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!

Revised, never finished

The Indiana State Museum IMAX sometimes shows classic films, in addition to the expected blockbuster new releases and nature documentaries. I’ve been trying to take advantage of that, seeing films in IMAX that I’ve never seen in theaters at all before. This summer, I got to see Jaws and Apocalypse Now on the big screen. They’re both movies I’m rather fond of–you know, they’re classics, most people are fond of them–and so was excited to get to see in this format.

Apocalypse Now was a very interesting example because it was a version of the film that I’d never seen before. At home, I have a copy of Redux, which is of course already an altered, expanded version of the original. This, however, was the Final Cut, a 40th-anniversary re-release and restoration. In one of the promotional trailers for this new version, Francis Ford Coppola states that he wanted to “make a version that I like” that’s “longer than the 1979 version but shorter than Apocalypse Redux.” He says he recommends it as his “favorite” (note: not definitive) version.

I love this movie, and it looked great in this format. It was still wild to see yet another version of the film, one that felt in ways different in tone and pacing (and a little different in story) than the Redux cut that I’d become familiar with. It had actually been a few years since I’d last watched any version of the film, so the whole experience was a little dream-like as I tried to register what was different, what I had simply forgotten, and what I had perhaps misremembered. It was a good experience.

What mostly got me thinking with this new edition was how movies, like books, are never really final products: they’re just eventually published, released to an audience. They might continue to be revised over time; another easy example is the revision to The Hobbit to adapt Gollum to his characterization in The Lord of the Rings. Even published works get revised, growing and changing over time beyond simple corrections of errors.

Yet modern fans often look to “extended cuts” of films as more comprehensive, purer, canonical versions. It’s a tempting impulse: if a film adds in more scenes, then it seems to be more “complete.” I think part of that mindset can also be traced to the existence of deleted scenes as additional features on DVD and Blu-Ray releases, suggesting that a film is simply trimmed down, instead of conveying the reality of multiple scenes, and multiple takes of scenes, being combined, reoriented, re-cut to fit a final vision.

I think it’s also why fans viewed the Star Wars Special Editions so harshly, since those edits were viewed perhaps as more “comprehensive” or “canonical” than the previous versions, “replacing” more favored versions of scenes, never mind the consistent stream of minor edits and adjustments to the films over time (it didn’t help that it became very difficult to locate new releases of anything approaching the original versions after that).

anh.png

It’s fun to see Apocalypse Now: Final Cut defiantly offering another take that is, in many ways, less comprehensive than a previous release. And this version is not offered up as canonical–merely the director’s preferred version of the film. It encourages the viewer to observe the film as a constantly growing organism, living even after release not just because of continued developments by the creators but because of an ongoing dialogue between creators and viewers. After all, Final Cut is only presented as another version, a version favored and recommended by the director but not insisted upon as the ultimate or purest version of the film.

Maybe this sort of thing, this announcement and release not just of a longer film but a changed and favored film, happens more often than I realize, but Star Wars and Apocalypse Now remain for now the two most prominent examples (far removed from bizarre and easily parodied fanboy cries for a “Snyder cut” of any given DC film, for instance). I’d like to see more of that, more remixing of classics (old and new) by their creators to further deconstruct the idea of a rigid, “pure,” and ultimately lifeless work of art locked, fossilized, into a moment in time.

Shadow of Mordor, again and for the last time

So I finished the game.

20170910151043_1.jpg

I normally have no desire to 100% complete a game. But this game reasonably rewarded the completionist impulse, the world was easy to explore, and it helped that the game flagged virtually everything (so very little actual exploring was done, and while it did get me to collect all the doodads, I think it hurt the challenge and intrinsic value that exploring an open game world usually has).

Now that of course only reflects all the story missions, side quests, collectibles, and challenges. I completed all sections of the Appendices, as well. But I did not unlock all the Steam achievements, and I didn’t even touch any of the DLC (bundled as it was in whatever Game of the Year-type digital package I purchased when the game was on sale). I don’t think I will. I’m satisfied with my time in the game. I could go back to it if I wanted, but I don’t feel compelled anymore. I’ve exhausted everything I wanted to do with the game. Steam records 34 hours played for this title, so I think I got my money’s worth.

The story, unfortunately, remained abysmal. Part of it is that it is simultaneously a prequel and a bridge between stories, yet not about any essential characters or events. So nothing in it matters, nothing in it could matter, and nothing in it answers anything unexplained or adds anything truly interesting to the lore. Rather than having an interesting question that prompted the game, it feels rather like Monolith started with the IP acquisition, developed the gameplay, and then forced an arbitrary narrative concern (“Ah, you know about The Lord of the Rings–but, uh, who is The Lord of the Rings, really???”) to connect the two. Given Monolith’s attention to detail, excellent game design, and clear love for establishing lore, I think it would have been considerably better if they had simply developed a fantasy hack-and-slash game like this built around original IP. We could have had a much better story that was serviced better by the game mechanics, rather than another boring revenge narrative set in a tiny corner of Middle-Earth that someone apparently felt had not been adequately covered yet.

The clumsy tropes continued in finishing the story, of course (some spoilers follow). We meet Marwen, a sort of pirate queen who appears ancient and half-dead. She is a seer and provides aid. It turns out, though, that she is possessed by Saruman; after the possession is broken, she becomes an attractive older woman. So ugly and old equal unsexy equals evil.

Then we are sent on quests to help out Lithariel, daughter of the Queen. First, we need to help find medicine so the queen can get better (isn’t she better? what’s still wrong with her? the game doesn’t say). Then, we have to break into an orc camp to rescue Lithariel, who has of course gone and gotten herself captured.20170909205543_1.jpg

All the while, Boring Hero reluctantly has to remember his dead family and his need for vengeance so that he doesn’t just follow his dick into another romantic relationship. This last element is played up for dramatic effect. This fails, though, because other than being a Brooding Handsome White Guy and a Pouting Beautiful White Woman, there is no reason for the two to enter into a relationship.

20170909203316_1.jpg

The revenge narrative wraps up with shocking speed, and the final boss battles are ridiculously easy. The ultimate battle is in fact a series of (actually rather slow) quick time events. And then, after a million lines of credits, we are dumped back into the world to do more stuff. Mostly killing orcs.

That all said, killing orcs remained really fun the whole time! I just completely stopped looking at my moral compass within the first few hours of the game, so there was plenty of murdering and torturing and dominating of orcs throughout the rest of the game (I don’t care how much the game tells you the Orcs are evil and Boring Hero is good, Boring Hero still does a lot of really evil and sadistic things with very little moral reflection or reluctance). And all those mechanics work really well, and the game looks really good while you do those things.

In particular, the “branding” or domination system–capturing and controlling orcs so that they follow your will–is excellent. The politics of the setting rapidly became more complicated with this power unlocked, and in a good way. I had some fun dominating high-level orcs, especially war chiefs. But it was also fun setting up groups of sleeper cell orcs in enemy encampments to help me when I finally took on a captain, or setting up a captain to become a bodyguard of a leader I wanted to take down. Weakening, corrupting, and dominating power structures became the name of the game. So much fun!

20170909005124_1.jpg
My first dominated captain.

The game was dynamic enough, too, that my bigger plans would sometimes spiral into surprising outcomes, and sometimes a small moment (like a chance encounter with a captain) would lead into something far more advantageous down the line.

Also, older rivalries proved to result in really rewarding spontaneous and organic narratives. Take good ol’ Kaka Prison Master, my hopeless rival. I guess his sheer tenacity (and perhaps his reputation as a survivor of the unlikely-to-stay-dead Boring Hero) eventually earned him a promotion to war chief.

20170910002405_1

He was also getting far uglier, thanks to all the beatings I’d given him. Well, when I saw he had the promotion, I thought to myself, “Good for you, guy!” Now that I had the ability to dominate and control orcs, there was no reason to outright kill the guy. After all, he’d always been a bit of a ridiculous character to me, more comic relief than any of the forced “comic relief” characters in the main story, and he’d never been a true threat to me. He was a familiar “enemy” without being antagonistic. He was the Master Jr. Troopa to my Paper Mario.

So I sought him out. He not only remembered me, he seemed sort of fond of me, too.

20170910124648_1

After besting him in combat, he knelt before me, defeated.

20170910124731_1

Okay, so he was getting a little creepy. But he clearly just wanted to be buds! So I spared him (and dominated him), and he’s my bud now. His scars don’t even look that bad anymore! Sort of!

20170910124820_1.jpg

I have another story for a bit of a contrast. In the final big battle of the story campaign, in which my orcs fought against defending orcs, the game apparently inserts the Boring Hero’s biggest outstanding rival as the commander of the opposing forces. For me, this was a jerk who had managed to kill me once before, while I’d taken him down a couple times, including once, I believe, with fire. The burning seemed to have inspired him to use powerful poisons, and I found him to be quite the nuisance in the past.

20170910125848_1.jpg

After a slightly-less-than-epic battle between our armed forces, I had subdued this rival, as well. He even begged for mercy.

20170910125908_1.jpg

Well, I wasn’t so fond of him.

20170910125921_1.jpg

There are lots of little stories like that I could share. By the end of it, I had all war chiefs in both maps of the game under my control. It was great fun getting to that point.

If you’re okay with playing a game involving over-the-top violence against an objectively Evil Race (and I understand if you would be opposed to that), then I think you’d probably have a lot of fun playing this game (you know, if you haven’t already). There are some excellent game design elements present here. It’s just too bad that you have to push through the most uninspiring, dull revenge story to unlock all of those elements.


 

P.S. Hey, check out this Batman reference from the game:

20170908215040_1.jpg

“The poison slowly eats at their minds, sending them nightmares of a demonic man-bat who preys on fear.” Pretty good.

Shadow of Mordor

This post is a day early, and there won’t be an Arena post this week. I’m taking a little time off from the game. I suspect I’ll get back to it in earnest in a week or two, but I’ve found that nothing cures my feelings of frustration with the game like time away from it. It helps that it’s so narrative-light that there’s not much for me to forget in-between play sessions (okay, that’s maybe a little too bitter/mean, though true; it also helps that I’ve been blogging my weekly sessions because I have a record to refer back to).

I just wanted to share my thoughts on yet another fantasy video game, this one far more recent (even though, wow, it came out in September 2014, making me three years late to it and eternally behind the times). That’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. A good friend recommended the game to me maybe within a year of its release, but I sat on that recommendation. The game was on sale on Steam sometime recently, I bought it, and then I forgot about it again. Since my wife and I spent Sunday and Labor Day Monday around the house doing chores, I had the down time and decided to try it out. I’m glad I did; it is a remarkably well-designed game. I played for about fifteen hours over the weekend, which is a huge amount of game time for me even for a whole week anymore.

Of course, it’s less that this game does anything shockingly new, and more that it builds on other good games that came before it. Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum are obvious influences in the fluid, fast-paced combination of stealth, ranged attacks, and sprawling melee battles; the open world with towers to climb to unlock full map overviews and fast travel locations; and the heavy use of collectibles, enemies, and minor events to make the world feel packed full of things to see and do. And its deep attention to lore and gradual disclosure of encyclopedic information packets with the unlocking of more and more collectibles certainly echo Batman but also BioWare games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, with those constantly expanding codices. Tolkien’s Middle Earth represents a vast amount of lore–hell, that would be the case if limited just to The Lord of the Rings–and developer Monolith Productions puts that lore to good use.

I’m a little bit of a lore-junkie in general, but I have to say that any sort of collectible in this game is a lot of fun. And there are a lot of collectibles and side events, including artifacts and Elvish symbols and the aforementioned towers, plus runes for your weapons dropped when enemy captains are defeated, plus ability points earned for combat successes that can be paid into upgrading your weapons further and improving your skills, plus side missions to help enslaved humans escape orcs or to build the legend of your weapons or to take down or humiliate enemy bosses, plus hunting and herb-collecting challenges…and so on.

20170903173355_1.jpg
I was excited because I thought this was a Star Wars reference. Nope, actual mushroom. But the real-world mushroom is very pretty, so I’m happy to have learned about a new thing.

I actually am not normally a huge fan of collectibles in games. Finding them is tedious; the rewards are esoteric; and they’re a distraction from the narrative. But here the collectibles and side quests are a great deal of the fun. Murdering orcs and exploring far corners of the map is the vast majority of what makes this game so addictive. Since so many of the collectibles are oriented around unearthing history or specific memories, and many others actually help to improve your weapons or skills, there is greater narrative significance to even the most frivolous of collections.

Speaking of murdering orcs, though: I haven’t even mentioned Shadow of Mordor‘s heavily promoted Nemesis system. I think I’m still missing out on some of this, because I’m not yet to the stage where I can gain followers, but the rivalries that the game develops–with orcs that I’ve bested or that have fled from me, or orcs who have in turn bested me–really make it far more engaging. I’ve certainly gone out of my way to get revenge on an orc who’s slain me. Plus, I just love the fact that “Kaka Prison Master” is my rival, a big idiot I’ve beaten down three or more times now. He keeps getting back up, uglier and more scarred than before, and seeking me out. He just doesn’t learn. Oh, Kaka.

20170904051705_1.jpg

And even though I’m not at the point where I gain much of value (besides further power for ability unlocks), I love to interfere with orc politics, humiliating this orc and picking an arbitrary side in a duel with that orc, or just wiping out all the captains in an area I can find and calling it a day.

It’s also fun to pry information from subordinates to learn the strengths and weaknesses of individual orc captains. And for a game where lethality matters, I like that the unkillable wraith-bonded protagonist is an in-universe, story-relevant explanation for how the guy can keep coming back from death to have those rivalries in the first place.

20170904035209_1.jpg
And that was when I learned that Shigflak had a phobia.

Honestly, the most disappointing element of the game so far is the story itself. Unkillable Ranger, our protagonist whose name is frankly irrelevant, has very little of a personality, reacts inconsistently to people and events, and is only motivated by revenge for the deaths of his wife and son (of course, sigh). More absurdly, he is bonded to an Elf wraith, and their shared connection seems to be that they both want revenge for dead families. Women so far have not had great representation in the story; most have been almost immediately fridged, and one was the impetus for the motivations of a supporting character and had virtually no role after being rescued. I just got to the Queen of the Shore and her daughter in the game, so we’ll see what role they have. But even ignoring the gender disparity, the entirety of the story feels stale and reliant upon boring tropes. I don’t care about the protagonist or anything that’s happening. Other than providing the unkillable magic mumbo-jumbo explanation for our Ranger’s ability to die, come back, and actually have that reflected as an event that occurred in the game world, the story has been good for nothing. I guess your mileage may vary here, depending on how much of a LOTR-head you are, but this story is sandwiched between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so we kind of already know everything important that could happen.

As it is, I think the game would be better if it was simply: Ranger of Gondor is on a quest to murder as many orcs as he can in Mordor. Don’t do cutscenes, except maybe an initial one. Don’t lock areas based on story progression. Just open the damn thing up and let narratives spin out organically with that glorious Nemesis system. Keep the lore to provide a sense of depth and history to the world. But if you don’t have a vital story here, don’t force it. This game is great because of its mechanics; it doesn’t need to be a narrative masterpiece. After all, the best sort of story-telling games can provide is dynamic, emergent, and based on procedurally generated events. Let the players tell a story with the game, and don’t force a lackluster one.

Now that’s actually a problem that applies more generally to open-world games. LA Noire had a super-interesting story that was greatly added to by carefully curated crime scenes and cinematic interrogations, but the open world dragged the story down and diluted the theme. Many are rather fond of Red Dead Redemption‘s story, but I think it’s really the atmosphere and themes (of family, revenge, and government intrusion, for example) that people responded to. The story itself was over-long, told over way too many missions that often amounted to fetch quests or filler with trivial side characters, and themes that were initially clever eventually became repetitive sledgehammer blows of obviousness. Committing to a more compact narrative-focused game or to a true bounty hunting sandbox would have improved the quality of what is admittedly a very good game. And I think virtually any RPG is torn between attempting to tell an engaging narrative involving your character and providing an open world full of choices for you to create your own story. To bring this all back around to Arena, I must admit that the first Elder Scrolls game succeeds in eschewing any sort of required narrative in favor of open world exploration, although when the main narrative nonetheless leaves the fate of the world at stake there is a sense of urgency to it that really does not need to be there.

Anyway. Long story short, I’m liking Shadow of Mordor so far. I’ll probably add another post on the subject when I finish the game, whenever that happens, to reflect on my entire experience and see if any of my opinions have changed or evolved.

Exoticism in Arena

Presentations of race are…problematic in Arena. This is so despite the ability to play as virtually anyone. I’m going to try to talk about that today. We’ll see how it goes.

To begin, let’s consider the playable races in the game. These are: Argonians, Bretons, Dark Elves, High Elves, Khajiit, Nords, Redguards, and Wood Elves. Argonians are blue-skinned and vaguely reptilian. Dark Elves are dark-skinned, red-eyed, and with red or black or white hair. High Elves are golden-bronze in complexion. Khajiit are fair-skinned people with a mythic association with felines (while later games would make them full-blown cat-people, they just look like lithe Nords, more or less, in Arena). Redguards are dark-skinned, typically dark-haired humans. Wood Elves have a slight yellowish tint to their skin and bright hair colors. And Bretons and Nords look like white people.

In other words, Bretons, Khajiit, and Nords are white; Wood Elves and High Elves, besides being elves, appear white or slightly tanned or tinged with a slightly “exotic” pigment; Redguards are black, and Dark Elves are dark-skinned but fantastic in appearance; and Argonians are blue-skinned lizard people. Additionally, orcs are a race of “evil” humanoids in league with monsters like goblins, and Imperials are not a distinctive race in the game.

Even more simply, humanity is represented as white or black, with no other representation in the game.

Obviously there are already troubling implications with the use of distinctive human races with defining general traits. After all, the difference between a Redguard and a Breton is not just skin color or culture; throughout the history of the games, there are hard-wired stats for each race indicating what a character of a given race is naturally better or worse at. While anyone can be anything in the games, certain races are better for certain play styles–whether focused on magic, combat, or stealth. This appears to have been truer with the earlier entries in the franchise, especially when class was more of a fixed identity and the combination of race and class was extremely important.

Not only do races have hardwired core attributes, but customization options in the early entries are very limited. In Arena, you’re basically swapping out different heads. That further accentuates the generic sameness of all members of a particular race.

Each race fills a fairly specific niche in the ecosystem of generic fantasy cultures. Argonians and Khajiit are beast-folk, or at least they’d eventually become that, even if Khajiit are basically just white people in Arena. Bretons are magical and somewhat Celtic. Nords are Vikings. Elves (Dark and Light) are as ancient as Old Norse mythology, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien had many groups of elves, including High Elves and Wood Elves and Dark Elves; more recently, the most iconic Dark Elves, or Drow, were developed for Dungeons & Dragons well before the release of Arena. Lastly, and most troubling to me, the Redguards represent a mishmash of Middle Eastern and North African cultures.

If you asked me to get more specific about which Middle Eastern and North African cultures, I couldn’t, especially for Arena, which paints cultures in broad strokes. When I first came to Hammerfell, I was in a border city, and the town and architecture in many ways reminded me of a generic “Imperial” look, with solid stone walls and courtly dress. But traveling to the south, suddenly the Redguard men were dressed in brightly colored, loose outfits, and the Redguard women donned fur bikinis. The walls appeared to be brick and adobe. There were architectural flourishes that seemed vaguely Middle Eastern, often with ornate reliefs. Desert sands and desert plant life dominated.

Now, as I’ve noted, all the races represent pretty generic fantasy cultures in Arena. It might seem weird that I single out Redguards in particular. But when the other “human” races are white, the black human Redguards seem especially Other. It is not helped that while we can pinpoint particular cultures as influences for Bretons or Nords, Redguards are just a generic fusing of southern and eastern Mediterranean societies. It would seem to be textbook Orientalism, using bits and pieces of other cultures as exotic flavor text.

I might return to this subject later on, as I explore more of the game and see more of how the Redguard culture is presented in contrast to the other in-game cultures. I just wanted to try to articulate some of my concerns that I have at the moment; I recognize that my views could continue to evolve with further exposure to the game.

But a final point for today: while not apparently an element of Arena, it should be noted that the Redguard are supposed to have a separate origin from all other humans in the world of Tamriel.


 

Addendum: Right after originally publishing this post, it occurred to me just how “normal” whiteness was in Arena. The blacksmiths, innkeepers, pub inhabitants, and nocturnal criminals are all white people. The Emperor and his bodyguard are white; Ria Silmane is white; the nobles in the cities I’ve been to are white (all the more bizarre when those cities are Dark Elf and Redguard). I get that it had to have been easier to use a single character model for a lot of the generic quest-givers and merchants, but did they all have to be white people?

 

Arena, Part VII: Stonekeep is ghoulish this time of year

The past week has been…turbulent for me. Hence the delayed post. But I did actually play a fair amount of Arena, and I can say that I have now discovered the location of Fang Lair.

a_383.png

If you recall, last week, my goal was to look for Fang Lair. Okay, so it might sound like I accomplished very little (and maybe that’s true), but I’ve actually done quite a bit of dungeon-delving and advanced the main quest. And I’ve learned even more about the game mechanics; either I skimmed too quickly over some rather useful sections in the manual, or the development team left a lot of how the game works to be figured out organically through experimentation and adventure. Finding Fang Lair was just more meandering than I thought it would be.

So. Last week I arrived in beautiful Elinhir, on the eastern border of Hammerfell. Hammerfell is home to the Redguards, so the people were different from the Dunmer of Aizen’s native Morrowind, but everything else was a little bit different, too: the clothes, the architecture, the plant life and climate…

I started asking around about rumors, and whether anyone had heard where Fang Lair was. I wasted a little time trying to track down an inn where some information about a mythical artifact was being held, but…the inn’s name changed slightly? And there was no one there who knew anything about the artifact? It’s possible I just misunderstood something. I am often suspicious, though, that the game’s procedural generation gets a little buggy at times.

Anyway, I soon heard that there was discussion about a discovery involving Fang Lair in Rihad…or maybe Dragonstar.

a_215.png

These places are on opposite sides of Hammerfell, Rihad to the south and Dragonstar to the north. I decided to go to Dragonstar first.

a_219.png

Wrong! So I went to Rihad next, finding that the far southern city had quite a different climate and culture yet again.

Believe me, I recognize there’s a lot of reliance on problematic “exotic” orientalist tropes, and I plan on talking about that in a separate post in the near future. For the moment, let’s just recognize how cool it is that a game from 1994 had such a sprawling open world with such visually distinctive cultures and environments.

It didn’t take me long to track down more information about Fang Lair here.

a_229.png
Yes, my information source is a black woman in a bikini in a vaguely Middle Eastern/North African setting among the only non-white humans (the dark-skinned Dunmer are elves). Yes, there are a lot of bikini-clad, dark-skinned women in this town. Yes, I recognize the fetishism happening here. Moving on for now…

I headed south through the city and eventually reached the Palace. This provided my next block of story information:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Queen doesn’t know where Fang Lair is, but if I can recover a valuable document that can help decipher a key passage of the Elder Scrolls, she can figure it out. Okay, but the question then becomes, Why wouldn’t the Queen have already translated the key passage of the Elder Scrolls? This could just be a plot hole, but I’m willing to be more generous and read something into this narrative ambiguity. It seems quite possible to me that Jagar Tharn hired the goblin band to take the vital document, knowing that discovering Fang Lair’s location would soon be critical. Perhaps the Queen only became interested after certain parties operating in Tharn’s name began scouting out for the ruins…Or alternatively, we can take the rumors at face value. Maybe this translating document was only recently recovered from the ruins of Stonekeep. And maybe the sortie against the goblin forces that led to the recovery of the document only provoked a new assault that led to the recapture of the resource.

But the game doesn’t really address this, at least explicitly. I feel like I have to hop through some hoops to get to a sort-of reasonable answer when it would have maybe taken one extra dialogue pane to explain things a little better. Regardless, I now know to go to Stonekeep. To get the document. To get the translated Elder Scroll. To get the location to Fang Lair. To get the first piece of the Staff of Chaos. To eventually reassemble the Staff. To challenge Tharn. To save the Emperor. Oh boy. So I still have a lot to do. But at least I have a concrete objective to pursue: Stonekeep.

a_239.png

And Stonekeep, it turns out, is a dungeon with a lot of cool environmental storytelling…but it’s also very lethal!

The game tells a story through the rooms, the layout of the dungeon, the details of the objects and treasures, and bits of flavor text. It becomes immediately clear upon entry that Stonekeep was once another great fortress in Hammerfell, but at some point long ago it was overrun by hordes of goblins. No wonder roaming goblin bands launch raids from this base! There are sunken foyers, collapsed halls, revealed secret passages, and many corpses. Most are little more than skeletons, although there is still evidence of the violent deaths that many encountered. Some of the corpses are fresh, suggesting bold adventurers who plunged in over their heads. We also get flavor text to better describe a situation, or (often) to provide information purportedly seen on a faded sign or wall-scrawled warning. It is this latter information that suggests that the fighting against the goblins had lasted a while, but eventually the King and most of the populace had fallen, and some forces retreated while others pursued some of the goblin invaders. The sequence of events is unclear, but it all suggests (to me, anyway) a protracted siege, a breach, and a series of final bloody hold-out battles between raiders and the last of the defenders. It’s subtle storytelling that hints at an epic undertaking, which once again echoes Tolkien’s lore–the mines of Moria in particular.

The monsters here also develop the environmental storytelling.

We have goblins, of course, as well as orcs; they appear to be reinforced by the occasional minotaur or lizard man, suggesting a loose confederation of beast-folk brigands. And we have the occasional group of wolves, surely pets and hunting companions for the goblins. There are also many, many rats–and deeper in, terrifying (and very dangerous) giant spiders. I suspect that those rats and spiders have grown fat and numerous preying on the old corpses and on the occasional lost goblin straggler. But perhaps the most common enemies I encountered were the skeletons and ghouls, fallen soldiers condemned to keep fighting in undeath. How appropriate that the Queen believed that the goblin leader was a necromancer in league with the mysterious Underking! Occasionally when I rested, I would be attacked by mages, who could be advisers to the goblin necromancer-leader, working on behalf of the Underking or maybe even Tharn. All of this information does not have to be blatantly telegraphed, but it fits with and enriches the story elements we have been provided.

Gameplay-wise, as I mentioned, Stonekeep was lethal. It was very challenging. I died a lot–sometimes in truly embarrassing ways. One time, for instance, a spider poisoned me with the paralysis status as I jumped into a canal to escape, and I promptly drowned with a special death message. The goblins and rats were only minor pests, and I could handle the orcs, lizard men, mages, and wolves. But the minotaurs, spiders, and undead were truly challenging for me. I leveled a few times, and eventually the minotaurs and skeletons became easier opponents, but I remained afraid of the spiders and especially the ghouls. I could take on one or two spiders, but if I couldn’t escape into deep water quick enough or reach a raised platform that let me slip out of arm’s reach, the ghouls would always manage to kill me quickly. Ghouls are stupid, though, and while I still died a lot, I started using the environment, spells, and ranged weapons to my advantage.

I eventually broke a short bow and exhausted all my health potions, having explored a considerable portion of the dungeon. The farthest catacombs in the southeast were too challenging, though, especially given that they were narrow, winding corridors often hiding ghouls or spiders that would attack in groups. I gave up on them, and when the last health potion was gone, I began to retreat for the exit. I left after much exploring and fighting, without having obtained the stolen document.

a_328.png
Just a portion of Stonekeep.

In some of my free time outside of the game, I decided to look up where the document was and realized I’d missed it on an island I’d cleared of ghouls and looted of treasure early on. I’d returned to Rihad, so before going back to Stonekeep, I stocked up on potions, bought a new magic weapon, repaired all my equipment, and sold my excess loot. When getting repairs, I realized that I could actually negotiate down the number of days required for repairs for a modest increase in price; I chose one day for everything.

a_344.png

At last, I traveled to Stonekeep yet again. I more fully explored the area around the island that held the document. It was even easier to get to the lake with the island this time because I had purchased the spell Passwall, so I just magically deleted sections of wall and basically tunneled (what seemed to be) a quicker route through. I picked off ghouls on the island perimeter once more and had to draw several out from the center, one at a time. I made mistakes and died and relied on frequent saves to recover. Eventually, I looted the center of the island of even more (freshly spawned) treasures. I still couldn’t find the document. Then at last I decided I’d better experiment with clicking around what looked like a wooden plank or some other detritus on the ground. Of course it was the document.

a_373.png

I soon after left for Rihad once more.

The Queen proved true to her word:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With that, I was ready to head for Fang Lair.

a_381.png

Next week, we should learn whether I’m ready for it.

a_382.png

(P.S. If Stonekeep is Moria, it sure seems like Fang Lair is the Lonely Mountain!)