Archive for January, 2009

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.

Sundancing

Posted in Uncategorized on January 15, 2009 by geminibros

This is going to be my last post for awhile. Tomorrow afternoon I leave from JFK Airport on a flight to Park City, UT for my second consecutive trip to the Sundance Film Festival. Last year’s journey was marked by a schedule filled with six-movie-days, which was tiring to say the least. Especially since I was also contracted to produce daily blog posts covering my experiences there. The less said about that project the better, though it is a fascinating, day-to-day study of one man’s descent into a madness bred from exhaustion. That said, if I can muster up the energy maybe I’ll pause mid-trip to update you all with a visual log or two of the goings-on there.

I don’t plan on getting much gaming done on the trip, since spare moments tend to be dominated by eating and sleeping. This trip will be good though. The past couple months have been pretty demoralizing. I lost my main freelance gig in November, kinda-but-not-really got it back in December and have been waiting to hear one way or another if I have any sort of future there since then. All while trolling help wanted sites, working contacts and generally just making a nuisance of myself to anyone in a position to give me work. Fun, fun.

Escaping from the daily grind of this ongoing job hunt will be a pretty big relief, though you can bet I’ll have my resume, cover letter templates and bookmarked job hunt sites along for the ride. Them’s just the basics though; a week away from constantly working contacts, worrying over when the right time to follow up is, etc. will hopefully do wonders for my mental well-being.

Before I go, I’ll post my screening schedule for your collective reading pleasure. Feel free to mock my taste in film, shower praise on any of the selections or just spout whatever the hell you feel like. All I ask is that you keep it civil.

Saturday 1/17:
Brooklyn’s Finest – 9:00am
William Kunstler documentary – 2:30pm
Cold Souls – 5:30pm
Paper Heart – 8:00pm
Slammin’ Salmon (plus a pre-screening interview w/ Broken Lizard!) – 10:30pm

Sunday 1/18:
Spread – 9:15am
Yes Men Fix the World – 2:30pm
World’s Greatest Dad – 5:30pm
I Love You Phillip Morris – 9:30pm
Black Dynamite – 11:30pm

Monday 1/19:
Endgame – 8:30am
Adam – 12:15pm
(empty slot – you can bet I’ll fill in SOMETHING here)
Adventureland – 6:15pm
The Messenger – 9:30pm
Good Hair – 12am

Tuesday 1/20:
(plenty of room for a morning fill)
Big Fan – 11:15am
Push – 3:15pm
The Missing Person – 6:30pm
The Killing Room – 12am

Wednesday 1/21:
Manure – 8:30am
Against the Current – 11:15am
FLY HOME AND SLEEP

The Gamer (Mis)Trust at Crispy Gamer

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 14, 2009 by geminibros

Get comfortable folks. This is gonna be a long one.

One of my favorite web destinations these days is Nerve’s 61 Frames Per Second, run by John Constantine and his gang of game-loving misfits. The coverage there is decidedly against the grain, with lengthy diatribes and ruminations on topics as diverse as Tiger handheld gaming devices, the merits of Blizzard’s BlackThorne and a Double Dragon ROM hack which strips the clothes off of every female character. Those were all on yesterday’s editorial slate, by the way, and all were accompanied by thoughtful analyses from Constantine’s gathered players.

Also published yesterday, from writer Cole Stryker – a name which is all the more awesome for not being a pseudonym – is some commentary on an editorial published by Crispy Gamer’s Scott Jones. Now I hadn’t read the CG editorial in question before Stryker’s posting, but I’ve always liked the site and Scott’s work alike. Seems that it’s time to re-evaluate.

Said Jones of Fallout 3: “Since Fallout 3 shipped in October, I’ve kept my secret, fearing that should it get out, the rest of the gaming community, including the considerable Fallout fan base, would grab their pitchforks and light their torches and chase me into the old windmill. When it came time to cast my vote for Game of the Year a few weeks back, I spent a series of antacid-infused days wrestling with whether or not I had the stuff to go against the grain, to stand up to pitchfork- and fire-wielders, and be true to my heart. Mostly I wondered if I’d forsake the little credibility I have in this business by picking something other than Fallout 3.

“So what did I do? Weak fool that I am, I voted for Fallout 3 as GotY, wondering as I did so whether or not I’d be able to look myself in the mirror the next morning.”

Well…. What. The. Fuck?!!?! I think Stryker sums up my feelings on this pretty well in his post. We have this frank admission of grossly unethical behavior and no apologies offered, either to the community who trusted Jones to give an honest opinion or to the unfortunate developer snubbed by Jones’ decision. Did it really take you “a series of antacid-infused days” to reach the peer pressure tipping point Mr. Jones? How can we trust anything you say now?

Friends: this is worse than Gerstmann-Gate, which is by far one of the most high-profile examples of alleged unethical behavior the gaming press has yet seen. The thing is, with Gerstmann-Gate no one other than the main players (and possibly not even all of them) has the facts straight. We don’t really know the full extent of what was going on at GameSpot and we likely never will.

Here, instead, we have CG’s full-time Senior Writer owning up to exactly what he’s done – a good thing – and showing no signs of remorse for having done it. That part’s not so good. It’s actually downright terrible. Siding with the masses because you’re too afraid to offer your own personal criticisms is the very antithesis of journalistic integrity. Dammit Jones, volunteering personal opinions – no matter how unpopular – is what we critics do.

In fairness, one of Jones’ defenders in the comments makes a discussion-worthy point. From commenter RyanKuo:

My favorite (music) critic, Simon Reynolds, wrote this about end-of-year lists the other day:

“…for a certain kind of person there’s always going to be a fatal confusion of Favourite and Important, matters-to-me and Matters, pleasure and ‘truth’ … You can see various impulses battling it out–the gigantism of all-inclusiveness versus whittle-it-down brevity … The shorter the list (the thinking goes) the less likely it’ll succumb to worthiness, tokenism, dutiful eclecticism that doles out praise across the genrescape, and other liabilities of the profession.”

It arguably takes a more sophisticated critic to realize that these two concepts (favorite vs. important) exist side-by-side, let alone are often at odds with each other. That you cultivate a personal taste, with its own rules, alongside the supposedly objective critical one, which is built up by readers and some righteous critics to be some seamless, deterministic slide towards the Truth.

Getting caught up in “worthiness, tokenism, dutiful eclecticism” is part of all criticism — as a RESULT of striving for objectivity — and it speaks volumes about games journalism that this is an alien concept, gets immediately mis-read as simple peer pressure.

Also, this is the Scott Jones who dissed LittleBigPlanet (http://www.crispygamer.com/gamereviews/2008-10-28/littlebigplanet-ps3.aspx), to much consternation. So much for a lack of “honesty” or “objectivity.

It sounds like a compelling argument, but it comes apart around RyanKuo’s idea that “’worthiness, tokenism [and] dutiful eclecticism’ is all part of criticism.” No my friend, it is not. Perhaps it is a part of unethical criticism, but certainly not the real thing. These are definitely factors for a proper critic to contemplate and comment on, but for public opinion to influence a final judgment in the way Jones describes is just straight wrong. At least according to the standards hammered into me by my college professors.

Really, you readers are the judge and jury. Writers like Stryker and myself can get worked up into a frenzy over Jones’ post, but it’s you people out there reading this who ought to be responding in anger. Don’t any of you feel cheated after reading Jones’ admission? Because he flat-out lied to you, then admitted it, then brushed past it as if it was nothing. He even went as far as implicating “a [sic] least a half a dozen other writers who included Fallout 3 in their top-10 lists who… didn’t invest more than three or four hours in the game (if that).” Pretty staggering, don’t you think? I’m certainly insulted, both as a member of the gaming press which now sees its reputation further tarnished and as a lifelong gamer who treasured press coverage of the medium long before I ever considered it as a line of work.

Since this is pretty much a ‘me-too’ post tacked on as a companion to Stryker’s own eloquent thoughts on the matter, I think it’s only right to end with his own words. Especially since his final summation is pretty damning and, in my eyes, right on target:

I suppose Scott wants a pat on the back for being so honest. Not from me. All this article does is illustrate a bankrupt rationale for his reviewing philosophy, one that he seems just as likely to draw from in the future. There isn’t even an apology here! The navel gazing article is just as worthless as his original rating.

That this guy has a full time, senior writing position in games journalism is a testament to how fundamentally broken the press is. These bloggers are supposed to be the outsiders. If we can’t expect an ounce of journalistic integrity from the little guys, who aren’t beholden to special interests, why are we surprised when the major players drop the ball?

Recollections of Neversoft and Tony Hawk

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 12, 2009 by geminibros

I just put up a little writeup describing my thoughts on the Tony Hawk series under Neversoft’s rule. This comes in the wake of today’s revelation that Hawk‘s creator is stepping away from the series to focus on Guitar Hero.

As a big fan of the series, I’m pretty bummed about the news. It’s likely for the best and will hopefully benefit the franchise in the long run, but it’s always scary to see a developer’s baby being raised up by a new set of hands.

You can find the UGO link here and a link to the original Giant Bomb story (as far as my source goes at least) here.

To Haul!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 12, 2009 by geminibros

Well, I didn’t get the OCZ NIA. Didn’t get the Falcon either. I’m intrigued by both and will probably pull the trigger on one when my birthday circles ’round next month. I steered clear for now though. Instead, I got this:

my new bag

Maybe it’s just a product of getting old, but I’m pretty excited about my new bag. Of course, it is light-years better than what I’ve been using:

myoldbag

I won’t get into a whole photo series, but if you could see the frayed edges and holes in that trusty, old Triple 5 Soul backpack then you would understand. Its time had come. The new hotness is a worthwhile replacement, and will serve me well during the coming Sundance trip. I’ll miss the old bag though; it’s seen me through a lot. R.I.P.

I am still wrestling with the NIA vs Falcon question though. I’m thinking more in conceptual terms now since I’m not getting either one for at least a month, if even then. Still though, it’s an interesting conundrum.

Mind-control in video games is by far the cooler option, but it really does sound a whole lot like learning to use a new control system which is as far removed from reality in some ways as the current wave of input devices. Really, I see our gamepads, Wii remotes, keyboards and mice as having the edge since there’s a physical thing to interact with.

It probably feels intuitive to dart your eyes around the screen and have the game respond accordingly. This is notably the least functional aspect of NIA by the way, at least according to reports. However, I can’t see how other input commands – such as clenched teeth – could really feel natural when tethered to, say, firing a weapon.

The Falcon, on the other hand, enhances the physical sensation of interacting with the virtual space. The best example I read – I believe it was on Joystiq, but I honestly cannot remember – described a scenario in which the Falcon’s motors lock in place when a boss zombie pins your avatar in Left 4 Dead. Now that’s just neat. Especially if your hand is physically wrenched in a direction as a result of the action, which seems to be the case. If only they weren’t charging for individual game profiles.

I’d still love to hear firsthand impressions of either device from any of you readers. Same goes for any thoughts you have on the Think vs. Feel control systems. Do you think there’s really a future in video games for brainwave-reading devices? Do you think the approach taken by the NIA moves in the right direction?

How about the Falcon and the added level of immersion it promises? Is it worth paying a premium for new games if you can have the extra layer of engagement with the game-world? Do you even want to experience the realistic feel of weapon recoil from your video games?

To Think or To Feel?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 11, 2009 by geminibros

I know the holidays are over, but my Friday the 13th birthday is fast approaching and I didn’t ask for anything during the December madness. Except for work of course, but that’s a year-round concern. Since I’ve always been a little bit of a gadget whore, I was kind of operating under the assumption that I’d eventually just find something cool to serve as a combined Hanukah/birthday gift.

An independent pair of random occurrences in the past 24 hours have led me to two fascinating PC input devices and I’m having a hard time figuring out which way I’d like to turn, or if I should just hold steady and chalk both up as gimmicks for the time being.

First up you’ve got Novint’s Falcon controller, a sort of force feedback-enabled 3D mouse. Check it (image source: Joystiq):

Novint Falcon controller in action (image courtesy of Joystiq)

Housed within that globe-thing are motors which supported games use to give the experience a more tactile feel. The easiest example of this is gun recoil, but the device can also pass along sensations of weight (such as when lifting objects in Half-Life 2), resistance (from bumping into a wall or being pinned by a zombie in the soon-to-be-supported Left 4 Dead) and the like. There’s also this newly released (and bundled) Falcon pistol grip to consider:

Novint Falcon pistol grip

There are some definite downsides though. The Falcon itself supports very few mainstream games, and as far as I can tell there is (or will be) a cost attached to obtaining the profiles (which are treated as mods) for certain titles. Valve getting behind Novint means free updates for their games, but in-development support for titles such as Battlefield 2142 and NFS: ProStreet have a $30 price tag attached. Understandable perhaps, but a definite turn-off nonetheless.

There’s also my personal setup to consider, since I have my PC plugged into the living room TV. Meaning I can’t integrate the Falcon as a permanent fixture, since wires would have to run across the room. And since I’m guessing the thing needs an independent power supply, I fear that setting it up will too often discourage me from using it.

Option B is decidedly more fascinating, but carries greater baggage. OCZ’s Neural Impulse Actuator, or NIA, is the market’s first brainwave-reading PC input device. Using the seemingly straightforward configuration program, you’re able to “map” facial muscle movements to the keyboard command of your choosing. There’s a bit more to it than that, but the idea I’m trying to express here is mind-controlled games. See here:

OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator

Unlike the Falcon, the NIA is designed to support user-created profiles. If you can get the hang of taking control using a mixture of keyboard, mouse and thought-based commands, this baby will work with anything.

Unfortunately, the technology doesn’t seem to be all there yet. Many reports I’ve read suggest that the NIA’s functionality varies wildly from person to person. Of particular concern is how much trouble the device seems to have reading “glances,” which is no good for an FPS junkie like me.

The NIA also seems more like an entirely new and radically different (albeit cool) interface than it does a natural complement to a game’s immersiveness. The Falcon appears designed to enhance your “feel” of existing within the game-world while the NIA instead offers you a new way to interact with the system. The idea of clenching teeth to fire a weapon sounds intriguing, but I worry that the “mind controls” would end up feeling more like a gimmicky glimpse of the future than an enhancement of the experience.

All in, a pretty balanced set of costs/benefits between the two options. I may just skip both and watch them closely for awhile, see how things develop. If anyone out there has tried either or has an opinion to share, please do. Whichever one I end up with (if any), you can expect to find detailed observations on it here.

The Proof is in the Posts

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 8, 2009 by geminibros

A long time ago, in another life it now seems, I used to work in the music industry. Not the high-powered world of Napster hate and Courvoisier mind you, but real in-the-trenches type stuff. My work mainly involved management and promotion in the relatively niche Jam Band scene, a section of the industry known for its focus on grassroots promotion and word-of-mouth popularity. Never once did I think the skills I picked up in that field would be useful here.

Everyone seems so intent on hating UGO right now; I thought I’d try to bring some balance by doing a little grassroots promotion for my friends there. You say there’s nothing good coming from the site? Well then, I respond with LINKS! Before going any further, I also want to assure you readers that Ramblings is not going to become a UGO satellite site. It’s just that the events of the past 48 hours have hit very close to home, and I’m left on the outside to watch as friends who I respect deeply are unfairly dragged through the mud.

First up is a series of “Narrative in Gaming” interview features from frequent UGO contributor Locke Webster. Locke sat down with creatives involved in the development of Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, Dead Space and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune to discuss the role of narrative in those games.

Fallout 3
Far Cry 2
Dead Space
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Next is a post from UGO’s Rene Rosa, made just after Spore Creature Creator‘s release last year. One of Rene’s creations was banned for carrying the descriptor “Not a penis.” So he fired back in the Gamesblog with this humorous post, masking a commentary on EA’s lack of culpability in what the end-user does with their products behind his razor-sharp wit.

EA Bans Spore Creature Because it is ‘Not a Penis’

Now I’m going to shine the spotlight on Chris Plante. He actually came to UGO some time after I started writing for them, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite working writers in this field. His gaming humor site Hardcasual sits comfortably in my blogroll and should not be missed either, but his touch on UGO’s features elevates the value of even a simple “Top 11” charticle. His 2008 end of year round-ups were particularly inspired, so I’ve linked those below.

Video Game Saviors of 2008
Video Games Heartbreaks of 2008
Be a Better Gamer in ’09

And finally, there’s Russ Frushtick. The man who owns UGO’s games content. This fact makes Russ the hardest personality to capture in a couple links, simply because his work transcends daily posts. None of the above would be possible however were it not for him.

The two links that follow lead to Russ’s controversial review of Left 4 Dead in which he disparaged the relative cost of the game in light of what’s on the disc. He, like many of us in and around the UGO office, loved actually playing the game. The $60 price tag just didn’t feel right though and he took Valve/EA to task on it in the review and a subsequent post.

Left 4 Dead review
Thoughts on the Value of Left 4 Dead

There’s been a lot of talk since this UGO/1UP fiasco started about gaming’s “PERSONALITIES.” It’s become the buzzword of the moment as people have railed against the loss of their favorite voices at 1UP. I can understand the frustration, but I just can’t abide the misinformed hate. UGO has PERSONALITIES of its own. These are people who play just as many games and care just as much about the growth of the industry as the rest of you. I would encourage you all to give them a chance before you condemn them for being indirectly associated with the 1UP layoffs. Don’t hate the players folks… love the games.