Sunday, March 31, 2013

To Blog 2

Well, another month down, it's a good time to reassess what I'm doing here. I had no specific plans or goals in mind when I started this blog, because, in general, I don't ever enter into anything with a conscious plan in mind. I don't believe in plans. Or method. Or structure. Though if you operate by plans or method or structure, I don't believe there's anything wrong with that either. I've never been one to insist on a "right way" to do something. I will admit there are plenty of wrong ways to do things, but it's the results alone that tell the difference; I make no judgments on how one gets there. Me, I like to fancy myself a trier, by which I mean, not that I try lots of different things, but that I learn almost exclusively through personal trial and error.

Up to now, I've just been throwing up as much as I can as quickly as I can, hoping to figure out along the way what identity will emerge for the blog and what kinds of content work best for me and for my readers. So far, it's hard to tell what works for my readers, since they're imaginary, and, as for me, well, nothing is really working.

I have basically three kinds of content: 1) personal stories, 2) news stories from elsewhere that I want to share while also responding to, and 3) responses to pop culture entertainment that I'm consuming. The lines between them sometimes blur, and I try to bring something of my own life or personality to anything I write, but clearly the third kind of content has emerged as the bread and butter of the blog, only without the reliable income that that colloquialism is supposed to signify. Games and movies become my go-to because they provide an endless and easy supply of topics for writing about, for when I don't have anything arising organically out of my day to discuss (which, most of the time, I won't). I also imagine that, for the reader, they make for more interesting topics than my day. But those posts also typify the issue with my blog as a whole: I don't have very much substantial or original to say.

What exactly does it serve for me to spend a post discussing the third or fourth season of a TV series, which is not even its current season? If there's any recommendation to be made, it would have been made in a post on the first season. Who would even read a post concerning a later season of a show they're not watching? Or if they are watching it, then they wouldn't need the recommendation anyway. But am I writing reviews here, or merely sorting out my own thoughts on the material by putting them into writing? Do I avoid spoilers (because you never know who might be reading), or do I just say whatever I want to say (even if spoiler talk is usually associated with plot summary, which really doesn't serve anything)? Or what if I realize, halfway into composing my post, that there isn't anything I truly want to say about the topic, but I don't have any backup topic to turn to? Then it becomes an exercise in stringing together banalities to meet my self-imposed deadline, which is not interesting for anyone to read. Or, worse yet, when I don't have any thoughtful points to make but still feel like I should say something, the surest sign that I'm in trouble is that I'll start speaking in dramatic yet vague decrees, as though bestowed with biblical authority, about a work's surpassing quality. Which is exactly the tone of writing that I myself loathe in sports editorials, where, week after week, some jackass will take LeBron James's most recent performance in a meaningless regular-season game and conclude from it that he is (and shall henceforth forever be!) a greater or lesser player than Michael Jordan. Furthermore, journalism, criticism, analysis—truthfully, those have never been my area. As a wannabe writer, I always took more naturally to fiction and narrative (probably why my commentaries are always threatening to degenerate into plot summaries).

On those self-imposed deadlines, it's simply an unfortunate reality that, although the content tends to suffer when I begin to write out of obligation rather than passion, obligation has proven the more reliable engine for productivity, without which it would be too easy for me to descend into lethargy. Even so, I don't expect I'll keep updating daily. For the first two weeks or so, I was just trying to get as much content up as quickly as I could, partly so that, in the event anyone I knew ever found my site by Googling me, there would be enough innocuous crap on my blog that, after skimming through a few of my hopefully merely banal posts, they would see that it would not be worth their time to delve further into the archives, and so they would never stumble upon the really bad stuff. Afterward, even as the daily updates continued, I kept promising myself that I would never force it. But I was inspired upon reading that Shigesato Itoi, creator of EarthBound, has managed to post new writing on his website every day for over fifteen years, and I thought, for once in my life, I really ought to try, by which I mean, not that I should sample, but that I should make an honest effort. And what I've come to realize is that it's actually quite hard to keep up, especially as this is not my full-time job, but rather something I do in my free time alongside having a full-time job. Besides, who wants to read my daily updates talking about things I have nothing to say about anyway?

Finally, a lot of my writing is me responding to the media and entertainment that I consume, and so, in a way, it's like a dialogue. Except that, after I say my thing, the thing I'm responding to doesn't respond back to my thing, so, actually, it's not a dialogue at all. Really, it's me getting on a soapbox, speaking by myself and to myself, which is also not something I normally do. I'm actually much better at dismantling other people's arguments than presenting my own. The latter usually leads to me making those vague, dramatic statements. My point is that this blog is, in essence, one big, running monologue. Which is maybe not out of the ordinary for a blog, but I don't find it interesting. I don't find my voice in monologue to be interesting. Now, as this is a one-man operation, and I obviously don't have other voices writing for me, I'm actually considering inventing some other characters for me to post as, just to mix things up. Well, it's something to try, anyway. It may fail spectacularly (or, more likely, uneventfully). Or if not that, there will be other changes, in any case, gradually.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Not Your Kind of People" (Garbage, Not Your Kind of People, 2012)

One of the funnier outcomes of the release of the new Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain trailer has been the reaction to the song used, with people complimenting its effectiveness, wondering who the artist is, asking where they can get it, and insisting that Konami's use of it is somehow much more respectable than EA "selling out" by featuring Rihanna (from Jay Z's "Run This Town") in the Battlefield 4 ad.

First of all, the song is identified in the trailer (near the end), along with the artist and album. Second, the artist is Garbage—not exactly some obscure indie band. Third, you can find the song anywhere; it's the title track off their latest album, Not Your Kind of People, released just last year.

Here's a live performance uploaded to YouTube by Blair039:

And here's the band discussing some of the background to its composition:

Of course, even for a multi-platinum band like Garbage, the sudden upsurge in song downloads that comes along with being featured in a Metal Gear trailer does not go unnoticed.


If you really want to see the "power of Kojima" at work, look up Joan Baez's "Here's to You" (featured in the Ground Zeroes trailer) on YouTube, and observe in wonderment and shame that the user comments for almost every upload (which, some million views ago, probably consisted of just a few notes of old-folk appreciation for Joan Baez, with the occasional anarchic outburst mixed in) are now completely dominated by fools brought there by the Metal Gear hype train.

Friday, March 29, 2013

No more David Hayter in Metal Gear?

I've been trying to avoid Metal Gear Solid V previews and trailers until I can get around to playing Peace Walker, but I do want to comment on the news that Kojima Productions has apparently decided to replace David Hayter as the voice of Snake/Big Boss. Both Hideo Kojima and Hayter himself have confirmed that it is true (and the character's voice in the demo footage certainly sounds nothing like Hayter), with Kojima officially responding, “What we’re trying to accomplish here is recreate the Metal Gear series. It’s a new type of Metal Gear game, and we wanted to have this reflected in the voice actor as well.”

Were the new game an actual reboot, set in a different timeline and developed by a different team, I would understand them maybe wanting to go in a different direction. But it is abundantly clear from the latest trailer that, as far as the story and characters, this is the furthest thing from a fresh start. It sounds more like Konami and Kojima mean to refresh Metal Gear's image to potentially reach a new and larger market. They recognize that, even as gaming is becoming bigger, there are fewer and fewer titles able to compete in the triple-A space. Perhaps they figure part of claiming their seat at the table involves hiring a bigger name (or at least a more professional, less hammy performer) to take on their game's lead role.

Is it possible that a different actor could step into Snake's shoes and turn in a better performance? Sure, but that's also so not the point. For anyone who has been a fan of this series outside Japan, David Hayter is Snake, whether Solid or Naked. I remember attending an Anime Expo some years ago, where Hayter participated in a Q&A session as a guest of honor. This was at a time when people still believed that a live-action Metal Gear movie was going to happen, and one audience member asked who Hayter's choice would have been for the role of Solid Snake. The question was met with a loud chorus of boos from the rest of the audience, and rightly so. Don't ask the man to name his own more highly paid replacement. Even if not intended as such, the question was kind of a slap in the face to the actor whose performances had defined the character for most of us, and who was clearly passionate about the work (as evidenced by his mere presence at Anime Expo) and personally attached to the role in a way that few actors in video games would ever deign to be. Likewise, whatever Kojima and Konami's reasons now, to not even have approached Hayter is kind of a jerk move and a slap in the face not only to Hayter but the longtime fans as well.

Unfortunately, I don't get the sense that Kojima really knows or cares that much about the English-language versions of his games, so of course he wouldn't have Hayter's back on this. As a producer, he obviously wants to reach as large a market as possible, while, as a creator, Kojima has his own man in Japan, Akio Otsuka, who is his Snake (and who will return as Snake in the Japanese version, poking further holes in Kojima's stated reason that they're going for something new).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, 2004)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

I loved Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow back when I first saw it years ago. Watching it again more recently, I still liked it but found it a bit too thin and goofy to rate, in my opinion, as one of the all-time great film adventures. Innocent and exuberant are surely what it was going for, but I have to admit, my attention drifted at times during the action sequences. The movie still looks great, but there's a lack of weight and consequence, which makes it hard to care about anything that happens. It's basically a children's movie, whimsical and devoid of cynicism. I'll probably watch it again someday in a different mood and come back around to embracing those very qualities.

This time, what I enjoyed more were the performances and the banter between the two main characters. Jude Law has never struck me as a viable action star. I find him too mild and dapper to root for with any vigor (perhaps why he's most prominently seen these days playing instead the straight man sidekick to a cartoon character in those awful Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies), but his coolness and charm work for the role of "Sky Captain" Joe Sullivan. He's a bit like Indiana Jones, but with more dignity and less irony.

Gwyneth Paltrow, despite being one of the great thespians of her generation, hasn't had very many major starring roles since winning her Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love (1998). These days, she's best known for playing the love interest to a cartoon character in the Iron Man movies, and, let's be honest, anybody (or even nobody) could play that role and it wouldn't greatly affect how those movies are received, either critically or commercially. Still, she's never one to phone in a performance. In Sky Captain too, as Polly Perkins, newshound and Joe's old flame, Paltrow's is rather a thankless supporting role—not to Jude Law but certainly to the special effects and retro-futurist aesthetic—but she manages to imbue the archetypal Katharine Hepburn-esque character with enough fun and magnetism to elevate her scenes, instead of merely serving them.

The two play well off one another and also off the overall silliness of the situations they find themselves in. In my favorite scene of the two, they are locked in what is basically a closet full of dynamite. As a lit fuse threatens to blow the cache and our heroes with it, Joe's only bright idea is to light another stick of dynamite and use it to blow the door first. In this tiny room, he grabs the unimpressed Polly to take cover behind a box, which, the characters and viewers realize at the same time, is also full of dynamite. "Oh great, we're safe," Polly dryly remarks.

Angelina Jolie, despite getting equal space on the poster (as well as dominating the Google image search results for "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"), has a much smaller part, though it's one of those efficiently badass "and" roles that, had a few things worked out differently for the film, probably would have stolen the show and been the popular favorite among fans. She plays the eye-patched Franky Cook, commander of a flying aircraft carrier, a character curiously similar to Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., although Franky is probably more effective in Sky Captain than Fury has been in all of the Marvel movies so far. Had Sky Captain been an actual vintage serial like those it draws inspiration from, one can easily imagine that Franky would have gotten her own feature episodes.

In fact, watching the movie, I sometimes got the sense that Conran had a lot more material that he was either saving for a sequel, or else had taken out in order to keep things simple. At least, I kind of expected them to journey to more places and see more sights. Nothing that comes later in the movie manages to top, for me, the early image of a parade of giant robots on a march of destruction through the city.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (Nintendo DS) (Level-5, Square Enix, 2009)

Dragon Quest IX

Five years after the release of Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies was, in many ways, yet more of that same old familiar Dragon Quest, never known for being a series to take risks. Combat was still simplistic and based around text menus, progression was still kind of a grind, and you still couldn't save outside town. Also, carrying on the artistic identity of the iconic series were the returning key creative talents—creator and scenario writer Yuji Horii, character and monster designer Akira Toriyama, and composer Koichi Sugiyama. Indeed, I think these three men are all more critical to the perpetuation of Dragon Quest than any other creators in the game industry are to any other series. Then again, maybe a Dragon Quest installment without one or more of these guys wouldn't be so far-fetched, because Dragon Quest IX actually did introduce some changes to the series that, prior to that, would have been unthinkable.

First of all, Dragon Quest IX was a handheld game, whereas every previous numbered installment had been released on whatever had been the most popular home console of the time. But the way people played games had changed since Dragon Quest VIII, and the Nintendo DS was now the most ubiquitous platform, so it actually made a lot of business sense to move it there, even if it could not but be perceived as a demotion any time a long-running console game series moved to handheld as its new home. (I mean, could you imagine Nintendo ever announcing its next mainline Zelda or Mario as exclusive to handheld?) The visuals were going to be a step back from the last game, but, otherwise, there was nothing that Dragon Quest IX needed that it couldn't get out of the DS. The next big change was the elimination of random encounters, which, by that point, were rarely found in any remotely modern RPG. So that was not exactly groundbreaking but was more like Dragon Quest arriving way late to the party, but, on the bright side, at least it finally showed up. Square Enix's real gamble, however, was turning Dragon Quest into a multiplayer cooperative game. Can you think of any other comparably venerable series (again, think Zelda or Mario) shifting focus to co-op, after over two decades of established single-player gameplay? How would it even work? What would it mean to be multiplayer, if combat was still turn-based? How would it be any different from just passing the controller around while playing Dragon Quest VIII?

As it turned out, it worked really well. Playing Dragon Quest IX with my siblings, after having completed some fifty console RPGs all on my own, I realized at last that adventuring is something best enjoyed with company. It's just more fun when you have companions alongside you, sharing in the sights, sounds, and experiences, as you journey out into that unexplored fantasy world. You can point things out to one another, plan out routes and destinations together, or maybe split up to explore a town separately, then reconvene to share gathered intel. And it all feels a tad more real, as though going on an actual trip together.

As for the turn-based combat, it was a lot like old Dragon Quest. It still boiled down to selecting "Attack" from the menu for about 90 percent of your actions. The one wrinkle that the more recent games introduced was the "Tension" system, which encouraged players to spend a character's turn "focusing" to raise the potency of their next action. Stack a couple consecutive Tension boosts, and, after four boosts, their next attack will be far stronger than the sum of four non-boosted attacks combined would have been. In multiplayer in Dragon Quest IX, players further had the option to boost an ally's tension instead of their own, so that a character could potentially max out their tension after a single round. When I played, our party's strategy against every boss was to have everyone boost and buff the biggest bruiser in our group, then have that character unleash their strongest attack (usually the double-slashing Falcon Slash, while equipped with the double-slashing Über Falcon Blade, for a total of four slashes). There weren't very many enemies who could stand up to that, and, consequently, it almost felt like being on the other side of one of those classic Bahamut battles from Final Fantasy, in that we were basically counting down to our one big attack, and, unless the enemy could defeat or interrupt us before that moment came, the fight would be ours.

Dragon Quest IX may have been the first Dragon Quest I actually enjoyed playing, but Yuji Horii's storytelling was something I had already come to appreciate immensely during the course of my playing through Dragon Quest VIII. Dragon Quest IX's story was more like a series of loosely tied-together episodes. The player took on the role of a guardian angel, helping wandering spirits come to peace after having met tragic ends. These were nearly all measured and poignant tales that sidestepped the cheap melodrama of most of its JRPG peers. My favorite was the Zere Rocks episode, a haunting and compelling portrait of the depths of a man's loneliness and heartache. The fairly unassuming town of Zere was an early stop in the game, and it wasn't until much later, in a completely different part of the world, that we came across a sign at the base of a mountain that read "Zere Rocks." My siblings and I didn't know what to make of it at first, but, as we climbed the mountain and, along the way, came across cryptic notes left by some sculptor, it gradually became clear that this had not been the work of a happy man. What we found at the summit was nothing less than a complete stone replica of the entire town of Zere and its residents, all sculpted by the one man, who had moved away but evidently never moved past having had his heart broken by the love of his life from his hometown.

Maybe the multiplayer adventuring was old hat to MMORPG players. And everything else about the game held fast to the series' roots. Yet its quality blend of co-op questing, accessible and addictive gameplay, and brilliant storytelling was unique, and Dragon Quest IX remains a one-of-a-kind high point among RPGs I've played.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What's Martian Manhunter's deal?

Although the Young Justice cartoon was not part of the Bruce Timm DC animated universe that began with Batman: The Animated Series, it was interesting, watching it, to observe how the storytelling in DC's cartoons has evolved along a similar trajectory as it did in the comics.

Batman was made up of mostly standalone stories, and it was self-contained, with scarcely any hint of a larger "superhero universe." Superman: The Animated Series, simply by virtue of existing in the same universe as Batman (as well as featuring appearances by Flash, Green Lantern, and others), began to change that. It was, in my opinion, a thematically simpler work, but it offered greater action and a stronger regular supporting cast for its hero to have meaningful relationships with, both in and out of costume. It traded the occasionally thought-provoking short stories of Batman for superpowered action and light character-driven drama. Years later, the final entry in the metaseries, Justice League Unlimited, was heavy on references to events and characters from almost every work that had come before. That was really not a show you could walk into with no prior knowledge and expect to make sense of. But, from another point of view, it was extra rewarding for those hardcore fans, who had been watching since the beginning and could still keep track of it all, to think that there might actually have been a payoff to their committing so many years of fictional cartoon events to heart and to memory.

Young Justice placed a similarly heavy emphasis on attention to continuity, with almost every hero and villain working some angle that would take the better part of a season to fully emerge. Moreover, even though it didn't share continuity with any previous series and was ostensibly a self-contained new show, it also didn't bother to explain who anybody was, outside of the original core team, despite it featuring at least as many characters as Justice League Unlimited. It pretty much assumed that, if you were watching the show, you already knew what Martian Manhunter's deal was, even though I'd wager that most people, unless they read comics or have seen Justice League, would have no idea who Martian Manhunter is.

I suppose it would be a waste of everyone's time to tell and retell every minor character's origin story with each reboot. On the other hand, this approach does leave potential new viewers somewhat out in the cold, and it's exactly that kind of mentality that has led superhero comics to become so indecipherably mired in continuity that DC has to perform periodic cullings on its fictional history.

Another thing that has kind of gone away, both in the comics and now the cartoons, is the non-superhero guest character. In Young Justice, there weren't very many non-superhero (or villain) characters, period. With a very few halfhearted exceptions, the heroes only seemed to have other masked heroes for friends and lovers. It had become a story about a society of demigods, with no part for ordinary civilians (like, um, the viewers) to play, except as frail and useless children in need of saving.

In the comics, these are trends that have resulted in a readership of, over the decades, an increasingly more insular and older subculture of geeks—people who prefer fantasy to reality and would rather follow fictional characters' lives than live their own. The cartoons, though trending in that direction, thankfully aren't quite there yet (and they've also managed to avoid the distastefully graphic violence that has seeped into even mainstream comic titles), and, for that, I actually should probably be grateful to the executive suits for reminding the writers that these shows are primarily for kids and teens, not for comic book nerds who have studied decades of superhero lore.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Young Justice (TV) (2010–2013)

It's not always satisfying being a faithful viewer of American cartoons. Very rarely do shows end on their own terms. More often is it the case that some suit will pull the plug upon determining that additional episodes will not result in additional toy tie-in sales. So it was for Teen Titans (2003-2006) and Legion of Super Heroes (2006-2008), and so it is now for Young Justice.

Created by Greg Weisman (creator of the cult favorite Gargoyles) and Brandon Vietti (director of the highly competent Batman: Under the Red Hood), Young Justice cranked up the best aspects of Teen Titans—the arc-based structure and character-driven melodrama—but did away with the slapstick humor and frenetic anime-influenced look, opting instead for a more mature tone and realistic art style. In other words, it was a more straightforward adaptation of the Teen Titans comics. Although focusing on DC's teenage heroes/sidekicks, it was, in some ways, the most grown-up DC cartoon yet, with a surprisingly heavy emphasis on characters hooking up. My favorite, almost kind of racy line was delivered by the teen archer Artemis, at one point finding herself without her trusty bow: "I feel naked, and not in a fun way." (Season 1, Episode 14 "Revelation")

From the second half of season 1 on, the show also went big—appearances by just about everybody who's anybody in the DC universe, a five-year time-skip that changed everything, and some staggering attention to continuity, with tons of twists and turns that, more often than not, the show would have to spell out through explanatory dialogue, knowing that the callbacks might otherwise go over a lot of weekly viewers' heads. More than any superhero show before it, it really conveyed a sense of a "superhero universe," beyond just the core team and its mission. Major names like Batman and Superman could be presences on the show without having to appear in person all the time, but when they did get involved, they would fit right in with the regular characters and just feel like an established part of the world.

Admittedly, the rapidly ballooning roster of characters meant that less and less time could be devoted to exploring any individual character in depth, and the end of the second season (and, as it turned out, the series) was rather anticlimactic. Still, the show was really a lot of fun, and I'm sorry to see it unceremoniously cancelled. For me, it struck almost the perfect balance between the intimacy of Teen Titans and the scale of Justice League Unlimited. And, maybe I just read into it what I wanted to, but I could have sworn there was even an homage to my favorite superhero comic of all time, Brian K. Vaughan's Runaways.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Switching from Google Reader to Feedly

The news that Google is pulling the plug on Google Reader has been quite the bummer. Unlike Google Buzz, Google Wave, and iGoogle, Reader actually seems to be popular and well-liked. At the time Google made the announcement, Reader was easily the leading product at what it did. But I guess those numbers still don't translate to it being a success for Google. That's too bad, because I don't know of any more efficient way to consume my news than via a cloud-based RSS reader linked to my Google account. (I mean, I still visit the Yahoo! homepage every day, but that's more of a boondoggle than a legitimate exercise to keep myself informed.)

I suppose, given all the outcry on the blogosphere, it's possible Google might change its mind, but, for now, I've switched to Feedly, which seems to be the most popular alternative (and since an RSS reader is for practical use and not for cool cred, I'm not really interested in digging around to see what hip, obscure options are out there; just point me to what works). It's cloud-based, I can log into it with my Google account, and it sports a much more attractive magazine-style layout than Google Reader, while also allowing users to set it to a more spartan list of article titles only, which is how I had Reader set up. On the downside, it's kind of buggy, much of the interface and functionality doesn't seem well-thought-out (I keep accidentally "marking all as read," when what I mean to do is click on one of my feeds to the left), and the Android app is slow and confusing. Also, there doesn't seem to be any way to look up info for a feed I'm already subscribed to, in case I want to check the feed URL (or in case, say, I want to check the statistics to see how many other people are subscribed to my own blog's feed).

*sigh* I kind of wish they were shutting down Google+ instead. Does anybody really use that, other than Jeri Ryan? (Well, okay, I would occasionally use the "share via Google+" feature within Google Reader, but obviously that's not gonna happen anymore.)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Hybrid -New born-" (Takeharu Ishimoto, Subarashiki Kono Sekai + The World Ends with You, 2008)

This is the arranged sound version from the Subarashiki Kono Sekai + The World Ends with You album (uploaded by FafnirTheBlackDragon). Vocal by Nulie Nurly.

For comparison, here's the in-game (English) version of "Hybrid" (uploaded by Kaiserok):

Friday, March 22, 2013

NASA: In the event of an asteroid heading for Earth? We're totally boned.

From Reuters ("Large asteroid heading to Earth? Pray, says NASA," March 19, 2013):
NASA has found and is tracking about 95 percent of the largest objects flying near Earth, those that are .62 miles or larger in diameter.

"An asteroid of that size, a kilometer or bigger, could plausibly end civilization," White House science advisor John Holdren told legislators at the same hearing.

But only about 10 percent of an estimated 10,000 potential "city-killer" asteroids, those with a diameter of about 165 feet have been found, Holdren added.

What I find most tiresome about national and world politics is how so much of it is just a lot of petty and short-sighted wang-wagging over crap that either has no bearing on my day at all, or that I end up having to deal with in my own life without any assistance from the government, while our leaders largely ignore the few issues on which I would actually find myself depending on higher and wiser authorities to take the lead on. I don't mean to imply that the economy, health care, and social inequality are in any way trivial. But if I'm being honest, the issues that most keep me up at night are, in order, climate change, peak oil, and the ever-looming threat of nuclear war. Those first two scare me because I recognize that I am, realistically, entirely powerless to affect them, and everything I've read suggests that they will inevitably make the world a much worse place to live in, probably within my lifetime. The nuclear threat is, admittedly, probably less likely to impact my life than gun violence in this country. But these are all potentially apocalyptic concerns that, frankly, I have zero confidence in our leaders to solve, as they have consistently demonstrated that they are basically at as much of a loss as me over how to deal with them, and, when they are not altogether living in denial, they are probably just praying that somebody else will come along to save the world.

I guess I can add these "city-killer" asteroids to the list, as another terrifying prospect to occupy my nightmares, which we are evidently so totally unprepared for. Again, probably less likely to impact my life than gun violence, but also, again, something entirely outside my control. I mean, only 10 percent are being tracked? In other words, we would most likely never even see it coming. And what are we doing to address that? Very little and very slowly, according to NASA:
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden estimated that it would take until 2030 to catalog 90 percent of the near-Earth objects between 140 meters and 1 kilometer in width, as mandated by Congress. [...]

"If it's coming in three weeks ... pray," Bolden said. "The reason I can't do anything in the next three weeks is because for decades we have put it off." (NBC News)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Makoto Shinkai, 2011)

Children Who Chase Lost Voices

Makoto Shinkai is a bit like the M. Night Shyamalan of anime. After a breakout directorial effort with 2002's Voices of a Distant Star, which Shinkai made almost entirely by himself, many were ready to dub the young animator "the next Hayao Miyazaki." His subsequent works didn't exactly pay off that early promise, however, instead drawing criticism that he was simply rehashing the same formula, which was increasingly scrutinized as emotionally self-indulgent and intellectually shallow. In snootier circles, he's nowadays often derisively dismissed for his lack of depth and narrow thematic scope. Nevertheless, he remains one of the very few anime directors whose name can viably be employed in the marketing for his works ("a Makoto Shinkai film").

Even most of his admirers have, at some point, expressed a wish that Shinkai might stretch himself a bit more artistically to explore some different themes, instead of always the same old meditation on love and longing. I wonder if this is altogether fair. Some of our most celebrated classical authors had only a single story, whether because they literally only completed one work, or because they spent their careers, not rehashing or recycling, but refining and revisiting from different angles the themes they themselves were most taken by. I mean, does anybody complain that Jane Austen needed to branch out beyond romance? Or that Herman Melville should have moved past fatalistic sea expeditions after White-Jacket? Anyway, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is terrible.

As far as Shinkai rehashing the same old themes, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is, yes, still about how one copes with being separated from the one you love, although that central thread is frequently lost amid action and adventure elements that seem way outside the director's forte. This time, the story focuses on characters whose loved ones have passed on to the other side, and the protagonists decide to deal with it by literally forcing their way into the land of the dead. One man means to bring his late wife back, while Shinkai himself, in the promotion for the film, described it as "a journey to say farewell." Either way, it's a compelling idea, previously explored in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as other similar tales found in every culture. It's wasted in Children Who Chase Lost Voices, however, because the movie's underworld is not interesting, its characters are poorly defined, and the story lacks focus.

If Shinkai ever merited comparison to Hayao Miyazaki, it was not because he was in any way a similar kind of storyteller, but because, like Miyazaki, he was a director who would roll up his sleeves and draw his own movie. Children Who Chase Lost Voices is an interesting departure for Shinkai, then, in that he was more hands-off on the art, and the movie actually does appear to be an attempt at a deliberately Miyazaki-esque adventure. In fact, at times it almost crosses a line from homage over into shameless ripoff territory. The first act, in which the female protagonist is rescued from a supernatural end by a mysterious and beautiful young boy, recalls the relationship between Chihiro and Haku in Spirited Away, though executed with far less finesse or perceptiveness. There's an image right out of Castle in the Sky, in which the lead girl and boy are in a cave dimly lit by the glowing crystal in their possession. And the seemingly omnipresent yet unknowably distant god of the underworld reminded me of the Shishigami from Princess Mononoke.

What really sinks Children Who Chase Lost Voices is that, whereas Miyazaki's work transcends a lot of what the word "anime" tends to connote here in the West, Shinkai's movie succumbs to virtually every bad anime cliche and storytelling pitfall—self-obsessed adolescents, convoluted plot told through turgid expository segments, obscure mythological references, nebulous philosophizing, irrationally motivated characters who undergo frequent and sudden changes of heart, and so on and so forth. The world that Shinkai builds here also falls far short of Miyazaki's fantasy settings. It's richly drawn and full of color, but there is a dearth of interesting sights. The land of the dead is mostly empty plains and deserted ruins, its only inhabitants being some xenophobic tribesmen and a hostile race of deranged shadow creatures that cannot abide sunlight or water. It doesn't help that the story seems to take forever to get going, as roughly the first third or so is spent in the real world just setting up the idea of the journey to the underworld.

The one great image I take away from Children Who Chase Lost Voices is that of the young female protagonist, near the end of her journey, trudging her way through the night along a river, her only refuge from the shadow creatures that endlessly crowd the banks, as she questions what she had been seeking in the land of the dead in the first place. The character is so poorly developed throughout the rest of the movie, having no rational motivations for almost any of her actions, but this scene at least is gorgeously animated, as she finally finds herself on her knees as a stunning aurora proclaims the break of dawn. We gather that her experience has been not only physically but also emotionally draining. Rather than Shinkai trying to do Miyazaki, this is Shinkai at his own best—not doing epic adventures, but depicting deeply cut young souls burdened to exhaustion by all they cannot let go of that has already let go of them.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The World Ends with You (Nintendo DS) (Square Enix, Jupiter, 2007)

The World Ends with You

The World Ends with You is, no question in my mind, the greatest game on the Nintendo DS, and it's also my favorite game of the last generation. It's also one of the least sensibly designed games I've ever played.

You know how, every time new hardware is released that has unique new functionality, developers, even if they haven't figured out any thoughtful new ways to take advantage of it, will shoehorn in gameplay that uses it, just so they can advertise those bullet points on the back of the box? In the early life of the Wii, for example, this meant a lot of lazy third-party games that were basically the same as games we'd played before, except that actions that were formerly simply performed by pressing buttons were now made harder and more tiresome by requiring players to waggle the remote. Or how many early PS3 games included gratuitous Sixaxis segments, before developers realized that the proper way to use it was "not at all"? At first glance, The World Ends with You similarly comes across in its design as a game that was built with a goal in mind of getting as many DS-specific bullet points on the box as possible. Stylus controls? Check. Gameplay across two screens? Yep. Passively exchanging information with other DS systems over wireless? Count on it. Annoying segment requiring you to use the microphone? So annoying! Even the internal clock comes into play. And this wasn't even an early DS release.

No, by 2007, developers had pretty well learned how to design both core and casual DS games that used stylus controls, as well as when not to use them at all. The World Ends with You was not an exercise to figure out the proper way to design for the system, but seemingly more an experiment to see just how far design (and the player) could be pushed. It used everything the system offered and as much as possible. It featured stylus controls, yes, but it also asked you to use the D-pad at the same time. Gameplay occurred on both screens at the same time. It was as though someone had made an entire game out of that old exercise of patting your head and rubbing your stomach simultaneously. Here, you were tasked with controlling two characters at once, and the more in sync they were, the stronger their attacks, but if either died (and they shared a life bar), it was game over. It was effectively a co-op game where you had to be your own partner against waves of enemies on every side, all while a clock also counted down to your demise if you didn't wrap things up quickly enough. It was not elegant, the controls were not perfect (in a pinch, sometimes random swiping would work as well as deliberate strokes), and the premise didn't always even seem fair or feasible.

And the game would toss you into the deep end of the pool pretty quickly, but that was actually in keeping with the narrative. The idea was that, though things may not have made a whole lot of sense right away, you didn't have the luxury of time to figure it out. How quickly could you scramble to action and do whatever it took if left with no other option? In The World Ends with You, you were almost perpetually facing that kind of pressure during combat. For some players, it could be overwhelming. For others, it was overwhelming but also highly addictive. You would feel barely in control yet, at the same time, be working so frantically that, when a hard fight was done, you didn't feel so much that you had won as that you had survived.

I'm not sure I'd ever want to see another game that plays like The World Ends with You. (You won't see my name on any petitions for a sequel.) But, at its very best moments, this was a game that left you feeling you had given more than you thought you'd had in you to give, and that is such a uniquely and immensely rewarding feeling. In the same way that being pushed to your physical limits through a strenuous workout program can serve to enlighten you on your own limits and capabilities, I almost want to say that playing The World Ends with You made me feel more fully myself, as my hands and thoughts were forced to operate faster and sharper than they would ever need to be in daily life.

And the mechanics may be only half the appeal of The World Ends with You. The striking art style and fresh sound consisting of several pop and hip hop vocal tracks lent the game a unique identity, and the story at times harked back to days when Square told the best in the business. As tiresome as apathetic emo teen protagonists sporting extraneous zippers and buckles had become, removing such characters from the otherworlds of Final Fantasy and placing them instead in the real-world setting of the Shibuya shopping district, which actually is populated by teens (and grown men) dressed like JRPG characters at any time of day, just made perfect sense.

The story had exactly one twist too many for my taste. I really loved everything up until the game suddenly dumped a huge amount of plot on me via a convoluted eleventh-hour reveal that only served to confound me and even slightly detracted from what I had enjoyed about the story up to that point. Even so, it was a consistently gripping good tale up until then—tense and ominous but also humorous and surprisingly heartfelt, with an ultimate message to challenge that stereotypical JRPG player's mopey emo attitude, instead of enabling it as so many JRPGs seem to.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Remember Del Norte

Volunteered at the food bank. A group of high schoolers was volunteering there as well—a common enough occurrence, as community service hours are nowadays a requirement for graduation at many high schools. One of them came up to me, however, and asked if we had volunteered together before. It was possible. I didn't recognize him, but, then again, I've never been good with faces.

"I'm here pretty often," I said.

"No," he said, "I've never been here. It was at a food packing event at Del Norte."

I was stunned. I still couldn't remember the kid, but I definitely remembered that event at Del Norte High School. But that had been three years ago! And I had only been there an hour, during which I couldn't have said more than two sentences to any of the people I had been working next to.

It was one of those moments that made me pause and reflect. What was my life three years ago? And what is it now? And I remembered that the only reason I had even been there that day at Del Norte was because I had wanted to spend time with this girl who had invited me to come along with her. Irony of ironies, she had ended up having to call me ten minutes into the event to let me know that she wasn't going to be able to make it, and that disappointment had been my primary takeaway from the experience.

Running into this kid three years later put things into perspective. It was like uncovering camcorder footage of myself that I didn't know existed, and, on the one hand, the footage didn't tell the story of what was going on inside, yet, on the other hand, it offered a larger perspective of what was going on outside, which I had been oblivious to in the moment. I had never even really considered that there were other things going on that day. It had been a day in my life, but now it occurred to me that it had been a day in everyone else's life too. It had meant one thing to me, and different things to other people. And, amazingly, there was even at least one person whose memory of that day included me.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Living Off the Tube (Or "Poor People and Their iPhones")

I've been living off the tube for a while now. The boob tube, that is. Which is to say that I've been without broadcast television. It had been spotty ever since the U.S. transitioned to digital television. Without any cable or satellite subscription, even most local channels wouldn't come through at my residence.

I tried installing a couple different over-the-air antennae, but none of the affordable indoor receivers did the trick. When I went to Best Buy to shop for one, the greeter didn't even know what I meant by "TV antenna." He directed me to the television department guy, who was able to show me their selection of antennae but couldn't offer any advice or recommendations. I told him I thought it ridiculous that, even as technology had supposedly progressed, my HD set seemed less capable of performing TV's most basic function than my family's analog box from twenty years ago had been. Back then, all you had to do was plug it in, and shortly you would be watching local channels over the air. My HD TV can't pick up anything on its own but mostly snowed out NBC. (And, for some strange reason, if you plug in the cable, even without service, standard-def SyFy will come in clean and clear.)

"Everybody these days just has cable or satellite," he said.

This surprised me, because I knew how expensive cable was, and, even when my family had it, I had always understood it to be a luxury. Yet, come to think of it, it did seem that quite a lot of people I knew were ready to prioritize TV among their expenses. There was a period recently, after I had quit my regular job of five years, when I simply bounced around from one temp job to the next. These were all low-paying, mostly labor gigs, and my coworkers, in their own words, "lived paycheck-to-paycheck." And yet they would mention watching first-run cable shows like The Walking Dead on TV. If even these self-described poor people had it, maybe cable wasn't a luxury anymore but more of a basic expense. Rather like the iPhones I noticed they all seemed to have. What was up with that? (While I was, at the time, still using a dumbphone!) Or maybe they were just incredibly financially irresponsible—they seemed to spend all their weekends at Indian casinos—and that was a large part of why they were poor in the first place. Or maybe, although they (and I) were not quite middle-class, the lifestyle of the working class was nevertheless far removed still from that of society's truly poor. In any case, the point remained that the days of free TV—even local channels—were over.

But I still couldn't afford cable! And how could I live without being able to keep up with my stories?! I didn't exactly have a lot else going on in my life. So I bought a Roku and checked out the various on-demand streaming services—Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime Instant Video.

It hasn't been too bad. The Roku is fairly capable—not as ideal as having a PC plugged into my TV to act as a media center, but far cheaper. And being able to watch shows on my TV is still far preferable to watching them on a computer monitor—enough so that I'm willing to pay at least a little extra for that comfort and convenience.

As for the services, having both Netflix and Amazon Prime is largely redundant. Netflix has the larger overall selection, but Amazon Prime has some exclusives and, of course, other benefits, such as free two-day shipping. Neither offers current seasons of shows, so they're no help for keeping up with whatever your coworkers will be discussing at the office. On the other hand, having access to their libraries of older shows and seasons has, in some ways, changed the way I enjoy television. I don't usually like to begin watching a show in the middle of its run, so, in the past, whenever I received a recommendation for a show already in its third season, I would just shrug and say, "Maybe someday." Now, if a show is included on my subscription, not only can I check it out from the beginning but I can catch up on multiple seasons very quickly by marathoning them (which is also a fun and addictive way to watch), as I did with Parks and Rec.

Hulu Plus is different. It has some older shows, but its real value is in its offering the latest episodes of current shows the day after they air on television. If it's important to you to keep up with conversations about, say, what's going on in The Vampire Diaries, then Hulu Plus is probably the most important of the video services. You'd still be that one agonizing day behind, however, and you also wouldn't get the "next week on" preview segments. On the bright side, I do love being able to come home that day after and immediately start watching whatever shows I have queued for the day. No longer having to structure my schedule around prime time viewing, I feel as though I have more time in the day overall. The lame part about Hulu Plus is that, even if you're paying for it, there are still commercials. I never really minded commercial breaks during the broadcast days, but they stick out as an annoyance on Hulu because 1) you don't have to deal with them when watching the same shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and 2) there are only a very few different ads that get old very quickly. I also think it's lame that you must pay for Hulu Plus in order to watch Hulu's shows on the Roku (or any device other than a computer). And even a subscription doesn't get you access to The Simpsons and some other shows.

As for what's missing from all these services? Well, none of them offer current episodes of cable shows like The Walking Dead or Justified, much less premium channel programs, like Spartacus or Game of Thrones. And, naturally, these also happen to be the most buzzed-about shows, which means, when they're running, I have to avoid all TV-related blogs for fear of spoilers (although I've learned to do that anyway, since even casting news is often spoilerish). You also don't get live programming, such as news, sports, and awards shows. I do kind of miss having the local news, for when I'm ready to shut off my brain and close out my night. And I also enjoyed riffing on the lousy reporting from time to time. I don't miss live sports so much, but I occasionally miss SportsCenter. Like the local news, that was often bedtime viewing for me. I always thought it did a great job of feeding the day's sports news to viewers in an entertaining manner. Honestly, I think my interest in sports has declined proportionally to the amount of SportsCenter I've been able to watch. And I haven't seen SportsCenter in many years, so maybe that's why I don't miss being able to watch sports so much. So, in a circular fashion, I suppose I shouldn't miss SportsCenter either. Funny how that works. Oh, and believe it or not, I do somewhat miss commercials. A funny commercial could be a great discovery, and TV ads also more often introduced me to new music than actual TV programs would.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Looking forward to Days of Future Past. But where is X-Men: Second Class?

Even with the Star Wars machine powering back on to take over theaters again for the next several years (probably for the rest of my life and beyond), there remains no movie I am more eagerly anticipating than 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past. Which is odd, considering that Bryan Singer is directing it, and I'm not exactly his biggest fan. I really didn't care for the first X-Men movie, and, though I liked his sequel better, it was nevertheless very far from what I would have wanted out of the film version of my favorite Silver Age superhero comic. I was often heard lamenting how we would have to wait years for Singer's vision to fade out of the the public consciousness before someone else could reboot it and get it right. That bitterness lingered on until 2011. Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class was quickly my favorite superhero movie of all time, and suddenly I was very hopeful that it would be a new beginning for X-Men in the movies, even if the reboot was on the soft side. So, yes, when I heard that not only was Matthew Vaughn out as director for Days of Future Past but Bryan Singer was in, the news was nearly heartbreaking. Rather than being allowed to start a new series, First Class was to be used and abused to resuscitate a dead series that the world had entirely moved on from?

Given time to process it, however, I've come around to being extremely, sincerely excited to see this impending monstrosity of a movie, even if not for the same reasons I would have looked forward to a simple First Class sequel. But a continuation of both First Class AND the trilogy? With nearly every star from both? Even Shawn Ashmore?! Just picturing the poster boggles the mind. The meticulously engineered experiment that culminated in Avengers now seems paltry by comparison. Cast aside, this has the potential to be, conceptually, the most massive story ever attempted in film. We've had clever time travel movies in the past, but this is a series that has already had two prequels (plus flashbacks in the original trilogy), where multiple eras of the team have already been represented by different illustrious casts, and which has changed hands creatively enough times that, whether deliberately or out of carelessness, it has already undergone several retcons. It is not just one timeline but three or four at work already in these movies, and, when they travel back in time in Days of Future Past, we must ask, back in which time? Personally, I want them all! I even hope they take advantage of the inherently paradoxical time travel angle to confront head-on the continuity errors that have amassed all over the chronology of the previous movies.

I can picture it now:

A Shyamalan-style montage, as some temporal custodian, perhaps Immortus (though I'm guessing he's not included in the X-Men license), reveals all the places where timelines were already being altered during the earlier movies, hence the contradictions (e.g. Why is Picard Xavier walking around in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but then Professor Mr. Tumnus is (SPOILER) in a wheelchair at the end of First Class?).

And another scene, where we witness the timeline in the act of being altered, as, mid-stride, mid-speech, Ellen Page morphs into Katie Stuart and then Sumela Kay. And, even as her reality and her very self are fragmenting, Kitty Pryde, ever the resolved hero, marches forward with nary a misstep along her multiverse-saving mission.

Maybe even, one hopes, a scene where, as time and space compress, Liev Schreiber's Victor Creed comes face-to-face with Tyler Mane's Sabretooth, and, horrified at the implications, Creed protests, "No, it can't be! I don't believe it!" Only to have an enigmatic and unknowable Tyler Mane answer back, "Is it any crazier than that dog who saw a rainbow?" Then Schreiber, unable to come to grips with this revelation, can only scream, and Tyler Mane also starts screaming (a la Liam Neeson in Darkman), and the camera, between them, spins from one's face to the other, quicker and quicker, becoming a blur, until, when it finally stops, the two are morphed into one man: the Liev Schreiber from Kate & Leopold! And the setting has altered from the time-compressed limbo—floating rocks in outer space and the works—to a New York apartment, where a groggy Schreiber is roused by the snapping fingers of Hugh Jackman, who, having morphed from Wolverine into the time-displaced Leopold Alexis Elijah Walker Thomas Gareth Mountbatten, Duke of Albany, has no memory of any "X-Men" and acts as if everything is just normal (well, aside from the fact that he himself is over a century removed from his proper era).

Okay, so maybe that's a lot of morphs. At least I resisted the temptation to insert the character Morph from the 90s cartoon. Because Morph sucks.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Midnight Sun" by The Sounds (live acoustic recording)

Pretty cool live acoustic version of "Midnight Sun" by The Sounds (captured and uploaded by SocialMediaSzene):

This was apparently at a record store in Germany in 2010 to promote the release there of their album Crossing the Rubicon. They performed some other songs that day too, so check 'em out on SocialMediaSzene's YouTube channel.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Which stars for Star Wars? (Probably none of these.)

From Total Film:

Disappointing how, beneath the lip service, it's obvious that so many of the actors know next to nothing about Star Wars OR Star Trek, and have probably never actually seen or understood anything J. J. Abrams has been involved with. Rachel Weisz especially is just the worst. Respect, at least, for those who will own to not having grown up with Star Wars, whether because of their privileged, hoity-toity upbringings or because they were most likely the school bully rather than the nerd. Gotta appreciate Jason Statham's frankness—the guy's a straight shooter, not some kiss-ass—even if his professed aversion to sci-fi and its "silly roles" comes across completely bonkers, considering the sorts of absurd over-the-top action movies that have made up most of his body of work.

I would not object to seeing Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan again, and it gladdens me to hear that he'd be down for it. And, no, I don't think, given where the stories have already gone before, it would be especially far-fetched having him appear in the sequel trilogy, although I think a standalone interquel would make more sense. Seriously, would be cool to see a dryly humorous Obi-Wan on some solo adventures, after having been liberated from that stuffy Jedi Order.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sliding Doors (Peter Howitt, 1998)

Sliding Doors

I completely missed Sliding Doors when it was new, probably because I was fourteen at the time and only watched maybe a movie a year. Had never even heard of it until years later, then strangely kept encountering references to it everywhere from different sources. Much like Terminator for time travel paradoxes, it seemed to be a pop cultural touchstone for the concept of parallel universes, with its premise of alternately depicting the two paths a young woman's life could take, depending on whether or not she catches a train before its sliding doors close.

As I watched it, the first thing that really took me by surprise was that Gwyneth Paltrow plays British in the movie, which is set in London and features an otherwise nearly all-British cast, with the exception of Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays an American. It struck me as an odd choice to cast an American as the lead in a British production, but, come to think of it, I guess Gwyneth Paltrow kind of rose to stardom playing British in British productions. And, of course, she later married a Brit and lived for a while in London. I can't explain any of it, but, once past the initial shock, it doesn't detract from this film.

As was the case with Emma and Shakespeare in Love, Paltrow entirely carries the movie, gimmicky premise aside. Impressively, as the story proceeds along its two timelines, Paltrow develops two subtly distinct parallel performances—one a gullible young woman emotionally dependent on her cheating good-for-nothing boyfriend, and the other a still vulnerable but more liberated and adventurous soul after having dumped the cad. Jeanne Tripplehorn also gives a classic performance as the terrifying "other woman." Sadly, the male characters are, at best, forgettable—one a total douche bag, the other kind of a creeper.

The parallel universes concept is novel and generally well-executed, the movie shifting between timelines regularly enough to keep viewers engaged in a fun game of trying to track all the divergences. Unfortunately, neither timeline by itself is especially interesting. I occasionally had trouble keeping straight the chronologies, but then I realized that I didn't really care. The movie is, at its heart, a romantic comedy, and, even with its two-in-one format, its story comes across small and unremarkable. Although a surprisingly popular film among would-be philosophers (even including, regrettably, noted Christian apologist William Lane Craig, famous as that guy who routinely demolishes bestselling atheist authors in public debates), it largely wastes the opportunity to explore the depths of that "what if" question that haunts us at and after every crossroads in our one-way lives. The initial divergence is not the result of will or choice but of chance, and, over and over again, the only message the movie seems to contain is that the course of one's life is all up to chance. And it all culminates with a cheap "gotcha" ending, which draws the curtain on the experiment without really resolving the romantic comedy, thereby failing to satisfy on either count. Ultimately, the most interesting possibilities explored are Gwyneth Paltrow's two different hairstyles.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan (Nintendo DS) (iNiS, 2005)

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, literally translated, means something along the lines of "Yeah! Fight! Cheer Squad," an ouendan being a sort of cheer squad in Japan, serving a similar role as cheerleaders, rallying fans at sporting events in support of the home team. Fittingly, iNiS's 2005 Japan-only DS release, wherein you play the part of a group of ouendan that take their duties very seriously, is one of the most cheer-worthy, feel-good games I've ever played.

The eager-to-assist Ouendan in Ouendan do not work only sporting events. Rather, any time someone is in need of encouragement—be it a struggling student trying for the umpteenth time to pass his college entrance exams, a budding restaurateur desperate to attract patrons for his ramen shop, or a young man trying to impress a cute girl against the efforts of her protective father—the afflicted need only shout "Ouendan" to the heavens, and the Ouendan team will miraculously arrive to answer the summons and cheer them through their struggle.

Backed by mostly sentimental yet infectious Japanese pop songs of the era, the ensuing rhythm-based gameplay is not the most sophisticated. As the Ouendan on the bottom screen, players are limited to tapping and tracing with the stylus. Meanwhile, on the top screen, the scenario develops in bold manga-style comic panels, characters either succeeding or failing at their goals, depending on how well you perform in cheering them on. It's a neat trick having the action on one screen dynamically directing the story on the other, and the art and music are also perfectly matched with the narrative throughout. And the stories themselves—conceptually comical yet emotionally sincere—are surprisingly stirring. The player, as the Ouendan, is supposed to be the one encouraging the story characters through their hopeless situations, but I found that it often worked the other way around. That is, it was the characters and their situations (and the consistently rousing song choices) that motivated me to perform as well as I possibly could, because I genuinely wanted to deliver them to their happy endings. On that note, I consider Ouendan's greatest success to be its inventive approach in achieving a satisfying narrative that does not revolve around characters or objects smacking against one another, such collisions often appearing the inescapable golden thread in the web of video game narratives.

Consider a most basic game setup, wherein you have two blocks, one of them representing the player, and the other an NPC. Now, there don't intuitively appear to be very many different ways this block game can play out. The blocks can join together, at which point it becomes a puzzle game, or the blocks can collide against one another, at which point it becomes an action game. What you're not going to get is any kind of meaningful dialogue with the NPC block. I mean, it's a block, for God's sake. Alas, even the most complex video game NPCs are more like blocks than they are like humans, and you can't have meaningful dialogues with them either. Current video games simply don't have interfaces or AI sophisticated enough to facilitate that kind of interaction, and so what you find most often instead is much simpler physical interaction, usually in the form of combat.

Ouendan gets around this by having the narrative and gameplay sides of the experience be almost tangential to one another. The rhythm gameplay would work the same even if there were no story at all. Meanwhile, the story, despite being one step removed from the player, is no less engaging for it. Certainly, performing better yields more positive narrative outcomes, but the relationship is somewhat indirect. The Ouendan do not, after all, fight the needy characters' battles for them; they only cheer them on and inspire them to overcome their obstacles. In this way, it doesn't really matter how the blocks get along within any proposed narrative, because you're actually playing with them apart from (or, at most, alongside) the narrative. How you perform at the gameplay does affect the course of the narrative, but the gameplay and narrative are not one and the same, as in, say, a more typical action game, where the narrative arc might be you conquering your enemies, which, in gameplay, would be represented by you conquering your enemies (or, rather, the order there should probably be reversed, with the action gameplay determining (and limiting) the narrative). In Ouendan, distancing the narrative from the gameplay experience allows players to participate in all kinds of different stories far removed from the violent realm of most action game fodder, and the game is neither less fun nor the narrative less rewarding for it. On the contrary, I many times found myself intensely invested in some of Ouendan's stories, precisely because the subject matter, despite being heavy on Japanese cultural references, felt more real-world and relatable than the average convoluted sci-fi or fantasy video game plot. And, again, watching the characters steadily gain confidence as I cheered them on, from initially hopeless to finally heroic, was consistently one of the more deeply fulfilling experiences I've ever had in gaming.

Ouendan was followed by both an English-language spiritual sequel/extensively localized counterpart, Elite Beat Agents (2006), and a bona fide sequel, Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2 (2007). They're mostly more of the same—just different stories and songs. I didn't quite enjoy either of them as much as the original, maybe because I didn't find the song choices as inspired, or maybe just because the concept no longer felt as fresh. I'll also say that Elite Beat Agents, despite some imaginative efforts to break down the cultural barriers by recasting the cheer squad as eccentric secret agents, somewhat lacked the charm of the Ouendan games, which, for us Westerners, were so bizarrely captivating precisely because of how steeped they were in manga aesthetics and overall Japanese-ness. Still, as the only one to get a release outside Japan, Elite Beat Agents remains a worthwhile experience for those not into importing.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Report: "Liking" things on Facebook reveals that you are stupid

There's a pretty amazing news story going around that researchers have developed an algorithm that can analyze a Facebook user's public "likes" to deduce with startling accuracy various personal attributes, including the user's race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, drug history, and, most amusingly to me, their intelligence. According to TechNewsDaily:
For example, users who liked "Sephora," "Harley Davidson" and "I Love Being a Mom" were less likely to be intelligent, whereas likes that predicted high intelligence included "Thunderstorms," "Science," "The Colbert Report" and "Curly Fries."

I'm extremely skeptical of the veracity of this study. What metric are they even using to gauge the accuracy of the intelligence assessment? I kind of wish I could have participated in it. What would the machine have made of me? Well, probably not a lot, since I most likely haven't liked enough things on Facebook to provide a usable set of data toward drawing any conclusions. I know many people fill up their likes lists as basically an extension of their "About Me" section (though perhaps they never intended to reveal as much about themselves as this algorithm would allegedly infer). I originally would only like things if I wanted to get updates about them in my news feed. Then I got sick of all the ads, so I took back most of my likes. But, supposing all of my past likes were still out there for analysis, what would the machine conclude about this guy who "likes" animal rights activist groups, conservative Christian relief organizations, existential philosophers, lesbian singer-songwriters, Charlize Theron, Sanrio characters, sandwiches, and the Street Fighter series of video games? Who knows, maybe it would totally have my number, whatever that might be. It's funny to consider that a computer might, in a way, have us better figured out than other human beings ever could. Better perhaps than we know ourselves—how many of those guys in the study sample were actually confused about their own sexuality and didn't know themselves that they were gay, which the computer was supposedly able to very easily predict based on their music and movie interests?

The researchers did open up the algorithm for the public to get summaries of their own results. Unfortunately, all you get are broad statements according to a binary system across five categories describing your personality (e.g. in the category "Extraversion," "shy and reserved" versus "outgoing and active"). I gave it a try, and some of it was (broadly) accurate, while some of it was not. I'd agree that I'm more "liberal and artistic" than "conservative and traditional" on the "Openness" scale, but I would not consider myself "calm and relaxed," "well organized," or "warm, trusting and cooperative." Again, it might be that I don't have enough likes to draw any conclusive results. Or this might simply be an accurate representation of the five guys I pretend to be on Facebook, none of whom I actually am.

Of course, the researchers are also convinced that Google and Facebook have already long had their own sneaky algorithms that collect this same kind of data, gathered to help them tailor their advertising to the user. Now someone explain to me how that translates to my getting fed banner ads on YouTube for Muslim singles sites.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Star Trek (The Original Series) Season 1, Episode 1 "The Man Trap"

I started watching the HD remastered Star Trek: The Original Series, beginning with the first episode (in broadcast order), "The Man Trap." Although I've considered myself a Trek fan since The Next Generation, I've only ever seen a handful of Original Series episodes. I would consider this, in essence, my first time watching The Original Series.

Some quick thoughts:

Is everybody supposed to look as sweaty as they do, or is that a result of the HD remastering process?

Considering he was only in his 30s at the time, Leonard Nimoy already looked shockingly ancient.

Surprised that no attempt really was made at an "origin story," as would be found in later Trek series, where crew members are assembled and the ship is introduced as embarking on its maiden voyage. Instead, we begin right in the middle of it, with the characters seemingly having been at this for a while already. It makes sense, I suppose, that the as yet unproven series did not have the luxury of time to spend on such formalities before digging into the action. I understand "The Man Trap" was not the first episode produced, nor the first chronologically, but was chosen to air first precisely because it was deemed more exciting.

That said, the actual action sequences are close to B movie-level in their execution. When the alien menace turns its attentions to Kirk, Kirk stands paralyzed and helpless, but it wasn't clear to me if this was 1) because of some theretofore unmentioned numbing power of the alien (beyond its disarming ability to take on the appearance of a loved one, which was clearly not in play against the captain), 2) because Kirk was struck dumb in fear, or 3) because the awful choreography and sense of timing of the direction, coupled with William Shatner's perpetually posturing acting style, only made it look like he was frozen mid-pose (and, note, when the camera cuts away from him and then back, he's not even in the same frozen pose but a slightly different one!), when, really, everything was supposed to be happening much more quickly and naturally than it was being performed.

That last possibility seems unlikely, until next in the scene, when Spock arrives to try to stop the alien, which is posing as Nancy Crater, a woman from McCoy's past, whom the doctor still loves. To the hesitating McCoy, who is unable to turn his phaser on the creature in Nancy's form, Spock yells, "It's not Nancy! If it were Nancy, could she take THIS!" as the Vulcan delivers furious yet ineffective two-fisted hammer blows left and right upon the Nancy creature's face. What's odd is that Spock begins speaking before his first blow even lands, suggesting that he already knew it would be useless, even though there had been nothing prior to suggest that the alien had any such superhuman strength.

What redeems the episode are the more contemplative dialogues between Kirk and Professor Crater, who has taken to protecting the creature, despite it having claimed his own wife as one of its victims. Crater, reasoning that the alien, the last of its kind, was only using its ability "the way we would use our muscles and teeth if necessary, to stay alive," can bear it no ill will. "The creature was trying to survive. It has that right, doesn't it?" he asks. But Kirk perceives more in Crater's interest:
You bleed too much, Crater. You're too pure and noble. Are you saving the last of its kind, or has this become Crater's private heaven, here on this planet? This thing becomes wife, lover, best friend, wise man, fool, idol, slave. Isn't a bad life—have everyone in the universe at your beck and call. And you win all the arguments.

It's not certain how accurately Kirk has Crater's measure here, but, even if Crater's personal motivations are complicated, the professor's points are valid. There is no simple right or wrong here, and the resolution, abrupt and violent, is fittingly hollow for all involved.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Wikipedia for Robots, Dubbed "Rapyuta," Goes Live (Or "Castle in the Sky, Robots on the Cloud")

Rapyuta, "The RoboEarth Cloud Engine," has gone live. I don't really know what that means. The website for the RoboEarth project describes it as a "World Wide Web for robots," a networked database of information understood by and accessible to robots. Having this information on the cloud would theoretically make robots cheaper to build, as it would offload a lot of the computing to the web, instead of each robot having to be built able to process everything through its own power. I still don't really know what that means, but the open-source Rapyuta basically looks like Wikipedia, which hopefully means I'll be able to upload 8-bit pictures of Marion Butts to it. But, really, the only reason this story caught my interest is because, as the RoboEarth website acknowledges, "the name Rapyuta is inspired from the movie Tenku no Shiro Rapyuta (English title: Castle in the Sky) by Hayao Miyazaki, where Rapyuta is the castle in the sky inhabited by robots."

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Rest in Peace, "Voicebox" Debi Austin

Just learned that Debi Austin, "California’s most well-known anti-tobacco advocate," passed away recently. Austin memorably appeared in the 1996 California Department of Public Health ad "Voicebox":

Possibly the second most effective television ad of all time, after the devastating "My Wife Was My Life" anti-smoking ad. Seeing these as a teenager certainly steered me away from ever taking up smoking (not that I'd ever considered it in the first place, but still . . . .). They didn't try to be clever or edgy like a lot of the 2000s tobacco control ads (and, in the process, end up coming across instead overbearing and obnoxious). They just brought in real people to speak some truth. (Well, to be honest, I had always assumed that the people in these ads were actors, and maybe that wife guy was (I couldn't find anything more on that story), but Debi evidently was not.)

Debi Austin passed away of cancer on February 22, 2013. She was 62.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Balancing Morality and the Trolley Problem

Interesting article from LiveScience (Tia Ghose, "Why Good Deeds Can Cause Moral Backsliding," March 7, 2013) about a recent study on people with outcome-based morality versus those with rules-based morality. Findings suggest that the former tend to balance out bad deeds with good ones and vice versa, whereas the latter tend to behave consistently, whether good or bad.
Some studies show that people maintain a kind of moral equilibrium, meaning that giving money to charity may lead them to skimp on the tip at dinner, whereas partying too much may inspire a volunteer day at the soup kitchen.

But other studies found just the opposite: Behaving ethically leads people to more good deeds later, said study co-author, Gert Cornelissen, a psychologist at the University Pompeu Fabra in Spain.

To sort out this conflicting picture, Cornelissen and his colleagues asked 84 undergraduates what they would do in a hypothetical dilemma where a runaway trolley is on a collision course with five people, and the only way to save them is to flip a switch, reroute the trolley and kill one person.

People who would flip the switch were considered to have outcome-based morality, where the end results (saving four lives), not the actions (causing one person's death), matter most. Those in the opposite group were assumed to base their morality on rules, such as "deliberate killing is always wrong."

Half of the participants were then asked to remember a time they behaved ethically, while the other group remembered past unethical behavior. They then asked participants to share a pot of money with partners.

Those who had an ends-justify-the-means mindset were likelier to be stingier with others if they were reminded of their past good deeds and more generous if they recalled past unethical behavior. By contrast, those who tended towards rules-based morality showed the opposite trend, suggesting that past good deeds or bad deeds were prompting similar behavior later on.

The "trolley problem," originally introduced by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, is a topic I've encountered before (in discussion, not in practice), and I've never felt particularly more inclined toward one action over the other. When it comes to "five lives versus one life," I would tend to respond with "depends on the lives"—I don't feel that five lives are necessarily worth fives times as much as one life. But that's not part of the scenario. All you're meant to go on is the numbers, in which case I don't feel there is enough data to make a morally informed decision, and so I don't regard either option as more morally compelling than the other. Any choice I made in this situation would be, to me, arbitrary and amoral. That said, probably 7 times out of 10, I would opt to stay the course, simply because, in the interest of limiting arbitrary actions, I tend to the default, if one exists. Those 3 times that I would reroute the trolley, meanwhile, would account for those periodically spontaneous moods of mine, when I will opt to do something just for the sake of doing something over doing nothing.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Wii Surgery

Speaking of surgery sim video games, a recent study suggests that surgeons who play video games may, as a result, perform better in the operating room. More specifically, some Italian researchers, conducting randomized trials that had a group of surgical residents playing Wii Sports on a regular basis, found that, compared to another group that had not gone through Wii training, the gamers subsequently performed better at simulated laparoscopy (inserting tiny cameras into the body to assist with minimally invasive surgery).

Speaking with NBC News, Dr. Gregorio Patrizi, who led the research team, offered his hypothesis:
"The problem in laparoscopy (real and virtual) is that you have to move in a 3-D space with a 2-D view," he said. "The Nintendo Wii is a video-game console with a wireless controller able to detect movement in three dimensions. Thanks to this controller, the gamers can play using physical gestures while traditional video-games require the player to press a button or to move a joystick. Therefore the improvement is based on the fact that the Nintendo Wii, like others recent consoles, provides 3-D video games and accordingly enhances visual attention, depth perception and movement coordination. On the other hand, the group who did not train on the Wii improved mostly according to the familiarization with the simulator."

I've also always felt that the ability to maintain a delicate handle on one's fine motor skills within tense situations is something required both to perform surgery and in order to line up head shots in Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles. But maybe that wouldn't be the best game to train people on how to save lives.

I am disappointed that neither Trauma Center: Under the Knife nor its Wii remake, Trauma Center: Second Opinion, factored into the research. It's probably because those games are wildly unrealistic, but I'd like to imagine at least that, just as Guitar Hero was responsible for getting a generation of kids into learning to play real instruments, maybe Trauma Center inspired some young gamers to pursue careers in the medical field. Speaking of which, I remember reading an interview with guitarist Slash, who admitted that Guitar Hero was too difficult for him, even when attempting to play his own songs, because his ingrained real guitar-playing habits actually worked against his being able to adapt to playing with the big colored buttons on the plastic instrument. Similarly, setting aside whether Trauma Center could ever prepare one for real surgery, I wonder if the opposite could ever be the case—that is, whether a real surgeon playing the famously challenging game would have any kind of advantage over someone with no surgical skills.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Trauma Center: Under the Knife (Nintendo DS) (Atlus, 2005)


Trauma Center: Under the Knife, the second game I ever played on the DS, was the one that most excited me early on as representing the revolutionary potential of the touch-based handheld. It was quite the contrast to Mario Kart DS, popularly the system's killer app, but it sold the DS's innovations better than any game before it. Mario Kart DS was familiar and predictable comfort gaming, showing off none of the DS's unique features, other than its wireless capabilities, which it admittedly took advantage of to outstanding effect. Trauma Center, which had players wielding the stylus as a surgical knife, was all touch, and in the most intuitive way. It's hard to believe that it took almost a year after the system's launch for this proof of concept to come along and legitimize it as more than just a quirky experiment. Even by the end of the DS's life cycle, I don't think there was any other release that more plainly made the case for touch-based, stylus-based gameplay.

Of course, the promise of getting to play with the stylus was never the lure. Rather, it was the promise of getting to play as a surgeon—as likely a fantasy, I should think, though far less represented in gaming, as assuming the role of a gun-toting killing machine—which the stylus was merely to facilitate as never before possible. It has always struck me as so peculiar that such an overwhelming majority of games seem to be no more than glorified murder simulators. As a child having to occupy myself at the daycare, I often turned, not to video game role-play, but to real role-play with other kids, using our imaginations, and while, sure, we would act out the cowboy, bank robber, and super spy scenarios, we would also just as often role-play more normal occupations—doctor, teacher, barber, waiter. For whatever reason, in video games, the selection of scenarios to role-play is far narrower, and slanted toward fulfilling violent fantasies, with those more normal roles mostly relegated to handheld and mobile platforms.

Trauma Center may have been small in screen size and production, but not in scope. Not a casual game, and not so much a surgery sim as a medical drama sim, it had a story, told through extensive non-interactive visual novel-style sequences composed of still images and text. For better or worse, it was quite a lot more verbose than the average triple-A first-person shooter. I found it engaging enough overall, and I especially enjoyed the earlier chapters, which focused on main character Derek Stiles, young but gifted surgeon (superhumanly so, as it turns out—his skills are said to be descended from the Greek god Asclepius), performing on patients at a local hospital. These parts were exactly what I personally was looking for out of a medical drama game—getting to feel like a more real-world hero (as opposed to some spiky-haired swordsman), saving lives for once, instead of taking them, no greater gratification than seeing your patients doing well. It's not long into it before the game decides this isn't enough, however, and the larger part of the story focuses on Derek's joining with an international organization called Caduceus to combat GUILT, a parasitic organism created and distributed by bio-terrorists. It's pretty ridiculous stuff and, ultimately, still a good-versus-evil melodrama, but it was, for its time (with not exactly a lot of competition in the medical drama game genre), a refreshing departure from the soldier and space marine narratives that have long typified the triple-A mainstream.

For all the artifice of the scenario and the input apparatus, the basic experience of playing Trauma Center rather resembles that of an action puzzler, or even just a straight-up arcade action game. It may be packaged differently, but the gameplay flow is fairly old-school. It's a lot of repetitive high-speed manual input and reflex. There's a health meter, which is constantly under attack, either by wounds bleeding out or by malignant parasites. There are restorative health items in the form of antibiotic gel. Derek's "Healing Touch" ability, which magically slows down time at critical moments, functionally takes the place of a desperate screen-clearing bomb. There are even boss battles. And, once again, I cannot stress enough that this is not a casual game. It gets pretty intense toward the end, and, considering it's stylus-based, it may not be the best game to play in public if you're very self-conscious, as I learned the hard way.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What is the "Summer Time" setting for on my VCR, and should it be "In" or "Out"?

Daylight saving time (DST), or "summer time" in Europe, is the time of the year when certain parts of the world set their clocks forward one hour during the warm season, in an attempt to "save" more daylight for evening use during the long summer days, instead of wasting it on the early morning, when people would still be sleeping.

Much of our modern technology (computers, phones, game consoles, etc.) will automatically adjust for daylight saving time. For older or analog timekeeping devices that must be manually set, the handy mnemonic "spring forward, fall back" can help you to remember that the clock moves forward come springtime, and back in the fall/autumn.

In the U.S., since 2007, daylight saving time has, by act of Congress, begun on the second Sunday of March and ended on the first Sunday of November. (So, for 2013, DST begins March 10 and ends November 2.)  Typically, the time change in each case is handled at 2:00 am. That is to say, in March, the clock will go from 1:59 am to 3:00 am, while, in November, it will go from 1:59 am to 1:00 am.

If you're having to set the clock on a device at any other time of year, and it's asking you whether DST should be "On" or "Off," just remember that daylight saving time was specifically conceived for the summer (hence its name, "summer time," in Europe), and so it should be "On" between March and November. Often, you'll be prompted to set this right after setting the date and time, and the default will be "Off," in which case switching it to "On" may instantly add an hour to whatever time you previously entered. This is because, when daylight saving time is "Off," we're officially operating by "standard time" instead (making daylight saving time technically the deviation from the standard). Finally, if you have one of those TVs or VCRs or whatever confusingly asking you whether "summer time" should be "In" or "Out," it's probably not made in America, so remember that "summer time in" is just a British English way of saying "daylight saving time on."

Monday, March 4, 2013

Parks and Recreation (Season 4)

Leslie: Ron, for the last six months, my friends have worked so hard. Every five-minute coffee break at work, every night, every weekend, every spare moment of their lives they gave to me. If I lose, I'll never forgive myself. You deserve to win.

Ron: We didn't volunteer to help you because we wanted to wrap ourselves in personal glory. We did it because we care about you. You had a dream, and we wanted to support your dream. That's what you do when you care about someone. You support 'em, win, lose, or draw.

— Parks and Recreation Season 4, Episode 22 "Win, Lose, or Draw"

The fourth season of Parks and Recreation was perhaps the strongest yet, addressing most of my problems with season 3, while delivering a packed 22 episodes. Compared to season 3, which meandered inevitably in the direction of a Leslie-Ben romance, season 4 had a clearer, more confident focus on the overarching story of Leslie's bid for city council. There were a few throwaway episodes toward the beginning of the season, but still it was impressively dense, with a lot to offer those viewers interested in more than just seeing characters pair off romantically.

The mid-season arc of Ben making the rounds interviewing for jobs and subsequently reevaluating the direction of his life was so well-executed and left such an impression—probably the best "career hiatus" storyline I've come across on any TV show—that it's hard to believe that it only really lasted two episodes. In fact, if you watch an episode from the beginning of the season, one from the middle, and one from the end, Ben's character is in such different places at each point that it feels comparable to what might have taken three separate seasons of character arcs on a less tightly scripted drama, let alone a sitcom.

And that overarching campaign storyline, while written with humor and heart, also, as with the first season focusing on the park project, goes beyond merely entertaining and actually can serve as a legitimate primer on understanding the campaign process. My high school government teacher, Mr. Baldwin, always encouraged us to watch The West Wing for an accurate and informative portrayal of the workings of government, but I totally wasn't into that snoozefest. If only Parks and Rec had been on TV back then, I might actually have been motivated to pay attention in class and learn what it was all about.

One thing I've found amusing about this entire series, as well as many other post-Office comedies, has been the use of the mockumentary format sans any attempt at a mockumentary premise. When The Office first started, the idea, although it was never explained why, was that a documentary film crew was capturing the everyday activity of this one inconsequential office. The writers didn't worry too much about making sure the material allegedly being filmed actually made sense for a documentary. They didn't let the premise limit where the story could go, but the characters would still periodically acknowledge (often uncomfortably) that their lives were being filmed. In Parks and Rec, meanwhile, the characters will give interviews (or at least speak to the camera as though they are being interviewed), but these segments are never used to advance the plot. The rest of the time, they don't even acknowledge the camera. Other than the fact that they are clearly addressing the camera during those interview segments, there is no suggestion that there are any documentary film people around, and plenty enough to suggest that there aren't. It seems just to be a literary device, akin to breaking the fourth wall, with no explanation internal to the narrative. I have no difficulty with that, but I wonder what it would be like for someone coming to this show without having first seen The Office. Without any context, would they find this storytelling style baffling? Or is it sufficiently self-explanatory?

On that note, one of my favorite recurring gags on Parks and Rec is its rejection of the theatrical convention of stage whisper, as characters are often doing their interviews within visible earshot of other characters, who, sure enough, point out that they can hear themselves being talked about.