The Storm is bigger and nastier than you think

So a game journalist source of Bill Harris over at Dubious Quality had some things to say about publishers and their renewed interest in screwing journo’s jollies:

There’s a sequel to this post, in which they bring up Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun and others as hallmarks of Game Journalism (they truly are, never think I doubt that), and go on to say that the death of independent ballsy publications like these over the IGNs or the Gamespots of the world will be the loss for all readers.

By looking at the consumer and the industry as one entity aligned against disparate news and websites varied in their quality of journalism, the source is making the same mistake he assumes people make against game journalists.
This is something that also part of the problem loop, as much as you or I wish it weren’t. Consider this: the games industry is not just Gears of War or Skyrim or Modern Warfare, it is also smaller games, and medium tier games. We all know this, and yet we don’t practice it. Some with artistic integrity, and some with just enough spit and polish to be fun, but not wholly original. They are all works that deserve to be talked about, to be shown to people, to be discussed as original/unoriginal, refreshing/bland. And yet we don’t. Most of the coverage you see from even the most respected outlets is about the big names. A slew of Skyrim screenshots is page one news, while a new XBLA or PC game announcement is hardly ever mentioned. Even the publications I most respect are party to this. I do a search for Terraria on Eurogamer, a publication I respect above all else, except maybe RPS, and I see a “No results found” page.

Where is the coverage for Ghost Recon Online for the Wii U? It was on the show floor at the E3 Nintendo booth, and while it may have been too bland/unfinished or anything else to be seen by journos, it is almost as if it wasn’t there. You know why that is? I was at the Nintendo booth at E3, and the VIP and the regular show floors had the game, but the “press” both on the second floor didn’t – understandable as it was Nintendo’s showcase floor and they only wanted to show their own demos. There is your lack of proper journalism right there. Here’s a game announced and playable at the show floor, but the barest of peeps were heard from the news outlets. I could count many such instances, but the fact is that this happens too.

Also thinking of your audience as one huddled mass is quite sad. The death of Eurogamer WILL affect the large Eurogamer community that attends the expo, takes part in discussions on the boards and carries that badge proudly. Same for any other website – but a large percentage of consumers now treat games just the same as films. They see reviews on their favourite general magazine or newspaper or Sunday supplement and go ahead and buy it if their friends also make a fuss about it. The reason they do not turn to specialist outlets has a lot to do with the casual way in which they interact with their gaming time, but I have also seen a lot of hardcore gaming friends completely disenchanted with the journalism on display. The 7 to 9 scale is not a myth or an exaggeration. You know it’s a reality, and even some of the most respected outlets are guilty of that. The fact that competency in craft and polish count for more than artistic integrity, vision or even fun in game reviews is true enough; the PR and publishing wings of most game companies accept that. They may be part of the problem, but they are now working with that – they want to convince the “legitimate” news outlets more than the gaming press which will grant them an 8 anyway (unless the game’s quite boring, in which case they get a 7).

My point is that saying that there are different, better game journalists in the same statement where game companies, games and the audiences are homogenised is just as bad, and contributes to the problem. We are stuck in a vicious cycle of pandering to the biggest and the loudest, and the biggest and loudest publications (in this case being non-specialist press) is getting preferential treatment is not a surprise. By calling themselves part of the “games industry”, gaming press has subjected themselves to the machinations of the very industry which forgets the small ones.

There are defiant small player in every part of this equation – sites like RPS or GWJ, the small, well made games, the indie developer, and the discerning fan who reads better kinds of journalism. We need to celebrate them all equally; the entire cycle is nothing without any of them.

Disclaimer – I work for a games developer, and am a fan of well written games journalism and discussion. None of what I say here comes from my employer.

Dhobi Ghat – of Art enabled in a study of class distinction

This essay is not a review and hence delves headlong into discussing what a filmis and has no room for plot points. While it is best read after having seen the film, I hope you enjoy it even if you haven’t seen it. It is spoiler free as far as I can see, but please feel free to ignore this to maximize your enjoyment of the film.

Dhobi Ghat

Dhobi Ghat, or as we say it here in Chilli Crab country, Dhoby Ghaut, is many things at once, but most strongly for me it (is a love letter to Mumbai that) talks about the relationship between the upper, privileged class and the lower to lower middle class that enables them, creates the essence of Mumbai. It also is about art and our relationship with it and this straddles the first theme almost completely. It is also about loss, betrayal, loneliness, regret, and hope – likely in that order – but those are byproducts of a film that chooses to lavish a lot of detail and nuance on to each character.

The biggest strength about the filmmaking on offer here is that each story strand is complete in and of itself. Munna has a coming of age arc, a reality slap that grows him up in an instant, while Shai and Arun’s stories are about finding the art within, though Shai has a lot to find about herself, while Arun needs to come to terms with his loss of emotion. Yasmin has the most poignant arc – that of innocence robbed – and it affects all the other stories more than it lets on. (Her happiness and grimness affect Arun, whose muse she has unwittingly become, but notice how his change in mood also affects the other two protagonists in profound ways).

The reason that Kiran Rao lets that happen to an offscreen character (and the most cheesily written – with a distinct lack of visual poetry in her scenes, Rao chooses to give her actual verbally poetic lines, which are poorly thought through. No matter her strengths as a director, her command of Hindustani isn’t as strong, often resorting to clichés in her lines for Yasmin. Then again, there aren’t too many words or turns of phrases left that Bollywood hasn’t mined) is not just to develop her as a valid, fourth story. Rao is trying to create a distilled vision of her artistic world view; it’s key for her to show us through her medium of choice the different relationships that artists have with their muse and how it effects them and vice versa.

There is no doubt in my mind that Munna and Yasmin’s stories – just as their social class as depicted in the film – are here to help Shai and Arun create their art and make them realize important things about themselves. This distinction between the privileged and the ones that enable their privilege is very clear in the structure of the film. It takes a moment of genuine selflessness on Munna’s part to make Shai , a fledgling photographer, realize something about herself. Similarly Arun’s final moment of truth comes through Yasmin’s final moment of admitted emotional incapacitation. Munna and Yasmin go through their transformations independently of these; their very real and tangible problems forcing them to grow up and lose their innocence. The working class enables the art and the emotional closure in the privileged in Rao’s Mumbai, and never the other way around.

A wondrous glimpse of the sheer derring-do of this class comes in a small moment when a bai’s daughter impromptu recites Tennyson while her mum admits she is more into poetry and dance than other subjects. Rao seems to concede that dreams and dreamers in her Mumbai come from elsewhere too, just that her story seems to be about these people. Probably her Mumbai will either crush that young girl as it crushed Munna and Yasmin, or it will make her a celebrated artist moving in higher strata of society just like Shai and Arun.

To be fair, the class politics are beautifully drawn: especially with Munna as he plays different roles that satisfy different needs. He is the dhobi, the rat killer, the muse, the confidante, the guide, the drug supplier, the boy toy, and ultimately the single most enabler of emotional catharsis for Shai. Little moments that show different working class people are equally well drawn – this mumblecore film is not beyond incessant navel gazing – to a point where it seems like the anti Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye (this film is about the BoBos and the privileged, with nicely drawn details of the working class, while OLLO told a well thought working class story with well drawn bourgeois characters).

The class politics are only the text though – the film speaks on a lot of levels to a lot of people. A close friend mentioned she thought it was about unfulfilled and nonreciprocal love, and how the film refuses to love us in return too. To me the biggest subtext was the creation of art and the different ways we treat and respond to our muse to create art. Shai’s best pictures (and her most prolific photography) comes after she has been emboldened by her relationship with Munna, where she confirms herself of the reality of the person before she can tackle his life. Arun’s fractured relationships have left him unfeeling – he calls Mumbai his muse and whore, but without feeling. He likely thinks hasn’t given anything back for the privilege of taking Mumbai in completely, until he realizes he has. Moving apartments to be in the middle of lower middle class Mumbai he finds more than he bargains for, and after he has created his masterpiece, goes back to the safety of the mechanical (his next apartment overlooks factories).

Arun’s arc and his relationship with his past and his art are probably the most complex, and ultimately the most heavy-handed. That his past has stopped him from having emotional closure comes a full circle when tapes from the past spark his creativity. Very visibly – well, very obviously his moods shift as he goes through the tapes. It all comes together when he displays a genuine, visible emotion for the first time in front of a silent neighbor. The neighbor being the stand in for the audience to the creation of art – they do not share in the creative process, and yet enjoy the naked emotions of the artist laid bare in front of them. Yet silent, forever. This irked me quite a bit – Rao seems to dismiss anyone who watches her art as a silent spectator, with nothing to add, while at the same time she seems to derive inspiration from the very people who are her audience.

Despite Aamir’s bit not working wholly for me though – I cannot urge you enough to go watch this film. There is a lot going on; it is also an immigrant story about outsiders trying to find a place for themselves in Mumbai. It begins with three characters moving houses and ends with two of them moving again. A city in motion constantly making people move too seemed apt, but it is hardly anything Rao dwells on. Ultimately I think her treatise on Mumbai is a little fractured, but never less than whole. Her stories cover what it is to be Mumbai and to be in Mumbai at the same time, even if the Mumbai on screen is her Mumbai.

Call of Duty Black Ops : Shooty mcbangy bang

Call of Duty Black Ops

So I played the new Call of Duty. More specifically Call of Duty: Black Ops. Even more specifically in internetese: COD BLOPS. I love that name, don’t you? BLOPS. Completely devoid of the utter destruction inherent in the game it describes. Come to think of it, I may have eaten some BLOPS sometimes in me life.

Anyway, it was fun. Now I have made posts that may lead one to think I hate generic blockbuster shooters. I don’t. I hate generic blockbuster shooters that want you to think they are an intelligent piece of art commenting on the human condition. Remember no Russian? (see what I did there? Never mind.) BLOPS was entirely fun. It was made to look and act like a stupid 80s action film, and it does that. If you have a specific itch to shoot people in the face while moving along a fixed path whilst things blow up all to kingdom come around you, BLOPS will scratch it to HELL.

It occurs to me that most people are perfectly content to shoot humans in the face with pyrotechnics all around. By that yardstick BLOPS is for most humans. It isn’t especially different or interesting or builds a great world, but that’s not what most people want, yes? It’s not the best Call of Duty game ever made, it’s not even the most polished. For a game that choreographs each set piece, it often breaks its own rules about not keeping the player in the dark. The best thing about it I can say is that it is probably the best game Treyarch has made yet. And after years of mediocre Spider-man games and Calls of Duty, at least Activision’s hajaar dollars have made them competitive enough.

Long the bastard child of the CoD franchise, Treyarch has earned both player ire and mainstream derision by being mediocre and delivering games made by committee. They still do that here, but at least they do that with a sense of humour and a hitherto missing maturity. Maturity in development only, of course. The vision is still the 12 year old gun freak’s porn. Check your boxes for semen.

In any case, the story making a point to establish that it is bunkum makes up for the ludicrous ending, and you can enjoy the Shooty bits without rolling your eyes too much. It looks fantastic too. The production values, or to call it by its technical name, Activision’s 3rd world debt ending budget, are what they are – astounding and beyond comprehension.

I could pretend I give a rat’s ass about the multiplayer, but I can’t be arsed. It’s as good or as bad as you think the last one was. I’ll play it for a few months and then move on to some obscure German RPG, though, so the question is not for me to answer. Meanwhile, here: it is Mostly Harmless.

The set pieces do not overtly steal anything from a famous film, so at least I think the multiplayer will have some originality too, as much as is possible for a Call of Duty game to be original. (Infinity Ward were an amazing developer, but they pegged the biggest moments of their games on moments from iconic films. Back when they were 2015, it was Saving Private Ryan. With the first Call of Duty it was Enemy at the Gates and so on. With Modern Warfare 2, it was Bad Boys 2, so you can imagine how deep the shit hole was in which they found themselves at the end of that game. PS Anyone who likes both should probably try and grow a real beard before they can discuss the merits of any artistic endeavour with me. )

ANYWAY, Call of Duty Black Ops is perfectly okay, and not at all pompous or stuffy like its predecessor, so if you ever wanted to play a Michael Bay movie, this will work just fine.

Now where’s my Risen at.

Nuggets of Awesome #1

Nuggets of awesome is where I try to tell the world that about hidden little awesome things that they don’t usually see. Hidden behind the overly marketed monstrosities are little things that you may or may not know about, but WILL make your day better

It’s called Chop Sushi and it’s a gem/sushi matching puzzler for the iphone. Wait, don’t go away. It’s not awesome because it’s a small little game that is well made and looks purty. It is, and it does, but there’s another reason it is full of win.

It’s philosophical.

Human beings love patterns (so much so that news channels regularly construct narratives out of random things and pretend to BLOW YOUR MIND on a daily basis, but that is way beyond this post), and they love it when a plan comes together, chomp on your cigar, why don’t you? It is very easy to make a charmingly animated little game about matching 3 or more kinds of the same thing on a puzzle board and add some experience/spell things and ape Puzzle Quest and be done with it.

Chop Sushi

Chop Sushi goes further. You encounter different people with internal demons as you go along, and you must fight those inner demons with different sushi if you are to make them happy. And to make them happy is your goal, for you are the ultimate sushi chef in the world. What’s most interesting is that once defeated, the demons don’t go away; it’s just that the people you spoke with can now live with those demons, bear their burdens. Sushi, and good food, it seems to say isn’t a fight, but very good therapy. To be happy, you don’t have to get rid of your inner demons, you simply have to learn to accept yourself and live with your flaws.

Chop Sushi

It’s a basic thought which is regretfully rarely found in videogames. Along side the adventure are interludes (cleverly hiding loading of levels) where you, the protagonist Master Chef, swim to different lands, always resting on a rock (the same rock, weirdly enough). Pay attention, and a small blurb explains the changing relationship between the rock and the Master Chef. “Master Chef stood on the rock and they felt a kinship” leads to “Master Chef didn’t notice the rock. Master Chef was the lord of all he saw”. When his ego becomes too big, you must play as the rock and defeat the egotist within Master Chef to show him humility, the final lesson, the game seems to say, that makes a good human being.

Know you’re good, but don’t get too big for your friends. It’s a little blunt, but when was the last time a game was able to convey that in gameplay?

It’s also a pretty good game with interesting new power ups and gameplay twists, and it genuinely looks good. But if you check it out, you will see a small little game that says some very simple things that games rarely do.

A Conversation I had with Beatzo

See, it’s like this. Indians are everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Every country. The usual suspects like the US, UK, Canada, but also countries like Romania, Ghana, even St. Kitts. Bet you couldn’t place that on a World map.
In some, even most of these places, there is growing resentment around them as well. Sometimes it’s wholly acceptable fears like Indians are taking their jobs, or their 7-11s or whatever. Sometimes it’s as simple as Indians don’t assimilate and unnecessarily judge their culture, or pray to demon ghosts or whatever other prejudice (warranted or not). I do think some complaints are very valid, but most are just people being afraid of something different than them. Something that is intrinsically NOT them. Kind of how normal people are afraid of mutants in the Marvel Universe.
You know what this means?

Bal Thackerey is Magneto.