First Impressions

So the NBA season began for reals last night. Allegedly both Kyrie Irving and Sideshow Bob played pretty well for the Cavs, but on the other hand it was against the Wizards, so who really knows about that. Which, incidentally, is a weird way to start the season; it’s like the NBA telling you, “Yeah, we’ve got these two marquee matchups for you, but we’re going to whet your appetite for them with a game that hardly anyone outside the two fanbases could possibly care about.”

Before we move on, let me pause and thank all the gods, basketball and otherwise, for the existence of www.basketball-reference.com. This year they’ve added a feature which I hadn’t seen before: a shot chart that shows you where every team took shots from on the floor. In general, it’s a fucking brilliant resource. All hail it.

Anyways, I sort of half-watched the Celtics-Heat game and my basic impression was ARRR WHAT ARE YOU DOING JASON TERRY. Obviously, the Celtics still have a way to go before their team coheres around a single game plan, so it’s pointless to read too much into the results of the game. What I liked was: Rondo getting his own shot, to the tune of a 20-7-13 statline on 64% shooting. This is what he has to be like for the Celtics the whole year if they’re going to have a successful season. Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa were both outstanding; I’m especially happy for Barbosa, whom I’ve liked since his days as a Sun. Boston out-rebounded Miami on both ends, and in general had a very efficient offensive game, shooting 52% from the field and 46% from 3.

What I didn’t like: Miami shot a pretty unreal 50% from 3, 54% from the field, and forced a shitton of turnovers. Ray Allen torched his former teammates for 19 points, two of which came via a glacially slow drive past his defender (don’t remember who) to finish at the rim. I know Jesus can still play and all, but when a 37-year-old Ray Allen is beating you off the dribble, something is wrong. The overall picture makes it look like the Celtics fell down on the defensive end, but that is somewhat misleading; while Miami did get a number of easy buckets via good ball movement, LeBron also had a very good shooting night on long 2’s and 3’s. In general, if you can get your opponent to take a long 2 (especially a contested one) early in the clock, that’s a good thing, and this time Miami made their shots.

Also, Jeff fucking Green. I know, I know, dude had a heart condition and all, but still: 0-4, 3 of those attempts coming from close range. Boooo! And Paul Pierce shot like ass.

Then there was the Mavs-Lakers game, which I only watched half of, but have no reason to think that my impressions from that half are not generalizable to the whole game. Namely, why would you waste Nash’s talents like that, Los Angeles? Will Mike Brown ever come up with a competent offensive scheme? What’s the point of having one of the best pick-and-roll point guards ever walking the ball up the court and handing it off to Gasol at the top of the key? Pau led the Lakers in assists with six(!) and while I realize that he’s a pretty good passer for a big man, that should not be happening when one of the best passers in the game is on your team. All this talk about the Princeton hybrid motion offense is, as far as I can tell, a bunch of technical-sounding bullshit that essentially means a bunch of very static offensive sets and generally poor off-the-ball movement. As Sir Charles astutely noted during the half-time report, Dwight should be running up and down the court; many times in the first half, Nash would try to start a fast break only to find that he had no support for a lob and no trailers for a quick 3.

And what to make of these Mavericks? There’s a sense in which this incarnation of the team is sort of like the title-winning squad of, fuck, was it really a year and a half ago? Shit. Obviously not as good as that team was, but resembling them in the sense that they seem to be assembled around Dirk and a bunch of castoffs from other teams. I really thought that Houston was going to be the Island of Misfit Basketball Toys this year, but now that they’ve got Harden, it’s a bit more difficult to put them in that category. Dallas, on the other hand… the ’11 team was forged from Jason Kidd (acquired from the Nets for Devin Harris and a bunch of junk, but clearly on the decline), Tyson Chandler (now looking fabulous, then a dubious reclamation project after years of injuries), Shawn Marion (once a plausible DPOY candidate, before being traded for two O’Neals in a row), J.J. Barea (famous for being short), Brendan Haywood (another failure in a long line of Cuban’s attempts to acquire a moderately competent center), Peja (when did that happen?), and the likes of Corey Brewer, Ian Mahinmi, and DeShawn Stevenson. I’m not even counting Caron Butler, who was out for the second half of the season with a broken hand. Seriously, those people all played non-negligible roles on a championship team; some of them actually played starring roles. If anything can be a testament to Rick Carlisle’s coaching ability, it must be the fact that he won a title with a team seemingly assembled out of spare parts that no one thought to use. It’s like MacGuyvering a functional television out of circuitry harvested from a scrap heap: a technically possible but unlikely achievement by anyone but a real master.

Now the Mavs are at it again; of course, they won’t win a title this year, and many commentators don’t even have them making the playoffs, which I would argue is a bit premature. Seriously though, can anyone look at this team and honestly predict good things? Sure, if Dirk and Kaman (free-agent castoff) come back and stay healthy, if Rodrigue Beaubois can consistently play well, if Darren Collison (surplus to requirements at Indiana after backing up George Hill) can do point-guardy things and run the two-man game with Dirk, if O.J. Mayo (dumped by the Grizzlies) doesn’t continue regressing, if Vince Carter (oh god…) can resist taking 15 ill-advised long jumpers per game, if Brandan Wright continues to be a serviceable center, if Eddy Curry (Eddy Curry! Eddy Curry! AAAAAHHHH) doesn’t eat himself out of shape yet again, if Elton Brand (amenstied by the Sixers) can average 10 PPG, if Shawn Marion can muster up another year of all-NBA defense… that’s enough ifs for a Kipling poem. This team isn’t just a reclamation project, it’s like someone is trying to build a space shuttle out of old car parts. So many things have to go right for this team to even contend on any given night that if Carlisle gets them to the playoffs with a 6-seed or higher, he has to be the coach of the year; I can’t think of anyone other than maybe Doc Rivers (maybe Stan Van Gundy?) who could achieve that.

Oh god, it’s really on, isn’t it.

In Which I Solve More of Your Most Pressing Problems

Look at this bullshit. I’ve been trying to get plotting and Qt working under Lisp, on a Mac, because I fucking hate myself. Yinz are about to benefit from my experience.

Here are the steps if you are the kind of self-hating masochist who needs to get commonqt working under OS X:

Steps to do that:

1) use something like macports to get the smoke libraries, e.g.

sudo port install smokeqt

2) wait a long time, hopefully it finishes without exploding

3) if you’ve got quicklisp, do (ql:quickload "qt"). It will crash.

4) It crashes for the following reasons:

a) for reasons not obviously clear to me the compilation is linked against the debug libraries, i.e. libQtGui_debug. WHY?! It don’t matter, go to whatever directory quicklisp put your shit in and edit the commonqt.pro file to remove the debug from the build spec.
b) While you’re there you’ll also want to change lsmokeqtcore to lsmokebase because that’s the correct lib to link against, else CRASHX0R.

5) ok, you can now (ql:quickload "qt") again. Psych! no you can’t. It won’t work. WHY?!

6) it’s because the cffi library that gets loaded is incorrectly configured for OS X. That’s fucking right, you’re gonna want to change that line in info.lisp that goes:

#-(or mswindows windows win32) "libsmoke~A.so"

to something sensible like

#+(and (or unix) (not darwin)) "libsmoke~A.so"
#+(or mswindows windows win32) "smoke~A.dll"
#+(or darwin) "libsmoke~A.dylib"

so that now it actually loads libsmokecore.dylib and all that other jazz correctly.

7) ok, now run the quickload again! YOU ARE ALL SET MOTHERFUCKER.

We Forge Our Spirits In the Tradition of Our NBA Ancestors

I’m under some measure of psychic stress right now that prevents me from writing coherently about anything that’s difficult to think about, which is most things. But I’m still capable of writing about basketball, so I’ll probably just do that for a while.

As regular readers of this space might know, the tens digit just rolled over on my personal odometer. In tribute to my ever-closer demise, I’d like to dedicate an indeterminate number of words to the deeds of the NBA’s current senior citizens. Every once in a while, I’ll select a baller of advanced years and write a sort of appraisal of their life and work. So if you care to know what I think about Ray Allen, Kurt Thomas (that’s right, he’s still in the league), Steve Nash, and other decrepit oldsters, and I know you do, keep your eyes on this blog. I’ll also tell you what I think about Jeremy Lin (spoiler: the whole thing irritates me to no end), the Washington Wizards (spoiler: they’re terrible… but how terrible?) and Bill Simmons (spoiler: he’s a raging sexist). It might not be nearly as fascinating as a discussion of why Saul Kripke’s puzzle about belief is actually no puzzle at all, but it should definitely fill any quota you might have for prolix posts about inconsequential shit. And who knows, you might even come back for the Kripke post.

Ball

Probably few people who are not professionally invested in the sport of basketball are as excited for the present post-lockout season as I am. I’m going to try and do a writeup of the so-called “offseason” and its ramifications soon, but for now, I just want to say how giddy I am about what’s going on in the league in terms of pure basketball content. Did anyone even know who Norris Cole was until two weeks ago (and also can anyone deny that no mere mortal could possibly be named “Norris Cole”; that a name like “Norris Cole” is only possessed by steely-eyed assassins in spy movies?)? Are you not excited about the possibility of almost literally watching Ricky Rubio *every single night*? Haven’t you missed that remarkable Ray Allen jumper, metronomic in its practiced repeatability?

Paradoxically, the expectation of the season is made all the better for me because I’ve already given up on any notion of success from the teams I follow. I was of course overjoyed with the Mavericks’ title last year and Dirk getting his long-awaited due; now that the team has decided that to substitute the quick-shifting sands of Lamar Odom for the concrete foundation that was Tyson Chandler (and willingly hung the Vince Carter millstone around its neck) it’s pretty clear that there won’t be a repeat, Brian Cardinal non-withstanding. I’ll still watch Steve Nash rack up assists by passing to Markieff Morris, Grant Hill, and Marcin Gortat, but the Suns aren’t a playoff threat to anyone. The Celtics roster is down to something like 3.5 players, and while they’ll probably still drub some bad teams, there’s little doubt in my mind that the Eastern Conference Finals this year will look a lot like they did last year.

So yeah, not caring about how my teams will do makes life a lot more enjoyable; I’ll still pull for them, but I’m much more free to enjoy the weird randomness that the compressed schedule and genuine league-wide chaos are going to offer up. I’m genuinely excited for the Timberwolves this year, and not because of any particular love (hehehe) for the team as such, but just because they’re new and fresh and exciting and they’re coached by Rick Adelman who always strikes me as looking a little bit constipated. I want to see if Mark Jackson knows anything at all about coaching a basketball team and whether the Curry/Ellis tandem can succeed. I’m curious about whether the Heat will finally turn into the unstoppable offensive juggernaut we all know they can actually be. I want to know if the Knicks can win a playoff series (I’m gonna go with a hesitant “yes” on that one). In short, liberated fandom galore.

Of all the sports Americans watch, basketball is by far the most conscious of itself as not just sport but entertainment. Baseball bores me, though I understand that some find it appealing to watch a guy try to hit a ball with a stick for three hours (I am told there is even “strategy” involved, though I’m not sure I believe it). Football lives up to its martial metaphors, with the consequence that intermittent moments of brilliance are frequently obfuscated by the prolonged tedium of a war of attrition. Whoa, that guy just gained two yards, let’s all stop for five minutes and contemplate that! I suppose it’s quite possible to be engrossed in every action that takes place on the football field, but I would hardly call it “entertainment” as such, and generally view it as an occurrence best left running in the background; they’ll show you replays of the good stuff anyway.

But basketball, despite entirely too many foul shots, is dynamic and entertaining. Pretty much every play contains the possibility of watching a human being do something really, really amazing, whether that’s a between-the-legs pass, an alley-oop, or a clever ankle-breaking crossover. Because there are only ten men on the court, you get to see everything that happens so you can follow plays as they unfold. It may be too much to equate basketball completely with explicitly artistic pursuits like ballet, but surely there’s some genuine parallel here that would allow us to appreciate basketball as an aesthetic phenomenon. Since basketball consciously sells itself as entertainment the game invites that kind of analysis. Say what you will about David Stern (and I hatessss him, preciousss), but if there’s one thing you can’t fault the man for, it’s understanding that.

We’re something like 8 games into the season, and it’s turning out to be every bit as great as I’ve expected.

In Which A Considered Judgment Is Rendered

It is seemingly obligatory in any discussion of Skyrim, the fifth installment in Bethesda Softworks’ Elder Scrolls series, to mention the game’s scope. There’s a good reason for this: Skyrim is truly colossal in every sense in which a video game can be so. There are numbers out there suggesting that Skyrim is not, in terms of virtual hectares, the largest of the Elder Scrolls games, but it’s hard to deny that it feels larger than any of its predecessors (especially if you have the privilege of playing the game on a large-screen TV). When you step outside, the land stretches in every direction before you. Foreboding mountains loom on the horizon, and the sky changes with the weather, sometimes dark with rain and other times radiant with sunlight. The game’s dungeons are artistic masterworks; one almost gasps the first time one enters a gigantic underground cavern or sees the full majesty of a ruined Dwemer city revealed (in fact, your character’s companions will gasp in just this way). In its atmospheric qualities, Skyrim is unmatched by any other game, or probably, any other virtual production at all. It’s not really any exaggeration to say that no world of this scale that feels this real exists anywhere else.

In addition to its size and detail, the world of Skyrim improves on that of its predecessor, Oblivion, by harking back to its grandparent, Morrowind. Morrowind was not nearly as pretty or detailed as Skyrim is (for lack of technical capability, one assumes, rather than desire on the part of the design team), but its aesthetic was dark, threatening, and engrossing. In Morrowind, storms could kick up clouds of dust that reduced visibility, and the entire countryside appeared perpetually drab, lending background gravity to a plotline concerned with the resurrection of a dead god (or… something; my memory of Morrowind’s plot is somewhat hazy and all I recall is that you would end up being something called the Nerevarrine). By contrast, Oblivion, with its painstakingly detailed blades of grass, looked a little too happy a place, what with the possible end of the world on the horizon. Even the plane of Oblivion itself was a little too bright; only its brightness was of a red sort, which I suppose was intended to connote some sort of evil. In its visuals and aesthetics, Skyrim is closer to Morrowind’s spirit, coupled with superlative realization, and this is for the better.

The size and look of this world, remarkable as it is, nevertheless fades into the background relatively quickly as one progresses through the game. To be sure, staggeringly beautiful scenes are encountered throughout the game, but they cannot sustain a 50-hour (and that, I think, is on the low side of how much time people will, on average, sink into Skyrim) adventure. For that, you must rely on the narratives of the main and secondary quests, and on the gameplay. I suspect that, at least on the first front, few will be disappointed (notable exceptions include Grantland’s Tom Bissell, who found the game’s social world tedious). The social detail within Skyrim is at least a match for the physical detail. If you are so inclined, you can join an incipient native rebellion, or team up with the Imperial occupiers to suppress it; the rebels themselves display casual, open racism towards those who diverge from their cause or happen to have the wrong color skin, a detail I mention to highlight how much work has obviously gone into a realistic rendering of social interaction. You can clear out bandit camps for a bounty, hunt down dragons and harvest their souls (a key game mechanic), join societies dedicated to either magic, combat, or theft, run errands for nobles, purchase houses, assist in piracy, and run any number of other random errands. What is remarkable is how natural all of this feels within the context of the game-world; true, many of the quests are of the “go there, fetch that” variety, but cloaked within a series of interactions with NPCs so they become miniature stories within themselves whose completion you play out. The Daedric quests are the best of all of these, in my view, all the more so because they usually end up yielding quite powerful artifacts.

All in all, there is no shortage of things to do in Skyrim. The main quest, as compared to Morrowind, turns out to be rather disappointingly thin, and the punchline (you are the Dragonborn, surprise!) is given away pretty early (you had to work for the punchline in Morrowind, and Oblivion didn’t really have one), but that’s ok because most of the time you’re going to be doing something other than following the main narrative’s path anyway. As you travel Skyrim, various ruined forts, caves, towers, villages, camps, and other habitations reveal themselves to you, and it’s usually great fun to take a detour into a nearby cave to look for goodies or level up, especially in the early stages of the game. Skyrim’s level system operates on the ingenious “getting better at what you do” principle, whereby advancement is secured by improving one’s skills; no formal class is selected. So, if you want to become a better fighter, you pick up a sword and go at it; if you want to hone your magic skills, grab a few spells and go nuts. In addition to the standard fighter/mage/thief skillsets, there are a few “minor” skills, such as smithing and alchemy (more on those later), and level advancement provides perks that unlock additional abilities with the skill tree. Overall, the system captures most of the complexity of the previous Elder Scrolls games without turning the player into a micromanager, and this strikes me as an excellent balance between complete simplicity and the level of detail involved in games based around the D&D system.

Thus far, it’s all been praise, but Skyrim has warts that don’t become obvious until well into the game. Perhaps the most serious complaint that I have has to do with the realism of the physical landscape, not just in appearance but in interaction. As I mentioned before, Skyrim’s social world is ridiculously well-developed (and despite the meme about taking an arrow to the knee currently going around the Internet, it’s also incredibly well-acted by the voice actors), but its physical world, though stunning in its beauty, often feels quite literally skin-deep. An example: Skyrim features several large rivers and other bodies of water, but upon close examination, virtually all of them are revealed to be merely waist-deep. That’s right: you can more or less walk through most of Skyrim’s waterways, a fact which feels genuinely weird considering that dungeons in Skyrim can often feel a mile deep. Practically the only place where deep water is encountered on a regular basis is in the north (though somehow frolicking in Arctic seas results in no negative effects to the character’s health).

Skyrim may be beautiful, but getting around it can be a real pain in the ass. The aforementioned rivers appear navigable (e.g. docks will have ships moored in them) but there is no mechanic to sail a boat down the river. And that’s a real shame, because oftentimes to get from point A to point B, Skyrim will force you to take a long and seriously inconvenient route; it’s almost as if the developers felt that you wouldn’t appreciate the world unless you were compelled to travel the scenic way. Once a place is discovered, you can always fast-travel there, which is great, but often you will find yourself needing to cover what appears to be a short distance on the map, only to learn that in order to do this you have to follow a serpentine path across some mountains. It’s hard to see why you shouldn’t be able to sail up and down the river if you like (although this would be hard to do if the river is three feet deep), and it would certainly facilitate exploration early on. You can speed up your locomotion somewhat by purchasing a horse, but despite years of advanced engineering (and the existence of such excellent examples as the Assassin’s Creed games) Bethesda has apparently yet to solve the complicated problem of horse-mounted combat. Seriously, how hard can this be? If you encounter enemies while mounted, prepare to dismount and fight; also prepare for your idiot horse to attack them randomly and get itself killed. Once my first horse bought it in an otherwise unremarkable encounter with some bandits, leaving me a thousand gold pieces poorer after scarcely a few hours (real time) of exploitation, I decided I’d had it with pack animals. I can imagine they might be useful if you’re harvesting Dwemer metal (it tends to be pretty heavy) but other than that, horses are a useless extravagance, looking as if they were added in an afterthought rather than as integral parts of the game.

The mountains of Skyrim are equally frustrating. In more than one case, reaching some spot that you’re trying to get to will involve negotiating a complicated mountain path. Fortunately the Clairvoyance spell will point the way for you, but it’s irritating to have to run around zapping the spell every few seconds to see the next leg of your journey (and more on this: why is there no minimap on which Clairvoyance could draw your path, having it last for, say, a minute? I realize that minimaps might break the realism a little, but that seems like a small price to pay for being able to tell where you’re going). When a mountain gets in your way, you can do nothing but walk around it; in most cases, jumping up the rocks just won’t work. I frequently found myself bemoaning the lack of a climbing mechanic within Skyrim. What would it have hurt to allow the player to scale mountains via some kind of mountaineering skill (let’s say, if your skill is too low, you could fall to your death in a storm or something). As far as I can tell, the mountains never actually render any part of the map inaccessible; they only make access to it all that much more irritating.

I also found Skyrim’s smithing system to be flawed, at best. For example, there exist something like 10 different types of ore in Skyrim, which can be combined in various ways to produce various ingots, which only then can be used to upgrade weapons and armor. Furthermore, the ore itself can only be obtained from mines (or finding it in dungeons), and in those mines you actually have to… mine it? I don’t get it; who thought Skyrim was supposed to be an ore mining simulator? Once I realized the level of complexity involved in upgrading even simple objects, I simply gave up trying to do it. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the system didn’t present one of the best prospects for upgrading your equipment when playing a warrior character; for some reason, you can’t pay other smiths in the game to upgrade your stuff for you. Nor can you break down any of the stuff you find in the world into its base components, i.e. melt down steel plate you don’t need into steel ingots. It’s hard to see what all this complexity adds to the game other than forcing you to roam the world, scavenging ore and ingots if you want to upgrade anything. And the steep learning curve of the smithing skill tree makes the skill itself even harder to use, since you need to be at a very high proficiency level before you can do anything really interesting. You can, of course, get there by simply grinding out levels (one way is to scavenge all scrap metal from Dwemer ruins, melt it down for ingots, and then forge stuff with it) but that’s a pretty boring thing to do; it would be much better if the process of gaining smithing knowledge were part of an organic development in the same way that the fighting and magic skills are.

Elder Scrolls afficionados will be unsurprised to find that Skyrim, like its predecessors, is full of clutter. Every imaginable thing you can think of can be picked up, even if no good use can be made of most of them. It’s a weird sort of realism, in light of the aforementioned inability to cannibalize items for raw materials (a mechanic featured, by the way, in the underrated Two Worlds II), to find an infinity of weapons lying around everywhere you go. In one way, this adds to the atmosphere of the dungeons (of course a bandit hideout would be replete with weapons caches) but at times this abundance feels overwhelming. At the same time, good items seem to come along relatively infrequently (it seems that their appearance correlates with level), and as a result, I finished the main storyline with armor and weapons acquired about halfway through. There’s enough weaponry lying about in Skyrim to arm a world ten times its size, but you can’t do much with any of it because it’s all crap.

And speaking of populations, this is the one way in which Skyrim geuninely felt small to me. The cities of Morrowind may not have been as visually imposing, but even a tiny backwater like Balmora seemed, well, populated, to say nothing of a capital city like Vivec. In Skyrim, even the relatively cosmopolitan centers of Solitude and Whiterun feel like they’ve got about half of the population they ought to have. The landscape is dotted with little farms and inns, but the farms are run by lonely individuals and the inns have only a few regulars in them. In fact, half of the population of Skyrim appears to be made up of guards of one kind or another who patrol the deserted streets of its cities. It is, again, strange for a game that put so much emphasis on social realism to leave out so much of what makes the social real, the people.

That incidentally brings us to money, which is another weird aspect of Skyrim. I realize that replicating economic reality was probably not high on Bethesda’s list of things to do, but the end result is a world in which money just doesn’t seem to have much currency. What can you do with gold in Skyrim? Well, you could purchase equipment in the stores, but that turns out to be pointless because you will do much better just by canvassing dungeons or fulfilling quests, especially Daedric ones. For horses, see above. You can buy property in the game, which is kind of cool, but unless you’d like to feel like you’re playing Landlord Mogul, there’s not much reason to buy anything beyond one, or maybe two houses. The only real uses for money in Skyrim that I found was to purchase training and to bribe people to do things you want them to do (unlike in Morrowind, where you would make a bribe to affect a character’s disposition towards you and then try talking to them, in Skyrim you just select the bribe option and it works every time). You can accrue stupid amounts of money from completing quests and looting bodies, but for whatever reason it seems damn near impossible to get any serious amounts by selling to shopowners, as they will run out of cash well before you run out of stuff to sell. In an ironically realistic twist, their money supplies might not recover for days, by which time you’ll have rustled up even more stuff to get rid of. You can conceivably solve this problem by traveling to various cities and selling to multiple traders, but this is tedious and also unnecessary; I just ended up stashing all my treasures in a chest in my house.

Skyrim’s combat system is, in my view, weak. It’s been lauded as an improvement over Morrowind and Oblivion, but the improvement is largely in the feel of the thing, not anything substantial. True, time-based shield blocking has been introduced, but it’s quirky and often doesn’t work right; other than that, the basic elements were all present in Morrowind (the archery mechanic has been slightly altered but the main pieces are all still there). Combat is usually best conducted in the first person, but even then it can be very cumbersome. There is no way to lock on to a single enemy, and it’s easy to mistarget and end up swinging at the wall while your opponents hack you from behind. Don’t even think about doding; you can strafe to avoid projectiles, magical and otherwise (although opposing mages are unbelievably accurate) but try and get out of the way of a dragon’s breath attack, and you’ll find you just can’t, especially if it’s a frost attack (which slows you down). Fighting has a pretty satisfying crunch in Skyrim (at higher levels, attacks can result in critical hits and pretty slick-looking fatality moves) and that gives it enough oomph to keep things fun, but the system as a whole is clearly inferior, requiring nothing more than button-mashing for success. Again, it’s a strange sort of realism that puts a multitude of weapons at the player’s disposal but makes it mostly boring to use any of them. As before, I want to point to the Assassin’s Creed games (especially ACII) as an example of a system that gets this right: in ACII, I never felt like the fights were boring or perfunctory, and I always had some tricks at my disposal, whereas in Skyrim, after a while every fight feels identical. The little-known-but-beloved-by-me Blade of Darkness (also called Severance: Blade of Darkness) also got this right way back in 2001 or so, with a combo-based combat and dodging system that allowed you to hack off your opponents’ limbs. It’s not clear why Skyrim couldn’t have borrowed, conceptually, from something like AC; true, it would have compromised the first-person experience a bit, but I think that would have been an acceptable tradeoff for a fighting system that actually feels real.

Throughout the hours (don’t ask how many) I spent playing Skyrim, the overwhelming impression that emerged was that of a world exquisitely designed, but poorly planned. Skyrim is gorgeous and breathtaking, but when it comes to interacting with its world, the options are surprisingly limited. What good is it to me that I can pick up any object in the game when I don’t want to do anything with any of them? What use magic items harvested from dungeons that are too weak to use (because I already have something better) but too expensive to sell? Yes, upgrading my one-handed sword attacks certainly improves the chance of decapitating my enemies, but why can I not also dodge out of the way of their attacks? Why does my horse have tapioca for brains? It’s frustrating inconsistencies like that disrupt the truly remarkable immersive experience provided by Skyrim’s landscape and people.

I compared Skyrim several times to the Assassin’s Creed series, and I think that comparison bears elaborating. The AC games are linear rather than sandbox, so their social world is substantially less detailed (the story is told in cutscenes anyway and actual interactive dialogue is nonexistent), but the physical world of AC overflows with just the right kind of detail. The virtual Florence of ACII is not just a remarkable reconstruction of the real thing, but it also feels like it. Its streets throng with townspeople, merchants, and guards. Sure, they’re just milling about, if you look at them closely, but in the end, so are the people of Skyrim. You’ll never look at any particular person in the game twice anyway, because the virtual Florentines are anonymous and are there for atmospheric purposes (that and to get in your way when you’re trying to evade the guards). In any case, they give the impression of an inhabited town in whose affairs Ezio’s quest is a minor blip; by contrast, the cities of Skyrim feel half-abandoned and no one looks like they have anything better to do than unload their problems on you.

Likewise, the physical interactions of AC are far more logical than those of Skyrim. The most obvious one is the ability to climb buildings (which of course pretty much the whole premise of the AC games) but in general the whole physical model of the AC world is far better developed than its Skyrim equivalent. Why doesn’t Skyrim have a climbing mechanic? Developing such a thing was clearly not part of Bethesda’s plan, but it would have made for a much more satisfying experience, and it’s not clear that anything else that Bethesda prides itself on (the social immersivity, the role playing aspects, etc.) would have been negatively impacted. Likewise the AC combat mechanic (especially in ACII and its sequels) is well-thought out, providing you with just enough tricks to make it fun while maintaining a decidedly visceral feel, especially on fatal strikes. From where I sit, such a mechanic would have only improved Skyrim by rendering the combat a physical reality instead of mostly a reflection of the character’s numerical stats.

It seems clear that Bethesda doesn’t terribly care about doing this, and it’s in some way to their credit that they’ve created a game that is so much fun to play despite lacking what I think are really key aspects of character-world physical interaction. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that Skyrim wouldn’t be improved if less time was spent on elaborate dungeon layouts and lore composition (in this I am in agreement with Bissell) and more time was spent thinking about what affordances the world should provide to the players. All these things nonwithstanding, Skyrim is still a great game. You’ll still (if you’re any kind of RPG fan at all) sink countless hours into it because it’s just that big and that fun. If I criticize, it is because I love, because I would go absolutely bonkers over a game that combined the size and elaborate construction of Skyrim with the physical model of something like AC. Whether Bethesda or some other game maker will ever realize my dream remains to be seen, but I think the results of such a meld would be phenomenal. If anyone from Bethesda happens to read this (ha!) and wants to get my input for their next project, you know where to find me.

Getting it mostly right and completely wrong

Lots of people seem to either like or hate Chuck Klosterman. As someone who never particularly formed any opinions regarding the guy, I’m happy to continue in my unwavering agnosticism towards his writing. But I am interested in a particular piece he wrote this week for Grantland, reviewing Lulu, the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration based, apparently, on the Wedekind play of the same name.

Let that sink in for a minute. Lou Reed, who is old as dirt, and Metallica, who are only slightly younger and haven’t done anything of significance in a decade, have combined forces to put out an album which takes its theme from a play about the sexual mores of Wilhelmine Germany. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG WITH THIS SCENARIO?!

Unsurprisingly, the answer is “everything.” From Klosterman’s extremely funny review, I gather that the result is about as unpalatable as one could possibly expect. Klosterman spends a lot of time on the awfulness of Lulu, which seems totally appropriate, but it’s towards the end that his article goes off the rails and into some really problematic territory (how you like them mixed metaphors?).

See, the problem for Klosterman is that it seems to be causing him to re-evaluate his stand towards the collapse of the record industry (or if it’s not the catalyst, it at least seems to be a contributing factor). Klosterman’s allegation is that if we still lived in the 1992 where the record labels ran the show, something like Lulu would never exist. Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether this is even true; I would argue that the music industry has made its share of terrible decisions throughout its existence, and the only reason Klosterman thinks this is that he’s suffering from a common sort of cognitive bias where he only remembers the good stuff from the 90s. In the penultimate paragraph, Klosterman praises the concept, writing that “I’m glad Metallica and Reed tried this, if only because I’m always a fan of bad ideas.” He concludes:

The reason Lulu is so terrible is because the people making this music clearly don’t care if anyone else enjoys it. Now, here again — if viewed in a vacuum — that sentiment is admirable and important. But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live on Earth. And that means we have to accept the real-life consequences of a culture in which recorded music no longer has monetary value, and one of those consequences is Lulu.

Klosterman doesn’t come out and say it outright, but the implication of his last two paragraphs is that he thinks that this is a problem; that the actual realization of Lulu, while based on an admirable concept, is a mistake. With this, I beg to differ.

It has been my fervent belief for many years now that the most interesting of our cultural debris is the weird stuff. And not just the weird stuff, but the stuff that’s so divorced from any plausible standard of aesthetic quality that one struggles to comprehend how it even came to be. If I asked you to imagine Lulu, you couldn’t do it; you would either wind up with some forced Pynchonesque, or something far more mundane than actually happened. The fact that Lulu exists at all, the fact that we live in an environment which makes it possible, is, to me anyway, extremely important. Not because I would actually listen to Lulu (because I’m lazy enough as it is, and I refuse to expend cognitive effort to merely enjoy something ironically) but because its existence means that even in the stodgiest, most regulated corners of the cultural space, there exists an opportunity to do something mind-bogglingly stupid. And mind-boggling stupidity, especially produced in this way, is hilarious.

Failure is as much of an art as success, although typically success is achieved by consciously creating something of value, whereas artistic failure is something generally lucked into: either by dint of overreaching on the basis of your previous achievements (e.g. Lulu) or by being hilariously awful (e.g. Plan 9 From Outer Space, although honestly I never found it to be nearly as cringe-inducing as its defenders claim). The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were a hardwood masterpiece made flesh, a team that won an astounding 72 games; the 2009-2010 New Jersey Nets were a hilarious embarrasment to the league, winning a mere 12. Sure, you’d rather watch the Jordan Bulls play (assuming you’re a neutral) but as a narrative, isn’t the Nets’ despair infinitely more compelling? After all, you already know a team like the Bulls is destined for a ring, but the Nets, right up until the end of the season, had the potential for badness of historical proportions (that they fell just short of that is disappointing in its own right, although they did set the historical mark for worst start to the season with 19 straight losses). I cared nothing for the Nets, but couldn’t help checking their results every morning just to see if the lows they’d fallen to would go even lower (further bizzaritude: of the three wins that kept New Jersey from tying for the worst-ever season, one was a win on the road against eventual finalists the Boston Celtics, and two more came in double-overtime wins against the Bulls and the Miami Heat, both playoff teams). Were not the historically abominable Detroit Lions far more interesting than if they’d gone 4-12? Of course they were, and you know it.

The same thing holds for artistic endeavors as much as athletic ones (though in truth the lines between the two are blurry). Is not the existence of a film such as Howard the Duck irrefutable proof of the non-existence of God? In what kind of just world would it be possible for the profoundly schizophrenic Hudson Hawk (which seems to begin as a relatively unremarkable action/heist film, and yet goes on to contain a scene in which a little girl in a museum is told “You’re a disgrace to your country!” in a scene which has only the remotest contextual relevance to the plot) to exist? Only in a world in which it was possible for someone to take Bruce Willis seriously as a screenwriter.

These various failures are like a sort of Ozymandias lining our cultural highways: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. They are, by and large, fascinating examples of people trying out completely preposterous, downright stupid ideas, and winding up with colossal failure that demands appreciation on an aesthetic level. Studied competence is a quality we demand from doctors and civil servants; our artistic products, to be interesting, should be either transcendentally successful, or implausibly horrid. Edgar Bulwer-Lytton (he of the much-and-unjustly-malgined “It was a dark and stormy night” fame, an opening sentence about as unremarkable as they get), towards the end of his life, concocted an absurd proto-science-fiction story about a subterranean race that thrived on a mysterious form of energy. The novel apparently caused a minor mania, becoming an obsession of Theosophists and people who thought Atlantis was real, as it was taken as a veridical description of reality; can anything remotely similarly fascinating be said about one of Hardy’s ponderous chronicles of English peasant life or the interminably dull regional fiction of a Sarah Orne Jewett? Sure, Bulwer-Lytton is considered to have failed aesthetically, but he failed in such a spectacular fashion that you can’t help but admire the audacity.

The best of our aesthetic artifacts share this kind of demented energy with the worst; they contain sparks (or even full-blown fires) of something crazy, something you won’t see if all you shoot for is competence. Metallica producing a competent, or even relatively good (say, on par with the Black Album) record would not arouse the slightest curiosity, but Metallica teaming up with Lou Reed to adapt Wedekind is a fascinating, not even but especially since it’s so disastrous. Klosterman is wrong to be filled with (admittedly limited) nostalgia for the world of record label control; the fact that the destruction of that world allowed something like Lulu to be created is direct evidence that we’re better off without it.

how do i awarded prize

I don’t know when I stopped paying attention to the National Book Awards because I’m not sure I ever paid attention to them in the first place. I suppose “National Book Award Winner” is some additional motivation for acquiring reading material, but it ranks pretty low on the list of criteria that I care to look at when making my decisions. Does anyone outside the publishing industry really care that much about them?

One person who does care about the awards is Laura Miller, Salon‘s book critic. And a few weeks ago, she published in Salon what I think is a really bizarre analysis of this year’s slate of nominees. Before I start in, I just want to say that I haven’t read any of the books up for the award this year nor do I have any opinion whatsoever regarding their quality or lack thereof. My reaction here is solely to Miller’s confusing and poorly-reasoned article. Take it away, Miller:

Over the next day or two, expect to see observers pointing out the absence of two widely praised fall novels — “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach and “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides — and the fact that four of the five shortlisted titles are by women. (Those with longer memories will hearken back to the much-discussed all-female short list of 2004.) However, two prominent new novels by women, Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” and Amy Waldman’s “The Submission,” were passed over, as well.

Again, maybe The Marriage Plot (book titles in italics, damn it!) belongs on the list of nominees. I have been hearing great things about it. But it’s not clear to me why the fact that four of the five novels are by women needs explaining. Miller seems to think it does, but if it does, she doesn’t explain it, and if it doesn’t, why bother mentioning it? It’s a weird “some people might say X” formulation without bothering to check if X is important or relevant in any way. It’s also not clear whether “prominent” is supposed to mean “good” in this paragraph. Are the novels by Patchett and Waldman any good? I have no idea, and it would seem to be at least concomitant with a book critics responsibility to inform her readers regarding their quality.

Although the judges for the NBAs change every year, the sense that the fiction jury is locked in a frustrating impasse with the press and the public is eternal. (One notable recent exception: the selection of Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” as the winner two years ago.) The press, assuming that the amount of media coverage a novel gets is a reliable indicator of its merit, expresses bafflement. The judges, if they respond at all, defend their choices as simply the best books submitted.

There’s a “sense” here of something, but Miller is so thin on evidence that it’s impossible to tell whether that sense is actually supported by anything that transpires in the world. Who is “the press” in this context? Is it book critics like Miller, who, presumably, have the capacity to make independent evaluations of the various books out there? Or is it someone else? I read “the press” every day, and so far as I can tell, no one outside the actual circle of literary reviewers seems to devote any real time or energy to writing about books. The one article per year in the arts section about who won what prize might count as “press,” I suppose, but that’s almost always just straight reporting (see the Times article about the awards from last year). There’s no real “bafflement” on evidence. As one might expect, the judges don’t really feel obligated to justify themselves to “the press” (or in any case they shouldn’t), but with regard to their (supposed, Miller gives no evidence for this) defense of their choisces as “simply the best books submitted,” Miller asserts,

Neither view is entirely persuasive.

Why is Miller unpersuaded of this? It remains a mystery because she doesn’t say. What she does say is,

While it’s certainly true that celebrated novels are not necessarily good, it’s also true that they aren’t necessarily bad, either.

Wait, what? What is the argument here, exactly? Celebrated novels aren’t necessarily bad, therefore… more celebrated novels should be picked? How is that in any way contradictory to the judges’ (imagined by Miller) defense of their choices? If I tell you that Book X is better than Book Y, that doesn’t mean Book Y is trash; it just means that I think Book X is better and should… I don’t know, win a prize or something? The bafflement here is all Miller-generated.

Whatever policy each panel of judges embraces, over the years, the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention. The NBA for fiction often comes across as a Hail Mary pass on behalf of “writer’s writers,” authors respected within a small community of literary devotees but largely unknown outside.

“The impression has arisen that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.” I mean, is there some evidence for this impression? Is this all a play being staged within the Cartesian theater of Miller’s mind? Who knows?! But even if this “impression” is accurate, what of it? Given several novels of putatively equal quality, there’s nothing wrong with giving the award to the less successful novel on the grounds that the bestseller doesn’t need the exposure. Why not promote a “writer’s writer” who might also become a reader’s writer? Miller seems to think that this is a problem, but it’s not clear what the problem actually is. Miller seems to think that “the reading public has… proven recalcitrant” to picking up these books, and offers this gem:

If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like, you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with. This is especially common when the nominated books exhibit qualities — a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling — that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.

I don’t know if Miller (unlike me) actually intends to insult the reading public, but this has got to be the most backhanded compliment ever. Hey reading public: Laura Miller thinks you’re too stupid for a poetic prose style!

And what the fuck is a “professional reader?” I mean, I know what the answer is: it’s a book critic. But that’s a really dumb and insulting way of phrasing things. Because here’s the thing: either the “reading public” actually consists of literate people capable of forming their own opinions about books and working their way through challenging literature (in which case they aren’t likely to complain about it in the first place, so why is Miller doing it for them?) or the reading public is a bunch of children who get put off by such oh-so-complicated literary innovations as… a poetic prose style! or elliptical and fragmented storytelling! in which case, fuck the reading public. I don’t ask a buch of 15-year olds about their literary opinions, because their literary opinions are shit; they probably think Ender’s Game is the apogee of the literary canon. If that’s the level of the American reading public’s opinions, then to hell with their opinions.

What’s really, really awful about this is that in the next paragraph Miller basically undermines her entire thesis:

If outsiders fail to sympathize with the judges’ perspective, the judges often have a distorted sense of the role literature plays in the lives of ordinary readers. People who can find time for only two or three new novels per year (if that) want to make sure that they’re reading something significant. Chances are they barely notice media coverage of books — certainly not enough to see some titles as “overexposed” — and instead rely on personal recommendations, bookstore browsing and Amazon rankings.

So let’s look back on the path of this argument: there’s a “sense” or possibly an “impression” that the awards are somehow hostile to ordinary readers, who actually don’t follow press coverage (so where does this “sense” come from?) and want to read “something significant” in their limited spare time. Ok, ordinary readers, well, we’ve convened this panel of critics to hand out an “award” to the best “book” published “nationally” this year. What’s that? You’d rather make your selection from Amazon rankings? Uh, go fuck yourselves.

Jesus Christ, I know that critics don’t always get it right and all that, but if you really care about reading the one or two most important books of the year, you could do a lot worse than consult a group of people who read books for a living. Which in fact Miller acknowledges, if somewhat obliquely and reluctantly:

Prizes are one part of this mix, if an influential one, and the public mostly wants the major awards to help them sort out the most important books of the year, not to point them toward overlooked gems with a specialized appeal.

Simple logic, people: an “overlooked gem” can in fact be one of the most important books of the year. The word “important” is doing a lot of work in this sentence; it’s being used as a sort of code for “popular.” The prize panel is telling you, “read this book, because we think it’s great,” not “read this book because it will flatter your own limited capacity for aesthetic appreciation.”

All this reminds me of a joke that was popular among Russian Jews. So two Jews meet and are talking about their lives and one of them says, “Hey, are you going to see the new production of Aida?” and the other one says, “Nah, my friend sang it to me over the phone, and it sounded terrible!”

It wouldn’t be any fun if Miller’s incoherent article didn’t conclude with a “Fuck you, Dad! I won’t do what you tell me!”

For these reasons, the National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public. The former believes that everyone reads as much as they do and that they still have the authority to shape readers’ tastes, while the latter increasingly suspects that it’s being served the literary equivalent of spinach. Like the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, awarded by librarians, the NBA has come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not.

Ok, number-fucking-one: the next asshole who insults vegetables should have their fingers broken so they can never type this bullshit again. Seriously, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are:

1. Delicious
2. Good for you

This is entirely analogous to when conservative man-children throw fits about the promotion of nutrition in schools; if it ain’t meat and potatoes, it’s socialism. That’s some good company you’re keeping there, Laura Miller. I’m gonna go out on a limb here: if the most creative food you can imagine consuming can be obtained at Steak ‘n Shake, you probably have horrible taste in food. Analogously, if the most sophisticated literature you’re capable of consuming involves nothing more complex than droning monosyllables, you probably have horrible taste in literature and shouldn’t be listened to in discussions concerning the same.

Yes, the NBA (hehe) indicates a book that “somebody else thinks you ought to read.” That is the whole point of the fucking award! That’s how literary awards work! Someone reads a bunch of books, then picks the one that they think is best, and then says, “We think this book is the bees’ knees! You should read it!” Apparently in Miller-world, awards are supposed to just reinforce the pre-existing prejudices of the reader; their job would seem to be to say, “Hey, you’re doing good!” even if what you’re really doing is drooling all over yourself.

The coup de grace is the “proof by childhood reminiscence”:

As a kid, after several such medicinal reading experiences (“… And Now Miguel” by Joseph Krumgold was a particular chore to get through), I took to avoiding books with that gold Newbery badge stamped on their covers. If it weren’t for a desperate lack of alternatives one afternoon, I’d never have resorted to E. L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” which became one of my favorites. Today’s adult readers, with millions of titles a mere click away, are unlikely to find themselves in such straits.

That’s fucking right: Laura Miller got so tired of reading all that shit that librarians want you to read so much that they give it a Newberry Award that she went out and read… 1968 Newberry Award-winning book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. You can’t make this shit up.

In relevant film news

I am pretty surprised, actually, that the number of critical essays on The Big Lebowski to be found in a cursory JSTOR search appears to be “one,” and maybe not all that surprised that the number of worthwhile critical essays on the same is “zero.” Here’s the link to the one essay I did find that discusses the film directly (it’s on JSTOR, so you need institutional access to view it). It’s laughably badly written academese that says almost nothing interesting about the film itself but does feature lovely footnotes citing Derrida and Heidegger. My favorite part:

I read The Big Lebowski in order to think through the problem of narratival [1], or mythic violence, and how, ultimately, to interrupt myth in the exterior world of Bush, Hussein, and the Persian Gulf.

Man, there sure are some lovely trees around here, but where the heck did that forest go?!

In other news, by the end of the weekend I plan to have an essay up about A Serious Man, in which I will try to place it in the broader context of the Coens’ canon and also try to persuade people that it’s a good movie worth watching.

[1] Goddamn it, we already have a fine word for this kind of thing. That word is “narrative” which can be used as either a noun or an adjective. You don’t need to tack on an awkward ending to show everyone how smart you are.

Addendum: if you want to see what an actually insightful review sounds like, you can read the very next thing I found on JSTOR, which is a review of O Brother Where Art Thou? by none other than (in cooperation with two others) the inestimable Tim Kreider, he of “The Pain” comics. Kreider, by the way, is a terrific film reviewer in general, and his writeup of Eyes Wide Shut is fantastic.