Zapatero prefers crazy “reading” to real politics

April 10, 2008 at 2:51 pm (Fróðleikr, Leikr, Ríta) (, , , , )

Career path choice

Besides ousting the frothing right from the head of Spanish government, Zapatero earns my approval by choosing antisocial pomp above sycophantic small talk.

Note the cluster of smiling faces flocking to Bush like lepers to a messiah.

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This is how I roll

March 12, 2008 at 2:46 pm (Leikr, Smáskitligr) (, , , , )

The time has come to wax lyrical on my pet subject since I got my PS2:

Christ, do I love this game. Irrationally, I suppose, because there’s no gore, no scares, no zombies, no special powers, no big swords, no intricate plot, no crowbar, no secret rooms or passages, no puzzles, none of the things I thought I required in a game.

The thing is, the Katamari series only contain game elements that are found in the Katamari series. There is just no overlap between other games, none at all. Remember that point in your life when you accepted that monsters carried around gigantic swords, grenades, and lots of money in humongous invisible pockets? And that things like “wreath of daisies” plus “pretty stone” plus “iron spear” could be made into “Death Lance of Hades”? Ordinary items were not just ordinary items, they were extremely hard to find and had weird powers. Why, you plead with your character, can’t you just bend down and pick the bloody daisies yourself?

The Katamari series is resplendent with everyday objects. Its charm comes from mixing things (and here I refer to “We Love Katamari”) like flying cowbears with vending machines, tires, pancakes, bushes, ramen bowls: the flotsam and jetsam of modern life.

What’s even better is that objects you never thought you could pick up can be picked up, like islands and streets and buildings – what was just scenery five minutes ago. I guess the concept taps into some primordial hoarding instinct in my case, but I get so much glee from sweeping down a street and leaving nothing behind, and then coming back a few minutes later for the street.

There are no health bars, and no enemies, and there’s never any urgency in the music, so while doing well at each level is actually really difficult, playing the game is never very stressful. Even though Katamari is guaranteed to be a novel experience if you’ve never played it before, the interface and game physics are instinctive, so people looking to casually play don’t have to put up with a learning curve or memorize button combos, but the game is designed to pull you in; just passing the levels isn’t good enough.

These are games you can beat in a day, but as the plotline is not even the icing on the cake but more like the decorative edible flowers on the icing on the cake, beating them isn’t a big deal. I still haven’t finished doing everything in “We Love Katamari” yet, because that requires knowing all the maps pretty much by heart, which would take weeks and weeks of obsessive playing.

9.8/10

The character design is perfect, the music is perfect, the concept is perfect, the challenges are imaginative, and really the only complaint I have is that the games never have enough levels.

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Final Fantasy X : gaming for deaf and lazy people

March 9, 2008 at 8:32 pm (Leikr, Smáskitligr) (, , , )

gaming for deaf and lazy people

The visual quality, it has to be said, is bloody marvellous – a good move on Squaresoft’s part, considering just how many hours you spend watching clips in this game, a game that doesn’t have “levels” so much as “bits between clips”. There are two sorts: realtime rendered clips, and videos-proper that must have taken inordinate and frustrating amounts of time to make. The latter, I have to admit, are impressively detailed (considering the game’s release date), but really have almost nothing to do visually with the in-game characters. Nevermind that Yuna looks almost sweet in the realtime clips: in the videos she’s a squinty-eyed pig who looks like someone bashed her face in with a board. Tidus looks disturbingly like an ex-boyfriend of mine, and also like a girl, but in realtime he’s a white middle-class surfer kid.

Unfortunately, my favourite part of the visuals, and probably the game, has nothing to do with the endless popcorn breaks; the monsters, when waiting their turn to fight, do weirdly realistic and well-choreographed little dances. Really, the amount of fighting and side-questing in this Final Fantasy is roughly the same as the amount required to beat “Advent Children”, if you count “ordering a pizza” and “quarrelling over the last buffalo wing” the same as “side-questing” and “fighting”.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy playing this game, when I can actually play (besides enduring the videos, I have to contend for the right to be P1, because my Pepto-Bismol pink PS2 is co-owned) – unless of course the characters are speaking. Sadly, they spend a lot of the game nattering, and even have to spout “witty” one-liners in the midst of battle. I suppose it wouldn’t be as terrible in Japanese, but I’m currently playing a French version with English voices. Instead of dubbing different versions for each language, or just keeping it all in Japanese for everybody, or even making an English language version for the pesky American market and letting everyone else hear the original under their subtitles, they decided that for some reason the French would be happy with a twice-translated game.

The dubbing, by the way, is awful. None of the characters’ lips conform to any known laws of articulatory phonetics. About twenty percent of spoken Japanese consists of expressive and meaningful noises that are not words, and can really only be translated into English by using words, but the game carries on the industry’s annoying tradition of forcing American voice actors to imitate those noises, which sound out of place and unfamiliar in their throats; the effect is rather similar to an obsessive white anime fan making the “V” symbol in a photograph.

Let’s move smoothly over the script and pass on to more pleasant things. The music, for example, is just marvellous, so I suppose if you’re after the most enjoyment from this game, you don’t actually have to be deaf, just quick on the “Mute” button. The costume design isn’t too ridiculous (high praise for an RPG), and neither is the hair, unless you count Seymour, but counting Seymour is like that old maths joke where a rat in the middle of 9 cats makes each cat one-tenth rat on average; I’m not going to touch Seymour’s hair design with a ten foot pole (not that I would ever need a ten foot pole to touch that hair from anywhere else in the known universe). Yes, Tidus’ right trouser leg is made of egg crates and wrought-iron, and Lulu seems to be aiming for Romantic Goth Rastafarian Beachcomber with that whole ivory lace, skirt-of-belts and beaded cornrow combo, but whatever.

I swear, I enjoy playing this game. I’m not horribly bothered by the weird character management; I prefer the classic approach, but it’s refreshing not to have to obsessively change armours for once. I love the frustrating temples. The chocobos and cactuars are adorable. The scenery is unobtrusive, but pretty. The weapons have really cool power-ups. There is not a single thing wrong with Rikku (unless you actually want to use her). Tidus’ dad angst doesn’t take over the entire game, Auron doesn’t go all softie at any point, Wakka eventually stops whining, and best of all, Kimhari belongs to a race of gigantic mountain cats all voiced by Arnold Schwartzenegger.

7/10

(6/10 without the music)

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Comfort through Ritual

March 6, 2008 at 12:49 am (Fróðleikr, Leikr, Skrifa) (, , , , )

In an emotional lapse, a moment ago, I stroked the second joint of my index finger against my porcelain tea mug. These little games keep us tethered to immediate quotidien life in moments of absence. You do them less now that you’re older, but when you weren’t, you would rub your fingertips on pavement, bounce your toys on countertops to hear the noise, breathe into your stuffed toys to feel the moisture of your own breath, and turn your pillow over in the middle of the night to feel the cool side.

The impulse to do these things constantly – to count red cars, to walk on top of walls, to pick berries and crush them, to touch the windowpane every time you passed a tree, to jump over cracks, to avoid the white tiles and only step on the black ones, to heat sugar emptied from packets in your dessert spoon over the candle – faded from you, like it faded from me, and then we sit and sometimes dispair over where our imagination went. I don’t want to be austistic, which is what retaining the compulsion to incessantly do these things would require, but as a result, my gift for gab is a chocolate Easter bunny. (I always expected those things to be solid, because I always started with the ears. I’d not fail to be disappointed every time the forehead caved in, revealing the inevitable truth. You learn, as you get older, to eat your fill of solid chocolate eggs before you start on the ears – that way, you’re sick of chocolate before you start on the head, and postpone defeat.) When I write, it relieves a compulsion. It’s the obsession that devoured all of the others, but without that chaos, without meaningless rituals, it’s a hollow obsession.

Other people are fighting the good fight. Agnes Varda stops her gentle and vicious political commentary in Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse to pretend that she’s capturing and crushing lorries with her hand, and to collect heart-shaped potatoes. Great Teacher Onizuka likes to isolate girls’ legs in a finger-thumb peephole. My ex and my boyfriend always eat the edges of their sandwiches before eating the centre. My mother bounces her leg up and down and chews gently on the side of her tongue when concentrating. My dad used to saw the sharp edge of my fingernails back and forth across the thick calluses on the fingertips of his fret-hand (his left). He’s dead now, so I repeat his ritual in words, for comfort.

As for my own rituals, I can’t eat cracker sandwiches without first twisting them open and inspecting the filling for integrity, nor Cadbury’s caramel cake bars without first removing the chocolate base and sides, then separating cake strip and caramel top, then eating the dry cake, saving the caramel for last. I draw swirly things on foggy windows. I pick leaves from bushes and trees I pass. I put my fingers in running water. Apart from retaining my tendency to search for meaningless, pretty things to do, I sometimes listen to music through the ears of a bacchae, so that I remember how to shrug sloth off my shoulders.

It would be killed if I invented a religion, the meaninglessness. Joseph Campbell was an intelligent man, and I suppose he has a point, because if you extend those temporary, chaotic rituals and childhood beliefs in fairy tales along a timeline, and you use those tools to explain the mysteries of the world, then religions develop, but religions have meaning, that’s their purpose: to explain something. They begin to look to their own rituals to make sense out of things, rituals that began as randomness. You’re not allowed to have an imagination as an adult; you’re supposed to replace it with religion.

I know that meaningless ritual is good for me; it makes me feel better and does me good even when I’m not searching for material to write about. I think that means it’s essential. I’m not sure why other people need it.

It might be the case that Joseph Campbell is right, that they need meaning, and meaningless ritual is adapted to explain the inexplicable, but there are people who are imaginative and religious. That must mean that not all meaninglessness in their lives is devoured by religious ritual, so there are people like me. Do we only need meaninglessness for our imagination to function? Is it always there to feed something, like writing or painting or cooking, or is it necessary in itself for everyone?

I would invent a religion if I couldn’t live without meaninglessness but didn’t know it, if I were convinced my little rituals had meaning. If I were unable to accept my need for chaos, I would invent a cult – not believe in it, just invent it. I may do it to see if I can. I’ve never tried writing a holy text.

From an evolutionary standpoint, experimenting for no good reason is healthy. That sentence drained the mysticism from my questions. As much as I believe that it’s the correct answer, I’m feeling a bit deflated for giving in and writing it down. My speculations have now been stripped of artistry. They’re mundane. You’re feeling this deflation, too, if you’ve read this far and enjoyed what I wrote. The discussion doesn’t feel lofty or philosophical or artistic anymore. It’s a question of evolutionary biology, and evolutionary biology has debased it thoroughly, and we both know it, that it’s suddenly uglier.

This is proof, I think, that meaninglessness is essential, but not to art, exactly. If you closely examine something that is lofty or artistic, if you even examine the word “artistry” closely enough, you run up against this problem, that chaos or meaninglessness is  absolutely essential, because it’s at the heart of mysticism, which is at the heart of all art, which is at the heart of all the noble ambitions. But meaninglessness exists apart from its uses, and it is soothing. That’s something entirely different; there’s no art in autism, no art in stroking a teacup.

My conclusion must be that art and religion get their loftiness from meaningless ritual, which is something good for us in and of itself. But we’re not quite back where we started, in the ugly realm of art by genetic compulsion, in a place where biology answers my questions and makes them trivial.

Importance is rooted in randomness. Kosher rules are sensible rules to live by when in a society without antibiotics or antibacterial cleansers; they are holy because of their mysticism, because they are rooted in randomness, in rituals used to appease a thunder god. Somebody invented a ritual, and by chance, it rained the first several times he performed it. If a human could explain the importance of such a ritual to him, it would not be something he did for god. Kosher rules are still observed, not because they are sensible rules of hygiene, but because they are meaningful to god. The difference between hygiene and holiness is chaos, the great unknown.

Chaos is at the heart of high human ambitions. Art is important because it injects chaos into our lives. Culture is important because of the meaningless rituals it holds dear. Those rituals are important because they are chaotic.  When chaos is removed from lofty things, they are debased. When chaos is removed from the question of mysticism, and it becomes a matter of biology, the mysticism disappears. Biology answers the question, “Why are we aware that chaos is important?” not, “Why is chaos important?”, which is exactly the wrong question, the same question as “Why is water wet?”

Certain forms of satanism cut to the chase. They say, “Mysticism is at the heart of everything. Let us worship mysticism.” This premise is flawed, because mysticism is not at the heart of the matter, randomness is. Attach rituals to randomness, and it becomes the same thing as any other religion: a mixture of randomness and reason, and worse, a reason for the randomness, a ritual dictating the randomness, hobbling it.

Making a religion out of chaos is finding the secret inside a box, taking it out, and making a new box for it, with a picture of the secret inscribed on the lid. It’s not a secret if you describe it on the outside of the box. The point of keeping it in the box is lost.

Being religious is more peaceful than being where I am; religious people have both chaos and its box. Having opened the box, I don’t have anywhere left to go. I have to construct my boxes and pretend I don’t know what’s inside them. I sometimes want to step back and return to a world where higher ambitions are meaningful, but the truth as I’ve deduced it and laid it out for you here is so beautiful, and simple.

I would be relieved, really, if this isn’t the truth, because I am frightened of being correct while so many people are deceived. It feels pompous to have beliefs that are so rare, and so isolating (chaos is always personal, ritual always binding). Shame of being intelligent, of being right, of being an atheist, make me want to be wrong, but it’s too late, because I am dazzled by it.

I’m trying to put this in words that don’t feel religious (What would religion do for me?). I am drawn to randomness. I love chaos, the underlying current of the world.

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