BC or Bust

December 9, 2010

(Originally published on Explicit Gamer, a videogame website that vanished into the ether overnight)

We have been blessed with a console generation that seems to extend to infinity. Sony won’t utter a whisper of the mere possibility of a next machine; Microsoft prepares to roll out its motion-based Natal functionality for the 360; Nintendo counts the billions earned from the Wii and DS which don’t have to be sunk into research and development. Nevertheless this current cycle will end, and if you listen closely, you can hear the buzzwords of the future: 3D, voice recognition, digital distribution, cloud computing. What you can’t hear, what these company’s representatives won’t dare let slip, is one from the past: backwards compatibility. Indeed, there is a frightening possibility that these technological marvels residing on the digital horizon will not play the games which you and I currently own.

This possibility becomes a probability when you consider how little regard gaming bigwigs hold for those gamers who do play older games on their spiffy new consoles. “Nobody is concerned anymore about backwards compatibility,” former Xbox VP Peter Moore once famously declared before adding, “we under-promised and over-delivered on that.” On this issue he finally had some common ground with his rivals at Sony, such as Director of Marketing John Koller who whipped out the charts and graphs before concluding, “Most consumers that are purchasing the PS3 cite PS3 games as the primary reason.”

Elaborate justifications fueled by research and focus testing are not necessary. Anyone who spends several hundred dollars on a video game console is obviously going to gravitate toward the games and features that “show off” this expensive new gadget. What Moore and Koller fail to grasp is the same fact that market leader Nintendo has completely embraced: classic video games are the legacy of the medium. By denying gamers easy access to prior generations’ games, executives are cutting off gaming at the knees.

Film and music lovers have a huge catalog of titles, collectively spanning centuries, from which to draw. We gamers don’t have this. Our catalog primarily consists of whatever games were released in the current generation, plus the ones that the console manufactures have seen fit to toss back out there and charge money for. The idea that a system called the PlayStation 3 does not play all games bearing the PlayStation banner is ludicrous. The fact that Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, an acclaimed game that debuted five years ago on the original Xbox, is completely unplayable on the Xbox 360 is ludicrous. The certainty that the only way to play these incompatible games is on the systems they were originally released for is, likewise, ludicrous. Do Blu-ray fans keep a DVD player nearby for watching old DVDs? Of course not. Movie execs understand that new technology should render old hardware obsolete, while video game execs are content to see the software fall into oblivion. The gaming overlords need to be reminded that consoles are only as strong as the games we play on them. Without software — new and old — this business is dead in the water.

In the age of optical media, lack of backwards compatibility is indefensible. Microsoft certainly had its reasons for going with limited emulation-based BC for the Xbox 360, as did Sony for stripping newer PS3s (and all European ones) of the function. However, these reasons boil down to one thing: money, and the reluctance to spend it. Moving forward, financial excuses just don’t cut it anymore. These companies need to provide full BC in their next consoles on Day One, or they fail. It is their duty — to the consumer and video gaming as a whole. It’s time to start building a catalog of games which pushes forward while honoring the past. It’s time to stop hitting the reset button.

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Justified – “Blowback” (Season 1, Episode 8)

June 4, 2010

Eight episodes in and I’m starting to realize that what I love about this show is the same quality that gave me pause at the start of the season. When Justified premiered, I must admit that I was expecting to see a dark, brooding drama: a modern-day Deadwood with a healthy dose of Shield-ian grit. But what struck me is just how gosh-darned friendly the show really was. Within the first ten minutes, Walton Goggins blew up a church with a bazooka, but the whole thing was played for not laughs exactly, but a lightness of heart that you wouldn’t find on your typical crime show. It felt a bit like some of the silly 80s action shows I watched as a kid (and more than a bit like ABC’s Jeff Fahey-led The Marshal that aired in the mid-90s).

It still does.

But now that I’ve had seven more episodes to become comfortable with the tone and characters, this initially-befuddling looseness and lightness has become the most attractive aspect of the show. Justified has a loose, almost improvisational, quality that makes for a smooth, fun watch.

And most, if not all, credit for this has to fall at the door of Timothy Olyphant. His Marshal Givens sets the tone for the show: laconic, playful, violent when tested. He’s got a laid-back Southern charm that allows him to appear friendly to his quarry, and a mean streak which enables him to put a bullet in them. And the latter he has done quite a bit already, so much so that the show has strained credulity at times.

So then one of the great joys of this episode is that this time Raylan is the one guy in the room who doesn’t want bloodshed. The scenario is one we’ve seen a million times before: a convict has taken a guard hostage within the federal office and is threatening to kill the poor guy if some demands aren’t met. The SWAT guys are called in, of course, and our hero is the only thing standing between negotiation and a very messy scenario.

And it is here where “Blowback” veers from the norm. You see, the criminal in question seems to already know the feds’ response before they do. He knows how these negotiations go down, has an innate understanding that they rarely end well. And in a striking character turn, Givens wants to defuse the situation and keep his office’s carpet cleaning bill at its usual rate. There is a self-awareness at play here that keeps even this hoary old hostage situation feeling fresh.

When’s the last time one of these hostage plots hinged on a bucket of extra-spicy friend chicken? Raylan uses the local favorite as a peace offering to get close to the bad guy. (And before I go any further, how great was it to see Olyphant and fellow Deadwood alum W. Earl Brown verbally sparring like they did in the old days?) And the two men interact like kindred spirits on opposite sides of the law.

It’s here where the code of Raylan Givens starts to crystallize in my head. Raylan cannot abide dishonesty; his disdain for Boyd Crowder stems from his belief that the guy is a phony. His compassion (as in, not shooting the perp on sight) for the hostage taker in this episode, or the older prison escapee who held up a convenience store a few weeks ago, comes from a place of understanding. He sees a little bit of himself in these criminals. His own ex-wife calls him, “the angriest man I’ve ever known.” This statement, coming at the tail end of the episode where the church is blown up, is jarring.

Which brings us to Boyd. This hour’s final scene hints that Boyd and Raylan are much more similar than either of them ever believed. Boyd gets released from prison due to Raylan’s malfeasance with young Eva. The marshal comes to see his adversary off. The gorgeous cinematography paints the subtext: two men in black standing against a blown-out background of grays.

Treme – “Do You Know What It Means”

March 15, 2010

Community is one of the great casualties of our modern era. Just walk down your street or the hallway of your apartment and attempt to say hello to the first person who crosses your path. And then shudder at the painfully awkward feeling that creeps down your spine once this neighbor passes. We have all read about or heard tell of nurturing hovels of like-minded individuals who share food, drink, conversation, and generally just help each other out under all circumstances. If we’re lucky, we may even know someone who has experienced first-hand this societal nirvana. But the sad truth is that in the real world, in the offices and coffee shops and clogged freeways which define our daily existence, people just don’t give a shit.

I can think of no piece of popular entertainment that has more powerfully and heartbreakingly illustrated this concept than The Wire. Over the course of five seasons, David Simon’s ode to Baltimore painstakingly detailed the sense of togetherness that has been destroyed by the machine of daily life, and the destructive communities that have arisen in its absence.

But while that show seemed to focus on the evils the lack of community brings, Treme looks at the utter joy, love, and hope it can provide. What better tour guide to this world, then, than the eternally smiling face of Antoine Batiste (The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce)? The trombonist drifts from gig to gig, a restless spirit haunting the streets in search of rent and gas money. He has no plan and no cab fare. He shows up where he is needed and where he might be needed, powered by the good will of his peers. He has a woman and a child to support (relation so far unclear) but he is nothing if not a free spirit. In his joviality and sunny disposition, we see the possibility that everything might just turn out okay.

On the other side of the coin is Albert Lambreaux, played with magnificent gravitas by Clarke Peters. He returns home following Katrina to find his home in ruin. Deciding to shack up at the local abandoned bar, he needs some help clearing out the debris. For this he turns to a friend who holds a FEMA clean-up contract; unfortunately, the friend isn’t going to do a job for free, despite the fact that Peters is a fellow tribesman. He is gonna take some convincing. And the scene in which this friend finally relents, where Peters shimmies out of the darkness wearing full-feathered ceremonial regalia and delivers an impassioned appeal to his friend’s sense of tribal unity, is among the most original and beautiful sequences I’ve ever seen on television. Here and elsewhere, you would be forgiven for forgetting that Peters is the same actor who played strait-laced detective Lester Freamon on that other David Simon show.

What’s interesting about Treme is that although it takes place in the months following the storm, it’s never actually about the storm…at least not yet. You get the sense while watching it that these characters are going about their lives much in the same way they did before tragedy struck. This isn’t the cliched tale of individuals banding together in time of crisis; the fact that their companionship is as deeply rooted as it is enables them to endure.

So it’s a little ironic that for a show set in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the scenes which tackle the fallout of the storm head-on are its least compelling. We see Bautiste’s ex-wife in a search for her missing brother. Her grief and confusion is capably portrayed, but the actual detective work (the blowing-up of photographs and calling-in of favors from police officers) is somewhat rote. These moments are necessary to provide context, but they are nowhere near as thrilling as the numerous scenes of jazz players playing for (in Bautiste’s words) “that motherfucking money.”

Treme works best as a vibrant collection of vignettes: Bautiste good-naturedly scams cab drivers on his way to gigs, a community advocate (played with equal parts warmth and rage by John Goodman) engages in a tet-a-tet with a snooty Britiish reporter about the relevance of New Orleans, the abrasive local deejay (a livewire Steve Zahn) rescues his musical contributions from a dead Tower Records. Simon has an acute understanding of human behavior, and the cast of characters he has assembled here is unquestionably alive.

It all makes for an exhilarating hour-plus of TV, a study of a town and culture that many of us haven’t experienced but probably should, and a dramatization of that sense of community from an undoubtedly over-idealized bygone era which we can only hope to recapture.