Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Punk Rock

I was raised on punk rock. My dad & uncle were two of the OG punk rockers, and, since I was born when my dad was only 20, I was pretty much raised on the Ramones, the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello. My dad, like most of his generation, eventually got bored with 3 chords, and got into post-punk like the Smiths, the Cure and the like. Quite naturally, this meant that I got into post-punk. I hate the term "post-punk," and here's why.

I was speaking with a co-worker who, admittedly, knows very little about punk yesterday, and he started talking about what was and wasn't "punk." This was interesting to me, because he fell pretty well on the same lines as people who claim to know very much about punk. Less Than Jake isn't punk because they have horns, Devo isn't punk because they use keytars instead of guitars, and My Chemical Romance isn't punk because they're music is boring and they're on a major label. I agree with MCR being boring, but other than that, I disagree with all those things.

I understood early on that being "punk" meant doing what you want to do, regardless of people's expectations of you. Later on, I found out that "punk" actually meant doing what you want to do as long as all the other punks are doing it too. It was somewhere around this time that I ceased referring to myself as a punk.

People with mohawks, patches all over their pants and upside down American flags on their walls will tell you that punk is a very specific thing. Misfits, Ramones, U.K. Subs, etc., basically bands that only know 3 chords and play very fast. Now, I like all of those bands, and do objectively realize that the Ramones are the greatest band of all time, but they're not my favorite band. In fact, they're not even on my All Time, Desert Island, Top Five of All Time list. They're not even in the Top Ten.

Why? Because three chords only go so far, and the Cure managed to do much more interesting things over the years, all while keeping a punk ethos. Robert Smith does what he wants, when he wants to do it. So does Elvis Costello. So does Mark Mothersbaugh. So does Blake Schwarzenbach. Unfortunately, some closed minded idiots who call themselves "punk" think that their music is not punk (hence the term "post-punk"). But it is.

A recent spin of Devo's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo! revealed that Devo is more "punk" than most any band the punks would consider punk today. The songs run the gamut from goofy ("Uncontrollable Urge") to serious satire ("Jocko Homo") to a cover of a "classic" rock song that fans of the original would find blasphemous ("Satisfaction"), and that's only on side one. The music is extremely different from most anything else that was going on at the time (kind of like no-wave, but with an actual melody, and kind of like synth-pop, but less vapid). The songs are intellegent and well written and critical of society. Devo is punk rock, in every way except sticking to a boring, tired three chord structure.

If you're going to say "do what you want, be an individual," don't cry poseur when someone isn't the same individual as you. Ultimately, Blake Schwarzenbach said it best; "'You're not punk, and I'm telling everyone.' Save your breath, I never was one."

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I'm sure everyone's heard by now, but Electronic Gaming Monthly, heretofore the last best multi-platform gaming magazine, is no more. I wish I could say that the news was shocking, but really, it's not. It is, however, very sad.

EGM was the first multiplatform gaming magazine I was aware of, as a young man. I read it on and off for the entire time it was published, though I only subscribed to it for the last three or so years. It was always a treat to read, though, in both the Sendai and Ziff-Davis eras, with a cavalcade of insightful features and insider news, rivaled only by Next Generation, which I also subscribed to in its waining days.

As much as I loved many magazines of days gone by (I loved Game Players/Ultra Game Players, as well as the aforementioned Next Gen, and I even read the occasional issue of Diehard Gamefan), there was always something... different about EGM. I think it might've been the fact that, during the Sendai era, the churned out massive tomes on a monthly basis, which could take an entire month to absorb (the largest issue came in somewhere around 400 pages). Whatever it was, there was always something different about EGM that no other mag before or since (and considering the state of print media, will likely ever) captured for me.

In the summer of 2007, I had a chance to see "Trickman" Terry and the most tenured Sushi-X, Ken Williams, talk about their time at EGM. It was amazing for me to actually meet THE Sushi-X. Yeah, he was a kind of chubby white dude, but even after all those years, even at 24, meeting Sushi-X was a big deal to me, not to mention the Trickman, who, unbeknownst to him, helped me and frustrated me to no end (all James Bonds, indeed, Trickman). I mean... they were celebrities to me, even though they just wrote for a magazine.

Now I interact with some (now former) EGM staffers online, and while they don't have the same aura as Sushi-X and Trickman Terry, they're guys who wrote for EGM, the world's foremost multiplatform gaming magazine! I mean, how cool is that?

Ok, this is rambling a bit, basically what I'm saying is that EGM, and print magazines in general, are generational touchstones in a way that, no matter how good they are, 1Up, GameLife and Giant Bomb will never be, and it's sad to see it go. I already miss looking forward to the next big feature, or cover story, or whatever it may be. I can't really think of a good way to end this, so I'm just going to say that I went to my parents' house and dug my old EGMs out of the attic, and I encourage everyone else who has any to do the same. There's a lot of fun to be had looking back through the legacy of the last best gaming magazine.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Visual Storytelling in Wrestling

I hate the JBL/HBK storyline that's going on on Raw right now, but probably not for the reasons you might think. Yes, I'll concede that it's stupid for us, as viewers, to be expected to believe that Shawn Michaels is so broke that his multi-million dollar salary can't sustain him and his family. Yes, it's stupid for us to be expected to believe that JBL is that rich that he can afford to pay Shawn so much more than his already multi-million dollar salary as to make it worth it to him to compromise his principles.

But that's not why I hate the angle.

I hate the angle because aside from two in ring occurences (HBK slaps JBL, thereby getting Rey Mysterio DQ'd from his Fatal Fourway qualifying match, and HBK takes the Clothesline from Hell without defending himself, allowing JBL to win the aforementioned Fatal Fourway), the entire story has been furthered by talking. JBL talks to the crowd, Todd Grisham talks to HBK, HBK talks to the crowd, HHH talks to HBK, Jericho & Orton talk to JBL, JBL talks to HBK, HBK talks to Cena... STOP TALKING!

Much like in my "Visual Storytelling in Videogames" essay, I want to clarify that I do not hate promos and backstage vignettes. Promos have a function, and have since pro-wrestling began, even moreso since pro-wrestling began on TV (which is not long after anything began on TV), but until the late '90s, they were used much more sparingly. The late '90s were the heyday of the promo, featuring editions of both Raw and Nitro that did not have so much as an arm drag until 45 minutes in. Thankfully, those days are over, but there's still some holdover.

Holdover like the HBK/JBL storyline. Now, HBK and JBL are two of the best "stick men" (i.e. guys who cut good promos) in wrestling today. In fact, I would argue that JBL's at his very best when he's cutting a promo, and he could make a great manager when he decides to leave the ring for good, but that doesn't change the fact that having a storyline play out almost exclusively in the realm of the promo is just lazy storytelling.

It was even revealed that HBK was in JBL's employ in a promo. Can you think of a bigger waste? He could've screwed Rey by slapping JBL before anyone knew he was working for him, then explained in a brief promo that he did it to save JBL's title chances because "blah, blah, blah, I'm a broke millionaire."

He could've saved JBL from a beatdown. He could've done something as simple as putting JBL's foot on the rope when he was being pinned during a match, any match, really. What did WWE's brilliant writing staff come up with instead? "Shawn Michaels works for me now."

Wow. That's some riveting television, that is. Nothing like a goof in a cowboy hat telling me he hired another goof in a cowboy hat. Puts me right on the edge of my seat, that does. How come these guys didn't win any Golden Globes tonight?

On the flip side, let's look at the Jake "The Snake" Roberts/"Ravishing" Rick Rude feud of 1988. It starts with a promo, but one with a good hook. Rude hits on a pretty girl, she turns out to be Mrs. "The Snake." Simple, short, to the point, right? Right. Roberts runs out, punches Rude (Action! How novel of a concept!), a bunch of "enhancement talent" runs out and pulls them apart.

Following that incident, Rude gets some tights with Mrs. Snake's face on them, Roberts warns in a very brief promo that he shouldn't do it again, Rude does, Roberts comes to the ring and pulls them off in front of a live audience following a match. The two have a match at Saturday Night's Main Event in October, Roberts wins, starts a feud with Andre the Giant.

Now, of course, that's a simplification of the events of that feud, but a simplification of this one would read "JBL and HBK talk about HBK working for JBL. HBK slaps JBL, then takes a dive to him in a Fatal Fourway for a title match at the Royal Rumble."

The point is that visual storytelling is not the difficult, especially in a media that are so given to it in the first place. Aural storytelling is not effective in wrestling, it never has been, and it never will be. The crowds are too big and putting lapel mics on the wrestlers would be impossible unless they all dressed like Rick Martel (yes, he is a model).

Wrestling is pure visual storytelling. A great match will always be a great match, regardless of context, because the two (or four or six or sometimes ten) guys in the ring will tell it. A great promo, though? Well, no matter how great it is, without context, you won't know what the guy is talking about, even if he sounds good doing it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

God Hand, et al

All gamers have what is known in the current vernacular as a "Pile of Shame." It's a stack of games, typically ones you own, that you have not yet played to completion, despite critical and/or audience acclaim. For the past two years, one game stood shining atop my Pile of Shame: God Hand.

Clover Studios' saved their best for last with their swan song, God Hand. God Hand puts you in the shoes of Gene, a drifter who, following an attack by some thugs, loses his right arm and awakens to find it replaced with the legendary God Hand. Trust me, it sounds a lot more serious than it actually is. The game is rife with slapstick humor, and this humor only serves to make the game that much better.

Having finally completed it, I can say that it is arguably the best beat-'em-up ever. This is because it's a beat-'em-up that manages to avoid the thing that made the genre stale in the first place. God Hand is not a button masher. In fact, button mashing in God Hand is the best way to get killed. Gene can't block, and as a result, using all the techniques at your disposal (of which there are far more than any other beat-'em-up I can think of), along with your dodge ability, is a requirement to survive past the first boss.

However, there's something about this game that's elusive... It's similar to No More Heroes (which I felt was easily the best Wii game of '08), and, I suspect the forthcoming Mad World, but in ways that're difficult to describe. They're action games, sure, but there's something about them that makes them different from Devil May Cry or Gears of War (which are quite different from each other). God Hand and its ilk seem to take delight in simply being videogames. They are straightforward, with little story, and a massive emphasis on fun vis-a-vis the satisfaction of defeating your enemies.

To wit; killing enemies in God Hand is as satisfying as it is in any game I've ever played. Compare it to, say, Contra, one of the kings of 2D action. In Contra, killing is the main action, but is it satisfying? Not unless it's a boss fight, and even then, the act of killing isn't so much satisfying as the idea that you've survived another stage. God Hand, on the other hand, makes every adversary, from the lowest peon to the final boss, a delight to dispatch.

The fun in these games is not a function of progressing the story, admiring the graphics, or exploring the world. No, the fun in these games is in defeating your foes in the most over-the-top, painful, brutal fashion possible. A secondary enjoyment comes from upgrading your character, but that's only because it serves to make the aforementioned killing that much more enjoyable.

This article is not meant to point out how underrated these games are, because I don't think they are. I understand why God Hand has a 73 aggregate at Metacritic. The graphics don't impress, the controls could certainly be a stumbling block for many, and the game is hard. God Hand, et al appeal to a very particular audience. The same audience that loves bad kung-fu movies. The same audience that loves The Dead Milkmen's music. That is the audience for God Hand. And I am a proud member of that audience. I can only hope that Mad World is half as good as God Hand.