Secrets

Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, on Serial, as quoted by Wired:

“So as people discovered that podcasts can be compelling in their regular media consumption, maybe we should’ve seen Serial coming from a mile away,” Thompson says. “As podcasts get more and more sophisticated, of course one is going to say ‘Wow, look at Fargo, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos—look at all these great stories being spread out and talked about before the next episode comes. Why not do it with a podcast?’ It seems so inevitable.”

Serial is unique in the sense that you as a listener are along for the ride. You are experiencing it with Sarah Koenig and the Serial crew. You’re being let in on a secret. And if you don’t listen right away, the secret is already out.

Not all serialized content lends itself to brilliance. Serialization is not the key. Great storytelling is the key. That’s not to say that episodic content can’t house great story too, but the water cooler conversation is dismantled by the uncertainty that others may not have the same desire to catch the latest episode. There is no grand secret.

What I would like to see from more podcasts, books, movies, TV shows, and video games is complete pre-meditated stories built out and enfold in chunks, teasing audiences along toward a grand reveal. I wonder if Tolkien experienced a fortunate accident? In the case of Serial, the experience has been a layer deeper. The audience has been tuning in to someone else unraveling a secret. And whether or not Koenig solves the mystery, the truth is finite.

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‘Nobody ever says “I don’t care if the music sounds bad.”‘

John Gruber, The Talk Show:

In general, I would rather read an interesting, well-written novel that’s poorly typeset than read a terrible novel that is beautifully typeset. Of course. That’s the difference. Even me as somebody obsessed with typography would agree with that. Whereas with music, nobody ever says “I don’t care if the music sounds bad,” like at a technical level. It’s fundamental to listening to music. But as the person making the device, that should be the obsession.

Relinking similar thoughts about broken video games from Luke Plunkett of Kotaku and myself.

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Welcome to The New York Review of Video Games

Chris Suellentrop, intro to Matter’s The New York Review of Video Games week long feature:

Welcome to The New York Review of Video Games. If that name conjures for you an anachronistic, elbow-patched editor sitting at a dimly lit desk amid piles of plastic Atari 2600 cartridges and Sega Dreamcast discs, then good. It has done its job.

If not, then let me try this:

Video games are almost a $100 billion industry, sure. But video games do not matter only because they are large. They are also a new popular art, the kind of thing that comes along once a century. Two intertwined forces, computers and interactivity, have changed the world radically over the past 50-odd years. What is a video game? It’s a creative work — a competition, a story, an experience — that exploits the intersection of those two forces.

This is an incredibly important feature, comprised of great minds and personalities. A must read not only for video game enthusiasts, but those involved in the culture-at-large. So, everyone.

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‘The first “open narrative” game’

Ken Levine, creator of Bioshock, writing for Matter’s New York Review of Video Games feature:

There are two games that really kicked off what we think of as the modern “open world” game: Super Mario 64 and Grand Theft Auto III. These games unshackled the player from linear progression through a game’s levels. I think Shadow of Mordor is the first “open narrative” game. You’re not just checking off missions in a variable sequence. You’re changing the dramatis personae. Whenever you succeed or fail, the characters in the story respond to your actions, and not in the manner of a branching “choose your own adventure.” It is an excessively simple, yet impressively flexible, crime story.

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Nostalgia, Feminism Top Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year

Merriam-Webster:

The next two words on the list, nostalgia and insidious, saw huge increases in use this year, primarily because of their entertainment connection. Nostalgia was used in discussions about the television series Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, and other cultural milestones like the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America. “We saw more than a 100% increase in lookups of nostalgia this year,” says Kory Stamper, an Associate Editor at Merriam-Webster. “It was certainly used in reference to pop culture and television, but it was also used as a way to frame larger political discussions. We spotted examples of nostalgia used in connection with the annexation of Crimea and the defeat of Eric Cantor. People often think of nostalgia as a return to ‘good old days,’ so these uses that go beyond the personal may have surprised some readers and sent them to the dictionary.”

Lookups for feminism were strong throughout the year, as the word was used in many highly publicized comments–from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to the Gamergate controversy. One big spike came after TIME announced its 100 Most Influential People–a list including Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, and Pharrell Williams. TIME’s claim that 2014 was the “year of pop feminism” sent many people to the dictionary.

In 2014, more than ever (and for reasons other than Merriam-Webster’s), I seemed to obsess over the idea of nostalgia. It coursed through many of my pieces including Hail Mario, Golden Age Thinking, and Iterative vs. Redesigned Experiences. It also seemed to be a common theme strewn out through several of Nintendo’s recent first-party titles: The Excitebike Arena in Mario Kart 8, NES Remix, and the plethora of new characters and legacy nods in Super Smash Bros. to name a few.

On the topic of feminism, it is very interesting to see just how large the Gamergate conversation has become. 2014 felt like a truly remarkable year for the feminist movement and this list offers a small shred of proof.

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Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth Saga

I used to stare at my step-father’s collection of The Lord of the Rings as an impassable mountain. Novels intimidate me. So when word let out that The Lord of the Rings was being adapted for film, I was thrilled. My perspective of the volumes on that bookshelf and the trouble I had with their language painted a picture of the gargantuan undertaking the adaptation would be. Not to mention the prospect of a story so legendary being brought to life in my lifetime was exhilarating. I had always been jealous of those who saw Star Wars in the theater; a piece of science-fiction/fantasy so groundbreaking it would have a lasting impact not only on cinema, but on the culture-at-large. I was convinced that The Lord of the Rings would be my equivalent. Bonus: (I thought) I could get away without reading the books.

I set any skepticism I had aside and I went into The Fellowship of the Ring all-in; convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, it would be the greatest thing I had ever seen. I was ripe for disappointment. Alas, Peter Jackson’s vision turned me into as big of a Lord of the Rings fan as anyone could be. It wasn’t the story or the characters. They were mesmerizing and with my lack of knowledge, their tweaks went unnoticed. It was the production value and scale of this work that floored me. I had never witnessed anything of its magnitude. The special effects were like none other and the pacing, tone, and art were calculated and vivid. But the thing that put the films over the top was the baffling accomplishment of its principle photography:

Principal photography for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was conducted concurrently in New Zealand for 274 days from October 11, 1999 through to December 22, 2000. Pick-up shoots were conducted annually from 2001 to 2004. The trilogy was shot at over 150 different locations,[1] with seven different units shooting, as well as soundstages around Wellington and QueenstownPeter Jackson directed the whole production, while other unit directors included Alun Bollinger, John Mahaffie, Geoff Murphy, Fran Walsh, Barrie Osbourne, and Rick Porras. Jackson monitored these units with live satellite feeds, and with the added pressure of constant script re-writes and the multiple units handling his vision, he only got around 4 hours of sleep a night.[2]

I would later receive the extended edition of The Two Towers as a Christmas gift and pour over it and its bonus features many a high school night. Deep in the burrow of my poster laden teenage room, I would sit with headphones, transfixed by what I was watching. (I also absorbed a self-depricating message on the methodical pacing of the story through the image of the Ents.) To this day, the work behind these films amazes and inspires me. For as much as I love Star Wars, I felt I was right about The Lord of the Rings being my generational equivalent. It was a risky undertaking at a scale never before seen. Influential breakthroughs in cinema, technology, and logistics are rooted its production. I will forever dream to be part of something on its scale.

I needed more Middle-earth. I wanted every licensed video game, continued to pour over special features, and discussed the films at length with friends. I recall the instant I finished watching The Return of the King for the first time, I yearned for an adaption of The Hobbit. While I was sure it would eventually happen, I grew increasingly unconvinced that Jackson would be a part of it. On several occasions he emphasized that he was finished with Middle-earth and productions of its scale:

Nobody’s ever shot three huge movies before and I think the most interesting thing I’ve discovered over the last 14 months is exactly why nobody’s ever done that. Now I know. And therefore, I won’t be doing it again.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed when I learned that Jackson would be taking the helm on The Hobbit. And while many scoffed at the announcement that the children’s novel would be split into two films, I was bursting with excitement. One film was not nearly enough Middle-earth to tide me over. In the back of my mind, there was a small part of me that wished for three. There is something so satisfying with a trilogy, be it the beginning, middle, and end or a pseudo three-act structure. But based on the page count, I understood two films was likely already stretching it. That was until I read the book. I came away from the novel shocked at how dense it was. I wondered how it wouldn’t end up being three films. And to my surprise and delight, a third film was announced.

I agree with Ben Kuchera in saying “we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain” when it comes to more from our favorite franchises. If The Hobbit films were bloated, so what. If one is unhappy with the end product, they still have the book. As mentioned, I had only read The Hobbit months before the first film was released, and I was shocked that they would have attempted to squeeze it into two films, let alone one.

The announcements of return characters, story tweaks, and additions always gave me the feeling that The Hobbit films were more a celebration than a production to stand on its own. Sure, there is moral and epic material there, but it feels like I was watching a party thrown for the cast and crew of such an incredible feat. Do I think An Unexpected Journey and The Desolationof Smaug are in-line with the masterpieces that are The Lord of the Rings films? No. On par with the Star Wars prequels? Far above. The inescapable CGI on both the settings and characters (namely the orcs) are an eyesore, and the dwarves’ makeup doesn’t feel quite as realized as Gimili’s, but the films allow me to bask in the majesty of Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth again. And that’s more than I could ever ask for.

Many my say “Jackson will be back for The Silmarillion.” I’m not counting on it. Not after reading Alexa Ray Corriea’s history of The Lord of the Rings in video games:

The Tolkien Estate still firmly holds the score of books and snippets that fill out the world of Arda beyond The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit — called Tolkien’s legendarium — close to its chest. Christopher Tolkien upholds his position as keeper of the keys to Middle-earth; the IP remains split; and The Silmarillion is still locked away, out of reach from those who might adapt Tolkien’s deeper mythology.

If The Silmarillion does come around, my bet is that Jackson won’t be more than an Executive Producer.

I’ve never finished reading The Lord of the Rings. Two-thirds at best. And I only read The Hobbit months before the first film’s release. Yet, because of these six films, I have a profound fondness for franchise as a whole. Two patient, pre-meditated, serialized trilogies (albeit based on existing fiction) as efforts that have gone unmatched are triumphs to behold. When it comes up in conversation, when I see snippets on TV or a passages from the book, or when I hear one of Howard Shore’s iconic pieces, my mind goes to another place for hours at a time. Jackson’s perseverance through the filmmaking and scope of Middle-earth encourages me to dream. It inspires me to undertake something bigger than myself.  Thankfully I live in a world where in an instant I can tune into something that ignites that fire inside. For that, I am forever grateful. Thank you, Peter Jackson, for braving this project. I’m so glad to have experienced it in its entirety over these past thirteen years.

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Chronological Console Crash Course

Very interesting read.

Andy Baio:

What happens when a 21st-century kid plays through video game history in chronological order?

Start with the arcade classics and Atari 2600, from Asteroids to Zaxxon. After a year, move on to the 8-bit era with the NES and Sega classics. The next year, the SNES, Game Boy, and classic PC adventure games. Then the PlayStation and N64, Xbox and GBA, and so on until we’re caught up with the modern era of gaming.

Would that child better appreciate modern independent games that don’t have the budgets of AAA monstrosities like Destiny and Call of Duty? Would they appreciate the retro aesthetic, or just think it looks crappy?

Or would they just grow up thinking that video game technology moved at a breakneck speed when they were kids, and slammed to a halt as soon as they hit adolescence?

I’ve always wondered how this sort of thing would play out. For the selfish sake of revisiting the past, I’ve always envisioned doing the same with my future children.

On the topic of experimentation, I was forced to play baseball, soccer, and piano with no interest in the topics. I wanted to be around computers and gadgets. While I ditched soccer and (regretfully) piano after two or three years, I ended up playing baseball for ten with a peak batting average of .069. Needless to say, my time spent on the diamond is not a fond memory, but my parents insisted I play an organized sport. Turns out I learned more playing bass in a high school punk band, collaborating, booking, planning, and managing finances, than playing organized sports. Some kids enjoy music; some enjoy baking; some enjoy technology. Find their jam and run with it. There are ways to develop well rounded people outside of their passion.

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Wii U is My Primary Console

Ben Kuchera, Polygon:

That reality is rather quickly washed away by the fact that the Wii U has built the best library of exclusives of the current consoles, and that’s another trend that won’t likely end anytime soon. It would be hard to turn the Wii U into your primary console — there are simply too many games that will never be on the platform — but it’s equally hard to ignore Nintendo’s latest piece of hardware. There are simply too many amazing games that won’t be available on any other console.

This situation replicates what happened in the last generation: The argument between the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is ongoing and contentious, but you don’t really need both. If you want to make sure you hit as many software high points as possible, you need a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One and a Wii U. The same way you needed a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 and a Wii.

We’ve gotten to the point of the Wii U’s life cycle where it’s clear that owning the system, if you’re serious about playing the best games on the market, has become mandatory.

Since Mario Kart 8 was released, I have had no problem making the Wii U my primary console. And while I adore Mario Kart 8, I’d argue that the Wii U is worth it for Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker alone. It is rich with content and polish, is gorgeous and challenging, and is one of the most innovative games I have ever played. The hits keep coming.

Aside from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I’d argue against Kuchera and state that there haven’t been any PS4 or Xbox One titles that have made me want to shell out for one or the other. And, again, outside of Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System, innovation and is something this new generation is severely lacking.

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The Lord of the Rings and the Serial Cliffhanger

Ryan Gilbey, writing for The Guardian:

In this Netflix-fixated age of instant gratification, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies did something both antiquated and radical: they restored to cinema-going the old-fashioned thrill of the serial cliffhanger. The difference is that 1940s and 1950s audiences had only to wait a week to find out the resolution. Middle Earth enthusiasts, on the other hand, had to while away an entire year between episodes.

Future generations consuming the whole shebang over several days of binge-watching will do well to remember that – and to raise a tankard of mead to those comrades who fell before the finishing line, or who said: “Sod this for a game of soldiers, I’ll wait for the DVDs so I can fast-forward through all the boring bits.” (One character in Kevin Smith’s comedy Clerks II described the first trilogy as: “Three movies of people walking to a fucking volcano!”)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in November 2001, a mere month before the first Lord of the Rings film (The Fellowship of the Ring).

But with the exception of the seventh and eighth outings, the Harry Potter films are self-contained, with no explicitly loose threads left dangling between pictures.

Audiences had experienced little to compare with the protracted suspense at the end of The Two Towers, when the slithering Gollum is apparently poised to murder Frodo and Sam. Jackson played the long game and took a gamble that audiences might want to play it, too.

Aside from the fact that “Middle Earth enthusiasts” already knew the ending, this is exactly what I’m talking about.

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Water Coolers, Spoilers, and Serial

On the way to work, my wife and I caught up on Serial. On our commute home, she mentioned that Zach Braff had tweeted about the podcast:

I can’t look through my Twitter feed without seeing a mention of Serial. Everyone’s onboard. Everyone’s got a take. But the extent of sharing is “OMG! WTF! #serial” We are all on par with Laura’s confusion in episode 8.

Serial is great. Definitely not my favorite podcast, but it’s a spectacular display of fine editing and editorial guidance. But more importantly, Serial has brought back the water cooler conversation. Everything about Serial thus far is based on presumption. If you tried to explain what is happening, you’d leave behind mountains of critical detail. Because the questions hurdle by ad nauseam, there aren’t answers big enough to spoil the show. Think LOST, with hatches and polar bears and Dharma, but rooted in the nonfiction investigation of a 1999 homicide case with cell records and reenactments and Jay. This is pre-meditated in the sense that Sarah Keonig and the Serial crew know that answers won’t come easy. There are no spoilers. This is great storytelling and we are along for the ride.

This thought led me to other serialized media. Serialized TV is larger than ever, but the good stuff (Game of Thones) is adapted or released in bulk (House of Cards). I kid, I kid. Admittedly, I have not watched True Detective. But in all seriousness, TiVo culture and binging has struck deep fear in sharing too much about nightly TV. While this sounds like a backwards argument against on-demand podcasts, again, Serial doesn’t offer enough answers to divulge spoilers. Again, this is great storytelling.

This led me to thoughts on film. What was the last (semi-)pre-meditated, non-adapted, serialized film series released? Pirates of the Caribbean (2 & 3)? The Matrix (2 & 3)? Star Wars (5 & 6)? Nearly every (if not all) serialized film series released within the past few years has been adapted. Harry Potter. Hunger Games. Divergent. The answers to these series have been lying around in text years prior to the film’s release. The best we can hope for is that we haven’t read the book or the film is so far off from the source material that it feels like a unique experience.

We need more original, pre-meditated, serialized content. Someone write an original three part film trilogy with segments so good they can stand on their own as solid films. Someone conceptualize a three, four, or five season TV show from start to finish. Calculate the journey or take us along for the ride. Stop adapting. Stop playing by ear. If you do play by ear, root it in nonfiction. Make sure you can’t make stuff up.

I realize this is less a message to creators as it is to producers, with overhead and risk to take into consideration. But if you want to give us story, allow us to risk our time and money. Trust creators.

Tomorrow, my wife and I will listen to episode 10 of Serial and the most we’ll be able to share is “OMG! WTF! #serial”

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