Sunday, June 30, 2013

Return the Jedi To Sender

The Face of Episode 6

About two months ago on May the 4th, I promised to give an intellectual review of the socio-politcal themes in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, especially in Revenge of the Sith; while I’m still commited to writing said article, I’ve determined to postpone its publication to be a feature in a special week of sci-fi reviews (among which I’ll provide commentary on The Matrix, The Truman Show, Tron: Legacy, Transformers, and Inception).  In the stead of the aforementioned post, I’ve decided to fling dirt at one of the less honorable members of this legendary franchise, but rather than repeating old talking points and ridiculing either the first or second episode for the eleventy-first time, I’ve opted to do something novel and take aim at something normally regarded as inviolable Star Wars material.  Return of the Jedi not only boasts the worst title of all the series’ entrants (except the New Hope rebrand issued in advance of the prequels), but laid the foundation for those elements that viewers so reviled in The Phantom Menace.  It’s a great shame that an overpowering nostalgia has blinded fans to the sins of the former movie while leading them to lavish the latter with relentless loathing.

Episode 6 sets a precedent almost immediately for being unoriginal by opening on the desert world of Tatooine, the very planet that ushered in Luke Skywalker, Ben Kenobi, Han Solo, and Chewbacca in the first film.  At least Episode 1 took audiences to some new and imaginative locations like the underwater Gungan city, the elegant palace of Naboo, and the towering cityscapes of Coruscant, albeit with an appropriate detour to Mos Espa for the sake of revealing Anakin’s origins.  Bounty hunter Boba Fett has frozen the dashing, heroic smuggler Han Solo in carbonite and delivered him into the hands of the lascivious, slave-driving, gigantic slug Jabba the Hutt, a kind of unacknowledged precursor (or evolutionary descendant, from a historical context, to the universally maligned Jar Jar Binks.  Luke, Leia, Threepio, and Artoo make an unsuccessful attempt to rescue their comrade, with the result that the droids are conscripted as waiters, Leia is infamously stripped down to a bikini (Hutts have such a lowly sense of fashion), and Luke is nearly fed to a monstrous Rancor in one of the film’s only noteworthy scenes.  Fortunately, Lando Calrissian has their back, and with his help they’re able to rendezvous with the Rebel Alliance and travel to the forest moon Endor, the site of a newly constructed Death Star which they’ll blow up yet again after enlisting a tribe of sentient, droid-deifying teddy bears to aid them in their resistance against hordes of Imperial scum and villainy, whose blasters, speeder bikes, and walking tanks will be crushed beneath the natives’ impressive arsenial (that’s how debaters pronounce it, right?) of sticks, stones, logs, nets, and overwhelming cuteness.  Who needs boomas when you have an army of living stuffed animals that bear the visage of their creator, George Lucas?  As the Ewoko Birds fight stormtrooper drones on the ground and Admiral Ackbar navigates his Rebel starfleet right into a trap outside the Death Star remake, Luke engages Darth Vader in single combat for a second time, except this time he blabbers to his dad about how “there’s still good in him” while they fight to the death, or more precisely to the pain, the pain of losing another hand and enduring the shrieks of women who cry out, “Dear God, what is that thing?”  Luke himself swears, “I won’t fight you, father,” but fight he does, until the generically evil Emperor gives him quite a shock and Vader ‘redeems himself’ by bringing balance to the Force he once left in darkness.  The whole affair concludes with a joyous celebration in the teddies’ treehouse village, complete with dancing and the most obnoxious song in the whole Star Wars galaxy.

Return of the Jedi obviously wasn’t going to live up to the phenomenal Empire Strikes Back or even the original Star Wars, but few spectators anticipated how far it could really fall.  People will eternally mock the kiddy-friendly, quasi-racist creatures of The Phantom Menace, and while George Lucas certainly deserves rebuke for conceiving such revolting specimens as the Gungans and Neimodians, his record for animating “pathetic lifeforms” has firm roots in the original trilogy and specifically Episode 6.   From Jabba’s entourage of exotic, Twilek dancers and Muppet look-alikes to the cuddly, forest-dwelling dwarves of Endor, Return of the Jedi contributes more abominations to the sci-fi universe than the whole prequel trilogy combined (unless you count humans like Padme or Anakin).

The movie’s dialogue is insipid as usual, and the plot suffers from a lack of focus or concision.  Return of the Jedi essentially abandons the love story between Han and Leia that swept fans away in Empire Strikes Back, choosing rather to endorse an almost incestuous relationship between Luke and Leia and bestial romance involving the princess and a particularly handsome Ewok, who dies to every sensitive, Christian parent’s relief.  Yodi and Obi-Wan are briefly injected into the screenplay but get virtually no screen time, foiling the hopes of fans who enjoyed their more prominent roles in the first two movies.  Instead of developing these Jedi more extensively or other returning characters like Han, the Emperor, or Lando, Lucas and fellow writer Lawrence Kasdan devote most of the film’s script to introducing new heroes and villains that nobody cares about, a course that doesn’t work well in the final installment of a series.

Even though it closes out the trilogy with a bigger budget and newer technology than was available for the first two films, Return of the Jedi has underwhelming effects and fails to meet the standard of realism set by its forerunners.  The speeder bike chases are hampered by bad blue screen, puppets look cheesy and idiotic, and the ridiculous, climactic battle on Endor only makes the audience appreciate how well executed the Hoth invasion was in Episode 5.  The stilted acting by stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher doesn’t help matters significantly.

Despite its numerous flaws, Return of the Jedi will doubtless entertain those of under a certain age, but those adults who don’t harbor overly sentimental memories of their childhood classics should easily recognize this as the menace it is, a disciple of the Dark Side and a steaming pile of poodoo that will make you exclaim/groan/spit:

The Author’s Star Wars hierarchy:
1. Revenge of the Sith (A-) – The most politically rich and tragic installment also boasts the most complex character development.  Ian Mcdirmiad’s disturbing and unforgettable portrayal of the manipulative tyrant Palpatine elevates this well above the rest of the series.
2. The Original Clone Wars (A-) – Loaded to the brim with superbly choreographed action and excellent, hand-drawn animation, this captures the essence of Star Wars’ appeal and magnificently paves the way for Revenge of the Sith.  Full review here.
3. The Empire Strikes Back (B+) – Taking the series in a dark direction and fleshing out its main characters better than the original, it still has one of the best plot twists in film.
4. Star Wars (B) – An invaluable contribution to the science-fiction genre, its visual wonders and captivating universe are weighed down by an obnoxious farm boy, a walking carpet, a hothead pilot, and some other oddball characters.
5. The Phantom Menace (B) – Has at once the best lightsaber fights and most annoying cast of the whole series.  Look, don’t listen.  If only the negotiations were more short.
6. The Return of the Jedi (C)
7. The Attack of the Clones (C-) – In order to see approximately 5 minutes of clone action and Jedi acrobatics, viewers have to sit through 2 hours of soppy romance, banal dialogue, and exposition.  On the other hand, Christopher Lee turns in a great performance as Count Dooku.
8. The CGI Clone Wars movie (D) – Five words: Ahsoka, Ziro, That Little Huttlett.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stupor 8

An old adage tells that imitation is the highest form of flattery, although upon further reflection it doesn’t always constitute the highest form of art.  Never does this postulate demonstrate itself more clearly than in J.J. Abram’s 2011 monster movie Super 8, a loving ode to Spielbergian thrillers that imparts a contagious nostalgia for the golden age of filmmaking but has no life of its own.  There’s nothing super about this mess other than the way its proves that men like Steven Spielberg occupy a unique class of talented, visionary individuals, a creative sect to which some people are predestined by nature and to which some men can only aspire.  Abrams deserves credit for reinvigorating the formerly lackluster (as far the movies go) Star Trek franchise and developing such sci-fi hits as Lost, but when it comes to crafting a emotionally taut and suspensful thriller, he can only emulate, never equal, Spielberg.

Super 8 concerns a circle of middle-school-age boys in the 80s who put meticulous thought and labor into producing an amateur zombie flick they hope to enter into a film festival.  Joe has recently lost his mother to a factory accident and for the most part his father to his duties as the town’s Deputy Sheriff.  To ease his loneliness, he pursues the hand of Alice, a new recruit to director Charles’ project and daughter of the town druggie who would have died in the place of Joe’s mom had his intoxication not prompted her substitution.  By an unfortunate turn of events, this friendship provokes the ire and disapproval of both fathers, who irrationally take their extreme hatred or remorseful indebtedness for each other as a legitimate warrant to disband the affectionate relationship their children share.  Ultimately, the whole “disconnected, mean parents” conflict becomes so exaggerated, gratuitous, and illogical that it appears to serve no real purpose besides justifying the disobedience and backtalking by their kids, a disagreeable and childish theme that’s been a Hollywood cliché for decades at this point.  Regardless of one’s beliefs on respecting one’s father and mother, courtship, and all tese tings, the romantic arc between Joe and Alice is unfortunately not the crux of the movie and really just poses a sideshow in the big picture, which is more focused on alien invasions, government conspiracies, and mysterious, inexplicable phenomena that occur in the city after a catastrophic train wreck, none of which will make much sense to anyone except Abrams and Spielberg, whose financial and creative support in producing this fiasco apparently flew in one window and out the other, leaving moments of brightness in an overall dark and incomprehensible story, an image that evokes the stirring allegory of the sparrow in Saint Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, from which this incredibly lengthy and daunting sentence could easily have been pulled.

It causes me great pain that I must so viciously condemn Super 8, because its core has all the elements of a great, Spielbergian drama: wondrous, alien creatures, flawed but potentially sympathetic characters, a good deal of suspense, and first love on top of it all.  It’s a deep tragedy that all these components get wasted in what turns out be a Spielberg wannabe instead of a film that’s worthy in itself.  The most glaring misstep in Super 8 lies in its characterization: none of this movie’s main characters, least of all the kids, are remotely likeable with the possible exception of its two young lovers, whom Abrams never develops sufficiently enough to really make the audience care for their plight.  As for the other child actors, their voices have hardly changed and yet they sling profanities at a near breathtaking rate, often cursing each other in their frustration at the movie’s slow progress.  As a consequence, I could hardly muster the slightest concern for this bunch of a-holes and $#*!heads, to use their own terminology, even as they were being hunted by ill-intentioned, military swine and a really pissed off E.T.  Thus the movie violates the first principle of effective thriller material in disavowing any characters the audience can relate to, a cinematic crime Spielberg and his writers were wise to avoid.  A true Spielbergian work features characters who are imperfect but redeemable, people whom the audience can root for and tremble with as they endure trials and tribulations; it’s clear from Super 8 that Abrams never understood or never bothered to heed this rule of thumb, as his screenplay serves up a horde of smartallecky, arrogant, rebellious, foul-mouthed ‘yutes’ with incompetent parents and simultaneously expects viewers to cheer these jerks along through their hardship.  To call this a losing formula for a horror film is an understatement.

However, thanks to its clumsy writing and editing, Super 8 doesn’t fall neatly under a single genre, as the whole thing feels like a haphazard, non-cohesive mesh of several different films that never pay off individually.  We have a horrific creature feature centered on an indistinct, constantly shrouded alien with ambiguous, unexplained powers, a possibly entertaining but unfortunately shallow movie about making movies, a melodramatic, Hallmark tearjerker about healing families, and a weakly written, forced love story that’s been executed better in Flipped, How To Train Your Dragon, A Walk To Remember, or even We Bought a Zoo, which also starred the irresistibly cute and gifted Elle Fanning without the corrupting presence of aliens, drugged-up dads, or the Air Force.  In trying to branch out and encompass multiple narrative trains, Super 8 inevitably crashes and fails to make any of these stories very satisfying.

Looking at the film from a visual angle, it’s obvious that Abrams was trying to mimic Spielberg’s signature cinematography by teasing the viewer with brief, limited shots of the creature throughout the movie, but he departs from Spielberg’s technique in that he neglects to eventually expose the monster in its full, terrifying glory.  Super 8’s own E.T. appears to be a hybrid of giant tarantulas and King Kong, but to describe it accurately is a difficult task, considering how it emerges only at night, when special effects are the cheapest and when dim lighting allows it to effectively hide from the view of any spectators.  Most of the camera work is just downright corny and almost parody-like; take, for instance, the scene where the cashier gets dragged along the ground by some unseen entity, or the part when the construction worker in the crane gets devoured off screen as the impenetrable tree tops thrash violently in front of him, conveniently obscuring his gory demise.  Super 8 takes too many cards from Jurassic Park and not enough from Jaws, indulging in PG, kid-friendly action and cheesy, off-camera deaths while spurning the older members of its audience, who craved more monster in this alleged monster movie.

If the film has one saving grace, it would lie in the better-than-average performances from its young cast, but good actors can not and should not exist in a vacuum.  Regardless of whether it’s a thriller, a horror film, a ‘coming-of-age’ drama, or a science-fiction action adventure, a successful movie consists of a compelling story, intriguing characters, capable direction, and strong technical composition, none of which Super 8 has in abundance.  E.T., go home already.  You’re gonna need a bigger movie.

Final rating: To quote the venerable Dr. Malcolm, renowned mathematician and expert in chaos theory, “This is one big pile of $#*!”

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Man of Steal's Stupid Conservatism

How could a movie with so much creative potential err so catastrophically into the realm of cliché?  This is just one of many questions left unanswered by the new Superman reboot, Man of Steel, a generic, comic book origin story so idiotic, pretentious, and trite that its failure surpasses even that of The Phantom Menace, making it the biggest disappointment in film history, at least for me.  Perhaps I should fault myself for expecting great, cinematic wonders from the director of that widely forgotten, laughable, Star Wars clone about talking owls; maybe I ought to indict the movie’s marketing team for creating such deceptively epic trailers that lured me and millions more into the theater with promises that we’d be seeing a Superman equivalent of the Dark Knight films.  My gosh, we were played.  Had I not watched this with a friend and enjoyed mocking it throughout, I would be positively incensed at Man of Steel, a mess of monumental measure about an element that, like krypton and midichlorians, isn't even on the periodic table.

Spoilers abound, but the movie’s crap, so you shouldn’t see it anyway.

By the 15-minute mark I realized that Man of Steel was not the same movie promoted in the commercials. It opens on the war-torn, alien world of Krypton, where the evil General Zod has rebelled against his people’s authority in a relentless search for some thingamabob called a codex, by which he resolves to save his planet somehow, but not without killing a lot of fellow citizens in the process.  Key to his efforts is an infant boy named Kal-El, the only son of Krypton’s chief scientific officer who stands apart from all the planet’s other denizens in that he was born to his real parents out of the natural process, rather than grown in a tank and engineered to fulfill a preordained role in his community.  Yeah, the whole backstory essentially plagiarizes The Giver and Brave New World, not that the average, low-information moviegoer cares.  Unfortunately for Zod, Jor-El sends his son away in an escape pod bound for earth, whose inhabitants should be intelligent enough to foster him.  Zod murders Jor-El, Krypton’s Council leaders lock him up in space, and Kal’s home planet blows up for some incoherent reason in a CGI explosion that was better portrayed in Star Wars.  Meanwhile, Kal’s pod finds its way to Smallville, Kansas, where he’s adopted by the amiable Kents and struggles to fit in with human society without exposing his true nature, which his father Jonathan (who's apparently a dog-lover, even to the death) believes man is not yet ready to see.

When he attains the age of 33, Kal or Clark sets out for the Arctic to investigate the crash site of a Kryptonian vessel, where he meets Lois Lane from The Daily Planet, learns his origins through the spirit of his father, and acquires the iconic Supersuit that wards off bullets, metal beams, and tons of concrete, but apparently not the sharp edge of a dagger, as proven in the opening sequence.  In snooping about, though, Clark inadvertently triggers a signal that summons Zod and his vengeful retinue of alien insurgents to earth. Megatron – I mean Zod – hopes to use a powerful cube – eh, codex – to rebuild CyberKrypton on the ruins of earth’s fallen cities, because as every villain knows, it’s not enough to simply terraform the planet to suit his needs – he has to DESTROY everything first, which is exactly what the Decepticons – Zodcons, sorry – do for the final hour and a half of this ridiculously bloated picture.  Eventually the General retrieves the codex he so desperately desires, which thereupon kills him until he can be resurrected at the bottom of the sea in the next Superman movie.  In my mind, it’s outrageous that so many movie ‘critics’ would lambaste Oblivion for drawing on general, science-fiction themes but altogether ignore that almost the entirety of this flick's plot is stolen right out of better movies that preceded it.

There aren’t many things to compliment about Man of Steel besides the costume work, which renounces the cheesy, comic book look for a more gritty, mature design in line with recent superhero films, and Hans Zimmer’s heroic score, which is nevertheless poorly mixed with the film and gets rather repetitive.  The acting is also OK given the stark simplicity of the script.  Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon are perfectly one-dimensional in their white and black parts, Amy Adams is appropriately obnoxious as the Pulitzer-prize winning elitist Lois Lame, who has no purpose other than to be eye-candy and an incentive for Kal’s hero work, and Russell Crowse turns in a good, Gladiator-recycled performance as the illusively wise Jor-El (“He could save others from death, but not himself…”).  Laurence Fishburne, a.k.a. Morpheus, is also thrown in here for basically no reason other than to slap his name on the poster.

Due to the staggering number of flaws behind this movie’s production, it’s hard to find a starting point from which to articulate its filth.  I’ll begin with the editing: Man of Steel’s narrative is structured sloppily from start to finish, jumping from Superman’s life as a scraggy-bearded 20-something to his present state to his trauma in 3rd grade to his present state to his teenage years to his present state to his middle school hardship to his present state and back again.  Not only did the constant flashbacks and flashforwards drive me and my friend nuts, but they detracted from the characterization of Kal and his parents while diverting time from background exposition that would have better clarified the motives of the antagonistic Zod, who seems to act out of blind fury and not much else.  The movie suffers from a kind of instinctive compulsion to fit an action sequence into every ten minutes of film: even when Supes isn’t “saving the world” from flying alien marauders, he’s so occupied with rescuing oil rig workers, rescuing school bus passengers, and rescuing overly inquistive, attractive reporters that he has virtually no time to shape out a real, Aristotelian identity.  His essential characteristic is simply to be super, to thwart one evil foe after another in some of the most lengthy and chaotic fight scenes ever captured; as for his accidental characteristics, Kal-El is never really distinguished from any other generic, superpowered good guy.

Next, I must address the movie’s story.  Although Christopher Nolan was credited for co-writing the general story and producing the film, David S. Goyer was primarily responsible for the final screenplay, and man, does it stink.  Man of Steel has traces of Nolanian drama but handles its socio-political themes so poorly that it just comes across as Stupid Conservatism.  The film takes aim at population control, social engineering, racism, moral relativism, Darwinists, and collectivist Utopians, but never does so that thoughtfully or persuasively, lending itself more to the denomination of Rah Rah than Intellectual Conservatism.  Most often its patriotism is just corny and nonsensical: “General, I grew up in Kansas.  I’m about as American as you can get.”  I grew up in California – I should be as un-American as you can get. The characters are all stereotypes, with Supes representing the flawless, heroic, American ideal and Zod embodying a kind of eugenicist, Democrat fascist who “takes every action for the greater good of his people” and drags around a genocidal twit named Faora who boasts about her evolutionary advantage over Kal, specifically her lack of a moral compass.

Then there’s the obvious Jesus ‘allegory’ that’s shoved in the audience’s face for the whole movie, a connection with too many holes to note.  Kal was conceived by a miracle and sent to earth as a child so that he would be “a bridge between two peoples” and “a god to us”, someone who would “give us an ideal to strive towards” and “in time, help us accomplish wonders”.  Most of the Gospel's components are here, but none of them make sense in the larger scope of the plot.  Kal’s arrival on earth was designed not so that he could point men towards God, but so that he could prevent them from repeating the mistakes of God.  In her last minutes, Kal’s biological mother urges him to make earth a better world than Krypton, to stop humanity from building heaven anew.  Later in the film, Jonathan Kent advises his son against pursuing his destiny as the world’s savior, lamenting that men will reject him out of fear.  “What was I supposed to do, let them die?”  “Maybe.”  Mr. Kent’s stance was apparently unfounded, because his son never really endures any persecution beyond his youthful days, when bullying is common for all, alien or not.  On the contrary, Kal is neither beaten nor crucified, but exhalted as a hero by almost everyone he encounters.  Nor has he come to save men from their own sin and fallenness, but from some crazy alien bent on wreaking havoc and destruction across the globe.  The religious symbolism is stupid at best and preachy at worst. Contrary to the mainstream media narrative on this film, Man of Steel's inherent fault is not that it's a self-serious, gloomy comic movie; after all, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films rank among the best comic movies ever made not in spite of their dark, provocative themes, but because of them.  Man of Steel's true failure is that it's a vapid, childish cartoon that takes itself seriously even though there's nothing serious about its story.

Another element of Nolan’s movies that’s absent here is his witty dialogue.  I’d best let this film’s screenplay speak for itself:

* “Now that we’re done measuring (male body parts you can “use as a pencil” – name that movie.), let’s…” ~ Loser Lane.  I can only remember the first part of the line, for obvious reasons.
* “You're a monster, Zod, and I'm gonna stop you.” ~ Clark Can't
* “I was bred for this!  I was trained all my life to be a warrior!  Where did you train?  A FARM?!” ~ General Sod
* “Mom, I found my parents. I know now where I come from.”  “Honey, that’s wonderful.  I’m so happy for you.” Something like that. ~ Clark and Marth Kent
* “What are you looking at?”  “Nothing, sir.  I just think he’s hot.” ~ Some military guy and some military gal.

In spite of his project’s inane dialogue and undisguised, pathetic attempt at moralizing, Zack Snyder could still have redeemed Man of Steel through his approxmiately $200M budget, but those funds appear to have been wasted.  The movie is filled to the brim with shaky and swoopy camera, the like of which one would attribute to a cheap horror film instead of a blockbuster action picture that can actually afford to shock and awe its audience with cinematic wonders.  When the clumsy, Hunger Games-esque cinematography complements the frenetic, Kryptonian battles that emphasize armored boxers zipping and flying around faster than the eye can track, the result is an action-heavy movie in which one can barely see the action. In those rare instances when the camera’s standing reasonably still and the special effects are actually discernible, the use of CGI is so over-the-top as to rid the given scene of all credibility.  For instance, the movie culminates in a predictable attack on New York City by Zod and his alien armada; whole skyscrapers are leveled, roads are torn up, and chaos reigns for at least half an hour, but none of the destruction looks remotely realistic because it was all made in a computer program.  Although the devastation in Man of Steel has ten times the scale of anything in The Dark Knight, the hospital explosion in the latter film is far more authentic and memorable because it actually happened.  The former is sub-par even among largely digital movies, as last year’s The Avengers featured a similar climax with CGI galore and still trumps this current-day tripe for realism.  Furthermore, Man of Steel’s special effects are completely unoriginal and derivative of better sci-fi works.  Not only does it steal the squid-like sentinels and human embryos encased in red chambers from The Matrix, but it also takes the space drill from 2009's Star Trek and the multi-headed Scylla machine from Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  “Ripoff, dude, not cool.”

In fact, just about the whole movie feels like a ripoff, dude, a mimicry of superior movies that offer more entertainment value and more engaging stories for less money at home.  Man of Steel has measured its d___ against the greatest and been found wanting.  In what world could this have ever been an ideal to strive towards?

Grade rating: C-

Trailer Reviews
Grown-Ups 2 - Adam Sandler still isn't grown up.
Despicable Me 2 - "Who are you texting?"  "My friend Avery."  "Avery... is that a girl's name or a boy's name?"  "Does it matter?"  "No, no, it doesn't matter unless IT'S A BOY!"  I chuckled at that line.  The rest of the movie looked dumb.
Paranoia - Gratuitous, shirtless shots of Miley Cyrus' boyfriend, Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford, incoherent subject matter, and lots of fighting - for just whom is this being marketed?
Turbo - Lo and behold, another talking animal movie with overpaid celebrity voice actors about believing in yourself, following your heart, and making all your dreams come true.
World War Z - CGI zombies will never be as scary as makeup ones.  Empirical proof: I Am Legend.  Then again, this is a PG-13 zombie movie, so it's not supposed to be scary anyway.
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug - Granted, Legolas is cool, but he's not from the book, just like approximately 90% of this trailer's contents.  Damn you, Harry Potter, for starting this stupid, show-splitting trend.
300: Rise of an Empire - Also has nothing to do with the book and probably very little to do with history. Looks visually stylish like its predecessor but will probably flop without the involvement of Frank Miller or direction of Zack Snyder.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Xbox No Fun – Preliminary Review Of Something I'll Never Actually Buy

The differences between Microsoft and Apple are many, but the biggest distinction among these two companies probably boils down to their philosophy on customer service: Apple consistently delivers its consumers everything they want, nothing more, while Microsoft habitually offers consumers nothing they want, and much more.  Apple reliably rehashes its main products every year, maintaining the core of their appeal to successfully coax millions of buyers into emptying their wallets for essentially the same thing they purchased last year, whereas Microsoft always endeavours to sell its fans goodies and packages they don’t really want in order to inflate the prices of their wares.  This tendency of Bill Gates’ giant industry has exhibited itself numerous times in the past, from the numerous, unsolicited ‘upgrades’ to its once user-friendly Word program, the deservedly maligned, tablet-like revamp of its Windows 8 operating system, and its frequent efforts to transform the Xbox 360 from a gaming console into a social-media platform, but all of these transgressions are overshadowed by Microsoft’s latest center of controversy, the Xbox One, a system so hostile to the desires and interests of the corporation’s consumers that its absurdity makes a mockery even of the infamous Windows Phone.

The Xbox One separates itself from the pack of next-generation consoles in its attempt to unite and integrate multiple forms of media entertainment, among them television, social media, and Skype, along with the traditional video games which are, of course, the only reason people buy an video gaming system in the first place.  Those who still have an interest in recording their entire lives for the amusement of total strangers on Facebook, Google Plus, Yahoo!, or any other sites that now relay countless articles of personal information straight to Obama’s office will gladly use a computer with a keyboard or perhaps a phone to accomplish that purpose.  Entering or reading text on a big screen with nothing more than some analog sticks, triggers, and buttons is cumbersome and awkward; even more awkward is the practice of talking to one’s screen to execute simple functions better done in silence with a keyboard.  Microsoft’s past experiments in putting ‘apps’ on the 360 have proven at best unpopular and at worst maddening, as gamers who use Xbox Live are constantly frustrated by the arbitrary task of downloading menial, 45-minute updates so that they can use all manner of worthless diversions like Instagram, Pandora, ESPN, and CNN, when all said gamers want to do is play online or browse the marketplace for games.  In marketing its new product as an all-inclusive ‘entertainment system’ and shoving tons of extra junk down the throats of current 360 owners, Microsoft has evidently overlooked the difference between apps and applications: the former term is abbreviated for a reason, specifically because it’s too simple and archaic to be suitable for a real computer, thus being relegated to handheld devices, rather than to home PCs, laptops, or powerful gaming machines.  Some might assert that these secondary attractions are entirely optional and just constitute more bang for the consumer’s buck, but these features are better seen as less bang for more buck.  All these distractions and alternative entertainment venues just serve to artificially inflate the XB1’s price tag far above its actual value to its primary users; moreover, both empirical examples from the Live member’s 360 experience and Microsoft’s current emphasis on tailoring the new Xbox to the user (by tracking his patterns and behavior – more on that later) demonstrate it will be impossible to avoid dealing with these social apps altogether.

Microsoft has rarely existed on the cutting edge of societal evolution, often electing to follow the course of Apple instead of being truly innovative (and I speak as a Windows pre-8 fan).  When the company’s creative directors do try to sail new technological waters, they often sacrifice functionality for originality, giving the world such embarrassments as the Kinect under the pretense that people have no conscience for social propriety (OK, most don’t) and enjoy dancing, pretending to be animals, or using The Force in front of their television (again, most don’t).  The XB1 seems poised to continue that record of creative stupidity, offering a slew of conveniences that no one wants or needs.  Microsoft has boasted about its hardware’s ability to swap in between different programs without losing progress in any of them, claiming that players can effectively pause their game, open Skype and talk to their friends, then return to the game at a later time with the press of a button.  This seemingly revolutionary design was actually invented long ago and is commonly referred to as ‘windows’; likewise, the concept of talking to friends while gaming was introduced and developed many years ago with the advent of headphones and chat integration.  The idea of swapping between a game and TV instantly is admittedly novel, if silly and unwarranted.  The ludicrous assumption that people sit down on the couch, pick up a controller, and turn on their television to play a video game for 5 minutes before switching to some other media, e.g. a social network, an e-magazine, or a video streaming site, misconstrues the roles that gaming consoles and cell phones play in peoples’ lives.  Xbox owners don’t fire up Halo or Call of Duty to shoot cannonballs at enemy forts as they sit on the toilet, order their fast food, or wait for their friends to pull up something on their phones (because that’s how people socialize/kill time nowadays – they show each other crap on their phones).  Whether one uses a Wii, PS3, XB360, or PC for electronic gaming, he most often plans to utilize his console for extended periods of time, rather than as a temporary amusement while he’s otherwise occupied.  Microsoft mistakenly presumes that serious gamers have even the slightest desire to juggle multiple applications, or apps to be precise, at once, when just the opposite is true.  People absorb themselves in video games to focus their senses on a single object, to isolate themselves from the world at large, and to escape from multi-tasking, one of the many bothers associated with working.  The XB1 hurls that concept under the bus and costs an enormous sum as a result.

By far the most egregious offense of the Xbox One is its disturbing intent to extract personal information about the user by observing his habits and studying him through the camera Kinected to the console.  The acknowledgment that unseen executives will be constantly monitoring the living rooms of their consumers is rendered even more unsettling by the revelation that Microsoft is transferring innumerable private documents and data to unelected, unaccountable, and morally bankrupt bureaucrats.  The XB1 will inevitably compound the crisis of federal corruption, giving power-hungry agents immeasurably more control over citizens and further manifesting the bleak vision of totalitarian government that George Orwell illustrated back in 1949.  What’s more, the justification for permanently fixing the Kinect attachment to the main hardware unit cannot be gleaned in light of the lackluster reception of the original, motion-tracking peripheral.  In truth, Xbox owners have little to no patience for jumping in front of or talking to their gaming set and are perfectly content to settle for a traditional controller with buttons and joysticks.  If such people were interested in playing motion-based games, they would buy a dinky, family-oriented Wii instead of an Xbox or Playstation, both of which cater more to adult audiences – better yet, they would grab a ball or an Airsoft gun and play real, physical sports outside, as opposed to acting out a part in the narrow, sheltered confines of their homes.

In an unmitigated slight to its once broad fan base, Microsoft gives gamers a plethora of useless, unwanted features while denying them all their simplest requests.  Although the company has backtracked substantially in the past few days regarding the XB1’s inflammatory “always-online” requirement and support for used games, the exact status of both these issues remains dubious and less than clear.  PC gamers have been pestered and cheated in recent years by a surge in digital rights management, and the new Xbox appears to be adapting these restrictions to the console medium.  If one thing is certain, it’s that the next-gen system will not be compatible with 360 or original Xbox games, which means that nostalgic fans will be hard pressed to sell or trade in their older consoles without bidding farewell to some of their favorite games.

The Xbox Done is hardly the first time that Microsoft has flipped off its fans, but it may be the last FU we get from this specific console.  The PS4 has its own share of faults, mainly Sony’s idiotic belief that gamers like to ‘share’ their fictional feats with friends or use touch pads to play their big-screen titles, but at the moment it has a sizeable lead in this disappointing, next-gen race to profits.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Ms. Pac-Man – Life and Love Under Constant Surveillance

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book God, Philosophy, and Politics in the Golden Age of Gaming.

Every once in a while, there comes a blockbuster sequel that not only rivals but even surpasses its predecessor.  When Namco released the original Pac-Man arcade machine in 1980, gamers were so captivated by its revolutionary graphics, unforgettable sound work, and gripping drama that they thought video gaming had reached its pinnacle.  12 months later, Midway and Namco proved those speculations wrong with Ms. Pac-Man, a continuation of the epic series so profound in its message, so emotional in depth, and so astonishing in technical achievement that it remains unmatched to this day.  Ms. Pac-Man proved itself the arcade equivalent of The Dark Knight and rightly retains a broad fan base even as next generation games catch up to the vision and beauty it captured 30 years ago.

As many old-timers remember, Pac-Man ignited widespread controversy for its morbid, cynical tone and violent imagery; in contrast to family-friendly sports games like Pong and Pole Position or lighthearted alien invasion parodies such as Defender, Galaga, and Asteroids, Pac-Man was a dark and gruesome yet effective horror game that glorified revenge, rewarding players with bonus points for butchering their enemies as they fled and eating them in cold blood.  Because of his reactionary philosophy, Pac-Man became one of the most polarizing protagonists in all of fiction, revered by some for his undying commitment to justice (or his view of it) and reviled by others for his brutality and unsavory methods.  In fealty to its roots, Ms. Pac-Man retained the graphic, M-rated violence and nightmare-inducing specters of the first installment, but softened the brooding themes exponentially in conformity with its new, feminine protagonist.   While Pac-Man is aptly described as a thought-provoking crime thriller with supernatural elements, Ms. Pac-Man is better perceived as a romantic drama set in a dystopian universe, where the city’s communist thought-police perpetually try to separate two rebellious lovers, locked in an illegal union that defies the collective identity enforced by the ruling class.  Ms. Pac-Man more nearly conveys the tragic themes of George Orwell’s 1984 than any official adaptation, and its timeless elegy about forbidden love remains the most moving story in the history of video games (take that M.C. and Cortana!).  Many analysts have criticized the game for its unprecedented amount of explicit sexual content, with one writer for EvangelicalWeekly ranting, “Ms. Porn-Man has contributed more to the rise in illegitimate births, single-parent households, objectification in media, and general societal decay than any other factor, topping even Doom and Grand Theft Auto for moral depravity.”  Such scathing vitriol is no more than the sound and fury of closed-minded fundamentalists, whose intolerance blinds them to the poetry and beauty of the love that two Pacs share for each other, a love that’s threatened not only within the arcade machine but without it, where bigoted followers of Big Brother try to restrict romantic unions to those He deems healthy for Oceania.  Critics of Ms. Pac-Man’s romantic story couldn’t care less about the game’s prolonged sex scenes, for what truly irks them is the way their hateful ideologies are mirrored in the narrative, reflected in the villainous phantoms who strive to punish the star-crossed lovers for their deviant behavior.  Ms. Pac-Man is a richly provocative and deeply important relic of gaming’s Golden Age that’s been instrumental in effecting much of this country’s social progress.

Ms. Pac-Man’s cast deservedly swept the Academy Awards in its year, with Sigourney Weaver winning best actress for baring her soul and more as Ms. Pac-Man, Arnold Schwarzenneger receiving best supporting actor as her lover, and Clint Eastwood getting a nod as the nefarious and bloodthirsty Blinky, ringleader and chief officer of Pacland’s Inner Party guards.  The performances are arguably what most elevate Ms. Pac-Man above the original game, in which Schwarzenneger seemed uncomfortable and one-dimensional.  The addition of Weaver to the sequel helped immensely in exposing Pac-Man’s character (innuendo intended): no longer was Schwarzenneger just an angry face (literally), but a committed and protective partner who would fight the power for a reason greater than himself.

Ms. Pac-Man is still one of the most visually amazing games ever produced, so far ahead of its time that its graphics put even the biggest blockbusters like Halo 4 to shame.  Gamers’ first venture into the labyrinth of Pacland was spectacular in itself but fairly limited in comparison to the awesome open-world of the series’ 2nd entry.  While the domain of the first game’s plot was confined to a single, dilapidated ghost town, Ms. Pac-Man expanded the universe’s scope fourfold, enveloping players in a series of colorful city streets, hidden alleys, winding underground sewers, and ministry hallways, each level radically different from the last and featuring its own color scheme, architecture, layout, and police patrol routes.  As one dashes through the glowing, neon-streaked environments of a futuristic, totalitarian capitol, one can’t resist wondering how Midway compressed so much detail into one machine.  People don’t simply “play” Ms. Pac-Man – they immerse themselves in an alternate reality where they can experience the jolt of sharp turns and collisions, taste the finest fruits and delicacies, hear the approach of a half-dozen hostile guards, and feel the reassuring warmth of Pac-Man’s tight embrace, an indescribable bond between two individuals that a tyrannical regime vows to break.

Ms. Pac-Man is more than just a video game; it’s a heartrending, powerful, and epic masterpiece about the bliss two bodies derive from their union, and the strides of selfish men to tear that union apart.  In another life we’ll see a worthy conclusion to this trilogy.  But not yet... not yet.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Enslaved: An Odyssey Worth Taking

Ninja Theory’s futuristic, action adventure tale Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is the annoying kind of game that’s neither really good nor really bad, occupying that cursed realm of entertaining mediocrity that lends itself to drab and boring blog reviews.  On the one hand it offers decent graphics and a relatively interesting story, making it a fine product to watch, but on the other hand it’s handicapped by limited and repetitive mechanics, failing its burden to present an especially refined gaming experience.

Enslaved is supposed to be a science-fiction, post-apocalyptic retelling of an old Chinese folk tale, but I also noticed prominent echoes of the original Shrek throughout the game’s story.  150 years in the future, the earth has been ravaged by warfare and civilization been decimated at the hands of slave-drivers and vicious combat mechs.  The player controls Monkey, a drifting lone wolf who escapes a slave ship with a strange girl before it crashes headlong into the ruins of New York City.  Dazed by the hard landing, he awakens to find that the girl has strapped one of the slavers’ bands to his forehead.  The headband is an advanced piece of technology that subordinates Monkey’s will to that of the equipment’s programmer, Trip, who needs his guidance and protection to return to her self-sustaining community of “wind farmers” in the west (yeah, it has some veiled greenie undertones).  If Monkey tries to flee his captor or allows her to perish, the headband will administer a lethal shot to his cerebrum; he is, in effect, enslaved to her wishes.  “It seems I don’t have a choice,” he mutters, to which she remorsefully answers, “Neither of us do.”  Thus our acrobatic, ruthlessly violent Delivery Boy and his technologically savvy Princess embark on a dangerous journey across an America overrun by machines and consumed by nature.  Eventually they’ll join paths with a boorish but loyal cohort named Donkey – eh, Pigsy – whose machinery can aid them in their noble quest.

Enslaved’s writer, Alex Garland of 28 Days Later fame or lack thereof, finely manages the dynamic between the game’s central characters, which evolves from open hostility to mutual reliance and ultimate compassion for each other.  The character development stands out among other video games for its depth.  Monkey lives by a philosophy of grizzled and cynical realism that’s countered by the optimism and youthful hope of Trip.  The journey they share forces both protagonists to reevaluate their views.  Monkey’s encounter with Trip initially confirms his bleak worldview and hatred of mankind, but as their animosity turns to friendship he realizes that his former, universal pessimism was misplaced.  On the other side, as death and tragedy confront the two on their Odyssey, Trip discovers that her quasi-communist upbringing was a bitter fraud, a mask that sheltered her from the darkness of the real world.  The relationship between liberty and servitude is also explored through the story.  In the past, Monkey has led a life free from bondage but devoid of meaning, an existence that serves no purpose higher than his own survival against the elements.  When circumstance acquaints him with another person and mandates that he hazard his own interests for hers, Monkey comes to realize that his former, self-centered lifestyle was less noble than one given in service to another man, and that freedom is a mere vanity unless the individual employs it to a cause greater than himself.  Trip also misapprehends the principle of voluntary servitude when she forcefully enslaves her fellow man to escort her home, making a pragmatic decision upholding her selfish desires instead of a moral one respecting the liberty of others.  Neither traveler is likeable at first, but the player grows to care about them as they mature in wisdom and moral character, forming a committed fellowship and overcoming their original strife.

The most controversial part about Enslaved’s story is undoubtedly the ending, which seems at once thought-provoking, incomplete, and rather out of place.  Without spoiling everything, it calls into question the conflict between blissful ignorance and painful knowledge: ought one to take the blue pill and believe a beautiful lie or take the red pill and have a horrible truth weigh on his mind?  The concluding cinematic is certainly Matrixy in concept and imagery, but this philosophical topic is only introduced in the final 10 minutes, so it feels tacked-on and inconsistent with the story’s overall thematic direction.  The effect is that the ending steals the narrative spotlight from the two protagonists who have so far dominated it to focus on a lofty train of thought that lacks the sufficient buildup to be truly provocative, leaving players with an ambiguous resolution to the fates of Monkey and Trip.  Whether or not this will bug you depends on if you tolerate stories that are open to interpretation or demand a clear explanation of every conflict’s outcome.

As far as post-apocalyptic stories come, Enslaved is a remarkably vibrant and pretty vision of the future.  In contrast with Fallout- or Book of Eli-type stories that depict gray, lifeless plateaus devastated by human weaponry, the art designers at Ninja Theory imagine an earth where the absence of man has allowed plant life to overgrow and infest whole skyscrapers.  Textures do pop in and out regularly as the player traverses the game environment, yet it’s always tempting to stop moving and marvel at the beauty of the world presented in Enslaved.  The game’s characters were mostly created with motion-capture acting, and the animation looks fantastic save for some occasional facial glitches and lip-sync errors.  Andy Serkis is fine as Monkey and someone else I can’t disclose, although he’s honestly much superior in his more physical roles (Gollum, Kong, Caesar the chimp), and his co-star Lindsey Shaw is passable as Trip, despite her tendency to play the screaming, whiny damsel from some Indiana Jones flick.  The cutscenes and cinematic ‘finishing moves’ are what most impressed me about this game; directed in part by Serkis himself, the movie sequences of Enslaved have masterful cinematography and storyboarding.  The camera pulls back during action sequences, honing the full gravity of Monkey’s athletic, death-defying maneuvers or the sheer brutality of his oil-spraying violence against the machines, but zooms in during more emotional parts, allowing the actors to control the scene.  Enslaved is one of the more cinematic games I’ve ever played besides both Portals and Bungie’s later Halo installments.  If only it functioned better as a video game.

A strikingly vivid and gorgeous adventure, Enslaved is nevertheless weighed down by limited, monotonous gameplay.  Monkey has a total of about 16 attacks he can level against enemies, a paltry sum compared to the dozens of melee moves players can execute in either of the Batman Arkham games or practically any of the Star Wars lightsaber-focused titles.  The controls don’t always work properly, causing the player to somersault when he would jump or stop short when he would drop to a lower platform, although I did appreciate the usual inability to die by falling in Enslaved; the game has a lot of running and jumping in it, yet players need never dread an annoying plunge to their doom because they missed the mark by a fraction of a centimeter, an issue that plagues many other so-called ‘platformers’.  The computer-controlled enemies in Enslaved are nauseatingly stupid and never pose much of a challenge, often standing by and watching as Monkey pummels another member of their mech unit.  If you favor games that make you feel like a semi-invincible, unstoppable warrior, then you’ll probably enjoy this profusely.  If, however, you prefer to face A.I. opponents whose proficiency in battle rivals your own, then you’ll probably dislike the game’s combat.

Enslaved has the appearance and narrative length of a 2-hour movie, but inevitably loses steam as a 10-hour video game.  Still, for $10-15 it’s a bargain that’s mostly fun to play, fair to the eyes, and tells a decent story with a good dose of humor.  “I said this game is more incredible than my wildest dreams!”  “That’s not what you said.”

Final rating: 7/10

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Transformers: War for Cybertron

“Cybertron.  Our home.  For generations it has been a peaceful world, until pride and a lust for power divided us.  Now we fight, enemies who were once brothers.”  So laments Peter Cullen in his legendary ‘god voice’ for Optimus Prime in Transformers: War for Cybertron, the rare video game in a multimedia franchise that epitomizes everything nerds adore about that series.  Video game adaptations of movies or cartoons often fall short of their sources’ glory, but WFC shatters that tradition of disappointment, going so far as to surpass the later entries in Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy (soon to be quadrilogy), making it a worthy prequel to the excellent 2007 action film.  Developer High Moon Studios infused WFC with the series’ irresistible male appeal that transcends generations, focusing on robots smashing each other and wisely stripping the story of the annoying humans that weighed down ROTF and DOTM.  This is a nigh perfect game that will please not only Transformers fanatics but also those who can’t distinguish an Autobot from a Decepticon.

In breaking from my traditional, lengthy narrative paragraph, I will mostly defer to the opening cinematic of WFC, because it so brilliantly encapsulates the game’s conflict and overall production values.  WFC is a prequel to the Bay films and animated TV series, chronicling in detail the civil war that embroiled the Transformers’ home planet and impelled them to forge a new beginning on earth, where they’d gain renown as the Robots in Disguise.  The game’s early events are told from the perspective of the evil Decepticons, whose plots are spearheaded by the corrupt and power-hungry Megatron.  Against the will of the Autobots and the jealous Starscream, Megatron has obtained a mighty energy source called Dark Energon, which he conspires to use in the reconstruction of Cybertron to his utopian ideal, viz. a world rid of factions where the Decepticons can rule supreme without viable opposition.  The game also details how Optimus comes to be the Autobots’ last Prime and takes leadership in the vacuum left by their former head’s demise.   Character development is paper-thin as always, leaving players with a monumental yet downright simplistic clash between good and evil, which is exactly why people love Transformers – it’s stupid, escapist, comic book fun, best enjoyed on a large monitor with heavy doses of popcorn.  True to its heritage, the game also has a good deal of comic relief conveyed through hilarious if corny dialogue.  “It’s really quiet down here… too quiet.”  “And yet still preferable to your incessant chatter!”  Like the first movie in the series, WFC has a well-tuned, consciously juvenile sense of humor, something that the painfully serious DOTM threw out the window a year after the game’s release.

WFC is a visually breathtaking product that can easily compete with any of the Halo games for the level of detail and motion it can support on screen at a given moment.  The mechanical carnage ensuing from robots being wrecked leaves something to be desired, especially when compared with the extremely detailed, CG destruction in the movies, but everything else is almost jaw-droppingly impressive, from the background animations and character design to the extensive ‘acting’ by A.I. characters and the transformations themselves.  The art direction attractively blends the Generation One and Bayformer styles, fusing the colorful, cartoonish figures admired by old fans with the steely armor and gritty atmosphere that have won over new followers.  The sound effects are superb as usual for the franchise, and the voice actors do a great job with their parts.

Other reviewers have accurately described WFC as a Transformers-Gears of War hybrid, a 3rd-person shooter in which the player is pushed to the screen’s side and must rely on environmental cover to survive.  The main difference between the two games is obviously the component of driving in Transformers, which enables players to swiftly dart between pillars and formations to take shelter from enemy fire.  Complementing this mechanic with a broad selection of short- to long-range weapons and special abilities, WFC executes the combination of driving and shooting just about perfectly, giving players a broad array of ways to approach their battles and ensuring that the campaign is replayable for at least a few times.

Finally, I must briefly compliment the multiplayer mode included with the game.  Although I’m not an Xbox Live Gold subscriber and WFC lacks system-link support, I did manage to join the online mayhem one weekend and found the system to be quite intuitive and unique.  Like the Star Wars Battlefront games (the 3rd of which was just announced at E3), WFC employs a class-based model that divides Transformers into tanks, trucks, jets, and cars, all of which the player can customize aesthetically and practically to suit his preferred battlefield strategy.  Because the gameplay merges frenetic shooting and vehicle navigation, players waste minimal time running around the map looking for opponents and action is far more frequent than in many other shooters.  As an outlet for competitive gaming, WFC is a fine alternative to the more slow-paced, online matches that dominate Halo servers.

Transformers: War for Cybertron is far from the most revolutionary and intellectually challenging game in its storytelling, but it is exceedingly well designed and will greatly entertain the average shooter or Transformers fan, whether his car identifies as an Autobot, Decepticon, Coexisticon, or none of the above.  You may lose your faith in Dreamworks, but never in this game.  From here, the fight will be your own.

Final rating: 9/10

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Living on the Mirror's Edge

In the wake of recent disclosures that the Obama administration has ordered unrestrained and unprecedented seizures of private electronic records, the opening cinematic of DICE’s 2008 1st-person game Mirror’s Edge seems especially timely, depicting a scenario that’s disturbingly similar to modern America.  “Once the city used to pulse with energy – dirty and dangerous, but alive and wonderful,” narrates the game’s heroine Faith Connors to fleeting shots of ominous cameras and violent riots.  “Now it's something else.  The changes came slowly at first; most didn't realize, or didn't care and accepted them.  They chose a comfortable life.  Those who didn't conform were pushed to the sidelines, criminalized.  They became our clients.”  Faith’s description of a society that values comfort over privacy mirrors (shame on me) the current state of America, which is now torn between patriots who prize Constitutional liberty and those apathetic individuals who would let the government spy on them for a pretense of security against terrorist attacks.  The debate over 4th amendment rights and the appropriate extent of privacy dates back to the publication of George Orwell’s 1984 and bears serious ramifications for the fate of any free nation, so it’s a huge shame that Mirror’s Edge basically forgets about it for the vast majority of the plot, electing instead to follow a generic, “save the princess” outline that’s been told countless times in gaming.  However, I still enjoyed Mirror’s Edge considerably for what it is, a unique and immersive alloy of running-and-jumping platformers and 1st-person shooters.

The events of Mirror’s Edge are set in the near future and take place in a rigid police state that invasively monitors all of people’s electronic transmissions.  To circumvent the confiscation of their private documents, people rely on parkour masters called runners to deliver messages.  The player controls Faith, a seasoned runner who stumbles upon an elaborate mystery when she finds Mayoral Candidate Robert Pope assassinated in his office and her sister Kate framed at the scene.  In addition, she unveils a clandestine program called Project Icarus, developed to beat the runners at their own game through the training of police officers in free running and hand-to-hand combat.  It appears there’s a double agent in the runners’ ranks.  No longer concerned with just her own survival, Faith determines to traverse the city in a hunt for Pope’s murderer and the Icarus mole, hoping to save her sister and prevent the extermination of the runners.  From the roofs of the tallest skyscrapers to the depths of the underground sewers and railways, she’ll be pursued relentlessly by law enforcement personnel known in slang as ‘blues’, whose superior firepower may nullify her speed and agility.

To its credit, Mirror’s Edge excels at transporting the player into a believable setting and maintaining the illusion that he’s embodying another person, rather than simply pushing buttons on a controller.  The 1st-person perspective of Mirror’s Edge differs from that of other shooters in that Faith’s limbs move realistically and interact with the environment to a great extent: her arms pump back and forth as she gains momentum, her hands brush along walls as she approaches them, her legs curl up as she hops a fence or other obstacle, and her whole body flails as she leaps from magnificent heights.  These are just a few examples of the painstaking labor put into this game’s animation.  Also of note is the way Faith’s vision blurs as she runs or endures large falls, a clever effect that augments the credibility of the 1st person view.  Mirror’s Edge also exhibits a rare proficiency in crafting intense chase scenes.  Contrary to the norm in shooters, the protagonist of DICE’s game is not a powerful supersoldier but a fragile civilian who must constantly flee from armed hostiles beyond her ability to confront.  In most cases, fighting back is not an option, and slowing down guarantees swift death in a hail of bullets.  The enraged shouts of guards, the threatening whirr of a chopper’s rotors, the shrill noise of glass panes shattering, and the persistent storm of projectiles ricocheting off surfaces in the player’s sight all combine to create some genuinely exhilarating action sequences.  Unfortunately, Faith doesn’t have the luxury of running all the time, and when she stops the game’s bigger weaknesses soon become apparent.

Mirror’s Edge has one of the sloppiest combat schemes I’ve ever encountered in a console game.  Not only do the guns feel horrible, but the mere act of acquiring them or trying to fight without them is a pain.  While Faith has the ability to engage enemies with several melee attacks and even to disarm them professionally, her incredibly low pain tolerance means that isolating foes and taking them out individually is the only feasible method to advance through police blockades.  This isn’t always practical, especially on higher difficulty levels, where repeated attempts on the same section are customary.  The same complaint applies to the rest of the game, which so often feels like a punishing system of trial and error, whereby even the slightest delay in hitting a certain button or the most minute error in the player’s aim sends him tumbling 10 stories to meet Wile E. Coyote at the city floor.  Those gamers who curse their television screen when frustrated will have sore throats upon completing Mirror’s Edge.  Headaches too – I speak from experience.

The game’s graphics are a mixed bag: although the 1st person animation is fantastic, as I said earlier, the city itself looks very stylized and fantastical, an attribute that doesn’t lend itself well to a 1st person shooter.  I found the physics for A.I. characters to be severely limited, with guards flopping over the same way no matter how I dispatched them, but Mirror’s Edge isn’t as physics-oriented a game as Halo or COD, so this fault is minor.  The developers should definitely have devoted more time to the textures of explosions, as the game culminates in a potentially awesome but sadly underwhelming helicopter crash that looks like something out of the Playstation 1.

Nevertheless, Mirror’s Edge is an entertaining, original not-really-shooter that allows one to execute all kinds of crazy stunts he’s usually warned “not to try at home”.   Hopefully the sequel planned for next-generation systems will be more lenient in difficulty and more politically aggressive than Faith’s introduction.  For the sake of avoiding irony, though, EA should keep ME2 away from the Xbox One and its creepy camera.  Bill Gates is watching you…

Grade rating: 7/10

Monday, June 17, 2013

Alan Brake, Do Not Approach

The face says it all.

A few months ago on these files, I made an offhand compliment crediting Remedy’s horror video game ‘Alan Wake’ as a worthwhile alternative to the indie phenomenon Slender; my positive comparison was made prematurely, for at the time of that first review’s publication, I had only dragged myself through the first level of the former game.  This subsequent article is intended to rectify the unmerited praise I issued earlier by analyzing the terrifying experience that is Alan Wake in its full horror, from promising beginning to mind-shattering conclusion.  Indeed, the scariest thing about this Microsoft-exclusive nightmare is not the game itself, but the moment when the player Alan Wakes up and realizes he wasted ten hours of his life on a mere shadow of a horror game that throws clarity to the wind and lacks even a basic conclusion.  This thing is a piece of junk, Jack.

Making sense of Alan Wake’s narrative remains a challenge for me even after I’ve completed the game, but I’ll do my best to summarize the premise.  The game’s protagonist is Alan Wake, an acclaimed thriller writer who takes his wife Alice on vacation to a lakeside cabin in a beautiful northwestern town called Bright Falls, surrounded by mountains and dense forests.  The conflict originates when Wake visits the town restaurant and takes the wrong rental key from a creepy, faceless, obviously ill-intentioned woman who’s hiding away in a dark hallway.  You would expect a man from Wake’s background to know his ‘cabin in the woods’ stories and recognize a wrong-turn villain at sight, but apparently he doesn’t, and so he propels himself and his wife headlong into a poorly written, forest-retreat-gone-wrong slasher film.  When night falls on Cauldron lake and Alice is pulled into the water by an unseen entity, Wake dives after her and regains consciousness on the edge of a cliff with no memory of how he arrived there.  Soon our author finds himself in the center of a horror book he never published called Departure, which the player can read in fragments collected along his journey.  According to this manuscript, the residents of Bright Falls live ordinarily by day but are consumed by Darkness at night, turned into zombie-like shadows intent on terminating Wake and other survivors with all manner of melee-based machinery, including shovels, axes, chainsaws, and bulldozers.  To escape his nightmarish creation, Wake must recover his memory, rescue his wife, and destroy the dark entity at the bottom of the lake, but not before he wanders through zombie-infested forests at midnight to reach some distant landmark that’s ultimately meaningless, meets several pointless characters who either get killed off shortly or contribute nothing to the plot, and binge views the entire 2nd season of Night Falls, a Twilight Zone ripoff that airs on TVs distributed throughout the town.  When some glowing guy in a Scooby Doo diver getup finally enlightens him as to what the heck is going on, the explanation is so incoherent, implausible, and anti-climactic that one wishes the game’s writers had opted for chaos instead of a weak attempt at order.  Even worse, they try to pull an ambiguous Inception ending that fails miserably and services as a pathetic demand for consumers to buy downloadable expansion packs.  Perhaps there’s a reason why Wake never submitted Departure for publication.

While the idea of an author entering his own story and facing the same problems that afflict his characters is undeniably fascinating in concept, Alan Wake proves that not all ideas are good in execution.  Whether judged as a 3rd-person shooter, survival horror, or a video game itself, Wake’s adventures fall flat on all fronts.  As for the first, Alan Wake has some of the sloppiest shooter mechanics I’ve ever witnessed.  The game’s combat revolves around using light sources, primarily your flashlight/lantern with flares and flashbang grenades added in later, to strip the Darkness zombies of their shields and then finishing them off with one of four firearms, two of which are basically the same and one of which is totally lousy.  This means the player must manage not only his ammo but also his battery supply, a task that becomes tedious and frustrating when surrounded by half-a-dozen murderous, axe wielding apparitions.  Complicating matters is the player’s inability to reload the game’s primitive, low-capacity, Feinstein-approved weapons with a single button press as in most shooters; instead, he must hammer on the Y button repeatedly to replenish his firearms for more zombie hunting.  None of that matters, though, as violent retaliation is rarely an expedient course for self-preservation in this “shooter”.  Taking on hordes of zombies all on at once is nigh impossible with such sloppy controls, so Wake must frequently weave away from their blades and flee to cover with an appointed ‘sprint’ button.  This tactic itself poses problems because our gallant Stephen King wannabe (a personal idol he blabbers on about incessantly as if he was practicing subliminal advertising for a gig on ‘The Truman Show’) dodges like a drunkard and conks out at 20 paces, kneeling over in exhaustion and probable embarrassment at his lacking physique.  Alan Wake is a disgrace to video game action heroes who should be immediately conscripted into remedial education under the tutelage of Lara Croft, Master Chief, and Gordon Freeman.  Heck, even Mario could give this guy some advice on masculinity.

His eponymous debut title fails even more dramatically as a horror game, which is probably why Microsoft sold it as a “psychological action thriller”.  There are two indispensable components to a successful horror story: the audience must be at least somewhat invested in the characters, and the narrative must be unpredictable.  Alan Wake wastes no time in violating the first principle and getting players to hate its main characters.  On one level, the game has some of the ugliest character models and motion capture animation in recent history, such that it’s inconceivable why Wake would go to such pains to save a) his wife, and b) his annoying slob of an agent, Barry Wheeler.  Graphics aside, the writers commit an even graver offense by giving us no reason whatsoever to sympathize with anyone, let alone the protagonist.  Alice is a good-for-nothing damsel in distress who’s afraid of the dark, Barry adopts a kind of Jar Jar Binks persona, and Alan never amounts to more than a foul, elitist, arrogant, ‘rich celebrity’ stereotype.  Hence, the player is neither compelled to reach the end of the game nor affected by the nightmares that terrorize its subjects.  Alan Wake also suffers from some of the most formulaic and tiring level design I’ve ever encountered outside of the first Halo game.  70% of the game has the player following some trail at night through a dense and haunted forest smothered in fog, in which bad guys will periodically appear at predictable intersections and jump out on Wake from all angles.  These attacks are accompanied by some growly zombie threat and a swell in the music that’s supposed to make one’s skin curl but really just elicits groans.  Sometimes the developers break up the tedium by sending the player into a claustrophobic building, also populated by bad guys hiding behind various objects, or letting him drive a car, which controls so poorly that it’s more enjoyable to walk to the given level’s arbitrary, far-off point of interest.  By consequence of its static and repetitive gameplay, Alan Wake is more annoying than truly scary.

Most egregious of all its sins is Alan Wake’s refusal to function like a real video game and overreliance on passive storytelling methods.  In the course of “playing” this title, I might have spent more time reading Wake’s crappy novel, watching moronic TV shows/Verizon plugs, and listening to the town’s late-night radio talk show than I did directing the actions of a digital avatar, which is the whole point of interactive fiction.  Other games, preeminently the Myst series, Bioshock, and Halo 3: ODST, have incorporated reading and/or listening into the story without losing the player’s interest, but Alan Wake’s multimedia approach is a colossal bore and doesn’t even make sense.  All the clips that air on the in-game TVs were shot in live-action, which only further cements the dichotomy between real people and the hideous CG characters in the game.  Alan Wake’s clash between the real and the virtual world reminds me of that self-consciously cheesy Spongebob episode in which the costumed gorilla guy pummels Squarepants and his animated friends, prompting a dumbstruck family to change the channel.  Would that this game had that feature.

Having reached the third page in Word on this essay, I feel I’ve devoted too much of my time and energy to expounding the overwhelming reek of this trash.  The most horrifying thing about Alan Wake is the way it sucked so many hours out of my life with the promise it would ease such questions as, “How can there be so many hundreds of zombies in what Wake describes as a ‘small town where everybody knows everybody else’?”  Those answers never came, nor did a real conclusion to Wake’s insipid, mental fantasies.  There are too many legitimate horror games out there, e.g. Bioshock or Dead Space, to excuse psycho-illogical advocacy timekillers like this bunch of stuff.

Final rating: 2/10, or 1.75 to borrow a page from those stupid gaming magazines that grade products in quarters.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Avatar – The Last Alien-bender

You may ask why I recognize Avatar under my series of Alien and Predator reviews.  The answer is twofold: on the most basic level, Avatar is a movie about Aliens fighting off greedy, corporate Predators intent on exploiting their land for profit.  Alternatively, you could interpret the movie as a story about savage, treehugging Predators hunting down misunderstood, human Aliens, but that’s not likely the slant intended by the director.  Secondarily, Avatar is a movie about naïve, trigger-happy corporate marines who penetrate an alien territory with the aim of extinguishing a biologically superior species yet are swiftly overwhelmed, in spite of their heavy arms, by an enemy empowered with greater resolve, strength of numbers, and battlefield awareness.  I.e., in writing and directing Avatar, James Cameron was subtly ripping off his own movie, Aliens, which is an undeniably better film and is bound to outlast the former even without that picture’s flashy CGI and 3D imagery.  Nevertheless, Avatar is still a fine addition to the Alien/Predator family and certainly deserves the numerous nominations and awards it received, if not the $2 billion it picked up at the box office.

Cameron envisions a 22nd century where technological advancements have enabled humans to drive remotely controlled bodies (kinda like organic drones) called avatars, created by mixing the human pilot’s DNA with that of an alien species.  On the distant moon of Pandora, the RDA corporation uses these avatars to study and communicate with an indigenous humanoid race known as the Navi.  10-feet tall, blue, and slender, the Navi have a religious devotion to Pandora’s lush biosphere and view its trees, ferns, and animals as sacred and interconnected entities in a vast, Force-like network of energy.  Their deity Eywa literally manifests itself in nature, and thus the Navi regard any attack on the environment as an assault on their god.  This worldview poses problems to the RDA, who wish to mine the moon for an invaluable mineral called unobtainium.  “This is the only reason we’re here, because this little gray rock sells for $20 million a kilo,” says the company boss Parker to avatar driver Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver in what seems like a long Ripley cameo.  Although war has not yet exploded, tensions remain high between the natives and the corporate intruders, and so the avatars are tasked with arranging a diplomatic solution that benefits both sides.  Into the midst of this conflict enters Jake Sully, an ex-Marine who’s invited to join the avatar program after this brother’s untimely death.  Because their DNA strands were similar, Jake is able to operate his brother’s avatar as if it were his own, and in short time he’s roaming the Pandoran jungles with a group of blues.  A perilous encounter with a massive Pandoran beast separates him from his friends and drives him headlong into a beautiful and physically adept Navi princess named Neytiri, who calls him a “baby” and “skxawng” among other things, yet takes him to the Omitacaya tribe after she witnesses a holy sign from some luminous jellyfish bugs.  Over the course of several months, Jake is immersed in the primitive but rich culture of the Navi and learns to love their environmentally conscious, communal lifestyle.  A warrior who dreamed he could bring peace, sooner or later, he has to wake up.  Escalating hostility between his employers and his newfound family eventually force Jake to make a supposedly difficult decision: will he side with the racist, profit-motivated, bloodthirsty mercenaries who have hired him or defend the woman who’s captured his heart and the utopian tribe he’s grown to honor?  You’ll have to watch the movie to find out, unless you already have just by reading this paragraph or watching the uber-spoilery commercial inscribed above.

One of Avatar’s bigger faults its lack of an original script.  As other reviewers have noted, Cameron’s movie seems like a colorful, CGI-enhanced mashup of Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, and An Inconvenient Truth, with a lot of Aliens thrown in for good measure.  Cool though it is, the AMP suit vehicle in this film is basically a militarized power loader with a gun, and Sigourney Weaver is playing a redhead botanist version of Ripley.  Parker is the movie’s Burke-figure with one difference, that being his idolatry of money rather than of science and the natural world.  All the gung-ho, hoo-rah marines return from Aliens as if they never died, only to get creamed a second time even with the advent of their mechwarriors, gunships, and Halo-style helicopters, which apparently are no match for the Navi’s bows and arrows, “dipped in a powerful neurotoxin which will stop your heart in 1 minute”.  Plausibility is another huge factor acting against Avatar.  Like all of James Cameron’s pictures, the movie ends with an elongated, special-effects-filled battle of epic proportions.  The winning side flips several times, accompanied by triumphant or tragic orchestral shifts to signal the appropriate change in pathos, and the Navi are getting stomped thoroughly when Eywa answers their prayers and commands nature to “protect the balance of life” by literally crushing the humans underfoot.  To say the movie requires a hefty suspension of disbelief doesn’t paint an adequate picture of Avatar’s absurdity.

Avatar also stands out as one of the most condescending, offensive, preachy, and self-inflated science-fiction movies ever.  The level of shameless earth-worship and capitalism bashing in this picture is almost enough to make Wall-e look like a harmless kiddie flick.  The movie paints its conflict in the simplest of colors: the U.S. “jarheads” are heartless, sadistic, genocidal, money-worshipping brutes, while the tribal natives are peace-loving, humble, community-oriented, respectful of the planet, and overall perfect organisms.  In Aliens, James Cameron gave audiences a realistic portrayal of nature as a violent, chaotic force that will consume man if he’s so foolish as to try taming it; in Avatar, man is depicted as the violent animal and nature as a rational, harmonious, even godlike figure that heroically resists the destructive tendencies of humanity.  The latter movie is not only laughably simplistic, but downright ludicrous and apologetic in its philosophy.  Its entire premise, that mankind is greedy, profit-obsessed, and withholding its proper due to the earth, is contradicted by the film’s very status as the top grossing movie of all time; Avatar, ironically, is the ultimate act of capitalist exploitation and greed, the two vices Cameron so fervently condemns (so long as it’s other people’s wealth and not his own at stake).

In truth, Avatar’s one redeeming feature is its entertainment value.  Chock-full of spectacular visual effects, unparalleled motion capture, gripping action sequences, Cameron’s signature one-liners, and beautiful blue ladies, Avatar delivered an incredibly fun experience on the big screen and still does to a lesser extent on not-as-big 70-inch televisions.  As long as the viewer switches his brain off and absorbs the movie as entertainment rather than legitimate political commentary, he’s bound to have a good time.  Some viewers have criticized the film for its heavy application of CGI and motion capture in place of traditional, in-camera special effects, but I think computer-animation is the most suitable medium for this tale, since Avatar is essentially a cartoon that wanted to be an Oscar-winner, a fable that dreamed it could bring greenpeace.  Sooner or later, though, we all have to wake up.

Much though I enjoy Avatar, if Cameron ever gets around to actually making those sequels he’s promised, I might abstain just to send him a message: that the Canadian sky-people cannot take whatever they want, that illegal aliens cannot despoil this country's roots through film, that this, this is our land.  Raaaaaaaauuuuuu!

Grade rating: B

Sunday, June 2, 2013


For most high-school students, the SAT is a source of anxiety, distress, and trepidation.  For me, it’s just damn obnoxious.  Due to its questionable theory and lackluster composition, the scholastic aptitude test feels more like an exercise in stupidity than a true measure of one’s logical intellect and grasp of English.  Nevertheless, the quest for college credit and a useless degree that no longer guarantees a real job continues to drive millions of young adults like myself to jump through hoops and subject themselves to a torturous and utterly insulting examination.

The first issue poisoning the SAT is the excruciating process of qualifying for it.  In order to take the test one already paid $50 for, one must present a valid I.D. that’s subject to numerous arbitrary and constantly fluctuating standards which are supposed to block cheaters but really just punish law-abiding, homeschooled citizens.  In effect, SAT security measures are no more than a form of discrimination against kids who don’t attend government skrools.  The first time I attempted to take the test, the administrators turned me away because my multiple photo I.D.s, signatures, and other personal details were considered insufficient without the approval of a public official.  In addition, the test board took concern that my photo was taped onto my I.D. form, rather than glued to or printed on the sheet.  I wish I could say this fiasco is exclusive to California commies, but the problem persists nationwide on account of mass hysteria over test cheating.  Just as the adversaries of gun rights demand extreme and unjust measures in the wake of rare and isolated tragedies, so too do College Board directors overreact and resort to unnecessary extremes to prevent future cheating.  Both these tactics ultimately punish the innocent for the wrongs of the guilty, and neither can effectively deter the unlawful.

If one does manage to actually take the test, he’ll be challenged to complete such Herculean labors as correcting 3rd grade grammar errors, reading glowing articles about various Democrat causes, and writing a compelling essay in 25 minutes.  OK, that last one wasn’t really sarcastic; while impromptu is mostly doable in a speech format, it’s a downright stupid idea in a writing context.  Rather than encouraging students to write an eloquent, interesting, and provocative piece in an hour or thereabouts, the SAT places the emphasis on speed and exhorts high schoolers to throw together a intro-anecdote-conclusion messay that hopefully fits the topic.  The test writers seem to acknowledge that 3-paragraph essays are really dumb, as the vast majority of prompts are suitably idiotic and frequently entail false dichotomies.  E.g., “Is it a disadvantage to pay attention to details?”  Yes and no - what’s the context?  “‘Failure is impossible.’ – Susan B. Anthony.           Is it really impossible to fail?  Are some failures simply unsuccessful attempts to accomplish what we set out to do, or do all failures ultimately provide some benefit, even if we can’t see it right away?”  Am I supposed to attach credence to this gibberish because it has a 3 word quote from Susan B. Anthony?  “Do you believe that fantasy or imagination is more important than knowledge?”  Do you believe that Aliens is a better movie than Alien? Can’t you watch both of them?

Although the essay’s final grade is the most obviously subjective component of the SAT, one could argue that up to half of the essay’s questions are completely relative and have multiple “right answers”.  For example, many of the writing/grammar questions force the student to select one of several awkwardly phrased sentences, one of which the writers deemed less awkward than the rest.  More often the test requires one to choose between grammatical error and unnecessary wordiness or structural clumsiness.  The writing sections usually conclude by having one analyze a poorly written passage and point out what its overall focus is or what the author should have added to his article.  Not only is this exercise completely unrelated to English and writing, but it’s unavoidably subjective as well: ought the writer to give a neutral, balanced report on global warming climate change, or should he just drone on about Hurricane-wannabe Sandy and the Maldives ad nauseum?  More on climate warming later…  The critical reading sections are perhaps even more subjective than the writing ones.  When asked to choose the best word to fit in a certain sentence, the student often gets torn between two that would function equally well.  On many occasions the test solicits the student to interpret an author’s writing by picking one of several answers that look incredibly similar and could be true simultaneously.  “In teaching himself how to read and write, Fredrick Douglass states that he was a) proving his master’s apprehensions to be true, b) acquiring awareness of his own servitude, c) becoming more knowledgable, or d) learning to hate the institution of slavery?”  Do questions like this make you a) frustrated, b) confused, or c) angry?

The SAT also prides itself on being the most partisan quiz in the nation.  Without exceptions, every test includes at least one article about men destroying the earth, men oppressing women, or men bullying other men.  Among the writers’ favorite subjects are melting icecaps, endangered fish, miserable employment conditions in pre-union Industrial America, women getting the vote, discrimination against working women, etc.  Don’t expect to read critical invectives of fascism, socialism, totalitarianism, or any of the left-wing isms; the SAT is so prepossessed with bashing capitalism that it can’t spare even a moment to praise, nay mention, liberal models of government.  When the SAT isn’t complaining about income disparity or environmental destruction, it’s usually covering such important and captivating topics as language acquisition for babies, animal communication as opposed to human language (spoiler – they’re the same, for men and monkeys are equally intelligent), art restoration, the mental process behind reading, the science of writer’s block, and much more useless, taxpayer-funded information obtained by federal grants.

The Solvency-Advocate-Turd smears its participants’ integrity, insults their intelligence, and inures them to Ingsoc.  In short, it instigates insanity, and for that reason, I stand firmly resolved that the U.S.C.B. should substantially reform its testing policies.

Addendum based on yesterday's experience
* Test administrators must take greater efforts to prevent abject morons who keep time with a clock from supervising test consumers.  I had appropriately managed my time for the 1st section using a stopwatch so as to allow myself one minute to write a concluding sentence to my 6 star paper; unfortunately, like the U.N.S.C Forward Unto Dawn, my grand closer was shorn in two with 40 seconds remaining by the public school idiot monitoring my room, who lacked the good sense to use a real timer with an alarm instead of a wall clock.  To think that my parents paid $75 for such customer service.  More disturbingly, to think that these people are teachers...
* "No, my identity has not changed since I last left the room 3 minutes ago on a bathroom break.  Are you trying to be funny, or do you just think I'm stupid?"
* "Copy (do not print) the following statement that you will withhold from speaking of this test's contents to anybody."  Has some scientific study shown teenagers are less likely to break an oath written in cursive?  Is there any empirical solvency whatsoever for pretentiously bossing total strangers, let alone your own customers and someone else's kids, around?  Here's an example of empirical failure, dated June 1st, 2013: "Can the study of pop culture be as valuable as study of traditional literary or historical subjects?"
* What do you get when you rearrange S-A-T?