Yearly Archives: 2016

December 29, 2016

84. お早よう (1959)

2000: 084-box-1

directed by Yasujirō Ozu
written by Kōgo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu

criterion084-title criterion084-title-streaming

(Image on the left is from the Criterion DVD that I watched. Image on the right is from Criterion’s present-day streaming service with a restored copy of the film, which I have only discovered after the fact. Subtitles are burned right into the image but otherwise far superior, as you can see.)

Criterion #84: Good Morning.

お早よう = Ohayō = “Good morning.”
(Ohayō gozaimasu, literally “it’s early,” is the customary morning greeting; Ohayō is the more informal abbreviated version, essentially a specialized form of the word meaning “early.” This root word, “haya,” is the single red character 早 in the title card, so I’m guessing that its emphasis is natural, has no particular significance, and is just for visual effect.)

My first Ozu, though I already had a sense.

Composition, precision, control. Perpendiculars, rectilinear blocks of content. Mondrian. Technicolor palette: brown, white, black, light blue, small areas of strong red. High 1959.

The quadrilaterals make comfort possible. Frame as prerequisite for safety, feeling, humor, beauty. Marie Kondo / Ikea / Wes Anderson. Packaging as Pieter de Hooch. Quest object of the movie is a TV in a cubic cardboard box: comfort and joy, and beyond that, meditation and trance. “ASMR unboxing.”

Objects at the edge of the foreground; people at the center of the distant background. Space is framed along all 3 axes. Nested perspectives: sets within sets; boxes within boxes. My fantasies staring into Escher prints as a child.

Art that “teaches us how to look,” my misquote from John Armstrong. A vision of what domesticity is. Takes its place for me alongside other works of heartfelt suburbiana: Edward Scissorhands, A Christmas Story.

Great warmth and beauty for me in the charades scene. Comedy as a shared serenity. Resonates with my own wishes for how life should be, has been, is. “Cute kids” is too often something else substituted for the transcendent thing itself. Here for a moment is the thing itself. The same goes for “humor.”

The camera low to the floor, unmoving, direct, trustworthy, loving. A child watching raptly from the next room, taking in all, the purest possible gaze.

“I love you” / “Good morning” / 👌. The message of the movie: speech vs. truth. Silentium! Small talk vs. love / English lessons vs. the musical fruit itself. (“Did you call me?”)

Word vs. texture. Look at even the woven surface behind the title card. All the busy talk of the neighborhood gossips is no match for a tactile Ikea paradise. The sensory order reigns supreme; its spirit is unbreakable. As long as you can reach down and touch the carpet, all is well. I believe it.

The encroachment of the West as a flowering of innocence. Dire warnings about the boob tube are just so much “good morning,” the refuge of nervous grownups; they sing a different tune when they’re in a better mood. “Look at his face; I can see he doesn’t mean it.”

No need to fear the pajama-wearing hipsters and their TV set; jazz and English and hula hoops are just more sounds and colors to fill our cabinet of curiosities. Hedonism is not incompatible with order; childish things are not spiritually void. All of this new sensual absurdity is safe; Japan is ready to bear it in its heart. “I love you!”

The movie itself — simple, gentle, immediate, human — is what the meticulous construction has allowed. Elegant and quietly nourishing. A friendly film above all; for which, in a lonely moment, I was profoundly grateful.

There, that was a hundred times easier than usual! It’s the connective tissue that costs. That and the verbs.

Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi. A flashy concert composer and skilled orchestrator who perfectly understood what was called for. I wish I could have grabbed the main theme, the one that recurs many times throughout, because it’s the heart of the movie. Unfortunately it’s always interrupted by dialogue.

Here then is the splendid Main Title, with suggestions of Haydn, Rossini et al. but treated with sweet zaniness. (I don’t think it alludes to any specific classical work, but I’m not certain.)


December 25, 2016

83. The Harder They Come (1972)

2000: 083-box-1 (OOP 9/2005)

directed by Perry Henzell
written by Perry Henzell and Trevor D. Rhone


Criterion #83.

(This trailer has been transferred 5% too fast. The same song is posted below at its proper pitch.)

On Criterion’s site, one of the user comments about The Harder They Come says that it “feels more like folklore than film.” That’s aptly put, and the phrase lingered in my mind during my time with the movie. The distinction it makes is real, but it’s also relative; you can feel the shift by degrees as you walk through an art museum from, say, the “19th century European” galleries to the “medieval European” to the “ancient Egyptian” to the “Pacific Islander” galleries. Things start to seem more essentially sociological than aesthetic, “more folklore than film,” as they become more culturally distant from you.

Art is made by and for communities, and I only belong to a few communities. That puts limits on how much art is accessible to me. When I’m at the museum looking at ancient Chinese sculpture or Greek pottery or Polynesian idols, I understand very well that I’m only a tourist, peering in on someone else’s business from far, far away. I can speculate about what it was to them, or I can let it be whatever it happens to be to me. But I can’t “just get it,” which is the truest form of artistic experience. That’s a privilege exclusive to those for whom it was made.

The Harder They Come is a movie for Jamaicans of 1972. It is for me about as much as Seinfeld is for them.

1. I can speculate about what it was to them.

There had never been an indigenous Jamaican movie before. Suddenly they got to see themselves. They got to see that the inherent glamour of cinematic space and time was accessible to them, was applicable to their lives, their language, their world. I’m generally pretty cynical about “identity politics,” but there’s no denying that at its core is something real and important: everyone sees themselves in a cultural mirror, and everyone’s sense of self-worth is affected by what they see there. Film is intrinsically a mirror of glory: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. It’s one of the greatest affirmations a community can give itself.

From the commentary track, here’s director Perry Henzell (a white Jamaican, born into and then disowned from an old plantation-owning family) talking about the movie’s premiere. He’s referring to the very first shots of the movie, in which a bus — see the title screen above — travels down a narrow seaside road and gets blocked by oncoming traffic:

The audience came to the theater and then at this point, where the bus [has to brake], they went mad. … Right at the start, this whole thing is so familiar to Jamaicans. This business of two trucks coming together and one won’t move, you know. The opening night was in Kingston at this big old theater that we had there, 1500 seats, called the Carib Theater. It was just, you know, crowd as far as you could see. And they beat the doors in and rushed the theater. And invited guests… I mean, the prime minister’s wife was sharing a seat with the prime minister’s mother, that kind of thing — she’s in the film, actually — three people to every seat. And they just started screaming. And I never — tell you the truth — never heard another word of dialogue that night.

There is no thrill in moviedom like people seeing themselves on the screen for the first time. Jamaicans had never ever seen themselves on the screen, their lives represented on the screen. The first time that it happens it produces this unbelievable audience reaction, like nothing else ever could.

This is not to imply that The Harder They Come is a simplistic film catering solely to the most primitive needs; taken as a societal self-portrait it’s actually pretty worldly and layered.

Based roughly on the career of a real-life celebrity criminal, it’s a film that follows the standard “antihero” formula: letting the audience vent their resentments and “know better” at the same time.

Jimmy Cliff’s “Ivan” is a ne’er-do-well wannabe singer whose ambitions are so frustrated by the exploitative music industry and the everyday realities of Jamaican poverty that he eventually drifts into becoming a murderous outlaw, vaguely entangled in the “ganja” trade. His infamy turns him into a folk hero and his song becomes a hit. He embarrasses all the petty authorities by the swagger with which he outruns and outguns them; the harder they come, the harder they fall — at least in the fantasy he’s trying to live out. The mass audience within the film, as outside it, roots for his rebellious violence against the whole corrupt system, roots for his single-minded commitment to the poor man’s dream of being someone who counts, a celebrity, a big shot. Then he gets inevitably gunned down, like Butch Cassidy or Bonnie and Clyde; this, too, is what he and the audience expect and want.

The final shootout is actually intercut with shots of raucous, delighted Jamaican moviegoers. In one sense, these are the admirers in Ivan’s head, the imaginary audience for whom his whole spree has been a performance. In another sense they are the actual society within the movie, living vicariously through his criminal exuberance. And at another level they are a nod to the actual audience actually watching this actual movie: the mirror of art brought to an absolute head, a depiction of the viewer in the moment of viewing. It’s like the movie ends by cheering for itself; the whole thing has been a cheer, simultaneously cynical and heartfelt.

But I, here in the USA in 2016, am way, way on the outside of that cheer. Trying to imagine that I am on the inside is just an exercise. It will never be an aesthetic immediacy, for me.

2. I can let it be whatever it happens to be to me.

Unfortunately that’s not very much. I can appreciate that the Jamaican accent and speech patterns and attitude are warm and melodious, but the whole manner makes me disengage; it feels somehow like nobody thinks anything they’re saying or doing really matters. I know that’s not the case, but I can’t deny that it’s how my American ears process it.

It’s not a film by or for primitive minds, but it is a primitive film by any normal technical standards, performed by unskilled non-actors and with all the hallmarks of a very low budget. These kinds of factors are significant not because expensive sets and lights and performers have cachet in themselves, but because the more advanced the execution, the more universal the product. Just as money is a universal standard for value, the things money can buy tend to enable communication in more universal terms. A cheap little third-world movie like this has to rely fundamentally on the existing human value-exchange systems of its particular culture. That’s not at all a bad thing, but it is a boundary.

Both literally and figuratively, I have a hard time understanding these people, and the movie isn’t speaking in any voice other than the voice of these people. It can’t afford to and it doesn’t want to anyway.

In the commentary, Henzell talks about his interest in capturing real things on film as they are, and not constructing sets or hiring trained actors. He says proudly that a scene in a Kingston arcade was shot simply by walking in and filming whatever was really going on there that night. That kind of access is of value to me, and it’s true that this film is built out of such footage; it lets me experience places and people that I would never otherwise experience. When I saw the arcade scene the second time, while listening to the commentary, I thought, “yeah, he’s right, it’s fascinating to get to take a virtual stroll into this place and check out what’s going on.” And yet in the course of watching the movie I hadn’t been able to appreciate that, because it had told me it was a story, and I was trying to watch it that way.

Had the same footage been presented as a documentary I would have been able to get so much more out of it. Every film is, in an esoteric sense, a documentary about what was really going on in certain places at certain moments. The question is whether the film indicates, by its body language, that this way of watching is intended, is desired. Black Orpheus, which has a lot in common with The Harder They Come, made very clear to the audience that it was offering a poetic form of virtual tourism at least as much as it was offering fiction. The Harder They Come seems in retrospect to have had some of the same intentions, but it didn’t make the gestures. Or if it did I didn’t pick up on them.

I found this movie extraordinarily difficult to get through. It took four or five false starts over the course of a full year before I finally managed to see it through to the end, and even then I was in something of a stupor. There’s something stupefying about it, exactly as there is something stupefying to me about the anthropological rooms at the art museum; I can only look at Polynesian idols and Greek pottery for so long before I exhaust the spontaneous artistic response they provoke in me and become aware of myself standing in a room alone with some “interesting” objects. They are not mine and I am not theirs; that’s okay. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We can’t all be one another’s.

I have borne this “interesting” film with me for a year and have now finally fulfilled it.

I wrote everything above before finishing the commentary. Here’s something Perry Henzell says at the very end:

It’s two movies, Harder They Come, two totally different movies. In Europe and America and Japan, it’s a movie for college audiences who are sophisticated enough to want a glimpse into another world. In the other world that they’re glimpsing into, like Brazil, Africa, Caribbean, and so on, it plays to people who, you know, are poor people living in slums, living in the conditions that the movie represents, and it plays like Kung Fu.

I guess I will try to hold it as a point of pride (?) that despite falling squarely in the first demographic, I nonetheless instinctively tried to watch the second movie. And failed.

In America, the most lasting mark left by this movie is that its soundtrack was decisive in introducing reggae to the masses, much like what the soundtrack of Black Orpheus had done for bossa nova.

There’s no instrumental underscore, just songs. The obvious choice for our selection is the title song, which we get to watch sung live in the studio, in its entirety. From the commentary we learn that this was the first time the song had ever been performed.


December 21, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 16. The Hitch-Hiker


directed by Alvin Ganzer
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the radio play by Lucille Fletcher
starring Inger Stevens
with Adam Williams, Lew Gallo, Leonard Strong, Russ Bender, and George Mitchell

Friday, January 22, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Oh sure, women get to be 27 years old.

This is a genuine thrills-and-chills episode, with multiple jump scares. They got me! But a jump scare is just a buzzer. If it feels like more, it’s because of fear that has already accumulated, set free by the shock. Something has to have primed the pump. So what’s the underlying fear here?

Let’s get straight to the psychoanalysis. Loyal readers should at this point be entirely unsurprised to hear me assert that this episode is about the individual self being haunted by the social self. (Yeah, yeah.)

By now some of you should have received your own decoder rings and will be able to work out the following on your own. For the rest I’ll try to be concise:

Nan travels away from her accustomed people and places, into the wide-open country of being an individual, alone. In this realm, she is fundamentally confident and relaxed, as we see her in the opening scene, but she gradually becomes aware of a vague fear of a vague other. As with all ghost stories, this is a depiction of a real-life sensation: the social circuits misfire when there’s no one around, creating an eerie afterimage — specifically, the afterimage of one’s social defenses. In other words, she lets her guard down, and then begins to experience residual anxiety about how risky that is.

She wants to be rid of the anxiety, so she tries to get help from other people, but of course by definition other people can’t help her with her experience of being alone; only she can make peace with her asocial core. In the end, she does: she accepts that to be truly oneself, alone, means allowing the social self to die for the moment — which is to say allowing oneself to have died in the eyes of others. Having done this, she now recognizes that the spooky “other” who has been menacing her was only her own projection, and calmly reintegrates him back into her zone of selfhood, within her car, her innermost privacy. He says she’s going his way, and of course she is.

Read this way, it’s actually an entirely happy ending. The threat it seems to hold over our heads is that she’s “really” dead, permanently, and will never be able to be with other people again. But that’s not what the show actually tells us. She’s still sitting up and driving a car at the end, after all. The sense that she has met her doom is something the audience imposes on this story from their own phobias, which warn that once you’ve completely detached from society, even for just a moment, there’s no coming back. It’s not so, of course, but the phobia is common and runs deep.

Maybe some of you are thinking this interpretation seems like a stretch — fine for a term paper but, you know, kind of bullshit. I can hear you now, saying: “She really is dead, at the end. It’s not ambiguous. They say so, in so many words.” To such skeptics, I put it to you that you don’t need to play any esoteric Freudian games to arrive at my reading. Consider:

Even in the most literal-minded viewing of this episode, the audience understands that only Nan can see the hitchhiker; he is in her reality but not the mechanic’s or the sailor’s. This is a standard ghost-story conceit. Well, all it takes to get from there to my psychological reading is to consider that the revelatory phone call at the end might be in the same category.

After all, the phone call is certainly “uncanny,” so we have to wonder about its status in relation to the “only she can see it” rule: what would it have look liked to the other characters? We don’t get to see the scene from anyone else’s point of view, but we can imagine that perhaps the sailor might have seen Nan standing by a payphone in a trance, not dialing. Or having an ordinary conversation with her mother, but with a glazed look in her eye. Or just sitting in her car. Whatever. The point is just that if you are willing to allow that “being informed that she is dead” might be just as much her private burden as the invisible hitchhiker is — just as exclusive to her reality — then it becomes quite natural to see them both as elements of her psyche, and with the values I’ve outlined.

(It’s true, Rod says that “she didn’t make it” to Los Angeles. But who’s to say what he means by “she”?)

(Also maybe she just decided to go somewhere else.)

Almost every story of the supernatural will at some point tease the audience with the possibility that the spooky phenomena are only the protagonist’s subjective hallucination. “Is it real or is it just in the character’s head?” is almost as fundamental to supernatural stories as “who done it?” to mystery stories.

But of course, the whole thing is always in our heads. This may seem absurdly obvious but it bears attention. The value of any story, for the audience, is exactly that we experience it even though it’s not “real.” And our emotional access to the characters is always through the lens of subjectivity; we relate to their experiences as experiences. How else are stories about ghosts and magic and monsters and aliens even comprehensible? The fact that we are able to make any sort of meaning of such things is proof that these things exist for us; i.e. that they correspond to elements of our perceptual complex. And so any attempt by an author to decisively resolve the “is it real” question is going to be beside the point. The ambiguity, the equivalence, is the point: ghosts are in our heads, which means they’re real. That’s how stories work, and that’s how heads work.

That is to say: the received meaning of a story where ultimately the author says “it was real!” and a story where ultimately the author says “it was all in her head!” is absolutely exactly the same for us. And we’re the only ones here. The question of whether it’s the same for the character is just a hall of mirrors.

If you have a puppet on your hand and you make it say “ow,” did the puppet get hurt? Obviously the truest, most correct answer to such a question is a shrug. That shrug isn’t evasive, or highfalutin’ relativism. It’s a shrug; the question merits it. If you’re sufficiently at ease with yourself, you’ll feel it.

This is all, again, to defend my position that Nan is fine at the end of the episode.

“Yes, but isn’t she dead?”


The voice-over talks about intense loneliness, about being “unspeakably, nightmarishly alone.” This seems mostly inherited straight from Lucille Fletcher’s original radio play, and not from Rod Serling’s psyche. Contrast Rod’s conception of loneliness in “The Lonely“: the character’s isolation is simple, absolute and unquestioned, because it’s been deliberately imposed on him by other people. The entire barren asteroid is a manifestation of the hostility of his jailers; the whole landscape has in this sense a voice of its own. It is the “other.” Fletcher’s “Hitch-Hiker” loneliness is more oppressive, is “unspeakable” and “nightmarish,” exactly because it is uncertain and incomplete, because it comes from nowhere and nobody is in charge of it. It’s sticky and existential; it has nothing to say for itself, but it still has the echoes of other people floating around in it. That’s what it is to be truly alone.

In fact maybe it would be best to make a distinction between “loneliness” — i.e. the desire to be around other people — and being “unspeakably, nightmarishly alone,” which is an unpleasant sensation but not necessarily a desire. Nan turns to other people for help but it’s just an expression of desperation; the thing she really wants isn’t people themselves. She wants in fact to be more purely free of them. So I shouldn’t have said this episode is about “loneliness”; rather, it’s about “being alone.” The condition of being alone can give rise to fears, but the fears aren’t always of the condition itself. This episode is about the other fears that live in that space.

There seem not to be any recordings of the first performance of the radio play on The Orson Welles Show in 1941, but Welles brought it back several times, and later performances have survived (including this 1942 version for Suspense and this 1946 version for The Mercury Summer Theater of the Air).

The most obvious difference from the Twilight Zone version is that the radio play has a male rather than a female protagonist — played by Orson, naturally. Your mileage will vary as to whether this feels like a consequential change.

I was originally planning to talk a bit about feminist themes and concerns — such things naturally come to mind while watching this episode — but having heard the Orson Welles version of the story and recognized it as functionally identical, I decided that feminism was a less significant topic than I had thought. I’ll just say that I think the sex swap was a good choice on Rod’s part; in modern American society, women tend to have an even more fraught relationship with “being alone,” so the story is richer for it. But it’s not essential. (“Lady?” “Yes. That’s what I am. I’m a lady.”)

(The male version of the character is — you guessed it! — “36 years of age.” Like I said: if you want to be younger than 36, you’d better be a woman. Though Welles was only 26 when he first performed the role.)

It’s also worth noting that Lucille Fletcher’s original ending is different:

ADAMS: (In a strange voice) And so, I am sitting here in this deserted auto camp in Gallup, New Mexico. I am trying to think. I am trying to get hold of myself. Otherwise, I shall go mad… Outside it is night — the vast, soulless night of New Mexico. A million stars are in the sky. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa, mountains, prairies — desert. Somewhere among them, he is waiting for me. Somewhere I shall know who he is and who… I… am…

This flourish is more truly “weird” than seems to have been Rod’s taste; it lunges outward toward profound disintegration. Whereas The Twilight Zone is committed to an aesthetic of cleverness, tidiness.

The Fletcher ending doesn’t really work for me — the cadence of it, unfortunately, is too much of a cliché for my ear to take seriously — but I recognize that there’s a real idea behind it, not just a stock gesture. The fear of social death — the idea that if one is not observed one will cease to be oneself — here is thrust wriggling in the audience’s face: it’s devouring this guy right as we listen! It will devour you! If he’s not “alive” anymore, not “Ronald Adams” anymore, who… is… he?

The essence of “the weird” (in the Lovecraftian sense) is, I think, fear of the fact that consciousness — the experience of a self and of a world — is an illusion, prone to dissolution. For those of us who feel it, it can be the most potent and profound form of fear. But it’s really just like any other phobia: a morbid exaggeration. There’s nothing actually dangerous about the fact that consciousness is an ever-dissolving mirage — that there isn’t really any such thing as “I.” The mail still gets delivered, etc.

And Rod Serling, for all his insecurities, was not afraid of dissolving. That wasn’t his burden. Like I said, he seems to have been afraid of loneliness, but not afraid while actually alone. I suspect he couldn’t really comprehend the fear behind the “weird” Fletcher ending because it’s wasn’t his fear. So his reworking of The Hitchhiker into something tidy, something that made sense to him, inadvertently does the audience a service that the original doesn’t: it reveals the solution to the phobia, which his subconscious already knew, as does the subconscious of everyone who isn’t phobic.

It’s the same as the solution to any phobia: it turns out you misunderstood the situation. It’s not something perpetually lurking in wait for you, somewhere beyond the horizon; in fact, it’s already in your car. It’s been with you all along. It’s “going your way.” It’s you. Duh.

• Resorting to so much radio-style narration seems a bit weak on Rod’s part. Surely there were visual ways to get the same stuff across. In fact I know there were because two years later, when this episode was shamelessly ripped off as Carnival of Souls, those guys didn’t use narration, and it worked perfectly well. (On which subject: in retrospect I’m a little disappointed in Criterion for not having the guts to admit anywhere in their bonus materials that the whole movie is stolen from an episode of the The Twilight Zone.)

• I love that the first appearance of the hitchhiker not only isn’t foregrounded but isn’t accompanied by any music, either. He’s really just ours to notice and worry about privately, feeling that even “the show” doesn’t know we saw him there.

• She says she’s going from Tennessee to Arkansas but she also says she’s on Route 80. Rod was probably looking at the map of Route 80 but his eye skipped down to Route 40.

• Mom’s phone number: Trafalgar 4—1098. According to this chart, TR(afalgar) was a Manhattan exchange and translates to (212) 874-1098. Today, according to various reverse-lookup services, this is not a listed number. Suspicious, right?

• Eleanor Audley — Cinderella’s stepmother and Sleeping Beauty’s witch — is the uncredited voice on the phone.

• “Hey, so, after the shoot, if you’re not doing anything, I really think you should come over to my place to, you know, have a drink and see my model airplanes. They’re pretty impressive if I do say so myself.

Psycho had begun shooting on November 11, 1959, and would wrap on February 1, 1960. (“The Hitch-Hiker,” for what it’s worth, had been shot July 28–30, 1959.) I can’t find a more detailed breakdown of the Psycho production schedule — I’m sure it’s out there somewhere — but it seems entirely possible that Hitchcock had seen this episode recently when he was shooting and/or editing the driving sequences.

Something else in common with Psycho is of course music by Bernard Herrmann.

This is a library score, assembled from various existing recordings, but the principal material used is, aptly enough, the score Herrmann wrote for the original 1941 production of the “Hitch-Hiker” radio play (and reused faithfully in the extant recordings linked above), which had been re-recorded for the CBS TV music library as general-purpose underscoring. Here it just happens to be having a reunion with its original subject.

It should be here noted for those who are unaware that Lucille Fletcher, author of the play (and of Sorry, Wrong Number), was from 1939 to 1948 Herrmann’s wife, so this material is in a sense doubly linked to Herrmann. In fact the whole thing was inspired by a cross-country drive Herrmann and Fletcher made in 1940, heading to LA so that Benny could work on Citizen Kane.

Unless you’re in a very particular mood, his “Hitch-Hiker” score makes for rather drab listening in isolation, but that’s exactly why it’s so exemplary of his unparalleled craftsmanship in the art of musical furniture-making. This is music like perfectly-milled unfinished wood. No melodies, no form: pure. And yet the drama is served with great sensitivity, both in its whole and in its each individual moment. That said, its ultimate fate as a venerable piece of library music — cropping up on Gunsmoke and the like — demonstrates that a really good piece of furniture, though it might have been designed to match one particular room, will work anywhere.

December 2, 2016

Game log 11/16

Okay, I started to feel bad about neglecting the queue so here I am pushing onward.

It’s been a while so a quick refresher. Previously on Game Log:

When last we saw our spreadsheet, I was making my way through the 10 games purchased as the “Humble Origin Bundle” on August 27, 2013, an assortment of “triple-A” games from Electronic Arts that aren’t quite my usual fare. So far I’ve given at least an hour each to Dead Space (dismember horrors), Burnout Paradise (crash cars), Crysis 2 (DOMINATE WITH YOUR POWER), and Mirror’s Edge (be so so fierce).

Next up is Dead Space 3 … but I’m just declaring this one a no-go without even starting it. Having almost immediately found the original Dead Space too unrewardingly yucky to continue, I think it’s safe to say that this entire series isn’t for me. I don’t need to subject myself to any more of it just to prove that. (Yeah, even though they say Dead Space 3 is significantly less scary than its predecessors. I don’t care.) I’m comfortable resigning myself to getting my $4.95 worth out of the other 9 games.

(In related news: email me if you want a code for redeeming a copy of Dead Space 3! Still good! Never used!)

Five to go.

Medal of Honor (2010): Danger Close Games (Los Angeles, CA) / EA DICE (Stockholm, Sweden) [played for 1 hr]

I had to stop after an hour because I think this game may be evil. Evil in the sense of being by and for a mindset that is responsible for some of the real troubles of the real world. I was worried this might be hard to explain but conveniently it’s all on show in the trailer above.

Is “macho” really evil? I don’t know; maybe that’s too strong a claim. I can hear how extreme it sounds to say that.

But if “evil” is going to refer to anything, shouldn’t it be this? Flipping the switch. The wolf pack. The unknown elite.

It was after this cut scene that I quit. I couldn’t stomach the game’s unbelievable self-satisfaction about having recognized that an Afghan would have feelings. Writer: “Hey, an Afghan saying some emotional stuff, about how he’s, like, a human being or whatever, would be a really awesome opportunity to contrast the kickass hotheaded take-no-shit side of American masculinity with the mature, compassionate, also-take-no-shit side of American masculinity. I’ll have him babbling, and a wise American will cut him off in an awesomely manly fatherly voice and say ‘I understand. Where are the enemy?'”

The idea that an Afghan might resent being cut off, might feel outraged at being threatened and then patronized by heavily-armed self-satisfied foreigners, is beyond the game’s ability to imagine. It’s too busy looking in the mirror and flexing, and being proud of its refusal to take shit. No more shit. Take no shit. We don’t take shit. One thing you can say for sure about the most elite operators in the world: they don’t take shit.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

This is a real psychology and, yes, I think it is out there doing evil on this earth. It arises from the taking of shit, and it results in the dishing out of shit.

(The use of echoey middle eastern drones to signify “sober worldliness,” the suppressed and muffled fear and sadness of the proudly battle-hardened, is starting to be a red flag for me. When you hear that keening in a movie these days it’s almost always a sign that some emotional poison has gotten into the water.)

Battlefield 3 (2011): EA DICE (Stockholm, Sweden) [9 hrs]

Yes, I know, this would seem to be exactly the same game. Yet this one I played to the end. Its attitude was markedly less toxic. Naturally, it too dabbles in absurd and unhealthy ideas of masculinity — that goes with the territory — but this time those absurdities felt less directly related to moral rot in the real world. Battlefield 3 certainly glorifies the sights and sounds of war and the act of killing, but it doesn’t dwell on how powerful and manly it all makes you. It offers you a fantasy military-fetish experience that, in good faith, it simply assumes you will enjoy. There’s none of that air of narcissistic bullying about it.

It certainly has some tasteless elements stuck in there, but to me they felt naive rather than calculating. It’s the difference between a teenager who says offensive stuff because he’s enthusiastic and oblivious, and a teenager who knowingly says offensive stuff because he wants to prove that he’s too hot for you to handle.

Battlefield 3 is fundamentally an online multiplayer game, with a single-player story game tacked on. Reviewers generally loved the former and dismissed the latter as a sloppy mess, best ignored. But I of course only played the latter. The graphics and overall sense of environmental immersion were terrific, among the very best I’ve ever seen. The rest was indeed sort of a sloppy mess. But I was too entranced by the production values to stop before it was over.

Fun fact: while I was in the middle of playing this game, C-list tabloid mainstay and DSM-5 spokesmodel Donald Trump was elected President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, in what has been described as an “actual event.” On the first day afterward I thought I might not be able to continue with this game because its combination of blinkered idiocy and indiscriminate American military force would ring too relevant for comfort.

But on the second day after I realized, “if I stop shooting at CGI terrorists, the Trumps win,” so I played the rest in one go. It was exactly as fun as the pre-election portion of the game. Let that be a lesson to us all.

The Sims 3 (2009): The Sims Studio [= Electronic Arts] (Redwood City, CA) [played for 2 hrs]
+ “Late Night” expansion (2010) + “High End Loft Stuff” pack (2010) + “Date Night” clothing set (2012)

This is an enormously popular game into which many people pour hundreds of hours. I did two hours and I’ve decided to move on.

I built a guy. I tried to make him be me, but after many minutes of carefully tilting his nostrils and rotating his chin and scaling his eye socket depth etc. etc. etc. I had only managed to build something vaguely like a waxwork Jake Gyllenhaal. The game then suggested to me that he was a “loner” and “artistic” and that his life goal was to be a film composer. (Believe it or not, those were randomly generated, but of course I accepted them, on the fortune cookie principle.) I called him “Fred Zank” and moved him into a house. After a tutorial showed me how to control the camera — extremely awkward! — and order Fred around, I was encouraged to tend to his needs, get him a job, and generally guide him toward a life well lived.

Left to his own devices, Fred just wanted to sit in his house and read a fantasy novel. A newspaper was delivered, and I had Fred read it. It informed us about some kind of sporting event going on, so I sent Fred into the city to try to attend. I guess technically he did, but I was disappointed to find that the interior of the stadium wasn’t actually depicted on screen so it didn’t feel like a rewarding outing. Upon exiting the stadium, Fred indicated that he was thirsty and hungry, so I directed him to a nearby establishment with a martini icon, but the bouncer repeatedly refused to let him in, so I sent him to another one. That bouncer refused to let him in too. These humiliating experiences seemed to agitate Fred somewhat, and by this point it was getting quite late and Fred was apparently weary from lack of sustenance.

In desperation, I found a dive bar on the map and sent Fred there. When he arrived I had him order food and drink from the bartender. Perhaps he would have done it on his own, and my order somehow doubled up the amount of food and drink; in any case, he seemed to go on eating and drinking for a long time. A woman sat down at the bar next to Fred and I was going to have him try chatting her up when he suddenly indicated that he had urgent need for a toilet. I trundled the camera around looking for the bar restroom, and, finding it, directed Fred to use the toilet there, but unfortunately at that moment I saw that Fred had spontaneously added a new task to his queue, called “pee self.” He then stood up rather confusedly from the barstool and peed on the floor, obviously disgusting the 7 or 8 people who stood nearby, whose thought bubbles all filled up with pictures of Fred.

This incident made him fairly unhappy, and he began to emanate a cloud of stink. Furthermore it was now the wee hours of the morning. I sent Fred home to sleep it off in his bed, which he did, not waking until mid-afternoon. I had him take a shower, and then look for a job in the paper, which he immediately found: he could apparently enter the music industry as a professional “fan.” Having accepted the job, the next morning I had him make himself breakfast to prepare for his first day at work. The only thing he knew how to make was “waffles.” I watched him combine ingredients into a bowl, stir the batter, and then pour it into some kind of pan — I guess a waffle mold? — that he put in the oven. After a few minutes of baking, the oven burst into flame. Fred, standing nearby, began to panic, uselessly. The fire spread to the wall and the floor. The fire alarm went off and soon a fireman had arrived to spray the oven — and Fred — with foam.

Soon a mysterious car arrived outside to drive Fred to work. It drove Fred to a high-rise office building. Again, the interior wasn’t shown, so I don’t know exactly what Fred was doing as a professional music fan, but he was there at work for several hours, and left with about $125 of pay.

At this point I stopped.

I found all of this amusing, sure, but also sad. There was something disheartening about the loneliness and futility of this sprawling world-system, full of catalogues upon catalogues of options, and something oppressive about Fred’s overwhelming vacuity. Even his most outrageous humiliations were weightless, arbitrary, inconsequential.

It was like the opposite of storytelling: the game offers events that would seem to have obvious dramatic meaning, and then drains them of that meaning. In this game people ostensibly die, are born, fall in love, betray one another, achieve their dreams, lose it all, blah blah blah, but it all has exactly the same texture of utter emptiness. That’s supposed to be the fun of it, I suppose, but to me it means there’s nothing worth staying for.

The Sims 3 might purport to be like playing with dolls, but when kids play with dolls, their emotions are the life of the dolls and the life of the dolls is all emotion. There are no rules other than self-expression. Whereas these computer dolls are all rules, only rules, and they do their feeling by themselves. They have animations for acting sad and happy and scared and eager so that you don’t have need or occasion to imbue them with anything of your own. A doll is a totem; The Sims are just sea monkeys. And if I’m going to raise sea monkeys I want them simple. I don’t want “infinite possibilities.”

Just last month, Stardew Valley managed to draw me into playing a “life simulator” because, unlike the usual fare, it was fundamentally sentimental about everything. The changing of the seasons; the sprouting of a new radish; showing daily affection for your cows: the game’s aesthetics are very specifically selling the idea that any of these things might wet your eyes a bit with existential poignancy. And I’ll buy that; I have use for it. (Yes, sometimes I criticize attempts at that sort of thing as kitsch, or insincere, but I criticize because it’s something I care about, something I need.) The Sims 3 is the opposite: a mechanized simulacrum of life deliberately emancipated from all sentimentality. It invites us to enjoy the forms of shopping and coupling and advancing and earning without the burden of those things having any substance. It is the names and shapes of things without their pesky meanings. That attitude in itself has a meaning, for me, in relation to life, and it means depression. This is what life looks like when you are looking through the wrong eyes.

So that’s enough of that.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 — Uprising (2009): EA Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA) [played for .5 hrs]

How to parse the title: first you’ve got Command & Conquer (1995), and then you’ve got a prequel, Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996), which begins its own line of descent, its grandchild being Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (2008). And then a few months later, the present game, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 — Uprising, which is a “stand-alone expansion” to Red Alert 3. This all means that my sense of being late to the party is four layers deep. Plus if you watch the trailer you’ll probably understand why I’m not sure whether I was invited to this party at all. Kinda seems like a party for a different crowd.

I like the concept of Real-Time Strategy but my brain doesn’t naturally take to it. I started the tutorial, but trying to get in the headspace gave me such a strong sense of swimming upstream against my own desires that after half an hour I decided it needed to be heeded, so I’m going to skip this game. My superficial impression is that if I were even remotely inclined to play an RTS right now, this would be a pretty good one. But I’m just not.

Thought: I am far more willing to push through tedious rulesets when learning board games because a) the entire responsibility for enacting the game is on the player so it feels natural that I should have to shoulder more information than when a computer is running the show, and b) the point of a multiplayer game is not so much to contend with the rules as it is to contend with other people through the medium of the rules, which holds greater emotional promise and so is worth a greater investment. It’s true that I am a lifelong lover of puzzles and single-player games, but the ones I like generally have fairly simple and immediately intuitive rules. To me, essential to the pleasure of experiencing a thing alone is that you encounter it as it appears, rather than as it explains itself. The appearance is the explanation.


I love the ideal represented by the modern practice of incorporating the tutorial right into the game proper: namely that learning is entirely the teacher’s project, not the student’s, and so at its best it will be indistinguishable from ordinary doing. The only necessity is that the on-ramp begin all the way on the ground — after that, as long as the road is well-constructed, from the traveler’s perspective it’s all just road. Ramps are not “prerequisites” to level ground; all travel is continuously contoured.

For puzzle games this ideal is absolutely achievable; this year The Witness and Stephen’s Sausage Roll were both built entirely around the principle of learning. But with intricate game-systems like RTSes and board games, it’s much more difficult to create a tutorial that resembles play, because the rules are not inherently cumulative. The intricacies usually exist because they’re necessary for structural balance. Starting out with only one or two rules in place is like playing a completely different game, one that the designers rarely want to spend time exploring and making worthwhile in its own right. Nonetheless I continue to fantasize about such things.

I would love board games to come with an interactive learning ritual, something like a Seder.

Populous (1989): Bullfrog (Guildford, UK) [played for a few minutes]

This last game in the “Humble Origin Bundle” seems to have been tossed in as a kind of historical bonus item. Populous is a tremendously influential classic from nearly 30 years ago. It’s probably not my cup of tea, but I was still looking forward to giving it a shot, after all these years of hearing about it. Unfortunately, the version in this bundle displays with the wrong colors and the wrong proportions. More importantly, it does not come with the manual. If any game has ever needed a manual, it’s this one — the gameplay is highly idiosyncratic and the controls are a set of buttons marked only with obscure glyphs. Could I find the manual online somehow, and also try to figure out how to improve the emulation? Yes. But I could very easily have found a pirated copy of this game somewhere, too. This trek through my backlog is about giving a chance to all the games I’ve already acquired. This acquisition turns out to be missing some parts. Moving on.

Here ends the “Humble Origin Bundle,” which in retrospect was kind of a bust. I bought it for Mirror’s Edge and out of curiosity about Dead Space and The Sims 3, but none of those really panned out the way I hoped. 25 hours of “meh” for $4.95 I rate as not great. It’s cheap enough per hour, but there are, after all, infinite hours of “meh” to be had for free in the real world.

September 20, 2013: GOG adds two new free games to their roster and I reflexively add them to my library. As with prior free games on GOG, these are both games that had already been declared “freeware” by their copyright owners and can be downloaded elsewhere, but I’m still counting them here because they were, on that day, the objects of my acquisitive compulsion. About which I feel slightly ashamed. All this blogging is, I guess, my way of proving to myself that this compulsion isn’t completely empty and neurotic after all; I eventually do get something real out of these things I acquire. (Some of them, anyway.)

Better, I know, would be to accept and embrace any past compulsion, rather than try to vindicate it with a new present compulsion. Yes. But there’s a second aspect to all this game playing, which is that I like games, am comforted by them, and happen to have this bottomless bag of gifts for myself, just standing by. It seems like a genuinely worthwhile thing to be doing at a time when I am seeking peace of mind, to be pulling stuff from that bag.

Flight of the Amazon Queen (1995): Interactive Binary Illusions [= John Passfield, Steve Stamatiadis, & Tony Ball] (Brisbane, Australia) [5.5 hrs]

(No trailer available, so this is the whole game. Skip around; you’ll get the gist pretty quickly.)

This of course I can handle. One of the most competent and committed of the fan-made LucasArts imitations, at least from the era before “Adventure Game Studio” came out and every geek in Europe could make his own Monkey Island knockoff. These Australian guys completely built their own wannabe LucasArts game from the ground up, and then managed to sell it commercially. Albeit not in very large numbers.

The game is in every possible way an imitation of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992) — plus a couple of elements from The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) — but the designers deserve credit for making their imitation non-slavish. It is entirely derivative but it’s not autistic mimicry, as so many fan games tend to be. It’s a real, original game that just happens to get all its ideas from other, more famous games.

Flight of the Amazon Queen is clearly a passion project, very ambitious for the people making it, and that means its has that special energy that amateurs bring. Like those kids who remade Raiders of the Lost Ark. These guys have done something similar and it’s compelling in a similar spirit.

On the merits, the actual story and puzzles aren’t really interesting or that much fun. There’s an unconscionable amount of slow, slow backtracking, always unskippable. But the graphics are mostly quite good, and I can coast a long way on just the implications of those pixelated DeluxePaint shadows.

Stargunner (1996): David Pevreal, Craig Allsop, James Podesta, & Leo Plaw (Brisbane, Australia) / Apogee Software (Garland, TX) [played 2 hrs]

The other freeware game added to GOG on the same day happens by complete coincidence also to have come from Brisbane, Australia. (I just searched to see what’s the most famous game ever to have come out of Brisbane. The answer is: Fruit Ninja. Who knew? Or cared? Video games are a truly international culture, far moreso than movies or music.)

This is a distinctly ugly horizontal shoot-em-up from toward the end of the “shareware” era of scrappy half-independent games. It plays fair and has generally a good feel to it, but there’s not enough personality here to entice me to put in the time. If this were the only game I owned, I’d probably grow to love it. But I own many, many games.

It’s also very hard and it doesn’t try to ease you in. Right from the beginning of level 1, even set to “easy” difficulty, it’s hard. I’d be more interested in learning how to meet that challenge if only the aesthetics were motivating me to care. As it is, I felt a little like it was someone slamming the door on me every time I knocked. Hey, man, I’m just here as a courtesy, trying to be polite! I’m not, like, obsessed with you. If you’re not going to talk to me, I’m just going to go to the next house. It’s no skin off my back.

Especially since it was free.

September 23, 2013: After twelve days of considering whether buying “Humble Indie Bundle 9” for $5 is really a good idea, I finally take the plunge. This officially nets me ten games, but three of them (Bastion, LIMBO, and Brütal Legend) are already in my collection from prior bundles, so really I get seven games out of it. Of these, I have until now played only one (and not for very long, so I’ll be returning to it here).

Trine 2: Complete Story (2011–13): Frozenbyte (Helsinki, Finland) [17 hrs]

Remember Trine? (It’s okay. I know you don’t. This is just for me.) Well, here it is again, with “2” mostly referring to the production values. Lavish to look at and bask in, in a tasteless, immoderate, Thomas Kinkade kind of way. Also bland and uninvolving in a Thomas Kinkade kind of way. It’s a tad more satisfying than the original — at least as far as I can remember it — but ultimately it’s just more of the same game. I didn’t mind being transported to lush Fantasy Nowheresville for a while; I got something out of it. But that’s hardly a recommendation. I’ve been to plenty of Fantasy Nowheresvilles with much more to offer. We all have.

This release is called “Complete Story” because it also contains a substantial new set of levels that were released a year after the main game. The extra material is markedly better than the rest: less padded, more varied in play and in visuals — which are, to my eye, much more attractive than in the core game. This is the way it often goes: the extra bits of DLC are developed after the pressure of getting the game finished has been lifted, and after the team has developed a comfort with their materials, and so they end up being more confident and compelling precisely because they’re inessential. Then again, sometimes it goes the other way: the extra bits are nobody’s top priority and nobody wants to waste good ideas on them, so they come out timid and shoddy. It kind of depends on the prevailing spirit of the studio. I feel like the superiority of the DLC over the main game actually reflects well on the company culture at Frozenbyte.

There’s a Trine 3 out there but I don’t own it and hopefully I’ll be able to keep it that way.

More from this bundle next month. You can’t wait.

November 7, 2016

Game log 10/16

Only two games played this month, and neither came from the back of the queue. Forgive me.

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (1990, for Sega Master System): Sega (Tokyo, Japan) [3 hrs]

(I can’t find an ad for this game so instead I offer this video of a full playthrough. Please approximate a trailer by skipping around randomly.)

This is a minor platformer, intermittently charming, fairly typical of its era. The production is tight and professional throughout. The difficulty is mostly well balanced. The tinny music on the Sega Master System is unfortunate.

The Disney license is only used superficially — i.e. it doesn’t inform the mechanics or structure of the game — but what’s there is fairly respectful: the level themes allude to classic Silly Symphonies like Flowers and Trees, Thru the Mirror, Clock Cleaners, etc. More than you can say for most Mickey Mousery.

I originally said a whole lot more here, but on second thought I feel like that gave a false impression of what this game was like and how much it meant to me. Your current impression is more accurate.

The following game was bought on 10/11/16 as the “early unlock” for the “Humble Monthly Bundle: November 2016,” for $12. This is a monthly scheme wherein the customer is shown one pig and then encouraged to buy a pokeful. (That is, my $12 got me this game immediately upon purchase, plus a bunch of other unknown games only to be unveiled on November 4.)

Stardew Valley (2016): ConcernedApe (= Eric Barone) (Seattle, WA) [played for 35 hrs]

Yeah, that’s right, 35 hours. And that’s not to any sort of ending. In fact according to the calendar in the game it’s probably only about halfway.

I bought and played this because over months of hearing about it, its promise of quiet coziness began to call out to me mysteriously.

Everything about Stardew Valley is what I generally reject about games: RPG systems upon systems surrounding a completely empty core of skill-free clicking. The worst. And yet somehow the huge popularity of this game’s sentimental vision of life as a heartwarming routine resonated with me. The idea of corralling my OCD into an open-ended fantasy of day-to-day serenity seemed potentially nourishing. Maybe I’d learn something about what OCD is actually good for. Instead of the itchy discontent of 100%ism, I thought I ought finally to sample the gentle infinity of +1ism. Accepting that there is no ending, just a direction to move in, might mean being able to take more pleasure in the moment.

I raised lots of crops, bought some cows and chickens, caught a lot of fish. I got to the bottom of the mines, restored a couple rooms in the community center, won contests at the annual festivals. I had four or five moderate friendships going. I added a kitchen to the farmhouse. I started making cheese, wine, mayonnaise, preserves. My dog’s name is Bug.

I think I learned something by playing this game. Or maybe my playing this game was the proof that I had already learned something. In fact I think both are true, because it’s not a thing to learn just once; it’s a thing that I must continuously learn and relearn until I am rebuilt by it.

Did I have a good time playing Stardew Valley? Yes, I think so, but part of my learning is changing how I identify which times are the good ones. I’m not sure the game is “fun,” but who ever said “fun” was the only kind of fun? The game is transporting, yet not really transporting to anywhere. It’s a world in quotes in quotes in quotes and then in quotes again, and all those quotes are a cushion of peace.

After gladly putting in those 35 hours, I seem to have stopped. Might I return? Sure. Might I not? Sure. One of the great joys of “no ending” is that it doesn’t matter whether you play.

October 27, 2016

Game log 9/16

Another game suddenly cuts into the queue:

Shadow of Destiny (2001, for PlayStation 2): Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (Tokyo, Japan) [4 hrs]

I had never heard of this game until the moment I happened across a clip of it on Youtube, and I immediately felt the urge to play it because I got the strong impression that it might be bonkers.

Friends, it is BONKERS.

Part of the bonkers is in the localization from the Japanese, as is common, but just as much of the bonkers is in the original localization from the land of dream.

The apparent premise of the game is that a plane passing over Uncanny Valley accidentally drops a copy of “Back to the Future,” and the confused denizens there, who have never seen a human movie before, become obsessed with it and begin performing their own interpretations of the story. As is the way in Uncanny Valley, their voices, bodies, and thoughts are not actually linked internally but only through an interdimensional game of Telephone.

Of course that’s all a joke. In fact my fascination lies exactly in the fact that this is not an artifact from another world or a primitive society: it’s a video game from a large corporation, sold internationally. All the more to marvel at. Human culture is a vast fungal mass and this is one of its infinite fractal tendrils, and that’s all. I’m just noting that from my personal Mandelbrot perch, this particular tendril is, weirdly, both nearer and farther than it appears. Fractals can be that way.

I think that’s a deeper way of understanding the “uncanny valley.” The near side of the valley isn’t “realism,” per se, it’s just whatever way your personal culture has trained you to see the world. “Realism” — yes, even “photorealism” — is always a convention; the question is whether it’s your convention. This game neither belongs to my culture nor doesn’t belong; it’s too foreign to be familiar and too familiar to be foreign. It’s both and neither. It is, in a word, bonkers.

“Uncanny” and “comical” are two sides of the same bonkers. I laughed a lot while playing. Which is to say while watching — about 95% of the game is non-interactive puppet show. I’m fine with that, at least when the show is so distinctive.

I can’t find any other people online reacting that way to this game — to the contrary, it seems to be a sort of cult classic, very highly regarded by those who know it, but not widely known. Well, that’s fine. My amusement was my own and it was real.

When I was done, I thought I’d watch a little with the original Japanese audio, to see if it somehow made things feel more dignified or sensible. Turns out there is no original Japanese audio; the original Japanese version has the same English voices, just with Japanese subtitles. These are their real and only voices. So that particular thread of the absurdity isn’t really an issue of localization; it’s just another example of the longstanding Japanese compulsion to make like a Westerner, very charismatic, it’s the big time, ready to rock and roll!

I should also note that the voices are hopelessly American but the game seems to take place in Germany and the characters all have Germanic names. I think from the Japanese point of view, Germans might be second only to Americans in terms of the cachet of being compellingly non-Japanese. And perhaps somewhat interchangeable in that role. The protagonist’s name is “Eike Kusch,” which he pronounces as “Ike Kush” (rhymes with “mush”).

Only a few days later and this has already become one of those “did I make up this memory? did I dream it?” experiences, like a weird TV special I might have seen once 30 years ago and never had corroborated by another person. Some things seem destined to be felt that way; this game really hits that nail right on the head. It’s like they deliberately designed it to be one of those. This game is not corroborated. It’s just you and it, alone together, and it drills deep down into its own weird outlook and doesn’t look back. I was about to type “I can’t ask for more than that”… but of course I can ask for more. What I mean is: that, by itself, is worth a lot.

Ico (2001, for PlayStation 2): Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (Tokyo, Japan) [8.5 hrs]

In the course of investigating my options for playing Shadow of Destiny, I learned that the laptop I’m using is capable of faithfully emulating the PlayStation 2. This came as a surprise. I had thought that the PS2 (launched 2000, superseded 2006, discontinued 2013) was too recent and sophisticated a system for emulation to be an option. Having learned otherwise I suddenly got excited about finally experiencing a few much-talked-about “PS2 exclusive” games from 15 years ago that I had never gotten a chance to play. So I dove in with this one.

Ico is first and foremost a mood piece. The mood-building extends into every aspect of the design and is handled with great care. The game successfully casts a gentle spell of supernatural poignancy, and I’m not inclined to ask any more of it than that. Video games simply aren’t good enough yet — not 15 years ago, and not now — for a game with this degree of taste and sensibility not to be celebrated on that basis alone. Just the animation of the boy tugging the girl by the arm already contains more human insight than most other games in their entirety.

The gameplay itself is a bit rigid and limited, which is fine with me; somewhat repetitive and tedious, which I can bear; and quite obtuse about checkpoints and deaths, which I must admit I found truly annoying. At least an hour and a half of my play time was spent on redoing whole scenes I’d already completed just because the checkpoints were so damn few and far between. In this respect it reminded me of Heart of Darkness (as logged in August), and got to me to thinking about all the other ways it resembled Heart of Darkness. Both games use the mechanics of the platform adventure as means to an end, where the end is a distinctive cinematic ambition, and both games succeed despite themselves, because their bold pursuit of that ambition is compelling in itself. The player gets a taste of the dream and starts rooting for it.

I’ve always been drawn more toward eccentric games that pursue their aesthetic visions down rabbit-holes than I am toward games with robust rules and systems but nothing to show me. I’m much more excited about the fact that a video game can offer me what animation offers me than I am about the fact that it can offer me what a deck of cards offers me.

This is undoubtedly because I still have hardly any real-life experience of video games as social. I simply haven’t had those sorts of friends.

Back to the list for one game.

Mirror’s Edge (2008): EA DICE (Stockholm, Sweden) [played for 3.5 hrs]

This is an admirable game that is also an infuriating game. Admirable, infuriating, admirable, infuriating, back and forth like that for three and a half hours, until I’d had as much as I could take and had to stop. Maybe I’ll return someday, but why, when there are so many worlds left to conquer?

Admirable because it’s an original concept done with care. Infuriating because the punishment to reward ratio is much much higher than it needs to be, to no end. At least “to no end” for someone like me, who’s just here as a tourist. I guess if I was in it for the self-esteem I’d feel it differently. But isn’t it a good thing that I don’t want these games to offer me self-esteem? I just want them to offer me entertainment. Falling yet again, because I still missed the jump, because I still haven’t mastered the unforgiving controls after 3 hours, is not entertaining enough. It’s close, but not quite enough.

Parkour appeals to a certain psychology that isn’t mine. I don’t go around feeling so humiliated by lacking “mastery over my environment” that I fantasize about being able to vault over it all. Our hero, Faith, is a “real badass” who “doesn’t take shit.” It’s a different hero complex from the monster truck military version that pushed me out of Crysis 2, but it’s still a hero complex. This one is more for people who fantasize about being as lithe and emotionally untouchable as a puma. I don’t personally identify with apex predators.

I’m really sick of badasses, and hearing people envied for being badasses. BADASS. BADASS. BADASS. Public service message: there’s no such thing as a “badass,” so you should be very suspicious of any you encounter.

My personal hero fantasies more have to do with e.g. discovering a secret will in an old trunk. Luckily there are plenty of games that target me.

And back off the list again.

• カエルの為に鐘は鳴る [Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru] (1992, for Game Boy): Nintendo / Intelligent Systems (Kyoto, Japan) [6 hrs?]

Browsing lists of Game Boy games to see what should go in my little retro box, I came across mention of a game with the title For Frog the Bell Tolls.


For Frog the Bell Tolls.

I of course had to try it out. I wanted to meet it and thank it for introducing this splendidly surreal sequence of words into my life.

The Japanese title is indeed exactly the title of the Hemingway novel with the words “for whom” replaced by “for the frog.” Since this is not actually a Dadaist game, I am going to assume that in Japanese this substitution reads as silly but more or less smooth, and that therefore “For Frog the Bell Tolls,” though literal, is a less than ideal translation. The game was never released outside of Japan, but one of its developers recently referred to it in an English-language blog post as “The Frog For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which preserves the reference and the silliness but irons out the Gertrude Stein. So we should probably take that as the best version of an English title.

The version I played was translated by fans in 2011 as “For the Frog the Bell Tolls,” with a sensible but somewhat disappointing “the.”

It’s okay: the purity of “For Frog the Bell Tolls” will live on in my heart.

What the title means: you play as a prince who gets turned into a frog, a spell which can be lifted by the sound of the ancient magic bell. See?

I started For the Frog the Bell Tolls purely for the novelty, but then I stuck with it to the end because it turned out to be an engaging and amusing game, and quite a well-made one. It wasn’t until after I had begun playing that I really registered that this was in fact an A-1 top-team production from Nintendo themselves, and basically the highest-profile Game Boy game not to be released in the West. I guess someone must have thought that the extremely goofy tone of the thing wouldn’t travel well — Japanese comedy often doesn’t. But assuming the translation I played was really as faithful as I’m led to believe it was, I think they were wrong about that. The sugary-sweet land-of-make-believe goofiness was accessible and perfectly palatable even for a Japanoskept like me.

It was in fact the game’s strongest suit; it kept me in a good mood even as ungenerous choices in the game’s design wasted my time. There’s not really any meat to the game; it’s just a matter of doing the obvious thing in a succession of cutesy scenarios — and yet there are quite a few “one-hit” deaths that cruelly set you way too far back, resulting in many tens of minutes spent grinding back through tasks and territory whose interest has already been exhausted. Irritating.

Otherwise, a real charmer. Nice music, too: a relatively tasteful, thematically cohesive score. By the end, the “bell” leitmotif heard in nearly every cue actually manages to feel like it’s accrued some kind of emotional meaning. Which is a lot more than can be said for most video game music, and is especially high praise for something composed entirely for the greeting-card tinky-tink instruments of the Game Boy. “Relatively” is a key word here, of course.

September 16, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 15. I Shot an Arrow Into the Air


directed by Stuart Rosenberg
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the story by Madelon Champion
starring Dewey Martin and Edward Binns
with Ted Otis, Harry Bartell, and Leslie Barrett

Friday, January 15, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Hey, this one breaks the pattern! It has a progressive twist, rather than a retrograde one.

“It was Earth all along” is the exact opposite of “it was all a dream.” Instead of giving us a convenient excuse for forgetting where we’ve been, it reminds us that there’s no excuse, because we never went anywhere.

It’s a brilliant twist, and it would go on to be the most famous twist of all time, when Serling reused it in his screenplay for Planet of the Apes.

I’m defining a “progressive” twist as one that confirms the subtext of the preceding fantasy instead of brushing it under the rug. It draws the audience’s emotions forward toward the light, in the direction of catharsis. “Turns out you’re home,” it says, “where feelings live. So admit what these feelings have been.”

The feelings at the end are not new feelings about the twist; they’re pre-existing feelings set free by the twist. Charlton Heston falls to his knees for the same reason that Corey does: because, having lost everything that ever mattered to him, he’s been in agony all along. But he needs to realize that he’s home for those feelings to finally be unleashed as feelings. As long as he believes he’s far away, in a land of action and danger, the adventure of manly resilience will continue. The fact that this has all happened at home is not why it hurts in the first place, but it is why it’s allowed to be recognized as hurting.

This goes for the audience too. Fantasy is a playground set off at a safe distance, in which our subconscious has special permission to run around and burn off steam, freed from the burden of believing that the feelings we’re having are really ours; it’s all “just” fantasy. A story that ends with “it was all a dream” tells us to double down on that kind of compartmentalization; it gives us a further exemption within the exemption. Whereas “it was Earth all along” pulls us in the opposite direction; it collapses the safe distance. By reminding us that the characters’ feelings were really theirs, it impels us toward recognizing that ours are too. After all, the only person actually generating the emotions you felt in this fantasy story has been you, the viewer — on Earth all along.

While there are infinite variations to be played on “it was all a dream” — I count at least four in this series so far — there are far fewer ways to deliver the effect of “it was Earth all along.” The difficulty is to contrive a situation where recognition of the familiar can be delayed until the end without being disguised. This is a crucial caveat, because if what we experience turns out to have been a mirage, then the emotions associated with it become mirages as well. To get the full Heston, we need to be able to carry our entire burden intact through the door of revelation.

You may now ask: So, does Soylent Green qualify as a progressive twist? Do, say, The Sixth Sense and The Others? What about “Third From the Sun,” for that matter?

The answer is no, not in the very particular psychological sense I’m talking about. Yes, those are all “it was [X] all along” twists, and yes, they’re not preceded by overt mirages. But the thing we’re looking for, the thing that sets this episode apart, is an ending that suddenly moves everything closer to home — closer to the safety of the familiar, closer to the seat of the emotions. Those other twists all place the action further from normalcy.

In “Third From the Sun,” things weren’t as straightforward as we had thought. In “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” they are more straightforward than we thought. That is: it’s just people fighting and killing each other, exactly what it looks like, and not a “space survival adventure” version of the same, a more fantastical thing, to which we’re inclined to apply a more fantastical sense of morality.

In this way, the meaning of the episode is identical for the audience and for Corey. Corey thinks he’s been operating under a moral exemption appropriate to sci-fi and hopeless cases, but then is forced to acknowledge that he’s just been operating as himself, a human being. Like Lord of the Flies.

That you the viewer might be capable of murder, simply because you’re a human being, is a pretty bitter pill for prime time. And as I’ve been saying, this episode doesn’t take the standard tack of using its ending to hedge its bets and smooth things over. But the trademark Twilight Zone ambivalence still makes itself known in other ways. It has to; it’s like an air bubble that’s pushed down in one place only to pop up in another. The ambivalence is simply part of the package deal, as negotiated among Rod, the network, and the audience — not to mention Rod’s superego, the subculture of the science fiction magazines, Dwight D. Eisenhower, etc. etc.

The strongest-pill version of this episode’s story would portray Corey as a sympathetic everyman, and coax the audience into embracing his cold survivalist logic. Movies rope the audience into signing on for “tough-hearted mercy-killing” all the time, so this is clearly doable. Twisting the exemption out from under that would send a real clear message. Probably a painful one, for many viewers.

[I must briefly digress here. As it happens, there is a movie out there that has a full-fledged progressive twist ending and throws it directly in the face of “tough-hearted mercy-killing.” It seems duly to be remembered as having been exceptionally emotionally shocking — well, by those who saw it. You probably didn’t, and I certainly didn’t, and probably never will, because it doesn’t sound like it’s a very good movie.

That movie is Stephen King’s The Mist (2007), and I know about this ending — which was written not by King but by director Frank Darabont — solely from reading about it (and then watching the clip) on the internet. (You can just read the plot summary on the Wikipedia page.) Darabont has described the ending as “an angry cry from the heart from a humanist,” which, as you can imagine, I find fascinating, as an artistic and a social phenomenon. But for present purposes that’s enough digression.]

Instead of luring the audience over to Corey’s logic, the show goes in the opposite direction: Corey is depicted from the outset as a dangerous, untrustworthy lout. Unlike prior sleazeball antiheroes — like the amoral jerks in What You Need and The Four of Us Are Dying — Corey doesn’t even get the formal endorsement of being followed around by the camera like a proper protagonist. That distinction goes to Donlin, a classic “good stern dad” who ultimately gets shot down by the feckless youth that he never stopped nobly trying to keep in line. After only a few minutes of the episode we’re firmly oriented within the masculine-tragic worldview of the John Wayne contingent; we know exactly who we’re better than, what we’re tougher than.

And then as if that’s not all safety enough, the episode goes a step further:

DONLIN: Pierson, you were with Corey during the crash. What happened to him?
PIERSON: Nothing that I know of, sir. I can’t understand it either.

These lines, never followed up, imply that even for Corey, Corey’s current loutishness is an aberration, possibly attributable to some kind of personality injury intangibly linked to space accidents. Deliberately vague stuff, designed to be a moral loophole through which an audience member can squeeze a camel if need be. Now when the end comes you have not just one excuse but two:

1) Corey’s case doesn’t apply to me because Corey was a congenital bad guy, the type who doesn’t even love and fear his good stern dad
2) Corey’s case doesn’t apply to me because Corey wasn’t himself; he went crazy, got hit on the head by outer space or something

And then there’s even a third buffer put in place to protect the delicate audience from the direct shock of this ending: Rod’s narration makes an extremely rare mid-show appearance, contemptuously egging Corey on as he treks toward self-recognition. By the time Corey sees the highway, we’ve already written him off as a philosophical dead man. This is a fairly drastic intervention against the impact of the ending — not to mention the established format for the show — for no other reason than that it is made necessary by the principle of the conservation of ambivalence. It’s all a conservative counterweight to the final twist.

When it comes time for the catharsis of recognition, the audience is primed to have the exciting experience of getting to take it at full force. There’s no risk of anyone getting really knocked down, because the show has taken such care to insulate us, whether or not we knew that’s what was happening. Safety first.

I will grant him this, though: Corey certainly looks the most like Rod Serling of any of the characters. And I’d wager he’s 36. (Dewey Martin was.) Your mileage may vary — from Rod’s — as to whether that complicates your sympathies.

Okay wait, you say, I have one more question: what about Citizen Kane? Do you count that a progressive twist?

Well, sure, that’s a progressive ending — it tells us that things were more emotionally on-the-nose, less obscure than we thought — but does it really count as a twist? It’s just the answer to the question posed at the beginning, like in any mystery story.

Well then, you say, how about Fight Club? And what about Vertigo?

Right, good, those are both interesting cases, but guys, I’m sorry — for the sake of time I’m going to have to move on. If you really need to ask more about specific twists I’ll be holding office hours in the comments.

I’m not going to read too much into it, but I do think it’s worth making a note in our Rod Serling psych file that this episode’s twist, which, as I’ve been saying, stands out so distinctly from most of Serling’s work, was not the product of his own imagination.

Apparently he was at a Hollywood dinner party and a non-writer — Madelon Champion, wife of writer/producer John C. Champion — came up with this twist in conversation, and Serling immediately recognized it as a winner. He reportedly paid her $500 for the idea when he decided to use it, and gave her the generous credit seen above, “based on the story by Madelon Champion.”

Well, in the long run maybe not actually that generous, considering Planet of the Apes. I guess really it was the least he could do.

Loose bullets that I couldn’t fit into the flow:

• The expression “who’s he when he’s at home?” embodies the premises of the discussion above. It’s essentially a psychological idiom.

• The opening rocket launch sequence is fabulously cutting-edge: the “first manned aircraft into space” being fantasized about less than a year and a half before the real thing. I tried to identify the launch footage — which seems to include glimpses of a real control room and possibly real audio chatter, too — but couldn’t. Versimilitude goes a long way in this game; to us now, the real 1960 seen in the stock footage and the imaginary one of The Twilight Zone seem pretty closely related, so I can only imagine the impact it would have had at the time. Putting cardboard Zuckerbergs in your Bourne movie doesn’t come close to how excellently topical this is. I wonder how much of this kind of NASA footage the average audience member had even had the opportunity to see, by January 1960. Maybe not that much.

• Once we switch to the make-believe control room set, the first thing we see is a huge vertical glass map, as seen in Star Wars etc. Is that a real thing in real life? Does it have a name? The guy in the episode has to write on it backward, which seems like a problem with the whole system.

• After the full-bodied intro — with documentary footage no less — to be dropped into such an intensely minimal situation gives a sense of dreamy transport. I suspect the director had the opposite intention in mind: the intro was to ground what followed in reality. But the effect is actually that the intro throws into relief just how blank the stage is on which this little dream is playing out.

• There’s more than a whiff of Cain and Abel in the middle of the episode, something biblical and allegorical, both in the story and in the way the desert landscape is used. There’s also a conspicuous cribbing of the famous Seventh Seal shot of figures on a skyline ridge. I’m not sure whether this stuff counts for or against taking the material more seriously; maybe neither. In any case it gave the episode a quiet sense of style and I liked it. (Stuart Rosenberg went on to be a real high-profile film director, responsible for Cool Hand Luke and The Amityville Horror, among others.)

• Reshoots are apparent: suddenly they’re acting on a tiny set with an obvious painted drop about three feet away. It’s reported of this episode that shooting in the desert was frustrating and there were tensions. Well, naturally.

• This is the second episode (out of only fifteen so far; that’s 13% of the series) about a guy named Corey/Corry stranded on an asteroid that looks exactly like Death Valley. Maybe mix it up a little more than that, Rod.

• This episode’s title is yet another stab at imparting weight and legitimacy with a literary reference — this time a bit more successful than previously. This whole Bartlett’s compulsion is a habit that Rod picked up from the world of sci-fi and fantasy writing at large, where it served a defensive, compensatory function. The vital signifier is not so much the content of the reference as it is the stilted syntax of the “high” idiom. In this case the phrase with the cachet is “I knew not where,” which is too many words into the poem to fit in the title, so to get full credit, a character needs to speak two whole lines of the poem in the course of the episode. Musingly, at a window.

Of course even this fairly unassuming quote has been abused for convenience, to correct the tense and cut out the spoiler — the character says “it landed I know not where.” Then, to pre-empt any accusation of having mangled the reference, he asserts that in the fictional context this is in fact to be understood not as a quoting of Wordsworth per se but as a “nursery rhyme for the age of space.” Not the greatest way to showcase your affinity for fine literature… but weep not, for clearly made your point is, all the same. And lo they wept not.

• At the time of the shoot, Edward Binns, who played Donlin, had just recently been seen by audiences as Captain Junket in North By Northwest! You know, Captain Junket. You know! The one who said the famous line, “Mrs. Townsend, I’m Captain Junket of the Nassau County Detectives.” Yeah! Download the clip to make it your ringtone.

Here is $1353.89 in unclaimed life insurance benefits belonging to John and Madelon Champion. Good luck.

It’s the part I was born to play, baby! I thought that would be a pretty funny line & link to slip organically into the discussion. It seemed doable; I figured I could have Rod Serling’s subconscious saying it. But that didn’t work out and now it’s just sitting here. Maybe you can see where it should have gone.

More stock music but the editing is much better in this one. Some snippets of Herrmann but most of this is library music by Lucien Moraweck and René Garriguenc — both French-born, but unlike the Parisians mentioned last time (Marius Constant and Guy Luypaerts), Moraweck and Garriguenc were both LA residents and lifelong CBS staff composers, with a scoring style and approach not so different from Herrmann’s. I’m not sure whether there’s a traceable chain of influence there or whether there were just basic stylistic ideas common throughout the industry. The world of radio and television music is not widely discussed or studied and mostly opaque to simple Google dabbling. The Twilight Zone is actually one of the very few cases where interest in the music has been widespread enough to churn some of this information to the surface of the web.

And yet who among us hasn’t been deeply influenced by subliminally hearing hours upon hours television music? Listen up!

September 8, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 14. Third from the Sun


directed by Richard L. Bare
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the short story by Richard Matheson
starring Fritz Weaver, Edward Andrews, Joe Maross, Denise Alexander, Lori March, and Jeanne Evans

Friday, January 8, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Third From the Sun‘s final surprise — that the titular planet is a destination rather than a point of departure — is so irrelevant to the preceding action that it hardly even qualifies as a “twist.” The only thing it twists is our assumption that we’re watching an “us” rather than a “them,” which has not been a distinctive feature of this particular story; it’s just a basic assumption made about any fiction. Memorable though it may be on first encounter, this ending is an all-purpose gimmick that can be grafted on to any story. (“If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended / That you have but chanced to view / The far-off orb of Zorbulon Two.”)

It’s a stark illustration of my thesis that the twists on The Twilight Zone serve to stanch uneasiness, not intensify it. The uneasiness that this episode stirs up — or tries to, anyway — has absolutely nothing to do with people from outer space. But you’ll come away having had the real subject matter wiped from your mind by the last 30 seconds.

What you’ve been watching up until that point is a story about the burden of having to completely jettison your nice suburban life because of The Looming Cataclysm… which is to say it’s about trying to reconcile the simultaneous complacency and terror of Cold War America… which is to say it’s about the nauseating gap between the private, emotional self and the public, rational self. Just like every other episode. Here’s Rod helpfully laying it all out for us:

Quitting time at the plant. Time for supper now. Time for families. Time for a cool drink on a porch. Time for the quiet rustle of leaf-laden trees that screen out the moon. And underneath it all… behind the eyes of the men… hanging invisible over the summer night… is a horror without words. For this is the stillness before storm. This is the eve of the end.

Take away the last two sentences (the ones that start trying to assign words to the “horror without words”) and you’ve got the heart of the Twilight Zone: only the part of the self that knows peace and comfort is free to have the nightmares accrued by the other part.

To the private self, forever yearning for leafy Binghamton, the public sphere of business and politics can feel not just cold and oppressive but genuinely unnatural, uncanny. The anti-humanism of the arms race, which serves as the motivating threat in this story, is just an extreme case of a more general bewilderment: how can this experience of reality — the sensuous immediacy of a cool drink on a porch — be the same world as that — the grim abstractions of politics? How can a newspaper’s talk about “the enemy” — not to mention “mutually assured destruction” — possibly qualify as a reference to the same reality that also contains the delicious actuality of lemonade? All those manly “big words” feel like they can’t begin to touch the physical truth of things: supper, families. Not just because of geographical distance but because of an essential difference of type: it seems like it all exists in a separate category, in a parallel mental sphere.

The story of this episode is that the one sphere encroaches on the other — lives in the physical world are upended by a threat from the world of talk. The crucial thing about the episode is that from the audience’s perspective it remains just talk all the way to the end; we’re never shown any actual attack or destruction, and our protagonists don’t witness any. It makes for lame TV, yes, but if we’re taking it seriously that’s also precisely what’s disturbing; these people have to abandon everything they’ve ever known without ever feeling the necessity with their senses. They have to act on the merely conceptual, in defiance of the soothing suburban setting, the comforts of home and family. This is the essence of anxiety: the impulse to overrule your own physical intuition that you are safe, and commit yourself bodily, by an act of willpower, to a world of danger that you know only through words.

The gradual subjugation of physical reality to apocalyptic thinking is represented by the tilted camera angles. Things are no longer themselves, in this household. They’re now part of the world of concepts.

“This world as we know it won’t exist much longer. It’s about to blow itself up,” says dad. Those big words are the full extent of the threat, but they’ve already poisoned everything. Maybe it’s that poison itself that they’re really escaping. In a sense, there’s no difference.

(After knowing the ending, you might argue that the crooked camera was actually a signal that this wasn’t Earth — but that’s effectively a denial of the intuitive sense it made all along: that the world of comfort has been denatured by anxiety.)

The tough question at the end of the episode, which the feint about Earth serves to push aside, is really: have these people done a sensible and necessary thing? Or have they just thrown away their lives out of sheer crazy anxiety, sacrificing everything on the altar of would-be rationalism? We have no way of knowing.

For me, and I imagine for many others, the greatest wound left by witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center was thinking “well, I have been hearing on the news for years about the threat of terrorism, so I have only myself to blame for being surprised by this. I always filed that kind of talk away as conceptual rather than actual, and let lemonade etc. predominate in my sense of the world. But I won’t make that mistake again.” As though being my caught off guard were an unforgivable error.

Of course, trying to take reported concepts as deeply to heart as you take your own physical reality is a terribly destructive intention — far, far more disruptive to one’s life and well-being than whatever damage I might have suffered from being “surprised” by 9/11 — which was, after all, widely attested to have been surprising.

I’ve come back around since. I see now that the grains of salt that keep rational abstractions confined to their proper sphere — and keep “a cool drink on a porch” front and center while you’re having it — are a vital talisman for well-being. Yet one more bit of advice I wish I could pass back to Rod.

Besides the tilted camera, some additional clues that the Sturka family is from another planet: they listen to art music, have modernist, surrealist and ethnic painting and sculpture throughout their house, and have what looks like a shamisen on the living room wall. The signs of being cultured on Earth serve nicely as the signs of being an alien on TV. The average audience member’s ambivalence on this point serves the episode’s purposes: if I’m into stuff that’s a little off the beaten path — like, say, science fiction — does that make me an “us” or a “them”? “A little of both,” says TV.

The Sturkas also have rather loud curtains.

My first reaction to this episode was that it was painfully thin stuff, a précis instead of a script, with leaden execution. A second viewing didn’t exactly redeem it, but it did make clearer to me that it’s more dependent on its historical moment than any other episode we’ve seen. To our eyes it plays as duller and hokier than usual because it relies on very specific real-world anxieties that we no longer share. Other episodes, for all their period aesthetics and attitudes, still tend to be about psychological universals.

I for one still fear nuclear weapons themselves — they’re terrifying! — but I don’t have the specific period fear, the Dr. Strangelove fear, the one being played to here: that the petty men who run the world are right now caught up in an unstoppable march toward total destruction. In 1960, the audience had it buzzing in their bones. When the boss, Carling, sneers “You a defeatist, Sturka?” at the beginning of the episode, it doesn’t push my buttons and make me feel defensive. In 1960 it probably would have. And it needs to for the episode to work. Carling has no discernible motivation as written; he simply represents a voice the audience is expected to already have in their heads, abusing them.

It’s worth noting that the news in 1960 was not of nuclear tests themselves — none had not taken place since 1958 — but of the ongoing contentious efforts to negotiate some form of test ban treaty, which wouldn’t come to pass until 1963. I imagine that being exposed to constant political chest-thumping about nuclear policy would be more anxiety-inducing than hearing about actual bomb tests; it’s hubris and obliviousness that are truly scary. These days we don’t say that we’re worried about “the bomb,” we we say we’re worried about who has “the nuclear codes.” Weapons are just inert things; vast explosions may be devastating, but they are, in a sense, simple. Whereas the threat posed by people and their delusions, the threat posed by an untrustworthy society, is endlessly complex and harrowing.

(That’s the appeal of post-apocalyptic fantasies, in a nutshell: having to fight zombies to survive is a small price to pay for the profound relief that comes from the destruction of society and all its infinite menace.)

Serling’s adaptation of the bare-bones Richard Matheson source adds half of the characters and most of the details, but remains otherwise pretty much faithful. And yet tone and emphasis are different just by virtue of its being on film, since film is naturally allied to the sensual outlook, and prose to the rational. In Matheson’s terse, pulpy style, which uses almost no descriptive language, ideas seem to be playing out in the abstract, flattened space of the imagination, so the philosophical tension between the world of the real and the world of talk doesn’t really come across as central. Though we do get:

“For the future of life itself,” he finished weakly. He was sorry he said it. Early on a prosaic morning, over everyday food, that kind of talk didn’t sound right. Even if it was true.

On the other hand, in Matheson’s version the twist ending actually feels significant, much more like the point of the story, since we never get to really see or meet these characters — they all remain nameless the whole time — so finding out that they’re actually a “them” feels like essential information finally revealed, rather than arbitrary pin-the-tail-on-the-episode information.

I’ll grant that, superficial though it may be, that is the ending, and to most people it will be the only thing this episode has going for it, so maybe it seems perverse of me to refuse to take it more seriously. Certainly I agree that there’s plenty worth saying about the notion of saucermen being “so much more like us than we imagine!” I just choose to save such a discussion for an episode where the script is actually about that notion. (I haven’t checked, but chances seem good that there will be one.)

My intention here is to talk about how the episodes feel and function while they’re onscreen. The saucermen topic is more like something this episode encourages us to ponder on our own time — like the patronizing “questions for book groups” in the back of trade paperbacks.

Jeanne Evans (Mrs. Riden) was director Richard Bare’s wife at the time. Bare went on to direct “virtually every episode of the 1960s–1970s CBS television series Green Acres” and died only last year, at the age of 101.

Fritz Weaver is 90 and still alive.

Music is from stock: a lot of “time passes” water-treading cues, which don’t help the drama at all. It’s mostly taken from Bernard Herrmann’s “Outer Space” and “Western” sets of library cues, plus a couple of similar items by Marius Constant and Guy Luypaerts, composed and recorded at the same time as Herrmann’s.

How did these highbrow Parisians end up writing American TV music? I believe I read somewhere — I can’t find it anywhere right now, but I’ll return and edit this if it turns out to be terribly wrong — that during a long musician’s strike in 1957, CBS decided to spend its music budget on overseas sessions, recording general-purpose library music, and music department head Lud Gluskin thought it would be interesting (and convenient) to commission a bunch of local composers to write cues for the Paris sessions. More on this when we get to the famous second season theme, which was assembled from a couple of those pieces.

September 1, 2016

Game log 8/16

The project of working chronologically through my amassed game purchases was interrupted this month by the sudden acquisition of a Raspberry Pi for playing “retro” games. But what games to put on it? I started working from this list of “best games.” I didn’t get very far with it (surprise!) but I did end up playing some of the games along the way.

The games I played for more than a few minutes:

WarioWare, Inc. (2003, for Game Boy Advance): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played 1.5 hrs]

I feel reasonably well-informed about what the Nintendo corporation has wrought over the years, but I haven’t actually played very many of their games. Here for example are a few famous ones that I had never touched before.

WarioWare, Inc. is a daring experiment in tone and tempo; it translates the signature style of Japanese TV — the barrage of hyperactive wackiness, wocka wocka wocka! — into gameplay. Hundreds of rudimentary challenges (steer around the obstacle; jump at the right moment; etc.) are thrown on the screen in succession, for about 3 seconds apiece. There’s not enough time to make a conscious assessment of what’s required or how it’s to be controlled, so your reflexes just kick in and take a stab at it. Thrillingly, they are often correct, thanks to all kinds of subtle design choices that were secretly communicating directly with your intuition.

This game comes up a lot as a point of reference in design discussions, and now I understand why; it’s like game design broken down to the molecular level. It also caters to the mindset of game designers, by being framed as a clown show wherein Wario decides to strike it rich by producing video games. Meta. Furthermore, many of the minigames are smirking allusions to classic games of 20 years earlier: grist being pulverized right before your eyes by the postmodern mill. I found the game inspiring — as an example of unabashed weirdness, a remarkably bold production for a major corporation like Nintendo — yet also dispiriting in its plunge toward the era of slurried “retro” chaos. Prescient! But dispiriting.

The ad embedded above (actually several ads in a row) is from Japan because this game doesn’t seem to have gotten a US TV commercial.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995, for Super Nintendo Entertainment System): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played 5 or 6 hrs?]

In the case of Yoshi’s Island, the ad embedded above is from Japan because it is attractive and sensibly put together and represents the game, whereas the revolting American TV spot is a piece of senseless filth that has nothing to do with the game and everything to do with the depraved and cynical mind of some cretinous cigar-chomping ad executive who obviously lacks a human soul.

The generosity of the designers is apparent in every level of Yoshi’s Island; they want the player to be delighted anew as often as possible. No design idea outlives its welcome; something unpredictable is always around the corner. Nintendo’s Mario games were such monster hits because they were every kid’s fantasy of how a toy should be: a horn of plenty. And in this one there’s a splendid breadth and balance to the offering: you can just focus on driving forward to the end, or you can slow way down and look for all the hidden truffles, and either way you’ll feel like you’re playing exactly the way it was meant to be played. The sequence of beats works at either tempo.

Despite my affection for platforming games like this, I am very bad at them. I fall and fall and fall while trying to execute basic jumps. The need to bring the character to a stop by “braking” gives me the subconscious sensation of constantly having overshot my mark (even when I haven’t), which erodes my confidence. Even after many hours of play I was still losing life after life in dumb ways.

But improvement is always a possibility if you let it be. Maybe after many more hours of play — in an unjudgmental frame of mind — my instincts would start to sharpen after all.

In any case, my self-frustration mostly stayed at a manageable level, in part because Yoshi’s Island has an innovative system for giving the player an incentive to avoid errors while reducing the amount of disruption caused by actually “dying.” Every time Yoshi takes a hit, he drops infant Mario, and then has to scramble to pick him up again before a timer runs out. In other words, making an error means you have to do busywork; once you do it, you’re basically back to where you were. Like the hint system in Machinarium, which cordoned off the spoilers behind a blockade of deliberate tedium, this seems to me a fine solution to the perpetual problem of creating in-game disincentives that don’t interrupt the flow of play. And as with Machinarium, I’m not aware of any other game having taken up the idea. It’s still there, for anyone who wants it.

EarthBound (1994, for Super Nintendo Entertainment System): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played 1 hr]

The EarthBound ad embedded above is the American version because, despite being terrible, it at least shows the game. In Japan (where the game is known as “Mother 2”), the ad campaign didn’t give any hint of what the game was like. Nonetheless, and I say this in all seriousness, this may be the best commercial I’ve ever seen.

The game is an RPG in the post-E.T. “suburban kids save the day when the adults are clueless” genre that was central to the movie business in the 80s and 90s but was surprisingly underrepresented in video games. I’m not really a player of RPGs but I gather that when this game was released stateside it was absolutely unprecedented in this respect. I also gather that further down the line — I only played through the introductory scenes and some of the first area — it becomes more and more quirky and sentimental in unexpected ways. I was mostly playing to get a taste of a much ballyhooed cult favorite, for my literacy. And sure, I could immediately see the charm. Which, I suppose, is not unrelated to the charm of that commercial; I bet the designer wrote the ad campaign too.

Perhaps someday I’ll return for the rest. Then again, as I said, I’ve never really gotten into RPGs, and the reason is mostly that stat-on-stat subtraction-offs are, to me, an intolerably drab and tedious mechanic on which to base a game, especially a 50-hour epic. And unfortunately this game seems like it’s pretty committed to constant stat battles as a way of life. So perhaps not.

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (1993, for PC Engine): Konami (Tokyo, Japan) [played 1 hr?]

This is viciously hard. In a Mario game, the abilities you’re given and the demands placed upon you tend to line up; you’re good at jumping, so jump up here. In Castlevania games (at least the older ones) it’s the opposite; the enemies move and attack in ways that are designed around your character’s shortcomings. You’re bad at attacking anything that’s not directly in front of you, so this enemy’s going to swoop above and below you. You’re not very fast, so this enemy’s going to be fast. In gaming I want to always be frustrated with myself, not with the damn character and his stupid slow jumping, so this kind of thing breaks the magic of immersion. On the other hand, the game is what it is and is known to be winnable as such; the true objective is to become so versatile with the abilities you do have that you can apply them to any situation. If a vampire hunter had wheels he’d be a bicycle. Well, this guy has no wheels.

The real “hard” in a “hard” game is “hard to find a reason to keep at it, since it is after all just a game, and there are after all thousands and thousands of games out there.” This is unfortunate, because the experience of sticking with “hard” until it cracks open, weeks or months later, is ultimately a wonderful and valuable one — because it builds up one’s core confidence that there is no “hard,” just “slow,” and that everything is achievable in time. But that experience has to arise organically from one’s real motivations in the real world, and right now my sense of entitlement to gratification from entertainment has a shorter fuse than “weeks or months.”

But who knows. Maybe I’ll return to Castlevania for another whipping sooner than I think. In a “Rondo,” the same refrain comes back again and again.

The video trailer above is just a clumsy fan-assembled thing. The game was released only in Japan and no commercial has been uploaded to Youtube that I can find.

Heart of Darkness (1998, for PlayStation): Amazing Studio (Paris, France) [7 hrs?]

This one I played to completion. Eric Chahi’s previous game, the classic Another World (1991), had been one of my favorites as a teenager, but by the time his next game came out I was in college and less tuned in, so I managed not to have known about it at all until now.

As is frequently the case with games incorporating elaborate traditional animation, much of the gameplay is location-specific and heavily dependent on trial and error. But beyond that, even the more fully-realized systems — for shooting and jumping — are here applied to extraordinarily punishing scenarios. The most infuriating of them (the one at the end of the game) I had to attempt maybe 40 times before executing it successfully. Or more. Nonetheless the crazy, impossible ambition of this game to be a full-fledged Spielberg/Henson/Disney rollercoaster, and the truly excellent in-game animation, cast some kind of spell over me. Somehow it managed to be a gratifying experience despite its cruelties (and infelicities).

Heart of Darkness was purportedly the first game to record a soundtrack with full orchestra (though, because of its many years in development, not the first game to be released with one) and from the first moments I was taken aback by its quality. It’s by Bruce Broughton, a legitimate major Hollywood composer, and his genuine sure-footed mastery of the 80s/90s fantasy-adventure idiom immediately marks this game as something special. I’m not aware of any other game that sounds remotely like this, which means I’m not sure there’s a game that feels remotely like this.

This game goes on the shelf of bold and intriguing one-offs, alongside The Last Express.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991, for Super Nintendo Entertainment System): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played for 10 hrs?]

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is right up near the top of most “best games ever” lists.

I get it. It’s maximally delectable, a living kingdom of marzipan, and it’s cleverly constructed to draw the player spiralling ever inward. First you have to save the princess, which takes about five minutes. Hooray! — but uh-oh, now you have to save the kingdom, which takes a few hours. Hooray! — but uh-oh, now you have to save the dimension (more or less), which is going to take you a long, long time. The gameplay itself is clean and strong — most of it carried over from the original NES Legend of Zelda — but the real brilliance here is in the way the game subliminally ramps up the player’s ambition, starting as a reassuringly linear taskmaster (“go here and get this, now go there and do that, now go here…”) but giving ample opportunity to notice other stuff along the way, until very gradually that other stuff begins to be mandatory. It’s a bit like a foreign language course; the only thing that’s ever directly asked of you is to repeat what you hear, but beneath that surface a broader fluency is bit by bit called into play. Many games since have tried to replicate this progression — it’s pretty much de rigueur these days for games to start out as their own tutorials — but there’s something particularly disarming and confident about this one.

After about 10 hours, well into the fluent free-roam portion of the game, I found myself hitting the point of exhaustion. I get it; I got it.

The trailer above is, as you can see, from the recent Wii U re-release. I find two original 1992 US TV spots with no game footage: the fancy one and the less fancy one. Meanwhile the Japanese commercial gets at things in its own way. Chances seem good that this will be the 2020 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Back to my present-day list, but not yet back to the chronological grind.

Tomb Raider (2013): Crystal Dynamics (Redwood City, CA) [24 hrs]

Tomb Raider was offered on March 29 of this year by GameChanger, a video-games-for-hospitalized-kids charity, for a $1 donation. I proposed it to a friend as a game we could both play and then discuss, but he had some other stuff he wanted to get through first. Then this month he gave the signal, so we played it.

Top flight triple-A polish is its own reward. Setting aside gameplay, I was quite happy to be prancing around in beautiful island scenery — jungles, caverns, cliffs, and of course abandoned buildings up the wazoo, all of it heavy with that special sense of preternatural dimensionality that makes 3D game worlds so mesmerizing.

I just wish it had been in service of a game that emphasized exploration and traversal more than combat, since that’s what these lush environments are crying out for. But this Tomb Raider hardly raided any tombs; mostly she just “headshot”ted and “stealth kill”ed and “collect”ed and “upgrade”d her way through a paramilitary world, to earn niblets of animated story. Maybe I’m an idiot but I was actually kind of curious where the plot might go; turned out “going” wasn’t really its intention. Lara Croft is shipwrecked on a cursed island full of bad guys so she kills the bad guys and lifts the curse. SPOILER ALERT!

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014): The Astronauts (Warsaw, Poland) [5 hrs]

I bought this on June 9 of this year when it was a special for $4.99 during the GOG Summer Sale, because I had had my eye on it for a while and because thanks one of the many gimmicks of the sale, buying any game would also unlock a free one that I also wanted. I played it now because, as you’ll see below, my next-on-the-list game was not entirely to my taste and I wanted to counterprogram with something short that I felt sure I’d enjoy.

I did enjoy this, very much. As a luxurious environmental immersion this manages to put Tomb Raider and its ilk to shame. For sense-of-place photorealist atmosphere this game is second to none; it has a lot in common with Dear Esther (and, in places, with Amnesia) — but in addition to having even more impeccable graphics, Ethan Carter has far better and more restrained writing than those games. In this place, I cared almost as much about what was going on as I did about what it was like to be there. That’s meant as high praise. (Albeit handicapped for a medium that still struggles mightily to have any real literary value. The script of Ethan Carter is no masterpiece; it’s just competent, and god bless it for that.)

I’ve seen people online complaining that the geography of the game is too big for what it contains, but I feel like the emphasis on long, slow, quiet strolls through the woods is what affords the work its occasional feeling of having transcended mere gamehood. Transcended into where? Into a new, dimly lit formal territory, still being explored. The opening screen announces that this is a “narrative experience,” which seems about right, although I feel like even “narrative” is unnecessarily leading. Is Pirates of the Carribbean a narrative experience, or just an experience? I came away with that feeling that the best games can provide: that I’d just been somewhere else for a while, somewhere as real as my own dreams.

There’s actually a really good detective gameplay idea tucked in here — tag locations within a crime scene in chronological sequence to demonstrate that you’ve deduced the events that took place there — but it’s used so sparingly that it feels like its potential has hardly been tapped.

The ambient sound and music had a strong effect on me, evoking moody 70s horror movies, which by association instilled me with a spirit of trust in the experience and its intentions.

So: do I take issue with the single brutal, BRUTAL jump-scare in the middle of an otherwise melancholic and dreamy game? Hell yes. Would the game be better without it? Hm. I don’t know. Strictly speaking it may have been gratuitous, but I can’t deny that it contributed to my emotional experience, by retroactively radiating its threat to all the hovering eeriness in the rest of the game. But do I resent it nonetheless? Hell yes! How dare you! I got goosebumps all over my body and had to sit still for a minute while I came down. They got me good.

They’re gonna get you good too. I’m not offering any spoilers to help out. You’ll be okay. Fine, here’s the one thing I’ll say: it’s not in the first couple hours of play. I promise.

Okay, and with that I return to my list. Still working my way through the “Humble Origin Bundle,” purchased 8/27/13.

Crysis 2: Maximum Edition (2011–12): Crytek (Frankfurt, Germany) / Crytek UK (Nottingham, England) [played for 5 hrs]

Crysis 2 is the videogame equivalent of the Marvel movies that have taken over Hollywood. It’s glossy and impressive, it’s eager to please, it’s beyond soulless, it’s sort of fun. The storytelling stays firmly within the bounds of the testosteronal zeitgeist so that your brain doesn’t need to process it at all: aliens and a plague and paramilitary troops have all ravaged Manhattan, evoking 9/11 — and in other news, the pope is Catholic. Just in case you weren’t getting the message, they got the actual Hans Zimmer (“Han’s room”) to write the theme. We clear now?

The game — not just the action but the plot itself — is all about your cyber-suit of dominating power, specifically all the power it gives you with which to dominate. After you dominate enough guys with your power you can earn more power for your suit, thereby increasing your power to dominate. And you’d better dominate them with your power, if you don’t want them to steal your power suit from you, because naturally they want it, for its power to dominate. Which must never fall into the wrong hands.

After I had duly dominated my way through five levels with increasing power but decreasing patience, I realized that my ability to briefly turn invisible, combined with the ease with which I recovered from damage, meant I could probably run straight through a level without actually shooting anyone, and sure enough this proved to be true. This left me with a choice to make: should I zip through the game unsportsmanlike just to get to see the snazzy locations and special effects, and watch the story play out? Or should I take my temptation to do this as an indication that I shouldn’t be playing this game at all, and dump it?

I dumped it. It wasn’t for me.

August 29, 2016

Game log 7/16

7/10/13: “Humble Weekly Sale: Two Tribes”: 3 games for $3. I bought for EDGE, which I played for a couple hours shortly thereafter. The other two I had not played until now.

EDGE (2008–11): Mobigame (Paris, France) / Two Tribes (Amersfoort, Netherlands) [9 hrs]
Toki Tori (2001/2008–10): Two Tribes (Amersfoort, Netherlands) [20 hrs]

EDGE is a genial “op-art cosmos” headspace, the sort of thing that was particularly prevalent in games in the 80s (EDGE bills itself as “retro”) but, like all true psychedelia, is actually timeless. The point of this kind of space is just to be in it, so it’s fitting that this is as much a ride as a game. For me it’s one of the primary colors of fantasy: wandering around the playground of the geometric infinite, watching inscrutable cubic doodads doing their thing. EDGE isn’t uniformly rewarding, but it delivers that fantasy with great care and polish, so I’m content. I treasure my inner Marble Madness and am grateful to have it serviced. (I approve of the music, too.)

Toki Tori is an archetypal “puzzle platformer.” Despite how it may appear, it gets genuinely very difficult. It’s a remake of a design from the old days of tight resource constraints, and it retains some of the invigorating leanness of that era. The player understands that all the cutesy-poo is just a front for something essentially stern and unbending. In fact the trickiness comes off as all the more diabolical, dressed up in sheep’s clothing as it is. This genre tends toward pointless padding, but Toki Tori is admirably unrepetitive. Many of the solutions have that desirable quality of “hiding in plain sight.” What separates Toki Tori from a truly first-rate puzzle game like Stephen’s Sausage Roll is principally that the layouts have not always been sufficiently streamlined, which means that in the most complex puzzles there are a lot of pointless false paths. I ended up peeking at the first steps of online solutions many times, just as a way of reducing the number of variables.

RUSH (2010): Two Tribes (Amersfoort, Netherlands)

RUSH combines all the elements of the above two games — cosmic cubes and a batch of pure puzzles — but it’s not as satisfying as either of them. Puzzle games are like spas: the whole point is to put you in a certain state of mind, so all the little superficial stuff matters. RUSH bugged me in seemingly unimportant ways, and yet what else is there? The system for testing solutions doesn’t have the VCR-style controls I intuitively wanted; it isn’t as easy to deal with the 3D structures as it ought to be; the sparkly commotion in the background is off-putting; the music is lame; it takes too long to watch the solutions play out; et cetera. Too bad, because the puzzles themselves are fine. Well, maybe.

8/27/13: “Humble Origin Bundle”: 10 games for $4.95. Big-budget mainstream ones, too. I had not played any of them until now.

Dead Space (2008): EA Redwood Shores (Redwood City, CA) [played for 1 hr]
Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box (2008–09): Criterion Games (Guildford, Surrey, UK) [played for 3.5 hrs]

Dead Space is, like so many other games, Alien. As I’ve said before, I only sort of understand this phenomenon. Why does it have to be Alien again and again? Why this claustrophobia above all others? In this instance, the horrible-monsters-haunting-the-creaky-derelict-industrial-spaceship happen to be gooey stretchy incoherent mutations, in the style of The Thing, which I personally find a little too truly repellent to enjoy as “horror.” Nonetheless I still wanted to try Dead Space. It’s regarded as “big-budget popcorn action done right,” and I’m attracted to the idea of just about anything being done right. As soon as it started I could immediately tell this was going to be some grade-A blockbuster junk food. But having played the whole first level and had abominations of flesh BLAAAGH!!! jump out of the darkness at me repeatedly (and having then gunned them into gross heaps of spurting goreflesh), I recognized that what I was experiencing was not really any form of pleasure — pride, maybe (“look at me, coping with this!”), but not pleasure — so I stopped. As usual in these situations I kind of wish there were a way to explore the world and play out the story, just without all the BLAAAGH. But there ain’t.

Burnout Paradise is a dreamlike driving game in which a full-scale realistic city contains no humans, only cars, and all wanton destruction is magically set right once it’s out of sight, so crash and smash what you will. I’ve never gravitated to driving games but to my surprise this one charmed me. Perhaps I’ll even return to it from time to time. I’ve always liked the spaces in games above all and this game seems to concur; there are nominally races and stuff to do, if you choose, but at heart it’s just a free-range playground. Everything about the experience is subordinated to the expansive, meticulously imagined fake American city itself, which rolls by with splendid geographic fullness. Jumping your car off cliffs to try to smash through billboards and land on bridges turns out to feel like a natural way of reveling in the landscape. Yee-haw!