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About ncc1701alex

A gentleman and a scholar

AniMaytion Month: Rock and Rule/Strange Frame

Last year about this time I spent some posts focusing on works of science fiction, and this spring I’m kind of doing it again by default, except that this month, my particular interest is in animated productions.

And, in addition to that, I find myself in the position of having recently encountered two animated features that are, at best, cult classics in terms of notoriety, and both of them involve people in a post-apocalyptic scenario saving those they love through the power of rock and roll.

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Chronologically, the first one is 1983’s Rock and Rule, produced by Canada’s Nelvana Studio – the first English animated film produced entirely in this country, I gather. In a time after global war has left the world populated by animalistic humanoid mutants, Angel and Omar are a couple who dream of making it big as musicians. Angel has a real talent but Omar is selfish and insecure about his own success and they quarrel over exposure for their own songs. Angel is sought out by Mok, a sorcerous former superstar who tempts Angel with going solo. Mok has been searching for a special voice that will enable him to achieve a new kind of power – a horrible demon summoned from beyond. However, I would never have known this movie existed if it hadn’t turned up in the YouTube suggestions while I was watching the other one…

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In 2012, an award-garnering indie film called Strange Frame: Love and Sax came out completely under most radars. Centuries after the polluted Earth has been abandoned and humanity has colonized the rest of the Solar System, hereditary debt bondage and genetic engineering to make you better at a given job are the norm. Parker, a runaway middle-class saxophonist on Ganymede falls in with a debt-slave rebel, Naia. The two become a couple and form a subversive band. When Naia catches the eye of a recruiter for a big music producer, Parker finds herself turfed out as Naia becomes a brainwashed, sanitized superstar. Joining up with the crew of a DIY spaceship, Parker formulates a plan to defy the big fame machine, recover her beloved and get away from it all.

First off, it should be made clear that neither of these movies is meant for kids. I gather that it was a popular misconception that Ralph Bakshi made Rock and Rule; the use of rotoscoping does give that impression, I suppose. The movie sure isn’t shy about suggestive clothing – club dancers wearing the bare (ha, ha) minimum, the villain half-naked in a robe and Angel forced into an outfit on par with the Princess Leia slave bikini – and there’s a scene of Omar and Angel making out very energetically. Strange Frame meanwhile takes place in a Blade Runner-esque grungy future where fetishistic clothing is commonplace and Parker and Naia have sex two or three times in the run of the story – it’s not pornographic by any means but it is still pretty steamy. Plus the monster Mok summons in Rock and Rule is fundamentally disturbing.

Rock and Rule‘s voice cast aren’t big names, as far as I know, except for Catherine O’Hara in one scene. That said, the singing voices are quite big. Well, to be honest, the only one I knew was Iggy Pop, and that’s only because of the time he was on Deep Space Nine. He and one Lou Reed lend their voices to musical numbers by the villainous Mok, the singer Robin Zander does Omar and Deborah Harry does Angel’s singing.

Strange Frame, by contrast, first caught my eye precisely because of its cast: Parker, the heroine and narrator is voiced by Claudia Black, late of Farscape and Mass Effect 2, Naia is played by Tara Strong, Grenman, the captain of the DIY ship – the delightfully named Lone Mango – is Ron Glass, and Chat, the band’s drummer, is Alan Tudyk. Given the general look of the thing, two Firefly and one Farscape actors make perfect sense, really. Cree Summer, Tim Curry as the villain, and George Takei as the villain’s overseer round off one heck of an ensemble.

I can certainly understand why somebody thought that Rock and Rule was Bakshi’s doing. You can tell from how they move that the characters are rotoscoped over live performers at least some of the time, and the attention to detail is pretty impressive. Whoever was animating Mok’s face certainly cared about their work. It’s got more movement in it than some whole characters. It seems to be set in the far future with a new civilization having arisen long after the old one. Omar and Angel make out in a car that looks abandoned in a sort of campsite, the nearby big city is called Nuke York and features such as Mok’s airship, his power plant base and the hovering-shuttle transit system suggest islands of advanced technology in a sea of used future – Blade Runner again splattered across Mad Max, as it were. What’s kind of weird is the halfhearted way the characters are made to look like animals. If TV Tropes is to be believed, most of the main characters are meant to look like dogs, but they resemble dogs to about the same extent that Arthur resembles an aardvark. Angel just looks like a regular gal with a button nose if you don’t look too close. Mok is supposedly meant to be a cat, but I don’t see it at all. He looks like Count Dracula as played by Steven Tyler. Overall, the effect isn’t ‘these are cartoon anthropomorphic animals’ so much as ‘these are humans but something about them is weirding me out.’ That said, the animators pushed the boat out on the demon. It doesn’t stick with cliched demon imagery. Instead it goes the Eldritch Abomination route of depicting something that seems unused to having a physical form, and is in a constant state of hideous flux.

Strange Frame‘s animation is made in a style of stop motion with paper cutouts. It incorporates bits of old live-action movies and CGI-distorted live images for some of the backgrounds and vehicles. The character design is eclectic to say the least. The various genetically engineered persons create a colourful cast. Reesa, Grenman’s first mate, looks more like a hybrid of monkey and bat than a human; the three ‘Muses’ who advise Parker include a catgirl and a lady with ram’s horns; Atem, the band’s bassist looks like a werewolf and Chat the drummer has four arms. Parker is easily the most normal-looking. The grungy, orange-tinted scenery, megacity setting, corporatocratic society and whacky-tending-to-racy clothing styles evoke Blade Runner, Transmetropolitan, or Warhammer 40K Hive Worlds. The way ancient spare parts get used to build ships, and how some ships are built using hollowed-out asteroids as hulls was particularly nifty. The combination of digital and physical media – or appearance thereof – is reminiscent of the Neil Gaiman movie Mirrormask.

Neither film is a musical exactly, but music is nonetheless a key part of the story. Rock and Rule is, as I said, a bit of an all-stars lineup of its time. Lou Reed’s villain song for Mok is fun enough. The original Canadian version and American redub of this movie are apparently markedly different, because I found a standalone clip of Iggy Pop’s contribution, but in the original version’s upload I watched, it’s barely audible above the sound effects of our heroes dashing to the rescue. I’m innately wary of any story where somebody’s voice or talent is supposed to be earth-shattering, especially when it’s as literal as here, because it’s hard to find a real talent that lives up to that much hype. But to my pleasant surprise, Angel’s song, ‘Send Love Through’ – later reworked by Deborah Harry into the single ‘Maybe For Sure’ – is written and performed so well that you really could believe that it has the power ascribed to it. Certainly, it’s now been stuck in my head for over a week.

Music in Strange Frame is superb. The songs of Naia’s that get spotlighted are catchy, especially the one she composes in the first act. The only disappointing thing is that you feel like you’re only hearing portions of them. Strange Frame doesn’t seem to have a soundtrack album. The background music is also catchy as hell, with Jazz, electronic and other influences evident. The saxophone’s presence, as Parker’s instrument, gives the music real drive and emotion. The big chase scene at the end is especially good. The sci-fi sound effects are first rate, too. As before, some of the busier scenes might make it hard to notice what’s going on. According to the Wikipedia page there’s a Roger Waters song in the movie, but don’t ask me where.

Rock and Rule‘s story is, if nothing else, pretty original in concept, and the way that a quarrelsome couple can come together to vanquish evil through song is oddly moving, if a little cheesy. The only drawback is that the characters evolve by the flick of a switch, rather than gradually. Omar is hot-headed and selfish, storming off in a huff when Mok seeks out Angel’s solo talent, but we don’t really see enough of their life to know why she puts up with him. I think the relationship is meant to be seen as passionate but creatively fractious, but without enough context it almost looks abusive. It still drives a theme of your loved ones and your art being more important than your ego. Omar pulls a big damn heroes moment more because it looks cool in the movie than because it seems true to the character, while their other two bandmates actually make a rescue effort we get to witness. And that doesn’t actually accomplish much, except to get their drummer, somewhat an audience surrogate, into position. Omar’s character arc, such as it is, is served by Angel, despite her nominally being the main character. She doesn’t really have an arc. She doesn’t fall for Mok’s enticements of solo success, he kidnaps her. She stays much the same. Though it is cool that she’s a positive example to those around her, and she’s an active and intelligent character, it does seem like she’s doing a lot of the emotional labour here. Mok is a villain I like. Complex he ain’t, but cunning, grandiose, petty and diabolical, and the theme of fundamental goodness drives his downfall as well as the demon’s. But the plot has a sense of being rushed from point to point.

Strange Frame‘s plot is a lot better organized, with Parker’s narration keeping you on top of things. That said, some of the plot is communicated visually without being spelled out, but it comes across more as ‘we want you to interpret this’ rather than Rock and Rule‘s ‘we don’t have time to explain this properly’ vibe. Exactly how the villains’ evil plot works is a little unclear. They make an android duplicate of Naia but still keep her squirrelled away in stasis – I interpreted it as using the android as a conduit for her talent while locking away her rebellious personality. The other bandmates kind of fall by the wayside with little ceremony. In contrast to the sense that large chunks of plot and character are missing in Rock and Rule, Strange Frame seems to have a lot of plot elements that don’t go anywhere. I gather the original plan was to make a series out of it, and there are threads tending to indicate that. The parallel narrative with the AI installed on the Lone Mango barely interacts with everything else. It sort of reminded me of that ‘castaway’ metaplot thing in Watchmen. While the villain is vanquished, his overseers, represented by the voice of George Takei, are never seen, named, nor called to account. The rescue plan seems to go a little too easily, and the big chase scene seems oddly unimaginative, albeit visually enjoyable. That said, the ending, while open-ended, is positive and satisfying, and the movie defies the increasingly infamous Dead Lesbian trope!

It might be obvious by now that I like Strange Frame more than Rock and Rule. Strange Frame‘s dialogue and voice acting are excellent, funny, heartbreaking, and clever. I had to laugh at Claudia Black bringing us a whole new set of sci-fi fake swear words after her tenure on Farscape. The story’s better constructed, and the characters are more varied and interesting, with almost everybody in it a person of colour (when they look human) a sexual minority, or both. I like the setting, a future civilization spanning the Solar System, like the Expanse or Cowboy Bebop. I like the artistry of the animation, which is quite unlike anything I’ve seen.

I’m not saying I don’t like Rock and Rule. Apart from its Canadian background, it’s still an great archetypal story, however haphazard, and its animation style gets me in the nostalgia somewhat. The imagery is quite imaginative. Despite the comparisons to Bakshi, I actually thought some of the scenery was akin to Studio Ghibli’s style. It’s just that if I had a choice of which one to push to friends, Strange Frame would be – and indeed, is – first in line. I recommend it first for story, characters, voice acting, progressivism and general weirdness. Rock and Rule‘s weirdness seems more unintentional than Strange Frame‘s. For music though, for me, it’s a dead heat, I’m glad to say, and it feeds this weird fascination I have with stories about fictional bands I was previously feeding on a diet of Jem and the Holograms.

You can rent Strange Frame on YouTube and Rock and Rule has been running the bootleg circuit so long I don’t think anyone cares anymore, so it too will pop up on YouTube time and time again, so check them both out, if you like.

Meanwhile, in the interest in getting that song out of my head, here it is in a fan-edited video so you all have to hear it too…

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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in animation, Movie

 

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Adventure Game April: Syberia III

Nothing like having a scoop. A year or so after discovering the charming and memorable adventure games Syberia and Syberia II, I get the opportunity to play and comment on the long, long awaited third installment of the franchise when it’s fresh.

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To recap, Syberia I and II is the story of Kate Walker, an up-and-coming New York lawyer sent to Europe to oversee the sale of a factory specializing in automatons, clockwork robots that were once the envy of the world. Kate has to track down the last heir to the factory, the aged genius Hans Voralberg, famed for the quality, artistry, and positive humanity of his automatons. Befriending the automaton Oscar, Kate follows the trail Hans has left across Eurasia, working around intricate machines, mysterious ruins, and sinister enemies to reach the Youkol tribe, and beyond, the gateway to the island of Syberia, last stronghold of mammoths and Hans’ lifelong dream.

Perhaps more significant, however, is how Kate herself transforms by degrees from a superficial careerist into a passionate, starry-eyed adventuress, casting off the shallow life in the big city and seeing the world, believing in dreams and making her way in all sorts of surroundings.

Since Syberia III came out on Thursday, we get to continue Kate’s voyages. Having apparently returned from Syberia Island barely alive, Kate is recovered and nursed back to health by the Youkols, and she joins them on the fraught traditional migration of their herd of giant snow ostriches.

Okay, what? I though the Youkols’ culture revolved around mammoths, if only as a distant memory. Where the heck did snow ostriches come from? For that matter, what’s a snow ostrich? They sort of resemble prehistoric gastornithids, as rendered by Jim Henson. We already had the youkis, the bear-seal-dog hybrid creatures, but as something central to their culture, these seem out of left field. Whatever, if I can cope with mammoths, youkis and man-eating Arctic penguins in the first games, I can deal with snow ostriches. Moving on…

The traditional migration to the sacred breeding grounds of the ostriches is hampered with trouble, and Kate must overcome meddling officials who think the Youkols are riff-raff who should be made to settle down and become labourers and use her modern knowledge to help them steer through a Chernobyl-esque nuclear disaster zone. At the same time, Kate herself is pursued by a Russian colonel with his own agenda, and by Cantin, the private eye her old law firm sent on her track in Syberia II. She finds allies, like the old clockmaker, his granddaughter, a broken and penitent ferry captain, and the mysterious half-Youkol girl living almost wild in the ruins of an Olympic complex, as well as the Youkol shaman, and Kurk, the young, spirit-appointed guide of the migration.

With original Syberia auteur Benoit Sokal in charge, it’s easy to recognize the pattern of Syberia: a linear progression between different sites, solving puzzles and persuading characters to advance the quest. Having spent the past two games getting to know Kate’s character, we now have some little power to shape that character ourselves. The dialogue system works essentially the same way as before, with topics to go through to get all the information, but when you have to persuade or explain yourself to somebody, you’re given a Mass Effect-style choice of confrontational, gentle, or whatever others suit the situation. Using the blunt approach generally makes things harder to achieve, but as a character driven game, this little element of roleplaying both shapes Kate in your mind and makes the dialogue itself a bit of a puzzle.

I’m pleased to say the puzzles themselves are much better. Maybe it’s practice but I found Syberia III more intuitive than the last two. Each one is a little step in advancing your progress that is helped with a grasp of logic, physics and a little general knowledge. The controls are neat: rather than select, say, a screwdriver from your inventory and click on the screw to undo it, you actually have to spin the cursor to simulate turning the screwdriver! The game did warn me going in that a controller would make this easier than a mouse, but once I understood the basic tenets of the system, I found it easy enough.

The movement controls have changed. In the first two you moved Kate around by clicking and letting her walk to where you clicked, a la strategy games. Now you steer her around with the W-A-S-D keys. Admittedly, the mostly static camera positions are still there and can place Kate quite far away from you, and it can get fiddly if you move offscreen and then in the new screen angle the axis of movement changes, which can cause her to abruptly change direction if you’re not careful. But it’s no worse than the controls in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I just think Kate should run all the time. She walks so slowly that not holding the run button is pointless, but it’s also awkward to do.

That said, taking the time to enjoy the game environments is worthwhile. The Youkol camp, Valsembor on the lake, the ruined amusement park and all the others are just stunning, with the upgraded graphics engine working for it in a big way. Plus, when exploring, the game will subtly highlight interactive points and objects you get close to, so that you have to search carefully with less of the needle-in-a-haystack feeling of the first games. The environments are further enhanced by the music, which is better than the last games. The music in those wasn’t bad by any means, but it tended to crescendo during dialogue and drown it out, and I ended up turning it off. I left it on far more often in Syberia III. My Dad once joked that he must have been Armenian in a previous life, because of how moving he finds the sound of the duduk. I think I have a similar relationship with Mongolian throat singing.

My primary complaint is that the lavish environments – particularly Valsembor and the Olympic complex – are too big. This wasn’t the Obduction thing where the environment would load for half an hour and then crash after ten seconds, but in addition to taking up an astonishing amount of my hard drive, I periodically got lost in the bigger environments. I also had to take the graphics settings down a peg because they were making my processor wheeze a bit. One of the few times I had to check a walkthrough was because I simply couldn’t find an object I needed in the vastness. Being lavish and being tightly designed are not mutually exclusive – the Youkol camp in this game is gorgeous; Barrockstadt in Syberia I and the monastery in Syberia II bear out that premise. Some of the environments here seem huge in a way that prioritizes realism over practicality, and result in you staying in any one environment long enough to get a little sick of it. The music’s better orchestrated and less intrusive than in the previous games, but in the long stays in each environment, you listen to each piece an awful lot.

The only really bad habit that’s carried over from the old games is the puzzles can pile up. Getting the ferry going is particularly tiresome for this – the captain will tell you ‘go fix this so we can get underway’ and when you’ve done it and report back he’ll say ‘okay, now go fix this other thing I haven’t even mentioned.’ Each puzzle so bred is pretty clever, but especially in the ferry situation it felt like we were delaying the story rather than contributing to it.

The main complaint you’ll hear from the internet hive is regarding the lip syncing. The facial animations are pretty good, actually, but the mouth movements in dialogue are indeed very clunky – I think. I don’t know for sure if the lip sync is bad or just bad in English – Benoit Sokal is Belgian and developer Microids is based in Paris so maybe it’d look better if I reset to French. It would be petty to call that a deal-breaker, especially considering the plastic marionette look of the previous games. The cartoonishness of the character design has wound back to align with more realistic graphics. Kate, Kurk, and a few others benefit enormously – despite her overall resemblance to Lara Croft, Kate doesn’t have ridiculously huge breasts and actually dresses for the weather – but some of the more cartoony-looking characters end up in the uncanny valley somewhat.

I’m not really all that perturbed by how their mouths move so much as with what they’re saying. I have to grudgingly agree with the mob is that the voice acting is, at best, mediocre. The dialogue is good, to be sure, but the voice actors are speaking the lines without actually acting. Not all of them – Kate, thankfully, Kurk, Shaman Ayawaska, Captain Obo and some other performances are on par with previous games. But a lot of them speak flatly with no intonation – the Russian Colonel is really bad – like they’re reciting the lines but not reading them. Which might explain why nobody caught the occasional hiccup in the English translation. The voices themselves often don’t match the characters. Cantin returns having completely lost his New York accent, and Steiner, despite being old enough to have an adult granddaughter and a dodgy heart, has no roughness or weight of years in his voice; he sounds younger than I do!

The worldbuilding in this series was always pretty whimsical, like Syberia I blending clockwork, cossacks and cellular phones. I can detect a few oddities here, like Kate’s varying faculty with languages. The Youkols are the source of a lot of this – their puzzling physique, but also their lifestyle. Sokal might have benefited from an anthropology textbook or two. In addition to the ostriches coming out of nowhere, there’s little in their material culture that reflects their importance, and the Youkols’ lifestyle is depicted inconsistently; they’re described as nomadic, but the village in Syberia II looks permanent, like a Pueblo made of ice, and Kurk mentions that snow ostrich manure is used as a crop fertilizer. What crops? Nomads don’t grow crops, and even if they did, they wouldn’t do it in the high Arctic!

I’m not sure whether I ought to be offended by the Youkols or not. You’re not being invited to laugh at them, but they are a little ridiculous. I don’t have the faintest idea where Sokal got the idea that they should look like obese Inuit Hobbits. The townspeople call them thieves – standard irrational bigotry – but then I find a computer mouse among the Shaman’s personal effects for some reason. At least now they have more words in their language than ‘took-took.’ Plus they’re a mashup of indigenous cultures. Their dress, to my relatively untrained eye, codes as a mix of Inuit and Mongolian, the Spirit Mask in Syberia II looked like it was made in British Columbia, and they use dreamcatchers, a practice originating with the Ojibwe people of Eastern North America. All their talk of what the spirits want seems cliched. There’s also a bit of a white savior dynamic with Kate as the one who has to fix everything.

She still sounds skeptical about supernatural talk even now, which seems inappropriate given her own spiritual experiences and every improbable thing she’s heard about being true, but she does take her cues from the Youkols, she’s not leading them. There is great resonance in the scenario of the nomads being harassed, attacked or fenced in by modern borders, commerce and sensibilities, which has historical basis on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, and there’s evidence of the harm done at the Olympic complex which is heartbreaking.

I would say that narratively the thing that bothers me about Syberia III is that it seems oddly disconnected from Syberia II, like there’s another story in between that’s missing. Kate found a temperate island in the high Arctic with mammoths, but that seems not to be important anymore. How did she get back? What was she doing where the Youkols found her? How does Syberia exist? She remarks that the Youkols have made her one of them, but it would have been nice if they’d said that at some point, given her an initiation or something. Maybe it’s me, ’cause I’m working on a fanfiction dealing with this exactly, but it feels like there was a lot of material supplied by Syberia II that Syberia III isn’t using.

The one part of her past that does seem to be relevant is the one that stuck out to me in Syberia I: she gets the contract signed before heading off on the quest with Hans and Oscar, but doesn’t send it back. I still don’t know why she didn’t just fax the damn thing with her resignation letter first. Now, it’s claimed, she’s a wanted woman for stealing the contract and causing mayhem on Russian soil, which rather reinforces the sense that she was kind of irresponsible.

Another interesting difference between this game and the last is that, in Syberia II, Kate was running toward something – Syberia Island – and now she seems to be running away. Whereas Cantin was never really a threat in Syberia II, and seemed to think he was trying to help Kate for her boss and family, he’s more obviously villainous this time: condescending to her and smugly tying her up at the first opportunity. This might represent an attempt to compensate for the negative reading of Kate’s actions in Syberia I: I have a hunch Cantin is lying about her being wanted. He claims Kate’s being sought by the US Department of Justice, but as Kate herself points out, the DOJ wouldn’t send a private detective. The way he and the doctors keep trying to insist she really doesn’t want to do this or that, and the fact that the doctors are in cahoots with both Cantin and the Colonel, suggest this is a bigger plot, and understanding and evading the pursuers seems to be more the focus of her story than the destination of the migration.

Kate continues her trend of asserting her independence and determination, not taking being locked up, tied up, gaslighted or hunted lying down for one second, using her wits and her good heart at every turn. At the same time, her pursuers cast their shadow, she’s left a lot of new friends in her wake with stakes of their own in what happens, and it’s implied that the consequences of turning her back on home and family, be they personal, political or legal, are still to be faced. Certainly they’re facing far darker times than the first games. There’s no combat in these games, of course, but what violence there is, even when Kate has to break a window to get a puzzle piece and cuts herself, becomes somehow more upsetting than a thousand defeats in XCOM or Mass Effect.
Like in the last games, I’ve grown to really care about Kate, Kurk, and the other characters. I think more dialogue would have done a better job, but the job is nevertheless done, and now I can’t wait to see what happens.

Because I don’t know what happens, and this is where it gets really bizarre. At the climax of the migration, just when they’re nearly out of reach of the bad guys, with Kate risking her very life to give the Youkols a chance…the game ends, cut to credits.

For a wild moment, I thought some kind of glitch had triggered the credits early, so I went back and tried again. Same result. We’d introduced the characters and conflicts and then ended the game just as they got rolling! Syberia I and II were originally intended to be one game, so probably Syberia IV will come along in due time, but Syberia I had a distinct ending that made use of everything that had happened in it, and this doesn’t.

I was having fun while it lasted. The game’s new, a bit buggy, but everything that made Syberia awesome was in place: beautiful environments, clever puzzles, good characters, excellent music and dialogue, and it’s a nice respite from games that contain combat. It has some of the shoddiness of troubled production, and seems longer and slower than needed – I can play Syberia II two or three times over in the time it takes to play III once – and the plot barely seems to get going before the game stops! I won’t be angry, because gamers spew enough hype-driven bile online already, but I hope Syberia IV can run with the potential I see in this game. So I shall resume waiting, and maybe play the series to date through again.

Bon chance, Kate Walker.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2017 in Video Game

 

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The Last Express: A Train Long Gone

Well, it’s April, so I’m going to take another crack at my attempt last year at dedicating the month to Adventure Games.

While I wait on tenterhooks for Syberia III to make its appearance later this month, I sought out another old one I’ve had in my Steam account for some while.

Oddly, like my last-reviewed adventure game, the Journeyman Project 3, I first encountered the Last Express via a Myst game.

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The original CD-ROM edition of Myst we had included a trailer for the game, created in 1997 by Jordan Mechner, also of the original Prince of Persia game.

The year is 1914 and you are Robert Cath, called up by an old friend and fellow globetrotter, to join him on a shady journey via the Orient Express from Paris to Constantinople and thence on to Jerusalem. However, Cath gets aboard the train only to find his comrade dead, his room ransacked. Cath assumes his friend’s identity and has to find out how he was killed and walk a line between various factions among the train’s passengers: a German industrialist, a Serbian partisan fighter, a Russian anarchist, a mysterious prince, a beautiful and mysterious violinist, all of whom have their own reasons to deal with Cath, revolving around the mystical and priceless Firebird.

The game has a very noir-style story, and the bird-shaped objet d’art makes it clear that the noir classic the Maltese Falcon is a major influence. The other one, inevitably, is Murder on the Orient Express. Cath is not a policeman or detective – he claims to be a doctor but whether or not he’s just a con man isn’t totally obvious – and the murder becomes almost secondary to negotiating the clashing agendas aboard the train.

The gameplay is the standard look around and pick up things. These things can be used for solving various puzzles, or to get yourself in the good books of other characters – in particular the money meant for the arms dealer. For an additional twist, however, time is a factor. Time passes consistently during the game, about 5 times faster than in real life. This introduces issues like actually having a time limit to do certain things, such as having to get certain ducks in a row before you arrive at one of the cities on the Express route.

This creates a fascinatingly varied experience. Encounters with characters and what order you do some things is dependent largely on your own timing, cunning and luck. I had to rewind a long, long way back at one point in the game and ended up not having some minor encounters I’d had on the first pass, because the timing made other things take priority.

It also means that the game has a vast variety of endings – although granted almost all of them are failure conditions. You can get arrested almost at the start of the game. You can let Anna get to the train’s secret cargo before you and she ends up getting killed. You can keep Prince Kronos waiting too long and have his bodyguard knock you off. Or you can take the money and run at Vienna, and the Orient Express goes on its merry way without you. That is also treated as a failure in that the narrative says you regret it, and there’s no closure, but you survive.

Meanwhile, the story comes to you as it may by eavesdropping and snooping. Time your explorations of the train correctly and you’ll overhear conversations through doors and across tables in the dining car, and have a few of them yourself. The train is populated by quite the cast of characters: the arms dealer, the violinist, the anarchist, the Serbians, the senile Russian nobleman and his granddaughter, the chatty English businessman who is not what he seems, the young English diarist on a whirlwind romantic trip with a Frenchwoman, and the French family in the oil business whose son is obssessed with bugs.

The game does a grand job of capturing the lavish decor of the Orient Express, and the sense of scale of Europe on the eve of World War I. It hearkens back to a time when the world seems, in retrospect anyway, like a bigger, more varied and exotic place. It does rather unquestioningly imitate the Orientialist fetishism of the time, with the Turkish passenger with the harem of veiled women and the sinister but suave African-coded Kronos (he kind of reminds me of portraits I’ve seen of Haile Selassie) and his also-African lady-bodyguard. Nonetheless it’s a visual feast as well as an exercise in strategic thinking. The minimalist animation combined with rotoscoping also lends it an appropriately vintage look.

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Granted, it’s not perfect. The game’s a bit buggy, in such a way that if things don’t go in a way the game expects, like when a pre-scripted event kicked in just as I was hiding the Firebird, then the next scripted event didn’t happen and I had to rewind way back and begin again. The controls are a little fiddly as well. The cursor doesn’t have to move far to the side of the screen to make the ‘move forward’ arrow turn into the ‘turn around’ arrow, and sometimes I’d get stuck moving forward and go whizzing past my destination. Also, given the uniformity of design of train cars, if you do accidentally hit the turn-around button, it can take quite a while to notice. Plus, the baggage cars are weirdly hard to navigate in.

Beyond that, the game has lots of material, but it seems like it’s shallower than all this detail warrants. The Serbians end up being more serious antagonists than Kronos, who has vanishingly little screen time and no backstory to speak of, and is dealt with with strangely little ceremony. I sense the odd plot hole, like how Cath somehow goes from being invited by his friend on the trip to being determined to get to Jerusalem for his own purposes, and the way the game insists you get the gold doesn’t make immediate sense to me, and the role of the anarchist as anything but a side plot is unclear.

This isn’t helped by the solution to the mystery suddenly veering out of Murder on the Orient Express and into Raiders of the Lost of the Ark in a way that doesn’t really seem to reward a lot of your detective work, and is scarcely foreshadowed, since anything supernatural wasn’t really on the menu prior to that. Plus several supporting characters get a ‘rocks fall and everyone dies’ treatment and Cath and Anna’s shared arc seems to fizzle out, although the tragedy element of some noir does make sense there. I gather Mechner intended to spin this out into a franchise but it didn’t pan out. And as a result of trying to leave it open-ended, it comes across as a story half-finished. Holding back details like Myst does can create a sense of mystery and imply a bigger world, but this isn’t doing that, it just feels like a lot of the world, mythology and characterization is either missing or isn’t used.
It’s still good, mark you. The time element lends it replay value, and it certainly stimulates fascination with the time it’s set in, and interest in a colourful and diverse range of characters, but it lacks the intricacy and intelligence of the Journeyman Project or Myst. In general I get the impression that Mechner had high aspirations for this game and refused to accept the tools he actually had and make the most of them. Nonetheless, a fun time, and if the plot doesn’t have a lot of closure, at least my memory of that trailer has some now.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Video Game

 

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Star Wars: Rebels, and Clone Wars a Little Bit

As much as I’ve said in the past that I’m a Trekkie first, there’s no doubt that Star Wars is firmly in the ascendant these days. I would have thought that both franchises were destined to stagnate and fade quietly away. Whether or not Star Trek: Discovery proves me wrong I won’t know for a while, but Star Wars has unexpectedly risen again with the release of the exhilarating the Force Awakens and gut-punch intense Rogue One.

Still, I can only re-watch them so many times. It was out of curiosity, and some unexpectedly good reviews that I ended up trying out the animated spinoff series: Clone Wars a while back on Netflix, and then, more recently, Star Wars: Rebels.

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Left to right: Hera Syndulla, Kanan Jarrus, Ezra Bridger, Zeb Orellios, Sabine Wren

Rebels‘ third season wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve found myself quite enjoying it. Moreso than Clone Wars, although that didn’t stop me watching four fifths of it, too. I assumed that it would be very kid-oriented and shallow. A little unfairly, it turned out…

Star Wars: Rebels features Ezra Bridger, a street kid in the capital of the planet Lothal. The Galactic Empire is squeezing the planet for labour and resources and cracking down on dissent. Ezra is pickpocketing his way to survival when he gets caught up in a more ambitious Robin Hood-style action by the crew of a smuggler ship, the Ghost. One of them, Kanan, recognizes Ezra’s uncanny intuition and skill for what it is: he’s a Force-sensitive. Kanan was a Jedi student during the Clone Wars, and takes the brash Ezra under his wing. As they cause mayhem for the Empire on Lothal, they attract they attention of Imperial authorities, including the cunning intelligence officer Agent Kallus, his boss, the formidable Grand Moff Tarkin, and the Imperial Inquisitors, Force-sensitives tasked to hunt down surviving Jedi. Eventually, even the Inquisitors have to give way to their boss, Darth Vader. As the spark of the Lothal rebellion grows, inspiring others and drawing in other rebel cells, they become part of a larger movement that openly confronts the Empire, under the insidious and erudite Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Ezra becomes a member of a closely-knit crew of misfits: Kanan, the half-trained Jedi veteran, the exiled warrior-artist Sabine, sour ex-soldier Zeb, recalcitrant droid Chopper, and their feisty yet cunning captain, Hera Syndulla. Each of them brings their own skills and personal history and issues that drive them to oppose the Empire and stand by each other, however difficult that sometimes proves. Ezra struggles to fit into a crew, and family, and all of them try to cope with the growing scope of their role in the galactic conflict, as Ezra also begins to learn the ways of the Force and the perils of the Dark Side.

If that seems like a busy schedule, it’s because Rebels is built to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model of a new Big Bad every season, although Thrawn isn’t out of the picture as of the end of Season 3. That can be a dodgy approach, as it was on Buffy or Legend of Korra because it can be hard to keep ramping up the drama from scratch. However, Rebels takes an in-between approach, where the story arc of gradually escalating the scope of the rebellion, and the Empire escalating its response in line with it by bringing in a succession of heavy hitters.

By and large, the escalation coincides with the show finding its feet. Personally, I didn’t find the Inquisitors, with their creepy eyes and overdesigned light sabres, all that scary. But you’d have to be nuts not to find Tarkin or Vader scary – especially after the latter’s exploits in Rogue One, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is chilling, although his sinister wait-and-watch habit arguably went on just long enough to seem silly before he finally brought the hammer down, but boy did he ever!

That said, I have to say that I still find the series somewhat toothless. A lot of shows listed on the TV Tropes wiki have a section called ‘Getting Crap Past the Radar.’ It usually lists things like dirty jokes or heavy content slipped into kid shows for the benefit of the more mature-minded. Batman: the Animated Series and Avatar: the Last Airbender have quite a lot of entries in theirs. It says a lot about Rebels by comparison that it doesn’t have one at all.

Rebels sort of resembles Firefly in that it features a created-family scenario scrunched into a slightly run-down spaceship doing crosses between covert ops and odd jobs. But somehow it still maintains a certain plastic unreality. The ship seems awfully clean and well-lit. Their food never seems to run low, enemy weapons only ever hurt them if the plot needs them to, they only have one or two episodes where fuel or money troubles vex them. And, like that old joke about the Enterprise, the Ghost doesn’t seem to have any bathrooms.

The characters themselves, meanwhile, are each interesting in their own right but the chemistry between them is a little weak. The show isn’t willing to do anything so brazen as have even subtextual romance subplots. Ezra seems to be trying catch Sabine’s eye for a while but nothing ever comes of it one way or the other. She doesn’t even just say ‘no,’ the subplot just trails off after a while. Kanan and Hera seem to have a thing for each other – she calls Kanan ‘love’ a lot – but it’s not clear what the story is there. And even during the tough times, very rarely do any of them break character in a shocking way.

The show is about war – it’s right there in the name and all – but like Clone Wars before it, the subject matter doesn’t really seem to be taken seriously. Not least because there’s a double standard about how shocking death is. In Clone Wars, the fact that the bad guys were bumbling battle robots made mowing them down seem unremarkable, notwithstanding some philosophical considerations concerning droid sapience. But now the Imperial stormtroopers are the enemy mooks, their bumbling and bad aim clash with the knowledge that there are actual human beings in that armour – although they very carefully avoid letting you see their faces whenever their armour gets stolen. It makes the death of any stormtrooper, especially one with a speaking role, or one who perishes with particular irony, quietly disturbing. And yet when death or maiming happens to someone with a face, then it gets regarded with shock by the heroes, even if it’s a bad guy, like the defector Tua or the Inquisitor who commits suicide in season 1 – presumably preferring that to having to report in to Darth Vader.

In general I think what makes me uncomfortable about Rebels is that it doesn’t consistently treat war as something bad but necessary, but as something awesome and cool. It makes for compelling battles and raids, though. Kanan is pretty good about speaking up for a more pacifistic angle, as well. And some episodes deal with the costs of war, like when Kanan gets blinded in season 2, Sabine’s schism with her clan, and the hideously costly battle at the end of season 3. Avatar had to pull punches as well, of course, but was somehow more consistent about it, and was more convincing about treating war as something you have to do but rather wouldn’t. The priority of action over character development also means that characters come through the fires of war but it doesn’t seem to cost them that much emotionally – they bounce back too easily.

That said, the toothlessness of the action is markedly diminishing, with characters unambiguously dying and the rebels getting set back big time in season 3. Given the Ghost and Hera’s very brief cameos in Rogue One, the bar for how far we can take this is promisingly high. And I do like the characters a lot. Ezra’s got rather more emotional range than average for the spunky young hero. Kanan has fascinating internal conflicts, and I like the way he subverts the standard Old Master character by being himself half-trained. Zeb has something of the shell-shocked veteran going on – he kind of reminds me of D’Argo in Farscape. Sabine doesn’t get as much character development as I’d like, but the premise of the scion of a martial tradition with the soul of an artist is quite charming. The level of sophisticated thinking displayed by Thrawn is well above average for a cartoon villain. My favourites are Hera herself, and Agent Kallus. Kallus has perhaps the most pronounced character arc of them all, keeping me guessing throughout. Hera’s interesting on a few levels. Arguably, she has the greatest emotional range and deepest backstory of any of the characters, especially since her father’s character carried over from the Clone Wars. But as a Star Wars fan, the coolest thing about her is that she’s a Twi’lek.

If you don’t know, Twi’leks are an alien species in Star Wars, almost invariably found in the context of exotic dancers and slave girls in the thrall of people like Jabba the Hutt. So to get one promoted to lead character is really cool. Besides that, she’s no one’s sex object. She makes those who assume she is one pay dearly in one early episode where she has to pose as a slave, and she dresses eminently practically, in something like Kaylee in Firefly’s work clothes. On a bigger scale, almost all of the human characters are discernibly non-white, so we’ve got actual representation and metaphorical representation as a garnish.

However cagey I’m being about character arcs, they’re a decided improvement over Clone Wars, which consisted of multiple, mostly isolated adventures. That aspect of Clone Wars is handy because no more than a passing acquaintance is needed to get the significance of legacy characters like Hondo Ohnaka, Rex the retired clone trooper, or Ahsoka Tano, who has her own supporting character arc as a former apprentice of Anakin Skywalker when Darth Vader enters the narrative. It also gives the galaxy a bit more sense of scale – they don’t effortlessly go just any old where with no sense of how the larger war is going, and they’re only one, not particularly powerful independent cell of a larger resistance.

As a Star Wars fan, the references to the larger canon are charming without making the series completely inaccessible. Canon characters like Darth Vader and Lando are recognizable enough, as are locations like Dantooine and Mustafar. Others like Thrawn, Saw Gerrera and Colonel Yularren – otherwise known as one of the dudes sitting around the Death Star’s conference table – are engaging enough even if you don’t know who they are. At the same time, the writers are pretty good at making sure that the story of our main characters is served by the appearance of legacy characters like Vader, Ahsoka or Obi-wan, without them stealing the show. Likewise, they never defeat the primary villains in a way that diminished their effect or menace.

I might be being a little too harsh in some of my critiques, since I have a bad habit of putting this show on and half-watching it while I wash the dishes and such. But while I find it shallower and more by-the-numbers than Avatar, Legend of Korra, or the new live-action Star Wars productions, it still has much merit. Apart from the cool factor of Star Wars, it has cool and diverse characters, charming dialogue, and a promising story arc that’s been getting better and better. The music is superb, making effective use of the classic motifs by John Williams. The voice acting it a big part of what makes it, with Billy Dee Williams, Forrest Whitaker and James Earl Jones himself reprising their characters from the live action movies. The versatility of Dee Bradley Baker, who somehow made all the Clone Wars troopers sound like different people with the same voice, and Steve Blum, who, if you know what to listen for, is half the supporting cast, is stunning. And some big names come to the party as well: Jason Isaacs as the first Inquisitor, Freddie Prinz Jr. as Kanan – and his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar as another Inquisitor – Star Trek’s Brent Spiner as an Imperial senator, Kevin McKidd as a Mandalorian warrior, and no less a personage than Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, as the mysterious Bendu in season 3! Sherlock fans may also recognize the chilling Lars Mikkelsen as Grand Admiral Thrawn.

With such merits, the show is most promising and a lot of fun, and a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.

May the Force be with us all.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2017 in Television

 

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Double Bill: The Vinyl Cafe and Welcome to Night Vale

Under the heading of unusual grieving processes, there’s how I seem to be dealing with the recent loss of a Canadian cultural icon.

Since I was a kid, one of the fixtures at CBC Radio has been the Vinyl Cafe with Stuart McLean. It was a radio variety show featuring musical artists and McLean’s specialty of humourous and introspective stories, both anecdotes and fiction. If you’re American, it’s roughly analagous to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion – in fact, the first time I heard the Vinyl Cafe, I actually thought it was Garrison Keillor.

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McLean died at the age of 68 in February, as the mass extinction of great celebrities of 2016 continues to bleed over into the new year. The Vinyl Cafe was frequently recorded in live performances in venues all over Canada. When I was in university we made a semi-regular thing of going to see the Vinyl Cafe Christmas Tour show at University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. I count myself lucky to have once met McLean in the grocery store and expressed my enjoyment of his shows while I had the chance.

And, coincidentally, I decided to finally get into something a lot of friends of mine follow, and which, it turns out, is somewhat the Vinyl Cafe or Prairie Home Companion’s mirror universe twin: the podcast Welcome to Night Vale.

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Stuart McLean used his show, in part, as a platform to exhibit Canadian musical talent. I remember one broadcast that featured the famous Jeff Healey Band as well as Molly Johnson in particular. During some of the Christmas shows he reliably had the jazz singer Lisa Lindo and the pianist John Sheard – his sometime musical director – in tow, and he once exhibited a then-twelve-year-old master bass guitarist named Jimmy Bowskill and promptly knocked our collective socks off.

Interspersed with the music would be stories, and this is where the Vinyl Cafe and McLean himself really shone. The stories were often ones from McLean’s own experiences, and some episodes – studio ones mostly, as far as I remember – were dedicated to stories sent in from around Canada by listeners about experiences they’d had of one kind or another. But the heart and soul of the Vinyl Cafe for me and a lot of people were the fictional stories McLean wrote featuring Dave and Morley, a married couple in middle-class Toronto, their children, their neighbours and their madcap adventures.

Dave is a record store owner who is the most hilariously neurotic person you could ask for, getting into farcical misadventures alongside his long-suffering wife and bemused children. The most famous one is the story of the frantic, insane lengths he goes to in order to cook the Christmas turkey at the very last minute. My favourite one is when they’re attending the neighbourhood Christmas party and Dave mixes up the adult (rum-laced) eggnog bowl and the kids’ bowl. Wackiness ensues. McLean’s Mr. Rogers-esque voice, deadpan delivery and impeccable comic timing mean that I’ve seldom laughed at anything so hard in my life. I put on the Vinyl Cafe Stories podcast the other day (I’ve only recently begun to actually understand what a podcast is), listened to the story of Dave’s son Sam secretly turning the yard into a water park for his friends and nearly fell off my chair. It says a lot about the show’s long standing and distinctive style that McLean’s live audience would sometimes start laughing well before the punch line, prompting him to remark, “don’t get ahead of me now.”

Welcome to Night Vale has something of the variety-show outfit, although it has an entirely fictionalized frame. Rather than being a radio show where stories are told, the radio show is the story.

Night Vale is an isolated desert community in the American southwest somewhere, and the podcast features its community radio broadcaster Cecil reporting on the latest goings-on; community events, municipal politics, civic affairs, local business advertisements.

Things like: the appearance of a forest that whispers at passers-by, reminders to take cover before the Street Cleaners’ prophesied return, festivals with compulsory attedance, and the election of a sentient luminescent gas cloud to the School Board (All Hail the Mighty Glow Cloud!).

Night Vale is built of very Lovecraftian materials with a dollop of internet conspiracy theories. A Vague But Menacing Government Agency is well-known around town, there are sinister hooded figures everyone tries to ignore, a piece of civic statuary known as the Shape, which reacts badly if people take too much notice of it, and regular implications that the town itself doesn’t exist in quite the same reality as the rest of the world. It’s a little like something out of the Laundry Files crossed with Sunnydale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It’s quite creepy, the creepiness of something just out of sight, there but not there. But to the people of Night Vale, this is just everyday life, and they regard it with such relaxed disinterest that it’s hilarious! As with McLean, Cecil (played by actor Cecil Baldwin) sells a lot of the comedy by deadpan delivery, often of things that are so completely out of nowhere that you can’t help but laugh. The Community Calendar segment is particularly good for this sort of thing, with things like Tuesday being “hornet-free dining at the Olive Garden” or “Monday has been rescheduled to Wednesday, and Wednesday has been doubled.” The wordplay of the opening segment and the ‘today’s proverb’ in the closing segment are also entertainingly random while sometimes having hidden depths.

Since its inception, Welcome to Night Vale has ballooned into a phenomenon including merchandise, spinoff podcasts, novels, and live shows featuring musical artists including Disparition, composer of the series’ theme song and incidental music.

That’s another overlap with the Vinyl Cafe: the guest musical artists in both the live shows and the podcasts – exhibited every episode when Cecil announces the weather forecast. The artists I’ve heard so far include everything from rock to country to rap and hip-hop style tunes.

Night Vale has its own cast of supporting characters as well: the various and usually short-lived radio station interns, plus intern Dana who goes on to greater things, Old Woman Josie and her friends who are definitely not angels all named Erika, John Peters the imaginary corn farmer (the corn is imaginary, not him) and Tamika Flynn the pre-teen bibliophile guerilla army leader. Among those who give voice to some of these characters are noted actors Jasika Nicole and Wil Wheaton.

And of course there’s Carlos. Dear, sweet Carlos with his beautiful hair. Or so Cecil reliably puts it. At various moments during his early broadcasts, Cecil occasionally stops to wax eloquent on his massive crush on the scientist whose team has come to study the assorted bizarrities of Night Vale, and who eventually finds something worth protecting in his beloved Cecil. It’s masterfully seamless. The fact that theirs is a gay relationship is not even once remarked upon, and is frankly adorable.

This is a subject that McLean, to the best of my knowledge, never included so casually. Of course, times were different, but diversity is not much of a priority. I was actually startled that one of the neighbours in ‘the Water Slide’ story was named Fatima. Creditably nothing was made of this, she was just another neighbourhood kid. There was also the story about comedically gaslighting a racist at the restaurant of Dave’s friend Kenny Wong, so McLean was perfectly willing to tackle social injustice, but it wasn’t a tacit part of the mission statement. Of couse, I may be selling the Vinyl Cafe a little short since I have by no means heard every episode.

I will say, though, that for all I’ve played up the comedy side of the Vinyl Cafe, McLean’s stories could be very solemn and thoughtful. Dave’s observations of his elderly neighbours in ‘the Fig Tree’ or their impromptu Christmas with a bitter old motel owner in Quebec especially capture this. Christmas really was McLean’s natural habitat, a time for togetherness, warm feelings and a good laugh.

Welcome to Night Vale is intentionally a bit more subversive and countercultural, with Cecil simply being gay, and occasionally expressing disgust for Native American cultural appropriation, among other things. There are some more solemn episodes, such as ‘the Carnival’ and especially ‘Remembrance Day’ which has some startlingly moving themes about war and intergenerational alienation. Denominational holidays like Christmas and Easter also just don’t factor in Night Vale – except Valentine’s Day, but that means something totally different there – and the cast is more obviously diverse.

The Vinyl Cafe stories acquired a certain continuity – Dave and Morley’s kids grow up in roughly real time, and of course people would occasionally needle Dave on the subject of turkeys. Night Vale takes it to another level in that sometimes some apparently random element in one episode can come up again as mission-critical a dozen or more episodes later. As for ‘real time’ I’m not convinced that concept applies in Night Vale.

I suppose the one drawback they both share is that, since they both have new musical guests in every performance, if you don’t happen to like the music being exhibited, you can find it getting in the way of the other elements. With Night Vale’s streaming format you can skip it, but it also makes for a pleasant surprise when you do like it. Oddly enough both of the songs I have really enjoyed and remembered from Night Vale seem to fall within the rap/hip-hop zone, a genre which is mostly utterly alien to me. While some great artists got exhibited on the Vinyl Cafe, I feel like the genres covered were pretty much jazz/rock/folk and not much else, but since those are the genres I generally prefer, that mostly suited me fine.

For all their vast differences, I find the Vinyl Cafe and Welcome to Night Vale evoke similar emotions through similar formats. I laugh at their deadpan humor and smile at the positive-feeling moments. The Vinyl Cafe made you love and laugh at the lives of ordinary people. Welcome to Night Vale takes the concept into a new generation by opening up the notion of ordinariness. I’ve grown fond of both sets of characters and both narrative voices. I don’t suppose the creators of Night Vale have heard of the Vinyl Cafe, but it’s nice to know that someone’s taken up the same sort of idea and kept it alive. Or at least shamblingly undead. Meanwhile, I’ll keep an ear open for reruns and audiobooks of the Vinyl Cafe, for I know there to be a huge amount of it as yet unknown to me.

Good night, Night Vale, and so long for now, Mr. McLean.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2017 in Podcast/Radio

 

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Jem and the Holograms: Why the Heck Not

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, honestly.

I don’t mean why I’ve been on hiatus so long. That makes sense, to me at least. What confounds me is why I’m reviewing what I’m reviewing.

A while back I admitted to being, to my own bafflement, a adulthood viewer of the tacky, cheesy, badly animated 80’s girlie cartoon Jem, starring the band Jem and the Holograms. I’m still not sure why. The show’s terrible in that particularly 1980s glorified toy commercial kind of way, the music is hit-or-miss at best, and the animation is so stilted it’s like a musical put on by a company of badly-assembled paper dolls. I didn’t watch it as a child (as far as I remember), and genre-wise it’s a ways out of my orbit.

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Out with the old…

As I speculated whilst eviscerating the even worse live action movie trailer, it might be partly that it is cut from the same cloth as my early childhood, but since I actually encountered it by way of fanworks, I think it’s also because the fans have done a surprisingly good job at keeping it alive by working on the subtexts, implications (intentional or otherwise) of the show’s creators, and all that they’ve learned about storytelling as they’ve grown up.

Which meant that, despite the manifest weaknesses of the source material, I took notice that IDW is running a comics version that’s been attracting some positive press. I’ve acquired the first three volumes through my local library to check out.

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…and in with the new

Quick recap: in the cartoon, Jerrica Benton assumes the secret identity of Jem using a hologram-generating AI built by her late father, to lead her sister and foster sisters in a band in order to support her private foster girls’ home and retain control of the family record company. Her nemesis, promoter Eric Raymond, tries to undermine her by the success and general hell-raising wrought by the rebel band the Misfits. Jem/Jerrica has to hold their schemes at bay, support the so-called Starlight House children, and maintain her disguise from even her beloved Rio.

That last point is the biggest stumbling block of the cartoon once you’re in double-digits ages, because for one thing, there’s no apparent reason why Jerrica has to assume a secret identity at all, and it makes no sense to keep Rio, the band’s road manager and her boyfriend, out of the loop. For another thing, since Rio was notoriously depicted as a short-tempered, possessive jerk who dallies with Jem not knowing she is Jerrica and then goes off about hating deception, the double-standards and outright creepiness, while presumably unintentional, are a bit of a deal-breaker.

The comic, meanwhile, creates a much more reasonable scenario: Jerrica and her sisters, Kimber, Shana and Aja, are in their own garage band, which volunteers with the Starlight Community Centre. They are trying to record a video for a contest sponsored by their idols, the Misfits. Jerrica is an excellent singer but has crippling performance anxiety that renders her mute in front of cameras. In her hour of need, she discovers Synergy, the AI her father had created prior to his early death, who is able to use holographic projections to both jazz up the band’s music video and alter Jerrica’s appearance to create a persona for her to hide behind, called Jem. The band thence becomes Jem and the Holograms. The Misfits find themselves upstaged in the contest they themselves were sponsoring, and the jealous and hot-tempered Pizzazz, their frontwoman, leads the way in a war of popularity between the two bands, with the abetment of their manager, Eric Raymond and his right hand man, the computer whiz known as ‘Techrat.’ At the same time, members of both bands deal with their own relationships to each other and such romances as come their way, including Rio, here a music journalist who covers both the Misfits and the Holograms, and Kimber’s star-crossed romance with the creative talent and softer side of the Misfits, Stormer.

So right off the bat the premise certainly makes more sense than the original, ridiculous nicknames notwithstanding. Jerrica has an actual reason to need a cover identity. Rio’s character is recast into someone you can actually stand – crucially, he hasn’t known Jerrica since childhood, and when offered the chance to dally with Jem behind (as far as he knows) Jerrica’s back, he angrily rejects it. Eric’s self-destructive conniving is wound down to simply being a weasel – and a halfway competent one at that. Pizzazz actually cares about music itself as well as her own ego, and however much she despises the Holograms, her schemes aren’t as illegal or suicidal as they tended to be of old. Shana and Aja get much more character development and the Misfits are less of a sackful of angry cats. Synergy herself has much more of a character, which drives the Dark Jem plot in volume 3 when she temporarily goes a bit HAL 9000.

It’s been said that the cartoon has accidentally become something of a period piece of the 1980s. The comic is set in the modern day, and the contrast is both fascinating and hilarious. Because friends of mine currently wear their hair this way, I was particularly struck by characters like Kimber and Pizzazz rocking the long-on-one-side, buzzed-on-the-other style, in contrast to the bouffant look of their original incarnations. I’ve spotted one or two costumes that are clearly 2010s updates of their 80’s-wear, and a couple of characters share some of my contemporaries’ inexplicable fondness for adult-sized onesies.

Character design generally is really cool. All of them look recognizably like their cartoon selves, but more varied. In the cartoon, it’s not hard to see that both bands are mostly made up of copies of the same figure with different hair. In the comic Roxy, the Misfits’ drummer, is built like Avatar Korra, Jetta is now an Afro-Briton (middle ground between the original cartoon conception and what she ended up becoming). Stormer, and Aja to a lesser extent, are big, curvy women instead of Barbie dolls, whereas Kimber is flat-chested and scrawny.

Beyond that, there are lots of little touches that show just how far we’ve come since the 80’s. Twitter, text messaging, video streaming and social media all form important parts of the plot. Techrat goes from the mad inventor archetype to the more modern hacker/troll. The general art style has gone from 80’s Hanna-Barbera to a more manga-esque look. Apt since, in the absence of the 80’s, anime and manga are the logical place to look for over-the-top hair, but the drawing of eyes and use of abstract facial expressions derives from Anime too. The original cartoon gets lots of little nods, such as Jem having the word ‘Outrageous’ written up the leg of her pants in one scene, as does current pop culture, with one issue making references to things like the recently-revived Star Wars and Mad Max franchises. The writers are clearly fans of My Little Pony too, but I try to ignore that. However happy I may be watching kids’ shows, becoming a ‘brony’ is where I draw the line.

Interest in picking apart and interpreting the cartoon has persisted long enough among fans who grew up with it that the series’ fanworks evolved a number of conventions, known to Tropers as ‘Fanon.’ Arguably one of the comic’s major selling points was running with the most common piece of Fanon, that Kimber and Stormer, the respective songwriting talents of the Holograms and the Misfits, are romantically interested in one another. While Kimber and Stormer’s situation is fairly star-crossed, the fact that they’re both women doesn’t enter into it. Kimber is loudly unselfconscious about being queer, and when Aja inadvertently makes a homophobic comment early on, she apologizes instantly. The rift between them is the rivalry between the bands, not the bigotry of others.

That aspect has, I gather, gotten some criticism, not so much because of the relationship, but more because of how fast it progresses. Kimber is crushing on Stormer before they’ve even met; they’re saying ‘I love you’ after having been on maybe two dates, and while that is in character for Kimber, who is wont to love not wisely but too well, it all seems too neat and abrupt.

But then, I feel that way about the stories of a lot of comics I’ve tried out, like Saga or Gotham City Sirens. I think the format is one that makes pacing difficult by nature. In general, it all speaks to me of a story that is good, but in many respects kind of shallow.

While the Holograms all get better characterization, Jetta and Roxy over in the Misfits get less in turn. While acknowledged, their rough backgrounds haven’t really been used for anything. This may be to avoid the trap the cartoon accidentally set, whereby the Misfits were actually more interesting to some fans – Pizzazz still has a knack for stealing the scene, though, and they’ve got a spinoff series all to themselves, apparently.

While a lot of the good character interpretations are carried through from the cartoon, others seem to have gone unquestioned. The Jerrica/Jem duality could be deepened. Some fanon sees the buttoned-down, responsible Jerrica using Jem as a way to cut loose and go, as it were, Lady Ga-ga. But as in the cartoon, Jem and Jerrica don’t really seem that different. Jem looks taller and flashier than Jerrica, but they more or less act the same way. It’s particularly glaring when Rio interviews Jem for his magazine after they’ve been dating for a while, and he doesn’t recognize her unchanged mannerisms. In other words, Jerrica doesn’t bother doing the Clark Kent thing of altering her behaviour to reinforce the disguise.

The old saw that Stormer is supposed to be the ‘nice’ Misfit who doesn’t quite fit in with the band’s punk/rebel image is discussed in the comic. It’s not as bad as the cartoon, but the contrast, while compelling, is still overdone. Stormer is so nice that it doesn’t seem like it’s in her nature to write the kind of songs that you’d expect from a band like this.

Speaking of ‘a band like’ the Misfits, what kind of band are they? What kind of band are the Holograms? This one might be partly my fault since I tend to skim over the song lyrics. But the dichotomy – the Holograms are the happy, sunny ones, the Misfits are the edgy, tough ones – doesn’t seem to exist for any reason than just because that’s the premise the story came with. Pizzazz’s jealousy is almost all that seems to drive the rivalry. It isn’t clear to me what artistic vision unites each band. Incidentally, the Dark Jem arc, where Synergy malfunctions and starts brainwashing the Holograms into a dark, Goth/Emo style not their own, is clearly bad but inadvertantly seems to imply that that style and genre is somehow innately villainous.

Look, I realize I’m slipping into a ‘this isn’t how I would have written it’ tirade, but as much as I’m enjoying this series, it lacks a certain bite I can’t quite quantify. I think that the series is aimed at younger readers – certainly it’s aimed at a generation who can be counted on not to find queer characters surprising. There’s minimal swearing, and somehow it keeps bugging me that despite the main characters all being rock stars, even the ‘bad girl’ band doesn’t have a reefer between them. Kimber’s lackadaisical personality never seems to carry any consequences for her, her relationship with Stormer seemingly the only driver of her character arc.

I think another reason why I find this franchise interesting is that at about the same time I started watching the cartoon I was also re-watching Ken Burns’ Jazz series. The biographies of the musicians, especially during the transition from the Swing to the Be-Bop era and beyond, are hugely compelling. So the idea of applying one’s imagination to the history of a fictional band, especially with some daft sci-fi thrown in, is oddly alluring. Not that I want any of them to go the way of Charlie Parker, of course, but a little extra grit wouldn’t hurt. That said, it’s also worth remembering that this series is basically an origin story about them breaking into the industry, whereas in the cartoon they pretty much hit the big time first time out and go from there.

I don’t know if I like the cartoon as a guilty pleasure, or just study it to understand the better examples of the fanworks it spawned, or because I’m an obssessive who gets into things and it’s best to let it run its course. But I definitely like the comic. It’s progressive, characterful, visually appealing and well written. I like the dialogue a lot, it being very Whedonesque. Kimber reminds me a lot of Michelle Trachtenberg’s character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, actually. And Pizzazz’s character arc is hitting my ‘bad-guy-redemption’ buttons. I’m looking forward to the resolution of the series. While it didn’t get as edgy or mature as I might have hoped from a millennial-nostalgia-reboot, it’s a fun read. Outrageous, even.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2017 in Comic

 

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Obduction: Too Much of a Good Thing

Gaming, like drinking, can occasionally cause a hangover in those who over-indulge. I think I’ve got one of those at time I start writing. That said, I had good cause on a few levels.

I’d heard about the Kickstarter-funded project undertaken by Cyan, renowned in legend for being the creators of Myst and Riven, of which I’ve written previously. And this weekend I finished playing it: Obduction. Since it only just came out I’m going to put down a SPOILER warning for the rest of the article, in case readers do not wish to proceed further at this time.

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In Obduction you are led through the woods by a mysterious hovering giant pinecone. Following it, you find yourself teleported to an alien world populated with fragments of Earth, seemingly scooped from across history. These are placed within a ‘bubble’ on this alien world, one of a trinity of realms transplanted for unknown reasons. The populace transplanted along with them have vanished, leaving signs and records of the looming threat, and the few that remain need your help to enact a plan to regain freedom and escape the alien enemy who threatens them.

Obduction definitely has a lot of what I loved about the Myst games. The game looks fantastic, on par with the graphics of Myst III: Exile, with the added benefit of high definition. The puzzles are, for the most part, the kinds of little logic challenges adding up almost fractally to bigger-picture achievements that I liked and help build a sense of discovery. The human characters – mostly encountered through barriers or in recordings – are full-motion-video like the characters of Myst, which charms me oddly.

There’s a lot of little things, especially sounds, that evoke the old Cyan standbys: creaking machinery and metalwork, door hinges, ambient insects and birdsong, give me occasional flashbacks to the old favourites. Most of the short-term puzzles offer a lot of charm as well, with the challenging but decipherable logic that anyone with a little basic understanding of physics and reasoning can usually crack with a little effort. The challenge lies particularly in the order in which to do things, like that classic brain teaser about getting the sheep, the wolf and the cabbage across the river in a rowboat.

I do like the controls and the ability to roam freely like in the realMyst remaster. Funnily, the controls and the aesthetic of the first environment are so much like Half-Life 2 that I kept forgetting that the game didn’t have jump or crouch functions.

I’ve heard it said that some people found the emptiness of Myst frightening. At the time, I never really saw it. With Obduction though, I can. Part of it is that in Myst, you can arguably infer that you chose to pick up the book and embark on the adventure. With Obduction, it’s right there in the name: you’ve been lured and abducted against your will. Whereas Myst has a very open-ended vagueness as to what is going on at first, with Obduction you have a clearer, if you like, operational objective: figure out who abducted you and what you’re going to do about it. The constant allusions to a battle add to a sense of urgency. I was surprised at one point when you arrive just at the tail end of a skirmish between alien forces, since that’s the closest I’ve ever seen a Cyan game get to having combat in it.

The connection to Riven is interesting as well. In Riven, solutions to the bigger puzzles lie in your attentively navigating between multiple interconnected islands, and in developing an understanding of how to most efficiently move between them. That mechanic is here too; as you explore and open up the game worlds – I persist in thinking of them as Ages – you streamline the process of moving back and forth more and more with every step, with a combination of banal old bridges and passageways, and teleportation devices and portals. And as you weave around in them, you gain perspective on the shape of the interconnected realms, and it’s remarkable to realize the elegance with which a huge amount of paths, puzzles and other content is condensed into complex but ingenious layouts.

I heave a sigh as I say that, because it’s time to segue into the stuff that I don’t like about the game – of which there is a lot. The three game worlds are huge. I’m not sure how you measure the size of a digital environment but each one feels almost as big as the whole of Riven. All well and good, lots of things to play with and do, the trouble is that they’re too big.

My computer is an Alienware laptop designed to be up to snuff for all gaming needs. I had to turn Obduction’s graphics down to the lowest setting so the game would only crash occasionally. Even then, the loading times for different environments were insane. Sometimes the loading screens brought on by the teleport devices went on for almost five minutes. Changing CD-ROM discs to play Riven in the 1990s took thirty seconds on a bad day! Added to that, when in free-roaming movement mode, I repeatedly clipped through bits of the world geometry, at one point falling down a hole. One of the big puzzles bugged out badly at one point as well. These are relatively easy to fix, but distressing that we couldn’t have polished them off before release.

That’s merely an annoyance, but the graphics undermined the game in another way. In classic Myst fashion, a lot of hints and details about the situation are provided by reading people’s notes, diaries and other missives. Such documents are plentiful, but somebody in the design department must have Elvish eyesight, because the writing in almost all cases is too small, poorly lit or too faint for me to read without getting a headache. And useful information is either so arcane, wordy or couched in rambling personal remarks that the headache gets worse. It was so unpleasant trying to read these that I ended up skimming them for codes and passwords and then tossing them aside.

And in so doing I probably shot myself in the foot somewhat, because while everything hints at a gripping and intense story of mystery and menaces from beyond threatening lost innocents, having played the game, I still have only the vaguest idea what was going on. It’s established that there are two alien races sharing the Ages with the humans, and one of them is an enemy, but I can’t even remember which one. I don’t understand how our objective of activating the power across all three worlds connects to the oncoming battle or what, if anything, they have to do with the story’s climax. Heck, you only see them once and they barely so much as speak to you!

The only person you regularly meet in real time, so to speak, is the human C.W., somewhat the Atrus of the piece. But he’s got his own issues. His sighing mode of speech means that, given the amount of machinery in the space you encounter him, I had to turn subtitles on to understand what he was saying. He’s the only voice giving you concrete ideas of what to do and what’s going on, so there’s no sense of whether he’s in the right or not, no conflicting narrative, like choosing between Atrus, Sirrus and Achenar in Myst. His objective seems to be to escape and get free from this prison, but again, the significance of doing it at this time with this alleged battle threatening just isn’t coming across for me.

So the story is clearly layered but frustratingly opaque from a combination of excessive vagueness and the design getting in my way. Which reflects back, as it must, on the puzzles. And now I’m going to say something that will make me sound like a complete wimpy noob, but here it goes anyway:

Obduction is too hard.

I don’t mean that it’s too intellectually difficult. The fun parts were when that was all it was. But it was usually either just very obtuse or downright laborious. There’s a maze puzzle that stands out in this regard because to get it into the right configuration you have to employ an elevator, multiple teleport devices (bearing in mind those loading times), and a rotation system. Not only were puzzles like this giving my processor particularly bad rheumatism, but it takes so long to get from one aspect of a big puzzle to another that I’m liable to forget what I’m supposed to do during the transition!

With Riven, I freely admit that some of the large-scale puzzles only make sense to me with hindsight, and I’m well-aware that I’m not the type of person to whom these sorts of things come naturally. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things – especially the alien bridge activators – that I just blindly improvised my way through. Which, incidentally, should not have been that easy in a puzzle game! There were others that seemed completely unreasonable to deduce – in particular a key code to access a room, part of the answer to which is in that room! The last puzzle, which decides whether you get the ‘bad’ or ‘good’ endings, depends on one little change but I have no idea what that change does, so it didn’t even occur to me until I read a hint.

There’s also something thematic about the game that rubs me up the wrong way. It’s the implication that a lot of the people in the game are grateful to have been abducted from their homes and families and transplanted to an alien prison-bubble-preserve thing, and moreover, that they are right to be so. Again the story was so vague that I’m not sure I’m getting this right, but it adds to my perplexity about the whole enterprise.

Look, a lot of the building blocks of what I love about the Myst games are in here. Simply being in and exploring the worlds is very immersive and pleasant. The aesthetics of nature, machinery and architecture are classic Cyan. It’s just that after a week of actually trying to accomplish anything, the game felt like work. I was actually quite pleased with myself that I only resorted to walkthroughs or hints about six or seven times, compared to a couple dozen with Syberia. But a lot of those peeks came late in my playthrough because, as cool as the premise and environments were, I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to free of the long slogs, indecipherable diaries and unwieldy puzzles, and my computer was fairly begging for mercy. I didn’t even feel like I could take a break for a few days because the game is so complex I’d forget what I’d been doing!

Myst and Riven will never lose my loyalty, but Obduction doesn’t make the lightning strike twice. It’s a cool concept but between the overwhelming scale, excessive complexity, vague storytelling and slightly distasteful subtext, I feel like it’s trying to do more than Myst rather than focusing on doing better. It was worth a try, but I deleted from my Steam client almost immediately after finishing it, because I can’t imagine wanting to do it again.

For this game, for me, the ending has been written.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2016 in Video Game

 

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