Friday, October 3, 2008

More Ranting

*I varied up the method this time. Wrote this in chunks, pieced them together, and revised the piece a few times. I'm not sure if I consider it a better method...I'm going to stew on the next one of these for a while.*

I’ve always felt bad for writers that were ahead of their time. Take William Blake. Great poet, puts Joyce to shame on a lot of levels. Helluva painter too. The dude invented an entire mythos that incorporated the author, the epic journey, prophecy, the apocalypse, a figure of love and a demonic god of order. You know how many centuries went by before another artist had the balls to create a genuine modern fantasy? Not set in present day, I mean advance the medium in terms of the philosophical next step after Tolkein. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He did the same thing as Blake, right down to his earlier books alluding to it until he finally organized it into an entire epic fantasy. True, Blake’s books don’t really make sense except to the author himself, but what the hell. And the Dark Tower series is a perfect, refined, and comprehendible version of Blake’s original vision. Which, in contrast to Lester Bangs, is quite interesting. One, it proposes that a person could potentially be writing ahead of a “correct” time. King wrote that epic at the proper time, Blake did not. Two, that implies that a person could be potentially writing in a style both behind their time and at precisely the right time. I’ll give one thing to Bangs, he was writing at just the right moment.

There was a really interesting NPR piece the other day talking about how video games might be this generation’s nickel dime theater. That was considered a cheap and fun placebo back in the day for people suffering through the Great Depression. With ten and fifteen dollar video games blowing up on consoles and Captain Obvious finally kicking down the door at Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony, people are now realizing that downloadable indie games are way more interesting and fun than AAA, highly controlled, and super expensive games. I’m not saying those games are bad, I love my console and play on it plenty. But you gotta admit, at least ONE indie game has really gotten you excited this year. I bought Audiosurf after playing one song on the demo. I still fire it up. Man, it has been freaking ages since I bought something that stone cold. Same with Everyday Shooter, Wadjet Eye adventure games, Immortal Defense (PLAY THIS GAME, GOOGLE IT, THE DEMO IS FREE) and Braid. Did not bat an eye at dropping a couple of bucks for something that was hot and new. I even remember the first indie game I downloaded. It was waaaay back in 2006, it was Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. I still play it. It’s basically what would happen if Master of Orion and Solitaire had a baby, and if that sounds awesome that’s because it is. A ten minute round of Master of Orion is the ultimate way to kill time. Believe me. Plus there’s user mods.

Which reminds me, ya’ll are going to need agents to handle this stuff. It’s rockstar time folks, it’s famous writers time. The age of the auteur is upon us once again and I, for one, am excited. The economy is about to eat shit and if you’re like me you stopped talking to your stock broker and started begging random strangers for jobs. You need a distraction from all this. A lot of people are going to need distractions from all this. And that means making interesting and fun games. That means selling that stuff to distributors who own consoles or websites that have a lot of members. That means licensing, contracts, that means the boring stuff I do all day. I have a friend who used to be an agent for an L.A. firm, he has this ridiculous Keifer Sutherland story but I’m finding out these are pretty normal, anyways. I asked him what the agent business was like. I’d watched Entourage a few times and thought it looked interesting. He said the only downside to being an agent is that you have to live in L.A. I’m inclined to agree with that sentiment, since the last time I was in that city I felt like my skin was on fire metaphysically. But who knows, maybe they’ll setup something in North Carolina, there’s some kind of job conference going on in November. I’ll have the law degree in 1.6 years and counting. I’ve been reviewing games long enough that I know when something is badass and when it’s just another game. I could spot a blow-up project before the actual blowing up part. Hell, I was writing about video games like there was a stick shoved up my ass way before it was cool. Well, 2 years ago, so I guess about 5 minutes before it got cool, but whatever. That was actually back when I decided to start calling myself L.B. Jeffries and write about video games the way I wish other people would write about them.

Lets see...that's actually an interesting story. The name came from a course on pseudonym culture in the 18th and 19th century I was teaching. It was fairly common for people to write under fake names to protect their identity and careers in case their book or poem offended people. Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders of America used them to communicate their ideas. George Orwell was a fake name used to write against fascism. And each one has a special symbolic meaning as well. Mark Twain, for example, is the river boat term for when a steamship is at neutral depth: the boat is neither safe nor in danger, any changes in depth could be good or bad. It ended up becoming something of a motto for Samuel Clemens as he used the name Mark Twain to write a wide array of satires and stories.

Anywho, L.B. Jeffries was one of the names I told the class would be a brilliant fake name because of its loaded meanings. On the surface it's a reference to a famous Alfred Hitchcock film. The character himself is a voyeur, a person who is inhibited from participating in the very culture he observes and comments on. I'd decided to start using a fake name when I made the decision to go to law school just to avoid any bad drama that might happen (this was 2 years ago when gamers were falling under a very critical lense). After I got in, I'd already been writing under that name for a while and it seemed like too much trouble to correct it. The more progress I make with being a game critic though...the more it seems like an apt analogy for me. I'm not much of a game journalist and I'm generally more interested in older games than new ones. It's an odd sales pitch for any writer to make in this field, but at least the name accounts for me somewhat. I try to spend time focusing on the elements of game culture that don’t get mentioned too often though, like machinima or an interview with a video ranter that’s coming up soon.

Which brings me to the point of this rant. Honestly, I think this is what Jackson Pollock must’ve felt like when he was splattering crap all over a blank canvas. I try to lock it down into a coherent message but my capacity to just babble when I take the leash off is sorta becoming a theme in of itself. One of the realities about this medium’s problems with intellectual discourse: it can seem like it’s all just about violence. I was reading that several groups have begun complaining about the latest GTA DS game as being irresponsible and crude because it has a drug dealing game. There’s two problems with that statement. One, it presumes that the only people who play video games are children and two, it is judging the game like you would a book or film. Now I highly doubt any profound or even-handed commentary on drugs is going to occur, this isn’t The Wire we’re talking about here. But I can rattle off dozens of movies that depicted drugs, from Bad Boys 2 to the fantastic Big Lebowski. And people back off because it has an R rating and it’s presumed adults are mostly going to be the ones watching it. But video games? Oh no, these assholes still presume nothing but kids play these things. There’s an age rating on there for a reason. And the thing about when an adult is playing GTA as opposed to a child is that it isn’t about violence anymore. It’s about competition. The game isn’t making a statement about drug dealing, it’s acting like mirror and showing the player how he’d behave when given those options in an unrealistic setting. It’s not a matter of “what’s my take on drugs” but rather “these are your options to succeed in this scenario”. Contrast that to an FPS game. Blasting people on Call of Duty 4 is the enjoyment of skill in an online match through a mock-up of modern warfare, not a celebration of shooting people. I realize there’s an inherent contradiction in this argument but you’re not going to see why that’s mostly superficial unless you play a game that actually is about violence. Take the Manhunt series. That’s about violence, that’s a disturbing celebration of torture and hurting people. It’s a horror game mind you, except in the end you find out that you’re the monster. It also makes some disturbing allusions to the overlap between sexual pornography and the violence porn going on in the game. But then, we’re back at Tom Wolfe’s point about inhibited cultural vices becoming our outlet. For most people? We’re going to be working tough jobs or feeling incredibly worthless while we wait in the unemployment line. That means that the sensation we’re all going to be craving is accomplishment, fulfillment. The idea that we’re good at something. You think World of Warcraft is some kind of a fluke? A game where anybody can become one of the most powerful players and become an integral member of a team no matter what? Yeah…keep laughing at the symptom and ignoring the cause.

Which even raises the question of whether that’s actually a problem. It beats the pissing matches and wars people get into when they get to feeling unfulfilled. One of the blog novels is actually about this. I had this weird idea occur to me while I was watching the Matrix years ago that it would technically be stupid for the machines to have this giant war. This giant lie. People would do it voluntarily and then you could subjugate the race peacefully. I went into a lot of different stuff with the story, it’s about a guy being banned from his online game and trying to find identity in other virtual worlds and eventually reality. It’s pretty depressing, come to think of it most of those blog novels are, and I also made the photo comics really vulgar to create a duality that I thought existed in a lot of gamer culture. You have this guy cussing you out on Xbox Live but underneath that is this massive, insecure story. It’s a parody of Brave New World, ergo the whole Brave New Console title, with the rather sad observation that the human spirit itself will become a console. A place to install games that become us. It was meant to be my take on a dystopian future where the only place people can find personal meaning and identity is controlled by giant super A.I. but…as one generous friend who read the whole thing commented, “I’m scared to even watch T.V. after reading that goddamn thing”.

But enough of that sad bastard stuff, this is about Lester Bangs, video games, my generation, his generation, why people love games, why they loved rock ‘n’ roll, and the lewd reminder that I’d love a job if anyone is hiring. The best essay I’ve read so far (I’m about 100 pages from done) was about the Stooges. It helps that I’m an enormous fan of the band. It’s…odd though, Bangs is actually really hard to quote. All of his stuff works in such conjunction with the other elements that clipping out an individual sentence renders it incoherent, it is a part of a sum total as opposed to independent units. That’s something I don’t think I quite manage when I’m doing this stuff, my brain operates in clips and individual notions being combined. Bangs…maybe through a combination of speed and booze, is able to sustain one gigantic thought with the individual images and analogies acting subservient instead of as city-states like mine do. I could push myself harder but…I’ve always been fond of adapting oneself to their surroundings instead of changing oneself. Mostly because I don’t think it’s possible to change who you are, but that’s another story. The Stooges essay is amazing because Bangs makes the argument for simplicity as a good thing. Now to me, I take this concept for granted. I just assume everyone knows that punk is as legit as classic rock provided it still communicates a good message. So…there was a period of time where someone had to sit down and say, “Hey, this music is still badass.”? Geez, it makes you wonder what people in twenty or thirty years are going to be scratching their heads at. Probably the console wars, if I had to guess, but that goes back to my theory about downloadable content.

Or maybe they’ll be busy talking about Black Monday round 2. Christ, I read that the run they made on Wachovia, the actual assets of that bank in terms of how much money they had in accounts, was 1.2 billion. It was eventually purchased for 2 billion. WACHOVIA. Freaking Wachovia. I don’t even know why I read this stuff anymore. Did I mention I’d kill for a job? Seriously, I’ll work for anyone this summer. Moving is not a problem. I’ve lived in New York, I’ve lived in California, Utah, Vermont, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Now if I got to have all my wishes come true I’d love to live in the Appalachian Mountains. If I make it to retirement age (what is that now? 75?) that’s where I plan on pulling my final act. But that’s ages from now and I think of it more as a goal than I do some kind of living requirement. Get to a point where I can go live in the mountains and do fulfilling work out there as opposed to whatever city or obscure town I have to cut a living on. Besides, one of the toughest lessons any person has to learn in life is that the people are what make the place, not the place itself. The friends and relatives who inhabit a room, the way jokes bounce off them, off you, the topics you love to talk about again and again. That only exists once, that song only plays when just the right instruments, room, people all come together. You can’t force it, and you can only make so many solo albums before it gets sad.

Which is one of the things that really make the Wii so interesting to me. Take the guy bitching about GTA on the DS. That console exists and he’s probably going to play it. He’s going to have to say he played a video game and had fun (how can you not?). I remember Cliffy B once calling the Wii a virus full of games that got old eventually and laughing my ass off. He kept phrasing it like this was a bad thing and to me, it sounded brilliant. Of course the damn games get old, we’ve learned how to play simple concept games and enjoy more advanced stuff. Like Gears of War, for example. This dude Maelstrom wrote a really good essay about how people didn’t really comprehend what a casual game actually was. It’s the modern day equivalent of Pong. Think about the games you first played, the ones you learned how to play before going on to more advanced stuff. They have 2 distinct elements: they were fun and they were quick to learn. Pong is quick to learn. Mario Brothers is quick to learn. They’re also really well designed and fun games. The point of a casual game isn’t to make things easier, it’s to make intermediate and low skill games for people to learn how to play on. You want to know why beginners don’t like playing Xbox360? Because most of those games are complex as hell. What’s an inventory, how do I crouch, what’s run, whoops dead. How do I reload, what’s the sniper rifle, oops dead. It’s a great game once you’re competent at gaming but you’ve got to cut people some slack and give them something with freaking training wheels to start on. That’s why Nintendo cleaned house this generation. They featured the gaming equivalent of Super Mario Brothers in Wii Sports, made a controller that can be used for both really complex games or be reduced to very simple ones, and found out that millions of people REALLY want to play video games but they’re too hard. You can’t expect someone to read a complex author before they’ve read simpler fare.

That’s why I wrote “This Console Kills Fascists” on my Wii. It’s a reference to Woody Guthrie, who wrote it on his guitar while he was singing folk music during the Depression. Given the recession we’re about to dive into, it seemed appropriate to me. But it’s also a protest against people bitching about the little white box. Why the Hell should video games all conform to some pre-defined cultural notion? The people who bitch about the Wii being just for kids or casual games are just as bad as the people who think GTA for DS having drug dealing subsets is a bad thing. You’re making the exact same assumption, you’re believing in the exact same principle. Video games are about this and anything that falls outside of that is irresponsible or wrong. They don’t always need a plot, they don’t always need a good game design, and they don’t always need to have great graphics. Mega Man 9 is living proof of that. Let the damn game do its thing and just play it. Gaynor’s wager is going to end up true if all we do is keep demanding that video games conform. If publishers just keep feeding an audience the same thing and they keep merrily gobbling it up. His wager was that we’ll end up like comic books, just feeding the same macho-bullshit or puzzle block noise over and over again. Anytime somebody pushes people outside their comfort zone, in this damn medium, you’ve got to stand up for it. That means games about violence or drug dealing just as much as it does games that involve saving a princess.

And hopefully the downloadable game scene can do that, provided people talk about it enough on the blogs and in the magazines. People who say game journalism and criticism needs some kind of boost or better writers drive me nuts. It’s fine. We’re not going to agree on how to gauge a game. Plenty of people bothering to read this rant are not going to agree with me that the Wii kills fascists. You think Destructoid cares about the magic 8-ball the people at the NYT shake before reviewing a game? The number of standards in a medium is a sign of growth and life. How many Latin critics are there? How many of their opinions vary? Hardly at all. They’re but a few voices debating now. Books in a more modern language have many more…but the number has dwindled since the sensationalism of the first famous books and pamphlets. After the damn printing press ANYBODY could write a book. Music is still going strong but its population of varying opinions has been taking hits lately and movies are dwindling even faster. But with video games, there are new ones sprouting up every day. Bickering about all kinds of batshit stuff you never even thought of. The fact that I choose to write about video games in a complex, intellectual tone is not because I take myself seriously. I do it because no one else was back when I started and I still think it has a long way to go. There’s plenty of drunken ranting about games going on…but sitting down and doing serious critical analysis still needs people just chucking essay after essay until a foundation is laid out. And even those don’t need to agree on anything. Hell, there are people who think really hard games are fun. That blows my mind. You enjoy Ikaruga? Really? Dude…that’s going to take me years of deep thinking to figure out. Ages to empathize with and even absorb. I like online play because it’s more engaging personally but that also stems from that I only play with friends anyways. Don’t have any console except a Wii. Don’t take it personally, I’d get one if I had the cash and I play on my friend’s PS3 and Xbox360 all the time. Did I mention the job problem? My friends are good sports about me doing single-player stuff provided I give them beer. And watching those guys argue about whose console is better is still astounding, because I know they really enjoy certain games on each other’s consoles. Halo 3 is great when you’re sick of Call of Duty 4’s constant drudge matches. And WarHawk? WarHawk is awesome. Every Xbox360 owner should play that game and admit they wish it was on their console. It’s not a deal breaker, we know, but that game is great.

It just isn’t a proper rant without some statistics and what better way to cruise out on this post than with some statistics that could be broadly interpreted to mean anything? 97% of kids in America play games, that’s across both gender and race. That’s intense. That’s an extremely massive adjustment in terms of consumer habits. The billions that the game industry is raking in now is going to get much larger once they start diversifying. Now, I’ve given my 2 cents on why we’re all so into it. That’s not a generational exclusion, a lot of people feel this way about video games. And we’re not really all that different, whether we play video games for personal fulfillment, challenge, feeling warm inside, or whatever other goofy word people attach to it. Shit, you should see the looks on people’s faces when I say I mostly enjoy games for their plot. But I don’t mind hollering at my artsy friends because I’ve read the same books they have and I’m not convinced anything particularly superior is going on there. Honestly, don’t ever take bullshit from people arguing about video games anymore. We’ve all still accidentally gotten shit on our hands while learning to wipe. Their inability to grasp the change coming is their own problem.

You know, I don’t think I’ll end on that note. For obvious reasons. I take back what I said about Lester Bangs not being quotable, that’s not true. He just doesn’t break down into bullet points or neat sentences. There was a comment he made about why people love ‘The Clash’ in one of his essays that I really loved. But to quote it, you gotta do a whole big chunk. The whole big picture. I think it sums up why people listen to rock and why they play video games now far better than I did:

“The politics of rock ‘n’ roll, in England or America or anywhere else, is that a whole lot of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in shops or boredom on the dole or American TV doldrums in Mom ‘n’ Daddy’s living room nothing can cancel the reality of that night in the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted outside of yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all.”


pixelvixen707 said...

Good rant, but you leave one conclusion unspoken - that gaming is life.

BTW have you read the Astral Weeks piece yet? Still my favorite, though it's more intimate than epochal.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Yeah, that one was at the start of the book. It might be the best review of an album I've ever read to be honest. As soon as I finished reading the article I fired up the album and listened to it for weeks.

It's interesting when something that does that...when it doesn't convince you to buy an album but rather just hear it out. It's something I try to be aware of now when I'm reading and writing reviews.