Archive for February, 2009

Tree of Knowledge

2009 Feb 28


For Judd

2009 Feb 27

I imagine it as really black Cthulhu horror meets Brotherhood of the Wolf in English-occupied medieval France, at the court of the Black Prince in Bordeaux, Aquitaine.

In my mind, the board for the game looks like a tree. Not just any tree, either, but the Tree of Knowledge, the tree that brought us all these troubles and joys.

The player(s) representing the mortal forces (Edward the Black Prince, John of Gaunt, Princess Joan of Kent, Pedro the Cruel of Castile, James IV of Majorca) begin with their pieces (chess pieces, I think) amidst the roots of the tree, on a space that represents their most personal inner selves, their souls.

The player(s) representing the Great Evil (all manner of supernatural bad stuff) begin with their pieces at the top of the tree, on a space representing the throne of this evil, its source and wellspring.

Mortal pieces proceed up the tree, towards the branches, while evil forces proceed down it, towards the roots. Each movement or set of movements represents a scene, with different choices being offered as the pieces proceed along branches or roots and encounter forks. Effectively, you “unlock” different scenes by working your way to them across the proceeding forks that lead to them.

Pieces can also come into conflict with each other when they meet on the tree, with either the mortal or evil forces triumphing. Mortal triumphs destroy or drive back the evil, while evil victories consume the mortals and add those souls to their foul ranks.

As in chess, if pawns can cross the entire board and reach the other side, crazy things happen. Either the darkness has penetrated all the way into the mortal’s souls or the mortals have arrived at the wellspring of the Great Evil and can possibly put an end to it, once and for all. At this point, a final confrontation occurs (an endgame). Otherwise play continues until one side or the other is wiped out or forfeits, after which there is concluding narration.

My sense is that progression along roots and branches uncovers new information about either the mortals or the Great Evil. For example, perhaps there is a branch labeled “The Brood,” and proceeding along that branch means that the Great Evil has birthed dozens of demonic creatures, while proceeding along another branch reveals that the Great Evil secretly has a mortal origin. In this manner, playing the game multiple times would render very different results, since the different moves made would lead to a different Great Evil and different kinds of characterization for the mortal characters.

Texts and Play

2009 Feb 25

Arguing with people on the internet does no good, but yet it’s so irresistible. Time to cool off for a few hours and then maybe come back to it later with fresh eyes and thoughts.

I think there may be some fundamental differences of opinion about what texts can and can’t do / should and shouldn’t do in regards to teaching people how to do things / behave. Personally, I tend to be rather pessimistic that an auteur indie designer working alone or with a single amatuer editor can create a text that effectively transmits an intended mode of play. More likely, I think, is a transmission that makes the play culture the author intends and the play culture of those working from the author’s text more similar than they were before, while still being quite different.

Consequently, I think I assume that most play is a compromise between the text and the local play environment. The question is just, how much do you compromise and in what respects? This also leads me, I think, to be much more forgiving of incompleteness, inconsistency, contradictions, and vagueness game texts, because those simply become places where the local play environment steps in, assuming it’s able. In some cases, as in my early play of Poison’d and In A Wicked Age, where the local play environment is unable to step in, I think blaming the texts — though I did that at the time — was not necessarily correct, especially if the author was targeting groups whose play environment would be fully able to step in. Clinton’s decision to not mention a Game Master one way or another in TSOY is a great example. Interestingly, in that case, groups used to playing both with or without a Game Master cruise right along and don’t even notice.

Oh Yeah

2009 Feb 24

Here’s the most recent version of the board.


So Close

2009 Feb 24

This is so Shreyas can help me write the bodhisattva and station descriptions.


Yes, I realize that the front and back of the token sheet doesn’t line up. That’s intentional, so you have to flip your bodhisattva card and place it next to the cards of the players sitting on either side of you to read the station descriptions. Bodhisattvas are controlled by a single player, but stations are controlled by two players working together. When your bodhisattva visits a station that you jointly control, this allows the other player to control the station while you move through it. However, if two players jointly control a station together, both of their bodhisattvas cannot be in that station at the same time, since nobody can play the station.

Also, once you discover the deva hiding within a station (for example, The Assassin), that station can no longer be visited. In fact, the token representing the station now represents the emerged deva and moves around the map, jointly controlled by the same players as before. Devas do not need to stop in order to change lines, plus, they can travel and conduct passengers to Annihilation/Creation Station, the site of the endgame.

A Lexicon of Fight, Part 2: Against All Odds

2009 Feb 18

Check out Part 1: Battle Carnage.

Against All Odds are situations where one or more named characters are fighting a group of nameless characters. By all rights, they should be dispatched easily by the larger group, but that’s not usually what happens. Against All Odds fights can be subdivided into the following components:

  • Foreplay,
  • Spotlights, and
  • Mook Rotation.

Not all of these are present in all fights, but, often, stronger and more narrative fights — such as those choreographed by Yuen Wooping — contain all these elements.

Here’s a few example fights we can talk about:

  1. Ninja fight from Mortal Kombat (from about 4:00-5:00 in this clip)
  2. Dojo fight from Fist of Legend (from the beginning until about 2:15)
  3. Vampire Chateau fight from the Matrix Reloaded (same choreographer as Fist of Legend, Yuen Wooping)
  4. The Death of Ga-Nam from Musa (the ground fight happens between about 2:00 and 5:20)
  5. Bar fight from Rumble in the Bronx (starts as a Showdown but turns into a mook fight around 0:55)

You could also throw in the bar fight from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or the open field battle with those bizarre spear-shield guys in House of Flying Daggers.

Now, one might be tempted to look at fight #4 and say, “How is that not Battle Carnage?” There are guys on horses and most of the other fights in Musa are Battle Carnage. What makes this a mook battle? My sense is this: Against All Odds happens within a clear sense of location and unity between the efforts of characters on both sides. In fight #4, you have a sense that the combat is happening in a single location, even though that doesn’t really make sense (how does Ga-Nam manage to join the fight before its over, since he’s running from the fortress?). Also, the three protagonist characters are clearly working together against the Mongol mooks. The slave and the general even do that back-to-back thing, signaling their allied intentions for the first time in the entire movie. In constrast, the other examples of Battle Carnage are usually montages of different locations and characters. Part of what makes Battle Carnage chaotic is the sense that things are happening all over the place. That said, there’s not always a clear distinction between fight types. These are categories that I’m making up to help spur discussion about fights; they don’t actually exist.

Getting into the meat of things, Foreplay can vary quite a bit in Against All Odds fights and sets the tone of the encounter. In fight #1, the characters consider the ninjas to be an annoyance, not anything scary. However, the second group of ninjas that arrive at the end of the fight seem to pose more of a threat. In fights #2 & #3, Chen Zhen and Neo are very confident that they will beat the shit out of everyone in the room. However, in fight #4, the three protagonists dash off to fight the Mongols fully intending to perish. In fight #5, however, Jackie — though clearly a badass — actually seems unsure of the outcome, as if he’s sincerely worried that the swarm of mooks is going to beat them to a pulp. That’s a standard trait of the better Jackie Chan films — Jackie is always freaking out — and is really effective in gaining the audience’s sympathy and engagement. “Oh no, Jackie! Look out!” In fact, I would argue that the Vampire Chateau fight, like all of the Neo fights in the Matrix sequels, actually loses a lot of punch because there’s never any doubt that Neo St. Übermensch is going to triumph, without a scratch even. Compared to the anxiety that builds up whenever anyone else is fighting agents — including sub-Über Neo in the first film — the contrast is pretty clear.

Individual spotlights in Against All Odds aren’t much different from individual spotlights in Battle Carnage, so I’ll skip those, even though they probably make up 1/2 to 2/3 of most Against All Odds fights. Mook fights are generally chances for the protagonists to show off, so they’re in the spotlight a lot. In fights where there’s more than one protagonist you also get shared spotlights. You also have these in Battle Carnage, but I forgot to mention them. The back-to-back thing I mentioned above is one, as is Johnny Blaze throwing that final ninja into Sonya’s closeline. Shared spotlights reaffirm or establish a relationship between characters during a fight. These will be even more important in Showdowns, where the relationship between the fighters is even more important.

Mook Rotation is how Against All Odds fights maintain freshness and excitement when you’re basically showing one to three people beating the shit out of 50 others in quick succession. In order to make this interesting for 1-3 minutes worth of action (and 3 minutes is a long fight, actually), you have to rotate your mooks and there are a few different ways to do this.

  • Show different mooks stepping up or more mooks arriving (Crazy 88s fight in Kill Bill Part 1; also fights #2 and #5)
  • Show some mooks or a protagonist getting hurt, focusing on the pain or injury (this happens a bunch in fight #2, showing the mooks clutching their shins or nuts)
  • Show the mooks switching tactics (grabbing weapons off the wall in fight #3; in fight #2, the types of moves the karate students use change in more subtle ways, check it out; in fight #5, every mook has a new tactic)
  • Have the fight change location, which in turn causes the fighters to change tactics (fight #3 has this all over the place, as does fight #5)

Why Most Chinese Rock Criticism Sucks

2009 Feb 17

Chinese rock music is a rather different beast from Western rock music. Mao died in 1976. Deng came to power in 1978. The reforms started around 1980, bringing the Beatles and the Stones with them. Before that, no Western music since the 1940s.

According to popular accounts, Chinese rock music began in the early 1980s when a Korean-Chinese trumpet player named Cui Jian grabbed his electric guitar and played Nothing to My Name at a peace concert in Beijing. “Nothing to My Name” is not what we would normally think of as a rock song. It’s more of a modern Chinese folk song, a slow sad one at that, set to electric guitars. Once he got started, Cui Jian also experimented with rap, jazz, ska (trumpet player, remember), and, more recently, electronic music (check out “City Boatman” from his 2005 album).

When I interviewed the lead guitarist of Lun Hui in 1999 (Zhao Wei is the long-haired guy rocking the awesome solo in this video), he said that, in the beginning, the early rockers really didn’t have much context to understand what they were doing. He said something like, “We called ourselves ‘hard rock,’ because we thought that’s what we sounded like, but we really didn’t know what that meant.”

If you walk into a CD shop in China, for one, everything is fake. Finding genuine CDs takes a lot of work. Secondly, very frequently you’ll be able to find every Rhapsody album but nothing by Sly & the Family Stone. Consequently, the perspective you get on Western rock music in China is a rather interesting one. If you’re a high school or college student on a limited budget, your musical education in rock music is bound to be eclectic, assuming you have one at all.

Another thing: nobody listens to Chinese rock music in China. 95% of people are happy with Western music and the Asian pop mainstream. The folks who like it are 25% older musicians, 25% teenage rebels, 25% not really interested but at the concert anyway, and 25% Westerners. People often say that liking rock music is a phase that teenage boys go through but quickly mature out of.

And yet… when I read Western criticism of Chinese rock music, I see all these assumptions that it’s basically just an extension of rock elsewhere in the world. Take the “post-punk” label frequently applied to the kinds of bands that generally show up on Modern Sky. Punk barely happened in China at all and then it was mostly Green Day and Blink-182 inspired pop-punk in the late 1990s. Where does Chinese “post-punk” come from? That music is really more of a reaction against mainstream Chinese pop, previous Chinese rock music, and a host of other social issues (vocal and instrumental aesthetics, disillusionment with economic reforms, the rise of auteur culture). Yeah, it’s also part of a dialog with Western rock music, but that’s not nearly the most important aspect.

The other thing I see a lot is assumptions that Chinese rock musicians are mimicking Western artists that they like. In some cases, this is undoubtedly true, such as the way Ashura is very clearly inspired by the Linkin Park school of emo rap. However, in most cases, critics have no way of knowing what kind of music Chinese musicians have been exposed to unless the artists choose to talk about it. Maybe they never really listened to the Talking Heads until everybody started comparing their band to those guys, like the way Coheed & Cambria weren’t into Rush until later on.

In general, the problem is that nobody talks about Chinese rock in comparison to other Chinese rock bands, putting it in the context of what else is happening and has happened in the past. Often, this is because the critics themselves are just dabbling in this music and don’t have enough context to really make sense of it themselves. That’s cool and people should definitely come check this stuff out, but it sucks that more thorough and insightful commentaries are super hard to come by.

Chinese Post-Punk on iTunes

2009 Feb 16

When did this happen? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

• Zi Yue
• P.K. 14
• Rebuilding the Rights of Statues
• Wild Children
• Car-Sick Cars
• and more that I haven’t found yet.

Yay, globalization! Nothing like drowning my sorrows in the weird, dissonant, semi-melodic plodding of multiple generations of post-Communist disillusionment. Rock on!

Not Going to Harvard

2009 Feb 16

What a week for disappointment.

Just got an email from the “Regional Studies: East Asia” master’s program at Harvard, saying that they decided I was very qualified for their program but that the Graduate School put strict limits on admission numbers this year and that they couldn’t admit me. That’s both disappointing and a bit strange because it’s not as if they were going to offer me any money for a master’s degree anyway. I’m not sure what the GSAS is thinking, aside from maybe worrying that folks will be unable to get the college loans necessary to fund their degree.

Still haven’t heard from UW in Seattle, but I was honestly hoping to avoid having to move across the country, even though their master’s program is great and a whole lot cheaper (plus, Alexis and Ben are already in it).

A Lexicon of Fight, Part 1: Battle Carnage

2009 Feb 16

Roleplaying games typically treat all fights as the same, which is a bit crazy. Here’s the beginning of a breakdown of different kinds of fights, techniques for depicting them, and why you might want to use them.

In movies, fights can be broken down into several different varieties, with individual sequences of choreographed violence frequently shifting between them over the course of a single “fight.” Each variety has its own visual language and cinematic vocabulary, through they clearly share some traits as well. The varieties I want to talk about are:

  • Battle Carnage,
  • Against All Odds, and
  • the Showdown.

Battle Carnage is when you have sizable opposing forces engaging each other, as in a military battle or a large street brawl. Battles can be broken down into the following general components:

  • Foreplay,
  • Carnage, and
  • Spotlights.

Foreplay is the critical part before or during the battle where there is no violence but the film builds anticipation and hints at what is going to happen. Remember all that stuff before swords start swinging in the first moments of Gladiator? That’s foreplay. While foreplay is usually battle formations and speeches and saying goodbye to each other and reaffirming relationships between soldiers, foreplay can even involve folks getting killed, as in cases where a single arrow shot starts a battle (Helm’s Deep). Foreplay often happens between phases of a battle as well, or when the battle is about to switch to another kind of fight (Against All Odds or the Showdown).

Carnage makes up about 1/3 of most battle footage. Generally, we don’t really care about the specific characters that triumph or die during the Carnage but it’s important in that it gives the audience a sense of being in the battle and shows how the battle in general is going. If the camera shows soldiers from one side dying more often than soldiers from another side dying, you know the battle is going poorly for them. You can do this a few different ways: altering back and forth between one side and another doing well or poorly, to show an evenly matched battle or the beginning of a conflict, and then swinging things heavily to one side to show a transition or the end of a conflict. Carnage generally depicts nameless characters fighting and killing other nameless characters. If a named character is involved, you’ve moved into the last subgroup of battle footage, Spotlights.

Spotlights are places amidst a battle where the camera shows the actions of specific characters that we care about. Often these are the formally named protagonists and antagonists of the film, but sometimes these are characters that are simply “named” by the attention given to them by the camera. Remember the crazy clawed cat woman from The Gangs of New York who rips that guy’s ear off? We know nothing about her but the camera sure wants to make us care about her (and mostly fails, I think, but that’s a subjective assessment). Spotlights generally involve named characters fighting and killing nameless characters. For a confrontation between named characters, frequently the fight will shift to the Showdown. However, that’s not always the case. The opening of Gangs of New York and the final battle of Musa: The Warriors are examples of fights where main characters are killed in the Spotlight sections of battles. These are quick, brutal, and dirty deaths, not drawn-out confrontations between evenly matched opponents.