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!

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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.

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!

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: 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.