Friday, 27 June 2014

Clementine will remember...

Back in 2012 when I finished playing the final chapter of Telltale Game's The Walking Dead I was an emotional wreck by the end. I know I wasn't alone judging by the critical acclaim the game received and the volume of articles dedicated to Lee and Clementine's final scene together. This was one of the best story lines I've ever seen in my 30 years of gaming and it's one that still resonates. I frequently find myself mentally revisiting the game and the decisions I made while playing it well over a year later.

This week I finally bought Season 2 of the game after some significant delay in my decisison-making process. Sony's PSN deal of the week meant that the game was under £6 so it was too good a deal to pass up.

There were a couple of reasons (other than price!) why I have been holding back from buying and playing Season 2, despite having bought the 400 Days DLC. The main reason is that Telltale were keen to continue on from the decisions each player made in Season 1, and that due to a twist of fate, my final game save from that season was erased accidentally.

This meant that in order for my decisions to have any legacy in Season 2, I'd have to play the final chapter of Season 1 over again. In order for my gaming experience of distress and sorrow to be optimal, I'd need to revisit the traumatic Season 1 finale again. However, there's no guarantee that the decisions I'd make this time around would perfectly match my second play through.

This inability to guarantee the original trauma could be repeated was off-putting in some ways. Other than not really wanting to revisit around 3 hours worth of gameplay just to be able to play Season 2 (time is precious since becoming a father!), the fact that I might not make the exact same decisions that left me so emotionally bereft the first time around also stood in the way.

I needn't have let this nagging doubt paralyse me as much as it did. As I loaded up Season 2 and the game scanned for my missing save file, I was confronted with a  message that suggested that the gaps would be filled by the game rather than my decisions. This forced me to revisit the final chapter of Season 1 again - and I'm glad I did. I took this opportunity to changes some of the decisions I initially took first time around - in order to see how little or great an impact they had on the game experience. For example, my initial play through saw me take Lee's arm off in homage to Rick in the graphic novels. This time, however, I kept the arm and it allowed for a very minor modification to the gameplay. I also saved Clementine from the trauma of finishing Lee off.

Ultimately, the decision tree forces the player along the pre-scripted narrative path with only minor adjustments. Even though I know what was coming, I still felt the heart-wrenching impact of my decisions and now I'm content enough to know that my actions as Lee will have some legacy for Clementine.

And yes, I did choke back a few wet ones. Again.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Facebook's birthday and our narcissism

This week Facebook turned 10 and to celebrate it created a short video montage of every user. These montages featured things like the most liked photos or comments that had been posted on the site, accompanied by some saccharine sweet music. After watching this video users where given the option to share it in their timeline along with a link that enabled other users to make one of their own. The video was also hash tagged meaning that it quickly became a trending item on Facebook's new Twitter-esque feed.

Suffice to say, the personalised video went viral as more and more people noticed that users where sharing something that supposedly encapsulated their time spent on Facebook during the last decade (or however long you'd been using the site with your current identity).

In some ways this is what Facebook does best: it speaks to the narcissist in us. When we see our friends or our contacts posting something personal that they've liked, and by default, recommending that you do the same (or else why share it?), then you have the perfect ingredients for user engagement. Or so we may be led to believe.

The reaction to those video montages has been interesting. Some users, having seen their montage and liked it have then gone on to share it, hoping that their friends will also like it and share their own. This led to a cavalcade of spam in people's newsfeeds as more and more people posted their personalised video.

Several of my friends were quick to complain about this process, and with some justification. These videos are individualised and perhaps not really relevant to anybody other than the individual (or perhaps their significant other). When faced with this 'feed spam' they admonished other users for being so vain or narcissistic.

This highlights two or three interesting and interlinked facets of social media:

  1. relevance
  2. personalisation
  3. authority

Iggy Crop
For many users, seeing a news feed full of montages about other people's 'best' Facebook moments was not relevant to them, primarily because they were personal and relevant only to a very small circle of people. If a third party doesn't appear in the 'best of' montage the they are looking at random images selected by an algorithm with deep data mining powers, but very little individual consideration.

One of my 'highlights' was a picture of Iggy Pop with his stomach cropped to be his face - a funny joke from B3ta but certainly not a highlight of the 7 years I've been using the site. Some of the other selections where downright bizarre and included one of those games early (2009?) Facebook users used to play where they tagged you in post, then you had to find a random image and a random Wikipedia post and make an album cover - clearly not a significant part of my life but something that Facebook's algorithm misunderstood as 'relevant' because of its virality.

Fake album cover (2009)
I'm sympathetic to those people who were sick of seeing the video appear - perhaps they'd watched a few of their friend's montages hoping to see themselves feature more prominently? Or perhaps they were irritated that their personal video was made up of irrelevant photos? Or perhaps they were sick of that twee tune that played over the top? Regardless, they sought to exert a sense of authority or mastery over their environment by berating other users for sharing their montages. Clearly, these people didn't have to click play on their friend's videos and many of them probably didn't, yet they still felt the need to complain about them.

This exertion of authority is another aspect of the narcissism that social media can encourage. Expressing dissatisfaction with what others are doing is a classic strategy for asserting that your way is the right way - that you are superior to others. So, by both sharing the personal montage and by berating others for doing so, we've demonstrated some of the most egotistical behaviours that humans are capable of.

The best response is to say nothing. Don't feed the data gathering beast. Perhaps we've had enough of social media and it's time to say goodbye?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

iTunes bug when buying tracks from different versions of the same album

Have you ever bought singles from an album and then decided to buy the album outright, only for iTunes to not give you access to all the tunes that you paid for because you already own a different version of some of the tracks? That's what has happened here...

What a pain in the backside this is.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Dramatising natural history documentaries

'Natural history can be pretty dramatic' (Steve Hewlett, 8/1/2014)

I was listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Media Show, this morning in which an interesting discussion took place between the host Steve Hewlett and Wendy Darke, the head of the BBC's Natural History Unit. The discussion revolved around the extent to which the new BBC prime-time natural history series, Hidden Kingdoms, was built upon artifice.

The series starts on January 16th 2014 on BBC1 - check out the trailer below:

This is a show that has been two years in the making and focusses on the lives of very small creatures, who are very difficult to record in their natural environment. Consequently, in order for the production team to reveal the lives of these diminutive animals they have had to resort to using controlled situations and have filmed captive animals, sometimes in studios, shot against blue-screens so that the 'drama' of their lives can be revealed.

Hardly natural?

The BBC has come under fire from certain quarters of the news media in recent years, especially when it comes to deceiving the public in it's natural history output. Much was made in the press about the 'fake' polar bear birth sequence in the Frozen Planet (2011) series. In that series, a polar bear family was followed in the natural environment, but the scenes of the animal giving birth were actually of a different bear who was housed in a Dutch animal park, in a purpose built enclosure that allowed for unprecedented camera access. Even the snow was fake. However, the viewing public would not have been able to easily distinguish between the natural and artificial sequences, leading to questions of duplicity and declining viewer trust.

At the time the BBC revealed that such staging of footage was common-place amongst natural history output. In an interview on the UK TV show This Morning, Sir David Attenborough responded to the criticism and suggested these sequences were not designed to mislead the public - rather, they were used to enhance the audience's understanding of the animal's lives.

The question is, during the middle of this scene when you are trying to paint what it is like in the middle of winter at the pole, to say, 'Oh, by the way, this was filmed in a zoo.'
It ruins the atmosphere, and destroys the pleasure of the viewers and destroys the atmosphere you are trying to create. It's not a falsehood and we don't keep it secret either. But to say actually in the middle of that sequence, I mean how far do you take this?
Do you say this is a penguin, but actually it was a different penguin colony than this one and this one is a different one? Come on, we were making movies.

At the end of the first episode of Hidden Kingdoms there is a 10 minute sequence that explains the various types of filmmaking techniques that have been employed to create the documentary footage contained within the main show. This is something the BBC have been doing for quite some time in relation to their natural history output, going at least as far back as Planet Earth (2006). Indeed, it's arguable that these short featurettes have become a staple part of the BBC natural history output, and speak to the twin-pronged audience desire to know about the natural world as well as the challenges of capturing the exotic footage presented.

Upfront honesty?

In the Media Show interview, Darke responded to Hewlett's criticisms that the show does not reveal the levels of artifice for dramatic purporses to the audiences in advance by suggesting that production is very honest with the viewers via the 'making of' featurette, as well as via information contained within the show's website. Indeed, viewers are warned in advance that special filming techniques have been employed - providing they visit the BBC's media pack for the show.

However, the level of detail revealed in the media pack is underwhelming. Here's an extract from the website that details the extent to which the material presented in artificial:
What is it like to be a dung beetle caught in an earth-shaking wildebeest stampede? Or a mouse facing a tsunami-like flash flood, which to us would be nothing more than a gentle trickle? Combining their skills as wildlife filmmakers with blue-screen filming allowed the team to recreate real-life events as experienced by the animal stars, giving viewers a unique new perspective on these dramatic worlds within worlds.
When listening to the interview between Hewlett and Darke, it becomes clear that animal runs were built and captive creatures were forced into contexts that didn't occur naturally.  Nevertheless, the BBC are clearly anxious to not fall foul of the same criticisms levelled at it circa Frozen Planet. This level of transparency is clearly an attempt to address earlier failings. However,  this hasn't always worked, as Mark Lawson has pointed out:
I think that there is a problem with the methods used and that it has only been increased by the openness about what has been done. Watching the show is like living with a liar: you start to question everything.
Lawson goes on to discuss the privileged position that viewer of natural history programmes finds themselves in - namely, that they want and expect to be stunned with footage that seems almost unbelievable. Given the extent to which Hollywood-driven CGI has become a staple part of our filmic culture, it may not be surprising to see such techniques being employed in nature documentaries. Indeed, it may be exactly what is required in order to keep this type of flagship programming at the heart of the television schedules.

All documentary is constructed 

What seemed to be absent from the debates around these shows and their varying levels of authenticity or artifice is an acknowledgement that all factual forms are constructed and can never give direct access to the real. While I understand that natural history programming fits within traditions of public service broadcasting and realist aesthetics, it doesn't negate the fact that the editing together of images from multiple cameras, overlaid with some kind of explanatory narration, fosters an environment in which audience interpretations of events are being carefully cultivated - often in a highly narrativised and in an anthropomorphic manner.

Whenever debates around documentary and artifice take place I can't help but think back to Bill Nichols's work on the varying modes of address within the genre (especially chapter 6) and their implications for audience understanding. Nichols identified 6 different modes of address or 'inflections'.

Whenever I see the BBC evoke the making of featurettes at the end of their programmes, I am reminded of Nichols's 'Reflexive Mode' which calls attention to the assumptions and conventions that govern documentary filmmaking. Typically, this mode increases audience awareness that what they are watching is a constructed re-presentation of reality rather than unfiltered access to the real.

The easiest way to explain this idea is by means of a comparison. I frequently use a cropped version of Rene Magritte's painting 'The Treachery of Images' in classes where I remove the text 'Ceci nest pas use pipe' and ask my students what they are looking at.

If the students haven't seen this example before, they usually say that what they can see is a pipe, before I tell them that they are wrong. They are looking at a painting of a pipe.

If they have seen the example before and say it's a painting of a pipe then I usually tell them they are wrong again. They are looking at a version of the painting that has been captured as a digital file before being recompiled and projected onto a screen so that it resembles a painting of a pipe. Never did Walter Benjamin's essay, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' from 1936 seem more prescient.

It's not a huge leap from Magritte to Jean Baudrillard's examples of Disneyland as hyperreal America (in Simulation and Simulacra, 1981) and the claim that first Gulf War did not happen (in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, 1991) - despite the documentary evidence to the latter that an event called the Gulf War did take place in Kuwait in 1991. However, Baudrillard's point was about the way in which the images of that war were mediated to construct a version of events many times removed from the actuality of the incident (watching laser-guided Maverick missiles explode over featureless targets via cockpit videos).

The point that I am making is that the interview that opened this post seems to assume that there is a way to accurately represent the reality of the natural world that is somehow free from the problems of representation and narrative construction. Access to an objective reality becomes increasingly problematic and untenable once we acknowledge that all media forms are subject to certain types of artifice - whether deliberately acknowledged or not.

Still, the debate in The Media Show will be a helpful teaching aid for anyone wanting to quickly cut to the issues of documentary. We all love a little bit of 4K/HD 'nature porn' while we are sat in front of our big screen flat-panel televisions made of rare earth materials that may have been mined in conflict zones around the world, from unsustainable sources.

At least we get to watch the lovely, pretty pictures.