January 2nd, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

QuickTakes: Computer Gaming, Real and Film Political Corruption

I'm staying over at some friends' house and their internet connection is having problems with both latency and bandwidth, so I don't have the patience to write anything lengthy (or do any replying to earlier conversations) tonight. Those of you who've been with me a long time know what that means: QuickTakes.

Independent RTS Game of the Year: Slashdot had a link to an article on GameTunnel.com - their list of the top ten indepently programmed computer games of 2004. Only one of them was a classic real-time strategy game, a fairly new (November) release called I of the Enemy by Enemy Technology. I'm glad I saw this link, because just from the first three missions of the free demo I'm getting the feeling of the same depth of acting and storytelling we got in Starcraft (and, to my taste, not in Starcraft's comparatively mediocre sequel). I'm going to agree so far with GameTunnel.com's reviewer: the voice work so far is just amazing.

I see I'm not the only one who thinks so. Also courtesy of Slashdot, I was referred to GamePro.com's list of the 20 worst things to happen to the entire computer gaming industry in 2004, and the god-awful nightmarish train wreck that Sony made out of Star Wars: Galaxies made #11 on the list. In fact, from GamePro's news coverage, they managed to make it worse in ways even I hadn't heard of, and GamePro claims that you can see the result on the servers: no population to speak of, and player-run shops emtpy of both customers and merchandise. SWG is turning out to be the final proof of Richard Bartle's contention that the real problem with MMPORGs is not the companies, but the players -- because almost every change that happened to that game was something that a big bunch of players lobbied for, and that Sony ordered, over the objections of the game's original designers and the game's original fan base. (You watch: they'll probably do the same things to World of Warcraft over the next six months, too. Unless Blizzard shows unusually strong will, it'll become a victim of its own marketing success.)

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." I've been meaning to link to this article in the context of a bigger article on the evils of kleptocracy, but since that article's nowhere near done, let me point you to this interersting short retrospective that was in Yahoo News back on December 10th: "'Chinatown' Makers Recall How Classic Made." For the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the film, several of the cast and crew gave a panel discussion in Hollywood on the subject of how such an amazingly different and just generally amazing classic film managed to get through the studio system. (For reasons intuitively obvious to the most casual observer, the director Roman Polanski was not present.) The short answer is that it wasn't easy, that everybody at Paramount hated the movie, period, and only let it go through in the award-winning form it did because at the time, director Roman Polanski and lead actor Jack Nicholson had enough status and enough clout to get their own way. But for me, the most interesting point was one I've always wondered about, and it turns out my guess was right. In a very real sense, Chinatown isn't fiction. Screenwriter Robert Towne said that the four main plot points of the movie: corrupt housing developments, the water wars in the LA basin, incest among the rich and powerful, and the then-systemic police corruption in Chinatown, were all based on real events he had learned about while working as a reporter in mob-controlled Los Angeles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I thought it might be. It's not an accident that nearly all of the best film noir and hard-boiled detective fiction is written by either ex-detectives like Dashiell Hammett or ex-reporters like Towne or Carl Hiassen. Unless you've had inside, behind the scenes access to what a genuinely corrupt city is really like, a real nightmare town, you just can't make this stuff up.

Speaking of corrupt cities, though. Thanks to the Arch City Chronicle web site for calling this to my attention: there's a new and absolutely amazing article on the east-side St. Louis strip-club industry, concentrating heavily on its organized crime heyday before the casinos went in back when I was a semi-regular in the 1980s. It was called "Fantasies Made Fresh" by Scott Eden and it appeared in, of all places, the latest issue of a British literature and news analysis magazine, basically a New Yorker immitator, called MaisssonNeuve. The absolute last place I ever expected to see the best analysis of organized crime and political corruption in Brooklyn IL and Washington Park IL was in a British magazine, but by the gods, there it is. (Unfortunately, it cuts off before it gets to the end.) I've been wanting to see something like this for a long time, because like anybody who reads the news obsessively, I've known for a long time that what the east side of St. Louis has in common with eastern mountain Kentucky, and with northern rural Louisiana, and with just about every single one of the poorest places on the planet, is that while there is actually no shortage of money, including charitable giving and federal and state anti-poverty grants, going into those places, the problem is that just about every single penny of it is stolen by corrupt city officials, with almost no objection from the locals who seem to always think that either there's nothing that can be done about it, or that eventually it'll be their turn.

I'm not going to say that there's no corruption in richer, more successful places, regions, cities, countries. What I am going to say is that those places still have two things that totally corrupt places like LA in the 1940s and Hazard in the 1980s and metro-east St. Louis now don't have. First of all, in the successful places, corrupt political officials and their victims share a sense that it's morally wrong to steal. And perhaps not unrelated, to go back to a subject I wrote about when I first started this journal and Enron was in the news ("Kipling on Enron" and "C. Wright Mills (1959) on Enron, and What Kipling Has to Do With It, and What It Has to Do With Me"), they knew that there's a limit to how much you can steal before you kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.