War Criminals: The Mandalorian 1.1

I watched the first episode of The Mandalorian last night, and I’m finding that my opinion seems to conform to a pretty common set of reactions. I thought it captured the atmosphere of certain elements of the nineties Expanded Universe, for better and worse. I enjoyed watching an episode of television that was less than an hour in length, though I felt like it dragged on a bit, meaning I suppose that the show was effectively contained to a narrow time limit but wasn’t economical with its storytelling within that time. At the end of the episode, it felt like a fun adventure, but I also had very little idea of the characters or the overarching plot. The surprise revelation at the end truly was surprising, and it raises a lot of questions, but it has me more baffled than excited.

But after so recently re-reading Tales of the Bounty Hunters, I’m in the mood for more of The Mandalorian. I’m certainly willing to stick with it for at least a few more episodes to see where it goes and what it’s trying to do (then again, there are only eight episodes in the first season, so it’d be easy enough to watch it all).

If there’s something that stands out to me so far, besides the old Legends callbacks, it’s the setting. Set five years after the fall of the Empire, we’re in a time period that’s relatively unexplored within the new continuity. There are certainly echoes of the Imperial Remnant’s splinter factions and warlords from the old Expanded Universe, but I was especially intrigued by how much the show seemed to be reflecting narratives about the post-World War II era. I get that people are amused by the absurdity of a Serious Auteur like Werner Herzog delivering lines about Mandalorian beskar (and forgive me, but I can’t claim to have even the slightest familiarity with his oeuvre), though I instead found it striking to see an older gentleman with a German accent, draped in an ornamental costume and wearing a flashy medallion from his fallen Empire, negotiating for an illicit operation to abduct or kill a target with the promise of payment in ingots of a rare metal collected from a people subjected to a purge by his former military authorities. The Galactic Empire has always relied on a visual language that evokes Space Nazis, but there has been a gradual ramping up in the obviousness of that imagery over time. The First Order is draped in Nazi-esque fascist iconography, and it’s a common observation that the movement of Hux and Kylo Ren feels more than a little like the real-world resurgence of far-right movements across the globe. In The Mandalorian, the Imperial holdouts we’ve seen so far are like Nazi war criminals in hiding in the decades following the end of the war. This progression from aggressive fascist empire to scattered war criminals operating underground to a seething resurgence maps up with real-world developments all too well.

I wonder if this theme will tie in more directly to the developing plot. For now, anything else is pure speculation.

Changing hunters

In my review of Tales of the Bounty Hunters, I started by saying that I wanted to some day talk a little more about how these bounty hunters have changed in their depictions between Legends and the Disney canon. That day has come. I’ll admit that the timing is awfully convenient, what with a show about bounty hunters in the new Star Wars canon premiering this Tuesday. It’s truly just a coincidence, though, or if it isn’t, my subconscious was primed for thinking about bounty hunters given the marketing for this show. Either way, it’s not exactly new ground for this blog (examples one, two, three, and four for consideration).

One thing this post is not meant to be is a biographical sketch of the characters from Tales of the Bounty Hunters, or a careful examination of the differing details of their interpretations across Legends and canon sources. You want that, go to Wookieepedia. What I want to do is talk about how I reacted to some of these changes, and how my opinion might have changed in revisiting a work that was so nostalgic for me.

To begin, I found Dengar’s transition from Legends to canon to be most welcome. In the new canon, he’s consistently been portrayed as a sarcastic, playful personality. He seems to enjoy being around people, even if he’s still a little bit of a sociopath. We are still missing a lot of details in his arc, but we see him go from a member of Boba Fett’s bounty hunting team in The Clone Wars to an aging, sardonic loner desperately yearning for a reconnection with others in the Aftermath books. It seems like his adventures during the reign of the Empire are still mostly untold. I haven’t kept up with the comics in a long while, but it seems like they’ve slowly included some Dengar appearances in which he seems to be much more grizzled. It’d be interesting to learn why exactly he became more hardened and violent and if those wrappings ever became actual bandages.

Regardless, Dengar’s fun now. He’s charismatic on-screen (and on the page), even if most of the other characters find him annoying. I’ll take this depiction over “Payback,” the dour ex-Imperial serial killer bent on revenge from Legends. Plus, the broader story of Dengar now appears to have all the elements of a story of loss, pain, and recovery that formed the core of the older version of Dengar. We’re still missing what caused that pain for him in the middle of this arc, as far as I’m aware, but maybe we’ll see it someday. I prefer Dengar finding salvation in found family over a romantic entanglement, anyway.

Bossk also seems a lot more “fun” in the new canon. He’s loyal to Boba Fett in The Clone Wars, at least. I’m fine with this version of the character; he’s not a mentor, exactly, to Boba, but maybe he’s a sort of weird uncle. That we don’t really have a clear picture of how Boba and Bossk fell out is an unfortunate gap. Bossk’s fate is equally unclear; by the peak of the Galactic Civil War, we only have a snapshot with his cameo on board the Executor. I don’t really know how to feel about this version of Bossk. The original incarnation of the character was so scary, vile, and outright evil. Then again, it’s interesting that Bossk’s character traits went on to largely define Trandoshans as a whole, then in the new canon, with greater individualization within species, Bossk is given a friendlier identity while a faction of Trandoshans is still characterized as Wookiee-hunting psychopaths within The Clone Wars.

Meanwhile, IG-88 doesn’t really seem to have been changed at all. There are a lot of other IG-model droids, from the Clone Wars onward, and these other versions often get used instead of IG-88 himself. That’s been a deliberate choice; in an interview with IGN, Dave Filoni explained:

So a droid like IG-88, if you know the Expanded Universe and the Star Wars history, there are a lot of stories around him or what might’ve happened to that particular droid. So out of respect for people that have been with this franchise a long time, it’s like, “well if we do something with this space, would that be contradicting those stories?” So it’s better just to say, “Well, there’s other droids,” it’s not like it was a unique assassin droid.

I appreciate Filoni’s tendency to bring in things from Legends as reasonable and to leave Legends elements ambiguously canon where possible instead of always explicitly contradicting them with new material, but I also find it ironic that he says that it wasn’t a unique assassin droid, when “Therefore I Am” is very much so about how IG-88 was a unique prototype (something already undermined in Legends with ideas like the IG lancer droids). That all said, I wouldn’t mind a revamped version of IG-88 that more fully explores the contradiction between his lofty ideals for a droid revolution and his practices of overwriting programming and operating through brutal violence. Why does he want the droid revolution? What are his end goals? Something more than simply being disgusted with organics could be really interesting, especially in the wake of L3-37’s debut (and IG-88’s plan to become the Death Star II could provide an interesting mirror to L3’s becoming part of the Millennium Falcon).

Zuckuss and 4-LOM became such weird, splintered characters in Legends. Zuckuss had multiple personalities; 4-LOM had a memory (and personality) reset. These elements appear to have been attempts to explain too many stories about these characters from different writers with different visions who didn’t bother to make for a consistent presentation. That said, I like the earlier versions of these characters. Zuckuss is a thoughtful, meditative, tradition-bound member of a mystic hunting tradition. 4-LOM is a constantly adapting droid who believes that he can program himself to allow for intuition and to maybe even access the Force. It doesn’t seem like the duo have appeared much in the new canon yet, so it’s hard to say how their personalities will cement.

Boba Fett has had the biggest transformation, from weird zealot-murderer to vengeance-obsessed clone; in some ways, he’s become more like the old Dengar. I like the newer version of Boba Fett better. The biggest mark against Boba Fett is that he has an unsatisfying ending. His death was treated as a sort of joke in Return of the Jedi. In a way, Attack of the Clones makes his death more of an inescapable tragedy; his “father” tried to raise a better version of himself, and Jango’s untimely death set Boba down a path that would see him die in a similarly unceremonious way at yet another elaborate execution gone wrong. Legends tried to make Fett virtually indestructible, overcoming the Sarlacc so that he could go on to be a continuing threat to Han and his family. But I think Fett’s life from Kamino to Tatooine has a better, self-contained arc, even if his on-screen death will always be a silly footnote.

As a special addition, I have to mention Greedo. Greedo’s formative Legends tale was in “A Hunter’s Fate,” collected within Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. There, he’s a young hotshot who’s basically goaded, unprepared, into a fight with Han so that his bounty hunter “friends” can in turn collect a bounty on the inept Rodian. Whatever happened in that cantina–Han shooting first, second, or simultaneously–fits comfortably with this narrative. Greedo was unprepared and couldn’t outgun Han. Greedo’s new canon version is actually frustrating to me; he’s been in operation for at least a couple decades, with an active involvement in the underworld of the Clone Wars era, and yet he still bumbles a point-blank shot at Han. It’s a wonder that such an incompetent gunman could have survived in his line of work for as long as he did. If Lucas had simply left Han to shoot first, this wouldn’t bother me as much–Han would have been taking out a threat proactively, before the dangerous hunter could get a shot off. But if Han fires second, or even simultaneously, it becomes difficult to understand how Greedo, with weapon rested on the table before him the whole time, could have screwed up so badly.

Obviously, the above only reflects my opinions and interpretations of these characters. Bounty hunters are on my brain. I’d love to hear which versions of the characters you prefer and why, or even which versions of the characters you’re more familiar with. And as a separate prompt, are there any other characters who have had particularly successful/unsuccessful transitions from Legends to the new canon? Do you see new characters, like IG-11, that are filling the role of a Legends character in new stories? I hope to see some interesting replies!

The Verdict: Bone Wars

Seems every time I claim there won’t be a change to my posting frequency, that’s exactly what happens. Consider last week’s missing post an anomaly, though–it’s been a busy month, and not just with the new job and new volunteer role. In just over a month, Sam and I have been to two weddings and participated in several more social events than I’m used to. It’s been fun but time-consuming, and we’re both just tired now!

Honestly, the most fun I’ve had in a long while was just yesterday. We went to “The Verdict: The Bone Wars” at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. It was an adults-only night of food, drinks, live entertainment, and dinosaurs. The “live entertainment” portion was a mock trial, presented by local attorneys and actors, that addressed the rivalry of paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh in the 1870s. If you were trying to find a more perfect confluence of subjects that were more in line with my interests, it would be difficult: history, paleontology, and law, all accompanied by as much delicious food and as many strong cocktails as I could want.

While there wasn’t a real trial to replicate, the ridiculous antics of the friends-turned-rivals provided more than enough fodder for this reenacted dispute. That said, and while it’s all in good fun, I was surprised that the audience ultimately found for Cope, here in the role of plaintiff in a lawsuit for libel, when there wasn’t all that much evidence presented (within the mock trial) that Marsh actually published anything clearly libelous. The central complaint, his continued mockery of Cope’s reversal of the Elasmosaurus reconstruction, seemed quite firmly rooted in fact. And both men were involved in enough skulduggery and field site dynamiting. I think people just felt sorry for Cope!

What was also cool was that the reception and after-party events were hosted in the museum’s “Dinosphere,” so we could wander around and look at the fossil displays. It’s been years since I was last there. Friendly and informative staff were on hand; I learned a little bit about fossil prep and storage, and even a little sauropod anatomy, from a paleontologist working in a display lab on site, and I learned about developments in fossil reconstructions and displays, as well as future plans for the Dinosphere in light of the Mission Jurassic project, from a museum exhibit interpreter. Plus, the Extraordinary Scientists-in-Residence for Mission Jurassic answered audience questions and provided their perspectives on paleontology past and present after the mock trial ended. So it was all really informative and entertaining!

This was the second year for “The Verdict,” and while the use of a paleontology theme is just a one-off, Sam and I are both very interested in attending future years’ Verdict events.

I’m in a particular dinosaur-focused mood now, so I’m rather eager to get to some books that I’ve been sitting on. There’s Donald Prothero’s The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them, a library hold waiting in my pile of books; Brian Switek’s My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, And Our Favorite Dinosaurs, unread in my own personal collection; and Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth (which just so happens to be about the Bone Wars), a book I keep meaning to get around to but haven’t bothered to obtain yet. We’ll see when and if I get around to them all, though.

Revisiting the Tales of the Bounty Hunters

Well, I’m a day late, and it’s just a book review, but I think you have to agree that a Star Wars review is pretty standard for this blog! I think I want to talk a little more about the bounty hunters in another post, especially regarding how they’ve changed in their depictions between Legends and the Disney canon. But that can wait for another day. For now, my review of Tales of the Bounty Hunters, which I’d last read well over a decade ago, follows.

Tales of the Bounty Hunters (Star Wars)Tales of the Bounty Hunters by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I returned to Tales of the Bounty Hunters partly out of nostalgia, but partly because I’d rather enjoyed the other Tales that I’ve rediscovered in adulthood. On finishing, I was surprised to find that my original rating for this collection, based on childhood recollections, was pretty honest; I haven’t altered that rating. The stories are good, extrapolating from our brief glimpse of Empire‘s bounty hunters into full adventures that are generally interesting, though rarely emotionally investing.

The wildest part to me was realizing that “Therefore I Am: The Tale of IG-88,” by Kevin J. Anderson, was nowhere as good as I remembered it. There was no way that it could be; I remembered it as a high-concept piece about artificial intelligence, droid rights, relative morality, and a fight for liberty. It’s…not that. I can see how the basic story of IG-88’s silent droid revolution allowed me to imagine these larger, richer themes; it stoked the fires of my young imagination, even if it didn’t really execute such an epic story. IG-88 is an assassin droid; it thinks it’s better than organics, so it’s going to kill them all. It thinks droid independence is vital, but it’s quite happy to overwrite other assassin droids to transplant its personality, and it views an override code that will launch a galactic-wide droid revolution as an essential part of its plan. IG-88 never seems to even consider that its own quest for independence is really a blood-stained path to change one oppressor (organics in general) to another (IG-88 in particular). I think that IG-88’s vanity and arrogance are intended to be part of the story, but since we’re largely limited to its perspective and that of a generic Imperial bureaucrat villain, there’s not much effort to really emphasize the hypocrisy of the droid’s plans. And so much of the story is couched in Ultra-Cool 90s Grittiness, with hyper-violent deaths, a mechanized factory world, the aforementioned generic villain, and mostly shoot-’em-up exploits that all feel more like the plot to a video game or very of-its-era comic book than a Star Wars story. I’m still amused that IG-88 ultimately decides to become the Death Star II; like its other copies, its perceived strength is a false image of arrogance, and it fails in its moment of triumph, rather like a certain Emperor occupying the halls of its final battle station form.

There’s a story for each bounty hunter, though, and IG-88’s just the first. “Payback: The Tale of Dengar,” by Dave Wolverton, attempts to make Dengar cool. His central motivation is revenge: revenge against Han Solo, who inadvertently caused him to crash in a swoop bike race, and revenge against the Empire, which used his swoop accident as an excuse to perform super-soldier experiments on his maimed body, erasing most of his emotions and augmenting him considerably. The story was engaging for me, with a lot of 007-esque action, but the central conceit is basically that Dengar is able to find himself in the love of a woman, and that’s a tired trope. It’s sort of interesting that he’s able to find happiness when he essentially rejects a form of toxic masculinity that narrows the emotional spectrum to rage–here applied through the dual science-fiction elements of hyper-advanced surgeries that can precisely cut out specific emotions and of an advanced, pacifistic culture that has developed devices that allow shared emotional experiences. His dream girl can literally allow him to feel how she feels about him. It’s certainly not winning any awards for progressive narrative, but this plot element did provide for a clear arc for Dengar. And it ends with Dengar recovering Boba Fett from near the Sarlacc, rejecting revenge against the man who betrayed him twice, and asking the Mandalorian super-commando to be his best man at a wedding, so there’s that. (By the way, the more I think about it, the more that this story feels like the Star Wars version of Casino Royale, just with a happy ending).

“The Prize Pelt: The Tale of Bossk,” by Kathy Tyers, proved to be my favorite story, though I didn’t remember it that strongly. Partially I enjoyed it as a continuation of the story of armament-company-heiress-turned-bounty-hunter Tinian, who appeared first in another short story by Tyers that was collected in Tales from the Empire. Tyers clearly enjoyed writing Tinian and Chenlambec, providing this story with perhaps the most heart and soul of any in the anthology. But I also enjoyed it because it’s got convoluted plans, with crosses and double-crosses and backup options galore, and because Bossk isn’t provided some redeeming narrative like most of the other characters–nor is he made to be “cool.” Bossk is played up as an evil dude, a vile serial killer who hunts other sentients for fun. We want Bossk to be defeated in the end, and he’s dangerous enough that points in the story are truly scary and nerve-wracking.

“Of Possible Futures: The Tale of Zuckuss and 4-LOM,” by M. Shayne Bell, was another story I was fond of as a kid, but it held up better than I expected. Look, I’ll admit that part of what I loved about it was that two of the protagonists shared the surname Farr (hey, that’s my name!), and they were both intimately involved in the Battle of Hoth, which always fascinated me. Now, though, I can appreciate the story for its incredible weirdness. Zuckuss has his own elaborate alien culture, barely touched on, and a desperate motivation to earn enough credits to repair or replace his oxygen-damaged lungs. 4-LOM was a simple protocol droid who overrode his own programming over time through twisted logic to become first a master thief and then a bounty hunter; he continues to test the bounds of his programming, and he’s actually partnered with Zuckuss because he hopes to learn the art of intuition from his companion. His biggest ambition is to somehow learn to use the Force. Meanwhile, Toryn Farr (whom you may know as the background female officer who was one of the last to stay behind in the Echo Base control room) struggles with being thrust into a leadership situation in a crisis, balancing the needs of the crew with her protectiveness for her seriously wounded snowspeeder pilot sister, Samoc. While Legends wouldn’t let Zuckuss and 4-LOM have the fate suggested at the end of this story, “Of Possible Futures” ends with them joining up as legitimate members of the Rebellion. I love not just the expansion of so many background characters, but the sheer amount of wild and weird. It’s sad to me that we never got more of Toryn and Samoc.

Finally, the last story is “The Last One Standing: The Tale of Boba Fett,” by Daniel Keys Moran. This one still gets discussed in some fandom circles as one of the great Boba Fett stories. It’s fine. Fett is a dispassionate killer, and apparently an ugly man. He’s devoted to the concept of Justice, but he’s perfectly fine with extrajudicial murder, even for lesser offenses like smuggling. He views a good deal of sex as immoral. He’s a prude with a laser gun. There’s an especially awkward scene where Jabba sends Leia to his room, and he promises to leave her untouched, safe in his chambers, for the night; they have a brief moral discussion in which his incomprehensible values are stated as obvious truths. It reads as the ultimate fanboy stand-in: so close to the beautiful Leia Organa, possessing great power over her in a sexually compromising situation, and choosing to be the Noble Gentleman who promises not to lay a finger on her. Frankly, it’s a weird scene to me because I see no reason why, in the fiction of Star Wars, Leia ever had to be at any sort of risk of sexual assault, and I’d believe she could fight or talk her way out of any such situation anyway, so painting her as so vulnerable (and, in this scene, scared) is just downright uncomfortable. That all said, I did like the later sections of the story, as Fett deals with his traumas and wounds as he continues to hunt in old age, finding himself at the very end in a standoff with an equally exhausted Han Solo. The standoff cliffhanger ending, with its ambiguous outcome, is interesting, but I think we all know a character like Solo would never be killed off-screen, in or out of Legends. I think I can see how a story that attempted to provide a background and personality to Fett was so well-regarded at the time, but it hasn’t aged well.

In all, I think I mostly prefer the new canon versions of the characters. But the stories were still mostly enjoyable. Unless you are guided by nostalgia, like myself, I think you can pass over a purchase of the book, used or otherwise, and instead pick it up from the library to check out the tales of Bossk, Zuckuss, and 4-LOM.

View all my reviews

New job, same site, & other news

Surprising even myself, after a few contented years working in an operations administrative support role, I’ve stepped down from my management position to accept a new role in an Indy firm’s Social Security disability department. The transition happened midweek; I left my old job on Wednesday and started my new job on Thursday. But it was about a month in the making. I’m excited and anxious and interested to see how this goes. That’s big enough news in my personal life that I felt it warranted a post. It’s been a year with a lot of big personal events, including the death of our dog, the adoption of two dogs, the purchase of a house, a new volunteer pursuit, and now this. That all said, this site shouldn’t be impacted in any way. I’m already only posting once a week, which has been quite comfortable. While it means that I certainly won’t be increasing the frequency of posts on a regular basis any time soon, I also don’t have any reason to decrease or discontinue posting. I’ve enjoyed writing on this blog, and I fully intend to continue carving out time for it.

I have a few other, much smaller, updates that are more relevant to the focus of this blog, though. I’ve finished Cat Quest. I’ve actually finished it twice now, since it provides a New Game+ mode. That’s taken me a little over 10 hours of game time. I’m a little over level 100. I’ve cleared most dungeons (maybe all, but I wasn’t very diligent in confirming that, and I know I never found all the loot locations in some of the cleared dungeons). I’ve got some high-level themed equipment (a helm of Faith, the armor of Courage, and the weapon of Willpower, resulting in my hero looking like a near-naked enlightened monk). It’s been fun, but I don’t have any particular interest in trying out the other game modes or starting over again. My opinion hasn’t changed on the game, and I’d still say it’s worth the purchase. And compared to my game time spent with Desert Child (just a few hours) or Untitled Goose Game (about five), it’s still been the longest gaming experience among the indies I’ve played lately.

There are altogether too many games available on and coming to the Switch, and I haven’t narrowed down exactly what I’ll play next. That said, Vampyr will be released for the console a couple days before Halloween, so while it may not be the next game I play, it’s certainly one that I’d like to revisit, and the seasonal timing is just perfect.

It’s not much of an announcement, but I’ve realized in retrospect that I sort of gave up on The Clone Wars rewatch. It’s sort of a silly thing to say, because I can of course continue watching or start over whenever I want, but I’ve made no effort to keep up with the official posts for several weeks now. Watching almost any Star Wars film or show will be much easier when it’s consolidated on Disney+ anyway (though it doesn’t appear that the two Endor-based fantasy movies or the Ewoks or Droids shows are dropping there anytime soon). I have been watching other things, though. Sam and I finally finished Adventure Time; that final episode was absolutely fantastic. I’ve started the television version of What We Do In The Shadows, which is fun and tonally fits with the movie, though I’m not far enough along yet to say if it really feels like it’s doing its own thing–that said, I like the introduction of the Energy Vampire concept.

I haven’t watched any particularly memorable movie lately, and my pile of books remains as thick as ever; I keep adding more to read, quicker than I can get through them! Most of my attention is currently on Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, about Thurgood Marshall’s defense of the “Groveland Boys” in Lake County, Florida.

While I could leave it at a week’s recap post for the week, I’ll still plan on having a more “normal” post tomorrow, though I’m not sure what about just yet. And if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. Either way, I’m looking forward to what is sure to be a very exciting, very different week for me.

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.