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A Whole Lotta Video, Not a Lot of Game

24 Mar

Last year, a lot was made of Roger Ebert’s statement that video games can never be art. This raised the ire of many gamers who rushed to defend their medium with offerings of their favorite video game titles. I wonder how many of those gamers are artists, or art historians, or otherwise give a shit about the world of accepted, mainstream art. I took Ebert’s comments to have been made by a person who, watching their familiar world become relegated to a musty corner in favor of newer digital media, railed against something that he barely understood. But the angry gamers who attempted to change Ebert’s mind wound up looking more ridiculous. When an older person tells you to “turn down that racket,” you tell them to mind their business and turn it up another notch. You don’t sit them down and detail the inherently good qualities of whatever misogynistic, violent noise you happen to be pumping.

My introduction to video games happened when I was about six years old. My brother was lectured by my parents for about an hour as punishment for hanging out and playing Pac-Man for too long. I guess my brother probably issued a defiant, and therefore meaningless concession, then trudged up the creaky, wooden stairs to our shared bedroom in the attic. I had been listening in on his conversation with my parents, and when he walked in the room I asked my brother what Pac-Man was. He scoffed and said I was a fucking idiot if I didn’t know what Pac-Man was.

And a fucking idiot I was, because it seemed like every day after that, Pac-Man became more and more a part of my life. And not just Pac-Man, but Centipede, Donkey Kong, Arkanoid, and Defender. At the time, I thought I was only noticing these games and their merchandise because I had become aware of their existence, like how you can learn a new word and then it seems like you hear it on every news broadcast and while casually chatting with friends. Looking back, I see that my learning about video games happened on the cusp of an arcade game explosion that would dominate the U.S. through much of the 1980s. One day, there was nothing to do at the pizza place but eat pizza. The next, you could crowd into the tiny parlor with a dozen like-minded youths and pump quarters into Dig Dug. Which, incidentally, left precious little money for pizza.

I was never crazy about video games, but I certainly played the shit out of some. Arcade games began falling out of favor as I reached pubescence (though they would see a short resurgence thanks to Street Fighter II) but that coincided neatly with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the first video game system that was undeniably awesome. I saved one-hundred and twenty dollars of my own money to purchase a NES from the Consumers electronics store in the Rockbottom shopping mall on Northern Boulevard. One of my brother’s friends worked there, and I made a deal with him to purchase stolen games for significantly less than retail value. I bought other video game systems along the way, but frankly none were as emotionally rewarding as the first.

I try to keep abreast of current video games because, whether they’re art or not, video games are certainly a major force in media. Since media is within my sphere of interest, so are these games. It’s not a chore because I am routinely astounded by the depth and scope of the technology pushing this industry. Where we once had to use our imaginations to picture Link from The Legend of Zelda wearing a green tunic, today you can practically feel a breeze caress Link’s ass as his finely-woven tunic flaps in high-definition wind. Games used to take a couple of hours to beat, now you can log in eighty and a hundred hours just wandering around some meticulously-rendered battlefield, popping your gun blithely at whatever enters your field of vision or specifically targeting enemy players’ internal organs. It is truly mind-boggling, and I suspect that certain esteemed elders’ words on video games are a reflection of how boggled their minds are when considering them. Many films are beloved because we can project ourselves into a character as portrayed by an actor. Video games take that to the next step where we become the actor.

Which is, I think, where we can cease considering many of these video games to be “games” at all. Pac-Man is a game where you run around mazes of increasing difficulty, chomping pellets and racking up as many points as possible. The next person to play, if they’ve put their quarter up at the edge of the screen, will implicitly try to beat the highest score. The game is one of repetition, requiring the player make many mistakes (at the cost of about ten cents an error) until they figure out the best patterns. A lot of games today are just stories with set conclusions where the player makes a series of decisions in order to eventually arrive at one of them. You can never actually lose these games, you keep on playing and playing until you get past the difficult parts and advance the story to a new act. Right now, I am playing a game called Fallout 3, which is a massive, open-ended game where you can interact with practically every person and every thing you come across. Most of my game play thus far has consisted of me having long, text-based conversations with computer characters, and choosing between three or five dialogue options in hopes that I don’t come off like an asshole. I have enough trouble with real world personal interactions, I don’t want to start getting anxious about whether a fictional super mutant likes my hat or not.

I am not prepared to say whether video games are art, or if they ever will be art, or if they ever were art. That kind of a question seems so loaded that there can be no right or wrong answer. But it does occur to me that a lot of the actual playing part of video games has been excised from some of the most heady and popular titles. These games guide the player along a series of pre-set routes, reaching one or more inevitable conclusions which are effected depending on a sequence of pressed buttons. Playing these specific games is an almost passive experience, the only aim being to wait out the game until you reach the story’s conclusion. However, movies still have the edge on video games because when watching a movie, your hands are free for snacking or masturbation.

Whoa! Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne is Pretty Ill!

12 Feb

Buying individual comic books is out for me. I’m a shut-in comics nerd in his mid-thirties, the last thing I need is another periodical or six to clutter up my cramped apartment. So like many of my peers, I wait for trade collections of comic books, usually (and very gratifyingly) grouped by story arc and available within a few months of the last comic in the storyline’s publication. Such is the case with Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, collecting the six-issue mini-series of the same name that came out last year.

I’ve been following Grant Morrison’s work on Batman as well as Final Crisis through their trade editions, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve liked Grant Morrison ever since Batman: Gothic, which is where I first heard of him. I feel Morrison is a great talent, and should certainly be mentioned among other great comic book authors, particularly those who can weave epic, complex stories over many issues (and sometimes, through many titles) like Neil Gaiman. However, there’s always something a little off in his stories.

I noticed it in Batman: Gothic as well. That story, which is a trade collection from the Legends of the Dark Knight series that ran after the success of Batman: Year One, is about a four-hundred year old Satantic sorcerer who sold his soul in order to survive the Black Death, and now intends to release the plague on Gotham City and barter the city’s souls against his own. We learn that, while waiting around four centuries for this prime opportunity, the Satanist has been a total prick, killing children at his whim and generally being a lecherous creep. Turns out he actually had a stint as headmaster at Bruce Wayne’s boarding school, and it was an argument with this weirdo that caused Thomas Wayne to pull his son from the school and bring him home to Wayne Manor, an event celebrated with a night out to the movies… [SPOILER ALERT: THAT’S WHEN BRUCE’S PARENTS GET KILLED IN FRONT OF HIM, INSPIRING HIM TO BECOME BATMAN.]

Which is a swell story by itself, doesn’t need a lot more to color it in. But there’s this extension of the plot where it shows that the long-lived villain was once a devout monk living in a monastery in Austria. He was corrupted, convinced his brothers that Satan was cool, then they raped a nun…then I think the monastery was drowned…something about Batman had to bring back the Satantic monk’s heart? It was just a bit overboard, like a lovely cake that was ruined when it was served with lug nuts as a topping. The result is one of mild confusion, yet it did not keep me from enjoying the story as a whole.

I fear that Grant Morrison’s gone over the deep end now, folks. I saw it in New X-Men, we all saw it in Final Crisis, a story so dense it needs several publications and websites to annotate, deconstruct, and effectively understand it. And it’s happened here in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, though it has done nothing to dampen the Batman geek in me–in fact the story, by and large, has tickled me to the core of my Batman geek penis.

So the setting of this story is that Batman was shot by this evil god Darkseid’s laser gun, which everyone thought killed him but it actually sent him back in time. This six-issue series deals with Bruce Wayne finding his way back to present-day Gotham City (turns out every solar eclipse makes him jump forward in time), each issue concentrating on a different time period. My inner Batman fanboy salivated and clapped with glee over this nod to the 1950s era Batman, a campy, tamed version who was at times a chivalrous knight, a cowboy, or a viking. Morrison has skillfully resuscitated this much-maligned period of Batman over the course of his writing, lending gravity to once silly notions like Batmen of All Nations and the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh.

However it’s not as simple as Bruce Wayne merely fast-forwarding a few times, no there’s chicanery afoot. Darkseid, in his infinite wisdom, counted on Wayne having the tenacity to, you know, travel through time, so he somehow made it so that Bruce would gather Omega Energy each time he zapped forward, until he had enough to destroy the present day. It’s unclear what Omega Energy is, but suffice to say it is bad and you should not let it build up too much. To hasten Wayne’s advance through time, Darkseid also tossed out this killing, time-traveling monster to chase him through the fourth dimension. Oh, and also Superman and a few pals are cruising through time, trying to catch up to Batman before he kablooeys the present day. Who isn’t traveling through time in this fucking comic? It seems like the time stream is getting more traffic than the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

In the sixth issue, the story runs off the rails a little with that overblown redundancy I was talking about earlier. Yes, it does add information and color to the story somewhat, but I found it confusing and a little disappointing as a conclusion. I’m not going to spoil the whole ending, but the main part I will spoil: turns out Batman was instrumental in his own creation. The particulars of this and the way the story is told, however, are crucial and worth your scrutiny. It’s just this whole scene at the end, there are these weird robots cataloging time…I’d worry that I was giving important plot points away if I fully understood what was happening. Much of the sixth issue of this series is Batman talking to robots, a real decline in what had been an action-packed and compelling comic book.

Still, even with that extra stuff, the general story is great and satisfying on many levels to the avid Batman fan. If you’re a fan, you’ve already been reading the shit and you’re just reading this to see if my opinion aligns with yours. If you’re not a Batman fan, I can’t say this is a good place to get into Batman, but then if you’ve gone this far along not reading Batman then you can probably just keep on rolling and skip it. Me, I love the shit, Grant Morrison rules. Even if I might not be smart enough to understand what the hell he’s writing about.

Tron: Legacy Is a Piece of Shit

31 Jan

I was surprised at the rumors about Disney allowing the original Tron DVD to go out of print before Tron: Legacy debuted because they were afraid that people would see the original and not be enticed to watch the sequel. I saw Tron in the theater and it made a major impression on me, the film was groundbreaking for digital special effects and I thought the story was satisfying, if in a completely predictable Disney way. Sure, the haphazard and meaningless use of computer terms throughout the script is silly and the end is pretty underwhelming, but the movie is nothing to be ashamed of. Like anything, Tron needs to be appreciated in historical context. It’s not providing an Avatar-level experience but it’s a damn sight better than The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Surprise! This video game was awesome.

I was very excited for the release of Tron: Legacy for the same reason as most people: nostalgia. I hoped Tron: Legacy would be like Tron but with kick-ass Speed Racer-style special effects. I expected the story to be simple, and corny, with clearly-defined heroes and villains and a generic happy ending. And if they’d delivered that, I probably would have enjoyed every minute of my two-hour experience. As it is, I want to take the $17.50 I spent on ONE ticket and cram it up the Tron team’s collective asshole. Sideways.

I am not alone in this opinion. You can find plenty of Cheetos chompers deriding this movie from the safety of their blogs. Most of the kudos go to the soundtrack, composed by Daft Punk. I’m not a great fan of Daft Punk, but they did a pretty good job with the soundtrack. It compliments action on the screen, which is pretty much all you want out of a movie soundtrack. Except for the one gratuitous scene at the End of Line dance club–I am not making that up–the music doesn’t overpower the movie which is essential. However, if the best thing you can say about a movie is that its soundtrack is good, chances are that implies that the movie sucks.

Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance.
My negative opinion of Tron: Legacy can be boiled down to three problems. One: the story is overly complicated and generally blows. I understand that the suits at Disney are probably salivating into their ejaculating penises over the idea of successfully franchising this dormant property, but let’s write one movie at a time, okay? Maybe tie up the loose ends from the first movie before creating this vast new world of commercial possibilities. To describe the plot would be to insult both of our intelligences, but let’s say that it involves a maligned group of indigenous digital creatures who are nearly destroyed on the computer plane except for…yeah, let’s not even bother. To its credit, the good guys are obviously good and the bad guys are ludicrously sniveling, a hallmark of Disney plotting.
My second problem with Tron: Legacy is that the special effects are good, but shit: they could have been better. The original Tron did its best to simulate a computer world using cutting-edge technology at the time, which provided a kind of pseudo-depth but no real texture or round edges. Tron: Legacy takes the incredible graphic capabilities of today’s special effects wizards and does pretty much the same thing. Yeah, there are lots of crazy angles and the spaces seem much more massive, but it’s really not a lot better than today’s best HD video games or even Superbowl commercial graphics. Here was an opportunity to rethink the whole franchise, and the movie still ends with a cgi bridge disappearing beneath the characters’ day-glo feet.

But my biggest problem with Tron: Legacy, the one that dwarfs my other two gripes so as to render them completely insignificant, is cgi Jeff Bridges. Who the fuck cleared cgi Jeff Bridges? The movie’s plot revolves around Tron’s original protagonist, played by Jeff Bridges, having created a computer program called CLU that would do his bidding in the computer world while Jeff toked righteous bud in the third dimension. And because the movie’s screenplay writers are sadists who want to drive the special effects department unnecessarily insane, CLU looks like Jeff Bridges also. Not the current, well-worn Jeff Bridges but young Jeff Bridges from around the time of the original movie. So whenever we see CLU in this movie, and it’s a goddamned lot let me tell you, we have to fucking look at a ridiculous cgi mask of young Jeff Bridges, which looks more like Freddy Kreuger had reasonably successful plastic surgery. This aspect of the movie is so stupid and absolutely not necessary that it ruined the whole thing for me. Why does CLU have to look like young Jeff Bridges? Why make things hard on yourself? CLU could have looked like Leonardo DiCaprio, or Tobey Maguire, or even a cuddly plush robot dragon for crying out loud, but instead you had to make it look like a plasticine Jeff Bridges that makes you wince just peeking at it. Ridiculous. Save that shit for Christmas TV specials and sci-fi alien pornography.

Batman is Motherfucking Awesome

29 Jan

It’s not exactly unpopular to state that Batman is motherfucking awesome in 2011, yet it can never be overstated: Batman is motherfucking awesome. To embrace Batman is to embrace a part of the American experience, in ways more complete and truthful than offered by the jingoistic do-gooder Superman or that ball-buster with the high gloss lips, Wonder Woman. For one thing, Batman is a man, an orphaned billionaire known as Bruce Wayne, who witnessed his parents’ murder during a botched robbery and then dedicated his life and vast fortune to vanquishing all violent crime. On this point many nerds are clear: we like Batman more because he’s simply a really smart, regular dude. No different than us, essentially, except he is tremendously athletic and we need to grease our thighs to extract ourselves from high-armed office chairs for an hourly bladder relief and beverage refill. That Batman is an actual human being with no super powers certainly helps the reader to identify with his exploits, though it is safe to say that few, if any, regular readers of Batman comics are orphaned billionaires. Here is where the disconnect begins.

I think it safe to assume that, there being relatively few billionaire orphans on our earth, virtually none of the people reading this essay are orphaned billionaires nor do any of you know any orphaned billionaires intimately. If I am wrong, please feel free to contact me directly. Regardless, any assumed behavior by an orphaned billionaire would be a complete presumption on our part; I can’t even think of any historical figures who were orphaned billionaires upon which to base a personality profile. I can try to imagine what I might do as an orphaned billionaire, and after purchasing the New York Mets, a fleet of completely restored 1978 El Camino cars, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with hollow plastic balls, I don’t think I would dress up as a bat and kick the snot out of criminals. Frankly, I don’t think I would dedicate very much of my vast fortune to the task. Maybe a substantial contribution to the Police Athletic League every year and a Christmas party for my security staff. Not the cleaning staff, though. Those scurrilous thieves are always pilfering copier paper.

My point is that dressing up like a bat in order to snuff stick-up artists and rapists is a long shot for anyone, billionaire orphan or otherwise, so whoever decides to do such a thing must be a little touched in the head. And here’s where I think our real connection is with Batman: we believe Batman is awesome not for who he is, but because he fulfills our most bizarre and convoluted revenge fantasies. Batman’s story is not one of redemption, or of justice, but of eternally unsatisfied and twisted vengeance, not just on the person who killed his parents but on all people who remotely remind Batman of the offending murderer. This kind of resolute, insane passion is something we’ve all wished to enact at one time or another, against a cruel boss, or a spurious lover, or even an annoying person on line at the supermarket. We don’t normally act on these fantasies because we’re part of polite society, and because we can get over brief inconveniences and hurt feelings since we know that around the corner we’ll have our personal time in which to read Batman comics and zone out to sitcom reruns. We don’t want to jeopardize that. Still, part of us envies the mass murderer, the spiteful bureaucrat, the crazy guy in tights because they go where we won’t. They assume positions of power and use them to inflict suffering on people they don’t like. That, my dear readers, is the American Dream.

Anyway, I’m really into Batman and I’ll probably write a lot about the subject. So if you don’t like Batman for some reason, get fucked.

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