999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

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Video game, 2010

Here’s yet another DS adventure game that beat me. I could dedicate a lot of thought dissecting the things about this game that don’t work, things that I believe are objectively bad, but instead I’m going to talk about one moment that stuck out to me as particularly awful, and from which you can draw your own conclusions about the level of sophistication at work here. In it the protagonist asks his love interest (and their characters have no depth past what I just described) to repeat herself after she said the words “It’s really hard”. Several times. He didn’t do this to laugh at her accidental innuendo, we’re told that after she repeated herself he blushed. I guess he asked her to say it again so that he could overload on how sexually exciting that is? Right in front of her? And the third party that’s present? It’s this mortifying immaturity and emotional tone-deafness that informs all aspects of this game. The shallowness of thought here is overwhelming, despite some good puzzle design. I’m surprised by the amount of positive attention this game has received, and can only speculate that people either wanted to like it because of its interesting gameplay mechanics, were fleeced into thinking its brooding atmosphere actually possessed depth, or have loose standards due to the low bar set by poor storytelling in the majority of video games.


Secret Files

secret files ds

 

Video game, 2010

This is the video game that finally made me realize that I have no interest in traditional adventure games of the mystery solving variety. This is a genre that I had been intimidated by what I perceived to be an intimidating amount of complexity and depth. After playing two of the genre’s most beloved classics, Broken Sword and now Secret Files (both in the form of their DS ports), I can now rest easy with the revelation that these games are shallower than a puddle. They’re boring, bland affairs, devoid of any intrigue, insight, or excitement. Secret Files in particular is unintuitive in every way. The interface is garbage, requiring up to three click to simply look at something. The puzzles make no sense, requiring near constant trips to a walkthrough. And the story reads like Indiana Jones fan fiction. I will say that Secret Files brushes right up against being fun in its incompetence, but not to an extent that is capable of holding your interest for more than a couple of chapters.


Ghost Trick

Video game, 2010

As a big fan of the Ace Attorney series of games, I’ve looked forward to playing Ghost Trick, a new property by Ace Attorney creator Shu Takumi, for a long time. And it was quite a while into playing Ghost Trick that I was still viewing it through the prism of Ace Attorney. There are a lot of reasons for this beyond the fact that they have the same creator. Not the least of which is because they are both the same type of unique game. A “visual novel” (which is, let’s be honest, just another way of saying “comic book”). What this means is that for the vast majority of the time you’re playing Ghost Trick, you’re simply reading. The beauty of this genre, or perhaps just the way Takimi treats it, is the way it marries story and gameplay. Only by paying attention to the story, and anticipating the story, can you determine the correct course of action. Many people find this unappealing, preferring the arcade style thrills of Mario Kart, Fruit Ninja, or Call of Duty. That’s fine. Although those things make a fine distraction, there’s nothing like a good story. And that’s not to say that there’s nothing visceral about Takumi’s games. The man knows how to dole out clues to a mystery better than JJ Abrams ever will. The answers, and new questions, you’re given are paced out at near perfect intervals. Close enough in proximity to each other to be rewarding, and not so far apart that it feels artificially lengthened. Okay, the third act may be guilty of that. And the beginning of the game holds your hand for way too long. But! For the most part you’re following a loose trail of crumbs, realizing where it leads right along with the protagonist. This, combined with crazy characters and unique dialogue-centered sound effects, are the tantalizing special sauce on Takumi’s works. (Sample dialogue: “Fool! Don’t you know women are can make themselves appear thin through fashion! To this day I still don’t know how much my wife really weighs!”)

But all of this could be said about Ace Attorney as well. And while Ghost Trick doesn’t have the “crazy Japanese lawyer” weapon in its arsenal (a tough gimmick to top, to be sure), it does have a number of strong qualities that has me seriously considering if it’s even better. Most notable is the art. The totally unique, lush animation is striking from the moment you see it, and a pleasure to drink in for the entire length of the game.

In addition to differentiating itself from Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick actually improves on its predecessor’s formula in a number of ways. One shift that I really appreciated is from the court room to the scene of the crime itself, and in progress at that. The fact that you’re present at the time the crime itself is being committed gives the proceedings a sense of urgency, excitement, and danger that Ace Attorney’s sterile courtroom setting just can’t compete with. Ghost Trick also magnifies Ace Attorney’s dichotomy of dark themes wrapped in a silly package. Death, although it rarely ends up sticking, is a real thing in Ghost Trick. The fact that you’re seeing it happen to excitable, talking Pomeranians and big, chicken-loving galoots only makes it more disturbing.

Ghost Trick’s biggest problem is the video game cardinal sin of making players sit through the same dialogue tree multiple times, although its interface attempts to circumvent this. Tough to avoid for a video game that most of what you do is read and involves time travel. This is likely to make it even less appealing to people turned off by its basic mechanics.

I’m most interested in Ghost Trick as a feat of storytelling. Regardless of the story itself, which is practically beside the point, I’m interested in the ways it tells its story. I think Takumi is a master of finding fresh, vital ways to make his stories engaging, and I’m endlessly entertained by them.


Awesome Weird 80’s Genre Movies on Netflix

I heartily endorse all of the following films as standout ways of spending an evening being enthralled by an overabundance of dark, strange imagination and also wtfing.

Cherry 2000

Dead End Drive-In

Encounter at Raven’s Gate (It bears stipulating that this is actually a very good film.)

Lifeforce

Mom

Nightwish

Parents

She

TerrorVision

Vamp

Vicious Lips


We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Book, 1962

“I would never live in a house with dirty windows” said Constance Blackwood. This is her response to her sister Mary Katherine’s suggestion that they let their windows get dirty to the point of opacity, as a way to prevent the townspeople from seeing into their house. Her response turns a blind eye to the fact that there are closed rooms of the house filled with broken things, the top half of the house has been burned away and the townspeople regard them as inhuman creatures. But as long as their windows are clean, they are leading a proper life. Some people are like this. They can ignore massive, fundamental problems in their lives by focusing on keeping up appearances. Constance’s aversion is to the situation of her family, who are outcasts due to the suspicious deaths of almost all of them six years prior. What grows between the remaining family members is an insular system of love and devotion, each protecting each other in their own disturbed ways. It creates a reassuringly justified agoraphobia, the “castle” of the title, perfect except for the gleefully ignored fact that they are actually serving penance.


Video Games


Music, 2011

I’ve never been as fascinated by the persona of an artist like I have become by Lana Del Rey within the last twenty four hours. And I’m not alone. People on the internet seem to love talking about her, both building her up and tearing her down. She’s generating that amount discussion for two very good reasons. First and formost her breakout song, “Video Games”, hits a sweet spot between quality and wide appeal, not to mention an earnestness and originality, that I can’t imagine any human being taking issue with. And it possesses all of those things in abundance, making it frighteningly addictive. Secondly, she wears the identity of Americana, something everyone seems to either see themselves reflected in or otherwise have strong opinions about, simultaneously as a scar and a badge.
The song itself is a black hole, and couldn’t have been planned better as such. Its rich atmosphere draws you in while its serene tranquility keeps you there and its originality and sexual allure keep you interested. To me, the song is full of love and compassion, strength and optimism, which are at odds with its lyrics about misguided devotion in the face of a relationship that has some barriers within it. I suppose I wouldn’t disagree with anyone for finding it morose or fragile. Its impact manages to completely overpower lyrics that seem like they should come across as nieve, and instead renders them stark. (“I say you’re the bestest/ Lean in for a big kiss/ Put his favorite perfume on.”) But its sincerity is the mortar that holds it all together. The song certainly uses a sexy, appealing and, most damnably, well established aesthetic as shorthand to get the listener on board, but it doesn’t appear do so for the purposes of being popular. It’s genuine. Can you really argue that someone made something that sounds like this in an effort toward mainstream success? (Side note: If we had to put up with hearing Rolling in the Deep four thousand and thirty eight times on the radio to get to have this, it was totally worth it.) When was the last time you heard something so original and bare in the mainstream? This song owes its appeal to being a perfect storm.
It’s a storm that extends to the persona of its singer. The song itself is already potent enough, but one look at Del Rey and you are totally disarmed.
She’s a redneck-chic, elegant white-hot nightmare of Americana, bordering on surreal. Her affluent physical beauty and glamorous hairstyle didactically clash with her pressed nails, bling and down home attire, all neatly separated by her look’s real centerpiece, her face. I don’t know if Lana Del Rey has had cosmetic surgery and I don’t care to know, because regardless she very much has the look of someone who has and that’s producing some very telling responses from people. This literally bold-faced statement of superficiality feels at odds with the deep emotion of “Video Games”, and watching her sing it can feel incongruous. In fact, it seems to be making a lot of people uncomfortable, challenging their perceptions of what someone who looks like Del Rey is supposed to be like. People don’t like being called judgmental assholes, so the mere sight of her seems to be enough to make viewers defensive and angry. So if you’re someone who has decided to not only hate Walmart but the people who shop there, you’re going to have a hard time watching “Video Games” come out of Lana Del Rey. But that incongruity serves to only feed the storm. What seems like it should only tarnish the poignant beauty of “Video Games” instead heightens it. The whole thing is not too different from Susan Boyle or Ted Williams, two other cases of the internet thrusting fame upon surprising incongruity.
It all comes together so neatly, people are right to be skeptical about her origins. Is “Lana Del Rey” (real name Elizabeth Grant) the concoction of record company executives? It all seems to work too well to be true. Even her missteps, such as the parts of the “Video Games” music video where she films herself as someone would photograph themselves on MySpace in 2003, contribute to her being greater than the sum of her parts. Could it all be real? Perfect storms don’t just happen. (Except when they do.) In the end, I don’t really care. Artists are never real people to me. What’s the difference, really, to me, between “Bruce Willis” and his character in Die Hard, John McClane? I’ll never know what either of them are really like. We’ll never hang out. They’re both fictions. That’s one of the things I really love about The Venture Brothers, they hold David Bowie and Iggy Pop in the same regard as Batman and Johnny Quest. Which, really, they are. So what do I care about the difference between Elizabeth Grant and Lana Del Rey? You’re not being made a patsy by believing in Lana Del Rey, because you’ve never known the truth about a single artist. Accept that, and accept her. See how well you can handle it by watching her first, and so far only, television appearance on Jools Holland (another suspiciously good choice on her part):
I’ll tell you one thing; If record company executives came up with the character of Lana Del Rey, I don’t care. Because that would mean they’re fucking creative geniuses. This shit is solid.
Looking toward the future, this is not sustainable. I’m guessing that with the release of more music, the landscape of Del Rey’s sound and emotions will diversify, diluting all the didacticisms I outline above. The more we see of her as a human being, the more mundane she’ll become. But right now, in this moment in time, this is absolute perfection.

Drop Edge of Yonder

Book, 2008

I picked up Drop Edge because its author, Rudy Wurlitzer, wrote two of my favorite movies; Walker and Two Lane Blacktop. I had always heard it was also linked to another of my favorites, Dead Man (it turns out Dead Man was “unofficially inspired by” Drop Edge in its original screenplay form). Drop Edge lived up to all those expectations. Its passive protagonist greets the kaleidoscopically surreal world he inhabits with a shrug of acceptance, navigating from one disarmingly strange and oddly stirring scene to the next with such frequency that you feel like he must have lived ten lives (as is appropriate- we’re in tall tale territory here). That protagonist, Zebulon, is trapped between the worlds of life and death and is compulsively drawn to a woman in a similar situation, each hoping that they can help free each other from purgatory. But if there’s a through-line in this story, it’s lost in the tornado of wild mountain doin’s that question whether or not those big questions really matter. Drop Edge drifts back and forth from addressing its themes, to not, then back again, like a dead leaf lackadaisically drifting to the ground.


The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Book, 1965
This is the first Philip K Dick book I ever read, so you’ll have to indulge me in coming to terms with the basics of such an essential author. And anyway, if you’re mad at me about that, you probably have a ponytail. I always thought Dick’s stuff was going to be wilder at a basic craft level. The legend of the man himself, one of visions and fantastic beliefs, led me to believe that the way his brain worked was going to produce something more foreign to conventional perception. So imagine my surprise when Palmer Eldritch turns out to be a breezy, pleasant, downright linear affair. It makes sense; the man’s ever increasing popularity and profound influence on his chosen genre could only have been achieved by something with wide appeal. This conventionality, however, ends up being used against you. When the plot turns wild and reality starts warping, the plain dressing serves only to magnify the mind bending nature of the proceedings. But things never get too weird. Anything truly not understandable is usually explained within the next five pages. What that leaves us to spend our time deciphering then is the themes. This book came out in the 60s and is about corporations’ god-like intrusion into our lives through media. This immediately confirms everything that I’ve always heard about Dick; that his themes were ahead of his time and his method shaped the future of the genre. Dick.

Dementium II

Video game, 2010

I tried really hard to not love Dementium II. Eventually I failed. It has a lot of marks against it; it’s by some rinky third-party developer, it has a completely generic horror aesthetic, no (and I mean NO) regard for story and the box art is a painfully transparent attempt to attract people who enjoy, or are shopping for people who enjoy, the wave of Japanese influenced Hollywood horror films of the last decade. Much of the above are normally deal-breakers for me, so I was really surprised that I not only finished but completely enjoyed Dementium II. How did this happen? Well sometimes, despite it’s own shortcomings, a piece of entertainment is just plain old solid enough to be good. Dementium II is more than enjoyable enough to play, despite being, well, kind of bad. I attribute this to two factors; game design and atmosphere. It bears noting that I am not a serious gamer, and to say that I have literally no first-person shooter experience outside of the original GoldenEye would not be a stretch. Dementium II was made for the DS, which is not a “hardcore gamer” system and has very few titles of this type. I wouldn’t be surprised if the game was produced with this fact in mind; a bit of a gentler, less complex FPS for casual gamers like myself. It couldn’t seem more like it; I always knew where to go, but didn’t feel herded and was rewarded for exploring around, and always had enough ammo to do what I needed but not so much that I was able to breeze through by mindlessly blasting everything in sight. (Although, the boss fights were almost certainly too easy.) And I’ll tell you something- bring Dementium II into a dark room by yourself, and you can get a little creeped out. Admittedly, that’s not the way most people play their DS’, and I almost never played it like that, but I did come to respect the games atmospheric power. This is due to a number of factors; the very effective sound design, the alarmingly detailed graphics and the fact that the visual designers cribbed more from Clive Barker than The Ring. What this all adds up to is that in Dementium II, for the casual gamer at least, it’s a joy to walk around, breathe in, and blast monsters. 3.5


Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Video game, 2005

I think that Ace Attorney is one of those series that no matter which game you played first, that one is going to be your favorite forever. (Unless you’re like REALLY into this in a very straightforward way, in which case don’t talk to me.) My first game was Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice. For that reason my saying that Apollo Justice is better than the original Phoenix Wright may not hold any water, but I will maintain that Apollo Justice had crazier scenarios, weirder characters and better art, and if you’re not playing Ace Attorney games expecting those three categories to be maxed out, then I don’t know what you’re doing with them. I got a little bored with this one from time to time- the stories and characters were too mundane, and the puzzles were crazy easy. Still good though, and the case that they added at the end for this re-release is much better. 3