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The Vernacular of Heroes December 11, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Comics, Perception, TV.
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PetrellisGames and comics have a common characteristic: no matter how diverse the genres, level of quality, or creative talent behind them, repeated experiences will build a “vocabulary” of commonly used devices. This is how life long gamers can almost immediately decipher what on a given screen is interactive, or how a reader can easily follow comic panels with varying layouts. This even extends to within genre specific standbys and cliches, such as sniper rifles, loot, and super powers. The problem that faces Heroes is that the show must account for a large number of viewers who already know words like technopath, as well as a general audience completely naive of, say, the ins and outs of time travel.

While I think the writers handled this task quite well last season, that fact made it so much harder to see them lose their way in Volume 2. It’s not worth trying to point out the myriad examples of shoddy writing and plot holes. (Okay, just one: how do you manipulate a man who can read your mind?) I tried to isolate the general causes of this drop in quality, in the hope that the show could be saved through amputation.

1. Poor use of powers. Low budgets may account for the lack of special effects shots this season, but even the zero cost abilities saw little to no use in situations where they could be of great use (i.e. invisibility.) Obviously more time needs to go into considering what difficulties may assail the protagonists and the most logical way they would tackle said task. Also, do they even have a list of powers for Peter? It was definitely a mistake to give him the powers of anyone he comes into contact with, and I honestly think that if the show is to be saved, the prime-time viewing public is going to be introduced to one of the aforementioned comics staples: the retcon.

2. Lack of character development. Amnesia. Adolescent rebellion. Alternate personalities. In the museum of television, these things ought to have their own wings. Sometimes they can work, sometimes they are boring. Stagnant characters filled our screens this season, while a certain niece and uncle apparently just decided to have the same exact crises they’d had four months previously.

3. Sylar. I’ve previously gone on record saying Sylar isn’t evil. This was wishful thinking on my part, as the writers have turned what could have been something really unique into just another megalomaniac without a heart. Before, I saw madness, tragedy, hunger, and yes, even a chance for redemption in young Gabriel. Not rehabilitation, of course, but perhaps down the line some meaningful sacrifice could have brought him back from the dark hunger that transformed him overnight from a humble watchmaker into a wanton killer. Now this was the guy to give amnesia.

This is too long-winded, I could go on for pages. My main point was the show suffers because it’s like trying to translate an epic poem into junior-high reading level prose; the subtleties of the source format yield a far richer story when coupled with the experience of classical scholars. In the meantime, I feel like a history buff watching 300, unable to keep my mouth shut.

Ps: the good this season: Adam, Elle, and Matt freakin Parkman. How long after realizing he can control thoughts is he using it to brainwash his boss and rape dark secrets from people’s minds? So perfect. As long as Volume 3 follows this totally obvious and completely un-Professor X-ish descent, I’ll tune in every week.

Zero Tolerance November 5, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Comics, Games, Morality.
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I just finished reading Watchmen, and the ending is heavy. Spoilers ahead: it basically boils down to the heroes choosing whether to pardon a great evil for the greater good of humanity. I found myself siding with the heroes who were in favor of allowing this evil to go unpunished, because the alternative was certain Armageddon in a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. I was disappointed, then, when Rorschach couldn’t lay down his absolute version of justice for once in his life for the sake of the world.

In Half-Life 2, which I also just finished, Gordon Freeman is your silent alter ego who has a lot in common with Rorschach. While many humans become complacent with an alien empire that could (possibly?) wipe out humanity by proving themselves a valuable resource, the cost is too high for the freedom fighters that the player leads. Why, then, when faced with (basically) the same dilemma from Watchmen do I make the opposite choice for myself? Why do I sympathize with the Black Mesa guerrillas whose actions may jeopardize the survival of the species?

I think that it’s as simple as this: I know, despite the odds, there’s a very good chance that at the conclusion of Half-Life’s story, humanity will triumph. In other words, with the advantage of knowing there is a fourth wall there in front of me and that the events of the game are orchestrated by writers who want you to succeed, I am able to make the correct choice without having to contemplate the ramifications.

Maybe if I were Gordon Freeman I would surrender myself to the Combine to prevent further atrocities. But maybe if I were playing a game I would have followed Rorschach outside and joined him as a martyr for truth. In this way, contrary to my previous statements, playing a game can bring out the best in people, their heroic side, just as often as it does their worst.

MMORPGHS November 5, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Comics, Education, Games, Tech.
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second lifeBack in middle school, one of my summer reading books was the autobiography of Ryan White. What I remember most (other than his mother buying him an issue of Playboy) is that at one point during his illness, the school district where he lived patched his home through to a closed-circuit TV system and a two way radio so that he would be given his legally-guaranteed free education, without exposing other children to the Aids virus. Weren’t the 80’s just so enlightened? Being a classic antisocial loner, I thought that this was one of the highlights of having a terminal communicable disease, and it stayed in my mind for a long time.

So this warped but alluring concept meets New Media in, where else, Second Life. While not a citizen myself, I do love hearing about the development and growth of the metaverse, preparing myself for the day when they eventually get a real interface and you can actually begin playing it without a reference manual on your lap. I am told that all kinds of universities, libraries, and the New Media Consortium itself all own or rent property where players can attend lectures and avail themselves of information with real life professionals. But as I previously intimated, this is great for the millions of people who play Second Life world-wide, not so much for the billions who don’t.

I myself have taken a few distance learning classes, but they don’t really feel like class. I have only felt one teacher made up for the lack of personal contact, and this she did by assigning tons of homework. There must be a better way, right? Imagine: a federally funded and maintained virtual environment, available to anyone as an alternative to traditional public education, complete with a fully recognized (grade school/high school) diploma. Specially designed terminals combine with a nationwide high bandwidth network enabling interactions on par with and exceeding anything done in multiplayer gaming today. There are no textbooks, no school lunches, no disruptive students dragging down the process. There is social interaction in common areas, completely absent of physical intimidation, social class discrimination, or personal danger. Just use your imagination and the possibilities for this type of system are endless. There are obvious challenges, but it’s definitely possible even within out current level of technology, if not our current level of technology awareness. Personally I’d be ecstatic if my grandkids had this kind of system available to them.

Masq – not a game, but is it New Media? September 10, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Comics, Games, Humor.
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I’ve been addicted to the first-person interactive graphic novel known as Masq for a few months now. The “game” is flash based, a free download for 20 lives, additional lives will cost you. The game is described as being a totally interactive drama, with hundreds of possible experiences based on the choices you make. It’s a fun little diversion, and it goes into seedy territory that a lot of real games shy away from in this day and age of the frat-boy FPS. Definitely NSFW.

Is it a game? To me, the word game means that there is some degree of at least one of these elements: chance, skill, or strategy. Masq can be played with a strategy, yes, but enough plot twists occur in the story that are a direct result of your actions and yet are totally unforeseeable that strategy is useless on your first read through. This is therefore not a game, just interactive art.

Is it New Media? It is digital. It’s modular, because each scene has multiple resolutions and can occur in different orders. It’s automatic, responding to user input. It’s obviously variable, and it transcodes the pulp fiction magazine with the information age in an attempt to revitalize an old genre. This is prime cut, USDA Grade A New Media, and I can’t wait to see what genre Alteraction tackles next.

Understanding Scott Mccloud September 5, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Comics, Games.
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I knew Scott McCloud before picking up this book, or at least I knew his avatar. He appeared in a few issues of an old gaming magazine I used to read (Computer Gaming World, maybe) and after my initial excitement at discovering a comic strip, I realized it was merely the adventures of some guy in a plaid shirt who used too many big words (I was young.) I came across his icon once again as a loyal devotee of Penny-Arcade. I immediately assumed, based on this satire, that he was just a blowhard with nothing to contribute to comics. This may have been slightly hasty.

I’m impressed by his definition of comics, and the number of other art styles he’s able to overlap with it. I do get a little weary of the unending optimism, however. Anyone who cares to look can find dozens, even hundreds of examples of comics that can stand alongside any modern work of art or literature, but the idea that comics will ever be embraced by the majority as a legitimate form of art/literature is silly. Critics, scholars, and someday literary historians will look at books like Watchmen and understand their importance, but comics have passed that critical period in the youth of the medium where consumers decide where they will fit in the grand scheme. I hate to sound so pessimistic about something I love, but that’s my gut instinct.

I can definitely see why we use this book as our New Media textbook. So many of his ideas and theories can extend beyond comics into gaming and Web 2.0 (3.0?) The pyramid he creates to categorize work as iconic/realistic/abstract was especially compelling for me. I went ahead and created my own pyramid for a few of my favorite games. gamenyd.jpg