IPE Entertainment Picks During Holiday 2009/10

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 1/01/2010 10:22:00 AM
I've been intending to write this post for the longest time but have been waylaid by the subject matter here. Typically, it's only during the holidays when I get the chance to relax a bit and try out entertainment choices that would otherwise consume an otherwise ungodly amount of time. That is, maxing out on video games throughout the year is not advisable for an early career academic. Nevertheless, I bring you news that the latest cream of the entertainment crop with a loosely-defined IPE theme is compelling enough to eat up significant chunks of time if you're not careful. These choices may not be to everyone's liking as video games with IPE themes tend to be on the violent side. Then again, I cannot choose our favourite The Sims 3 as an IPE-related entertainment. It's sad Wii Get Huge is just a parody, too.

With those caveats, this blog's IPE entertainment recommendations follow in order:

1. Nixon in China (Colorado Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop; Music by John Adams; Libretto by Alice Goodman): This opera's portrayal of the titular event has often struck me as unique in American entertainment. Instead of pantomime heroes and villains so typical of Hollywood fare, we get nuanced interpretations of some of the most important characters in modern history: Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Chairman Mao, and Zhou En-Lai. Pat Nixon and the rather berserk Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) make star turns as well. Some may laugh about official PRC doctrine that now says Mao was "70% good and 30% bad." Quibble with the percentage breakdown if you will, but this is a distinctly Asian worldview. As psychologists would tell you, Westerners' cognitive systems are marked by categorization: "free trader" or "anti-globalizer"; "capitalist" or "socialist" and so forth. Westerners make these binaries up; think of Bushian you're either with us or with the terrorists.

Nixon in China, in contrast, presents a more realistic viewpoint of persons having shades of light and darkness in the Eastern cognitive tradition. For instance, while Nixon is often remembered as a political opportunist, opening up to China was politically costly for him. Yet, he did it for the simple reason that he thought it the proper thing to do (warts and all). These nuances come across better in this newer recording of Nixon in China on the budget classical label Naxos than on the older Nonesuch recording conducted by Edo de Waart. The recording quality is better, allowing you to follow the libretto more closely. As before, the accompanying music is top notch, making for a nearly flawless three and a half hours of entertainment. Important events and flawed characters who nonetheless had their share of virtues set to song and dance makes for compelling listening.

Don't just take my word for it, though. Classics Today gives the recording top scores for sound and performance. It's a must-have at an affordable price.

2. Empire Total War (The Creative Assembly): Much has already been said about Sid Meier's Civilization franchise of turn-based video games from a sociological standpoint. Indeed, you can make the case that Civilization games have more of an IPE-ish flavour given possibilities for cultural and commercial instead of just military victory conditions. However, my riposte is that the record of history--particularly that covered in most video games--suggests that military might was the backbone of empire building. Empire Total War is the most accomplished and ambitious of the Creative Assembly releases. Aside from the usual intricate battlefield management, new features include detailed sea battles and more attention paid to economic management for you IPE junkies. Establishing trade treaties and routes as well as building commercial vessels are among the things you now oversee in building an empire. Imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery. Unlike the Civilization series, however, we all know where silver and gold go in a title called "Total War."

The impetus for me trying this title out was to test our new computer system. Our old one conked out after five years of service--a Pentium IV is rather obsolete and it just gave up the ghost recently. To put our new Intel i5 750-based system through its paces, what better than to run 2009's finest strategy title? Rest assured that the visuals and sound are top-notch even if the historical details tend to become a bit muddled as they usually do in video games. Online review site Metacritic compiles an average score for Empire total War of 90. If you're looking to waste time by the bucketloads, make sure your PC is up to snuff before getting into the mood for world domination.

3. BioShock (Take-Two Interactive): Yes, it's not only a first-person shooter but also a title that came out not in 2009 but in 2007. However, BioShock makes an interesting social commentary in what would otherwise be a mindless shoot 'em up for it serves up a healthy dose of Ayn Rand's Objectivism in its story line. Here, the sunken city of Rapture is portrayed as a capitalist utopia that has self-destructed. (Sort of like Wall Street circa 2008 but I digress.) The founder of Rapture is Andrew Ryan (a semi-anagram for Ayn Rand), and it is in this godforsaken hellhole many leagues below the sea that you will play out this adventure.

Video game designer Ken Levine's counterfactual is, what would Randian characters be if they were more true to life? Levine views Randian protagonists as impossibly flawless in their novelized iterations. Here, a capitalist utopia gone bad in the cornerstone for the city of Rapture. As for the game itself, there's a morality story here that video games don't often contain. All the while, the graphics are absolutely top-notch with their Art Deco-era paradise gone awry theme. If you can stomach the usual video game violence, the storyline here is as compelling as the gaming experience. And that's something that's not usually said. Video game critics gave Bioshock an average score of 96 when it came out and it remains unsurpassed in many respects. As the entrance before you submerge reads, "NO GODS OR KINGS. ONLY MAN." Another in-game message is "The parasite hates three things: free markets, free will, and free men."

4. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks): Honourable mention goes to this 2008 title. IMHO, post-apocalyptic titles have drawn too much already from the Doom and Half-Life franchises and this one is no exception. Fallout 3 is set in post-nuclear war Washington, DC. As the game developer is from the DC area, there's some real detail to be found. While America's capital is currently infested with Cheneynomic heretics, its Mad Max-ish version is here filled with giant Radroaches and fire ants (radiated pests) among others. I've always thought it better if someone came up with a movie or video game where radiation-resistant lorded it over humans, but this title will have to do for now. Alike BioShock, there are interesting moral dilemmas served up in addition to the usual blood and gore. instead of an Art Deco motif, this game has a forties-to-fifties theme alike previous Fallout titles.

Be warned though that I've found Fallout 3 to be somewhat more demanding on the PC than either Empire Total War or BioShock. Nevertheless, it's interesting speculation as to how the political economy of a postwar environment would be like that's on offer here. This title is yet another gaming critic's darling, earning an average score of 91.

So there you have it. If you're at all interested in opera or video games, these go to the top of the pile. As for me, it's back to mostly work in a couple of days...and not a minute too soon.