Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bone Machine

I suspect there are certain things that are supposed to happen when more and more birthdays pass by, when people remark again and again how old you are now. Some of these things aren't particularly to my liking; I don't care for several of them that I view as childish, but ironically I'm often the one tagged with that label. Some of these things are avoidable - alcoholic abstainment - some of them, maybe not - the view that I ought to have made serious headway into finding the one (actually, just one is fine!). It's too easy and cliched to say I don't want to grow up. In fact I've always felt a little old, which probably is because I've always felt a bit out of place, and all that. I certainly don't care for some of the standards that are placed on being an adult, but is that just a sign of immaturity? That's the problem with going against the grain, either by choice or circumstance - you're pretty much on your own, and have to decide whether it's not mere hubris that makes one think that 50,000 others must be wrong.
Songs that bring out a rare urge in me - hitting the replay button.

1) Ween, "Take Me Away". Regarding Macca's debut, GS makes the observation that only a genius like Macca could take a single verse and craft "That Would Be Something" out of it. I'm not saying Ween are on the same level as that master melodicist, but they have at least managed the same feat. Upon first listen of Chocolate and Cheese, I found myself unable to resist replaying this one more time, which is something I very rarely do. It's rare that a first listen is so convincingly gripping that I absolutely need another to hear the song again right away. This might not be the average psychoanalyst's first choice for a song I'd take to immediately - I'm not entirely myself sure why I like it so much, but one aspect I do like is what I perceive to be an expression of genuine feeling that says exactly enough. One verse is enough because nothing more needs to be said - that long sigh near the end is more than enough.

2) Gram Parsons, "A Song For You". As diametrically opposed to (1) as you'd like, but my analysis of it is very similar. Emmylou Harris sounds superb, and the melody is similarly fitting the tone. But "Take me down to your dancefloor" is the clincher, and "honest" was ringing through my head when I heard it. I use "honest" a lot in my mental analysis of music, and I think what I really mean is that it has soul. It speaks something important which exists outside the artistic world it resides (and was created) in.

Monday, January 19, 2009

With the general trend of the democratization of the internet, I've noted two trends with regards to video games: (1) mainstream sites (e.g. GameSpot) have seen their reputation plummet, and as consequence, (2) there has been a rise in more independent writing on games (a relatively "mainstream" example might be the Escapist). Both are good things, I think; while I feel that GameSpot isn't as fawning as people claim, I think that the sort of critical analysis that is commonplace with books and movies has been missing from the industry as a whole. Which makes (2) a good thing. In theory.

There are a few dangers with introducing the aforementioned style of critical analysis to a new medium. Two that I can think of are that, obviously, one can go overboard, and also that one can start finding things that are not there, just because pretending they exist, or at least overstating their presence, leads to neater analysis! You might have guessed that I think some newer writing on gaming has flirted with these problems. While I've enjoyed some of the social analysis of gaming, and also the very personal meaning it has in people's lives, I think the case for the immersiveness of game worlds, and the choices that games present, are sometimes a little overstated by the new school of gaming journalists and bloggers. Instead of overhyping the case for a game based on graphics, they do it based on gameplay :-) I am a staunch believer in the power of quality games - as I've written about here before - but I must admit that this type of game comes about fairly rarely. I very much understand the wish that more games were like this, but pretending like a good game is great by attempting it to study it formally (usually with the word "aesthetic" used a few times) is just wrong. This overly academic analysis treats a game as though it's a book. It's understandable; many of these writers are probably young, either in our just out of college, maybe studying the humanities. But the danger with using this sort of analysis is simply that I don't think games are currently complex enough to warrant it, so the writing can come across as pretentious. Not to mention that it gives the impression that the only way for something to be worth one's time is if one can wax lyrical about it. Which leads me nicely onto the related subject of whether games are art.

The whole "are games art" issue came up famously with Roger Ebert's slight against gaming, and I did mention it before on the blog. Briefly, these are my updated thoughts. I think a lot of times, art becomes synonymous with something that is worthwhile; sometime that isn't a waste of time. People who play games are used to having to defend against stereotypes about the medium, and the ones who care about the issue of whether games are art are likely the type of gamers who derive more than immediate gratification from them; a Planescape lover can think about it long after the game is over, and reflect on some of the thoughtful settings in the game much like one would do with a book. Therefore, I understand their frustration when a learned critic comes along and says something that sounds like it means "You're all just wasting your time". But I'd say that gamers should be willing to admit that there in general, there isn't the same level of depth and complexity in a game compared to what is designated high-art, because this doesn't matter. The example I brought up the last time I discussed this issue still seems apt; I have no idea if The Simpsons is art, but I certainly don't believe the years pleasure I have derived from it are somehow "not good enough", or "irrelevant" compared to the pleasures of high-art. High-art might be transcendent and contain truths that we have to strive and struggle to understand, and which can genuinely warp the way we view the world and life. But high-art is not everything. Things can absolutely be instructive and valuable without needing to be art. I suspect that good video games fall in this set for the strand of "thoughtful" gamers (like me ;-)), and I think we'd be better off not really worrying whether one day Planescape will be studied in schools around the world; instead, let us hope that designers continue trying to tighten up the aspects of a game, and create something that is truly fulfilling rather than just flashy.

Those are my personal views at the moment. I might be a bit hard on the new style of gaming writers, and in part I'm willing to admit that maybe my misgivings are because I'm out of touch with many of the supposed modern classics. I genuinely think that bringing a more serious and critical discourse to gaming is a good thing. I just think we need to be careful not to make it overly academic, and not get too excited about them being the next great art-form. At some level, games are meant to be fun (though the word can be used loosely), and that can get forgotten if we try to convince ourselves that they deserve to be treated like films and books. If they do deserve such a place, and if quality games continue to be made, it will become apparent to anyone who cares to scratch below the surface.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Literary retrospective 2008

Ok, this is probably going to be borderline ridiculous. I can't even pretend there's a tradition to uphold here, either. There is egotism, though, as noble a force as any.

Last year's reading list was rather average, as you might have guessed. The one positive was the conscious move away from the Western canon, which I was inexplicably stuck for longer than is healthy. It turns out that, as I suspected, there have been good novels since 1930 too. I'll probably get around to re-reading Kafka and Camus someday, but at the moment I'm going to continue trying to spread out. This pretense of being a classicist when it comes to reading was really stifling me, and I've been enjoying my nascent journey in the rest of the literary world.

If I had to pick a favourite among this year's limited batch, I would have to say it was Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. There are two very personal metrics I have for measuring the "meaning" a book has for me. First, at least temporarily, my view of the world is forcibly moulded into whatever the book decides. Invading my dreams is a good start, but sometimes I also imagine that I have read something that has elucidated very deep truths about life that I have long suspected, but never been able to put down in words. It's the point of all books, I suppose, except that this sort of thing is rarely achieved. Auster's book is the first since Crime and Punishment where, on reading it, I started feeling as lost, confused, and unhinged as the narrator(s); that is a huge compliment, incidentally. It is easy to simply state that the world is chaotic, that life can sometimes be mysterious, etc. I think to have the idea really resonate, however, requires considerable skill. In Auster's case, I particularly liked how the stories abjured notions of identity, in particular the unforgettable (and rightfully unexplained) moment where the mighty Quinn witnesses two identical versions of the man he is set to follow.

Second, great books often convince me that as long as I find enough of them to read, I'll never lose the dream of someday writing of similar worth. I remember feeling the old itch to start writing even around 50 pages in, and by the end of it I imagined it was one of those stories written "for me", which I could imagine arising out of my consciousness, even if I might not be able to express the story as compellingly. Something about the way the characters were simultaneously lost, and yet almost walked into the pit willingly really resonated. (That's not necessarily a good thing, but I'll put it down to my lack of clear mental separation between what I feel and what I think others feel.) I've only read one more Auster (The Brooklyn Follies), which is good but not as good as this. Still, it also has these elements of chance, luck, and ponderings on fate that made the trilogy so compelling. If more of Auster's work is in the same vein, I might have found a new idol.

Number 2 for the year was probably Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls: a great example of a book that I had been intending to read for a long time. Fortunately, the heightened expectations from the waiting were matched by the book's quality. I should note that I didn't really take all of it that seriously: yes, you wouldn't find a female character like Maria in a modern novel, but I forgive the novel because of the time it was written. Perhaps even for the time it was a little chauvinistic, but it's enough of a gray area for me to ignore it. I had heard a lot about the tight writing style of the book, which I initially imagined might make it quite pedestrian, even banal. But, it turns out that Hemingway is more talented than I am, because he uses the style to complement the sections where we hear the characters think, assessing and reassessing situations. An interesting way to relate to characters: my poor book-memory can't recall a similar device put to such effective use. The other plus in the writing is that it is extremely readable, probably because it is fairly heavy in dialogue. And finally, it all works towards that"hell of an ending", as McCain put it.

I was very disappointed with Murakami's Norwegian Wood, one of those books I'd meant to read for at least a couple of years; I was so focussed on finally getting my hands on it that I didn't even consider the possibility that I would actively dislike it. The style is fine, actually - it is absolutely distinctive, and it's the sort of thing that one can imagine being really engaging. Alas, only "imagine", because the story itself I found rather irritating. Toru's constant "trysts" might be seen as normal, given the time the story is set in. You could make a case for it, but I still found it quite distasteful. Instead of being sensual (which I could understand), it came across as just lascivious; I was especially fed up with the events of the last few pages. Like I said, though, the writing style is interesting, so once I've managed to put aside my disappointment, I might try the Wind Up Bird Chronicle.

It took a surprising amount of perseverance to get through a Huxley book I hadn't previously read - Time Must Have A Stop. I felt I pretty much have to, given that I was thinking a lot about time at one point during the year, and was eager to find anything that resolved the olde quote: And time, that takes survey of all the world / Must have a stop. "Must" - the "must" of one who knows, not one who hopes (I think the book brings this up towards the end). I don't have a lot to say about the book, except that I am glad to report that, on the whole, I liked it. I was worried that I would find Huxley's style positively callow, because the "me" who liked his books four or five years ago was very easily impressed. I initially did find myself cringing a little - the classic Huxley signposts like casual discussions about art at the dinner table, for example - but this passed. I think that Huxley's writings are still instructive because, while he sometimes does let the ideas get in the way of the novel, these ideas are still pretty interesting. They aren't just adolescent mysticism, because they are consciously about the interplay of art and science. The issues he deals with still haven't been answered, really; and while his personal views might not be novel, I can't deny that I still find reading his little essays-masquerading-as-novels quite enjoyable. Phew! One idol still intact. If I ever have the strength to go back to Hesse, I hope I can say the same thing!

I'll stop here, I think; while I did actually read a bit more than the above list might suggest, few of the other books had a particularly strong impact on me. All "good", but I have trouble enough writing about books I really like. Predictions for 2009? With the discovery of a nice little bookstore near where I live, I'll probably end up reading more semi-modern books; Updike, anyone? And while this is a little bold, I think I'll end up nominating Cat's Cradle to be my favourite book of the year. Were I a baser man, I would've cheated and included it on this list. But as proud defender of the sacred traditions of the retrospective, I shall wait for the next year to arrive, and see what competition Bokonon might face.