible again.

Review: Killzone 3

               


              

                As much as I like to sometimes talk about how games can be more than just “running around and shooting things”, there is something to be said for running around and shooting things.  After a long day of work, sitting down, powering up my Playstation and spending an hour or so running around a virtual world shooting things can be very satisfying indeed.  Generally speaking, I qualify First-Person Shooters as a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.  These are the action blockbusters of the gaming world: exciting and fast-paced, but more often than not lacking in terms of story and character.  And like action movies, that can become problematic.

                Let’s look at Killzone 3:  in terms of game play, it’s a very fun, fast paced game.  The single player campaign does what it should: it packs a lot of action into a fairly short time frame, ending before the sheer ridiculousness of what’s going on becomes a drag.  The AI in charge of your enemies is smart enough to make defeating it feel like a true accomplishment at times, and if you have to repeat a section you find the enemy soldiers don’t always do what they did the last time you played through that mission.  Not that I have any experience with guns, but the future sci-fi guns in Killzone actually feel more “realistic” to me than the guns of the modern-time Call of Duty do, in large part because reloading isn’t nearly as quick, which leads to a lot less reloading on the run and a lot more ducking for cover.  So far so good: in terms of the basic requirements of game mechanics, this is a winner all the way around.

                But the story, good lord, the story.   Granted, in pretty much any military-oriented shooter there’s a lot of glorification of war and soldiers, and that’s probably inevitable.  The problem is that more often than not this results in a lot of two dimensional military stereotypes parading around pretending to be “characters”.  There’s the hard-headed general, the loose cannon, the hero who’s trying to make sense of it all…so on and so forth.  No one feels real and quite frankly you never find yourself attached to any of them in any way that makes you care about the outcome.  Not that this would matter as much if the game didn’t attempt, very abruptly, right at the end of the game, to address some of the questionable moral situations that arise in war.

                I’m putting a SPOILER warning here, even though most of the readers I know of likely won’t play this game, and even those who will likely won’t care about the plot being spoiled, but it seems like I should anyways, as I’m about to shortly summarize the game’s ending:

                So here it is: The heroic ISA troops destroy a Helghast cruiser armed for an invasion of earth, and in the process detonate said cruiser and essentially wipe out the entire Helghan home world, committing an act of mass genocide.  One character says to the other “I think we wiped them all out” (I’m paraphrasing) another character says “oh my god” CREDITS ROLL.  It is literally that abrupt. 

                Now it seems to me that such an ending is trying for a bit of an “Oh my god what have we done?  Have we become the monsters we were fighting?” moment,  but since you have no connection to these characters or really much of an idea about who they are,  you don’t really feel  any sympathy for their moral dilemma or even if they have a moral dilemma for that matter.  The other issue with this is that for 3 games now the Helghast have been established as very very very evil.  Evil to cartoonish levels.   (Though admittedly, expecting subtlety from a game called KILLZONE might be asking a bit much) They have glowing red eyes and seem to have based all of their military uniforms and rallies on old Nazi footage.  The Decepticons on the old Transformers cartoons had more moral complexity.  So when they all get suddenly killed…it’s hard to really question that being a good thing.

                Which in the end is perhaps the biggest limitation of the shooter genre as a storytelling medium:  because these are games about running around shooting people, an essential part of these games is that you not like the people you’re shooting at so that you don’t feel bad about killing them.  These games often take a fairly black and white, good vs. evil stance.  When they do try to present a moral conflict, the results are often mixed because of the usually contradicting statements the game is trying to convey  (Note that this is not always the case:  part of what makes Bioshock such a great game is the way it uses the previously mentioned limitations to toy with the player’s expectations)

                And so Killzone 3 offers the standard first-person shooting experience:  fun, exhilarating, quick…and probably best to try and not think too much about it in the end.

 

Radiohead of the Week: Pablo Honey



So I’m back again, and really should stop leaving so long that I feel compelled to say "I’m back again," but here we go.

A large part of the return is the fact that Radiohead has a new album out and I feel really compelled to talk about it.  However that album is still only a week or so old and it feels right to give it more time to float around in my head before talking about it. So, in a possibly crazy move designed to get me back into a habit of regular updates, I’ve decided that I’m going to try for the next 8 weeks I’m going to talk about one Radiohead album a week, starting from the beginning (hopefully I’ll find the time to write about other things in there, but at the very least it gives me a goal.

Now, a disclaimer before I do this:  Not that I’ve ever really been terribly critical of anything I’ve talked about on here, but with Radiohead especially, I’m coming from a very clear fan boy perspective.   For me, Radiohead will always be THAT band: the band you find when you’re sixteen years old and changes the way you look at music.  The band whose albums I would put my headphones on and listen to in the dark well into the small hours of the morning. To give you an idea of how far this went: when I was 17 I saw them live at Molson Park in Barrie.  When my parents picked me up afterwards, they asked how the show was and I responded, with only slight exaggeration “Thom Yorke is God.  If the sun rises tomorrow, it is because he willed it so.”  So, if we’re looking for objective perspectives on Radiohead’s music…this is not the place.  There also points, like just now, where these reviews might start turning into autobiographical posts, simply due to how closely tied some of these albums are to different points in my life.  Such is the way things are when you talk about THAT band.

Radiohead was not even close to being THAT band when Pablo Honey came out.  I was 10 years old and barely aware of popular music, let alone “alternative” music.  If memory serves me I would have been just entering my Bryan Adams phase.   So I came to Pablo Honey much later, in fact I think I was probably in University the first time I listened to the album properly.  A large part of that was its reputation as “that other Radiohead album”.  Even though their biggest single, Creep, came from Pablo Honey, it was a bone of contention for many years among many Radiohead purists.  I got into Radiohead around the OK Computer years and was on fan message boards, where it was quickly established that Creep was the favourite song of non-fans.  (It was understood amongst us True Fans that if someone said their favourite Radiohead song was Creep, they were only pretending to be Radiohead fans, and as such, should be flamed.) Pablo Honey, by extension, was an album that was pretty often dismissed by more “serious” Radiohead fans, because of its relative immaturity and likely due to the fact that the band itself often talked about how much it didn’t like Creep.  So basically, I figured I didn’t need to bother all that much with it.

Pablo Honey is a fairly immature record, dealing with some pretty standard pop song topics (girls, self-loathing, wanting to be rock stars), but I still think it gets less respect than it deserves.  Yes, there are some not great songs, but as an example of early 90s brit-pop it still holds its own.    The band’s melodic gifts are on clear display, though not fully developed, and while they wear their influences on their sleeve, they wear them well.  The opener “You” reaches for the U2 anthem but throws some Pixies into the guitar breaks, giving the song some muscle.  The interesting thing listening to this album in retrospect is how much of it would be subverted by their later work.  So often on this album they seem to be reaching for the traditional rock anthem, nowhere more clearly than “Anyone Can Play Guitar” where Thom sings “I wanna be Jim Morrison!”  Later, they would spend most of their time deconstructing what makes a great rock song, but here they’re happy to just let the guitars fly. 

While this album doesn’t display much of the innovation that would later become Radiohead’s calling card, you can still see some of the seeds of their future work being planted here.  Creep may on the surface be a pretty simple and even cliché song about a guy in love with a girl who’s out of his league, but musically it’s the beginning of what would become one of Radiohead’s greatest strengths: taking a delicate melody and placing it in a hostile sonic environment.  They’ve done it a lot better since, but it still had to start somewhere.  And the jazzy closer “Blow Out”—easily the album’s best song—paves the way for a future filled with genre-blending and experimentation.

While Pablo Honey is certainly the weakest Radiohead album, that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism, given the fact that Radiohead’s weakest work is often still enough to overshadow its peers.  It’s a solid album showing a young band with a lot of potential, and thankfully, that potential would not be squandered.

Let me start by saying that Stephen King gets a bad rap.  Not as bad as he used to get, mind you, because his early books seem to have established their staying power as horror classics, if not just ‘classics’ in general.  Admittedly he’s not a man of lavish prose and poetry (though he does have moments) but as a storyteller, he’s damn good.  I could go on and rant about this (lord knows I have in the past) but the point is that I hold the man in fairly high esteem.  Yes his more recent works have been a little hit and miss but I highly doubt there’s any author as prolific as he is who isn’t also hit and miss. 

Under the Dome is one of King’s “epic” novels, where he lets himself run wild for about…1072 pages.  This is a big book, and because of that it took me awhile to read, not because it’s a particularly difficult book to read, it’s just that I do a lot of my reading in the staff rooms at the various schools I supply teach at and this isn’t the type of book that fits comfortably in a briefcase.  So it took awhile to get into and then a while to finish…and now it’s taking me awhile to digest.  I finished this book about two weeks ago and I honestly still can’t decide if it’s a hit or a miss.

The overall concept is great:  A large, invisible force-field in the shape of a dome lands over a small town, trapping everyone in the town inside.  No one can get in and no one can get out.  So the people inside the dome are left to fend for themselves, and of course, competing interests and interpersonal issues come to a head putting the people against each other and causing chaos.  What’s interesting for me about this book is that, for a Stephen King book clocking in over at over a thousand pages, how small a role the supernatural actually plays in the story.  Yes there’s a big mysterious dome trapping everyone in, but apart from providing a frame and cause for the story, the dome doesn’t do much.  All the suspense and horror is provided by the people within and how they react to these extreme circumstances.  For me this is a good thing, because I often find with King’s longer books, things go quite well until the last act when things get completely over the top and my suspension of disbelief is blown (I’m thinking of the last act of It here).  Here, the focus is more on an area where King excels, but is often overlooked: the interactions of people in a small town.  There’s a dynamic to small towns which King understands and is excellent at writing about, and this is almost an entire book based on that dynamic.

Where the book starts to be more of a “miss” with me though is that for such a great concept, the book is too unfocused sometimes to take proper advantage of it.  There are a couple of subplots that don’t really add much except for pages and only serve to repeat themes that are expressed elsewhere.  But the other big problem for me is the tone, which is really all over the map.  It’s clear that King is aiming for an allegory of modern American society as a whole.  The problem is that he goes from playing it very serious one instance to playing it as satire the next, so the tone flip flops between very serious and some of the funniest things King has ever written.  My favourite example of the latter is when, at the end of a chapter, a character expresses that she is fine with going through with a plan so long as “there’s no bloodshed” (a classic horror moment in itself), then you turn the page to find that the title of the next section is “BLOOD EVERYWHERE”.  It’s not that I have a problem with the mixing of tones in theory, but there are moments where the two collide with one another  in a way that’s a bit jarring and takes you out of an otherwise moving moment.  For example: very early in the book a man is making lunch in the kitchen, listening to LCD Soundsystem.  His wife comes into the room bleeding, the dome came down over her arm, chopping it off.  Because the town is experiencing a disaster, 911 is busy, so the man ends up holding his wife as she bleeds to death.  In the middle of this scene the narration notes that, while the rest of the power has gone out, the battery powered boombox has not, so LCD Soundsystem is still playing: “Not that Jack cared any longer; he’d lost his taste for techno.”

The other problem lies in the area where the satire is most obvious: the town’s leadership.  The first selectman, Andy Sanders, is a complete idiot.  The second selectman, Jim Rennie, is very intelligent and rules the town using Sanders as a puppet.  They’re very clearly analogues for Bush and Cheney, and King has even said as much in interviews.  Now, one of these days I’m going to write a rant about Bush-Bashing, which is practically a global sport but, in my opinion is lazy and not particularly useful.  (Please note that by “Bush-Bashing” I refer to over-simplified portrayals of George W. as either an idiot or the embodiment of evil or somehow both simultaneously:  Legitimate criticism of his policies, abilities as a leader etc. is important and very useful).  The problem here is that the book has some excellent commentary on the capacity humans have for evil.  In fact, the book contains a lot of solid meditations on the effects that fear and power can have on us, as well as our ability to be so extremely cruel.  But these sections lose a lot of their effect when you throw in a pair of cartoon bad guys with no complexity to them whatsoever.  Rennie is a good villain in that he’s absolutely despicable, but his presence places things squarely into a Good vs. Evil scenario which denies the complexity of the real world on which King is trying to comment. 

After all this rambling, I think I’ve decided that Under the Dome isn’t a bad book, it’s just a messy book.  It’s a good book that with a little more focus and precision, could have been a great book.  But, if you like Stephen King, there’s more than enough there to make it worth a read (perhaps wait for a more portable paperback edition though).

Game Review: Heavy Rain




                There are schools of thought that seem to feel video games should be more like movies (Play any of the Metal Gear Solid games and you’ll get my point).  “Cinematic” will often be used as high praise for a game.  I have to say I’m not overly fond of this trend.  The implication sometimes comes across that a game can only approach the status of “art” by mimicking an already established and respected art form.  I disagree with this because honestly I feel the best way for the video game to come into its own as an art form is by embracing those things it can do that no one else can.  Look at a game like Braid, for example, which as far as I’m concerned is not only a great game but art.  And it’s a very un-cinematic 2D platformer.

                So I approached Heavy Rain with some misgivings.  It is, after all the latest example of the “interactive entertainment” hybrid of cinematic sensibilities in a game format.  The game is basically a series of quick-time events to be played through (a quick-time event being where a scene plays and you must push buttons as prompted to give you a successful outcome).  Generally speaking QTEs are not very fun to play, which is why they’re used fairly sparingly.  In between these events there are scenes where you walk around an environment, interacting and looking for clues.  Writing that out, this does not seem like the kind of thing that would be enjoyable for an extended period of time.  Yet somehow, Heavy Rain manages to pull the balancing act off, largely in thanks to a compelling story and some flexibility in the difficulty levels.

                If you’re going to make a game that feels like a movie, you damn well better make sure you’ve got a story that would be good enough to make a film out of.  In Heavy Rain you play four characters: a father searching for his kidnapped son and an FBI agent, a P.I., and a journalist, all trying to save the boy before he is murdered.  The story has all the trademarks of a classic psychological thriller and handles them well.  Things start a little slowly, mostly to get you used to the various types of control prompts.  The first segment plays almost like the Sims in that you get up, do several mundane tasks (shave, shower, greet family, play tag with sons) and yet it’s strangely compelling to do these little things.  And it helps get you absorbed in the world of the characters before things start going to hell.  Once you get into the actual plot of the story, there’s a near constant tension that doesn’t let up. 

                The controls actually play better than I thought they would, partly because they’re somewhat forgiving (missing one button prompt doesn’t equal instant death thank god) and also because the story will adapt to your actions.  If you fail miserably at one sequence there will be consequences, but your game won’t end.  If a character dies, he’s dead for the rest of the game, but you can still follow the plot through the other three characters, and the ending will be different.  The whole thing ends up playing like an extremely elaborate Choose Your Own Adventure story.   Another effective thing they do with the controls is how the prompts will mirror the action of the scene.  If your character is feeling frantic and confused, the prompts will be blurry or shaky and it will be harder to make a clear decision.

                I’ve kind of been avoiding referring to Heavy Rain as a “game” because I’m not entirely sure it qualifies as one in most senses of the word.  It’s more of an experience, and when it’s at its finest, it can be extremely moving.  The overall theme of “How far would you go to save someone you love” is explored to its fullest potential in the story, and throughout there is a genuine sense of loss.  I’m not a father, so I can only imagine how much more of an impact this would have if I were.

                The only real problem is that sometimes they very things that help get you so absorbed in the story can also create a distance between the viewer and the story.  A couple sequences lose their momentum when you are trying to figure out exactly which way they would like you to move the joystick in order to accomplish something.  Also, there are some huge uncanny valley issues going on here, and while they’re overcome most of the time, certain scenarios, such as an interactive sex scene, end up feeling awkward and unintentionally comical (not to mention hard to explain when someone else walks in the room).  Also, it’s not exactly something you’re going to want to replay right away, despite the fact that there are several different endings you can achieve.  Replaying means going through long sequences of which you already know the outcome, and what was compelling the first time around becomes strangely hollow when you’re going through it just to reach a point where you can branch off in a new direction.

                Still, the game is overall very successful, and has actually opened my eyes to the potential this type of storytelling has when it’s done properly.

Game Review: Dragon Age: Origins

I hear you.

You’re saying “hey Geoff, remember when you started that blog and went really strong for awhile, then disappeared?

“…And then you started that other blog and went really strong for awhile, then disappeared?”

Once again, my apologies.  Also, though I know I promised not to make excuses, I’m going to give one anyways.

See, the problem with my gaming/viewing/reading habits is that I am extremely susceptible to being consumed by one or two things and ignoring almost all other cultural pursuits for a time.  This isn’t so much of a problem with books, as books have endings (though now that I think of it, the latest Stephen King is taking me forever…)  But games, specifically RPGs, can easily reach 80 or so hours of playing time (I’m a side-questing fiend).  And if I get really absorbed I might sacrifice other activities for awhile (i.e. reading the new Stephen King book).  This is why I avoid World of Warcraft at all costs, out of fear I would become this (Also, I’m more of a single-player type guy anyways).

So after that explanation I give you Dragon Age: Origins: the game that swallowed my life.

At first it was a bit sketchy if I would even like Dragon Age. It starts a bit slow and treads familiar ground for a fantasy RPG (there are dwarves, they live in mountains. There are elves…shockingly they live in forests). Though the tensions between the races are amped up quite a bit and the setting has a great setup as a world abandoned by its own God.

And yet after a couple hours you’re completely absorbed.  A lot of effort has gone into making this as fully realized a world as possible and for the most part it’s paid off.  Throughout the game you can pick up books which give you more information about this world, but you can also ignore this additional information if you so choose.

One of the holy grails of gaming is the “fully immersive world”: the one where each of your actions has an effect and changes the game.  We’re not there yet.  And frankly, achieving that goal might require the kind of A.I. that gives me Terminator nightmares.  (Mark my words, Skynet will start on X-Box Live).  But Dragon Age moves in the right direction by adding some complexity to the decision making process.

Most games that focus on choice usually have three options: good, evil or neutral, and which one is which is usually pretty obvious, if not clearly marked in some cases.

Dragon Age will often throw a bunch of options at you and none of them will be particularly appealing:  each decision will have benefits and consequences.  Further complicating things are your party members.  You can’t keep everyone happy all the time, and if someone gets really unhappy, they’ll attack you.

However, because this is a game, practicality dictates that there be a central plot to follow.  So while your choices change the details of how things go down, and who stays in your party, the basic plot remains the same. Also while each of the different character classes has its own origin story, once you finish that origin, the plot is essentially the same.

Still, the game managed to keep me engaged for 80 + hours, which is no small feat, and at the end I genuinely cared about the characters. 

Worth checking out.

Movie Review: Avatar

               

                Alright, so let’s talk about this Avatar thing.

                I mean really there’s no way to avoid it, the thing’s a monster of a movie, the kind you’d almost expect to be impossible these days, what with a fracturing of audiences and movies generally moving in and out of theatres at increasingly fast rates.  Avatar is an event and with that event comes all of the hyperbole one would expect: a chorus of voices shouting about how phenomenal it is and how it will forever change film.

                Well, not really.

                Don’t get me wrong, on a visual and technical level, Avatar is truly astounding.  It creates an environment that is vibrant and immersive. The 3D element enhances the visuals while rarely feeling like a gimmick.  As someone who really does appreciate the concept of film as spectacle, it’s great, it’s 3 hours of looking at something and going “oh pretty!”  A lot of hard work clearly went into the world of Pandora and the technology used to bring it to life.  In terms of visual and technical aspects, Avatar might very well be a game changer.

                It’s just a real shame that they didn’t spend as much time on the script.  If there is anyone left who doesn’t know what it’s about it’s pretty easy to do this: Imagine Disney’s version of the Pocahantas story, replace the Native-Americans with three meter tall blue Na’vi aliens, and replace all the boats with spaceships.  I’d been made aware of the similarities before I went, but wasn’t fully aware of the full extent they went to.  About half-way through I realized it was almost exactly like Pocahontas, only without the magic tree the natives seek spiritual guidance from.  Ten minutes or so after I made this realization the movie introduced the “tree of souls”…the tree the Na’vi use to commune with their god and get spiritual guidance.

                I realize that recycling stories is nothing new, in fact it’s pretty much the entire history of not just film but most literature as well.  My problem is that Avatar  essentially does nothing new with the story other than place it in an eye-popping environment.  There really isn’t a lot of suspense, because the movie practically spells out what’s going to happen for you well before you do it.  When the giant pterodactyl type thing is introduced, you already have suspicions our hero is going to be riding it before the credits roll, but then we get a speech about how a long time ago a Na’vi warrior rode one of those birds and united all the tribes and we KNOW without a doubt that’s what is going to happen.  And while James Cameron has always had a tendency to spell out his themes in voiceovers before, this time around it just gets ridiculous.  The precious mineral that the evil company is after? It’s called “unobtanium”.  And every little while the movie stops almost entirely to preach about the evils of destroying the environment.  I agree with the message it sends, but it’s already a pretty obvious message without having several characters come out and say “by the way, in case you didn’t catch it before, here’s the message of the film”.

                The characters are similarly one-note.  The General starts off the film clearly evil and itching for a fight and ends the film being clearly evil.  Likewise the company exec.  Even the main character Jake, while he probably has the most complexity and humanity to him, follows the standard character arc for this type of story to the letter. 

                I’m focusing on the negative here a bit more than I intended, but there’s a reason for this: While I can accept and even maybe love this film in terms of the sheer spectacle it creates, it is by no means one of the best movies of the year.  Cameron may have created a fully immersive world, but the story keeps pulling you out of it.  And while the effects might signal a new era of film-making technology, let’s not pretend that this is a new Hollywood when this is the same kind of movie Hollywood’s been making for years, just dressed up in prettier clothes.

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