2014 Archives - Page 2 of 28 - Can't Stop the Movies
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Transistor and screaming in silence

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, 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.


Emptiness and melancholy in Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher: Wild Hunt

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

We're finally homeI've written about video games for several months now and, aside from one foray into an experimental RPG, have avoided writing about RPGs in general.There are many reasons why - they tend to be longer than the average game, can contain battle systems either oversimplified or so complex you'd need a Rosetta Stone, and have a sort of operatic theatricality at their best which may induce laughs in some. One of my personal issues with RPGs of recent years is how the Bethesda model (Morrowind, Skyrim) of many choices but little consequence has become so prevalent.

In the last two years I've played through two separate RPGs with open world models that eschew the Bethesda system for more story and event-based gameplay. In 2014 into 2015 the first was Dragon Age: Inquisition, and from late 2015 into 2016 it was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. My experiences with the two were as different as my history with each series. I played through and loved Dragon Age: Origins and tolerated Dragon Age 2 whereas The Witcher series I avoided due to what looked like janky game play. I received both as gifts, played through them with almost all my spare time, and ended each with a feeling of emptiness.

As part of the series I've wanted to explore the emotional connection we form with our avatars and, despite my custom molded role as leader of an army, Inquisition made me feel hollow. I was dissatisfied with my experience in what seemed like an empty world. But with Wild Hunt we're in a landscape which is at a low point in its history with everyone despairing, yet I felt a sort of compelling melancholy which helped me identify with Geralt - who I could only customize so far - versus my Qunari avatar in Inquisition.

To explore these contrasted feelings of emptiness and how the aesthetics and game play affect each I reached out to a fellow writer and good friend. So, Quintus, before we get started why don't you tell us a bit about what makes you you and answer the question - why video games?Fly you foolsWhat makes me me is a pretty hefty frightening thing to contemplate, so I'll go at the second question first.

Why video games? Because I am completely enthralled by skillful artifice. I became a poet because I loved the idea that enjambment can carry emotional weight (how cool is it that the first line of the second stanza of Slim Greer in Hell can embody the song-like rhythm of the piece just by using some white space?), and I love video games from the moment I realized that when Mario took damage, I'd shout "Ouch!" like I was actually injured. Video games settle in this nice little space between overt mechanical restrictions and direct player agency, and the best games are able to use those systems to trick us into thinking we're the authors of a book that's already been written. Very cool "man behind the curtain" stuff. And who doesn't love trudging through dark, dank corridors to rob terrible beasts?

I'm a poet, and in doing work for music albums or just putting together a set of work to have published, I love the concept of leveraging semantic systems for emotional reactions or the work our brains do in crafting rhythm out of what is really nothing more than lights on a screen or ink leavings on a piece of paper. Even languages work that way, so it's always fun to see what makes things tick and what makes things break. I guess that's what makes me me; I like to build and I like to smash, and I like to write really pretty things about really severe issues.

I'm sort of the opposite of you regarding Dragon Age and The Witcher in a few ways. I first played The Witcher (as in the very first game in the series), which I found fabulously fun in a fairly punishing way, and have always been excitedly on the lookout for the next game in the series. However, I couldn't really identify with Geralt. I liked his story, I liked his world, I liked cutting down swathes of bad guys after getting high on crazy concoctions, but I found Geralt a little too...amazing, for lack of a better term, to enjoy.

I was immediately able to enjoy the protagonists from the Dragon Age series, probably because I was able to create them, but I hated Origins with a passion. The game feels like a thematic hodge podge pulling from Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time off the top of my head. Dragon Age 2 was actually the high point for me, because I adored Hawke, his family, his story, and my agency and freedom in interacting with the world and the people around me. I also thought the game played like a dream on console and fell in love with Kirkwall.

I have a similar but greatly reduced affection for Inquisition. I still like my protagonist, but he's much more bland now compared to Hawke. I like heading an organization, but there's no strategy or thought to it, so the mechanic is basically working against what the story seems to be trying to get me to believe, that I'm heading up a major organization working against or around other organizations. While I didn't find the world empty, I did feel like everything was there for me in a way that's much less transparent as Inquisition is definitely more of a theme park compared to Wild Hunt.


2nd opinion: The Tribe (2014)

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Today's review is a rare second opinion of The Tribe, first covered by Kyle as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival last year.  Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy writes and directs The Tribe and stars Grigoriy Fesenko and Yana Novikova.

Cold and finalCinema has been an excellent tool to gauge the feelings and ideology of a given population as it progresses through the years. In America, the decadence of the ’20s gave way to gangster films and the subsequent moral backlash resulting in the Hays code. More recently, some of the best American films have focused on the economic effect the Recession had, giving us the instant classic Blue Ruin and the also excellent Mud. If you share in my outlook, then the second you finish the Ukrainian drama The Tribe, we should be cautious in how we develop our relationship with the embattled country moving forward.

The Tribe is not an animalistic exploration, nor an exploitative view of the youth of Ukraine. Instead it is visualizing the anguish of a community who is still able to communicate their wants and needs, but not in a way we are accustomed to. From their fellow students to the mostly absent adults who only appear when their authority is needed, be it legal or no, the Ukrainians of The Tribe live in a silent bubble of education, pain, and experience. What director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy does is distill the struggle of the modern Ukrainian citizen in a way which does not need to be translated into other languages, since the language they “speak” is one of human experience.

This might seem a strange way to look at sign language as it is still somewhat mediated by the origin country. But one of the massive accomplishments Slaboshpytskiy pulls off with The Tribe is recognizing that the inherent physicality of sign language is more than enough to communicate a story. I love the way he sets up this expectation with an extra-wide shot of a bus station at the beginning. We’ve grown so accustomed to audio queues about what characters are doing that it’s an immediate, but fair, puzzle to figure out who we are focusing on. The intertitle at the beginning telling us that there will be no verbal dialogue is unnecessary, and a strange lack of faith in Slaboshpytskiy's considerable strength as a director as he escalates the complexity of the shots.


Octodad (2011) and Octodad: Dadliest Catch (2014)

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

OctodrewSeth, I have to say, I'm disappointed in you this week.  After our video game analysis started off so well with a good initial chat and great examination of Myst last week, I thought we were going to be in for something special.  After all, how do you follow walking around a mysterious island and interacting with unusual machinery?  Well, you don't do it by making me play a video game starring a perfectly normal father.  I mean, I was pumping water through a dilapidated ship last week, and this week I'm picking up groceries?  What's next, selling lemonade?

I kid, of course, but at the heart of any good joke lies a great deal of truth and the truth is I'm delighted that you wanted to talk about Octodad in both student game and retail release formats this week.  Delighted because it's one of the few examples of its suddenly overpopulated and mostly rubbish genre, of which I don't have a specific name so I'll go with "how the hell do I control this?"  Also delighted because it'll allow us to discuss something we didn't really get to talk about too much last week, that being how to engage the player through character and control.  Finally delighted because it has quite easily the best theme song of any video game released in the last five years (and was an initial pick for my fiancée and I's "coming out" music for the reception).

But, perhaps most importantly, we'll be able to see an evolution.  Because I played through Octodad: Dadliest Catch only a few months ago and had it fresh in my mind, but the student game was new to me.  It astonished me how much a simple change in design philosophy made the experience so much better.  In the student game Octodad, you are an octopus who happens to be a father, but in Dadliest Catch you're a father who happens to be an octopus.  A slight turn of expression did a world of good, and I'm curious if that was part of your plan in suggesting the two together, or if there was some other devious reasoning afoot?

OctosethYes, indeed. I see the two Octodad games as parts of an interesting statement. The student game seems to be a shot in the dark. An experiment. They Young Horses team took wobbly, nigh-unpredictable controls to a certain extreme, and went to work making a character so charming we didn't mind. I don't know how they decided on an octopus. But the interesting point is not the species of animal they selected. It's that they prescribed a series of goals to that octopus which weren't meant for it. There have been lots of games about animals doing human-like things. But they tend to be fully anthropomorphized and skilled (See: Ratchet of the Ratchet & Clank series and many others). In other words, the standard animal fantasy is to imagine that animal as having a level of sophistication similar to humans and run with it. This is not so with Octodad. This octopus is just an octopus. Yes, he wears a suit and has learned and accepted certain trends of human life. But we get to share in a wide-eyed bewilderment with this creature as we discover what it's like to explore and manipulate a world that was not meant for him.

The tasks had to be simple enough that the game was about experimentation. Those wobbly tentacles are the center of this game, and the glue that binds them to the world design is the Suspicion Meter, which is based upon consequences of physics rather than direct input. It's the things that we are doing unintentionally that alter our metered success in this role. Without that touch, it might have been a curious physics toy and not a fully-realized game.

It's interesting that we are given unmatched inputs and outputs, as it were. This is not a game about being an octopus. This is not a game about being a human or accomplishing tasks that humans value. It's a game about an octopus trying to be human. That's the subject, anyway. Weird place to be. Putting aside the specifics of the controls, or the setting (the fatherhood narrative), what do you think this says about the core fantasy of Octodad?


Camp X-Ray (2014)

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PFC Amy Cole is assigned to Camp X-Ray, a detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.  There she learns to never call the occupants prisoners, that they are always detainees, and they have life better than any of the soldiers.  The messages of her superiors and other soldiers are questioned by her tenuous relationship with Ali, a man who may be unjustly imprisoned within Camp X-Ray.  Peter Sattler writes and directs Camp X-Ray and stars Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi.

Someone is going to be uncomfortable hereThe Vietnam War fueled decades of art, giving us the likes of Oliver Stone, Taxi Driver, the best of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and saddling the United States government with guilt for years.  It’s unlikely we’ll ever see the same sort of rage and despair coming from art surrounding the second Iraq War.  Collectively, it seems we Americans have decided whatever came from our short-sighted actions after the 9/11 attack were justified.  If movies like Camp X-Ray are any indication, even those who feel we should apologize for the barbaric treatment of innocents caught in our wave of violent retribution are subdued by the aftereffects of that attack.

The opening shots of Camp X-Ray suggest as much, showing us more footage of the smoking towers before cutting to a bound and blinded man in transit to Guantanamo Bay.  Americans can make the connection easily – the towers came down, so we went looking for the people responsible.  But instead of making Camp X-Ray about that blind assault, director and screenwriter Peter Sattler zeroes in on a more conventionally dramatic turn of events.   We’ll watch as Amy (Kristen Stewart) strikes up an uneasy friendship with Ali (Peyman Moaadi) and observe the parallels between their situations.

Camp X-Ray is more of a film about essential humanity and the connections which can form under any circumstances, and less the dehumanizing effect of constant war as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper.  This, for all its good intentions, takes the teeth out of whatever criticism Camp X-Ray could level against the inhuman treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo.   Camp X-Ray becomes a film without consequence, showing the torture as something which just kinda happened, then because of a simple gesture everyone smiles and goes their separate ways.  Just don’t think about the long-term prospects of that happiness at the end, and you’ll be good.