Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Shadow of the Console, part one

As often happens in Consoleland, some of the best franchises and game ideas for a system only happen when a system is winding down its useful life. One has only to look at the fanatical followings of the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast and the nearly superhuman feats developers pulled in the last few months of the cycle of each of those pieces of technology. Nowadays, we are about to begin the post-mortem on the PlayStation 2, as by Christmas next year we will have two, possibly three, consoles of the next generation to play with. While I was fighting a throat infection yesterday, I decided that the PS2 obituary will begin with Shadow of the Colossus and We Love Katamari.

Shadow of the Colossus is a game of sweeping, elegiac beauty made by the same team that brought you the simple joys of ICO, a game that reduced one of my friends, a cynical man, into a delighted six-year-old for hours at a time. Colossus itself consists of sixteen terrifying and wonderful boss battles. In fact, Colossus is original in almost every facet of its presentation. It is, as Tycho put it, "unorthodox." The game has very little plot to speak of, and what does happen is paced slowly. Your hero and his lady don't even have names, which is yet another testament to the power that mystery can have over exposition in a story. The only music are battle themes, which means that for long stretches all you hear are hoofbeats and the sounds of wind and water. You do not see another living human until two-thirds of the way through. The control scheme is odd, although it starts to really shine at about the halfway point.

Spoiler: Let me just describe one hour of playing Shadow of the Colossus.

Leaving the central shrine on my trusty horse Agro (there seems to be discussion about whether the horse's name is Argo or Agro), I crossed several miles of grassland, passed a rough stone altar overgrown with ivy and shooting an arrow at the occasional lizard startled by my horse. Following the beacon of reflected sunlight from my magic sword, I rode over a stone bridge, watching a waterfall rush hundreds of feet down into a river canyon in the midmorning sun. Passing into a desert after a few more miles, I awaken the local colossus, which I can only describe as horned birdlike dragon creature, about a kilometer in length. I name him Hornbird. Hornbird takes the same notice of me that I would of a snail on my hedge: none at all. I follow HB as he flies around the valley, and then notice he has a series of gasbags on his underside. I send a few arrows into the bags, and HB bellows in pain and drops lower with each bag I puncture. At his lowest, HB drops his front fins to the sand. I ride at full speed alongside HB, standing and then leaping from Agro's back onto the bony ridges of his fins, and then start climbing up the hundred-or-so feet to HB's body, reaching his back just as his gasbags heal, re-inflate, and he soars back into the sky.

This is one of the most immersive and compelling sequences I have ever played through, in a lifetime of playing games.

As much as I like Colossus, I have to mention that I feel tremendous moral qualms about fighting these guys. Most of the colossi are asleep, or simply curious, or take no notice of you at all. Two of them will not attack you, and show fear when you start to hurt them. Riding the back of some mighty beast to the ground as it slowly topples over and expires leaves me feeling like a murderous bastard. The music changes, and I feel as though something irrevocable and wonderful has been lost when I destroy these things, each created for some unique, unfathomable purpose.

One final note - above is a picture of Agro. Agro is stubborn, willful, hard to get going, hard to stop, enjoys being petted, and gets tired. He whinnies when he gets excited, and sometimes wanders off to graze. He has more personality than anyone else in Colossus, and he is the horsiest and most convincing horse in any game ever.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Great Expectations

I was reading an article in the New York Times about the book Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers - and How You Can Too by Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim (free registration required to read). Dr. Abboud and Ms. Kim are two Korean-American sisters writing about what the article describes as their “relatively strict” upbringing. I would not describe their parents’ approach as strict so much as dutiful and honest. An example from the article:

"WHEN they were growing up, Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim used to sit, like many children, in the shopping cart next to the candy racks at the checkout line and wail loudly, hoping that their humiliated mother or father would cave in and shush them with a Snickers bar. But their parents, who were hard-working middle-class immigrants from Korea, had other ideas. Eventually they set a rule: Read one book from the library this week, receive one candy bar the next."

This parenting approach impresses me by its fairhandedness, and the way that it communicates the relationship with the child. The message is not “Do What I Say!” but instead, “There are things expected of you.” The more I think about it, the more important this distinction seems to me. When you do what is expected of you there is fulfillment, though it isn’t always directly material, like a candy bar. This approach requires a conscientiousness and sense of duty on the part of the parent that also appeals to me.

The article goes on to talk about the ruthless, exam-oriented Japanese educational system and how it chews up and damages a lot of the kids who enter it. Koushun Takami’s 2002 novel Battle Royale is a great indictment of this system. In the book, a class of Japanese ninth-graders was isolated on a small island under the Battle Royale Program of an oppressive totalitarian government. The kids are given a random assortment of weapons and expected to fight to the death with until only one remains. The graphic novel and film concentrated on the incredibly controversial but compelling premise, with typical high school lusts, crushes, friendships and fallings-out magnified to an absurd degree by the cruel Program. Yet in a system where you must actually defeat your classmates in a steeplechase of exam after exam, and enormous family and school pressures cause you to see them as competitors for rare and valued places in a college, the stakes of the real battle royale are very high.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


How to Deal With Fairies

I was listening to an interview with Susannah Clarke on Hour of the Wolf this morning. You can catch the show here. I loved Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, and Jim Freund opened the show with great music, as he always does. There was Tam Lin, a nice little folk song with a fairie story I had never heard before.

Listening to the troubles that Tam Lin had, I realized that there just isn't any proper guide to dealing with fairies, even though there are tons of stories about people who deal with them and are the worst for it. Therefore, I will repair this oversight myself, today, on this very blog. Please don't consider this a field guide to Fairie: that kind of thing would take much more space. This is more of a public service flyer, with an eye to avoiding the worst hazards.

* * * * *
Let's NOT Make A Deal

If the accounts of Lord Dunsany, Sir Walter Scott, and many of the balladeers of the Middle Ages are to be believed, a well-travelled person can expect to encounter a member of that race called fairies, or the Fair Folk. This is especially true for young men making their way through
Britain or Ireland on foot or horseback.

Let me stress, that any occasion when you deal with a fairie is a very dangerous time. Humiliation, poverty, enslavement, illness, hardship and death are the most likely result of a meeting between a mortal and a fairie. Each type of fairie, though different from other types in appearance and outlook, is a perilous combination of mercurial temperament and great power.

Treat a fairie as you would a man or woman holding a hand grenade with the pin pulled. Stay calm and alert. Speak clearly, listen carefully, and make no sudden movements. I encourage you to use honorifics like “sir” and “mistress.”

If a fairie makes any demands on you for something material, acquiesce immediately, unless it is one of the following items, in which case you should (very politely) decline:
A lock of hair
A clipping of nail
A drop of blood
A left glove or shoe
Your first-born child

As a rule of thumb, the larger a fairie is, the more likely it is to include human flesh in its diet.

Never accept any gift offered you by a fairie, especially food. Let the story of Persephone be a caveat.

Never go anywhere with a fairie, except on threat of death or great bodily injury.

Definitely never enter a fairie’s home, even if threatened. The guest-host relationship is codified and very complicated with fairies, with punishment for transgressions being so brutal, death is the preferable choice.

Never enter into any agreement with a fairie, however tacit. Most fairies will try to pressure you into some kind of contract, phrasing the terms in the most innocent and attractive ways.

Never play any game, especially games of chance, with a fairie. If you ante the devil, you deserve your fate. These are people who have to pay a tithe to Hell every seven years. ‘Nuff said.
* * * * *
That covers the major points, I think. If anyone has any additions to suggest, please email me at salvagebarATgmailDOTcom.

Monday, October 10, 2005


Hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart

I saw David Cronenberg’s new flick, A History of Violence, on Friday night. I am a big fan of Cronenberg, even though I have said that he is one of those directors with only one story to tell. Videodrome was a surreal look at the psychological changes that television has wrought on us. eXistenZ was an essay on the increasing immersiveness and photoreality of video games. Crash, based on J. G. Ballard's novel of the same name, questioned whether the union of the automobile and concepts of personal and sexual freedom in American culture is entirely a good thing (it isn't). This director is absorbed by the idea that technology can change our psyches fundamentally; our perceptions, our moral compass, and even our identity.

A History of Violence is the first David Cronenberg film that doesn’t, as far as I can tell, have any commentary as its primary aim. Violence fits more comfortably into the drama genre than his other films, containing none of the disorienting shifts of time, location, and camera which were the marks of Videodrome or The Dead Zone. Instead, we get a quiet, very effective story about a man who has changed himself through a tremendous act of will, and the effect that change has on his family.

Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello turn in great performances as Tom and Edie Stall, a married couple with two kids living in small-town Indiana, even if Viggo’s Midwestern accent slips occasionally. Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk will be overlooked for their work as a couple of bandits on the run, who open the film in a long, continuous scene that is pure acting magic. I never get tired of looking at Ed Harris’s expressive, craggy features, and William Hurt, like a fine wine, gets better with age (although his Philly accent needs a little work, too). Ashton Holmes (as Tom and Edie’s son Jack Stall) and Kyle Schmid (as Bobby Jordan, the local BMOC and high school asshole) have a certain geek/bully chemistry. Their subplot, however, is only somewhat effective at mirroring the vicious acts of fisticuffs and gunplay that pin down the main story.

After all, not everything is sugarplums and gumdrops. The movie does fulfill the promise of its title several times. Lest we forget, this is the director who gave us the exploding-head-guy in Scanners. David Cronenberg has always been comfortable with portraying the messy, physical vulnerability of the human body and the sexual pull hidden inside pain and violence. The difference is that in A History of Violence, these effects are purely personal, and don’t have some allegorical scope. The violence is not Man Versus Nature, or Man Versus Man, but only mano a mano.

Friday, October 07, 2005


I have been mulling over my experience of watching Serenity last week. Joss Whedon definitely has functional, if unstylish, camera work. The camera stays pretty still in his hands; you don’t see nearly as much movement as you do in a typical film, and it gives Serenity a made-for-TV feel. That being said, the characters are as lovable and the writing is as surprising as ever, so I didn’t really care. More Firefly is better than less Firefly.

There is an article in this week’s New York Press about the Suicidegirls website and the troubles its owners are having with models feeling mistreated. I remember browsing through S-Girls nearly two years ago, and feeling unaffected its attractions. The models all seemed to blur together to me: overly pale, slender women with very thick boot soles and too much hair dye. One man’s carbon-copy goth is another man’s fantasy.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?