Gears of War 2, the New Yorker, and Nathan Englander is a gamer

In what must be the smartest profile I’ve ever read about the video game business, Tom Bissell profiles Epic Games designer Cliff Blesinski in this week’s The New Yorker. Blesinski designed the uber-successful game Gears of War, which I received once as a gift. Although I’ve never been a fan of shooters, there was definitely something different about this game. Bissell’s essay puts the game on the level of art and calls in Nathan Englander to help him make his case: 

The novelist Nathan Englander, a fan of the game, cites its third-person viewpoint, in which the player looks over the shoulder of the character being controlled, as a key to its success. “In literary terms,” Englander told me, “it’s a close-second-person shooter. It’s Jay McInerney and Lorrie Moore territory. You’re both totally involved and totally watching.” As for the collapsed architecture and blown-open spaces of the Gears world, Englander said, “There’s the hospital from ‘Blindness’ and the house from ‘The Ghost Writer,’ and I know that beautiful, ruined world of Gears as well as either of those.”

What really got me about the piece isn’t just the convergence of video games and literature, but rather Bissell’s location in the game of something—some emotion—that is very mournful and mature and sad that he traces through its advertising campaign:  

The advertising campaign for the first Gears was centered on a strangely affecting sixty-second spot in which Fenix twice flees from enemies, only to be cornered by a Corpser, a monstrous arachnoid creature, on which he opens fire. But it was the soundtrack—Gary Jules’s spare, mournful cover of the 1982 Tears for Fears song “Mad World”—that gave the spot its harsh-tender dissonance. This helped signal that Fenix was something that few video-game characters had yet managed to be: disappointedly adult.

Bissell continues later in the piece: 

Gears also contains what Bleszinski calls a “going home” narrative: “There’s a sublevel to Gears that so many people missed out on because it’s such a big testosterone-filled chainsaw-fest. Marcus Fenix goes back to his childhood home in the game. I dream about my house in Boston, basically every other night. It was up on a hill.” In Gears of War, the fatherless Fenix’s manse is on a hill, too, and getting to its front door involves some of the most harried and ridiculously frantic fighting in the game. When I told Bleszinski that Fenix’s homecoming was one of my favorite levels in Gears, he asked if I knew where its title, “Imaginary Place,” had come from. I thought for a moment. Earlier, he had made a nicely observed reference to the novelist Cormac McCarthy, and I was attuned to the possibility of an altogether unexpected window into his imagination. Was it from Auden? No. It was a reference to a line from Zach Braff’s film “Garden State,” in which “family” is defined as “a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” When you start to peel back the layers of the Gears world, Bleszinski told me, “there’s a lot of sadness there.”

Bissell’s accomplishments in this piece are many, but the two most obvious are

  1. He takes the level of discourse around video games to a whole new elevation.
  2. He makes me want to play Gears of War. 

That second point, I think, is the the height of non-fiction writing about any subject—whether it’s art or sports or technology or business: the writing drives the reader towards its subject.

Britney Spears having a headache, or Joe the Plumber is a sham

Joe the Plumber, who gained notoriety during Wednesday’s debate is, according to today’s Times, a bit of a fraud. Later in the article he refers to himself as feeling like Britney with a headache. 

Thomas Joseph, the business manager of Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics, based in Toledo, said Thursday that Mr. Wurzelbacher had never held a plumber’s license, which is required in Toledo and several surrounding municipalities. He also never completed an apprenticeship and does not belong to the plumber’s union, which has endorsed Mr. Obama. On Thursday, he acknowledged that he does plumbing work even though he does not have a license.

His full name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher. And he owes back taxes, too, public records show. The premise of his complaint to Mr. Obama about taxes may also be flawed, according to tax analysts. Contrary to what Mr. Wurzelbacher asserted and Mr. McCain echoed, neither his personal taxes nor those of the business where he works are likely to rise if Mr. Obama’s tax plan were to go into effect, they said.

Tucker Carlson used to wear bow ties and now he’s funny

I still know him as the guy who Jon Stewart derided on Crossfire for wearing a bow tie, but Tucker Carlson actually displays some great wit in his review of last night’s debate over at Tina Brown’s new venture, The Daily Beast.

But the strangest moment of all came when McCain raised Rep. John Lewis’ slur against him. If someone called you a bigot, likened you to George Wallace and the Alabama church bombers, would you describe him, non-ironically, as “an American hero”? Yes, Lewis behaved honorably during the civil rights movement. But the sad truth, known to virtually everyone in Washington, is that Lewis is a mediocrity as a congressman, and has been for many years. It would have been nice to hear a little straight talk from McCain on that subject.

Incidentally, if you think that’s an unfair description of Lewis, tune into to C-SPAN some time and listen to him speak for 20 minutes. Then ask yourself an honest question: Is this man really smarter than Sarah Palin? He’s not.

Not that any of this matters for the purposes of the election. It’s over. Obama won.

Joe the plumber is not representative

Of course, people are gullible, and the McCain campaign is seizing on that gullibility. But let’s get the facts straight here. From today’s Times: 

According to figures compiled by the Small Business Administration, there are fewer than six million small businesses that actually have payrolls. The rest are so-called nonemployer firms that report income from hobbies or freelance work done by their registered owners, earning as little as $1,000 a year.

So are there “millions more like Joe the Plumber,” as Mr. McCain contended? Probably not. Mr. Obama may well have been correct when he stated that “98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000.”

Of these, according to a calculation by the independent, non-partisan Tax Policy Center, fewer than 700,000 taxpayers would have to pay higher taxes under Mr. Obama’s plan. But even some of these are not small-business owners in the traditional sense; they include lawyers, accountants and investors in real estate, all of them with incomes that put them in the top tax brackets.

It’s all about words, words, words

Hillary Clinton did it, now John McCain are doing it too: expressing a disdain for Barack Obama’s command of language. James Wood has a piece in this week’s New Yorker about use of the Republicans’ use of language, which concludes: 

. . . when [Palin] was asked about Obama’s attack on McCain’s claim that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. “Well,” Palin said, “it was an unfair attack on the verbage that Senator McCain chose to use, because the fundamentals, as he was having to explain afterwards, he means our workforce, he means the ingenuity of the American people. And of course that is strong, and that is the foundation of our economy. So that was an unfair attack there, again, based on verbage that John McCain used.” This is certainly doing rather than mere talking, and what is being done is the coinage of “verbage.” It would be hard to find a better example of the Republican disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language.

This reminded me of an interview with former JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen that appeared in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. In it, Sorensen cites the power of “Kennedy’s rhetoric when he was president [which] turned out to be a key to his success. His mere words about Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba helped resolve the worst crisis the world has ever known without the U.S. having to fire a shot.”

Obama’s deputy speechwriter Adam Frankel worked with Sorensen on his memoir, and Sorensen himself has lent his hand to the Obama campaign.

Calling California expats to vote by mail

If you’re a California resident living somewhere else or even a California resident who, for whatever reason, can’t vote in-person on November 2—vote from your couch, your office, wherever—please vote by mail. The deadline for your request to be received is October 28. So, hurry!

Hemingway’s baseball field

The Times has a story about Ernest Hemingway’s baseball field in Cuba, which I somehow didn’t even know about before. 

Hemingway rounded up a dozen boys from the barrio to play baseball with them. And just inside the black and white gates of the farm, Hemingway set up an odd little ball field where he would pitch for both teams as they whiled away the hot afternoons.

The New Yorker digital edition is already a disappointment

I spent two hours yesterday waiting in line, unsuccessfully, for tickets to the New Yorker Festival event with Haruki Murakami. The tickets sold out, though they lasted longer than I had anticipated. A walking tour with Calvin Trillin and an event with Stephen Colbert were the first to sell out. You can even see me standing in line on the New Yorker’s current homepage above.

Today I stood in the line in the same place for about 50 minutes to get books signed by Murakami, whose wife stamped them after he signed them. Of interest was a kiosk set up to preview the New Yorker’s digital edition, which the magazine expects to launch in one month. They’re currently offering four free issues and a free digital subscription for print subscribers through the end of their current subscription term. It sounded like they still haven’t settled on a pricing model for the digital edition. Or, if they have, the reps at the Festival headquarters weren’t aware of it. The magazine plans to make each week’s issue available digitally at 12:01 am on Monday morning and to provide digital access to their archive.

Digital issues don’t appear to be downloadable, though the New Yorker rep said that users would be able to print from the magazine using the digital edition. The magazine is forcing users to use an online, web-based viewer from Realview Technologies. Unfortunately, that means no PDFs and no offline access. Moreover, the printing functionality seems to be severely limited and only lets users print one page at a time. It would be nice if I could just print the entire magazine on Monday morning, but it would seem essential that users would be able to at least print out an article or two for later reading.

One of the great advantages of the magazine is that it’s portable. Once I get my copy of the New Yorker in the mail, I can read it in class, I can read it in bed, I can read it in a cab or on a plane. I can even read it in the subway when I have no reception on my BlackBerry. I don’t even need my computer or an Internet connection to read it. Yes, I also happen to hate reading on computer screens and even print out op-ed articles from the Times out of my preference for paper over pixels. By restricting both printing and offline access, the digital edition becomes far less useful than the print magazine or its website. Given a chance to expand its reader base and further engage existing readers of the New Yorker, it appears the magazine has failed with its digital edition to do any more than create a niche product with infinitesimal appeal. I really wanted to like the digital edition, but I don’t see how it, in any way, improves on the magazine.

I suppose that’s no surprise, though, given the New Yorker’s previous experience with digital content. Its website was absolutely anemic for years and years, and it prevented all but the savviest users from copying the New Yorker Archive DVDs to their hard drives, which created a slow product. Because the New Yorker has such great content, such a great product, I feel it has a responsibility to put user experience above its fears of digitization. Its digital edition offers another chance to get that right. Let’s hope it does so before next month’s launch.

On another New Yorker note, their Festival blog is excellent.

Update: I’ve now had a chance to try the launched digital edition. 

Yes We Can

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It took me a little while to find the audio track from the Yes We Can video, so I thought I would post the “Yes We Can” MP3 here for anyone who’s interested.

Foreign policy for the next four years

I still can’t believe Sarah Palin is running for second-in-command after her display of foreign policy credentials and her inability to name any Supreme Court cases during her interview with Katie Couric. Meanwhile, I’m still hoping that Richard Holbrooke will be our next Secretary of State.

Sarah Palin won’t say genocide

Three very brief observations from last night’s debate: 

  1. Sarah Palin apparently winked during some of her responses. Seriously, what is the woman thinking?
  2. Joe Biden strongly advocated intervention in Sudan. However, Palin a) lied about her support for the divestment of Alaska’s Sudan-related investments and b) did not use the word genocide to describe what is, plainly, genocide. I was disappointed that Gwen Ifill didn’t press the candidates on this issue. 
  3. Joe Biden’s description of his family history towards the end of the debate. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but one day later, it’s sticking with me as a raw, unscripted, and completely moving moment from an evening often filled with attacks and boring talking points and transparent evasion of questions. This, more than Palin’s “white flag or surrender” or Biden’s attack on McCain’s Iraq policy, is what I remember from the debate.