Final Fantasy Bar Revisited

•May 28, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Remember that post where I mentioned the possibility of a Final Fantasy bar? Seems I’m not the only one who thought about this—those crazy Danes beat me to it! Check out the website for Scrollbar’s “Final Fantasy Night,” an evening of costumes, themed drinks and decorations.

Miniature World

•May 27, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I have a love for trashy tourist destinations. I’ve enjoyed Wall Drug, I’ve enjoyed House on the Rock, I looked on in horror at the hundreds of dingy water parks and dinosaur playgrounds that lined the highways surrounding Mount Rushmore, but I never thought I would find such an awesome display of tourist luring so close to home.

I had a few friends up for the weekend and we wanted to play a round of minigolf. I had no idea where I could find any minigolf in Bellingham, so we hit the internet and found Miniature World, a “family fun center” in Birch Bay, about twenty minutes north of Bellingham. We were pretty excited, but when we found out that not only could we enjoy minigolf and go-karts, but we could partake in the train ride through the “Forest of Imagination,” we had to go.

The minigolf was excellent, and the go-karts made me feel like an overexcited ten year-old, but the train ride was something else. We sat down in rickety hand-built train cars and moved slowly through the park—around the go-kart track, through the middle of the minigolf course, and into the forest. The “Forest of Imagination” basically consisted of plush toys and lawn ornaments arranged in an aesthetic manner. Exposed to years of sun and rain, they had faded and become dingy; the effect was very disturbing. Look kids, there’s Bugs Bunny, bleached by the sun, with his lower half covered in mold! There’s a teddy bear in a door with a nail through its hand! The little boy on the train car in front of us got more and more nervous as the ride went on, and really lost it when the train passed through a tunnel and wheeled past a four foot tall Yoda doll with half of its rubber face hanging off like an exit wound.

What is it about these roadside amusement parks that entertains me so much? I think they’re part of that old American road culture you don’t see so much anymore—they’re dirty, they’re fun, they’re local flavor. Little roadside amusement parks are the intersection of screwing tourists for all their worth and making children happy. Miniature World’s train ride may be the product of a horrible misunderstanding of what makes children happy, but it’s an entertaining one. Like House on the Rock, Miniature World’s “Forest of Imagination” is the product of one man’s imagination. Don Giffen built the train, laid the tracks, set up the scenes in the forest, and does all the repairs himself. Don Giffen is Miniature World, and he is also that fascinating kind of entrepreneur—the kind who buys up a plot of land and says “I’m going to build something entertaining and totally fucked up here.” If you’re near Bellingham and you want to explore an interesting little piece of local culture, or you have a child you want to disturb, swing by Miniature World. Here’s one last picture of the train ride: Richard Nixon riding in a car with some kind of giant white monster.

Indiana Jones Impressions

•May 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at midnight last night. After the mixed reviews I was apprehensive—would it retain the feeling of the originals or would it be a blockbuster cash-in? I reflected that even if it were another of George Lucas’ pathetic grabs for money, I owe so much entertainment over the years to Indiana Jones that I’d gladly hand over my cash.

Thankfully it wasn’t that bad; in fact, it was about 2/3 good. What I loved about the first two films was the allegiance to old adventure serials and pulp novels. Watch Raiders or Temple of Doom again—there’s very little character development or even dialogue, just action set-piece after exotic locale after exhilarating gunfight. You can practically point to where the screen would freeze and the voiceover would ask “What will happen to Indy? Tune in next week to find out!” Last Crusade changed the formula, with more of an emphasis on comedic character interaction (the rather enjoyable Ford/Connery clowning), and Kingdom continues this tradition, with lots of funny business between Indy, Marion, and Shia LaBeouf (I can hardly bring myself to type Mutt, his character’s name). Some of it is actually funny and some of it falls flat.

There’s also an over-reliance on CG. Spielberg should have watched Live Free or Die Hard to see how an action franchise starring an aging male lead can still kick ass with a minimum of computer trickery (awful freeway chase scene excluded, of course). There are some truly embarrassing moments—Shia swinging on vines with CG monkeys, poorly-rendered groundhogs that show up pointlessly at least three times, and a climax that quickly becomes a boring blur of CG destruction.

Bad stuff out of the way, there’s a lot to like. Ford’s acting is sometimes uneven (he just didn’t feel like Indy in certain parts of the movie), but he looks pretty good for an old guy, and he does a fair number of his own stunts, including a rad fist-fight with an evil Soviet guy in an ocean of flesh-eating ants! The action scenes are good—better in the first half when they use less CG—and Shia isn’t as annoying as you’d think; in fact, he’s pretty entertaining. Also, Indy escapes a nuclear blast in a physically-impossible but incredibly bad-ass way. There’s enough good stuff going on in Kingdom to warrant a viewing or two, even if it’s not as good as the original trilogy and it loses steam about 2/3 of the way through.

Random observations: There’s a moment shot in soft-focus where Indy stares wistfully at a picture of Sean Connery for an inappropriate amount of time that had the whole theater laughing. Also, Neil Flynn, the guy who plays the janitor on Scrubs, shows up as an up-tight, toe-the-line, McCarthy-supporting FBI agent, but it’s hard to take him seriously. Also, at the end of the movie one character’s eyes burst into flames. Awesome!

Cate Blanchett, right, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Graphical abstraction and the Wii

•May 16, 2008 • 1 Comment

Graphical abstraction is a bit of a hobby horse for me. Mark J.P. Wolf wrote that since graphics have become so complex and videogames strive so hard for realism, a return to graphical abstraction is an untapped resource. Lots of rhythm-based videogames use abstraction—notice the scrolling, never ending fretboard in Guitar Hero, or the trippy backgrounds in DDR?—and I’ve noticed quite a few Wii titles using abstract graphics.

I think it’s a hardware restriction thing. When developers can’t push the system hardware to produce near photorealistic visuals, they have to find another way to make their game visually appealing. I’m playing through Okami, which was of course, a PS2 game before its release for the Wii. After watching it for a few minutes, my roommate’s girlfriend remarked, “I guess I don’t like watching this game because it isn’t pretty.” “What the hell are you talking about?” everybody in the room replied. “This game is gorgeous.” She shrugged. “I guess, but it’s just not realistic.” Anybody who’s seen this early tech demo of Okami knows that it was a good thing the limitations of the PS2 hardware required a less realistic look. The hand-drawn look suits it.

No More Heroes uses a similar cel-shading technique to look like an adult cartoon, and I’m interested in what I’ve seen from Madworld, which looks like it uses cel-shading to flagrantly rip off Sin City. I watched the trailer, which basically pointed out “Look! You can kill people with different things!” I need more to a game than just graphic violence. That said, even if the game turns out to totally suck, I’ll probably rent it anyway to check out the unique visual style.

Obstructions can be a good thing. The Oulipo writers in France used them, Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth used them in The Five Obstructions, and now Wii developers use them to create visually fascinating games. Sure photorealism is impressive, but there’s more than one way to make a graphically impressive game.

Videogames in weird places

•May 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This weekend I went barhopping with some friends in Seattle. Three of the four of us were pretty serious videogame nerds and, serendipitously, our choice of bars seemed to align with our shared hobby. The first bar we visited was the Moon Temple on 45th. Apparently this is a legendary dive bar, once voted best bar to go to if you lost your job or your significant other. The atmosphere is appropriately dark, dank and depressing, but we were more interested in the name. “Wasn’t there a Moon Temple in Final Fantasy IV?” I asked. My friend Josh laughed. “I was thinking the exact same thing.” I don’t recall if it was a Moon Temple, or possibly a Moon Palace, but we broached the subject of the viability of a Final Fantasy themed bar, complete with appropriate drink names and decor. How awesome would it have been if we had walked into the Moon Temple, sauntered up to the bartender and asked “Can I get a Zeromus?” Untapped market? I think so.

 

After a surprisingly tasty combo platter at the Moon Temple, we hit a sketchy but endearing sports bar named Goldie’s. We bought a pitcher of porter (twelve dollars! I’m used to having a good night in Bellingham for less than ten bucks) and hunkered down in the corner by the big screen TVs showing televised rodeo and lacrosse, still buzzing about our proposed Final Fantasy bar. We think we might name it The Four Crystals. As we left Goldie’s, slightly tipsy, what did I spy but one of those little tabletop arcade cabinets. Ms. Pac-Man! I’ve been writing about Pac-Man recently and thinking about it. GameWorks in Seattle has a Pac-Man machine in their retro arcade, but how many other Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man games do you think are left in the city. Those things must be older than I am. I forced my friends to wait for me while I dug a quarter out of my pocket and played Ms. Pac-Man.

 

I know this is a bit of a rambling blog post, and not really focused or up to the typical standards of intelligent discourse about gaming, but I just wanted to share that sometimes videogames and videogame culture can appear in odd places. Why does a sports bar, full of skeezy guys and drunk women playing pool have a Ms. Pac-Man cabinet? What was it doing there? I remember visiting my orthodontist’s office as a kid and playing his tabletop arcade games—Donkey Kong, RBI Baseball, and Dig Dug. The office smelled like fluoride and rubber gloves—it was a weird place to play a videogame, almost as weird as Goldie’s, but there they were. Arcade games in weird places. Where have you found videogames or gaming culture where you least expected it?

 

Steampunk: Brass is the new black

•May 9, 2008 • 3 Comments

Steampunk. If the New York Times is writing about it I guess it’s legit. I’ve enjoyed steampunk fiction and art for many years, but I never thought it would evolve into its own subculture. The NYT article points out what I think is one of the greatest features of the “genre:”

“Part of the reason it seems so popular is the very difficulty of pinning down what it is,” Mr. von Slatt added. “That’s a marketer’s dream.”

Steampunk draws inspiration from such a variety of sources: the sci-fi novels that originated the term, the work of HG Wells and Jules Verne, turn of the century sci-fi art and lithographs, Victorian culture, the DIY punk spirit—it’s a perfect postmodern amalgam of geekdom, and I think it’s awesome.

Interested in steampunk? Check out the NYT article or the Wikipedia page. Here are a few images from one of my favorite artists, Albert Robida, a turn-of-the-last century illustrator and novelist from France. I see a definite ancestor to steampunk in his visual work.

Diamonds in the rough

•May 6, 2008 • 4 Comments

Warning: Major Shadow of the Colossus spoilers ahead

It’s not often that a game features a flawed protagonist. Suzie at Girls Don’t Game mentioned that most many videogame characters feel like Greek gods—even if they are flawed, they’re immortal. No matter the missteps, the restarts, or the Game Over screens, the videogame hero wins in the end.

Shadow of the Colossus presented a flawed hero. Not only that, but he lost his life in the end, and his masterful characterization could sometimes alter the player’s perceptions of the hero, the game, and their own actions. Wander appears at the beginning of the game carrying a dead woman into a temple. He begs for help from the morally ambiguous God Dormin, who tells him that he will resurrect the woman if Wander does him a tiny favor—kill all of the colossi that roam the land.

It’s easy to doubt Dormin’s word, and only a little harder to question Wander’s motivation. The colossi are beautiful, exotic, and mostly peaceful—many won’t react to Wander until he starts shooting them with arrows or crawling up their fur. The player begins to wonder: is what I’m doing good or bad? Why is this woman so important? On a meta-level, why am I playing this game if I am somewhat repulsed by my/Wander’s actions? When I killed the thirteenth colossus, a gargantuan sky-serpent that floated lazy circles over the desert, I began to think that I was playing the villain; I was not ridding the land of colossi, but murdering natural wonders.

As Wander defeats the colossi and takes their mysterious black snakes of energy into his body, he becomes more pale and decrepit. By the last colossus, he’s limping along, barely holding himself together. His own actions are destroying him. In the end, his destruction of the colossi allows Dormin to possess him, and he is destroyed.

If Shadow of the Colossus were fiction, it would be a tragedy. In fact, it conforms almost exactly to Aristotle’s definition of Greek tragedy. The story follows a noble hero with overweening pride and a tragic flaw—his inability to accept his lover’s (?) death. The hero makes a mistake—trusting Dormin—that leads to his ultimate downfall—possession, defeat and death. Does Wander experience a “change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate” (Aristotle’s words)? Maybe or maybe not. But regardless, I’m willing to nominate Wander as gaming’s first tragic hero.

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