Pixels in Praxis Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Jan/180

Gorogoa (2017)

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A popular analogy for proponents of Intelligent Design is one of the watchmaker.  It's an argument from design, basically stating that the physical laws of the universe lend credibility to the presence of a deity overseeing the construction of our existence.  I thought of it often in Gorogoa's later sections as the lucid dream of the opening frames gave way to a path of steady construction complete with "tick tock" sounds of footsteps and labor.  The curtain came off, and Gorogoa's world revealed itself as a carefully designed labyrinth.  With the curtain pulled, so too did the magic fall.

But the magic never disappeared, not completely, and Gorogoa's successes - particularly in the immersive joy of my first hour playing it - should be one model of evocative design.  The premise is tantalizing in its brevity, opening with the title followed by a single page of blank space and a square illustration of a modest city.  The architecture places it nowhere in particular, with domed roofs standing alongside canopy peaks and triangular points, all hinting at a shared dream space instead of favoring one style over another.

16Jan/180

Mafia 3 (2016)

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Start with his name, "Lincoln Clay."  First name borrowed from the President known for freeing slaves via legislature and the Emancipation Proclamation, last a tip of the hat to Cassius Clay - better known as Muhammad Ali - the greatest sportsman in history with a rich legacy of fighting for Civil Rights.  Neither had it easy, and on name alone the player character of Mafia 3 has mighty expectations to bear on his shoulders.  Whether developers Hangar 13 bothered to think this far with his name or not is irrelevant, this is his name and this is what it invokes.

Had Hangar 13 bothered with nuance in respect to Mafia 3's player character it might have had something interesting on its hands.  Instead, Mafia 3 goes about treating Lincoln and his surroundings with the vaguest understanding of what life was like in the 1960s for black Americans.  Hangar 13 gets the vernacular down just fine with plenty of moments where Lincoln is referred to or calls others the n-word.  But this is like a suburban white kid rapping along with Public Enemy, the energy comes from saying the word instead of understanding the political, social, and economic conditions that make it such a violent slur.

1Jan/180

My 2017 in gaming: embracing self-care

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I'm of two minds when it comes to the zeitgeist of 2017 entertainment and how women lashed back after decades of debasement.  I agree with critic Jess Joho when she writes 2017 was, "the year women took back their narratives — both real and fictional", but I also feel Jill Gutowitz is spot-on when she wrote, "big jobs like writer, creator, executive producer, and director were still primarily given to men—and the irony is gut-wrenching."  It's the double-edged sword of representation, token jobs may be set aside and prominent roles cast with marginalized groups, but it may only matter insofar as it continues to make money for those who already benefit from our predominantly white, male, and heterosexual system of power.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, my easy pick for most powerful videogame of 2017, lives between both those lines of criticism.  Developer Ninja Theory had no shortage of women helping behind-the-scenes and Melina Juergens' mocap performance drives deep into the hell of self-hatred born from persecution.  Yet, when men are in control of ostensibly feminist stories, an overwhelming amount of women are sacrificed to show how important they are to a functioning society.  I saw this in Blade Runner 2049, an excellent film whose existence I still had to question partly because of the sacrificial role women play (no less than 3 women die in service of the men they love or respect.)

What keeps Hellblade from slipping into that questionable territory is a lot of craft and a bit of tricky wordplay right there in the title.  Senua's Sacrifice also cuts two directions - either Senua is offered up as a sacrifice by others or Senua is choosing to sacrifice something of herself, for herself.  The answer lies in the latter, Senua fights to let go of the torment she puts herself through to live up to the ideals of men who are long dead.  Even the lover she wants to resurrect belittled her abilities with a sword.

Wrenching yourself from oppressive systems is painful.  Ninja Theory dived straight into the deep end with Senua's psychosis and status as a social pariah.  In terms of gameplay, it meant rigid caricatures of masculinity barring Senua's progress and slowing down the battles to hunt down symbols that unlock the next area.  Neither are arbitrary for the psychological affect of Hellblade.  The monstrous men are representative of nightmares some women have after gaming with abusive men, and the symbol hunts showcase a common grounding technique for dealing with PTSD on top of being an example of how simple pattern recognition videogames can curb the effects of PTSD.

Ninja Theory, as the saying goes, did their homework.  Hellblade is an often overwhelming experience, one I had to stop for a day after feeling my panic rise with Senua's desperate struggle to stay alive.  The overall affect is a little of criticism with men primarily in the behind-the-scenes roles, but also the women - in this case Senua and Juergens' performance - taking back their narrative.  The end of Hellblade is pure catharsis for Senua, finally silencing the men and laying her rage to rest, as she abandons the narratives men craft for her and sets off to create her own story.

There were some other cathartic highs in 2017, but nothing came as close as Hellblade because of my own struggles with PTSD and depression.  NieR: Automata is downright optimistic in comparison (and on its own), and videogames like Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle made old experiences feel fresh all over again.

As I'm still new to reviewing videogames the list below is everything I played to completion with links to my writing where applicable.  Because gaming is a costly hobby and more time consuming than writing about film, it takes me a lot longer to finish videogames from 2017 or any other year, and I don't always have something to immediately say.  If you'd like me to elaborate more on these picks, sound off in the comments and I'll provide what my brain and heart have to offer.

28Dec/170

That Dragon, Edith Finch, and playing through grief

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My dalmatian, Beau, was the stinky angel of support during the worst years of my life.  He was hit by a car when he was younger, never fixed, and was a constant source of flatulence.  Eventually he needed to lose weight and went to my grandma's for the summer.  When we arrived he was the healthiest I ever saw him, he ran and ran, then collapsed from a heart attack.  I held him, feeling all the warmth leave his frame, and I wanted to hide from my shame.  I couldn't shake the thought I killed him with my presence, and my grandma's prayers for Beau to be okay didn't help as I sat on the bed failing to disassociate myself from that awful feeling running down my arms, chest, and face of Beau's heat fading away.

Playing 2016's That Dragon, Cancer unearthed that feeling of life slipping away.  I got no respite from any of its chapters, and the moments when baby Joel - diagnosed with cancer at barely a year old - wasn't crying were filled with anxious parents, doctors, and other loved ones chiming in with their feelings.  Their words aren't always of despair or helplessness as there are spiritual and emotional comforts communicated in text, voice, or polygonal frames.  But they served as cold comfort to the tears I could not stop as Joel screamed or his parents, Ryan and Amy, let their doubts and faith spill out onto the canvas of the videogame.

20Dec/170

Tacoma (2017)

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Fullbright took their time crafting the follow-up to their divisive, and massively influential, 2013 first-person environmental exploration video game Gone Home.  Playing Gone Home was something of a watershed moment for me.  I grew up with adventure games like King's Quest and Day of the Tentacle, but wanted to be free of the constraints surrounding their plots and have the ability to explore freely.  Gone Home, with its subtle storytelling cues stuffed in drawers and pounding rain echoing all around me, was my catnip.

The catnip feeling continues with Tacoma while leaving a bitter aftertaste.  This isn't to Tacoma's detriment, as it's dealing with some harsh realities about how corporations use foreign labor to fuel their "innovations."  We're seeing this in Silicon Valley today with workers scared that they'll be ejected because of our President's xenophobia, while also having to work in a system that issues work visas to enforce a form of indentured servitude.  Their reasons are varied, but no one on the space station Tacoma is there by choice and all are trapped by contracts that value them for their intellectual labor while leaving them adrift to find meaning in other ways.