On Film, Letterboxd

Dear audience,

It seems I’ve begun to neglect this site wholly. The truth is that I haven’t taken much time for pleasure writing, completing each piece I write in twenty minutes or less. One or two pieces have appeared in my university newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, which took a bit longer.

I’m going to begin to post older writing to this website that I find myself proud to publish. I’ll at most publish one or two posts per day from my backlog, so that my best writing may be found on this site, but also so that it is not overwhelmed.

Most of this writing will be on films; I find myself using Letterboxd intensely this year. It’s a powerful website which allows a user to catalog the films they’re watching and write about them. I don’t often intend to write much and find myself writing quite a bit. You can find my profile here and find out how much more studying I ought to be doing.

Letterboxd has helped me de-mythologize the movies, removing what I once sensed as this powerful “work” that went into watching. My mother and I used to argue about how I went into every movie with an albatross, as though each one were to be taken in as soberly as a courtroom in session. It kept me from watching a lot of great films because “it wasn’t the right night.” But seeing how many movies the people in my life are watching without me having heard of them finally helped me to get over that inhibition, and what it’s allowed me to do is fall back in love with the movies. You were right, mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

The cinema has pulled me into its thrall. Whether I’m working, relaxing, drinking my coffee, it’s accompanied by great cinema. I’m so invested in the film that I’ve begun to wonder how people transition from phase to phase of entertainment, at one moment a TV buff, another an album enthusiast, another a “hardcore gamer.” How long does it take, on average, before someone finds themselves in another hobby? What enthusiasm is lost before the next revival? And what kind of dedication is required to result in true proficiency?

I’m going to be exploring some of those questions at the movies for now. The watchlist includes about one hundred Netflix Instant Streaming films, a few hundred likely in the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus, and a large majority of the rest will be available at my local video store (I have an unlimited, three-films-at-a-time subscription) or one of the several local theaters. At the rate I’ve been watching, I’m likely to cut that watchlist in half by year’s end, and maybe wind up doubling its length. If you want to help with that in any way, feel free. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep writing for you.

-Alex

Desert Golfing And The Rejection of Endings

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I’ve written previously in brief about Desert Golfing, a recent intriguing mobile game. It’s a simple game where the player swings a ball across a desert into holes, a ticker keeping score all the while. The game’s escalating difficulty is accompanied by surprises in the desert and the player’s continuing mastery of the physics and control of the ball. It’s by no means the “best iPhone game of 2014” (it’s likely that’s Threes!, which spawned a legion of imitators) but a recent patch solidified its place as one of the most interesting, given credit by its inclusion as a Nuovo Award finalist for the annual 2015 Independent Games Festival.

Desert Golfing now has two canonical “endings,” each a variation on the same. Notably, it’s not likely the creator, Justin Smith, would reach either. He considered a hole roughly 500 before the first ending to be “impossible,” meaning he was nowhere near encountering the first when it was uncovered, and the second only requires more skill. Albeit both the game’s endings specifically place emphasis on that which came before the ending, I will fulfill the cyclical problem Desert Golfing addresses by reading its endings and the implications they raise. This piece, for what it’s worth, will presume some familiarity with Desert Golfing, meaning those who haven’t played the game should read my previous piece.


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Depth and Premonition: Reflection on Character in Swery65’s Magnum Opus

WELCOME TO GREENVALE sign.

After the rain.

Deadly Premonition,” a game inspired by “Twin Peaks,” remains one of the gaming world’s most underplayed entries. Released in the U.S. in 2010 as a budget title with mediocre box art, its often hideous graphics, and its mixed reviews running the gamut from “pretty close to perfect” to “awful in nearly every way,” the mystery-as-life-sim title has almost been washed from gaming’s history.

I, however, happen to know several of its most adamant fans—and not because I’ve searched for them. A strong undercurrent of devotion surrounds “Deadly Premonition” and an appreciation stands for its surreal, socially awkward, tragic protagonist FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan. None of these traits are liable to be called his “primary state” at the start of the game. These are visions of the York we will come to know, a foreshadowing of his arc. Rather, York at the start of the game is idiosyncratic, confident and probably too smart for his own good.

In the first scene, York loses his cell phone and laptop. His repeated jabs at Greenvale, the game’s setting, as being set back in the “Middle Ages” wash over the player, distancing York from someone who can turn off their console and begin text messaging friends right away. But York is cut off from the outside world in Greenvale. These links to the outside world are lost for good after their inclusion at the beginning of the game—when York reports to the FBI, he must do so by landline, and when he writes summaries of the case thus far, he must write them on a typewriter.

Read more on The Daily Cardinal’s website.

I’m Flushing My Animal Crossing Town.

I walk through my little fruit groves, perfect oranges and succulent peaches hanging from beautiful green trees. My town’s fountain is surrounded by flowers, and a bridge has nearly finished reconstruction just nearby. Before I cross the river, I stop in at Brewster’s Cafe. He mutters, “Coo to see you.” I sit across from my old friend, knowing that Mayor Alex isn’t going to see Brewster again.

I offer to work part-time for him one last time, and I question whether or not I should close my town. And as I work the counter, my favorite resident, Freya, asks for her mocha. I question my move again. And then, of course, my next customer is Samson.

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Samson. I’m so sick of Samson. I’ve had Samson in three separate villages throughout my Animal Crossing career over the last ten years, and he’s always been one of my least favorite villagers. I’ve done everything in my power to get him to leave. And then I remember that I’ve been trying to get Camofrog to leave too, and then I remember that I’ve had two villagers in the last six months that I’ve wanted to keep, and they remain two of four villagers I want to keep at all.

I love the layout of my town. It’s very convenient, and leaves plenty of room for an orchard. But my two favorite villagers, Twiggy and Papi, both left without warning during my absences. I’ve had a string of bad luck. So I could either wait eight months for these villagers I dislike to move out (of course, if another Gwen, or Broffina, or Limberg, or Hans were to move in, that would be worse still!) or I can restart and hope for the best.

My girlfriend is storing my stuff. It’s nice that Animal Crossing New Leaf makes it so easy to store things. And I’ll miss the progress I’ve made. It’s modest, to be sure, but I can pretty much do what I like. I just need new neighbors. Some people might point this out as a flaw with the game; MOST of the villagers are “not awesome,” so why do I praise the relationships in the game?

Well, I think most of the villagers are pretty rad, but even aside from that, even many of the most reviled villagers have their fans. The Tumblr community assured me that people do in fact like Hans and many of my least favorite villagers. I just can’t get past them.

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Like everything in life, sometimes you just need a change of scenery. Goodbye, Grænvale. I’ll miss your tall fruit trees and your beautiful rivers. But, well, I certainly won’t miss Samson.

Why We’re Recording a “Game of the Year” Podcast

I sit down to write this listening to the soundtrack of my podcast’s past Game of the Year, Fez. Disasterpeace’s work on the game is as stunning as I remember; melodies are accented and transition in register and dynamic range with expertise. Fez was a game primarily about learning, but also about nature, science fiction, the life cycle, space, God, loneliness, community, the Internet, childhood, accidents, and its designer, Phil Fish.

I regret how little time we spent discussing Fez on last year’s Game of the Year podcast. Most of the panel had spent less time with it than myself and were complacent to crown it, preferring to debate the runner-up spot between Mass Effect 3 and Journey. An hour of impassioned anecdotes, defenses, analyses, and even attacks defined Journey’s #2 placement. The same was true of 2011’s Game of the Year Deliberations, consisting of a battle between The Witcher 2 and Bastion before crowning Saints Row: The Third.

It’s not that I dispute these choices; Saints and Fez were “my” games. But the process of discussing Game of the Year is focused upon relating to people’s experiences. That’s why we put out a podcast rather than writing a lengthy feature; essays about these games can be written outside of this context, but assessing individual experiences and relating to each other as a collaborative group can only be accomplished through conversation. We failed to engage upon our most beloved titles, and I resolve to correct that issue this year.

What we’ve come up with is a verifiable fleet of lovable games to represent the best of 2013. They represent a diverse spread of experiences possible with the medium; from minimal, humanist storytelling, to innovation in both storytelling and gameplay, to pure excellence in a known format, the games selected struck out to our panel as especially vibrant and viable. With the possible exception of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, the expansion to the incredible Wings of Liberty, each could stand as an effective introduction to games.

Perhaps most meaningfully, I look at this list and have no idea which title will stand apart as our Game of the Year, inspiring me to believe we’ll have some amazing conversation.

And there’s still so many great games we’re not talking about, simply because they didn’t jump out at us quite as much as these 25 (not that there was a hard limit.) We’re not talking about Gunpoint, despite the fact that it reevaluates stealth design and excels in creating combat mechanics with personal weight that reflect their main character. We’re not talking about Guacamelee, even though it’s a very well-designed game that reflects gamer culture the way Borderlands 2 strove to achieve. We’re not talking about Studio Ghibli’s entry point into video games, Ni No Kuni, just because none of us had time to play it this year.

So, when our Game of the Year Deliberations come out, and we’ve reached our final top ten list, take it all with a grain of salt. The ultimate list part of this process is relatively arbitrary; it’s really about engaging with why we’ve chosen these games.

GAME OF THE YEAR 2014 NOMINEES

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Antichamber

Bioshock Infinite

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Depression Quest

Divekick

DmC: Devil may Cry

Dota 2

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Gone Home

Grand Theft Auto V

Metro: Last Light

Nintendoland

Papers, Please

Pikmin 3

Pokémon X/Y

Rogue Legacy

Saints Row IV

StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm

Super House of Dead Ninjas

Super Mario 3D World

The Last of Us

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Stanley Parable

Tomb Raider

Hey Everybody, It’s Tuesday

…And a lot of us wish we were hearing that voice on the Giant Bombcast. That voice belongs to Ryan Davis, our host. I never met Ryan, but the realization came yesterday that, between all the Quick Looks, Bombcasts, and livestreams I’ve watched, I’ve probably spent more time with Ryan than most of my closest friends. I decided it’d be worth my time to scrawl some of my thoughts below.

 

I only know Ryan through his media, his Twitter, and his still-wonderful Spotify summerjams playlist. But if I learned anything in my efforts to host a podcast as well as Ryan, it’s that the best way to create natural chemistry on the show is to just be your damn self. Ryan didn’t shy away from sharing weird personal stories and feelings with the Giant Bomb community. I’ll never, ever forget the N.A.R.C. story; the cake-sitting story; the stories about Anna not being allowed to play his Ms. Pac-Man machine too often because she’d get excruciatingly mad; the extended Disneyland drinking story. I laughed endlessly at all of these, and I realize now how intimately he shared himself with his community.

 

A lot of people have described feelings that share a lot of what I feel towards Ryan Davis. The words aren’t enough; grief is like that. But I wanted to express one facet of Ryan’s brilliance that I haven’t seen noted.

 

Ryan had a deep love for video games; it’s why he was, in equal measure, so excited for Saints Row The Third and so downtrodden about Epic Mickey. But what’s fallen through the wayside is how much love he had for the people who made games. Most people consider game development from a superstar angle; the desire is to get the Peter Molyneuxs, Ken Levines, and Ed Boons of game development. And Ryan certainly celebrated the lead creative forces in the industry; one listen through of the brilliant conversation he led between Jon Blow and Cliff Bleszinski a couple weeks ago will show that.

 

But Ryan had so much love and respect for people at all levels of game development. If John Drake of Harmonix PR is a superstar, it’s because Ryan, as a good friend, has elevated him to that status. The story of game developers like Brad Muir, Dave Lang, Max Temkin, and so many more take an important step through their friendships with Ryan. Some of it comes along with fierce loyalty to friends; certainly, Ryan’s love for Rich Gallup, Greg Kasavin, and other longstanding friends survived for years. But rewatch Building the Bastion; even if Greg leads the demos, Ryan constantly asks questions of the other devs on the couch with total and complete excitement and attention. Ryan so enjoyed telling the unsung stories of game development, and those close relationships with the friends of Giant Bomb helped make brilliant collaborations like the Giant Bomb Interview Dumptruck and Polygon’s Human Angle possible. And, of course, every time a studio had layoffs, and the conversation circled around “what this means for games in development,” it would end with Ryan: “Irregardless, a lot of people lost their jobs today, and we hope they find new work soon.”

 

Rest in peace, Ryan. I love you for everything you’ve given me. Thank you.

Thoughts On “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and Character Humanization

When I saw Into Darkness about a month ago, I expected I’d enjoy something else less by this point in the summer. But, due to my failure to see some of the summer’s larger “disappointments” (again, I haven’t seen them,) Into Darkness remains my summer bummer.

 

To be blunt, large parts of the movie are still pretty cool. Aside from the moments where Dan Mindel properly conveys thematic statements through cinematography, it’s the parts where characters just talk to each other. Whether comedic or dramatic, it’s usually very, very engaging. The characters that receive focused are well executed and generally well acted. They’re snippy, funny, and have fantastic chemistry, and they’re occasionally capable of engendering some real pathos.

 

Shining amongst the examples is an early scene where Kirk winds up in a long elevator ride with Uhura. They’re about to set off on their primary mission for the film; Uhura, off-handedly, asks the captain if everything’s all right; everyone else thinks he looks kind of exhausted. Even before the tragic events that lead to the mission they’re embarking upon, Kirk was drinking himself into a stupor; Kirk has since been “put upon,” to underemphasize things. He says he’s fine.

 

Then, he doubles back to say “no, I’m not okay.” He explains that one of his beloved crew has quit and that he’s full of self-doubt and grief and has no idea what he’s doing; we’re witnessing the makings of an anxiety attack or depressive breakdown. It’s a fascinating moment in a film thus far bereft of these deeply emotional scenes. To top it all off, Kirk is arguing with Spock, who Uhura is dating at the time. She vaguely implies that she and Spock aren’t exactly sailing smoothly either. Kirk takes this as a moment for his own bravado, joking about the idea of having a lovers’ spat with Spock.

 

This is the last we will see of Kirk’s self-esteem issues, grieving, or anxiety. In fact, apart from a follow-up conversation in regards to Spock’s fight with Uhura, this is the last deep angst we’ll see out of any of our characters that doesn’t come in the form of a right hook.  Somewhere, a writer had a pathological arc for Kirk to become the bold captain we know him to be, but all traces of it but this one scene are struck from the script.

 

On the one hand, I want to congratulate them for even including a hint of that level of complexity; on the other, I chastise them for not making the more interesting film. What’s even left to beg for? Apparently, Iron Man 3 offers multiple nervous breakdowns that don’t facilitate the plot, and The Dark Knight Rises gave Christian Bale more screentime with a broken back than he got wearing a cowl. Prometheus, a film filled with ambition, made its budget back more than threefold. An ambitious, cerebral, empathetic megahit is entirely possible.

 

It’s not like J.J. Abrams is incapable of making something with heart; Super 8 is a perfect example of his repartee on full steam, without a massive budget to bog him down. And when Into Darkness abandons its more seriously interesting character arcs, it becomes a lot harder to forgive the empty plot, ridiculous fanservice, marginalization of all non Kirk/Spock/Cumberbatch characters, boring action, and truly awful ending. Delving into that stuff would require seeing the movie, and, unfortunately, I don’t plan to make that happen any time soon.

I’ll leave on a hopeful note, though. A similar note of humanity come in an early scene in which Spock accepts his oncoming (and subverted) demise. The score and cinematography aspire to the same heights Prometheus achieved last year. These short bursts of pure empathetic filmmaking reminded me of what the Star Trek film series can be; hopefully, with the somewhat unremarkable performance of Into Darkness domestically, a scaled back budget will force the Abrams understudy who takes over to really study what truly works about these first two films.