Sunday, September 30, 2007


I just finished Bioshock, a relatively new game for the Xbox 360. I guess the best word to describe this game would be "creepy." Here's the story: you are some guy in 1960 whose plane goes down in the ocean, and you happen upon a small island with a lighthouse, in which is a bathysphere which takes you down to the great underwater city of Rapture. Andrew Ryan, a Howard Hughes/Charles Foster Kane type of individual thought it would be neat to create a magnificent city of intellectuals. A city of unlimited potential. A city beyond the reach of any earthly government. A city in which people could play with their genetics at their leisure. Since the substance required to play with genetics (called Adam) is found only in these slug-like things found under the sea, that's where this city should be. In one of the quotes of the game, he says, "It wasn't impossible to build Rapture under the sea, it would be impossible to build it anywhere else." With him, he brings some of the greatest minds of the late 50's, and they build an empire that swiftly goes terribly terribly wrong.

The story plays out primarily in radio communications and audio diaries, so you're only picking up snippets of the story at a time. Still, those snippets are enough to fill you in on the citizens of Rapture flirting with godhood, the subsequent need to exploit one another, and Ryan's desperate attempts to restore order. It's pretty twisted. But that's not really where the creepiness lies.

The nameless you enters the scene, and immediately you inject yourself with a "gene tonic" with which you can ignite things by snapping your fingers. And yes, it's a little odd that you immediately choose to inject yourself with a foreign substance, but that gets explained sufficiently later. Rapture is a mess. The people are all insane, the lighting is dark and flickery, there are leaks everywhere, and the groaning of metal under the sea or the crazed ramblings of the inhabitants can really freak you out. This game is built to freak you out, and it does a good job with that.

In order to "purchase" more gene upgrades (which you realize quickly you need in this madhouse), you require Adam. Adam is in these undersea slugs, which are implantd in little 10-year-old girls, called "Little Sisters" (later on it is explained why it has to be little girls). You have the choice of saving the little girls from the influence of these slugs and getting your Adam, or you can pull the slug out of them, killing them, but getting you twice the Adam. I chose to play the way that would let me sleep at night, and I ended the story on a happy note, having saved all these little girls. Later on I may play through, killing them all and seeing how it changes the ending. Maybe not. I know it's just a game, but that's just wrong.

One of the more interesting facets of the game are how you can use the environment to your advantage. You can hack the security cameras and security turrets to do your bidding, which makes it a lot easier to get around (if a security camera spots you, it'll send little gunbots after you... if you hack it, it sends those same gunbots after the badguys who wander into its gaze). Hacking is a fun little minigame in which you try to connect tubes from one end to another, only given a few different pieces to work with. It's challenging, but fun and rewarding. And that does lead to a lot of options: In other reviews I've read, the reviewers discuss the different ways they killed the first boss (one of the genetic surgeons who has gone all kinds of crazy). Some led him into the water in a lower level of his area and electrocuted him. Some shot the canisters of gas near him and blew him up. Some set him on fire. I personally used a hacked turret and camera and had robots do all my dirty work.

Between the mad ramblings of the lunatics down in Rapture, the creepy lighting and sound, and harvesting the Little Sisters, this is a really creepy game. After a while you get kind of used to it, and then things are built to creep you out more (like when the lunatics figure out it'll be easier to kill you if they pretend to be one of the many corpses lying around, and then jump up right when you walk up to them). Y'know, if I'm playing a first person shooter, and I'm killing aliens or robots or criminals or enemy military, I'm OK with that. Going through this place that looks like a riot happened in an underwater asylum, not so much. I like the tenseness and excitement that comes from just making it through the enemy onslaught, but being creeped out and feeling like I'm putting these people down because they're just too sick to live.

So it's a good game, with a lot of potential. It allows for a lot of replayability, since you can try different tactics on your enemies. It's got a deep and engaging story, with some pretty significant and dynamic and surprising twists. But it's really freaky.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

So, this Halo 3 thing

No, I haven't bought it yet. Although it appears as though I'm the only person in the world who owns an Xbox 360 that hasn't. I even have one friend who specifically bought an Xbox 360 for Halo 3. Fortunately, he bought at a good time, as there are a lot of cool games coming out for it in the next few months.

For those who are reading this through an RSS feed, pehaps the first link above isn't working as well as perhaps it could. Read this:

Microsoft today announced that Halo 3 has officially become the biggest entertainment launch in history, garnering an estimated $170 million in sales in the United States alone in the first 24 hours. The Xbox 360 title beat previous records set by blockbuster theatrical releases like Spider-Man 3 and novels such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Stores across the country were packed with Halo fans.

Halo 3 is the conclusion to the epic trilogy and picks up where Halo 2 left off, answering questions around the fates of the beloved protagonist Master Chief and his
artificial intelligence sidekick Cortana as they struggle to save humankind from
destruction at the hands of the alien coalition known as the Covenant. In
addition to the rich storyline, Halo 3 continues the franchise's grand tradition
of delivering innovative online multiplayer experiences via Xbox LIVE, the
world's largest social network on TV.

"Halo 3 has become a pop-culture phenomenon," said Shane Kim, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios. "Not only is Halo 3 setting sales records, it's also redefining entertainment. Within the first 20 hours alone, we've seen more than
a million Xbox LIVE members come online to play Halo 3—that makes September 25
the most active Xbox LIVE gaming day in history."

Retailers have also expressed their excitement about the launch of Halo 3. Bob McKenzie, Senior Vice President of Merchandising for GameStop Corp commented that, "With consumer demand for Halo 3 and related products, we expect it to be the biggest video game title generator in GameStop's history."

"The initial demand we've seen for Halo 3 has been astounding, and the game is on track to become the number one gaming title of all time. Halo 3 is a genuine
entertainment phenomenon and our customers have responded very enthusiastically
to the release," said Jill Hamburger, vice president of movies and games at Best
More than 10,000 retailers hosted Midnight Madness events to
celebrate the launch of this third installment in the billion-dollar franchise.

More than 1.7 million copies of Halo 3 were preordered in the United States before a single store opened its doors at midnight on September 25, making this the fasting pre-selling game in history, surpassing the previous record-setting pre-sales of Halo 2. Well beyond just a U.S. phenomenon, the launch of Halo 3 was a worldwide celebration that released in 37 countries and available in 17 languages.

Now, admittedly, Halo 3 costs six or seven times the cost of a movie ticket, and three times the cost of a book. But still, the biggest entertainment day in history for a single-platform game. I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around the magnitude of this.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Excitement and Turmoil

There was a fire next door tonight. Our building is fine, but one of the apartments next door is burned out.

We went to Evanston to enjoy the beautiful evening, and came home to get decent parking spot on a fairly unremarkable evening. As we were coming home, there were some people on the corner shouting. This really isn't anything unusual, so when the sirens came and stopped right near the intersection, I was thankful for Chicago Police coming to silence the loud people. We came in, and heard a three beep alarm out in the other building, and I was annoyed, thinking that it would stay that way all night. It wasn't long afterwards when the rest of the sirens started coming, and we realized that something was legitimately amiss.

After that, it was pretty much a brief and somewhat somber block party. The neighborhood was out, and we got to meet several of our neighbors while we watched the firefighters do their job. They blocked off our street and the cross street. There are still a lot of emergency vehicles outside, and the lights make me glad I don't have photosensitive seizures.

This was an interesting experience, but one that I'm very glad I'm seeing from this end. Several families have been displaced, and one guy (who wasn't home) completely lost his whole apartment. Fortunately no human died, but at least one dog did. This is a tragedy, plain and simple, but it doesn't stop me being fascinated about the process or about the reactions of the people dealing with it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

I don't have a lot to say today. I was going to put up a sign in my office stating,

"Avast me hearties! Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day! Today I be hard of hearing if ye be talkin' like a landlubber! Yarr!"

But it takes a lot of energy to maintain that, and I'm kind of low on that today. In it's place, since I'm working with computers all day, I give you this, a pirate's keyboard:

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On art and videogames

There has been some talk as of late about videogames and whether or not they are art. Roger Ebert said in one of his reviews that he did not think videogames were art. Clive Barker refuted that and said that they were art. This is where I came in on the issue; here is Roger Ebert's response to that. This was also brought up in episode 19 of Battleship Pretension (a very good movie podcast done by two guys who really know film, but have limited exposure to games). I emailed the Battleship Pretension folks, but I did a really good write-up, and I think it warrants a wider audience.

First thing, I will admit my bias toward videogames (I include computer games in this, although there is a bit of a difference between the two; for this argument it is irrelevant). I am a proud gamer, and pretty much anybody who knows me well knows that about me. As a result, however, my opinion is biased. Still, I think my arguments are valid.

So I put it to you: What is the purpose of art? From my understanding, art's purpose on the surface is to elicit an emotional reaction from its audience, through the work of one or more artists. Ebert's argument that a bowel movement also elicits an emotional reaction is ridiculous, unless you actually are capable of crapping movies, games, or literature. I know, it seems as though Brett Rattner and his like simply poops out his work, but he actually does put effort into the creation of it. On a deeper level, art is intended to guide its audience on their own journey of self-discovery. The latter is what I think Ebert would call "great art."

On the deeper level (great art), there are very few games that achieve that, but they do exist. On the surface level (art), there are a LOT. There are also some that elicit the reaction of rage, simply because it's so freakin' bad. Much like film. Or theatre. Or literature. Or visual art. Or music.

The concept that video games cannot be great art, simply based off of the fact that the audience is a participant, is ridiculous. Does that mean that art appreciation must, by definition, be passive? Are you unable to absorb information or appreciation, is it impossible to change the entire paradigm of your life, simply because you are more involved in its outcome? Are characters any less impactful because you are interacting with them? Ebert mentions that having multiple storylines devalues them all. That makes no sense to me at all. How can it possibly devalue the story if it is indeed a well-written, well-acted, well-designed ending? If it sticks with you and leaves you feeling as though you've said goodbye to a good friend? This is similar to arguing that if there are several different artforms, that they are each less valuable than if there is a single "art." In this argument he mentions that he could make Romeo and Juliet with them naked and standing on their hands. Yes, he could, and that might be art, but would a game designer choose to do that? Only if he was a moron.

Presumably the arguments for videogames being art were primarily focused around stories and characters, and it has been postulated that they were only art when they lined up with other, "actual" art forms. So does this mean that a films with a deep, engaging plot and stirring characters who are brilliantly acted cannot possibly be art because it lines up with similar qualities of live theatre? Does the fact that a game pulls facets from media which preceded it invalidate the art of the medium in which it was created? It has also been mentioned that one's style of gameplay invalidates the art ("I'll save my game, and go through that door"). So does that mean that the style in which someone absorbs art makes the creator less of an artist? Would that mean that if a person flips around a book to absorb it, or reads the last page first, that the person who wrote it was not an artist?

In this particular episode of the podcast, Tyler and David both mentioned Castle Wolfenstein as an example of videogames-as-not-art. I don't think this is a valid argument, as Wolfenstein was very early in game development, and could be easily compared with The Great Train Robbery of videogames. Was The Great Train Robbery good art in comparison to other media of the time? No, it was crap. Was it groundbreaking film? Hell yeah!

Ebert says that most games are either point & shoot (Doom-esque) or scavenger hunts (Myst-esque). And yes, that point is semi-valid; as it happens, the "scavenger hunt" game is out of vogue, although he could easily have put in some derogatory euphemism for Real-Time Strategy games and made a similar valid point. It is also valid to note that none of the games I consider to be great art are either of these styles, and it is pretty difficult to do an artistic game in these styles (although First Person Shooters these days often do have compelling stories behind them, and are frequently highly regarded in the gaming community).

In order to determine if a video game is great art, let's think about what makes a film great art. Beautiful writing, done on multiple levels, is arguably the strongest sign of a great film. Sometimes, if it is written so nothing significant happens on the surface level, but there's huge depth on other levels, that makes for a great script. Perfect cinematography, on its own, will not make a great film, but it can enhance an otherwise good film to greatness. Brilliant acting on its own will make for a good film, but in the presence of a good script the film can become a great one. There are other factors, but it seems to me that a great film is primarily about how it's written, with the rest of the film backing up the script.

That said, we can see a lot of games that likely can be considered great art. The Fallout games can be applied to this, as they are written with individual stories that all lead to one big story, which not only is exciting and dynamic, but is also a telling story about the nature of humanity. The same can be said of Planescape: Torment. Both of these games had strong gameplay for the time (not directly an artform, although that could be argued, but important to the immersion necessary to be appreciated), good artwork for the time, good voice acting, and exceptional stories. These are widely considered (among gamers) the classics of gaming, the Citizen Kane of the computer. I actualy cried at the end of Planescape: Torment, and left with a sense of wanting more, but knowing that they had done their story, and there wouldn't be a sequel.

And these are not to say that they are the best or most fun games out there (although they are wonderful and are the favorites of many gamers). Half Life and Half-Life 2 are phenomenal games. Are they great art? No. TIE Fighter is one of my favorites of all time. Is it great art? No, but it is a helluva lot of fun. World of Warcraft is one of the most addictive games out there. It also is not great art, but it is fun.

Anyway, this is a post that comes almost directly from an email that was sent to the Battleship Pretension folks, and requires that you have read the link above and listened to that particular episode. In this I primarily focus on film vs. games, as that was my audience; I don't think this lessens the argument, but it could be expanded to argue other art forms as well. Maybe I'll do that later. Also, this is NOT intended to lessen the impact or power of any other artform, but rather to argue the merits of games. However, I do hold to the opinion that (A) games can be art, even great art, and (B) Roger Ebert's arguments to the contrary are based off of ignorance of the medium.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Mr. Taft, Mr. Hartley, meet Mr. Fisher

So I have my first union gig tomorrow. Obviously a bit later in the year than I had hoped, but I'm not complaining. I didn't even audition for this one; I had sent out a ton of postcards to various ad agency folks, and one of them emailed me, asking who my agent was. Six days later, I'm on board for a commercial (a radio spot for a large hardware store chain in California).

So, this means I'm Taft-Hartleyed into AFTRA. What that means is that I'm eligible to join the union, but I'm not going to yet. In the next thirty days, I can do union, non-union, whatever work I can get. After those thirty days, I can still work non-union, but then I'm considered a "must-join." That means that if I get another AFTRA gig, I have to pay the initiation fee before I get the gig. Which means that a large portion of what I get from this gig goes straight to savings, pending the next AFTRA gig.

But yeah, I'm on my way.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

1 down, Quite a lot more to go

Happy Anniversary to my lovely wife! Of course, I get to celebrate too, for fairly obvious reasons.

This has been a good year for us, but a rough year. We've had a very close family member go through chemotherapy, we've moved (twice, if you're being a little lax about the timeframe), we both changed jobs, we got rid of one of our cars, and countless other little bits n pieces were harrowing us. All these externals could have shot our newlywededness in the foot, and yet it didn't. Our relationship is stronger than it was before, and we have vaulted over the hurdle of the first year of marriage. This gives me hope for the future.

This weekend we've been kind of kicking around, just relaxing and doing whatever comes to mind with no real schedule, other than that which we decide on the morning we're doing it. It's led to a lot of indecision this weekend, but it has been very relaxing, and we've been able to experience a lot that the city has to offer. I think the best thing though, is that we're understanding that our life together is and is going to be pretty good.

Go Team Fisher!