Todd Martens

Oct. 25, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved’ plays with remix culture

Utilizing only touch controls, "Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved" allows participants to play with colorful environments. (Harmonix/Disney)
THE PLAYER Walt Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia” opens with a series of bold, inventive proclamations. Audiences are welcomed to a “new form of entertainment,” one in which the animation isn’t afraid to veer toward the abstract and the music isn’t concerned with what’s on the charts. But as the British narrator early in the new “Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved” says, “Let’s see how you handle something a little more contemporary.” Words that sent a shiver down the spine of this stubborn “Fantasia” loyalist. Indeed, the first voice we hear in “Fantasia: Music Evolved,” a just-released interactive interpretation of the experimental but venerable brand, is that of Lady Gaga. This is dangerous territory. Beethoven is timeless, but “Applause” is already dated, its glittery melodic tendrils firmly gripping 2013. Of course, those who own the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One are […]
Oct. 18, 2014 | 7:00 a.m.

Slam the door on the hate from ‘gamergate’

Anita Sarkeesian
THE PLAYER On a recent Tuesday evening, more than 50 current and former students of USC’s game design program gathered to talk video games. Student projects were shown and critiqued, but soon students were debating what it means to be labeled a “social justice warrior,” a suddenly trendy term in the video game world thanks to the ongoing battle in the player population known as “gamergate.” Consider gamergate an ownership tug-o-war. Do games belong to their growing audience, or will a broader reach destroy all that’s pleasurable about them — the sex, violence and profanity? You know, the fun. But framing gamergate as only a debate is too kind. From the moment the term emerged as a hashtag in mid-August, it was ugly, messy and convoluted. Female game designers and critics who spoke out about the medium’s future experienced harassment, […]
Oct. 13, 2014 | 8:23 p.m.

IndieCade wrap-up: Amid ‘gamergate’ storm, a bold new game world rises

Game designer Daphny Drucilla plays "How Do You Do It?" from Nina Freeman, Emmett Butler, Jonathan Kittaka and Deckman Coss at IndieCade. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
THE PLAYER Imagine, perhaps, you’re a die-hard football fan. Now imagine someone comes along and says, “Hey, football isn’t so smart. It can be played better, team names don’t have to offend an entire community, and what’s with all the abuse scandals?” Maybe you don’t react too kindly to the suggestion that your Redskins should change names. Maybe you’re offended that the game you’ve held dear since childhood is facing criticism. A similar theory was recently applied to video games at IndieCade, the gaming conference and festival that concluded its seventh year over the weekend in downtown Culver City. It went something like this: While big-budget games with guns still rule, independent developers are opening up new avenues with games that tackle police brutality, explore the perils of dementia and address the difficult conversations parents have — or don’t have […]
Oct. 10, 2014 | 12:55 p.m.

IndieCade pushes gaming industry buttons by promoting alternatives

THE PLAYER Gaming culture today stands at a crossroads. Games are regularly being studied and critiqued as the cultural force they’ve long claimed to be, and some in the community aren’t reacting well, to put it mildly, to the newfound microscope. Those attempting to intellectualize the medium — “social justice warriors,” as they’ve been labeled by their online disparagers — are portrayed as destroying all that’s been great about the medium, namely obscene violence, scantily clad women and the idea that games are for play and not social commentary. Granted, interactive entertainment is still a relatively young medium and therefore one not immune to struggling with issues of maturity. But credit the annual IndieCade festival, now in its seventh year this weekend in Culver City, for its part in slowly leading the community into adulthood. IndieCade has long been a […]
Oct. 04, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘Alien: Isolation’ review: Ripley’s daughter plays solitary to the hilt

Players control Amanda Ripley in "Alien: Isolation." (Creative Assembly / Sega)
THE PLAYER Though she’s long considered one of the great cinematic heroes, Ellen Ripley has generally been a forgettable one when it comes to video games. Steely in her beliefs yet unafraid to show emotion and a friend to felines, the character made famous by Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” films possesses as much thoughtfulness as action-star bullheadedness. It’s a combustible cocktail of very human emotional traits that until recently were not easily translated into action video games. But is it any wonder the video game industry has struggled to turn “Alien,” especially the 1979 sci-fi horror film of the same name from Ridley Scott, into a notable game? After all, it’s a story in which firing a gun at the enemy, one that bleeds corrosive acid, is essentially suicide. So guns, the favored weapon for nearly all interactive heroes, […]
Sept. 27, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘Smarter Than You’ is a battle of wits, arrows, swords and lies

A look at the animation and rules of mobile game "Smarter Than You." (EightyEight Games)
THE PLAYER The very name of the game is like a glove slapped across the face. “Smarter Than You,” released this week for Apple’s mobile devices, is a taunt and a challenge. Bold words for a game that, on the surface, is essentially a virtual match of rock-paper-scissors. And yet “Smarter Than You,” a free game with a minimalistic presentation that asks little of its players, manages to carve its way into a rather complex psychological head space. That’s because it’s partly a game about the little ways in which we casually lie — to strangers, friends and loved ones. So maybe, depending on your level of cynicism, “Smarter Than You” is also a game about the ways in which we communicate. “You don’t have to tell the truth,” the game tells us in its opening tutorial, spelling out what […]
Sept. 13, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘Destiny’ review: Mars is lovely; too bad about the war

Spaceflight over Mars in "Destiny." (Bungie / Activision)
THE PLAYER The opening moments of “Destiny” are mesmerizing. It’s a Mars landing, complete with sparkling views of our galaxy and crystallized red space dust. It’s a vision that looks lifted straight from photographs sent in by NASA’s Curiosity rover. It’s immediately inviting — optimistic, even. This is “present day” Mars, the game tells us, and considering that manned spaceflight isn’t a top legislative priority anymore, watching an astronaut leave a footprint on the surface of Mars is a reminder that a venture into the unknown can be downright inspiring. Then out come the rifles. What’s the fun, apparently, in looking for life on Mars if we can’t kill it? For all the innovation and sci-fi-meets-fantasy overtures here, “Destiny” ultimately doesn’t feel all that futuristic. It’s a refinement, rather than a reinvention, of the dominant video game genre on home […]
Sept. 06, 2014 | 5:00 a.m.

Gamergate-related controversy reveals ugly side of gaming community

Noted pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian has been the target of online harassment. Above, a screengrab of one of her video critiques of the game industry on site Feminist Frequency. (http://www.feministfrequency.com/)
THE PLAYER This column is usually dedicated to discussing video games, but in the past week and a half, you’d be forgiven for not having the stomach to play one. I haven’t. Infighting, finger-pointing and the airing of dirty laundry have dominated the late summer in video games. For those who have played an online multiplayer game, this may sound like any other day in video games. But it’s not. Now the attacks are so threatening in nature that even the FBI has taken notice. A long-simmering schism among select, very vocal members of the gaming community and others in the industry has come to the fore over the last two weeks, resulting in unprecedented levels of death threats and harassment directed at game designers and writers — many of them women. This is not, to be clear, some trash-talking […]
Aug. 30, 2014 | 7:00 a.m.

’80 Days': Jules Verne-inspired game brings a more global perspective

Travel by land, by sea and even mechanical horse in mobile adventure "80 Days/" (Inkle)
THE PLAYER Back in grade school, I proposed doing a book report on “Gold Rush!” — a computer game first released in the late ’80s. My teacher thought I was trying to pull a fast one. Yet the truth of the matter is “Gold Rush!” contained more text and actual history than the heavily illustrated dinosaur book I chose instead. But the dinosaur sketches were encased in binding. “Gold Rush!” had disks. There was a day when the most popular games were essentially interactive novels — point, click, read and type. That day was killed by the first-person shooter, which ushered in an era during which the most dominant of games were competitive and reflex-based. But there’s good news for those who believe a written sentence is more powerful than digital bullets or the ability for players to hijack a […]
Aug. 23, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘Hohokum': All the braver for ignoring gaming conventions

The emphasis is on exploration in "Hohokum." (Honeyslug / Sony Santa Monica)
THE PLAYER Deep within dating site OkCupid, there’s a question that treats video games as child’s play. “Would you be willing to date someone who plays video games almost every day, for at least 2 hours?” Two hours may seem excessive for our time-crunched lives, but there’s an underlying implication that the above activity is perhaps a bit weird — a potential red flag about anyone otherwise considered a full-fledged adult. Although the video game industry doesn’t do itself any favors, what with tolerating the boorish behavior of its online communities and relying on games that emphasize gun play, there’s no denying that this is a mainstream medium that still carries a stigma. But the OkCupid question did hit a chord. There are times when even I feel embarrassed about my accruing games knowledge. It’s the moment, for instance, when […]
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