Friday, December 28, 2012
The Adventure Time game, on first glance, practically screamed things I would appreciate. I felt like the last fan of Zelda II in the world, and here was one that was embraced by hands-down my favorite cartoon ever, Adventure Time. How could this go wrong? Beautifully drawn sprites, kickin' music, and a plot that would crack me up.
I don't think it did any of these right.
Core combat felt annoying from the get go, by forcing me to use bareknuckles to fight with. With an absurdly short range, I slipped frequently into enemies, taking more damage and occasionally knocking me into the too-frequent pits scattered everywhere about. Thank god, I finally got Scarlett, Finn's sword, which gave me bonus range, but only provided I had more than one heart (four hits). Which makes a lot of sense, right? Only after you take a lot of damage do you lose your ability to attack from safety.
The annoyance of the clunky and frustrating combat is assuaged by a plentiful amount of healing items, but they're dropped at an absurd rate. After a few combats, you've got more apples than a produce store, and the less-useless powerups go unused as you tank-and-potion your way through. There's a pseudo Earthbound-like aspect of combining condiments with food, but neither is especially useful, convenient, or interesting. Earthbound did the same thing over a decade ago, and it was automatic and fit with the RPG system. AT does neither of these things.
I could forgive annoying combat with a stronger compilation of features, but HIKWYSOG borrows all of the worst aspects of Zelda II and removes all of the compelling points. There's overworld random encounters, but you can't run from them, there is no experience or level progression to grind, and all they do is give you more items, clogging your inventory with a needless amount. Every important landmark has a small level between it, but the quests in this game are aimed almost entirely at the 'fetch' variety.
In every zone you have to run errands before you can enter the dungeon, and not in a fun way, but in an obnoxious way. Collect three of something by talking to famous Adventure Time cast members, then run around and talk to someone they tell you to talk to. Talk to Lemongrab, talk to the three people in the area, talk to the Gravedigger, talk to the Nut King, talk to Mr. Bank...by the time you're done, you've given up on genuinely fighting the enemies before you instead of jumping over them or running past. There is no fast travel at all. You have to run everywhere. There's a map, but it tells you only that there are landmarks there, not what they are or even where travel locations are.
With the 2d combat, the dungeons had a lot of things they could play with, but there's practically nothing there. Most of the dungeons can be cleared in about ten minutes, none of the bosses are especially creative, and it's not so much a 'puzzle' as it is 'hit button, return to previous room.'
Again, all of these things could be forgiven for being a huge chore, but the writing just is...lacking. Not only does it feel oddly out of place compared to Adventure Time, there's no writing charm either. None of the gags made me crack up laughing like the show frequently does, instead most of them are just kind of cute. They also have this odd habit of making a storyline reason for Jake to learn a power, but Finn learns something like the downthrust (Zelda II, again) out of opening a chest. The consistency from the show vanished.
Additionally, the lengths the game goes to put characters into the game starts to have serious dissonance with the show to anyone, not just the hardcore. The most egregious example of this is Earl of Lemongrab - in the show, there's no episode where he shows up that people like him. He only takes over after Princess Bubblegum no longer can be the Princess. So then why does she offhandedly mention that Lemongrab is running the investigation? And further, the bad guy is the Ice King, but he's been in the same category as Bowser as 'humorous once-bad guy turned mild annoyance,' so how am I expected to take him seriously as a villain? And why are Finn and Jake trying to fight him about their garbage? They handwave it as 'It's Adventure Time', but it feels out of place with the writing really missing the AT justifications. I don't understand how Pendelton Ward could have participated in this when they're so haphazard with the canon.
The game just feels so soulless, in every way. The visuals are nice, even if many events happen with a fade-out-fade-in rather than an animation, and the music is great, but everything else just misses the mark. The combat is boring, the dungeons are brainless, the writing can't even make you smile, the plot is threadbare, and the tenuous connections to the show barely exist.
It feels like this was not a labor of love from WayFoward, but instead from their publisher at Cartoon Network Interactive. As though the game was a product that a machine turned out after the entire series and a cartridge of Zelda II was dumped into it - wearing a mask, waving its wobbly arms, spouting "butts" and "mathematical!", begging you to mistake it for the real thing. No love was put into the game, and it shows horribly. I was hoping something with this much potential would be impressive, but it fails in every way it can.
Saturday, December 1, 2012
The videogame industry has been riding the coattails of the immensely successful modern military shooter for what feels like forever. What is about five years in game industry years? It feels like twice that. And now, when all but the diehards have just about gotten exhausted of the genre, we have the video game industry's Fight Club. An intense, uncomfortable, shocking, raw, disruptive game that doesn't gut the tropes we have gotten used to, as much as it exposes them, asks questions, then walks away and leaves them to you.
And, similarly, there is a strong negativity to the game - calling it hypocritical for its dissonant 'a shooter that hates the genre,' or even just dismissing it as 'just a shooter'. With the utmost respect, I can't describe how much I disagree. Spec Ops, to me, is a very important game (the details of my experience I still have yet to publish here). It's a game that speaks to me as someone who liked all the Modern Warfare games, who has grown a bit tired of the military shooters, and puts a very scary, humanizing spin on it. It's not just the big moment that everyone gets surprised by - it's the hallucinations, the disorienting amount of plot shifts, the constant sensation of 'this is wrong,' the fact that by the end, you hate Walker for everything he made you do. For me, it's not even a shooter - it's a horror game, one that suckers you into thinking it's a Call of Duty clone before yanking the mask off.
So what would happen if you had someone who was strongly affected by the game sit down and analyze literally everything in it? You get Killing is Harmless, by Brendan Keogh.
I'm going to just warn from the getgo that this is not the book for everyone. In fact, if you don't know what Spec Ops even is, and are uninterested from the description I just gave you, I don't even think you'll get anything out of it. But, if you played and were as deeply shaken by it as I was, or even just are curious why so many people were so strongly affected, this is worth your $3.
The strengths are obvious - Brendan is a talented writer, and he was deeply shaken by Spec Ops. It's a match made in heaven to have him write a novel-length analysis about everything that is this game. And he's not the kind of person like Yahtzee who has a long, deep-seated hatred of military shooters. Brendan speaks as someone who gleefully loved Modern Warfare 3, even when (in his own words) he had no idea why. His turn of phrase is always entertaining and engaging, and he breaks up the reading of Spec Ops with frequent (but very relevant) asides and comments on similar events, or notes how infrequently other games have events such as the primary characters cracking under pressure and begin infighting.
He occasionally resorts to over-repetition when returning to advancing the game ("Moving on," "We approach..." "We continue..." "We enter..."), but these are minor nitpicks. His writing style is always entertaining and stays focused enough to get the important message home without tiring you of the topic. Almost all of Chapter Eight is discussion about the white phosphorous strike, but it is smartly structured and never feels over long.
Brendan's book is to 'analyze everything' in Spec Ops, and 'analyze everything' he does, even a stop sign at the very beginning and Walker's own name are both foreboding and ominous. That is, honestly, the thing that will drive some people away from Killing is Harmless. Extra Credits said, in their two-parter, that some of the plot structure, fourth wall breaking, and psychological aspects will pull many people out of Spec Ops, as their suspension of disbelief is broken. Brendan, however, seems to revel in it, even when he otherwise shouldn't. Darius Kazemi's review most strongly criticizes this, with a moment where Radioman blames all the violence on video games, and Brendan admits it's unfunny and forced, yet approves of it for being right.
And yet, it's very difficult to feel like the book is worse off for it. Sure, I don't agree that the crows are symbolic, I don't agree that the stop sign is that important, and there's plenty of times where I thought to myself, "You're overreading a bit here, Brendan." But I can't bring myself to dislike the book. It is, at its core, an analysis both on the game, and the man Brendan himself. It's even in the foreward - "Ultimately, this is an act of interpretation." He wants you to understand what he has interpreted from Spec Ops.
I would not consider a reading of Fight Club bad if it makes a lot of statements and suggests things about the movie I do not disagree with. Even the director said in the commentary, "You'll notice how Tyler says the same thing as the therapist earlier in the movie, 'I look around and I see a lot of men...', etc." I didn't think there was anything to that, except maybe that a script/screenplay writer's style of speech coming through. Would I like the movie less now knowing that? Or any of the actors? Or any other writer? Not at all. Fight Club asked a lot of questions, and gave you very little answers. It played with the concepts of nihilism and anti-consumerism, then simply ended the movie. Was Tyler evil? Was the narrator? Maybe, but maybe not. Similarly, Spec Ops is not interested in telling you the answer - it wants to ask you questions it does not have an answer for. Killing is Harmless is Brendan's book about his answers, not everyone's.
Killing is Harmless had a goal of critcally reading Spec Ops, top to bottom. And that's what it did - even when I disagree, it helped me (as it may help you) to understand the game itself more. Even when the book is overreaching or wrong in whatever he has conceived, even when it misses things I believe (such as how Extra Credits says it used the aged gunplay to give the player a sense of 'wrongness' early on), even when the book is probably just objectively wrong, and you will find these moments....Brendan was successful in his goal.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Saturday, November 3, 2012
Ruby Gloom is odd because, for the most part, I could easily have overlooked it as generic goth Hot Topic junk. In fact, I really did, because Ruby Gloom was initially goth apparel sold at Hot Topic, so that would make sense. But after a few years and after I stumbled across it on Netflix, I was surprised to find it is quite good.
Which won't be as surprising since the show has been over for close to four years, but it really is. Somehow they found a way to merge The Nightmare Before Christmas-esque pseudo-horror elements like skeletons, cursed luck, monsters, and 17th century Gothic visuals with the cuteness of a show aimed primarily at little girls, and it all comes without being overbearing or obnoxious. Really, it's kind of a marvel at how it sounds like a guaranteed recipe for an obnoxious plead for TNBC fans' money while having none of the charm, nor of the charm of a show like MLP:FIM, but it actually successfully nails all of it.
Really, if I were to compare it to anything, it'd be most similar in structure to Homestar Runner. A small team of characters, numbering no more than seven or so, plus a few recurring background characters, make a surprisingly wide spectrum of events happen without breaking any of those characters' established personalities or aspirations. Once you know the main cast (with one exception), there's little that breaks their archetypes or makes them less endearing.
Ruby Gloom: The titular character, Ruby is a young girl (about ten/twelve or so), who resides in a small house in Gloomsville with her friends. She is cheerful, pleasant, intelligent, hard working, and essentially the straight man around which the show revolves.
Ordinarily, that would be a surefire way to make her obnoxious and oblivious, but Ruby is surprisingly flawed. Most of the time, she endures her goofy/dumb friends' antics with a smile and a shrug, but not always. She occasionally is frustrated, upset, depressed, or annoyed. It warms me up to her more to not see her be unbreakable, but to be human. I truly like her when she is unbothered, because it is not her only state of being.
Misery: Misery's name is fitting as she, as with all of her family, has been cursed with awful luck. Her voice is dry and raspy, her eyes endlessly streaming tears, and her reaction to everything around her always is nothing more than exhausted and dulled acknowledgment. And, because of it, she easily has some of the best gags in the series.
Misery's one gimmick thankfully doesn't define her, as she occasionally is granted bouts of happiness, humor, and playfulness. But even if it was all she had, her presence gives the show its much needed laughing aloud, comic relief moments. Misery fades into the background frequently enough you forget about her, and then she shows up again. Her dry talk of illness, injury, and death is a cute way of adding it to the show without really letting it sink in what she means when she talks about her ancestors' horrible demises.
Frank and Lem: A zombie-like two-headed beast, Frank and Lem are brothers stitched together at the side, with an affection for heavy metal. Their dumb-and-dumber double-act is an entertaining trait, with Frank as the Harry and Lem as Lloyd, and they add some more of the harder-edged heavy metal theme to the show. As with most of the cast, they both have great lines, and play off each other and everyone well.
Scaredy Bat: A play on the term "scaredy cat," Scaredy Bat is afraid of everything and anything. His introductory episode is displaying his fear of flying, something that should ideally come naturally to him. Similar to Misery, this sounds like a one-note gag that runs out in a matter of a few episodes, but Scaredy is similar to Ruby in that the show lets him break out with occasional acts of bravery, selflessness, and quick thinking. These moments warm you to him, especially when he remembers to be afraid a moment later and faints in horror.
Iris: If this show managed to make every character endearing without being overbearing, Iris must have been a heatsink for this because she is about as lovable and endearing as a rabid badger the size of a dog. Iris' personality is defined as fun-loving and adventurous, but she somehow lost that moment of breaking past her one attribute the rest of the cast did.
Her one role is to act like this show's version of Ethan from the (terrible) comic Control Alt Delete, which is to say be a comedic klutz that runs around and creates disasters for the rest of the cast to fix. You know how Rainbow Dash in Friendship is Magic can be characterized as brave and adventurous, but is also oddly lazy? Or how her bravery also comes with pride and arrogance, which are frequently her downfall? Or how Pinkie Pie is fun loving and silly, but still has a heart of gold and knows when to stop? Iris is like that, but without any of the important parts I mentioned.
Ideally her fun-loving antics would one day send her straight into a volcano, because she is irredeemable as a character. Virtually every episode she's in she is just annoying, including her shrill voice and laugh. I can only think of one episode where she's not irritating, and it's basically because she doesn't exude any of her core attributes (Because they suck, I hope).
Poe: A play on words, with his two roommates/friends Edgar and Allen, off of the infamous poet Edgar Allen Poe, Poe is a raven with a crisp British accent and a love of luxury, food, talking, and intellectualism. Frequently a prim and proper gentleman, Poe can be a bit annoying, but his traits never stay irritating for more than a few gags here and there. He's not very interesting, but his contrast to the others allows comedy to be spun almost effortlessly.
Skullboy: Imagine Jack Skellington combined with a jack-of-all-trades, and you basically have who Skullboy is. He's the Master of Disguise of the cast, constantly trying to discover who he really is and coming up with ridiculous gimmicks to do it, such as turning into a couch-surfing layabout, an action hero, a Shakespearean actor, an ice sculptor, a magician, a British General, a mechanic, and a million more. Along with his excellent voice - which perfectly nails the attitude and tone of each of his roles - Skullboy melds easily into every episode's needs.
The show's tone shifts with his. When he's a private eye, his voice begins a smooth narration, and the music turns into film noir detective easy tunes. As a layabout, his slouchy demeanor comes with bongos and percussion, and his voice slows and drips with apathy and dismissal. When he becomes an action movie hero, his voice swells and bellows like a lion, and he is acrobatic, inventive, and daring, with the background themes swelling into a triumphant overture. Were the music and animation not so excellent, this would be jarring, but each scenario adds to his likability.
Without going into detail, the show manages to do a lot with a very small cast (I'm skipping characters like Mr. White and Mr. White, or Boo Boo, or Iris' pet, etc.). Some of the best goofiness moments come from simple setups. My favorite example is when Misery leaves and, with it, the cloudy weather they were used to goes, forcing them to flee the hot sun. Ruby and Skullboy go off to find her, using the underground tunnels, while Poe, Scaredy, Frank, and Lem stay under the house. Inspiration strikes them, so they don Misery's raincoats and go back outside, all three pretending to be Misery to an imaginary audience. Scaredy, with his tiny Indian voice, shouting out that he is in fact, her, and he truly dislikes his luck, only to be followed up by Poe's soliloquy in his crisp British accent, "Forsooth! For I, Misery, am cursed with the most in-fortuitous luck!"
It's also delightful on the senses - the animation is smooth and gorgeous, relying on very little outlines but strongly contrasting colors such as Ruby's hair, her skin, and her dress/Wynona Ryder Beetlejuice-era stockings. The music manages to juggle an unbelievable amount of different styles. The main theme gives vibes of TNBC, as I've said, with the eerie and addicting theme song, but it branches out with themes reminiscent of The Incredible Bongo Band, Manowar, John Williams' Indiana Jones, military drum marches, Edvard Greig's Hall of the Mountain King, and more. It's not to say the themes are that good, but the simple background melodies add to the ever-shifting tone Skullboy adds to the theme.
Aside from Iris, the show doesn't skate by so easily without mistakes. Despite being very strong early, it felt like towards the end it just lost its way and ran out of material, and rather than resolving long-running plot threads like having an adorable relationship start between Skullboy and Ruby, something teased in the first few episodes, they just ran the third season out until the contract ended, did a final episode, and called it a day. It's very underwhelming that a show so strong didn't even have some semblance of closure. Even if it was cut off early, that's no excuse - Sat AM Sonic the Hedgehog managed to close up some plot threads even with its long-hanging cliffhanger of Snively taking over.
In short - it's very, very good. Very cute, and incredibly funny.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Saturday, March 31, 2012
Sunday, February 12, 2012
DISCLAIMER – I am not responsible for spoilers you read towards the end of this.
Serialized cartoons are one of those things that, in context of society, never really has secured an especially good foothold, except by the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia that everyone in the Goddamned universe has. While I have fond memories of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers, they weren't especially story-driven cartoons, and usually ended in wacky hijinks with a non-ending that did little besides maintain the status quo. Shredder and Megatron ended half of their episodes pointing off with a cry of, “Decepticons, retreat!” as if to whisk away before anybody died permanently.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has its own charms, but aside from the season premiers, never ascends to much more beyond simply being cute and fun. Not that it's a bad thing – that's what it's comfortable with, and I like it as it is. There's been a chain of successful cartoons that can carry excellent story, most notably in absolutely Goddamn anything Bruce Timm comes up with, or my personal favorite, Beast Wars, but they frequently lack the ability to be as funny or charming as the former. Up until Adventure Time, I didn't think it was possible to combine the two into a single cartoon. I have been proven wrong.
Season 1 felt like any other ordinary cartoon, at least at first. I've seen plenty of cartoons that were equally as wacky, though lacked in the imagination department, and if nothing else the constant introducing of bizarre elements was what kept me going, such as the Knife Storm (where it rains downward-pointing knives). But after about twenty episodes I was starting to note that, as goofy as this show could be, the established world rules from previous episodes carried on without so much as a hiccup.
In one episode, Jake the Dog and his girlfriend Lady Rainicorn are spending a romantic evening, and while he plays the violin his girlfriend turns all sort of buildings and objects random colors (non AT fans - just go with it, this sort of thing is normalized after a while). It started off as a one off joke, but when Jake has to meet Lady's parents and he acts like a rainicorn to impress them, they suggest playing traditional rainicorn games, which turn out to be changing the color of things nearby.
It's only one example, too. Lady Rainicorn only speaks Korean through the first season, but the in later episodes not only does Jake write letters to the rainicorns in Korean, but once he even cooks Korean food and said, "My girlfriend taught me how to make this."
The resulting fusion of a gag-driven, zany show with a world built with such well-established continuity, while simultaneously making all appearances of just making shit up on the spot and rolling with it, is something that I have honestly never seen before. The only thing that strikes me as anything close is MS Paint Adventure's ludicrously huge webcomic/adventure game...thing, Homestuck. But even that feels like an ill-fitted comparison, since Homestuck doesn't occasionally end with a non-sequitur fart, and the idea that he's really planning it is a dubious one at best.
The sight gags cement this even more soundly. Frequently, one-off gags are tossed out, such as skeletons tucked into the corner of Princess Bubblegum's study. They appear and are gone before you even have a chance to react, and always cement the kind of absurd goofiness. That's not even to mention half of the jokes that I cannot believe they get away with. “This'll be easy as...hm. Dunno what it'll be like, but it'll be easy!” “Yeah, as easy as childbirth!”
I think the main thing that attracts me so much to Adventure Time is surprising amount of wordless storytelling. I've spoken at length on this subject before, most notably at the triumph of Deus Ex: Human Revolution's, so it comes as no surprise. From the intro to simple scenery art to entire episodes, it makes it clear – Adventure Time is post-apocalypse. Ruined 20th century objects litter the scenery everywhere, and even Jake makes mention of it in one episode when they sit to watch a movie. “These are all from before the Mushroom War!”
The most standout episode is when Finn leads a pack of mutants to their homeland in a deep sewer, and he ends up in a desolate city block, with shops and houses in aged disrepair. It's both eerie and beautiful. The Fallout games have all been really good about this kind of scenery construction, and yet Adventure Time has not officially stated post-apocalypse to be the case once. Nor do they plan to.
Were this all, it would already be a noteworthy cartoon in building a world full of candy people, witches, farts, an Ice King villain, and a post-apocalyptic world, all while keeping a focus on swashbuckling adventure and comedy. But it feels like, about halfway through making Season 2, the writers were all sitting around a table, and all at once just threw up their hands and said, "Out of jokes! Time to work on story and characters," and gave a great heaving sigh, “I guess.”
Season 2 hit a sudden and incredible shift of providing miles and miles of fascinating characterization, fleshing out their motivations, vices, and aspirations. Finn has always been referred to as "Finn the Human," but we never saw any humans in the show; this was tapped in one episode where he believes he found more people like him, and tries to integrate them into the world so he wouldn't be the only one. Jake, despite his laziness and absentmindedness, caves easily to peer pressure and can be easily swayed to push himself, as discovered when he pushes his stretch powers to his limit and nearly dies for it.
The curious relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Finn is often left at a one-way crush, but it's given surprising depth when she's turned into a thirteen year old and she really likes Finn. It's not just that their young, adorable romance is well written* – it's that too – but instead it comes off as bittersweet and tragic for the plucky kid when she has to become eighteen again. In a vain hope, he asks if she wants to do stuff together, and she laughs good naturedly, calling him a “silly boy,” leaving him on the balcony by himself. It's the entire subplot of 'we can never be together', but in all of ten minutes.
I think the most mind-blowing part of it is when the Ice King, a longstanding comedic relief/villain hybrid along the lines of Black Mage from 8bit Theater, is given a backstory. For three whole seasons he has been the weird, mad king of the frozen north, with a bizarre obsession with his penguins, being friends with Finn and Jake, kidnapping princesses, and possessing a magic crown that gives him his powers. Half of the time he's not even nefarious – he just shows up and tries to spend some fun time with the duo.
And then Finn and Jake discover a tape he kept from before the Mushroom War – he was an antique collector who came under the possession of a magic crown that gave him horrifying visions, driving his wife away, twisting his mind, and making him immortal. The bare parts of his sanity he kept were warped, explaining his fixation on princesses (a nickname for his wife) and his sociopathic behavior.
A evil and wacky comic relief character is given a backstory tragic enough to make you feel sorrow for him. And the next joke is made all the more both hilarious and terrible, as the Ice King covers his face with his hands. “Oh no! Now you know my secret! I used to...wear glasses!”
In Saint's Row 2, there was one mission that stuck out to me, where a budding gangster named Carlos screws up, and for his mistake he gets chained to the back of a truck and dragged around, and you have to save him. But by the time you get there, it's too late, and you only have enough time to grip him by the hand, as if in apology, before you mercy kill him. The whole game was as wacky and goofy as it could possibly be, and this one moment stuck out so hard because of that.
Similarly, Adventure Time's one moment of immense tragedy and sorrow sticks out all the more powerfully when you have not just one but several episodes that end with someone farting before cutting to black. The Ice King, tragic victim of mind control and a power he could not understand**, had stopped in the middle of an episode to rock back and forth on his butt, grabbing his feet and muttering, “I'm a banana.”
This is why I'm becoming so obsessed with this show, now. I have never seen a cartoon operate on a level that Adventure Time does. What was initially a silly pilot about a boy and his talking/stretching dog saving a princess from an evil king of the Ice has moved onto a level I cannot fathom in a way I never predicted. It has depth of character while noodle arms wiggle in a fancy dance, world-consistency when they literally make up all-new monsters and creatures any time they need it, and sorrow and tragedy next to the wacky and wild.
I can do little but applaud Pendelton Ward for making this show as brilliant as it is.
* Comments suggesting that a romance with thirteen year olds is creepy will be shot
** This is the kind of thing that makes my brain want to work on new fiction so I can create villains a quarter as brilliant as this.