Elliptical observations of an elliptical orbit

Saturday, 1 January 2005 — 9:07pm | Video games

You see a lot of chatter about the unpredictability of future not just with respect to science fiction writings, but in all speculative fields in general. There was a time when 2005 was far, far away, and its only certainty was the arrival of Episode III. Nobody could have told you back then that the Mozilla project, which demanded a hefty 128MB of RAM to facilitate compilation, would lead us to the modern comforts of Firefox and Thunderbird; that a little-known boy with a lightning scar would come to rule the world and prepare to assert that grip for the sixth time; that the University of British Columbia would successfully bid to host the World Universities Debating Championship in 2007; that ten thousand unfortunate souls would be so cruelly robbed of that future by forces of nature we may never fully conquer, all in one fell swoop. (No condolences I am able to offer are appropriate next to the magnitude of the tragedy.)

But we did have that one point of reference – what we now know as Revenge of the Sith. And while 2005 was the future, that made 2006 the far future, the point where territory became uncharted. Beyond the Wall, you might say if you have read George R.R. Martin’s ongoing saga, as I have recently been doing.

This is the time of year when people write lists, prepronderantly following the traditional format of the Lettermanian decuple. I would do the same for film, only I am quite unqualified to do so until I at least have a shot at Kinsey, Sideways, Million Dollar Baby, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and House of Flying Daggers – and I am quite unqualified to talk about House of Flying Daggers until I have seen Hero. A martial arts film enthusiast being almost three years behind on Zhang Yimou is like your most fervent Potterhead still making his way through The Goblet of Fire, and it’s getting embarrassing. Indeed, it is when you read and see everything that you know you have read nothing, seen nothing. Mastery of literature in any medium is the recognition that only the repeatable skills of interpretation can be mastered; the works themselves cannot.

I will say, however, that if I have time I will finish writing about at least some, but hopefully all of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Aviator and A Very Long Engagement. As for the Cliff Notes: The first is a visual feast to behold, but as always, that is not the only consideration. The second is not the best film I have seen this year, but would be a deserving Best Picture winner in many respects, and Scorsese may have earned his first directing Oscar in every way he didn’t in Gangs of New York. Of the three, Jeunet’s First World War drama is my favourite, and there is no need to wait for my elaboration of that recommendation before you go see it.

Another great thing about having passed through another season of giving is that now, more people own a Nintendo DS. In other words, the Metroid Prime: Hunters demo that comes with the unit is finally useful. The single-player practice modes are hardly that exciting, but get in a room with three other players and a glass of Pinot Noir and you can pretty much cancel all your other plans for that evening. It’s the handheld equivalent of what the shareware release of Doom did for DOS PCs over a decade ago – a minimal single-player experience consisting of reaching endpoints and hitting switches, unless you find joy in punching in your IDDQD and IDKFA and blasting every pink rubbery demon in sight, but a groundbreaking deathmatch mode unlike any ever seen on the platform.

While on the subject of video games, thirty hours and six Crystal Stars into Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door have been sufficient to establish it as being one of the best RPGs I have played – yes, at least on par with the SNES-era classics. Certainly it is the best-localized game I have seen, on the opposite end of the spectrum from Zero Wing. The writing trumps that of most games sprouted on North American soil – I refrain from saying all of them because as everybody should know, the LucasArts adventures of Tim Schafer and others (Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series) still boast the most thoroughly clever harnessing of the English language in the short history of interactive games. It’s a crying shame that getting your hands on them is so difficult nowadays; the industry has not yet reached a stage where it has an interest in the preservation of its past.

Of course, even in the film industry, that did not happen until the proliferation of DVDs at the turn of the millennium. You could argue that DVD was preceded by LaserDisc, but the format never really caught on in the West. You could not argue that DVD was preceded by the videotape, in the dark times when hastily cropped aspect ratios and haphazard restorations on degradable media demonstrated no genuine interest in keeping the classics alive.

The Prequel Trilogy and the initial negotiations and pre-production of The Lord of the Rings, cultural guideposts for everything up until this year, came into being at around the time DVD was beginning to rear its beautiful, shiny head. Could we have predicted that by 2005, not only would it become a ubiquitous format rendering videotape as obsolete as the 1.44MB floppy, but its lifecycle would already be at the point where mainstream absorption produced such abominations as poorly-labeled Pan-and-Scan editions sold alongside the real ones?

Now, the big question there is whether or not Blu-ray will catch on, and just how bad the format wars will be. We still don’t have a clear winner when it comes to recordable DVDs.

Bear in mind that one should never overestimate the future. For crying out loud, it’s the twenty-first century, and we don’t even have moon colonies.

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