Beware the Belching Moose

It’s just so heartwarming to see the mainstream media help raise awareness of global warming. It’s important that people get a clear understanding of the issue at hand, its causes and consequences.

Belching moose add to global warming

OSLO (AFP) – A grown moose belches out methane gas equivalent to 2,100 kilograms (4,630 pounds) of carbon dioxide a year, contributing to global warming, Norwegian researchers said Wednesday.

“Contributing to global warming” – how wonderfully vague. That’s like saying that a kid peeing into a river contributes to a flood.

That is more than twice the amount of CO2 emitted on a round-trip flight across the Atlantic Ocean from Oslo to the Chilean capital Santiago, according to Scandinavian Airlines.

Yes. Only you’re comparing what a moose does in a year to what a plane does in a day. Which, of course, is entirely convenient – since the point is to make us think that global warming is caused as much by nature as by man.

“An adult moose emits about 100 kilograms of methane gas a year. But methane gas is much stronger than carbon dioxide, so to get the equivalent you have to multiply by 21,” professor Odd Harstad at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences told AFP.

You know, I just checked to make sure today isn’t April 1st. Somehow the name Odd Harstad smells of a joke.

With an estimated 140,000 moose roaming Norway‘s forests, that is a total of of 294,000,000 kilograms of CO2 per year.

Oh teh noes!!!111 That much! I wonder how that compares to, say the amount of CO2 emissions from gas fuels in Germany in the year 2004. 294,000,000 versus 49,174,000,000. Somehow I think that gas fuels are a bigger problem – and we’re only talking about a tiny bit of the full amount of CO2 emissions in Germany (220596 thousand metric tons).

But Harstad said that was no reason to begin killing off the entire moose population.

How generous of him! Especially since they are such a threat to the environment!

“Moose have very important functions in nature. They are ruminants that eat the grass. If we don’t have ruminants, we have too much grass and that changes the landscape and has consequences for the flora and fauna,” he said.

What is this guy professor of? Professor of Stating the Bleeding Obvious?

Harstad said the figure of 100 kilograms of methane gas was a rough estimate based on earlier calculations for beef cows in Norway.

It’s good to know that people are investing their time and money into important research subjects that will help save the planet.

As is the case with cows and other ruminants, methane is produced from the microbes in the moose’s stomach which help break down the roughage they eat.

It also comes out of the ears of dumb scientists and bad reporters.

Because methane gas is stronger than carbon dioxide, it is considered even more harmful to the environment. Both methane and carbon dioxide are so-called greenhouses gases, one of the main causes of global warming.

And I guess we’re supposed to make an connection, aren’t we? Greenhouses gases are a main cause of global warming, moose and cows emit methane, so the cause of global warming is… MOOSE!

Once Upon A Time

Inside Myself / Once Upon A TimeHelen Trevillion is not only a wonderful person (and friend), she’s also an absolutely stunning musician. I’ve been complaining for ages that she should release a commercial album – and now she finally has! To add to the fun, it’s a double CD. Oh, and it’s called Inside Myself / Once Upon A Time. That’s all you need to know.

Now all you have to do is to follow this link and buy it. Trust me. It’s absolutely worth it!

Of course you might say that the only reason I’m writing this is to convince Helen to write some music for The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, but actually she’s already said she would be interested, and it’s my own incompetence (and lack of time) that is to be blamed for the fact that she hasn’t even seen the demo so far. Me silly.

Seriously, though – my enthusiasm for Helen’s music is not even remotely faked. She’s the real thing: an independent artist with a unique voice (literally and metaphorically). Even if I didn’t love her music itself – and I do – that is something to be celebrated in today’s world of unspeakably boring commercialized crap.

The Last Winter

We saw The Last Winter because it has Ron Perlman in it, and we love Ron Perlman. We were, of course, fully aware of the fact that he has made more than a few bad movies, but the synopsis for this one sounded interesting.

In the Arctic tundra of Northern Alaska, an advance team working for a petroleum exploration company is engaged in a massive project to exploit the oil resources of the pristine land.

After one crewmember is found dead, a disorientation slowly claims the sanity of the other members of the team as each of them succumbs to an unknown fear.

That does sound good, doesn’t it? It’s like The Thing , only with the potential to talk about the political and moral issues involving oil. And, as the official site tells us, that it very high on the film’s list of priorities:

This chilling supernatural drama is the latest offering from Larry Fessenden, an acclaimed director of intimate horror spectacles, whose trilogy of Horror, No Telling, Habit, and Wendigo, tackle themes of contemporary life- environmentalism, addiction, class conflict, aggression, fear and madness.

The Last Winter will be his boldest, most explicit, most challenging film to date, dealing with man’s insatiable quest for oil in the face of environmental revolt.

And that’s where the real trouble begins. See the phrases I put in bold? That’s a summary of everything that’s wrong with the film.

The plot is as follows:

A bunch of people are in Alaska, about to drill for oil in an area that was previously off-limits for such things. The team consists of the Oil People and the Green Dudes. The Green Dudes have been sent to make sure the whole project doesn’t screw up the environment, but the Oil People aren’t listening to them. But even if they did listen, it wouldn’t do them much good, because environmental conditions are deteriorating and Mother Nature is pissed off. In the end they’re all killed by the Ghost Moose of Doom.

There are a number of problems with all this, but first the good points. The movie looks awesome. The landscapes are fantastic, well-shot, and at times genuinely frightening. The actors are all really good, especially Ron Perlman and James LeGros as Main Oil Man and Lead Green Dude respectively. The music is very beautiful, and quite fitting. And the film does achieve some very frightening moments. Before one fully understands what’s going on, that is.

It would all work quite well, if – apart from some minor weaknesses, like the characters being too distant from the audience – the film wasn’t so obviously Green. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m very much in favour of protecting the environment. That position derives both from moral issues and from scientific fact. But the position that this film relentlessly hammers in is not even remotely scientific – it’s all about Mother Nature striking back at us (as if Nature was some kind of active being) and about desecrating the land with our evil civilization. At some point the characters have to choose between going to some other Oil People or to an Inuit village (Noble Savage cliché anyone?) but of course they choose the evil Oil People and then die. We get the impression that had they gone for the Mystic Natives, they might have made it. And the movie culminates in the fact that the creatures responsible for killing the characters are… Ghost Moose! I kid you not. At that point, it becomes entirely impossible to take the film seriously anymore.

The film’s values represent a kind of nihilistic humans-are-bad kind of attitude that I find disgusting, and its theme is being treated in such an obvious in-your-face preachy kind of way that it’s just annoying. And the thing is, I agree that climate change is a problem! I agree (as do all respectable scientists) that climate change is the result of human activities! But all this Mother-Nature-is-angry bullshit just pisses me off.

It would have been perfectly simple to make a horror movie about global warming. The ice is warming up. Evil stuff if coming out. Evil stuff eats our protagonists. Fine, there you go – that would’ve been great. That would’ve been scary. The scariest thing about this film is the people who think that Green is a political attitude. (It’s not. The Green Party? Give me a break. You can’t reduce your philosophy to that one issue. Witness how brilliantly that worked out in Germany. Greens in favour of radioactive weapons! Yay!)

All in all: not bad to watch once. Very well-made. Fails on the philosophy side of things, which isn’t a bad side to fail on. Extra points for trying.

Black Sheep

Commentarium will be back up soon – and much better than before – but for now I’ll just write down a few thoughts about movies I’ve recently seen.

Black SheepBlack Sheep is supposed to be a splatter-comedy in the vein of Bad Taste or Braindead, or, to some degree, the much better (and funnier) Shaun of the Dead . As the title suggests, the movie is all about evil flesh-eating sheepazoids.

Now that’s a wonderful premise if ever I heard one. Seriously. Sheep-related humour goes back hundreds, even thousands of years. Sheep are funny. They’re white, fluffy, stupid, and people do all sorts of nasty things with them. And violence involving sheep, as the Worms games have so wonderfully shown us, is inherently hilarious.

Hilarious is one word which does not describe this film. Sure, there are laughs – about one every five minutes or so. But what comes in between these laughs is rather boring.

There are two reasons for this film’s lack of success, both leading back to one source. The characters aren’t interesting (or even fleshed out) and there is very little creativity in what the sheep actually do (and what is done to the sheep). In other words, the fault lies with the writing. Where are the sheep-related jokes? I counted two (“Baaa-stards” and the sheep-shagging thing). And where in Dog’s name is the sheepy violence? I realize that the film had a low budget, but Peter Jackson’s old films had less money and managed to do more. Since realism doesn’t seem to be an issue, why so little human-sheep interaction? All we get is boring characters that we don’t give a fuck about running from scene to scene, pursued by sheep. There’s some gore, but it’s uninventive and not funny.

Furthermore, it’s not about anything. The film would be so much better if it had an additional level of satire, like Shaun does. If only the religious taxi driver, who shows up at random near the end of the movie, had been a main characters. The religious metaphor of the flock versus killer sheep. Now that’s got potential. Or at least give us sheep as conformity. Sheep as cuteness. Sheep as something. Anything.

Basically the entire film is based on one joke: killer sheep. But the fact of killer sheep isn’t funny. At least not after the first ten minutes of seeing them. What you do with a premise is what makes a film funny or not. And this film does next to nothing.

Even a well-directed film will fail if the script sucks.

All in all: watch Hot Fuzz, or Shaun of the Dead. Or Braindead.

Random trivia: While watching the film, I saw a character reading Michael King‘s The Penguin History of New Zealand. I had read Michael King’s Being Pakeha (a fairly interesting book on white New Zealand identity, even though I despise the concept of national identities of any kind) and wondered whether the director, Jonathan King, was related to him. I checked it out on the Wikipedia, and he’s his son. Cool.

The Graphics of Metroid II

[Note: I’m not very happy with this. It’s been sitting around, in draft form, for more than a week now. Perhaps my mind is simply too preoccupied with my novel and The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, but I just can’t turn this into a coherent piece of text. Nevertheless, it’s not doing any good just floating about unfinished, so I’ve decided to publish it now and maybe rework it at a later date. So, when reading, please keep in mind that this is a draft.]

Since a number of people apparently enjoyed my old article about Knowledge and Fear in Metroid II, I decided that it was finally time to write down my thoughts on how the graphics of Metroid II contribute to the scariness.

Now, before we begin, let me make one thing clear: I do not belong to that foolish and wrong-headed group of people who replace an actual opinion or position on artistic matters with nonsensical wankery glorifying their own lack of skill or vision – as in a lot of what passes for modern art, or as in critics who will glorify any crappy old film or book because it’s a “classic” but refuse to recognize that the modern world can produce classics too (Harold Bloom causes intense teeth-grinding in me, but there are worse examples in the world of academe, such as the Frankfurt School of pseudo-Marxist nihilism).

I’m saying all this because I’m about to argue that the graphics of Metroid II are, because of the very limitations of the Game Boy, better than those of Super Metroid, the game that followed it, and I wouldn’t want people to get the wrong impression.

The graphics are obviously just one aspect of what makes the game scary; in fact, it the combination of several factors (design, music, graphics, etc.) that achieves that effect. I will analyze this aspect separately, but the others should be kept in mind.

Metroid II takes places on an alien, inhospitable world. Or at least that’s what it has turned into, especially with the presence of the life-sucking Metroids – we are shown that it once was the home of a now-gone civilization. Although the point of Metroid II is to track down these creatures and kill them, much of the gameplay is actually concerned with exploring the planet.

To me the “feel” of the world in Metroid II is unique, and an important part of what makes the game scary. The graphics, obviously, are limited by what the Game Boy can do – and the game designers have, intentionally or not, turned this to their advantage. According to the Wikipedia‘s technical information the Game Boy featured:

Color Palette
4 shades of “gray” (green to (very) dark blue)

This does not exactly provide for a huge variety of colour. Super Metroid on the SNES, on the other hand, was far more colourful. Just compare these two screenshots:

Super Metroid

Super Metroid‘s graphics are more detailed and much more colourful. And yet Super Metroid never felt particularly scary to me. Sure, the world is alien, but in a way that is more exotic than threatening. It is, at times, almost pretty. Which is not to say that Super Metroid is a failure – I enjoyed exploring these environments. But judging from the look of large parts of the game, it’s supposed to be scary. Yet even though the design of the monsters is evil and disgusting-looking, the colourful palette makes them less so.

I may be missing the vocabulary to describe this properly.

The thought I’m trying to formulate is that the colours – or rather, the lack thereof – in Metroid II make the game scary because the game looks alien. We’re supposed to imagine planet SR-388 as a deserted and ruined world. The game’s look reinforces that feeling; quite strongly so, in fact. “Less is more” is a stupid phrase, but think of the difference between the film Alien and its third sequel, Alien Resurrection . In the first film, very little can be seen of the monster; in the final one, there are tons upon tons of gooey and gory images. Alien is scary; Alien Resurrection is boring.

But that’s not quite right, either. The difference in the Alien films is how much you leave to the imagination; that’s not what makes Metroid II scary. Perhaps one could say that Super Metroid tries to look more realistic (or at least to present its world in terms closer to our reality), and that makes it – on an almost instinctual level – less scary. Less alien.

I would even say that the blockiness of the graphics in Metroid II, their relatively low detail and the constant repetition of patterns, is an advantage – the game has a look which is both consistent and unique. This is the strength of graphics that do not try to be realistic: instead of simulating something else and failing, they create their own atmosphere. Metroid II does this remarkably well.

To demonstrate: there is an unofficial colour version of Metroid II. It’s well done and it doesn’t look bad, but it looks far more accessible, far more human – and far less scary. Our world is colourful and we can relate to that; it’s the strange greenish desolation of the original game that unnerves us.

I’m a writer, not a graphic artist. I feel that my not knowing the proper terminology (much as in my article about Metroid II’s music) is preventing me from saying what I really want to say, and this is enormously frustrating. Nevertheless, I hope at least a little gets across to you.

In more abstract game design terms, this is another case of having to give a game the kind of visuals that it needs. More, in terms of dimensions and resolution and colour and all that, does not always mean better.

A philosopher kicks the bucket

French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard, a well-known postmodernist and all-around cynic, passed away a couple of weeks ago, to the jubilation of people who think that sentences in an academic work should have content that is actually comprehensible. Living as we do, however, in times where linguistic wankery is deified and true thought is the object of scorn, the media have decided to tell us just how wonderful the old bastard was:

Typical is a gushing obituary in the German Die Zeit newspaper, which notes his “hatred of French egalitarianism,” and goes on approvingly to describe Baudrillard as a “reactionary prophet” and “ Apokalyptiker of the counter-Enlightenment”-i.e., someone preaching the end of the world, who takes up arms against all that is progressive in modern human thought and science. In fact, the largely uncritical reception of Baudrillard’s work in the press says a great deal about the current decay of bourgeois public debate and, in particular, the utter degeneration of layers of the former left-leaning intelligentsia over the past three decades.

The above quote is from “But the Emperor has no clothes!” French philosopher Jean Baudrillard dies in Paris , which is an excellent article (even if you don’t agree with every point), but which you may not want to read if you think that socialists eat children. If you have the slightest interest in modern philosophy, however, please do read it; it is extremely refreshing to see any criticism of the pure idiocy that is postmodernist philosophy, and to see its connection to the so-called left. If I have to read one more postmodern “left” or “radical” academic essay that consists of meaningless twaddle (literally meaningless; just a bunch of long words that don’t actually signify anything) I’ll puke.

Seriously, having been exposed to so much postmodernist thought, I’ve developed a real hatred for it. It claims to be “radical” but what it is, in fact, is the very opposite of that; it is inaction, relativism, nihilism, and in most cases just pure nonsense. It’s sad, but if this kind of philosophy continues being embraced by the “left” there will never be any progress at all.

Knowledge and Fear in Metroid II

[Another old article reincarnated as a blog post. This will stop happening soon. I just want to save the few articles that actually contain some worthwhile ideas.]

Metroid II is, in my humble opinion, one of the best games on the good old Gameboy. It is also one of the most tense and scary games I’ve ever played – and that without the benefit of “hyper-enhanced ultra-3D graphics”, and without tons of blood and gore. I’ve always been fascinated by games that can actually scare me, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it is that makes Metroid II work the way that it does.

Of course, there is no single answer to the question of what makes a game scary. There are very many different factors that contribute to the scariness of a game, and there are many different combinations of these factors that can make a game scary. Furthermore, much like films, games can be scary in qualitatively different ways, like The Mothman Prophecies is scary because of its visual style, Cube is scary because of its ideas, and Friends with Money is scary because it’s so unbelievably bad.

In this article I’m going to try to analyze one of these factors – the factor knowledge. They say that we are afraid of the things we don’t know, but that’s not the complete truth. Knowing something, or being able to anticipate something, can be just as scary (like seeing the words “Julia Roberts” in a film’s opening credits).

Now, a few words about the gameplay of Metroid II. You are Samus Aran, a woman in a fancy robot-like spacesuit, sent to the planet of the Metroids to exterminate the poor buggers. The Metroids are nasty flying alien creatures that suck people’s life energy and turn them into Harold Bloom. There are also three mutated versions of the Metroid, two of which look more humanoid (a cross between the creatures from the Alien movies and your other worst nightmare). There are forty or so Metroids on the planet, and you’ve got to explore it and kill them all. The planet is also inhabited by various other lifeforms, which can also be dangerous to you. All creatures except Metroids can be destroyed by your basic weapon with unlimited shots; the Metroids themselves, however, can only be killed with your secondary weapon, missiles – of which you have only a limited amount.

Now this is what happens when you get near a Metroid: first of all, the screen freezes for a second, and suddenly the music gets very loud and scary. This, in fact, is sometimes enough to make you almost drop your Gameboy (especially if you’ve got speakers attached to the thing). Then the Metroid charges at you – flies towards you, actually – and then tries to stay on you, draining your life energy. To defeat it, you got to run pretty quickly, dodge it when it comes towards you, try not to fall onto any spikes or similar unpleasant surroundings, and shoot missiles at the life-sucking bastard until it’s dead.
No matter how good you are and how well-equipped your character is (in terms of missiles, energy tanks, and so on,) fighting a Metroid is scary, and often quite difficult. Even if you don’t get killed, chances are that you’ll walk away with very few energy points left. Once you’ve fought your first Metroid, you know exactly what such a fight will be like. You fully realize that each time you meet one of those things, a difficult fight is waiting for you. And, having read the manual, you know that there are some even nastier versions of this beast waiting for you. As you explore the planet, you are constantly aware that there are more Metroids waiting for you out there, and that you have to fight them. You know that with every step, you’re getting closer to them, closer to the next time that the screen will freeze and the music will go loud and you will have to fight for your life.

It’s not just the way that the Metroids suddenly attack you that makes the game scary – it’s far more than just the ‘boo’-effect, so overused by movies these days. It’s the knowledge that they’re out there, the way that you try to guess when you’re going to meet the next one. In this game, you know your enemy, you know him very well, and you’re able to anticipate some of his behaviour – and it is this knowledge that makes every single moment of exploring new ground in this game scary.

This, of course, is helped by the game’s design. Quite often, you can guess that there’s a Metroid waiting for you in a particular area. Sometimes it’s because you’ve seen an empty egg, but quite often it’s because you’ve just started to understand the way in which the designers placed the Metroids – there’s sort of a pattern, if you know what I mean. What makes the game even scarier, of course, is that this pattern is not absolute, and you know that too (after the first time you meet a Metroid in a place where you didn’t expect it at all). This really makes you paranoid, and quite often you end up walking *very* slowly, hoping not to run into one of them.

Let me get back to those eggs for a minute. During the course of the game, you often find eggshells – in fact, the first Metroid is still in its egg when you find it, so you know what the eggshells mean when you see them. I find that these eggshells are one of the most brilliant game design ideas I’ve ever seen – so simple, yet so effective. When you see one, you know what’s going to happen… just not *when* it’s going happen. Every single time you see one of those eggs, you’ll think ‘oh shit’.

In a horror movie, you know that the killer/monster/whatever is going to strike, but there’s always hope that the good guys might get away. In Metroid II, however, you know that you will have to face the Metroids, because you’re here to exterminate them. You can’t run – you’ve got to go find them, fully knowing that it’s going to be hell.

If the Metroids weren’t a specific thing that you actually know something about, and they were just some strong bosses you ran into every once in a while, the game would still be scary – but by far not as scary as it is now, now that you know what you’re up against.

Conclusion: sometimes knowing what is going to happen and not being able to do much about it can be just as scary as not knowing. Sort of like elections these days.

The Music of Metroid II

[This used to be under “articles” on the old website. Now it’s a blog post. The older category might have been more appropriate, but this is easier to manage – plus, it allows me to feel more at ease with occasionally coming back to the topic and noting down any thoughts that may drop into my head. Anyway, I think this is one of my few game design articles worth preserving; not necessarily because it is well-written, but because not much has been said about this brilliant little game.]

First of all, let me say that I don’t know too much about the creative side of music and sound. I don’t know all the right words and expressions. In fact, I know as much about the creative side of music as I know about how to sing; and trust me, I’ve been in enough plays to know I can’t sing at all, except when I’m playing a character who’s drunk. But the sound/music of Metroid II impressed me quite a bit, so I felt that I needed to write this article, if only to clear up the matter in my own head, and maybe give the people who actually do have an understanding of how music works (and are interested in computer games) something to think about. Furthemore, since music is intrinsic part of game design, this article is also quite relevant to game designers.

In some places, Metroid II has ‘traditional’ music – music, that is, which has a melody and a rhythm and is played by (digital) instruments, or synthesizers, or whatever – you know what I mean. This music is pretty good, but it’s nothing terribly original – and certainly not worth writing an article about. But, as I said, this traditional music is only played in certain areas; what truly interests me is the music played in the rest of the game, and how it works to create (in combination with and contrast to the other music) certain feelings in the player.

In Metroid II, you are exploring an alien planet. It’s a pretty inhospitable place, full of lava, and spikes, and a whole bunch of really weird creatures that you better stay away from. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so close to being on a strange alien planet as when I played Metroid II. The graphics, although quite simple, manage to convey a certain amount of ‘alienness’ (and an article about this will appear at a later date). But I think that most of the atmosphere derives from the music.
Here the lexical gap sets in once more. It isn’t exactly music, you see – at least not by any standard definition. It’s very experimental/abstract stuff. Instead of traditional music played by instruments that has a rhythm and a melody, in Metroid II you have some very organic-sounding and insectoid-sounding (if that’s possible) …umm… sounds. And you also have strange humming sounds, and beeps, and something that sounds like little feet running, and similar… stuff (somebody shoot me, or give me a book of musical terminology). It doesn’t really form a melody. But believe me when I say it creates an atmosphere – an almost unbearably tense and sometimes extremely unpleasant one; which is just what the game needs, of course.

Personally, it reminds me in a way of Expressionist painting. In Expressionism, the artist tries to express an emotion by painting an image; the image does not have to make sense, or represent something physical – many Expressionist paintings are totally abstract – but it has to express an emotion to the viewer. (“An art movement early in the 20th century; the artist’s subjective expression of inner experiences was emphasized” – says WordWeb.) Good paintings of this kind truly ‘radiate’ emotion, or, if you wish, atmosphere. The experimental music of Metroid II works in the same way. It is not so much music inspired by the game world and graphics (that would be Impressionism, or a bad soundtrack CD), rather than music which expresses these in completely abstract musical terms. Of course, music is by its very nature abstract, but most music does follow certain rules (melody, rhythm, etc, how many more times can I repeat this before somebody rips out my throat?). But in this case all that matters is the emotion of fear, or alienness – and what is more alien to man than strange insectoid sounds? (A brainscan of George W. Bush perhaps, but that’s not the point of this article.)

What makes it even better is that there is ‘normal’ music in the game – in certain areas. More specifically, there is normal music in the first large area where the game starts out, which branches into several other areas – and in the ‘ancient civilization’ areas, where you can save, or get various special items. Thus, normal music comes to be associated with the things we are familiar with, the things that make us feel relatively safe, while the experimental/abstract music/sound/noise/whatever comes to be associated with all that is alien, that scares us, that makes us feel insecure.

Super Metroid, the SNES sequel, was not a bad game, but I think that one of the reasons that it wasn’t half as scary as Metroid II was that the music was far more normal. It was scary at some points, yes, but it didn’t sound so alien, so horribly unpleasant and strange.

I think that Metroid II is a game that sound designers and music composers should look to for inspiration and a better understanding of how to make music for games. Metroid II proves that music/sound need not be nice or pleasant, but that it must fit the game and express what the game is about, and that in this case it is the feeling evoked that matters, not technique, or adherence to the rules.