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How I Voted For “The Art of Video Games,” Part 4

How I Voted For “The Art of Video Games,” Part 4 (photo)

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The Skinny: The Smithsonian gathered votes for its upcoming Art of Video Games and this week, I detail what I threw my weight behind. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here. Today, I talk about my picks from the Genesis/Nintendo 64 era.

Era 4: Transition

Here’s where we officially get into “in recent memory” territory. The average age of most gamers is in the mid-thirties and the games of this era figure prominently in their collective memories. Maybe it’s the hazy college memories of skipping class to play Goldeneye for 24 hours straight with your friends or an unhealthy fascination with Lara Croft’s boobs, but these years mark the beginning of an era of gamers self-identifying as such. For my part, it took a lot of doing just to get a Genesis in my single-parent household and there was no way my mom was shelling out cash for a Nintendo 64 or a capable gaming PC on top of that. But, again, other nerds opened up the worlds of gaming on those platforms. This time period intersects with the beginning of my career as a journalist writing about games, but even before that, it’s when I started thinking about games as culture, not product. Here are the late 1990s and early 2000s titles that I think need to be part of “The Art of Video Games.”

DOS/Windows
Adventure Genre
“Grim Fandango”

Development on this game was led by Tim Schafer, who went on to further success with “Psychonauts” and “Brutal Legend.” But, the hallmarks of his particular brand of auteurism show up here: the skewed visual style, distinct comedic voice and off-center characters. It’s important to note that “Grim Fandango” is an adventure game, and one when the genre started to be eclipsed by more active alternatives. “Fandango” came at the tail end of a genre that would go on to have its ideas subsumed by other styles. Reflexes weren’t at a premium in adventure games, logic was. You might argue that something was lost with the wane of the point-and-click stye of gameplay. The cleverness of “Grim Fandango” illustrates that in robust fashion.

Action Genre
“Deus Ex”
So, like I said above, this era starts to see the expanding influence of action games, particularly shooters, on the imaginations of gamers. But, the points of differentiation between various games were generally presentational and aesthetic. “Doom II” had dark environments, “Unreal” had crazy guns. But, while there was fun, there was little freedom. “Deus Ex” changed all of that. It’s the progenitor of the “thinking man’s shooter designation,” earning that distinction from the way that players could improvise their own solutions. It fused RPG skill trees, action elements and Play style matters.

Nintendo 64
Target Genre
“Goldeneye 007”
For all the influence shooters started to have, that fiefdom stayed relatively constrained to PC games. The graphical requirements and precision control demanded by the first-person shooter genre in particular were severely diminished when attempted on the home consoles of the time. Rare’s “Goldeneye 007” changed all of that. It was only supposed to be a stupid James Bond movie tie-in game, but it became a phenomenon. A splitscreen mode let players hunt each other down in the games various levels, using famous Bond characters like Jaws and Chop Chop as avatars. More importantly, it was an FPS on a console and it just worked. Looking back now, “Goldeneye” served as a precursor to the kind of rabid multiplayer competition that’s a staple of console gaming now.

Adventure Genre
“The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”

Nintendo’s adventure series often gets mentioned as the best game franchise of all time. And this particular installment ranks in the upper echelon of “Zelda” games. 3D gaming was still new to video games and “OoT” offered great solutions to targeting, along with context-sensitive actions that helped it flow smoother. And, learning to play haunting tunes on a magical Ocarina created an emotional bond with the game’s music that was hard to beat. The gameplay in the first 3D Zelda also gave gamers a smart time-travel plot that embedded ideas about maturity and destiny in a superlatively well-executed game. Where 2002’s “Ocarina of Time” really differed was by offering a surprisingly mature take on the franchise’s core myth, with Link’s adventures becoming a coming-of-age story. “OoT” was where the franchise matured, bringing along an entire cohort of players for the ride.

Action Genre
“Super Mario 64”
The kind of 3D that’s being inflicted on audiences now doesn’t really add anything to the movies, TV shows and video games saddled with it. Leaves, bad guys’ punched-out teeth or bullets floating in front of your face don’t fundamentally alter your engagement with the content. When 3D rendering came to games, exponential new possibilities came with it. “Super Mario 64” was the title that ushered in the third dimension. That’s fitting, since the outings of Nintendo’s most popular character exemplified the speed and verticality possible in the 2D platformer. With a 3D world, you could peer into vast landscapes or run into the horizon. That “Super Mario 64” sported the hallmark genius of Shigeru Miyamoto was just gravy. In short, it’s a game that changed everything that came after it. There’s no way this isn’t going into the exhibit.

Combat/Strategy Genre
“Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six”
Popularized tactical squad action, where telling other characters where to stand and who to shoot is as important, if not moreso, than where you stand and who you shoot.

Sega Saturn
“Tomb Raider”
Look, even non-gamers know that Lara Croft emerged as video game’s first sex symbol. A backwards glance at those pointy boobs and sex-doll facial features may make you how that eve camer about. But the real secret of Lara’s success is how it made the Indiana Jones Formula playable in a robust way. Other games before it had you playing adventurers and explorers but they failed in generating a sense of place. With “Tomb Raider,” you felt transported to exotic locales and into forgotten mythologies. I remember audibly gasping as I swam deep underwater and the light bloomed from below, revealing the architecture of lost Atlantis. The sense of globe-trotting wonder the game created in me was big. Much bigger than Lara’s boobs even.

Sega Dreamcast
Target Genre
“Rez”

Spearheaded by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, this sci-fi shooter became one of modern gaming’s cult hits. At one point, the hard-to-find disc was going for $200 on eBay, a 400% mark-up. Why the clamor? It’s because “Rez” drowns your senses in interactivity. You feel it, see it, hear it and play it so vividly that all the sensations blur together. Attacking the constructs in the virtual reality world you enter creating a sound that creates a burst of color that creates a vibration in the controller. That tripartite feedback loop changed how I perceive games. Like LSD, I have awesome flashbacks to the experience of playing “Rez.”

Sony Playstation
Adventure Genre
“Final Fantasy VII”
This breakthrough installment of the long-lived series introduced many to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese RPG design. But more than that, “FFVI” harbors an emotional moment that links a generation of gamers. It coupled the intrinsic desire to win with the far more elusive desire to feel, a potent combination that’s still the holy grail for a medium’s creators.

Action Genre
“Metal Gear Solid”
Solid Snake–the weary warrior around whom the Konami covert action series revolves–isn’t a revelation in character construction. Genre fans had seen his ilk before in movies, comics and TV show: the retired hero answers his nation’s call in their time of need. With Snake, it’s a giant robot that needs shutting down and he needs to sneak into a eadquartes No, what stood out from designer Hideo Kojima’s vision is the serendipitous intersection where the mechanics (stealth) dovetailed with the hero’s persona. It makes sense that a hero disgusted by the tactics of the government he works for would try not to be spotted. You can’t say that the combo’s accidental either, since Kojima’s gone on to produce more “Metal Gear” games. Each is more philosophical and grandiose than the last, leaving the loud, gung-ho antics to world-saving to gaming’s other protagonists.

Next time: The games of today and the-time-right-before-today, including my hardest vote ever.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.