Thursday, September 16, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

It's common to have a video game release alongside a film release as some sort of companion marketing synergy something-something. It's rare that I actually experience those products in tandem as intended. But that has been the case with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. So I have two pieces of media to process here, both of which have increased my curiosity about the original source material.

I actually technically started with the game, but I'll begin with the movie. If you are not in an extremely specific demographic, then this movie isn't for you. If you're old enough to have predated the video game generation, then the whole thing is going to feel like a whirlwind of predictable, repetitive, superficial bubblegum. If instead you're too young and had your video game cherry popped by Halo or Grand Theft Auto, then you won't connect with the references or the 8-bit stylings. In short, your ability to enjoy this movie may be limited by whether you know what a bob-omb is.

I guess I should have known I would have liked the film, as that the director's filmography includes Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Both of those movies understood their genre well, and Scott Pilgrim is no different here. The film feels like some delicious blend of video game and comic book. That's either going to come off as cheesy or awesome, depending on your perspective. I did hear a groan from the audience when the movie took a left turn about twenty minutes in with its first boss battle. It reminded me of the time I saw Crouching Tiger in the theater and there was a similar confused "what?" that came from the crowd when a character in the film started to fly. Please, get over yourself, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy this alternate slice of reality. Physics be damned.

In short the plot is that Scott Pilgrim falls in love with Ramona Flowers (and with her vibrant hair, goggles, mystery, and deep brown eyes who can blame him?), and must progress through a series of seven boss battles to win her. The progression of the film is entirely predictable. You will know after a scene without looking at your watch about how much movie is left. But it's really no different than knowing that the solution that House comes up with 20 minutes in is wrong and the one he comes up with 5 minutes from the end is right. It's just narrative structure. But, you know, with boss battles.

The movie was paired with a coordinating game release for XBLA and PSN. The game is a classic beat-em-up, in the style of River City Ransom or Double Dragon. Unlike Castle Crashers, this modern beat-em-up makes no effort to modernize the visual style. The Scott Pilgrim game is blissfully low tech, with pixelated sprites and chiptune music. Oh my god, the music. So catchy, so good. Or at least it is to my nostalgic ear. There was one tune that started to grate on me, but that's because the loop was too short and the level was too hard. But overall the audio experience is delightfully old school.

Generally the point of tying two media releases is to motivate you to get into one if you're initially only into the other. The expectation I'm guessing is that if you're excited about the movie you'll get the game, not as much the other way around given that movie license games are usually terrible. In this case I guess I did it backwards - as that I picked up the game because I heard it was good. I didn't form plans to see the movie until I heard that it was also good, although I guess the game did get me a bit more excited for it. Not that I helped - the movie had already been declared a box office failure in the short weeks before I got out to see it. It's sad how immediately things are judged. It's the same logic that gets an amazing show like Firefly canceled. Oh well, I still heartily recommend both Scott Pilgrim the game and Scott Pilgrim the movie to anyone who fits in that demographic (and if you're in it, you probably already know).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Darksiders (Xbox 360)

Before playing Darksiders, I had already heard a lot of press about how the game is just one big Zelda rip off. It is accused of unabashedly stealing mechanics from that franchise and others. And you know what, that's no lie. But I fail to see how it's a problem. The Zelda games are almost uniformly excellent. And there really aren't many other games that attempt that gameplay style. So really, there's low supply and high demand for Zelda-style games, and something like Darksiders should be perfectly welcome. I mean, were people really upset when Shadow Complex blatantly cribbed from Metroid? I'm glad the gaming industry isn't as crazy about patents as the rest of the software world - it prevents the culture from stagnating.

When the cell shaded art style for Wind Waker got unveiled apparently a ton of fans were mortified. They wanted some more realistically rendered adult Link. Personally I loved the light hearted cartoon style of Wind Waker. But if some people were still holding out for a grittier, more "adult" Link, then they have it in Darksiders... and then some. Darksiders takes place in a world where angels and demons are battling it out over a post-apocalyptic Earth. You play as War, one of the four horsemen, standing in the middle trying to keep both sides in line through extreme violence. It's like if Link started rampaging around making demonic pacts and cutting people's head's off. Instead of, you know, occasionally harassing chickens.

That theme may not align to your typical Zelda game, but the mechanics are all familiar. You get a boomerang and a hookshot; you'll romp through dungeons with chests, puzzles, and keys; and at the end there will be an epic boss battle with some pattern you need to learn that involves the fancy tool you just found. It's undeniably the same design. But it's all executed very well.

Truth be told, I think I preferred it to Twilight Princess. The visuals are obviously of a higher fidelity, but there are also a lot of surprisingly inspired environments. The controls are tight and responsive (at least compared to my regrettable experience of playing Twilight Princess on the Wii instead of the Gamecube). And overall the game is just that much more streamlined, with a manageable length (which for me is a positive characteristic these days). Overall Darksiders was a nice little game that took a beloved pattern and repeated it. It totally scratched the right itch, so if you've been feeling the need for a classic Zelda romp, then give Darksiders a spin.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Read My Face

It amazes me how much we communicate to each other with just our faces. With all the fine muscles behind them faces can be extremely expressive, so it's not the capability that amazes me. It's the accuracy with which its interpreted. Fundamentally, we rarely see our own faces. We even more rarely see them while they're delivering all these subtle emotional cues. It blows my mind that we operate at this level where I can nonverbally make some facial contortion to represent a rather nuanced emotion and that someone else can understand that.

We never took facial communication classes where we all sat in front of mirrors practicing our vocabulary. No, we learned this all in the wild. And we started pretty young. It's never been intuitive to me that babies learn the complexities of speech long before they learn to not poo themselves. But they're picking up and delivering facial cues well before they start babbling. So really the language of the face is the first mode of communication we learn. This stuff is deeply ingrained in us.

Since we can't see ourselves, all of this has to be learned by making a face and judging reactions. Maybe we will just invent some combination of muscle contractions that seem to represent our inner state, but it's more likely that we're copying a face that we've someone else make. Which, since we can't see ourselves and judge the success rate, could have hilariously bad execution.

There are some smiles that are cold, forced, and unbelievable; there are others that are delightfully contagious. Some of this may have to with aptitude, but a lot of it has to do with the honesty of the emotions behind what's being presented. I'm sure that the good actors spend an absurd amount of time in front of a mirror learning how to lie with their face (so either they had raw talent, or they're just narcissistic?).

I wonder sometimes how well I filter what I'm feeling inside to what my face is projecting outside. I don't know of course because you can see it and I can't. If I'm feeling something powerful, can I repress it? If there's something I dislike, my instincts tell me to make a foul face. If it's something small, my cultural filters kick in and I can prevent the emotion from making it my face and being inappropriate. But if the emotion is stronger it becomes more and more difficult to not wear that on my face. And if it's strong enough, there's no stopping it. If I feel love, how can that not be read in the details big and small written all over my face? Even my eyes alone are going to carry a message that clear. But with the whole face in concert? For something that big you're going to get communication on all open channels.

Love is obviously an emotion that we rarely have a reason to repress, but there are plenty of things that we do need to keep from making it to the surface. There are all sorts of things flying through our heads, and every one of them shouldn't vent out through the face. Well, unless you want to look like the crazy person that you are on the inside. So it is that we've all developed a controlled path from emotion to facial communication; we all have filters, conscious or unconscious. We have some knowledge of our facial vocabulary and are making decisions about which faces to put forth based on proven effectiveness and relevance to the situation.

Although our potential vocabulary is large, it's always being refined by the reaction we see in other people. When we make a face, we're looking for the reaction face in other people. If we perceive that reaction to be positive, we're more likely to use that face in the future. Or maybe their positive reaction causes us to return a positive reaction, and it all cycles until we're just standing their grinning like idiots.

I don't know where I'm going with this. The topic just completely fascinates me. How much of myself is projected with completely subconscious imprecise facial communication? How accurate is what I put out there? Can everything I'm thinking be plainly read on my face? I really have no clue how well I communicate what I'm feeling, or how well I conceal the thoughts and emotions I don't want other people to see. I can know what I'm saying, because I also have ears. But I have no idea what my face is telling you.


Thursday, January 21, 2010


Sourcing off the same list that I got Let the Right One In, I added Thirst to my Netflix queue. This time the origin is Korean instead of Scandinavian, so it's another subtitled vampire movie. Turns out not all of the best vampire movies out there come from America, go figure.

Outside of the fact that I've had to read, there were no real other similarities between the movies. Let the Right One In was very down to earth, but Thirst is a bit more crazy. It's a textbook recommendation to do some more background work before you decide to turn your loved one into a vampire. The end result is one character who's overwhelmed with the guilt of their affliction, and another who's drunk with power. A recipe for disaster (with disaster having proven correlation to entertainment value).

And it's a love story, of course. Why is that all vampire stories are love stories? I'm not complaining, it's just odd that there's such a strong association. Maybe it's an exploration of our love-inspired promises to be together forever. When you have to deal with real forever then it gets more complicated. Or maybe its that we just find all this blood lust somehow erotic. I'm sure there's a long discussion to be had just on that, but I'm off-topic now.

So Thirst is the love story between a priest accidentally turned vampire and an oppressed but not-so-innocent girl. It's one of those stories that is at its core familiar to you, but at the same time unlike anything you've ever seen before. Just enough off axis to keep me guessing. The movie also has a nice escalation to it. There's a steady ramping up from the mundane to the supernatural that fits nicely with the progression of the characters. The end moments are particularly charming.

If I had to rank my recent forays into foreign vampire films I'd put Let the Right One In slightly higher. Maybe its just this Norwegian blood of mine, but I really connected to that movie's pacing. It's a simple story with a truly drab setting, but that all made it so much more real for me. But that's just a slight preference, because Thirst is also definitely worth a spin. Unfortunately I think I've run out of vampire movies on my list. Maybe it's time I bumped True Blood up in the queue?

Sunday, January 3, 2010


The internet is moving to a very democratic place where for all sorts of content there is the possibility for comments and ratings. This is generally a good thing, but transparency in the whole system is pretty critical because frankly most people don't have a clue how to participate in a rating system.

I was poking around on Netflix and came across a user review that started with this:
I gave it a 5 star review because I love it. I may have given it an 8 on a 10 star scale, but since I only get 5 stars thats what its getting.
And then later in the same comment:
I can see where people would rate this lower but I rate things based on if I loved it and could watch it again. So all in all, okay 3D effects, obvious plot, and some of the acting is sub-par but I still loved it.
Um, yeah. I'm glad that Netflix tells me that this person is only 21% similar to me. But I'm still kind of bitter that their rating gets averaged in with everyone else's and in the end result is something that I really can't trust.

It's extremely important to establish a consistent description of what different ratings mean. Netflix does indeed include a description in the tooltip:
1 - Hated It
2 - Didn't Like It
3 - Liked It
4 - Really Liked It
5 - Loved It
Unfortunately these definitions leave a bit too much to the imagination. I mean, I love my wife and I love ice cream, yet these are not the same kinds of love. But the problem is that both are totally valid uses of the word. There's the love that's about deep meaning, and there's the infatuation that is just wanting to experience something over and over again. When I rate my Netflix movies it's based on some combination of these two aspects: meaning and repetition.

1 - I feel like less of a person for experiencing this
2 - That was kind of a waste of my time
3 - Not life altering, but entertaining
4 - That made me feel something
5 - I am a better person for having experienced this

1 - Actively upset that I spent any time watching that
2 - Wish I would have watched something else
3 - A fine use of my time to view it once
4 - Want to see it again
5 - Could watch it over and over; will watch it anytime it's on

This is how movies like Back to the Future and Phoebe in Wonderland can both end up being five stars. It's unfortunate that the different meaning behind those two ratings get lost, but it's the best I can do with a one dimensional scale.

Tangent: It's interesting browsing someone's movie collection. Movie purchases operate primarily under the repetition scale, not the meaning scale. You can totally love a movie, yet not need feel the need to own it. You can also have total fluff that makes you feel good that you want to have around so you can watch whenever. As tempting as it can be to judge someone's tastes by their displayed collection, it's only part of the picture.

There's less of a distinction with games (either of the video or board form) where repetition is more integral to the experience. Compare to Board Game Geek's rating definitions:
10 - Outstanding. Always want to play and expect this will never change
9 - Excellent game. Always want to play it.
8 - Very good game. I like to play. Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.
7 - Good game, usually willing to play.
6 - Ok game, some fun or challenge at least, will play sporadically if in the right mood.
5 - Average game, slightly boring, take it or leave it.
4 - Not so good, it doesn't get me but could be talked into it on occasion.
3 - Likely won't play this again although could be convinced. Bad.
2 - Extremely annoying game, won't play this ever again.
1 - Defies description of a game. You won't catch me dead playing this. Clearly broken.
People wouldn't know what to do with a board game that changed their life but wasn't worth playing a second time. Although that concept doesn't exist in the board game world, it is something we regularly see in film. But I'd love to see the board game that delivered that experience.

I often see reviews that knock video games for being too short. Because video games are quite a bit more expensive than seeing a movie there's an expectation that the consumer should get their money's worth. My time is not as plentiful as it used to be, so a game that delivers a quality experience with no multiplayer or other replay value is just fine. I love the short and sweet game, and so their assumed negative criticism is actually a positive to me.

It's kind of because of this information loss that I don’t try to give numeric ratings on my blog. But I do put a good deal of thought into it whenever I give one elsewhere. But it's a problem that not everyone puts the same level of care into their ratings. I think my first exposure to this was a decade ago back in the days of Am I Hot or Not, which is probably the first real large scale use of internet driven ratings. One person might be sitting there agonizing over the fine difference between a seven and an eight; another person might be treating it as binary with "hot" being ten and "not" being one. And even if you have people putting real thought into it, they many not use the scale uniformly (for example I know that I underuse the one and two star ratings for Netflix).

It's weird, because I think this whole rating thing is hugely important to helping people sift through ever growing heap of content available to us. But I also think that we as humans pretty much suck at it. I think that identity is key to making the experience more accurate, like when Netflix tells me that the rating I'm looking at is from someone who is a bad match for me, or when you choose a particular editorial source whose opinions align with our own. But how much will we really grow and be challenged if we're only exposed to stuff that is like what we already like?

It's a hard problem space, and I hope there are smart people out there thinking really hard about it. In the meantime, I rate this post a "Q".

The Beatles: Rock Band (Xbox 360)

My love affair with rhythm video games has cooled a bit. I don't lust after the experience like I once did. I'll never turn down an opportunity to play, but it's not something I'm generally seeking out anymore.

But every once in awhile an event comes along that reminds me just how awesome this whole music gaming thing can be. This time that was Beatles Rock Band with the family on Christmas Eve. Take a selection of music that pretty much everyone knows, have a large enough group of people such that you can cycle players in and out, and then add in some snacks and booze. It's a Good Time.

Harmonix did a good job with the Beatles, giving a charming presentation of the timeline and a fitting visual style. But honestly it doesn't matter that much. It's about having the right songs with the right people. And that combination is all it really takes to make the band gaming experience awesome.

I think what's really changed is that I used to be willing to play these games alone. The drive to master the instruments and nail the songs was incentive enough. But that passed, and I really only became interested in the cooperative experience. I'd still like to get better at the drums (as that it gives me the illusion that I could play drums for realz), but I recognize that that would require some solo practicing that I just wasn't willing to be bothered with. Anyway, I had only been seeking the game out in group scenarios, and those opportunities had become less frequent, so I had started to forget that I cared. But it was nice to remember this holiday that it can be just as fun even after all this time.