Friday, January 27, 2006

A Brief History of ReviewSpeak

I've been meaning to tie this in to a discussion of review journalism, thence Games journalism, let alone teh NGJ, but it's too good not to wave about on its own. This is Jonathan Raban in his wonderful For Love and Money:
As with cartoons, there's a congenital streak of cruelty in the form of the review: it's easier to tell good stories about bad books than it is about good ones, easy to seize on small deformities and make much of them, easy to fall back on the big, red nose and the tombstone teeth as the handiest method of conveying personality. The reviewer, especially if he's new to the job and trying to make his name, finds a style of pert mockery ready and waiting for him like an off-the-peg suit...
The beast Raban then quotes at length a Clive James review, which I'd seen somewhere before and thoroughly enjoyed. No need to quote it at any length here, you should get the flavour from Raban's dissection.
...The style is boisterously smartyboots in tone and fake-Augustan in its grammar. The surest way to sound as if your vast learning is tempered by sturdy common sense is to go in for showy latinisms; a mastery of sarcastic inversion, circumlocution and the ironic negative is the official mark of a superior intelligence at work...the tricks, or tics, of style keep on nudging the reader to remember that the reviewer is a sight more clever than the the man he's reviewing. He's also one of the boys...the dialect is as recognizable as Mummerset; at once donnish high-falutin' and come-off-it-mate low slang, it is the received standard English of the smart English book review
Now I'm a big fan of James, who works hard to entertain even as he's putting over his most tenderly held beliefs. I likewise applaud the pun-bedecked ilk of Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie, and also the previous generation of music/culture writers that inspired and frankly edited them: Dannies Kelly and Baker, Mark Ellen and the other NME/EMAP uberhacks. I like it when they write with the witty. Their example has spurred me to my least excusable excesses, this organ foremost. But Raban's scalping of that (or rather my attempted) faux-faux-Pompous tone has thrust a silent steely stiletto of doubt into my bosom. It's not like I conciously adopted a classic style, but what is it about that Baroque, facetious and fake-affected style that attracts? And does it attract writers more than readers, being more fun to write than read?

Also, where did it come from? Is there a straight line to be drawn from the pantomime wryness of Dickens, through the polite drawl of Twain, the more-in-sorrow-than-anger Mencken, the madcap sagacity of S.J. Perelman, the Mandarin diction of Cyril Connolly, through NME-Q-TheWord music journalism to the rather sorry current state of games journalism and this blog, buckshot with in-jokes, and popkultureferencen? I made that last word up.

Speaking of Mummerset, I wonder if West Country English is creeping towards the vogueish, entirely due to the unmediated diction of Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant? It's generally held to be a laughable yokel accent, but then that used to be said of Geordie, which is compulsory for Bright Young Thing TV presenters these days.

Update:
Stap me vitals, that aforementioned Andrew Collins has a blog. And it's really good. I may just give this up. I once entertained worryingly-less-than-vague ambitions to write a book about Coffee, or indeed all those strange crops that only grow at certain altitudes in certain places and have gone from luxury to staple (i.e. tea as well). All wind was lost from my sails however when I beheld a coffee book with so magnificent a title, I realised all hope was lost and I might as well take my spats and toothbrush elsewhere. The title? See here.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Beauty, Sorrow, nice cup of tea...

TimeSink Alert!

Via the ever-splendid bldgblog comes the awesomestsome (is too a word) www.geophot.com - the site of one Berhard Edmaier who takes possibly the most beautiful photographs I've ever seen. I know we're hard-wired to see faces in random patterns, and anthropomorphize anything that we're not actually ingesting at the time, but isn't it odd how landscapes have a sort of moral force, especially terrain seen from above?

[pause for browsing therein]

[deep breath]

This reminds me of/isn't quite the same thing as a meme on Clive Thompson's excellent blog collisiondetection concerning "solastalgia", meaning something like sorrow at one's own destroyed environment. This hopefully-not-increasingly-useful neologism was coined by Glenn Albrecht, a professor at the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle. He defines it as "the homesickness you feel when you're still at home" (swallows hard, glances away, acquires look of lantern jawed resolve)...

OK, they're not the same thing, but thanks to Stanley Kubrick, they're merging in my mind together, to the strains of Ligeti. The Big K (as he urged me to call him, both before and after his death) deserves at least some back-handed credit (if not actual bigging up or the recipience of props) for pressing some fabulous real actual proper composers (wigs, quills, everything) into service in his soundtracks. Kubs got a big leg-up from Ligeti, especially in The Shining but then the Ligster got actual popular exposure, and introduced the world at large to genuine orchestral terror.

The Strauss waltz in 2001 makes everyone smile, but it's the Ligeti that presses people back in their seat. 2001 in particular strikes me as the hardest Hard Art Movie to ever play a multiplex and gain admission to the popculture pantheon. By Hard I don't mean difficult to "get", more "harshly affective". I remember watching it as a kiddie and being reduced to snuffles by the SORROW of deep space, reasoning that maybe there is life out there, they just can't handle the woe of travelling to see us.

I'm now 33, and have had neither occasion nor cause to change my views on this matter.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I may not know much about what I like, but...

OK, show's over, nunca mas, moratorium hereby declared on ANY discussion of whether games are art/Art/an art form/artistic/artist-ish or what or not. One look at this patient, polite and agonisingly painful retread has convinced me that the whole affair is a hobbyhorse critically short of leg. Run, run while you can. But go read Robert Hughes' frankly amazing The Shock Of The New. Now be off with you, before I call it "Magisterial".

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

98% Perspiration...

The Guardian GamesBlog has a thingy about developers and inspiration. It was a fair question, but my High Horse was tethered but a single vault away, and foamin' ensued:

"Certainly, most developers don’t read particularly widely (although possibly no less so than their target audience), but I think you’re conflating “inspiration” with “reference”. Also, I’m unsure why you’d expect a game to be “inspired” in the first place.

Odd as it sounds, it’s developers who need to press players’ buttons. Developers have to show or describe or even better imply all their gameplay rules all at once, as quickly as possible. Game designers have to submerge the gameplay’s inherent “either/or/if x then y” menu system within the gameworld such that it's clear to the player which components can be used as weapons, or power-ups or tools or interacted with, and to what end. All at once. Right now. The design also has to manage the player’s expectations of what is and won’t be possible or consistent. Players demand to feel immersed instantly in the gameworld via every element of its sensory environment. And, alas, the abovementioned pantheon of movie/manga/sci-fi/swords’n’sorcery clich├ęs just do too good a job as cultural desktop shortcuts linking to a whole raft of implied actions and relationships.

Very, very few developers have the leisure or luxury of reinventing these wheels – they need to come up with something fast that’ll work. They’d give their spleens to be blue-sky estate agents like Molyneux, Miyamoto, or Wright, but they don’t get to pick and choose their projects. Their publishers make them make movie tie-ins or sequels (or both) because that’s what punters keep demonstrating they want to buy. Games hardly ever come about because developers get to find a new way of saying or seeing things. Even if they’re inspired to devise some brilliant new (unfamiliar, untried) ways of so doing, they’re taking a risk, in a notoriously and justifiably risk-averse industry. And developers usually have enough technical and financial contingencies to worry about without fixing what most players don’t consider to be broke.

Obviously, we’d all much rather see original game-worlds but although it ennobles games journalism to imply otherwise, games just aren’t an expressive medium, nor do players really expect it to be. Games are always going to dressed in borrowed clothes: from the overall kinetic-aesthetic feel of a world right down to the detail of individual character designs, set dressing, personal props, vehicles, score, foley, what have you, because while copying details is hard to get right, it's a lower-risk solution, and you probably have enough technical and gameplay contingencies to worry about. But you have to get the details right. Hence, copious reference texts of the stuff that’s been proved to work in previous games and other media."

Oooh, get me and my mind thoughts.

Testing, testing

The first day of a new age dawns. All over the world, lightbulbs dim for a moment, then glow even brighter...

And here's a link to somewhere else.

All very exciting, and no mistake.