Short cuts

There’s a tendency among some gamers who’ve been pursuing their hobby for decades to measure the worth of a game by its length. I myself remember many a week and month spent playing single games, and there’s definitely something to be said for roleplaying games that deliver a huge world and an epic plot to match – but I’m also coming to appreciate the beauty that can come with brevity. Especially indie developers often benefit from providing a short but focused burst of gameplay, creating encapsulated experiences that, like short stories and short films, can succeed in ways that are essentially different from their longer – and at times too long – brethren.

So, in lieu of a regular Variety Pack, I want to introduce three short titles that I’ve recently played and that both occasional gamers and more old-school, hardcore (read: nerdy) gamers may have ignored. All three games excel at imagining fascinating, evocative worlds without the extensive, often tedious expository worldbuilding that game designers sometimes indulge in… and that some gamers mistake for deft storytelling.

Year Walk

How to describe this one? It’s as if Ingmar Bergman were to reimagine The Blair Witch Project by way of a puzzle box. Taking up the motif of the Nordic year walk, during which travellers encounter mystical creatures as they try to get to their village church in search of visions of the future, the game is one of the visually most unique miniatures I’ve ever played. It is exquisitely atmospheric, creepy and redolent of sorrow and guilt.

The Swapper

In general, puzzle-heavy games tend to lend themselves to a shorter format; even the most ingenious puzzle design gets old if repeated for hours upon hours. The Swapper is a perfect example of this, using its simple premise to great effect: the player guides an astronaut through a derelict space station. Using a swapper device, this astronaut can be cloned up to four times, their consciousness transferred from body to body. This allows the player to stand on buttons, pull boxes and do similarly banal things to progress through the station – but it also tells a subtle yet effective story of identity and the ephemerality of the soul. There are echoes of Moon, but also of Michel Gondry’s more melancholy dreamscapes in the game’s clay-moulded space scapes.

Botanicula

When I was a child, I watched the samey Saturday morning cartoons from America and Japan that were on TV, but there were also Eastern European children’s series that were both much more mundane, set in a world I recognised as being similar to my own (I probably missed all the subtext about living in a Communist system), and more surreal, even subversive. The heroes and sidekicks especially of the US cartoons all pretty much followed the same visual and character templates, while the series from Czechoslovakia were often much more unique, as if the oppressive systems they were created under forced them to find other creative outlets.

The Czech developer Amanita Design may not be working under the shadow of Soviet rule, but they have clearly inherited the creative drive of their forebears. Amanita’s games are gorgeous, unique toyboxes filled to the brim with personality, and Botanicula is a perfect example of this. Some of its puzzles may be annoying, but it is always a joy to inhabit an Amanita world, and this one is no exception.

An Alaskan nightmare

He picks them up in the streets of Anchorage, Alaska, some of them in broad daylight. He starts with local middle-class girls and women, then changes to hopeless drifters and whores because nobody is going to miss them. He rapes and tortures them for weeks in his flat. The less satisfying ones he shoots right there in his living-room where all the animal trophies with their dead eyes look upon the unspeakable acts he commits. The better ones he loads in his Piper plane, flies them to his lonely, wintry hunting grounds, where he sets them free and watches them stumble away through the crosshairs of his rifle. He lets them run until they think that there is the faintest sliver of an escape. Then he shoots them and watches the light die in their eyes.

You shouldn’t have to be told that “The Frozen Ground” is based on a true story. It’s a movie about the twelve-year killing spree of Robert Hansen, a well-liked baker in whose shop cops gather for coffee and doughnuts. He is played by John Cusack, and I’ve just realized that I don’t remember what his voice sounds like. It’s Cusack’s performance that stands out in an otherwise generic exercise. The Hansen in the movie is guarded, watchful, generally friendly. He is boring and can blend in. He is married and has two kids with his second wife. Some say he has a stammer, but how do you know if he says so little?

There is a cop who hunts him, called Halcombe, played by Nicholas Cage, an amalgamation of several real-life cops who were on the case. It’s a decent enough performance, but it’s one that Cage seems to have played at least three times before, and he does nothing with his role to elevate it to Cusack’s level.

There is one girl who gets away while Hansen prepares the Piper for take-off. This is Cindy Paulson. Halcombe must win her trust so she will testify; if she doesn’t, there is no way they can charge Hansen with anything. She is played by Vanessa Hudgens, who could be dismissed as some teenage bimbo from half-assed teenage movies. Not after this movie, she won’t. She plays Cindy as a damaged kid who is almost glad that, after Anchorage, there is nowhere left to run to. Hudgens doesn’t go for manipulative emotions, but for guarded mistrust and self-reliance. There are pieces missing with Cindy Paulson, and Hudgens manages to make us care about her, and so we tend to identify with Cindy, a teenage hooker who lies about her age. She is the entry-point for the movie. Halcombe is the motor for the plot, Hansen is the boogeyman.

The movie is flawed. Halcombe’s family is perfunctory and only there to remind him that they will move to brighter pastures in two weeks, while he cannot let go of the missing girls. Halcombe’s wife is played by Radha Mitchell, an actress who can improve any movie she is in. Not here: the screenplay makes her and Cage play out stuff from the stock cop plot shop. There are supporting roles that don’t lead anywhere, which is a shame when they’re played by actors such as Dean Norris. There is also a confusing scam between two pimps who quarrel about who owns the rights to Cindy. I also minded the prolonged scene where we get to see Vanessa Hudgens pole-dancing. I don’t much care if Hudgens is shapely and pretty; I get that she had to dance for money during in a brief scene; there is no need to film her body from all angles.

The ending is a shame. The Halcombe family, not moving after all, see Cindy off at the airport. That scene is just too fucking cute, Cindy leaving like that over a sickly-sweet soundtrack. I would like to have heard what she had to say to Halcombe.

His last scene with Hansen is weird, too: Halcombe gets a confession out of him by opening the door and letting Cindy take a look at him. That’s too easy and too fast, and a whole scene seems to be missing here. The movie is in a hurry to clean up.

Hansen was caught in 1983, and only after presented with overwhelming evidence did he admit to killing 17 women, but might be responsible for as many as 30. He got convicted for murdering four of them and for the rape and abduction of Cindy Paulson. In Hansen’s home, Halcombe found a map of an uninhabited area full of red crosses. The police went to those spots and dug. Some bodies could not be identified, some were already eaten by animals. Others have not been found, and they might still be lying there, freezing and thawing with the change of seasons, lying there for more years than they had living years on earth.

Check your Easter nests…

… because we’ve got a special Easter present for you: we’re doubling the number of regular writers for Eagles on Pogo Sticks – to two! Mege1 has contributed to the blog in the past, and he’s now joining the site as a permanent, regular fixture, so you’ll be able to read more of his thoughts on films, literature, music and the like.

Here’s what Mege1 writes about himself:

Mege1 has a proper day job, but likes to type away like so many monkeys until there are short stories, novels, plays and screenplays. He also has opinions about movies, books, plays and suchlike and is not afraid to share them. He hails from near Bern, Switzerland.

We’re currently crossing our fingers that there may be more additions to the site’s stable of pop culture addicts in the future. In the meantime, though, happy Easter – and don’t overdose on candy eggs and chocolate bunnies!

frank

“Overrated” seems to be the hardest word‏

There are some words used especially in internet discussions of films, books, TV series, games, albums and other media that are 99% certain to make me stop reading. One of them is “pretentious”, which is criticism’s analogue of Godwin’s Law – only the sturdiest of discussions survive its use intact.

The Art of FieldingWhile it’s not quite as bad as “pretentious”, I don’t like the term “overrated”, because usually it just expresses that the person using it doesn’t agree with the majority at the same time as believing that they’re right and the majority is wrong. It takes a certain amount of arrogance to believe that something is overrated… and yet, I’m about to desplay exactly that amount of arrogance, and possibly more.

When I read Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, I couldn’t help feeling that it was pretty much the encapsulation of an overrated work. Like so many paperback novels, it starts with several pages of praise. Not just any bog standard praise, mind you, but superlatives along the following lines:

A dazzling debut… The Art of Fielding might be the best book you’ll read this year…

A triumphant first novel.

… the most delightful and serious first book of fiction that I have read in a while…

… a magical, melancholy story about friendship and the coming-of-age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer… earnest, deeply felt emotion…

How to deal with such hyperbole? Do you just ignore it as the obvious sales ploy it is? I sometimes find it difficult not to take on a somewhat antagonistic attitude towards both the reviewers and the thing they’re reviewing: This is the best thing since gold-plated sliced bread that performs tasteful yet exquisitely exciting sexual favours? Prove it! Without the hyperbolic praise, I might not have read The Art of Fielding expecting it to either be amazing or fail to live up to those expectations – but then, I might not have read the novel, period. To be fair, The Art of Fielding is not bad – but this is where I will go into arrogant territory and beyond. The novel is pleasant, it’s an easy read. It’s great, for a while at least, if you’re tired and don’t want anything taxing. For a story that’s about a sport I find boring and the men who love it, it’s entertaining enough. Is it anything more than that, though? To be honest, I don’t see it. The writing is competent but not as clever as it seems to think. The characters are sketched quickly and deftly, but they never really become more than those sketches, and there are characters that come across as glib, smug cartoons that make me turn against the novel and its writer rather than against the characters themselves.

What bothered me most, though, may be exactly what makes the novel a pleasant read: it’s harmless. It has no edges whatsoever. It’s toothless. I don’t necessarily hold with Kafka’s dictum that “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us” – but Harbach’s novel never really gains characteristics beyond its pleasantness. There is something downright amorphous to it, an amoeba-like quality of having had all its edges sanded off. I like books that have personality, but this one never gains much personality beyond its generally sunny disposition, and as a result it felt vague and unconvincing when trying to convey stronger emotions. The drama it aims for in its plot lacks energy, conviction and the bite of real emotion.

Yet, going by the reviews the book wasn’t just generally liked, it was loved, a reaction I’m puzzled by. I can imagine people enjoying The Art of Fielding‘s pleasantness, but I cannot fathom anyone mustering the kind of strong reaction that the reviews hint at. Is this the flipside of the more usual, glib cynicism which makes it easier to tear into something than to praise it? I expect reviewers to have more of a range than either panning something or praising it as if it were the Second Coming. Or perhaps the fault, dear Brutus, is in myself – it is possible that as I am tone-deaf to the pleasures of baseball I am equally oblivious to what makes The Art of Fielding not just pleasant but great? Is the novel overrated… or am I overrating my own critical abilities?

Breaking points

First of all, let me be absolutely clear: I like Breaking Bad a lot. I consider it one of the best TV series of the millennium to date. It’s ambitious, smart, exceedingly well acted (with some exceptions in the minor parts), and it has a grasp of complex characterisation like few other series.

I also think that in some ways Breaking Bad is overrated. It’s not quite the perfect series it’s sometimes made out to be, and while it exceeds in many respects, there is room for improvement in others. Granted, I may be talking out of turn, as I haven’t yet finished the series; we’re five episodes away from seeing the last of Mr. White. However, as I’m currently rewatching the first four seasons in parallel to finishing season 5, I think I can safely address what I consider the series’ main flaw.

More than many of my favourite series, from The Sopranos via Six Feet Under to Deadwood, Breaking Bad is heavy on plot. It uses plot to talk about its characters, but it still puts a considerable focus on What Happens Next. This in itself isn’t a flaw; what is, in my opinion, is that while the characters develop in an interesting five-season arc, the season-to-season plotting undermines these arcs to some extent.

Men at work

To a large extent, Breaking Bad is about Walter White oscillating between pathetic, disempowered male, anti-hero and outright villain, and the discrepancy between how he sees and presents himself and how the audience sees him. The tension between these different positions is always interesting, but the series spends a lot of its dramatic ammunition too early, moving Walt into villainous territory only to retcon him – or, more accurately, our view of him – in the following season to some extent (Warning: the following will spoil events up to and including season 5.)

One of Walter’s main crimes in the final season is the way he glibly accepts the murder of an innocent child as something that couldn’t be avoided and that, he thinks, wasn’t really his fault. We watch the scene and its aftermath and we see him as the monster he has become. However, is this act more monstrous than his watching as Jesse’s girlfriend Jane suffocates on her own vomit while she’s in a drug-induced stupor? Especially if we consider what Jane’s death leads to, namely an air crash that kills hundreds. No, Walt doesn’t pull any triggers – but then he rarely does when he’s at his worst, does he? – but his actions lead to those deaths, both the more abstract hundreds of victims of the crash and the more immediate death of Jane. As in season 5, his reaction is to rationalise his actions and his involvement, coming to the conclusion that he is not to blame. Is this more villainous in season 5 because we see the victim, a young boy on his BMX bike? Or is the series suggesting that people may not remember season 2 and the beginning of season 3 (if indeed they were watching Breaking Bad at the time) and the point needed to be reinforced?

There are other points in the overall narrative that hit similar points – Walt getting Jesse to kill Gale, a defenseless and relatively innocent man, for instance – that in the context of their seasons and the surrounding episodes make perfect sense, but when you look at the overall narrative beats they feel like we’re revisiting ground that has previously been covered. It makes some sense if you consider that audiences watching the series on TV would have several month-long breaks between seasons, so there’s a purpose to treading old ground – but in hindsight several mini-arcs feel redundant in terms of how they develop the characters. They feel like the makers of Breaking Bad either didn’t know where they were taking the series, or they didn’t know how many seasons they had left to tell their story. Especially Walter White’s overall arc almost depends on the viewers forgetting or ignoring where the series had previously taken its characters and how far they’d progressed into full-on villain country.

The Meth Throne

The fact that Breaking Bad still works eminently well is largely due to its stars; even when revisiting old ground, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s performances feel fresh and immediate. The same is true for Anna Gunn’s Skylar, although arguably the series and its writing have been less generous to her at times; rewatching the previous seasons, I was struck by how similar her arc in the first half of season 5 is to how she developed in season 3, yet Gunn delivers a great performance. Nonetheless, if it were possible to go back and redo Breaking Bad, it’s the overall plotting that would require attention. If my suspicion is correct and vince Gilligan didn’t always know from one season to the next if the series would be renewed plotting accordingly, it’s understandable that he would have aimed for arcs that hit certain character beats, not knowing whether he’d get another chance later to do so – but it did leave him with characters whose overall arcs have built-in redundancies. While this makes for clever design, it makes for slightly frustrating storytelling. More so because there are so many things Breaking Bad does not just well but better than almost any other TV series.

And that’s before we even mention The Awkward Case Of The Ricin Cigarette – so let’s leave it at that.

The Telltale Ricin

P.S.: Another thing that I’ve realised while rewatching especially season 1: Marie Schrader may just be the character that benefitted most from the series’ evolution over the course of its five seasons. In season 1, she is a two-dimensional character at best, slipping at times into flat caricature; by the final season, she is as rounded, complex and capable of tragedy as any of the main characters. While I may see this as something of a flaw of early Breaking Bad, in this case I prefer to look at it the other way around: the series definitely got better over time. This is also clearly seen in its villains: there’s no comparison between psychotic Tuco “Loony Tunes” Salamanca and the much more nuanced Gustavo Fring.

Look at the size of those pixels!

I’ve written about pixel art before, but as someone who was playing games already when pixels were bigger than my hand there’s something about them that speaks to me, and it says things other than, “Put that away! It’s horrible!” I’m wondering to what extent this is nostalgia talking – big pixels remind me of the time when I was young, full of promise and had hair on my head rather than my ears. What does a non-gamer, or someone whose gaming career started at resolutions beyond 320×200, see when they look at pixel art? Do they see technical limitations, or do they see what I and my fellow gaming Methusaleas see?

Sword & Sworcery

For me, the stylistic choice made for instance by the developers of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (yup, that’s its actual title) is a valid one, since its pixel-heavy goodness achieves a unique effect. It’s not just retro-hipsterish affectation – it’s a valid form of abstraction that is particular to video games. When I look at a screenshot from Sword & Sworcery, I find a highly evocative quality in the image that reminds me of Scott McCloud’s writing on comics. In that medium, the reader is engaged to some extent by the elliptic quality of the frame-by-frame format: we fill in the blanks that are between the individual images. Retro pixel art asks us to fill in the blanks between the pixels; it’s a very specific stylistic cousin to blurring an image for artistic effect. A simple high-resolution paint job would make the picture more specific, more precise, but that evocative potential would be lost in the process. If I think of films that work largely through allusion and ellipsis, such as Andrej Tarkovsky’s Stalker, I imagine something akin to the pixelscapes of Sword & Sworcery more than the more realistic (though also evocative) vistas of the Stalker computer game, a distant cousin of Tarkovsky’s film with very different intentions.

Stalker: Call of Chernobyl

Undoubtedly there’s an economic side to pixel art in indie games: the resources needed to create a game featuring old-school graphics are on an entirely different scale than what goes into flashy, hyperdetailed 3D environments. Beyond this, though, I don’t think that titles such as Papers, Please, Echo of the Wilds or Hyper Light Drifter (you’ll find trailers for all of these below) went with pixel-based artwork because it’s cheaper – all of these aim for a specific effect, an abstraction that at its best can be as gorgeous and evocative as high-detail photography. Even the purposeful ugliness of Hotline Miami and its grotesque ultra-low-res ultra-violence aims for a visual quality that I expect does not only speak to the oldtimers clutching their gamepads. The bigger the space between some pixels, the more space for gamers to lose themselves in.

P.S.: It’s quite fitting that today Rock Paper Shotgun posted an interview with Dave Gilbert, whose Wadjet Eye Games develops old-school low-res pixel art adventure games; in the interview Gilbert says the following: “The great thing about pixel art is it can, how do you explain it? It’s more like your mind fills in a lot of the details when it’s done the right way. When it’s done the wrong way it just looks ugly, that’s the case with any art.”

 

He’s not the Antichrist, he’s a very naughty boy!

Note (to self as much as to anyone else): This should’ve gone up a while ago, but it seems it’s been stuck in draft limbo. If anyone feels they’ve already read this one, let me know, because that would be a sign that my mind – or at least my memory – is pretty much going.

I’d been avoiding Lars von Trier’s Antichrist for a while, mainly because I dislike provocation for provocation’s sake, and that’s what Lars von Trier’s public persona largely seems to be about. Having finally seen the film, I have to admit that it didn’t strike me as adolescently provocative as the man himself – and credit where credit’s due, von Trier makes highly unique films* that are fascinating examples of the craft. Antichrist is a striking film, although for each effective scene there’s another one that overuses a certain technique, causing a bit of von Trier fatigue. Nevertheless, it is only fair to say that the director is eminently skilled.

Antichrist

Having said that, I do think Antichrist goes off the rails and after a strong beginning becomes too random. Stylistically it remains fascinating, but it doesn’t so much bring up motifs and raise themes as throw them against the wall like so much psychosexual spaghetti. Grief! Despair! Pain! Clash of genders! Misogyny! Men are logical, and logic is evil! Women are emotional, and emotion is evil! Nature is evil! Woman is nature! Men can’t cope with women and so burn them! Antichrist flirts with all of these but doesn’t end up doing all that much with any of them. None of it seems to add up to anything much, feeling like window dressing for what is in effect an arthouse slasher movie. For all of the scenes of extreme violence, cruelty and self-harm, I rarely felt particularly involved – nor even all that shocked. When you feel non-plussed rather than anything else at fairly explicit scenes of genital mutilation, you have to wonder what exactly Lars was trying to do.

I imagine that courses on film, gender, violence and Lars von Trier will have a field day with Antichrist, and in fact I might enjoy a discussion about it more than I enjoyed the film itself. In the end, though, I have to wonder whether von Trier, always a consummate trickster, didn’t primarily enjoy the idea of doing a genre film and chose the various thematic overtones more as a game, a puzzle without a solution for the audience to try and solve in vain. It would be interesting to check out the Criterion edition of the film, which seems to be choc-a-bloc with excatly these kinds of discussions by scholars – but while I usually have to be physically kept from ordering yet another Criterion disk, I don’t think I have an urgent need to see Antichrist again, commentary track or not.

I am, however, slightly more curious about Nymphomaniac than I was before, so as an expensive, extended advert for Lars von Trier’s work the film seems to have done its trick. I’m sure his body doubles will appreciate this.

*When I say “unique”, though, I have to relativise that statement – especially at the beginning I did feel I was watching a mashup of David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman’s work, although with more graphic sex than you’d find in either of those.