Friday, September 30, 2005

"please visit my blog for free ipod!!!"

So, I've started to notice my very first comments (a surprise, as I never really expected anyone who I didn't know personally to read any of this), and then, the sinking realization hit me: These Are Spam. More specifically, they're some sort of internal-to-the-blogosphere spam of people trying to get traffic to their sites. I've turned on "word verification," but I somehow doubt that's going to do a lot for me - it just forces people to do it by hand, and frankly, there's someone out there who will.

But now I'm faced with a question of etiquette, in a domain I'm totally unfamiliar with. I really feel like I should delete them, but would that be rude? Some of the comments, though generic, still say nice things to me - they could concievably be a nice (if generic) person trying to hunt around for like-minded blogs and share traffic. Or (more likely), they're heartless shills who have developed the Salesman's Smile, and aren't nice so much as pragmatic.

I occasionally write for a friend's blog and it was I who discovered the spam infiltration in the (largely vacant) forums. It was the same thing there - polite, generic posts that happened to include a link, which turned out to be scammish (like those "Free iPod if you buy all this crap and whatnot!" scams). I recently heard that blogging has positively exploded (with something like 10,000,000 blogs now in existence), and I'd wager most of it is crappy little Narcisism Projects like this one. So are blog comments and badly regulated forums the new Email Inbox, in the face of increasingly sophisticated spam filtering?

That said, I'd like to segway to something I recently discovered. I'm becoming something of a webcomic addict, processing them faster than satisfies my desire for daily humor. This led me to discover something everyone should enjoy. Visit and you'll see typical (i.e. clunky and badly phrased) spam subject headers reinterpreted in strange ways through badly drawn art. Hilarious.

For now, I'm going to see is this new filter kills my fledgling spam comments (spamments?). In a way, I'm sad. Being exploited by market forces is the first and best sign that someone knows you exist.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Itching For Immersion

I've got that urge again: the constant, nagging desire to dive into something complicated, something that will take up a lot of my time. It's a desire to insulate myself from boredom and banality by doing something *interesting* to excess, and it's bothersome. I've got stuff I need to be doing! Responsabilities, and such! I can't afford to start making masks (again) or invent a game from scratch (again) or even decide to master Sudoku (again).

At its worst, it's a deadly combination of poor impulse control, a short attention span, and escapist motivations. Generally, when it's gotten out of control before, the result has been a half-assed unfinished stab at something, which (left by the wayside) never fully takes form, and thus isn't even something I can show off later. It's not like I can get into something *good* for me (like actually getting some excersize), because that's boring.

I heard Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) had similar problems. His procrastination increased exponentially as deadlines approached, and his preferred means of procrastinating were taking baths and making sandwiches. The day before a draft was due saw five baths taken and two dozen sandwiches made, so the story goes. this, needless to say, did not make his editors happy.

Now, it's not like my life has editors breathing down my neck, saying "get off your ass - the ratings for you life stink!" But I'm not sure I couldn't use those. Maybe a dash of Celestial Drill Sergeant would be good for me, in the long run. In the mean time, I need to find something more productive to do with my time.

Maybe I should stop writing this post and find something more productive to do... Like playing Sudoku...

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Horror Vs. Terror

Has anyone noticed that, when it comes to movies and books, the word "Horror" is vastly misused? The American Heritage dictionary defines it as "an intense, painful feeling of repugnance and fear" and "intense dislike; abhorrence." In terms of usage, we make a distinction between an acute sense of anxiety (terror) and a more general feeling of dread (horror).

In my opinion, the vast majority of modern "horror" movies are really just supernatural thrillers. They use cheap tricks of cinematography and gore to illicit periods of anxious suspence and moments of shock and surprise. The new Japanese style (Audition, Ringu, Uzumaki) takes this to a new level, and such movies are much more "scary" than they are horrifying.

My take is that terror is a state of "active fear." It's called "terrorism" because the objective of that form of psychological warfare is to keep a population (military or civilian) in a state of stress and paranoia. But that's not "horror." Horror denotes a sort of hopelessness, a realization that some fundamental attribute of your conception of reality has been blown open. Sept. 11 was a day where people throughout the country were in a state of shock. Some became angry or terrified right away, but many were simply numbed by the magnitude of the event. I remember walking around in a haze, struggling to wrap my mind around what had happened, and what it would mean. It's a dread that comes with a shocking and reality-altering realization, which makes it feel like nothing will ever be the same.

It's a feeling that's astonishingly hard to illicit in an audience through fiction. People scare easily, but making them feel "hopeless" is nearly impossible. The reverse is also true: very few pieces of fiction really distill "hope" in a way that isn't sappy or contrived.

I would argue that The Shawshank Redemption is one of those very rare hope-causing movies, and it's impressive because you feel "hope" without hoping for anything specific. The movie tells you that the friends are reunited, so it's unambiguous, but the feeling of anticipation and optimism remains.

A phrase I've heard bandied about often is "cosmic horror," which I believe was coined by author H.P. Lovecraft. It's an empty phrase, really, used to identify works of in the (mislabeled) genre of horror that try to instill *actual* horror rather than basic terror. Lovecraft mainly aimed for this sort of style, but his own host of phobias made many of his "mind-blowing realizations" tame and, frankly, kind of weird. "Oh my god, that man had sex with an ape!" "By all that is holy, that crazy shrew my friend married is possessed by the spirit of her father!" "Heavens above, my friend melted!" But his approach was a pioneering effort (not without its successes) that had a lot of influence.

I've seen a few works that quality as true works of "horror," in that they get under your skin rather than merely turbo-charging your nerves. House of Leaves tops my list for the written word, containing precious few moments of "terror" but very strongly disorienting the reader and upending the audience's expectations. Spider, the recent Cronenberg movie, was a powerfully atmospheric psycholigical film with nothing "scary" to it, but was (from start to finish) uncomfortably creepy with a fairly powerful twist. The Devil's Backbone has a handful of fright moments, but is also mainly creepy with a strong thematic story. The Last Wave (an old Australian horror film) worked mainly in atmosphere and suspense rather than in latex and polystyrene. Silence of the Lambs is a tremendous movie precisely because it causes a host of emotional responses without relying on cop-out tricks. It's a rare case of general audiences and critics converging on a "thriller."

(Because horror films *must* be suprnatural and thrillers *can't* be unless they're "supernatural thrillers." Don't even get me started.)

In a sense, there's an argument for simply not making this sort of movie. People don't typically seek out movies to be depressed - most horror movies, by contrast, tend to leave people feeling good aobut themselves as a rebound effect after being scared (skydivers commonly experience a much more acute feeling of euphoria after they land as a rebound from the sense of danger while falling). So why make truly "horrible" movies or books?

The problem is that most horror is garbage. Now, I know that 95% of everything is crap and all, but with horror, it's more like 99.5%. Most of these movies are made super-awful on purpose (and are released straight to video), while most shown in theaters exist only to scare. As a result, there's precious few well-crafted horror films made by a talented cast and crew.

Well, sometimes, it's a matter of "what kind of story is being told?" I am willing to accept as great a powerful work on the basis that it's powerful - fiction that moves a person is worthy of respect, because it makes them think. I may not like some of this fare personally, but I think the art of "telling creepy stories" has a place that justifies itself, provided it aim for the same level of abstract emotion that other great works do.

It's just a long wait between worthy candidates...

Thursday, September 08, 2005

A Sobering Reminder

In the last week, a man in Sri Lanka was quoted by the international media as saying "I am absolutely disgusted. After the tsunami our people, even the ones who lost everything, wanted to help the others who were suffering... Not a single tourist caught in the tsunami was mugged. Now with all this happening in the U.S. we can easily see where the civilized part of the world's population is."

To be fair, it's not entirely true. Rape and robbery did follow in the tsunami's wake, but not to the degree it did in New Orleans. At this point, I think most of the country is numb to what's happening there: the total breakdown of civil order. Today, security professionals are being offered $200 a day to work as armed officers in New Orleans, trying to remove the remaining citizenry - this is a wage driven high by risk of infection, risk of explosion, and risk of being shot. And as the public swell of charitable support grows, the wage remains high - which suggests that security professionals view the place as too dangerous. It's hazard pay, pure and simple.

We have it easy, in America. We've developed a system where the average person can get away with spending more than they earn and has access to a wide range of inexpensive commercial goods. This isn't to say life is easy (especially at the low-income level), but there isn't regular famine (China), civil war (Israel & Pakistan), an AIDS epidemic (sub-Saharan Africa), or foreign occupation (Iraq). And the truth is: if you take away our electricity, our clean water, and our food, we (as a society) are no more enlightened than therest of the world. You get a mix of heroism and law-of-the-jungle savagery.

I think more pople need to think long and hard about that, and about what they would be in that situation.

Monday, September 05, 2005

"We Demand A Return To Normalcy"

I've heard a lot about World of Warcraft (WoW). It's one of those MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), the one that currently dominated the market. It's getting a fair bit of mainstream attention, too:

In an article in the New York Times, (for those of you unable to access it, you can get a free login at Bug Me Not without selling your info to spammers) there is discussion of whether the overwhelming success of the game is "bad for the industry" or "a quirk, soon to receed." What the article failed in every way to do is address what everyone I know who plays the game assures me: it is very, very fun.

Consider: traditionally, MMORPGs are riddled with drugery, and/or timesinks, and/or limits to the size of the world. And, traditionally, there has been a pool of about one million customers open to American publishers. WoW seems to suggest that previous assumptions about the size of the pool were radically incorrect, as WoW has one million customers in the US alone, and 4 million worldwide.

A lot of people are pissed off, because their games aren't doing well as a consequence. The Matrix Online flopped. Everquest II did acceptably, but still faces an 8:1 disadvantage in world market share. Being upset, they grumble about WoW being the "800-pound gorilla" (a currently overused phrase in the gaming industry, applied to Sony, Will Wright (creator of The Sims and Simcity), WoW, and various other things that people view as unassailable).

Here's the fact of the matter: WoW is more fun to more people than the other games. Why? Well, there's a lot of reasons, frankly. It is better built for social experiences, and actually enhances the experience of teamwork rather than making it a tiresome chore. The game manages ot avoid the most egregeous timesinks seen in other games. It provides incentives for casual play, rather than allowing people who do nothing else to dominate. It lets you make as many characters as you want across multiple servers. It gives people the option to use player-versus-player servers or not at their discretion. It provides character-building options quite divorced from "gaining levels." This is to say nothing of the well-deserved credit that goes to its network, which (after some initial growing pains) is now rock-solid in its reliability.

If someone wants to compete with WoW, then they'd damn-well better learn from it. It hasn't reinvented the wheel, but it has repaved the road, making the journey smooth and pleasant by contrast to its earlier state. WoW is a milestone in online gameplay, and until everyone rises to the new benchmark, they're not going to get to really compete for that enormous new share of players.

When one game dominates a glutted genre, it almost always means it's better. And everyone else needs to further improve on the new model to be noticed.


Friday, September 02, 2005

The Dustbowl

Blogging is a weird sort of experience. It takes a certain kind of person to churn out material every day, and a certain kind of skill to keep that material engaging. Expecting to have no readers, myself, I am somewhat less beholden to that standardof quality, but the fact remains: I've not a whole lot to say, it seems.

Some people (politicians, say) are built for talking. They jabber on endlessly, given the chance. Myself, when I started this thing, it was about sharing my ideas, when I had them with the void. Kind of like those rituals where you write down a prayer and burn it. And after a dozen or so posts, I'm finding that new ideas aren't terribly forthcoming. Or if they're new, they seem like rehashed versions of existing ideas.

I understand industries of this kind have a high burnout rate. Role-playing games, for example, require people who can spill page after page hour after hour, day after day, and rankly, it doesn' surprise me that so much that gets published lacks that spark. The most prolific RPG rules authors (e.g. Monte Cook) can expect to generate and edit over a thousand pages a year, I wager. Even more authors of fiction can't manage that sort of pace. And many who do (*ahem*Robert Jordan*cough*) also lack that spark of creativity, buried under the chore of all that production.

I'm pretty familiar with creative burnout. I undertake about a half-dozen ambitious projects a year, and they usually get shelved because I can't muster the will to do the busywork. I'm sure if I were beholden to someone (a boss, an audience), it would be a different story. My professional work doesn't show this sort of self-defeating loss of spirit. Consequently, I've got all these semi-complete worlds, storylines, and ideas kicking around in my head like ghosts.

The longest-running such ghost is code-named The Game of Death, a youthful indulgence by a bunch of teenagers. At the time, we had all played Master of Orion 2, one of the best galactic conquest games every made. The genre was known as "4X Games," (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate), a phrase that entered the public domain from being some progenitor game's tagline. Unlike more terrestrial games, the sci-fi aspects of such games allow for wildly fanciful species with unusual abilities and exotic technologies. So we designed a bunch of stuff, threw around a lot of ideas, drew a bunch of concept art. It would sit on the shelf for months or years at a time, then re-emerge in some new form. Its last incarnation, a far cry from its origins, was more in the spirit of Star Control 2 or Wing Commander: Privateer, but many of the original ideas were still in there in some form. The irony is that there simply isn't the collective programming skill among my friends to even vaguely consider actually making it. It's like the Rock of Sisyphus, only instead of rolling up a hill, it's just sort of getting rolled around the base of the hill by someone too weak to get any lifting power.

I don't know if getting my hands on a skilled team of minions would really make much of a difference, mind you. Lacking that sort of authority, I've never had the chance to see if delegation of responsability really increases my patience for such projects. I'm at once envious of and pity people who can remain focused on a single idea for years while they develop it - envious because it clearly requires a discipline I lack, bit I feel pity because so many have their ambitions crushed by the weakness of their idea and the cruelty of the marketplace. Even really good ideas helmed by really creative people (viz. Psychonauts) can fail (or "be lackluster") in today's marketplace. In a way, my not being too invested in any of my ideas protects me from that sort of life-wasting obsession.

For now, I am trying to make an effort to write here. My million other waste-of-time projects aren't being graven into the Internets, so at least, here, I can sit back and grin at my words from time to time.