Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sexist Portrayals of Women in Video Games

In the larger work that is yet to come, I shall be examining the portrayals of women in video games in the last decade or so. There has been a very outspoken protest against these portrayals within the last two-to-three years, specifically with physical depictions as well as the role that women play in these games.

Included in this will be examinations of a selection of games that have been deemed sexist (soon to come) and a selection that potentially addresses the issues that have been raised (also soon to come). Like television and film, there is a large issue with the presentation of women, but the larger concern is that in video games, developers quite literally have the control to prevent at least the objectification issues in addition to the writing of women in these games.

Sources will include the games themselves, ones that I have played in order to give a fair critique, as well as other critical essays on the topic, news articles, and any digital media that I can include online, both photo and video.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The 2013 Academy Awards

The 85th annual Academy Awards proved to be a night of laughter with more one-liners than meaningful statements. Host Seth Macfarlane casually strode the line between “somewhat offensive” and “Holy crap. He actually said that?” throughout the night, from the ode to female frontal nudity, “We Saw Your Boobs,” to his quip to 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis that it would be “16 years before [she] was too old for George Clooney.”

Minus the awards, the show itself was surreal. William Shatner (in classic Captain Kirk garb) demeaned Macfarlane from a giant television screen, Daniel Radcliffe, Macfarlane, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt performed a song-and-dance number of “High Hopes,” and Jennifer Lawrence fell up the stairs on the way to her award for Best Leading Actress (she handled it with much grace).

Besides the absurdity that ran amok throughout the presentations, it was a huge year for the Oscars. Life of Pi won in four out of the eleven categories it was nominated for, and in the acting categories there was stiff competition among the nominees. Daniel Day-Lewis took the Best Leading Actor award for his stellar performance in Lincoln, while Jennifer Lawrence (as I mentioned) won Best Leading Actress, edging out Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Naomi Watts (The Impossible), Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), and Emmanuelle Riva (Amour).

Perhaps the most incredible contest of them all was the award for Best Film. Among those nominated were Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty. All of the films have been met with critical acclaim, and so the winner was a toss-up. However, Ben Affleck received his first win since Good Will Hunting in addition to producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney taking part in the acceptance for Best Film.

The night was also full of musical performances that were all over the map. Adele’s performance of “Skyfall” (which won Best Original Song) was poorly mixed, as she was frequently drowned out by the band. On the other hand, Barbra Streisand’s performance of “The Way We Were” for the recently deceased Marvin Hamlisch was incredibly touching.

The night also marked the 50th anniversary of the Bond films, and to celebrate that, they put together a somewhat forgettable montage of Bond clips with a soundtrack mix, and afterward Shirley Bassey gave an underwhelming and quite flat performance of “Goldfinger.”

The Oscars had its laughs, and it was certainly entertaining to watch, but there were few moments during the program that had any amount of substance.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Artist as Critic

Oscar Wilde's The Critic as Artist poses a myriad of questions about the nature of critique and the role it plays in relation to the medium which it portrays. Among his answers between the fictional Ernest and Gilbert is the fact that the primary role of the critic is to function as the interpreter of art; His aim is to "chronicle his own impressions."

The question of the critic's relation to the art has also been raised, though. Wilde argues that the critic "occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticises as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought." It is in this statement that Wilde further validates his own composition of the piece.

No stranger to the art of writing, Wilde draws up his conclusions on critique as a man who has been continually exposed to the craft. Although he concludes that the critic is indeed as much of an artist as the medium which he interprets, he must also have a relation to said form, as this provides him with the means to understand it.

It is in this that the beauty of the piece comes forth: the meta-critical nature of Wilde's analysis, in which he provides his thesis through the fictional dialogue of Ernest and Gilbert, is informed and validated through Wilde's own experiences as a writer. It is his personal artistry that completes the critique on critique itself.

In relation to other forms of arts journalism, the same holds true. In order to interpret a piece of art, a level of experience and connection needs to be present. It is this same relation that informs the critic on that art, enough so to convey his feelings for it.

Just as Oscar Wilde uses his connection to prose to write about critique, the critic must be an artist in that field to translate the beauty that flows onto the page.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Back to the Roots: SSX 2012

After recently picking up SSX (2012), I was brought back to a time in my youth spent on a myriad of arcade-style sports games: the Tony Hawk franchise, NFL Blitz, of course, the original SSX, and many others.

What struck me after playing the game was that the era of these games had died starting with the new millennium.

But why? While there necessarily wasn't a terrible amount of substance to these games, they were just plain old fun. No plot, no driving force to get you through the game, but it was made up for by the fact that you could just sit and play. There's just something about having free reign (over the gameplay and often the laws of physics) in your gaming experience.

It was refreshing to see these traits return in EA's first release in the series in five years. Absurdly large courses, often spanning the face of entire mountains, bring longevity and unlimited creative potential in how to approach each event. Races and trick-contests return, and with the newest release, EA mixed it up with the newest Survival mode.

This mode pits the rider against Mother Nature's "deadliest descents," facing obstacles such as cliffs, subzero temperatures, pitch-black caves, and low oxygen levels. Each descent is modeled after real-world mountains based on data taken from NASA.

Story-wise, there's not much to speak of, but of course it is an arcade-style title. It's your run-of-the-mill competition, but, hey, who's playing for the story, anyway?

The gameplay is where it truly shines, hearkening back to earlier titles in the series. Gravity-defying tricks create the sense of dominating the mountain while still maintaining lighthearted fun for all. This, accompanied by another superb soundtrack by EA, spanning electronica, rap, and dubstep, matches beats and remixes perfectly with landings, tricks, and the classic "tricky" mode thanks to their "Harmony" mixing software.

The game features 159 total drops, although many are just different modes of play, and many also converge near the bottom, creating the illusion of track diversity. That said, there are a few gems among the crowd, integrating train-wrecks, slope-side houses, mines, crashed planes, and more in order to create a unique run each time.

While it isn't perfect, SSX is a nostalgic blast-to-the-past, and it projects a promising future for the franchise.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Pauline Kael: The (Wo)man Behind the Myth

Pauline Kael was a woman of many words. They were often very harsh words. However, this is what made her the loved (and often hated) critic that she was. During her many years of film critique, it was her sense of independence and style that made her into the legend that she has become.

In her interviews with Francis Davis for the book Afterglow, Kael revealed that she was often accused of writing about “everything but the movie itself.” Even though she included many personal anecdotes and tangents in her reviews, she did so with conviction. It was her lack of apologies for doing so that made her works into art as a critic.

In Oscar Wild’s The Critic as Artist, he frames the critic as interpreter; he believes that “the highest criticism […] is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not.” Here is where Kael shines. While her opinions of film were sometimes in complete contrast to popular opinion, it is her creative drive that keeps the reader coming.

From Disney’s The Little Mermaid to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, Kael reviewed it all. She did not shy away from any film genre, and she made it clear that she loved every minute of it. By the tone of her review, she even made it clear that she preferred Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything starring John Cusack to the aforementioned films, hailing and praising the work of the actors and screenwriting, while she only enjoyed the chemistry between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in the traditional classic, The Last Crusade.

It is in this sometimes scathing pan that Kael finds her greatest weakness. Although she was a bastion of independent thought, it does beg the question on who the critique serves. While her sense of style, wit, and descriptions provide a pleasant and entertaining read, it is hard to judge whether or not her reviews mesh with the average moviegoer.

It is indeed laudable that Kael is able to demonstrate her idiosyncratic critique abilities, but her extreme love and passion for film creates a void between her and the reader. It may goad the reader into viewing the film, if only from her masterful use of language and storytelling, but her opinions on the films are extreme in almost all cases, and this drives a barrier between in taste. Kael is a domineering writer to be sure, but her prose may be just that: prose, instead of a critique for the everyman. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Let's Play!

In the realm of video game journalism, the trend of “Let’s Play” narratives have picked up within the last year and a half. While it is debatable that they function as true “journalism,” LP’s, as they are commonly referred to, are a generally informative means of judging the content of a game, as well as gaining insight into others’ reactions to said game.

For those who do not know what an LP is, it is basically a chronicled playing of a game. It is done in two formats: a written narrative accompanied by screenshots, or a video of the gameplay accompanied by audio commentary of the player. 

Unfortunately, due to the nature of an LP, it is certain that the plot will eventually be spoiled to the reader. However, many written LP’s refrain from giving away future events in the game, instead letting the reader find out as they go. 

Instead of functioning as a traditional arts critique, the narratives give a more raw representation of what one might expect from playing that game. Especially in the video area of presentation, where inflection and surprise reactions can be displayed, it shows the viewer firsthand what that particular player experienced.

This has its drawbacks, as it does give away plot as it progresses, but it serves another purpose that traditional video game journalism does not. While reviews give the reader a basic summary of what they would expect from buying and playing a game, LP’s provide a much more visceral and unmasked sense of going through each game. 

In addition to this, many LP’s are rife with humor, as the player interjects his own thoughts on what takes place during his/her experience. Whether this be their screaming at terrifying parts or just plain amusement at bugs or other occurrences, it is usually a pretty accurate perception of what the game experience is like.

While the plot giveaway is detrimental to traditional journalism, it can also function in a positive way to those who do not have access to the game, especially in foreign titles. Many LP-ers will translate foreign dialogue as they go along, providing viewers with the means to access content that they would not normally be able to. 

The “Let’s Play Archive” claims that the first LP came about in 2006, but it has only picked up in popularity within the last year-and-a-half, mostly due to the accessibility and ease of video commentary. Many written LP’s are truly an endeavor to read through, as they cover the entirety of the game, including dialogue, screenshots, and commentary. Depending on the speed of the reader, this can make it a much longer experience as compared to the video format, which provides information in real-time. 

Either way, it is a very interesting trend that has picked up in popularity, and while it may not function as proper journalism, it is an insightful practice that can provide those with limited access to the game a similar experience, or at the very least, an opinion of what they could expect. 

Whether or not this trend continues is hard to predict, but the sheer entertainment value alone should help it stay around for quite a while.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Local Treasures: Art of Kalamazoo

Diversity is the claim that the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts goes for in their exhibit “Local Treasures of Kalamazoo,” and they manage to have it in spades.

The showcase is centered on pieces of all shapes and sizes that are taken from 30 private art collections in the Kalamazoo area. A placard in the entrance to the exhibit “recognizes –and applauds— those who make fine works of art part of their everyday lives.”

This menagerie of fine arts ranged from lithographs to bronze sculptures, an assortment as varied as their origin. These works hail from twenty countries and span roughly two centuries of visual arts.

Surprisingly, there were works from famous artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir (“Louis Valtat”),  René Magritte (“Untitled,” lithograph portrait), and Henri Privat-Livemont (“Absinthe Robette”). This further served to demonstrate the depth of art in the Kalamazoo community.

There was a no-photography policy in the rooms, so no pictures of the actual exhibit can be shown.
Interestingly enough, even in the presence of this policy, there were only two members of the institution to provide security, and they intermittently wandered the two exhibits on the floor, leaving many pieces unwatched.

 Arrangements of the works were mostly done by time period, and there were a few groupings by country of origin. Stylistically, it was hard to discern whether or not they were placed in an otherwise strategic manner. In addition to this, it should be pointed out that I have limited expertise in the visual arts.

However, even if there is little knowledge of the pieces themselves, the art presence in Kalamazoo is impressive enough. The variance in styles, time periods, and ethnicities of visual art further exemplifies the KIA-proclaimed point of the exhibit: to reflect upon “the range and diversity of local collections.” Even for a two-room exhibit, this display of Kalamazoo culture truly is a local treasure.

“Treasures from Kalamazoo Collections” is open until February 17, 2013 at the KIA. The institute is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00am-5:00pm, and Sundays from 12:00pm-5:00pm. Admission for adults is $5, students with ID for $2, and KIA members, youth under 12, school groups, and active military personnel gain admission for free.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure critiques

Both the Western Herald and the Kalamazoo Gazette have given mostly positive reviews to the Civic Theatre’s presentation of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure. However, the differences between the two articles are vast.

In the reviews, the authors give a nod towards the various behind-the-scenes activities of the production, including lighting, directing, casting, and props, but the article from the Herald acknowledged the depths of the production more so than the Gazette.

Interestingly enough, the vast majority of the Herald review was plot summary. Although the aim was probably to give the viewer an accurate representation of what they should expect from the play, it turned out to be rife with spoilers, essentially spelling out the entirety of the production. It was quite interesting, though, that even with this intensive summary, the article still managed to include the background information and critiques of the different aspects of the play.

On the other hand, the Gazette article managed to give an introduction to the play without spoiling it for the audience. Both argued for the casting of the various actors/actresses, in that they all were fantastic for their parts (the Gazette also acknowledged that Marin Heinritz was a theater reviewer for them, which was professional of them).

It was odd, however, that Mark Wedel of the Gazette remarked that he had an issue hearing the dialogue of the play. He did jokingly mention that he may need “one of those cheap hearing aids pitched on late night TV,” but he did advise viewers to sit close to the stage. It wasn’t an issue that I ran into in my experience of the play, but I did sit relatively close to the stage. The un-microphoned  performance may indeed not be suited for a venue like the Civic Theatre.

Both articles argue their points well, providing adequate evidence for their claims. Stylistically, I preferred the Gazette article, as the transitions and flow of the piece made it very pleasant to read. The Herald’s article, however, seemed somewhat disjointed, and it was potentially to do with the large amount of plot summary.

Otherwise, I have no real complaints about either piece. The author of the Herald article began his last paragraph with “overall,” which is a pet peeve of mine, but I believe that both gave a somewhat accurate representation of what a viewer would expect from seeing the show, even if the Gazette did it a little more eloquently.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"And now we have what everyone was waiting for, and yet no one was aware of."

“Our guitar player is gonna teach our bass player this song. One minute interlude,” said tenor sax-playing, shuffle-dancing, aviator bespectacled front man Aaron Stinson after inviting audience member Jimmy Stone onstage.

The rest of the band started a huddle in the back of the stage while Stinson walked up to the front and started playing the Jeopardy song. Patrons of the Union Cabaret waited in silence, not sure what to expect. Stone calmly walked up to the microphone, gave the band a cue, and launched into the iconic hook of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On,” as the members of the crowd burst out into stunned laughter and applause.
It was so good that it had to have been rehearsed, but it was all spontaneous. 

This was the vibe that the All-American Funk Parade gave off during their show on February 2nd: one of pure fun(k), energy, and silliness.

Their set-list was marvelously constructed. Their first set was comprised of instrumental originals that meshed nicely with dinner, and as the night wore on, the band complemented the evening like a nice three-course meal. They launched into their covers of well-known pop songs such as Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Nelly’s “Hot in Here.”

Other gems of the night included a somewhat surprising rendition of “Hava Nagila,” to which Stinson dedicated to “all [his] Jewish friends.” About halfway through the song, however, Stinson perfectly transitioned to the Sir Mix-a-Lot classic, “Baby Got Back.” It was moments like these that made the show perfect, and the audience went increasingly wild with each seemingly spontaneous absurdity.

While the band is based out of Lansing, an amazing number of people showed up to support the band, and they did not disappoint. After performing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” Stinson announced to the crowd, “I still have the dream of becoming a Space Jam cover band. It would take a group of extremely disciplined musicians,” to which everyone hollered. Before heading into the next piece, he added,” Which we’re not.”

It is moments like these that make the All-American Funk Parade a fantastic group to see live, and they provided the energy all throughout the night to keep the crowd going. The pure wit and musicianship that they displayed makes them a must-see band. It was a laugh-a-minute show, and they made sure it was a great time for both them and the audience.

                              Parade performing "Leave a Nickle on the Nightstand" at the Union