Highlights of 2015

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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!

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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!

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!

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.

Review: GTFO The Movie

I’d been intrigued by GTFO: The Movie, Shannon Sun-Higginson’s indie documentary about sexist harassment in gaming culture, since I learned about it at South by Southwest in March of 2015. Of course, I didn’t sell my soul for a SXSW film festival pass, so I wasn’t able to catch it when it was in town, but it finally went up on Vimeo, iTunes, and the like and now that I’ve seen it I can say with confidence that it was worth the wait. As a woman who plays video games, it didn’t necessarily tell me something I couldn’t have imagined or guessed at before, but it built the perfect spring-board for a continued conversation about misogyny, media, and society.

 

In the film, journalist and gamer Maddy Myers, Dragon Age writer Jennifer Brandes Hepler, activist and cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, and an array of other women from the gaming world shared how they fit into it and when things went terribly wrong for each of them (i.e. online harassment, discrimination, and even rape and death threats). While the women themselves often told their stories with a wry smile, seeing and hearing the explicit, horrific messages sent their way was incredibly uncomfortable and scary. But that’s not the sole focus of the film. The movie examined several aspects of the game industry including marketing, character-design, multi-player online games, and competitive gaming. It also delved in-depth into two major events in recent gaming history: Capcom’s reality show Cross Assault, and the #Gamergate controversy (the latter of which seemed like a last-minute addition, but more on that later).

source: Shannon Sun-Hugginson / GTFO The Movie

source: Shannon Sun-Hugginson / GTFO The Movie

The film touched on a lot of things I myself think about on an almost daily basis, like what it means to make gaming an integral part of your identity or how to go about changing a toxic culture. What I really appreciated about it, though, was that it broke down a few stereotypes about gaming along the way, including:

If You Play Your Cards Right, You’re Safe

People often believe that the only gamers being harassed are the women who ‘flaunt’ their gender or otherwise invite criticism. But I think Todd Harper, author of The Culture of Digital Fighting Games and another voice in the film, said it best when describing Miranda Pakozdi’s reaction to her time on Cross Assault. He believes women who play games are given two unappealing choices: they either don’t point out the harassment they/their peers experience in order to protect themselves and to continue doing something they love, or they speak up and at best, receive backlash, but at worst, are isolated from their own community. There’s really no ‘safe’ option for girl gamers.

Harassment Comes From Anonymity

Again, the film’s examination of Cross Assault does a great job of debunking this myth. The fact that Aris Bakhtanians felt comfortable touching, smelling, ogleing, and heckling Miranda on camera and telling a reporter point blank that “sexual harassment is part of [fighting game] culture” shows that anonymity is not what produces this behavior. Rather, it’s a set of beliefs. Of course Aris, and the folks involved in Gamergate, are not the only people whose actions and attitudes are harmful to women, and these beliefs didn’t appear out of thin air. Which brings me to the last, and in my opinion, most important point…

Gaming is More Sexist Than X

Many people outside of the gaming community perceive the video game industry to be somehow more misogynistic or more toxic than the rest of the world, or to be at fault for sexist behavior. But as Harper and Sarkeesian point out, gaming doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a form of media just like television, film, or music and it reflects the same attitudes we carry into all aspects of our day-to-day lives. That the rest of society seems eager to look to games as a cause of misogyny, or to call it out without examining other media, is willfully short-sighted and a point of contention among many gamers.

While the film isn’t exactly polished – shots are reused, quality varies from scene to scene, and the Gamergate montage was clearly added after the rightful end of the film, delivering a somewhat jarring/dissatisfying close – the ideas it explores are integral to the understanding of gaming culture and how it fits into the greater context and history of sexism; the animation and score are enjoyable; and director Shannon Sun-Higginson rightly continues the conversation online.

Have you watched the movie? What were your thoughts? Share them below, or find out where you can watch here.

 

Review: Catching Fire

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the book series and the movie series The Hunger Games.

I just saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and I can’t stop thinking about it. While it got better reviews and had a much larger production value than the first film, it didn’t get me quite as excited as the first movie did, and here’s why. First of all, it is the 2nd book/movie in a trilogy, meaning it is a stepping stone from beginning to end, made up primarily of exposition. (Don’t get me started on the fact that their splitting the last book into two films–ASFDGHJKL;WPOJN!!!) I think my biggest problem, however, is that the book is told from the first person point of view, while the movies are told from the third person point of view, switching between limited and omniscient perspectives.

In the films, we usually see things from Katniss’ POV, but sometimes we see President Snow, a rebelling district, or the gamemakers when there is no way Katniss is seeing them (i.e. when she is in Victor’s Village, in the arena, etc.). This difference in perspective doesn’t have to be a bad thing. After all, it’s really hard to do a big blockbuster film from first person, and if your script and actors can’t convey the subtleties of someone’s inner thoughts, you end up having cheesy voice overs like in Twilight. Unfortunately, I think the change in Catching Fire ends up sucking much of the nuance out of the story.

The use of the fictional pregnancy as a ploy is totally brushed over in the movie, while in the second book it is a big reason that Katniss and Peeta both survive. The love triangle is also seriously exaggerated; Katniss doesn’t know how she feels about Peeta or Gale in the books and, while her uncertainty and lack of awareness was sometimes frustrating for me, it made sense considering she was in constant danger of dying/being asked to kill her peers. If I was trying to save my ass from getting stabbed 24/7, I wouldn’t spend much time thinking about cuties either. In the movies, however, we lose some of that depth, especially in the relationship between Peeta and Katniss.

Credit: brightandwild, Source: deviantart.com

Credit: brightandwild, Source: deviantart.com

My other big problem was that the switch to the third person perspective meant the action and political and cultural satire became heavy-handed. Instead of slowly revealing the reasoning behind President Snow’s actions, we saw really straightforward and almost unbelievable conversations between Snow and Plutarch that basically spelled everything out. I wanted the movie to trust the viewers more, especially when using amazingly subtle actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just because the audience is mostly teenagers doesn’t mean they aren’t able to use deductive reasoning.

Source: catchingfiremovienews.com

Source: catchingfiremovienews.com

Of course, there were things I really liked about the movie. I thought Jennifer Lawrence gave an excellent performance and I loved the casting and writing for Joanna and Finnick. I think their characters were more interesting and more sympathetic in the movie than the book; both actors did a great job. I thought the pacing was good too, and considering there was a lot of back story missing from the film, it was surprisingly coherent as a whole. I also am totally in love with the off-screen friendship between Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. Adorable!

Credit: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images, Source: usmagazine.com

Credit: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images, Source: usmagazine.com

As I mentioned before, both the book and the film Catching Fire are middle installations and thus, mainly serve as bridges from The Hunger Games to Mockingjay. We get a lot of plot, and the story is basically a reimagining of the first book/movie. This inevitably makes it the least compelling of the trilogy, but I think the book still offers more than the film adaptation. Good YA fiction gives credit to its readers, treats them like adults, and challenges them creatively and intellectually. That’s what made me fall in love with The Hunger Games even though I was no longer a teenager when I read them. Sadly, Hollywood doesn’t challenge or trust anyone, especially the target audience for this series: young women.

I really love film and have seen a few really great film adaptations of literature (Brokeback Mountain, anyone?), which is part of why I was disappointed by this movie. I was really pleased with the first Hunger Games film as an adaptation of the book and a standalone product, but the second one was just too Hollywood for me: too little substance and too much gloss. Either way, we can look forward to two more movie installments of The Hunger Games in the near future, so keep your bows and arrows at the ready.