Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Video Games as Art

As I said earlier, I'm breaking my "weekends only" rule to talk about aesthetics for a little bit. I don't talk about aesthetics a whole lot, mainly because it's almost entirely subjective, and I've been told I have a rather Vitruvian sense of beauty. Probably a relic of my Objectivist days. Anyway.

Roger Ebert says, and I'm quoting here, "I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art." Horse-shit, says I. To his credit, Ebert goes on to say, "Perhaps it is foolish of me to say 'never,' because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form." Still horse-shit, says I. Ebert's entire argument seems to consist of two scoops of snobbery, a dash of bluster, and his statement, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets." Apparently, poetry is doubly artistic to Ebert. Also, by this line of reasoning, cooking can never be an art form because I have never eaten a steak that tastes as good as watching The Shawshank Redemption*.

PZ got in on the action, too, and pretty much everyone seemed to jump down his throat for agreeing with Ebert; I said what I wanted to say over there, so I'm going to say something different here. I could trot out my nihilistic "art is just a word and words are made up" routine, tearing down the enterprise of art so that any action could fit in - it would work, too, because art is a word and words are made up, and whatever you can do with a book/movie/canvas/rock can also be done with ones and zeroes on microchips. Not joking. But instead, I'd rather make a positive case for the game Braid, because everything in that game is done artfully, i.e. fuckin' full of art.

Below is the trailer for Braid, a nifty little number which I like to call "Mario with time powers." That's what it is. Ebert says of the game, "You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game." Way to completely miss the point:
"Taking back your moves" is the point in Braid; one of the first bits of text you encounter says,
Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster. This happened because Tim made a mistake.

Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt.

He knows she tried to be forgiving, but who can just shrug away a guilty lie, a stab in the back? Such a mistake will change a relationship irreversibly, even if we have learned from the mistake and would never repeat it. The princess's eyes grew narrower. She became more distant.

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we've learned from a mistake and became better for it, shouldn't we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

What if our world worked differently? Suppose we could tell her: "I didn't mean what I just said," and she would say: "It's okay, I understand," and she would not turn away, and life would really proceed as though we had never said that thing? We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience.

Tim and the Princess lounge in the castle garden, laughing together, giving names to the colorful birds. Their mistakes are hidden from each other, tucked away between the folds of time, safe.
In fact, all the game mechanics are similarly justified. The game does quite a bit of mucking about with the flow of time (Cracked parodied it with Time Travel Understander): the "time shadow" is about being able to pursue multiple courses of action at once in pursuit of a goal; the ring, which slows time as you near it, represents the burden of commitment; and so on and so forth. One may, of course, play the game only for the puzzles; one may also watch movies only for the action sequences. What is artful about Braid is that it incorporates its mechanics into the story, and at the end, turns the tables on the player:
After getting used to manipulating the flow of time, the player learns that Tim "lives backwards" from other people, kind of like Merlin. The end of the story shows the full meaning of this, when the player rewinds the entire level and sees that the princess has not been helping Tim, but running desperately to escape him. It's about the tremendous difference perspective can make, about communication breakdown, about the pain of regret and being unable to "fix it all." It's also, in a rather literal sense, about a bomb.

What I think is artful about this is that these ideas are encoded as metaphors into the game mechanics. The player's ability to solve the puzzles is taken for granted, the point is what the mechanics mean as a part of Tim's life. This is the art of Braid as a game: it is not an imitation of real life, but a way to experience someone else's life. It is a distillation of experience (Tim's) in which we may find parallels to our own lives, and this enables us to identify with the protagonist. Mashing buttons to get a man on the screen to move from A to B is how this idea is conveyed, but that is no more to the point than it is to say that ink stains on a bunch of paper stitched together are what make up every single book - in philosophical circles, this is known as the fallacy of composition (more specifically, the fallacy of mediocrity).

With that established, the rest is a piece of cake: the visuals are simple and elegant, the backgrounds are like watercolor in motion; the music is lovely, and becomes increasingly haunting throughout the game; and the story, while by no means completely original, is a good blend of homage to the hero's journey and literary puzzle (by which I mean you're not spoon-fed the answers, you need to piece it together yourself - making it far superior to most of the literature available today, to my mind). It's artful. It's artistic. It's art.

Ebert doesn't like it, and that's fine. He can stick to his pictures on a screen with accompanying soundtrack. Not every art form needs to be moving to every critic. But I think it's rather telling that Ebert closes his missive with a snipe at Kellee Santiago's acknowledgment that art requires patronage. I can think of no more powerful metaphor to illustrate the concept of an established snob trying to keep out the whippersnappers trying to break into his establishment.

* - I had several candidates for this statement, and I'd like to share them with you, The Reader, now:
  • Architecture will never be art because no building has moved me like a symphony.
  • Sculpture will never be art because no statue can capture the fluid grace of dance.
  • Photography can never be art because it cannot express the unlimited imagination like painting can.
  • Humor can never be art because it doesn't have the enduring resonance of tragedy.
I could go on comparing apples and lawn mowers all night, or at least find some humorous way to meaninglessly compare knitting and carpentry, but I'm sure you get the point.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Busy Weekend

So my little sister CJ turned nine yesterday, and I was up in the Frigid Northlands all weekend to see her and my twelve-year-old brother each perform in musicals, too. What this comes to is that I was way too busy to actually write anything, because any time not spent playing with the kids was spent drinking with the adults.

Saturday night, my mom was fretting about all the stuff she's got to do for CJ's birthday. I use the present tense because the "party" party is next weekend. Now, to be sure, my mom's got a lot on her plate: it's an Alice in Wonderland theme party, so there's a lot of decorating to do, and a whole bunch of nine-year-olds to take care of, and she'll need a bunch of inside activities in case it rains, and did I mention that the kids are both in musicals? I reminded her that CJ was going to wake up in the morning to see her father putting the finishing touches on a playhouse he built from scratch in the back yard, her entire family is in town to see her and her brother perform and celebrate her birthday, and the following weekend she's having a Wonderland party with all her friends where they will be using red fabric paint to color white fabric roses which come with the invitations. To a nine-year-old, this is fucking magical. That's kind of what makes the whole thing worth it.

And yet, my mom is still worried that CJ will figure out that there's no Santa Claus before this coming Christmas. Argh. I keep trying to explain that we can still have family togetherness and wonderful surprises and Christmas Cheer without an all-seeing father figure who doles out rewards and punishments, but it just doesn't seem to stick. Oh, well.

Anyway, there's this whole kerfuffle about how Roger Ebert thinks video games can never be art. I plan to argue on Wednesday that video games are a medium and media are vehicles by which art may be conveyed, The End. Erm, that's way shorter than it's going to end up, but yeah, that's pretty much the gist of it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

101 Interesting Things, part forty-one: Real-Life Ghost Ships!

I was reading Dino Comics at work the other day - which I highly recommend, by the way (Dino Comics, that is, not wasting time at work with pixellated fun in Courier font - I must not have fun. Fun is the time-killer.) - when...

Wait. Let me start over.

This Dino Comics strip taught me about the Baychimo, allegedly the very best of boats. After looking into the matter, I agree. But I also found out about a bunch of other crazy ghost ship stories in the process, and today I am going to share them with you. We'll start with the Baychimo.

In 1931, Baychimo became trapped in ice, and shed her crew because they were holding her back. She broke free in two days, only to be boarded again by her once-and-future taskmasters, and so she got stuck again within the week (a little passive-aggressive for a boat, don't you think?). Most of the crew gave up and went home in planes, their flighty temperaments no match for Baychimo's determination. The fifteen who remained lasted about a month longer, at which point Baychimo - I'm not making this up - escaped under cover of blizzard. You go, boat!

Baychimo was spotted days later and boarded for the purpose of taking her most valuable cargo, then abandoned in the frigid sea to presumably die of exposure. But after seventeen bitter years of servitude to the Hudson's Bay Company, Baychimo decided to make the most of her newfound freedom and roamed the seas for thirty-eight years, despite repeated boardings from unprepared yahoos who didn't know what to do with her (or didn't have the equipment even if they did, anyhow). Techinically, that should be "thirty-eight years and counting," since she is only presumed sunk. I prefer to think that she drifted all the way to the Moon and is now renovating the abandoned dinosaur cities on its dark side. If you don't believe me, you're welcome to check, just let me know when you're going so I can also buy a ticket.

Next, we go back in time to 1872 to discuss the Mary Celeste. On the night of November 4th, Captain Benjamin Briggs (of the Mary Celeste) met with his friend Captain David Morehouse (of the Dei Gratia) for dinner with their wives in New York. Both ships were headed for the Mediterranean, as it turned out, though Morehouse didn't leave for another week. But on December 4th, the Dei Gratia spotted Mary Celeste about six hundred miles West of Portugal. Nobody was on deck, there was no distres signal. After two hours of staring at the empty ship, she was boarded and explored, with perplexing results:
Oliver Deveau, chief mate of the Dei Gratia, boarded the Mary Celeste. He reported he did not find anyone on board, and said that "the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess". There was only one operational pump, two apparently having been disassembled, with a lot of water between decks and three and a half feet (1.1 m) of water in the hold. However, the ship was not sinking and was still seaworthy.

All of the ship's papers were missing, except for the captain's logbook. The forehatch and the lazarette were both open, athough the main hatch was sealed. The ship's clock was not functioning, and the compass was destroyed; the sextant and marine chronometer were missing. The only lifeboat on the Mary Celeste, a yawl located above the main hatch, was also missing. The peak halyard, used to hoist the main sail, had disappeared. A rope, perhaps the peak halyard, was found tied to the ship very strongly and the other end, very frayed, was trailing in the water behind the ship.

- Wikipedia on the Mary Celeste
Piracy, foul play on the part of Dei Gratia's crew, mutiny, and insurance fraud are all silly explanations, as many very valuable things were left intact, the captains of both ships were good friends, there was no sign of any kind of struggle, and the insurance payoff wouldn't have been worth the planning. Likely of importance was Mary Celeste's cargo: 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol. Briggs was not a fan of such dangerous cargo, and the possibility of an explosion may have motivated him to evacuate the ship with his wife, daughter, and crew at a sign of trouble. A brief fire from alcoholic fumes might not have left any scorch marks on the ship, and could explain the hasty evacuation. If Mary Celeste ran into a waterspout (tornadoes of the sea!), "Lower air pressure resulting from a waterspout might have thrown off measurements of how deep the water level was in the ship's hull. A dipstick-like device was used to monitor water levels in the bilge. Low pressure could pull water up the tube around the stick, creating the impression of a sinking vessel." (Wikipedia again.) In either case, it's likely that the evacuating crew tied their lifeboat to the rope that was found frayed and trailing the ship.

Finally, we conclude our journey through ghost ship history in 2007 with the Kaz II, a catamaran which bore three men to mysterious watery doom. On April 18th, Kaz II was spotted drifting by a chopper near the Great Barrier Reef. Once boarded, the Queensland Emergency Management Office found everything to be perfectly normal: the equipment was all intact (save one torn sail), the engine was running, a laptop was on, no life jackets had been used, and food was set out on the table (spooky!). There were just no people. Footage recovered from the ship, timestamped the morning of the ship's departure, showed a 360-degree view of surrounding scenery which allowed investigators to pinpoint Kaz II's location, as well as various other details which had been altered by the time of the ship's discovery, aiding efforts to piece together the story. The official report is, to my mind, a good piece of reasoning which incorporates all the evidence:
"On Sunday, April 15, 2007, at 10:05 A.M., the Kaz II was sailing in the vicinity of George Point. Up to that moment everything was going as planned but, in the following hour, their situation changed dramatically. The men hauled in the white rope that was trailing behind the boat and bundled it up on the foredeck, possibly to dry, next to the locker it was normally kept in. For unknown reasons, James Tunstead then took off his T-shirt and glasses and placed them on the backseat. The report says that since the men's fishing lure was found entangled in the ship's port side rudder, an obvious explanation would be that one of them tried to free the lure and fell overboard while doing so. Standing on the boat's 'sugar scoop' platform (a platform at the back of the ship close to the waterline) while the boat is moving is perilous and falling in the water is easy, but getting back aboard almost impossible. One of the other men then came to the rescue of his friend, while Batten, still on board, started the motor and realized he had to drop the sails before he could go back for his friends."

As he left the helm to drop the sails, a deviation of the ship's course or wind direction could have easily caused a jibe, swinging the boom across the deck and knocking Batten overboard. This could even have happened before Batten was able to untie and throw out the life ring to his friends. A blue coffee mug found near the life ring may support this. Since the boat was travelling before wind and at a speed of 15 knots, it would be out of reach of the men within seconds. The report states: "From that point, the end would have been swift. None of them was a good swimmer, the seas were choppy; the men would have quickly become exhausted and sunk beneath the waves."
But perhaps spookiest of all, the comic strip which started this all cannot be found! No, seriously, I'm glad I e-mailed myself the link, because searching for ghost ship or Baychimo with OhNoRobot doesn't turn it up (try it!). Oooh. Poor ghost ships, they wouldn't be so lonely if they weren't so hard to find...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tsujigiri, by any other name...

If you're a US citizen, then you're obligated to be aware of this (I had to hear about it from Pharyngula).

The news should be all over this - by the stars, that's what journalism is for - and yet we hear not a peep. The below video is probably not for the faint of heart. I watched it, and you'll get much more gruesome scenes out of Hollywood, but the problem is that it's real here, and what it shows is US troops firing on unarmed civilians including children:
For those who declined to desensitize themselves a bit more, here's the skinny: on the 12th of July 2007, a couple of Reuters reporters and about half a dozen other civilians were walking through town. Then, out of nowhere, gunships opened fire on them for no reason at all. Apparently, these boys never saw the training video on distinguishing cameras from AKs & RPGs. When guys in a van with kids showed up to help one of the wounded escape, the troops fired upon the van. Afterwards, as the children were being carried from the scene, someone remarked, "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle." Way to blame the victim.

In the New York Times, Lt-Col Scott Bleichwehl said, "There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force." This is beyond lying and beneath contempt - this was not combat, it was cold-blooded murder. Aside from "coalition forces", every single word of that statement is misleading euphemism or blatant falsehood. Let me fix it for you, Scott, since you're apparently truth-impaired: "There is no question that men with guns were clearly engaged in reckless homicide against unarmed civilians."

Back in feudal Japan, samurai did something called tsujigiri, which was explained as a test of the samurai's sword. A warrior's life depends largely on his weapon (more on his skill and cunning, but still), so this is an understandable practice. Oh, except for the part where they test their swords on civilians in the street. That makes it ruthless savagery, plain and simple.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Epistemology and Spiders: This is how it should be done

OK, so assessing and revising the contents and standards of one's knowledge has nothing to do with Mindless Self-Indulgence - if anything, it's mindful self-restraint. But one of my recent forays into the world of Science Blogs handed me a case-in-point so neat and pat that I just had to share.

A bit of background: there's this wonderful little program called Before the Dinosaurs: Walking with Monsters (buy!) which goes through the history of life from Anomalocaris to Lystrosaurus. It's just awesome, and you should watch it. One of my favorite parts of that program was the puppy-sized spider, mesothelae, which lived at a time of eagle-sized dragonflies because the atmosphere was so oxygen-rich that giant bugs could get away with enormous bodies and simple respiratory apparatus.

Now, I love spiders. I really do. They're nature's ninjas, out-ninjered only by certain species of squid and octopus (ninjas of the sea). So a spider the size of a small dog is, like, my new favorite fantasy pet. Excluding giant spider-steed, of course (what it loses in ninjery, it more than gains in bad-assitude). OK, now we're good. My point is that I was very fucking excited to hear about this mesothelae, so excited that I went around telling people about it for weeks.

Fast-forward to last week, and I see this Laelaps headline link while catching up on Pharyngula: Megarachne, the Giant Spider That Wasn't. My first thought: "Ooh, spiders!" Second thought: "Aww, fake spiders?" So I click through and read the whole thing, and as it turns out, Before the Dinosaurs was originally slated to include megarachne, but during production it was discovered that the giant spider wasn't a giant spider, but a sea scorpion. Well, shit on toast! But the show must go on, and so the BBC just re-cast mesothelae in the role that megarachne had been written to play and fudged a couple details (bah, details!).

If you're like me, then right about now you've got to have a tangled web in your head involving sense, reference, justification, and a couple theories of truth, all wrapped up in a package labeled, "D's beliefs about carboniferous arthropods". OK, now that I put it that way, you're probably not like me. But that's what was going through my head as I processed this article. Of course, sorting out that Gordian knot would be like trying to diagram one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's third-of-a-page sentences, so I took the Alexandrian solution:

"Huh. Looks like I was wrong."

Because at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter that a bleeding-edge breakthrough in paleobiology took a backseat to a deadline, it doesn't really matter that there was still a kernel of truth in it, it doesn't really matter how much I love the idea of giant spiders, and it doesn't really matter exactly what labels or confidence levels I had for this or that bit of belief. What matters is that I became aware of one instance wherein my picture of the world failed to match up with the best our investigations have to offer. So I fixed it, The End. As Carl Sagan wrote,
Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.
(The Demon-Haunted World, page 20)
So I was reading about this Jesus fellow the other day... or was it Krishna? Or Mithras? Wait, Horus! Or maybe even Moses... look, you see where this is going.