The second season of 30 Rock (a perennial favorite of the Yesterday’s Salad staff) ends with Tracy Morgan’s character creating the ultimate distraction: a seamless meld of video games and pornography.  The creation of the game is depicted in a pitch-perfect homage to the film Amadeus, with Tracy working frenetically into the night, as his co-worker, Frank, looks on in despair a la the jealous Salieri.  When Frank attempts to dissuade Tracy, he explains that it is impossible to create a porn video game because of a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is a metaphor for how people’s affinity toward computer-generated characters follows a parabolic curve (much like a valley).  A computer-generated character that looks nothing like a person, such as an animated car, will not make a viewer feel much of anything.  Much as we might be fond of our cars, an animated car is just an object.  However, if the computer generated car had great big eyes and a smile, we would have much less trouble relating to it.  The more the character looks like a real person, the more alive it seems.  Yet, there is a point at which the limitations of the animation start to appear, representing the bottom of the uncanny valley.  After this point, as the animators try to make the character look more human, the character becomes progressively more unreal, and we feel much less sympathy (and perhaps, more than a little creeped out).

What this means for a hypothetical sex video game is that any attempt to make the game’s characters realistic enough to be arousing will instead make them incongruous enough to be repulsive.  Unless your audience has a fetish for cartoon characters (a small audience in the U.S.), or has a fetish for being repulsed (which may violate the principle of entailment in this situation), this is not great a recipe for commercial viability. Within the context of 30 Rock, this explanation is meant humorously, but it is essentially the prevailing theory for why there aren’t more video games about (or even featuring) sex, while there are plenty of games featuring violence, whether cartoonish or quasi-realistic.

A good example of this theory in practice is found in the game Dragon Age: Origins.  Dragon Age is an epic fantasy in the vein of the Lord of the Rings, and tasks the player with defending their kingdom against a horde of demon-like creatures.  As anyone familiar with the general setting might expect, there is a fair amount of fighting (against both demon and human alike), and it is decently violent.  With fast pacing and fairly realistic graphics, the combat is both dramatic and fun.  To the game’s credit, there is a very rich backstory and well-developed characters, and the larger part of the game is spent talking and politicking amongst them.  Thanks to quite a bit of cleverly-written dialogue (leavened with some innuendo), this part of the game is even more fun than the combat, and is often moving.

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The New Poetry

January 11, 2010

It used to be that authors coming to grips with the fragility of life and the horrors of modern society would turn to verse. Societal traumas as well as personal ones would be refracted through one individual or transmogrified into a new mode of expression. During the time of Modernism, new technologies led to new types of writing; new catastrophes, new poetic languages like futurism or imagism. Now there are videogames.

Or so I thought when playing TMZ’s new Conan O’Brien contract game. In the game, you play Conan’s head trying to avoid running into Jay Leno’s head while you try to grab as many contracts as you can. Better: hold on to your contract, as the more successful you are, the more Jay Leno swarms in on you, usurping your legal rights. Presumably he eats you, though there are no graphics of this taking place. The game is, of course, SFW, in that no Conan’s are visibly harmed.

There’s nothing new about the fact that we’ve decided to aestheticize our societal events, only the form. If poetry seems too high-falutin a media for the Conan-Leno battle royale, than surely we can agree that it would have been transformed into an episode of Law and Order.

No, the only thing new is the fact that we’ve moved towards the video game as the media for addressing societal problems. We’ve become more interactive. In this web 2.0 world, we all need to have our say.

Even old media has become more video game-like. Consider Avatar. Not only is the concept metaphor the same word we use to describe an online version of ourselves, the movie seems designed for its portability to video game form. As Mr. Filthy pointed out, this is the only way to interpret much of its content:

Filthy: If a movie is going to be 160 minutes long, it better give us something to care about.
Jimmy: I cared about the Inkaras.
Filthy: What’s an Inkara?
Jimmy: Uh, derrrrr, only the flying reptiles that the Na’vi become one with. Hellllooooo? They look awesome and would be a killer chapter of a video game.

From its graphics to its plot, the influence of video games can be felt everywhere in Avatar. That’s not necessarily a negative thing. Historically advances is one form of representation have found there way into another. Impressionism in music, painting, and literature; or romanticism. But we shouldn’t be surprised as the content of even the most innocuous video games becomes more weighty, and the form less diversionary even as it becomes more compelling.

——

One other thing: there is only one logical solution to the Conan-Leno mess. Put Conan on at ten. Having a comedy show on during prime time every night is not a bad idea. It just has to be, you know, funny. That or bring back Profit.

The first review that I wrote for this blog was of a game called “the Blackwell Legacy,” a solid, independently-made adventure game. However, the content of the game was overshadowed by its novelty: with the game’s release, its designer, Dave Gilbert, boldly declared that he was going to make developing adventure games his job.  Now that Gilbert’s studio, Wadjet Eye Games, has become established in the independent gaming scene and released its fifth title, “the Blackwell Convergence,” the games’ novelty has been supplanted by their artistry.

In “the Blackwell Legacy,” players were introduced to Rosa Blackwell, a struggling young journalist who discovered that her family’s history was much more complicated than she thought. Most of the complication, however, stemmed from Joey, an easygoing and charmingly sarcastic spirit guide who haunted the Blackwell family. After a series of fainting-prone introductions, Joey exhorted Rosa to get out of her Lower East Side apartment and help the spirits of the recently departed find their way to the great beyond. Over the course of the game, Rosa succeeds in helping several ghosts, and solves a murder mystery, to boot.  Although being able to talk to the dead and solving a supernatural series of murders might not be anything out of the ordinary for a video game, “Legacy” distinguished itself by mining considerable humor out of Rosa’s awkward attempts to engage a spiritual world that only she can see, though talking to invisible people might not be anything out of the ordinary for New York City.

Where “Legacy” made much of Rosa’s difficult adjustment to her duties as a medium, “Convergence” has Rosa, with a little more experience, try fit her duties into a somewhat normal life. This results in just as many humorous situations, but the characters have become far more nuanced, and react to their circumstances in delightful, believable ways. Between the characters’ clever banter, Rosa and Joey have to solve a case that is adroitly weaved into both the Blackwell family’s travails and a classic mystery in New York City history.

Just as the writing has deepened and matured, every aspect of the game shows just a little more polish than the titles that preceded it.  The graphics pop off the screen, with colorful backgrounds that are sure to engage anyone who’s been to the Manhattan haunts that they depict.  Vivid sprites illustrate the action, and detailed, expressive portraits of the characters accompany the pitch-perfect voice acting. The whole experience plays out like an interactive novella, and it’s difficult to put the game down until you finish it.

Yet, because of all of the game’s great features, because the game is such a joy to play, when the end of the game comes, it’s hard to step away from it without wanting a little more. The story could be just a little longer, the puzzles a little more complex, and at the risk of offending adventure-gaming purists, the graphics could be just a little higher-resolution.  “Convergence” will NOT disappoint you; it’s a perfect way to spend an evening, and you may very well find yourself humming its score long after you’ve left your computer.  But thanks to Wadjet Eye’s impressive progress, it’s going to be even harder to wait for Rosa and Joey’s next great outing.

The Dame Wore Ruby Slippers

February 26, 2009

When I first saw the previews for Emerald City Confidential, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m a dedicated fan of adventure games, and I’ve enjoyed all of Dave Gilbert’s recent titles, but Emerald City Confidential seemed like a major departure from his previous works. Partly, this was because the game departed from the budding Blackwell series, instead featuring a new take on L. Frank Baum’s Oz universe, an endeavor that has previously met with varied degrees of success.  However, I was also unsure of how the game’s status as an avowedly “casual” title would affect the mechanics of play.  While some adventure games feature puzzles with solutions that are downright Byzantine, most adventure games can be controlled with leisurely clicks of the mouse; there isn’t much to simplify for the casual gamer.  Thankfully, the title proved a pleasant surprise on both accounts, and should appeal to fans and neophytes of both the Oz mythos and games alike.

Part of my initial unease stemmed from the recent and largely regrettable trend of revisiting children’s fare for adult consumption, from Transfomers to the destined-to-be-awful Land of the Lost.  However, a few gems have been mined from this nostalgic dross, particularly when writers have adopted a truly adult (in the mature sense) perspective on their source material,  such as in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.   Emerald City Confidential gains relevance by channeling a similarly creative spirit, peering into the world of Oz through the lens of film noir.

The Oz of Emerald City Confidential remains glamorous from a distance, but it is populated by characters that twist the originals in clever and anarchic ways. The Tin Man has gained a heart, only to have it broken and slowly washed away in drink; the Scarecrow may have the best brain in the land, yet his acumen has turned him into a walking koan; the Lion has gained courage, but uses it to profit from the unscrupulous pursuit of contract law. Thrust into the shoes of Petra, the Emerald City’s only private detective, the player gets to see the world of Oz as a land of considerable intrigue, and the plot is shot through with allusions to some of the more arcane bits of Ozian lore.  Given that the canon of Oz titles make the collected works of J. K. Rowling look laconic by comparison, this was no easy task.

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Dave Gilbert makes computer games.

For a living.

For serious.

We’ve reviewed his games before, and we like them.

You should, too.

…and here is the inaugural Yesterday’s Salad podcast: Yesterday’s Salad interviews Dave Gilbert!

After reading Dash’s post about the work of Cory Archangel, I also found myself puzzling about whether it can legitimately be called “art.”  Given that a precise definition of “art” has eluded scholars for generations, I won’t attempt to provide one here (which is in contravention of Yesterday’s Salad principle #422, “always strive for hyperbole”). However, I will instead provide a number of perennially popular definitions (fulfilling Yesterday’s Salad principle #423, always take both sides), and see if it succeeds by any of those criteria.  For the sake of argument, my criteria are as follows: Does the piece imitate life? Did its construction require skill? Is it novel? Does the piece convey a particular meaning or message?  And if not, can a variety of meanings be found in it?

At first glance, the piece does not imitate life. No matter how fervently Mario may jump across the screen, he remains a mere collection of poorly juxtaposed pixels. Nor is inspiration to be found in the intermittent messages that Archangel provides throughout the piece: if these are supposed to be part of Mario’s inner monologue, the effect is less than successful.  However, if the piece means to imitate the drug- and videogame-addled dream life of your average, early-twenties video game player, Archangel might be on to something with the collision of techn0-style beats and non-sensical gameplay.

Far more clear is the question of skill.  Did this piece require skill to create? To paraphrase Spivak in Yiddish translation, “no.” As previously noted, the modification of video games is hardly a new practice, utilized by both hacker and hobbyist alike. The Nintendo Entertainment System, by dint of its age, has been comprehensively hacked, ripped, and retrofitted by more than one generation of gamers, and such instructions are widely available around the web.  So too, the prevalence of machinima available on the web, wherein avid gamers create films from the gameplay of various games (whether it is altered or not) should dismiss any claim that Archangel’s work may have toward freshness.

The idea that Archangel is offering a critique of our generation’s current reliance on technology, as a source both of entertainment and a sense of meaning, is perhaps the most reasonable conclusion that one may draw from this and his other works.  Perhaps his most famous work is a performance piece in which he deleted his Friendster account in front of an audience.  According to accounts of the piece, the audience was shocked and stupefied.  While this might puzzle some less ‘net-addicted readers, there was a point in time where Friendster was akin to Facebook (almost).

If Archangel’s work is to stand as criticism, it is tepid at best.  As mentioned before, it is neither unique nor skillful, and what remains after these criticisms are taken into account is far from a trenchant critique.  And what basis is there for variant readings of the work? Given the extensive foregrounding that Archangel’s works have received, from high praise in the press, to major New York exhibition space, such a reading has yet to be given voice.

While the question of video games as art (rather than as a mixed-media for art) is a much larger question, perhaps a much more artful subversion of Super Mario Brothers can be found in “The Lost Levels,” the official sequel to the first Mario Bros. title which never saw the light of day in America during the heyday of the NES.  The Lost Levels was a virtual bizarro-world Mario game, which took the player’s knowledge of the original to deliberately make it challenging for the player.  Hidden boxes were moved, seemingly safe jumps were confounded by invisible boxes, 1ups became poisonous (as wild mushrooms ought to be), and the end-level flag began to actively run away from the player.  In fact, the better one’s knowledge and skill with the original, the *harder* the game became.  So while Archangel might put on a nifty light show with Mario, or laugh at our increasing dependence on the web for our social lives, it takes a real insider to really create jazz with the paradigm.