Archive for April, 2009

30
Apr
09

Let’s talk documentaries!

I don’t see a whole lot of documentaries. I think, like most people, I see a handful here and there and after each I say to myself “hm… I should watch more documentaries”. I’m also one of those assholes that watches one or two documentaries a year and has to talk about those as much as possible to everyone I know.

That’s you now, by the way.

Most people who know me know that I rant about two documentaries that both sound boring but have an innate drama and awesomeness built into them: spellbound and king of kong. Spellbound is a documentary about a bunch of really smart kids in the national spelling bee. King of Kong is about a bunch of really smart idiots that play donkey kong with a VENGEANCE.

It’s very hard to convey what it is about these two stories that is so interesting to me. It might be the sense of competition, or the fact that both of them have a great mixture of characters that run the gamut between genuinely likable and “there’s no way this person exists in real life” bizarre. The drama of it is balanced quite well too. I’m sure most viewers of both movies find themselves initially goofing on the characters, but then end up sucked into the story by the end.

They’re both awesome. See them.

Now for the second half let’s talk about a documentary that sounds boring and is. I actually took the time to watch the Helvetica movie a while ago, and it is enragingly dull. It’s a movie about the font Helvetica. Yeah. It doesn’t really have a structure, it’s kind of just a bunch of old dudes talking about the wondrousness of the world’s most perfect font. Every now and then they splice in some European dude who says it’s a shitty font.

There isn’t even a goof factor that will keep you watching. Once you realize that the director of the film has a genuine love of typeface and the movie is not made to laugh at these people in the slightest, it really loses all of its charm.

Sure, there’s some personal bias here when I say Spellbound and King of Kong rule and Helvetica is weak by comparison. I happen to think kids who can spell words that I can’t define are impressive. I happen to think dudes who play marble madness with weight lifting gloves on are hilarious. I happen to think fonts are rather uninteresting.

But the key difference between the two movies is the characters. Even the interesting German dude in the Helvetica movie didn’t have anything really interesting to say because the directors weren’t willing to show him for the oddball he clearly is. The movie assumes that you’re already hopelessly interested in fonts. If, for some reason, you are… then go for it, but it will do nothing to sell you on the idea that fonts are worthy of a 2 hour documentary.

Oh and you know what else rules? Trekkies… hahaha, nerds.

27
Apr
09

Final Thoughts on Earthbound 2

Okay so I finished Earthbound 2 (Mother 3) in a 5 hour binge the other day. I think this is worth posting, because it changes a few of my feelings from the last post, both for better and for worse. Are you intrigued? No? Well too bad, I have a post to write.

  Oh yeah, this post contains spoilers bigger than the statues in New Pork City.

Remember how I was celebrating the completely wacky plot? I really liked the idea of the story jumping around from many different characters and even leaping forward several years unexpectedly. It told a very different story for an RPG. If you read the last post, I was quite happy with that. Well, it turns out I was less than an hour away from discovering that Lucas and friends needed to travel across the in game world and pull seven magical needles out of the ground before the bad guys get ’em…

So it devolves into the most basic and well worn RPG cliches at the end. It feels rushed too, since you can blast through getting each needle in a small amount of time (compared to some of the other quests and things you go on earlier). By the way, there is also not a hint of irony about turning the story onto the rails of a predictable RPG. The story plays it straight.

That being said… the ending had some moments. To explain, I’ll need to explain to you one thing that I really liked about the original Earthbound. Brace yourself, here come more spoilers.

At the beginning of Earthbound, you discover strange alien beings coming down to earth that are bent on reviving an ancient evil bla bla bla. Luckily, a good alien comes down to fight them, and he takes the form of a bumble bee. So you run around and kick ass with this super bee for a while, but then you need to take your fat friend Pokey home. Pokey’s dumb mom freaks out and kills the alien bee with a newspaper.

The protector of the universe that came down to save everyone got killed by a housewife with a newspaper.What a great opening to the story.

As the game continues, you hear news of a very rich kid that has gone through every town shortly before you, buying up everything and causing a ruckus. By the end of the game, Pokey, the fat kid from next door, becomes this kind of capitalist overlord that rules most of the land. In fact, at the end you fight not only the big ancient evil thingy, but a robotic Pokey as well.

(again, spoilers)

So at the end of Earthbound 2, when you go to New Pork City to find that everything is modeled after Pokey’s childhood, I was overjoyed. Pokey has had his name twisted into “Porky” (that could be a translation thing as well) and he is now the most technologically advanced being in the world. At the end of the last battle, Porky escapes into an “absolutely safe capsule”, where he is completely indestructible, but he can never affect the world again. (There’s another boss fight after this, but not with him).

Outside of my love for the idea of Porky/Pokey as a villain, the end of the game also heaps on the references to the original Earthbound. Remember that thing I said about not needing to play the first one? To appreciate the stuff in New Pork City at the end, you should probably play the first Earthbound first. 

The game let me down a little when I went through the process of pulling the seven ancient needles from the ground, but the final chapter of the game did bring me back around.

23
Apr
09

Earthbound and down

Earthbound makes me smile. I don’t really know why. It seems to be a franchise that people either love or hate, but the vast majority of people do neither because they never gave it a shot. I can see why though. It’s very odd, with writing that mixes strange japanese storytelling with a rabid obsession for americana. I’ve been recently playing through Mother 3 (or Earthbound 2, as we call it in this continent). I’m about halfway through, as far as I can tell, and I’m enjoying every weird bit of it.

I can’t really tell where the story is going at this point in the game; it isn’t laid out nearly as traditionally as the previous Earthbound game. It involves a happy little town in the forest that gets invaded by a bunch of strange men who wear pig masks that have a thing for technology. There are some pretty obvious satirical pokes here and there, such as when you play as a monkey named Salsa. (YEAH. A MONKEY NAMED SALSA. HE’S ENSLAVED BY A MIDDLE EASTERN MAN WHO STOLE HIS MONKEY GIRLFRIEND.) Anyway, you play as this monkey and you have a mission where you need to deliver “happiness boxes” to several of the people in the village. It turns out later on that you were delivering big pink TVs that emit bright colors and make people docile and happy. You also find out that the houses that don’t have happy boxes get struck by lightning over and over.

Hmm… curiouser and curiouser.

The charming little satirical story is interesting enough to keep you involved. Even if the subtext is completely transparent, the storytelling really does have some balls in terms of just how long it makes you wait before you take control of the main character, how callously it kills off characters, and how it doesn’t care about stringing you along for two hours before telling you what the point is. I actually consider all those good things, since most rpg storylines are incredibly predictable and dull.

Wow, I talked for 300 words about STORY!? What the hell kind of gamer am I? Well, the gameplay is a somewhat improved version of the classic Earthbound gameplay. They tightened up the combat a fair bit. There aren’t nearly as many pointless messages and everything moves much more quickly. There’s some type of “rhythm system” that is something like the timed hits from Super Mario RPG, where each monster has a different musical rhythm that you can time your button presses to and get combo attacks. I seem to pull them off with luck and luck alone, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it by the end. If that real time button pressing throws you off, don’t worry about it, I’m sure you can get through the game just fine without it. Oh, and they also made the inventory system way more manageable. Thank God.

So, I absolutely recommend Mother 3 to fans of the original Earthbound. If you haven’t played Earthbound, you should probably do that one first, since it’s kind of a classic. The stories don’t seem to be directly related though, so I guess it’s up to you. As for Mother 1 (Earthbound negative one?), you can ignore that one unless you’re REALLY hardcore.

20
Apr
09

Ballardian

J.G. Ballard died yesterday. I was extremely sad to hear this. I thought about doing a whole post about how awesome he is, but I found that I have a hard time articulating exactly what it is I like about his writing. I’m going to try anyway. Even as an english student, I have a hard time analyzing his work and reaching deep enough into them to say anything meaningful. So perhaps this post will be just vague things that I enjoy about his writing, but that’s okay… I’m doing enough English courses as it is.

It pretty much boils down to the fact that Ballard has always been on the cutting edge, and his work is always interesting and never overly didactic. Science Fiction has always been a genre of writing that constantly needs to justify itself, but Ballard’s work has always been easily seen as literature, without the need for qualifiers. He treats the genre relatively seriously, with room for only the darkest of humor to creep in here and there in his stories.

One of the more prevalent ideas that is in his work is the typical science fiction theme of technology slowly eroding all of mankind’s humanity. Ballard doesn’t write about this through the use of giant robots or nanotech augmentations though, he likes his dystopias to be not that far removed from real life…. and he is a MASTER of the dystopian novel. He really knows how to set up a landscape in a story, and then force that landscape upon the characters. Seriously, if you’re into that kind of thing at all, go read his stuff.

He frequently writes about empty characters, but somehow manages to make them seem interesting. I don’t have the same hang ups that many readers do when they complain that a book doesn’t have any nice characters in it. Ballard has a gift for making characters that aren’t necessarily dislikable, but aren’t the type of people you would ever want to hang out with in real life. He can bring you close enough to them to realize that they are beyond help, but still almost pity them.

A common idea in his books is the notion of chaos lurking beneath the surface of an otherwise peaceful world. There is rarely a force of true evil in his stories, it’s often circumstance, or the nature of the landscape itself, that brings the chaos level to a breaking point. I don’t know why, but his books with this kind of feel to them tend to be my favorites. Perhaps they appeal to the little teenaged anarchist in me.

I’m sad to say that I haven’t kept up with his more recent stuff though. I have a copy of Kingdom Come that sits in my book pile, taunting me. It entices me to read it each and every time I glance upon its cover. I’ve told myself that I’ll read it this summer countless times, but maybe this is the kick in the ass to really catch up on his work.

This is your kick in the ass too.

16
Apr
09

A Shocking Guest Post

Just last night, I had the fun of watching my roommate play all the way through Braid in one sitting. I don’t want to really skew or spin his thoughts any, so I got him to write out a guest post for me. The rest of the post is written by my roommate and fellow star of Annex’d :

The newest game on my computer is Sim City 4, a story-less, open-ended sandbox game that rewards my mastery of its brutally unforgiving system by instilling in me the satisfaction of actually creating a (fake) real fucking city.  My ‘My Games’ folder is similarly and embarrassingly dated:  StarCraft, System Shock 2, Alpha Centauri, Half-Life, Star Control 2; tooting my own horn, an assemblage of some pretty literary titles that are both compelling works and satisfying games. 

Needless to say I’m about as distanced from the gaming avant-garde as you can get without being a Baby Boomer, a far cry from my teenage years where I pined for Age of Empires II and a Voodoo graphics card, and feigned sexual attraction to Laura Croft while reading ‘PC Accelerator’.  I remember the thrill I had playing through Portal two Christmases ago, not only because that damned game was perfect, but because I could now contribute to the discussion around some part of the popular gaming world.  I had played a trendy, innovative, concise and well-executed puzzle game. I loved it, and I could now talk about it. 

On that note, let me talk about Braid. 

Braid came out about 100 years ago on Xbox Live, which I don’t have, and later on PC, which I couldn’t run anyway.  From my completely apathetic outside position, the rhetoric used to deify Braid is that its forgiving gameplay, serene direction and, um, you bend time cool omg, show that the Gaming Messiah has indeed been born in a manger and not in the royal house of Gaming King Herod.  What I mean to say is this:  from what I can tell, Braid is touted as the game that will breathe artistry and innovation into the medium (medium!) of video games, forever banishing the epic fare of studios from the avant-garde in the same way the Impressionists banished the Romanticists from art which is a valid parallel because now video games are art too and also Braid looks painterly.  That’s right, all in one sentence. 

But allow me to doubt that Braid is, in fact, the son of God.  For one thing, my ideas of what puzzle gameplay could be were not shattered by the experience of solving Braid’s very cool (honestly, very cool) little time puzzles.  On the contrary, solving them felt like playing through some Java puzzle platformer on the internet in 2001; it felt like a couple of cool new ideas that lead straight back to most other puzzle games I’ve ever played.  Kudos to the Braid people, you made some sweet little puzzles.  Nothing more. 

Nothing more.  The ‘more’ of Braid is its inane little meta-story that quite transparently tries to subvert Mario and other platform clichés.  Gamers, I’m about to say something important:  withholding exposition and having a convoluted narrative that (gasp!) parallels game mechanics does not hide the fact that Braid is a Grimm’s Fairy Tale re-imagined by M. Night Shyamalan.  The art direction is impressive, but visual quality is absolutely to be expected in a world where computers are so powerful games can have whatever visual style they want.  And come on.  Paper Mario. Mario Party. Mario subverts himself all the damned time. Here’s your medal. 

Braid screams out how smart, trendy and subversive it is being with the fervour of a hipster wearing a vintage tee-shirt.  At best, the story suffers from the same problem as the gameplay in that its couple of cool ideas lead right back to a perfectly familiar experience.  At worst, its smarminess just pissed me off. 

No, the worst thing about Braid was that it did not blow my world to pieces and open my mind, nor did it make me proud that I beat it and found out the ending.  I sit here today, having defeated the Zerg, the Combine, Bowser, the Ur-Quan, yadda yadda yadda, not giving two shits about Tim’s girl troubles, and not caring that I beat a video game.  Gaming world, you are worshiping a false idol.  Braid is beautiful on the surface, and is hollow inside. 

So there you have it. Braid fans, care to respond? If not… just go watch Annex’d 🙂

13
Apr
09

Avril Lavigne Jokes Aside…

Today we’re going to be talking about complicated things. Complicated games, specifically. I have a pretty good board game collection. Several of them are what people consider “too complicated”. I often find myself looking up from a huge pile of cardboard bits and cards, with a handful of dice in one hand saying “what? No really, it’s easy….” 

Video games are a different matter though. Maybe it’s just me, but I almost never find a video game to be too involved or too complicated for me to be able to enjoy it. The only possible exception is flight simulators, although I think I’d find those dull even if I did have a good grasp of how to play ’em. It’s important to point out I don’t mean games that are difficult from a skill perspective. I mean things that have lots of elements to them, or lots of things to learn up front.

Examples? Oh yes… I has them.

Warcraft III. It’s not World of Warcraft, so you less nerdy people can stay seated. Warcraft was the next strategy game that Blizzard made after Starcraft (okay sorry, the less nerdy ones can leave now). It would seem to me that Warcraft III should have been a huge hit, given the classic status that Starcraft achieved. For me, they are both extremely good games. Warcraft III does some things better, but Starcraft fulfills a very different need. Somehow though, 90% of Starcraft’s fanbase didn’t move on to Warcraft III. It’s as if they all got together and universally decided that this game was too involved for them. It is a little involved, but no more difficult than Starcraft for anyone who knows how to play the game well. I think instead of letting this game succeed or fail on it’s own merits, many people decided early on that this game was too complicated for them… it’s a shame.

I’ll throw in a quick mention of Dwarf Fortress, which STILL has yet to get a whole post devoted to how awesome it is. This is an obvious one to point out, with its extremely cryptic interface and detailed level of management. I’ve said it in other posts, but this game rewards those who can stick it out and learn to appreciate its depth. It’s FREE too you assholes, so go play it.

Last one… you’ve also heard me rant about. Street Fighter. Particularly with Street Fighter III and IV, it’s once again like the whole world got together and announced that the game was too good for them. Are you going to let the game beat you like that? Well ARE YOU!? Come on, serious gamers… you aren’t really going to say that a fighting game is too detailed and nuanced for your puny little brains to understand. Step up to the challenge. Kick some ass.

Okay maybe the challenge gamer in me is also challenged by the complex and not just the difficult. I still find it odd with the two examples of sequels that I gave, where a huge fanbase neglected to continue on in the series. Give these games a chance. Invest some time… learn them. They’ll reward you in the end.

Even though you’ll have nobody to play ’em with.

09
Apr
09

New summers… new horizons… new reviews!

I think things have gotten a little tired here on the mineshaft. I will also admit that I have little to nothing on my mind to put here today. It’s been very busy with school. So, in a mildly half assed post, here we go with a look forward towards things to come.

I’m one of those people that really can’t see the appeal of things I don’t like. This means that much of the world and the world’s culture is a complete mystery to me. The popularity of things like Twilight, Russell Peters, and Sports in general are troubling and perplexing to my mind. This summer, there are a few new things that I would like to explore through this blog… and perhaps gain an appreciation for in the process.

1) Final Fantasy (and other JRPGS of note). Yeah, there’s a major gap in my gaming appreciation and knowledge when we hit this mega franchise. I hope to play through a handful of these this summer and give my thoughts on them. I played through FF1 last summer, finding it nothing short of enraging. It’s one of those classics that everyone has learned from, but is still relevant in terms of history. Maybe I’ll jump a few games forward to the ever popular FFVI or FFVII and become one of the converted… we’ll see.

2) Bizarro Fiction. I’ve always enjoyed works of “Weird Fiction”. The obvious example of H.P. Lovecraft springs to mind. He’s a cool dude. I like the work by most of his pals and contemporaries as well. I’m also a huge fan of China Mieville (OMG HIS NEW BOOK COMES OUT NEXT MONTH), who loves to describe his work as “Weird Fiction”. Bizarro Fiction is apparently taking the term “weird” and stretching it to the limit, allowing for really shocking images and style. These books all have really provocative titles, some of which are so shocking that you can’t help but be lured in.. The authors seem to be weirdos, with the odd literary professor or two in there as well. It may not be that much of a “new movement”, even though people seem to think so, but I’m curious to take a peek at a book or two so I can figure out if it’s a worthwhile thing or not.

3) Westerns. As long as we’re filling in gaps in knowledge and pop culture history, this is a big one that I’m missing. I did really enjoy 3:10 To Yuma though … and it was mostly a shot for shot remake, or so I’m told. The only “classic westerns” that I’ve seen other than that are High Noon and Rio Bravo. I liked both of them, but I don’t enough knowledge of the western in general to make any kind of informed statement about them. This summer I plan to learn a thing or two about some of the classics of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah and so on. I might learn that I’ve been avoiding a whole genre of film for no reason at all. 

Obviously you’ll have your typical rants and reviews on here as well. I’m going to try and balance my new summer endeavors with everything else. I think just the act of putting these goals up here makes me more likely to do them though… so that’s good. 

Hope everyone is ready for summer!