Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Note to Readers

It's been one week of the experiment over at; the hits aren't quite the same yet, but I'm finding Wordpress far more useful, and more in line with the sort of criticism I'd like to be doing. If you haven't already bookmarked that page, please do; it's likely where I'll be posting from now on.

Here's Looking At You, Resident Evil 7

Enough has been said about how terrible Resident Evil 6 is, from the ridiculous story and the lack of horror to the spotty controls, awkwardly laid-out zones, poor scenarios (driving sequences?), and unexplained mechanics (like the sudden use of spotlights). Instead, let's look at what worked; i.e., if you could strip this rotting zombie of a game of the useful portions and graft them onto a better game, which mutations would you take?

First off, the concept of four separate campaigns, each emphasizing a particular strength of the Resident Evil series, is a smart something-for-everyone approach. Ada features puzzles and (new to the series) stealth, Jake revolves around escape sequences and melee combat, Chris is a full on cover-shooter, and Leon is a tight-quarters next-generation survival-horror game. The fact that each of these individual sections is half-cooked is beside the point; there's a ton of content here, and by breaking the game down into easily digestible chapters, Resident Evil 6 caters to hardcore and casual players. The drop-in, drop-out co-op isn't bad either, though random matchmaking can ruin this almost as much as the poor AI that's supposedly on your side; far more salvageable is the use of parallel narratives, in which the various campaigns bleed into one another. The story isn't interesting enough to justify four different perspectives, but it could have been, and the intersecting co-op, in which two players may suddenly find themselves together with two more, is a neat feature for the boss fights. (It's a shame they're then so gimmicky and not at all reliant on actual teamwork.)

Second, the idea of allowing human players to take over the AI in the so-called Agent Hunt is a genius one. Mind you, it's not at all developed, and it's awkwardly integrated for both the humans -- who, regardless of difficulty settings, will encounter more monsters than ever (infinitely spawning, if they get stuck in one of the poorly laid-out and map-less areas) -- and for the zombies, who each have their own unexplained control schemes. But the basic idea of having devious players go back through to grief those who followed in their footsteps is a smart one, especially if the AI is able to actually process the various tactics humans use and to replicate them further on down the line. (Adaptive AI, pulling from all of RE.NET's player experiences.) We're not at that point yet, but as next-generation systems come onto the market with their advanced processing power, and designers continue to implement twists on a once-tired AI formula, we may have games that are challenging not because of reduced/increased damage modifiers but because of unexpected behaviors that keep us on our feet.

Third, limitless weapons have been a long time coming to Resident Evil, at least ever since it decided to abandon its low-ammo, actual survival-horror roots. In this newest installment, you have infinite inventory space for weapons -- the only thing that's limited is how much ammo you can carry. (Hopefully this will be phased out, too.) In the past, players have had to randomly stumble through each area, getting by with whichever weapons they happened to choose to bring with them, even though other gear might have suited the situation far better, had they but known. The point is not to trick the player with what they cannot possibly see coming, but to provide them with the tools they need in order to deal with everything that's thrown at them. By allowing players to carry every weapon, each with its corresponding strengths and weaknesses, Resident Evil 6 was able to throw a wide variety of enemy types at the player, particularly with the clever J'avo mutations. The sooner that players also have infinite room for ammunition (or better yet, universal ammo, ala Dead Space 3), the better, because that's when we're tested not on pointless conservation (using the Handgun against every foe, lest we be short on ammo that we need later) but our quick-witted responses, which is really what you want in an action game anyway.

Finally, I'd actually keep the one-hit killing monsters. If you're going the horror route, there's nothing more frightening than an invulnerable foe that can kill you if only it can catch you. But I wouldn't make their ability to kill you so cheesy, with quick-time events (QTEs) popping up out of the blue, poor dodging mechanics getting in your way, or a failure to communicate what you're supposed to be doing. Keep the controls fixed, not the fight itself -- we shouldn't inexplicably die because of something unforeseeable; we should die because we failed to heed the game's naturally occurring advice.

I've played a lot of indie games lately, and the one thing that I can praise above all else is their internal consistency and deliberate choices, things that keep them from going all-out with a AAA kitchen-sink-style approach, as with Resident Evil 6, a game that could've been great if it had only focused. Trial-and-error has no place in a top-shelf game like this, but at least we can all point out the successful designs (even things as small as the lovely aesthetics on the HUD), so that if we must be subjected to endless sequels, we at least eventually get better ones.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

So, Steven Soderbergh Is Quitting Cinema Because People Are Stupid (And the Oscars Prove It)

Mary Kaye Schilling catches the always candid and often eloquent Steven Soderbergh on the eve of his retirement in an article for New York's February 4, 2013 issue, and for me, the most interesting takeaway is the thought of just how much audiences -- both those producing and those watching films -- have shifted since the man's career began in in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape. I feel his pain: though I've got nowhere near as much experience as the man, especially within the industry, the statement that "when I see a movie that's doing the obvious thing all the time, it's frustrating" resonates with me, and reminds me of what I said earlier this week when I noted that whether a piece of art makes sense to me or not, I want it to at least stand distinct from other things. How can you not admire Soderbergh for the variety of cinematic styles he's tried in the last two years alone, or for the fact that when he worked on Contagion, he cut almost an hour of material because he wanted to "take advantage of what that subject had to offer while avoiding disaster-movie cliches," which made him "think laterally, which was good." Obviously the man's frustrated with a world that apparently rewards the lazy unoriginality of A Good Day To Die Hard, or an industry that appears to no longer to respect those who make great movies, only those who make financially successful ones. No wonder he no longer wants to make films for an audience that's bewildered by ambiguity: "I remember during previews for [Contagion] how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking. Not, 'Oh, that's interesting. I'm not sure if this guy is an asshole or a hero.' People were really annoyed by that."

The conclusion he reaches is similar to the one I've arrived at:
I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people . . . Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success. I just don't think movies matter as much anymore, culturally.
The more I think about this, the more I realize that there really aren't all that many exceptions to the rule, even on the Oscar shortlist. Life of Pi loses much of its effectiveness in the shift from being within the author's head to a visual medium; Django Unchained is undeniably beautiful, but not really all that revealing; Les Miserables does one risk-taking thing over and over again until it's driven into the ground; Beasts of the Southern Wild only feels as if it's something new because it's covering an overlooked environment in a magical style but I'd rather watch In America or The Fall Zero Dark Thirty and Argo are both taking varying degrees of flak over their fidelity, though this seems fairly forgivable in the latter's case; and while I haven't yet seen Lincoln, I'm not quite sure of its cultural impact, though I've high hopes given the actors and director that it'll be a somewhat penetrating look into a specific point in history. (Silver Linings Playbook and Amour are the two films I'm most looking forward to seeing, but still; that's two films in an entire year?)

Of course, while films may not matter as much, the act of watching films is apparently bigger than ever. If you don't watch the Oscars tonight, or at least attend a party about them, your friends may mock you. Live tweeting the awards is just one more step removed from the meditative way in which one once lost themselves in the flickering cinema lights. The cultural impact of a film is less in the way it affects us personally but in the way it affects our self-identity; how many people on their first date inevitably fall back not on discussing a film but on films they happen to like, films that they think reflect positively upon themselves. (Requiem for a DreamRatatouilleAlmost Famous, if you must know.) This gets back to the superficiality that Soderbergh is fleeing in the cinemas, and which he rightly despises in critics, who he believes to be "easily fooled" and who "praise things that [he feels] are not up to snuff." Here's a chilling statement about criticism (and, on a larger scale, the everyone's-a-critic implications):
I find critics to be very facile when they don't like a film, but when they do like something they get tongue tied.
If we can't explain what we like, and often simply dismiss what we don't, is it no wonder that bad films are proliferating the market? Overwhelming an audience before it can respond seems to be the best way to make a profit, and so perhaps Soderbergh's correct in shifting attention to television, particularly shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad that take a deeper, long-form narrative response, and which, because they give audiences the chance to tune out with each passing week, must do more to earn back viewers than any other medium. Here's hoping that AMC and HBO were reading this interview and are savvy enough to lock Soderbergh up in the development of a new television series while they've got the opportunity.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Makes No Sense At All

"Yes, but it is art?" is entirely the wrong question, if for no other reason than that it doesn't matter. We're talking about an entirely subjective thing here, and while we may get wrapped up in the absurdity of the art market and the distracting valuation of something that simply is, for better or worse. The truth is that judging art is beside the point: either you appreciate the Harlem Shake, or you don't. Either you're moved, perhaps Stendhal style, by seeing the Mona Lisa up close, or you wonder what all the fuss is about. Step Up: Revolution has a 43% Metacritic rating, but that's if you're critiquing it as a film, which is inane. The dances and dancers are beautiful, Amanda Brody's script is not: the central conflict involves a dance crew attempting to be the first group to reach 10,000,000 hits on YouTube (as if some random singing cat won't do that overnight); also, while the prize is $100,000, the crew surely spends at least that much putting together their elaborate flash-mob sequences -- it's like Ocean's Eleven: Dance Edition. It's all effortlessly presented, too, such that the crew's resident street artist (who, like Teller, apparently never speaks . . . until he does) literally welds together a giant robot in the four minutes it takes to perform one of these pieces. It's ridiculous and hardly applicable to the real world, in which there'd be some sweat and tears along the way, and yet isn't the central theme of the film, of art, to break rules in the name of a greater ideal? Step Up: Revolution isn't trying to reflect the world as it is, it's not even idealizing what it could be. It's pure fantasy, and ought to be accepted as such.

The same can be said of Glee when it's at its best: don't try to justify the fact that all of these economically challenged students who live in the middle of nowhere Ohio (population 38,693) are somehow able to cobble together -- in one year -- a Glee club capable of competing on a National level, that its two leads are both accepted into the most prestigious (and fictional) arts academy out there and that despite not having jobs or incomes are able to live in (and beautifully decorate) a million-dollar loft in New York City, and those are just the most plausible of the various plot lines. Glee plays to hyper-stylized emotions rather than actual character, it attempts to be everything to everyone all at once, and would collapse -- as its gloomier, more realistic, and hands-down better rival Smash is doing -- if you believed in any of it. But when the characters spontaneously burst into song, the band just happens to be there to back them up, everybody always knows all the words to every song in the world, and choreography ain't no thang, none of the writing actually matters. You're watching a performance that is markedly standing out from the rest of that nonsense, and perhaps suddenly you realize that you're having an emotional reaction because you let your defenses down and stopped caring so much and trying to fit everything into a rigid order. Glee is chaotic, but does that make it bad? As series creator Ryan Murphy proved, and again on American Horror Story, rules are an inconvenient thing when it comes to creating something artistic, something new. Art that follows rules is, by definition, paint-by-numbers.

Which leads us, full circle, back to the new media art -- viral videos, like the Harlem Shake -- that should work, but do. They captivate because they are different, aided in part by their short form and low-cost production values, like the pencil sketches an artist does and distributes on a napkin before eventually completing their masterpiece. Blossoms like Gangnam Style are original, rebellious thoughts that need no justification. However, while the inevitable parodies that turn a single video into an Internet meme can be clever and artistic in of themselves, they are following the rules of the original, which is why they play to diminishing returns. Even when they churn out hits, Weird Al and Richard Cheese are known quantities: they have formulas. Glee and Step Up: Revolution, on the other hand, are utterly unpredictable in their musical or choreographed numbers -- each larger-than-life moment surprises, especially as the script that surrounds them grows duller and more predictable. We expect to find art in a museum -- perhaps that is why it does so little for people like me who encounter it there. But to find art in schlock, or buried beside a billion other videos-of-the-moment? It doesn't make any sense . . . but who says art needs to make sense?

An Ode to King of the Nerds

There's a mistaken belief out there that reality television is a cheap substitute for scripted programming: you don't have to write anything, the cast is generally replaceable after fifteen minutes or a season (whichever comes first), and product placement is even easier here than on, say, a game show because contestants pull double-duty as "celebrity" endorsers. This is perhaps true for follow-cam shows: you know, the ones in which a camera crew follows around a larger-than-life personality and then a bunch of lawyers and a sweatshop of tortured editors cobble together footage that demonstrates what life is "really" like . . . at least, for those of us who spend their lives with cameras following them around. But as with most stigmatized cultures, there's an entire hierarchy of such programming, and while the sleaziest may be the voyeuristic shows that are so obviously (or obliviously) fake that they need to put the word "Real" in their names, you've also got a wide variety of competition-based shows, some of which actually require skills and others which avoid pandering to demographic stereotypes by taking voting decisions out of America's hands. At the bottom of this food chain, you've got your gimmick-packed, celebrity judged "talent" shows that are about as jingoistic as it gets; higher up the ladder, you've got specialized and more refined programming that focuses on food, dancing, dragging. And then, at the top, there's King of the Nerds, which I don't think anybody's actually watching, but which is subversively entertaining. 

A few disclaimers, first. My favorite reality competition is another little-seen gem, Solitary, and I'm a long-time watcher of Survivor. These two shows are reality competitions, but they're also heavily scripted: writers have to come up with clever challenges, casting directors have to find charismatic characters, and hosts need enough information fed to them to actually carry on an intelligent conversation with the cast -- one that might change the outcome of the program itself. It's also worth noting that I think sticking similar people in a house is ultimately far more interesting than putting disparate professions together, especially when they have to later face off, ala Last Comic Standing or The Ultimate Fighter, two shows that are far more similar than they seem at first title. (Similar personalities works, too, though only if you're looking for a train-wreck, as in the ego-clashing glory of The Celebrity Apprentice, which could just as easily be called So Meatloaf, Dennis Rodman, and Gary Busey Walk Into A Bar and Search For Relevance And God In the Presence of Donald Trump.) I think So You Think You Can Dance is probably the most positive and polished of the performance-based shows, but I'm generally in awe of physically impressive feats. (Emphasis here is on impressive, so humiliation-based competitions, like Wipeout, are no good and in their episodic format are closer to game shows than reality television.)

So for those of you who have been watching, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy King of the Nerds, and not just because the references are entirely at my level. (Dance Central 3 makes a pivotal appearance, but there's no Rock Band, and I'm disappointed that Chess is the go-to board game and not Settlers of Catan or a more complex all-day euro-game like Twilight Struggle.) After all, the casting is impeccable, with people all over the emotional/social spectrum, to say nothing of varying degrees of mental capacity, from Alana Smith-Brown's leper-like claim to fame as "a comic-book fan" (who will later be eliminated in a comic-book challenge) to Hendrik's over-compensatory intellect as a geophysics engineer at MIT who, thinking he had something to prove, wound up voting himself into a one-on-one elimination round. You might complain that some cast members, like game designer Ivan Van Norman or NASA engineer Moogega Cooper, aren't nerdy enough -- but that's sort of the point. These people may have been picked on, or picked last, but they're all comfortable in their own skin -- at least, comfortable enough to be exploited on a show that "forces" them to live in a mansion called Nerdvania, a place filled with giant twenty-sided dice and Batman statues, to say nothing of the Radio Shack gadget room. They've got to be in on the joke, especially a hacker like Virgil Griffith, who doesn't mind being caricaturized as the scheming villain of the show . . . because he's straightforward and logical enough to know that his actions, no matter how malicious they may seem, are the right moves. Even the pink-haired game vlogger Danielle Mackey ultimately embraces the way she's being edited, shifting from a whiny brat to being, well . . . a whiny brat who owns it. Confessionals are often repetitive and cocky bits, spliced together after the fact to make a character seem less intelligent than they are; here, they take on a meta-level, for everyone's smart enough to self-edit and analyze exactly what's going on around them, and to offer up clever commentary on that.

As Virgil confides, however, nobody on the show is Spock. They're intelligent, but they're also young -- all of them in their mid-twenties -- and often filled with emotional quirks or insecurities, as with the creative and gangly Genevieve Pearson or the anxious professional gamer Celeste Anderson, who most likely got hooked on video games so that she wouldn't have to compete in real-world activities. And here's where the writing comes in: challenges need to push and prod to get these self-defining nerds to compete in identifiably nerdy activities while at the same time pushing them outside of their comfort zones. It has to teach the viewing audience about nerd culture, pandering to broad and accessible stereotypes, but at the same time be intelligent enough to actually have the contestants compete. For instance: solving a sudoku puzzle is too simplistic, but what if they first have to take on a physical challenge like assemble the pieces of a giant Rubik's Cube to get the initial orientation of numbers on the grid? Cosplay -- dressing up as a character -- or LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) are niche activities, and therefore easy to gawk at, especially since they're being taken so seriously. (Consider that Kevin Smith was brought on a guest judge for a Comic Book Debate, or that the musical-comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates helped to critique each team's "Nerd Anthem." These are serious credentials, though it's a shame that Jonathan Coulton wasn't available.)

If there's any real complaint with King of the Nerds, it's that it's not nearly challenging enough. Why hasn't a team had to build a robot and teach it to break dance? Why hasn't there been a mini puzzle hunt (of the MIT difficulty) in which the teams race to finish first? Then again, if the show were a true competition of nerd knowledge (remember Beat the Geeks?) or technical ability, it'd be a lot harder to laugh at. The joke is on the producers, though; whereas the similarly styled Who Wants To Be A Superhero? could only mock its (game) cast, the crew on King of the Nerds is smart enough to play this game for what it is -- entertaining television. Much as you may want to simply dismiss and laugh at each participant, they're actually forging friendships and feeling bad at having to send someone home each week, which is more than you can say of the soulless denizens of Big Brother or the occasionally offensive (and/or racist) specimens that show up on The Amazing Race, for laughs. It's hard to imagine that the writers aren't in on it, especially since they've gone through the trouble of dressing up the hosts (Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong, of Revenge of the Nerds) as the truly ridiculous ones, though some points have to be deducted for forcing the cast to eat Little Caesars week after week.

But hey, the acknowledged artificiality of King of the Nerds, much like the campy special effects of early yet beloved science fiction programming, is part of what makes it all so shamelessly addictive. Besides, the prize is a Throne of Games, and who can resist wordplay like that? Not this nerd.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

metaDRAMA: What Are You Writing For?

In a recent issue of The New Republic, Adam Kirsch writes of the decline of the essay, describing even good writers such as John Jeremiah Sullivan (or, one would imagine, Michael Pollan) as performance pieces that mask the author rather than expose them alongside their subject. In so doing, he worries that the prose "claims the authenticity of non-fiction while indulging, with the reader's tacit permission, in the invention and shaping of fiction." Elsewhere in that issue, Adam Thirlwell discusses a different inspiration to the modern author: Baudelaire, who found a new format for his writing -- a "confessional mode" grounded in humiliation, in which the truly beautiful could only be grasped through "the banal and ubiquitous, through the everyday dresses and make-up and sex lives of one's era." According to Thirlwell, "the ultimate secret" and, accordingly, his strength, was that despite these "apparently flippant digressions and arabesques" he was "totally exposed." In both cases, we cannot perhaps change our feelings or the facts that are being recorded, but we can change our tone about them, and therein create our own style.

This is what I've been thinking about lately in regards to my own criticism: after all, I've strong opinions on pretty much every subject, even things about which I am terribly under- if not uninformed, and have often relied on this to force others into heatedly correcting me. (I've very much enjoyed playing the devil's advocate; in conversation, I thrill at seeing how others will react to unexpected or absurd lines of inquiry.) But there are now, thankfully, far more voices in the so-called blogosphere writing about the things I initially set out to cover, so there's less of a need for me to fill a void or to call attention to a subject. Moreover, I find myself less excited about certain topics and formats that are increasingly the mainstay of print journalism (or in the web-based orifices of said entities); I'd rather engage than record, and while I'm still passionate about the things I take in, it's perhaps necessary to find another medium, a new voice, in which to express them. In all honesty, the field currently undergoing the greatest renaissance appears to be that of video games, both in regards to the industry's output and the reviewer's response to it. I've read critiques written in the form of love letters, I've seen literally first-hand accounts in which people heatedly discuss their subject as they experience it (or mock it, MST3K style), and in general a more interactive form of wit, collapsing the boundaries between reader and reviewer, reaching a shared experience.

Not that this is all unique to a particular medium: the ways in which people interact with television and film have drastically changed, as superfans who all-but instantly create video parodies (or sweded homages) become supercritics on a frame-by-frame level, and hatewatching (and the corresponding reading of snarky recaps) practically becomes a gladiatorial bloodsport, giving truth to the lie (or vice-versa) that there is value in every artistic endeavor. Books can be blogged through on a chapter-by-chapter basis, or analyzed line by line, and these close-reads can be annotated directly to your digital texts: things that were once marginalia can now more than define the object itself, and this is probably where essays have most changed -- interaction moving from a more sparing wide-angle lens to a words-are-cheap ultra-zoom. With high-fidelity screenings of live performances--perhaps directly to your home--it's possible that we may consider theater differently, too, although that's most likely going to stem from the more interactive, experiential works (like Sleep No More). The artist will ever define the performative medium as the critic attempts to catch up: there's no tortoise-and-hare-like effect going on here.

All of which is a long way of saying not that I've given up but rather that I'd like to find some new way for me to talk about the arts-and-entertainment I love. I'd prefer to share an experience rather than render a judgement, or to focus on a specific moment that worked and maybe compare it or apply it to something in the world itself, as opposed to turning it back as a criticism on the larger work itself. Maybe to discuss something in a format other than an essay or your standard capsule review, perhaps with video, perhaps with audio, perhaps with art. Why should I settle or limit myself in the coverage of living, breathing art forms?

One bit of inspiration I'll certainly be taking on, however, comes from a Q&A with long-time critic Clive James (also published in The New Republic, which has been sending me free issues in the hopes that I'll subscribe). His answer to that oft-asked question of the critic's role is as follows: 
The thing a critic should do is point toward the things he or she admires, for the benefit of the next generation. I'd like to be able to go back and add things where I thought I was insufficiently attentive to the qualities of a work of art. I'd be less interested now in attacking. Only be hostile in defense of a value.
As with Thirlwell's discussion of Baudelaire, James also gets to the importance of the everyday. "There were plenty of people who were writing profoundly about the profound stuff," he says, so he focused on the telling nature of the things that weren't being talked about: "the stuff in between the shows, the link material, the sports commentators, the trivia." Did these moments do any less to shape our culture than the art that they candy-coated? Who is to say, ultimately, what observation will give us that lusted-after moment of deep and unifying clarity? To that end, I'll also be attempting to quote, gloss, and otherwise engage with things that I'm not covering -- articles that I've read, episodes that I've watched, games (of any variety) that I've played -- and see what might shake loose (about myself, about the world), similar to the work I've dabbled in at fail better.  But for now, I'll give James a last word of warning, for it cuts to the specificity that I'm seeking: "It hurts everyone's reputation to write too much."