Books: His Dark Materials

“There are two great powers,” the man said, “and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn from by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”

– Phillip Pullman in The Subtle Knife

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(Normally I try to keep my book reviews relatively free of spoilers so that readers can choose to read the books themselves and still enjoy them after having read my review. However, to do the same for these books would prevent me from saying what I want to say about them, so instead of a review, this post should really be thought of as a kind of analysis. As such, be warned that further reading will spoil the books for you.)

It’s not hard to imagine what went through the minds of the executives at New Line Cinema when they greenlighted the movie version of The Golden Compass that was released late last year. Their film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings had proved to be a tremendous commercial success. Walt Disney Pictures had The Chronicles of Narnia series going for them and Warner Bros. had the goldmine that is the Harry Potter series. The movie-going public clearly has an appetite for the fantasy genre, especially for films adapted from children’s books, so what could be better than the new and popular His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman?

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Are Games Art?

Quartertothree regular and EA producer Jim Preston tackled this very question recently in a thoughtful essay on Gamasutra that’s worth reading both for anyone seriously interested in video games and the question of what constitutes art. He claims to have been inspired by two things: freelance game reviewer Tom Chick’s review of Bioshock which answered the question simply by saying, “Games are this” and renowned film critic Roger Ebert’s review of the recent Hitman film (based on the video game series of the same name) in which he boldly claims that video games will never become an art form.

You really do need to read the full essay to appreciate it, but Preston basically argues that it’s pointless for video games to aspire to the status of Great Art as it is popularly conceived through the process of reasoned debate. Instead, he argues that things become art by gradually sublimating into the consciousness of the mainstream and acquiring a revered status in the minds of the people who like it. Eventually, the people who do like it will place it in a context, as in a museum or a concert hall, in which it becomes publicly acknowledged as art.

The importance of context towards interpreting whether or not something is art is reinforced in an intriguing story that Preston references. On the morning of January 12 2007, the Washington Post organized a little experiment. They arranged for Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living violinists in the world, to play six classical pieces representing perhaps the greatest musical achievements in Western culture on his invaluable 1714 Stradivarius violin in the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington for 43 minutes. Hidden cameras and reporters for the Post carefully recorded the reactions of the passersby of the morning rush hour. Out of the 1,097 people who walked by during that time, only two people truly recognized the quality of what they heard and only a handful of others stopped what they were doing for a few moments to listen. Bell earned a total of $32.17 in tips, excluding another $20.00 from the one person who recognized him. The irony of course, as Preston intended to point out, is that Bell is the kind of performer who can earn $1,000 a minute by playing in the right context to the right audience.

Chinese New Year? Bah, humbug!

It’s Chinese New Year and since I got to go on holiday for it last year, it’s my turn to sit it out here in the Solomon Islands. Not that I particularly mind, since to be honest, I’m not particularly fond of it as a festival. Oh, I don’t begrudge it as an annual family gathering, that aspect of it is universal enough that there’s an equivalent of it in every human culture. The Chinese New Year however has another prominent characteristic to it that’s of special annoyance to me, and that’s the whole “may you make a fortune this year” thing.

As a out-and-out capitalist, I have no objections to people making money. In fact, I regard making a profit as creating value for society as a whole, and respect the entrepreneurial courage and tenacity that all businesspeople must possess in order to succeed. What I’m uncomfortable with is the idea of unearned wealth, that fortunes come and go as if on a fickle and random wind without regard to hard work, strategic vision or talent. Yet the traditional Chinese New Year wishes of fortune and prosperity imply just this view of how wealth is obtained and this explains in no small part why the festival itself is so strongly associated with gambling activities from card playing to buying lottery tickets to visiting the casino at Genting Highlands. The merry faced God of Fortune is the most emblematic example of this. I can understand a God of Hard Work, or Intelligence, or Skill, or even Good Health, but Fortune?

Of course, not everyone is so crass as to wish people with the utterly materialistic “Gong Xi Fa Chai” greeting. The first time I spent Chinese New Year with my wife’s parents, I noted that they preferred to greet people by saying, “May all your endeavors this year go according to your will,” and “May you enjoy good health” and so forth. I can only hope that others can learn to be more enlightened and use a similar blessing that makes more sense than wishing for someone to have money miraculously and inexplicably fall on their heads.

This isn’t the end of my complaints about the festival either because there’s something about it that brings out the worst in celebrating Chinese. I suppose I’m in the minority on this but I find utterly bewildering the concept that the most enjoyable dinners are the most raucous ones in which it is practically impossible to actually hold a real conversation across the dinner table due to the noise from endless toasts and inevitable karaoke droning. How about a bit of real wit and culture please? What I find really annoying however is when Chinese force others to drink toasts. I generally do not drink alcohol at all, and I feel that being pressured to drink for social reasons is extremely disrespectful to me as an individual and highly offensive to me personally. And unlike most Chinese, I don’t hesitate to make my views known either. I suppose that explains why I don’t get invited to many parties.

Off-Road Velociraptor Safari

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Who wouldn’t love a game called Off-Road Velociraptor Safari? Not long ago, I blogged about how sophisticated Flash games were getting and how much gameplay they could offer even when restricted to being 2D. Well, the folks at FlashBang Studios have done one better and created a simple but fun 3D game that runs right on your browser. You do need to install the Unity Web Player application that allows 3D browser-based applications and, being a 3D game, you’ll probably want to run it on a computer with at least an entry-level video card for acceptable performance, but you’ll soon be driving around in your off-road vehicle running down and gathering poor velociraptors for points.

Its graphics are serviceable if not terribly impressive, but there’s a simple physics and vehicle damage modelling system and practically anything that you do, from doing stunts to causing damage to your jeep can earn you bonus points. All in all, a nifty little game to liven up an afternoon at work. Of special note is that the velociraptors in the game are portrayed not as the scaly lizards of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, but as the feathered ancestors of birds that the current scientific consensus thinks they are. Which in the game, means that you end up chasing what looks like spiny thin, colourful chickens more than anything else.

China Controls the Weather

I’ve previously read that China intends to make sure that nothing, not even rain, will get in the way of its coming out party that is the 2008 Olympics at Beijing, but even I’m surprised to learn to learn of the colossal scale of their plans. The purpose built stadium for the Olympics, the Beijing National Stadium, is open to the elements, so the Chinese government has decided to implement weather modification technology that reduces the size of the raindrops over the stadium so they won’t condense and fall to the earth until after the clouds carrying them have passed by the stadium. In order to accomplish this, China is marshaling the full resources of its 37,000 strong bureau of weather modification together with 30 aircraft, 4,000 rocket launchers and 7,000 antiaircraft guns to get the necessary chemicals into the air around the stadium.

The science geek in me is amazed by the audacity of the Chinese government to impose their own weather according to their will but I’m also concerned about the possible environmental consequences of such drastic actions. Needless to say, this sort of thing will never be possible in Western countries for it’ll quickly whip up a firestorm of environmental protests and liability lawsuits over even imagined ailments from the fallout.

A Half-Life 2 Retrospective

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Half-Life 2 is a 4 year old game at this point and already a classic of the genre, so writing a conventional review of it would be pointless. But I’ve just spent the past week playing it for the first time, so I thought it would be interesting to write about my impressions on it as someone who’s played most of the current crop of modern FPS games. Technologically of course, Half-Life 2 can’t hold a candle to its successors. 4 years is after all a long time in the computer industry, and the latest graphics engines put the Source engine to shame (even the Source-engine powered Portal, new and innovative as it is, looks somewhat bland compared to current games). But overall the game still looks good enough that playing through it didn’t feel painful (unlike say, when I tried to replay Aliens vs. Predator 2 a couple of years ago) and the game’s many strengths more than made up for it.

One of my first surprises was how long the game felt compared to more recent shooters. I find that most modern shooters these days can be finished in three or four evenings of dedicated playing, but Half-Life 2 sprawling tale stretched out for the most part of a week for me and took me into a variety of locales and situations that most other shooters can’t match either. Another factor that added to its length are the storytelling sequences. Half-Life 2 has no cutscenes per se since the entire story is told strictly from Gordon Freeman’s perspective without any temporal jumps from the player’s point of view. But the story is advanced in a number of scenes which are only minimally interactive in which other characters hold lengthy dialogues with one another in Freeman’s presence. These are worth hearing alone because they show off one of the strengths of the Source engine that is still valid even today: the facial expressiveness of characters animated in the Source engine but they’re not skippable and do add to the overall length.

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The Child-Man

The gaming world has been lit abuzz by a fiery editorial piece by conservative writer Kay Hymowitz entitled “Child-Man in the Promised Land” that appeared in City Journal and was featured on National Public Radio in the U.S. You can read a reply to her editorial on Gaming Today here. Hymowitz’s basic point is that men today don’t grow up. Whereas the previous generation used to leave school, get a stable job, marry a wife and raise children in his own house, men today tend to drift through life aimlessly and refuse to commit to marriage, and are often still living with their parents even well into their 30s. To her, the phenomenon of adult men playing video games, the biggest segment of gamers are men between the ages of 18 and 34 she cites, is the perfect symbol of the child-man.

The blatant sexism of the entire article is disgusting. As one commenter to the article in Gaming Today put it, if Hymowitz had been a man and talked about women in the way she talks about men, it would have been impossible for her to keep her job in the United States. For example, she writes, “Single women in their twenties and early thirties are joining an international New Girl Order, hyperachieving in both school and an increasingly female-friendly workplace, while packing leisure hours with shopping, travelling, and dining with friends. Single Young Males, or SYMs, by contrast, often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3, and, in many cases, underachieving.” Why is it that women spending their leisure hours shopping, travelling, and dining with friends is perfectly okay while men spending their leisure hours drinking, socializing and playing video games is a sign of their immaturity?

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The unexamined life is a life not worth living