Saturday, September 15, 2007

Barry Lane Beyerstein

On warm early July afternoon, fresh off a job interview, I found myself sitting on the train back home, starting out into places I’ve seen in the past and on a whim decided to take a detour ‘up the hill’ to my old alma matter to pick up a reference letter which had been waiting for me for some months.

Up on campus, I retraced my routes that I took daily as a student a few years back. Much has remained unchanged, from the overflowing fountain to the smell in the air— a kind crisp mountain air mixed with the smell of people, greasy food, coffee and the distinct odour of cigarette smoke. Now fully responsible for my own destiny, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss for a more carefree time in my life

But I digress. As I neared end of my tour and walked up to the bus loop to catch the bus, I casually reached for the student newspaper. Flipping through it, the headline “Psychology Department suffers loss’ immediately jumped out. As I read on, my worst fears were confirmed. The article explained that popular psychology professor Barry Beyerstein had passed away on June 25th while working in his office.

Professor Beyerstein came along at a time in my life when I was searching for meaning and direction. After completing my first semester in university as a film student and feeling unfulfilled, I had taken time off to reassess my goals. Upon my returning to university, I took a class with Professor Beyerstein as part of my lower level credit requirements. That semester marked the beginning of that charmed time I had as a student, the beginning of my academic career in earnest, not as a film student but as an aspiring business major.

The content in Professor Beyerstein’s introductory psychology class was lighthearted but illuminating. It touched on everything from the occult, UFOs, alternative cures and other topics. I poured myself into his thick stacks of assigned readings. I found them 'fun' as the subject matter was always about debunking a well-established myth or a common fallacy of human perception. Those four months in the fall of 2000 I spent in Professor Beyerstien's lectures contain some of my best memories on campus. I looked forward to class and devoured his homework.

As the bus snaked through the winding mountain pass cut around the back of the campus, towards the final stop before descending from the hill top university, I look out in the crowd of students waiting at the bus stop and I think to myself that these students, all fresh faces in their teens and twenties, will not have the chance to study under Barry. The bus is pulling away now, speeding around the west mall complex. I was reminded of all the events that transpired in that building when I was a business major. The computer lab I virtually lived in during my management science course, the cafeteria where I hang out with my group members to discuss the details of our projects, and the place where I hid myself in between classes to catch up on my reading.

I credit Professor Beyerstein for helping me reach my academic goals, for opening my mind not as a matter of getting good grades, but by approaching all arguments and all claims made with a healthy dose of scepticism. And above all, he taught me to use logic and reason as a basis of conducting my daily affairs.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Frank Miller's 300 and My Computer

Frank Miller's 300 was a disappointing experience, I left the theatres feeling empty. The pretty comic book images failed to light the fire inside me. The theatre I went to was packed with young movie goers, the target demographic for this film. In 2000, the film print of Gladiator melted right before my eyes halfway into the movie. The audience groaned and I could feel the palpable electric aura being sucked out of the room as the screen went black and the lights came on. There was none of that with 300. Despite cheers and some claps in the end, even the audience itself failed to give off the sense that we just witnessed a milestone movie.

I do not wish to condemn 300 as a failure. It is a beautiful picture and for those unfamiliar with Leonidas' legendary defense at Thermopylae, the story may offer unknown twists that titillate the audience. Pretty images abound. Early in the movie, there's a shot of the Spartans, their backs to the camera, standing on the shores amidst a pouring storm, Persian ships smashing into the rocks. For that brief moment, I felt like I was witnessing a live action painting complete with images of the angry sea crashing against rocks, ocean spray exploding onto the screen and the scarlet cloaks of the Spartan soldiers bathed in the dark blue tones of the night.

Some commentators, knowing the digital nature of the film, have been quick to condemn the overuse of the green screen and lambasted the movie as aspiring to becoming a 'videogame'. I note however that few critics were eager to criticize Sin City for the same sins, even though the film was shot with the same technology. Those gamers amongst us also know that 300's visuals aspires to become its graphic novel source material, and not computer generated images controlled with a gamepad.

The film's problem wasn't its computer generated imagery, nor its sets, nor the acting. It was its slavish devotion to the graphic novel. The cuts between the battle and the homefront in the middle of the movie did nothing for me. A friend who viewed the film with me noted that he felt the battles in 300 were incoherent and lacked a smooth narrative flow. Ridley Scott's shaky -cam opening battle sequence for Gladiator had a stronger narrative than the battles in 300, which consisted mostly of stabbing motions, slowmo swishing and stylistic blood spurts.

In contrast Robert Rodriguez's Sin City was composed of three interconnected short stories plucked from a larger pool of stories in his original Sin City graphic novel. There is a richness to the universe in that movie, and one could feel inside that world, there are stories unknown and untold to the audience because we only glimpse three events in a much larger tapestry. 300 is a much more faithful retelling of its original source and one wonders if there really was enough material in Miller's original work to fill a two hour movie.

Shifting gears, I want to make note that my computer of three and a half years had to go in to the shop for serious repairs and is the cause for my insomnia tonight. I really didn't appreciate how much a machine did for me when it was there in my room, humming all day and night. I tried to go to sleep and couldn't. It was too quiet.

I spoke with the computer technician who is trying to fix it, and from what I'm told I'll need a new motherboard and power supply. My harddrives appear to be ok, but the C drive may have to be wiped to re-install Windows as my original settings were tied to the old motherboard. That's all I know at this point and I'm hoping that's all that is wrong with it. I've been promised tentatively that I'll have my computer back this afternoon.

Then I have to go through the task of re-installing a lot of my programs, and Final Fantasy XI tops my list. Not being able to drop my adventuring fellows a note of my absence is difficult, not being able to check the auction house is an added inconvenience, but ultimately I just want to make sure nothing was gummed up and that the game can run fine after this fix. Sadly, the installation process could take hours and I won't even know until after I've installed the game and updated it with the latest patch. Before I can worry about all that, I need to have my computer back with a clean bill of health and I'm not even 100% on that at this point.

The wait is pure agony. Although I don't consider it a living thing, a friend, a pet or anything close, not having it evokes feelings that are reserved mostly for sick family members and loved ones. Today I feel like someone I know dearly went to the hospital and the doctors don't quite know what's wrong and I'm not quite sure if I'll get back the same person I know after all is said

Monday, February 12, 2007

Rome Picks Up

**Spoiler Warning**

I’ve wavered for a bit about Season 2 of HBO’s ROME. After taking 2006 off, the series is back airing its first episode in January. The season premiere was explosive, as expected, then it went into a kind of a lull. The main character arcs got lost somewhere in the latter half of episodes 2 and 3, with the likeable Titus Pullo /Lucius Vorenus friendship being pulled apart as Vorenus is turned into a mob boss.

I felt as if HBO was paying too much of an homage to its other mainstay franchise, the Sopranos with that story arc. Unfortunately, as of episode 5 “Heroes of the Republic” the Lucius Vorenus gangster arc remains alive, but his friendship with Titus Pullo has been repaired and the thrust of the story shifts to the political manoeuvres which took place as Octavian Caesar rises to the top of the heap and the plotting that went on when he declared Brutus an enemy of the republic.

Cicero, leader of the Senate, initially welcomed Octavian’s victory over Marc Anthony, and thought the young Octavian could be controlled by the Senate. With Octavian’s surprise motion to declare Brutus an enemy of the state, Cicero calls Brutus and his armies back to Rome.

That’s where we are at right now. Those who cared to look up the wiki page on the history of the late Republic or is a student of history will know what happens next, but the second season has entered its most dramatic phase. The factual retelling of history builds the mileposts the series must hit on a narrative scale, but what draws me to the series are the little details between the characters and their reactions to the history unfolding around them.

My only concern with Rome is how the Pullo/Vorenus arc plays out. I don’t much care of Vorenus, the conservative family man, being portrayed as the head of what is essentially a crime family, and the story has signaled way too many times that Pullo and Vorenus may eventually end up on opposite sides of coming turmoil. Going down that path may be fatal for the series.

Killing of historical characters like Julius Caesar, masterfully played by Ciaran Hinds in season one, were necessities. However, I hope the series writers don’t screw up the Pullo/Vorenus arc or Rome may yet flounder.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Hotel Dusk – Final Impressions

I blogged about the then upcoming Hotel Dusk a month ago and its release has come and gone. Although the game appears to have a limit print run, I was able to snag a copy at my local EB in late January.

Hotel Dusk Room 215, is in a word, brilliant. It is a classic noir tale spun into a masterfully designed DS game. The game isn’t perfect. Sprinkled throughout are a series of puzzles each with their own DS-specific ‘touch screen’ interface. They are quite literally mini-touch games in of themselves without hints as to how to control them. This ultimately leads to a lot of trial and error that can be frustrating.

The game’s strengths however is in its story telling and writing. Each of the more than 10 characters in the game has their own personality. The amount of text in this game is truly staggering. There are branching conversation paths, objects that can be examined and conversations with Kyle (the protagonist)’s home office which drives the story forward and keep the various disparate threads together.

Hotel Dusk takes place in the span of less than 10 hours inside on run-down hotel, and in this context, the scale of the game is quite huge. The hotel is slowly unlocked room to room and the chapter system breaks down the game narrative into hour long or half-hour long chunks. It truly is a lot like a ‘24’ style game, albeit players can spend as much time as they need on a chapter.

Although Kyle Hyde’s drive to find the partner he shot 3 years ago (Bradley) is what kicks off the story, he and the player must ultimately unravel the secrets within the Hotel Dusk to complete the game. The writers managed to weave a tale so compelling that with few exceptions, each secret unraveled leads the player (and Kyle) one step closer to solving the mystery behind Bradley and his involvement with a shady art-theft ring called Nile.

The game also features a very impressive visual style. The visuals are a mixture of watercolor studies reminiscent of architectural or industrial design and pencil on paper sketchpad animation. There’s also a fairly sturdy 3-D engine representing the entirety of the hotel environment players can explore. The 3-D environments themselves are textured in a watercolor look with the colors fading into white on the edges of a surface. The walls and floors also feature a distinctive gradient look as if painted over repeatedly by an unseen artist trying to create lighting through darker and softer tones of a hue.

The game’s graphical star however is the character animations. Oft referred to as being inspired by A-HA music video, I prefer to describe them as being animated sketchpad drawings. The ‘sketch’ look and the twitchy wavy lines lends the character life, even as the characters are standing still. Each of the characters also have a full repertoire of animated expressions, from glee, sadness, anger, denial among others which aids in characterization and makes this fairly 'old school' way of doing things superior to 3-D facial models or other more advanced techniques. The nuances that an animated character portrait allows for makes this game's characters seem authentic.

Hotel Dusk is a fantastic mystery novel in game form and it’s well worth its low price. Grab this game when you find it in stores. It probably won’t be very plentiful in used stores in the future given its apparent limited availability. If you want to know more about this game, check out its official website.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Twilight Princess - A Visual Game

40 hours in, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is just as good as I had imagined. It is rare in this day and age for hyped products (and Zelda certainly is hyped at least among gamers) to live up to expectations. The game isn’t perfect, and I had wished Miyamoto had listened to his team members for creating a Twilight Princess SP version for Wii owners, but that's really a minor quibble and gives me something to look forward to in their next Wii-specific Zelda title.

The challenge is there, and obviously this game is not ‘hardcore’ hard, it’s accessible enough for any able men and women (also children, never forget them) who are willing to tackle this gargantuan quest. My early worries about the ‘standard’ right-handed Wii-mote controls being impossible for me as a lefty has been disproved. But then again I’m a life long right-handed mouse user and found pointing the Wiimote right handed to be very natural and intuitive.

But what I want to talk about today is the look of the game. Visually, everything I had hoped in my wildest dreams as a teenager 10 years ago writing for Nintendojo with Michael Veroni has been put into the game. In 1997, before The Ocarina of Time was released, my only frame of reference for how a it would feel to play a 3-D Zelda game was to look at some of the production paintings for A Link to the Past and the official art found in the Nintendo Power Player’s Guides.

Several images have always stuck with me. There was the picture of Link standing on top of Death Mountain looking down at Hyrule below, and perhaps the most striking image is that of a the Master Sword resting on its pedestal deep in the a verdant forest sanctuary, with beans of sunlight filtering through the forest canopy. Then there were the images from the official player’s guides that were not only artistically beautiful but embodied the look and feel of a true 3-D Zelda game. The scale of the images were epic and cinematic. I remember the picture of Link climbing on top of a rock outcrop only to discover the entrance to the a temple ruin and another one of Link hiding behind a half broken pillar, bow ready, while Ganon in his beast form stalks him.

In 3-D however, I was never quite pleased with Ocarina of Time’s handling of many of Zelda’s elements. The famous Lost Woods was turned into a series of boxed rooms with forest wall textures, and the Master Sword was found in the temple of time instead. In fact, while Ocarina of Time was visually great in 1998, many of the epic images I had of what a Zelda game should look like in 3-D were never realized. In Wind Waker (2003), the toonshaded look and limited selection of dungeons as well as the game's context (sailing between islands) failed to tap the GameCube's power to project the epic images of the artwork that have always stuck with me.

Thankfully it is in Twilight Princess that series producer Shigeru Miyamoto and director Eiji Aonuma finally put many of the elements into place. The Master Sword can now be found in its home inside the great forests of Hyrule. The landscapes of Hyrule have finally come alive, bloom lighting and all.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Hotel Dusk

If you were to ask a hardcore gamer why they think the Nintendo DS is such a huge hit in Japan and is increasingly pulling away from its rival in the West, they will probably point to the new Mario game, lots of software for big name third parties (specially Square-Enix), and non-games, a new genre of games loosely connected as games that appeal to people who don’t normally play games which has expanded the market and allowed Nintendo to tap into entire demographics (older gamers, girls and women).

The other side of the story however is a growing library of demographic specific titles such as the upcoming Hotel Dusk: Room 215 (known as Wish Room in Japan) which brings back the point and click style ‘adventure’ games that were all the rage on the PCs in the early to mid 90s.

The move over to massively multiplayer and first person games on the PC have driven out the franchise, and adventure games have never found a home on consoles, which in the 90s, at least in the west, was dominated largely by twitch platformers and combat games.

Hotel Dusk is a mystery adventure story set in America during the late 70s and is developed by a small Japanese development house called CING for Nintendo. It features an eye catchy art style with game’s cast of characters portrayed in a pencil on paper 'flip book' animation style. The exploring in contrast is done inside richly textured interactive 3-D environments. This game is full of atmosphere. I love the setting, it has that 80s-style Hollywood noir movie feel to it.

As an aside, CING also developed the relatively short adventure, Trace Memory for Nintendo as part of the DS launch library. The game was criticized at the time for being too simple and short and may have been targeted to a younger audience. As the DS audience has grown however, and Nintendo found many older gamers have picked up a DS, Hotel Dusk appears to be more compatible with my tastes.

Catch the Japanese trailer here. If you have a good eye, you can also catch a glimpse of the De Niro look-alike.