Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Month: February 2010

Heavy Rain

It’s no secret that I bought the PS3 as a blu-ray player and my gaming has remained almost exclusively on the Xbox 360. However this year there are a couple of PS3 exclusives that have my full attention: the first is the newly released Heavy Rain, on my radar ever since its intriguing casting trailer in 2006 (the tech is now much improved), and later in the year comes The Last Guardian. I felt surprisingly comfortable splashing out on the special edition of Heavy Rain despite the lack of tangible incentives. The reason is simply that, even if the game turned out to be average, it needs to be a financial success because this is exactly where I want to see the medium evolve and more developers need to start experimenting in this space. As it turns out the packaging alone almost justified the extra cost, with its beautiful embossed rain-slick appearance.

Quantic Dream describe their creation as “interactive drama”, a title that will make sense to anyone who sampled their previous offering, Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, depending on your geographical location). Their creativity is evident from the installation sequence, a typically tedious affair that no one enjoys, which prompts you to remove a square of paper provided in the box and instructs you in making the origami creation on the cover (the killer’s calling card in the game). The game itself is often mis-perceived as a series of quick-time events that require a series of button presses those displayed on-screen. Although the visual stimulus is the same, the mechanics are very different because there is no defined scripted sequence through each scene. Instead you choose the actions to make, and not only is “failing” a series of actions not fatal to your progress, but it may even be intentional. For example in one early scene, surely any good father would let his own son beat him in a mock swordfight.

Very much an adult game, Heavy Rain is a noir thriller, with the player taking on the roles of four different characters investigating a serial killer called the Origami Killer. However the storyline can diverge depending on how you play out a scene, substantially altering the ending, particularly if a character dies or critically fails in their investigation. Adult themes extend to flawed characters: a grieving father trying to reconnect with his son; a drug-addicted FBI agent; an insomniac photographer. Their moods and perceptions are evoked through impressive performance capture and some neat camera tricks as much as voice acting. Where the game sometimes fails in its lofty goals is that the on-screen prompts are not always intuitive and one often triggers an action without real intent, somewhat breaking the intended immersion.

Nevertheless the style is pitch perfect, it’s rendered beautifully and Heavy Rain marks a real step forward for mature games. In a world where killing is still considered the chief gaming mechanic, it’s just a shame more people won’t be exposed to it.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Given my darker sensibilities and vocal disapproval of their sanitisation of older fairytales, people are often surprised to hear me talk fervently about what I deem Disney’s golden era: 1989-1994, a period of resurgence that encompassed the releases of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. I was excited to discover the recently announced Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary covering specifically the development of these four films and the team that turned around the company’s ailing animation fortunes. It will also be interesting to see how they handle Tim Burton’s presence since by all accounts he felt largely stifled as an animator at Disney, but began developing a little project called The Nightmare Before Christmas. Meanwhile Multiplex’s suggested sequel would not be inaccurate.

3D cinema has obviously taken the big screen by storm and last month’s CES 2010 suggests TV and camera manufacturers are hoping to push the same tech into consumers hands too. But I discovered that last year YouTube started experimenting with supporting indie 3D video. They noticed that several users were uploading 3D video but the problem was that unless the user has the corresponding coloured glasses, they were out of luck. Instead stereoscopic videos with the “YT3D” tag will allow users to select the glasses they have (including polarised if they have one of the few screens supporting it) and YouTube will present the video accordingly. Testing it out with some travel footage and the digital animation PANGEA trailer in HD on the living room TV was rather astounding. The downside is, of course, that most glasses will still destroy colour in these videos. At least until polarised screens become prevalent, this tech isn’t going to become more than a gimmick in the home environment.

And finally, crucial tips on how to tie your shoelaces: balanced knots and the speedy Ian knot. Seriously.

Oscars 2010 Predictions: Avatar vs The Hurt Locker

Although I’ve not had the benefit of seeing all the nominated films yet, I’m ready to talk Oscar predictions. You probably know I take these awards with a sizeable pinch of salt given the Academy’s various prejudices, and I certainly don’t watch the ceremony. Many suspect the expanded list of 10 titles for best picture is an attempt to retain mainstream attention, knowing they hurt their credibility by, unsurprisingly, failing to recognise The Dark Knight last year. The longer list allows Up to become the second ever animated film to be nominated for best picture (after Beauty and the Beast, though I argued Wall-E deserved to make the shortlist last year) but I suspect the continuing existence of an “animated feature film” category will prevent one winning for some time.

At any rate the nominations still provide a reference point to look back at the past year’s releases. The politics make some awards easy to predict and some incredibly difficult. There is no doubt, however, that the big fight is between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Here is the full list of nominations.

OscarSupporting Actor: Easiest of the lot. It has to be Christoph Waltz as the deliciously villainous Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. That said, I agree with many who wish Peter Capaldi had at least been nominated for In The Loop.
Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique’s turn in Precious has been such a surprise that it’s almost certain to win.
Lead Actor: Although it’s only about to open in the UK, smart money is clearly on Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart.
Lead Actress: Hard to call, with no clear standout for me. I’d quite like to see Carey Mulligan pick it up for An Education, but I think Meryl Streep will take it.
Animated Feature Film: the best selection for a long time, and I’ll be pretty happy no matter what. I’d love to see a stop-motion feature take the crown (Coraline or Fantastic Mr Fox) or Disney rewarded for a strong return to traditional hand-drawn animation, but I suspect Up will win, not undeservedly.
Adapted screenplay: Difficult, but maybe this is where Up In The Air will pull through. Another category where I’d be happy with any result.
Original screenplay: While I’m pleased to see Inglourious Basterds nominated for best picture, Tarantino has no chance of winning and I think his reward will be here.
Director: I think this may be one of those very rare years when the awards for best picture and best director go in different directions. I was totally behind Avatar until I saw The Hurt Locker and now it’s going to be a fascinating competition. For Cameron and his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow to be releasing such strong films in the same year is an interesting coincidence, and both deserve these awards. I think Bigelow will take the directing crown and Avatar best picture, but it could easily be the other way around. I hate to think it would influence voting but a female winner would be fantastic. On the other hand Cameron’s sheer creative force and involvement perhaps suggest the right outcome is the reverse. There is an outside chance The Hurt Locker could win both.
Best Picture: See above.

Of the rest I initially thought Avatar would mop up and come home with the most awards even if The Hurt Locker took the big ones. However on closer inspection, cinematography, editing and sound editing probably are deserved by The Hurt Locker, while visual effects and art direction are clearly Avatar’s greatest strengths.

Although the film was on my radar, I was surprised by how much a last-minute viewing of The Hurt Locker changed my opinion (despite the fact I’m rather fond of Bigelow: back in 1987 she directed one of my favourite vampire flicks, Near Dark, which never actually uses the word “vampire”). Not only is it an intelligent, non-exploitative view of US military presence in Iraq, but its brief denouement provides an excellent modern musing on military life too, without which it would not have resonated nearly so well. As James stares in confusion at a wall of cereal boxes in a supermarket, we feel the intimidatingly oppressive choice of civilian life.

Above all though, its non-judgemental tone seems to reflect my view on the military which is that it’s a job people choose like any other. Those who make a career of it are not any more or less patriotic or to be held in any higher or lower regard. All those whom I know who have chosen that route have done so for the same reason I became a lawyer: they found something at which they were good, and an environment in which they thrive.

Sequelphobia

Bioshock was a videogame – I think we can all agree on that much. It was also a vast idea. Do ideas have sequels? I guess they sort of do. A corollary is a kind of idea-sequel, right? Or is a corollary more like downloadable content? I shouldn’t have lead with something like this, maybe.

-Tycho, Penny Arcade

I was overtly biased against a sequel that took one of 2007’s finest games and handed the franchise over to another developer. My take now (without having played it, mind) is that the review scores are impressive, hailing it as an accomplished action game that polishes all the bits of the first game that I didn’t really care about. The awe of exploring Rapture, in all its art deco Ayn Rand-inspired glory, was a unique experience that you can’t really replicate by placing the player in the same environment but a bigger suit. Even if the combat works better.

On the other hand, if I’d read more about Mass Effect 2 before playing it, I’d have believed Bioware ruined an excellent RPG by removing the customisation depth and turning it into a straightforward action shooter. They haven’t. What they have done is carefully distilled their experimental hybrid into its purest essence. It’s exquisite. If you require more words, it’s one of the few games I think about solely in terms of its characters rather than its mechanics, which become almost invisible as you explore more of this vastly detailed universe which tears through the boundaries of previous “choice and consequence” simulations. If someone survived when I played the first game, I can converse and work with them. If they didn’t, I can’t. Because they’re still dead. Working out the permutations for the third instalment must be a terrifying prospect, but one whose benefits I cannot wait to reap.

Earlier this week Microsoft unveiled another sequel of sorts: the cumbersomely titled but rebuilt from the ground up Windows Phone 7 Series, replacing Windows Mobile. It’s not about to win over the iPhone crowd because, let’s face it, their attention is unflinchingly fixed in one direction. To be honest I’d be surprised if it wins over me because I’ve been stung too many times by beautiful bits of hardware that were crippled by the sluggish Windows Mobile OS. But for now I just want to talk interfaces.

At first it just seemed bland. The “chromeless” interface means no menu backgrounds, no reflective icons or dropped shadows (and apparently no carrier customisations either). It’s surprisingly different to current designs, taking its cues from the Zune rather than any existing smartphone OS. After a minute the focus on simplicity and clear typography is not only refreshing but rather beautiful, elegantly sliding between screens. Who would have thought Microsoft would be the minimalist ones? I remain wary until I play with one, but I think it will be all too easy to write this off as bland rather than bold: if that was your first impression, I’d urge you still to give them a whirl when devices arrive at the end of the year. I will be, even if I’m not holding my breath.

All this is a long way of saying that I should probably set my prejudice aside and try out Bioshock 2, remaining silent on it until I do so.

Unstable Foundation

It has to be done all CG because I would not know how to shoot this thing in real.

-Roland Emmerich on adapting Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series

Of course you don’t. That’s because you’re a talentless hack who doesn’t actually know how to shoot a movie without special effects to bedazzle the viewer and cover it up. His last two films didn’t even bother with words in the title, opting instead for numbers to explain when their respective special effects are set (that’s 2012 and 10,000 BC for those keeping track). Given that Asimov’s work is about simple but thought-provoking ideas and their logical extension, special effects are the least important aspect in adapting it for the screen.

As one of the finest science fiction writers in history, it’s a shame to see that I, Robot is apparently the low benchmark being set for film adaptations. Apologists keep trying to suggest that it’s a perfectly adequate sci-fi action film which would be fine if they had gone with any other title rather than shoehorning Asimov’s name and three laws onto an existing script that bears no resemblance to his story at all, in a vague attempt to engender some sort of geek cred. Robots running haywire and revolting against their human creators is exactly what Asimov didn’t write. In this instance Maddox’s belligerent ramblings are remarkably accurate too. Sadly the choice of director suggests the Foundation adaptation, which initially excited me, is heading down exactly the same route. The bottom line is that if you haven’t read Foundation, please do. But be very wary of the film.

Google’s Buzz represents the company’s first move into social networking, integrated into Gmail. Most people are describing it as “sort of like Twitter”, which is quite accurate. The added convenience is one less account to sign into if you’re a Gmail user, but then most people likely to take it up are already invested in Twitter. While I’m unlikely at present to use it directly, the most attractive feature is that it acts as an aggregator importing everything I post to Twitter and share via Google Reader, so that readers can access all that content in one place, whether or not they use either service themselves.

Hell is a Crowded, Lonely Place

I have long been a proponent of the value of games in honing skills with real-world application, be it basic numerical skills in card games, reaction-enhancing twitch shooters or the more cerebral puzzle solving and strategising. Arguably none captures this moreso than Solium Infernum. Broadly it operates like a giant game of Risk/Civilisation set in Hell, played over a month or two. It’s turn based with people sending in their orders when they have time, which are then processed simultaneously and the results sent back.

What sets it apart is the strict protocol of netherworld diplomacy. One cannot simply invade another Archfiend’s territory on a whim, but instead but must first have a valid vendetta due to an insult or refused demand. It takes several turns to go war. The flurry of emails (ideally in character) in the turns in between is filled with the backstage politics and deceitful intrigue that are sure to destroy friendships over the course of a game.

Peril-Eye LawmanAfter reading a detailed game report at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam, Sam, Sparkie, Tom and I all started a game. You know, because I clearly like them too much. I have discovered that nothing drives the human competitive urge so much as the profound knowledge that someone tried to convince your friends to destroy you. Unfortunately since they all read this site, that’s about all I can safely reveal for now. Suffice to say my anagrammatic alter ego, Peril-Eye Lawman, has his Eye firmly fixed upon the infernal throne.

Finally, links from the past month:

  • RadioTuna will help you find free online radio stations
  • A stylish Facebook desktop app showcasing the latest version of Silverlight
  • RainyMood does just one thing but for those who need background noise to focus may find better than white noise and less distracting than music
  • 3D Dot Game Heroes is a gorgeous take on retro pixel art games (even if it is a shameless Zelda homage/rip-off)
  • A neat eco-kitchen concept

"You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2017 Priyan Meewella

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