Friday, November 14, 2014

Subterranean Hashtag Blues

Intel has resumed advertising on Gamasutra, bringing an end to the first and only time most people who aren't involved with videogames at an academic or professional level have given a shit about Gamasutra, advertising, or Intel. Within minutes of the announcement, cognitive dissonance--which was one of the Weekly Words not long before--set in, and an entirely plausible theory has been developed that Intel is not actually paying for ad space on Gamasutra anymore, since apparently it is common for ad-funded websites to post advertising for free.

Once again, people are happily declaring #GamberGoat dead. It's not entirely inaccurate; the mainstream coverage of #GillyGoop, for all the centrist bias our media demands, has been uniformly negative. The lone exception, Breitbart, is named for a man whose name is literally synonymous with politically motivated libel. There have been no victories to speak of, so anyone "joining" #GlimmerGong now--in the sense of taking up their iconography and collective identity--is essentially volunteering for ridicule and contempt. Mostly ridicule.

But this doesn't mean they're actually going away. They're the LaRouche Democrats of gaming: occasionally amusing, varying degrees of racist, and prone to fits of whimsy in their attempts at graphic design. They'll be around, putting Hitler mustaches on Anita Sarkeesian for the foreseeable future. Their ability to recruit has been severely compromised, but the dead-enders really do have nothing better to do. To say nothing of the neo-nazis, rape apologists, and actual honest-to-god terrorists that made up #GappaGoob before it had a name; they'll scatter when someone gets arrested, but they'll be back in some form or another. They've never not been here.

What people aren't talking about anymore is changing the hashtag. The argument for the change was that it would enable the conversation to focus on its stated purpose--ethics in games journalism--without legitimizing or tolerating its toxic origins. The argument against the change was that it would rob the group of momentum, which they needed for whatever the hell they were doing.

As with most things #GrizzleGoom, it's hard to tell whether this is ignorance or dishonesty, especially since the two can crossbreed in interesting ways where issues of identity politics are involved. The actual reason there can be no new hashtag, no separation from the hate campaign, is that the "legitimate" face of the movement is wholly dependent on the hate campaign. It's not just that the latter created the former; the former is built on a foundation laid down by the latter.

Back when it was still called the Quinnspiracy, it wasn't all doxxing and death threats and stalking and slut-shaming. It was a crowdsourced disinformation campaign, and the "legitimate" movement is predicated on uncritically accepting those lies. The scandal for which #GombaGum was named--and it's frankly bizarre that so many people seem to think they can just gloss over this part--simply never happened. It's bullshit, it's obvious bullshit, and the press said as much once they'd realized it wasn't going to blow over and they had to address it. The accusations of censorship began with several websites deciding they didn't want to provide a platform for an obviously unstable individual's transparent attempts to ruin a woman's life, and continued with other websites' decisions not to publish the ensuing cover story for the entirely unfair reason that it was obviously, demonstrably untrue. The specific journalistic question raised by #GlammaGrrl concerned whether or not gaming websites were obligated to publish slander based on hearsay. (They are not.)

But it's not about that anymore, right? The ensuing accusations followed the same pattern: unadulterated horseshit, easily disproven, and widely distributed. #GanderGibb's rhetorical strategy has been to tell so many lies that people will uncritically accept at least a few of them. Jenn Frank's malfeasance? Lies. The attacks on TFYC? Lies. "Gamers are dead?" Well...

I'm not sure quite how to characterize this argument. Leaving aside the claim that a dozen articles on the same subject constitutes a conspiracy--see also the thousands of news sites who all started talking about the 2014 election results at the same time--and leaving aside that only one of those actually contained the phrase "gamers are dead," and it wasn't the famous one, you'd still have to laughably misread them to come up with anything like the preposterous, genocidal screeds #GuppyGatt claim to have been offended by. You'd have to not know that "gamer" has been a contentious term for years specifically because it denotes a large, varied, fun-loving audience but connotes a hostile, exclusionary hive of anxious masculinity. You'd have to ignore that Leigh Alexander spent much of the iconic "gamers are dead" post lamenting how embarrassing this shit is, and how the assorted anti-feminists and crypto-fascists who kicked off this "consumer revolt" are representative of a wider problem of arrested development and toxic masculinity, a pissed-off, chronically insecure clique who don't realize that Chuck Palahniuk is making fun of them. You'd have to imagine that it contained the phrase "gamers are dead," and read it as...I don't even fucking know.

Reading it literally would seem to be out of the question, because being dead is not, traditionally, a morally loaded thing. Short of a relapse of Cotard delusion, it's hard to imagine how this could be applied literally, yet the gators assert their physical alive-ness with seemingly no awareness of how ridiculous they sound. Some people seem to have read it as a threat, an interpretation it's difficult to believe is being offered in good faith. But the weirdest part isn't so explicit. The canonical #GabbaGone response to discussion of cultural conflicts within gaming culture was to act as if they were being attacked from outside, from people with contempt for a rather important part of this particular techno-cultural moment. You'd have to believe that the people who've devoted their lives to videogames--building them, experiencing them, taking them apart, putting them back together, and sharing their experiences with the world--hate the technology and culture they've helped build. You'd have to believe that Alexander, who commemorated a successful no-kill run in Metal Gear Solid 3 by permanently inscribing the Pigeon icon onto her goddamn body, hates videogames and wished everyone would just give up and get really into puppet theater or something.

You'd have to believe a lot of really stupid shit. And so they do. So do lots of people; sooner or later, I'll run into the LaRouche Democrats in Harvard Square again. Sooner or later, there'll be another manufactured scandal. Sooner or later, we'll have to do all this bullshit again.

But the conventional wisdom on this particular outburst has been set down, and it's not changing. They lost. They'll probably lose next time, too.

Screengrab courtesy of @SJWIlluminati


Gamers are alive.

Kill the gamers.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Smash is the way you deal with your life

To remember gaming, from my current vantage point, is to remember the never-agains.

Most are the provenance of aging--finishing 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. before the school bus arrived in the morning--or even time itself, and the frustratingly irreversible nature of human experience. No experience can be experienced again, of course, and irreversibility is not sufficient for any kind of profundity. The never-agains are more qualitative, the moments where my ability to grok the text, to play with it, to move with it, and the social space it enabled, approached the sublime.

For years, fighting games were my genre of choice. I'd always played, but fighters were something else: the only competitive genre I'd ever really been interested in, and arguably the only competitive activity I'd ever been interested in. Now sufficiently schooled to delineate the difference between the genre itself and my experience with it, I can say that the latter peaked with the release of Street Fighter Alpha for the PS1, a seemingly arcade-perfect translation of an arcade game I'd never had the opportunity to play. New aesthetics, new narrative hooks, new secrets, and (as far as the combined skillsets of our limited audience went) near-perfect balance. With the possible exception of some of Adon's supercombos--which, in retrospect, kind of foreshadowed the weirdening of the series that would continue in the sequels--it was an exceptionally parsimonious design: a place for everything, and everything in it's place.

My brother and I were both living at what is now thought of as my parents' house, and it's hard for me to imagine why I didn't think of that as a constitutive element of the game, like the hardware or the TV we played it on. A relationship of sufficient patience to handle intense, recreational hostility, and play it with a sense of humor. It shaped my ideas of game design for years, and my place within games culture. Fighting games were an identity, and a conditional one at that, with every victory making me wonder what a vague intangible concept like "skillset" or "play style" actually meant. What did it say about me that I could overwhelm with the impossible combos or unmanageable screwdriver throws, but never be ready for the opportunistic sweep when I rose from the ground? Fighting games are a machine for practical narcissism, bathed in dopamine and smelling like an IHOP at midnight or a river in rural Ontario.

Eventually, my brother moved out. Eventually, I did too. And while my feelings on gaming had been cooled somewhat by the ongoing tragedy of my personal life, it still seemed sensible to drag my N64 to my dorm. I'd heard GoldenEye 007 multiplayer was kind of a thing with the kids in those days.

I was pleased and surprised to find that I lived in a dorm specifically enamored of Super Smash Bros., which I had thought of as a somewhat obscure title. I'd been surprised it existed at all, upon its announcement, and was even more surprised to find that it was a lot of fun. I'd only played it solo.

I'd never get myself up to speed, exactly, but I played well enough with my group. Smash was a continuity, a reminder that genres and living arrangements changed, but experiences could be remade, that no never-again need ever be the last never-again. With the first Smash, I walked into a liminal clique already in existence, and found a place to bury my overflowing anxieties and be who I still thought of myself as being, instead of the brooding mystic I tried to play or terrified lunatic I actually was. A gamer was a thing I could be. I could be pretty good with Link, or Mario, or even Yoshi. It would get me through an evening now and then, to feel like I was moving in the same direction as everyone else, at the same speed.

When Melee came out, I was nearing the end of undergrad. Once again reeling from an implosion in my personal life, but pleased to find I had something of a life to fall back on. Inevitable grousing aside, it was better than the first one in almost every way: juicier and more subtle, with more variety and fewer cheap tricks. The larger cast was mostly welcome, although the unlockables did gesture toward roster inflation. As far as I know, there's no agreement on exactly how many characters you can put in a fighting game before they start feeling too much like each other; in my experience, the number is about 14, with the attendant margin of error. Despite Melee being better, it never aroused in us the same level of passion, as measured in profanity and inappropriate sexual remarks, as did its predecessor. We had Monkey Ball for that.

Still, as I moved toward Massachusetts in what I laughingly thought of as my adult life, Smash stuck with me. As I got deeper into nerd culture, I got a better sense of the breadth of Smash fandom, and the energy that enervated it. But the break between Melee and Brawl was a long seven years, and while I was excited about the new release, I no longer had any friends who were into fighting games. Under the circumstances, it had been a lot easier to reevaluate my genre preferences than crack the crushing inertia that permeated that doomed little apartment on Elm Street. I played it a couple times, but it was tough to commit to it without the promise of eventually being able to play it as part of a group. Maybe I just didn't like being reminded. At any rate, the issue was rapidly rendered moot; as my girlfriend became too ill to spend much time out of bed, the Wii was repurposed into a Netflix delivery system, where it has since remained.

I find, with two new Smash games on the way, that I had been ready to forget about the series, to relegate it to an obsolete identity of all-nighters, anarchism, and gnostic Christianity. I find that I had expected to be someone new by now.

A friend has already given me a download code for the demo. I try to remind myself that it's a game, a text, not a time or place. It's not an identity. It's not youth or potential or hope. It doesn't mean buying a Wii U, and it doesn't mean the attendant cognitive work involved in trying to make having purchased a console worthwhile. It doesn't mean caring. It won't hurt to remember. I can play.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Community 1.04: Social Psychology

Hey kids, remember the GREs? Of course you don’t. You don’t even exist. If you read this, you’re almost certainly a) about my age, or b) my mom (hi mom!), and grad school is either a distant memory or something you never really thought of. (Or maybe you’re taking them soon, in which case it might not be correct, strictly speaking, to say you “remember” them. Pedant.) Language has always been my strong suit, and I’d worried somewhat about the mathiness. I was pleasantly surprised, upon seeing my results, to see that not only had I done better than expected on the math, but that I had beaten my English score by 50 points.

Lifehack: Take the GREs on very little sleep, with one night of practice, while completely fucked up on cold medicine.

While gloating at work the next day, our genial psychology professor happened to be passing by. Upon hearing the news, he suggested I consider psychology, as it was a good field for humanities-oriented minds with an uncharacteristically analytical bent. I took this advice as seriously as I could, considering I was slightly more than one semester away from graduation, and that it would have taken somewhere between two and four semesters to accommodate changing my concentration into the social sciences. (In retrospect, this wouldn’t have been a terrible idea. With empirical knowledge of the intervening decade, it’s obvious I should have jumped from major to major until they kicked me out in 2026 for attempting to establish a concentration in phrenology.)

“But Peter,” you say, because we’ve gotten to know each other by this point, and some informality is appropriate, “what does this have to do with Community? Also, that story was boring. Like, really fucking boring.” I’m not going to disagree with you--I got bored enough that I went and read some Guardians of the Galaxy easter eggs in another window, and I’m writing the goddamn thing--but it’s a way of sneaking up on an increasingly obvious anomaly in my biography: why did I, an introspective, pretentious, somewhat primitivist kid with a weird sense of holiness and a fierce teenage crush on Joseph Campbell, never give the discipline of psychology so much as a passing thought when I had a chance to make it a meaningful part of my life?

I didn’t have a great sense of the interdisciplinary nature of gnosis, for one. Also, I entered college in a very Graham Greene sort of place, emotionally, and it’s probably not an accident that most of the women I’d spend the next four years trying to sleep with were firmly in the humanities camp. But I think the largest factor was that my older brother had already done the psychology track. Hence, a vast and thriving play space of human knowledge just seemed kind of quaint and redundant. This is stupid reasoning, of course. It’s also not a surprise; have you met 19-year-olds? It’s not uncommon among siblings, or any closed group: life is more a JRPG than an adventure game, and identity means specialization. Who we are is ineluctably affected--and is to some extent determined--by who surrounds us. Which is as good a way as any to get started on “Social Psychology,” written by Liz Cackowski and directed by Anthony Russo.

As we approach, Spanish class is coming to a close, with what might be an alien language scrawled on the chalkboard. Jeff leaves, but doubles back to find Britta. Not for the usual reasons; he’s just trying to avoid Shirley, with whom he is having difficulty managing small talk due to her aggressive lack of cynicism. Jeff points out that they've been growing closer as friends; "I'm really glad you're not hitting on me anymore," she replies. More importantly than the still-not-self-conscious will-they/won't-they in the foreground, Vaughn waves at Britta as she passes. Some interesting stuff about Vaughn. We'll follow up with Vaughn later.*

In the cafeteria, Annie catches up to the returning Professor Duncan in line and asks if she can participate in the psyche lab he's running later that day. Ignoring her concerns about her status as a freshman, Duncan does take the time to clarify that he's not allowed to date students. Annie is nonetheless interested, and the B-plot is established.

Meanwhile, Pierce receives a package containing Earnoculars, a head-mounted directional mic. Solid Snake could probably make it look pretty great, but on Clark Griswold it just looks kind of sad. Pierce's tech fetish will appear intermittently in the show. It's not exactly a character trait; the show will elsewhere get mileage out of the standard joke that old people are hopeless with tech. Perhaps it's meant to gesture toward overcompensation, which is essentially Pierce's defining quality. It's sort of an addendum to the Jeff/Britta plot, I suppose. Appropriately for an episode themed on navigating the competing demands of multiple relationships, "Social Psychology" helpfully reminds us that this show really hasn't figured out what to do with its cast yet.

Back in the actual show, Annie dragoons Troy and Abed into Duncan's experiment, providing me with a vital opportunity to use "dragoon" as a verb. "Do they do stuff to your butt?" asks Troy. When Annie assures him that they do not, he presses the issue: "Do you get paid more if they do stuff to your butt?" Again Annie says no, now clearly confused, but Troy says he'll do it anyway. Abed has plans, but agrees when Annie asks him to participate because of their friendship. Elsewhere, Vaughn is chatting up Britta, and Jeff goes over for what is almost certainly an operational cockblock, but we're going to ignore their story for the time being and head into...

...Duncan's lab, where he's instructing Annie and several other students--among them the delightful and thankfully recurrent Garrett--on the specifics of the experiment. The subjects are in the next room, waiting for the experiment to begin, but the waiting is the experiment. Duncan has hypothesized that they will prove the aptly named Duncan Principle: "the more control lost by the ego, the more gained by the id, resulting in the surprisingly predictable emotional eruption or breaking point, known to ma and pa," Duncan illustrates with a mime shotgun, "as a good ol' fashioned tantrum." Annie, smiling at this secret knowledge shared within the subgroup, goes out to tell the assembled crowd that they'll be starting in five minutes. Garrett also smiles, but it's not as charming, because Garrett is not played by Alison Brie. Instead, it's sort of unnerving. We don't get to dwell on it, because, upon being informed of the five-minute delay, Chang has a complete breakdown and leaves the room in tears, fury, and a smattering of Spanish.

Shirley meets up with Jeff, and wants to walk and talk. Jeff agrees to give it a shot; awkward silence ensues, followed by crosstalk. A connection is finally made upon the discovery of a topic for which they share a passion: making fun of Pierce. Soon, the conversation evolves to making fun of Vaughn. "He's the worst," says Jeff.

No, Jeff. Vaughn is not the worst. But we'll get there.

In the experiment, the crowd is beginning to thin. Troy breaks, in a shower of tears, and leaves. Only Abed now remains.

Back on the quad, Jeff explains the Complicated Situation with Britta, which is of great interest to Shirley. Not so much because she's a gossip, although she is, like most people are; Shirley's interest is specifically because she's a Jeff/Britta shipper. (Jritta? Beff?) "We're not pandas in a zoo," Jeff admonishes her, but is still a bit put off when they pass Britta and Vaughn making out on a blanket.

Depressed!Jeff leans against a vending machine. Britta apologizes for the awkwardness, and explains that she didn't tell the group about Vaughn because she didn't want them making fun of him. Jeff tries to be supportive, and Britta says he won't see anything like that again, and this conversation is many orders of magnitude less awkward than it is IRL. Maybe it's because they're fictional; maybe it's just because they're so attractive. The next time Jeff and Shirley walk together, he tries to refrain from Vaughn-bashing, resolving instead to friend the hell out of the green tea drinking drum circler.

Annie, drenched in sweat, is looking inappropriately attractive with her dissheveled hair. She apologizes to Abed for having kept him waiting for the last 26 hours, and asks that he wait another five minutes. With no visible irritation, he agrees. Upon her return to Duncan's room, Garrett freaks out and leaves. The Duncan tantrum has at this point gone viral, as Duncan has his own meltdown, and blames Annie for bringing Abed in the first place. He calls the experiment off; Annie unceremoniously opens the door and bellows at Abed to go home.

Jeff, far from this more interesting plot, has been trying to make nice with Vaughn. Over Spanish review, Britta confides in Jeff that Vaughn is getting a little relationshippy for her tastes, and has gone so far as to have written her a poem. Jeff sneaks a picture, and later shares the poem with Shirley.

Annie is still mad at Abed, and Abed is mad right back at her. He says he was "livid," but stayed--and stayed completely motionless--because she said they were friends. This is probably the emotional payoff of the episode, reminding us that Abed's inscrutability can be pretty unnerving when it's aimed at you. We have good reason to believe, from this episode and others, that Abed doesn't really know how to display anger in a way that's comprehensible to others, but his insistence on the importance of the label Annie awarded their relationship takes primacy in the scene. Abed gets labels, even if he's often extremely confused about what they represent. He understands the world in terms of nested categories, and he clearly places great importance on the category Annie placed him in. She was attempting to guilt trip him into giving up his evening on her behalf, but he didn't feel guilty. He felt honored.

But back to Sam and Diane.

Pierce arrives with the aforementioned Earnoculars and reveals to the group that Jeff and Shirley have been making fun of them. Upon being told that those jokes were about Vaughn and not him, he happily joins in, and the group momentum inspires Shirley to share the poem over Jeff's half-hearted objections. Britta enters with Vaughn, who is predictably upset: "This is the least tight thing that's ever happened to me." Britta stares daggers at Jeff, and Shirley is quick to throw him under the bus.

Later, Shirley and Jeff try to bond without ragging on anyone, but she has one more piece of gossip for him: "Britta told me she had a sex dream about you. You still have a chance."

Annie presents Abed with a gift bag containing the three good Indiana Jones movies, and Abed says they're cool. It's a really short scene; I'm not sure why I even brought it up.

Jeff apologizes to Britta, whom Vaughn has since broken up with. Jeff, defending his actions, says that he couldn't handle being "one of the girls," and asks if there's "a spot on the friendship spectrum between total stranger and having to hear about the guys you date?" They settle on cat-sitting, and there lies the Jeff/Britta ship, for now. Jeff takes care to rat out Shirley in retaliation, and Vaughn returns to his tribe, somewhat dirtied by the worrisome world the study group.

Later, Shirley and Britta are walking together, and Jeff asks to borrow Pierce's Earnoculars to eavesdrop; Pierce has since rejected the device, and opines on the nature of hearing and friendship: "You see, Jeff, there are certain things Man was not meant to hear. We were designed, by whatever entity you choose, to hear what’s in this range, And really, this range alone. Because you know who’s talking to us in this range? The people we love."

And so it stands, until the next one. I've been poking about, so far unsuccessfully, to find ways to cut the fat from these things, as I don't intend to have quite this much free time on my hands for the next five to ten years. The end tag has Troy and Abed making fun of people as they pass by the study room, unaware that they're easily within earshot. Upon being caught, Troy offers advice we can all use from time to time: "Just pretend like you're asleep. Just pretend you were sleeping."

First Appearances
  • Vaughn: casual.
  • Garrett: intense.
  • The tears of Troy.
Highlights
  • "The Soul Train awards were tonight! You promised butt stuff!"
  • "Go kill John Lennon again, ya loser!"
  • "I can't believe I showed you that poem. Oh God, my life is Degrassi High."
What Have We Learned?

"Some worries, man. Some worries."

Parade of Tears

*And by "later," I mean in a later recap. I thought I'd get to it here, but I didn't. No worries.

Friday, August 1, 2014

New Moon

It's been a month, and I should probably update this thing.

My mind has been everywhere except games this for the last couple of months. When it did manage to wander there, it usually took a nap while I did the contemplative, one-thing-at-a-time thing, which lends itself quite poorly to writing. It's been a poor month for narration. A good one for long car trips and bonfires and sleeping on strange new couches, but crap for this word-after-a-word thing I try to do here.

There's been other writing, here and there. Back in June, I wrote a piece about the Santa Barbara shooting, out of a vague, anxious sense that I should do something to help. People waited in line to give blood after 9/11; I guess everyone finds their own way to feel useful. Personally, I dealt with 9/11 by taking a weird, serious detour in what was supposed to be a lighthearted short story about the apocalypse. Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes writing can't get in the way enough.

A new follower on the Twitter had a question about DBT, having seen it referenced in the most recent post, and it reminded me that I really need to set up a best-of page or something, so people don't wander in to be greeted by dense, sporadically emotive Community recaps. In the meantime, in an effort to keep myself honest, some things in the pipe:

  • More Community, obvi. I've apparently had the notes for Social Psychology sitting ready for cooking for an entire month now.
  • Something substantive about my experiences with DBT. Currently trying to figure out if it might be two articles fighting for independence.
  • Semiotics and UI in turn-based strategy games, because gaming is Serious Business.
  • I dunno, something about guns, probably.
  • More posts explaining how and why I haven't been writing.
Undisciplined Platinum members will have access to the various works in progress that make up my textual life, of course, but the rest of you will have to wait in line like everyone else. In the meantime, July is over, and you, like me, survived another month. Sit with that thought for a moment, taste the air in your nose and throat, note the tension and creeping pain in your fingers and wrists, and selah.

You're alive. Do something fun.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Community 1.03: Introduction to Film

Jeff is running! Class is beginning! Professor Whitman ambles in, and he's not in the show much--his last appearance is in the end of season one--but suddenly that "last" is a lot less finite, because apparently Yahoo went and uncancelled Community today. You probably heard of it, this being The Internet and all. It's refreshing, and confusing, and has hopefully given me the inspiration I need to finish interpreting my notes to "Introduction to Film." There's not a lot to say, because it's not a lot of episode; it's just a series of jokes and weird sight gags with a solid emotive payoff at the end. The C-plot is a single joke spread over three scenes. It's as close to an "origin story" as we ever get for Abed--with the possible exception of the actual origin story episode during the gas leak--but mostly this is a procedural episode for a series about the will-they-won't-they with Jeff and Britta. I love Jeff and Britta, but there's nothing interesting about their pairing beyond their sheer demographic gravity. The show will realize this by the latter half of the season, but for this episode...they can't make a show about Sam and Diane, because they're too busy making shows about making shows about Sam and Diane.

We now rejoin the recap "Introduction to Film," already in progress: written by Tim Hobert and John Pollack, directed by Anthony Russo.

Eustice Whitman, played by the always delightful John Michael Higgins, whom you might recognize as that guy from the thing, walks in, gaily reciting poetry. "Open your textbooks to page 37," he exhorts the class. "Now. Close them, and throw them away." The students happily do so, and he continues: "Those of you who are new, the motto of this class: Carpe diem! Seize. The. Day. No tests! No papers! You want an A? Live...in...the moment."

I'm in a DBT group right now. Dialectical behavioral therapy. I've been meaning to write something about it, but it's got a hint of Whitman about it, and this is about the least now-thing I could be doing right now, isn't it? The episode wrapped years ago, I've logged many viewings in the past, and the main reason to continue with this project is to lay a groundwork for more writing in the future. Sadness to the left, anxiety to the right. But here, now, it's dark, outside and in, a bedroom lit by cathode rays and liquid crystals. What there is of me, the linguistic construct, is mostly asleep, out on the veldt with Gau. There'll be moments to live in tomorrow. Right now, we die in our dreams. Right now, we prepare.

Pierce, always hopeless with tech, fights with his phone. Troy sneezes like a girl. This will make up the aforementioned B plot. Back in the main plot, Jeff invites the gang to join him in coasting to an easy A with Whitman. Annie rejects the idea on ethical and pedagogical grounds, then quickly changes her mind when Troy says he's in. Shirley joins in out of a love of Robin Williams; Abed rejects the idea on that basis. When pressed on the issue--and subtly reminded, again, that life and media representations of life aren't the same thing--he clarifies that his dad will only pay for classes that will help him run the family restaurant. (Spanish? In a falafel restaurent? In Ohio?) Britta, appalled that Abed's dad seems to have planned out his life for him, gets out her checkbook and offers to pay for a film class.

Back in class, Whitman berates Shirley into self-actualization in classic reclusive kung-fu master fashion. He moves to Ms. Edison, whom he criticizes for preferring "to write about what happens to other people than live what is happening to her." This is what usually passes for a humanistic sentiment in our culture, and it's possible the writers meant for it to sound wacky and authentically endearing, but Community will thankfully go above and beyond by ripping this idea to shreds.

We'll come back to it.

On the way out, Whitman singles out Jeff, having identified him as a tourist. "If you don't genuinely seize the day before the end of the week," he instructs, "then you'll be seizing an F for the semester."

Outside, Abed is about with a handheld camera. "Our first assignment is a documentary," he explains to Britta. "They're like real movies but with ugly people." He say's doing a film about his dad, and on cue, Abed's dad--Abedad?--approaches. Britta, being Britta, takes the opportunity to make the personal political. "Oh, I get it. Because I'm Arab I must hate women. Let me tell you something. I love women, but I'm getting a major b-word vibe from you." (Personalization achieved!) Abed's dad makes a Seacrest joke. Britta tries to fight for Abed, but he won't join in, and continues filming everything dispassionately. Jeff tries to intervene, and Abedad storms off, at which point Abed declares that Jeff is now playing his dad.

In the cafeteria, Jeff desperately tries to display authentic whimsy for Whitman, who's having none of it. Abed, flush with Britta's cash, spends ostentatiously and shows off his new, more expensive camera. Pierce sits down with Troy and offers to help him develop a manlier sneeze. C-plot 67% complete, and we move on.

While Whitman crosses campus, Jeff runs through with a kite, stopping only to jump rope with a group of girls; Whitman remains unimpressed. Britta approaches, and complains to Jeff that Abed wont' talk to her: "He just keeps filming me, and, and--telling me that I'm playing the role of his mother!"

An interior shot brings us back to the study room, where pizza is being served. Britta signals to Jeff that it's time to be leaderful. "So, Abed," he asks, trying and failing to sound nonchalant, "how's film class?" Abed replies that the movie's more important than class, insensate to Britta's offense; when a coffee guy walks in bearing a tray full of lattes he's purchased with her money, she freaks out and leaves. Jeff soon follows suit.

A short commercial break later, we're back in the study room. Jeff has lured Britta and Abed's dad there for a discussion: Britta with Ravi Shankar tickets, Abedad with the promise of meeting Weezer. Jeff argues to both of them that the lesson here is that people should stay out of each other's business; Abed's dad makes a convoluted Iraq joke that turns out to be about Britta's boobs. Just as the yelling gets started in earnest, Abed, who has been sitting at a smaller table wearing headphones, takes them off and announces, "I'm finished!"

The film, like most Real Actual Things, fights summary and deserves viewing on its own. For those who really, truly insist on reading these without having seen the show, I'll refrain from asking what the fuck is wrong with you and summarize nonetheless: Abed ruins his parents' marriage, his mom leaves, his dad resents him for it. Abed's father is in tears, and speaks to his son in Arabic: "I never said I blamed you for her leaving." Abed replies, "You never had to say it."

"My son is hard to hard to understand," says Abed's father to the anglophones. "If making movies will help him be understood, then I'll pay for the class." I'm still feeling my way through the format, and I'm finding that direct quotes are usually redundant. You might not realize it from this entry, but I'm trying to cut back on them. Nonetheless, it felt wrong not to include this exchange, because...well, there's some real pain in this episode, and this scene is its redemption. It's just a glimmer in Britta's eyes as she fights her own fears and inadequacies on Abed's behalf, and in Abedad's insistence on arguing with everyone except Abed about Abed's life. Abed may or may not be on the autism spectrum. It doesn't matter very much. Abed is weird, and like all authentically weird people, it's not always funny. Sometimes it's heartbreaking and unsettling and scary.

But that's not the show yet. We're almost there.

Britta asks whether Abed manipulated her on purpose, and he's unapologetic: "Well, Britta, it isn't called friend business. It's called show business."

Outside, Troy tries out his new sneeze, scaring Shirley. C-plot complete! But back to Britta and Jeff. Britta thanks Jeff for getting involved, and tells him to kiss her; Whitman sees it, and squeals congratulation. "We're even," says Britta, and walks off. Jeff, thoroughly Peeta'd by this episode's plotline, is somewhat at a loss for words as he watches her go.

Like I said, taking pictures of taking pictures.

Finally, the end tag: krumping. It's a thing.

First Appearances
  • Abed's first shown as an aspiring filmmaker, as opposed to a non-specific nerd.
  • Prof. Whitman, who will be taken from us far too soon. Are you listening, Yahoo?
  • Troy's effeminate mannerisms make a brief appearance, but are quickly clubbed into submission.
  • Abed's dad will be back once or twice.
Highlights
  • "This is no way to teach accounting!"
  • "9/11 was pretty much the 9/11 of the falafel industry."
  • "Troy sneezes like a girl!" "How about I pound you like a boy--that didn't come out right."
What Have We Learned?

"Only when we stop stopping our lives can we start starting them!"

Blood Pact

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Punisher Kills the American Literary Canon

House of the Seven Gables

Francis Stonham is young daguerrotypist staying at the Pyncheon family’s ancestral mansion. While researching the Pyncheon family history, he is haunted by the ghost of Alice, who was driven mad by young Matthew Maule, who was retaliating for the murder of his grandfather on suspicion of witchcraft. Disgusted with the terror wrought by the two families in their dispute over the land on which the house rests, Stoneham crushes Jaffrey's trachea and leaves him twitching helplessly as he demolishes the house with improvised satchel charges.

Moby-Dick

Captain Castle, on a mad quest for revenge against the white whale that took his leg, hires a crew of whalers under false pretenses. Realizing the danger Castle’s obsession has placed them in, the crew attempts a mutiny. In the ensuing melee, Castle kills Ishmael and Queequeg with a cavalry saber, hurls Starbuck to his death in the unforgiving sea, and drives the remaining crew toward his quarry. The white whale rams the Pequod from beneath, utterly destroying it; ignoring the panicked cries of his crew, Castle hurls himself into the beast’s gullet, where he detonates the suicide vest he invented for the occasion.

House of Mirth

Frannie Bart is a woman of high social standing in New York who rejects several advantageous marriage proposals, holding out for a marriage that is both economically and emotionally fulfilling. When a scandal destroys her reputation, she suffers an escalating series of humiliations, as she’s forced to learn new ways to survive. To that end, she steals a set of love letters from erstwhile suitor Lawrence Selden, and uses them to blackmail the Dorsets and the Trenors, framing Simon Rosedale in the process. Luring them all into Rosedale’s expansive conservatory during a well-attended gala, she opens fire with a Gatling gun, killing the aristocracy of New York at a stroke.

The Great Gatsby

Frank Castle works at a gas station out by the valley of the ashes. When his wife dies in a car wreck caused by some precious New England socialites, he drowns Gatsby in his pool, garrottes Daisy with her own jewelry, crushes Jordan's skull with a golf club, and chases Tom into the valley, where he is caught in a bear trap and left to die under the watchful eyes of T.J.Eckleburg. Nick attempts to flee to his ancestral Midwest, but is killed by an explosive hidden in his valise.

The Sun Also Rises

Depressed and broke, alcoholic veteran Frank Barnes drinks his way through Europe, beside promiscuous divorcee Brett Ashley. Frustrated by a war injury that has left him impotent, and annoyed that Brett keeps sleeping with his friends, Frank drinks himself blind and unleashes a herd of bulls onto the streets of Pamplona. Thousands are killed.

As I Lay Dying

With the death of matriarch Addie Bundren, her children attempt to honor her wishes by burying her in Jefferson. The journey is a long and tumultuous one, and the family is repeatedly waylaid by flooding, injuries, and unintended pregnancies. Meanwhile, Addie’s corpse is rotting in its coffin, and attracting a great deal of attention. Frustrated with his family’s inability to communicate clearly with one another, Addie’s son Frank locks the whole family, coffin and all, in a barn, which he then sets ablaze.

White Noise

Frank Castle kills many, many people in a college town. Everyone is too preoccupied with the inevitability of their own deaths to notice.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Community 1.02: Spanish 101

I am, like most of you, a creature of language, more fundamentally made of words than water. It was the main component of my skillset as a kid, perhaps to my detriment, but it only seemed to extend as far as English. Two years of Latin in elementary school, a brief Spanish sting in middle school, some French during my off-year, an abysmal French follow-up in undergrad, and finally two successful semesters of Japanese to fill out FAU's language requirement have left me with a pleasant awareness of a few other languages, but nothing like actual competence. Bilingualism is thus, with apologies to Ta-Nehisi Coates, something of a superpower, something consistently just a little beyond my ken.

So I've done a lot of terrible, intro-level conversations. They have a kind of thudding rhythm, loudly declaring themselves to be the products of language instruction, as opposed to language. When you're asked to write your own--when writing is what you do with the time you're not spending being popular or well-adjusted--it's easy to overthink them. There's probably a lesson there: do the work and get the fuck out. Or maybe it's the opposite of a lesson. Maybe it's my personal Ezekiel 25:17.

Whatever. Find your own meaning. The series has landed, which brings us to "Spanish 101," written by Dan Harmon and directed by Joe Russo.

Once again the dean establishes the scene, this time on the PA. A tiny hint of the future Dean Dangerous, but he's still baking. Jeff snags an illicit parking space, while the study group awaits his entry, having already established him as their Charismatic Leader. Abed hints at his Abeditity by engaging in some meta-badinage with himself, and Britta foreshadows herself by complaining to the others. "You are obsessing over someone who doesn't give you a second thought," she says. "Meanwhile, in Guatemala, journalists are being killed by their own government." "Spoilers!" admonishes Abed. Britta does her best to mollify him, diplomatically: "Real stories? They don't have spoilers." She asks with not a small amount of condescension,  "You understand that TV and real life are different, right?" Jeff returns, rolling a Fonz vibe, and deftly brushes Britta's concerns aside. He's brought an empty binder, which Annie happily fills with copies of her notes, showing a somewhat unseemly level of satisfaction.

Jeff hands Britta another card, this time celebrating the 2-week anniversary of his horrible first impression. Britta tells Jeff that she's immune to his bullshit, but he shouldn't be exploiting the innocents in the others in the study group. She leaves in a cloud of indignant condescension; Pierce approaches Jeff and aggressively advises him, "You can't pursue people so desperately, it kind of creeps them out." Meanwhile, Annie and Shirley want to know more about Guatemala, as they're eager to get into the spirit and protest. Britta barely knows what she's talking about, but she does her best. 90% of everything is confidence, and Britta doesn't have it.

The episode and the recap take a queer turn here. The narrative is bifurcating into a standard A-B plot. The Britta-Shirley-Annie plot is introduced first, but the Jeff-Pierce plot gets the payoff. Of course, the real resolution of the episode is progress on the mytharc plot of Jeff trying to nail Britta. At any rate, I'm tempted to take these two separately. Perhaps I will.

Britta, as established earlier, doesn't know much about Guatemala, but cares enough to feel that she ought to know more, and it's this guilt that overflows into condemnation of the group. Annie and Shirley are eager to learn more, less out of concern for the freedom of the Guatemalan press than out of a desire to act out a college-like experience. Annie wants to perform being a college student to feel older, more worldly, and tougher; Shirley wants to perform being a college student to feel younger, less domestic, and more rebellious. They have different ideas--Annie suggests a candlelight vigil "like lesbians do on the news," while Shirley opts for baking brownies. It's a party. We'll get back to them.

The other plot takes us into Spanish 101, and Senor Chang, the chaotic evil dark prince of Greendale. This is the first I ever saw of the show, a free preview of that show some LJ folk were talking about. The clip is available here (sadly, no embed). The Man With the Star-Burns makes his first appearance before Chang dismisses the class: "Hands! 90% of Spanish." Crucially, homework is assigned: students are to pair off and perform conversations using short phrases from unit 1. Pairs are determined randomly via cards under the students' desks; Jeff bribes Abed to pair with Britta, but she foils his effort by swapping with Pierce.

Back in the study room, Pierce's backstory as the heir of a moist towelette empire is introduced. Apparently it's not far off from Chevy Chase's real life backstory. Similarly, both Chevy and Pierce are widely agreed to be insufferable assholes. Jeff and Pierce begin work on the homework. Pierce brings out scotch, demonstrating an desperate intent to make it a long evening of male bonding; Jeff, creeped out, wants to do the damn assignment and leave.

Outside, Annie and Shirley have put on quite a jaunty protest. Starburns appears again, once more aggrieved. As dance begins to spontaneously break out, Britta objects to the frivolity. Losing her temper, she describes the protest as "tacky and lame." Over her stammered apologies, Shirley accuses her of using fringe politics to make herself sound interesting but not wanting to be involved. "I do things," she says in her defense. "I went to...I don't do anything. What can I do?" Annie and Shirley offer to let her help.

Back in the study room, Jeff and Pierce have "something incredibly long and very confusing and a little homophobic and really, really, specifically, surprisingly, and gratuitously critical of Israel." He adds,"The only thing not included in this epic are the five phrases required to get me a passing grade." Troy and Abed pop in to remind them of the other plot, and remind us what doing the damn assignment looks like. Frustrated, Jeff blows up at Pierce, and bails to go hang with Britta.

We follow him out as he grabs a candle, then bribes a kid to give him the sign he's holding. He stands near Britta, who opens her tape and apologizes for being too harsh. "I'm not perfect." A very drunk Pierce stumbles out and screams at Jeff, revealing his professed insincerity. He snags on a passing candle and bursts into flame, running off into the night.

In class the next morning, the group exchanges concerns about Pierce's behavior, but Britta defends him, saying that he's lonely and wants respect in the group: "I think he's spent his whole life looking out for himself, and he would trade it all for a shot at some kind of family."

Chang explains that Pierce has filled him on on their team's dissolution, and offers to give Jeff a C and let Pierce go alone. Jeff refuses: "Pierce, I understand if you don’t want to be my friend. But this thing we’ve created is bigger than the both of us and it deserves to be done right." What follows is something special, and the moment when I began to understand why my friends were so dead-set on getting me to watch this show. Set to the gently cathartic strings of Aimee Mann's "Wise Up," a slow-motion montage shows Jeff and Pierce engaging in an epic, highly offensive, and wildly incomprehensible exploration of the human condition across race, time, and Jewishness. And robots. As the end of the first "real" episode, it sets the tone for what the show is going to be best at: wholly inappropriate, but entirely legitimate emotional response. The presentation is, diegetically, every bit as awful as we'd imagine--it's unclear, from the blocking, who gets the F and who gets the F-minus--but Jeff is giving it everything he has, maybe for Pierce, maybe for Britta, maybe for the group that only Britta and Abed can see right now. Perhaps he doesn't know why he's doing it. Perhaps he doesn't need to.

The moment passes. In the hallway, Britta congratulates Jeff on an authentically selfless act. "How do you know I didn’t do it just to get a shot at you?" he asks. Because after that clusterfuck, "no woman in that class would ever be able to look at you as a viable sexual candidate ever again." Momentarily at a loss for words, Jeff hangs back and watches her leave; Pierce catches up to him, throws an arm over his shoulder, and shares his wisdom.

Finally, another piece in the gentle balance of delights that is Community falls into place with the end tag. The end tags are where Troy and Abed, the adorably co-dependent Bert and Ernie of Greendale, do their best work, and I'll not belabor it by describing it.

First Appearances
  • CHANG, MOTHERFUCKER!
  • Starburns, the patron saint of Greendale.
  • The Spanish Rap in particular, and the end tag in general. As related to this show. They didn't invent it or anything.
  • While they've only begun to plumb its depths, the Troy-and-Abed bromance can be seen in its infancy.
  • Shirley's inappropriate tendency to respond to any situation with baking.
  • Insecure!Britta, a welcome change from trophy goddess of the pilot.
  • Pierce's quasi-paternal relationship with the fatherless Jeff, which will be a major focus of seasons two and three.
  • Also, sperm.
Highlights
  • "Dos Conquistadores," obvi.
  • The Spanish Rap, equally obvi.
  • "Why do you teach Spanish?
What Have We Learned?

"Things like this will ultimately bring us together as an unlikely family."

Native American History Exhibit

Monday, June 2, 2014

Comfort Food Gaming

Hey, everyone, I'm looking into the feasibility of writing a Thing about comfort food gaming. Before going further, some general thoughts on what seems to categorize the practice:

  • Recovering the feeling of play when you're too tired, scattered, or stressed to handle novelty.
  • The appeal to nostalgia, either the specific experiences you had with the game in question or what was going on in your life while having said experiences.
  • The appeal to achievement, revisiting games you've taught yourself to autopilot.
  • Completism, the desire to "once and for all" finish a text you've already "finished" by most reasonable standards. Predominantly associated with open-world games, which constantly provide "excuses" to keep playing.
  • Perfectionism, the desire to use hard-won knowledge of the system to moonwalk though things that had previously been difficult.
I've written briefly about my comfort food gaming staples: Final Fantasy Tactics, Quest for Glory, the entire DS-mononucleosis library. I'll presumably be writing about them in some more detail. In a desperate bid to avoid that, how about you? What old games can you not seem to stop replaying, even though you probably "should" be playing something new? Has the behavior changed as you've aged? You have aged, right? Are you Fae or what?

This will look really dumb if there aren't any comments, so, y'know, get on that.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Because Fuck Videogames

As has become abundantly clear in the past year, I don't really have the time or inclination to play games that aren't either a) ten years old or b) Bravely Default, so reviews are a rare feature here on Undisciplined. To correct this vital oversight, I've opted to do some brief reviews of games I know absolutely nothing about, beyond what I've heard from knowledgeable journos and game devs on the Twitter.

Kentucky Route Zero: This game is just so literary, you'll shit. It's like reading Moby-Dick in the original American. Presumably it involves Kentucky, and some sort of road. I like road trip narratives, whether they're about young women finding themselves and the true power of friendship, or dudes killing increasingly unimaginative monsters while listening to 70s and 80s metal. Kentucky Route Zero probably isn't like either of those, but regardless, it's literary. So literary. 10/10

Transistor: Some sort of cyberpunk RPG thing. Like Shadowrun, maybe? Sure, why not. Or Netrunner! The kids are playing Netrunner now, right? It looks pretty, and apparently it handles gender better than most games, but it's hard to imagine how much core gameplay you can wring out of electrical engineering. Nonetheless, it gives me hope that new stuff is being done somewhere other than the adventure genre. 10/10

Watch Dogs: Seriously, fuck Watch Dogs. 10/10

Monday, May 19, 2014

Community 1.01: Pilot

Pilots are strange things.

I'm sure analogous processes exist in other media, but none immediately spring to mind. It would be interesting if every novel came with a first chapter that lagged behind the rest of the book by several rewrites, but I doubt anyone would think it to be a sensible idea. However, the exigencies of television mean that often it's prohibitively expensive to do anything else. The pilot sets up the plot and characters, the all-important "why this day" that situates the narrative, but the show has often changed around that narrative by the time the series begins production: characters are added or lost, actors change, personalities soften or harden. The pilot often ends up feeling like an issue #0, an odd prequel of greatest value to completists.

30 Rock's pilot is famously uneven; Parks and Recreation's pilot is practically unrecognizable upon review. Cheers has an iconically strong pilot--Tina Fey cites it as an example of what the 30 Rock pilot wasn't--and it's a fine place to start when examining what a sitcom pilot is called upon to do. The cast is introduced one at a time, and paired with throwaway characters who set up the jokes, letting us in on what we'll need to know in a fairly organic fashion. Cheers gets a lot of mileage from adapting theater traditions to the multi-camera setup; the blocking is crisp and intuitive, the jokes well paced for audience response, and the comedy gets physical very quickly.

Community has its share of commonalities with Cheers: it's initially structured on a confident, likeable womanizer and the pretentious blonde he wants to hate-fuck. Both shows are about homes-away-from-home for various misfits, losers, and temporarily embarrassed geniuses. On Cheers, Diane is dropped into the plot via a specific disappointment; the rest of them are there by virtue of the sheer joy of drinking alcohol and the sublime shittiness of living and working (or not working) in Boston. Cheers is a finely tuned machine that starts off smooth and stays there well into its run. Community is messier. It's a show about messier, or at least it will become one when it begins in earnest with "Spanish 101." For now, Community #0, written by Dan Harmon and directed by Joe Russo.

It starts with the Dean, the muse who calls our players into being: Troy ("remedial athlete"), Britta ("twenty-something dropouts"), Shirley ("middle-aged divorcees"), and Pierce ("old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity"). Jeff, Abed, and Annie fall outside even the domain of "loser-college" for now. Jeff's too awesome, perhaps, and Abed and Annie might be too weird even for Greendale. But we digress. (We'll digress in a minute. First, is that an uncredited Vicki in the crowd? This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.)

We see Jeff for the first time, being followed by a fast-talking Abed. Abed is upbeat and energetic, a storm of tics and gestures. Like the rest of them, he's a rough draft. The mostly unchanged Jeff, being too busy enacting the story to examine it, asks Abed about the blonde in their Spanish class, and Abed rattles off a surprisingly detailed biography, closing it with a verbatim performance of something Britta said to him earlier. (I have been known to employ variants of this. In my experience, Jeff's a lot less weirded out by it than most.) Having become acquainted with Britta via Jeff's interest and Abed's creepifying observational skills, along with a brief shot of her responding to the Dean's call, we'll have to wait a bit for more. Jeff has an appointment with one Prof. Ian Duncan, Psychology, to discuss the premise of the show. Jeff, accomplished badass lawyer, was caught with a fake degree and needs a real one, and apparently Greendale counts. That said, he doesn't intend to do any work, and asks Duncan to help him cheat. Mentions are made of when Jeff helped Duncan beat a DUI rap, but overall Duncan seems both competent and wise, a dignified man in an undignified milieu. (This, like so much else, will change.) Duncan, in his British sort of way, admonishes Jeff, and appeals to the value of learning. Jeff finishes what the Dean started, bringing the invocation to a close: "If I wanted to learn, I wouldn't have come to community college."

We're not quite where we need to be, for one location remains to be visited. In the cafeteria, after a brief shot of Pierce trying to scam some food, our third-person-limited consciousness floats over to Britta, cramming for the aforementioned Spanish test. Jeff ambles over and, seemingly off the top of his head, invents a backstory as a Spanish tutor, inviting Britta to join his "study group." Britta's Spanish is too weak to realize that he's full of shit--90% of everything is confidence, after all--so she agrees. The study group has been called into being!

Granted, it's bullshit. It's just something professional liar Jeff thought up to get laid. But an idea, once bidden, cannot be denied its reification, especially when it's taken into the study room. The study room is magical. I'm going to be writing a lot about the study room.

Appropriately, Britta lays out her baseline. All we know about her, at this point, is that she's desirable, so it's going to be Important: honesty. Above all else, honesty. Jeff, continuing the lie, does his best to roll with it. Abed enters, realizing that the story needs him, but we have a couple more stops to make before the show can begin.

Jeff meets Duncan on the athletic field, and they jabber about ethics. Jeff lays out the closest thing to an authentic identity we're going to get: "If I talk long enough, I can make anything right or wrong." Duncan sort of misuses "moral relativism," but he's a psychology professor, and you can't expect too much from those people. He seems to give in, and Jeff returns to find the rest of the cast.

Abed has invited them. Of course he has. Beyond the five we've already met is another, a young, dark-haired woman who seems quite skeptical of Jeff and his study group. Troy makes the first ever Seacrest joke. Oh, and Britta's gone. Attempting to bail, Jeff runs into her outside, and quickly changes his mind a second time.

Returned to the study room, Pierce introduces everyone, getting the names wrong and sexually harassing Shirley in the process. (In a pleasant change of pace for sitcoms, everyone in the room identifies it as such, even the token jock.) Annie's backstory, the Legend of Annie Adderall, is invoked. Jeff, still focused on his goal of a study group consisting only of Britta and himself, attempts to harness the group's internal tensions to destroy them, and they seem to be off to a good start when he gets a call from Duncan.

Duncan has agreed to help Jeff in exchange for his car, and Jeff accepts, faced with the terrifying prospect of studying. It's a short scene, and really, we ought to be getting back to the study room. Jeff meets Britta at the door, alarmed at the chaos inside. Jeff admits that he engineered the chaos in order to get them alone--I'm not sure if he's hoping the honesty will win him points, or hoping she'll be flattered at the scope of the manipulation in her pursuit--but she's only disappointed in him for using them all. Still, she agrees to go out to dinner with him if he fixes it. Thus inspired, Jeff strolls in and delivers the Very First Winger Speech. There's not easily accessible video of the scene, as far as I know, which is a shame, as I'd probably watch it every morning for inspiration. Jeff is lying, of course, in every word. In this scene, in this act to be repeated with every episode, is the basis of Jeff's character, and the frame that balances the show between sappy and cynical: the truth is what people want to hear, but not what they'll believe when they hear it. Jeff can tell the difference between truth and falsity, he's just swapped out the values. He tells the truth with lies, and lies with the truth.

"I hereby pronounce you a community."

At the conclusion of the speech, Annie is smiling so much she looks like she might be holding back tears. Britta breaks the moment by revealing to Jeff that she was lying about dinner, and she'd like him to politely fuck off and leave. He responds by offering to share the envelope full of test answers with the group.

On the steps outside, Jeff opens the envelope to find only blank pages and "Booyah" written, somehow, in John Oliver's accent. A brief confrontation with Duncan later--the moral status quo restored--brings us back to the steps, where the study group seems to instinctively want to comfort Jeff; Jeff instinctively finds himself giving advice. He protests the narrative role he's being boxed into: "I don't have any of the answers." When it's pointed out that he's obviously smart, Jeff's reply is one of uncommon insight, as far as pop culture generally goes: "Funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without ever having to do any work." After a non-verbal conversation incomprehensible to Abed, Britta formally invites him back into the group his lie called into being, and after a beat, he follows them back inside.

There isn't a credits tag on this one, but there's a memorial nod to John Hughes, which I guess is close enough for a pilot. It's not much of an ending, and appropriately, neither is this. None of these characters are where they need to be, yet. Pierce is an unreconstructed hippie, Troy's a token jock who refers to Abed as "slumdog," Britta is pretty and perfect and empty. They'll change, albeit mostly in the next episode. Community is as much about how people don't change as it is about how they do. I'll also be changing, as I write more of these things up, and find the balance I need between vague commentary and tedious recap. I could spend a week reading the respected recappers and cutting this one down to size, but it seemed more prudent, and apropos, to just feel my way through. The best eps are in the second half of season three, anyway. I have semesters and semesters to learn.

First Appearances
Everything. It's the pilot.

Highlights

  • Abed bursting into a scene from The Breakfast Club in response to tension.
  • The first and only explicit mention of Asperger's.
  • Dean Pelton appears but briefly, and the rest of the B-cast is unsurprisingly absent. The one exception, Prof. Duncan, will actually be absent most of the season. What can ya do.
  • Seriously, is that Vicki?

What Have We Learned?
"You are all better thank you think you are. You are just designed not to believe it when you hear it from yourself."

Tantrum

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mew!

ETA: An actual appropriate illustration.
While I work on exciting new content--you'll love it, there's going to be synergy and everything--a brief update to inform my vast and varied readership of a valuable crowdfundportunity.

Deborah, who you'd recognize from my links had I ever bothered to update them from when I set this thing up in 2008, is working on a big website thing to archive and annotate the works of Charlotte Mew.
File photo: Deborah J. Brannon.

"Who is Charlotte Mew?" It's a question being asked by the poorly educated with fingers far from the pulse of the community. Mew was an indie Victorian poet; you've probably never heard of her. If you'd like to contribute to a comprehensive archive of her work, like, and the existing scholarship that will no doubt be a tangible contribution to Victorian studies--and who wouldn't?--you can read up on the project and contribute hereThen, when all your dirtbag friends are talking about Victorian poetry, you can tell them that you were into Charlotte Mew when she was underground.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Harry Potter and the Emblem of Fire

I'm not sure why turn-based strategy games so frequently lack a difficulty setting between "Harlem Globetrotters" and "battle of Stalingrad," but it's something I've come to accept from the genre, and Fire Emblem certainly follows suit. My dawning awareness of this fact is the main thing I remember about my first experience with the series: alternating between easy, which felt less like a strategy game than an unusually long and condescending tutorial, and normal, which felt like playing chess when you never learned how to play, and also you're drunk, and someone keeps punching you in the face. I was reading Lord of the Flies at the time, working on an article about Bully and school shooting narratives--thank goodness THOSE aren't topical anymore--at my sister-in-law's place. Life was better, then. It had regular soda, and cigarettes.

The Sacred Stones was the my entry point into the Fire Emblem series, and the last game I remember purchasing for the Game Boy Advance. I'd spent more than fifteen years with the Game Boy and its variants, before the DS came along and perfected game consoles, so I suppose it's fitting that my final purchase was so memorable, but I don't remember what prompted me to buy it. I only know that right as I was starting to "get" it, I lost the damn thing somewhere in transit, and found it astonishingly difficult to replace without going to rather alarming expense. Fortunately, after a year or so of searching, a DS remake was released--Shadow Dragon, a remake of the series' premiere that I had missed--about which I wrote a mediocre and poorly proofed entry here.

I wasn't great at Shadow Dragon, but I feel like I understood it: learning to love the characters who'd be cruelly taken away from you for the simplest of mistakes, and learning to discard the worthless little shits who filled out the roster so the ones you cared about could survive. It wasn't built for long-term play, and even the hidden levels, while technically making the game longer (and exposing your characters to additional risk), were useful primarily because there simply weren't enough enemies in the game to sufficiently level everyone up. You couldn't play Shadow Dragon as an ongoing, infinite process. Everyone would die.

Awakening, of course, offers a choice on that front. Sort of. Sure it offers you the option to have "dead" characters taken away from you, as has traditionally been the series' wont, but they aren't dead. They're "retired." Not in the cool way, like in Blade Runner: their role in the story, if there is one, is unaffected. It kind of takes the piss out of permadeath when you can see the dead milling about at the craft services table between levels.

Nonetheless, losing soldiers to imaginary-death is uniquely galling, since Awakening goes on for-fucking-ever. The number of battles you can get into is literally infinite, and Nintendo will happily sell you additional ones in the e-Shop.

I find I miss the limitations more than anything. The reclass function never made any fucking sense--turn your deadly swordsman into a shitty, awkward knight!--but at least its existence pointed to a fundamental scarcity, that you weren't going to get many chances for a given class of combatant, and you'd goddamn better learn to appreciate them. The weapons followed suit. Sure, you could find an anti-cavalry axe somewhere, but anti-cavalry lances were plentiful, and delineated the superiority of armor over cavalry. (Even cavalry bearing anti-armor swords came at you from a point of statistical weakness.) Cavalry units were particularly limited and valued; in Awakening, nearly every class has a mounted variant, even the nerds, and while reclassing is more limited, it's also a hell of a lot more useful, and allows your characters to be leveled up infinitely.

Where scarcity remains, it's met with surfeit. "Rare" weapons present themselves with surprising consistency, to the point that it becomes hard to keep track. Due to the crucial finitude of nearly all weaponry, inventory management has always been annoyingly complicated in Fire Emblem; there's something perfectly compelling, and eternally frustrating, about a game that would be improved by removing one of the series' oldest and most consistent features. Then again, I guess that's how we got to Casual mode in the first place.

Fire Emblem is dead. Long live Fire Emblem. Just maybe don't make it quite so monogamy-oriented next time. In Shadow Dragon's multiplayer mode, I had an unstoppable squad of low-tier fighters with amazing stats, and do you know why? Because they supported each other emotionally, goddammit. To the tune of 45% hit and evasion bonuses. Awakening restricts relationship bonuses to one at a time, and an S-rank requires all-out hetero banging to achieve, so good luck forging an epic relationship between Virion and Kellam. Sure, you can do it, but you'll always be thinking, "this is cool, but it'd be a lot cooler if I could make these two fuck."

Which I guess is how it feels to be a shipper, huh?

Monday, May 5, 2014

A black fly in your chardonnay

I was called upon to remark, recently, that I have played and finished Final Fantasys I, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, and X-2. Some observations arise with which to be dealt:

  • First, how does one pluralize the proper noun Final Fantasy? Final Fantasies seems wrong, since the "ies" isn't part of the title. Final Fantasies looks a bit better, but still loses the y in the process of pluralization. I dunno, kids. I don't have all the answers.
  • At 20 to 50 hours apiece, my total time playing these games--even excluding possible replays or restarts--would come to between 140 and 350 hours, with a median time of 245 hours, or about ten days. To put that into perspective, that's enough time to watch the Tenth Doctor's death scene nearly three times.
OH FOR FUCK'S SAKE
Suffice to say, my commitment to this series is not insubstantial. So why have I not played Lightning Returns, or its two weird prequels? How did I fall out of the series that defined Serious Gamerdom in the 16-bit era?

That would fall on Final Fantasy XII. I've probably put as many hours into FFXII as I have in more than one of the ones I've finished. Partially, this is because the influence of Final Fantasy Tactics encourages diversions and grinding to a degree that's extremely unusual for the fairly linear JRPG genre Final Fantasy epitomizes. Partially, it's because my life has been too chaotic for the sustained focus of a console JRPG for a while, and the complexity of the Tactics influences make it a difficult game to pick up in the middle.

But mostly, it's those damned licenses.
These fuckin' things.
FFXII gives the player a wide degree of latitude in terms of character design, and the characters' hardwired stat growth doesn't meaningfully bias them in any particular direction. On that basis, I let narrative be my guide, and built my team the way I interpreted them as having been written:

  • Light armor, green magic, knives, crossbows, and ninjato for Vaan
  • Magic armor, black magic, staves, rods, and measures for Penelo
  • Heavy armor, spears, and axes for Basch
  • Light armor, time magic, guns, bo, and bombs for Balthier
  • Magic armor, arcane magic, bows, and katana for Fran
  • Heavy armor, white magic, swords, and greatswords for Ashe
  • with a bit of white magic for everybody, because a little goes a long way
There's a logic to these choices, and you can follow them on the license board. (Not the one I've posted, probably, but, you know. Try to stay with me here.) The weapon and armor choices seem to follow fairly straight lines, without a lot of wasted points. There's also some overlap in terms of weapon types: high damage with high damage, magic with magic, and high combo/critical with high-combo/critical.

Here's where it gets tricky. FFXII bears a strong influence from MMORPGs. It would be sensible to divide the characters into tanks, nukers/healers, and DPS, and the models described above fit that. Magic armor boosts max MP, so that's simple. Heavy armor, in addition to providing better raw defense stats, also boosts strength. Ok, that makes some sense, I suppose. Agility's usually more important for lightly armored high-damage classes, maybe light armor has a speed or critical bonus? No, light armor boosts HP.
  1. If I may take a brief aside from this otherwise laser-focused post, I can see why having both HP and defense stats would make sense from a design perspective, but making them both variable by player action drives me mad, since they both do more or less the same thing. The differences--sometimes subtle, sometimes less so--can only be inferred by looking directly at the math. Fire Emblem, frustrating though it is on other issues, is admirably clear on how this works. X-Men Legends, a game with character growth that is elegant and delightful in every other way, is infuriatingly vague. The math gets a bit more complicated in FFXII, and since light armor and heavy armor provide defensive boosts through different stats, it's not particularly intuitive to weigh them against each other.
  2. Light weapons benefit greatly from combos and criticals, which are enhanced as a character's HP % drops, which the HP bonuses influence...not at all, really? I suppose it makes the margin for a given enhancement slightly wider, but not terribly noticeably.
  3. In practice, my fast characters never feel as effective as the rest of the team. I've tried putting heavy armor on them, in defiance of my beloved narrative tropes, and while I do appreciate the extra offensive capabilities, I quickly find myself missing the defensive properties of the lighter armor. This is weird.
It probably wouldn't meaningfully affect my play experience if I hadn't noticed it, but dammit, I can't stop noticing it, and every move on the lower half of the license board quickly becomes an exercise in self-doubt. Since self-doubt is roughly the opposite of why I play RPGs, I usually end up taking a break, and the rest is history.

The horrible, horrible irony of it--the rain on my wedding day, so to speak--is that writing this brought back a torrent of memories, and now part of my wants to boot the PS and start this monster of a game again.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Memento Morghulis

Hey, kids. How're yez? Been workin' on some stuff.

Convergence of Masculinities in Gamer Culture

Masculinity Without Men: The Sontarans and Relational Gender in Doctor Who

Going through the backlog, might get some more stuff up soon. Need to set up a general purpose "bunch of shit I wrote" page.

In the meantime, zombie zoo, zombie zoo, who let them zombies out of the zombie zoo?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fuck everything, let's write about Buffy.

Writing is going passably well this year, if only in terms of ambition. I'm hoping to have a few more Gratuitous Link Posts, as I poke myself into various other, more widely read sites. At the moment, I'm completely blanking on something I need to have written in a week or so.

My brain, naturally, is keen on thinking about absolutely anything other than the topic at hand. Fortunately, the internet is a thing that exists. Also, alcohol.
Today is the 17th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer--the latter, real Buffy, mind you--and our acknowledgment thereof inspired this exchange:
I'm sure eventually I'll write up the whole "Catholics are from Mars, Calvinists are from Venus" riff about the ways Angel and Spike embody differing concepts of redemption and holiness, but I wasn't planning on giving it a lot of thought tonight, until some sort of floating cube posted this. Quotation of note:
Suicidal feelings are not the same as giving up on life. Suicidal feelings can often express a powerful and overwhelming need for a different life. Suicidal feelings can mean, in a desperate and unyielding way, a demand for something new.
Which brings us to Spike. (Spoilers for two shows that went off the air a decade ago.)

Vampires, in the Buffyverse, are established as a demonic entity animating a human corpse. The extent to which a given human's identity survives the transition is a matter of some debate. The soul, whatever the fuck that is, goes away, that much is agreed upon. It seems to boil down to free will and conscience; a vampire is the cruelest, most selfish parts of yourself brought from deepest repression to the surface.

Free will is trickier. Spike, the subject of an experiment by a researcher specializing in operant conditioning, is prevented from acting on the anti-social urges we care about. He can't be evil, and he can even manage a very specific type of good, by default, since his love of power and violence allow him to hunt and kill other supernatural entities. He even learns to "love" Buffy when his obsessive desire to kill is converted, through positive and negative reinforcement, into a desire to make slashy slashy sex with her. Still, he can't quite maintain the illusion, and he betrays his allies at every opportunity. If he sees an angle for personal gain, he simply isn't able to not play it. He sells demon eggs because there's money in it, even though Buffy might kill him for it; he tries to rape Buffy because he wants to and feels he has the ability to do so. (Lest anyone bring up that it's offensive that this hearkens back to rape culture narratives about men being slaves to their sexual desires, I'll remind us all that Spike, not being human, isn't a man. Do try to keep up.)

The trouble is, Spike's darkest evil, at the point where we meet him, isn't terribly evil. His first act, upon becoming an immortal, bloodthirsty killing machine, is to see to the care of his aged and infirm mother. When he joins the gang for a century or so of torturing, killing, and eating their way across Europe, he gets bored with killing, and is delighted to hear that there's something out there that will put up a decent fight. When he decides to go after one of the relatively few humans who could actually kill him, is Spike seeking out valor--something his extended sires seem quite wary of--or is he engaging in suicidal ideation?

It's worth considering, not only because seasons 5 and 6 are thick with suicide imagery, but because the ultimate claim to Spike's morality is that he seeks out the restoration of his soul. The demon knows that the return of the soul will go very badly for it; when Angelus returns in S2, killing the only person he believes capable of restoring his soul is one of his first priorities. From the demon's perspective, seeking out one's soul would be akin to suicide.

Angel is so rapacious and cruel that his evil redounds upon itself and makes him heroic; Spike is so inherently white-hat that even the blackest evil can't quite drive the heroism out of him. (Egad, that does not sound right. Leaving it there anyway. I've got shit to do, can't spend all night editing.) So one possibility is that there's just something off about Spike's conversion to begin with. The trusty Dr. Girlfriend (ABD) offers a viable fanwank: a vampire is a demon setting up shop in a human, and Drusilla--a prophetess--didn't really fit that description to begin with, let alone after Angelus' tortures had driven her out of her mind, leaving an empty, supernaturally elect shell. This would explain why the line seems to get a bit wonky after Dru: not just Spike, but the nerd-vamp who's "human" enough to be incinerated by the Judge, and possibly Harmony as well, but seriously, fuck Harmony.

At any rate, Spike does some stuff it seems he ought not be able. In the S6 finale, after driving his motorcycle to--Africa? Is that where he goes? On a motorcycle? In one night? What the fuck?--he meets up with some sort of demony...thing. We're led to believe he was going to get the chip removed; that's how Joss reputedly told Marsters to play it, supposedly, although Marsters later said he'd always played Spike as if he'd had a soul. Hence, the most common way to interpret that event, the seemingly canonical interpretation, is that Spike asked for the soul, and used vague enough language that we, the audience, misread it. But how is it that he's able to intentionally bind his own will in the first place?

The suicide analogy is the simplest answer: that annihilation is as close as a vampire can get to authentic moral choice. A closer reading of Spike's interaction with the demon that restores his soul offers some alternative explanations.

We see Spike's arrival on the scene, and the camera doesn't cut away except during fight scenes; it doesn't seem likely that there's conversation we don't see. The demon seems to be expecting his guest, and they've presumably had some contact before, but it's never established. In fact, the encounter is never spoken of again for the remainder of the series. If we expand the possibility that the demon knows Spike is coming because of some precognitive or telepathic ability, a new interpretation becomes possible. Perhaps the demon gives Spike what he wants, but not what he asked for; perhaps the vampire can only seek its own annihilation at an unconscious level. (Alternatively, perhaps the demon just ignored what Spike asked for and gave him a soul because why the fuck not?)

It's an interesting case study in metaphysical fanwanking, but my favorite is a simpler causality, and why discussions of ambivalence and suicide always make me think of this scene. Spike stands at a crossroads, not quite one thing or another. He can experience neither the joy of authentic love nor the thrill of recreational murder, and it's killing him. The difference between the two is, from his perspective, entirely irrelevant. I suspect he doesn't particularly know what the demon's going to do to him, and he doesn't much care. It's not about making life better. It's worth dying just to make it different.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Moby-Dick for Girls*

At the end of 2012, I resolved to update this place more regularly, even if I didn't particularly feel like I had anything to say. I suppose it worked out fairly well. They're not all winners, but I wrote something in the neighborhood of 20,000 words here, and up until November, they're not too far between.

So, here's what I did in the intervening days, weeks, and months:

  • Read Jenn Frank's Allow Natural Death, and was inspired to give up on writing. Stewing on that for a few days, and realizing that I seem to have no other skills, I amended that inspiration toward writing with a bit more blood and fire.
  • Visited family in California and friends in Florida, during which I did much thinking and no writing. There's stories to tell there, but I'm not sure they're blog-appropriate. Not this blog, anyway, and Undisciplined After Dark isn't ready for launch yet.
  • Finished a short story I began in 2008, as an experimental treatment for writer's block. It sucks, but it's over, and it feels refreshing to not have it in my mental cache. I can only have one Big Writing Project in my head at a time, it seems, and that was a strange one. At least Amber Benson understands me.
  • Wrote a short piece about depression, unemployment, and Far Cry 3. I'm pretty happy with it, which is why I didn't bother to post it here. I have no idea what the fuck I'm going to do with it.
  • I have lined up another exciting blogging opportunity, via the aforementioned associate from undergrad. I'll keep you all abreast, assuming I can come up with something interesting to say about masculinity between now and mid-March.
  • Bravely Default. Jesus, this fuckin' game. Gameological's Samantha Nelson explicates what happens when Final Fantasy fucks a Facebook game. Also, if you're playing, I need your friend code. (3050-8545-2096)
  • Fighting the weather. The snow isn't too bad if you stay on top of the shoveling. It's the frost giants that're the real problem.
  • Just now, checking to make sure I hadn't already used that joke in an earlier post.
And that's where we are now. The future shows up earlier and earlier each year.

*Since nobody seemed to get it for Albert, Somme, five American dollars for anyone who gets that reference.**

**Dollars may be metaphorical.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

oh god oh god the page is blank so white and so blank

Young men fight on sheer emotion and passion. But you get some grey and you find that people keep schedules for a reason, that attaining and maintaining are two different things. People don't talk to me about potential anymore. They talk to me about management.
-- Ta-Nehisi Coates, continuing the inexplicable Bane theme in my life

Lately I have been trying, with middling success, to find my passion. I've written, in this little space of mine, of feeling disconnected: from my family, from my friends, from my craft. This is to be expected, for the usual reasons. Depression has a way of alienating you from yourself, but I've been in this game for over half my life now, and at some point I'd be remiss not to consider the possibility that I'm less in touch with my passion because there just isn't as much of it anymore.

Which brings us to Breathing Machine.
Having established that my plan to get drunk on the internet was, in fact, an officially endorsed launch event, I did, in fact, spend the night of the 21st, and a portion of the morning of the 22nd, reading Leigh Alexander's new ebook. I can save you some time by swiping from Zoe Quinn's Gone Home review: "I'm not sure how else to say it, but it made my heart hurt in the best way."

Gone Home was an anatomy, an index, little pieces of all the smart, weird, queer chicks who so shaped my late adolescence. It's a personal story, but it's not mine. Alexander's story, while obviously also not mine, was a lot more familiar than I'd have expected.

My early adolescence seems a little unreal to me, an early object lesson in the importance of mistrusting one's memory. A decade and a half down the road, a therapist shared his take with me. He said that I'd been so consumed with my own fear, and the fears of how I'd react under that kind of pressure, that I'd built a cage of logic and ethics: to protect myself from the world, and to protect the world from me. (Somewhat pleased, I informed him that, in my corner of the social imaginary, we have a term for this behavior, and that term is "Batman.")

So I hunkered down and built a tiny life for myself. I read and watched and played, and wrote and wrote and wrote. I built a map of the world, word by word, in poetry and blood. It was a shitty map, mind you. I was a kid. But then, as is so often the case in this life of ours, there were unknown unknowns.
I’d be crouched by the modem in the dark. It’d be late. It’s not that I wasn’t supposed to be awake. I was 13 years old, and no one could really tell me when to go to bed. I’d started nurturing the spark of an idea in my casing that no one, really, ought to tell me anything, anymore.
The internet hit me hard. I had marginally more computer literacy than the kids I'd left behind at school, but that wasn't saying a lot; I knew my way around MS-DOS and Win 3.1, but from my perspective, the PC was pretty much a word processor and game console. The introduction of a modem into my awkward, angry biosphere brought a couple of epiphanies: first Prodigy, then Doom. Now that they share a sentence, I can see the commonality. You pushed a game, and it pushed back; that much I'd known since Centipede. What bulletin boards and deathmatches offered was fundamentally the same. All that had changed was an understanding of what was pushing back, but oh, dear reader, in that understanding is space for all of heaven and earth.

The world was out there. A little at a time, and slowly. Community. Hostility. A future. A way to play house with adulthood, with the slightest edge of transgression. Expressing myself verbally had always been part of my identity, and moving to text, either real-time or turn-based, only made it easier. Nobody was going to assume I was 13 if I didn't tell them.

As an adult, with a much-improved map and the awareness that I've never been more lost, I read of Alexander's probing, trial-and-error approach to text-based systems, her solitary pride in a cursory (but fundamental) secret knowledge that hadn't yet been deemed Important, her weird online relationships, her self-conscious construction of a verbal identity, and her first forays into the politics and trends that would develop the net into the excitingly depressing place it is today, I felt...

...

There isn't more to that sentence. Nothing solid, anyway. I just felt. I think I was smiling. Mostly I just sat, and sipped, and beheld. In a dark room in an apartment I can't afford, surrounded by the props of a life that had somehow outgrown me, I wondered if this might have been a ubiquitous experience for our generation: if we had all grown up alone, together, with the entire world.
The world, as they say, ends with you.