Sunday, February 24, 2013

Technology and Entertainment Woes

 First my macbook pro melts down, now the playstation I bought as an emotional salve for its loss does the same. Granted they were both like eight years old (I bought the latter used), but its got to be some kind of poetic justice/punishment that the playstation would break down in exactly the same way.

Which is to say: the solder on one of the three chips in my little gaming-supercomputer has apparently ceased to fulfill its function of connecting the metal bits to the semi-conducting bits. Same thing happened on the graphics processor of the macbook. The symptoms of which are a checkerboard pattern on the shiny silver machine, and a yellow light that blinks for half a second on the heavy black one.

The fix for this incredibly retarded problem is to completely disassemble the machine and point a heat gun at the graphics chips for five minutes. This, so says the Internet, "re-flows the solder." How it re-flows back to where it's supposed to go rather than where its currently found itself is anyone's guess. The irony that the fix for the problem that was caused by heat stress is to deliberately overheat it seems like some sort of cosmic joke perpetrated a paternal super-intelligence that has my best interests in mind and wants me to spend less time playing video games and more time doing things like learning programming languages that can be done perfectly well on a low-end machine.

I described these issues to my friend Tuhin today, and he chastised me for not buying things new; "you must spend more money fixing your old shit than you would have just buying a new one" says he. This from a guy who went out and leased a new Infinity as soon as he got his first job, and who's therefore never put wrench to nut. But oh, what invaluable experience I get from taking things apart and re-assembling them! Actually, a question mark would work just as well at the end of that sentence.

The eight year old Thinkpad I'm on now (which I bought as a functional salve for the loss of the macbook) is a great example (and one in which I did actually save a lot of money). Yes, I did have to immediately replace the cooling fan when I unboxed it, but it was a hundred bucks and the operation took about a half hour, so I think I came out ahead. On the other hand, a half hour was straining the extent of my patience with the project, so I was only able to figure out where about a third of the screws I took out of it are supposed to go. As a result of which the keyboard sortof pops out, but thats a very minor annoyance. The much larger annoyance was having to take it apart again to cover the keyboard data-cable in duct tape because some bit of it got rubbed raw and the short was causing double letters to be typed randomly. But hey: working now. That problem was actually pretty hard to diagnose. I thought it was a software issue and fruitlessly trolled the Ubuntu forums for a fix, turns out its a common problem with Thinkpad x60's, and I owe it to Rachael for somehow discovering this fact when it eluded me.

Which reminds me of further evidence of this semi-benevolent super intelligence's douchy sense of humor: the PS3 died right in the middle of me finally getting Rachael to play the opening scenes of Far Cry 3 (see last post). This had been the subject of some intense relationship-negotiations; I ultimately agreed to modulate my socially unacceptable behavior when she points it out to me, in perpetuity, if she'd play at least ten minutes of whatever fucking video game I'm into at the moment when I get all excited about it, in perpetuity. The socially unacceptable behavior in question, by the way, was laughing too hard on crowded trains at books I'm reading on my phone. Why care so much about that? I dunno, but I figured it was a fair trade for getting to share stuff I like with her. So the fact that the fucking video game system self-destructs right as the opening cutscenes were concluding and the player gets to effectually twiddle the sticks for the first time strikes me as beyond coincidence. Its not, of course, buy such is the power of human patter-recognition/imagining. There's a fancy word for that, I know, but I can't think of it at the moment.

Bereft of computerized entertainment, and apparently not wanting to do productive things, I've begun a reading novel thats about computerized entertainment. Even more specifically, its about blogging about computerized entertainment. How perfect is that? The novel is called "Constellation Games," and its fantastic. Funniest writing I've read in a while, and its very thoughtful amidst its snark. Cory Doctorow's already done a good review of the book, so there's no need for me to bang on about it too much until I actually finish reading it .

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Mind = Blown

For quite some time, I've been nurturing the idea that there's a nascent, burgeoning, and mostly unrealized potential form of artistic expression in the medium of video games.

The medium usually disappoints, to put it mildly. But hey, most art in any given medium sucks anyway, right? How much pulp fiction is there compared to works of literary art? How many terrible movies versus works of cinematic art? How many sloppy images v. meaningful photographs? The former outweigh the latter by orders of magnitude, I'm sure. That said, literature's really the only art form to which I feel like I've got enough exposure that I can make meaningful comparisons, and thus:

We've got the benefit of the "lens of time" to aid us in filtering good literature from the bad. The written word, and stories using it as a medium, have been around long enough that the good ones have floated to the top, and we remember them. Video games, in contrast, are new enough as a medium that the separation of the cream from the shit has scarcely had time to occur, and indeed they often seem mixed in a homogenized mess of mediocrity.

At the risk of continued hyperbole: Far Cry 3 was the best video game I've played since... maybe ever. The only games even in its league are the Half Life and Portal games. None of those actually reduced me to tears and open-jawed amazement, and this one did. The writing was way beyond anything I've experienced outside serious novels, bar-none. I accidentally saw this article where the writer talks about the ideas he was trying to subvert, so now my interpretation is colored by that intent. Nevertheless:

Broadly: Jason Brody (yourself, as it's written) goes from being paralyzed by fear in the face of confrontation to being a skilled, decisive, and suicidally ruthless warrior. His transformation is driven by motivations I can sympathize with. Escape your captors! Save your friends! Shed your weaknesses! Become self-reliant and capable! Do right by the oppressed people who've helped you! Deliver justice and retribution to some people who really, really deserve it! Overcome your societally-inculcated inhibitions! Follow the path that your inner self truly desires! Accept your nature! Don't let anyone stand in your way! Kill people if they do! Even if they're your friends! And are innocent of all wrongdoing except holding you back!

Wait, what? WHAT? What the FUCK just happened?

How did I get led down THAT fucking garden-path? I went (as this character) from trying to save my own life, to trying to save others' lives, to killing for the sake of the people I care about, to killing because the victims deserve it, to deciding that my own personal satisfaction is all that really matters anyway? Wow. Lets draw that out: Waaaaaoooooow. That last step into megalomania seems abrupt when I write it out like that. How did I become the bad guy? Everything I did, I did with the snowiest of intentions!

Actually, the only moral choice offered to the player is given at the very end. However, the player is given fairly compelling (in the context of the character) motivations for choosing either way. The people Jason saves don't appreciate it very much, and start condemning him for what he's had to do to make it happen. The impression they give is: "you risked your life to save me? What were you thinking? Don't do it again to save our other friends, I care about you too much! How could your put your need to save our friends above my caring for you? You're so self-absorbed! I don't know if I want to be associated with a person like you. Do what you want, I'll forget you, you antisocial freak."

Now, from my (actual) perspective, the correct moral choice is obvious: save your friends and get back to civilization; get yourself out of this fucked up environment where people are having to make these kinds of judgments. But from Jason's perspective: after all the blood that's been spilled, and all that he's done for the sake of what he thinks is right; who's to say what he thinks is right isn't? Certainly not anyone standing near him, thats for sure.


Whats so phenomenal is how divergent the final choice is, and how consistent both choices are with the character. Become Ultra-Alex (of A Clockwork Orange provenience), or make the right choice and return to normality. The former choice is darkly, evilly seductive, and it offers a disturbing window into that mentality for those of us who chose the moral path.

Frankly, the lucky among us in the modern, safe, civilized world are never really faced with those choices. Culture presses us into inoffensive roles, and we're better off for it. Its easy to forget that in large swaths of our current world, The cultural pressure that helps us be good is either non-existent or overcome by the horror and desperation of peoples' circumstances. That thought brings to mind the question: whether "those of us who chose the moral path" are really choosing at all, or whether the savage darkness is merely suppressed by our human culture.

This is the reason its worth speaking of "Far Cry 3," --this fucking video game-- in the context of serious artistic expression: it brings the question to mind.


Outside the story elements, the game's got some awesome artistic choices. To start, the color palate. Certain shades of red, blue, and yellow were used to striking effect. Can't say if its symbolic of anything, but it was consciously done and visually pleasing.

More significantly, The music. The theme music is programmed to be responsive and appropriate to whats happening in the game, but where I lost my shit is when I Fink u Freeky (the Die Antwoord song) was playing over the public address sound system at the pirate enclave while Jason is confronting the arch-pirate, Vaas. Die Antwoord projects this image of excess and debauchery simultaneously with poverty and desperation, and I couldn't think of anything that could be more appropriate and timely to the moment. Its high-energy, tense, dirty, and morally-ambiguous: matched perfectly to the action. If you don't know the song, watch that video at the link. You'll get what I'm talking about. The closer you watch, the more your jaw will drop.

The other musical-masterpiece-moment was when Jason and his brother are escaping on a helicopter: Jason gets behind the machine-gun hanging off the side, and the Ride of the Valkyries plays. The allusion to Apocalypse Now is beyond obvious... and absolutely, totally perfect. Come to think of it, both Jason Brody and Colonel Kurtz (tell me you get the reference) share some of their core motivations, as well as the guilt that comes from acting on them (despite whatever nobility the motivations originally had).

More to come, on this, more to come. I'll be thinking about Far Cry 3 for a while, and I'll probably be self-absorbed and delusional to enough spray the juice of my mind grapes upon the face of the Internet as if it's aware of it.

Keep it lakka lakka lakka,
zef zef zef