Home Secured

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks for me. I’ve now been a homeowner for a little over a week and two days. Sam and I have finished moving in. The rental’s been cleaned out and the keys handed over. We’ve already had a variety of new home projects, including the removal of carpeting (and tiles plus linoleum in the foyer) to expose original hardwoods, the DIY installation of home security, and the very-much-so-left-to-the-professionals needed electrical work to update our panel and breakers and outlets. In the midst of this, we also had to have a cable technician come out to complete cable setup–turns out, the cable company didn’t have a cable line running to our house, and instead it was another company’s coaxial cable that ran in through the exterior of the house (the customer service rep I spoke with on the phone tried to offer me a credit for the inconvenience of having to have a technician come out anyway after I tried to self-install, but the cable company’s system literally would not allow him to give me more than two bucks in credit, which is just some extraordinary corporate bureaucracy).

Some of the rooms are coming into shape, but there’s still a lot of stuff to be put away. Thankfully, the projects we’ve been tackling have been mostly fun and, in general, rewarding. And it will of course be rewarding to get the house tidied up. I like the energy spent on these projects, and we already have several more projects planned for the near-, mid-, and long-term. Homeownership is pretty fun, and I’m glad that we’ve had the privilege of this opportunity!

It’s not so fun to actually move, though, or to clean out a rental, or to re-paint said rental. And there’s the pressure of the move-out deadline. We got a reasonable amount done, and it looked nice enough, and now we can put that part of the process out of sight, out of mind. Which means, while the projects will continue apace, we can have some room to breathe.

Maybe that means I can finally get through the rest of Stranger Things 3

“It is to be commended. What is its number?”

Despite some delays, we’re still holding out hope for a closing at the end of this week on our first home. While a delay of a few days or a week wouldn’t be a big deal, it would be especially nice to close and take possession this week because it’s also the week that my work site has a summer shutdown. Regardless of whether we can actually start moving this week, we’ll at least be getting ready for it, packing and removing some of the stuff we won’t be taking with us.

It’s also a good week for catching up on other things I’ve been putting off. One of those things has just been keeping up with the Clone Wars rewatch, so last night I was binging several episodes, and tonight will get me back on pace with the once-a-week recaps on the official Star Wars website. In the rush of episodes, one small detail stuck with me.

In the episode “R2 Come Home,” R2-D2 must rescue Mace Windu and Anakin Skywalker from a lethal trap by escaping pursuing bounty hunters and contacting the Jedi Order. In the beginning of the episode, R2 is briefly partnered with Mace’s droid, R8-B7, before the latter unit is destroyed. But wait. R8? It looks like an identical model to R2. Why the different designation?

It’s a silly thing to get hung up on, but droid designations have long been really confusing to me. In the films alone, it’s easy enough to decide that the designations might be partial serial numbers or something to that effect. But at least in the old Expanded Universe, droid designations came to represent both the model and unit. For instance, there was a whole R-series of astromech droids that included R2 models, R4 models, R8 models, and so on. (Higher the number, newer the model release.)

Again, there’s nothing in the films, at least that I can think of, that would dictate this interpretation. I think it’s an artifact of the Expanded Universe’s impulse to extrapolate general characteristics from very limited anecdotal film details–like that all Hutts are gangsters, all Rodians are bounty hunters, all Twi’lek women are dancers, and so on. (Thankfully the EU moved more and more away from that, and the new canon doesn’t seem too guilty of that outside of casting the Hutts once more as a Space Mafia race.) And I’m sure that a lot of those generalizations are a result of the need to gamify elements of Star Wars; so much of the broader lore originated with West End Games and was spread in supplements created by WEG and the publishers who filled the tabletop publishing niche in the following years.

The idea that a droid’s name always starts with its model number doesn’t even really make a lot of sense, unless one assumes that there are a lot of droids designated R2-D2, or that owners are picking random elements of a much longer serial number to supplement the droids’ names. It feels more right to imagine a generic droid series, the “R-series,” for instance, with many models and unique designations under that. (Still, I bet there are other so-called R2-D2s rolling around in that galaxy far, far away.)

I got hung up on R8 in particular because that would have been a model released much later in the old EU, but also because the designation seemed to have no practical effect on the droid’s appearance. As usual, I seem to be late to the party. Wookieepedia’s Legends page for R8-B7 has a behind-the-scenes section referencing an old Star Wars Insider issue (58) that apparently explained that droid names are fragments of longer designations. (Without a copy of that issue, I’m just going to have to trust the accuracy of the source. For my purposes, seeing the existence of the proposed theory is sufficient, even if the source is incorrect.) That was before the unified canon reboot, but that seems like a very plausible explanation.

I still want to put too much emphasis on those model numbers, though. I remember as a kid reading about them in Star Wars Gamer issue 3 (“DROIDS”!) and the “Droids” chapter of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook during the publishing reign of Wizards of the Coast. Something about that was formative enough to lock it in as a thing I “knew” about droids. It’s a hard thing for me to unlearn–even though nothing says that those model numbers aren’t still canon. It’s easy enough to reconcile model number designations with inconsistent droid names under the serial number theory. Searching keywords related to this subject, I stumbled on a Reddit thread that points out that the personal designation of a droid could be pulled from anywhere in its serial number. So even the apparent rule-breaker R8 could really be R2-B17998R8-B7743, or something like that. Still, if that’s true, why even grab random numbers at all? Why not just name your droid “Frank” or “Scruffy” or just call it “Astromech”?

It’s really not something that needs more explanation, because there’s not something truly broken here. It’s just silly, is all.

Securing Home

I think, I hope, that we’re far enough along in the process to say that Sam and I are buying a house. It’s an exciting experience for us, but also, as one can imagine (or remember, if you’ve been a first-time homebuyer before), it’s an incredibly stressful one. Ever since I’ve opted to leave law, my anxiety has largely subsided, but this has been a nice kick to remind me that it’s always waiting for the right moment to resurface!

As such, the past few weeks have been defined for me by difficulty focusing. I’ve been reading less, not for lack of time but for lack of engagement. I’ve been hopping between books, and I’ve been turning to Star Wars more than I should, not spacing it out as I typically try to do. I’ve watched fewer interesting movies and spent more time disengaging with nostalgic favorites and reality TV (we are not planning any immediate home renovation projects, and yet Property Brothers is streaming all too constantly). And despite the truly horrid national news, I’ll admit that I’ve sort of stuck my head in the sand this past month. With concentration camps, planned ICE raids, the threat of impulsive and unnecessary further war, and even more reports of the president’s personal sins in the news, I know that it’s a time for citizen engagement and activism. But I’m where I’m at.

It leaves me feeling a bit guilty and more than a bit vapid, but it’s keeping me calm, keeping my anxiety mostly under control, allowing me the mental space and energy to deal with the responsibilities of work and home life all while going through this drawn-out buying process.

(I should take a moment to say that I’m quite happy with the experience overall, I feel I’ve had good service experiences, I haven’t had to do all that much, and other than one delay everything is moving smoothly. None of that can stop catastrophic thinking.)

I imagine that with better coping strategies, I wouldn’t need to detach myself somewhat from the world to get through a stressful period, especially one seen as such a routine milestone in adult life. But Sam and I are getting through this all together, my work performance isn’t suffering, and I’m not putting on more weight, so I’d say it’s going well enough.

I thought I might talk about the Dick Cheney biopic Vice tonight (great performances and interesting surreal storytelling that offer a tale that is often both wickedly funny and gut-twistingly dark), but my heart’s not in it (if you’ve seen the film, I hope you’ll see the humor in that turn of phrase). I thought I might talk about any of the books I’m currently reading, but I’ll save that for reviews down the line. I find that I don’t have much I want to say this week. So I’ll leave it at that.

Leia: Princess of Alderaan

Leia: Princess of Alderaan (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, #3)Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I continue to greatly enjoy Claudia Gray’s contributions to the new Star Wars continuity. Leia: Princess of Alderaan is no exception. L:POA is a YA novel like Lost Stars, and there are certainly similarities between the two, including a story about young love set against an intergalactice stage and starring characters (in this case, Leia and her first crush Kier) who understand each other so well yet ultimately find themselves divided by opposing viewpoints. There are even parallel events between the novels; the Imperial ball Leia attends toward the end of L:POA is likely a predecessor of the ball depicted in LS, suggesting an annually recurring event (the timeline of the novels and her rank of apprentice legislator in L:POA versus junior senator in LS are sufficient for me to treat them as separate events), and I’ll never forget the Moa or its crew so was pleased to see a brief cameo in L:POA as well.

Gray’s novels have some appropriately Star Wars-ian big action sequences, but the best moments are quieter scenes spent in characters’ heads, or in high society setpieces with plenty of melodrama, like a dinner party or ball. There’s plenty of all the above in L:POA. As usual, Gray seems to perfectly convey the voices of established characters like Leia, Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa–all the more impressive here since Leia is not nearly so tough or jaded at this point in her life, and Bail is unusually anxious and emotionally overwhelmed as he deals with the reality that he can’t keep Leia safe or separate from his growing rebellion, such that we see the characters dealing with things differently than they would in the films, and know that they are at different points in their lives, but we still see elements of their personalities that we know well. It doesn’t feel out of character; the differences reflect living personalities that can and will change over time. Gray seems to have a lot of fun with Tarkin in particular, and his cold, calculating evil is a heavy influence in L:POA just as it was in the first part of LS. I also liked the many new characters that are introduced, including all the members of Leia’s pathfinding group. Though not a truly new character, Queen Breha Organa is given a wholly developed, distinctive personality, and we finally see how much Leia inherited not just from her adoptive father but her adoptive mother as well.

Much was made out of Leia’s one-off use of the line, “Strength through joy,” preserved in my first edition copy of the book though apparently changed in later editions. I’ll confess that I would have remained ignorant of the Nazi association if not for the resultant backlash within fandom. Gray was right to apologize for the oversight, I understand why people were upset, and it’s good that this was updated later. But I firmly believe that this was just a simple oversight, because Gray’s books, including L:POA, are full of sympathetic, engaging, and diverse characters, and the fascist rule of the Galactic Empire is clearly portrayed as evil in and of itself, even without the cackling villainy of Palpatine and his immediate underlings. L:POA is a novel about resisting fascism, tyranny, and oppression, about finding ways to combat a bad system from the inside, and about learning when it becomes necessary to force change from the outside, even if the mechanism of that force is violent. It was also clear exactly what the Organas and the other Rebels are fighting for in this book: freedom, equality, planetary sovereignty, and an end to cronyism and blatant governmental corruption. Leia goes on mercy missions, delivering food and medicine to worlds impacted by the actions of the Empire. And the Empire’s actions aren’t just planet-destroying or abstract; we see actual examples of unjust policies, and how those policies could be supported by those who benefit from the Empire. Leia at one point observes slavers and, though heartbroken, insists on bearing witness and doing what she can on Alderaan to ensure that any slaves passed through that system will be freed. Where a lot of Star Wars, especially in the movies, does a poor job of presenting just what was good about the Old or New Republic and just what the Rebels were fighting for, Claudia Gray makes the portrayal of that purpose and positivity a primary goal, especially in contrast to the banal evil of the Imperial bureaucracy. (As an aside, I think that Gray sees the Rebellion as cohering not necessarily over an agreement about what an Imperial replacement should be or even over basic moral principles, so much as a desire to return sovereignty to individual planetary governments. I think that’s an interesting and complicated perspective, one that seems rather real and plausible, and it also does a good job of explaining why the eventually unified Rebel Alliance of the films doesn’t have much of a clearly conveyed vision other than resistance to the Empire and, presumably, restoration of the Republic.)

If you’d asked me five years ago where to get into Star Wars books, my safe answer would have been Zahn’s EU Thrawn trilogy. Now, my enthusiastic answer is anything by Claudia Gray, and Leia: Princess of Alderaan only reinforces that opinion.

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Red Dead Redeemed

While most people might now be moving on from Red Dead Redemption 2, or exploring Red Dead Online, I found myself fervently digging through the original game earlier this year.

There was, obviously, considerable critical praise at the release of the original Red Dead Redemption in 2010, and it performed well commercially. At some point toward the end of or just after law school, about 2014 or so, a friend whose gaming tastes I trust recommended this game. (He also recommended Shadow of Mordor, which I loved once I finally got around to it.) I got a used copy and gave it a try. It was engaging for quite a while. I loved the wide-open Western vistas, the mechanics of riding a horse and using a firearm, the cast of Western archetypes and subversions of the form. The story of a bounty hunter pursuing his old outlaw gang associates to clear a debt and get his family back was expected fare for the genre, but then again, Westerns have long lived on familiarity. And the game clearly had things it wanted to say about law, liberty, and justice. Not only did it provide commentary on our history of exploiting the peoples and natural resources of the American Southwest, but it also offered moments of philosophical reflection and debate between characters that were clearly meant to echo contemporary concerns about overreach by law enforcement and the federal government. I played through the assault on Fort Mercer, and the predictable escape of the game’s tertiary antagonist. I played as John Marston crossed over into Mexico, and I took delight in the poignant, melancholy lyrics of one of the rare songs with vocals that punctuated that arrival. But as the game continued to bloat, inserting winding and irrelevant quests for both sides of a revolution into the main narrative, and as the plot continued to beat the drum of its now over-performed and ultimately shallow themes, I lost interest. I stopped playing.

Since then, I’ve attempted to play the games many times over the years. Each time, I gradually lost interest, typically before I’d left the first act in New Austin. I liked the storytelling and characters introduced in that first act, but it was grating to know that the game would derail itself with a soggy middle designed to draw out open-world play. What could have been a tightly executed story about the cycle of revenge and one man’s effort to break the chains of fate became too much, trying to throw every Western plot point into a single game. Alas, that is the fate of too many AAA games: wanting to be something for everyone, wanting to keep people playing, they throw in so much (story, gameplay, open-world exploration, etc.) that it becomes too much.

Well, cut to this year, and in the wake of a few months of reviews, critical essays, and hot takes surrounding the prequel, I felt the urge to mount up for one more rodeo. Shockingly, this became the time that I finished the game. I didn’t just finish the game–I reached 100% completion!  (A little disclaimer: that’s per the stats for the base game; it’s certainly not all the console achievements, and I have never played Undead Nightmare, and I don’t ever intend to do so. I’m rather fond of Westerns but don’t much care for the zombie genre.)

Partly, my completion of the game came down to having a clear goal in mind. I have amassed a vast back catalog of games over the years, especially by way of Steam, and I’ve been trying to be more mindful about trying games, and “completing” games, before purchasing more. Given that I’ve been considering the purchase of a current-gen console in addition to the Switch, or even holding out for the purchase of an early next-gen console, it dawned on me that I should get through some of the last-gen installments in franchises I’d be interested in playing before spending even more money on a machine and additional games. Red Dead Redemption was on that list, since I typically enjoy Rockstar games and would likely want to try the second title in the series at some point. Finishing The Witcher 2 (since I’d played through the original game and rather enjoyed The Last Wish, and since the third title has often been hailed as one of the Best Games Ever) and at least Dragon Age: Origins (since I’ve burned out by the third act in the past) are also on that list.

There were other changes in my mindset when I approached the game this time, though. Primarily, I decided to focus on the gameplay over the story. I knew that the story would disappoint me in the middle act, so as long as I focused on having fun, I’d get more out of the game. After all, a game should be fun or rewarding to play, if not both, and the interactivity and reactivity between game and player are a good part of what make games so unique as compared to other entertainment/art forms. This focus on gameplay improved my skills with the game considerably, and in two ways. First, I myself got better with the game as I spent more time playing it, especially performing side quests and unique challenges that tested my abilities and forced me to engage with the game world more. Second, completing those aforementioned challenges often netted me an in-game boost to abilities. I focused a lot of my time, starting early, on completing the ambient challenges, for instance, which improved my stats (and unlocked stat-boosting outfits) as I reached particular levels in the challenges. Once I tackled the main story, it was easier to advance as a result. In example, enough random quests to save some poor sap’s wife or brother from the noose and shooting challenges to outdraw my opponents on the main streets of cities improved my use and management of the time-slowing, target-marking Dead Eye ability considerably, such that its required use in main quests was often surprisingly easy.

Another change was a special challenge for myself: the decision to explore and to genuinely accept the consequences of my actions. (I’ve often fallen back on save points and wanted to do things exactly right, or exactly within the bounds of how I saw a character or story as developing, and the experimentation and embrace of failure, and learning from failure, in Breath of the Wild was a turning point for me.) Often, failing to achieve a side quest, or accidentally shooting an innocent, or dying, or missing out on a mission objective that would require beginning again from a checkpoint, or simply encountering a glitch that resulted in a bizarre cutscene without breaking the game would result in my quitting the game or reloading to a previous manual save point. It was partly simple frustration, sure, but it was mostly an effort on my part to force a cohesive narrative vision on the game world. I wanted my John Marston to act in a certain way, not to be someone who died from falling down a cliff or accidentally shot a woman in a gunfight with bandits. But forcing myself to play on often presented wild new deviations, and even continuing from death became something I was comfortable with. That was especially hard to adjust to, though, because unlike games with free saving, the use of world-state autosaves that didn’t accurately capture a particular moment often dumped me into unusual situations that did not reflect my previous predicament. It was tempting to want to reload to a clean, manual save slot, but it would have come at a loss of time, accomplishments, and experience. Overcoming that urge for a clean reset, and accepting sporadic skips and jumps in time, enabled me to better enjoy the moment-to-moment experiences of the game (plus, losing hours of progress to hop back to the last save you made is an easy way to grow frustration even further).

The biggest change was the simplest: I opted to turn off the minimap at the beginning of the game. That proved to be incredibly freeing, helped with immersion, and made me focus more on what was happening in the game world as visually represented instead of relying on raw metadata to determine inputs. There were moments where the lack of a minimap was frustrating or disorienting, but its presence was certainly never required. And again, it made me stay focused on Marston’s physical presence in the game world.

So, those changes in mindset and interaction with the game gave me the push to finish the story. I was surprised to realize how close I had been to making it through Mexico way back in my first, long-lost attempt to beat the game. I was unsurprised to find that the Mexican-set second act was largely a long, ambling diversion from the main game. When you finally track down Bill Williamson for the second time, that confrontation feels unremarkable, rushed, and insignificant. You’ve already caught another gang member (in one of the few moments of choice in the story, however irrelevant to the plot outcome, you can choose to capture or kill Javier Escuella). You already know, through gradually emerging references in dialogue, that you’ll have to go after your long-missing gang leader as well. By the time I got to Williamson and put down the local Mexican tyrant as well (would it have been a choice to spare him? I didn’t give the monster a chance), I was already long past caring about that section of the game. And I was more than a little frustrated by Marston’s staunch, defiantly ignorant refusal to pick a side in the fight. Given that you could play most of the missions in any order you chose, and it was easier to play the quests for each faction, geographically centered around one of two hub areas across the map, in a batch, the story ultimately felt dissonant and lacking clear cause-and-effect to me. Plus, even outside of my efforts to play Marston as mostly honorable, defining character traits in the story were Marston’s disdain for tyrannical government and respect for women, meaning that the crude, violent, corrupt governor/serial-rapist didn’t seem like a reasonable figure for Marston to associate with–especially since the governor’s actions were always so clearly on display, so Marston couldn’t turn a blind eye to it, the governor himself was so obviously untrustworthy, Marston never got any useful information or resources from that work, and the rebels actually made more of a clear effort to help Marston. Even before the “big” twist that “revealed” the governor’s deceptions at the end of the act, Marston should have jumped ship and never looked back when the governor’s right-hand man set an ambush for him.

The third act was interesting but rushed. The game really starts to barrel you toward your final confrontation once you’re out of Mexico. The introduction of Native American rebels resisting the government as part of Marston’s old leader’s new gang could have been an interesting development and a bigger chunk of narrative if handled carefully and with consideration, but it was not.

On the subject of Native Americans in the game…it must be said that as usual, Rockstar was less than sensitive in its portrayals of women and minorities, often relying on stereotyped depictions and lacking in meaningful counter-examples to justify the presence of those tired race and gender tropes. Race issues often came down to the adoption of stereotypes rather than actual engagement with those issues or even coherent character development. There’s a lot of ironic commentary in the in-game newspapers that suggests that the developers have a contemporary, conscientious sensibility about the plight of minority communities, but it’s rarely on display in the plot, leaving the impression that they just wanted to have the opportunity to laugh about it all. The one Chinese character in a side mission becomes an opium addict. The one prominent Native American character who is not a gang member is portrayed as slow-speaking and of noble temperament; he talks about how white people are destroying the Earth and gets killed pretty early on, after serving as a guide and sidekick to Marston and an over-the-top racist anthropologist character. Said anthropologist is in the game way too much, having no impact on the plot and present mostly just to say racist things in a way Rockstar apparently felt they could get away with–haha, we’re not saying the racist things, that obviously offensive guy is, and it’s clear that we think you think it’s offensive, so it’s funny now! There are a lot of Mexican characters, and it seemed like the background characters spoke naturally in accurate Spanish (though I’m nowhere close to fluent, so I just picked out what I could understand), but the main Mexican characters were thugs or fools or scoundrels all, save one heroic yet naive rebel girl who is ultimately killed for the narrative purpose of mildly pissing off John Marston. There are black background characters, and that’s about it. The few prominent female characters are mostly in need of saving at least at one point, and early Marston ally Bonnie MacFarlane has a role largely defined by her growing fondness for Marston and his ability to help her, even as they talk about how tough and independent she is. That role is later replicated by Marston’s wife. Rockstar seems to want to have things to say about race and gender roles, but it too often decides to settle on cynical, shallow sarcasm and apparently ironic depictions that fail to really challenge the stereotypes they channel. As per usual, the studio produced a showcase game for exactly why greater representation is needed not just by way of depiction but in the creative stages of development.

But to focus back on the conclusion of the game: the third act is a section where the main plot is picked up with earnest again, but it takes several missteps. It was at its best when it provided slower moments that let John examine the cycles of violence he was caught up in, and in the quiet before the storm at the end when he is attempting to return to a “normal” life with his family (even though those “normal” scenes were often too long to the point of being boring, with cattle-herding and stallion-roping segments I hoped I’d escaped after the MacFarlane quests in the first act). The disdain of the modern law enforcement agents from out East, the suicide by Dutch in an attempt to escape the narrowly defined fate laid out for him, the bonding between John and his son Jack and the heavy foreshadowing of John’s fate on his trips with his boy, and the lyrical songs that punctuate some of the most powerful bridges in the story are what I’ll especially remember the end of the game for. John’s death, which I’d spoiled for myself years ago, was not very powerful to me; after so many impossible fights that we’d overcome, getting taken out after an especially weak Dead Eye moment felt cheap, and John’s grotesquely bullet-riddled body was disturbing but not especially moving. Still, while I know a lot of people were annoyed with Jack, I found the epilogue of the game to be very rewarding.

I’d already spent so much time on achieving side quests and challenges that by the time Jack arrived on the scene, I’d decided that I’d seek out 100% completion. But I found that just spending time with Jack added powerfully to the narrative of the story. You can play Jack as you could John, honorable or dastardly, so the true conclusion of the story is in many ways in your hands. I chose to play him honorably, with the suggestion that he’d taken in some of the values that John tried to instill. The game itself suggests this, as well, through Jack’s possession and use of John’s property, suggesting a replication of personality: Jack wears John’s clothes, has John’s guns and cash, and has access to John’s safe houses. Additionally, Jack makes offhanded remarks in fights and other situations that reflect the lessons he’s learned from John–and a lingering desire to make his papa proud.

In a great touch, to truly close out the game, to cap off the story, Jack must hunt down the agent responsible for his father’s death. It’s not a mission that pops up on your map automatically. It’s a Stranger mission, a side quest that appears to you as you wander through the “big” city of Blackwater. There’s nothing to compel you to keep following the thread, other than a gamer’s completionist impulse. You could elect to have Jack walk away from revenge entirely, to finally course-correct and be anything he wanted, something other than the outlaw and bounty hunter than John was. To do that would be to fulfill everything John hoped for. To do that is to stop playing, though. To keep playing, to keep Jack operating in the game world, you’ll continue the cycle of violence that John hoped he could end with just one more government job, one more bounty, one more death.

This final main story mission plays out slowly and quietly. Jack tracks the agent to a cottage off a lake in New Austin. Jack deceives the agent’s wife into revealing his current location, on a hunting trip just inside of Mexico. Jack finds the agent’s brother at their campsite, who directs him to the game’s primary antagonist, now a washed-up, retired old man. There’s a quick duel–at this point in the game, an incredibly easy draw. In the aftermath, the great villain of Jack’s life dead before him, Jack thoughtfully considers his firearm, holsters it, and turns away from the riverbed scene of this final fight. As he walks away, the screen flashes red, there’s a recognizable note from the score, and the words “RED DEAD REDEMPTION” appear. This is the game’s true ending. Redemption appears more ironic than ever. Jack has found revenge, but he has not redeemed his father or himself. His father never truly found a way out of the life of violence that he led; other forces wouldn’t let him. Jack, too, has fallen into the same cycle, and this one defining moment could mean that he’s stuck in it until the end. Whether the player ever reaches this milestone, and whether the player plays on after this, as I did, is left to a matter of choice.

The early drumbeat of themes was long lost in the white noise of the game’s Too Much of Everything design philosophy. They were the least interesting themes, too, the ideas that Rockstar loves to keep bringing up without saying anything new: there will always be bad people, bad people are often on the side of the alleged good guys, we should not trust ourselves to large-scale governance so long as those things are true, and so on. But the deeply personal, intimate, yet universal themes of revenge, redemption, fate, and choice swirling around the Marston men that the game manages to tease out in the third act and the epilogue are powerfully and refreshingly done. No matter how familiar the themes may be to fans of the Western genre, Red Dead Redemption still found something fresh to say. But there’s so much baggage, and so much mediocre, dragged-out storytelling on the way, that most people probably never experienced it all. And sadly, so much of what made Red Dead Redemption‘s story powerful and rewarding was actually playing through those moments in the resolution of the third act and in the epilogue, and especially the choice to continue or to abandon the quest for revenge, such that no stream or recording of cutscenes and gameplay could fully capture that unique recognition of powerlessness in power, fatalistic futility, and tragic despair disguised as victory.

Ironically, by focusing myself on gameplay over story, I was able to reach the point where I better appreciated exactly why so many people do love that story. (Still, that story would have been better, more powerful, and appreciated by more people in full if it had been a twenty-hour experience instead of the forty-six-and-a-half hours I spent on it.) And now I feel rather prepared to play Red Dead Redemption 2, especially since I know what to expect. The reviews I’ve read suggest a bigger, longer game, with even more great development in the first act, and with even more meandering loss of focus by the end. One question remains for me above all others: will this newer game provide an ending that makes the slog through the middle seem worthwhile after all, or will it fail to reach the powerful conclusion of Jack Marston’s silent walk away?

Alien’s 40th

Alien released in theaters to American audiences on May 25, 1979. The franchise keeps slithering forward in myriad directions, and this year marks its fortieth anniversary. It is clear that 20th Century Fox plans to celebrate that, starting with a series of short films produced in partnership with Tongal and released on IGN. The six titles–“Containment,” “Specimen,” “Night Shift,” “Ore,” “Harvest,” and “Alone”–serve as an excellent representation of the larger constellation of films, novels, comics, and games: rough, uneven, curious, often fascinating and genuinely terrifying, and occasionally just plain disturbing. Additionally, Sam and I are both intrigued by the recently announced Alien tabletop RPG, which sounds quite promising to me. I can’t wait to be an underpaid, disgruntled space mechanic who gets swiftly killed by an alien!

One of the most unusual fandoms that my wife and I share is that of the Alien movies. Neither of us are fans of horror, but we both watch Alien with dread fascination at least every Halloween season, and we delight in the high-octane adventure of Aliens. More than the horror, and even more than the scary and very cool creature, set, and prop design, I really like the characters and burnt-out, working-class setting. I like the idea of a larger, drab, hyper-corporate galactic society. And I like that the xenomorph, for all its terror, represents one very horrible but isolated threat in a small, out-of-the-way part of that galaxy. The feel of the films is like Star Wars without hope (and with even more banged-up, retro-futuristic technology), except that instead of focusing on a great hero, we’re following the space trucker who’d refuel Tosche Station.

Because of that, I’ve lost interest in the franchise’s more recent shift toward increasing gore and body horror (though I’m not kidding anyone: from the very first film, that’s been an important part of the visual storytelling, tone, and even the themes of the film, so I’m not opposed to it on principle). I also could care less about the positioning of the xenomorph in the context of some greater mythos, some half-baked reconstitution of Chariots of the Gods with biological warfare. And sometimes, even when I really like what an Alien title is doing, it’s still just too scary and intense for me to press on with (I’m looking at you, Alien: Isolation).

These short films were, thankfully, very much my cup of tea, even though I didn’t love them all. They’re all small vignettes about working-class people trying to survive one very shitty situation after another. The basic premise is shared from film to film: xenomorph shows up, people die. But each film explores a different little corner of a much larger universe.

That said, I’d like to share my thoughts on those short films, in no particular order.

“Alone” is a fascinating premise–what would happen if a facehugger and an android are left alone together? The execution isn’t perfect, but it goes in some weird and interesting directions.

“Harvest” is a rather blunt story. Alien couldn’t be more obviously about sex, sexual violence, and pregnancy as body horror, and yet “Harvest” makes the implicit subtext explicit with the presence of a pregnant woman, with the title, and with the theme of procreation and preservation (at least through the eyes of the android). The title made the “twist” ending expected, and the flat acting and illogical actions of the party leader make it clear what she actually is all too soon.

“Specimen” is a creepy, intense survival horror set in a locked-off greenhouse. It kept me on edge throughout, the ending was satisfying, and it also introduced the idea of non-human androids. This was a cool episode and, I thought, had one of the better performances from its lead.

“Containment” is forgettable. Alien runs amok in closed quarters. Nothing we haven’t seen before. The title alludes to the crew’s efforts to keep the infestation contained when salvagers recover their escape pod. That’s…more or less the whole story right there. Much of the nuance, such as there is, comes in how the survivors react to their impending doom.

“Night Shift” is kind of fun, and the ending–with our protagonist momentarily victorious and momentarily secure in her locked-down storeroom even while a full-on alien infestation breaks out in the larger colony–is dark and fatalistic.

Finally, “Ore” is fucking amazing. The lead is an awesome, sympathetic, blue-collar hero. Tensions between management and mine workers are escalated not only by the alien but by the fact that management is actually an android company plant. The characters and their working conditions and lives are pretty central to the story being told. And the final scene, with the miners rallying together in the face of the alien threat, is incredible. If you only watch one, I’d pick this.

All told, as a series of fan films, I was impressed by the production and acting quality and the variety of stories told, even though I didn’t love every single one.

Free Time with The Sims 4

EA is offering The Sims 4 for free, to download and keep, through May 28. So that’s become the top activity for my wife and I this beautiful Memorial Day weekend.

I’ve played at least one of the games in every generation since the original Sims, including each of the main numbered releases, even though I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a fan of the franchise. If not for this particular opportunity, I probably would have never even bothered with the fourth main entry, but I’m glad I did. The varied, branching aspirations and multitude of personality traits available, coupled with greater autonomy, imbue the Sims with more identity and vitality than ever before. You can still hop in and micro-manage the hell out of them, still apply the heavy thumb of a fickle god to their lives, but it’s now often fun to just sit back and let them run through their days, as though you’re the owner of a human terrarium. I feel more like I’m nudging them at the right moments, pushing them toward the completion of their lifetime goals, a benevolent deity that they couldn’t prove for sure is ever really there. And sometimes I push them right into a whole lot of drama–sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally–and in those moments, my Sims must be convinced that there can be no god at all.

As has almost always been the case, building my Sim families is still my favorite part of the game. There is so much customization, with virtually everything, including gender, coming in multiple spectra. Then there are all the aspirations and personality traits that I mentioned to round them out as people, not merely bodies. (If we can already run simulations this convincing, it’s hard to shake the implication that we, too, could be operating within a larger-scale sim.)

It’s crazy to realize that The Sims 4 released in 2014. I’m sure that now that I’m playing it, we’ll see an announcement for the fifth installment any day now…

But if you, like me, never bothered with The Sims 4, it couldn’t hurt to pick it up while it’s free!