Flameo, Hotman

I just got the Legend of Korra video game. Turns out it’s pretty short and I’m almost at the end. It’s sadly another so-so video game tie-in product. What’s frustrating is that I can clearly see the game it could be if enough time and money had been put in.

The story starts two weeks after the series finale with Korra fighting a new bad guy from the Spirit World, but that plot is basically just an excuse to have Korra fight the gangsters and Equalists that she did in the TV show. You  visit Republic City, Air Temple Island, the South Pole, and the Spirit World, but they’re all just environments for fighting in. There’s a separate pro-bending mode that you can unlock, but it’s more frustrating than fun to play.

Basically, the twin spirits of cheapness and half-assedness hang over the whole production. Everywhere I turn I’m confronted by the fact that this isn’t actually the world from the show, but a backdrop where I can sort of pretend I’m playing the Avatar. The streets are empty except for people trying to beat you up, and invisible walls prevent you from going anywhere except where the designer wants you. Just to drive home how lazy the design is, you actually break pots to recharge your chi – a cliche of game mechanics so old that if it were human it would already have kids old enough to talk.

However, it’s not like the game is actively awful, just rather disappointing when considering it against what a video game of this property could have been. The actual voice actors from the show are playing their characters and there are even original cartoon cut scenes (though not from the same animation studio used by the cartoon). The bending is kind of neat in the beginning and it’s actually rather fun the first time you have to fight simultaneously against three different types of benders.

There are enough hints of a better game scattered throughout this one that fans of the show will find themselves asking “what if”. What if this game had gotten a proper release? What if it had been an open world or semi-open world RPG like Dragon’s Dogma where you walk the busy streets of Republic City and talk to characters from the show and do Avatar quests to increase harmony and fight bad guys and jump from roof to roof laughing with glee at the powers you command? What if you had gotten all that? Because that would have been great.

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.

On anime and nuclear annihilation

A nuclear bomb exploding in downtown Tokyo, as imagined in Akira

It is strange days when we see Japanese schoolchildren running for their lives in simulation of a nuclear attack from North Korea. The picture in the linked article reminds me of nothing more than Cold War evacuation drills in the US.

Selfishly, as an anime fan I wonder how all this uncertainty is going to affect the anime industry. I never thought the threat of nuclear conflict would figure into my estimation of when we could expect season 3 of Attack on Titan, but here we are.

It’s jarring to think of these things when thinking of anime, which, let’s face it, is mostly just escapist fantasy, like most mass entertainments are. I’m reminded that Jane Austen joked about being tempted to include a treatise on Napoleon in Pride and Prejudice just to counteract how light and frothy her novel was. I’m also reminded of what Slavoj Zizek said about the use of the Christian calendar, which uses the birth of Christ to mark the flow of events: he called it the irruption of the infinite into the historical. Perhaps we might call the imposition of nuclear geopolitics into the logic of anime production as the irruption of the political into the inconsequential.

Of course, this statement is both facetious and incorrect, for anime is already political. It is produced in a web of politics -government grants to aid in translating content for export, industry-wide discrimination to discourage women, a regime of austerity that encourages overwork of animators, and a capitalist ideology that demands crass commercialism – and also expresses statements of political positions – women are always emotional, Chinese and foreign characters can never beat Japanese protagonists, and Koreans don’t exist.

The surprise we feel when placing anime in the same headspace as nuclear diplomacy is a surprise that has been manufactured. Being apolitical is a political stance, and depoliticization is a political action. To divide the world and say these things are of politics and these things are not is an act of power (Michel Foucault called it power/knowledge, which is the power of defining what knowledge is).

The personal may be political, but it’s inconvenient for the powerful to let common citizen remember this fact. Politics is not merely debating tax rates and talking at town halls, which is to say it’s not only for politicians and activists, but keeping it an activity of a small elite certainly makes it easier for those elites to set the agenda. Political apathy serves those who already have power.

And so we come to anime and its role in the politics of apathy. Crudely speaking, anime is just another cog in the machinery of distraction that keeps the masses quiescent in that old Roman strategy of panem et circenses (i.e., bread and circuses). Focus on your pop culture, say the masters of the world, and leave the important things to us. This was, of course, the old politics, before the divisions in democracy were laid so starkly bare, but it was a deal that many thought worthwhile, and many still do.

But even behind this wall of willful ignorance, sometimes the world of politics would intrude, as in the current case of North Korea and its nuclear arsenal threatening the home of anime. We find that we cannot leave politics because we are already doing politics. We are reminded that we live in a political world. The personal is political, but now we see that the reverse is also true, that the political is also personal. In a liberal democracy, to not resist is to consent. Therefore if we wish not to die and to continue watching anime, we must act.

Action begins in knowledge, so I ask first that you learn what is happening around you. What circumstances led to the nuclear standoff threatening our beloved hobby? What power moved us to this impasse?

After answering these questions for yourself, then ask yourself this one: am I okay with things continuing the way they are?

If your answer is anything besides “yes”, then continue asking questions, including the big one – what should I do? The answer is simple: do anything that you can. Speech is action, so even something as minimal as talking online is still a step in the right direction.

My fellow otaku, ignorance is only a temporary condition. I challenge you to look up from your TV and computer screens. Remember that you are not only a consumer. You are also a citizen.

The Union Forever

When Britain and France Almost Merged Into One Country

I thought this was about the Angevin empire in the Middle Ages but nope, it was about a proposed Franco-British Union after the defeat at Dunkirk which was actually supported by Churchill and De Gaulle. I don’t know if it wouldn’t have fallen apart like 5 minutes after they signed the paperwork but kind of an interesting counterfactual to consider besides all the Nazi victory ones.

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.

Tales of the City

Book cover of Imaginary Cities showing a futurist rendering of a shining white city of skyscrapers with a crowd of tourist in 1930s clothing gaping at the panorama

I am in the midst of reading Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. The best description of it is one that it provides – a nonfiction version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s just as hard to describe as the latter book. Basically it’s a collection of short essays loosely grouped around certain themes regarding cities of fiction and dream and myth and architecture.

Well, perhaps “essay” is the wrong word as essays traditionally argue for a point of view, whereas in this book the pieces mostly wander back and forth through Samuel Coleridge and Le Corbusier and Judge Dredd and whatnot. Reading it is like reading Calvino’s book. I think my favourite piece so far is the one about science fiction stories of cities ruled by women – both the ones written by men that are panicked screeds about feminism and the smaller number written by women that seriously try to imagine egalitarian societies.

My biggest complaint at this point is that the book is quite Eurocentric. It would have been stronger if it at least included Asian notions of city building, as historically the largest cities in the world have been in Asia. If there’s a cyberpunk section later on that doesn’t mention Akira then I’m going to be disappointed.

Other than that, I like the book so far.