Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ursula K. le Guin's Lavinia: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXVIII

Being sick this week has left me with some time on my hands and that means that I've had an opportunity to finish reading Ursula Le Guin's "Lavinia" and think on it for a bit.  Without further ado then, here we go.

To state the premiss, "Lavinia" is a retelling of books 6-12 of Virgil's "Aeneid" in novel form and told from the point of view of the Latin princess Lavinia.  The choice is a tempting one for any author as Virgil gives this important character no lines and hardly any time on stage.  As a writer with feminist leanings, one can see why giving a "voice" to the "voiceless" and "objectified" Lavinia would be an instant draw for Le Guin.  However, given the work itself and Le Guin's afterword, it seems as if a feminist critical intervention on one of the arch dead-white-men is the furthest thing from her mind.  Instead "Lavinia" seems to spring from a deep love of Virgil's epic work and a resulting desire to continue to flesh out his world and keep it alive in human memory.  The character of the Latin princess simply affords Le Guin a point of entry, a place where more might be said.

I won't spoil the book for you, but I will offer a few general assessments.  "Lavinia" is an interesting read and different from the run-of-the-mill contemporary pirating of ancient works.  The key factor in this seems to be that Le Guin actually likes Virgil.  Her work is an interpretation, not a hijacking.  That said, however, don't expect another "Till We Have Faces."  There aren't any hidden depths to "Lavinia," just a good and thoughtful tale.  The novel is also at its strongest when it has Virgil's lead to follow.  After Turnus' death, Le Guin is on her own and the work necessarily suffers a bit, though not enough to thwart enjoyment.  To sum: this book won't change your life, but if you like ancient literature and are looking for some light reading it's worth picking up.

Nota bene: I am not the biggest fan of Virgil, though I appreciate him a bit more than I did in college.  If you are a huge fan of the man from Mantua, then I can't say whether you'll love this book or if it will drive you crazy. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Le Guin Kinda Sorta Fixes Virgil: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXVII

I'm working my way through Ursula K. Le Guin's novel "Lavinia" right now.  It's interesting to watch her attempt to fill in one of the gaping holes in Virgil's unfinished masterpiece.  So far, it's complex and rather interesting, not preachy or heavy-handed; LeGuin at her best.  Has anyone else read it?  Once I finish the thin up, I'll let you know what I think.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Critais Move: Platypus Nostalgia

After a string of posts about video games, the inhibited part of me is feeling self-conscious about any pretensions I have to adulthood and being a serious scholar.  That leads me to another discussion I had this weekend with the Game Guru and his wife who both possess 1337 combat skills (No, really, you should see what they can do with a Cutco knife).  We were reminiscing about all our extra-circular activities while growing up and I suddenly realized that my life aged 7 to 18 contained a whole lot more than I thought.

So, what was I doing back then?  In between beating "Secret of Mana," "Final Fantasy II," "Chrono Trigger," "Super Mario RPG," "A Link to the Past," and "Ocarina of Time" I also found time for:

1. Knife Throwing
2. Archery
3. Wilderness Survival
4. Fishing
5. Shooting (Dad didn't allow hunting)
6. Amateur Entemology (I still wince at the opening discription of Eustace in VotDT)
7. Drawing (occasionally, though perspective and shading still thwart me)
8.Painting (very rarely these days)
9. Table Top Gaming and RPGs (haven't done this since grad school)
10. Chorus (I still like singing in church)
11. Saxophone and Guitar (neither of which I can do any more)
12. Drama and Acting lessons (I now teach drama)
13. Amateur Film-making
14. Dabbling in wood-working and sculpting (never got very far)
15. Writing (still do this religiously)
16. Taking Courses in Apologetics (I teach Ethics)
17. Trying to Learn French (I can read it but I can't speak it)
18. Reading Voraciously (often the wrong books, but not always)
19. Several Missions Trips to Mexico
20. Learning the Basics of Golf (despite continued effort in college I never got anywhere)

Our teachers challenged us to be Renaissance Men and we took that challenge seriously.  Many of my friends and classmates were more accomplished than I was and that scares me sometimes.  Looking at this list scares me a bit too until I remember that I didn't achieve much of a competence in any of these pursuits and that my skills in most of them have atrophied to the point of decadence.  Still, I managed all this and still had time to keep a 3.8 GPA and play video games.

What's the point then?  Not bragging.  I'm already wincing at the thought that someone will take this that way (I've met many people that can out-think me and are more cultured than I am; I had a privileged upbringing: that's all).  The point is that being a gamer didn't keep me glued to the t.v. set 24/7 or from getting out there and enjoying life.  I'm betting that's true for many others as well.     

A Structuralist Perspective on Form and Content in Video Games: Platypus Nostalgia

My friend, the Game Guru, spent the past weekend with us.  As usual, this meant a chance for me to catch up on the state of the field.  Being the slow-coach that I am, I had to admit that I wasn't bothering with Elder Scrolls VII so much as puttering around with Final Fantasy III/VI.  This didn't bother the Game Guru at all so we popped the old cartridge in and did a little dungeon crawl.  While trying to drill the SrBehemoth, I pointed out that the game was a lot easier than when I was fifteen.  Indeed, all of Square's games have gotten much easier since I've aged a bit.  My friend replied that the versions that were put out in the U.S. were often "dumbed-down" on the theory that U.S. players were young children.  This led to a consideration of what makes a game "adult."  We came down on complexity of story and theme and difficulty of play.

Now, when we talk about media being "adult," those aren't the two things that typically come to mind.  Granted, we often try to shield our children from sex and violence, but don't we also try to shield them from complexity and difficulty?  -or how about alcohol and tobacco?  Our entertainment, then, creates a sort of negative(in the sense of defining something by its opposite) definition of adulthood as those who aren't children because they can/ought to experience sex and violence.  If this is what defines an adult, then it is little wonder that media created for adults continues to import as much sexuality and violence as it can get away with in any given project.  The primary intent may not always be to shock or to titillate, but rather to demarcate something as "mature" and "for adults."  It's like the director who puts a few F-words into a movie just to get an "R" rating and thus get the serious attention of the academy when the Oscars come around.

What does all this mean for video games?  Certainly, there has been an increase in the level of sex and violence in video/computer games over the last twenty years.  An aging gamer population and innovations in the technology have worked in tandem to make ever increasing levels of gruesomeness and titillation possible.  Even The Legend of Zelda series has gotten a bit more risque with its provocative "Great Fairies."  Simultaneous with this development, however, has been a rise in the complexity of the stories that video game designers have attempted to tell and the difficulty of the puzzles and challenges set for players.  Given what we said above, these two trends are not necessarily joined at the hip.  There is no necessary connection between sex and violence and complexity of story and game play.  However, as long as sex and violence are the key signifiers of adulthood in the American mind, they will remain and continue to entrench themselves in the medium as more and more adults begin to play.    

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Iconic Images: Platypus Nostalgia

I found this image over at the Nintendo website celebrating the 25 year anniversary of "The Legend of Zelda."  There's something about it that really captures the soul of the series: that perfect mix of Tolkien and Tom Sawyer.

Truth be told, I'm not sure where this string of posts on the series has come from.  I don't think I've played a Zelda game in a couple years at least.  Maybe it's been more like three or four.  SquareEnix and Blizzard have had most of my attention for a while now.  Maybe that means the time to return to Hyrule is rolling round again.  Maybe it just means I'm getting old and nostalgic.  There is something about this picture that takes me back to age twelve or thirteen and warm summer days spent in the shadow of the woods.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

SNES as Money Well Spent: Platypus Nostalgia

I got my Super Nintendo Entertainment System when I was eleven years old.  That's a couple years after it first came out.  The occasion was a little dramatic: to celebrate the end of a two-and-a-half year course of treatment for cancer.  I had no idea that it would be waiting for me at home after the final doctors visit.  It was a nice spring day, the trees were waving gently in the breeze outside the bay windows.  With a cup of tea resting on the coffee table, I set down to play.  What was that first game?  It was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  Around twenty years later, my SNES still works as does that Zelda cartridge.  It's been a long way from boyhood in Southern Connecticut to manhood in North Houston, but I'm still playing.

Why am I still playing?  There were stretches when I didn't.  Many times, I've just been too busy.  There were also seasons when it felt embarrassing to still be playing video games.  Aren't they just for kids, and boys who refuse to grow up?  Surely for adults there's just work and chores, or hobbies that can be disguised as work and chores.  Then I'd get the flu, or be at home for a long summer, or get set strait by someone who was an eminently well-adjusted adult and still made time for games.  Out would come the old nintendos.

Playing again, I began to realize some things.  It's like picking up "The Chronicles of Narnia" in grad school and realizing that they weren't written just for kids.  I began to realize that a lot of thought went into the best games, even the older and simpler ones.  A co-worker pointed out something else to me several years back.  Video games were genuine recreation.  They were something that could be done over a vacation that was really vacating: they weren't a hobby masquerading as work, or worse, work masquerading as a hobby.  The best games set the imagination free to explore worlds totally unlike our own and provide real rest, not merely a cessation of work.

So the old machine still works and I'm still playing.  Maybe it is all just nostalgia in the end, but a little nostalgia now and then is a good thing.  Through all the travel and changes, the good and the bad, there's been some things that remain constant.  If I could meet that eleven year old boy, sipping his tea and sitting in front of the coffee table, we would have something in common.    

The Platypus Reviews 2011

This past year represented an unprecedented jump in the number of posts here at "The Platypus of Truth."  Now that 2012 has begun, the official total is fixed at 93.  This blows 2010's 66 posts out of the water and sets the bar high for the new year.  The main culprits seem to be my treks through Terry Brooks' "Elfstones of Shannara" and "Wishsong of Shannara," "The Mammoth Book of Fantasy," and a gloss of Tennyson's "The Passing of Arthur."  Since "The Platypus of Truth" primarily serves as a venue for my literary musings, that's not surprising.

There were some other trends this year at "The Platypus of Truth," however.  For instance, 2011 saw a return to meditations on video and computer games especially new favorites Starcraft II, and Titan Quest, and old faithfuls Final Fantasy III, and The Legend of Zelda.  Branching out a bit, I also attempted a look at the state of the field in light of "Dragon Age" and "Bioshock."

Beyond video games, 2011 saw several forays into the world of film including an attempt to set down my favorite films, and retrospectives on Moulin Rouge and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.  Indeed, by mid-year there were enough film reviews to warrant the creation of a new label: "film platypus."  I'm no expert on film, but I was glad to see that several of the posts sparked conversation and got a link or two.

Finally, 2011 saw some meditations on art and culture in the city of Houston.  I still miss the Getty (both of them), The Huntington Gardens, The LACMA, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology, but the Lanier Theological Library, the Houston Ballet, and The MFAH are nothing to sniff at.

Well, that's a short assessment of the past year over here at "The Platypus of Truth."  No big controversies, no grand causes, just a good, long chat over at the quiet end of Lake Blogosphere.  May 2012 be a blessed year for you all and remember: the platypus speaks truth.