From the archives: Video games

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Suggested reading, bowled-over edition

Monday, 8 February 2010 — 11:23pm | Assorted links, Comics, Computing, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I don’t follow American football whatsoever and would probably be unable to name any former or current NFL player that hasn’t been involved in a highly publicized criminal investigation, but you don’t need to know football to enjoy the Super Bowl pieces in McSweeney’s. The two that stuck out for me, both from a few years back: “NFL Players Whose Names Sound Vaguely Dickensian, and the Characters They Would Be in an Actual Dickens Novel” and “Famous Authors Predict the Winner of Super Bowl XLII”.

This week’s bag of links:

  • In a rare sighting of the man behind Calvin and Hobbes, Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer interviews Bill Watterson fifteen years after the legendary comic strip ended its run.

  • Peter Hum ruminates on the “ugly beauty” of avant-garde jazz.

  • The big news coming out of Barack Obama’s 2011 budget was the abandonment of NASA’s plan for the resumption of manned spaceflight to the moon. has the analysis.

  • Jonathan McCalmont, caught between the debate over high/low culture and his vehement dislike of the popular video game Bayonetta (“a game so dumb that it makes a weekend spent masturbating and sniffing glue seem like an animated discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)”), spun it all into a compelling essay on hypnotism and lowbrow art.

  • This Charles Petersen piece in The New York Review of Books is one of the better histories you will find of where Facebook came from and how it has transformed, and offers a thorough look at the content-pushing pressures facing the social-network model of a nominally private Internet.

  • Mark Sarvas identifies some common problems of debut novels from the perspective of a prize-committee veteran.

  • In The Guardian, Darrel Ince implores scientists who rely on internally developed software to publish their source code.

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Suggested reading, goddam phony edition

Monday, 1 February 2010 — 11:32pm | Assorted links, Classical, Jazz, Literature, Music, Video games

In a way, the media frenzy over the death of J.D. Salinger can be understood as a kind of cathartic relief—i.e. now that he’s croaked, we can finally talk about him without feeling like we’re intruding on something. It has, at least, made for some very good reading about one of literature’s most enigmatic figures. Rather than collect the obituaries myself—I haven’t had time to read them all—I’ll link to the links at Bookninja here and here.

Serious aficionados should take a look at this 1957 letter by Salinger explaining why he saw The Catcher in the Rye as unfilmable. Really dedicated junkies of all things Salinger may even go as far as perusing Joyce Maynard’s 1972 article, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”, which led her to drop out of Yale and live with the author for a year. (I personally find it nigh on unreadable, but it’s evidence that the cliché anxiety about settling down with 2.2 kids has been around for nearly four decades at least.)

And now for something completely different:

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Additional libraries cannot be launched

Monday, 16 November 2009 — 8:07pm | Computing, Video games

Shortly before I sauntered across the Atlantic, I remarked to an old friend of mine that moving would be far more convenient with the aid of extradimensional portals. The concept I had in mind comes from role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (and its many derivatives in the digital age) where players bear containers of fantastical capacity to keep their inventory of material possessions close at hand, but I envisioned it as something like an improved Swiss bank, where you pass through security, deposit your goods in the vault, and pick them up at the same vault at a different branch anywhere else in the world. The vault would therefore be a material analogue to the “cloud” that you hear about in computing these days, a singular storage space with unlimited access points. Not even Gringotts thought of that.

There are a number of considerations that become quickly problematic, though, even if you dismiss the obvious practical obstacles and take for granted that we have the technology to build such a thing. In the legal sphere, what do you do about territorial sovereignty or customs law? And then there’s the basic hygienic objection—what about the risk of contamination and the transcontinental spread of airborne disease? Then again, chances are that by the time humanity is advanced enough that something like this becomes feasible, we will have undergone so radical a social transformation that the policy issues are moot.

In any case, the advent of cloud computing urges us to revisit that old sci-fi pipe dream of the Enterprise transporter: the conception of matter as data. Note that this isn’t the same thing as digitization. What I am speaking of is not the representation of matter as information, but the harnessing of matter in the same ways we harness information.

I thought of this today in the library whilst awaiting an order of rare books. Libraries are socially fascinating spaces: patrons share communal resources, but under a mutual agreement to behave in such a manner that everyone feels the library is his or her private space. People work and study in the library with the expectation that everyone else is silent and effectively invisible. Like car parks and highways in the age of the automobile, the major obstacle to the smooth operation of libraries (from the client’s point of view) is the conflicting presence of others, whether they are typing obnoxiously on clackety keyboards or requesting the same books.

In the world of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, the solution to the overexploitation of shared spaces comes in the form of instances—private copies of dungeons for individuals and small groups to slay beasts and loot sparkling purple treasures without any strangers in the way. The content in the shared world outside of instances often suffers from a tragedy of the commons, where you might be on a quest to kill ten boars only to find that somebody minutes ahead of you has already brought home the bacon. Instanced dungeons ensure that everyone gets a crack at the most rewarding content day to day, week to week.

Should we ever be able to harness matter-as-data—a holy grail of science fiction as unattainable, but arguably more consequential, than travelling faster than the speed of light—libraries would seem to be the perfect candidate for an instanced space. You wouldn’t disturb anybody, and nobody would disturb you; the library would work as designed. Granted, there might be issues with server load when entire libraries have to be copied and simulated for each individual who walks in the door. But the bigger problem is that in the absence of the social and institutional deterrence that others create, nothing stops you from disturbing the books.

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A Connecticut Newbie in King Arthas’ Court

Friday, 27 February 2009 — 2:51am | Video games

I have a dreadful confession to make.

Several months ago—it must have been around early October—I discovered a little something called World of Warcraft. You may have heard of it, if only in hushed, fearful whispers.

It so happens that WoW (as the awestruck polity calls it with the most gaping of valley-flanked vowels) is, like Super Mario Bros. or Grand Theft Auto, one of the few electronic amusements to have captured the imagination of peoples who don’t play games and never will. Surely the media has given us no short supply of public-interest coverage, be it of addicts collapsing from exhaustion at Internet cafés, parents charged with negligence for playing the game and leaving their children to die, friendships (new and broken), marriages (new, broken, and refurbished), teenage suicide threats (refurbished), happy families happy in their own way, unhappy families unhappy in their own way, or Chinese gold-farming sweatshops that deal in a shady black market of EULA-shattering virtual-goods transactions.

I dipped into it myself on the half-serious pretence of doing some private research in emerging narrative forms, but mostly out of a general curiosity: the first ten days are free, albeit with a curtailed ability to interact with other players and the economy at large—features you don’t need anyhow when you are new to the game. I had hitherto avoided WoW for so long—and wisely so, I might add—out of a principled opposition to monthly subscription models of any sort; I prefer to buy something once with a one-time fee and use it at my leisure forever. I was sampling the water. I was not there to stay.

Yet here I am, four months later, well into the endgame of the second expansion pack as a level 80 gnome rogue.

How, it is fair to ask, has it come to this?

I don’t make this confession lightly: in fact, I am fully aware that writing this statement so publicly carries a certain degree of professional risk. But there’s a lot I’ve wanted to write here about my travels in Azeroth and beyond, and I had to let the secret out first.

Not that it’s a secret to everybody. For weeks now, disinterested friends have put up with me as I regaled them with tales of how I built my own helicopter, single-handedly saved a tribe of walrus-men with Inuit-language names (but alas, few words for snow), and exerted limited monopolies over my server’s mineral and herbal industries with a full-time banker character who doesn’t quite resemble Karl Marx. And there’s no end of personal observations that I haven’t made public—like, for instance, how the game’s staple social activity of assembling five strangers together for a two-hour dungeon crawl is every bit like playing in an impromptu jazz combo.

(The analogy only goes so far. Imagine if a jam band were rewarded not with sporadic applause, but with a randomly selected musical instrument that one musician would get to take home; and should a trombone happen to drop when there is no trombonist in the group, someone would be expected to break the instrument into pieces on the spot and auction off the brass.)

Well, the cat’s out of the bag, so I can talk about it now—openly, I mean, in the embarrassing, Googlable places of the world where prospective employers and graduate school admissions boards can see. And so I shall, dear readers. And so I shall.

For my first act, I will hang my head in shame.

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Runaway fifths

Tuesday, 6 January 2009 — 10:17am | Game music, Jazz, Music, Video games

My dedicated readers may be aware that one thing I used to follow quite closely, on this journal and elsewhere, was the composition and arrangement of video game music. I haven’t attended to it in some time, and am in no way up to date on what’s been going on with it apart from the occasional press releases that land in my inbox about how (to pick one example) contributors to OC ReMix provided the official soundtrack to a high-definition remake of Street Fighter II.

So I was surprised to discover that a video game band—and a jazz band, no less—had sprung up in my very own a mare usque ad mare backyard under the name of The Runaway Five, after the Blues Brothers spoof band that lets you hop on their tour bus in the oddball Super Nintendo classic EarthBound. I saw them live at the Beat Niq on Saturday, and walked away pleased with a lot of what I heard.

I am careful to say “what I heard” because, in a bungled cross-product of the sound engineering and where I was sitting (but mostly, I conjecture, the former), there were serious acoustic issues that worked against the band. Never mind the unfortunate trend of miking and amping everyone in sight in tight basement clubs where a live sound would serve them better—there were fundamental EQ problems with what was coming out the other end, as if the treble had entirely dropped out. A lot of what the band was trying to do harmonically got lost in the midrange mud-crunching.

As for the band itself—a guitar-piano quartet in the first set and an octet with four horns in the second set—it is the very archetype of the young 2000s band that draws on a potpourri of stylistic influences without necessarily committing to one or another. If their point was to illustrate the versatility of their source material, I’d say they got it across. I jotted down their whole set list but I won’t bother reproducing it here; instead, here are a few performance notes.

Continued »

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