Sunday, March 22, 2015

Restrospective:Does Bravely Default Bravely Rise Above Default?

Normally, when I finish a game--especially a game that spent over a hundred hours of my life, from beginning to end--I've got something to say about it, even with JRPGs, which, when not doing something noticeably different, tend to cohere to a small set of cliches. Nier has its ruminations on genre and violence. Chrono Trigger is still cool for the way it depicts a struggle against a being who literally doesn't comprehend that the heroes of the story exist, because they exist on an entirely different scale of being. Radiant Historia encourages the player to think in terms of a sequence of events instead of connections in space.

But Square Enix's Bravely Default doesn't have any of those things. Everything I can think of to say about it is interesting largely in the way it came from somewhere else first. Even the fact that it has killed my interest in playing  JRPGs AND the fact that it is a pastiche stitched from other JRPGs are both the major talking points I used for crafting my response to Ni No Kuni.

Part of this I have to admit is my fault; I've played many JRPGs over the years, and that has worn into me certain expectations and familiarities, which if I didn't have, it would have made BD seem a lot fresher. But really, so much of the game seems a rehash of other things I've seen. Repeating large portions to shake up what we take for granted about the plot was Nier's big schtick. Playing with temporality in turn-based combat was Radiant Historia (as was the reality hopping in later). The build-a-town mini-quest has been done from Dark Cloud to Breath of Fire (although I'll give points for adding the 3DS' Street Pass functionality to the mix). Even the plot is jumble of JRPG cliches about restoring the four crystals to save the world, and yes, there's a twist, but again--conventional JRPG story with a last act twist is a cliche at this point too. It would help if the characters were a little more developed, but really, they're just typical stereotypes with a weird fixation on--

Wait, no! I've got it! The unique part of the game is its party chats concerning food!  ...Except Dragon Warrior has had the same party chat function, and it's no more food-oriented than Star Ocean. Carry on, then.

More on the search for anything worth searching for after the break.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nierly Done with this Pun forever

I had to play a few hours of Nier today to get the point where I could talk about its book-like interface system for the dissertation. And I had to play to that point because Nier's endgame (spoiler, I guess?) doesn't really leave things in a state where doing that is possible.

What I found is that Nier is a wonderfully complex game (albeit somewhat graphically low for a mid to late Xbox 360 game), one whose eventual story is set up right from the start, and design choices that contribute to the overall aesthetic in a meaningful way all build on each other. It's an unusually rich, creative game for a JRPG low budget (for AAA, anyway) game.

I never want to play it again.

I felt the same way going back to Ni No Kuni (which is much more diminishing returns than Nier) for its dissertation section; there's a point in lengthy games where enthusiasm is displaced by entropy, and trying to research the game at the same time only makes it worse. Nier's a wonderful game, and I could (and have) written pages and pages extolling its virtues, but I really, really don't want to subject myself to having to go through it again. Ah well; I'm an hour or two in and at the shrine where Weiss becomes a party member, so the end's in sight.

Later Days.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Dissing the Dissertation

Two excerpts from the dissertation:

Another Sierra game, the 1991 remake of the original
Leisure Suit Larry came with brochures for in-game locations, and the questions were thus reflective of the game’s so-called, and more than slightly misogynist, humor: “What do the cowgirls have at the Palamino Ranch?”; the correct answer was “c: Jugs o’ moonshine.”

And 
the 1988 game Wasteland not only had a booklet of paragraphs, it included fake entries to dissuade players who would “cheat” by reading ahead. The very first entry, in fact, is one of these:
1 You creep up to the window, and in the soft muted tights [sic], you see a tall woman with long, blond hair. She sits before a mirror and brushes her hair, then stands and walks over to the sunken tub to her left. She kneels and her blue, silken robe drops to the floor. She turns the water and steam slowly fills the air. You watch in fascination as she reaches down into the tub, whirls, and points an Uzi in your direction. ‘Stop reading paragraphs you’re not supposed to read, creeps.’ She sighs deeply. ‘Next time I’m going to demand they put me in a Bard’s Tale game, this Wasteland duty is dangerous.’ (1)

The problem with writing a dissertation on the subject of the history of videogames is that the history of videogames is full of stuff like this. Yeah, it's sexist, and, as dissertation me claims, arguably outright misogynist, but mostly... it's just *embarrassing.*

Honestly, off the top of my head, the only game stuff I can think of that's funny that was clearly supposed to be funny is some of the stuff from Saint's Row the Third and some of the more absurdist endings for Japanese fighting games.

Later Days.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Feminism and Rhetoric

I've been teaching an online first year rhetoric course this term. And what that means for our university in particular is that all the readings have been chosen beforehand, all the lectures recorded before I was ever assigned the course, and all the assignments planned ahead of time (but I still get to write the final, which.... thanks, I guess?). And as you'd imagine, not all of the texts have been ones that I would have chosen. They're all wonderful texts for a rhetoric class, just not the particular texts I would picked; it's a matter of personal preference, more than any other consideration.

In particular, I was uncertain of this week's reading, a section from Hélène Cixous' Laugh of the Medusa. It's a good read, but not what I personally would have picked out as the singular example of rhetoric and feminism. (That the course has only a single text on rhetoric and feminism is a different issue.) It is, I thought, too complicated, too complex in its use of language, too steeped in psychoanalytical discussions about the phallus. I braced myself for a reading response set that suggested the class had listened to the lectures and skipped the reading (a fairly common occurrence, given some of the responses although I also have a large number of really good responses on any given week, and I do my best to encourage such responses).

 As you can probably guess from my own rhetoric, I was wrong. The reading has led to more thoughtful, engaged responses than anything we've done so far. Yes, there have been some half-hearted engagements, as always, but most of the class has responded with above average engagement, especially some of the women, who have mentioned that the essay speaks to them on a personal level. I'm drawing three conclusions from this. First, it has been a humbling reminder that my students are better and smarter than I've been giving them credit for. Second, it attests to the power of Cixous' writing, that it still resonates. And third, it suggests that, sadly, a lot of her critique still applies, that women today still feel pressured to write in a voice not their own.

It's been an eye-opening course, in more ways than I was expecting going in.

Later Days.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Triad: Women in Fantasy

I'm not planning on turning the blog into nothing but book reviews, or even reviews, but as I said before, I've got a backlog of book review content. In fact, one of the advantages of having a backlog is that I can do a bit of picking and choosing in terms of grouping similar books together so that I actually have something significant to say that applies to all three.In this particular case, that means pairing two recent reads with an older one, by way of contrast. After the break, we have reviews of Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men, Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife, and Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child.

I'll warn you in advance--these are all books that got me thinking a fair bit, so the reviews are lengthier than usual AND I have a lot to say afterwards. All worth saying, of course.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Book Triad: Could Be Worse Ever After

Ah, the blog. Or, as it is at the moment, that thing I do when I'm between videogames, just finished a book, and there's no new shows on because it's Super Bowl Sunday. There's been an alarming build up of book triad reviews building up over the course of the last year or so. I haven't done one of these since 2013. My goodness. That means there will also be a lot of me going "wait, wasn't this the book with the guy who did that thing? To that unicorn? Or was it a pegasus?".

Let's get right into my equine questioning, with reviews of Karen Miller's Empress, Jonathan Stroud's Heroes of the Valley, and Peter David's Fable Blood Ties, after the break.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of Into the Woods

First: it's no Through the Woods, the horror-based graphic novel by Emily Carroll. Though both works use travelling in woods as metaphor, it's to rather different ends, and, frankly, Carroll does it better. Rather, it's the musical turned movie. In case you're unfamiliar with the plot, its essential idea is that it takes four strands of fairy tales and puts them in a blender. There's the baker and his wife, who are trying to break a witch's curse by collecting a cloak red as blood, hair yellow as corn, cow white as milk, and shoe gold uh, gold; a girl going to grandmother's house; a boy Jack trying to sell his best friend, the cow; Rapunzel of corn-yellow hair, and Cinderella, who probably doesn't need further explanation. They all get in each other's way, and, long story short, the survivors work together to fend off a giant woman. As you do.

Two of the music numbers in particular stuck with me, not because of the music really (honestly, all of the songs were kind of forgettable), but because of what they said about fairy tales. The first was sung by Prince Charming and his brother, where they try to one up each other with tales of love-lorn woe: respectively, that one keeps fleeing the ball at night, and one is stuck up in a tower where the only means of access is her hair. And it's hilarious. One rips his shirt open in a fit of passion; the other does too, because, well, you can't be upstaged when you're singing to no one in the middle of the woods. It's a song that perfectly captures the campiness of the project, the gentle mocking of the whole idea of Prince Charming.

Likewise, my other favorite also skewers the idea of fairy tale. Near the end, the aforementioned survivors are quarreling over whose fault the giant woman's assault is, and eventually they turn their accusations to the witch. She takes all of five seconds of that before launching into her own song, then being swallowed up by the earth, the gist of the song being, "Fuck all y'all, everyone has life tough, I'm outs." First: the witch is played by Meryl Streep, so already it's a recipe for being awesome. You'd have to actually work at making Maryl Streep bad in something. Second: I like the point of the song, which is that, yes, if you need fairy tales, if you need good and evil, then you do need someone to blame, but life isn't as simple as that. Also, fuck all you guys, like any of you are any better. Which, really, is something we all feel, isn't it?

It kind of lost me in the second act, which is unfortunate, because it's where things are supposedly getting interesting. The second act is where the happy ending of the fairy tale gets deconstructed; instead of everyone's happily ever after, the giant's wife shows up, and people start dying at an alarming rate. Now, that's a premise that's got potential, especially if you want to point out that rather than living in a fairy tale, it's better to have your "moment in the woods" and go back to the rest of your life. But it felt like the film was going in too many directions--pathos for the multiple deaths and resulting despair, some farce in the baker's wife having a fling with Prince Charming ("I'm in the wrong story!"), and somehow wrangle an actual happy ending. But it didn't really work for me. Take Cinderella and the Prince's parting--their final words post-break-up are "I'll always remember the girl I chased after" and "I'll always remember the prince from afar." It's played as this bittersweet moment, but really, it's terrible--they are basically saying to each other "I really wish you turned out to be the imaginary version of you I had in my head, and getting to know you made things worse." Now, that's a great sentiment in a farcical send-up for fairy tales. And a good character beat for a realistic relationship. But it's played straight, and... eh.

Or take the Prince's fling with baker's wife. Ok, it kind of sets the idea that she gets a bit starstruck by royalty. And that, for whatever reason, the woods really do it for her. But she's one of the more grounded characters in the story, and before this point, her main arc has been getting her husband to realize they need to work together for a child. The seduction happens a little too instantly, in the face of all that. But again, the subsequent part where she realizes that she was glad the moment happened, but prefers her own life--good, mature relationship beat, good farcical bit. But then she's immediately killed by the giant woman after coming to this conclusion, so it comes across that the story is punishing her for sexual violation. Which is kind of a mixed message.

Or take the giant woman. Now, even by the original story standards, she's pretty justified in coming down and being angry; Jack stole from her and murdered her husband after she welcomed her into his home (less justified: the mass destruction towards people who had nothing to do with her plight). So the struggle against her is less good versus evil and more "well, whatever we few remainders need to do to stay alive." The song to commemorate the fight "Not Alone" kind of gets at that, when it discusses how there's no good or bad, just sides, but at the same time, it's pitched as kind of a rallying lullabye--I think I would have preferred something more darker, and Pyrrhic.

I didn't mind what the film was trying to do. Taking shots at fairy tales and exploring the woods as a sort of Bhaktinian carnival (you can't spell carnival without the letters for carnal!) are both good things. But I like my characters a bit more developed, or my farces with a bit more of a knowing wink. So while the actors are great and the concept is fine, it didn't come together for me.

Or to put it differently: singing numbers that aren't as catchy as I'd like them. Emotional beats that lacked the development needed to pull them off. Radical shifts in tone. It's a modern musical, all right.

(Final thought: Even though the metaphor is more apt, the sexual awakening subtext for Little Red Riding Hood does get a little creepy when the part is played by a 13 year old/)
Later Days.