While the artist’s life may have driven everyone’s favorite eyebiter to go without HBO (a catastrophe if ever there was a catastrophe), the sometimes solitary life of a scholar-in-training has forced your 5th favorite correspondent/epistlist to spend long hours reading texts in languages he barely understands and shorter hours reading languages he doesn’t understand at all. Somewhere along the way he’s supposed to find time to think of research topics and research those topics. It is, sadly, no longer acceptable to write the paper synthesizing a couple of articles, or the paper explaining how one randomly selected type of literary criticism effects this less-randomly selected author (that these occasionally find their way to the salad should come as no surprise). But the worst part of graduate school is that I have increasingly less time to spend on things just for myself, and too often that means Salad posts have fallen by the wayside. Though my frequency might be faltering there are as of yet no plans to (again) abandon the site. Although, I must admit that it would be great to hear something from the readers. Let yourselves be known.

Otherwise, today’s topic is one of the stranger examples of an art/film. Recently we talked about Cory Arcangel’s nintendo experiments. The project that first drew me to Arcangel was his Whitney biennial piece, a Mario 3 cartridge hacked to only show the clouds while really awesome techno bump-bump-thumped around the room. One of the things that very much makes this piece “art” is its singularity. Arcangel hand hacked the Mario 3 cartridge to make it into something very much his own, and something new. Once more, we were the only ones capable of seeing it, and watched it within its own installation, its own exhibition space.

One of his follow-up projects was a Mario “short film.” Its initial conception was similar; it had a unique installation at a museum/gallery setting, and was a hand hacked cartridge. But in its afterlife, it’s found it’s way to youtube. I’m going to post part 1 within the post, and anyone who’s interested should go to youtube for the other parts.

The primary question is how has our viewing experience changed as a result of watching the movie on youtube rather than in a museum. There are a few obvious answers. 1) the piece is somehow less art-like. It no longer has the curatorial stamp, nor does it have the singularity or limitedness of art. 2) the craft element has disappeared. We’re no-longer impressed with the technical aspect of the movie, the ways in which Arcangel was able to graft new vessels into old wine. Instead, it resembles a computer program, something far more people are skilled to do. And 3) as a result, it becomes more of a movie. Though our main character is an 8-bit Mario, we expect more film-like things to happen. More movement, more progression. Arcangel presents an existentialist Mario, fine, but doesn’t necessarily explore that through any film-like interactions. Oddly, it seems to suffer because it carries itself with the pose of fine art, rather than the mixed popular-high art genre that is film.

It’s an interesting project nonetheless, and I’m interested in the opinions of others. Hopefully, notwithabang will give his thoughts from the gamer’s perspective.

First, some important news: We’re back to reviewing adventure games here at Yesterday’s Salad.  While we’re happy to give folks what they’ve been clamoring for, readers should be aware that every review we post comes at the expense of a medical school factoid; so, we hope no one is getting too attached to their left recurrent laryngeal nerve for the moment. And, now for something completely different.  For reals.

ProgZmax, noted sprite guru and talented adventure game developer (creator of Mind’s EyeMind’s Eye, reviewed here) asked me earlier (much, much earlier) if I’d be willing to do a review of an earlier effort of his, Dance ‘Til You Drop.  While there were a few games already on the reviewing docket, I said that I’d get to it at the soonest opportunity.  The soonest opportunity presented itself, and I was all ready to play the game, until I found out that it featured none other than Richard Simmons as a protagonist, and I ran in the other direction, screaming.

It’s not that I have a personal animus against Richard Simmons, who is by all accounts a kind-hearted man with an outsized personality (and considerable capacity for self humor).  It’s just that he evokes a certain spirit of the ’80s (or to use a more acceptable term around here, zeitgeist) that I’d rather shove down in a deep dark corner… and pretend was lost in a fire when asked about it in polite conversation.  But, in the course of bringing sexy back to Adventure Game Studio reviews (was it there in the first place?), I figured that I owed ProgZmax one.

So, as I mentioned before, Dance ‘Til You Drop puts you in the shoes of Richard Simmons, as he attempts to juggle the double duties of managing his ailing dance studio, and trying to go above and beyond the call of duty (which is leading step aerobics) to help the less-fortunate. While this may beg further explanation, for the purposes of this review, I will stick to paraphrasing the plot; to reveal more would spoil the fun and surprise, as Dance ‘Til You Drop succeeds primarily as a quirky admixture of hi- and low-brow farce.

The graphics are appropriately retro, and are lo-fi in regards to color and resolution, which might not be everyone’s liking, but they are unquestionably well-executed. Similarly, the soundtrack relies heavily on what I presume are Simmon’s regular fare, which is similarly subjective. Yet, having conferred with a colleague who has a phD in retro, I can assure you that the selections are perfect for the setting.

Fans of Mind’s Eye might be a bit disappointed to find that the puzzles are a little less sustained that in the later effort.  While Dance ‘Til You Drop is not quite as substantial as that later title, by no means should you should write off as mere juvenilia.  The puzzles are generally strong throughout, though somewhat sparse, and they cohere well with the plot and the overall tone of the game.  To wit, they provide a reasonable challenge, and at the same time, manage to strike a good balance between the credulous and the ridiculous. Considering the plot, the combination is pitch perfect.

If you like adventure games, and thinking about the eighties doesn’t have you dialing your analyst and therapist (please not to combine), Dance ‘Til You Drop is recommended. •

Devotees will appreciate the return of (ir)regular game reviews to Yesterday’s Salad, particularly of the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) variety.  For the moment, here is an interesting article about strategy games at Gamasutra.

As yours truly covered this subject in earlier articles, a caveat I have with the Gamasutra article (which bemoans the fact that “Real Time Strategy” games are more like “Real Time Tactics” games) is that there’s not that much “tactical” thinking in most of these games, either.  For the most part, these games (while fun) require you to build a larger force than your opponent, and just sort of crush them, with the only “tactics” being the obscene amount of micromanagement required.  A real tactical game would allow more strategies (e.g. hit and run, ambushes, etc.), a more detailed consideration of maneuvering (such as in the excellent Myth: The Fallen Lords), and allow for more robust orders (such as having different classes of units employ different strategies) which can themselves be automated.  Nevertheless, it’s

This was a triumph!

January 23, 2008

We at Yesterday’s Salad pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge of yesterday’s news, particularly where gaming is concerned.  Although we snagged a prerelease copy of Supreme Commander, and somehow managed to review the excellent Blackwell Legacy within hours of its release (try the demo for the next game in the series!), since we do our best to act more grizzled than we really are (by several decades), most of our game coverage requires some dusting to stay relevant.  So it’s with some trepidation that I mention Portal, one of the best games to come out in this or any other universe.

In Portal, you play a silent protagonist who finds herself stuck in a series of experiments, run by the aptly-named Aperture Science corporation.  As the game progresses, and the experiments/tests become increasingly complex, you gain access to a “portal device,” a tool that can link two places in space.  Thanks to a robust physics engine, this leads to some remarkably non-linear movement and puzzle-solving, as well as countless “how-could-that-happen” kinds of moments.

For instance, to cross a particularly long chasm, you can simply create an opening to the portal on both sides of the chasm, and can simply bypass it.  However, when you consider that momentum is conserved going into and out of a portal (although it’s really speed being conserved), the possibilities multiply and get much, much weirder. If you fall into a portal on the ground, and the linked opening is on a wall, oriented horizontally, you will fly out of the opening.  Carefully placed openings can allow you to loop objects (or more cautiously, yourself) through a pair of portals with increasing speed, until they eventually slingshot out.

The story is excellent, and while there’s plenty of spoiler material out there, let me simply say that there is a tremendous amount of deadpan humor, particularly poking fun at the “scientific” trappings surrounding the tests.  So too, the A.I. who guides you through the tests is a thoroughly hilarious character, as she becomes progressively less helpful as you advance, and begins to make light of the considerable danger your character is in.  However, in true YS fashion, she continually hints that there will be cake at the end.

Read the rest of this entry »

I hate to steal the lead post from Dash – particularly when it involves perpetual Yesterday’s Salad crush, Catherine Keener – but I felt I had the lede to justify it:

Videogames may be close to reaching a point of singularity – wherein exponentially increasing gravitational forces cause matter to fuse together in a single point – signaling of the coming collapse of the universe.  For proof, witness this:

The remaining fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles foretold of a universe oscillating between singularity and chaos:

A twofold tale I shall tell: at one time it grew to be one alone out of many, at another again it grew apart to be many out of one. Double is the birth of mortal things and double their failing; for one is brought to birth and destroyed by the coming together of all things, the other is nurtured and flies apart as they grow apart again. And these things never cease their continual exchange, now through Love all coming together into one, now again each carried apart by the hatred of Strife. So insofar as it has learned to grow one from many, and again as the one grows apart [there] grow many, thus far do they come into being and have no stable life; but insofar as they never cease their continual interchange, thus far they exist always changeless in the cycle.*

This “hybrid” game seems to be the embodiment of the “coming together into one” that Empedocles foretold, as separate creatures, Mario and the Master Chief, combine.  So too, while the mixed forces of the Koopa Troop and Covenant conspire against our heroes, they unwittingly play into the progress of the universe’s regression towards a single source.  Yet despite the seamlessness with which two worlds mix, there may indeed be “no stable life” for the Mario-Chief chimera, as the twin forces of copywrite and legality prove more powerful than cosmic strife.

*Translation from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I haven’t enjoyed action movies for some time. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, and my taste in movies has matured, so that I no longer feel satisfied by the whizzing cinematography and glib violence found in a typical action movie. But at the same time, the grand cliché of the aged – they don’t make ’em like they used to – might hold some truth. If one defines an action movie as a film in which the on-screen spectacle is of equal or greater value than the plot, and charitably excluding the sub-genres of superhero (Batman Begins), sci-fi (The Matrix), and historical (war movies not starring Mel Gibson, with the exception of Gallipoli), the last decent action movies I saw were Casino Royale and Ronin. Ronin is even pushing our plot requirement.

This is not to say that there has been a paucity of action movies. On the contrary, big-budget action movies are as readily available as Arby’s sandwiches. It’s just that as action movies seem to be incorporating more and more advanced computer graphics, their plots are steadily devolving. Not only do there seem to be more and more movies made from games, but action movies are beginning to rip out parts of games wholesale – supposedly, in the Doom movie (no, I didn’t see it, and I won’t see it) the camera transitions to a first person perspective for a hearty chunk of the last part of the film. So that it looks just like a video game. Which you paid 10 dollars to watch someone else play.

On the other end of the spectrum, video games seem to be on the evolutionary rise. Games have long taken inspiration from movies, and as games rapidly approach film in terms of visual verisimilitude, they are taking plot and other cinematic elements as well. For instance, Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4 is basically your own personal action movie, as demonstrated by this lengthy clip below. The game’s graphics are amazing (though the quality of YouTube doesn’t do it justice), and while its plot won’t win it any Academy Awards (Russian Ultranationalists and Middle Eastern terrorists working together? Mon dieu!) the ability to actually participate in all of those action movie scenes is remarkable fun.

While serious movies don’t have much to worry about from video games (a real-life My Dinner With Andre video game is years away), action movies either need to start evolving plots, or go the way of the dodo.

••• For those who couldn’t imagine anything more profoundly boring than watching other people play video games (or, the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter films), watch from the beginning to around minute two, then from minute six to the end.