Zen in the Art of Horse-Shit

Well, there’s one consistent thing about Rockstar’s most recent games: they’re markedly inconsistent.

Red Dead Redemption II has at least three buttons for context-sensitive actions (there may be more that I can’t remember). You pick up provisions by holding the X/Square button. You pick up weapons by holding LB/L1. You mount horses and take people into choke-holds by pressing Y/Triangle.

That last, calculated choice of controller setup caused me a couple of social faux pas that quickly developed into long elusions from the police.

There are a wide variety of care-taking activities in the game. Some are quick and automatic, while others are slow and laborious. Order some fried catfish at the saloon, and your character gobbles it down in a jump cut. Take a bath at the same saloon, however, and you need to mash three buttons to make him scrub each of his extremities, one at a time.

You interact with people, camps, and horses through menus at the lower-right of the screen. For people, these menus include options for robbing, friendly greetings, or masculine taunts. For camps, you can choose to sleep, cook food or craft items, or just leave. You can give horses tender pats, brush dirt from their hides, or feed them various vegetables. To actually perform some of these actions, you need only tap a button. To perform others, you must hold a button until a ring around the button icon fills. For some actions, the options differ from occasion to occasion, so pressing Y/Triangle will make you sleep for eight hours one night, and it will make you sleep for fifteen hours on another.

The game’s story missions involve a lot of horse travel, usually in the company of your gangster buddies. Sometimes, in the course of these trips, the game will draw black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, meaning you can release the controller and just watch them talk and ride until they reach their destination. Other times, the game just keeps going, and you have to hold A/Cross and steer carefully while the characters talk and ride. If you don’t keep pace or follow the paths of your companions, they’ll yell and complain at you until you fall back in line. The game offers a “Cinematic Camera” for these situations, which helps keep your steed where it needs to be for the mission’s sake, but you still need to hold A/Cross for the duration of the ride.

The sum of this is that you simply cannot count on your character to do what you expect him to, without keeping vigil over the game’s prompts. The game involves a terrific amount of engagement and planning, in both the short and long terms. You can’t just gallop your horse through downtown Saint Denis, and then skid into the post in front of the barbershop. You might barrel over a pedestrian and wind up in jail over an assault charge. Besides, you need to position your horse just right, and then hold Y/Triangle for a couple of seconds to hitch it properly in the first place. No, no, you have to judge the road before you enter it, and then make your way along it with patience, just as you would in real city traffic. That is, of course, unless you don’t mind getting into a costly accident.

So, is all this just complaining? What do you think? The word “inconsistent” has a foul connotation, but I haven’t done anything other than describe the game’s details. When I began playing RDRII, I deemed its confusion as the mark of poor communication between a series of disparate design teams. Maybe that’s how it happened; I don’t know. Whether it was intentional or not, though, I find that I now appreciate it.

I rush through games nowadays. I was playing Skyrim a few days ago, when I felt exasperated at the repetitive combat, and the annoying characters who still gave me lip after I’d slain Alduin the World-Eater and saved their ungrateful butts. I asked myself just why in hell I was doing it. What, exactly, had compelled me to start the game up on that particular day? After some boiling, I got to the bones of my motivation, and discovered that I just wanted to get some of those god-damned entries off of my quest list.

When I manage my farm or explore a mine in Stardew Valley, I always fall into an efficient rut of behavior, always in pursuit of the most profitable wines, always seeking the next ladder to the unseen floors below.

Metroid games reward quick completion with images of Samus in varying degrees of nudity. People brag that they reached the final boss of Breath of the Wild within ten minutes of play. Online clubs devote themselves to speed-running. 

I understand that games are about goals, and that much of the joy of play is in building wise strategies to meet those goals. Of course you want a high score. Of course you want 100%-completion. Of course you want that rare achievement, so you find the quickest, most effective way to get it, and then you win. Right? I feel like I’m forgetting something.

What RDRII is telling me is to slow the hell down. Its makers worked pretty damn hard to construct its world, and though it’s little more than a weaving of smoke, so is most of real life. Do you want to rush through that, too, without taking a moment to, you know, experience the moment?

Arthur Morgan’s actions, even in the chaos of combat, are all very deliberate. He saunters. He slurs. He peeks into chests and drawers with a languid, I-got-all-the-time-the-world casualness. Sometimes he doesn’t even act when you tell him to. Not immediately, anyway. He just isn’t a hurried man. He certainly doesn’t have the crisp, stimulated motion of a Black Ops character, I’ll tell you that. Now, you can scream at the screen about it if you want to, but if you just relax and have a little faith, you’ll see. Arthur’ll get to it. Sure.

The fascinating truth is that the button menus in this game force you to think about what you’re doing right now, not about what you’re going to do a few seconds into the conceptual future. They force you into the moment. Arthur’s ponderous nature keeps you there.

This might sound peculiar, but when I hear the creaks of Arthur’s footsteps, or the rustle of his coat, or the jingling of his horse’s bridle, I think about the miracle of my own movement. How the heck do I do it, anyway? Where does the will to move come from?

I think about the minor motions of simple, daily activities, and about the ripples they send into the void. Opening the cabinet, pulling down the coffee mug, lifting the sink lever, seeing the mug fill with ripples, waves, and bubbles. Moving the mouse, opening the software, clacking the keys to make symbols that others will interpret. I do this everyday, altering and expressing into the pattern at large, and I don’t even know how it’s done. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that tremendous? Isn’t that worth stopping to wonder about?

RDRII is full of beautiful things to look at. The trees, the birds, the horses, the horizons — they’re all strikingly depicted. But isn’t the real world infinitely more beautiful than a mere simulation? Isn’t a twenty-minute drive to work just as lovely as a twenty-second, imaginary horse ride? Isn’t the idea of controlling a magnificent contraption with incremental, reflexive motions, just extraordinary?

Then, when you arrive at work, you enter into a sea of people united in the process of providing for themselves, and for the community. You are involved in a thoughtfully devised social structure where everyone makes a difference, no matter how small. Everything you say to your co-workers changes them, and everything they do changes you. Just like when you greet or antagonize those random pedestrians on the muddy streets of Valentine, you’re adding to the pattern, expressing the process. All you have to do is…well, take the time to do it, and then watch what happens. Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that empowering? Isn’t that worth living for?

So maybe they fucked up. Maybe Rockstar screwed a whole litter of pooches and didn’t wind up with the perfect product that Nintendo or Blizzard would have made. Maybe a wide part of their audience won’t like it, and the game will get a lot of flak for it. I like it, though. My time with Red Dead Redemption II has been one of the most Zen experiences I can remember, and it’s been very good for me. When you try it out, I hope you’ll take a little time to enjoy it, too.

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Tits and Erudition

Man, movies and TV take themselves way too seriously these days. I can’t pinpoint the timing of it, but someone pulled a switch, and turned the Idiot Box into the Auteur’s Monolith. The programming is as stupid as it’s ever been, but none of it really knows how stupid it is anymore. Think about it. The Living Dead is now The Walking Dead. Most X-treme Elimination Challenge is now American Ninja Warrior. The movie Westworld is now the series Westworld. Producers are now “show-runners.” Aquaman is now…ugh…Aquaman.

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Grr.

So it’s good that we have people like Joe Bob Briggs to bring us back to reality. To remind us that television’s purpose is to patronize, pacify, and pander to us, but so long as we remain aware of it, it’s really not so badrksven.jpg.

Briggs is the latest and greatest of the classic horror hosts, a family that began with Maila Nurmi’s Vampira (though Joe Bob has some contention about that). A comic essayist featured in newspapers and magazines, Briggs was so funny that he was eventually given a series on TMC called Drive-In Theater.

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What’s interesting is that, while most horror hosts came off as cheerful psychopaths, Joe Bob was a down-home country boy who shared bemused reactions and obscure trivia with a Roy Rogers-like folksiness. He had flair and pizzazz, but he was also dry and cynical, like a carnival barker who knows that you know he’s running a scam.

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Audiences loved him, and he kept the Drive-In going for nearly ten years before TMC decided to can him. The official story was that the channel was changing formats, but I suspect that its owners just wanted to be taken seriously as presenters of fine cinema. An intellectual in cowboy boots, showcasing cheap-o blood orgies just wasn’t in their interests anymore.

It was far from the end for Joe Bob, however. Four months after his firing, the wily Texan found a new home. The cable channel TNT needed a new host for its Friday-night horror-fest Monstervision, and Joe Bob fit the bill perfectly. He turned the show into a casual, Talk Soup-like hang-out, complete with trademark bits. He joked with his crew, who were often heard laughing, and did poorly-acted, silly skits with his guests. Such guests included stars from the very films he was showing, or else experts who provided commentary on the realism of those films. One night, he got both Rhonda Shear of Up All Night fame, and Joe Flaherty as SCTV’s Count Floyd, to hang out and ad lib with him.

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He also featured viewer mail, which was usually brought in by a sexy babe in hot pants, fresh from America’s finest correctional facilities. Joe Bob was well aware of his awful time slot, and he reveled in the fact that his prime demographic was, in fact, prisoners. He encouraged his “captive audience” to send in their prison cafeteria menus, and even provided facts about the jails that they hailed from.

His most famous bit, however, was the “Drive-In Totals,” a list of every cheap trick the upcoming film had loaded in its chambers. The list always began with a body and breast count, and always included some kind of “Fu” — a play on the Kung variety — based on the themes of the movie’s action sequences. My favorites include Senior Citizen Fu, Curling Iron Fu, and Intestine Fu. All told, MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs was campy fun, but it felt real, like Joe Bob and friends were there on the trail with us, sharing life’s downtime and poking at its absurdity.

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Then, in another effort at “format changing,” TNT cancelled him. As the channel inched away from its initial trove of Turner films, in order to schedule newer, big-budget Hollywood films, it seemed that seriousness would once again topple silliness. In 2000, Joe Bob was fired, and MonsterVision continued without a host for a few miserable months, before fizzling into oblivion.

Seventeen years passed, and horror languished into grim, predictable fare like feardotcom, Don’t Breathe, and The Conjuring 2. But now, in another miraculous 90s resurrection, Joe Bob is back, and he’s bringing the good horror with him. True to his word, Mr. Briggs has refused to let the drive-in die.

The Last Drive-In is a mini-series on the horror streaming service Shudder. Amazingly, it’s the same damn thing as before: full-length, old-school horror films interspersed with trivia and commentary, complete with Drive-In Totals and mail calls. The movies are mostly bad (The Prowler, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama), or extremely niche (Legend of Boggy Creek, Daughters of Darkness), but there are some classics sprinkled in there (Hellraiser, Sleepaway Camp). God bless ’em, though: they’re all shamelessly exploitative, and that’s all that matters. We don’t come to the Drive-In to see deep, critical darlings (though there are still some fascinating ideas in these movies), we’re here to laugh at some cheeseball stinkers, and the myriad methods they employ to disgust, frighten, and appall.

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The Last Drive-In originally aired as a 24-hour live-streamed marathon, but it’s now available for subscribers to watch in separate episodes. It’s not expensive to sign up: just five bucks a month. It’s totally worth it, and you get a lot of other horror series too!

Joe Bob is, expectedly, a little fat and creaky now, but his style and good humor are unchanged. In fact, now that he has no censors to worry about, I daresay he’s livelier and funnier than ever. The old man lets the “fucks” fly, and shoots straight about the touchiest of topics. From smartphone addiction to L.A. subways to transgender rights, nothing is safe from Joe Bob. He’s as sharp and fun to watch now as he was in the 90s, and it’s a little sad when the party finally ends.

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There were some troubles with the initial stream, of course. Anyone who remembers the disastrous debuts of Diablo III, healthcare.gov, and Amazon’s Prime Day won’t be surprised to learn that The Last Drive-In suffered from lengthy server outages as a result of overwhelming demand. Most folks who tried to sit in on the marathon simply couldn’t. That’s okay, though, because despite Joe Bob’s insistence that this was his final bow, Shudder quickly recognized his value to their service, and renewed him for another go-round. Let’s hope they’ll be prepared this time. We need more stuff like this.

I’ve already given my reasons for why we need more stuff like this, but I can’t compete with the man himself. Before The Last Drive-In was recorded, Joe Bob wrote a brilliant essay explaining his success, and it tops anything I could ever put out on the subject. Daniel says, check it out.

Now, there’s something else I wanted to mention.

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The whole reason I’m even talking about Shudder is that I found an interesting tidbit of news recently. Turns out that master monster-maker Greg Nicotero, whose work can be seen in Evil Dead II, Day of the Dead, and The Walking Dead, is working to revive the classic horror film Creepshow. He’s building it as a series that will appear on none other than Shudder, hopefully in 2019. He’s quoted as saying that he wants to recover the stylish, comic-book feel of the first movie in honor of the great George Romero. Here’s hoping he pulls it off; the horror whores are watching!

Oh, and Mr. Nicotero, in case you somehow come across this goofy little blog post, I beg that you retain John Harrison for the show’s musical score. If that’s not possible, I recommend the great Franz Falckenhaus, (a.k.a. Legowelt), who specializes in lo-fi, scary synth. The music of Creepshow is critical to its effect; don’t fuck it up!

Review: The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild

fe346ffcc73201e778e69c8e2ed24225.gifAt last, the winds of modern gaming have turned Nintendo’s sails, and tipped its fantasy-action flagship on its side. With The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild, the trendsetter has become the trend follower, and though this could be viewed as a sad capitulation, I prefer to think of it as an overdue adaptation.

Most gamers revere the Zelda series as a standard-bearer for action-adventure video games. The original NES game mixed fast-paced action with a relatively large world full of secrets of surprises, and then made it all easy to learn and play. A Link to the Past took this formula and structured it to align with a simple but dramatic plot. Then The Ocarina of Time transplanted the whole thing into a beautiful production that didn’t just look like a dream, but felt like one. The controls in Ocarina of Time were genius in their elegance, employing lock-on targeting and adjustable viewpoints. Its presentation rivaled anything seen on the PlayStation. The game wasn’t as challenging as previous entries in the series, and the game featured extensive tutorials to ease players into its features, but the graduation to 3D was so impressive that this didn’t matter. All the familiar elements of Zelda were present, but they were grander and more impressive than ever before. Ocarina was everything that Zelda fans had hoped it would be: a glorious jump into a new generation, and a literal game-changer.

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I guess this is all you really need to see.

Ocarina was such a success, in fact, that Nintendo itself became fearful of it. Its lengthy development had demanded a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of risk, and Nintendo didn’t want to mess with it. Aside from the polarizing Majora’s Mask, future titles were pretty safe in their design. There were gimmicks here and there, from Wind Waker’s sailing and toon graphics, to Skyward Sword’s motion controls, but the overall flow is the same: you explore a fantasy world, delve into a series of caves, castles, and dungeons, find special tools that aid your navigation, and then use those tools to advance to other caves, castles, and dungeons. Even the minute-to-minute action went untouched. Each game had its own unique monsters and puzzles, but they were conquered with the same backflipping and block-pushing we saw in 1998. Worst of all, the constant hand-holding only grew with each release. The language of 3D Zelda became static, and then stagnant.

Then the gameplay videos of a new, “open-world” Zelda trickled out of E3 2016, and everything changed.

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The first surprise was that these videos were hours long. We weren’t looking at bite-sized, self-contained samples with trite “Thank you for playing!” messages at their ends; this was the full game, and Nintendo was just setting people loose on it. They knew that even with the unprecedented access they were allowing, players would make meager progress, if any.

The reason for this was that the players didn’t want to make progress. They were too busy bounding across grassy hills, leaping streams and scaling cliffs. They were marveling at endless, gorgeous landscapes and devising clever methods for taking out monsters. They were chasing every distraction, and not once did a fairy or a lion or some glowing, talking sword interrupt or redirect them. The world was theirs to enjoy, and on their own terms. This was Zelda as I remembered it from the good old NES days: unbound, untethered, free, wild.

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With their well-advised Let’s Play approach, Nintendo conveyed a significant message: they’d recognized the rut they’d been in, they’d acknowledged the concerns of the fans, and most importantly, they’d paid attention to the market. They hadn’t overlooked the rise of Dark Souls, Skyrim, and Minecraft. They were going to take those upstarts on, and show that they still had the magic.

Breath of the Wild was Game of the Show. It will likely be Game of the Year. It sold a million Nintendo Switches. It sold me a Wii U. I don’t regret the purchase.

I won’t go over the premise or details of the game, as many other reviews have already done so, and any attempt of mine would be mere parroting. Instead, I’d like to describe what I find so confounding about the game: its unoriginality.

That’s right: Breath of the Wild doesn’t do anything I haven’t seen in video games before, and yet it somehow comes off as groundbreaking and magical. In taking familiar concepts and spinning them into Zelda’s universe, Nintendo makes the old appealing.

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Not something I expected to read in a Zelda game.

Why does this work? I think it’s because Zelda fans — and by extension, Nintendo fans — have been frustrated at Nintendo’s sideline strategies as of late: aiming for a theoretical market outside of the established hardcore where Sony and Microsoft hold court. Those who grew up with the genre-defining Nintendo have been holding their breaths, waiting for the emergence of their beloved franchise into the crafting-heavy, DLC-laden, micro-transaction world that gaming has become. They have accepted that Nintendo is no longer dominant; they hope for it at least to remain relevant.

By all measures, Nintendo has done this.

Gone is the formula of “find dungeon, clear dungeon.” Breath of the Wild still has its dungeons, but they needn’t be cleared or found in order to complete the game. The overarching goal is presented right at the beginning, and all else is optional. The real focus is on the world and how the player chooses to take it in.

There are familiar concepts at work to facilitate this. You’ve got towers, a la Far Cry, that Link can climb in order to reveal portions of the world map. There are Shrines where Link must solve a Portal-sized puzzle or two so he can claim a health enhancement. There are wild horses to tame as in Red Dead Redemption, and stables where he can board or take them out, like the garages in Grand Theft Auto V.

There’s also a crafting element, in the form of cooking. It’s very much derived from alchemy in Skyrim, right down to the principles. You gather ingredients by hunting animals, picking flowers, or catching insects. You throw these ingredients in an established crafting pot and you get a healing/buffing food item. Mix two or more ingredients with similar properties, and you get an improved version of that property. Nothing new, right?

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There are tweaks, though. You’re not restricted like you are in Skyrim. You don’t need to taste items and ensure that their properties match before combining them. You can experiment with multiple ingredients from the start and end up with satisfying results. Different categories of ingredients affect healing value, buff type, and buff duration. There are elaborate recipes like tarts, pies, and sushi that actually look kinda tasty. Plus, there’s a cute little animation that plays when you cook, in which all the little apples, herbs, and hunks of meat hop around to a tune.

Then there are the environmental hazards. Link has to deal with rain, snow, extreme heat, and even thunderstorms. Some of this stuff is just annoying: rain will make climbing any surface nigh impossible, while snow and sand slow Link’s movement. Others are dangerous, and even deadly, but a smart player can use them to his or her advantage. Setting a metal weapon in an enemy camp during a thunderstorm can bring about a wrathful Zeus-blast that spares Link a risky fight. Dropping fruit and meat in a volcanic area will result in instantly roasted meals with added healing potential. Toss food in icy water, and they’ll freeze over, gaining a heat-resistance buff. There’s a natural logic happening here that’s reminiscent of Minecraft, and if you ever catch yourself wondering if something will work, odds are that it will. It’s a wondrous feeling. The last time my experimentation was rewarded in a Zelda game was way back on the original NES, when I first tried burning a bush with a candle and found a hidden passage beneath it. The guy inside stole my money, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had a funny idea, tried it out, and found something I didn’t expect.

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Another significant change from previous Zelda games is that Link has learned how to climb like Altair in Assassin’s Creed, or Nathan Drake from Uncharted. Link can climb almost anything now, and that means that there are no real barriers in Hyrule, other than its furthest borders, of course. Link still has to manage his stamina as he climbs, or he’ll lose his grip and fall, possibly to his death (sorry, you can’t roll when you fall from a high place anymore). Even with this smart limitation, climbing allows a tremendous amount of freedom, and different players will approach their exploration in different ways. An anal player will likely seek out every possible path around a mountain, while an impatient one will simply climb over it.

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The greatest change — and to me, the most important — is the dramatic increase in difficulty. It’s very easy to die in Breath of the Wild, especially since the game doesn’t warn you of its many lethal threats. Monsters can hack off as many as ten hearts with a single blow, so it’s easy to charge into a fight completely unprepared. When Link collapses from an unexpectedly powerful attack, and that red “GAME OVER” wafts onto the screen, I’m sure that Dark Souls fans will have some unpleasant flashbacks. Beating the challenges of Breath of the Wild requires harsh learning, and perhaps the occasional face-plant.

This is critical to me because I feel the Zelda series has become far too easy for its own good. Monsters in past 3D Zeldas have been typified by their slow, lumbering movements, but here, they hop about madly, make lengthy combination attacks, and are happy to gang up on Link for unfair fights. Link still has his backflip and side dodges, but he can also parry attacks with his shield and respond with mighty counterattacks. There are satisfying callouts for these special defenses, and it’s all very Dark Souls. The toughness of the monsters demands skillful play, and I find this invigorating and refreshing. Again, I think the thrill is amplified simply because it’s unexpected from this series. I’m just so happy that Zelda is difficult again! It’s a fanboy thrill, but I’ll take it anyway.

There’s something more, though. Something greater. It’s the mixture of these many systems with this beautiful, expansive world that makes Breath of the Wild irresistible. The possibilities presented by the game’s physics, logic, and move-sets are almost limitless, and enterprising players can create action sequences far more memorable than any scripted Call of Duty set-piece:

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THIS is the success of Breath of the Wild: its steadfast faith in the talents of the player. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will play this game in a predictable and conservative manner, but the option for experimentation is there, and that alone makes me very happy. For once, Zelda isn’t about searching for Hookshot targets, it’s about making your own way through, and if we’re going to get anywhere with Nintendo, we must praise them for respecting our intelligence.

Now that I’ve gushed, it’s time for the negatives. I realize that to complain about anything in such a generous feast of a game would come off as exceedingly ungrateful, but I’m compelled by honesty to mention the few minor issues I had with it. Bear with me.

First, the game chugs, and unnervingly so at times. In grassy areas with lots of monsters, the frame rate drops into the teens. It didn’t affect my fighting, but it was frustrating to see. There were also a few occasions — usually upon slaying a Moblin — when the game froze completely. Several anxious seconds passed before it snapped back into action, just an instant before I made to reset my console. Nintendo has released a patch that’s mollified the problem, but hasn’t rectified it.

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Second, I wish there was greater variety in the monster types. There’s an impressive panoply of baddies in the game, and they increase in strength as Link does, but there are really only three major types you’ll deal with during your travels. As I wandered the game’s diverse environments, I hoped to encounter all kinds of monsters to match them, like nests of Skulltulas, rock-hopping Tektites, or burrowing Leevers. I soon learned, however, that Bokoblins, Moblins, and Lizalfos were the meat of the enemy army, and that was disappointing.

Finally, some of the game’s quests are bummers. Most of the side quests are quite interesting and involving, particularly the ones regarding Shrines. There are others, though, that slip into typical RPG tedium, and make me wish that Hyrule was even less populous than it already is. Bring me fifty bundles of wood. Show me a Moblin Club. Can I have ten luminous stones or restless crickets? There’s some cute and charming dressing to it, but it’s still just filler.

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Still, Breath of the Wild is so engrossing that I performed every task it assigned to me. Then, as my quest list shrank and I struggled to refill it, I realized that it was time to stop screwing around and make for the final goal. That was when I stopped playing for a few days, and became hesitant, uncomfortable about returning to it.

The reason was simple, and yet oh-so-rare: I didn’t want it to be over. That may be the kindest, most recommending thing to be said about a piece of entertainment, and Breath of the Wild is one of those precious few pieces that earns it. I can’t say that this is my favorite Zelda game; that title remains with the very first Zelda on the NES, which is short, so I can play through it every week if I want to. Breath of the Wild is like an epic novel that one reads once every few years. You’ll never forget it, though. Once you’ve played it, it will always be a part of you.

Controller1.com rating: 3/3

A LisVender Xmas Mix

For those of you who just can’t silence the individual, here’s a set of songs that paint Christmas in a drier, but no less enjoyable, light than most carols. Put some of these on during the ride to Grandma’s and I’m sure you’ll be smiling in no time:

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Kick-ass Kwanzaa, etc. I’ll just say “Happy Holidays” to cover the rest, and that still don’t make ya happy, well then go the hell. 🙂 See you next year.

We Gotta Soften the Software

Picture this: I’m fourteen, and I’m in my bedroom waiting for my brother to get off the Super Nintendo. He’s playing Madden (yes, it was around back then), and I’m getting impatient.

“Hey, when are you going to be done?” I ask.

“Why?” my brother says. “What do you want to play?”

“I want to play Mario Paint,” I say.

My brother scoffs and points at the new PC at the other side of the room.

“Hey!” he says, “you’ve got a freakin’ two-thousand-dollar Mario Paint right there!”

I didn’t admit it at the time, but he was right. Courtesy of my friends at the Modesto High School computer lab, I had Autodesk Animator and Adobe Photoshop for Windows on my 486. A professional creative suite, one far more robust than Mario Paint, was at my disposal.

So why in the hell was I jonesing for a sit-down with Nintendo’s chintzy pretender?

MarioPaint

Well, aside from the fact that my Super Nintendo was practically my best friend at the time, Mario Paint was just so much more approachable than anything Adobe or Autodesk have ever made. It had style and showmanship. The title screen was interactive. The menus were colorful. There was punchy, catchy music to listen to. Every tool made a sound: paintbrushes pecked at the screen, the Undo button barked, and the navigation buttons all made little clicks and clunks. And when you were ready to wipe up your mess and start making a new one, the game offered an array of screen-clearing tools that the did the job with unique 16-bit effects.

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Since this was a cartridge on a relatively feeble chunk of hardware, Mario Paint was extremely limited. You could only really paint with sixteen colors, the music composer allowed no sharps or flats, and the animation program only allowed the production of nine frames. I never made anything worth keeping on Mario Paint, but I didn’t care, because I always enjoyed using it.

It reminds me of how I feel when I mess around with Maxis’s hyper-criticized classic Spore. Maxis knew that the heart of the game was its personal connection with the player; the idea that the player’s characters and stories would always be more interesting than something a studio could present. So they poured their efforts into these delightful creation programs and built them into the game.

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Players — myself included — ate this up, and they cranked out millions upon millions of creatures even before the game was released. I can understand that! Spore’s creation tools are so intuitive and so much fun that an artist can move from vision to finished product in minutes, all the while watching it spring to life bit by bit. The creatures move and react to every adjustment the player makes to them, providing a powerful, and continuous, feeling of creative gratification.

It’s a hell of a lot more fun than the God-damned Maya tutorial I fumbled through recently. I spent hours making an un-textured butterfly-thing and then struggled just to make its wings flap. I remember nearly tearing my hair out because I couldn’t find the “edit curves” menu option, even though I had just used it minutes earlier. That tutorial was a joyless slog, and it made me depressed that I needed to learn so much confusing bullshit just to express an idea in my head. I realize that 3D computer modeling isn’t supposed to be simple, but who said it has to be so fucking intimidating?

I remember reading that people often used the Sims games as rudimentary home design tools. I can understand that! The Sims 4 is a hell of a lot more fun to use than most of these advanced 3D modeling programs, and I’m saying that as someone who usually hates building homes in The Sims.

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It’s very, very easy to forget that art is supposed to be fun. There are so many outside factors that can sap the joy of creating: deadlines, marketability, ambition, impossible standards…any one of these is enough to constipate an artist. The message becomes one of work, “MAKE THIS.” What we need are tools that feel like toys, or that at least have toy-like options, which will remind us of the Muse’s true message, which is “START WITH THIS, AND SEE WHERE IT TAKES YOU.”

I can only hope that companies like Nintendo and Maxis, who are enjoying phenomenal success with games like The Sims 4 and Super Mario Maker, will share a little of their magic, and teach creativity and productivity designers how to give their products some much-needed creative heart. Sure, it’s important to be proud of the work you create, but I’d much prefer to have a great time making it.

An Animation for the Hell of It

Here’s a little cartoon I had knocking around in my head after listening to an old podcast:

It’s full of in-jokes from the podcasts of Controller1.com and Angry-gamer.net. I know it’s silly, but I had fun making it. Did I mention I do commissions? 🙂