Sunday, August 10, 2008

15 Years of Progress

I wanted to take full advantage of my last few days of summer, so I've been playing some video games. I just recently beat God of War, and it wasn't until after I finished it that I realized exactly what made me like the game. For the uninitiated, God of War is a game set in ancient Greece in which you take the role of a spartan warrior and kill essentially everything in Greek mythology. It has the vaguest hint of a story, but it doesn't let this get in the way of the main focus, which is the battles.

The first boss in God of War is a hydra, which you first encounter inside a wrecked ship. See the attached video: here .

I woke up the other morning and was lying in bed when it occurred to me that this boss was essentially the same one I fought years ago in a nintendo game called StarTropics. Video footage can be found here: here .

The more I thought about it, the more similarities I noticed. The weapons are essentially the same - Mike in StarTropics uses a yo-yo (yes, a yo-yo), and Kratos in God of War has knives on magic chains that make them act essentially like really dangerous yo-yos. The gameplay is the same: run around caves and ancient temples, fight monsters, collect powerups that incrementally level up your weapons and abilities, solve puzzles occasionally, and fight big monster bosses. Add Greek mythology and lots of blood to StarTropics, and you'd have the 8-bit God of War.

Maybe it's just that I haven't seriously played any console games since the SNES, but there were just so many similarities that it felt a little weird to me. I'm sure these are just standard gameplay techniques that have been upgraded to fit the technology of newer consoles. Still, to realize that I'd just played a new game with the gameplay of something fifteen years old made me wonder exactly how much innovation there's been that wasn't simply cosmetic.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Body Horror

As a fan of horror stories and horror movies, I've seen a lot of scary stuff. But after a while, some things just aren't scary anymore. I've seen enough mainstream horror films to be able to predict when something is going to jump out and say “boo,” and things like vampires and werewolves are becoming so familiar that they're increasingly common as heroes rather than villains (e.g. Underwold, Blade, the “Twilight” series of young adult novels, anything by Anne Rice - the list goes on and on).

Fundamentally, the reason I like horror stories is because I like being scared. As a kid, I'd watch horror films every Saturday afternoon on a feature some network called “Nightmare Theater.” Most of the time it scared me for days afterward, yet I kept coming back. Nowadays, I laugh at most of the corny movies that gave me nightmares as a kid, but it seems to me that while monsters and creatures of the supernatural lose their power with age and the onset of rationality, certain things remain frightening. There are fundamental things that everyone is scared of – archetypes of horror, so to speak.

I started making my way steadily through Clive Barker's fiction sometime last year, and found it was exactly what I was looking for in horror: something genuinely disturbing that didn't resort to cheap shock tactics (most of the time, anyway). One of Barker's recurring themes is the horror that comes from the disfigurement or transformation of the human form. Barker extends this beyond the simple horror of injury and gleefully mutates his characters into a number of grotesque oddities. Even being aware of the fact that he was doing this while I was reading, it's the kind of thing that managed to creep me out almost every single time.

It's easy to dismiss supernatural monsters as being make-believe, but nobody really gets over the fact that they rely on their physical body (and processes within that are largely out of their control) to remain alive. Whether it's a subconscious fear or not, Barker has no qualms about bringing it to the surface and taking it to extremes. Sure, imagining your hand revolting and trying to kill you (“The Body Politic”) is a bit of a stretch, but what's cancer except the body killing itself slowly? Everyone, even if it just comes from getting chicken pox as a kid, has to grapple with this issue at some level during their lives.

Furthermore, Barker draws upon the similarity of our physical form to that of our evolutionary ancestors to remind us that we have only recently become “civilized,” and that unbridled barbarism is just a step backwards. Whether it's a frightening portrayal of an orangutan become human (“New Murders in the Rue Morgue”), a trinity of reptilian, avian, and mammalian beasts merging in an accelerated evolution (“The Inhuman Condition”), or a criminal's soul that has fled into the body of a hog (“Pig Blood Blues”), we're constantly reminded that the line between man and beast is one that we have drawn arbitrarily.

It's stuff that's innately repellent, but fascinating to me when examined at a deeper level.

Body Horror on Wikipedia

Friday, August 1, 2008

First Post

I think people generally try to justify the existence of their blogs the first time they post, but I don't really have a reason for starting this thing other than that I'm bored and I like to procrastinate. Also, just to get this out of the way, I hate the word “blog.”

The past couple of weeks have allowed me to do pretty much nothing of importance aside from a couple of days spent collaborating with some other physics people in preparation for next semester's class. I did have a great dream last night though. It was one of those dreams where you wake up and feel like you've accomplished something of extreme importance or done something really significant. This time, I saved the president.

I was head of the secret service, and found myself in the oval office with the president and vice president. Neither were actual presidents, just people who looked vaguely presidential, like something you'd see in a movie.

“Clearly the threat is of no importance,” the vice president said. As I looked at him, I saw a black shadow surround his figure and his eyes glow a faint red. Clearly this man was not to be trusted.

“We need to evacuate now,” the president screamed as he pounded his fist on the desk.

“You're right Mr. President,” I replied. “We've no more time to waste.” I grabbed him by the arm and hustled him up a staircase to the roof.

I looked to the sky and saw the trail of an incoming missile. It was headed straight for the White House. “It's approaching quickly, sir! We'll have to hurry,” I shouted. Thankfully, a helicopter was waiting for us. We jumped into the tiny cockpit.

“Get this thing in the air, now!” I shouted at the pilot as he struggled with the controls. The blades of the helicopter spun slowly, and the helicopter moved horizontally towards the edge of the roof.

“We can't take off! If we move off the edge, we'll fall and crash! It takes 0.14 seconds once we leave solid ground before we can get into the air.”

I made a quick calculation in my head. “That's exactly how long we'll have in free fall. Get this thing moving.” I grabbed the controls from the timid pilot and drove the helicopter off the roof. We lurched downward and I glanced out of the door to see the ground quickly approaching. My faith in physics outweighed any fear I felt, but did nothing to stifle the screams of the cowardly pilot. Just as we were about to crash, the helicopter soared upward above D.C.. I saw the incoming missile streak underneath us and fly directly into the oval office's window. The whole building exploded in an immense ball of fire, taking the treacherous vice president straight to hell.

“I suppose I should thank you,” the president said to me.

“There's no need sir,” I replied. “It's all in a day's work.”