Thursday, February 24, 2011

Looking Back at The Fellowship of the Ring

Can you even believe it? This year The Fellowship of the Ring will be ten years old! Ten years always seem to be a milestone for a movie. And me, being now somewhere between young and old, I don't have a whole lot of movies that I have consumed in a really aware way that are now ten years old. I remember that it blew my mind a little when I realised a while ago that The Matrix is now twelve years old. Little by little our beloved movies become movie-legends. And looking back at The Fellowship of the Ring one can definitely say that this movie has become a legend among movies!

It was only last week that I finally got the Special Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring on DVD. I had never seen it before but since I have become a real fan of audio commentaries and Behind the Scenes features, I thought a big 4 DVD bundle was just the thing I needed. Watching the bonus stuff really is amazing. The Behind the Scenes features of The Fellowship of the Ring give you EVERYTHING! For example I really enjoyed the feature about the costumes since they actually showed you everything, every layer, every detail of the outfits! That's the kind of stuff that a costumer wants to see and they are just handing it to you on a silver platter. The bonus features of the DVD are really made for fans. They know what fans want and they are giving us exactly that.

But another thing was conveyed in a great way in the bonus features of the DVD and that is the large scale of the project of Lord of the Rings. Nowadays, having been in the position of organising something, and the large amount of planning and paperwork behind virtually anything, I can really appreciate the effort that everyone involved put into this. It almost seems to me like a miracle that a huge project like that ever came into being. How many Hobbit ears and Hobbit feet were made, how many weapons and pieces of armour had to be crafted, how many miniatures were made, how many locations had to be prepared and then all the paperwork behind everything involved. When people think about Behind the Scenes features, they mainly think about the actors but I really appreciate that those bonus features show you a lot of the people who really work behind the scenes to bring a great project to life. And another thing that remains unbelievable to me to this day is the fact that a studio had enough faith in Peter Jackson to direct these three movies and make everything work out. This is why we don't get a masterpiece like the The Lord of the Rings trilogy every year or so, because studios tend to be highly distrustful. Many extraordinary projects might be too much of a gamble and thus we have to wade through the same dumb and annoying action/comedy/thriller movies every year, which will never become anything great but are at least trusted to gain back the production and advertising costs again. And then you have people like Shyamalan who gain the trust of a studio and a big budget and turn it into pure shit. You're making everyone look really bad here, Shyamalan!

Watching The Fellowship of the Ring now, ten years later does reveal some of the CGI effects that were used. CGI people in certain longshot scenes are easy to identify or for example the cave troll has lost some of its greatness. But considering the fact that this has been ten years, they still hold up amazingly. If you compare it to the CGI of for example Narnia today, it's masterfully done. Furthermore, The Fellowship of the Ring did really great in trying their best to only rely on CGI when it was necessary. The miniatures that they built and filmed still show up beautifully in the movie and shine as a light of quality. The false perspective shots were a great and timeless idea and naturally they still work perfectly in the movie today. And of course one has to respect all the marvellous work that was done with prosthetics and costumes. Those won't age over time, unlike maybe a Davey Jones that was completely created in CGI.

This is also something that still makes me wonder about my own perception as a viewer. When we first see these movies, we think their CGI effects are great! Same goes for games. I remember how Morrowind was a really beautiful looking game, or hell, Final Fantasy VII had the best graphics of its time. How does our perception change little by little so that we can make out the fakeness of the effects when we haven't been able to make it out before? It's still a bit of a mystery to me but due to that fact I think most movies do best not using excessive amounts of CGI.

The Fellowship of the Ring probably still remains my favourite from the trilogy until this day. It might be silly, but I prefer its largely warm beautiful colours to the bleak greys of the next two movies. I also prefer its little journey of adventure to the big battles that were fought in the last two movies. Of course those movies are good too, but for some reason I just like to rewatch the first movie the most. It seems that this is a sentiment shared by a lot of people. And having now finally watched the extended edition of it as well I can say that it really is better than the cinema version. It's sad that four hour movies are pretty much unmarketable but it's great that all the missing material is made available to us through DVD.

Even ten years down the road, The Fellowship of the Ring remains a really good movie. Rewatching it gives one a feeling of anticipation for The Hobbit movie(s) which will start filming next month!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bulletstorm - Balm for the Wounded Hypermasculine Egos Out There or Just a Fun Game?

This entry will not contain any pictures. Most of you will know what it looks like anyway and I can't be arsed to dig through websites and trailers to grab pictures.

The first trailer of Bulletstorm that I was shown was the one where you blow the guy's asshole out. I felt a very strange sensation. Normally I absolutely relish in defending videogame designers' and developers' rights to practice their art and design whichever game they want to design. Every time an election draws near (and might it be just a small one) it is my favourite Saturday morning passtime to go up to the info stands of local politicians and start a little bit of hell there. Many of you may not know it but together with Australia Germany has the strictest standards when it comes to videogame violence in the whole world (at least out of the "democratic countries", I don't know if videogames are being censored in China, Afghanistan or the like). Even a lot of games that can only be sold to adults in the first place are only available in a censored version in Germany. I just don't think that is right (why the hell censor Portal??) but more on that later.

So with my mindset that you should never try to restrict the recreational media that any adult in any country would like to access in their freetime, I was suddenly faced with a very strange sensation when I witnessed the first trailer. I didn't like it at all. Something about the sexualised violence made me extremely uncomfortable, which did open up a deep conflict within myself. I guess this is what all the conservative people out there feel when they see pretty much any videogame. "I don't like it, I think it is harmful, it should be banned!" However, I'm too smart to come to that conclusion. And in a way it also relieves me a little bit that some form of videogame violence can still make me uncomfortable. That's good, right?

Anyway, I have been thinking about Bulletstorm. Something that I purposely haven't done was checking out the old media coverage of the game, since I know from countless instances in Germany that reports about videogames are routinely chock full of false facts. It is very noticable that the journalists themselves have apparently never touched the videogame they are talking about and are instead relying on some kind of contorted hearsay. But yeesh, to make it onto Fox News, I think Bulletstorm must have caused a kind of ruckus.

I did read some quotes from the developers of the game, talking about how it was just supposed to be a fun game and that they were in a situation where they could just make any game they wanted to make without much restrictions and this sounds great indeed. The mock-game Duty Calls, which is a parody on all kinds of military shooting games shows that they are really self-aware as videogame developers and that they have a great critical knowledge of the conventions of the genre. There is nothing about these guys that says "dumb" or "violent" to me.

However, what I have seen of the game so far reminds me a lot of one of my very first gaming experiences, which was Duke Nukem 3D. The hypermasculine protagonist that spews witty lines and taunts while killing enemies seems to be largely the same in the two games. Now where does hypermasculinity come from? Hypermasculinity that expresses itself through violence against other people is a sign for two things: 1) neurosis, 2) neurosis because of marginalised masculinity. Marginalised masculinity is what happens when a male gendered person realises that they do not fit the standards for what is in their society regarded as hegemonial masculinity, more often than not being 1) heterosexuality and reproduction, 2) strength to defend oneself and their family and 3) the ability to sustain a family as a breadwinner. It is often observed that male gendered people who do not fit these standards make up for this by making use of a hypermasculine image for themselves, which might in cases depend very much on the use of violence against other, weaker people to demonstrate strength. Now, choosing the protagonist for your new game as that kind of person can indeed be seen as a clever sarcastic element to the game that doesn't take itself seriously anyway.

On the other hand, I do know the gaming community. And this is where I get back to my purposely sensational title for this blog post, because I am trying to make a point here: Whether Bulletstorm is balm for the wounded hypermasculine egos of losers out there or just a fun game for a well-adjusted person is ultimately decided by every individual themselves. In a free society it is common to trust in adults to consume products of popular culture in a critical and aware way and I believe that the majority of people is absolutely capable of that. Thus I see next to no harmful content in Bulletstorm, provided it is consumed by people of legal age. However, I have also seen my fair share of dumb, misogynist and homophobic assholes in the gaming community, who will not consume the game in a critical way but instead enjoy the (sexualised) violence for what it is. "But it's just a gaaaame!" Come on, I always look at all kinds of media from a critical and also a gender viewpoint and it would be stupid to not do it for this game just because it is a videogame.

That does not mean I endorse censorship of games at all. But if I have come to the conclusion that I do not wish for a movie like A Serbian Film to be censored, even if I see no point in it and think the director might have done better by getting a deviantart account to convey his message through "art" instead of subjecting hundreds of unsuspecting festival goers to that, I of course also do not wish for Bulletstorm to be censored. Let's be frank here, that's not my choice at all and it will be censored in Germany anyway (if it even comes out). But that does not mean I have to like the game myself or personally see much of a merit in it. I don't even want to try playing it. Of course, the huge monster in the trailer looked really cool but the moments of violence just weren't my cup of tea. I am glad that games like Bulletstorm exist, so that even the more liberal people amongst ourselves might have to say "I don't like this, I think it might magnify harmful tendencies in some people, but I see no reason why this should be censored at all". We should all at some point be in that position, reviewing our positions and reevaluating our principles.

That still doesn't mean I won't give you the side-eye if you are one of those people who don't question the dimension of violence and the perpetuated gender images in media like this at all and are too dumb or lazy for critical thinking when it comes to their own free-time.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Game of Thrones Preview (Two Months to go!)

Slightly more than 60 days from its premiere, not so much new can be said about the upcoming adaption of A Game of Thrones from HBO. I'm still very excited about seeing it all come to life and each new picture that we get, each new trailer and glimpse that we catch from the series seems rather promising.

I still believe that a TV series created by HBO must be the best fitting format to the complex stories of intrigue and dozens of characters that make their appearance over the different books. I remember, even when years ago there was no word about an adaption at all, if there were discussions on the matter, an HBO produced series was always the format mentioned as best fitting for the source material. Thus, it's really quite surprising that after five or so years I find myself here, barely two months from the pilot episode to what might be a great adaption of my once favourite books.

I say "once" here because I first read the books in the final years of high school and back then I was completely fascinated with everything. If I read them today, I don't know if I would be quite as amazed. But fact remains, those are really captivating stories and whomever I recommended the books to before always received them very well. So yes, go ahead and read them, they're good books. But maybe be a bit wary because in all the excitement before the airing of the new series I always read things like "best book series ever" and such, which might just not be true for everyone. It's quite different from your usual fantasy book series but there is one thing that A Song of Ice and Fire is extremely good at conveying, one thing that I always remember when I think back to it: The vulnerability of people who have to make their life in an unstable country that is plagued by war, looting and general desolation. If you are just walking down a street, trying to make your way from one village to another you might be murdered just for the clothes on your back or shoes you happen to be wearing. A lot of fantasy stories deal with the fantastical (hence the name) but one thing that A Song of Ice and Fire was good at making you aware of was that danger even lies in the common highway man and not necessarily fantastical beasts.

Another thing I remember is hating a character very much through the first two books and then, when he got his own point of view chapters in the next books, him becoming one of my favourite characters. It might be a little bit cliché but it really isn't an easy feat to pull off. A Song of Ice and Fire keeps surprising you in the strangest ways and that's what makes it worthwhile.

Remains to be seen if the series will be able to do the same for us! As mentioned before, a TV series seems to be the best format for the storytelling because even in the book the story heavily relied on cliffhangers. George R. R. Martin used to write for TV and maybe this is one of the cases where it really shows. Thus, the storytelling of Game of Thrones should offer great potential for a TV adaption of any kind. The richness of the story, filled with great castles, wonderful country sides, a small dash of supernatural beings and exquisite clothes of manifold styles beg for a big budget like HBO might be able to offer. And as far as we can see in the teasers and high resolution stills everything looks very real, refined and beautifully crafted.

Now, of course there have also been some things that I started wondering about. First there is the issue of the book series, and thus the storyline, not being finished and Martin taking his fair time to finish the remaining books to say the least. But with adaptions like True Blood we can see that HBO does take liberties with the source material. While I hope that for the books that were finished they stick as close to the story as the format allows them to (minor adaptions still welcome of course), it might come in handy once they reach territory where no storyline exists yet. This might prove to be a double edged sword and we can only wonder how HBO will handle this. Fact remains, for the first season we have a perfectly crafted storyline that they can follow and even have some minor plots be resolved in the progress of the first season. Well yes, I am not kidding you. There are a lot of loose threads still hanging as of book four and the plots that have been resolved are actually in the minority, which at times is a reason for people to discourage others from even starting to read the books, because that level of unresolved business does feel kind of unsatisfying at times.

Then there is also the objection that the whole project is doomed to fail as it is, since production alone, even if all other things are settled, will take too long for the child actors to still look appropriate for their roles. I am not sure what to think about this, since another big and long filming project springs to mind, being the Harry Potter series. I think they pulled it off satisfyingly enough and since they seem to have aged up the children of A Game of Thrones at least a bit for the adaption it might just work out. Another question of course is the budget and whether HBO and all the actors involved are willing to make such long-term committments. This depends largely on the success of the first season I would guess, so it all remains to be seen. We can speculate on it right now but until at least the pilot airs and ratings are announced it's a bit hard to say anything solid on those matters.

A very personal concern of mine is one character and that is the Hound, Sandor Clegane. To be fair, I have never seen Rory McCann in any other role than the one he played in Hot Fuzz and I doubt that role is in any way representative of his acting style, since it's very much a comedy role with not very many lines at all. One thing that caught my eye (or rather didn't) in previous trailers was that Sandor Clegane didn't have such a noticably burnt face. Granted, I have not seen really high resolution pictures of it before, I have not seen his face in motion and the little glimpses that I caught of him were too short and small to really tell anything. But yet, I hope they did well on his face. Big defining scars always require great make-up and I really hope they do his face justice and not play down his disfigurement, as it happened in the movie adaption of Avatar the Last Airbender. To both Zuko and Sandor the scars are as deep as they are meaningful and they should be visible on their faces. But of course there is more to Sandor's character than just his scars. I guess in the first season we might not see a whole lot of him but yet I hope that in the key moments that are crucial to his character development they will not forget about him and give him a chance to shine and foreshadow his importance. Thus one of the scenes that I'm looking forward to the most is the Tourney of the Hand.

What I have seen so far of Petyr Baelish is amazing! He looks very much like I imagined him and it seems that even though he comes across as a minor character in the first few books, they have not forgotten his importance and give him enough of a presence on the screen so he might get the viewer's attention and maybe even occasionally steal the show. As far as the child actors go, I think they all look great and very appropriate but how they are doing on screen is one of the things that remains to be seen. Especially Maisie Williams who plays Arya has caught my eye. Maybe HBO played off a bit of the fact that Arya is a big fan favourite and released a lot of images of her already, but she looks great and in-character in all of those stills and I am also looking forward to see her on screen. In closing I can say about the cast that I very much hope we will grow to love a lot of different characters, especially played by actors that haven't gotten a chance to really shine before and that HBO will not put too much emphasis on Sean Bean alone as a drawing card for the TV series. I especially count on Peter Dinklage as Tyrion to become a fan favourite, just like his character in the books.

On the one hand, I can not believe that after all these years of waiting we are finally barely two months away from the premiere of the series but on the other hand more than 60 days do seem like a long time. But winter is coming after all, it is only a matter of time. Waiting is at least one of the things that we fans are really good at!

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Depiction of Videogames in Novels

There is something quite unfortunate about the depiction of videogames or pretty much anything having to do with computers and internet in novels.

The starting point always seems to be a quite self-conscious conception especially from authors of children's literature that videogames keep children from reading books and in essence produce dumb people. That is a harsh prejudice that is simply not justified. Children these days will read books or they won't. Videogames are not going to change that, you might as well blame TV for the decline in sophistication. And true enough, when TV was at its advent the older media had a very critical view of the new media on the block.

Furthermore, even though I have to admit it is only a small exception, some games are in their narrative and psychological framework just as brilliant and sophisticated as a good movie or even a novel. Sadly, these works of course remain in the minority but if you have a look at any medium you might find an overabundance of trivial narratives and flat characters anywhere.

But even if you disregard the very sceptical and sometimes downright condescending point of view of the author, oftentimes the depiction of videogames is ridden with silly mistakes that make it very obvious the author probably has never touched a videogame with a ten foot pole. I vividly recall one instance where a new game was installed on the pc by putting a new microchip on the motherboard. Ridiculous.

Then I remember a novel series that was entirely set in a bleak future in which social power is earned by successfully fighting in a MMO type of game. The depiction of the MMO game within the novel was actually very accurate, so much that it poked fun at typical behaviour of MMO players, such as grinding or power gaming. On the downside the narrative soon lost itself in the most terrible and dumb Mary Sue characterisation. If I want to play an MMO game, I go and play. If I want to read a book I do so. I do, however, not see a point in reading a book about people playing MMO games, assumed that the narrative doesn't offer any other interesting points, which it sadly didn't in the admittedly brief time until I lost my patience with the book series.

I have yet to read a believable and also interesting depiction of a videogame in a novel. Most of the time the author tries to cram in some kind of message about how videogames are evil and are programming the young generation to be killing machines. Sadly, even Terry Pratchett's novel Only You Can Save Mankind seems to be one of those novels and even though I usually love reading Pratchett I can't bring myself to give that book even a try. Maybe once videogames have become a respectable enough medium, such as it happened with film, people are able to write about them in a reasonable and realistic enough way.

Monday, February 7, 2011

RIFT: First Impressions

One of the nicer things I brought home from Gamescom last year was a RIFT beta key. I registered quickly but it took a long time until I heard back from them, so I thought they had forgotten me after all. Some time ago however, I finally received the actual beta invitation and could try out the game.

It is a bit difficult to say anything about this game when I'm not really a player of MMOs at all. The last MMO I played? Ragnarök Online! I never played any MMO of the 3d kind, so navigating my character and especially selecting the enemies was challenging at first. I really liked the way the characters looked. They all had such broad hips and broad shoulders, at first it really threw me off but then I grew to like it. Until I took a screenshot and looked at it outside of the game. Turns out: My resolution ingame was a bit stretched and made everything look broader than it was. But strangely, I found this deviation from tall and slender characters, especially females, really refreshing! Oh well!

The gameplay was fun enough; even questing takes a rather intuitive route and you never really feel forced to do anything, which lets you play on and on for hours, obviously. What really impressed me was the wealth of different combination possibilities for your character's skilltrees. I can't even begin to think up which combinations I'd still want to try. So if you start a new character, you never feel like you are "stuck with them", because once you get bored you can choose new ways to skill your character and play them entirely differently! Lots of fun.

The implementation of rifts that suddenly open in the countryside is well thought out and carried out in a very atmospheric way as well. The countryside itself looks really nice, too. I still prefer Oblivion's graphics but that was a single player game. Imagine a near Oblivion-pretty world in an MMO game, that's really something!

Now onto the bad sides I guess, but those aren't really the games' fault at all. It's the players. Granted, you can turn a page in the chat or turn it off altogether but if you are looking for a group you can't help but have to endure the conversations of people ingame. My server was mostly filled with players that constantly talked about World of Warcraft and compared the two games. There is something about the random chatter of MMO people that annoys me. The tone of the conversation is always derogatory, it all serves the single objective to compare e-peens and it seems like people are always looking for fights.

I also realised that people like me probably aren't the target group of the game at all. I at least know my fair share of MMO terminology and thus I can fufill basic group functions but most of these people seemed to be permanent MMO players for whom this was just a different software to carry out their standard way of clicking. That is also a thing that will probably keep myself from playing the game when it comes out. I just don't feel like dealing with rude people like that, who seem to be navigating a whole different world than I am. If it means never getting ahead in an MMO and staying low-level then I'd rather do that than making my way through a dungeon with a group of rude guys for hours.

Even so, having to deal with very frustrating people, the game kept me interested enough to keep playing for hours on end. I don't really know how to write a review for an MMO since I am so obviously not accustomed to all their quirks and unwritten laws, so all I can do is give my view as an unfamiliar person. If you've never played an MMO before and you try to play any MMO you will probably get yelled at at first. Maybe if you can find a group of friends to show you the ropes you will be lucky but with so many MMOs out there and MMOs having developed into their own little niche kind of games, extremely different from the singleplayer RPGS that they once came forth from, it would always be tough to find your way into the system.

Rift at least is a new game where perhaps the minds of people aren't set into stone all that deeply and even for me it was really fun at times. I guess it would be a good choice to try out. For now, having played the game so intensely for the last three days I guess I can say I will never become an MMO player. There seems to be too much to learn just to have a little bit of fun. When the beta ends I think I will just go back to putting up with rude people in League of Legends. At least in League of Legends I can really kick ass if I'm lucky. In the end my overall impression of Rift is a highly positive one, while my impression of the players is an overwhelmingly negative one.