Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Invisible Car

A short while ago, Mr. Bryan Piitz, of web series Viking Dad , offered to shoot a short script I had written. I said gosh yes. And the rest was history.


The result was "The Invisible Car," which was shown at the 2009 Barrie Film Festival Short Film Showcase, where it won Best in Simcoe County, Audience Choice Award, and Least Visible Car Award. I made that last one myself, out of paper mache, but I takes what I can gets.

Here it is.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Grand Schlep Auto

George Carlin used to say that there were things people just didn’t admit. People will readily admit to being bad at math, or clumsy, but nobody admitted they had a lousy sense of humour, or were a bad driver. In the spirit of the late Mr. Carlin, may I say:

I’m a bad driver.

I remember mentally preparing myself for that first G2 test I took years ago. After reading and re-reading the point sheet, I realized that the initial score was so high, and the demerits you received were so low, you’d have to literally break every rule in the book to get low enough to fail. The only other way was an automatic fail, which you got if you broke the law.E asy, I thought. I mean, it’s not like I was going to drive through any reds, right?

Humility, thy name is stale flashing yellow arrow.

Forget the old meanings. It is as if they never were.

This was the start of an illustrious career of not driving. As a person who is interested in projecting the fragile illusion of confidence in lieu of the real thing, I make a point of habit to avoid doing things I kind of fail at. To my mind, this means I spend more time doing things I am awesome at, which means there is more awesome in this world, less fail, and you all can sleep soundly at night with the knowledge that nobody is going to come careering through a stale flashing yellow arrow and ruin your Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately for me, the things I am good at do not always coincide with the things I am negative good at. This leads to exchanges like this:

“Okay, so I’ve had a few. Can you take my car and drive it a block?”

“Um. Maybe. Or I could bake up some nice cannoli. I’m awesome at baking cannoli”

“Yeah, um. The car needs to be moved so people can get out.”

“I know. I’m working on it. Some nice cannoli will sober you right up.”

You laugh, but it will.

If I am bad at driving, let it be said that I am triple-bad at driving in videogames. This is because my own driving is fuelled by adrenaline – the sincere, earnest physiological terror of ruining anyone’s Thursday afternoon. Driving in videogames takes my already subpar motor skills and removes the white-knuckle terror of not wanting to die for realsies. And as we all know, when you remove the white-knuckle terror, you remove the fun.

So I pitched an article to The Escapist on Grand Theft Auto 4, which was accepted. Now, I had watched my fair share of Grand Theft Auto 4. I had read my fair share about Grand Theft Auto 4, and I had even played my fair share of Grand Theft Auto 4. What I hadn’t done was play my fair share of Grand Theft Auto 4 Without Exploding In Like Ten Seconds.

The last Grand Theft Auto game I exhibited a mastery over was Grand Theft Auto 2, known colloquially as “The Last Grand Theft Auto They Made Before They Started Making The Good Ones.” It’s this little rinky-dink top down games, where the cars look like Hot Wheels and the people look like little ants. It’s basically Pac-Man, which is good for me, because I am awesome at Pac-Man. This is a helpful yardstick. For years, I had been gauging my effectiveness at things based solely on how much they were, or were not like Pac-Man.

Oh, hello photorealistic replica of New York City. You’re nothing like Pac-Man.

Borrowing King’s trusty Xbox360, I sat down over the last few days to play through the game proper. It was a mixed bag. While the game is supposed to be rife with moral and ethical tensions concerning the possibility of free will in a corrupt world, my playthrough was rife with the moral and ethical tensions of whether the place I needed to go was in walking distance.

Shooting missions were no sweat. Whack a guy? I can whack a guy. Whack like ten guys? I can swing that. But if one of those guys makes it out the back, and hops a car, then all bets are off. It usually plays out like this:

I run to another car and hop in.

I notice ten better cars I could have stolen, but it’s TOO LATE NOW ISN’T IT.

I follow in hot pursuit.

By hot, I clearly mean “Hit enough things until I am on fire.”

Bail out. Roll. Get hit a little bit by another car.

Steal that car. Serves it right. Crash that car into a bike.

Oh yeah! Bikes!

Get out. Steal the bike.

Drive for two seconds before colliding with the slightest thing and flying like a million feet.

Oh yeah. Bikes.

Steal another car. Third time is clearly a charm.

All right, now my third car is on fire. WHAT is the DEAL with this FIRE?

But wait, isn’t that the guy I’m chasing?

Go up on a rail. Bail out. Burning car flips in a terrible arc, landing on the guy I’m chasing. It explodes. His car explodes. He explodes. EVERYTHING EXPLODES.


Am I alive? Is anyone alive? Can you even call this “living?”

Every cop ever arrives, drawn to the all-consuming plume of fire of my serial failure.

Cheese it.

The upside of all this is that I constantly feel like James Bond. Like an inept, kind-of-bad-at-his-job James Bond. So, nothing like James Bond at all, I guess. More like Maxwell Smart. All this has given me insight into all those action movie guys, walking away calmly while an enormous explosion erupts behind them. Sure, they look cool. Sure, they seem composed.

Really, they’re thinking “The apartment’s only seven blocks away, and my car’s on fire. I guess I’ll walk.”

- Rook

Escapist #225: Electric Soul

For all their supposed superior intelligence, robots can be pretty stupid. They may be handy if you need someone to calculate pi to the thousandth place, but when it comes to the really tricky questions, they don't have a clue. Present them with a paradox and they'll blow a gasket. Read them a sonnet and steam will shoot from their ears. They can plot the very vectors of time and space, but they just can't fathom "this emotion you hu-mons call ... love." You'd think that with all their advanced circuitry, they could just Google it.

Escapist #223: M is for Massive

In some ways, "massive" is the perfect word to describe online gaming. It communicates a certain heft - a suggestion that our games have not just become larger, but gained shape and substance. As massive gaming models have become more prevalent, the term has only increased in usage, finding its way into a bevy of acronyms each more weighty than the last: MMORPG, MMOFPS, MMORTS, etc. Even in debates on how best to classify these games - do we stick with the oddly truncated "MMO" or the accurate but somehow lopsided "MMOG"? - there is always the assumption that whatever else these games may be, they're certainly massive. It's the one M to rule them all.

Escapist #222: Dude Looks Like a Lady

Pity the princess - all dressed up, and nowhere to go. While the hero gets to scramble about to his heart's delight, the videogame princess exists in a state of eternal kidnap, perpetually "in another castle." It is a thankless task. She sits. She waits. She does the odd crossword puzzle.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Gotta Crush 'Em All

What a time to be alive! If history has taught me anything, it’s that those poor folks in the past got a raw deal. Nowadays, crime is down, we’ve pretty much got the black plague licked, and we get to keep all our teeth! Yes, truly, it’s a wonderful time to be a living breathing whatever.

Unless you’re a furry little varmint, of course.

The Supreme Count in America has recently begun hearing an animal cruelty case, concerning not the actual act of cruelty, but its depiction and distribution as video. The case revolves around Robert Stevens, a man who was convicted and sentenced to over three years in prison for making what he calls “educational videos” of the dos and don’t of dogs fighting, which include footage of dogs viciously mauling each other and tearing into other animals such as wild boars. How this is “educational” is obvious: It educates us to STAY THE HECK AWAY FROM THOSE DOGS.

What makes this case so peculiar is that Stevens' videos were snagged not for anything specific to them, but because they fell into a range of products made illegal by a statute in congress which was meant for something else altogether - to counter the growing culture of “crush videos” found online.

Not this. But close.

If you’re one of the many people who have yet to hear about crush videos, this can be your little choose-your-own-adventure moment right here. Do you really want to know another way that people are depraved and disgusting on the internet? You know, just to round off your growing despair in humanity? Or would you rather just have a nice day today – maybe go for a walk, see the autumn colors, enjoy your life. If so, I suggest leaving now. I don’t want to ruin your day, and things are about to get hinky.



Are they gone? Okay. Now it’s just me and the perverts. A crush video is like the meeting of Rule #34, and Looney Tunes. Specifically, it is the depiction of nice-looking-ladies killing nice-looking-animals with their nice-looking-feet. This of course is confusing to that percentage of the population that has a fetish for nice-looking-ladies doing anything at all. Why not playing video games, or having an ice cream fight, or wrestling in a giant vat of spaghetti? You know. Normal stuff.

For the brave of heart, I’ve found a crush video online and will link it here, even at the threat of my own safety and liberty.

Huh. That wasn’t so bad. The U. S. Supreme Court seems to agree – discussion of what could and could not be in these videos ranged wildly, since the current statute protects any video depicting animal harm that has "religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value." Thus bullfighting is in, due to Spain’s rich cultural heritage of killing angry cows after psyching them out a bunch. Scientists are free to video their horrible experiments involving manimals, then hide them deep within their underground laboratories because the world is not ready to know. The ‘religions’ angle is an interesting one as well: By this criterion, I could videotape my sacrificing a goat to Mammon, but not to my neighbor Barry. As if that’ll get him to stop asking, right?

Barry demands blooood.

Because here’s the tricky spot: You know what else has no "religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value?" Ninety-five percent of the Internet. For the occasional beacon of civilized, rational discourse, there’s a lot of just… stuff. This isn’t necessarily an indictment of value: Yes, in the best of all possible worlds, the Internet is a communal project designed to index and resource the whole of human culture. But until that happens, it’s a handy place to keep our .jpgs of cats saying funny words.

You can see the wispy chemtrails of the logic: Don’t post videos of animal killing, unless it has "value," by which we mean all the normal kinds of animal cruelty like huntin’, fishin’ and goat-sacrificin.’ Those have precedent, and are okay. Put simply: Sure, have your fun. But just don’t be weird about it.

Many justices on the court jumped at the chance to gnaw on this bone, taking their time to outline the vacuity of the statute through a series of fanciful hypotheticals. The transcript is here, and Dahlia Lithwick presents a breakdown over at Slate. Questions ranged from the innocent to the forcefully absurd: Who decides if something has artistic merit? Is there a difference between cockfighting, dog fighting and bull fighting? What about hunting out of season? What about dressing up like a Roman and killing a lion out of “historical value?” What about people-fighting? What about people-fighting to the death in a gladiatorial pit and aired live to screaming fans via pay-per-view in a dystopian future in which Violence. Is All. We. KNOW.

Let's hope so. For all our sakes.

This is not a joke. This is Justice Alito, testing the bounds on which a government is allowed to censor and censure depiction. And It raises some interesting questions: If our mediated age marries content to its representative fact, how prepared are we to chase after the one and not the other? Yes, it may be easier to crack down on these disgusting videos rather than track down the people actually doing the stomping – but to what end? Is our responsibility towards policing an image, a way of looking at ourselves… or are we truly interested that people behave decently, even to the least of us? Is this about enforcing decency, or the appearance of decency? Last I checked, there is a great word for people who do their best to look decent while behaving despicably.

That word is “hypocrite.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Escapist #220: Katamari Absurdity

I’m thrilled that gaming culture magazine The Escapist has published another of my articles, which you can read right here. Everyone I ran the idea through was professional, and a pleasure to work with.

To those finding their way here from The Escapist, welcome! I’d leave out a tray of cookies, but you’re likely a million miles away. Thanks a lot, THE INTERNET.

This could have been you.

How we Precede Procedure

In an earlier post I mentioned that metaplay – or, the playing of game on several levels – doesn’t necessarily correspond to other avenues of play. And nowhere do I find that happens more than with Pokémon. There’s something about playing a game you’ve played over and over, a familiarity that gets in under your skin. When I say that there isn’t one metagame, but several, things can be divided up in different ways. Today I'll be going over the first of a couple.

The Metaprocedural: processing how we process.

One of our earliest mental skill sets is metacongnition, or “thinking about thinking.” This little gem of an abstract thought, long thought to be the sole prize of homo sapiens, is actually widespread – recently it’s been confirmed in rats.

Not like this. But close.

Following from an understanding of the process of thoughts comes an understanding sequence and causality, known as metaprocedure.

Like it or lump it, most play consists of repetition – its part of its reflexive charm, and speaks to us at our most compulsive. In this fashion, the ‘language’ of gaming is something we can absorb through play. Some of it is kinesthetic, and some is memorization, but every game contains some sum of internalization.

A game like Pokémon, then, is a smorgasbord of data. Underpinning the tried-and-true JRPG play schematic is a Swiss-army-knife of weaknesses, strengths and immunities. With seventeen elemental types to choose from and mix, the game shakes out as a hyperkinetic paper-rock-scissors. This of course sometimes leads to inanity: For example, “dragon” is a type. And it’s weak to… “dragon.” Huh.

Oh Jormundgandr, baby child, that’s your tail.

But with a few tweaks, this has been the model since time immemorial. So it isn’t just that you may enter these games with an understanding of the basic procedure of RPGs – the very cipher of combat may come pre-cracked. There is something meditative about playing a game where you have to learn absolutely nothing. Of course, peering deeps into the mechanical guts of such models does have its drawbacks. Yes, all the points of data make a beautiful line – but, taken to its conclusion, it draws you away into something purely mechanical.

From this point of view, each Pokémon is just a bundle of stats. Played as a numbers game, every variable can be controlled through methodical process – but in so doing, story disappears, and the game begins to take on an entirely different character. Yes, you could catch one Pokémon, name it, and let it be your very best friend. Or you could catch 20, release the ones with low stats, take the top few, breed them, release the ones with low stats, grind up numbers to learn certain move sets, breed those guys, release the ones with low stats, trade that final guy from one game to another to double its experience rate…

There is something satisfying about this approach, but push too deep, and suddenly it feels.. somehow unsavory. Narrative disappears, until it isn’t so much a game as it is math.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily something lamentable. Because, as everyone knows:

You're absolutely right, terrible clipart girl. Math IS fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Free Thing of the Week - CANABALT

Could this game be the most exhilarating single-button game in the history of buttons?


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tougher than diamonds, rich like cream

I mentioned earlier that I thought that Pokémon, especially in its newest incarnation, was an excellent game. Now I find I have to qualify that: In many ways it is an average game.

You schlep forth, in true RPG fashion, armed only with your hopes, your dreams, and a dude in a little red ball. You force this dude to fight against other dudes – progressively bigger and badder dudes – sometimes besting them by using moves, but other times simply by hitting them until they stop moving. Ultimately you best the baddest dude yet. Congratulations! Now you’re a bad enough dude to rescue the president!

Oh yes. A thousand times yes.

After your victory, you’re treated to a speech about why you were able to climb to such monumental heights. It’s explained that your power is powered by the most powerful power of all – the power of love. Not the love between a man and a woman, or indeed, like the love between a man and a fine Cuban cigar. No, the love between a man and the vicious critters he’s trained to fight. Nowhere is it mentioned that hitting your opponents until they stopped moving might also have been a deciding factor. Your victory, you are told, is all about the love.

Yes, this is the plot of every Pokémon game, but to be fair, it’s also the plot of roughly every shonen fighting manga ever conceived. All you have to do is replace the little red balls with tremendous swords or tremendous hair or even tremendous flavours, and you’re set. Considered in a vacuum, Pokémon is just another iteration of the same game people have been sleepwalking through over and over. This doesn’t make it bad. This makes it perfectly fine – just nothing to blog home about.

The rub, of course, is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So, Pokémon may be an average game. But it is an excellent metagame.

A while back, I had mentioned I would be looking at the various ways in which games fold back upon themselves, or draw from some essential element of play. It strikes me that Pokémon is a perfect place to start, if only because a decade’s worth of popularity has transformed it from a simple game into a play phenomenon in its own right … a huking juggernaut of funtimes.

I’m interested in the ways in which our attitudes about games and gaming directly impact how we might navigate a game like Pokémon, and the ways in which these various styles of play intersect. Within a game so widely played, fueled by merchandizing blitzes, major promotional events, and a robust tournament scene, there may not be one sphere of metaplay, but several.

To wit: Pokémon is large. It contains multitudes.

Thank you, Walt Whitman, for your contentious poems about fighting electric mice.

I'll be looking at the instances of metaplay in the next few posts... hopefully without getting all meta on you. I'm not really inclined to just hit it with theory until it stops moving. Mostly, it'll be a labour of love. And as we all know, love is powerful, with a power more powerful than other powers. But what powers that power?


- Rook