Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Videogames as Videogames: New Super Mario Bros. 2

Want to read my vaguely smartsy ramblings on a Super Mario Bros. game? Smartsy ramblings that include such passages as:

Where most major franchises are striving to imitate Hollywood and take notes from the language of film, Mario’s games feel more like ballet. There is less a story here than there is the suggestion of one; our emotional attachment to the character springs not from dialogue but from the grace of movement, form and balance in association with vivid musical compositions. The music informs the movement, the movement informs the level design, and so on; each individual element crafted with what must be exhaustive meticulousness to tie into a larger whole. When combined with brightly colored, vivid stereoscopic visuals that make you feel like you’re staring at a magical shoebox diorama come to life, New Super Mario Bros. 2 becomes something quite special: a video game that knows it’s a video game, that likes the fact that it’s a video game, that joyfully uses and expands upon the language of video games. When one attempts to explain what makes pressing a series of buttons that causes a virtual Italian man to jump on fishes with bright, golden trails of coins trailing from their butts fun, one has realized how indescribably different this medium can be from any other when it rejects Hollywood and embraces its gamey-ness. 

Then head on over here to read the whole thing! If not, head on over there anyway and tell me how much I suck in the comments section.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Darkest Timeline

The episode in which an evil version of one of the show's central characters threatened to saw another character's arm off, a murder took place in a secret society of Air Conditioning Repair Men, a previously assumed-dead character made a startling re-appearance and an old Korean War Vet (who fought for the North Korean Army) reviewed potato chips on his video blog, was recognized and will be remembered as one of Community's "normal" episodes. The two episodes that aired before it were the "weird" ones. Those ones involved the Greendale 7 getting warped into a 16-Bit video game created by Pierce's dead, racist, 100-year-old dad; or organizing an Ocean's 11-style heist to rescue the Dean of the school, who has been kidnapped by an ex-Spanish teacher--who at the beginning of the season was living in the school's air vents, but who has now turned the school into a fascist dictatorship.

Community has created a show predicated on jumping the shark every week, and as a result, it has become a show incapable of jumping the shark.

But see, it isn't quite that simple. Lots of shows do "weird." Family Guy does "weird." That terrible Napoleon Dynamite show was "weird."  Neither of them make you tear up with genuine sentimentality. Neither of them make you care about their characters, their lives or their relationships with one another. The whole point is that you don't care. That's why it's funny when Meg gets run over by a car or Peter breaks his leg and nobody watches Napoleon Dynamite so I can't even reference that. "Weird" shows are created for the sole purpose of creating characters that are easily disposable, or at least easily malleable. You can brutally injure them or have them be attacked by zombies or even kill one of 'em off, and none of it matters, because it's all part of the "weird" package.

In Community, it mattered. Weird as the episodes were, when Pierce got brutally injured, it lead to a season-long story arc that lead from everywhere to acts of extreme villainy to drug addiction, culminating in a Western Style shoot-out with the rest of the study group. When Starburns was killed, it lead to a series of events that culminated in the Greendale 7 starting a riot and getting expelled from school for the next several episodes, pushing their sanity to the breaking point. And when zombies attacked them it drove Shirley into an unlikely relationship that served as a dramatic backbone to the rest of the season. And the "weird" thing was, we cared. The stories were told with such craft, the character had been developed so vividly, and their relationship to the rest of the group mattered so much that, even though the idea behind something like the zombie episode is pure silliness, the episode had a genuine sense of terror and tension. Because Community isn't a Weird Sitcom in the traditional sense--it's a Weird Sitcom that uses its ridiculous scenarios as jumping-off points for uncommonly human, grounded, emotionally resonant stories. Which is to say, Family Guy could very well make a hilarious episode involving Yatzi, creepy flaming Troll dolls and multiple timelines--but only Community could do all that and still find a way to make you tear up a little at the end.

This is what's at stake. Dan Harmon, the creator of the show, has been fired from Community by Sony Pictures Television and won't be returning for its recently-announced fourth season in any capacity. This is stupid. This is stupid because it's 2012. Forget the black President--we have a black hologram of a rapper now. I can watch Breaking Bad episodes on a rectangle the size of the palm of my hand while I'm on the toilet. And after I'm done, I can hit a few buttons to write this sentence and send it to a magical place where anyone in the world can read it on similar rectangles while they're on the toilet. That magical place is called The Internet. Dan Harmon getting fired from Community doesn't make any sense because it's 2012, and we have The Internet.

Now, this "we have the Internet" statement is not news to you or I. But it just might be news to Sony Picture Studios, because, by golly, if they knew the Internet existed and they knew the kind of crazy stuff that was on it, I'm not sure if we'd be in this situation. Community, you see, is one of those shows that's sort of created a community. Most all shows now with any kind of a fan base have one. But Community's community is different. Community is a show that, through that magical Internet, has brought together an incredibly dedicated group of the very sort of people that the show portrays so well--flawed people. Outsiders. People in transitional, awkward, unsure stages of their lives. People who don't fit into television archetypes, who didn't argue amongst their friends over which one of them was Ross or which one of them was Rachael or Joey or the dumb one because they were smart enough to know that Friends was just Seinfeld with pretty people and a monkey. Community didn't attract people looking to latch onto something bigger than themselves--that's what LOST was for. Community was for people who wanted to latch onto something that understood, accepted, and welcomed exactly who they already were. And now that I think about it, Seinfeld had a monkey, too.

I now realize that I started using the past tense up there. Call it a Freudian Slip. See, Sony does know that Community has a super dedicated fan base, and they assume that this fan base is comprised of a bunch of drooling loyalists who'll follow the show till the ends of the earth as long as we get Abed saying "Cool cool cool" every now and again, but if they used their gosh-darned internets, they would know that the kind of fan base it has isn't the sort of fan base that would just be totally cool with the losing its creator and show-runner. Because fans of Community--the really obsessed fans--know that Dan Harmon is Community. As many writers have pointed out this week, Community is one of the few television shows that can truly be said to be one man's vision, and told with one man's voice. The Simpsons was created by one person, but the writing staff has been switched around so much over the past couple of decades that it can hardly be said to have one man's voice anymore. But one of the reasons that Community fans tune into the show is because of Dan Harmon, not in spite of him. The man has something to say, and every week, we're excited to see what that is, and how he's going to choose to say it. Sure, a new show-runner and new writers might whip up some funny jokes and throw us a stop-motion Christmas episode, but no one will be able to use it as a chance to work in some of the best character development in the entire series, not to mention provide commentary on the very nature of holidays and television itself.

But anyway, I was going to make a point with all that internet stuff. It's coming. The fact is, aside from exactly three shows--The Simpsons, Law & Order: Whatever, and SNL--there aren't shows that can just live on indefinitely any more. These three shows have formulas. They have very successful formulas. They were created with the function of being able to keep the core essence of their being no matter what talented person was writing or directing them. Community does not have a formula. The core essence of this show is not having a formula. Sony's assertions that they want to "broaden" Community so it can appeal to a wider audience suggests that, three seasons in, they want to start to slap a formula on this thing. And that simply doesn't make a whole lot of sense. At some point, no matter how "weird" that hermaphrodite baby of yours is, you're going to have to start raising it as either boy or a girl. And if you make the wrong choice, or if you try and flip-flop things around when it's three years old, you could end up really screwing up its development to a point where that child doesn't even know who it is any more. This whole thing is like Sony just cradle-robbed a hermaphrodite baby being raised as a female, and they decided that even though it's almost four, they're going to start raising that baby as a boy instead. I guess you could do it, but you don't even know who this baby is. Isn't changing things around kind of massively stupid, when on top of this drastic change you're also really hoping your baby tunes into your sitcom on Friday nights instead of primetime Thursday? Wait...what?

I guess what I'm saying is, Sony is starting to take the reigns of a show they clearly don't understand, from a person they never understood, and market it to people they don't know in an era they obviously don't know how to work in. The Internet exists. It would've taken them literally ten minutes of research to understand the sort of fan base this show has and how they should potentially handle this big change to the show (if they should make the change at all), but it might take them slightly longer to realize that very few people are tuning into NBC comedies at all when they air live on television; that changes need to be made about the way television is marketed, because the way its consumed is already changing fast. They need to start seriously monitoring Hulu views. They need to start seriously monitoring DVR views. They need to start making deals with Netflix. They need to start finding ways to market and distribute television in ways other than on a stagnant black box in one's living room. They need to stop being the opposite of Batman and do the bigger thing here: accept the show for what it is, and find a way to make the best possible version of the show it is now. Because we Human Beings love the show for a reason. And that reason doesn't involve David Guarascio and Moses Port.

You can't swim in two rivers at the same time. Sony does not realize this. They cannot have the loyal, loving, obsessed fanbase and dilute the tone of the show to try to accommodate new viewers. But they also can't boost the viewership by a huge margin if they keep the show as it is. And they really can't keep the loyal, loving, obsessed fanbase, dilute the tone of the show to accommodate new viewers and move the show to Friday evening and expect everything to be Peachy Keen, Avril Levine. So now they have a choice to make. Do they dilute the tone and content of the show to attract new viewers, milk it to the point where they can get the show into a syndication package, and go down as That Crappy Company Who Ruined Community Forever, or do they make the best of the mess they've made for themselves, allow the ragtag Bible duo of David and Moses as much creative freedom as possible, push the crazy side of the show without forgetting its heart, and hope to at least keep and maybe slightly expand the viewers they already have? Or do they try to have it all and inevitably fail? I don't know. What I do know is that Leonard definitely does not like this.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

International Bad Movie Database: Gone

Gone is listlessly unconcerned with its own existence. It just doesn't care. The performances are boring and forgettable, sure, but it is a strange thing to experience a film that has absolutely no screen presence. I mean, I guess it's strange. I don't know. It's kind of hard to talk about a movie that takes absolutely no pride in anything it does. It also just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

The movie opens with a shot of a forest. It might as well. We then see a girl walking through this forest. We're pretty sure it's the main character because we recognize her from all the promotional posters. I think her name is Jill or something. So we follow her around for awhile as she drives home, talks to her sister, drives to work, works, drives home, wakes up, drives elsewhere. And I don't know, maybe she says some dialogue or something at some point during all that. She probably does, because I definitely remember things being said by someone, though I don't remember by whom or to whom or when or why. Oh, and then Jill's sister gets kidnapped. Or, I don't know, maybe she doesn't. It's hard to say, because the only reason Jill thinks this is...well, see, I wasn't really clear on that. Her sister just isn't home and won't answer her phone. Gasp? She's gone?

Jill's evidence seems to consist of the fact that her sister left her textbooks at home, which she thinks is weird because she knows her sister was supposed to take an exam today...but hey, you can't really use your textbooks during an exam, so it makes sense that her sister wouldn't bother taking them, and you can't answer your phone while you're taking an exam either, so it makes sense that she wouldn't answer it. So we're not particularly surprised when the police don't believe that Jill's sister was kidnapped. We don't believe her either. It just doesn't make sense. And besides, isn't it like, the law that a person can't be declared missing until they've gone unseen for 48 hours? The movie doesn't address that, but it's true, you know. But I suppose if the cops believed her we wouldn't have a conflict, so we have let it slide. I guess that's the conflict: Jill's sister is kidnapped and no one believes her, so she's forced to take the law into her own hands. That's what the tagline on the poster says: "No one believes her. Nothing will stop her." Except that first part's not really true, because actually, her mom believes her, and her sister's boyfriend does, too, and even an attractive cop buddy of her's believes her. So the conflict actually is that the protagonist's sister might have been kidnapped and pretty much everyone that matters in her life does believe her, but the movie doesn't want you to know that, so just don't think about all that Logic Stuff, okay?

Of course the main reason the cops don't believe Jill is because she's apparently CR-AZY! Hey, an interesting backstory might do this movie some good! Jill, you see, insists that she was kidnapped and molested by A Nondescript Bad Guy a few years back, but when the cops went to check on her story, there was no evidence to back it up. So they checked her into a mental hospital and declared her incompetent. We know this because she has a lot of Bourne-like flashbacks to the incident, and because the cops explain it to the audience in labored exposition just in case we haven't been paying attention to the past twenty minutes of the movie—which is probable. Anyway, Jill thinks the Bad Guy is back for revenge, and that he's the one behind her sister's kidnapping, not to mention several other recent kidnappings that have been happening throughout...er, wherever the movie takes place.

There's a couple of problems with this story—the first is that it makes no sense. Because “nobody” (read: all except two characters) believes Jill, she feels she has to take matters into her own hands; but Jill has no reason to think that her sister was kidnapped, and the fact that she's so adamant about it--and, by the way, the fact that she pops pills, makes rude remarks to everyone she meets and compulsively lies throughout the duration of the movie--makes the audience think that she is crazy, and as a result we don't really like her very much. The second problem is that Jill's character “arc” is pretty much ripped wholesale from the Millennium Trilogy—you know, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc. If you were thinking the story of “a seemingly unlikeable girl, who was the victim of abuse and molestation but who no one believes because she was declared mentally incompetent, and thus must take the law into her own hands when she finds herself in the middle of a murder/kidnap/rape case” sounds vaguely familiar, it's because that's the story of Lisbeth Freakin' Salander, one of the most fascinating and famous literary characters of our time. The fact that the film would not only rip off nearly the exact same story, but also several specific scenes (to mention them would be to spoil the “climax” of the movie and the book series) so blatantly is just baffling and wrong and stupid and lame.

Speaking of baffling and wrong and stupid and lame, let's get back to the plot. Except it's not really a plot. A plot, you see, has pretty specific requirements to be called such a thing. There has to be a beginning, and then rising action, and then a climax, and then falling action. See a plot is kind of supposed to look like this:

But the plot of Gone kind of looks like this:

Which is to say that this is a movie in which nothing happens. After the initial nonsensical "set-up," there is no rising action or tension or climax. Jill puts on her detective cap and starts following any lead she finds. Now, that would insinuate that she finds a few false leads and dead ends, perhaps leading to twists or obstacles for our protagonist to overcome. Let's me very clear in saying that is not at all the case. Every lead takes this chick exactly where she needs to go in order for the plot to progress, and once she gets there, she will meet a character that will tell her exactly where to go next. The entire "rising action" and indeed the climax of this movie consists of her finding a person based on a clue she found from the last person she talked to, telling that person a lie to get him/her to tell her what she needs, and then going where he/she told her to go. Now the "climax" is a little different, because this time she's talking on the phone! And who's on the other line, you ask? Well someone who may or may not be the killer, of course! But we are no more invested in this scene than we were in the other scenes, because everything up to and including this point in the movie has worked out as perfectly as possible for Jill. At one point the cops almost find her hiding in the bathroom of a hardware store!...but she escapes off-camera with absolutely no trouble. At one point the cops almost chase her!...but Jill gets away before a "chase scene" could properly begin. The movie boringly decides to sidestep any potential action scene or suspense, giving us a character with no obstacles to overcome, no likeable personality traits and a goal that we don't fully understand or believe in. We have no doubt that everything in this supposed "climax" will work out perfectly fine as it has the whole rest of the movie, and indeed it does. Oh and the resolution? Well, it's terrible--in fact it's awful--in fact it's worse than the Terrible Awful that the maid from The Help always talked about (although it is, in fact, crap). It happens out of nowhere, through events that are entirely out of our character's control, and renders most of the whole movie pointless.

But let's do talk about the characters for a minute for kicks and giggles; or rather, I should say, let's talk about the vacuous, lethargic, NyQuil-addicted  mannequins that appear on screen and say lines that were written by a committee of doubtlessly similar vacuous, lethargic, NyQuil-addicted  mannequins. At no point in this movie do any of the actors appear to care about or believe in what they are doing. Here are a few highlights from the movie's "dramatic moments."

Boy, these guys sure look like the could use a nap, huh? They all just look sick and tired and vaguely ticked off all the time. All. The. Time. See, those are just images, but Gone is one of them moving picture shows, and if staring at bored, sickly-looking people read lifeless dialogue and go through the motions of a truly awful story doesn't sound appealing to you, then you, my friend, are a thinking human being with a brain that works.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Prequel Apologist Episode I: The Phantom Menace

"It's the one non-cynical spot in our culture at this point. It's not a cynical look at the world; it's not mean-spirited; it's not trying to tear anything down. The critics have all said it's corny, it's old fashioned, it's naive. But that's what attracts people to it, you know? They want something just...pleasant...It says, basically, we're all good. We have a choice."
--George Lucas, 1999.

The hate for the prequels is so loud and intense that it's easy to forget that it isn't universal; there's an entire generation of young people whose childhoods were shaped by them. Myself included. For me, and all the other kids on my elementary school playground, the prequels were Star Wars. I discovered the original trilogy just a year or two before the release of Episode I (which is to say, my parents bought me the trilogy VHS box set and I watched it to absolute death), so in my mind, and in the mind of every eight-year old boy I knew, there was no discernible difference between the old and new trilogies, save for the varying use of puppets. So imagine my surprise when, a little less than a decade later, I discovered that, hey, most people, especially those with any sort of voice in the media, actually despise these movies.

And so in the wake of the recent release of Star Wars Episode I in 3D, I submit to you an argument that suggests that Phantom Menace flick isn't as horrible as you think it is. What's this, now? You've never considered that the prequels don't completely suck? George Lucas ruined your childhood, you say? You've purchased several hundred Jar Jar Binks action figures, melted them into a clear orange gel and used said Jar Jar gel to mold an unflattering statue of George Lucas, which you use as a shrine of hatred and place of defecation? And you wish you'd just bought a statue of George Lucas in the first place instead of blowing all that cash on hundreds of Jar Jar toys? Well then you've come to the right place. You know why the prequels are flawed, and after you watched the Red Letter Media reviews (and if you haven't, you should) you think you know why they're terrible. But there's an entire generation of youngins that love these movies, and it's not necessarily based on nostalgia alone. The prequels aren't masterclasses of film-making, but if you go in with the right attitude, you might just come to find that there's actually a lot to like about these wonderfully flawed little movies. There are legitimate reasons for a person to hate these films. There are also legitimate reasons for a person to like them.

So let's get into this. Episode I: The One Everyone Hates.

“Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.”

There is almost certainly no point in re-dissecting the shortcomings of Episode I. For one thing, we all know the shortcomings, and second of all, I'll never in all my days be nearly as perceptive (and creepy) a critic as Harry Plinket. The cons of this movie are practically pop culture phenomena unto themselves. So let's concentrate on the pros, here, shall we?

I do have to wonder briefly, before I start defending one of the most controversial and oft-hated film-makers of our times, if I should even bother. Is George Lucas—or rather, the idea, the public perception of George Lucas—so monumental, so unshakable in the minds of the loud majority that it is beyond further examination? There's only so much much you can say to defend an erupting volcano. It spews out lava that burns down houses, and people don't much like their houses getting burnt down. Never mind that the lava itself is actually pretty neat when you step back and study it. 
Okay...that analogy was reaching, I'll grant you. I'm just wondering if the people whose “childhoods have been ruined by the Star Wars prequels” would even listen to anyone daring to suggest otherwise; if they'd bother considering that maybe, in retrospect, the thing that supposedly ruined their childhoods wasn't quite so bad after all. Because, well, my childhood wasn't ruined by the prequels...my childhood was the prequels. To be sure, it was certainly a lot of other things, but few things stimulated my imagination more than the release of a new Star Wars film. As a kid who liked to draw and write stories, no piece of entertainment was more dense with creativity than Star Wars, and none approached the child-like energy and optimism that surrounded it.

But there was more to it than that; the main reason was that George Lucas spoke my language—the language of eight-year-old boys everywhere. This is the key to his success, and one of things that makes him such an endlessly fascinating film-maker. He knew what stuff I'd find neat: the robots, the aliens, the vast array of planets and ships; and he knew if there had to be any boring talking scenes, then the people doing the talking had better be either super cool aliens, dudes with lightsabers or hot chicks named Padme. If the spirit of Axe Cop could be embodied in a movie, it would be The Phantom Menace; which is to say, if you were to give an eight-year-old boy a 150 million dollar budget to make whatever kind of movie he wanted, it would be this—a bizarre, action-packed imaginative flick with a whacked-out sense of logic and a plot that makes no sense. Frustrating if you're looking for a cohesive narrative, but utterly fascinating as a study of the person who made it.

Of course it's all good fun, too, and the man who made it does, in fact, happen to be smarter than your average eight-year-old. So let's get into specifics here, shall we?

The Good Stuff
The Phantom Menace is almost definitely the worst of the prequels, and for every positive thing about it there seems to be at least three more terrible things that spring up as a result. It's not a movie one can really "gush" about. But there are some under-appreciated elements, so let's get to the good stuff, here.

Wonderfully bizarre secondary characters and planets and stuff
George Lucas has a pretty crazy imagination. The Mos Eisly Cantina scene in the original Star Wars movie is perhaps my favorite scene in any movie ever, sheerly because it's so dense with creative insanity. Puppets! Puppets everywhere! The most amazing you've ever seen! The lack of this kind of creativity, by the way, is why I, and most non-Trekkies, can't stand watching all the Star Trek movies that aren't done by JJ Abrams: Yes, the characters are often "deep" and the stories may be "interesting", but sweet lord in heaven, they are impossible to like visually. It's like everything is drawn by a 14 year old who picked up a HOW 2 DRAW COOL ALIENS book from the library and kind of figured out how to copy the examples. There's just no life to the art design in Star Trek. Every one of those alien "races" just looks like a person, but with slightly bigger ears, or a more jagged brow line, or less hair. Or more hair! Wouldn't that be crazy? Oh and you tell me that this sterile, lifeless ship is built using real scientific principles? Boy, I'm excited! If I wanted poor character design and scientific principles I'd just watch my Chemistry teacher draw stick figures on the blackboard (Z-Z-Z-ZING!).

*Ahem*...anyway, the great thing about George and his team of artists is that they're not only able to come up with aliens that look completely unlike any you've ever seen before, but they actually think about how these aliens' physical attributes would affect their survival. Which is to say, they put them in equally stylish environments that actually play off of the character's visual style. That Jar Jar Binks character that you hate? He's actually a pretty cool alien, when you think about it. At first you think he's just a big talking rabbit with floppy ears, snail eyes and a platypus snout. But then it turns out those ears aren't just used for hearing--they're used like big flippers to help him swim underwater. Hey, that's pretty neat! And he swims under water why? Because he lives in a really interesting underwater city that has a gorgeous, translucent-jellyfish architectural design motifs. And wouldn't those big, vertically-hoisted, snail eyes be kind of helpful for peaking above the water's surface like a submarine? And hey, platypi live underwater, and they have snouts like that, too! That's like, super harmonious design when you think about it.

I like the aliens and planets and ships and stuff, is what I'm saying. And the great thing about The Phantom Menace is that we get to see a lot of those things. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, it's very much a thrilling, Star Wars-y ride. We get to see a shiny spaceship filled with funny pastiches of your generic "alien" creatures, hilariously inept robots that the Jedi cut through like butter, an even cooler spaceship, the grassy forest of Naboo, an amazingly realized underwater city filled with humorously bizarre underwater aliens, an even cooler ship (that's technically a submarine, but whatever), some frightening fish monsters, and an italian-inspired regal city. That'd be a lot of locations for an entire trilogy of movies. We get all that stuff in less than half an hour.

What's really impressive about all these locations is that they're ones we haven't seen before. It would have been easy for Lucas to just take us to places from the previous movies only this time in the past, but he went above and beyond, realizing that part of the fun of Star Wars is discovering fantastical new places. Amazingly, when he does take us to a planet we've been before, we get to see new parts of it. We all remember the dessert plains of Tattooine and its bustling marketplace of Mos Eisly, but we never got to see its totally awesome podrace track before, or its junkyard run by a funny flying ant-eater guy. As Roger Ebert once noted, "Lucas isn't just taking us to new places. He's taking us to new kinds of places." So when it came to creating a dense universe that felt creative, lived-in and exciting, Lucas unquestionably succeeded.

Different, yet the same
When Obi Wan shows Luke a lightsaber in A New Hope for the first time, ol' Ben describes it as "A civilized weapon from a more civilized time," and with that one line, George Lucas ended up setting the tone for the entire prequel saga. Whereas the original trilogy was gritty and dirty and "real", the world of the prequels is more shiny, clean and sterile. Maybe that's why you hate these movies, but it was a mostly intentional choice, and the catch-all, "CGI made everything boring" argument isn't necessarily true. What's interesting about the Star Wars movies, to me at least, is that it would appear that, in the Star Wars universe, the further back in time you go, the more advanced technology gets. You already knew this because you've seen the "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." intro five thousand times and wondered how this "past" technology is more advanced than ours, but you might not have thought about the fact that the prequels take place in an even longer time ago, and somehow the technology is more advanced than even the original trilogy. I'm not saying I have some grand theory as to why this is. It just makes the movies more interesting to watch when I think about this stuff.

You're probably noticing that a lot of the things I like about this movie have to do with purely eye candy, and you're not wrong. But this is particularly nuanced, meticulous and creative eye-candy, and the fact that it's not just recycled, spruced-up eye-candy from the original trilogy is impressive to me, especially in the current Hollywood, sequel/reboot-crazy climate. That goes for the costume design, too, which many say is over-the-top. I say, "why shouldn't it be over the top?" Sing the praises of the original trilogy if you must, but they were not known for their subtlety (especially where dialogue is concerned, but we'll get back to that later). Costume design is an under-appreciated aspect of movie-making anyhow, but this is especially the case in the prequel films. Most just see Queen Amidala's crazy hair and outfits and write them off because they're "strange," but few stop and think about how effectively such design choices let the audience know, without words, that this film takes place in an entirely different, more regal era than the other Star Wars movies. Just calling it "weird for weirdness' sake" is unfair--that's the kind of stuff Star Trek does. There's a real symmetry and sense of purpose behind all the hair styles and clothing in this movie--the fact that Obi Wan has that braid, for example, means that he's a padawan learner. This attention to detail in every aspect of the presentation is not typical. It's a cut above most space operas and Hollywood fantasies in general.

The action scenes are a lot of fun...well sort of.
So you've read that and thought to yourself, "What exactly does 'a lot of fun' mean? Isn't that kind of subjective? That's pretty weak criticism there, Mr. Whatever Internet Blogger!" and first of all, thank you for calling me by my preferred title. Second of all, you're kinda right: whether or not you find these action sequences "fun" does, in fact, depend a lot upon your personal opinion and feelings about what "fun" means. The action scenes in the original Star Wars are for the most part well-choreographed and tautly paced, but most of their fun comes from the characters and how they interact with each other during these tense, actiony situations. The film makers couldn't sit back and rely on the spectacle alone: without the characters, those were just scenes with guys in weird costumes and stop-motion toy robots. The Phantom Menace, unfortunately, could sit back and rely on the spectacle. It does this pretty much, well, all the time. The reason why we're bored by the parts of this movie where characters stop and talk is because we don't really care about who these characters are and what they're talking about. Trade dispute? Viceroys? Mini-Delorians? Huuuuuhhh???

Ah, but when the action does kick in, does it ever work well. This is in the Pro's column, after all. Red Letter Media commented on the over-abundance of Lightsabers in the prequels, and how the liberal use of them diminishes the dramatic effect they had in the original films. On this I disagree somewhat. Yes, in the original trilogy the use of a Lightsaber typically marked the climax of a dramatic action scene...but in the original trilogy, there also just weren't a ton of Lightsabers that, like, existed. The whole point of this prequel trilogy is to show the Star Wars universe in a past setting, and in the Star Wars universe's past, there was a time when Lightsabers were quite abundant. In the making-of documentary for Phantom, Lucas said that with the fighting in this movie, he wanted to showcase the "height of the Jedi." He notes that in the original trilogy, the only people using Lightsabers were either old, or inexperienced, and so he hoped to show in the prequels that in their heyday, the Jedi were incredibly well-tuned fighters. Which is to say that in the prequels, the lightsabers aren't used just for the heck of it, because Lucas didn't have any "good" ideas. They're used because they give us a certain amount of depth to the Star Wars universe, allowing us to get a sense of how far things had changed by the time the events of A New Hope came around. Not to mention it would be odd if, with all these hundreds of Jedis roaming around, they never whipped out their lightsabers. And of course, speaking of effective action sequences, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Pod Race sequence, which ranks amongst the most thrilling, personality-filled scenes in the entire Star Wars saga. A perfect blend of pacing, humor,visuals and sound design, the Pod Race scene is worth the price of admission alone.

And so
Seeing the midnight showing of Star Wars: Episode I [THREE DEE] was an odd experience. For one thing, it's a strange thing to go into the theater knowing exactly what's going to happen, and to whom, and when, and why; part of the fun of a midnight screening is getting to experience a brand new movie and react to it with a huge group of people; when you go into a movie that the entire audience has seen dozens of times, the whole "spontaneous reaction" part is lost. But the main thing that struck me at this screening was how utterly different this film is than anything than anything on the big screen right now, or that has been on the big screen since, well, Star Wars ended. This sort of giddily optimistic, naive, action-serial epic with meticulously designed visuals and a child-like sense of wonder is all-too uncommon these days. Yes, the plot is often incoherent, the acting often lifeless (with, in hindsight, the surprising exception of Jake Lloyd. In the midst of all these stuffy adults, Jake's enthusiastic delivery is a huge relief) and the characters, at this point in the timeline, are too undefined for us to care about them fully. Perhaps its unreasonable to brush those things aside, but for the duration of the screening, I was disarmed of my cynicism and completely sucked into George Lucas' boyishly idealistic action romp. Try and go into this movie as an eight year old, wanting to nothing more than to be swept up in a sea of colorful imagination. You might be surprised at how much you don't hate it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Archives: What would I want, Sky?

I think it's the pumpkins. Yeah...yeah, it's definitely the pumpkins. See, in Skyward Sword you can walk up to your village pumpkin patch, thrust your sword into one of those big green veggies, and if you hit it just right it'll stick right there on the end of your blade. I do this, like, every time I walk by the pumpkin patch. Maybe I'll fling my sword forward and turn that pumpkin into a projectile. But I'll probably just walk around with it sticking on the end of my sword. Because it's funny. What kind of kid runs around town with a sword with a pumpkin on it?

That's when I fell in love with this game: when I discovered the pumpkin-stabbing. You kids these days with your Skyrimmers and your Unchartywhatsits! I want a game with whimsicality! With 
pumpkin-stabbing, consarnit! I want a game where colossal, flying sky-whales are summoned with delicious vats of warm soup! I want a game where I go on grand quests to find toilet paper for disembodied bathroom dwellers! Where the village monster is actually a pretty cool man-bat, once you get to know him. Sure, he looks scary, but he just wants a friend.

On second thought, maybe 
that's why I fell in love with this game: because more than anything, Skyward Sword is a game about making friends.Skyloft, the game's central hub world, is a place filled with people with problems. Not the-fate-of-the-world-hanging-in-balance type problems (although Skyward Sword has those), just simple every day stuff. Relatable stuff. A man's work is suffering because he's exhausted from his baby keeping him up at night. A young boy feels self-conscious about his body image. A widow is overwhelmed with the task of cleaning her house, but her over-worked son is too stubborn to let her hire help. These characters don't look as realistic as the ones found in Skyrim or Heavy Rain, and yet they're infinitely more human; not just because their problems relate to ours, but because their cartoon-like expressiveness allows for a range of emotions that motion-capture technology simply can't...well, capture. Despite the game's lack of voice-acting, the characters are more life-like than any I've encountered this year thanks to nothing more than good writing. Because of all this, we want to help these characters cope with their problems. Some of these mini character-driven quests result in rewards. Many don't. Telling the Item Check lady that she looks nice today won't grant you a Heart Piece or an achievement trophy. Our reward is heartwarming dialogue and yes, friendship. In Skyward Sword, we do nice things because it's nice to do them. 

 The best moments in Skyward Sword are indeed the smaller ones, so it's not inappropriate that the game world itself feels, if not exactly small, then at least economic and compact. On third thought, maybe that's why I love the game: its flawless, economic design. As with Super Mario 3D, Skyward Sword showcases a tighter, more focused Nintendo: whereas most franchise games pad the lack of new ideas by simply aiming for "bigger," Nintendo seems intent on cutting the fat. 3D Land dropped any semblence of a hub world for the first time in a 3D Mario game, and didn't bother with the sprawling world maps of Super Mario World or Super Mario Bros. 3, either, which were fun to look at, but kind of mundane to traverse. Similarly, Skyward Sword cuts out the spacious, rolling hills of Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess and opts for the approach that made The Minish Cap and, hey, Metroid Prime so successful: boiling each area down to its essense, and then packing those areas with as many details, puzzles, secrets, characters and most importantly, ideas as technically feasible. Riding Epona through the vast plains of Hyrule in Twilight Princess sure looks nice, but so does an empty gift box; beyond the outer shell, there simply isn't a whole lot there. Compare that with Skyward Sword, where it's hard to walk 10 seconds without finding an enemy to fight, a puzzle to solve, or a treasure chest perched suspiciously out of reach. It's a risky move in a climate where gamers crave experiences like Skyrim--games with endless posibilities, miles upon miles of terrain to explore, thousands of choices to make. Skyward Sword does not boast these things, but boy, it sure feels like it does when you're playing it. And it manages to feel like this because it does what truly great adventure stories do: it ignites our imaginations, creating a world that feels bigger, better, more wonderous, more real than it truly is.

That's the really great thing, here. More than any game in the series since Wind Waker, Skyward captures the sense of excitement and wonder that made the original Zelda such a success. Maybe 
that's why I love this game. The unabashedly bright, impressionist art style isn't quite like anything you've seen in a game before, and neither are the Loftwings, your bird-like forms of transportation, nor the floating village of Skyloft for that matter. Not too long into the game, you'll meet Kikwis, hilariously shy forest-dwelling creatures that look like the unlikely result of penguin-on-pinecone conception. Another wonderful oddity in a game full of such things. Of course to get to said forest you'll have to travel, which is half the fun of the game, really. Traveling typically involves a giddy combination of flight (while you're in the sky), skydiving (to soar beneath the clouds), parachuting (to safely land on the surface) and sprinting (because running real fast is fun). Ah, that sprinting. Only Nintendo could turn something as tired as "the sprint button" into an endless source of puzzle-platforming. 
All this is to say nothing of the game's big sell (and probably why I really love the game): Motion Controls That Work. That's how cynics will word it, anyway. There are plenty of games with motion controls that work. Few, though, work in such a joyous manner. If Skyward Sword can win over those cynics and sceptics, it will leave a legacy as lasting and important as Ocarina of Time. If it doesn't...eh. It's still a brilliant game anyway. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that every one of the game's items and gadgets work 100% perfectly 100% of the time, but since when does anything in a 3D game? I can't turn on my PS3 without having to do sixteen updates to fix games that should have worked when I bought them in the first place. That's just the way things are now. What does work to a staggering degree of accuracy is the swordplay, which is pretty much the most important gameplay mechanic to grace us this generation of console gaming. This is our generation's lock-on targeting: it takes a concept that's been kicking around  for the past few years to varying degrees of mediocrity (combat with motion controls this time, instead of combat in a 3D space), and absolutely nails it. Playing this game is an epiphany. Like, "Oh, that's how motion controls should have worked for the past 5 years." Swing the Wii Remote in any of the 8 cardinal directions and Link will do the same. Before long, enemies start to anticipate your swings, and winning a battle involves literally physically outwitting your opponent. Is it 100% full-on 1:1? Not really. Is there ever a moment where the game would be better if it was? Not really. Skyward Sword's simple and flawlessly executed combat will be copied ad naseum for years to come, because it's the only game that ever got it right. Mark my words.

Hey, speaking of words, Nintendo is really mastering those, too. 25 years of utilizing text-only dialogue in your games will do that. The question of whether or not Zelda would be better off with voice acting will be asked even long after Nintendo inevitably start using it, assuming the writing continues to house this much quality. Because the dialogue is written with such life, such personality, a good chunk of the fun comes from imagining what these characters must sound like. You know, the kind of fun you have when reading a book. I imagine the Mogmas--these sheisty, burrowing, mole-like creatues--sound a lot like Bobby Moynahan's "Second-hand news guy" character on SNL, but you might not agree. We can both play the same game, a largely scripted game at that, mostly free of Mass Effect-like decision making, and yet we can have completely different experiences with it simply based on how we interpret the characters. Skyward Sword is linear, sure, but it's somehow more personal than most open world, "decision-driven" games. "Linear" has become a bad word in recent years for some reason. It typically seems to suggest a lack of player agency. Skyward Sword is linear in the sense that your objective is always marked for you and that you won't be doing any dungeons out of order; but 
how you get to that next dungeon, and with what upgrades in your inventory, and with how many heart pieces, and with what side-quests under your belt--that's where the ol' Zelda exploration comes in.


And now I'm just torn because, you know what, I love the game's optimism and sheer whimsicality, too. Twilight Princess worked pretty well as a "dark" Zelda game, but it didn't work as well as Zelda's better "dark" game, Majora's Mask, because it forgot that even in a moody, atmospheric game world, charm, humor, and catharsis beat out straight-up melodrama every time. Skyward Sword has a few dark moments and characters--Ghirahim, the game's antagonist, is creepy beyond all reason--but the moments of moodiness are rare, and used only to highlight a contrast to the largely silly atmosphere of the rest of the game. I think I knew it before, but Skyward brought it to the forefront of my mind: Games are dark these days. As Jon Irwin put it in his Kirby review, "This is the era of Gears and Warfare and Asylums." Heavy Rain wants to see how many disgusting, terrible things you'll do in order to save someone you love. Arkham City features a city full of deranged psychokillers free from the rules of society. Skyward Sword's message? The world is a fun, colorful puzzle to be solved, and we're all heroes, waiting for our moment to save the day. Isn't that nice? Isn't that the kind of game you just want to get wrapped up in on a snowy winter's day, by the warmth of the fireplace, with a few buddies at your side telling you why you suck at dungeons and that you should let them have try?

that's why I love this game.

Archives: This Land is My Land

Rarely am I speechless. Most people who know me would tell you that I talk too much. I talk even (perhaps especially) when there's no one to talk to. If I'm by myself playing a game, I talk. I rant at Nathan Drake when he misses that jump. I read the dialogue boxes in Zelda out loud, giving each character a different, silly voice. I provided sarcastic commentary throughout my playthrough of Heavy Rain. I don't do this because I'm crazy, I don't think (the latter example was actually a means of keeping my sanity). I think a part of me does it because I find it entertaining. Mostly though, I suspect that I find that I do it because the games, typically, just don't have anything to say. So I do all the talking instead.

It came to my surprise then, that, save for one instance, my playthrough of Super Mario 3D Land was entirely silent. That one instance occurred a few minutes into the first level of the game—the effectiveness of stereoscopic 3D had sunk in, the brilliance of the decision to reintroduce the “run” button into a 3D Mario game was becoming increasingly evident. I said, to no one, “this game is amazing.” After that there was nothing more that needed to be said.

Which is to say, Super Mario 3D Land is an awe-inspiring game, built to surprise us, enthrall us, and entertain us in a way that only video games can. You will find no narrative in Super Mario 3D Land, only an objective: save the princess. Our motivations for carrying out our objective are not character driven or story driven, because Nintendo knows that other mediums would be able to do that better. Film has had over a hundred-year head start; literature, thousands. But Nintendo understands the language of games perhaps better than anyone, and they know how to motivate their players: with fun; excitement; peril; danger; challenge; wonder. They evoke these emotions through a superlative mastery and of both 2D and 3D level design—which have been synthesized here to the point of almost creating a new genre—and player control. Whether they play for a few minutes, or hours on end, players will feel a cathartic, almost symbiotic relationship with Mario, simply because controlling him is so tactile and satisfying. The way the Italian plumber controls surpasses anything we've seen in the 15 years since Mario 64 first introduced the concept of analogue control for a 3D platformer. Playing with Mario recalls playing with Hot Wheels cars on a smooth surface as a child: the cars seem bigger, realer and more wonderful than they really are because you feel that you're in complete control over them. For me, the kid in me at least, playing with Hot Wheels cars will always be more fun than driving a real car, because the sense of danger is purely fictional. If my Hot Wheel falls off a table, I merely have to pick it back up again. And so Nintendo gives us plenty of lives in Super Mario 3D Land, not to make the game easier, but to make it more fun. Even though I had 63 in the bank by the end of my adventure, I still couldn't help but smile whenever one of those little green mushrooms popped up. 

More importantly, Super Mario 3D Land entertains us in ways that only the 3DS can. Some people will not “get” the 3D. The effect will be described as something along the lines of “merely a visual flourish” to cynics, 3D detractors, or people that simply aren't paying attention. And you really do have to pay attention: SM3DL is so convincing in its argument for the value of stereoscopic 3D that you might not even realize it's making an argument in the first place. Its execution is so fully realized and immediately convincing that we don't even think to marvel at it, because for all its magic, it is never intrusive. From Level 1-1 the game presents us with pitch-perfect platforming and revolutionary visuals; every level after that is simply meeting expectations.

Back to the difficulty: 3D Land struck me as an easy game for the majority of the adventure. Then I hit a certain point (world 3 I think it was) where I realized that it was becoming routine for me to lose 5 to 10 lives per level. And with this realization, I found out a little something about myself: until this point, I had always equated a platformer's challenge to the amount of frustration it caused. I lost more lives than I'd care to count on my road to Bowser's Castle, yet I never once went on a cursing rant, threw my 3DS across the room or snapped it shut in anger. There are several reasons for this. First of all, thanks to the stereoscopic 3D, the real distances between objects are now so well defined that the challenge paradigm completely shifts to pure timing and mastery of the jump mechanics. Not once did I die because I incorrectly perceived the distance between two platforms—if I died, it was because I mistimed a long-jump, or got a little greedy with my Propeller Block.

Every 3D Mario game since Super Mario Sunshine has sought to accentuate a certain aspect of platforming and build an entire game around it: for Sunshine, it was physics; for Galaxies 1 and 2, it was gravity; 3D Land takes on a significantly trickier subject—depth perception—yet executes it no less eloquently. To play Mario 3D Land with the 3D turned off is to play an average Mario game. It would be like playing Uncharted 3 on a grainy, standard definition television. HD is Uncharted's bread and butter: without its astonishingly realized and exhaustively detailed characters and environments, Uncharted is reduced to decent platforming, average shooting-mechanics, and rudimentary puzzle-solving. 3D Land holds up better than this with the 3D off, but the point remains: unless you're physically unable to view the 3D, you'd be doing yourself a disservice to turn down that slider. Unlike films, which lose color, brightness and picture clarity with 3D glasses, Super Mario 3D Land's glasses-less 3D visuals become more vibrant, more colorful, more clear the higher the 3D setting. Even more than Ocarina of Time 3D, playing 3D Land is like holding a miniature world in your hands—the smaller, more focused, more enclosed level designs often made it feel like I was gazing into an elaborate shoebox diorama. Neat.

All of this, by the way, came as a complete surprise to me. I went into the game expecting an average Mario game—which is to say, I expected a great game, but not a fantastic one. I got a fantastic one. What's more, I got one that proves beyond a doubt stereoscopic 3D is not just a visual gimmick: it is an invaluable tool, and in its best moments, a giddily clever gameplay mechanic. I said all this without even mentioning the camera: like the 2D Marios, the camera is not something that's controlled by the player, except for the occasional and brief nudge up or down; and like the 2D Mario games, you'd rarely even think to move it. In every moment, Nintendo has positioned the camera in such a way that not only are you playing at the most helpful angle, but also the most clever.

Along with Portal 2 and Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP, Super Mario 3D Land immediately plants itself as one of the most endlessly clever (there's a word I keep coming back to), lovingly designed, and artistically gorgeous games of the year. By passionately embracing their influences, these games serve as both a comprehensive history of over 25 years of game design while also paving the way for games to come. So Super Mario Land 3D is a perfect Mario game, and yet, so was Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Super Mario Galaxy 2. Coming from a company that is constantly ridiculed for being stuck in the past, I find myself in awe at Nintendo's ability to take me to exciting new places. New worlds. New lands.

In fact I think I'll go there right now.

Archives: The Beautiful, Baffling Bat

There's a great scene toward the end of Lost (a show which Arkham City cleverly references several times throughout the game) where Hurley tries to explain to his mother everything that happened in the five seasons leading up to this point. Now, Hurley is a sweet guy but he's easily flustered, and, not surprisingly to us, he stumbles through his explanation. The look on his face as he realizes just how crazy his exasperated recap sounds is priceless, and hilarious: yet we're not laughing at Hurley. We're laughing because we've been there before. When you get hooked on Lost, you get hooked on Lost, and at some point you feel the need to explain this show to someone else, not just because it becomes an obsession, but because it begs to be talked about. And if you've tried to explain the story to someone who has no attachment to the show, chances are you ended up sounding ridiculous. Just like Hurley did when explaining his island adventures to his mother in Season 5. What makes this particular scene so great though, is that immediately following Hurley's rambling confession, his mother looks at him straight in the eye and says: “I believe you. I don't understand you; but I believe you.”

Trying to explain what makes Batman: Arkham City so obsessively playable can feel a lot like that.

“So you're stuck in this city, right? And it's this city where 
all the bad guys in Gotham are locked up. Because Gotham is, like, a Police State now or something. Anyway, you get captured—Bruce Wayne, that is—and apparently the main villain, Hugo Strange, totally knows that you're Batman! Oh yeah, Bruce Wayne is Batman, by the way. So it's a big deal that he knows that. Anyway he—how? I don't know, he just knows, dude. Okay listen: so at the end of the last game—oh right, there's also this game called Arkham Asylum where the Joker buffs himself up with this drug called Venom, right? Well the Joker still has the Venom stuff in his body and it's killing him and—no, dude, he's not buff anymore. I don't know, you...look, it makes sense if you play Arkham Asylum. So anyway he infects Batman with this Venom, too! So you have to like, work together in a weird way to get this cure otherwise you'll both die. And then you meet the Penguin!...actually I was never really clear on why he came into the picture...and then you meet this guy who takes you to this place with this trippy stuff that makes everything look weird, but you have to meet this guy because you're dying and...you know, I didn't really understand that part either. So anyway...”

You get the idea. There's a lot of moving parts to this story in Arkham City, and if you're forced to take a step back from it, you realize that it doesn't all fit together as well as you think it does when you're playing it. In fact often, quite frankly, the storytelling is downright sloppy. Especially when compared to its refreshingly tight predecessor.  

For me though, these issues of sloppy storytelling—often major issues, at that—almost never crossed my mind when I was actually playing the game; somehow, Rocksteady studios has crafted a story that feels great, even if in reality it's merely good. Did I fully understand my motivation for going to the Iceberg Lounge and confronting the Penguin? Not really, come to think of it. But did it feel completely amazing when the Penguin unleashed 40 of his cohorts on me and I took them down without taking a single hit? Was I blown away by Nolan North's raspy, cackling performance as the Penguin? On that note: was I blown away when I found out that the guy playing the Penguin was not a sophisticated Brit, but Nolan North? Yes, yes and double yes.

Here is a game that feels urgent even when it isn't. I didn't do a single side mission on my way through the story (resulting in a paltry 23% completion by the time those haunting credits rolled), not because they weren't enticing, or because there weren't enough of them--trust me, there's tons--but because the scene where I wake up and the Joker is transfusing his infected blood into my body was so shocking and diabolical, that I felt that I simply must stop him at all costs. And that's the truth. Most open world games suffer from a distinct lack of motivation: Rockstar, for example, creates worlds that are so dense and fun to explore that the story missions often feel like punishing diversions. Why follow Rockstar's structure when you could beat your own path? Rocksteady, on the other hand, has created a dense world that's fun to explore—but not one that felt significantly more fun than its story. That's an incredible accomplishment.

Which is not to say the story's misgivings are entirely dismissible simply because it's fun and compelling. A question: what was all that Wonder City business about? I'd be lying if I told you I understood a single second of that mission, in hindsight. There was a really cool gate that opened in dramatic fashion, I recall, but wasn't that just a hallucination or something? Oh, and there were some robots whose memory chips I hacked...but why? I'm told some of these things can be cleared up if I go through the menu and read the backstory on these places, but is a game's story really succeeding if major plot points have to be explained via menu screens? I only recently starting reading the comics: am I really expected to buy that Thalia Al-ghul is the love of Bruce's life, and he'd do anything to save her, just because the game told me this was the case?

Indeed, this is the major shortcoming of Arkham City: it often assumes far too much knowledge of the source material. Deep knowledge. If you're a newcomer to the Batman comic universe, perhaps introduced to the comics by the wonderfully-handled reboot of the series this past September, you'll probably understand the relationship between Batman and Dick Grayson/Nightwing/Robin. But will you have intimate knowledge of the significance of R'as Al-ghul and the Lazarus Pit? Probably not, and that's a shame, because it's of massive importance to the story, and little explanation is given beyond, yes, menu screens. 
This is a somewhat shocking problem, given that the game's predecessor, Arkham Asylum, was so great at familiarizing players with this potentially-intimidating universe with a 65 year history. When Arkham City does borrow storytelling devices from its prequel, it's often for the wrong reasons. The Lazarus Pit and Mad Hatter sequences, where Batman is forced to follow R'as Al-Ghul or The Mad Hatter down the figurative Rabbit Hole, are obviously trying to replicate the abstract, creepy mind-trips of Arkham Asylum's Scarecrow sections. But the Scarecrow sections were used not "just" to creep us out, but to teach newcomers to the Batman universe about Bruce Wayne's haunted past firsthand. Players might not have known going into the game that Bruce's parents were murdered when he was a kid, but they walked out of the game not only knowing that major piece of backstory, but understanding the effects it had on the character psychologically. In Arkham City, we learn nothing from the "trippy" sequences. They are merely spectacle.

And yet Arkham City is a shoo-in for critics and gamers' Game of the Year shortlists. As well it should be. I've said all this without even speaking of the gameplay, which features, by a wide stretch, both the best combat and stealth of this generation thus far. I didn't even mention Mark Hamill's stunning performance as the Joker. I didn't even talk about that ending. My goodness, that ending. I'm not sure if it was a good one, but I'm still thinking about it. Heck, the creditsfollowing the ending--they gave me more chills than any Rated T superhero game probably has the right to do. Batman Arkham City is a great game with, glaring storytelling problems and all, an undeniably compelling narrative. I know, I know.You might not understand me. But you've got to believe me.

Archives: Mylo Xyloto: Coldplay's Finest, Critics' Worst

It is a testament to the cynicism of the music scene that Coldplay has become one of the most hated bands of the decade. Not by the lowly fans of course—what do they know about “real” music anyway?—but by critics. Bloggers. Columnists with “refined” musical taste. And if they're not being hated or being called “the most insufferable band of the decade,” they're at the very least being ignored. Joe Tagnari in 2005 wrote for Pitchfork: “It may be pointless to hate them, but...they've almost certainly become the easiest band on the planet to be completely indifferent to.”

Mylo Xyloto, the band's latest album, will likely sway few of the band's detractors. Most critics will give the latest Coldplay album a listen or two, write it off as a collection of pop songs will a lot of "WHOOA-OOH-OH!" choruses, give it a 6/10 if they're in a good mood, and get on with their lives. And this is a very sad thing indeed, because Coldplay 
is a band that demands our attention, and Mylo Xyloto is an album that deserves more than just a couple casual listens. Once an artist has been around for over a decade and released 50 million albums, they're no longer an ignorable fad. They are no longer "that band that did 'Yellow'". They are an institution.

Disclaimer: I say this not as a drooling Coldplay fanboy, but merely as someone completely baffled with the "meh" attitude toward their latest release; it is, by all accounts, (and of course in my very humble opinion) their strongest album to date. Parachutes is pretty, but songs like High Speed and We Never Change are what got the band their “Radiohead lite” monicker in the first place. A Rush of Blood to the Head is great, but its inclusion of weak tracks like A Whisper and Warning Sign are strange considering the strength of the era's b-sides. And X&Y is...well we'll get to that later. If Viva la Vida was an attempt to fully realize the band's more artistic inclinations, their desires to make something that constituted "serious listening," Mylo Xyloto attempts to realize the other side of the band's collective persona: the side that wants to write massive, huggable, stadium-ready anthems with choruses that beg to be screamed by thousands at the top of their lungs. And if an album's success is attributed to how well the band behind it accomplishes their goal then Mylo Xyloto is a triumph.

After listening to this record almost exclusively for about a week now, a few things surprise me: the foremost being, 
I've been listening to this record almost almost exclusively for over a week? Why aren't I more excited about popping in that new M83 album, or revisiting the criminally under-rated Era Extrana? The answer, of course, is that this album is surprisingly addicting for what upon first listen appears to be nothing more than a collection of pop songs. More surprising, though, is how well these pop songs benefit from the album format. As a single Paradise is decent, but as the-song-that-comes-after-Hurts Like Heaven, it's a haunting, almost revelatory track. Taken on its own U.F.O. seems like nothing more than a pretty bone thrown at the Parachutes/Rush of Blood fans who have become disillusioned with the band's more colorful, enthusiastic new image; but on the album, it's a stunning and unexpected lead-in to the shockingly-not-terrible Princess of China, with features echoing synths, hip hop beats and Rihanna.

If the critics seem to have one thing right, it's that Chris Martin's lyrics are often far too simplistic for their own good. Or are they? With Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, Martin proved he could write genuinely great lyrics if he set his mind to it. Which means that he 
chose to include lines like “Don't wanna see another generation drop/I'd rather be a comma than a full stop,” when he could have written something far less silly. Which means that, hey, maybe he wanted these lyrics to be silly. After all, that “generation drop” lyric occurs in the album's silliest song (which includes lines like: A WA-WA-WA-WA-WA-A-TER-FALL!”), and after all, Chris Martin is a pretty silly guy—and one that's not afraid to take a few jabs at his larger-than-life persona (see: Extras, The Colbert Report). I've seen a lot of people posting comments on music forums along the lines of “Does Chris really expect us to take these lyrics seriously?” I think the answer is: no.

This silliness is important, and it's what sets the album apart from the band's 
other stadium-centric album, X&Y. The problem with X&Y wasn't that the songs weren't catchy—it was that they often lacked sincerity, and the band simply wasn't (and still isn't) good enough at creating “dark” music to get away with such a constantly morose record. Mylo Xyloto doesn't have a dark track on it, and as a result it comes across as a much better reflection of who the people in this band actually are: funny, upbeat, relentlessly enthusiastic, occasionally awkward, but mostly, charming.

Coldplay are no longer Mope Rock. Heck, they're no longer 
rock. They're a pop band now, and they're probably the best in the world.