Saturday, May 19, 2012

She's a friend's imaginary solitude standing with a second kind of one of us

"And i turn to the crowd as they're watching
They're sitting all together in the dark, in the warm
And i wanted to be in there among them
I see how their eyes are gathered into one"

From Solitude Standing by Suzanne Vega

Assuming anyone ever reads this and also cares about spoilers, i'm planning to ruin a short story, a movie, a webcomic and possibly also a song for you. The movie is translated in English as She's One of Us, the webcomic is Nowhere Girl, and The Second Kind of Loneliness is an old scifi short story by George Martin. The song, though less specific through brevity, serves as a convenient backdrop for the others.

Elle est des notres seems to perplex its viewers. It apparently put off even the nerdy, artsy crowd, as it lacks a simple wikipedia entry. Not that it's too violent. The one scene of physical violence lasts for all of two seconds and ranks somewhere below the Three Stooges in terms of graphic detail. I would also question anyone who complains about the lack of an explanation as to why a lonely, painfully awkward and withdrawn woman kills the one other being that shows her a bit of friendship. The problem is that the movie does blatantly attempt to suggest an explanation but it is so far removed from socially acceptable causality that viewers' minds reel from it.

As a basic point, the movie's protagonist is alone in crowds. This brings us to The Second Kind of Loneliness. A man takes a job as the interstellar equivalent of a lighthouse keeper, manning a hyperspace gate. It's an unbearably lonely position, isolated even from communication by the sheer distances involved. However, when the relief ship with his replacement comes to take him back home, he closes the gate on top of it, destroying it. The short of it is that simple loneliness is still more bearable than walking among others as a failure, incapable of connecting with them, implicitly rejected and ignored.

Both of the main characters so far also share a certain desperation which leads them to cling (from a distance) to one particular individual, building intricate dualistic fantasies around a coworker or former lover that hover between a view of this other as a saviour, the singular entity that may provide a social bond, and the fear of rejection, of failure and loss. Nowhere Girl is built around this facet of unwilling hermitry. Well, at least the first chapter is, but whatever the larger story might have been if it were finished, the first part stands as a self-contained work. An isolated college student, hovering a few disappointments short of suicide, clings to her perceived relationship with an old friend as the one good thing in her life. The intimacy is of course imagined, and she finally realizes that she knows nothing about him, that even other casual acquaintances, the campus rumour-mill and friends of friends, are all much closer to him than she is.

This is the unpleasant edge that most will shy away from. All these characters seem unique in the extent to which they fabricate the conditions of their potential interpersonal relationships and this ultimately keeps them away from the targets of their obsessions. However, by extension, they also call into question the reliability of normal, 'healthy' human relationships. Is fabricating the pretense, the social niceties, instinctive alliances of convenience, mutually assured destruction and irrational concessions that make up interpersonal contact that much safer simply because this is a mass hallucination?
Her palm is split with purity and passion.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gestalt with Fangs on the Beach

This is not a review of VtM:Bloodlines. I only want to talk about one scene from the game, but in arguing its merit, its relation to the subculture that spawned it has to be mentioned.
Bloodlines was a vampire game. Vampires, as a plot device or subject matter, are dark fantasy creatures by definition. They are boogeymen.
'Dark' fantasy has among its components various emotional triggers which appeal to the fringe of a society, however it may be defined. Violence or the threat of it is one element, and this is certainly easy enough to achieve in a video game. Games even have an upper hand over literature and film in this respect. The same can be said for grotesque visuals, where even though games cannot be said to outdo movies, they have certainly been striving to match them disfigurement-for-disfigurement.
What's harder to create in a game is the low-key background of a dark fantasy world, the anomie that accompanies immersion in a world of id, of personifications of dangerous, unpredictable forces, of boogeymen. This is the film noir appeal of dark fantasy, shared with cyberpunk and apocalyptic stories. It features strongly in Neil Gaiman's books, in George Martin's Fevre Dream, in Interview with the Vampire and from what i can tell in the Vampire: the Masquerade tabletop RPG setting itself. It is difficult to transfer to an interactive medium. How can you make the player feel a sense of loss, pointlessness and hopelessness when he is at every instant the undisputed star of the show, actively moving the plot along?

Well, i doubt i could formulate a coherent answer to that question, so i'll limit myself to this one example for now.

Early in Bloodlines, your character, already a vampire, is sent on an errand to the beach. There, you run into a small group of 'thin-bloods', weak, unworthy vampires cast out by the rest. Their concerns are petty and ridiculous. They're... vampiric beach-bums.
There is no single element that makes or breaks the scene. There's the immensity of the ocean, its waves lapping at the shore, the trash-can fire with a few figures hovering at the edge of its light. There is, of course, a bit of drizzle, just enough to create the illusion of a cold night, to make the small comfort of the trash-can fire real. Instead of battling monsters and saving the world, you find yourself indulging in petty schoolyard cruelties like making fun of the kid who stutters or playing mean-spirited pranks on the gullible. You get your future told by a fortune-teller who is, naturally, no help at all despite her insights and just pockets your money. Through it all, a song issues from a boombox near the fire with lyrics along the lines of "i heard the voice of a smaller god".

If you want the full experience, you have to play through the game yourself. I can't adequately describe an interactive experience. The way in which the setting, coming up on the immensity of the ocean, the music, the small cluster of beach bums, all slow you down without making you feel as if the game's action has stopped, all contribute to the experience as a whole. If you want a snippet of the scene, there's a bit in this youtube video, starting around 7:20. If you want the song, here it is. It's not a terrible song, but not great. Its use in that context was inspired because its tone and theme fit so well.

Credit goes mainly not to a musician, a dialogue writer or a graphic artist, but to whoever designed the scene as a whole.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Recursive cinema and a little bit of Ragnarok

In i-forget-which-book (presumably his memoir), Gore Vidal describes his generation as the first to truly grow up on film, in a culture defined by moving pictures. I was reminded of this recently when bemoaning my own lack of literary skill, in particular my tendency to write from a visual standpoint, as if i were, indeed, describing scenes in a movie. If video has not killed the typewriter star, it certainly seems to have enslaved him. "I've never read it but i saw the movie" is an antiquated catchphrase by now. Even those of us who still read are likely to find out about good or popular books from their film adaptations. I read The Road after watching the movie, and only got around to Narnia and His Dark Materials when threatened with movie releases a few years ago. I refuse to read Harry Potter books based on seeing one of the movies.

Of course, killers have their executioners. Enter our good friend the internet. There have been endless attempts during the past decade and more to destroy internet distribution, to bring it to heel under existing publishing and marketing schemes. This is because the world economy has gotten to the point where it only sells packaging, not product. The profiteering in the movie industry for instance was never focused on the movies themselves but on the restricted mode of delivery. The backlash against internet distribution comes largely from the endless string of middlemen living off cinemas and video stores, but this routinely gets mixed in with the film industry's own nostalgic looks to their glory days of undisputed rule, to the aroma of red carpets, darkened theaters and little plastic boxes.

This nostalgia seems to be growing. There are a great many 'artsy' movies, some with impressive budgets, being made about old-time movie-making, glorifying the pioneers that changed the world, bringing us all this wonderful invention to rule our lives. I'm not saying they're necessarily bad movies, just interested in what their creation says about the industry. Hugo is the flick that got me thinking of this, and it made me realize just how many others, like Nine, The Fall, The Aviator or Man in the Chair i've seen or heard of in recent years. And i'm not up-to-date, i'm not even their target audience.

Or maybe i am. There's this desperation floating about to really push the glamour of movie-theaters to the forefront. It also encompasses made-for-3d attempts like Avatar or anything that's specifically designed to get customers back to the concessions stand buying triple-over-priced popcorn. Given the amount of money being thrown into it in the form of marketing campaigns, it's hardly just film-makers crying on each others' shoulders. It reeks of a last gasp. Instead of adapting, the industry is trying to turn back the clock.

So where do we go from here? Film ain't dead, you idiots! No art form has in truth suffered from the decentralization and ease of access brought by the internet. Granted, in most cases it hasn't particularly helped. The evils of advertising are as real in the virtual world as they ever were on billboards, and that's a subject for a whole other discussion. The simple fact, however, that internet distribution makes more allowance for smaller productions instead of "the blockbuster release of the summer" will only benefit aspiring artists. It might kill some of the sources of the deranged waste of resources of building cinemas that depend on having their seats filled and videotapes and DvDs that have to be shipped and stored and of overpriced lollipops but the fact that these parasites even got rich enough to mount such a massive reactionary campaign is proof of how ridiculously overblown their glorified profiteering was in the first place.

Good riddens to Hollywood and Bollywood alike. Ideally, we'd see the executives of entertainment corporations starving in the streets, but many of them have already started buying into cyberculture as some book publishers did in the previous decade. Lord of the Rings Online has a Warner Bros. logo slapped on it. Still, in some small ways, the transition is already showing promise.

Want to see what the world after Ragnarok looks like, after the mighty Cineplex has fallen battling the monstrous mouse of doom?
Ragged Isle
Yes, it's rather primitive. Stilted, bargain-basement acting, no special effects, cheap sets, volunteer extras. It's a fresh start. It's a start. Get some British television crews in on the deal and you'll do even better. They know how to work with low budgets, how not to depend on billion-dollar editing and CGI teams to fix everything wrong with a production.
Here's how Hollywood came by what it seems to think of as its own little Apocalypse. It's the tried-and-true story of imperialism. It grew fat and lazy, decadent and tyrannous, and rotted. Cry me a river.

Dietary Revelation

Here i am preparing to write down some comments on this-or-that aspect of modern literature, and i grab a snack. So while i's a-chawin' on dat dar beef jerky, i come to a strange realization.
I am a bookworm, eating parchment.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

City of Heroes

This game can be summed up in one statement: it's all downhill after character creation.

First of all, it should be noted that CoH suffered along with its competitors from the death of the 'MMO' concept. It was originally planned as a series of large mostly outdoor areas in which dozens of players would spontaneously compete or team up to chase down mobs, with only a few missions being instanced. Though this invariably took the form of 'kill ten rats', there were at least some attempts to make it interesting. For instance, the original form of a low-level mission targeted mobs which only spawned at night at the top of apartment buildings, requiring players to scramble up fire escapes and hop from rooftop to rooftop.
Gradually, the game slipped into the usual instancing. It never got the chance to be an MMO and became just another small-team PvE game. This at least, can be blamed on the stupidity of the industry as a whole.

More surprising is the extent of the developers' uncertainty as to what the game should be. It is one of the best examples of the potential damage done by the "customer's always right" mentality. Anything that seemed popular was thrown in there, with no thought to whether it fit into the larger concept, or any attempt to make it fit. There's no point to going into much detail, so i'm only giving the most glaring examples.
PvP is laughable, since the game was never created with it in mind and cannot be balanced for it.
Gigantic stretches of the game world were created based on the vague notion that players like farming endless numbers of mobs and are simply taking up space because players have absolutely no use for them, nothing new to do or see there. 
Even something so potentially useful as letting customers create their own content ended up a complete debacle because they were given rewards for it, which meant everyone started leveling their characters to maximum while never even playing the game, just running the same player-created missions for the quickest, safest exp grinding possible.

Slowly, the game has even lost its comic-book feel. Its selling point was the superhero precept, defending the innocent, foiling nefarious plots by cackling mad scientists, running around in ridiculous tights and capes. There should never have been any question of moral depth. CoH was cheesy, it was shallow and predictable; it was, simply put, superheroic. It was greatly damaged by later attempts at moral ambiguity, mystery or real drama. There's simply not enough wiggle-room in the very concept of co-op PvE games to allow for that. You team up and beat on some bad guys. Good, clean fun. Morally simplistic as it is, that's golden-age superheroism, and CoH did it well enough at its start.

As content piled up though, there were more and more 'story' missions obviously intended to be soloed, with endless cutscenes trying (and failing) to create tension and drama. Even the original driving, bombastic theme music has been abandoned.

One decent feature is the game's class system. The original archetypes were based on the standard nuker/tank/healer triad of co-op PvE, with crowd-control and a soloing class thrown in, and in a remarkable display of honesty they were even named tankers, defenders, blasters, and controllers. Within those archetypes, the developers gave a remarkable variety of combinations with skillsets of different classes complementing each other. There were 'defenders' that didn't heal, relying on force fields, tanks with low resistances but which could self-heal, controllers that did almost no damage and others that were almost blasters. That only some of these were ever used was the fault of the players, not the game itself. It was hard to find any non-viable option, given the right teammates. Even later class additions from the expansions, while not as inspired, were mostly valid twists on the original archetypes.

Well, there is only one truly good aspect i can mention about the game, and that's its aforementioned character creator. Along with Spore's creature creator, it has managed to let me visualize some of my ideas and even supplied me with some others. Whether it's a cyborg werewolf, a teleporting robot looking for its master, a gravity-manipulating outer-space automaton, a winged, storm-summoning supersoldier or a mad scientist who replaced his skin with an exoskeleton, i've gotten quite a few good laughs out of mix-and-matching parts in the costume design screen.

I still like the characters CoH helped me create. If only there were some incentive to actually play them.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Anti-intellectual Intelligence

There is only one kind of intelligence. It's the ability to manipulate abstract concepts. There is no such thing as emotional intelligence. There is no interpersonal intelligence. There is no whistling intelligence. Above (or rather, below) all, there is no 'kinesthetic intelligence'. No, your moronic little ape of an offspring that's still sounding out 'See Spot Run' in high school is not smarter than anyone else because he can bounce a ball. Gardner can take whatever grants he got by telling yuppies and slumlords what they want to hear and shove them up his cloacal intelligence.

There is such a thing as aptitude. Mozart had an amazing aptitude for music. So does a lyrebird. Some humans have an aptitude for artistic decor. So do bowerbirds. This does not qualify any of them as more than bird-brains. There is only one aptitude which allows us to appreciate that artistic creativity and at the same time advance political systems, sciences and philosophy, and that is intelligence.

Intelligence, the capacity for abstract thought, for planning, foresight and learning, is the one aptitude that potentially sets a human at a higher level than any other lump of matter in the universe. The idea that some worthless ape's ability to run fast should count as 'intelligence' so that he feels equal to any scientist or philosopher is as damaging a fiction as any aristocratic abuse of the past few millennia.