A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dano and Other Festivals

Dano Festival from above
Last Wednesday saw end of the week long celebration of Dano Festival, a street fair taking place in the downtown area of the city by the river.  Initially, I thought it would feel like some kind of major event.  Gangneung's "big thing", which I suppose it was, but in truth it felt more akin to our beloved Yellow Springs Street Fair or a Corn Festival than the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade... and that's because it was.

The beginning of Dano Festival was marked with a parade through the city streets.  I didn't have the opportunity to enjoy much of it, as I was trying to teach children as it passed below our window.  There is nothing more distracting to adults and children alike than a parade.  How can I keep them interested in the material when I, myself, want to go outside and play.  

Pokemon slide!
I took advantage of the far from momentary distraction to ask students about Dano Festival.  I learned a few things.  First, it had a corporate sponsorship.  That's cool, but I didn't see why it was important.  When I expressed this disinterest, one of the boys stated that if I criticize Dano then I criticize all of Korea.  I didn't want to criticize all of Korea.  It wouldn't be in my best interest.  Yet, I still didn't see why such-and-so company made it a special event...or Korean institution...  Next, I discovered that the tradition of Dano Festival is based in Korean folklore.  I could not repeat the story even if I tried.  It has something to do with a bird and a woman, but the stories can be hard to decipher through the language barrier, and symbolism or metaphor are often entirely lost.  There was a woman... and a bird...

At the end of the day, I decided that my students (as is often the case) did not know why Dano Festival exists.  They knew it is a tradition.  They knew it has historical importance and is tied to the Korean identity, spiritually and literally.  They knew it is fun.  But, they did not really get the simplest reason Dano was started.  For that, I went to Wikipedia.  It's to celebrate the end of the sowing season!  And like so many festivals I went to as a youth, it is about farming.

Giant, inflatable people being controlled by teenagers
Call me mad, but it seems like most cultures have festivals to celebrate agriculture.  Historically at a county fair, you get to sell produce, visit with neighbors, and relax after a long period of thankless work.  Today, fairs are more institution than anything else, but they are good institutions celebrating local identity before national, state, corporate, religious, race, etc. and meant to be positive and fun experiences for all involved, even those dirty-faced foreigners or out-of-towners.

Pride in one's nation, pride in one's faith or company, can be as negative as it can be positive.  The line between patriotism and jingoism is a blurry one.  But a person learns their personal identity through these thousand and one larger ones.  The city/town/woods we grow up in will inevitably be as important a part of our identity as our parentage.  Knowing that both the surrounding community and those from far away appreciate our home and it's own unique culture, can help us be proud and appreciative of theirs.  For example, in one of my younger classes there was a group assignment to write about beautiful places in Korea.  One boy looked at me and asked if Gangneung was beautiful.  I said said yes, and the smile that appeared on his face could have melted ice.  It was pride.  The best kind of pride.  After all, I come from a nation that literally translates to "Beautiful Country" and here I was calling his home beautiful.  A local festival is meant to give a community the same kind of pride, encouraging both locals and outsiders to come and enjoy the beauty one cannot find anywhere else.

So what was Dano like?  It was... like a street fair!  Lots of food (lots and lots of fried food).  Lots of stations had been set up by businesses, church groups, and normal people.  Lots of entertainment with musicians and performers.  There was a circus tent and rides.  There were vendors selling everything imaginable.  And, of course, there were many booths set up for children to do arts and crafts.

There were differences, as well.  It lacked both a petting zoo or stables for farmers to auction off choice livestock, but as a whole what made Dano different from an American festival (county or street fair) was what it did have, and not what it lacked.  The entertainment was very different.  Performers included martial artists, mask dances, and a unique style of musician that could only be described as "bardic", being both clown and singer.  There was a distinct style of wrestling and a giant swing.  I watched a middle-aged woman giggling like a school girl on that swing.

More bizarre performers and participants came with Dano, perhaps as somewhat queerer institutions one could see every year.  Beggars were more than prevalent during Dano.  They were often crippled and handicapped, and would roll through the crowds behind music boxes.  Buddhist monks set up booths for palm readings, and others would walk around the fairgrounds ringing bells and singing for donations.  Some street performers would push carts through the crowds while joyously banging percussion instruments along with a prerecorded track and dancing.  One elderly fellow took to the streets with a melodica, clad in women's clothing that was tattered in the back, so one could see his comical underwear underneath his stockings.  

The above are all just a few examples of what you would be likely to see at Dano, and I'm sure there was a lot I missed.  The experience was enjoyable and different, but strangely familiar.  Among the most notable aspects of Dano was probably how much it felt like the kind of fairs one might see in the States, with the only exceptional differences being cultural foods and performances.  The spirit was certainly the same.  So, as I watched and wandered I was filled with both curiosity and nostalgia.  It was a strange combination, and one well worth an adventure.

Fun for the whole family!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Humble Love Letter: Bastion

Well, this took a while.  I've been sitting on this post for a pathetically long time and have been too busy and too tired to... proof read it... maybe I'm just lazy.  Anyway, the Humble Bundle V grew to include even more wonderful games, then ended.  That's not going to stop my little retrospectives, which seem to be taking much longer than anticipated...

If we can give credit to Sword & Sworcery for having a great narrator to string the game world together for the audience, then Bastion's is incredible.  However, despite many reviews and fans falling in love with Bastion because of this single of aspect of the game, it is far from the only asset it has in its favor.  Overall, Bastion is a great work, focused on telling a personal and interesting story, even when genre standards would have players believing such things were unimportant.

To examine Bastion, let us look at its most popular predecessor: Diablo II, which has surely defined the dungeon-crawler genre that Bastion, somewhat loosely, abides to.  A few weeks ago, Yahtzee Croshaw (of Zero Punctuation fame) released a review of Diablo III where he commented that it seemed like earlier Diablo games were telling everyone's story, but that of the main character.  This is absolutely true, and is a terrible narrative device for most any video game.  Video games are typically meant to be personal experiences where the player takes the role of a central protagonist, or group of central protagonists.  There should rarely be an unsubtle disconnect between the gameplay's narrative and the story.


The cut-scenes of Diablo II were gorgeous, but I could never figure out what they actually had to do with my paladin.  There was a loose connection that can be drawn at the very end of the game, but it is entirely unnecessary for enjoying the experience.  The Diablo series has garnered some well earned fans for addictive gameplay, but no one can honestly say the story is the reason to play.  Many Diablo clones (example: Torchlight) have approached storytelling in the same way.  They emphasize the fighting and looting, but neglect a genuinely interesting plot.

Bastion uses a similar gameplay to the Diablo series, but makes it far more personal.  I've heard the game be described as having a storybook visual style.  Characters are cartoony and colorful settings pop out, being genuinely pleasing to the eyes, but that "storybook" would not be worth reading without a fantastical tale connecting each area.  You follow "The Kid", who rises from his bed to find a shattered world.  His bedroom floats in an endless abstract void and as he moves along a path, it builds itself for him to walk along.  Right at this opening, you can already start to feel the deeply personal narrative being created through gameplay.  The Kid is in the present and the remnants of the past are piecing themselves together, laying out his future movements.  That very symbolic (but subtle) design choice guides the not only the character, but the player - you!  The world is rebuilding itself specifically for you!  That's very personal, and incredibly different from the apathetic, random dungeon-generating of Diablo II.

Along with the emerging walkways comes the narrator, who doesn't as much guide your actions as relay them to you.  He will often have some comment about your story, even while you completely deviate from the main path.  This encourages exploration and experimentation, and keeps you as the central focus.  The narrator is not leading your actions, you are leading his narration.

Bastion's story is about trying to redeem the failures of a fallen civilization, which had been torn apart by increasing technology and racial tension.  A super weapon was created and used to wipe out an entire race of people, but it somehow destroyed the people it was being used by.  The four main characters consist of The Kid and Rucks (the narrator), who are one race, and Zulf and Zia, who belong to the other.  Major portions of the plot, if not the major theme of the work, is about racial/religious conflicts, and a couple moral choices are made toward the end of the game to determine how you deal with them.

The game handles religion in a unique way.  Players have the choice of activating the idols of deities. By doing so the game becomes more challenging.  Usually, when you unlock something new, it helps the player, but here the gods themselves are unforgiving and cruel.  The reward for unlocking and activating the old gods is more pain and more suffering.  It's a wonderful change of pace from the simplistic way games like Diablo or Darksiders portray religion, as primarily black and white (and dully uninspired).

There is a lot in Bastion that I could mention at length.  A reoccurring theme is the relationship between The Kid and his mother, or rather the human connection to parentage and how those interactions affect us.  The music is wonderful, and the bluesy tunes mesh perfectly with the emptiness and desolation that exist in the game world.  Every artistic decision in Bastion seems to have been made to make the game feel right, feel personal, feel like a fluid and consistent work.  That's something one rarely witnesses in the dungeon-crawling, Diablo clone genre.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Humble Love Letter: Sword & Sworcery

The Humble Indie Bundle V was just released and it probably has the best collection of games a person can buy for pretty much any amount of money, which is what they're selling it for.  I bought the bundle having played four out of five of the games and only owning a netbook, knowing full well it would probably be a while before I could touch any of them again (especially on PC), and it was worth it.  Those games are Bastion, Sword & Sworcery, Limbo, Amnesia, and Psychonauts.  I could write a book's worth of material discussing these games and the expansive roots their trees grew out of, but I'll try to settle for a blog post.  Each one perfectly encapsulates its own style and delivers a fantastic narrative entirely unique unto itself, while paying loving homage to its predecessors.

Let's start with Sword & Sworcery, because its somehow the strangest of these five fairly bizarre games.  Actually titled Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, the game was developed by Superbrothers (of whom, I know nothing) and Capybara Games, creators of some pretty fun, but not particularly mind blowing works.  Their games, Critter Crunch and Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, are brightly colored and fun puzzlers, yet Sword & Sworcery is a dark and moody adventure with cryptic themes and a completely bat-shit sense of humor.

I'm not exactly sure why Sword & Sworcery is so wonderful, but it's probably due to its completely insane style that manages to ooze class despite its own ridiculous yet generic premise.  You play as the Scythian, a female hero whose gender is notable purely for being a non-issue, who travels between the "real", dark fantasy world and a dream one, following the instructions of the Megatome to find the Golden Trigon.  Somehow, that sounds normal for a video game.

That "standard" premise is what allows Sword & Sworcery to deviate in such ridiculous ways.  The work mixes adventure game mechanics with rock opera aesthetics and rhythm game moments, and it is coated in a layer of pixel art graphics.  Battles are essentially short, rhythm games to some great music that builds in intensity as the fight grows increasingly difficult.  They are uncommon, found spread thinly across a sprawling and beautiful landscape.

Of all the indie games in the Humble Indie Bundle, this is the only one that uses pixel art (a style independent games are commonly criticized for), but the lanky, foreign appearances of the characters and unnerving tranquility of the backgrounds lends itself to a truly unique feel.  The pixel art further distorts the characters, fitting the aesthetic perfectly.  When you begin the first "session" of the game, you are greeted by an ominous, cigar-smoking man in an abstract space standing beside a throne.  He sets the game's tone perfectly.  He is faceless and fluid, eerie in his oddly familiar presence, and fascinating.

As stated before, so many things seem like they could be generic or nonsensical in Sword & Sworcery, I could wonder why I adore it, but it manages to take those pieces and assemble them into a gorgeous picture.  Let me illustrate that love by dissecting a different game, the recently released browser title, Hug Marine.  There is nothing "wrong" with Hug Marine (I like it!), but the aesthetic is slightly off.  The game is fitted to NES-era pixel art, and it was probably done this way because of creator limitations, to look cute, or both.  However, the space marine, which the hug marine parodies, has only come to prominence as a generic, video game trope in recent years.  The art doesn't match the context.  

Sword & Sworcery's art matches the context gracefully.  It feels like a music game and an adventure game.  It feels like a dark and epic story.  It feels funny and nostalgic.  While these bodies should not align, the familiar (spelled: generic) and convoluted plot manages to fit the odd mixture of emotions, visuals, and gameplay elements to craft something entirely enthralling and unique.  The game is not about the individual parts, but their some.

After spending six paragraphs on Sword & Sworcery, I don't think it's wise to put all these games into a single blog post.  It could get very long.  Maybe not as long as a book, but a lot to read for one, casual sitting.  Throughout the week, I'll try to post up retrospective love-letters to the other three games I've played in the bundle, and perhaps a look at the fifth.