Saturday, 31 January 2009

[135] Television, Comics and Episodic Diversity

John Adams

I've just finished watching the second disc of the DVD boxset for the 2008 mini-series John Adams, which I'm reviewing for Den of Geek (the third and final disc is missing, which is unfortunate). What has struck me is the stylistic freedom and diversity that is afforded to the series by its format. Of course, it is not news that television series can sustain epic, layered storylines, going into much wider and more detailed narrative scope in tens of hours than a film can in 90 minutes. However, in the case of John Adams, which is at heart a biopic, one of the most steady, predictable genres of visual entertainment, there is a different application of the opportunities of the smaller screen. The 7-part structure of the series allows the creators to utilise an ambitious canvas, encompassing the man's life from before the War of Independence to his death over 50 years later. This is told over 8 hours of meticulous, accomplished drama.

More impressive, though, is the artful approach to each episode as embodying a distinct style or focus. Admittedly, the constants are John Adams, his family and the development of the United States of America, but these shifts are noticeable. The first episode, for example (Join or Die), is an 18th century court-room drama, as Adams defends the case of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Equally, the second and third episodes follow biography and history to Philadelphia and the Continental Congress and to Europe to the courts of France and Holland respectively, in turn illustrating the debate and disunity of early American politics on the one hand, and the pompous decadent ceremony of old society on the other. These mostly self-contained episodes allow for probing and illumination of key characters, with Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson especially being granted significant screentime in separate chapters.

This introduces various levels of appreciation and comprehension. Though Adams' life is the narrative trajectory throughout the whole series, and each section feeds into the next, there is sufficient self-contained identity between the episodes for them to be viewed as singular entities. This stylistic development, of unity between distinct parts, is something mostly unachievable in cinema, especially in these times governed by simple resolutions, crass sequels and 'reboots'. Even though it is possible to ferment diversity, either within one cinematic production (such as Todd Haynes' I'm Not There), or spread throughout a series, it is unlikely, and I've certainly come across nothing along similar lines. The cinema experience is too closed down, too self-contained in its own way - a television series dances the line between broken up, regular installments and a grander structure, which necessitates such a multi-faceted approach and can encompass such stylistic flourishes.


Perhaps the closest format I can think of in this regard is the comic book. Like television, the distribution methods of comics provides differing structures of coherence, such as the 32 page issue, the multi-part mini series, the long running arc, the graphic novel or the continuing series. The most prominent and widely-known examples of comics properties, from the DC and Marvel publishing companies, operate in a way that negotiates all of the above formats, relating them to established 'continuity'. These interlocking levels of relevance and creation, coupled with the succession of editors, writers and artists involved in the property, allows much stylistic diversity within the same unified, over-arching structure.

Scottish writer Grant Morrison's recent 2-year stint on the Batman series, for example, has been singled out for his commitment to the inter-connectedness of the character's 70 year's worth of stories. Throughout the run, Morrison would refer to, or seek to incorporate, often forgotten tales or characters from obscure old issues, culminating in a dazzling, head-spinning overview of Batman's history in his final two 'Last Rites' issues (#682-#683). To Morrison, all that had happened in the Batman comics were of the same relevance and importance, and he sought a way to show this in his writing.

However, more akin to John Adams, and indicative of the flexibility of the medium, is the experimental edge Morrison brought to the storylines and issues in his run. Across the 20-odd issues, Morrison shifted style and genre frequently, from the horrific murder mystery of 'The Island of Doctor Mayhew' (#667-#669) to the fragmented psychological thriller of 'Batman RIP' (#676-#681). The writing was amply backed up by equally distinctive shifts in the art style, with the former storyline featuring a collision of virtuosic photo-realism and classic Silver Age pencilling by J. H. Williams III. 'The Island Of Doctor Mayhew' features The Batmen of All Nations, an international team of crime fighters that were created in the 1950s; in the story, Morrison and Williams flit in between the dark present and a more colourful past, with the pages mocked up to evoke yellowing issues found in smelly basements. This diversity, even within a single issue, strengthens the metafictional depth of Morrison's vision - it is a self-aware comic, it knows its place in the history of the character, and the format itself.

What's more, throughout the series, Morrison would insert single issues that have their own identity, style and resonances, such as the satanic future nightmare of 'Numbers of the Beast' (#666) and the all-prose Joker story 'The Clown at Midnight' (#663). These shifts show that the comic form can sustain complexity not just in the hierarchy of narrative, but in a constantly developing sense of the series' style and focus. All this is achieved in Grant Morrison's Batman with impressive flair; John Adams exhibits elements of this also, although the marriage of writing and art in comics, as well as the agency of the author and penciller, give the graphic medium even greater flexibility.

Coda: Other Media? The Future?

These formal aspects, both in the distribution of the medium and its creation, allows for such interesting, episodic diversity. Cinema, as it is, can contain stylistic shifts or multiple focuses in one film, as can novels, but the very tied-in nature of runtime and page count restricts their expression in this regard. Are there other media than can contain such diversity? Maybe the video game.

It is certainly possible that a game could develop along differing stylistic or generic lines, perhaps in an episodic manner. Downloadable content, as well, is a way for developers to continue the gaming experience, with the freedom to experiment. To date, a large percentage of downloadable content released are mere packs of extra multiplayer maps, or new weapons. However, in the episodic installments of the Half Life series, Valve brought in new elements or themes, such as building up the sidekick character of Alyx in Episode One and introducing long driving segments in Episode Two. There is also the game Portal, which was released as a side-project; while occurring in the same world as Half Life, Portal was a total shift in genre away from adventure and action and towards item-based puzzle gaming.

Equally, the recently-released extra content for Fallout 3 allowed the player to experience elements of that game's history, by entering a virtual reality chamber. The player adopted the persona of a soldier, and the tone of the game, previously built on adventure, exploration and role-playing, shifted more towards action and straightforward gunfighting.

It seems, therefore, that with the advent of downloadable, episodic gaming, there is an opportunity for franchises and series to break out of staid or stubborn design, and be more dynamic and evolving.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

[134] Morning Roundup, Haruki Murakami, Xbox 360

Things have been busy the last couple of days. The Finnish girl is having some friends staying over, so we've been cleaning. I've also been distracted by Other Things.

Such as, well, buying an Xbox 360.

This now opens me up to new avenues of distraction and procrastination, although hopefully I'll be able to turn some if not all of it into interesting blog posts in the future. I've started a game of my own in Fallout 3, so maybe expect some of that soon. Also, playing Street Fighter Anniversary Collection (which I bought second hand for £2.99 over the summer), which is very fun and getting me geared up for Street Fighter IV. I'm hoping to get one or two good multiplayer games and try out Xbox Live at some point, too.


I recently read Haruki Murakami's Things I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is a collection of essays released last year. In reality it's more of a mish-mash of memoir and exercise diary, as Murakami goes through is regime in preparation for running the New York Marathon in 2005, and participating in a Japanese triathlon event not long after.

The story goes that, after selling his Jazz Bar to dedicate his life to writing, Murakami started running to keep fit. The title suggests that this is one of those slabs of writing which encompass more than the topic at hand, that, in talking about his running habits, Murakami imparts life lessons and autobiography. This is semi-true, and in the first half of the book especially, there is a great deal of insight into his past, his ambitions and his drive. Running is shown to be a manifestation of his dedication and discipline, and his adventures and experiences are used as springboards for an interesting recounting of his transition from bar owner to writer. However, once that is out of the way, Murakami's focus shifts to marathons, triathlons and running. The second half of the novel, written in anticipation of the New York Marathon, becomes very staid in its discussion of sports regimes and the looming deterioration of old age.

This harms the resonance of the book somewhat, although it is still a pleasant read. Its short, sub-200 page length helps to keep the book from getting too sluggish. However, Things I Talk About When I Talk About Running provokes a nagging, daunting suspicion that the man who wrote such smart, stylish books as Norwegian Wood and Dance Dance Dance may be, in reality, quite mundane, quite boring.


And, well, to finish up, as per usual...

The Morning Roundup: Tomb Raider Reboot, 1066: The Film, Neil Gaiman wins Newberry, more adaptations

This morning we've got news about newly-announced reboots, adaptations and dramatisations, as well as new G.I. Joe and Hobbit images.

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

[133] Art Decade - Innocence/Experience

Joey Esposito, the comics editor at CC2K, recently turned me on to this small-ish American band - Art Decade - whose debut EP is available for streaming on their Myspace page. Thought I'd mock up a semi-review...


As a self-released, unsigned record, Innocence/Experience immediately impresses with its full sound, variety of styles and general 'progressive' bent. The eponymous opener develops from a scratchy, phasing guitar line intro into a gently grooving, bass-heavy verse and a pleasant, rocking chorus. It's soft-on-the-ears stuff. Kind of like mixing the pop-transcendence of early Killers with the slightly-fey introspection and modesty of Death Cab For Cutie. However, it is quietly radical in its structure, stretching out a post-chorus bridge into waves of echo and a real sense of space, with bass vamps, guitar samples and plaintive voices fading in and out. It is an interesting way of mixing up the 'repeat chorus to fade' trope that damns even slightly left-of-centre pop music nowadays.

The subtlety of these little works of inspiration may go un-noticed, but Art Decade's stylistic itchy-feet shifts can be equally interesting. All of the tracks are made up of disparate musical blocks, and the songs make sharp turns, evolving before the listener's ears. '2012' opens with classical guitar plucks, before erupting into distorted squalls; it eventually undulates between a yearning chorus, where singer-frontman-ringleader Ben Talmi asks 'When did I start to change my life?', and a loose jam, packed with spoken, accented quotations and mini-solos.

The common thread between these musical journeys is Talmi's voice. His lyrics don't make much of an impact, but his performances are expressive, enthusiastic and mostly engaging, allowing the strong melodies to shine through. As a songwriter, he throws everything at the wall; it mostly sticks, but listening to the songs in sequence results in a flat-line of prog-pop experimentation. The final track, 'Hope You Feel The Same', breaks the mould by stripping back the ambitious structures and delivering a more straightforward, acoustic number. The stylistic unity of the track is, strangely, a welcome change, and suggests to me that if Talmi loosened up a little and tried less hard, then maybe he could weave together collage-pop along the lines of Paul McCartney or Todd Rundgren, or art-rock soundscapes like Mew.

I was initially drawn to Art Decade due to the (possible?) William Blake reference in Innocence/Experience, but the title nevertheless captures the status of Talmi and his debut. The EP is full of youthful vigour and inspired innocence, but is in need of refinement through experience.

Check out Art Decade at their Myspace page here.

Monday, 26 January 2009

[132] Jack Schulze: 'Comics, Maps and Taking the Red Pill'

Something short and sweet for you this evening.

This afternoon I walked down to Goldsmiths to see a lecture given by Jack Schulze, called 'Comics, Maps and Taking the Red Pill'. Schulze is a designer for consumer technology and a consultant for big companies such as Nokia and the BBC. He brought up a lot of ideas that I hadn't heard in the context of design and technology before, and used some eye-opening examples and illustrations. I thought I'd write a few comments on the lecture here, passing on some of the stuff he referred to.

He first spoke about the work he does, where he and his partner envision ways to reinvigorate old tech or media with ideas or concepts from new media. He showed a design he'd work on for the BBC, which was a digital radio that incorporated aspects of social networking, where the listener could see who of their selected friends was listening to their radios, and to which stations. The project was called Olinda, and really taps into that sense of technology requiring development and progression as opposed to bloody revolution (an argument I have with my father more than anyone). Such steps, using socio -cultural aspects of web-based communication, can help recreate a sense of common consumption of entertainment. Very interesting, I thought.

This tied into his discussion of comics, where he referred to Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison and others developing the form in intriguing ways, injecting sophistication and depth by being aware of, and tinkering with, the 'solid' concepts of the medium. This section included lots of screenshots, including the metafictional concept of 'hypertime' and other innovations by the writers, as well as the design-based craziness of Shintaro Kago, where the very framework of panels and pages becomes unsettled and reimagined. Actually, Schulze didn't call these concepts metafictional or post-modern - he simply spoke about them in very enthusiastic, down to earth terms.

He also mentioned a recent project called 'Things Our Friends Have Written On the Internet 2008', a periodical created by two designers, where they collated Twitter feeds, blog posts and other online articles into newspaper format. Again, old media is here adapted into, in this context, something more personal, made up of new media expression. It's not necessarily the book, or the newspaper that is at direct fault, more its relationship with the reader, and its approach to its content.

Fascinating discussion topics. Also worth checking out is his recent project called the Availabot, a small figurine that a person makes of a friend, that will stand up when the person comes online.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

[131] Frost/Nixon: Under-Representing History and Politics

The problem with Frost/Nixon is that it is so far removed from history and reality that its politics are mollified and its themes are muddled. this could be due to its 'Chinese Whispers' adaptation approach (history -> televised interview -> play -> film), or to the mostly pleasant, if neutralised, Hollywood sheen provided by Ron Howard.

The film tells the story of the famed, ground-breaking television interview between David Frost and controversial American president Richard Nixon. Frost, a low-brow television host in the film's eyes, takes on the momentous task of courting and questioning Nixon, in the face of all sense, in order to attract viewing numbers and chase his dwindling celebrity. The film, like the play before it, builds up this central rivalry, dropping lexical references to fencing, pugilism and debate. In the process, Frost swots up, and nails Nixon after hours of potentially embarrassing exonerating material, provoking an outburst and confession.

My background isn't political or deeply historical, so it is not my place to speak with any certainty or authority about the dramatic license taken or misrepresentation made in the film. Thankfully, those more informed have written on this before, at great length (Elizabeth Drew at the Huffington Post, and David Edelstein at New York Magazine). However, even with these tweaks and embellishments, Frost/Nixon still feels, to me, to be crucially flawed. It is only really in the powerful central performances from Frank Langella and Michael Sheen that the film's true quality resides.

My two main issues can be described as involving Education and Communication. The film's focus material is both political and historical in nature, yet is suitably removed from the experience of the cinema-going public that common knowledge of the complicated world of 1960s-1970s American politics is not to be expected.

In writing the play and creating the film, writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard have taken the 'tone down and simplify' approach; as such, political context is minimised in favour of dramatic devices and performance. The film opens with a flurry of archive footage and audio recordings, but for the majority of the action, history is hemmed in, and only referenced in relation to the acts on screen.

Once the interview is underway, and the research team start their quest to 'topple' Nixon, statistics are thrown out and names are dropped with a simple disregard for the basic educational worth of the story at hand. Frost/Nixon doesn't expect or require prior knowledge of Nixon's presidency, but what can be gleaned from watching the film is shallow at best. That is not even to say that the film is biased or partisan - it is simply not bothered with matters such as political history or even political advocacy.

This lack of context and skewed focus harms the supporting characters in this two-horse race. As this is a historical drama, there is an effort to evoke the real people in the film, an attempt to overcome the forgetful passing of time. However, these living, breathing sources have been reduced to stereotypical essences. Cue Toby Jones as the nasal, stuck up, germ-conscious hawker Swifty Lezar; in real life a talent agent for Bogart, Bacall, Cher, Hemingway, Madonna, Nabokov - here is merely an irritating, one-note cameo.

Equally, journalist and writer James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) is crystallised into a whining, soap-box liberal, and Oliver Platt's Bob Zelnick is, well, an Oliver Platt character: charming, witty and slightly rotund. As the seconds in the duel between politician and interviewer, Kevin Bacon and Matthew Macfadyen create a real transatlantic dichotomy, with the former's Jack Brennan encapsulating the buzz-cut, ex-marine full-blooded Republican straw-man, and the latter's John Birt looking like he's just walked off a cricket pitch in a version of Britain that exists solely in the mind of Richard Curtis. Worst treated in a cast full of ciphers is Rebecca Hall, whose superfluous role as Caroline Cushing merely requires the actress to stand around and look beautiful, with nary a bra in sight.

Of course, accusing a film called Frost/Nixon of short-changing its supporting cast is futile. However, it is this lack of educational background and context that scuppers the film's attempt to communicate its key themes. Without an enlightened political grounding, the importance of the interview comes off as hollow, and Frost's transformation from cheesy host to 'hard-nosed interviewer' over a series of contrived montage sequences is crass, and does a disservice to the journalism it is positioned to champion.

These flaws would not be so glaring if it weren't for the film's steadfast commitment to the 'reality' of its drama. Throughout the picture, characters appear in short 'talking head' style documentary segments, relating and providing commentary on the action in the main narrative. This places Frost/Nixon somewhere between the semi-doc of Warren Beatty's Reds, which interspersed interviews with real life 'witnesses', and the stylish fun-doc of Man on Wire, but with one crucial difference - Frost/Nixon is entirely fabricated. Not only do these sequences exist as lazy shorthand for aspects that the film can't inherently express (many are attempts to stress the importance of what is happening), but they expose the limits of the film as a replacement for, or simply an equal of a documentary about the interview, or even watching the interview itself. This is not even bringing up the matter of more rounded, more widely-framed looks at the Nixon years, be they documentary or drama.

This redundancy pervades Frost/Nixon. The central performances are powerful and complex, yet Sheen and Langella's gravitas and tension are set in a shadowplay of mis- and under-representation. They can certainly be proud of, and expect, awards and nominations for their work. The film as a whole, however, despite displaying period flourishes and remarkable production detail, is surprisingly shallow. Without context, communication or education, Frost/Nixon is A Few Good Men gone Watergate, enjoyable simply as a two-pronged, cat-and-mouse drama, not as historical insight. It is sad to see such an interesting, mysterious topic of 20th century history defanged - surely that is a crime in itself.

Frost/Nixon is now showing at cinemas in the UK.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

[130] Nature and Nurture: Okami and Practicing Shintoism

Nature saturates and enriches Okami on a variety of levels. Most immediately, this influence is seen in the narrative. The player controls the wolf avatar for the Japanese Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu, whose task is to regenerate Nippon's springs and forests, lifting a demonic curse and returning the land to its full beauty.

Progress in the game is very similar to the Legend of Zelda series of games in that the player travels over a large world map between dungeons, story events and side quests. In terms of topography and geography, Nippon is like Zelda's Hyrule in its mixture of forests, rivers and small rural villages. However, through certain distinct choices made by Clover Studios in the creation of the Nippon overworld, the environment and the gameplay are much more firmly intertwined.

One of the many quests of the game involves the player traversing ravaged or stagnant land, before finding a central focal point - a tree or waterfall or windmill - which holds sway over the immediate environment. The player then, using the divine properties of the celestial brush, proceeds to blossom the area; circling a sapling with ink, for example, causes the withered roots to burst with vibrant colour and foliage. A cut-scene follows depicting the transformation of the area from dull and dreary to bright and teeming with life. These sequences are, for me, some of the most joyful in the game, and don't get old; it is lovely watching the change in explosive real-time.

This basic idea, of a shift in the environment, is shared with Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, where the player would first visit an area shrouded in darkness, before restoring the local Light Spirit. However, Twilight Princess operates on a mostly binary state of Twilight/Light, and once the Light Spirit is revived, the area is fully restored. Okami , on the other hand, presents the player with stages in the restoration of the land. After the general area has been resurrected, there are still pockets of putridity, such as small swamps, spidery, leafless trees and 'devil gates', little strongholds of baddies that give its immediate area a shroud of mist. The player has to tackle these individually, with a deft stroke of the brush for the first two, or by facing enemies for the latter one.

Now, these aspects aren't strictly necessary - the narrative and main quest mostly move onto the next objective after the main sapling is restored. Outside of some early tutorial errands, these side bits are pursuable according to the whims of the player. Nevertheless, what differentiates these tasks from their counterparts in Zelda (such as collecting poes and golden bugs) is that they are logical extensions of the overall mission. Amaterasu sets out to restore Nippon, one bit at a time.

Furthermore, the encouragement to restore and replenish ferments a relationship between the player and the game's environment, which develops and improves after a series of actions. This depth afforded to the overworld areas is extended to other side-quests, such as feeding the animals that live and graze throughout Nippon. These exploration-based optional objectives have become an integral part of Zelda's formula, with the hero being awarded money, hearts or special items for ferreting out each bug, killing each poe or trading each trinket. However, the arbitrary nature of these errands which often take place outside of the narrative, involving characters who solely exist for that purpose, sometimes makes them feel superfluous, unnecessary, like an addition designed for the meticulous, die-hard completist. This isn't helped by the relative inutility of the rewards in question (which won't directly affect the game) in relation to the required investment of time and patience.

While Okami's approach to side quests is similarly completist-baiting, the rewards for feeding animals, discovering hidden clovers and regenerating trees take the form of 'Praise Points', which can be saved up and spent in an RPG-style levelling-up system allowing the player improve their health, ink and wallet space.

However, all of these tasks are not simply desirable in terms of profit, but are integral to the themes of the game. As Amaterasu feeds, nourishes and nurtures, the basic natural pantheistic paradigm of the Sun as mother is stressed and illustrated. Central tenets of the Shinto religion are communicated, and the player, encouraged or manipulated into these objectives for completion's sake or otherwise, actively participates in the worship of nature. This tight intertwining of gameplay and sensibility hammers home the pastoral values of Okami, where animals and forces of nature truly inhabit the landscape, and become gods.

These pastoral values and focus on the natural landscape are also reflected in the game's art style, which I will attempt to cover in the next mini-essay.

Okami fan art from, by Sabine Zabel

[129] Doktor Sleepless: Engines of Desire Review

I recently wrote a review of the first volume of Warren Ellis' comic book series Doktor Sleepless, for Comics Bulletin. Check it out.


Doktor Sleepless is a radio DJ, a tech-wizard, and a mysterious mad scientist who plots the end of the world from his hilltop mansion overlooking the city of Heavenside.

Warren Ellis is one of the foremost personalities in the comic world. With his many-headed online presence, which encompasses Twitter, his blog, the Whitechapel message board, and his own musical podcast, he has positioned himself as the go-to guy for no-bullshit angry alternative living. Even though his written work has been varied, he is still (arguably) best known for his work on
Transmetroplitan--a long-running cyberpunkish series about Spider Jerusalem, a Hunter S. Thompson-like gonzo journalist/blogger let loose in a future full of twisted politics and bizarre technology.

Doktor Sleepless, Ellis's latest anti-establishment series, is unavoidably similar yet crucially different to Transmetropolitan in some ways. The first eight issues of Doktor Sleepless are collected in a trade paperback titled Engines of Desire, which tells of a much nearer future than that depicted in Transmetropolitan.

Instead of flying cars and aliens, the central location of Heavenside is still quite close to our present day. In fact, the relatively un-advanced state of technology is almost immediately touched upon in the opening chapter with the appearance of graffiti declaring “not my future” and “where's my fucking jet pack.”

Read the full article here.

Monday, 19 January 2009

[128] Fair Play, by Tove Jansson Review, now at CC2K

I've sketched out the rough for my first Okami essay, so hopefully will get that up in the next day or so. Today I went out to see Frost/Nixon (which I thought was entertaining, if a little dumbed-down) with the Finnish girl. So I didn't have the chance to sit down and write it properly.

In other news, CC2K have published a book review I wrote a few months ago, of Tove Jansson's Fair Play. It is still one of the articles on here I am most proud of, so I think I'll link to it.


Tove Jansson is one of the best known Finnish writers internationally. Her most enduring (and successively reprinted work) is her series of tales and picture books based around the Moomins, a family of troll-like creatures who live in a picturesque valley and have many adventures. The relaxed, pastoral atmosphere, coupled with easy wisdom and gentle humor have led to critics' praise and readers' affection for generations, and the books have enjoyed many successful television adaptations.

However, Jansson mostly stopped writing Moomin books in 1970, writing primarily for adults until her death in 2001. Unfortunately for the English reader, the majority of Jansson's later books are hard to find, out of print, or simply untranslated from the original Swedish. A small UK publisher, Sort Of, has in the last few years reprinted some of these books, including The Summer Book (Sommerboken, 1972), and Fair Play (Rent Spel, 1989). These books reveal a unique voice, not alien to the Moomin tales, but covering decidedly different themes...

Read the full article here.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

[127] Okami - Late to the Party

Over the last couple of years, there have been some developments and decisions made in my life that have resulted in me missing out on some of gaming's hottest properties. Primarily, I was at university, and being the closet academic and effort-fiend I am, I mostly neglected my hobbies, interests and social life in favour of a steadfast commitment to my degree. I also didn't have the time or money to follow up on online debates or glowing reviews.

I had my PS2 and (from 2006) Wii consoles, although I bought few games for them. Due to space issues, I left my PS2 at my parents' house from 2007, effectively retiring it after completing the story mode of Bully.

In retrospect, I somewhat regret this, as I have, as a result, missed out on hot topics like Shadow of the Colossus, Persona 3 (and 4) and Okami. Now, after moving into the great wide world properly, I still don't have a PS2. Nevertheless, I have started trying to catch up, as over Christmas I was given a copy of Okami for Wii as a present.

Okami attracted a lot of internet column inches for its style, execution and under-performing release. Personally, I am thoroughly enjoying the game and, after 10 or so hours of play, am still discovering new depth and resonances in my initial reactions. I know I'm stepping on well-trodden ground, but I'm hoping to articulate some of these interesting, wonderful aspects in a forthcoming series of posts.

The game is a courageous evocation of Japanese culture; the player is dropped head-first into polytheistic mythology and water coloured landscapes. However, the well-documented, fully-admitted gameplay similarities with the Legend of Zelda series act as a bridge between the familiar fantasy setting of Hyrule and the mystical world of Classical Nippon.

Although, there are important aspects in Okami that stray from console adventure game traditions, one being its integration of nature and natural themes into its narrative and gameplay. I think it is a good place to start. Tune in later this week and we'll get it underway.

Friday, 16 January 2009

[126] Kitchen Sink's The Spirit and Dark Horse's Dylan Dog

Currently (slowly) writing two reviews, so distracted from proper blogwork. Here's some diversionary nonsense about recent findings and purchases.

Yesterday, on my travels, I stumbled across the Book and Comic Exchange in Soho. They're part of a chain, and I've been in one in Birmingham before, but that one is more focused on music. I had a cursory browse, and quickly found some things to my taste, namely some issues of the Kitchen Sink Press reprints of Will Eisner's The Spirit from the 1980s and two books of Dark Horse's translated editions of the long-running Italian comic book Dylan Dog.

I've read about the Kitchen Sink Press reprints of The Spirit, although this was the first time I've seen them in the wild. My only experience with Eisner's most enduring series is through the DC collection The Best of The Spirit, which I picked up in summer 2008. Since then, without the money to buy the expensive hardback collected editions, I've only had the opportunity to read the recent reboot of the series, written by Darwyn Cooke, amongst others.

However, before DC gained the rights, publication of the Spirit comics were handled by Kitchen Sink Press, who also published works by Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Matt and James O'Barr. One of their approaches to putting the series out was an ongoing series which ran for over 80 issues, containing the Spirit comics Eisner produced after WW2.

I bought 3 issues in the end, for £1 each, which I considered quite a bargain. Each issue contains 4 of the 8-page stories, reprinted in black and white. The covers are lovely; drawn by Eisner, either totally original or based on previous artwork.

At the moment I have only dipped into one issue, #21, from July 1986. This issue collects a run of stories featuring the Spirit's nemesis Octopus, starting with August 1947's 'The Sign of the Octopus', which I had read before. Also included was a story called 'Showdown', which Frank Miller had publicly acknowledged as a huge inspiration on the tone and style of his recently-released big-screen adaptation of the comic. However, what really impresses me is that this is not just a straightforward, lazy reprint (I'm thinking of the recent DC one-shot floppy The Spirit Special). For example, Eisner re-drew both the beginning and end pages of 'Showdown' when it was reprinted in the 1970s for Warren Publishing, giving the whole story a different, metafictional feel, with the very pages curling before the reader's eyes. The issue reprints both (see above, click for larger image).

Also, there is a nice amount of front and back matter, which takes the form of a column called 'Stage Settings', written by the editor (in this case Dave Schreiner). These mini-essays provide background on the context, writing process and publication history, with a healthy dose of analysis and criticism, all with insight and from interviews with Will Eisner. It's interesting stuff, certainly, and makes the Kitchen Sink reprints much more respectful in tone and content, if not in terms of page-quality and binding.

In comparison, I have relatively little to say about Dylan Dog, as I've not read either of the two books I bought. A pseudo-Italian friend of mine is learning his ancestral language by reading these comics, which are big news stand sellers in Italy and in other areas of Europe. Dylan Dog in English isn't very widely available. Dark Horse translated and printed 6 stories in 1999 (with some horrible covers drawn by Mike Mignola); two of which, numbers four and five, I bought.

English translations are relatively hard to find, as these editions are out of print, although this situation is set to change in the not-too-distant future, as Dark Horse are reissuing the comics in a 600+ page omnibus edition (tip straight from the top-notch Gosh! mouthpiece).

I'll report more on these as I read them.

For more information on Dylan Dog, check out this article over at Coilhouse.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

[125] Morning Roundup, etc.

The last week has been quite busy in its way, what with big essays and interviews going on. Big thanks to Simon at GameSetWatch for the link and advice. Hopefully I can get to work on other such interesting and probing articles in the future.

At the moment, though, I've been a little sporadic. I have a few reviews in the pipeline, including one discussing the first volume of Warren Ellis' Doktor Sleepless series, which I'll be submitting to Comics Bulletin. Also, with all of the Golden Globes / BAFTA buzz around Slumdog Millionaire, I really can't avoid writing something about it. I tried on Sunday and Monday, but it is really one of those films I would like to rewatch, and write at length about its many disparate achievements. I'm finding it hard to hit on everything in a single, condensed review. Watch this space for that.

Today I'm listening to Happy End's album Kazemachi Roman. I re-watched Lost in Translation last night with the Finnish girl and 'Kaze Wo Atsumete' is bouncing around in my head.

And, as it's Thursday...


The Morning Roundup: Jackie Chan Mentors a Karate Kid, Steve McQueen Biopic, BAFTA Nominations...

This morning we've got news about upcoming biopics, adaptations and new properties. As well as your daily dose of superhero movie conjecture and some new images from Kick-Ass. Plus, BAFTA nominations. We'd like to thank the Academy: it's the Morning Roundup!

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

[124] Around the Web: Korg DS-10 Video Tutorials

Last night I was browsing around on Youtube, checking out the plethora of DS-10 music videos that have been uploaded already (my personal favourite is this one of YMO's Rydeen, on two DSes). I came across the official channel of the software's developer XSEED games; I'd seen their demo songs before (which include a remix of the theme from Legend of Zelda), but I hadn't noticed that they had uploaded their own tutorials for certain modes and features of the Korg DS-10.

The full list is up on their site, and covers pitch, VCO, VCF, Envelope Generator, Patch mode and others. I mentioned last week, in my appraisal of the game, that the Korg DS-10 requires knowledge of the intricacies of electronic music, and that the accompanying manual isn't entirely helpful to newcomers (I suggested checking out the original technical instructions from the hardware's release in the 1970s). However, these videos are hands-on, easy to follow, and manage to communicate the basic functions of all those knobs and dials.

And then, this morning, Gametrailers uploaded a more general tutorial for the Korg DS-10, which outlines issues such as tracking, pattern management and song building.

I think it's fantastic that these resources are being uploaded and passed around. Hopefully this will make the Korg DS-10 more accessible to a wider audience.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

[123] The Simple Design of Jeff Smith's Bone: Fone Bone

For Christmas, I received the one-volume edition of Jeff Smith's comedy-fantasy epic comic Bone. In the last couple of weeks, the Finnish girl and I have been taking turns in reading through the 1,000+ page long tale. She'd read some of it before, being from a country that celebrates comic art and graphic fiction (including, well, Bone itself). I was a newbie, having only read about it online.

One thing that immediately struck me when I started reading Bone was Jeff Smith's simple, yet expressive and distinctive approach to character design. Even though his style has obvious touchstones and influences, he manages to strike upon original character models that look instantly familiar and memorable.

I have read that Smith's chief inspiration when he started Bone was Walt Kelly's newspaper comic strip Pogo, a series I have never encountered before. However, I believe that his approach to the characters created for the series, Smith traverses the whole span of comic art. One is able to trace his simple, time-honoured design choices back to other enduring characters in the history of international comics. Fone Bone himself, especially in the original black and white version of the comic, is all well-placed lines and curved edges. Details are sparse, but effective, such as his eyebrows. In a way, it is a shame to see Bone coloured, as the (admittedly spiffy) makeover sometimes masks the simple design at its core. The shading and blending of tones adds atmosphere to the emotion, but can make the eye forget that the character's expression and gesture is essentially a handful of lines and blank paper.

It brings to my mind two other masterfully-minimal character designs, one classic and probably an inspiration on Bone, another from a different medium entirely. Snoopy, from Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts strip and Nintendo game creation Kirby. These characters, like Bone, are expressive and distinctive while exhibiting a surprisingly simple approach.

Both Snoopy and Kirby are straightforward designs rooted in curved lines (or basic shapes in the latter's case). In fact, in the intro to Kirby's debut console video-game from 1993, Kirby's Adventure, the designers emphasise how simple it is to draw a Kirby. Like with Fone Bone, however, these characters are extremely flexible, able to display a range of emotions with the use of simple lines, accessories and shading. In Bone's case, Smith uses his eyebrows and the shape of his eyes and mouth to great effect.

And that is just Fone Bone. One of the real strengths of the series as a whole is that each 'species', be they human, dragon, rat-creature or bone, comply to wholly different, yet familiar and distinctive design ethics. For example, the Bone family are united by their curved, minimal forms, especially in relation to the detailed, more realistic approach to the human characters. I could easily write further mini-essays on the designs of the other characters, and probably will in the future. In this regard, Bone is a masterpiece from the very beginning, inviting readers big and small into its world of imagination and adventure.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

[122] So, I'm in the Sunday Times today...

Yesterday I received a phone call from My Man at the Sunday Times, asking if I would mind doing a phone interview for a piece they were planning on unemployed university graduates. I said I would oblige, then later spoke to a very nice reporter about 'my predicament'.

I laid out my story, about the move down to London, the job search, and my experience with unpaid journalism. I was asked about my opinions on the news about Government-backed internship schemes, and my thoughts about being a new worker in the current economic climate. I mentioned the Finnish girl, and her situation, although not too much.

I found out from My Man that my interview went to print and, in his words, it showed how pissed off I was with Gordon Brown and the welfare state. Eek, I thought, that's not what I said! I rarely profess concrete political opinions, especially on matters of legislation and organisation, being more of a philosophical, abstract type. But, of course, I wasn't so naive to overlook how my story could be used for an editorial agenda.

Here's what they put (full article here):

Mike Leader, who graduated in English from Birmingham University last summer, is still unemployed despite heading to London in search of a job.

'I applied for a few jobs in August and September but I didn’t hear back from any of those,' said Leader. 'Then I decided to go to the Jobcentre and apply for work there. I don’t think I’ve heard back from any job I’ve applied for there.'

He has even struggled to claim benefits amid the bureaucratic maze of Gordon Brown’s welfare system. 'I’m living with someone who has managed to get a part-time job in a coffee shop so I was turned down,' he explained.

Despite his degree, Leader remains unemployed. And, yes, his girlfriend, the coffee-shop worker, is also overqualified for her job: she is a graduate, too.

...Contemplating his unemployment prospects, Leader also welcomed the idea of internships, but he, too, pointed out one simple drawback. 'The bar will be raised for everyone,' he said. 'When you go for a job, you’ll be up against people who have had three months’ internship.'

Now, I mostly have no trouble with the nuts-and-bolts of their write-up. Admittedly, if I'm going to be honest with myself, I have not been 'actively seeking work' in a committed sense since November, when I signed up with an employment agency. Instead, I have been more active with my writing, as anyone who regularly reads this blog will know. Since then, I have been published on a handful of websites, and even in print, and I'm now tantalisingly close to being paid for freelance work as a result. However, I understand that for the purposes of this article, they would focus on the employment angle.

I suppose I object to the partisan stance they attribute to my experience with the Jobcentre. I believe one of the phrases I used to describe my application for Job-Seekers Allowance, and subsequent rejection, was 'a jungle of bureaucracy', which in retrospect is a little negative. Nevertheless, I did not 'blame' my inability to secure advice and help from the Jobcentre on Brown, or the current government. At the time, I was going to write an in-depth, guerrilla/gonzo-style piece about my application, but decided against it, as it seems too unthinkable in this world to be frustrated with a system, yet not profess an abject hatred for those in power. It could have too easily been interpreted as an anti-Labour rant.

As I said earlier, when it comes to day-to-day government activities, I am hesitant to comment. I believe that the systems and organisations we encounter most often (education, employment, health, local politics) are some of the easiest to lampoon or lambast. However, the prattling of radio pundits rarely take into account how complex the thinking and planning behind these daily structures are. They merely smear and criticise, as opposed to offering their own workable alternatives. The topic at hand straddles both employment and education, and displays double such complexity; a brief glance at the comments on the article's web-page reveals such desktop debaters, whose constructive contributions include 'if u want a job, create one'.

I feel a little uneasy being portrayed in that manner, even though I accept it is more editorial opinion than personal. It is mostly my fine-toothed, self-conscious approach that creates these worries. I suppose it is a testament to the English language that reported speech has such a flexible, artful capacity for commentary.

Something for the scrap-book, anyway. I was happy to help out with the article, and hope that it stimulates informed and open-minded discussion about the situation of recent graduates in the wider workplace. Hopefully, if there is a next time my name appears in the Sunday Times, it will be tied to something altogether more celebratory, and less downcast.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

[121] Yellow Magic Orchestra - Solid State Survivor Review

I know I posted this back when I wrote it in November, but my Solid State Survivor review has now gone up on the Tiny Mix Tapes site.

Now to write a follow-up.


Like the majority of bands that first played with electronics, it’s hard to discuss Yellow Magic Orchestra without referencing Kraftwerk. However, to combat the homogenization and simplification of modern music’s trajectory, one must try. The Japanese group, hugely successful and still influential in their native country, had only minor hits in the Western world during their late 1970s, early 1980s heyday. They’re probably more remembered nowadays as one of the first projects of Academy Award-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (the ’Danny Elfman / Oingo Boingo complex’). Nevertheless, their music is worth reappraisal...

Read the full article here.

Friday, 9 January 2009

[120] Gotham Central Volume 1 Review

I originally wrote this review of the first volume of the Greg Rucka / Ed Brubaker written Gotham Central comic back at the start of the December. It went up on Den of Geek this week.


A unique entry in the Batman universe, Gotham Central won't top the sales charts, but it deserves to be checked out...

The story of Gotham Central the comic book is one of the unfortunate misfires in recent industry history. Started in 2003 as a collaborative effort between two of the medium's best writers, Greg Rucka (52, Whiteout) and Ed Brubaker (The Death of Captain America, Criminal), and artist Michael Lark (Batman: Nine Lives), the series focuses on the men and women who protect and serve Gotham on a day-to-day basis. Sadly, despite a solid, intelligent and well-written 40 issue run of arcs and storylines, including the Harvey and Eisner Award winning 'Half a Life', the book struggled to find a consistent following in terms of monthly sales. It sold better in trade-paperback format, but still remains quite an under-represented corner of the Batman comic universe. And now, DC have re-packaged the first 10 issues in a deluxe (expensive) hardback edition...

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

[119] Morning Roundup, etc.

I'm quite burned out today. Worked pretty hard on finishing off that essay last night, ended up going to bed quite late, and didn't get a good night's sleep either. The Finnish girl is very ill at the moment, so I've been on nursing duty.

In the mean-time, we watched Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition, and Robbins Barstow's lovely home-video documentary Disneyland Dream. And, in between cooking and preparing warm-blackcurrant-high-juice-plus-honey, I've been reading through the trade paperbacks of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Just started the second volume, might look into finally getting the side-story The Black Dossier...

Therefore little in the way of time or energy for new blog material.

Although, I always make time for...


This morning we've got depressing media news involving EGM and 1UP, uplifting Mickey Rourke 'comeback' news, adaptations and adaptations, plus a sweet new Japanese trailer for the Watchmen.

Read the full article here.


Wednesday, 7 January 2009

[118] Culture and Creativity: 'Karaoke Gaming' and Korg DS-10

This is quite an ambitious post. It started off as an extended review of the Korg DS-10 music software for Nintendo DS, then it grew and grew into the following essay that fits in sociology, gaming, music and media. I've attempted to go for a more academic, long-form style, with a lot of comment and observation. A move away from piece-by-piece review pieces, into something a little more essay-ish. Advice and comments, as always, much appreciated.


A young cousin of mine recently celebrated her birthday. For her party, she and her friends went to a local, professional recording studio. There, a patient and diligent studio technician took the girls through a few takes of them singing over the backing tracks of some of their favourite pop songs. After a couple of hours, and a quick mixdown, the girls were presented with their own little EPs of the birthday session.

My immediate reaction when I was told, weeks later, was, in retrospect, quite harsh. I felt appalled that studio time was being packaged as a disposable birthday event. My indignation was borne out when eventually I heard the CD - and discovered the engineer hadn't spent time trying to harmonise the girls' performances, or even counting them in. The result was a little sloppy and, I suspect, something that will only be fully appreciated by parents at family gatherings in years to come. A handy, digital distillation of embarrassment to be pulled out at future birthdays and wedding ceremonies. OK, I'm going over-board: the girls had fun, singing along, pretending to be Miley Cyrus and Gabriella Cilmi. That is the important thing; I'm not trying to expound some sort of elitist manifesto.

But nevertheless, it made me pontificate at length, as such things often do, about our culture at large. The girls weren't going into the studio to cut their own tracks, or perform as a group and record covers - they were singing songs. It might be too much to expect from relatively young people - or people in general - to learn instruments and make music together, but I found this strangely indicative of (especially British) culture. A culture that praises and idolises fame as opposed to creativity. Some of the most successful musical stars are identikit singers picked out of the populace by deus-ex-machina talent shows such as The X-Factor or the Idol series. It is a strange deviation of the DIY ideal seen in the blues, folk and rock and roll traditions: anyone can be a star, however they must sing predetermined songs in predefined mainstream styles for cynical record producers. Popular music becomes less about creative expression and more about feeding the cult of personality peddled by gossip magazines and their ilk. Furthermore, artists themselves, be them songwriters, producers or self-sustaining musicians, become less championed in this mainstream, or are sucked into the tabloid quagmire. Indeed, the focus on celebrity as opposed to a medium's artistic merit also fades into other realms of entertainment. It just isn't in the music world, either. Celeb memoirs outsell literary prize winners by the barrel-load, for example.

The same is true, but in a less tangible way, for video games (I'm getting somewhere, trust me). Gaming doesn't have an obvious culture of celebrity, but its intersection of technology and entertainment makes it unique in its treatment of agency and creativity. Grant me the freedom to generalise: gaming, at its essence, is a highly developed form of dress-up. Of course, there are games and titles pushing forward in terms of narrative and thematic complexity, but the act of playing is by and large a surrogate for real-life experience. Immersion is just the extent to which the game in question makes you believe you are that man or that woman jumping, exploring, or shooting. You can be Alex Ferguson managing Manchester United in Football Manager, or a remorseless criminal in Grand Theft Auto. How does this relate? Well, for the moment you won't be apprehended for carjacking after playing GTA, just as much as you never have to get our of your chair to win the trophy or cup of your choice in Madden, Pro Evolution Soccer or Tony Hawks Pro Skater. Gamers can experience the thrill and accomplishment without any of the legwork. And nowhere is this more true than in music games. The Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, for all their giddy (legal) highs and arthritis-inducing button-shredding, are the 21st century descendants of strumming a tennis racket and singing into your hairbrush. What they do, they do exceedingly well, but there's no denying that they distill the action, effort and creativity of performing and composing music into a different and more passive experience enjoyable from the comfort of your own living room.

By tapping into that innate, mysterious magic of being a rock star, they still feed into that sense that there is something other than the act of creating found in music and expression in general. Of course, music-based games can inspire players to pick up a guitar in real-life, or to form a band, but there is still the chance that couch-potato apathy could set in. As this awkwardly conceived ironic-but-serious-but-not Guardian article notes, it is easier to follow on-screen instructions and press buttons than to learn chord charts, master scales and brave blisters. And besides, at the outset, it is probably more fun and user-friendly to play games than learn music; I'm not saying that Guitar Hero players should chuck out their PS3s and buy Peaveys. However, it is almost enough for me to give up hope for creativity-inspiring gaming.

Indeed, in the widely-circulated recent London Review of Book article 'Is it Art?', John Lanchester comments on 'the C word' as being integral to video games' stake for a place within the 'serious medium' pantheon. He hopes for a future where games offer 'the real possibility to make something new, something of your own'. Consoles are, after all, made from the same bits of plastic and metal that make up full-blown computers, which offer various avenues of creativity and expression. Give a person a laptop and they can compose their own music, create their own digital art, code their own games and, well, write their own rambling essays about the lot. Lanchester rejects Little Big Planet's user-generated blend of creativity as being too 'corporate' in its freedom. I disagree, as the game that fully embraces user ingenuity by giving the players the necessary tools to make the packed-in levels to use as they wish. I believe the unique attraction of Little Big Planet was hit home for me when, on a Christmas Kotaku video podcast, a senior gameplay programmer revealed that it took the team one and a half days to 'reverse engineer' a level created by a user that mimicked the classic shooter Gradius, and that he was surprised by the various genres of level being created, such as 'art gallery' stages. It is obvious, less than three months from release, that Little Big Planet allows expression for inspired players. It is like a console development towards what underground PC gaming communities have been doing for years - creating mods for Doom or Quake utilising developer-released SDKs (software development kits). These activities promote active, creative engagement with the mechanics of gaming as a medium.

Little Big Planet may be the attention-hogger, but many recent games have given the creative reins to the player. The under-performing Will Wright evolve-em-up Spore features deep species-based interaction, and a large community of other user-generated worlds to explore. Another recent and mostly overlooked game is Bangai-O Spirits, developed for the Nintendo DS by shooter geniuses Treasure. The game allows the player to create their own levels with surprising flexibility, encompassing traditional blast-away-all-enemies stages, head-scratching puzzles and veritable firework displays of bombs, missiles and exploding robots. Importantly, these levels can be encoded, distributed and downloaded as sound, using the console's built-in microphone (example). Creators can upload the sound bites online (through Youtube or elsewhere), effectively cutting out the game-company middleman.

Youtube, in fact, is widely used for dissemination of creative content for various platforms - for videoblogs, short movies and amateur music recordings. Indeed, one of the most active gaming subcultures in the vast plains of Youtube involve gamers meticulously creating tracks on a music composition programme bundled with Mario Paint, a SNES cartridge from 1992. The situation is an interesting one, as the musical capabilities of the game are now more recognised and appreciated than its more visually-minded aspects. Music composing games are yet to have their breakthrough hits on the consoles and, considering the relative complexity and almost par-for-the-course knowledge, I don't believe they ever truly will. One of the new features added in 2008's Guitar Hero World Tour is a self-styled 'Music Studio', where players are able to write and record their own tracks. This is a major step towards encouraging the legions of Guitar Hero freaks to lay down their own slices of prime rock riffery. However, the studio programme has drawn criticism and comment in reviews for its poor sound quality, lack of vocal support and, probably worst of all, its sheer uninviting complexity. Developers Activision and Neversoft did a good job in opening up the game, but I doubt it will convert many.

More extreme examples of complicated software packaged for the console-buying audience are to be found on the Nintendo DS. The DS is a hugely successful console due not only to its Gameboy-like portability and Nintendo brand loyalty, but for its strong, very widely spanning games library. The handheld manages to sustain multiple subcultures, with varied, often mutually exclusive gaming habits. I have personally heard it described as a 'girl's console' (referring to its pink colour scheme and the popularity of games like Nintendogs) and as a 'brain-training machine' (referring, obviously, to the Dr. Kawashima Brain Age / Training series and its watered down lookalikes). The disparity is such that of the 5 owners I have in my immediate family, only two have any overlaps in their collections, and even that is concerning one title.

One relatively minor subset of the DS game library is made up of music composition tools. The forerunner of this mini-genre is Jam Sessions, which allowed players to put together, and strum through chord sequences. It was a handy, extra portable gizmo, but is a steadfastly secondary accessory to a songwriter's 6-string.

A major breakthrough in this field came in 2008 when AQ Interactive collaborated with Japanese digital music pioneers Korg to create a DS application that fully emulates their MS-10 and MS-20 synthesizers from the late 1970s. Unlike the Guitar Hero Music Studio, the Korg DS-10 is a full recreation of a (very flexible) instrument in its own right, one which has been used by groups and electronic musicians for decades. The DS-10 is a surprisingly robust, powerful package, letting the user edit their own synth and drum machine tones and patterns as well as adding their own effects and modulations (video). The implementation of the DS hardware is outstanding, allowing a much more hands-on approach: synth tracks can be input through the use of a keyboard setup, and dials and knobs can be tweaked and twisted using the touch screen interface. The nuts and bolts of the application are still very sequencer-heavy, and there is little in the way of a tutorial for those who don't know their flange from their saw-tooth wave. Indeed, the manual does describe and illustrate what the buttons and switches do, but not how they effect the sound. This is not necessarily due to obtuseness on behalf of Korg or AQ, but the chunky operational manual that came with the original hardware is required (and, thankfully, free and online) reading.

Despite this initially user-unfriendly veneer, the Korg DS-10 houses one of the most intuitive, easily satisfying pieces of kit in musical creation - the Kaoss Pad. In this implementation, the Kaoss pad traverses along a preset scale, with its pitch and frequency determined by the position of the stylus on the touch-screen. It works like a stylophone, but with extra dynamics. Even over the most rudimentary of backing tracks, the pad allows any DS-scratcher to crank out some synth tunes of their own.

However, despite this small glimmer of unskilled appeal, the DS-10 requires, even expects, a certain level of competency to make good use of its depth. It isn't a game, really, it is a composition tool, a musical application. This distinction led IGN to review it as thus, rating it alongside its bigger siblings on desktops like Fruityloops (earning it a negative write-up in comparison). Nevertheless, I think that they missed the point. Part of the DS-10's genius and charm is its appearance on such a popular console. The great game buying public may not pick it up and place it in their basket next to the latest crowd pleaser or brain teaser, but it is the closest thing to pure musical expression I can think of outside of 'real instruments' and computer-based home studio software. And hey, at least there's an audience for it somewhere, and they're uploading and sharing their tunes on, you guessed it, Youtube.

These musical games, with their relatively complicated systems of tracking and composing, probably stray too far into the less entertaining, more brow-furrowing side of the toy/tool binary, but they raise a good point. Can a video game include necessary 'creative software' while still enticing the gamer with pick-up-and-play accessibility? I'm not so sure. Maybe, somewhere out there, there is a developer turning their eyes onto bringing musical expression into the living room. A game project that harnesses the joy of dress-up, but keeps a firm-footing in imaginative play, while overcoming apathy and laziness. Turning karaoke enthusiasm into creative expression. Making education and creativity fun and easy to get the hang of - a musical Little Big Planet. For the time being, though, I'm hoping some child out there, ripping into their pile of birthday presents expecting America's Next Top Model: The Game or Imagine Teacher/Dream Wedding/Interior Designer (etc), is surprised to be confronted with a Korg DS-10. Sometimes all they need is a nudge.


Thanks to the fellows at O'Reilly Digital Media for the Korg DS-10 in action pic.