Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rehabilitating House

House has been my favorite TV show since I started watching it in it's second season. I've since gone back and watched the first season on DVD, and it is one of the few shows on television of which I have seen every episode. Although smartest in the first three seasons, when its modern day Sherloc Doc's shock-value was still fresh, the show remains one of the sharpest things on TV, weathering both an unexpected depature and the 2007-8 writer's strike; a black maelstrom that profoundly fucked up other shows.

I cannot deny that the weekly medical mysteries have grown considerably less memorable and intriguing with each passing season, but the show soldiers on by virtue of its excellent plotting: Every season, the writers throw in a story developments or characters who complicate existing character relationships, tweaking the formula just enough to keep things interesting. Despite its callous exterior, House M.D. is at heart, a soap opera, and most of these story-arcs entail perilous romances between characters. Every once in a while, the show uses something other than sexual tension to reinvent itself however, producing some voraciously watchable story arcs. I favored the arcs featuring antagonists Michael Tritter and Vogler over the maybe romances with Cameron and Stacy. My personal favorite arc might have been the season 3 finale which saw House firing his entire team and segued into medical internship survivor.

In my humble yet paradoxically loud and insistent opinion, Season Five was the show's darkest hour. Wilson's drawn-out estrangement from House was unrealistically reconciled in a single episode, Kal Penn's sudden departure left a gaping wound in the team's dynamics, and sin of all sins, the writers pushed House' flirtatious non-relationship with Cuddy towards something approaching a legitimate romance. It's obvious that they'll wind up together in the end, but once we get there -surprise- it's the end! Or at least it'd better be. The last thing I want to see is House and Cuddy work through a season of romantic minutiae. Consequently I've come to regard the pairing as the speed-boat pulling House towards a shark jump. While it pains me to admit it, the show may already be air born.

Shore and Co. seem to be aware of this impending danger as they are taking a huge risk with this new season by having House's character explore the one area he never dared venture before: mental stability. The season premiere restored my faith in the show by managing to believably portray House's rehabilitation as a drug addict and a human being. Making a character do a one eighty like that after five years of story telling is a hell of a feat. Doing it in the space of two hours is nothing short of incredible. The premiere also introduced the clever, tremendously likable shrink Nolan and Lydia; an intriguing, alternative love interest for House, though we have been led to believe that she has already left his life forever. Given the show's maxim (Everybody Lies), I'm remaining skeptical, but I have some hope for House yet.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Game Worth Ten Thousand Words

I've been waiting for Scribblenauts for a long time; basically since I first heard about it. For those who haven't heard, it's a DS Game where you can create whatever you want by just writing it. Need to cross a gap? Write "wings" and attach them to your character, or write "Helicopter" hop in and take off. Enemies to deal with? Sure you can summon any firearm, explosive or melee weapon that fits your fancy but that's such small, primitive thinking. Summon a Ninja, or a hoard of robot zombies, or a Cthulhu to do your bidding for you. Conjure a cloud of lightning and fry them up Storm style. Or just drop a kitchen sink on them repeatedly.

I can't remember the last time I read an advertising tag-line that seemed so appropriate.

What I have said may not have piqued your interest. You may be laughing at me now, scoffing that only nerds get excited about playing games were words are your primary weapon. I will concede that using words to exert physical change on the surrounding world is a fantasy almost every nerd has had at some point in their life, (and the basis for 9 out of 10 magick systems) but I assure you, this is a game for everybody who likes creativity. You don't need a terribly broad vocabulary to go wild. You can try to see how many puzzles you can solve using only ninjas (my count is only 5 so far, but I'm optimistic I'll hit at least 10), or explosives. Or you can see how many puzzles can be solved sans-violence. Believe me when I say this is the most creative game in a long time, and easily the most important video game, design-wise, since Braid.

The core game follows your basic "Find the star to clear the level" formula and there are a number of different themed worlds, each with eleven Action levels and eleven Puzzle levels. In the puzzle stages, the star item, here called a Starite, is invisible until you fulfill a condition, like creating an appropriate object (instruments for a band), reuniting something or somebody (gathering flowers into a basket), or performing some kind of action (knocking over a stack of bottles balanced on a table). As far as I've played, the puzzle levels tend to be much easier than the action levels, where the starite is present and awaiting retrieval from the start, but surrounded by all kinds of hazards and traps, including those which can actually destroy the Starite itself, in which case, you fail. What results is a delightfully refreshing take on action and puzzle solving in video games. If you use a crate to solve a puzzle in Scribblenauts, you have nobody to blame but your self.

The lexicon isn't perfect. Naughty stuff, like racial slurs, drugs, alcohol, and sexual material are all taboo, because this is a title intended for everybody. This is no great disappointment, but true wordsmiths will manage to find a few other holes in their playthrough. So far, the game has failed to provide me with greaves and a taser. I can understand a lack of archaic leg armor, but a taser? Really? Then again, the game shows an intimate familiarity with gaming and internet memes, so the omission might be a show of solidarity for... That Guy. Sadly, the game adheres to copyright law out of necessity, which means you won't be able to summon anybody from the eclectic bunch below.
Found on Kotaku, who found it on Tiny Cartridge. My Personal Favorites are Conan O'Brian, Tobias Funke, and Travis Touchdown.

Really, Scribblenauts has only one real flaw, but it is a doozy: All of the action in Scribblenauts is performed on the touch screen with the DS' stylus. Even this isn't so much a flaw as a stylistic choice, since most non-videogamers find touch controls to be far more intuitive and accessible than button inputs. Unfortunately, this set up also suffers from a severe lack of precision. Sometimes, like when you are trying to attach a defibrillator to a comatose creature, or glue a dingo to a baby, (these are entirely hypothetical examples mind you) the item you are fiddling with will 'go red' because it is illegally overlapping with something else. When this happens, your character, Maxwell, will occasionally attempt to trot over to wherever you are pointing, heedless of whatever harm may be in the way, because the stylus also controls his movement. Other times you may try to get him to move, like when avoiding a murderous spring-heeled Jack, and he will just stand there and pull a stupid face. The touch screen is certainly ideal for spelling words and placing or combining items in the play field, but I would have preferred a more traditional set up for movement (D-Pad to run, 'A' to Jump, B to use an item). Apparently my complaints conform to the wikipedia standard (bottom sentence of the third paragraph). How appallingly normal of me.

So in closing, if you have a DS, you should own Scribblenauts as well, awkward controls be damned. It's $30 you won't regret. If you buy it and fail to have fun with it, later this week I will post a list of winning word/item combinations on Biased Video Gamer Blog to help show you how it's done.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Still Lost Among the Dunes

Let's head back to Arrakis shall we? There was very little in the way of literary analysis on the first book of Dune, mostly because I have very little to say about it beyond "this book is so cool and you should read it." To address that deficiancy, this post will analyze both the second and third books in the original dune sextology, and it will also be absolutely saturated with spoilers, so consider yourself forewarned. Last I left off, I was broaching a discussion of Children of Dune, having completely skipped over the second book in the series, Dune Messiah. This was not intentional, though frankly there isn't much to say about the second novel.

Unlike Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Batman, Dune lost some of it's rich complexity when translated to Lego.

I read Dune Messiah in the fall of last year, just a couple months after reading Dune, and it struck me as little more than an extended epilogue to the story which hand already unfolded. It didn't introduce any terribly compelling new characters or convincing threats (Sorry Scytale, you just aren't as cool as your name suggests). Herbert did introduce Ghola cloning technology to the series, but left the concept rather under-explored. That being said, the story does bring added closure to the original, and it brings it very well, beggining with the backlash to Paul's assendency and continuing on to his tragic fate.

I say Children of Dune is a proper sequel, because it runs counter to the first two books in almost every way. The energy dedicated to exploring Paul's ability to predict the future has been redistributed to his children's genetic total recall. Paul's heroic decision to die a mortal death and avert intergalactic Jihad is reconstrued as an act of selfish cowardice. It is revealed that Paul didn't even die at all when he walked off into the desert. Even though the plot twist initially excited me, (for it's hard not to get excited about characters coming back from the dead), I was it left me sad later on, because it's the sort of inorganic story telling Herbert never resorted to in his earlier novels. Admittedly, he does soften the effect of this revelation by repeatedly foreshadowing it and repeatedly stressing that Paul has become a different character, but it still feels like some sort of cheap trick.

Sadly, this is not the most preposterous plot point in Children of Dune. Characters who have been well established as intelligent and wise suddenly suffer from attacks of idiocy, only to display mind boggling insight moments later. Lady Jessica is a prime example. Even though Leto II (Paul's son and the new protagonist) makes her look like an idiot fool in conversation, she somehow mannaged to see past his elaborate feign death and trap him in the desert, even though he is presient and she is not. More messily developed characters like Alia and Duncan (or the Ghola formerly known as Hayt) spiral out of control destroying the few consistent threads of personality which had been previously established. These gaping holes in logic and continuity detract from the wonderfully density Herbert's world displayed in the first book. Even though we have lots of plots twisting around eachother and tangling together like sound trout, they never quite form a worm, or a god-emperor for that matter.

Fortunately, Herbert's philosophical musings remain poetic and potent, and conceptually he continues to engage. I resonate with the book's central message, assuming I correctly understand it to be the sentiment that people are far too eager to submit themselves to the will of heredity. At the same time the Golden Path, Leto II's infallible plan to ensure the survival of the human race, strikes me as an inherently evil concept because it is contingent upon the idea that man must submit to the rule of a single godly tyrant. Indeed, Paul deliberately avoided such a path in the first book for the same reason. Leto denounces this is cowardice, since Paul created a universe that looked for divine justice by becoming a messiah, only to deprive it of such guidence. While I'm willing to concede that Paul's suicide may not have been the best decision for his empire, Leto never provides a convincing explanation as to why tyranny is a better alternative.

In fact, the end of Children of Dune serves as a dark reflection of the original novel's conclusion; the main character storms into his enemies lair, laying waste to all resistance, and coerces the survivors into submission, though for some reason when Leto did it, I felt like evil had won. I think my primariy problem is a lack of motivation. Paul was finally attaining retribution against the Harkonens who had killed his father and brutalized the people of Arrakis, while Leto (who didn't feel human even before merging with worms) is simply killing his demented aunt. The fact that he claimed his sister for a wife and whored her out to his cousin doesn't sit well with me either.

On the pluse side, Leto is primed to be a brilliant villian in God Emperor of Dune, though I think it will be a good long while before I head back to Arrakis.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lost Among the Dunes

Despite my love for science fiction, I am not really all that well-read in the genre, especially where the classical authors are concerned. This is not due to deliberate omission as much as culture diffusion and osmotic pressure. The ideas put fourth by Asimov, Wells and Heinlein, concepts like time travel and interstellar empires, have already seeped into the cultural conscious and attained a familiarity which I cannot help but take for granted, so I feel little compulsion to read the original source material. I realize this historical indifference is the mark of a foolish young man, but I'm wise enough to be in no hurry to grow older. Fortunately, I have friends and family who are wise and insistent enough to get me to read classic sci-fi.

Such was the case with Frank Herbert's Dune, a novel I now refer to as The Lord of the Rings of science fiction. Like many off-the-cuff descriptions, my comparison serves as a point of reference more than anything else: Both works share the same staggering scale; epics which establish fictional universes whose detailed histories exert genuine gravity on readers. Yet the actual structure of Dune's mythology bears a greater resemblance to Middle-Earth than to that of Asimov's Foundation, though now that I write it, Dune might be better summed up as the middle ground between those two novels.

The most impressive thing about Dune, the thing which elevates it above Tolkien in my opinion, is that it is as dense as it is broad and deep. Yes, Herbert gives you rich detailed lore, and poems, but rather than forcing it into long chapters about walking, riding or hiking, he presents them as footnotes before each chapter so they don't become insuferable tangents which swallow the story's momentum. The first novel Dune novel feels like a complete trilogy in and of itself, as it follows young Paul Atreides journey from prince of Caladan, to rebel leader, to religious figure and emperor of the intergalactic Empirium. Over the course of that journey, Herbert delves into heady topics of ecology, religion, sociology to develop the distinctive culture of intriguing factions like the semi-nomadic, religiously fantic, worm-riding Fremen warriors and the scheming Bene Gesserit, who resemble ruler-cracking mother superiors schooled in Jedi mind tricks and yoga, mixed with a dash of dominatrix for good measure. Among these colorful factions we find unforgetable characters such as Stilgar, the wise warrior-priest cheiftan, the treacherous yet sympathetic Wellington Yueh, and my personal favorite, Gurney Halleck the silver-tongued bardic assassin. All these disparate elements blend against the amazing backdrop of the desert planet Arrakis whose unique ecology is the sole producer of the life-prolonging precience enhancing spice, Melange. Also, gaint god-worms of death.

The sci-fi concepts which guide Dune's story are as intriguing and densely presented as the story itself. Classic sci-fi tropes like laser weapons, force fields, and faster than light travel are all present and accounted for, and they are accompanied by other fantastic technology such as Ornithropters (aircrafts that fly by flapping their wings like birds) and water-recycling suits. These are mere set pieces however. The details of such technology pales in comparison to Herbert's exploration of concepts like hypnotic suggestion, evolution and presience; things which literally change the dynamic of what it means to be human. He takes a mystical approach to these concepts, much like how somebody from the eighteenth century might address cellphones, rather than a highschool science teacher trying to establish hard rules.

Herbert's books aren't any poorer for the omissions. On the contrary, they remain readable. Trying to sort through that sort of intellectual detritus in addition to navigating all the disparate philosophies and politics at work would merely exhaust readers: an important lesson I repeatedly fail to remember when working on my own fiction. Whenever the plot particulars points in a story get difficult (a character is being difficult, I forget where I'm going with something, etc.) I preoccupy myself with the grand questions of the fictional universe said story takes place in. Last week this led to wikipedia binge on quantum physics that led me to look at the universe as a perpetually splintering thread of possibility. Interestingly, I was reading Children of Dune at the time (the inspiration for this post), and I found both my thread concept, and the mind numbing confusion surrounding it reflected in Leto II's struggle with pressience and past lives. I'm still not sure if my life was imitating art or merely being fucked up by it.

Anyway, I think this is a suitable stopping point for today. I'll continue with Dune Messiah and Children of Dune next time. Expect more in the way of actual lit criticism.