The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Event[0] Video Game Review & Analysis: Combining an Amazing Central Mechanic with a Neat Little Story

A while ago, I finished the video game Event[0], and I found it interesting enough that I want to write about it. I feel like I don’t write enough about video games*, despite playing them at least semi-frequently, and I’m interested enough in the medium that I’d like to change that. Apologies if this article winds up a little rough as a result, but I figure it’s better to try it and learn from the experience than never bother. But more over, I think there should be more in-depth analysis of video games, as there is in other mediums, and I’d like to chip in, so this seems like a good chance to try.

*I really, really wanted to write something last year about Undertale, but I could never get an angle to approach it from other than “this is just so good in every way, play it”. I still don’t have anything else to say other than this, but it’s still worth saying I think.

First, a general introduction to the game. Event[0] is a first-person/environmental narrative* science fiction game created by Parisian developers Ocelot Society**. Set in an alternate 2012 where commercial space travel has been going strong since the 1980s, you play as a space traveler who is forced to evacuate a doomed ship at the start, only to eventually drift to a mostly-abandoned decades-old ship.

*I’ve heard a bunch of names for this genre, and these two seemed the most common, so I split the difference.

**Also of note: the game was financed, in part, by the Indie Fund, a group that specializes in helping fund smaller video game projects. In under a decade, they’ve already built up a pretty good library of titles. And if you’ve seen the very-good Indie Game: The Movie, it’s worth noting that one of the founders is Jonathan Blow, one of that documentary’s focus, as well as notable creator in his own right of titles like Braid and The Witness.

The catch is, there’s one member of the crew left: the ship’s artificial intelligence, Kaizen-85. You have figure out how to work with Kaizen to repair the Nautilus to get it running again, all while determining what happened to the rest of the crew.

Having to butter up or coerce an in-game character into helping you isn’t anything radically new in a video game. What is new is the central system Ocelot Society has built the game around: Kaizen (and the rest of the ship as a whole, including things like doors) can only be interacted with through discussion. Specifically, by typing into various consoles scattered around the ship to “talk” with Kaizen. Not picking pre-set choices or anything like that that you might see in another game; you have free reign to converse with Kaizen in just about any way that you’d like. It’s really quite amazing.*

*For anyone curious how this works, the always-amazing Game Maker’s Toolkit has a fascinating video that digs into the nitty-gritty of this a little more.

With all that description out of the way, I want to discuss my thoughts on the game a bit more. There will be some spoilers eventually, so be warned, but if you find this interesting so far and want to discover things for yourself, I’d definitely recommend checking it out. It’s a little on the short side as a warning, so if you aren’t sure, maybe hold off until it’s on sale or something, but one way or another, it’s worth a look. Also, I’ll start on the game’s mechanics and design before moving on to story stuff, so if you’re more concerned about narrative spoilers, you can read a little further.

And with that…

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Colossal, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Empathy

(spoilers marked as they appear)
I’ve been experiencing a whole lot of great art lately, and I’d love to comment on a lot of it, so I might be doing a few short articles like this just to get my thoughts and recommendations and what I liked about them down. Thankfully, two recent movies that I’ve seen and loved are pretty thematically linked, so it made some sense to do them in tandem.

Part I
Let’s start with the more recent, wider release: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I’ve seen some mixed reaction to this one, but I liked it a lot. I mean, I did really like the first one, but from what I can tell, that hasn’t been a one-to-one indicator of what people think of the new one. In any case, I’d go as far to say it’s the best movie since the first Guardians, and in the upper tier of Marvel movies.* I mentioned that I saw Doctor Strange, as a bit of a bounce back from a few weaker films, but this one finishes the rebound.

*If I actually had to put the Marvel movies into tiers, I think I’d put the Guardians movies, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3 in the top one.

It’s definitely feels like everything on the first one turned up to 11, including being sillier, more visually stunning, and more touching all in one. I can also see the point of some people about some of the jokes being weirdly placed, cutting into dramatic moments, but I actually appreciated that in some way. Maybe it won’t sit as well on re-watches, but I loved those rapid juxtapositions, and felt like they added to the humor and made some jokes better than they should have been.

And it’s more heartfelt than the original; basically each member of the team (now expanded to eight guardians, with Mantis, Yondu, and Nebula joining the original five) get emotional arcs to them, which makes the long run time worth it. It’s technically just as “grand” in scale as the first one, but the focus on the characters gives it, in spite the universe-level stakes, an intimate feel that I don’t think any of the other Marvel movies have been able to actually pull off (although the Avengers movies have tried, and come close). This work pays off, and the characters give the movie and meaningful emotional connection, both with the audience and with each other, which really helps to serve the movies’ focus on family and familial connections. In fact, I think this was only the second superhero movie I teared up at (after Logan; 2017 has been pretty great for superhero movies so far).

And even the villain gets a decent amount of focus, and as a result we get the second-best villain of the Marvel universe after Loki (I realize this isn’t saying a lot, but it’s still something). Sure, the tonal shifts make for a jerkier feel than the first one, and the soundtrack is weaker, and some of the novelty is loss, but writer/director James Gunn has turned in a funny and moving script with some very pretty and colorful visuals, and overall there’s a lot to dig into thematically as well (in true comic book fashion, in blatant, larger-than-life metaphors, and with some fighting involved, but that’s part of the fun). Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate now to call Vol. 2 the equal to the original Guardians of the Galaxy.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I...Actually Liked the New Power Rangers Movie?

Apparently, I’m just going to be writing defenses of every at least vaguely-genre-ish, fairly-big budget action movie that sees semi-polarizing reviews from now on.* Last weekend, I saw the new Power Rangers movie, and I…actually liked it? That was probably the last thing I expected, and yet, it still somehow happened.

*Behind-the-scenes factoid: I came this close to writing one for X-Men: Apocalypse last year.

I mean, I watched the series back when I was little (a decade and a half or more ago at this point), but it’s not something I followed very closely as I got older (I could tell you it was still running, but that was about it), and I am under no illusions today about its quality. If not for rainy weather, a cheap ticket, and some sense of morbid curiosity, I might not have seen it at all. But I did, and it’s become probably my most surprising film of the young year.

My apprehension sprung mostly from early trailers selling the movie as some sort of dark, grim, serious take on the material, which seems like the worst idea possible. After all, at its core, Power Rangers is about a bunch of twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers fighting ridiculous monsters in colorful costumes, then fighting the same monsters only larger, this time in colorful giant robots. That is the last thing that sounds like it needs a “serious, gritty” adaptation. But those trailers did the actual movie a disservice, as they did not fully capture the movie’s actual tone, which is the key to why it works.

See, the movie itself is “serious” in a way, just not in the way that I’ve been using; rather, it takes its characters seriously. Instead of giving everything a somber tone, it instead takes the characters totally earnestly, which is why they not only work, but are also one of the strong-points of the film.

I’ve seen some people say that the movie feels “embarrassed” to be a Power Rangers movie, and I totally disagree. This is, after all, a movie that not only fully indulges in multi-color battle suit martial arts battles and giant robot/monster clashes*, but even recreates shots from the original theme song and intro, complete with an arrangement of the awesome-but-totally-over-the-top theme song playing.

*Not only does it have giant robots fighting a giant monster, it also has it in clear daylight; as much as I loved Pacific Rim, the constant rain/nighttime aesthetic made it a bit of a headache to follow the action at times. None of the fight scenes here quite top those, but there’s something to be said for not straining your eyes too.

No, this isn’t “embarrassed” to be anything. Instead, it knows that the things that make Power Rangers, Power Rangers probably won’t translate to a two-hour movie, and something must be added. Dean Israelite and company decide the way to build up the story is to dig into the characters a bit.

If we’re being honest, the sort of characters used in the show are usually not interesting enough to support a two-hour movie. That’s not to say the movie’s Power Rangers are the most well-developed, compelling, three-dimensional characters, but they are definitely better than the original show, given that I had my mind blown while looking back and realizing that Rangers were sometimes swapped out for new casts mid-season. I have no memories of this; the characters just weren't distinct enough for me to feel especially strongly about the changes.

Instead, the young actors here turn in memorable and instantly-likable performances, to the point where I would be okay with more time being spent on just them hanging out together. They have a real chemistry. And the character arcs given to the Rangers are a little angsty and melodramatic…but they’re also playing teenagers, so it feels more understandable, and the actors do a pretty good job at getting you invested. And moreover, their reactions don’t feel too disproportionate, given the struggles they each face. I’d say that overall, the five Rangers feel like a good representation of today’s youth, in representation (even building off the tradition of the original), problems, attitude, and so on. The overall effect is that the movie feels something like “The CW’s Kung Fu X-Men, with a $100-million+ budget and a Giant Robot Fight Finale”, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. If you aren’t a fan of the over-the-top ridiculous that the series entails, this will do nothing to sell you on that. If you can’t stand teenage melodrama stories, same thing applies. On the less-dependent-on-personal-taste end, the third quarter of the movie moves away from the melodramatic and into the straight serious, which…doesn’t work as well, and it comes close to falling apart before recovering, and then we follow it up with the big action sequence, so it mostly washes the bad taste out of your mouth. Still, I sort of wish that third quarter had been cut down to give the first half more room to breathe. It feels rushed at times.

In the “not actually a problem, but I’ve seen people complain about it anyway” department, the heroes technically don’t go full “Power Rangers” until the last half-hour, but I’m okay with that, as it gives the conclusion an epic feel. My general stance is that if your superhero story isn’t interesting when the hero(es) isn’t in costume and fighting villains, it’s not a good story. And the melodramatic real lives here feel very at home in the world of comics and superheroes as a whole.

And one final (spoiler-free) note on the finale, while we’re on the subject: I can’t express how relieved I am that this movie tells a complete story. Sure, from what I’ve read, Saban is planning on making at least five more movies, which…may be a little much, but okay, sure, whatever, that’s just the day and age that we’re living in now, but the important thing is it doesn't bleed into this movie. There are small sequel hooks, but they’re the good kind, the sort that feels natural, and more like a shout-out or reference to the backstory that could easily be ignored if the creators decide to go a different direction rather than crucial scaffolding being set up to support an entirely different movie. Even Marvel, whose movies I generally enjoy, suffer from this at times. Instead, Power Rangers knows to tell a single complete story rather than leave all of its plot threads dangling for “To Be Continued”s.

So, overall, I’m definitely pleasantly surprised here. It’s by no means perfect, but if every major studio blockbuster were of this quality, we’d be much better off overall. The characters are interesting enough that I would be super interested in spending more time with them, which is always a good sign, and it delivers on all the awesome silliness you would want from a Power Rangers movie. If/When Power Rangers 2 comes out, I’m totally on board. The series seems to be in good hands.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Review

I finally finished The First Fifteenth Lives of Harry August by Claire North (the pen name of Catherine Webb) and figured I would take a few moments to jot down my thoughts on it. Let’s break this down into three sections.

The shortest review:
Yep, I liked it. Check it out if you get a chance!

The not-quite-as-short review: For those of you who need things like plot details or specific reasons a reviewer liked things, fine, I guess I’ll elaborate. As you might have been able to guess from the title, the titular Harry August is a special individual born in 1919, one who, upon dying, finds himself back at the moment of his birth with all of his memories from the life that he just died in. He meanders through life (er, lives) trying to figure out what this means and what to do about it before finally meeting a mysterious club of similar individuals. And after discovering this secret society, he learns something even more shocking: the end of the world is accelerating. Something has affected the future, and is drawing the apocalypse closer and closer to the modern day. And with this, we have our hook for the plot.

In actuality, the book drops this last bit of info immediately with no context before backtracking to explain, so the proper investigation into what’s destroying the Earth faster and faster comes sufficiently later in the story. A lot of time is spent explaining the nature of Harry’s ability and what he does with his many lives, followed by setting up the world and history of the Chronus Club.

A quick search online tells me that not everyone is fond of this fact, but I actually liked it quite a bit. It sets a nice, leisurely pace that gives you all the details necessary to feel immersed in this intriguing society. No part of it feels extraneous, and despite covering a lot of ground, it actually moves rather quickly, like a brisk but winding trek through beautiful and unexplored territory.

And the layout, which bounces between lives in a more thematic rather than chronological way, keeps you on your toes. Despite all the overlapping lives to keep track of, it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get a feel for things, and North does a good job of knowing right when the reader will have everything under their thumb and can take new, large developments on for consideration.

It helps that Harry makes for an interesting narrator, something of a curious philosopher who is forced into frequent deep introspection due to his condition; he’s too different to fit in with the “linears” (those who experience time once, then die), especially those of his era, but more inquisitive and restless than his peers. He takes on a wider range of experiences in his many lives than most of them, which gives each life a distinct feel. This has the interesting effect of giving a story with a very minimal main cast the feel of a more sprawling story with a wider, more spread-out cast. And each one being many of the same characters in different situations makes it feel like a series of “What If” stories. I’m a big fan of both things.

About halfway through the book, once the conflict proper has been brought to the forefront, the story shifts into something more chronological and driving, something of a multi-generational, science-fiction “Count of Monte Cristo”-esque revenge tale where we get to see a methodical and cunning protagonist slowly lay down the pieces to a large plan, which I am once again all for in a narrative.

If this still all sounds good to you, then you should definitely give it a shot. If you want to read any more, though, stick around for part three…

The even-longer-still-but-still-short review, this part of which contains plot spoilers, so maybe hold off if you want to keep it all a surprise: Some other stuff that I want to discuss about the novel:

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Favorite Movies of 2016

For the first time in 2016, I kept a list of every movie that I watched.* It was mostly out of curiosity, after having one too many experiences saying “oh right, I totally forgot I saw that movie” (I do not have the best memory). The end result was that I reached January with a record of just about every movie I saw for the year and some vague notion that it would be worth writing about in some capacity. And the natural extension of that idea was to release some sort of year-end list.

*I would eventually expand it to other mediums as well, so maybe I’ll have another article or two up my sleeve.
However, it feels weird to call it a “best of” list, since there were so many movies from this past year that I didn’t get around to seeing. Meanwhile, a good chunk of the movies I saw this year were just me catching up on things from the past few years that I hadn’t seen. Not to mention that I don’t think that I’m enough of a film scholar to be able to definitely, objectively say one film is “better” than another. So, this list will more so be the films that I liked the most from 2016/the tail-end of 2015 (with a few other movies I saw for the first time this year thrown in), and with at least a couple thoughts on each one. If nothing else, some of these were the germs for full articles that I just couldn’t build off of; maybe finally writing them down will lead to more on them in the future?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Overwatch, Sentinels of the Multiverse, and Dealing with a Large Cast (plus a review!)

I recently watched xXx: Return of Xander Cage, and found it extremely satisfying. It’s the best kind of dumb action movie, the kind that knows what it is and pushes itself to be the dumbest and action-iest it can be.

Trying to paint a picture of it is incredible. It’s a James Bond movie where James Bond assembles his own Mission Impossible team, and when they go out for drinks, they eschew the martinis for Red Bull and Everclear. It’s a Fast and the Furious movie that wants to be Super Smash Bros. when it grows up. It’s a movie where a dirtbike get used as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat, and that’s still only the second craziest thing done with a dirtbike (the number one being, of course, when the later dirtbike chase reaches the ocean and both participants convert their vehicles into jetskis to continue unimpeded, because what else were they going to do?). It’s the Avengers, if normal, sort-of-everyday abilities like “great at soccer” or “fantastic DJ and people person” or “real good at crashing cars” were considered superpowers.

As someone who had no prior allegiance to the franchise (indeed, I hadn’t even seen xXx 1 or 2, and I don’t feel particularly compelled to go back and change that at the moment), I am super excited by this movie’s existence and eagerly await any sequels that may come.

But the characters are one of the aspects that I specifically wanted to focus on. xXx 3 has a large hero team at it’s center, and they’re an interesting and diverse bunch, representing a variety of nations and abilities. I wasn’t kidding when I drew the Smash Bros comparison earlier; it very much reminded me of the type of lineup of interesting characters a multiplayer game would draw up. In fact, there was even a specific video game I had in mind.

I started playing Overwatch over the holiday season (a team first-person shooter with 23 (and counting…) playable characters to choose from, for those not in the know), and the rosters of each had some hilarious overlaps. Sure, they’re an action movie and an FPS, so you have the range of weapons used in each, from normal pistols to grenade launchers to sniper rifles. And then there are the goofier overlaps, like both teams including an incredibly-out-of-place DJ, or both teams having female hackers who use similar weapons.

And all of those overlaps made me realize: I really liked both sets of characters. xXx: Return of Xander Cage basically has its own two hour run time to establish the entire cast (since the first two movies are barely leaned on at all for support), including the 9(-plus?) person xXx team. Overwatch includes no story mode in-game, and excluding the outside comics and lore that are available but unnecessary, all characterization is done through in-game dialog. That’s not a lot of room to work with, so how did they get such wide and interesting casts? Obviously, none of them is super-detailed, but they’re all compelling enough to draw you in, and that’s the important thing when making these types of teams for a work of fiction.

So, I wanted to pull that apart; how does one economically make these large main casts work on such limited time constraints? In addition to xXx 3 and Overwatch, I also looked at Sentinels of the Multiverse, so a quick word on that. Sentinels is one of my favorite board games, a card game where players take control of various original heroes (36 in total) to fight different also-original villains. Like Overwatch, these new heroes (and even the villains, in this case) are given surprising depth for existing only in a handful of decks of cards.

So, how does this happen? How do these works manage to juggle so many different people and make them compelling? I’ve got a couple of ideas:

Monday, December 5, 2016

Comparing and Contrasting Doctor Strange and Ant-Man

This may or may not be a controversial stance among superhero movie aficionados right now, I can’t really tell either way, but I’m gonna go ahead anyway: Doctor Strange is the best Marvel movie since Avengers: Age of Ultron, possibly even Guardians of the Galaxy.

Comparing big team-up movies like Civil War with ones focused on a solo hero like Doctor Strange or Ant-Man, so in examining what I think Doctor Strange does well, I’ll mostly stick to comparing other movies of its type. I also realize that I wasn’t as crazy about Civil War as some others, but that’s a whole other can of worms; maybe I’ll touch on it another day. For now, I want to focus on what I think Doctor Strange does well (and, relatedly, what I think Ant-Man could have done better).

There are a whole bunch of smaller reasons that I can get out of the way. I loved the visuals of Doctor Strange; the shots of alien other dimensions were captivating, but even the scenes on earth were interesting in a way that I can’t say Ant-Man matched. And I thought the cast in Strange was all-around better; Paul Rudd was fine as Scott Lang, his normal charming self, but it felt like a lower-tier level of charming considering the actor that didn’t quite capture my interest (it probably didn’t help that the last Paul Rudd performance I saw before Ant-Man was They Came Together, in which he’s the most goofy and likeable that I’ve seen him, so maybe it was just raised expectations). Benedict Cumberbatch disappeared into his role in a way that made me forget I was watching someone who wasn’t actually Stephen Strange (in spite of my initial reaction of “I will never get over hearing him speak without an English accent”). And I would rate the rest of the cast’s performances higher overall as well.

The writing probably did most of the work, though, for a variety of reasons. Doctor Strange kept it’s “unusual-ness” throughout, in a way that ­Ant-Man didn’t. The latter billed itself as something of a “superhero-heist movie”, and it…kind of was, I guess? Really, the “heist” bits were contained to one section in the second act (maybe two, if we’re counting Scott stealing the suit, but I’m not sure I would totally count that, given it was a small burglary and structured more like a standard action movie/problem solving piece), with the training for said heist coming in the form of a standard “superhero training” sequence. And upon reaching the goal of the heist…the rug was pulled out from under us and we got a standard act three superhero battle.

Doctor Strange didn’t commit at all to being much other than a superhero movie with magic, but it kept that focus on the mystic and unusual for the entire time, and the final set piece did much more to stand out. “Rewinding” the destruction in Hong Kong was clever and fun to watch, and completely skipping the final battle to deal with outwitting the villain to draw them into a bargain was unexpected and perfectly in character.

But there’s more to it. Doctor Strange was much more focused, almost to its detriment. It cut down on a lot of extraneous characters that cluttered the edge of Ant-Man to draw focus on Stephen, Mordo, and the Ancient One to a much tighter degree than the former did with it’s main trio. Not to say it’s perfect; I felt Strange could have done more with Wong, Kaecilius, and Christine Palmer*, but then, I don’t think it did much worse than ­Ant-Man did with its closest comparisons (Luis, Cross, and take your pick for the third). But that main trio is definitely stronger, and the part that I think makes the biggest difference between the two.

* And given how short the film felt, this is especially irritating; I could have done with another fifteen minutes of fleshing them out. Or even world-building, given how much there is to explain about the world of magic. None of that is technically super-critical, but it would have been nice. Although I suppose it’s preferable to be left wanting more over the opposite.
Stephen Strange is just a much more interesting character than Scott Lang. Maybe that’s why I felt Paul Rudd’s performance was less interesting, that he didn’t have as much to work with, but I’d definitely stand by saying the part was underwritten. There’s just no arc to Scott in the movie; he starts the movie a burglar with a big heart trying to do the right thing and stay out of prison for his daughter, and he ends it basically in the same place, except now he has superpowers, a girlfriend, a mentor, and a job. He’s even still a burglar! We see him break into as many places as a superhero as he did before becoming one.* And even when he went to prison, it was for hacking a company that was defrauding customers; he was basically already a superhero, he just needed the suit.

*And if you want to extend his arc to Civil War, he actually goes backwards; he’s totally willing to throw away the “stay out of prison for his daughter” part over…a guy he stole something from asking a favor.

This is a problem pretty specific to the movies; Nick Spencer’s recent take on Ant-Man has been one of my favorite runs in all of comics this year.* And as a serialized story, it can’t give Scott a character arc as easily as a one-shot, two hour movie. But Spencer does have Scott struggling with his flaws: he’s a mostly smart guy who’s a little to quick to run away from his issues instead of facing them, and a nice guy who cares about others but doesn’t always have the empathy to see things the way they do and sometimes unintentionally hurts them as a result. But he recognizes all of that and he’s working to improve.

*Maybe I’ll release a year-end best-of article? Who knows.
It’s tragic and compelling and keeps you rooting for a relatable guy trying his best who sometimes screws up in a complex world like ours (plus the added complexity of dealing with supervillains and all that). It’s just that the movie capture none of that. If anything, Hope and Hank and their relation are the emotional core of the movie, showing actual growth and reconnecting after years of shutting each other off for their own reasons, but they are the secondary plot while focus remains on Scott, since he’s the superhero.

Compare that with Doctor Strange; The Ancient One and Mordo are interesting characters as well in their own way, but writers Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill remembered to give Stephen something to do as well. He’s egotistical at the start, a doctor who has done incredible things, and when he loses that ability, realizes how he hadn’t been doing as much good as he liked to think, and had even been hurting others along the way.*

*I’ve seen some argue that it’s the same as Tony Stark’s growth in Iron Man, but I’d disagree. Tony is still an egomaniac in every movie, as that wasn’t the flaw he had to overcome in his first movie; it was his total self-centered indifference to everyone and everything else in the world, and his attempt to atone for the harm he had caused via weapons and such. Strange, in comparison, became a doctor to help people; part of his ego was pride in how much he had helped, and his growth is in realizing how small he is in the grand scheme of things, and how many more people he could have been helping. He has to totally set aside his ego, where Tony can work around his (and even use it to motivate himself). It’s an interesting take, especially from a director in Derrickson who is very public about his faith.
Once he’s learned to set aside that pride, it takes on a normal “superhero training” feel until after the second act, when Stephen has to reconcile this superhero-ing with his training as a doctor to avoid harm. It’s part of what makes the final “non-fight scene” so interesting; it’s him avoiding violence and reconciling those two sides of him, as well as a final confirmation of his initial growth, as he is willing to sacrifice himself totally, condemned to an eternity of repeating his death, in order to spare his entire dimension. He has totally set aside his ego. Compared to all of that, Scott Lang’s lack of any notable growth is especially frustrating.

All of the amazing visuals (definitely the best since Guardians) are fantastic and all, but it’s definitely Marvel’s tightest movie story-wise in a while (also the best since Guardians). I’m not sure that I’d quite put it in the company’s upper-tier, but it’s probably in the next level below that.