Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
For eight years, I've been an undergrad. Eight years. Hell. However, I've put three degrees in the can and I think I'm better for it. I started at Briercrest College, a small-ish Christian college in southern Saskatchewan, where I hammered out two bachelor's degrees, one in theology and one in the humanities (vague, I know). I spent five years there, and though it didn't really open the doors I'd hoped it would, the training that I received there - academic training, moral training, personal, spiritual, etc - has been invaluable. I am who I am in large part because of that place and so I am grateful. After that, I skipped over to the University of Saskatchewan with every intention of banging out an English Literature degree with as much haste, and posthaste, as possible. However... see above closed doors. The transfer credits didn't amount to squat, so I spent three years (well, two and a half, plus some summers) padding my educational resume and fulfilling the requirements. I am, as of now, and notwithstanding some as-of-yet still unpaid tuition fees, an English graduate. Degree number three, in the bag. Now, on to bigger and better things. Bigger, at least. Greener pastures, right?
So it's been a good year. And it's been shitty. Upon reflection (and what else is the end of the year for besides reflection? Oh right, booze. Well, I'm drinking wine as I write this so I've got that covered), every plan that I made, every hope that I laid, turned brittle, fragile, and pretty much crumbled at my feet. I graduated, but just barely. It was a fight to the finish. (I'm speaking financially, by the way. Academically, I nailed it.) A conspiracy, its tentacles seemingly stretching into all sectors of my life, both public and private, was launched against me. At every turn, and on every front, frustration bit me in the ass. Scholarships were denied. Loans were reduced to rubble. Jobs disappeared. Things that I had assumed were guaranteed turned out to be smoke, vapor. Life is fragile. Dreams are even more fragile. Both can be upset by the smallest decision of another. Both can be set back, darkened, and even snuffed out.
But I'm being dramatic. I'm indulging. I did get that third degree locked down, and I did it with style. I'm proud of the scholarship that I can produce. Academically, I'm no slouch. I may slouch in other areas of life, but not in school. No sir.
So 2008 is done. Good. Get rid of it. It was a stressful year. Highs and lows, ups and downs, cliche here, cliche there, etc, etc. All that proverbial knowledge, all those gnomic sayings and all their sickening banality, their tedious mundanity... they are all true. School is tiring, family is tiring, money is tiring, lack of money is tiring. Life is tiring. What I'm saying is I'm tired. I need a break. I have eight months to kill before I enter graduate school, which seems like a good thing but I honestly have no idea what I'm going to do and it's a bit scary. I thought I had a job lined up but... the conspiracy. Thwarted again, and at the very last minute, at just the moment when the conception becomes reality, where life is most fragile.
I'm not sure what's going to happen in 2009. Actually, I'm quite nervous about it, and that's not good. There are two things I can't deal with like an adult, being bored and being uncertain. Both tend to drive me towards unhealthy trespasses into my past: a renewed interest in the heavy metal music of my adolescence and re-runs of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Both are comfort food to me, and they tend to appear, like not-so-subtle screaming klaxons, right when I'm most depressed.
Yes, lately I've been listening to Tourniquet and crushing on Sarah Michelle Gellar. Again. I'm in a state of emotional regression, I recognize that. Thanks again, 2008.
So here I am, on the raggedy edge. Graduated. Unemployed. Three degrees. Tired. Damn it. I need a new year, maybe one a little less fraught with peril and disappointment. Also, a miracle would be nice. Maybe a finger stretching out from the clouds, pointing the way. Yeah? Yeah? I know, probably not going to happen. It's not that I don't believe in intervention. I do. I just don't expect it, not for myself anyway.
Okay, enough. Like 2008, I'm done. This post is upsetting me now. It was supposed to be ironic catharsis. But now I'm not sure what it is. It's more sincere than I intended. That bit about Buffy... that's revealing more of myself than I'd planned. Of course I could delete all this. I'm considering it. But I won't. Maybe tomorrow I will.
Anyway. To 2009. I'd toast but I'm out of wine. Cheers anyway.
Okay, I'm intrigued.
It's a feature-length adaptation of a short film by the same name, 9, directed by the same guy, one Mr. Shane Acker. Looks to me like he's got more than a little visual prowess, though I wouldn't yet call him a "visionary," an entirely over-used word in the film industry (I mean, come on. I liked 300, but I wouldn't call Zack Snyder a visionary, though the Watchmen trailer sure wants you to think he is). I'm not sure what to make of Russia's Timur Bekmambetov's involvement, though. I liked the Night Watch and Day Watch movies, or at least I liked their visual style, and I'll confess to looking forward to the forthcoming Twilight Watch, but I kind of hated the obnoxious Wanted. But since he's only producing here, I won't get too worried. Also, as a final note, Burton, Acker and company, or at least their publicity department, have good taste. The song playing in the trailer's second half is "Welcome Home" by Coheed and Cambria.
Here's the original, eleven minute-long short that Acker made, and it alone is enough to secure my anticipation of the feature adaptation. Enjoy.
Monday, December 22, 2008
I had never played a Metal Gear Solid game before, so when Substance (the Xbox version of Sons of Liberty) arrived in the mail the other day, I was moderately excited, especially now that the semester is over, I'm officially finished my third, count 'em third, undergrad degree, and I have some extra time on my hands, which, I know, could be more profitably used - by, like, reading Joyce's Ulysses (honestly, I'm getting to it) or finally sitting down and writing something meaningful - but I'm tired of all that shit. I need a break. I've read enough and written enough in the last eight years that I really want to just lay about, mentally speaking, for a while. So game on, I say. Where was I? Oh, excited about Metal Gear. I'd say that in terms of anticipatory arousal I was about a 7, 10 being an almost undeniably urge to couple with the game, like with Silent Hill 2, and 1 being the flaccid disinterest I feel every time Square Enix announces yet another excursion into hermaphroditic heroism. There's an aura about the MGS franchise, a tone used when speaking of it usually reserved for religious ceremony. Solid Snake is one of those icons of gaming, one of those god-like figures apotheosized by millions of devoted (and, let's face it, probably sweaty, lonely, and sexually confused) fans. I knew a bit about the franchise. I knew, for instance, that the games are strangely fixated on Snake's ass, which in all the games have been very lovingly and carefully designed (see) so as almost to give players a whiff of Snake's musky greatness. I also, and more importantly, knew that the games have a tendency to be... um, bombastically dramatic. By which I mean incomprehensible. But, I was still excited, ready to feel up this franchise. Only an hour into my Metal Gear dalliance, I already knew two things: one, this game is old and two, it's still pretty fun. The mechanics are ancient. They were ancient, I fear, when they first launched. Just one year after Sons of Liberty's release, for instance, Ubisoft would launch Splinter Cell, which in terms of stealth gameplay absolutely eclipsed Metal Gear Solid. All the stealth aspects of MGS2 just feel like a game, as if mimicking anything approaching reality was the furthest thing from the designers' minds. Stealth in MGS2 is governed by very rigid sets of rules and parameters. You can run, flat out sprint, past a guard and unless his very short and limited field of vision is aimed at you, you are invisible and silent. So it all feels very contrived. But that's not all that wrong here. I'll make a list. The weapon combat is clumsy as all hell, basically requiring you to switch to a fixed first-person view if you want to hit anything. The hand-to-hand and sword combat (yes, a sword... stealthy) is even worse and basically only lets you fumble about in the dark, like a clumsy and desperate teen attempting to unclasp a bra and reach the promised land. But, worst of all, the camera seems to be alligned not with the player but with the terrorists as it continually refuses to show you anything. On top of all of that, the game is a clinic on how not to pace your game. Hideo Kojima, the mind behind Metal Gear, is apparently in love with every last freakin' word he writes and so makes you sit through hour after hour of exposition and talking heads. In the last 45 minutes of the game, I played for about five minutes, the time it took to beat the boss. The rest of the time was spent watching character after character pontificate, reveal plot twists, confess parentage, etc, etc, on and on, until the player is rendered comatose, which I'm taking as a mean-spirited gameplay mechanic: lull the player into torpor and then laugh when he tries to rouse himself to fight. But, despite these archaic limitations, despite gameplay that has been improved upon by almost every other entry into the stealth genre, despite the game's best efforts to leave me unconscious, despite my better judgment, I found myself having fun. There's a lot here that I don't like, and writing it all down I realize that I should not like this game. It's pretentious, over-written, and ludicrous, yet it also has something else, an X-factor if you will, some unquantifiable aspect that keeps all those criticisms from locking the game away forever in limbo somewhere. It's a fun game and, I assume based on this second entry alone, a fun franchise. Not by any stretch of this writer's imagination (and that imagination is stretchy, let me assure you) is this game art, which is what I'm always looking for these days. It didn't even fulfill the expectations I had for it, but it was a decent holiday distraction and I'm glad I finally caught up with this franchise, if for no other reason than that now I know what it's all about.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Sunday, November 30, 2008
For the past year, ever since I was made aware of its existence, I've been trying to hunt down a copy of Silent Hill 2 for the Xbox. Not one of the stores here in Saskatoon have stocked it in years, which isn't surprising, and I've been sitting on the Goozex queue for over a year, which is a bit more surprising. People who have it don't want to part with it, it seems. I finally got a used copy of it from Amazon.com. After a year of patiently waiting, I finally clutched it in my trembling hands. Reverently, I placed it in my Xbox. I felt like I was about to have a religious experience. I tingled all over. I shivered and quivered. I broke into a sweat. I was terrified that it wouldn't live up to its legendary reputation. I, in other words, was more excited to finally play this seven year old game than I was to play almost anything else released this year, including Gears of War 2 or Fallout 3. I closed my eyes, closed the tray, and played the game.
And it was nearly sublime, as sublime as a game can be I suppose. I thought I'd experienced most of what games have to offer at this time. I thought things like Braid and Bioshock represented the best argument for games as art. I knew that the medium's potential had been hinted at in the past but I had no idea that someone had actually crossed, with bold step and stern gaze, the invisible threshold separating entertainment and art upon which games always stumble. I thought I'd already seen the medium used as effectively as anyone knew how to use it yet. I was wrong. Silent Hill 2 is the single best argument for games as art. Or perhaps it's an argument for how games are not art, since its exceptional nature only casts all other attempts into shadow. I've always known that the series had some serious punch to it. I liked Origins, which was the first Silent Hill game I played (lame, I know), I liked the action-oriented Homecoming probably more than it deserves, and I loved The Room... but those games are nothing - and I mean nothing! - when compared with the genius of Silent Hill 2. (Okay, The Room is still damn brilliant. It is much, much better than either Origins or Homecoming.)
As I was playing it, everything just felt right. The game mechanics, the dreamy sometimes atonal, sometimes discordant music, the ambiguous dialogue scenes, and yes even the dated graphics engine that powers this "last generation" title, all seemed to perfectly coalesce into an experience unlike any other. Silent Hill 2 transports you. You play as James Sunderland, an emotionally damaged man looking for his wife, Mary. Mary's been dead for three years, however, having died of a terminal illness. Yet inexplicably, James receives a letter from her saying that she is waiting for him in Silent Hill. So James sets out to find her, to discover the truth, and in doing so is propelled into a nightmare that is poignant, haunting, horrifying and absolutely beautiful.
The Silent Hill franchise is famed for its horror, and rightly so. Its twisted human shapes, dredged from the depths of eros and thanatos, can be truly disturbing projections of agony and despair. What the series is less famous for, though, is its beauty. The Room hints at this beauty but the American efforts at the series, Origins and Homecoming, basically banish it from town in favour of a constant sense of oppression that developers seem to think horror gamers require. Silent Hill 2 is beautiful, however. Tonally, it's like Braid meets Hellraiser. And shockingly, it retains the intelligence of both (and by Hellraiser I mean the Clive Barker film and not the bastardized sequels that followed in which, like the recent entries into the Silent Hill franchise, the parts that made it special were jettisoned to make room for the more spectacular parts that only made it conventional). Silent Hill 2 isn't just a survival horror game, you see. Like Braid, the game is an exploration of a theme. It is a psychological landscape translated into game mechanics. It is the projection of a troubled psyche. If you just want to be dropped into a town and be able to start blasting away at beasties, stay away from this. Play Resident Evil. Or Homecoming. Silent Hill 2 requires something more from the players, though. It requires human sympathy and a familiarity with the ambiguous. The game won't fill in all the pieces, won't launch into scenes of unnecessary exposition in which what you are seeing and doing is explained. The game doesn't interpret itself for you. It lets you feel the game. The metaphors are never mentioned, they are played. James rarely, if ever, comments on what he is doing. The player directly experiences the horror, the pathos, and the bright shining moments of insight, and the developers leave it up to the player to make of those moments what he can.
This sort of story-telling is rarely found in games. Developers almost always, and I don't know why, feel as if they need to spell out the game so explicitly that every single moron that picks up the game can follow it. Even Dead Space, my choice for Game of the Year, is pretty obvious on the story end of things, though it is admittedly more maturely crafted than most major releases. And I think that is what's missing in most games, maturity. Silent Hill 2 is mature. I don't mean "mature" as in Rated M (though it is); I mean mature as in grown up, sophisticated, self-aware, meta, etc. It feels like a game made for a truly adult audience, not the prurient adult audience that simply looks for blood, breasts and bad language.
2008 is being considered one of the best years for gaming in a long time. Aside from a few notable releases, however, most of the games currently being celebrated are the quivering fascinations of the moment - the shiny, hot, but ultimately shallow ephemera of an always insatiable market. Not one of the major developers show much interest in crafting compelling, introspective, thematically tense games. They are only after the spectacle. We have an entire industry scrambling to foist upon the market nothing more than summer blockbuster-style extravaganzas... and we have an audience gobbling it. Silent Hill 2 demands a higher standard.
A while back, I wrote that gaming grew up with Braid. I was wrong. Gaming grew up a long time ago with Silent Hill 2 but, outside a few of the upright heart and pure, nobody seemed to notice or care. You should care. Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece, the type of game rarely attempted and even more rarely executed. It has flaws and limitations, but those are mostly matters of technology and software. In vision it is nearly perfect.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Monday, October 27, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
Anyway, when it comes to Babylon I've deliberately put certain restriction upon myself in an effort of guide my readership's perception of me (this readership is, I fear, largely illusory or at the very best rather small, which means all my efforts to guide others' perception of me has ended in a self-reflective knot in which I'm now discussing how I've deliberately shaped an audience's perceptions of me when I myself am in fact the audience. I am both perceiver and perceived and, I just noticed, both of me have a headache). I've kept gaming, a rather large element of my personality, and of my day, mostly hidden or at least I've relegated it mostly to the background, only letting that portion of myself out every once in a while to express either exasperation or affirmation in what I think are special situations. I've tried to keep the geek impulse in check, in other words, in order vainly to appear both knowledgeable and wise perhaps even charismatic (okay, some elements of self-representation are purely fictive) but also because personalities, despite their usually multiform natures, are so often judged on the basis of only one of their aspects and are thereafter slotted into prefabricated stereotypes. Personally, I'd much rather be sterotyped as an English student or a film critic than as a gamer. And since in the public consciousness one person can rarely occupy more than one stereotypical space, I often work very hard to ensure that some elements of my personality are privileged over others.
But now that I've rambled at length about it I feel it only appropriate to transgress my own self-imposed restrictions regarding personality disclosure, to transcend my self-fashioned self image by incorporating another image, one that might, it's true, damage that first so carefully laboured over image, which I can only hope is at this point strong enough to absorb such a decadent and low-brow disclosure as this (the fact that this post directly follows one on Dante has not gone unnoted). You see, all of this babbling has really been nothing more than an elaborate excuse to say that recently I've been playing Dead Space, an extremely violent and no-doubt violence inducing game, and that I love it so much I want to share this excellent trailer. Seriously, it's one of the best game trailers ever made. So, uh... enjoy. And hopefully whatever image of intelligence I've built up over the last year or so isn't about to be entirely reduced to rubble.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Midway on our life's journey, I found myselfIn dark woods, the right road lost. To tellAbout those woods is hard - so tangled and roughAnd savage that thinking of it now, I feelThe old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.-Inferno, Canto I.1-5
He hurled the sinner down, then turned to rushBack down the rocky crag; and no mastiffWas ever more impatient to shake the leashAnd run his fastest after a fleeing thief.The sinner sank below, only to riseRump up - but demons under the bridge's shelfCried, "Here's no place to show your Sacred Face!You're not out in the Serchio for a swim!If you don't want to feel our hooks - like this! -Then stay beneath the pitch." They struck at himWith over a hundred hooks, and said, "You'll needTo dance in secret here - so grab what seamYou're able to, in darkness." They then didJust as cook have their scullions do to steepThe meat well into the cauldron - with a prodFrom their forks keeping it from floating up.-Inferno, Canto XXI.43-58
We had left him, moving onWhen I saw two shades frozen in a single hole -Packed so close, one head hooded the other one;The way the starving devour their bread, the soulAbove had clenched the other with his teeth,Where the brain meets the nape. And at the skullAnd other parts, as Tydeus berserk with wrathGnawed at the head of Menalippus, he chewed.-Inferno, Canto XXXII.124-131
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
L'Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) is Jean-Pierre Melville's film about the French Resistance during World War II. Sombre, pessimistic, and filled with a sense of inescapable and predestined resolution, L'Armée is by turns both heartless and sympathetic, both convinced and morally ambivalent. With blue and gray eyes (the film's dominant colour palette) it looks deeply into the moral ambiguity of both war and resistance -- and into the actions that both seem to demand -- but it seems to always refuse us the opportunity either to disengage entirely or identify completely with its characters and their actions. Though the narrative often picks up the stories of other resistance member's as well, L'Armée primarily follows Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a high-ranking member of the French Resistance. Unlike the grand war films -- the storm the beach, rescue the prisoners, defeat the enemy type of films -- L'Armée is a very subdued affair, muted in tone and scope, and muted, one might say, in its depiction of the heroic figure. The film's characters are not the young and the reckless soldiers and freedom fighter idealists that often accompany war films; they are hardened, professional, dedicated and appear both worn out and morally tired. Melville's resistance members have more in common with the type of characters we would normally associate with crime or gangster films -- like Melville's own Le Cercle Rouge (1970) -- rather than with war films: they are cool, aloof and detached; they go about their business in silent resignation, poised for sacrifice. In not glamourizing his subject, Melville humanizes it.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Brand Upon the Brain! is ostensibly a silent film, complete with title cards and narration. It is black and white, frantically shot on rough and grainy super 8, and hypnotically edited. The film was originally designed to be a "cinematic experience," more a piece of performance art than a conventional theatrical film. It debuted at the Toronto Film Festival with live musical accompaniment and several live foley artists; in the festival circuit it has been narrated live by Maddin himself, Eli Wallach, Isabella Rossellini and Crispen Glover, amongst others. For this fantastical and metaphorical trip down memory lane, Maddin harvests nearly every genre imaginable, from melodrama to horror, fantasy to science-fiction, erotic thriller and teen detective story. Vampires, secret teen lesbians, Lord of the Flies-style savages and the re-animated dead become the principal characters on the stage of Guy's memory. And yet, as Maddin continually mashes up genres and themes and as he overlaps motifs and elements, a surprisingly coherent film emerges. The film never feels forced or disjointed; it all makes a type of emotional and resonant sense. In this sense, Maddin is very much a Canadian counterpart to David Lynch; however, unlike the often off-puttingly esoteric nature of the Lynch's narratives, even a casual film goer, were he able to withstand the unabashed art house sensibility of the film's style and storytelling, would easily be able to understand the broad sweeps of Brand Upon the Brain! Its touchstones and themes -- such as first love, maternal attachment, the ambivalence and ambiguity of adolescence -- are broad and universal enough that, though the film appears to be deeply personal it is immediately identifiable.
While it's clear that Brand Upon the Brain! is firmly couched within a metaphoric sensibility, it's difficult and probably deliberately impossible to firmly identify where biography breaks off and where fantastic and perhaps slightly indulgent metaphor takes over. Both metaphor and myth are, I think, a very appropriate vehicle for self-revelation and Maddin deftly uses both here. However, if I were to lodge one protest against the film it would be that it almost feels dishonest. By using his own name as the name of his protagonist, Maddin establishes an autobiographical tone that the film's more outrageous elements almost immediately challenge and call into question and you begin to suspect that autobiography is not on Maddin's agenda after all. The relationship between Guy and his mother, for instance, seems designed to inflame, and perhaps poke fun at, Freudian anxieties rather then legitimately explore deep-seated emotional or psychological issues. In fact, throughout most of the film I think it is more likely that Maddin has his tongue in his cheek rather than his head on the couch. It is perhaps best to think of the film not as an exploration of Maddin's past (of course, for all I know about Maddin's childhood, it may well be just that) but rather an exploration of the past in general, it's impact and import, and its highly subjective nature. Guy becomes not so much a director's surrogate as an audience's and that, when executed as expertly as here, is a thrilling experience of which to be a part.
Every time I think that the limits of film have been bounded and set, I find someone like Maddin who brazenly over-steps the bounds and pushes the medium in directions I hadn't expected. Brand Upon the Brain! isn't a perfect film and it certainly isn't for everyone. In fact, chances are that unless you count yourself amongst the pretentious cinematic elite you probably haven't even heard of the film. It is, however, an exuberant, thrilling and rather marvelous little film full of whimsy, menace, sentimentality and sudden and bright splashes of affection. Brand Upon the Brain! is the first Guy Maddin film that I've seen -- an embarrassing admission for a Canadian critic, I know. After seeing it, however, I can say that I am indeed very eager to catch up on some of his other films such as The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg. Guy Maddin's vision in Brand Upon the Brain! is compelling and unique and worth the time of anyone who loves film.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.Braid is about the sorrow of lost love, about time travel and bittersweet forgiveness, and it's about the inescapable conclusions towards which most of us hurtle along. Deeply personal, surprisingly metaphysical, steeped in a keen sense of lose, and capable of evoking previously unknown levels of intimacy for a game, independent developer Jonathan Blow's first major release trumps years of big-budget game development in a single, unexpected burst of creativity. Like last year's Portal, Braid proves that the truly important developments in gaming are coming from the small releases, from unexpected places, in unexpected forms. While high-profile studios such as Bungie, Blizzard and Rockstar are constantly looking for ways to milk every last dollar from their respective franchises, Jonathan Blow has released a game with more emotion, more innovation and more genuine artistry than most of last year's releases combined.
This happened because Tim made a mistake.
Braid is a unassuming little game. In an obvious homage to Super Mario Bros, our protagonist, Tim, is searching for the Princess. However, this Princess is not the helpless damsel in distress and Tim is not the stalwart hero we probably expect him to be. Tim has made mistakes. Big ones. It's his fault that he lost the Princess. He lost her not because he made a deal with the wrong people, not because he had enemies, not because he was involved in some diabolical scheme, and not because it's convenient to the game's plot; in fact, it's not because of any of the usually tropes and narrative conventions that get recycled game after game in an industry even more creatively stagnated than Hollywood. Tim lost the Princess because he walked out at the wrong moment. Braid is the story of Tim, an average man, trying to say sorry to his girlfriend. Or at least, that's what the story appears to be about. The game starts as one thing and ends up as another, however; or rather, the game does end where it starts but picks up and develops several other overlapping narratives that could be the same story from another perspective or could simply be thematically guided excursions into related territory. Braid's themes and plots begins to overlap, conflict and eventually collapse in upon itself in a type of narrative singularity. It's a bit dizzying. You might expect this sort of literary maturity in a novel or a particularly good film but you probably would not expect it from a video game. Braid tells us that we should expect it from now on.
At it's core, Braid is a platform puzzle game. Like any good platform protagonist, Tim can run, jump, drop down on enemies, bounce off them, grab keys, unlock doors, all the platforming usuals we've come to expect. Braid's distinguishing gameplay mechanic, however, is that Tim can manipulate time. If he falls to his death, fails to solve a puzzle, or sets up his strategy poorly, he can simply rewind time, go back to the beginning, and start anew. Different objects in the game's worlds react differently, however; some will obey Tim's temporal dictates, others will not. Knowing what object will do what at a given moment and under a given condition is crucial to solving these puzzles. However, as interesting a gameplay mechanic as this is (and believe me, it's pretty damn interesting... and fun), it is not Braid's true genius. It's true genius is the meta levels upon which it operates. The game is not what it appears to be. Here, in Braid, gaming grows up.
Braid rethinks the medium entirely and manipulates it in ways that are, as far as I can tell, wholly new. It is possible, I suppose, to see it only as a simple platformer and dismiss it as nothing more than an interesting excursion into an almost antiquated gaming formula. It is likewise possible to think of Hamlet only as a play or The Starry Night only as a painting. Braid's deceptively simple appearance overlays a deeply self-aware and reflective game experience. Braid's gameplay itself is, in fact, a metaphor. The entire game is a type of dream, a digital manifestation of Tim's psychic quest to undo the damage he has done. All the game's major elements reflect this interior focus. The tripped and Monet-esque dripping wet-paint art direction as an image of dream quest or of a desire for an altered reality; the platformer puzzles as a representation of an underlying assumption that every problem -- even emotional and relational ones -- is a riddle easily solved by manipulating its elements; the core mechanic, the ability to rewind time to effect a more desirable outcome, as a expression of the fundamental wish of the guilty to go back and do things right: the game is operating on all these levels and it's operating on all of them beautifully, with a subtle hand and a quiet affirmation. Braid is as transcendent a gaming experience as is perhaps possible on the medium.
In the last little while, we've seen glimpses of what gaming could be. Games like Ken Levine's Bioshock, which combined a deeply satisfying FPS experience with a 1940s art deco sensibility and a surprisingly thoughtful philosophical mediation, and Valve's Portal, which is one of the only truly original and innovative games to come out in years, have elevated the medium beyond it's simple escapist heritage to something approaching art. Braid is another of these elevating games. It is as important a game as we're likely to see for a long time. Though the medium, or perhaps the nature of the industry controlling much of the medium, is not normally predisposed to the creation of art -- and by art I generally mean a product of imagination that offers anything from a full interpretation to a small comment on the human condition -- it seems as if truly artistic efforts can succeed on the medium after all.
Braid is available on the Xbox Live Arcade. I believe it is right now exclusive to that platform but as far as I'm concerned this game should be released on every platform possible. It deserves to be played.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forget
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Painting: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Breughel.
Monday, July 21, 2008
I suppose it remains to be seen whether or not Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight will go down in history as the great piece of cinema that everyone is clearly calling it at the moment. Time, after all, has a funny way of making us all look bad and in serious need of better judgment. But, that being said, as far as I can tell there absolutely is no reason why it should not go down as one of the single greatest superhero movies of all time, if not the greatest. I normally do not trust the hyperbole and media hype surrounding a film, especially when it surrounds a big-budget superhero movie, so I went into a screening of The Dark Knight deliberately skeptical and demanding that Nolan and company work hard to convince. They did not disappoint. Nolan, Bale and Ledger were up to the challenge, it seems, because convince me they did. They fully convinced me. In fact, I haven't been so convinced of a movie's greatness since I stumbled out of my first screening of There Will Be Blood last year. It's that good. Believe the hype, believe the hyperbole: The Dark Knight is not only perhaps the most perfectly conceived and executed comic-book movie of all time but it is also, as far as I'm concerned, a legitimate contender for best picture of the year so far.
Even though it's his show, the Bruce Wayne/Batman character actually takes a step back from centre stage in The Dark Knight and Christian Bale, who proved in Batman Begins that nobody else should ever play Batman, takes a similar step back in his performance, allowing the stories of others to be told. Many of the themes that dominated Batman Begins return in The Dark Knight but are this time located in other characters. It's as if each character, from Gary Oldman's resolute Lt. Gordon to Aaron Eckhart's idealistic Harvey Dent and yes even to Heath Ledger's demonic Joker, have become thematic extensions of Batman himself and seem to represent individual aspects of Bruce Wayne's personality. Bale, who really is given the least glamourous role of the major characters, and whose character doesn't really have as strong an arc as either the Gordon or Dent characters, never once tries to one-up his co-stars but always delivers a perfectly taut and controlled performance, as we've come to expect from him. His co-stars, in turn, rise to the challenge: Oldman is fantastic and Eckhart is, for the most part, quite good, though his performance does get a little cartoony towards the end, which is one of my only criticisms of the film.
And then there is Heath Ledger. Watching Ledger descend into the Joker is like watching Daniel Day-Lewis become Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; it's like watching Javier Bardem incarnate evil as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men; it's like watching Darth Vader, Freddy Krueger or Jack Torrence leave their mark on cinema; it's as irrefutable and iconic a performance as anything else that has ever come out of Hollywood. With all respect to Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and anyone else who's ever taken a stab at the character over the years, Heath Ledger is the Joker. And yet, as insane as the role is, the Joker himself, as conceived of by Nolan and Ledger, is not merely a homicidal lunatic. He is chaos. Devouring, insatiable chaos. And he is beautiful and terrible to behold
That's all I have to say about The Dark Knight. I could get into a couple of minor criticisms: a few moments, most of which revolve around a particular character in the film's last act, are still a little too comic-booky for my taste and seem almost stylistically incongruous with the rest of the film; not all the performances are great - Maggie Gyllenhaal is straight up boring and Morgan Freeman is... well, he's just Morgan Freeman; and if anything there seems to be almost an over-abundance of plot. But I won't get into those. They hardly matter in the face of everything else that the film is doing. The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. There, I've said it. Hyperbole be damned, it's a masterpiece. If you haven't seen it yet, go; if you aren't planning on seeing it, go anyway; if you've seen it and don't agree with me, stop going to the theatre because you obviously aren't there to watch great movies.
experto crede: best film of the year so far, and this from a guy who on principle hates almost all comic-book movies (except Hellboy).
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
UPDATE: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is, sadly, no longer available as free, streaming video. It has vanished into the ethereal night. However, do not panic, gentle reader, for it is still available on iTunes and will be released on DVD shortly.