Sunday, March 28, 2010

High Hopes for Game Room

Wanna come over and play Asteroids?

The reactions I've seen to Game Room have been pretty divided. A lot of people just don't see the appeal of using a powerful modern console to play ugly, thirty-year-old games. And I can understand this, especially if you're not old enough to remember these games in their heyday. It can be hard, after playing visually stunning games like God of War III, to see beyond the simple graphics and one-button gameplay of Outlaw and understand that this is what once passed for thrilling multiplayer competition.

For me, the appeal of Game Room is clear. But then, I grew up with the Atari 2600 and with smoky, neon-lit arcades in which you couldn't hear yourself think over the noise of all the machines. What wonderful times those were.

People say that games today are better. In many cases, that's true. But I also think that games today are different in a crucial way. Most games today are story-driven, and most of those games establish a difficulty that makes it possible for just about anyone to complete that story and have a satisfying experience. That's all well and good, and I adore many games that fit this description. But I think there remains something to be said for games that are pure, unforgiving tests of skill, just you vs. the machine, where your only goal is to earn as high a score as possible. The appeal of this philosophy lives on in newer games like Geometry Wars and Pac-Man: Championship Edition, but the best early examples of this are timeless. Asteroids Deluxe, probably my favorite Game Room launch title, is a game that remains a thoroughly captivating test of skill. Most games in the Game Room launch may not hold up quite so well, but I've sunk over 45 minutes into Asteroids Deluxe, with much of that time spent trying to surpass a friend on the leaderboards. (Game Room encourages this by having banners above each machine that display the name and score of the highest-ranked person on your friends' leaderboard.) When I finally did it, the result was a sense of accomplishment of the sort the mostly relatively easy games of today seldom deliver. The faithfully recreated cabinet, so detailed that I can read the fine text on the front as I'm playing (selecting Cabinet view in the Graphics options) is icing on the cake.

There are definitely some serious, frustrating bugs and performance issues in Game Room that need to be ironed out. And it's disappointing that, while the cabinets for the Atari arcade games have the authentic artwork, the Konami ones are utterly featureless. But in addition to Asteroids Deluxe, I find Centipede and Gravitar to be so pure and simple that they're as compelling to me today as they ever were, and I've even been introduced to Shao-lin's Road, a fun game I'd somehow never heard of before that's a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu, an arcade cIassic I once loved. And the versatility of the Challenge feature means I can test my skills against those of my friends in ways that were never possible in the good old days, when all I could hope for was to enter my initials on a machine's high score screen. Now I can get creative, establishing challenges that start at any point in a game, based on score or survival. It's awesome, when it's working properly.

I look forward to more games like these, old favorites that have stood the test of time as well as cIassics I've never played before, hitting Game Room. With my own arcade, I can finally fulfill my childhood dream of being like Ricky on "Silver Spoons."

We all had that dream, right?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Greenberg: "Hurt people hurt people."

I expect that some people will come away from the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg disliking the movie because they dislike the main character. Disliking Ben Stiller's Roger Greenberg is understandable. He doesn't earn our admiration and he doesn't deserve our sympathy. He's really quite an asshole. He lashes out at everyone and everything, penning vitriolic letters to American Airlines over seating conditions and to Starbucks for the Starbucksification of culture. Mostly, he lashes out at the person who deserves it the least: Florence, his brother's family's 25-year-old assistant, who is far more patient with Roger than he deserves.

But Florence understands what many others don't. She knows that not everyone has the skills necessary to function like a normal person in society, that what is absolutely effortless for most is downright impossible for others. “Normal things are hard for him,” she says in Roger's defense to a girlfriend who wonders why she puts up with him at all. At times, we can see that she asks herself that, too. But she must understand that in some way, it's not really her he's tearing to shreds when he launches into rant after rant, but himself.

He certainly has reasons to be angry at himself. At 25, he was in an up-and-coming band. With characteristic self-absorption, he made a decision on his own that affected the fate of everyone in the group. Though one of his former bandmates, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), makes an effort to maintain a friendship with Roger, they've never really forgiven him for it. They (and we) are flabbergasted by how, for so long, he still fails to outwardly take responsibility for his actions. A conversation late in the film is fascinating for the way in which this finally shifts for Roger, and for how, even in the midst of acknowledging that he behaved poorly, he still directs his anger outward at Ivan, who has made peace with the normal family life that replaced the rock stardom he once dreamed of, the sort of normal life that would be so impossible for Roger.

Greta Gerwig is great as Florence. It's a natural performance that conveys the complexity of her feelings about Roger and about herself in subtleties. She doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, which perhaps is why she gravitates to the 40-year-old Roger, who, after a nervous breakdown, is just “trying to do nothing for a while.” I still found it hard to accept that this rather wonderful young woman would get involved with such a neurotic misanthrope as Roger, but he certainly has no chance with a responsible woman his own age, at least not yet. Perhaps his relationship with Florence will help him grow into a man who does. At the very least, he should come away from it being a bit less of an asshole.

I didn't like Roger. But as someone who sometimes feels like I'm fumbling my way through life while everyone else has all the answers, I did see a bit of myself in him, and I did like this film.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Green Zone: Perhaps a bit too satisfying

Note: This commentary contains "spoilers." It won't spoil anything if you've seen the trailer for the film (which, like most trailers, gives away way too much) or if you've been paying any attention to news for the past seven years, but if you want to go into the film knowing as little as possible, see the movie before reading this.


Green Zone, the new Greengrass-Damon collaboration, feels like a natural extension of the Bourne films they made together. Damon's hero is a smidge less far-fetched, though he still gets his Bourne-like action movie moment, and the political concerns are a bit more prominent, though they're still couched in a movie that is concerned first and foremost with being entertaining. And it is entertaining, even when the guns aren't blazing. Greengrass creates a sense of heightened activity and unrest in Baghdad, demonstrating again, as he did in the Bourne films and United 93, his talent for immersing us in locations that feel real. When action does break out, it's thrilling and visceral. But it was the political concerns that drew me to the film. I expect that some comparisons to The Hurt Locker may be made, but the two films actually have little in common in my view. Locker is set during the Iraq war, but it is about the psychology of its central character. Green Zone is about the war. Damon's character is just the tool the film uses to raise its questions.

Green Zone takes place in 2003, and Matt Damon's Roy Miller is on the ground in Baghdad to search for the WMDs that were Bush's excuse for sending us there. In location after location, Miller and his team come up empty. Miller starts to get frustrated, and to ask unpleasant questions about the source and quality of their intel. In doing so, he's clearly standing in for many of us who remember the frustration of those months, the sense that we as a nation had let ourselves be duped. He raises the questions with his superiors, with government officials and with Lawrie Dayne (the always excellent Amy Ryan), a Wall Street Journal reporter whose stories have supported the administration's claims about WMDs. Her stories make repeated reference to an Iraqi informant named Magellan. Miller's pursuit of Magellan leads both to the film's biggest and best action chase sequence, and to Miller discovering the truth we now all know about the existence of WMDs in Iraq.

The film smartly takes its title from the heavily protected zone in the heart of Baghdad that is depicted here as a luxurious area of babes and beer. It's appropriate because life in that zone betrays none of the tumult going on just outside, because the administration's policies were foolhardy and hopelessly out of touch with reality. It may be that in years to come, this will be one of the films that helps define our view of the war. But it's just a bit too ham-fisted in its handling of the questions that drive it to be the film the Bush administration's manipulation of the American people deserves. At one point, Miller confronts the smarmy government official who, in the film's version of events, seems to be single-handedly responsible for engineering the WMD deception, and yells, “The reasons we go to war always matter!” It's too precise in its confrontation of an issue that made many of us feel misled and deeply unsatisfied. Trying to vicariously deliver the satisfaction we'll never get from that situation feels a bit like cheating here.