Archive for January, 2009


Prestigious problems.

I figure now that Christopher Nolan is being loved by everyone, this is a good chance to tear down one of his most respected films : The Prestige. This post has rooms full of drowned spoilers.

I’ve written about magic on this blog a fair bit. I want to make it clear that none of my issues with this film have anything to do with the way it portrays magic. It portrays magicians as assholes, but they often are. It portrays people with bird acts as particularly cruel… but eh, artistic license. That isn’t my problem.

I refer you to to my “twisted post” where I ramble on and on about how a movie with clever twists alone does not make it a good movie. This movie hinges not only on the twists working, but also on a sense of mystery. It begins like a mystery novel too… with a criminal investigation. With facts that describe an impossible thing.

Throughout the film, Nolan goes way out of his way to show us over and over again that “magic” is not real and that all the deception is these two clever sleight of hand artists. He shows us the bird. He shows us how the bullet catch works. We learn all about trick knots. Michael Caine’s character exists as a sort of magic consultant to explain things to the audience and the two men. Again, this is not a critique of the exposure at all, but the film does set up the first half so that everything is not only explainable, but explained.

At a certain point in the film you are asked to believe that a lightning shooting device can clone a human being. This obviously goes against the “let’s explain everything set up” from earlier in the film, but maybe that was the point. Maybe it was all about luring the audience in only to punch them in the face with a science fiction plot they can’t explain. It’s a little unfair… it’s kind of like resolving a Sherlock Holmes mystery by saying “ghosts did it”, but maybe that’s what they were going for.

What bothers me is that there was no attempt at all to sell the science fiction premise of a device that clones things with lightning. That concept doesn’t even exist in ANY science fiction I’ve heard of. They bring Tesla into the goddamn film, and he has nothing to say on the subject. The movie revels in fictional explanations of real things, but it can’t even give us a fictional explanation of a fictional thing.

I don’t know why suspension of disbelief doesn’t go to hell for everyone at this point in the movie. This movie is structured to destroy suspension of disbelief. You need to take a huuuuge leap in order to make it to the ever so clever conclusion. I’m not even down on this film because it doesn’t make sense on this particular point. I’m down on this film because it contradicts itself so badly before and after the magical lightning device is introduced.

As of now, The Prestige is number 83 on the IMDB top 250 … and I sorta get it. It’s a good story about a rivalry and obsession.. which is always a good thing. It’s well acted and I did enjoy it when watching it. However, I could not get past this… maybe someone can rush to this film’s defense ?


Scared and needing a dictionary.

Okay. This post was going to be on another stupid topic, but I started playing something awesome around 4 am a couple days ago. The Penumbra series is absolutely amazing.

Penumbra (look up the word and the game!) is a first person adventure game with horror elements. I’m not very far into the story yet, but it’s a little bit Lovecrafty and very mysterious. Most of the game is puzzle solving in a dark mine. Seriously, I should change this blog to “Greenland Mineshaft”.

I’m not terribly far in Penumbra yet. Let me tell you though, this game HAS me. I was playing in the dark… really early the morning. Nothing scary had happened yet. A little harmless spider crawled from left to right across the screen and I almost threw my laptop across the room.

My sexy yet inquisitive girlfriend asked me a while back how a video game can be a scary experience. I now have an answer. It’s atmosphere. This game draws you in by having no cutscenes and immediately launching you into the story. It has some of the best atmospheric sounds and music I’ve heard.

It’s also dark. I’m a defender of Doom 3, but don’t worry, it’s not nearly as dark as that. You have a flashlight, which lets you see way down a hallway… but it runs out of battery if you use it too much. You also have a glowstick, which never runs out, but only lights up a small area all around you. Still, there is a good amount of lights naturally in the mine itself. Using light is sometimes a bad thing, since the monsters can find you much more easily if you are lit up.

Oh yes. Monsters. They hunt with sight and sound. You need to be very aware of exactly how much light and sound you are making at any given time. It’s possible to fight them, although you only have improvised weapons to work with. The game is built so that you’re more likely to spend your time running and hiding than fighting.

It has great physics too. Since you don’t have very good weapons (I’ve found a hammer and a pick axe so far), you need to do most of your fighting by throwing rocks or barrels at things. You’ll also be solving puzzles by using the game’s physics engine, such as tipping over a cabinet to find something hidden behind it. Most of the doors open in real time as well, forcing the player to graaaadually push open the door and see what’s behind it instead of pressing a magical “door open” button. Nice touch.

For people who like a good horror game and don’t mind a few puzzles… or for people who like puzzles and don’t mind fearfully barricading every door you go through… Play Penumbra. Take the game’s advice too. Turn down the lights… put on headphones.

I’m off to do so now.


The best things in life are free…

This kind of falls in line with my little post about savage 2 last day. We’ve hit a wonderful point when it comes to gaming on a PC. I remember growing up and enjoying all the various shareware hits for both Mac and Windows. I’d always want to spend the 15 dollars to make the game longer or unlock more material, but I rarely did. I’d play these shareware games over and over again, to the point where I really should have just caved and spent on the damn things.

I’m not convinced that shareware has improved much. The weird thing is … with the way that open source software and the internet has gone, we have reached the point where freeware games are often *much* better than shareware games. Oh yes… there will be examples.

Cave Story! Okay. This is a one man project of a game that was made over several years by ONE japanese developer in his spare time. It’s free to play… no ads… no money… no unlockables… free. It’s also charming, well made, and on par with everything Nintendo has made. That’s not a shot at Nintendo… Cave Story rules. It has a brilliant soundtrack, good and surprisingly cute graphics, and tight control. The story is quite well written too… although I’ll be honest, I wasn’t completely on board with all of it. Still… play Cave Story… it’ll surprise you.

Our next freeware hit is … oh no… a game that deserves its own post entirely: Dwarf Fortress. This is a game that sacrificed graphics and GUI in favor of superior simulation and gameplay depth. I have noooo problem with that… but it does mean that the barriers to entry are quite high. Basically you run a little fortress full of dwarves and you’re trying to keep everything from going hilariously wrong. This game, which is done entirely in ASCII art, simulates immense variable landscapes, weather patterns, and complicated commands. Unlike Cave Story, this doesn’t need to be seen to be believed… it needs to be played on a 3 hour bender. You’ll struggle at first, but then you’ll be rewarded in the end.

Okay.. so what are the recent shareware offerings? With a few exceptions, including one exception for the guilty pleasure of PopCap Games, most of them are really lame. In the Mac world we are being bombarded by various “run Dot’s Diner!” or “run a hamburger store!” or “run this concept into the ground!” type games that are all made by the same goddamn developer. I don’t really know what’s going on in the windows world of shareware games, but in the research I did for this article I came to the conclusion that they are in a similar state. The casual ones are dominating. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that quality “gamer’s” shareware is a thing of the past.

But that’s okay! Because free things are better anyway! Speaking of awesome free things… you might notice in the sidebar. Click that whydon’tcha ?


Savagely underrated.

First things first, all gamers should watch THIS

I play way too many games. I think it’s the obsessive compulsive in me that makes me need to play them all the way through… and… incessantly. Every now and then I trip on a game that I love, an overlooked gem of sorts. No, this isn’t going to be a post about Ikaruga… or Sacrifice…. or Eternal Darkness. 

This game is free. 

Okay, so it’s free… I bet it has all kinds of ads and shit right? Nooope. Okay, well I bet it’s all shitty and has no graphics like those stupid dwarf games you like. Noooope. Gather round children, let me tell you all about it.

Savage 2 : A tortured soul. It’s fucking FREE. What’s that? It’s an awesome game that combines strategy and first person shooter elements together into an excellent multiplayer team game. One player on each side is the “commander”, who can see the battle from overhead in a warcraft style view. Every other player on each team is one single little dude in the battle. With guidance from their commander, they can be encouraged to go to various places and defend/attack. They receive experience points for completing objectives, while the commander needs to manage both the player controlled troops and the economy of his team.

There are many classes to pick from for each side. Each side is different as well… humans vs BEASTMEN. Dude it has fucking beastmen! Both sides get siege equipment as well… the beastmen get a huge ass giant that HITS THINGS WITH A TREE.

Seriously though, the teamwork oriented play is great. It’s far more valuable for you to listen to what your commander is telling you than to just run around shooting people. The combat is focused on sword fights and long range shooting. Both are extremely well implemented and balanced.

Basically… I don’t understand why the whole world isn’t stopped from everyone playing this game. You’re wondering what the catch is? There isn’t one. There’s a bit of a learning curve… there is an in game tutorial that lets you fool around and practice, but you’ll only really learn by getting thrown into an online game and fucking up several times. The online community isn’t huge either. At any given time there are maybe 4-10 mid to full sized battles going on. I have no problem with this, but hopefully it will grow now that it’s FREE. 

If you let a learning curve put you off this game you are doing yourself a massive disservice. Stop with the counterstrike. How many times can you play on DE dust before it gets dull. Savage 2 dared to do something different, and it’s about time we start rewarding developers that try completely new ideas. 

Potential savage 2 recruits, go here

See you on the battlefield.


Regenerating life is lame.

Oh no… this isn’t a post about the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Check that out though.

This is about a relatively new mechanic in video games that’s been bugging me (that’s right girls, tune out now). I don’t know if there’s a proper term for this, but “regenerating life” seems to make the most sense.

This is usually applied to first person shooter video games. Most first person shooters have a set amount of health that goes down when you get hit and goes up when you get medpacks or some other life pickup. Regenerating life makes it so that if you don’t take damage for a certain amount of time, your life goes back up to full. 

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: oh no, he’s gonna bash halo now. I’m not (for once). In halo there’s a somewhat intelligent reason for the life to regenerate, because its tied to the shields that recharge over time. When it comes to games like Call of Duty though, it absolutely does not belong.

First of all… realism. As I just said with the halo thing, they came up with a reason for the regenerating life mechanic to work. Call of Duty aims to be relatively realistic. It doesn’t make sense to have a war game that allows you to take 600 bullets to the head, as long as each bullet nails you 30 seconds apart from the last one. 

Defenders of this type of play would say that it encourages players to be wise and hide behind things to cover themselves and recharge their health. What they don’t seem to realize is that in a game emphasizing realism, a good player would do that anyway, without a game enforced contrivance telling them to do so. 

Ahh… but perhaps medpacks are a game enforced contrivance. Yeah, maybe it doesn’t make sense to pick up a little health kit and immediately be healed of all wounds. It still makes slightly more sense than healing magically. If we look at it from a gameplay perspective, medpacks make you more careful over the long run, since you never know when the next one will be. Regenerating health makes you more careful, but only moment to moment.

A friend of mine said he prefers the regeneration system because “otherwise it’s just attrition”. Well YEAH it’s attrition! It’s a game that has a certain amount of health that allows you a certain amount of hits in a realistic war scenario. It should be attrition… and I certainly shouldn’t be rewarded for running away and hiding for 15 seconds.

I’ve fantasized about a truly realistic war game for a long time. Where you have to actually individually pick up each bullet and load it manually. Where medpacks need to be administered onto wounds, taking several minutes at the least. Where when you die, the game closes and deletes itself from your computer.

I dunno… maybe i’m just too hardcore…


Horror and Cinematic Sleight of hand – part 3!

Okay! This one should wrap up my long winded but every so interesting piece on horror as cinematic sleight of hand. You really shouldn’t jump into this in the middle… please go back and read part 1 and 2 if you’re interested.

The last thing I need to really address with respect to technique with horror films and magic is the idea of gimmicks. In order to make things simple, I’m going to use the word “gimmick” as a blanket term to refer to all types of gimmicks, gaffs, and systems. Quickly, all of these things are some type of secret device that either appears to be normal or is never seen. These gimmicks are often used to make a magic trick work.

Magic can be crudely split into two types. The tricks that use gimmicks, and the tricks that use sleight of hand. They both have their pros and  cons, obviously. Gimmicks always work, and sometimes can give a stronger impact than true technique, but they are sometimes viewed as cheap by other magicians, or if they are exposed. 

Horror films can be shown to have these same two types. Here, “gimmicks” refer to those ever present “jump scares” or “pop out moments”. That’s where the music quickly spikes up or there’s a loud sound accompanied with something shocking. It makes you jump, and it almost never fails. Like magicians, film critics come down hard on films that overuse this effect and don’t have any real demonstration of filmmaking technique. 

In both cases, the gimmicks work. They get the desired effect of shock. They often work even if you know they’re there. Yet, from within the art form, both are viewed as lower than legitimate sleight of hand or suspenseful filmmaking. The only difference here is that if magic is performed properly, nobody should know whether a routine uses gimmicks or not, whereas a lay audience may still feel a sense of unfairness in horror films that overuse the jump scare. 

I’m sad to say that I can’t use an example from the world of magic without tipping the gaff on how some tricks work, but I’m sure everyone is familiar with at least one magical gimmick. The best horror films use both jump scare gimmicks as well as true tension and psychological horror. If we think of something like Jaws, which hinges on building tension by not showing the shark much until the end (refer to my bit about pacing in part 2), we still see that there are a couple jump scares to keep you on your toes. The classic “hole in the boat” moment is the best jump in the film by far.  

If we look at something like Pulse… the shitty american remake of a japanese film called Kairo. It got heavily criticized for using “loud noises” in order to get a rise out of the audience, without adequately building tension before and afterwards.

We see that horror films need to balance their gimmicks with their technique in order to be respected, although a film filled with gimmicks still works when it comes to the goal of affecting the audience. Magicians who solely use gimmicks and have little to no sleight of hand skill are looked down upon as well. They often build a pattern of several difficult sleight of hand tricks with normal objects, only to switch to a gimmicked trick later on, making it seem all the more impossible. 

I think that’s everything I wanted to say on the subject of horror films and cinematic sleight of hand. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. Perhaps in the future I’ll visit this in even more detail, with video clips and snapshots to illustrate my points further. There is still more to delve into as well, but I think I’ve monopolized this blog of mine for too long. 

Hopefully the mineshaft will shock and entertain you more in the future. Thanks for reading!


Horror and Cinematic Sleight of Hand – part 2

Here we go with part two of my ramblings on the structural, artistic, and psychological similarities between Horror films and concepts of sleight of hand. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far… and if you missed out on part one, go back one post and read that first!

In part one, which I know you read before even glancing at this, I talked about how both Horror films and magic routines are predicated on this idea of a highly structured lie that one MUST believe in order to truly enjoy. Some people don’t like scary movies because they believe this lie a little too intensely. Some people don’t like magic because they can’t bring themselves to this proper state of mind. 

The key to bringing about the combination of both affecting and entertaining the audience is the element of surprise. In both art forms, we see that this carries with it an emphasis on timing and pacing. How many times have you seen a horror film where there is a big build up and musical swell as a character slowwwwwly opens up a closet door, only to find it’s something mundane like the cat. Then five seconds later once you’ve relaxed the monster/killer/alien REALLY jumps out. This fake-out technique is a demonstration of timing. Next time you watch a classic horror film, get a feel for the timing of the scares, there’s a rhythm to it. Sometimes the rhythm is normal, and sometimes it is broken for effect.

Sleight of hand has many similar concepts that mirror this same tempo. There are many “sucker effects” that are designed to make it appear as if the magician has screwed up his routine, only to show moments later that he has pulled a fast one and had it under control the whole time. This mirrors the pacing of the “sucker scare” above. A build, then a fake out to drop the audience’s guard, then a surprise out of nowhere. In terms of the level of audience investment and the overall “drama level” these two concepts are identical. Man, I wish I had a graph for this.

Both horror films and sleight of hand are art forms that realize they are based on surprise and spectacle, and must therefore present each surprise as better and bigger than the last. No good magic routine is built to flatline. Each phase of a routine, or each routine in a show, is supposed to get more and more impossible, even if it is only more impossible seeming. Similarly, each scare or kill in a horror film usually builds up to be better than the last. Horror films often have their first few kills take place off camera, and save the really gory stuff for the end. I realize that many forms of art follow that arcing structure with all those greek words I can’t remember (Peripeteia!), but magic and horror are based on smaller moments of shock that build upon one another. 

These concepts of timing and pacing can, of course, be subverted. I’ll point right now to Mulholland Drive, which is not really a horror film (though, who knows really), but it definitely has scares in it. The “man behind winkies” scene is infamous because it lays out in great detail exactly how it will scare you… and then still does. Here the power isn’t in the element of surprise, but in the anticipation of the element of surprise. In the magic world, we see this done with Penn and Teller, who often love to fart in the face of established routines and traditions. They sometimes telegraph the blow the same way Lynch does, except they do it for comic instead of dramatic effect.

I thought this would be a two parter, but it’s going to be a three parter… hope you don’t mind. I can babble more on this subject than I anticipated. The next post will be more stuff on technique and theory. I’m gonna go watch the Orphanage and work on my Elmsley Count.

January 2009
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