Review: Sonic the Hedgehog movie

For Valentine’s Day, my wife and I saw Sonic the Hedgehog. Okay, that sounds like a terrible Valentine’s Day date, perhaps, but if you know my wife well, you know that she’s long loved the blue blur. I’m glad we went because she really liked the movie. However, I did not.

I didn’t hate it. It’s a middle-of-the-road, family-friendly comedy adventure. Ben Schwartz does a very good impression of Jaleel White’s Sonic, turned up to an obnoxious degree of hyperactivity, loneliness, and selfishness. James Marsden is Tom Wachowski, Sonic’s reluctant protector and partner, a small-town sheriff thrust into a larger-stakes scenario just as he prepares to leave that small-town life behind; he’s more charming here than he was as Cyclops. Jim Carrey is peak Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, and most of the best moments in the film revolve around him. There are a few other solid supporting characters, including Tom’s supportive wife (Tika Sumpter) and his bumbling but good-natured deputy (Adam Pally), Robotnik’s long-suffering sidekick (Lee Majdoub), and the town’s lunatic hunter appropriately named Crazy Carl (Frank C. Turner). There aren’t really any bad performances. There aren’t really any slow moments (fast-paced is only appropriate for a Sonic film). There are plenty of jokes that fall flat, but just as many that landed a good laugh.

The story is remarkably bland and not much dependent upon Sonic as a character. In this version, Sonic grew up on an island that resembled Green Hills Zone. He was raised by a new character, an owl named Longclaw. His great speed represented an unusual power in the universe, and Longclaw wanted to hide it, but the reckless young speedster relished in racing about his home. Echidna hunters track him down and attempt to capture him. They mortally wound Longclaw, who supplies Sonic with a bag of dimension-hopping rings and tells him to keep jumping from planet to planet whenever he is discovered. The rings open portals to whatever place Sonic thinks about.

Time passes, and Sonic develops a quiet and comfortable life outside the small town of Green Hills, Montana. In a moment of exasperation and despair over his loneliness, he supercharges himself and unleashes a powerful EMP blast that knocks out power throughout the northwestern United States. The U.S. government deploys Robotnik, an unstable but brilliant scientist, to track down the source of the blast. Sonic prepares to run, but through a series of unfortunate events, he is tranquilized by Tom. As he passes out, he thinks of the city depicted on Tom’s shirt–San Francisco. Unfortunately, this activates a dropped ring, and his bag of rings falls in. Now he’s stuck on Earth unless he can get to San Francisco and track the bag down. When he awakens, he enlists Tom’s aid to escape Robotnik until he can fully recover, and then he ropes him into a road trip to San Francisco when he points out that no matter how fast he can run, he doesn’t know where he’s going.

Tom and Sonic form a friendship despite all obstacles in their way. The biggest obstacle is Sonic, who is truly very annoying. But Sonic and Tom do help each other to grow over the course of the film, and Sonic becomes slightly less annoying as he actually develops real connections with other people. Robotnik, on the other hand, becomes increasingly insane and destructive. The day is saved through the power of small town living and friendship.

It’s a pandering, soggy mess with plenty of moments that don’t make a whole lot of sense. It relies on excessive use of the frozen-time sequences popularized by depictions of Quicksilver or the Flash (and Sonic in fact is shown reading old Flash comics), yet it often treats Sonic as operating under normal human perceptions when that’s more convenient. But that said, it’s never awful. It doesn’t feel as fresh or imaginative as Detective Pikachu. But in a world full of truly awful video game movies, Sonic the Hedgehog is unique in being merely average.

It will probably make you laugh, though you probably won’t feel much else for this movie unless you’re a fan. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and my wife loved it precisely for the many, many references to the franchise’s nearly thirty years of history. I’ve played enough of the games and read enough of the comics and watched enough of the shows, and most importantly absorbed enough of the characters and lore through prolonged exposure to my wife, such that I often got a thrill of recognition at the various references made. References include:

  • The opening island and town both referencing the Green Hills Zone;
  • The ubiquitous use of rings and their distinctive sound effects, including a moment when Sonic falls from an explosion and collapses among rubble and bouncing rings, much like whenever he’s damaged in the games;
  • Sonic using attacks that include his classic spin dash and a variety of jump attacks;
  • A drawing by Crazy Carl that resembles the Sanic meme;
  • The echidna hunters at the start of the game resembling Knuckles and his tribe;
  • Robotnik having blueprints for other robotic vehicles that resemble some of his boss battle vehicles from the games, and a label in his breaker panel for “Badniks,” the name for his robotic army;
  • The basic plot of the game, with Sonic teleported to Earth, allying with a local, and being chased by the military/government and Robotnik, mirroring the basic plot of Sonic X;
  • Chase sequences in the latter half of the film referencing moments from various Sonic games, including a direct visual reference to the “City Escape” level of Sonic Adventure 2;
  • The mushroom planet Sonic intends to escape to from Earth appearing to be a nod to the Mushroom Hill Zone and perhaps more barren areas of some depictions of the planet Mobius; and
  • The credits beginning over a series of pixelated animations that reinterpret the events of the film in a way that mirrors gameplay of several of the original games.

I’m sure there are other references I forgot or didn’t even catch. As an example of a reference that I definitely didn’t get, but that my wife loved: there was a cowboy hat Sonic wore that was reminiscent of a hat associated with some versions of Knuckles.

References alone don’t make a movie good, though. At best, for a recognized property, they can be a nice sort of seasoning on top. But in this case, while I enjoyed picking up on references, I found many of them to be little more than reminders of what a Sonic movie could have been. There are so many different storylines, each with their own lore, and so many characters that could have been used. Instead, we take Sonic out of his element. While Sonic mostly feels right, and Carrey’s Robotnik seems just about perfect, it’s disappointing that none of the many other characters in the Sonic ‘verse were used. I think most people who became or remained fans of Sonic in the post-3D era are fans at least in part because of the elaborate characters with their colorful designs and distinctive personalities. The shifting relationships between characters, and the core dynamics that remain the same between the central figures, keep things compelling, at least on a soap opera-type level. And we get none of that here.

The movie was fine. I don’t regret seeing it, yet I don’t have any desire to see it again. But there is something that does excite me. If you care about spoilers for this movie, this is the time to stop reading. There were two mid-credits scenes. One involved Robotnik eking out an existence on the mushroom planet, further descended into madness and more closely resembling his video game counterpart. But the one I got excited for was the second: Tails appears! Tails! When Tails showed up, I actually growled, “YES!” He looks like the perfect boy that he is. And his voice and dialogue, however brief, were perfect as well–eager, optimistic, and determined. (The voice should be perfect, given that it’s apparently Colleen Villard, who voices Tails in more recent games and in the Sonic Boom series.) He’s using some sort of electronic device to track Sonic, he’s determined to save the day, and he’s also really fast (I especially loved that component–he’s often depicted as using a plane or some other technology to keep up with Sonic, but his original incarnation in the game tailed right along with the hedgehog, and I’ve long taunted my wife with “Tails is faster” based on our experiences with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 multiplayer.) Sure, I didn’t care for this movie. But I’d love to see a sequel in which Tails and Sonic team up. Even better, I hope that they return to Sonic’s home world–and maybe they’ll have the chance to meet with some of his other classic allies. I’m not looking for a Sonic Cinematic Universe, and I don’t want it, but I would like another big-screen story or two that realizes the potential of Sonic’s many supporting characters.

Reviews: Bloodline / Xenozoic

Bloodline (Star Wars)Bloodline by Claudia Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like Claudia Gray’s Star Wars writing. I love Leia as a character. Gray’s Leia, Princess of Alderaan was a fantastic story about this beloved character by a writer I enjoy. Bloodline possesses these same traits, and yet I struggled with it. Partially, I’ve just found myself busier than usual for a while now. But I also found myself again and again making a choice to read other books or comics. It’s not that the writing’s worse here. And Gray did a fantastic job writing an older, wiser, wearier version of Leia (a version that was written and published before the Leia of Princess of Alderaan). That said, I guess I just found myself bored with it.

Bloodline follows Leia over two decades after the Battle of Endor. She’s a respected senior legislator, pragmatically trying to keep together the political faction of the Populists, who believe in decentralized government and who are in opposition to the Centrists, a party with a strong authoritarian streak. Government has ground to a standstill because the increasingly polarized parties refuse to cooperate, and there is no strong executive in government to create compromise or shepherd policy. The novel concerns itself with two major developments: the neutral planet of Ryloth, home to the Twi’leks, seeks aid from the Republic to uncover a rapidly growing and incredibly influential new criminal cartel while the Centrists advocate for the creation of a First Senator to bring order to the government and to force the legislature into actually producing results once more. Leia takes the initiative in investigating the crime cartel, even as she is nominated to be the Populist candidate for First Senator.

Over the course of the novel, Leia forms a bond with Ransolm Casterfo, a younger and more idealistic senator who initially comes off as villainous because of his love for collecting Imperial armor and his belief that Empire is the best form of government. We come to find that he is an honest, principled man who may believe in a strong central government but who still hated the abuse of authority as represented by figures like Darth Vader or the Emperor. And in the end, he finds himself in opposition to most of the other Centrists, some of whom are actually backing the crime cartel while others celebrate the Emperor and want a return to tyranny.

Leia also finds other allies among the younger generation, including a former racer turned senatorial aide and an overly eager starfighter jockey. They have their own subplots and interrelationships. (The racer has a particularly unexpected mystery that appears abruptly and quickly explains her career change late in the book.) These other characters are important because they represent the generation to follow Leia, but their importance is undercut by their lack of use in later stories. Meanwhile, Han only briefly appears, living his life as a manager of a racing team, and Luke and Ben are known to be off training but otherwise only appear in the story by reference.

This is Leia’s story. In some ways, it makes sense to table other key characters. It also allows for emotional vulnerability, as she is cut off from her traditional supports. However, the absence of Luke and Han feels big enough to be distracting at times. And while we see Leia forming the core of what will eventually become the Resistance, the new characters don’t ever really get wings to do their own thing; they’re caught in Leia’s gravity.

Ransolm Casterfo leaves the biggest impression, proving to be a strong foil and ally for Leia throughout the book. In Ransolm, Leia sees hope for restoring balance to the Republic. She sees the potential for compromise, for reaching across the aisle. Without getting into more specific spoilers, it is enough to say that that hope is crushed, leaving Leia with only the option of forming a covert Resistance in anticipation of the threat of imminent civil war to come. Ransolm is an interesting character, but his fascist cosplaying and admiration for an authoritarian government are never really adjusted or adequately challenged. Loving an empire so long as evil cultists don’t rule it doesn’t stop you from being a fascist. Yet after admonishing him repeatedly, largely from a place of pure emotion, Leia eventually just accepts that this is part of his identity. One could certainly chart real-world analogies in this book, and I’m not sure the implications of a character like Ransolm and Leia’s relationship to him are all that great.

Still, if I said that Ransolm was why I struggled with this book, I’d be lying. I was just not particularly engaged with the pace. It’s a lot more talking and reflecting than in a lot of Star Wars stories, but the ideas being discussed aren’t very deep. Star Wars always seems to struggle when it attempts to accurately portray politics, and I think that’s where the book falters a little bit as well. It’s trying to be too granular, lacking the usual bombast. Yes, there are big revelations. Yes, there’s a bombing, a duel, and at least two intense chase sequences. But that’s more par for the course for a contemporary political thriller, not the usual excess and swashbuckling adventure of a Star Wars story. At the end of the day, I just wasn’t as compelled by the story being told here. But there’s nothing really bad about the book, the ideas, or the depiction of the characters. I guess this one just wasn’t really for me!
XenozoicXenozoic by Mark Schultz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve long loved just about anything with dinosaurs in it, but the pulp action, gorgeous art, environmental messages, and sense of history contained within Xenozoic makes it so much more than just a collection of fun stories about prehistoric beasts.

I vividly remember two Xenozoic stories from my childhood, which I encountered in the colored re-releases under the Cadillacs and Dinosaurs brand. Those two stories are “The Opportunists,” in which one of the two protagonists, scientist-ambassador Hannah Dundee of the Wassoon tribe, manages to turn the annoying pterosaur scavengers around the City in the Sea into an early threat detection system for mosasaur attacks, and “Last Link in the Chain,” in which the other protagonist, eco-warrior mechanic Jack Tenrec, becomes stranded in the wilderness on a return from patrolling for poachers and finds himself hunted by a ferociously determined theropod. (There’s a lot of wild and expansive lore in this series, and I trust that concepts like Wassoon, the City in the Sea, or the spiritual order of Old Blood Mechanics will quickly make sense if you start reading this comic.)

I’ve been itching to read the full series for years and never got around to it. It didn’t seem to be widely available, but I think I also dreaded the potential that my nostalgic fondness would be shattered by reality. I finally broke down and bought a collection of the black-and-white original Xenozoic Tales, and I was happily surprised to realize that it’s still great. Those two stories were still full of spirit, dynamic art, and excitement, and they weren’t even the best stories in the series, I’ve found. With age, and the context of the whole series, I more strongly appreciate the environmental and political themes underlying the series. I also like the wild mad-science pseudo-explanations for the resurgence of a variety of prehistoric life from multiple eras of Earth’s history in the wake of man’s near-extinction. Interestingly, for a series spanning the late eighties through the mid nineties, Schultz quickly hints that the characters are living in a world following environmental collapse from climate change, with a history of atmospheric deterioration and rising sea levels. From the beginning, much of the story is set in a flooded New York City.

A cool thing about Schultz is that he’s clearly willing to improve his work over time, rather than sticking to an established and familiar appearance. His art style grows and evolves over the series. Characters change, become more distinctive. The prehistoric creatures, dinosaurs especially, get updated over time to make them more in line with evolving understandings of what they looked like. In comparison to Jurassic Park, which largely started off on the edge of scientific perceptions of what dinosaurs were like in the flesh but then allowed the images to stagnate as science moved on, the continued (though gradual) evolution of the depiction of dinosaurs is thrilling (and also serves as a fun glimpse into the evolution of pop culture paleoart).

The only disappointment about this collection is that it ends. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that I want more. It ends in the middle of a major plot arc! There’s a lot of story still to be told! I sincerely hope that Mark Schultz eventually returns to this project. If you like dinosaurs, classic cars, pulp adventures, or comics, you really should check this out!

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My Favorite Stories of the Decade

Well, this is over a month late, but I wanted to reflect a little on the media I’ve consumed over the past decade. It’s hard to think about this clearly; my memory doesn’t work linearly enough to easily track the different stories I’ve come across over the past ten years. It’s wild to me that I’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s been almost 13 years now, but at the same time, it feels like it’s been even longer than that. A lot of my tastes and opinions have evolved considerably since my late teens and early twenties, which feel sort of like a single, solid lump of time, even though we’re talking about a period as long as almost two decades ago and as recent as 6 or 7 years ago. Many of the stories that defined my early adult sensibilities were first encountered during that period. I didn’t even start reading comics until late into high school or early into college! These shifting memories are even more complicated because on many occasions, I’m not encountering a film or book or game until years, or even decades, after its release.

I haven’t had this blog long enough yet to say that I really have traditions, but I do like to post a start-of-the-year recap of my favorite games I’ve played in the past year. Since we’re entering a new decade (even though this blog hasn’t been around for nearly as long), it seemed like a fun opportunity to look back over a longer period. But this site is, if nothing else, an ongoing catalog of What I’m Into Now, and that’s bigger than just video games. If I’m writing about any single thing on this site, if I could encapsulate what my mission is here, it’s to record how I react to stories across various media.

So, for a look back over a decade, I wanted to do more than just my favorite games. What were my favorite stories across video games, books, films, and television shows? But I have to then consider how I’m narrowing that list. For my video game retrospectives, I normally include all games I’ve played within the review period. I could simply include all stories I’ve experienced for the decade, but that’s just too broad, and too susceptible to inaccuracy. When did I really first watch this movie, or play that video game? What if I’d read something in my childhood but rediscovered it as an adult and fell in love? Is it fair or useful to compare an established classic with a new, unproven work?

What I settled on was a data set that only included works published within the past decade, from the start of 2010 through the end of 2019. Whereas my year-end reflections encompass five games, a list of ten favorite stories seemed appropriate for a decade–ten stories for ten years. That number becomes more interesting if I actually make it only one story per year. I’ve only been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’ve thus written more about (and paid more attention to) stories I’ve encountered in those last few years, and therefore my list would naturally lean heavily toward the last few years of the decade. To counteract this, I’ve decided to include only one favorite for each year, although I’ve allowed myself some latitude with television and have still included some runners-up for particular years.

With those rules in mind, here’s my current list of favorite stories from the 2010’s. Whether that list would be the same in another month or year or decade remains to be seen…Regardless, let’s get to it, starting with 2019 and working our way back to the beginning of the decade.

2019: Kitbull (Rosana Sullivan)

This is such a touching story. Beautiful animation, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some people might view it as a little too saccharine, but I am here for it. I like short fiction, and this is a cute and compelling short film that demonstrates how a minimalist story can communicate something much bigger than its individual moments.

2018: Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)

Look, I loved Winnie the Pooh as a kid. The characters have always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve never really let go of that. Christopher Robin is to Winnie the Pooh as Hook is to Peter Pan. The cynical view would be that this movie is a nostalgia grab. But I still found that the movie spoke to me, aided by excellent performances and lovable interpretations of the stuffed animals. This is the kind of movie I could contentedly watch again and again.

Runner-Up: BlacKkKlansman was funny, challenging, and different. It offers wacky performances and outlandish storytelling with sadly too many truths and connections to reality. Probably the better film of the two I’ve indicated for 2018, it’s also one that I’d be less likely to return to.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

2017 was absolutely the hardest year for me to isolate a single favorite. At the end, I’ve picked one, along with three runners-up. My favorite (for now) was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It might be my favorite video game of all time. It actually made me interested in Zelda. It had just enough characterization and backstory to keep me invested, but the story was so pared-down that you were often making up a narrative as you played through the game. More than any other Zelda game I’ve even attempted to play, this was the game that really showed the joys of exploration. That included exploring the world, but also exploring alternative options to combat and to puzzles. I just want more of this! I can’t wait for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). I’m personally pleased that this list isn’t overrun with Star Wars stories. I picked The Last Jedi because it made some of the boldest choices since The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back before it. Each of these films took the franchise in a new direction and did new things with how these movies are made and what they mean, for better or worse. At the same time, no Star Wars is perfect. And for many, I just named the best and the worst of the franchise in comparison to The Last Jedi. Even setting aside the bigoted trolls, this film has resulted in a deep divide among fans and general moviegoers. For me, I love this movie and think it’s one of the better-made, more interesting Star Wars films, but it is a slower-paced movie with a clunky middle section, and as a result, I’ve always preferred The Force Awakens as a film to watch over and over again. After The Rise of Skywalker, I now feel that The Last Jedi was the pinnacle of the sequel trilogy. This isn’t some wildly experimental film, but it really highlights how safe J.J. Abrams played it with the other two movies.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View. This was a collection of short stories that retold various moments of A New Hope from the perspective of supporting characters. It helped fill in moments in the new canon, even while remaining a sort of canon-lite bit of storytelling given its dependence upon, well, subjective viewpoints. This had a lot of strong writing, too. “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remains my single favorite bit of Star Wars writing ever.

Runner-Up: Kita Kita (written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo) is a weird, subversive, surprisingly sweet rom-com about two lonely Filipino expats living in Japan. The third act takes such a surprising twist that is initially absurd and ultimately sentimental, and it is that third act that makes the film. It’s a rom-com that stayed with me after watching, and I think it’s worth holding out as special for that reason alone.

2016: A Fox In Space (Matthew Gafford)

This fan production by Matthew Gafford attempts to retell the Star Fox story with a more “mature” perspective, plenty of humor, and an animation and sound design that echoes cartoons of decades past. So far, besides several in-production clips, only one episode has released. I don’t remember how I even found out about it. But I’m something of a Star Fox fan, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to see an ongoing cartoon or comic that really mined the setting and characters while providing a more compelling narrative and a deeper lore. This fan pilot does that, whether or not we ever get a full second episode or beyond.

Runner-Up: Zootopia (written and directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore) is another movie that I can just watch again and again. It’s sweet and funny. It’s a little overly broad in its allegories about race and class, but it still has something to say for a younger audience (especially in that even a good person can hold prejudices they have to work to identify and overcome, and experiencing discrimination in one area does not mean that you can’t also benefit from privilege in other ways).

2015: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

I love Tom Hanks. I love Steven Spielberg. I love a good movie about an attorney working within or against the system to attempt to do good. I love spy stories, especially Cold War spy stories. How could I not love this movie? I hadn’t thought about it much recently, but my wife brought it up recently as one of her favorite movies of the past decade, and I found that I agreed.

2014: The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Instead of a boring licensed-product kids’ movie, The Lego Movie was wild, raucous fun, loaded with a goofy, sardonic sense of humor and altogether too many references to the wide number of franchises that Lego has worked with. Lord and Miller are such a creative writing/directing team, and this movie has some tremendous voice acting performances. And The Lonely Island’s “Everything Is Awesome” is just such an ear worm, even while representing the bland consumerist society that we should work to shake ourselves free of. This is a movie layered in irony and contradiction; that a Warner Bros. production even attempts to interrogate some of the hypocrisies and fallacies of the very culture the studio and the Lego toyline are a part of is really something.

2013: A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

I think I somehow got this eBook free through some sort of promotion. Or maybe it was just heavily discounted. I didn’t seek it out, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It won me over quickly, though. I was often chuckling at the witty language from the first few pages, and the story moved along at an exciting pace. This book is fantasy filtered through a contemporary reaction to Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard. This book was so clever and original. I’ve never moved on to the later books in the series, but I’d always be happy to recommend this first book.

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro always makes interesting, unique genre films. Pacific Rim was such a fun movie, a joyous homage to the very Japanese staples of kaiju and mechas. Still, it’s a light, airy romp; it’s not much deeper than face value. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it stuck with me. That’s enough!

2012: Mass Effect 3 (BioWare)

On my first completion of Mass Effect 3, I thought the ending I chose was tragic but fitting. I chose Synthesis. It felt right, after all that I had come to learn about the relationship between synthetics and organics over the past three games. It felt like a satisfying conclusion to the evolving storylines and character relationships that had begun with humans shooting Evil Synthetics back in the original game. I liked that I still had a choice, but with the way I’d played Shepard, with how I’d interacted with so many synthetics and even bonded with a few, with how we’d brought peace between Geth and Quarians, this final decision felt like the right choice.

I liked the fusion of gameplay elements from the first two titles. I liked the exploration, the resource-gathering, the sense of a desperate fight against an overwhelming opponent. I liked fleeing from Reapers across the galaxy as I tried to reach out to new worlds.

I was shocked to realize that so many people hated Mass Effect 3, and that so many people hated it because of how it ended. Of course I’d love a happily ever after for Commander Shepard, but he became a part of everyone in the end; he became an epic hero to always be remembered. And that ending felt like an ending made for me; everyone played a slightly different character, with a different gender and appearance and background and set of personality traits. Their choices and experiences were all slightly different. We had to end it somehow, and the few choices available felt thoughtful. I saw the conclusion as beautiful and meaningful, more than Shep somehow managing to kick All The Reaper Ass would have been.

Regardless of how contentious the ending proved to be, this story was deeply affecting to me and felt like a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s kind of wild to realize that it’s been almost a whole decade since we last had a new main title game in The Elder Scrolls franchise. This might be my wife’s favorite RPG. For me, I appreciated the return to the weird that made me love Morrowind so much, that felt lacking in Oblivion.

The two factions in the great civil war that centers much of the game are both despicable, more flawed than honorable, and it’s easy to simply stand apart from them. Underneath the senseless violence that straddled a war of religion and a war of secession, there was a larger existential threat brewing that most people in the state of Skyrim were oblivious to or refused to care about. In a way, that works as a nice allegory for contemporary society and the impending existential threat of climate change.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never finished the main story. My wife has, but I couldn’t maintain interest. I spent dozens of hours in the game nonetheless, wandering the world, uncovering secrets, fighting monsters, taking on jobs, making friends. Once more like Morrowind over Oblivion, the game was at its most fun when you were making your own stories, not worrying about the main plot, and it didn’t try to keep shoving that main plot in your face like Oblivion did with its Oblivion Gates. Then again, I’ve played through the main stories of Morrowind and its expansions at least a couple times because they were so engaging and weird and ambiguous! Morrowind rewards textual interpretation, and I didn’t feel the same experimentation with ambiguity and competing narratives in Skyrim. And while Skyrim was weird, it wasn’t quite as original as Morrowind. The fourth title clung to The Lord of the Rings, and the fifth to Conan the Barbarian, but the third pulled from everything and in so doing made something that felt wholly original.

My feelings about Skyrim are complex, but I still lost myself in that world for hours and hours on end.

2010: Adventure Time (Frederator Studios, 2010-2018)

Adventure Time almost spanned the whole decade, but it started in 2010, so it’s standing in as my favorite for that year. It was quirky, irreverent, fantastic, bizarre, and funny, and it managed to tell so much story in so little time. Aimed at kids, but with interesting concepts (especially in the later seasons) and a strong focus on the complex emotional bonds and fluid relationships shared between the characters, and a tendency to reward attention to detail, it was just as fun for adults. Plus, it’s loaded with references to anime, old cartoons and video games, and Dungeons & Dragons. It refused to be just any one thing, and even by the end of the series, it juggled beauty and horror and an epic scope with sweet character moments and silly gags. It was great.

Now that I’ve reached all the way back to 2010, please let me know what your favorite stories of the past decade have been!

Review: The Witcher, Season One

I liked Netflix’s version of The Witcher. It’s not perfect. I hope there’s more of it.

I’m not a “fan” of The Witcher, exactly. I liked the first game, but it was a weird game lacking in polish, with a difficult-to-adjust-to combat system that was completely overhauled in later games, and it was bogged down with a misogynistic depiction of women and sex. I was hooked by the complicated morality, the bizarre assortment of characters, and the unique lore. That led me to reading The Last Wish, and I truly loved Sapkowski’s character and setting (even if I didn’t love the writing/translation style). I’ve tried to get into the second Witcher game a couple times, and I really do intend to invest myself in it enough to complete it some day so that I can feel free to move onto the third game. I have Blood of Elves somewhere in the house, waiting to be read. It’s an interesting setting with a unique moral perspective that (unfortunately) all too often fails to treat women with respect; it’s fairly unique in its use of Polish myths and fairy tales and classic fantasy to do something darker and more complex, and yet because of its source material, a lot of it feels familiar. It inhabits a unique ethnic identity instead of a generic European-style setting, but it is still a European-style setting, and I could understand readers or viewers or gamers preferring to look for voices and settings that haven’t been promoted as much. I like the idea of what the Witcher is but I see its flaws and can understand why someone wouldn’t like it. And I come to the series as someone familiar with the source material but not overly so; I won’t get all the references, and I won’t know how every adapted storyline originally appeared, but I’m not taking this all fresh either.

It turns out that I knew more of the story than I was expecting. This first season largely adapts plots from the short story collections of The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny; most of what I hadn’t read had been referenced in what I’d played. When we get to the titular Witcher facing the striga, cursed heir to the throne of Temeria, I realized I was seeing the third depiction of a particular story, a story that had first appeared in The Last Wish and had then been depicted in the opening cinematic for the first game (while becoming a major plot point of that game). Still, every story, whether I knew it or not, was engaging and moody and prone to sudden bursts of graphic violence, so I never lost some degree of suspense.

I’ve said a lot about what I do and don’t know about The Witcher. If you don’t know anything at all about it, all you really need to know is that the protagonist is Geralt, a “Witcher” who has been mutated through magic and trained to fight monsters; he wanders the land, taking on odd monster-hunting jobs for gold, but his mission is complicated by his reluctance to kill anything intelligent and by the villainy of many of the humans seeking to hire him. As much as he cuts through monsters, he also cuts through a great deal of men and bullshit. While he opts to project the image of an aloof killer, he is typically thoughtful, witty, and surprisingly kind. He especially tends to take the side of outsiders like him, though the bigoted human majority doesn’t approve of this. He hates royalty and wizards, but he frequently becomes ensnared in their schemes, finding himself the ally or rival of many of the powerful.

The show captures a great deal of this. Without access to his unique headspace, however, Geralt often comes off as more of a cold-blooded assassin than a warrior-poet. We see glimpses of it, but he is depicted more in the grumpy, near-silent mold of the video-game version of the character, mostly left to say “fuck” or “hm.” That said, Henry Cavill does everything he can with what he is given, and every “fuck” or “hm” has a slightly different meaning and intent, conveyed through tone and body language. It’s really not that bad, either; Geralt has plenty of moral debates with the characters he runs into, often has to make difficult choices between the lesser of two evils, and occasionally encounters or develops a friend.

Geralt’s closest companion is Jaskier, played by Joey Batey. Even if you haven’t watched any of the show by the time you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard some of his catchy tunes by now, or seen someone encourage you to toss a coin to your Witcher. Batey plays Jaskier pitch-perfect (pun intended): smarmy, self-assured, arrogant, charming, promiscuous, and worldly yet somehow naive. He’s the emotional soft-boy counterpart to Geralt’s almost parodic depiction of traditional masculinity. And they become best buds! How sweet is that? Jaskier feels like the most accurate translation from book to game to television (fun fact: he was known to me and many other English speakers as “Dandelion” prior to this because his name is Polish for “Buttercup” and the translator apparently wanted to avoid some of the American associations with that word).

Geralt’s eventual on-again, off-again lover is Yennefer, portrayed by Anya Chalotra. I don’t know Yennefer as much as Geralt, Jaskier, some of the other sorcerers and sorceresses, or even some of the royalty, but I had a general idea of her somewhat toxic relationship with Geralt. I had no idea of what she went through to become a sorceress, however. It took me a while to pick up on, but the story is actually told in three separate timelines, and much of Yennefer’s story takes place farthest in the past, as we see the trials and travails she underwent prior to meeting Geralt. I was most invested in Yennefer’s story by the end. Yet as much time as was spent, it still feels rushed. I never felt that I fully understood her, yet understanding her and her development over the series is critical to a few key moments (including the climax of the season). I would have liked to have even more time with her as a sorceress in training, to see her adapt and improve and struggle and scheme, to see what sort of power she wanted to have and how her decisions brought her closer or further away from that power. We only get glimpses in the end. Most troublesome, the show spends altogether too much time on her transformation from a humpbacked girl to a beautiful woman via a painful magical procedure that starts with a hysterectomy without anesthesia and then a truly horrifying set of enchanted physical changes that put her through agonizing, gruesome pain. The fixation on this woman’s horrific pain to achieve her goals was questionable to me. And while the show has some messaging that the transformation is to appease the royalty sorceresses work with, rather than to correct some “fault,” the show does not escape reinforcement of traditional beauty standards at all costs. (Fascinatingly, it’s paired with moments from the striga fight, and we are left with the impression that her transformation from humpback to beauty is comparable to the striga’s transformation from monster to innocent-yet-feral girl.) Again, more time with Yennefer before that, and more understanding of what she wanted and why, might have made me more accepting of that scene.

As I mentioned, there are three timelines at work. The series jumps between these points. Yennefer’s story is the farthest back in time; Geralt’s story is near the narrative’s present; current events follow the young princess Ciri (Freya Allan) as she flees from the destruction of her kingdom in search of Geralt for protection. I won’t get into the “current” timeline because the whole of the show builds toward it and the significance of Ciri’s story.

All in all, this show pushed my tolerances for graphic depictions of violence, gore, and pain. The fight scenes were often quite brutal. There was weight to these moments, even when the fights themselves were quick. Often, the camera would pan over fallen bodies and severed limbs. Yet the most grotesque gore was typically only shown in flashes; sometimes, a moment of violence would be alluded to but not graphically depicted. I’m not sure that the decisions made ever felt fully consistent, but I appreciated the occasional reprieve.

If you’re looking for a replacement to Game of Thrones, this isn’t it. It’s smaller in scope, focused mostly on four characters (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri, and Jaskier). There is magic, and there is a feudal society, and there are dragons, and a great war is coming. But it’s typically focused on the smaller moments, as Geralt just tries to make his way through the world. The show is about his beliefs and principles, how they evolve and how they stay the same, how they compete or coincide with the beliefs and principles of others. I’m glad for that. I’m glad for the personal, narrowed focus. I never really got into A Song of Ice and Fire or its television adaptation for a number of reasons, but I think the most useful distinction here is that it was a sprawling alternate historical fiction epic disguised as a fantasy series, and The Witcher is about this one character operating in a strange, alien world. You might disagree with my depiction of Game of Thrones; I only read the first couple of books. But I hope you can at least see the distinction I’m trying to draw here.

I liked the show. I didn’t think it was perfect. I don’t think the source material is perfect. I’ll keep watching if they keep making this show. I might get around to reading the Witcher saga. I might finally get into the rest of the games. But if you don’t like it, I understand. It’s not for everyone.

Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 3

After a drawn-out journey to the border of Xadia over the first two seasons, the third season of The Dragon Prince sprints to its final destination and the culmination of the plot so far. If your concern was that the show was going too slow, I guess this addresses that. But the relatively breakneck pace packs way too much into these nine episodes. And while the fantasy genre is constantly in dialogue with itself, too much of the big story moments are reliant upon fantasy tropes. In one example, and I hope this avoids spoilers too much for anyone who hasn’t watched yet, an important and charismatic character from earlier episodes does not appear at all until a last-minute cavalry charge at the final battle that feels straight out of The Lord of the Rings. That final battle is all too brief, but this show has always been more concerned with adventure and interpersonal relationships than violent spectacle.

The series ends with a moment suggesting that there will be a continuation, either in a future season or the long-discussed video game. I would have ultimately preferred the slower pace of the earlier seasons, with the promise of a more fulfilling final climax in a fourth season.

Still, the animation is the best yet, the show remains hard-hitting with its complicated morality and depiction of dark themes, and the charming cast of characters continues to meet new allies and enemies of all sorts. This show offers some of the most imaginative fantasy out there, even while drawing deep from what has come before. And it remains as committed to exhibiting one of the most diverse fantasy settings ever. Yes, there are fantasy races and creatures, many depicted in new ways or entirely original to the show. Yet more significantly, the show portrays people of different human races and ethnicities, across a spectrum of gender and sexuality, and with a range of abilities. Disability is only an element of a character in this setting, not a hated impediment or a sign of weakness or villainy. And this season has a great homosexual relationship that is important to the plot for reasons other than the nature of the relationship. For the display of diversity in programming aimed primarily at kids and young adults, that’s just delightful.

It may have rushed its big climax, but The Dragon Prince isn’t out of ideas yet and remains a joy to watch. Now, maybe it will be free to go in some really weird directions…

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Ninja Theory released Hellblade in August 2017. Earlier this month, a sequel was announced. And this Thursday, oblivious to the sequel announcement at that time, I played the original. That has become one of my favorite gaming experiences in 2019, and I anxiously await the follow-up title.

I haven’t played any of Ninja Theory’s other games. I had only heard of Hellblade because of the general praise for its depiction of psychosis in a video game. I didn’t have any set expectations going in. I found myself sucked in very early.

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To begin, let’s acknowledge that Hellblade is a very pretty game. That it manages to preserve so much of its graphical fidelity in this Switch port is impressive in and of itself. It’s interesting to look at–I say interesting because it’s often more fantastical, horrifying, or grotesque than beautiful.

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Combat is easy to pick up and feels good, too. It’s simple enough: heavy and light attacks, dodge, block, a headlong charge useful for disrupting certain opponents, and a focus ability that charges up over time and slows enemies down (and makes certain enemies stagger or become corporeal) when used. The formula doesn’t get mixed up much. And while new enemies are introduced over time, there are less than a dozen enemy types altogether. Sometimes battles can be trying, with multiple opponents wielding mixed arsenals. There are also several boss fights against larger, unique enemies; these fights required the most precise use of the combat system and felt uniquely desperate. If I sound muted about the combat, it’s because I am. It’s engaging most of the time, but it’s nothing special. Thankfully, the game is not combat-focused; it’s just one of three major play modes. The other two play modes are exploration and puzzles.

This is a game designed around levels, but they can often feel vast, with many paths to wander. You don’t level up in the game; Senua is Senua, and her equipment is her equipment. This isn’t a quest for gold or glory, and so there’s nothing to collect. At one point, Senua has to get a new sword, but the process of obtaining that sword is deeply tied to narrative; it’s not about fetch quests for materials or finding treasure chests with new weapons. While you do have many paths to pursue, few are truly unrelated to the narrative of the game, and the main “resource” to locate consists of the runic monoliths that, when focused on, unlock a voice-over narration about some aspect of Norse myth (as told by a deceased mentor of Senua’s). In short, exploration is part of the narrative.

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Puzzles are varied but typically revolve around the use of Senua’s focus to change her perception of reality. You might be called to detect the natural presence of a rune in the environment, or to line up symbols with the shape of a seal on a door, or to reconstruct a bridge or set of stairs by viewing the ruins from a particular angle. It’s often mind-bending, though thankfully seldom frustrating.

More than anything, this is a game about story. Senua is a Pict from Orkney in the late 8th century. She experiences psychosis, which is mainly represented in the game through delusions and hallucinations, though also through interesting use of visual phenomena and a certain sort of pattern-seeking behavior, among other things. Senua is plagued by voices, which can be hurtful or helpful. The worst of the voices is representative of the Darkness, a destructive force that she believes kills everyone she cares about and is slowly rotting away within her. The game kicks off in the wake of a Viking raid in which her lover was tortured and killed as a sacrifice to the Northmen’s gods. Senua is under the delusion that if she can take the decapitated head of her loved one to Hel and bargain with or defeat Hela, she can restore him to life. Her personal journey, and her past life, are secrets to be uncovered by the player, and I won’t get into them much more here. Suffice it to say, one of the greatest successes of the game is that it presents the journey as a fantasy narrative that the player can buy into; while you’re playing, Senua’s goals seem like reasonable objectives, as they must seem to Senua herself (in fact, she sees them as the only options). In this way, more than any particular visual or auditory device (although the use of light and color and sound is unnervingly effective), the narrative itself does a remarkable job at placing the player within Senua’s mindset. It all seems so reasonable, so plausible, that we can easily forget that we are playing a game of historical fiction, not fantasy.

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Death and fear of loss are central concerns of the game. Senua fears her own decay and death. Senua cannot get over the death of her lover. The death of her mother becomes an increasingly prevalent trauma. The game’s narrative literally sends us to Hel. But the game design also makes that fear of death part of the gameplay. Early on, Senua is infected with a variant of dark decay that creeps its way up her arm, advancing at key story moments and every time she “dies.” Death unwinds events a bit, but it has still “occurred,” and the cost is the advancement of the rot that threatens to permanently end her. She can die many times, but once the darkness reaches her head, she will die her final death. The game presents this as a risk of permadeath. This threat reinforces the fear of death in the player’s mind, but the rot progresses so slowly that it is not a primary concern, and there are so many opportunities to surge to your feet after a fall with enough button mashing that death is rare anyway, at least on the auto-difficulty that I played on. In fact, some sources I’ve seen indicate that the permadeath is all a bluff, not something that can actually happen within the game, and yet another example of game design used to reinforce the psychosis and unreliable narrative/experiences of the protagonist.

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The cinematography and direction of the game are also fascinating. There are a great deal of cutscenes, though the distinction between cinematic and gameplay is often blurred. While we almost always experience the game from the third-person perspective, despite sharing in Senua’s hallucinations, most cutscenes feel oddly second-person. A good deal of the game could almost be described as second-person, as one of the primary voices often narrates the story and the past to us, often speaks to or about us as if we are one of Senua’s voices, and comes close to breaking the fourth wall in its engagement with us. We are Senua and yet we are apart from her; you are always a “you,” not an “I” or a “they” but a tag-along presence directly connected to the events. The cinematics can be especially disconcerting, focused so much on Senua’s face and reactions; we are often forced to take the perspective of a monster or abuser or similar predator/dark force. It’s a disorienting effect that I’m still thinking about, coming to terms with. We are Senua; we are the forces that oppress her; we are an observer; we are an aid. The focus always on Senua, even though perpetually outside of her immediate perspective, reinforces that the external world as we see it is merely a representation of Senua’s inner reality, that we should always be questioning what is “real” or “unreal.”

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The use of historical and psychological research, considerable interviews and involvement with academics and those who have experienced psychosis, and innovative game design creates a truly compelling, unique, and authentic experience. It’s more than the fantastical monster-slasher that it may seem at first glance. I would strongly recommend this game to anyone, except that it is a deliberately disturbing, uncomfortable experience. I was often on-edge, uncomfortable, distressed, and even terrified while playing. If you have experienced psychosis or have an aversion to disturbing images, graphic depictions of suffering, or violence, you should pass on the game. My wife was fascinated by it but ultimately had to abandon viewing the game because of the disturbing sound design. Hellblade actually comes with a trigger warning, the first I’ve seen in a game and hopefully something the industry will start to pick up more and more in the future. It also offers a website for those suffering from mental illness, to tap into mental health resources in their own country. It’s a smart, thoughtful, empathetic touch.

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If you can’t play the game, try to look up the documentary about its making that comes with Hellblade. It’s fascinating to learn more about the historical and psychological research that went into making it. And while virtually every game has dozens, if not hundreds, involved in the creative process, the documentary really drove home to me that this was a game that uniquely had an auteur guiding its creation, development, and vision: Tameem Antoniades, the game’s writer and director (and a founder of Ninja Theory). I have considerable respect for his vision, the work of his team, and the insight of those involved in aiding the project to ensure an accurate and visceral representation of psychosis.

I hope that we can see more games willing to go to such depths to portray a challenging subject like psychosis. To have mental illness in games as more than a simple threat, debuff, or sign of villainy would be amazing. And Hellblade shows that games are uniquely positioned to place their audience within the mindset of minorities who are otherwise Othered.

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Returning to Vampyr

Vampyr came to Switch, so I got it and played it. This time around, with technical issues reduced, I was able to complete the game. That said, there were still a lot of technical issues present, which felt shocking on a console. There were still often lengthy load times, including screen-freezing loading in the middle of combat on several occasions. Sometimes, it appeared that the game became slightly sluggish with a slight frame-rate drop. These were annoying and disruptive problems, but not fatal. Even worse, the game crashed on at least three occasions, with at least a couple times where I got a Switch system error telling me the software had to be closed and at least one time where the game indefinitely froze in the middle of a battle, becoming unresponsive (even in that situation, I could still easily return to the Switch Home menu and quickly close out the game, which is a testament to the reliable nature of the Switch). On top of all this, the game has been ported to Switch with what appear to be the lowest graphics settings–fair, I get that sacrifices have to be made for this little, under-powered console, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when the game still doesn’t perform consistently.

I’m glad that I finished the game, though. It has a fun take on vampire lore. The story advances in jagged steps, and the dialogue doesn’t always flow naturally, but it still lands more than it misses. In fact, I suspect that Dontnod had a better story here that was stymied somewhat by English-language localization efforts. Still, this feels like an odd explanation, given that Dontnod, while a French developer, has typically produced games with good-to-great writing, like Life Is Strange and Remember Me, which both precede Vampyr.

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I enjoyed roaming the streets of this version of 1918 London. I enjoyed uncovering secrets and unlocking hidden lore. I enjoyed learning little hints about people and then using my vampiric influence to persuade them to share more about themselves, their motivations and their fears. I enjoyed healing people when they were sick. I enjoyed crafting treatments for them and serums for myself and upgrades for my weapons. And I enjoyed the combat, so much of it, combat outside of every safe district hub, combat between vampires and vampire hunters of all shapes and sizes. I enjoyed a focused approach to leveling my character, locking in on specific offensive and defensive abilities rather than going too broad with my skill selection and wasting valuable experience points on dead-end development. I enjoyed applying skill advancements that boosted my combat strategies and that sometimes made me adapt new strategies. I became a huge fan of hurling myself forward from the shadows across vast distances to damage and stun opponents, drawing blood and vitality restoration from them by biting them when they fell, and using a combination of vampiric claws and melee weapons (upgraded so that they, too, would draw little bits of restorative blood for me with every hit) to whittle down the health of tougher opponents in quick flurries of strikes between bursts of dodging. Combat stayed fun and fresh during most of my time in the game, and it kept the frequent backtracking across the game map more lively, but the boss fights were less fun and more frustrating, presenting the same sorts of challenges and requiring the same sort of maneuvers in basically every battle. And combat as a whole, especially at the scale in which it appears within the game, feels antithetical to the spirit of the core game, which is more focused on balancing your character’s thirst for blood with his impulse as a doctor to help people, to save lives, to be better. The narrative focuses on the latter so much that it feels increasingly disconnected from the active fighting and killing you’re doing most of the time.

[Huge spoilers about the end of the game follow. Stop if you have interest in giving the game a try without any reveals about the alternative endings.]

I hadn’t realized how close I had been to the end of the game before. I was well into the last third when I gave it up previously.

I made slightly different choices playing through this time. Chiefly, I found that I had little desire to choose to take the life of others. Something about my mental and emotional state at the time of this play attempt made me even more reserved about killing. Even when I encountered characters that are easy to hate, like a violent street gang leader or a sleazy slumlord or an actual serial killer, it didn’t seem right for me to be choosing to take their lives. At best, it would have been a brutal vigilantism, and at worst it was little more than an extrajudicial lynching, I felt. And so I spared characters I had previously killed.

It appears that this pure-hearted approach, wherein I refused to “embrace” any character, netted me the most “good” ending for the game. It was pleasant to attain that good ending, but I can imagine how frustrating it would feel to play through the game, choosing to feed and gain power only through enacting street justice against a few of the worst of the worst, only to find that this led you to being irredeemably corrupted. This insistence on remaining pure, avoiding the temptation to become a predator, feels especially silly given that the game actively encourages you to embrace people to gain power (and choosing who to kill and who to spare was part of the meta-narrative discussion around the game), while you’re also involved in a lot of fighting against and killing of the various types of vampires and vampire hunters. You can even choose an option, as I did, that led to a good person becoming a mindless lesser form of vampire (though not your intent), and you can return to their location later and kill their corrupted form, and this does nothing to hurt the ending. I had the protagonist feed constantly; using a vampire bite in battle was one of my major combat tactics, and there were plenty of rats drained of blood along the way. The distinction between the piles of bodies I drank from and killed along the way and this idea of abstaining from the thirst for blood as presented by the “good” ending narrative is contradictory and left unresolved and unaddressed in that narrative.

Still, the Gothic atmosphere and diverse cast of characters made it rewarding to explore (and fight through) the world all the way up until the end.