Monday, February 23, 2009

Kate Winslet: Napoleon in a ball gown?

Fun times watching the Oscars with my wife last night, in suitably new-media fashion: laying abed, using an iMac to display a stream found somewhere in the depths of the tubes, with some random snarky liveblog crawl scrolling in the window next door, bringing a strange postmodern Oscar/slumber party vibe to our little house a million miles from anything resembling "glitz" (unless you count the many Bedazzled denim items available at the local charity thrift). We even got a little classic Oscar-party comedy: dude was casting the stream off his tuner and couldn't resist a teasing little joke, switching over to NASCAR right before Best Supporting Actress; 36,247 screams of terror reverberated through the fibre.

But there's a danger to watching television in bed, the danger of sleep. By the time broadcast Hollywood retired to its hideous wouldn't-be-caught-dead afterparties stacked with contractually-obligated B-listers (classic example of what my wife calls the No-Gift Fakeout: "It's an open bar... that only serves Disaronno") and the stream switched over to the unedited entirety of Kate Winslet's excruciating post-win Q&A, I was dozing. Problem is, I'd spent seven hours that day playing Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on my DS, and you know how things get blended together in those half-napping reveries... I dreamed I was there, trying to get a quote from the star regarding the history and relevance of turn-based strategy games and the continuing influence of tabletop wargaming. Frustrating dream; Winslet thought "Avalon Hill" was a boutique production company specializing in Edwardian period pieces... then security started hassling me about my credentials and I ran out of the room, into a kennel where Mickey Rourke was trying to adopt out puppies he'd rescued from Florida dogfighting rings...

Anyway, Avalon Hill. Not a purveyor of tasteful costume drama but a seminal publisher -- since folded into industry-devouring behemoth Wizards of the Coast and relegated to an "all Axis and Allies, all the time" format -- of games designed to bring the minutiae of military strategy and tactics to the dining-room table. Every time I fire up something like Fire Emblem, I end up spending most of my playtime daydreaming about my encounters with the old AH library, of campaigning under the obsessive simulation of movement, morale, weather, entrenchment, zones of control, lines of supply and support and communication. Sleepless long weekends under the merciless tutelage of my buddy Dave, being drilled over and over again through Thunder at Cassino until I could, if not win, at least hold a bloody line for four or five turns. These were -- and are; wargamers are generally obsessive about keeping their shit together, and copies of old AH games in fine playable condition are readily available -- unforgiving tests of intellect, instinct and training... and fun as all hell.

With the roar of imaginary bombardments still echoing in my head almost twenty years later, it's damn hard to take something like Fire Emblem seriously. Craving old-school tabletop tactics, the simplicity of the gameplay in most mainstream military videogames -- even those as niche-pitched as this one -- fails to satisfy. No weather effects, no morale calculations, fog-of-war or reckoning supply lines. Adjacent friendly units offer no support while enemies on your flanks offer no hindrance, eliminating the need for attention to formation and discipline in battle order; even on "hard" difficulty, the battlefield is a cakewalk if you're patient and attentive enough. What complexity and challenge Fire Emblem does offer is all on the back end, in the tedious accounting involved in the micro-management of your forces' progress through their RPG-style levels, none of which is adequately explained in the printed manual or in-game tutorials. Long familiarity with the genre got me through it OK, but after a few hours the ridiculous incongruity of a child's-play wargame supported by utterly obscure mechanics intelligible only to hard-core tactical-RPG vets had me closing the lid and wandering off to the "real world" of red carpets and dead-editor montages.

And yet, as I said, even the plucky song-and-dance routines of Hugh Jackman couldn't keep gamy thoughts out of my head. The camera would rove across rows of famous faces and I'd wonder, how many of L.A.'s bright lights are or have been gamers? What... oh my God... what if they all were? What if somebody, back in the old Studio System days, had started a wargaming fad in Hollywood that continued on to today, movers and shakers gathering weekly around $80,000 teakwood tables in the hills, fuelled by benzedrine and White Lady, hashing out handshake deals between turns. Afterparty pickup shots show stars and entouragers hunched over Blackberries; what if they weren't texting "omg get me out of here amaretto triggers my reflex" but were flashing each other negotiations over their Diplomacy turns: "ok i'll convoy a-london -> belgium if you hold f-north sea... and give an assoc producer cred on slumdog 2"? In this scenario, Hollywood could even have its own awards night for gaming excellence... they could even maintain this wonderful new tradition of having a panel of past luminaries laud the nominees!

WALKEN: "Your performance, Mickey, in containing the Ottoman advance on the Baltic States, was simply... inspiring. You reminded a nation, and a world, of what's possible when bold action combines with careful planning."

ROURKE: [Graciously nod-bows behind his Vuarnets, unconsciously rubs his lucky d20]


David said...

Merciless? It was tough love, buddy :)

Anonymous said...

Dave? Is that really you?

David said...

Yes, it is I, wasting time at work.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, man... too long! Email me proper: sovietsleeper, gmail.


David said...

Sent you email from my Yahoo! account...did you get it?