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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lament for Basic Dungeons & Dragons

As I flip through the beautiful hardcover books comprising D&D's 4th edition core rules set, I can't help but think back to that time in 1981 when my dad finally allowed me to pick up the D&D Basic Set--you know, the red box with the hot wizardess holding a glowing green orb, Keep on the Borderlands inside.... In any case, that purchase altered my life in ways that I could not, of course, describe then, but are clear now; any bit of imagination I possess, my literary interests, my gaming interests, you name it, are all on account of the old D&D--the pen and paper version.

Remember rolling characters with an intelligence of 6? remember when Elf was a class? Remember when a 1st level character's survival rate was 4.8%--less if you created a wizard or a thief? Well, I do, and I miss it. I also miss mapping--that was my favorite part. The DM says, "You open the door to a 20'X30' room with another door in the middle of the east wall." Ah, those were the days. Too, I didn't have to crunch 4,000 numbers before swinging a sword or shooting a bow. Roll the d20. Hit? Roll damage. We had so much fun, and could easily complete a module (remember how fantastic those were?) in a day-long session.
-- A Curmudgeons's Lament Regarding the Death of the Imagination

My brother and I used to spend whole days with nothing more than the old red box starter set - exactly the one described here: some paper, some dice, a set of rules and Keep On The Borderlands. Borderlands was essentially a mini campaign, a brilliantly designed area for simple exploration which we plundered over and over again.

I can see the rationale behind a D&D based board game, having enjoyed games like Doom: The Board Game and Zombies, not to mention older games like Talisman - but I can concur that a truly simplified RPG ruleset would and should have a place in the franchise's lineup.

I've been poking at a web-based RPG parody using dice (think Munchkin) and I was pulling up the code - thought this was a poignant thought for a Saturday morning.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

TV Watch: Lost, The Last Recruit

If I had to sum up this episode in one phrase, it would be: getting the band back together.

This was a quietly good episode. It didn't blow up nearly as much stuff (but explosions seem to becoming more common). There wasn't a lot of revelation (OK, so Christian was the Smoke Monster, like duh). The plot didn't move drastically forward, this was another one about getting the pieces in place for the next scene.

But - look at what we did get, the small bits:

Sayid steps away from the dark side
Who's Anakin? (hee hee). Easy money that Sayid did not shoot Desmond. I'd say Desmond has probably gotten his walking legs again, in fact. There was decent evidence that Dark Sayid was just lost to us, an empty shell of the character we had seen before - but Desmond managed to kick him where it counts, and he may well be back on the path of redemption.

Claire gets a bit of humanity
I think one of the great fails of the show is obscuring what actually happened to Claire (unless we have more information upcoming). We know she disappeared, left Aaron, showed up in The Cabin with who know suspect was the Man In Black (not Jacob) and took over Crazy French Lady's position as Lead Other Killer. Here we see what may have been driving her nuts was not The Sickness (if there ever was or is such a thing) but abandonment. Left behind by her son and her friends, she went native. The look in Claire's eyes when she watched her fellow Losties rush into the jungle without her was precious - and Kate's speech to bring her back into the fold was excellent.

Sun recognizes The Man In Black
I'm now safely within the camp that Sun's plot-induced aphasia was just dumb, but the scene in the LA X world where she recognizes Locke as The Man In Black. Or at least, that seems the most reasonable explanation for her freaking out when he's wheeled next to her since it seems like she has never encountered Locke in LA X nor has any reason to fear him. LA X is coming apart at the seams.

Finally, my prediction for the week: Jack is totally the next Jacob. Sorry Hurley and Desmond fans. It's the classic squaring off of Jack and Locke, only now Jack is the Man of Faith and Locke is the Man In Black. Also, the Losties better hope they packed some sandals.

I think they're staying for some time. The island is certainly not done with them yet.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Zelda Is Totally Like That Guy From The Odyssey

Because he rides in a boat, and he fights monsters and other stuff.

There, someone has compared a video game to one of the great pieces of literature and can apparently now be elevated to the level of art. Now maybe Roger Ebert can go shut the hell up. So, I was seriously thinking of titling this post Oh right, Roger Ebert is full of shit - but I do try and keep cursing to a minimum here, in general.

When, many moons ago, Ebert suggest video games can't be art because interactivity violates the director's concept - I was willing to at least accept it as an interesting argument. It is pretty easily ripped to shreds when one reminds Ebert that games aren't movies, though - and so then he suggests that art can't have scores and rules and what not. And if the game doesn't follow along with Ebert's thinking - he just assumes it isn't a game.

This really should have spiked my bullshit detector. When someone constantly has to shift the definition of what "it" is to keep the argument going - well, then you're just arguing for the sake of arguing. Flower is a game, whether Ebert likes it or not, and it is a very artistic one at that. But Ebert can't accept this - so he just whines a lot and then goes back to this thumping point about how he won't accept games as art until someone compares it to great literature.

Which is also complete bullshit. And if mindful readers think I'm using a slightly less rational tone than yesterday's post, you would be right. And this is because I've realized that Ebert isn't interested in an actual debate on the subject, he just wants to brag about how many comments he can generate and then will finish with a flaming flourish:

I'm not too old to "get" video games, but I may be too well-read.
-- @ebertchicago

Yeah, it's not that he is wrong about games. It's just that he has read so many books that he has surpassed our capacity to comprehend of his understanding of games. For the record, I don't why Ebert assumes that everyone thinks he doesn't get video games because he's old, the truth is he doesn't get video games because he has no experience with them. He does not play them. He does not write about them (except apparently once in 1994). When confronted with games like Braid and Flower, he writes about them as if they are some alien construct from the moon and can barely seem to grasp them as games, much as less accept them as art.

People: Ebert is not an art critic. He reviews bad movies for a living. Movies which are, largely, not wildly artistic. He has no real grasp of modern gaming. He takes delight in creating a lot of angry comments and then insults an entire subgenre of readers in a single dismissive tweet.

Roger Ebert is not an art critic.

Roger Ebert is a troll. And sometimes he reviews movies.

If you want to read if Death At A Funeral (which he apparently adored) will make you laugh, then go look him up. If you want to debate about how games are evolving as a medium - go read a writer who writes about games. There are plenty. The next time he tries to form a position on games, I will treat him as I would a talking dog - extremely curious but unlikely to have much wise to say about the subject at hand.

He's a troll, let's put him back in his troll box and out of the limelight.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Real Problem With Ebert's Argument: Pinball

Ebert is at it again, responding to a TED speech by Kellee Santiago and declaring that games can never be art. The first problem with his argument is that he doesn't quite understand what modern games are:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

So, a quick etymology here. Ebert spends a lot of time talking about chess and other rule-based games as if they were the grandparents of video games (and I think this misleads him into thinking that Santiago is wrong that is is a very nascent medium) - but video games are actually derived more from pinball than chess. Short, short version: bowling games begat billiards, billiards begat bagatelle, bagatelle begat pinball, pinball begat video games (just ask Midway Games).

And somewhere around the time that bagatelle became a word, Ebert's argument crumbles apart. Because as a game, you can never "win" at pinball, and pinball doesn't have rules in the normal sense of a game. You have rules like "you get a certain number of balls" and "sometimes you get more balls to play" and "you earn points" - but all of those are defined by the machine and not by any clearly established rulebook of pinball.

If you're playing a pinball machine - you're playing pinball. Simple as that. You don't need rules to agree with another entity that it is a valid game of pinball, you just need the machine.

And in this way, games were art way before Ebert came along. Interactive art is an established medium of art going all the way back to the 1920's - and the concept is basically the same. Installed machines which provide a viewer with a responsive environment.

After much ado, Ebert returns to what is completely a straw man argument:

The three games she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets."

When was the last time someone tried to compare Faulkner to Spielberg? Or Homer to Faulkner? Or Da Vinci to Frank Capra?

In other words - who decided on this nonsense as a determination of what is art? Clearly the answer is Ebert, because it is a neat conundrum he can use to insist on how right he is - even if it doesn't make any sense. Did someone have to compare a great novelist to a great poet before novels were considered a form of art? Did someone need to watch Birth Of A Nation and be able to connect it to something in a museum before movies were considered art?

Ebert has essentially nominated himself as Pope and until video games can perform at least a couple good miracles, they may be men of the cloth but totally not saints.

Consider this recent work by Blast Theory, an interactive art collective in England:

Flypad is a site specific work for the Public Gallery in West Bromwich, using augmented reality to create a thrilling, collaborative experience that combines game play with interaction, joyful goofing about with a visceral sense of the blur between real and virtual space.

The work has 11 terminals arranged around the central atrium of the gallery. Each is equipped with a monitor, a motorised pan-tilt camera and a footpad interface in the floor.

Visitors create avatars which they're able to fly around the atrium using the the footpad. The camera tracks their position as they fly; crashing into other avatars, learning new moves and collaborating together to attain perfect grace.
By holding on to other avatars, visitors can stay in the air for longer, mutating with the avatars they hold on to. As the game progresses, visitors become hybridised: from a group of individual and separate bodies emerges a social body in which everyone’s form and identity is partly moulded by those around them.
-- Blast Theory: FLYPAD

Blast Theory has created award winning games, most notably Can You See Me Now?, which won the 2003 Prix Ars Electronica for Interactive Art. Flypad is currently on display in THEpUBLIC in England. Blast Theory even refers to Can You See Me Now? as a game specifically. Flypad is similar, structurally to pinball - you are playing with a responsive environment.

The biggest difference between the two is that you don't really score points. Then again, Can You See Me Now is almost more of a presentation than installation - so it also crosses over into performance art.

By Ebert's standards, what Blast Theory is doing can either be a) art or b) a game. It cannot be both because video games can never be art.

Maybe someone should call them, the art awards and the museums they've worked with and let them know. Clearly the guy who gave Martin Lawrence's latest movie three and a half stars knows more than they do...