Notes on media, politics & technology, by Adam Wilcox.

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Hitchens - The True Spirit of Christmas

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Christopher Hitchens:

I realize that I do not know what happens in the prison system. But I do know what happens by way of compulsory jollity in the hospitals and clinics and waiting rooms, and it’s a grueling test of any citizen’s capacity to be used for so long as a captive audience.

Written for the Wall Street Journal shortly before he died three years ago today, Hitchens on why the Puritans found the holiday suspect.

#permalink

Constantine

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Based on the DC Comics series Hellblazer, Constantine is a new show on NBC about John Constantine, a supernatural detective from the North of England who battles occult forces across America.

The comics have been going for years, and as an antihero John Constantine is a cult favourite. I don’t think NBC’s Constantine has been awful, and certainly not as bad as some have reviewed it. Matt Ryan is very good in the central role, and is the best thing in the show. There are some nice effects, and several of the episodes have had strong horror themes.

One problem however is that after years of watching HBO shows, it feels like the writers of Constantine are holding back unnecessarily; or more likely butting up against the edge of what NBC will let them do on a network show. What little of Hannibal, I’ve seen, suggests that Constantine could get nastier and grizzlier if they wanted to. However, given the religious content of the series, I can see why NBC would be cagey. Now this is just speculation on my part, (I’m on much firmer ground when arguing about British media regulation).

Constantine reminds me strongly of the 2003 BBC series Strange about a defrocked Priest battling demons, and the 1998 Channel 4 series Ultraviolet about a paramilitary vampire hunting team created by the UK Government and the Vatican. Both Strange and Ultraviolet failed to last more than one series.

John Constantine of the comics is a ruthless bastard, and a reprehensible character. TV’s John Constantine rarely gets a change to act like a total arsehole. In Episode 4, A Feast Of Friends, Constantine coldly uses his old mate Gary Lester as a demon receptacle, and we briefly get a brief glimpse of Constantine pulling a dick move. But the version of this story in the comic book involves a distinctly colder Constantine, treating Gary Lester as a useful idiot who got what he deserved, and displays little remorse. Dr. Gregory House is more of a bastard than NBC’s Constantine.

Generally comic book Constantine is a loner, or rather makes use of people around him for as long as they are useful however in the series he is accompanied by Chas and Zed. The episodes have worked best when there was more John and less companions. You get the feeling the writers are unsure how to handle this as Zed has a tendency not to be around for inexplicable reasons. Angélica Celaya’s absence for the entirety of Episode Six is explained with a throwaway comment, “Zed’s in art class.” It feels like a decision was made to have a woman in the show, but no clear idea as to what to do with her.

The ‘monster of the week’ setup works fine, The X-Files coasted on episodes like that for the best part of nine seasons. The ‘magical instrument of the week’ however works less well. In the comic books the plot is often driven forward by John being a dick, in search for a pint, a smoke, or a brief bedroom companion. In the series, the plot seems to be precariously hinged on the magical map, or the magical evil finding watch.

I know at least two people on Twitter who turned off when the show used the line; “nothing is blacker than gypsy magic”. This is unfortunate, as comic book John is very clear that right wing voters are literally demons in human form. I suspect that my uncomfortableness around this particular plot is in part a European reaction, as far as I know stereotypes about gypsy culture have less of a racist feel for American audiences.

Actually this is another problem with the series. Comic book John Constantine was filled with political protest against the British Tory regime of the 80s and 90s. This has pretty much been expunged from the NBC version. The comics were as much fighting political and social injustice, as fighting demons and sprits. I could imagine a plot strand where Constantine fights against demons masquerading as Wall Street financiers, but would NBC screen it? I have my doubts.

Constantine is not that bad. It feels like it could be really good given time to find its feet, however NBC announced in November that they would not be ordering more episodes past the initial order of 13 for the first season. Currently the only legal way to watch this show in the UK is via Amazon Prime Instant Video. I am not an Amazon Prime member, but I’ve watched the show. Cough. Cough.

Over The Garden Wall

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Over the Garden Wall is a Cartoon Network miniseries from Patrick McHale, one of the writers of Adventure Time.

Two brothers, Wirt and Greg, are lost in a forest trying to find their way home. Along the way they meet Beatrice, an irritable bluebird, and an elderly Woodsman who warns them of The Beast which stalks the forrest. Wirt is the older of the brothers, a Woody Allen worrier, paralysed by self doubt. His younger brother Greg, who wears a teapot on his head and carries a toad, is fun loving and blissfully unaware of any peril they may be in.

The excellent voice cast includes Elijah Wood as Wirt, with Melanie Lynskey, Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, and John Cleese.

Over the Garden Wall doesn’t have the gross weirdness of Adventure Time, this is a more mellow affair, about creeping anxiety. It’s a strange, cute fairy tale with a charming, beautiful animated look. It feels like a surreal Brothers Grimm, with all the weird creepiness of a proper children’s story.

There’s bits of The Wizard of Oz and there are several scenes that are clearly influenced by Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. In tone, the series reminds me of the Laika films like Coraline and Corpse Bride. Like the latter, Over the Garden Wall occasionally breaks into a jazz musical. The songs certainly add to the old fashioned, lived-in feel to the world, and never outstay their welcome. There are plenty of weird visuals along the way like a fish, fishing in a fishing boat, and turkeys pulling a pumpkin cart whilst a black cat drives.

Over the Garden Wall

It’s very funny, Greg is adorably upbeat and gets all the best lines, “Do you know how to make eggs from a duck? I’m hungry”. Beatrice, the irritable bluebird, is generally annoyed by the brothers, “Bluebirds have a short life span — you two are literally killing me every moment I’m forced to spend with you.”

Over the Garden Wall aired on Cartoon Network in 10 parts, but I think it works better watched as an 110-minute self-contained movie. The Cartoon Network UK Twitter account confirmed that it’ll be aired in the UK sometime in 2015, and some kind soul has uploaded it in full on Youtube, however it has an unfortunate centre cut-out framing which loses much of the background and you can probably find it in better quality in full elsewhere.

The Long Dark

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The Long Dark is a new open world-survival game from Canadian studio Hinterland. Currently available through Steam Early Access as an alpha version, its a sandbox game in which you explore and survive in a frozen Canadian wilderness. The game’s full release will include a story mode about crash-landed bush pilot struggling to survive in the barren frigid world after a global disaster.

There are plenty of open world-survival games available at the moment, Don’t Starve (which I’ve played), Rust and DayZ (which I haven’t), all have a similar theme; dump the player somewhere isolated with limited resources and see how long they last. I picked up The Long Dark during Steam’s Thanksgiving sale, and these are my impressions of the Early Access sandbox.

As a sandbox survival game, it is pretty unforgiving. I arrived in the middle of a forest, with clothes unsuited to the inhospitable weather on my back, unsure where to go I climbed to the top of a nearby ridge and spotted a series of cabins in the distance. Shivering all the way, I trudged through the show to the cabins and managed to scrounge some woollen socks, a basic tool set and a tin of peaches. Heading back out into the cold, I saw a deer in the distance but it ran off, as I tried to follow the deer I noticed some train tracks half buried in a snowdrift. I followed the train tracks to what appeared to be an abandoned water dam.

I found a bit more food and some water, so with night was approaching I bedded down in a quiet corner of water dam control room and fell asleep. The game informed me I froze to death in my sleep. I’d lasted 18 hours, 46 minutes.

Second go, I found a few cereal bars and went foraging for firewood but I was attacked by a wolf and died.

Third time round, and I got to roadside petrol station, and some accompanying cabins. Here I managed to find a load of tinned sausage and beans. I failed to find a can-opener though. I found two ammunition rounds, but no gun. I managed to craft a fishing hook and line out of spares I found in one of the cabins and headed out to an ice hole in the nearby fishing huts. A wolf howled in the distance. Unfortunately I hadn’t brought a tool with me to chip open the ice hole and I ran out of food whilst trying to find a knife.

More than once I sprained my ankle when I missed my footing on a slippery incline, and the game crashed when I opened the health interface. It’s an alpha release; these things are to be expected.

The Long Dark is all about the micro management of resources; searching for firewood will use up energy and increase exposure to the cold, but stay to long in one place and you run out of food and not have enough energy to get to anywhere else. Apparently there are other survivors to find, but so far I haven’t run into any.

The art style of the game is beautiful, a cell shading look similar to Jet Set Radio, Borderlands, or Zelda Windwaker. Oddly enough, the art style and location reminds me somewhat of Firewatch, and upcoming game from Campo Santo; a new studio co-founded by Panic Software- a long-time Mac development company.

The Long Dark, (as an open world-survival sandbox), is an intriguing game, it however suffers from the problem that many other open world-survival sandbox games have. It can get repetitive fairly quickly. Scavenging for resources, failing and resetting can become tiresome and frankly a bit dull. The story mode should alleviate some of my concerns though, as having a goal and a story at least provide a reason to try again when hypothermia strikes. Also, according to the developers future expansions will cover the spring and summer in the wilderness.

The potential for The Long Dark is interesting, and certainly worth playing, if only to experience the art style and exploration.

Available on Windows and Mac, currently on sale through Steam Early Access.

Thief 4

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Thief 4 is not a good game. In the fourth instalment of the Thief stealth series, you are again taking the role of master thief Garrett, who plunders his way through a fantasy steampunk city.

The game is known as simply Thief, however I’ll be referring to it as Thief 4 to differentiate it from the other games and the series as a whole. I guess there are spoilers below, but given the plot of Thief 4 is questionable at best I don’t think I can ruin it any further than the game developers already have.

Thief: The Dark Project released in 1998, and Thief II: The Metal Age released in 2000, are considered revolutionary, as they were the first 3D stealth games. The influence of the Thief games can be seen in later series like Assassin’s Creed, Hitman, Splinter Cell, and Half-Life. The third game, Thief: Deadly Shadows was released in 2004 and I played it way too much when I should have been concentrating on getting my degree.

I went into Thief 4 with great affection for the original games and really wanted to enjoy it. Unfortunately as a series reboot it fails spectacularly. The game is rife with bugs and problems; cut scene animations are jerky, and have little in common with the dialogue. Audio levels throughout the game are inconsistent and audio cues misfire. Reloading from a saved game is deathly slow, as are the frequent load zones connecting the city. Climbable objects are best discovered by running at things and seeing if you face-plant yourself onto them. As most of the time it is necessary to move at a crouch, Garrett’s hands are constantly bobbing in front of you as you shuffle forward, like you’re imitating a midget zombie.

The script is woeful, with sub Batman “I do good because good is what I do” type moralising. This isn’t the Garrett of old. Voiced by veteran voice actor Stephen Russell for the first three games, the character of Garrett is a proper antihero, cunning and amoral who begrudgingly saves the world if there is a chance he can fill his pockets with loot on the way. In Thief 4, Garrett is voiced by Romano Orzari because apparently Eidos “recorded the actor’s voices and their movement at the same time using a full performance capture technique,” however this Garrett is a generic and lifeless action hero spewing random macho-type soundbites with none of the sardonic humour of earlier games.

I understand that updating the game for a modern platform would require changes, but there appear to be none of the benefits of modern platforms either. After games like Assassin’s Creed, city exploration shouldn’t require unexpected loading screens for simply traversing rooftops. There should’ve been crowds of NPCs swarming the city, and at one point Garret says, “there are lots of angry people in this city tonight”. I counted four people. There were angry mobs of two people cheering public hangings.

It feels like a committee at Eidos had a quick look over the Wikipedia articles on the original Thief games and made a new one based on what they’d read. Sure, it’s a game about a thief called Garret. Some of the locations are named the same and the perma-night, rainy streets are about right. But its not a Thief game. Thief 4 feels like a paint by numbers game. You’ve seen this before, only done better.

There was the “flashback narrated by echoey woman” bit from Bioshock. There was the “shock” betrayal of new friend who seems downright shifty from the get-go, from Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Bioshock, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and Max Payne 3. The “escape from burning building” level I’ve played before in the new Tomb Raider, at least one Uncharted game, twice in Assassins Creed 3 , Black Ops 2, Max Payne 3, and Hitman: Absolution.

I couldn’t help but think of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, when the second level is set in the “House of Blossoms” brothel. The level barely made narrative sense, and thoroughly ticked the “Women as Background Decoration” box , as well as using violence against the female non-playable characters to make the Thief-Taker General appear more villainous.

Thief: Deadly Shadows contained the “Robbing the Cradle” level. This level was widely praised as one of the scariest scenes in the history of video games. It is a survival horror level, set in the Shalebridge Cradle, an abandoned, haunted orphanage and former mental asylum. I remember playing the “Robbing the Cradle” level first time round and needing to go for a long walk in the sunshine afterwards to recover.

The legacy of “Robbing the Cradle” inspired Eidos Montreal to create a similar asylum level in Thief 4. Sadly, it has none of the original creeping dread and terror of the original.

There are some nice effects, a wheelchair moves by itself, and shadowy figures move in the distance if you spot them. However the other ‘shock’ elements are shoved up to your face, just in case you miss them. The game seems to be saying, “look! Look at this! This is scary, you should be scared now!”. Prowling the asylum level is an invisible growling monster, which I didn’t even notice until it killed me.

The whole point of the Thief games were that you were expected to be stealthy. Spotted one to many times or hide in the wrong shadow and get surprised by a guard who isn’t stuck to a set path and you were sent back to the start. In Thief 4 the game says well done, you’ve successfully alerted every single guard to your presence and collected no loot, have a gold star.

Arkane Studios’ 2012 game Dishonored is a better Thief game than Thief. Dishonored took the good bits from the Thief series and expanded on them to created a new game. As glowing pioneer of stealth games, I think Thief was better left in the past.

Thief 4 is available on various platforms from Amazon. Although I can’t recommend wasting your time on it.