From the archives: July 2006

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Ist we not der super men?

Saturday, 29 July 2006 — 1:02pm | Video games

I can’t remember the last time I saw an undergraduate thesis make international news (if not necessarily headlines), but this week it was done by recent UBC Sociology grad Robert Parungao, whose study concerned the apparent dissemination of racist Asian stereotypes in video games. Here be the UBC press release, here be a GameSpot interview with Parungao, and here be everybody from CBC to The Middle East Times getting in on the action, thanks to the story hitting the AFP wire.

And here be dragons. Double dragons.

Nothing out of the ordinary so far. Someone of an academic bent decides to play video games for his honours thesis under the pretence that nobody’s thought to talk about race before. (I get the impression he honestly believes that, and I’m baffled.) Press box spectators who have never played a video game and don’t know what they’re talking about spread the Good News. The quasi-illiterate teenage kids who make up a self-defined “video game community” leap to the passionate defence of their favourite hobby, in spite of the fact that while they do play video games, they also don’t know what they’re talking about. All in a day’s work.

This is, as far as I can tell, no cause for indignation. This is an undergrad who made headlines because his study was topical. Now, I’ve done some searching around, and it seems that neither I nor anybody else has actually read the paper in question, but I can just about guarantee you that a big chunk of it is what you would usually expect: copious footnotes and name-drops from sociological theory, a few well-chosen citations to demonstrate the alleged double standard in the press coverage of video games in contrast with other media, and maybe – if we’re lucky – a brief defence of the methodology. Those are the elements that would be subject to academic scrutiny. I don’t think it’s an expectation that at this nascent stage of studies in interactive entertainment, the part of the paper that actually concerns video games is all that rigorous, or even good – though an idealist would say it should be, and an idealist would be correct.

In other words, it’s not that big a deal, and the press attention is completely out of proportion. The worst you can say about it at face value is that it reeks of a very bad case of fudging the data to fit the thesis, but this isn’t in the natural sciences, so nobody cares.

This isn’t saying that lowly undergrads can’t make an impact. I know at least one exceptionally gifted student, a recent Sociology grad herself, who found that curiously, nobody in the establishment had bothered to study something that you would think would be really obvious (in her case, Canadian internment camps). But I am saying – again, at face value – that this particular study has very little impact at all. It’s almost fiendishly inconsequential, and it’s just more ammo for the Hillary Clinton lobby.

For a global perspective on things, it might be helpful to look at the Japanese video game industry and marketing strategies that stereotype westerners, as in this Mario Kart DS commercial.

And while we’re on the subject of stereotypes, consider the jingoistic cartoons that my generation grew up on in the 1980s. Now consider Saddam and Osama, a cartoon that I lavished with praise two years ago. I finally thought to find it on YouTube, and it’s even better than I remembered.

(If you are at all baffled by the title of this post, it may be time to brush up on your Disney classics.)

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Like eagles on pogo sticks

Thursday, 13 July 2006 — 6:31pm | Adaptations, Film, Video games

The latest GameSpot Rumor Control takes on a post at The Movie Center suggesting that Tim Burton has, on his lap, the script to a film adaptation of Grim Fandango.

It’s a whisper of a rumour, with almost no ancillary evidence to back it up, but even if it turned out to be completely false, I would remain enheartened that somebody out there shares the same crazy fanboy fantasy.

Grim Fandango is my dream film adaptation. I have devoted a lot of thought as to how I might film it myself, should I ever acquire the skill or the budget to do so, never mind the rights, and it was long ago that I came to the conclusion that it must be done in stop-motion. There is no other way. And – as I have alluded to before – when I saw the designs for the underworld in Corpse Bride, the same convergence of a smoky jazz-beat atmosphere and the calavera figures of the Mexican Day of the Dead as in Tim Schafer’s seminal masterpiece, it was clear to the point of total conviction: a Grim Fandango film should look like that.

For those of you not in the know (as I have realized that those unfamiliar with PC games are really unfamiliar with the recesses of its history, given the short shelf-life of anything that isn’t a blockbuster), Grim Fandango is, in my professional opinion, the greatest masterwork of interactive entertainment in the domains of script, story and artistic concept. If you look at the camp that continues to insist that the nondeterminism of the medium precludes it from being considered “art” (here’s looking at you, Roger Ebert – and do get well soon), I am willing to bet you that none of them have even heard of it. This is the one game I can name that is, beyond any doubt, literature.

Released in 1998, it was the last hurrah of the LucasArts adventure (cf. the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit the Road), the paragon of the genre and at the same time its epitaph. This was the same year that the PC first-person shooter reached maturity with Half-Life, and real-time strategy hit its stride with its own instant classic, StarCraft, so it’s no wonder that linear storytelling driven by dialogue branches and item-based puzzles fell out of vogue.

For all the attention to craftsmanship that branching dialogue is receiving again – consider Bioware’s experiments in using conversation as a concrete, outcome-affecting form of action in games such as Knights of the Old Republic – nothing comes close to the narrative design in Fandango.

In one sequence, a woman rambles on about her sordid childhood while it is your task to pretend to listen, and try to get a word in edgewise and convince her to hand over a tool you require to progress. In another, you improvise beat poetry at a club on open mic night. The range of responses available to you in a conversation is often itself the punch line.

A few months ago, I played through the whole adventure again over the course of a weekend. Thanks to its painterly pre-rendered backgrounds, the graphics have not suffered from too much aging. In the game’s final sequence, there is a haunting shot of a vintage automobile parked at the foot of a flowery meadow, a greenhouse in the distance. See, in the Land of the Dead, plants are a symbol of the final death in the afterlife.

Whenever I start talking about this game, I can’t help but get carried away. I should stop. Find it and play it, and then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Some home entertainment stores sell old PC games in jewel cases for ten-dollar bargains. I also have a copy.

I had a point in there somewhere, and I hadn’t even mentioned the flaming beavers. If a decent Grim Fandango script has indeed found its way to Tim Burton, and it is being given serious consideration, something is going right. I would be tempted to get Tim Schafer aboard the project, much like how Rodriguez got Frank Miller on the set of Sin City.

Speaking of Frank Miller, you may have heard that one Zack Snyder is currently working on 300, Miller’s graphic novel about Thermopylae. He’d better be worth his salt, because he is now the director attached to Watchmen, which got off the ground again after the modest success of V for Vendetta. Since reading Watchmen a few years ago, I have seen the film project elude Darren Aronofsky, David Hayter and Paul Greengrass, and that’s saying nothing of Terry Gilliam’s aborted concept of doing a twelve-hour twelve-parter from a decade ago. Hopefully Snyder makes it worth the wait; this is another one that needs to be done right.

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Acute unrecognitis and magic mushrooms

Friday, 7 July 2006 — 12:35am | Game music, Jazz, Music, Pianism, Scrabble

What mean I by unrecognitis? I believe it’s a Stu Goldman coinage, and it describes a curious but common phenomenon that afflicted me tonight, when Bill Payne bingoed out with RESTATES in an improbable location I had neglected to block. “Restate?” I thought, “What’s a restate? Sounds like some kind of residual chemical compound… it looks familiar, so I think it’s good, unless I’m thinking of TESTATE.” But hey – the game was over, so I challenged the darned thing anyway (which is always a good idea on the last turn, since you have nothing to lose).

Naturally, it was acceptable, and Bill scraped so many points from the play that I ended up winning by a narrow margin (423-406) in spite of dominating the game until the last few turns. To keep things in perspective, that’s one whopper of an aggregate score between the two of us. One doesn’t often lose with a score over 400.

Ten minutes later: “Oh! Re-state!”

I haven’t posted here lately, but if I had, it would have been about sport. However, I’ve been reading about it instead (hockey and footy, anyhow), and that’s my alibi.

Enough excuses and distractions, though. Here’s a treat for your patience: a live jazz trio playing the Super Mario Bros. theme. That’s the wine-bearing Darryl Meyer on drums, the lovely Aleks Argals on bass, and yours truly on the crazy eighty-eights. Share and enjoy.

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