Showing posts with label Philosophical Navel-Gazing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philosophical Navel-Gazing. Show all posts

Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Miserables Report Card

Spoiler warning, if it's possible to spoil a 150-year-old book or a 30-year-old musical.

Pretension warning: I never write like this or talk about movies this way.  Beware my crude attempts at artsiness.

My Les Mis Movie report card, more or less in order of appearance:

Hugh Jackman: B- (thought he would be better; ok singing, acting consisted of staring slightly to the left of the camera)

Russel Crowe: C+ (but better than I thought; mediocre singing, good acting, especially towards the end)

Anne Hathaway: A (better singing voice than I expected; suitably tragic.  You should get your hair back in the afterlife.)

Little Cosette: A (good voice, good acting, ringer for imagined child version of  Amanda Seyfried)

Sasha Baron Cohen: B- (he did fine, I suppose, but I hate the character; I did laugh at a few of his jokes)

Helena Bonham Carter: C+ (like i said, I hate these characters.  WTH with the John Lennon glasses?)

Samantha Barks: A+ (when she first came on, I remember thinking, "wow, the first one who can really sing" - head and shoulders above the others.  But I'm a sucker for Eponine, too.)

Gavroche kid: A (I normally dislike this character and am almost happy when he buys the ferme, but this guy was surprisingly affecting and sang well)

Amanda Seyfried: A- (better singing voice than I expected, although seemed to be singing in a different style from the others.  I've always wished the character had more guts and more to do than merely obey her dad and moon about over Marius)

Eddie Redmayne: B (Marius is such a lightweight character; he did OK, but I thought he blew it on Empty Chairs)

Aaron Tveit: B+ (Pretty inspiring, noble death, sang pretty well, but goofy hair, even for 19th century France)

Tom Hooper: B (Could we ever get a scene that's not mostly a face-on shot of somebody singing?)

Overall: A- (really enjoyed it; would have been better with a stronger JVJ)

It was really interesting to see the show as a movie rather than a musical.  I caught parts of the story and character motivations that I'd missed in multiple versions of the stage production.  Jean Valjean's progression from desperate thug to flawed man trying to do right while saving his skin to placing others truly before himself.was far more clear here than in the stage productions I've seen.  Also, the focus was totally different - you're focused on each character and can see facial expressions and reactions - the acting becomes as important as the singing, which I found surprising.

Unexpected punch in the gut: Javert pinning the medal on Gavroche in the row of dead revolutionaries.  My daughter said that was counter to Javert's character from the musical; I agree, but I found it a welcome change; it very nicely bridged the gap between Jean Valjean showing him mercy and his suicide, especially after his admission that he grew up poor on the streets. I thought it was very well done by Crowe.

Unexpected non-punch in the gut: Empty Chairs and Empty Tables - This song leaves me crying in my beer even when Brianna plays it night after night while washing dishes.  It was sung kind of wimpily, and I think it needs a stronger interpretation.  Also, the destroyed bar wasn't the same for me as imagining him in the same bar intact but with his friends gone.

Awesome scene:  Defeated revolutionary pushes through armed soldiers to stand with (and be shot with) his leader.  Totally badass.

Scene that was way awesomer in the movie than they could ever do on stage:: Revolutionaries kidnap funeral procession.  Also badass.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Picture worth 1000 words

FatherGeek's kids playing Diggity
I have to say, one of the neatest parts of the modern world is the ubiquity of pictures.  Nearly everybody has a camera; nearly everybody has the ability to share photos.  This hit home when reading the FatherGeek review of Diggity which featured a picture of his two young kids playing my game.  Regardless of what the review said (and it was positive), the part that was totally awesome was seeing some folks I've never met enjoying the game.

Yay, 21st century... :-)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Stratego reordination

I learned last week that the makers of Stratego have reordered their pieces in the recent games, so that the good ones are now the higher numbers, and the worse ones are lower.  I suppose that sort of makes sense for people learning the game anew, if the higher ones are better, but the curmudgeon in me will always think of miners as 8's, not 2's.

Ridiculous, I say.  If you're number one, you should be able to beat everybody, right?  Not in the new version - number ones are the feeble scouts.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

100th post

Looks like I've rolled the odometer here, so to speak - 100 posts - so maybe time to take stock.  The project (or quest) is to get Diggity published.  I designed the game while wandering around Munich and Bavaria last October, and tested it a bunch over there.  I did art for it in November. I got my first actual version from in December thanks to my mother-in-law.  I got my first production quotes in December. I looked at other print-on-demand options in January, and continued testing and development. I started blogging here about three months ago.  I've been interviewed, I've opined, I've done investigative journalism. Seems like this project is still moving along - I've got my art proposal out to my artist, I've got a good sense of what the game's going to cost to print up, and I'm learning about the marketplace.

Still no idea if I can actually make this work, but it's been a fun ride so far.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game taxonomy

I sometimes teach paleontology where I work, and that is a science rife with classification and categorization. As I've been thinking more about games, I've been trying to come up with a fundamental classification system that works for me. To start with, I need to define what a game is. I think I'll go with this for now - it's annoyingly vague, but I think it needs to be to encompass everything that we currently think of as a game.

A game is the following:
  • an optional activity
  • with one or more abstract goals defined by rules
  • undertaken for enjoyment 
  • involving one or more players.

I think this rules in almost everything, and rules out only stuff at the far fringes, like cooperative storytelling. Of course, it's almost too broad, since a lot of seemingly non-game things would still fit in there (like, say, politics, or marriage). But it's workable for now.

If we accept this as what a game is, then I think there are three main game types - the "Kingdom" level of games, if you'll allow me to strain my paleontology metaphor a little. Not that there are only three, but these three seem to cover most activities. These are:


- competitions that involve contests of skill or agility. I'd include in this traditional sports like soccer, baseball, jai alai, etc., but also stuff like darts, foosball, armwrestling, air hockey, etc. I think I'd also put some video games in here, like first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and other similar ones where physical or mental performance is key. There are some common sports I'd have a tough time including as "game sports." These would be things like weightlifting, much of track and field, swimming, etc., since their goals aren't abstract.


- activities that involve producing or manipulating real or abstract objects or pieces of data to achieve a particular purpose. This would include mental puzzles like crosswords and sudoku. It would also include most computer games (e.g. Snood!), unless they're multiplayer, in which case they might instead be in one of the other main kingdoms here. Based on my definition, "Puzzles" would also include some non-gamey things like jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles require players to be clever, but not necessarily lucky, strong, or aggressive.


- activities that let players use pieces, parts, or objects to achieve an imagined goal or scenario defined by rules. These can follow close to reality (e.g. historically realistic wargames) or remain quite distant from it (e.g. Go, Crazy Eights, Poker), or somewhere in the middle (e.g. chess, Monopoly). So, this covers most of what I'm doing, whether it's card games or board games.

I think these three categories cover much of what people think of as games. Role-playing games are a little harder to fit in, but I think they go in as Abstractions.

I'll think more about this later - maybe get down to the phylum or class level, too.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Still more on controversial topics

Again via Boardgame News and the Paper Money podcast, there's a protest planned on the upcoming game based on King Phillip's War. I wrote about this in an earlier post here. The protestors seem not to know much about the game - one of the comments indicates that they think the goal of the game is to repeat the massacre of Native Americans, while the real game looks to have an Indian side and a colonist side and replays the military struggle between them.

Obviously, King Phillip's War is a tough subject historically, and is viewed by many as a crime perpetrated on the tribes involved. I'm not sure that view is historically accurate - not that there weren't war crimes committed by colonists, since there certainly seem to have been, but that there was a broader context and conflict in which these crimes were undertaken, and that conflict wasn't about the massacres, and involved bad actions by many participants on two distinct sides. The game focuses on the military struggle, which was apparently instigated by the Wampanoag chief Metacom, known by the English as King Phillip, albeit in response to colonial expansion and domination. Given the complex nature of the conflict and the focus of the game, I don't see the culpability there for the game designer. But then I'm descended from the colonists, not those who were murdered, displaced, and ill-treated. Maybe any reference to this event is painful, even 330 years later, and having it reenacted in something as trivial as a boardgame is an insult. But there are many, many games based on historical events, often bloody ones, especially in the realm of wargaming, and it's unusual that any of them attract protest.

I guess there would be two ways to respond here as the designer and publisher. One would be to try to point out that the game (if I understand it correctly) doesn't attempt to excuse the colonists' massacre of Indian families, includes both sides of the conflict, and that it's actually an opportunity to educate about these historical events and their sad outcome, and that the protesters don't seem to know what the game is actually about. That's the current approach, I think, and I'm not sure how successful that is going to be. The other is to cave - to pull the game, apologize, and give up. That's easier to do here, because they're only in the pre-order stage - if they actually had 3,000 of these in boxes, you're looking at a big loss. They might also try just waiting to see if the outrage is sustained or fades away. None of these options is attractive, I'm sure. Not a good choice to be facing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More on controversial topics

My earlier post covered the game Train, about the Holocaust, which is an unusual choice of topic for a game.

Via BoardgameNews, there's this article in the Providence Journal about a game about a war 335 years ago that's making some descendants of the Native American participants unhappy. The game allows a player to "be" the Indians, and presumably allows the Indians to win. So it's not as though the overall object of the game is subjugation of Native Americans, unlike Train (discussed in the last post), where the goal is (most bluntly put) to facilitate the murder of Jews. However, there's no question that the European settlement of North America, and incidents like King Phillip's War, represented a painful time for Native American population, replete with many atrocities and acts of evil, acts not perpetrated only by the colonists, though the Native Americans lost far more.

Does representing this difficult time in a game trivialize the suffering of the Indians? Or could drawing attention to this era actually educate people about the violent history of the founding of our country? That's hard to say, and the answer likely depends on your heritage and your view of the past. More evidence that topic choices are tricky, and that controversy is hard to avoid, even if the events you're drawing from happened centuries ago. Interesting, though, that the article ends with the question, "Would we play a game called The Holocaust?" Turns out, thanks to Brenda Brathwaite, some people have come pretty close.

One unrelated point from the article - who know that Red Sox pitcher (and bloody sock wearer) Curt Schilling designed games? I saw him in person playing for the PawSox. Pretty neat.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Train, and games with controversial subjects

There's this "game" called Train that's been in the news recently. I put the word game in quotes because designer Brenda Brathwaite declines to describe it as a game herself in the rules. The premise of the game is that players are trying to load yellow pawns onto small model trains and then move the trains along a track. There are choices to make while playing - cards to play, whether to add more people or move the train, etc. - and there are some cards that can hinder or interrupt the progress of the trains (a "derail" card). When a train reaches the end of the track, the player draws a card to reveal where the train was going, and the destinations all turn out to be concentration camps. The goal of the game has been to play the role of Nazi war criminal - to stuff as many Jews and other victims as possible onto the train and convey them to their doom in the camps.

My initial response to hearing about this was the same as Anthony Burch describes his here on Destructoid. The game sounded emotionally manipulative, like an excuse for a "gotcha" moment. This was compounded by the fact that in the media descriptions, participants are apparently judged by onlookers (and by journalists) on how they respond to the big revelation, with participants who fail to be sufficiently troubled held up for scorn, and those who, upon realizing the game's goal, quit in disgust or try to hinder the movement of the trains within the rules, seen as moral.

Reading Burch's column further, in which he relates that Brathwaite's talk at GDC was a good one, and particularly moving, I'm more inclined to give the game experience the benefit of the doubt. I haven't played the game or had the experience of finding out the secret, so it's a bit difficult to imagine what that must be like, in the same way that it would be hard to imagine or describe the experience of watching The Sixth Sense to somebody - when the secret is so fundamental to the experience, and so shocking, there's no substitute for first-hand experience. I can guess that I'd feel betrayed and pretty horrible about myself, and I'm pretty sure I'd feel manipulated by the whole thing. It still feels like a stunt to me, although Brathwaite frames it in terms of teaching about the Holocaust and forcing people to think about choices of actions. 

Maybe the value here is supposed to be in showing people how they're willing to focus on following rules without thinking about the moral framework in which they're operating. But those who loaded Jews onto trains in the real world could not have been ignorant of the inhumanity they were perpetrating, even if they might in some cases have been ignorant of the full extent of the consequences of their actions. Those playing this abtract game, with toys, don't have that moral framework at all, unless they're able to discern the metaphor through the clues Brathwaite provided - broken glass in the decorations, era-appropriate trains, the color yellow, and a somber, typewriter fonts. If not, they're just playing a game, and can hardly be faulted for what they do. 

And passing harsh judgment on what actions people take when the metaphor is revealed is hardly fair. What is the right response? If I were offered a chance to play the game knowing the metaphor, I'd certainly refuse, and condemn the whole concept of the game - I'm enough of a student of history to know what the Nazis did, and I just visited Dachau for the second time last fall. If it were revealed to me, I think I'd either quit playing or try to stop the trains. But I don't think it's fair to condemn those who don't make those choices. The strength and nature of players' responses would depend on all kinds of things - how well they know the history, how well the metaphor works for them, what they perceive the expectation of the other players and of the hosts of the game to be - it's really hard to figure that out. Some might continue to play so as to continue to learn - to use the simulation as a teaching tool, or food for thought about the evil committed. Other than condemning the real Holocaust, I don't know that there is a definite best response to the game or to the trickery.

It's interesting to me, too, that the fact that the evil the Nazis did here is so direct and so palpable that people feel justified in criticizing those who play on after knowing what they're doing. Just a couple weeks ago, I watched people playing a card game called Let's Kill where they were all serial killers trying to kill the most victims in the most gruesome ways. I found it distasteful, and wouldn't likely be inclined to play it myself, but these people all had decided to play it (and enjoyed it) knowing full well what it was about. And there are hundreds of games I've played in which I kill people, or steal things, or lie - why are those actions not judged, while those in Train are? I've played the Germans in Axis and Allies many times without feeling guilty. Should I be? Are Quakers not allowed to play chess? 

There seems to be an interesting and inconsistent boundary between games that are OK and games that go too far. A board game focused on rape or suicide bombing or abortion or the Holocaust would be condemned, likely rightfully so, but Train gets by that by hiding its true meaning and being framed as experimental art or as a teaching tool. Other topics, like homicide, war, theft, and organized crime all seem perfectly OK - Mafia Wars has over 25 million players on Facebook, and the actions you take in that game are often pretty horrendous, yet it has generated not nearly the outrage that Grand Theft Auto has. So much of this is situationally dependent, inconsistent, and ambiguous.

My nature has always been to play it safe, so I'm not likely to head anywhere this controversial in my designs.  But the temptation is there for many designers.  Dipping into violence and sin is as common in games as it is in prime time TV - it's a real market draw. The Let's Kill card game and Mafia Wars are published and making money (providing a guilty pleasure, maybe), yet those players who finish a game of Train are apparently often contemptible. The Holocaust, perhaps because of the scale of its evil, has a special power that other events do not, and maybe that's how it should be. But it's an odd and deeply unsettling choice of topic for a game.