Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween Recommendation: The Walking Dead

Pictures by AMC

Oh my, it's nearly Halloween already! Time really passes fast. That's why I have to get another Halloween recommendation off my chest quickly. Here they come, The Walking Dead!

The Walking Dead begins in a manner very similar to another of my genre favourites: 28 Days Later. A man, a cop actually, wakes up from a coma in a hospital and has to find out the hard way that while he was unconscious the hordes of the undead, just referred to as 'walkers', descended upon his small hometown. Now he has to make his way in this new society, trying to find his family and work together with any survivors that he might find along the way.

I am not really sure what I think about the premiere date of AMC's new series The Walking Dead. On the one hand Halloween is perfect for the premiere of a zombie TV series, on the other hand, won't the primary target audience of this series be busy being dressed up, having a party and stuff like that? (I surely am planning on being Zoey from Left 4 Dead for Halloween) Still, even if they don't catch it when it first airs then at least the VCRs will be sure to preserve it for later viewing.

AMC, what I have seen of you so far (and my experience ends with Mad Men) I have really enjoyed and you are surprisingly high quality for a relatively small cable channel. Will The Walking Dead be able to fill the sad void that has been left behind after the season finale of the latest season of Mad Men aired?

At first glance it has to be said that the genres are extremely different. Subtle drama on the one hand, bloodthirsty zombies on the other. However, a look at the moderately paced pilot of The Walking Dead could make you think again. Veterans of the zombie genre are often used to a movie spanning 90 minutes. Now the first episode of The Walking Dead is pretty much just as long, but compared to your average zombie movie the plot progresses very slowly. Which is natural and a good thing, actually. Since all in all we will get six episodes in this first season, there is no need to spill all the beans in the first one. I think the genre really benefits from having time to breathe occasionally.

From what I could see so far I think The Walking Dead might surprise us with how far it actually is from your average zombie movie. I have really high hopes for the series and I am also excited to find out how that material does outside of movies, videogames or comics. I haven't read the comic book that The Walking Dead is based on, but all around you hear that it is outstanding and thought-provoking. Maybe it will be a good replacement for Mad Men after all. And it has zombies, on top of that!

I have of course also heard claims of sexism towards the comic book, but I don't think I have seen enough to pass judgement on that just yet. All I can say is The Walking Dead is a treat that zombie enthusiasts should not miss out on this Halloween!

Cross-Overs... always a good idea?

Recently I heard that Eminem and Rihanna are apparently doing some music thing together and I started wondering about the phenomenon of "crossovers" in general. I can't say that I really know what Eminem's songs are about and I am not sure I have ever listened to a single song of Rihanna but I wondered what kind of effect a collaboration of these two would have. I repeat, I don't actually know in which relation the work of those two artists stands, I just couldn't help but wonder: Hey, wouldn't some fans of Eminem boycott the single because they don't want anything to do with Rihanna or the other way around? In the end I thought that two large fanbases would be combined by a collaboration and even if a portion of those fans boycotts the product, then there is still the combined fanbase which ensures more profit in the end.

I guess crossovers or collaborations are always profitable for every party in the deal, but are they always good?

My initial reaction to the crossover of Ace Attorney Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton was: Hell to the no, this has to be a joke, what the fuck were they thinking?! I mean, those two don't really fit together at all. Fine, the genre is sort of similar. In Professor Layton you solve a case by solving puzzles and in Ace Attorney you sort of solve a case by finding clues that help you defending your client. Yet, one of the big things that attracted me about Professor Layton was the very distinct setting somewhere in the early 20th century, strongly influenced by French music, some almost steampunky elements and a general old European feel. Ace Attorney on the other hand isn't even set in a similar timeframe, it doesn't sport the same drawing style or colour palette. It's set in present day and drawn in your typical Anime drawing style, while Professor Layton, at first glance, seemed very much like having come from the pen of a francophone comic artist. They are just so different! The trailer also didn't reassure me, I thought the different styles clashed wildly. I bet that there is going to be a plausible explanation as to why both protagonists and their sidekicks find themselves in the same world but I am not so sure I might buy it.

What about crossovers like Marvel vs. Capcom? Sure, I can easily imagine characters like that beating each other up, no matter where they came from. It has been a little treat of fighting games to have unexpected hidden characters that don't really fit into the universe of the game but are nevertheless available to choose as your avatar for a long time now. Thus, it's not really unusual to have two worlds of superheroes or fighters clash with each other at all. However, to put Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright against each other makes them clash in a way that not everybody might find to their taste.

I just don't know. Marvel vs. Capcom, sure! That's a fitting cross-over game. Eminem and Rihnanna making a song together? Why not, people will buy it for sure. But Professor Layton and Ace Attorney, I am not so sure about that. I just think it clashes too much and in a way that I don't find aesthetically pleasing. If the story will prove to be good enough to captivate people who were thrown off my the cross-over at first remains to be seen. Either way, so far I can see that fans of both the games are happy about the announcement. So in the end both parties will at least have a financial gain from this crossover.

Plus, you have to get a Nintendo 3DS for it? Is that why you combined your mighty powers of successful franchises, to boost the sales for your new console, Nintendo? Hmmm? Well, experience shows that Nintendo's console sales hardly ever need boosts and I expect the same will apply for the Nintendo 3DS. I, however, am still sticking to my old trusty Nintendo DS Lite. I have never even touched one of these Nintendo DSis and they are already bringing out the next console. Always one step ahead, Nintendo, eh?

P.S.: Layton kicks Wright's butt!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Self-Aware and Self-Unaware Fantasy

Picture by Tom Woodward

If you are into fantasy books then you have a big problem. The genre is huge and has a lot of different sub genres and all of these harbour a lot of different styles of writing.

One thing, one underlying theme that just stuck out to me in fantasy is whether the author is writing fantasy in a self-aware way or not. It's really kind of hard to define but generally you have authors saying stuff like "Oh, it wasn't a conscious decision to write in this genre, I just want to tell a story! I write because I need to tell this story." or they don't say that.

It's usually people who are writing a kind of self-unaware fantasy who claim that they just want to tell you a story. That's not a bad thing at all. I'd put J. K. Rowling into that category of self-unaware fantasy writers and George R. R. Martin, too. Their stories are amazing and they can be amazing metaphors for what is going on in the real world, but they aren't consciously written as fantasy stories because they use the genre as a part of their construction, they are just written as fantasy stories because that's what the story is like. They are good stories and I especially like Harry Potter but I just find there is something fundamentally different about self-aware fantasy.

Self-aware fantasy would be stuff like The Lord of The Rings, obviously. J. R. R. Tolkien was not just a fantasy writer, he was a scholar and researched linguistics just as much as Anglo-Saxon culture. His Lord of the Rings can be seen as very awarely constructed work, just as you might look at the Middle English poem The Pearl. Some amazingly constructed piece of work like that, whose form alone is so extremely complex and yet perfectly corresponds to the content can only be the work of somebody who exactly understands what he is doing and what traditions he is drawing on when he is completing his work. Alright, The Lord of the Rings doesn't rhyme or have a certain number of lines or stanzas as far as I am aware of but it's a huge piece of work and draws on not one but many writing traditions. Tolkien incorporates elements from Anglo-Saxon culture just as he uses motives from World War I literature to create a critique of militarism and within that industrialism. The usage of that pastiche of elements and traditions is a commentary in and of itself. To create something like that, you have to have more than a "simple story" as a starting point. You must be aware of the writing traditions that you are drawing from, of the motives that you are using and what you are creating in the end is not a "simple story" but it is also a commentary on the genre itself.

It's hard to find somebody to liken to Tolkien and say: "Self-aware fantasy as it is written by Tolkien and..." yeah, by whom? Who else can we say writes fantasy in a way that is aware of the construction of the genre itself, its legacy and its potential? I might say that we could count Sir Terry Pratchett among these people. He doesn't strike you as somebody who just wants to tell you a story. I think he is very aware of the traditions of the genre and breaks them quite a lot. What I look for most in his books are his "moments" as I have come to call them. In every book, at least once, there will be a moment where the funny fantasy story in front of you just vanishes and it turns into a social commentary on our world. Those moments are why I read his books. And he doesn't do it in a lazy or obvious way either. When you read his works you realise that there is something behind it and that the author just has to be aware of it. It's like you are stepping behind a curtain and there you find the author, standing with you together and him saying: Oh yeah, I know. I am here, too. That's why I wrote it the way I did.

This idea of self-aware and self-unaware fantasy has been in my head for quite a while and I have never really found a way to exactly put it in a satisfying way. Even now I can't really make up a definition that always fits. In a way, a lot of it depends on what you think the author had in mind when they wrote something and this is something you will never be able to tell for sure, so I haven't decided how much merit this categorisation does have right now. It's important to stress though, that you can't tell the two apart by asking yourself whether the story can be an allegory for real life or not. Harry Potter is an allegory for a lot of things, among them J. K. Rowling deals with the terrors of the Third Reich in a very thoughtful way, but allegory and metaphor is not the same as self-aware fantasy. The author has to be aware of fantasy as a genre and specifically use that in their writing. The starting point isn't necessarily the story but the genre itself.

Also, self-aware fantasy doesn't necessarily have to be better than self-unaware fantasy or the other way around- Not at all. A skilled writer tells you an amazing story, whether they deconstruct the entire fantasy genre in the process or not. But let's just say, I don't think Stephenie Meyer was very aware about the genre and its traditions when she wrote her series.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Yet another Vampire-series? True Blood review

Yet another Vampire-series? Not really. Based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries series of novels by Charlaine Harris, True Blood is not quite your average vampire-fare. With movies like Twilight the vampire genre has become extremely mainstream during the last few years. But can new and interesting things be found in a series that deals with the same old motifs?

True Blood does have its original elements, one being that the existence of vampires has now officially been acknowledged by the whole population and the vampires must start their fight for equal rights. Also, rest assured, True Blood's vampires do not sparkle, they have real fangs and they can only leave their dwellings at night. But it is not the vampires from which most of the attraction to this series comes. I found that the theme of the fight for equal rights was very nicely done and something refreshing to see in that context. True Blood takes away some of the mysterious fantasy elements to gain a little bit of realism of what would happen if vampires really came "out of the coffin" in this day and age.

Apart from that True Blood is ripe in blood and sex (although, if you are thrown off my HBO-graphic-level sex scenes, rest assured they get slightly less frequent as the first season progresses) but also offers a dangerous amount of trashiness. I don't think I can ever quite make peace with this aspect of the series, but at least in the first season the trashiness is kept to a minimum. Parts of season two and three were all too overly dramatic and silly for my taste but other aspects balanced that out.

As most series that focus for the most part on the relationship between two lovers, it runs into the same problem after the first season. The couple has found each other... what do they do now? To keep it interesting between the two, obstacles are being thrown into their way on every occasion and thus we are witness to more than one petty, silly fight. This could also be observed in Grey's Anatomy for example. They have finally gotten each other, why must we find reasons for the two of them to fight now? Can't they be happy for once? That is one aspect that does get on the viewer's nerves after a while in True Blood. For some reason the major and minor characters can never get to know a really good person and be happy for a longer period of time.

Another similar aspect takes a bit of the joy of True Blood away as well, this one not a common romance trope but more common to the mystery and horror genre: The beings that are being fought within the series have to get progressively older, mightier and harder to beat. Supernatural followed that scheme ad nauseum, until that series turned from your fun little monster-of-the-week hunt into a would-be epic tale about the apocalypse, angels and demons and shit, alienating a large part of their viewers in the progress. Rest assured, True Blood doesn't quite go down that path as horribly as Supernatural did it, but it does have its tendencies to make the baddies bigger and badder every season.

However, the redeeming qualities of the series still are strong. First of all, the very peculiar setting of the series in Lousiana might appeal to your tastes if you are interested in that area. I started becoming interested in the South when I played Left 4 Dead 2 and I was pleased to find the same landscapes and accent in the series. Just that unusual swampy, rural setting is a joy in itself to behold. Other than that there are the quite progressive themes. Racism among humans doesn't suddenly disappear even though a new altogether inhuman race demanding equal rights appeared out of nowhere. And especially season two deals with the effects of religious fundamentalism in a way that is quite remarkable for an American TV series. Another thing that I just have to mention is that True Blood, while of course focusing on people of slim and athletic build, does also feature characters of a variety of shape and age. There aren't a whole lot of ribs and breast bones staring you straight in the face.

True Blood isn't subtle, it isn't necessarily smart, it can be trashy at times but it does keep you entertained, its characters are engaging and its setting is beautiful and unusual. Give it a go, see if you like it. If you have been looking for new vampire stuff to watch you are probably used to slightly trashy material anyway. Also, did you see? Its opening montage begins with a shot of an axolotl. Isn't that awesome?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Halloween Recommendation: Ghosts on the Underground

It's already October and this means: Halloween is upon us! You can hardly celebrate that night without some spooky movies, ghost stories and the like and there is also a great wealth of Halloween-themed media so this would be a good opportunity to recommend some appropriately creepy pieces of entertainment.

The 2006 documentary "Ghosts on the Underground" by Polar Media, originally made for Channel Five, is not Halloween-themed per se but it is a documentary about ghosts on the London Underground and thus perfect for the occasion. It remains one of my favourite documentaries to this day for a number of reasons.

First of all it is important to say, that you will very likely be able to enjoy this documentary whether you believe in ghosts or not because this documentary doesn't claim to do anything else but let railway workers on the Underground tell their stories about experiences they have had. It doesn't push any kind of truth about the existence of ghosts into your face, instead it presents the tales, provides some facts and lets the viewer decide for themselves what they make of it.

Another really beautiful thing about this documentary is the cinematography. You will see lots of beautiful and stylishly edited shots of the deserted London Underground at night, the way you'd never see it during the day when you travel through it. Even if you do not care about ghost stories at all, the documentary is worth watching just because it has these beautiful and stylish images of the Underground itself. The viewer is also able to take a look at areas that they would normally never be able to see, such as Kennington loop or maintenance tunnels. The sound design of this documentary is amazing as well. A nice and subtle selection of songs and tunes enhance the creepy but never blatant atmosphere and the narration by Paul McGann is quite neutral and tasteful.

I have watched American documentaries on ghosts before and they were loud, laughable and disgustingly sensationalist. This documentary is quite the opposite of that, an overall cool and neutral style of narration doesn't push the viewer to believe anything but does provide a chilling feeling for those that want to be chilled all the same.

The stories themselves are pleasantly goose-bumps inducing and after each story you are provided with a more or less related fact about that area of the Underground, which you can then either connect to the story that was told before or decide it's all a coincidence. Beyond the ghost stories the documentary additionally provides some historical information about the London Underground and points out that it's one of the oldest underground transportation networks in world history. Another part of the documentary is a sort of experiment that connects infrasound with the phenomenon of ghosts sightings and at a few locations of the Underground measurements of infrasound are made. You can argue whether this part has any scientific merit at all but I thought it was a nice touch and provided an alternate explanation for the ghostly phenomenons beyond "it must be the spirits of the deceased".

Overall, this documentary is just very fun to watch, contains beautiful and unusual imagery and never puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position, whether they believe in the subject matter of the documentary or not. From what I can tell, it must also be a shining star among ghost documentaries because, obviously, this is not the most respectable subject to make a documentary about and thus the relatively serious and neutral tone of the documentary is an achievement in and of itself.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Videogame Industry done right

Next week (hopefully) we will get the new (and completely free on the PC) release of another campaign of Left 4 Dead / Left 4 Dead 2. I will take this as an occasion to use Valve Corporation as an example of how video game companies can do it right.

Valve Corporation is probably best known for their long-running franchise Half-Life, which maybe became even more famous through the fanmade mod of Counter Strike. I don't think you can call Valve an ordinary game company. Because of them we have invented terms like "Valve-time", coined after lots of delays in production and release of new content. But even though Valve isn't always the quickest in churning out sequels (like SOME companies) they do make sure that what they publish will fufill certain quality standards.

Valve hasn't released a lot of games but all of them are really good. Half Life, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, Portal, all of those games are wellknown with gamers for a reason. To go into detail of the awesomeness of each of these games would be too much for a single entry, so I am going to focus on the way in which Valve perceives their task as a game developer and thinks about the desires of their customers.

One of the best things about Valve are their free updates (at least if you are on the PC) that keep games alive even years after their release. Probably the most changing updates were those made to the game Team Fortress 2. Since the game came out in 2007 (eight years after its predecessor, by the way), all character classes have received new specific items and also funny little collective items like hats have been added to the game. Furthermore, the game started out as a game with a rather cryptic (some may say non-existant) storyline of two companies that are for some reason fighting against each other, having to deliver bombs and capturing points. Through the years its storyline has been fleshed out through comics and character videos, being a story of two feuding brothers and the motives of another force in the background (the Announcer) still unknown. The overall tone of the game seems to have changed a little bit as well, with items like a brainslug, a fake beard and a monocle, an Elvis-esque hairdo it now comes across as rather amusing.

The free updates for Left 4 Dead are much more epic. Entire new chapters are revealed that drive the story on and recently Valve has started using comics for storytelling in L4D as well. That comic really is surprisingly good. If made into a movie, I think it would turn into one of the best zombie movies out there. A twist that has been foreshadowed but never in a too obvious way is slowly being revealed: The survivors, which we know to be immune to the zombie virus, are actually carriers of the virus and thus, highly contagious. Now where can they go to escape the zombie apocalypse if even the safe zones won't want them? This is where The Sacrifice seems to start out.

Also, when it comes to content, Valve is very innovative. A lot of games require shooting in some way shape or form but Portal, for example, is pretty much violence-free and was a big hit when it first came out, as a refreshing new genre: first person puzzle game. The famous companion cube quickly became a meme, just as the saying "The cake is a lie". How many people are even aware that this saying came from Portal? Another thing that I think is really worth mentioning is the portrayal of female characters in Valve games. None of their videogame females are scantily clad or the inappropriate attention magnets that videogame girls usually are. In Half Life 2 you have the sympathetic Alyx as your main sidekick. She's the person that Gordon Freeman interacts with the most and plays a big role in the story. Portal even sports a female main character, you play as the test subject named Chell. Based on the same face-model, the character Zoey from Left 4 Dead is probably my favourite female character made by Valve. She is a young college student, majoring in film studies but already on the way to dropping out. She stayed in her dorm for the majority of the previous semester and watched zombie movies, which in the end were a nice preparation for her facing the zombie apocalypse. She also has a strong relationship with her father, with whom she used to watch those movies together and who keeps defending her even if her mother criticises her for dropping out. Zoey, to date, is probably the character that I can most identify with. Left 4 Dead 2 also sports its female character, Rochelle, a tough reporter girl from the South who was supposed to do a report about that new flu when the zombie apocalypse decended on them. I really think that Valve does good, probably better than ANY game company I know, in the portrayal of females in videogames. I can easily identify with all their female characters.

Gabe Newell once said that videogame pirates are nothing more than unsatisfied customers, people that you have to win over by offering a good product. This is the most constructive approach to the issue of videogame piracy that I have heard of to this day and Valve seems to be the first company that actually understand what they are doing. When their games come out, they sometimes can be little more than bare bones (as was the case with Left 4 Dead 1) but the loyal customer buys those games because they know they can rest assured that Valve will keep on supplying them with new content soon. That's why people were extremely upset when they heard about the sequel, Left 4 Dead 2, so soon after the first installment had been released. They feared that Valve would stray from their reasonable path and I have to say I was highly suspicious of this new game as well. I have to say though, that I have been completely blown away by the trailer and all my doubts were erased when I finally got to play the game. It really was more fun than its predecessor and worth buying in every regard.

Now with the next update Valve assures us that they aren't abandoning L4D1 as a game. They have developed new content for it for the second time now and continue to do so free of charge. Recently they also released a whole game for free, Alien Swarm, which is a nice little 4 player co-op game about shooting aliens. There have also been periods of time when Portal was completely free and you could get yourself a permanent copy of that, or weekends where Team Fortress was free to play or drastically reduced in price (3€!!). I think that was especially done as an experiment to see how a videogame company can profit from making their products much cheaper and their sales shot through the roof. Even though the individual unit price was lower, they did make more money in the end because of the sheer number of copies they sold.

Valve thinks about what customers really want, what is fair to them and they keep their promises. That is why I still trust Valve, even after I was highly suspicious of their business with Left 4 Dead 2. When I attended gamescom 2010 it also became obvious which videogame companies were generous and which weren't. Valve gave away free t-shirts of Portal 2 AND free codes for full-price, full-version games and not just one but one for you and one for a friend that you could invite. How awesome is that? In the end I can say is that I support Valve and the way they are working and I think they might probably be my favourite videogame company ever. Even if I am not that interested in Portal 2, I will continue to support Valve in whatever they do.