Faraci’s fallacy

Posted in Uncategorized on April 10, 2009 by geminibros

So hey! Look at that! There’s a film critic – none other than CHUD.com’s Devin Faraci – tearing into the whole “games as art” debate and, wouldn’t you know, he’s agin it! (that’s “against” for you youthful ageists out there)

Here’s a brief quote from the mud-slinging rant:

Are games art? The answer I have for that is no.

Are narrative games actually subsets of cinema with a gimmick layer of ‘game’ as opposed to games with a gimmick layer of cinema? The answer I have for that is yes, in the same way infomercials and music videos are.

You could follow this link and read the thousands of words Faraci has put to page on the subject, but those few sentences up there really sum up the meat of his meandering polemic. And I cry foul. Been doing that a lot lately, it seems.

Look, everyone is entitled to their opinion. My art may not be your art, and vice versa. I’m not here to defend the medium. Frankly, it does just fine defending itself with the plenty of available object examples. What I am here to do is suggest that Faraci, in his role as a film-focused critic, may not be the most informed voice speaking out on this subject.

Let’s look at things through the lens (no pun intended) of a hypothetical. Game Critic A is wildly successful at what he does. He’s been working in the industry for about a decade and he’s been playing games obsessively for more than twice that. He also enjoys going to the movies. It’s fun to watch as Iron Man or Batman do their heroic thing in the never-ending fight against evil.

One morning, Game Critic A wakes up troubled. He went to a screening of Watchmen yesterday, and he came back confused and angry. Whatever it was that rattled him so, it’s spurred him to take up the virtual pen and write a blog post railing against the value of film as art. He references Watchmen and The Dark Knight, and then throws in a couple mentions of Citizen Kane because of it’s iconic presence in the history of film. He’s a great writer, so he weaves a pretty compelling argument against ‘film as art.’

It ultimately turns out to be a rambling joke of a blog post that makes very little sense because, at the end of the day, Game Critic A really has no firm grasp of the formal constructs which make up a film. Sure he likes movies. But he doesn’t understand the implications that Citizen Kane’s release had in establishing the camera as an analogue to the painter’s brush or the writer’s pen. Nor does he appreciate D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as a formative moment in narrative cinema. In short, Game Critic A’s love for popcorn blockbusters, gross-out comedies and rom-com date movies don’t really qualify him to make grand statements about the overall value of the film medium as art. End hypothetical.

Such is the case with Faraci. He claims in his rant that he is a lifelong gamer. That’s probably true. At this point, most folks aged 40 or under have picked up some level of hands-on gaming experience as they’ve grown. In the world we now live in, it is no easier to escape video games than it is to escape film, TV and music.

So Faraci has some experience. He has at least played GTA IV, Fallout 3, Braid, Left 4 Dead, Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Oblivion, Assassin’s Creed, BioShock and Crackdown (among others). According to his Achievement list on Xbox Live anyway. Clearly this is someone who appreciates modern video games on some level.

However, it’s also clear that Faraci’s understanding of the video game medium doesn’t extend too far below the surface. I now point to another excerpt from his rant:

It is important for me to finally interject my value judgment here on narrative games as cinema. I think they’re all various levels of bad art. I’ve never played a video game that was as good as even a mediocre movie, or a fairly readable book. The next level of argument, should one take my suggestion that narrative cinematic games are just a bastard form of cinema, is that one of them is high art. Art with a big A. The examples I’ve seen given – BioShock, Braid, etc – seem to me like holding up a Danielle Steele book as the paragon of literature. These may be pretty, possibly even involving, but they’re all essentially stupid (and using Braid because of its art design and classical sounding music is like holding up a romance novel because of its gothic title lettering). I don’t think there’s been a narrative game that’s exceeded the level of depth and emotion that you get in an average Nic Cage science fiction thriller, for instance. Even the deepest are shallow, feature paper thin characters, uninvolving storylines and often rotten dialogue. I’ll be honest: in my opinion the last few Grand Theft Auto games are the ones that come closest to be decent cinema.

Let’s put aside the fact that Faraci does indeed refer to narrative games as “various levels of bad art” here despite his earlier contention that games are not, in fact, art. I gave you that big chunk of text up there for context, but really, I just want to focus on this one little bit: “using Braid because of its art design and classical sounding music is like holding up a romance novel because of its gothic title lettering.”

To you serious gamer-folk out there, the people who have given careful thought to meaning, symbolism and formal design in games: do you need any further proof that this man is fundamentally ill-qualified to discuss the value of games as art? As more thoughtful analyses have long since illustrated, Braid has quite a bit going on beneath the surface-level presentation. Sure the art design is lovely and the music fits in nicely with the gameplay, but the real defenders of Braid’s artistic value are plugging a little deeper to prove their point, into the text, the meaning behind it and how it’s all informing/informed by the gameplay.

And so we come to the point of this latest Rambling. Faraci may be an accomplished film critic, but that doesn’t make him an authority on video games. As such, his mud-slinging rant is dangerously irresponsible for exposing the film-loving readers of CHUD to such a misinformed set of opinions.

What say you, game-loving readers? Do you see any merit to Faraci’s long-winded babble? Personally, I’ve come to simply accept that games are art and sort out the fine points of that idea in my writing. How about y’all? Do you even consider ‘games as art’ a valid “debate” anymore? Or have we – the community and the medium alike – evolved past that, to the point that it is simply accepted?

No more growing pains? Sigh.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 30, 2009 by geminibros

Start with this and we’ll go from there. It’s MTV Multiplayer’s Stephen Totilo responding to comments made by journalist Heather Chaplin at last week’s 2009 Game Developer’s Conference. This link from GamePolitics has a bit more on the subject, via Pixel Vixen 707.

So it’s apparently not the medium that is in its adolescence, but rather the purveyors and consumers of that medium. Not a thoroughly outlandish theory when you step back and look at the subject matter of the most popular adult-rated games on the shelves. From Chaplin’s mass audience-minded view as an NPR contributor, gaming’s buffet of zombies, space marines and sociopathic anti-heroes don’t exactly find easy comparisons with Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

There are shades of a high art vs. low art debate to her contentions – at least it’s art, right?! – but Chaplin’s fiery oratory at GDC comes off most as a plea for more high-minded output, particularly from the industry’s most popular players. And I call foul.

First, there’s a quote from game theorist Espen Aarseth, author of Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, that I want to share:

”In the film-to-game business, it is easy to spot the pattern: Only certain types of film become games. Key words are action, science fiction, horror and war; in other words, spatial spectacle. Interestingly, games do not seem to afford the transfer of many genres that we recognize from book to film: romance, psycho-drama, period-historical, or biography. Successful book-to-film transfers such as Remains of the Day or comic book to film transfers such as Ghostworld, will never make the leap to game and for good reason: The narrative affinities and affordances shared by books and films are not shared by games. In other words, we are not witnessing cross-media storytelling, but rather cross-media spectacle-making.”

Now of course Aarseth is referring specifically to games formed out of films here, but the subtext implies that genres such as “romance, psycho drama, period-historical or biography” wouldn’t fit within the medium of video games. To be fair, I think Aarseth is over-generalizing a bit. Spatial spectacle is obviously a major component in games, but I don’t think it’s right that it be tethered exclusively to “action, science fiction, horror and war.”

You want gaming’s analog for a Gondry-esque philosophy play, complete with whimsical characters and colorful environments? See Braid. How about a meditative video essay along the lines of Baraka or Winged Migration. Give it up for Flower. Or a thought-provoking exercise in magical realism, a la Pan’s Labyrinth? I give you The Path. Spatial spectacles, the lot of them, freed of their expected generic trappings.

All of that said, I think Aarseth’s quote offers a truer explanation for gaming’s focus on seemingly “juvenile” sensibilities. Braid, Flower, The Path, and their ilk offer proof that games can transcend long-held generic conventions, but it’s also no surprise that the bulk of what’s most popular is derived from a more traditional definition of “spatial spectacle.” You know, explosions, spurts of blood, etc. Not only is it easier to follow these pre-existing patterns from the concept stage, it’s also what the majority of consumers are happiest with. Getting back to Frost: his road not taken may have “made all the difference,” but it’s not the one that the mass audience will walk.

Here’s a snippet from Totilo’s write-up, a paraphrased quote from Chaplin, that I also want to touch on:

“At the same age of their medium, Chaplin said, movies had had Fritz Lang and were on the verge of Citizen Kane.”

We’re still a good five or ten years off from Citizen Kane, but that’s besides the point. At the very least however, gaming has had its Birth of a Nation. If Pong can be called our Lumiere clip of a train arriving in a station and Pac-Man, one of the many early chase films, then I’d say that Super Mario Bros. could stand in for Birth of a Nation (which would somewhat jarringly put Shigeru Miyamoto in league with D.W. Griffith) for establishing a baseline catalog of medium-specific conventions.

Not that I’m trying to assemble some definitive canon here. I’ll leave that to scholars like Henry Lowood. I’m just using these hastily thrown together examples to drive home my point of view, that Chaplin’s GDC comments were unfairly critical of the game development community and perhaps even slightly misinformed.

Comments? Thoughts?

Why I’m Buying We Rock: Drum King

Posted in Uncategorized on March 17, 2009 by geminibros

I find myself torn here between my boundless contempt for sub-standard rhythm games and my all-consuming love of music. This isn’t to say 505 Games’ We Rock: Drum King is substandard – in truth, I haven’t played it – but my Hope Flag isn’t quite flying either.

That said, it’s got Dream Theater. And DJ Shadow. And The Meters. Observe.

Click here for the Cissy Strut FUNK (it should be the song that loads with the page).

The Long-Awaited Big Huge Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Review

Posted in Uncategorized on March 16, 2009 by geminibros

Fucking awesome.

Carry on.

Let the Beat… Drop

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 19, 2009 by geminibros

If this blog were my significant other, she would have left me days ago. Thankfully, it’s just a jumble of code that remains completely inert until I start monkeying with it. And though said monkeying has been pretty absent recently, I’m here to remedy that now.

Let’s talk cross-media synergy, but in a good way. Tie-ins don’t always have to suck. Games like The Godfather and Scarface: The World is Yours provided younger folks with an interactive entry point to some classic works of Cinema. The Riddick juggernaut even now continues to throw light on predecessor Pitch Black. And Bratz… ah… well that one’s kind of offensive. But hey, it takes all kinds.

Rhythm games are another beast entirely. A beast that had until recently cranked amps to 11 and trashed hotel rooms in the guise of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, at least for the bulk of the gaming audience (see also: Beatmania). Now, the child of that beast’s incestuous relationship with its own parents is coming to get your head bobbing and your hand thrown up. DJ Hero and Scratch: The Ultimate DJ aren’t blazing the trail for turntable rhythm games, but they’re definitely being designed with a more Western audience in mind.

First, I want to direct you to Leigh Alexander’s Gamasutra interview with game development veep for Genius Products (Scratch’s publisher), Mike Rubinelli. There’s some good information in there, much of it very encouraging for a turntable junkie like me to read. Loving the idea of a more freestyle-centric approach.

UPDATE: Here’s another great Scratch interview from Destructoid’s Nick Chester. This one is with Dan Lehirich, the game’s designer and creative lead. The mores I sees, the mores I likes.

I’ve got no problem with getting big names in there, folks like Kanye, Beastie Boys and others who are backed by great production. Doesn’t matter if it’s games or records, a name sells. As a lover of hip hop turntablism though, I’m more interested in seeing who gets picked up under the radar. They’re off to a good start, with development apparently being presided over by Quincy Jones III and Beastie scratch artist Mix Master Mike.

Which brings me back to the point of today’s post. I love the idea of games exposing people to areas of entertainment they might have otherwise missed. Reading the Rubinelli interview got me thinking about all of this fantastic music which would be a blast to play in the game. So I’m going to share some of it with you.

Just imagine a rhythm bar superimposed onto this:

That’s from Wave Twisters, DJ Q-Bert’s animated sci-fi flick. Here’s the cover. Mix Master Mike was involved with it. Yeah, you need to see it.

wavetwisters

Or how about either of these?

No embeds allowed; here’s the first link and here’s the second.

DJ Shadow’s got a pretty sizable following, but I’d hardly call him mainstream. The first track is from his breakout album, Endtroducing…. The second is from the first U.N.K.L.E. album, Psyence Fiction, a collaboration between Shadow and producer James Lavelle. “Rabbit in your Headlights” was pretty big, thanks largely to Thom Yorke’s involvement. Beastie Mike D was involved with that project too you know.

This last one is among my personal favorites. DJ Shadow finds his roots in the Left Coast-based Quannum label (check it here too), which bred the likes of Gift of Gab, Lyrics Born, Lateef the Truth Speaker… a whole mess of ridiculously talented mic rockers, table-turners and beatcrafters. This here video is Lyrics Born’s “I Changed My Mind.” Kickass stuff. Embeddable too. Woo.

Enjoy the noise y’all. Who knows whether any of this will appear in those upcoming turntable games, but it sure would warm this beat-lover’s heart to fake-scratch along with Xcel. And if the game actually lets us scratch the scratches… whoa… that idea was so Meta it made my nose bleed.

Okay, I’ll leave you with two more vids: a slickly produced blues-with-beats from Nu-Mark and Pomo – great album from that collaboration, Blend Crafters – and some straight, raw talent to drop your jaws. Dragonforce, Buckethead… eat your hearts out.

The Super Bowl Commercials Game

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 2, 2009 by geminibros

sundancetixramblings

Whew, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. First there was Sundance, which was a blast. I took it easy for my second trip to Park City, seeing only 20 films in the space of four and a half days. I kept meaning to set aside time for some Ramblings after I got home, but was continually sidetracked by a top secret project which consumed most of the week.

I’m back now though, overstuffed after a binge-filled Super Bowl Sunday. Through yesterday’s haze of an exciting football game and an even more exciting array of grilled meats, I made a somewhat disconcerting observation.

There was nary a single video game commercial.

The closest we got was Coca Cola’s “Avatar” ad, another direct nod to the Gamer Generation (remember last year’s GTA-style ad):

It’s not anything new of course. A search through the videos filed away at Superbowl Ads reveals that there hasn’t been a proper game-related Super Bowl ad since before 1998, which is where the database starts. The closest we’ve gotten is this memorable Sony/PlayStation 2 ad from 2001:

Considering that advertising time during the Super Bowl runs in the multiple millions per 30 seconds, publishers may not feel comfortable shelling out when they’re really only going to appeal to a fraction of the audience. The success of the Wii has altered the paradigm somewhat, but selling Wii Fit to a room full of crazed, drunken football fans would be an exercise in futility. Though Sega missed a good opportunity I think; MadWorld would definitely have caught the attention of game-friendly dads who get no use out of their kid’s Wii sitting right below the TV screen.

I’m surprised at the lack of a gaming presence every year, but this time around it seems to resonate more than usual. There are some big ticket titles coming in the next two months. Huge ones, like Sony hype monster Killzone 2, game-turned-movie-turned-multimedia franchise tie-in Resident Evil 5 and vintage juggernaut revival Street Fighter IV. That last one especially: put a flashy new Street Fighter in front of any 30-something you can find, and there’s a strong chance you’ll get be a highly favorable response. Street Fighter II was the Pac-Man of its generation, after all.

Considering that the current state of the economy drives consumers to seek more cost-effective means of entertainment, yesterday’s Super Bowl seemed like it would have been the perfect moment for the video game industry to pounce. To me at least. What do you lot think? Are game publishers smart to steer clear of Super Bowl ad time?

Defending William Kunstler’s Universe

Posted in Uncategorized on January 18, 2009 by geminibros

Yesterday was a five-screening gauntlet through some of the best films showing in and around Park City, UT during the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. I’ll have much more to say in the coming weeks (at UGO) on Brooklyn’s Finest, Cold Souls, Paper Heart and Slammin’ Salmon (which was actually a Slamdance flick). In the here and now however, I find myself sitting in a little ice cream parlor on Main Street, mooching some free Internet and positively bursting with things to say about the fabulous documentary, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.

Mr. Kunstler was a lot of things to a lot of different people. In the beginning, he was a lawyer living a sleepy suburban life with his wife and kid in Westchester, NY. Little did he know then the long road that he would walk, only to end up with a second wife and two new daughters – Emily and Sarah, the doc’s architects – just a few miles south in lower Manhattan, a short train ride away from where it all started.

Disturbing the Universe offers a fairly detailed examination of Kunstler’s career. Different viewers will walk in armed with different sets of biases, depending largely on which event or events they identify the man with. What’s most impressive about the film is how it carefully deconstructs and reorients your understanding of those biases, all through the lens of the revolutionary lawyer’s storied career.

Kunstler is a hero to some. He was the famed lawyer who, along with co-counsel Len Weinglass, defended the Chicago 7 following the horrific events which occurred during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Kunstler was famously held in contempt of court for his radical behavior and sentenced to an unprecedented prison term for such an offense, though the ruling was later overturned.

The lawyer later joined the Native American movement who occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973 as a form of protest against the US government’s broken treaties. He was instrumental in bringing about a non-violent end to the conflict and later successfully defended the American Indian Movement in court on criminal charges connected with the incident. And although Kunstler was unsuccessful in his attempt to prevent a non-violent confrontation following the 1971 Attica Prison riot, he was hailed for his efforts.

Kunstler was also perceived by many as an attention-seeking villain. He successfully defended Gregory Lee Johnson before the United States Supreme Court for his public burning of the American flag. He also took on a number of controversial cases as a criminal defense attorney, including the Central Park Five, who were arrested (and later exonerated, after Kunstler’s death) in 1989 for a high-profile gang rape/murder in New York’s Central Park, and El-Sayyid Nosair, who assassinated extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane.

It’s easy to misunderstand Kunstler’s motivations as the story unfolds. Even the daughters Emily and Sarah, the film’s narrators, seem at odds with their own observations. Growing up, the two constantly heard stories of their father the revolutionary. As they grew older, into their teens, Emily and Sarah beheld a seemingly different man, one happy to defend the worst villains imaginable in his apparent pursuit of fame and glory.

Throughout the film, the picture painted is one of an attention hound, perhaps even a raging egomaniac, a man who simply could not abide existing outside the limelight. William Kunstler endeavored to always be at the heart of any high-profile controversy, defending the seemingly undefendable at every turn. Almost as soon as this portrait comes together in the film, it falls apart. We viewers come to realize along with Emily and Sarah – for whom this project seems as much an attempt to understand their father as it is to profile him for the benefit of a viewing public – that it wasn’t primarily the attention that Kunstler strove for.

It was the death of bias in all its forms. He despised the idea that an individual or group could essentially be convicted in the court of public opinion. It’s a fact which becomes startlingly clear when you scan and really consider the list of Kunstler’s past clients. From the subversive patriots that were the Chicago 7 to the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, Kunstler remained pure in his belief that every person living in the United States deserved a fair and even-handed trial, as free from bias as possible.

Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, and Gregory Lee Johnson were both on hand to join Emily, Sarah and their mother Margaret after the world premiere screening at Sundance yesterday. It was a powerful Q&A, hearing these one-time pariahs discuss their impressions of the great lawyer and the lasting influence he has had on both of their lives.

I can’t recommend William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe highly enough. The journey from Sundance to wide release is always a crapshoot, but it seems fairly certain that this well-crafted doc is going to be picked up and distributed somewhere down the line. It’s a surprisingly detailed and even-handed portrait of a fascinating man, and a particularly compelling story in light of the coming Presidential inauguration. William Kunstler was a revolutionary, an activist, a defender for freedom and more, but first and foremost he was a right-thinking lawyer who believed that his country was worth defending, even when its leaders seemed determined to see it fail.

Pics to follow in the coming hours or days. Most likely days.

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