Hellier

I’ve mentioned The Spooktator before. It’s a smart and funny podcast that explores the paranormal from a news and pop culture angle, with a decidedly skeptical bent. It’s also the only podcast I’ve continued to listen to with any sort of dependability, though I’m often weeks or months behind. I just caught up on several episodes (which covered a good portion of 2019), and in so doing, I heard several references to the documentary series Hellier.

In Season 4, Episode 4 (“Frogman and the Vampire Hunter“), they briefly allude to Hellier in relation to the Loveland Frogman (9:54 to 12:20). One of the hosts, Hayley Stevens, remarks, “I think Hellier is definitely worth watching if you have the time,” although she notes that it’s a bit too long and drawn-out. That was enough for me to seek the show out, available as it is on Amazon Prime.

Hellier is not the type of show I’d normally watch. Its basic premise is that a paranormal investigative team attempts to find goblins in Hellier, Kentucky, that are roughly reminiscent of the fantastical descriptions of the monsters in the Hopkinsville case. It’s such a ridiculous premise that I normally wouldn’t seek it out, wouldn’t even find it, and certainly wouldn’t watch it. And so much of the five-episode series is obvious bunk, but it makes for compelling television because of the unintentional insights into true-believer paranormal enthusiasts. What starts as a monster hunt quickly devolves into an intimate examination of a small group of fringe thinkers who struggle to piece together a compelling narrative that they can star in, even as all the evidence collapses around them. There is so much to observe about how people dig deeper into fringe beliefs, how they frame their identities around those beliefs, and how we can all grasp for greater meaning and connection in disparate events.

Stevens also wrote a review of Hellier on her blog. I didn’t get around to reading the review until after watching the show, but I would recommend starting there before you decide whether to view the over-long chronicle of these investigators’ misadventures yourself. She does a better recap than I would, anyway, and I don’t want to merely repeat the same critiques here.

That said, there are a few points that I took away from the series.

  1. To rational thinkers and those familiar with scientific investigation, it is clear that correlation does not equal causation; coincidences do not indicate any deeper meaning than what we read into them. But apparently, fringe thinkers have invested in ideas like synchronicity: when they see small coincidences, they look to them for greater meaning. They will even try to force meaning from disparate events, if they can find a way to connect them, no matter how strained.
  2. On a similar note, fringe thinkers are willing and eager to find evidence in non-evidence. A lack of evidence, or even evidence that contradicts a claim, can mean to them that shadowy forces are attempting to misdirect them. Rather than stepping away from a fringe theory, they double down in the face of an evidentiary void.
  3. Random occurrences are channeled into a broader, overarching theory. It’s not enough to believe in ghosts, extraterrestrial invaders, Bigfoot, or goblins; they must all somehow be connected, at least if you’ve invested in paranormal ideas as a true believer for long enough. When you go to a small town to find goblins, and it turns out that no one there has ever heard of any, but many people have tall tales of UFOs and Bigfoot sightings and recent footprints of prehistoric birds and even caves with the eerie cries of phantom babies, then the goblins must somehow be manifestations of the other sightings, or the goblins must be part of a misinformation campaign meant to get the team into the area to investigate the other stuff (or to just go off on their own and try to psychically contact the source of all this stuff). The team seems to need to fill the unknown with the known, even if they have to manufacture knowing. They turn chaos into order.
  4. These investigators are incredibly credulous. Even in the first episode, it was obvious to me that the goblins story recounted by their anonymous contact was a hoax. The photographs of prints looked like they could have been produced by gorilla gloves; the blurry night-time photos showed nothing at all, but the investigators were quick to etch out imagined outlines of glowing grey aliens. For much of the series, they clung to the belief that their contact was real, not a pseudonym for a hoaxer, even as evidence mounted that no one with that name ever set foot anywhere near Hellier. (And they trusted a second contact because that guy mostly wrote things that reminded them of The Mothman Prophecies and obscure occult essays.) Things they should have done before even considering a trip to the town, like contacting local records departments or attempting to back-trace IP addresses, are saved for when they become increasingly desperate in Hellier. And at every turn, the mounting body of evidence indicates that the events were a complete and total hoax, an effort by some prankster to draw them out and waste their time. As Stevens notes in her review regarding the use of a particular “experiment” performed by the team, much of what occurs merely serves as “further opportunity for the investigators to interpret randomness as meaningful.”
  5. There are some great stories that come out of these weird investigations. I knew that already, of course; it’s why I continue to loosely follow paranormal news despite believing in none of it. But I still found the goblin story that started this all to be rather creepy and well-told. The eventual ideas brought to the investigation by the team (something reminiscent of the Men in Black, occult codes, cosmic intention guiding their actions, interdimensional beings slipping in and out of our reality in a variety of guises) are fascinating sci-fi/fantasy concepts in turn. And the show’s conclusion, where the researchers walk away empty-handed, with no insights after much weirdness, feels rather like an existentialist revision to a Lovecraftian tale. The great cosmic forces at work are too big to even glimpse, grasp, imagine, let alone be driven mad by. It’s too bad that they don’t leave these ideas in the realm of fiction, that they instead believe in them and want us to believe, too.

That all said, I’ll probably watch when Season 2 comes out.

 

Review: Cat Quest

Of the three quirky indie games I’ve played recently on the Nintendo Switch, Cat Quest (developed by Singapore-based Gentlebros) is by far the longest experience. That doesn’t mean it’s the best, of course, but it does mean that this is a game that I can return to over time. It helps that, despite the RPG-norm grinding, it feels airy, light, and casual, rather than consuming, endless, and bloated. I remain engaged, maybe a little addicted, to this oddball title. If I had to guess, I think I’m about two-thirds of the way through the main story, having completed a huge bundle of side quests and explored many dungeons; if the suggested level of one of the isolated island dungeons is any indication, leveling to the needs of the main quest is more of a floor than a ceiling. (As usual, I’m so behind the times that I’m getting to this 2017 game just around the time that its sequel has released.)

In Cat Quest, you are a cat. On a quest. In the most generic of RPG stories, your sister is captured by an evil villain, and you set out to save her and put a stop to his plans. Turns out that you have a special heritage and destiny, too, because this game lives on RPG tropes. You’re a Dragonblood, the most recent in a storied line of dragonslayers (yes, there are a lot of homages to Skyrim, among plenty of other pop culture mainstays). While the game isn’t quite a satire of these tired conventions, it does have a lot of fun lampshading them and laughing at itself.

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As I referenced, the game is obsessed with pop culture references. Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t get a lot of amusement out of them. Most of the references amounted to a sort of Family Guy-style allusion or simple parody, where the joke is simply getting the reference. Among other things, The Elder ScrollsStar Wars, Santa Claus, Arthurian myth, the Tomb Raider games, Game of Thrones, Lovecraftian horror, The Lion King, Robin Hood and medieval myth and legend, and even Santa Claus get references. The best of these references, to me, are ones that go with a lame cat pun.

There are a lot of lame cat puns. Some are kind of fun. Many are painfully bad. When you play a game called Cat Quest, you’d better hope that there will be cat puns.

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The game itself is fairly simple to play. Most of the game is spent on the overworld map. Exceptions are fairly small dungeons, which load mini-levels to “explore” down railroaded paths. It plays a little like a pared-down Zelda-alike at first, with you mostly pressing one button to swipe at enemies and another button to roll out of range of their telegraphed attacks (always indicated by a darkening red hit radius). You even have a pseudo-annoying pixie-ish “guardian spirit” sidekick to speak for your silent protagonist. Over time, you collect more and more spells and special abilities, which are toggled by additional buttons. I’ve only collected enough spells to fill out my mapped buttons, but while I haven’t had to be selective with spell choices yet, I have found that simply managing four spells plus the melee attack and dodge makes every tiny battle fairly dynamic and fun. Spells use mana, and mana is recharged by melee attacks. Enemies tend to be weak to a particular spell type or physical attack. Combining attacks while rolling out of enemy barrages is sometimes easy and sometimes hectic, especially when you’re suddenly surrounded by enemies. Virtually every battle is fast-paced yet manageable, with strong visual communication of what is happening at all times. Death doesn’t cost you much, so if you do find a challenge in which you are overwhelmed (and fail to turn tail and run quickly enough), there’s very little setback.

A lot of the quests orient around going from one place to another to kill monsters or collect items. Item collection is mostly triggered by reaching a certain point on the map, which is fairly dumbed-down but also makes fetch quests a lot less painful than usual. Some of the quests have interesting little stories, though they’re all heavily drawing from fantasy tropes and common RPG story beats. There are no conversation trees or branching quest paths here (outside of literal divergences in a physical path to a location). It’s all basically an excuse to go around fighting things while exploring more and more of the overworld. Improving in abilities and equipment is almost an afterthought–you run over XP and coins scattered across the land or dropped by enemies, and you collect equipment upgrades from chests. There’s a handful of different armor and weapon types, and whether using a blacksmith or completing a dungeon, equipment drops are randomized. If you get more equipment of a given type that you’ve already collected, this manifests as increased stats for that particular item. So while you’re progressing and improving, it never feels like work to do so; everything feeds back into the simple fun of the combat.

The oddball humor, fight mechanics, focused and honed simplicity, and even bright and colorful visuals remind me in many ways of Japanese indie game Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, and not in a bad way at all. Both games don’t try to be everything; both offer subversions and reinterpretations of fantasy tropes. I think that Recettear pushed the envelope a little further (the idea of running an item shop, stepping into the role of an NPC for any other game, offered a great deal of novelty), but the cute cat characters, open world, and silly puns of Cat Quest, and the lack of shrieking, “cutesy” anime characters, puts this feline RPG at a higher rank in my book.

Cat Quest is pretty, cute, addictive, and fun. It’s not a deep RPG. It’s not one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. But it’s easy to pick up, inviting, and enjoyable–whether I’m playing for a long session or a short one. Playing on a mobile device (or in the Switch handheld mode, which I’ve enjoyed), it would be a perfect option for a quick pick-up-and-play title to fill a commute or while away a Sunday afternoon.

Review: Untitled Goose Game

Untitled Goose Game (developed by indie studio House House) is a small game wherein you are a goose. As said goose, you do what geese are known to do: act like a total dick to everyone around you. You hurtle yourself through a small town, honking and flapping and smashing and stealing on your way. You make people miserable and sow chaos. You pull pranks and cause mischievous, and sometimes unintentional, petty harms. Your grand goal at the end of the game is to tear down a model village tower just so you can drag a shiny bell back across town to drop in your hoard of shiny bells in your swampy home.

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Untitled Goose Game is an absolute delight. The instrumental music is playful and dynamic. The townspeople’s reactions are amusing to observe. It’s fun to test what exactly you can do in each part of town, to see how different combinations of interactions lead to divergent results. The game is consistent and logical, and while you can’t always predict what will happen, you can count on a consistent result when using the game’s mechanics in a similar situation. It’s part puzzle game (where the puzzles are logical and intuitive and delightful to solve), part stealth game (where getting caught is part of the chaotic fun, and where the worst penalty is simply being chased a bit away by an annoyed villager), part sandbox (where destruction and recombination reign), and part peaceful afternoon jaunt.

It took me a single Saturday to play through the entire game, completing every item on every to-do list, including the bonus challenges, the timed runs, and the claiming and donning of the final prize. I enjoyed virtually every moment of it. There was only one point where I had to look something up, and reading the first sentence of a summary in the search results was enough for me to go, “Oh, DUH! Of COURSE,” and promptly take off to complete the task. Even the timed runs were far more fun than frustrating; whereas most of the game was remixing actions to accomplish tasks, now it was remixing task completions such that the results would blend together to enable a successful sub-six-minute completion of a zone. I had to reset a lot to get the time completions of each zone right (resetting is just a reality of even attempting the in-game speed-run challenges), but resetting just restored order to the clutter and placed me at the starting area of a contained zone. Testing ways to move through a level and complete tasks was some of the most fun and challenging experimentation that I had in this wild waterfowl’s lab.

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Even aside from the tasks, it is so joyful and often truly peaceful to simply explore the town. You can just observe the townsfolk moving about. The colors and shapes and textures are soothing. The townsfolk all have evocative personalities, even with the simple bodies and blank faces that encourage the dickish goose personality. Really, very little encouragement is needed to be a massive ass of a goose. It’s fun to pick things up, to toss them about or run off with them, to honk and flap and run and swim. As an example: after a brief tutorial that gets you out of your home with your small set of moves and across a small pond into the village, you are confronted with a picnic spread on a bench; I immediately grabbed up the sandwich and tossed it into the water, just because I could, and there was an immediate jolt of internal positive feedback–yes, this is good, do more of this, the animal part of my brain said. This is all the more remarkable because I hate playing as bad or evil characters in most games; doing evil things, causing harm to even virtual innocents, makes me uncomfortable. But I delighted in my small, and ultimately harmless, torments of the villagers.

I haven’t had such a relaxing and fun weekend evening in a long while. I highly recommend this game!

Review: Desert Child

Desert Child (developed by Oscar Brittain) is a slick little game. It has screens of beautiful environments, popping with color and packed with tiny little scene-setting details. The pixelated character art is simultaneously impersonal and diverse, suggesting a cosmopolitan, integrated, yet ultimately anonymous urban life of the future. Storytelling is subtle but memorable, from background elements like the partially destroyed moon or grafitti on a mecha-turned-lifeguard post to pithy newspaper articles you can purchase from a paper boy (how delightfully, absurdly anachronistic that you walk around this future cityscape with a high-tech mobile device but get your news from good old print papers). The soundtrack is incredible, often appropriately atmospheric but frequently edgy or funky or weird (purchasing the many, many tracks from the record store became an early priority). And the plot and themes of the game pull heavily from sci-fi and anime classics, with a special reverence for Cowboy Bebop.

It is short, though. While I took a hiatus from the game midway through, and only played it a little at a time, it only took a handful of hours to get from start to grand prix victory credits. The story is simple: you’re a hopeless hoverbike racer with ambitions to win the big championship race and maybe find a way off a slowly dying Earth. Most of the game is spent in a cycle of slow wealth accumulation and expenditures. Most of that time, you’re barely breaking even, as you have to pay for food, repairs, upgrades, and races. The odd jobs pay better than the races, but to get ready for the championship, you need to practice your racing, and racing is simply more fun (the adrenaline rush that the protagonist gets from the experience is captured well, and racing is absolutely the most exciting and intense element of a game that is otherwise deliberately slow-paced). At first, time seems a factor, but there’s really no rush to get to the grand prix event (I actually lost the first time, without penalty, and proceeded to lose a second time before finally finding a bike mod buildout and race style that better served me; I had much more wins than losses in the standard races and so never had to worry about bigger strategic thinking before then). As a result of the mellow pace, I settled into a slower but steadier routine, focusing more on odd jobs like kangaroo herding, pizza delivery, and weapons testing runs, accumulating cash that largely went to the bank. With the interest accrual of savings, it made more sense to just keep enough on me to keep myself fed and my bike in working order through the next race. This broke the cycle of poverty in the end and made it quite affordable for me to pursue the grand prix as many times as I needed (why exactly does the grand prix allow multiple runs without some sort of game over?).

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I don’t know if perhaps there are different endings or things to explore after your first completion of the game. My impression is that that’s not really the case. There didn’t even seem to be that many mods to customize my bike. I earned most of my mods by participating in the bike theft mini-game whenever I encountered an unattended ride (this mini-game was a clever way to have a game mechanic reinforce the theme of grinding poverty met with ambition; there are other ways to get bike parts, but the temptation to steal, and the cost of honest purchases of parts, is so great that eventually my restraint melted away).

I haven’t said much about how it plays yet. I actually enjoyed most of the game modes. Races were great fun and felt rewarding to attempt (with some level of risk, since you’ll accumulate hunger and bike damage, and even when you win, the pay-out’s not great). The other odd-job mini-games were fine but uneven; pizza delivery offered a huge payout and was soothingly simplistic, while on the other end of the spectrum, I never could find success with the bounty hunter jobs and quickly gave up on them. My favorite non-race mode was weapons testing, using a borrowed rail gun to take out a variety of enemy drones. But I also enjoyed walking around the different screens of the big city, getting “burgers” (the ubiquitous term for all food, from ramen to pizza) at little shops and stalls, and admiring the scenery set to funky music.

Desert Child is a little game, but it’s a cool game. If you come to it for an atmospheric, bite-sized good time, you’ll enjoy yourself. Don’t expect something incredibly deep or lengthy, though! This game’s more about style than layers of substance, and it works.

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Completing objectives

Over the past week, I’ve finally finished On Her Own Ground (the biography of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Perry Bundles). I really struggled with making progress through that, but the woman and the history surrounding her are equally fascinating.

That said, this post’s primary purpose is to note that I should have some additional video game reviews up over the next couple of days, having dug into a few games from the Switch’s eShop over this weekend. Those games are Desert ChildUntitled Goose Game (which I started and proceeded to complete on this Saturday alone), and Cat Quest. The first two of those games are actually quite short, but my time spent across these titles still reflects a weekend in which I devoted more leisure time to video games than I have in a while.

Outside of that, I also started my first volunteer shift at the Indy Reads Books store. It’s a bookstore in support of the nonprofit organization Indy Reads, which is focused on providing literacy programs in Indianapolis. It’s a cool cause, and the bookstore itself is full of quirky, eclectic titles (in addition to all the new and classic books you’d expect to see in any bookstore). I enjoyed my short time there today, and my biggest challenge so far is that it’s far too easy to buy more books while I’m there. I’d been so good about sticking to library loans! At least I can say that it’s going to a good cause.

I don’t have anything else to add, so I’ll just repeat that I should have reviews for those three games on the site soon.

“Hello Neighbor” Sucks

There are literally dozens of Switch games that I’m eager to play–physical and digital, across a variety of genres, some exclusive to the console, some universally available, and even some older titles getting remakes and re-releases on Nintendo’s joyous little console. Yet I’ve been trying to take it slow, attempting to get through the bulk of a game before moving on to the next; with single-player titles, I’m making more of an effort to complete the main campaign. With my limited time spent on video games, this significantly slows down my interactions with newer titles.

All that said, Hello Neighbor was not on the top of my list, but my wife has been interested in this game for a while. There are some games she likes to watch me play, even if she doesn’t want to play herself, and this was toward the top of her list. So, that’s what I picked up.

I’ve regretted that more or less since the first day. I’ve tried telling myself that I hadn’t given it a fair enough shake. Then I tried telling myself that I just wasn’t much of a puzzle enthusiast, that I was the wrong audience. Eventually I was telling myself that glitches happen in games, even game-breaking glitches. Now, I think I’m done. I’ve only played for maybe a dozen or so hours, most of that time spent struggling to counteract poor controls, puzzles spread out over a wide space with little intuitive connection, and bugs that failed to trigger events. Despite all that bullshit, I’m still squarely in the middle of Act 3 (with a Finale level to follow, apparently). So it’s a short, poorly constructed game.

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Hello Neighbor is marketed as a colorful survival horror/stealth puzzler game with bold visuals, in which you compete against your antagonistic Neighbor, to probe a dark secret stored in his basement. Selling points of the game are the sandbox interactions with the house and the neighbor’s adaptive AI.

I’ll allow that the game, at the least, does offer an AI (however rudimentary it actually seems to be in execution) that attempts to counter your actions, and it appears (from the walk-throughs I’ve scoured in frustration) that there are actually multiple ways to get through each level of the game (even if they’re almost all equally convoluted). I found, however, that the sandbox elements feel dampened severely when your goal is to end up in the same few spaces, and when environmental manipulation is so limited.

Controls are twitchy and imprecise. Your targeting is indicated by a minuscule dot. Even when you lock onto something, clicking the controls does not consistently deliver the desired response. There are only a few controls that do anything, and yet it’s not always clear which control is appropriate for a given outcome. Mostly, you can turn things on or off, pick things up, and throw things. A lot of the game requires some combination of stacking objects and jumping. This is as imprecise as everything else, made worse by the fact that “dropping” objects is more like lightly tossing them. Dropping an object in front of you can be affected by slight changes in viewing angle or even apparently random chance, making it difficult to consistently replicate an outcome. It’s just as variable as to which items you might be able to pick up; some are scene dressing, but it’s not clear why, say, an end table is off limits but a large dining chair can be tucked into your inventory like anything else. “Using” special items to perform a particular action is also limited; the magnet, for instance, only attracts metal objects that the game wants you to be able to grab via this method. Not to mention that, when you’re running from a child abductor, it’s frustrating that hurling a metal object at best slows him down, and there’s no option to strike said abductor with your handy wrench or crowbar (that last complaint, I recognize, is more a personal objection to the limiting confines of this particular style of YouTube-era tween-scream “horror” game–although at the least, these games usually try to be horrific, or at least jump-scare worthy, and this game is mostly just annoying).

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Hurtling through the air. A+ physics.

While I might have seemed a little more forgiving of the AI than the limited sandbox, I still wasn’t fond of it. Sometimes it worked well. Sometimes (like with Alien: Isolation), the neighbor seemed to become attached to me on a tether, racing back and forth between the same couple of rooms, maybe never bothering to check out my obvious hiding place (e.g., tucked into a partially cracked dresser or behind a pile of boxes) but nonetheless unreasonably convinced that I must be inhabiting a room with no sign of my presence. Sometimes the neighbor would set a truly hindering trap or knock away a prop I’d relied on, and sometimes he’d stare dumbly at the same window I’d jumped through half a dozen times or simply fail to reset the same trap I’d triggered just as many times before. Sometimes the neighbor would pursue me unshakably, even in the dim of night; sometimes I could run circles around him or run up on him from behind without detection; sometimes he’d be able to “catch” me by touching my feet while I was on a higher platform; sometimes I’d be able to dash past him less than an arm’s length away.

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The sometimes-this, sometimes-that nature of things made it difficult to get a feel for the game’s rules, such as they were. It made it difficult to figure out how exactly to approach problems. It made it difficult to understand if the game was being intentionally challenging, or if something was poorly thought through, or if something had broken again. Whenever you’re caught, you’re returned to your starting point at your house (or, in the middle act, in the neighbor’s basement), but you (normally) keep any of the four items you had in your inventory, while any environmental changes are completely up in the air. Will boxes be where you left them? Windows still broken or not? You won’t know until you get there!

I would have given up a lot sooner if not for the scant guides available online. I’d hop between them, looking for the least-tedious option to progress through a level. With virtually no clearly articulated goals (other than to ultimately get in or out of a locked basement), and with random objects hidden away throughout the house that will trigger inscrutable outcomes in other sections of the house, typically only discovered in turn with further searching, it’s amazing to me that anyone ever put in enough time to figure it all out. Literally one section of the game required breaking into an attic from the roof and going down a ladder into another room, then discovering and using a key to open a doll house, then selecting the small profiles of doors in the dollhouse to unlock rooms in the actual house. All without any explanation or any obvious input/output from your actions. Adding to the “fun,” the Neighbor suddenly decided to start scanning the rooftop for my presence, then raced to apprehend me and set a camera trap, making my future completion of any objectives up there incredibly tedious.

When things are so disconnected as is, it’s infuriating when the game just breaks. Walk-throughs taught me how I should have been able to acquire a wheel, by activating a series of pipe junctions, but when I did so, nothing happened. I had to load an older save and repeat the actions to get the wheel valve to burst from its mooring appropriately. In the third act, there’s a tram looping around on a roller coaster circuit (the third act is rather fantastical), and this tram can be boarded, and this tram will also consistently kill you when going down a slope–I guess the game thinks you’re free-falling. The tram death will reset you in the tram again at a different time of day, which says to me that the designers knew about the error but, rather than fixing it, just made it so that resetting didn’t disrupt your progress too badly. Except that I’ve noticed that if you let yourself die on the tram enough circuits in a row, it will reset you back in your house, only now without the ability to move forward(??), only to the sides, requiring a reset to fix. The tram is also the easiest way to get on the roof of a particular section to get to a wrench to open another area, but you’d have to be able to stop the tram just right. I’ve seen YouTube videos in which people freely control the tram. But I’ve tried every combination of buttons I could think of (including of course the usual use button), but nothing happens with the tram control lever. The tram continues on its own preset route, inevitably killing me in “free-fall.” There are places where I could jump on the tram, but the game chooses to treat me as immobile, standing in midair atop it as the tram continues to glide forward, leaving me to eventually fall. It’s this bloody tram, in fact, that finally killed my will to soldier on.

I don’t feel like I’m missing much. The story’s not interesting. First act: your boy protagonist sees evidence of the Neighbor committing some horrible act, so he goes to investigate, infiltrating the basement only to discover that it’s a dungeon apparently set for him. Second act: after capture, the boy must escape the dungeon and the grounds of the house, which has been expanded and is now ringed by a colossal fence. Third act: the boy, now a young man, returns to his abandoned home, observing the dilapidated Neighbor’s house; he begins to hallucinate, and after apparently being woken from a nap, he sees the most elaborate version of the house yet. He decides to infiltrate it again–presumably working through a dreamscape to cope with the traumas of his past. The dabbling in the surreal would be more interesting if it didn’t feel so narratively predictable, or if it didn’t result in ever-more-opaque game mechanics.

To add to the surrealism, whenever you are caught by the Neighbor, there is a chance of playing through one of several dark dream sequences that present an abstract glimpse of the Neighbor apparently losing his wife and daughter. The implication that the Neighbor was driven generically “mad” by his grief and now abducts children to attempt to fill the void in his life is offensively disconnected from any real psychological examination and did nothing to make me regard the Neighbor as more sympathetic. (Not that the boy’s coping with his childhood trauma in the third act feels any more realistic or profound.)

The novelty of the game and its colorful aesthetics don’t make up for its many, many structural flaws. This isn’t anything new to say; there are plenty of professional critic and consumer reviews that all reflect similar concerns. Metacritic reports an aggregated score of 39 for the Switch and 38 for the PC. It’s been out for about a year on the Switch, almost two years for PCs. I should have known better. But it can be hard to tell when a game is mediocre but still offering an interesting mechanic or story to make it worthwhile, and when a game is just outright bad. And of course, it’s more than a little bit of a subjective measure anyway. But I would add to the chorus of voices saying that Hello Neighbor is a plain old bad game.

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t ignore the overwhelming critical consensus here. There are plenty of games on the Switch. Choose something better. Choose anything else.

Super-heroic Legacies in Classic Comics Collections

I’ve been on something of a superhero kick, seemingly out of nowhere. If there’s been a theme, it’s been legacy and historicity–stories where heroes are grounded in particular moments in time, where they age, where they are phased out over generations. Stories that can really only exist when there are decades of superhero comics to build on and reinterpret. I love these sorts of stories, and amazingly, the classics I’ve been perusing lately are works that I haven’t seriously touched before (though they all owe some debt to Watchmen, it’s safe to say, and I’m certainly familiar with Alan Moore’s perhaps most-well-known work).

So far, I’ve gone through Marvels (written by Kurt Busiek with art by Alex Ross), Kingdom Come (written by Mark Waid, with the story and art from Ross), and DC: The New Frontier (written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke with colors by Dave Stewart).

As usual, the local library system has impressed me with the range and quality of its collection. After going through these comics, I’m eager to get my hands on The Golden Age (written by James Robinson with art by Paul Smith, and a series which must have informed the three limited series I just read and which most certainly influenced New Frontier) and to start working through Astro City (another Busiek/Ross collaboration with art from Brent Anderson as well). If you have other suggestions that fit the collectively shared themes of these works, please let me know–I probably haven’t heard of them!

My reviews follow, but these are of course well-regarded classics, so I don’t really expect to be saying anything new! Then again, if anyone reading this hasn’t heard of (or taken the time to read) any of these works, maybe this will be encouragement to do so.

Marvels: The Remastered EditionMarvels: The Remastered Edition by Kurt Busiek

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marvels shines in two primary ways: its fantastic, often hyper-realistic, dynamic, densely packed, homage-laden artwork, and its way of creating a sense of real history for the Marvel universe, retelling stories from the earliest days up through the 1970s through the lens (literal and metaphorical) of an everyman photographer who wrestles with his feelings about superheroes and his place within a city (and world) full of them even while he makes a career snapping their pictures.

You can trace the themes of generational continuation and change of legacy superheroes and realistic treatment of superheroes and their impact on the world into later projects of writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross. It also had an obvious influence on later works by other creators. Its impact is significant, and it was a pleasure to read.

I don’t have much more to say, other than that I also enjoyed the ancillary materials included with this volume.

Kingdom ComeKingdom Come by Mark Waid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alex Ross was not only the artist but also the originator of the overall plot for this story, and his imprint, visually and thematically, is strongly felt. Together with writer Mark Waid, Ross tells the story of inter-generational conflict between superheroes: the increasingly out-of-touch old guard, and the violent and irreverent younger “heroes.” That latter group consists of many descendants of the older heroes, sometimes children and sometimes bearers of a legacy title. In truth, both generations seem to have lost touch with the people they should be serving. While the younger generation is reckless and uncaring, the older generation begins to see control rather than service as the only way to keep the world orderly and safe.

The old guard is led by Superman, retired for about a decade since the Joker killed many in Metropolis, including Lois Lane, and was in turn killed by the violent hard-liner hero leading the new generation, Magog. Superman left, heartbroken and disillusioned, disgusted that Magog not only was acquitted of the cold-blooded murder of the Joker but gained popular support of a public exhausted by the mass mayhem caused by supervillains. Superman reemerges after Magog’s reckless antics lead to the accidental devastation of the heartland of America, sending the nation and the world into a spiral of lawlessness and economic instability. Superman feels it is his responsibility to restore order and bring the younger heroes into line, no matter what. Pushed by an increasingly militant Wonder Woman, he almost accidentally begins to form a fascist pseudo-government. The world comes ever closer to a superhero-induced apocalypse as sides are drawn: Superman’s new world order, the rebellious anarchy of those metahumans who chose to resist, and Batman’s secret army eager to preserve freedom in the face of the superhuman threat. Stirring the pot is a conspiracy of surviving supervillains, hidden under the banner of a society eager to preserve human liberty. And this whole narrative is framed through the eyes of a pastor, close to losing his faith, who begins to have apocalyptic visions and becomes the human host of the Spectre, chosen to witness and pass judgment on this brewing metahuman war.

It’s a complicated narrative and it’s so deftly told. Frankly, I wasn’t happy with every character choice, but at the end of the day, it’s a story about superheroes losing their way and gradually finding their humanity, and purpose, once more. It’s an interesting, if extreme, examination of the relationship between Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. It pushes the three in ways to see what would make them break. Superman loses everything that tethers him to humanity, then has the public reject him to choose a suicidal path. Wonder Woman is deemed a failure by her people because they do not see sufficient progress at improving the world of men; they strip her of her royal title and cast her adrift. Batman has spent a life broken and battered by his dogged pursuit of justice, alienating those close to him. Yet they all react in interesting and organic ways. Superman, in particular, never loses his faith in truth and justice, but his rejection of his human side leaves him open to forcing order on chaos. Wonder Woman becomes increasingly militant and violent, probably straying the furthest from her principles and pushing Superman down a dark path. But Batman is almost liberated, no longer masked and using a patrol force of robots to keep order in Gotham; he seems the happiest and most contented of the bunch, and maybe the most human. These were bold character decisions, and I can appreciate that.

What I really loved was the sense of generational change and the cultural clash between younger and older heroes. Every panel was so packed with characters, referencing the fates of heroes who did not have a major role in the plot and creating so many “heroes” for the new generation. There is such a sense of history, significance, lineage, legacy. This can be felt not just in the existence of aged interpretations of iconic characters, or the inclusion of Gold- and Silver- age characters along with the new ones, or even the incredibly deep-cut comics references, but the distinctly unique styles of the generations, down to the ’90s “extreme” looks of many of the younger heroes. And truly, there are so many stories just barely being glimpsed in the background, or even among the secondary and tertiary characters. There’s a barely glimpsed three-generation story about the Bat Family, and an even more unspoken three-or-four-generation story about the Arrows and Canaries. It’s like Star Wars; there’s a whole rich world to get lost in here, beyond just references to other comics (of which there are plenty).

On that note, while the story itself is great, I almost enjoyed the supplementary materials more, especially the genealogies and character sketch sections filled with little details about the heroes and villains of this world.

It would be easy to read Kingdom Come as the sort of grimdark story I wouldn’t normally like, but by the end, it feels more a metatextual challenge of exactly those sorts of stories, a statement that even if superhero stories maybe lost their way in the dark, in all the moral grey, they can still find their way back. No matter what comes at Superman, he’ll always be a true hero.

(By the way, it seems obvious to me that Injustice: Gods Among Us took heavy inspiration from Kingdom Come. But that video game franchise chooses to ignore the uplifting message, instead showing heroes truly unhinged. In comparison, Injustice is, to me, the clearly inferior work.)

The New FrontierThe New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I arrived at this collection in a meandering way. Before I’d realized his involvement with many DCAU projects, I first became aware of Darwyn Cooke through the direct-to-video Justice League: The New Frontier. I instantly fell in love with that movie; the large cast of characters, sense of grounding in a real moment, and combination of so many threads of comic book and real-world history were absolutely lovely. Yet I didn’t seek Cooke’s limited series out for quite a while, even as I explored many of his other projects.

I’m happy to have finally closed the gap and read this beautiful collected edition of DC: The New Frontier, written and drawn by Cooke, with additional materials including previously uncollected stories set in this particular universe. It’s everything I loved about the film and more. I especially loved the broader focus on an even wider cast of characters, and the intermingling of Gold- and Silver-age characters with those of war stories and other weird sci-fi comics. It’s a fascinating reconfiguration/recombination of so much DC lore into a streamlined, consistent narrative. And it has the benefit of so much comics history, and the benefit of hindsight into the historical trends in the period in which these comics were written, and the benefit of being able to freely express itself and draw from real-world events and to combine previously segregated genres of comic stories without censure (or, for that matter, censor). Plus, the artwork is absolutely gorgeous, and it feels as much a physical product of the 1950s as it is a story set within the period. (Also cool: it uses Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to powerful effect, yet it can have this iconic trinity present without dominating the plot; they’re all secondary characters, and the real stars are the Suicide Squad, the Challengers of the Unknown, Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, and J’onn J’onnz.)

I’ve always loved stories that took the history of a genre to full effect, building on disparate elements to suggest a deeper shared history. That’s true of the Star Wars EU, and of the later Marvel movies, and of projects like Justice League Unlimited or the Young Justice series, and of New Frontier. And its effort to condense so much comics history (in-universe and out) into a single story is exactly what I wanted to see. When I was younger, I was fascinated by the idea of a comic series that retold the origins of its heroes in ways that more clearly intersected across character and genre lines and drew from the history of the era, with new characters introduced into the timeline as one reached the year of their real-world first publication. This series is exactly that project.

This series is certainly a product of so many comics and creators in the decades preceding its release; Cooke is generous with his attributions and tributes to the artists who influenced him. I am sure that New Frontier will, in turn, influence many other works.

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