Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Quotations: That's in the Hammock District.

"Of course I’ve gone mad with power! Have you ever tried going mad without power? It’s boring and no one listens to you!" --Albert Brooks, The Simpsons Movie

Thursday, May 26, 2011

...and there's music, and an improbable couch, and then they all fall into the fountain: Ottawa Trip Part II

It's been a few days now, and the requests for Ottawa blog posts stand at... zero. I'd rave about that result, but it's not like I was really expecting any different, and I don't think most of my regulars have realized I've returned to blogging after the break, so I can't really blame them. Thus, I will choose the topic I want to address first, and the one that is the most difficult: time with friends. I hasten to add that this difficulty doesn't stem from the people I was spending time with (who are awesome) nor the activities (which were awesome) nor the locale (Ottawa's... well, if not awesome then Pretty Okay). Rather, it stems from a realization I made a few months ago that I've stopped talking about some of the more personal stuff on the blog, and, without causing any ripples among the tranquil pond of my life, I'd like to start doing that again. Hence the potential difficult start. Bear with, brave readers, bear with.

I think of myself as a pretty shy person. When I do start talking, it's usually about something that I'm very interested in. The problem is, I don't do a very good job in differentiating between my work interests and my personal interests, or the difference between the listener's interest and my own. So as a result of the shyness and the personal interests, I think I often come off as aloof and an intellectual snob. And as a result of that, I have trouble making a good first impression. (Or, as Occam's Razor would have it, I'm an aloof intellectual snob, and thus have trouble making a good first impression. YMMV.) I'm personally grateful, then, to have had three different friends I could rely on for this trip: one for the ride there and back, one for a place to sleep, and one for a night out on the town last Saturday during the long weekend.

It was a particularly interesting experience because I have to admit, for all three, I don't really know them that well, and yet each has had a very marked effect on my life. To offer an example, it's through the effort of one of them in particular that I struck up a friendship with the guys that are currently my roommate. Now, don't get me wrong here--they are amazing people, and if I was closer friends with each of them, I'd consider myself richer for it. (And I think I have become a little closer with them, and the one I shared a car ride with in particular--you don't spend six hours in a car with someone without getting to know them a little better.) But in each case, we've drifted apart a bit, whether it's because they live in a different city, or because they're running in different social groups. In the case of the friends I reconnected with in Ottawa in particular, you combine that distance with the relative brevity of my stay, and it feels like that I what I got from both of them was a glimpse into their lives.

One of them has been--well, I don't want to say "domesticated" because that has negative connotations, and "settled down" has the same problem. And I want to avoid any negative connotations, because neither really conveys the reality of the situation, nor the experience of witnessing it. Rather, what she has is an apartment, a fiance, and a pair of cats, and honestly, I've never seen her happier. Her life is full and her future has, if I may borrow some nautical imagery, not so much a rigid destination as a clear course, and I kind of envy her that.

The other friend invited me to a BBQ her group of friends was hosting. I met a large group of people having a pretty damn good time. There was, quite literally and liberally, wine, women, and song. What I got to view in this case was a close-knit group of really good people who had fun together without alienating any newcomers (as I can personally attest to). It was a little strange, seeing her in an entirely new group than the one I had previously associated with her (with the both of us), but a good strange, like seeing a favorite actor appear in a well-received new show; there's a sense that things have worked out for the best.

In both cases, the experience was eye-opening, and a little humbling. It reminded me that I'm not the center of the universe. All right,I already knew that, not being entirely an idiot. But seeing them both in their respective elements carried a realization that the lives of people carry on whether I'm involved or not, and there are good people out there worth putting the effort into knowing. And that's what I'm taking from this: that it was because I got to know these friends that I got to experience this weekend in the first place, and if I put the effort into getting to know more people, I'll gain further perspective outside my own head.

(Granted, a lot of the momentum of that vow is negated by virtue of the fact that I stayed home from an invitation to spend some time with new people in order to type this blog post. Baby steps, people.)

Okay, now this is getting a little maudlin and melodramatic, so let's end on the essentials. From one friend, I got a place to stay, some cats to play with (awesome), and Monday morning pancakes (more awesome). From another, I got a ride ranging some 1000 km in total. And from another, I got a night out involving 3/4 a bottle of wine; two drinks, one of which I split on myself and blamed on clumsiness rather than inebriation (it was probably a 50-50 effort); rounds of Taboo, which is a great game for someone who can never spit out the proper name for something anyway; 3 rounds of Queen-based karaoke; a 4:00 am bedtime; and the full realization of why you should aim not to have five hours sleep and a hangover when presenting on a morning panel. All of which is also awesome.

Oh, and friendship is a rich mosaic, one that grows richer if one takes care to add a bit
of variety and depth.

(The title here is supposed to be referencing Friends, in case that's unclear. As in, the subject of today's post is "friends," without the capital. Some of the aesthetics of Taboo are still in my system.)

Later Days.

Monday, May 23, 2011

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Blog: Ottawa Trip, Part 1

And so I return from the sojourn out... east, I'm going to say, shaky knowledge of Canadian geography firmly at the fore. East, and north. I'm back from a conference in Ottawa, and it might have been the most successful conference I've attended to date. The paper went well, the sessions generated both good connections and good conversations, and I've got some future to links to develop based on that. And there was some nice personal stuff too: I got to spend time with two different friends that I haven't seen in a while, and explore a new town, which is also interesting--you don't realize how spatially attuned you are to your surroundings until you're not. Even the ride up was a good chance to get to know a third friend better, and to examine the "Book-on-Tape" in its native element. I'd love to talk about any of these things--but I don't want to talk about all of them. So take your pick readers: fun with friends, Ottawa exploration, conference video game stuff, or road trip. Whaddaya want to hear about? My voice is ready to give word.

Figuratively ready. After the combination of Thursday's rough start, Friday's cat hair shock, and Saturday's Karaoke, I've pretty much lost my voice for the time being--after the paper, thankfully, but only a few hours after. So if anyone wants to hear me talk about the trip, the blog'll be the best place--face-to-face conversations will have to operate on pantomime for the immediate future.

Later Days.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Friday Quotations: Better Early Than Never

"A journey without a destination is an endless journey." --Lost Odyssey.

Later Days.

What Have I Done? What Am I Doing? What Will I Do?: Ottawa Edition

It is my current theory that each person contains within themselves a finite limit of focus, and once that limit has been exhausted, they are doomed to flit helplessly from task to task, until events resolve themselves out of pity. At least, that's what I surmise is the case given the last few days and my work on the paper for this Ottawa conference. Readers of the blog are painfully aware of the research effort I put into the game, and if you haven't caught up on that experience, I suggest you go here for a recap. In all, I put together 200 pages of notes, transcripts, and musing, amassing the last 40 pages of it in a single day. And then I spent three days with the attention span of a gnat.
For a sample of my mental state, here's a conversation that happened between me and my roommate last night:

Me: What's that word for when you put together a lot of information, and then compile it all in one place?

Roommate: ....

Me: Oh wait. It's compile. The word is compile. (I stare at him for a few seconds, then amble off.)

The paper, all 10 pages of it, is written, though I have to confess that wasn't much of a feat--between my comp exam last year, the Stiegler files, and the game play, all of the research had been done long ago--all I had to do was stay focused long enough to put it all down on paper, and frankly, that was enough of a challenge. I also put together a slide show, which is really more of a collection of backgrounds to add some flavor to my script than anything especially relevant to my discussion. Ah well. I plan to read through it tomorrow for time and clarity, then print off the final draft.

Other preparations for the trip seem to be going smoothly. My Ipod is updated with a selection of audiobooks for road travel (David Sedaris, Gene Wolfe, and Charlaine Harris, because I enjoy being eclectic), my memory stick has a copy of the paper as well as a movie or two just in case, I've got a set of snacks for the road, and I've picked out my five books. (Previous trips have determined that my own piece of mind requires me to bring a minimum of five books on any trip over 24 hours, to ensure peace of mind.)

I've got to print off choice parts of google maps tomorrow along with the paper, as well as a few phone numbers and a schedule of the conference. The drive up is set, and I've got tentative plans to meet up with at least one person I want to check in on during the stay. The only thing that hasn't been confirmed quite yet is my sleeping arrangements, and hopefully the kink in that will be worked out soon. (He said, fearing the worst with every 64 inches of his body.) Internet access during the trip may be rather sporadic, so don't expect much in terms of updating here till I get back next Monday. To that end, I've decided to do my Friday Quotations ahead of time, on the basis that I can if I want to, so there.

I'm a bit of a homebody (understatement), so the idea of any amount of traveling makes me uneasy (also understatement). Combine this with the uncertainty about where I'm staying and the general anxiety towards presenting a paper, and I am a bundle of nerves. Hell, I'm a whole ganglion. Wish me well, everyone.
*UPDATE* sleeping sitch solved. Which is good, because it means I can rechannel my worrying powers to meeting new people and not looking too nervous--which only makes me look MORE nervous!
Later Days.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My Confessions: Word Smash

I was very disappointed today to learn that the word "comprendium," a mash-up of comprehend and compendium, does not actually exist. Portmontage, make it so!

*UPDATE* I am also very disappointed to learn that the word is "portmanteau," not "portmontage."

Later Days.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Game On: Marathon of Play

So this is what we're doing: Today is the last day I allotted myself for playing Lost Odyssey; tomorrow, I start the onerous four-day task of writing an eight-paged paper based on 157 pages of incomprehensible notes (and counting). So, I've decided to go for a "completition or bust" sprint, in a vain attempt to reach the end of the game before the day is through. I'm operating on a less than full night's sleep, my thoughts are sluggish, and my patience is thin. Let's do this thing.

10:00 am. Started up game.

10:21 am. Note to would-be game designers: Using a long establishing shot of the protagonists at the start of EVERY battle does not disguise a hidden loading time. Also, a mechanic where the characters are slowed to a crawl when trudging through sewer water may be realistic, but it's not particularly fun.

11:40 am. An hour later, and I've gotten the option to view the "Escaping the Sewers" tutorial. Every time I play a sewers level in an RPG, I think, yeah, it was good, but it was no Chrono Trigger. And then I feel old.

11:47 am. Incidentally, "Escaping the Sewers" means piloting an underwater vessel through a narrow channel while giant monsters shoot fire at you. Which comes down to pressing a particular button when the game tells you to. The music and graphics try very hard to convince me that this is exciting.

12:24 pm. Attempted a side quest wherein you fight baby dragons. Each round, there's a chance they may call another dragon, and a small chance they may call the boss dragon. I spent half an hour in a single fight, drawing dozens of dragons, before checking an online forum. Apparently, the boss dragon will only show up if you fight a group of four, not three. Thanks, game.

12:35 pm. Finished the Boss Dragon fight. The real annoyance was that the mini dragons summoned a new mini dragon at the rate of one or two per round, so I was fighting a long-scale battle to reduce their numbers. In essence, I created a lizard genocide. At first I felt bad, but after the first dozen, I just got numb. Videogames desensitize the players in regards to slaying giant lizards. (That was a joke, people. For the record, I'm still a card-carrying member of PETIGL, People for the Ethical Treatment of Imaginary Giant Lizards.)

12:47 pm. Killing the Lizard Boss helps the Gohtzan refugees. But the player character's motivation is for the reward the merchant promises, in terms of unique items. Ah, the moral motivations of an RPG quest.

12:53 pm. I realize that save points have gone out of fashion in video games in favor of "Save anywhere" options, but I did like the way "old school" RPGs such as Lost Odyssey used them to signpost an upcoming boss fight. If there's a save point in the middle of nowhere, you could be fairly sure you're about to go through something painful.

1:19 pm. I spent the last few minutes navigating through the "Burning Cave." A fire level. Man, this IS an old school RPG.

2:08 pm. Okay, spoke too soon. Enemies aren't fire based, and some rooms have geysers, some have one way paths, some have poisonous mists, and some have geysers, one way paths, and poisonous mists, but no fire-based stuff. And the boss of the area is an ice-based boss. Least fire-like fire dungeon ever.

2:27 pm. Oh, something I meant to mention: one of the interesting stylistic choices of Lost Odyssey is this:

There will be a scene, and then there will be a split in the screen that allows you to see multiple characters react or interact in close-ups. The split or close-up happens simultaneously with movement on the other part of the screen. It's a neat effect; I can't think of another game doing something similar except maybe the still frame boxes way back in the Genesis' Phantasy Star IV (and since the boxes are static, it's not really the same thing)--although Wikipedia tells me Farenheit uses it. In film, it's usually an effect that's highly stylized, but here, it's presented as just another thing. It's obviously nondiegetic, but feels natural because it's used so often. At the same time, I feel as if the device is never used to its full extent. What I'd really like to see is something as mind-boggling as the perpetual use in the Tracey Fragments,, but the result is almost always that one side of the split has a character say something, and the other side has another character react. It creates a closer flow of conversation, especially when the group is large, but it feels like it could do more. (I don't know how it fits in with my image/text dichotomy especially--if it does at all.)

2:37 pm. Enough prognosticating! On to disc 4!

There will now be a short break as I install disc 4 onto my X-Box drive.

3:03 pm. And we're back! After a few lengthy cinematics, I'm free to roam the seas with my brand new water vessel, Nautilus. Literary reference FTW!

4:12 pm. A split party puzzle set. This one is pretty basic: follow the path till you unlock something for the other group. That said, it's still an annoying mechanic. Especially since we were just split for a long portion of disc 3. FFVI is the only game I can think of off hand that really made something of these split-team things.

4:17 pm. My X-box has just informed me I've received the achievement for defeating 1000 enemies. Or, alternatively, I've just unlocked the "Go Outside Already" achievement.

4:21 pm. I just noticed that I've been playing the elementals wrong for the past 50 hours. Most fantasy-based games have an elemental based magic system, with inherent weaknesses. Fire enemies can be dowsed with water, and so forth. I assumed this game was a binary-based system, ala Pokemon: each type's strength is its opposite' weakness. Thus, fire is weak to water, water is weak to fire, earth is weak to wind, wind is weak to earth. What I've finally figured out is that it's more a rock-paper-scissors system: fire is weak to water is weak to ground is weak to air is weak to fire. Because that makes a lot more sense. /end sarcasm. The annoying thing is that the game has told me about this system time and time again in the loading menu, but I've ignored it because I thought I already knew it. Another example of marginalizing the info presented in text form?
What's even more annoying is that earlier today, between battle animations, I was reading a Rock Paper Scissors post circa 2008 about stupid mistakes players make in video games. This definitely qualifies. And yes, comment by PoC on the last page is me.

5:04 pm. The random battle sequences of older JRPGs never used to bother me, but right now, doing these exploration split-team puzzles, it strikes me how odd they are. I'm constantly shifting mental gears from "Okay, where haven't I explored yet" to "Okay, what's the quickest way to destroy a yodelling flame enemy?". In your modern day RPG, like, say, Dragon Age, you would fight all your enemies, clear out the area, then worry about the puzzle. Then again, in your modern day RPG, calling them "puzzles" is a little overly generous. Or is it that people have less patience for puzzles when any solution is a google search away?

5:11 pm. There's a puzzle where you have to drag weighted objects across a fair distance to force down a floating platform. Because it's fun to move very slowly over a long distance with the controller vibrating at you.

5:30 pm. To be fair, though, the weighted objects and moving platforms combined with the split team dynamic at least make for a puzzle-like atmosphere.

6:01 pm. Died on boss fight. Poorly balanced team choice, etc. Thing is, I forgot to save immediately before the fight, so I'm back to the 5:04 point. This too is part of the old school RPG experience.

6:56 pm. Back and won. Take that, game. Admittedly, after spending a little more time on tactics this time around, it went a lot faster.
Something to note: even though Lost Odyssey has way too many cutscenes, all of the scenes really do manage to give it a feel of an ensemble cast--I know how each of my main characters feel about each other, even if it's just a surface feeling. Other large cast RPGs I've played of late--Radiant Historia and Mass Effect 2--stumble at that mark. I get a sense of who each of the characters are, and how they relate to the main character, but the group as a whole never really interact--it's especially bad in ME 2, where the sole instances I can think of when the interaction is emphasized is when the characters are fighting with each other. In this scene, the old man on the team, Sed, bonds with the kids, Mack and Cooke, over how they're teasing Jansen for his hesitancy to grab the magic stone, given that his first attempt triggered the boss fight. Nearby, Seth quietly points out to the new member, recently deposed and rather young King Tolten, that Jansen showed a bit of bravery in going after the stone in the first place, which both furthers her ongoing attempts to toughen Tolsten up, and shows how she's developed a grudging respect for Jansen of the course of the game. It's not award-winning writing by any measure, but there's a definite sense that these people are close.
(I'm a sucker for good ensemble cast stories, in case that isn't clear. It's why I'm a big fan of the comic series Avengers Academy, and still a fan of the TV series Firefly, both of which get the balance of their cast just right. Community can be really good with this as well. Large groups are hard, narratively speaking.)

7:19 pm. Aw, crud. I tried to land in the wrong place, and now I'm forced to battle a giant Godzilla-like monster without having saved from my last Godzilla-sized monster fight.

7:26 pm. False alarm; I won. And unlocked the 1000000 damage points inflicted achievement, aka "Seriously, It's Nice Outside. It has the Sky, and Stuff."

7:34 pm. And now there's a minigame where I have to reach and kill three of them before they reach the city, or it's game over. Thrilled, I am.

7:56 pm. Gaaah. Beat the four of them. I have to admit, it certainly racheted up the tension. In a "If I have to replay the last two hours, I swear to God there will be blood" kind of way.

8:16 pm. I trigger the first dream I've received today. Oh yeah; the text-based dreams. You know, the reason I'm embarking on this masochistic nonsense anyway. (Okay, deep breath.)

9:38 pm. Stopped for supper, then finished dream. Man, those things go on for ever. The story: A little girl is left behind when her mother dies and her father goes to the city for work. She starts lying to everyone, and Kaim takes it on himself to listen to her anyway. It's an interesting piece on human need for lies, but what I found most useful was the bit where Kaim decides to stick around because he has no real place to go: "A journey without a destination is an endless journey." I'll probably use that in my presentation; sums up the "theme" of the immortality stories nicely.

11:12 pm. Took a break to watch an episode of Sliders. They were tortured by Cro Mags. I know how they feel.
11:47 pm. That was a pretty short one--only 18 screens long. And it still took a solid half hour to document and comment on. Anyway, "Beyond the Wall" is a story about the day they take down a wall between two nations that used to be one. Kaim talks to a xenophobic young former wallguard on the day. It's a reasonably straight forward allegory about letting go of things that create division. The visual effect is simple--the gap in the wall in the background changes with the story, and the young man's lone shadow is joined by a young girl. Even the text pitches in--"one side of the wall" descends on a line while "the other" rises to it--and thus become unified on the same line.
12:19 am. Another Dream: A Hero's Return. In a nutshell, a soldier goes to war with a gem stone, but for every person he kills it goes a little darker. He tries to redeem himself by saving a life--ironically, Kaim's, the immortal that can't die. But the stone doesn't change. The story feels a lot like a fairy tale. Thematically, it's a common theme for the stories--the futility of war. There wasn't a lot of fancy word effects. Rather, there was a shift in the color of the background to depict the moods of the scene, and a lot of diegetic sounds--pouring liquids, ambient conversation, walking, slamming down of cups.

12:45 am. And yet another dream sequence. "In the Mind of a Captive." Kaim is in prison, solitary confinement. He throws himself at the wall again and again so that he can be certain time is passing. He attracts the attention of the guards, and starts laughing, because a private beating means even more of an indication of the passing of time. Then he awakes. The memory/dream slips away, and he asks himself again if he ever lived such a life. It's an intense one; and very interesting, because it's not the first time we've seen Kaim imprisoned in these dreams--"They Talk in Shells" has him spend years in a place without light. But it's the first time we've seen any indication that they've had an effect on his mind. He's usually a dispassionate observer for these stories. It feels different to have him be a participant. There's a connection to be fleshed out here concerning Stiegler, memory, and time. And more to be made of the slip between memory and dream. As for visual effects, it's mostly the appearance of the cell in the background, but there's also a portion where four red lines appear one by one on the screen, and all the text is enclosed is this box--it's a great visual representation of Kaim's isolation and captivity.

I'm starting to get groggy. This 24 hours of play thing is perhaps not the genius stroke I thought it would be.

1:31 am. Another dream. Ye gods, there were none for ages, and now it's one after the other. Wait to balance, game. "A Mother Comes Home." The story: A wife leaves her husband for a traveling merchant, and the father becomes a drunk. Kaim befriends the son in the process of bringing the drunken father home in the middle of the day. He offers to help the son escape his circumstances, but the son refuses. The mother returns, and they reunite--with the son acknowledging it may be temporary. This one is personal as well, but in a way different from the previous story. It suggests that Kaim, in his wandering, has forgotten what it means to have a home to come back to--that even the boy's broken family is better than Kaim's wandering without end. The visual is simple--mostly the city at various times of day. But when the mother contemplates leaving, there is an open door, one that slams shut when she goes, then disappears. Subtle. And the moment when the son sees the mother return is interesting--the letters appear in a violent whip, as if they mean something really urgent.

2:27 am. I picked the exploration of Gongora's Mansion as the one side quest to do before the Final Battle stuff. And I'm glad I did. More than the swag and experience it nets, the area has Gongora's journal, which fills in some of the plot details. Namely: Gongora, Kaim, and the other immortals were sent to investigate this world after people from another world realized that it was wreaking havoc on them. Because time flows differently, a single year of their time was 1000 years on this planet, making the investigators effectively immortal. They were to observe, and find out what was causing the effect on their world. Gongora's findings are ironic--the world's history, the rise and fall of its empires, its technological advances--have no effect on the other world. What does affect it is the everyday emotions and feelings generated by the people here--either feelings of common happiness, or feelings of great ambition. Gongora likens it to a virus, and declares he has become addicted to the virus of ambition created by indulging himself in this world. It's finally a theme that speaks directly to the short stories' theme as well--the big wars and the rise and fall of kingdoms don't matter so much as the everyday struggles. And speaking of everyday struggle, it's time for me to get on with this one.

2:44 am. You know what? Executive Decision. I'm calling it a night. From what I recall about the game, what I have to look forward to is long boss fights, annoying dungeons, and unending cutscenes. And while the results of my tiredness have been very interesting so far-- you can't spell sleep deprivation without "depraved"--I think I know myself well enough to know that isn't going to hold out much longer. I'll finish up tomorrow, and extend slightly into the designated "writing" time. I think the results I made today are worth the extra effort. So we give up on the dream of 24 straight hours of gaming... for now.

Still, 17 hours isn't bad, right? And I'm on page 199 on my notes. That's almost noteworthy!
Later Days.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rain of the Runner

I've been a bit lax in the jogging routine of late; I had an injury in February, and then spent an overly long time getting back into a routine. But I've rededicated myself, and I proved myself today with a 11 k run. A run through pouring rain. Because if you wait the extra hour for the rain to subside, you really lose your momentum.

It wasn't bad; I actually enjoyed the last 500 m to the house. But man, the 10 500 m before that SUCKED.

Later Days.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Quotations: "And I Hope You Brought Enough Gum For Everyone, Mr. Ehrlichmann."

"Ladies and Gentlemen, would you please close the door now; otherwise we shall lose too much time." --Theodor W. Adorno, Introduction to Sociology.

Later Days.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

*Head Implodes*

Remember last week's discussion of Lost Odyssey? Remember how I talked about how difficult all the work I was doing, but how it was all worth it because it was necessary to get a real sense of the game itself and blah blah blah blah blah? Remember especially how I was transcribing all the text-based dreams, and that this task was taking me weeks, with hours spent on a single dream/short story?

Well, today, at a quarter to 3 am, I found a website with all the dreams already transcribed: Or, to put it differently, the first site that comes up when you search "Lost Odyssey Transcript" on Google. The resultant cursing didn't quite rattle the windows and shake the foundations of my rented home. But it feels like it should have.

Granted, it doesn't do all the work for me--it's just a text, without the visual or audio effects, which are big parts of my interest. But it's a hell of a lot faster to insert the effects when necessary than to try and type out every damn thing. Good gravy, I had 86 typed pages of notes before I realized I had other options.

The most annoying part is that when I first looked for these transcripts, waaay back in 2008, this wiki didn't exist--or at least, didn't exist with these pages (at least, I think that was the case.) But there was no reason for me not to do a more thorough search now. Bad digital scholar! Bad!

I'd like to say that the whole exercise was at least good for my soul. But even that's kind of depressing. So rather than dwell on the past, let's swear once more for the road, chalk it all up to a learning experience, and move on with the rest of the game. Just move on.

Dear God, let me move on.

Later Days.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Quotations: And Level Grinding Is the Styrofoam Packing

"Aside from the challenge, players enjoy intrigue and curiosity. This Easy Fun is the bubble wrap of game design." --Nicole Lazzaro, Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Toward Creating Better Videogames.

Later Days.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Game Studies: Lost Odyssey

Okay, I've been rather light on blogging of late. That is because I've been busy. Actually busy--actually even working busy. On the May long weekend, I'm going to a conference in Ottawa to give a paper on Text, Image, and Memory in Square Enix's 2008 game, Lost Odyssey. It's a good game for discussing video games and memories because it's about an amnesiac immortal who is slowly regaining his memories. And it's good for text and image for an entirely different reason.

The game is loaded end to end with cinematic segments--it's the inheritor of the worst of the Final Fantasy series' excesses, which means it's got random encounters, ridiculously dressed females, an overly complicated plot, and enough time between some fights that you can make a sandwich and get back without losing much. But it also has something different--throughout the game, encounters that Kaim (that's the protagonist) stumbles on to trigger memories--or rather, text stories that are presented as both memories and dreams. (It creates an interesting conjunction of dreams, stories, and memories, which is a discussion for another time.) These text stories are entirely different from the rest of the game, as they should be, since the people developing it hired a short story writer Kiyoshi Shigematsu to do the stories, and did their own writing on the game proper.

So what you have then, is a game whose story periodically rewards you with tangential stories. The strange thing about the game, then, is that these stories are often more emotionally effective (and affective) than the actual visual-laden interactive real game. The backstory isn't entirely text either, or rather, it treats its text as image: the words and letters appear on the screen at their own pace and with differing effects, creating new emphases in the text that a straight written story wouldn't convey. It also uses shifting backgrounds and music to bolster the effect. So it's extremely multimedia, but almost negligibly interactive. (When one "page" or screen of the story is finished, you hit A to go to the next screen.) What I want to do is a full analysis of both the game and the accompanying short stories, to compare how they work off each other, and how both play to different senses. The memory issue comes in when you consider how both are about memories, in terms of the story content, but both also form memories--Kaim's short stories are triggered by tertiary events (as Stiegler would call them), and after multiple playthroughs, I create my own secondary memories for the game, quite apart from what I force my Kaim avatar through.

The downside is I have to actually play the game to get this experience. Without the constant transcribing, it's an 80 hour game. With it... ugh. I'm writing down the effects and text for each of the text-based stories. (Yes, I could be using Youtube. But if you're not actually playing the game, I don't think I can analyse it in the same manner. So here I am.) Number #6, for example, was 4000 words long, and took me 4 hours to transcribe. I took a break from #7 to start this post. And if you're finding it as tediously boring to read about the transcription process as I do in implementing it, you'd better stay away from this blog for a while, because y'all are going to hear a lot about the next 24 "dreams."

The really annoying thing is that these text pieces are really wonderful, moving stories. They're what brought me to my dissertation topic in the first place. But analyzing them like this is just killing me. The first one was great. The second and third had diminishing returns. But by the time the fifth rolled around, I was already responding to the "Kaim has unwakened a memory locked deep within him" screen with a hearty "GodDAMMIt" as I faced the unpleasant knowledge that I had another 3+ hours of transcribing ahead.

But for those of you who haven't been ruined yet by overexposure, I thought I'd post my favorite story so you could see why I'm so fond of them. This one is called "The Upstreamers." Watch it in full screen for best effect--and when you have 10 minutes to spare.

It's beautiful, isn't it? Less beautiful if you're trying to transcribe them word by word, taking frequent pauses to describe the text effects. ("And now the word "wind" is blown in letter by letter, like an... um... windy thing. It's from the left to right. And the letters sort turn into place. Not all together, but separately." And so on.)

Stay tuned for the quick one-sentence post when I finish Dream #7.

*UPDATE* And at 12:24 (after a break for an episode of Sliders, and another for an episode of Community), I finish Dream 7, wherein Kaim comes across an Alhzeimer's patient on her last day of life who remembers him from a childhood encounter 80 years ago--heartbreaking commences shortly after. And between that and dream 6, and some thoughts on memory and the city of Numeria, I have written 19 pages of notes for Lost Odyssey today. Hurray!

Later Days.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Person of Consequence Reviews Stuff

Specifically, I will be looking at Episode 6.22 of The Office, "Goodbye, Michael"; Episode 5. 21 of 30 Rock, "Everything Sunny All the Time Always"; Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, a book by Robert Charles Wilson; and the Marvel-published miniseries Osborn: Evil Incarcerated, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick with art by Emma Rios. Some spoilers concerning plot will be brought up, though I'll be very general on the 30 Rock episode on account of Rule 17. (Rule 17: If roommates with poor priorities haven't seen it yet, try not to spoil things.) But there will be spoilers a plenty, so... yeah. I'll try to keep the length of the reviews short; Lord knows I've done enough review essays for a while.

The Office: Goodbye, Michael. This episode is, as the title suggests, the last episode featuring the Michael Scott character, played for the past six years by Steve Carell. The plot is that it's Michael's second last day of work--only it's secretly his last day of work, and he's lied to everyone so he can do a series of quiet good-byes rather than a big mass party. I like the idea, because it shows has the character has, if even minimally, grown: there's still a whiff of the "this is a bad idea" in Michael ending his tenure as boss by lying to his staff, but passing up the opportunity to do have a big party centering around him is something that would never have happened in the early seasons. And while all the goodbyes are reasonably well-done, it's Michael's goodbyes with the main four characters (Andy, Dwight, Jim, and Pam) that really stand out. The Andy goodbye starts the episode's subplot (more on that later). The goodbye with Dwight decisively ends the animosity that's been building between the two characters in a way that plays both to the serious (Michael writes Dwight a glowing letter of recommendation) and the ridiculous (2 pm: parking lot. Paintball). The goodbye with Jim--with Jim catching on that it's Michael's last day--is also well done, with John Krasinki playing the scene in such a manner that the normally smug and sarcastic character gets a moment of real emotional honesty.

I've heard some dissenting opinions on the Pam farewell. The backplot here is that Pam was out running errands when Michael was trying to say goodbye to her, and that he couldn't push it further without revealing his departure. So he leaves without a goodbye. She shows up at the airport, and they embrace--but Michael's already removed his speaker (paying nominal homage to the documentary nature of the show), so we don't get to hear what they say, and we only watch from a distance. Some people have felt cheated by not hearing the exchange, but I thought it was perfect--it demonstrated that the characters have a friendship beyond the scope of our observation, and really spoke to the intensity of that bond.

The B plot is that Michael, as a going-away gift, gives Andy his contact list. Nervous that he'll screw things up, Andy takes DeAngelo, their new boss (played by Will Farrell), to the first meeting with him. DeAngelo, however, screws things up himself, and Andy has to compensate for his behavior. I think this is a sign for future episodes. Since DeAngelo is an interim character, the show is free to play up the "bad boss" element in a way they haven't been able to do with Michael for a while, because they made the character too sympathetic. So it should make an interesting end for the last three episodes or so of the season. And in case it wasn't clear, I enjoyed this episode. I found it emotionally engaging, and given my personal state at the time (we had just gotten home at 3 am and I was feeling the aftereffects of a night of heavy... um... "spirited discourse"), it's a testament to the show that I could find it so gripping. It's been a rocky show of late, but this was a good one.

30 Rock: Everything Sunny All the Time Always. While the Office was somewhat melancholy, 30 Rock was outright dark. Really dark. The "C" plot was typical enough; Kenneth, Grizz and Dot Com had started an in-joke while Tracy was away, and, being a self-centered egomaniac, Tracy forces them to re-enact it. But the Liz and Jack subplots are... disturbing. In both cases, they choose to take charge of their lives--Liz by cleaning up her loft apartment, Jack by taking control of an international situation. And both fail. Miserably. Now, I can understand trying to send the message that it's healthier to accept that some things are out of our control. But the actual message the show sends is that you can't control ANYTHING, be it something small (as in Liz's case) or something desperately, personally important (as in Jack's). It's a message that's especially annoying given that (a) it's potentially a very cheap solution to a casting problem and (b) it's a fictional show, so the characters' control or lack thereof is dictated by the writers, not by some invisible hand of fate. I'm cautiously okay with it, provided they deal with the fallout appropriately in future episodes. Also: the episode stars Condaleeza Rice, furthering a running joke from the first season where Jack claimed to be secretly dating her. So, you know, must-see TV for Rice fans.

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson.
This book was an odd duck. The plot is that during the second half of the 21st century, oil depletion, famine, global warming, and a few other global evils struck the human race, and by the 22nd century, North America is slowly crawling its way back to civilization, with a new focus on class-based slavery and oppressive theocracy. The book itself is a narrative account of the life of Julian Comstock, as told by his life-long friend Adam Hazzard. Adam makes a rather odd narrator, as his naivete and slight prudishness can be rather off-putting. Viewed in the best possible light, the book is an examination of what America stands for, with a strong stance on logical thinking and progressive social reform over religious domination and oligarchical tendencies.

In the worst light, it feels very similar to the genre Hazzard professes to love: the American boy adventure story. It feels like Wilson is attempting to incorporate that similarity into his overall perspective on all things Americana, but the story doesn't quite reach that level. Every now and then, it drops a hint about its social world that reads as very interesting--such as Aristocratic ladies deliberately showing their vaccination scars as an indication of upper class fashion statements--but more often, it's marked by predictable plotting and nonsensical actions (especially by Julian, in the final act). I think the problem is with the book's length. It was originally a chapbook expanded into a full novel, and at just under 700 pages, the narrative just isn't up to the task.

Osborn: Evil Incarcerated by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios.
I wasn't familiar with DeConnick's work before this miniseries, but I am now. The plot: After the events of Seige, Norman Osborn has been seized by government forces and secretly held in a facility designed to detain the criminals so dangerous that the US gov't doesn't want to risk giving them their day in court. Over the course of the miniseries, Osborne masterminds a jailbreak, makes some new supervillain friends, and generally manipulates the hell out of a lot of people. In terms of the overall series, it felt slightly stretched at five issues, and I'm not sure what, if anything, the overall point is supposed to be. On the one hand, it's easy enough to see an analogy between the secret prison and Guantanamo, which makes the moral that secret violations of civic rights create more problems than they prevent. On the other hand, since Osborn seems to want his day in court, there is arguably a good reason for not granting it to him. It's okay for a comic book to be ambiguous (in fact, it's usually a step up over the black-and-white morality the superhero genre often effaces), but I wish it could be a little more clear.

But honestly, that's a secondary concern. Any weakness in plot is more than compensated by the excellently written dialogue and the absolutely perfect characterizations of a very nasty bunch of characters. And Rios' art supports these efforts--she conveys the physical menace of some very monstrous characters, but still manages to make Osborn seem at once more menacing and still appear as a stern, intellectual father-figure. Bottom line: if you enjoyed Paul Cornell's recent take on Lex Luthor in Action Comics, this mini-series is an equally excellent psychological study of the mind of a supervillain. (Or to put it another way: it's not the raving lunacy or mad vamping of Warren Ellis' Norman Osborn, but it's every bit as compelling and evil.)

That's the reviews. If you have further comments, well, post a comment. If you want more short reviews, put a comment on that as well. If you liked the long form better (they work as great sleep aids), comment on that. Comment.

Later Days.