Friday, March 31, 2006

The 'Bliv

A single goblin guards the entrance to the mountainside cave. Didn’t these guys get the memo? You’d have thought some kind of wilderness telegraph – signal fires, smoke signals, the babbled stories of blood-soaked survivors, maybe? – would have spread the word, put every monster horde, brigand band and necromantic coven from Bruma to Cheydinhal on notice that there’s a half-naked, homicidal human female, fresh out of Imperial prison, rampaging through the hill country armed with nothing but a wicked fireball and a goblin’s head on a stick.

I burn the sentry down and give the still-smoking corpse the once-over. A battered helmet that looks like a repurposed cooking pot and a couple of coins – slim pickings, but you’d be surprised how it adds up at the pawnshop. Besides, it’s not about the money… it’s about building a brand. The legend of Naked Fireball Woman isn’t going to weave itself.
“Are you growing a moustache?”

The inevitable discouraging question. Can’t a guy stop shaving for four or five days without being accused of “growing a moustache”? I’ve had better things to do than shave, bathe, eat and attend to my professional commitments… fantastic things. I’d been watching the calendar like a radar screen for months – years, even – tracking this time like an incoming missile: the arrival in my life of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, successor to champion time-destroyer Morrowind.

Wednesday afternoon to Sunday night… a little over four days, and the relentless gametime clock shows just shy of fifty hours. In a normal week, a week without dungeons to delve, monsters to stab, and character-creation options to fiddle with endlessly, what would I have done with fifty hours? I can’t remember. Probably nothing. These hours are better, anyway: they’re faster. And with the 360’s wireless controller I can stretch while I play, arms extended way behind my head, so the deep-body ache’s not so bad...
Over the course of solving a murder mystery, rescuing a shopkeeper’s daughter and taking a trip to Hell, I’ve come to understand that I’m the smartest person in the world. I’ve seen a noble knight spend five minutes walking into a wall, feet treadmilling on the courtyard dust as he tried to force his helmeted head through the stone. I’ve seen an archwizard standing on his breakfast table, babbling the same inane greetings over and over. I’ve seen a bandit in full plate armor trying to hunt deer for dinner, chasing them with a battle-axe, on foot.

And the shit these people collect! I do a lot of light-finger work on the side – “pick it up if it’s not nailed down,” and all that – and let me tell you, the disappointment gets to you. Breaking into some magnificent castle’s basement vault after hours of casing the joint, timing the guards, setting up the job, positively drooling over all those chests and crates and cabinets only to open them all and find five golds, a couple ratty skirts, a rusty dagger… and a dozen or so pairs each of shears, tongs and calipers. I’m new to this part of the universe, so I don’t know what kind of fad it was that swept this land and left every basement and storage closet cluttered with these three tools. Maybe it was the same fad that left a copy of Darkest Darkness on every bookshelf.

Being surrounded by shears-hoarding morons is kind of lonely, but it could be worse. I could be surrounded by people just like me: fireball-flinging killing machines running everywhere, obsessively leveling up, looting like maniacs, taking time out only for playing dress-up. Given the choice, I’ll stick with this society of slack-jawed automatons.
Friends drop by like opposite-day interventionists, tempting me away from work (which, technically, this is) with lures of liquor and marijuana, using the wonderfully warm, beautifully sunlit spring days to weather-guilt me into going outside where trees, clouds, water and dogs are really real, not just wonderfully realistic. It sometimes works, but gaming for this long at a stretch leaves you painfully unable to cope with social realities. Not only do you get a terrible case of gameface – when the game gets dark you can see it reflected in the TV screen, staring blank and hollow-eyed back at you – but you get irritable and depressed. It’s shame-based; you know you’re losing life and love by the minute, and there’s just no excusing it.

So sunset smoking conversations on the Laurence Decore Lookout turn dark, toward subjects like the unsustainability of first-world consumer culture, the pending collapse of our civilization, the coming Mad Max age.

“Well, then,” I say, tapping the bowl out on my boot heel, “we'd better get back to learning how to use primitive weapons and kill anything that gets in our way.”
You know, this world is really pretty. Just a minute ago, I came upon a beautiful mountain lake shimmering in the dawn, fed by the frothy white tumult of a roaring waterfall. As I strolled through a little meadow toward the shore, a small group of graceful deer startled out of the underbrush and bounded across my path. I neatly blasted one with a fireball; roast venison’s the main ingredient in my signature healing potion a la chasseur.
My days with Oblivion have put some distance between my roommate and me, and not only because I blew off our biweekly Cleanday Funday housekeeping date to fight skeletons. She simply doesn’t like videogames; she can’t stand the repetitive sounds of clashing combat, the constant snarls and growls of monsters, the screams and moans of the dying.

So, when she comes into the room to hang out for a bit, I try to make it the most peaceful game possible: watching the moons rise, listening to the night-birds, quietly walking through forests and fields gathering mushrooms and salad greens.

It was pleasant, and a nice way to and this madness: tomorrow, I’ll put the disc in her hands and instruct her to hide it away from me until May.
You know what I hate about the drones that populate this world? No matter what you do for them, no matter how long you know them, no matter what intimate secrets they share or have pried out of them, they never call you by name. Sure, I’m Naked Fireball Woman… but that's all I am, and somehow it’s not enough.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Life During Wartime, March 21, 2006

A twenty-minute Twin Fangs feature karate-chops the two hours. Kind of a different sound than usual... fun show; lots of guessing.

Ray Condo -- Lover, Come Back to Me
the Albaross Note -- Last Winter
Howe Gelb -- The Farm
Neko Case -- Star Witness
Pink Mountaintops -- Plastic Man, You're the Devil
Islands -- Volcanoes
Sloedad Bros. -- Mean Ol' Toledo
Boycrusher -- Cigarette Boat
ILYBICD -- At Last Is All
[Twin Fangs feature]
Congos -- Moses and Aaron
Bombay Dub Orchestra -- Feel (Diamon Cake Mix)
Tom Vek -- Nothing But Green Lights
Arab Strap -- There Is No Ending
Mclusky -- She Will Only Bring You Happiness
Robert Pollard -- I'm a Widow
Prince -- The Beautiful Ones

Life During Wartime's on CJSR, Tuesdays 3-5 p.m.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Grandpa gripes

I’ll never forget – well, maybe I’ll forget; the years are long and memories get washed out with the tides – the first time my cousins brought their Game Boy to Jasper. We’d go out there every year in late summer/early fall, all my Mom’s side of the family, and stay in these cool little cabins. Go for trail walks, play soccer, throw rocks into the Athabasca, mess around with cheapass gift-shop bows and arrows… that kind of thing. Family times. Super Mario Land changed things.

Things would have changed soon, anyway; I was 16, the oldest of a string of cousins that included more teenagers every year. That year or the next, family times shifted to ski season, which meant I’d soon be spending those weekends reading Iron Man comics. That summer weekend in ’89 was to be one of the last of its kind for me… and all I can really remember is zoning into that dingy grey-and-yellow LCD, piloting Mario’s dinky little submarine through his claustrophobic undersea world, figuring out tactics by which I could get more time with my little cousins’ new toy.

I was reminded of that time – head down over that huge box that seemed so small, back to the mountain, oblivious to forests and family – the other weekend, when I went out with some people to a friend’s cabin. None of us are super high-tech gadget nerds, but there in the kitchen of a lakehouse that’s seen decades of a family’s cabbage rolls and card games, we had at least:

  • Two digital cameras; three if you count the one on my phone
  • One video iPod
  • One non-iPod MP3 player
  • Two PlayStations Portable
  • Three cell phones

… and it was weird. To be sitting in one rustic room, flipping through the local history book with its pictures of lake people from the turn of the century onward, reading warm notes from the drinking dead in the cabin’s guest log as a fire crackles in the stove, while one guy’s playing a sireneriffic game of Grand Theft Auto beside me and another guy’s in the other room using the other PSP to browse that day’s digital photos with people watching over his shoulder... and someone else is watching Daft Punk videos on the iPod. Weird? Creepy and wrong. The only thing that made it kind of OK was the fact there was fuck-all else to do, and we probably wouldn’t have gotten along doing it if there was.

Grandpa gripes? Yeah, maybe; I can’t help but feel resentful of the wide-eyed, internetworked, always-on LCD gizmocracy we’re plunging into. Global wireless multiplayer gaming on the go, Mario Kart against some dude in London while you’re waiting for your girlfriend to try on pants; sure… but why? Portable multimedia… your favorite movies and music with you wherever you go; why can’t I see myself – or, at least, see myself being proud of myself – whipping out my PSP to show off some hilarious video I found on the ‘net? Grandpa gripes? Yes; I am of the past.

Games are one thing, but it’s the cameras that are really starting to get to me. Not just the omnipresent surveillance cameras – and, man, we’ve sure been frogs in the saucepan on that score – but people’s personal snapshooters. The other day, three camera-happy friends and I went for a walk in the river valley and I felt like a model… or a stereotypical Japanese tourist in an 80s movie. Everywhere you turn, there’s a lens in your face… and every ten minutes, the thing everyone’s doing is hunching around an LCD looking at pictures of what they were doing ten minutes ago. Videos are even worse. It’s nice to be able to record fun times, but the economics of the situation are such that potential fun production is cut in half when half your time is spent reminiscing about events that haven't even left short-term memory. Instant nostaliga.

I gripe, but I’m guilty: I’m first in line going “lemme see!” when a buddy chuckles as he thumbs the jog wheel on his Canon; I snap cell photos and post them to the web; it’s me that introduced the PSP, the DS, the GBA to my circle. I just can’t believe where we are; in what feels like an eyeblink, the days of quiet cabins, analog entertainment and undocumented joy went away.

(photo for illustration purposes only; there were no N-Gages present at the cabin.)

Death Letter

I got a letter this morning...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Life During Wartime, March 14, 2006

Man, was I tired and grouchy. Sorry. LDWt's still Tuesdays, 3-5pm mtn, on CJSR .

Giant Sand -- Catapult
Iron Mountain String Band -- New River Train
The Great Outdoors -- 28 Years later
She Was The Law -- See Song
Townes van Zandt -- Brand New Companion
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti -- Helen
Hypatia Lake -- Joseph and the Divine Intervention of the Recreational Center
Kasai Allstars -- Koyile / Nyeka Nyeka
Zoobombs -- Pleasure Drop
Morricone Youth -- Brujo Malo
Hashimoto -- Sidewalk Support Group
Mission of Burma -- Peking Spring
Margo -- l'ennui
Cornelius -- Count 5 or 6
Polysics -- Oh! Monaliza
Howe Gelb -- Howlin' a Gale
Mahalia Jackson -- The Upper Room
Stereolab -- Interlock
Mates of State -- Fraud in the 80's
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark -- Tesla Girls
The Ladies -- Non-threatening
Sleater-Kinney -- Milkshake n' Honey
The Fall -- The Mountain
Pixies -- Is She Weird?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

03-04-2006 – The Monkey Top Saloon

“I only have a three-inch dick… but there’s 280 pounds pushing it.” – entertainer Dew Carver (not pictured)
The guy’s working a little blue tonight, and the squealing table of happy girls-nite-outters over to our left is eating it up like Clodhoppers. One man, one spotlit Yamaha PSR-2000, the memorized entirety of the Great American Divebar Songbook and an endless supply of fat, fuck and fat-fuck jokes. Sweating, breathing heavy, and working, working, working the room… the face of itinerant z-circuit showbiz

The Monkey Top Saloon! Top nightspot in Bentley, Alberta. Took the Burro for “International Country Club of the Year” at the first annual Burro Awards in 2004, presented by hometown hero Dick Damron at a gala ceremony in Mazatlan. One of those small-town saloons covered in weird knicknacks and community mementoes casually, chaotically blended with commercial posters and broken beer-lights. Lying outside the sucky-baby nanny-state confines of the City, you can still smoke here… and city punks can still get in fights with locals.

Tip: if you want to get out of a tangle with an sodden cowboy, don’t hand him a delicate little ladybug trinket by way of a peace offering. My buddy tried it, and… well, you hand a range-workin’ man a ladybug and you’re basically calling him a fag, even (especially?) if you make it clear that he should “take it home to the wife.”

It’s a sure thing someone’s gonna start something sometime when city meets country in the booozebins of the rural drinking scene. So why go out there at all? Why antagonize? Shit, man… just to get out of town, you know? Even if it’s for just one night. Even if you get out to Gull Lake at 7pm Saturday and come back in at 10 the next morning. Even if it’s freezing cold, and the whole driveway needs to be shoveled, and your buddy’s 4WD is shot, and you’ve got a pile of work to do, and you’re broke… just go! The country air is good for you.

Plus, it’s never to early to start scouting for urban escape routes, places to flee to when things go sour in the city. Didn’t you read it in the Globe & Mail last week? Edmonton’s gonna be the new Seattle! Or maybe the new Montreal. Either way, that spells trouble for hosers from the old school, the best people to party with. The streets crawling with earnest, talented, stylish young people with dreams and goals and the ambition and savvy to make them happen? Ugh. I don’t think I could take it; certainly it’ll have an unhappy effect on rents.

So, the hoser eye turns to the outlying areas of our fair province, the ancestral lands. An acreage out by Bon Accord… the cabin west of Smoky Lake… maybe something out in the western hills… a two-room, eco-friendly, straw-bale, earth-sheltered, wind-powered hermitage where nobody will fuck with you (except the goddamn gas companies!) and you can still go into town on the weekends and get lit up like a firework and… sleep it off in your camper? Nah; just hit the highway loaded ‘cause you saw the district’s one RCMP car headed in the other direction. And if you ditch it, well, fuckit; thousand-dollar truck ain’t too hard to find ‘round here…

And when those city kids come around, thinking they’re so fucking smart with their digital cameras, their iPods, their cell phones, their PlayStation Portables and their pale little chicks with hands like flower petals, you can just walk right up to them and call them girls and queers until one of them tries to get cute with you... and then, brother, the party starts.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Chibi-Robo and the House of Troubles

The house is a mess. Muddy trudge-tracks around all the doors, junk-food wrappers and empty cans kicked into corners and under tables, back patio covered with dog doo, flies circling the fruit bowl, filth on the countertops, oily stains on the walls. Dad’s an unemployed – and probably unemployable – man-child obsessed with junk-culture superheroes, kicked out of the conjugal bed as punishment for blowing the family’s meagre budget on electronic toys and action figures. Mom’s locked herself in her bedroom, depressed and despairing, her last communication with her family a simple note that ended with the word “divorce.” Little Jenny has serious emotional and developmental problems, communicating only in gibberish “frog language,” responding to her crumbling home life by retreating into fantasy. And late at night, while this unhappy family drowses, deranged toys dance in the dark…

Damn, Chibi-Robo is bleak! What a bait-and-switch. On the surface, everything looks stereotypically Gamecube: adorable characters, bright n’ shiny cartoon design, lots of exclaimation marks, etc... and gameplay that’s based on collecting Happy Points. Ten minutes in, that veneer begins to peel away. With each stain you scrub, each load of trash you toss into the wastebasket, this portrait of a family in crisis becomes a little clearer, a little sadder. Once the limited charms of the game itself have expired and the critic in you is screaming “You’re playing a crappy game!”, you’ll hang on through the repetition and frustration, grit your teeth against the squirrelly controls and bull your way through the boredom just to see what’s next for these poor folks. Twenty hours I sunk into this madness the other week; twenty solid, potentially productive, daylight hours of “Fuck!” “Shit-ass-shit!” and “God-fucking-damnit-fuck!”, all to catch the next twist of the knife.

And then there’s the nighttime soap opera, which is another thing entirely. A landlocked wooden pirate, a relentlessly bombastic action figure, a porcelain guru, a phobic princess, an army of eggs, a lovestruck chew toy, a depressed mummy, a bipolar junky teddy bear… the world of Chibi-Robo is populated with desperate, broken souls in need of a tiny little silver robot to fix their problems and release their inner Happy Points. The puzzles aren’t very puzzling – most of the challenge is cheap – but as with the travails of Mom, Dad and Sis you’ll keep running around fetching stuff for these losers, captivated by the emotional trainwreck of Toy Society.

It sucks that such captivation – and in this hack industry, anything that takes the tiniest step beyond clich├ę can captivate – nestles in the heart of a game that’s such a total pain in the ass to actually play, that’s encrusted with so many unnecessarily unpleasant aesthetic elements. I’m a sucker for games set at tabletop scale – Mister Mosquito, Toy Commander and Katamari Damacy are in my top-twenty, top-ten and top-five, respectively – and in my heart I hoped Chibi-Robo would give me what I wanted: a domestic Legend of Zelda with bookshelves as mountains, parquet flooring as trackless desert, cupboards as castles, dungeons down in the ducts. What I got was visuals that evoke Dreamcast feelings but suffer in comparison, controls that even after half a workweek of play still feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and music that…

…oh, the music. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Katamari; maybe my standards have been set too high now that I know it’s even possible for a game to feature pop music you don’t want to turn off after five minutes. But, man, Chibi-Robo’s tunes get on your nerves... and you can’t shut them off. Neither can you shut off – or skip – the ear-jangling sampled babble that accompanies the characters’ long speeches. The soundscape becomes so unbearable, you end up muting the audio entirely… which is kind of a shame because the action sounds of Chibi himself are excellent, music in their own right.

There’s lots of beard-stroking talk – some of it mine – about the nature of games as art, and because comparison to film is usually made the discussion tends to centre around narrative, around writing: whether or not storytelling in games can match cinema storytelling. Chibi-Robo is a reminder that while the writing can be a central part of the work – in this case, the iconoclastic ideas and cracked-mirror characters were all that kept me coming past ten minutes – games must succeed or fail first and foremost as games. Twenty/thirty hours of relentless anti-fun to get at a TV episode’s worth of narrative, no matter how interesting, is a really shitty deal.