Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Christmas Traditions

We’re into the Christmas season, yay! Whether or not you’re a Christian, whether or not you actually celebrate this holiday, you must admit that Christmas is deeply ingrained into our culture. Yeah, it’s very commercialized and kitsched up (especially in the USA), but most of us love it anyway. We love the giving and receiving of gifts, the ability to reward ourselves for another year of getting by (and, hopefully, to offer some help to those who can’t get by), the sparkle and colors and cheer -- and, of course, the tradition. Every family that celebrates has certain rituals that they must observe to make it a proper [insert family name here] Christmas. In the modern world, many of these rituals revolve around movies, stories, music, TV, and other facets of pop culture. I figured I’d get in the spirit of things by sharing my own pop cultural Christmas traditions. One way or another, these things have to happen in my household every year, or it doesn’t feel right. Grab some eggnog!

The Muppet Christmas Carol
Everyone knows Charles Dickens’ classic morality tale, and these days, folks are just as likely to pop in one of the many, many film adaptations as they are to read the book. For my family, it’s always the Muppets’ take on the story. We ADORE this version. Not only is it packed with the trademark zany humor of the Muppets, but it’s actually quite faithful to the original text and respects many of its darker aspects. Scrooge is played by Michael Caine and he’s just great; he stays serious and shows us that Scrooge is a damaged man rather than an evil man. Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat do a double act as Charles Dickens and Rizzo the Rat (respectively), Kermit and Miss Piggy are the Cratchetts, the two cranky old guys play the Marley Brothers, and Scrooge’s three ghostly tour guides are vividly realized as original puppet characters. Now, this was the first Muppet movie made after Jim Henson’s death and you can kinda see the start of a decline in quality...but as an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, it’s brilliant and we just have to watch it every year.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales
If you haven’t read this book, you should do so right now. I’ll wait. Don’t worry, it’s short. Dylan Thomas was an absolutely incredible writer and his poetic prose, with its dreamy run-on sentences, will suck you right in. He recalls how it was to be a boy growing up in a small coastal village in Wales, shrouded in snow and silence, each household a warm little cocoon. Like A Christmas Story, it faithfully recreates the child’s view of the holiday: everything slightly stylized, the colors brighter, the anecdotes given mythological heft. It’s very funny, especially in the description of the presents (which include “a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt, alas, no longer whinnying with us”), and also a bit mysterious at times. Christmas itself seems like an unknowable entity, hiding at the edges of the text. All in all, beautifully told. My folks and I throw a little party every Christmas Eve and everyone sits around and reads A Child’s Christmas in Wales, passing the book from hand to hand. If we dared to leave it out, there’d be a riot. It’s that awesome.

The Christmas Revels
This is a pageant performed every December, set in some past time period and featuring a mix of traditional songs, music, dancing, acting, stagecraft, puppets, and pretty much anything else they can cram onstage. The modern Revels movement was developed at Cambridge by music scholar John Langstaff and is now performed by many troupes across the US. Our local version, Revels North, puts on their show at Dartmouth College. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the Christmas Revels is pretty cheesy. It forces good cheer down the audience’s throat and presents a pretty cloying view of our jolly ancestors. But, you know, part of celebrating Christmas is putting one’s cynicism on hold for awhile. The Revels are fun, we go every year (signing up as ushers to get free admission, mwa ha ha!), it’s always pretty much the same, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was actually in the show myself a few years back, playing a character in a Russian folktale. Damn, was that fun. You’re up onstage with a small army of mostly amateur performers, and everyone, Revelers and audience alike, is just having a whopping good time. That’s Christmas spirit for ya!

Holiday Music
You know it’s inevitable: the season begins, and so does the music. Carols. Syrupy songs about Santa written in the 1950s. “Novelty” songs in which mothers have affairs with Mr. Claus and grandmothers get murdered by wayward cervines. I’m not saying all these songs are bad. Many are delightful. In my household, however, Christmas tends to arrive amidst the sound of harps, fiddles, bagpipes, accordions, and mandolins. Mine is a family of shameless Celtophiles and so our ideal Christmas music comes from Ireland, Scotland, and eastern Canada. These regions produce some of the loveliest and liveliest music in the world, and are ideally suited to take on traditional holiday tunes. Yeah, we’ve got some retro stuff too (Joan Baez! On vinyl!), but we also have a towering stack of CDs featuring the Christmas of the Celts. I strongly recommend the haunting pipes of Canada’s Loreena McKennitt (look her up, trust me). And speaking of Canada, one thing everyone should do in their lifetimes is catch a Christmas concert featuring the music of Nova Scotia. The fiddle playing alone will blow you out of your seat.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
This last holiday tradition is mine alone. I’m pretty sure that my favorite Christmas-themed book of all time is this one by Barbara Robinson. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is about the Herdmans, a group of mean, dysfunctional elementary school siblings who wind up cast in the lead roles in the annual Sunday School pageant. I love this book because A) it’s really funny, B) it’s respectful to the birth of Jesus while still maintaining a streak of cynicism, and C) it has a really good message about Christmas without getting too preachy or sentimental. The Herdmans are a truly unpleasant bunch of little shitheads, but they grow oddly endearing. They start out knowing jack-all about the Nativity Story, but quickly come to identify with the impoverished and outcast Holy Family. The main point this book has to make is that Jesus and his parents were people, ordinary folks gifted with something extraordinary. Not only do the awful Herdmans clean up their act a bit, but they help all the “normal” kids and adults realize that Jesus represents everybody, rich or poor, clean or grubby, jaded or innocent. I’m no Christian, but I strongly support the message of Jesus Christ, as long as it’s presented in its original, true words. It helps us be better people and help each other out. Nothing wrong with that. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a great book to read to children. They’ll laugh a lot, and maybe gain a little wisdom.

I hope everyone has a happy holiday season!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ico: It's Not You, It's Me

Shed a tear for Ico. Released at the dawn of the millennium to critical acclaim, it’s probably one of the top ten best PS2 games ever, and its unique ambiance and gameplay mechanics teased (and helped influence) a higher level of gaming. America responded by ignoring it. Even now, a decade later, Ico is still considered somewhat of a “niche” game, highbrow but lacking in broad appeal. And on top of that, I just played it for the first time and I must sadly announce that, while I enjoyed it very much, it won’t be on my favorite games of the year list. However, due to the circumstances surrounding this game and my opinion of it, I feel like I should talk a little about what makes Ico so cool, and why, to me, it brushes but doesn’t quite grasp greatness.

This is a story-driven game through and through; the gameplay itself is closely tied with its mysterious and ambiguous narrative. What do we learn, and what can we guess? Well, the titular hero is a young boy with horns, which do not make him the ideal playmate in his village. He is taken to an immense, crumbly castle that (barely) perches on an island of sheer cliffs and vast empty spaces. He is sealed up inside some kind of giant Nutella jar and left to die, but he’s lucky enough to escape. Then he finds and frees Yorda, a beautiful girl with mystical powers who is so childlike and fragile that, like the original little mermaid, she seems to be tiptoeing across invisible knife blades. Yorda’s (possible) mother, the queen of the castle, is displeased and tries to stop the duo as they search for an exit.

That’s the plot. Pretty bare bones. But what can we infer? Ico’s great strength, so great that some mistake it for a weakness, is its vivid depiction of its young heroes. Ico isn’t too talkative, but his body language conveys his personality: determined, sprightly, stubborn, the gawky gracefulness of youth dueling with the uncertainty of adolescence. He is notably younger than Yorda and so thinks little of romance, living in the moment. As the player guides Ico up ladders and across terrifying ledges, as he swings on chains and waves a sword with a delightful lack of skill, you kind of fall in love with him a little bit. You want to get him safely home and give him a hug and some hot chocolate. As for Yorda, may have heard that she’s a royal pain in the ass. You may have heard that the entire game is one long, tedious escort quest. That Yorda makes Princess Peach look like Samus Arran. That you’ll spend half the time dragging her along, prodding her into performing the simplest actions, searching for her when she wanders off, and defending her from shadow monsters while she stands there looking bewildered. All these accusations are correct, but unless you’re a jaded gamer (which you may well be), you’ll fall in love with Yorda too.

Just watch her. Team Ico put so much subtlety into Yorda’s performance. What may initially seem like sloppy AI is, in fact, sublime AI in how it depicts a passive character. Yorda is not stupid, merely naive; not useless, merely fragile and tentative. And there’s a reason for it. This is a girl who has never gone beyond the castle walls, who is firmly under the thumb of the sinister queen. She is daunted by the unknown. She’s not certain about this plucky horned boy who wants to rescue her, but she follows him because she doesn’t know the meaning of distrust. She may not even realize that there is any danger: while Ico is a hero on a desperate quest, Yorda is a child playing an elaborate game of hide and seek. And she learns. As the game progresses, she evolves into a more capable companion. Along the way, the nearly wordless bond between the two children strengthens into something very real -- not a conventional romance, but the kind of uncomplicated and unbreakable bond that only children can share. Play the game, watch the two main characters closely, and tell me I’m wrong.

To use a classic gaming cliché, the environment is a character in its own right. How long has this castle been quietly rotting away, occupied only by the queen, her daughter/prisoner, and her creepy and pitiful shadow minions? Few video game environments can so successfully convey the sense of being a real, physical space. It’s not like with most games, where every level or stage exists in its own, self-contained little bubble. The whole castle is always there, looming at the corners of the frame, unfolding gradually to reveal its nooks and crannies. You revisit places you have already been. You gaze down from a high ledge to see a distant courtyard you explored an hour ago. Ico pulls levers to operate creaky old machinery and we wonder: who built this thing? What was it used for? Did the queen always reign over this gloomy pile, or is she a squatter, moving in once it was already long abandoned? The game gives us no exposition, but it’s better that way; the castle becomes a mental as well as a physical space, the archetype of the Labyrinth from which the Hero and the Lady must somehow free themselves. Assuming they should free themselves.

The final thing I must gush about is the ambiguity of Ico. Most games are afraid to leave Good and Evil up in the air. Ico forces the player to wonder. Yes, Ico has every right to save his own life. Yes, the queen acts evil and (spoiler alert) is planning to occupy Yorda’s body so she can remain young. But...wait a minute. What does Yorda think of all this? She can’t speak Ico’s language and, again, probably doesn’t understand the danger -- but does she actually want to be rescued? Is Ico assuming too much? Rather significantly, the shadow monsters are only after Yorda and ignore Ico unless he attacks them. And the queen, more than once, tells Ico to leave and forget about Yorda. She doesn’t seem interested in killing little boys; just because the people of Ico’s village are ignorant bastards doesn’t mean she encourages them. From a certain point of view, Ico is being a bit of a brat, dragging Yorda into his own exploits without considering her feelings. A late scene also suggests that killing the shadow monsters might just be a bad thing -- or an act of mercy. And the game’s climax is sad, happy, and mysterious -- what, precisely, happens to Yorda, and how does it fit with the seemingly triumphant final scene? How much of that final scene is even real? I do so love a game that makes the player draw their own conclusions (Braid, Silent Hill 2, and Killer7 are other good examples).

So, okay....I really liked this game. Why didn’t I love it? Seems like it’s right up my alley. Yeah, I have a few minor gripes. The shadow monsters suck and the endless, repetitive battles with them suck even more. One area in the castle is shamelessly copypasted. It’s occasionally unclear where to go next, and which ledges Yorda can be hauled onto. And yeah, as much as I liked Yorda, I wanted to smack her when she couldn’t figure out that there was a ladder right the hell in front of her and she should climb it already. No game is perfect. What really made it hard for me to embrace Ico was that I couldn’t get over the fact that I’d seen and done it all before. The precarious platforming, the puzzles, the ambient sounds and bloomy lighting and drab, crumbling architecture -- I’ve been through all that. In Shadow of the Colossus.

See, it’s not the game’s fault, it’s mine. Shadow of the Colossus was the game that convinced me, after watching some gameplay, that I needed to come out of my five-year gaming coma and get a damn PS2, STAT. Shadow of the Colossus is the game Team Ico made after Ico, and it is also my favorite video game of all time. Unconditionally. Without a doubt. I won’t talk too much about SotC here (nor will I reveal how the storylines of the two games might be linked), but the problem is, Ico was essentially a warm-up for SotC. Many of the gameplay aspects and all of the dreamy visual flair of Ico can be found in its spiritual sequel. Now, I can’t claim that SotC is better on a technical level; I found Ico’s limber movements to be far more easy and natural than the stiff-legged plodding of Wander from SotC. And the characterizations in Ico are about a quadrillion times more effective (Wander is as expressive as a cinderblock and his true love spends the game dead on her back). But, but, but. I can’t get around my unseemly love for Shadow of the Colossus. I think that if I’d only played Ico first, I would love it more because I would be discovering Team Ico’s gameplay strengths for the first time. Instead, I play it and I think, “Cool, look at all these mechanics that will later be put to such AMAZING use in Shadow of the Colossus. Look at these themes that will be BRILLIANTLY explored in Shadow of the Colossus. I wonder if, while Team Ico were tinkering around in this game, they knew that they would later make the MAGNUM FREAKING OPUS that is Shadow of the Colossus.”

This keeps happening to me! I played Katamari Damacy 2 first, and by contrast, Katamari Damacy 1 is limper than a wet noodle. I played the second and third Sly Cooper games, then went back and played the first one, and if you have played the Sly Cooper games, you realize what a bloody gigantic step backward I took. Hell, I doubt I can ever really enjoy any of the early Resident Evil games because of the sheer, unadulterated, balls-to-the-wall fun I had with Resident Evil 4. Welcome to the dark side of backwards compatibility -- although, really, this phenomenon can be applied to anything. I adore the works of fantasy author China Miéville, so I went back and read his debut novel, King Rat, and thought it was a proper turd. One must accept that an artist reaches brilliance through trial and error. Not to say that Ico is not a brilliant game. But I’m the visitor from the future, wearing my cool silvery futuristic garb with lasers coming out of my nipples and shit, and I’m chuckling at Ico and saying, “Well, yes, this is very good and you should be proud of yourself, Mr. Ueda, but let me tell you what’s coming up!”

Oh, well. I’m more pensive about this than unhappy. I really liked Ico and I guess I can give it a special merit award, like the one they give to Danny the black sheep in So Dear To My Heart (How’s THAT for an obscure pop culture reference!). This is still pretty much a four-star review; it merely acknowledges that my own personal gaming bias means I liked Ico a tad less than I’d anticipated. But that’s okay, because it just shows how good Team Ico is, that their first effort is merely really good instead of phenomenal. And all of this may turn out to be irrelevant anyway, because, holy shit, this is about to happen:


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Escaping From Rooms and Eating Hamburgers

Lately, I’ve been playing quite a few Room Escape games. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they’ve become a minor addiction. This has happened to me before, and I’m confident that eventually, I’ll turn to some other enjoyable time-waster. But for now, I wanna write about the Room Escapes I’ve found online. First of all, I was led to many of them by this fine list:

If you don’t know, “Room Escape” is a subgenre of the point-and-click puzzle/adventure/hidden object type of game. As the name implies, the goal is usually to escape from a room, or some other confining space. You do this by exploring and searching said room, picking up useful items, and solving puzzles. Basic as you get. I’ve found that playing a Room Escape is like eating a hamburger: you know just what you’re in for and some things never change (there’s always a screwdriver, and usually a couch with something hidden underneath it), but you never really get sick of it. And, just like with hamburgers, Room Escapes have many levels of quality. I’d like to share some of the more memorable Room Escapes I’ve played recently, and I’m going to continue with the tortured hamburger analogy all the way! Wheeeeee!

The White Castle Burger: Small, Unhealthy, Addictive

For anyone who wants a very quick Room Escape fix, for the office drone looking for something to do during his coffee break, I’d recommend the quick-and-dirty series churned out by 123Bee. These people clearly have way too much free time on their hands, because they have made nearly 300 Room Escapes. Their style is bright and colorful, and utterly repetitive; you’ll swear you’re playing the same game over and over, because you pretty much are. 123Bee Room Escapes fall into two basic categories: Traditional, which generally revolve around finding the combinations to number locks, and Fantasy, which require you to click on objects in a ridiculous and arbitrary order (put the magic jewel in the fish’s mouth and use the glowing orb to turn the pony statue into a fairy wand!) until your brains fall out your ears in dripping chunks. They’re dumb, yeah, and you’ll soon want to murder whoever wrote the single musical track that 99% of the 123Bee games use. But......if I hated them, would they be here? Not a bad solution for those craving a Room Escape fix.

The Big Mac: Cheap and Greasy Yet Strangely Fulfilling

The Afro-Ninja Escape Series seem amateurish at first glance, but I found them surprisingly challenging. The graphics are quite simplistic (maybe you’re trapped in South Park?) and there doesn’t seem to be much to do in each game....ah, but keep playing. This series is diabolical and forces you to think outside the box and look absolutely everywhere for clues and useful items. I’m impressed with how much is hidden within a very small space! Again, these are quite short, and probably quite easy for those who are attuned to the nuances of Room Escapes. But they’re not bad at all. One big flaw: not only is your progress timed, but it’s timed with a really loud, really distracting ticking clock sound. Fortunately, you can turn the sound off. I’ve yet to play the latest Escape, in which you’re trapped in a freezer and slowly dying of hypothermia -- sounds a little intense. But these are good for a newcomer to the genre who’d like to get a sense of Room Escaping before tackling something tougher. Something like...

The Friendly’s Big Beef Burger: Delicious Until It Becomes Sickening

This one’s rather famous. The Mystery of Time and Space (MOTAS) is an epic Room Escape odyssey with 20 levels. It’s also not that great. Not bad, but unworthy of its hype. Sorry. I did enjoy it, for the most part; it has a smooth difficulty curve and remains unpredictable throughout. However, as it gets more elaborate, it also gets more ridiculous. The last few levels incorporate UFOs, warp spheres, and time travel...and it just does not work. It breaks the intrigue of the game. I don’t mind sci-fi elements, but they should be consistent and not feel like gimmicks. Honestly, I think 20 levels might be a tad too many; MOTAS feels bloated and unfocused, crammed with insufferable elevator music and arbitrary logic that warranted way too many trips to the Walkthrough page. As I said, I did enjoy it, but at the end (which is a disappointing non-end, really), I felt more exhausted than satisfied. Recommended for patient gamers only.

The Homemade Beef Patty: Good Old Comfort Food

“Okay,” you cry, “I just want a good, safe, typical Room Escape to try out!” Well, my friend, I advise you to visit TomaTea, a site which hosts a good, safe, solid selection. Here you will find all the tropes of the genre, from Myst-style pre-rendered graphics to soothing music to oodles of hidden keys, bizarre combination locks, and slips of paper on which invisible benefactors have scribbled cryptic hints. Nothing much to shock or surprise, but sometimes, we embrace the familiar because it is comforting. I have to say, the Room Escapes made by TomaTea themselves are of very good quality -- brain-teasing, but not so hard that you suffer self-inflicted hair loss. They have one nice, distinctive feature: the game informs you if you can’t solve a puzzle due to lack of clues. Some might not like this (it cuts the challenge level considerably) but it’s handy and it saves a lot of frantic guesswork. Learn to look closely at the Room’s details and you’ll do fine -- and have fun in the process.

The Sushi Burger: Tastes Odd -- Why Is It So Delicious?

A lot of Room Escape games come out of Japan, and few are as Japanese as the Terminal House series. I dunno who makes these (most of the site is untranslated) but I suspect it may be Stanley Kubrick in disguise. These rooms are hard sci-fi all the way: smooth white surfaces, odd machines, whooshing Star Trek doors, and energy drinks. Lots and lots of energy drinks. They’re also beautifully animated and scored with soothing, ambient music that eases the stress of solving the puzzles. I like these a ton; they’re unique in a genre that repeats itself constantly. Not that the Terminal House series isn’t guilty of repetition -- besides the aforementioned energy drinks, there’s a bit too much reliance on magic number squares, to the point where you can pretty much anticipate most of the puzzles. But the gamemakers are clearly trying new things, and their distinct visual aesthetic makes for a wonderful space to occupy as you try to Escape. Kudos!

The Upscale New York City Hamburger Eaten In A Window Booth at P.J. Clarke’s: Holy Shit, This Is Nirvana

So you want the best value for your time? Wanna know the best Room Escape games I can possibly recommend? I have one name for you: Neutral. The Escapes crafted by this Japanese designer are so...damn...good. The graphics are fabulous. The ambiance is engrossing. The puzzles are intricate, devious, and stack on top of each other in ways you’ll never expect. Make no mistake, the Neutral Escapes are a true challenge, but they’re helpfully ranked by difficulty and you can save your progress at any time. Yes, they repeat themselves (again with all the screwdrivers!), but not in such a way that you can predict how to solve them. Instead, the familiar elements become like beloved signatures. Each Escape has a theme, and each theme is explored delightfully through its puzzles and visual motif. As a lover of puzzles and brainteasers, I was in heaven playing these. Neutral has also made a series of Christmas-themed Escapes that are more simplistic, but very cute and worth a look. I hope there are more to come -- but at the same time, I am willing to wait, because Neutral obviously puts a ton of effort into each Room and it shows. This is art.

So, there are the most notable Room Escape games I’ve found. If there are more really good ones out there, I hope someone will let me know. And I hope you enjoy these as I have! Now...damn, I need a hamburger.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Dang-Blasted Theory: The Thing

A Dang-Blasted Theory: The Thing

Warning: The following post will make little sense if you have not seen The Thing. In addition, it contains many spoilers about events in the movie, so if you have not seen The Thing and plan to, perhaps you shouldn’t read this.

I just re-watched John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film, The Thing -- partly in honor of Halloween and partly to gear myself up for the prequel. Yeah, I’ve heard from pretty much every source that the prequel is lousy. Still gonna see it, mostly because I’m curious to see how well it synchs with the Carpenter film. Also, everything with Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje in it is worth my time. But I’m not here to talk about my man-crushes.

I love Carpenter’s Thing. It’s creepy, bleak, icky, unsettling, dreadful (as in, “full of dread”), and all-around one of the most effective horror movies I’ve ever encountered. Rewatching it with full knowledge of what happens, I was able to focus on other details, and to further admire the way in which the film keeps us guessing, right up until the end. Who is human, and who is a monstrous alien in disguise? After the viewing was done, I found myself entertaining a wicked little theory, one which blossomed in my mind, one that I will now share with you: that the hero of the film, steadfast chopper pilot R.J. MacReady (played by Kurt Russel) is, in fact, a Thing for most of the film. I’m sure others have written stuff about this theory, but here’s my take.

What got me thinking was an odd sequence partway through, after the men in the Antarctic station become aware that the Thing exists, and it could be one of them. One man, Fuchs (Joel Polis), follows a shadowy figure out into the snow and finds some torn-up clothing, including a jacket with MacReady’s name on it. It’s already been established that the Thing ruins clothing as it transforms. Fuchs then abruptly dies offscreen; the others find his charred corpse. Accident, suicide, or murder? We never learn. MacReady notices a light on in his private lookout shack, and takes Nauls the cook (T.K. Carter) to investigate. When they don’t come back, the others begin to barricade the doors. Nauls reappears in a fright, explaining that he found MacReady’s torn clothing in the furnace and left MacReady behind in the storm, believing him to be a Thing. MacReady then breaks into the station and regains control of the situation. A later blood test reveals that he is human.

Or is he?

That sequence seemed so odd to, I think, it was intended to. Why is Fuchs killed off so suddenly and inexplicably? Who turned on the light in MacReady’s shack, and what exactly happened between MacReady and Nauls when they were in there alone? This strange series of events is obviously intended to make us think MacReady might be a Thing. So, could he be? I think it is not improbable. Let’s break down the theory.

When was he infected?

I think it makes the most sense to assume MacReady became a Thing early on. The most likely culprit for infecting him is the dog-Thing that escapes from the ruined Norwegian station. It had enough chances to get at MacReady. We see that he spends time alone in his shack. Also, the dog handler, Clark (Richard Masur), is suspected of being a Thing by the others -- but after Clark dies, a blood test reveals he was human. Why didn’t the dog get Clark, such a close and easy target? Maybe because it had already done its work of infecting other men. In addition, Fuchs explains that a small particle of the Thing is enough to infect a victim. Like, hair? There are plenty of opportunities for MacReady to pick up the infection.

Why does he keep acting human?

One problem with the MacReady-as-Thing theory is that we see him act consistently human, even when he is alone. He also chats with Blair (Wilford Brimley), who we learn later was a Thing the whole time. Why would they talk as humans if they were both Things? Here’s my explanation: the Thing is cunning, so cunning and cautious that it plays its part perfectly. It’s made clear that the Thing would rather keep its disguise and avoid confrontation. Perhaps the MacReady-Thing is determined to play human even when it seems to be alone, just so it is sure of keeping its cover. In fact, it plays its part so well that it attacks and fights other Things, sacrificing them to make itself look more convincing. Even at the end, when MacReady blows up the monstrous Blair-Thing, he’s still playing the part on the slight chance that Childs, Nauls, or Garry (who is dead by then, but he doesn’t know that) might be watching. Likewise, Blair continues to act human for as long as he can; he and MacReady don’t dare converse as Things, because there are real humans nearby who might overhear.

Do the Things know who the other Things are?

Possibly. Judging by what happens, I suspect that the Things are self-sacrificing. Since they’re all really part of a single, collective entity, they are willing to eliminate themselves if it helps achieve their ultimate goal: to kill or infest all the humans, and to be picked up and transported to civilization. They’re playing a deadly game, and some pawns have to be sacrificed. They’re willing to die if it helps the Thing win overall. And they’re all helping MacReady by continuing to draw suspicion away from him. That suggests they know each other, perhaps by scent or an empathic link. Alternatively, perhaps the Things do not know each other -- in which case, they don’t dare try to find out who else is a Thing, in case they guess wrong and blow their cover. Both theories work.

The torn clothing

Nauls finds someone’s torn clothes in the kitchen, which leads the men to realize that the Thing rips through clothing when it assimilates and mimics humans. MacReady seems particularly interested in the torn clothing, and looks at it with worry. Because he’s wondering who is infected? No, because he is infected, and frets that someone will find his own torn clothes. He tries to burn the evidence, but is interrupted by Fuchs, who glimpses him and follows him out. Since Fuchs is found burned to death, my guess is that he committed suicide rather than let MacReady devour him. I should mention that MacReady’s later explanation for his torn clothing -- that someone else must have borrowed his jacket -- is really, really lame.

The blood test

Here’s the biggest hole in the MacReady-as-Thing theory. During the blood test sequence, MacReady determines that everyone present is human except Palmer (David Clennon). That includes MacReady himself; we see him test his own blood. In order for our theory to work, MacReady would have had to swap his blood for someone else’s, without anyone seeing. Impossible? Maybe not. We never see MacReady bleed into a petri dish onscreen. And when he was collecting blood, everyone else was bound except for Windows (Thomas G. Waites), who’s a bit of a flake. Maybe MacReady had collected some human blood when Dr. Copper’s samples were sabotaged earlier (there was blood all over the floor; he could have scooped some up), and carefully slipped it into the dish instead of his own. Unlikely but not beyond him, especially as he’s such a resourceful chap.

What about Nauls?

So, why didn’t MacReady burn his torn clothes after killing Fuchs? Maybe because he had a bigger plan...a plan involving an accomplice. Here’s a crazy notion: MacReady infected Nauls when they were alone in the shack, and Nauls is also a Thing. Think about it: Nauls comes stumbling in, babbling about the torn clothes and how MacReady might be infected. Suddenly, all suspicion is on MacReady, and no one thinks Nauls might be lying. Maybe MacReady and Nauls, both Things, are working together. Remember, as long as one of the Things succeeds, they all do. It could have been Nauls who sabotaged the blood samples, while the others were locking Blair up. This would mean that MacReady would also have had to fake Nauls’ blood sample -- but if he could fake one, why not two, especially during the chaos when Palmer is revealed as a Thing. Another blow against Nauls: during the climax, he goes off to investigate weird noises and is never seen again. The real reason for this is that his death was written and possibly filmed, but Carpenter didn’t like the result. But if we just take the movie at face value, we never see Nauls die. Maybe he actually merged with the Blair-Thing, or maybe he found a quiet little nook to freeze himself and hibernate until more humans found him...

Anyone else?

I just thought of something while I was writing this. What if Windows was a Thing? What if the dog got him early on as well? During the blood test sequence, MacReady and Windows are the only two men not restrained. They could have conspired together to fake their tests. We see Windows cut his finger and bleed into a dish while MacReady watches; they could have made sure the other men saw it happen, then switched the blood quickly. Of course, shortly after, Palmer is revealed as a Thing and then brutally attacks Windows. But maybe it’s all for show. Windows fails to torch Palmer with his flamethrower; he seems to be frozen in fear. Or maybe he’s letting Palmer attack him so he will look innocent. Sadly for them, MacReady is forced to burn them both. But, again, self-sacrifice. Everything is part of the ongoing scheme to draw suspicion away from MacReady, to make him look like the Thing-killing hero -- until he is totally sure all the others are either dead or infected.

The ending

One of the great things about The Thing is its utterly downbeat ending. The station has been destroyed, and only MacReady and Childs (Keith David) are left. Neither of them can be sure the other one is human -- and so they sit, slowly freezing to death. End of movie. Okay, assume MacReady is a Thing. Why doesn’t he just reveal himself? Because he is weakened by cold and injury, and Childs, who is in better shape, has a gun. If Childs is human, he can probably overpower MacReady. And I think Childs is human at the end. See, the Thing can’t mimic inorganic matter (the 2011 prequel makes much of this fact), and Childs has an earring. It’s still in his ear at the end. Now, that doesn’t prove anything -- Childs could have been infected much earlier and re-pierced his ear -- but even if he is a Thing too, he’s also afraid to reveal himself, just in case MacReady is human and can overpower him. Assuming one or both of the men are Things, he/they realize that the best course of action is to just let themselves freeze, hibernate, and wait for the rescue team. In which case...the human race is pretty much fucked.

So, there you have it. I had fun working through this theory, and it adds some interesting stuff to the film if you watch it assuming that our “hero” is really the Thing. I’m not sure if I actually believe this theory; I think I’d prefer to think that both MacReady and Childs are human at the end, just because it’s slightly less bleak. However, one of the pleasures of a movie like this is being able to turn it this way and that, examine various pieces of evidence, and hypothesize away. Are we sure we know what we know? I dunno. And that’s why I get creeped out every time I see The Thing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Top 10 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Novels

If I may make a bold statement entire life is pretty much defined by fantasy and science fiction. It’s what I read, what I write, what I watch, and what I aspire to do for a living (“aspire” being the key word). It gets very little respect and that’s too bad, because it can be absolutely breathtaking. Granted, a lot of fantasy and sci-fi is utter shit -- glorified fan-fiction by smug retards who can barely string two words together. But a list of my least-favorite genre work would probably take up a few GBs, so here are my top ten all-time favorite novels of fantasy and science fiction, ranked tenuously in order of preference. Try these out; I promise you the real world will vanish.


10. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke, 2004)
Two words that are incredibly useful to the genres are “What if?” Sci-fi speculates about the future and fantasy imagines other worlds completely, but both take delight in revising the past. I love alternate histories and Susanna Clarke’s meaty debut novel is a doozy. In a version of 19th-century Britain where magic is commonplace, the two titular magicians -- one dry and paranoid, one daring and charismatic -- come to blows, symbolizing the era’s rough transition between modes of thought. History and myth collide, and sparks fly. Clarke’s writing mimics the period but adds a delicious pinch of wit; her long, exhaustive footnotes are as much fun as the novel itself. This magic-haunted world feels real. I put this at number ten because it’s been ages since I read it; otherwise, it might rank higher.

9. Embassytown (China Miéville, 2011)
China Miéville is a writer who takes joy in knocking down expectations. I love most all his work, but was blown away by his first hard sci-fi novel, which gets sci-fi so right that it’s dizzying. On a distant planetary outpost, humans live as nervous guests to the Ariekei, a race of aliens so strange and inscrutable that every scene quivers with fascination. You see, these aliens’ thoughts are tightly linked to their dual-voiced language; they cannot lie, and we can only communicate with them through specially-grown empathic clones. All hell breaks loose when the Ariekei become physically addicted to a human voice. This book is packed with good ideas. Aliens should not be British-accented dudes with Silly Putty on their foreheads. Aliens should be alien, dammit, and Miéville’s are off the deep end of bizarre wondrousness.

8. The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell, 1996)
How can a story about a diplomatic team voyaging to a distant planet seem so unlike science fiction? By being intelligent, wise, and deeply humanistic. Russell’s tale has everything you’d expect, but sticks to hard realism: the voyagers are Jesuits, the spaceship is a refurbished asteroid, and decades pass on Earth during their journey. As for the aliens, well...let’s just say that they don’t disappoint. We learn at the start of the book that the Jesuits’ mission went hideously wrong; gradually we discover why, and it’s both heartbreaking and all too plausible. The Sparrow is simply about people, human and otherwise, and the ways in which they can come to understand, or misunderstand, each other. It is also about the breaking and painful rebuilding of faith. It is powerful and tragic and it left me gasping.
(The story begun in The Sparrow concludes in its sequel, Children of God.)

7. Mattimeo (Brian Jacques, 1989)
The late Brian Jacques’ Redwall series hasn’t aged too well for me; his exploits of sword-wielding woodland creatures got progressively dumber, and these days I find them morally simplistic and kind of racist. However, they are a beloved facet of my childhood, and my favorite is and will always be Mattimeo. It’s got everything! Long-distance questing, noble heroes and quirky sidekicks, vile villains, riddles, feasts, and many, many swashes to buckle. As the warrior mouse Matthias and his friends chase after their enslaved children, their home, Redwall Abbey, is threatened by a band of evil birds. The pace is breakneck. The climax, set in a creepy underground kingdom, is all kinds of awesome. And Jacques created a knockout villain in Slagar the Cruel, a mutilated mercenary fox with a harlequin mask and one hell of a vendetta. Pure fantasy escapism, bless its furry little heart.
(Mattimeo is a direct sequel to Jacques’ debut novel, Redwall. It helps to read the first one.)

6. Ilium (Dan Simmons, 2003)
No novel should have this much stuff in it and still work. Okay, here we go: The Greek gods of Olympus are staging the Trojan War, only it’s actually the far future and the gods are super-evolved humans, and back on Earth everyone is fat and stupid and parties all day, and the worldwide data network has gained sentience and taken on the persona of Prospero from Shakespeare’s Tempest, and meanwhile some sentient robots from Jupiter’s moons are flying in to investigate, and...SEE?! And I’ve only lightly brushed the surface of Simmons’ crazy, glorious sci-fi extravaganza. It might not be as epic or beloved as his earlier Hyperion series, but I still like it better, because...well, it’s the kind of book I dream of writing. A story that dazzles the senses and engages the gray matter, that weaves together a thousand elements into one beautiful tapestry.
(The story begun in Ilium concludes in its sequel, Olympos.)

5. Chaga (Ian McDonald, 1995)
Everything Ian McDonald writes is awesome. EVERYTHING. It’s hard to pick a fave. I’m giving the edge to Chaga (published as Evolution’s Shore in the US), in which a mysterious, vegetative alien entity crashes on Mt. Kilimanjaro and begins to slowly engulf the continent of Africa. In an inspired move, the heroes are media hounds, riding on the dizzy high of the Ultimate Scoop. McDonald goes on to juggle an expansive cast of mercenaries, scientists, gangsters, politicians, militia, and average joes as the world reels with the knowledge that we are being invaded -- and, possibly scarier, that the invasion is not necessarily malevolent. Is the Chaga alien at all, or is it merely the next stage in human evolution? Do we flee from it, or flee toward it? Absolutely nothing is simple in this blistering and ultimately optimistic look at what wonders our future might hold.
(The story begun in Chaga concludes in its sequel, Kirinya.)

4. Bridge of Birds (Barry Hughart, 1984)
It’s hard to balance elaborate mythology and black comedy. Barry Hughart struck gold with Bridge of Birds, an absolutely insane (in a good way) adventure set in a fantastical version of ancient China. It is...what is it? Detective story, quest for magical macguffins, affront to good manners, loving parody, all of the above. The protagonist, sweetly naive peasant hunk Number Ten Ox, finds himself sidekick to Master Li, a withered old sage with a “slight flaw in his character” who specializes in murder and mayhem -- all in the name of good, of course. Between the evil immortal duke and the sexy ghosts and the invisible monsters and whatnot, the plot never pauses for breath -- and I should mention that it’s all hilarious, setting up comedic punchlines with great care and maintaining more running gags than Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a delightful antidote to all that somber, earnest bullshit you find in fantasies these days.
(Bridge of Birds has two sequels, The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. Each one is self-contained and they’re not quite as good...but still worthwhile.)

3. American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001)
No contemporary author does gods better than Neil Gaiman -- and if said gods are flesh-and-blood, living in modern America, you’ve got a recipe for a masterpiece. This book has won a zillion awards, and deserved every one. It’s a road trip through myth and legend, Americana and tall tale. It is about nothing less than the future of human faith, as the gods of old, kept alive by belief, do battle with the new breed of deity: sparkling gods of media, technology, sex, greed. The hero is an ordinary man gifted with extraordinary duties, and his odyssey reaches into every corner of the strange, ramshackle nation of America. Perhaps only a Brit like Gaiman could peer so unflinchingly into the cobwebby depths of whatever makes this country tick. The result is profound and poignant. I’m a raging Gaiman fanboy, but Everyone should be a fan of this book. It escapes from the fantasy ghetto and is just one of the best books of its decade, period.
(American Gods has a follow-up novella, Monarch of the Glen, and a sort-of spinoff novel, Anansi Boys. Both quite good!)

2. Otherland (Tad Williams, 1996-2001)
I cannot adequately describe Otherland in this small space. Let’s just say that its own author once suggested it might be the most epic story ever written, and I thought that maybe he wasn’t just being an egomaniac. It’s set in a future where virtual reality is commonplace and concerns a ragtag group of folks who infiltrate a top-secret network run by the world’s most powerful people. It’s four books long, and each has at least 700 pages. There are dozens of characters and subplots. If you’ve ever tackled Game of Thrones, this is the cyberpunk version. And it is SO FUCKING COOL. Williams gives us one crazy VR world after another, and while parts of the narrative do seem like padding, it never gets boring. Never. So many mysteries to untangle, and unlike certain other myth-heavy stories I like (Hi, Lost!), there’s a satisfying answer for every single one. Otherland flat out blows my mind, and it’s another type of saga that I want to write day.
(The four novels in the Otherland saga are City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and Sea of Silver Light. It didn’t make sense to select just one, as they are all part of a single story and can’t really be taken separately.)

1. The Halloween Tree (Ray Bradbury, 1972)
Here it is: My favorite fantasy novel of all time. A slim little story that could be read to a child. I rave about this book to people, and they react with polite incomprehension. I don’t really know why I adore The Halloween Tree so much. It has something to do with Ray Bradbury’s wry, poetic prose. Something to do with his amazing images, from the kite made out of old Circus posters to the titular pumpkin-garlanded tree. Something to do with Autumn, my favorite season, and with the cider-scented wave of nostalgia he conjures. What’s the book about? Well, it’s about a group of chums floating through history to save their Tom Sawyer-esque friend, accompanied by a very strange character named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud who may or may not be Death Himself. It’s about the history of Halloween, presented not as a fearful thing but as a giddy, delightful rush of arcana. It’s about losing your childhood but discovering that you never lose it completely. It’s an adventure told in metaphor. It’s everything I love about the written word. It snaps and crackles like burning sparks on a fire. I read it aloud to myself sometimes, savoring every sentence. I have the Tree tattooed on my arm...because when I’m an old man, I know I’ll still look at it and smile. Read this book, if you haven’t already. Maybe you won’t get as much out of it as I do, but I guarantee you’ll feel the frisson of a beautiful story running up your spine.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Harry Potter and the Laundry List of Likes/Dislikes

Well, that’s it. Just saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. No more movies, no more books, franchise over. Very surreal, isn’t it? I barely remember seeing Sorcerer’s Stone on bookstore shelves and thinking that it looked kind of goofy, back before it was Harry Fucking Potter, The Most Popular Thing Ever Made By Man. For the record, I liked the books and the movies just fine, thank you, but you won’t be seeing me write fucked-up Snape-on-Harry-on-Dobby slash any time soon. Shoot me if I do.

Rather than review the final film, I’m just gonna list the stuff I liked best and the stuff I didn’t like so much. Overall, I’d give it an A-. Damn good ending; not as good as Part One. Here we go....SPOILER WARNING!

Stuff I Liked

Terrific action! Part One hogged all the plot and character building, while Part Two was basically one long, epic, balls-to-the-wall climax. Stuff exploded, shit got wrecked, the wizards went to war, and everything came down to a smackdown between Harry and Voldemort that was (to me) vastly improved from the book, in which Harry lectures Voldemort for like eight pages while everyone watches awkwardly. I prefer just seeing them alone together, desperately trying to be the One Who Lives while other battles rage elsewhere. Better stakes, no preaching. Wooo!

Neville kicked ASS and they were smart enough to give him some great moments. Overall, I was glad to see how many familiar faces made it through seven films, especially among the kids. Glad they dumped the foolhardy idea of replacing them all partway through. Heh, Matthew Lewis (Neville) got BIG, didn’t he? And Bonnie Wright (Ginny) is so lovely. I hope she keeps acting.

Know who else kicks ass? Dame Maggie Motherfucking Smith. Prof. McGonagall was GREAT in this, laid down the magical law in such satisfying ways, and got to utter the one really funny line in the movie. You’ll know when it comes.

Really nifty set pieces! The vaults of Gringotts Bank, the apocalyptic inferno in the Room of Requirement, the dreamy afterlife of King’s Cross, a notsalgic return to the Chamber of Secrets, the rubble and the ruin -- all were vivid. Hogwarts has evolved and changed shape throughout the series and now seemed surrounded by great chasms and peaks, as though the earth itself sought to reject the evil that had taken root within. Loved it. Not sure why it was snowing in June, though.

Great new actors joining the party, even at this late date. Ciaran Hinds was quite effective as Aberforth Dumbledore, and Kelly MacDonald was equal parts creepy and tragic as the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw. All the cast regulars, of course, fit their roles effortlessly by this point. Good to see Gary Oldman pop up! And Cho Chang, yay! She got screwed over in the fifth movie, so thank goodness they didn’t overlook her here. And Luna awesome. No words.

And then...Snape. Poor, poor Snape. I would say that his final scenes were handled just about perfectly. Stunning. The whole time, I’ve been bemused by Alan Rickman’s handling of the role; rather than run with Snape’s nastiness, he’s made the man cold and remote. Now we see that it’s a desperate shell around a heart and soul in great pain. As J.K. Rowling surely intended. Alan Rickman is a great actor and Severus Snape is a great character with a great story arc. Dare you to disagreee.

Lastly, I liked the epilogue. It was nicely done. They didn’t encase the young actors in makeup, they just let them play adults, and it turned out just fine. I REALLY loved that the final scene and end credits use the classic John Williams music from the very first Potter film. So, so appropriate. I will warn that if you hated the epilogue in the book, you’ll hate it in the movie. But if you liked it, fear not. They ended this franchise with dignity and respect.

Stuff I Disliked

The slam-bang action was a double-edged Sword of Gryffindor. It was thrilling, yes, but a tad exhausting. A truly good film needs build-up and pacing; this had a few quiet moments, but mostly didn’t pause for breath. I pity the person who watches it without having seen Deathly Hallows, Part 1. It does not let you catch your bearings.

Not enough Hagrid, not enough Weasleys, not enough Slughorn, not enough Bellatrix, not enough Lupin/Tonks. Also, they brought back Prof. Trelawny (Emma Thompson) so she could appear for three seconds, not doing anything. I wanted to see her drop crystal balls on werewolves like in the book, dammit! Fuck!

WHY DIDN’T WORMTAIL DIE? WHY? I was confused when he failed to croak at the appointed time in Part One, but I figured they were gonna hand him a death scene with more impact later on. In this film? Nathing. He doesn’t even appear. What the fuck. I know these movies often overlook or drop subplots, but to leave out the very tragic and ironic death of a very important recurring character? They showed fucking Lavender Brown die but they couldn’t spare a moment for the demise of Wormtail? Bad choice, editing room guys. Baaaaaad choice.

Not a big fan of the gratuitious Daniel Radcliffe/Rupert Grint shirtless moment. Maybe it was the film’s color palette, but both of them appeared to be carved out of feta cheese. Ick. Shouldn’t Ron be swarthy? I blame Twilight for this.

Dumbledore’s backstory was mishandled here. Now, I dunno how much I like all the “Is Dumbledore Evil?” stuff in the book, but the movies should have either made more of it or left it out completely. Instead, we get a confusing scene where Aberforth mentions their sister Ariana and how Dumbledore was a big old bastard, but it goes nowhere. And then, when Harry meets Dumbledore in the Beyond, does he confront him at all about the whole “you-were-fattening-me-up-for-the-slaughter-this-whole-time” thing? Nope. All we’re left with is a big old uncertainty hanging over Dumbledore and his motives, which the book at least has the decency to wrap up.

The Deathly Hallows themselves were kind of dumb and pointless in the book, and kind of dumb and pointless here too. Sorry, but you know I’m right. However, I think I preferred the movie’s take on the final fate of the Elder Wand. A bit more final, shall we say.

I was really looking forward to “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Then it happened, and it wasn’t as cool as I thought it was gonna be. Nothing against Julie Waters (Mrs. Weasley). It seemed like the filmmakers knew everyone was waiting for that line, so they underlined it too much and it sounded too scripted. It was fan-baiting. Call it “Snakes On a Plane Syndrome.” But I will admit that Bellatrix died in a cool way.

“But, Lupin...what about your son?” Wait, says half the audience, Lupin has a son? EPIC FAIL, MOVIE.

To end things on a positive note, this movie’s strengths outnumbered its weaknesses and I had a blast. I’ve had a blast, to some extent, with the entire movie series, and I may post some more stuff about the Harry Potter films later. For now, we say goodbye to these amazing actors and the beautiful spaces created for them to perform in. Bye, Harry.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

To Squee Or Not To Squee

I try to be optimistic. And I try to be skeptical. Every year brings breathless, exciting new info about all the awesome, epic, sparkly stuff that’s brewing in the entertainment industry! And I always have to remind myself to take all the hype with a grain of salt. Hype is the very definition of subjective reality. Take Duke Nukem Forever, which has finally wheezed and panted its way into the light to a chorus of “Meh” from critics and a slightly more enthusiastic “Meh” from Duke fans. In honor of its arrival, let me list a few things that I’m really looking forward to...and really dubious about. I call it...


Silent Hill: Downpour
WHAT IT IS: The forthcoming eighth installment in the infamous survival horror franchise, in which assorted rubes run around a foggy, abandoned tourist town, haunted by the physical manifestation of their own emotional torment. This one stars an escaped convict named Murphy, with a supporting cast that includes a female cop, a mailman, a nun, a suicidal hillbilly, and Danny Trejo. Plot and character details remain sparse. There’s also lots of rain, hence the title.
WHY I’M EXCITED: The Silent Hill series is my favorite of all, and they have yet to make a entry I didn’t like. For Downpour, Konami turned their creation over to Czech company Vatra Games, which intrigues me; the last three were made by Americans and new perspectives are always welcome. The trailer certainly looks promising, with a blend of classic Silent Hill imagery and new, what-the-hell-was-that-thing moments of horror. Also, this one may actually avoid fan pandering! No sexy nurses! No Pyramid Head standing around looking bored! Woooo!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: The gameplay and aesthetics remind me a lot of Silent Hill: Homecoming, which is the weakest entry in the series due to the aforementioned fan pandering. I really want another SH game that’s subtle, that relies more on dread and suspense than action and gore. I fear Downpour is not that game; it looks very noisy and macho, and certain shots from the trailer invoke Alan Wake, a far inferior horror game. Also, our hero Murphy looks about as sympathetic as a brick wall with googly eyes stuck to it. Why do game designers always assume that all tough guys have to have tiny, crammed-together facial features? Oh, well...unless they really, REALLY fuck this up, it should be at least somewhat awesome.

UPDATE: I played it! Read my reaction here.

WHAT IT IS: A new TV series conceived by a guy you may have heard of: J.J. Abrams. Yeah, that guy. Alcatraz is a mystery drama about two investigators, played by Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia, poking around the legendary island prison after some folks who disappeared fifty years ago resurface. Wormholes? Aliens? Immortality? A giant hoax? Spooooooky!
WHY I’M EXCITED: Well, let’s see. It’s a J.J. Abrams project. Set on a mysterious island. With trappings of sci-fi and/or horror. Possible strange experiments conducted decades ago. And the loveable Jorge Garcia. Holy shite, are we looking at Lost version 2.0?? That would make me one happy puppy, since I absolutely loved Lost and would salivate over a worthy successor. Abrams tends to strike creative gold more often than not (see also: Alias, Fringe, Star Trek, and Super 8), so you can bet I breathlessly follow his every project. And this one looks geeky-cool. Oh, yes, it does.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Don’t worry, my fanboy spasms don’t impair my judgment. Abrams is not Jesus; he can also give us forgettable crap (Mission: Impossible III, Undercovers) or noble failures (Cloverfield). And the possibility of a spiritual sequel to Lost could also indicate that he’s starting to repeat himself. Lest we forget, the final product won’t depend on Abrams, but on the producers and creative team who take on Alcatraz once he inevitably heads off to his next project. Also, given that the starting gate for new TV dramas is also a guillotine, I’ll wait to watch Alcatraz until I’m sure it’s even going to last beyond one season. Fingers crossed!

UPDATE: Well, I have bad news. Alcatraz was canceled after one season, a season I haven't seen and probably never will. My cautious enthusiasm went downhill fast when I learned that the show's mythology would be mere window dressing for a case-of-the-week procedural, i.e., a TV genre that I have absolutely zero interest in. I might still have gotten to it if it had succeeded, but now, I feel like watching its sole season will just leave me unfulfilled and teased by mysteries that will never be solved. squee here.

Muppets 2011
WHAT IT IS: The exhumation of dusty old property from our childhoods -- aka, the first new feature film about the Muppets since 1999’s horrible, tragic, god-awful Muppets from Space. This time around, Jason Segel and Amy Adams play the token humans who make surprised faces while the titular plastic-and-felt gang cavort, wisecrack, and break the fourth wall. There’s also like a plot and stuff; whatever.
WHY I’M EXCITED: It’s the Muppets! Who doesn’t love them? I was born a little late to catch The Muppet Show but was totally into their movies as a child, and I’ve often had cause to mourn their apparent decline. Now they’re back to entertain a whole new generation! And the trailers are pretty funny, with that kind of knowing, wink-to-the-audience humor at which they excel. It’s like they never left...or is it?
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Gnawing at my soul is the dread that this isn’t really a Muppet movie; it’s a Jason Segel movie that happens to include Muppets. Segel has gushed long and hard about being a huge Muppet fan, and the thing is, fan-made properties tend to suck horribly because the fans can’t get over their own relationship with the thing they love. I fear this may be 100 minutes or so of Jason Segel patting himself on the back for getting a new Muppet movie made, coupled with a lot of humor that meticulously recreates the original Muppet flair but leaves out the heart and soul. Why? Because THAT’S WHAT ALWAYS FUCKING HAPPENS, ESPECIALLY WHEN FILM COMEDIANS AND THEIR GIANT EGOS GET INVOLVED. I really, truly want this to be awesome, but it’s drenched in foreboding. Forebode forebode forebode.

UPDATE: I watched it! Read my reaction here.

Tad Williams’ Bobby Dollar
WHAT IT IS: The next book cycle from one of my all-time favorite authors of fantasy and sci-fi. Tad Williams has already given us Tailchaser’s Song, Memory Sorrow & Thorn, Otherland, War of the Flowers, and Shadowmarch. His next series will be an urban noir fantasy about a fallen angel who reinvents himself as a hardboiled detective tracking lost souls.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Tad Williams could write a treatise on different types of linoleum and I’d probably still read it. His specialty is epic tomes with huge, vivid casts of characters, and he cheerfully hops from genre to genre. I’ve really enjoyed all his work thus far, I’m always recommending him to people, and I’ll be interested to see his take on urban noir fantasy...
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: ...but on the other hand, I’ve never been a huge fan of urban noir fantasy, and Bobby Dollar sounds woefully unoriginal. Sorry, Tad, but dozens of other authors have already combined the trappings of film noir, fantasy, and the Old Testament -- and it all runs together in my mind. I’m sure he’ll write it as well as ever, but I was hoping he’d try something that hasn’t been done to death already, especially after his last series, Shadowmarch, turned out to be yet another predictable foray into the J.R.R. Tolkien idea dumpster. Write something else, Tad, anything else! Why not hard sci-fi? Or horror? Or steampunk? Or anything other than more freakin’ angels in trenchcoats?

UPDATE: I read it! Read my reaction here.

And speaking of Tad Williams...

The Otherland MMOG
WHAT IT IS: An online multiplayer extravaganza based on Tad Williams’ Otherland series, which is set primarily in a limitless virtual reality network. In the game (the real one, that is), players will begin in a glittery, futuristic social hub from which they can explore a series of different VR worlds and presumably become embroiled in the events of the books. Kind of like Second Life and WoW combined, with elements of just about every other MMOG thrown in.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I love Otherland. It might possibly be my all-time favorite science fiction series. And it is SO BLOODY COOL that they’re making an actual game based on it. So far, the screenshots I’ve seen look amazing, depicting both the neon-lit Lambda Mall hub and a dusty, 1920s-style Martian landscape. Williams himself is excitedly reporting on the game from his website, which is a good sign indeed. Might this be the MMOG that actually causes me to stop hating MMOGs? Have they finally captured me?
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: It’s ambitious. Alarmingly ambitious. What if no one gets it? I worry that the online gaming crowd will scratch their heads, declare the game unclassifiable, and ooze off to collect more kobold spleens in the Slime Caverns of Deadly Doom or whatever. WoW tends to steamroll its competitors if they don’t make a good first impression, and the Otherland game has already been in development for an age. Magnum opus of online gaming....or noble failure? Or just flat-out turkey?

WHAT IT IS: The forthcoming...let’s call it a “release”...from Finnish epic metal band Nightwish. Slated for 2012, Imaginarium will manifest itself in two parts: an operatic studio album and a feature film. Together, they will tell the tale of an aging composer’s journey through dream, nightmare, and fantasy.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Most Nightwish fans, myself included, will never get over the loss of original female vocalist Tarja Turunen. However, I must commit sacrilege by admitting that the band has gotten better since. They’ve begun to broaden their sound and experiment with the “epic” half of epic metal, and the sheer audacity of Imaginarium makes me drool a bit. They’ve cited Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman, and Salvador Dalí as their main inspirations, and I love all three of those guys. As a fan of bombast, all this is relevant to my interests. Also, bagpipes!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Like other entries on this list, Imaginarium bears the mark of hubris. Are Nightwish biting off more than they can chew? I’m not too worried because this sort of over-the-top spectacle has always been a staple of rock music and they’ve gotta keep their epic cred. I just hope that the band doesn’t become so infatuated with the spectacle that they forget about the music. Y’know, those sounds that come out of the instruments when you wail on them? Don’t lose the vision, guys!

UPDATE: I listened to it! Read my reaction here.

The Rest of Clive Barker’s Abarat Series
WHAT IT IS: Awhile back, horror and fantasy author Clive Barker began Abarat, an epic series for young adults, set on a mystical archipelago where each island is frozen at a specific hour of the day. The first two novels (each one lavishly illustrated by Barker himself) are out; there are supposedly three more to come. Book Three is slated for late this year.
WHY I’M EXCITED: This is another favorite author of mine (you do not know horror fiction until you’ve read his Books of Blood), and I became deeply immersed in Abarat, which is one helluva world for one mind to create! Strange visions, vivid characters, unexpected twists, all brought to life by Barker’s dreamlike oil paintings. I could wait forever for more Abarat.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: It kinda seems like I already have waited forever. The second book came out seven years ago. That’s a damn long time to depend upon the nonexistent attention spans of tweens. I love Barker, but I sometimes want to slap him for taking on too much; look the man up and you’ll see he has five or six major writing projects, plus art, plus producing movies and video games and the like. I fear he’ll die of old age before he finishes Abarat -- or, perhaps just as bad, his target audience will forget the series even exists. After having its release date pushed back a zillion times, can the third book (which he claims is over 1,000 pages) recapture the wonder? Or will Abarat burn out at around the same time Barker does?

UPDATE: I say lots of very mean things about the first three books here!

Bioshock Infinite
WHAT IT IS: The continuation of the immensely popular steampunk video game series that injected the FPS genre with a dose of philosophy and cool. Unlike the rushed and predictable Bioshock 2, the third entry in the franchise completely reboots the concept: it’s set in the skybound city of Columbia, which drifts ominously over 1910s America, held up by airships and torn by civil war. The trappings of Bioshock are still there (psychic powers, killer robots, alternate history), but this is not a sequel or prequel, more of a sidewise companion.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I admit that I haven’t played Bioshock yet; it is reserved for the theoretical time in the future when I’m willing to cough up for a PS3. But I loved the idea of the first game and I REALLY love that its threequel is taking things in an entirely new direction. It’s like Bioshock 2 never happened! The early footage from Infinite looks stunning, the story holds a lot of mystery and subtext, and it’s even been teased that the hero will be hopping through wormholes to other alternate histories. After hearing that every single bland, boring, dirt-colored FPS franchise is chugging along dutifully (thanks for nothing, E3), I feel energized by this sole burst of unique color.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Never, ever trust video game studios. There’s always a catch. If the game looks great, the gameplay may be buggy as shit. If they toss a Big Concept in your face, there’s a chance the final product will just be pretentious. I’m hardwired to be optimistic about cool-looking games, but I understand that the studios are terrified of too much innovation, lest it frighten away the hordes of fragile Halo-heads. What if there’s nothing under Infinite’s gaudy surface? What if it seems to be a raging stallion of a game, but a closer look reveals nothing but a big surgical scar where its mighty balls used to be? I’ll definitely check the reviews first, especially the snarky ones. Snark has its uses; it warns and it heals!

So, will I enjoy all these things to some degree? Most likely! Will some of them fall flat on their faces? Quite possibly! Am I excited anyway? FUCK, YES! What can I say; I’m a whore for hype. We all are, even when it bites us in the ass. Time will tell!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Top 10 Least Favorite Video Game Levels

I’ve always been baffled by games where you don’t need to visit every area. Why the heck wouldn’t you, unless you don’t like the game, in which case, why the heck are you even playing it? However, I will admit that there are some places in video games that I really, really would have liked to skip. I’ve given you my favorite levels, worlds, and areas in gaming. Now here’s my shit list. The following levels didn’t merely bore me, they made me snarl and swear and wonder why anyone thought they were a good idea. Were the game makers just dumb, or knowingly sadistic? You decide!


Cows and Bears (Katamari Damacy & We Love Katamari, PS2)
To begin with, an idea that probably seemed inspired at the time, but should have been buried deep and never spoken of again. The whole premise of the Katamari games involves rolling stuff up to make as big a ball as you can. Fun! Until partway through the first game, when you’re ordered to roll up everything except cows (or, in another level, bears). The level ends the minute you capture a milk-producing bovine (or a fish-loving bruin), so the challenge is to get your Katamari as big as possible before this happens. The problem is, YOU CAN’T SEE WHAT YOU’RE ROLLING UP MOST OF THE TIME. I mean, I get how the idea of avoiding one particular object might be fun, but it becomes utterly impossible when you don’t even NOTICE the fucking thing until the King of the Cosmos is yelling at you for being an utter failure at life. Then the sequel compounded the suck by putting the cows and the bears into the same level. Fuck you, cows and bears.

Crystal Caves (Donkey Kong 64, N64)
Doesn’t the name of this level sound lovely? Crystal Caves! Sadly, I know what you’re probably picturing (a more colorful version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, right?) and you won’t find it in DK64, which apparently forgot to leave anything in the budget for crystals. Seriously, the level just has a handful of bluish rocks here and there, and otherwise you’re trudging around a bland, boring cavern the color of old tires and poop. The lack of landmarks make the caves a confusing bitch to navigate, too. But Donkey and his simian sidekicks can’t fully appreciate the awfulness of Crystal Caves until giant fucking stalactites start falling from the ceiling and murdering them. This happens every thirty seconds or so and there’s nowhere to hide. You can stop it from happening, but not until Tiny Kong learns a new ability and finds a certain warp pad and blah blah fucking blah. This level is custom-tailored to make you feel like there is no joy or beauty in the world.

The End of the World (World of Goo, PC/Mac)
This one really bothers me, because I absolutely adore World of Goo. Love it. Worship it. But, Jesus, did their funding run out or something? The first four worlds knock your socks off with one new innovation after another, and then comes the final world, which is A) painfully short, B) boring, and C) insanely difficult. Four measly levels in which you must guide the goo balls between tiny, tippy little platforms above a vast abyss while the laws of physics repeatedly rape you in every orifice. No new ideas. Nothing the game didn’t already make you do before. Just a skyrocketing difficulty curve and an ending which teases a sequel that will probably never, ever be made. Basically, the End of the World level is an unpleasant epilogue, nothing more. They blew their chance to end a great game on a spectacular note. They blew it to smithereens, leaving only the cold, unforgiving void into which your beloved goo balls will plummet, over and over, while you weep.

Hallways, Hallways, and Also Some Hallways (Whiplash, PS2)
Sigh...the things I put up with to fuel my fetish for cartoony platformers. Whiplash is an obscure and rather by-the-book entry with a fun premise (two lab animals must sabotage an evil corporation while handcuffed together), but I can’t quite recommend it. Why? Because you spend about half the game running down long hallways. And when I say long hallways, I mean Pentagon-length. I mean hallways that make Final Fantasy XIII look open and expansive. Long, boring, identical hallways with maybe some security lasers or robot spiders sprinkled here and there. Good...fucking...God. Were the graphics so cutting-edge that they had to hide massive load times? (No. No, they weren’t.) Did they realize that their game would be less than two hours long without retarded amounts of padding? Whatever the reason, it killed Whiplash’s momentum and made it a chore to play through. Oh, but you didn’t always have to trudge down hallways. Sometimes you had to take long elevator rides, too. FAIL.

It’s War! (Conker’s Bad Fur Day, N64)
To be fair, parts of this level are fun. Other parts are shriekingly not fun. The reason I hate the war sequence in Conker’s BFD is that it lasts FOREVER. For. Ever. On and on it goes, slogging through an increasingly tedious spoof of Saving Private Ryan populated by evil teddy bears. Basically, the game turns into an FPS and forgets it’s a platformer. After about thirty-nine hours, you get to fight an epic boss, and it finally ends. Oh, wait, no it doesn’t. After the boss battle comes the worst sequence in the entire game, in which you have four minutes to wade through a maze of security lasers that would make Leon Kennedy shit his pants, then navigate a beachful of enemies armed with insta-killing bazookas. Oh, but it’s so CLEVER, you see, because they’re PARODYING WAR MOVIES, HERP A DERP. Sorry, but it’s possible to take satire way, way, way too far. This is the one area in Conker’s world that overstays its welcome and sucks out all the awesomeness. The turd in the chocolate box.

Jabu Jabu’s Belly (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, N64)
Oh, wow, listen to all the whiny little voices. “Mweh mweh mweh, everyone knows the Water Temple sucks more, mweh!” Not to me, it doesn’t. To me, the low point of this excellent game comes when you dive down the throat of a giant whale/fish/shark thing with the oddest digestive system evolution could provide. An awesome idea in theory, ruined by the fact that everything in this dungeon (including the walls) hates Link and wants to cause him pain, usually by hard-to-avoid electrocution. Also, it’s one of those dungeons where you can fall through a hole and undo the past hour of exploration. Whoops! Better start climbing again, Link! To top it all off, why are you experiencing such misery in a monster’s bowels? To rescue a spoiled, whiny, arrogant, ungrateful CUNT of a fishperson princess who insists that you literally carry her everywhere, making it impossible to climb or fight. Has anyone made a mod where you can toss Ruto into painful electrical death? Anyone? I’ll pay money for it! GOD, I FUCKING HATE RUTO, JABU JABU CAN HAVE HER AND MAY SHE DISSOLVE IN HIS COLON. Honestly, it makes the Water Temple seem tolerable. To me, anyway.

Meat Circus (Psychonauts, PS2/Xbox)
The weird difficulty curve of Psychonauts is somewhat infamous (I mentioned it in my list of worst bosses), and here’s why. I actually like the game’s later levels quite a bit, despite the challenge. But then you get whacked over the head by the Meat Circus, a messed-up mental amalgamation of two different characters’ daddy issues -- literally, a circus made out of raw meat. Again, great idea, but a bitch to conquer. You have to frantically chase an annoying little kid and protect him from harm, then fight a giant bloke with dual meat cleavers, then complete one of those god-awful sequences where you must rush through some really difficult platforming and if you’re too slow, you fall victim to rising, inexorable death. I know a game’s final level is supposed to be hard, but the Meat Circus is just painful. Torturous. Excruciating. Plus it makes my PS2 crash half the time. And as I’ve previously said, the final boss battle is so easy and lame that it’s like the game is just laughing at you. Just because you can, Tim Schafer, doesn’t mean you should.

Moonhaven (Super Monkey Ball Adventure, PS2)
Most of the entries on this list are here because they’re shitty levels in an otherwise good game. Moonhaven, on the other hand, makes me weep in fury because it’s a great level languishing in a really, really awful game. Super Monkey Ball Adventure was a horrendously misguided attempt to turn a puzzle game into a platformer -- a buggy, frustrating mess where you spend about 95% of gameplay falling off things. Somewhere along the way, you encounter Moonhaven, a gorgeous and uniquely designed steampunk sky-city that deserved much better. Sadly, the lush visuals cannot be appreciated due to the most grating, horrific, awkward, infuriating gameplay I’ve ever slogged through. When you aren’t plunging into the blue abyss over and over, you’re trying in vain to figure out what you’re actually supposed to be DOING. JESUS IN HEAVEN, THIS GAME IS BAD. SO, SO, SO, SO BAD. Which makes the promise of Moonhaven all the more bitter. To my joy, it seems Bioshock 3 will be set in floating steampunk paradise, so Moonhaven will live on in a game that isn’t a flaming turd! Sort of.

Rusty Bucket Bay (Banjo-Kazooie, N64)
Hooo boy. Rusty Bucket Bay. Where do we start? This level is fucking infamous among Banjo-Kazooie fans. I give it points for being original -- it’s set in an greasy industrial harbor where a huge cargo ship is docked -- but that does not excuse the fact that everything about this level was designed to make you sob. Narrow, difficult pathways. Oily, polluted water that asphyxiated you even when you weren’t submerged. Exhaust ports that came to life and ate you. A confusing layout that made item collecting a bitch. And then...there was the machinery challenge. You had to navigate through some incredibly difficult moving gears and propellers with an insta-kill drop below and pound some switches. Then you had to run back through the machine, climb a huge smokestack, jump into the lethal water, swim to the aft of the ship, and grab the 65 seconds. This cannot be done. Literally. If you believe you did it, I assure you, it was a hallucination brought about from inhaling toxic waste fumes that were somehow leaking from your TV set because Rusty Bucket Bay was THAT FUCKING MALEVOLENT. I think this level can actually cause cancer.

Tower of Dawn (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, PS2)
Let us end with a textbook example of the “Dick Swerve” level -- that which is intended to throw a brick wall in your face by changing the core gameplay you have come to take for granted. Prince of Persia is an awesome game, largely because you have the power to reverse time, undoing your own mistakes and deaths. That IS, until late in the game when the prince loses the Dagger of Time. Oh, but he gets it back quickly...with its fuel gauge on E. No problem, just kill some bad guys and harvest more sand! Oh, look, it’s a new sword...that cancels out the sand-harvesting. Now that I’ve crippled you (says the game), here’s the Tower of Dawn, a very difficult endgame sequence with very unhelpful camera angles in which you must perform many complex parkour moves...and you can’t use the Dagger. At all. For the entire remainder of the game. If you die, you’re dead, and you have to start the area from the beginning. This is your reward for spending hours playing this game: you lose the thing that makes it fun to play and are tossed to the proverbial wolves. You’re welcome, faithful gamer! You are fucking welcome. The Tower of Dawn made me grind my teeth into a fine powder which I then snorted in an attempt to forget the betrayal from an otherwise wonderful game. But I’ll never forget...or forgive.