Monday, October 28, 2013

Cuaron's Gravity and the Final Fantasy VIII Connection

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (2013) is a movie that seems to me, in many places, evocative of video games, and I don't mean that in a disparaging way. There are, of course, the first-person moments that remind me of first-person shooters, and the narrative escalates with relentless momentum as a somewhat game-esque series of trials. But watching Gravity also made me think of one of my favorite games of yore, Square's Final Fantasy VIII (1999) for the original PlayStation. No, I don't mean "gravity" magic (Demi and Diablos and so on and so forth). I'm talking about this:


SPOILERS for Gravity and Final Fantasy VIII

In Gravity, one unfortunate astronaut meets his end early on, when he gets caught in the sweep of a debris field. When Sandra Bullock later retrieves his body, she finds, to her and the audience's horror, that a piece of debris colliding with the man's helmet has left a gaping pit where a person's face should be. The scene recalled, for me, the above image, which appears for a single frame during the ending of Final Fantasy VIII.

The image, apparently of main character Squall with a black hole in place of his face, comes and goes so quickly as to be nearly imperceptible when viewing the game at normal speed. Most players probably finish Final Fantasy VIII completely unaware that such a thing exists. I only learned of it when, in recent years, a few players on the NeoGAF forum began spreading the "Squall is dead" theory, which postulates that Squall actually dies from a wound suffered at the end of the first disc, and the entire rest of the game is just the incoherent final dreams flaring from his fading brain activity. The theory is, more than anything else, just a testament to people's ability to rationalize toward any outlandish literary analysis imaginable.

It is true, however, that the "faceless Squall" image is perplexing. In fact, although Final Fantasy VII used to get a lot of flack for its inscrutable ending (before Advent Children made a lot of people wish they had just left well enough alone), I think it was more so the abruptness of it all, after 50 hours invested, that left a bad taste in players' mouths. Final Fantasy VIII's ending, on the other hand, contains some truly enigmatic imagery, made all the more so by the fact that there's not a lot of context, there's no dialogue through the entire pre-rendered portion of it, and the whole time travel angle makes it practically impossible to get a clear grasp of the continuity.

This is all getting away from the Gravity connection. Which is to say, there really is no connection, most likely. The one faceless image just made me think of the other.

One could perhaps draw some thematic connections. Final Fantasy VIII, as I read it, is a story about people suffering misfortunes—orphans, most of them—then coming to a pivotal point, when they at last decide (with a little help from their friends) to be no longer defined by the things that happened to them (or haunted by pasts they can't even remember, so hollow were their childhoods!), but rather by their will to shape their own lives. That's kind of like the arc that the Sandra Bullock character in Gravity goes through. She does her job, doesn't really seem engaged beyond that, then gets flung around when things go south, before finally assuming agency over her own life and deciding to make every effort to survive.

So maybe there are some broad thematic similarities between Final Fantasy VIII and Gravity. But, yeah, you could probably build a far stronger case that Cuaron borrows scenes from, say, Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars (2000), a movie that I loathe and would be loath to credit for anything positive.

Final Fantasy VIII does have an outer space segment, if you'll recall. The below image is also taken from the ending, coming a little before the faceless Squall:


And this one, of Rinoa with the glass on her helmet shattered, comes almost immediately after the Squall image:


Both images reference the earlier segment in the game—the one part that, on close inspection, does bear a more than passing resemblance to Gravity—when Rinoa is cut loose and left drifting in space, her oxygen rapidly depleting. In typical PS1-era Final Fantasy fashion, players are then made to act it out as a crude timed mini-game, where one must clumsily direct Squall into a collision course with the drifting Rinoa, so as to reach her before her oxygen runs out. Of course, in the actual segment, Rinoa's mask never shatters, because the player, as Squall, is supposed to retrieve her just in the nick of time. So what does the image immediately above signify? Who knows. Maybe Alfonso Cuaron got something out of it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)


Quick Take:

Visually arresting and soulfully cathartic, a groundbreaking work that appeals to film school students, geeks of the gaming generation, and moviegoing normals alike. Essential.

SPOILERY Thoughts:

For years now—I'd say, around since when Crash (more like "Trash"!) won Best Picture for 2005—I've maintained that, among U.S. institutions, the Academy Awards rank just below the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the American political duopoly as objects of most misplaced esteem. That said, even as I groan over awards bestowed upon such, in my opinion, undeserving recipients as Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and, well, pretty much every Best Picture winner of the last fifteen years, the truth is, most years, I have far stronger feelings about what films shouldn't win than about what films should. The Dark Knight in 2008 was probably the last movie I felt actually got robbed. The years since have offered films that I've liked and even loved as much as or more than The Dark Knight, but not films I've felt strongly inclined to champion as the best of the year. This year, however, I feel strongly, even without seeing any of the other contenders, that Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity deserves it. It is the greatest film I have seen not only this year but in the last few years.

The movie is visually breathtaking. I'll probably never personally be able to go up on a spacewalk, yet I suspect the panoramic shots of Gravity eclipse all previous space films in conveying that beauty and majesty that astronauts speak of when observing the universe from up there. The awe-inspiring sense of scale and perspective, the weightlessness, the tranquility—the film captures them all to carry audiences to a place that feels both real yet as none on Earth, and Gravity consequently feels like a truly new experience in film, the sort of thing we like to say we go to the movies for, but which, in reality, are rarely encountered and rarely expected.

The film contains few cutaways, with the opening sequence, from the beginning through to the story's first calamity of many, presented as a single mesmerizing take, including tracking shots where the camera, like everything else in space, operates free of gravity, curving weightlessly through three dimensions of space. Of course, we know it's not actually one continuous take, as so many of the shots, too impossible to be otherwise, must be largely computer-generated. Nevertheless, the presentation lends the film a persistent immediacy. George Clooney is always charming, and Sandra Bullock gives a strong lead performance, but it's this gripping sense of immediacy that finally helps us to identify with and care about these people about whom we don't know very much, and who maybe aren't objectively especially interesting characters. The perspective even regularly glides into first-person to take us more explicitly into the protagonist's head, still without ever cutting away to a different shot.

The story is simple and accessible. It's a chain reaction of disasters, with little in the way of preamble. Things start to go wrong when, according to the disembodied voice of Ed Harris as Mission Control, the Russians launch a missile strike on an old satellite. At first, I wanted a little more detail on that strike—what exactly the Russians' plan was, why the characters were given such short notice, why it went so catastrophically wrong—but then I realized that, from the characters' perspective, it was really quite moot, and so it didn't much matter to me either. I did, for some reason, anticipate that the situation on the ground, once they finally touched down, would be dire and war-torn, but that was probably just me projecting my personal pessimism about world politics. What makes the idea of space travel attractive to me is precisely how it takes one far above our imaginary lines on maps and renders it all small and kind of shameful.

Gravity's story doesn't really have a political dimension, and the journey is no less deep and thematically rich an experience for it. Even as the action transpires where most people will never get the chance to venture, the narrative is cathartic in a universally relatable way—primal yet profound, and inspiring, but not one of those short-term feel-good stories to be shared at the water cooler or on Facebook, but which we quickly forget and move on from because, at the end of the day, they don't affect the price of soap. It doesn't ask us to give a damn or two about some situation "over there," but instead kindles that inner resilience to get through our hardest days or even just the unrelenting everyday of each of our lives, and to come to terms with that which is beyond our control and beyond ourselves. It speaks to the contradiction of the human condition, that, though our lives be ultimately finite and insignificant in the grand scheme, nevertheless we must fight as hard as we are able for as much time as we have on this earth.

The only choice I might question is the use of stereo sound when handling some of the dialogue. At one point, Clooney's character was transmitting from off-screen, and the audio for his dialogue came from the left side of the theater—a case of surround sound calling attention to itself. When I thought about it, it seemed curious to me, considering that any sound the characters heard in space would just have been coming to them through their helmets, that the film should have made such efforts not only to have dialogue coming from discernibly different directions but also seemingly different distances. But maybe the audio receivers inside the spacesuits really are that sophisticated. I wouldn't know. In any case, that's a nitpick at worst, and it hardly takes away from what is, in my opinion, the best picture of 2013, and the best film I've seen in years.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Saturday, October 19, 2013

HAIM - The Casbah, October 15, 2013

Haim - Casbah

HAIM played at the Casbah in San Diego last Tuesday. It was possibly the hottest ticket I've ever attended. I mean, the Casbah is a small venue with crap acoustics; everything just sounds like noise, and visibility is poor past the first two standing rows. But the show sold out within a week of the tickets going on sale. I got mine the first day they were available online, about two months before the show and before the release of HAIM's debut album, Days Are Gone. Then I checked the site about a week later, and they were all gone. For all I know, the tickets might have sold out even earlier than that. The point is, I don't see a lot of shows selling out that quickly. On the day of, as I got in line for doors opening, there were also about a half dozen people bumming around, hoping to buy tickets off any attendees who might have had extras. Clearly, a lot of people wanted in to this show. I too got caught up in the hype, hence why I pulled the trigger on that $18 ticket purchase so quickly, although, funnily enough, even all the way up until the release of Days Are Gone, I wouldn't really have called myself a fan.

Sometimes, as a way of discovering new music, I'll go on Twitter, look up artists I'm into, and then check what artists they follow. I figure those with talent should also have taste, which is probably a false assumption, as rarely ever has this yielded positive results. Many months ago, when I tried this, one act that stuck out was HAIM, whose following on Twitter seemed to include just about every artist I liked (along with a whole bunch of other young LA-area celebs). I looked them up, and I found that all they had put out up to that point was a 3-track EP.

I wasn't immediately impressed by any of the songs, and I wondered what the big deal was. I guessed that these three sisters—Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim—must have been industry nobility of some sort. Their Wikipedia entry is a little hazy as to where they came from. They grew up in Los Angeles, and, when they were still children, their parents did form a family band called Rockinhaim with them, so it's clear that they were immersed in music from an early age—one could say, bred for it. But Rockinhaim wasn't exactly the Jackson 5, and I haven't dug up much else that would lead me to attribute HAIM's rapid ascent to nepotism.

Letting the music speak for itself, their songs did grow on me, and I found the much-anticipated Days Are Gone to be a pleasingly rich and full offering, blending layered three-part harmonies, polished verse-chorus structure, and dashes of folk and R&B in a pop rock album that feels both retro and current. In those two weeks between the album's release and HAIM's show at the Casbah, my anticipation to see them live built quite high.

The actual show left me with mixed feelings. After all the anticipation, it felt like a really short show, and they didn't even play all their singles. The venue, as I said, is not really conducive to a great listening experience. The poor acoustics mean that the songs will obviously not sound anywhere near as good as on the album. Plus, it was a really packed crowd, and fools were drunk and yelling loudly over when the performers speaking. The charm of the Casbah, I suppose, is that it is so intimate. If you were standing at the front of the crowd, you would have been close enough to get a high-five from Alana Haim herself. Seeing them live didn't enhance my appreciation for any of their songs, but it probably made me better appreciate HAIM as performers and as artists. In today's scene so full of manufactured pop stars, these girls are determined to show that they are nobody's tools.

The three sisters write their own songs, and all three also sing and play multiple instruments, which is something you maybe don't fully appreciate until seeing them do so live. And all three girls speak and engage with the audience, albeit to varying degrees, and have distinct and likable personalities. Alana, the youngest, would play to the crowd, expressing her affection for the fans, and gesturing to her ear to call for applause in return. Este, the oldest, would share anecdotes between songs, such as the story of how the last time they visited San Diego was over ten years ago, when they were attending an Eagles concert here.

Danielle was the quiet one, which was odd, because she was also the clear leader musically, standing front and center, playing lead guitar and singing lead vocal, and leading the rest of the band on timing. At first, I thought she was the cool one. She is, but she also gets pretty freaking intense while singing, eyeing the audience directly with steely glances, and jabbing herself in the heart any time a lyric contained a first-person pronoun. Where her sisters were playful, Danielle was all business, although, as the night wore on, and she would curiously recede into the background during all of Este's anecdotes, it also became apparent that she was simply an introvert.

So many of the songs that are now my favorites of theirs became so as Danielle's husky voice and staccato singing grew on me. I feel like they would come off much more generic with any other vocalist in her place. She's the most musically indispensable of the group. If the sisters were ever to split up and pursue separate paths, she's also the one I think could have the best chance of success as a member of a different band, though more likely as a guitarist than as a frontwoman. But I hope that doesn't happen any time soon, because I really like the sisters harmonizing together as HAIM.

Opening for HAIM at the Casbah was rock band Io Echo, fronted by Ioanna Gika, who kind of reminded me of Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, both vocally and in terms of her presence. Wraith-like in appearance, she left me questioning her health, both physically and mentally. During songs, she would perform Keanu-style martial arts moves, or sometimes dance erratically and seemingly unknowingly encroach upon the guitarist's area to her right, whereupon he would always, at the last second, awkwardly step back and yield the space without missing a note. For all her outlandish behavior, she would also come across incredibly nervous and uncomfortable whenever speaking to the crowd, which she attributed to drunkenness. Still, she seemed down-to-earth and not without talent.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Professor and the Professional

Earlier this week, Patrick Miller posted up an amazing interview he conducted with Seth Killian on SRK ( Game industry enthusiasts may know Killian as formerly a community manager and Street Fighter brand ambassador at Capcom, more lately a game designer at Sony Santa Monica for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. Before he started working on designing fighting games, Killian was, of course, a player—one of the more highly respected competitors, in fact, at least as far as reputation went in an age before SRK, before EVO, before international competition was a thing. The interview eschews discussion of Killian's current projects and duties to instead revisit that earlier period in his life, prompting a genuinely thoughtful and enlightening look back not only at his personal history with fighting games but also at the beginnings of how a once nebulous motley of local arcade kings, online theory fighters, and cave-dwelling blowhards came to be organized into what is now a national and even international FGC ("fighting game community") hosting some of the most prestigious (if not perhaps the most lucrative) contests in all of competitive gaming.

In the pre-SRK days, players could be found discussing strategies and local tournament results at a few places online, including the Usenet newsgroup, the IRC chatroom #capcom, and some fairly random GeoCities pages (Gouki's Page of Whatever and Migs' Marvel vs. Capcom site, which just happened to be some of the only Street Fighter-related websites to provide open forums (or, rather, repurposed guestbooks/bulletin boards) circa late '90s Internet). I never was a competitive player, but I have always loved Street Fighter, and, as someone who regarded fighting games as a more skillful version of chess, I enjoyed reading discussions of the competitive game—strategies, tiers, matchups. The information you would find on the forums and on would be part tutorial, part research, part debate, even part philosophy. Of course, these places were also overrun with trash talk and garbage info (or, worst of all, off-topic posts). If you didn't know any of the posters personally, you could still tell the somebodies from the scrubs not only by how frequently others dropped their names but also simply by how intelligently they could speak about the game. Seth Killian was probably the most respected regular poster on An old-school Street Fighter II champion, his online persona may have been as someone who overly reveled in zinging scrubs, but, as far as the games went, he always knew what he was talking about, or else he wouldn't talk.

When a few independently wealthy California players founded SRK in 2000, Killian joined up as a columnist for the new one-stop site for online Street Fighter discussion, penning a series called Domination 101. The articles were written in the same somewhat ruthless voice with which Killian posted on Usenet, but, rather than attacking any specific post in an ever-repeating cycle of unenlightened messages on Internet bulletin boards, Domination 101 set down, once and for all, some of his ideas on what separated top players from loudmouthed scrubs. In articulating some of the more intangible aspects of the Street Fighter metagame—not just combos and tactics but the habits, psychology, and attitude of a serious competitor versus someone who never leaves the safety of their couch—Killian was no longer merely demeaning scrub players but actually helping novices to think about the game in a deeper way. Even now, more than ten years since when they were written, I would still recommend "Controlling Space" and "Critical Breakdown" as some of the best reading available to help newcomers looking to understand the competitive side to fighting games. What Killian lays out about the more abstract fundamentals and about the arc and flow of a match can help to inform not only how you play the game but also how you spectate it. In this day and age, when high-level match footage can be found even on IGN and GameSpot, simply watching two pros duke it out still may not be that instructive (or interesting), unless you first read up on the metagame concepts behind why, for example, these top players seem to spend so much time dancing in place and whiffing normal moves.

As Killian revisits his column, it's interesting to hear his observations on how the competitive scene has changed, perhaps how far it has come, from his heyday as a player compared to what it has become, with Domination 101 having been a turning point in the schooling of a new generation of players. He stands by the content, if maybe not the tone, of his old articles, but, as Miller interviews him, they also reconsider them in the context of more recent games and tournaments, and the many insights that Killian articulates in his now more professional voice collectively make the interview worth reading as a de facto new installment in Domination 101.

The most thought-provoking part of the interview is the final question, where Miller asks Killian what topic he might tackle were he ever to return to writing Domination 101. Killian answers that he would talk about legendary Japanese player Daigo "The Beast" Umehara, and the reasoning behind Daigo's choice to play Ryu in the current version of Street Fighter IV. As Killian gets into it, he does kind of give us a new mini-installment of Domination 101, which has left me with a newly philosophical appreciation for Daigo's game.

Daigo was already the greatest player in the world when Killian was writing his column over ten years ago. You can find YouTube videos of "The Beast" defeating U.S. great Alex Valle for the Street Fighter Alpha 3 world championship back in 1998, and he was still the top player in the world over a decade later, winning EVO's first two Street Fighter IV tournaments in 2009 and 2010. But Daigo has not won any of the major tournaments he has entered over the last two years, leading some to declare him washed up. Seeing how badly Korean player Infiltration demolished him at Evo 2013, I was ready to draw the same conclusion.

Some Daigo apologists argued that he was held back by his loyalty to his character, Ryu, who is generally regarded as upper mid-tier in the current version of SFIV. It's true that Daigo is often identified with Ryu, whom he has also used in Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter Alpha 3 (although, in the aforementioned Alpha 3 world championship, Daigo used Akuma, while, in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, he played Ken). Killian dismisses that notion of Daigo basing his choice on mere character loyalty, however, explaining, "He plays Ryu because he feels the character lets him express himself at every point." Killian has brought this up before, while commentating on Daigo's matches—the idea that Daigo, a player who has already achieved everything achievable in the world of Street Fighter, now plays the game as his form of "expression."

The first time I heard that, I was skeptical. It just sounded like more excuses. Was Daigo "expressing" himself in performing Dragon Punches whenever he felt like it, instead of whenever it was called for? But now Killian elaborates:
Unlike a lot of very strong characters like Akuma or Cammy, Ryu has very few “set plays” (knockdown into your choice of vortex/unblockable). Obviously those techniques are very powerful, and creating them is fun, but he dislikes them in practice–not because they are strong, but because it basically takes away the element of inspiration. You aren’t really playing SF during a vortex, you play a real game to knock them down, but from there you’re on autopilot. Daigo is at his happiest when both he and his opponent are making meaningful choices. Vortex characters turn many situations into somewhat meaningless choices. There’s a guess, but often it’s just that–a guess.

This is in no way excusing Daigo's losing, which is really a separate discussion, but what Killian says is worth considering. With characters like Akuma and Cammy, the simple gameplan is to knock the opponent down, and then, as they get up, you just press your advantage by running through rote sequences, and the opponent's only way to escape the cycle of knockdowns is to outguess you. Ryu, on the other hand, is one of the most honest characters in the game. He has no such shenanigans to lock the opponent into a defensive guessing game, but he still has options for every range and every situation. In that sense, every choice the Ryu player makes is deliberate and meaningful.

It makes sense. Daigo has been competing in fighting games for a long time. What may once have been a teenager's hobby is now a major part of the identity of a man in his 30s. More than something to do, it is who he is, as much as basketball is who Michael Jordan is. Even as Jordan is too old now to play professionally, basketball remains his job, his business, his day-to-day activity, his legacy, his life. Likewise, Street Fighter, for Daigo, is about more than playing a video game, about more than winning tournaments. The game has come to permeate his life, and so his life in turn permeates his play. Hence, when Daigo plays Street Fighter, he is expressing himself. It's an idea that Killian can probably relate to, because he too has been around a long time, during which fighting games have become far more than a hobby for him.