Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Two things I am happy about
A mini-update to point to two things:
You're either onboard the 'video games are art' train, or you are not. I definitely am.
Also, if you are aware of the work of the Brothers Grimm, you know that original versions of many of the faerie tales that have come down to us from the European tradition differ from their modern interpretations. In a word, they have been Disneyfied. The sorrowful overtones and barely-veiled allusions to physical assault, sexuality, and fear of illness have been lost.
I am proud to present a project that combines these two interests, THE PATH by Tale of Tales Games. This game uses the story of Little Red Riding Hood as a frame to hang a whole off-balance mobile of symbols. Since you are playing one of six different versions of Red, with an age spread from about five to eighteenish, femeninity and growth are two themes that get a lot of exploration.
The game aims at a lot of targets and hits most of them. It is atmospheric, creepy, poignant, challenging, and sad, and the best money I've spent on a game in a year.
Robert De Niro's gift to the University of Texas at Austin
The video says it all. There's also a story on the New York Times site today.
To The Inspector General
The Deadliest Warrior is one of the best examples of unintentional humor on the air right now. The entire cast is made of rejects from “300.” Grown men in a gym pound on ballistics gel dummies and skeletons. Force pads measure the power of their strikes in pounds-per-square-inch. Adults are standing around and arguing, really arguing, and taking grievance over disagreements about which long-dead nation of people, existing centuries apart, produced men with greater martial prowess.
If you gave two eleven-year-old boys a special effects budget to live out their “Who would win in a fight?” conversations, this is the show they would produce.
A letter to Mr. Barry L. Kluger, Inspector General of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (published here and sent via USPS)
I am a born New Yorker, and I've been using the buses and subways of New York City since I was small enough to be carried on board.
A few weeks ago, I was leaving Grand Central Station, and I came across a scene that made me write you this letter. I was using the row of turnstiles in the annex where the hallway to the 42nd Street Shuttle meets the stairways to the platforms for the 4,5, and 6 trains. It was a weekday afternoon, around 3:00, so the area was busy, but not anywhere near rush-hour usage. There are about twenty turnstiles in front of the exit there. Still, there was a steady stream of riders moving out through each of the turnstiles.
I go through one of the turnstiles, and a couple is standing in front of me. It is a man and woman in their fifties, with their rolling carry-on-sized luggage, and the guy gives me this sad, polite smile. I turn around, and immediately see his problem: the constant flow of people exiting mean that there's no way he and his wife can get through. I had never seen it this way. I am used to charging towards a turnstile when I am trying to enter, counting on my focus and energy to announce to people exiting that I am about to use this turnstile, and they need to choose another one.
This is a very strange social negotiation that happens every minute, but I don't think that it has to.
When I was younger, I seem to remember that each station had the old, “herringbone” rotating exits, and these are still installed in many outlying stations, such as the 5 train station at Gun Hill Road, near where I live in the Bronx. I'm sure you know these; the exit is just a frame with metal slats and a rotating cage on a gear that allows travel in one direction. They are inexpensive, simple, reliable, have been in use for decades, because they allow people leaving to keep moving without having to negotiate a two-way turnstile.
They have been replaced by the push-bar exit door, but these doors are clearly marked as emergency exits, which play a harsh beeping alert to discourage their regular use. By phasing these out, you create the problem that this couple faced. Worse, during peak times at the busiest stations, you can stand aside and watch hundreds of near-collisions (and many head-on collisions), people tripping or bumping into each other as they side-step, looking for an exit or entry that is clear for a moment, headphone wires and bag straps caught and pulled – and so on.
So please, Mr. Kruger, bring back the simple, one-way rotating exits. If there is some fatal flaw in these that I'm not aware of, I'm sure that some ingenious person has developed a device that serves the same function in a catalog or on a drawing board somewhere.
Thanks for your time,
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Slavery and lycanthropy in the works of Laurell K. Hamilton
Notes and links follow each item
There's a lot of agreement that the second Knights Of The Old Republic game was deeply flawed (to give full disclosure, I liked the first game, but never played beyond a half-hour of the second). The production schedule was rushed, the original ending was changed, length was cut, and many interesting locations and quests were cut. Worse, some of the quests that were in the published game were broken, which is the worst sin in any computer RPG; glitches would cause saved games to be lost, and crucial items did not work as intended.
Much like the Star Control 2 remake project, a group of fans has taken it upon themselves to create a mod that addresses these issues. If anyone knows of any other projects like this – attempts to fix, re-imagine or remake games of the past - please let me know.
"Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords" Restoration Project
The Drawbacks of Lycanthropy
My sister pointed me towards the “Anita Blake” series of books by Laurell K. Hamilton several years ago. I absolutely tore through the first seven books; this series is a guilty pleasure to the nth degree. The strength of the first half of this series is that it manages to juggle a lot of genre balls and keep them in the air in a way that only a few other franchises have managed – Dresden Files and Buffy come to mind immediately.
In another post, I will explore my mixed feelings about the latest Dresden book, which came out earlier this month. Unlike Jim Butcher, Hamilton made a bold change to her main character a little after the midway point in the series. Namely, she added another peg to her juggling act by seriously ramping up the sexual content of the stories. This has gained her a new (apparently larger) readership while alienating her much of her old one.
It is wonderful to watch a successful balance between romance, horror, police procedural, and action-adventure. There is an intricate and multi-faceted supernatural landscape in these books, with many stakeholders, some occult and some public: vampires, necromancers, voodoo priests, fey, police agencies, and lycanthropes of every imaginable. This essay will mostly be a thought experiment concerning this last group. There's a very tragic dimension to the disease that doesn't get explored very much in the novels.
Lycanthropy, in the Anitaverse (and all the examples I give here are in this fictional setting, just to be clear), results from successful infection of a virus, which causes changes that makes some supernatural energies available to the afflicted person. Not everyone exposed to a virus actually contracts the disease. Most important of these powers is an altered animal form. The species of virus determines the animal that inspires altered form, and different viruses have different rates of infection. From most to least potent, the list goes: wererat, werewolf, many of the large predatory cats, down to wereswans, the hardest species to transmit.
Let us say that you are afflicted, four major problems arise. First, the transition from human being to lycanthrope is physically and emotionally grueling. Most infections are the result of an act of violence, which is traumatic enough by itself. Commonly, a lycanthrope who is in an altered form allows their animal instincts of predation and stalking to overwhelm them, at which point they attack a nearby target, which is hopefully some prey animal, but in the worst case, a member of the afflicted's family, or a loved one. Even in the best-case scenario, where you have a close, supportive, and accepting family with financial means, you represent a real danger to the people around you.
Worse, most lycanthrope species undergo an involuntary change at some point in the lunar cycle. For three nights of every month, you live in your altered form, and must either run wild in some wilderness (where you are unable to injure someone else), or be sedated and physically restrained. Since each transformation is physically exhausting, you lose a day after each night to convalesce. This “lost time” is the most obvious indication to your acquaintances that you have contracted the disease, which leads to the second problem.
In modern Western societies, lycanthropes are tolerated. In most of the world, however, suspected lycanthropes are seized, tested, and if infected, killed immediately by local authorities, with no trial, no appeal, no due process. Equal employment opportunity and disability advocacy laws prevent employers from discriminating against lycanthropes, but in practice the suspicion of infection usually leads to termination under other pretenses. Careers in medicine or food preparation are barred, period. This causes a closed circle of opportunity, as happens in many immigrant communities, where lycanthropes employ and make friendships only with each other, which only makes the distrust and distance more acute.
Thirdly, there are serious dangers from within the lycanthrope communities themselves. The animal instincts which become part of the personality create pack- and pride- like structures, separated along species lines, with an alpha-leader at the top of a hierarchy. It is standard practice for this leader to establish a territory, with borders negotiated with other, adjacent leaders, and to settle local disputes among their subjects. In return for fulfilling these duties, the leader (and this office goes by many different names, depending on the species) exacts tithes from her subjects, and keeps them in line primarily with the threat of violence. It is also standard practice to appoint betas, sergeants that help the leader in her duties.
In this way, becoming a lycanthrope is tantamount to slavery, or perhaps a better analogy is membership in a gang of penitentiary convicts. Someone is set above, at the top of a social pyramid. They provide some protections, but this is essentially extortion. You will be protected, and you will pay, whether you like it or not. Local agencies almost never intervene in these matters. Your only recourse is to rise in the hierarchy by a series of challenges, almost always physical duels, in superhumanly powerful altered forms, and most often to the death. A duel to replace a leader herself is always to the death, which leads to my final point.
If you would like to “vote with your feet” and leave a particularly brutal regime, you will find that it is extremely difficult. Because were-communities are so closely bound and territorial, and violence is the only way to move socially, moving across territorial boundaries becomes a diplomatic snafu. Calls need to be made, messages confirmed, and the leaders of the realms you move through have to be satisfied. They will probably demand a public meeting to exchange a toll price, or some other symbol of submission. It isn't hard to see why this is. If you are a new lycanthrope moving through a leader's territory, you represent a real threat to the establish power structure, because there is a significant chance that you are coming to fight your way into the pack/pride hierarchy.
Now weigh this spider's web of penalties and problems versus the gifts you receive: a robust resistance to any illness, enhanced senses, an alternate form with superhuman strength and stamina, and, hopefully, bonds of friendship with other lycanthropes in your area. Your mileage may vary, but to me this trade is in no way equal.
Now it's time for me to pays my money and takes my choice. If I had no choice but to choose a lycanthrope group to join, the wererats would have my money. At least in the St. Louis of the novels, wererats seem to be more of an anarchic confederacy of equals than a monarchy. Even though the leader is called the Rat King, he is more of a charismatic representative, who guides by his force of personality. This is the best of the worst choices.
Long time no post.
Recent events in my life have convinced me that I need a regular, public forum for my interests. There's just too much material pressing out to hold in anymore, and if I'm going to write an essay or review, it's better to take the extra time and effort to polish it into work that might intrigue or entertain someone other than myself. My usual format will be to place shorter, topical pieces at the top of each post, and leave the longer pieces below the fold.