Posts from the ‘gaming’ Category

Scott Pilgrim vs my brain


I don’t know where to start with this movie. It was intolerably irritating, and also one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. Often at the same time. It has a surly blue-haired girl wielding a giant pixellated sledgehammer, which alone should quality for a special award.

It often feels like Wonderfalls, a brilliant show doomed to fail as it was the best show of the mid-nineties, with the misfortune of airing in 2004. Scott Pilgrim references 8-bit video games and Seinfield (a trope namer for a very relevent concept) in the lives of early-twentysomethings…ie, people who were in diapers when Jerry Seinfeld was anything but a Bee Movie shill and never unironically played a non-3D Mario brother. This film, like Wonderfalls (and, now that I think of it, most of the references in Juno), is written from a Gen-X perspective and awkwardly grafted onto Gen-Y characters.

That’s probably why I enjoyed it so much, and why it doesn’t really hang together.

Kick-Ass is a Millennial movie in a way this isn’t. It hearkens back to the hallowed 80s trope (like goddamn everything in the last seven years) embodied by Anthony Michael Hall then and Michael Cera (…usually) now, in which a bitter, unsocialised loser boy would discover the magical solution of “confidence” that would let his inner awesomeness out, snagging the personality-free Hot Chick, thus instantly attaining maturity forever.

(Go right to hell, Nathanial Brandon. Ayn’s waiting with a carton of unfiltered Camels.)

Scott has already passed through this stage, full of unearned self-confidence and even a bit of a Casanova, why not. He’s also a complete tosser, despised by his friends and exes (everyone except his ultra-fetish fuel underage girlfriend, who is temporarily blinded by inexperience), and needs to properly grow up. The entire point of the film is that both he and his potential love are emotional idiots utterly lacking empathy. Since puberty, they’ve run through significant others like kleenex, promising relationships while actually using them as disposable props for whatever self-image suited them at the moment. Ramona’s a little ahead of the game; she’s been on the receiving end of that treatment and taken it as a mirror, making a vow to change with no clue how to go about that. Scott‘s still a dick, using the very cool Knives Chau only as proof that he’s over his last break-up and cheating on her without a thought for her existence, let along feelings.

Their bad karma catches up with them, metaphorically, as they both do battle with their own and each others’ wounded exes; the battles are wonderfully over-the-top for representing two people just coming to terms with their crush having had a life before them, and that they may be only another interchangeable future ex. Spoiler alert: by the end, they manage to grow up, realising that neither love nor self-esteem are magic unbeatable weapons, and that the best you can do is be honest with themselves and others…and try not to be such a dick. Great stuff.

And yet, the lead characters are both such horrible people! I wanted them to fail! Fail horribly, while everyone else got ponies! Especially Wallace, who took as much joy in Scott’s failures as me!

Also very 90s: the utter lack of parents, not only as characters but as any sort of presence. Video games have given these people more moral guidance than their self-obsessed boomer parents (if I learned anything at all from Reality Bites). The hangover-80s apartment furnishings and club design, setting off the retro-slacker milieu (or possibly Canada today, in the words of Tom Servo). The social circle is one of inertia, relics of high school and blood relationships and held together by schadenfreude, one meant to be left behind like chrysalis (all of whom seem to be encouraging Scott to vamoose for exactly that reason), rather than maintained forever by a complex web of social networking.

The only part that was truly irritating (in a not kinda-on-purpose way, like Scott and Ramona’s repellent immaturity) was the forced happy ending. They’ve both realised they need to get out of their niche and grow up in order to make new, less sociopathic relationship mistakes, but they bring each other along. Their relationship has been successfully argued as an extension of their mutual issues – they barely know each other, and have used each other as identity props. Scott wants to be cool, and he thinks Ramona’s cool. Ramona wants to be nice, and she thinks Scott’s nice. Together, they can only backslide into vapidity trying to keep their happy ending.

It doesn’t even fit the genre. Sure, Mario rescued the Princess, but he doesn’t marry her. At best, she non-metaphorically bakes him a cake.

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reasons to be cheerful #3

Fallout: New Vegas coming out this fall.

Such august reviewers as the AV Club and Spoony faintly praise the previews as “pretty much Fallout 3 in a new location.” Which makes me anticipate it all the more. I’ve played the hell out of Fallout 3, including every expansion pack. Because I’m a massive dork, after beating it a couple of times as a super-powered saint, I went back and started again as an evil, mentally retarded character named “Ayn” (but still reverted to a previous save after killing GretaCarol was just so damn sad).

Even if it turned out to be a glorified stuff pack, I’d be a happy camper. In fact, it’s being developed not by Fallout 3’s Bethesda but by Obsidian,  who brought out 1 and 2. During old-school and particularly patient moods, I’ve been inching through Fallout 2, and it’s got a very different worldview and sense of humor than 3. If anything, it’s snarkier, meaner, and dirtier. Can’t wait to see what they bring to a modern FPS engine, if the go-go dancer Super Mutant is any indication.

The Road: Quest for Sugar Bombs

The world of 2009’s The Road is by definition one without meaning: an unspecified cataclysm has radically altered the earth, leaving is sunless and all but lifeless.  Plants and the lifeforms directly dependent on them are long dead; the more adaptable end of the food chain has dwindled to a few brutal survivors consuming the last scraps of nourishment, (primarily, each other).

Humanity, as individuals and a species, is over.  The father and son that move furtively through this world – hoping for a semblance of normality to be found on the coast – often encounter the bodies of those who, like the boy’s mother, have chosen suicide over a brief existence snuffed out by starvation or roving gangs of cannibal rapists.

And yet this very bleakness creates lives of portentous significance, as if meaning had not been removed but distilled and grown omnipresent.  It’s a world that will leave obsessive players of Fallout 3 with a constant sense of déjà vu and, perhaps, a more profound depression.  By way of a inspiration-source grandfather paradox, the film feels like a serious business version of the game because Fallout 3’s distinctive aesthetic is extensively cribbed from the Cormac McCarthy novel the film is based on.

Many of the father’s choices, particularly when to press on exploring in the face of clear warnings, are agonising after months of leisure time spent in the Capitol Wasteland.  Skulls on poles? Inbred cannibals!  Well preserved antebellum house? Andale cannibals! Ruined church? Giant green mutant cannibals! And put out that fire before the raiders and feral ghouls are fighting to keep your slaughtered corpse as a nutritious trophy!

But – obviously – there’s no handy stashes of ammo and instant Salisbury Steaks, no safe havens, no stimpacks.  The Capitol Wasteland is a veritable land of milk and honey, compared to the road these two are on.  The two settings do, however, seem to have a very similar karma engine, the weight of moral choices composited by an all-seeing, objective force.

Much like the same year’s A Serious Man, the characters – and audience – have two contextualising options.  1) God exists and is testing them to extremes even Job could not imagine, and they will be quickly punished for succumbing to sin or despair.  Or, 2) There is no god, no punishment, and thus no meaning to their suffering, only empty chance – a more terrifying prospect than being subject to a vengeful god.

This continues a theme from another Cormac McCarthy-based film, No Country For Old Men, in which the callousness of fate is embodied in the single-minded contract killer Anton Chigurh.  It’s an identity he consciously embodies, chancing the lives of most he comes in contact with on a coin toss, which his victim must call.  This is an iron-clad principle, to him, that he is less a person than an instrument of morality – after all, the accumulation of many small choices made good or evil actions their habit, and evil (spanning a very broad spectrum of profound and petty impulses) is what brought them into contact with him.  The only explanation he offers is to one victim, a cocky hired gun who fails to carry off a hit on Chigurh: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

The father is a survivalist – one who had stockpiled several years’ worth of non-perishables and whose first impulse, noting a fiery riot in the small hours, was to begin filling every sink and tub with tap water – who follows the rules that will allow him to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Keep moving.  Search every cranny for nutrition.  Avoid all other humans.

He does, however, allow a space for a larger meaning, for and because of the son born soon after the cataclysm.  Of the boy, he says, “the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”  He tells the boy stories from the old world of courage and justice, when he isn’t walking his son through the proper way to commit suicide with one of their two remaining bullets, when the time comes.  Later, when the father has hardened past what little morality he once possessed, he calls the boy not the word but his god – a totem rather than person.

Through this fraught childhood, the son begins to grow into something part Messiah, part masthead of the first – and perhaps only – generation of this new world, and just a smidgen of an ordinary pre-adolescent, needing to detach from the suffocating love of his parent in order to become his own person.  Never knowing plenty, his impulse is to share their limited supplies with the few not immediately murderous individuals they meet, potentially turning them to allies and the human company he desperately craves.  He is quickly more in tune with the new order than his father, picking up subtle signals – like the categorised pile of worn clothes in the Andale house of cannibals – that his father misses entirely in his dreaming of the old society.  For instance, in a nearly wordless scene, his father finds possibly the last can of Coca-Cola in existence and tells his son to have it as a treat.  The son tries to hide his revulsion at the strange liquid and insists the father have it.  No, children love soda, drink it and let me enjoy watching you enjoy it, his father’s fragile joy insists back.  It’s uncomfortably obvious they are living in the same world less and less.

The narrative of their course through the new wilderness may be an indictment of human nature and the lawless chaos underlying existence.  Or it may be a world in which its God, with a peculiar deity’s-eye view, has shown the mercy of removing all distractions so that humanity may clearly perceive its will and be judged on their responses.  Efficiently, immoral choices bring sinners into contact with each other (a sort of Anton Chigurh à deux) to mutually enact punishments.  Father and son are twice cornered among cannibals, and twice escape through coincidences bordering on divine intervention.  They nearly die of starvation, but stumble onto a huge cache of food in a hidden fallout shelter.  Suddenly, they are the richest people in the wasteland.

Here is where the father and son’s paths begin to metaphysically diverge.  The son wants to give thanks, to express his gratitude somehow to the people who left the food behind.  He also wants his father to stay out of what little privacy he has, after the father roots through his pockets and lays out his treasures – one of which is an arrowhead, something that catches the father’s attention.  Perhaps he is sadly mulling over happier apocalyptic scenarios he’d prepared for, once in which western humans could have re-learned the old skills.  But there are no more animals to hunt, no more living wood to make into bows…

They hear searching noises above their hideaway, and the boy wants to meet them, to see if they really could have something so mystical as a dog with them.  The father (sensibly) refuses, and decides they need to move in immediately.  Unfortunately, he decides to move on with as much of the supplies inside the shelter as they can stuff onto a cart, making them a slow-moving, indefensible target.  He has been abandoning the markers of good memories – a picture, his wedding ring – and trying to fully move into the new world, but without that old identity he is little better than the cannibals they flee.

The only possible strategy, both logistically and morally, is the eat their fill and leave, taking only what they can carry.  Both of their previous escapes hinged on speed, abandoning baggage of supplies and memories.  It’s like a tougher version of the Israelites’ manna from heaven during their 40 years in another wasteland, raising a generation of fighters untainted by the mental servitude of slavery and unquestioningly following the will of a very involved god.  Instead of maggots infesting their hoarded sustenance, the two are set upon by thieves and killers.  Two dying men are put in their path, offering opportunities to divest themselves of their dangerous hoard while acting in defiance of the immoral bleakness surrounding.  The father refuses, while the son is agonised with a need to do that right thing.

The first, an old man, offers something like a lesson.  When the father speaks of what it would be like to be the last man on earth, the old man responds only, “How would he know?”  A man’s awareness of the world is limited to his own skull at the best of times, and often not even that.  The worst atrocities and tragedies in this film come from characters who feel they have grasped the scope of the universe – everything is dying and no behaviour will be punished or stopped by some authority – and so they commit suicide or cannibalise their neighbours.

This is the only sort of world in which moral decisions truly matter,  one in which a person must continually chose between foolhardy generosity or faith solely for the benefit of a theoretical immortal soul (and seemingly being rewarded for such with a few more days’ existence) and one’s life.  No one will come after them who might offer the shoeless old man a spare pair of boots like the pair hanging off the back of their wagon, for instance.  Unlike the beggar on a busy city street who might inspire a guilty twinge, the father and son are his only chance.  The stakes are unimaginably high, but at least the moral choices are clear.

The father passes his personal moral horizon when he punishes a thief who stripped them of all their worldly goods (making the exact mistake the father did, allowing them to catch up), but left the boy unharmed.  He steals more unneeded wealth, every stitch of clothes, and leaves him to die of exposure.  The son passes this test, eventually convincing his father (too late) to return the clothes, and even leaves some food as well.  Soon after, they find a live beetle – a sign that, as the old man said, they didn’t truly know life would never return to earth – and the father is fatally wounded by an arrow.  Suddenly, the arrowhead his son carried hadn’t been a cruel reminder but a fair warning of the end of the path he’d set foot on.

His murderer is punished as well for taking potshots at those unfortunate enough to pass underneath, killed by a wild flare the father shot into his window.  This narrative’s god is very efficient.  Even the cannibals, for all they are currently well fed, aren’t really so well off.  They will also die horribly, sooner rather than later, either at the hands of their hungry compatriots or of some postapocalyptic Creuzfelt-Jakob disease.

After his father’s slow death, the son encounters an armed veteran on the shore and, following his father’s rules, initially holds him back at gunpoint.  The veteran and his family are both somewhat creepy and too good to be true, but the son chooses to trust that they want him to join their group.  If there is a god, the boy is being rewarded for his faith with temporary safety and the “good people” he and his father came to the coast hoping to find.  If this world is only meaningless chaos, the boy was raped and/or eaten soon after the fade to black.

It all depends on the road you want to follow.

Running Man, minus the dignity

Gamer is a terrible movie.

It’s also a strangely written movie, one that goes out of its way to insult its assumed target audience, portraying gaming enthusiasts in lazy shorthand: either spoiled ADHD-addled teenagers or grotesquely obese shut-in perverts.  Who would immediately get the reference to a game changing mod (as opposed to a cheat), or the sight gag of soldiers purchasing upgrades from blank-faced merchants mid-battlefield, but those who spend much of their leisure time gaming?

Also, the aesthetic is an odd choice – in the ersatz Sim world, the clothing, leisure and clubbing set-ups are straight out of Spice World, far more a late-90s hedonistic look than the current scenester gestalt:

Sims 1 didn’t even come out until 2000, and the franchise-defining Sims 2 in 2004 even had an H&M expansion pack, completing the neo-80s modern look of the game. The plotless carnage of the avatar-assisted gameplay is also far more 90s-influenced than the current generation of games, which now more often than not include complex storylines and karmic morality choices.  The hysterical Fake-Violence-Makes-Real-Psychopaths controversy that fuels this ‘sploitation movie belongs to another time, a quaint past that includes Marilyn Manson and a careful hedonism peeking out under the childhood boogieman of AIDS.  Video games want to be your Jiminy Cricket now, putting players through the negative consequences of fun, fun wholesale slaughter.

And yet, it often catches the youthful Web 2.0 drift eerily well, particularly in the cheapness of thrills, the naïve perception that flashing some of your amateur skin is something both expected and hugely valuable.  In fact, the 90s aesthetic would have been a pleasantly nostalgic redeeming feature of this shallow and mean-spirited movie if the Millennial generation’s pre-fab jadedness hadn’t been grafted onto it.

Well, there was a bizarre Michael C Hall dance number.  It’s got that going for it.

All in all: it’s always much more fun to play video games than watch someone else play them.  If nothing else, this movie has left me half-tempted to reinstall Sims 2 (and track down Autonomous Causal Romance mod, of course), but I’m halfway through Bioshock…Mr Bubbles, are you there?