Thursday, September 9, 2010

Entertainment and New Media

I like movies and television as much as the next guy, but in recent years, some of the most entertaining productions with the most intriguing plots, the best acting, and the most beautiful design and cinematography have come not from film studios but from game developers. Yes, video games have come a long way since two rectangles bounced a square “ball” back and forth.

Though I have played video games off and on since the days of coin-operated arcades and the first Atari console, I’ve also mostly avoided or at least lagged far behind in the electronic arms race that is PC gaming. However, there were two notable exceptions for me. StarCraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998) and Half-Life (Valve Corporation, 1998) were both innovative in their respective genres (real-time strategy and first-person shooter), but they were also novel for me in that they had cohesive stories to go along with their pixelated mayhem. These stories moved the games forward and kept the action from becoming stale.

StarCraft was one of the first video games with a coherent plot.
I also completely missed several intervening generations of video-game consoles. While these systems were much more powerful than my old Atari, I felt that they still fell below the bar set even by my perpetually outdated PCs. That finally changed after the arrival of the Sony PlayStation 2.

Star Wars: Battlefront (Pandemic Studios, 2004) was the title that brought me back to console gaming. It was a straightforward action game (with the trappings of the popular Lucasfilm franchise), but the detailed graphics amazed me. In between blasting enemy troopers and robots, I found myself marveling at tree rings, blowing leaves, and waterfalls.

At the same time, I also picked up Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004), which was then the latest entry in that controversial series. This was my first experience with an open-world game, where the player is largely free to move throughout the entire game environment and to experience the story in a nonlinear fashion. In many ways, it remains the most ambitious game I have ever played.

The story itself (despite its dubious morality and sometimes ridiculously over-the-top action) was also emotionally engaging. Set in a fictional southwestern American state (complete with three major cities, several small towns, and the countryside, waterways, and airspace between them) in the period leading up to the 1992 riots, San Andreas deals with family, friendship, betrayal, poverty, crime, and corruption. Excellent voice work by the main cast (including Chris “Young Malay” Bellard, Samuel L. Jackson, James Woods, and the late Chris Penn) sells the tale completely.

However, San Andreas pushed the limits of the PlayStation 2’s capabilities. Indeed, the developers made many technical compromises to achieve the game’s breathtaking scope. I wondered what the next generation of gaming consoles might bring.

Once the winning format for high-definition video had been determined, I quickly bought a PlayStation 3. This versatile device features Blu-ray playback, wireless Internet connectivity, and many gigabytes of on-board memory. Oh, and it plays video games too.

Soon, the Uncharted series (Naughty Dog, 2007–09) brought back the action-adventure magic I hadn’t experienced since Raiders of the Lost Ark (Lucasfilm Ltd., 1981) or The Mummy (Universal Pictures, 1999). There were puzzles to solve and enemies to fight, but sometimes I simply had to stop and admire the scenery as I followed lovable rogue Nathan Drake (voiced by Nolan North) through his improbable but engaging adventures.

Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar San Diego, 2010) took me to the dying days of the Old West and into another gorgeous open-world environment. In the game, reformed outlaw John Marston cuts a bloody path across several fictional border states in search of redemption for his past crimes. The fact that virtually every other character he encounters is morally flawed (and often deeply so) tells the player how successful Marston’s quest will ultimately be.

The world of Red Dead Redemption is fantastically detailed, rivaling San Andreas in ambition and far surpassing it in execution. The sparsely settled countryside ranges from deserts and mountains to prairies and forests, and it lives and breathes with the activities of people and animals. The graphics are beautiful, and the animation is mostly fluid and realistic.

Honorable mentions are also in order for Dead Space (Electronic Arts, 2008) and Prototype (Radical Entertainment, 2009). While these two science-fiction/horror games lacked the overall attention to detail offered by most of the others that I’ve described, they made up for it with singular focus on brutal combat gameplay. They also had better plots than most movies within the genre.

Video games won’t replace movies any more than movies replaced books, but they have certainly established themselves as a powerful new storytelling medium. As information technology and computing power continue to advance, I expect that we will experience some truly amazing interactive entertainment.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Information Revolution and the Advent of the Multifunctional Device

I never really wanted a cellular telephone. The convenience of mobile calling wasn’t enough to justify the expense—not to mention the fact that I mostly loathe phone calls. However, when our daughter was born, my wife insisted that I get a cell phone, so I grudgingly bought a basic phone and activated it on the least expensive pay-as-you-go plan that I could find.

Even then, it was already clear that mobile telephones, personal digital assistants, digital cameras, and portable media players were on a collision course that would integrate these technologies into a single multifunctional platform. (Indeed, my basic LG C1300 phone was a better PDA than my old Palm m125 in most respects.) This was a trend that interested me! Personal productivity, communications, and entertainment were about to become ubiquitous, consolidated, and portable.

The multifunctional device combines productivity, information, entertainment, and communications.
A few short years later, so-called smartphones began to become widely available and relatively affordable. Among these was the Apple iPhone. With its multi-touch interface, application support, and Wi-Fi connectivity, I soon recognized the iPhone as a prototypical multifunctional device.

I usually eschew Apple products, but as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I purchased a decommissioned first-generation iPhone for a fraction of its original retail price. I then set about bending it to my will. This is not an uncommon practice with iPhones, which suffer from Apple’s typical insularity, but I was trying to do something even more basic than most.

I needed to reactivate my iPhone as a telephone on the default AT&T cellular network. What I didn’t need was to be forced into expensive long-term voice and data plans. I spend most of my time under Wi-Fi coverage, and my GoPhone account already meets my calling needs for less than $10 per month.

It should have been simple enough. I removed the SIM card from my old LG phone and installed it in my new iPhone … and was immediately greeted with an error message. The phone had detected a “different SIM” and didn’t want to play nicely with the new subscriber card. Actually, I could still make and receive calls, but I couldn’t access the iPhone’s operating system with the SIM in place.

That is when the power of the information revolution came into play. Once I stopped overthinking the problem and focused on the specific error, I quickly found that a solution had already been provided by the Internet guys, those anonymous heroes and villains of the information economy. Once I had installed a couple applications and patched some files, my iPhone was operating in all its multifunctional glory.