Tina K. Russell

January 13, 2009

Don’t you know that overambition is waaaaaaay uncool?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:16 am

Crispy Gamer – Feature: Critic in Exile: Is It OK to Finally Admit That I Didn’t Really Like Fallout 3 All That Much?
I recently threw caution to the wind and whispered my anti-Fallout 3 sentiment to a fellow game journalist who edits a competing Web site. I was worried for a moment that this journalist would report me to the Fallout 3 Crusaders. I saw pitchforks and lit torches in my future. To my surprise, this journalist’s eyes got wide. She whispered, “You too? Man, I can’t play that shit, either; it just depresses me too much.”

That’s how I learned that I wasn’t alone.

I know of a least a half-dozen writers who included Fallout 3 in their top-10 lists who, I know for a fact, didn’t invest more than three or four hours in the game if that, and still felt compelled to vote for Fallout 3 — let’s go ahead and say it — because it felt like the right thing to do. In the end, it seems it’s not a question of how much critics liked or disliked the game, but rather an issue of not being able to argue with 1. the developers Bethesda proved with the Elder Scrolls series that they know what they’re doing, and 2. the game’s pedigree the first two Fallout games are already well-ensconced in the canon.

As someone who hated Shenmue, I feel this man’s pain. Shenmue was so profoundly overambitious, its gameplay ended up consisting mainly of talking to scores of fake people with dry and absurd dialogue. (“Hey, Mister!” and “I’m looking for sailors” are its legacy.) Shenmue was was so thoroughly saturated with hype and pretense at its release that the press honeymoon and fans’ cognitive dissonance formed an impenetrable shield against anyone who would impugn its “quality.” Shenmue’s action scenes, when present, were clunky. The mystery, such as it was, was thin, and the game was essentially a big-budget, next-gen, ultra-realistic episode of Blue’s Clues wrapped in layers of fluff about searching for your father’s killer (which somehow involves walking around the city asking about calligraphers). It was essentially an unprecedentedly realistic simulation of being bored, which is something I can already do for free. (Plus, the graphics are better.) It wasn’t until the series got an Xbox sequel with a wider audience that game publications woke up and started admitting the game was beautiful and empty. (EGM memorably gave Shenmue II the year’s “Shut Up and Hit Somebody” award, which they made up for the occasion.)

You may remember that my opinions about Fable are similar, but I played that game four years after it came out, so instead of going against the crowd by saying it was disappointing I went against the crowd by saying no, it’s not disappointing, it’s just bad. (It really was.)

All the time I see games try to be ambitious, be movies, be visual novels, be worlds, and I wonder when games will ever try to be games. (Jet Grind Radio and Katamari Damacy come to mind for me as games that relish in being games, as well as Crazy Taxi, Advance Wars… okay, all the games I like, basically. I hear Gears of War makes a similar accomplishment in form, by making the fine details as fun as the broad strokes.) When we try to cover up that aspect, the core gameplay of a work, we’re essentially being ashamed of the medium; if we try to “make games art” by making them more like other media, we’re essentially saying (against our intentions!) that games aren’t art. Games have story, games have visuals, games have voice, games have music, that’s all wonderful. Games do have expansive and beautiful worlds, and that shouldn’t change. Games are art, and that raises the standards we should all have for the medium: that the unique quality of gameplay, what only games have, should be used to tie all those disparate parts together into something greater than their sum.

January 7, 2009

Remembering EGM

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 3:46 pm

EGM Closed; 1Up Sold | Edge Online
Ziff Davis, a veteran player in games magazine and website publishing, has quit the business, closing long-running consumer mag EGM and selling its games web properties to UGO Entertainment and its parent Hearst.

EGM has been published for 20 years. In the 1990s it increased frequency to twice a month, via EGM2, and has been publishing online sites since the early 1990s. In the last few years, debt-stricken Ziff has closed numerous games pubs including Games for Windows.

This breaks my heart. I knew EGM was in trouble, and that a gaming news outlet that operates but once a month is hardly tenable these days, but… I’ve heard many stories of “I can’t believe this cultural institution I’ve grown up with is gone after 20 good years,” but I never prepared to say goodbye to mine.

I read my first issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly back when I was a little kid. Back then, I only played videogames twice a year; my parents would rent a Genesis and some Sonic games for my birthday, and for my brother’s birthday (which was, fortunately, sufficiently far apart).

You can imagine, of course, that this elevated the Sega Genesis to an almost mythical status for us, a kind of legendary civilization that rises from the water but twice a year. So, if I saw an issue of EGM (especially if it had Sonic on the cover, which was often) on a grocery store shelf, I’d plead with my mom for it. Every once in a while, she’d grant my wish (despite thinking of EGM, with its raunchy game ads and occasional sexy rendered ladies, doubtlessly as part of the American institution of the too-short childhood), and I’d walk home with a cherished knickknack, a kind of souvenir from this legendary civilization.

Actually, first it wasn’t EGM, it was GamePro, and later an issue or two of GameFan. (I still have that issue of GamePro; it was their famous Sonic 2 preview issue, featuring screenshots of several levels that were eventually scrapped. Also, in the pictorials, I wondered who that raccoon next to Sonic was. Even after learning he was a fox, I resolutely refused to believe he had two tails. That’s just silly.) In time, it was all EGM.

EGM had the right balance of snark and professionalism. Unlike other game mags, which featured a colorful cast of fantasy creatures as their supposed editors (GameFan actually did a regular comic feature on the adventures of their intrepid reviewers; barf), EGM used real faces and names… mostly. (When a reader suspected them of being too good-looking, an editor responded, “trust me, if our pictures were fake, we would have found better-looking models.”) They had one exception to keep the fantasy alive: the mysterious, fighting-game-obsessed ninja from parts unknown: Sushi-X.

EGM gave each game four scores instead of one, and you could read what each reviewer thought. The reviewers had their own profiles and short messages in each issue, so you could pick whichever one you felt the most kinship with. EGM ran editorials on the maturing of the games industry, the introduction of violence and sex into the mix, and the undue influence of advertising dollars. (EGM‘s editorials in recent years have been one of the last bastions of defense against the widescale selling-out of the enthusiast press, and its reviews have been refreshingly harsh, refusing to hand out the all-too-common “courtesy sevens” for games that should have tried harder.) You also, as I remember, grew fond of the magazine’s editors, who were all good writers. You felt like you were hanging out at the arcade with them. (In fact, they were the first generation of great game writers, having started at the industry’s outset and laying claim to having played nearly every release “from Pong on.”) I was suddenly interested in playing the incomprehensibly named Super Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyperfighting, despite not having heard of it before. (I did play it eventually, and I just didn’t get it; those who did can now enjoy the acclaimed remake, lovingly monikered with the equally, endearingly absurd name of Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix.) I wanted to discuss with them why I thought the hero I grew up with (Sonic) was better than the hero they grew up with (some plumber who stomps on turtles). I wanted to sit around with them with pizza, Cherry Coke, and a few rounds of Saturn Bomberman. I was unsurprised when they reported that a sick child, through the Make-a-Wish foundation, chose to spend a day hanging out with the EGM crew. It was a sound choice.

They were heroes to me, breaking through the pomp of day-to-day videogame blather to reveal the creamy insides of compelling gameplay and fascinating, real-time stories. In issue #100, which I think was 1996, they presented a “top 100 games of all time” list, giving recognition to a wide array of games in many genres, all ranked with the rule that no points are awarded for fondness or historical importance; these are the game’s we’d take with us “if we were abducted by aliens.” This was the master list of pure fun, and at the top sat none other than Alexei Pajitnov’s Tetris. (Modern top-100 lists tend to guage subjectively, based on when the games came out; this inevitably results in a useless list topped every time by Super Mario Bros., for its yet-unmatched leap into the future of gaming. Still, Super Mario Bros. came out when the game market had crashed after being flooded by terrible Atari knock-off cartridges from companies desperate to cash in on what they saw as a fad; it’s hard to compete with Super Mario Bros. when it’s being contrasted with the crap that immediately preceeded it.)

The top 100 list gave slots to Sonic 2 and Sonic CD, to my pleasure, and also gave a joint entry to Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Kirby’s Avalanche. It noted that both these titles were localizations of the popular Japanese puzzle game Puyo Puyo, beginning my childhood fascination with the series that would surprise and confuse my schoolmates. The list, to my dismay, included Blast Corps, a game that my brother liked but I did not; he relished the challenge, while I felt it was simply issuing you nearly impossible and uniformly boring challenges, and then rewarding you with even more difficult and boring challenges. (Little did I know that developer Rare’s games would only become even more so over time.) I could win the argument, though: the list also included Ms. Pac-Man, a a pizza-parlor favorite of me and kids everywhere, giving it a better spot.

Issue #102, which I recieved that Christmas in my stocking, introduced me to the world of videogame history; despite some inaccuracy, it was a fascinating look into the formative story of our industry, and it began my interest in the topic. Another issue had the Sonic Adventure cover story, which I pleaded with my mom for, and I then brought it to summer camp to flip through occasionally to comfort myself as well as to use it to inform my fellow campers how awesome the next year would be for Sega, defending the corporate giant from those who thought its hardware days were over following the Saturn’s woes. The story had many odd mistakes, such as saying that the game take place “on Earth, not Sonic’s homeworld of Mobius” (this sort of thing stokes an enormous fan debate, but the long and short of it is that Sonic and friends live on Earth, and it’s called “Earth,” but it’s different from our Earth), and that it took place in South America (really, it contained “the Mystic Ruins,” inspired by a trip to Aztec, Maya, and Inca ruins that the developers took before ever revealing the project). But, I forgave the mistakes, on account of the awesome visual spreads and the fact that I now had something to put under my pillow as I slept, something to remind me of my fandom back home.

Eventually, EGM‘s intrepid marketers selected me to recieve a free subscription (I don’t know what I did!), and so I have many issues saved up from the late 90s and early 2000s, for about two years or so. I fell in love with the “Hsu and Chan” comics that poked fun at the industry’s odd habits and shortcomings. (In one, our heroes, small-time game developers, try to upstage Gran Turismo 2 with an “ultra-realistic driving game” of their own: it includes such realistic touches as the “pounding on the hood and swearing” mini-game and the “try to get one last ride to Vegas outta this jalopy” challenge.) I cherished looks at games like Jet Grind Radio and Skies of Arcadia that would live on to be under-appreciated classics.

I’m sure if I went back and looked at my old issues of EGM, today, my fawning wouldn’t gush quite so freely. The rose-tinted specs would be off, and I’d see the relentless assault of immature ads, the even flow of courtesy sevens, and the excessive lightness of their approach to a serious (and seriously entertaining) medium. In retrospect, and I’ve known this for only a few years now, the real gift that EGM passed onto me was its gift of words.

EGM taught me to talk. It tought me to be snarky. It taught me to be unrelenting in my criticism but forgiving in my outlook. It taught me to laugh at the bad and see through to the good. It taught me to use big words in elegant ways that imply what they mean. It taught me the most important lesson of all: never forget, even and especially when your health is running low, your last save point was an hour back, and you’re about to fight the toughest end boss so far, that it’s all just a game.

Thanks, EGM. In my book, you’ve earned a perfect 10.

December 20, 2008

Footwear and its trajectory

Letters – When a President Is Treated With Disrespect – NYTimes.com
I’m appalled that Arabs are celebrating the act of a disrespectful Iraqi journalist directed at a president of the United States. If an Arab leader were treated with such disdain in the United States, the Arab world would react violently against all Americans.

That’s an amazingly dumb statement! Let me unpack it.

  1. Wait a second, we’re required to look at all leaders the same? The difference with President Bush is that they hate him. I don’t condone throwing footwear at world leaders, but you have to admit he’s a man after many people’s own hearts. (This journalist—and yes, journalists should not be inserting themselves, or their shoes, into their stories this way—reminds me of the old woman who took a hammer to a Comcast call center. I don’t condone what she did, but man, she did something many of us wish we could have done ourselves. They’re both proxies for our very real frustrations.)
  2. Um, you do realize that Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, was an outright jerk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he visited in 2007? There wasn’t a violent uprising, then (of course, part of that might have to do with the fact that Moodly-Bob isn’t very popular back home, either).  Ahmadinejad is a nutcase and a horrible man, to be sure, but Bollinger was both being a jerk to a visiting head of state and possessed none of the underdog status or the truth-to-power element of the shoe-tossing journalist. (He also endangered any future opportunities for students to get to see visiting heads of state, a valuable opportunity even—or perhaps especially—when these leaders are reprehensible.) You should really check these things, sometimes.

I think this argument boils down to “if things were different, wouldn’t they be different?”, which is not an argument I’m fond of. It’s like saying, why are you cheering that your home football team won? You’d be angry if the other team won. Stupid, stupid.

November 1, 2008

Of echidnas and columnists

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:30 am

I was doodling in class the other day when I realized this odd similarity:

On the left is New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. On the right is Angel Island standard-bearer and Master Emerald guardian Knuckles The Echidna. I now know where that brow comes from… Bob Herbert is secretly an echidna.

This made me consider further a critical election-year issue: what if the Sonic characters were New York Times columnists? Sonic would be the quick-on-his-feet, wise-cracking Frank Rich. Tails would be the prescient, detail-oriented Paul Krugman. Amy would be the bubbly Gail Collins, while Rouge would be the alluring and vacuous Maureen Dowd.

I’m still trying to match Kristof, Friedman, and Brooks. For Kristof, I can’t think of a Sonic character quite so coolheaded, even if his realistic idealism runs deep in the Green Hill Zone. For Friedman, I need someone with good ideas but has all the articulation and substance of a broken record. (Perhaps Omega: “Observation: world is flat. Recommend course of action: innovate out of crisis. Allocate six more months before additional decision-making.”) For Brooks, I need someone who is intelligent but paints the world around him in overly broad strokes, is convinced that his opinions are that of the vaunted “average man,” and often loses himself in the layers of his arbitrary abstractions. (Perhaps Shadow: “I must avenge Maria! The real issue is one of revenge versus the concept of restitution in evolving 20th century mores! This election will come down to whether the average voter prefers Chaos Control over Chaos Blast!”)

I do not, of course, need to tell you about William Kristol. What other bald man wants to export his vision of a perfect world through military might abroad? If he begins growing a moustache or hoarding small, cute forest animals, you may want to alert Frank Rich. Tell him to bring Krugman along.

August 13, 2008

Siné qua “Non!”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 6:24 pm

Letters – When Speech Is Hateful, How Free Should It Be? – Letter – NYTimes.com
Re “Aux Barricades! France and the Jews,” by Roger Cohen (column, The New York Times on the Web, Aug. 4):

Mr. Cohen defends Bob Siné, a columnist-cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, citing free speech issues.

But Mr. Siné’s editor, Philippe Val, did not prosecute him or arrest him for his anti-Semitic column; he merely fired him.

Just because I believe absolutely in free speech does not require me to publish any hateful screed that comes across my desk. Mr. Siné is free to publish, at his own expense, any bigotry he likes. But a journal aspiring to be respectable has no legal or moral obligation to participate in such hatred, and it may well have political and moral reasons not to.

(Rabbi) Jonathan H. Gerard

Easton, Pa., Aug. 4, 2008

Yeah, but even before the outcry over Siné’s hateful column, everyone already knew that he was an anti-Semitic jerkwad. For me, the puzzle comes down to “why now?” I could be charitable and say that the editor merely felt, given the outcry, that Siné no longer merited any kind of public standard (as he does not), that the French people had outgrown his childishness and it was time to move on. But I cannot help but hang my head and sigh at the editor’s decision to fire Siné in direct response to the outcry. He was fully aware that Siné was a cantankerous bigot. Why hire him (if, indeed, he was the editor who did)? Why keep him on so long? And why fire him amidst a storm of controversy? Perhaps they realized (correctly) that they never should have hired him, but I do not like the chilling effect of hiring known provocateurs and then firing them when they provoke, nor am I fond of writers and cartoonists being fired to placate an angry mob, or editors making such key decisions in a tense emotional environment.

Then again, I’d be on cloud nine if Michael Savage got fired one of these days for his hateful shtick (he makes Rush Limaugh look like a Care Bear). My question is… if Siné is so bad (and it sounds like he is), why wasn’t he fired before? And why would a responsible editor fire him in the heat of controversy?

June 10, 2008

The Fist of It

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:36 pm

I haven’t written about the fist bump yet because I think the whole issue is damned silly, and merely shows how far the pundit-verse is from the normal, human reality that we live in. But I wanted to say this:

I use the fist bump all the time, and I’m as white as they come. It’s not an attempt to look black, nor is it an attempt to mimic an affectation of a favorite rapper (I know jack-squat about rap). I think I’ve been using the fist bump for about five or so years, never consciously. It’s a genuine show of affection and solidarity. I think, in most cases, I would have used a hug or kiss had that been more convenient or acceptable. (Yeah, I’m a touchy-feely type.) When I want to affirm that I love somebody or that they said something that inspires me, I often say “that’s right!” and put up my fist in anticipation of a pleasurable reciprocation.

It’s simple human affection, and I think that’s the way most people saw it. In fact, I have to wonder if it’s simple human affection that these pundits are afraid of, or if they’re simply reaching for material.

A Brief History of the Fist Bump – TIME
For his part, Obama, who once likened himself to NBA star LeBron James, said the fist bump reflects a marriage that keeps him grounded. “It captures what I love about my wife,” he later explained to NBC’s Brian Williams. “That for all the hoopla I’m her husband and sometimes we’ll do silly things.”

April 13, 2008

Awesome Cissexual Columnists: Joseph Ho

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 8:13 pm

Taipei Times – archive

I haven’t written anything about the big “pregnant transsexual man” story because I have a bit of contempt for the international media with a big song-and-dance about what is an immensely personal decision. Why should a man feel somehow obligated, as some people seem to expect him to, to forsake the biological functions given to him at birth while affirming who he is through transition? A transsexual man, tragically, still cannot inseminate a woman, so the smug, lingering idea that somehow a transsexual man should be allowed neither the ability to give birth nor the ability to inseminate is insensitive and bigoted.

But, the good part of this whole “he’s pregnant” media circus is that it probably won’t have to happen again. Every transsexual has the right to decide how much he or she wants to transition, straight from no physical transition–where I am, at the moment–to a full slate of treatments and surgeries, and the sooner the public understands that, the better. What seems silly about this story to the trans community in particular, I imagine, is that many transsexual men forgo bottom surgery because the process of manufacturing a penis is experimental and constantly improving, whereas a constructed vagina is more or less like the one that about half of us get at birth. So the story, I’m sure, is nothing that any actual transsexual considers much to write home about. Why wouldn’t you want to keep around the biological tools you were given at birth? It’s not like they make you any less of a man, especially when the only other option is simply to be rid of them, with little as a trade-off.

The good news, though, as I said, is that, once this media circus is over, people around the world will be much more familiar with trans issues and much more comfortable considering the possibility. The tone of most of these articles seems to be voyeuristic curiosity, which, while annoying, had to happen at some time, and once it’s over I’ll be glad we’re done with it. A transsexual getting pregnant is not a huge deal, and the and it will be good for the rest of the world to realize this, even if it comes with a slightly snarky and irkingly condescending few news cycles of lurid obsession with one man’s very personal decision.

So, though these snarky and condescending articles have been steadily flowing through my Google alerts for some time now, I’ll pick this genuinely moving, and insightful, article from a paper in Taiwan.

Such turns are quite rare in the existing script of a transgender life. And this is exactly where the problem lies: Everybody seems to expect transsexual people to tell the same story, a story of “a soul trapped in the wrong body,” and the determined search to find a “true self.” And when this quest for the “true self” is to be proven with a relentlessness that strives forward regardless of the price to be paid, then how could a transgender person still harbor a lingering sense of attachment to their original reproductive organs, their sensual feelings and functions? Consequently, full identification with the target gender, and showing only the behavior of that gender, has become the only way for transgender people to validate their identity.

At a seminar on transgender issues three years ago in Taiwan, two brave female-to-male transgender people openly talked about difficulties in their sex lives. They posed a straightforward question to the audience: Should their female reproductive organs, their feminine feelings and their female patterns of sexual pleasure be forgotten and abandoned in the transition process? Why can’t the experiences of their life as women become a valuable source of wisdom in their new life as men? Why must they start from scratch? Why must old bodies be negated before a new life can begin?

Please read the rest. It’s a great article. This kind of innate, subtle, humble, objective respect is exactly how to be a good trans ally. Take a step back and remember you’re not a saint for discussing transsexual issues. We’re real people leading real lives, and your understanding–and respect–is greatly appreciated.

In fact, it tickles me pink, almost more than anything, when someone with no ties to the “trans” or “queer” communities brings up transsexual issues out of the blue in a polite and respectful way, affirming our simple desire to be understood as real people, as coworkers, as family members, as friends. When so much of the world is hostile to me and my people, it leads to a sort of constant on-edge feeling, the knowledge that people you know of and respect may be confused and frightened by who you are, if they ever met you. So when someone with no connection to me reaches out to my people and establishes himself or herself as a friend, I am happy.

April 7, 2008

Stephen King shows us something truly frightening: the obivous

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:35 pm

Stephen King on videogames | Videogames | The Pop of King | News + Notes | Entertainment Weekly | 1

What really makes me insane is how eager politicians are to use the pop culture — not just videogames but TV, movies, even Harry Potter — as a whipping boy. It’s easy for them, even sort of fun, because the pop-cult always hollers nice and loud. … It was too easy for critics to claim — falsely, it turned out — that Cho Seung-Hui (the Virginia Tech killer) was a fan of Counter-Strike; I just wish to God that legislators were as eager to point out that this nutball had no problem obtaining a 9mm semiautomatic handgun.

Thank you. The moment we stop obsessing over videogame violence, we can start tackling the problem of the real violence that tears apart our communities. I don’t want to say videogames are blameless… I don’t really like hyper-glorification of violence in any form, and I think that violence is often a clichéd, easy crutch for videogame developers, the same way sex is for TV and movies. But politicians who authorize unilateral invasions of other countries at the expense of countless lives, who prefer three-strikes posturing to a realistic approach to solving our nation’s crime problem, who will not guarantee universal healthcare even for our children, who will not take the country’s gun lobby to task or point out that less gun crime requires tighter controls on guns (even if such legislation, as all legislation, would never be perfect), and who start pointing their fingers at videogames for our nation’s ills, are hypocrites in the absolute worst way.

America has a violence problem, and self-righteous moralizing will not solve it.

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