DID YOU READ

Highlights from the DIY Gaming Frontier

Highlights from the DIY Gaming Frontier (photo)

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Thanks to better access to digital tools and improved distribution methods, indie gaming is on the cusp of a potential surge. But that rise won’t come just from established producers out to do their own thing. It’ll also happen because of upstart amateurs whose enthusiasm for gaming and technological talents lead to passion projects created not to reap financial rewards, but to showcase their authors’ skills and push game development into daring new realms of design and social commentary. In other words, the indie game world should be the first place you look when making the argument that games can be art.

One of the best examples of this is the Experimental Gameplay Project, a venture that was begun in 2005 at Carnegie Mellon University by four graduate students who are all now firmly ensconced in the gaming industry. It started as a web competition for gaming innovation, and continues today. The set-up is simple: every month, contributors submit a game (Flash-based, or downloadable to a PC, Mac or mobile platform) based on a given theme, like “Unexperimental Shooter,” “Failure” or “Numbers.”

The only rules are that the game must be made in less than seven days and by only one person, and at the end of the month, a winner is chosen. It’s a straightforward concept that’s led to amazing results, with countless titles that showcase both technical and thematic ambition, and at least a few that are so good that they’ve gone on to moderate mainstream success. The Experimental Gameplay Project heralds a new future of boundary-pushing homemade indie gaming. Here are some of the standout titles worth a highlight and a play.

01142010_Canabalt.jpg“Canabalt”

Adam Saltsman’s “Canabalt” is the definition of gaming simplicity. Produced in five days for EGP’s “Bare Minimum” theme, the black and white game (available as a free Flash web title or as a $2.99 iPhone download) couldn’t be more basic — as a man runs forward on an unknown quest, you hit a single keyboard button (or your iPhone touchscreen) to make him jump over obstacles and from rooftops to billboards to cranes. There’s no storyline and no predictable pattern (the game’s “level” changes every time you play), just the infectious challenge of trying to top your personal best score while enjoying a rocking soundtrack and admiring a host of sweet graphical flourishes (none better than flocks of flying birds). For pure addictiveness, nothing in ’09 topped “Canabalt.”

01142010_EveryDayTheSameDream.jpg“Every Day the Same Dream”

A game in only a loose sense of the term, Paolo Pedercini’s Flash contribution involves maneuvering a faceless figure through a series of daily-grind scenarios (bedroom, kitchen, car, workplace) set to an entrancing musical score that makes the action feel like, as Pedercini puts it, “a playable music video.” As you explores the game’s various workaday scenes, a puzzle begins to emerge, one in which breaking free from monotonous routine reveals a bleak, haunting commentary on the loneliness of the modern human condition and the limited potential for finding true meaning in life. Heady stuff, to be sure! But “Every Day the Same Dream” is anything but a slog, mixing enigmatic gameplay and social inquiry to mesmerizing effect.

01142010_LoseLose.jpg“Lose/Lose”

Zach Gage’s “Lose/Lose” takes its EGP theme — “Failure” — with deadly seriousness, to the point that it should only be played by those brave enough to risk the safety of their digital property. Gage’s title is a “Space Invaders” clone, except that, in the game’s terrifying twist, the alien enemies are actually real files from your hard drive, and when you blast these files in the game, they’re deleted from your computer. For good. Suffice it to say, only the intrepid or insane would actually play Gage’s game. Still, as a sly meditation on cultural reliance on technology (for practical purposes and for identity definition), it’s a one-of-a-kind work.

01142010MinMe.jpg“MinMe”

An iPhone title with “Tetris”-like appeal, Chaim Gingold’s “MinMe” is a puzzle game made for the “Bare Minimum” theme in just one and a half days that requires you to collapse tiles until the playing field grid is empty. No fancy graphics or music accompany this strategy-based title, but as a portable brainteaser, it’s a winner — even more so now that Gingold has expanded the game from its original, easyish ten levels to include an additional 50 increasingly difficult boards available via in-app purchasing.

Danzig-Portlandia-604-web

Face Melting Cameos

The 10 Most Metal Pop Culture Cameos

Glenn Danzig drops by Portlandia tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Glenn Danzig rocks harder than granite. In his 60 years, he’s mastered punk with The Misfits, slayed metal with the eponymous Danzig, and generally melted faces with the force of his voice. And thanks to Fred and Carrie, he’s now stopping by tonight’s brand new Portlandia so we can finally get to see what “Evil Elvis” is like when he hits the beach. To celebrate his appearance, we put together our favorite metal moments from pop culture, from the sublime to the absurd.

10. Cannibal Corpse meets Ace Ventura

Back in the ’90s,  Cannibal Corpse was just a small time band from Upstate New York, plying their death metal wares wherever they could find a crowd, when a call from Jim Carry transformed their lives. Turns out the actor was a fan, and wanted them for a cameo in his new movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The band had a European tour coming up, and were wary of being made fun of, so they turned it down. Thankfully, the rubber-faced In Living Color vet wouldn’t take no for an answer, proving that you don’t need to have a lot of fans, just the right ones.


9. AC/DC in Private Parts

Howard Stern’s autobiographical film, based on his book of the same name, followed his rise in the world of radio and pop culture. For a man surrounded by naked ladies and adoring fans, it’s hard to track the exact moment he made it. But rocking out with AC/DC in the middle of Central Park, as throngs of fans clamor to get a piece of you, seems like it comes pretty close. You can actually see Stern go from hit host to radio god in this clip, as “You Shook Me All Night Long” blasts in the background.


8. Judas Priest meets The Simpsons

When you want to blast a bunch of peace-loving hippies out on their asses, you’re going to need some death metal. At least, that’s what the folks at The Simpsons thought when they set up this cameo from the metal gods. Unfortunately, thanks to a hearty online backlash, the writers of the classic series were soon informed that Judas Priest, while many things, are not in fact “death metal.” This led to the most Simpson-esque apology ever. Rock on, Bartman. Rock on.


7. Anthrax on Married…With Children

What do you get when Married…with Children spoofs My Dinner With Andre, substituting the erudite playwrights for a band so metal they piss rust? Well, for starters, a lot of headbanging, property destruction and blown eardrums. And much like everything else in life, Al seems to have missed the fun.


6. Motorhead rocks out on The Young Ones

The Young Ones didn’t just premiere on BBC2 in 1982 — it kicked the doors down to a new way of doing comedy. A full-on assault on the staid state of sitcoms, the show brought a punk rock vibe to the tired format, and in the process helped jumpstart a comedy revolution. For instance, where an old sitcom would just cut from one scene to the next, The Young Ones choose to have Lemmy and his crew deliver a raw version of “Ace of Spades.” The general attitude seemed to be, you don’t like this? Well, then F— you!


5. Red and Kitty Meet Kiss on That ’70s Show

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

Long before they were banished to playing arena football games, Kiss was the hottest ticket in rock. The gang from That ’70s Show got to live out every ’70s teen’s dream when they were set loose backstage at a Kiss concert, taking full advantage of groupies, ganja and hard rock.


4. Ronnie James Dio in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (NSFW, people!)

What does a young boy do when he was born to rock, and the world won’t let him? What tight compadre does he pray to for guidance and some sweet licks? If you’re a young Jables, half of “the world’s most awesome band,” you bow your head to Ronnie James Dio, aka the guy who freaking taught the world how to do the “Metal Horns.” Never before has a rock god been so literal than in this clip that turns it up to eleven.


3. Ozzy Osbourne in Trick or Treat

It’s hard to tell if Ozzy was trying his hardest here, or just didn’t give a flying f–k. What is clear is that, either way, it doesn’t really matter. Ozzy’s approach to acting seems to lean more heavily on Jack Daniels than sense memory, and yet seeing the slurry English rocker play a sex-obsessed televangelist is so ridiculous, he gets a free pass. Taking part in the cult horror Trick or Treat, Ozzy proves that he makes things better just by showing up. Because that’s exactly what he did here. Showed up. And it rocks.


2. Glenn Danzig on Portlandia

Danzig seems to be coming out of a self imposed exile these days. He just signed with a record company, and his appearance on Portlandia is reminding everyone how kick ass he truly is. Who else but “The Other Man in Black” could help Portland’s resident goths figure out what to wear to the beach? Carrie Brownstein called Danzig “amazing,” and he called Fred “a genius,” so this was a rare love fest for the progenitor of horror punk.


1. Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World

It’s surprising, sure, but for a scene that contains no music whatsoever, it’s probably the most famous metal moment in the history of film. When Alice Cooper informed Wayne and Garth that Milwaukee is actually pronounced “Milly-way-kay” back in 1992, he created one of the most famous scenes in comedy history. What’s more metal than that? Much like Wayne and Garth, we truly are not worthy.

The Year’s Most Cinematic Games

The Year’s Most Cinematic Games (photo)

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type=”text/javascript”
src=”http://tweetmeme.com/i/scripts/button.js”>Throughout 2009, the intersection of video games and films has been a seething hot spot, both culturally and for business. And though this marriage is fraught with plenty of potential hazards — best seen in the unkillable and still usually awful game-to-film adaptation — there’s no denying that’s plenty of room for both mediums to share and grow.

Games tend to be more successful when they focus on their essentials, and films usually thrive when they don’t try to hard to duplicate their interactive competitors, but there are no hard-and-fast rules for this developing relationship. And there’s no reason to believe that, as films and games continue along semi-parallel tracks, they won’t become even better at synthesizing their unique elements.

And new developments are already taking place. 2009 was a banner year for games that delivered movie-like experiences by blending user-operated mayhem with filmic set-pieces, storytelling and structures. You can definitely make the argument that games would be better off refining their own mechanics instead of emulate the silver screen. But when done properly, games — buoyed by ever more sophisticated aesthetics, technology and voice and writing work — have an unparalleled ability to place players in control of adventures normally reserved for the multiplex. Here are my picks for the seven standout titles of 2009 that did just that.

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Postmodern Warfare

Postmodern Warfare (photo)

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No filmmaker working today explores the act of watching as rigorously (and, some might say, as pedantically) as Michael Haneke, whose output largely consists of a single film, made over and over again in slightly different ways, about the viewer’s relationship to on-screen violence.

The Austrian provocateur’s cinematic lectures on how we’re all to blame for fostering a bloodthirsty entertainment culture are best summed up by “Funny Games” (and its shot-for-shot Stateside remake), which — in typical Haneke fashion — builds tension by teasing brutality while also cannily refusing to show us the actual slash-and-kill money shots. It’s a denial that serves as an audience chastisement for wanting to see, and get a kick out of, true horror. When it works, it’s its own kind of knife twist; when it doesn’t it can make Haneke seem like a tiresome schoolmarm, an artist who casts himself in the role of omnipotent, scolding father figure. Either way, he’s still technically masterful, and his works actively engage and critique our appetite for inhuman on-screen behavior.

While on-screen violence is even more essential to the video game realm, few game creators have attempted a Haneke-style postmodern analysis, and even fewer have done so within the play-it-safe confines of mainstream blockbusters. So it’s one of the year’s big surprises that its most disturbing and provocative piece of self-referential gaming comes via the holiday season’s biggest blockbuster, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.”

Like its 2007 predecessor, Activision’s first-person shooter sequel moves the venerable “Call of Duty” series out of World War II and into a fictionalized contemporary universe full of real world-ish geopolitical military scenarios, delivering high octane action, incredibly detailed graphics and bombastic sound, and a fast-moving narrative in which you take charge of multiple protagonists in various global hot spots. For the most part, the game’s just a highly polished, enjoyable piece of formula in terms of its level structure and mechanics. But in one of its early episodes, it manages to embrace a radical, morally debatable design choice that’s not only led to a lot of controversy, but also seems to suggest a possible template for a new era of meta gamemaking.

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