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]

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Boom, Bust and Deco: a proposal

Pitch notes for a feature-in-progress; warehouse not exactly as pictured

In spring of 2008, with oil prices passing $120/bbl on their way to a summer peak of nearly $150, an already booming Calgary was ramping up into a frenzy. Double-digit population growth fired a housing shortage, driving real-estate to crazy heights. The picturesque foothills setting of Southern Alberta's cowboy-culture mythology were being blanketed as far as the eye could see with hillside favelas of cloned Dream Homes. Money was everywhere, so much that properly disposing of it became a civic and social preoccupation.

At this time, I took a part-time job hauling for a high-end furniture and interior-design company, and I saw the peak of the boom from the inside of Calgary's wealthiest living rooms, family rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, media rooms and the warehouses and showrooms that kept those rooms supplied with solid mahogany.

Not even nine months later, with oil at $40 and dropping, I'm seeing the bust from the same vantage -- a warehouse gone from being understaffed because nobody could be found to work to being understaffed because the company wasn't getting enough orders to pay anybody, in seamless overnight transmission. I want to share some of these sights...

  • The day in early summer 2008, when we filled a 5-ton truck to its physical capacity and took it 150km up the highway to Sylvan Lake. Our cargo was patio-furniture cushions. Not the furniture itself; just the cushions -- $40,000 worth of cushions for the three wraparound balconies of somebody's "lake cabin". (Last month, we made a similar trip in the same truck; our cargo was a single ottoman, the day's only delivery.)
  • Delivering a media console (two tall cabinets, a base and a bridge surrounding a mahogany panel for the giant-screen plasma) to a clearly abusive creep who frightens his wife and her little Yorkie dog out of the room with a raised fist. He insists on drilling a hole for the cables, even though there's a pre-cut cable passthrough; he takes a never-used drill and bit set out of its packaging to do this. On his front porch is a fankly pornographic concrete fountain, a pubescent nymph drinking from a leaf, eyes closed in ecstasy head tilted back to recieve the flow; the nymph is the spitting image of the blonde daughters whose photos line the mantel.
  • Delivery of a full living-room suite (~$20,000) to a household where it was received by a brittle, preoccupied housewife; delivering another living-room suite to the same household four months later, recieved this time by a younger, prettier perkier woman (no ring).
  • Swapping out old Ikea furniture for solid-mahogany pieces, in a little girl's bedroom with one wall covered in equestrian "Participant" ribbons.
  • Delivering a rather costly rug and a dining-room table to a semidetached townhouse filled with made-in-China "African" and "Tribal" art. The rug was too big, completely covering every square inch of the very expensive terracotta tile in the dining room, from the granite-topped island to the patio doors. Centred on the rug, the table was four feet off-centre from the chandelier. Before we'd left the "designer" (salesgirl) had convinced the lady of the house that the solution was not to exchange for a properly sized rug ("It really celebrates your new carpet!") but to get a renovation contractor in to move and rewire the light fixture. "Hubby won't like that," the lady laughed; everyone present knew Hubby's likes or dislikes didn't factor in.
  • I've got a million stories like this... and it's almost all over. I've been called in to work a total of two shifts in the last four weeks; the middle-high-end retail market catering to Calgary's semi-rich has nearly evaporated. Morale is the shits; gossip, backbiting, grousing and the discussion of new scams are the order of the day. Swearing and profanity of all kinds, always at shockingly high levels, has been spiking in inverse with oil prices.
  • At the peak of the boom, the company relocates to a warehouse twice the size, with offices for the business and accounting staff, which warehouse sits mostly empty as orders have dried up. Every $10 drop in the price of oil has translated almost exactly into the layoff of one employee; eight "designers" were let go last month, and the warehouse manager (the owner's son; it's a family business) is doing all the order picking and unpacking himself.
  • And I watched the condominuim developer next door go bankrupt, its entire fleet of brand-new F-250 trucks clogging the parking lot until the lease company came and drove them away. The unfinished holes in the ground abandoned by this company and others dot Calgary like cankers. A reposessed-vehicle reseller nearby had to expand its lot to make room for all the new stock they're taking in.


  • My boss, "Miles", a retired farmer (and championn bullshitter) with a daughter graduating from the London School of Economics; constantly conscious of class and the dollar value of things. When a lady, after we'd wrestled an oversized sectional into her basement, offered us twenty bucks ("Wouldn't you like some extra cash?") to haul her old sofa out, Miles refused: "If I wanted some extra cash, I'd sell some of my land." The "look on her face" spent a week at the top of the warehouse anecdote charts.
  • Our in-house furniture refinishing specialist, a wiry little gnome of an Ulster Scot with arms and neck (and probably the rest of his body) covered in Unionist paramilitary tattoos; he hates bullshit, stupidity and Catholics in no particular order.
  • The warehouse guy, generally acknowledged by all to be a "nice guy" but preternaturally slow and lazy. He is retained and tolerated despite this, until oil dropped below $60 and he was canned for text-messaging while driving the forklift.
  • The owner (a Cuban-smoking late-middle-aged exemplar of the Calgary Business Man, complete with vanity plate VROOOM on his Corvette convertible) and his sons, who each run a department of the operation: the "design" group chief, a useless twit with a soul patch who consciously tries to "read gay" (he isn't) because he thinks it helps sales; the sales-centre majordomo who'd probaly slip into a coma if he cared any less. The eldest son, the warehouse manager, I've already mentioned: he's desperately trying to hold it together (he's got kids). He saw the writing on the wall when the slide began last August and started commuting on a Vespa to save gas money; given the savage nature of driving in Calgary, warehouse speculation at the time was that he was passively suicidal.