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30May/160

Why Video Games: The Allure of Campfire Tales in Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Griffin Fight

Why Video Games is our ongoing look at the construction, reception, interpretation, and impact of important video games.  For the introduction to our series, please click here.

Not in for a good dayWhen we started our "Why Video Games" series last June, we came up with a hypothesis which we've loosely based our video game talks on.  The idea was how video games are at their best when they create an approximation of an experience you might not otherwise get from books or other art forms.  This has worked out well in titles as varied from Myst to The Witcher 3 (TW3), and I think it'll work well for today's game, Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen (DD:DA).

To preface this with an admission - I wouldn't have played DD:DA if it weren't for my writing partner today, the returning Quintus Havis.  I'm not a big fan of the open world RPG genre which sprung forward in the wake of Bethesda's success with Morrowind and so on.  TW3 turned out to be one of the few exceptions and my general distaste of the open world format combined with DD:DA's seemingly simplistic storytelling put me at an arms distance of the game.

But, Quintus hasn't led me astray before thanks to his recommendation of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel among other titles, so I decided to give it a shot.  I'm now on play-through 2, attempting to claw my way through the post-post-endgame, and am never bored with the results.  What seems like a shallow RPG on the surface turns out to be a complex game of strategy which requires the player to learn on the fly and reach out for help.  To tie this back to the thesis we began with last June, there's a lot of fun strategy in the midst of DD:DA, but what struck me is how it approximates the experience of spinning campfire tales.  One of my favorite directors, Zack Snyder, is a huge purveyor of narratives filtered through a specific character, and DD:DA is like a cumulative series of Snyder battles with the barest of plot threads designed to tell your friend or offspring about this epic time you had when you were in your youth.

There are some game mechanics which seem to support this on top of the general gameplay, so what say you to this idea Quintus?

Basic battleThat's a really great way to put it: it's probably the highest form of the water cooler game that I've played since maybe Monster Hunter. I found the story to be hugely compelling, but I'm the kind of player that wants to hunt down and kill every monster, so knowing there's a humongous dragon out there for me to take down (in one of the best boss battles I've played in nearly any game I've ever played and one that does credit to dragons like never before in a video game) was about all the story I needed to venture forth and chop up some beasties.

So I very much agree with you.. The game is about community internally, when I'd hire new Pawns (player-created sidekicks) to help me deal with a quest or teach my Pawn new ways to fight griffons and wyverns, and externally in the sense that it often creates these wonderful, organic moments that I couldn't wait to talk to other people about. The combat is simple, but deep and nicely layered, and really ties itself well to the layout of the duchy you run around in, getting into trouble and finding all the interesting nooks and crannies.

Heck, the game world might even be the best metaphor for the game as a whole. It takes what would otherwise be a small swath of land, two towns, a couple of dungeons, and a bunch of countryside, and somehow makes merely traveling the world thrilling and fun because I never knew what I'd find around the corner, or stumble across hidden away in some little cove. The game world, just like the combat, just kept giving me new and interesting little nuances and reasons to come back for more. I'm on what must be playthrough six now, and I adore the game just as much as when I first played it.

16May/160

Knight of Cups (2016)

Lubezki's photography is

Rick wanders Los Angeles, searching for meaning in decadence and art.  Terrence Malick writes and directs Knight of Cups, starring Christian Bale.

Not for touchingTo the Wonder put me at a breaking point with Terrence Malick.  His trademark dreamy visuals centered on yet another collection of billowing wheat and shifting clouds which read almost as parody.  So when I heard the advance buzz around Knight of Cups, where even sympathetic critics were having a hard time connecting with it, I prepared myself for another ponderous if beautifully shot round of navel-gazing.

My reaction coming out of Knight of Cups was positive, but it wasn't born from the diminished expectations his previous films and fellow critics generated in me.  I was instead struck by how Malick so wonderfully communicated a painful truth about life and art.  It hurts to care, and a sense of detachment is necessary to live the life of someone who goes around trying to both empathize and make better the lives of those who suffer.  Focusing on this detachment, by presenting Christian Bale as a sort of heavenly knight of the streets who wanders from one part of the city to the next, Malick creates a hymn to the isolation of modern existence.

This, maybe, is why I didn't react as strongly to The Tree of Life and was hostile toward To the Wonder.  From Badlands to To the Wonder we have spent so much time in nature with Malick that it seemed he could toss something like To the Wonder together with a spare few weeks.  Knight of Cups was made much like his other films, where the performers have little idea of what their characters are like and he keeps the sparse dialogue close to his chest.  But there is little of the nature we commonly think of, not as much plant life and ponderous cloud shots, and more modern art installations with Bale's impassive face leading us from one section to the next.

2May/160

Why Video Games: Transistor and screaming in silence

We aren't going to get away with this

Why Video Games is our ongoing look at the construction, reception, interpretation, and impact of important video games.  For the introduction to our series, please click here.

We aren't going to get away with this Supergiant Games. Transistor. I can't speak for the developers, but I think they chose these names well, and I'm gonna go ahead and read into both of these names as we kick off this article. I'm a  visual person, and when you put a word like Supergiant in front of my face, I'm gonna see pictures in my mind that correspond. Not a giant, but something large enough that merely 'giant' wouldn't fit the bill. When I play a game made by a company using that name... I'm thinking "These guys are using big words, I hope they deliver an experience that lives up to their big words."

Transistor. We're talking computers now. That's a sort of vague reference by itself, but we have this strong theme. We have excellent visuals. Lady with a talking sword. From the beginning of the launch trailer we see this light-up sword corresponding with the primary voice actor's dialog. He's talking about friends and enemies. There are some tech-y looking elements here and there, but nothing to explain the title of Transistor. What's going on here?

That's both my interpretation and the theme of this game. There's a story, but that story, to me, is a vehicle for a entirely unseen, unspoken narrative that has something to do with electronics, processing, computers, or what-have-you. "What's going on here?" is a question which is figuratively pasted all over the game world. And I'm pretty sure that question is an invitation as well. One of the rabbit-hole sort of invitations that can lead anywhere, pending your willingness to submit to the process of finding answers to your questions.

So before we dive down the rabbit hole. Let's define transistor outside of the game. What did this word mean before there was a game borrowing its name? In short, a transistor is a device which regulates the flow of electricity in a circuit, often within a larger electronic device. The other half of this question is "what do they do?". Often, they are used as a switch or gate, in other words as physical unit of logic for how an engineer wants power to flow through a device.

What does it have to do with a talking sword or a mute warrior lady? To be honest, I'm not sure, even after reaching the end. But I'm not sure whether it's completely important to understand the characters themselves. If we return to our thesis statement that video games are the approximation of some experience, we'll be hard-pressed to come up with any suitable answer if we draw directly and only from the actions of our protagonists.

Since this is my first time writing the opening statement, I'm going bold. Gonna lay out my big idea at the beginning here and see if it holds up through the rest of the conversation. I think Transistor is about observing choices, opposition, and other binaries in a linear narrative track. In other words - what it's like to be aware, to have understanding, but to have no control over an outcome.

This idea is informed both by my experience in-game, and by my experience outside of it. In-game, it's a weird-but-awesome battle against robots and other creatures that seem to be in a position of power or dominance (or are deployed from such a position). Outside the game, I'm working through another set of game-like obstacles... inside my head. I have fought many battles there, too, and this video game has illustrated some of those internal battles. I started to see Transistor as a fairly accurate representation of a personal breakdown (mental, or otherwise).

Logic gets applied, strategies are formed, power is gathered where it can be gathered. But the path is linear, the obstacles are set and staged, the ending is determined (Note: I have not played the Recursion mode and have no idea whether there are multiple endings in either mode). The sense I got through the whole thing is that all the time I'm powering up and learning the game, my power and effectiveness was actually being stripped away. That's not to say I didn't figure out how to kill bad guys. But I didn't figure out to save those people and things to which I had given my focus and attention. And I didn't make the world a better place. Not for the protagonists, anyway.I will kill who should be my sisterI can work with big ideas, and Supergiant Games entered the realm of Big Ideas with Transistor.  Their previous effort, Bastion, was a good game, but not one which caught my imagination.  It may be because I grew up with classic Western heroes in a cinematic sense as the narrator of Bastion reminded me of Sam Elliott, or John Wayne if you caught him on a day where he'd had nothing but cigars and whiskey for sustenance.  The setting of Bastion wasn't too unique either as I've grown up with video games like Joust and Chrono Trigger, so I was accustomed to the idea of a decaying world either being propped up or collapsing from the sky because of powers our avatars couldn't understand.

On the gameplay front, Bastion also reminded me of a slightly more action-packed DiabloBastion wasn't anything I hadn't seen before, but as you mention their care in naming I'd be ignorant not to say that the idea of a bastion, or a bulwark against annihilation, wasn't core to both the narration and the constant barrage of action.  With Transistor, the name already prepares us for an amplification of Bastion, but instead of going bigger with Transistor - because how much more can we go than the end of the world? - it goes smaller, and by that I mean more focused.

A transistor in "real life" isn't the end of an electric signal as all that happens within the transistor is it gets amplified or moved to a separate current.  What happens within Transistor is just that, painful and sudden changes from one state of being to the next.  The narrator is already trapped within his (its?) next state of being, transitioning from a human existence to one which has to settle for cool and disaffected narration throughout most of the gameplay.  The protagonist Red, on the other hand, is stuck in a phase before the transition.  She calls out to the world with words and expressions which don't mean anything in face of the apocalypse.

To that transition, I want us to consider the words of my video gaming equivalent of Roger Ebert - the magnificent Tevis Thompson.  With respect to the narration and Red's role in it, he said, "...how is a voiceless woman with a sword-lover who will not shut up a good idea?"  Considering the problems women have had with representation in the video game world, I think he makes a crucial point.  As an idea to consider alongside that point, it's the silences between combat, the communication which comes from the text and not the audio, which I feel is the most important part of Transistor.  What you mentioned, about being in control of an avatar who is explicitly not in control, is where Transistor's ideas about gender and humanity's next phase of evolution with technology come into play.

You literally play a woman who isn't in control of herself, and she's not in control of herself because of a man.  Yes, it's a sword, but as we find out it's men who masterminded the conspiracy which killed the world.  Transistor is a companion piece to Mad Max: Fury Road in this way.  So while the combat pushes Red toward a future where she has to let go of herself, the spaces in-between show Red trying desperately to communicate with a world which may have never been listening too hard to begin with.  I want you to take these Big Ideas, and start cramming them into the gameplay, because I feel we have a lot to work with here.

1May/160

Keanu (2016)

The cinematography and performances are funny but never condescend to action movies even in Keanu's more melodramatic moments.

Rell is having one of the worst days of his life.  His longtime girlfriend has left him heartbroken and alone in his home.  Just as his cousin Clarence comes to cheer Rell up, he hears a little scratching and meow at the door, where he finds a kitten he names Keanu.  Just as Rell's life is starting to pick up he comes home to find someone has broken into his apartment and kitten-napped Keanu.  Rell, determined to make his life whole again, drags the reluctant Clarence into the criminal underworld to rescue Rell's feline companion.  Peter Atencio directs Keanu from a screenplay written by Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens, and stars Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, and Jason Mitchell.

Yeah, I'd do anything for my cat tooKey and Peele is dead.

Long live Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

Their brilliant show on Comedy Central came to an end late last year despite its continued popularity.  As Key put it, "It was just time for us to explore other things, together and apart.Keanu arrives just a few months after the last episode of Key and Peele and, saints be praised, it's a great sign of what Key and Peele are going to be up to when they're working together.

The big thing to remember about Keanu, and what made so many of their sketches fantastic on Key and Peele, is they don't condescend to any of the genres they work with.  Key and Peele are huge fans of every form of entertainment and do their best to work within a style even if they're making some satirical jabs at it.  On its face, and based on that wonderful trailer, Keanu may seem like a farcical take on action-comedies in the vein of Pineapple Express.  But, as with the best of their sketches, Key and Peele are using the form of an action blockbuster to function as a loving nod to the bullet ballets they love, all while delivering an assortment of great character beats and some sly commentary.

"Understated" might not be the word many associate with the work of Key and Peele, but the best moments of Keanu work in this vein.  Sure, you've got your slow-mo gunfights and adorable kitten costumes for little Keanu, but the insecurities of Clarence (Key) and Rell (Peele) are what drive the comedy.  On Clarence's end, his background training corporate yes men finds a comfortable and heartwarming place amid the stereotypical gangster supporting characters.  While with Rell, he gets to counteract his perpetually stoned post-breakup sadness with pure love and care for little Keanu.

19Apr/160

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The odd beautiful shot here and there isn't enough to make up for Tarantino's ideological shortcomings, the repetitive nature of the script, or the boring camerawork once we're situated in the cabin.

A storm's coming, and eight strangers stranded in a solitary cabin on the hill are about to have a rough night.  One among them is a killer, picking off these mercenaries and reformed criminals one by one.  If any of them is going to survive the night they'll need to figure this out fast, or succumb to the hatred of an unseen enemy.  Quentin Tarantino writes and directs The Hateful Eight, and stars Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Into the murderous subsurvienceTo even the most casual of readers, it’s clear I haven’t been updating as much as in the past.  There’s a bevy of reasons, but the most important is many movies just haven’t been interesting me.  The Oscars hemmed and hawed their way through my screen, I saw a few of the stragglers left, and the DVD slowly gathered dust as my attention waned.  What I thought would be a good cure for this valley was Quentin Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight.

I’m not a Tarantino groupie, one of the few people bored by Pulp Fiction, and thought both Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds were terrible.  On the other side, Django Unchained was a magnificent change of pace and saw Tarantino turned some of the criticisms of his movies back on himself.  Tarantino the director-as-actor became a barely comprehensible huckster who gets himself blow up, all while Tarantino the director pointed at an alternate history where black performers dominated spaghetti westerns.  Django Unchained had its problems, most notably where Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda was concerned, but by criticizing himself Tarantino created one of his best films and my nominee for greatest scene of the 2010’s (so far).

The Hateful Eight began slow, gathered disdain through Tarantino’s typically spicy dialogue, and finally collapsed into a void of horrible as Tarantino indulged in all his worst impulses.  I suppose that’s better than forgettable, but the overt misogynistic, racial, and homophobic violence which forms the core of The Hateful Eight is barely preferable.  For those who think Tarantino cloaks himself in the veneer of an alt-filmmaker who uses his clout to write things so hateful they’d sink lesser directors, The Hateful Eight will offer little in the way of a counter-argument. It’s, in fact, so bad I may join them.