All the Games

After a couple fits and starts, I finished Broken Age. This could warrant a full review, but everything I would want to say can be summarized as follows: excellent characterization, lovely plot that finishes a bit too abruptly, lots of cute little jokes, absolutely beautiful, BUT the gameplay is often frustrating in the worst traditions of adventure games. Two of those points bear emphasizing. One: the art is absolutely gorgeous! A series of screenshots are below, to hopefully support that claim. Two: the gameplay can be so infuriating!

So much of the time is wandering around the map, collecting random items from the environment, from dialogue choices, and from puzzles, then figuring out where the items might ultimately come into play. There’s a lot of backtracking and trading of random crap for other random crap. Sometimes it seems logical, or even obvious; sometimes, the use of an item for a given situation can seem clever. But most of the time, it just seemed arbitrary. The world and the characters were so quirky, lovely, and charming; the plot had some fun twists and pivots and re-connections; but the impact of those elements was lessened as I trudged back and forth in the most point-and-clickiest way possible. You ever find yourself faced with a frustratingly opaque game challenge requiring a specific solution, while you want to scream another, more apparent option? That’s so much of this game for me. Especially when there are so many characters to talk with, it was frustrating to see that being able to propose obvious solutions or to ask obvious questions was just stripped out. In short, the game felt…artificially difficult (or at least its second half did). In the last act, I frequently consulted a guide, increasingly impatient with the bizarro limitations put into place. If you played a lot of classic point-and-click adventure games, though, you might have a more positive experience.

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Besides Broken Age, I also played a couple of weird little indie projects that released to a lot of acclaim but basically passed me by until now.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is zany and fun, with a surprisingly heartfelt and endearing story under the wacky Saturday-morning-cartoon premise. It’s a fairly short but worthwhile experience.

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Then there’s The Stanley Parable. This was fun, but I lost interest fairly quickly without exploring most of the branching paths and endings. I spent most of my short time with it forcing endings through disobedience. The narration was charming, but I thought the game a bit too clever for its own good (and really, exploring “choice” in a video game and in life has been done more subtly elsewhere, hasn’t it?).

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I also jumped back into Hotline Miami a little bit recently. This game’s just perfect at setting a mood. The jarring, twitchy controls. The bizarre cuts between levels. The splashy blood. The bright colors. The pounding music. The game honestly makes me feel a little ill and a little disassociated after a while, like I’m getting into the head of a psychopath–or as close as I’d want to be, anyway. Gamification of the violence drives home that disturbing feeling, too. It’s a surreal experience, and the gameplay and music provide a powerfully addictive combination. I’ve played the story once or twice, and I’ve also played individual levels on occasion. But I don’t think it’s a game that I could ever 100%–I’d have to spend too much time getting really good at really disturbing shit.

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Moving out of indie games, I’ve returned to Jurassic World: Evolution, as well. A recent update included a new challenge mode. So far, I’ve fiddled around with the easy mode, taking my time, having fun, then realizing in a panic that while I would probably eventually get to 5 stars, I was definitely not going to meet the par time. This could prove to be a quite challenging mode, especially working all the way up to Jurassic difficulty while meeting the par times, and it may or may not be enough to keep me in the game for a while (if only to try to return my status to 100% completion).

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Finally, I’ve been playing ever more of Star Wars: Battlefront II. The 2005 edition, of course. It’s just so fun and easy to hop into even if I don’t have a lot of time to play.

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And that’s all for games. The final post, on television, will follow tomorrow.

All the Books

I’ve finally allowed myself to learn to love audiobooks. They’re great for providing something for me to focus on when otherwise doing a fairly mindless or boring task. But since my multitasking ability sucks, I’ll only listen to things that I’m okay with missing something in. Listening is just not the best way for me to absorb a story (and I’ll never accept that it’s comparable to reading; they’re just apples to oranges–oral storytelling is great, but it is different than written storytelling, and this is real estate in the general vicinity of a hill I’m willing to die on).

Truly, the credit for my newfound acceptance goes to the Indianapolis Public Library’s collections and the accessibility of the Overdrive and Hoopla websites and apps. I’ve already made it through a couple books despite the recentness of this change of heart.

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The first audiobook I experimented with was William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher. I enjoyed the stageplay feel, with a few different voice actors narrating the book. The sound effects were great. I was tickled by the human pronunciations of R2-D2’s whistles, and his internal monologues were a weird diversion. Nonetheless, the novelty wore off quickly enough for me. It’s hard to suggest that this has much merit on its own, after all–it’s entirely about the gimmick of combining Star Wars and Shakespeare. The saturation in pop culture and melodramatic nature of the two draw comparisons, and Doescher obviously put a lot of effort into emulating Shakespeare’s style, but it’s basically what it says on the tin, good for a bit of amusement and nothing more. Still, the production value of the audiobook was so good that I could listen to another in this series.

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan was second on my list. My first observation: it has too many subtitles. The audiobook brought life to the story, and it really showcased how good Drew Karpyshyn is at describing action. The narrator’s decisions regarding voices were somewhat disappointing. Revan sounded like bored Batman, even though he was written in the book as a sort of funny guy who was quick to quip and often contemplative. The Sith Lord Scourge sounded like angry Batman. And the female characters–Meetra and Bastila, for instance–typically sounded like man-doing-a-high-pitched-voice (which is, after all, what was happening), so I think the emotional resonance of their characters suffered.

Despite enjoying the action sequences, I don’t like what this book did to Revan and the Jedi Exile. For one thing, it shouldn’t have defined who they were. The KOTOR games were stories set in the distant past, a fable even in the context of the old EU canon. There was no need to have a “canon” series of events–these games thrived on player choice and the consequences of those choices.

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But even accepting a “canon” version of events, it’s icky to have a story where the Jedi Exile acts like a subservient cheerleader of Revan and ultimately dies for him, becoming a Force ghost to keep him alive. Also, these are characters players have a lot of connection to–their tragic ends here are a let-down and seem to exist only to raise the stakes of The Old Republic and make that game seem EVEN BIGGER, LOUDER, AND BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL (reminds me of the decision to kill off Newt and Hicks in Alien 3). Finally, the game seems to retcon things a little bit, once more in the service of making The Old Republic more important. For instance, and most significantly, the Sith Emperor’s Force-devouring evil is presented as this colossal threat that would even shift Sith to become Jedi allies–but isn’t that reflective of exactly who Darth Nihilus was and what he was up to in KOTOR II?

I liked the similarly over-subtitled Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance (by Sean Williams) when I read it years ago, but in retrospect, I cannot be sure if I was just more into the “edgy” take on Star Wars being offered by the writers of The Old Republic game and media push than I would be now.

The one Star Wars story of the bunch that I really enjoyed was something I read rather than listened to: an ebook version of Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy: A Graphic Novel (yet another work with too many subtitles). The artwork is clean, colorful, and emotive. Best of all, it’s a masterclass in efficient editing. Each of the films is stripped down into a much tighter, action-packed core. Extraneous fight scenes (and the infamous podrace) are cut down considerably or even (as in the case of the starship fight over Geonosis between Obi-Wan and Jango) cut completely. Some quirky bits of dialogue and some genuinely good character moments get left on the cutting room floor, but almost everything felt improved by the omission. Some things I wish they’d been willing to cut even further. They opened late and ended early on a lot of moments, and yet midi-chlorians remain in, and Anakin’s admission that he killed even women and children in the Tusken Raider village stays as well. Still, given the source material that the graphic novel is operating from, this is probably the best format that I’ve seen the prequels in so far. The weird thing is that this collection seems to have been made with a crew big enough for a small film–it’s difficult to attribute to only a few individuals.

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I also read an ebook version of Dark Horse’s Age of Reptiles Omnibus: Volume I by Ricardo Delgado. The art was gorgeous and dynamic. So much was packed into each panel, and there was such a strong flow from panel to panel. Motion was clearly conveyed. There was a buzzing energy that propels you onward. This comic series appears to have a well-deserved reputation for its entirely visual storytelling. Motivation and emotion are clearly conveyed through dinosaur body language and action. There is no dialogue (obviously–they’re dinosaurs), and there are no descriptive sound effects. All storytelling happens through the art alone. My major criticism would be that the stories are a little too focused on nature red in tooth and claw, but we do see other aspects of the dinosaurs’ lives. The Journey was the most satisfying story (the image here comes from it), epic and yet also somewhat mundane, a slice-of-life story nonetheless replete with death and violence.

That’s it for the books. Next: all the video games.

Review: The Road to Jonestown

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples TempleThe Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Road to Jonestown is a compelling portrait of Jim Jones. He’s a fascinating human, and his combination of socialism and an increasingly spiritualist interpretation of the Gospel seems very enticing (though obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Jones was not a man worthy of following). Typically I don’t see the appeal in cults, but that ideology and service-driven focus could have easily snagged 19-year-old me if I’d been around at the time. Just as interesting, Jones was able to gain legitimacy by obtaining membership within a nationally recognized church and by integrating himself into civil rights campaigning in Indianapolis and San Francisco. For all the abuse, control, and killing that would come down the line, he started off doing a lot of good. Yet that doesn’t make up for the evil that was ultimately unleashed by his increasingly twisted, controlling psyche.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown, cults in general, or even local histories of Indianapolis or San Francisco. Just a fascinating read, and quite well-researched too.

I had two complaints with the book that were perpetual minor irritants.

For one thing, Guinn repeatedly refers to “Indiana University” as “the University of Indiana.” There are a lot of universities in Indiana, but the University of Indiana ain’t one of them. No one I know who is an alumnus or fan of IU calls it that, and as far as I can tell, it never had that name in its history (certainly not in the mid-twentieth century). Despite this, it’s a misnomer that Guinn uses frequently in the first third of the book, and he even indexes the university under this incorrect name. While it seems like he did his research about Indiana and appears to have visited at least Richmond and Lynn, this nonetheless made me repeatedly question his rigor of research and understanding of the state that, after all, formed Jim Jones into the adult and pastor who would form a church and campaign for civil rights reforms all before moving on to California.

The other complaint is that Guinn freely mixes the use of the terms “socialism” and “communism.” This would be a minor irritant, but it made it difficult to understand what, exactly, Jim Jones was advocating for. It may be that Jim Jones left plenty of confusion on that point–his organization seemed socialist, but he was prepared to move to communist Cuba or Russia by the time of the Jonestown days. Nonetheless, if Jones’s basic ideology was really so muddled as to be unable to distinguish between these systems of governance, it would have been nice to make that clearer in the text (or to make it clear that the confusion lay in communist countries referring to themselves as socialist). Especially in today’s politically divided America of hyperbolic rhetorical extremes, where even commonly accepted government entitlements are derided as “socialist” and treated as equivalent to communism by an ever-growing subset of conservatism, I think it’s important to use these terms as carefully as possible.

Those were the only things that bothered me while reading. It was a fast-paced, informative, and disturbing read. Guinn appeared to approach the matter with honesty and good faith. While in retrospect I would have preferred to learn more about the specifics of Jones’s increasingly bizarre beliefs that appeared to combine government conspiracy theories with spiritualism, a belief in reincarnation, and socialism, Guinn still does an admirable job of tracing the public and private arc of one rather charismatic cult leader’s life and self-serving death.

View all my reviews

Return / Updates

I was accidentally away from the blog for a while. On return, I decided to make a couple changes.

First, I’ve changed the WordPress template I’m using to hopefully make things more streamlined. Now there’s a greater emphasis on text, which is after all the primary format of this blog. I think images still look fine with the changes. And the stream of past blog posts feels less overwhelming to me now. I genuinely liked the walls of images until I didn’t anymore. (There are some other minor tweaks, like the addition of displayed archives.)

Also, I created a Facebook page for this blog. If you like the blog, I’d be flattered by a like of the page, but it’s basically just there to make it easier to publish new posts to Facebook now.

If you like (or dislike) the changes, feel free to let me know.

I think I’ll be back to regular posts now. It’s funny–I’ll schedule stuff through holidays, but then it’s after the holidays that I get behind.

(Header: Oil painting by Samantha Melvin, 2016.)

Swan Watch: Clone Wars Adventures

Bultar Swan stars in “Impregnable,” the third story in the short comic anthology of Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures Volume 7. The script’s by Chris Avellone, with art by Ethen Beavers and colors by Dan Jackson. It’s a fine little action story. Swan, her forces demolished, strides into an allegedly impregnable fortress, slowly dismantling defenses and sealing the surviving commander inside. Locking an opponent in as the life support fails is more “Cask of Amontillado” than Jedi Code, though. I thought the story worked well enough for the format, but I was very disappointed by the use of Bultar Swan as the protagonist. This seems to go against what little character development had already been established for her. A ruthless killer willing to leave someone to die is basically antithetical to what interested me about her in the first place. (And while it goes unaddressed, her ability to simply walk into the fortress certainly suggests she might have sacrificed wave after wave of soldiers for little purpose.)

Plus, she’s silent the whole time, while the despotic villain in the fortress core taunts her throughout. It’s not an unheard-of form of storytelling, and it can work well, but her silence and martial prowess evoke uncomfortable comparisons to the silent, stoic Asian martial artist cliche. In this light, the otherwise forgivable caricature of her facial features that is typical of the style of art employed comes off as a way to accent her Asian-ness while removing much of the character’s resemblance to her film counterpart. There’s even one panel where her face is bathed in a greenish light (which does not affect the warm colors behind her), calling up comparisons to the racist and offensive imagery portraying villainous Asians in mid-twentieth-century America.

Outside of this rather disappointing Swan appearance, I overall enjoyed the anthology, which captured the visuals and action-packed fun of the television miniseries. The first story, “Creature Comforts” (script and art by The Fillbach Brothers, colors by Ronda Pattison) was a near pitch-perfect portrayal of war hero Obi-Wan and Anakin at their wittiest while being tossed from monster to monster. The one misstep is at the end, when Obi-Wan rather cruelly crushes a tiny crab “monster” to stop its cry. It’s meant to be funny but makes Obi-Wan seem like a sociopath rather than a kindly, wizened Jedi Master.

The other two tales try out a girl-power spy story (“Spy Girls,” script by Ryan Kaufman, art by Stewart McKenny, colors by Dan Jackson) and a bank heist gone wrong (“The Precious Shining,” script by Jeremy Barlow, art by the Fillbach Brothers, colors by Ronda Pattison). I might have enjoyed the last story the most, as it showed people caught between the Republic and the Separatists. It presented a level of moral nuance, and a more down-to-earth perspective, that was more likely to be found in the later Filoni-helmed series on the Clone Wars, though it ends in a simple twist of fortune.

The anthology was slender and quick to read. It was mostly fun. Too bad that this was my least favorite portrayal of Bultar Swan yet. At least she got to be an action hero for a little while.

Recommendation: Manila in the Claws of Light

What follows isn’t exactly a review; nor is it analysis. It’s just a recommendation of a classic film that I only recently discovered.

I had the pleasure of recently watching Manila in the Claws of Light, a 1975 Filipino noir film directed by Lino Brocka, produced and with cinematography by Mike De Leon, based on the novel of the same name by Edgardo Reyes and adapted to screen by Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr, and released in the midst of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. In sum, it’s about the crushing oppression and despair experienced by the urban working class. Julio Madiaga (portrayed by Bembol Roco) is a simple fisherman who moves to Manila in search of his missing girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), who was coerced by a strange outsider woman to move to the city with the promise of a factory job and education. Julio struggles to make ends meet as a construction laborer, encountering corruption and labor violations (including terribly unsafe working conditions) and discovering the worst slums of the city where some of his coworkers live. Ligaya, meanwhile, has been forced into prostitution. Julio most make desperate choices to stay alive, and yet we also see the working class friends he makes standing together in solidarity (mostly) to try to make it to another day. The film builds toward Julio finally rediscovering Ligaya, who is virtually imprisoned, with its final act devoted to a plan to escape. The entire arc of the movie is a series of tragedies, scenarios always worsening whenever the slimmest sliver of hope manifests.

The structure of the story is couched in intrusive flashbacks, especially in the first act, which can be disorienting and which reflect the protagonist’s exhausted, overworked frame of mind and his driving goal. Scenes of life on the streets of 1970’s Manila are bleak and powerful; at times, it almost feels documentary. The music is eerie, often anxiety-inducing, and frequently in jarring dissonance with the ambient sounds of the city, which typically crush in on the action. Manila’s streets constrict on the actors and audience as people swarm about with their own lives. Violence is commonplace and random. The few beautiful shots of city high-rises almost always frame them in the distant background, unreachable or uninhabitable by the core cast of characters. Public parks can be beautiful but also are threatening and clearly position Julio as out-of-place.

A few weeks ago, I’d never heard of the film. Now, it’s one of my favorite neo-noir works, up there with Taxi Driver and Chinatown. Thanks, Indianapolis Public Library system! This was a Criterion Collection remastered release of the film, and in addition to special features, it included a very thoughtful essay by film scholar José B. Capino regarding the movie and the director.

Manila in the Claws of Light is beautiful, disturbing, and intense, and I highly recommend it.