Somewhere Out There

I recently finished the visual novel Out There Chronicles: Episode 1.

Screenshot of the female spaceship captain Nyx and the dialogue responses available to the player

In case you’re unaware, visual novels are a game genre originally from Japan that are essentially digital Choose Your Own Adventure games. There’s music and perhaps some simple animation, but otherwise the game part is just choosing out of a short list of responses or actions.

Being from Japan, most visual novels use the same visual style you would be familiar with from anime and manga and Japanese video games, and being relatively cheap to make, the vast majority of them are shit. The creative outlay, after all, is just still images, music, and text. You don’t even need any fancy programming as there are game maker programs out there where you can just drop your files straight into a framework and then it’ll spit a game out right quick.

Of course, there’s no reason that visual novels must inherently suck or all be about who’s dating whom in a fictional Japanese high school. I liked this one that I played. You, the protagonist, wake up from suspended animation a million years in the future on the planet America, home of what may be the last humans in the universe. You make your way through this strange society to find out what happened to your own colony ship, the Europa, while trying to hide what exactly happened before Earth died and everyone ran for it.

Screenshot of a spaceship flying through the sky over a rocky alien landscape

What did I like in particular? Well, the visuals are arresting and distinctive, not just for the look of the characters but for the environments they move in as well (the void of space, a futuristic park, a giant restaurant tree). It’s obvious how constrained the choices were but I didn’t feel as railroaded as I should have – the narrative was compelling enough that the choices presented were the ones I wanted to choose anyway just so I could see what happened next.

Anyway, this is only the first episode. There will be more to come. As with all serialized storytelling, the makers may shit the bed in later installments, but for now I’m anticipating the next episode. Thumbs up from me.

The war of two worlds

I’m finally up to date on Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series. It’s about a hidden family who can travel between parallel universes – our world and one that’s still in a quasi-medieval level of technology. They use this power to smuggle drugs and shit and have become rich and powerful in two worlds.

The series was mostly written in and is set during George W. Bush’s War on Terror years, and it’s almost nostalgic to read paranoid descriptions of Dick Cheney’s secret intelligence empire. Old Dick is in the series as an unseen antagonist, by the way, though he is referred to by his Secret Service codename WARBUCKS (Dubya is BOY WONDER).

It gets pretty crazy by the end. Cheney was apparently in the pay of the worldwalkers back in the 80’s so when their existence is revealed, he moves to exterminate them to hide all evidence of his corruption. There’s blowback, the interdimensional narcoterrorists steal a backpack nuke, and the White House along with Bush II explodes in nuclear fire.

But the USA has unlocked the secret of worldwalking and retaliates by carpetbombing the other world with nukes. Some of the narcos manage to escape to a third parallel world, one where New Britain rules the Americas. The 44th President of the US is Dick Cheney, who dies of natural causes not long after taking office. The 45th President is Donald Rumsfeld. And thus ends the first series.

Anyway, the story had been on hold for a while, and I can see why. Where can things go from here? Well, in the first book of the sequel series, things have gone in a completely different direction. It’s now 2020 and the worldwalkers have ensconced themselves in the government of New Britain. They live openly as interdimensional travellers, occasionally returning to our world to steal technology. They’re frantically developing the industry of their new country as a bulwark against the coming of the Americans. The United States is now even more of a militarized panopticon society, a kind of digital age Soviet Union where smartphones occupy the role of Stasi informants.

And now the stage is set for the rest of the Empire Games series. Worlds collide! I’m actually rather interested in what comes next.

And on that note, happy Labour Day weekend, ye workers of the world.

The power of friendship

I just finished watching The Defenders. It reminded me of a classic comic book crossover. Specifically, it reminded me of just how contrived comic book crossovers were and how they were mostly just excuses to see our heroes punching bad guys together in between punching each other.

You know that episode with the Defenders standing around in a large empty room yelling at each other? That was basically like half the scenes in Infinity Crusade. Plus Zero Hour had a lot of scenes where the good guys were standing around gaping at a computer screen, which we were at least spared in the show but instead got the exposition around dinner in a Chinese restaurant. Smaller crossovers seem to work better, at least when talking about the Arrow universe.

Anyway, I guess the punching in The Defenders was fun but otherwise we really need better narrative justifications for crossovers.

Games of yesteryear

I haven’t been playing video games lately. I think weeks might go by between gaming sessions for me. Maybe it’s because I’m reading more.

Anyway, I managed to finish Resonance, a point and click adventure game that had been on my computer forever. It looks like one of the old Sierra games, complete with pixels the size of coconuts.

I don’t know, I think I’ve reached my tolerance for nostalgia acts, or at least with this kind of adventure game. It’s the art that’s just bugging the hell out of me. Why does it have to look so pixelated? Sierra games only looked like that because of technical limitations. If they could have avoided this look they would have.

I installed another game from the studio, Shardlight, which looks pretty much the same in resolution and which I’m not super enthused to keep looking at. The last point and click adventure game I actually obsessed over was Memoria, and that actually looked really great, as you can see below.

Oh well, I guess I’ll stick it out with Shardlight and at least cross another game off my queue.

Gen X and the 21st Century

Thanks to a possible gas leak last weekend I watched more movies than I’d planned on. (My house is fine bee tee dubs).

So, Valerian. It reminded me of reading a French sci-fi comic book in that it looked good but the story was thinner than the toilet paper in a public bathroom. I actually fell asleep during the souk shootout, mostly because I didn’t really care if the characters made it. I don’t need to enumerate the rest of the movie’s shortcomings since they’ve been covered well by others already, but it’s no Transformers. I think this will be decent enough to watch when it ends up on Netflix.

Now, Atomic Blonde, that’s a very stylish movie. It’s like 70% style, 30% substance, and 110% Charlize Theron. Actually, maybe I should run my numbers again since it actually did make more sense than, say, Sucker Punch. But despite the Cold War setting it’s not an 80s spy thriller so much as a Gen X nostalgia fantasy movie (i.e., it’s nostalgic for the 80s but for a fantasy version of it where it’s all sexy people with meaningful jobs doing things that matter in between making out with each other).

I hadn’t realized before how tall Charlize Theron was but the movie made sure we noticed this in almost every scene she was in. I appreciated this reminder of her physical presence since this made it more believable that she could engage in hand to hand combat with large angry men. I also appreciated that the movie was conspicuous in showing her looking for weapons every time she would throw down, even if it’s as simple as a bunch of keys clutched in her fist, since weapons do a lot to make fights more equal.

One thing that did take me out of the movie was the selfie in the beginning. People didn’t take selfies with film cameras unless there was a mirror involved, dammit. Otherwise you wouldn’t know if you were in the frame until you got the pictures back a week after you dropped the film off, which might be months after you originally took the picture if you didn’t use your camera a lot and took forever to use up a roll of film. Also, I don’t want to imagine how much work it would take to edit a tape recording in a hotel room, considering it’s already a bitch with digital files under ideal conditions.

But whatever, it’s a minor point. My take away? I liked Atomic Blonde.

Middle Ages: The Video Game

So the book Pillars of the Earth (though I only know the story from the TV miniseries) is coming out in video game format. Specifically it’ll be an interactive novel. It looks like there’s some level of game-like playing in there, judging from the pic below.

A medieval monk stands before another, and at the bottom of the screen two choices are presented: to Lie or to Tell the Truth

But seeing as how it’s based on a book with a definite plot and resolution then I assume you can only change the story so much. Perhaps you’ll be railroaded slightly more than in a typical game from Telltale Studios. And seeing as how it’s set in the Middle Ages, it’ll be full of rape, murder, and irrational persecution, so it’ll feel pretty close to Telltale’s Walking Dead series too.

It’s odd that this is coming out, but the art is interesting. I liked the TV show, so I hope the thing is at least decent.

A lovely day

I was not expecting the Saekano season 2 finale to have an elevator music version of Lovely Day by Bill Withers playing in the background, but there it was.

And for comparison:

Cruising

So there’s a video game about anonymous gay sex in public bathrooms of the 1960s. It’s called The Tearoom and yes, it’s based on Laud Humphreys’ landmark study about the exact subject.

In-game screenshot from the player's first person perspective of eye contact with another urinal user

Your goal is to engage in sexual acts with other men, but before that, you must wait for someone to enter, and then engage in a ritual that involves repeated periods of prolonged eye contact, all the while keeping an look out for the police.

“A lot of it is based on this sociological study by Laud Humphreys called Tearoom Trade,” says Yang. “[He] actually calls it a game, and tries to write out what the rules are and stuff, so it’s almost like a game design document. A lot of it is eye contact, so they’ll be peeing and then they might look at you and then you look at them, and then you look away and then they look away . . . stuff like that.”

Old Man Logan

I saw Logan and was moved. A superhero movie made me feel something besides glee when the bad guys got their asses kicked! This is unprecedented. That final X almost brought me to tears. I saw the movie twice in the theatre, which is something I very rarely do.

You know, in the comics whenever the X-Men travelled to the dystopian fascist future it always looked ridiculous and cartoonish, whereas in this movie it’s almost painfully plausible. The Guardian‘s review called Logan “a feral howl of rage”, which pretty much is the prevailing mood in a lot of the US today.

Yet this movie was made while Obama was still president, and let’s not pretend Hillary would have done more than half-assed work in reining in the neo-feudal society the obscenely wealthy keep trying to bring about. It’s like Aliens vs. Predator said: Whoever wins, we lose.

The rage of the movie is not merely the rage of the decent despairing at the rise of the despicable, but also the rage of the dispossessed wailing at the cruelty of the world.

Logan is many things, but one of those is a cri de coeur. I recall what Marx said of religion:  “[It] is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. For good and ill, one can also say that of art.

Black Series

Holy shit you guys, Série noire on Netflix is hilarious. It’s a Quebec show about two halfwit screenwriters whose incredibly dumb legal thriller is somehow renewed for a second season. Their show has high ratings but is intensely hated by the critics, mostly because the writers only know of the world through Hollywood:

“You should get a legal expert. It looks like you just started writing after reading The Firm.”

“We didn’t read The Firm, we watched The Firm. The Firm is a movie!”

So they decide that they need to do research and they start committing crimes to add realism to their writing.

Anyway, I really like how well the two protagonists portray idiots. One of them even gets replaced by a failed novelist and we think, okay, she teaches literature at a college so she’s probably smarter, then it turns out her novel clearly steals ideas from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Bottom line, the show starts gloriously stupid and stays that way.

I unfortunately can’t find a trailer with English subtitles. It’s too bad because there’s this one hilarious scene from the fictional TV show which was submitted when the writers won an award for best product placement in a TV show, about serial killers arguing about which brand of garbage bag to suffocate a victim with: “No, that’s a cheap generic brand, it’s just going to rip and tear!”

By the bye, the title is a French expression for a series of disasters.