Saturday, 27 December 2014

My Own Suggestion for Briton of the Year

I wanted to start this blog about the Times naming UKIP leader Nigel Farage "Briton of the Year" with a snarky comment suggesting that the venerable London paper's slide into irrelevance is now confirmed, but have decided to take a different tack (although, see what I did there?).

Admittedly, it is a little shocking. As a former immigrant to the UK, able to come and go as I please thanks to my Italian passport, I found all discussions about limiting (legal) immigration to be distasteful and short-sighted. And UKIP was (and I guess still is) an existential threat to me, in a manner of speaking - if they were to succeed in separating Britain from the EU, I'd immediately find it much harder to go back, find work, etc.

Farage is also a pretty unpleasant character, although he's clearly canny enough to have surrounded himself with people who make him look statesmanlike. His party seems to embroil itself in rows over homophobia or sexism or racism every other week, but as the Times notes, he's Teflon Nigel - nothing sticks.

But people who are up in arms about the choice are kind of missing the point. Hitler and Stalin were declared Man of the Year by Time magazine in the 1930s, after all. And that may sound glib (as well as an example of Godwin's Law), but the point isn't that the "Briton/Person/Whatever of the Year" is someone we admire - rather, it's about who we will best remember when we think back to 2014.

People have suggested alternate Britons of the Year, including the Ebola doctor Will Pooley or one of the people executed by ISIS. With respect, Pooley is for me a better choice, but still not who I'd choose. The other public figure who's not only been in the public eye a whole lot, and who's had a lot of words written about him, is Russell Brand, the comedian who's effectively been telling young people not to bother voting.

I wouldn't choose him either, though. Not just because I think his call to refusal is dangerous and short-sighted, in its way, as Farage's campaign against, well, everybody who had the misfortune not to be born British.

My choice would be the campaigners who successfully fought to keep from getting evicted from their homes on the New Era Estate in Shoreditch. They came to the game late, but their struggle was, for me, much more emblematic of what's happening in Britain than Farage or Brand. It's also more global - the fact that their homes were sold out from under them to an American real estate company that was ready to evict them all (or jack up their rent by at least three times), with the connivance of a sitting Tory MP, is something that's playing out everywhere.

What's admirable is that they were able to force the Tory MP and his brother to pull out of the deal, and then force the new owners to give up and sell the estate on to another housing charity. They took a stand against big money, and against selling off every last square foot of London to luxury home buyers from Russia, the Gulf or wherever, and against the odds, they won.

The reason I find the New Era group to be more deserving of Briton of the Year is that they tackled the root of what's wrong with Britain (and specifically London), whereas Farage and Brand are reacting to symptoms. Farage thinks everything would be fixed if Britain kicked out everybody who was born somewhere else; Brand thinks ignoring politicians and getting on with drugs and sex-parties is the way forward. But the New Era win shows that the way out of our current problems - in whichever country you live - is to work together to build a fairer society.

I'm sure plenty of people got evicted from their homes in London this Christmas, but the New Era activists have provided a template for how to combat predatory behavior by corporations against the individual.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Interview: Why canceling was the mistake Sony had to make

I've been following the Sony hack/Interview story all week with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found the idea of a Hollywood movie where a pair of American journalists go assassinate an existing, sitting head of state to be a little creepy. When the movie was announced, my first thought was, "What would America (ie the FBI, NSA, CIA, etc) do if Russia or Iran came up with a movie in which someone assassinated Barack Obama?" More pertinently, positioning it as a comedy seemed particularly off.

On the other hand, canceling it completely gives the appearance of capitulating to the hackers who have caused Sony so much damage. I understand Sony's contention that they had no choice because none of the major theater chains was willing to release it - but this still has a chilling effect on art and gives hackers from hostile countries proof that fucking with a major studio like that can work.

It's hard not to feel a little bad for Sony, in any case. As I say, I understand why they've pulled it from theaters, given that no theater chains seemed willing to carry it. Some were saying Sony should release The Interview on VOD, but in this atmosphere that strikes me as a slap in the face to theater chains - Cinemark and Carmike and their ilk are already suffering from an existential crisis, so to have a studio just bypass them completely would be grounds for them not carrying Sony movies in the future.

That might escalate into a war that would cause the chains to go out of business completely, but in the short term VOD is probably not viable enough that Sony's willing to risk having to shift its entire distribution model in that direction.

Straight-to-DVD is also an option, but probably not lucrative enough for Sony to really pursue... and outlets that carry physical DVDs are even more endangered than movie theaters, so they're probably even more chicken about carrying something as highly charged as the Interview (even if it seems unlikely that North Korean hacker/terrorist collectives would be able to pinpoint individual Best Buys or Walmarts).

That all said, I was reading that the leaked emails suggest the Interview is painfully bad, and Sony executives knew it. The kerfuffle around the leaked emails and the chains refusing to carry it probably gives Sony the cover to just pull the damn thing - sure, they've financed it thus far, but now they don't have to shell out any more cash to distribute it, promote it or premiere it. This episode will probably show up as a nasty blot on Sony Entertainment's Q4 results, but might not be as bad as if they actually released it and let people see what a piece of crap it was (again, I'm speculating - but to me the trailer looked singularly unappealing, and I was very likely not going to see it, creepy idea or not).

As far as the political response, I see President Obama as essentially doing what he has to in this case, which is also about all he can do. A nebulous threat to national security has resulted in a number of big business decisions, and nothing he says will actually change that - he can't issue an executive order to have the Interview released, but he'd really be screwing up if he didn't speak out about the threat and the movie's cancellation.

The most troubling political aspect, however, is the way that the minute someone invokes 9/11 we lose our nerve, no matter how shadowy (and likely fake) the group behind the threat is. While I don't want to see terrorist attacks on American soil, whether from foreign enemies (like al Qaeda) or domestic (like the NRA; yes, I went there), I also have a hard time believing that North Korea's security apparatus extends to targeting individual movie theaters, on a continent thousands of miles across and on the other side of the world.

It was troubling back in 2001-2002 how so much art, across movies, TV and comics, was cancelled because of 9/11 and the "offensiveness" of showing buildings being blown up, but at least then people were legitimately scared. But you still get idiots being offended at depictions of the Twin Towers - when Fringe revealed that they still stood in its alternate-universe New York, my then-flatmate (the stupidest human being ever to walk the Earth) said it was "fucked up" that they showed the buildings. And this was in 2012, for fuck sake.

From an artistic point of view, then, pulling the Interview (as bad as it may or may not be) is the worst response possible. Now that we've set a precedent for it, China or Russia or whoever can just hire a proxy to hack a server somewhere, vaguely mention 9/11, and they'll be able to get anything cancelled. It's happened to the Interview now, but who's to say it can't happen to something with actual artistic merit or entertainment value?

While Benjamin Franklin's quote about liberty vs security may be taken out of context, the way we use it now is actually relevant, pace Techcrunch - it's not smart to give up liberty in exchange for security in the short term, as you really do give up both in the long term. We're seeing those twin losses right now.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Finally Joining the Ranks of PS3 Gamers

One of my first acts when I moved back to the US a year ago was to buy a TV and Playstation 3. I'd been kind of wanting one for years after it came out, but they were ridiculously expensive (especially in the UK), and because I already had a PS2, it just didn't seem worthwhile. And then, of course, I got to a point where I was expecting to move back soon, so accumulating more stuff that I couldn't bring over didn't seem like a good idea either.

I did briefly toy with the idea of getting a PS4 (or even an Xbox One), but they were too new and the range of games wasn't as good. And while it seemed like it would be nice to be able to play Halo, I decided on the PS3 simply because I've had the Sony consoles for ages and preferred the Playstation-exclusive games, like Gran Turismo.

So over the course of the year I accumulated a few games that have gotten a lot of good critical reviews, or that friends recommended. However, because I try not to play videogames longer than an hour a day on weekends, it's meant I've built up a pretty sizable backlog. Two factors don't help here: I've bought a couple of trilogy sets (Mass Effect and the Assassin's Creed: Ezio Trilogy), and I've also bought some games that take absolute ages to finish (Skyrim).

There's another problem, though: these games are only about 50% fun, and 50% grind. And I'm wondering if that's something wrong with trends in game design, or with reviewers.

To clarify, I'm thinking specifically of Mass Effect 1, Assassin's Creed 2 and Skyrim, which are the games I've played most. AC2 is held up as the high water mark of the series, and visually it's undeniably a masterpiece. As I ran along the rooftops my dad would pass through and recognize landmarks from Florence, where much of the game takes place. The assassinations are also pretty enjoyable, at least at first - locating the target, tailing him, and then dropping onto him from a great height.

The problem is that this is pretty much all there is to the game. As you control Ezio, he maintains a pretty limited set of actions that he can accomplish, so there's little progression in terms of what you can do at the start compared to the end (apart from how confidently you do all that stuff). The final boss fight, where you beard Pope Cesare Borgia in his den, has the exact same mechanics as the very first fight you conduct at the start of the game. And don't get me started on the collection of treasure and feathers.

I've got Brotherhood and Revelations still to go, and because it was cheap and had good reviews I picked up Assassin's Creed 4, but I'm a little concerned based on the above.

Mass Effect 1, on the other hand, came with a warning from the guy at GameStop who sold it to me that I should hold my breath and get through it quickly, so I could reach ME2 quicker. Having now played through ME1, and started a few hours of ME2, I can see what he meant - while the game world you navigate is amazingly detailed (or gives the appearance), the play is actually pretty limited. It might have been because of the difficulty level I was playing, but leveling up didn't seem to have any effect on how well I got through sections of the game. And there was also the annoying BioWare thing, encountered in Dragon Age 2, of standardized cave and base layouts.

Mass Effect 2 seems to have dispensed with a few of these problems, but the RPG elements seem to have become more of a formality, or vestigial tail, if you like. Hunting for resources has also gotten to be an enormous bore, where you have to make multiple trips to supply depots just to deplete even a world with "moderate" resources.

If Mass Effect 1 was limited, I sometimes feel like Skyrim suffers from the opposite problem, of being too expansive. I got to a point soon after I first started it where I had a million quests and miscellaneous tasks, but no idea which one to start with, and I seemed to be too underpowered to accomplish any of them. Eventually I had to go find walkthroughs online, to impose some sort of order on the game, and that's helped me progress (that and crafting a really badass longsword).

Speaking of crafting, I'm wondering what possessed RPG developers in the last decade and a half or so, to add skills like leather-working and metallurgy and cooking (for fuck's sake) into their games. It seems to have plagued MMOs most of all, as I used to watch my old flatmate spend entire Saturdays on World of Warcraft or Aion doing nothing but grinding cooking or leather-working. Skyrim doesn't force you to those kinds of extremes, but what's wrong with how Final Fantasy used to do it, of just running around finding stuff?

That said, Skyrim is entertaining enough that I find it really hard to stick to my one-hour rule, as there's always just that one more door to go through, or that set of equipment to sell or craft, or whatever.

What I'd say is missing from this current generation, though, is something like Resident Evil 4. I feel like, for the most part, that game had the perfect balance. For one thing, playing on higher difficulty levels unlocked more areas of the game, which made it instantly replayable (I probably beat it 3 times). Every boss fight was also different, justifying all the weapons you were carrying around. But the best part, for me, was how it started off terrifying, but as soon as you got comfortable with the controls and difficulty levels, it would throw something else at you that would require a completely new strategy to defeat.

Case in point: by the end, my flatmate at the time was calling me "Jack Bauer", because I could kick down the door to a room toss in a couple of grenades and then mow down the survivors with the uzi, all in a couple of seconds. And then just a moment later they introduced a new bad guy, that you could only kill with a sniper rifle armed with a special scope. The bad guy was super slow, but so was the rifle, so that if you missed (or even if you didn't) you'd quickly find the monster gnawing on your head.

I guess the answer is to get Resident Evil 5, which was based on a similar game engine. But it's annoying that there aren't enough games like Resident Evil 4, at least in the batch I've seen, and what's coming up for PS4 doesn't seem much better either.