Sunday, February 28, 2010
Heavy Rain: Initial Thoughts
One of the games I've been looking forward to for a while now has been Heavy Rain. I just got the game recently and have only played through a few hours, but I fount it interesting enough that I wanted to share a few thoughts about it (which is more than I can say for most games). For those who've not heard of the game, it's probably best described as an interactive movie. In terms of subject matter, well, I haven't progressed very far, but some interesting stuff is happening.
You play a few different characters throughout the game. There a troubled father, a private detective, an FBI agent, and a journalist. They're all part of a noir-like serial-killer mystery. Things have not progressed very far for my story yet, but one of the big draws of this game is that supposedly the storyline changes depending on the choices you make.
Indeed, there are times when it feels like I'm playing a choose your own adventure style story, albeit one with more interaction than you typically get with those books. This is an interesting dynamic, and one that I'm a little suspicious of. There are certainly times when I feel like I'm on rails and I question whether or not my actions will really matter within the game. However, this is based mostly on previous experience with such "branching" games that give you lots of choices that all lead to the same place (or, sometimes, two places). From what I've heard, choices do matter in this game, and I've decided that for my first playthrough, I'm just going to stick with whatever decisions I've made (so I can't really act on my suspicions by replaying a level... yet).
As far as I can tell, I've made several mistakes. As of yet, I have no idea how those mistakes will impact the outcome of the game (or if they will at all), but I will have some incentive to replay the game after I'm done. In any case, one of the interesting things about this game is that it actually lets you make mistakes in the first place. In 99% of video games, making a mistake means you die and have to restart the level or something. In Heavy Rain, you (presumably) have to live with your choices. Again, I'm a bit suspicious of this. There are times when I can definitely detect the presence of rails. I don't want to ruin the opening of the game, but is it possible to avoid the event in question? At a later point in the game, I missed a key quick time event... and yet, I survived. I found that suspicious. Supposedly, if you make enough mistakes, you can cause your characters to die (and yet the game will go on)... but how many mistakes? And how often can you die? Clearly not every dangerous situation can lead to death?
Speaking of quick time events, this game is heavily reliant on them. However, unlike, say, Uncharted, this game actually makes good use of them. As previously mentioned, you're allowed to fail. At some point, I presume failure means death, but not in the dumb way that some games do it. Apparently, in this game, death means your character is not coming back. In any case, the QTEs are well done and surprisingly varied here. There have only been a few times that I've gotten tripped up with my controller (one interesting tidbit - the game's difficulty meter is based entirely on how well you know the PS controller). It makes use of most of the buttons, but in a realistic sorta way. There might be some Do it Again, Stupid elements in the game, but they're not as frustrating or widespread as they are in a lot of other games.
The control scheme is a bit weird though. It's a mostly third-person game, but instead of the dual-analog controls most games use, this game uses the R2 button to move forward and the left analog stick to choose direction. The right analog stick is mostly used for interacting with the environment (whereas most games use the right analog to allow you to move the camera around). They do provide some limited camera control in the form of pressing L1, which will change to an alternate view, but this still ends up being somewhat awkward, and I still find myself often trying to use the right analog stick to move the camera. These sorts of issues are not entirely uncommon in third person games, but the R2/Left Analog system does take some getting used to and is definitely the most awkward thing about the game.
On the other hand, the interaction scheme isn't really all that complicated. Some of the interactions can be a bit confusing at first, but for the most part, you just hit the buttons or move the sticks in the way they appear onscreen. It's pretty easy to pick up and go. There are a lot of games where you have to memorize the gameplay mechanics and mentally map the mechanic to the buttons. In some games, this can get quite complicated and not playing the game for a while can really confuse you when you pick it up again. Aside from getting used to the way you walk around, I imagine Heavy Rain will not suffer from this at all.
One other element about the game that I find a bit odd is the Thought mechanic. Most of the time, you can press L2 and see a list of things your character is thinking about. Unfortunately, I'm not really sure how much value this adds to the game. However, it also appears to be completely optional, and I think it could perhaps provide some hints to players who aren't sure what to do (I've used it, but more in a probing What does this do? sorta way...)
Visually, the game is quite impressive, though I do think that in the wake of Avatar, video games have their work cut out for them. The camera is very cinematic, even during non-cut-scenes (and besides which, this game sorta blurs the line between cut-scene and gameplay), but the characters aren't always perfectly realized. There are times when Heavy Rain shines in this respect, but it doesn't quite make it all the way across the uncanny valley on a consistent basis (the way that Avatar did). Some characters are better than others and the between-chapter closeups (see image above) of characters faces, for instance, are nearly perfect. The in-gameplay visuals aren't always quite as successful, but are still impressive by general video game standards (see image below). For all intents and purposes, though, the game looks great (and besides, even though both stories are somewhat derivative, Heavy Rain has a better plot than Avatar so far). The voice acting is actually pretty good, despite the fact that most of the actors have a bit of a French accent. I mean, most voice acting in video games is pretty bad, so it's hard to fault Heavy Rain on this, except that Heavy Rain does rely on voice acting more than most games. The music is well crafted, low-key and atmospheric, which is perfect for the game.
One other interesting meta-note is that 99% of the trophies for this game are "hidden" (at least, in the game itself - when you view trophies, all you see is a long list of ??? trophies). This probably makes sense when you think about it, as some of the trophies might give away plot elements. It also probably ruins the immersion the game is going for to list out the trophies and have people looking to earn them instead of playing and enjoying the game for what it is... Still, I found this interesting.
This clearly isn't a game for everyone, but it appears to be right up my alley. I love open-ended video games, and if this one delivers on its promise, I think I'll be very happy with this game. The first hour or so is a bit slow, but things seem to be moving along at a better clip now, and while the story hasn't developed much yet and the controls might be a bit weird at times, I find myself fully engaged with the game. Unlike most games, I'm actually a bit intrigued with the storyline and there have even been a few emotional moments within the game that were reasonably effective. I can't imagine that this will sell well, and I'm positive many people will be frustrated or bored by the opening sequence of the game (the first thing you have to do is brush your teeth and take a shower - hardly exciting stuff) and turn it off in disgust. This isn't an arcade game. It's more like an updated, easier to use text-based adventure game. The extensive cut-scenes, controls and QTEs will probably get on people's nerves as well. But I find myself drawn to this game more than most, and I have a feeling that I'm going to want to replay it several times.
Update: Well, up until now the game has been fine, but it appears that the reports of bugginess are somewhat accurate. Just had my first freeze. Tried to exit out and reload, and now it froze during the loading screen.
Also of note, the FBI agent's voice acting is so bad it's kinda funny. I'm not exactly sure what they're going for, but it sounds like a Frenchman attempting to imitate either a Boston or New York accent. The output is a bizarre mixture of all three accents. Heh.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Entertaining material from the web, or lazy blogging? You decide!
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Is Inglourious Basterds Science Fiction?
John Scalzi recently tackled the question of whether or not Quentin Tarantino's WWII epic Inglourious Basterds qualifies for science fiction. Unfortunately, I should mention at this point that the rest of this post contains mild spoilers about the movie. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it (also, it was my favorite movie of 2009).
In any case, the entire argument hinges around the SF sub-genre of alternate history. In such stories, authors will change some aspect of history in order to explore some sort of narrative idea. This type of story takes all sorts of forms, such as Phillp K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, where Dick speculates about what would have happened if the Axis powers won WWII. There are tons of other examples. I've never read one of his books, but I know Harry Turtledove has made something of a career out of similar alternate history stories. Often, the alternate history comes about due to some form of time travel (such as The End of Eternity) or speculation about the many worlds theory of parallel universes (such as Anathem).
A more recent example of the genre is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Set in the present day, that book's alternate timeline starts that during WW II, when a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees was established in Alaska. Chabon uses the premise to explore Jewish social and cultural issues, but never really uses "science" to explain his settings (i.e. there's no time travel or mention of parallel universes, etc...) This is a particularly relevant example because it really does skirt the boundaries of several genres (the book reads more like a noir detective story than a SF tale), yet it's generally considered part of the SF canon. We'll revisit this book later in this post.
Without getting into too much detail, let's just say that at a certain point in the movie, Tarantino diverges significantly from history. As Scalzi points out, the movie is still very much a WWII movie, but by the end, it's just not quite the same WWII as what's in the history books.
In his post, Scalzi outlines 4 arguments against the interpretation that Basterds is SF. However, I don't find them entirely convincing:
1. It wasn't marketed as science fictionWhile true from a factual standpoint, I don't find this argument at all convincing. It wasn't marketed as SF because the SF elements were meant to be a surprise. Marketing it as an alternate history would be akin to marketing The Sixth Sense as a movie in which Bruce Willis plays a ghost. It's also worth noting that the marketing for a movie isn't always entirely accurate. This is especially true when it comes to cross-genre pieces like Basterds. By necessity, marketing simplifies a given movie to it's basest, most salable features. Indeed, the marketing campaign for Basterds focused almost entirely on Brad Pitt's motley crew of Nazi-hunters and their action packed exploits, yet those characters are not really the focus of the film and indeed, several of the main characters are barely mentioned. So no, it's not surprising that the marketing didn't focus on the SF aspects of the story. That doesn't necessarily make it less of a SF story.
2. The science fictional aspects of the movie are not necessarily essential to itOn this point, I wholeheartedly disagree. Scalzi does admit that changing the SF aspects would make it a different movie, but what he doesn't note is that the movie would be drastically inferior in that case. Without the ending (which is where the SF elements really kick in), the movie might still work, but it wouldn't work nearly as well as it did. That ending is necessary to the success of the movie. It's also worth noting that the movie does start with some premises that could be considered SF. For instance, take the trailer for the movie in which Brad Pitt gives a speech to his men on their upcoming mission. This scene ostensibly takes place before the D-Day invasion of Germany and it assumes a lot of things. For instance, it's revealed that all the members of the squad are Jewish. As present day audiences, we know what this means (and Tarantino is certainly counting on that), but in reality, while the Allies knew of Nazi antisemitism in a general sense, the specifics of the Holocaust were not known until after the invasion when various concentration camps and mass graves were discovered. Now, I'm not going to call this science fiction, but it's clear that Tarantino is counting on audience knowledge of the Holocaust during this scene, and he uses that knowledge to his advantage. This is something that will come up again later in this post.
3. It's kinda more like fantasy than scifi anywayThis is certainly a fair point, but at the same time, a lot of what we consider SF could also be termed "Fantasy". You could probably make a compelling argument that Star Wars is more fantasy than SF. Perhaps this is why SF and fantasy seem to get lumped together in bookstores and whatnot. There is certainly a fantasy element to Basterds though, but I'm just not sure if it outweighs the SF elements.
4. If Inglourious Basterds is science fiction, so are most historical moviesAnother fair point and probably the most compelling among Scalzi's arguments, though I think some important distinctions need to be made here. Movies like Gladiator and Braveheart just contain bad history. For the most part, the people who made those movies were altering history to make for more entertaining narratives, and they knew they could get away with it because 99.9% of the audience doesn't know or care about the real history involved (and in all fairness, such tactics work - both are very good movies).
With Inglourious Basterds, something different is happening. Scalzi even mentiones that "Tarantino's messing with history we actually still remember." And that's important because Tarantino is attempting something subversive. Unlike Gladiator and Braveheart, Basterds actually relies on the audience's knowledge of history. This is a movie that wouldn't work nearly as well if you didn't know anything about WWII. In terms of information theory, Tarantino is making masterful use of exformation whereas movies like Gladiator change history with the confidence that the audience won't notice or care. In short, changing history is the whole point of Basterds, whereas it's just used to spice up the narrative in Gladiator and Braveheart.
In a very real sense, the primary theme of Basterds is the transformative power of cinema. To achieve this goal, Tarantino employs several techniques. One is the direct role of cinema in the plot. A British film critic and a German actress team up with the Basterds to accomplish a specific goal. At several points, discussions of classic German cinema become integral to the plot. Old nitrate filmstock becomes a key plot element. The final showdown occurs in a movie theater that's run by our heroine. And so on. There's obvious symbolism at work there. But let's return to the idea of exformation, as it's an interesting topic (and one I've mentioned before). In short, exformation refers to communication that is dependent on a shared body of knowledge between the parties involved. Wikipedia has a great anecdotal example:
In 1862 the author Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, Les Misérables, was getting on. Hugo just wrote “?” in his message, to which his publisher replied “!”, to indicate it was selling well. This exchange of messages would have no meaning to a third party because the shared context is unique to those taking part in it. The amount of information (a single character) was extremely small, and yet because of exformation a meaning is clearly conveyed.In the case of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino uses exformation masterfully. He knows what the audience knows about WWII and he plays on that. At first, he does so with small things, like the all-Jewish Basterds team (which, at first glance, plays like a Braveheart-style historical inaccuracy, but upon further reflection once the film is over, you can see that Tarnatino is really foreshadowing his subversion of history). A movie like Braveheart diminishes in value when you learn more about the true historical basis for the story. I'm sure there are plenty of historians who get incredibly frustrated when watching a movie like that. But Inglourious Basterds only grows stronger, even as you learn more about the historical basis for that film. For instance, the film does not require you to know all about prewar German cinema, but it certainly could be enhanced by such knowledge.
Take the aforementioned symbolic components, add in Tarantino's use of exformation to manipulate audiences, and then look at how the ending cements the whole film (this is another strike against Scalzi's second point). It's not just that Tarantino doesn't follow history in his movie, it's that he explodes history. He's making an audacious and subversive statement about the power of cinema, and he knows he can go over the top with it because we already know about WWII (not because he thinks he can get away with a few historical inaccuracies).
However, it is interesting to note how history often plays a role in science fiction literature. Indeed, for a while, it seemed like a lot of science fiction authors were leaving behind their SF roots in favor of historical fiction. For example, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, both known for their dystopic cyberpunk work, went out on a limb and published The Difference Engine. Similarly, Kaedrin favorite Neal Stephenson went from his popular futuristic stories in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, the semi-historical WWII/present day thriller Cryptonomicon. He then dove even further into the past with the massive Baroque Cycle, a series of books that took place in late 17th, early 18th centuries. It did concern itself with the emergence of modern science and featured notable scientists and organizations like the Royal Society. In an interview with Salon, Stephenson speculated about whether or not the Baroque Cycle was SF:
I always make it clear that I consider myself a science fiction writer. Even the "Baroque Cycle" fits under the broader vision of what science fiction is about.And he also mentions SF's relationship with history:
There was a review of "Cryptonomicon" with a line in it that struck me as interesting. The guy said, "This is a book for geeks and the history buffs that they turn into." I'm turning into one.Of course, he does note that this fits under a "broader vision" of science fiction, but at the same time, there's more to it than just the subject matter and ideas. Science fiction authors approach the world in a certain way, and that sort of thing tends to come through in their writing, even if what they're writing is not science fiction in the strictest sense. So while The Baroque Cycle is primarily a historical series, it's got some science in it and it reads enough like science fiction that SF fans can appreciate it without any issue.
But the difference between Tarantino and Stephenson is that Stephenson fully acknowledges his SF roots, while Tarantino has not. This is why I previously brought up Michael Chabon's novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Like Tarantino, Chabon is not known primarily for science fiction work. Yet he produced this exceptional alternate history novel that ended up winning the Hugo award for best novel. There are a lot of other similarities between Chabon's book and Tarantino's movie. Both are set in an alternate universe, but neither really explores the speculative aspects of their situations. Chabon's novel probably comes closer to doing so and does not rely on the alternate history as a surprise or shock in the way that Basterds does. Both the novel and the movie are cross-genre stories (the novel using elements of noir and the detective story; the movie using war movie tropes). I don't remember any marketing around The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but I remember being surprised that it won the best novel Hugo (this was before I had read the book and known about its alternate history premise), so I'm guessing that neither movie really calls itself SF.
Then again, the Hugo website does note:
Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror?And so we finally arrive at the classic classification problem. What is science fiction anyway? It turns out that according to the Hugos, it's whatever they say is SF. Going by Stephenson's broader definition, it makes sense that a book like The Yiddish Policeman's Union could win a Hugo, as it certainly contains its fair share of interesting ideas. Similarly, I think that Inglourious Basterds could easily be considered SF. It contains interesting ideas and is reliant on relatively sophisticated information theory concepts like exformation.
Observant readers may notice that the Kaedrin Movie Awards contains a category for best SF or Horror film, and that Inglourious Basterds was absent from the nominations in that category. So it seemed that back then, I didn't consider it SF enough to nominate. And now? I think it certainly could (and it would have won). But I think what it really comes down to is the Hugo test: Do most people consider it SF? And that's where I think my argument that it is SF falters. I think most people do not think of it as a SF movie. This may stem from the nature of the plot, which makes it hard to market the movie as SF (and to Scalzi's point there, blatant categorizations like SF exist for marketing purposes in the first place). Tarantino isn't generally associated with the SF world and isn't calling the movie SF either, which also tends to diminish my argument. But after thinking about it, I still like to think of it as SF. It may not be like any other alternate history story, but just because it's wholly unique in that respect doesn't make it less of a SF movie.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
I want a good DVD/BD version!
I was looking at my DVD and Blu Ray collection the other day and began to ponder a few things. First, there are some DVDs in my collection that I like a lot, but which I'm not sure I really needed to own. For example, I own The Way of the Gun on DVD. It's a good movie, and I really like it a lot, but do I really need to own it? Probably not, but I distinctly remember buying it for less than $10 and the disc features a great commentary track (Christopher McQuarrie is a genuinely interesting and engaging guy - if you're interested, check out the Q&A from Creative Screenwriting Magazine for a taste).
On the other hand, I also realized that I don't own a single Coen brothers movie. Considering that I love the grand majority of their movies (if I were to put together a top 100 of all time list right now, there would be at least 2 of their movies if not more), I wondered why this was so. Well, it turns out that their movies have generally bad DVD releases. Most don't have much in the way of special features, and only a couple have commentary tracks. Furthermore, now that I have a Blu Ray player, it would be nice to upgrade to a BD. Perhaps I'm blowing things a bit out of proportion. The Fargo BD seems to have more special features than I remembered, so maybe it's time to pony up, but still.
I find this happening with a few movies. I'm sure everyone could come up with a big list of movies they'd love to see a good release for, but here are some of the movies or directors I'd like to see better releases of:
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Best Films of 2009
As of right now, I've seen 78 movies that were released in 2009. This is probably less than a lot of critics, but more than most folks. Overall, I had a much better feeling about this year than I had in the past couple years. I had a really difficult time with my 2008 list (which I'm actually pretty happy with now, after a year of reflection), but here in 2009, things came together pretty easily. I had 9 movies right away and the 10th movie came when I finally caught up to a movie I knew I would like.
As always, lists like this are inherently subjective and I know that gets on some people's nerves. Both from a you're stupid because you don't like the same movies I do perspective as well as the lists are inherently evil argument. Indeed, due to this year also marking the end of the decade, the multitude of best of the decade lists has also prompted an increase in the typical backlash of anti-list sentiment. This post covers the usual complaints about lists: they're lazy criticism and basically represent filthy linkbait whoring. There's obviously more to it than that (read the full post). He makes some good points and there are certainly a lot of crappy lists out there (hey, here's one!), but on the other hand, who the hell cares what he thinks? I like lists. Apparently Americans Love Lists (and you know who doesn't like lists? Joseph Stalin!) So without further ado:
Top 10 Movies of 2009
* In roughly reverse order
* In alphabetical order
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
Despite the fact that I've seen 78 movies this year (and that this post features 30+ of my favorites), there were a few that got away... mostly due to limited releases, though a few of the flicks listed below didn't interest me as much when they were released as they did when I heard more about them. Unlike last year, I'm not really expecting any of these to break into the top 10, though I guess there's always a chance. Anyway, in no particular order:
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Revisiting God of War
One of my favorite games for the PS2 was God of War. I certainly had a few issues with it, but overall it was a great game and far beyond its hack-n-slash adventure game competition. Indeed, it's become my gold standard for these type of games, and most games I've played since don't even come close. Sony recently re-released the first two God of War games (with updated graphics) for the PS3. Since I'd never played the sequel, and since the God of War: Collection was reasonably priced, I figured it was worth a shot (and would help prepare for the upcoming and long awaited God of War III). Some thoughts on the games:
Sunday, February 07, 2010
I'm wiped out from playing football in 2 feet of snow this morning (going to be sore all week), eating all day, and gambling on trivial things during the Superbowl (I correctly chose the under in the "mentions Hurricane Katrina" but that got offset by taking the over on "number of times Archie Manning appears onscreen" and I ended up losing by 1 point in the overall contest). So here are a few things I've seen recently. Enjoy.
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
Red Letter Media Review of Avatar
Remember that insanely detailed and hysterically funny review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace I posted a while back? It's quite brilliant, and apparently a review of Attack of the Clones is in the works, but in the mean time, a new review of Avatar has been posted. It's a lot shorter than his Star Wars or Star Trek reviews and it's probably not his best work, but it's well worth a watch. As usual, it's very funny, but the details betray a genuine love of movies.
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in February 2010.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
12 Days of Christmas
2006 Movie Awards
2007 Movie Awards
2008 Movie Awards
2009 Movie Awards
2010 Movie Awards
2011 Fantastic Fest
2011 Movie Awards
6 Weeks of Halloween
Arts & Letters
Computers & Internet
Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
Philadelphia Film Festival 2006
Philadelphia Film Festival 2008
Philadelphia Film Festival 2009
Philadelphia Film Festival 2010
Science & Technology
Security & Intelligence
The Dark Tower
Weird Movie of the Week
Copyright © 1999 - 2012 by Mark Ciocco.