Sunday, December 29, 2013

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ho, ho, ho

Well, this is a Christmas Eve to remember. So far, it's right up there with the New Years I spent alone with stomach cramps after learning that just because I can eat the whole thing does not in any way mean I should.

I'm not sure if I mentioned it here, but I've chosen to spend X-Mas in Ontario rather than going home to see the family. Some family members were planning on doing their own thing anyway, and between the Toronto wedding and the Saskatoon wedding earlier this year, I had pretty much blown my travel budget. And maybe, just maybe, I'd finish the dissertation if I stayed behind.

Well, that didn't happen. Granted, I've been writing constantly, and it's a quality and quantity higher than  I usually do, even during regular days, let alone holiday time. But it's a long way from being finished yet. I look at the amassed pages, ask myself if I made the right choice, and I'm not sure what the answer is.

On the other hand, I can say without any measure of ambivalence that I have made some wrong choices today--or rather, yesterday, I guess. See, my roommate, being a kind and generous soul, offered to let me eat Christmas Eve Dinner with her family. They were even providing a special vegetarian dish for me, which is an incredibly thoughtful thing to due. Alas, due to a series of unfortunate events, it looks unlikely that this will come to pass.

I woke up today at 10 am, still unsure exactly when and where everything today would go down. I should have asked the roommate last night, but, well, I forgot. Surely, I thought, there were will be plenty of time today. But she was already gone when I got up, so I missed an opportunity there. Well, that was fine; I had to be going too, as I was cat-sitting for a friend who didn't decide to spend Christmas thousands of kilometers from her family. Anyway, I left at 11, leaving behind a note asking her to contact me with the plan.

I get back just before 3 pm; It's about an hour of walking, there and back, and I like to spend a little time with the cat while I'm there. There's evidence my roommate has come and gone, but no evidence she saw my note, as it is still lying in the same place. At this point, I'm starting to get somewhat worried. I vaguely recall the plan was to start at 4 or 5, and the clock is ticking down. So I immediately leave a facebook message for the roommate, leave a voice message on her smartphone, and leave a facebook message for her sister for good measure. All of which says basically the same thing: I'm at the house, I'm ready, let me know what's going on.

Four o'clock rolls around. Four fifteen. I know she has my number, so if she got concerned, she'd be able to contact me. I try her phone again, and that's when I realize she left the phone on the coffee table in the living room. Bending if not breaking the rules of roommate propriety, I spend another fifteen minutes working up the courage, and then check the phone for her sister's number, and give it a call. No one answers, and I leave another voicemail.

I continue to dither. The important thing when people miss connections, I tell myself, is to make as many points of contact as possible, then stay in one place. And stay in one place I did. Until five.

At this point, I realize that no one is coming for me. On their end, they probably thought I bailed at the last minute on account of nerves (which is reasonable, given I've skipped out on other large family gatherings of theirs I've been invited to, albeit with more notice) or there were crossed wires, and they thought I was spending X-Mas supper with them rather than X-Mas Eve, and I thought the inverse. But at any rate, what was clear at this point was if I was going to get there, I'd have to go myself. That shouldn't be too hard, I reasoned. After all, I had been there just yesterday for breakfast. Surely my spatial memory is good enough that I can remember how to walk somewhere I was driven to the day before.

NOPE.

In my defense, it is now 5:30, growing dark, and friggin' cold; at -22 with windchill, it's colder than it's been all winter up to this point. And so I give up, and head back home. And it's not the cold that bugs me on the way back, or getting lost. It's that I have to go back through a residential area, where it seems like in every single window, there's a family sitting down for a Christmas meal. Standing out there, looking in, I feel like I'm living the down beat of an X-Mas special. Three ghosts could have shown up at any time. I reach home and I'm feeling very cold, very tired, and very alone.

And then my roommate calls, and everyone's looking for me, and they pick me up and drive me over and I eat the delicious 3 kinds of mushroom veggie meal and we all watch the original Christmas Carol and it's pretty good but not as good as the Muppet X-Mas Carol and I go home and phone my parents and wish them a happy holiday.

Happy holidays.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Bibliophile: Wait, We're Still Doing These?

"Books are for mooks." --Timon the Meerkat

This is Bibliophile.

It's been a long time since I've done Bibliophile, a look at the new books available at a randomly chosen Canadian university library. In part, that's because the blogging bug in general no longer creates the itch in me it once did (note to self: come up with better metaphor), but also because, even in the compromised, 12 books per post version, it was still regularly taking over 3 hours to compose. So we'll play around with the format a bit, and see if we can't come up with something still useful, but less time-consuming. After the break, then, six new books from the University of Calgary. As always, a bolded H marks a book also held by the University of Waterloo.

(In other news, my computer reset on me, meaning I lost all unsaved work. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but I actually was working at the time for once, and lost five pages of the dissertation. Yes, I should have saved more frequently. I am aware of this fact. Believe me, I am aware of this fact. The level of my awareness could not currently be overstated. If the sounds of my curses could have been harnessed, the winter heating bill would be a thing of the past.)


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

80 Hours, and I'm still stuck at the Snakemen's place

I did a podcast with a few of my fellow game scholars on the videogame Dark Souls. We put it up on at that site I work, First Person Scholar. You can listen to it here.

Later Days.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Fearless Defenders Covers: More Comics! Because, why not?

This month saw the cancellation of Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney's "Fearless Defenders," proving once again that we can't have nice things. The idea of the series was that Valkyrie was charged by the All-Mother of Asgard (the lady triumvirate that currently rules the place, because let's face it, Odin is pretty terrible at it) to form a new band of Shield Maidens. Valkyrie's reluctance to select contemporary female heroes to do that led to a power vacuum that was filled by other nasty warriors, and she was slowly putting together a team not of shield maidens but of fearless defenders to protect people; as of the cancellation, the ranks included Annabelle Riggs (super genius, unpowered, body merged with Valkyrie's through some weird doings); Misty Knight (bionic private eye), Dani Moonstar (sometimes X-Man); Hippolyta (Marvel's more war-oriented version of Wonder Woman, with the serial numbers field off); Clea (sorceress and frequent paramour of Stephen Strange); Elsa Bloodstone (British, monster hunter, probably best known for her role in Ellis' NextWave); and Ren (Inhuman, whose powers... um... I forget. She's new).

Besides the female-positive cast, the book was... good, usually solid fun, edging towards great, but never quite reaching it, to be honest. I would have preferred a little more character and a little less nonstop action, although I can certainly see how the virtue of the superhero comic is generally that it does it the other way around. But what was great was the covers of the series, drawn by Mark Brooks. Especially towards the end of the run, they were pretty amazing deconstructions of gender and power in various media forms, a perfect purified version of what the series was aspiring to. But I haven't seen anywhere where all of the covers are collected, so I thought I might as well do the honors. In order then, without further ado, I present the covers of Fearless Defenders.
Issue #1
So far, so generic, though it's nice that each hero is facing the other's regular villain type.
Scottie Young drawn variant cover, which is roughly the same action, but everyone is adorable.
Manara variant, which goes for a pin-up cover-type approach--
A little too much cheesecake, I think.
Deodato variant. ...My, that's a big gun.

Issue #2

Here's where things start to get interesting. It's a very simple idea for a cover, but it works really well. And it starts a transmedia theme that's going to come up a lot.
Martin's variant cover. I like the way the blue and orange juxtapose.

Issue #3
Back tattoo title. Nice way of establishing Hippolyta's style, and putting her at odds with the existing team.

Jiminez variant. I believe this makes the Wonder Woman analog fairly obvious.

Fearless Defenders #4

This one got a lot of attention when it came out. It has the paper doll play aspect, which is generally a feminized activity, but by virtue of being a comic book cover, and featuring a comic book character, it also says something about how comic book creators and fans "dress up" their (female) characters.
Fearless Defenders AU #4

I'm not sure this one counts, to be honest, as it it's a Jiminez cover and was part of the tie-in to the Age of Ultron series, not this series proper. But I do like the way Wolverine, Hulk, and Captain America look sort of dumbfounded at Hippolyta's beheading.

Fearless Defenders #5
Cover as Street Fighter-esque fighting game, illustrating another way that we play with our superheroes. And illustrating the roster of characters that were felt to fall under the title's mandate, though not all of them ever appeared in its pages proper.
Amanda Conner variant. It's a little more generic (the team pose) but it also shows the variety of Defenders the book could potentially feature.
This, on the other hand, shows no members of the series at all, in order to participate in the "Wolverine Through the Ages" cover series, a bunch of alternative covers that have nothing to do with the comics, but do feature Wolverine from various points in Marvel past, present, and future. Well done, Marvel. You have taken your all-female comic, removed the title characters, and replaced them with your best-selling male character. Very on the nose.
Fearless Defenders #6
Recasting the superhero cover in the genre of the 50s horror comic. Undead Norse vikings lend themselves well to that sort of thing.

Fearless Defenders #7
I think there's a reversal of the manual labor = men stereotype, though we've also got the medium-displacement joke (comic book cover as billboard) and the displacement of labor (superheroes in costumes wearing uniforms for manual labor).

Fearless Defenders #8
Cover as sketchpad, and one that's definitely emphasizing the female form. The pencils are eraser are a nice touch.

Fearless Defenders #9
Another example of re-appropriating a genre that's highly charged when it comes to female depictions: manga. The bottom has Dani Moonstar saying "Okay, now we're just pandering," in part to show the reader, yes, we realize what we're doing here.

Fearless Defenders 10

Another media appropriation, this time the hip-hop album cover. Makes a nice introduction to the new character too.

Fearless Defenders 11
Soviet-esque poster. Kind of surprised that they didn't put Natasha in the front here, although any chance that avoids stereotyping a character who is already "Russian spy" is probably a good idea.

Fearless Defenders 12


And here we have the end of the line, as the train pulls into the cancellation station. This is probably best of the bunch: a pastiche of the romance novel covers, and maybe the only one that can credibly claim to be inverting heteronormative tropes as well as gender tropes. I also like that it's Riggs that's holding Valkyrie, as it demonstrates how their roles in relation to each other have changed over the course of the series.

So... what have we learned? Well, variant covers aren't all they're cracked up to be; with all due respect to the artists' skills, most of them fail to hit the same height as the original. And that's no surprise; you've got a regular person who's connected to the entire series, compared to someone who's just in to do a single issue, then the regular artist should be able to connect better to the series' theme; otherwise, they probably shouldn't be the regular artist. Moreover, we've got a pretty powerful case that the comic book cover can and should be used better than it is. The covers here generally don't connect to the events of the book, but they do illustrate the characters we should be paying attention to, and do a great job of presenting visually the themes that the book wants to claim as its own. That's so much more than a generic pose or random action shot that the typical cover conveys. And it really explores what the cover is allowed to do, as a type and medium. I don't think I've ever become a fan of an artist before just for their cover designs, but I will look out for whatever Mark Brooks does next.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Super Heroin'

Words aplenty about Joe Casey's run on Adventures of Superman (or rather, the run from issue #600 to #623) after the break.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Later, I found a hole in my pocket

So I was walking to school today, and I realized there was a rock in my shoe. Winter's finally hit the area, and I wasn't about to take off the shoe to loosen the offending pebble right there on the sidewalk. Instead, I grin and bear it for the remaining distance. The problem with having a rock in your shoe, though, is that once you notice it consciously, once you go beyond "my foot hurts" to "hey, there's a rock in my shoe," then the annoyance factor increases by at least 100 Erkels. (I am a child of the 90s, and I WILL measure annoyances in Erkels. It is my right.) It doesn't hurt, not really. Even when jogging with a rock in my shoe, I can't go so far as to say it actually hurts. It's more that it lingers. It dwells. It insiduates. The knowledge that there something lodged in your shoe builds and grows. And if you can't get it out immediately, it becomes the pot you're waiting to boil. The scab you can't pick. The itch you can't scratch. Simply by existing, it infuriates. And the extra kicker here is--I didn't have a rock in my shoe at all! I got to the office, thrust off the shoe, shook it all asunder--and nothing came out. I put the shoe back on and the feeling persists. I check again. Nothing in the shoe. I put it back on. It persists. And then I realized that I still felt the encumbrance even when the shoe was off. I checked my sock, and.... sure enough... a dime came out. How about that?

Later Days.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Language warning: DOOM dissertation

And another quotation from yours truly, this time from my dissertation writing:

More generally, DOOM could be considered as the game that cemented the modern conception of the hard-core gamer, negative stereotypes included. As mentioned earlier, Sega, in its promotion of the Sega Genesis, attempted to appeal to teenaged gamers moving out of Nintendo`s “kid” demographic through connecting coolness to its mascot character Sonic’s speed; id pursued a similar sense of cool, but accelerated it, through an emphasis on speed, violence, and a culture of competition that drew on both. Consider this passage from Kushner`s book-length study on id, wherein he describes Romero’s adoption of a “rock star” persona as the public face of id, and his trip to Austin with id employee Shawn Green:
It was all silent except for the sounds of fingers rattling on keys. But all that changed as the id guys began to play.

Romero hurled a few shotgun blasts into an opponent and yelled, ‘Eat that, fucker!’. The sheepish guy on the computer looked up in fear. Shawn knew that look—the look of a gamer never heard true, unbridled smack-talk, just like he’d been the first time he had heard Romero insult him during a game. But now Shawn was a pro and joined right in. “Suck it down, monkey fuck!” he called, after firing a few blasts from his BFG. The gamers cowered. They would learn. (187)



"Suck it down, monkey fuck." I really need to get done this section on DOOM, because it's reminding me about everything I hate about videogames.

Later Days.


Friday Quotations: It still counts if I'm quoting myself

Me: Every time I put my iPhone cord in my mouth, I feel like I'm a heroin junkie about to tie up his arm to get at a vein.
Friend: Why do you put your iPhone cord in your mouth?
Me: This conversation is over.

Later Days.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Rousing Thunder: A Spoilerific review of the new Thor Movie

I went to the new Thor movie with some friends yesterday. Thoughts on that--and on adaptation, father issues, and gender stuff, after the break.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Bing Bling

Often, when installing a new program, you're offered a shiny, FREE new search bar to add to your browser. Well, what I'm wondering is, what kind of schmucks do these people take us for? No, I don't want your free search bar. I'm a highly sophisticated, savy, well-rounded computer user, pal. Listen, I know what free means. Buddy, free means that it's something you're trying to get rid of so you can free up your stock! Well, I'm not falling for it, guy. You get me to use the cheap model now, and when it breaks down right in the middle of me trying to search for the tv listings of my reality soaps, I'll have to take it in to the internet shop!  No thank you, friend. No, I don't want the old beater browser bar. I want the top end model. I want the bells and whistles and I want them to sound off every time I type in the http:// of the url. I want to pay top dollar for the top product, and I'm not going to let some pushy program peddler get away with getting me anything less. I want the Cadillac of search bars. The Rolls-Royce.  Give me the extra extra value meal that I deserve!

...First post this month, and this is what I spend it on. I'm sorry.

Later Days.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Randomocity

I keep meaning to do an extended post or two, to show that I'm back and taking this whole blogging thing seriously. But time keeps getting in the way. Well, fine. Here's a list of nonsequitors that I hope to develop into posts some time soon:
--I put effort into making a Halloween costume for basically the first time ever. Lesson: creativity is expensive. We'll see how it pans out tomorrow.
--I joined a tabletop RPG group. We're playing Old School Hack, which seems to be loosely based on D&D, but with more emphasis on roleplay over character maximization. I play the cleric Meh, who worships the God of Pessimism. So far, I've tried to convert three different people to my faith. The starting pitch: "Have you heard the bad news?" (Which I still say is funny, despite what everyone else seems to think.)
--Ramping up the dissertation research again. Here there be dragons.
--I finished Tales of Maj'Eyal. And by finished, I mean accidentally stumbled into an exploit. So maybe a post on the appeal of rougelike games some day?
--In comics, Battle of the Atom wrapped up. It was one of Bendis' better crossovers, but in the last chapter it suffers from his usual faults, that the resolution seems more about setting up the next storyline than being a natural conclusion of what's come so far.
--Researching crowdsourcing. The general consensus seems to be only slightly more sophisticated than "build it and they will come."
--Currently, the dissertation work has been ferrying together everything I know about DOOM. It's led to some ruminations on stories in games, which we may get to at some point.
--Speaking of stories and games, the visual novel Cinders that I just played through has interesting ideas about destiny and choice, always interesting issues in the visual novel genre, which is essentially a sophisticated Choose Your Own Adventure book.
--Trying to set up a more faithful running schedule. These efforts have run afoul of the dissertation goal. But it's run much more afoul of the weather (pre-winter) and my own laziness.
--Right, the stolen bike thing. Yes, my bike was stolen. But against all odds, the police recovered it two days later. This could be expanded.
--Something's still off, all in all. Has been since I came back from my bro's wedding at the beginning of the month. Person of Consequence still needs to get his groove back. I'll probably watch Stella Gets Her Groove Back for inspiration, because I think my life and the protagonist's are basically the same.
--Read through all seven (so far) of the October Daye urban fantasy series. Want to write something larger about the appeal of urban fantasy.
--Finished a book on kink while I was at the wedding. The sexy kind, not the hair kind. ...And I'm referring to the kink type, not the wedding type. Not that it was an unsexy wedding, it's more that... I think I'll stop there.
--Still haven't come up with a great way to take notes while playing games. My method for books is too time-consuming to apply to a game. Maybe some sort of dictaphone thing?

All right, with much typing, I could've just done one regular post. Live and learn, I guess.

Later Days.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pet Peeves and burying the lede

Pet Peeve: It annoys me when people don't commit to an event, or back out with less than 24 hour notice. The first happens mostly with Facebook events, and the often-useless "Maybe" category. If you're trying to book space as a restaurant, and you have a half dozen "maybes," that's pretty useless information. And if you're trying to plan a party, and the maybes number in the dozens, getting the right number of refreshments is impossible. Generally, the only thing you can do is assume the maybes aren't coming, in which case they should have had the decency to decline in the first place. As for the other case, it crops up in the case where you send out a general "is everyone still in?" the day-of an event, and there's people who remember suddenly that, oh, there's something we're planning on doing that day of the event we've been talking about for weeks, so know we can't go. Sorry.

I know this is a subject that a) qualifies rather absolutely as "first world problems," since it requires people to have a large amount of free time to begin with; and b) is nearly impossible to discuss without coming off as passive aggressive, or defensive, or both. And Lord knows I've done my fair share of refusing to commit. Sometimes I do it because I don't want to hurt the feelings of the people involved, or I'm generally worried about the resulting social implications of rejecting an invitation without an excuse. But honestly, I'm not doing anyone any favors but myself. I'm avoiding commitment and holding up other people's plans for my own benefit. There are also, of course, genuine exceptions. Maybe the time comes around, and you're not feeling up to a night spent in the company of others; maybe there's a genuine emergency that came up; or maybe there's another event in the near future and you don't honestly know if you can make it or not. Again, these are all things I've done myself, on numerous occasions.But I try and make an effort to indicate exactly what my issues are when I can, so those that do want the event to go forward can work around me. Granted, it's a hard balance--there's a fine line between explaining why you can't attend and oversharing, and sometimes it genuinely IS better to just keep a question mark on the whole thing till you can get sorted out. But I like to think those that organize a given event appreciate knowing who they can count on to be there, and, (sometimes) why a person couldn't make it.

/Passive-aggressive rant over.

Oh wait. I'm also annoyed someone stole my bike yesterday. Probably should have talked about that instead. I may be projecting my upsetness on that front into other areas. Maybe.

Later Days.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Post About Nothing

Obviously, we've hit a bit of a blogging slump. I can't even claim it's because of the dissertation, because that's in a slump too. About two weeks ago now, I went back to Saskatchewan for my brother's wedding. And it was great--a very short trip, but I saw literally dozens of people I haven't seen in years. It's always nice to reconnect with family and friends, even if it's a moment or two.

Thing is, it was the mental touchpoint for my fall term. That is, every time I envisioned the future for the past few months leading up to it, it was the clear stopping point. What am I doing in this fall? I'm going home for the wedding. Home the wedding. Home for the wedding. And now that we're past that moment, I find myself a little adrift. The secret, I think, will be to design a series of mini-goals for the dissertation, to push me past that last little hump. Hopefully, that'll suffice to get me out of these duldrums.

The alternative is that I'm not unmotivated, I'm just lazy. Little less you can do with that. Maybe I could bribe myself to finish the dissertation with naps, and the promise of more naps to come.

Later Days.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Friday Quotations: You can basically use this quotation to justify not addressing any point, ever

"I shall beg off saying anything about this problem. Such business is profound, and requires another, greater investigation." --Porphyry, Isagoge.

In other news, I either have a wicked cold, or my allergies and asthma are really kicking it up a notch.

Later Days.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sew What

In retrospect, I probably should have seen this coming. Over the past week, I've eaten my way through a wedding (with a cupcake bar! And a candy bar (that is, a bar serving candy, not a bar made of candy, though the latter was included in the former.)) and a potluck Thanksgiving (three kinds of stuffing! Salad made with tofu soaked in butter! Six pies--mostly pumpkin!). And my regular eating habits aren't exactly examples of dietary restraint. So, something had to give, and in this case, it was the button on my favorite pair of pants. And yes, for those who have been paying entirely too much attention to my life, it was the second pair of pants to suffer such a fate in as many weeks.

I'm trying to address the long-term pants problem by finally getting my running routine back up and, uh, running. I've done two six kilo trips since I got back on Monday, and while that's a far cry from the 10 k regulars I used to do, it's a step in the right direction. The more immediate problem, however, was how to repair the pants in the here and now. And that would require the basic skills delivered in any elementary home ec class. Too bad I never took one.

In my high school, students had to choose certain electives: Accounting or Math C30. Law or  French. Choral or Free Period. (Guess which most people took?) And Home Ec or Industrial Arts. In terms of which I'd be more proficient at.... well, that was never the question. If anything, the question should have been which I was less likely to injure myself or others. But it never came down to that either. Rather, the choice was decided for me. 1990s rural Saskatchewan decided to hold off on that "nontraditional gender differences" for as long as possible, and it was socially understood that boys took IA and girls took Home Ec. And so it was. My social standing was precarious enough that I didn't see any point in rocking the boat. Not that IA ever went very well either; from the first day, the teacher assumed that those going in had a certain level of background knowledge concerning things such as tool names and engine parts, and those lacking that knowledge were... well, let's just say being in IA didn't help my social standing either. It was with great relief all around that alternatives generally arose in the form of Information Processing and Computer Science.

At any rate, sewing a button onto a pair of pants is something that never really entered my oeuvre. But I figured it was mostly doable. Thus, I bought a needle case full of needles, a relatively inexpensive spool of black thread, found an appropriate how-to internet wiki, and went to town. Here's how it panned out, via a series of Facebook posts:
Sewing attempt #1: failure. However, we have established several important sewing principles. Such as, remembering to thread the eye of the needle. Also: that needles have eyes. Scaaaarrrryy. Will post future updates as they occur.

Sewing attempt #2: failure. Note to self: think through the order in which the thread goes through the button holes before the thread goes through the button holes, or it will "look weird."

Sewing attempt #3: AAAAAAAHHH I THINK I SWALLOWED A NEEDLE

 Sewing attempt #4: failure. Note: when the spool is dropped, do not attempt to pick it up by pulling on the thread. That principle doesn't work with toilet paper, and it doesn't work here.

 Sewing attempt #5: Button appears to be fastened. There's still the product testing to go through, but we'll save that for another day.

Okay, 3 didn't actually happen. But there was a point where I realized I'd sewn a bag to my pants, which was practically the same thing.

Anyway, the button appears to hold up under pressure. Thus, I am one tiny step further towards being useful. Next: I learn how to use a bandsaw. That's the next logical step, right?

Later Days.

Monday, September 30, 2013

TV Buff: Nazis, demon possession, and alien abduction, all in one handy place in American Horror Story: Asylum

I splurged, and went through all of American Horror Story: Asylum last week. Thoughts on how that went, after the break. Spoilers, although I'm somewhat forgiven, given that the show ended months ago.

So looking back on the blog archives, I see that I never quite got around to posting what I thought about the first season of American Horror Story. I did, however, quote its best scene, so that's something, at least. What that means at the moment, though, is that I need to give some account of the series' premise. The operating idea here is that it's an anthology series, but one not where every episode is a new thing like Twilight Zone, but one where ever season starts afresh, with a new roster of characters (though not necessarily an entirely new cast). The first season revolved around a haunted house and a number of related ghost stories: the murdered other woman, a high school shooting, a hidden early 20th century home abortion clinic, and a lovers' quarrel turned fatal. It had a surprisingly dark ending (for TV, if not for the subject matter), which was either brilliantly countered or horribly spoiled, depending on who you ask, by a saccharine coda.

But what I find so appealing about the series is the concept. Horror--with the possible exception of video games--has been dominated by the short form, in short story and in film. To be able to explore multiple, simultaneous conventions of horror in a sustained manner is a luxury that TV can offer, and, almost devoid of whether it's any good or not, I'm glad such a thing exists. (That's not entirely true; I once said I'd like any sort of ongoing musical series on television, and then Glee proved that statement to be a liar.) Luckily for me, then, American Horror Story: Asylum is good.



The title pretty much gives away the subject matter here. The story takes place in Briarcliff Mental Institution in 1964, a place run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), whose philosophy is start with the rod and you never have to worry about spoiling; and Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), a man who believes that it's pretty much okay to experiment on these "Darwinian rejects"; that women are either unrelenting sluts who need to be taught a lesson or untouchable saints; and may also be a Nazi. Fun guy. There's also Monsignor Timothy Howard, the ambitious father who founded the institution and hopes to use Arden and Jude's efforts there to further his own career. Most of the show takes place in the institution in the past, and it's here we meet the core cast of inmates: Grace Betrand (Lizzie Brochere) who is an alleged murderer; Kit Walker (Evan Peters), who is thought to be the murderer Bloodyface, but claims his wife was actually kidnapped by aliens; and Lana Winters, a reporter who came looking for a story on Murderface, and winds up an inmate. An episode or two in, we also get Zachary Qunto as Dr. Oliver Thredson, there to assess Walker's sanity. Many stories also start with a scene in present day, where someone claiming to be Murderface chases after victims in slasher-esque vignettes.  Lana's story is especially chilling: she goes in looking for a story about Bloodyface, but when she threatens to expose the mistreatments at Briarcliff, Sister Jude has her committed as insane for being a lesbian, using her girlfriend's fear of exposure as a pressure point to get her to sign the papers.



Like the first season, Asylum intertwines a number of different plot lines. Sister Jude slowly loses control of the asylum to Arden and Sister Mary Eunice, her demon-possessed protege. Eventually, her attempts to fight back reach such a failure that she is committed in her own asylum, and driven mad herself through a combination of electroshock and pills. Lizzie and Kit avoid forced sterilizations after being, uh, rescued by aliens. Arden becomes increasingly disillusioned with Sister Mary Eunice and himself until he meets with a suitably Pyrrhic ending. And Lana finally escapes Sister Jude and Arden's monsters only to run afoul of the actual Bloodyface, going from asylum to murder dungeon. A lot happens in thirteen episodes.



Asylum is lacking a bit of the real world punch that comes with the first season of AHS. For me, the show is at its best when it's juxtaposing real life horror with fantasy horror, and implicitly demonstrating how we use the latter to avoid facing the former. For AHS season one, that's most clear in the episodes featuring the high school shooting. Juxtaposing the shooting with ghost stories and other horror-filled stories really drove home the connection for me that this show is about what we are afraid of. Asylum's setting means it doesn't have the same immediacy; a lot of the real-world horror, such as the ability to commit people to asylums for being gay, or the social stigma on mixed marriages, is easier to dismiss with a "we're past that now" sort of mindset. The present sequences could be seen as a response to that, but like I said, they're really more a slasher pastiche than anything else. Which is fun, but not much more than that (maybe a comment on nature vs. nurture, and the foster care system).

There's also the issue that, for me, the whole alien plotline didn't really work. I'll admit that alien abduction is the sort of urban legend that should play well to AHS, but it falls flat. I think the aliens were never really portrayed as horrific--just sort of unearthly. You could argue that they were never meant to be horrific, but then the resolution of Kitt and Lizzie's story really falls flat. (Which it kind of does either way. It's really a dumb sort of resolution.) It would have been easy for the demon-possession plot to go the same way, but it’s saved by two things: the stellar performances of Cromwell and Lily Rabe; and the appearance of the Angel of Death, who adds a whole new level of creepiness to the show when she starts appearing in front of characters near death.



Where it really shines this season, though, is in the depiction of authority, and its involvement in mental health. Many of these patients are only there because someone else in a position of authority--Sister Jude, Dr Arden, Dr. Thredson--has the authority to say that they belong there. As Thredson points out, that's often authority over life and death. And when this power is placed in the hands of people with their own petty agendas and grievances, the abuses can be terrifying. In that sense, it's similar to the power relations in Orange is The New Black. The added wrinkle is that the series directly confronts the very real fear that people have over mental issues, the fear that what we can't trust our own perceptions, and the stigma that we place on those that we mark as other because they fall on a different side of our insane/sane line in the sand. As that previous quotation should convey, one of the most terrible things in AHS is where the wife's husband uses his authority as a doctor to get her committed. The entire season of AHS: Asylum is about that sort of power abuse.



While the story falls flat in places, the acting almost always is enough to keep you going. Jude, Arden, and Thredson in particular have just the right balance of menace and aloofness to carry their roles past little gaps in logic. In the end, though, a lot of your feelings for the season will depend on how much sympathy you can muster for Sister Jude's character, whether she's a good person who went too far trying to instill order after putting her life back together, or whether she’s a hubristic monster who gets what’s coming to her in a system she created—or a bit of both. I think I fall a little too far on the former side. But her character examination in juxtaposition with Lana’s is ultimately the center of the season. Tragedy is very similar to horror, in that both involve a sharp deviation from what we’re conditioned, societally, to consider as the appropriate consequence of a series of events. Both are about what happens when things go wrong, and the punishment of transgressions. The difference between the two, I think, is that tragedy is still a set of logical consequences, that tragedy still has a traceable flow of events, and we can point to where the wrong thing happened. Horror, I think, is more about a break, an ellipses. It’s horrific because it falls outside of our attempt to explain it, sometimes outside of our ability to conceive it (which is exactl why it should have been awesome if the alien scenes did work—but they didn’t.). Jude, and the whole season of Asylum, is perhaps more tragic than horrific. But the horror is always lurking, and what could be better for horror than a good lurk?



To sort of bring things to a close and bring home my point that the show is all about women and authority this season, here’s the final scene, a flashback conversation between Sister Jude and Lana, before Lana was imprisoned, before anything, almost, had started (I love the “end at the beginning” trope):
Lana: She’s talking about the maniac, Bloodyface. I heard he’s going to be admitted here today. Is there any way I can meet him?
Sister Jude: You’re out of your depth, Miss Lana Banana. You want a story? Write this down. A girl like you, you like to dream large. I’d venture you already have Briarcliff in your rearview mirror.
Lana: You make ambition sound like a sin.
Sister Jude: No, I’m saying it’s dangerous.
Lana: Well, what about you? Saving the souls of madmen and killers is a pretty lofty ambition, wouldn’t you say?
Sister Jude: And you cannot imagine what it took to get here.
Lana: I’d love to hear your story some day.
Sister Jude: No. I don’t think you and I are destined to meet again. (This is called dramatic irony.) But I do hope you know what you’re in for. The loneliness, the heartbreak, the sacrifices you’ll face as a woman with a dream on her own.
Lana: You don’t have any idea what I’m capable of.
Sister Jude: Well, then. Look at you, Miss Lana Banana. Just remember. If you look in the face of evil, evil’s going to look right back at you. (Pause, as Sister Jude looks into the camera/Lana) Please, after you.



It’s a necessary scene, as it circles the square in completing the connection between Jude and Lana, and cementing Lana’s character in the latter portions of the series (and that connection still needed to be made at that point; I think the horror of the last episode may be too subtle for its own good). But it’s also, I think, a way of highlighting the major theme of the season, a commentary on how women are forced into roles, and punished—sometimes horrifically, tragically, punished—when they try to break out of them. And to paraphrase Firefly, since the next season of American Horror Story is called Coven and features the Salem Witch trials, the days of AHS looking at the horror in gender roles and abuses of authority have come to a middle.



Later Days.







Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday Quotations: You can rewind time all you want, Braid; all that's gonna do is let you experience that epic burn over and over again

“The excitement that veils something much more sinister - the odd obsession with an unobtainable systemic perfection, often fueled by unrelated emotional pain or longing fostered by society - the thirst for money masked in frenzied experiments to remodel human behavior - an utter cluelessness and indifference to different modes of values or anything and anyone not in the room. This is the language of tech culture of the early 21st century, and the language implicitly embraced by Braid (even if it tries and fails to be critical of this from within). It's a language that just serves as another sad mirror, another small subset of what we are enacting on the earth and all the pain it causes - social, spiritual, environmental. It's a language that Corrypt, in all its seemingly insubstantial, clunky, box-pushing glory, is acutely aware of. It's a language that Corrypt is very critical of in both its aesthetics and design, in a way that Braid misses the boat on.” --Liz Ryerson

Later Days.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Game Retrospective: Myst-use of Time

In the name of dissertation research, I've finished a playthrough of the original Myst.*  My thoughts and the explanation behind the asterisk, after the break.

Monday, September 23, 2013

To the Last Syllabus of Recorded Time

Last Friday, I received the birthday present I bought for myself: Ryan North's To Be Or Not To Be: A Chooseable Path Adventure. For those who have never heard of this literary work, it's basically a comedy choose-your-own adventure version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. And it is DELIGHTFUL. North, writer of Dinosaur Comics and editor of The Death Machine, is a pretty funny guy, and here he gets to let full loose with his humorous acumen. The book was funded through a kickstarter project, and stretch goals included adding Hamlet's father and Ophelia as playable characters. Ophelia is at least as well-fleshed out as Hamlet; Hamlet's Dad feels like more of an afterthought by comparison, but still gets some very respectable laughs. It doesn't stay very close to the source material (in fact, you're in for a lot of mocking if you make the same, bad decisions Hamlet made), but it does involve a text-adventure parody, a chess game, a book within a book, and a rather violent pirate battle. ("You're sure that, should you ever one day write a book about this story or perhaps a stage production, you'd DEFINITELY include this scene. Why, you'd have to be literally crazy to write a story where you journey to England, get attacked by pirates -- actual pirates! --but then just sum up that whole adventure in a single sentence. Ha! That'd be the worst.")

The interesting thing is, as much as North continually mocks the source material, at the same time, the book's absolutely dependent on it. If you don't know the original story, it's still funny, but it lacks that knowing connection that comes from recognizing how and when the book departs from the source material. So here we are, in the year 2013, with a book that intimately about the past--the lineage of choose your own adventure books, including the lineage of Shakespeare--but is also dependent on pop culture references, from Fresh Prince and rap battles to videogame achievements. What does that say about pop culture trends? What does that say about societal values? And what other works say something similar?

Where I'm going here is, if I were to construct a course about Shakespeare and Pop Culture, what would I put on it? What's the syllabus and master reading list here?

Well, here's some ideas. This book, obv. Also:
Kill Shakespeare!, the meta-comic book series where the villains of the Shakespeare plays team up to kill him.

Film-wise, every modern interpretation of Shakespeare ever qualifies--from the Whedon Much Ado About Nothing  to the Mel Gibson Hamlet. I'd gear things more towards works that are loose adaptations rather than exact translations, though. The DiCaprio Romeo and Juliet, set in modern day, is as close to exact as I'd want to get--I'd much rather address 10 Things I Hate About You.

The Shakespeare issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman is another obvious pick.

I'd love to force students to watch the Macbeth adaptation in Gargoyles, though that's so far from the source as to be barely recognizable. But on the other hand, exposing students to the voice acting of Keith Davids, Marina Sirtis, and John Rhys-Davies seems like the best idea ever.

I'd also like to include more music-based stuff, and pop culture that's less than current (yes, I'm counting "within my lifetime" as current.). Maybe even force students to read Dryden's version of Antony and Cleopatra, "All for Love"? 

The Simpsons episode where they do Hamlet.

I'd like a videogame connection. It seems crazy to me we have a AAA game based on Dante's Inferno, but no Shakespeare games that come to mind.

I'll open the floor to comments: what else belongs on a list of Shakespeare and Popular Culture?

Later Days.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday Quotations: The One Where the Fictional Construct of Presenting Thoughts as Dialogue is Challenged

"But how does this intensely private, individualistic view of the mind account for the following scene in the sit-com Friends. One friend, Phoebe, lets slip to another, Rachel, that all the other friends think that she, Rachel, is still in love with Ross. Rachel protests that this is not true and that she is over him, but then she eventually agrees that yes, all right, she is still in love with him. 'But why didn't you tell me?' Rachel demands to know. 'Because we thought you knew!' exclaims Phoebe. What this eschange appears to show is that Rache's feelings about Ross were more accessible to the other friends than they were to her. They all knew that she was still in love with Ross even though she did not know herself. On the other hand, we should not go too far in this direction because the conversation also shows the knowledge that people have of the inner states of others can be patchy. Rachel did not know that the other friends knew, and the others did not that Rachel did not know! In a sense, the humor in this scene is a new take on the familiar, cliched joke about the two psychiatrists (or the two behaviorists, depending on your prejudice) who say to each other when meeting, 'You're fine, how am I?' However, the Friends scene is more interesting, it seems to me, for two reasons: it acknowledges that all of us, not just specialists in the study of the mind, have some sort of access to the thinking of others; and it also acknowledges that thought can be private and inaccessible as well as public and shared." --Alan Palmer, Fictional Minds.

Later Days.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Bibliophile: Murder, violence, and other white leisure activities at McMaster University

 “Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. What I wonder is why everybody doesn't carry a book around for those inevitable dead spots in life.”
Stephen King


Well, that was an unanticipated week of blog silence. Let me catch you up:
--I've got a piece coming out at First Person Scholar next Wednesday. Preview: DOOOOOOOOOM.
--The dissertation proceeds at a nonzero pace. Hurrah.
--I will complete Tales of Maj'Eyal. I will. And die trying, if current progress is any indication.
--Scandal is a strangely compelling show. Mostly, though, I just want to give Joshua Malina's character a hug.

And that's that.

This is Bibliophile.

This week, we'll be looking at the new books acquired by the McMaster University Library, after the break.



Sunday, September 8, 2013

Bibliophile: Building a Better Game at Laurentian University

“You get a little moody sometimes but I think that's because you like to read. People that like to read are always a little fucked up.”
― Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

That quotation almost, almost convinces me I should see The Prince of Tides.

This is Bibliophile.

What a week! I administered and marked the exam for my class, I finished Planescape: Torment (finallllly) and got back into dissertation writing in a big way, and a close friend of mine successfully defended his dissertation.  (Yeah, this is one of those posts that I started then finished at a later date.) It's all good. But are the books all good books? Find out, as we delve into Laurentian University, after the break.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Planescape Papers: The Abyss at Last / Work in Progress: Chris Bateman's Imaginary Games

To inaugurate my return to regular blogging, I've got this sprawling piece. It's doing double duty as work-in-progress notes on chapter seven of Chris Bateman's Imaginary Games, and the culmination of my Planescape Paper series. For a bit of background, the book is essentially Bateman's explanation of Kendall Walton's make-believe version of mimesis; check out the review I did of Walton here if you want a primer on that subject before you begin. And see if you can spot the moment where this post switched from something I was doing for my own reading only to something for mass consumption. All that, and a strongly worded suggestion to Don't Stop Believin', after the break.

Friday Quotations: Yes, We Still Do These

"This is the story of a man, one who was never at a loss."

"Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy."

"Tell me, Muse, of that man, so ready at need, who wandered far and wide, after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy, and many were the men whose towns he saw and whose mind he learnt, yea, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the deep, striving to win his own life and the return of his company."

"Tell me, Muse, of that man of many resources, who wandered far and wide, after sacking the holy citadel of Troy."

"Muse, speak to me now of that resourceful man
who wandered far and wide after ravaging
the sacred citadel of Troy."

Five translations of the first line of the Odyssey, still one of my favorite stories, and one of the real pleasures of my undergraduate studies. I love all the different translations for "resourceful": "many of many resources," ingenious, "so ready at need," and "one who was never at a loss," which is probably my favorite.

Later Days.




Monday, August 26, 2013

TV Buff: Orange is the New Headline Joke

I binge-watched 13 episodes of Orange is the New Black, in between jotting about a dozen pages of the dissertation. Comments (on OitNB, not the dissertation) after the break.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Movie Buff: The Sapphires

This review will be a lot shorter than Take This Waltz; I didn't have nearly as strong a reaction to it. Essentially, the movie is about a group of Australian Aborigines who get a manager (played by Chris O'Dowd) and book a gig singing for American troops in Vietnam. Given the way the movie starts to unfold, I mistakenly got the impression that it was going to be a gender bender version of Cool Runnings, switching Jamacian bob sledders with Aborigine singers, with Chris O'Dowd playing John Candy. Yes, I thought, I'd watch that. And I got irrationally annoyed when it turned out to be more of a romantic comedy with some commentary on race and war. The women are great singers and as good as actors as the script needs them to be; Chris O'Dowd is Chris O'Dowd. That is all one really needs to know.

Later Days.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

This Week in Panels: Comics Outside the Big Two


It's time for everyone's favorite not-even-remotely-weekly feature, This Week in Panels! Now featuring panels from Archer and Armstrong #12, Saga #13, and Astro City #3. All after the break.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Game Retrospective: Lollipop Chainsaw

I have a well-documented tendency to watch movies while I play videogames, and so, while I was going through Take This Waltz the other day, I was also playing through Lollipop Chainsaw. (In case you're wondering, I'd sometimes pause one or the other when a particularly interesting scene was occurring. And at one point, I paused both when the urge to play Candy Crush Saga became too great.)  It made for a very odd experience. In the case of Waltz, I was watching something with a fairly positive feminist message and a fairly unlikeable female lead; in the case of Lollipop Chainsaw, I was playing something with a fairly problematic and possibly outright sexist message and a fairly likeable female lead. It was troubling. More on game mechanics, voice acting, and liking things that are bad for you after the break.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Movie Buff: Take This Waltz

I saw this movie after it was recommended to me by a friend. (Well, actually, what he said was, "there's like a five minute nude scene," but after four glasses of wine, that certainly sounded like a recommendation.)  The film stars Michelle Williams as Margot,  Seth Rogen as her husband Lou, and Luke Kirby as Daniel, the artist down the street whom she falls in love with. And there's a notable performance by Sarah Silverman as Margot's best friend Geraldine. It's not a movie that's really big on plot, nor one that really keeps you guessing. From the moment Margot and Daniel look at each other, it seemed pretty clear how this was going to end. And it's not even really a film about the characters involved. Lou and Daniel are both fleshed out only as much as they need to be to play their roles in Margot's life. Lou is cute and funny, but sometimes far too slow to respond to Margot. Daniel... smoulders a lot. Really, of the two, I thought Daniel was pretty undeveloped. He exists to appeal to Margot, and that's about it. Honestly, I think you could argue that Lou exists only to prop up an aspect of Margot too, except that Rogen's performance adds a bit more. I originally thought that Sarah Silverman's role in the film was to hint at a world beyond Margot, since a fair bit of time was devoted to establishing her as a recovering alcoholic. But no, that trait's just there to give her a particularly devastating speech to Margot at the end of the film.

So, then, if the film isn't about characters or plot, what is it about? Well, it's about Margot. Sort of. Michelle Williams does a really great job in establishing Margot as more than just a flighty 20 something, just through small things, like body language and facial expressions. And the film itself gets some credit here too; the opening and closing frames with her baking, for example, do a great job of establishing who Margot is when she's doing the mundane. But at the end of the day, I think there's a case to be made that Margot isn't really supposed to be a real person either. Rather, she's a living form of the abstract question at the heart of the film: "At what point is it okay to give up a good marriage in exchange for what could be a magnificent love?". And the film is less about depicting the lives of these people and more about finding that point.

And honestly, that doesn't interest me too much. I think it's fair to say I didn't really care for the film. And I had to ask myself whether that's because it's a film about a woman going against some societal norms. Did I dislike Margot because she dared to, as the film would put it, dare to try to fill that existential void everyone has? To stop being afraid to be afraid? ...Maybe. Would I have felt the same if the genders of the main characters had been reversed, if it had been a husband who fell in love with the girl next door? ...Again, maybe, but it's not really a fair question; you change the genders, and it's a different movie. It's a movie about the choices women face, not men. And part of my distaste, I think, comes from the fact that I'm fairly sure, if I was ever put in such a love triangle, I'm far more likely to be Seth Rogen than Daniel. And that's a perspective that entirely misses the point, because, again, it's a movie about a woman, not a man. But aside from all that, I still don't like the movie. I think there's two reasons, at the core. First is that I didn't really care for Margot, from the start. Within the first five minutes of the movie, she fakes a disability so she can ride a wheelchair through the airport, because she fears missing a connection. That's such an inherently selfish thing to do, and I found it really hard not to read her future actions through that lenses. And second, I'm not really a fan of the way the film placed its characters second to its main question. It feels a little too didactic to me, a little too heavy-handed.

So: it was a film of some really great acting, and more than a few good moments in terms of directing and writing. And I can see how it could be viewed as a positive feminist message, that women don't have to give up their passions because of the commitments they made. But all in all, it was a miss for me.

Later Days.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bibliophile: Force of Habit and Death by Chocolate at Lakehead University

“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones


 This is Bibliophile.

All right, the blogging's fallen off a bit this week. I blame the economy. Don't worry, the Bibliophile will put things back on track. This week, we're going to look at what new books are available at Lakehead University, after the break.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Planescape Papers: Drinking to Forget

Today's Discussion: Art in the Age of Magical Reproduction. Okay, it's really about thematic consistency and memory. But the first one sounds cooler. After the break.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Bibliophile: It Only Hurts When You Laugh at Carleton University

“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.”
Sir Francis Bacon 


This is Bibliophile.

Ever hit undo one time too many and erase an entire blog post? Well, I sure did. I had all my books selected, and then, with a few errant key strokes, lost it all. Ah, hubris. It's funny--I've officially turned 30 today, and I keep interpreting everything as this omen for how the next decade will be. Oh, the restaurant I wanted to go to is closed for renovations? Omen. The weather's nice today? Omen. Lost a Bibliophile post? Omen. It's going to be a long next thirty years if things keep appearing to be symbolic constructions referring to other entities the entire time.  Anyway, this week, Bibliophile takes a trip to Carleton University. We'll be looking at some of the new books it's accumulated in the next month, after the break.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Friday Quotations: What, what are we doing?

Sadly, the Planescape Papers hasn't quite been the boon for writing that I hoped it would be. But come on, you got 2000 words yesterday. And I'm turning 30 this weekend. I'm allowed to rest on my laurels for a little bit.

What are we here for, again?

Oh yeah, the quotation of the week. Here ya go:

"Again the ext. of the house, from a high angle, the lights holding steady for now. Descent is a soundless rush, the wood shakes becoming irregular things with grain, impact imminent, but then, suddenly and without explanation, no more aerial view, no more snow, no more wind. Penetration. We're inside, the octagonal attic window high int he shot serving as orientation. The only thing visible in the dried-velvet darkness is an even breathing, cold white moisture rising once, twice, dollied toward, positioned on the screen so that there would be room above the implied mouth for eyes, if eyes were opened." --Demon Theory, Stephen Graham Jones.

Later Days.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Planescape Papers: Crossing the Rubikon, Pt 2: Satire and the Evil Wizard

Right--so the schedule of this series fell off the rails a little bit. What happened? Marking research papers happened. On the bright side, the students delivered a lot of pleasant surprises. It's always a risk to allow students the option to write about "anything," but if you work with them on narrowing the topic, sometimes you can get some real gems. Unsurprisingly, people tend to put a little more effort into papers where they feel they've got some expertise. Ask a health sciences student for a  research essay on Shakespeare, and they'll feel out of their league; let them do an essay on Alzheimer's, and you'll get something better.

But that's besides the point. Today: we enter the Rubikon, and discuss the nature of satire in videogames.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Bibliophile: Yesterday is Here Again

"A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” --William Styron
Note: I went to make this week's Bibliophile, when I realized I never got around to posting *last* week's Bibliophile. Which, in turn, was a Bibliophile that I had never finished for the week before that. Punctuality is hard. But it makes the title I originally intended even more apropos, so it all comes out in the wash.

This week, Bibliophile is on the road once more, with a short discussion of some new books at Brock University. Brock U has a lovely new book list, conveniently sorted by call number. And we will plunge its depths. After the break.
(I'll level with you--this is actually last week's Bibliophile. I started it, but there just weren't enough hours in the day, or at least that particular day, to bring it to the end. But today, I'm stuck at home. I forgot to refill my inhaler prescription, so any activity as strenuous as leaving the house is probably beyond my ability. So we've got plenty of time to wrap things up here.)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Planescape Papers: Crossing the Rubikon Pt 1

As I said in my previous post, I'm going to spend an indeterminate amount of time on this blog blathering on about Planescape: Torment, the Interplay game from 1999 that I've devoted a disproportionate amount of my life to. I think I'm going to limit posts to 500ish words, just to be mindful of the labor involved. Last time, I talked about what made it so different from other CRPGs at the time, that it focused on story and dialogue and minimized combat. So, naturally, a perfect place to take the discussion is a section that does the opposite. Join me at the Rubikon, ladies, gentlemen, and aspiring thief/fighter dual classes, after the break.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Quotations: Quod Erat DEATH-onstratum


 



One of the things you learn in Planescape: Torment is that the person you used to be before losing your memory wasn't necessarily a nice person.

Later Days.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Planescape Papers: Neo-liberalism and Art of Conversation

My postings have decreased at a point where my dissertation research has also been slowed, and the suggested correlation is the 1999 computer RPG, Planescape: Torment.  I'm currently working on the chapter on 1990s games, with the general theory that this is the period where "realistic graphics" became a driving force with videogames, as a result of the technological increase that made such graphics possible. Torment is the counter-case; arguably, it also strives for realism, but less through graphics*, and more through copious walls of text providing mood, background, and other bits of information. It's set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, or rather, set in Planescape, which is the multiverse containing the Dungeons & Dragons universe, so there's a pretty damn big well of information to draw from. I love Torment. (Read that in both senses of the word.) I love its plot, its characters, its world. It's one of my favorite games, and I wouldn't change it for the world. But right now, it's killing me. It's a long game to begin with, and when you're stopping every few seconds to take notes on this conversation or that description, it takes oh so much longer. And an added problem is that I'm in such a rush to get through it, I'm not doing much beyond taking notes. I haven't let myself stop and analyze very much, which is really the point of the exercise.

Well, fine. I've got a blog to populate with content; I've got two notebooks full of notes; I've got a game that's STILL only 2/3rds done. Ladies, gentlemen, assorted undead immortals, welcome to the Planescape Papers. Today's topic: neo-liberalism and the PS:T overview, after the break.

*Planescape: Torment has some beautiful graphics, actually, in terms of its background design especially, but they're largely non-interactive, and not really the main event, so to speak.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Things I Wrote Elsewhere

This is a week old by now, but if you haven't checked it out, please feel free to do so:


http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/the-games-canon-or-canon-games/

The unofficial theme of First Person Scholar this month is "editorial perspectives," and this piece is my attempt to justify why a publication about videogames should do a book review every three weeks. And it touches on some of my larger ethos regarding scholarship in general. To any of the blog's regular readers (if I still have regular readers) who check it out, I've got a question: do you find it any different in tone than what I do here? Just curious.

Later Days.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Triad: Brandon Mull's Beyonder Trilogy

The usual preamble and excuses for a book triad apply: I've fallen rather thoroughly off my nonfiction wagon, which is nothing new, but this time around, I also fell behind on my Goodreads reviews. It gets more complicated to find the reviews at that point, because the date added and the date finished reading get buried in the overall pile. But it so happens that I now have a stack of reviews ready for posting, and a promise to post more fresh off the digital presses, and so... ladies, gentlemen, other parties interested in the fine art of reading, I give you The Book Triad.
This one's a little different; I read an entire trilogy one after the other, and did a single review, so I'll just post that, with a bit of post-credit commentary at the end.  It'll be a fond trip down memory lane to the ramble-ridden book reviews of yore. So:
A review of

Brandon Mull's Beyonder Trilogy: A World Without Heroes, Seeds of Rebellion, and Chasing the Prophecy

After the break.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Quotations: If A Baron Falls in the Forest, and No One Hears Him...

And so, from Prince Sanchez' laconic exclamations and a detailed account by the gentleman in black, Cosimo succeeded in reconstructing the story of this colony living on plane trees. They were Spanish nobles who had rebelled against King Charles III about certain contested feudal privileges, and been exiled with their families as a result. On reaching Olivabassa, they had been forbidden to continue their journey. Those parts, in fact, on account of an ancient treaty with His Catholic Majesty, could neither give hospitality nor even allow passages to persons exiled from Spain. The situation of those noble families was a difficult one to cope with, but the magistrates of Olivabassa, who wanted to avoid any trouble with foreign chancelleries, but also had no aversion to these rich foreigners, came to an understanding with them. The letter of their treaty laid down that no exiles were to 'touch the soil' of their territory; they only had to be up on trees, and all was in order. So the exiles had climbed up there for some months, putting their trust in the mild climate, the hoped-for arrival of a decree of amnesty from Charles III, and Divine Providence. They were well supplied with Spanish doubloons and bought many supplies, thus giving trade to the town. To draw up the dishes they had installed a system of pulleys. And on other trees they had set up canopies under which they slept. In fact they had settled themselves very comfortably, or rather, the people of Olivabassa had settled them well, as it was to their advantage. The exiles, for their part, never moved a finger the whole day long."
--The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino.

The Baron in the Trees is an odd book; it does what it says on the tin, in that it's about a young boy who goes to live in the trees after a fight with his father. And stays there. And eventually becomes baron, and rules over his people, all without ever setting foot on ground again. It doesn't have the metanarrative or structural complexity that I've come to expect from Calvino; rather, it's closer to the sort of thing Borges or Gabriel Garcia Marcez might write. That is, there's a dreamy yet matter-of-fact sort of innocence to the whole thing.

Sorry for the long blog silence. It's been a busy few weeks: conferences, defenses, and a lot of playing through Planescape: Torment for the dissertation. I think it's going to be the last game I go through at such length--unless you're writing a book on nothing but that game, this level of thoroughness is nice, but not really warranted, given the desired results is a dozen or two pages of analysis.   Expect more blogging in the next few days.

Later Days.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bibliophilia: Gothic Animals at University of King's College

 “There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.”
― Bertrand Russell

The University of Waterloo seems to have retreated back into hiatus, so the Canadian Grand Tour continues, with the University of King's College in Halifax. The library is part of a group of Nova Scotia libraries, but as far as I can tell, that collection is distinct from Acadia's, Cape Breton's, and Dalhousie's, so I guess we haven't looked at it before. There's no new books page, so I'll limit the location to King's College, set it to books published in 2013, and see what comes up, after the break. As always, a bold H indicates that the book is in the UW holdings.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Do You Believe in Magic?

I played a game of Magic: The Gathering today. My ex-roommate's boyfriend has been trying to get me to give it a try for a while, so I agreed. (Buried lede: I made an outside of work friend. Take that, kindergarten "doesn't play well with others" assessment.)  If, like me, you're not familiar with the basic mechanic of the game, it goes something like this: (details after the break)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Friday Quotations: Romance Options




Add caption
Kind of makes the clothes-on sex of Dragon Age look a little tame, doesn't it?

Later Days.



Tuesday, July 2, 2013

156 Thoughts about The Last of Us

So a friend of mine decided to be kinder to me than I deserved, and lent me his copy of The Last of Us, the Naughty Dog developed Sony released PS 3 exclusive zombie apocalypse game, to play until he returns from camping next Thursday. I started on Saturday, and finished it today. And I kept a running set of notes on the game as I went. It's partly critical, and partly a first reaction to events as they unfold. Spoilers abound.

156 Thoughts about The Last of Us, after the break.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bibliophile: The Ol' Bait and Switch At Dalhousie

“A book without words is like love without a kiss; it's empty.”
― Andrew Wolfe

I'm not sure why anyone would write a book without words, and if love requires a kiss in all places, a lot of pet owners are performing acts that probably aren't legal, but whatever, it's a metaphor.

This is Bibliophile.

If you're new here, the idea is that I browse through the weekly new book list at my local University library, and note the new entries. Sometimes, though, the phrase "weekly" is a bit of a misomer, and the list fails to be updated, in which case I usually skip the week, or take another Canadian university to browse. This is one of  those latter weeks. So this week, we're looking at the new books at Dalhousie University. Books available at my own local university, good ol' University of Waterloo, will be marked by a bolded H.


Friday, June 28, 2013

This Week In Panels

Let's try out a new (old?) feature and see if it's got some legs. Introducing the almost-certainly sporadic series "This Week in Panels," in which I choose panels or pages from comics that have come out that week. We've got three this time round, all Marvel-based:

Hawkeye 11:
Matt Fraction and David Aja. Aja's been drawing the hell out of this series for a while now, but this issue takes the cake. It's from the point of view of Hawkeye's Dog, Lucky, and I think it really sells the animal-based POV. Basically, it does so through three ways, all of which are present in the page above:
1. The dog (and thus the reader) only understands a very limited vocabulary, which means that--like an animal--we have to get most of the conversations from body language and tone.
2. The panels are, for the most part, wordless--a simple technique, but a useful one, as it foregrounds the importance of the images.
3. You've got the schematic-like, abstract depiction of the human characters following their first appearance, which represents a combination of the dog's scent association, and its memory. I'm not sure I agree with the notion that dogs think in so schematic a fashion, but I do like the idea that they conceive of the world in simpler, more iconic ways, and that it's all about associations. If nothing else, it really sells the notion we're seeing a nonhuman interpretation.


By Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. This is another series that has really been pushing the visual aspect of storytelling, although the more interesting stuff has generally been drawn by Paolo Riveria. Daredevil gives a unique challenge for an artist, because they need to convey the visual experience of someone whose defining trait is that he can't see. This panel isn't really showing that at all, though. I highlighted it mostly because it's the culmination of Mark Waid's run up to this point. For at least the past decade prior to Waid starting on the title, Daredevil's defining trait has been that his life is depressing as hell--his secret identity was ruined, his wife was driven insane by his enemies, and everyone he cared about ended up abandoning him or dying. Waid opened with a simple premise: Matt Murdock can either choose to enjoy what he has, or go mad. And he toyed with both extremes. The last few issues had Daredevil's enemies once again closing in on him, but this single page shows how he's overcome them, by refusing to be brought low. The size of the page--the single panel image--is also much more open than the rest of the comic, with a lot more open space, again symbolizing his reclaimed freedom (although that is a ridiculously long staff).

Young Avengers 6

By Keiron Gillen and  Kate Brown.  This is yet another young Marvel series that's really been pushing the envelope in terms of the visuals. Usually, though, Keiron Gillen's partner in crime is Jamie McKelvie; check out this feature at Comics Alliance.  My favorite is Marvel Boy's 2 page spread, numbered fight, though the panel-breaking Loki is also a highlight. But Kate Brown's proven she's up to filling McKelvie's shoes, and providing her own style. There's a number of pages that I could have picked for this one, but I went with the two page spread showing the speedster's perception of time when he's moving at high speeds. Time is a tricky thing to show in comics, because the images are, by the nature of images, static. And yet without the passing of time, nothing in a comic can happen. There's a number of ways to convey time; Scott McCloud devotes a whole chapter to them in Understanding Comics. Brown uses a few different ones here. If you look close at the images, his hands are slightly blurred, which is a pretty common device. She also uses the size of the panels--the smaller panels suggest not only speed, but fine detail, performing fragmented close-ups, contrasted with the larger panels that show "normal" time. And the whole page is laid out in a way vaguely reminiscent of a microchip, reinforcing the assembly that our speedster's performing. I also like her use of expressions: even without the word bubbles, Tommy's arrogance shines through, from his facial expressions to how he flings around the cup of coffee. David, the onlooker, in contrast doesn't say a word, but still conveys a mix of skepticism and slightly unsettled. I wasn't familiar with Brown before this issue, but I'll be keeping an eye out for her from now on.

I love that this sort of play with the comic form is happening at Marvel, in superhero comics, a genre of comics that tends to be rather traditional. Granted, it's all in decidedly "B-list" titles, but I think it's a good sign of the industry's creative health, if not financial health.

Will this feature ever return? Why not COMMENT AND LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK?

Later Days.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Friday Quotations: Computer Stuff

"He's as near to naked despair as has ever been shown to me by anyone not in a film. Here, in that place, we have no shame. He has seen me sleeping on the floor, drooling. We have both seen Danny's puffy white midsection--young as he is, it's a pity--when he stripped to his underwear in the heat of the machine room. I have seen Joel's dandruff, light coating of cat fur on his clothes, noticed things about his body that I should not. And I'm sure he's seen my sticky hair, noticed how dull I look without make-up, caught sight of other details too intimate to mention. Still, none of this matters anymore. Our bodies were abandoned long ago, reduced to hunger and sleeplessness and the ravages of sitting for hours at a keyboard and a mouse. Our physical selves have been battered away. Now we know each other in one way and one way only: the code.

--Ellen Ullman, "Closer to the Machine."

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bibliophile: Cavorting Like the Greeks of Tomorrow

“I cannot live without books.”
― Thomas Jefferson

The good ol' library has added some 6001 items this week. So we probably WON'T be doing the completionist list this time around. Here's the books I did get to, after the break.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday Quotations: A High Calibur Discussion

“The FPS can be read as a stylized sex-hunting game—the always-erect gun looks for virtual bodies so that he can impregnate them with bullets—there is no other way of negotiating the encounters with other characters.”--Matteo Bittanti

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Montezuma's Revenge

I thought it was time to do another videogame post. So let's see... what have I been playing recently? Have I been playing the new PS4 game that everyone's talking about, Last of Us? No. Have I been coasting the indie scene with Mousechief's game of 7000 years, the 7 Great Steps? Installed, but no. Have I been doing retro horror indie, with a playthrough of Limbo? Well, I thought hard about it. Have I been doing my dissertation research with a playthrough of Planescape: Torment? No again. No, all my time has been spent on this little number:

TToM3 is a tile-swap game. It's Bejewelled with a fancy new paint job, and a vaguely Mayan aesthetic. And for the past two weeks, it has owned my soul.
Let me back up a bit. A "Friend" forwarded me an invite to the Facebook game Candy Crush Saga, which is another Bejewelled clone, with a candy-aesthetic that is so annoying and cloying that I want to play only where I can be sure no one can possibly see me. But--and here's where I was surprised--the game had some depth to it. There was strategy to the shape of the levels, and the slow drip of the new bonus types. Then I hit level 20, and it told me I needed to invite three friends or pay 30 cents, and I said, well, forget that.

However, the tile tyrant was now in my blood. The multicolored monkey was on my back. And so I let myself be sucked into the world of Montezuma. So: it's a tile game. And it follows the simple tile rules. You have sixty seconds, you can swap tiles, line up three of the same color and the tiles disappear, granting you points, and giving you more tiles. Simple/. Except: first, there's the gems. You see, some tiles have gems attached to them. And for every gem tile you get, your score gauge goes up, until you hit a new level, and all the points after that are multiplied by whatever level you're on. Plus, at the end of the round, you get a bonus for each individual gem. So you're not just swapping tiles, you're swapping to remove gem tiles.

But. Speed is also of the essence, because there's a secondary gauge at the bottom, which increases as you make matches, and if THAT reaches it's full, then you score doubles for a short time called a SCORE FRENZY-- and that's on top of the gem bonus. So you want gems, but you also want speed.

But! You're not just going for any high score. You see, when you complete a level, if your score reaches a certain height, you unlock one of the emblems on the chest at hand. Unlock all the emblems for a chest, and you get a star. And if you hit the highest score, then you get another star. And the stars unlock the bonuses. What kind of bonuses? Well, one where, when you make a swap of four tiles, sometimes, a tile with a bomb on it appears, and when you successfully swap that bombed tile, then the ones around it go as well, a delightful explosion of points. There's the clock bonus, where--apparently at random but probably not--after you make a swap of four, sometimes a clock tile appears, and if you swap THAT tile, then you get time added to your clock. And there's a bonus where, if you match 5, there's a chance of a lightning tile appearing, which, when matched, wipes out all others of that color. AND there's another that does the same thing, but instead of wiping out others, it shows you possible moves. Finally, there's two more bonuses, one which adds to the total number of gems that appear on the screen at once, one which raises the ceiling on the score multiplier. And of course, all of these abilities are upgraded with more stars.

BUT! That is still not all. For in addition to these bonuses, the discerning player may also invest in Totems. Totems are another thing altogether. For each totem, you activate the bonus by matching two triple sets of the same color in a row. Two greens summons a totem that removes all gems currently in play and adds them to your count. Two blue summons one that shoots lightning and eliminates local gems. Two red does roughly the same, but with a slightly different dispersal pattern represented by fireballs. Two yellow activates the score mode regardless of your bottom gauge. Two orange adds time, in different amounts than the time icon.Two purples add special tiles, ala the bomb or the lightning tiles. And two whites change a random number of tiles into some other color. Usually, in my experience, it changes more tiles into white tiles, which is less than useful. But more strategy is clearly coming to play. You want to be fast, you want to get gems, but you also want to unlock totems.

And sixty seconds is the perfect length, too. Every time you play, you tell yourself, just one more round. It's just a minute. And then it's an hour later, and your children are at home going hungry because daddy's not coming home to feed them. (Okay, in my case, it's my roommate's dog, not kids, and I'm not responsible for feeding him anyway, but where's the drama in that?) And the worst part isn't the lost time, or the frustration of failure, or the notion there's a hundred hundred other games I could be spending my time on. No, the worst thing is that I'm totally obsessed with this game and I can't talk to anyone about it BECAUSE IT IS THE MOST BORING THING TO TALK ABOUT IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.

Thanks for listening.

Later Days.