A few thoughts on Bioshock Infinite

Note: This was originally posted on the blog in November of 2013, but got lost in the shuffle with a transfer from one hosting service to another.

I haven’t played a lot of Bioshock: Infinite. I’ve got a lot of work on my hands at the moment, and I only finished King’s Quest I the other day. Hmmm. That’s an interesting combination of words to write in 2013. At any rate, I haven’t played a lot of the game, though I’ve played enough to sit down and write something relatively thoughtful. I hope.

First off, let’s discuss preconceptions. I absolutely adored the original Bioshock, as did many people. I’ve never encountered a twist so deliciously well done, and that game showed us what video games could do that other mediums could not. The role of the player was inverted, the linearity of first person shooters implicitly mocked, the mechanics and parameters of functioning gameplay presented as a major plot device. It was wonderful. More than that, the story did this central idea justice. Dodgy Irish accents aside, we were presented with a fully believable world. A vivid setting that suggested all kinds of backstories and origin myths that we might never have a chance to explore. That’s the key word really: exploration. Despite Bioshock’s linear progress you felt like you were exploring the city of Rapture. I ended the game as satisfied as I have ever been with a story told in a video game.

Then something funny happened. I have never gone back and replayed Bioshock. I played Half-Life 2 repeatedly for years. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll play Half-Life 2 again soon. But Bioshock? Never went back to that well. Bioshock 2 came and went. I didn’t particularly want to go back to Rapture. My interest never really solidified enough to give the game any kind of a shot despite numerous Steam sales, a friend loaning me his copy and the excellent (or so I hear and believe) Minerva’s Den DLC. The Bioshock spell had worn off, so much so in fact that I didn’t have time for Infinite either. I was a little worried by some of the ambition being put forth about the story and the setting and I wasn’t all that sold on Ken Levine’s interpretation of the historical context. The game was released, and I have a whole set of reviews, reactions and related articles in a bookmarked folder, waiting to be read once I’ve completed the game. Because, despite everything else and most unlike my approach to Bioshock 2 I always knew I would buy Bioshock: Infinite. I just expected to have problems with it.

Now, this might seem unfair. Truthfully, it’s completely unfair, unless the game ends up eliciting a more positive reaction from me because I went in with low expectations. However, this is why games can be different. And books, for that matter. Even as single-player games get shorter in length spent playing the game, I would have to believe (and certainly would hope) that people would have an issue with Bioshock: Infinite taking less than ten or twelve hours to complete. I’m not talking about speed runs here. I’m talking about cut scenes (or scenes set up to be as close to such as possible), talking to random NPCs, soaking in the atmosphere of the game. And shooting. The last of which I’ll address in another post at a future date. I want to enjoy the game, I want to luxuriate in it to a certain extent, I want to sit down and enjoy my time with it. A film will grab hold of my attention and demand that I stay focused from anywhere from ninety to one hundred and eighty minutes. A book can take a few days or a few weeks or even a few months. Video games, although this is somewhat dependent on the genre, can similarly be enjoyed at length. So, even if I do have issues with Bioshock: Infinite, I could still come away with a positive feeling about the whole thing.

So far, it has proven exactly thus. The dialogue is occasionally hokey, we’ve already had a dodgy Irish accent and a janitor determined to push the envelope in his role as a magical negro, speaking in an over the top accent that makes me a little uncomfortable and apparently recording audio diaries at rather odd moments that prove quite fortuitous to the plot. However, the positives are in greater number: the miscegenation raffle early in the game is a truly fantastic moment whether or not you choose to classify it as a reveal. The hinting at the “Vox Populi” terrorist group and the general propaganda has been fantastic, even if that is a bit of a silly name for said terrorist group. And the floating city…

My my, that city. What a dream this is. The moving buildings, the concept of different districts docking with others. The setting as a whole is wonderful. A quiet populace fully acquiesced to the notion of a theocratic supreme leader and the demonization of all cultures without and some groups imported to the underbelly of the city. I’m a little unclear on why exactly that was done, actually, other than to simply have people to clean up after the white folk. Maybe it’s that simple. I’m starting to worry that I’m going to encounter more of such simple solutions going forward. But we’ll see, I suppose.

Episode Twenty Seven: Strong Female Characters and Dystopian Settings

Three uninformed adult men discuss young adult fiction this week! The Hunger Games, Twilight, Starship Troopers, it’s all there. This is the kind of podcast that discusses Robert Heinlein in the context of young adult fiction, because we’re cool like that. Along the way John and Gus chat about Brave New World, but don’t worry as we don’t spoil one of the great classics of modern science fiction because John hasn’t finished reading it yet, and Bob very briefly gets into some Marxist theory and empowerment.


Episode Twenty Six: Homogeneous Electronica?

This week, we discuss developments from the world of prestidigitation with Gus’ Magic Corner and Bob and John try to convey why THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is so damn good without spoiling the film. You should all just watch THE CABIN IN THE WOODS if you haven’t already. The main topic this week is popular music and its transitions from the 1990s through to today. Is Katy Perry’s success that our civilization has long since begun to fall, or is the state of pop music now business as usual?


Pt. 2: Growing up in the Back Seat

I’m not sure why I remember my youth so vividly as one long journey in the back seat of my parents’ car. We did our fair amount of driving. I grew up near Belfast and both sides of the extended family were based in the far southwest of the country. Six to eight hour drives down to Limerick and Cork were a regular feature of my childhood, mammoth journeys by Irish standards. There were other driving trips as well: I remember my mother and father sitting in the front seats by dark windows as the car hurtled through the Ulster countryside with the promise of ice cream to come. I remember the family car driving into Carrickfergus and Belfast. We didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in the car by most standards, but I loved sitting in the back looking out the window and I remember it vividly now. It’s also the first place I remember being actively aware of popular music.
My memory betrays me now of course, and it’s hard to know if my father was as enamored with the motley collection of Americana classics that come to mind when I try to think back to that back seat now. The names and songs that persist for me are all big ones, in our household anyway: Don McLean, Don Williams, America, Glen Campbell, Gilbert O’Sullivan, James Taylor. This is only a selection of the rotation in the car but these are the names I remember, a mix of country and 1970s Americana with a slightly odd but talented Irish pop singer thrown in.

The Irishman cuts a particularly weird figure in my memory. Now, thanks to YouTube and other online searches, I have a clearer picture of his persona. O’Sullivan, originally at least, modeled himself in street urchin chic, belting away at his piano on “Top of the Pops.”[ref]The cancellation of “Top of the Pops”, the classic television show rendered obsolete in recent years, made me extremely sad despite the fact that I no longer watched it, had no intention of watching it and spent most of my teenage years complaining about it.[/ref] He was unapologetically “pop” in the way that nobody really talks about anymore. At some point, largely due to people like me, talking about yourself as a pop act or pop musician became incredibly lacking in hipness unless you intentionally drove the concept beyond any concept of reality and deep into the throes of carefully curated irony. Not so in the 1970s, when O’Sullivan’s flat cap and the curly mop of hair it contained sat in front of a piano and belted out song after song. O’Sullivan, for all his music’s flaws, knew how to write a song.

He was also an interesting songwriter in a manner that one would not at first appreciate upon seeing him and hearing his music. “Alone Again, Naturally” a huge hit for him in 1972, talked of a jilted lover considering suicide with the backdrop of an upbeat piano melody and wandering vocals. By far his most interesting song came in the form of an expression of social guilt: “Nothing Rhymed” (1970) sketched out O’Sullivan’s anxiety at the alienating experience of eating his dinner in front of the evening news’ coverage of famine in Africa.

“When I’m drinking my Bonaparte Shandy
Eating more than enough apple pies
Will I glance at my screen and see real human beings
Starve to death right in front of my eyes?”

“Nothing Rhymed” engaged with questions on the nature of morality in a world divided by wealth with people in O’Sullivan’s position enjoying the increasingly impressive creature comforts of the post-war recovery while others in Africa struggled to acquire enough food to keep themselves and their children alive. Again, O’Sullivan relied on his piano and distinctly pop-friendly vocals, though the song’s refrain with its build in tempo and circuitous lyrics is more a recurring bridge than refrain. “Nothing Rhymed” is the kind of song that advocates would argue today needs to be considered as something outside of simple “pop music” but that is not what O’Sullivan would want. It’s not what my parents wanted. I grew up on a diet of 1970s pop and an ethos of pop most clearly represented by O’Sullivan’s work. It’s funny; this connection with supposed absolutes such as “good” songwriting and lyrical integrity if anything fuelled my hatred of mainstream pop in years to come, a phenomenon that combined with the music industry’s chilling efficiency in controlling the medium has brought pop music to a different place in 2013.

O’Sullivan came to be, in my young mind, the personification of 1970s pop. As revealed by the list above however, I grew up in a household with musical tastes heavily influenced by Americana. Don McLean was central to this influence. “American Pie” (1972) is a very odd song indeed, one of those classics with which everybody of a certain age (and varying ages spanning generations) is familiar. Like “Hotel California” (1977), the song is seemingly written for drunken karaoke nights and groups of diverse ages and backgrounds. Everybody seems to know the lyrics and everybody seems able to commit to a shared experience as the song plays, masking the diverse experiences each of us have with the song.

My parents were of the same generation as the famous “Baby Boomers” of the United States, though such a demographic moniker has no meaning in an Irish context. Thanks to traditions of poverty, Catholicism and social interaction that generated a predilection among most Irish people towards large families, one could argue that Ireland’s “boom” lasted from the end of World War II until the beginning of the 1980s, though it is perhaps more accurate to point out that the 1980s saw the first decline in birth rates below a fairly solid standard (of about 19–20 births per thousand) for the first time in a century. My parents, then, were of a certain Irish generation: the first generation to have children in fewer numbers. Three, in my family’s case. This represented a specific place in Irish cultural and economic development; my parents were the first post-war generation, though that meant very little in the context of Irish neutrality. My generation, the generation of the 1980s, grew up in a social context defined by sectarian conflict, the appropriation of nationalist history by terrorists and the deathly slow deterioration of the Catholic Church’s role in defining public morality and political agenda. We also came of age during the heady days of the “Celtic Tiger,” when many Irish convinced themselves we had finally banished poverty.

That was still years in the future as I sat in the back of my parents’ car listening to “American Pie.” In the early 1980s Ireland’s place in the world seemed defined by the Irish relationship with the British and the ever-spreading diaspora throughout the globe. Thus, America existed in my young mind in two contexts: first, as a destination for Irish people abroad, home to members of my extended family and base camp for the inevitable Irish cultural domination of the planet; secondly, as an abstract concept that generated film and music. Films like BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) presented California as a mythical land of milk and honey, the veritable Tir na nOg of my favorite faery tales. In this context, “American Pie” represented a missive from afar. I didn’t know what a levy was as a young boy, let alone the considerably more abstract and confusing “Chevy.” I certainly didn’t know much about the plane crash that inspired the song in the first place.

I’ve never appreciated “American Pie” beyond the abstract, to be truthful. The song introduced me to some key concepts in popular music, though: lengthy, thoughtful lyrics. Storytelling in song. A catchy chorus. The sense, however illusory to an eight year old with little to no concept of The Big Bopper’s importance in modern pop music, of something meaningful beyond the song itself. Among other things, the song seemed to inspire impromptu sing-alongs without being cheapened by the process. “American Pie” is a true classic in the sense that it is remarkably difficult to undermine.[ref]Though Madonna did her best. Listening to her cover today, it is truly wondrous that anyone defended it. I often wonder how many critics actually turn off the television and listen to the music today. The music video has completely translated our consumption of the medium to something else, with positives and negatives.[/ref]

I often wonder at the preponderant influence of Americana in the music of my youth. It doesn’t seem a stretch that my taste for American rock music in my teens could be tied back to those journeys in the car, but what of my contemporaries? Surely I wasn’t the only one? Perhaps my childhood was exceptional and my friends were raised listening to the traditional music that I would encounter mostly at a slightly older age or the 1970s British pop that I know my parents liked but that I have no memory of hearing as a child. I don’t have any personal connection with the Bay City Rollers, and I know my parents liked Dexy’s Midnight Runners but it didn’t leave an impression. It’s a little odd that when I think back to my very first memories of music I think of American sources.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that my parents, and my father in particular, had a fondness for American music. Maybe my memory doesn’t betray me after all, and my parents really did think that much of Glen Campbell. It’s hard to know I suppose, but then this is what drives my curiosity about the genesis of musical taste: how dependent are we on what our parents choose anyway? I didn’t grow up to be a fan of country music, though I did grow up to become a huge fan of American music more generally. Perhaps my occasional weakness for soft-spoken ballads stems from formative years spent listening to plaintive country (and country-influenced) songs. Maybe I’m just a big softie and I was always going to like these songs regardless. Maybe I was born with specific aesthetic sympathies hard-wired in.[ref]It’s a weird idea, thinking about “nature vs. nurture” in the context of personal taste… I’m inclined to argue against any debate for natural tendencies because I lean against such debate generally, and to be fair, I don’t see much argument in favour of the idea. Still, it would be interesting if I could defend my love of Columbo with a fully socially acceptable exclamation that “I am who I am!” I suppose it works anyway.[/ref]

There was a lot of traditional Irish music, too, though that deserves its own treatment really. Funnily enough, I associate falling in love with Irish music with our family’s time in the Philippines though I know that it was a part of our lives before that and not just a product of homesickness. There was broader, more recent pop music as the 1980s took modern society in its grip and began to squeeze. There was always an interesting divide between the family’s communion around the television on Thursdays for “Top of the Pops” and the music played in the car, or at least there is in my memory. The television threw all the neon, lip-syncing and other odd accoutrements of 1980s entertainment production out at us, but only a select few made it into the car. Nik Kershaw, I remember distinctly, made the cut; my father often qualified, or rather certified, his musical choices via an evaluation of their songwriting integrity. This basic characteristic tied “The Riddle” to “American Pie” and has informed my own experiences with popular music ever since, though the inherent issues of linking the two didn’t occur to me for quite a long time.

Of course, trying to tie Nik Kershaw’s work to Don McLean’s would wear a little thin. I have no doubt it could be done. That’s the beauty of intellectual endeavour. I don’t see myself making much of a case here. Besides, Kershaw fell into a category all of his own in my own personal musicology, though I didn’t know it yet, alongside Joe Jackson and other pop songwriters of the early 1980s. At first he seemed like another addition to the car’s playlist.

I wish I could say that this early experience built a certain propensity towards eclecticism in my musical tastes… I suppose, to be fair, it did; it’s just that it’s more a case of faux-eclecticism, varying tastes within well defined and narrow parameters. There was no jazz in the car, virtually no blues… The Beatles made appearances but The Rolling Stones did not. No Dylan, nor either was there much evidence of the 1970s rock that I know now my father liked, though his tastes skewed populist into that odd arena of British 1970s pop-rock were Slade held sway somewhere to the left (or right) of the wonderfully Dickensian-monikered Uriah Heep.[ref]I’m not mocking Slade here, or Uriah Heep, not by a long shot; it’s just that my father has never hinted at any interest in getting the led out. This might be why I don’t like Led Zeppelin, but that’s a tale for another time.[/ref] I’m personally much more intrigued by the work of Ritchie Blackmore and his contemporary master guitarists, though those discoveries came later… By the early to mid 1980s at least my parents’ musical tastes had moved on. There was certainly no punk, though that’s for the best I think. I’m not sure discovering punk music as a child being driven around in the car by your mum and dad is the best introduction to the genre.

No, country music ballads and popular music leviathans are much more suited to that arena. Still, I can’t just discard these influences. Surely I have to take them as a starting point? To this day, I interact with popular music using a specific, distinct vocabulary. That vocabulary is not always informed or necessarily as high-minded as I perhaps would prefer it to be, but it is the vocabulary into which I fit my interpretations of music encountered for the first time. Song-writing, tone (thematic, not musical), sincerity, authenticity, emotion… these are all categories-cum-standards into which I fit the music to which I listen. Sometimes the fit is snug and sometimes loose; often I’ll shoehorn it in, choosing to ignore one or more of the categories. This vocabulary wasn’t fully formed by the time I turned ten years old of course. It continues to evolve and has inspired these posts. It must have a genesis however, and as far as I can tell that genesis is found in the back of a family sedan travelling through the Irish countryside at night. There are worse places to encounter popular music for the first time.

Rebel, Rebel: Tiny Death Star and Incentivizing Torture

There’s a new Star Wars game everyone!

I’m actually not a particularly big fan of Star Wars beyond the original films, and by no means am I attempting to stake out an elitist position: my interest in that trilogy is pretty slight anyway and has more to do with childhood memories and a broad love of sci-fi (SPACE!) than any kind of deep appreciation of the film’s themes or storytelling. I find the original interesting from an historical point of view in terms of its position in the transformation of the American film industry and the trilogy’s pioneering trail in brazen commercialism. The fictional universe itself doesn’t move me in any particular way, but neither am I particularly antagonistic towards the Star Wars universe either. I watched all three of the prequels in the cinema and I am open to new Star Wars films, TV shows, video games… It goes on and on. And on and on. And so forth.

Funnily enough, my encounter with this newest Star Wars product came about mostly by accident thanks to advertising in another mobile game: Pocket Trains. I’m not going to say much about Pocket Trains except that it was a lot more fun than I expected but dull enough to render me slightly embarrassed to admit to playing it. In any case, Star Wars: Tiny Death Star was soon on my “mobile device”[ref]I know this is the typical term now but I wish we could come up with a better one, collectively as a society. “Mobile device” sound so corporate, though of course our mobile devices are the ultimate corporate dream, inserting marketing messages into our psyches intravenously.[/ref] and squatting some prime real estate right there on my home screen, daring me to play it. Well, no. It wasn’t daring me to do anything. It’s just software. Still, it seemed only right to give it a shot. Lord knows I’ve spent precious seconds of my life playing worse.

Tiny Death Star is a derivative of Tiny Tower, a successful iOS/Android game that focuses on business management: the hiring of staff, purchasing of goods and expansion of property upwards in an apparently infinite skyscraper combed with stories dedicated to exclusive functional use (e.g. residential, retail, etc.) with no specific final goal in mind. There is, as far as I can tell, little or no management of pricing structures or supply chain manipulation beyond the slow-drip time delays designed to foster gentle addiction in the player. This is the object of the game, naturally, and Tiny Tower is a magnificent example of the specimen. It offers the opportunity to have “fun” with no investment but liberally offers opportunities for the player to reach into his or her virtual wallet to speed up construction of a new level or develop a boundless virtual repository to rival the riches of Solomon. Said riches can then be used to build more levels, hire more workers, order more goods… The player is presented with no object within gameplay beyond continuing to build; the game seeks to build that classic “one more turn” urging within the player without any other payoff or pretense at plot or character. The game is vacuous in the manner that only the mobile games of our age can truly achieve. Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man seem unfathomably deep by comparison.[ref]This is by no means a dig against two of the great classics. Rather, it strikes me as interesting that video games have been written off by large numbers of people for so long as something infantile and aesthetically shallow only for intentionally aesthetically shallow tripe to become widely accepted on smartphones across the world.[/ref] To be fair, Tiny Tower excels in uniting its purpose and its theme, seeking to make money from its player-base via micro-transactions by creating a gameplay model based on the spending of resources and the cultivation of hunger for more resources to spend.

If one takes the supreme capitalist impulse of the game as a given, and I suggest we should as there’s little reason not to do so, Tiny Tower functions perfectly well within its own defined parameters. Tiny Death Star is a perfectly serviceable licensed game, taking the basic model of the original game and adding cutesie Emperor and Darth Vader characters that lead you through a basic tutorial and then entreat you to fulfill basic missions for virtual cash rewards. Vader seems particularly interested in the Death Star taking off as some kind of commercial hub for the greater Alderaan system. Or something. I’m not going to pretend I can fake any kind of a decent Star Wars universe reference. It’s all done rather well, really. I’ve already encountered a couple of new races of alien with which I am completely unfamiliar. It’s entirely possible the designers are just making creatures up, of course, but they win either way: if they’re rehashing old alien race designs they are doing a good job of delivering “fan service”, if they’ve produced new designs well then… we can hardly complain about creating new art for a licensed game, can we?[ref]No. We can.[/ref] The developers have fully committed to a cartoony feel, as well. The Emperor and Vader are both little more than comic relief, but it’s all pitched well. It helps that the Star Wars universe has about as much weight as a Transformers spin-off at this point, but that’s being slightly disingenuous. Tiny Death Star is a well made game, and it can be quite funny.

That brings me to the game’s biggest problem, apart from the usual micro-transaction garbage: it charts rather worrying moral territory. Specifically, you’re playing the bad guys. Now, this in itself is no issue, and playing as the Empire in Star Wars games is often a good idea. The problem is that in reviving some of the more memorable tropes from the original trilogy, this unassuming mobile game that seeks to earn money from you by a thousand cuts rewards you for torturing rebels.

I have no interest in dabbling in outrage, mainly because I’m not outraged. For one thing, the game manages to be relatively tasteful in its encouragement of torturing rebels for information, if you can believe it. The most egregious reaction I could imagine the game eliciting would be a particularly underwhelming “meh”, that great expostulation of our age, that masterpiece in half-heartedness. No outrage here. It is rather troubling though. This game, already solidly within a moral vacuum in regards to its economic reason for being, also seeks to turn the concept of torture into a monetizing mechanic. One of the floors available to construct within the Death Star is “imperial”, a level reserved for the administration of torture of the Emperor’s enemies in an interrogation chamber built below the basic zero level, a -1, while the toy store and gym inhabit floors 4 and 5 respectively. The torture itself is described as the act of “creating” rebel secrets. You don’t uncover the secrets or ascertain the details of rebel secrets. You acquire the secrets, themselves another fungible good within the context of the game’s business management theme. Yet within the interrogation level the famous torture droid hovers as stormtroopers potter about above. It’s all very… odd.

Odd but not offensive. As I say, no outrage here. It seems like a waste of energy. I am infuriated by a particular type of moral equivalency within a commercial product defined by a different type of moral equivalency! Honestly, the fact I’ve played the game long enough to unlock its torture rewards more or less disqualifies me from criticizing the game on a moral level. I haven’t spent a penny, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve clicked and waited for money to refill to start another level, I’ve chuckled at one of those flesh-dreadlock things going through the motions on a space treadmill. As I say, the game is done well.

The torture though… it seems so unnecessary and in truth it’s profoundly weird. Not as weird as, say, the Emperor welcoming you back to a play session by informing you how much money the Death Star made in your absence, but pretty weird all the same. What’s worse, the fact that a game designed for such a broad (and potentially young) audience can refer to torture obliquely as part of its reward model or the fact that said model, with all of its naked capitalist exploitative vim, has become ubiquitous on smartphones across the planet? I don’t have the answer to that really. Well, I do: the latter is clearly worse, because there’s no way the public sphere would sustain a boom of torture themed cartoon video games whereas it is clearly open to dominance of the “casual games” market bordering on hegemony by barely disguised scams. The scams themselves, like Tiny Death Star, can have quite a bit going for them, but scams they remain. It’s depressing to think about, but people spend money on these things. In principle that’s not an issue because another person’s money is theirs to do with as they wish, but the truth is that you’re not being offered anything for your money short of a built-in workaround past artificial barriers to playing the game in a straightforward manner. So, to add the prospect of rewarding the player for torturing faceless opponents to the Emperor’s will doesn’t obscure the inherent awfulness of the genre as a whole; it merely begs the question of how much farther all of this is going to go.

Visions of the Future

I’m building a PC.

This is very exciting for me. I’ve never built one, but I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while. The consoles are finally moving on to the next generation, and for the first time in a decade I don’t care. Neither machine really interests me and Microsoft and Sony’s interest in locking down the user experience bothers me much more than it used to. I suppose one could attribute this to the Xbox 360’s almost comical descent into interactive billboard over the last two years, or perhaps I’m becoming more libertarian as I grow older. That’s the usual political shift with age, right?

At any rate, it feels like time to move to the PC. In truth, to “future proof” against the coming console quantum leap from games that look very good to games that look a little bit better than that and the accompanying console ports that need a $799 graphics card to run at a 640×400 resolution,[1] I’d probably have to spend a lot more money than it would cost to purchase one of the new machines. In fact, to build the kind of PC that might get random people on the Internet to just SHUT UP, I’d probably spend the amount it would cost to buy both of Sony and Microsoft’s newest gifts to the Madden-playing masses.

I’m not going to do that though. Instead, I’ve bought the parts to put together a pretty decent machine that will run current games rather well. People in the know refer to such a build, rather worryingly considering the price, a “mid-range” PC. That’s fine. You see, the PC has a secret weapon that I didn’t care about an awful lot a few years ago but that now dominates my gaming experience: versatility. I want to play indie games and I want to play big budget games involving dragons. I want it all. I can get it all (or most of it) on PC. When the time comes I can go out and buy a new graphics card or a new processor or more RAM or whatever I want. I’m committing to having the same computer for the next twenty years essentially.[2]

In any case, I’ve been playing PC more than console for quite a while now anyway, hobbling on with my increasingly decrepit machine for the last year and a half. Cheaply available games online has been the key; I very rarely feel the need to buy a game when it’s new these days because I’m so busy with work that I miss all the interesting conversations anyway. There’s also the little issue of backwards compatibility, now a distant memory in console-land but a staple of PC gaming. The idea that the marketplace could become constrained in a manner even remotely similar to the consoles so energizes the PC base that much of the backlash against Windows 8 has been centered on Microsoft’s desire to close off the video game market within a Windows-controlled ecosystem. That and the start button. When did people start caring about the start button? I have a healthy library of video games in my Steam library and I can download whatever ones I wish once I’ve set up the new PC. Boom. They’ll just… work. The PC requires a bit of investment of time and money to start but once I have that boulder moving momentum should take over. That’s the plan, anyway.

On the podcast Bob asked me if I had a game I was looking forward to playing at high settings. I didn’t quite have an answer for him, though I suppose Total War 2: Shogun is as good a candidate as any. I might actually give Empire: Total War a shot, as my old PC rather confusingly proved utterly unable to get it up and running despite doing reasonably well with the newer Total War game. If you consider apparently sweating and wailing in terror doing “reasonably well.” The truth is I haven’t given it a lot of thought, because being able to run a game at 1280×720 has been such a huge success for so long. My Steam collection contains a significant backlog, including games that once displayed the awesome horsepower of my new graphics card back when it cost $349. I’ll get to play PC games at a high resolution with high graphical setting. I don’t even know what to expect. All I can ever remember about advertising for high end graphics cards is that there seems to be a lot of focus on hair. Bodies of water too, I suppose, but mostly hair.

Now that I think of it, I’ll probably put on a game with lots of snow and moving parts. So, yeah. Shogun 2 it is. I’m certainly not interested in buying a Lost Planet game. I’m not insane.

So far I’ve been thinking about the change in my video game experience purely in terms of being able to play games that have been tough to run on my current machine, but of course it’s more than that. In addition to the increased immersion and exposure to the intent of a game’s artists, the mild but still troubling stress of a drop in the frame rate and load times long enough to give me time to come and write a blog post will be gone. The time I spend playing games will become more valuable, which is nice seeing as my time has suddenly become valuable. I didn’t see that coming.

  1. One could bring up the Ship of Theseus here, but I’d rather mention Trigger’s Broom.  ↩

  2. I used to find people online complaining about shoddy console ports tiresome, but GTA IV has embittered me forever. ↩

Discovering the American Pastime

My first memory of baseball is of seeing the game on my
grandmother’s television in Cork city in 1987 or 1988. It was the New York
Mets. Don’t ask me how I remember this, as I remember nothing else about the
game. I don’t even recall what time of year this was, so I don’t know if it was
spring training, a regular season game or even the post-season. This was Cork
city, home to great teams of both hurling and gaelic football, the center of
old fashioned rugby union in the south and, as Ireland’s second biggest city,
soon to become a stronghold of Irish soccer. Baseball was not on the radar of
many people in Cork.

My grandmother had MultiChannel, a local service that
provided about sixteen channels via a small black box on top of the television.
Otherwise one could watch two channels over terrestrial television. The breadth
of selection, though a bounty to the generation before us that had been happy
with one station, was often referred to dismissively as “Bog One and Bog Two”
in schoolyards. The MultiChannel was popular because it gave affordable access
to English stations, which by the time I stood in front of my grandmother’s
television watching baseball added a whopping four stations to the original
two. Beyond that lay a number of stations with minimal effect on me, until Sky
One’s rigorous syndication of Star Trek: The Next Generation a few years later.
The French language station Canal Plus, the German station Sat 1 and the
sports channel Eurosport rounded out the coverage. This latter station hosted
the baseball, as was its wont; Eurosport presented itself as a channel
presenting a continental European slant on things but as far as I could gather
it was left with the dregs of sporting events the terrestrial channels chose
not to cover. Eurosport was the place to go for winter sports, off-season track
and field and the occasional bit of cycling. On this occasion the channel
showed baseball.


I have to confess that the game, or rather the few minutes
of the game I watched, had little effect on me. I had no context, for one
thing; I knew nothing about the successful 1986 Mets. I had no idea who Daryl
Strawberry was, let alone Keith Hernandez. In fact, I would become familiar
with both of these figures on television before I became aware of their
sporting legacies, Strawberry as the suck-up to Monty Burns on The Simpsons and
Hernandez as an object of Jerry Seinfeld’s smitten affections. Baseball was
supremely foreign in a way that it’s hard to fathom for me now, having lived in
the United States for almost a decade, fallen in love with an American woman
and become a soon-to-be father of an American child. He will likely see his
father as some kind of odd Irish weirdo. That’s certainly the aura I hope to
cultivate, anyway. I now spend weekends watching American football and much of
my summers watching baseball.

My conversion to baseball was by far the most recent and in
some ways more profound. I developed a taste for American football at a young
age, despite the fact that this was an extremely rare taste to develop on my
own in late 1980s/early 1990s Ireland. So isolated was I in my fandom that when
I met an Englishman in Sheffield in 2002 that also liked the sport, we bonded
immediately. He was in my wedding. There were other factors too. We both liked
metal, for instance. However, he was the first person I had met and hung out
with that was open to the idea of staying up until four am drinking beer and
watching the Dallas Cowboys. He was already doing it before I met him, in fact.

He also liked baseball. I didn’t. Baseball was too arcane
for me, and as a result I had long since dismissed it, even questioned its
viability as a sport. It was foreign in the very real sense that it appeared
quintessentially American, and although I was far more amenable to American
culture than most of my European contemporaries, sport provided a final
frontier of sorts. American football was different, or perhaps it filled my
quota of Americana weirdness to that point; basketball seemed like a waste of
time and ice hockey close enough to a European sporting ethos to seem
attractive but never quite convincing enough for me to start paying attention.
America was off on its own, a strange oasis of odd, commercialized sporting
enterprises that rejected my one true love: soccer.

It was that connection that helped draw me in, in the end. I
started working on sports history during my doctoral work and a good friend
asked a simple question: “Why do they play baseball in Taiwan?” This drove a
project that ended up, of all things, comparing baseball in Taiwan to Gaelic
Games in Ireland in terms of their political and social significance. It also
started an interesting process for me personally. In order to be able to write
about the sport effectively, I reasoned, it was no longer acceptable for me to
practice an aggressive ignorance about the sport’s culture and the culture of
those that appreciated it. I set myself a crash course on the game and began to
read: Joe Posnanski, Howard Bryant, John Thorn, David Block, Bill James, the
ubiquitous Moneyball by Michael
Lewis… There are many more that I have yet to read but surely will. I watched
Ken Burns’ nine innings (and his tenth), I actually started… watching games.

I had been to baseball games before. I always enjoyed it as
a spectacle. I was, at baseball games at least, the person I had always hated
at soccer matches, the very person that marketing departments desired to go to
the games. Somebody willing to buy a ticket and spend a little bit of money in
the stadium, and… well, I think that’s all marketing departments wanted. My
first ever Major League game was in 2000, when I attended a Giants-Dodgers game
at Pac Bell Park. I remember a Dodgers fan being escorted from the stadium
after the Giants fans surrounding him had been unpleasant, which struck me as
highly unfair; Americans didn’t seem to be very good at this rivalry thing. On the train to the stadium, we were
briefly joined by a man wearing a t-shirt bearing a motto he was only happy to
repeat at volume: “Duck the Fodgers!” I wasn’t overly impressed. 

My friends, all young Irishmen like me, wanted to depart
from the cheap standing area we had bought our way into and to take a nicer
seat in the stands. Being an abject coward, I argued against the approach until
it became clear that people were leaving with worrying regularity. I’ll always
remember the large man leaving with his daughters just after the seventh inning
stretch. He approached us purposefully and yelled “dirty hippies!” Being, as we
were, twenty year olds in unkempt jeans and cords with pretty liberal haircuts
(in a maintenance sense, not a political one) I assumed that he was focusing
his ire upon us. Then the hand came up and I performed one of the first
un-ironic high fives of my life. He took his daughters and left; we took his

Marvin Benard scored a three run homer in the bottom of the
ninth to win the game. We thought it was cool. 
In 2008 I witnessed Marlon Byrd hit a walk-off grand slam at the
Ballpark in Arlington to break a tie with the Yankees. I lost my mind. I often
try to recreate Benard’s homer in my mind and try and generate a more suitable
response, but it’s impossible of course. We thought it was cool. We went on
with the rest of our evening. I’ve often told the story since, though until
recently I claimed that it was Barry Bonds, and not Benard, that scored the
winning home run. The truth is that Bonds didn’t even play that day. Now, this
could be an example of the perfidy of memory but in truth I think it’s rather
more mundane: Bonds is a more interesting story so I choose to remember Bonds.

So what connection could there be to soccer in all of this?
As I suppose would be typical of my interests, the history of the game drew me
in. Baseball, at has existed and continues to exist in the northeast of the
United States, is a game of loyalties and latterly, of betrayal. The American
phenomenon of teams moving locations, such anathema to my European
sensibilities, has as its ultimate example the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers
for the west coast. I suppose we can talk about the Baltimore Colts stealing
away in the night, but the Dodgers is the better story, the better example of
trauma inflicted on an entire community. The Dodgers led an exodus west, to
that place where the sun always shines and excited men demand high fives of
scared Irish college kids before leaving a game with two innings to go. Boston
and New York are home to the game’s history, where urchins in flat caps broke
windows and scurried off from the wrath of their neighbors. That resonated with
me because I did the exact same thing, though with a soccer ball, and in less
oppressive settings than the poverty of urban New York at the turn of the
twentieth century. Baseball fans care about their teams as well, and this meant
something to me. Yes, fans of other sports care about their teams, but it’s
just so sanitized in the American experience. The NFL has been too successful
in monetizing itself, in recreating the sport as a television product. The NFL
champions the fan that trades in body paint and mugging for the camera. The
advertisers focus on the concept of fan loyalty to a lesser extent, but it’s all
on the surface. Basketball threw its lot in with the superstar model and that’s
been successful too. But baseball…

Baseball is nerdy. It’s weird. That arcane nature that so
turned me off as a child is a large part of its appeal for me now. Look at the
people that write about baseball, that talk about it on television. They’re
generally not the cool kids. Don’t get me wrong; cool is overrated. I identify
more closely with them. In that sense, I have come to baseball not because the
sport reminds me of soccer, or because the culture of baseball resembles the
culture of soccer (though I believe it does in some key ways) but because the
way I have come to feel about baseball mirrors the way that I feel about
soccer. In the case of both sports, I enjoy intellectual discussions based on a
rational approach and I willingly give in to the enjoyment of completely
irrational impulses. I’m not a fan of the concept of “narrative” in sports
because I feel it’s a concept utilized and followed a little too closely by
people whose job it is to write about sports. However, I will confess to
wanting a specific team to win for no real reason, for liking certain players
and disliking others, for having a completely irrational (and unfair) dislike of
an entire organization for no apparent reason. My love is baseball is exactly that, or has become that: love. It will never displace my love of soccer but it’s come closer than I ever thought possible. My enjoyment of baseball and of
soccer, and my practice as a fan of both sports, makes no sense. That’s the way
I like it.

Towards a Personal Musicology, Pt. 1

A close friend and I often joke that our taste in music crystallized in 2003. I suppose one could argue that ossification first set in around then; as much as we supposedly have our tongues in cheek, the truth is that I haven’t made a huge amount of effort to discover new music in the last decade. Not that I don’t, of course; it’s just that I don’t make finding new music a priority. 

Part of the problem is the simple fact that I don’t listen to as much music as I used to. I listen to news programming an awful lot more than I did twenty years ago and I have a regular rotation of podcasts to get through week to week. Such programming takes up all of my listening time: a fairly sizeable commute to work and periods of physical exercise.

I rarely listen to music at other times, at least not actively. I don’t pay particularly close attention to music playing in bars or restaurants when I’m out and about, typically because I don’t like the music enough to become particularly curious. There’s nothing new there. Where my appreciation of music was once driven by a need for discovery, it’s now driven by a nostalgic tendency to celebrate the familiar and, often, to denigrate the unfamiliar. This seems reasonable to me… I mean, there hasn’t been any good music produced since 2003.

For a long time I’ve accepted this state of affairs, though I’ve refused to condemn my love of music to my teenage past.  I don’t believe music is a product for the young, as much as those who control the music industry may believe this to be so. Beyond that however, I don’t think about the medium as much as I used to and I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. I feel that I’ve lost much of my authority to speak about popular music in any kind of critical way.

Now, that’s pushing things, just a little. When I consumed music in great amounts, particularly throughout my teenage years, my critiques of popular music forms I didn’t like where not necessarily of a notably high intellectual level. In fact, I mostly consumed popular music through a mechanic dominated by my own ideological perceptions and an emotional appreciation of the form. In that sense, I didn’t have much authority in the first place. Of course, we’re getting into sticky territory here, especially when talking about a popular cultural form. Do I really have to have a solid background in music theory to point out I think that the majority of popular music produced today is garbage? Surely the clear disposability of the medium lends itself to such criticism.

There’s also an additional level here that makes me a little uncomfortable, specifically the idea that my distaste for current popular music is driven as much by a growing generational gap as by anything else. My immediate riposte to that would be that I used to be considerably harder to please; if anything, my taste in music is considerably more populist now than it once was. You’ll notice however, that I am completely failing to get away from a personal understanding of music. This calls the notion of being critical into question, really. When I complain about the contrived shallowness of contemporary pop, I am not necessarily criticizing the form in the context of what has come before but am rather reacting negatively to what I see as an unopposed victory for commercial interest in a supposedly creative process. This is the constant. This is what drives me crazy. That opposition to commercialism in music, or at least the commercialism run rampant that has utterly corrupted the popular music scene and rendered plagiarism a virtue assuming you have the connections, derives from a personal interpretation of popular music’s function and importance more than a clinical interpretation of the form’s relevance in modern society.

This brings me to the concept of a personal musicology. Increasingly, I find myself wanting to engage with popular music once more and to write about it critically. I have little interest in acquiring a particularly substantial understanding of present-day popular music however and I lack the tools (particularly in the field of music theory) to analyze popular music in a manner that I would find satisfactory. Instead, I’d like to think about my own reactions to popular music and the evolution of the thought processes that feed those reactions: a musicology not of the self but of my self. This is of course pushing the limits of propriety regarding personal vanity just a little bit, but hey: this is the Internet and it’s the twenty-first century.

Having said that, there’s no merit to writing glorified diary entries and posting them to the Internet, though I’m not sure that’s possible anyway. I can’t simply recreate the reactions of my twelve-year-old self to hearing Radiohead for the first time or of my sixteen-year-old self discovering The Velvet Underground. It’s just as well, though. The truth is that writing essays based on how I view those discoveries now should be far more interesting. That’s the goal of this little series that I’m starting today: to go back to the start and make the journey back to the present anew, asking questions all the way. As I’ve already written here, I understand my appreciation of music to be driven mostly by ideological factors, but I’m looking forward to remembering the passion of my teenage years in particular with the context of my 20s already behind me. My personal musicology is not over, as much as I might believe that 2003 marked the end of my active participation in popular music as a medium. It continues to evolve. As an historian, surely I should study my past to understand my present? I hope you join me and I hope you find the journey interesting.