Tuesday, September 19, 2006

09-16-2006 – party season in a garrison town

Nighttime ride on the Number Eight, north through the dark and damp… a route ripe for further investigation in the drier, warmer days ahead -- a serpentine transit pubcrawl in the inevitable Indian summer. For now, though, it’s just me and my reflection in the window, familiar phantom face, hands leafing through a book of jotted notes…

The faceful of blazing vapor blasts me back, hottest of hot toddies: shots of Royal Reserve dropped onto a hot skillet. A Proud Canadian.

Cozy in here, warm and tight against the three-day rain outside. Ancient imperatives hard-coded in my hoser cells send the message: it’s house-party season. Old memories of the month-or-so between first week of classes and Halloween, feeling just like this; the coming in from cold to a roomful of laughter, liquor and bad ideas.

No people party here, tonight… just the spirit; we’re priming up for an ill-advised ramble out to Whyte, the crashing of a stagette. So we rock out to Maiden and argue about “Back in the Village,” check out the new Slayer (it rocks) and play Battleship while we wait for our Man.

And somewhere out there, frat boys are motoring around on a go-cart couch, sorority pledges stand sentry in bridesmaid dresses, and the hares have started on their white winter Mohawks…

CITY TANKS, the headlines tell me, are SET TO ROLL OUT. I’ve played enough Civilization that the message has my hand automatically twitching to click on the City Window, head off the inevitable disaster: under democracy, mobilizing the hometown boys can mean civil unrest, unless steps are taken. You’ve got to turn your Einsteins into Elvises, make with the bread and circuses…

… or, hey; pump in enough bread and the circus takes care of itself. It’s fucking insane on Whyte tonight, as crazy as I’ve ever seen it in non-sports-related circumstances… and everybody's so fucking rich! Limos and bling, racing bikes and riceburners, the glowing and gleaming tchotchkes of mass affluence, everything reeking of money, everything in the best of bad taste.

This is the first time I’ve been an adult during a real boom; last time the black and sticky moneywave rolled hard over Alberta, all it meant to me was that my oilpatch-orphan buddies got videogames, Honda trikes, and Mom’s New Friend hanging around the house. Now… I don’t know; it’s alien and alienating; it isn’t my place.

Hard-eyed little Hiltons and their catchphrase-hooting sportscar suitors…

… and a yellow ribbon on the bumper of a bass-pumpin’ Hummer. A ballcap leans out the passenger side: “FAGGGGOTTTS!

I should know better than to wear tweed down here.

Autumn rains, preview chill… you have to pick your parties. Whyte on a Saturday is for the rich, young consumers; not-so-rich, not-so-young creators belong in their own places, their snuggly hobbit-holes filled with friends: art parties, laughing against the cold.

But, yeah, I’ll admit it: my idea to hand-carve Dungeons & Dragons maps into plywood panels for display as objets d’art was a bad one.

Moody times. It’s days later, and the misty rain (great nom du porn!) has only once been sunshined away long enough to make it to the used-record store and back. Good thing we’re pretty stocked up, here: there’s enough rice and canned soup in the cupboards to make at least a week’s worth of curried Poverty Glop. Wine’s gonna be a problem, though…

Too early to think about that! I have to wait at least long enough for last night’s taste test – that sprightly red that comes in a screwtop Tetra Pak, perfect for thoughtful wine-walking – to work its black way through the guts.

Autumn morning, warm computer, hot coffee… Willie Nelson singing “Stardust” off a turntable that’s needed a new stylus for about three years. Clear mind, clear eyes.

It’s the dawn of another party season… but the Big Black – for everybody, everywhere – feels closer than ever. How many more years of privilege and pleasure can we expect before nightfall?

So party on, people. Stay warm, cuddle close, smile bright, laugh at your own jokes. Hug in the entryway, smell dinner cooking. Open that Yellow Label, pass that pinner… tomorrow’s headlines have yet to be printed.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Here’s a little bodyshot of deep-time perspective for you: when Ralph Klein was sworn in as Premier of Alberta in 1992, Mortal Kombat was a brand-new video game.

Capcom’s Street Fighter II: World Heroes had kicked (and punched) off the one-on-one fighting game craze the year before, but MK took it over the top with levels of blood and mayhem never before seen in an arcade game. It was, of course, an instant hit, and while we were all happily cackling our way through the game’s ridiculously gory Fatality maneuvers, Ralph was beginning the inputs for his very own finishing move: ripping out the spine of parliamentary democracy in Alberta and holding it aloft, still writhing spasmodically, to the cheers of millions.

Fouteen years! Since before 3D graphics accelerators and MMORPGs, since before Playstation. Have really been dealing with this guy – sorry, has this guy really been dealing with us – for that long? I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a Calgarian, having had Klein smarming overhead since the very dawn of videogaming. Did our southern brothers and sisters make sly jokes about Tapper and Burgertime? Did they pin the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, not on the asinine marketing and quality-control policies of the Atari corporation, but on “eastern creeps and bums”?

In 1993, the second year of Ralph’s reign and the first year he led his horde to a general-election victory, two all-caps milestones of gaming apper. The first is Broderbund’s MYST, the megahit that briefly reestablished the puzzle/adventure game genre. The second is DOOM.

The shareware masterpiece Wolfenstein 3D had created the first-person-shooter genre in '92, while Ralph and his crony machine were busy hijacking the Tory party, but DOOM blew the whole thing open. Released on December 10 DOOM, like Mortal Kombat, featured unprecedented amounts of graphic violence along with an unprecedented sense of immersion. Four days after DOOM’s release, Ralph’s wife Colleen – does anybody but me remember this? -- received a sweetheart pay-later bundle of shares in tech firm Multi-Corp, an outfit which was included in the stable of Alberta companies Ralph had just finished pimping in Hong Kong. By the fourth week of January, when the Premier saw fit to disclose this transaction to the ethics commissioner, the shares had doubled in price.

The advent of Mortal Kombat and DOOM triggered a what-about-the-children moral panic similar to the panics that had earlier in the century lashed out against rock n’ roll music (which survived) and comic books (which went into a 30-year coma). Seeing the rising probability of ruinously censorious legislation from the American Congress, the video-game industry in 1994 – while Alberta Treasury Branches superintendent Elmer Leahy, at the command of economic development minister Ken Kowalski, by the will of Ralph, was busy approving hundreds of millions of dollars of cherry loans and loan guarantees to Triple-Five corporation to keep the subs of West Edmonton Mall afloat – established the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulatory body that applied film-style ratings to games. DOOM has the honor of receiving the ESRB’s first “M” rating.

In Alberta, with our own oversight organization – an elected Legislature – crippled by constant invocation of debate closure and rendered increasingly irrelevant by an expanding network of industry-stacked review panels, dog-and-pony “stakeholder consultations” and outright government by edict, we had to wait until 1995 for the protests of one of Calgary’s last squeaky wheels, Liberal MLA Frank Buesker (Calgary North-West), to provoke the lapdog ethics commissioner into making a few phone calls before assuring Albertans that there was no conflict of interest involved in Colleen Klein’s profiting mightily off an outfit hustled by her autocrat husband. Whew! Case closed!

Fast-forward through two years of nightmare to 1997, the release of the Nintendo 64 console and Super Mario 64’s singlehanded creation of the 3D platform genre. As we jumped and bopped our way around, gathering stars and coins, Ralph was leading his…

…OK. You know what? Fuck this. Every year – every month – of Ralph’s tenure reveals some new outrage against democracy, some new act of arrogance and bullying, some new step toward furthering the Klein Revolution’s autocratic objectives… and every time I correlate videogame timelines with the last fourteen years’ provincial history of scandal after unpunished scandal, the deeper our hole appears. We’ve gone from 2D sprite animation to bump-mapped dynamic lighting and fractal fog volumetrics during Ralph’s reign – and democracy in Alberta is all but destroyed.

The Alberta Legislature, the duties and traditions of which Klein – a machine-style civic cronyist with neither interest in nor respect for representative democracy – loathed and took every opportunity to insult, curtail or eliminate outright, is finished as a place of governance. We’re not a one-party state, here… we’re a no-party state; political parties, as institutions of the parliamentary system, have no place in Klein’s boardroom-backroom-barroom model of governance, a model under which Alberta will continue to operate for at least another fifteen years…

…or until Duke Nukem Forever is released, whichever comes first.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Friday, September 01, 2006

The 3-Day Novel Contest

Hello, friends. As you may know, I am one of the contestants in BookTelevision's 3-Day Novel Contest, running this weekend. Starting at midnight tonight, myself and 12 other writers will have 72 hours to crank out a novel (novella, really) while cameras roll and reality-TV-style challenges dick with us.

The thing is going down at Chapters South Point, if you're interested in stopping by to point and stare at a bunch of writers corralled into a pen in the back of a bookstore/cavern. There is a short-bus shuttle that runs from Southgate transit centre to the big-box wasteland where the store is found. It's the 307 or 370 or some shit like that.

Here is the schedule for the weekend (a "hit" is a live feed to BookTelevision, in case you're a subscriber):

Friday, September 1st

11.55 PM Launch

Saturday, September 2nd

8.00 AM Judge Hit – Minister Faust
10.05 AM First Challenge
12.00 PM Character Hit – Mar’ce Merrell
2.00 PM Update Hit
2.05 PM Second Challenge
4.00 PM Character Hit – Timothy Anderson
6.00 PM Update Hit
8.00 PM Character Hit - Catherine Ford
8.05 PM Third Challenge – Performance Reading
10.00 PM Character Hit – Mark John Hiemstra

Sunday, September 3rd

12.30 AM The 14th Machine
2.00 AM Character Hit – Laura Kjolby
8.00 AM Judge Hit – Jenn Farrell
10.00 AM Update Hit
10.05 AM Fourth Challenge
12.00 PM Character Hit – Tyler Morency
2.00 PM Update Hit
2.05 PM Fifth Challenge
4.00 PM Character Hit – Jill Battson
6.00 PM Update Hit
6.05 PM Sixth Challenge
8.00 PM Character Hit – Ali Riley
10.00 PM Update Hit

Monday, September 4th

12.00 AM Character hit – Darren Zenko
2.00 AM Update Hit
8.00 AM Judge Hit – Todd Babiak
10.00 AM Update Hit
10.05 AM Seventh Challenge
12.00 PM Character Hit – Ron Yamauchi
2.00 PM Update Hit
2.05 PM Eighth Challenge
4.00 PM Character Hit – Felicia Pacentrilli
6.00 PM Update Hit
8.00 PM Character Hit – Wayne Arthurson
8.05 PM Final Challenge
10.00 PM Update Hit
11.55 PM Final Hit
12.05 AM Final Interviews, collecting the novels, put the novelists to bed.

I have no idea what the challenges will involve. All is mystery. See you all later. Have I mentioned that I'm not actually a novelist, and have no idea what I'm doing?

13 casual hours

Aching wrists and a spine like split timber, eyes fogged and belly rumbling with the vicious chemistry of instant decaf and windfallen sour apples from the tree outside my window, a thick mat of emoticon-download and online-casino popunders carpeting my desktop… welcome to my 2 a.m., the finish line of 13 hours of immersion in what the voice of ‘net marketing calls “the casual game space.”

Whether it’s one of the teeming millions of colour-matching crystal games, a cutesy little cartoon puzzler, some kind of Lemmings knockoff, a retro-arcade joint, a piece of pretentious “interactive fiction” or an abstract block of braintwisting logic exams for the Mensa set, a small game, browser-based, is meant to be quick-playing, a pick-up and put-down coffeebreaker. And so they are, most of them; design quality and play value are such that the addiction factor on any single web diverson is pretty low. But in aggregate, as a steady stream, when moving from game to game to game is itself the addiction? Shit.

Most clicktrancing office drones and bored housepersons have at least a rough sketch of a social structure around them, setting limits on how many glasseyed minutes can be indulged. Today, here, it was just me, my electric kettle, my apple basket, my coffee-spattered iBook and gamelet after gamelet semi-randomly clicked up from the bottomless archives of casual-games blog JayIsGames.com. Timewasting becomes research -- becoming painful timewasting again when the time-to-fee calculations put me down below five bucks and hour. The genre’s target market, however, is all on the clock.

This is the future of gaming, in two (maybe three) ways. First, it’s where the money is; after a brief post-bubble bust, online ad revenues have been taking off like a motherfuck, and game pages, places where eyeballs rest for long periods of time, are prime real estate.

Second, it’s consumer development. Unlike all but the most esoteric movies and music, videogames require a complex core of fundamental skills and vocabulary in order to be consumed and appreciated, a core that needs to be learned. For the games market to grow there need to be more gamers, and Mom-simple casual games are the recruiting office, the training centre… the “first one’s free” schoolyard gateway drug that’ll lead (so the hope goes) to Bev from HR becoming a hardboiled (poached firm, at least) gamer on her own time and dime.

But for a lifetime gamer, the trivial shit that clogs the casual pipe doesn’t hold much in the way of appeal; I played Columns on Sega Game Gear and Sokoban on a PC with a CGA card, and I don’t really need ten-score different ways of matching gems or shoving boxes now. What got me snagged this morning, afternoon, evening and night – god damnit! – was a constant parade of point-and click adventures.

I still can’t believe it; is there a style of gameplay more predictable and formal? From how many rooms did I escape this afternoon? How many spooky mansion murder-mysteries did I unravel, methodically mousing over static scenes with an eye on the pointer, watching for it to change into the little hand that indicates something clickable? How many safes did I find behind paintings… and how many combinations did I find scrawled in the likeliest of unlikely places? How many machines did I repair, how many oddly-shaped stones did I slot into oddly-shaped depressions? Answer: lots. The genre is ancient, its mechanics worn and familiar, its conventions calcified… what kept me playing for hours, through dozens?

Ironically, it was the variety. Not in the fundamentals – most point-and-clicks that attempt genre-defiance come out unplayably obscure – but in the production, the aesthetics; from atmospherically photorealistic horror riffs with grade-A spooky soundtracks through clunky “tongue-in-cheek” adventures drawn in MS Paint and written by nerds for whom the word “wombat” is the distilled essence of comedy, the point-and-click form comprises the whole of human artistic inclination and abilty. It’s been inspirational, really.

And that’s the third way in which casual games are the future of gaming: they’re the segment that can be participated in directly by independent creators, the last refuge of the one-man development shop. Slick commercial releases aside, the bulk of little games are the products of individuals or small groups working with little or no funding, and the variety on display puts the mainstream mass-market to shame. Casual games are the industry’s experimental laboratory, the punk underground. Could I design a MMORPG better than World of Warcraft? No. But could I design an hourlong point-and-click adventure scarier than Exmortis or funnier than The Goat in the Grey Fedora…?

Probably not; indy game creation may be within common reach, but it’s pretty far out of my grasp. Making an adventure game – like making music, making pictures, making movies – still takes shitloads of work… and don’t think I haven’t half-assedly begun and abandoned my own projects. Like most people, I’m content with – worse than content; hypnotized, /sedated/ by – grazing on this huge field of work, filling otherwise productive hours with the endless diversions of others’ imaginations… casually.