Highlights of 2017

Sliding in just under the buzzer, I’m here to carry on our tradition where I tell you everything I liked from the past twelve months and then make you a couple of false promises about posts I am going to deliver in the new year. 2017 has been wild, and it continues to do the most even as we approach the last seconds of this hellish ride, but on the bright side it also brought quite a few great film, game, and television show releases. I’d like to highlight a few that stick out in my mind as well as revisit some of my previous plans for what to watch, read, and play. So without further ado, let’s get to the good stuff. Since we’re all (web) family here, I know this goes without saying, but just in case anyone accidentally wandered onto this blog while looking for vegan cheesecake recipes or something, there will be spoilers in this post!

In my past two wrap up posts, I’ve made a list of things I was excited to check out the coming year. This year, I wanted to watch The Lego Batman Movie (I didn’t) and Big Little Lies (I did!), and play Horizon Zero Dawn (nope) and Mass Effect Andromeda (yes!). Although Mass Effect Andromeda did not make my 2017 list, I really enjoyed it. (Take that virtually everyone else who played, bought, or heard about that game!) I also acquired a PS4 this year, which was exciting, but I just set it up today so my opinion on Horizon Zero Dawn is still forthcoming. While I only had a 50% completion rate for my 2016 media consumption resolutions, I did read, watch, and play a LOT of great things this year, so let’s move on to my favorites. As usual, I picked a totally arbitrary number of them and they are not listed in any particular order.

one_day_at_a_time_still

One Day at a Time
This was a show I had never heard of and had no expectations for until it came up in my Netflix queue. I had no idea that it was (at least loosely) based on a 1970s sitcom of the same name about a divorced single mom, her children, and the building superintendent. If that description isn’t selling you, I won’t hold it against you, but I urge you to give this show a chance. Whether you loved the original or you usually pass on sitcoms, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by this show. Centering on a multigenerational Cuban-American family, the show grapples with race, ethnicity, and culture in refreshing ways that I imagine the previous iteration did not. Much of the first season focuses on Elena, who is turning fifteen and planning her quinceanera. The lead up to the party sets the stage for one of the most cathartic and gracefully-done coming out storylines I have seen in modern television. While the show pulls no punches when it comes to cheesy sitcom tropes or ~big emotional moments~, the entire cast does an amazing job of bringing humanity and nuance to their roles and the writers choose to spend just the right amount of time on tenderness and silliness. I could say more, but I’d rather you stop reading this and go watch it immediately. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll have that damn catchy theme song in your head for the next two weeks.

get out

Get Out
First of all, just in case anyone has heard the contrary, this is a horror film a la Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives. For some reason people keep calling it a comedy (internalized racism is not a good look y’all), but Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is a terrifyingly realistic story about the way white supremacy robs black people of their bodily autonomy and then tells them that’s not happening at all and implying anything of the sort would be ridiculous. Even though I always include spoiler warnings in these posts, I honestly don’t want to say too much about how exactly the movie navigates themes of family, power, heritage, and relationships because the pacing and tone as the story unfurls adds to the artistry. I will just say that there are layers upon layers of symbolism in this movie that contribute to its impact, so if you haven’t yet watched it, you’re gonna want to set aside some time to talk about it afterwards, and probably also read a bunch of reviews, trivia, and fan theories.

the shape of water

The Shape of Water
When the credits rolled on this film, it felt like a fist unclenching around my heart. This movie really got me! Not only is it beautifully shot, the actors are also terrific, especially the leads Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones (the latter of whom is a mime and played Billy in Hocus Pocus, so he’s generally a cool and talented dude). Michael Shannon is wonderful as always, Richard Jenkins manages not just to hold his own but to charm us despite his subplot wandering away from the main action of the film, and Octavia Spencer is a gem whenever she is onscreen, which is not nearly enough! Guillermo del Toro somehow mixes horror, romance, Cold War anxiety, and magical realism into a touching fairy tale that I think I like more than Pan’s Labyrinth (please don’t yell at me!). The aesthetics are out of this world, but like Get Out, there is also a loving attention to detail in terms of symbolism and theme. For example, Elisa’s scars are subtle enough that you forget them as the film goes on, but they gain importance when the story comes to a close and Elisa realizes her destiny to return to the water. TLDR: the fishman/human sexy times did not put me off.

prey

Prey
Sticking with our theme of remakes that outdid their source material, an update of the bizarre 2006 first person shooter Prey is surprisingly my standout video game of the year. The 2017 take keeps little from the original, but holds on to what worked, like periods of variable gravity and a plot that centers on familial relationships. I was incredibly impressed with the game’s ability to weave exploration storytelling in the vein of Bioshock or even Gone Home with the stealth gameplay that made the Dishonored games so unique. And as if that wasn’t enough, they also set the story in space so…yeah, I obviously loved it. The introductory scenes masterfully use and subvert player expectations for in-game tutorials (which also made for a great demo that I’m guessing hooked quite a few people—I decided to buy the game after watching only about one minute of let’s play footage). You encounter few living non-playable characters, but everyone you meet or learn about feels fleshed out, as does the space station you spend most of your time on, Talos I. Players have a lot of freedom in Prey, and I was both surprised and satisfied by the numerous ways the story could wrap up.

coco

Coco
Last year, a Disney animated feature made my list, and this year they’ve done it again! Apparently, I was really into aesthetic detail in 2017, but Coco is worth watching multiple times if only to notice the incredible work that went into creating the Land of the Dead. You could spend an entire viewing just looking for the skull motifs (and I did). But beyond how pretty the film is, it took cues from Moana’s success and centered Latinx writers, actors, and artists in its story that draws heavily from Mexican culture and folklore, which is what made it internationally successful. Like One Day at a Time, the film focuses on a multigenerational family and the way the members influence one another. Anthony Gonzalez hits it out of the park in what better be a breakout role for him, and the music feels at once familiar and delightfully new. My favorites are “Un Poco Loco” and the sad rendition of “Remember Me” (you’ll know it when you cry over it). Despite having to walk out of the theater with tear-streaks down my face, and sit through the now infamous Frozen short, I am really glad I saw this movie.

As usual, I’ve been really wordy, but I do also want to share some honorable mentions including Logan (an amazing film on its own or for comic fans), Blade Runner 2049 (if you liked the original, you’re gonna like this), Thor: Ragnarok (a feel-good movie following in the footsteps of the first Guardians of the Galaxy), The Disaster Artist, The Florida Project (you will cry), The Big Sick, Molly’s Game (Jessica Chastain is a goddess), Mindhunter, and a ton of other things I’m forgetting to mention right now.

And we can’t forget what I missed in 2017/my anticipated releases of 2018:

  • Call Me By Your Name – As soon as the Sufjan Stevens music started playing in the trailer I knew this movie was for me.
  • I, Tonya – I have to see this, if only because I’ve watched the trailer in theaters so many times that I now have it memorized. Regardless of audience makeup, everyone always laughs when the parrot pecks Allison Janney’s neck.
  • Wolfenstein II – I can’t let the video game cultural zeitgeist leave me behind again!
  • Horizon Zero Dawn – See above. Also, I love Ashly Burch.
  • A Wrinkle in Time – This was my favorite book growing up and Oprah Winfrey is in this movie, two great omens for this film.

All right, that does it for my annual media highlights. Hard to believe another year has come and gone, especially since 2017 has felt more like thirty years. Nonetheless, whether as a form of resistance or a palette cleanser, I wish us all an inspiring 2018 full of art and culture that makes us think and drives us forward. And as always, thank you for reading!

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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!

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. 

What I’m… Wednesday: Geek Remix, Remember Me, and Glass Animals

What I’m Watching

Since finishing Orange is the New Black last week, my favorite thing to watch has not been a television show or movie, but instead Geek Remix’s YouTube channel. They post Let’s Plays, easter eggs, fan theories, and other videos. Those two never fail to make me laugh, and they have an entertaining and robust social media presence as well. Check out their playthrough of Her Story below.

What I’m Reading

Thanks to the movie Whiplash, I am now mildly obsessed with Miles Teller. Working my way through his filmography, I found out The Spectacular Now is a film adaptation of a young adult novel of the same name, so I decided to give it a shot. I’m not through with it yet, but I can tell you that Sutter Keeley is much more of an asshole in the book than the movie, yet for some reason (maybe because I keep imagining he has Miles Teller’s face) I am sticking with him.

credit: Wilford Harewood

credit: Wilford Harewood

What I’m Playing

I’ve been trying to save money by not buying games lately, leading me back to a few games I gave up on. One of these is Remember Me, the predecessor to indie darling and current favorite of mine Life is Strange. Remember Me is a sci-fi action adventure game by Dontnod and published by Square Enix. The graphics are beautiful and the story, intriguing, but the platforming felt limited to me; the game is set in sprawling Neo-Paris, yet I am only able to follow a fairly linear path as my invisible companion Edge urges me along.

When I picked up where I left off–the boss battle with AV-78 Zorn–I remembered exactly what had soured this game for me. Hours in, I’d still only remixed one person’s memory, the combat had become both clunky and boring, and I wasn’t sure why Nilin was going along with all of this to begin with. Thankfully the detailed world lovingly sculpted by the same people who built Arcadia Bay is enough to push me to the finish, or at least serve as a distraction until I can play Life is Strange Episode 4.

What I’m Listening To

Much like about 78% of the population, I find the song Gooey by Glass Animals to be weirdly mesmerizing. It was in my head so much that I made an entire Spotify playlist in an effort to capture and extend the song’s mood, which is linked below.

What are you guys enjoying this week? What are you counting down to? Let me know in the comments.