Entries in media (8)

Sunday
May312015

Asimov by Way of Japan

I recently enjoyed revisiting a favorite anime series, Time of Eve. There are a couple of things that stand out about the series. First, it’s by Yasuhiro Yoshiura, who is a brilliant director of short animated works (like the earlier Aquatic Language). Second, the format was really unusual, it was a series of six fifteen-minute episodes released online, later compiled into an (almost identical) movie. Third, it’s straight-up Asimovian science fiction, Three Laws of Robotics and all.

I really like Asimov stories, in large part because they’re generally stories about friendly AI. Not that I dislike stories about unfriendly AI, but it’s easy for a story about unfriendly AI to fall into the same tropes as other monster or disaster stories. A lot of the Asimov short stories are straightforward mysteries, but there’s also room for telling tales with a lot more ambiguity.

The story is set in a world where robots are at a casual glance indistinguishable from humans, save for their rigid patterns of speech and behavior and the holographic status rings that hover above their heads. A high school student notices an odd entry in the log of his house android, and follows that to a strange cafe, Time of Eve, with a single rule clearly posted at the entrance: “In this cafe, make no distinction between humans and robots.”

Many of Asimov’s stories focus on issues of industrial activity or political struggle. But the Powell and Donovan of this series are not industrial debuggers but high school students. The story has strong themes of conventions of behavior versus a desire to express one’s true feelings and to understand the feelings of others. The cafe of the title is a place where one can enjoy a moment of quiet contemplation, amidst an epochal change in society that has not quite become manifest, not yet.

If you’re a fan of Asimov’s robot stories or would enjoy an interesting take on that sort of setting, I definitely recommend this work. The first episode can be viewed for free on Crunchyroll (though splitting up a 15-minute episode with ads is rather unfortunate), paid members can stream the rest (but there’s a free trial). The movie can be purchased here.

Tuesday
Jul232013

Examining Narrative Games as Art

I recently finished playing Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, a wonderfully constructed game and a tremendously moving piece of interactive fiction.  That got me thinking about video games as narrative art, and that had my mind wander back to an old debate between the late film critic Roger Ebert and Clive Barker.  The fundamental disagreement is characterized here:

Barker: “I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn’t taken the damn poison. If only he’d have gotten there quicker.”

 Ebert: He is right again about me. I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would “Romeo and Juliet” have been better with a different ending? […]

Barker: […] Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. […]

Ebert: If you can go through “every emotional journey available,” doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? […]

And this is something that I wish Barker had characterized better because it’s so obviously a poor description of great narrative games.

Incidentally, I’m not trying to criticize or argue with Ebert.  The former would be piling on to an argument that’s long since over.  As for the latter, I’m obviously too late.  I just want to discuss that central point.  Because Ebert’s claim does seem reasonable on the face of it.  It’s hard to imagine a great film where control over direction, camera work, and even script is (sometimes) essentially handed over to the audience.  It was clear to me from experience that this didn’t destroy the narrative intent of the game creators, and that something powerful was gained in return.  But at the time Ebert’s remarks seemed so off the mark I don’t give that central point the nuanced response it deserved.

Constrained Choice

Barker failed to make a crucial distinction between an art-form as a whole and individual instances of that art-form.  Cinema could also be described as allowing the viewer to go through “any emotional journey available”, but an individual movie does not.  Great narrative (or you could say “cinematic”) video games also don’t present the player with “any emotional journey available”.  Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a tragedy.  Like Ebert’s example of Romeo and Juliet, the structure of the story does not permit a (satisfying) happy ending.  Telltale’s representation of The Walking Dead is more interactive than (most) stage presentations of Romeo and Juliet, but the interactivity of that representation of the story still doesn’t permit a happy ending.  A central question of Telltale’s The Walking Dead is whether it is more important to protect a child’s physical safety or their ethical/emotional humanity, in situations where you can’t protect both (or maybe not even either).

The Power of Dialog

Barker failed to address Ebert’s point about directorial control head-on.  Given that audience-members are (probably) not great directors, and they haven’t even looked over the script in advance, interactivity implies a loss of directorial control that is clearly a loss in terms of ease of conveying a specific artistic vision.  The correct question is:  What is gained in return?

One answer is that cinematic games have the potential to engage in actual dialog with the audience.  They can have different reactions to different player choices.  And, importantly, this is generally a distinct, small set of reactions to a distinct set of constrained choices.  Dichotomies (and false dichotomies) are a very important feature of human thought, and a key bit of artistic potential that cinematic games have that cinema does not is the ability to explore that feature through interactivity.

Congruence

The dialog of interactivity (often, but not always, achieved by games through interactive dialog) gives games a powerful way of putting the audience in the shoes of a perspective character.  This is done in several ways:

1. Collaborative character interpretation: The players interpretation of a character influences interactive character decisions, which in turn influence how the character is portrayed as the narrative continues.

2. Forced parallel between audience emotions and character emotions: Games can use interactivity to force a parallel between character emotion and player emotion through game mechanics.  Well-crafted game mechanics can induce a whole range of emotions, including hope, disappointment, triumph, frustration, suspense, tedium, flow, surprise, and epiphany.  That goes for non-narrative games as well, but in a narrative game you can use those mechanics simultaneously to scenes where the character is feeling the relevant emotion.

It’s not simple, there are real costs to doing so.  If you want to create the emotion of suspense or triumph, you probably need to back that up with a real possibility of failure, often with no better way to get back to the story than “back up a bit and try that again”.  And sometimes the objectives are contradictory; it’s hard to produce a mechanic that makes the player feel the character’s feeling of frustration without thwarting the forward progress of the narrative, or making the player so frustrated that focus is drawn away from the narrative instead of into it.  Still, there are tricks that can be employed to have mechanics work one way in the game-as-game and another way in the game-as-narrative.  Often this involves concealing the true nature of a game mechanic, or setting up player expectations and then thwarting them.  Telltale’s The Walking Dead does so with quicktime events, which generally are “press X to not die” sorts of affairs, but used in other situations to get player emotions to mirror character emotions as diverse as suspense (a character doesn’t know if rescue will arrive on time), false hope (a character thinks they can struggle onwards if they try hard enough, but they can’t), and blind rage (a character thinks a fight they are in is a life-and-death struggle even after their opponent is helpless).

If you think that it’s somehow inartistic to layer over a (narratively) disconnected art-form in order to get the audience in a particularly receptive emotional frame of mind, note that cinema does the same thing with music.  Of course, games can use that trick, too.

3. False interactivity: Games can get moments where they have their cake and eat it, too, when it comes to directorial control.  If you do a good enough job with getting the audience in the right state of mind, you can create a situation where the player’s action is invisibly constrained, offering them a false choice that seems like a real choice, where the player is really getting inside the characters head when they realize that there is only one thing they can do in this situation.

Probably the most powerful example of this I’ve encountered is this scene from Ico, which occurs just after the “second act” in the game’s story.  The cutscene breaks back into interactive gameplay right in the middle, where the protagonist has been separated from his friend and must quickly decide whether to leap a widening chasm to join her or to leave her behind and flee for safety.  It’s a false choice, there’s no significant narrative for players who choose the latter, or even those who hesitate too long, just a game over screen.  But that usually doesn’t matter, everything in the narrative and the mechanics of the gameplay up to that point sets the player up to make the right choice for the narrative, without hesitation.  Instead of being a loss of directorial control, it’s a powerful moment of congruence.

Thursday
Oct182012

Romix/Obamix

I’ve been away from here too long, hosed by work and politics.  The presidential debates sure are interesting.  Wait… what was that about Barack Obama?  No, no, I didn’t mean that debate.  I meant this debate:

Round two:

Who the heck is moderating these?!  I guess it makes sense when you see the guy’s campaign ad:

The political cartoon has a venerable history, but I’m beginning to think the political remix is really capturing the zeitgeist of modern political satire.  Here’s something a bit more musical:

More from MC R-Money:

But before you think Romney’s the only one who’s been taking on a turn for the musical, I had to find some quality musical remix satire for Obama.  And not just the different, though also funny, type of remix that’s not political satire per se.  (This sort of thing is somewhere in the middle.)

Here’s one that’s pretty good (though probably cheating a bit and NSFW for swears):

What makes for a great political remix?  What’s your favorite example?

Tuesday
Aug142012

Robot Cars and Shell Games in Florida

It was very interesting to watch this video opposing Jeff Brandes in his bid for the Florida State Senate:

It’s probably the first political attack ad (political ad in general) to focus on driverless vehicles.  And there’s just so much to dig into!  It’s this amazing mix of forward and backwards thinking.

It’s got the designated-old-person narrator pushing the anti-autonomous-vehicles position when autonomous cars are likely to be an incredible boon for the elderly (stuck as they are in a car-dependent society with diminishing sight, hearing, and reaction time).

It’s got the misleading misquote from a Forbes article:  The ad says “Driverless Cars for All: More Dangerous Than Driving - Forbes”, but the actual Forbes article is titled Driverless Cars for All: An Idea More Dangerous Than Driving (emphasis mine), which is not about driverless cars being physically dangerous but the opposite, the “danger” is that manually-piloted cars will be forced off the road in the name of safety.

It quotes the headline of an opinion piece titled Will driverless cars really slow for pedestrians?, but that piece doesn’t imply that driverless cars won’t slow for pedestrians, just that there are complicated tradeoffs involved, and that driverless cars don’t solve that issue by their mere existence.  (Personally, I think autonomous cars will be great for pedestrians, but it’s unreasonable to expect that you can make everywhere safe to cross just by adding more computation and reducing reaction time, all while maintaining fast roads.)

It gets even weirder when you look into who’s funding the ad.  Just who is this Committee to Protect Florida?  Well, a PAC of some kind, they’ve got a hilariously generic description of their purpose.  But they disclose their expenses and contributions.  (Note that the “ecoreport” part of the URL probably has nothing to do with “ECOlogy”, but rather stands for “Electioneering COmmunications”.)

Expenses seem unsurprising, lots of postal spam and media advertising.

Politifact has a page on them (they have not gotten to this ad yet, though):

The Committee to Protect Florida is headed by Rockie Pennington, a political consultant for Richard Corcoran, a Republican candidate for State House District 45.

Corcoran, eh?  What’s he got to do with Brandes?

“I am honored to receive the endorsement of Richard Corcoran,” Jeff Brandes stated. “We worked hard during the 2010-2012 session to address the public’s desire to eliminate wasteful government spending and burdensome regulation. I will continue championing reforms in the State Senate that will boost small business and get Floridians working again.”

A major contributor to the Committee to Protect Florida is the Florida Leadership Fund, which has a very similar website and an even vaguer mission statement.  That gave to Brandes’s State House campaign in 2010, but now seems to be supporting his opponent, James Frishe, in the State Senate race.

Another contribution is Americana Media.  Which contributed web-design services, maybe?  They seem to specialize in blue websites for Florida politicians.

Committee to protect Florida is also supported by MARK PAC, which is where things get a bit weird:

Back in 2007, the Florida Elections Commission fined Democratic operatives Jeffery Ryan and Sara Henning a whopping $209,000 for  illegal financial dealings over several years through a political committee called Florida House Victory that had been set up to support Democratic candidates for the House.

This was all reported at the time. What got lost later was that Democratic Party lawyer Mark Herron—instead of Ryan or Henning—paid off the fine in two installments in Dec. 2007 and June 2008 through another political committee called MARK PAC, which drew its cash during the same periods from two Florida pari-mutuels, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, and health care giant Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). Democrats say there was nothing wrong with the arrangement, and insist the state party had nothing to do with House Victory or paying off the fines.

Anyways, there’s a lot going on here.  It’s amazing just how complicated political campaign funding has become in the US even at the state level.  A good thing to keep in mind as the 2012 presidential race accellerates to full velocity, with no one quite sure who’s behind the wheel.

Full Disclosure: I don’t work on autonomous vehicle technology, but some people at my company do.

Friday
Mar302012

Trayvon Martin and the State of Discourse

I’ve been following the case of Trayvon Martin’s shooting at the hands of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.  On the left, there was a rush to accuse Zimmerman of cold-blooded murder.  On the right, there was a rush to paint Martin as a thug and double down on the racialized paranoia.  But the facts that really make or break the case (specifically, who started the fight) are currently unknown.  The unusual bits of Florida’s laws on self-defense don’t really apply to this case, they don’t excuse murder if you provoke someone into attacking you and then resort to lethal force, or if you attack first and later fear for your life when the fight doesn’t go your way.

There’s some interesting discussion to be had on the role of guns in self-defense and aggressive violence, guns win fights but also escalate the stakes awfully quick:

Statistically, incidents of guns being used successfully in self-defense are extremely rare. The following events are a lot more likely:

• Criminal gets hold of your gun and uses it against you.
• The gun gives you a psychological feeling of self-confidence that will cause you to get into bad situations you otherwise would have avoided if you did not have the gun.
• Use of a gun in an ambiguous situation will get you in prison for murder, which is worse than getting beaten up.
• Being prosecuted for murder will ruin your life even if the jury finds you not guilty.

The Zimmerman incident is a good example of the truth of the above. The video showed that Zimmerman wasn’t beaten up that bad. Without the gun, Trayvon probably would have run away after giving him a good but not life-threatening beating. And according to Zimmerman’s father, Trayvon saw the gun, which caused an escalation in the altercation.

There’s something to be said about race relations in this country, something to be said about violence, about respect and community, about culture, about the standards of criminal evidence.  But most of what I hear about this case depresses me because it seems to be overwhelmingly characterized by those that no longer hope for productive dialog on this sort of issue, from one side:

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Mikhail Muhammad said at a Saturday press conference in Sanford, Fla., in which he also called on 10,000 black men to “capture” Zimmerman. “He should be fearful for his life”…

Or the other:

In the last few days I’ve repeatedly discussed blacks’ common attitude that their response to any white authority figure who asks them anything is to resist, fight, ignore, or run away. But the commenter at Half-Sigma puts it better: Non-blacks may not talk to blacks, period. To say anything to a black is to step into his territory, it is to dis him, and thus to provoke his righteous vengeance…

Seems like on some issues the state of discourse in this country is only slightly better off than Trayvon Martin.

Monday
Oct102011

Update on Netflix

Turns out they’re just really bad at business.  Not that I’m displeased with that decision as a customer.

Wednesday
Sep212011

Netflix Shot First

Netflix’s recent decision to split itself into two businesses (Netflix for streaming, Qwikster for DVDs) has been a source of confusion and consternation all over the web.  Netflix does explain their reasoning, though.  Not in the most recent announcement, but in the announcement of their price change in July:

Given the long life we think DVDs by mail will have, treating DVDs as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs.

Note what’s left out.  For whom does “DVDs as a $2 add on to… streaming” not make sense?  Netflix, not streaming customers.  The other half is more or less accurate, DVD-only customers have several options and may be more price-sensitive.

And why does that not make financial sense?  Presumably, the studios are forcing Netflix to pay per-customer for streaming licenses.  If that’s the case, Netflix might see the scenario this way:  If we split up our customers (most of whom mostly use one method or the other) into two bins, we profit even if they all choose one or the other.  Why?  Because even though they’re now paying 80% of previous, the streaming expenses are cut in half.  Win-win, right?

The risk relates to the fact that there’s a big difference between all-streaming and mostly-streaming.  The convenience of renting a DVD when streaming was not available patched over the lack of streaming selection.  “A $2 add on” might not make financial sense to Netflix, but it makes perfect sense to customers who view it as a patch to a bug that, in their view, is Netflix’s fault.  $2/mo. is low enough to feel “basically free”, $8/mo. is not.  Thus, this move may cause some streaming customers, instead of picking sides, to leave entirely.

Therefore, it should be clear that the price change is not a grab for $6 more per month.  Separating the sites, marring the user-experience and reducing convenience (when this is all about convenience) is a clear anti-feature.  Netflix really wants people to choose sides, and was willing to cut prices to give them an incentive.  And where carrots are insufficient, let the beatings commence!

My guess is that Netflix is in a bit of a catch-22 here.  They can’t fix the selection problem while DVD streaming is an option.  Even if Netflix can convince a studio that they “have to be on Netflix”, the studio can just shrug and say, “So? They’ll just get it on DVD.”  On the other hand, the “have to be on Netflix” argument depends on the popularity of Netflix, which may depend on “DVDs as a $2 add on”, so staking everything on “streaming or nothing” is not without risk.

It’s a dramatic case of business negotiations.  Netflix is trying to convince the studios that they need Netflix to win (quickly) in the streaming video market, then holding itself hostage, threatening to shoot if the studios don’t renegotiate.

More than that:  Netflix shot itself first, and is daring the studios to let it die.

(Context: I’m not a Netflix investor.  I am a Netflix subscriber.  I subscribe to both DVDs and streaming.  Before the split I would have paid the extra money, but now I’ll probably cancel the DVD-by-mail service and keep streaming… for now.)

Wednesday
Jun012011

A Modern Story of X

Recently, there’s been this human-interest story making the rounds about some parents who have decided not to disclose the gender of their latest child, Storm.  Unsurprisingly to me, the couple in question was influenced by X: A Fabulous Child’s Story, published in 1978.1  I’ve been a fan of that story since I first heard it in middle school and think it makes a good point:  Children don’t need everyone telling them what they should be doing (in relation to gender roles) for them to develop an understanding of who they are.2  In modern American society, at any rate, people care about the gender of young children with an intensity that makes little sense.  I once saw a video in a psych class where parents introduced their infant to strangers by differently gendered names, a small difference which colored the entire interaction so intensely that the resulting film was rather comedic.  What’s in a name, indeed?

However, that’s not the end of that case.  As Reddit commenter Majoribanks notes:

[…] it doesn’t actually sound like they ARE giving their kids such an unbiased choice. It sounds like they really really really want radical genderqueer show-off children to support their own worldview.

I mean, they say this: “What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious” but then also this “The boys are encouraged to challenge how they’re expected to look and act based on their sex.”

The two are in direct opposition to each other. These kids don’t go to school, and don’t interact with people outside their family very much or for long amounts of time. Their parents “encouraging” them to “challenge” their gender expectations is basically tantamount to telling them “you should act like girls to please mommy and daddy!” I mean, if their sons ask for a pretty frilly dress and the parents respond with “of course! you look so wonderful in it!” but if they ask for a machine gun they get “do you really want to conform to expectations for boys to be so violent” instead, how is that any sort of meaningful choice?

That phrase seems to explain, to me anyway, why BOTH their sons want to have longer hair and wear pink and purple and glitter, when even their parents have short hair and don’t wear makeup. Most kids who DO play with makeup, girls included, do it because they see their mother and female relatives doing it.

That comment really reminded me of another blog post from earlier this year, written by Heather Soersdal:

So, here’s my mistake: I never should have written the post about my gender conforming kids in response to the posts about the gender nonconforming kids. […] What I know now is that I had no idea of the scope and scale of this my-son-acts-girly blogging phenomenon and just how truly offensive it is. I’m embarrassed to have taken any part in it.

As it turns out, there are a lot of blogs like this. Like, a lot. […]

They all have 2 things in common: they’re all about boys who act feminine, and the boys are all prepubescent and in some cases barely emerging from toddlerhood. Nobody’s concerned with girls who like boy things even though some of them could be gay, too (gasp) and anyone with a copy of What To Expect the Toddler Years ought to know better than to start a career writing about gender nonconformity in a child who is too young even to have any real solid idea of how to be gender conforming.

Girls aren’t an issue because girls acting like boys are considered to be expanding their horizons and even promoting themselves. Femininity in women isn’t assumed to be innate, but learned behavior (see: charm schools, every womens’ magazine ever). Therefore, masculinity in women is not assumed to be innate but as contrived as femininity and possibly semi-rebellious behavior that will probably get her far in life if cripple her chances of getting a husband. Boys acting like girls, however, are immediately assumed to be acting on innate feminine impulses that are probably connected to them wanting to date other boys. Mens’ genders are real, womens’ genders are faked. [… no seriously I’m omitting a lot here …] There’s no need to assume anything about a child’s sexual orientation and if anything there’s a need not to obsess over it. Planning this far into a child’s future simply does not make sense.

However, these parents insist they’re not planning this far into their boys’ futures. They insist and insist and insist on it. Oh, the insisting. They go on about how they know this is not a guarantee of a gay son. They have links all over the sidebar about GLBT causes and titles like “Raising My Rainbow” but don’t you dare forget, they know that this probably doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gay except in BoyGir’s case, where it necessarily definitely means he’s gay and genderqueer. They insist they do not care about whether their sons are gay or transgender. There are really only two conclusions I can think to draw here. Either these parents are struggling with their homophobia and overcompensating for their negative feelings toward their own sons in the same way you might buy an extra special gift for the in-law you hate to prove you don’t hate them, or they just really love the attention, Münchhausen’s style.

[emphasis mine, link also mine]

(I’ll just do that thing I do where after a lengthy quote I tell you to just go and read the whole post anyways.)

Okay, so that end is probably overly harsh, but I don’t think the criticism is inaccurate, or that a similar sort of thing might be going on in this story.  It’s easy (or at the very least, tempting to some) to cross the line between doing the right thing because it’s right and doing the “right” thing so you can wave some sort of political flag before an audience.  If you think that something shouldn’t be a big deal, making the most of the media coverage is probably undermining your point.

1. If that name is a comics pun, that’s quite a groaner.

2. In fact, there’s strong evidence that “confusing” someone about their gender identity is really hard.