Archive for June, 2007

Past Perfect: Gaming, Music, and Flawed Memory

Ever play a new game and get that “wow, this is just like that game I played as a kid” feeling? Odds are it ain’t; at least if you’re like me. But why is that?

Take Metroid Fusion. On first play, I got those same goosebumps I had when I played the original Metroid. Visually, the characters slotted right into the cookie cut-outs the old characters left behind 20 years before. And the feel was just the same. Or was it? Going back and playing original, it seemed foreign, unforgiving. Lacking all the color and diversity I remembered. Metroid Fusion, then, doesn’t live up to reality, it lives up to an idealized memory. And to build a game that channels that beautifully flawed memory is a special kind of skill.

We’ve seen similar in music. Take, for example, the way LCD Soundsystem’s fantastic Sound of Silver pulls on 80’s memories — but only the good ones. How does that work? Like the Eye of the Tiger riff that hits 3/4 of the way through the first track. It sounds totally lifted from the Survivor song until you go back and listen to the real thing. That Survivor shit is awful! And that’s the magic. You remember it but you don’t.

While playing some games will forever be linked to 80’s styled music in my head, an even more direct linkage is made on the chiptune scene, where folks make music with old school videogame gear. That stuff lives in the nostalgic buzz of childhood gaming memories. You feel it in your bones.

It’s enough to make you want to go back and re-live all those early experiences. Almost. An LCD Soundsystem lyric puts it best:

Sounds of silver talk to me
makes you want to feel like a teenager
until you remember the feelings of
a real live emotional teenager
then you think again

It takes a special kind of looking back to fully appreciate how far we’ve come. The games and music of our childhoods weren’t perfect, but our memories can be. And new games and music that trigger the past can help us reflect on all that’s happened in-between.

What’s the formula for triggering good (and not gross) in our collective childhood media recollection? Who knows. But I’m always in awe when games and music give me euphoric flashbacks to those early days. So I’m happy if the trick stays a mystery. That way, I can put on some Out Hud, throw in Super Paper Mario, and travel back to a perfect past that only exists inside my head. Well, and maybe yours, too.

For more edited memories, see Radio Lab.

Twisting What You Know

We were taken aback by unexpected transformations of things we take for granted this week — from a soccer player to border fences to the film industry and more.

Molecular Man – Things come together for just an instant in this stunning Adidas spot. 1stAveMachine produces the best motion work we’ve seen all year. (via the antenna)

Border Breaking Technology – Repurposed border fence becomes a slide at the US/Mexico border, transforming structures that divide into structures that unite. And Subtopia hit again this week with another border crossing in beautiful, crushing shots of the no-mans-land between Gaza and Israel.

American Film Bullsh*t – Happy to see a critic with enough guts to call craps on the AFI’s new 100 best movies: “Riiiight — as if you really need another list, however democratically assembled, that leaves out David Lynch, John Cassavetes, the Maysles Brothers, the Coen Brothers and offers one film made by a black director and no films made by women.” Preach on!

Small Planets – Often fabulous miniature planets built from warped panoramic photos. (via daily dose)

Uniqlock – Totally wicked, totally strange clock with unlimited dance moves from Uniqlo Japan. Another chapter in the extra creative flash tradition that Uniqlo Explorer began.

images via 1stAveMachine

Spore Cost What!?

So, Will Wright’s hotly anticipated Spore is running a bit behind schedule. This week found it slipping out beyond the rim into “delayed indefinitely” territory. We’ve come a long way from the famous GDC demo and apparently there’s still a good ways to go.

Given that news, I asked a friend (who’s in a position to know) what the development cost looks like. The answer: “We need to sell 8 million copies to break even.” Ow. If Spore manages that, it’ll end up in some pretty elite company. But, then, if you’re going to pick someone to bet on, Will ain’t bad.

Assuming roughly $10 of every box sold goes to the publisher, that’s an $80 million production cost (8x Gears of War). While nobody said procedural content generation was a panacea, I think a lot of us hoped that it would at least lighten the load as games get bigger and more detailed. Same with end user content creation. And Spore is the poster child for both. In Edge 166, Spore animation lead Chris Hecker talked about their approach:

One of Will’s themes that we’re depending on heavily is ‘if you’re going to fail, fail funny.’ The hope is that if you start making some crazy-ass creature, like this guy has 11 legs. You have no idea how an 11-legged creature would walk, so if he stumbles over himself, it’s like: ‘Hey, that’s on purpose.’ If we can hit one animation that works for 80 per cent of the creatures, do a couple others that suck up the last 15 percent, and the remaining five per cent fail humorously, then we’re golden.

Brilliant thinking, but it seems building the tool that brings that level of whimsy to end user content creation might be more difficult than it initially seemed, even for those as talented as the Spore team. That’s what happens when you go ambitious, though. And, if nothing else, you have to give Spore that. Making procedurally and end user generated content work in one game is tough enough, but in eight games? Yeah, I think slipping a bit is probably mandatory.

We’ve heard that Spore is the game Will Wright always wanted to make. And, of course, following the towering success of The Sims, he’s been given every resource. With many of the typical constraints turned off, though, the question is will Spore turn out to be Will’s equivalent of Bary Levinson’s similarly off-the-leash dream project Toys? Sure hope not. Will’s too nice a guy. Either way, though, I can’t wait to read the postmortem on this puppy.

Eat more Spore at Wikipedia.

Manhattan Middle Finger: Density & Future Cities

More like dual middle fingers, actually. You see, a little over a year ago something new appeared through my window. A slowly extending slender metal finger of a building that shot out from the buildings around it like the bird. And another right across the street. They were too tall (more than double the height of surrounding buildings), the design was awful, and they drove a historic movie theater out of business. Double barrel f*ck yous to the Upper West Side called Ariel.

Lightning hit the west tower one damp morning while it was still under construction. Neighbors gathered and gawked — some even clapped. And the applause grew louder when the building started to smoke. The construction workers seemed genuinely shocked by both the lightning and our response. But, come on, lightning? That sure sounds like judgment from above. And don’t forget the building they built on top of fell into the street. You sure there isn’t an ancient Indian burial ground around there somewhere?

Cursed or not, the towers seem here to stay. What’s interesting is what this stir has to say about the future of cities, and the limits of human density. Density finds us more social, healthy, and (perhaps less obviously) ecologically sound. But, if the future points to ever increasing density, where does it stop? Sustainability expert Richard Fuller said as much in a recent BBC editorial:

So, it’s time to rationally debate these issues, and this is an issue that affects at least the nine out of 10 of us that live in cities. It is vitally important that we go into this new, high density era with our eyes open to the potential consequences.

Yes it has clear benefits as we build assertive cities for the 21st century, but by also making them compact cities, we must recognise the risk of isolating ourselves and our children still further from an experience of nature, as well as causing biodiversity around the places where we live to decline precipitously.

It’s a matter of finding a balance, then — sidestepping Ballard’s High Rise nightmare. And it seems that Upper West Siders found that balance (perhaps without realizing it) when they forced the city to rezone and end that skyscraper noise.

But, while the neighbors win a clear victory for their mental environment by keeping future buildings more in character with the neighborhood, it seems Ariel’s builders have won a victory for their cause, too. That’s because they can now guarantee perpetually unobstructed views in all four directions for their multi-million dollar apartments. Can you say price bump? And you have to wonder if they didn’t plan it this way from the beginning. Ugly, ain’t it?

For more on the whole Ariel mess, see the High Anxiety in the Times. It got so many heated responses, they posted a follow-up. And check the panorama to see just how much those towers stand out.

images via the Ariel discussion at Wired New York

Opposites Attract

It’s all about opposites. Strong contrasts can be disturbing or they can be beautiful. This week, we’re inspired by a little of both.

Kirk as Art – In the Star Trek days, Bill Shatner was uniformly despised by his colleagues for being an “arrogant, egotistical, line-stealing showboater.” These days, Billy seems perfectly happy to be mocked for kicks. Heck, he’s almost likable now. So, it’s fitting that an art show would showcase work that comically captures the very different life stages of the Transformed Man.

Black and White – What happens when a white girl brings a black guy home to dinner? Is it really that different from 20 years ago? NPR chronicles jungle fever in pop culture. And, oh yeah, Shatner is responsible for the first back/white kiss on TV. Figures, don’t it?

Gay America – Contrasting gay pride flag and American flag in Park Slope. Lovely shot from Joe during Pride Week asks how far the the country has come to accepting a biological truth.

Rich Poor Gaming – Video of Chinese workers, who play World of Warcraft 12 hours a day for 25 cents an hour to gather gold for sale — alongside their far richer western counterparts who might play the same amount of time but do it for fun. Rich man’s game, poor man’s living.

Street Art Iran – Artists respond to an oppressive, controlling regime with some beautifully illegal art. Opposites react. (via mefi)

Graffiti By Bike in Brooklyn

Recently, three well known NYC photobloggers headed up a bike tour of some of the best graffiti and street art spots in Brooklyn. It was a good time. Threats of bad weather scared off the masses and left us with a nice manageable group that wound its way from Williamsburg through Greenpoint and into Long Island City, ending at well known graffiti mecca 5 Pointz.

While that finale was certainly fitting (and tough to top for volume), what struck me throughout was the sheer diversity of styles: from iron work to paste-up to spraypaint to yarn.

Stories told during the tour revealed some interesting cultural tensions just beneath the surface. After all, looking back on classic graffiti documentaries like Style Wars, the scene then was once very different. Back in the day, most writers were inner city kids who, lacking the opportunities many of us take for granted, made their name by painting it on walls and trains that traveled further than they felt they could. Now that graffiti has become hip beyond those communities, though, formally trained artists from wealthier backgrounds have joined the fray. But it’s less clear how welcome they are. Tension 1: schooled vs. self-taught.

The second tension lies between established graffiti artists and the lesser known. Once you sell your first piece for big money, it changes things (and that’s happening more and more now). Some say you made it, others say you sold out. Graffiti artists expect artists to paint over with work of their own and that leads to much of the multilayered beauty of street art. But just straight up defacement is different. And we saw some of that when it came to the more famous artists. Sounds like jealousy. Tension 2: fame vs. underground.

Don’t get me wrong: the graffiti world is not drama-ridden so far as I’ve seen. The artists I’ve met have all been extremely cool and largely selfless. But I do find the fact that haves and have-nots mix so readily in this world fascinating. It changes how you think about art when you know a little more about the world the artist lives in. And the world they don’t.

Thanks to Jake, Mike, and Will for the great tour.

For more, see all our graffiti tour photos, check Jake’s shot of 5ptz, and visit Will’s tour info page.

Art for Global Change

As always, we’re fascinated with the intersection of art and activism. Here are five bits in particular that grabbed our eyes this week…

Global Warming World – Gorgeous kid look MTV spot makes a microcosm of the world and drives home the severity of climate change.

Guerrilla Gardening – Vandalizing public spaces with flowers, protesting the privatization of public space with plants. Taking off all over the planet.

What the World Eats – Photos of families worldwide alongside what they eat in a week. Echoes Menzel’s earlier work looking at families and all their belongings (book).

Candlelit Israel – Lovely paper and candle street art gives us hope and lights the way home in Tel-Aviv. And while we’re in Israel, have a look at the emotive stencil portraits popping up in Nir’s photostream.

Inspiration Out of Africa – We don’t focus on the positive in Africa nearly enough so I’m happy to see countries taking inspiring steps highlighted — Rwanda abolishing the death penalty, for example. You’d think we could be as forward thinking. Art of a political sort, but beautiful nonetheless. And of course don’t miss Vanity Fair’s massive Africa Issue.

Cliff Top Daredevils Take Flight in China

I’ve seen high wire acts but never quite like this.

We saw a lot of amazing things in China, from obviously awesome places like the Temple of Heaven, Pudong, and the canals of Suzhou to the understated beauty of Hutong backstreets. But the most unexpected sight came when we took an afternoon trip down a small tributary of the storied Yangtze River.

As we rounded a bend, our guide started yelling from the front of the boat and pointing straight up. I craned my neck, followed his gaze, and my jaw went slack. A tightrope stretched from cliff top to cliff top some hundreds of feet in the air. A unicycle stood right smack in the middle of it, fighting crosswinds — one person pedaling and another dangling underneath, draped in color.

What are we seeing? Is riding the tightrope a religious rite? A method of transit from high-ground to high-ground? A stunt for tourists? (Here’s a shot of their launching station.) Nobody seemed to have the answer. A central scene in the Yangtze-filmed Still Life features tightrope walking between buildings as the backdrop. Perhaps it’s a local tradition, then. No matter the reason, it’s a sight I won’t soon forget.

What You Imagine

What exactly is inside your head? This week found us smiling at lots of inspiration: from a refrigerator mess to imagination sucking sprawl to the best new music.

Smell Remixed – Smells mix in the fridge and hilariously disturbing hybrid creatures visit your subconscious. This new Brandt campaign spikes the nasty laughter meter.

Street Art Spain – Beautifully kinetic re-imagined lily pads in Palma.

What Music Looks Like – Showcase of extra creative limited edition concert promo art. And it’s for sale! (via Veer)

Radiant City – “80% of everything ever built in North America has been built in the last 50 years. And most of it is brutal, depressing, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading.” New film documents the cultural damage done by suburban sprawl.

Childhood Future – So much can be read into this photo — the wonder of childhood, a future train bearing down too soon. Lovely stuff. And speaking of childhood wonder, can you get more dreamlike than Tyler’s daffodil filled field?

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