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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

TV Watch: Lost, Sundown

This might have been my favorite episode this season so far.

First, the sidestory didn't suck or bore. It was a great Sayid short, and in some ways reflect on Sayid's on-Island story as well. I do openly wonder where the writers are going with Mr. Parallel Universe. There something keenly false about it (Jack not remember his appendectomy, Desmond's appearance and disappearance on the plane) and seemingly overly interconnected (Oh, Hi Jin). Will the sidestory Losties realize this? Easy money is that no matter what, MPU is going way for the "real" world - but will the real world send them a note at some point? Will the two realities ever get along? Or at least acknowledge each other?

On-Island is where the action is at, though - at like we've seen on previous moments of Lost goodness ... two sides are reaching a boiling point. Anti-Jacob tearing through the temple while various Losties are still figuring out what the hell is going on ... ok, I guess it's more like a toppling point at the moment. One big question I have is: why does Bad Jacob need an army? He's invulnerable, can morph into a killing cloud, and seems to know nearly everything about everybody. And he seems very keen to get people off the island.

If we divide out the stakeholders and big bads over the seasons, they always seem to have one of three goals: keep everyone on the island, get off the island or kill everyone on the island. Bad Jacob for some reason is picking the second two. Clearly if you want to join his escape, he has a use for you ... otherwise you're just a potential obstacle.

Another Lostie I know brought up the notion that Dogen's speech about how everyone has two parts to him might explain Jacob and Anti-Jacob quite well. They're two sides of the same entity, which is why it may have specific rules about who can kill what and where it can be when. Or something.

On a side note - why was Dogen the protective factor of the Temple? That seemed way convenient. On a side, side note ... notice how Illana calls everyone by their last (candidate) names?

I am, however, off the sci fi theory at this point. Old gods, perhaps, but anything E.T. is feeling more and more like a departure from the continuing themes.

Can't wait for next week. I wouldn't want to be in Kate's shoes.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

For Friday: OK Go, "This Too Shall Pass"

If there's an unspoken rule the Rube Goldberg contraptions should be not just elaborate, but overly so ... OK Go may have just constructed on of the best ones ever:

I don't quite remember the last time I saw one that complex, but I'm pretty certain it was on the Internet.

Heavy Rain: The Spoiler Free Review

I'll be releasing two different Heavy Rain reviews. This one will be quick, and be 100% spoiler free. Later I'll publish a spoiler heavy review which is for people who have played the game but want to see how opinions might fare on Rain's actual storyline and execution.

Non-spoiler summary: Heavy Rain is an interesting evolution of interactive fiction. It bears a heavy resemblance to adventure games of the past, but uses the relatively modern concept of Quick Time Events (QTE's) to have the player keep their hand on the wheel, so to speak, of the story's plotline. I'm sure 99.9999% of readers know the idea - but for clarity, players are given an alloted time to match an input presented on the screen. Succeed and you move to one branch in the game, fail and you move to another branch.

QTE's have a mixed audience. Game designers have a love affair with them as it allows them to introduce cinematic moments which would normally have very little interactivity and give the player a hand in them. Depending on how narrowly you define the concept, you can blame Bluth for the entirety of Dragon's Lair's game mechanic or as recently as God of War for popularizing the notion.

David Cage first utilized this blend with the PS2 title, Fahrenheit (called Indigo Prophecy here in the States). Cage's take on QTE's is different than most - there is a real effort to match the motion being presented to the player to the one being portrayed on the screen. This was true in Fahrenheit and is extended in Heavy Rain. There's a large percentage of interatctions which aren't narrative as much as they are immersive. Quantic Dreams wants you to feel closer the protagonist on the screen, so when they open a car door ... you'll pull the controller stick to the left.

Dialogue is handled by options floating around the currently controlled character, as are the character's own thoughts to provide the player with insight and the occasional hint. The end result of all this is a character with their own brain that can be nudged, at times harshly, in one direction or another.

This is an important distinction. The characters in Heavy Rain are not avatars. You cannot go anywhere and do anything, you can move around, succeed, fail, have conversations and make basic choices. But you can't play someone like they are a jackass if the character isn't one. This is what places the game apart from most games - Heavy Rain is actively constructing a narrative for you - with real characters who are in conflict with each other, a plot which puts most any game plot to utter shame, and consequences which may not be apparent while you're playing out a scene.

The question of whether Heavy Rain is good relies a lot on the story - and in this spoiler free edition I'll just say: the story is good. If you're playing for the story, you'll get your money's worth.

The real question is whether Heavy Rain is for you ... because it certainly isn't for everyone. Even if it handles QTE's better than most every other game, they are still QTE's. Also, this isn't Max Payne ... you aren't going to run around shooting everything while occasionally getting punctuated with the storyline. The game is a essentially a 9-10 hour long movie with you pushing buttons.

And I think that's the bottom line: Heavy Rain isn't a game in the traditional sense. Or rather, it's a game in the sense of some very specific traditions - but more Zork or King's Quest than Halo or Final Fantasy. If that's intriguing, go play it. If it isn't, God of War III is due out next month.

Lockergate: Hurt Locker Producer Goes On Email Tear

The e-mails by Nicolas Chartier, one of four nominated producers for "The Hurt Locker" and who put up the financing to make the front-running film, violated the academy's rule against sending mailings that "attempt to promote any film or achievement by casting a negative light on a competing film or achievement," according to academy spokeswoman Leslie Unger.

The initial e-mail was sent Feb. 19 and obtained by The Associated Press. Subsequent e-mails, posted by the Los Angeles Times, showed Chartier giving more specific instructions, asking Oscar voters to rank "The Hurt Locker" at No. 1 and "Avatar" at No. 10 on this year's preferential ballot for the newly expanded best-picture category.
-- 'Lockergate'?: Producer apologizes for e-mails

They're considering taking away Chartier's Oscar tickets or (more unlikely) removing Hurt Locker from the ballot. I can only imagine the tension behind the now expanded Best Movie category, with small productions like Locker going up against blockbusters like Avatar, but Nick needs to learn one of the golden rules of Internet decorum: everyone involved in a flame war looks like an ass.

Monday, March 01, 2010

How Heavy Rain Shows Ebert Is Wrong

I'm leaning at this point to write a couple of Heavy Rain reviews, ranging in their spoiler-ness - but this isn't one of them. This is a response to the Destructiod column Why Heavy Rain proves Ebert right There won't be much in the way of spoilers (no more so than the original article), but probably some. Well, one.

To get to the crux of it, let's quote the Ebert man himself:

Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
-- Roger Ebert's answer man

There are lots and lots and lots of issues with Ebert's stance, not the least of which that art is less meaningful is it is participatory. More specifically, though, I'm taking issue with the examples the Desctructoid column uses to give strength to the stance. I will agree - Heavy Rain speaks to the heart of Ebert's argument. The player, as intruder to the narrative, as the potential to derail the storytelling intended by the original storyteller (in this case, the makers of the game and more specifically, David Cage).

I just don't think player derails the story in the way Anthony portrays. This is his evidence (here be spoilers):

Even ignoring the fact that Ethan specifically tells Madison nothing matters apart from saving Shaun -- he doesn't say "nothing, apart from me getting my freak on" -- this is a guy who has gone through immeasurable mental and physical trauma to save his son (unless you made Ethan refuse to complete any of the trials, in which case I'd have to ask why you're even playing the game). This is a guy who knows that every wasted second brings his son closer and closer to death. Under no circumstances would it make any sense for this guy to have sex with Madison.

But if you're curious about how the sex scene will play out, or if you have some personal interest in getting these two characters to screw regardless of their motivations, you can force Ethan to have sex with her. Congrats: you get to watch a sex scene and a murder at the same time, as Ethan's true character is obliterated before your eyes. Ebert proves himself right: your ability to control the story has resulted in a bad story.

And I disagree because I, in playing the game, arrived at the exact opposite conclusion in this scene. Ethan, having been rather brutalized at this point and presented with an attractive woman in his hotel room who has been helping and now clearly willing ... what straight man wouldn't get his freak on, as Anthony puts it. The Girl and I were on the couch while this was unfolding and it was pretty clear to both of us that Ethan would go for it.

So the ensuing scene for us didn't seem jarring or narrative breaking in the least. Now - here's the counterpoint I'm trying to make ... Anthony has his opinion on Ethan's character, I have mine. If Anthony chooses to have Ethan get it on, even if he feels it would make for a bad story - well, that would be because Anthony is choosing a sex scene over story. Heavy Rain provides the tools, Anthony has simply made his bed and then proceeded to complain about it.

But if we go back towards the days of gaming and media originally colliding, when DVD's were king and a notion like Tender Loving Care seemed like a good idea, this sort of "player as director" notion was exactly the goal. Maybe a senseless sex scene, to that player-director's opinion, doesn't make the most sense ... but it's there because that is the story the player-director wanted to have.

Which seem to put gaming in pretty even keel with movies. If the director feels a sex scene will increase the entertainment value, story be damned ... there is a good chance there will be one. And how many movies have sex scenes in them?

Anthony's version of the story was bad to Anthony, but because of the choices Anthony made. His premise is founded on the concept that the sex scene makes for a bad story under any circumstances and hence the lack of an authorial dictatorship makes for art which is less than what a movie might provide. And yet in my viewing of the same scene, I could see Ethan being too weary for the old beast with two backs, but for the most part I just assumed he wasn't gay.

Long time readers of Cathode Tan will know this next section of the article got my ire:

"But," you might say, "what about a game like Half-Life 2? That's a linear story, but you still have the freedom to dramatically sabotage it. You can spend the entire prologue throwing milk cartons at the residents of City 17, if you really want to. How is that any different?"

You can definitely sabotage Half-Life 2 if you wish, but the alternative to "sabotage the story" is not "get bored and feel useless." While you don't have any input over the direction of HL2's story, you still have a personal reason to keep playing: the action sections that comprise the majority of the game are fun enough that even if you don't give two shits about Alyx Vance, your input still feels relevant.

If you wanna sabotage HL2's story, you can, but you'll still have some fun with the shooty-shooty stuff. If you don't sabotage HL2's story, then the shooty-shooty stuff just feels more meaningful. It's an imperfect combination of story and gameplay, but the failure of one part doesn't destroy the entire experience. As Heavy Rain consists of nothing beyond some QTEs and a boatload of story decisions, it's got nothing to fall back on if the player decides to ruin the story by screwing with the characters.

Ah, yes. Let's recap Half-Life 2's story one more time. Gordon Freeman is transported to the future where the guy responsible for ruining the Earth is running it, and he runs around a lot, meets a few people, blows up a few more, then decides to trap himself to watch a few cut scenes and then blow the whole thing up.

The story sucked. And Gordon was a horrible protoganist. In fact, he isn't really a protaganist as much as he is a reader surrogate. Alyx is far more of a central protagonist to even the paper thin HL2 plot than Gordon, who is mostly a voyeur with a gun.

Anthony has it backwards, I think. You can't screw with HL2's story, partially because there isn't much of a story to begin with and also partially because you have no real control over the story. You can play (shooty-shooty stuff) or not play (throwing milk cartons), but can't shoot Alyx or side with the Combine or make any real impactful decisions. Heck, you can't even speak.

Heavy Rain's "boatload of story decisions" offers the player control, but largely it still the story the player decides on. And while the end result may or may not be a story the player likes will differ from player to player, at least Heavy Rain had the bravery to try and tell a story with real characters in real conflict that have real interactions. Ethan alone goes through more of a development arc than probably nearly every character in every game produced last year combined.

Now, I did have my own issues with Rain's storytelling - but I think blaming it because the player wanted to see some nookie is a pretty weak addition to Ebert's notion. And don't even begin to use Half-Life 2 as a counter-example, unless you really want to frame what storytelling is in the first place.