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!

Review: Life is Strange Episode 5

Warning: this is a detailed and spoilerrific review of the finale of Life is Strange, so if you haven’t played the game yet, get outta here!

With Episode 5: Polarized, Dontnod has brought Max Caulfield’s time-traveling adventures to a close. Polarized runs a bit shorter than the other episodes, at only about two and a half hours of gameplay, which lines up with the fewer opportunities for exploration and branching dialogue it offers.

The episode opens with Max trapped in a storm bunker turned photo studio with her teacher Mr. Jefferson, a much darker beginning than in any other installment. As she regains consciousness, the player can look around and examine nearby items, eventually realizing that Max’s classmate Victoria is also tied up nearby.

But this is where gameplay diverges from previous episodes. Where, in previous episodes Max can explore the environment before moving on, Polarized gives you a single option: photo-travel out of here and leave Victoria in the horrific dark room/torture chamber. This narrative device is frustrating as it conflicts with opportunities Max has in this episode and others to aid other characters in danger.

Life-is-Strange-finale-review

Instead of grabbing Victoria and getting the hell out of that bunker, the developers give Max one choice: travel back a few hours to a drug-induced photo shoot. While a convenient progression for exposition’s sake, her jumping back and forth through photos of herself doesn’t allow for any exploration or organic discovery by the player.

In fact, it leads primarily to lots of talking, and unfortunately Jefferson’s initial expository monologue comes off as cheesy and out-of-character, playing off of stereotypes of mentally ill villains even though Jefferson claims later that he is totally sane and his clear-headed planning seems to reflect that. His speeches also play into the trope where the villain explains his reasoning to his victim in great detail.

Rather than showing us, the game wants to tell us what’s going on. These issues in the first minutes of gameplay reflect concerns many fans and critics alike have raised about the episode as a whole: that the cliche story elements and changes in play mechanics in the last episode do not do justice to the unique, ground-breaking game.

everyday heroes

In many scenes the player must move Max through motions that feel pointless at best and counter-productive at worst. Walking through a San Francisco gallery talking with artists has no urgency when all the characters and locations the player cares about are back in Arcadia Bay, yet shmooze we must if we want to progress in the story. Saving characters from harm on the way to Two Whales lacks meaning when Max plans to time travel away from that moment immediately after, yet the choices are reflected in the post-credits statistics.

The episode also spends a significant amount of its running time reminding the player of conversations and interactions Max has had in previous episodes. Audio is frequently re-used, but entire scenes from the game reappear as well, as in the maze sequence when Max relives every major moment she shared with Chloe.

That particular nostalgic slideshow provides much-needed relief from the trippy and disturbing mental odyssey Max has just been on, during which we see some of the most creative material of the last episode. The creepy classroom, entirely backwards scene, and endless hallway are all surprising and delightfully innovative yet emotionally difficult moments leading up to the climax of the game.

nosebleed

During that climax, Max finds herself at the lighthouse with Chloe once again and is confronted with her final choice. Max herself becomes convinced that the tornado is her fault and Chloe seems to agree, giving her an ultimatum of sorts: travel back to the start of it all to let Chloe die, or save Chloe and let the tornado ravage Arcadia Bay.

Understandably, this has not been a popular ending choice with everyone. In each episode, one of the game’s objectives (if not the central objective) has been saving Chloe. She’s the character players know the best besides Max, and even moments before this conversation, Max tells Chloe she is ‘all that matters.’ Letting her die just feels a little off, even if it is for a theoretical greater good.

For players who chose to pursue the romance between Chloe and Max, this conclusion also reinforces tropes around queer relationships in media like the Bury Your Gays trope, where the relationship ends in death for one or both people involved. Life is Strange has consistently received mixed reactions regarding its representation (or lack thereof) of queerness. While the end scene does confirm their relationship, it also leads to death regardless of Max’s choice.

max chloe tornado

Beyond that, when an ending choice is presented in a choice-based game, especially when it fundamentally changes the universe of the game or kills a majority of the game characters, many feel that it takes meaning away from previous player decisions. This is a challenge faced not just by Dontnod, but by the entire genre. Mass Effect 3 is infamous for its end choices, and Telltale is often taken to task for not integrating player’s choices into the closings of their games.

Dontnod undoubtedly faced obstacles wrapping up their story: they’re a small studio with a limited budget and a 6 – 8 week episode release timeline. Even though they took about twice that long on Polarized, Life is Strange’s gorgeous art style, intricate world-building, and unique characters deserved more time, space, and nuance than the episodic format afforded them.

This isn’t the first time I’ve wanted Dontnod to give a project more room to blossom–Remember Me’s beautifully designed world and intriguing story were held back by frustrating game mechanics and similar budget constraints. It feels safe to say that small studios like Dontnod deserve more freedom and financial support, that nuanced subject matter like that of Life is Strange should be treated with the utmost respect, and that choice-based games should not be shackled to the five episode arc if they have a greater story to tell.

It’s also probably safe to say that trusting our French friends to give us a happy ending is usually a mistake.

life is strange tornado

Thanks for reading! As always, your input is welcome in the comments.

Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

With the dawn of the internet, a new school of celebrity has risen, and many of the most popular personalities you’ve never heard of do most or all of their work on YouTube. One of these people is Felicia Day, an actress, writer, producer, and self-identified ‘situationally famous’ nerd. In her new memoir, Day writes about being home-schooled, her college career as a violin and math prodigy, her prolific commercial acting career, and the rise of her internet fame beginning with her webseries The Guild.

youreneverweird

Day’s goofy tone translates well from screen to page and it’s fun to see behind the curtain of her online empire. I am often skeptical of celebrities obsessed with reminding us that “they’re just like us” but with access to much more money, power, and influence. I understand why it’s become a marketing technique for young stars, especially women like Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Kendrick, or Taylor Swift who are often criticized by fellow women attempting to distance themselves from the stereotypically feminine.

But all the reminders that they eat pizza and stay up late watching Netflix can become disingenuous, and Day ventures into this territory in the opening of her book, which evolved from speeches she wrote about her YouTube channel Geek & Sundry. She establishes who she is and why she’s writing a memoir in the first place, convincing those perusing the opening pages in Barnes & Noble or on Amazon to buy the book, which is good business but can be disorienting for those self-identified geeks opening their pre-ordered, signed copy.

My skepticism faded, however, as Day pushed past self-deprecating humor and delved into her her experiences with self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and physical illnesses. For fans who had no clue she was struggling, her honesty about these issues and how they affect her creative work is both surprising and empowering. Mental health issues are rarely addressed by public figures with such candor, even by younger celebrities who spend more time on social media with their fans.

The depth and vulnerability in the later chapters of the book is not consistent throughout, however, and there are certain events well-known by her fans that are conspicuously absent from the timeline she lays out, like her work on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and other successes that pre-date/co-occur with the success of The Guild. Those holes are easy enough to fill with Wikipedia pages, but do add to the impression early-on that she’s maintaining a persona through her book.

Her gratitude towards her fans and fellow nerds, however, and her continued passion about her work shine through and make reading her memoir a pleasure. She also puts a face and set of personal experiences to an idea that I think many nerds hold dear to their heart: what happens online is just as ‘real’ as what happens away from our computers. While certain virtual experiences of hers (like her gaming addiction) negatively affected her life, her connection to gaming provided relationships and growth that shaped her as a person and allowed her to create projects that others relate to, like The Guild.

the guild

In turn, this connected her to more and more people, fans and industry folks alike, allowing her to continue carving space for nuanced female characters and more complex analysis of online life in pop culture. Day’s frustrations with the stereotypes faced by women working in entertainment or participating in nerd culture, while not the first of their kind, add meaning to the roles she’s written and helped in creating. She also touches on how fame and other people’s expectations can devastate the creative process, and how Gamergate affected her personal and professional lives.

Looking forward, it would be great to see Day talk more about race, sexual orientation, ability, and diversity in the geek world in her future writing and public speaking. The ‘democratic’ nature of the internet and of nerd culture is often explored in terms of representation of white women in media and gaming circles, rather than other areas of inequality. Since Day has taken stances against bullying and for embracing your ‘weird,’ using her voice to amplify the complexities of that issue and her channel to host content by nerds of all identities and backgrounds would be both refreshing and ground-breaking.

But this book, while about fairly unusual experiences, focuses on the delight we feel when we find something we’re passionate about as well as the contributions the highs and lows of our lives make to our identity and our work. That’s something everyone can identify with in some way, and makes it a worthwhile read for ‘nerds’ of all types…and the embarrassing childhood photos of Day scattered throughout don’t hurt either.

What did you think of You’re Never Weird on the Internet? How would you title your memoir? Let me know in the comments!

Beyond Auteurs: Do Video Games Need Visionaries Part 3

Part 3: Conclusion

This is the third installment of a series, so if you missed parts 1 and 2, you might want to go check those out.

Welcome back! So far we’ve established that the auteur theory posits that a single visionary drives the artistic success of and takes the credit (e.g. answers) for a work. We’ve also decided that Cage is not the auteur in shining armor the gaming industry’s been waiting for. But that begs the question: if not Cage, then who?

We might first look at indie developers, whose small studios allow them to become more well-known names in the industry. For me, the person who immediately comes to my mind is Phil Fish, one of the developers of Fez and the man you either know from a) Indie Game: The Movie, b) that Innuendo Studios short, or c) haters on the internet.

credit: Flickr user Jeriaska

source: Flickr user Jeriaska

Phil Fish is not the only person who worked on the game Fez. Shawn McGrath brought the initial idea to the table but left the project because of a conflict of vision, after which Renaud Bédard came on as a programmer for the game. Yet only Fish gained a notable level of celebrity from the project itself, the documentary coverage, and his own unflinching outspokenness.

If you’re readying your typing fingers to let me know that Fish is self-centered, overly critical, or a huge douche, never fear–I am definitely aware of his reputation. I would argue, however, that the likability of a developer should not factor into whether or not they play the auteur role. Instead we might look at how developer-player interaction, or more specifically how gamers’ perceived ownership over things they play, affects the development and artistic direction of games.

When we watch a film, even if we’re thinking critically about the costuming or the performance of the actors, going to a movie is a mostly passive experience, an opportunity to ‘veg out.’ When you play a video game, on the other hand, even the most repetitive tasks you’ve done a thousand times before require some level of engagement (as anyone who has tried to eat their dinner while playing can attest).

source: This is Chris

source: This is Chris

What sets gaming apart as a creative medium is its interactivity. Cage’s ideal of a story-based, innovative work can apply to anything from a song to a poem to a comic, but in order for something to be considered a game most agree it should involve some level of player agency, which comes with a necessary feeling of connection to and power over the story.

Consequently, when a developer’s vision or persona deviates from player expectations, players react differently than movie-goers or music fans might. In fact, sometimes that feeling of ownership fosters entitlement that can manifest in not just hurtful but also dangerous ways: for better or for worse, Phil Fish is no longer in the industry.

And sometimes, as seems to be the case with Half-Life 3, developers’ fear of player reactions prevents pieces of art from ever making it to market. (For the record, I don’t think that means we should stop being critical of games or lower our standards, although we may need to rethink the way we convey those criticisms to those who create and produce the games.)

So is expecting a single person to answer for the entirety of a game, especially one much larger than Fez like Half-Life or Mass Effect, beneficial or even reasonable? Games are traditionally made by studios, teams of people working together on project after project. This differs from films, which are similarly made by crews, but by crew members who then go their separate ways after the release.

Yet studios themselves grow and change, shifting workers from one project to another, sometimes giving away projects altogether; Call of Duty has moved studios three times since its inception, while 13 different studios have contributed content to Halo games over the past 15 years. While many are known for certain types of games, few have a singular style as distinct as the ‘auteurs’ of old. And I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing.

source: Halo Waypoint

source: Halo Waypoint

Cage has said in a lecture for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts that he looks forward to the day when game designers can use camera algorithms to mimic the cinematic styles of Scorsese or Tarantino, capturing emotion in a way that he feels is superior to the traditional perspectives of game cameras. But simply imitating the shots of a famous director does not create a meaningful story.

Beyond that, game developers do not have sole or even primary control of the camera. That tends to belong to the player in most games, and players can shape the story in other ways too, from character creation to dialogue choice to world building in games like Minecraft. Yet players certainly wouldn’t be given credit for the music in the Elder Scrolls games or the art direction of Life is Strange.

Which makes me think that we’re asking the wrong questions about games. With roots in interactive fiction, tabletop, and many many other forms of media, video games resist the categorization that film criticism can offer. They do not need auteurs to achieve artistry, and our efforts to transplant film theory onto game analysis is neither as simple nor as productive as many, Cage included, seem to think.

As a form of art, games are academically and critically under-examined, but that’s part of what makes them so exciting. The industry is rapidly changing and the potential for creativity between player, actor, designer, programmer, etc. is huge. And as games continue to evolve, this potential for growth and innovation extends to game criticism, journalism, and analysis.

Thanks for reading! Where do you think gaming, and game analysis, is headed? Do you believe auteur theory holds up? Let me know what you think in the comments. 

Beyond Auteurs: Do Video Games Need Visionaries Part 1

WARNING: as usual I’m spoiling all the things. This time it’s the game Beyond Two Souls.

Part 1: Introduction

While I’ve had my Xbox 360 for going on six years now, I only recently gained access to a PS3, which means I’m catching up on a few older games, including Beyond Two Souls. I’d never played a game by writer and developer David Cage before, and didn’t know exactly what to expect going in. In fact, even after finishing it I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, so I did what I usually do in that situation: I started reading.

During my research on the game, I kept coming across this particular term: auteur. The auteur theory came out of the French film review magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and essentially says that, while many people work on a movie before it hits theaters, an artful film has a single coherent style/bears the signature of a single visionary, in this case the director. A few names are consistently associated with the auteur label, including Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Renoir.

source: wikipedia

As video games have gained legitimacy as both a form of entertainment and an art form, game criticism has grown as well. Predictably, critics have attempted to use existing frameworks from film and literary criticism to analyze games. In particular, some people believe the gaming industry needs auteurs to be taken seriously, and for better or for worse David Cage’s name has been thrown in the ring.

I am not sure that I believe David Cage is an auteur, or that games need auteurs to survive, so I decided to use my experience with the game to try to parse that out. This first post will be an introduction for those who aren’t familiar with the game.

Beyond Two Souls (BTS) is an interactive drama game from Quantic Dream, the French studio that produced Cage’s previous games Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy, and Omikron: The Nomad Soul. In BTS you play as Jodie, a young woman who has had another soul named Aiden tethered to hers ever since she was born. As you might imagine, this catches the interest of many, including the CIA.

The game begins with narration from Jodie, who says she’s trying to patch together the past 15 years of her life, which the player then relives in non-chronological order, playing as both Jodie and Aiden in single-player mode or as one or the other in cooperative mode. Combat and navigation are handled through the joysticks, while puzzles and other action sequences require some button and trigger mashing.

Despite fairly straightforward controls, the mechanics and objectives in a chapter aren’t always intuitive, and the Quick Time Events (QTEs) can get repetitive. Playing as Aiden gives you fewer restrictions mobility wise, but feels more disorienting than empowering. Cutscenes are interspersed between periods of gameplay, but the game moves forward without indicating whether your actions influenced each plot event (spoiler alert: they probably did not).

The game received mixed reviews, with a metacritic score of 70, and was equally if not more divisive among fans, many of whom either love or loathe the game. The dialogue around BTS in gaming communities tends to be both passionate and polarized, as the die-hard fans accuse others of not understanding the game due to their shooter-addled brains, while the haters declare their disgust of all things Cage.

Which brings us to the question I’ll attempt to answer in part 2: who is Cage and how well does he fill the role of ‘auteur’? Thanks for reading! And for patiently waiting for these longer-form series to percolate.

Check out parts 2 and 3 now!