Monday, September 30, 2013

Here's a toast to the ending of Breaking Bad!

My mind was totally blown by the end of Breaking Bad! It turned out that all along the entire series was just a fevered nightmare secreted by mutant neural tissue that had spontaneously grown within Hank's swollen prostate. What a ride! What a finish! What a saga!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) Directed by Don Siegel

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Starring
Kevin McCarthy
Dana Wynter

Directed by Don Siegel
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring and Richard Manning
From the novel by Jack Finney
Executive Produced by Walter Mirisch
Cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks
Edited by Robert S. Eisen
Production Design by Ted Haworth
Special Effects by Milt Rice and Don Post

Widescreen, black and white, a man in hysterics is brought under police escort before a doctor and a psychiatrist at an emergency room. He has a whale of a tale to tell: a saga of alien invaders taking over human bodies and minds. Much like the 1950 film noir D.O.A., we get the grim story in flashback:

A doctor returns from a conference to find his hometown transforming before his eyes.

The community seems to be suffering from some sort of mass hysteria. People are claiming their loved ones have stopped being who they once were-a mother is no longer a mother, a father is no longer a father. Oh, sure, Dad looks exactly the same as always, same face, same eyes, same nose, the voice is the same-in other words there's no chance that it's some stranger attempting a bold impersonation. But something is different about Dad. Something subtle, yet huge. The emotions are not quite right. This new father, or new mother, has less emotion than before, and the whole thing is inexplicable. It's the kind of thing you notice about someone you've known all your life, but that maybe wouldn't be so obvious to someone outside of the family. A crucial detail has been erased giving the lie to this . . . duplication.

You try to call the police, or a psychiatrist, maybe your general practitioner-you try to get someone to believe you when you say that this person you've known all your life is no longer that very same person. And all you get is a blank stare, a condescending smile, and a recommendation to lay off the sauce. The especially understanding doctor in this movie, Dr. Bennell (played by the great Kevin McCarthy), might give you some pills to help you relax. Help you sleep.

Dr. Bennell doesn't know it at first, but that's when they get you. When you're asleep. Seed pods from outer space. They duplicate you, mind, body, and maybe even soul, if you want to go there.

We're talking about the world famous Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a stark example of weird horror built out of paranoia, insomnia, film noir lighting dialed down a few notches, and the fear of the total loss of one's individual humanity. Director Don Siegel, more known for his hard-boiled crime thrillers The Killers, Coogan's Bluff, and Dirty Harry, among others, keeps the pace tight, and parcels out some effectively gruesome, yet mysterious, moments of gooey shock. Quite a bit is left unexplained. The ending is ambiguous, but cautiously hopeful. We in the audience are either witnessing the end of the human race or a very close call.

One big thing that is left mysterious is the exact mechanism by which the alien seed pods duplicate people. When you watch this film, ask yourself: do individual pods bond with individual human targets? Is some sort of psionic power involved in order to scan and duplicate the mind? Is this same psionic facility, if that's what we're dealing with here, the same method by which certain parts of the original person's personality are excised? Or are we dealing with imperfections in the duplication process? Maybe when a person is duplicated by the alien seed pods some elements of the person's mind and personality are accidentally eliminated. So the changes in the duplicated person may not be sinister or malign in any intentional way. The alterations are just by-products of the aliens' natural survival functions.

Will the process of duplication ever improve? If this duplication process could ever be perfected, then what would the difference be between an original and a perfect copy? Why all the fuss? I mean, if the pods win, no one would care. We'd each be a duplication, and we'd get on with business as usual. Especially if the aliens get better at duplicating people. But even if they don't, well . . . people get used to things. You know?

As Dr. Bennell investigates this eerie situation he comes to see himself as a lone agent pitted against an overwhelming force that's seeking to erase the essence of the human spirit. Dr. Bennell offers this rather stirring speech:

"In my practice, I've seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind . . . All of us, a little bit, we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear."

Dr. Bennell later confronts one of these pod people accusing it of wanting to erase love, passion, desire, and ambition from the hearts of men. The duplication calmly tells him that all these things aren't really necessary, that love and passion inevitably fade, and he'll wake up the next day feeling much better with no more worries and concerns. And besides, the duplication says, "You don't have a choice." That doesn't go over too well with the fiercely individualistic Dr. Bennell.

I find it funny that a horror story could be built around the idea of how awful it is to be a conformist. People want to conform. People want to belong to a group, to a family, to a tribe, to a nation; or maybe just root for the home team. Humans love to gather at political rallies or places of religious worship, or college football stadiums and respond in socially approved ways to ritualistic speeches and spectacles. Sure, horrific things grow out of such activities-genocide, war, greed, racism, homophobia, misogyny, ultra-nationalism, imperialism, religious corruption of secular government and education, beer guts-but that's just human nature going back thousands of years. We don't need aliens to give us such atrocities. Maybe the pod people, with their dialed back passions, and their hyper-logical outlook on existence, are really an improvement on the old model of humanity.

We'll never know unless we give the pod people a chance.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers trailer:




Sunday, August 18, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: THE FEELIES(1990) by Mick Farren

The Feelies 
by Mick Farren

Originally published in 1978 by Michael Dempsey/Big O publishing. 
Revised version published June 1990 by Del Rey Books.

PLEASE NOTE: This review is based solely on the revised edition.



"Those who remain in the real world will be those who are able to accept reality for what it is."


Combined Media has got a future for you, my friend, if you can afford it. They call it Integrated Entertainment, or IE for short. IE is a mixture of life support system, and virtual reality via chemical/electrical stimulation of your central nervous system. You can seal yourself into a self-contained bed, have the IE techs run nutrient drips into your veins, put your respiratory and circulation systems in sync with life support apparatus, insert a cybernetic feedback array into your brain, and you're ready to techno-trip balls for the rest of your days. No more messy interactions with a world filled with crime, drug resistant disease, poverty, and people who will always be smarter, more beautiful, and more successful than you. Once you plug into IE you can be Billy the Kid, a paperback space pirate, the Marquis de Sade, or a Ku Klux Klansman-it's all doable. Nothing is forbidden. After all, it's inside your own head. As long as you got a triple AAA credit rating, you're good to go.

IE is the central technological commodity that powers a grim New York City in Mick Farren's The Feelies, a lean, insightful dystopian novel about the consequences of building a capitalist economy around a powerful form of escape from flesh and blood reality. IE, at first, is only for the super rich. Well, not really super rich, just those who have triple AAA credit ratings. The poor are left to fend for themselves by joining ultraviolent street gangs, or to work mindless jobs maintaining the IE infrastructure. The smart ones have signed up with the militarized police forces who have formed themselves into heavily armed and armored CRAC (City Combat and Riot) squads who love nothing better than busting civilian heads. If you can't be one of the ones born to wealth, status, and a guaranteed life of ease working in the upper echelons of corporate leadership then at least you don't have to be one of the little people. You can put on a uniform, grab a truncheon or an assault rifle, and lord it over the lowly shitizens.

Or, if you're ambitious, lucky and attractive enough, you can land a role on the Reality TV anticipating Wildest Dreams, a kind of R-rated Double Dare-style game show built around inane trivia games and sexually humiliating obstacle courses. The unwashed masses go nuts for the insta-celebrities who make it on to this show, often times mobbing the stars when they make publicity appearances or stalking them in their own neighborhoods.

More disturbing ideas float to the surface: all those cameras down at the subway station? Rumor has it that no one's watching the feed anymore. Even the pan-optic surveillance infrastructure is crumbling. No one is in control, even though everyone is fighting to maintain the illusion of control.

Farren's book alternates chapters following a handful of central characters, a selection of random citizens, samples from various IE fantasies, and the machinations of the corporate officers to give a fast-paced but comprehensive portrayal of Combined Media's infiltration and lockdown of human consciousness at the individual level. Two people emerge as significant point-of-view characters: Ralph, an alcoholic technician who services the IE beds, and Wanda-Jean, an underemployed pill popper who pursues her dreams of becoming a celebrity on Wildest Dreams. Neither of these characters are anti-corporate messiah material, nor are they meant to be. Farren's intention is to show how these two all-too-average beings respond to their growing awareness of the absolutely fucked nature of the world around themselves. Ralph and Wanda-Jean are both funny and grimly authentic.

Eventually, CM decides to offer IE at economy prices to draw in the masses. The implication is that only the most down and out and the super wealthy will remain outside of the VR fantasy trip. And then . . . a final showdown between the haves and the have-nots? Farren doesn't say. In the end, even the powers that be seem to be in thrall to the economic paradigm they've unleashed. No great visionary or rebel messiah shall emerge to save humanity from being enslaved by the New Corporate Predator State. It's a beast which cannot be defeated or satisfied. It can only self-destruct.

Monday, July 8, 2013

GAME REVIEW: THE CAT LADY (2012)

The Cat Lady

A Game by Harvester Games
Written and programmed by Remigiusz Michalski
Music composed by MICAMIC (Michal Michalski)
Additional music composed by Richard Henley and Pal Hjornevik
Interface programmed by James Spanos
Voice casting by Mark Lovegrove

Starring:
Lynsey Frost as Susan Ashworth
Brittany Williams as Mitzi
Margaret Cowen as the Queen of Maggots


Susan Ashworth lives in a grim apartment. She's all alone in this world. The apartment isn't huge, but it's more than enough for just one person.

 Except it wasn't meant to be a home for just one person. There was supposed to be a husband and a child there, too, but that's all gone now. It's just Susan and a bunch of cats. Her little feline army comes whenever she plays the piano. Susan loves these graceful beasts, but the neighbors hate them. The neighbors hate the cats, hate Susan, and hate her stupid, depressing noodling on the piano keys. Susan isn't too concerned about all that, though, because she's leaving the planet sooner rather than later.

 Susan wants to die. But she can't. She swallows a bunch of pills and ends up in an afterlife she never asked for. It's a bizarre otherworld filled with gruesome mutilated animal symbolism, beautiful fields of wheat blowing in the wind, and bombed out traffic tunnels filled with wrecked vehicles. This afterlife is ruled over by a sinister old woman known as the Queen of Maggots, who may be Death itself, some sort of dark god ruling over another dimension, or maybe the Queen is one of the fates of ancient mythology. Or she could  be God Herself in a classic mode of bloody, hell-fire and brimstone vengeance.

Susan wanders this afterlife with its nonsensical, ever-shifting geography until she encounters the Queen and is then charged with a mission: eliminate the Five Parasites. These Parasites are predatory human beings who the Queen predicts will soon be coming after Susan in mundane reality. Susan must fight them to the death if she is to survive. The Queen of Maggots also endows Susan with immortality. She can no longer die, so what's there to be afraid of? Of course, this "immortality" could just be Dumbo's magic feather.

How about that? A wanna-be suicide is told by some supernatural crone that now she has to fight to stay alive, but she's immortal, so no big deal.  And here she was all this time struggling to end it all. When it rains it pours.

And who is this Queen of the Maggots? Just another Grim Reaper? Is this a mission from God? From Satan? Or maybe this is just a hallucination. It feels real enough . . .

Susan awakes in a hospital bed. She failed to suicide properly, now she's been charged with a mission of murder. Ain't that some shit?

The Cat Lady is a dark tale of murder, rebirth, depression, and, possibly, hope that could have been made as a movie, written as a novel, or even composed in the form of a comic book, but its creators chose to realize it as a point-and-click adventure game. You know the drill. Move through various rooms. Click on items, furniture, the environment, and engage in conversations with the other people you encounter. Find the damn clues. Figure out how to get the story to advance. Wonder if you've made all the right choices. Maybe this is one of  those games with multiple endings where every choice is significant and results in a different ending sequence. What's the best ending? What's the worst? Which one do I really want to see? The point and click adventure game approach is used here primarily as a vehicle for the delivery of narrative. So if you're looking for a first person twitch shooter, a 100 hundred hour JRPG quest, or an open world sandbox style RPG this isn't the game you're looking for.

Visually, The Cat Lady offers some variation on its style of play. Most point and click adventure games have relatively small character sprites in larger environmental settings, but here we have a larger than usual view on the action. Many "shots," if you will, depict the characters in wide shots in context of the various locations, mostly indoors, that they inhabit. These wide shots are interspersed with occasional long shots, cuts to close-ups, and the whole frame is displaced at times by bizarre montages and collages of significant imagery. I got a strong sense of  the embodiment of the people in this game. They're rather tall for point and click characters, and more realistically proportioned than the sorts of people you expect to find in video games. Susan Ashworth is designed to look like a plausibly proportioned woman in her 40s, not a sexualized BDSM queen with an AK-47 in one hand and a katana in the other.

 No, I'm not saying this out of prudery. It's simply what this game is going for: plausible human characters presented in ways meant to evoke empathy and identification-rather than masturbatory fantasy-in the context of a story of supernatural intrigue. I stress the strength of these elements not out of some mindless puritanical morality or a fundamentalist disapproval of sex appeal in video games, but rather to point out the proper tone of seriousness-leavened with witty dialogue and pitch black humor-that the game creators have chosen to deploy in telling their tale. The effect is that one takes the story and the people in it quite seriously. Despite the limited interface I became engrossed in Susan Ashworth's journey. Her emotions, her struggles, her failings, and her strengths became my own as I played, much as I would enter into the heart and mind of the protagonist of an involving novel or movie, I was enraptured by this game.

And the interface is quite limited: arrow keys to move, click enter when you walk into hotspots, navigate options to manipulate objects, and choose dialogue paths. No asinine pixel-hunting, no added value arcade shooter sections, just you, the player, and Susan Ashworth navigating a compellingly gruesome narrative teetering between the worlds of the living and the dead. The Cat Lady is explicitly using a stripped down point-and-click adventure game interface to deliver narrative. It's a smart choice.

 A movie, with all the proper special effects and set design, would've been prohibitively expensive, even if the filmmakers cast cheap, but effective, unknowns in all the lead and supporting roles. The interactivity of a game like this brings the player a little bit closer to the action, and the very conventions of the point-and-click adventure game create a structure which encourages dramatic confrontations, inner monologues, self-doubt-it's not all that different from going to see theatre. Just think of your computer screen (or mobile device screen) as analogous to the proscenium arch which frames a live play.

You can also think of The Cat Lady as being in the genre of point-and-click video adventures that function very much like interactive graphic novels like Snatcher, Policenauts, and Rise of the Dragon. A comic book would probably be the only other economically viable form to do justice to The Cat Lady. It's much too provocative for horror cinema as it is currently practiced by Hollywood and other major film industries. What we are dealing with here is not a slasher story, a cheekily self-aware grindhouse parody, or Saw-style torture porn, but a series of confrontations where Susan must grapple with her own rage, anguish, and moral confusion.

Susan's main confrontations are with each of the Five Parasites. Each one is truly a sick fuck of one kind or another, all heartless predators who definitely deserve to die. But who is to do the killing? That's where moral conflict comes into play. Susan is no jaded executioner. She isn't a vicious psychopath.  Nor has she been conditioned by military training, political indoctrination, and/or religious brainwashing to mindlessly follow orders, dehumanize the enemy within her own mind, and practice increased aggression up to and including murder of her chosen target. Her only asset when confronting each of the Five Parasites is her immortality-which isn't quite what it seems to be . . . How does a depressed forty-something with no specialized training/indoctrination become a  killer?

Or maybe it's not as difficult as I make it out to be to go around the bend. Maybe we all have a murderer inside us. I have only to reflect on the anger I've felt anytime I've almost been run down in a walk lane by some mindless motherfucker violating my right-of-way while safely enclosed within an SUV, jacked-up pick-up truck, or a Prius to know something of Tetsuo levels of perfectly rational rage.

In any case, Susan's grotesque transformation into a dark avenger is fascinating and disturbing. Although the game doesn't come right out and say so, I think The Cat Lady is, to some degree, a bit of a riff on comic book vigilantes. The title itself, as well as Susan's bond with her army of cats, evokes Selina Kyle from DC Comics and specifically the version of Kyle depicted in the wonderfully demented 1992 movie Batman Returns. But Susan's supernatural qualities put her more in line with another DC Comics vigilante: The Spectre.

Remember the Spectre? He used to be Jim Corrigan, an iron-testacled Chicago cop brutally murdered by cowardly gangsters whose raw will to avenge himself brought him howling out of the grave. Look him up, he's an intriguing character.

The Cat Lady's Susan Ashworth is definitely more of a supernatural avenger like The Spectre, more so than the costumed martial arts masters like Catwoman, Batman, Rorschach, or The Question. Susan isn't a traumatized wealthy person obsessed with justice, like Bruce Wayne, and she isn't a psychopathic thief looking out for her own end, like Selina Kyle. Nor is she a philosophical striver like the Question, or a violent lunatic with a rigid view of the world like Watchmen's Rorschach. And unlike Jim Corrigan she doesn't have any godlike powers to warp the very fabric of reality.  Susan is basically a nobody, average in every way. Except that if you kill her she doesn't stay dead . . .

 Susan's average feelings and desires come to assume cosmic proportions as she re-examines her mundane past in light of her newly gained immortality. Her mind seems to expand into that other realm where she is given a chance to confront terrifying memories that have ballooned into macabre pocket dimensions reflecting the most traumatized aspects of her soul.  Unlike the DC Comics characters which she resembles somewhat her battles with the Parasites have a profound impact on her newly immortalized soul. She questions her motivations and the morality of killing. She also wants to figure out the true nature of the Queen of Maggots, and whether or not she's just the pawn of some dark god of death. Whenever she is killed, she seems to go back to that sinister, jumbled-up dimension of death. Susan's "real" world and the world of the dead begin to overlap in terrifying, brain-bursting fashion. What's real? What's a delusion? How is she to make sense of her existence as a human now that she has to straddle conflicting realities? And are there any other immortals like herself out there? If so, are they friend or foe?

Susan also has to confront the guilt of becoming a killer. She may be immortal, but what about her conscience? What's it like to live forever with death and vengeance on your mind? Hopefully, the cliche that time heals all wounds is true for immortals, also. Assuming it was ever true for mortal people, of course.

Actually, I think you would have to be immortal to have time heal your wounds. In real life, time wears us down to nothing. Time erodes our memories of pain and suffering. We don't heal so much as forget. We lose our capacity for memory. In severe cases, we become senile, and are afflicted with degenerative conditions that destroy our capacity to remember. At the end, we can barely understand our lives in the here and now, as the faces of people who've been with us over the years become strangers. But maybe a true immortal could heal with the passing of years. They would have to, since suicide would no longer be an option. I find it amusing to toy with the logic of immortality.

At the end of this game, I wondered what Susan Ashworth would do next. Game designer R. Michalski has crafted a deeply satisfying saga of supernatural trauma, vengeance, and moral doubt centered in an intriguing, formidable protagonist. I think it would be interesting to see The Cat Lady take up some new challenge with her powers. Perhaps to explore or create other realities. Of course, it's not for me to decide, but I cannot help but idly fantasize some new era in the immortal life of Susan Ashworth.


The Cat Lady trailer:





Saturday, May 11, 2013

Fourth Time On the Mic as a Podcast Guest Host



Fourth time at bat as a podcast co-host with my colleague and comrade JQMan. We talk at some length about the Ninja Gaiden OVA, the logic of cut scenes in Ninja Gaiden NES games, the Darkstalkers OVA, and then we get into a fairly interesting discussion about copyright law and illegal downloads within the context of the free market.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

GAME REVIEW: RETRO CITY RAMPAGE (2012)

Retro City Rampage
Developed and published by Vblank Entertainment

Designed by Brian Provinciano
Music composed by Leonard J. Paul, Jake Kaufman, and Matthew Creamer


"Just like in real life, food and drinks heal bullet wounds."
-from the Retro City Rampage instruction manual

"Law is sublimated violence."
-Alvin Toffler, Power Shift


A man with a lot of guns stalks the city. He steals cars. He takes life at will. He is burning to transform himself into a Hi-Score Street Warrior. Time travel is on the table. Stuffed suits in corporate boardrooms think they're masters of the universe, but our hero knows that violence, not globally scaled economic flim-flammery, is the true engine of power. He'll blast his way through the fabric of space and time, if necessary, rising through the criminal ranks, zooming up the underworld leader board-

Oh, but now he's had a setback. Our man had a hot streak of paradigm-shattering novelty slaughters racking up bodies civilian, police, military, ninja, cyborg, but he got cocky. He got killed. He had to start back at the heart of the city, with less cash in his pocket, and a reduced armory. Ain't that a bitch? Now he's got to do that fetch quest all over again. Time for a break. Time to hop over into the free-roaming dimension to work out some aggression, come back to that onerous fetch quest later. Or maybe he'll just hijack a bus, drive on the sidewalks, see how many kills he can chain together to unlock another achievement, maybe a new hairstyle, or a butterfly tattoo for his left pectoral, or a Yugo with mounted machine guns, or a mullet hair-do that doubles as a sapient AI street warfare consultant . . .

What new horror is this? A sub-par attempt at dystopian sci-fi perhaps hoping to pass itself off as a lost story by J.G. Ballard?

Is it the new Grand Theft Auto game? Close. It's a description of the game that has finally made good on the premise and the promise of GTA . . . Retro City Rampage. 

(Well, it's mostly a description of Retro City Rampage. I couldn't help but throw some of my cracked-out fan fiction daydreams, fantasies, and idle musings into the mix . . .)

Here's a video game with ambition. It wants to function as both a kind of imaginary artifact of a time that never quite existed, and, at the same time and in equal measure, it wants to out-GTA GTA.

Retro City Rampage is a work of alternate history speculative fiction in the guise of a Grand Theft Auto-style open world shoot-em-up action game. It takes the distinctive elements of GTA-ultraviolence; narco-business; driving way above the posted speed limit; mass murder of cops, bystanders, and criminal competitors; and, yes, stealing automobiles-and poses this science fictional scenario: what if someone had made GTA for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System?

Think about it. The elements were all there. The NES had violent shoot-em-up games like Contra, Super C, Ikari Warriors, The Punisher, and NARC. The NES had open world RPGs with battery backup game saving function like The Legend of ZeldaDragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, and Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. And the NES had oddball games like Dick Tracy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? both of which mixed driving and exploration with shoot-em-up missions and fetch quests.

Ultraviolence perpetrated with high-end full auto assault weapons . . . open worlds with complex quests(and in the case of Ultima IV statistically tracked moral complexities) . . . exploration . . . fetch quests . . . driving around looking for stuff . . . God's eye top-down perspective action much like the very first Grand Theft Auto  and also like in Ikari Warriors, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Dick Tracy, many others . . .  NARC and The Punisher were specifically concerned with organized criminal narco-business gangs, and both were surprisingly violent games to make it past then-puritanical Nintendo of America's censorship standards . . . you can't have any sex or politics in video games, but you can have authoritarian men with guns shoot street dealers in the face with high-explosive ammunition-nothing political about that . . . the basics, more or less, of a GTA-style game were all there, but spread out among disparate titles created by various companies.

If only someone with a synergistic vision, and an anti-authoritarian philosophy, had strode over the horizon--the advent of the Era of Open World Socially Irresponsible Action Console Gaming would've come much sooner. If this had been the case, what would be the vogue now, in 2013? The mind-it does boggle.

Retro City Rampage is the game that might have been made for the NES if that person of vision had manifested within the depths of the bygone 8-bit era of console gaming. I'm not so much talking about the actual story content you experience as you play the game. The game itself is presented as though it were such a creation from such an era. The graphics-character sprites, dialogue portraits, world/level design, vehicles-are studiously 8-bit. The music is glorious 8-bit chiptune, as are the sound effects. The dialogue and text within cut-scenes are intentionally written in a clunky, grammatically erroneous style suggesting a rushed,  in-house localization into English from a Japanese language original. Difficulty level is moderate spiked with a few truly frustrating missions, but you're given infinite lives and a "battery backup" to save your game. The controls work, but they are often a source of frustration when the action gets fast and frantic. You will die many times. You will come back, again and again, like some mythic hero across many lives. But will you win? Are you a bad enough dude to defeat Dr. Buttnick and rescue the flux combobulator form the Evil Good Guys?

That's what the overall impression of this video game is when viewed as a kind of imaginary artifact from an alternate dimension of reality. And, no, the good ol' NES probably wouldn't have had the power to actually handle Retro City Rampage. Remember, I'm talking about a piece of speculative-alternate-history-fiction-embodied-as-video-gaming-artifact here. RCR fudges the actual hardware capabilities in favor of a working gaming experience, but the 8-bit atmosphere-the set design, music, overall tone if you will-are spot-on. It's an enticing illusion of an 8-bit game that never was, never could've been, but we all wish could have been.

The actual gameplay and story content are more nakedly absurd. Retro City Rampage's story is a mish-mash of spoofs of Sonic the Hedgehog, Ghostbusters, The Dark Knight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Back to the Future, Robocop, Bionic Commando, Double Dragon, Metal Gear, Mega Man II, Smash TV, and many others. It's a Wendy's salad bar of goofs on video games, fast food, music, and movies from numerous eras woven into a frantic orgy of action that would work just as well as an Adult Swim cartoon (get those guys who made the Superjail cartoon to do it!) There are also satirical jabs at corporate malfeasance, death by fast food, pathological consumerism, the hypocrisy of moral guardians who want to blame video games for societal decay and violent crime, and good old fashioned All American worship of power and force. It all moves at a whipcrack pace, stringing together different parodies and homages and conflicting pop culture realities into a jittery, propulsive, sometimes frustrating, but often engrossing action gaming experience.

Game play is top-down, God's eye view POV action and larceny after the manner of the very first Grand Theft Auto game. You have to complete quests which are often timed and revolve around specific victory conditions. In-between quests you are more or less free to explore at your leisure. Legion achievements, many of them humorously useless, are unlockable in the course of finishing missions and achieving exotic styles of mass slaughter and destruction. It is this unapologetic emphasis on monstrous behavior which makes RCR more fun than the more serious minded GTA.

Did I mention that Retro City Rampage out-GTAs GTA? It does. Here's how: the free roaming mode. Basically, you can just run wild with unlimited money and ammunition and see how many tanks you can get chasing you once you've trounced the conventional police forces. Playing in this arena is totally at the player's discretion. It gives you a true feeling of out of control lawlessness and maniacal mayhem with zero pretensions to relevance, social commentary, or attempts at superficial insights into crime and criminals. Retro City Rampage unmasks the secret fantasy at the heart of those Grand Theft Auto games: to play an ultraviolent video game where you can use unlimited force, backed by unlimited resources, all to no good end. Even in the regular game where you have to complete missions and manage money and ammo the plot and story are totally amoral to such a cartoonish and satirical degree that I began to think back to that one time I tried to actually play through GTAIV seriously and found myself laughing at the faux-grittiness and inauthentic "hard-boiled" dialogue. I even had an acquaintance of mine try to convince me that the GTA games were "basically, like, The Wire of video games." Uh-huh. Retro City Rampage is as much a jab at  lazily written, over-hyped games striving for relevance as much as it is a chance to go totally berserk.

Even the story mode, which is, as already noted, an Adult Swim-ready mish-mash of lunacies, engaged me more than any of the story I've sampled from occasional and, frankly, half hearted engagements with any of the GTA titles. Bottom line: GTA bored and frustrated me with high difficulty, cliched characters and plots, whereas RCR addicted me from the title screen and made me laugh out loud.

RCR also has some intriguing surprises up its sleeve. I don't want to give anything away, but I'll share this wad of thoughts I had as I played through one of the final missions: This is kind of pissing me off. It's also kind of great. All along, I thought I was free to do what I wanted. But I was just on a track. Like every other game, really. Even the most sophisticated sandbox-style games . . . you're still ensnared in the logic of the game. You're still bound to choose from the range of options the game designers have built into the game. I mean, I can't just go up to a shopkeeper in Fallout 3 and ask to buy his right eyeball. Or walk up to Liquid Snake and say, "Hey, bro, I forgive you. There's no need for us to punch each other out on top of this flying battleship or whatever the hell this thing is. Why don't we just hang it up for today, scoot on over to the nearest Starbucks, get a couple of mocha frappes, and I'll show you some rad footage of rottweilers mating in the noonday sun on my codec."  Freedom in video games is just an illusion. Well, fuck me. 

By the way, I would love to see the Retro City Rampage movie if, if it were directed by Paul Verhoeven.

Just throwing that out there into the ether. Not unlike a prayer, really.

Retro City Rampage trailer:




Monday, March 18, 2013

GAME REVIEW: DEPRESSION QUEST (2013)

Depression Quest
an interactive (non)fiction about living with depression
by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler

Music by Isaac Schankler

Text on the screen, disquieting music, minimalist visuals consisting of abstract Polaroid-style photos of computer keyboard keys, room texture, and other mundane things.

Read the text: it's a second-person narrative (like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure Novels) of a twenty-first century city dweller coping with a mindless cubicle job, a mother that judges him for his lack of ambition in life, a careerist older brother named Malcolm, a sweet-natured girlfriend named Alex, and a hard drive full of half-realized creative projects. Depression suffuses this narrative like a narcotic heat haze that drains one's energy, and fills the mind crowding out pleasure, joy, and hope. Depression is an oppressor which squats in the mind, issuing a kind of defeatist internal monologue which deflates one's ambitions while also mocking the afflicted person's inability to heal themselves.

That's the insidious thing about this mental illness: it's not something you can just shake off, but the condition also makes it seem futile to even try to ask for help.

Just below the descriptive text are a series of choices which you can click on which will take you to another block of text. You can have anywhere from three to five choices, usually, but the top one or two are almost always crossed off, even though you can still read them. This seems to be the game's way of simulating the despair and self-recrimination which comes with depression: "I know I should make this choice, but I can't bring myself to do it. I'll never be well or even normal." Usually, these choices entail something highly idealized, like "Buckle down, shake off the bad feelings, and get to work!" or something like that. In the depths of depression, you know something's wrong, but you cannot help but compare yourself to unrealistic examples of confidence and success. It is the proverbial vicious cycle.

Below the choices are three status lines: one describes in a few sentences your overall level of depression and functionality; another tracks whether or not you're seeing a therapist and how that is affecting you; and a third tracks whether or not you're taking any anti-depressant medication. These three factors change as you click through the various chunks of text, perhaps eventually deciding to seek therapy, or choosing to do a course of anti-depressant medication. Or not.

Depression Quest is very much a Choose Your Own Adventure text game for adults. Instead of adventuring through a Cave of Time, exploring the vast insides of UFO 54-40, or trying to thwart an invasion by Space Vampires, here you must navigate a life afflicted by depression. There is no challenge in the usual sense of the term. There are no fighting combos, military strategies, or puzzles to master or solve. The decision tree is quite basic, but I found the text, which is highly generalized in its descriptions giving the story the overall sense that it could be taking place in any number of American cities, unexpectedly moving. The way the game gives you a range of choices, but crosses through some of them I thought was a rather brilliant way of suggesting the inner suffering of a person afflicted with depression, yet struggling to make good choices in life. It has been said that we can only choose from a range of choices which we actually know about, but how painful is it to see other, appealing possibilities yet be unable to explore those choices? It isn't exactly great literature, but it does give a reasonably realistic sense of what it's like to suffer from depression.

Which is what the creators of the game expressly intended. According to the Depression Quest website, this game was created to give people suffering from depression a sense that they are not alone and that healing is possible (if not easy), and to give a general audience a sense of what it's like to live with this mental illness, and what the daily struggles are for a person in such a situation. The noble goal of this game, which is available to play online for no charge (donations optional), is to create a sense of empathy, hope,  and understanding within the mind of the player.

And once you play through it once, play through it again, making different choices, and experiencing other consequences and outcomes. It is quite fascinating to explore.

Depression Quest is rather crude compared to the latest next generation console games like Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim, and others, but consider this: what if a game like Depression Quest got an entire company behind it, with an army of programmers, artists, musicians, voice actors, motion capture performers, writers, psychiatric consultants, and all the research and development assets that a major gaming corporation could muster? Right now, most games, even deep, highly detailed open world games with rich RPG fantasy environments have little to do with trying to creatively portray reality and reality's struggles. They are primarily escapist power fantasy entertainments.

 And that's all well and good. Nothing wrong with gaming just for fun. I myself love fantasy, science fiction, and ultraviolent shoot-em-ups with exploding heads, guts coiling about my blade, and oceans of blood everywhere.

But . . . that stuff does get old, doesn't it? I get kind of tired of seeing video games create scenarios which can only exist within a post-modern, anti-realist, self-referential computer fantasy world entirely without any relevance to what actual homo sapiens deal with on planet Earth right here, right now.

 Wouldn't it be intriguing if one of the large gaming companies hired the people who created Depression Quest, and put vast resources at their disposal.  Just for one game. Gave it the full production treatment with no compromises in realism and empathetic vision. Even if this new, next-gen version of Depression Quest didn't make any money it would be a truly worthwhile experiment. It would perhaps be the first time a major console game actually went beyond the usual fantasy escapism art (and it is an art) of most video games and into a realm of realist video game art-which would be a new artistic breakthrough for the medium.

It'd be a helluva thing. Here's hoping.

Click here for the Depression Quest website. Game is available to play for free, although they are requesting donations.

A rather unsettling trailer for Depression Quest:


Sunday, March 17, 2013

In the Name of Love, Farewell to Straylow: Superflat Killing Machine!

Stray met his end in battle against the Cancer Gods.
He didn't go easy.
Various assorted bandits, killers, mercenaries, and middle managers
All went out like champs,
Before the gods themselves had to step in, make things right/wrong.
Stray is survived by the all-too-human traitor, Hudson,
But I'm not one to judge.
The human in us
Always betrays the godly,
Wouldn't you agree?
Special thanks to all who inspired Straylow: SKM over these past few years.
Stray's on his way to Valhalla, now,
Or maybe just the nearest Denny's-difficult to figure, these days!
Personally, I'd go with Denny's, but Stray always had to take it the hard way . . .

Imagery by WDT2099/Galliford.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Just another puppet . . .


GAME REVIEW: RICHARD AND ALICE (2013)

Developed and Published by Denby Raze

Two people, Richard and Alice, are incarcerated within a rather cushy prison. They have flatscreen TVs showing vintage nature documentaries and old school anime; clean water for the shower and the toilet; computer with prison intranet email; and each of their cells are single occupancy. No overcrowding, no gangs, no violence, and the guards deliver the meals on time. No abuse from the prison authorities, either. Richard and Alice's prison cell doors face each other across the hall, so they have company, if not potential physical contact.

They get to talking. Richard's a former soldier locked up on charges of desertion. Alice is a homemaker accused of murder. They both miss their children who are still on the outside. They would prefer to have their children with them. Inside the prison.

The outside world is a dangerous, depraved place. Anthropocentric global warming has polarized world climate patterns into extremes of hot and cold. In England, Richard and Alice's part of the world, every day is snowy, at the least, and some days it's a full on blizzard. Civil society has broken down due to shortages of fuel, food, electricity, medicine, and potable water. Violent bandits who call themselves the Polar Bears roam the snowy wastes, raping, murdering, and pillaging at will. The only place where there still seems to be law and order is within the prison, and even that may be starting to break down.

Richard and Alice is a point-and-click adventure/mystery game that functions primarily as a vehicle for narrative, similar in this respect to 2011's To the Moon. None of the puzzles are particularly difficult. Fetch quests for items are confined to relatively small locales. Everything is eminently logical (with a couple of exceptions, perhaps . . .), with none of the near-mystical puzzle design of a game like Myst, nor any of the harsh techno-logic of the hardest puzzles of 2012's Resonance. Hardcore gamers looking for extreme challenge and difficulty will not find it here. Richard and Alice is not an action or role-playing game. I would liken the experience of playing it to reading a short story, or maybe watching a movie. It reminded me of the 2008 movie version of Jose Saramago's novel Blindness. 

So if you want to experience a dark science fiction story told via the medium of retro 16-bit (maybe even 14-bit) overhead perspective graphics, effectively atmospheric music, and sharply composed dialogue, Richard and Alice delivers the goods for the most part. The story does stumble in a couple of places, and I wasn't crazy about the visuals. There is almost no character animation in terms of facial expressions or emotions, and this works against some moments and scenes. The dialogue and music mostly pick up the dramatic slack, but I think more expressive character portraits would've helped.  But the game doesn't compromise in the areas of tone, mood, and theme.

Oh, and there's no voice acting. It's all text, and you have to read it. This didn't bother me, since the dialogue is quite good (and authentically British I might add), and I like to read. If you don't like to read, well, that's your problem.

Richard and Alice is the first commercial offering from indie developers Denby Raze. It has narrative juice and thematic integrity, good music, not-so-spectacular graphics, sharp dialogue, and it's short. Some may feel they are not getting their money's worth paying to play such a brief game. I would rather play a short game that says all it needs to say then exits the stage, rather than dragging things out, and I do think Denby Raze has every right to make money from their creative efforts. But some may feel they've been shortchanged. Caveat emptor, all that.

I have done my level best to say as little about the actual story content of Richard and Alice as possible. It would be pointless to give anything away, as this game hinges on its turns of narrative more than anything. But if you do play through this game, ask yourself this: is the ending of Richard and Alice the absolute ending, all she wrote, the rest is silence, that's all folks? Or is it just the first act?

Personally, I'm kinda hoping it's just the first act. We only really get to know one of these two characters. I'd kinda like to learn about the other one, too. I'd come back for another installment even if the graphics were the same. These Denby Raze guys got a strong line on dialogue, theme, and story, so here's hoping we see more from them down the line.

Denby Raze website:
www.denbyraze.com

Trailer:





Thursday, January 31, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: BULLET BALLET (1998)

Written/Directed/Edited/Camera Operated by Shinya Tsukamoto
Music by Chu Ishikawa
Costume Design by Hiroko Iwasaki
Produced by Igarashi Maison

Starring

Shinya Tsukamoto as Goda
Kirina Mano as Chisato
Takahiro Murase as Goto
Tatsuya Nakamura as Idei
Kyoka Suzuki as Kiriko

A Kaijyu Theatre Production



"In dreams, you can kill people, and never get caught. Tokyo is just one big dream. A dream."
--as spoken by Idei in the movie Bullet Ballet


In Tokyo, a woman named Kiriko (Kyoka Suzuki) decides to shoot herself in the head with a Smith and Wesson Chief Special, a mean little gun to be sure. She has a good job. She shares a comfortable apartment with her long-time boyfriend who works as a commercial director and brings down a good income. This suicide, and the violent instrument which allows it, seem strangely arbitrary. It seems that maybe Kiriko decided to shoot herself just to see what would happen. Because she happened to lay hands on the right tool, the gun. She probably wouldn't have done it if there had been no firearm to hand. She probably would've just taken sleeping pills, ended up in the hospital, and maybe some couple's counseling. But the gun in hand . . . no coming back from that.

Gun metal black and white, hand-held camera on a long zoom--the streets of Tokyo seem to quake and jitter with some immanent, highly unstable energy. An upper middle class man named Goda (Shinya Tsukamoto) goes looking for a gun, hitting up people he observes conducting narcobusiness on the streets, and insisting that he's got the money to pay for a Smith and Wesson Chief Special. But he's not too sharp about it, and various drug dealers and pimps tell him to his face that he's basically a fucking idiot, that you don't do business cash in hand where everybody can see what's going down. Eventually Goda gets ripped off  by a small time crook who sells him a water gun full of dirt. Goda doesn't have a clue about how to make moves in the street life. But he is determined and resourceful. He likes to work with his hands, make things. Goda can't buy a handgun, not even on the black market, in a country where private gun ownership is basically illegal, so he resolves to build his own gun.


Poor Goda. If only he were stalking American suburban communities, where even good middle class children can cop assault weapons and exercise their murderous power fantasies over their fellow children, their parents, whoever they happen to want to punish for their misery, paranoia, and alienation. Goda, my man, you need to give Japan the slip, and hop a plane to Eagleland, the Land of the Free, where the right to bear arms in the War of All Against All is backed up not by dimebagging street dealers, but by oligarchic corporate lobbies like the NRA, who preach the Gospel of Universal Armament. USA, my friend, where it's easier to wage Forever Wars foreign and domestic than it is to get any kind of universal healthcare working--this is the place for you, brother! Your severe and obsessive nature will find not only expression in this land of lunacy but . . . a kind of balm of acceptance. You'll just be one more loony for the bin here in America.

But Goda's a hardcore Tokyoite down to his gritty soul, and a trip to the USA is never considered, although he does spend some time on the Internet trying to figure out how he might smuggle a gun into Japan illegally. Gun enthusiasts in chat rooms with online handles like "John Wayne," "A Better Tomorrow," and "Ringo Kid," tell him he should order all of the components from separate manufacturers and assemble them himself. One dude tells him he should buy a model gun and modify it to shoot for real. Goda decides to go the DIY route and scavenge parts from junkyards. He has to consult with a machinist for some specialist work, but for the most part he does the job himself. He even mixes his own gunpowder, handcrafts his own artisan ball-tipped (how retro!) cartridge ammunition.

(Hey, wouldn't it be amusing to see Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen manufacturing their own weapons in an episode of Portlandia? Sometimes the vegan brownies and the custom-refurbished fixed-gear bicycle aren't enough. Sometimes you gotta get tough. Instead of putting a bird on it, you just might have to put a bullet in it!)

Goda's able to pursue these hobbies because he has a cushy day job as a director/editor of television commercials. But his obsession with seeking out the Gun, the power of life and death, Zeus's own bolt-thrower for the twentieth century and beyond, starts to spill over into his money gig. Instead of cutting clips to sell cars or sake or whatever, he starts putting together montages of war--WWI trench slaughter, nuclear tests, aerial bombing campaigns, artillery tests on houses, and all of it anchored to a repeated image of a hand firing a snub-nosed revolver. Goda is chasing this idea that he can have destruction in his fist, power over life and death, and be a one man army. With a gun in his hand, Goda's twisted logic seems to dictate, he can be the one to wage a war--a Nation of One waging World War 3 against stark reality.

The commercial director's obsession with getting armed recalls Travis Bickle's legendary transformation into a killing machine as Goda stalks his plush apartment with his handmade gun, firing into the mirror, and so on. But the highly internalized nature of Goda's quest for destructive power seems to echo Tsukamoto's earlier movies Tetsuo the Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer. In the Tetsuo movies, normal humans are mutated into hyper-aggressive freaks bristling with cannon and serpentine drill penises--biomechanical machines of war, murder, and rape.

In Bullet Ballet, the action is more realistic, but the movie provides highly stylized imagery of shadows and light, of self-burning and mutilation cut to Chu Ishikawa's pounding industrial-grade music suggesting psychological derangement as opposed to a more fanciful  full body transformation. Goda wants to become the Iron Man, the Bodyhammer, the Nation of One, but, since he's caught up in a more mundane version of cinematic reality,  all he can do is pick up a gun or burn himself with a piece of metal. He can never quite get human cells and metal to merge.

Ah, poor Goda . . .if only you had an enemy to focus your aggression upon. If only you had a side to take, a war to fight, an army to join . . .

One day, perhaps before the beginning of this saga, Goda sees a girl on the subway platform seemingly about to throw herself in front of an oncoming train. Goda intervenes to pull the girl back from the abyss, and she attacks him, giving him a nasty bite on the heel of his hand. This girl's name is Chisato (Kirina Mano). Chisato works as an occasional prostitute and drug dealer with a gang of young punks who work suit-and-tie jobs during the week, and engage in small-time gangsterism on the weekends. Goda becomes obsessed with Chisato because . . . well, she is kind of cute with her micro-skirt and leather jacket. But it's also the suicidal thing. Goda sees in Chisato someone who has embraced the dark side, someone who nakedly courts death, and seeks out opportunities to get into street fights. Winning and losing aren't a big deal to Chisato. Goda has been a striving careerist all his life. It's love at first bite with Goda and Chisato.

 Goda starts stalking the underground club where Chisato hangs out, but he runs afoul of the rest of Chisato's gang who think the guy's some kind of too-old-for-the-scene creepazoid. In particular, young punk  and would-be gang leader Goto (Takahiro Murase) really starts to hate on Goda. For one thing, Goto thinks he's Chisato's steady (he isn't), and for another Goto starts to realize that Goda might be tougher than he looks. Don't discount the bourgeois strivers, young man, they got plenty of pent-up depravity to spare.

Goto's not the real leader of the gang, however. That would be the diabolical Idei (Tatsuya Nakamura), who owns the underground club where the young punks gather to rob salarymen, have sloppy sex, and shoot heroin. Idei supplies the drugs and the real estate, but he doesn't seem to want to expand or become a power in the underworld. Idei is a kind of anti-gangster. His game isn't so much to become the next Scarface as it is to incarnate a hipper, more rock'n'roll version of Shoko Asahara. Idei's trip is to see just how fucked up things can get before it all comes crashing down around his head. Life is just a violent dream with no purpose or possibility of escape so do what thou wilt. Idei is less a gangster than a cult leader disguised as a gangster.

Goda gets sucked into the gang's street wars with rival outfits which take on an expressionistic, phantasmagorical  look of shadows and smoke all illuminated with the searing flashes from a robotic welding arc. The gang rumbles happen like storm systems rolling across the land--they're just arbitrary manifestations of rage and violence, stage managed for maximum theatricality by the brilliant Idei who always knows the right aesthetic moment to shut things down for the evening. In the nightmare world of Bullet Ballet the human  propensity for violence takes on a perversely recreational air. Everybody ought to go join a gang and find an Enemy. It's just the thing to do, you know?

But some of these players are seeking a more authentic form of darkness. Chisato and Goda are both playing with the fire of self-destruction. So is Idei, but Idei wants the whole world to burn with him. Goto is still caught between bourgeois values and his desire to go whole-hog with everyone else's suicide trip. Goto, for all his macho posturing, isn't a true killer. But maybe that's because he hasn't found the right target . . .

Bullet Ballet is a black and white masterpiece of madness, self-loathing, and grandiose fantasies of self-destruction. Although it seems to be the first Tsukamoto film to take a more realistic approach to exploring his essential themes of radical transformation, the city of Tokyo, and the consequences of violence, Bullet Ballet creates its own sinister reality. The various crazed, self-torturing characters bounce off each other, exchanging obliterating impulses, outlooks, and roles seemingly on contact in this insane drama of interpersonal warfare.


Bullet Ballet trailer: