2016: Updates, Highlights, & Hopes

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

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

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

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

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

moana

Source: Disney

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

stranger-things-netflix

Source: Netflix

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

arrival-paramount

Source: Paramount

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

westworld-hbo

Source: HBO

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

dishonored-bethesda

Source: Bethesda

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

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

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

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

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What I’m… Wednesday: Nerd Stuff

What I’m Watching

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

What I’m Playing

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

What I’m Reading

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

What I’m Listening To

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Auteurs: Do Video Games Need Visionaries Part 2

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

Part 2: Cage

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

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

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

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

david cage

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 4.15.39 PM

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

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

youve got the wrong person

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