Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Assorted Miscellany.

I've been addicted to GameOvr of late. Since I'm out of town for the holidays and don't really have time to post my usual long-winded updates, instead here's a sampling of game-related art that I'm happened across on GameOvr that I thought was worth sharing.

I haven't been able to find a source on this, but it was posted on Danbooru a few years ago by one スラッシュ, who linked to this site (sadly now down, apparently) as the original source.

A t-shirt design from Classic!

And on a related note, someone ported Tetris to an oscilloscope.

"Urban Mushrooms", by flickr user SHUN(iamtekn).

"Future Fantasy VII" by deviantart user Minor-Interest. Yeah, I'm a nerd.

I could keep going, but there are trees to trim and halls to deck and whatnot. See ya in the new year.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Videogame Cinema

It seems like every other week, we hear about Hollywood deciding to adapt another gaming property to the silver screen - a sub-genre which has had, let's admit it, more spectacular misses than hits. This is largely the fault of Uwe Boll and the mentally-challenged billionaire chimpanzee that keeps giving him money, but the reality is that there are only three adaptations that I would consider even remotely watchable: Christophe Gans' "Silent Hill", the "Resident Evil" franchise, and the Angelina Jolie vehicle "Tomb Raider". Note that I don't even think these are good films (actually, "Silent Hill" wasn't bad) - but in comparison to "Alone in the Dark" or "Super Mario Bros.", they're practically Oscar-worthy.

On the other hand, there are a number of movies in existence which are based not on real-world titles but on the concept of gaming and gaming culture themselves. By and large, this sub-sub-genre has a higher success rate than its parent genre, in part because it requires a certain amount of actual creative effort to come up with the fictional games that play such a central role in the films' narratives.

That's not to say that every movie on this list is a brilliant work of art (though arguably, a few of them are). Rather, these are films that make use of readily-identifiable gaming tropes and attempt to comment, with varying degrees of success, on the omnipresence of videogames in contemporary society.

Check out the full list behind the cut.

Avalon (dir. Mamoru Oshii, 2001)

In his native Japan (and worldwide,) Mamoru Oshii is best known as the director of the "Ghost In The Shell" and "Mobile Police Patlabor" anime films, and his live-action, Japanese\Polish co-produced "Avalon" bears many of the hallmarks of his signature animated style. That said, with its entirely Polish cast and distinct retro-futuristic visuals, the film feels far more European than Japanese - even the score, composed by long-time Oshii collaborator Kenji Kawai, contributes to the Old-World, sophisticated tone, with its slow build-up and grand, sweeping orchestral cues.

"Avalon" may be the greatest movie about online gaming ever made. The central, eponymous game, a fully-immersive multiplayer shooter which is both addictive and potentially lethal, has been declared illegal and is played by aficionados in underground speakeasies. Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak), one of Avalon's top-ranking players, stumbles across rumours of a hidden level in the game. A former clanmate of hers is believed to have taken refuge in that level, and Ash is drawn even further into Avalon, her life becoming completely consumed by her obsession with finding him while simultaneously attaining the highest rank in the game.

It's poetic and operatic. The effects have borne up well over the years and both the addictive quality of MMOs and the single-minded zeal of the dedicated gamer have proven to be uncannily prescient. Rather than an excuse to cram an action movie full of videogame violence (see "Gamer" below,) "Avalon" is a meditation on the relationship between oppressively pedestrian manifest reality and the liberation and glory offered by virtual reality.

While there are a number of long-winded scenes involving characters pondering heavy philosophical topics and a side-plot that gets a little too metaphysical and abstract for my tastes, there is no reason why anyone interested in gaming culture shouldn't check this movie out.

Lola Rennt (dir. Tom Tykwer, 1998)

I see your raised eyebrows. "Run Lola Run" wasn't about videogames, you insist: it was about a German chick with bright red hair running around trying to rescue her boyfriend and the various chance encounters she has along the way. Nowhere in the film are games ever mentioned - Lola has way too much on her plate to even think about sitting down with a controller and logging a few hours of Modern Warfare 2 or whatever.

All of which is technically true, but I've always held that "Lola Rennt" may be one of the most gaming-influenced films ever made. I'll break my argument down in point form:

1. Lola must complete the "level": In this case, saving Manni from prison, death and himself. She even has a timer within which to operate.

2. Lola gets three "lives": each time she fails to achieve the goal imposed on her, she has to start back at the beginning of the level, with full health and energy, and must find new ways to overcome the established obstacles in her path.

3. Lola runs, jumps and evades. That is pretty much all she does, much like any hero of a side-scrolling platformer.

4. The music is utilised in a game-like fashion. The high-energy, pulse-pounding level theme song repeats on an endless loop.

5. The pacing, editing and entire tone of "Lola Rennt" feels like that of a videogame. The plot is simplistic and presents us with a hapless yet courageous heroine who must resolve a conflict using the only skills available to her to rescue her beloved, which she embarks upon without any pretense.

Of course, "Lola Rennt" cleverly subverts many of the tropes from which it draws. Most obviously, there's the gender-reversal motif - rather than the hero who must save the passive kidnapped princess, we have the capable heroine who must save the prince from his own stupidity. Tykwer plays around with time in much the same way that later games like "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" and "Braid" would emulate. And the obtaining of money, that ever-present videogame collectible, here takes on a life-or-death importance.

Mostly, though, "Lola Rennt" draws on a less-specific aspect of culture which has emerged as a result of the entrenchment of videogames in our collective subconscious. Watching the film evokes the same feelings of enjoyment, heightened adrenaline, and achievement as gaming does, and I guarantee that a large segment of the film's audience were subconsciously compelled to run home and button-mash after leaving the theatre. If that isn't a promotion of gaming culture, I don't know what is.

Stay Alive (dir. Willam Brent Bell, 2006)

Despite a fannish appreciation of the cast (Malcolm? Peter Petrelli? The Hebrew Hammer? How could this movie not be amazing?!) "Stay Alive" is, well, pretty awful. If you've been lucky or smart enough to avoid this one, the plot involves some teenagers beta-testing a survival horror game called, shockingly, Stay Alive, and one-by-one they start dying off. This is supposedly due to the involvement of 17th-Century murderess Elizabeth Bathory, the so-called "Blood Countess", but honestly by the time this plot point came along I was too drunk to pay attention to the finer details.

At the risk of sounding overly subjective, I shouldn't say that it could have been worse, but... It could have been worse. Not much worse, admittedly, but the presence of Frankie Muniz and Adam Goldberg, not to mention the design of the in-film fictional game, make it at the very least a watchable diversion. And the essential conceit here, that a videogame villain is killing people off in real life, is audaciously stupid enough to be entertaining.

To its credit, I will say that "Stay Alive" at least tries to appeal to geek culture. From the "Steamboy" poster to the ThinkGeek t-shirts and the multiple nerdy shout-outs, it's somewhat cognizant of the fact that, if you're going to make a movie about kids being terrorised by a videogame, your primary cast of characters are all going to be kind of losers. So while there isn't much to say here about the inherent cultural commentary present in "Stay Alive", it remains a notable footnote in the annals of gaming cinema for no other reason except that it was, perhaps, the first schlocky B-movie to be marketed towards the geek-chic set.

Gamer (dir. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, 2009)

While I would hardly call Neveldine and Taylor incisive filmmakers with a considered thesis on the role of hyper-violent videogames in today's world, they certainly have their fingers on a certain pulse. What they have managed to pull off in "Gamer" (and equally so in their previous cinematic masterstrokes, "Crank" and "Crank: High Voltage") is somehow taking that hyper-violence and kill-craziness of games as a foundation for their movies and unabashedly, unreservedly building on it.

Calling "Gamer" a "good" or "bad" movie seems beside the point. I don't think Neveldine and Taylor are going for mere Manichaean assessments - their sights are set on provoking, through sheer visual and auditory force, full-on AWESOME. Watching "Gamer", I couldn't help be reminded of Nigel Tufnel's insistence in "This Is Spinal Tap" that, in order to achieve maximum badassitude, the band's amps had to go up to 11. There's a scene in "Gamer" where Gerard Butler's character Kable, needing a fuel source for an escape vehicle, consumes a bottle of vodka and then urinates it into the gas tank of said vehicle. Never mind that this makes absolutely no sense on something like seventy-two different levels, nor that Kable would have been better off just stashing the bottle in his jacket and pouring it into the gas tank directly, or that between drinking and expelling the vodka he jumps into the middle of a gunfight - completely drunk, naturally - and kills a bunch of dudes with aplomb, or that random Jeeps one might encounter and attempt to jack will very rarely run on alcohol. "Gamer" is not trying to teach you anything about science or logic; "Gamer" is about taking the most awesome thing the average fourteen-year-old boy could ever come up with, and then deliberately making it more awesome as only two guys with Peter Pan Syndrome and surprisingly imaginative minds could do.

It also seems pedantic to discuss "Gamer"'s storyline as it applies to gamer culture, since it makes no bones about exactly what it's trying to say: videogames rock, and wouldn't they rock even harder if, instead of controlling a virtual jumble of pixels, you were controlling an actual person? Hell, "Gamer" makes "The Running Man" look like a doctoral treatise by comparison.

Like "Stay Alive", "Gamer" is a fascinating artefact of gamer culture not because of any kind of inherent directorial insight but because it exists directly as a result of said culture. Besides, Michael C. Hall's song-and-dance number in the third act may be the greatest scene of any movie this year and deserves some kind of industry recognition. Is there such a thing as the Awesomeness Awards? Oh, right - they're called the MTV Movie Awards.

eXistenZ (dir. David Cronenberg, 1999)

In future decades, when film historians look back on the late 1990s and examine the Apocalypse-Anxiety factor in dystopian science fiction cinema from that era, I strongly suspect that "eXistenZ" will be recognised as the apex of the genre, sadly overlooked in its time, beating out "The Matrix", "Strange Days", "Dark City", and so on.

For starters, Cronenberg is a genius. I can't say that enough. Secondly, it has an absolutely stellar cast: Jude Jaw, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Eccleston, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie... The primary reason why I love "eXistenZ", though, is that it's an intelligent, clever and irreverent exploration of both games and the gaming industry.

Freudian analysts could have a field day with "eXistenZ" (or any of Cronenberg's movies, for that matter.) Law's character, Ted Pikul, assembles a weapon in-game from body parts that fires teeth, sexual symbolism drenches nearly every scene, and Cronenberg's famed "Body Horror" is on full display throughout. What's interesting here is that "eXistenZ" approaches the full-immersion-videogame concept from a uniquely biological angle: rather than imposing cold, polished cyborganic elements on organic players, it presumes that biology will infect technology as an inevitable progression.

In the same way that "Videodrome" dissected television media, "eXistenZ" analyses videogame media, and the result is unexpectedly fair-handed and utterly engrossing. Games are not, by nature, evil, malicious or murderous, Cronenberg proposes; if anything, they represent a dramatic and largely incomprehensible leap forward in the evolution of the relationship between man and machine, one which will re-write the definition of what it means to be human with empirical facilities and self-agency.

While most of the movies on this list are entertaining and may have a point or two to make about the topic at hand, only "eXistenZ" could be considered a bona fide study of the phenomenon of videogames: what we use them for, how we interact with them, and what we may one day become as a result. When it comes to Cronenberg, this is par for the course, but I wish more talented and thoughtful directors would tackle the subject. I think there's a lot left to be said.

TRON (dir. Steven Lisberger, 1982)

"TRON" is the great grand-daddy of game movies. In 1982, videogames were just beginning to explode, thanks largely to the popularity of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man: arcades were springing up all over the place, the Atari 2600 or ColecoVision were on every kid's Christmas list, development licenses for known film franchises became a hot commodity, TBS debuted the game-themed TV show "Starcade", and the Commodore 64 became the first affordable PC to boast an extensive game catalogue. It was a stroke of genius that Disney decided to release "TRON" into this environment, and some twenty-seven years later, the movie still holds up as a sincere tribute to the games we've grown up loving.

Whether it was a calculated marketing move or simply an administrative error, Bally\Midway released the arcade version of TRON prior to the release of the film itself, and the game ended up earning more money than "TRON"'s initial box-office run. Though "TRON" has since then found its rightful footing, both in terms of earning power and cultural capital, it seems fitting that the first mainstream movie about videogames was overshadowed by its own videogame counterpart. As a side-note, if anyone ever felt compelled to randomly buy me an absurdly expensive birthday gift, you could do worse than having an upright TRON cabinet delivered to my door. Something to keep in mind.

"TRON" is not deep. Characters are archetypal, the conflict and villain are clearly defined, and the progression of the protagonist follows a formula as old as fiction itself. Since the majority of the action takes place inside the game-world, which is rendered as little more than a blue-glowy otherworldly realm, it's less of a riff on games and society and more of a fantasy film, with frisbees in place of swords and computer virii in place of dragons. It has more in common with "Alice In Wonderland" than "Neuromancer".

And yet, what it does, it does incredibly well. In 1982, an era when our parents didn't own a Wii Fit or play Mafia Wars on Facebook (both examples drawn from my own personal life, incidentally - stop sending me Mafia Wars invites, Dad!) and approached videogames with a mixture of ignorance and bemusement, "TRON" was a movie you could make them watch and they would be able to understand. Adults liked it because it was accessible, family-friendly and upbeat, and kids loved it because videogames were becoming their way of life and they all harboured private escapist fantasies of being sucked into Q*Bert or Frogger and experiencing life from the other side of the screen.

Disney's releasing a sequel to "TRON", called "TRON: Legacy", early next year, and I for one applaud the decision. You can check out the Comic*Con 2009 "TRON: Legacy" footage right over here.

WarGames (dir. John Badham, 1983)

The second of the Great Videogame Movie Trifecta of the '80s, "WarGames" took a far darker, Cold-War-influenced look at kids and their dad-gummed games. Possibly Matthew Broderick's finest hour, and certainly Dabney Coleman's (though "Cloak & Dagger" is a strong contender for that title and probably deserves to be included on this list as well,) "WarGames" presumed a number of paranoid "facts" on which it constructed its techno-thriller premise:

1. Teenage hackers can get into secure United States Air Force computer networks with a minimum of effort;
2. Complete military control will be put in the hands of a centralised artificial intelligence;
3. Said artificial intelligence will enjoy playing computer games as much as said teenage hackers.

I think I'll brook no argument from the masses when I say that the early '80s were singularly fixated about the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and were also intensely fearful of the speed at which computer technology was developing. Thus, it comes as no surprise that a film like "WarGames" should emerge from such an era. And while many of the concerns on which "WarGames" is predicated are dated and irrelevant now, an interesting parallel can be drawn between the presumed destructive influence of WOPR and the presumed destructive influence of violent videogames today.

While David Lightman's illicit foray into military computer networks was never particularly realistic, he is representative of a subset of teenage gamers who use cheat codes and attempt to hack game servers. He's not a bad kid, but he does have an inflated sense of entitlement and invulnerability brought about as a result of his intellect and, well, simply being a teenager. He instigates the film's entire conflict not because he's trying to wreak havoc, but just because he wants to see what he can get away with.

Global Thermonuclear War, the game that Lightman plays with WOPR, is one of the greatest fictional videogames ever conceived. Not because it looks like an especially fun game (though, I dunno, maybe you're into that sort of thing) but because it may be the first time where it's suggested that videogames are more than idle playthings and could be interwoven into politics, government and military infrastructures. Despite the fact that WOPR is sort of the bad guy of the piece, "WarGames" was a huge stepping stone towards lending games a kind of credence and validation: dismiss them at your own risk, because once your back is turned they might start World War III with the USSR.

The Last Starfighter (dir. Nick Castle, 1984)

Rounding out the '80s trifecta is "The Last Starfighter", in which one Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is recruited by an interstellar defense force to become their ace pilot and win the war against an encroaching enemy, based purely on his gaming aptitude. "Starfighter" is the kind of movie that no one seems to make anymore, but littered the landscape during the Reagan Era: unapologetically heroic, unpretentious, and almost pulpishly adventureous. That's not to say it's a good movie, but nevertheless, it holds a special place in the hearts of anyone who was younger than 12 when it came out and had ever played an arcade game.

"Starfighter" turns the entire "rogue computer"\"videogames are somehow malevolent" notion on its head, and presents them as a decidedly positive phenomenon... Assuming the galaxy was ever in dire threat from alien invaders and a few good spacecraft pilots were needed, that is. It foreshadows the use, some decades later, of games like America's Army by the U.S. military as a recruiting tool and certainly promotes the idea that games provide 'twitch-training' which really only has military application, but back in the halcyon days of 1984 it was far more escapist fare than warmongering propaganda.

Unlike "TRON", "Starfighter" was never the recipient of a viable tie-in game. Atari developed an arcade version, which at the time would have been one of the most advanced games available (featuring 3D polygons and a Motorola 68000 CPU!), but its extravagant price made it impractical to release to the market. A to-the-pixel recreation of the game used in the film has, however, been created by Rogue Synapse and is available as a freeware download, and "Starfighter" has the distinction of being the only movie on this list to have received the off-Broadway musical adaptation treatment (a handful of songs from which can be heard on the Kritzerland label website.)

Brainscan (dir. John Flynn, 1994)

I guess it wouldn't be fair to say that Eddie Furlong's career crashed and burned after "Terminator 2" - "Pecker", Detroit Rock City", "American History X" and "Little Odessa" were all decent enough flicks, and "Animal Factory" is an unfortunately-overlooked examination of prison life that I'm constantly amazed that so few people have seen - but "Brainscan" may be the second-worst film he's ever signed on for (the first would be "The Crow: Wicked Prayer". Ugh.)

"Brainscan" is sort of the proto-"Stay Alive", in which Michael, a sort-of-geeky game aficionado, is sent an as-yet-unreleased videogame which, you guessed it, ends up playing a pivotal role in a campaign of real-world murder and terror. Thrown into the mix is the actual killer, a fellow named The Trickster, who (much like Jigsaw from the "Saw" franchise) has taken it upon himself to teach Michael Important Life Lessons Through Random Acts of Murder.

It would be an exercise in masochism to elaborate on all the failings of "Brainscan" in detail. The one positive thing I can say about the film, however, is in how it responds to the charge, so often leveled by strident muckrakers and neurotic busybodies, that violent videogames create violent members of society.

Furlong's Michael is the very definition of the jaded, emotionally detached teenager drawn to games with hyper-violent content, and yet, once he realises that the brutality he's carrying out in the virtual Brainscan universe is, in fact, having an effect on the real world, he does not hesitate to attempt to stop playing. In other words, like the vast majority of gamers who do not suffer from severe psychological problems, he is fully cognizant of the line between fantasy and reality. Michael does not want to actually hurt people; in the presumably safe context of videogames, he can work through his frustration and aggression, but as soon as the boundaries of that context are breached, he is sane and balanced enough to understand to back off.

If only "Brainscan" weren't such a terrible movie, it would be a great piece of supporting evidence to whip out in response to the Jack-Thompsonites of the world. Sadly, it is, and I wouldn't want to inflict it on my worst enemies.

Arcade (dir. Albert Pyun, 1993) \ Evolver (dir. Mark Rosman, 1995)

Another pair of entries where we see the "new\untested\mysterious game" motif, the "sinister\mysterious Company Man pushing said game on unsuspecting teens" motif, the "immersive virtual\reality" motif and the "game is actually villainous and harming\kidnapping innocent people" motif. I'm counting "Arcade" and "Evolver" as a single entry on the list for two reasons: one, they're virtually indistinguishable, and two, neither is deserving of an entry on its own.

The truth is, despite "Arcade" having been written by David Goyer and starring Megan Ward, Seth Green, John de Lancie and Peter Billingsley, and "Evolver" featuring Ethan Embry and - wait for it - John de Lancie, all of whom are solid and underrated actors, both films are incredibly dull, forgettable, and weighed down by their reliance on cliche. Really, the only reason either one avoids total-trainwreck status is because they don't aim for anything higher than pedestrian mediocrity.

That said, "Arcade" and "Evolver" earn a place on this list because they're examples of videogame movies made, apparently, by people who don't know the first thing about videogames. While you might question the merit of their inclusion here based on that criterion alone, let me remind you that this is pretty much the same case with your average, big-budget blockbuster game adaptation: such films are made solely because they're exploiting gamer culture, not because they have the first thing to say about it.

I give "Evolver" a slightly higher rating than "Arcade", because "Arcade" has less of an excuse to suck, considering the talent involved. Shame on you, Seth Green! And double-shame on you, John de Lancie, for making the same mistake twice in a row.

The Dungeonmaster (dir. Dave Allen, Charles Band and FIVE OTHER PEOPLE, 1984)

From bad to torturously worse (Sorry - I promise I'll conclude this list with a pair of movies that are at least half-decent,) "The Dungeonmaster" is easily the biggest turkey in the wide spectrum of videogame-themed movies, and yet - as is so often the case - it falls into "so awful it's great" territory and ends up being utterly hilarious.

Sometimes known as "Ragewar" (for reasons I'll never truly comprehend), "Dungeonmaster" has something to do with a geeky programmer and his girlfriend being transported to a magical land which may or may not be a videogame world but definitely operates according to the often-arbitrary rules of games. Paul Bradford, the protago-nerd, undergoes an Ash-like transformation from average schlub to valiant warrior, complete with wrist-mounted weapon (in this case, for some reason, his trusty computer makes the journey along with him and inexplicably changes form,) and what follows is a compendium of short films, each one helmed by a different director, charting his adventure to save the ever-present princess from the evil wizard.

While it is, on paper, no better a film than "Arcade" or "Evolver", "Dungeonmaster" has one thing those movies don't: a sense of unabashed, manic fun. Is it about videogames? Hell, it might be. I dare you to prove to me that it isn't.

Besides that, it has Richard Moll - Bull from "Night Court" - playing the evil wizard Mestema, a performance segment featuring W.A.S.P., claymation monsters, zombies, and mutant bikers. "Dungeonmaster" has gained cult status since its release, and I can't think of a more deserving contender.

Press Start (dir. Ed Glaser, 2007)

I have to give it up to Glaser and screenwriter Kevin Folliard for their no-budget indie feature, "Press Start": it proves once and for all that you can make a great, ballsy little film on nothing more than borrowed cameras, a non-professional cast, and a home editing suite, as long as you have a script that works.

"Press Start" is a satirical comedy about videogames. That's about the sum of it. If you've ever been on the Internet, I don't have to tell you that place is lousy with videogame satire and parody... And yet "Press Start" manages to stand out from the pack in a couple of ways.

To begin with, Glaser and Folliard made the movie because... They just wanted to make a "Press Start" movie. It's based on characters and gags they first developed in their Press Start Adventures series of flash cartoons, an amusing but admittedly poorly-drawn effort, and I seriously doubt they went ahead with the project because they were so overwhelmed by fan demands they had no other choice. Instead, I imagine the following conversation took place:

Glaser: You know what we should do, Kevin?
Folliard: What, Ed?
Glaser: We should take all our hilarious ideas that we've been writing into "Press Start Adventures" and do a... wait for it... live-action movie!
Folliard: THAT. Is the most AMAZING. IDEA. EVER.
Glaser: My cousin has a DV camera we can use and we can totally get Josh and Al to play the main characters. Can you think of anything else we might need?
Folliard: Nope! When do we get started?
Glaser: What are you doing this afternoon?
Folliard: I have this dental appointment at four.
Glaser: Oh, we'll be done by then.

And the rest, as they say, is legend.

You might get the impression that I'm being ingenuous in my praise for "Press Start", but nothing could be further from the truth. It's clearly a labour of love, but what really makes "Press Start" work is that Glaser and Folliard really know their games, and are genuinely funny filmmakers to boot. Case in point: the Level Up Deliveryman, who stops by to reward main character Zack whenever he accumulates enough XP by performing mundane, rote activities. Shopkeepers are identical in every single town across the land. Injuries can be healed by eating random food one finds lying around. Every single gag, from the elaborate procedures required to accomplish the simplest of tasks to the cameo from a certain well-known Italian plumber, hits the nail on the head.

I'm not going to lie: "Press Start: The Movie" is pretty terrible from a purely technical perspective. It may have not had the benefit of a substantial (or any) budget, but that's no excuse for it looking quite as awful as it does. In another film, that would be a deal-breaker; here, though, it's a minor quibble at best and easily overlooked once the sight gags and banter start to fly.

If any of that grabs you, the Press Start website is selling the DVD for $12.99. Even if it doesn't, you should buy it anyway and help them fund the sequel, "Press Start 2 Continue".

Ben X (dir. Nic Balthazar, 2007)

Looking over this list, every single entry has conformed to a particular film genre, be that horror, science fiction, comedy or thriller, and each one has, to varying degrees, made use of videogames as a McGuffin or Deus Ex Machina in the process. Not so with Belgian film "Ben X", a sombre look at bullying and teenage suicide which also happens to comment on gaming culture in a profoundly realistic and unflinching manner.

Ben, played by Greg Timmermans, may not be the typical gamer, but he's one that many of us will find familiar: he's quiet, intelligent and suffers from Asberger's Syndrome, and is subjected to antagonism and harassment by his peers. His one source of consolation is in online gaming - specifically in the MMO ArchLord, where Ben is a hero instead of an outcast and has something like a social circle.

"Ben X" deals in the main with two particular themes - Asberger's and bullying - and is not, to that end, fundamentally concerned with games or gaming culture. Watching as this kid is endlessly humiliated and torn down time and again, through no fault of his own, is almost torturous to watch, and the fact that he's found any kind of relief from his day-to-day existence at all is gratifying. But rather than coming across as escapist fantasy, this integration of videogames into the film's social-realist cinematic style presents problems of its own. Does the escape provided by ArchLord really help, or has it become a way for Ben to avoid confrontation? What role does the widespread acceptance, or lack thereof, of MMOs in mainstream society play in Ben's outsider status? For that matter, how much of that status is self-imposed?

I was reminded at times of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" while watching "Ben X", with the difference between the two films being that in the latter, the violence is directed inwardly. Both, however, examine a social issue - bullying, and the response it engenders in its marginised targets - from an ostensibly objective point of view, and neither attempt to suggest a solution. Interestingly, both "Ben X" and "Elephant" portray the victims of bullying as gamers, but "Ben X" is far more sympathetic than "Elephant" - not only towards the victim of bullying, but towards the games he plays.

Of all the films on this list, "Ben X" has the most to say about gaming culture: it doesn't address the potential pitfalls and evils of videogames or glorify them in any way, nor does it elevate them to an unrealistic pedestal and ascribe to them more influence than they might have. "Ben X" simply looks at the games we play, why we play them, and what we get from them. To that end, it might be the most relevant videogame movie to date.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Warning: This Game Is Canon

When I first stumbled across "Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden - Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa", I naturally assumed that it was not - could not, for that matter - be a real thing. How wrong I was. Tales of Games' freeware JRPG, done up in the style of classic SNES turn-based roleplaying games like Final Fantasy IV and Illusion of Gaia, is presented as an unofficial (yet, nevertheless, "canon") sequel to the Super Nintendo\Sega Genesis basketball throwdown game "Barkley Shut Up and Jam", despite the fact that there was an actual "Barkley Shut Up and Jam 2" released two years after the first. While I'm no videogame lawyer (actually I am,) I suspect that a major copyright litigation case is NOT in the works.

The plot of "Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden" is at least ten kinds of crazy. Here's a very brief snippet from the Wikipedia entry on the game:

Twelve years prior to the game, Charles Barkley, in an attempt to impress his son Hoopz Barkley, performs a Chaos Dunk—and inadvertently kills almost everyone present. As a result, basketball was made illegal and nearly all great players were killed in "The Great B-Ball Purge of 2041" (a.k.a "B-Ballnacht").

In 2053, another Chaos Dunk rocks Manhattan, killing fifteen million, and the blame falls on Charles, who is believed to be the only human capable of performing the Chaos Dunk. With the help of the Ultimate Hellbane, Charles escapes his pursuers: the B-Ball Removal Department, led by ex-NBA all-star Michael Jordan. Charles follows Ultimate Hellbane through the B-Ball Catacombs to the tomb of LeBron James, discovering that the Ultimate Hellbane is actually Balthios - the Octoroon great grandson of LeBron James. James contacts Charles from the B-ball dimension, offering him a warning which tells him to "seek the Cyberdwarf."

And that's just a SNIPPET. Click through for the full plot synopsis and then try to resist downloading this masterpiece right away. You can't, can you?

Here's Tales of Games' official trailer, if you're somehow not yet sold.

And Tales of Games doesn't stop there! Oh no.

"The Sewer Goblet: The Wu-Tang Clan and the Wu-Tang Baby" is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Replacing Charles Barkley with the Wu and swapping the SNES-era JRPG engine for an NES-era one, it follows the legendary rap enclave as they attempt to rescue a "majestic baby with a mysterious pendant" from an evil wizard and his henchman, Cheese Panda XD, both of whom live in the sewers (for some reason.)

You can grab "The Sewer Goblet" from Tales of Games' website.

[Tales of Games]

Thursday, December 3, 2009

This Reminds Me Of A Puzzle!

Click through for the truly astonishing solution to this puzzle!
Courtesy Tim and Ray at 2P START!

While it would require a herculean effort on my part to narrow down the list of Nintendo DS games that I really, really loved playing to a single ranking champion, I have some serious love for the Professor Layton series. Note that this is in spite of the fact that I am not a fan of anime-style graphics in games, that the puzzles range in difficulty from "3rd Grade Math Class" to "Astrophysicist With A Degree From Harvard" to "HOLY HELL WHAT THE EFF", and that it is, at the end of the day, basically an educational game (nothing against educational games, of course, but have you noticed how bloody dull they tend to be?)

Damning praise as this might be, Professor Layton and the Curious Village marks the one time in my life that I have actually downloaded a DS emulator in an effort to get my dad to play it (he didn't).

I've yet to pick up the second game in the series, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, because I know that once I tackle it it's going to consume my every waking hour over the subsequent two weeks. And now I find out that there's not just one but FOUR sequels, two of which have been released in Japan already and all three of which will eventually make their way over to North American shores. That's just... devilish.

I mean, I have a hard enough time justifying the many hours I spend gaming already, and precious few of those titles offer the built-in excuse that I am, in fact, actually improving my mental facilities. One day in the far-flung future, when I am a penniless hobo whom mothers will point to as a prime example of how videogames will ruin your life, I will at least have the rejoinder of, "Well, at least I staved off Alzheimer's for a few extra months! Thanks, Professor Layton!" But you know what? By that point, they'll probably have cured Alzheimer's anyway.

Some Seriously Classy Professor Layton Widescreen Wallpaper, by ~Fushi-Chou

MegaDoomMan Deathmatch

While I would suggest muting the volume for the first fifteen seconds or so (that Bot-loading blip noise seems deliberately designed to drive one completely mad) and I'd love to see a non-Deathmatch version with some classic MegaMan enemies thrown in, I can't fault this modder's attention to detail - nor the admirable lunacy they must possess to undertake this in the first place. Cutman, the interloper responsible for this, claims on the mod's webpage that

"The plan is to eventually have all the levels and weapons from Megaman 1-6 (and maybe 9)."

That is the sort of thing I can get behind 100%.

[WIP: Megaman 8-bit Deathmatch, via Kotaku]