FILM FORTNIGHT: Rango

When it came out, Rango quickly divided critics; some praised its attempt to breath some originality into the world of children’s cinema or its sharp and somewhat tongue-in-cheek reimagining of the classic western, whilst others just found it plain old boring, without being engaging enough for anything interesting to leap out at them. A few even took the opportunity to comment on the trend of an established screen star (in this case Johnny Depp as the title role, although Bill Nighy also has a typically charismatic place as bad guy Rattlesnake Jake) taking on a voice acting job in order to win the film attention, rather than sticking to career voice actors, so short of stuff were they to talk about.

Personally, I don’t know quite where they were coming from with this, because whilst Rango is many things boring is not among them. Admittedly, its plot is hardly the path less travelled; our title character is a domestic chameleon who, upon being dumped unceremoniously out of his comfortable terrarium existence accidentally defeats a hawk and is elected sheriff of a rural ‘old west’ town with a water crisis, before the requisite high jinks and moral lesson or two. Basically, think ‘Flushed Away’ with the water situation reversed and you’re mostly there. However, around this basic premise director Gore Verbinski spins a genuinely deep and relative rollercoaster of a story, ranging from one of the most fist-pumpingly fun chase sequences I’ve seen in any film (Ride of The Valkyries blasting out at the requisite 11 at all appropriate moments as the dive bombers swoop in; yeah it gets kinda random in places) to a group of 4 owls simultaneously fulfilling the roles of orchestra and narration who spend most of the film talking about imminent death (although telling you that is probably less of a spoiler than this caveat is).* That these two scenes are both able to exist in the same film is indicative of the near-constant contrast between the film’s darker, edgier undertones that are the real driving force of the plot and the more action- & humour-based sequences; a contrast that is, however, a sharp one, making the whole business feel like two plots that Verbinski has tried to get running in parallel.

*Weirdly, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the theatre version of War Horse (aside note for all people within reach of London; go and see the theatre version of War Horse), which also has a bloke whose sole job is to add some suitable musical accompaniment to the required scenes. Dude is seriously awesome though.

Was Verbinski successful? Well… kind of. On the one hand we have the fact that the action is pretty damn good in a lot of places, the humour and slapstick broadly speaking well-timed and funny, and that the film’s darker & deeper sequences feel genuinely profound and meaningful. Combine that with some almost surprisingly well-done and realistic (well, for a bunch of stylised talking animals anyway) characters, and what is almost certainly the single best animation, graphical quality and overall visual design of any film ever made (yes, I went there), and it’s hard to argue with the quality of Verbinski’s execution of this project.

No, the problem lies less with the film’s content and more with how it all fits together. On occasion, the film’s more subtle jokes (the way it characterises ‘The Spirit of the West’ in a modern light being one good example) are able to exist in perfect harmony with its more meaningful side, and everything (both goofy and meaningful) is unquestionably well-done. On the other hand, the contrast between comic and serious is on occasion not merely sharp but almost painful to watch, each one ruining the other in equal measure. Whether the attempt to join these two tones together was a producer’s decision to try and force the film into a more formulaic, ‘family-friendly’ style, whether that’s the only way the screenwriter could think to tie in all the bits and pieces, or whether Verbinski just had a few jokes he really, really wanted to use is hard to identify, but either way the film would probably have benefited by trusting a little more in the audience’s intelligence and their ability to enjoy what was there, rather than shoehorning in what probably should have been left out. That sensation of what might have been, combined with a plot that seemed patchy on interconnectedness in too many places, was all too noticeable in what was otherwise an entertaining film that genuinely tried to be something fresh and not boring. It frequently succeeded too; that’s what’s so frustrating about it all.

I have one further thing I want to say about Rango; watch it. Just like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ was last summer, Rango is a film whose many good qualities only serve to highlight its errors, and make any review of it seem far more negative than the experience of watching such a fun, intelligent film actually was. Here we have a shining example of a kid’s film that genuinely tries to be something original and smart, pushing boundaries where it could have just been safe and boring, and it deserves as much attention as possible

Huh. Only 900 words. Clearly there’s a reason other reviewers needed something else to write about.

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Call of Duty: Modern Moneymaking

The first person shooter (FPS, or shoot-em-up) genre is the biggest and most profitable in the gaming industry, which is itself now (globally) the biggest entertainment industry on earth. Every year Activision pay off their expenditure for the next decade by releasing another Call of Duty game, and every so often Battlefield, Medal of Honour and Halo like to join the party to similar financial response. Given that many critics have built their name on slagging off such games, and that even the most ardent fans will admit that perhaps only four of the nine CoD games have actually improved on the previous one, this fact seems a trifle odd to my eye (which may have something to do with me being awful at them), and since I cannot apply science to this problem I thought I might retreat to my other old friend; history.

The FPS genre took a while to get going; partly due to the graphical fidelity and processing power required to replicate a decent first-person perspective, it wasn’t until 1992 that Wolfenstein 3D, the game often credited with ‘inventing’ the genre, was released, long after the first four home console generations had passed. However, the genre had existed after a fashion before then; a simple game called Maze War, akin to Pac Man from a rudimentary 3D perspective and with guns, is considered an early example and was released as far back as 1974. Other, similar games, including the space simulator Spasim (the same thing but in space) and tank simulator Battlezone (very slightly different and with tanks) were released over the next decade. All, as well as most subsequent efforts pre-Wolfenstein, used a tile-based movement system, whereby one’s movement was restricted to moving from one square to the next, since this was pretty much all that was possible with contemporary technology.

Further advances dabbled in elements of multiplayer, and introduced such features as texture mapping to enhance graphical fidelity, but Wolfenstein’s great success lay in its gameplay format. Gone was any tile-based or otherwise restrictive movement, and in its place were maps that one was free to move around in all directions and orientations in two dimensions. It also incorporated a health meter (and healing pickups), depleting ammo and interchangeable weapons, all of which would become mainstays of the genre over the next few years. Despite its controversial use of Nazi iconography (because the bad guys were Nazis, rather than the developers fascists), the game was wildly successful; at least for the short time before the same company, id software, released Doom. Doom used a similar interface as Wolfenstein, had better graphics and a more detailed 3D environment, but its real success lay in its release format; the first third of the game was distributed for free, encouraging gamers to experience all that the game had to offer before gladly paying for the remainder. With it’s consolidation and enhancement of Wolfenstein’s format and its adoption of a now-ubiquitous multiplayer mode, Doom is often considered the most influential FPS of all time, and one of the most important games full stop; its fame is such that versions of the game have been available on almost every major console for the last 20 years.

Over the next few years, many other features that would later become staples of the FPS genre were developed. The Apple Mac, not usually a traditional stronghold for gaming, was the platform for Marathon, which introduced a number of new game modes (including cooperative multiplayer), more complex weapons and placed a heavy emphasis on story as well as gameplay. Star Wars: Dark Forces introduced the ability to crouch for the first time, thus setting the template for today’s FPS pattern of repeatedly hiding behind chest-high walls, and 1995’s Descent changed the graphical playing field by changing from using sprites to represent objects and NPC’s in the gameworld to a 3D system based around polygonal graphics. This technology was one of the many technologies used in Doom’s 1996 sequel, Quake, which also increased the series’ emphasis on online multiplayer. Unfortunately, this market would soon be totally conquered by 1997’s GoldenEye, a tie-in to the James Bond film of the same name; the game itself experimented with new, claustrophobic game environments and required you to manually reload your weapon, but it was the multiplayer that proved its success. It has now been revealed that the multiplayer was actually nothing more than a hasty add-on knocked up in matter of weeks, but the circituous maps and multiple weapons & characters on offer made it endlessly compelling, and right up until 2004 GoldenEye was the best selling game for the Nintendo 64.

But the defining FPS of this era was undoubtedly Half Life; released in 1998, the game combined Quake’s graphical technology with a bulletproof gameplay format and one of the strongest narratives and plots of any game ever made. The single player experience alone was enough to raise Valve, the game’s makers, to iconic status almost overnight (a label they retain to this day due to their penchant for innovation and not being dicks about their business tactics), and when a multiplayer mod for it was developed (Counterstrike), it and its successor (Counterstrike: Source) became the most popular multiplayer FPS experience ever.

After Half Life, some felt that the FPS genre had been taken about as far as it could in its current iteration, and that the genre’s immediate future was to be based around increasing graphical quality, fiddling with storylines and making money. However, in 2000 Microsoft acquired Bungie studios (who had made Marathon back in 1994) and released their real-time-strategy-turned-third-person-shooter-turned-first-person-shooter as a startup title for their newly released Xbox console. The game incorporated a heavy focus on characterisation (helped by it occasionally leaving first person perspective for cutscenes, which Half Life never did) with a new style of enemies (well-rendered and varied alien opponents), a wide variety of weapons and the perhaps unusual feature of having an auto-healing system rather than health pickups. The game was called Halo, and it revolutionised the FPS genre.

Since then, advancements have been less revolutionary and more gradual, as the FPS genre has diversified. Halo has now gone through several incarnations whilst keeping the basic format the same, but the gameplay principle has been applied in almost every conceivable way. Battlefield and Call of Duty applied the concept to military-style gameplay with a strong multiplayer emphasis, whilst the likes of Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead added a horror theme (or at least used zombies as bad guys). The games based on the Crytek engine (Crysis and Far Cry) turned the focus away from linear mission design and on to beautifully rendered open-world levels (some would argue in direct contrast to CoD’s increasingly linear single player mode), and recently Spec Ops: The Line has followed in Half Life’s plot-centric footsteps with a nonlinear storyline based around the mental impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some argue that the current FPS genre is stagnating; indeed super-critical game reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw has recently created a new genre called ‘spunkgargleweewee’ to cover generic linear modern military shooters (ie Call of Duty and her extended family) and indicate his contempt at their current form of existence. But to many they are the pinnacle of current-generation gaming, or at least the most fun way yet devised to spend an afternoon. By way of an example as to how much people… enjoy these things, the most recent Call of Duty game was released with a feature for the PS3 to allow the map packs used for multiplayer to be downloaded to the console’s hard disk. This was a feature requested of Activision by their hardcore fan base, who were somewhat perplexed at the request; the feature was, they pointed out, not going to make the game run any faster. But the fan base said they realised this, and it wasn’t a performance issue; it was just that they were playing the game so much that the process of continually reading the map data from the game disc was beginning to wear out the laser used to read the disc information. Thank you, Call of Duty fans, for making me feel especially productive after spending an afternoon writing an article for nobody on the internet to read.

Desert Bus

Charity is, as has been well documented, the most competitive industry on the planet. The trouble is that there are many, many things wrong with this world, and lots of people who believe that all should get the same thing- but nearly all of them are going after the same target demographic (the rich middle classes who can afford to give to them), and there are simply so many of them competing for people’s time, energy and, most importantly, financial support that many get drowned under the weight of competition. This has lead to many charity events in recent years attempting to break out from the mainstream collection ideas, focusing on charitable enterprise or other such concepts in order to be different and identifiable. However, when preparing for one such event that is happening in the very near future (hence why I’m publishing this post a day early) I saw an opportunity to combine the topic of charity with blogging and an old favourite fall-back topic, gaming- but to start with, I’m going to talk about magic, so sit in for a story folks.

In 1975 a pair of American magicians delivered a show in Minnesota that would quickly become the first of many. With another co-host, the duo built their reputation with a regular show that lasted until 1981, before moving to New York to start their own off Broadway shows. By 1985 these were garnering them some top reviews, so as the 90s approached they turned their act to Broadway proper. During the 1990s they were appearing regularly on chat shows, doing US national tours and making TV cameos, firmly establishing themselves as possibly the most famous magicians on earth at that time (and possibly the present day too). Their names were (and are) Penn & Teller.

By 1995 their career was reaching a zenith; famous both nationally and around the world, they were the closest the magical world had to global superstars. And with stardom came all the trappings of fame, including incessant requests from various publishers and agents asking to be allowed to use their name to plug something, and presumably in late 1994 one such offer from Absolute Entertainment was accepted; to allow Penn & Teller to be the subject material for a videogame.

The game in question was to be called Penn & Teller’s Smoke And Mirrors; the console, the Sega-CD (an add-on for the Sega Mega Drive that was at the time fighting a furious console war with Nintendo’s Super NES). The game itself consisted of a series of mini-games, in a similar way to how a magic show is comprised of individual tricks- or at least, that was the idea. Each game was a trick you had to master, a little bit of slight-of-hand/controller that you had to learn before inviting your friends over and thrashing them since you knew how the trick worked, as a form of payback against those friends “who come over to your house, eat your food, drink your soda, play your games and always beat you” (Penn’s words, not mine). Many have since voiced the opinion that videogaming was a rather odd choice of platform for this idea, but whether this would have impacted sales was never discovered, as Absolute Entertainment went bust after (conveniently) they had completed the game’s development, but before they got a chance to ship it and pay Penn & Teller back the licensing money they were owed. Under the terms of the contract, this rendered all deals regarding use of Penn & Teller’s likenesses and intellectual property null and void, meaning Absolute Entertainment’s owners (Skyworks Interactive Inc.) couldn’t sell the game, and all the copies they produced presumably sat in a corner gathering dust somewhere. However, before the studio went under another player entered our story, by the name of Janet Reno.

At the time, Janet Reno was Attorney General of the United States under Bill Clinton’s leadership, and at the time in question she chose a particularly opportune moment to join the chorus of voices against the violence in videogames. Reno’s argument partially centred on the idea that these games were unrealistic, and should try to depict life as it really was rather than clouding the mind’s of the nation’s children (or something), so as a rather sly joke Penn & Teller slipped one more minigame in, the only one that wasn’t a magic trick. A little minigame going by the name of Desert Bus.

Desert Bus was described as being designed to be an example of ‘stupefyingly realistic gameplay’, and in it you played as a bus driver. Your job was to drive between two US cities, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, at no more than 45 miles per hour (presumably the bus was electronically limited), in real-time, right across the Great American desert. The scenery was fairly unchanging (the odd tree or bus stop goes by), there is no traffic coming the other way, the graphics are about as good as could be expected from that generation console, there are no people to pick up, and the journey takes 8 hours to complete in each direction. After 5 hours, a bug hits the windscreen. This is considered a highlight.

However, there were three things that turned this from a rather interesting statement by the game developers to a simultaneously evil and absolutely hilarious game, depending on whether you were playing or just hearing about it. Firstly, there is no ability to pause; pressing the pause button merely activates the horn, so you’re in for the long haul. Secondly, the bus lists to the right, meaning one cannot simply tape down the accelerator and leave it for eight hours- it requires one’s constant attention (and repeated turning left) to avoid crashing. If you do crash, and stay still for 15 seconds, a tow truck comes to take you back to Tucson- again, in real time, and at 45 miles an hour. Thirdly, if you reach Vegas, you get one point- and 15 seconds to decide if you want to try for another one by heading back to Tucson. The game has a limit of 99 points, never achieved without the use of an emulator. This is the world’s greatest endurance test- Penn & Teller even had plans, had the game been released, to set up a competition for who could get the most points, the prize being a luxury trip in ‘the real Desert Bus’, a few nights in a luxury Vegas hotel and tickets to their show, but of course the game never exactly received widespread coverage.

That is, however, not until 2007, when two more players enter our story- Penny Arcade and LoadingReadyRun. Penny Arcade is probably the most famous webcomic in the world, written by a couple of games nerds for games nerds (I should probably say at this point that I’ve never actually read it, but ho hum), and very much acting as a voice for the gaming community. It’s founders, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, have become successful enough to start their own gaming convention (PAX), and in 2003 they embarked on another project- Child’s Play. Designed with the view in mind of a gaming charity, a chance for gaming culture to give something back to society and to improve its negative image as being violent and uncouth, it aims to deliver toys and videogames to sick children in hospitals worldwide, in order to make their lives a little more bearable. Some have said that it’s message is perhaps not as righteous as that of, say, Oxfam, but these people are kind of missing the point of charity and it is nonetheless charmingly sweet in concept. Penny Arcade’s prominence among the gaming community is such that many key industry figures have got behind it and the charity has so far raised over $12 million, nearly one million of which has come thanks to the work of a group of Canadians behind an 8-year old internet sketch comedy series called LoadingReadyRun.

You see, in 2007 the guys behind LoadingReadyRun decided that they would try to use their small but devoted hardcore fan base to raise some cash for such a good cause, and so decided to organise a charity gaming marathon in aid of Child’s Play. Casting around for a suitable game to play, they decided that ‘the most boring game in the world’ would form a good backdrop whilst they danced, pissed around and generally humiliated themselves on camera to get donations, and so they plumped for Desert Bus. As they slotted a copy of the game (don’t ask me where they got it from) into a borrowed Sega CD, they hoped to try and raise $5,000 dollars, the plan being that their strategy of ‘the more we get the longer we play’ would last them about a weekend. They made four times their target, and the following year did the same thing again and hit $70,000, forcing them to play for nearly 4 days. By the next year their comedy had reached a wider audience after being picked up and hosted by The Escapist online ‘magazine’, and they broke $100,000 for the first time; last year they made $383,125.10, and hope to bring their sum total to over a million this year. Desert Bus For Hope 6 starts tomorrow, at 5am GMT (or 9pm PST), it’s for a great cause, and it should be entertaining to watch the kind of challenges they get up to- they are professional sketch comedians after all. The website’s here, and the list of people ringing in is here (spoiler- the list includes Notch), and a far more entertaining history of the game is here. If you’ve got the time free, give them a watch. It’s for the children.

Attack of the Blocks

I spend far too much time on the internet. As well as putting many hours of work into trying to keep this blog updated regularly, I while away a fair portion of time on Facebook, follow a large number of video series’ and webcomics, and can often be found wandering through the recesses of YouTube (an interesting and frequently harrowing experience that can tell one an awful lot about the extremes of human nature). But there is one thing that any resident of the web cannot hope to avoid for any great period of time, and quite often doesn’t want to- the strange world of Minecraft.

Since its release as a humble alpha-version indie game in 2009, Minecraft has boomed to become a runaway success and something of a cultural phenomenon. By the end of 2011, before it had even been released in its final release format, Minecraft had registered 4 million purchases and 4 times that many registered users, which isn’t bad for a game that has never advertised itself, spread semi-virally among nerdy gamers for its mere three-year history and was made purely as an interesting project by its creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). Thousands of videos, ranging from gameplay to some quite startlingly good music videos (check out the work of Captain Sparklez if you haven’t already) litter YouTube and many of the games’ features (such as TNT and the exploding mobs known as Creepers) have become memes in their own right to some degree.

So then, why exactly has Minecraft succeeded where hundreds and thousands of games have failed, becoming a revolution in gamer culture? What is it that makes Minecraft both so brilliant, and so special?

Many, upon being asked this question, tend to revert to extolling the virtues of the game’s indie nature. Being created entirely without funding as an experiment in gaming rather than profit-making, Minecraft’s roots are firmly rooted in the humble sphere of independent gaming, and it shows. One obvious feature is the games inherent simplicity- initially solely featuring the ability to wander around, place and destroy blocks, the controls are mainly (although far from entirely) confined to move and ‘use’, whether that latter function be shoot, slash, mine or punch down a tree. The basic, cuboid, ‘blocky’ nature of the game’s graphics, allowing for both simplicity of production and creating an iconic, retro aesthetic that makes it memorable and standout to look at. Whilst the game has frequently been criticised for not including a tutorial (I myself took a good quarter of an hour to find out that you started by punching a tree, and a further ten minutes to work out that you were supposed to hold down the mouse button rather than repeatedly click), this is another common feature of indie gaming, partly because it saves time in development, but mostly because it makes the game feel like it is not pandering to you and thus allowing indie gamers to feel some degree of elitism that they are good enough to work it out by themselves. This also ties in with the very nature of the game- another criticism used to be (and, to an extent, still is, even with the addition of the Enderdragon as a final win objective) that the game appeared to be largely devoid of point, existent only for its own purpose. This is entirely true, whether you view that as a bonus or a detriment being entirely your own opinion, and this idea of an unfamiliar, experimental game structure is another feature common in one form or another to a lot of indie games.

However, to me these do not seem to be entirely worthy of the name ‘answers’ regarding the question of Minecraft’s phenomenal success. The reason I think this way is that they do not adequately explain exactly why Minecraft rose to such prominence whilst other, often similar, indie games have been left in relative obscurity. Limbo, for example, is a side-scrolling platformer and a quite disturbing, yet compelling, in-game experience, with almost as much intrigue and puzzle from a set of game mechanics simpler even than those of Minecraft. It has also received critical acclaim often far in excess of Minecraft (which has received a positive, but not wildly amazed, response from critics), and yet is still known to only an occasional few. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been often described as the greatest survival horror game in history, as well as incorporating a superb set of graphics, a three-dimensional world view (unlike the 2D view common to most indie games) and the most pants-wettingly terrifying experience anyone who’s ever played it is likely to ever face- but again, it is confined to the indie realm. Hell, Terraria is basically Minecraft in 2D, but has sold around 40 times less than Minecraft itself. All three of these games have received fairly significant acclaim and coverage, and rightly so, but none has become the riotous cultural phenomenon that Minecraft has, and neither have had an Assassin’s Creed mod (first example that sprung to mind).

So… why has Minecraft been so successful. Well, I’m going to be sticking my neck out here, but to my mind it’s because it doesn’t play like an indie game. Whilst most independently produced titled are 2D, confined to fairly limited surroundings and made as simple & basic as possible to save on development (Amnesia can be regarded as an exception), Minecraft takes it own inherent simplicity and blows it up to a grand scale. It is a vast, open world sandbox game, with vague resonances of the Elder Scrolls games and MMORPG’s, taking the freedom, exploration and experimentation that have always been the advantages of this branch of the AAA world, and combined them with the innovative, simplistic gaming experience of its indie roots. In some ways it’s similar to Facebook, in that it takes a simple principle and then applies it to the largest stage possible, and both have enjoyed a similarly explosive rise to fame. The randomly generated worlds provide infinite caverns to explore, endless mobs to slay, all the space imaginable to build the grandest of castles, the largest of cathedrals, or the SS Enterprise if that takes your fancy. There are a thousand different ways to play the game on a million different planes, all based on just a few simple mechanics. Minecraft is the best of indie and AAA blended together, and is all the more awesome for it.