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2:26 AM on 09.28.2010

More Than Just Noise: The Theatricality of Gaming

All the world's a stage...

I am passionate about many things in my life. Among these include playwriting, singing, and acting, three disciplines that fall under the broader category of theatre in the most general sense. Beyond that, these passions can be disparate; music has its place in the realms of both theatre and video games, yet these potentially very musical worlds are two that rarely collide. Which made for a rather interesting five minutes of theatre I unconsciously conceived.

A short bit of backstory. I'm now a senior at Princeton University pursuing an English major and certificates in theatre and vocal performance. I've taken my fair share of theatre courses in my time here, written plays, and performed just as much. But for whatever reason, whether I was intimidated and too nervous to give it a first try, or dissuaded by the time commitments, or even felt unqualified to be in total artistic control of a theatrical piece, I've never had a go at directing. So I enrolled in the theatre department's directing workshop and just had my first presentation tonight. I've learned enough to know that no first draft in theatre is wildly successful, but considering this was my first crack at directing, what I created was incredibly well received and the reactions from my fellow course mates flattered and surprised me.

We meet twice a week in a rehearsal room filled with typical rehearsal elements - chairs, acting blocks, tables; a rolling upright piano and portable door frame complicate the surroundings. The assignment: we had to pair off - each side of a couple had to direct a scene for the other to perform in silence within the confines of the room and using only what was to be found in the room. The final piece of the puzzle was that the same scene was to be performed twice accompanied by two contrasting musical selections. So really, two iterations of the scene were created, the only difference being the music. When all was said and done, a single scene was typically between two to three minutes long, performed twice over to different musical selections, from each member of the course. After the two versions of the scene were presented in succession, the rest of the class engaged in conversation about the piece, both critique and general discussion, as a normal audience might talk about a performance at intermission or on a car ride home. And as directors, though we had the privilege to listen, we did not have permission to respond or defend anything the audience discussed based on what they had just witnessed (after all, you wouldn't have the chance to ask every audience member in a theatre exactly what they thought, not to mention, an audience's reaction can never technically be "wrong").

I paired up with one of my good friends Andrea. We met in the rehearsal room later in the week and set to work. Honestly, having no idea where to start, we both looked at each other quizzically, shrugged and proceeded to move some furniture around without much thought. For a few minutes we didn't really know who was "going first." Then I noticed the plastic chairs in the room came in a few different color varieties and started to arrange them in a pattern (I swear they are some of the ugliest chairs on campus). So from that point on, it was clear I was the first to go. And suddenly, everything began to fall into place. Just 45 minutes later, I had defined a set and conducted Andrea in a dreamy little sequence. To add aesthetically to the scene, I had Andrea wear a flowing blue sundress and go barefoot so as to best see every inch of her body put to the test on her journey.

Andrea begins asleep on the table. Not long after, she stirs and stands. She moves to the edge of the table, staring curiously at the aligned chairs. She points her foot out, as if testing the waters, and carefully steps onto the first chair.

She walks a few steps, crossing a few chairs, and realizes they support her weight. She continues forward, chair after chair, getting faster and faster until there are no chairs left.

There's a door ahead - there is a clear destination. She reaches out to the door, trying to reach it, touch it, but her reach is not enough. A great distance stands between her and the door (or gateway, portal, whatever it may be).

There isn't much to this world. There's the goal ahead of her, the bridge of chairs, and the table where she began asleep. She turns her head, and what's next to her... acting block! That's if you want to look at it literally. But whatever the black acting block may be (stepping stone, wooden plank, any means to an end), Andrea knows it can help her get that much closer to the gate. She moves the two blocks ahead of her to the end of the bridge. But those two blocks aren't enough to reach the end just yet. She runs back to find a third one close-by the starting point and brings it to the other side. But the door is still just out of reach. Still, one last block remains...

...yet it's too far. She reaches out to it, trying with her hands, even her legs and her feet, all while careful not to touch the ground or fall off the "bridge." She sits defeated, until a final idea strikes her. She runs towards the gate and takes back one of the previous blocks, using that block to reach the final, furthest block. The solution, though simple as it turns out, is also rather strenuous. The blocks are by no means easy to move and she must make many trips back and forth.

Finally, her bridge is completed and she runs to the gate, touching the frame. She admires it, exploring it with her eyes and hands. She reaches her hand through the gate and stares through it some more. But instead of going through it, she sits down on the blocks. She reaches her hand through the gate one last time, staring wistfully at whatever lies beyond. Soon after, she lies down on the blocks and returns to sleep. The scene ends.

Admittedly, I was thrilled with what I was able to come up with so spontaneously and having never directed anything before in my life! But until now, it had been rehearsed in silence. After experimenting and rehearsing for another twenty minutes, I finally decided on two musical selections.

In directing the scene, I knew I wanted to create a journey. A journey with a supernatural, mystical touch, despite its composition of dry rehearsal elements like tables and chairs. There was a clear goal and a means to get there. I acknowledged what I was watching was a puzzle playing out before me - a puzzle in the sense that Alice drinking growth and shrinking viles by trial and error are necessary obstacles she must encounter on her adventure through wonderland.

Come presentation time, just this past night. Andrea and I are the second pair to present, and we begin with the piece I directed. I had my course mates and the professor sit on the ground, rather close to the action and with their backs facing the mirror. All the blinds were closed on the windows: I wanted there to be very little distracting from the central hub, that is, the world of the chairs, door, table, and blocks Andrea inhabited. I'll apologize now for spending so much time recreating the scene on paper and elevating my work as if its been entitled by some unfathomable deacon of artistry. I'm not going to pretend my scene is something immaculate. But I can't help but be proud given the time constraints and my minimal experience, especially after the largely positive discussion that ensued. Speaking of...

The discussion. I was elated and intrigued by the first comment. "First off, I liked it a lot. And it reminded me of a video game." There was almost universal agreement. Perhaps this shouldn't have surprised me given my music selections, which I've neglected to mention up until now. The first version of the scene I set to "Downstream" by Shira Kammen (from the album "Music of Waters") which was borrowed and used in the video game Braid. The second version was timed more precisely to the entirety of the prologue from Shadow of the Colossus (entitled "Prologue - to the Ancient Land" by Ko Otani). By no means did I choose these pieces because they were from video games; I considered some twenty or thirty different choices after all, from movies, from opera, from musicals, from anime, yes, from video games, Cirque du Soleil, and even Madonna. It was just that in creating something ethereal, at once mystical in contrasting light-hearted and, forgive my use of the term, "epic" ways, these selections stood out and were the most effective.


The comments focused on the video game topic for a while and bounced off each other organically. The audience even brought up Mario and Donkey Kong, which may seem trivial in comparison to Shadow of the Colossus. But in terms of the simple - a puzzle was to be solved. There was an adventure or quest (interestingly, one ascribed "adventure" to the version set to "Downstream" but thought "quest" was a more appropriate word to describe the, again for lack of a better word, "epic" version set to "Prologue - to the Ancient Land"). The goal was to get from point A from point B. In fact when I reflect on it, from the audience's perspective seated parallel to the row of chairs (the "bridge"), the scene did play out like a side-scrolling level.

The entirety of the discussion was not all on the video game topic of course - much was discussed, including the good and the bad, what was confusing, what could be improved, the question of why the floor was untouchable, why (though dramatically pleasing and interesting) it was Andrea actually chose not to go through the door. The class went on, genuinely satisfied and impressed with the first draft of this scene, and still full of questions agreeing on some points and disagreeing on others. But the association to video games proved infallible. My guess is the fact that "it reminded me of a video game" were the words to introduce the class' round of feedback informed the rest of their opinions. Nevertheless, no one attempted to disprove this point.

Since I couldn't say anything, I mused on this for a while. I was practically flabbergasted that the idea of "video game" was being tossed around at all, especially when the musical choices I made, unbeknownst to the rest of the class, had their place in video games. I expected that knowledge to be only information I was privy to. What cued them in then? Was it the scene or the music that led the class to such a deduction? Or was it the combination of the two?

Though I have a great love and appreciation for video game music that goes years back, I made a discovery today I never once considered. I began to wonder if there was something deeper in the Shadow of the Colossus prologue that automatically can set off a trigger in the minds of our video game generation. And when you think about it, video game music is a new, but subtle pop cultural phenomenon. Our knowledge of music is often built around anthems (like the themes from Star Wars or Indiana Jones). We associate images with sound, and one can recall the other. As more and more people spend equally more and more time playing video games, they are exposed to an equal amount of music. Children that grow up nowadays may indeed find their knowledge of music typically rooted in video games (and video game music has long evolved since the 8 bit version of the Super Mario Bros. theme). So I find it absolutely magical that here, the addition of video game music to a mime can help video games themselves transcend the console and assist in conceiving a world that, as it turns out, is theatrical gaming. For the audience, Andrea became a living video game character on a theatrical platform. And you know what, Andrea was indeed a bit like Yorda from Ico, if she had been more proactive and could pick up heavy blocks herself.


But the point that I found most resonant was made by our professor (Prof. Timothy Vasen). He expressed that there was something very satisfying about just watching Andrea go about her business. Once it was clear that there was a goal and a puzzle to be solved, Andrea was able to shine as an actress. Her goal was well established and he was happy to simply watch her "do" even though the trajectory of the puzzle was very clear to the audience once Andrea began to engage in it. He wasn't bored in knowing what had to be done and knowing that it would take some time to carry out. Rather, there was something delightful and gratifying in watching Andrea carry out her task, whether the task be mundane or extraordinary to the tune of music either soothing and playful or escalating and swelling as she approached closer to her goal.

But when she could not reach the final block, he wondered why she bothered to attempt reaching it with her feet. To put it bluntly, he called her character dumb (even asking, what, does she have magnets on her toes?). And since that dumb attempt fails, she has cause to pout and "make a face." For him, and others in the audience, it became very clear in that small moment that she was an actress, and not a character in another world. But it was not the addition of the pouting so much as the somewhat comical attempt to reach the final block with her feet that preceded it. He was taken out of the scene. This is a point that can be echoed in video games as well. Just as direction can reveal unintended moments that seem like bad acting and remind us even for the briefest of seconds that we are in a theatre, a directional lapse in a video game can just as easily remind us we hold controllers in our hands.

That being said, there was unanimous appreciation for the moment immediately after, when Andrea understood the final piece of the puzzle - to go back and use a previous block to reach the last and furthest one. In that moment, the solution to the puzzle becomes incredibly clear to both Andrea and the audience at exactly the same time. And in video games, these are some of the moments we remember best (sometimes we find ourselves slapping our heads at the best of them). Her confusion abated, we can sit back and enjoy Andrea complete her task.

As Prof. Vasen put it, there is a "beauty in doing." In theatre, we can appreciate this simplicity, this beauty, this art of doing. Andrea moving blocks shares a beauty in common with the pantomime in Our Town or Laura playing with her glass menagerie. Music itself does its own sort of work simply by being heard, and that can be alone or in tandem with other forms of art. Art imitates life and life can be staged. And theatrically, part of our being inhabits the avatars and characters we control when we play. If video games can also be successfully and delicately staged, perhaps video games are art indeed. For in video games, it is an active "art of doing" at the core that works in tandem with sight and sound in an attempt to create another world to delight and stimulate the senses.

So thanks to Andrea and my directing course for throwing me for a loop and helping me to understand the art of theatre, music, and video games at its simplest and when I least expected it. And to think this at once mind boggling interpretation of my directing project all coincided with my first attempt at it. Was about time too. I needed to get up, finally sit in the director's chair, and give it a shot - to just "do."   read

4:22 AM on 01.20.2010

POP Goes the Console

Enjoy a bit of fan-service on my behalf

Writing this opening sentence marks my beating the next generation installment of Prince of Persia for the Xbox 360 (or PS3 depending on one's predilections) as of two minutes ago. Legitimately the credits are rolling. And I am most displeased. Turns out, Prince of Persia, POP for short, was little else than that. Pop for the video game generation.

Now "pop" exists everywhere. Notably there is pop art, which was a microcosm unto itself; pop art had a certain self-reflexive genius that kept it from being serviceable to the masses on a delicious silver tray. Not everyone will get pop art per se.

More notorious is pop music, which supposedly everyone "gets." In fact, if not enough people get it, than the contemporary music industry will have done wrong. I love Lady Gaga as much as the next person. She's actually quite talented, particularly in an acoustic performance where it's just her voice and a piano. But natural instruments aren't going to sell records nowadays. If Lady Gaga wants us snatching sequins from her tray, she's going to paint it with sex, heavy bass, buzzes, and whirs. Pop music can't exist without an image to back it up. We couldn't possibly let our imaginations run free, that would be too taxing on our gullible brains after all.

Where once music created an image, an image must reign supreme

So I present to you pop video games. And I'm not only referring to games inspired by Miley Cyrus' alter-ego, who by the way, is also a great perpetuator of music that sells (which, if not paid for in money, is paid for in copious increments of bandwidth from illegal download after download). Even a game like Prince of Persia is guilty of "popness." Games that have the talent to boot, but come up short.

I should preface this by mentioning that the Sands of Time trilogy is one of my favorites to date, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Two Thrones standing out among them. This new installment, aptly, unoriginally, and confusing titled Prince of Persia, is remarkably different and dangerously similar in other areas. So I'll just refer to it as POP from here on out. A major factor (of many) that diminished Warrior Within for me was one that POP capitalized on. A faux notion of open-endedness - a striking concoction actually, that both Warrior Within and POP attempted, generating a hybrid system of open-ended linearity. Though Warrior Within really only had two branching paths that merged later on, POP is a bunch of intersecting straight lines that can be conveniently traveled in either direction. Oh, look at these coincidentally positioned slanted ramps (there must be a thousand of these "slides" in POP...ugh)! I am sure glad that even in the wake of an awakening evil god that never shows his face, there is still another set of slides right beside me to take me back if I later desired. It's time we all admitted it, gamers. An absence of linearity does not always make it a better game. Stop complaining about it and developers won't think it's "popular" anymore and screw potentially great games up!

Press A, then B, then A the Prince do all the work

Because the world can be conquered virtually in any order you like, there is no real growth in the game, other than "power plates" that assist you in traveling from point A to point B - a hyper jump of sorts in most cases that, rather than functioning as a sign of the prince's strength, is more akin to opening doors that can only be blasted with missiles. Soon, it becomes all too annoyingly clear that POP is a lot of the same platforming elements that manage to come together in excess in a beautiful world.

This game has style to be sure, ignoring the prince's inexplicably defined body. As if video games don't have enough barrel-chested, abdominal muscle doting alpha male heroes - on top of it, he is a doofus with pretty much only a donkey, women, and taking a bath on his mind. Why he is even in the desert to begin with and agrees to help Elika is initially only supported by a painfully normative trope: the masculine hunting the feminine. And because the game has no specific direction, the plot and writing becomes evasive and circular; clever in that even the story is uninhibited by the player's "non-linear" choices, but without real forward progression and little to no pay off by the end. There are two big plot twists in the last five minutes, which come at a time when the player could care less about them - the first is obvious and key to finishing off the big bad baddy for good, and the second totally undoes all your frustrating work.

And POP is supremely frustrating. The Sands of Time trilogy never had particularly difficult controls, but POP really strives for the overly simplified. Unfortunately, the less buttons you have to press ultimately, the less direct control you have over the prince. Now with less buttons, the player doesn't actually feel like he's performing all these wondrous and gravity-defying acrobatics - which the inclusion of in the previous trilogy helped to excite the player. What it boils down to, is a genre deconstruction. If that was POP's goal, than power to the developers (but I sincerely doubt it).

Now when did my beloved Prince of Persia series become a pure platformer? In fact, POP relies on its platforms. Elika's save states are dependent on the last platform the player stood on. Worse, when did this series become a rhythmic-platforming-button-masher? With little control over the prince, long acrobatic sequences become rhythm games in disguise. A walkthrough of the game could boil down to a sequence of button inputs in some cases. A wall run, then grabbing a ring, continue wall running again, jumping to the next wall to find a another ring, completing a wall run with a final jump sounds complicated...except it's only knowing when to push A, B, A, B, A (and here, as in many other instances, touching the control stick is barely required). In most cases, the limit of a wall run puts these sequences on a beat and you feel like a toddler with unusually good rhythm conducting a surprisingly pretty symphony. Each set piece in POP is indeed, a disguised button prompt in a rhythm game.


I will forever love Resident Evil 4...but I will never forgive the game for popularizing QTEs. Thankfully, they may be on the fade now, but few games abuse this over-exposed device like POP. It's like how Lady Gaga and Beyonce were each churning out hit after hit and actually thought "Videophone" was either a good video, good song, or good idea (hint: I think "Videophone" is none of these). In video games, QTEs are often too much of a good thing. In POP they are never a good thing. What's especially strange is that it seems the game punishes the player for being smart and blocking attacks. Perhaps if a player is blocking into infinity, an enemy's interruption is understandable, but the chance of every exchange of blows involving a quick time event in POP is highly conceivable. Even worse, is that each boss character has four or so specific QTEs that they can throw in succession. Even even worse is that the probability of these bosses doing all four QTEs in a row is very high. The process is trivializing and boring. It is even even even stupid. These QTEs are not so much difficult, as they are intrusive, seeing as a player will have performed any of these at least a dozen times in the five or so times they fight any given boss (the repetition in POP is at a franchise high here).

Far too frequent QTEs are just one way in which POP wants to deliberately force the player into messing up. Let's not forget those damned plates. I cannot begin to fathom how many times I needed a good ol' Elika saving because the lighting was too dark for me to see in a corrupted location. Or how many times I guessed incorrectly which way to dodge in any of the campy Wings of Ormazd flight simulators (who the eff is Ormazd anyway? perhaps we'll never know...perhaps I'll find out in the epilogue, but I'm not crossing any fingers). Because the game cannot develop itself beyond a pre-determined "non-linear" structure, POP instead trickles in little extra obstacles that really only make the game more annoying and frustrating.

Frankly, with such repetition and button mashing, Ubisoft may have benefited financially if they created an off-beat answer to Rockband with a rhythm game. Perhaps the could call it "PersiaBand." While the player presses the buttons they're supposed to, the prince and Elika flit about like little nymphs. Except there is little music in POP to speak maybe that answer is "no" as well...

And yet I cannot bring myself to hate this game. I quite enjoyed it in fact, but it also irks me to no end. I don't think it's a very good game, but enjoyable in its own right. Much like any song I'll dance to at a party. Or like any hip hop hit, which has often far too many verses for its own good. Pop is usually overstaying its welcome.

And such is the sad state of pop. So much potential to really be something great. POP had a lot to live up to, and the pedigree was certainly there. Unfortunately it wasn't much of a comeback album. When pop is the trend, what existed before any year's current "pop" is going to have a seriously difficult time sneaking back in. And in many cases, assimilating to the "pop" fails. It all becomes lackluster fan service. Products that want to reel the masses in with a catchy beat, or as pop proves today, a powerful image to boot. POP has the look for the most part, but its heart is running on clockwork.

-BGB   read

8:41 AM on 12.31.2009

Love/Hate: Parental [Super]vision

Now son, you're really telling me a plumber can jump that high?

It all started when my brother received an Xbox360 a few Christmas' ago. Amazing how time has changed: I was still a firm believer in Sony due to my undying love of the PS2...three years later and I'm more strongly Nintendorthodox than ever and a staunch observer of the Mircosoftean Creed. More significantly, my gaming venues have changed.

Generally I've always been an in-my-room gamer. At my house, ten years worth of video game systems surround a single TV. All it takes is the simple yellow and white switcheroo of my beloved two or three-pronged S-Video cables on the front paneling of my 4:3 Quasar and I'm plugged into whatever system I want.

My room and its accumulation, dolled out in Ikea

Our current generation's dependancy on component cables and more intense interfaces made this more complicated (and I love/hate next gen enough for that). My mother and father remodeled our family room and a HD Samsung Widescreen mounted to the wall was part of the deal. So a Wii, Xbox360, and all the other necessary (or unnecessary) peripherals entered the house around the same time. Finally, a large cabinet was built around this messy landfill of wires and speakers. Unless I were to purchase another set of wires, these systems aren't going anywhere. And I'll just purchase an Elite instead (the old one has gone through one red ring of death already and is a generous 20 gigs...crazy good, no?...Exactly, no).

My father has a home dental practice and often retreats to the family room to go through various files or write something up. If I'm home from college (and my PS2 is often left in my dorm away from home), I often find myself in that very same room, enjoying the candy sweetness of HD in a comfy recliner...while my father watches.

He used to just pretend to go through his files, but I figured out soon enough he likes to watch my brother and me play. He genuinely enjoys watching the games! Which, to be honest, is great and I love. He'll also throw a few quips in there that make me laugh...

Over and OVER again until I've heard him say "there's always a haystack!" in Assassin's Creed or, for example, "oh they're fighting real good just standing around" or "she's brushing her hair, that's not fighting!" in Lost Odyssey a thousand times over. Sure I appreciate the sarcastic quips, but I'd rather not have to be continually reminded just how often and how severely I have to suspend my disbelief when playing video games.

I hope there's hay!!!

Nowadays, every member of the family has their own individualized station somewhere in the family room. My father's files clutter the room (we swear files will pour out of the drawers or fly out the pool table paneling), my mother has a craft station and her own personal TV to watch the Yankees (she realized very quickly just how hotly demanded our so-called "big" TV would be), and my brother has his Mac desktop. Actually I take that back. I'm the only family member without a private spot in that family room.

I've always cherished privacy in my life. As I grew up I became far more social indeed, but I've always appreciated a certain need for alone time in one's life...and for me that is often with video games. And these have traditionally been confined to my own room. I've never had any reason to keep any of my belongings anywhere else in the house. Technically speaking, the Xbox360 and Wii would be my privacy within the family room if only that weren't impossible. Until the remodel, I never fully understood how much a video game system enjoys its own privacy either.

I've numbed a bit to this fact of life. The HD experience is too great to pass up when at home, though I do rely on subtitles more than I might like to (I usually always turn subtitles on anyway, but with the traffic that comes through the room, give up any thought of being uninterrupted). I also used to be embarrassed of the games I played. Specifically any JRPG. The first time my Dad entered the room on Lost Odyssey, he loudly exclaimed, "Her boobs are huge!." My mother joined in to laugh alongside him. Now for me, this is just a fact of JRPG gaming - huge, disproportionate boobs, as awfully stereotypical as that may be. But to my parents, they little know the stereotypes or commonalities that make up the JRPG genre. Perhaps not at all (though I assume from watching they have been learning). To my surprise, I found myself laughing along with them, all of us like little kids together. One of the few genuine family moments I've had in my history of gaming. Unfortunately, I couldn't help but think that game was plain dumb for the rest of the day.

b00bs!!! OMGZ U guyzzz! O_o

Sometimes I think my father forgets that I'm old enough to do adult things or that I'm older than ten at all - including that I can see R movies or buy Mature games. Playing Resident Evil 4 on the Wii, I was first met with lots of "woah" or "geez" or "what a nice guy he is" (referring to Salazaar, for instance, or anytime someone commits a kill...which is all the time in that game). After a while, those mellowed out, and he sometimes sat back and watched, provided he hadn't avoided the room altogether that day. I'm not sure he enjoys RE4 as much as other games (then again, neither did I...until I played it for myself).

Yet there has been a shift lately. I first noticed when I was playing Tales of Vesperia, and my father cleverly noted, "Hey, this game is really funny!" Glad you noticed. In response to Star Ocean: The Last Hope, he exhibited some progress in his video game studies and knowledge, pointing out, "so everyone's moving! You mean they aren't just bouncing?" Another good one Dad, also glad you noticed. But hey, at least that's a relevant JRPG comment worth making.

In a way, this has affected what I play. I tend to shy away from games he may not enjoy seeing in passing. He'll even express boredom on occasion. I'm the type of gamer who takes over an hour to create a character in a Bioware game, and starting Dragon Age: Origins, he kept asking, "So, do you get to play the game yet?"

But his curiosities cannot match his recent fascinations with Assassin's Creed II. In fact, both him and my mother will pop a squat on the couch just to see the marvelous Italian locales. He'll point out il Duomo, il ponte vecchio, and all the other locations we've seen in person, and he is positively delighted. He once told me to slow down when I read through a location entry too quickly. Now when he's in the room, I make sure he has ample time to read the history entries.

il Duomo in realita'

I was amazed when I realized that my father now understands entirely how the game operates just from watching here and there. He'll ask who my next target is, what kind of mission I'm doing, he'll recognize the cities I'm in (everyone was in the room when I got to Venezia, and a strange collective gasp and awe filled the family room), he even suggested I'd be better off using poison on a target once, he absolutely could not wait to see my new hammer in action, and he recognizes the members of the family (his favorite is zio Mario).

In fact, now that I have an Elite for myself, I feel bad bringing the game back with me to school. I'm suddenly hesitant to experience the game in his absence. I'd leave it behind and give him subtle hints to play it himself, but anytime we mention he should learn to play a video game, he instinctively responds "too many buttons" or "they're too complicated."

These are words coming from my father, once the Gameboy Tetris and Bomberman master. My mother has shared similar sentiments. She purchased Wii Fit for herself some time ago but has yet to play it. Anytime my brother or I have a college vacation approaching, she always mentions that we need to teach her to play. Our noncommittal response is sadly often, "Just press the button and turn on the system!" We are indeed aware it takes a few more buttons to begin playing a Wii game. I'd still like to think it isn't that complicated...right?

My Dad's favorite game, and he rocked it

But my parents are not the only people I know to express such concerns. More and more, there seem to be people in this world who are contented enough by watching a video game and nothing more. I'd like to think they'd enjoy them more for themselves if they took control. And more times than I can count, people express inability to play due to "complication" or "buttons" or, what's more, "sucking." I once convinced my mother to play Ico and guide her through. It was a lost cause early on, and her frustration and my guidance superseded the gameplay experience entirely. I helped her to when you get to courtyard by the front gate for the first time, but she hasn't played it since. This was actually a very disheartening experience. Ico became something important to me that I could not plausibly share with her.

On the other controller-less hand, it's sort of nice to think I can play Assassin's Creed II and my father finds it as accessible as a movie and join in to watch. Still, I feel like I'm robbing him anytime he isn't in the room to see a part of it, but most of all, because he isn't playing it for himself. In my dreams, I'd like to think he'd finally pick up and play, only then, I will have spoiled much of the game for him.

Forget this concept of "casual gaming." Is there anyway to bring all the demographics together over the real meat and potatoes of video games? Family bonding over Cooking Mama is not enough for me. The most artistic, the most ambitious, the finest stories, graphics, gameplay, the fantastically unique games, how can we allow the casual side of the market that likes to window shop alongside my parents and bring them in further? What needs to change before my father decides he'll pick up a controller for himself or is that doomed forever to be an impossibility? Until then, I won't know whether to laugh, scoff, or cry each new time my dad makes another "haystack" comment.

-BGB   read

5:25 PM on 12.29.2009

Thoughts on 'Avatar' from Another Gamer

This...THIS is what I want! Can you see that!? Can you SEE that? No? Give me another year and I'll show you!

Firstly, this article is largely in response to Anthony Burch's "Why 'Avatar' Didn't Change Anything for Gamers" and if you haven't read it, I suggest you do so here...

Also, spoilers might just be ahead...

And so we begin...

Thoughts on Avatar from Another Gamer

Like many others in gaming communities around the world, I was unnerved by James Cameron's vague musings and decrees at E3. For a quarter of an hour, he spoke thinly to his captive audience about a world we "had never seen." Well of course we hadn't seen it before, this was the world of Pandora we're hearing about. The only place that world will ever be fully realized is in James Cameron's head. But to a captive crowd of gamers, a race of people who value their sense of sight above all else, this was simply unacceptable. But how can we believe you if we can't even see it?

Well, I have a confession to make. I went to see Avatar Monday afternoon, all my doubts really wanting to be cast aside. I was still very apprehensive and worried. I even primed myself with an abysmal crock of you know what by seeing Sherlock Holmes the day before (and what a bad, bad movie that was...but that's fodder for a different article altogether). I was grinding these disappointments between my teeth, hoping James Cameron hadn't committed career suicide. And if the Avatar video game was any indication...

Three hours later and all these fears proved unfounded. I saw Avatar and I thought it was magnificent. I was mystified and a small tear was rolling down my cheek (but, to be clear, I cry at everything). It wasn't until I saw the new and improved Jakesully abruptly open his 20 foot eyes on a multi-story IMAX screen and a flash to black revealing the movie's title: Avatar, materializing before a roused, cheering audience that I understood - I didn't want to snap out of it, remove my ugly-as-sin plastic 3D glasses, and leave the theatre. In that way, I was just like the human Jake Sully - confined to my chair, an observer to another world far more exciting than my own.

So what's the explanation for James Cameron's E3 presentation? Frankly, I don't care anymore. Chock it up to him being a master of circumlocution. A man who really knows how to play his cards. He went all in with his chips on a royal flush we were convinced he could never produce. He did the best thing for us: withhold. Far too many movies are spoiled with stock Hollywood trailer after trailer, but here, in the grand scheme of things, I only knew the movie involved big blue people called Na'vi and a paraplegic controlling something called an avatar. You have to applaud the patient audience the same way James Cameron should be applauded. He obviously knows when he needs to take his time, not to rush his product, as impatient as it makes everyone else. George Lucas was the same way about Star Wars. We should thank those stalwart directors like George Lucas and, as it appears, James Cameron, for believing in a product and refusing to settle for the next best alternative as long as possible.

And here I thought crazy James Cameron was some Caligula reincarnate decreeing from the Rostra at E3.

So what about the movie? Now I have to acknowledge that Anthony Burch does make some good and some even strong points. James Cameron discussed the movie under the pretense of a video game, promising to immerse us in an unforgettable world. Obviously, a video game delivers a more direct sense of immersion. With a controller in your hand, how can a movie hope to compete? Well honestly, to debate whether video games deliver immersion in a way a movie could never hope to is a pointless argument. Just as there are things a movie cannot do, same is true of a video game; this immersion can cut both ways.

James Cameron's primary field is the movie anyway, and not the video game. Granted, it may be wrong of James Cameron, perhaps in some circles even "unforgivable," to promise a similar "breakthrough" experience on a video game level that can be witnessed in the Avatar movie. But let's not kid ourselves (and likewise James Cameron should not either, but it's a business, and he's a promoter that needs money for the next film). Any video game based on a movie that is released a week or two before the film itself is meant to be nothing more than a cash cow. We shouldn't be surprised that the video game was terrible, and we also shouldn't hold it to the same standard. Neither should video games and movies really ever be expected to be the same. In the world of cinema, James Cameron has had audiences captivated time and again (Terminator, Titanic, etc), and what's truly remarkable here is that he manages to make these disaster movies beautiful. That is, disaster in the cinematic sense, for instance, in a sense of peril. And though I'm not certain, I'll lay my own cards down, saying the peril I felt for the Na'vi at the attack on Hometree was unlike any peril I really felt in a movie before.

Immersion, immersion. What really is immersion anyway? Are we referring to a factor of Sight? Of Entertainment? Of Feeling and Emotion? Whatever this "immersion" is that we discuss, every movie or video game is bound to immerse us in some way. It isn't really fair for someone to claim they aren't immersed because the jungle plants on Pandora are silly. Because they've "seen" them before. If you're that cynical you won't be immersed by anything. Even I will admit I've seen this world of Pandora before. There have been plenty of jungle movies, the shot of the American fleet flying past the floating mountains felt an homage to the great Hayao Miyazaki, how many mecha video games have we all played, anime we've all seen?

But never has the scope been quite like this. Any world that a movie director seeks to create always has a single, often unspoken goal: to entertain. And one way to entertain is to make an audience feel at home. The genius of Avatar is that it fuses together the very best of the old and new (whether in theme, story, tropes, or hell, technology) on a scale rarely, actually, I changed my mind, never sustained for almost three hours before.

This brings to light one of the movie's biggest flaws, at least for me. The movie took much too long to pick up it's momentum, spending time in the army world, the American world, the human world. It's all too familiar, especially for a gamer. How many FPS games have we all played with superhuman equipment? However, hindsight in this case reveals a bold and smart choice, because how can the Na'vi world be believably interesting and preferable if the human world all the main characters wish to escape from is equally appealing? Little is explained and everything flies by at the Pandora base, but that only gives us all the more reason to pay attention and really want to learn about the Na'vi side of life. James Cameron directs his audience well (I swore I saw his ghostly frame preaching from that same Rostra above the IMAX screen). When it comes down to it, I don't mind that the film doesn't gain its best footing until Neytiri shows up and legitimately shakes things up.

And this is when we really start to feel the immersion. And where Avatar, believe it or not, presents a lot that video games can, and should learn from.

Anthony Burch in his discussion of both Avatar and The Saboteur is ignorant of a very important world component. A world is not simply a world with its rocks and dirt and structures (Eiffel Tower or not). A world is not even it's trees and grass and water. All worlds are an interconnected community. And the movie makes such a big deal out of these networks, this life force, and a sense of "The People" and camaraderie and community that I'm baffled that Burch missed it. This Lifestream-esque force should be familiar and important enough to anyone who's played their fair share of Final Fantasy VII or heard of, oh what's it called, the Force I think (and I'm sure every gamer has heard of that one). So yes, this stream of existence that apparently connects us all has been "done before," but never has a movie like Avatar put this concept on such a universal, planetary scale. When the Na'vi sing and prey to Eywa, the audience feels the prayer inside them. Jake Sully is a representative of the audience here. He inhabits a role we grow to envy and wish we had. Jake Sully is the gamer of the movie by proxy, able to use his avatar, and we all wish we had one.

So we want to follow Jake every step he takes. And as much as I could have done without his gruff voice over, consider how much more attractive the language of the Na'vi becomes. We want them to keep speaking their language (it sounds so much nicer than Worthington's best Solid Snake impression anyway). Avatar, above all else, immerses us as members of "The People" and its communities. We are a part of that "network," which, by the way, I am beyond impressed the actors accomplished to discuss and talk about with such believable and captivating sincerity and, what's more, act well doing it. Zoe Saldana deliver's a stellar performance as Neytiri and we never once stop to remember what she looked like as Uhura in Star Trek. If I had my way, she's be Neytiri all the time.

Of course, Burch does indeed mention people in his article. You can blow up your fair share of Nazis in The Saboteur while having free reign to explore a fully rendered world and have fun doing it. That's all well and good, but it's arguments like this that are counterproductive to any "Games as Art" debate. A video game world is only deceivingly more complete than any world in a movie. What's been left in James Cameron's head and what sweeping, breathtaking snapshots of Pandora we will never see are little different from painted backgrounds of a video game, the desynchronizing barriers in Assassin's Creed II that stand between you and the rest of Venezia, the invisible blockades you'll find in almost any JRPG. But what is unseen leaves a shroud of mystery in a movie. In a video game, this just comes off as clumsy. How immersed do you really feel when you run in place at the edge of a cliff, prevented by some unfathomable force of engine code that prevents you from plummeting into the ocean? And what of these Nazis? Are they meaningless bodies with a Nazi label that forces us to say "evil" out of convenience? Well in The Saboteur and many other games they are little more than target practice. A player may slaughter countless "enemies" that prove only to be an army of vessels. What weight do any of these carry? Their significance within any community is made inconsequential, especially if they disintegrate, disappear, or worse, respawn! The tribe of the Na'vi not only feels realer, but more fragile.

When Hometree is attacked, James Cameron makes the first of a number of anti-war statements in Avatar. Cameron has effectively staged another Hiroshima. Certainly, the weapons are nothing nuclear. Instead, Cameron writes a terrifying inequality. A mushroom cloud consumes cities, missiles trees; the potential of the weaker arsenal is the more frightening. Missiles and bullets are used far more frequently than the big one. Everything is fragile and will not necessarily come back. No reset button for the Na'vi. With every Na'vi death, we feel great pain and a great weight crashing down in the fumes and fire. And why? Because we have been entrenched in their community and what hurts one hurts the rest...and us too.

Layered over that is an element of America's slaughter of the Native Americans, the war in Iraq, imperialism, and the futility of destruction and war. What is so astounding is the paradox James Cameron has constructed, and we dare not even question it. The army, which is so impeccably American, is the arch-nemesis and great evil. Normally I find fault in a movie that resorts to a sustained twenty, thirty minute action finale. But unlike, say Attack of the Clones, the action here isn't only fun to see. The stakes are incredibly high with every blow, every death, creature, even that cringing sensation produced as ships explode among the trees, and most poignantly, the deaths of humans or Na'vi. Yet, we side with the Na'vi, not thinking twice about our own racial and moral treason until we've left the theatre. We want the army dead physically and philosophically. Every life and every kill matters. And that is something a video game has not been able to accomplish: justification, cause and effect, where every little thing remarkably impacts the state of the entire world. Yes, I know in Morrowind, for example, if you kill a quest giver that have has an effect on the world because you've lost the ability to do quest, but how immersive is a mechanic that half annoys the hell out of you when you'd rather sit blissfully on your couch? Who cares about the second Nazi to the left - move out of range and game programming may prevent them from ever reaching you. While in Avatar, If there still is one armament left, Pandora remains in danger. When will gaming philosophy and mentality actually move past a glorified evolution of Duck Hunt? Avatar is layers of depth and metaphor we never expected to see, largely after Cameron's E3 showing. We moviegoers, particularly those that are also gamers, lost faith in James Cameron, and as he's shown with his latest movie, who are we to have begrudged him that?

To quote Darth Vader from Star Wars: I have you now!

Roger Ebert in his review of Avatar said he was reminded of when he first saw Star Wars. If that is true and the way he felt is anything like I did, I wish I could go back to 1977 to see Star Wars premiere. How many times will we really get to experience these visceral feelings just by watching a movie? Sure that can happen with a video game too, but there's always a pause button. There are not enough opportunities among video games to just sit back and go, "wow," lean back, and sustain an "ahhhhh" without the action being interrupted by some other threat to your life and a "Game Over" screen - and then an inexplicable ability to just restart. This sense of awe and wonder I don't think I've ever really experienced in a game, transcending beyond a crucial "fun factor," save a few, and one in particular. That game was Shadow of the Colossus.

Now a game like Shadow of the Colossus is famous for its desolation. But truth be told, this world would never have existed without those mysterious civilizations that put them there. Still there indeed is life around you, what little there seems to be. The game famous for its 16 colossi would have had limited impact if each of these towering figures did not fall without reason or having a significant aftermath. Now, there is always the possibility of being proven wrong, but this is an experience that could not be accurately produced by a movie wholesale. The desolation of community inspires exploration on behalf of the player. This game's plot is its exploration and its world and the strange passage of life and death that unfolds with the downfall of each colossus. But that is the beauty of the sometimes art form that is the video game. Every medium can provide its own unique experiences. An oil painting has its own flat finite space for the eyes to peruse and explore. A video game world exists as an anomaly, an unseen set of data working to create an explorable world that, now and then, can be immersive. A movie is primarily another sub set of man's vision to produce a reaction among its audience, and its interpretation an audience is free to explore and decode between edits, cinematography, and acting. The theatre is a fixed location catering to selective attention. A live staged production can deliberately stimulate the senses by staging more than can realistically be digested in a single go-around.

How are the worlds these art forms construct similar? They immerse, entertain, inspire, disturb, go for the gut. They all strive to immerse in their own individual ways. The unfortunate and current relationship of the video game and film industries is that they pretend to understand it. This relationship that they pretend holds true is a belief that the mediums are one and the same. The truth is, video game and movie cannot operate unilaterally. And no one is more sensitive to this than gamers. This cutscene is too damn long!! We've all grumbled our fair share through the current generation of cutscenes, wanting to play the game. Because that's just it. You play a video game. You watch a movie. Right? Or wrong? You can watch a video game too, but wouldn't you rather play it? Personally, I don't mind when these lines are blurred, I find the products quite interesting, although they can never be properly fused or cloned. While you cannot ever "play" a movie in the sense you would play a video game, maybe what Avatar manages to do is play you. A movie that plays the audience in a new way, not just by eliciting emotions, but by tricking the audience into thinking they'd be better off among the Na'vi. A movie that can play the gamers in the crowd? Well, perhaps this frightens some of us.

The question we should be asking may not be "did Avatar change anything for the gaming industry?" A movie is absolutely not going to change anything a week after its release anyway. If entertainment industries were that immediate we'd be on Final Fantasy VV by now. Instead, I think of it as an opportunity for the video game industry to reflect and take away from the movie how animation can be used in other meaningful ways. Not to ask, well what's so new and different? But what has this experience shown us that allows us to go even further? To rethink.

I don't know what that answer is yet, but I won't pretend to understand what the next best step is either. Because, in all seriousness, what is the next step for video games to take? Is it motion technology? Is it a graphics issue? Or beyond the purely technical, is it heart and soul? Maybe instead of investing life and soul in rehashing an already pre-existing reality as acutely as possible, we should inspire life and soul in games that helps us escape our own world instead. As I said, I don't know what that answer is and I won't presume where to go next. Yet.

I suppose when it comes to movies, I adore being played. Certainly, Avatar won't play everyone in the audience, but it played me.

-BGB   read

2:27 AM on 12.29.2009

Well Hello...


And Welcome!
To my Blog!

So Destructoid tells me I should introduce myself, and here I am.

I've been a fan of Destructoid for a while now, and having writing aspirations myself (AND loving video games), I thought I'd give this blogging thing a try. In the video game non-metaphoric sense, whatever that means.

So here it is. I have an "About Me" all finished up (at least for now) and am looking forward to getting this going.

In other news, I'm a college student and as I get older it seems like I have to try harder to squeeze in more video game time as life goes on. But Christmas was kind to me this year, and I have my very own Xbox360 Elite now! I would have brought one to school all along, but our walls at home are literally built around the wires of the Wii and the other post-Red Ring of Death generation Xbox360. Also, I have next to no internet connection when at home. So I'm hoping that may change when I get back to my dorm come 2010 and finally put my XboxLive account to use, the way it should be.

And that's all for now. Looking forward to always finding the next best way to procrastinate and game on!   read

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