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Can't Stop the Movies
2Jul/150

Why Video Games: Octodad (2011) and Octodad: Dadliest Catch (2014)

Octodrew

Why Video Games is our ongoing look at the construction, reception, interpretation, and impact of important video games.  For the introduction to our series, please click here.

OctodrewSeth, I have to say, I'm disappointed in you this week.  After our video game analysis started off so well with a good initial chat and great examination of Myst last week, I thought we were going to be in for something special.  After all, how do you follow walking around a mysterious island and interacting with unusual machinery?  Well, you don't do it by making me play a video game starring a perfectly normal father.  I mean, I was pumping water through a dilapidated ship last week, and this week I'm picking up groceries?  What's next, selling lemonade?

I kid, of course, but at the heart of any good joke lies a great deal of truth and the truth is I'm delighted that you wanted to talk about Octodad in both student game and retail release formats this week.  Delighted because it's one of the few examples of its suddenly overpopulated and mostly rubbish genre, of which I don't have a specific name so I'll go with "how the hell do I control this?"  Also delighted because it'll allow us to discuss something we didn't really get to talk about too much last week, that being how to engage the player through character and control.  Finally delighted because it has quite easily the best theme song of any video game released in the last five years (and was an initial pick for my fiancée and I's "coming out" music for the reception).

But, perhaps most importantly, we'll be able to see an evolution.  Because I played through Octodad: Dadliest Catch only a few months ago and had it fresh in my mind, but the student game was new to me.  It astonished me how much a simple change in design philosophy made the experience so much better.  In the student game Octodad, you are an octopus who happens to be a father, but in Dadliest Catch you're a father who happens to be an octopus.  A slight turn of expression did a world of good, and I'm curious if that was part of your plan in suggesting the two together, or if there was some other devious reasoning afoot?

OctosethYes, indeed. I see the two Octodad games as parts of an interesting statement. The student game seems to be a shot in the dark. An experiment. They Young Horses team took wobbly, nigh-unpredictable controls to a certain extreme, and went to work making a character so charming we didn't mind. I don't know how they decided on an octopus. But the interesting point is not the species of animal they selected. It's that they prescribed a series of goals to that octopus which weren't meant for it. There have been lots of games about animals doing human-like things. But they tend to be fully anthropomorphized and skilled (See: Ratchet of the Ratchet & Clank series and many others). In other words, the standard animal fantasy is to imagine that animal as having a level of sophistication similar to humans and run with it. This is not so with Octodad. This octopus is just an octopus. Yes, he wears a suit and has learned and accepted certain trends of human life. But we get to share in a wide-eyed bewilderment with this creature as we discover what it's like to explore and manipulate a world that was not meant for him.

The tasks had to be simple enough that the game was about experimentation. Those wobbly tentacles are the center of this game, and the glue that binds them to the world design is the Suspicion Meter, which is based upon consequences of physics rather than direct input. It's the things that we are doing unintentionally that alter our metered success in this role. Without that touch, it might have been a curious physics toy and not a fully-realized game.

It's interesting that we are given unmatched inputs and outputs, as it were. This is not a game about being an octopus. This is not a game about being a human or accomplishing tasks that humans value. It's a game about an octopus trying to be human. That's the subject, anyway. Weird place to be. Putting aside the specifics of the controls, or the setting (the fatherhood narrative), what do you think this says about the core fantasy of Octodad?

1Jul/150

Mid-week Maya: Meditation on Violence (1948)

Meditation on Violence (1948)

Unfortunately, today's Maya Deren is not easily available in its full-length on the internet.  Those interested should check a local library for potential listings of a collection.

Meditation on Violence (1948)Something I've danced around in previous installments is just how radical Maya Deren's films are.  One school of feminist film-making says that there is no way to really make a feminist film so long as the lens is still creating a world through the visual language of men.  Now a few years after World War II, how many film-makers in America were producing experimental silent film with non-Caucasian stars?

Not many, and today's film, Meditation on Violence, shows why Deren is in a league all to herself.  By 1948 the visual language for musicals was well entrenched in the collective American visual consciousness.  But film as music, or dance as Deren has approached it before, was still lacking.  There is no lack of poetry in the cinema of the early 20th century, but this kind of experimentation where one form of medium may be able to substitute for the experience of another is unheard of.  While the kings of early cinema cemented a common visual language, Deren was pulling it apart.

Nothing shows this better than the first appearance of Chao Li Chi, whose movements Deren examines over the next handful of minutes.  He has the makeup of a silent movie star, yet his features are undeniably his own, and moves with strength and grace throughout the indoor then outdoor arenas of Meditation on Violence.  With just a bit of makeup, Deren managed to upend the idea of a silent film star.  Of course China had a robust film industry as well, but the sort of "Americanized" make up on Li Chi shows the beautiful variety we could have had in our movies.  Even before we get far into his routine we're presented with a systemic idea of violence, not a physical one, in the form of forcing American stars to look a certain way.

30Jun/152

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

Lonely all by my own

In a Netflix documentary, filmmaker Liz Garbus seeks to answer the question posed by Maya Angelou about legendary singer, What Happened, Miss Simone?

Lonely all by my ownNina Simone.  The voice.  The strength.  The poise.  Look at the way she takes to the stage as though guided by a hand whose direction she has no say in.  She greets the crowd as a distant memory, coming to her in bits and pieces as she makes her way to the piano.  They cheer, she tells them a little something about her day, her thoughts, what she hopes they will take from her performance.  Then, as she did so many times in her life, she performs with vigor and passion while remaining unpredictable in what she would sing next.

She was beautiful.  But, as What Happened, Miss Simone? slowly reveals, the fervor she approached each performance with was directed by something much more complex than passion.  She was beaten, hounded, looked up to, inspiring, frustrating, and loving her friends, family, and acquaintances when she wasn’t being “Nina Simone,” as if – Liz Garbus’ film reminds us – there was ever an opportunity for her to be anyone else.

Garbus has made a great film for a complicated woman.  The courage of What Happened, Miss Simone? Is not in asking the question in figuring out just what drove her, but admitting there may be no good conclusion to arrive at.  What Happened, Miss Simone? delivers a  bounty of performances and songs, as well as little-seen reflections from historical figures mainstream American society seems to be discarding, which are never as straightforward as they initially appear.  The possessed, beautiful, and powerful singing in one moment may be just an upswing in her bipolar disorder, or her recovering from a recent beating from her husband, or realizing the extent she beat her own child.

30Jun/150

Final Fantasy V: Andrew Parties With A Four Job Fiesta (Part 3)

65-FFV

Want to catch up on previous parts?  Click here for part one, and here for part two.

FFV Banner w - photo

Welcome back to this play for charity, pay for death, #Classic run of Final Fantasy V with the Four Job Fiesta.  Overconfidence and lack of any real strategy with my Jobs led to a series of seven wipes.  Now I'm starting the second world of Final Fantasy V with a bit more caution and experience.  Onward!

29Jun/150

Camp X-Ray (2014)

Someone is going to be uncomfortable here

PFC Amy Cole is assigned to Camp X-Ray, a detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.  There she learns to never call the occupants prisoners, that they are always detainees, and they have life better than any of the soldiers.  The messages of her superiors and other soldiers are questioned by her tenuous relationship with Ali, a man who may be unjustly imprisoned within Camp X-Ray.  Peter Sattler writes and directs Camp X-Ray and stars Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi.

Someone is going to be uncomfortable hereThe Vietnam War fueled decades of art, giving us the likes of Oliver Stone, Taxi Driver, the best of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and saddling the United States government with guilt for years.  It’s unlikely we’ll ever see the same sort of rage and despair coming from art surrounding the second Iraq War.  Collectively, it seems we Americans have decided whatever came from our short-sighted actions after the 9/11 attack were justified.  If movies like Camp X-Ray are any indication, even those who feel we should apologize for the barbaric treatment of innocents caught in our wave of violent retribution are subdued by the aftereffects of that attack.

The opening shots of Camp X-Ray suggest as much, showing us more footage of the smoking towers before cutting to a bound and blinded man in transit to Guantanamo Bay.  Americans can make the connection easily – the towers came down, so we went looking for the people responsible.  But instead of making Camp X-Ray about that blind assault, director and screenwriter Peter Sattler zeroes in on a more conventionally dramatic turn of events.   We’ll watch as Amy (Kristen Stewart) strikes up an uneasy friendship with Ali (Peyman Moaadi) and observe the parallels between their situations.

Camp X-Ray is more of a film about essential humanity and the connections which can form under any circumstances, and less the dehumanizing effect of constant war as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper.  This, for all its good intentions, takes the teeth out of whatever criticism Camp X-Ray could level against the inhuman treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo.   Camp X-Ray becomes a film without consequence, showing the torture as something which just kinda happened, then because of a simple gesture everyone smiles and goes their separate ways.  Just don’t think about the long-term prospects of that happiness at the end, and you’ll be good.