2016: Updates, Highlights, & Hopes

So . . . this is awkward. I created this little space. I promised to talk with (at) you weekly, often about things you previously had not heard or cared about. And then I ghosted you. Disappeared without so much as a tweet. Granted, I think there may only be two people who actually read this. But that’s not the point. The three of us were having a great time, and then I went MIA, so for that, I do sincerely apologize. This blog is always on my mind. I am constantly thinking of things I want to write for it because I have an ambitious imagination. Unfortunately, the rest of me is a lazy procrastinator so I keep telling myself, “when X is over, I’ll start writing regularly again.”

Anyway, I am back because I figured, if anything, I could at least scrape together one pop culture rant for 2016, as I know my two readers have been clamoring for. Wait, the one guy left? Really? Ok, well for you, my dear sweet reader, I have whipped something up. A little bit of looking back at it (hi, 2015), some gabbing about this year, and a look forward to the next. It is in list form, because everyone loves lists. It will not involve Overwatch or La La Land because I have decided and I have that power. And as always, I will be spoiling all the things so…you’ve been warned. Enjoy!

First of all, at the end of 2015 I left a little list of things I was excited to check out, so let’s revisit that:

  • Tales from the Borderlands – I played this and it was AMAZING! Highly recommend it, even if you haven’t played Borderlands or Borderlands 2. It’s the best executed episodic game I’ve experienced to date.
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider – I still haven’t played this y’all. I don’t know what is wrong with me. Well, graduate school is severely cramping my gaming style. But still, there is no excuse for this.
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – This game was absolutely fine. I liked the option to play as Evie, even if it’s clear Jacob is the intended protagonist and Evie mostly gets side missions, and Ubisoft incorporated a more diverse cast of characters this time around. However, AC has never been my cup of tea gameplay-wise, and this entry in the series didn’t change that, nor do I think it intended to.
  • Etc. – I also listed some films and tv shows that I either didn’t get around to watching or didn’t have strong feelings about once I finished them, so let’s skip ahead.

How does 2016 compare? Personally, I did not find as many games compelling this year as I did in 2015. This is due in part to the fact that I still do not own a PS4 and missed out on things like Firewatch and Uncharted 4 (I know, I know). I also read a record low of three non-school-related books in the past 12 months, which is just embarrassing. On the other hand, this year was a great one for me and my old buddies television and cinema. However, in keeping with tradition, I’m mixing many different forms of entertainment together for this list. So without further adieu, here are my standouts of 2016 in no particular order:

moana

Source: Disney

Moana
Where do I even start to list the things I loved about animated picture Moana? We could begin with the soundtrack, which was not just catchy and clever (see: “You’re Welcome”), but also touching and robust enough to carry the story forward thanks to America’s musical sweetheart Lin Manuel Miranda. Or we could talk about the ingenious casting: Jemaine Clement is amazing as villainous crab Tamatoa and Dwayne Johnson is the perfect combination of obnoxious and charming as demigod Maui. I could point out that this film came from the same creative team as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, my three Disney favorites, so it’s no surprise we all adored it. But what feels most significant and influential is the fact that Polynesian writers, actors, historians, and cultural consultants were involved in each step of production. Rather than appropriating indigenous culture for white stories or casting white actors as characters of color, the team took their time with design, listened to and addressed criticism, and made space for Polynesian artists to tell their own stories. This includes casting the unknown Auli’i Cravalho as Moana, who holds her own among a slew of big names and may or may not have made me cry.

stranger-things-netflix

Source: Netflix

Stranger Things
Some shows are sleeper hits, some create big hype but ultimately disappoint you. And then there are the series that feel like they were meticulously designed in a lab to incorporate your every interest and play on your every feeling. Stranger Things is the latter. I was almost mad I enjoyed it so much because I could tell it was birthed by Netflix from our nostalgia-driven remake culture straight into our binge-watching living rooms. But it was incredibly well done! From the title sequence to the score to the story itself, everything was expertly crafted and fit together seamlessly. And while still a very white and male-driven affair, the incorporation of nuanced female characters like Eleven, Nancy, and Joyce put the show a few steps ahead of some of the beloved 80s and 90s films that influenced it. I am more than a little excited to watch the adventure continue in 2017, although I will pour one out for Barb.

arrival-paramount

Source: Paramount

Arrival
I am not always a fan of remakes. For every True Grit or Hairspray (the 2007 film, not the recently televised musical), there’s a garbage fire like The Women or a nightmarish revival like Fuller House. But what I delight in is a good adaptation, like the film Brokeback Mountain or one of my 2015 book-to-screen faves The Martian. And Arrival has joined that list, transforming a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang into an uplifting sci-fi adventure film that is at times predictable, but always thoroughly enjoyable. While the insect-like aliens, the time magic, and the gun-toting generals may feel familiar, director Denis Villeneuve manages to make the revelation of first contact feel fresh and genuinely urgent, and Amy Adams plays her role with more than enough charm and conviction for you to buy her as the unifying force who will somehow manage to save us all. Although you will probably figure out the twists early on, the steady pacing and great digital effects mean you don’t really mind. And the lit major in me loves the way the film treats language.

westworld-hbo

Source: HBO

Westworld
Did I mention I’m into adaptations right now? Okay, great, well the new HBO series Westworld blew most of the other adaptations I love, including Arrival, out of the water. (I know, I said I wasn’t gonna rank things, but look, there are no numbers on this list). They took a campy 1973 Michael Crichton film that wasn’t bad and turned it into a suspenseful, thought-provoking, and relentless ten episode arc. The pilot sends your mind spinning with theories about who these hosts and newcomers are, but as you continue watching and build your expectations around common science fiction tropes, working to identify the heroes and villains, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy pull the robot rug out from under you. Yes, I did call that there would be a “this staff member is actually a robot” reveal. And yes, I certainly had my doubts about whether they could pull the season together as things progressed. But man did I find the end of this season surprising and incredibly satisfying! Not to mention this show is serving Wild West realness with characters of color and women at the forefront. Granted there are still a lot of weird racial politics around the native robots cast as villains within the park narratives, and I hope they touch on that a bit in the next season. I’m also wondering what class looks like in the “real world” of Westworld since apparently tons of people can drop $40,000 a day to visit an amusement park? But I think the fact that each of these episodes was over 60 minutes long is indicative of how much quality story material the writers were working with this year. The next season won’t premiere until 2018, which is a painfully long wait, but hopefully gives them enough space to whip up a second season with just as much nuance and momentum as the first.

dishonored-bethesda

Source: Bethesda

Dishonored (1 & 2)
With a vast array of games coming out monthly, and many a semester of higher education under my belt, I have quite a backlog I’m working through on my breaks along with the new releases I try to tackle as they arrive. This means some games slip through the cracks, like Dishonored. However, the release of the sequel this year motivated me to finally finish it and my only regret is that I didn’t crack it open a few years earlier. While I can get down with games like Tomb Raider that lead you down a fairly linear path, there’s nothing I love more than a game where I experience a feeling of freedom (albeit an illusory freedom bounded by game mechanics). In 2015, I was all about the choice-based episodic game, which can capture that choose your own adventure vibe but is limited by its structure and length. But what Dishonored does well, and Dishonored 2 does even better, is allow you to shape everything from your character build to your approach to quests to your dialogue. Your choice is not merely do I stab or shoot this guy, but instead, how do I send my message? There are many combinations of stealth, diplomacy, and violence you can deploy in each game, and the magic of the second installment is that it feels fresh, even played immediately after the first. Yet both games ground you in the (not incredibly original, but sufficiently entertaining) narrative, preventing these choices from feeling overwhelming the way some open-world games can. And where the original game had you playing as supernatural assassin Corvo, the sequel gives you an additional choice: to play as his daughter, Emily, which I did of course. Not only does Dishonored 2 offer a female protagonist, it also improves and diversifies its portrayal of women across the board, including providing a female antagonist Emily fights against. The game’s thematic exploration of politics and morality also feel particularly relevant in the aftermath of the different elections of 2016. Together, the two were hands down my favorite gaming experience of the year.

That was a lot of words, so I am going to wrap this up, but first here are a few things coming up in 2017 that I have to share my excitement about:

  • The Lego Batman Movie – It’s just so damn cute.
  • Mass Effect Andromeda – OMGITSFINALLYHAPPENING!!!
  • Horizon Zero Dawn – Sounds like I’ll have to finally drop the cash on a PS4…
  • Big Little Lies – HBO, Shailene Woodley, and drama. Sounds like a good combination to me!

Although as the memes point out, time is a rather arbitrary system we humans have invented, I think many people agree 2016 has been an intense year. Weird climate stuff continues . . . numerous prominent scientists, performers, and public figures have passed away . . . violence and xenophobia are rampant globally and the number of refugees continues to grow. But we keeping producing art and culture, which can serve as a helpful distraction, a reflection of the time, or a prediction or hope for the future. I can’t say I know what the next year will bring, culturally or otherwise, but if nothing else, I hope this blog post brings you a little bit of happiness during what can be a difficult time of year for many. And I will see you, lone reader, again in no more than 12 months.

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Highlights of 2015

blog photo
After a lengthy and unplanned, but personally productive hiatus (slogged through graduate school applications and played a LOT of Fallout), I am back to wrap up 2015 and put a bow on it. This year saw the release of a number of highly-anticipated games, films, books, and television shows as well as plenty of surprise hits and a few disappointments. As just one person with highly subjective opinions, I will not be attempting any kind of top ten list or ranking system. There are so many wonderful pieces of media out there that it would be absurd for me to even pretend I could evaluate them all. But I am a big fan of taking time to look back and wallow in nostalgia, so I decided to talk about some of my personal highlights of 2015 as they relate to nerd culture and this blog.

In no particular order, here were some of my favorite moments of the past year:

Master of None
While not sci-fi, fantasy, or fairytale, Aziz Ansari’s single-camera sitcom about the experience of Dev, an Indian American actor in New York City, has plenty to offer for film-nerds and pop culture connoisseurs. The cinematography and soundtrack call back to 1970s American films, and the scripts/dialogue take some cues from Richard Linklater (whom I love), but Aziz Ansari’s contemporary content, diverse casting, and willingness to address social issues help the show feel fresh. Each episode focuses on a different ‘topic’ ranging from family relationships to racism to sexism to long-term romantic relationships, and each except the last two are directed by a different person. The show is consistently funny throughout its first season and its surprising and somewhat risky finale only makes me more excited to see where it goes from here.

Life is Strange
Since this blog was inactive until midway through Life is Strange’s episodic release, I was only really able to talk about episode 5 here so far, and what I did say about it was highly critical. But this was easily my favorite game of 2015 if only because of the emotional impact it had on me. Although I’d played Remember Me, Dontnod and Life is Strange weren’t really on my radar in January, a friend recommended this game to me and I was immediately hooked. The sci-fi premise, artistically rendered environments, and well-curated soundtrack drew me in but it was the authenticity of the Chloe and Max, and the nuanced performances by their voice actors Ashly Burch and Hannah Telle, that kept me hooked. While the pacing, puzzles, and dialogue missed the mark at times, moments like breaking into the school and going for a swim with Chloe or playing detective in her room were a pleasure to play. For all its eccentricities and missteps, Life is Strange was one of the most compelling games of 2015, as its passionate fans who spent months speculating, theorizing, and creating art and follow-up projects can attest to.

SXSW Gaming Expo
This was my second year attending the SXSW Gaming Expo in Austin and it was just as entertaining and content-packed this time as in 2014. The indie game corner is my favorite portion, but the panels were interesting and the table-top area is really fun; they’ll teach you games like Magic the Gathering if you’re a first-timer or you can play competitively if you’re experienced. You can try Oculus Rift/VR if you haven’t had a chance, and explore exhibits of older game and computer technology. I almost didn’t want to mention the event here since it is one of the only Austin-based festival activities that isn’t horrendously crowded, one of the coolest conferences/expos/game things I’ve attended, and totally free, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge it as one of my favorite parts of 2015. Plus, in case I haven’t mentioned it 12,000 times, I met Felicia Day!!!

The Martian
I have not read Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, and took my sweet time to see this movie, but I am so glad I did. I was less than impressed by both Interstellar and Gravity, but this film has earned a place in my list of favorite space movies. While the decision to cast non-asian actors in the roles of Vincent Kapoor and Mindy Park was very disappointing to me, and the tale of the sympathetic white man who the world saves/who saves the world has certainly already been told, The Martian was an engaging story with a diverse cast that emphasized the power of humanity to come together and use our knowledge and compassion to address incredibly complex issues, and that was something I appreciated. Rather than feeling dumbed down, sensationalized, or derailed by seemingly shoe-horned romances (although it does contain one of these), the film felt like it trusted and respected its audience. And Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis is probably as close as I’ll ever get to seeing FemShep on the big screen.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Speaking of space movies, the latest installment in the Star Wars saga was quite a satisfying one. While talking with people about this film before its release, I got the feeling that each of us was holding our breath, hoping that we wouldn’t be disappointed. Upon leaving the theater after watching the movie, I imagined a collective sigh of relief as we all realized J. J. Abrams actually did a really great job of rooting this film in the Star Wars tradition while opening up room for new chapters of the story to unfold. Nothing about the movie particularly surprised me, from the climactic battle to the binary of good and evil to who lived and who died, but it was quite refreshing to see beneath the Storm Trooper helmet to a black man, and to watch a woman inherit the Jedi legacy. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the story heads, and now that we’ve established that Star Wars can handle sequels and we can handle them, to the surprises I hope Episodes VIII and IX will bring.

And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the indie PC game Her Story (which I’ve written about pretty extensively on this blog), the choice-based horror for PS4 Until Dawn, the lovely Adventure Time mini-series Stakes, or the countless other 2015 productions that deserve a place on a highlights list.

There are also quite a few things from this year that I haven’t gotten to check out yet and am really looking forward to, like:

  • Tales from the Borderlands
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
  • It Follows
  • Carol
  • Sicario
  • Orphan Black Season 3

While I’d say we’re ending 2015 on quite a high note, I have a lot of catching up to do without even beginning to touch on all that next year will bring, so don’t be surprised if things stay a little quiet around here through the winter. The blog remains a priority of mine and I hope you guys will stick around as we continue reading, playing, and watching in 2016.

As always, thanks for reading! Your comments are welcome below. Happy holidays!

Review: Life is Strange Episode 5

Warning: this is a detailed and spoilerrific review of the finale of Life is Strange, so if you haven’t played the game yet, get outta here!

With Episode 5: Polarized, Dontnod has brought Max Caulfield’s time-traveling adventures to a close. Polarized runs a bit shorter than the other episodes, at only about two and a half hours of gameplay, which lines up with the fewer opportunities for exploration and branching dialogue it offers.

The episode opens with Max trapped in a storm bunker turned photo studio with her teacher Mr. Jefferson, a much darker beginning than in any other installment. As she regains consciousness, the player can look around and examine nearby items, eventually realizing that Max’s classmate Victoria is also tied up nearby.

But this is where gameplay diverges from previous episodes. Where, in previous episodes Max can explore the environment before moving on, Polarized gives you a single option: photo-travel out of here and leave Victoria in the horrific dark room/torture chamber. This narrative device is frustrating as it conflicts with opportunities Max has in this episode and others to aid other characters in danger.

Life-is-Strange-finale-review

Instead of grabbing Victoria and getting the hell out of that bunker, the developers give Max one choice: travel back a few hours to a drug-induced photo shoot. While a convenient progression for exposition’s sake, her jumping back and forth through photos of herself doesn’t allow for any exploration or organic discovery by the player.

In fact, it leads primarily to lots of talking, and unfortunately Jefferson’s initial expository monologue comes off as cheesy and out-of-character, playing off of stereotypes of mentally ill villains even though Jefferson claims later that he is totally sane and his clear-headed planning seems to reflect that. His speeches also play into the trope where the villain explains his reasoning to his victim in great detail.

Rather than showing us, the game wants to tell us what’s going on. These issues in the first minutes of gameplay reflect concerns many fans and critics alike have raised about the episode as a whole: that the cliche story elements and changes in play mechanics in the last episode do not do justice to the unique, ground-breaking game.

everyday heroes

In many scenes the player must move Max through motions that feel pointless at best and counter-productive at worst. Walking through a San Francisco gallery talking with artists has no urgency when all the characters and locations the player cares about are back in Arcadia Bay, yet shmooze we must if we want to progress in the story. Saving characters from harm on the way to Two Whales lacks meaning when Max plans to time travel away from that moment immediately after, yet the choices are reflected in the post-credits statistics.

The episode also spends a significant amount of its running time reminding the player of conversations and interactions Max has had in previous episodes. Audio is frequently re-used, but entire scenes from the game reappear as well, as in the maze sequence when Max relives every major moment she shared with Chloe.

That particular nostalgic slideshow provides much-needed relief from the trippy and disturbing mental odyssey Max has just been on, during which we see some of the most creative material of the last episode. The creepy classroom, entirely backwards scene, and endless hallway are all surprising and delightfully innovative yet emotionally difficult moments leading up to the climax of the game.

nosebleed

During that climax, Max finds herself at the lighthouse with Chloe once again and is confronted with her final choice. Max herself becomes convinced that the tornado is her fault and Chloe seems to agree, giving her an ultimatum of sorts: travel back to the start of it all to let Chloe die, or save Chloe and let the tornado ravage Arcadia Bay.

Understandably, this has not been a popular ending choice with everyone. In each episode, one of the game’s objectives (if not the central objective) has been saving Chloe. She’s the character players know the best besides Max, and even moments before this conversation, Max tells Chloe she is ‘all that matters.’ Letting her die just feels a little off, even if it is for a theoretical greater good.

For players who chose to pursue the romance between Chloe and Max, this conclusion also reinforces tropes around queer relationships in media like the Bury Your Gays trope, where the relationship ends in death for one or both people involved. Life is Strange has consistently received mixed reactions regarding its representation (or lack thereof) of queerness. While the end scene does confirm their relationship, it also leads to death regardless of Max’s choice.

max chloe tornado

Beyond that, when an ending choice is presented in a choice-based game, especially when it fundamentally changes the universe of the game or kills a majority of the game characters, many feel that it takes meaning away from previous player decisions. This is a challenge faced not just by Dontnod, but by the entire genre. Mass Effect 3 is infamous for its end choices, and Telltale is often taken to task for not integrating player’s choices into the closings of their games.

Dontnod undoubtedly faced obstacles wrapping up their story: they’re a small studio with a limited budget and a 6 – 8 week episode release timeline. Even though they took about twice that long on Polarized, Life is Strange’s gorgeous art style, intricate world-building, and unique characters deserved more time, space, and nuance than the episodic format afforded them.

This isn’t the first time I’ve wanted Dontnod to give a project more room to blossom–Remember Me’s beautifully designed world and intriguing story were held back by frustrating game mechanics and similar budget constraints. It feels safe to say that small studios like Dontnod deserve more freedom and financial support, that nuanced subject matter like that of Life is Strange should be treated with the utmost respect, and that choice-based games should not be shackled to the five episode arc if they have a greater story to tell.

It’s also probably safe to say that trusting our French friends to give us a happy ending is usually a mistake.

life is strange tornado

Thanks for reading! As always, your input is welcome in the comments.

Review: King’s Quest A Knight to Remember

While not an original King’s Quest adventurer, when I heard about the episodic King’s Quest reboot The Odd Gentlemen was working on, I knew immediately that I wanted to play it. A fantasy adventure game with beautiful graphics and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that is short enough I can play an episode in a night? That’s a pretty easy sell for me.

Set in the kingdom of Daventry, the game follows King’s Quest’s original protagonist Graham on his quest to become a knight and eventually king. Framing the story, we hear the elderly Graham telling his granddaughter Gwendolyn stories of his youth, a fitting homage to the similarly sharp-witted film The Princess Bride.

The game also shares an actor with the film–Wallace Shawn, who played Vizzini in The Princess Bride movie and video game–but features plenty of other celebrity voices as well. Christopher Lloyd plays old Graham, while Josh Keaton gives a charming performance as his young counterpart. While Gwendolyn’s young actor Maggie Elizabeth Jones and the voice of the blacksmith Zelda Wiliams both sounded wooden to me at times, Loretta Divine and Kevin Michael Richardson each had me laughing out loud due to their excellent delivery.

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Speaking of laughing, this game is full of puns, contributing to its goofy tone. Don’t let the game fool you though: this story is dark at times and does not shy away from heavy themes of violence and death. Even with its irreverence (or maybe because of it), gameplay showed traces of Crash Bandicoot and other games I played as a kid. Without being a KQ veteran, I still felt properly nostalgic.

The graphics are contemporary and beautiful, despite clipping in any scene involving cape animation, and the elements of choice The Odd Gentlemen built in will feel familiar to fans of Fable or Telltale adventure games. While there is no tutorial or run down of lore, the world-building is solid and I didn’t feel confused by the game mechanics.

The design and controls are fairly intuitive, and the first quest is straight-forward enough that learning as you go is actually enjoyable. (Of course, for those who do feel lost, Polygon published a great rundown of the series to date.) With all of these elements working in its favor, it’s hard to be mad at A Knight to Remember for what it gets wrong, but it does make a few missteps.

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Unskippable dialogue you hear every time you die or re-enter an area grates on your nerves after a while, and with no map, fast-travel, or reload mechanics, sometimes even the simplest puzzle takes a long time as you traipse back and forth across Daventry. It’s also hard to tell whether any choices you make in the game aside from your dialogue with Gwendolyn actually influences her actions, but I suppose that’s something only time will tell.

Overall, King’s Quest’s gorgeous and richly detailed graphics, strong voice performances, attention to world-building, and silly but sincere story make it worth a play, even if it isn’t quite sure where to challenge the player and where to make something like getting around a little easier. I look forward to its future installments, especially if any of them require playing as Gwendolyn.

Did you play the original Sierra Quest games? What did you think of the reboot? Let me know in the comments!

Link Roundup: Arcade Mode

game controllers

With the beginning of fall comes a whole new round of TV shows, movies, and other media to consume. I’ve been trying to keep up with series premieres and whatnot, finish King’s Quest and Blues and Bullets, and keep the blog posts coming, but life won’t stop getting in the way so this week I decided to feature other people’s interesting words about pop culture and nerd stuff instead of my own. While this blog covers multiple media forms, video games have been occupying my brain lately so here are some things about games I found on the internet and enjoyed:

+ If you’re a fan of Telltale or have been playing Life is Strange, FemHype’s two-part look at world-building in episodic games is definitely worth the read.

+ In the spirit of Halloween, I also checked out We Know The Devil, the recently released visual novel horror game. It is a thought-provoking experience, and this analysis of gender and sexuality in the game from blogger emberling enhances the stimulating experience.

+ Feminist Frequency put out a new video in their Tropes vs. Women series at the end of August, but it took me until the end of September to watch it because I’ve been slacking on my YouTube binge-watching. If you’re in the same boat, here’s a link to make your life easier.

+ As usual, I’ve been watching a lot of Geek Remix lately, and right now I’m in the middle of their Soma playthrough. It reminds me of the time I demo’d Narcosis on a VR headset at SXSW game expo–there were many screams, flinches, and curse words.

+ Speaking of Soma, Kotaku had an interesting article this week about the game’s conservative use of achievements.

+ The countdown to Mass Effect Andromeda is long and painful, but to ease our sorrows Bioware announced on September 29th that a Mass Effect ride will open in California’s Great America in 2016!!! Have no doubt: I will wear Shepard cosplay on the ride, and I will cry.

Now for a couple of oldies but goodies:

+ Unfortunately I missed it the first time around, but writer/artist/dev/all around good human Chris Solarski’s piece for Gamasutra about the aesthetics of game design has stood the test of time. If you haven’t read his book, I highly recommend it.

+ And lastly, during my research and writing about Morrowind last month, I came across this gem of a series about metaphysics in the game from blogger and game developer Kateri.

Okay, that’s it for now. Keep your eyes peeled next week for a review of King’s Quest Chapter 1, and let me know what other content you’d like to see in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

With the dawn of the internet, a new school of celebrity has risen, and many of the most popular personalities you’ve never heard of do most or all of their work on YouTube. One of these people is Felicia Day, an actress, writer, producer, and self-identified ‘situationally famous’ nerd. In her new memoir, Day writes about being home-schooled, her college career as a violin and math prodigy, her prolific commercial acting career, and the rise of her internet fame beginning with her webseries The Guild.

youreneverweird

Day’s goofy tone translates well from screen to page and it’s fun to see behind the curtain of her online empire. I am often skeptical of celebrities obsessed with reminding us that “they’re just like us” but with access to much more money, power, and influence. I understand why it’s become a marketing technique for young stars, especially women like Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Kendrick, or Taylor Swift who are often criticized by fellow women attempting to distance themselves from the stereotypically feminine.

But all the reminders that they eat pizza and stay up late watching Netflix can become disingenuous, and Day ventures into this territory in the opening of her book, which evolved from speeches she wrote about her YouTube channel Geek & Sundry. She establishes who she is and why she’s writing a memoir in the first place, convincing those perusing the opening pages in Barnes & Noble or on Amazon to buy the book, which is good business but can be disorienting for those self-identified geeks opening their pre-ordered, signed copy.

My skepticism faded, however, as Day pushed past self-deprecating humor and delved into her her experiences with self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and physical illnesses. For fans who had no clue she was struggling, her honesty about these issues and how they affect her creative work is both surprising and empowering. Mental health issues are rarely addressed by public figures with such candor, even by younger celebrities who spend more time on social media with their fans.

The depth and vulnerability in the later chapters of the book is not consistent throughout, however, and there are certain events well-known by her fans that are conspicuously absent from the timeline she lays out, like her work on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and other successes that pre-date/co-occur with the success of The Guild. Those holes are easy enough to fill with Wikipedia pages, but do add to the impression early-on that she’s maintaining a persona through her book.

Her gratitude towards her fans and fellow nerds, however, and her continued passion about her work shine through and make reading her memoir a pleasure. She also puts a face and set of personal experiences to an idea that I think many nerds hold dear to their heart: what happens online is just as ‘real’ as what happens away from our computers. While certain virtual experiences of hers (like her gaming addiction) negatively affected her life, her connection to gaming provided relationships and growth that shaped her as a person and allowed her to create projects that others relate to, like The Guild.

the guild

In turn, this connected her to more and more people, fans and industry folks alike, allowing her to continue carving space for nuanced female characters and more complex analysis of online life in pop culture. Day’s frustrations with the stereotypes faced by women working in entertainment or participating in nerd culture, while not the first of their kind, add meaning to the roles she’s written and helped in creating. She also touches on how fame and other people’s expectations can devastate the creative process, and how Gamergate affected her personal and professional lives.

Looking forward, it would be great to see Day talk more about race, sexual orientation, ability, and diversity in the geek world in her future writing and public speaking. The ‘democratic’ nature of the internet and of nerd culture is often explored in terms of representation of white women in media and gaming circles, rather than other areas of inequality. Since Day has taken stances against bullying and for embracing your ‘weird,’ using her voice to amplify the complexities of that issue and her channel to host content by nerds of all identities and backgrounds would be both refreshing and ground-breaking.

But this book, while about fairly unusual experiences, focuses on the delight we feel when we find something we’re passionate about as well as the contributions the highs and lows of our lives make to our identity and our work. That’s something everyone can identify with in some way, and makes it a worthwhile read for ‘nerds’ of all types…and the embarrassing childhood photos of Day scattered throughout don’t hurt either.

What did you think of You’re Never Weird on the Internet? How would you title your memoir? Let me know in the comments!

What I’m… Wednesday: Nerd Stuff

What I’m Watching

Sadly I don’t have a PS4, so I could not play Until Dawn when it came out at the end of August, but I have been voraciously watching Let’s Plays of the game and it’s been an enjoyable (and significantly less scary) experience. I love how Supermassive Games uses choice-based game mechanics and horror movie tropes together to enhance what people love about both genres and create an end-product the player feels invested in. The graphics and voice-acting were great, and watching the game shortly after finishing Beyond Two Souls made for an incredibly interesting comparison. I’ll link some of my favorite playthroughs below:

What I’m Playing

I recently started the episodic game Blues and Bullets from developer A Crowd of Monsters. The art style reminds me of a couple of the Telltale games I’ve really enjoyed, namely The Wolf Among Us, but the crime noir elements feel a bit less engaging and unfold more slowly than Bigby Wolf’s adventures. I’ve also run into a few bugs in the ‘combat’ portions of the game on my PC, but the fantasy and horror elements are keeping me intrigued as I move through episode 1.

What I’m Reading

One of my favorite actors, writers, producers, and all-around nerds Felicia Day came through Texas on her book tour in August and I was able to meet her for the second time this year. (The first was at the SXSW gaming expo, but that’s a story for another post.) I’ve just started her memoir and so far it captures Day’s charming combination of confidence, talent, self-deprecating humor, and perversion. I’m excited to read more.

What I’m Listening To

I listen to a lot of NPR and talk radio while I’m driving, but sometimes I’m just not up to hearing another traumatic news story as I sit in traffic on my way home from work, so I’ve been sifting through podcasts lately trying to find a few I can come back to each week. Below are a couple of my favorites so far.

That Video Game Podcast – They cover a huge array of games and have a series of spoilercasts on Life is Strange that are really fun, especially if you don’t have people you can discuss the game with.

Breakfast for Dinner – This podcast is produced by a couple in Austin and covers everything from sports to politics to fashion. I love it’s laid-back vibe: it feels like actually having dinner with some friends.

The Moth Storytelling Hour – An old favorite of mine, The Moth is a storytelling non-profit that runs events all across the U.S. and the world, and their podcasts feature some of the best stories from those events. If you don’t know where to start, check out some of Elna Baker’s pieces. She’s an excellent storyteller.

the moth
What do you all think of Blues and Bullets? What are some of your favorite podcasts? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

Beyond Auteurs: Do Video Games Need Visionaries Part 3

Part 3: Conclusion

This is the third installment of a series, so if you missed parts 1 and 2, you might want to go check those out.

Welcome back! So far we’ve established that the auteur theory posits that a single visionary drives the artistic success of and takes the credit (e.g. answers) for a work. We’ve also decided that Cage is not the auteur in shining armor the gaming industry’s been waiting for. But that begs the question: if not Cage, then who?

We might first look at indie developers, whose small studios allow them to become more well-known names in the industry. For me, the person who immediately comes to my mind is Phil Fish, one of the developers of Fez and the man you either know from a) Indie Game: The Movie, b) that Innuendo Studios short, or c) haters on the internet.

credit: Flickr user Jeriaska

source: Flickr user Jeriaska

Phil Fish is not the only person who worked on the game Fez. Shawn McGrath brought the initial idea to the table but left the project because of a conflict of vision, after which Renaud Bédard came on as a programmer for the game. Yet only Fish gained a notable level of celebrity from the project itself, the documentary coverage, and his own unflinching outspokenness.

If you’re readying your typing fingers to let me know that Fish is self-centered, overly critical, or a huge douche, never fear–I am definitely aware of his reputation. I would argue, however, that the likability of a developer should not factor into whether or not they play the auteur role. Instead we might look at how developer-player interaction, or more specifically how gamers’ perceived ownership over things they play, affects the development and artistic direction of games.

When we watch a film, even if we’re thinking critically about the costuming or the performance of the actors, going to a movie is a mostly passive experience, an opportunity to ‘veg out.’ When you play a video game, on the other hand, even the most repetitive tasks you’ve done a thousand times before require some level of engagement (as anyone who has tried to eat their dinner while playing can attest).

source: This is Chris

source: This is Chris

What sets gaming apart as a creative medium is its interactivity. Cage’s ideal of a story-based, innovative work can apply to anything from a song to a poem to a comic, but in order for something to be considered a game most agree it should involve some level of player agency, which comes with a necessary feeling of connection to and power over the story.

Consequently, when a developer’s vision or persona deviates from player expectations, players react differently than movie-goers or music fans might. In fact, sometimes that feeling of ownership fosters entitlement that can manifest in not just hurtful but also dangerous ways: for better or for worse, Phil Fish is no longer in the industry.

And sometimes, as seems to be the case with Half-Life 3, developers’ fear of player reactions prevents pieces of art from ever making it to market. (For the record, I don’t think that means we should stop being critical of games or lower our standards, although we may need to rethink the way we convey those criticisms to those who create and produce the games.)

So is expecting a single person to answer for the entirety of a game, especially one much larger than Fez like Half-Life or Mass Effect, beneficial or even reasonable? Games are traditionally made by studios, teams of people working together on project after project. This differs from films, which are similarly made by crews, but by crew members who then go their separate ways after the release.

Yet studios themselves grow and change, shifting workers from one project to another, sometimes giving away projects altogether; Call of Duty has moved studios three times since its inception, while 13 different studios have contributed content to Halo games over the past 15 years. While many are known for certain types of games, few have a singular style as distinct as the ‘auteurs’ of old. And I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing.

source: Halo Waypoint

source: Halo Waypoint

Cage has said in a lecture for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts that he looks forward to the day when game designers can use camera algorithms to mimic the cinematic styles of Scorsese or Tarantino, capturing emotion in a way that he feels is superior to the traditional perspectives of game cameras. But simply imitating the shots of a famous director does not create a meaningful story.

Beyond that, game developers do not have sole or even primary control of the camera. That tends to belong to the player in most games, and players can shape the story in other ways too, from character creation to dialogue choice to world building in games like Minecraft. Yet players certainly wouldn’t be given credit for the music in the Elder Scrolls games or the art direction of Life is Strange.

Which makes me think that we’re asking the wrong questions about games. With roots in interactive fiction, tabletop, and many many other forms of media, video games resist the categorization that film criticism can offer. They do not need auteurs to achieve artistry, and our efforts to transplant film theory onto game analysis is neither as simple nor as productive as many, Cage included, seem to think.

As a form of art, games are academically and critically under-examined, but that’s part of what makes them so exciting. The industry is rapidly changing and the potential for creativity between player, actor, designer, programmer, etc. is huge. And as games continue to evolve, this potential for growth and innovation extends to game criticism, journalism, and analysis.

Thanks for reading! Where do you think gaming, and game analysis, is headed? Do you believe auteur theory holds up? Let me know what you think in the comments. 

Beyond Auteurs: Do Video Games Need Visionaries Part 2

WARNING: This series contains plot and character details from the game Beyond Two Souls.

Part 2: Cage

In part 1 of this series, I gave some background on auteur theory and the game that brought it to my attention, Beyond Two Souls. The director and writer of BTS, David Cage, is often praised as a video game visionary. He received the Legion of Honour in March of 2014, the highest decoration given by the French government to someone working in video games. He’s clearly an important figure in the industry, but can/should he play the role of auteur in the gaming world?

Part of auteur theory states that the artist behind the project completely understands their tools and the capabilities/limitations of their medium. In film, that is usually translated as a working knowledge of cinematography and mastery of the caméra-stylo or “camera as pen,” as well as lighting, blocking, and other aspects of movie-making.

Of course ‘camera’ angles and other cinematic elements come into play in a game, but there are also many more things to consider including programming, digital animation and physics, and gaming platforms and their specifications. Narrative conventions are also different for games and other media like literature, film, or television.

According to Cage, he aims to create games that tell a unique story and take a middle track between ‘hobby games’ like Angry Birds and the competitive first person shooters like Call of Duty. He sees story-driven games as inherently different from action games in that their core plot should move forward without punishing the gamer for playing ‘the wrong way.’ His remarks establish interactive, choice-based storytelling as his genre and characterize their use as more meaningful and artistic.

david cage

But do Cage’s own games live up to his style ideals? While the animation and voice acting are stunning in BTS, the characters and the universe they inhabit are more two-dimensional. As Jodie, Ellen Page has charm, but every non-playable character (except for Cole and her homeless companions) exists in the game solely as an obstacle for Jodie. Their motivations are predictable, their lines hollow-sounding.

This flatness carries into the more central NPCs like Ryan, who we are told is charming and funny but never really experience first-hand, and Nathan, who ends up the token mentally unstable good guy-turned-villain. Even Aiden ends the game with no voice, personality, or backstory beyond his poltergeist antics.

Story-wise, BTS bounces back and forth between coming-of-age tale and action-thriller. The highlights are the small moments like choosing what to pack when Jodie leaves for CIA training, or making dinner and tidying when she has a date. Other plotlines like placating ancient spirits on a Navajo family’s ranch or assassinating a Somali president are outlandish at best, manifestations of the pesky ol’ white savior complex at worst.

Ultimately, the science-fiction universe BTS establishes has few known rules and no real history. The Infraworld is simply a vehicle for the game’s human melodrama, never explained or explored. The ending choices of the game are interesting but have little weight when it’s unclear whether any of the player’s prior actions contributed to them, and leave us with more questions than answers:

What’s going on with Zoey, to whom Jodie’s soul may or may not be bound? What’s the significance of Jodie’s/Zoey’s dream of oncoming evil entities–who are these big bad spirits and why are they trying to end the human world? What does Aiden think about all of this? They’re not leaving it open to a sequel…right?

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 4.15.39 PM

So the game isn’t perfect, but does it represent the best of what the medium has to offer at this point? If we compare BTS to some of its narrative-driven, choice-based contemporaries we see The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Life is Strange also incorporate player choice and sci-fi/fantasy elements, arguably more successfully than BTS albeit on a smaller scale.

Games like Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age capitalize on interactive storytelling in a much larger universe with more fully realized characters and lore. And while Cage would have you believe BTS is different from the aforementioned games because it is more concerned with story, other games with more limited play mechanics like Her Story, Gone Home, and Dear Esther have a stronger emotional impact while still achieving their own interactivity and some level of player agency.

youve got the wrong person

What most agree BTS consistently does well is cinematics, but even Uncharted, Halo, and Call of Duty are catching up with its animation and star power. If Cage’s work in BTS doesn’t live up to his filmic ideals or the standards set by auteur theory, maybe he isn’t the auteur we want him to be, at least not yet. Is the question, then, not whether gaming needs auteurs, but rather are the right people stepping up to the plate? We look further into that issue in part 3 – check it out now!

Beyond Auteurs: Do Video Games Need Visionaries Part 1

WARNING: as usual I’m spoiling all the things. This time it’s the game Beyond Two Souls.

Part 1: Introduction

While I’ve had my Xbox 360 for going on six years now, I only recently gained access to a PS3, which means I’m catching up on a few older games, including Beyond Two Souls. I’d never played a game by writer and developer David Cage before, and didn’t know exactly what to expect going in. In fact, even after finishing it I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, so I did what I usually do in that situation: I started reading.

During my research on the game, I kept coming across this particular term: auteur. The auteur theory came out of the French film review magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and essentially says that, while many people work on a movie before it hits theaters, an artful film has a single coherent style/bears the signature of a single visionary, in this case the director. A few names are consistently associated with the auteur label, including Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Renoir.

source: wikipedia

As video games have gained legitimacy as both a form of entertainment and an art form, game criticism has grown as well. Predictably, critics have attempted to use existing frameworks from film and literary criticism to analyze games. In particular, some people believe the gaming industry needs auteurs to be taken seriously, and for better or for worse David Cage’s name has been thrown in the ring.

I am not sure that I believe David Cage is an auteur, or that games need auteurs to survive, so I decided to use my experience with the game to try to parse that out. This first post will be an introduction for those who aren’t familiar with the game.

Beyond Two Souls (BTS) is an interactive drama game from Quantic Dream, the French studio that produced Cage’s previous games Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy, and Omikron: The Nomad Soul. In BTS you play as Jodie, a young woman who has had another soul named Aiden tethered to hers ever since she was born. As you might imagine, this catches the interest of many, including the CIA.

The game begins with narration from Jodie, who says she’s trying to patch together the past 15 years of her life, which the player then relives in non-chronological order, playing as both Jodie and Aiden in single-player mode or as one or the other in cooperative mode. Combat and navigation are handled through the joysticks, while puzzles and other action sequences require some button and trigger mashing.

Despite fairly straightforward controls, the mechanics and objectives in a chapter aren’t always intuitive, and the Quick Time Events (QTEs) can get repetitive. Playing as Aiden gives you fewer restrictions mobility wise, but feels more disorienting than empowering. Cutscenes are interspersed between periods of gameplay, but the game moves forward without indicating whether your actions influenced each plot event (spoiler alert: they probably did not).

The game received mixed reviews, with a metacritic score of 70, and was equally if not more divisive among fans, many of whom either love or loathe the game. The dialogue around BTS in gaming communities tends to be both passionate and polarized, as the die-hard fans accuse others of not understanding the game due to their shooter-addled brains, while the haters declare their disgust of all things Cage.

Which brings us to the question I’ll attempt to answer in part 2: who is Cage and how well does he fill the role of ‘auteur’? Thanks for reading! And for patiently waiting for these longer-form series to percolate.

Check out parts 2 and 3 now!