Saturday, March 09, 2013

THEATER: rogerandtom + Trevor

Oh yeah, we're still covering off-off-Broadway -- Trevor deserves a larger venue (and much larger audience) pronto . . . I'm looking at you, Second Stage! And rogerandtom breaks the fourth wall in an unexpectedly recursive way. Clever, yes, but not too much for its own good!

Check out the reviews at the new site; direct links here and here.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

THEATER: Belleville

Come join me over at the new site, won't you, as I talk about the ticking trust bomb at the suspenseful heart of Amy Herzog's quite enjoyable Belleville.

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.