Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives

June 2008 Archives

Uncle Warren versus Cobra Commander.

For those of you not following my Twitter stream, I have just posted a short essay featuring my (bemusement/excitement/fascination) that Warren Ellis is writing G.I. Joe webisodes over at the C3 blog. The article also features Joss Whedon's new project Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and Seth MacFarlane's upcoming Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy. Check it out.

Internet Media For Niche Audiences (Not The FCC)
When C3 was first booting up in 2005, our circle of students would speak wistfully of how the Internet could have saved Joss Whedon's Firefly or Warren Ellis' Global Frequency. Although both of those properties seem to be dead or at least comatose, their creators have each announced new Internet-launched properties. Last week the trailer and official website for Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog went live, as well as (of course) its official MySpace page and the more-or-less official fan site. The project, a spiritual follow-up to the incredibly popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode "Once More with Feeling", is a serialized superhero musical starring Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.) and Whedonverse regular Nathan Fillion (Buffy, Firefly) as a hapless supervillain and the hero that plagues him. Business-centric readers of this blog, pay attention: the first of the show's three episodes will premiere at www.drhorrible.com on Tuesday, July 15, followed by the second on July 17, and the third on July 19, but all three episodes will only be available for free viewing on the site until July 20th. After that, the episodes will be available for "a nominal fee" (according to Whedon), which will then be followed up by a DVD with "the finest and bravest extras in all the land". More information has been promised to us at Comicon, but we Whedon fans are already champing at the bit. Speaking of conventions, at last week's G.I. Joe collector's convention (JoeCon 2008) it was announced that Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Global Frequency) is writing a series of animated webisodes for adults. The miniseries, called G.I. Joe: Resolute, will consist of ten five-minute episodes and one ten-minute finale, and is scheduled to debut in the first quarter of 2009. The show will be much grittier in nature than any G.I. Joe cartoon yet, featuring guns that fire bullets instead of lasers and characters falling in combat, but "little to no blood shown". While it isn't clear whether or not these webisodes will tie into the live-action G.I. Joe movie set for release next summer, in the style of The Animatrix or Batman: Gotham Knight, the producers did say that they hoped to air the entire series someplace like the Cartoon Network or distribute it on DVD – and that this is the direction Hasbro hopes to go with all of their brands. While both of these projects seem to be following a fairly solid "web to DVD" model, it's far from the only business strategy being kicked around. Another intriguing alternative was announced this morning by Google, who has struck a deal with Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane concerning his next project, "Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy." According to the New York Times:
Google will syndicate the program using its AdSense advertising system to thousands of Web sites that are predetermined to be gathering spots for Mr. MacFarlane's target audience, typically young men. Instead of placing a static ad on a Web page, Google will place a "Cavalcade" video clip. Advertising will be incorporated into the clips in varying ways. In some cases, there will be "preroll" ads, which ask viewers to sit through a TV-style commercial before getting to the video. Some advertisers may opt for a banner to be placed at the bottom of the video clip or a simple "brought to you by" note at the beginning. Mr. MacFarlane, who will receive a percentage of the ad revenue, has created a stable of new characters to star in the series, which will be served up in 50 two-minute episodes.
What's doubly interesting about the project is the reason MacFarlane cites for moving to the web. According to the article, MacFarlane felt "feeling constrained by the 'taste police,' a k a the Federal Communications Commission." Given how raunchy Family Guy is to start with, I can only imagine that this new project will be something the late George Carlin would have been proud of. As C3 followers well know, all three of these creators have had experience with alternative distribution methods of content before – Whedon's fans turned the fallen Firefly into the feature film Serenity; Ellis' fans built up a huge amount of buzz around the failed pilot of his Global Frequency when it leaked onto the web and he is currently posting weekly installments of the web-only comic Freakangels to http://www.freakangels.com/; and MacFarlane's Family Guy was brought back from the dead due to fan support. To say that we could have worse canaries in this coal mine would be an understatement.

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On Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now.

This weekend I've been continuing some old quests: regular readers will know that I've been working my way through the AFI's top 122 movies list (the result of combining the Institute's original top 100 list and its revised top 100 list – 22 movies were added the second time around). As of this writing I'm a healthy 63% of the way through, thanks to watching a couple DVDs every weekend. Over the last two weeks I've watched Stagecoach, Sullivan's Travels, Gone With the Wind, MASH, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Mutiny on the Bounty, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and Sunset Boulevard, and this morning I watched the original 1979 version of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

I had planned to squeeze in one or two more today, but instead I walked over to my bookshelves and took down a hardcover collection of selected works by Joseph Conrad. It's a big book, a Barnes and Noble edition that my mom had found for me at a garage sale somewhere (or perhaps had gotten for me for Christmas last year – my memory here fails me), and between its covers are four of the over 200 books that make up my personal to-read list: Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent and, most importantly for this entry, Heart of Darkness. Plowing through this list is necessarily much slower-going than the AFI list – not only does this list have a nasty tendency to grow as I think of other books I really ought to read, but reading Gravity's Rainbow is inherently a much more time-intensive task than watching even Gone with the Wind. The reasoning behind this list is much the same as the AFI list – a deep-seated feeling in my bones that despite my having earned an English degree from a fairly prestigious college and my Master's degree from an even more prestigious university, there's still so much I haven't read, or so much I've simply forgotten. Since my dream is still to become an author and professor, when I consider how many huge, epic gaps there are in my knowledge I begin to feel that even if I were to succeed in these goals, I'd feel like a fraud. About three years ago now, right when I was entering MIT, my cousin Amanda and I had a long talk about our different plans. She told me that she was doing some graduate school herself, in a way – only she was doing what she called "Amanda school," tutoring herself on all the things she found interesting. I think this is what I'm doing now, in this gap between my Master's degree and wherever I settle in to do my Ph.D.: a "Geoffrey school" of films, novels, and programming books. It'd be easy to argue, of course, that this is what I've been doing all along anyway, but making a concerted effort to chew through these massive to-do lists feels like I have a good, solid way of charting my progress. Depressingly, I've been working on these lists since March of 2005 and there's still an embarrassingly long way to go (after all, in many ways I'm reading books that AP students were probably reading in high school) but I think, in the long run, it's what I need to do.

So it is that today I watched Apocalypse Now and read Heart of Darkness, both for the first time. The experience is fascinating; Apocalypse Now is not so much an adaptation of Heart of Darkness as it is a remixing of it, in the same way that CMS looks at remix culture. Both the text and the film are ruminations on the darkest parts of human nature and madness, of the fall of a golden child into the depths of despair and depravity, but Coppola's use of the text to parse the actions of American soldiers in the Vietnam war is absolutely breathtaking. What I'd originally considered to be just another rote damnation of the atrocities of war (prior to actually having seen the film, of course – if Mr. Coppola ever happens to come across this post, well, sir, please accept my apology for my wrongheaded assumptions) instead blooms into something much more profound. Apocalypse Now is an incredible example of how adaptation can work through the benefit of each media form's unique strengths – while Conrad uses loops and whorls of language and time to communicate the madness unfolding in his narrative, Coppola deploys music, dialogue, framing, lighting and slow-motion shots to achieve the same effect, and it works brilliantly.

Conrad's characters are interesting but nowhere near as startling as Coppola's, but seeing Coppola's inspirations is quite cool. This isn't a straight line-for-line lift, but an updating and a retelling worthy of a Shakespearean interpretation; Dennis Hopper's American journalist is as interesting a recreation of Conrad's Russian assistant as a reimagining of Puck, Caliban or even Hamlet might be. Conrad's Kurtz is an intriguing sketch of a character, but Coppola's Kurtz is a combination of Brando's breathtaking performance, some artisan-level cinematography and, yes, the near-perfect deployment of negative capability throughout the rest of the film to build up the character at the very end. Conrad builds Kurtz up pretty well, but Coppola's build-up is absolutely top-notch: from the description Harrison Ford gives Martin Sheen at the beginning, to Sheen's slow discovery of the character's history through his dossier, right up through to the very end – that was narrative, cinematic poetry.

Even the changes that Coppola makes for a modern audience are telling – while the protagonist's mission in Heart of Darkness isn't exactly clear, Coppola gives Sheen's character a strong, easy-to-understand mission in the form of a clearly-stated mission. By doing so, Coppola gives audiences a crystalline comprehension of the story they're about to be told, so that the film works at a surface level even if all the madness-of-men reflectiveness is lost on some of them. Although critics accused Conrad of being primarily an adventure writer, Heart of Darkness doesn't function quite as well as a ripping adventure yarn because it lacks Coppola's "go here, kill him" steely narrative core. With that intact, Apocalypse Now operates with the grace and impact of an iceberg. There's explosions and scenery and conflict to be perceived above the water, but the vast majority of what's going on is happening beneath – and that's the stuff that's really dangerous.

I wonder if I would have enjoyed either of these works half as much when I was in high school. Although I was a pretty damn bright student and English was definitely my favorite subject, I had little to no patience with works that I viewed as heavy-handed, mopey criticisms of the atrocity of human nature. I still have that issue to some extent Рit wasn't until my friend Matt filled me in on the context of The Deer Hunter that I could appreciate it as much more than an extended riff on the clich̩ of "life is pain", but once I understood that The Deer Hunter was the first film to openly criticize the Vietnam war, then things began to make more sense. Knowing that The Deer Hunter opened the door for what I consider to be the much more nuanced, brilliantly shot and thought-inducing Apocalypse Now, well, that makes me even more appreciative of it. Of all the war movies I've been watching lately (as the AFI saw fit to include quite a few), my favorites so far have to be Apocalypse Now and The Bridge on the River Kwai Рalthough I still haven't seen All Quiet on the Western Front or Patton yet. I'll let you know what I think after the project is done.

In any case, this type of thinking is precisely the sort of thing that this "Geoffrey school" is meant to bring about – and now, if I ever wind up teaching Heart of Darkness, I'm certainly going to be screening Apocalypse Now to drive the point home. If Comparative Media Studies had a Ph.D. program, this is what I'd like to think I'd be doing there right now anyway. Perhaps, even if I get fed up waiting for our program to finally get its Ph.D. and go get my degree in English literature, I'll still wind up teaching Comparative Media Studies in spirit and in method. Honestly, I don't think I'd have it any other way.


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A busy day on the blogosphere.

Man, I gotta learn to pace myself. In addition to my own entry this morning, "On Maps and Legends," I also posted two more essays on the MIT blogs: "WiiWare, PSN, XBLA and the Long Tail" on the GAMBIT blog and "The Dangerous World of a GPS That Does Not Exist" on the C3 blog.

Hey, when you're on a roll...

The Dangerous World of a GPS That Does Not Exist
Every now and then something crosses my inbox that makes my jaw drop. Sometimes it's genius, sometimes it's astonishingly crass, and sometimes it's a combination of the two. This morning's report from DVICE.com on the Mio Knight Rider GPS is definitely a category three jaw-dropper. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. If you're going to have your car talk to you, and you're one of the generation of geeks that grew up in the 80's, you're most likely going to be secretly pretending that your compact or SUV is the Knight Industries Two Thousand anyway. On the other, this ranks right up there with a lightsaber remote control in burying the needle on the dorkometer. If nothing else, installing this sucker will provide a perfect litmus test for every future blind date that might set foot in your ride. Ever. All easy jokes aside, the Knight Rider GPS actually does provoke some interesting thoughts. First, it's interesting that Mio licensed the original, 1980s voice of KITT, William Daniels, instead of the new KITT from NBC's upcoming Knight Rider remake. This might have something to do with the new voice being out of Mio's price range (I'd expect Val Kilmer doesn't come cheap), but since the device is scheduled to go on sale in "the August timeframe" and the new show is scheduled to launch on September 24th, I'd imagine there will be at least some would-be buyers scratching their heads and wondering why this KITT doesn't sound like the KITT on their TVs every Wednesday night. If the show takes off (as the pilot movie's 13 million viewers would seem to suggest), this could prove to be a real gotcha. Second, is the voice from a 20-year-old cult TV show enough to justify a purchase when so many other interesting competitors are flooding the market? The Knight Rider GPS will supposedly retail for $270, which is $70 more than the 3G Apple iPhone with true GPS under its hood. Alpha geeks that sneer at Apple fanboys might be more interested in ponying up the extra forty bucks for the $299 Dash Express, which bills itself as the "first two-way, Internet-connected GPS navigation system". If the market for the Knight Rider GPS is an inherently geeky one, the iPhone and the Dash Express seem to be two pretty big shakers in that market already. Finally, does this open the door for a whole raft of novelty GPS devices? How long will it be before we see a GPS with a UI lifted right from the Enterprise and the voice of Jonathan Frakes, that only responds if it's addressed as "Number One"? Or one with a brass-and-woodgrain casing that boots up with a whistle and responds to "Starbuck"? A more interesting idea is the GPS as a platform for personalization across different drivers – we already have Mr. T, Dennis Hopper and Burt Reynolds giving us directions, and Nintendo's Wii Fit can have different trainers assigned to personal profiles, so why not GPS devices that recognize who's driving and customize their voices to each driver's preferences – or change their voices based on the time of day or location? During normal driving hours you might want to be guided by the soothing baritone of Patrick Stewart, but perhaps late at night when you might doze off behind the wheel the device could switch to the grating screech of Gilbert Gottfried. (Or, worse, it could direct all of its sound output to the rear speakers and imitate your mother-in-law. Hey, it could happen.) Of course, as any hot-rodder, art car builder or bumper sticker aficionado could tell you, our vehicles have always been platforms for customization. Even giving them distinctive voices isn't anything new – all it takes is a couple of playing cards in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Our vehicles are, for many of us, extensions of our personalities – and if your personality has been secretly dying to deploy out the back of a semi truck on some lost American highway for the last twenty years, then hey, more power to you. Just please, please don't try the turbo boost.
On Maps and Legends.

This morning I finished reading Michael Chabon's new collection of essays Maps and Legends (2008, McSweeney's Books). I knew that I enjoyed Chabon's work from the few essays and chapters of his I've read already, but this one really knocked it out of the park. An embarrassed confession: I have yet to finish reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, as I got pulled away from it to read something else (as happens all too frequently in my life), but this one was such an amazing page-turner that even though I was also reading several other books at the same time (I also finished Ian Fleming's Casino Royale yesterday), I kept getting pulled back to it.

I'm perfectly comfortable in admitting that Maps and Legends may be one of those right-place-right-time books for me, and that your mileage may vary – but as it is, Chabon's words pierced me through the heart like a perfectly aimed barrage of arrows. Or, to mix and mangle metaphors, reading his thoughts about genre and literature is like being a private listening to a grizzled veteran general telling tales of his life in the trenches.

Chabon talks about how he grew up loving genre works like science fiction and noir detective stories, and then feeling the sting of the 'literary' in his creative writing workshops in college, which is precisely the same thing that I went through, and how that affected his decision to shelve his genre work in favor of the more literary texts that would become his first and second published novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys. Examining his career arc is incredibly informative: he played by the rules with these literary texts and then continued on to write Kavalier and Clay, which mixed the literary with touches of genre, and now he's trending more towards genre with touches of literary in his most recent work Gentlemen of the Road.

I look at this as a sort of inverted career path to someone like Neil Gaiman, who began his career in comics and has been playing in other media ever since. What's particularly fascinating is how "literary" Chabon won the Pulitzer but the World Fantasy Award people changed the rules after "pulp" Gaiman's A Midsummer Night's Dream took the cookie so a comic could never win again. To me, this smacks of branding more than literary achievement: if you start out as a genre writer, you will always be branded as such, but if you start out as literary you may be tolerated your dalliances in the lower arts. Of course this is primarily being done by the literati – the flipside of this type of judgement would be, I suppose, the fiscal and readership measuring sticks, both of which I suspect Gaiman would win by a wide margin. Then again, Chabon has had several movie deals already, so my guessing which of them has established a bigger family fortune is both crass and pointless. Still, as someone measuring his idols to plot out a plan for the immediate future, all this conjecture does serve a purpose. Whether or not any hard data can be obtained from this research is irrelevant – the exercise in itself is illuminating.

Long story short, Maps and Legends is a terrific collection of essays, extremely readable and enjoyable and educational all bundled together – and exactly what you're looking for if you're a would-be up-and-comer trying to navigate the tricky borderlands between high and low culture, genre and literary fiction, academia and pop intellectualism. Add to that the additional niceties that proceeds from the book go to support Dave Eggers' 826 Valencia literary project for kids and that this hardcover edition is easily one of the most beautifully-designed literary artifacts I own (the multi-layered dust jacket has be experienced to be believed), I can easily and happily say that Maps and Legends is a must-have, highly recommended, five stars, three thumbs up and so on. Buy it.


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On George Carlin.

Fuck.

George Carlin was one of my all-time favorite comics. When I was in high school, my friends and I used to listen to Carlin and Denis Leary while we were out driving around. When you're a teenager in the middle-of-nowhere Ohio, driving around listening to stuff is what you do. We'd drive to Akron and back, Columbus and back, Cleveland and back, talking about all kinds of stuff and listening to a variety of other stuff, ranging from U2 to the Beatles to Moxy Früvous to Tori Amos and back, but when we wanted to bring the funny it was all about Leary and Carlin – especially to my friend Nick and I. We learned the fine art of the rant from those two, and now Carlin is gone.

The reported cause of death is heart failure. I can't say I'm surprised – you can't be that pissed off for that long and not have something blow out. I suppose I should be learning something from that (he types as he glances warily at his second cup of coffee of the day), but right now I'm just too bummed out about it to care.

I think Carlin would have hated me, to be honest – he would have ripped right into all the stuff that I worry about and care about and tinker with and so on, but I probably would have just leaned back in my chair with my hands in my lap and laughed my ass off as he railed and stormed and tore me a new one. He always struck me as being a good guy underneath the bluster and rage, and I wish I could have gotten to see him live. No one skewered the world's stupidities like he did – not Leary, not Cosby, not even Lewis Black. The world is a little dumber now that he's gone.

Good night, George. I wish I could hear what you say to God when you get there.


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The tranquility of travel.

I never would have thought that I'd be hearing advice on the tranquility of anything from Uncle Warren Ellis, but there you go.

Me, I enjoy traveling as well, except for the fact that I still feel like I'm paying penance for making a friend's cousin miss her flight when I was a freshman in college because I'd never flown before, and when she told me the time of her flight we simply calculated that that was the time when she'd have to be at the airport. It's moments of wanton stupidity like that which keep me up at night, even ten years later. Oy. (Devin, if you're reading this, please tell Portia that I'm still sorry.)

It's a good thing that I like traveling so much, because I'm going to be doing a lot of it in upcoming months. First Laura and I will be heading to Greece for the International Toy Researchers Association conference in early July. After that I'll be flying to Los Angeles for a workshop on transmedia at the SIGGRAPH Sandbox Conference in August, and then down to Texas to co-host a workshop on video game adaptations at the Austin Game Developers Conference in September. Woof. Talk about your frequent flier miles!


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Links list: 06-12-08.

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Fit? Not mii.

For some reason, I have never been the sort to preorder games. No, let me start that again – for one of a number of possible reasons, I have never been the sort to preorder games. I blame my parents, and especially my Mom, for instilling in me two very fundamental psychology quirks. First is a deep-seated love of a good bargain, which Mom always blames on the Scottish blood coursing through the Alexander veins. Preordering a game galls me in some way, largely because it involves putting down money and walking away with no guarantee that when the games come in, I'll actually get one. Although you'd think that Gamestop would be required to honor all reservations on release day, you'd be wrong. Oho, would you be wrong. Asshats. It's the same reason that airlines overbooking flights gets me right in the breadbasket – although I understand the economics of air travel are tenuous at best, and I understand that overbooking flights permits the possibility of refunded tickets if one's plans suddenly change, the idea that I bought a ticket for this plane, at this time, and showing up and not having a seat after all pisses me off about as badly as if I went to the grocery store, bought a big box of cereal and then, when I went to pour myself a bowl the next morning, found that the box was empty. What!?

The second reason is an even deeper-seated love of the chase, which I blame both of my parents for. When I was a kid we'd spend hours scouring through antique shops or flea markets or car shows looking for the parts Dad needed for an old car he was fixing up, or for a piece of furniture that Mom needed to finish redecorating a room, and so on. With kid-me, that hunting pattern manifested itself in action figures; with adult-me, it manifests itself primarily in books, games, clothes, and, well, action figures. Unfortunately, the big difference between my collecting patterns and my parents' is that my parents' hunts usually wound up being worth more money than they sank into it, and mine usually lead to little more than a bigger U-Haul truck being required the next time I move. Still, the thrill of the chase is definitely there.

I should note that now that my folks are both retired, Dad tends to do most of his hunting on eBay and Mom gravitates towards garage sales. You wouldn't believe the roomfuls of knickknacks and tchotchkes that she's collected from hundreds of garage sales over the last couple of years, but I suspect that the real reason why she does it, and partly the reason why my Dad still frequents car shows, is the social aspect of things. This morning I was reminded that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

I've been trying halfheartedly to track down a copy of Wii Fit ever since it was released. Being naturally heavyset is strike one, having settled into a happy domestic arrangement with Laura is strike two, and living a primarily sedentary existence working on computers both at home and at the office is strike three – I'm out, baby, especially my waistline, which is way, way out. Laura and I hit the mall to pick up some shorts for our upcoming Greece trip and damn, that was not a lot of fun. Ordinarily I enjoy clothes shopping, but seeing myself in those mirrors in my current rotund state was not pretty. While plenty of storytellers and academics are comfortably, um, well-rounded, I definitely need to start attempting to resemble Michael Chabon more than Warren Ellis. Hence the interest in Wii Fit.

Last weekend, I got snaked out of the very last copy at my local Best Buy, so this weekend I decided to wake up early and get in when the store opened. This was made notably easier by it being hotter than blazes in Boston last night, the humid, heavy kind of hot that turns a nice, pleasant night's sleep into eight sweaty, muggy hours of flopping about on the bed like an asphyxiating carp, and by our black cat Albus' deciding that 7:15 AM was a great time to start throwing up in the kitchen. Lately he's been yarfing on the floor a couple of times a week, which I blame on our recent acquisition of ferns for the sunroom (and his acquisition of a taste for devouring them), but a few months ago Albus had a nasty session when he was throwing up blood, so you can't blame me for being paranoid every time I hear him start making that bizarre oilcan-pumping noise that cats apparently make when they're about to toss their cookies. Up I got, and up I stayed, and a good thing I did, too – when I went to take my morning 'jog' around the Internet, I discovered that this morning's Best Buy flyer included not only promises of Wii Fit in stock at opening today, but also Wiis themselves. I tossed on some clothes and headed into the store a little early; the store opened at 10, so I arrived about 9:40, and was dismayed to find two things: that a line was already formed, and that it was already hotter than Satan's ass on a particularly fiery day.

Mercifully the line was only about 12 people or so; while the article I'd read said that they were only guaranteed to have about 10 copies per store in stock, I decided to stick around anyway. Less than a minute after I joined the line, my parents' genes kicked in and I struck up a conversation with the nice Asian couple ahead of me in line. We chatted amiably in somewhat simplified English for a couple of minutes, and then came the next wave of people. Immediately behind me came another nice couple, 2-year old in arms, and the father was wearing an Ohio State t-shirt. "Go Bucks," I said to him, and we were off to the races.

We were joined by a guy about my age from Connecticut, who was really just in line for a Wii – the couple with the kid had bought their Wii at Costco just a few days ago and now the mother was keenly seeking out a copy of Wii Fit. I'm happy to report that all of us got what we came for – despite the line swelling up to probably over a hundred people (!) before the doors opened, the Best Buy people handled things with remarkable aplomb; instead of having us tear through the store like madmen, they funneled the entire line into the registers, and each of the four to six registers they had open had a stack of Wiis and Wii Fit behind the counter. A customer got the head of the line, was directed to a register, forked over their credit cards, were handed their merchandise, and were happily shooed out the door. A cart of the most popular Wii games and accessories was set up nearby so people could be handed whatever else they might want in an exponentially more expensive version of the candy bars and magazines impulse racks at the front of your local Target, and they had blue-shirted runners at the ready to scurry off and snag anything else you might want for your new system as well. They even graciously handled the one poor soul who had stood in the line with the rest of us not for a video game but just to buy an air conditioner – he brought his A/C unit up to the front and one of the guys there quickly ushered him to either an otherwise closed register or off to customer service, depending on what payment method he wanted to use. Given my previously on-the-fence impression of Best Buy, I was impressed.

I stopped off at the Target next door before heading home to pick up some drinks, and then rushed home with my prize in the trunk. The game sets up quickly enough and even includes its own batteries, which was a nice touch. I chose which avatar I wanted to represent myself, and then took a deep breath and went through the orientation progress, which includes weighing myself and getting a report on both my BMI and what it calls my 'Wii Fit age'.

Ouch.

To be fair, I was pleasantly surprised by one thing – although I definitely tipped the scales (yes, my fat ass was classified as 'obese') my Wii Fit age was actually better than I thought – although I'm now about 30.5, the game pegged me at 31. Which is to say that although I may be heavy, I'm definitely not alone for my age. I brightened at that, and then proceeded to spend half an hour doing aerobics and balancing exercises before deciding that the combination of hot weather (it's currently 88 with a predicted high of 94) and my total couch potatohood meant that I oughta take a break for a while. Sweating more than I'd like to admit, I trundled off to the office to write up this essay, but I did so with a smile – although it hurt to watch my Mii plump up like the Michelin Man after it took my readings, I'm also happy to see that the game somewhat restricts the feasibility of the goals it allows you to set. I myself am hoping to drop a sizable amount of weight and get back down to at least my undergrad weight by next year, which the game wouldn't allow me to set as my goal, but it would allow me to enter in something it deemed more reasonable. I expect it will allow me to revisit that goal in three months and move the target further down then, but knowing that the game wouldn't let me say "OMG I'M GOING TO DROP FIFTY POUNDS IN THREE MONTHS" made me feel like it had my back, somehow. The games it offers are fun and breezy, the jogging game offers some pretty scenery (although I desperately hope Nintendo will pony up some additional landscapes via downloadable content updates) and its tracking system seems like it will be encouraging to use. We'll see how it goes – I'll use it for about a week and then post another update with my progress.

One final note – I'm just waiting for someone to hack the Wii Balance Board to work with my computer. Some clever souls have already figured out how to use the Board to surf Google Earth, but I'd love to see it used as a simple web-connected scale. Given the massive numbers of weight loss journal-keeping applications out there, you'd think that being able to hook up a Wii Balance Board to a simple database would be child's play. Maybe I'll see if anyone around the lab has any ideas. For now, I'm going to go hammer on some projects for a couple of hours and then maybe take another long jog around the island. I can see how this game might be addictive. Wish me luck!


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Links list: 06-07-08.

Heh. I didn't realize the quirkiness of today's date until I just typed in today's headline.


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What I did at work today.
Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab

For the MIT homepage sometime next week, hopefully. Click to enlarge slightly.

My favorite bit is the airship, which Philip had me add late in the game. Good call, cap'n:

airship
A magnificent deskful of guilty pleasures.

So. Earlier this week I did something perhaps I shouldn't have done, and right now I'm doing something else I shouldn't be doing by taking a break at my dayjob to blog, but right now I think the head of the lab and I are the only two people left in the lab (today being MIT's graduation and all) and I've been reasonably productive all day so far and so I'm going to take a break and blog.

Right. Where was I? Ah, yes – the thing perhaps I shouldn't have done.

I spend way too much money on media. Anyone who knows me (and most definitely anyone who's ever visited my house) knows this. My living room is actually a good two-thirds library, and that doesn't count the rather remarkable overflow to be found in my home office, my office here on campus, and in my parents' house back in Ohio. Laura has given me grief about this before, and I'm sure she'll do so again when she sees my latest binge.

But, oh, what a binge it was.

Remember last weekend when I blogged about finding an enclave of writers that seemed to match up with my tastes?

Link's work, which was recommended to me by my friend Shannon a long time ago, is leading me on to explore a handful of anthologies in which her work appears, as well as the work of a network of her peers. I'm thoroughly enjoying reading up on Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford, Kim Newman, Delia Sherman, and Ekaterina Sedia, all of whom I'd seen mentioned on Neil Gaiman's blog but had not previously had the time to experience myself. Getting to do so now is like getting handed the keys to a clubhouse, or at the very least being shown where the cool kids' table happens to be, if not being invited to join them. One of the biggest joys of the last year or so has been finding my way to this point, rediscovering the kinds of writing I like to read and now finding that there are more people writing in this vein than I'd ever hoped.

Not long after writing that little passage, I started assembling a shopping list on Amazon. I added and removed, shuffled, prioritized and reprioritized, snuffled through the used offerings to make sure I was getting the best deal, and then finally (wincingly), clicked the 'place order' button. The final damage was well upwards of a hundred bucks, but oh what fine treasures are rolling in now!

The main trust of this particular expedition was, oddly enough, anthologies. There were several that I'd been meaning to purchase already, such as Delia Sherman's Interfictions, but now there was a whole new collection of anthologies that I wanted to own. Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant's The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Ekaterina Sedia's Paper Cities. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. And two collections edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, The New Weird and Steampunk. Add to this Michael Chabon's new collection of essays on a similar vein, Maps and Legends, and I'm downright giddy.

Why this sudden binge, and why such glee accompanying it? When I was growing up, I had a very keen taste for mishmash literature, blends of high and low culture. Neil Gaiman's Sandman was a perfect example of this – comics that drew from classic mythology and contemporary real-life experiences to form a literature of hybridity. The magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave me similar thrills: chimeras of real life and the fantastic, lashed together and creating something new. That was what I wanted to read, and that was what I wanted to write.

The creative writing programs I attended at the College of Wooster, Kenyon College, the University of Exeter and beyond all had varying tolerances for this kind of thing. Some professors met my taste with out-and-out scorn (one whom will remain nameless here sniffed and told me in no uncertain terms that he'd 'had problems' with students who enjoyed Jonathan Carroll before), while others looked at me blankly when I tried to describe what I was going for. A few got it, and those were gold; but for the most part, the lecturers, like the majority of my fellow students, felt that there was no room in literary studies for the fantastic.

Fast-forward to now, and I'm finding a whole community of fellow travelers in academia as well as popular culture. Big chunks of genre TV have evolved from the cheesy pop of the 1980s and early 1990s into more complicated, much richer stuff – Battlestar Galactica is an easy example, but even the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester in Supernatural draw heavily from folklore and fairy tales for their source material. Entire academic conferences are dedicated to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hybridity runs rampant, almost everywhere you look, and these anthologies are largely embodiments of that attitude.

The short story has never been my forte. Even the short works I turned in for workshop in my creative writing classes tended to be interlocking pieces of something larger. My recent studies into serialized narratives and my studies into the consumption patterns of online video and casual games have all gotten me thinking a lot more about the role of shorter works in 21st century arts and culture. John Maeda's latest book, Simplicity, weighed in at only 100 pages and proved to be a big hit for MIT Press, which is informing some of the book proposal work I'm doing now for the lab. My reason for buying an armful of anthologies now is primarily to try and get my brain accustomed to thinking in a more single-episode format, so to speak. I need to integrate that sense of rhythm and style into my own stuff, and, hopefully, by learning which writers and publications are doing the type of storytelling I'm interested in now I can finally get the fiction side of things off the backburners again. My academic work is going well, but I miss the simple joy of plain old fiction.

And, given that gasoline just hit $138 a freaking barrel, it sounds like the perfect time to stay in and read. Oy vey.

So... What are you folks doing with your weekends?


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Links list: 06-05-08.

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Marks on game narratives: oversimplified, overreaching, overworn.

In today's Game Set Watch, movie and screenwriter Justin Marks takes the game industry to task for calling the story in Grand Theft Auto IV "Oscar-worthy" and wonders if gameplay as narrative is the answer:

The adventure of Niko Bellic, complete with its comic assortment of ethnic cliches, is pretty much on par with the rest of the franchise's self-conscious worship of movie archetypes and genre tropes. And there's nothing wrong with that. Rockstar has made clear that's all they've ever wanted to do, and they've done a damn fine job at that (although I do miss some of that charming humor from Vice City and San Andreas).

The problem here is not the quality of the story, but the manner in which it is incorporated into the gameplay. After skipping over countless cut scenes so I could get to the action, I slowly began to regard plot in GTA IV as being something akin to the Clinton marriage: why do they bother with the charade? Is there anyone in this country who honestly thinks these two people still sleep in the same bed?

After all the incredible advances in their game engine, why does Rockstar insist on making its story an accessory -- a needless, comparatively inferior element? More to the point, how did narrative become such a side bar to the real point of gaming, i.e. our ability to play out our deepest fantasies in a virtual world?

I found myself nodding in agreement at the start, but then wincing at some old, overworn ideas as his essay continues. By the time the essay starts to near the end, Marks is returning to the same old obvious claims that many game writers wind up making:

We need to stop thinking about story as a device to make us care about the gameplay (it doesn't), and start thinking about the gameplay as the narrative itself (thus, making us care). Now that the technology has finally reached a breaking point, a place where we can genuinely craft sophisticated worlds, we have to understand that plot is not forced upon those worlds artificially, but grown from our interactions within their environments.

Story design needs to be less checkpoint-focused and more focused on implementing a meta structure that makes us believe we are shaping events with our choices, even if these choices have already been made for us.

The "story on rails" has now been exposed. Game engines are strong enough that we can see the seams in the narrative fabric. It's no longer acceptable that we can take our girlfriend on a date and never once have her mention the fact that we're carrying a missile launcher by our side. We need to believe our actions have consequences within the virtual universe and that the experiences we are living are wholly unique, even if they aren't.

This is all very, very old news. His assertions and observations are fair enough, except that like all generalizations, when extended out to encompass everything it falters and fails. The truth of the matter is that in some games, having the interactive bits lead to stories on rails works very well. His timing for this assertion is especially unfortunate given the relatively recent rumors that Metal Gear Solid 4 will have 90-minute cutscenes. I'd be willing to bet that the people who have stuck by Hideo Kojima so far are more than happy to sit back and watch as his "story on rails" unfolds – which illustrates my contention that the issue isn't with stories on rails, it's with bad stories on rails.

I for one love a great story on rails, as evidenced by the number of Final Fantasy games on my shelf, but I have little to no patience with bad stories on rails, which is why after playing Lost Odyssey for a couple of hours I flatly lost interest. The game had some interesting premises, to be sure, but it squandered them way too quickly. Lately I've been anxiously awaiting MGS4 even though I haven't played through the first three, opting instead to catch up through the excellent video retrospective series being offered up by GameTrailers. It's cheaper, sure, but more to the point it takes up much less time – although I never use Cliffs Notes for books and still largely resist using hintbooks for games, when presented with the option to get caught up on the Meta Gear story through these summaries instead of playing through 100-plus hours of gameplay, the decision was an unfortunate no-brainer. I don't know about you guys, but I don't have that kind of time.

I still think that the best way to handle interactive narrative in games is to treat it like a series of rubber bands strung between nails – the key plot points are fixed (what Marks refers to as 'checkpoints') but the manner by which you arrive at those points is flexible. This is the philosophy you often find deployed in games with lots of side quests or mini games – they improve the quality and the duration of the game, but they still remain optional. I'm not a big fan of sandbox games for many of the same reasons cited by Marks, but I remain skeptical that the Crawfordesque, Holodeck-esque model that he's wishing for will ever be a realistic scenario.

What I want is the opposite of Marks' prescription: I think game writers should write better stories and work with the game designers to develop better game mechanics to mesh with the narratives. Despite the frequent claim (that Marks himself makes near the end) that "the game industry is not the interactive little brother of cinema", I still kind myself marveling at how easily these types of claims map onto criticisms of film. People that claim that narratives in games should take a backseat to gameplay strike me as characters that claim that narratives in film should take a backseat to cinematography. It's a short-sighted, tunnel-vision type of claim – because X is what media form Y does uniquely and independently, then all instances of media form Y should focus almost exclusively on X. It's a bad model and a rotten philosophy: many films do okay with an iffy story and spectacular cinematography, and many films do okay with an amazing story and mediocre cinematography. It's the ones that do both brilliantly that truly prove themselves memorable.

I think that the proper first step is to determine what kind of experience you're trying to produce when everything is said and done. This will allow you to start deciding what type of narrative experience or gameplay experience is best for what you're trying to create, and then to develop an appropriately matching narrative or gameplay right along with it in an organic, intelligent fashion. Let the ratio of gameplay to narrative – and the ratio of interactivity to 'rails' – be determined not by your media type but by the type of experience you're trying to create. Just like with narrative and cinematography in films, an ideal blend of gameplay and narrative is the holy grail – but what that ideal blend happens to be depends wholly on what your desired end experience happens to be. There's room enough in an entire media type for a wide range of experiences and ratios. Just because you don't happen to like games with stories on rails doesn't mean that they shouldn't exist. I think that to assert, as Marks does, that we should "stop writing high-minded stories. Start writing games. And let the stories grow from them", is way too one-sided and, frankly, way too simple-minded.

(Update: Kojima Productions has since issued a correction to the rumors, stating that there are no 90-minute cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4. Still, I think my original argument stands – MGS is a solid (no pun intended) example of a linear story that unfolds through interactions with the player, and since it has enough fans to bring Amazon.com crashing to its knees when it goes on presale, well, then, I still say Marks' insistence on Western-style nonlinear narratives is overreaching at best.)

Jonathan Gray and the paperless conference.

My friend and fellow media scholar Jonathan Gray has an interesting post up on his blog, The Extratextuals, about the idea of paperless conferences:

ICA is at a good time of the year to make sure that lots of people can attend, but at an awful time for facilitating the process of actually paying attention to papers. By the end of May, I'm simply burnt out. So this year I went in with a new strategy. I had signed up for the pre-conference on Production Studies, which tied me down to a day of panels. And I was on another four - one paper, one workshop, one chair, one respondent. So I decided that that was it. The rest of the conference would be social.

Such is the oddity of conference paper presentations that I'm convinced I learnt more, discussed more, and was asked to think about more as a result of adopting this strategy. The pre-conference was excellent, if a little paper heavy and discussion light. And my panels had good material - Melissa Click, Nina Huntemann, and Cornel Sandvoss provided a strong, really interesting panel on flow and overflow; Megan Boler, Andrea Schmidt, Catherine Burwell, and Alessandra Renzi had a good panel on digital dissent; reliably, Avi Santo and Jeffrey Jones presented good papers on animated satire, and the Unboxing Television workshop with Amanda Lotz, Joshua Green, Laurie Ouellette, Aswin Punathambekar, John McMurria, Vicki Mayer, and myself worked very well, I thought, providing plenty of smart commentary on the state of television and television studies.

But many of the better interactions with ideas happened over meals, drinks, coffee, or simply sitting outside conference rooms.

I haven't made it to ICA yet, but it sounds like it should be on my calendar. As I noted in the comments:

I think this is also a practice adopted by people once they've attended a given conference a certain number of times. I know my friends at South by Southwest and the Game Developers' Conference all attend a small handful of panels and then disappear the rest of the time to reconnect with old friends, bounce ideas back and forth and take the temperature of the rest of the industry. Folks who are attending the conference for the first time hit panel after panel, meeting people afterwards and making some connections, but I think that first year or two are panel-centric as a form of orientation.

I suspect my ITRA experience in Greece will be a panel-heavy one, unless Laura and I decide to sneak out for part of it to go sightseeing. What can I say? There's a downside of having your conference in such interesting places.


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Where to begin?

The last week has been an absolute blur. There are many, many things I should be posting about, but much of it is simply too big to fully report, so I'll take a stab at some of the general stuff here.

First of all, the Julius Schwartz lecture was an amazing success. We sold out a 1200-seat lecture hall (minus some seats for cameras and so on), the evening went off more or less without a hitch, and we think we'll have made enough revenue back to do it again next year. (We'll know for sure after we get the DVDs mastered and up on the site for sale. I'll post here when it happens -- please order one!) I spent an amazing day with one of my heroes, got to hold an advance reader's copy of his next book (he offered me the chance to read it, but alas, I was running around working all day) and even made the opening and closing speeches for the event. It was, in every sense of the word, fantastic. I can't wait for next year.

In addition to the awesomeness that was the event itself, my friends Nick and Aaron (and Aaron's new [to me] girlfriend Kara) flew into town to help with the event. That was just as big a kick to me as the event itself. I only got to hang out with Aaron and Kara briefly, but having them in town was incredibly fun. We played Rock Band and Mario Kart Wii for hours, visited many of my favorite bookstores and restaurants in town, and had a chance to catch up in general. I love these guys. I wish they could be around all the time.

The day after the lecture, Laura and Nick and I flew back to Ohio so Laura and I could visit with our families. Laura's mom underwent hip replacement surgery earlier in the month, so we wanted to see how she was doing, and I had some personal research I wanted to conduct as well. My mom and I took a day trip down to Columbus, where we went to catch the new exhibit at the Wexner Center, Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond, which was a treat for both of us since Bone was something we'd both enjoyed while it was being published. We also paid visits to several of my regular haunts, where I loaded up on a number of really great books, including a copy of the anthology of Russian folktales that is constantly referenced in Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale, which was a great find. Over the next couple of days, I hung out in Wooster, checked out Nick's new library (covet covet) sketched out some ideas and generally caught up on my sleep.

Once we were back in Boston, the rest of the week was spent prepping for the GAMBIT summer program and postmortem'ing the Julius Schwartz lecture. And then, the next thing I knew, it was time for another weekend. This weekend I finished recharging my batteries, which was a godsend. We did a quick grocery run to Whole Foods on Friday, where we picked up food for the weekend, and then bunkered down. On Saturday I caught up on the contents of my DVR, including the season finale of Lost and the last two episodes of Doctor Who, then watched a double feature of Appleseed: Ex Machina and Ghost Rider, which wasn't great but also wasn't anywhere near as bad as I'd been led to expect. Today, I spent the day doing laundry, hanging the last of our newly-framed prints from Japan, plotting out next month's trip to Greece for the ITRA conference and reading, primarily a few of the stories in Kelly Link's brilliant Magic for Beginners and the first little bit of Pollard and Reid's The Rise and Fall of Alexandria. Link's work, which was recommended to me by my friend Shannon a long time ago, is leading me on to explore a handful of anthologies in which her work appears, as well as the work of a network of her peers. I'm thoroughly enjoying reading up on Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford, Kim Newman, Delia Sherman, and Ekaterina Sedia, all of whom I'd seen mentioned on Neil Gaiman's blog but had not previously had the time to experience myself. Getting to do so now is like getting handed the keys to a clubhouse, or at the very least being shown where the cool kids' table happens to be, if not being invited to join them. One of the biggest joys of the last year or so has been finding my way to this point, rediscovering the kinds of writing I like to read and now finding that there are more people writing in this vein than I'd ever hoped.

The only down points of this last little whlie was getting snaked out of the very last copy of Wii Fit at Best Buy this morning, but that's okay – I'm still catching up on tons of other stuff anyway, and on my way to the store I caught the tail end of an interview on NPR with my mentor Henry Jenkins, which was a very cool thing to stumble across on the radio. More depressing this week were the passing of Sydney Pollack (whom, although I'd never met him, I liked immensely from his 2005 Sketches of Frank Gehry), the closure of GameTap's editorial sections, the unexpected (and horribly untimely) passing of Erlene Zierke, and, although it can't compare in scope to the passing of two wonderful people, the intensely painful closure of the Journal of Mythic Arts. Some great things happened as well this week too, including the launch of Delicious Library 2.0, a multi-part interview between Henry Jenkins and transmedia creator Jeff Gomez (part one, part two, and a follow-up); the announcement of Steven Moffat's succession to Russell Davies' throne on Doctor Who and Derek blogged about one of my usual areas of concern (okay, those last two were last week, but I was busy).

All in all, a very, very solid week and I'm heading into next week recharged and refreshed, which is good since we still have a bunch to do before the Singaporean students show up a week from today. Wish us luck!


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