The Crushing Banality of Everyday Life

I should probably be reading a book or spending time with my kid.

Doris Review

I reviewed Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris on RapReviews a few weeks back. His delivery and the beats are too downbeat for me to get really excited about this, but he is an impressive lyricist and there are some good songs on this disc, including “Chum”:

 

Ms. Male

The latest in Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes Vs. Women” is up now at Feminist Frequency. She describes the Ms. Male character as:

A female version of an already established or default male character. Ms. Male Characters are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterparts via their visual properties, their narrative connection or occasionally through promotional materials. 

Rather than do a lengthy dissection of the parts of her argument that I disagree with, I want to highlight the important take-away I got from the video: in video games, and much of media, male is the default. She gives the example of adding female birds to “Angry Birds,” which had the effect of making all the other characters male. All too often in media, women are defined by their gender and drawn to conform to gender stereotypes. The problem isn’t so much with having girly girls in games or TV or movies, but in the fact that almost all girls are girly girls, and very few female characters get to be defined by anything but their gender. Sarkeesian illustrates that point very well, and it was eye-opening for me.

As always, however, I had issues with the tone of the video and the overly academic approach to games criticism. There’s very little in the video that puts the gender stereotypes in context of other media of the time.

A someone who recently had a baby girl, I was put off by Sarkeesian’s outrage at pink being a signifier for femininity.

“Now just to be clear, there’s no inherent problem with the color pink, makeup, bows or high heels as design elements on their own. And of course people of all genders may choose to wear any of them from time to time in the real world and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that either (emphasis mine).”

Pink, lipstick, bows and heels are almost universally feminine. There are very, very few instances of masculine use of lipstick, bows, and heels (at least since the 19th century). If you go to a drag show, you see a whole lot of lipstick and heels. Most of the male-to-female transgendered people I know wear some combination of the above because they know it reads as female. It is either disingenuous or out of touch to act like lipstick and heels are not feminine identifiers. I get that many women don’t wear any combination of the above, and that there is an issue with women in media always being identified as extremely feminine, but to knock video games for using identifiers that are universally accepted to read female seems unfair.

Hunters, Joana Gruesome, and Cate Le Bon

First off, I’ve decided to combine my music writing with my video game writing. I hope this doesn’t confuse anyone. If it does, I’m sorry. Yay for you for having so little else in your life to worry about.

I write about hip-hop for RapReviews, but I’ve been in a bit of a funk, hip-hop-wise as of late. Yesterday I spent a chunk of time listening to new releases by Tanya Morgan, Billy Woods, Rocky Rivera, and Freddie Gibbs. None of it did anything for me. I tend to go in cycles with music, and for the last few weeks I’ve had little interest in hip-hop. What I have been excited about is some of the poppy, punky indie rock I’ve been hearing.

The Hunters self-titled album got a harsh review in Pitchfork. There is obviously something personal going on between the reviewer and the band – maybe he hates the kind of music they make, maybe he’s seen one too many half-assed punk bands, maybe he heard too much hype about the band. Whatever the case, he was very ungenerous in his review, so much so that I had to hear how shitty this band was. And instead, I really love the record. It’s  led by a couple whose dual vocals add a lot to the band. They are loud but melodic not unlike Nirvana or Wavves, with occasional cheerleading barks like Sleigh Bells, and bouts of Sonic Youth-like noise. Are they the next big thing? Maybe not, but I really enjoy what they do.

I am also enjoying Joanna Gruesome’s debut. They are a poppy punk band from the UK who mix Lush-like female vocals with some angry punk. It sounds like something I would have loved in 1992.

Finally, I’m loving Welsh singer/songwriter Cate Le Bon’s latest album, Mug Museum. It’s sort of like a twisted take on sixties folk pop.

Progress and Experience

One of my favorite games this year has been the Tomb Raider reboot. Part of the reason that I loved it so much is that it completely nailed experience points. You get experience points by way of actual experience points and salvage points for not only killing enemies but exploring. The game invites you to explore, to find every last crate and GPS tracker, and does so by rewarding you with better weapons and abilities. It is one of the reasons why I  couldn’t stop playing it: I had to keep getting more salvage points to upgrade my weapons and more experience to upgrade my skills so that I could see how it played out in actual gameplay. Far Cry 3 does a similar thing where they encourage you to find all the artifacts and letters and free outposts as stealthily as possible in order to get experience points. These can be used to upgrade skills that can significantly affect how you play the game. 

Compare this to Bioshock Infinite. Infinite doesn’t have an experience system. Instead, you find vigors and weapons, and upgrade them by finding enough money to buy upgrades, and finding enough lock picks to open up rooms and safes that have money and equipment. Although you are basically swapping silver eagles for experience points, the process is much less satisfying. It’s not as much fun to search every crate to get five more dollars to go towards buying a $1,200 vigor upgrade. Buying a weapon upgrade feels less satisfying than building a better shotgun ala Tomb Raider or building better gear ala Far Cry 3. Instead of feeling like you’ve gained skills or actually earned anything, you feel like you just happened to have enough money. If there were a millionaire character, s/he could totally max out everything all at once without searching a single crate. It also makes killing enemies pointless beyond getting them out of the way. 

I love Bioshock Infinite, but I do wish the upgrading system had been done in a different way. As it is, it feels as mercenary and meritless as the false utopia of Columbia.

Bioshock Infinite

I started playing Bioshock Infinite this weekend. I made my wife watch the opening sequence in an effort to get her to understand why I love games so much. It is a gorgeous and gorgeously realized game. The graphics are amazing, not because they are so photorealistic, but because they capture the look and feel of early 20th century art and architecture. I like it better than the original Bioshock because it is a little less claustrophobic, scary, and confusing. Not to knock Bioshock, but it creeped me out to no end, and I ended up getting sort of lost about halfway through. And then my save game got deleted and I haven’t restarted it.

 

Anyways, where Bioshock examined an underwater failed utopia built around Ayn Rand’s ideology, Infinite looks at a city in the sky based on ideas of religious and ethnic purity. There is a lot of racist imagery in the game as blacks and the Irish are treated like subhumans. sometimes this is a little too on the nose (signs advising black staff to respect their betters), but most of it is pretty much in keeping with a lot of the prevailing ideas of the time. Like many a bright-eyed young history major, I studied the Holocaust as a grad student, and I was shocked to learn that many of Hitler’s racist ideas came from the U.S. Phrenology and eugenics were popular ideas in the states around the turn of the century and well into the twenties. Plus, the racial politics of 1912 Columbia are still reflected in some of the right wing rhetoric of 2013 – lazy brown people and immigrants who are taking our jobs and expecting handouts.

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Some people have complained about the amount of violence in the game, the fact that the beautiful art direction and sophisticated story is but a mere backdrop to lots of head-bashing and killing. it’s true that Infinite is very violent, but then it is a first person shooter. I do think there is room to examine issues of racism and America’s uncomfortable history with it in a non-violent game, but Ken Levine’s thing has always been to make action games that also make you think. It’s the equivalent of an action movie that has deeper subtext going on. Yeah, you still have the explosions and car chases, but you also get to think a little while enjoying the visceral elements. Or in Infinite’s case, the viscera moments, cuz man is it gory. If Levine had a made a cerebral game examining racial politics, it may have been less jarring in its combination of gameplay and philosophy, but it also would have been played by a fraction of the people. As it is, he has a triple a title that is going to make people think about racism and its role in U.S. history. People who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that kind of stuff. It’s hard to hate on that. The point isn’t that it is just a game, the point is that it IS a game, and by being a game that uses a very common and popular gameplay mechanic (ie shooting hoards of bad guys in the face), it is allowed to be a larger, more relevant cultural artifact than if it were made solely for those interested in a more intellectual or artistic endeavor.

Nudity

I was playing Far Cry 3 when I reached a cut scene where you have sex with one of the female characters. She appears topless, her breasts painted but uncovered.maxresdefault

At first I was like, holy cow! I was really shocked. It is literally the first time I have seen a topless woman in a video game. And then I thought, “why am I shocked by a topless woman, but not by the hundreds of pirates I have stabbed through the throat, shot in the head, or set on fire throughout the course of the game?” It’s bizarre to me that nudity is a no-no in video games but graphic violence is ok. 100% of people playing a video game have seen a woman topless, or will see a woman topless in their lifetime. Hopefully very few people playing video games will see someone stabbed in the throat, dismembered, shot in the head, or otherwise brutalized. Boobs are used to feed human babies. They have an actual functional purpose. But no, if our kids see sexy images in a game, it might irreparably harm them. But violence? No biggie.

GTA V

I bought GTA V the day it came out. It’s the first time I have ever bought a game on the day it came out since Sonic Tuesday in 1992. I traded in Saint’s Row the Third for my copy, but still ended up paying over fifty bucks for it. I got home, loaded it up, and excitedly started to play it. And after a few hours, I left it aside and went back to Far Cry 3. 

 

The problem with GTA V is the same problem with all of the GTA games: the gaming mechanics aren’t always that much fun. In the early missions you do a whole lot of drive here and pick up this. Which means you are essentially commuting in L.A. traffic in a video game. That’s not my idea of a great time. Then there are the cop chases. I have never enjoyed running from the cops in GTA games. It is just not a fun thing to do. Whenever I can, I use a cheat to reduce my wanted level to zero. I don’t get the appeal of having to try to drive away while cars that vastly overpower yours ram into you.

The game also relentlessly pushes buttons. There are so many N bombs that it makes me, who listens to tons of explicit rap music, uncomfortable. It’s like South Park in that it is a big offensive satire of everything, and tries to have its cake and eat it to. It’s ok to be super sexist if you are making fun of sexism, right? It’s ok to be racist if you are making fun of racism. And it’s ok to have a torture scene where the player has to torture someone, right? Cuz that’s edgy, yah? 

Whatever. The game looks pretty and it is fun driving around the fake L.A., but playing it has reminded me why I have owned every GTA game since GTA 3, but finished none of them.

Far Cry 3

Just when I got done obsessing over Tomb Raider 3, I had to go and find Far Cry 3 on sale for cheap. I played about an hour of Far Cry 2 but soon got bored by how involved and tedious it was. Far Cry 3 is less sim-like, and what it loses in annoying realism it gains in playability. Simply put, the game is a blast, at least for a while. They set up several different activities  to do that all give you different types of gameplay experience as well as different benefits in the game. Hunting animals, for example, allows you to craft items so you can carry more weapons and ammo. Climbing towers opens up maps. Defeating enemy camps removes enemies from the area, making it easier to get around, and opens up side quests which provide experience points and  rare crafting items. This is done so well that I was addicted to the game, playing every chance I could so that I could liberate one more area or kill one more shark to get a bigger pack. 

The experience point system also encourages you to explore and play the game a certain way. You get three times the experience for stealth kills and stealth liberations of areas, which incentivizes you tread carefully rather than going in guns blazing. That’s a good thing, because going in guns blazing is a quick way to get killed. 

However, ten hours in, the thrill is started to wear off. I’ve had several enemy camp liberations go cockeyed because of the tricky aiming mechanic on the sniper rifle, or because the enemy sensed me when I thought I was hidden. And after finishing just under half the missions and liberating a third of the map, I realize it’s a lot of the same old wash rinse repeat. There is something frustrating about opening up a chunk of the map only to realize you have to do the same thing ten more times. Now that I’ve crafted most of the items, hunting is less compelling. Now that I’ve unlocked several key skills, farming experience points is less compelling. So I’ve put the game aside for now, although I may get sucked back into it in the near future.

Ready Player One

I just finished Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One.  If you don’t know the story, it’s about a post-apocolyptic future in which the earth is an overcrowded hellhole and everyone escapes by playing an immersive online video game/virtual reality, which is sort of like Second Life meets WoW. The creator of this world, called OASIS, has left an Easter Egg hidden in the world that will grant whoever finds it ownership of OASIS and his entire fortune. Our hero is a gunter named Wade/Parzival, gunter being the name for the online treasure hunters. The catch is all of the riddles that lead to the easter egg are based on 80s pop culture. There is a level based after a D&D module, one based on WarGames, and references to Joust, Schoolhouse Rock!, Pac-Man, and Japanese anime and monster movies. 

The book got a lot of praise when it came out. People loved the world Cline created, and most people enjoyed the 80s references. The only knock on the book I saw was from people who got bored of the references or found them distracting.

I enjoyed the world as well, and I sped through the book because I enjoyed the story so much. The wonderful thing about setting a story in virtual reality is that you can do whatever you want, and create all sorts of magical items. The book does have one glaring flaw, however: the writing. It is terribly written. Really. The writing is simplistic, as if it is geared towards a young adult audience. There is wayyyy too much exposition of everything, and nothing is allowed to happen organically. Everything is spelled out and explained. Some of this might be so that non-gamers can get all the video game references, but it is still done clumsily. And the dialogue is often really lame. I’m not a huge book snob, but I was surprised at the writing, since the book got so many rave reviews. I almost stopped reading it several times because of the endless explanations about what every term meant. The story is fun, and in the end I enjoyed reading it, but I wish it were better.

Is This Real or Just a Fantasy?

I never read fantasy books until I had my daughter. From the time I was able to read, I’ve loved mysteries. I love the puzzles of mysteries, trying to figure out whodunnit and how. I also love how they explore the seamy side of life. My favorite authors are Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, two men who were experts and cynically exposing the underbelly of L.A. I always thought of fantasy books as the realm of nerds and misfits, people who couldn’t deal with reality. Why would I want to spend so much time and energy in artificial worlds?

My gateway drug was the Harry Potter series. During it’s initial run in the late nineties I studiously avoided any and all things Potterdom, as I usually avoid anything popular. By 2012, the hype around Harry Potter had died down enough that I decided to finally investigate the series. I decided to read the series in Italian, figuring correctly that since it was written for sixth-graders, it would be right about my level of Italian, and since it was translated from English, the tricky Italian idioms that I have trouble understanding wouldn’t be present. I loved the book and quickly went through the whole series, which is available for free to Amazon Prime members via their Kindle Lending Library. 

When my daughter was born in February of this year, I found that I no longer had a taste for reading about the seamy side of modern life. To quote David St. Hubbins, I had too much fucking perspective. I was up in the middle of the night with a little bundle of cartilage that seemed like the most fragile thing in the world. My life changed drastically, which a whole new set of worries and responsibilities, and what I needed was an escape. And thus I turned to fantasy. 

I started slow, with a novel based on Dragon Age, which I was playing at the time. I enjoyed that, as hokey as it was, so I tried Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. It was a little dated and slow, so I haven’t finished it, but I did read the first two Song of Fire and Ice books, and am working on the third. Those books are incredibly well-written, but also incredibly grim and complex, so I have to take them in small doses, no easy feat given that they are each 1000 pages long. The series I’ve loved the best so far is Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria series. He self-published six books, which were later grouped into three long books. I’m towards the end of the second book, and really enjoying it. It’s much lighter and faster moving than George R.R. Martin’s books, which makes up for the occasional clumsy prose or shallow characterization. 

What I love about fantasy books is that they have NO BEARING on my present life. I used to like science fiction, but even that feels a little too close to home, what with technology and dystopias yada yada. But hearing about elves and pirates and swordfights? Bring it on. I get enough reality on a daily basis.