Starbuckfm’s Blog

Updates every time you blink.

LA Noire – Going Places Solving Cases Watching Faces

It’s certainly a great game, but is it a good game?

Pretty much, yeah. I definitely have my criticisms and the fact that I’m going to tease them out into about 1,000 words or so might seem to outweigh the face that I really love this game so just as a quick way of prefacing this post…

This is a fantastic game made with great craftsmanship and care and you should purchase it.

I’m not going to pussyfoot around this, I still love Ace Attorney games. I don’t enjoy them in spite of the fact that they marry the traditionally unrelated fields of Japanese high-tension courtroom drama with Shinto mythology, don’t worry. I enjoy them precisely because they marry Japanese high-tension courtroom drama with Shinto mythology. I tell you, there’s nothing better to help get the old mental juices flowing than when your dead mentor reincarnates herself in the body of her 16 year old sister to give you advice on how to prove that Mr. Fukushima couldn’t have been guilty of tipping over the used-panty dispensing machine.

Naturally, I was sceptical of a game which purported to be a police procedural but featured no elements of wacky spiritualism or panty theft. “You’re not in Kansas anymore,boy” I told myself. Then I reminded myself to write that down because it was a hilarious pop-culture nod on my part. But somehow, LA Noire managed to reel me in hook, line and…what’s that? Oh, it’s the sinker.

You play as Cole Phelps, a detective in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles. Tinseltown. The Big Cheese. The City of Dreams. The City of Nightmares. Tinseltown again. Now I’m not familiar with the mechanics of a police department, particularly one set in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles, but I have read extensively from the work of esteemed scientist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins uses the metaphor of the ‘wolf-pack’ to describe human social hierarchies. You begin as a traffic cop, the lowest rung of the ladder leading to the peak of the wolf pack mountain. As you gradually increase your standing in the community by ritually defeating fellow wolves (the wolves metaphor here can mean anything from solving cases to chasing down fleeing suspects) you move up a notch in the wolf pack belt; from traffic to homicide to vice. And then to Arson.

The characterisation is really nicely done in a lot of instances. Cole is driven by a desperate need to prove himself which is mixed with a strange earnestness, the like of which I’m told I lack. As more of his backstory is revealed in monochrome flashbacks to ‘The War’ and his motivations become more clearly understood, he moves from being a wholly unlikeable character to an entirely tolerable unlikeable character. This is definitely intentional. If its not definitely intentional it still works very well if you assume its the first thing.

The interrogation scenes, in which you try to split the coconut of an interogatee’s brain (coconuts here representing the dark and seedy secrets which everyone in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles is hiding just out of reach) lose a little something in their concessions to game logic. Witness makes statement, player either classifies it as truthful, doubtful or a lie. To assist with what is essentially a filing minigame, the actors playing the interogatees have all been facially-emotionally imprisoned in a tecnique that is as beautifully scary as it is potentially offensive to Islam. A lot of nodes, dials and diodes have been twisted in front of a large green sheet to recreate the range of emotions which someone might express in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles. In LA Noire’s world, that ranges from looking you dead in the eye with the fixity of a serial killer (choose truth), looking at the ground (choose doubt) and rolling their eyes, stamping their feet and curling their lips to show discomfort ( in which case you choose lie). I kid, of course, the representations of the actors are often really subtle and hard to read. It’s in these circumstances where the interrogations are at their best, where I became most invested in the outcome of each question, trying to figure out what a character’s mannerisms and tells represented. It’s a shame that in most circumstances, the right way to choose is signposted by knowable and repetitive mannerisms. “Act more doubtful” the casting director would shout, as the actor dutifully looked at their shoes and bit their lip slightly.

Another thing which irked and indeed annoyed me was that you never really know what Phelps is going to say when you press that button. A doubt can range from an eyebrow-raising “Are you sure about that, Mrs. Patterson?” to something along the lines of “Listen you lying little motherfucker, I want answers! I don’t care if you’re twelve years old, your mommy is dead and I’ve got a case to solve”

The writing itself is never particularly exceptional, but that’s possibly not a bad thing that the writer didn’t feel the need to make every line quotable and deliciously noir-esque-ish. When it’s good, its memeorable without feeling overdone and the period references aren’t as shoehorned in as they might have been. I thank whoever wrote this game that Phelps doesn’t spout lines like “This is like something out of the pulps!” anytime something the slightest bit untoward happens. As a game based heavily on noir, I can’t really see how they could have better balanced homage and the necessity to write something original, that feels somewhat authentic and not based on a 21st century reimagining of the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles.

The idea of giving the cases an overarching plotline can often detract from the gameplay. It’s a problem that afflicts much of the later game and by the Arson desk, the players actions have little to no appreciable impact on how the story plays out. The need to tell a bitter tale of deception and redemption in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles clearly cannot have interference on the part of the player.

Lastly, it’s annoying that in the glamerous confines of the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles, the entirety of the last level is set in a sewer.

It’s definitely an excellent game though, weigh this final paragraph more heavily than the rest. It’s got that earnest confidence typical of Rockstar games: historically accurate, well researched, devoid of self conscious parody. Not to jump into the terrible quagmire of debate that concerns whether or not games should be taken seriously but a natural starting point, before one talks about high concepts of ludology is simply to tell a story simply and well. LA Noire does this. Red Dead Redemption does this. GTA IV does not do this, but it certainly tries. People liked Red Dead Redemption because it was readily apparent that it was a beautiful game. People like LA Noire because it readily presents an interesting concept. It’s a great game, the best kind of game. Unpretentious, accessible and intricate.

Advertisements

I’ll write again

Of course I will. Look, a description of a well-worn eye.

—-An eye—-
Her eyes had lost their vibrancy and subtle shades of yellow had begun to bloom and spread in the whites. Like the glands and tubes that fed the eye with its fluids had gone barren. Like the whole eye might dry up and shrivel back onto its stalk.

/description

Art and Politics

This is an essay I wrote for a debate that I didn’t want to let go to waste.

I’d never assert that no good things, no books nor films nor sculptures, are politically motivated because both you and I know that’s simply not true. Everyone is shaped by the climate and culture in which they mature, aren’t they? Surely the political sphere has some influence on that. So to a ceratin extent nobody is free from the influences of politics. Many of the great works are, to a greater or lesser extent, politically motivated, from Goya, Beethoven, Orwell, Swift, Aristophanes and even Dante and I don’t think it’s possible to deny the greatness of their works and that’s not what I want to do.

But I do believe that art should not be politically motivated and while that may sound like I’m contradicting what I just said it’s really a question of vocabulary. We tend to give many things, books, movies and sculpture, the status of art if they are of sufficient quality. We have the distinction of ‘fine art’ and other, supposedly lesser, forms but this distinction is mainly based on some dusty old academic’s evaluation of something’s merit. It’s no coincidence that most fine art shares the dual honours of being very old and very boring. This isn’t art; art should stand for something.  So what I want to argue is that for something to qualify as art, it should ideally fulfill a certain role, it should serve a function and further I’d argue that good art is ultimately robbed of its value and purpose by being politically motivated. So I’ll discuss this regarding different forms of art, starting with drama and then if I have time sculpture and painting. (I’ll save this for a later post maybe)

Politically motivated works should be, at their best, well reasoned, argumentative and persuasive. In short, they should appeal to the conscious mind and that’s where I think the problem lies. Most politically motivated drama as we see it today takes the form of the problem play; about racism, or AIDS or gender imbalances and basically these allow the audience to engage in a sort of power fantasy that, unlike everybody else, they see the injustices of the world and are galvanised into correcting them. So, if you take a play set in LA dealing with racism, the characters and scenes will almost write themselves, because the whole thing is circumscribed by the issue of racism. It’s all a product of the conscious mind and it’s overburdened by having to express a conscious view of the world. The characters wont be people, they will stand for some aspect of the problem. The idea of racism is so important that it colours the entirety of the play. Each scene must tend towards the right conclusion – racism is bad – and the unconscious mind will never, ever take part in the play. You have a very important topic which needs and deserves attention but which, nonetheless, cannot be the stuff of good art. It might be a good tract, good polemic, it might even change your views for the better, but it can never be good art.

It’s something which the Russian playwright Stanislavsky explores in his writings on art and politics and in discussing the distinction between the two kind of plays he relates the effect they each have on the audience member after they leave the theatre. With a political play, if its good, you leave and you feel enlightened and as if you’ve finally seen the truth of the matter and we are arbiters of our own destiny and the future is a bright place if only we make it so and then you go get something to eat. With good drama, with art you don’t really know what to make of it after you’ve left the theatre, they are perhaps upsetting or intricate or unsure, but with no real conscious effort it begins to have a profound effect and that’s ultimately what art should aspire to achieve.

The function of drama as art is not to mend the social fabric, not to incite the less perceptive to wake up nor is it to preach about the myriad injustices in the world. Most forms of art have devotional origins, music in ceremonies, sculpture to represent the Gods, drama as a religious tool and that’s no coincidence that there is a strong association between art and religion because they have much the same effect; they both inspire a sense of cleansing awe. We know that in the politically-motivated play that good will prevail, or at the very least the protagonist will be ennobled by their failed efforts.On the other hand, the protagonist of good drama or tragedy has to fight the world, though powerless, and with no tools except their will to discover the truth or attain their goal. Like Hamlet or Oedipus or Odysseus. It is the sense of driving, fatal inevitability carried forward throughout the play that grants it potency. In music, it’s the bass line, not the melody, which gives the music its strength. The treble might be pretty but its ultimately meaningless unless coupled with the drive-to-resolution, the driving inevitability of the bassline. It’s this same driving intensity which sees Oedipus blinded, Hamlet dead and Sam Spade left broken and alone.That’s the freeing quality of true art. It revels and affirms our powerlessness, our inability to change things and most importantly, the failure of reason in the face of absolution.

Politics is about reasoning, argumentation and the effective packaging of truth to make it seem more palatable and that’s where I think the nub of the issue lies. I think that true art, all art, it’s a  quality shared by all art, should be intuitive. There is a forum for politics but art shouldn’t be that. The two are essentially anathema to each other. Politics is about relativism, argumentation and it appeals to the conscious mind. Art is intuitive and there’s something fundamentally true about it. So to my mind, there is no way the two can possibly coexist and I think that anything which would aspire to be art is ultimately devalued by being pressed into a political end.

Actual-Factual Yearbook

“And Alexander proposed a drinking contest of neat wine, wherein the winner was to receive a crown”

I’ve lost my well-rounded education. Over the past year, I’ve become more familiar than I’d like with the ‘culture’ of the Leaving Certificate than I’m comfortable with, a culture based on inducing fear and a sense of prophetic, apocalyptic terror in 18-year old students, a group of people well known for their ability to cope with stress and not buckle under pressure from outside influences.

I inflict the education supplements of the Times and the Independent upon myself weekly. These attempt to fuse the experiences of some 20,000 Leaving Cert students into one “Mark-Maximalisation” pamphlet. The articles are written in a perpetually bubbly, optimistic patter with a “Let’s keep on trucking, guys!” attitude that seems to target some mythical confluence of the average sixth year: an in-the-realm-of 400 points student from the suburbs (I always imagined Dundrum) going perhaps for UCD Arts or at the upper end of the points scale UCD Commerce.

They definitely leave me cold. It seems pointless, though, to complain that a gaggle of journalists and the collected heads of the Independent Academy don’t appeal to my 18 year-old self. It might just be my exacting standards after all. Perhaps there’s someone out there who cracks open the Leaving Cert Essentials Guide every week and thinks “Finally, somebody who gets me. It’s like they hate the Leaving Cert too but they realise we just have to just get through it. Sweet, tips for study breaks!”  Given the amount of time spent marveling that “People actually think we talk like this?” I suspect not.

Ultimately, however, the papers are helpful. Patronising and  but helpful.More often than not, their efforts to endear themselves are touchingly pathetic, like Grandpa Simpson burning his tongue when he tries to drink Cola. Of all the creatures the Medusa of Leaving Cert culture has spawned, the education supplement is a lovably witless troll.

I’m going to expand on that analogy. If the education supplement is a troll, oafish but hard to dislike, then his sister, the study tips guest speaker, is a leech: unpleasant, parasitic and ideally burned off with cigarettes and sharp pointy things.

Now, I’m sure everyone in the year knows to whom I’m referring but for reasons of tact we’ll just refer to him as Alex H, or A. Hamilton if you prefer. With the ruthless acumen of a Dickens villain and the cod-charisma of a motivational speaker he shook us by the ankles to see what would fall out. Offering us the ‘inside-track’ on studying for the Leaving Certificate, he organised a number of motivational talks. For only 30 euro a head, he would presumably read out the contents of a Revise-Wise book for several hours before concluding that we have to ‘maximise our effort in the time remaining to acquire the marks that we need’. The main selling point of these lectures was that they were delivered by actual-factual ex-Leaving Certificate students with experience of doing exams as oppossed to our parents and teachers who presumably got into university through nepotism, phrenology-based entrance exams and some sort of Lottery-scheme.

And this is the worst aspect of the satellite people that orbit around the culture of the Leaving Certificate. Playing upon a fear that rightly shouldn’t exist to sell students (for the low, low price of 30 euro a head) something that they don’t need in the first place. I sit at my desk, surrounded by vague predictions, past exam questions and areas to prioritise. The Ancient Greeks used chicken entrails to prophecise the future, I have Institute-endorsed exam predictions. Both are probably equally as effective at auguring the future. At some point, the Leaving Cert stops providing us with an education.

As a case in point, I think everyone can remember being told that we shouldn’t use words such as ‘good’ and ‘fair’ because they are boring.  There was a textbook-endorsed term for them, too. ‘Used’ words. As if their use in common speech merited doubting quote marks about them. Certainly no budding writer could be content to describe a day as sunny when ‘the light rays gambolled across those bountiful plains as I gallomphed through the forest, ebulliant in the rose of my summer.’ I took this idea to heart and it will serve my language score well in the English exam so long as I can describe my day as ‘celestial’ and ‘rambunctious’.

It goes without saying that this is a silly policy for anyone who wants to write something that isn’t impenetrable. Sometimes things are just good. Condemning people for describing something as ‘nice’ or ‘fair’ leads to them using ‘awesome’ or ‘epic’. The idea seems to be that a good writer will be able to use ‘sentence-enhancing’ words, the more archaic and obscure the better. The logical conclusion of this is that a piece of writing becomes exponentionally better the more overwrought, decasyllabic words the writer can shoehorn in there which is effectively the same as saying that a tramp becomes exponentionally more appetising the more ranch dressing you slather him with.

But such is the way to success in English and most of the other humanities. It doesn’t equip us to write anything and it’s far removed from the intended architecture of a well-rounded education.

A well-rounded education. That’s a quaint little concept these days, a relic redolent of petticoats, phenology proponents, the printing press and other things from the past.

My Arms Are Turgid With Raw Power

My back is upright, my stomach is filled, my impotent rage is sated (momentarily) and I’m strongly confident that I could grow mutton chops if this were my wont. I have finished Absalom, Absalom and can now look back on that dense, impentrable word morass with fondness, even. My Faulkner Maidenhead (Also a small gland near the prefrontal cortex) is broken and I can finally get on with my life.

The First Stage Of Coping With Grief

Inasmuch as it is possible to attach positive attribues to a game aimed primarily at Japanese teenagers, Persona 3 acquired an apocalyptic quality redolent of, and I say this cringing, the latter half of Moby Dick (wherein despite constant good counsel, Ahab pursues his evil ambition). In the final month, the cast of soul-searching teens discover that the deliverance of Death will occur in thirty days and that their world is essentially moribund. Presented with a choice, they decide not to live out their last days in ignorance of impending apocalypse but rather to fight against what is a foregone conclusion. Admittedly, this is conveyed through the means of ill-realised teens with schism’d personal lives gaining supreme power through ‘newfound resolve’ but who criticises Don Delillo when he uses dialogue as a vehicle for his own take on modern life? Nobody,that’s who.

Speaking of vehicles for conceptualisations of the human condition (a seamless segue if ever there was one), Persona 3 structures its whole around that favourite of storybook-midwives and lonely, lonely women everywhere: the Tarot cards. I mock, but take it that the Tarot shouldn’t be entirely maligned. The Tarot contain 22 major arcana which range from Fool and return to the fulfillment of the World. As an analogy for existence they certainly hold up well enough (as much as any analogy for existence may stand under scrutiny) and steeped as they are in Kabbalic, alchemic and European Medieval tradition to the point where their origin is dank and murky nor can their symbolism be said to be the sum of its parts it was a tall task to incorporate these cards as a theme in a game where you murder shadows with a katana.

Which is the element I’d wish to neglect. I can wax about Persona’s attributes all I want, but it will be a long wane to talk about the iniquities. After all, these are ostensibly infantile games which are suprisingly interesting in several key ways. Then a quick list enumerating all the obvious problems which might detract from the fidelity of my theory.
(i) The characters are for the most part completely asinine
(ii) All the mythological creatures are viewed through a glorious anime filter, which entails furnishing Orpheus with opaque red eyes, flowing white locks and a fetching neckerchief. Everything’s garish.
(iii) It really bears repeating that this is a game designed for Japanese teenagers.
(iv) The Japanese teenagers in the game attack shadows with katanas.

Those all said, just view the above as completely independent of the themes. Like someone furnished the overall structure of The Orchard Keeper with characters from Twilight.

Nyx attains deliverance through the continual Thanatos Drive of humanity. The game approaches this theme by suggesting that the negative thoughts of people reincarnated death as a horse-tank. I can’t actually remember what the motivation of Strega was but I recall it contained that same duality in nature. In fact, I’m only basing this theory of mine that I haven’t squandered eighty hours playing something that has no value on the game’s last hurrah: a confrontation with Nyx.

Death incarnate is here personified as Nyx. Those Shin Megami Tensei boyos know their mythology, and over the course of their series made great strides towards returning mythological figures to their more depraved roots (or unbowdlerised as the fancy might take you) but even considering that the personification of this Death is remarkably well chosen. Nyx was a primordial goddess, and there at the beginning of creation. She personifies shadow, sleep and connotations of mind-alteration. Nyx is the closest Greek God that personifies Gnostic precepts, that there are things which are fundamentally unknowable. It then makes sense when Nyx talks as the Arcana as a means by which all is revealed.

So forget the girl robot who discovers humanity and the school trip to Kyoto. There’s a something there and no mistake. The main character becomes a living bulwark against the drive towards oblivion in humanity. I can’t disregard a game which touches on things like that and I refuse to acknowledge that I’ve wasted any more of my life on pointless Japanese cartoons. Not after sixty-six hours of Naruto.

In conclusion, Persona is not a terrible game with a vague veneer of Greek mythology.

No seriously, it’s not. Next time we’ll be comparing Resident Evil 4 to the Bible and searching for the essence of urban alienation in the unused Downtown Theme from Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines.

The Lost Books: Aeneid

==Book 1==

Arms and of the man I sing, left an exile from his homeland of Ilium who was to come to Italy, engaged as he was in voiding his mighty bladder. And lo did mighty Aeneas offer up this prayer to the Godhead of the Gods, holding his hands outsretched palm upwards and aiming his own godhead at the stump as he did so. “O ye Gods who dwell in your empyrean fold, grant me now my boon that I might make an exile of yon mercurial humours which now reside within my form. Most heavenly Goddess who did incubate me, this is my prayer and hear me now as a suppliant when I say that should you grant me this favour, I will sacrifice two lowing cattle to your name.” Then did Aeneas allow his hind quarters to unclench and the stream which issued forth was as unto a waterfall which, flowing over a mighty precipice and crashing to earth with a sound like the hammer of Vulcan as he forges reins for the mighty horses of Apollo as they draw the sun across the firmament like Mars drawing his blade across the torso of a foe who falls like Vulcan because Vulcan is a cripple. Such was the stream which sallied forth from Aeneas. Finished now, once more did Aeneas offer up prayers to his mother and this done, sacrificed two yearling cattle to those Gods who dwell on figurative Mt. Olympus. Aeneas gazed into the woods and thought on the destiny of Rome and his duty. Then he slaughtered eight more cattle. Such was the tale of Aeneas’ nightly ablutions as recounted here.

==Book 6==

“Should you wish to visit the shade of father Anchises, you must bury the body of a dead comrade.” Aeneas of the prodigious tetanus lay back in the vast throne he had constructed from the cadavers of heifers and intemittently tapping a hoof to his chin, his thought wandering on the destiny of Rome like a vagrant accosting so many young women in a town centre at midnight as the day leans into the Sabbath. Aeneas resolved to stroll on the beach and further ponder the greatness of Rome which was indeed very great.

“Euanananaus, I wish to sojourn,” said Aeneas.
“Very good, sir,” replied the comrade of long-suffering Aeneas who had an anachronistic accent. “Shall I bring the herd?”
“Yes. I should think several legions of lowing cattle and a triumvirate of yearling heifers with azure fur’d coats should suffice.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Actually…”
“Yes, sir?”
“Make that five blue furred cattle.”

Aeneas walked the beach and left a cadaverous wake after him, like great lumpen cysts from the earth. And so Aeneas walked, putting the sword to the cattle and beseeching the gods all the while. Then he tripped over Misenus’ body.

==Book 7==

Turnus’ jaw was proud and his chin protruted so that I feel no shame in describing it as jutting. The woman who sat across from him was best described as dainty, the kind of angelic beauty that wards guys off because they’d just be afraid to break her.

“Listen, angel, you’re talking iskabibble. If this were true, well hell, there’s no way it could be true so I don’t know why I’m entertaining your hypotheses.”

He’d told the secretary to keep her away, but damn it if she wasn’t persistent. She’s barged in and he’d given her five minutes of his precious time. Three-hundred seconds too much but hindsight is 20-20. She’s fed him some cock-and-bull story about cattle, chinks and destiny. Maybe a good fanfiction, certainly a good waste of time. Turnus looked incredulous, she looked hurt. When she looked hurt, Turnus looked incredulous. It was a vicious cycle.

“But I’m telling you the truth! You simply must stop Aeneas, it’s your destiny as ordained by Fate!”
“Listen, babydoll,” replied Turnus “I aint ordained by the Roman Catholic Church, and I aint ordained by Fate. If you want someone to go up on a  pulpit for you, then I suggest the YMCA. Careful though, I hear they get rowdy round this time of year.
“If you don’t believe me, then take a gander at these.” She didn’t flash a pair of milky thighs, poor Turnus, but what she palmed to him was just as shocking and twice as attractive. Photos: Cattle dead and a vicious leering man standing over them, proud like Huang Po in Summertime.
“Damn,” said Turnus with a twanging cadence suggesting a ‘y’ in the middle. “Either someone’s having one big-ass barbecue or there’s a  global conspiracy afoot. I’m guessing that Mr.Abbatoir here is this Aeneas cat?”
“Bingo. The reason he’s slaughtering all those cattle?”
“Cattle are sacred to the Indians, I’m right in saying?”
“Quick-thinking cat,arntcha. Careful you don’t burn that quick brain of yours out.” She was smiling now.
“So by slaughtering the cattle, Aeneas is trying to offend…no, spiritually destroy the Indian people.”
“On the right track and the Sunshine Special’s heading straight for you.”
“And who better at spiritually destroying people than…Jesus Christ.”
“Attaboy.”
“Aeneas is a Chink.”

==Book 8==

“Commander Aeneas, we have brought the yearling heifers as you’ve instructed. And the altar to Ganesh.”
“Excellent, excellent,” said Aeneas of the folded eyelids.