Dead Space

This PC game review is a little late. Dead Space came out in 2008.

The reason I didn’t play it sooner is that ‘survival horror’ games are not really my bread and butter. I still have System Shock 2-themed nightmares – walking around another corridor and spinning around to be faced with yet another Midwife. “I HAVE YOUR MEDICATION… I CAN SMELL YOU…”

So the bar is high. Very high.

And I have to admit that Dead Space is a really good game.

But I have one major issue – it didn’t scare me.

Perhaps it is because I have become an old hand at the “holy-shit-I’m-the-only-living-soul-on-a-space-station-filled-with-the-dead” genre. Or that I set my expectations so high given all the reviews that talked about how suspenseful it was.

So let’s analyze why I wasn’t.

First, the save points, those evil and twisted relics of console gaming. Those didn’t help. Sure, they added a little extra tension in that I couldn’t save until I got to the next one, and there’s one in particular near the end of the game that has the annoying tendency to be frequented by unkillable monsters. But they break the fourth wall unnecessarily in a game that usually goes out of its way not to, given the ultra-cool map and inventory interface built into Isaac’s HUD.

Second, speaking of the fourth wall, the third-person view makes for better, more cinematic visuals and action, but if you want to be scared shitless, first-person is the only way to go. Our focused binocular vision is great for hunting, but it’s hardwired for maximum freakout when something comes from the side, behind, below, or above. Watching this happen to someone, i.e. capable Isaac in his armored suit and nasty industrial weaponry – not so much.

Third, there’s that nasty industrial weaponry. Great fun, but not very scary. Who cares how many lurking undead are out there when I have a circular saw on steroids? Bring it! It’s the difference between playing as the Marine and the Predator in the old Aliens vs. Predator games. If you want to have fun, play as the Predator.  You have half a dozen creative ways to kill anything that moves. If you want to be terrified, play the hairless ape, who has nothing going for him but a minigun, a motion tracker, and a  flashlight,  none of which particularly help in a dark room filled with aliens that are overly fond of disembowelment.

Fourth, there’s the predictability of it all.

One of the reasons that I simultaneously loved and hated System Shock 2 was its total lack of predictability, created by the completely sadistic inclusion of randomly spawning enemies. You’d think you killed everything on a floor, and then there’s one RIGHT BEHIND YOU.  They never completely go away. As a result I never felt comfortable; I was always putting my back to a wall in some alcove to sort through my inventory and reload, all the while expecting to be jumped by some shambling corpse. This got ridiculous in a certain area (THE CARGO DECK!!!)  populated by suicidal protocol robots that would suddenly appear every 30 seconds or so, charge you while making inane, creepy platitudes (“I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding…”), and then explode when close.

In Dead Space, once you’ve cleared an area, it stays clear. There are no roaming undead. There is also no roaming Isaac; there is a little play in your path through the ship, but not much. The designers did a very good job trying to keep me from thinking I was on rails, but it didn’t help that a TRAM was used to move me between levels, and every time I felt the urge to go back to a previous area, I’d have to remind myself that I couldn’t, no matter how logical my plan might be.

Oh, and fifth. No big baddies like SHODAN. Pathetic creature.

You might think from all these criticisms that I didn’t like the game. Not true. I liked it enough to order a copy of the sequel immediately after finishing. Despite my complaints, it is a visually gorgeous game with some good action, and while it is not scary, it does succeed in being creepy, and you know me – I’m a big fan of creepy.

Libya & the big prize

Looks like it’s Qaddafi’s time, too. Unlike Mubarak, I don’t think he’ll get to retreat to the countryside.

Speaking of which, it’s almost the end of February and Mubarak hasn’t fled Egypt yet. There’s still a week, though, for me to win my bet.

Egypt was impressive. Libya is also impressive, though less so. But the real tests of this wave of protests across the Middle East are Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. If one of those flips, now we’re onto something really, really big.

Chasing the ur-text

There’s an interesting exchange in the latest issue of RSQ (Rhetoric Society Quarterly) between LuMing Mao and Scott Stroud on how to conduct the enterprise of comparative rhetoric. I don’t think either one articulates the problem – which is historiographical in nature – well enough, so I’ll take a stab at it while it’s fresh in my mind.

Mao’s essay is in response to Stroud’s “Pragmatism and the Methodology of Comparative Rhetoric” in the Fall 2009 RSQ. As far as I can tell, he charges Stroud with creating a false dichotomy between “descriptive” or “historical ” comparative rhetoric, where the main goal is to accurately describe and contextualize texts, and an “appropriative” or “reconstructive” approach where the texts are used primarily as fodder for contemporary theorizing. Mao opines these two approaches blend together dialogically; you can’t objectively do descriptive work without contemporary bias, and the text itself tends to restrict the limits of reconstruction. My apologies to Mao if this is oversimplified.

Stroud replies to Mao first by restating his arguments: 1) CR assumes a descriptive approach is best; 2) CR should allow both descriptive and reconstruction; 3) “there is no sense of accuracy above and betond the general criterion of ‘usefulness’ relative to some contingent purpose.” He then charges Mao with further failing to define what “accuracy” or “responsibility” means in the textual criticism of CR, and notes that Mao’s objections themselves have a consistent descriptive bias. Over this apparent confusion, he prefers a “pragmatist” approach that eschews fealty to the text and champions using it for contemporary problems as well as increased attention to important texts.  He repeatedly uses Pound’s Tang dynasty translations as an example of a pragmatist approach. He is less concerned with his research being “right” than being “useful: “I think this sort of pragmatic pluralism is much more flexible and non-exclusionary than relying heavily on vague notions of ‘responsibility’ and a ‘proper’ purpose animating work in CR” (74). Apologies, again, if this is oversimplified, particularly in the cultural sensitivity area.

Reading these two pieces reminds me of a problem that I heard Mike Leff once call “chasing the ur-text” – namely, a desire to determine more accurate versions of an ancient text can overshadow the usefulness of the text as received for provoking thought and addressing contemporary concerns. The particular text in question was Aristotle’s Rhetoric, but the problem also exists with any text for which we lack a great deal of original context or a solid philological footing.

My response to these ideas is twofold.

First, the problem here is not description vs. reconstruction. That’s a pointless debate. Mao is right about that. The problem as I see it, though, is a matter of ethical citation. If you are to cite a text as an authority in some fashion, there is an ethical charge to do so in a matter that is as less wrong as possible.

By “less wrong,” I refer to Isaac Asimov’s famous essay, “The Relativity of Wrong,” where he notes that the purpose of scientific inquiry is not to determine truth or to prove anything, but to, quite simply, be less wrong than previous solutions to a given problem. His central example  is the curvature of the earth, once thought to be 0 (flat); early estimates of a spherical earth rendered a value of .000126 (the flat-earthers were “right” to three decimal places!); later accounts narrowed the value even further, and Asimov predicted that future measurements would get even closer to the “correct” value without ever quite getting to it. Perhaps, even, the very concept of curvature would have to be revised.

That said, Stroud’s unconcern with “accuracy” to the text is somewhat ironic, as he charges Lao with misrepresenting his article’s argument, particularly his lit review of CR. It seems to me if he is really committed to pragmatism, he shouldn’t care, and should even applaud Lao for using his article for his own “useful” purposes. The problem with that, though, is that Stroud never really defines what “useful” is. Useful how? Useful to whom? How is “usefulness” measured? I suspect this term is no less slippery than Lao’s “accuracy.”

However, Stroud is on to something when he says Lao’s real concern is “moral” (71); he then charges Mao with failing to define what “responsibility” to the text is. I think Stroud is right, but his deconstruction of Mao’s position is somewhat unfair as it skips past a central debate/ special topic of historiography: namely, the ethics inherent in writing history. Generally speaking, as Mao notes, separating “historical” from “reconstruction” ignores what history is; the telling of stories by humans. Implicit within that definition is the question of citation. History is myth without citation; it is only when we can attach texts to other texts and archeological evidence that they become history, which is itself a inherently biased account of other biased accounts. Citation is the only glue that keeps this mess together, and it is often not a particularly strong bond if applied poorly.

The pragmatist, then, without a sense of citation, is a teller of myths, not a scholar; they may indeed solve contemporary problems, but their solutions can’t be ethically cited and are thus ungrounded historically. The objection, then, becomes a question of false ethos; a pragmatist  gets to put on a historian’s ethical cloak because he or she works with ancient texts, but they reject the very framework of that ethics. One can’t claim, ethically, to be an expert on, say, Erasmus, without being intimately familiar with his historical context, language, source critical issues, etc. If one simply “uses” Erasmus, then you are not an expert on Erasmus  – you’re an expert on using Erasmus.

There is “something” to a text that remains after we subtract our situational bias. It is not a reflection of Plato’s forms, but it is something. Respect of this nebulous something is the cornerstone of interpretation. That “something,” in fact,  is the only thing what allows us to judge either or not an interpretation is “less wrong” than another. The text allows multiple interpretations and uses,  but it also constrains us. Apologies to Umberto Eco, who I am paraphrasing badly from memory – and yet, there is something there.

Saving face

Mubarak’s speech today satisfies no one, I think, except himself.

One thing the protest has failed to do is hand Mubarak a dignified way out, so he’s trying to create one out of nothing, seeing if he can slowly fade into the background, one concession at a time. He doesn’t want to flee or seem like he was forced out. Unfortunately for him, though, the longer he delays, the more likely he will be forced; the military is stirring now.

The U.S. can’t do anything right now save offer him a plane, which he will of course refuse, as he doesn’t want it to look like the U.S. forced him out and saved him. Tomorrow, though, it may start to look like a far more appealing option…

Surprisingly

Mubarak continues to hold onto power in Egypt, primarily as the professional elements of the army continue to remain neutral. So we have a draw.

I still think he will leave the country by the end of Feburary, now that the White House has convinced itself that it is time for his resignation. Egypt needs America as an ally and vice versa, and Obama has decided on a divorce.