Saturday, January 31, 2009

let the right one in

Let the Right One In is like no other vampire movie I've seen. It's a Swedish flick, based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Our protagonist is Oskar, a 12-year old boy living in a suburban community near Stockholm with his mother. He is blonder-than-blonde, slight and frail, and the target of incessant bullying at school. We also quickly learn that he's a bit obssessed with "true crime" and keeps a somewhat disturbing scrap-book of murders tucked under his mattress.

One day, a sickly looking girl, Eli, moves into the apartment next door. The two become friends, much as one might expect. And yet there's something not quite right about Eli: she's never out in the daylight, she seems far more mature than her years belie, and she alternatively appears to be on the brink of death or brimming with health.

She's a vampire, of course, and the filmakers don't attempt to hide this fact from the audience for long. Instead of feeding on random victims herself, she sends out her "father" (more a caretaker) to murder young men in the community, drain their blood into a jug, and bring it back to the apartment. Things get complicated when her caretaker gets caught in the act and Eli is forced to fend for herself.

Throughout, Let the Right One In is a poignant love story between awkward pre-adolescents, much as we've seen before. But Eli and Oskar's relationship develops in a fascinating direction, and their evolving co-dependency is at once heart-warming and absolutely horrific. I love how carefully the movie progressed, and how it fully embraced the classic horror dictum (all but forgotten in modern America) that "less-is-more." With approximately 15 minutes left to go in the film, I had decided that it was good but not great. However, those last minutes, and especially the final scene on the train, push Let the Right One In into the realm of truly exceptional.

Be warned: an American remake is planned for release in 2010 and is likely to be far bloodier, extreme, and mundane.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

kingdom of loathing

Although my sabbatical is fast becoming a distant memory and the school semester has begun, I have been lucky enough to stumble upon a couple "casual gaming" gems as of late. Casual games allow you to blow off some steam after a long day without taxing your brain too much, and take a break from writing without wasting hours of your time. You should be able to get in and get out quickly and safely. Ya know?

Today I'll tell you about Kingdom of Loathing, which just might be a unique experience in the gaming world. First off, it's completely free (although the hosts do accept donations to keep the site up and running). You can visit here now and get started immediately. Ostensibly, KoL (shorthand) is a browser-based role-playing game with loads of content, pop-culture references, and absurd humor. It borrows (and mocks) heavily from classic RPG-systems, like Dungeons & Dragons, allowing for character creation, development (levelling), questing, and item collection. But trust me, you'll never take it too seriously - and if you do, it just means you're probably having one hell of a good time.

So, you're an advtenurer ("An Adventurer is You!") in the Kingdom of Loathing. You can choose one of six classes: Seal Clubber, Turtle Tamer, Pastamancer, Sauceror, Disco Bandit, or Accordion Thief. These sound meaningless, but it turns out that the first two are melee-oriented, the next two magic-oriented, and the last two, roguish. Your interface looks like this:

This is all browser-based, so you'll be playing in Firefox or Safari or whatever you use. To visit a location, or check your inventory, you simply click on the corresponding icon. Pretty intuitive. Once you start playing, you'll soon find yourself on a quest, fighting monsters, looting items. Everything in this game is tongue-in-cheek, and the humor is obscure and witty. I often find myself looking up pop-culture references that I don't recognize. For example...

Can you place the "I'm comin', Elizabeth!" reference?

You'll also note that the artwork is predominantly of the stick-figure variety, which suits the experience perfectly. Remember, this is a casual game - not a multi-million dollar effort like Fallout 3. Here's another example of a recent scenario I encountered, in a location called "South of the Border"...

So, who are the two roosters fighting in this cock-fight? And who would you bet on? I decided to opt out, walking away in disgust and this is what you get...

Great. This is what I mean by clever writing that keeps you smirking all the way through. There is so much of this, you almost can't believe it - but then you realize that the creators have been adding content to this since 2003 and the process is still going on. It's the ultimate in expandable, modifiable content.

Even the descriptions of items and your equipment are amusing:

Warning: KoL does possess some serious "adventure-game" obscurity. If you don't know what that means, think back to Zork - or Myst - and remember some of the wacky things you needed to do to move the game forward. As in "climb the tree to find the key in the bird's nest which you then use to open the fireplace to find the zombie finger which you use to poke the dragon...etc..." KoL isn't quite that bad, but you will have to think outside-the-box on occasion and engage in some trusty trial-and-error.

But I still haven't mentioned the best part of KoL. To do anything meaningful in the game (like fight a monster, or craft an item, or make some food), you need to spend an "adventure" point. You only get 40 of these adventure points per day. And that's a real day, like our own 24 hour cycle. This puts a brilliant, creative limit on how much time you can actually waste playing KoL on a daily basis. You can usually breeze through your allotted 40 adventures in under an hour. Of course, you can drink cocktails and eat meals to gain adventures, but ultimately you'll have to put it all aside and wait until tomorrow (or the next day). I actually wish more games had some kind of built-in time limit like this. It extends the experience, and forces you to appreciate every moment the game offers you - much like slowly chewing every morsel of a delicious meal.

Overall, I give it a hearty recommendation, even if you decide to give up on it after a few sessions. And thanks to RPS and FP for pointing me in the direction of KoL.

Monday, January 19, 2009

the arrival

I've been meaning to blog about this book for about a year now. Hassan gave me a copy, my first introduction to the astoundingly great illustrator Shaun Tan.

The Arrival is a wordless telling of the immigrant experience. Using beautifully rendered sepia-toned drawings, Tan combines the mood of Ellis Island era photographs with fantastical landscapes unlike any we have ever imagined.

We join our nameless protagonist as he seeks a better life, away from the shadowy monsters bringing grief to his homeland. Like every immigrant before us, we leave behind everything familiar and beloved, seeking opportunity and a better life.

We enter a world unfamiliar. Day-to-day objects are new to us, language unintelligible, the creatures and foods perhaps a little frightening.

What can we do for work in this strange new land, without language? The skills we came here with are useless in this new place, where everything must be learned from the beginning.

We miss our family and the comforts of home.

Our protagonist is shown the ways of his new home by a series of strangers, each of whom has their own immigration story to tell. Each of these side-stories are achingly familiar and yet other-worldly:

As every immigrant has hoped and will hope, our family is eventually reunited. This new land does become our home. The day-to-day objects of our new life merge with those of the cultures we come from.

This picture book does more to express my sentiments on human kindness and struggle than any other book I've encountered. Tan clearly put enormous effort into making his story both timeless and universal. It is at once the story of Hassan's parents, my Finnish ancestors, Tan's own father (who immigrated from Malaysia to Australia), and the countless strangers who leave their homes and cross borders everyday all over the world.

Side note: check out the cute stuffy based on Shaun Tan's new-world creature:

You can read about him here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Been spending the last couple days scouring the web for anything Banksy. Briefly, he's an infamous British graffiti artist, who's work ranges from the playful to darkly political. For his outdoor pieces, he primarily makes use of stencils, brilliantly incorporating aspects of the "canvas" into his creation. Here are some of my favorites, somewhat organized by content:



(read more about Banksy's anti-Paris Hilton prank, here)

"The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little." —Banksy

Political/Social Commentary

This is just a sampling, you'll find many more strewn throughout the www...

Visit here, for some of the images he painted on the Israeli/West Bank barrier.

Read here about the fake blow-up doll Guantanamo detainee he put on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland.

Go here to see the murals he painted in derelict New Orleans, post-Katrina.

And watch Children of Men again, looking for two of his pieces in-film.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

the killing joke

One of the many things I appreciated about the recent Batman film, The Dark Knight (2008), is how the Joker's background and raison de'etre are kept appropriately mysterious and vague. In two separate scenes, one with the gangster Gambol and one with Rachel Dawes, the Joker reveals the origins of his facial scars. The two stories, of course, are at odds with each other - suggesting that neither is true. Herein lies the horror of the Joker: he refuses to provide us with an easy explanation for his existence. If he was understandable, perhaps just "insane" from some traumatizing childhood experience, we could package him away into a safe little box along with Two-Face, Scarecrow, et al. and reduce his existence to consumable ideas & theories.

Another possibility, often cited, is that the Joker is Batman's ethical doppleganger. If Batman did not exist, neither would the Joker - and as long as Batman haunts Gotham, so will his evil twin. The Joker is fond of taunting Batman with this dilemma, mostly to piss him off. Sometimes this version of the creation myth is made more literal by having Batman be the cause of Joker's disfigurement. This is the storyline revealed in The Killing Joke (1988) by Alan Moore, one of the first graphic novels I ever read. The Joker starts out as a two-bit comic trying to make ends meet for himself and his pregnant wife:

Odd to feel sympathy for the Joker, no? But you gotta love that bow-tie.

In increasing desperation, he falls in with the wrong crowd, unknowingly taking on the role of the Red Hood in a doomed robbery attempt of the Ace Chemical Processing plant. Batman shows up, and "the Joker" (at this point unnamed) jumps into a vat of chemicals to escape.

His skin burns and discolors, and he emerges as Bolland's archetypal Joker:

If you've only seen the movies, you may recall that Tim Burton's version of the Joker borrowed heavily from this myth - providing a relatively straightforward case for why the Joker hates Batman so much.

But this is a little too convenient and doesn't offer the Joker any of the psychological depth he deserves. In the end, it's not any specific trauma that creates the Joker, it's not the Batman - it's us. It's this crazy, fucked up world. Here's the Joker's monologue to Batman (but really, to us), explaining it all:

I mean, what is it with you? What made you what you are? Girlfriend killed by the mob, maybe? Carved up by some mugger? Something like that, I bet. Something like that...

"Something like that happened to me, you know. I... I'm not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! HA HA HA!

"But my point is... My point is, I went crazy. When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! Why can't you?

"I mean, you're not unintelligent! You must see the reality of the situation. Do you know how many times we've come close to world war three over a flock of geese on a computer screen? Do you know what triggered the last world war? An argument over how many telegraph poles Germany owed its war debt creditors! TELEGRAPH POLES! HA HA HA HA HA!

"It's all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for... it's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side? Why aren't you laughing?

Ironically, it's more sobering to consider the possibility that we, as a society, have created a breeding ground for evil men. When we see the big bad black man being carted off to prison, we want to believe in simple explanations for human criminality and violence: bad neighborhood, bad parents, bad schools. But when we're forced to ponder why those bad neighborhoods exist in the first place, when we begin to consider our own personal role in the propagation of inequality and hate, our self-righteous indignation might well fade into uncomfortable laughter.

Like many other fans of the genre, I find the Joker to be a particularly interesting and even appealing villain. Ultimately, maybe it's because we sense that he's just smarter than the rest of us. He's decided he doesn't want to play the "civilization" game anymore (I loved the scene in The Dark Knight when he burns that giant pile of money). He's ripped off the rose-colored glasses and sees the world in all its ugliness. He respects the Batman more than us, because at least Batman has ideals and values - which, though absurd and meaningless, are worthy of admiration. But he has no sympathy for the sheep and wishes we'd all just get a little perspective.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

fallout 3: hear me vent

Fallout 3 is an undeniably cool game. If you check back to one of my original posts, you'll see clear evidence of my love for post-apocalyptic fare, in any medium. And even though I can't race around in a yellow Interceptor Ford Falcon XB sedan with a flamethrower attached to my steering wheel, Fallout 3 does provide one hell of an open-ended, immersive experience. All of modern-day Washington DC and its surrounding area is re-created, down to individually recognizable streets and buildings - except that nuclear devastation has coated everything with a colorless gray. Your first glimpse of a ruined (but somehow still standing) Washington monument is, may I say, moving. Since this is Bethesda (makers of the extraordinary Oblivion, to which this is clearly a successor), you'll marvel at the desolate landscape and lose yourself examining constellations in the brilliant night sky (no more of that nasty light pollution to worry about).

But god damn it, I don't understand some of the design decisions they made. And it's pissing me off. First of all: why create a fantastically detailed world, where finding even a random lawnmower blade in an abandoned garage can be useful, when you concurrently bury it behind a frustrating & obtrusive U.I.? Since Falllout 3 is a an RPG, keeping track of your stats, weapons, ammo, items, health, quests, and notes is a near-constant process. Before many battles, you'll want to switch weapons to match your enemy - before crossing the wasteland, you'll want to refer to your global map. All of this information is, unfuriatiately, presented via a "Pip-Boy" electronic device attached to your wrist. It's supposed to be clever. It's not. It sucks. Consider:

crappy UI highlighted by yours truly to make a point

Instead of using the entire screen to present information (which would be logical), the designers thought it would be "cool" to crowd the most important details of the game into less than half of the available screen space and use a retro-futuristic green font. This wouldn't be as annoying as it is if I didn't have to TAB to this interface at least once/minute.

Beef number 2: the hyper-cool V.A.T.S. combat system is, I've decided, fundamentally retarded. For those that don't know, Fallout 1 and 2 were turn-based games in which your character had a set number of "action points" to spend each turn on moving, firing weapons, etc. In all honesty, I found the system frustratingly slow and clunky, especially when compared to the much more elegant pause-when-you-want system adopted by the similar Baldur's Gate series. Even though it pissed off a lot of fan-boys, Bethesda ditched the outdated isometric, turn-based gameplay (see insert) and opted for a modern 3D, FPS-esque presentation for Fallout 3. And in my opinion, this was a good decision. The first-person presentation and real-time motion allows for a much more immersive role-playing experience with combat that frightens and threatens rather than bores you to tears.

However, they fully copped out with the Vault-Tec Assited Targeting System. When combat starts in Fallout 3, you can press " V" to utilize V.A.T.S., and a screen like this will pop up:

You can now spend "action points" (which otherwise never appear in gameplay) to target specific body-parts of your enemy. The percentages represent your chances to hit those particular regions. In theory, this sounds cool. Want to prevent that Super-Mutant from turning your face into a bloody pulp? Target his right arm, and cripple it so that he can't swing his sledgehammer.

In practice, it's annoying and silly. 90% of the time, you'll find yourself targeting the head because a well-placed shot there leads to a critical hit wherein you'll decapitate your enemy. Furthermore, since ammo is a rare and valuable resource (as it should be), you'll likely close the distance with your enemy as much as possible (to increase your %'s), activate VATS (freezing combat), and then blow him/her/it to hell. At its best, it's a thoroughly unrealistic but kinda fun thrill that disrupts the flow of the game. At its worst, it feels like a cheat. I just don't get it. Bethesda: you can't have your radioactive cake and eat it too.

I'll probably keep playing the damn thing, mostly because the world is fun to explore, the quests are interesting, and there's an insane amount of cursing going on. Yes, it basically is "Oblivion with guns" (albeit NC-17 instead of PG) and I'm mostly fine with that. But yet again, here's an example of a game that could have been so much more but finds itself periodically wandering into mediocrity because of some blatantly poor design decisions. Let's hope the modders can make this the proper masterpiece it so badly wants to be.