Monday, April 29, 2013

To Squee Or Not to Squee: A Song of Ice and Fire

Checking another one off the Cautious Enthusiasm list! Well, in part. You’ll see.

I think I underestimated my own ridiculous tendency to devour literature with the enthusiasm of Pac-Man on meth. For the past month, I’ve been pretty much reading nothing but the first three volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin’s celebrated fantasy series, which is currently enjoying a second incarnation as the HBO series Game of Thrones. If anyone’s amazed I got through over 3,000 pages in a month, well, it’s not just my mad skills, it’s also that these novels grab you and DO NOT LET GO. Just a few chapters into the first one, I was like, yeah, I’m lost. And when I finished it, any plans of taking a break before diving into the second volume? Gone out the window. As with Lord of the Rings, it’s all one big story that doesn’t pause for breath between each volume. But LotR never had this much gruesome gore, sexual hijinks, soul-destroying plot twists, dwarf jokes, main character fatalities, epic fuck-you moments, and incest babies. There’s only one character in the series (Sansa Stark) who thinks she’s in a romantic, highfalutin Tolkien story, and the response of the author is to grind poor Sansa into a whimpering pulp over and over and over. It’s...kind of amusing. Sorry.

The first three volumes -- A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords -- work pretty well as a trilogy, though you can bet your ass that the ending of A Storm of Swords, which I just reached today, contains enough HOLY SHIT moments to make me want to snap up the next book right away. I’m forcing myself to take a break. There’s just so much to digest. To sum it all up VERY briefly (and without spoiling anything major), the series takes place mostly in Westeros, a fictional medieval world based heavily on European history and mythology. We jump right into the middle of things; the current king hasn’t held the throne all that long, after either usurping it from the noble Targaryen family or rightfully rescuing it from the fucknutters Targaryen family, depending on who you ask. When (minor spoiler alert, though it’s pretty predictable) the king dies, the resulting power vacuum turns Westeros into a deranged chessboard with five or six different factions grasping at the throne. (Are you Team Robb? Team Stannis?’re Team Greyjoy? GET THE FUCK OUT.) Much of the narrative revolves around the Stark family (two parents, five kids, one bastard son, and some direwolves), who start out ruling the northern fortress of Winterfell and end up scattered to the winds. Toss in a creepy undead horde lurking behind the giant ice wall at the northern border of Westeros, and an exiled Targaryen princess and her three baby dragons planning revolution from across the sea, and you have a story that makes us damn glad wikis exist.

What makes these books so good, when so many high fantasy novels are...well...utter shit? Well, in part it’s because Martin is a solid writer who has little interest in copying the aesthetic of Tolkien. His prose is lean and gripping, even when he’s rattling off endless lineages. His world feels so real; you can tell how much time he’s spent building the history, the geography, the backstory of each major family. Magic and the supernatural exist in Westeros, but they’re just the tasty frosting on the cake; mostly it’s about the characters, their relationships, and how they move through the plot. Absolutely nobody is perfect; there are clear heroes and villains, but the heroes make mistakes and do cold-as-fuck things, and the villains are often not without sympathy. There’s no “Dark Lord” that everyone can hate, nor is there an Aragorn who never strays from the path of light. It’s a harsh place where no one is spared misery and tribulation, and it feels all the more real for that -- even if it’s painful to read. Death is never far. At this point, it’s hardly a spoiler to mention that one of the main characters in the first book is killed before the end. It doesn’t end there; A Storm of Swords in particular has a couple scenes of such sudden, shocking, brutal tragedy that it’s hard to keep turning the pages. But the worse it gets for the good guys, the more we want them to fight, to overcome. And they do, sometimes in ways we’d never expect.

It’s been awhile since I was this invested in a fictional world. It’s hard to keep track of everyone and everything, but it pays off. And, y’know, you don’t need to remember every detail. If someone mentions that Ser Snofftoast Bubbletripe was just defeated at Tonsil Keep, and I have no recollection of who this dude is or why I should care, well, it’s okay. It’s a whole world. Worlds keep on turning no matter what, and any given person can only perceive a tiny sliver. I love how characters and events fade in and out of relevance in Martin’s narrative. A major subplot (who tried to kill Bran Stark?) may be shelved for awhile, then dusted off when new information comes to light. A character (Theon Greyjoy) may have a minor supporting role in the first book, become a main antagonist in the second, and then not appear at all in the third, with only occasional hints as to what’s happening to him. And all the characters are also striving for information, so they constantly get to update each other (and us) about what all is going on. Yay for messenger birds! Seriously, though, it’s an utter pleasure to get lost in the series and wonder what in God’s name is gonna happen next, because there is often no way to tell.

So far, so awesome. I will continue to read the series, after which I will do what all the other fans do and sit around impatiently hoping that Martin will finish off the series before he dies of natural causes. I’ll also get to the TV show in time. Now that I’ve read the books, I can watch with amusement as non-book-readers react to what happens on the screen. (Four episodes till the Red Wedding....) Bottom line, I can proclaim myself a devoted fan of A Song of Ice and Fire. And it only took a month! Here’s to however many more months and years it takes to wrap the whole crazy mess up. More blog posts on this subject will happen. It is known.

VERDICT: Epic squee!

UPDATE: More ruminations on this series can be found right here.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Top 10 Scariest Video Game Moments


It ain’t the Halloween season, but hell, I never pass up a chance to discuss the horror genre. So, I love horror video games, but they’ve never frightened me in the same way some movies or written stories do. I think it’s because I’m in control; I’m choosing the trajectory of my story within the game, so I can run or fight in order to avoid the horror. (This may be why I skip games like Amnesia; I’m not interested in a game that requires the player to be hopeless and panicked all the fucking time.) However, there are still games that scare me, either with shocking BOO! moments or a delicious feeling of dread.

The problem in writing this particular list is that Silent Hill 2, a game with which I would have sex if I could, would naturally dominate. I mean, Jesus...the corpse in the TV room, and the hanging bodybags in the hospital, and pretty much every single Pyramid Head encounter, and the showdown with Eddie, and the invisible monster in that one prison cell, forth. So I have to leave Silent Hill 2 off the list. Maybe one day I’ll up and write a list of my scariest Silent Hill 2 moments. But plenty of other games have prickled the hairs on the back of my neck. In the name of fairness, here are...


Banjo-Kazooie: Meeting Clanker
Let’s begin our skin-crawling foray into the depraved depths of video game horror with a cute, innocent, cartoony game for kids. Yeah, okay, but take a look at the above image and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The “Clanker’s Cavern” level begins as a rather boring sewer-themed environment, right up until you swim down a passageway and come face to maw with something that looks like its favorite prey is the kind that screams and bleeds. And then its sawtoothed grin opens WIDE, as do the sphincter muscles of your average unsuspecting kid playing the game for the first time. FUCK YOU, RARE. Luckily, you quickly find out that Clanker the robo-shark is a gentle soul who needs your help. You even get to enter his body and explore his innards without being digested or anything. But for a few heart-stopping seconds, Banjo-Kazooie is the most terrifying game a child can experience. Jaws ain’t got nothing.

Daymare Town: The Librarian Lurks
Gamemaker Mateusz Skutnik specializes in small flash games with a wonderfully bizarre vibe, and his Daymare Town series is a monochrome exercise in unsettling bleakness. There’s plenty of creepy images in the first entry, and one moment that makes you jump out of your skin. In a far corner of a decrepit building, you find an alcove with a rusty sink. So far, so good. But later, when you return to that space, someone is waiting for you. This entity, known only as the Librarian, huddles in the corner, glaring at you like you’re the cause of all his miseries. His totally unexpected appearance, coupled with a horror-movie jolt chord on the soundtrack, gets me every time I play the game. It’s a cheap scare, but damn if it doesn’t work well in a game that already has you on edge. And if you try to interact with the Librarian (unless you have the right item), he fucking snarls at you like a rabid polecat. Just back away...he’s not gonna stab you in the throat...just keep telling yourself that...

Fatal Frame: The Long-Armed Man
The Fatal Frame games are sublimely frightening, as you explore endless, rotting chambers and fend off the angry dead with a magic camera. (Don’t laugh; it’s a great mechanic.) The ghosts are all scary, and waiting for them to appear is even scarier. The moment that haunts me most comes fairly early in the first game, when the heroine hears a sound, freezes, and watches as this utterly awful face slides into view around a corner. The owner of the face is a leering, lank-haired male ghost with impossibly long, thin arms that jut out like the graspers of a praying mantis. Somehow, this inhuman detail ratchets up the scariness factor of this particular ghost (most of the others just look like pissed-off dead people), and his long reach makes it harder than usual to combat him without being seized and strangled. The game is telling you to expect anything, and the worst part is, you just know you’re gonna encounter the Long-Armed Man more than once. But when? But.........when?

Limbo/The Unfinished Swan: Along Came a Spider
I believe that everybody is at least a little bit scared of spiders, even if (like me) you think they’re cool. Interesting, that two recent games (which, as I’ve pointed out, are spiritual cousins) both included a tribute to our eight-legged buddies. The plus-size arachnid in Limbo is famous, as it leisurely stalks you through the forest, at one point wrapping you up like a bug and giggling to itself as you attempt to escape in pitiful little hops. But at least you get to kill the thing in the end. On the other hand, The Unfinished Swan is generally not a scary game, so it’s extra-sucky to find yourself lost in a dark forest -- especially when you turn around and see clusters of red, glowing eyes regarding you from the shadows. Following you. Patiently. You never get a good look at these spiders, which is scary, and they (unlike everything else in the game) can hurt you, which is scarier. Both games reduce you to quivering prey, and it’s awesome.

Resident Evil 4: Village Siege
I think everyone knows that of which I speak. This was the sequence that caused series newbies to weep and longtime Resident Evil fans to renew their vows. There’s just so little warning! You stroll through the woods, you kill a couple angry Spanish dudes, whatevs. Then you see the whole village turned out to burn some poor schmuck at the stake...and they see you...and you have about three seconds for it to sink in: they are coming for you. All of them. RUN. What do you do next, Mr. Big Shot? Take to the rooftops? Find somewhere to make a desperate stand? You can’t hide. Pray you find the shotgun before it’s too late. Pray. Because that distant revving sound you hear is a fucking chainsaw, and its owner will kill you in a heartbeat and can eat about fifty handgun bullets before dying. Resident Evil 4 is one of the best and scariest games of its generation, in part because it tosses the player into the frantic, thrilling, unforgiving blender of survival horror right from the get-go. It’s unforgettable and I don’t dare forget to include it.

Resident Evil 4: Introducing the Regenerators
Oh, we’re not done with RE4 yet, my dears. I could include other sequences, like being stalked by the ghastly Verdugo or encountering invisible face-melting bugs, but they pale in comparison to the Regenerators. Deep in the game, after you think you’ve seen the worst, you encounter a creature tailor-made to cause bowel evacuations. You think it’s dead at first, but then the naked, gangly, burnt-looking corpse lurches to life, emitting a demented rasp as it advances on you. And it doesn’t die. Its necrotic flesh grows back before your eyes, and you’re reduced to wasting bullets in a panic. Maybe you figure out that you can use your new thermal scope to find its weak points, but just try to stay calm and target them while it’s getting closer and closer -- or chewing on your flesh with its beartrap mouth. You finally kill it, you get the hell out, and hear more of them nearby. God, that raspy breathing -- I think that’s the worst. Ignoring Silent Hill 2, I seriously have never met a video game monster as scary as the Regenerators, and I FUCKING HATE that part of the game SO MUCH. But that just shows it’s working.

Scarab of Ra: What’s Around the Corner?
Waaaaaaaayyyy back in the days of yore, there was this Mac shareware game called Scarab of Ra, in which you wandered around a labyrinthine pyramid, hunting for rare treasures. Despite its Etch-a-Sketch graphics, it was complex and fun to play. Also, scary as shit. Why? Because you could only see in front of you, and you were sharing the randomly generated levels with cobras, lions, monkeys, and mummies, and they wanted your ass in a sandwich. All of these foes would kill you except for the monkey, who’d just steal your most necessary items and then vanish. You often wouldn’t see them coming, and if you hadn’t found the right item to defeat them, you were pretty much fucked. And when you found the titular Scarab, it was no cause for celebration, because you knew you’d just woken the mummy, and it could be anywhere, and if you were too slow or just unlucky, you’d be swiftly and mercilessly dispatched. Playing this game was a white-knuckle experience. God, I miss it.

Slender: The Whole Fucking Game
I haven’t actually played Slender. I don’t have the balls to play Slender. Watching poor, whimpering fools try to play it on YouTube is bad enough. It’s truly amazing how Slender Man, the faceless, dapper-suited, spaghetti-armed ghoul birthed on a Something Awful forum, has become such an icon of internet culture, and this little indie game perfectly captures everything freaky about him (it?). Venturing through a spooky forest, trying to track down all the cryptic notes, and the whole time, you know: Slender Man is nearby, and he’ll soon be even nearer. The first time you look back and glimpse him through the trees...nightmare fuel, I tell ya. In a brilliant use of horror logic, Slender Man gets closer, faster, and more aggressive the longer you play the game, and the last bit (assuming you make it that far) is a panicked sprint because he is RIGHT THE FUCK BEHIND YOU. Knowing what’s coming, knowing what will happen, is sometimes a thousand times scarier than being surprised. If I were dumb enough to play this, I’d probably be found looking like Amber Tamblyn in The Ring.

 Silent Hill 3: A Mirror and a Bathtub
What? I only said I’d leave Silent Hill 2 off the list. There’s plenty of fear to be had in the rest of the series! Silent Hill 3, with its spunky protagonist slicing and dicing goofy-looking beasties, kind of flops in the fear department, but there is one brief sequence that gets under my skin. While exploring the hospital, heroine Heather finds a room with a bathtub and a wall-sized mirror. Mirrors: never good news in horror stories. Sure enough, the bathtub starts to ooze blood and muck, which spreads like unholy fungus across the floor and walls. Still not really bad...until you notice that Heather’s reflection is now soaked in blood, while she remains clean. Then (this was what made me jump and whimper during my first playthrough) her reflection...stops...moving. I hear you die if you stay in the room too long, but I’ve never found out because I always fucking book it at that point. So why do I enter the room in the first place, knowing I’ll be creeped out? Come on, haven’t you been paying attention?

Silent Hill 4: The Haunting of Room 302
I fear Silent Hill 4: The Room was the last hurrah of the series being truly under-your-skin frightening. The game has its flaws, but it also has a ton of effective scares. The thing is, no matter how bad shit gets, you can always return to your cozy apartment to save your game and bask in an utterly normal, boring, non-horrific environment. And then the game laughs at your hubris and punches you right in the fear muscle, because after the halfway point, Room 302 becomes haunted. Imagine waking in your bed to discover that something’s in the room with you, a snarling, invisible thing that turns your vision red and drains your health. And that’s just one example; you have to deal with a whole selection of distinct haunts. You never know what’ll appear next, and returning to the apartment, once a comforting thing, becomes a dreadful step into the unknown. That’s what the best horror does: it takes the safe and familiar and twists it into something alien, something you can’t understand. I do relish what the gaming medium brings to the horror genre...when it gets it right.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert 1942-2013

Today is a sad day. I'm going to miss you, Mr. Ebert.

You were honestly one of my biggest influences, both as a writer and an amateur critic. I owe a lot of my style to you. You taught me how to look at each film with an open mind, how to treasure the "lowbrow" movies for bringing us delight, and how to be snarky without coming off as cruel (unless, of course, the movie really, really deserves ridicule). I quote you, I emulate you, I look up to you. I always will.

Thank you so much. Rest in peace.

Monday, April 1, 2013

April Fools Post

It's April Fool's Day. If I were up to it, I'd write up some blistering fake post about how, I dunno, Netflix is bringing back Firefly or something. But I don't feel like concocting an elaborate hoax. So I'm just going to bring you the gift of laughter. Specifically, my own laughter. The following are a bunch of goofy online images that I personally find really funny. Can't say why, except that some of the best humor involves surprise. Being hit with a gag you didn't expect.

Hope you giggle!