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!

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!

What’s In a Name? Part 3: Conclusion – Thematic Analysis of Her Story

SPOILER ALERT: this series contains plot details for the game.

If you haven’t seen them yet, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series now.

In case you have no idea what’s going on, this is the third and final installment of WIAN, my analysis of the game Her Story. So far, we’ve talked about the title of the game, the names of the main characters, and their sisterly relationship. In addition to Hannah and Eve, many other characters in the game share names with figures from history or mythology, which is what I want to look as we wrap up today. Watch the video below or keep reading for more.

Florence, the midwife who steals and raises Eve, shows similarities to Florence Nightingale, a nurse during the Crimean War who also had an interest in writing.

Simon is the name of the apostle later called Peter in the New Testament.The name Simon means “he has heard,” and in the end his character doesn’t just bear witness to Hannah and Eve’s story, his death allows it to be shared.

When Hannah gets pregnant, Simon wants to name the baby ‘Ava,’ but Hannah refuses. She doesn’t want her daughter to have a symmetrical name and be plagued by the same issues of identity and reflection as she and her sister were. She wants to name the baby Sarah, another biblical name.

source: Good Reads

source: Good Reads

The Orson Scott Card novel Sarah describes the events that befall Abraham and Sarah in Genesis from Sarah’s point of view, expanding the few sentences they get in the bible to 300 pages. Eve’s interviews do a similar thing for her life and that of her sister.

After the events of the game, Eve’s child is named Sarah, as we know from the chat messages that appear on the database computer. The player watches the videos alongside Sarah, to learn ‘why her mother did what she did.’

Reflection, Representation, and Storytelling

In her interviews, Eve often connects her life to fairy tales she read in books growing up. She even calls her final interview ‘a real life fairy tale.’ For her, growing up across the road from Hannah, Hannah’s life was what hers was supposed to look like, what she read about in books. So she cut her hair like Hannah’s, moved like Hannah, and eventually lived not just with Hannah, but as Hannah.

Many women feel compelled to look, dress, and act like the characters they learn about as children, the women they see on television or in movies. They are princesses or evil witches, good or bad seeds, and they provide archetypes after which girls are expected to model their own lives. Girls are set up to compete with their sisters to be the prettier or more likeable one, to perform womanhood more perfectly, because only then can they receive their fairy tale ending or their blessing from God.

source: Wikimedia Commons

source: Wikimedia Commons

These ideas of what makes someone a successful girl, what makes them the hero of their own story, are passed down from generation to generation in stories we tell and books we read. We learn them from such a young age that it can be difficult to remember they’re only stories

As time went on, both Hannah and Eve realized that aspects of living as one person didn’t feel good. That it limited them, made it difficult for each to be her authentic self. When Eve finally lets go of being one with Hannah, she embraces her individuality, getting a tattoo and wearing a wig. And when she is ‘herself,’ the man she’d always fawned over falls in love with her, separately from the character she played, and gives her the baby she’d longed for when her sister was pregnant.

Hannah is understandably angry at this turn of events. She was taught that acting a certain way would deliver her happiness and then found out that wasn’t true. She lashes out, and although she may not have intended to, she kills Simon.

source: Sam Barlow

source: Sam Barlow

But Eve doesn’t condemn Hannah or blame her. She protects her because in the end, neither of them is a ‘villain’ or a ‘damsel,’ and they aren’t in competition with one another. By telling her story, Eve liberates not just herself, but also her sister and her daughter, from these boxes. As Eve is giving her last interview to the detectives, Hannah is escaping the police and her past.

Each of the women in the story sheds the skin of her namesake and embraces her flawed, fully realized self. And as we play the game, we learn to let go of a little bit of our own preconceptions. To question the stories we tell ourselves.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this analysis, you might like my review of GTFO The Movie or my analysis of the Mass Effect Trilogy.

What’s In a Name? Part 2: Hannah and Sisterhood – Thematic Analysis of Her Story

SPOILER ALERT: this series contains plot details for the game. 

On Sunday I published Part 1 of my three-part mini-series on Her Story, which focused on the meaning behind the title of the game and Eve’s name. Like Eve, Hannah shares much with her biblical namesake, but has a critically different fate in the game. To hear more, watch the video below or keep reading.

Hannah

In Judeo-Christian mythology, Hannah is Elkanah’s first wife of two and his favorite, but she doesn’t give him children. This upsets her, so she prays to God for a child and eventually is blessed by Eli the High Priest with six.

In Her Story, Hannah falls in love with Simon first and doesn’t want to share him with Eve. She marries him and gets pregnant by him, but has a miscarriage which renders her infertile. Yet she never receives a blessing, never bears him a child, and never lives the story book life that sat just out of reach for so many years.

Sisterhood and Rivalry

Throughout the game, we hear of times that Hannah resented Eve. She once held her head underwater, considering drowning her before relenting and letting her breathe. Another time, she hit her ‘harder than she needed to’ when imitating a bruise she got because of Eve’s actions. It’s even suggested that she tried to kill Eve before she was born, that Eve was never supposed to make it into the world. The song Eve plays for the detectives further underlines this ambivalent relationship.

In ‘The [Dreadful] Wind and the Rain,’ the older sister drowns the younger, prettier one because the man she loves is more infatuated with her. The younger sister is described as having long yellow hair. Since Eve wears a blonde wig when she performs as a musician, and is the one whose pregnancy is successful and who Simon eventually ‘chooses,’ she can be read as the younger sister in the song. But instead of having her story told by a fiddle made of her body, Eve tells her story herself.

In the Bible and the song Hannah’s ‘character’ competes with other women for a man’s affection. But unlike in those stories, in Her Story (as in the mini-game in the recycle bin) ‘Player Two’ or Eve ‘wins.’ The game offers an alternative to the cultural mythology about femininity and the role of women in society: maybe obedient, shy, and innocent is not the natural or only way to be. Eve is gnostic, confident, and even a little reckless but she still wins Simon’s heart, and is not the person who kills him. Of course, in the end the sisterhood is not really a rivalry at all. Instead, Eve’s acceptance of her individuality gives each woman freedom; the autonomy to tell her own story.

her story artwork

Thanks for reading! Share your theories in the comments and keep your eyes peeled for Part 3 of this analysis. Part 3 is here!