Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Overclocked: Race to the Bottom

Welcome to another installment of Overclocked, in which I, your humble blogger, think too hard about things for your amusement.

Today I'd like to talk about the direction Pop Culture is taking. Without getting into too much detail, I work in a setting where I'm frequently subjected to radio stations that play whatever crap is currently most popular. Typically, this boils down to the same dozen or so songs repeated six or seven times each during the course of a day.

In retrospect, I can say I took some perverse amusement watching Rihanna, Britney Spears and Katy Perry racing to the bottom of the cultural barrel in the following timeline:

Rihanna releases Rude Boy, a song about rough sex. No euphemism either, though it's explicitness is muted (I like it when you pull my hair/I like it when you touch me there)

Britney Spears, not to be outdone, releases 3, a song about threesomes. Again, this is not veiled with innuendo. The song is explicit and obvious about what's going on.

Rihanna, affronted by this tired, played out performers' attempt to upstage her on the brazen promiscuity front, releases S&M, a song that features the lyrics "Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me."

And, as if to make sure nobody should doubt her cred, she takes these two songs and goes on a tour that features Chris Brown.

Katy Perry, who must have been watching this scuffle with great amusement, trumps all of them, then releases "Extraterrestrial," a song about something that rhymes with pentacle grape, and is again not hiding behind euphemism. It features the lines "You're an alien/you're just too far in/it's supernatural" and a male voice saying "I'm 'a disrobe you/then I'm 'a probe you/ I abducted you/ so I tell you what to do/ I tell you what to do."

Rihanna seems to have taken her defeat in stride, and is taking the "I never wanted to win in the first place" attitude. I say that because her latest song, Man Down, sounds an awful lot like the work of a woman who is trying to disown the reputation for writing two songs about enjoying getting roughed up in the bedroom, and then going on tour to sing the songs with an ex boyfriend who beat her up.

Which is a roundabout way of saying the song has all the trappings of attempting to be deep, without actually being deep.

Man Down is, at it's core, a ripoff of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody that is flavored with, and I'm completely serious here, The Little Drummer Boy.

No, seriously. The refrain literally goes:

Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Man down.

The basic gist of the song is a woman telling her mother that she killed a man, in public, over a minor disagreement and feels really bad about being having to hide from the law.

Which is where I point out that at least Freddy Mercury's take on this theme was that he'd done it, and would have to face some consequences.

One of the bars in the song that sees a lot of repetition is:

I didn't mean to hurt him
Could've been somebody's son
and I took his heart when
I pulled out that gun

So... if you didn't mean to hurt him, maybe you shouldn't have pulled a gun on him. Just sayin'.

I know, I know. Hindsight and all that.

Also, what is this "could've been somebody's son" nonsense? Every man is somebody's son. It's not like he sprang from the ground fully grown and ready to disagree with Rihanna about a subject she was touchy enough to kill over.

Just because he's made up doesn't mean that your narrative doesn't have to make sense.

Then again, perhaps I expect to much, because another line that sees a lot of repetition is this:

Mama, I just shot a man down
In central station
In front of a big old crowd

So maybe if she's dumb enough to shoot a man dead in front of a crowd of people, maybe we can't assume she's smart enough to know where babies come from. I guess there's some continuity there.

Speaking of repetition, there's a whole lot of that going on. The song lyrics read like an essay by a high school student who can't quite figure out how to fill up a hundred words, so she starts repeating herself. But she repeats herself inartfully, with bars like:

Look, I never thought I'd do it
Never thought I'd do it
Never thought I'd do it, oh gosh
What ever happened to me
Ever happened to me, ever happened to me
Why did I pull the trigger
Pull the trigger, pull the trigger, boom
And end a (racial epithet redacted) end a (racial epithet redacted) life so soon
When me pull the trigger, pull the trigger, pull it 'pon you
Somebody tell me what I'm gonna, what I'm gonna do

Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Me say wah man down (A weh me say)
Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
Rum bum bum bum
When me went downtown

'Cause now I am a criminal, criminal, criminal
Oh lord have mercy now I am a criminal

So, is she a criminal? Because she's being so damn coy about it that I can't tell.

Lyrically, the song is obviously a train wreck, but it does provide some insight into the pop culture mindset. You see, most people working in pop culture as entertainers; singers, actors and the like; tend to be very high on gun control (among other things). When you write songs, you write songs you think people will connect with. You strive to achieve universal understanding.

If you're writing this song, you're idea of the universal experience is that if you have a "simple altercation" (as the lyric in the song describes it) and you have a gun, you will end up shooting somebody. Either you believe this, or you believe it will ring true with a majority of your fans. Art is truth, even bad art.

Seen in this light, it's no wonder Hollywood types want to clamp down on gun ownership. If you think that most people can identify with a mindset that would take an argument and resolve it with a hail of gunfire if only you had the weapons available, then naturally you think that human beings are too dangerous to be trusted with weapons.

I don't know how the song would have played out if Rihanna's character hadn't owned a gun. Presumably she would have reasoned with him, since the volatile addition of a firearm clearly destroyed her ability to foresee consequences for bad behavior.

Or maybe she would have just pushed him in front of a train, but that wouldn't have been a cautionary tale, since nobody thinks we should ban trains. (Some people want them to be privately run, but despite what you might have heard that's not the same thing.)

Most likely, though, she just never would have written the song at all.

Which is probably the best argument for disarmament that I can think of.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Late to the Party Reviews: Borderlands

So apparently I have a thing for mercenaries.

My favorite web-comic is Schlock Mercenary; my two favorite TV shows (The A Team and Firefly) are about mercenaries; and almost every video game I’ve ever played the hell out of has featured mercenaries.

Like Mercenaries 2, for example. I played through that game voraciously, going so far as to find every hidden tool box twice (one at the end of my first playthrough, and then again at the beginning of my second playthrough).

Recently I finished up the plain vanilla, unexpanded edition of Borderlands. I completed the main story, in search of buried treasure, and every single side quest available. Even the arena battles, which were gobs of fun playing after beating the game, as I had leveled up well beyond the requirement for those missions, and I simply dominated the arenas.

I’m not sure why the mercenary theme works for me so well. I suspect it probably has to do with being a way to incorporate an arcade mentality into a story based game. Arcade games are all about blowing things up for points. That’s basically what a mercenary does, except his points are hard currency.

But enough about my pathologies. We’re here to review a year old game, gosh darnit, and that’s what we’re going to do!

Borderlands is a First Person Shooter with RPG trappings. Specifically, MMORPG trappings. The world is wide open, you get quests from people with giant exclamation points over their heads, and most of those quests involve killing quantity X of mob Y. The game even features multiplayer to encourage partying up with other players, but I don’t care about that so I won’t be writing about it. Suffice it to say that it’s there if you want it, and my understanding is that it is functional.

There is a story to Borderlands, but it serves little purpose than to keep you moving through various areas of the world, killing progressively more difficult mobs. The story has something to do with an ancient alien vault that allegedly contains vast wealth. Naturally, your character wants it. Because treasure is money, and mercenaries like money.

There are four characters to choose from representing different classes: There’s the Soldier (aka The Mario), the Siren (a rogue), the Hunter (a hunter) and Brick (the tank.) Each character has his or her own special ability. The Soldier can throw down an automated turret that provides suppressing fire and cover. The Siren can “phase walk” which is a fancy way of saying she can become invisible and sneak behind her enemies. The Hunter has a familiar that can be deployed to kill enemies. Finally, Brick can go into a berserk mode where he regains health and can punch anything to death.

I played as Brick, because Brick was the closest I could come to playing as Jayne Cobb, and I think a game featuring Jayne Cobb as a main character would be smashing. Literally.

Each of these abilities can be buffed and upgraded with skill points as the character levels up, which is another RPG trope that found its way into the land of FPS’s.

The main point of the game, though, is loot. There is a lot of loot in this game. It’s like Diablo but with FPS controls. You kill a mob, it drops loot. Even if it’s an alien coyote, it drops loot. Even if you kick a pile of alien coyote poop, it drops loot. (The in-game explanation is that the alien coyotes are indiscriminate about what they eat, and because the environment is so harsh they can eat things like weapons and money without suffering ill effects, aside from gunshot wounds from the loot-happy merc that really wants a purple healing shield.)

Loot is color coded by rarity, but not necessarily by quality. I finished the game using largely green and white weapons, which are the most common. Playing the game “right” would require me to use blue or purple weapons, but none of the blue or purple weapons I found had the stats I wanted (High accuracy, high damage, moderate rate of fire and I don’t care about reload speed.) Anyway, when you play as Brick, weapons matter less than how you spend your skill points. Why? Because Brick’s fists can be the most effective weapons in the game.

And I can say that honestly and literally. I carried a pack of alien weapons, rocket launchers of various types, and hard-hitting sniper rifles into the final boss battle with the critter I like to call the ginormous fanged space weegina. (Whether that design was deliberate or not, I think folks at Gearbox have some issues with the lady-types) How did I beat it? I ran up to it and kept punching it until it fell on me and crashed the game.

Clearly, I was playing it wrong. I reloaded my save file and beat the boss “right” using a combination of rockets, machine gun fire and grenades, and I defeated the boss again, but without the crash.

There are two things I have to say about my overall impressions of this game: 1) It was well worth the $30 I paid for it and 2) I have no plans to trade it in.

I plan to revisit the Borderlands someday, when there isn’t so much going on and I feel like investing a lot of hours into another character (or more likely I’ll just play Brick again.) For now it will occupy a space on my shelf I’ve dedicated to games I plan to replay eventually, next to Bioshock and Batman Arkham Asylum.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lone is an aesthetic choice

I’m back! Sort of. Well, not really at all. We’ve had an unannounced format change here at Free Toy Inside. I’m no longer updating every week on Wednesdays. I’m now updating whenever I have something interesting to talk about.

Because my life was stressful enough without tacking on a superfluous weekly deadline on top of everything else. It’s not like you’re paying me to not read this (do I look like the New York Times to you?).

Today, though, I’d like to talk to a topic that’s been on my mind and in my wifely conversations of late: The subject of introversion and introverts.

You see, I am an introvert. And I mean that. In my experience, most people who self-identify as introverts are not actual introverts. They are in reality shy, or socially inept. This is the equivalent of calling yourself a gay man because you have been rejected by a lot of women. Just because you’re bad at being a heterosexual doesn’t mean you’re actually a homosexual. And just because you’re bad at social situations doesn’t mean you get to call yourself an introvert.

This isn’t to say that introverts aren’t bad at social interactions. For my part I happen to be pretty bad at them. I read body language about as well as a cockroach reads Braille: I know something is there, because there are all these bumps in my way, but if you ask me to make sense of it I’d just as soon go around and avoid it altogether.

But that doesn’t make me an introvert. My wife is an introvert too, and she’s very good at relating to other people. This is why I tend to let her do most of the talking at parties, while I go play with the kids. (Thanks dear!)

Furthermore, I’ve know plenty of extroverts who love social situations but just aren’t very good at negotiating them. They love parties, and being around people, but they have a hard time talking to people they don’t already know or getting invited anywhere.

So introversion has nothing to do with social acumen, and it’s not synonymous with being shy. Introversion is a predisposition for solitude. If given the choice between going out drinking with friends or staying at home with a bag of microwave popcorn and a book, the introvert will choose the book. Every time. We are not alone or lonely. We are Lone, like BatManuel.

I don’t fault people for misunderstanding this. Our society and culture are dominated by extroverts. A movie or TV show featuring the person choosing to stay home and read instead of a raucous night on the town is invariably shown to be a broken or damaged person. Someone who needs to be extracted from some hypothetical shell to become the beautiful, fun-loving person that everyone supposedly wants to be. The extrovert naturally wants to help make this happen, because they don’t see how anyone could possibly be happy reading on a Saturday night when they could be out reenacting the movie Go.

This is why a lot of people who self-identify as introverts are not actually introverts. They want someone to pull them out of their shells. They want to take off their glasses and become Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That. They are, in reality, inept extroverts using the term “introvert” as a code for “somebody come buy me a little red dress and take me to a party,” because they know other extroverts will want to “fix” the introvert.

Well I’m here to tell you that I don’t want to be “fixed,” because I’m not broken. I don’t want to go out to a bar with you, but don’t take it personal. I don’t want to go with anybody. Why? Because it’s exhausting.

The fundamental difference between an introvert and an extrovert is where they draw their mental energy. If you get jazzed up from being out and about with people, doing things with people, and having conversations with people, or if you feel tired, restless, or uncomfortable being alone with your own thoughts, then guess what: You get your energy from other people, and you are an extrovert. If you leave a social situation feeling drained or exhausted, or if you feel energized or refreshed staying home and doing things that allow you to plumb your own thoughts, then you get your energy from within and you are an introvert. It’s really simple.

It can be difficult being an actual introvert. By its nature, society is a social construct. It is a loose organization of people, bound together for safety and convenience. As such, interpersonal interactions are a requirement. To the extrovert, that’s a feature, not a bug. But to the introvert it’s a chore and a half.

Like any chore, a person looks to doing as little of it as possible. After all, nobody goes through their cupboards looking for glasses to spit in so they can wash extra dishes. So, too, the introvert likes to avoid extraneous conversation.

Small talk is often the first to go, as it is exceptionally difficult for the introvert and, from his perspective, a waste of energy. Why would you talk to someone if you didn’t have something to say? You might as well move all of your furniture, then move it back exactly where it was. At least then you’d get some exercise out of it.

But since the extrovert cannot understand this sentiment; any more than the introvert can understand why the extrovert wants to make small talk; the introvert comes across as snooty.

“What? You’re too good to talk to me?” Says the extrovert.

“Who are you? Why are you talking to me?” Replies the introvert.

This can limit the career options of introverts, because a fair amount of glad-handing and schmoozing is required to obtain and keep a job. Even in stereotypically antisocial professions like engineering, there’s always someone in the organization who will try to boost morale by inviting everyone to a party, and if you don’t go you look bad. (Again the extrovert asks: “Are you too good to hang out with us?”). Fortunately it’s fairly simple, if not exactly easy, to fake extroversion. You smile, you let people talk about themselves and nod or laugh at appropriate times, pretend to care about professional sports, that sort of thing. I don’t recommend index cards with useful phrases on them, but if that will help you out, then go for it. Use the small ones, and write big. You don’t want to have to switch to reading glasses during a conversation. And when in doubt, if you live in New England, ask them what they think of someone named “Bellicheck” and agree with them vehemently. I don’t know who he is, but a lot of people seem to care about him.

Oh, and for the love of G-d don’t give anyone your honest opinion about anything. I actually lost out on a job interview once because I admitted that I prefer the coolness of fall to the heat of summer. True story.

Once you’ve made your appearance and stayed the requisite time, it’s time to make your escape. In this digital age, bailing from a social situation has never been easier. Simply set your phone’s alarm for an unusual time (12 after the hour, or 26 minutes to the hour) and pretend you’ve gotten an urgent text message or phone call that needs attending to. Resist the urge to elaborate: liars usually talk too much, and people know it. Just say something about how sorry you are, but you have to leave. Then get your coat and get the heck out of Dodge. Then go home and get back to that book you were trying to read. You’ll probably want to go to bed early. I know I always do.