Sunday, November 28, 2010

Let's play dress up

Wearin' her wig hat and shades to match/ She's got high-heel shoes and an alligator hat/ Wearin' her pearls and her diamond rings/ She's got bracelets on her fingers, now, and everything/ She's the devil with the blue dress, blue dress, blue dress,/ Devil with the blue dress on
Mitch Ryder and the Detroit

I think that playing Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies was the first time I've ever really understood why little girls like to dress up their dolls. Whenever you get a new piece of equipment, you can put it on your character, and it changes the 3D model of them on the screen. It can give them an entirely different appearance, and is one of the many charming, simple elements of the game.

Let me give you some examples. Since the DS doesn't allow you to take screen captures, these were done the old fashioned way, with a digital camera, so you can see some screen lines. But they're still good illustrations. Here's the avatar I used as the main character in the game:

When you start, you choose your basic appearance. I chose a silver mohawk and large eyes for this character. You can see he looks pretty intimidating with his sword and shield and powerful armor. But I can also dress him up in a spear with bright red clothing and give him a crown and different type of shield and gloves:

Here's another example, how another of the characters I designed looks in two different outfits. Obviously in one she's wearing a skirt and breastplate, and in the other robes. While she has the same headband and shield, notice her footwear is different.

Seriously, this dress-up thing is addictive. For some time, I left my character in a Flamenco Shirt rather than slightly better armor, because how cool is it that someone would go out fighting dragons and mummies in a shirt normally worn on a dance floor? At another point, I found out that it would be possible to outfit my characters with cat ears, if I went searching for certain hard-to-find components to build them. I spent quite some time searching. My goal had been to outfit my martial artist with cat-ears to complement the cat-tail fan she was wielding, but it turned out they were a bad fit for her powers, so I gave them to the blue-haired priest shown above. 

So, besides a fashion simulator, what is Dragon Quest IX? It's a computer roleplaying game on the DS. As the number implies, there have been eight previous ones, in Japan at least. Not all were released in North America, and this is the first one I've played. Now I'm debating whether to track others down.

DQIX, as I mentioned above, is made of a lot of simple components. If you've ever played a CRPG before, you know the formula: go on quests to help villagers, fight monsters, collect treasures, go up in levels, improve skills, and defeat the big bad monster that threatens the world.  But it wraps this basic formula in a very, very polished shell:

  • The music is simple and catchy. While there's much to be said for clever, elaborate scores in video games, I found myself humming the background tunes to DQIX several times over the last few weeks. Similarly, the graphics have a charming, cartoonish quality. Wikipedia and fan sites tell me that the same composer and animator have been in charge of the series since the beginning, and I can see there's a unity to it. The monsters are all in the same sill style.
  • Someone put a lot of work into the translation. People in different towns talk with completely different mannerisms, sounding suspiciously like Australians, Cockneys, Welsh and a bunch of other different nationalities. The monsters' names are often bad puns: you might face a Meowgician (cat-sorcerer, obviously), Scarewolf,  or Coolcumber (a vegetable with an attitude).
  • The mechanics are pretty easy to follow. With one exception, there's no need to read the manual (though it may provide some helpful tips). And that exception -- the exact effect of different attributes -- is pretty self explanatory, though I wouldn't have figured out the difference between Agility and Deftness on my own. But everything else is pretty easy to follow. When you level up, the only choice you sometimes have to make is how to assign skill points, and it's done in a really straightforward manner. If you've played games with weird webs of special skills and abilities that are never properly explained, this is a pleasant relief. Similarly, the combat options are pretty straightforward -- do you attack, defend, cast a spell or use a special ability? Who is the target of your decision?
  • The longest cut scenes last two, maybe three minutes. Many games are horrible with cut scenes. The worst example I've encountered -- and I am not making this up -- is Xenosaga. There, you'd play a level for about 15, 20 minutes, then it would ask if you wanted to save, then it would show you an hour long non-interactive cut scene. Then it would ask if you'd like to save again. Then you'd play five more minutes before getting yet another hour long cut scene. If I wanted to watch a movie, I'd get a movie.
As a combination of the last two, it's a game which is always moving. If you're in a fight that's boring, you can probably finish it in 30 seconds and get on to exploring for a hidden treasure grove or finding the iron ore you need to make a magic boomerang, because you want to see how your Sage would look if she was holding a boomerang instead of a bow.

Summary: If you're interested in an RPG for the DS, this is a good choice whether you're a hardcore fan of the genre or not (though since it's been available in the US for months, and was available as a Japanese import before then, you probably own it if you're a hardcore fan. It's also a great choice if you want a game where you get to choose your characters' outfits in detail, and don't mind killing monsters along the way.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Art Detective

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

The Art Detective is one of the most compelling collection of mysteries I have read in the last few years. Its tales are thrilling despite the lack of murder, violence, or even theft (with one possible, indirect, exception). And the fact that unlike most detective stories, these are non-fiction.

Philip Mould's website, if you're interested in acquiring British portraits
The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures, by Philip Mould is exactly what the name says, stories of how people in the art world examine paintings and decide whether it's a genuine article or a cheap imitation. Since these works can sell for millions of dollars, this is a serious market.

The Art Detective tells stories of how Mould and others make special finds, and demonstrate their authenticity. 

This is surprisingly gripping, and more than money might be at stake. The proper authentication can lead history books to be rewritten, literally. Historian David Starkey revealed that a painting everyone assumed had been of Lady Jane Grey (sometimes called the "Nine Day Queen," a claimant to the throne after the death of Edward VI) was actually one of Henry VIII's wives, because of the jewelry she was wearing. That picture had been a standard in English text books.

As Mould tells it, finding the authenticity of a picture is a combination of intuition and research. There's a difference between the work of a master and an imitator that anyone versed in the work can feel. In one chapter, "The Norman Rockwell Hoax," he tells of a Rockwell painting that everyone knew had to be authentic. Rockwell had sold it to a friend, whose children had given it to a museum to put on display. But many of the people who saw it were bothered for some reason. They chalked this up to the possibility the canvas had been damaged when it was shipped to an international exhibit, damaging the vibrancy of the work. As the title suggests, there was a much better reason it didn't feel like it was painted by the master of Americana. But intuition isn't enough. Modern science lets art experts determine the age of a pigment and frame, details of what had been painted over, and other things essential to proving a piece is genuine.

Once an artist is finished with a painting, that doesn't mean the picture will stay in the same condition forever. In the late 19th and early 20th century, when there was a vogue in America for classic paintings, many tried to to touch up the details that had faded due to smoke and dust accumulating on the varnish. Then, to hide their touch-ups, they had to paint over parts of the picture where something looked incongruous. The subtle details a master might place on the folds of clothing or clumps of trees became streaks of black or green. Sometimes it was even the artists themselves who "ruined" a work. Rembrandt, who made his living as an art dealer as well as a painter, often had his apprentices repaint his works that weren't selling, turning artistic self portraits into something that might move faster. (Rembrandt, by the way, painted wonderful self portraits. I remember seeing one in the Frick Gallery in New York City a few years ago. He looked both prosperous and extremely sad.)

Also, as Mould notes at some points in the book, a lot of information needed to determine a painting's history isn't available on Google. Trying to track the authenticity of different works took him from library archives where one of a few known copiers of a work existed to small towns in Vermont to Nassau in the Bahamas. Other researchers had to parse everything from bizarre 18th century banking records and speeches Queen Elizabeth I delivered to the House of Lords.

Each story is mesmerizing. Perhaps that's to be expected. In The Art Detective, you travel around the world, deal with works worth millions of dollars, and get a taste of both the big picture of history and intimate family moments.

While this book is factual, I feel like I'd be giving away too much to go into details of his finds. But here are a few teasers:

  • How the author wound up in the middle of Vermont in a snowstorm, and how he found a collection worth millions by a man who hated to spend money on anything.
  • How the author discovered a work he thought could be an early Gainsborough even though it was attributed to a different artist; and how it helped reinterpret that landscape painter's early life. Also, this story had a moment which made me feel so sorry for Mould and his hard work in making this discovery.
  • Why generations refused to believe that a picture was by Rembrandt when it turned out the be the genuine article.
  • How paintings can suggest details of the love life of royalty. 
  • A classic Antiques Roadshow story where a find made while on a fishing trip turns out to be worth a fortune.