Hey, video game industry, what are you going to do when you can't make any more meaningful advances in graphics? I've been asking you this for like seven years now, because we're pretty much there. The next generation of game hardware will be all about taking us through that last 1 percent of photorealism, and I have to tell you, it's a gap that's not worth filling.
Remember, you need to keep at least a little bit of uncanny valley in your video games. I need to still feel good about shooting these dudes on the screen. I want the enemy soldiers to look like real video game people, not real people people. I don't want to look into the face of a victim and see their hopes and dreams die, the light going out of their eyes as they realize they will never again hug their wife and kids on Christmas. So, yeah, you can pretty much stop where you are.
You know this already -- that's why we're still playing our 6-year-old Xbox 360s with no end in sight, when video game consoles used to only last five years (the SNES came out in 1991 and the N64 in 1996; the PlayStation debuted in 1995, the PlayStation 2 in 2000). So what are you going to do to take things to the next level?
Well, video game industry, I want to introduce you to a little group of people I like to call writers. With Hollywood trying hard to transition to a model where movie scripts can be written by a committee involving the star, the marketing team and the special effects supervisor (even comedies are heavily improvised now), there are some great writers out there looking for work. Men and women with stories to tell, experts at pulling the strings of human emotion. Hollywood is getting out of the human emotion business; it's time for you to get in.
Let me pick a random game to demonstrate what I mean: Rage, the huge-budget, heavily promoted shooting game made by the legends who gave us Doom and Quake. Here's a screen shot of the scenery in Rage, next to a real photo of Death Valley. You tell me which one is real and which is video game:
The game is the one on the right. That is, the one that's prettier than real life. It's evident from the first moments that no expense was spared in this production -- they even hired John Goodman to be the voice of your best friend.
Yet I played it for two hours before giving up and taking it back to Blockbuster out of boredom. Why? Because the game begins with you waking up and immediately encountering Goodman's character, who says, "Go kill this entire building full of guys for me and I'll give you some items when you get back."
And that's it; that's your motivation for playing. A favor you're doing for this stranger, with no context. There is nothing pushing you forward: no promise of discovery, no sympathy with some good guys in peril or a princess who needs rescuing. Goodman's role in the game is apparently to just blandly give you instructions about your next task. Go retrieve this, go deliver this item to here, go kill these dudes. You are expected to do it, because it's a video game and that's what you do in games (and you paid hard-earned money for it). But as motivation goes, it doesn't even rise to the level of rescuing the princess from the monkey at the top of the scaffolds.
A little writing could have saved it.
I'm not demanding that games be Moby-Dick. I'm not hard to please -- even Modern Warfare's story, delivered entirely via the Sergeant shouting at me to go defend Burger Town over and over again, was enough to make me see it through to the end. There was a clear forward thrust in the narrative -- it was obvious that Burger Town was really important to him. Most games don't even manage that.
And when games attempt comedy, it almost always just makes me sad. Clips of Duke Nukem Forever and its '80s-era "guy" humor convinced me to not even rent it (but I'll let Kristi elaborate on that).
Which brings me to the Portal series. The first game introduced a great new game play mechanic that, on its own, could have made for a nice little downloadable Xbox Live Arcade title. But the writing team (including Internet comedy great Erik Wolpaw) added a flavor to the game that had every gamer in the world quoting lines from it for the next two years.
The sequel (written with the help of former Cracked editor Jay Pinkerton) built on that, introducing a simple but compelling story structure that was merged perfectly with game play. Early on, the game sends you deep into a sub-basement of the test facility. As you puzzle your way back up level after level, you pass long-abandoned areas of the structure, proceeding across time periods in a way that lets the back story unfold on the fly. Not through stiffly acted cut scenes, but through everything the player sees and interacts with -- the decor of the buildings, conversations with other characters and automated PA announcements made by the long-gone proprietor of the lab.
Writers. That's what that magic is called. Hey, did you like Batman: Arkham Asylum? With its rich library of character back stories stored in interview tapes and old man Arkham's scrawled diaries scattered around the island? That game was written by Paul Dini, who wrote for the excellent Batman: The Animated Series.
Here you go, game industry. You hate being second fiddle to Hollywood? Hate how nobody thinks your games are culturally relevant, and how you haven't yet created a game that will still be touching people's lives 75 years from now? Well, here's your opportunity. Because Hollywood is clearly moving away from a writer model, satisfied to grab characters from other properties, storyboard a bunch of action sequences and give some poor guy a couple of weeks to pound out a bunch of shit to fill in the pages in between.
Go steal their writers, and offer them the power to create games that resonate on a human level in a way that blockbuster movies don't anymore. Do it now, you'll find them at Starbucks.
The headlines are dominated by tales of an unemployed and dissatisfied populace living under the looming threat of an energy crisis, skyrocketing food prices, a broken and corrupt banking system, terrorism and global warming. We look for help to a corrupt political system in which corporate lobbyists are literally allowed to write legislation and where corporations are able to buy favors in an entrenched system of institutionalized bribery. In light of all that, this is what gets you thrown out of Congress. Sending a photo of your underwear bulge to a girl.
If you just sort of pay attention to politics, then the entire 2012 election process would appear to be nothing but a string of embarrassing gaffes by Republican politicians you had never really heard of before this year. If it seems like a ridiculous slapdick affair, that's because it is. In this article alone we're managing to mock no fewer than three of them (Jack picked Donald Trump, Kristi takes on Rick Perry).
The point isn't that the Republican Party has been entirely replaced by crazy people -- it hasn't. To make sense of what happened in 2011, you must understand two things:
A. In America, the sitting president almost always wins re-election;
B. In America, once you lose a presidential election, the party does not allow you to run again -- they cannot bear the shame of you having been mocked by Jay Leno for three months after the election.
So on that first point, we re-elect the current president about 75 percent of the time (see: Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Eisenhower, Truman, FDR and FDR again). On the rare occasion that the sitting president loses, it's usually due to something weird, like Ross Perot stealing Republican votes from Bush Sr. in 1992 (Clinton won with only 43 percent of the vote). Even a big loser like Jimmy Carter was tied with Reagan in the polls just weeks before election day. The system is just heavily stacked in favor of the sitting president because, as you have seen, a year before the election he gets to sit there and look presidential while the challengers on the other side play the game of monkey shit dodgeball known as the presidential primaries.
And losing to the president means your career is over -- even Al Gore, who was still young and only lost by a couple hundred votes and a Supreme Court decision, was never considered for a second try (also see: Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole). The point is, if you are a Republican who aspires to be president, you probably don't want to run in 2012. If you are smart, you play the percentages and sit it out to run in 2016. That's why prominent, popular and respected Republicans like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee all stayed on the sidelines.
What was left, unfortunately, was the exceptionally uninteresting Mitt Romney and a ragtag group of goofball fringe candidates. Both the voters and the news media immediately went about amusing themselves by marching these characters out into the spotlight one by one to watch them combust into a flaming ball of crazy.
There was even one bizarre stretch when Donald Trump led in the polls, even though he was only pretending to run in order to drum up publicity for the new season of Celebrity Apprentice, a reality show where Meatloaf and Lil Wayne must cooperate to make balloon animals on camera (Trump has been doing this since 1988, each time pretending to run in order to get free headlines when he has a book or some other project to promote). That's oddly appropriate, because there has been something of a competitive reality show atmosphere about this, and no one epitomized this process more than Herman Cain.
Cain, if you didn't know, has never held an elected office. Not even for city council. Not even dogcatcher. He used to be CEO of Godfather's Pizza, and then became a talk radio host (even filling in for Rush Limbaugh at times). He appeared to be a Donald Trump-type candidate, somebody looking for free advertising for his burgeoning media career. Thus his early campaign appearances avoided crucial primary states in favor of book signings.
It's a no-lose proposition. Because you're running, the media HAS to cover you. If they dismiss you as a fringe huckster on a glorified book tour, they'll be accused of bias. Therefore they're required to put your name on the national news, guaranteeing prime placement for your book in all the major bookstore chains. Best of all, the campaign itself is paid for by other people, with their donations. People who don't realize it's all a sham.
But to be clear, Herman Cain had no desire to actually be president. He wanted a cushy, high-paying job as a talk show radio host and author, spending the rest of his life making millions by saying intentionally outrageous things. He treated his run as a joke at every turn -- his early campaign commercials were silly video clips that were clearly just him and his buddies fucking around:
If for some reason you can't play the above clip, let me summarize it with this still:
Then there's this one, which involves a fake actor on the set of a fake Western movie, in an impenetrable setup that doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything:
He cited the Pokemon movie as a source of inspiration. On the subject of his knowledge of the geopolitical situation around the globe, Cain said, "When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, 'You know, I don't know. Do you know?'"
Cain's sarcastic "run" for "president" was going swimmingly until a brief stretch in October and November of 2011 when suddenly Cain found he was in the lead. In that moment, according to the polls, Cain was America's number one choice to replace Obama above all 300 million other humans who live within the nation's borders. It was like an '80s comedy premise come to life: "A goofy pizza shop owner runs for president to drum up publicity, and winds up winning!"
It was the perfect snapshot of the bizarre, scary, tumultuous situation America finds itself in. All of the fear and frustration of a country that has no goddamned idea what to do next led it to turn, however briefly, to this man, who showed comically little curiosity about foreign policy or the complexities of the tax code or what the president even does.
It didn't last long. In one brief campaign-killing stretch, Cain was shown in an interview to not seem to know what a "Libya" was ...
... and then sexual harassment allegations started popping up from former employees and that was that. Cain dropped to 13 percent in the polls and then quickly dropped out, no doubt a couple million dollars in book royalties richer.
Who replaced him as the front-runner of the month? Newt Gingrich, someone else who I'm 99 percent sure only ran because he had books to sell. Then all of his skeletons will come tumbling out of the closet and this ridiculous sideshow will continue right up until the country (probably) just elects Obama again and hopes that things can somehow get better in 2013.
Some Internet memes are just completely meaningless. They're self-sustaining inside jokes with no entertainment value of their own, perpetuated because they became bandwagons for teenagers who are desperate to show that they belong. Rickrolling, for instance, was probably funny that first month it appeared on 4chan (or wherever it was born), but from then on it was a secret handshake. You didn't laugh because it was funny; you laughed because you wanted to be in the club.
You cannot say that about Rebecca Black's "Friday." We can disapprove of people insulting this teenager, we can hate how we kept hearing about the song for months after its expiration date. But the video is fucking amazing. It's a slow, unintentional descent into madness.
For instance, there's a moment at about 2:05 when the visuals spin out of control, into an unsettling waking nightmare wherein Black is suddenly transformed into a seizure-inducing flickering strobe that keeps getting darker and more ominous as it lowers us into hell:
And then, just as we've given up all hope, at 2:30 the rap break kicks in, sung by a dude who couldn't even bother to get out of his car:
Wait a second. Why was the world mocking Black? She was 13. This guy is a grown-ass rapping man. What has gone wrong in his life that he's making this video at this stage of his music career?
As an aside, the out-of-nowhere rap interlude has become my favorite pop culture phenomenon. I wish it happened in real life. I'm going to use that as an excuse to once again post a link to my favorite song of the last 10 years, Riskay's "Smell Yo Dick," a song about a woman who suspects her boyfriend is cheating on her, and as such is demanding to smell his genitals to see if she can detect the odor of stripper vagina:
The rap rebuttal that explodes onto the scene at 2:13 gives me chills every time I hear it. He demolishes her case like goddamned Kevin Costner in JFK. From his opening line:
"Smell my dick? Wait a minute, hold up.
See, that's how a bitch get her eyes swole up!"
To the conclusion that slams the door shut on any lingering doubts about his innocence:
"I might break bread with one or two strippers
But that don't mean you got to pull on my zipper
Thinkin' I dicked down the whole town
Even though I got dick to go around!"
Wait, is it too late for me to declare that my clip of the year?