Mother 3 Chapter 7: Ambiguity and Concrete Goals

Chapter 7 is by far the longest chapter in Mother 3, and it is where most of the plot actually happens. It begins when you discover a person tied up on the bridge. And who is it but your old friend Ionia! Who is Ionia, you ask? Well, I’ve been waiting until now to talk about the Magypsies. You have encountered them before – they help Flint out in chapter 1, and later Ionia teaches Lucas how to use magic. The Magypsies are peculiar, ambiguous, magical beings, neither man nor woman but something of both. Here they are in all their glory:

The Magypsies resemble nothing so much as caricature drag queens. Their pink hair, swishy walks, frilly clothing, and giggly speech doesn’t hide their receding hairlines, stubble, and masculine physiques. I was going to write a post about gender bending in Japanese games, and I may still do so at some point when I can wrap my brain around everything I want to say, but the Magypsies would be my exhibit A. They are designed to make you uncomfortable. Their flirtatious style (with cheeky little hearts at the end of everything they say) is at odds with their five o’ clock shadows. And mostly, they make the game characters uncomfortable as well. But here’s the thing: for all their swishy, drag queen stereotyping, the Magypsies are ultimately extremely good beings. Here is what you learn from Ionia:

The Nowhere Islands were built on the back of a sleeping dragon. So long as the dragon is asleep, life will go on more or less as usual. The dragon is kept asleep by seven needles, each one guarded by a Magypsy. It is known that one day, someone will come who can pull the needles. When s/he does so, his/her heart will go into the dragon. If this was a good person, the dragon will be good and the lives of the people will be saved, even as the world is reborn. But if this was a bad person, everyone will be doomed. As it turns out, of course, Lucas is the special person who can pull the needles. However, someone else can, too, the masked man in league with the Pigmasks, and he has already begun. Now Lucas has a clear goal…find all seven needles and pull them before the masked man gets to them, because Lucas has a good heart, but the heart of the masked man is clouded and invisible, and he is working with the Pigmasks, so he can’t really be that great of a person to entrust your apocalypse to.

The Magypsies job for thousands of years has been to guard the needles, but when a good person comes to pull them, they willingly sacrifice themselves and disappear forever. We see this over and over. Each time we fight our way to a new needle, we are met by a cheerfully ambiguously-gendered Magypsy, who flirts away, then allows herself to vanish forever, giving his/herself up because it is his/her destiny. For generations, the Magypsies have lived only to guard the needles, and they come to the end of their watch always with grace and willingness to accept the sadness of their disappearance. (About those generations – it does say that the Magypsies’ ancestors guarded the needles before them, even with their very long lives. I’m not sure how future generations of Magypsies come to be, but I imagine they simply explode into being in a shower of fabulousness.) In fact, it is symbolically clear that the goodness of the Magypsies is tied to their genderqueerness. (Major spoiler, more than I’ve already given away.) The seventh Magypsy, one who went missing long ago, is in fact none other than Fassad. When Locria gave up his/her identity as a Magypsy, when s/he lost his/her feminine side and took on only the masculine traits, that is when s/he went astray. Fassad presents as unambiguously male, and when he began to do so, he failed at his job as a Magypsy, to protect the needle and await a person with a good heart who can pull it.

Many people think that the Magypsies are part of why Mother 3 was never released in the US. Maybe if they were presented only as jokes, if they weren’t self-sacrificial guardians of goodness, Nintendo of America wouldn’t have been so frightened of presenting them to an American audience. To have a genderqueer group of characters who are both unabashed in the way they present and also are essentially good people who help our heroes on their quest and know much more about how the world works than anyone else – was it just too much for our culture? And why? What is the Japanese take on all this, anyway? Why is there so much more gender flexibility in Japanese media?

Anyway. Chapter 7 is also where we get a lot of the most memorable and crazy sequences in Mother 3. Here is where we have an underwater dungeon where the only way to breathe is by kissing the merman-shaped oxygen stations:

It is also where we eat some suspicious mushrooms and have some wild and disturbing hallucinations:

It is also where we meet the Mr. Saturns! Oh, all you Mr. Saturns. You make me want to just go “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” with joy.

But in many ways, I think the strangest thing about this chapter is what happens every time you pull a needle. Usually, when you are asked to collect a bunch of things in an RPG (crystals, for example, are pretty common), you are rewarded with some kind of upbeat musical chime and your characters spin around and hold up their hands in triumph. Not so in Mother 3. Instead, you get this terrifying business:

The earth shakes, ominous low notes blare, and purple smoke vomits forth from the wounded earth. Is it a good thing, what you are doing? How can you tell, when every visual and aural cue indicates that it is bad, but every good person you meet insists that it is good?

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Final Fantasy V guest blogging

So, first off, sorry about the egregiously long gap between posts. I’m not sure what happened – I guess it just seemed so imperative to watch Star Trek and read Lord of the Rings that I let the whole darn summer slip away. I know you’re all eagerly awaiting my final thoughts on Mother 3, and I definitely have them, so stay tuned!

I the meantime, my husband and I have been playing through all the Final Fantasy games. Check out his blog (http://thepasswordisntsword.blogspot.com/2014/07/final-fantasy-v-1992-playstation.html) for a conversation on Final Fantasy V – the weird one with an evil tree. Also, check out the rest of his stuff, because it is awesome (just like him. (Daaawww.))

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Coming together with purpose: “Mother 3” Chapter 5 (and also 6)

Chapter 5 involves a bit of journeying, a hint of the travels that are to come. In this chapter, the primary team is assembled at last — four characters who wander and fight together. They have all been part of the party before, but they haven’t all been in it at the same time before now. As a reminder, your party consists of:

  • Lucas — a young boy whose mother died and brother disappeared around the time that the evil Pigmasks appeared.
  • Duster — a thief.
  • Kumatora — a rockin’ punkass girl, somewhat older than Lucas.
  • Boney — a dog.

It’s funny that I think of them as the “real” party of Mother 3. I mean, they aren’t all joined up until Chapter 5 in an 8(ish) chapter game, and then they are separated again for a while in Chapter 7. Come to think of it, that’s rather different from EarthBound. In EarthBound, you accumulate characters one at a time until you have a full party of four, and I don’t remember any of them ever leaving the party. I certainly don’t think they are ever replaced by anyone else. In Mother 3, up until now we have also been accompanied by (if not necessarily in control of):

  • Flint (Lucas’s dad)
  • Wess (Duster’s dad)
  • Alec (Hinawa’s dad)
  • Salsa (a monkey)
  • Fassad (a jerkface meany-pants)

In any case, the Lucas and Co. dream team are the ones who will ultimately challenge the Pigmasks, and they start in this chapter. Lucas has kept his head down for the past three years, not agreeing with or going along with the Pigmasks and Fassad’s agendas, but not openly causing any trouble. Now, things are different.

Lucas etc. start out to recover the Hummingbird Egg. Shortly thereafter, they journey to the Thunder Tower — the mysterious structure outside of town that suspiciously appeared shortly before lightning began striking the homes of dissidents with alarming frequency. Lucas is allowed access following a mistaken identity. (Why do the Pigmasks insist on saluting this boy? Why do they fear and obey him? Who do they think he is?) Naturally, once there, Lucas sabotages the structure, destroying this abomination that has been raining lightning down on sleepy little Tazmily.

mother 3 thunder

Interestingly, while you are wandering around the Thunder Tower in your disguises, you get to talk to the Pigmask soldiers. Although they are as identical as Stormtroopers in their masks, the Pigmasks show signs of being people with personalities underneath. They even show signs of self doubt. One private manning a console explains how the lightning machine works, then says something like, “We aren’t doing good things here, are we?” I think this is a bonus for the childlike nature of Mother 3 — the Pigmasks are bad, but they aren’t exactly evil, not as individuals. Even one of the main bosses, a huge horned Pigmask Captain, is a DCMC fan.

mother 3 pigmask

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is very brief…a moment of motherly love and loss, a dream of that thing which is unattainable, the ache in the center of Lucas’s heart.

mother 3 sunflowers

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Three years later: “Mother 3” Chapter 4

The village of Tazmily was once a sleepy and peaceful place. We have gotten to know it rather well over 3 chapters — we know the people by name, we know the layout, and we have a pretty good idea of the kind of lives that people might live here. But now it is three years later, and the place that we once knew has changed. It is not unrecognizable. The layout is the same, the same people live here, but the way of life has been altered by the twin forces of consumerism and militarization. The training grounds of the Pigmask army occupy the old pasture, the local inn has been replaced by an ugly concrete box of a building, police officers look at you askance when you are just walking around. Lucas, finally taking up his role as protagonist, no longer knows everyone by name — there are strangers now identified only as “Man” or “Woman” … some are just passing through, but others work as cops or waitresses. Instead of simply working together to meet their needs, many of the villagers now commute to a nearby factory/mine, working long and unpleasant hours in order to earn money to buy things that three years ago they didn’t know they wanted. The factory workers are compensated with tickets to Club Titiboo, where the waitresses are expected to look cute and giggle at the end of every sentence, whether or not they want to.

The saddest part of the town, the real indication that things are worse, not just different, is the way elders are dealt with. In the previous chapters, two old men (Flint’s and Duster’s fathers) have helped you out. They have fought with you and provided you with information. Both these men once lived independently or with family. Now, they have been moved to the saddest old folks’ home in the world. They have become marginal, no longer a part of the life of the village. In addition to the two grandfather figures, Tazmily also had another old man. Scamp was frail and crotchety. He lived with his son’s family and never got out of bed, but his life was still meaningful — he had his giant teddy bear and his talking parrot, whom he’s trained to say amusing things. Returning to the village three years on, we learn that Scamp has died. His death notice, buried under a ton of others on a bulletin board, is just heartbreaking. I don’t remember exactly, but it says something like:

Attention:

Scamp has died.

That is all.

There is no place in the new town for old folks, and their passing makes people in this new and shiny future uncomfortable. We don’t really know how the Tazmily villagers dealt with natural deaths in the past (we know they were pretty rotten at handling Hinawa’s unnatural death), but I suspect that Scamp’s life once would have been honored with more than this briefest of notices.

A sad visit to grandpa.

A sad visit to grandpa.

The transformation of the town has not been totally forced — most people love their Happy Boxes and see this state of being as progress of some sort, even if maybe they’d rather not work in the mine quite so much. However, there is definitely a sinister element — Lucas and Flint have refused a Happy Box, and find their home and barn to be struck by lightning with eery frequency. In fact, there has been quite a lot of lightning in the last few years, all of it concentrated on the few houses that have remained Happy Boxless. How suspicious! And what is that mysterious tower that the Pigmasks built outside the borders of the town, anyway?

However, there is at least one good thing about the new life of the town. Club Titiboo may be shady have poor policies regarding their waitstaff, but they do allow for something that Tazmily wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience. Live music! The house band at Club Titiboo are a Blue Brothers-like group called DCMC, and they are pretty awesome. But it isn’t just this one particular band that is good, but the possibility of connection with culture. Tazmily was idyllic in its past isolation, but before I get too wrapped up in nostalgia for imagined times past, I will say that connection with larger urban centers, as well as technological advancements, do allow for a cultural life that wasn’t previously possible. There are some bad things about the new future: unnecessary and unexplained militarization, enforced conformity, wage slavery driven by the desire for material goods prompted by corrupting media influences, marginalization of old people, destruction of the old and the natural in place of uncritical acceptance of the new and the artificial. But technological and societal advancement aren’t necessarily bad things…DCMC shows that they can be positive as well. Tazmily was once a lovely place, but it was a bit stuck in a rut and its people were emotionally stunted. As the destroyed castle of Chapter 2 and the poor emotional judgement of Chapter 1 show us, it had some forgotten or overlooked problems of its own that were never really addressed.

mother 3 dcmc

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A Changing Economy: “Mother 3” Chapter 3

Chapter 3 begins with yet another viewpoint shift. The events of this chapter run in parallel to Chapter 2, but this time, we see more clearly what the enemy is really up to. This time, we follow the deeds of the mysterious merchant, a man named Fassad, who, we learn quite plainly, is in league with the Pigmask army. We follow Fassad as he travels through the desert to the town of Tazmily, starts to seed his influence in the town, and tries to track down the Hummingbird Egg. We don’t play as Fassad in this chapter, but rather as Salsa, his unfortunate monkey slave. It is a fairly uncomfortable position to be in. Salsa is just a poor li’l monkey, and Fassad is without a doubt evil. However, as the two of them are traveling together, and as Fassad is much stronger than Salsa, you come to rely on Fassad’s help during battles.

mother 3 fassad

Salsa’s girlfriend is being held hostage. This makes Salsa even sadder than his shock collar does. Poor li’l monkey.

There are two important things that happen in this chapter, besides demonstrating Fassad’s allegiance with the Pigmasks. The first thing happens about halfway through, when you have finally arrived at Tazmily. Fassad gathers a group of villagers together and begins speechifying (whilst forcing poor Salsa to do the performing monkey routine). He explains how they are not really happy, that they need him and what he can provide in order to be happy.  Though most villagers wander away, a few stay and want what Fassad’s selling: Happy Boxes. Salsa’s next task is to drag around the heavy Happy Boxes, delivering one to each home that requested one. These Happy Boxes (which suspiciously resemble TVs) are the future source of much of the dissatisfaction which will ultimately destroy what Tazmily once was. As the villagers buy into the idea that they need more stuff to be content, they lose their ability to be satisfied with what they have.

mother 3 happy box

The second important event in Chapter 3 happens at the very end. Kumatora, the spiky-haired princess, rescues Salsa and they flee from Fassad and the Pigmasks. Alas, the Pigmasks and their tanks catch up with them and surround them. At that moment, they are saved by none other than Lucas. Up until this point, poor Lucas has been nothing but a bit of a crybaby. Less brave than his now-missing brother, Claus, Lucas has spent the time since his mother’s death weeping for her. But he somehow recognizes that Kumatora and Salsa need him, and he fetches his Drago friends for an exciting rescue. Not only has Lucas proven that he is not a weakling after all, he also shows that he has not broken with the old ways of the village. Even though his mother was killed by a Drago and it seems likely that Claus was as well, Lucas recognizes that they were innocent, and when he is in need, he calls on them still. He hasn’t let anger change his friendship or his allegiance with the natural world or his old way of life.

Bite him, Drago! Bite his head!

Bite him, Drago! Bite his head!

As Chapter 3 deals with the changing economy of Tazmily towards a consumerist society, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss some of the in-game economy as well. Many games, notably RPGs but also a lot of stealth games and shooters as well, require/allow the characters to carry around a large quantity of stuff at all times. In addition to armor and weapons, there are items which replenish health or eliminate various health problems (like poison or sickness). Game designers have to make a decision at some point on how much stuff a character or team can carry. Often, characters wind up hauling around piles of unworn armor, scores of not-as-good swords,  gallons of health potions, and dozens of antidotes. It is not uncommon for characters to have no upper limit to what they can haul, but it is certainly not the only way to deal with inventory. In early Final Fantasy games, for example, there is an upper bound on what you can carry. On the one hand, it is unreasonably high from a realist perspective (obviously those extra six shields are probably too heavy to go dragging around everywhere you go), but it is also too small for practical purposes. At the end, you wind up trying desperately to figure out what is really disposable, and what might actually come in handy somewhere down the line, besides trying to figure out how many health items you really need to have in order to beat an area. And annoyingly, some things actually are more important than they initially appeared (like the freakin’ Blood Sword in Final Fantasy II — who knew that was the most powerful weapon against some bosses?).

Mother 3 takes a totally different approach. The inventory is actually super tiny. However, I find that the small number of items that I can carry actually makes me be less conservative about using items. I tend to just go ahead and use health items, for example, instead of trying to hoard them, because holding on to stuff that you aren’t going to use isn’t worth it. Instead of relying on your stash of items to get you through to the end of the dungeon to the next store, you have to count on coming across enough stuff as you go to keep you going.

Of course, this being the most adorable game ever, sometimes holding onto items gives you an awesome reward. If you get some Fresh Milk and don’t drink it right away, it turns into Rotten Milk. If you still don’t get rid of it and drag it around with you for a good long time, eventually it turns into Yogurt. This is the sort of detail that just makes playing this game a delight. Even inventory management sometimes gives you an amusing little surprise.

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A Mission for a Thief: “Mother 3” Chapter 2

One of the interesting things about Mother 3 is the changing perspectives – in Chapter 2 we leave behind Flint and his family tragedies for a little while to instead focus on Duster the thief. In a village as perfect as Tazmily, thieves such as Duster and his father know many wily tricks, but they don’t actually steal anything, as the houses don’t have anything worth stealing. That is changing, however. As the Pigmasks begin to wreak their destruction, another force has begun to invade Tazmily in the form of a traveling merchant. You see only glimpses and traces of this man, but he is nonetheless working to change the dynamics of the village with the fiendish new concept he introduces: money. Greed, secrecy, and suspicion come along with money, though the villagers are somewhat baffled by what exactly money is and what it does. By the end of the chapter, Duster’s status as a thief has made him much more suspicious in the eyes of his fellow citizens – after all, now there is something to steal.

The previous Tazmily way of life is now changing, but Chapter 2 introduces the idea that there has also been change in the past – that Tazmily has not existed outside of time or been totally isolated from previous tragedies. Duster’s mission in this chapter is to obtain a mysterious shiny object from the ruins of a Oshoe Castle. Duster’s father hid this object inside the castle sometime in the past, deeming it too dangerous for even the presumably benevolent king to have possession of it. But who was this king of Oshoe Castle, and what happened to him? The castle itself is a haunted ruin, uninhabited except by ghosts and the occasional mouse. Whatever disaster befell Oshoe is unknown, at least to us. We are told explicitly that the inhabitants of Tazmily have never known sorrow, but why do none of them recall the abandonment of the castle, the death of the king (for he, too, must have died here)?

In any case, by the end of the chapter, you learn what you were looking for: the Hummingbird Egg, which contains within it all the secrets of the world. With the new pigmask threat changing the face of nature, and with the threat of money changing the hearts and dynamics of the townsfolk, the dangers of the Hummingbird Egg must be faced in order to access the wisdom within.

mother 3 hummingbird egg

On the lighter side, Chapter 2 is also where we first meet Kumatora, the spiky pink-haired tomboyish princess of Oshoe castle. We first see her darting around ahead of Duster, dropping her pendant clumsily on the way, but we only catch up with her when she catches her leg in a trap. Undaunted, she informs us that there’s nothing for it, she’ll just have to cut the darn leg off. Yep, she’s a firecracker!

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A Beautiful Game: “Mother 3” Chapter 1

Sometimes you come across a thing that you love beyond all reason – a thing that someone created that brings you deep and lasting pleasure whenever it is experienced. The films of Hayao Miyazaki are this way for me, as is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” Every time I return to them, I am filled with the familiar joy and wonder that they inspire. They are infinitely rediscoverable. The game that most inspires the same love in me must be “Mother 3,” written by Shigesato Itoi and released in Japan in 2006. However, unlike “Spirited Away,” which is two hours long, or “The Little Prince,” which can be read in an afternoon, “Mother 3” requires dozens of hours to complete. Therefore, despite the place it holds in my heart, I have only every played through it once, years ago, with my then-boyfriend (now-husband). Until this month, when I began a long-desired second playthrough, this time on my own. Mother3Logo I am far from alone in my love for “Mother 3”; it is shared by many others. As the title suggests, it is the third and final installment in the “Mother” series, though the three games are only loosely and thematically related – they do not share a plot or characters. The first was never released in America, while “Mother 2” was released for the Super Nintendo as “EarthBound.” The fanbase for “EarthBound” is devoted and loyal, and with good reason, as it is a fantastic game. Set in a satirical version of America, it is silly, cartoonish, and yet also sweet and suffused with a deep melancholic nostalgia that gives it a lasting depth and meaning. After many calls for re-release, it is now available for download if you have a Wii U. “Mother 3” never fared so well in America. The final installment in the franchise was beset with all manner of problems and took over a decade to produce, switching systems multiple times in the process and being released on the GameBoy Advance, of all things. After such a tortured process, you would expect the final product to be an overhyped mess and an inevitable disappointment. You would be wrong. “EarthBound” is a wonderful game, but “Mother 3” is a masterpiece. However, for reasons unfathomable, Nintendo of America ignored the desires of the American “Mother” fanbase, and eventually declared that there was no translation of “Mother 3” planned – that it would never be available in America. But this game inspires love like no other, love that drove a group of fans to take on the Herculean task of translating the game and creating an English language patch so the game can be played on an emulator. And no more loving translation can be imagined – it is professional quality and polished so that you would hardly realize it wasn’t official. (You can and should read all about their translation adventures;  instructions for how to emulate and patch the game are here.) So, that brings us to now. The game exists and is playable in America in this odd limbo which may never be resolved. It is sort of technically illegal to download the ROM and play the game, but no other way exists, so that is what must be done. As weird as the process is to play it on the computer, the process is even more strange to make it playable on the original handheld system. But for my birthday this year, my husband jumped through all the weird hoops and purchased all the obscure bits of hardware necessary to make it workable and allowing me to start this second playthrough of what I would probably not even really hesitate to call my favorite game. And as long as I’m playing it and thinking about it, I might as well write about it too. I’ll try to write one post for each of the 8(ish) chapters. There may be some spoilers, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum. So here we go:

Chapter 1 (and also the Prologue)

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A monster in a monstrous world

What follows is a long and spoilerful post about “The Last of Us.” If you haven’t played it yet and you plan to, you may want to skip this one.

I hadn’t really been excited to play “The Last of Us,” Naughty Dog, Inc.’s critical darling of last year, mostly because I’m about done with zombies for the time being. But it has received massive critical attention and praise (by people such as Tom Bissell), so Ben and I played it together. It’s not an ideal game for playing in a pair – too much shooting and sneaking, which can be frustrating for the non-controller-holding person. It does have an interesting story. But for all the moments that were close to great, and all the potential, I found myself frustrated by it, in the end, because of some failures in the way the gameplay intersects with the narrative.

TheLastOfUs

The game follows the story of Joel, a man who has lost his humanity during his struggles to survive in the post-zombie world. (Sidenote – these zombies aren’t reanimated corpses but are instead infected by a mind-controlling parasitic fungus. Kind of awesome, but also kind of irrelevant, in the end.) Joel lost his daughter in the first days of the zombie outbreak, and we catch up with him 20 years later as a gun-runner, smuggling weapons and other supplies into the military-controlled Quarantine Zone in Boston. Joel somehow finds himself tasked with a mission: to bring a teenage girl named Ellie halfway across the country by whatever means necessary and deliver her to the scientific outpost of a group of idealists and revolutionaries, the Fireflies. The Fireflies are an organization which struggles to restore democracy and civil liberties to the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, but they also are the only remaining organization with the ability to conduct scientific research into the fungal infection that causes zombiedom. Ellie was bit by a zombie months ago, but instead of turning, she is now immune to the fungus. If Joel can deliver her to the Fireflies, a cure may be possible – humanity might be saved. Joel and Ellie journey across the ruins of the country by car, horseback, and quite a lot of the time, by foot. They encounter many adversaries and kill a lot of zombies and evil people, and by the time they finally reach the Fireflies, they have come to love, trust, and depend on each other.

The relationship between Joel and Ellie has garnered a lot of attention and praise. Ellie is a compelling and engaging NPC (non-player character…but sometimes you do play as Ellie for short periods), and we see her change and develop over time. Joel changes as well, opening up more and more, facing his past, coming to put Ellie before anything else. But although this story was compelling, I feel that it was marred by some storytelling and gameplay choices that are, I can think of no better word for it, cowardly.

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Why I love Animal Crossing

Okay, so here’s the thing, I’m just gonna come out and say it: I love Animal Crossing. I love going to my little town filled with animal people. I love to move all the flowers around. I love to dig up all the fossils for the day, and run pointless errands for my animal friends, and shake the trees. Oh, God, do I love to shake all the trees. It is strangely embarrassing to love something that is so silly.

Me, in my bug hat, with my friend Hopper, just chillin'.

Me, in my bug hat, with my friend Hopper, just chillin’.

For those of you who haven’t encountered it, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is pure pablum, a smooth, conflict-free concoction of sweetness, wrapped in bright colors and tied up in a pretty little box with a ribbon and a balloon. It’s the vanilla wafer of the game world. There is absolutely nothing here that represents a challenge, not narratively, not emotionally, not physically. You play the mayor of a small village populated by talking humanoid animals. Gameplay consists of futzing around town, doing a little fishing, catching a few insects, tending to the local plants. You can talk to the denizens of your town, do some shopping, arrange the interior of your house. Your mayoral duties consist of ordering and personally paying for public works projects, but they are completely opt-in — your town gets built at whatever pace you like. If life gets too stressful in town, you can take an island vacation with a flirtatious turtle who will sing you a ridiculous song. This game was clearly designed for 4-year-olds. It is as soothing an experience as I could possibly imagine. As a 27-year-old woman, I am ashamed at how much I love it.

But why? Why do I love it so? I’ve never been very interested in this sort of completely open-ended goal-free unwinnable game before. The Sims never really managed to hold my attention, and I have no interest at all in Second Life. I like story in my games, or at least concrete and achievable goals. Animal Crossing has no story to speak of. The year progresses along in real time – each day of Animal Crossing takes an actual day to pass. People may move in or out of town. You might build a new room on your house, or put up a new streetlight, or renovate the local museum. But there’s no plot, just an accumulation of more stuff.

And, oh, the stuff! I’m not sure if I should be troubled by all the stuff. The game certainly seems to have an intensely materialistic undertone. After all, most of your time is spent getting money to buy more stuff, and also acquiring other stuff which you sell for money to pay off your mortgage so you can take out another loan so you can build another room so you can have more space to put all the stuff that you get, and then getting more money to pay for the stuff to fill your new room, and ahhh!

HNI_0013

My room, with a selection of my stuff.

The accumulation of things, particularly matching things, is so completely contrary to the way I actually live my life. The game does put a very mild pressure on you to fill your house with matching objects. Your house is scored for its interior design (by a beaver named Lyle), and having a complete set of matching furniture scores very highly. That couch in the middle of my living room in the picture above – the one with the blue ruffles – that’s an awesome couch. But if I wanted to satisfy the obnoxious little interior design beaver, I would have to have 5 or 6 things that matched that blue couch. I had a bunch at one point, but I couldn’t stand having them up. It felt too soulless.

That said, I won't apologize for my bonzai collection.

That said, I won’t apologize for my bonzai collection.

If you like that sort of thing, more power to you, but I find it too factory fresh. I like my stuff to feel more like I actually accumulated it over a period of time, not like I ran out and bought it in a single batch. But still, the drive to find or purchase more stuff…that’s a powerful motivating factor in the game, even for someone who doesn’t really want to want more stuff in real life.

But the thing is…a lot of that stuff is really awesome and surprising and fun. You can have a rocket in your house! In fact, you can have a whole room full of space things.

SPAAAAACE!

SPAAAAACE!

Or someone might just hand you a harpsichord for some reason, maybe because you brought them a pear or something. “Thanks for the fruit. Here’s a Baroque instrument!” It’s delightful! And random delightful things happening…that’s the core of Animal Crossing. A few weeks ago I turned it on and found feathers and confetti floating down from the sky while everyone danced around wearing feathered hats, because it was Carnival…I mean, Festivale! And a dancing peacock named Pavè gave me that blue ruffled couch. It was the best day ever! Except for Christmas… and New Year’s…and my birthday…and Valentine’s Day, when someone gave me pink roses but never answered my beautifully worded love letter and then moved out of town. Those were all scheduled events that I knew were going to happen, but I keep checking in, almost every day, to see if some other, smaller, lovely thing is going to happen to me. Maybe today I will find that last darn fossil for the museum. Maybe today they’ll be selling more space stuff at the store. Maybe today I’ll catch a new bug, or a new fish, or a different color of flower will appear. And even if it is a totally ordinary day, there’s a very high probability that someone will say something nice to me. And we all need a little more of that.

HNI_0017

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“The Time Traveler’s Wife”

I recently finished reading Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” This is one that I genuinely expected to like. I remember vaguely hearing good things about it, the premise is good, and I like sci-fi that’s well grounded in reality. But this book – it just had so many problems.

A basic plot synopsis: Henry has a condition which causes him to spontaneously time travel, particularly at moments of high stress, to various moments in the past and sometimes future that have particular emotional significance to him. He materializes nude and sticks around for some minutes/hours/days, then returns to his normal life. His life becomes all entangled with his one true love Clare (good name choice!), and they try to work around his disability to live a normal life, with the stable job and the children and the house in the suburbs.

This all sounds very interesting, but it actually isn’t, really. The thing about time travel stories is that they are laced through with questions about free will, cause and effect, our ability to change our own lives. The book is aware of this, and its universe is constructed along the following lines: things happen in a certain way and can’t be changed. If there is anything resembling free will, it is largely an illusion. No one is forcing you to make the choices that you do, but they are inevitable – you will make them because that is how the course of your life has directed you. This is a totally valid direction for a time travel story to take. After all, from a physicist’s point of view, time is a double-headed arrow. Maybe the structure of time is set – it is the way it is and it can’t be changed. Ted Chiang has explored this concept in various ways at least three times – all of them, even the shortest, are more interesting than this novel. However, I think it is a concept that bears grappling with.

I can buy that Henry, with his double memories from both sides of conversations with himself, might simply accept that the way things happen is the way they happen – he can’t hope to do anything other than what he will do. There is one scene where Henry explicitly addresses his inability to change the future – he was physically unable to say the words to stop his father from walking in on him at an embarrassing moment, and it is mentioned that he was physically unable to say the words that would have saved some random girl’s life when she dies in an accident. This scene occurs when he was fifteen, and nothing remotely like it ever happens again. He is never unable to say or do something differently than how it happened the first time he experienced it, and he never even tries.

But why should Clare accept all this so easily? She learns as a child that she will marry Henry in the future, and she never questions that this is true. (Also, Clare learns that Henry will be her husband not because he tells her, but because of a magical Ouija board. It is never mentioned again.) Even when she doesn’t seem to like young Henry (an earlier version of the man who will later visit her in her past), she loves him because she knows she will love him in the future. She never questions the fact that her destiny is set in stone. She’s never upset about it, never tries to act against it just to prove that she has free will. She must have thoughts about all this, but we never see them. Clare and Henry discuss free will all of once, when Clare is 13 and Henry 35. This scene is from Henry’s POV. He has just asked Clare what she believes in (God, an absolutely determined universe, or meaningless chaos).

A year ago she would have said God without hesitation. In ten years she will vote for determinism, and ten years after that Clare will believe that the universe is arbitrary, that if God exists he does not hear our prayers, that cause and effect are inescapable and brutal but meaningless. And after that? I don’t know.

But we never see Clare develop these thoughts! She never even seems to think about it again. This passage sounds like she becomes a nihilist, but, no, that doesn’t happen. She is frustrated and despairing at 33, but not because of a perceived or real lack of free will. She despairs because she can’t carry Henry’s baby to term – which doesn’t have anything to do with the central fact in her life that she is unable to affect her own destiny.

This passage also highlights another issue I had: at 35, Henry has never yet talked to Clare when she is older than he is. And he never does. Clare is 8 years younger than Henry in real time, but it’s established that he can travel 50 years in either direction. But he never runs across her when he’s 33 and she’s 52. Why? Why doesn’t he? Because it would be weird if the age gap ran the other way? Because Clare must always be young and perfectly beautiful whenever she and Henry meet?

Clare is 20 and Henry 28 when they meet (from his perspective). Clare has known and loved Henry for most of his life. But as for Henry, he has spent the first decade of adulthood partying, sleeping with many women, drinking, doing drugs, breaking hearts. He also somehow gets an incongruous degree in library science while he’s at it. He’s maybe not abusive towards any of the women he dates, but it doesn’t sound like he is caring or courteous or goes out of his way to be a decent human being either. Then, just when he’s at the end of his twenties, might want to think about settling down, this abnormally beautiful 20 year old appears and throws herself at him, ready to be a devoted and faithful spouse for the rest of her life. Clare, from her perspective, last saw Henry when he took her virginity at 18 and has been heroically faithful to him this entire time, waiting to meet this cad who will eventually turn into the comparatively gentlemanly fellow that she knows. Okay, I guess she’s not entirely faithful – she sleeps with one guy one time, and all that did was teach her the lesson that sex with anyone other than her one true love is bad sex.

I want to be clear on something: I do in fact believe in love and romance. I even believe in young love – and in first loves being lasting. How can I not? I recently married my first and only love – we met when we were 18 and married after staying together for 8 years. But I don’t believe we were fated to be together. We had to learn how to be good together. We had to figure out what we each wanted from life and how to make our separate needs line up. It didn’t just happen, and it didn’t have to happen that way. And if I was transported back in time and got to be with my husband when he was 18 again, I would be a little sad because he wouldn’t be the man who built a life with me. Henry looks at Clare in exactly the same way whether she’s 33 and just suffered from her sixth miscarriage or whether she’s 18 and about to start her adult life. Nothing that she accomplishes, nothing that they share together in their married life matters – she’s just a thing to be loved, not a person to evolve together with.

Besides these large issues, the book is riddled with many small flaws. I don’t usually write notes in the margins, but I did this time, just to point out all the ridiculous problems to someone other than my husband. But you probably don’t really need me to innumerate these points – Goodreads reviews have got it covered there. I’ll just leave you with what must be among the worst analogies in fiction. Is it possible to take a book seriously when it contains the following passage:

Clare smiles a tiny wicked smile and thrusts her hips back and forth a couple of times. I now have an erection that is probably tall enough to ride some of the scarier rides at Great America without a parent.

It just…it brings some absurd and not sexy images to mind, doesn’t it?

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Misery, Misery, Misery

I generally don’t find that movie adaptations “ruin” books for me, but it is true that they can aggressively interfere with the reading experience. I sometimes find that the images and tone of a film can push their way in uninvited when I am reading, and it can be hard to re-find the imaginative space to let the story breathe on its own. The closer an adaptation is to its source, the worse the problem is. I have no great desire to watch “Game of Thrones,” because that world has already been so elaborately constructed in my head that it seems likely to be badly shaken by the introduction of other images. It is largely for this reason that I prefer film adaptations that do not slavishly adhere to the details of their source material, but instead try to find a new interpretation. But it usually doesn’t bother me too much, in the end, to read a book after watching a movie version. Usually, the words drown out the remembered images.

But sometimes…sometimes the images that I remember from a movie are just better than those that the text itself conjures up. This was my experience reading Stephen King’s “Misery” during a plane ride to Portland for Thanksgiving.

Stephen_King_Misery_cover

I first remember watching “Misery” with my brother and cousins at my aunt’s house. I must have been quite young, because I remember them telling me to leave the room for a couple of scenes (it was infuriating being the youngest cousin)…not that that really protected me, as I listened from the hallway to the sounds of screams and bones breaking. If you somehow haven’t heard a thing about it, quit reading now and go watch the film, as I imagine that it is best to see it unspoiled. However, if you want a quick plot recap: Paul Sheldon is a writer of a cheesy but insanely popular series of romance novels staring the adventures of a 19th century beauty named Misery Chastain. Following a car crash on a remote mountain road that shatters his legs, he is taken in by a former nurse named Annie Wilkes, who declares herself to be his number one fan. Upon reading his most recent book, in which he kills off Misery and ends the series, Annie grows increasingly unstable, forcing Paul to write a new Misery book and acting out in various unpredictable, violent, and frightening ways. Continue reading

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Suspend your disbelief

[There are spoilers in the last two paragraphs for “Beyond: Two Souls.”]

My husband and I just finished another game last weekend. “Beyond: Two Souls” is the new release by Quantum Dream, a French game studio headed by David Cage. “B:TS” is a sort of game-movie hybrid. It stars Ellen Page as Jodie, a girl who has been linked since birth to an invisible, intangible entity named Aiden who has various powers, like talking to the dead, and breaking shit. Her story is told non-linearly, from her childhood raised by scientists in a government facility, to her time in the CIA, to a life on the run wanted for treason. The game has a two-player co-op mode, which worked very well for us. I played as Jodie, walking around, choosing conversation options, and sometimes fighting. My husband took over Aiden, flying around and messing with things psychokinetically. The controls are very simple, even more streamlined than Quantum Dream’s previous project “Heavy Rain.” The highest-adrenaline sections come when Jodie is in combat – you direct her actions by flicking the joystick in the direction of her momentum, and sometimes by furiously shaking the controller up and down. It is a fairly ambitious game, meant to be more cinematic and “adult” than other big-budget mainstream games out there, with the intention of showing that gaming can be a serious art form worthy of critical consideration outside the gamer community. This has led to some blowback and criticism from gamers.

Jodie

In the spirit of building things up rather than tearing them down, I’d like to talk about what I really liked about “B:TS.” In short, the main character, Jodie, is, to the best of my knowledge, unique in mainstream gaming. While female leads are becoming more prevalent, there is almost always a sense of distance between the character and the audience. Female characters, particularly in action-y games, tend to be defined as more-or-less sexy, kickass ciphers. Whatever is happening internally is not generally explored very closely. But while Jodie certainly can whoop some ass when she needs to, far more time is spent detailing her interior life, her past, and her unique situation in the world. This is probably the only game I’ve ever played that holds the camera on multiple extended close up shots of a character’s face, and the animation is sufficiently subtle to capture the nuance of expression necessary to allow access to her thoughts. Continue reading

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Successful and unsuccessful parody

“She had the kind of face that made you want to say hey, look at your face.”

— Clara Weinstein

The above sentence was an honorable mention in the 2012 Little Lytton contest. If you haven’t heard of it, Little Lytton was created by Adam Cadre to come up with the best worst first line for a novel. The explicit goal is to create intentionally unintentional humor – something deliberately crafted to look like the product of a bad writer attempting to be serious and coming across as absurd.

Another internet personality, Lindsay Ellis (aka. the Nostalgia Chick) and some of her buddies recently embarked on a project that takes the idea of Little Lytton to its natural extreme. Instead of creating just the first sentence to an intentionally unintentionally funny novel, they created the whole damn thing. The 50 Shades of Green project aimed to crowdsource a parody of a supernatural romance novel of the type made obnoxiously popular by “Twilight.” They took suggestions from fans for the plot and characters, and engaged a team of eight writers to produce the beast in a shockingly short period of time.

Although I sort of missed the project as it was unfolding, I did watch through the video series after the launch party, and found myself wanting to read the book. The supernatural romance is a genre that deserves the large amount of criticism it has received. The gender politics tend to range from icky to abhorrent, and from what I gather, the quality of writing is often no better than the low standard set by Stephanie Meyer. The genre experienced an explosion in popularity for a while, exploiting every supernatural niche it could find. Vampires, angels, demons, fairies – nearly every mythological creature is apparently more than capable of falling in love with your average high-school girl. At first I was critical of the premise selected by the 50 Shades of Green project. They based their romance off of the Lovecraftian universe: a romance between a hot, teenaged Cthulu and the girl he decides to not destroy the universe for. But I quickly realized that it was a genius premise for a parody. The clash between the Elder Gods – immortal and uninterested in the unimportant flecks that constitute humanity – and the sappy, sentimental, beauty-obsessed romance genre could not be more absurd. So I invested $5 and bought “Awoken” for the Kindle.

awoken cover

Of the submitted cover designs, this was not my favorite.

“Awoken” succeeds at one aspect of parody – accurate identification of tropes and trends in its genre. The protagonist, Andromeda Slate, is appropriately boring, personality-less, and willing to destroy herself rather than lose the dude she’s dated for two weeks. Teen Cthulu’s sexiness is exhaustively chronicled, and his personality is sufficiently creepy, controlling, demeaning, and emotionally opaque. Near sexual assault is used as a plot point to draw the romantic leads closer together, and the victim is quite efficiently blamed. “Awoken” is clearly aware of the literary and sociological issues with teen romance novels, and points them all out very competently, without being pedagogical about it. Continue reading

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The stories told by the things we own.

A few years ago, I became very intrigued by a type of game called “text adventures” or “interactive fiction” (IF). Text-based games were popular before computers could support a graphical interface. The game gives you a paragraph or two of text, and you type in what you want to do, like “examine the fish” or “hang the bathrobe on the hook”, and the game gives you some more text. For a while, companies like Infocom made a fair number of text games, and they sold well. You might expect that this sort of game would have completely disappeared once computers gained enough processing power to create decent images. But IF has not vanished at all. It has a smallish, but still devoted following. Not only are there people interested in playing the old games, but new games are constantly being produced. IF provides a good introduction to game design – instead of requiring a team of programmers and a game engine and a number of graphic artists, a single author can have a crack at creating a game and bringing their own interactive ideas to life.

I’ve been dabbling in fiction writing all my life, and back when I was involved in playing IF, I thought I would give writing my own a shot. I worked on it for a good while, and wound up submitting it to the annual IF Competition. I’m not going to link to my game, because it wound up kind of broken*. However, I found writing the game to be very interesting. Not only were there they usual challenges of storycrafting and the brand-new intellectual challenge of getting the code to do what I wanted it to do, but I ran across a problem that was originally unanticipated. The problem of setting, in an interactive environment, is vastly different than the problem of setting on the page. Often times, when you play certain IF games, the descriptions of place are sparse, even bare bones, with every apparently empty room occupied only by the items that you need. It can be frustrating, not to mention boring, to read over and over that “That isn’t important,” when you want to look more closely at the bookshelves. Worse yet, when standing in a kitchen, it is maddening to be told that “There is no stove here” or “You don’t see any refrigerator”. What sort of kitchen is this? This barrenness can be avoided by creating more stylistic text or by causing the narrator/player character to have an altered perception – the surreal alternate world and the drunk or bitchy main character are popular. But if you have a sober and clear-sighted narrator navigating through a familiar world, trying to make that world seem fully realized can require every object to be described, or at least accounted for. My temptation as a player is to look at every little object, in the hopes of an interesting description, and my response as a writer was to try to code the main character’s house as thoroughly as possible. To give him not only a couch in the living room and a sink in the bathroom, but to also populate the house with all the little objects that people have that reflect their personalities and their lives – the magazines and photographs, the mundane things and the meaningful items, all jumbled together. The problem for me was that creating a fully immersive environment was not condusive to creating a plot that moves forward with decent pacing.

Enter “Gone Home,” the remarkable new indie game from the Fullbright Company. In “Gone Home,” you play Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman returning home after a year abroad. While you were away, your parents and younger sister, Sam, moved to a large house in the country they inherited from your father’s uncle. You arrive in the middle of the night to an empty house, and the rest of the game consists of nosing around through your families drawers and bookshelves. Every detail of the house is lovingly created, from the pens and cups scattered about, to boxes of your father’s unsold book cluttering the closets. But unlike my attempt at characterizing a person by detailing the contents of his house, this game truly works. The story, and “Gone Home” has a clear and relatively linearly presented story, is compelling, even gripping. Kaitlin’s parents, Sam, and Sam’s friend Lonnie, have left traces of themselves that map out their psyches in everyday objects. Notes, letters, photographs, and cassette tapes make up the bulk of the narrative. From time to time, you trigger an audio recording – Sam’s audio diary that more explicitly details her inner state and the exact timeline of the narrative. But even without the audio narrative, the story is clear and compelling. There are few real puzzles in this game, mostly involving remembering a combination to a lock for the thirty seconds it takes to go open it. But putting together the Greenbriar’s interlocking stories from the pieces of themselves they have left scattered about is an intellectually satisfying and emotionally engaging experience.

“Gone Home” is a game that is strongly rooted in a particular time and place. The game takes place on one night in June 1995. The nineties have a powerful nostalgic pull for both young developers and for their intended audience. I was eight in 1995, and although I remember the cultural touchstones of the era, I was a little young for some of the more important ones in the game. The Riot Grrrl movement was not something I was really aware of, for example, and I never listened to much punk rock then or now. However, one important part of the game that I realized rang very true for me is not so much the particular cultural touchstones, but the format of the ephemera of teenagerdom. Many of the most important parts of the story, the insights into Sam and Lonnie’s relationship, come in the form of torn scraps of notepaper, written on by one or both girls. For years, I haven’t thought about it, but my middle- and high-school friendships were in large part defined by these back and forth paper conversations. There were the short notes, passed under the desk. There were the hours spent relieving boredom by co-engaging with a single sheet of notepaper – hangman, the dots-and-squares game, cowritten fiction, the origami fortune teller. And there were the longer missives, when your young emotions were surging and you needed a friend to understand where you were coming from when you cried in the hallway, or when they made you so angry joking about that thing, or you needed to explain why something was so important to you, and you couldn’t trust yourself not to stumble or stutter or cry, so you wrote it all down and handed it off. I wonder if this game is set in the 90s not only because of the emotional draw of that era, but because for the modern teenager, this ephemera no longer takes physical form. Instead of scraps of paper filling our desks and backpacks and pockets, we have texts and emails and facebook games.

Small scale indie game projects have been gaining traction in the last few years. It is heartening that it is now not so difficult to create a graphical game of the detail and depth of “Gone Home” that small companies cannot do it. I hope these small games continue to gain the support they need to allow games to continue to evolve as a means of personal expression.

 

* They tell you and tell you to beta test as much as possible, but even though I knew it would be a problem, and I knew I had school-related conflicts at the time of the deadline, I still didn’t have enough time to polish it.

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Swimming Upstream

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a rare beast – a science fiction movie with essentially no exposition. The scenes and images that are displayed are sometimes metaphors, sometimes dreams, and it is up to us to sort out what is true, and how it all fits together. Some things are relatively clear, but motivations and causality often is not.

Watching this film brought to mind a page in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud explains his view that by juxtaposing two images, an author creates some sort of meaning, no matter how disparate those images might be:

non sequiturThis movie seems to be an exploration of this concept. We see things that happen in a sequence. Some of these things have a clear narrative relationship to each other, but others, less so. The characters move through a dreamlike space, all soft lighting, eerie instrumental music, and low camera angles. Dialogue is muttered, characters are sometimes inscrutable, and the screen is littered with strange images.

scenes from upstream color

Throughout, there are images of parasitic worms, worms which infect the heroine, Kris, and her lover Jeff. Parasites have some amazing abilities to manipulate their hosts. Many have complex life cycles that require them to pass through multiple hosts. In order to move from host to host, some parasites can cause strange and suicidal behavior – if it needs to get from an ant to a cow, the liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum causes the ant to cling to the top of a blade of grass, the better to be consumed by a passing ruminant. Toxoplasma gondii makes rats to lose their fear of cats, the better to be eaten, letting this protozoan enter its preferred feline habitat. Amprulex compressa is a wasp that turns cockroaches into zombies with its sting to provide a living meal for its young.

Strange as the natural world is, the worms in Upstream Color are odder yet. These mealworm-mimics appear to dwell in the soil near the roots of certain plants, notably orchids. When eaten by a human (or other mammal, presumably), they almost instantly change their host’s behavior. Not only do they affect their hosts neurologically – leading to a state of extreme susceptibility to suggestion – they also have psychic, even spiritual consequences. When Kris’s worm is surgically transplanted to a pig, she becomes somehow spiritually linked to the animal, as if part of her soul was moved as well. Not only is she linked to the hog who has her own worm, she seems to be somehow metaphysically entangled with a man who had been infected with a different worm.

Perhaps the worms themselves are not the sole cause of strange behavior of Kris and Jeff. Instead, I interpret all of them (human hosts, pigs, and orchids) as being carriers of something else, something I’ll call the Blue. Throughout, there are images of spreading blue color, blue crystals on the leaves of plants, blue pigment oozing from the bodies of worms, blue spreading over cells inside Kris’s body, blue spilling from the rotting body of an unfortunate piglet, blue coloring the petals of once-white orchids. The Blue is what ties together Kris and her pig, and her lover. But what is the Blue? A virus? An alien force? A magical one? An allegory?

The Blue

In Carruth’s previous movie, Primer, the premise is very clearly explained, but the plot becomes difficult to follow, even on multiple viewings. Primer involves a time machine, and the rules by which the machine operates are precisely delineated. However, following the consequences of those rules (and the motivations of the characters) is an increasingly complex endeavor, and the last twenty minutes may require a flow chart and a penchant for logic puzzles. Upstream Color is an experiment in the opposite direction. There is never (much) question about what is happening, but it is entirely unclear why. This leads to an interesting collaboration between author and viewer. It is always necessary to fill in some gaps in movies – what happens offscreen, what happens behind the characters’ eyes – but this film leaves the gaps wider than most dare to.

The gutter

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More Little Houses

This is the continuation of my readthrough of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. In the next three, Laura grows older and wiser and becomes a young woman.

On the Banks of Plum Creek

One of the most interesting aspects of “Little House” (besides the inherent interest of learning how people did things way back when) is the way the perspective of the narration changes as Laura becomes more aware and grows into a young lady. In “Plum Creek,” Laura is seven and the book spans nearly three years. For the first time, Laura is aware that Ma and Pa are really rather poor. She is forced to learn to stand up for herself against the snobbery of more fortunate town children, but she still considers herself rich, with the bubbling creek and the prairie grasses so close to her door. At the beginning of the book they live in a dugout sod house built into the side of a hill. Eventually, Pa builds a new, beautiful house. It is interesting that circumstances seem to have changed Pa. Perhaps it is the constant moving, perhaps it is the desire to see his wife and children in a real house, but whereas the Pa of “Little House on the Prairie” wouldn’t borrow a penny, in “Plum Creek” he goes rather severely into debt to buy the materials for the new house. He wagers that the land is so rich and so bursting with possibility that in one crop, he can pay off all his debts. It is therefore the most devastating moment thus far in the series when just before the harvest, the grasshoppers come and destroy everything, eat every speck of green down to the earth, and destroy all his hopes of a bumper crop. All the summer’s work is ruined, and the next summer is a loss as well, now that the ground is swarming with eggs. Pa is forced to leave his family and walk three hundred miles to find work. Ma and Laura and Mary and baby Carrie are left to struggle on on the stripped world. Once the grasshoppers come, the book and Laura’s childhood are split in two – the first part is full of childhood games (even if life is sometimes difficult and dangerous), but in the second part, there is hardship upon hardship.

By the Shores of Silver Lake

This is perhaps the strangest of the “Little House” books, a time of loneliness and strangeness and change. Laura is twelve, and they have lived by Plum Creek for five years. Pa has never had his bumper crop, and he struggles to keep ahead of his debts. Far worse, a wave of sickness has come through and taken Mary’s sight. Pa is given an opportunity to work for the railroad, and despite Ma’s doubts, he jumps at the chance. Pa heads west first, and Ma is left to take her four daughters by train. The train ride is exciting and strange, and after their journeys, they settle down on the edge of a railroad company town on the shores of Silver Lake.

Silver Lake is a strange and bleak place, the marshy edges of the water blending into the high, cutting grasses of the prairie, a shallow, boggy pond where there is only one tree as far as the eye can see. It is a place that is in the middle of irrevocable change – the buffalo are already gone, but the wildness is still there. It is the last time this place will be wild. The dream of manifest destiny is underway – soon, this will all be gone, ploughed under and turned to fields and farms and suburbs and there will be nowhere like this anywhere in the world – the prairie was unique and it will be changed forever, soon, soon, as soon as the railroad is built. Although the Ingallses live near a town, everything is lonely, almost desolate. There is a temporariness to everything – they are living in a temporary house, with a temporary place of employment in a town full of rough, dangerous men who will disperse before the end of autumn.

And the Ingallses, too, are preparing to leave and find yet another place to live before the winter comes, but Pa finds a new opportunity. The railroad surveyors have a house, a real house stocked for the winter, and they aren’t going to live there. The Ingalls are allowed to stay through the winter, a hundred miles from their nearest neighbor. At the end of the winter, Pa plans to make a claim on a homestead, and he finds the perfect one. But before he can file, the empty wilderness is suddenly, bizarrely crowded. Hundreds of people cross the prairie, trying to find and file a claim on the land. The surveyors’ house is the only place to stay, the only permanent building of any kind. They are swamped with guests who pay for meals and a spot on the floor to sleep. Laura and her sisters must lock their door at night, and you can feel Ma’s almost palpable fear for them, as these men come across a house full of girls in the middle of the emptiness. Pa manages to make his claim. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a town appears, and the empty land is filled. At the end of the book, the Ingalls move into yet another temporary home, the tiny homesteaders shack they have to occupy in order to mark their piece of the land as theirs.

The Long Winter

This was the last “Little House” book I read as a child, and I don’t think I managed to finish it. If “Silver Lake” is rather bleak, “The Long Winter” is desolate. The title says it all – a winter comes in that is like no other winter. The Ingallses move off their homestead and into the town, where Pa owns a store which he has been renting out. It is fortunate that they have an insulated building, because the storms are frequent and terrible. The train can’t make it through, and eventually, it stops trying. The winter is cold and dark and terrible. Food runs short, then shorter. The firewood runs out, so Laura spends her days with Pa, sitting in a cold, dark shed twisting grass into bundles to burn. Flour runs out, so Mary must grind raw wheat in the coffee grinder for hours and hours and hours. There isn’t even music, as Pa’s hands are ruined with the cold and the cutting grasses. Everyone almost starves and almost freezes and the winter is like a terrible living beast outside the door, beating down on every window pane and stealing every speck of light and warmth. Mary is a beacon of goodness, Laura and Carrie are pillars of strength, and they endure. Until it thaws again. In this book, family becomes invaluable. Even though the winter is terrible, it is not so terrible, because they all try to lift the darkness for each other. Even in the cold and dark, Laura still believes that if she works hard enough, she will be able to send Mary to a college for the blind – that her struggles will be worth it if she can bring light to her sister’s life.

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Little Houses

I have recently begun volunteering at an afterschool program teaching science to fourth and fifth grade girls. On my first trip out to the school, I had to kill twenty minutes after my bus arrived but before we were supposed to meet. I was in a neighborhood that was new to me, and while wandering around looking for a coffeeshop, lo and behold, a library appeared. A sucker for libraries, I wandered in. On a whim, I decided that it would be a good and productive thing to re-read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House books, which the library had in full. I haven’t read them since I was quite young – I’m pretty sure not since I was in fifth grade myself. I am currently working through at the rate of one book per week (with weeks off for school holidays). Here are my thoughts on the first three books:

Little House in the Big Woods

In her first book, Laura is a very little girl (she celebrates her fifth birthday about halfway through). LHitBW does not have much of a plot – the seasons change, Pa and Ma’s work changes throughout the year, and Laura observes. This book has been embraced for depicting a simpler time in America, when a family could be dependent on no one but themselves (and their gun). The Ingalls live close to the land. They have few neighbors, most of whom are family. Pa makes a living hunting in the winter and farming (on a very small scale) in the summer. Almost every calorie they eat, they have to grow, harvest, butcher, preserve, etc., etc. For entertainment, they have Pa’s fiddle and a couple of ragdolls. There is a strong fantasy about this type of self-sufficient life, and it is enjoyable to read about all the ways that they tuck in for the winter. But large parts of the book aren’t suffused so much with a sense of freedom so much as one of suffocating confinement. During the winter, Pa is free to wander the woods and lay down his trap lines. Although it is certainly cold and difficult, also dangerous, work, it is at least something that Pa has chosen, an occupation that he loves. Ma, on the other hand, is stuck in a two room house with three children under the age of eight, and she does not leave for four months. She barely sees another adult during the whole of the winter. It sounds, frankly, quite awful, even if the lonely woods are beautiful and the food you’ve laboriously put up is delicious.

But the food. The food! Mostly, this is a book about food. Here is a partial list of the things they eat in “Little House in the Big Woods”: venison (smoked and fresh), pork (spare ribs, salt pork, hams, shoulders, sausages, belly, head cheese, and tail), bear, salt fish, salt-rising bread, politically incorrect rye ‘n’ Injun bread, johnnycake, molasses candy, maple candy, maple syrup, maple sugar, honey, stewed pumpkin, pumpkin pie, dried apple pie, dried berry pie, vinegar pie, pickles, squash, hulled corn, butter, cheese… the list goes on and on. Whole chapters detail the making of all this food. Salt, coffee, tea, peppermint candy, cane sugar, and white flour are practically the only food items they purchase. And in fact, it all sounds perfectly delicious and fun. For a little while, anyway.

Little House on the Prairie

If LHitBW is all about eating things, LHonP is all about building things. One day, Pa gets itchy feet and starts to feel like the Big Woods are too full of people (they can see a wagon pass almost every day!), so he loads up all his worldly goods and his family into a covered wagon and heads west to the Indian Territory (which will eventually become Oklahoma). Once they arrive (the journey takes an unspecified number of months), then Pa starts to build. He builds a house and a stable, he builds doors and installs the roof. He lays the floor and builds a fireplace. He digs a well (a crazy dangerous thing to do). He makes all their furniture. He even gets glass windows.

The disturbing aspect to this book is that all this building isn’t exactly legal. Pa heard a rumor that the Indian Territory would “soon” be open for settlement, so he decides to go ahead and settle three miles on the wrong side of the border. Basically, the Ingalls pick out some land, land that is patently not theirs, and squat there, assuming that their government will pretty soon break its most recent treaty with the Indians and shove out the people who already live there. My stomach gets a little sick twinge thinking about it, how self-righteous they are – after all, the Indians don’t farm this land, so how do they get off thinking they have a right to live here? Ma hates and fears the natives, and there is one squicky scene where she simultaneously imparts her hatred and fear on her daughters and tells them to watch their table manners. Ick. Even after all their back-breaking labor, I was a little pleased at the end when the government tells them that no, they can’t live here after all, and they are forced to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice. And that’s it for the prairie house.

Farmer Boy

This is one of the Little House books that I never read growing up. I think I was just not as interested in the story of a little boy in nineteenth century America than I was in a little girl. The tone of this book is rather different from the Laura books. For one thing, little Almanzo Wilder (Laura’s future husband) spends the book doing things, while Laura mostly observes things. Almanzo goes to school, trains his own pair of calves, ploughs the fields, plants crops, tends them, harvests them, grows a prize pumpkin, and learns to handle money. Mostly, Almanzo does all of this without strict parental supervision. Laura might wind up in some dangerous situations – wolves surround the unfinished prairie house, the justifiably unfriendly Native people nearly start a war, and the family is nearly wiped out by malaria – but Pa Ingalls always looks out for his little girls. It is clear that Pa is trying his hardest to keep his children safe. Father Wilder, on the other hand, has no compunctions at all about putting Almanzo in some very frightening situations. In perhaps the worst chapter of the book, Father Wilder is hauling timber, and he expects nine-year-old Almanzo to be able to haul logs with his miniature bobsled and yearling oxen. Almanzo has some idea of how this is to be done (having watched it since he was probably two), but nevertheless doesn’t have the strength or even the tools to do it properly. When his oxen drive off the road, or even when he is crushed by a rolling log, injuring his leg and possibly causing internal damage, Mr. Wilder offers no advice and barely any help, just lets him struggle along with it as best he can. I’m all for learning by doing, but this was just too much.

Another difference between Farmer Boy and the Laura books is the emphasis on money. There is practically no discussion of money in LHitBW or LHotP – Laura mostly isn’t really aware of it and Pa mostly carries out business directly in trade. But in Farmer Boy, there is constant discussion of the price of crops and animals, the amount of profit that Mr. Wilder makes from his land, the money he has in the bank. In one scene, Mr. Wilder lectures Almanzo about the worth of a half-dollar, how the coin represents all the work and effort and time that went into growing one half-bushel of potatoes. The book places a sort of moral emphasis on money – investing money wisely is equated with living a moral life. I frankly don’t really agree with that. Mr. Wilder tells Almanzo that he can use the half-dollar to buy a bunch of sweet, sweet lemonade, or to buy a suckling pig which he can then raise up, breed more pigs from, and earn a lot more money. Almanzo buys the pig, but I don’t see how earning a lot of money for yourself is necessarily more moral than giving all your friends a treat – Mr. Wilder is rich enough to afford to buy some lemonade for all the poorer farmers’ children. There is also a distinct impression that money earned by farming the land is purer than money earned by being a shopkeeper or wheelwright, despite the necessity of having shopkeepers and wheelwrights in a functioning society. Pa Ingalls and Father Wilder both share a conviction that being a farmer makes you more independent (and consequently a better and purer person in general and a better American in particular) than any other profession.

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Mass Effect: The rise and fall (and rise, and fall, and …) of the krogan.

Morality can be a difficult thing for a video game to accurately portray. Usually, the designers opt for a binary choice system – at each point where a person might make a decision, they can go the good guy route or the badass route. Obviously a binary system isn’t the most accurate way to portray a moral quandary, but the questions that games pose can sometimes be surprisingly sophisticated, without easy answers

Mass Effect is a three part space epic, where you, Commander Shepard, are faced with the dilemma of what kind of person you are going to be while you fight to save the galaxy. The ethics system of Mass Effect is very binary – many of the things you say or do give you points towards either the “Paragon” or “Renegade” ends of the moral spectrum. Generally, these seem more like personality decisions rather than true moral quandaries – are you going to be the kind of person that people generally want to be around, or are you going to be an asshole who makes life unpleasant for other people? Either way, being a Paragon won’t stop you from gunning down your enemies with ruthless efficiency, and being a Renegade just means that you’ll be a jerk as well as a galaxy-saving hero. However, sometimes Mass Effect poses very interesting questions even within the bounds of its otherwise artificial moral choice paradigm.

This is how morality works.

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Magical thinking for grown-ups

Wherever you go, there you are.

It would be pretty difficult, in the post-Potter age to write a book about a boarding school of magic without reference to Hogwarts. Lev Grossman in The Magicians doesn’t try. I like to imagine the book as a conversation between a cynical crank (who is secretly obsessed with the Potterverse and knows every inch of Potter lore) and someone who reimagines what a secret magical world would look like.

The cynical crank asks: Why is magic always so easy? All these kids need to do is wave around a fancy stick and spout some mumbo-jumbo. Even in Potions, the recipe’s always right there. Any idiot could do it.

The Magicians responds: Actually, magic is incredibly difficult to learn, requiring years of intensive study and months of memorization. You will read until your brain melts and leaks out your eyes. You will suffer, and you will like it, because it’s magic, bitches, and magic is HARD, goddammit.

“It’s different from what you think. You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.”

Cynical crank: Why are kids recruited to Hogwarts so young? These children are inducted into some kind of secret, isolationist cultish society when they are only eleven years old. For Chrissakes, some of them don’t even know how to place a telephone call. How are they going to get along in the modern world of email, texting, Twitter, etc. etc.?

The Magicians: Actually, it just makes more sense to have a school of magic be a college, not a primary school. When students are recruited at seventeen, at least they will have some kind of basic skills for living in the modern world. And being highly intelligent, they will have more than the average knowledge in important areas, like math, and (non-magical) history, and civics and stuff. Also, they can have more sex that way, and also swear. And get drunk a lot.

“So it’s four years – ”

“Five, actually.”

“ – at the end of which I get what? A bachelor’s of magic?”

Cynical crank: What’s the deal with squibs anyway? Why is there so little empathy for people who aren’t magical enough for magic school, but who have contact with it anyway? Are they all evil janitors and crazy cat ladies that we can laugh off like they aren’t human?

The Magicians: Actually, life is horrible for people who know about magic but don’t receive training. It’s more than possible that if you aren’t accepted into magic school, you will drive yourself completely insane trying to get a second chance, dropping out of school and life and becoming a crazy-eyed, self-destructive shadow of your former self. That’s right, you think Filch really would have taken such a miserable, low-paying, low-status job if it didn’t give him the slightest contact with the burning light of magic, beautiful, terrible magic?

“They’re supposed to make you forget if you don’t get in.”

“But I should have!” She straightened up with the flashing red eyes and cold crystal seriousness of the true nutjob. “I was supposed to get in. I know I was. It was a mistake. Believe me, it was.”

Cynical crank: So, what’s up with all the faux medievalism? Would it really be so bad to give these kids a spiral notebook and a couple mechanical pencils? I mean, come on, quill pens?

The Magicians: Yeah, that is stupid, isn’t it?

As fun as that is (and I could go on in that vein), there is more to The Magicians than making fun of Harry Potter. It is an adult book not just because of the sex and the swearing and the drinking. It takes on what it clearly thinks of as a very “adult” idea of the world, that people are sometimes really awful for no reason, and people don’t change.

Quentin Coldwater, the hero of The Magicians is a miserable, self-involved teenager. He dreams of a magical world (the Narnia-inspired Fillory) from a children’s series, secretly wishing that he could live there, that if only he was there, he would be less unhappy. As it turns out, Quentin is recruited to a secret college for young magicians. Though he should be thrilled, and is at first, Quentin becomes disillusioned with magic, and with the school. He is eventually just as restlessly unhappy as a magician as he was as a very smart, very privileged teenager. And when it turns out that the magical land of Fillory is real and he is able to travel there, he is just as miserable there too.

This theme of miserable people being awful to one another comes up in modern fiction quite a bit, it seems. In particular, Quentin and his friends reminded me of the family in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – they are pretty much destined to be miserable jerks forever. The Magicians posits that adding amazing magical powers doesn’t essentially change that fundamental truth. Take that, children’s literature!

However, here’s the thing – this notion, that going somewhere magical doesn’t make you a different/better person, is pretty fundamental to children’s literature in the first place. Take The Phantom Tollbooth. In it, Milo starts out with a character flaw – he is always so self-involved and so focused on the future that he can’t appreciate the world around himself and is wasting his youth and his life being unhappy. After crossing through the Tollbooth to the Lands Beyond, Milo is not automatically changed into a better person. The very first thing he does is fall into the same old habit of not paying attention and drives smack into the middle of the Doldrums, where “nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes,” the embodiment of his own flaws. It isn’t until he starts actively looking and seeing and asking questions and doing things that Milo wakes up out of his unhappiness and starts to change. Going to the Lands Beyond doesn’t change Milo; Milo changes Milo.

Or take The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lev Grossman must have re-read the Narnia books before setting to work on The Magicians, as Fillory pretty much is Narnia. In TLtWatW, Edmund is as selfish a little liar in Narnia as he is in the real world. Going through the wardrobe doesn’t change him – it takes time and suffering (and a Jewish carpenter magical lion) to change him.

So saying that magic doesn’t change a person’s nature isn’t really a new “adult” theme that contrasts with the magic-school fantasy. It may take Quentin a lot longer to maybe, kind of, eventually start to think about maybe someday trying to work on his personal issues and be a better person. But just like Milo, I think he might get there. You know, in a sequel or two.

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Xenoblade Chronicles — hour 85 (!)

After finally completing Xenoblade Chronicles last night, I figure it’s a good plan to give an overall review of my impressions about the game. I meant to update more frequently, but I guess four posts on this game is more than enough (first three posts here, here, and here).

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Quick Overview: Xenoblade Chronicles is a very classical JRPG. There is a big plot – the world is at stake – that hinges on the decisions on one key character, a smart and very morally developed teenager. There are a number of smaller enemies to beat, many of whom eventually come out on the side of righteousness. There is an angry god to contend with. Most of these things are present in most of the JRPGs I have played. Xenoblade does what it does very well, though.

The plot, as in all JRPGs, gets progressively more complicated, but unlike, for instance, Xenosaga, it isn’t hard to follow or understand. There are two civilizations that live on the bodies of each of two giant beings. The organic creatures of the Bionis contend with the mechanical forces of the Mechonis. The game follows a young humanoid (a “Homs”) named Shulk, who is the only one who can wield a mysterious weapon called the Monado. Shulk and his friends travel all over the Bionis, and eventually the Mechonis, fighting for survival, and later, for a peaceful end to hostilities.

Setting and characters: First of all, the setting of the game is great. It is extremely fun to crawl around on the body of these continent-sized giants. On the Bionis, one of the two collosal titans who make up the world, it is also very beautiful. Here are two of my favorite locations: Sartol Marsh and Valak Mountain:

The marsh is bleak and foggy and grey during the day, but at night, the trees all light up with this strange spectral glow. The mountain is harsh and isolated and beautiful, and at night, giant ice crystals shoot beams of light into the sky.

As lovely as the setting is, though, it’s nice to be able to explore it in the company of interesting people. The characters that make up your party are all decent, moderately interesting people. Their dialogue can be clumsy, cliched, and repetitive (they use the term “reason for fighting” way too often), but overall, I liked these people and enjoyed spending time with them. Shulk is a bit bland, but curious and inventive and passionate nonetheless. His best friend Reyn is funny and tender about their friendship. The exception was Riki, a sort of animated beach ball, whose cutesiness, annoying voice, and irritating diction were rather grating, at least to this curmudgeon.

They all get along rather too nicely – there really isn’t much intragroup conflict. This is emphasized by their constant references to “teamwork”. Again, the crank in me would like to see a little more fractures in their unity for the sake of spicier dialogue and deeper character development. As nice as it was to spend time with this, they weren’t overall that memorable, I’m afraid to say.

Fate and the gods: Like many JRPGs, Xenoblade ends with a struggle against an unloving god. I’m not sure why this theme is so common in Japanese media, but it certainly does seem to come up a lot. Oh yeah, spoilers ahead…

Shulk & Co. initially set out to battle the mechon, a hoard of mindless and probably evil robots. However, in the third act it is revealed that the world of Mechonis is not the true enemy. Instead, the Bionis itself is revealed to be the initial aggressor. The Bionis is (sometimes) mobilized by a soul/god named Zanza, who wishes to wipe out all life and restart creation because the beings it created want to fight against fate and therefore negate the gods (or something). In the end, Shulk is given the option to destroy fate and the gods and leave the future in the hands of the citizens of the world.

As an atheist and a rationalist, I have to say I am very sympathetic with the ideas portrayed. Not that I am necessarily out to destroy God or convert anyone to my way of thinking. Rather, I, too, believe that there is no Fate or Destiny, and that’s a good thing. I don’t believe that there needs to be a higher purpose in order for people to have meaningful lives. Living each day is good enough. On Bionis, before Zanza was killed, there was a higher purpose for each life – to die and feed Zanza with your energy. But life is sweeter without one’s place in the universe being pre-determined.

Not that Xenoblade is really making any complex philosophical arguments or anything. I’m just inclined to agree with the fairly simple proposition that it lays out.

Pacing and gameplay: A big issue with RPGs, as I’ve mentioned before, is pacing. Xenoblade drags badly, especially near the end. According to the cutscenes, the characters really need to book in order to prevent the destruction of all life. However, it is perfectly acceptable for them to spend weeks of game time running favors for random people, trying to get through doors that were locked, rebuilding a town that may very well be demolished again if they don’t hurry up and get to the world-saving. In many games, there is are huge tradeoffs between exploration and plot – from watching my boyfriend play, the Rockstar games (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, and LA Noire (which we played together)) are prime examples of this conflict. If you have a huge, cool world to explore, there is naturally a temptation to blow off what you are supposed to be doing. I think this is a normal part of game playing, and is to be expected.

The problem with Xenoblade and other similar RPGs is that it can be really difficult to actually move on and finish the game. You have to be at a certain level in order to have a chance of beating the final boss. If you aren’t at that level when you decide to face him, then you have no choice but to continue messing around, fighting random monsters, running more favors for people, etc. etc. We spent probably five or six hours after we were pretty much mentally done with the game just getting our characters to the point of being able to actually do the thing that they had been not doing for who knows how long. It’s a very frustrating way to end a game.

Really, these games are just so dang long. There is a lot to do and a lot to explore, but the fact is that by the end, the game has long run out of ways to surprise you. A game (or book, or movie, or piece of music) should end when you still think you want more. You shouldn’t end on a note of desperation to be completed, but with a feeling that it was the perfect length, or maybe, just a page or a minute or a note too short. This is why I don’t watch dramatic television until the series has ended and I know just how long I’m in for. This is also why I don’t really read interminable fantasy/sci-fi series.

One more gripe: I thought about having a post on this topic earlier (maybe ten or fifteen game-hours ago), but I never got around to it.

This is Sharla:

Sharla is a practical-minded person, a medic, cool-headed, sweet, sensitive. And yet, when I look at her, the only thing I can think is “What on earth are you wearing, woman?”

I hate, hate the way women dress in video games. This isn’t some one-off goofy special outfit for Sharla. All her clothes are like this. Now, I’m not complaining because I think women need to dress conservatively, or that strong women can’t be sexy. But Sharla spends approximately 18 hours a day either jogging or shooting a ridiculously large gun at robots. And she has zero support for her gigantic, buoyant, independently mobile breasts. It has to be extremely uncomfortable! Not to mention terribly dangerous.

Furthermore, and this is really what gets to me, Sharla wouldn’t wear something like this. Not based on her personality, the way she talks, the way she acts, the place she lives, the culture she grew up in. There is no way I can imagine her waking up in the morning and electing to wear something that just barely covers her nipples into battle. It’s distancing and alienating – her mind becomes a puzzle a person can’t hope to understand. What this tells me is that the game designers don’t ultimately care about empathizing with Sharla. They assume that the player (an adolescent or post-adolescent male) will be more interested in ogling than in understanding. And that’s fine – she’s just here for the eye candy.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I don’t think that’s the message Takahashi was trying to send – he clearly cares about Sharla. But somewhere in the design process, it was pretty much accepted that she was going to be “sexy,” dammit, and that was that. Again, in the interest of fairness, I have to admit that Xenoblade shows much more male skin than is usually seen. All the men can fight shirtless, and if that’s not enough, there’s this little number on Reyn:

But I still think there’s a difference between the way the male characters dress and the way Sharla does. The male characters all at least have the option to dress in normal, protective, chest-covering clothing. Sharla doesn’t.

So, to conclude: I think I ultimately don’t have that much more to say about Xenoblade Chronicles. As an example of the JRPG genre, it is quite good, but not as unique or fresh-feeling as my favorites. It suffers from many of the flaws common to the medium. In particular, it is longer than it really needs to be, and although it gives you plenty of things to do, it runs out of surprises long before it ends. However, it also highlights a lot of what is enjoyable about these types of games, providing an exiting world, decent characters, and an original, involved, and inventive plot. I enjoyed my time with Shulk and the others, but I’m happy to let them go on without me…

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