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

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Entertaining Arts: May

Here I've collected a number of beautiful, fascinating, and strange things from the month gone by.  I don't have too much to say about each one individuality, but they are all wonderful in their own right.

What Did I Do Last Summer?

Let's get summer started off right with an inspiring story.  THROUGH THIS LINK you can find a tale told by Robert Krulwich about how a few amateur scientists, including a six-year-old and a three-year-old, turned everything people used to know about reproduction on its head.  And they did it by staring at aphids.

Something for the Kids

A Spanish organization called the Aid to Children and Adolescents at Risk Foundation made an advertisement that shows two completely different images.  At adult eye level, you'll see one image.  However, children can see a different one, which sends them a message about abuse that their abuser wouldn't be able to see.

Damsel in Distress

Feminist Frequency recently released the second installment of a three part series that focuses on the damsel in distress trope that pops up in video games over and over and over again... to an alarming degree actually.  Both PART 1 and PART 2 are really interesting, and give some insight into the origins of the trope and some reoccurring devices that are less than flattering towards women.

PS: Micro-Art

It's been an off month for me, so here's something blatantly not from May, but well worth sharing.  THROUGH THE LINK you can learn about the Russian artist, Nikolai Aldunin, who creates iddy-biddy, teeny-tiny works of art.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cthulhu vs. Zombies

I'm not sure how anyone learned about H. P. Lovecraft or his most famous creation, Cthulhu, without being in the Boy Scouts.

Way back, when I was but a wee-lad, living off the land in my parent's cottage home, I was part of an organization called "The Boy Scouts of America."  (You might have heard of them.  They did something pretty cool recently.)  For me, scouting was about tying knots, building bridges, and slaying giants.  We played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in my troop... Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Starcraft.  And D&D was my first exposure the Cthulhu mythos.

In the game, there are creatures called mind flayers or illithids.  They're kind of the ultimate intellectual villains.  They're tall, lanky, squid-faced creatures with long, clawed hands and psychic powers.  Lurking deep underground, they use mind control and manipulation to seduce prey.  Then they wrap their tentacles around your head and *slurp* suck out your brains!  Oh my god!  It sounds so corny, but so cool.  

These monsters were created by Gary Gygax (inventor of D&D), who was only influenced by H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu indirectly.  He saw the artwork for a story by Brian Lumley that had been inspired by Cthulhu mythos and that became the mind flayer.  Learning about the mind flayer's similarities to Cthulhu and learning about the pen and paper game The Call of Cthulhu, were my introductions to the horrible, cosmic monster we all know and love.

With or without those particular influences, people have taken to the character of Cthulhu in some surprising ways.  I've seen Cthulhu plushies, t-shirts, and comical video games starring him... but let me remind the world that this creature is the secret cause of human anxiety and fear.  Cthulhu is an incredibly powerful, god-like horror that is only temporarily trapped, and will eventually return to the earth to wreak a terrible havoc upon it.  Plushies?  Really?

Cthulhu strikes me as almost the opposite of zombies.  We are fascinated by zombie media because it reflects this fear we have about the future of humanity.  Zombies are very human.  They are men and women gone completely feral, and they tend to represent concepts like consumerism, mindlessness, uniformality, and function as the enemy in story's where humans needs to regain their basic survival instincts (reject modernity and return to nature).  They are very twenty-first century monsters.

Cthulhu is an old foe.  He's more like an old religion end-of-the-world beast.  Not a horde of zombies, not something human, but something outside humanity, something from beyond.  He lurks just outside our worldly understanding.  That's what's supposed to make him scary, but that's not a very modern foe.

With all our technology and science, it sometimes feels like human progress is clearly the most dangerous force on the planet, and the superstitions Cthulhu resembles are laughable by comparison.  Thus we turn Cthulhu cute.  "Aw, wook at the widdle howwa.  Don't wook too wong or he'll dwive woo just cwazy!"  It's a fair bit condescending to transform an ancient god into a funny t-shirt.  But we don't stop at the fictional religions.  Real world religions with their own mysticism and eschatology sometimes get similar treatment.

Rest assured though that the premise for Cthulhu (as with end of the world theories behind many real world religions) is far scarier than zombies.  It's like comparing a giant sun flare to global warming.  We could probably stop human influence upon global warming if we tried really hard.  But if there was a massive sun flare, we'd all probably die and there's nothing we could do about it.  It's likely we wouldn't even have much time to react.  

Yeah, that's scary.  The problem is there's not much you can do about it.  You can't fight unstoppable disaster.  You can't fight a god.  And because of that, those aren't always the most fun or interesting stories.  Zombies, on the other hand, can be resisted.  Even if humanity failed, at least we could say we gave it a shot.

Even plants work to fend off the zombies.
If Cthulhu represents an unavoidable doomsday, then I would say that the human race has handled him quite well.  People embrace Cthulhu.  We love him.  Sure, he'll be the death of all of us, but we all gotta die sometime, so why spend your days worrying about some ancient evil.  Let's welcome him when he comes.  Who knows?  Maybe when he sees how cute those damned plushies are, he'll have second thoughts.  Maybe, he'll just kill us all a little.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Playing the Pacifist: A List of Pacifist Video Games

Let's say, you are a pacifist, but you like video games. You think video games are fun or interesting and you'd like to play them, but there's a little bit of guilt stuck in your chest because you are all too often enjoying violence. Even the most basic of children's games are frequently filled with unavoidable, violent solutions to the problems presented. Hero Mario stomps his foes into the earth. Noble Link slashes through hundreds of living creatures, many people, on his way to save the day. If a game has an actual story, it will likely be one where the protagonist kills people and blows stuff up.

That's really annoying for people who don't want to play a sadistic murderer. Yes, I'm sure video games are all about killing and I shouldn't be surprised and I can go play The Sims or some racing game and blah blah blah. We've heard the dozens of knee jerk reactions before. But more and more, you actually can play good games with planned narratives (i.e. not The Sims or some racing game) where you don't kill or even attack anything.

So I'm going to make a list of contemporary "pacifist" games a person could play. It's fair to note that these are not "non-violent" games. Like all stories, to be enjoyed a story needs conflict. And any pacifist will recognize that their own life is typically filled with more conflict than they probably would like. There's a great little browser game called The Life of a Pacifist is Often Fraught with Conflict. The title alone speaks a grave truth and irony. The games on this list may include conflict, confrontation, and violence. But what makes them "pacifist" games is the player's avatar. The avatar is non-violent. The player either cannot harm others, is strongly discouraged from doing so, or is harshly penalized for doing so in these games.

Finally, I am going to avoid most straight puzzle, simulation, sports, and racing games, as well as freeware and browser games, because I want to emphasize larger, more accessible (and increasingly popular) releases and narrative games. The list is alphabetical.

Catherine (PS3/Xbox 360)

In Catherine, you play Vincent, a man whose been having a rough time committing to a steady relationship, when he has an affair with the beautiful (yep!) Catherine, and soon starts to have reoccurring dreams where he is being pursued by monstrous versions of his girlfriend, Catherine, babies, etc: all the things that would hunt a guilt-ridden, male mind. The story is really strong at the beginning, but grows increasingly loopy towards the end.  Though, that does not stop it from being a fun romp through the male psyche.

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!” (PC)

In this game, you play the titular Dominique Pamplemousse, a gender-ambiguous detective low on work and desperate to make the rent. Like any good noire, detective story, "that's when she walked in." A woman comes to Dominique for help finding a missing singer. This is a black and white, musical, claymation, point and click adventure game. Note, the word "musical" because there is a lot of singing (a lot of off-key singing). If you don't immediately find it endearing, you will hate it. That's just a warning for people with hearts as black as coal.

Fez (PC/Xbox 360)

In Fez, you play a little, white boy who lives in a simple, innocent, 2D world. Then a magical (yep!) fez descends from the heavens and onto your head, allowing you to twist and spin your perspective, revealing the third dimension! You'll spend a fair amount of time wandering through very beautifully constructed, vertical landscapes searching for secrets and collecting cubes.  Anyone that enjoys a good puzzle game and remembers life before Playstation will likely love this one.

Flower (PS3)

Flower is among the most beautiful and powerful video game experiences I've ever had. You control the wind and collect flower petals as you travel across the country and through a city. No game has ever come close to giving me the sense of flight that the motion controls in Flower allow. I've felt more joy and wonder playing this game than any other.

From Dust (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)

You can actually kill people in From Dust, but the entire goal of the game is not to. You play as a god, and you want to sculpt the earth so that a tribe of people can travel safely through each region. It takes a lot of work to be a loving god. Teeny-tiny people are all too easily wiped out by flood and fire, but that's why you're there. From Dust isn't as much a "god game" as a "personal god game," where you really have to work to protect your people.

ilomilo (Xbox 360)

ilomilo is much deeper than it looks. On the outside, it is a cute, 3D puzzle game with some interesting mechanics. But only through delving into the secrets and hidden clues will you unravel the story at its core. What is a children's toy box of gorgeous art design contains a somewhat sadder, nostalgic treasure that is well worth the time it takes to find.

Journey (PS3)

There are a couple videos in the Extra Credits web series about Journey and "the hero's journey," and I strongly recommend watching those (Part 1 and Part 2). 

Journey, by the same developers as Flower, is a visually gorgeous adventure where you travel from sandy dunes to a distant mountaintop. This game can be played solo or co-op, but you can't exactly play it with friends. Instead, you meet strangers along the way and can help each other reach the summit. There's always the choice to ignore a new acquaintance, but it is so much more rewarding to journey with a companion.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act I (PC)

Cardboard Computer pretty much does nothing but create amazing, non-violent games, filled with wanderlust and strong writing. Kentucky Route Zero is no exception there. You play a trucker traveling through Kentucky and looking for (yep!) Kentucky Route Zero. This game is heavy on Americana and magical realism, which set it apart from the more "fanciful" fantasy games out there. As of writing this, the first Act is the only one that's been released.

Papo & Yo (PC/PS3)

Papo & Yo is quite explicitly a survivor's story. It's not a "survival horror" story. It's about a child who survives an abusive parent. Remember games like Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom (maybe?) where the protagonist is accompanied by a cute, monster friend. Well, Papo & Yo is kind of the reverse of that. Most of the game is spent hoping that your helpful monster pal will not fly into a frenzied rage. More so than probably any other game on this list (possible exceptions are Journey and Flower), Papo & Yo is one you will play for the ending.

Thomas was Alone (PC/PS3)

Thomas was Alone is a game about friendship. Characters are abstract blocks that would not have any personality of their own if it weren't for the humorous narrator guiding you through the adventure and explaining who each block is and what each block is thinking. This game is a real charmer and you will fall in love with the entire cast of characters by the end.

The Undergarden (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)

The Undergarden is a game largely without conflict. You explore underwater caverns, solve puzzles, and collect little friends. It's all very nice and very zen in its own way. But there is a barrier to entry. Patience. A player needs to be patient to enjoy this game because it is not a high speed action title. It takes its time and stops to smell the roses, and you have to be willing to do that too in order to get the most out of this game.

The Unfinished Swan (PS3)

Why play a first person shooter when you can play a first person painter?! The Unfinished Swan is a children's fairy tale where the orphaned protagonist travels into a blank canvas to find his mother's painting of (yep!) an unfinished swan. The opening to this game is brilliant. Nothing but white, and you have to toss black balls of paint to fill in the scenery. The game grows more grandiose from there. If you are looking for something to fill you with child-like wonder and remind you of the joy you received from exploring game worlds as a kid, this is one you want.

Friday, May 17, 2013


The above is a picture of the walk to my front patio.  It doesn't look like much, but this area is its own amazing, little ecosystem.  Creatures are constantly passing through: birds, slugs, snails, the rare snake, lizards during the day, toads at night, and of course insects.  What might be fascinating to the casual observer seated on this patio is the baffling number of injured insects that manage to find their way to that walk.  Almost on instinct, they descend from the heavens, broken and battered, to crawl or churn gracelessly upon those hard, cement barrens.

Charity, I suppose, would be to put the creatures out of their misery or find some way to tender to the injured lovebugs.  But that is not the way the world works.  There was this really good anime I watched years ago, Trigun.  In one scene two boys and their caretaker are sitting in a field and one sees a butterfly caught in a spider's web.  With good intent, he reaches to save the butterfly before the spider can have its meal.  As he does so, the other boy smashes the spider with his hand.  The naive, butterfly child is enraged and screams that he wanted to save them both, but the other states, "If you let the butterfly live, the spider is going to die. You can't save both without one suffering."

This is one of those grave truths that honest, good, kind-hearted people sometimes hate to hear.  To deny a predator its prey is to condemn it to death.  It is questionable whether or not that moral should be taken outside nature and into greater human philosophy.  But back to the walkway...

There on the unfaltering cement, product of man's genius mastery of the elements, flops the wounded beetle or a moth with a torn wing.  Returning to flight for them is little more than a dream.  But they go on, marching towards the patio looking for some salvation, failing to notice their silent watchers in shrub jungle.

Geckos hide motionless in the garden just waiting for diminutive prey to land on that stretch of earth, and a dying or injured insect is a perfect meal for them.  Fighting for food can be hard, or worse yet, dangerous, but a weakened moth, still in its prime, is a huge gain.  Maximum reward for minimum effort.  The poor moth must be eaten, so the poor lizard may survive.

The lizard appears out of the brush, taking a position on the walk far enough from the moth to safely scan the area, searching for its own predators.  Then once it knows there are no immediate threats, it darts to the moth, grabs it with its mouth and tosses it into the jungle, diving in after it.  The world is still again.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Earth from Space

Over the weekend, tragedy of tragedies had befallen me.  I was happy.  Living out my normal human life, free from natural predators and strenuous labor, when the most unimaginably horrible of horrifying things that could have happened happened.  My computer adapter stopped working.  I couldn't charge my computer.  It sat there on the table, its battery life slowly draining away, and most unfortunate of all, family would be visiting that very weekend!  I- I had no time to have it replaced.

And so, I lived like my primitive ancestors before me.  Building fires out of charcoal and lighter fluid.  Washing myself in a simulated rain storm inside my private hygiene room.  Finding and trying out shakshuka recipes from the New York Times website using my iPod Touch.  It has perhaps the most difficult experience anyone had ever gone through since brave Ulysses sailed from Troy.

I sat in a cold, black void where reality seemed to stop and I could watch the planet Earth rotate slowly.  Life existed on that verdant rock, but I was so apart from civilization, from nature, and from the spirit which binds us all together... I mean, I could still get internet on my iPod, but it wasn't the same.  Anyway, shakshuka is a really good dish.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Found Books: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

"I like to imagine that the world is one big machine.  You know, machines never have extra parts.  They have the exact number and type of parts they need.  So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason.  And that means you have to be here for some reason, too."
The poor children of Lake Country Elementary School are suffering and they probably don't even know it.  This is because I have their copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Bought it from a thrift shop for a cool one dollar out of one of the recently arrived boxes.  But... I don't feel particularly bad about purchasing a potentially stolen book, because I read this potentially stolen book, and after reading this potentially stolen book, I'm beginning to feel that stealing ain't so bad.  Children's books have the best morals.

Thievery is one of the major reoccurring themes of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  The titular character is a child who lives within the walls of a Paris train station, keeping the clocks running on time and stealing for many of his meals, as well as stealing to repair the automaton kept hidden away in his room.  But he's not the only one who steals... Everyone seems to steal, and often with positive results.  The character Etienne sneaks children into the movie theater for free and when he is found out and fired he claims it is the best thing that ever happened to him.

Aside from "theft" there are a lot of themes throughout the book (film, books, clocks and machines, etc) that come up again and again, of course.  Any book that's half decent at what it does will have reoccurring themes.  Cool, we can enjoy its content.  But The Invention of Hugo Cabret sets itself apart from most other novels with its form.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret opens like a dream...
"But before you turn the page, I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie.  On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city.  You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby.  You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station.  Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret.  His head is full of secrets, and he's waiting for his story to begin."
It's like the reader is slowly being lulled into sleep, hypnotized by a magician.  After the reader flips through the next few pages, he finds that he is not actually reading at all, but looking at sketches or watching an old, black and white silent movie.  Unlike a graphic novel, the prose are kept completely separate from the pictures.  However, like a graphic novel or a movie, the prose and pictures are both integral to telling the story.

It's not just a wonderful way to write a book, it's a perfect way to write a book that is largely about film, magic, and drawings (those themes we mentioned earlier).  The novel reads like a silent movie, but that's not to say the art completely reflects the silent movies.  The art looks more like sketches, (spoiler) like the sketches drawn by Hugo's mysterious automaton, like this entire story was a film written through a machine that draws... which sounds um... well, it sounds like too much... like it wouldn't work.  But the writer, Brian Selznick, fits it all together like the pieces of a beautiful machine.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is hopefully a book you have heard of before and it will continue as a modern classic for many years to come (and then as the regular kind of classic), the kind that inspire dreams in both wide-eyed children and wide-eyed adults.  Purchase it at your local book store, Amazon.com, or listen to it as an audiobook (which sounds strange to me), and watch the movie.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Greeting Card Poetry

I am a terrible shopper, which makes it hard to go shopping with other people.  Since I've been taking care of my grandmother, I've had to do things I never did before: reading every ingredient on the label, checking sodium content, and actively looking.  That last one can be the hardest, because when I go shopping I tend to not separate the forest from the trees.  I track down the peanut butter and don't worry too much about the brand.  This makes helping her shop for greeting cards especially challenging.

You have to actively look for what you want.  Are you buying for a friend, sibling, parent, boy, girl, birthday, wedding, anniversary, funny, serious, cute cat or dog.  Added to that, I can't just go through every card until I find the one Granny likes.  I have to have some sort of understanding of her tastes and her friends tastes (based solely on Grandma's reactions to the previous cards I choose).  Thus, I am forced to actively look and can't just pick up a random, cheap card.  But at least Grandma seems to share my "lack of enthusiasm" for overly sentimental cards, especially when it comes to poetry.

Let's face the facts, poets of the world, most people only associate poetry with bad greeting cards.  That industry has simultaneously managed to keep poetry alive and beat it to death.  Horribly abstract and lazily written poems litter our Hallmark shelves.
Cheerful thoughts are special things
That travel far on friendship's wings...
Warm with sunshine from the start
They find their home in someone's heart
Ugh!  It hurts.
The future
belongs to you,
believe in yourself
and your hopes
and dreams
will come true.
Not sure if the above is actually a poem, but it seems like it's trying to be one.  It's hard to tell when most greeting cards are written in stanzas.
There's something very wonderful
about a day that shows
How truly vows are spoken
how deeply true love grows...
There's something very special
about two people, too,
Who share and care for sixty years
in the happy way you do!
This one was for a sixtieth anniversary, I believe.

I find it impossible to think that anyone put much thought into these cards, and buying one is about as thoughtful as not getting one at all.  So if it is the thought that counts, one is better off actually putting thought into their card.  If I wanted to give someone a card, I could actively search for one that fitted their sense of humor, I could make a card myself, I could write my own damn poem, or I could write to them about the good ol' days, rekindle memories.  But these dumb, dumb, over-sentimental poems...

...worth less than their receipts...