Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SYMBOLS of popular culture

That we recognize symbols in culture is not amazing, we seem to be hard wired to recognize symbols and symbolism. Whether we understand the symbolism or not is not the point. When we look at culture it is filled with images that tell us what we are supposed to connote some message from the work. In the movie BLACK RAIN with Michael Douglas a plane leaves the United States airspace of red sun, white sky and blue ocean (The US Flag: Red White and Blue) to land in Japan, with a largely white sky and blazing Red rising sun (The Japanese flag of the Rising Sun.) It is not necessarily important but it adds to the layers of symbolic information, and the viewer may or may not understand it more than just feeling something, but, it is there.

Some symbolism retains power and value throughout human experience. The story of Saint George killing the Dragon is powerful, but a mythic story that arose from a person who did something very much the same in terms of choices made. Saint George comes from a historical figure who chose not to convert to a different religious faith in the face of a demand from an Emperor. He was executed as a result. The mythic story follows a Knight who slays a dragon, but the mythic root is that in our lives we are able to make heroic decisions, and the dragon, that beast of conformity and hate can be slain. The Christian metal band Demon Hunter has an image of a slain Demon skull as the symbol of their band. They do not linger over lyrics of killing demons, they speak about choices and morality, they slay demons with words. The symbolism here is unchanged, and there are many many other instances I could show for the same sort of usage.

Death itself is symbolized by a Skull. In the past the use of a skull in imagery meant very clearly that death was near, that a portent of danger was evident, and that one should be careful, exhibit fear, or wariness. But lately in many forms of culture, you see the skull being used not as an omen of horror, or danger, but of empowerment over such a thing. Whereas Skeletor from He-Man and Darth Vader of Star Wars were given skull like faces, you can see skate boarders wearing clothing with skulls on it to show they are brave in the face of danger. You can see it in the Christian metal band AS I LAY DYING, who uses the skull to symbolize that Death is a doorway to a different existence, and that being slave to the flesh rather than the spirit is death itself. This usage of imagery can cause confusion, as clearly when symbols change meaning people from before and after do not connate the same thing from the symbol. When I see a pirate flag and the Skull and Cross bones I do not necessarily think I am about to die, or be in danger, but I certainly don’t see Pirates of the Caribbean as being about men who are evil and wishing to plunder.

Finally some images we create might have no greater meaning (although Abbey Road does have a number of symbolic images and meanings, which I might discuss in future articles... although I am no expert regarding it) but enter into culture due to the widespread popularity, notoriety, and importance. The Beatles were very much a famous, powerful, important band, and everything they did had a place in culture, that was revered and examined. Whether they were meaning to do so was really not the point. They were considered at the edge of culture and you can see from album covers and personal statements and music lyrics from the band and members, they were a cultural movement. The album Abbey Road was very important, lovely to listen to, and musically valuable. But the impact it had can be seen in the numerous parodies of it. Many dozens of bands, individual artists and popular culture mediums utilized the familiarity and fame of the image, to portray themselves in the same important light. The image enclosed shows just the tip of the iceberg of people imitating the image.

Symbolic information exists whether we understand it or not, but is the symbol used a constant, or has the culture changed it, what band, author or game is so powerful and important to become part of the imagery of popular culture?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Trauma Center Second Opinion

Trauma Center: Second Opinion poses as a sequel, when it is really just the original with a fresh coat of paint. The storyline (still) follows the emerging medical career of one Derek Stiles. Stiles is an up and coming surgeon with a lot to learn about surgery, and about life. He and his plucky young assistant Angie fight to save lives and punch disease in the face.

The story is rife with melodrama that would not feel out of place on daytime soaps. Themes weave through suicide attempts, bio-terrorism, euthanasia, and inter-office canoodling. While the storyline itself feels current and topical, the delivery is quite dated. Static images accompany scrolling text like an RPG for the SNES. The pain of reading is exacerbated by the fact that the game is almost too chatty. Before each surgery there is dialogue with storyline development. There is also a longer dialogue scene between each surgery. This means that for each minute that is spent with a scalpel, two more are spent reading about it. Just give me something to suture already. Moreover, the themes are very dark, even with a T rating.

All of this obnoxious discussion and medical mystery magically disappears when the mission starts. The gameplay is (big surprise) the best part of the game. The mission will begin with a senior resident explaining the procedure to Stiles. It is important to pay attention, because they will not be helpful during the surgery, and Angie only seems to chime in when the good doctor makes a mistake.

The game uses both the remote and the nunchuck. The analog stick on the nunchuck is used to select the appropriate medical tool, such as a scalpel, syringe, or ultrasound. After grabbing the correct tool, the player simply points to the screen and uses it. With this simple control scheme players can master time-honored medical techniques such as the connect-the-dots cut and the zig-zag stitch. Believe me, nothing is more rewarding than pulling a shard of glass out of a man's heart and then using a needle and thread to clumsily stitch it shut.

The controls are very precise, which means that they precisely demonstrate how imprecise I am. Though the objectives such as connecting the dots are clearly laid out, my clumsy hand can't seem to complete them without mangling the patient. The worst mechanic in the game is the defibrillator. Every now and then, Angie decides that the only way to save a patient is to electrocute them. During these times, players must hold their wiimote and nunchuck like handles of a defibrillator and push them toward the screen. This simply does not work. I just ended up shaking the controllers back and forth, and hoping it would work.

Most of the missions are some derivation of the first one. The formula is as follows. Wipe the wound with an all-purpose healing gel. Then cut along the dotted line. Once inside, locate, laser, tweeze, and cut out the problem. If the patient's vital signs should drop, simply fill a syringe with more gel, and give them a warm blast of life before continuing to work. When finished, sew the cut up with your needle and thread. Then wipe it with gel and place a bandage. Just like new.

The early stages feel very "medical": healing wounds, excising tumors, removing foreign objects. As the game progresses, however, the challenges begin to feel more arcade-like. A few puzzles, and abundant use of the laser to fight disease, make it clear that the designers ran short on "medical" ideas after a while. 

The graphics are, thankfully, unrealistic. The characters are all hand-drawn in anime style. The bodies and vital organs are rendered in three dimensions in soft, muted tones. There is little to no blood, and nobody ever dies. If a player fails a mission, a senior doctor simply takes over. Overall the game looks very nice.

Despite the few downfalls, Trauma Center Second Opinion is absolutely a game worth playing. It provides a surprisingly developed story with fun game mechanics that offer a glimpse of what is possible on the Wii. Hopefully, this game will usher in a new generation of medical simulators.

Bottom line? Rent it before buying it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Very Happy X-FILES Halloween

December 1998. The Great Lakes Mall. While working at Electronics Boutique – back before it was GameStop or, even, EB Games – and forced to wait, as usual, for the punctuality-challenged manager to roll his ass out of bed, I was stuck on a bench in front of the store, surrounded by Christmas sale signs and decorations and the ubiquitous mall walkers (who, incidentally, like all of their elderly brethren, never ceased to stop staring at a scruffy, long-haired kid). It was a frustrating experience, compounded by the persistent tardiness of those who called themselves my bosses, but, while waiting there, stuck in that environment, something happened. Irritation dissolved into… something else. Wonderment. Appreciation. Contentment.

You see, contrary to popular belief, fall is the most wonderful time of the year. Changing leaves, the smell of the air, the hints of Christmas and beautiful snow landscapes just around the corner – it’s a wonderful, magical time.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that fall is the most holiday-saturated period of the year; it’s a celebratory condensing of epic proportions. Chief among these, before the anniversary of my wife’s and my first date, before, even, my birthday, is Halloween, that mischievous and mysterious day on which children dress up as adults and adults act like kids. It's always been my favorite holiday – well, it’s just behind Christmas, to have full candor – and it’s one that my wife and I have always looked forward to celebrating (except for the year we lived in Japan; the only celebrations to be had there, beyond some generic store sales, were in the form of a bunch of gaijin getting drunk while riding the various subway lines of Osaka [and getting hauled off by the police]).

The only problem with Halloween, in specific, and fall, in general, is… well, it goes by too quickly. One waits some nine or ten months to start the festivities – only to have it shoot by in the blink of an eye. It’s the quintessential dilemma of the human condition: to be aware of the passage of time, and to be aware that our awareness of it affects the dynamics of its speed.

The lamentation of the season passing so quickly was one that I made year after year, and, indeed, was one that I was in the process of muttering back in 1998. But that year, sitting there alone and cursing my outcast state on that cheap mall bench, I was forced – just for a few minutes – to just sit, to simply stop. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be. I just was. And as the Christmas music seeped into my subconscious, a realization bubbled up. I started to smile. I was at peace. Call it a seasonal zatori.

It was a magical moment.

And it’s one that I’ve endeavored to faithfully recreate every year since. That was the first Christmas that I was acutely conscious of contemplating, enjoying, experiencing. It’s a lesson that I’ve tried to apply to other aspects of my life, most especially other occasions – holidays, weddings, gatherings of any sort or stripe. As my good friend from Australia is wont to say, it’s the moments of our lives that matter the most, for, at the end of the day, it’s all that we have left.

Which turns the wheel back to Halloween, my (second) favorite day of the year. And another period which seems to rocket by without much time to pause, to reflect, to enjoy. Five years ago, I decided to fix that, to force myself to sit back in that bench and to let the environment, the sights and sounds, smells and wonders, seep into my psyche. I also decided that I would use the opportunity to honor one of the most important stories in my life, one of the pieces of artwork that has touched me the most profoundly on a personal level and shaped my sensibilities on a professional one.

This is how the X-Files Halloween marathon started. Every year, starting on 10.13 (“I made this!”) and running for nine consecutive nights, we watch one episode from one season of the series (the first night’s episode is from the first season; the second night’s, from the second season; etc.), specially selected by yours truly based on considerations of story, atmospherics, isolation from the show’s overarching mythology – there are a number of people who come to the marathon every year that have never seen The X-Files or, at the very least, have never seen the whole story through – and, of course, scare factor.

Is it silly? Sure. Is it nerdy? Definitely yes (in fact, one of this year’s guests insists on referring to it as Dorkfest 2008). But it’s also fun, and a great excuse to have friends and family over for nine nights in a row, wearing costumes and eating candy and enjoying one another’s company. It’s also a great way to sneak some clever writing and wonderful production values down the throats of those who have never before experienced the joy that is Chris Carter.

This year’s marathon starts tonight at 8:00 and, just in case you’re curious, I’m providing the full selection of episodes below. Feel free to join along at home or to furnish your own selection of Halloween-worthy material; either way, just sit and be. Make a moment of it.

In the end, it’s all that we’ll have left.

Monday, October 13th: "Miracle Man"

Tuesday, October 14th: "Fearful Symmetry"

Wednesday, October 15th: "Jose Chung’s 'From Outer Space'

Thursday, October 16th: "Kaddish"

Friday, October 17th: "The Post-modern Prometheus"

Saturday, October 18th: "Field Trip"

Sunday, October 19th: "The Amazing Maleeni"

Monday, October 20th: "Redrum"

Tuesday, October 21st: "John Doe"

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Big Read

The Big Read is a project of the National Endowment of the Arts. The idea is to promote reading, through community libraries around the country. You can check the NEA/Big Read website to get more information and find out if your local library is taking part.

I guess it’s obvious that I’m a reader, especially given my choice of careers. As a Librarian I’m fortunate to have access to many of the books which are included in the Big Read list. Most of them are the classics that you would expect, but sadly are the titles which often sit on our shelves unless a teacher assigns them. Personally, I haven’t read as many of them as I probably should have, but am going to try to get to a few more in the next year.

Here in Orange we have about a dozen of the book/CD sets that were produced as part of the NEA program. I picked up two of the CDs at the American Library Association convention a couple of months ago. I’ve enjoyed listening to them and recommend that you might want to check them out, even if you don’t read the book. The CDs will give you some insight into the author, a little background on the history of the book and a few minutes of the actual book read by professional actors.

The two I have are FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury and THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett. I read both books years ago, and have seen the films based on them as well. Bradbury, himself, is interviewed on the CD and several authors discuss the influence the book had on them. The Hammett program features interviews with mystery writers and discusses the most famous film adaptation with Bogart, also.
If you ever intend on reading some of these books, or would just like to know more about them, I highly recommend the series. Check it out!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Beanworld Returns!

This weekend I went to the Small Press Expo in Maryland. I had a great time and took a few photos. One of the big excitements of the convention was seeing Larry Marder and finding out that he will be continuing Beanworld for the foreseeable future. Here is a picture of Larry Marder holding a sketch he drew for me. Beanworld is one of my favorite series of all time. It is a series for all ages and is absolutely delightful. Dark Horse is bringing out a collection and a new winter special. They are listed in this month's Previews. You should run out an reserve your copies right now. There is a new Beanworld story available online right now! This series is unlike anything else and is just a load of fun. Yes, I did pick up some Beanworld action figures at the convention. I remember getting some from Eclipse years ago and they are the absolutely most hilarious idea of all time. You can see a picture of them in the Sept. 27 entry on Larry Marder's blog.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 4

If you've never played any Metal Gear Solid titles before this one, or if you just sampled a small morsel of the series, this game runs an incredibly high risk of tempting you to viciously spear your expensive DualShock 3 into your even more expensive PS3. And though that will considerably lower your electric bill, you might find yourself spending even more money for therapy soon thereafter. You will shake your fists and bellow at all the reviewers who drooled slobbery praise over this game and convinced you, an MGS dabbler, to purchase it.

There's a good reason for this. MGS is a series that has a dense and intricate story line that is intertwined throughout every iteration, and MGS 4 is the culmination of all the story lines, the One Sequel To Rule Them All. As such, this game was uncompromisingly crafted for MGS fans seeking closure and makes no effort to sacrifice this finality in a belated effort to attract new fans.

Imagine watching The Return of the King on the basis of it having won 11 Oscars - without actually having watched the other two LOTR films beforehand. That's pretty much how it is with this game. Sometimes a sequel is masterful not because it can stand alone, but because it completes a familiar fictional universe and your experience of it in ways that go above and beyond the call of duty.

Overall, the gameplay elements have been evolved magnificently. You can do, see, shoot, and sneak more than ever before. But even in this wealth of improvement, some things in particular stand out:

The guards, human and otherwise, have gotten much, much smarter (finally) and have formidable eyesight (finally). If you thought the new completely maneuverable camera would make intrusion too easy, think again. In earlier games, the fixed camera was compensated for by guards who, though not unintelligent, couldn't see farther than their own gun point. The new and improved guards not only work in squad synchronicity, but are blessed with much better senses, including a keen sense of smell. Did you hear that? They can smell you.

The fact you can choose sides in a shootout to exploit the situation gives the game a glorious amount of tactical elbow room. You can choose to ignore the conflicts, of course, but choosing sides makes some sections easier at the expense of making some sections more difficult. But above all, being encouraged to be a rabble-rouser of the worst kind is too hard to turn down. Deliberately making a mess of an already messy firefight is just too much fun to be legal, no matter how virtual it is.

SIXAXIS motion controls are for the most part gimmicky and extremely limited. Having only played a little of MGS4 in a local EBGames, I can say that I haven't spent a terrible amount of time with it, though. They're never mentioned in the manual either, leaving you to sleuth out if they even exist. You can tilt your controller to gently peek out from under a dumpster lid, shake to "clear" your octocamo and, supposedly, shake it to wake yourself up. In regards to this latter function, however, I've swung the controller around in every which way I could imagine (short of tying it to a string and swinging it around my head) and it didn't seem to make a difference.

It annoys me as well that Metal Gear has finally succumbed to the aggravating Light Fixture Anomaly, in which any source of light that is covered by a rudimentary grate or pane of glass is inexplicably invulnerable to projectiles of any kind. In a game where the mere act of walking runs the risk of shattering a clay vase or beer bottle, and car windows can be obliterated by a tranquilizer dart, I demand that a street lamp should snuff if I shoot it.

The amount of mandatory gameplay is fairly small, which is compounded by the length of the cutscenes. If you are a savvy gamer and are good at rushing economically through a level, you will at times find yourself wondering why the gameplay in-between the cut scenes is so short.
I heard there are 90 minutes of cut-scenes. MGS has always been infamous for its long cutscenes, but don’t worry. I’m sure you won’t end up watching a feature length film in the middle of your gameplay. *cough*

I'll give you a bottom line: if you haven't played all the MGS games before this one, don't play it. You'll be doing yourself and this game a great disservice. If you played some MGS games and could never get into them, stay away from this one, because it will not give you a change of heart. But if you have played MGS, then this game will be fun.

And just to be clear, I’m not telling anyone to go buy a PS3 just for this game. It’s not worth it when there isn’t anything else worth playing on the console.

Bottom line? Rent it.