Shackles – part 1

It is that most curious of times where the planets align and things fall in place. It’s now less than a year to the end of my current visa, I’ve been in Japan and wedlock long enough to try for that most ultimate of goals for the lifer: the permanent residency. Here then is part 1 of the post detailing the effort, the follow-up to come at some point in the future when the final verdict is delivered, some 8 or more months hence.

The process is relatively painless, and when I say painless I mean a pain in the backside. At its roots it is merely a formality of filling in some forms and handing over some papers, but getting those papers was quite a quest in itself, including family registers, tax forms, residency papers or proof, proof of employment, for all parties involved. The forms themselves contained the usual information I have handed over a dozen times already, plus more detailed family and work histories and whatnot and finally a postcard with my address which they can send me when they finally decide to accept me or boot me out. Either way I should know just in time before I need to apply for a new visa, or not, as the hope is.

Another lifer I know over here, whom shall remain nameless though he knows who he is, just recently received the okay. He had decided not to wait for the end of his visa but apply the very second he passed the required number of years of residency and marital coupling, which I believe has been reduced from 5 to 3 years (though don’t quote me on that). Considering he hasn’t been here quite as long as I, though not by much, and comes from a much lesser country of origin I doubt I’ll have many problems getting accepted. Touch wood, though. Maybe one of my forms has a spelling error or the secretary making the final decision has had a bad day and isn’t feeling magnanimous, anything can happen. Fingers crossed!

The benefits of permanent residency status are numerous and include the possibility of major bank loans, less hassle getting a credit card and, most of all, less time at the immigration office as you’ll never have to apply for visa extensions again. It’s not all piss and cakes, though, as I will still be required to purchase re-entry permits for leaving and returning to Japan for holidays and even the “unlimited” permit has an expiry time of three years. But purchasing those is quite easy, if onerous. And, not being Japanese or a diplomat I will, no matter what my status, have to hand over my fingerprints and mughsot when rentering the country like a common criminal.

The big joke is, of course, discussing this possibility with colleagues, to stress with extreme prejudice how the next step up, becoming nationalized Japanese, is unacceptable and a fate worse than death. They’ll laugh, but eventually realize you’re saying you would under no circumstances want to be one of them. Besides anything else, this is of course impossible anyway as you’ll never look like one of them and having a Japanese passport isn’t going to suddenly going to make you an accepted insider. Japan also requires you to denounce your original nationality, something, I have been told, the United Kingdom finds so hilarious as to ignore it. “Just tell them you did it and don’t tell us, we don’t care,” an embassy employee once told me. I think the requirement of changing your name to kanji was also recently scrapped, but even still, I have no interest in changing nationalities now. It means little enough as it is, being a fairly global citizen from a fairly globally spread family, but I’ll hang on to my Britishness for a while yet, I think.
(NOTE: Microsoft Word wants to correct “Britishness” to “Brutishness”. Ambrose Bierce would be proud!)

So, the long and short of it is: the application is in, the wait has started and the fingers are crossed. Should I fail, which is not so much unlikely as always a creeping possibility, I’ll just reapply again immediately until they relent. Look out for part 2 of this post at the end of the year, if you can be bothered.

Mediocrity War

This year's Dominance War, a sort of pan-forum community competition for concept and game art, has just started and, as is made abundantly clear yet again, we have a problem. We are stuck in an infinite loop of mediocrity, where an impoverishment of imagination feeds into impoverished talents, grooming new talent to be as lackluster as the current norm. What am I bitching about? Doesn't Dominance War prove there is some amazing skill out there? It sure does. Every year I am pleasantly shocked at how high the standards are in terms of craft and technical skill. There are a lot of people out there that can model and map a mean character, it's a truly impressive display.

My problem is with the concepts. Every year the theme for the competition is set, I presume, in collaboration with all the sponsors, which includes some game companies. This year the story starts:

Machines victory did not last... In a final desperate effort, the remnants of the opposing forces united against the machines and created an ultimate weapon that would temporarily disrupt all electrical functions within the galaxy. Unfortunately, something went horribly wrong...
It has been 1000 years since the disappearance of machines. All electrical and mechanical systems ...
Sorry, I had to cut it off there for fear of boring my readers into a comatose state of despair. So the back story of the theme is the most uninspired, generic, fantasy sci-fi rubbish you could imagine. The competition rules then:
Topic: Create a Powerful Artifact User!
Here we have an opportunity to foster, nurture the blooming imagination of a massive group of hopefuls, all eying a position in the game industry, and basically we're asking them to make the same kind of uninspired shite we are currently already making in an industry increasingly under fire, rightfully, for being derivative. An artifact user? Pardon my French, but Heavens forefend!

Sadly, the entrants are all swept up in the excitement and with their eyes on the prize, be it a Wacom Cintiq or a job offer, all are going at it hammer and tongs and with gusto and are creating, yet again, a splendid line-up of technically awesome, amazing game art of the most boring, traditional characters. Reapers, meta-knights, phantoms, zombie reptoid just makes me weep.

Within the industry we are already chained, pretty much by necessity, by budgets, time constrains and big business. The reasons we have become derivative are actually quite understandable, even though it is eventually bad for business. While you are outside of the industry you must make every use of your creative freedom. Unfettered by leads, producers and publishers, you could let your imagination run riot. So why waste your time creating 3D versions of, basically, the kind of Heavy Metal, comic book bi-curious doodles schoolboys draw in their notebooks to pass the time?

What I'd like to see for Dominance Wars IV, next year, is an original theme that leads to a wider variety of possibilities for entrants, more inspired characters and set-ups, something we don't see every day. Maybe make it a requirement each entrant must at least use two primary colours, no metal, whatever. It's obvious there is some excellent, inspiring technical skill out there; let them use it to be creative for a change. My suggestions for the next competition:
"The treasurer of the peace envoy to toyland"
"Cute genetic mutations"
"Realistic females"

Artifact user my arse.

In the meantime I highly recommend checking out the work-in-progress screenshots entrants are posting on the many forums participating. If you look beyond the basic idiocy of the subject matters you’ll find there are a lot of people with some amazing talent out there, enough to make you paranoid of your own future job prospects. I wish them all luck, but I still have an axe to grind with the people responsible for the themes.

The unbearable seeing of likeness

What do you do, back in the old country, when you are introduced to someone you are in awe of, especially physically? Say you meet the young Elvis or are introduced to a woman of such Aphrodisian beauty she invades the very fibre of your being? Obviously, the correct answer is that you do nothing. You stay silent, hide your feelings and stay away. Possibly, using the "was sich liebt, das neckt sich" tactic you make some horribly badly judged jokes at their expense. Then you go home, alone and full of self loathing and cry yourself to sleep. I think we can all agree this is the accepted form of social intercourse in these kinds of situations. True feelings and emotional reactions have no place in polite society.

Not so in Japan. For a country that puts great stock in avoiding embarrassment they seem awfully keen on jumping on every opportunity to tell the foreigner in their life how cool they are. "What was your name again? JC? Wow, that is so cool!" or "Wow, you really are handsome!" are phrases I have heard, ad nauseam and exclusively in Japan. It stems from "gaijin envy", the feeling a lot of Japanese have towards their clichéd and misguided view that foreigners are somehow superior to themselves. And it's not just the women looking for a rich husband to get them a greencard either, men too sometimes feel compelled to praise your every action as somehow excellent and praiseworthy. "You have a katakana name-stamp? That is so cool!" "JC, I wish I had such cool long legs as you!" My face has even been described as "noble" and, less excitedly, "royal".

It's balderdash, of course. Even in my most narcissistic moments I am well aware the Japanese view of me and actuality are vastly different. My first instinct is to say "What? Are you mad? What the Hell is wrong with you people?" but by then my British sense of self-loathing and embarrassment are already too keen. You can't very well say "Yeah, thanks. I am actually pretty cool, aren't I?" So you just end up smiling politely, waving your hand and saying "No, no, really, no", which more often than not leads to reiterations and strong confirmations of their mistakenly held opinions.

My biggest bugbear is the inevitable comparison to well-known cultural references, i.e. film stars, whom they believe you resemble. I myself have been on the receiving end of comparisons to the following people, none of whom, I can safely say, I resemble in the slightest.
Left to right, top to bottom: Actor Edward Norton, big-faced Tom Hanks, professional twat Leonardo Cappuccino, raging loon Robert DeNiro, manic street preacher James Dean Bradfield, never-was Robbie Williams, HRH the Prince of Wales, crusty TV teenager Luke Perry

Between the few readers whom have had the misfortune to meet me in person and those still left in the dark one must admit the only thing any of the above have in common, including myself, is the small fact that none of us are Japanese. And most surprisingly, all of these comparisons were offered entirely without sarcasm as compliments.

The very first time I encountered such blatant racial blindness was in fact during my very first trip to Japan. I was seated at a small table in a downtown okonomiyaki restaurant, eyes agog and mouth agape at the wonders of Tokyo, when an elder woman at the next time leaned to my dinner guest. The woman was dressed up in a kimono while her husband wore a faded gray suit; it was obviously a special occasion for them. With a shy grin on her face she said something in Japanese which was translated to me as “noble face”. “Nobu fe-su” the woman echoed, giggling and pointing her hand, palm upwards, in my direction. I lost a lot of respect for the Japanese that day.

One can imagine a lesser person may fall hook, line and sinker for this constant pedestal putting uponing, but I am fortunate in having a local circle of friends, a wife, a family and family-in-law who see me as a constant source of ridicule and derision, so my feet shall remain firmly on terra firma. Also, there is the occasional racist to remind me I am subhuman scum so not all Japanese think I look like whom they think I look alike. And if they persist, I shall compare them all to Jackie Chan, including the women, because this has proven to be a successful tactic in this embarrassing social situation.

More Mobile Games

Last month’s train adventure, leaving me stranded in between town and home for over four hours, taught me one important lesson: I needed a new mobile phone as the battery of this one wasn’t up to the task anymore. So recently I went out and purchased a rather expensive, top-of-the-line, ultra-slim yet strangely plasticy, new mobile phone. It has all the bell and whistles I’ll never use, like TV reception and a VGA screen capable of actual internet browsing as opposed to slimmed-down i-mode internet, a rather snazzy camera, and all manner of applications I either don’t need or don’t understand. Having to part with my old games and, sigh, high scores I thought it was a good time to have another look at the state of mobile gaming by purchasing a few new titles in the name of research.

Tetris Crystal
Priority number uno after getting a new phone is to make sure you have a decent Tetris on there. The problem is that G-Mode has roughly a billion slightly differing versions and like the fool I am I opted for the more expensive one, rather than the cheaper version I had been playing over the last 2 years. That isn’t to say it’s bad, because it isn’t, but amongst the Tetris line-up I cannot fathom why this one is three times as expensive as my previous version. I suspect the EA branding on the title screen may have something to do with it. Japanese mobile gamers should stick with the 100 Yen Tetris Red or Blue versions which are not only the cheapest but, strangely, the best ones out there. That said, it’s Tetris and I’m sure, thanks to my lovely commute, I’ll be getting my money’s worth.

This title was pre-installed on the phone, which is a good thing too as I’d never have the arrogance to buy it for myself. The Mojipitan series has been around for a while now and is a cute mix between Scrabble and a different kind of Scrabble. You are presented with a grid, often shaped to limit expansion space, and a few tiles pre-placed on the board forming a word. You then need to place a set number of tiles from a cache on the board, always making sure new and valid words are formed. The game ends when no options are available and the level ends when all tiles have been successfully placed. Come to think of it, it is very much like Scrabble, except, of course, it’s all in hiragana and only involves Japanese words, which is why I wouldn’t have bought it on my own accord. . But as far as mobile ports of GBA and PS games go, this one is pretty good. Readability is somewhat of an issue, even on a lovely screen like that of my new mobile, but all in all it’s not too bad. And it’s probably good practice. The first few levels certainly weren’t a problem for me, which is somewhat different to a few years back when I tried my hand at the GBA version.

Another port, running on the EZ-appli software, this game runs brilliantly, as if it was made for the mobile platform. It is identical to the DS game Hudson released a while back where the player must draw a single continuous line on a grid following an decreasing set of numerical hints as to where to draw. The game itself is massively addictive and great fun for any puzzle fanatic. The mobile version suffers slightly from controls, making selecting certain parts of a square a little hit and miss, but that really is splitting hairs. The real main problem is the art direction, showing white numbers on a light green background, which can play havoc on my tired eyes after a day of work while I’m suffering from “monitor weep”. Also slightly annoying is the sales tactic of selling four sets of 25 puzzles separately. It’s great for those who just want to try out a game and maybe not commit to it much, but it’s annoying for people like me who end up having to micro-transact their way to a significant sum as we blaze through the puzzles.

Response times and graphics are slowly making headway on the mobile platforms but there remains the problem of a decent control input, hence all good mobile games are simple mobile games. There is no way I am spending money on 3D racers or action-platformers because I well know my thumb won’t be able to cope. But for simple puzzle titles it’s faultless. I find it amusing to see how simple DS games are migrating to the mobile platform, like the Hudson Puzzle Series, which actually have a better home on the phone, but I’m not complaining.

As I am still too embarrassed to whip out my DS in public, I am, after all, trying to pretend to be an adult, mobile phone gaming still takes up a lot of my time, or rather, I am filling a lot of my wasted time playing mobile games. The technology has progressed far enough for hardware manufacturers to start thinking about working on controls and inputs, especially with iPod and iPhone games gaining ground, soon to overtake the standard handsets. Some kind of nub, PSP-style, or dedicated, well-placed buttons would go a very long way in raising the quality and possibilities of mobile phone gaming.

For all the ladies of the world

Valentine's Day is not for you, according to Japan, but for us, the men. You must give us chocolate and dinners, especially chocolate. If we work in the same office and I've bullied you to tears on many occasions, sexually harassed you and you had rather stick a knife in my janglies than even look at me, you are required to give me chocolate on Valentine's Day, "giri choco", obligation chocolate. I'm just mentally counting the number of women who work at my company and, including the ones I've bullied and sexually harassed, I am pretty much guaranteed to be able to eat myself sick this Thursday.

That's the tradition, anyway. The video game industry has its own set of rules, and giri choco is not that important. I think of all my years in Japan I've been given it once, and that was just the usual cheap, crumbly wax that is sold at bargain basement prices in big plastic bags to those women unfortunate enough to work in larger businesses. Go to the foodshows and you'll see a lot of lovely gourmet chocolate and cakes especially for the day, but also nasty-looking chocolate offal for the office ladies.

There is no real greeting card culture here, which at least saves me the crushing disappointment of never receiving any on this special commercial day. Plus I like to tell myself Japanese girls are just too shy to declare their love and devotion to a handsome young turk like myself. It's an excuse that doesn't really sit well with the reality of the usual whipping I get from my female colleagues, whipping in a bad way obviously, but I can suspend my own disbelief just about long enough provided I get at least a small handful of sales-damaged chocolate.

I must wait again until next month for White Day, the fantastically opportunistic male-version of Valentine's Day. One day a year of forced consumerism was obviously not enough for Japan, and I'll be made to queue up in the local foodshow to buy some white chocolate or otherwise sweet, white foodstuffs. Luckily, being a male, we have no real obligations to buy chocolate for the girls in the office. Of course, if they buy me some on Thursday I am socially obliged to give them a present back, but then I can play the gaijin card and claim ignorance of such obtuse cultural etiquette.

Other than that the day has very little effect on Tokyo as a whole. The bright pink heart banners hardly stand out against the usual bright pink advertising posters and billboards, though my passage through several train stations is hampered by long, snaking queues of women waiting to buy their gifts. In just over 24 hours Japan can go back to its usual routine of ignoring that special someone in your house and trying to pick up hostesses,, for a month at least.

WiiWare Wishlist

If there is a word to describe this generation of consoles it's possibly "copycat". All three manufacturers have been liberally hommaging their competitors, some more than others, like for example Sony's SIXAXIS controller, an obvious last-minute, gaffer-tape rip-off of the Wiimote and hence ineffectual and rubbish. But even Nintendo, arguably the most innovative this generation, isn't immune and is going to be offering its own WiiBox Live Arcade...erhm, WiiWare, the original games download service later this year.

The potential problems of WiiWare are obvious to even the most unenlightened observer. Though the clunky but functional online infrastructure can be polished up with firmware updates, the one major crippling factor for the new service will be hard disk space. This is obviously a sign of the hindsight nature of this service and can only mean one thing: WiiWare titles will be more akin to on-line Flash games as opposed to full-blown XBox Live Arcade titles in terms of contents and quality; imagine WiiCade plus alpha, if you will. Either that or Nintendo are planning a HDD add-on (unlikely), a new Wii iteration with a bigger HDD (unlikely) or allowing executables from SD cards (extremely unlikely).

That said, there are some titles I'd love to see on the Wii that aren't possibly fit for full-blown, boxed releases but would fit perfectly on the WiiWare service had hard disk space not been such a potentially crippling issue. Here is my shortlist of games I'd like to play on my sofa whilst gently cradling my slender white pointsttick.

Mystery Case Files
Big Fish Games' excellent PC casual series of MCF games would make an almost perfect fit for the Wii, both in game design and target markets. If you don't know the titles you owe it to yourself to check them out. As an investigator of sorts you must find a dozen listed objects in a static scene of many cunningly concealed items. They are already referred to as "hide & seek games”, and they are strangely compelling and fun - a true innovation in the casual development spheres and shining example of the possible originality of ideas that is possible under such business models. I love them!
Imagine sitting with your family on the sofa as you sweep your cursor over the screen while everybody is desperately looking for that last hidden object as the timer is ticking down. It is a great game to play together and with children and using the Wiimote as a natural cursor would fit perfectly. As soon as you find the item you just point to it and click.
Apart from the size of the download one possible obstacle for this game on the Wii could be resolution, plain old pixels-on-screen issues. The game cries out for super-HD, massive screen sharpness so the items can be even more cunningly hidden but at a pinch it could do on a Wii.

Bookworm Adventures or Bookworm Deluxe
Another casual PC hit game, the Bookworm series, has already seen a handheld rerelease but could easily be ported to the WiiWare system. It’s a simple game where you create words on a board of letters for points or progression. Again, with the Wiimote this could be controlled quite easily and the games are both a lot of fun too. Neither would have too many issues with screen resolution and could possibly even be fit within the possible WiiWare specs, whatever they end up being. Not only that but it’s one of those all-round family fun titles that seems to be perfectly wed to Nintendo’s cleaner than Caesar’s wife attitude.

Crayon Physics
Originally a cool little freeware title, still available for download, this cute little game allows players to draw with crayon on the screen to move a ball to a certain area of the screen using, as the title suggests, physics. Again, image-wise it fits beautifully with the Nintendo brand but on top of that it’s good fun too. Using the Wiimote to draw on-screen could work very nicely, though some motion-smoothing would be required. A full-fledged Crayon Physics title would be a perfect addition to the WiiWare line-up, which as far as I know it isn’t.

SCUMM adventures
You know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the old LucasArts adventures of the glory days. Monkey Island, Zak McKracken, Sam & Max, Maniac Mansion and its sequel Day of the Tentacle. Point & click adventures....a system with a natural cursor control scheme...come on, who hasn't imagined this? Of course you have, everyone has, we all want to see this happen, if not on the DS then at least the Wii. All that needs to happen is for those fine folk who created the SCUMMVM engine, which reads the original data files made using the original Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion engine and plays them on any modern PC, to create a WiiWare version and start selling original data packs of the games. They're small enough for the Wii's hard disk to handle, they don't require high resolution graphic power, they don't have any reason NOT to come to WiiWare....I wish. Though I've played and finished all of the LucasArts adventures many times over and could replay them with my eyes closed, just for the privilege of sitting on the sofa and enjoying them on my television I'd gladly pay real cashmoney.
Seriously, if you need convincing at all of SCUMM games' natural home on the Wii you really have no business playing games or calling yourself "human".

Though it is unlikely these titles will appear any time soon, if at all, it's nice to dream. I think the WiiWare service is probably going to be fairly underwhelming, though possibly still profitable for Nintendo, and will never catch up to the mad success of the Virtual Console channel. I will, however be keeping an eye cocking towards it with curiosity and excitement because every new delivery system is an opportunity for developers to not only shovel out the same old crap but also to experiment with new ideas cheaply.

Tractatus Lascivio-Philosophicus

They rode upon a rocking horse / And called it Pegasus.
- Keats

If I’m brutally honest I am no big fan of academic research into the finer points of video gaming because, mostly, there aren’t any. It’s all fine and dandy to ascribe philosophical or sociological thinking to games but that ignores the one basic fact that what we make is product, toys, entertainment for a market, directed by business. It's funny to read theses and essays claiming a certain game designer is following, say, McLuhan's principles when in all fairness, unless he was a character in Final Fantasy 7, few game designers know who McLuhan is. Actually, no, be fair, most game developers are actually quite smart and well-educated, but that doesn't detract from the fact that most decisions are ultimately made by people with money, regardless of their insights or skills or lack thereof. One might as well contemplate the philosophical reasoning behind Disney World. But all that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to investigate these games with a philosophical eye, mostly because it is fairly inappropriate.

Tetris vs. Camus
In Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus he proposes the absurd and futile struggle is what gives meaning to life. This we see mirrored in Tetris, a task of organizing without meaning or reward. The moment a line is complete it disappears leaving us to rebuild ad infinitum. The only things that remain are the incomplete and the mistakes. And Tetris of course has no end, no goal. The winner is the person who can postpone losing the longest. As Camus writes "what counts is not the best living but the most living.”

Portal vs. Nietzsche
In Die fröhliche Wissenschaft Nietzsche writes his most famous quote “God is dead” and contrasts religion’s promise of a good afterlife with the naturalistic and life-affirming idea that one’s own existence should be the sole consideration when contemplating action and morals. It is scary how well Portal follows this concept, witness:
You start off in servitude while a disembodied voice commands you and promises rewards that are unlikely to ever materialize. Your actions are guided and decided, forcing you through dangers and avoidable harm. When your life is in peril the only option is to revolt, which leads you on a path of discovery and enlightenment. Your God is a man-made construct designed to keep you under control and subservient, and to truly be free you must destroy it. It’s only when you’ve killed your God that you see the true daylight.

Quake vs. Hobbes
In Leviathan Hobbes examines the nature of man outside a society as being brutish and full of undirected aggression and ponders the question whether directed warfare is a necessary part of organized society. Quake mirrors this in the murderous rampages of a single person devoid of a society to call his own, letting his egocentric self-preservation rule his aggression. Had the nameless soldier not been alone but part of an organized society under a strict sovereignty the Quake series may have ended up as a Civilization clone.

Habbo Hotel vs. Nystrom
In the absence of forceful views to take over from the religion and philosophy many people have abandoned in the industrial age a “philosophy of futility” governs our aimless lives where we have narrow interests manifest in fashionable consumption. The main focus of games like Habbo Hotel is to revel in superficial adornments, a perfect example of futile fashionable life, especially in the absence of a more meaningful goal. Buy posters! Buy sofas! Buy wallpaper! Kill yourself!

Super Mario Bros. vs. Marx
The communistic overtones of the adventures of Mario, a working-class plumber, being exploited by the bourgeoisie, a bone-idle princess, who is under constant attack from the lumpenproletariat, need little explanation. The fact Nintendo visualized the metaphorical specter haunting Europe in the shape of a Boo is merely the icing on the decadent cake.

If this post proves anything, other than my tenuous grasp on the finer details of philosophy, it is that our products are so flimsy and open-ended that any academic interpretation can find ground, if one really tries. Academic research into the birthing of video games seems, at this point in time, more an exercise in sophistry than anything else, though the social effects of the product after its release is definitely worth examining. But don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see more thoughtful video games out there, games that stretch beyond the “here’s a gun, go kick some alien arse” themes. And to be fair, there are a few titles out there that are trying to be different, but those are, to date, few and far between.