Monday, January 26, 2015

Dang-Blasted Video Game Theories 2

Dang-Blasted Video Game Theories, pt. 2

How it went down: I was wrapping up Batman: Arkham Origins and wondering why I spent so much time playing a game that I didn’t really care about. And then I had one of my precious moments of “Hey, what if...” and an idea lodged in my noggin and I realized I wanted to do another post about video game theories. My first one was enjoyable to brainstorm and write. And I have some fresh ideas to share with ya.

Here are four more theories about what might be going on in certain video games. They are not profound, they have no real proof to back them up...hell, who knows if they’re even original. But here they are anyway.


Psychonauts: The Game Takes Place In Ford Cruller’s Head

I did Bastion last time, and now here’s another game in which the headstrong young hero is mentored by a wise old geezer. Are they the same person? Not this time. This time, I posit that we’re inside the geezer’s mind.

Psychonauts takes place at a summer camp for psychic kids, many of whom dream of joining the titular team -- basically becoming a telepathic secret agent. The young hero, Raz, muscles his way into camp, begins to train, and soon discovers that one of the counselors, Coach Oleander, is an evil villain who wants to remove kids’ brains and use them to power a machine army. As Raz attempts to stop Oleander, he is aided by Ford Cruller, a retired Psychonaut who now monitors the world via a Batcave-lair under the camp. Raz explores inside the minds of various characters, but the camp is real. Or is it?

I’m not so sure. Throughout the map, you encounter multiple versions of Ford Cruller, doing various odd jobs. This is lamely explained away by an underground tram system, but no tram is fast enough to get a decrepit old man around like that, especially when you include costume changes. I say, the many Fords are a clue that Camp Whispering Rock is no more real than the other levels. Raz is inside Ford’s brain. And that’s not all: everything that happens in the game is part of an elaborate training simulation. Ford and the other counselors recognized great psychic potential in Raz, who gained access to Ford’s mind without even realizing it. So they essentially bumped him up to the “advanced program.”

Kids aren’t really having their brains sucked out. It’s all a fake scenario for Raz to fight through. Tapping into your psychic powers entails a focused subconscious; if Raz knew it was all staged, his mind wouldn’t respond correctly. He has to believe he’s really stopping an evil plot. Apart from Ford, the counselors, and Raz’s love interest, Lili (who’s secretly a junior Psychonaut), none of the characters are real. That explains why the other camp kids are so wacky and bizarre: they’re figments of Ford’s imagination. Ford creates deeper levels of his mind for Raz to explore and even pulls material from Raz’s troubled childhood, so he can face his own fears. At the end, the defeated Coach Oleander basically just apologizes for being evil, and everyone’s fine with that, because he wasn’t really evil. Just playing a role.

Needless to say, Raz proves himself to be Psychonaut material. Which sucks, because we’re never gonna get a Psychonauts 2, no matter how many letters we write to Tim Schafer. Sigh.

Closure: You’re the Soul of a Sinner Doing Penance

We, as a species, are so obsessed with death, it spills over into every art form. Video games are no exception, and such themes run through Closure, a nifty puzzle-platformer built around darkness and light. Although it’s not overt, I believe that this game is about closure for you, the player character. Because you are a deceased soul, trying to win your way into heaven.

The world of Closure is pitch-black and whatever falls outside the light, ceases to exist. To win, you must manipulate light sources to open pathways. The central character is an odd-looking creature with four legs and no face, seen above. For much of the game, this homunculus (I’ll call him the Sinner) occupies the bodies of three other people: a miner, a woman, and a little girl. My theory goes that each of these three are in peril, and you, the Sinner, are saving them. You can’t influence them directly but you can nudge them in the right direction. The miner is trapped underground and enters a helicopter at the end of his journey, representing rescue. The woman begins at a car crash, explores a forest, and winds up in a hospital where she sees herself motionless in a hospital bed. She’s in a coma, you see, and your job is to guide her consciousness back to its body. The little girl wanders away from home to visit the circus; you need to get her back safe.

Why do all this? Because in life, you sinned...but not badly enough to go to hell. Instead, you’re required to redeem yourself through the act of saving living people. At the game’s end, creepy-looking surgeons loom over you, like a holy jury. You “present” the memories of the three people you helped, literally firing them at your observers. Then comes the key image: the inhuman body of the Sinner dissolves and out flies a glowing butterfly. Your soul, free of its quasi-demonic form. You end the game by flying upwards, navigating a twisted path, and finally arriving in a starry sky. Heaven. You are redeemed.

And why all the surgical-themed imagery? Well, if we make our own heaven and hell, then perhaps the Sinner was a surgeon in life. Perhaps his sin was allowing patients to die through arrogance and carelessness. Thus, it makes sense for him (or her) to do penance by saving lives. Closure is the kind of game that can be interpreted in a million ways. I like this version.

Limbo: The Divine Comedy Allegory

The afterlife seems to be on my brain when it comes to video games, but can you blame me when certain games seem to be begging for such analysis? I refer, of course, to Limbo, that innovatively depressing indie darling in which you are a small boy trudging through a shadowy, hostile world of terror. There’s no real goal, but you seem to be on the trail of a little girl. When you finally “catch” her (under a decayed-looking treehouse), the game abruptly ends. Dafuq just happened?

I went deep into literary nerdism for this theory. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a walking tour of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise. Another name for Purgatory? Limbo. Where souls are purged of their sins before gaining access to heaven. Dante divided Limbo into zones for the seven deadly sins, each requiring a specific type of penance. The Wrathful, for instance, are immersed in choking, blinding smoke. In Limbo the game, everything is gray and smoky. And you encounter other children(?) who try to kill you for no reason...wrathfully. Huh. Okay, what about the slothful, who, according to Dante, are engaged in mindless, ceaseless activity? Well, in the game, you run everywhere, and in the later stages, you are forced to work machinery, pull levers, push boxes, the only goal being to continue your mindless, ceaseless journey. Well, well, well.

So the little boy in Limbo is dead, in Dante’s Purgatory, doing penance for the sins of Wrath and Sloth. But why? He’s just a kid.

A kid who got himself and his little sister killed.

The title screen of Limbo shows the same treehouse where you glimpse the girl at game’s end. Twin clouds of flies buzz beneath, as if two corpses are hidden in the tall grass. So therein hangs my tale: in life, you had a little sister who idolized you, but you found her annoying. One day, you got super angry about something and ran off into the woods, to a rotting old treehouse you’d found. Your sister followed you and tried to climb the old rope ladder to join you. You heard her struggling upward, but were too lazy to help her. The rope broke, she fell and died, and when you tried to climb down, you also fell and died. And that’s why you’re in Limbo. A child may be too innocent for hell, but you still must cast off the sins that led to your death. Your sister, pure and sin-free, appears at the end as Dante’s beloved Beatrice appeared to him in Purgatorio: a guide into Paradise. Basically, I’m forcing a happy ending upon Limbo because otherwise the game is just a field guide to hopeless nihilism. Still fun, though!

Arkham Series: Cyrus Pinkney is the Arkham Knight

And now, ladies and germs, the theory that inspired this post. I’ve placed it last because it is the silliest and probably the most unlikely. And I love it to death.

Batman: Arkham Origins, while a lame game, has plenty of sidequests and easter eggs. This includes one side-mission so unobtrusive that I didn’t even discover the damn thing until I’d finished the main story. Tucked throughout Gotham are plaques containing the journal entries of one Cyrus Pinkney, architect extraordinaire, who designed many of Gotham’s signature buildings during the 1800s. A friend to both Batman ancestor Solomon Wayne and asylum-creator Amadeus Arkham, Pinkney fought against crime and corruption and died mysteriously -- poisoned, some say, by Henry Cobblepot, progenitor of the Penguin. By reading Pinkney’s journals, Batman learns that Pinkney faked his own death, assassinated Cobblepot, and then...vanished?

Bullshit. Nobody vanishes in the Batman mythos, especially when they’re tied into the twisted mythology the games have built up. In the upcoming grand finale of the series, Arkham Knight, Batman will face the titular villain, a violent vigilante in a high-tech robo-suit, created exclusively for the game. A twisted reflection of Batman himself. Holder of a mystery grudge. Real identity unknown.

I’m calling it. Cyrus Pinkney became the Arkham Knight. Ostensibly fighting crime, his mind and ethics grew twisted. He now sees Gotham as a festering shithole of corruption that must be cleansed, which is why he’s onboard with Scarecrow’s terror-gas. I mean, come on, you know they’re gonna have the Knight’s identity be shocking somehow. Why not? “But he’d be, like, two hundred years old!” you cry. Guys, this is a universe containing Solomon Grundy, who’s been around for at least that long, and Ra’s al Ghul, who’s literally immortal just because he has a magical jacuzzi. Let’s imagine that Pinkney figured out how to prolong his life through technology, possibly with the aid of another Solomon -- Bruce Wayne’s thrice-great grandfather. Maybe that’s why he’s now a villain: the line between man and machine got blurry. And he’s already proven himself willing to murder his enemies.

I have no evidence. Well...except for one thing. If you complete the Cyrus Pinkney sidequest in Arkham Origins, you find the man’s (empty) tomb. And what lies upon his sarcophagus, forever etched in stone, quietly foreshadowing?

A knight.

Thus, I drop the mic. I’ll be back later with my awesome theory about Five Nights at Freddy’s. I’m persistent like that.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

American Horror Story: Freak Show--FINALE

4.13: Curtain Call

--I do believe American Horror Story just pranked me. I enjoy my analogy about how the curtain closes, the props get packed away, the actors go home. Done for another year, until this show comes round to entertain us again. But the finale of Freak Show made the argument that for some, the curtain never closes. The spotlight never dims. The show goes on.

--I feel like a paradigm shift has been signaled. Maybe it’s just hopeful optimism (despite its strengths, Freak Show’s path was a teensy bit too well-trodden for my liking), but I feel like the winds of change are blowing. TV itself is changing. Anthology shows, star-studded “event television,” quality emphasized over ratings, all are on the rise. American Horror Story needs to adapt. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but its place in the metamorphic realm of the small screen mirrors the themes of this finale.

--Generally, at the close of things, AHS likes to tidy up, sweep the floor with its various subplots, zoom in on the last characters standing. I knew what that implied, and prayed so hard that it wouldn’t come to be. My prayers were ignored. Dandy proved himself to be a godawful boss of the freak show, and it didn’t take long for the troupe to decide that unemployment was preferable to being the singing, kowtowing monkeys for a rich brat’s delusional Cole Porter covers. Abandoned by the freaks, Dandy got that look. Not the scrunchy-faced look of wrath. The resigned, melancholy look. Which is far scarier. His debut wasn’t going to be what he wanted, but it would showcase the one thing he’s really good at.

--Meanwhile, Elsa made it to Hollywood only to discover that Hollywood sneers at aging, dyed-blonde wannabes with German accents who think they’re too good for appointment books. Her slide into abject humiliation was halted by a chance encounter with a friendly young functionary, played by David Burtka, who is Neil Patrick Harris’s husband. Let’s ponder the weird metaphysics of that. Now that we have sufficiently stalled, let’s get into the cruelty that followed...

--Dandy’s murder spree. Unsurprising, unwanted, so much worse than I hoped. Dandy put on a dapper white tux and tasteful makeup, then strolled through the freak show with a golden pistol. He killed them all. All of them. I wanted a few to escape. No. He calmly, methodically gunned them down. Paul the Illustrated Seal. Penny the Lizard Girl. Legless Suzi. Toulouse. Barbara the Fat lady. Even those nameless roustabouts in the background. Amazon Eve at least put up a fight, and still died, as I screamed, “GODDAMMIT, EVE, YOU BEAT UP DELL THE STRONGMAN AND YOU CAN’T DEFEAT THIS PENCIL-DICKED, BABY-FACED DOUCHEBAG?” Apparently not. The inability of the freaks to escape their pitiful ends infuriated me; this is not what I expect from such a capable group. But the demands of the plot and all that. The scene was horrifiying in its silence; the only music was Dandy eerily humming The Nutcracker Suite, punctuated by gunshots (did his pistol not need reloading or what?). One small bright side: Eve’s sacrifice allowed Desiree to hop between hiding places and save herself. Dandy took Bette and Dot as his trophies, and Jimmy staggered in to find a tentful of dead friends. FUCCCCCKKKKK, I hated that sequence. Those people actually came to mean something as characters. Once again, this show does the “massacre as social metaphor” thing and leaves us in a fetal position.

--Dandy got his just desserts, of course. He married Bette, who seemed smitten with her murderous man, but it was, in fact, the acting performance she’d always dreamed of pulling off. In truth, the sisters were collaborating with Jimmy and Desiree to bring Dandy down. They drugged him, hauled him back to the freak show, and plopped him into a glass tank for some Houdini hijinks. Dandy got to perform onstage, but the performance was him slowly drowning while the four survivors watched with glee. Desiree sensually ate popcorn, because awesome Angela Bassett moments have become the show’s meat-n-potatoes. Thus ends the freaky rise and fall of Dandy Mott, and let that be a warning to us all, what happens when people are raised to believe they can have, and deserve, anything they want. Like I said before, Dandy is scary not because he’s some sort of inbred Rosemary’s baby, predestined to murder, but because creeps like him exist everywhere. Should we feel sorry for him? At all? Well, it was kinda weird how Freak Show focused so hard on “revenge porn,” relishing how the freaks enacted lethal vigilante justice, over and over and over. Hell, Esmerelda was the only one to suggest that they not just murder anybody who wronged them, and her reward was to die gruesomely and unmourned. Odd ethics, don’t you think? Regardless, Dandy of all people had it coming.

--Wonder what happened to Detective Turdlicker? Hopefully nothing good. Maybe his murder of Regina came out and he wound up sharing a prison cell with Chester, who snapped and removed Detective Turdlicker’s spinal cord and turned him into a brand-new ventriloquist act.

--With Dandy’s sordid story done, the spotlight shifted to Elsa Mars, TV star, musical star, Hollywood walk-of-fame star. She got everything she wanted! And she hated it! HAH HAH HAH! Yep, Elsa’s dreams turned out to kinda suck. She found herself with no friends, only hangers-on. By 1960, she and her manager/hubby/bedroom sex slave couldn’t stand each other, she was disgusted with her own image, and her one remaining spark of happiness, Massimo Dolcefino, was dying of cancer. (He also revealed he’d been out in Nevada, building fake towns for the atomic bomb tests, thus making it all but certain that Season Five will involve Operation Top Hat. I’m excited!) The final nail in the coffin came when Elsa’s unsavory, unmarketable past caught up with her. Oh, you starred in Nazi snuff porn and ran a freak show whose performers all ended up murdered? Buh-bye, ex-cash cow! Nothing left for Elsa. And so she committed suicide in a most show-bizzy way: she performed on Halloween. Onstage, she murmured her way through “Heroes,” and I’m glad, because now the “anachronistic musical number” thing seems like a recurring wraparound theme and not an awkward gimmick that the showrunners dumped when nobody liked it. As Elsa sang, we got flashes of Desiree, mother of two cute kids with Angus T. Jefferson; and Jimmy, Bette, and Dot, cozily hitched and expecting younguns of their own. So nice, that a few found happiness. It looked like happiness would forever elude Elsa Mars: Edward Mordrake slithered up, with Twisty the Clown guest-starring by his side, and ended Elsa’s life. BUT.

--There is a heaven for stars of the stage! And, unlike last season, Jessica Lange’s character had done enough good deeds to earn the right to bathe in the eternal spotlight. Newly deceased, Elsa found herself back in her Cabinet of Curiosities, warmly welcomed by Ma Petite, Ethel, and all her freaks. Even Meep was there! (No Pepper, though; she wasn’t dead yet, but I assume she also finds herself back in her true home, back in the arms of the first of her two Jessica Lange-faced mama-figures.) In this warm afterlife, the house is always packed, your voice sounds great, your legs aren’t made of wood, and you receive a standing-O as you make your stage debut. Final image of the season: Elsa Mars, dead and happy, inhaling as she prepared to sing her newly-deGrinchified heart out. Awwwwwwwww.

--If that ending seemed overly corny, keep in mind that it also served as the AHS swansong of Jessica Lange. Maybe. Her initial determination to make Season Four her last seems to have wavered. If they really do shake up the formula, she may be back in some capacity. And they should shake that formula hard, because American Horror Story needs a breath of fresh air. I really enjoyed Freak Show. I loved many of the individual performances. I like how it felt a bit more grounded than Coven, and how it made its cast of freaks into interesting people rather than talking props. I’m not disappointed. But I do feel as if this show’s in a creative rut. Throughout Freak Show, the interesting stuff kept getting interrupted by weird little subplots that no one cared about, and awkward creative choices. The “what-if” murders committed by Stanley? Those should never have happened. Ma Petite’s death lost a lot of its impact when we’d already seen her “die” one week ago. Such bullshit ruins the stakes. Also, Edward Mordrake didn’t belong. A single supernatural entity in a story that is otherwise 100% free of ghosts and ghoulies? Inappropriate. These touches smacked of the need to make AHS feel like the same old horror story. But that’s not what we want. We want to be surprised. Challenged. We want this show to expand its ideas instead of closing back in around them.

--That is what I hope we’ll get next year. With the departure(?) of Lange, with the newly established connections between storylines, AHS could reinvent itself. This sounds cruel, but I want to see other actors exit besides Lange, not because I don’t like them, but because too many cooks spoil the broth. Narrow down the main cast, seek out new talent instead of scrambling to find perfunctory roles for your Emma Robertses and your Grace Gummers and your Denis O’Hares because you don’t wanna hurt their widdle feelings. Yeah, I’m mean, but there’s a reason two of my favorite actors in Freak Show were first-timers Michael Chiklis and Finn Wittrock. Make it new. Make the web of story connections into something meaningful, or at least understated, instead of a tiresome game of “spot the reference.” Listen to the winds of change and make the apparently atomic bomb-themed Season Five a tour de force that wakes us all up! DO IT.

--Do it and I will love you. I will renew my vows. Willing freak that I am.

--Wir sind alle Freaks.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Silent Hill Review Series, pt. 11

Silent Hills Playable Teaser -- Negative Space

Sometimes you walk in and you can feel the ghosts. Energy lingers, memories or emotions, however you want to define it. It can be magnified by four walls, but really, a haunt has no physical limitations. A single room, an entire house, a field, a forest...or a town...can be the bell jar trapping a restless spirit. Me, I’ve never seen a ghost, though I have watched as a door I know was latched swung slowly open. Now, hark. The horizon is closer. The wind’s changing. Something is peering through the veil.

It’s another Silent Hill game.

When it will come, what form it will take, whether it’ll rise to the level of Silent Hill 2 or be a crashing letdown...we don’t know yet. All we have is a teaser. But that teaser has become ridiculously famous in a very short time. Seriously, guys, this thing won awards last year, as if it were a real game. And it almost is. Playable Teaser, despite its generic name, serves as a self-contained experience of terror, and the last-minute reveal that it’s for a new Silent Hill entry...well, that’s the juicy cherry on top. I don’t have a PS4 yet, so I am unable to play P.T. myself, but since there’s not much to the actual gameplay, I can get a reasonable facsimile by watching others play it. (Again, it was mostly Markiplier; that guy is becoming my go-to guru for horror gaming, even if he has yet to play a real Silent Hill game. Someone start a petition?) P.T. has made the rounds, with people proclaiming, “SCARIEST THING EVAR,” and yes, it knows how to scare. Is it scary in the distinctive way one expects from Silent Hill? Hmmmmmmm.

Well, if I had to compare, I’d say P.T. most resembles Silent Hill 4: The Room, which many would consider a drawback, but bear with me. As the “game” begins, you awaken in a bare concrete chamber. You could be anybody, or nobody. You pass through a door and find yourself in an ordinary-looking hallway. Paintings line the walls. A digital clock announces it to be nearly midnight. Moving down the hall, you turn a corner at a table where a phone lies off the hook. You pass a bathroom and a door to the outside, both locked tight. Another table, bearing a radio and a photo of a happy couple. Down some stairs, through a door, and find yourself in an ordinary-looking hallway. Paintings line the walls. A digital clock announces...hold up. Yes, you’re back where you started, and the entire trailer consists of you moving down the same hallway, over and over. The graphics are amazing, almost photorealistic. And you get plenty of time to appreciate them, as you’re going to be examining this haunted corridor from top to bottom.

In The Room, the hero would return to his comfortable apartment over and over. A haven. But during the second half of the game, the apartment began to change, first subtly, then in dramatic and horrifying ways, as ghosts took hold of the walls and furniture like a spreading disease. P.T. adopts a similar style. The hall darkens. A baby cries. Blood drips. The voices on the radio sound...wrong. There’s something ghastly in the bathroom sink. There’s a wraithlike female figure, sometimes glimpsed, other times savagely attacking you. A story comes into focus: a man murdered his wife and child. Is the ghost the wife? Are you the murderous husband? Trapped at the scene of the crime, reality corkscrewing to torment you with the images of your own dark deeds? Because that’s how the town of Silent Hill operates: it digs into your mind, extracts the worst in you, turns it into a flesh-and-blood masquerade where you are the star, the audience, and the victim. This innocuous hallway with its off-white paint job and classy light fixtures begins to seem like a little sliver of hell. In that respect, P.T. taps into what makes Silent Hill games scary, the sense that even normality is all wrong. All rotten.

It’s a very well-made little experience. I think it would have been even better if it had limited itself to a scary walking tour. However, P.T. also wants you to actually do stuff, and as a result, its impact is diminished. You must, for example, find the scattered pieces of a photo. Bring a magnifying glass. The teaser pulls some Eternal Darkness-style pranks by making you think it has crashed and hiding a secret in the settings menu. Toward the end, things get super-confusing, as the “rules” for avoiding and/or manipulating the ghost lady and the baby-voiced thing in the bathroom are a bit murky. After building its scares at a good pace, making itself more freaky and intense with each trip down the hall, the teaser’s momentum screeches to a halt while you try and figure out its puzzle logic. And unless you’re unusually intuitive, or you’re a cheating cheater who cheats, you’ll be trudging back and forth, up and down, combing the hallway for answers. And that’s the bad kind of repetition. Delicious dread (“What’s coming next?”) turns to doldrums (“What the fuck do I do next?”).

You bet your ass I’m cautiously enthusiastic for Silent Hills. My enthusiasm needs no explanation, but my caution arises from Playable Teaser’s muddled final act, and the fear that it represents the final product. What if it looks amazing, only to descend into an unfocused pea soup of ideas? Or, worse, gimmicks? According to some people, one must yell into the PlayStation mic to beat the game. That may or may not be true, but I sure hope it’s not foreshadowing. I don’t need to be reveling in a Silent Hill game and then have a cheerful prompt tell me to yell into the mic, or swipe the touchpad, or take all my clothes off and dance on my couch with the controller balanced on my erection. Resident Evil has tried such bullshit on the DS, and nobody liked it then, either. Probably I’m paranoid. I just don’t want Silent Hills to be “experimental,” unless it’s the type of story-focused experiment we got in Shattered Memories. My other big fear is that P.T. doesn’t really look or feel like a Silent Hill game. Yeah, there’s the radio, and the cockroaches, and the sense that the environment itself is punishing you. But the lady ghost would be more at home in the Fatal Frame franchise, and the imagery is cherry-picked from the horror genre in general, not Silent Hill in particular. If it’s still a good, scary game, I’ll probably be satisfied. But I want the fog and the dead streets. I want the old aesthetic, and not just as fan service. I want SILENT HILL.

Once you reach the end of P.T., you are rewarded with a man, flashlight in hand, walking down a dark, abandoned street. Three names fade into view. Hideo Kojima. Guillermo del Toro. Norman Reedus. And then the title, Silent Hills, and a squee-inducing strain of Akira Yamaoka’s original, jangly musical score. If you lack sufficient nerdiness to recognize the above names, they are, respectively, the venerable creator of the Metal Gear series; the geek-god director of such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and Pacific Rim; and the actor best known for potraying Daryl Motherfucking Dixon on The Walking Dead. (I’m pretty sure his name is literally Daryl Motherfucking Dixon. Like, it’s on his driver’s license.) In other words, Silent Hills has hired some serious pedigree and is making certain sure we know it. I have no sense of Kojima or his work, but...well, I would have said anything with del Toro’s name has gotta be good, but then I remembered The Strain, an unoriginal and badly-written series of vampire novels that del Toro didn’t actually write, even if he’s billed on the cover. So there’s another worry: that they paid del Toro a heap of money, but he contributed little beyond the idea stage. As for Reedus, he’s apparently playing the protagonist through motion capture, and I know he’s a good actor, but...did they really have to go with yet another grim male antihero with a lousy haircut? And will it be distracting and/or unscary to play a Silent Hill game as Daryl Motherfucking Dixon, zombie slayer extraordinaire?

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I should not make wild assumptions. We don’t even know if Playable Teaser has any bearing on the final game at all. It could be a mere appetizer that gets folks in the survival-horror mood. What matters is that’s it’s really scary -- scarier than some actual Silent Hill games -- and also offers exciting new marketing possibilities. We live in an age where game trailers can be more expensive than some indie films. At the same time, I’ve sensed a rising backlash against trailers that mislead, or make ridiculous promises, or show off a game’s visuals but not its gameplay. Everyone got so obnoxiously excited for Watch Dogs, lulled by the promise of freedom and fully open-ended gameplay. And then the actual game was just another “Go here and shoot these guys” yawnfest. But here’s a teaser that you can actually play. And it’s not on a huge screen at E3; it’s in your own living room. It plays your nerves like a mandolin, pulls you into that shivery, happy zone of horror gaming, and then says, “You like this? You had fun? You got scared? Oh, by the way, we’re making a new Silent Hill game. Now that your appetite has been whetted, perhaps you’ll take the journey with us.” I will. Oh, yes, I will. I want to walk those foggy streets again. And I’m okay with having three talented men as my tour guides. But they’d BETTER NOT FUCK THIS UP OR THE CURSES OF A THOUSAND BETRAYED HORROR FANS WILL BE UPON THEIR BEARDED HEADS.

Keep watching this blog. Silent Hills is coming. My flashlight is packed. I’m ready. Bring it on, town of my nightmares.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 12

4.12: Show Stoppers


--Okay, okay. Like a gimp, I shall eat some crow. I really loved this week’s episode. It was touching, shocking, interesting, and unexpected. It wrapped up a bunch of stuff and still left us with an “OH SHIT” cliffhanger going into the season finale. It was one of those single episodes of TV that left me feeling like I’d eaten a good, solid, full-course meal. So while it’s still possible the finale may be a letdown, I’m infused with more optimism. I am sure if I browse the online recaps, I’ll find a million people whining about how terrible this episode was. So I won’t. La la la.

--Heh. Stanley. I had a pretty good notion of how he’d get his comeuppance, so while I was not surprised by what happened, I watched it with relish, over toast and tea. During a lovely little going-away party for Elsa, the freaks, all toothy grins and good cheer, gave Stanley a gift: the head of the curator of the Museum of Oddities, in a jar. Desiree aims to set some kind of righteous murder record! Appropriately, what followed paid homage to Tod Browning’s Freaks, possibly the most (in)famous film ever made about sideshow performers. Our beloved troupe of oddballs stalked Stanley with many sharp implements, and I was surprised they didn’t show the carnage, given this show’s love of excess. Turns out they were withholding a twist, as the ep’s wind-down showcased Stanley in a cage, mute, limbless, and presumably lacking his mighty thundercock. He’s the new Meep! I’d say that’s a fitting fate for him.

--What fate shall befall dear Jimmy? He has no hands, no parents, and is still wanted by the law. Esmerelda was eager to tend to her man, but Jimmy wanted nothing to do with her. “I’ll make it right!” she mewled, and given what happened to her later, such upbeat assurances drown in a sick swamp of irony. Elsa, meanwhile, summoned up her better instincts and called upon a ghost from her past: Massimo Dolcefino, the woodcrafter who made her false legs. My crush on Danny Huston burns bright as ever, and I also love the chemistry between him and Jessica Lange, now enjoying its second incarnation. Bonus backstory: so smitten with Elsa was Dolcefino that he went on a crusade of murder against the men who mutilated her. But he fell victim to their ringleader, an infamous Nazi doctor named Hans Gruper. That name should sound familiar. Oh, yes, it should. Dolcefino survived the war but his soul, and manhood, were no longer intact. He and Elsa were left with a lifetime of regret. And Hans Gruper? He fled to America, changed his name to Arthur Arden, and began conducting unusual experiments at a certain asylum. The hyperlinking of AHS continues!

--I’m kinda happy that this ep (seemingly) wrapped up Chester’s story. He was compelling enough, but too much of a newcomer to hog the finale. His love affair with Bette and Dot was his downfall. Marjorie the dummy got more and more fed up, and to make matters worse, Dandy dropped by, all slimy charm, to hand the Tattler twins a dossier on Chester’s bad deeds. It put them on edge enough to evade Chester’s magic act, and who should step up to take their place but poor Esmerelda, all “Now will you guys like me?” There was that delicious moment when I thought, No. They’re not gonna. Are they? They did. Chester sawed Esmerelda in half, sans magic, while she screamed and died and her intestines went everywhere. “She had it comin,” Desiree tartly proclaimed. The moral of this entire season: Karma will always kick you into the mincer, so don’t even try to reform, you scumbag shithead loser. Not sure I agree, but kudos to this show for proving it can still make my jaw drop. Now a thrice-times murderer, Chester fell upon his tormentor, Marjorie, “killed” her as well, then confessed his bloody deeds to some very confused cops. Bye, Chester! Hope Briarcliff treats you well!

--Would Elsa be the next victim of the freaks’ harsh justice? They were on a roll, and Stanley managed to accuse Elsa of Ethel’s murder before they Meepified him. Enough proof to convict? The troupe thought so. Bette and Dot, however, felt they owed Elsa enough to warn her. So Elsa got the fate she, too, deserved: not death, but having to flee ignominiously into the night, hated by the very freaks she’d saved and mothered. Don’t ask me to feel sorry for her; she still gets a happy Hollywood ending, maybe. Who gave Elsa the money to skedaddle? Dandy, who’s been on the backburner for awhile, but only because he was patiently planning his next act of awfulness. Yes, Dandy Mott, rich murdering psychopath extraordinaire, is now the owner of Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. And he is a very, very happy boy. Well, FUCK. This should ensure a blood-soaked final episode, huh.

--And here’s why I really dug this week. Because, rather than ending on the ominous image of Dandy claiming the freak show, or the creepy/satisfying image of Stanley as a mutilated gimp in a cage, they chose a note of deep poignancy. Jimmy had been waging an internal struggle. He’s lost so much, but Massimo Dolcefino can make him almost normal. Almost. That’s what he’s always wanted, right? But was his mother, Ethel, wise to teach him how to embrace his differences? Was his father, Dell, wise to demonstrate how being “normal” is sometimes the worse thing? Jimmy has learned a lot. And so, at the end, he made his choice, and the final image was him donning his new prosthetics: a pair of wooden lobster hands. I almost teared up a little. It was a moment of beauty. I hope there’s still some beauty to be had, and next week’s climax doesn’t end on the note of tragedy and pessimism I fear it will.

--Also, I think Desiree should wind up as the freak show’s owner. She has great motherly instincts, she can be tender, but she’ll also kill to protect those close to her. Angus T. Jefferson can be the show’s emcee. Who’s with me?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Favorite Books of 2014

Wait! Don’t go! I’m not quite done reviewing the year in pop culture! Back at the beginning of 2014, I thought I’d try compiling a list of my favorite books. Turned out to be an ever-changing project, because I read a crapload of books. And the list must be limited or it just becomes TL;DR. Ironically. If it’s not obvious, these are all books I read for the first time in 2014, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were released in 2014. In before the person who says, “Heeyyyyy, Carrie isn’t new!” Yeah, see, that sort of casual idiocy is why we need more people reading books.



8. Cooked by Michael Pollan
Although I don’t agree with Michael “Omnivore’s Dilemma” Pollan as much as I used to, he’s still a wonderful scribe of all things food-related, and my mouth watered for his latest. With Cooked, he zeroes in on the titular ritual, so simple, yet largely abandoned by Americans in an age of fast food and supermarket deli counters and entire frozen meals in boxes. He argues that cooking is not only nutritionally superior but also socially and familially important. But he’s no armchair scholar; he goes out and gets his hands dirty, greasy, saucy, spicy, and brothy! The book is broken down by the four cardinal elements: Fire (smoking, barbecuing), Water (boiling, stewing, braising), Air (baking), and Earth (fermentation). Each provides a glimpse into a fascinating food culture, from the zealous rivalries of Southern barbecue pits to the humble nun whose homemade, FDA-unapproved cheese is more antiviral than most drugstores. I learned a ton, and was inspired to try more things in my own kitchen, which is exactly what Pollan is hoping for. He knows how cooking soothes the soul.

7. Carrie by Stephen King
Talk about a nice surprise! By now, everyone knows the entire freaking plot of Carrie: homely schoolgirl gets horribly bullied, is psychic, murders everyone at the prom. The movie versions have their merits, to be sure, but King’s venerable novel crackles and zings with storytelling brio. What I didn’t realize was that it’s a “found novel,” composed partly of interviews and testimonials from the shell-shocked survivors. None of the film, TV, or stage Carries have unleashed a swath of rabid destruction as apocalyptic as in the book. The entire town feels Carrie’s wrath, and it not only satisfies a horror junkie’s thirst for carnage, it also dives deeper into Carrie’s tortured soul and into themes of motherhood and feminine mystique. It’s a cry of despair against misogyny that is still VERY relevant in the year that gave us Elliot Rodger and #Gamergate. Like all artists, Stephen King looks back on his early work and finds it juvenile and unpolished. But I thought Carrie kicked ass, it’s in no way dated, and I guess now I should be kinder to my own teenage scribblings...

6. Reamde by Neal Stephenson
It’s not easy to describe a Neal Stephenson book, as it tends to transcend genre, stir in history, philosophy, and magical realism, and be the size of a minivan. He quenches my fetish for really long-ass novels, and now he’s proven he can even make an action thriller seam highbrow. I could try and explain the plot of Reamde, detailing via flowcharts how a Chinese computer virus infects a fantasy MMORPG and somehow leads to Russian mafioso, Islamic terrorists, and hapless programming nerds chasing one another across the globe. I could, but you probably already know if you want to read this or not. Actually, even if you think you don’t, you should. Stephenson’s writing style is thrilling, high-minded, and never takes itself too seriously. His large cast of characters are either lovable or love-to-hateable, and since you never know where his story will go next, who will be chasing whom and why, you’ll be surprised how fast 1,056 pages bolt by. Let this be the book that cures your fear of book length.

5. The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
I didn’t see the innovation of this novel coming, and that’s the whole point. Edgar Cantero’s insidious debut finds a wry European chap (we never learn his name or nationality) learning he’s inherited a huge old Gothic mansion in Virginia from a suicidal relative. He moves in, along with his...friend? Lover? Bodyguard?...a mute teenage Irish girl with punk stylings. The mansion is haunted and its previous owners were part of a creepy secret society, blah de blah, soooooo predictable. But Cantero has all manner of crazy shit in store, and the novel’s a Rubik’s cube. Like Carrie, it’s a “found novel,” and its diary entries, audio logs, schematics, numerical cyphers, and dream transcripts mislead the reader while always pointing toward the truth. Obviously I’m not gonna spoil the places this book goes, but it’s admirable how even the red herrings are important, how the ambiguity about the main characters and their motivations pays off. You have to pay close attention while reading it, but the reward is how every narrative puzzle piece snaps together by the end. I’m seeing quite the authorial career for Mr. Cantero!

4. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
In May of 1996, eight people died in a storm on Mount Everest, during what was supposed to be a straightforward climb. Two were legendary alpine guides. Today, Everest is a human traffic jam; every year, hundreds of tourists jostle for the summit. And that is why Into Thin Air is the scariest thing I read in 2014. Nearly two decades later, it howls a warning. Plenty has been written about the ’96 Everest disaster. It’s been picked down to the scraps. What mistakes were made? How could such trustworthy guides go astray and get themselves and their clients killed? Jon Krakauer doesn’t know any more than we do, but unlike us, he was there. What makes Into Thin Air stand out is not only Krakauer’s terse, haunted writing style, but the personal ordeal that has raised questions about his own behavior. He wasn’t a hero -- he slept while others were out saving lives, and his confusion during the storm may have contributed to the death of a friend. But can any of us say we would’ve done better? Krakauer’s shock and guilt lend the narrative a timeless urgency and remind us that even the “survivors” were scarred by the mountain. And it’s going to happen again.

3. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
I’m always super skeptical of “traditional” fantasy novels. Tolkien laid the groundwork, and so many authors are content to tread the same path, usually with lame cosmetic changes (“My Elves are actually called ‘Dyrnyrians’ and they have antlers!”) and boring, stuffy prose. Skeptically, I went into The Name of the Wind, and imagine my delight to discover that Patrick Rothfuss hates the same fantasy clichés as I do, and mops the floor with them! His organic world unfolds in the telling; like George R.R. Martin, he uses supernatural elements as seasoning rather than the main course. The best conceit in his narrative is that the hero, a legendary warrior/minstrel/mage named Kvothe, already did all his heroic deeds, is now cozily retired and running a backwoods inn, and reluctantly spills his life story to a traveling scholar. Kvothe’s tale moves at a sedate pace, and much of it is a flashback to a magic academy that’d send most Hogwarts students home in tears after the third day. There’s plenty more to come -- this is the first in a trilogy -- and it’s looking like Kvothe’s journey, both past and future, will rival that of the best Frodo Bagginses and Arya Starks. Best of all, this feels like a real world, full of real people doing real things. It inspires me to write more and makes me hopeful for the future of the fantasy genre.

2. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
So much for cynicism. I read The Fault In Our Stars out loud to myself, and there were moments when I was crying too hard to get the words out. Because my father had leukemia when I was born (he survived), and because, when he was very sick, he used laughter as a sword and shield. And so does John Green, and so do the young heroes of his famous, beloved novel. You’ve heard about it, of course. You know about the (perfectly decent) film adaptation and the fan culture. I assure you, The Fault In Our Stars deserves its teeming minions like Twilight never will. The doomed, defiant love between the cancer-stricken Hazel Grace Lancaster and guy-of-her-dreams Augustus Waters provides all the tearful meltdowns teen girls crave, but it’s also funny, sarcastic, and brutally honest. Yes, cancer support groups are bullshit. No, your illness won’t magically go away, and life isn’t fair, and that author you admire is not going to become your new best buddy. But if you stop waiting for a fairy tale ending and start living life, as no one else can live it for you, you will find happiness. For all its tragedy, The Fault In Our Stars is a novel about joy. And it speaks to any reader of any age. Okay?

1. Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Do I offend, by placing The Fault In Our Stars behind a lurid thriller about murder and horror films? Aww, you know Hazel and Augustus would find it hilarious. Night Film dazzled me with its implications. It stars a journalist who fell from grace after his libelous attack on a Dario Argento-esque cult horror director. Now the director’s daughter/leading lady is dead under creepy circumstances, and our hero, against his instincts, is drawn back into the dark, oozing world of underground filmmaking and those who obsess over it. The ghastly myths of the films begin to infect the waking world. Night Film seethes with unease, with the sense that something is lurking out of frame. It shares traits with other books on this list -- a found footage format, ambiguous heroes, an injection of the supernatural into the mundane -- but it stood above them all in my mind. People have complained about this book. It’s all smoke and mirrors, they say. It is defeated by its own lack of answers. Hah. You want a clear-cut narrative where everything is as it seems, go read Winnie the Pooh. Go be safe. I like to be teased. I like to be made to form my own theories about what’s going on. Night Film offers such wicked games, right up until its wide-open ending. I walked away unsettled and satisfied and a bit giddy. And not many novels can do all that.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

American Horror Story: Freak Show--Episode 11

4.11: Magical Thinking

--Welcome back, Freak Show! You’re worrying me a little bit, because there were only three more episodes to wrap shit up, and you wasted most of this one on Neil Patrick Harris. Okay, maybe it wasn’t really a waste in its own right. The Twisted Tale of Chester and Marjorie is an effective one-shot subplot that would be right at home if there weren’t so little time remaining to weave a resolution from many tangled threads. The last two eps BETTER be focused.

--We picked right back up with Stanley trying to talk Jimmy into selling his left hand. I was half-expecting this to be a lame fakeout, but no! Jimmy fell for Stanley’s act, drank poison, got himself hospitalized, woke up to find both his hands gone. Poor, poor, Jimmy....maybe. When you think about it, this might lead to a vaguely happy ending for him. With lobster mitts, he’s a freak and people shun him. With no hands, he’s a cripple and people feel sorry for him. As he recovered, Jimmy got a visit from Dell, who admitted that his initial disgust for his son was the result of being the only non-lobstered man in the family. Treated like a freak for being normal. Which is all the more poignant when you remember Dell’s gay. It was a sweet scene and I thought maybe Dell would get his redemption. Fate would prove me wrong.

--I guess I have to retire the “Deah dah-ry” running gag (it wasn’t that funny anyway), because Bette and Dot have burned their diaries and left the past behind. They are happy, so happy I fear for them. Peaceful and reconciled to their place, the sisters have only one remaining need: sex. Sex. Sex. Sex. Because this show likes to be about SEX whenever it can. Which of the various available menfolk should have the honor of Bette and Dot’s maidenhead? Enter Neil Patrick Harris as Chester, seller of chameleons. I was skeptical about this. I like NPH, as most people do, but he’s built his career on being very distinctive and it’s hard to see past his unique demeanor. Luckily, he’s also a good actor, channelling a bit of Joel Gray. He begged Elsa to hire him. He does magic! And ventriloquism! Elsa’s just counting down the hours until she leaves for Hollywood, but she did perk up upon discovering Chester’s knack for numbers. He could be the new owner the freak show needs! But there’s a big, biiiiiiig catch.

--I mean, it’s American Horror Story. Absolutely no one is devoid of a fucked-up backstory and/or some form of psychosis. Chester is a war vet. He has a metal plate in his head. It buzzes. Buzz buzz buzz. And then there’s Marjorie, Chester’s plump-faced, red-dressed ventriloquist’s dummy. She has the voice, and occasionally the form, of Jamie Brewer. And she is one jealous bitch. Is it weird, thinking someone with Down Syndrome makes a good creepy psychopath? Like I said last season, Brewer has very good screen presence and isn’t afraid to do weird things on camera, and I still say that’s better than trying to overlook her condition. The ep took its time uncorking Chester’s backstory. After the war, he entered into a weird love quadrangle with Marjorie, his wife, and his wife’s lesbian lover. Poor Chester unraveled rapidly, and one day he came home to find that “Marjorie” (giant air quotes) had hammered the two women to death. Now Chester’s a fugitive, and understandably horrified when Bette and Dot put the moves on him. But he couldn’t resist their allure. Uh-oh.

--Meanwhile, Dell and Amazon Eve sprung Jimmy from a police van. Dell murdered the two police officers for...some reason. Way to go, Dell. It earned the freak show a visit from an angry Detective Turdlicker and all his minions, but they failed to find Jimmy. A lot of characters seemed oddly absent this week, apparently eclipsed by NPH, which is lame. What about Dandy, the more relevant woman-slaughtering nutbag?

--Oh, there he is! Detective Turdlicker had been spying on Dandy’s behalf, and got some nice photos of Chester canoodling with the Tattlers. Dandy was so unhappy that his face did its best California Raisin impression. He got the dirty on Chester, then stole Marjorie just long enough for Chester to really freak the fuck out. Marjorie told Chester, the newly appointed owner of Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, to make Bette and Dot the not-at-all-fake victims in his patented sawing-a-woman-in-half act. Horrors! Kinda weird that Dandy could predict Chester’s lunacy so easily, but maybe it takes one to know one?

--So we’re near the end and more characters need to die. This ep deep-sixed another headliner, and not how I’d hoped. I was wondering where the hell Desiree and Esmerelda were, given that they were the first to discover Jimmy’s fate. They returned in the last few minutes, bearing the embalmed Ma Petite, and while Esmerelda broke the news to Elsa, Desiree confronted Dell at gunpoint and forced him to confess. He did, weeping, horrified at himself. I believe that Desiree might have found it in her heart to show mercy. But Elsa didn’t. One bullet through the skull and Dell Toledo was dead, along with his chances of being a good man. Discussion question: Did he deserve to die? One school of thought says all the redemptive acts in the world could not make up for his murder of Ma Petite. You could also argue that Stanley is the real villain here. I’m hoping Stanley gets a far worse fate, but here and now, I am sad that Dell brought this end upon himself. He was one of this show’s better male characters, in his own way.

--Two more episodes and so much to take into account! Can Dandy be defeated? Will the freaks lay down justice on Stanley? How does Elsa begin her TV career? Will Chester bisect Bette and Dot? Will Jimmy learn to live handless, and will he dodge the crimes of which he stands falsely accused? Will Jimmy and Esmerelda end up together? Can we please have more Danny Huston? And whatever will become of the fragile, happy little world of the freak show? I demand answers to all these questions. Pressure’s on.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Favorite Music of 2014

I load up on new music every year, but not every year gifts me with albums that could potentially be in my top ten of all time. Music, of course, is super subjective and my own favorites change and evolve over time. Here are my favorite albums of the past year, not all of which are actually musical. If you like, revisit my Top Music of 2012 list and be reminded that I’m awful at writing about music. I’ll leave in-depth analyses to the paid critics.

*And Also Stand-Up Comedy

7. “Weird Al” Yankovic, Mandatory Fun
Weird Al is a god. The man is 55, has been producing song parodies and accordion riffs for well over thirty years, and is still beloved and relevant. Mandatory Fun is exactly like every other Weird Al album: he rewrites pop hits of the past couple years, usually with great wit (though his takes on “Royals” and “Radioactive” are kinda phoned in), then tosses in a few original songs. Lucky for him, modern culture is a goddamn funhouse full of screaming clowns, so he can mock everything from First World Problems to sports machismo to that idiot friend who brags about the time Mandy Patinkin stepped on his foot. Al’s wordplay and vocal gymnastics are strong as ever, but why is he still such a hit, in this modern age when YouTube is full of wannabe comedians and every popular song instantly inspires a bajillion parodies? Because he’s still cleverer than all those hopeful college kids. And because, while most parodists stoop to cruelly mocking the singers themselves (seriously, Bert Baker needs to piss off and get a real job), Al always has more to say than, “LOL ARIANA GRANDE SUCKS TBH.” He’s only mean in funny ways. I applaud him.
My Favorite Song: Because I am a (apologetic) grammar Nazi, I adore “Word Crimes,” Al’s parody of “Blurred Lines.” Everyone hates Robin Thicke, for good fucking reason, but Al uses the track to attack spelling, grammar, and punctuation bloopers, possibly becoming the first human to use the word “nomenclature” in a song. Bonus points for the music video.

6. Patton Oswalt, Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time
Fine, fine, I cheated. It’s still an album. Patton Oswalt may be my favorite stand-up comedian, and not just because he’s also a skilled actor, author, and trivia nerd. It’s because he’s figured out how to make jokes based on the popular manchild aesthetic of video games, movies, and white entitlement without seeming anything other than super relatable. His stand-up career demonstrates his own gradual, unwilling maturity, and this latest album is absolutely hilarious because he is now a family man and that’s opened a whole new can o’ worms. He’s gone from moping over his perceived failures in life to cheerfully accepting them (“I’m dressed how I should be dressed. This conceals the manboobs and the gut...”), while at the same time freaking out about being a dad, supporting his family, cashing in his increased fame, etc. Even then, he still has time to ramble about nerdy stuff and make the reference jokes his longtime fans crave. He’d be so fun to hang out with.
My Favorite Jokes: Nothing is weirder or funnier or more horrifying than having a small child, and Oswalt proves it. His daughter is in her late toddlerhood and he spins riotous anecdotes about her sudden outburst of racism in a coffee shop and her reaction to accidentally seeing a scary werewolf on TV. The phrase “#RacistBaby” gets the best blurt-laugh on the album.

5. Jubilee Riots, Penny Black
I now know that it’s a super surreal experience when one of your favorite bands changes their name. Up until recently, Jubilee Riots was called Enter the Haggis, and they initially sold themselves as a Celtic rock act with such songs as “Bagpipes On Mars.” That was the extended larval stage, and in recent years, they’ve burst forth as a really, really good folk/rock group who put strong songwriting first. So I guess the name change makes sense. It doesn’t diminish their quality. The songs of Penny Black were inspired by fan mail, and they speak to modern times, struggles for happiness, identity crises, you name it. They can get dark (“Astray” is about a Jewish death camp survivor who believed his family was dead), but they’re never far from hope and catharsis (his family wasn’t dead after all). When you know the songs are about real people and events, they resonate much stronger, guided by cutting guitars and a lingering current of Celtic pipe and fiddle. I accept the new band name because they’re good enough to have earned it.
My Favorite Song:Cut the Lights” is a love song that rings out like a bell. Doomed love is more this band’s style, but in this case they sing about how brand-new love makes you feel. Like the whole world just cracked open and revealed diamonds beneath.

4. Lindsey Stirling, Shatter Me
Where do I go to pay tribute to the god who handed Lindsey Stirling a violin? YouTube has made her a bit of a goddess herself, and she deserves it. This woman plays her instrument like she’s battling demons, and mixes her original compositions with dubstep elements and balletic dance moves. She’s like the ultimate evolution of all beautiful, talented female nerds. Her sophomore album, Shatter Me, is more nuanced and personal than her debut, since the overall theme of the album is her battle with anorexia and the pressures of female beauty standards. Obviously, Stirling is more beautiful than most, and each track swoops and soars and stomps out freedom. She mixes in different genres, nabs some talented guest performers, and makes it look easy. But it wasn’t easy. It was hard. And that’s the point.
My Favorite Song: The title track, “Shatter Me,” is a collaboration with rocker Lzzy Hale, and shows that adding lyrics to an already blazing instrumental can turn things up to eleven. When Hale howls the chorus and then Stirling’s violin drops...oh, my heart.

3. Kimbra, The Golden Echo
Oh, hi, Kimbra! I see you’ve been busy since you made my last Top Music post. Yes, the bouncy-skirted Kiwi with the killer vocal range brought out her sophomore album in 2014, making the world a better place. At first, I didn’t think The Golden Echo was as good as Vows, but the more I listened, the more I grew to respect what Kimbra’s doing. Vows was her foot in the door; it was perkier and more commercial, which ain’t a bad thing. But she’s not interested in treading the beaten path. The Golden Echo doesn’t sound quite like anything else. She relies heavily on synths and ambience to give the album a unique, haunting gloss. It’s introspective. Nostalgic. It seems to have arrived from a moody alternate reality. I always picture Kimbra crooning in a smokey old nightclub somewhere, and in The Golden Echo, she’s singing at the tail end of the night, as the melancholy barflies put on their hats and shuffle home. But there’s still plenty of spark and fizz, don’t worry. I’m glad Kimbra’s a mere 24, because her career can only skyrocket.
My Favorite Song: I like the album as a whole more than I like certain songs. But I definitely recommend “Miracle,” which is, ironically, the album’s most upbeat and pop-centric track. The fist-pumping chorus can still inspire sunshine on a rainy day.

2. Imogen Heap, Sparks
Just look at these amazing women honoring my list! All of them experiment with music to some degree, but Imogen Heap has gotta be the most experimental. It’s almost worrisome. Would her fourth album be an unfocused, self-masturbatory mess of “ideas”? Nope. Sparks is fucking incredible. Yeah, it’s avant-garde out the wazoo. Her fans sent her audio clips to blend in. One track was composed with gestural gloves. Another is a jogging app. Each track was released as soon as she finished it. All this ties into the idea that music can do things, while still being a treat for the ears. What an amazing collection of songs Heap dreamed up! They’re about her childhood, about her travels to distant lands, about dead gardens and broken hearts and tsunamis and social evolution and....well, listen hard enough and you could find any meaning you wanted. Heap’s palette seems to be the entire history of music; she uses instruments and sound effects the way a painter uses his oils. The result is most certainly fine art. What’ll Imogen Heap try next? I don’t care if it takes a decade; I’m devout.
My Favorite Song: This one’s hard! So many winners! It’s either the spooky and sensual “Neglected Space” or the luscious, Chinese-flavored “Xizi She Knows.” Don’t make me pick.

1. M83, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming.
Here’s a fairy tale. A couple years back, whilst filling bags of artisanal flour at work, I heard an amazing-sounding song on the radio. Sadly, I didn’t catch the title, band, or any lyrics. I despaired. Fast forward to early 2014, and the same song came on at the pizza parlor. Responding to my frantic yelps, my boyfriend ID’d it with an app on his phone. The song was “Midnight City,” the band is French synthpoppers M83, and their newest album sends me into fits of rapture. I wasn’t even prepared for how deeply I grooved, and still groove, to this mix of mellow and explosive aural orgasms. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. is a double album, 22 tracks of glory, sometimes dance-worthy, sometimes contemplative, always great. M83 says it’s styled like a soundtrack, and the music and lyrics do seem to tell a story, one you can translate as you go along. Is it too much? Is it a mere wall of sound, as some critics complain? If so, it’s the freaking Great Wall of China. I love music that has this much going on, this much synth, this many ideas and emotions. After one year and countless listens, this album still surprises me. And is my favorite of the year by far.
My Favorite Song: Like I said, “Midnight City.” That electronic banshee howl of a riff. Those low-key verses exploding as they end. That saxophone. Oh, GOD, that saxophone. I have chills. Most of what I love about music is in this song somewhere.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Gaming Letdowns of 2014

I just gave y’all my favorite games of the year, but now it’s time to...dishonor...the games that disappointed me. That pun will have extra meaning when you’re done reading this. I’ve done a bad games list once before, and it still holds true that I didn’t quite hate any of these, but I can confidently state that I actively disliked at least a couple of them. In fact, I’m going to hand out specific awards based on why they did not meet my expectations!


Syberia: The “Begone, Foul Mac User” Award
I kept eyeing Syberia and thinking it was right up my alley. Puzzles and exploration in a pseudo-steampunk world? Da! So I finally got it, and it’ not as cool as I’d hoped. Yeah, the world is neat. The environments are sumptuous. The story is good. It’s just that the gameplay is tedious, and I think it may be one of the many, many cases of the Mac port being half-assed. Not sure anything could have helped the game’s sluggish pace (most of it is spent leisurely strolling here and there, like the makers are forcing you to appreciate their pre-rendered locales), but I don’t mind a slow game. I DO mind when the visuals and sound are buggy and the protagonist awkwardly screeches to a halt at the end of each screen, waiting for you to click on her next objective. It utterly ruins the immersion. Also, I had to buy the game’s episodes separately, and in Part Two, I ran into an insurmountable glitch (a character freezes up when he’s supposed to talk to you) and will have to start over...when I can be assed. In time I may finish Syberia, but by making the Mac port so inferior, they have alienated me.

Batman: Arkham Origins: The “Yeah, So?” Award
I beat the story. I found all the Enigma packs. I did the sidequests. And I had fun. That said, why does Arkham Origins exist at all? I know I’m not the first to ask this question. This game has rightfully been accused of redundancy, of stretching the franchise without enriching it. And I have to agree. It’s less colorful and not very surprising. It ticks its way down a checklist and then calls it a day. In order to not fuck with the real storyline, they made this a prequel, and it suffers from all the big prequel mistakes: obnoxiously blatant foreshadowing, a younger and less interesting cast, a Batman who somehow has all the gadgets and powers he didn’t have in Arkham Asylum. Lazy. Also lazy are the villains. The Joker’s “big debut” doesn’t go far enough, Black Mask faceplants, Bane is too damn obtuse, and the “gang of assassins” subplot functions like a gumball machine that dispenses boss battles. In the end, I enjoyed the game because it still has everything we like about this series. But the above image sums up its bland entirety. You fight thugs, then occasionally fight a thug in a silly costume. Wheeeeeee.

FTL: The “Guess It’s Just Me” Award
There’s always that one damn game that has received near-universal praise, and that I just can’t get into. I started out the year playing FTL quite enthusiastically, as if it’d become my new gaming obsession, like The Binding of Isaac. Then, with dizzying abruptness, I lost all interest. It’s a difficult game, yeah, but don’t accuse me of being a gaming wuss. I may be bad at multitasking, but FTL’s battle-pausing mechanic is supposed to make up for that. I see how well-crafted this space exploration adventure is, but I guess my brain caught up and asked me, “Dang-Blasted, how much do you really enjoy clicking little figures around as the space pirates carve up your hull like prime rib? Yeah, it’s fun to trap and asphyxiate your foes, but how much time do you honestly have for a game that can still screw over even the most avid player with its arbitrary distribution of luck?” Fast forward a year and I’m madly playing The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth while FTL collects more dust. Point proven.

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The “Here’s Why Point-and-Click Died” Award
I love retro point-and-click adventure games. Monkey Island, The Dig, Loom, Indiana Jones...fuck, yeah. But those are all games that knew how to utilize the mechanics of the genre. I Have No etc. just wants to ruin your day. This game is based on a short story by Harlan Ellison about an insane supercomputer that wipes out humanity and then keeps five people alive just so it can torture them. Sound fun? Well, dark content in games is fine, but this one is a tedious slog. Good point-and-clickers challenge your brain while still following a strong logical thread. I Have No blah blah blah lacks any logic, as it takes place in arbitrary mental environments. Which means you spend the game wondering what the fuck you’re supposed to do. Wandering through circuitous dialogue trees. Sweeping your cursor around, looking for the right pixels. Is the player supposed to dislike the game, in keeping with its themes? I don’t buy it. You can make a feel-bad game, like Limbo or, again, The Binding of Isaac, that’s still fun to play. I Have No Point, and I Must Ragequit feels kinda like the very torture it depicts.

Dishonored: The “Fuck You Too” Award
Guys, it’s true. By the time I gave up on Dishonored, I had decided it was a shitty game for assholes. Oh, it’s well-made, and wins points for creating a very unique, interesting fantasy/steampunk world. It’s just that its world is miserable and hateful. My gameplay style is more in the vein of “kill everyone in your way,” so I struggled with the open-ended stealth shenanigans and wound up killing everyone anyway. And that’s where Dishonored fucks you in the ass, because the game has a sneaky, backhanded moral choice system wherein the more death you cause, the more the game punishes you. I wasn’t surprised when my erstwhile allies betrayed me, but then the people who were ostensibly still my friends started glaring at me and calling me an evil psychopath. Never mind the fact that not killing people in this game is FUCKING HARD. It practically forces you to spit-roast guards in the throat, encourages you to giggle as your foes are devoured alive by rats, then says, “You HORRIBLE person! Why didn’t you SPARE those guys? We’re gonna give you the BAD ENDING!” Only I never reached said ending, because the final mission is just dozens of tightly-packed enemies who, again, you are somehow supposed to leave alive. So I stopped playing. I’m not interested in games that disapprove of how I play them. I prefer nihilism when it’s presented in a satirical manner, like, yet again, The Binding of Isaac. Dishonored takes itself too fucking seriously and I don’t think it deserves all the praise.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Favorite Games of 2014

Man, Steam saved my ass this year. Up until, like, December, my running Games of the Year list felt rather anemic. Then my new laptop and upgraded OS conspired with the big Steam holiday sale to dump some winners in my lap. Phew! Shout-outs to Serena and Secrets of Rætikon, both of which were on this list right up until the aforementioned dump. The former was effectively eerie and story-driven but felt more like an idea than a game, and the latter had wonderful art design but was awfully rough around the edges. Still worth my time!

And now, the annual tradition...


Honorable Mention: Five Nights at Freddy's (PC/iOS/Android)
I have not actually played this game. Nor do I want to, because my undies don’t need a poo marinade. But I’ve watched the hell out of others playing FNaF, most notably Markiplier, and I think this unexpectedly popular little survival horror thingy has achieved modern art status. Developer Scott Cawthon took a decently unique premise -- you’re a security guard at a Chuck E. Cheese’s-type restaurant and its animatronic furry mascots wish you nothing but ill -- and turned it into a minimalist exercise in terror that plays like a deranged game of red light/green light. All you can do is monitor the lurking mascots and pray you’re quick enough to slam the door in their bug-eyed faces...and that your lights hold out for six clammy hours. FNaF’s detractors whine that it’s all jump scares, but what they’re ignoring is the constant sense of dread, oozing into every image. Always more effective than loud angry Necromorph bullshit. I’m in love with the whole FNaF culture. There’s already a sequel. I hope to watch other people be freaked out by Freddy and co. for years to come.

7. Puddle (Multi-Platform)
There’s something profoundly satisfying about a good physics puzzler. The best ones take a simple mechanic and tease it into endless, surprising variations. And that’s Puddle. Its thing is liquid physics: you tilt the screen back and forth (literally, on a tablet) and guide an amount of fluid through an obstacle course. That’s all, but the sheer creative possibilities delighted me. Water, lava, weed killer, human plasma...and I’m not even spoiling the best surprises Puddle has in store. The game’s a worthy spiritual successor to World of Goo, though its whimsy is more restrained. True, Puddle has a brutal difficulty curve and some of the later levels made me tear my hair (I’m gonna have nightmares about the fucking zero gravity sequence), but so satisfying is the gameplay that I kept coming back. And will, for the chance to save another precious fluid ounce.

6. Batman: Arkham City (Multi-Platform)
There seems to be a schism between those who prefer the more controlled adventure in Arkham Asylum and those who dig the busy open-world mayhem of Arkham City. I’m in the first camp, but I can’t deny the joys of Batman’s second outing. Tossed into a lawless, neon Gotham, Batman finds that pretty much every one of his major antagonists is crammed in there with him, the Joker’s composing his swansong, Hugo Strange is up to something sinister, and it’s gonna be one of those nights. Sidequests, mysteries, and Riddler puzzles can keep the Dark Knight occupied for hours, but if you’d rather untangle the messy, nutso storyline, go hog wild. You’re freaking Batman! I still say Asylum is better, but City features awesome villain depictions, better boss battles, and controlled blasts of gaming anarchy. Also, Catwoman, who may be a teen boy sex fantasy but still kicks ass, and whose leggy leapfrogging of buildings is more fun than Batman’s patient glides. This game is a worthy take on the mythos in general, campy and grim, kooky and angsty, all the Batman we could ever hope for.

5. To the Moon (PC/Mac)
These next two entries demonstrate the exciting possibilities of storytelling in games. To the Moon is bonkers, full of random humor and little details, and it’ll stomp all over your heart, then mend it again. This SNES-style adventure stars two snarky techs whose company offers dying people a chance to “live” their unrealized dreams within their own minds. Their latest client is an old man who wants to go to the moon, and as they delve backwards through the memories of his life, they realize how complicated their client really is. The Memento school of reverse storytelling allows for tons of resonance and startling twists, and the game gets deeper and deeper into themes of regret, heartache, and ethics. Are we defined by what we want from life, or what we actually get out of it? If you could go back and change the details that made you who you are today...well, how would you know if you were happier, sadder, wiser, anything at all? It’s a super thoughtful unpacking of the psyche and it also has room for jokes about Animorphs; what more could one ask for?

4. Gone Home (PC/Mac)
You are the prodigal daughter. Following a European getaway, you return to your family’s new home only to discover that your parents and sister seem to have vanished. You’re in a creaky old mansion in the woods. A storm rages outside. The phones are down. And is that blood in the bathtub? Gone Home is kind of brilliant in how it takes the tropes of a horror story, then steers them in amazing directions. In order to solve the game’s mysteries, you must meticulously explore the house, opening drawers, snatching clues. I cannot, dare not, spoil the story that unfolds, but it deals with, shall we say, different kinds of scary things in our lives and how we meet them head-on. Set in 1995, the game invokes that era of teenage alienation and defiant music that defined so many so much. I have a fetish for exploration in games and I found myself solicitously switching off lights and closing doors, that’s how immersed I was. It oozes mystery, melancholy, and possibilities. A short little game that leaves a long, deep impression.

3. Dust: An Elysian Tail (Multi-Platform)
If a formula works, why change it? Dust made it to my top three simply because it’s a classic style of game done to near-perfection. You are, of course, a mighty warrior with a talking sword, a shrill sidekick, and amnesia, who committed dark deeds in the past and must face demons both real and internal. You shear your way through waves of enemies, unleashing deadly button combos, gaining XP, revisiting old areas as you unlock new skills. It’s Golden Axe with furries. And it rules. The combat is streamlined, easy to learn, satisfying to master. The sidekick manages to be more cute and funny than obnoxious. The story is well-developed, as are the sidequests and timed challenges. If Dust brings no new innovations to the table...did we need them? How can anybody be a Grinch and call this game unoriginal when it feels so fresh, so fun? I spend plenty of time applauding games that try new things, but Dust tried something old, comfortable, and familiar. And knocked it out of the park. SEQUEL!!!

2. Papo & Yo (PC/Mac/PS3)
Enter a world of whimsy and wonder! Laugh and play with your cool robot buddy and a big friendly monster! It’s a boy’s dream! Except...sometimes the monster gets angry. And then he hurts you. And that’s why Papo & Yo won my heart. It’s not just that it’s got the coolest, most unique worldbuilding I’ve seen all year, plopping you into a magical Brazilian favela (think City of God by way of M.C. Escher) where you’ll interact with machinery made from chalk drawings and bend the very buildings to your whim. It’s not just that so few games star anything other than angry white dudes. It’s that Papo & Yo has something real to say. The idea might be fairly well-trodden -- a child escapes into an internal fantasy realm to cope with the unpleasant shit in their life -- but it shows how far we’ve taken the concept since Alice followed the White Rabbit. Papo & Yo was made by and/or for someone who was hurt. It is angry and sad, but it’s still incredibly enjoyable to play. It’s a catharsis. Yeah, it’s too short and the gameplay has bugs, but the effort, the purpose, makes up for technical gremlins. I plan to point others toward it.

1. InFamous 2 (PS3)
So, in the end, I had to award the gold medal to the game I had the most fun playing. And that’d be InFamous 2, which took an already awesome game and made it awesomer. I had an electrified blast with Cole McGrath in the first InFamous. The sequel is bigger, weirder, smoother, more epic, more emotional, more everything. By exchanging Fake New York City for the more colorful Fake New Orleans, by tossing in everything from mutant swamp monsters to ice-powered South African mercenaries, by raising the stakes as a hundred-foot lava man rampages down the East Coast, and by adding some nuance and weight to Cole’s moral choices, InFamous 2 rocks, rolls, and blasts through my already high expectations. Yay, now you can sneak up on bad guys! And speed-climb buildings! And fly! And...well, it’s one of those games where merely getting around is obscenely fun. Like every game here, it’s got some flaws (pointless upgrades; endless, repetitive mini-bosses), but I’d still rather be Cole McGrath than Batman. Now that I’ve completed the InFamous story arc as Good Cole, I need to try out Evil Cole and wreck shit with even more abandon. This franchise keeps on giving.

And Steam keeps on giving too! Except more indie titles in 2015, and maybe even a PS4 someday! Plus a continuation of the Myst review series. Games games games games games.