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!

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 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!

Flashback Friday: Morrowind

Source: Ocean of Games

Source: Ocean of Games

It’s been awhile since my last Flashback Friday, but this (belated – sorry!) post goes out to the game that cemented my love of the medium and took me from kid who gets her dad to kill the big bosses to capital ‘P’ player–The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Morrowind is an open-world, fantasy RPG released in 2002 by Bethesda Game Studios. Set in Tamriel, the game takes place on the island of Vvardenfell in the Dunmer province called (you guessed it) Morrowind.

You play as a prisoner kidnapped and sent to Morrowind on a slave ship, and are eventually recognized as a reincarnation of the Dunmer hero Indoril Nerevar, prophecied to defeat Dagoth Ur and his followers, The Sixth House. If that sounds like a bunch of crazy gibberish to you, that’s just the beginning.

The dense, beautifully complex universe and lore of The Elder Scrolls series are just one of the many things that make the game so enjoyable. The series’ free-form gameplay also contributes to its wondrous immensity; when you arrive in Morrowind, you are an unknown with little skill or money and even less direction. A herd of rats or a (g*ddamn piece of sh*t) cliff racer could kill you with ease, and in fact they do, many times over.

This difficulty, along with the game’s openness, depth, and (at the time) stunning graphics, makes Morrowind a challenge you can’t wait to face. It received generally good reviews upon release, but has accrued a large and incredibly dedicated cult following since then. So dedicated that a group of fans are working together now to create a non-commerical mod for Skyrim that remakes Morrowind in the Skyrim engine.

Of course, any remake (and especially one that plans to re-imagine many of the smaller quests and plot points of the game as it changes the mechanics behind them) is going to lose a little something of what made the original so important to its die-hard fans. For Morrowind, that list is longer than the 36 Lessons of Vivec, but a few stand-outs would be:

Combat

The fighting mechanics are…special. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Wiki describes Morrowind combat as “straight-forward,” but first time players more accustomed to the combat of Skyrim and other contemporary RPGs do not find it quite so simple. And really when you think about it, a lot is going on behind the scenes of each fight in the game. On top of that, you can conceivably kill people who are important to your quest without knowing it and totally screw yourself over, which while frustrating, adds gravity to your decisions that is absent in many other games.

Once you have a decent understanding of this deceptively complicated system, however, you can take advantage of it in countless ways, from levitating everywhere you go to smithing a weapon or making a spell that damages and heals your opponent at the same time to up your skill. You get as much out of Morrowind as you put in, and the game rewards creativity.

Skills and Attributes

Speaking of skills and leveling, there are a LOT of skills in Morrowind. 27 to be exact, compared to 21 in Oblivion and 18 in Skyrim. Skills are distinct from attributes like race, class, and gender. You can create your own class from scratch, and are best off if you map out your skill trees in advance, which makes the characters and role-playing delightfully immersive and customizable, but also very time-consuming.

NPC Dialogue and Voice Acting

This has got to be one of my favorite things about the third ES game. NPCs are not fully voiced, and many of the recorded lines are randomly repeated by different characters. This produces, in my opinion, some of the funniest character interactions in gaming history (and I say that having heard the bizarre, sometimes offensive, always hilarious things students yell in the halls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter games).

There are entire forums devoted to this topic, so I won’t list all of the famous NPC lines here. The combat lines were the most memorable for me (“There is no escape!!!”) and are most enjoyable when you picture the character saying them as you’re decimating them in a fight. Of course they probably stick in my mind because I became irritated hearing them over and over as my character once again succumbed to death.

Music

This aspect of the game may not change much with the Skywind mod, but of all the Elder Scrolls games I’ve played, Morrowind has the best soundtrack hands down. The soaring, epic tones of the main theme hit me right in the nostalgia, and some of the more playful pieces lift my mood as soon as I hear them. While the soundtracks of Oblivion and Skyrim are by the same composer, neither have quite the same awe-inspiring, world-conjuring effect on me.

Morrowind can be a quirky, buggy, and frustrating affair and, like any video game you grew up loving, the graphics and mechanics have aged rapidly as the industry makes leaps and bounds forward technologically and artistically. (Just look at the difference between the original Duke Nukem or Tomb Raider graphics and their 2013 reboots) But many fans would argue that the game is a masterpiece not in spite of those aspects, but because of them. And the massive world, intricate lore, beautiful art direction, and inspiring music don’t hurt.

Morrowind doesn’t give you anything easy, but the work you put in to advance through and even help write the story makes playing much more meaningful. The game magnifies what makes gaming special: the interactive and collaborative storytelling that allows you not just to experience a world, but to shape it.

Panoptic Icon: Thematic Analysis of Remember Me

WARNING: this analysis contains plot details, including spoilers for the end of the game.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been going back to older games recently, and one of those is Remember Me. Remember Me is set in Neo-Paris, allowing the developers to create a rich futuristic dystopia rooted in existing history. One of their most interesting choices is setting the majority of the game’s action inside a prison, in this case La Bastille. La Bastille is located where the original Bastille–a fortress later converted into a prison–once stood. Louis XIV imprisoned upper-class French citizens who opposed him in Bastille until it was stormed during the French Revolution.

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

The real Bastille was used to support the state in censoring printed media and controlling social norms. In Neo-Paris, La Bastille is where memory hunters are kept, leapers are created and controlled, and prisoners’ memories are stored. Instead of confiscating prisoners’ belongings as they’re processed, Madame and Dr. Quaid wipe prisoners’ memories to keep them complacent and take the memories for themselves, implanting Quaid’s memories in exchange.

source: IGN

source: IGN

The prison uses a panopticon structure, which the French philosopher Foucault uses in his theories about disciplinary/authoritarian societies. A panopticon is a tower that allows a guard to see all the cells in a prison, but does not allow prisoners to see whether the guard is there or not. Foucault used the physical structure as an analogy for the mutual enforcement of social norms even when we can’t know whether someone is ‘watching.’

In the game, the use of Sensen technology and the commodification of memory is commonly accepted by citizens. No person owns their own experiences, and all people are watched by robots, security cameras, and other surveillance technology. Madame, governor of La Bastille, watches over the prison from the central tower and protects the memory servers until Nilin defeats her.

In Episode 4: Panoptic Icon, Nilin pursues Madame. In order to locate her, Nilin enters the prison through the sewers and confronts Sergeant Vaughn–the Sergeant of La Bastille S.A.B.R.E. Force–to obtain the schematics. This episode is brimming with platforming, combat, and collectibles, but it also does some pretty interesting things symbolically. As the child of the memory-control empire who doesn’t remember her own history, Nilin stands in for each of us who is born into society and inherits its norms.

Rarely are we forced to question where these beliefs come from, but in order to succeed Nilin has to. She has to look at the inner-workings of this prison and to engage with both the guards and Madame herself. In the panopticon of La Bastille, Madame represents not just policemen and prison wardens, but also our teachers, relatives, and even our own inner voices who hold us to social norms and punish us when we stray from them.

source: Flickr user JP Freethinker

source: Flickr user JP Freethinker

What elevates this symbolism is the fact that it is the shared pain and memories of society that starts Nillin on this path. Edge, the persona created by the central memory server AI H3O, urges Nilin to explore, subvert, and eventually destroy the system Memorize (and her own family) has created. The soul of humanity itself asks the player to question our own beliefs, to see how even well-intentioned efforts to eradicate sadness can become commercialized and oppressive.

I was drawn to both of Dontnod Entertainment’s currently released games, Life is Strange and Remember Me, without realizing they were made by the same studio, in part because of their use of symbolism and social commentary. Their games are nuanced and it’s clear the developers are fellow television, film, and game lovers, as evidenced by the abundance of allusions in each of their IPs.

source: Dontnod

source: Dontnod

More importantly, they never spell it out for you, because Dontnod trusts players to handle depth and complexity. That is such a rare thing in pop culture, and it’s something I really appreciate. I can’t wait to see what else comes out of their studio. What do you guys think of Remember Me? Are you excited for Vampyr and episode 5 of Life is Strange? Let me know in the comments!

What I’m… Wednesday: Mike and Max

What I’m Watching

I’m a little late to the party, but Sunday I saw Magic Mike XXL and damn if that wasn’t the most delightful experience! I’m sure they were making some of the ‘progressive’ choices based on what they thought would make the most money, but the fact that they catered to/represented bisexual women, women of color, gay men, and people with different body sizes and types was so refreshing to me. I also loved the dialogue throughout the movie about all that women deal with and how important it is to ask them what they want. Of course, the many talented and attractive dancers didn’t hurt either. This movie certainly didn’t have a strong plot or the same levity as the first Magic Mike film, but it was incredibly enjoyable.

What I’m Playing

life is strange ep 4 title screen

In case you haven’t heard me screaming it from the rooftops, LIFE IS STRANGE EPISODE 4 CAME OUT YESTERDAY!!! I have completed my first playthrough and I am excited to do some critical thinking and writing about it, but for now I’m still kind of processing how I feel about what transpired. I can say this episode is fast-paced and dark–darker than any previous installment–and many aspects of the game this time around felt more emotionally meaningful to me, whether a choice the player had to make, a line of dialogue, or an item or location in the game. I find it difficult to successfully theorize about single episodes when the season or series they belong to hasn’t finished yet, but I promise there is more to come from this blog on my favorite episodic game to date.

What I’m Listening To

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of covers. It’s always interested me how songs change when another artist performs them, and many of my favorite arrangements of songs are not the original versions. Of course, sometimes covers cannot be found on music streaming services like Google Play or Spotify, so please enjoy this YouTube playlist curated by yours truly.

Thanks for reading! What did you guys think about Episode 4? What is your favorite cover of a song? Let me know in the comments below!

On Ian Danskin’s Theory Part 2: Where Do We Go From Here?

On Wednesday I talked about the first three videos in Innuendo Studios’ six-part series Why Are You So Angry?, which explores where online harassment and movements like Gamergate come from. The last three videos touch on how we can try to reframe our own thinking about morality and social justice.

It can feel overwhelming to imagine solutions to issues as big as these, but keeping some simple things in mind helps. As Danskin and Sarkeesian (and I and many others state): consuming problematic media doesn’t make us bad. Creating it doesn’t make us bad. Even becoming an AJ doesn’t make us irrevocably bad. We always have the power to change our beliefs and our behaviors, or to reconsider how they affect us and others.

By change I don’t mean stop playing your favorite video games or stop eating meat or stop existing as a privileged person. Simply acknowledging that the things we say, do, and enjoy are affected by society and have the capacity to reflect social problems/affect others is an important step that validates oppressed group’s experiences..

anita quote

Of course this can’t totally solve the problem. We can’t control another person’s choices, or force them to confront their own privilege. But we can control our own behaviors and hold others accountable for theirs.

So what can we ‘privileged few’ do to deal with our discomfort and make healthy choices for ourselves and others? What can we do to make it clear that harassment is not okay and that AJs are not welcome in our community?

Danskin still isn’t 100% sure on this, and I’d say most people are in the same boat. But through a conversation with the experts – women affected by GG like Zoe Quinn and Lindsay Ellis – and his own rumination, he came up with some tentative suggestions which I have expanded upon to create my own (incomplete) list:

First of all, we can try to stop thinking in absolutes. Binarism makes the world easier, especially for people with privilege.I think Danskin is right that puritanical and binary thinking are Western concepts, and not just that, but colonial concepts used to empower some while oppressing others. If everything is cut and dry, one or the other, we get out of grappling with nuance and the feelings it brings up in us.

source: Yael Megery - Pikiwiki Israel

source: Yael Megery – Pikiwiki Israel

Second, we can try to look at the big picture, which means beyond ourselves. This is hard, because being selfish allows humans to survive. Some would argue that it is the natural and primary instinct, and that humans do not do anything without some kind of personal benefit. With that argument, I wholeheartedly disagree, but that is another post for another blog. When I say look at the big picture, I mean examine how media and social norms shape our current beliefs and, when making a choice about our actions or attitudes, ask how it affects other people who don’t have our privileges?

Along these lines, we can practice compassion towards ourselves. Much of the anger and hatred and violence turned towards cultural critics or so-called SJWs – especially female, trans, disabled, queer, and black and brown folks from those categories – comes from a sense of entitlement we get from society, but another chunk of it is a deflection of the anger or disappointment we feel towards ourselves for not being what we define as ‘good,’ for not seeing our own privilege or having it at all.

If we allow ourselves to be flawed human beings who sometimes make bad choices or miss things, but are not inherently or permanently bad, then we stop feeling the need to attack others who make us uncomfortable. Instead, we learn to cope with those feelings and show ourselves the understanding we might show a friend.

jay smooth quote

Once we show that compassion to ourselves and others, we’re able to continue watching and reading and playing the things we loved before, but also to be critical of them and help make them better.

When faced with others who choose not to acknowledge privilege, and worse, to attack those who do we can react to them in a variety of ways depending on our connection with them. If we are their close friend or family member, we can call them out and ask them to stop, or we can ask a mentor they respect to call them out.

This, as Ellis and Quinn told Danskin in their recent Twitter conversation, is really the only way to plant any seeds of change in an individual. They have to be hear it from someone they respect and be ready and willing to stop toxic behaviors.

whyareyousoangry1

source: Innuendo Studios

We can also talk about privilege (and choice and social justice and popular culture in general) on our own platforms, to allow those who are open to listen and learn in a safe space, away from conspiracy theories, threats, or attacks. This helps minimize negative effects on bystanders doing similar work or affected by the issue when we speak out.

And last, we can demand good moderation in our communities, and expel people who choose to put our safety at risk. While education can be an important step towards change for AJ, it is not the responsibility of Sarkeesian or the other people he attacks to educate him. It’s best if he can take initiative himself, but if he won’t, people close to him who also have privilege have the best chance of pushing him along the path.

So those are my thoughts on Ian Danskin’s thoughts on AJ’s thoughts on Anita Sarkeesian. Whew, that’s a mouthful! How do you guys deal with nuanced issues in your day to day life? What are the best ways we can foster critical conversations? Let me know in the comments.