Saturday, 27 November 2010

Lara Croft and the art of co-op.

Ah, the Tomoe Nage.

Tomoe-NAGE!

Just saying it brings back memories. A summer of Splinter Cell : Chaos Theory co-operative mode with your man Dominic Parsons. Chucking each other: wheee, down corridors; whoosh, across impasses; oof, into bad guy’s stomachs. Being thrown, more than occasionally, heard-first into a wall, all the while announcing: Tomoe … NAGE!

That move kept us playing, and kept us giggling while we did. It’s the reason I’ve finally bought Conviction for next time me and Dom have got a chunk of time to kill together.

This is what co-op games live and die on. Halo co-op is alright, yeah, but there’s very little that changes on account of there being two of you. It’s essentially two people playing two different synched-up games on the same screen. Shouldn’t a co-op game have a little more … cooperation?

It’s this impulse which dissolves every session of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World into me telling everyone hold x! now! NOW! We’ll do some awesome team attack... WHY THE HELL AREN’T YOU HOLDING IT?

Sadly, being 2000 years old, Totec didn't get the reference.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light has tons of cool stuff you can only do with two players. It achieves this by splitting the single-player character (Lara) and her skillset into two: Lara gets the grappling hook, while the the game-defining magic spears (which act as both weapon and throwable platform) go to her 2000-year-old Mayan buddy Totec. The lucky fella also gets a cheeky shield that can block projectiles or give Lara a leg-up, and a truly unconvincing accent.

All this adds up to a lot of helping each other over ledges, across crevasses, and through various scrapes. The grappling hook can be used to absail Totec down cliff-faces, or as a tightrope across the traditional Tomb Raider abysses. The shield protects Lara from a rain of arrows as she plants a mine to blow up the traps.

Guardian of Light is basically a buddy film. Not in the plot – though it’s certainly in there, with the classic ‘odd couple’ dynamic between the iconic lady adventurer and her reanimated male escort – but in the living room, between you and the bumbling idiot you’re playing with.

Don't falllllllllllllll

Because all those cool moves mean you’re relying on someone. When the level’s final big trap comes down on you, and your mate is pulling you up by grappling rope? That’s thrilling. When they forget you have to hold the trigger to keep it extended, and you fall to the bottom? The resulting string of swearwords will cause any Daily Mail readers in a three-mile radius to start twitching involuntarily.

But eventually, once you’ve punched their arm into a fitting deadness, you’ll just about squeeze through the traps and trials and tribulations. And as both your scores tick up in front of you (ha! I totally thrashed you!) you’ll bask in shared glory. And, looking back as you laugh and share a couple of post-exploratory cigars, it all suddenly seems like a character-building bonding session. Hey, this rookie ain’t so bad after all.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Right One?

Loneliness, Pt 1

Let The Right One In is the title of a Morrissey song. Let Me In is the title of a song by Jefferson Airplane.

Let The Right One In starts with a troubled young boy stabbing a tree with a penknife. Let Me In starts with a horrifically acid-burned man being rushed to hospital before killing himself. Let Me In gets to all that later.

Let The Right One In is a 2008 Swedish film about children & vampires. Let Me In is a 2010 American remake about vampires, and children.

Just ... Hangin' Around

And that's about all there is, in terms of differences. Names may be changed to protect the (not so) innocent, bits are shuffled around, but they are almost exactly the same film. Startlingly so, in fact. Scenes are lifted without change, dialogue is spoken straight from the original subtitles, shots are duplicated with unerring precision. It is, in every sense, a remarkably faithful adaptation.

And yet.

The film might, possibly, be an incredibly clever extension of the vampire metaphor. If you reanimate a corpse, perfectly, can it ever truly be the same person?

It stretches this into the very body (the attractive, if strange-smelling, body) of the film itself. If two films are made of the exact same material, are they really different films? Can they ever be the same film?

Rubiks

Annoyingly, I’m unsure. It’s easy to say ‘oh, it’s not as good as the original’. That’s the line I’m sure thousands of people will be muttering as they emerge from screenings this weekend; it’s the line thousands more have had pre-prepared for months. And it’s true – the addition of unnecessary special-effects and the few tiny tweaks to the plot make a slightly weaker film – but that’s all a bit too tidy, don’t you think?

It’s definitely true to say this is one of the most pointless remakes I’ve ever seen. It’s simultaneously true that it’s one of the best.

When it has the conviction to be a little different, the film begins to find itself. (A lesson we should all take from the last few years of adaptations, by my reckoning. See also: Scott Pilgrim, Watchmen, Kick Ass…) Two car-set murder scenes are, as far as I can remember, the biggest departure from the original. The second, especially, with its beautiful symmetry and all-mixed-up-tension is stylish, satisfying and smart. It contains the one intentional laugh in the film, shows some directorial flair, and opens up one the film’s big questions a bit: is it okay to sympathise with monsters? It is the film’s breakaway moment.

Sizzlin'

Memory is a key thing in all these judgements, so allow me to add a quick disclaimer: it has been over a year since I last watched Let The Right One In, and my perceptions of it are warped. A few conversations and a quick Youtube hunt prove that bits I thought were silly Hollywood add-ons were actually in the original, along with at least one other scene I have zero recollection of. Because all that matters, really, is that snowy courtyard and a frozen climbing frame area and two children, slightly too old for their surroundings, talking nervously. And Let Me In got that down, perfectly.

In my memories, at least, Let The Right One In is a masterpiece. Let Me In … isn’t a bad copy, actually.

Loneliness, Pt 2

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Run, Meatboy, Run

Lo-gooooo!
Weak, weak, weak.

Expect this to be your mantra while you play Super Meat Boy, the latest downloadable platforming treat on the Live Marketplace. Like Braid a couple of years ago, it's an indie-developed love poem to old Mario games, with a twist on the classic formula. Braid's twist was time travel. Unless you were Soulja Boy, it was a game that demanded a thoughtful approach to most of its levels: as much time was spent with hand on chin as on the controller.

Like Braid, the levels are inventive and will often take several replays to solve. Unlike Braid, that's not because your brain needs time to puzzle out the solution: Super Meat Boy demands only your body. Every level is an endurance test of reflexes and, by your hundredth squishy death, of muscle memory. The game is a chain of hundreds of small levels, each taking less than half a minute to finish. In theory.

Because you'll be reliving those half-minutes over and over again. Normally, that counts against a game: difficulty spikes, having to play unnecessarily hard bits repeatedly, equals bad design.
Truest comic adaptation ever
The genius of SMB is that it's all one big difficulty spike. The short and perfectly-formed nature of each level make it hard to get frustrated with Super Meat Boy. No, it’s not the game that’s flawed. It’s you. SMB will smack you down time and time again, but you can see it waiting impatiently for you to get better.

Because each level is short, there's little punishment for failure - except becoming a messy red blob on the landscape - and a lot of room for practice. Saying that SMB has none of Braid's puzzling isn't quite fair: it's easy to see, in most cases, that there is a perfect solution to every level. Every failure teaches you something. Play enough and you can see the cogs at work. It's like testing yourself against a huge creaking machine, like one of those Japanese game-shows, as hosted by GLaDos. The levels are perfectly designed so that going back once you've finished them, they suddenly seem easy.

And go back you will. There's …ahem, excuse me… a lot of meat on the bones of this game. Levels have hidden warp zones and collectible bandages which unlock bonus characters and retro 8-bit minigames. But leaning heaviest on that easy-when-you-return feeling is the Dark World. which provides a twisted, even more curse-inducingly variant on every level. These variations are unlocked by A+’ing - beating a set completion time for - the original level.
Flash a Meaty Smile
Playing for the A+’s completely changes the game. Tentative steps are exchanged for a furious blur of action. You’re truly in control of this slippery red blob, vaulting and flipping and bouncing off walls, leaving a victorious red wake. When you've mastered the levels, it feels triumphant.

So it's easy to forget that, just round the corner is another unbeatable level. You might just be able, on attempt #237, to scrape through it. But you'll never get the perfect time. And what about that bandage?

Remember: the game will beat you, eventually. After all, you’re just tired weak flesh. Just meat, boy.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Hammering it home: Oldboy and *That* Fight

Certain scenes earn a historical reputation that break free from the film which once contained them. The American History X kerbstomp. The ear-lop from Reservoir Dogs. These are the kinds of scenes that crop up endlessly, without context, on Youtube. The scenes you can’t help but wait for, when you finally get round to watching the film.

Oldboy has two of these scenes. The first is probably the more (in)famous: Dae-su eating a still-alive squid. This was done without effects, just a man, eating a real squirming octopod. In its context in the film, however, it wasn’t a defining moment. Even in terms of purely visceral shock value, it has a superior: the tooth-pulling torture which precedes our second sequence.

That second scene is, of course, the hammer fight. When you mention the film to people, they’ll nod and go ahh, yes, the hammer fight, right? and give you a knowing nod.


I’m not sure the reason I lay tribute at its feet here is completely aligned with the rest of the world; but then, what on this site ever is?

It isn’t that the scene is flashily shot – in fact, it’s quite plain – or impressively choreographed – it looks effortless, breezing past on screen. It isn’t even the impressive technical work on show: though impressive it is, consisting of one long seamless shot, a shot which escapes the confines of the film and passes into the urban myth of knowing nods.

What makes this scene special, for me, is the setting: a single underground corridor, limited in at the top and bottom. Limited by black. Sound familiar?

Oldboy is fighting with the language of cinema. By setting those confines – the black bars which seal every film into letterbox format – as a geographical feature of the scene, it sets the fight within the screen. Depending on your tendencies, it will either make the limitations disappear or draw the eye to them. It’s a reminder of artifice, or a removal. Nevertheless...

The single shot breaks from the norm of the Big Fight Scene: the traditional quick, close-up cuts back and forth, working like a particularly violent conversation. By keeping one shot, it allows the scene to flow as you read it, as the action - that simplest of clauses in cinema - moves, two dimensionally. The camera stays along a single horizontal plane: nothing exists above or below the action as we watch it. Like a 2D Mario game, like a comic, like reading a book, it moves unmistakably from left to right.

And when it reveals a dozen men in a lift, to be dispatched, it is natural. You've reached the end of the sentence; of course it ends with a punchline. Nothing in the film – even its great joke, at the climax – matches it.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Oh, Flesh.

I only recently wrote about the Indelicates' album, Songs for Swinging Lovers. But this is a contender for my favourite song of the year, and it deserves a post of its own.


Flesh - The Indelicates

The opening comes on like Pulp's This is Hardcore, all clashing, sexy drums and cymbals. It holds this for a few seconds, the indie shorthand for this is going to be seedy, before breaking open into more traditional Indelicates territory, as horns build on top. It's all seductively pretty-sounding for an impressively long time. And then a hissed flesssshhh, like a wound opening, and:
"Hey girls, let's see if we can bring out the rapists in the new men."
The first time, it's absolutely jaw-dropping.

And the rest of the song continues in a similar fashion. It reminds me a little of Mansion Song, in the way it navigates the unsteady balance of feminism and sexuality. Mansion Song lands a lot of painful blows, but Flesh? It's just unbelievably nasty.

Which is largely thanks to lyrics which grab you roughly by the shoulders and shout 'look!'. "Carve my snatch into a smile" is the one which gave me chills. But it's full of little moments like that. The rest of the album is violence pitched against often-delicate music which sounds like it could have come from any time last century. Once you notice the lyrics - and it took me a couple of listens - once you start picking at that particular scab, Flesh is just pure tarry black nastiness.

And it's achieved, again, through the interplay of sounds. The way the cheery "hey girls" cuts against that "oh flesh" muttered underneath it all. The way the 'shhh' of flesh is held, drawn out slowly between the teeth, matching the stretched shrillness of the horns midway through, which are actually painful if you're listening at the right volume. The upbeat - at first glance - tone of the song and "pull it down, stick it up, just a little, babe".

It's the kind of song that draws a direct line between a suffragette throwing herself in front of a horse and Sex & The City: The Movie 2. Blood sacrifice/That dangerous brand of 'we're all the same, aren't we?' female empowerment touted by the creaky shopping/shagging marionettes. It's not a pleasant song: it's a song about the horror of pornography looking back at you, of forgotten ideals, of a long hard look in the mirror.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Doctor is in: Pixies - Doolittle

A revisit to the sacred halls of Redbrick, for a crack at the new Essential Albums feature. It had that classic cinematic One Last Job feel to it, where I got to play the disgruntled vet. With eyes squinted, I sit at a rusty typewriter and begin:

Doolittle

"Some bands write songs full of sub­text and allu­sion, plead­ing for some­one to crack their heads open and see just how clever it all is in there. Not the Pix­ies. Their best songs shoot past at a hundred-miles-per-hour in a cloud of gibberish. All that pon­cey stuff was left to the lis­ten­ers and jour­nal­ists."

And true to form, that's exactly what I do.

Check the rest out on the probably-award-winning Redbrick website.

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.