2012 in review (or, here’s what happens when you only write one blog post a year!)

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,700 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Slightly Spoilery Hobbit Review

[Disclaimer—I have not edited this at all as I am trying to get it out there as fast as possible due to many requests from my friends for my opinion on the film]

Angie and I went with some friends to the midnight show of The Hobbit last night and we had a great time! It was so enjoyable to act like I was young and had the energy to go to a midnight show (even though I don’t anymore!). Here’s the snap review (with minor spoilers!). I’ll put it into two categories. But first let me say this. I think most of the negative reviews spring from seeing the film in the 48 FPS. While I will be negative in this review (it is for the Tolkien fans, after all), Imagelet me say that the movie itself really was an enjoyable experience. I laughed, I was on the edge of my seat (even knowing what happens), and I looked at Angie’s face many times to see if she was getting as much enjoyment from it as I was (and to see if she was asleep!). That is why what I have to write next is so hard.

For the Tolkien purists…you probably won’t want to see it…and it’s really frustrating as to why. The problem lies in the fact that Peter Jackson et al, actually get so much right, that what they get wrong is glaringly problematic. It isn’t so much in the additions that they’ve made (most do, in fact, adhere closely enough to the appendixes and The Silmarillion), and they actually pull in some very interesting deep lore from the mythos, but rather in the understanding of the inherent Christianity of Tolkien’s work. Anyone familiar with Tolkien will be aware of Tolkien’s idea of the “eucatastrophe.” The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of moments when hope seems lost, progress is dead, and the characters are at their wits end. Something, somehow, outside of their control, comes along and progresses the story. While the ancient Greeks called this the “dues ex machine”, Tolkien calls this the eucatastrophe—when man (or character) realizes they are at the bottom of the well, the end of their rope and only God can rescue them. To Tolkien, this was the ultimate purpose of fairy stories—to give the insubstantial picture of salvation. There are several times in the story when Bilbo and the dwarves are in this position. Rather than let the story breathe itself out through the screen, though, Jackson has to give them something to do. Trapped up here with nowhere to go? That’s fine, we’ll just charge our way out. Can’t get out of the cooking pot? Okay, let’s have Bilbo show his wits. Rather than empowering the characters it actually makes them feebler. Character, we are told through Scripture, comes through suffering. It builds into hope—not a hope in yourself, but hope in your deliverance. Thus the character that Jackson hopes to build in his players in the film becomes not one of a hope for external salvation, but rather internal salvation. For instance, at the greatest moment of intervention, when the eagles drop of the company on the Carrock, the focus is on Thorin’s possible injury rather than being on the “joy of their salvation” from the orcs (yes, orcs, not goblins). The internal focus of this humanist take on The Hobbit means that the action is always centered on the individual and thus cannot rise above it to a higher understanding that is always implicit in Tolkien’s cosmology.

The second reason why it is hard for the Tolkien purist to watch the film is in the dialogue. Tolkien was a master at creating different dialogue that inherently fit the situations in which it was expressed. This is never more obvious than watching a movie where someone attempts to add dialogue. Tolkien was effortlessly able to shift from the colloquial to the epic in both of this works. It is this that ultimately grounds the hobbits in the larger world around them, allowing them to be simultaneously an entry point into the fantastical world for the reader and an astute observer of that which occurred around them. Nowhere is this more evident than when you hear someone try to add dialogue to what was already existent. The Gollum/Bilbo scene is a perfect Imageexample of this. The laughter, shock, horror, and gasps of the audience where palpable in the theater (at 2AM in the morning!) and the scene adheres to the text almost exactly, even down to the pacing. Most of the additional scenes added in the film sound either anachronistic (trying to add jokes that don’t fit) or overtly epic (which doesn’t really fit with the story of The Hobbit). It is both jarring—removing the viewer from the experience—and reaffirming of Tolkien’s mastery. This is a generalization; Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens do get some of the additional sequences right. But there are enough to pull the viewer out of the experience.

As to two much maligned additions: Radagast the Brown and the Azog orc story—the Radagast line is actually handled fairly well. He isn’t remotely a Jar-Jar Binks character and, in the universe itself, he is given nothing to do that is not already implied that he does (expect the sled race). The Azog story for Thorin is more problematic. I know what Jackson is attempting. He is trying to give a good reason for the orcs to be present at the Battle of Five Armies—there is an orc pursuing Thorin with a vendetta. But the trade-off just doesn’t hold up. You can’t give an orc that much screen time and not have a developed character, and it’s pretty tough to develop an orc’s character. Also, in some ways, it takes away from the pay-off in the end of Thorin’s inherent greed—his single-minded pursuit of the treasure and his kingdom that is so essential to understand his redemption after the battle itself.

Ironically, it is when the company hits Rivendell that the story finally seems to gain heft and weight, a cohesiveness that had been missing from the tale. Azgog was supposed to be that glue, but, in fact, the meeting of White Council—with Gandalf, Elrond, Sauruman, and Galadriel—becomes that point. Seeing Gandalf at his political best—and imperfect and flawed—provides a depth that had been lacking. It is an authentic depth because it is a very human depth, as opposed to the contrived character development elsewhere in the film. Until this point, Jackson and company had tried so hard to build a cohesive thread into a narrative that was intrinsically episodic, that the larger parts simply felt “shoe-horned” in. The White Council, which actually happens in the books (one of those appendices things), is true adhesive.

I will say this; the acting is really top-notch overall. We are not talking Academy Awards here (and I don’t thing Jackson will ever direct a Best Actor nominee), but definitely more than Imageserviceable. Martin Freeman is truly outstanding as Bilbo, in the same way that Sean Bean was born to play Boromir. The dwarves, for my money, did enough of a job distinguishing themselves from one another (they become a little lost in the books, too), and of course Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee are all back and as imperious as ever. Richard Armitage plays the role given to him well. I have disagreements, as stated above, with the handling of Thorin’s character arc, but Armitage embodies the persona quite capably.

Finally, and I spoke about this on my father’s podcast a couple of weeks ago, Jackson struggles with the difference between tone in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The former is an adventure story, and the later is a quest tale. The shift in tone between the two, on several occasions, clangs like a symbol. Again, it is only with the introduction of the White Council that the underlying epic world of the story is given its rightful place. That is the central misunderstanding. The Hobbit is a fairy story that takes place in a mythological universe. While its underpinnings are epic, the story itself is not. There are too many times in the film where Jackson attempts to be epic with something that is merely fun. And in doing so, he loses the scope of the epic and the value of the fun, both simultaneously.

There is much to love about the film for the Tolkien purist—and that is what is really so tragic. The stone trolls are really so much fun, even with Jackson rewriting; and when Gandalf appears in the goblin caves it is fully as dramatic as the Bridge of Khazad-Dum. The advancements in the CGI are breathtaking and the New Zealand landscape is as awe-inspiring as ever. While the soundtrack doesn’t really pick up its beats until the end of the film, the songs from the story are all there and gloriously rendered. In fact, the whole “Unexpected Party” scene hits so many of the right notes in my imagination that a laughed aloud several times! If only…if only….

Finally, as to the HDR/3D/IMAX and the dreaded 48 FPS issues: I consciously chose to see it in standard DLP for my first viewing, and it basically looks exactly like the old Lord of the Rings films, only better. I do plan on seeing it in IMAX 3D, principally because there is nothing in the film that I could see in which they consciously made use of the 3D as a gimmick (Resident Evil series…I’m looking at you). It seems only as if it will add more depth and clarity to the image. ImageThe standard IMAX 3D is not in 48 FPS; only specifically equipped theaters have it. We have an IMAX theater that is not 48 FPS, but is 3D and apparently another theater is converting to 48 FPS/3D specifically for the film. So I can’t speak to what it will look like in this frame rate, but I can say that I will probably see it in all three versions. If you do choose to see it, take in the standard one first so you can focus on the story and the magnificent cinematography, which really does take a step up from the Lord of the Rings films.

In my coda I will say for the non-Tolkien purist, the second party of my first paragraph: you aren’t as picky as we are? No problem, go see it! You’ll enjoy it and probably have a good time. But I
don’t think you’ll have a great time. Even for the casual fan, the uninformed observer, the fundamental misunderstanding Jackson has of the central tenants of the text will cause a dissonance. It will be interesting to see if the casual fan will be able to figure out why.

i’m on the radio!

C.S. Lewis

J.R.R. Tolkien

hello, all. haven’t been on here in a bit! working two or three jobs and being in a relationship will do that to you, i guess! but hopefully i’ll be on here more in the future. i may actually be starting a new blog in the near future having to do with an entirely different set of issues, but i’ll keep you posted on that front. this particular entry is to let you know that i’ll be on the radio soon! my dad, as many of you know, is the pastor at briarwood presbyterian church in birmingham, al. one of his radio programs is “conversations with harry.” it is available on the radio and in podcast form. they are short ten minute conversations which are designed to be informative about culture, christianity, and faith. on friday i am recording two weeks worth of conversations with him on j.r.r. tolkien and c.s lewis. for those who don’t know, my graduate work principally resides in that area, the early 20th century anglo-catholic renaissance (csl, jrrt, ts eliot, gk chesterton, etc.). i’ll keep the links updated and all, but let’s get a good number of downloads and listens and facebook likes for my dad and tom lamprecht (his producer). it’s a great show for followers of Christ and i highly recommend it! i’ll keep you posted!

front page of bitmob!

okay guys! somehow or another i ended up in the community spotlight over on bitmob on the front page! for those of you who don’t know, bitmob is a community driven website were people can post articles, reviews and other such stuff. each week, different articles are taken and highlighted. i just got home from work, pulled up bitmob to check the articles (not mine, just what was new), and what do i see? THIS! there i was in the community spotlight. post a comment over there or something and it may get onto the weekly podcast! i think i’d enjoy that! thanks for your support. in a few days the articles been hit over a hundred times!

Alan Wake, Heavy Rain, and the Art Debate

Its been a long, long time since I’ve written on here and for that I apologize. Going to try to get back more regularly from now on. This article, however, is what I’ve been thinking about lately. Its mostly about the whole video games and art thing, but from a comparative perspective. Hope you like it.

I am often left wondering why video games feel the need to be compared favorably to other art forms in the media space. How often do we read about the “are video games art” debate in popular media, in the enthusiast press, and on the blogs of the casual observer? Exhibit A is the recent flare up (again) of the Roger Ebert issue. There are, in my opinion, several problems with this question. The first is the validity of the question itself. Secondly, even if we excuse the illogical nature of the question and ask it anyway, is the comparative nature of the question. I’m going to comment only briefly on the first issue for the moment, however, in order to move on to the more relevant second point.

Mass Effect 2

If, briefly, we worry about whether or not video games are art or can contain art, we miss the boat entirely on what art can inherently be. Art has no straightforward definition. Art is subjective, to a degree indefinable, and, whatever definition we come up with, ultimately immanently deconstructable. Therefore, one or another definition and its consequences will change nothing concerning the true nature of this debate. From a logical and philosophical standpoint, inferring a broad definition from the particulars of a single viable art form out of which must come a paradigm that has parameters to encompass other media outside of the particular invites the skeptic to continuously refute the initial point. In other words, if we glean our definition of art from video games themselves, then the analysis of said definition will inevitably reveal a failure to encompass other art forms. Vis-à-vis, if we do so from, let us say, painting, then the same concept would also be true. The definition of art should, in fact, be amorphous; it should be broad enough to encompass new fields and new media forms. Art, despite what others may imply, should not be confined to either the high towers of academia, or to the gatekeepers of taste. Neither has, of necessity, demonstrated that their track record is all that grand.

The notion of art and video games, however, is both to broad and to narrow to be of much use to the practical debate concerning whether or not video games or good, hold merit, achieve goals, or provide entertainment. It is a notion that can be and should be championed, but to the common consumer, as well as the more discerning one, the issue is a by-product. I’m more interested, presently, in the comparative nature of video games.

In our recent slate of video game releases, all the major triple A titles have had one

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

principal thing in common (other than the fact that they have sold very well). What do Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain, and Alan Wake have in common? Principally this: they are all compared, favorably or unfavorably, to other forms of media. The single player campaign of Modern Warfare 2 is compared to a Jerry Bruckheimer film; Uncharted is compared to an old school pulp adventure flick, Mass Effect 2 (more on this issue in a moment) a sci-fi space opera novel, Heavy Rain to an interactive movie, and Alan Wake to a Stephen King opus. Other games could fall into this category, and other blockbusters eschew this comparison; but these at least, serve well to make the point. We need to stop comparing games to other forms of media in order to establish the validity of that game, either as an artifact with artistic merit, or in order to give the game some market validity outside of itself simply as itself, with its own particular defining parameters.

Let me put it this way: none of the games listed above could ever be described as a particularly bad game (outside of one or two of the more jaded critics). All of the games bring something new and interesting into the media form. Whether it is the massive amount of options in the Call of Duty series, the humor and character of Uncharted, the grandiosity of Mass Effect, the interactivity and emotionality of Heavy Rain, or the atmospheric qualities of Alan Wake, all of these video games has something worth playing, building on, or iterating on in further game development. However, we lessen the value of the game when we continuously attempt to draw favorable comparisons between these games and other forms of media. Several recent playthroughs, comments, and articles have brought this issue more closely to my attention in recent days.

First, it has been announced that Legendary Pictures has picked up the movie rights to Mass Effect (I’m not certain if it is for the series or for the first game). That, in and of itself, is no big surprise. Gamepro’s recent article on Hollywood and video games (“Hollywood Games”, Oscar Zagal, #261) makes it especially clear that the trend of video game to movie adaptations is not going away. Now that the movie industry has discovered that good comic book adaptations can make a lot of money (and that bad ones sometimes can too), this trend is unlikely to stop. And there are excellent adaptations of comic books in the film industry: Spider-Man, Nolan’s Batman series, and Kick-Ass are just a few. While there hasn’t been a video game adaption worthwhile yet, the entertainment industry is not going to pack its bags in that field and go home.

Uncharted 2

My issue, however, is not with video game or comic book to movie adaptations. The intertextual and interconnected nature of graphic art, film, written media, and playable media will be with us for as long as those forms of media exist. There is no escaping that. Either from enthusiasm at seeing how one form of visual or written media appears in another form, or simply from the desire to make money, there will always be crossover experiences. I remember when I first read The Road by Cormac McCarthy when it was released. The first thing I thought was not that “this would make a great movie.” Did it make a great movie? To a certain degree: yes, it did. No one in his or her right mind would fight the inevitable onward push of a movie version of Mass Effect or Heavy Rain. It probably will happen eventually. If not with those games, than with others.

No, what drew my attention when I saw the announcement for the Mass Effect movie were the comments drawn by users. “Finally,” I thought to myself, “I see some common sense.” For the users were, by and large, appalled by the idea of Mass Effect as a movie. When the writer asked for suggestions on casting, the majority of responses were not about casting ideas, but rather simply saying “they should not make this into a movie! It is a video game and no movie can do it justice!” This, I said, is a step in the right direction. Because it indicates that the receiver of the specified media (or art) form, the gamer, was finally beginning to stand up for the validity of their media form as having merit in its own right. Instead of saying: This is great, now people who don’t play games can experience the Mass Effect universe, they were essentially saying that in order to experience the Mass Effect universe you should play the game.

This is the principal issue that I have. Rather than allow our games to be co-opted by other media forms, we as gamers must stand up for our form of media. Not only to be proud of the media, but also to refuse to allow the comparisons with other media to ruin what is true and valid about the video game experience and the logic of video games themselves. To do so calls into question the very nature of video games as a medium of entertainment, interactivity, and art itself. When Charles Dickens was writing Great Expectations as a serial novel in newspapers in the nineteenth century, does any literary critic really believe he was writing and, at the same time, believing that he was creating art? No. He was writing as many chapters as he could to entertain the masses, prolong the story, and make more money. Did it turn out to be art? According to some, yes. Does that mean it is art? Not necessarily. Video games are inherently similar to this situation. We make video games and we play video games because we enjoy them. Do they sometimes ascend to the sublime? Yes. Do they sometimes, as C.S. Lewis says, make us see with a thousand eyes and yet remain ourselves? Absolutely. But it will be art as a video game—not art as a translation of some other media.

Mass Effect, to me, is a positive example of this situation. It embraces its video game logic and does not hide the fact that it wants to be a video game. Uncharted 2 and, more recently, Red Dead Redemption do the same, in my opinion. While they both draw on other media, neither seems to succumb to the media that it uses as inspiration. Rather, they work the film and written forms into their own internal logic, making them subservient to the internal workings of the game instead of trying desperately to reproduce the experience of other media.

However, there are three negative examples that shed light on my second issue with the comparative nature of video games and other forms of media. This issue is, to some degree, a reverse form of my first point. Video games will always—I repeat, always—sell themselves short when their primary inspiration is to attempt to replicate some other form of media experience. The three most prominent examples in my mind are Modern Warfare 2, Heavy Rain, and Alan Wake. At the risk of over simplifying the assessment, Modern Warfare 2 strays away from the strides made in the first Modern Warfare and attempts to replicate the experience of a summer blockbuster movie; Heavy Rain attempts to be an interactive movie, and Alan Wake an interactive Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel. In their attempts to achieve these goals, these games sacrifice the nature of what makes them video games and thereby short-circuit the very attempt to obtain merit outside of the confines and parameters of what makes them valuable in the first place.

Alan Wake

The game that put this foremost in my mind was my recent playthrough of Alan Wake. As a published literary critic and a great admirer of Stephen King, it was not too difficult to make the correlation between novel and video game. The game, in fact, all but slaps you in the face with it from the very beginning. Not only is their the fact that the game begins with a quote from Stephen King, but the protagonist is a novelist (who starts the game off as a bit of a douche), his manuscript is coming to life, and he self-referentially talks to himself through TVs scattered throughout the environment. The game itself, while given some small degree of expansiveness, is largely linear in its construction. The voice over provides the unneeded (and mostly unwanted) narration, and the manuscript pages read like a high schooler’s creative writing attempt at imitating Stephen King.

These devices are drawn into the games narration and, combined with a combat system that is at first satisfying but grows rapidly stale, all work against any possibility of the game achieving that which it sets out to do: create, in a video game, the mood, tone, and feel of reading and playing a Stephen King novel. This occurs for one reason alone: rather than create a video game that is influenced by the form of a novel (or, secondarily, a television show), and incorporate those elements into gaming logic, the game creates a mishmash of other media elements that retains the logic of those forms. Thus the game never meshes into a cohesive whole. It remains a game of parts that never coalesce into an immersive environment. This was doubly disappointing as, first the game itself, and secondly being a game from Remedy, who managed to create the opposite effect with the Max Payne series. I have no doubt that the games troubled and long development cycle contributed to this to some degree or another. But such problems must be set aside when taken as a final product. The artifact created is the artifact that exists.

Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain, in a similar fashion, does the same thing with the film industry. As a game, the product has much to applaud: the emotionality of the characters, the interactive system that creates tension in some of the more emotionally or adrenaline charged scenes, and the obvious attempt to use realistic graphics to immerse the gamer into a world that is not their own. All of these things succeed to varying degrees (and depending on which reviewer you are partial to). The games downfall, however, is in the attempt to build tension in traditional visual fashion (i.e. film and television). In trying to imitate the film noir, or HBO TV series formula, the game succumbs to a massive amount of plot holes that are, to some, irredeemable. I believe that Heavy Rain goes further in its accomplishments than Alan Wake does; yet it ultimately fails because, unlike the Mass Effects, Uncharteds, and Rockstar games, it places the imitation above the game experience. In doing so, the game form suffers and the gamer suffers most.

Thus, the problem. There is no argument to the fact that all forms of entertainment and communicative media will continuously circle around each other in an endless chain of memes and signifiers, constantly and consequently self-referential. Since various forms of media have arisen, we, as creative beings, continuously strive to meld, synthesize, and create various experiences that will both separate and tie forms media together. Whether it is the visual and the written, the interactive and the visual, or the written and the interactive, we will constantly be holding media forms up against each other in attempts to defend or detract from our perceptions of art and value, artifice and consumablity. Video games, as the new kid on the block, are at a distinct disadvantage. Its older step-siblings (the word and the form) have a clear head start. The natural inclination for validation is nothing to scoff at, but the tendency to run around and claim, “our game is like this movie” will do nothing but continue to harm our industry and its attempts at validation. Validation will come; but it will only come when games embrace themselves for games, when we make other forms of media subservient to our logic. The hegemony of film and writing must be broken, but it will not be broken by finally gaining acquiescence from their critical community. It will only be broken when the apparatuses of film and writing are made to adhere to the logic of video games, for, by their very nature, video games will not adhere to the logic of film and writing. I see strides made in this direction and I believe that further strides are just around the corner. And someday, I know, video games will take their place in the pantheon of culture, not just as entertainment value, but also as true and valid signifiers of culture and those who embrace them, not just for titillation, but also as art.