Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Balance of Good and Evil

I can’t say I find this cover particularly appealing.

I got this book from the library when I happened to see it a couple weeks ago because I am interested in the author. Jane Jensen is a game designer – best known for the Gabriel Knight series of adventure games. She currently heads the independent game studio Pinkerton Road, which has a completely new business philosophy – community supported gaming (based on the model of farm shares and community supported agriculture). I had reasonably high hopes for this book – she is adept with character and dialogue, her games are very well-researched and rooted in history and a sense of place. The only books of hers that I had read, the two Gabriel Knight novelizations, were decent (the second one, The Beast Within being less tied to the exact elements of the game and therefore better than the first, Sins of the Fathers). I hoped that in a non-game-related novel, her prose style would be more well-developed, and I was looking forward to a historically-situated thriller-type book with a moderate fantasy/sci fi twist.

And that’s what I got, for the first 225 pages. It unfolds slowly at first, mixing elements of mysticism and a pinch of sci-fi. Four characters – a particle physicist, an Orthodox rabbi, a flaky tabloid journalist, and an agent from the Department of Defense – are closing in on a secret discovered by Yosef Kobinski, a physicist and rabbi who wrote a kabbalistic manuscript in Auschwitz and then disappeared. This manuscript contains a fundamental truth that could be used for spiritual enlightenment, but could also be adopted to create a uniquely dangerous weapon. Each storyline unfolds on its own, but just as they begin to converge and things seem to be perfectly situated for a cross-European, gun-swinging, action-packed second act, the book takes a complete left turn and turns out to be about something else altogether. Continue reading

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Xenoblade Chronicles — hour 10

Imagine the world is an endless sea, and in that sea stand two giants. These titans once lived and fought, but now they stand lifeless. Well…almost lifeless. On the corpse of the Bionis, a whole world has evolved, and it is under threat from an army born on the Mechonis come to destroy it.

This is the premise of Xenoblade Chronicles, a JRPG (Japonese role-playing game for you non-gamers) that my boyfriend and I have long looked forward to playing. It was written, designed, and directed by Tetsuya Takahashi, who was involved in many other seminal JRPG series (several Final Fantasy games, Chrono Trigger, and the similarly named Xenogears and Xenosaga games). My intention here is to provide a series of short pieces on my impressions of this saga as it unfolds. I’ll try and keep it interesting for everyone.

First off, Xenoblade Chronicles is an extremely beautiful game. The textures, the backgrounds, everything is lush and gorgeous. Take a look at this geographically impossible landscape:

Exploring this impossible version of the natural world is a very large part of the game. The main theme of the game is almost certainly about a connection with the natural world – protecting nature from an invading technological force. This is a very common theme to JRPGs, in in this game it is pretty explicitly, dichotomousy presented – the good people of the natural half of the world have to fight the creepy, overpowering enemy robots.

However, the gameplay mechanics of an RPG demand that you spend much of your time fighting abundant small enemies. This gives you experience, which leads to stronger attacks and more special skills, making it possible to defeat the main enemies. But in the world of Xenoblade, most of those small enemies that you are required to fight are random, beautiful animals making their way peacefully across the landscape. Not only are you strongly encouraged to slaughter the wolf-like, horse-like, or armadillo-auroch-like beasts that roam around in the oddly depopulated wilderness between settlements, but you can’t even hunt them in a reasonable manner. You mostly just go up to them and whale at them with your sword. It’s kind of disconcerting, especially when you succeed in knocking over a very horse/unicorn looking animal and proceed to hack it to death while it struggles to get up.

Nice to know that this guy can kick our ass, at least.

It isn’t really a major complaint – beating up on a zillion enemies who are somewhat weaker than yourself is part of the RPG genre and something you just have to appreciate for what it is. It’s just a bit disconcerting that one of the major ways you interact with the natural world in this game is to come at it with a sword.

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Life after life

With bony hands I hold my partner
on soulless feet we cross the floor
the music stops as if to answer
an empty knocking at the door
it seems his skin was sweet as mango
when last I held him to my breast
but now, we dance this grim fandango
and will four years until we rest.

– Olivia Ofrenda in Grim Fandango

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist. In between thinking about the problems of consciousness, perception, and willful decision-making, he wrote a small volume called Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. I would hesitate to call these little pieces short stories. They are more like philosophical doodles – precis to larger and perhaps deeper ideas. Each of these little vignettes posits some idea about what the afterlife might be like. Some stories propose that there is a God who has attempted to make a perfect Heaven, but humans being human, they turn it into a hell. Some of the stories involve a system whereby humans die, learn the rules the world operates by, and then obey these rules however difficult or arbitrary. In these stories, the dead (sometimes “dead”) fulfill their roles in the universe hoping that one day they will be reincarnated as humans and live again in blissful ignorance. The set of stories that I found most interesting probably plays most closely into Eagleman’s interests. These have to do with the scale of things and different levels of complexity. Just like a neuron has no conception of the thoughts it participates in, we and God might exist at such different scales that we can have no understanding of one another.

For all Eagleman’s playing around with the afterlife, however, I don’t know that he ever imagined that it might be fun. Tim Schafer’s 1998 computer adventure game Grim Fandango is a good corrective. The game takes its aesthetic from Mexican Dio de los Muertos folk lore, art deco, and film noir, among other inspirations. It is set in the Land of the Dead, which the deceased must cross before entering the gates of the Ninth Underworld and crossing into whatever lies beyond. Virtuous souls are rewarded with a solid gold, first class ticket on the Number Nine express train. Those who were less saintly in their lives are given a walking stick with a convenient compass in the handle and must cross the perils of the underworld on foot. We follow the afterlife of one Manny Calavera: grim reaper, travel agent, revolutionary, nightclub owner, ship’s captain and one-time beat poet. Continue reading

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Animals on paper

Today, my boyfriend and I visited the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. It is a lovely free weekend activity if you’ve got an ID at one of our schools – pick a few galleries, wander around a little, then take the T home. A little exhibition was up called Paper Zoo that called out to me, so knowing nothing about it, we went and found it. In a nice little room, there were displayed some images from the permanent collection. A labor of love, some curator had clearly wanted to share their delight at experiencing a wide range of depictions of animals – prints, drawings, and paintings both realistic and abstract. Some dated from the mid-sixteenth century, some were contemporary. The exhibit had a few modest goals – to show how the depiction of species has changed with different cultures and different artists, and to engage young viewers with the artwork.

This charming little room (which will be closing tomorrow, sorry) reminded me, as many things seem to these days, of a wonderful book – Birdscapes by Jeremy Mynott. This is one of the most interesting and satisfying books I have read in a while, one that I keep returning to in my mind. The book has the deceptively simple premise of exploring why birdwatchers love birds, but it touches on many areas. As he describes it in the first chapter:

[This book] is about our experience of birds: the reasons why we are attracted to them, the ways we encounter and describe them, and the significance they have in our lives. … I hope in the end to understand better the ways we think and talk about birds: their names and classifications, their role in our imaginative and emotional lives, and their representations in myth, folklore, and culture. The book is therefore at least as much about ourselves as about birds.

Like many people, I enjoy watching birds. I’ll even stop to watch or listen if I notice a species I don’t usually see or a behavior I haven’t seen before. I would say I like birds quite a lot. But I am no birder – I can probably only identify a couple dozen species by sight and practically none by sound (mourning doves and crows and … anything else?). I know a few birders, and to them, I would recommend this book heartily and without qualification. But what could I, ignorant of birds as I am, find so delightful in a book that lists in its index fully 683 separate species (it says, I didn’t count), probably as many as a decent field guide for the US? Well, just about everything. It’s hard to really critique or review a book that contained so many pleasures and surprises – the best I can do is say, go find it, go read it. It isn’t just about birds – it’s about human perception, human valuation of the natural world, human obsessions. It’s about what it means to love something outside yourself, and whether we can really ever understand another species on its own terms or if our own representations of it will always color what we know about it. It is wonderful. Continue reading

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