Monday, July 26, 2010

The Pokémon Ego Agenda

"You know how the game says that there are trainers who only care about battling and not at all about the pokemon themselves? Well, I'm one of those."

I'm sorry, but in my experience, that's most of you fellow Poképhiles as well. At least he's willing to admit it.

It's pretty damn easy to point out that Pokémon is a series that needs to change. The trick however, is dealing with what is an established and deeply set-in formula that has lasted over a decade now. The slightest misstep in any particular direction could end up having a disastrous impact on Nintendo's immense and crazed fanbase.

What I propose here of course, is something that's only apparently been bothering me, but I think it's something that would do series well in the long haul. This would be totally yanking out the flimsy mechanic veil that Pokémon has had for a very long time now. What I mean by that is amount of behind-the-scenes play that the series is well-known for. Examples of this include the overexposed play with EVs, IVs, breeding, etc. Actually---I should rephrase that. What I'm really getting at here isn't that yanking them out is the answer, what I'm actually asking for is 'blinding' the audience a bit more. Yes we could go off into a general-gaming tangent at this point about how many players do this for most games anyway, but let's just focus on THIS game series right now.

Anybody that has played through any of the main gen games has suffered the effects of boosted stats and handicapped leveling (e.g. take an Elite Four champion's Pokémon with perfect IVs). Many gamers have perverted the world of Pokémon in my eyes through the use of such tactics; mechanics of the game not meant for them, but in building the illusion of its world. If that perversion continues, Gamefreak & Nintendo will design to cater to that instead. Perhaps it's sounds corny, but overriding the small message which the game actually tries to communicate to the player for the sake of hedonistic competitiveness is destructive and limiting to the game's potential. This message is one of unity and an actual attachment to one's Pocket Monster. Regardless of their nature, base stats, and aesthetics (i.e. "YOU GOTZ SHINIES?!"), the team one builds can easily make this collectathon game a deeply personal experience. In fact, it already does for some of us. 

The downsides of the game's minimalism is where this destructiveness truly kicks in though. People are only granted a certain degree funnel vision towards specific playstyles with this series, usually those granting them elation. Since Pokémon is a bare-bones RPG, the audience has compensated for it to an excessive extent. This isn't all their fault either. Both Nintendo & Gamefreak assume a good chunk of the blame here (which is not surprising given Nintendo's long track record of non-progressive game design). Some of the more romantic parts of the game have been pointlessly pulled into question too (e.g. random battles) if for no other reason than people find them annoying. This is not the answer however, merely a diversion to the game as a whole. It's actually a pretty old and disgusting human trick to become divisive by separating something's worth STRICTLY according to its utilitarian values. Pokémon has long been hindered by this very concept. 

Even more controversial is the fact that Nintendo has gone on record saying that their reasons for not opening up Pokémon to more MMO-like playing grounds is simply because they prefer the trading aspect to remain uncompromising (something that earnestly failed a very long time ago). People aren't trading for a social catharsis and they aren't doing it to further some vague ideal of 'connection' either. Most are only exchanging the damn things in ways that parallel goddamn currency. All of these restrictions have gone on to establish puerile electric fences that we're not meant to touch. Pokémon thus remains a 'kid's game' and for good fucking reason. We encouraged it. If you want more evidence that their trading ideal is a crock of shit, try getting a generation I Pokémon to generation IV.

Effort values and Individual values need a chaotic revamping, as players have simply spoiled themselves with it now. The systems and processes in how the numbers are generated, perpetuated, and maintained between stats needs to have an extremely esoteric mechanic to it (if for no other reason than to reflect the number of people that actually play the series). These things need to be out of reach for the player, this way the cheesy message that the game is constantly trying to wack us over the head with may actually begin to accumulate some meaning for a change.

With the fifth generation on the horizon, I posit that it's not wrong to ask more of this series (it never was).The old adage that 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', is a flimsy excuse that's hindered these types of games for far too long. The fact that a character like 'N' even exists shows that Nintendo is fully aware of sentiments such as my own and are choosing to cheapen it by an indirect and borderline humorous acknowledgement. You're not slick, you assholes. 

Leave it to me to actually take the goddamn "Pokémon are friends!" stance, but yeah---I'm sticking to it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Eating Healthy



If there's one game I honestly didn't expect to fall back into playing so diligently, it would have to be Pokémon SoulSilver (i.e. merely the latest in a recycled series of titles with a very exploitive focus). However, I am able to easily determine the reasons why this happened. First and foremost is that I'm not passionately invested in anything else on the horizon now. Sure, I'd like to play StarCraft 2, but my appetite for it is rather full at the moment. That metaphor though, leads to my post here tonight.

This is a Google Health excerpt on Bulimia:

Overview

Bulimia is an illness in which a person binges on food or has regular episodes of significant overeating and feels a loss of control. The affected person then uses various methods -- such as vomiting or laxative abuse -- to prevent weight gain.
Many (but not all) people with bulimia also have anorexia nervosa.

Symptoms

In bulimia, eating binges may occur as often as several times a day for many months. These binges cause a sense of self-disgust, which leads to self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise.
Body weight is usually normal, although the person may perceive themselves as being overweight. In a person who also has anorexia, body weight may be extremely low.

  • Abuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas to prevent weight gain
  • Binge eating
  • Frequent weighing
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Overachieving behavior

Now, this isn't the first time I've related the digestive process to how people at large play their games. Yet I keep coming back to the parallels because they're so spectacularly humorous to me (not to mention ironic). In a world full of people obsessively, shallowly, and pointlessly obsessed with their health and eating right, gamers are a bunch of nitwits who aren't immune to such social conditioning. This is to say that the number of gamers I know who are conscious about their body and constantly wish to change it through the healthy consumption of sustenance are also paradoxically ludic when behind the controller.

Put simply, this is the culmination to a statement on my own quotes page (of which I am the author, as far as I know anyway):
The majority of gamers have simply opted for gluttony instead of range.
Burnouts, apathy/ennui, and even overly cynical/academic analysis of games kind of result from the unchecked moderation of playing titles now. People don't dare question this, as it's a firmly standing foundation in terms of the industry's own admitted abuse of consumerism. Since most of us have tailored ourselves TO that foundation, we defend it rather than question it, and now we suffer because of it as well (yet we blame other things). Most players have become reserved to the ironic sense of their own 'taste' (e.g. "I only like RPGS so I should only play RPGS!") as if it absolves or protects them from such gluttony, but all it has really done to any effective mention is insulate them (and in extreme cases embitter them). 

Now I'm not going to profess to be the exemplar of 'game-playing health', but I will assert my self-consciousness with the titles I'm playing in comparison to others around me. As I opened with, I've been playing SoulSilver off and on for the past three months (currently at 300+ hours) with no regard or care to even the games I know I'm excited for (i.e. StarCraft 2). I've probably been binging on the equivalent of Ramen Noodles for the past few months, but at least I know that. Becoming obsessed with games in their 'fast-food state' is borderline dangerous to one's own perception of the medium (in fact I'd say it even destroys the perception of it as a medium). THAT topic is one so redundant to my blog, I'd rather not even continue there (i.e. playing games on a conveyor belt). So, is there a relevant answer to the question/problem I posed? Well I'd imagine it would mirror whatever mappings of 'eating healthy' are around these days (and since I don't, I have no idea what those are).

Just a thought on what I DO know though and that's the function of how the stomach communicates with the brain. It should be a well known factoid that the human stomach 'lags' in how it communicates with the brain. It takes around 15-30 minutes for the signal to be sent to warn us from eating any more. In that time however, people are accustomed to stuffing their faces, at which point they don't know why they feel like crap afterwards. The far edge of this spectrum features people with 'disorders'. It doesn't matter what they eat, or even when they eat it, just 'how' they eat. Gamers these days are taking 'consumption advice' from people who make a living in the equivalent of circus-style eating contests. The biggest defense here is one that I'm ashamed to hear now myself: that these people are qualified critics of an artistic medium. That's really only applicable in a minority number of cases and it's a playing ground we're still rising to meet, yet we've already started arrogantly acting off assumptions built from it.

I'll have to curtly end it there for now, but I'll just say that my overblown metaphor here needs to be rendered obsolete, invalid, and silly, because at this point it's just not.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inception

Spoilers Note: Normally I wouldn’t care at all about spoilers, but after finishing this and looking back through it, I noticed that it was conveniently devoid of anything that would significantly ruin the film for someone (but it's also not something that will be completely comprehensible to one who hasn't seen the film yet either), so you’re safe on that count.

I’ve spent perhaps the past few weeks going through review after review of Christopher Nolan’s recently released Inception. What I came away with was not something I was proud of in any sense of the word. I’ve perused more than most would too, ranging from nobodies with obsequious opinions to wildly delusional contrarians that are only useful as forces to be completely ignored. I decided to write this because I haven’t done anything else here in a few weeks (and the other projects I’m working on will require more time than I initially thought). After reading some dude fly off on an idiotic tangent about how Paprika was a wildly superior film to Inception, I decided to put up something else up for people to read---because trust me, the people that actually get paid for their opinions have failed immensely this time (that fucking Paprika blowjob was simply the last straw). So, the most definitive answer to my liking or detesting of Inception is thus, it was more than good enough to be first film I've decided to solely put up here.

To begin with, I suppose I can let the reckless assertives amongst you pigeon-hole me as a Nolan-nite if you must. Though I’ve only personally 'loved' about three or four of his films at most (and I’ve seen all of them sans Following), I’m still of the mindset that he’s one of the few directors that's CONSISTENTLY doing anything worthwhile in the realm of film these days.


Being the thoughtful person I am, I’m not going to waste your time with multiple paragraphs blithely introducing you to the movie’s premise, which I’ll assume you’re smart enough to wrap your head around by watching any of the goddamn trailers. Instead, I’ll jump right into the merits and maladies this movie siphoned from me individually.


First of all, if we look at Inception as a science-fiction film first, we're doomed and we’ve already failed by looking directly into the sun, as the movie is first and foremost, a heist-thriller; the science fiction elements are simply a vehicle to which we’re led from points A to B. Hell, even Nolan himself admits to having done no research beforehand; he wrote this movie directly from his mind, so I blame the marketing and stupid fans/audiences for over-tagging the movie with that label. At no point is the audience even given detailed/tangible information about the process of dream submergence (or even the equipment for that matter), merely a few touchstones in terms of its effects. In my book, the speculative-science bar has to be raised a bit higher for me to even consider this film as something remotely resembling science-fiction. The only real science-fiction theme this movie deals with extensively and is worth discussing is one of perception. This is mainly depicted through the relationship between Cobb and his wife, Mal (which culminates into the dual takeaway the audience is supposed to be left with in the last shot).

The first real criticism I’d make of Inception is one I’ve always made of Nolan, and this is how he writes his women. Ariadne (Ellen Page) and Mal (Marion Cotillard), the two lead females, are merely ‘used’ in this film rather than illusorily acting on their 'own will'. The audience can easily accept Cobb’s, Arthur’s, Eames’s, and Yusuf’s roles, but once the young architect shows up, she ends up with what most have rightfully called foul on in terms of being an exposition machine. This isn’t to say that neither Page or Cotillard didn’t do well in their roles, because they did for the most part (though I’d criticize Page far more than I would Cotillard). However, the film is inherently structured around both girls, yet the audience is fooled into thinking otherwise (mostly because the film rather brashly becomes a really focused story about Dom).

My personal take on Mal in particular is one of instability, as she’s not really a character in the traditional sense at all, she’s quite aptly portrayed as her marketed alias suggests, the shadow. She’s only the result of Cobb’s subconscious and the only time we actually see ‘her’ on screen is during a flashback depicting Cobb’s memories. This is quite simply the biggest ‘theme’ of Inception at large as well. Mal’s ‘reality’ is the cause of what gives rise to the character of Dom; what he saw in her, did to her, and came away with afterwards is meant to be a key idea that plays into the film’s own name, inception.

Ariadne however, is a little more confusing to me, as even being the newbie to the team, she began questioning Dom’s every single move, at every single point. Indeed this is reasonable for her character, given what turns out with Cobb’s suppression of his shadow, but she becomes far too willing to engage him and his motives early on. It happens so fast, that one has to draw into question the nature of their relationship as a whole. She almost flies from tangents of complete distrust to analytical sympathy in terms of relating to him. In short, it just doesn’t feel organic. By the time ‘the big job’ has begun, Ariadne could have been following Dom around with a cliché psychiatrist-couch in tow and it would have been completely plausible by the movie’s own pacing.

Now the dream sequences themselves were mostly well-done and surprisingly easy to follow. Speaking in oneirological terms however, they may not have been very accurate, but I haven’t seen one movie that has done them to any degree with which I’d go ‘wow’ (melodramatic and random gestures of quirkiness simply don’t count for me). Most people like to drudge up the concepts of surreality and profess the illogical nature of dreaming, but these are not strictly speaking, inherent elements to dreams at all, even in a general sense. Inception can get away with nearly all its depictions in the end and still be a fantastic dream movie. This arena leads me to admire a strength of the film, the main job.

Like all good heist films, the main job doesn’t exactly go as expected. Inception is no deviant from that rule, suffering almost critical botches in the first phase. What the film does do here however, is maintain its pace in ‘real-time’ (which I ironically complained about above) and it also stubbornly adheres to its own rules (which works in its favor here). The most prominent examples of this being the depictions of time-relation and sensory-stimulation. To simply lay it out, the job occurs across three levels of ‘reality’ (four if you count the real world). Each level functions in terms of 'depth' according to the movie and between them is a specific lengthening of time (e.g. an hour in the dream world correlates to five minutes in the real world). The job is complex in that the team is required to use these ‘dreams within dreams’ to accomplish their primary goal: make Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) come to the conclusion that he’s achieved an idea of his own accord. As the botch happens, the heist team concludes that jumping to deeper levels is the best way to proceed.


As this happens however, the time levels shift and the context between dreams affect each other respectively. It’s at this point that I’ll agree somewhat that the movie perhaps gets a bit too logical for its own good, but it’s not a huge suspension of belief I’m being asked for either, thus it becomes the zenith of the film for me. The editing between Cobb’s penetration of Fischer at the third level, Arthur’s defense of their bodies at the second level, and Yusuf driving the van at the first becomes the film’s most worthwhile spectacle. Arthur’s sequence in particular threads them all together because the weight that Levitt and his character are juggling in that instance (all Yusuf had to do was drive a damn van). However, it’s also at this level that things take a turn to which the movie suffers, it switches back to Dom and focuses on him in an almost hyper-extensive way.

Going back to Fischer for a second however, would have me dipping my toes in criticism again, as the film becomes weakest when the audience even superficially ponders Fisher’s purpose (and by partial extension, Dom’s desperation to ‘return home’). What the team was doing I got, I understood, I even really enjoyed it. Yet it’s purpose? That’s never really for the audience to feel and I ended up taking a slightly cheated meaning from that (this is despite the fact that it’s a heist movie and we shouldn’t let morality complicate our judgment call there). The entire movie could be meant to convey the message that we as an audience were only meant to focus on the means, not the ends. The film itself kind of douses white-out on this error by putting an emotional torment on its own concept of inception. What I mean by this is pretty much what Fischer’s character took from the limbo level and also what Dom and Mal’s relationship totals out as.

The ending is essentially worthless to me, even though most will argue about it for months to come. It’s all a perception trick in my opinion and which of the two conclusions we’re meant to come away from with from the last shot is more of a reflection on the viewer. It’s not some overly-deep message Nolan’s trying to communicate here (you'll notice that I'm leaving which ending I thought happened out of this).

In the end, Inception was the movie that I got everything I wanted from (and a little bit more). It certainly isn’t Nolan’s best, but it’s far from his worst. That 'little bit more' was simply watching people overblow the film’s impact over the past week. Professionals and friends alike barely knew what the film was, still don’t know what it is, and are angry because of those two facts and their own inability to move past them at the rate they want to. People will go on to pointlessly relate Nolan’s latest to The Matrix, The Dark Knight, and curiously enough, Kubrick’s films.
To close with, I’ll give you a pocket field guide to spotting a worthwhile Inception impression from one that you’re honestly better without. If a review or an opinion is rife with any two of the following, simply walk away:

  • A focus on peripheral aspects of the film that allow subjective over-rationalization towards negating everything else about the film (i.e. ‘Zimmer’s score was obnoxious, FILM FAIL’).

  • Any reference towards prior Nolan films past a simple mention. The Dark Knight is the film I’ve personally seen the most of here, next of course, would be Memento. Anything that allows a person to irrelevantly link two totally unrelated worlds under the guise of critique should be disregarded immeditately.

  • Useless comparisons are a common factor as well. This is a pet peeve of mine. Inception has spawned relations from people ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey (simply because Nolan merely said he was a Kubrick fan no doubt) and The Matrix (I assume because Cobb’s team constantly enters an overly organized and stylized world while dressed nice too). Let us not forget Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind either, as apparently ANYTHING about a goddamn dream must be held to that flame at all costs.

With all of that said, try and actually go out into the world and enjoy this film without all the “Overrated!” & “Brilliant!” connotations involved, you might actually see something (anything!) you genuinely like.