Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Myst Series, pt. 11

Tri: Of Friendship and Madness -- The Fox Went Out on a Trippy Night

Advance spoiler alert: this blog post does not have a happy ending. So don’t read it if, say, you hated seeing Selma get hanged to death at the end of Dancer in the Dark. OH, SHIT, SORRY. Ignore that last bit! Spoilers! Spoilers!

For some reason, the Myst games are often compared to Portal, often along the lines of, “If you loved X, try Y!” If you loved solving cryptic, vaguely steampunk-themed puzzles inside a magical book, try bouncing around with wormhole technology while an insane A.I. makes catty comments about your weight! If Portal is a puzzle/exploration game set entirely in the realm of sci-fi, and the Myst games exist in a nifty little no man’s land between sci-fi and fantasy, then there must be something on the far end of the seesaw, a Myst-like, Portal-like game that is one hundred percent fantasy. Well, stop digging, because I found one!

Tri: Of Friendship and Madness has a stupid title but is not at all a stupid game. I could recommend it, but there’s this glaring asterisk that I’ll get to later. It’s a game that instantly piqued my interest on Steam. Yes, a lot of the reviews compared it to Portal. With reason: you’re a silent protagonist, apparently female (judging by the timbre of your grunts of exertion), exploring a series of disorienting levels, armed with a device that generates a particular mechanic which you can exploit in various ways. But it’s all magic and mysticism. You arrive at a cliffside temple and encounter a friendly masked priest who gives you the lowdown: there are two playful fox gods, red and blue, who were once carefree best friends. Some undefined malady caused Red to go insane, and Blue ran away in fright. Now the priest hopes you can track down Red and calm his madness so Blue can return and rekindle the foxes’ friendship. Get it?

You chase the red fox into a dream-realm where physics is not welcome, and you quickly equip yourself with the Tri, an artifact that enables you to create solid triangles on most available surfaces. This seems simplistic -- it’s like you’re MS Painting shit into the game -- but it fucks with your head in all manner of ways. The triangles serve as makeshift platforms to reach new areas, but then you get a gravity-defying power, allowing you to scuttle like a spider across walls and ceilings, laying down pathways of triangles like an infestation of viral cheddar cheese. The game comes to life at this point, as you must let go of the notion that you’re limited by what’s up and what’s down. It’s important to grasp Tri’s M.C. Escher logic, because each level contains three fox statues that must be recovered to open the way forward. And the levels get progressively more massive. Each is expertly designed, coiling in and around itself, utilizing architectural space in surprising ways. The game’s aesthetic is reminiscent of origami, with bold colors, complex angles, folds and creases and countless hidden nooks. It’s psychedelic and awesome.

Tri is all about patient exploration. The later levels may take hours. The fox statues are tricky enough, but there are also dozens of small totems, the collecting of which unlocks bonus content. Some of these totems are so challenging to find and/or snatch that even a major completionist like me can’t be arsed. There are pools of acid, bottomless drops, areas where your triangles don’t stick, you name it. Many of the puzzles are familiar: dropping crates onto switches and redirecting beams of light gave me flashbacks to The Talos Principle. However, even the unoriginal stuff is made less so by the addition of those crazy triangles. Can’t reach something? Walk straight up the wall! Acid pools got you down? Build a triangle bridge! You’ve got time! Despite the constant presence of the red fox god, who flits tauntingly about, the pace of Tri is leisurely indeed, with scant story elements. And (possible spoiler alert) the whereabouts of the blue fox god are easy to guess, given the paucity of options. There’s no sense of urgency, no feeling that some sort of fantasy-GLaDOS is going to murder you...a nice evocation of the similarly chill Myst series.

So. All the things I’ve said about Tri have been positive. But I didn’t finish the game. Because Tri has one horrible flaw: its gameplay mechanics kinda suck. I can deal with that TO A POINT. Yes, first-person platforming will always be wonky. You’ll jump, land on a narrow platform, and skid off it to fall fifty feet. Walking on walls is fun, until your invisible foot touches down on the wrong few inches, gravity violently corrects itself, and you fall another fifty feet. Now try doing the same thing while carrying a wobbly crate that seems barely glued to your pinky finger. Prepare to do a lot of falling, climbing, falling, climbing, falling, and climbing. Again, I can live with that if the game is interesting, as Tri is. But from a certain point onward, you are required to use your triangles to redirect light beams. This mechanic is so badly implemented, so frustrating, so tedious, that it ruined me. I spent what felt like hours fiddling with triangles, nudging each vertex here and there, trying to get the beam to point at a tiny target. I created zig-zaggy spiderwebs of light without making any progress. In desperation, I watched a Let’s Play, but the player was just as stuck on those fucking light beams as I was. That was when I forced myself to utter the sentence that kills a game:

This isn’t fun any more.

And I feel terrible. Because Tri really, really tries hard (no pun intended), and it won my heart with its early levels, and I was gonna put it on my games-of-the-year list. I wanted to finish it and I still do. But I am not willing to struggle with its lousy light-bending nightmare any longer. Who the hell test-played Tri and gave that a thumbs-up? It brings everything to a screeching halt. The game smashes into a brick wall and totals itself. Puzzles can take time, but it should be because they challenge the intellect, not because the goal is obvious but the means to get there is next to impossible. All the fun drained from Tri, and I gave up with a couple levels left to go. The end.

Thus, I can’t recommend this game, unless you are divinely patient. It has plenty going for it. I love its unique fantasy world, which combines different mythologies (mostly Japanese, but I noticed Hindu, Tibetan, and Inuit elements as well). I love how the triangle-building completely overturns and deconstructs traditional level design. I love the quirky music. I love how the protagonist just happens to be a woman. I love foxes. I mean, I really love foxes. But I do not love how Tri sucked me in and then stabbed me in the back with infuriating, poorly realized mechanics. A game that starts out great and turns rotten can be worse than a game that’s crap from start to finish. When I abandoned the horribly-designed Albedo: Eyes from Outer Space after playing for three minutes, I felt sweet relief. But when I gave up on Tri after nearly making it all the way, I felt disappointment and melancholy.

There’s my unhappy ending. The next entry in the Myst review series is probably gonna be The Witness, and, GOD, do I hope I have a better experience with it. I failed to help the cute fox gods become friends again, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life.

Well, maybe that’s overdramatic. But it FUCKING SUCKS, okay?

Myst Review Series
MystRivenMyst III: ExileMyst IV: RevelationSubmachineKairoThe Talos PrincipleThe DigDaymare TownFezTri: Of Friendship and Madness • The Witness

Thursday, January 14, 2016

American Horror Story: Hotel--Episode 12

5.12: Be Our Guest

--Part of me was hoping the finale of Hotel would go thusly: we see Liz Taylor and Iris behind the front desk, beaming. All loose ends have been tied, all ghosts have been defeated and/or placated, all is well. The Hotel Cortez is ready for its rebirth! The main doors swing open. Liz and Iris beam wider. And in barge eight thousand police officers brandishing nine thousand search warrants. Close-up on Liz as he utters a pitch-perfect “Well, ffffffuuuuuuuu--” And cut to black.

--But, no, in the end, it seems the Cortez emits a magical reality-altering field which ensures anyone murdered within its confines will vanish from the consciousness of the outside world, never to be sought after or mourned. I guess we must accept this as some sort of skewed internal logic. Anyway, a bigger part of me was hoping for a happier ending. Which we got! AHS has a tendency to focus its season finales on strong emotional payoffs, often at the expense of dangling subplots, but it mostly works. This worked, all right, despite some odd creative choices, like replacing Sarah Paulson with a different Sarah Paulson. Mind you, things didn’t look good at the outset: we opened with a mournful VO from Liz and a closeup of him getting his throat slit by a sequined finger that could only belong to The Countess. I was not eager for another downbeat finale, after Freak Show slaughtered its freak show. But much was in store.

--Initially, Liz and Iris’s plan to revolutionize the Cortez hit some snags, because all the Egyptian cotton and Star Trek toilets in the world can’t help when a wrathful Sally and a pouty Will Drake are still murdering away. Liz and Iris called a ghost meeting, summoning such guest-stars as Marcy, the Swedes, that bearded dude Tristan killed...and Miss Evers, who is apparently sticking around after all. Dammit, Miss Evers, did you not read the awesome send-off I gave you last week! Now I look like a doof! Anyway, March dropped by to explain his new agenda: he’s murdered enough to satisfy and now wants the Cortez immortalized. That means keeping its doors open until 2026, its centennial, when it can became an historic landmark. Sally and Drake were all like, “Fuck you, pedostache!” Time for an exorcism, maybe?

--Actually, Iris and Liz decided to help their haunts instead, which was kind of cool. Iris hooked Sally up with a smartphone and showed her the wonders of the internet, a heavenly realm where a trapped ghost can float free, exploring at will -- and, more importantly, accruing bushels of likes, faves, upvotes, and e-friends who don’t care who you really are, only who you present yourself as. Blissed out by her newfound freedom, Sally ditched her drugs. Did this satisfy? I’m glad Sally got a happy ending, but it seemed too easy for a character so angry and tortured -- plus, the Addiction Demon remains maddeningly undefined. Another one of this show’s cool monsters who never got the proper amount of curation. Sally’s early deliverance also left her with nothing to do for the rest of the episode. I’ve come to suspect that, after pulling a double shift as conjoined twins last season, Paulson asked for a lighter workload in Hotel. Then they shouldn’t have given her a character I enjoyed so much!

--Meanwhile, Liz consoled Drake, who was bitter at the disintegration of his fashion empire. Liz broke through Drake’s malaise and got his creative juices flowing again, making him into a mysterious, quasi-mythical recluse that the public ate right up, while Liz rose to dominate Drake’s boardroom. Drake happily presided over ultra-exclusive fashion shows at the Cortez, with Ramona and the ghosts serving as models. (Guess Ramona didn’t want to rule the Cortez. Can’t say I blame her.) Liz remained melancholy, and I was quite pleased when they addressed a big loose end: what happened to Tristan? Liz had been wondering this himself. Bad enough to see your lover killed, but when you expect him to reappear as a ghost and he doesn’t? Agony. To suss out Tristan’s whereabouts, Iris brought in none other than suave psychic Billie Dean Howard, Sarah Paulson’s very first AHS character. Billie Dean reached into the Beyond and produced A) a touching message from Donovan, and B) stubborn silence from Tristan. Oh, he was there, but he wasn’t talking. Liz felt broken.

--Can we all agree that Liz Taylor had the best character arc? Such a great role, such a great performance from Denis O’Hare. The real heart of the hotel. Liz kept in touch with his son and witnessed the arrival of his granddaughter, and then came the prostate cancer. Liz wasn’t interested in Drake’s doctors or Ramona’s offer of vampirism. He summoned all the ghosts for a going-away party, providing them various weapons to take his life in the most overdramatic and grisly fashion, a team effort. The show made this seem unbelievably touching, and that kind of zany emotional back-and-forth is why I adore AHS so much. However, one ghost had dibs on Liz’s mortal coil: The Countess. Yes, it was she who killed Liz, but the act was not cruel or horrific, but tender. I approve of this; liberating Liz was the one act of pure good The Countess did in her lifetime. No sooner had Liz risen as a ghost than Tristan appeared. Yes, he still loved Liz, and simply hadn’t wanted to distract him while he still had mortal work to do. Awwwwwwww! While I do think the Liz/Tristan romance was badly introduced (i.e., not foreshadowed or allowed to develop in any natural way), it’s still so cute and cuddly. What a well-deserved happy ending.

--But the introduction of Billie Dean Howard into the Cortez’s soup of paranormality had consequences. Flash forward to Devil’s Night, 2020: the Cortez is swarming with annoying wannabe ghost-hunters, thanks to Billie Dean’s Lifetime specials. (“Mr. Wu doesn’t pay for what?”) How can it ever be a respectable establishment? Enter John Lowe. The prodigal returns to his true home...a home that is now closed to him, save for one night. It took me a bit to realize Lowe was dead. How? Why? Lowe lured Billie Dean in for a private interview and gave her the...heh...lowdown (this was the season of bad puns, I guess). After the Ten Commandment killings, he went on the run with the family in tow, murdering criminals to feed Alex and Holden. Eventually, he returned them to the Cortez, all save for Scarlett, who didn’t belong and never would. Off she went to the same private school as Lachlan Drake. Can we see a spinoff starring those two? It’d be pretty interesting. The police caught up with Lowe, and his final seconds were spent on the pavement right outside the Cortez, riddled with bullets, trying and failing to cross the threshold. He didn’t get his family after all, and I dunno if he deserves them, frankly.

--Lowe then took Billie Dean to March’s little serial killer party. Billie Dean’s reaction to Gacy, Dahmer, Wournos, and the rest was more orgasmic than terrified; she was probably already composing her next big TV event. However, she soon found herself cuffed to a chair while the ghosts menaced her with power tools. Oh, they didn’t kill her, they just put the true fear of God in her. Ramona appeared as well, promising to hunt Billie Dean down if she continued to sensationalize the Cortez. Billie Dean got the point. She fled, and Lowe went to his family. Alex and Holden slept, watched over by Scarlett, now a young woman. Lowe climbed into bed with his vampire wife and son and slept the sleep of a sad man. An eternity of distance from his equally eternal loved ones, the rules of the afterlife prohibiting any sort of real contact. If Liz Taylor got the perfect happy ending, I’d say John Lowe got the perfect unhappy ending.

--And I guess that’s it. The Cortez thrives. The ghosts are all happy. The rooms and hallways of that cursed edifice keep their secrets. And, of course, the season ended with The Countess, elegant at the hotel bar, her sights set on a handsome young man with dark hair, a silent film star profile, and......cheekbones for days. Will The Countess rise again? Will the evil that infects the Cortez overwhelm any good intentions, or has it been tamed? That, children, is a story for another day.

--AHS: Hotel was pretty bodacious. And despite its excess, it grounded itself better than Freak Show or Asylum and waaaayyyyy better than Coven. It couldn’t touch all its bases -- Angela Bassett was badly underused from start to finish, and one or two elements, most notably little Bartholomew and the Addiction Demon, never truly came to fruition. But none of it felt pointless. Nothing made me bored or impatient. It was a streamlined season that, once again, felt distinct from each AHS tale that has come before. And the emotional arcs of its characters satisfied me, gaining more resonance as the season went on. As for Lady Gaga, well...I can’t believe she got a Golden Globe nod for Hotel, and fucking won. Her performance was good -- she nailed The Countess’s sexual allure and pulled off the trickier emotional moments too -- but the way everything revolved around her, on- and offscreen, still seems like a big fat gimmick. I don’t think AHS needs to rely on such attention grabs going forward. Because they still have mojo. Blood still pumps through the show’s veins. I’m still in love with it, am I not? Let’s ring out this bizarre, glorious season. A-one and a-two and...

Be our guest! Be our guest!
Let us butterfly your chest!
Throats are slit, you’re in the shit,
Miss Evers waits to swab your mess!
Hipster ghosts, horny Swedes!
We’ll exceed your every need!
Our facade is rather arty --
Just steer clear of little Barty!
Here a vamp, there a slut!
Sarah Paulson’s extra-nuts!
How could anyone expect a full night’s rest?
Just let your clothes go flying,
Blow your load, start crying!
Be our guest! Don’t be stressed!
Calm your tits -- it’s AHS!
Be our guest! Be our guest!
Be our guesssssssssssssssssssssst!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Picture me in 1999. The Phantom Menace is coming out and I’m so pumped. Everyone is. The world holds its breath. I refuse to believe the long, bitter Newsweek review which savagely disses the film, pointing out a litany of flaws we now know by heart, from Jar Jar to “Yippeeee!” It’s a new Star Wars movie made by George Lucas. It can’t suck. It can’t. My youthful, desperate enthusiasm lasts through multiple viewings of The Phantom Menace, and over the next six years, I dutifully plunk my butt down in theater seats to suffer through Episodes II and III. Maybe this one will be good. Maybe this one. Our cultural adoration of Star Wars fueled us through the prequels, but by the end, we were wrung out and left to dry. At least we’d have the original trilogy, if Lucas could stop fucking tinkering with it. But the thought of any more Star Wars movies left a queasy taste in our mouths.

Then Disney bought the world.

So here we are. A Star Wars film for the age of cynicism. The age of nitpicky social media. The age of ginormous cinematic universes, which probably wouldn’t exist without Lucas’s original trilogy. Star Wars is back, to be placed under a suspicious lens. Disney, who we still vaguely associate with princesses and cartoons? J.J. Abrams, who either saved or spat upon the Star Trek brand, depending on who you ask? Can the gee-whiz freshness of A New Hope be replicated in 2015? Well, no, not really. Those who expect such will not embrace The Force Awakens. As the credits rolled, a stranger sitting near me and my boyfriend loudly honked, “Pretty mediocre, huh?” while staring at us in the hope of instant validation. But here’s the thing. When I heard new Star Wars movies were on the way, I was kind of amused, cautiously enthusiastic, only mildly excited. But as the release date drew near (and then passed, because no way am I battling opening night hordes), my eagerness grew to encompass much of my waking thought. I was that excited kid all over again. There is nothing, nothing, like seeing those legendary words appear on the screen -- “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away...” -- followed by the brassy explosion of John William’s score and the trapezoids of school-bus-yellow text ascending against a curtain of stars. Star Wars is just that big in our minds, and may it always be so.

The plot? Do I really need to get into it? You’ve already seen The Force Awakens, or you’re never going to, or you still live in dread of spoilers. Besides, we’ve all heard the one huge criticism: it’s just A New Hope all over again. No point in disagreeing. The parallels between the first Star Wars film and this one are continuous, blatant, and impossible to ignore. But they don’t particularly diminish the sheer entertainment, and I can see what Abrams and his team were up to. They needed to prove they could make a Star Wars film, period, so they made one we’d all recognize. The Force Awakens is just so eager, bursting with endorphins at its own existence. It moves at breakneck pace, sprinting from one action scene and character introduction to the next. Too fast, in my opinion. I missed the quiet, focused moments from the originals. On the other hand, remember the infamous politicking of the prequels, the dreary dialogue spew, the endless reiteration of the same fucking plot points? The Force Awakens likes to show rather than tell. There’s still an Empire, still a Rebellion (they just have different names), and decades after the “victory” in Return of the Jedi, nothing has improved. Hell, it’s gotten worse: the galaxy exists in fractured factions and most people barely remember. The wishy-washy “Republic” exists offscreen somewhere, and (SPOILER ALERT) is wiped out with barely a sniffle. In other words, the sedate, passive world of the prequels, with its endless marble columns and sleepwalking bureaucrats, is over forever. Raise a glass.

The heroes and villains of The Force Awakens are defined, not by their backstories (which are mostly mysterious, to be unpacked in later films), but by their immediate actions. And it works, because the actors catapult themselves into their roles with the exuberance of...well, of someone who was cast in a Star Wars film. Luke, Han, and Leia (not to mention Chewie, Artoo, Threepio, and even Admiral Ackbar) are as beloved as ever, but they don’t hog the spotlight. They’ve become the mentors, the wise ones, the torch-passers. The galaxy’s new generation is personified by fierce desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and AWOL Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who also represent the cultural paradigm shift that has so many idiots terrified. Yeah, the main protagonist of a Star Wars film is a woman, the secondary hero is black, and these two facts are utterly beside the point. Ridley and Boyega weren’t cast because of their race/gender, as part of some sinister politically-correct conspiracy, but in blindness to it. Already, we can’t imagine anyone else in these roles, can we?

The film is refreshing in how it shakes off the rust of ancient film stereotypes. Rey and Finn reach the point where they’d die for each other, but there is no hint of romance between them. Rey is never made to play second fiddle to a dude (there’s an early running gag where Finn thinks Rey needs rescuing, and is wrong over and over). The film opens with the introduction of a “traditional” hero, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), but then gives him the boot so Finn and Rey can take over. When Finn lied to Rey about his identity, I rolled my eyes, figuring there’d be a later bit where Finn was exposed, Rey tearfully banished him from her sight, and they reconciled for the climax. Not so! Finn tells her the truth, and she understands and forgives him. In the midst of sci-fi craziness, they face a problem like real adults and not the pawns of a lazy screenwriter. Meanwhile, Adam Driver gives a very interesting performance as corrupted dark knight Kylo Ren. Surrounded by more archetypal villains (the implacable officer, the frothing-at-the-mouth general, the cryptic overlord), Kylo Ren is a cauldron of confused emotions, hero-worshipping Darth Vader but unable to tap into that same level of cold, easy cruelty. He’s an uncertain villain (I can’t say more without major spoilers) and that’s what makes him riveting.

The action of The Force Awakens is never subpar, as our heroes and baddies chase each other through the usual series of weirdly homogeneous planets (this time around, the sequence is desert/forest/snow). It can’t entirely avoid the J.J. Abrams effect. Abrams likes to include action that ignores all logic and spatial physics. Remember the ridiculous train crash in Super 8? Similar over-the-top set pieces occur here, most notably a dorky bit with angry tentacle monsters. Abrams also has a knack for the glaring plot hole. Explain to me how Finn, a Stormtrooper from infancy, trained and conditioned all his life to have no emotion and robotically follow orders, can go AWOL at the drop of a hat. Explain how the Republic has learned jack-shit from past experience and utilizes an ill-equipped guerilla force instead of, y’know, a MILITARY. Or how entire planets are reduced to the single square mile where all the characters find themselves. But, y’know, the original trilogy was no more logical or coherent. Like I always say, Star Wars isn’t really science fiction -- it’s fantasy that happens to be set in space. And if Leia can get over the destruction of her home planet so quickly, I guess the cool-looking, throwaway “tragedies” in a J.J. Abrams movie are no more sinful. The personal tragedies still hit home. I had the Big Shocker spoiled in advance thanks to internet trolls, but it still got to me. As Big Shockers go, it wasn’t too surprising when taken in the on- and off-camera context. But its Big Shocker shockwaves will reverberate through Episodes VIII and IX.

Ahh, yes, the next two. How I ache for them already. The Force Awakens is not life-changing. It doesn’t redefine Star Wars. But did we really want it to? I’d wondered if they would try adapting something from the Expanded Universe of books, comics, and games, which covers many decades following Return of the Jedi. Did I want to see Star Wars movies based on stories that already existed? By tossing out the EU, Disney may have pissed off the religious fans, but anything would have pissed off the religious fans. They complain that The Force Awakens cribs most of its plot from A New Hope, but if it had gone in a drastically different direction, they would have whinged equally hard. They have their pedestal and they’re going to stand on it. Taken in the context of modern blockbusters, The Force Awakens is terrific entertainment, well-acted and exciting, funny and poignant and never too arch. The biggest franchise in American history is in capable hands, which is more than we could have hoped for, admit it.

We would have accepted “better than the prequels” and left it at that. But the new era of Star Wars films isn’t content to settle for less. They want to show us how many more stars remain in that galaxy far far away, and how our enthusiasm will always be unsullied. The prequels couldn’t kill Star Wars; it rises from the ashes. Mediocre, my ass. Let’s take this journey.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

American Horror Story: Hotel--Episode 11

5.11: Battle Royale

--I see it all now. The first five seasons of AHS were merely an extended pretense to stick a ghost, a witch, and a vampire in a room together and have them fight. Well played.

--I was oddly stunned when I made the very recent discovery that Hotel only has twelve episodes. Why, I’m not sure. Some might call it a warning sign, but maybe they just didn’t have enough story to fill thirteen hours, and didn’t want to stretch. I’m okay with that; hell, if Freak Show had done twelve eps, we wouldn’t have gotten the stupid Alligator Girl subplot. So, because the season finale is next week, “Battle Royale” had to huff and puff all over the place, knocking off characters and tying up loose ends. Was it satisfying? Yes. Was it all a bit muddled? Also yes. But we finally (fucking FINALLY) got some more Sally backstory, and that’s all I was really hoping for.

--Time to thin the ranks! We began with a rehash of Iris and Liz’s gunslinging, which came to a premature halt when Iris realized she was pumping lead into her own sweet baboo. A tool to the end, Donovan shielded The Countess with his body. His dying wish: to be hauled out of the Cortez and spared from eternal ghost-life. Thus, Donovan’s arc ended on a cliché, the deathbed reconciliation with an estranged parent. But the actors sold it. And we got the Kathy Bates Emmy Award moment when Iris communed with her son’s ashes. And then, of course, she smeared Donovan all over herself like a spice rub and ascended to the roof so the breeze could distribute him across the West Coast. Beautiful. Weird. Inappropriate. American Horror Story.

--All this allowed the wounded Countess to slither off into the hotel’s depths, where Sally tended to her. Not out of goodness, of course. This week, the characters all placed bids on who would kill The Countess, and Sally just wanted to ensure a sweet bargaining chip. With a captive audience, Sally revealed her tale of woe: back in 1993, she was in tight with a pair of grunge rockers. During a sexy, drug-soaked night at the Cortez, Sally hit on the great idea of sewing her body to those of her lovers, so they could be together forever. This is your brain on drugs! The rockers both died from overdose (Miss Evers’ burbly cackles were the ickiest part of the scene), and Sally spent five days tethered to their corpses. Her misery and suffering provided enough negative juujuu to summon the Addiction Demon, I guess. Now we know why she sews people into mattresses: like the other ghosts, she’s stuck in a holding pattern. The Demon remains obtuse. I have a new theory that it’s really March in disguise, and Sally’s been his victim this whole time. We’ll see.

--The Lowes went home, all together again! Awwww! Scarlett seemed mostly exasperated by the knowledge that her entire family were vampires and/or serial killers. I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if she’s removing and wearing Grandma’s skin by the end. This is your brain on monstrous parental neglect and copious emotional trauma! Lowe kidnapped a dude to feed to his wife and son, only to find that all the other Lowes had been abducted (by The Countess, I guess?). Back to the Cortez he went, where Sally ordered him to commit the final Ten Commandments killing -- her own goal being to kill John and have him forever. Did he just leave the dude in the trunk of his car or what?

--For Countess-hunting, Iris and Liz brought in the big guns and sprung Ramona from her prison. In the process, we learned that Ramona killed and ate all the nouveaux vampire kids. I guess that’s one way to end a subplot, though I would have preferred something more ballsy. Stricken with measles, Ramona needed a pick-me-up, and who should come strolling into the Cortez but QUEENIE FROM COVEN! Outstanding! I can’t help it -- I love these surprise seasonal crossovers. Sadly, our beloved sassy witch was a bit oblivious to the danger. But we got to see Queenie fight Ramona (probably thinking, “This bitch looks weirdly like an immortal voodoo queen I used to know”) and it looked like she’d win, until March dropped in to add a new rule to the great book of nerdy debate topics: a witch’s powers don’t work on a ghost. March stabbed Queenie and Ramona ate her, which SUCKED (no pun intended). I wish the show wouldn’t bring back old characters just to snuff them, but seeing Queenie was still great.

--All fired up, Ramona strutted into the penthouse suite and found The Countess newly refreshed, thanks to the sacrifice of her last two blonde vampire boys. We were spared another catfight, because Ramona, to her own disgust, found that her hatred for The Countess masked the same old helpless desire. Alas...with her sexual allure, The Countess could have had all the happiness she wanted, but she blew her chances and wasted the best lovers. She asked if she could take little piranha-faced Bartholomew and leave to make a fresh start. Ramona couldn’t quite say no. So they had sex, because why not, and then The Countess packed her bags and skedaddled. She almost, almost got away. But Lowe was waiting in the elevator, and unlike certain front desk clerks, he knows where to aim. Goodbye, Countess. Her startled-looking head became the final trophy of the Ten Commandments Killer, reminding us all that Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder and Thou Certainly Shalt Not Commit Enough Goddamn Murders to Fill A Fleet of Dump Trucks. March denied Sally the right to claim John’s life. I doubt she’ll give up that easily.

--So March got his happy ending? Well, maybe. Someone got a happy ending, but not who you’d expect. March was all aflutter when The Countess’s ghost turned up, massive wads of black silk erupting from her décolletage (one more costume commentary! Ha!). Eternity with his bride! But The Countess herself was wooden, stripped of any remaining happiness or peace. She’s lost all her lovers, leaving only chipped beef on toast with a man she loathes. Then Miss Evers spilled the beans: it was she and not The Countess who betrayed March to the cops way back when. She had hoped that death and afterlife together would show March her lovestruck devotion. March coldly gave her the boot instead. But this moment of heartbreak for Miss Evers became her triumph. Freed from any delusion that March cared for her, she shed her apron and left the room with dignity, her business finished. Off to a proper afterlife where her son is waiting, where endless stained bedsheets cry out for the sponge of a true professional. Miss Evers gets to go, while The Countess is pinned under March’s oily leer. Which she probably deserves.

--I guess Ramona owns the hotel now, but something tells me Iris and Liz will really be in charge. Time to turn the old dump around, clean the corpses from the mattresses, tear out March’s mousetrap-maze of traps and disposal chutes, smother Bartholomew with a pillow, feed some kale to the hipsters to shut them up, and user in a new wave of guests who can be reasonably sure they won’t get impromptu tracheotomies in their sleep! Oh, and hire a new maid who can handle Miss Evers’ legacy. HA! Can’t be done.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Favorite Games of 2015

Great news! We got a PS4 this year! Specifically, December of this year. So there will be no 8th-gen titles on my annual games-of-the-year list. Check back at the end of 2016. For now, indie titles still rule my roost and crappy Mac ports remain my great agony. And I seem determined to outdo myself in sheer eccentric variety of taste. Here we go!


Honorable Mention: SOMA (Multi-Platform)
It’s become a tradition to award a special ribbon to a game I watched someone else play. (If I plan to play it myself someday, it doesn’t count.) I never went near the Amnesia series, because if I’m gonna be creeping through dark spaces with nightmare hellspawn nipping my heels, I want to at least be able to smack the fuckers with plywood or something. SOMA is in the same vein, but pleased me with its mature dive into science fiction and Big Questions. We’re in a dank undersea lab (imagine if David Cronenberg made Bioshock), the world is ending, and the human race, which now numbers in the double digits, is undergoing a quasi-willing symbiosis with a slithery artificial intelligence. To discuss the plot further would be to ruin some elegant twists, but SOMA earns points for the dark intricacy of its storyline and the journey of its characters. Hiding behind the slimy bulkheads and coral-encrusted monsters is the riddle: What makes us human? A fleshy body? A mere clump of neurons? If the world ever does end, we may need an answer, and SOMA did a pretty incredible job.

8. Mimpi (PC/Mac/iOS/Android)
These days, any fool can make a 2D platformer. In order to leave more than a momentary impression, it must display a unique charm and sensibility. Mimpi is short but sweet, an appealing little adventure in which a spunky terrier sets out to find his absent owner. We find ourselves guiding the canine hero through his own fantasy world, a trippy collage where a dog’s day-to-day encounters morph into bizarre, whimsical obstacles. The gameplay combines traditional platforming, point-and-click puzzles, and even hidden object sections. It’s a game kids would enjoy, but it doesn’t pander, nor is it especially easy. While it commits one or two cardinal sins (why are we chased by lava? Why are we always, always chased by lava?), Mimpi is both lovable and memorable, as opposed to the seven million uninspired “retro” side-scrollers currently clogging Steam. Woof.

7. InFamous: Festival of Blood (PS3)
The InFamous franchise is my other annual gaming tradition, but it’s their own fault for being so damn fun that even their DLC can stand proud. In this Halloweeny, tongue-in-cheeky tale, Fake New Orleans is in the midst of celebrating Fake Mardi Gras and Cole McGrath receives an unexpected new “superpower” when he’s turned into a vampire. Forget moral choices; the hapless citizenry are Cole’s screaming, flailing juice bar as he battles his fellow vamps all through the night. It’s the gameplay we know and love, filtered through the lens of cheesy horror movies to ridiculous effect. As DLC goes, it’s not the best -- the campaign is horribly short (they bet everything on user-generated missions, damn them) and the final “boss battle” consists of Cole getting dogpiled by unfair waves of enemies. But it’s InFamous. And if Sucker Punch ever makes an InFamous game that I don’t love, I’ll know it’s time to quit gaming and become a monk in the Andes or something.

6. The Stanley Parable (PC/Mac)
Despite its solid rep, I was not initially taken with The Stanley Parable. But, then, I’d started out with the most obvious path, the one where Stanley discovers a sinister thought experiment beneath his office building. And that’s all I’m gonna spoil about this game -- everyone should have the chance to delve into its rich, tiramisu-like layers, uncovering one new secret after another. A game in which you play a drab office drone who challenges the status quo, a game in which the wry British narrator is your conscience, your BFF, your devil’s advocate, and your nemesis, all at once -- I never thought crushing existentialism could be so hilarious. The Stanley Parable is almost more of a visual novel than a game, but the more directions you wander, the more ways you find to warp and subvert the narrative, the more you’ll laugh your ass off and then ponder the meaning of life itself. Don’t be a Stanley who hunches over a gray desk from now until death. Be a Stanley who chooses the wrong hallway, pushes the glowing red button, ignores the narrator’s fretful mewling. Be a Stanley who plays games like this one.

5. Submachine 10: The Exit (Free Online)
Just in time for Christmas, Mateusz Skutnik released the final(?) entry in his amazing Submachine series. What a journey it’s been! And what a note to end on! Since my original blog post, I still couldn’t quite tell you what the Submachine is or how it operates, but the tenth foray into its endless, crumbling expanse is a visual joy, mysterious and creepy and utterly unique. The Exit is fucking MASSIVE compared to its predecessors; not only must you click through a new series of mythic environments, you get to revisit every damn game in the series, which is exactly what I hoped the finale would accomplish. I’m going to miss it: the melancholy colors, the steampunk- and archaeology-inspired realms, the mechanical ka-chunk as you glide from screen to screen. But I’m in no hurry. Hell, I haven’t even finished The Exit yet. I’m not ready to let go of this series. It’s too cool. An absolute treasure and a rallying cry for creativity in gaming. I know there’s more to come...there’s always more. The Submachine never ends.

4. Undertale (PC/Mac)
Gamefaqs just did a tournament where voters could choose the best game ever. Ocarina of Time placed second. Undertale won. Which amuses me, because I can just hear the outraged screams of every gamer over the age of thirty. But it just goes to show how Undertale quietly grabbed hold of our zeitgeist this year. It’s another game that seems simple on the surface (basically one man’s love letter to Earthbound), but the more you play, the more you’re astonished. What Undertale does better than any game I’ve ever played is moral choice. The unique and ever-surprising combat system, in which you must bullet-hell your way through your foes’ attacks, allows you to beat the entire game without killing a single being -- and, believe me, every “enemy” you face has a voice, a personality, a soul. Games like InFamous or Dishonored may chastise you for killing, but Undertale will make you feel utterly, wretchedly bad about it -- and each alternate ending, depending on your level of brutality, has unexpected weight and pathos. For all that, the game’s world is vibrant and delightful, full of little details and memorable moments. Is this the best game ever? Probably not. But it stands among the best; just ask its fans, who voted out of love.

3. Lumino City (PC/Mac/iOS)
My admiration for a game is often proportional to the effort poured into it, hence my contempt for lazy 8-bit copycats farted out by delusional college students. They should do what developer State of Play did: Lumino City, the niftiest puzzle game I’ve encountered in awhile. You see, these guys didn’t program their gameworld into being, they fucking built it with their bare hands, crafting a miniature metropolis from paper, cardboard, and Radio Shack gizmos, then adding animated characters. As a result, Lumino City achieves a very distinct tangibility, a quirky realness that makes its precarious cliffside dwellings, skewed angles, and Rube Goldberg engineering feel more like an actual location than anything rendered on computers. The young heroine must track down her wayward grandfather and, along the way, solve the city’s energy crisis. Lumino City has a statement to make about our passive dependence on obsolete fuel technology, but it’s presented with such clever puzzles and artistic flair that it might actually win people over. Teach this in schools! It deserves more than just critical praise; it deserves social relevancy.

2. MirrorMoon EP (PC/Mac)
My runner-up is a hipster game with a hipster title, for hipsters who sneer at any game that’s not hipster enough. Well, hell, if I shunned pretentious games, these lists would be way shorter. MirrorMoon EP is an MMOG, sort of, in which you glide through the cosmos and visit procedurally generated planets, sans any kind of real goal. With origami graphics and a scant color palette, it casts a hypnotic spell. And it’s anchored by a slick idea: each planet has a moon, and the moon mirrors its planet (get it?) like an interactive mini-map. You wield a device with which you can move the moon, rotate it, or cause solar eclipses, affecting the very ground beneath your feet. Although the gameplay is repetitive (warp to a planet, visit its landmarks, lather, rinse, repeat), it’s the kind of repetition that can eat up an entire afternoon, because playing is meditative. It’s a mellow, sleepy, yet addictive experience, a game you can pick up over and over. New starmaps are routinely added, and when you visit a brand-new planet, you can name it. I guess this particular hipster experiment succeeded; I love MirrorMoon EP for its possibilities. When No Man’s Sky comes out, I can say I played this type of game way before it was cool.

1. The Evil Within (Multi-Platform)
Fuck, I’m even more embarrassed by my top pick. All year, I waited patiently for a game more enjoyable than The Evil Within. Nada. So here it is. Yes, parts of it made me fling the controller, and its philosophy on the horror genre (include ALL the cliches!) was kind of pitiable. There are the slowly-advancing undead hordes, and the offal-smeared linoleum, and there’s the bulky fellow with a polyhedron for a head. This game tried way, way too hard...but somehow, for me, it still succeeded. I had so much fun with it. As Detective Sebastian Castellanos bulldozed his way through crypts, caverns, hospitals, and an earthquake-stricken Raccoon City knockoff, chasing a plot that a drunken chimp might have kabanged out on a rusty typewriter, I measured the game by how often I had a big grin on my face. Pretty damn often. I witnessed the entire history of horror gaming in one delirious package, and if it felt incomplete, guess what: the DLC is excellent, filling in much of the backstory and providing all the weapons-free, stealth-based tension the main game lacked. There is nothing perfect or refined about The Evil Within, but its sheer earnestness, coupled with the cathartic pleasure of sending an explosive crossbow bolt into a two-headed, acid-spewing mutant’s uvula, kept me playing in an orgasmic haze. It wasn’t a scary game, but it was awwwwwesome. If I won your respect with the rest of this list only to lose it with my favorite game of 2015, so sorry. Boo hoo. World’s tiniest violin. I gotta be me: the doofus who never knows what game is going to steal his affections next. See you in a year.