The Emotion Engine

So Tales From the Loop is actually good. It’s set in a small town where everything is centered around a mysterious research facility. The whole thing appears to take place in the 1970’s, except there are decaying robots in the woods and inexplicable sci-fi encounters are a part of life. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but it looks like there’s a core cast of characters loosely intertwined in each other’s lives, but with the protagonists shifting in each installment.

Even if I hadn’t known already, I probably would have guessed that this was originally a Scandinavian property as its general tone is off-kilter and contemplative. I understand the concept books focused more on the kids, but the show probably didn’t want to come across as copying Stranger Things since they’re both science fiction period pieces.

However, it’s way different anyway, since Stranger Things is awash in nostalgia for a specific period’s consumerism and pop culture, whereas this show feels more like it takes place in a timeless 20th century of no particular decade.

Also, Stranger Things foregrounds its plot elements – stop the Demogorgon, the commies, the thingamabob – whereas this show is all about the emotional consequences of the sci-fi twists. There’s no technobabble solution for letting your best friend down or having your mother break your heart.

Anyway, this is a hearty recommendation from me.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset

I am a sucker for nostalgia, but I’m also a sucker for not working too hard to complete a game. As such, I’ve been playing adventures games lately and have come across two that I rather liked.

A dark figure in a hooded robe faces a set of giant stone hands rising out of the rocky ground, fingers steepled together. The tips of the fingers are also hands and some clasp together while others reach to the overcast and cloudy sky. The hands shelter in their centre a hooded statue, its face hidden in darkness and its body pierced by multiple swords. In the ground in front of the giant hands are more swords planted into the earth. in the background, rocky spires stab into the sky.

The first is Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, a dark gothic tale set in a bizarre fantasy world. It’s rather steampunk Gormenghast in aesthetics. It’s a classic point and click adventure, but it’s barely a game and the puzzles are really quite easy to solve. However, I didn’t really care because I dug the weird-ass shit I kept coming across. It’s just so dark and baroque. Most people on the ball will have long guessed the twist before the ending, but it really doesn’t matter. I completed this game before the present state of exception, but I think it should be provide decent entertainment in this time that demands distraction.

Around a room are arrayed strange gadgets - a hulking and aggressive military robot, a green hovercraft, a futuristic jet engine, and various other objects. In the corner stands a woman in a black leather jacket looking at a globe. At the top of the screen is the woman's portrait, which shows she is blond and sporting an undercut, with the left side of her head cut short to a buzz while the hair on top is combed over to flop over on her right side, reaching down to her eyes. At the bottom of the screen are various icons showing the items in the character's inventory as well as icons related to unidentified game options.

The second point and click adventure game is one I’m currently playing through. It’s called Whispers of a Machine and it’s a cyberpunk story set in Norway decades – perhaps centuries – after the golden technofuture of our dreams crashed to earth in some kind of catastrophic global backlash against AI. The world is much smaller, globalization is dead, and a train journey to a small town in the middle of nowhere is a big deal.

The protagonist is a cop from the big city sent to the sticks to investigate a murder and who uncovers a conspiracy that could shake the foundations of society. Along the way she meets several colourful characters that help her in her quest for the truth.

Yeah, this is basically the plot of like 70 percent of all police dramas. Like I said, I’m not looking to think too hard, so this story is just pleasantly formulaic. The cyberpunk thing gives it a fresh coat of paint so that it feels more novel than it would be if it was just another Scandinavian noir.

The somewhat novel thing about this game as a game is its mild inclusion of RPG elements. You can choose to be empathetic, aggressive, or analytical, and each path opens up new choices and new abilities which structure the way you solve puzzles in the game.

But the game itself doesn’t stray too far from the way point and click adventure games worked in their 90s heyday. The graphics are a bit nicer, but not as nice as Tormentum, and definitely not as nice as my gold standard for graphics in 21st century adventure games – Memoria, that rich and lush visual feast.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no specific technical limitation that demands adventure games remain pixelated as hell like they were back in the Sierra On-Line days. I understand that many developers use the program Adventure Game Studios, which in its base configuration can’t output images in very high resolution, but surely there are workarounds for this issue.

The graphics aren’t a deal-breaker, though. I find playing this game rather fun and will continue to the end. I recommend it for everyone who wants a quick and easy adventure game to get through.

Robocar: The Future of Not Driving

Zombie Miles And Napa Weekends: How A Week With Chauffeurs Showed The Major Flaw In Our Self-Driving Car Future

Too Long; Didn’t Read: Manufacturers of self-driving cars promise all kinds of amazing crap, but there’s no way to check any of those claims since robocars don’t actually exist yet. But an academic decided hey, a robot car is basically like having a chauffeur, so what if we gave some people a free chauffeur for a week? And then we can see how people might act once they have a car that can drive itself.

The Anointed One

I watched all of Messiah on Netflix, and man, I really liked it.

As you might gather from the trailer, the show is premised on the question, “What if the messiah returned today?” However, the trailer makes it seem like the character depicted is definitely Jesus Christ returned, whereas the show plays coy on whether its central figure is actually divine or whether he’s just a brilliant and charismatic leader using religious fervour and magic tricks to push a revolutionary agenda. As one of the characters on the show even points out, this same question of saviour or con artist would have been applied to the historical Jesus (if he existed) by his contemporaries as well – the character herself comes down on the side of Jesus being “a populist politician with an axe to grind against the Roman empire”.

Messiah begins as follows: as the Islamic State lays siege to Damascus (which is in rebellion to Bashar al-Assad), a street preacher appears claiming that despite all evidence, Daesh shall soon be destroyed. Immediately afterward, a great sandstorm covers the city for an entire month, breaking the siege and demolishing ISIL’s supply lines. Throughout the storm, the street preacher continues to proclaim the supremacy of God’s will, gaining himself followers, and after the storm clears he leads 2,000 people into the desert (and, it’s implied, away from the Syrian government’s retaliation). The people are all Syrian Palestinians and the nameless preacher, now called “al-Masih” (messiah), has led his starving and unarmed followers to the Israeli border to claim the right of return for Palestinians ejected from their homeland.

And this is all in the first episode. The show quickly gets very global in its setting and shows the tentacles of empire, moving between the centre and the periphery, from the site of imperial actions in the Middle East to the source of those actions in the US.

I realize that it’s possible to imagine a horrifically tone deaf Law & Order-style ripped from the headlines hour of TV from the description I’ve given, especially considering that the show’s producers are Mark Burnett of the Survivor reality series and Roma Downey, the lead actor of Touched by an Angel, and considering that this producer couple have apparently made mawkish and pandering Christian-focused sentimental shows.

With that in mind, it’s surprising that the show is actually politically engaging. I mean, just to run through a few plot points – Jesus Christ (potentially) returns to earth and gets interrogated by Shin Bet. The CIA sends out its agents to dig up anything to discredit the messiah. Upon meeting the president of the US, our Lord and Saviour tells him that the path to world peace means withdrawing US troops from all overseas deployments.

The interesting thing is that the question of al-Masih’s divinity is actually immaterial to much of what he says and does. Is he a Russian asset sent to destabilize America? Maybe just some radical with an axe to grind against the American empire? It doesn’t matter, because empires are immoral and you don’t need possess divine wisdom to see this. 

I realize, though, that I may be projecting more of own politics onto the show than what it wants to say by itself. For one thing, the show is mostly told through the point of view of a CIA agent, and she is basically what the CIA sees itself as: a passionate defender willing to make the hard choices in defense of the ideals of the Republic. Instead of, you know, Keystone Kops bunglers using unsurpassed money and brutality to enforce hegemony.

Thinking on this further, the show expresses discontent with America but is unable to fully grasp or articulate the causes of America’s sickness. It steps in that direction by using the language of millenarian religion but is unable to move further beyond individual moral failing to larger structural causes. However, it’s possible that the show will go further with that thread in a potential second season.

I admit that a large part of my enjoyment stems from having studied a bit of Biblical theology once upon a time. My religious studies class and I would discuss what it would have meant for a Palestinian Jew to be decrying Roman occupation and criticizing collaborationist elites, while keeping in mind that the Romans wouldn’t have given much of a crap about factional distinctions and probably thought Jesus was just one of countless desert nutjobs who needed killing for the Pax Romana. The show basically took those discussions and set my class’s imaginings in the 21st century. And of course the other part of the show I like is the whole poli sci/international relations nerd crap.

Bottom line? If there’s a second season, I’m definitely watching.

Throw a coin

I finished watching The Witcher. The story was too muddled and could have used some tightening up. It could have especially used less frontloading of fantasy gobbledegook – Nilfgaard, Kaer Morhen, Cintra, whateverthehell. I assume part of the problem was the show feeling obligated to stuff the things people liked from the books and games into eight episodes. And a map would have definitely helped. I admit I also get irritated at destiny and chosen one plotlines and usually need an interesting twist on them not to feel annoyed.

I guess the show overall was okay, and apparently getting a season 2. Can’t wait for Netflix to cancel it after that, though, like they always do.

I will say that this is the most Dungeons and Dragons-y live action fantasy show we’ve gotten yet. There are elves, dragons, wizards, and CGI monsters. I guess Game of Thrones paved the way by easing viewers with ice zombies and whatnot.

But let me say, Geralt of Rivia? Not a compelling character.

Seeing like a State

Somewhat surprised that one of the themes of Terminator: Dark Fate is that all cops are bastards, but here we are. There are absolutely no good police in the movie’s world – at best they’re just violent thugs, and at worst they’re being used by a murderous inhuman intelligence. Speaking of which, the movie implies that we are already ruled by a murderous inhuman intelligence, we just call it the state. Surveillance everywhere, violent agents enforcing brutal rule, machines of spying and death flying through the skies watching and killing with impunity.

The movie actually had something to say, which is one of the reasons it’s way better than the last couple of Terminator movies. I think it’s not as good as the first and second movies in the franchise, but it’s head and shoulders above the movies between T2 and this one. By the way, it just ignores everything that happened in those in-between movies, but since the central premise of the franchise revolves around time travel I think we can forgive this arrant retconning.

I felt the movie started to drag once the action climax kicked off. It reminds me of most Marvel superhero movies – the part where stuff blows up at the end is there because it’s supposed to be there. I didn’t expect the movie to end in an emotional argument full of psychological drama between all parties but I did want to care whether the protagonists would get their way.

But I keep watching Marvel movies anyway since I’m a sucker for dork shit. It’s the same for this movie. I think overall it’s entertaining and a decent time at the cinema.

Back to high school

I’m reading Again!! by Mitsuro Kubo. It’s a manga about a guy who spent his entire high school career friendless and alone, cursing his peers as lamers and suck-ups who obsess about frivolous and stupid shit like after-school clubs and good grades and dating. You see, he’s a misanthrope who just went to class and went home every day for years, carrying on with the bare minimum of life in high school.

And then he graduates. He has no plan or aspirations or dreams, and possibly no soul. However, the day after his graduation, he experiences a bizarre and inexplicable mishap and wakes up again on the first day of high school. The first time around, he was too shy to even answer when asked to join the “ouendan”, which is a club devoted to a male-dominated type of Japanese cheerleading. As Wikipedia describes it:

An ōendan (応援団), literally “cheering squad” or “cheering section”, is a Japanese sports rallying team similar in purpose to a cheerleading squad in the United States, but relies more on making a lot of noise with taiko drums, blowing horns and other items, waving flags and banners, and yelling through plastic megaphones in support of their sports team than on acrobatic moves (though some ōendan incorporate pom-pom girls). In addition to cheering for their own teams, ōendan have been known to lead fans in cheers which tease and taunt the other team and its fans. This is usually done in the spirit of good competition, but occasional fights have broken out if the taunting gets too heated. Smaller ōendan are sometimes called ōenbu (応援部, or “cheering clubs”).

In this go-around our protagonist barely makes an audible response to the recruiter, but it’s enough for her to shanghai him since the club is in desperate need of new members. Despite himself, he finally experiences all those things he’d looked down on – giving his all as part of a team, caring about his friends, having a crush on a girl and desperately wanting to know how they feel, and many more parts of high school life that he’d only seen secondhand.

And here we come to the misanthrope’s secret. Many misanthropes actually hate the fact that they hate other people and wish they were part of the community they see around them. “I wish I were a better person,” is the fantasy at the heart of this comic. I just wished it would remember this fact.

See, in a high school series, it’s easy to get caught up in the numerous setbacks that beset our characters. Oh no, the club might be dissolved! Oh no, the team captain and the manager are in a love triangle with our hero! Oh no, that silver-tongued hottie seducing that girl is secretly an asshole!

I mean, yeah, high school and life in general is a bunch of stuff happening one after another. The point of a narrative is giving structure to those events. Plus, if you’re just doing a story about a guy’s high school life, what’s even the point of the time travel angle?

The manga does come back repeatedly to the time travel thing, but mostly as a plot contrivance. There’s time spent on another person also being a time traveler, and more time spent on what kind of time travel we’re talking about (many worlds theory, parallel universes, grandfather paradoxes – though those specific terms aren’t used by the characters, but that’s what they mean).

However, there’s less space given to the emotional experience of reliving life. The protagonist himself mentions that he hasn’t taken advantage of his experience to talk more to his grandmother even though she passes away during his time in high school. More could also have been done with the second time traveler, who is actually a girl who enjoyed her high school life and is rather resentful that our protagonist managed to drag her along to a somewhat crappier version of her original experiences. By the latest translated volume, she remains a supporting character in our hero’s story and still hasn’t really come into her own.

Perhaps I’m overly critical, but I’m just a bit frustrated because I can see the manga only occasionally hitting its story potential, or at least not hitting the story potential I wish for. However, don’t be discouraged, there’s definitely something there to the manga as it is, since I wouldn’t have read 9 volumes over one week otherwise.

And one thing I can unequivocally praise about the comic is its artwork. I mean, look at it:

Cheerleader leaning down to pick up some pompoms with a resentful expression on her face

The sense of anatomy alone is superb – the weight in the step, the off-balance foot, the angle of the body. And the use of negative space!

A long-haired girl in a headband holding something over her head shares mutual glares  with a mustached boy standing with his arms crossed; both are dressed in Japanese boys' high school uniforms

This image shows off the negative space more clearly. And the expressions on the characters’ faces are so detailed for just a few simple lines. I often end up just pausing to stare at a splash page and enjoy the artistry.

Anyway, tl;dr: I think Again!! is an interesting manga that has the potential to become something more, if it ever figures out how to fully connect its plot to its premise.



La lucha sigue – The Struggle Continues

I haven’t played Fallout 76, but from what I gather, it appears that premium players and the poors are fighting each other online.

It seems that Bethesda added another tier (another class) of players that one can pay into in order to receive advantages in-game, as well as certain cosmetic benefits such as proprietary dances (emotes) that only those players can do. Regular players hate this and call it “pay to win”. Also, the premium players (called Fallout First) get a special badge that announces their exalted status to the filthy unwashed. Resentful at this gross inequity, the proletariat have responded by enacting class warfare.

I mean, holy shit but this is gold. The Twitter thread above has screenshots from the game’s Reddit community, but I’m reproducing some choice comments:

Fallout 1st players are being targeted in adventure mode
People are ganging up on Fallout 1st players in adventure mode and grieving anyone with the icon lol

Fallout 1st players! We need to assemble and build gated communities for ourselves! Piss poor 76ers are targeting us! 😠
[post has now been deleted]
We need to come together and shield us from these animals! They will tear us apart and they will never be satisfied.

Reddit user KATheHuman commented on Oct 26 2019:
I got beaten up when I decided to do the Mothman emote in Vault 51. At least 5-7 people in teddy bear costumes kept punching me.

Standing up for FO1st or otherwise invalidating our outrage makes you a scab