Archive for January, 2013

Clearing The Backlog – Limbo

January 24, 2013 Leave a comment

So, like many gamers, I have a terrible tendency of buying up tons of brand new games, only to then leave them sitting on a shelf gathering dust. But no longer. I aim to get through as much of my unfinished backlog, and I am going to share my thoughts on each game I finish, offering my opinion on how enjoyable the experience was.

For this first edition, I’ll be taking a look at Limbo, the critically acclaimed indie game from Danish developer, PlayDead. Originally developed as a timed exclusive for the Xbox Live Arcade in 2010, it eventually received releases on PSN and Steam a year later, and it’s this latter version that I own and recently played through.

What is Limbo? It’s a 2D platform-puzzle game set in a strange monochromatic world. The main character is a nameless boy who wanders this strange landscape attempting to avoid the numerous traps in his way. Apparently he’s searching for his sister, but the limited narrative doesn’t explicitly state this, and this objective seems to be based more on fan interpretation.

After all, the game is very minimalistic, with its story told in-game with no dialogue and no captions. The game is vague on its premise, offering us just its title, its visuals and its sparse soundscape, and then leaving us to fill in the blanks. It’s my own personal opinion that this is some kind of nightmare simulator, or indeed, a representation of a state of limbo that must be passed through to reach some kind of salvation. Exactly why is unknown, and I guess this is the point, leaving each player to construct their own reasons.

Graphically, practically everything in the game is black shapes against a grey backdrop, gameplay is limited to moving, jumping and pushing/pulling specific objects, and the score is mostly atmospheric noise. It very easily could have been a recipe for disaster if not executed properly, since it could have been a very boring experience, but fortunately this is far from the case.

Coming across as a strange mixture of LittleBigPlanet and the Oddworld series, the game presents a series of fiendish and ever-changing puzzles, ranging from escaping a giant spider to dodging spinning blades in a rotating environment. The puzzles are generally trial-and-error, and it’s very difficult to get through the game without dying copious amounts of times trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing. There’s even an achievement for not dying, for those masochistic enough to try it out.

Normally, frustration would be a negative thing for a game to cause, but in this case, the frustration is somewhat addictive, compelling you to move forward through very tricky scenarios. Making progress feels satisfactory, since there’s a sense of elation that comes from finally nailing a tricky jump or solving a particularly difficult puzzle. This, really, is the game’s appeal, beyond its excellent atmosphere.

Limbo does walk the fine line between interactive art piece and actual video game, and it’s one of few that manage to do it well. The comparisons to Oddworld and the prospect of hidden secrets make it feel like something that can be mastered and replayed several times, but its very linear nature does make it feel a little limited. Puzzles only have one solution, so much of the gameplay is second-guessing the developer rather than really developing your own strategy.

Sadly, as much as I enjoyed the atmosphere of Limbo, there were times when the gameplay could get a little too frustrating and there were occasions where the atmosphere would be lost to this frustration. One particularly frustrating puzzle involved attempting to use a gravity altering switch to fling a box over a wall, which became tricky to consistently get right due to the very floaty physics that would sometimes leave the box just on the edge of the ledge I was supposed to get it over.

In addition to this frustration, I don’t really see myself returning to the game anytime soon since, despite all the hidden stuff, I feel like I’ve already been through the experience of it, and there’s little to encourage me back.

But Limbo is certainly a decent piece of work that doesn’t outstay its welcome, just a shame that it isn’t likely to be a game that gets revisited often.


Cheap Ferret vs. The Movies – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

January 22, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s the cinematic event of the century! Yes, Peter Jackson is back again after his successful adaptations of the “un-adaptable” Lord Of The Rings trilogy and he’s picking on Tolkien again, this time attempting to adapt The Hobbit, the prequel to LOTR.

First off, it should be said that I’m not much of a Tolkien acolyte. Hell, I’m not really into the whole wizards ‘n’ dragons aesthetic of the fantasy genre as a whole. I can appreciate the escapism it affords, so I understand the success of LOTR and the Game Of Thrones series, but as far as I’m concerned, you see one sprawling tale of swords and sorcery, you’ve seen ‘em all.

So naturally, I never approached LOTR or The Hobbit with any kind of urgency, particularly as I’ve never read the books (do I have to hang up my geek title now?). They seemed like they’d be entertaining, but none of it was particularly exciting to me. That said, I gave LOTR a fairly respectable review over on Sven vs. The Movies, but made extensive reference to how god damn long the franchise is.

Indeed, this seems to be my major issue with Tolkien, and in turn, much of the fantasy genre. Everything is a BIG DEAL and affects everybody, which means we end up seeing how everybody is affected. For nine long hours (longer if you’re watching the extended editions). It leads to things dragging a little at times, as the attempts to show how big things are result in endless scenes of people travelling across big mountains in real-time.

So, The Hobbit. I went to see this simply because my girlfriend and I wanted to go to the cinema together and that was by far the best option in a post-Christmas slump for film. I did get a little wary when the film’s reviews started trickling out, proclaiming it to be a long-winded, drawn out bore-fest that made Lord Of The Rings feel short. The fact that it too was getting three films was a worry, especially since the original LOTR book was actually three, and each was a doorstop-sized tome in itself, so three films made sense, whereas The Hobbit novel was actually pretty short by comparison, so I was beginning to think the accusations of stretching the plot were pretty well-founded.

Fortunately, upon watching, it didn’t feel that way. While in retrospect the plot-stretching accusations seem to hold some weight, actually watching the film didn’t feel as much of a chore as the parent franchise did. I checked my watch for the first time two and a half hours in, out of curiosity rather than boredom, believing the film to only be halfway through, not half an hour off being finished. That’s a good sign. There have been ninety minute movies I’ve reviewed for SvTM that have dragged more than that.

I think part of it is down to the fact that The Hobbit feels more light-hearted than Lord Of The Rings. While LOTR was Tolkien’s magnum opus, The Hobbit has always been the silly little cousin. Casting Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins was no accident; it was an effort to really bring out the humour of the story. Certainly helps that the rest of the cast is mostly dwarves (even if one really doesn’t look like a dwarf at all) and even Shakespearian Ian McKellen shows that he has excellent comic timing as he returns to play Gandalf.

Maybe this is why I enjoyed The Hobbit as much as I did. While not much actually happens (yes, the plot really has been stretched out and it’s noticeable), it feels a lot more entertaining than the often po-faced LOTR. Everything seemed so damn IMPORTANT in LOTR to the point where it felt like it was taking itself too seriously, so a silly three hour romp was a bit of fresh air.

I was particularly fond of Gollum’s return, since the scene with him and Bilbo testing each other with riddles was genuinely entertaining, and quite possibly my favourite scene in the movie. However, what was less welcome was the return of several major characters from LOTR, namely the likes of Saruman and the elves, since their appearance felt a little too much like the movie was saying “hey, remember these guys? Well, here they are again!”

I am curious about how they plan to stretch this out over two more movies though. One more I could possibly see, but we feel so much like we’re at the halfway mark that I think the second movie may be the real drag. Only time will tell, I guess.

For more movie stuff, take a browse around Sven vs. The Movies, one man’s attempt to watch the 1024 films that apparently need to be seen before we die. I’m on #150, so it’s gonna be around for a while!

Gleeful Plagairising

January 20, 2013 Leave a comment

I’m not a fan of Glee. It’s a vapid, shallow show about vapid, shallow people whose lives revolve entirely around bland, uninspiring remakes of songs that are actually decent in their original form (Rebecca Black’s “Friday” being an exception). It’s derivative, it’s dumb, and it’s symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with both the music and TV industries.

And they just got worse. You see, what I am a fan of is Jonathan Coulton, an indie musician from the Internet best known for his extensive “Thing-A-Week” experiment, as well as writing songs for the fantastic Portal video games. He also covered Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, rearranging it into a folky version with banjos and vocal harmonies.

So, it’s interesting that Glee has now released their own version of “Baby Got Back” that sounds a little bit like Coulton’s version. Well, actually, a lot like Coulton’s version. To the point where Coulton himself suspects that they may have directly sampled his work without his permission. I’m sure it’s fine though. It’s not like they included his revised lyrics where he substituted Sir Mix-A-Lot’s name with his own or anything…oh wait, they did. “Johnny C” is indeed part of the lyrics. Hm. Well.

Of course, this is a legal minefield due to the song being a cover. Certainly, Coulton doesn’t own the rights to the lyrics, but what makes this interesting is that the original song certainly doesn’t have those melodies. It’s an early nineties rap song, and Coulton’s version doesn’t sound remotely like a nineties rap song. The music is entirely original, and throws the arrangement straight into a legal grey area.

Legal matters are also thrown into tricky territory because Coulton’s work is released via a Creative Commons license, which is similar to copyright, but allows certain rights that copyright often doesn’t (I have one of these pinned to the side of both this and Sven vs. The Movies, if you’re curious). Coulton’s license does allow derivative works of his music without permission, but it seems the point that Glee’s producers missed is that these derivative works need to be non-profit (e.g. a fan video for Youtube is fine, ripping off his arrangement for a profit-making TV franchise is not) and, most importantly, attribution must be provided. Glee have not credited Coulton for his arrangement, so that’s two strikes against them as far as his license goes.

But there’s always the possibility that Glee directly sampled his version of the song and sang over it. Coulton does, after all, provide karaoke versions of his songs, with “Baby Got Back” being one of them, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Glee merely took this and sang over it. If this is the case, then Coulton has the law on his side and can claim recording copyright.

Regardless of the legal ramifications of all this, making use of Coulton’s version of the song without credit is still very much A Terrible Thing To Do and they should seriously reconsider. Glee is already viewed with disdain by serious musicians and music fans, and ripping off an indie artist’s work without credit is hardly going to help them win that crowd over.

Not that Glee’s producers probably care. The franchise still inexplicably rakes in tons of money from people who can somehow stand soulless reinterpretations of songs, and it will probably continue to rake in tons of money until the world explodes in a supernova.

Although they should care. A quick Google search for “Glee Baby Got Back” brings up two results that relate to the song in isolation – a page on the Glee wiki and the Youtube video itself – and everything else is an article discussing the possibility that their version stole from Jonathan Coulton. Hell, even those two results don’t ignore the controversy – the YT comments talk of little else and someone has even edited Coulton’s version into the wiki. That’s a bit of a PR disaster right there, when the Internet is more concerned about the source material than discussing the song on its own merits. Not that it has any, of course. Glee has never had merit.

It’ll be interesting to see where this ends up. I just hope Coulton gets compensation for this in some way. Not necessarily monetary (but considering the version is already on the Swedish iTunes, some royalties would be nice), but certainly acknowledging that it’s his arrangement would go a long way.

Plus it’d be nice to see some public shaming of Glee. It needs to be known that they can’t rip off small artists and expect no kind of backlash for it. After all, if someone directly covered a Glee arrangement, you can bet the producers would be calling their lawyers faster than you can say “Oh my god, Becky”

General Update 09-01-2013

January 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Hello everyone, and Happy New Year! Gosh, it’s 2013 already and we survived the Mayan prophecy. How amazing. Anyway, I’m back again with an update of what I’ve been up to, what I’m getting up to and what I plan to get up to with both this blog and with my other projects.

First off, I’ve been in America for the past few weeks, and I’ll hopefully be making a few posts about all that very soon, including my thoughts on The Hobbit, which I saw while I was over there. No, I didn’t go to America just to see a film. That would be silly. But I saw it while there, and so it seems suitable to offer some views on it.

Speaking of movies, Sven vs. The Movies was updating while I away, since I’d deliberately completed a whole bunch of reviews. My Christmas review this year was Babe, which I’d picked since there was a distinct lack of Christmas movies in the 1001 Movies You Must See book. However, that seemed a suitable family film for the season, particularly as there are scenes set at Christmas and all.

Fantasia was also deliberately picked for New Year since Disney World has a tendency to put on a big Fantasia-themed show every New Year and figured that reviewing a fairly simple film would be good immediately following a night where people worldwide are getting very drunk.

Sven vs. The Movies is going to see some improvement over the coming months, I hope. I’m no longer watching and writing reviews on the fly like I used to, and my little push to get films out over Christmas showed me the benefits of forward planning. So I have planned out what’s happening over the next couple of months, and I aim to be very specific with what films I post.

Now, there has been a small gap in my update schedule, since the last two scheduled days (last Thursday and yesterday) didn’t get an update. The reason for Thursday was enjoying myself too much in America and forgetting to update (oops), and yesterday was due to a spanner being thrown in the works (already!) and me running round to try and figure out what to do. So what’s happening now?

Well, tomorrow is getting the review that should have been posted last Thursday. As usual, I’m not going to say what it is, since I never do, but to narrow it down, it’s another silent movie and one that’s had a huge amount of influence on an entire genre of film. Pretty exciting, yeah?

Next week will see two films which I have on DVD right next to me as I write this. The first is a French movie from the nineties and the other is another animated movie. There has been a very family-friendly theme going on lately, I know (although Avatar was pushing it), and this particular animated movie won’t help, but the French movie will significantly change that, I believe. It has some sexy stuff and some gory stuff from what I hear.

The following week I’ll be posting reviews in honour of Australia Day and India’s Republic Day with films from those respective countries (or at least from directors from those countries…), and I also have films planned for Chinese New Year (yes, it’s a Chinese film, how’d you guess?) and Valentine’s Day. I missed Valentine’s Day last year, regrettably, and ended up posting my review of Inception since I didn’t think to get a romance movie ready (the perils of no forward planning!), so this year will be corrected. I’m also planning an Irish movie for St Patrick’s Day. Basically, I’m going all out on themed reviews this year, so keep an eye out for that.

I’ve got all films planned for January and February, and I’ll be dropping hints on here as I go along. I may also offer some more thoughts on the reviewing process here and there just to make things more interesting, although all non-review posts will be over here on The Cheap Ferret.

In terms of my novel project, I’ve completed the second drafts of both and I’m now steadily going through them to figure out how I can seriously flesh them out. In both cases, they’re basically meandering plot vehicles with limited characterisation and description, and even some downright terrible attempts of moving the plot forward that make little sense.

But that’s the point now. Got to figure out where those major issues are and boost them into something genuinely good. After all, I want to be able to write something I’m proud of and I’m happy to release onto an unsuspecting public.

Whenever that will be.

But my ultimate aim is to keep this blog updated more regularly. I’ll be using it as a dumping ground for basically anything I can think of. Mini-reviews that don’t fit into Sven vs. The Movies, thoughts, progress updates on writing, whatever I can bloody well think of.

All this while simultaneously working on some other non-writing projects too. See you around!

Categories: Updates