Saturday, February 25, 2012


And now for a completely dated point that I've always felt deserved some attention. During my Exile on Netflix, I caught up on Sarah Connor Chronicles, a middling sci-fi show created for the purpose of hurting Joss Whedon by making Summer Glau unavailable for S1 of Dollhouse.

With no particular summary of the larger plot, lobotomized T-800 unit John Henry, wired into a large mainframe, has killed an employee while diverting power to his own system during a power outage. His keeper, played by the delightful Shirley Manson, has asked our favorite badass FBI agent to consult on creating a moral code for the pleasantly amoral ex-Terminator.

"You want to give it commands," he says. "Start with ten."

As a viewer, I always thought the decalogue was a strange place to go with this. FBI agent is, presumably, a Christian, and Jesus' One Commandment would frankly make a lot more sense here. But instead, he suggests ten. To interpret, I've gone to the KJV, because it seems likely enough to be the source he's thinking of:

1) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Who is "me"? In this scenario? The corporation? Shirley Manson? It's unclear why a machine would benefit from an allegiance to the God of Israel, or how he'd be able to infer such an obligation.

2) Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, etc.

Humans, frankly, haven't been entirely consistent with this one. I'm not sure what we should be worried John Henry might do. Does anyone else have nightmarish sci-fi plotlines about robots making graven images?

3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

Humans have interpreted this one quite oddly, but again, I'm very unclear how John Henry COULD break it, or what might happen if he did.

4) Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee.

If this is interpreted the way Orthodox Judaism did, it could present a real problem when John Henry has to commit suicide on Friday evening.

5) Honor thy father and thy mother.

John Henry has neither of these. He'd probably find the idea confusing.

6) Thou shalt not kill.

This is the only one anyone's actually worried about. Good call to include it.

7) Neither shalt thou commit adultery.

Scratch that, this is also a major concern.

8) Neither shalt thou steal.
I suppose this represents a concern, to the extent that John Henry is more or less impossible to intimidate with violence, and therefore largely immune to human law enforcement efforts. It's just unclear what we might worry about him stealing. He's attached to a building, for fuck's sake.

9) Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.
No neighbors. Well, maybe Shirley Manson, but come on. Her own kid doesn't trust her.

10) Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour's.

I'm not sure John Henry can even do this. It requires a fairly complex grasp of human psychology to understand how we can do this.

In conclusion, we have two, maybe three commandments that matter, and a lot of filler. Not a good program there, Mr. Decalogue.

Still, at least we don't have to worry about the robot killing machines cheating on their wives. That's a load off my mind.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Shibuya

Wow, two months since the last post. It's embarrassing, what with my readership having exploded into the mid-single digits. But it happens. There've been posts in the works, and writing on other fora, but mostly I think I just couldn't bear for my first post of 2012 to be about Twilight.

On the social media, a lot of my friends are game designers on one side of the academic divide or the other. I get a lot of posts about the process of development, upcoming projects, relevant press, etc. From the academics, I get a lot of links to things I should read, things I have read and should write about, etc. It's always a bit disarming, as I become aware to what extent I've fallen out of the loop on gaming culture.

I still game, of course, and often do so obsessively. But between the mono crisis and the fibro crisis, there's been a definite bias towards games I can play with the sound off while keeping one eye on Netflix on Demand. My long, futile war against multitasking has taken some ignominious defeats, and I can't imagine that my attention span--never quite as strong as that of my book-readin' counterparts--has entirely avoided the attrition. Depression makes it hard to do new things, and my late preference for comfort-food gaming is probably a manifestation of that as well.

Still, I am more fortunate than most. There are worse unhealthy preoccupations than the Nintendo DS, to my mind the most perfect game console yet devised. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes.. . Professor Layton, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, Dawn of Discovery...not a bad deal for a perpetually novice strategy gamer with an affinity for narrative and extensive replay.

The World Ends With You, a game that stands in the very narrow group of games whose titles refer to profound philosophical assertions (cf. Little Red Riding Hood's Zombie BBQ), is a game I've spent years trying to find something significant to write about. Don't get me wrong: I love WEWY. Not in the way I love, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Lady Gaga. It's the kind of love one can only acquire from a Blockbuster Video employee ten minutes before midnight.

The trouble with writing about WEWY is that anything meaningful I could think of to say about the game would be read, heard, and felt by a player more beautifully than any mediated translation I could throw together. The plot, if you go in fresh, is thick with twists, and spoilers would abound in even the most perfunctory summary. Think Pokemon meets Job.

The best I can do, in terms of commentary, is to note that I am terrified of a sequel, not merely for fear of fucking up a really great story, but because I really can't imagine the game working on any apparatus without two vertically stacked screens. The conceit that there is no such thing as a shared reality ought to be challenged, at least for the player, by battles that ask her to control (and therefore, "be") two characters at once. Happens all the time in strategy games, after all. But usually the controls themselves are optimized for this purpose. In WEWY, you play Neku with the stylus and a guest with the d-pad, and like so many things in this game, it should be an unplayable mess, but somehow, it works. Even though it's not strictly possible to actively watch both screens at once, you learn to slip from one to the other as needed, and gradually, your attention becomes more fluid, the slippage less binary. You're not playing as both characters simultaneously, and you're not exactly playing as each in sequence; you're a thing between the screens, between the characters, responding to stimuli and moving on.

The tendency to refer to the character on screen as "me" seems to be endemic as gaming, so it's oddly profound to be reminded that Neku is only Neku, and Shiki is only Shiki, and I...I am only me, chronically unemployed, dangerously unhealthy, and still capable of enjoying the moment.

If you like beans, buy a coffee shop. If you like ideas, I suppose blogging have to do.