Friday, March 27, 2015

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Broken Age, Act I

What time is it? Time for Cautious Enthusiasm.

Droll. I think that’s the word I’m looking for. Broken Age, standard bearer of the adventure game rebirth, is extremely droll. Is that bad? Nnnnnoooo, but....well, I’ve always used “droll” to refer to something that’s perfectly amusing, makes you chuckle, engages you while it lasts, and never quite reaches the plateau of quality toward which it climbs. But maybe I should forgive Broken Age simply because the damn thing isn’t finished yet. Yeah, after all the griping I did on the original Cautious Enthusiasm post about how I hate it when games are released in installments, how I was totally gonna wait to buy and play Broken Age until the entire product was available...oops. I bought it assuming Act II was out. Act II won’t be out until the end of April. However, given Act I’s overall arc, I may need to eat my words a tiny bit. But we’ll get to that.

Yes, Broken Age is droll. It is funny but not hilarious. It is fun but not life-changing. Thanks to Kickstarter, Tim Schafer and his merry band reaped millions to make this game, and I won’t say the money doesn’t show on the screen, but given that they had the power to create just about anything, they almost seem scared to. Surely most of the money must have come from starry-eyed twenty- and thirtysomethings eager for an anarchic, hair-pullingly convoluted point-and-clicker on the level of the original Monkey Island. But Broken Age breaks no rules, even though its plot is entirely about rule-breaking, and seems geared, not toward those aging adventure-gamers, but to their kids. The heroes are both teenagers, the visual style is kid-friendly, the puzzles are....I have to say it.....fucking easy. Luckily, adult themes lurk beneath the surface, so maybe Broken Age is fun for the whole family, I wouldn’t know. How about on its own merits?

Well, what we have are two separate stories, seemingly unconnected (yeah, right), both promoting the idea of questioning your lot in life. Shay (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a teen boy aboard a cavernous spaceship that seems to have been constructed by a team of elementary school art teachers. The ship is run by a computer who assumes a motherly persona and fusses over Shay for every damn second of his waking life. He’s long outgrown his little world -- the game’s funniest sequence comes at the top, when the computer sends Shay on a series of insipid “adventures” clearly designed for a three-year-old. Bored and jaded, Shay finds a way to “break” one such adventure, which leads him to a shadowy lupine figure named Marek, who recruits Shay for far more dangerous, ethically dubious missions. But has Shay really escaped Mommy Computer, or is this merely the next stage of his training -- and training for what? Shay’s half of the game is definitely superior. His spaceship/playroom/prison is a wonderfully designed, cohesive environment where everything operates on the same off-kilter logic, a children’s picture book written by Franz Kafka.

Meanwhile, in what may or may not be another time and place, we meet Vella (Masasa Moyo), an adolescent girl from a community of pastry chefs. Vella’s world is askew in its own way: every year, girls like her are cheerfully sacrificed to a massive monster called Mog Chothra. The running joke is that everyone but Vella is totally okay with this, to the point where Vella’s plan to kill the creature doesn’t even register in their passive widdle brains. A society embracing something stupid and destructive against all logic, just because of peer pressure? That’s not topical at all! Anyway, Vella’s story entails the aforementioned desire to slay Mog Chothra, and is honestly not super-interesting. While Shay’s adventures have cohesion, Vella’s are rambling and episodic. She wanders through a series of thematic regions and it’s basically Loom crossed with The Hunger Games as directed by Henry Selick, but so what? I did find Vella to be the more enjoyable protagonist. Shay is kinda whiny. Vella is a sweet, charming girl who’s also got a streak of stone-cold badassery and is not afraid to ruin someone else’s day to get what she wants.

Ah, but even the trail of mayhem Vella leaves in her wake The entire game is a safe bet by the developers: we got all this money, we can’t mishandle it! They went-all out on art design, creating luminous environments that look painted into being. The humor is merely adequate, though I appreciate that it doesn't try too hard to be "hip." (Put it this way: I really liked The Lego Movie, but I am damned glad that Broken Age is nothing like The Lego Movie.) The puzzles are what you’d expect -- find items, then use them in esoteric ways later on -- but the problem is, their solutions are loudly telegraphed. Hey, this peach has a large PIT! Check out the PIT in this peach! Remember that word, PIT! It’s a tad insulting. The story doesn’t insult, though, especially when it teases us about how Shay and Vella might be connected. Switching at will between their stories helped in my case, as it gave me a “Eureka!” moment when I spotted a crucial parallel that helped me figure out what was going on. Yes, I guessed the big twist ending, but then the game overturned my expectations anyway. The final scene of Act I leaves us dazzled with its implications, and that’s why I reluctantly admit to enjoying the two-act structure: because I wouldn’t have gasped, “Holy shit! Did that really just happen?!” in quite the same way if I could have immediately continued playing. But then, Broken Age has the same problem as the Mockingjay movies: Act I feels like an extended preface to Act II, when all the stuff that matters will happen.

I like that tease, though, and I’m grateful I’ll be getting my hands on Act II soon. It promises to be longer, richer, more epic. I’ll blog about it. For now, I’m pleased with Broken Age while also feeling a tad mournful that game development as a whole has become so skittish. Gone are the days when developers had the power to toss whatever the hell they wanted on the screen. Even a “quirky” outfit like Double Fine probably has to push a game through a ton of focus groups who fretfully ensure that it’s not too challenging, not too culty. But, hey, they just revamped Grim Fandango to thunderous applause, so maybe Broken Age just needs to crack the door toward a renewed interest in classic adventure games, not fling it open all the way. And Act II might still turn Broken Age into a masterpiece of subversive storytelling, if the narrative clues of Act I lead where I think they’re leading. We’re not done with this game yet! Stick around.

VERDICT: I squee in a droll manner.

UPDATE: How does it all end? Read on!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Top 10 Björk Music Videos

Wow. Okay. So I’ve had this one Top Ten list on my backburner for, like, years, because when I first attempted to write it, I thought, “Nahhhh, it’s dumb. Björk music videos? Too niche.” I am, of course, very niche, and it’s high time I demonstrated my love for Björk. After all, she’s back in the spotlight right now because her new album, Vulnicura, is the best thing she’s done since the new millennium began. Also, there’s a crappy museum exhibit or something. I know she’s an acquired taste, never mainstream, always prone to questionable creative choices. But that exact boundless weirdness is why I adore her, and it’s best displayed with visual accompaniment, so here (with links!) are...


Big Time Sensuality
I’m dropping these in chronological order, so let’s start simple, with a fixed camera and a big ol’ endorphin explosion. If Björk wanted to gain some worldwide notice at the dawn of her solo career, she surely succeeded with the video for “Big Time Sensuality,” which finds the diminutive Icelander singing and dancing atop a flatbed truck as it wends its way through New York City. And when I say “dancing,” I mean...well, you have to witness it for yourself. It’s joyous, it’s awkward, it’s performed with a total lack of restraint. Björk’s freckled face is as expressive as her body; she’s a goofball in her own world, sparing barely a glance for the bewildered pedestrians in the background. This isn’t just a music video; it’s performance art, breaking the rules with benign glee. Björk is telling us, “I don’t care what you think; I just want to sing! Keep watching!” We did.

More black-and-white? Yeah, but for a different aesthetic. While “Big Time Sensuality” strips Björk down (figuratively, you perv), “Isobel” cloaks her in pleasurable mystery. Directed by frequent collaborator Michel Gondry, this dreamy video casts Björk as both storyteller and main character: she plays an organ that is also a scrying pool, in which images of nature and civilization are juxtaposed. Everything exists in a soft, eerie haze. Gondry’s trademark surrealism is out in force (children in skeleton masks, toy airplanes hatching from a garden of lightbulbs...and foot fetishism?), but Björk still takes center stage as the smiling empress of this twilit, monochromatic world. With long hair and a sedate demeanor, she’s less a pixie, more a mature woman. But still playful.

This may be my favorite Björk video of all time; it’s deceptively simple, yet so much unwinds before our eyes. For most of the song, the camera is panning back and forth across Björk’s motionless face as lights, colors, and images are superimposed over her. It’s an evocative use of two- and three-dimensionality, and is once again very mysterious. Is she dead? Merely asleep? Are we inside her mind? During this phase in her career, Björk was clearly interested in the connections between the natural and the technological, an interest she’s always maintained -- not only does she become a kind of living circuit board, but partway through the video she takes the form of a pixelated video game character. Both song and video contain hints of darkness (she imagines her own death to make her life feel more comforting), but it’s uplifting in the end; by turning inward, she’s unleashing her spirit to play. Thanks again, Michel Gondry! Every time I watch this, I find something new to admire.

Possibly Maybe
Now we’re definitely inside Björk’s mind, and it turns out to be a bottomless node of visual poetry. “Possibly Maybe” is a breakup song, not the sort of thing Björk tended to do back then (little did she know she’d release an entire breakup album in 2015). Rather than sad, it’s thoughtful. The video invites us to join Björk in a single blacklit room of glowing neon and distant lightning. Throughout the video, the room changes its color and mood. So does Björk; she cycles through different “characters” as she sings her way through heartache. Along the way, she takes a bath, eats watermelon, rocks an afro, and appears to lick lemon Kool-Aid off the floor. This sounds silly, but, as always, Björk makes her quirky behavior interlock with the lyrics and images, allowing us to admire how intensely she’s herself. As a video, “Possibly Maybe” is like a comforting box of chocolates.

All is Full of Love
Yep. The lesbian robots. It’s the one with the lesbian robots. Which is like saying Brokeback Mountain is the one with the cowboy buttsex. Flesh meets technology? Beloved ground for Björk! Step back and appreciate how elegant this video is. I just learned that the “remix” used here is actually the original version of the song. Its scraping percussion and eerie string-plucking are far superior. Robo-Björk inhabits a cold world of porcelain-white and Batmobile-black, but the eroticism begins early, as she’s assembled and serviced by phallic machines while milky fluid drips and flows in reverse time. And then, of course, the passionate and tender tryst between two ’bots, love in a seemingly loveless future. You could see it as a really weird prequel to Wall-E, but how about you just take it as the haunting work of visual art that it is? Love is everywhere. Who can argue with such a moral?

Pagan Poetry
Björk’s fourth album, Vespertine, was rather cerebral, which resulted in some hard-to-like music videos. I can’t exactly say I like the vid for “Pagan Poetry,” but neither I nor the music world can deny its impact. It is, by far, her most controversial: flashes of needles and thread piercing flesh and distorted closeups of explicit sexual acts segue into Björk performing with bare breasts and a “wedding dress” that has been literally sewn onto her body. She looks like she’s tripping balls and she probably is -- on pain endorphins. An alleged act of joy, a woman preparing to consummate her love, is twisted into a weird masochistic indulgence -- and it somehow works. It wouldn’t if Björk weren’t so committed to selling her own take on reality, if she weren’t so fearless. As it is, she embodies the joy and terror of womanhood, shocking us for a good reason.

Who Is It
Flash forward again and Björk’s next album, Medúlla, is a mostly a capella experiment in which human voices serve as every single tool in Björk’s aural arsenal. Well, mostly. The video version of “Who Is It” is all about the bells. Björk frolics across a stark volcanic plain, endless sky overhead, sporting a dress covered in thousands of silver bells. She is joined at various points by a somewhat eerie bell choir of black-clad children, and also by a pair of cute wolves. She and her minions seem to have sprung from the stark Icelandic landscape: playful sprites, icy cold, teasing us mortals with their music. I suppose Björk is part of her nation’s folklore by now. The imagery surrounding her is as evocative as ever and I want to visit Iceland someday, on the offchance I’ll glimpse her jingling amongst the boulders.

Earth Intruders
“Earth Intruders” is...well, I can’t call it mainstream, but it’s definitely one of Björk’s more accessible tracks, with its Timbaland beats and environmentalist slant. Thus, the video is easy on the eyes, but still very cool. Following Björk’s love for mixed media, venerable animator Michel Ocelot slaps the silhouettes of costumed tribal dancers onto a surreal marbleized background, while Björk’s singing face looms over all. Too goddess-y? Duh, it’s Björk; didn’t I just say she makes a good mythological figure? The dancing warriors are both naturistic and warlike; they even wield bazookas at one point, as Björk howls, “Turmoil! Carnage!” Is she saying humanity is destructive by nature? Probably, but she retains her sympathy for us and all our foibles. The ending of the video, which I won’t spoil, is a lovely moment of wordless benediction. Björk said, let there be Music, and it was Good.

This one almost seems like a cheat, because Björk isn’t really in it. Well, she is, but...back up. She held a music video contest for “Innocence,” allowing tech-savvy fans to put images to the song. The winners, a duo from France (man, Björk can’t go wrong with French directors), dove cheerfully into the Uncanny Valley and cooked up a singing CGI mannequin of Björk, which is really creepy, but fits just fine with the video. Archetypes of childhood run amok: Björk wears a toylike armored carapace (the same one from the cover of her album, Volta) and is surrounded by horrified-looking dolls and teddy bears, as well as lizards with Cheshire cat grins who perform martial arts. Or something. I wouldn’t call it profound but it’s super fun to watch. You’d think it’s just a meaningless parade of darkly whimsical images, but the filmmakers pull off a slick “twist ending” that I wholeheartedly approve of. It’s Björk in a nutshell...or a candy-colored cartoon shell. Whatever.

I’m happy. I get to end with a video that I swear is a minor freaking masterpiece. “Wanderlust” is everything great about Björk in one package. It’s weird, it’s epic, it’s dark, it’s mythic, it’s whimsical. It’s seven-and-a-half minutes of eye-popping beauty. Björk and her latest director, Encyclopedia Pictura, utilize every trick they can: claymation, puppetry, CGI, matte painting, even circus arts. In this dreamy folktale, Björk appears as a yak herder riding her beasts down a raging river, battling balletically with a mournful demon on her back, and attracting the attention of a river god...who may be fearsome but is not without compassion in the end. This video is as visually thrilling as any blockbuster, and while I still like “Hyperballad” better, I’d show “Wanderlust” to people as a more easy-to-appreciate example of how creative, how wonderfully outside-the-box, Björk has always been. She’s made two more albums since Volta and created more good music videos (“Mutual Core” almost made this list), but she has yet to top “Wanderlust.” And maybe she shouldn’t.

But, then, at 49 years old she’s as amazing as ever, and there’s no reason to think she’s gonna run out of steam any time soon. When you enter the world of Björk, you have to keep your mind open and your senses on synesthesia mode, but the rewards are many. Click those links. Feast upon, drink in, and inhale the videos. Give thanks that we have Björk.