Lovecraftian Ludonarratives: Mini-Reviews for SUNDERED, DARKEST DUNGEON, and CONTROL

I needed me some vidyagames, but not just any vidyagames – ones like Bloodborne!

They’re not other Soulsborne titles but love letters to the various works of H.P. Lovecraft (minus the virulent racism, thankfully!) along with those who followed in his stead, as far back as August Derleth and Robert E. Howard (yes, that one) and as recent as Brian Lumley and Stephen King. Though Lovecraft in videogames is neither uncommon nor recent, when considering Alone in the Dark or the point-and-click adventure Shadow of the Comet, it’s often difficult to gamify the author’s work without cherry-picking elements and creating an original story around them. The fact Dark Corners of the Earth tried to be a first-person shooter where you incinerate Starspawn with a flame-thrower, mow down Deep Ones with a machinegun, blast Dagon in the face with a ship’s cannon, and take on a Flying Polyp with a retro-futuristic blaster is more than enough to prove why faithfully adapting Shadow Over Innsmouth as a videogame is impossible without ruining the source material. Though, even as a videogame, it failed miserably…

These games, on the other hand? It depends – but let’s get the worst out of the way first. May as well start with the bad news before getting to the good stuff.


Sundered

Sundered®: Eldritch Edition

There’s nothing as disappointing as wasting so much talent on something that’s otherwise lacking in quality. One can never fault Sundered‘s developer, Thunder Lotus, for their art direction and design along with the graphical fluidity of its character animations – imagining the painstaking work required to achieve such and how that, by itself, is admirable. Regardless, it’s not enough to carry the rest of the experience.

It is, ostensibly, a Metroidvania title with procedurally-generated dungeons upon each death – which carries no penalty, save for wasted time – and attained abilities for both combat and mobility to proceed. I’ve played enough games that use procedural generation to know that it works best when you can differentiate between each individual run and, if you’re unable to, suggests the developers should’ve used a specific level design instead. It’s done incredibly well in games like Enter the Gungeon where there’re innumerable combinations of rooms and challenges making every iteration feel unique, helped by its fast-paced quarter-munching arcade cabinet vibe, as well as Rogue Legacy with its addition of a procedurally-generated lineage of monster hunters invading a haunted shape-shifting castle (huh, that sounds oddly familiar…). When it doesn’t work, as evidenced in both Let It Die‘s Tower of Barbs and Bloodborne‘s Chalice Dungeons, it feels like the same three or four areas that’re sequenced in a different order each time yet can’t tell the difference after a while. Sundered is in the latter category and worsened by how badly the game already is at directing the player to the next objective.

As if the terrible navigation wasn’t frustrating enough, the frequency and intensity of spawned enemies make it a war of attrition as wave after wave comes after you with no end in sight. This isn’t difficult or challenging combat – it’s just being bombarded at every angle and given little room to react properly. You don’t die numerous times due to a hostile non-player character being smart enough to attack when leaving yourself open, as most of them are little more than cannon-fodder but, from being so over-stimulated by the visual clutter that you give up and let them kill you. The treks through nearly identical-looking procgen’d levels might be boring but, Jesus fuckin’ Christ, at least they weren’t assaulting my eyes and almost giving me a headache.

I regret not heeding George Weidman’s warning about the game and, being unusually gullible (’cause Lovecraftian horror), assumed the problems he brought up would somehow be fixed in future patches – because, unfortunately, that didn’t happen and it only makes me happier over the recent Cyberpunk 2077 controversy. At this point, it’s hard to defend any game with the possibility patches might fix issues when you know that such issues could’ve already been dealt with beforehand. Thunder Lotus, as much effort as they put into their graphics, didn’t put nearly enough effort into polishing the gameplay – they gave us a videogame we can enjoy gazing upon but at the cost of interactivity, and it’s just not worth it.

The next game is proof that you don’t need to be photogenic when you provide a far more fulfilling ludic experience…

Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon: The Crimson Court - How to Get a Courtyard Invitation |  AllGamers

In the cosmicism of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, humanity is not important in the grand scheme of things. How could we be? It’s nearly impossible for us to truly comprehend the vastness of space and time like Yog-Sothoth, with what we do know is infinitesimal in comparison. At best, we’re pawns in their incomprehensible machinations and can’t do much about it besides play along. At worst, we’re completely useless. You can always try to prepare for the worst, to avoid the pain of a severe loss, but they’re inevitable – though, at the same time, it only makes those small victories against overwhelming odds far more meaningful as result.

Darkest Dungeon has this theme woven into its game mechanics and manages to instill a great sense of player disempowerment with its punishing difficulty, something Bloodborne (as good a game as it still is) could not entirely achieve as an action title. Though its endings are fatalistic in nature, as even the player character attaining godhood makes them little more than a monstrous infant, it’s still a game where – with enough might and perseverance, and death rendered a minor inconvenience – you can still attain godhood. None of the player characters featured in Darkest Dungeon will ever reach that level of cosmic power. They will defeat many a beast and have moments of heroism, of course, but they are all nonetheless vulnerable and suffer permadeaths.

You are expected to treat each recruit to your cause, fighting back the otherworldly abominations of an abandoned palatial estate, as expendable. Each class of player character even looks the same, save for a limited selection of palette-swaps, further entrenching their interchangeability and disincentivize attachment to any one individual. There’ll always be another caravan of treasure-hunters and mercenaries with a death wish to send to their doom, yet the longer any of them manage to live – the more attached you become anyway…

They may be the digital simulacrum of people but, as any good ludic experience should, seeing these player characters go on one expedition after another and building them up to become legendary adventurers makes it all the more tragic when they do finally fall. Though some of their personality quirks grant benefits, others can often be detrimental to themselves or their comrades, but – unless you have the means to suppress those bad habits entirely (you usually won’t until later on) – you learn to live with their flaws and work around them, just like you do when interacting with other people in reality. Even those fireside chats, as procedurally generated as the dungeons themselves, make you care for them despite being little more than a proxy of a person made of computer code.

As someone who despises real-time combat in role-playing games and shoehorning stats into otherwise action-heavy titles relying more on hand-eye coordination skills, games like Darkest Dungeon remind me of why I appreciate turn-based combat mechanics in RPGs and utterly thankful when indie developers implement it into their games. Complaints about how it “looks silly” come off as wildly superficial when, honestly, the empty spectacle is just as silly-looking yet far more aggravating (if not just boring) to play. I greatly prefer an element of strategy over having poorly-programmed friendly AIs who only impede my progress or chiseling away at bullet-sponge enemies with an interminable health bar until it finally falls over, instead of making every move matter and where each successful attack hits hard – putting you in situations that cannot simply be won by turning off your brain and mashing buttons.

The row-based combat is similar to that of many Japanese RPGs but each party member’s position is integral as certain actions can only occur in a specific space and it noticeably differs with each character class. An Arbalest or Musketeer, for example, tend to gravitate being last in line as their primary attack focuses on sniping but can also serve as support – like minor healing and debuffing hostiles – while Crusaders and Hellions are best left at the head of the line with their powerful short-range attacks and high defense. Even then, there’re more versatile classes like Jesters and Shieldmaidens, whose attacks involve moving backward or forwards in a line-up and can complicate certain party line-ups when handled poorly.

It really helps the game emphasizes party management over inventory, which cuts down on so much monotonous busywork. There is an inventory system but it’s mostly for optional items, “Trinkets,” that grant bonuses – with more powerful pieces having a downside attached, to balance difficulty – but its most prevalent in the expeditions taken where, due to having a limited inventory space, makes preparation and collection a series of Sophie’s Choice scenarios. You *can* buy more food and torches just in case, but it means there’s less space to pick up valuable objects whether it’s currency, resources, or aforementioned Trinkets.

Said resources go to developing the game’s hub area, the Hamlet, where player characters relax between each expedition – whether it’s relieving stress at the bar or church, curing a pathological disease at the local medical ward, or upgrading the adventurers under your employ. It’s necessary to develop each establishment past their baseline benefits and give player characters a better chance of survival with improved equipment and skills (in a, thankfully, linear five-tier leveling process), so choosing whether to acquire currency or resources during each expedition is an important consideration to take. What good is currency, when you cannot further upgrade the player characters? What good are those resources, when you don’t have the currency to pay for those upgrades? If the inventory system was unlimited in its capacity, so much of what makes this game fulfilling as a challenge would be lost.

There’s very little to complain about Darkest Dungeon without sounding like petty nitpicking. Even if the game’s setting doesn’t actually do much interesting or new with the material that influenced it, its strengths as a videogame overshadow such minor weaknesses. Being derivative isn’t necessarily a bad thing when given the right kind of presentation. The next game, on the other hand, is a game that brings us an interesting take on H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of horror but, Shoggoths be damned, it’s as tedious to play through as it was to read through the man’s worst prose…

Control

Haunted houses are a common trope in horror fiction. It is usually inhabited by a malevolent entity whether it’s a ghost, a demon, or something else entirely who torment the current tenants of the house until they die or run away for their lives. However, in more recent years, there’s this particular iteration of that trope where the house itself is the malevolent entity. I’m not aware of any term describing this sub-trope and decided to give it a name of my own: “The Living Architecture.” There’re obvious examples in videogames: Silent Hill 2 and its sequel, Silent Hill 4: The Room; the various indie projects of Kitty Horrorshow, but notably Anatomy; and, now, we have Remedy’s Control.

The Oldest House is obviously not a house, given its appearance as 33 Thomas Street in New York City, but it’s not a piece of Brutalist architecture either. It’s alive. Even then, it’s not just a living Brutalist building…maybe. It’s connected to an upside-down black pyramid that exists in a pocket dimension appearing as little more than blank space, as well as a group of entities who’re collectively called “The Board of Directors” that occupy it and a Finnish janitor who is not actually a Finnish janitor (played by Martti Suosalo). All of them may, in fact, be the same being taking different forms much like the titular creature from Stephen King’s It where Pennywise the Dancing Clown is but one of the monster’s many avatars. All that we really ever get to know about them, technically, is that they aren’t the two antagonistic forces within the narrative: The Former (exiled from “The Board”) and The Hiss, both of whom are just as inscrutable. Then, it gets more surreal.

This scenario’s wild card takes the form of Jesse Faden (played by Courtney Hope), who acts as the conduit for another entity – one she’s named “Polaris.” Like its namesake, it guides Jesse to the Federal Bureau of Control and, by proxy, her kidnapped twin brother which usually appears as a shimmering fractal spiral to highlight checkpoints and mission objectives. The thing is, though, I honestly can’t determine whether it’s Jesse or Polaris who is the actual player character. There’s something off about Jesse, though that does apply to the rest of the phenomenally characterized cast, with her reactions towards the extraordinary and inexplicable as either slight bemusement or stoicism bordering on apathy. As if she’s not really there, that something else is in the driving seat and she’s providing commentary while watching from a Cartesian theater. Nothing suggests Jesse has any firearms training and each superpower she gets is new to her, but nonetheless uses both rather proficiently upon receiving them. If Jesse Faden is simply a puppet of Polaris, does that make the players themselves Polaris?

I don’t know. They never explain it and, by Cthulhu’s tentacle-beard, I love that!

Too bad playing the game is nowhere near as interesting as the setting, its inhabitants, or any idea explored within the plot. It’s confusing how Remedy can use all these high concepts in their story, yet it’s attached to this third-person shooter format – which made sense with the first two Max Payne games, what with all the homages to John Woo and The Matrix, but feels lazily implemented in a game like Control. You’d think, given all the shape-shifting rooms and Weird Fiction elements, it’d involve more puzzle-solving with aspects of survival horror but, no, you’re just mowing down a bunch of dudes in SWAT gear with firearms like so many other titles but with magic bullets and typical variations of telekinesis. Well, okay, there are other kinds of enemies but they’re incredibly annoying (especially the ones that fly) and, when combined with some environmental effects that overwork the hardware (causing graphical slowdowns or skips) and misleading visual overlays that don’t indicate if you’ve lost health but feel like such, turn battles into as much of a clusterfuck as they were in Sundered. Don’t get me started on the weirdly granular skill tree, resource-gathering for upgrades, and combat mods that’re so specific in their function they’re useless…

What made this unengaging gameplay loop tolerable enough to wade through, if anything, was everything else around it. Each collectible – which comes in a variety of forms – does a fantastic job at world-building; giving you a better understanding of the FBC’s function, those within its weirdly inexhaustible workforce, and what (very) little they know of the Black Pyramid/Oldest House/Astral Plane/etc. If them kidnapping Jesse’s twin brother isn’t enough to indicate their dubious ethics, an FBC psychologist (who clearly does not understand children) conceives the world’s most unnerving kids’ show. Y’know, to both “entertain” and educate the six-year-old orphan they hold captive about all the supernatural nonsense. Seriously, “Threshold Kids” feels like part of [Adult Swim]’s live-action line-up but with the disconcerting oddity amped up to even rival The Eric Andre Show.

There’re also awkward, badly-edited instructional presentations by Casper Darling (played by Matthew Porretta), who seems like a charmingly goofy tinkerer that wouldn’t be out of place in Ghostbusters, but it slowly becomes apparent that he’s actually a…mad scientist. Not akin to a comicbook supervillain or from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but fugitive Nazis hiding in South America to make clones of Hitler like The Boys from Brazil. Much like ally Emily Pope (played by Antonia Bernath), he seems too nice and that’s more alienating than Jesse’s cold demeanor, and one can’t help but wonder that they must be hiding something unforgivable under this obvious façade of congeniality.

Though their function may be necessary, most of those employed by the FBC aren’t actually good people and more interested in getting the job done than anything else – they’re as if Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “Banality of Evil” physically manifested. Even the FBC’s previous Director, Zachariah Trench (played by James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne himself!), is more paranoid and ominously menacing than Joseph fucking McCarthy during the Red Scare, whose obsession with security and safety becomes more of a curse than a blessing as it consumes him. It’s rather depressing the most trustworthy person is the ghost of Alan Wake (yes, that one…also played by Matthew Porretta) and only a little of what he says makes any sense. It’s indicative of how the setting itself, along with the Brutalist architecture, is as atmospherically hostile to the player as Yharnam was in Bloodborne – the Oldest House may tolerate your presence, for its personal benefit, but only begrudgingly…for now.

There’s a lot more I can say about the game, for another nine or so blocks of text – including how the song “Take Control” by Poets of the Fall or Casper Darling’s creepy stalker music video for “Dynamite” is fucking amazing and why – but that’s the ultimate problem with Control: it’s more interesting to think about and discuss than as a ludic experience. That’s unfortunate, for its potential was about as vast as the Astral Plane itself…


The three-month delay is honestly quite shameful, on my end, but I do have a good reason: I’ve recently moved back to Southern California to take care of my dad, who’s recently had shoulder surgery, as well as doing some home improvements for his place – plus, like, I really needed the change in scenery and it was becoming too expensive to live up north. I’m still acclimating to my new environment, which is warmer and dryer than what I’ve gotten used to over the last seven years, but – now that I have a good deal less to worry about and depress me into another writer’s block – I intend to put out more content on regular basis and have a bunch of other pieces current in the works. Oh, and my birthday was eight days ago – so, yeah, happy (belated) birthday to me!

I’ll have a review of WandaVision by next week, or the one after that, as well as a (mostly) freeform rant/op-ed and another installment of Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition on none other than Thus Spoke Rohan Kishibe, as a follow-up to my Non-Fan Review of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.

A Non-Fan Review: JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE (The Anime) – Part 2

This took longer than expected…again (I really need to work on that).

Anyway, continuing on from the previous installment!


O Senpai, My Senpai

Much to my admitted shame, I assumed that Hirohiko Araki was a gay man when he is, in fact, not, and based that on his work than anything more empirical like statements from interviews. He’s actually married to a woman named Asami (huh, “Asami Araki,” quite the alliterative Marvel name…like Peter Parker, Susan Storm, or Warren Worthington!) and they’ve had two daughters together. Heck, here she is doing a very JoJoesque pose:

(Sorry, I couldn’t find a larger photo…)

It’s unfortunate how certain stereotypes become so socially ingrained that, though you do know better, you still accidentally use them for reference. Men having an interest in fashion design, being effeminate in mannerisms and taste, or objectifying the male form (it is a thing but uncommon like the “female gaze”) doesn’t necessarily make one gay, obviously, but you still make the association after years of hearsay and pop culture hammering it into your skull. Even shows as recent as Venture Bros. – with one of the two titular characters exhibiting effeminate traits and tastes but nonetheless attracted to women – or as far back as Mr. Show have made such point:

Nonetheless, JoJo’s has plenty of character moments that can be read as queer-coded. Jonathan Joestar and Dio Brando may be adoptive siblings and intense rivals, according to the text, but it wouldn’t be too far off to compare their interactions to that of quarreling lovers whose relationship has soured and lead to overwhelming contempt. They speak to and fight each other with a sense of passion that isn’t really there with Jonathan’s love interest, Erina, who’s not a character as much as an object to be acted upon. Even the conclusion of “Phantom Blood” comes off as a romantic tragedy between them and, in “Stardust Crusaders”, it’s revealed that Dio is still very much alive a hundred years later (’cause vampirism)…but now has Jonathan’s body to replace his own. A body he’s quite fond of showing off as much as possible.

There’s a reason I said “read as queer-coding” than “is queer-coded.” Most examples of such, up until the “Golden Wind” story-arc, aren’t even implied by the text. It’s purely interpretation on my (or anyone else’s) part and shouldn’t be factualized, especially if the creator has not confirmed it elsewhere. That isn’t to say I think authorial intent is absolute – Upton Sinclair admitted as much when it came to The Jungle (“I aimed at the public’s heart and, by accident, I hit it in the stomach.”) – yet it’s important to consider to some extent than be flippantly dismissed. Moreso when it’s done for the sake of projecting one’s sensibilities onto a work than trying to understand what it is actually about. It’s an all-too-common form of online solipsism that I’ve come to despise, moreso when done with this unwarranted sense of authority over the material.

However, with all that said, interpreting various scenes in JoJo’s as being queer-coded is definitely more legitimate than, say, arguing the Star Wars Prequels are secretly brilliant ’cause reasons – which (in my experience) have little or nothing to do with the movies themselves (no, goddammit, The Clone Wars being good doesn’t make them better by proxy nor should I have to read novelizations or comics to “get it”). It may be accidental on Araki’s part but, well, it’s hard not to see it as queer-coded in moments like this one:

This is disgusting yet beautiful - 9GAG
Awkwaaaaaaaaaaard

For context, Old Joseph and Abdul (again, not “Avdol”) have been affected by an enemy’s Stand that not only magnetizes them but gradually increases that magnetism with time – to both one another and metal objects. It’s actually from two of my favorite episodes in “Stardust Crusaders”, since it’s less of a battle than it is a Buster Keatonesque set-piece that’s downright farcical, with the pictured scene as one of the many gags featured. The whole situation actually gives you a sense of how both Joseph and Abdul have been a team for a while now and dealt with events similar to the one encountered, especially as they cooperatively defeat the enemy Stand-user by using their Stand’s power against them rather than with Magician’s Red or Hermit Purple. At face value, it could be viewed as homophobic – I can’t really agree given a few small, but important, details; neither Joseph or Abdul are embarrassed of the physical contact by itself for “looking gay” (they’re quite comfortable being in close proximity while traveling together) but that, since this is happening out in public with numerous bystanders around, their failed attempt to try separating from one another ends up being misunderstood as a sexual act done out in the open.

Oh and, by the way, that enemy Stand-user is a woman named “Mariah” (as in Carey). In case you’ve lost count; I’ve now mentioned only three female characters so far – four, if you want to include Erina (I wouldn’t).

Araki’s portrayal of women throughout the series greatly confuses me. Erina exists merely as a love interest (or, perhaps, so both Jonathan and Dio had a case of the “Not-Gays”) that leads to Joseph being the primary protagonist in “Battle Tendency” yet with Joseph’s mentor, Lisa Lisa, it’s the polar opposite. She’s an indominable figure and stern instructor who does not suffer fools like Joseph so gladly, betraying her outward appearance as this porcelain-skinned and raven-haired Englishwoman who wouldn’t be out of place as a more subservient lady-in-waiting from the works of Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde. Even when she does end up becoming a damsel-in-distress at one point, it isn’t due to suddenly being rendered incompetent or powerless but because her opponent – aware of how dangerous a foe she was – played a dirty trick to win a fight they may’ve otherwise lost. She is sexually objectified earlier on, with Joseph peeking through a keyhole as she bathes, but Caesar chastises Joseph (and the audience by proxy) for it upon his notice. In fact, the story-arc has many moments where Joseph says some misogynistic bullshit – which almost every other character, thankfully, chastise him for rather than treat it as endearingly “quirky” behavior.

So, what the fuck happened with “Stardust Crusaders”…?

Maybe one of the reasons I dislike Jotaro is that, when introduced, he keeps calling his mom – who is literally the nicest woman alive – a “bitch.” This isn’t helped further when Holly, Jotaro’s mom, ends up terminally ill and whenever a character brings it up later on – she’s displayed as fully nude with thorny vines covering up areolas and genitalia as if it were a centerfold in Playboy. Just…fucking what?!

Another reason to dislike Jotaro? After rescuing Anne, mistaken as a prepubescent boy at the time, he feels her up to confirm she wasn’t a boy as first assumed as if that isn’t sexual assault or anything. Some episodes down the line, when Jotaro and co. end up on an abandoned freighter, Anne is stalked and leered at by a perverted orangutan while she’s taking a shower – which wouldn’t be so bad if her fully nude backside wasn’t displayed. It was already confirmed that she’s twelve goddamn years old and yet she’s sexualized by the cinematography while portrayed as, somehow, having the wide hips and buttocks of a woman twice her age. I never thought I’d make an argument like this but, at least when Lisa Lisa was being sexualized, she was a surprisingly youthful-looking woman in her 50s – not one year away from being a teenager.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg and, even if I could go further, thinking about all those other equally atrocious moments involving women in the story-arc just upsets me too much.

It makes “Golden Wind” and Trish Una’s somewhat lackluster presence refreshing because, though she too is sexualized, Trish wears (though somewhat skimpy) clothing than none (at any point) and is closer to the age of the main characters. I hate even writing that out – but, perhaps, that’s a bit unfair to Trish as well. She definitely had the potential to be a more active participant, rather than simply escorted from place to place, as a Stand-user herself and hints of a romance between her and Guido Mista, but the former happens too late within the story-arc and the latter is underdeveloped. It doesn’t help that, when her Stand is eventually revealed, their power is to…make non-rubbery things rubbery. It’s suggested earlier on to be far more powerful than that, perhaps enough to rival “The Boss” and their Stand called “King Crimson” (after one of the best rock bands ever), but I’m not sure how that can compete with weaponized time-skipping straight from that one episode of Futurama.

However, with that said, I want to end on a more positive note. For all the issues I have stated about the series – I do, in fact, like this series overall. It’s why I saved the best for last…

Shine On

I think what many people like about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, more than anything, is Araki himself – or, specifically, his Artistic presentation. It’s a creative vision that is just as distinct as Hideo Kojima’s and, erratic in quality as it may be, that’s to be appreciated in a world where it’s becoming a rarity and many creatives can end up feeling interchangeable (upper-management meddling doesn’t help). There’re a lot of issues I have with auteurism as a concept since film production, videogame development, and even making a superhero comic are collective efforts than a product of one person’s endeavor but it’s also hard to deny that films directed by David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino always feel like one made by Lynch or Tarantino and no one else. So, in that sense, Araki is an auteur – but his style is an acquired taste like sardines or caviar.

If you aren’t exactly on Araki’s wavelength, which I occasionally wasn’t, it’s understandably difficult to connect with the material. There’s a reason I didn’t get into the series any sooner and it’s that those who are on Araki’s wavelength, despite their enthusiasm, do a poor job of explaining what JoJo’s is or why the series is worth time and energy to one who’s unfamiliar. It’s as if they’re speaking a different language only they can understand, in having inundated themselves with anime and manga while lacking all other points of reference. It’s a sadly common behavior across all fandom – this inability to properly communicate to anyone outside their group about their chosen hobby. All due to fixating on a single form of entertainment or franchise, while neglecting all others, that creates an increasingly insular and inaccessible community. Why would someone with a passing interest in superhero comics get into them, if introduced to fans obsessing over canonized minutiae only they care about and demand memorization as a prerequisite for entry? Who’d want to become a “Gamer” when something that’s meant to be enjoyed causes you to be an overly-defensive, needlessly competitive asshole who only cares about “gittin’ gud”? I mean, even as someone who likes anime enough to consider Perfect Blue and Princess Mononoke two of my favorite films next to Blade Runner, it’s hard to fault someone for staying away when so many series portray underage girls in the creepiest way imaginable. It’s impossible to notice any of those red flags when unwilling to take off your rose-colored shades and put on a different pair.

If there’s any aspect about Araki that I find absolutely charming, it’s that he imbues the series with this rock-and-roll sensibility throughout. If it wasn’t already obvious from before; whether it’s a character, their Stand, or a Stand’s ability – they’re likely named after a band, a solo musician, a song, or even an album. The way in which they’re applied doesn’t always make sense, like a millennia-old Aztec vampire being named “AC/DC”, but it’s hard to not love it in certain cases like “Robert E.O. Speedwagon” (which is, like, the best name ever!), “Steely Dan”, or the Stand “Killer Queen” with special attacks called “Sheer Heart Attack” and “Bites The Dust.” How about the songs I used at the beginning of each section? They’re all featured in the end credits and, in having no prior knowledge of this, made the usage of Yes’ “Roundabout” a pleasant surprise only to then become gleefully nostalgic upon hearing Savage Garden’s “I Want You” and Jodeci’s “Freek’n You.” It was like watching Jordan Peele’s Us and getting giddy as fuck when “I Got 5 On It” is sung by the main characters – it’s a feeling I don’t get as much as I’d like these days.

Each story-arc also feels like you’re getting a glimpse of Araki’s pet obsession at the time as “Phantom Blood” seems inspired by Victorian literature like, duh, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, “Battle Tendency” by pulp adventures like Indiana Jones, and “Stardust Crusaders” comes off as equal parts Spaghetti Western – Jotaro is basically a Japanese Clint Eastwood – and 80’s Cannon Film action schlock. He definitely goes all out with his Italophilia in “Golden Wind”, which was only hinted at in previous story-arcs, to the extent characters are named after specific cuisines (it’s really weird to be reminded of Sorcerer Hunters…) and the road trip format features many scenic landscapes of the peninsular nation – it’s like marketing material to promote tourism (shit, it made me want to visit the place more than I already did). That leaves “Diamond Is Unbreakable” as the odd one out, but for good reason.

Whereas the foreign locales in most other story-arcs acted as background for the action set pieces, akin to a James Bond movie – save for the visually underwhelming Ye Olde Britain of “Phantom Blood” – the central Japanese suburbia that is Morioh is a very lived-in place that exudes personality. It’s as much a character as primary protagonist Josuke “JoJo IV” Higashikata and his wide array of supporting cast members, as one grows familiar with the layout of its streets and geographical points of interest that remains consistent from beginning to end. There’s never a point where it looks like the characters are hundreds of miles away in an entirely different environment, as specific areas and notable landmarks are revisited regularly enough to assure you this all takes place within a single township. More importantly, due to its superficial mundanity, the events that play out really does put the “Bizarre Adventure” in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It makes the appearance of an invisible baby and a new resident who may or may not be an extraterrestrial feel far more momentous than a steady stream of back-to-back battles.

The slice-of-life elements of “Diamond Is Unbreakable” is something the rest of the series really needed more of because, as amusing as moments like the “Torture Dance” may be, it does a better job at characterization. Seeing these people go about a daily schedule – whether it’s attending school, working their job, or stopping by the local bodega for another box of Pocky – help differentiate them better, as personality traits are more clearly defined through such interactions than the all-too-brief lulls in between fights. When there is a confrontation, it’s more often framed as an elaborate puzzle or mind game than straightforwardly violent as it is elsewhere. It’s when the series is at its most character-driven that makes for a world of difference, reminding you that action sequences should be built up to in order to act as pay-off, and that endless action just bleeds together after a while. If I were to recommend JoJo’s to anyone, I’d always clarify that “Diamond Is Unbreakable” is where they should start – it’s the only story-arc I’d actively rewatch like “Battle Tendency” but unlike the rest, save for a small handful of episodes (definitely the Iggy/Pet Shop fight).

I’ve actually considered reading that part of the manga, as well as future story-arcs that’ve yet to be adapted into anime…and this is where I’ll conclude my rambling.

Neon Genesis EvanJoJolion

After watching all of the anime and writing about it, I think I’ll need a bit of a break from JoJo’s – but that doesn’t mean I don’t look forward to future story-arcs. Quite the opposite, actually!

The fact “Star Ocean” has a primary protagonist, Jolyne (I can only hope they’re named after the Dolly Parton song), who’s female is interesting enough by itself – due to how downplayed the presence of women have been in the series so far – but that she’s also Jotaro’s estranged white trash Floridian daughter is just as intriguing. Though I’m more interested in both “Steel Ball Run” and “JoJolion” as the series pulls a Devilman: Crybaby where the timeline is rebooted, having characters sharing the namesakes of those from the previous timeline while being entirely different people. “Steel Ball Run” especially as it’s framed as a Western (a genre I’m quite partial to) about a cross-country horse race with a paraplegic protagonist, Johnny Joestar, and a fictional U.S. President named “Funny Valentine” as the villain. So, like Hidalgo, but with superpowers! Trying to describe “JoJolion” – based on the Wikipedia page about it – wouldn’t do much justice as it’d be confusing without experiencing it firsthand. Well, save for involving magical fruit and silicon-based humanoids infiltrating society, which is…different. You’d almost assume, by the story-arc’s title alone, it was in reference to Neon Genesis Evangelion but there are no biomechanical giants piloted by traumatized teenagers fighting Angels from the Old Testament (though there are mysterious structures called “Wall Eyes” that make me think of SEELE’s logo and their monoliths).

However, none of them have been officially published in English nor have they been adapted into anime. I could pursue the fan-translated manga online but I’m already reading Dorohedoro, which I’d prefer to finish first, and my comicbook backlog in general is big enough to break the back of many a camel (if they were physical rather than digital). As David Production’s anime adaptation of the series has popularized it and “Golden Wind” only finished its run on Toonami this late October, it’s possible – when including David Production’s project schedule as well as COVID-19’s presence – that a “Stone Ocean” anime will appear sometime in the middle of next year or early 2022. Maybe I’ll just wait, until then…


Okay, that’s it – time to make some changes on this site.

Having just one review – or, in this case, two halves of one review – a month isn’t working out for me. I’m still going to write such pieces but there’s going to be more in the style of opinion-editorials or brief observations about a current interest of mine, because I don’t get as much exposure as I’d like for my writing and it only discourages me. I don’t think I can ever be a YouTuber with a following to justify a Patreon (my ko-fi account is still incomplete due to my moving to SoCal) and a single video every few weeks as a feasible method of income, since I am an opinionated nobody who hates being in front of a camera (suppose that gives me something in common with Thomas Pynchon) and can’t listen to their voice on a recording without getting violently embarrassed by it. Writing’s basically all I got and it seems no one is going to read unless I make some changes, preferably for the better.

All that said: my next Non-Fan Review will be on…The Clone Wars. ‘Cause, holy shit, I need to get some stuff off my chest about Star Wars as a franchise.

Happy Holidays, y’all!

A Non-Fan Review: JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE (The Anime) – Part 1

Yep, more anime (I’m on a kick)!

I’ll write about something (anything) else soon, I assure you.


By way of cultural osmosis, I’ve been aware of this series for years now but – much like my contrarian stance to never watch Titanic (still haven’t, just ’cause) – purposefully avoided it out of spite for the frequency and intensity of its mention. My curiosity peaked not due to any of the ecstatic praise I heard but this video by Marcus Turner who, not unlike myself, found himself exhausted by said praise from its weirdly reverent fans. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? His complaints are entirely valid and I share many (but not all) of his issues, but it’s this one clip – presented without any context there and here – that made me determined to finally watch it:

It’s the juxtaposition between the mundane and inexplicable, making something commonplace and taken for granted eerie and untrustworthy, that pulled me in. The scene takes place later within the fourth story-arc, “Diamond is Unbreakable,” but – given my overwhelming boredom and having the first three available on Netflix – I thought I may as well see everything leading up to it to pass the time. So, does the series live up to its ludicrous hype? Yes and no. Like, 50/50, maybe? To be more accurate, it fluctuates between 15/85 and 90/10 depending on the episode and its importance (or lack thereof) to the story-arc overall. I know it’s confusing…

Lemme explain, and bear with me.

Let’s Fighting Love!

Shōnen manga and anime is less a subgenre than it is entertainment based on targeting a specific demographic – in this case, male youths between the ages of 12 and 18. They actually encompass a number of genres but, given popular trends, it’s usually associated with series that emphasize action with an epic scope and tendency towards having large casts. Such action sequences could last for multiple chapters/episodes and featuring dozens of characters – many of whom are perfunctory like love interests, secondary antagonists, or redshirts. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is an exemplar along with Dragon Ball and its influence can be seen in titles like One Piece, Hunter x Hunter, and more recently My Hero Academia. Though incredibly popular in its native Japan, the appeal had been greatly delayed in the United States – even with a niche fandom (there’s always one!) – before it downright exploded over the past few years as the anime became part of [Adult Swim]’s Toonami programming line-up.

Personally, I’ve become less fond of shōnen series but I don’t completely avoid them (obviously), partly due to a simple change in taste but mostly because of overexposure. It becomes harder to tell one work apart from another, slowly bleeding together and that – while some are exceptional enough to have longevity – go far past the point of diminishing returns. It doesn’t help as media companies become more risk-averse (despite, say, being worth billions and whose recent past involved unexpectedly successful risks) and, like any jack of all trades, tries to please everyone while leaving little to no impact on their hearts and minds. Shōnen is to anime what first-person shooters are to videogames for me; breezy entertainment to not think too heavily about and, once finished, aren’t really worth a subsequent experience when you can indulge in something new and more interesting.

As dismissive as that may come off, I’m always open to one coming out of nowhere and honestly surprising me – an exception to my own rule. Why else would I indulge in Dorohedoro and Beastars then praise them as much as I did? Some people are under this unfortunate assumption that being critical is equitable to joylessness but I wouldn’t spend as much time, energy, or personal finances being critical if I didn’t care for the material as much as I do.

Would I put JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure on the same level of satisfaction I felt with Dorohedoro and Beastars? Oh God, no! However, given Hirohiko Araki’s quirks as a storyteller, it’s rarely ever boring and definitely clear what makes the series so memorable for others. I’ll certainly never forget its better moments…

Of Men & Mannequins

This isn’t a series you watch for deep characterization or storytelling; it’s for the beautiful men – either built like brick shithouses akin to Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star or lanky and lithe as if designed by Peter Chung – in the most haute of coutre as they contort themselves in stylish poses and wage high-concept battles, where reality is regularly warped by unconventional tactics and tests of will as much as idiosyncratic superpowers, sustaining injuries no one could possibly survive yet recovering from them with the alacrity of James “Wolverine” Logan.

As much as I like his videos, John Walsh will never convince me that Jotaru Kujo or Giorno Giovanna are as subtle or layered as he claims (though I love the phrase “magical sunshine karate” – I’ll get back to that soon enough). It’s not that I think Araki is incapable of writing amusing moments of male comradery, there’s plenty of them, but that it’s never consistent throughout most story-arcs save for “Diamond is Unbreakable.” The characters, more often than not, are too broadly-defined or one-dimensional, despite implications that suggest a potentially interesting personality but almost never solidify into traits.

The most mishandled character in the “Golden Wind” story-arc, Pannacotta Fugo, is frequently shown as someone with severe anger management issues. At first, it comes off as entirely comedic…until we’re given his backstory. Not only is his anger pathological in nature, prone to inexplicably violent urges, but he manages to keep it under control until attending a university where he is sexually abused by a professor, unleashing years of suppressed rage upon them. Like, holy fucking shit, that’s really interesting!

However, his peers – Leone Abbachio, Narancia Ghirga, and Guido Mista – have equally interesting backstories but, with the notable exception of Mista’s crippling tetraphobia and Zen-like acceptance of death (though he constantly manages to avoid it), feel disconnected from their current behavior. Abbachio’s alcoholism and Narancia’s abysmal education (he’s incapable of basic multiplication at the age of 17) could’ve been definitive aspects of characterization throughout the plotline, but they’re only brought up once or twice while carrying little meaning otherwise. Even in “Stardust Crusaders”, the only thing we know about both Mohammed Abdul (not “Avdol”) and Jean-Pierre Polnareff is that one was a fortune-teller from Cairo and the other was out to avenge his murdered sister. Polnareff being the designated comic relief and a stereotypical philandering Frenchman isn’t really enough to invest emotionally in him as a character as the story wants me to, not to mention wasting the presence of a prominent black Muslim character – in an anime nonetheless – by giving him the flattest of personalities imaginable (thank Allah for Isaac, the best character in Castlevania).

That is not to say there are no notable or interesting characters because there are – even if far and few inbetween. It’s definitely easy to get why Rohan Kishibe has become everyone’s (myself included!) favorite eccentric, perpetually curious artist to the point of getting his own spin-off.

He’s fab-u-lous!

Another example is Joseph Joestar who, out of the five featured in the anime (so far), is easily the most entertaining protagonist of the series. A factor being the odd juxtaposition (there’s that word again!) of his personality as, much like his grandfather and initial series protagonist Jonathan, he was raised to be the poshest of all posh Brits yet acts more naturally like the Ugliest American (who isn’t Donald Trump) ever. It helps that (very much unlike Trump) he’s introduced by maiming abusive, racist cops who’re beating up a poor black teen – one of whom loses their trigger finger with a projectile Coca-Cola bottlecap. It’s obviously as badass as it sounds. He also appears in “Stardust Crusaders” and “Diamond Is Unbreakable” in his older years – respectively forty-nine and sixty-one years after “Battle Tendency” – that makes him particularly dynamic, compared to the rest of the cast, as his personality and behavior differ a fair bit from one appearance to the next. ‘Cause, like, that’s what tends to happen as people age.

However, his grandson Jotaro acts pretty much as he did in “Stardust Crusaders” when making subsequent appearances in “Diamond is Unbreakable” and “Golden Wind” taking place, respectively, twelve and fourteen years afterward. Again, it’s distracting because – even within “Stardust Crusaders” – there’re plenty of character moments that suggest a more complicated individual yet lead to no significant changes in personality or behavior. He’s always this too-cool-for-you manga/anime badass that’re a dime a dozen these days. When it’s revealed he became an academically acclaimed oceanographer in his 20’s, it’s kind of confusing he never talks about his work in detail or relates the events of the plot to his knowledge of the aquatic. Worsened by the fact his interest in it is never set up back when he was the protagonist, though there were numerous opportunities to do so, to eventually pay off in this way.

What contributes to this problem, I think, is that there’re simply too many characters – including the plethora of disposable secondary antagonists – and, given the lengthy battles, leaves very little breathing room inbetween to know these people more intimately. With the exception of “Phantom Blood” and “Diamond is Unbreakable,” the other story-arcs feel like these massive road trips yet rarely involve situations that’d happen during such travels, where there’s downtime to gain a better idea of who these people are outside of getting into fights. Though, more frequent and lengthier than they should be, these same high-concept battles are also the series’ biggest highlight.

Stand(s) By Me

If Jotaro Kujo is the face of the series, his Stand – dubbed “Star Platinum” – may as well be considered his afterimage.

Stands as a concept isn’t exactly that original to me nor too hard to wrap my head around, as I’ve read superhero comics from DC and Marvel that include characters like Shade the Changing Man or Hisako “Armor” Ichiki. However, to succinctly describe them for the unfamiliar: they’re psionically-induced entities that tend to appear humanoid, though it’s far from unusual for them to be mere objects (one is even a fishing rod) or simply function as innate superhuman abilities, with powers unique to each user (who are also the only people capable of visually sensing them…most of the time). You’d think, being a signature concept of the series, it’d of been there from the beginning but it wasn’t and, instead, there was “Hamon.”

I honestly can’t think of a better descriptor for it than John Walsh’s cheeky “magical sunshine karate” and it makes sense, given their presence in both “Phantom Blood” and “Battle Tendency”, to be used specifically against vampires and their far-less-powerful undead minions. As someone from Southern California and used to hearing spoken Spanish, it was hard to not hear “Hamon” as “jamón” and cracking the fuck up over it – since, rather than magical sunshine karate, they were defeating a bunch of Draculas with the power…of ham! Y’know, as if they’re not only vampires but really observant Jews (of which I am not – ’cause pork is super tasty) or Muslims and, next to sunlight, violating their dietary restrictions is their biggest weakness.

Araki’s decision to eschew Hamon for Stands was a reasonable and ultimately beneficial creative decision. Stands don’t require ridiculously overblown training montages and emphasize mental prowess over the physical, even animals and children can possess them, that allows action sequences more versatility than how one guy punches another guy to win. The transition is evidenced as early on as “Battle Tendency” since Joseph is more reliant on using stage magic-style misdirection and clackers/bolas as a weapon than Hamon by itself while his best frenemy forever, Caesar Zepelli, is able to form weaponized bubbles and their mentor, Lisa Lisa, uses her scarf in tandem with it. When introduced in “Stardust Crusaders”, the whole concept is somewhat unrefined and the main characters’ Stands – except an older Joseph’s Hermit Purple, ’cause of course – are incredibly uncreative compared to that of the antagonists, whose Stands could take the form of a future-predicting comicbook or steal souls via a gambling loss. On the other hand; Jotaro’s Star Platinum unleashes a flurry of rapid punches, Noriaki Kakyoin’s Hierophant Green unleashes a flurry of…flying emeralds, Abdul shoots fire with Magician’s Red, and Polnareff’s Silver Chariot has a rapier to slash or stab at things. Even secondary or tertiary capabilities function more like a deus ex machina – such as Star Platinum’s Three Stoogesesque extend-o-fingers – contradicting the often stated importance of set attack range and makes one wonder why they’re not applied more, given their usefulness.

Though, to be perfectly fair, I never thought I’d enjoy an extended battle between a superpowered Boston terrier (named after Iggy Pop) and a lanner falcon (named after the Pet Shop Boys) as much as I’d imagine! It’s like Flint “Sandman” Marko and Bobby “Iceman” Drake got turned into animals and had an intense fight to the death, exhausting themselves enough that they resort to clawing at each other’s face and neck-biting…

That bird? He. Will. Fuck. You. Up.

It’s not until “Diamond is Unbreakable” that Stands are fully realized and “Golden Wind” innovates further. The former story-arc integrating them more into non-combat situations, with two of my favorite episodes revolving around Italian miracle cook Antonio Trussardi and lethargic-yet-consummate beautician Aya Tsuji. Both are entirely character-driven with a satirical edge, concerning xenophobia and how cosmetic companies exploit the insecurity of young women, that is delightfully refreshing after the over-emphasis on combat from before. The latter story-arc, contrarily, becomes more action-oriented but its situations involve a more collaborative usage of Stands among both protagonists and secondary antagonists – the primary, of which, is easily my favorite villain next to the previous story-arc’s Kira Yoshikage. An exemplar being how Giorno uses his ability to turn non-living objects into flora and fauna (or vice-versa) on Mista’s magnum bullets, ridden by golden-skinned gremlins (who remind me of the Dum-Dums from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) that can redirect their trajectory like soccer balls, to grow exponentially into a helicopter-entrapping tree after they dig into the upper corner of a building.

Going back to villains momentarily: as much as I love the fact Dio Brando is named after Ronnie James Dio and Marlon Brando – he’s just Evil McBadguy from the get-go, without much in the way of nuance (there could’ve been), and I’ll never understand why he’s such a fan-favorite. At least, with Kira, you can imagine him being in a Thomas Harris novel co-starring Hannibal Lecter (preferably Red Dragon) or in one of the better Dexter episodes (preferably with John Lithgow), and “The Boss” is a…fascinating twist on the whole Jekyll-Hyde/Banner-Hulk dynamic. Saying any more will just spoil it too much, so I won’t divulge further. It’s too bad the Pillar Men weren’t as interesting by themselves as much as their conception of being Mesoamerican-style vampires. They are far more alien in behavior and ability than other portrayals of vampires in popular culture, with their most typical trait being vulnerability to sunlight, that is about as interesting as Penny Dreadful‘s obscenely chimeric human/scarab/snake blood-suckers from Ancient Egypt (but very much unlike Anne Rice’s version, thank Isis and Ra).

One of the most disappointing parts about Stands is that – with very rare exceptions – they are confined to being an extension of a character, than characters in of themselves. You’d think, as the manifestation of a wielder’s psyche, they’d represent the character’s id acting interchangeably as the angel and devil on their shoulder depending on the situation. When Stands do exhibit a personality independent of the person who possesses them, it’s endlessly amusing (or intriguing) and their general absence is all the more noticeable for it. The reason I like Guido Mista as much as I do, along with having the most fleshed-out personality of all the characters in “Golden Wind” next to Bruno Bucciarati, is that his Stand (named after the Sex Pistols) – the aforementioned bullet-riding, golden-skinned gremlins – exhibit a level of autonomy that makes Mista treat them not as an extension of himself, but as if they’re his adopted children or beloved pets.

A recurring gag is that Mista has gotten used to having meals at specific times not out of personal habit but because he needs to keep the Sex Pistols well-fed consistently, lest they get grumpy and increasingly petulant, like any loving parent or pet-owner would. There’s even an interpersonal dynamic between them as Sex Pistol #5 – ’cause, due to Mista’s tetraphobia, there is no #4 – is often the target of bullying by #3 yet, time and time again, proves themselves to be the most reliant and self-aware of Mista’s Stand. They may come off as cowardly but display a greater level of forethought, all while their siblings recklessly throw themselves into danger with little to no consideration, that keeps Mista and his allies alive. The Sex Pistols not only perfectly represent Mista’s tendency to dismiss personal danger but, as if blessed by the Greco-Roman gods themselves, manages to evade mortality by luck ever so slightly. I just wish I could say anything similar, at length, about other Stands…

The other major flaw with Stands is that their abilities, being over-specialized, are so limited and there’s little chance of evolution. Many Stands tend to have a singular function or method of attack, which may explain the numerous secondary antagonists and lengthiness of battles, and some can be contrivedly situational. There’re secondary antagonists whose Stand abilities would be hard to imagine being used in any other scenario than in the episode(s) they appear and are dull enough that their replacement with, say, further character development for the protagonists would be far more beneficial. Speaking of which, I wish that – as opposed to using a deus ex machina when convenient – the protagonists’ Stands would “level up” in some way, to indicate some personal growth of the character than static throughout.

Thankfully, in “Diamond Is Unbreakable”, we at least get that in the form of Koichi Hirose and all three phases (called ACT 1, 2, and 3) of his Stand dubbed “Echoes.” He’s a genuinely good person throughout the story-arc, but initially timid to a fault until gaining Echoes as a Stand – becoming more confident and assertive in situations where he once easily buckled under pressure and prone to manipulation. To parallel this development is Echoes starting out as an egg then soon hatches into a small long-tailed creature that, at first, seems useless. As the story proceeds, Koichi realizes the extent of Echoes’ powers and uses them more effectively – eventually metamorphosing two more times to coincide with paramount encounters. Their abilities start off as long-ranged and weak but, with each phase, loses range and get substantially stronger. It’s even reflected in his tumultuous romantic subplot with Yukako Yamagishi, fellow classmate and Stand-user, that goes from being like Misery to Cinderella by way of Garden State

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve only mentioned two female characters: Lisa Lisa, paragraphs back, and Yukako just now. There’re not many of them in the series and Araki’s rather…complicated portrayal of women deserves its own section, along with how the comradery between male characters can occasionally segue into something ostensibly queer-coded.


Well, this turned out longer than expected…again.

I had more to say about the series than originally intended and, in getting ready to move back down to SoCal, have been preoccupied with other activities. It’s been a goal of mine to put up more than one essay a month but there wouldn’t even be one if I showed this piece in its entirety. As such, I’ve decided to split this review in two – though the second half on its way, to be posted at either the end of this month or very beginning of the next.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition #2

If my first post on this new website didn’t appear any sooner, other than the usual bouts of writer’s block, it was simultaneously working on three different reviews at once. They were all meant to be shorter and featured together but each went on longer than intended, and I decided to make a separate entry for each show.

As indicated in the previous installment, this one will be about…


Beastars (Season 1)

Anthropomorphism describes a phenomenon where qualities specific to human beings are projected onto non-human entities but, in this case, I am largely referring to other animals than the representation of abstract concepts or forces of nature. Said phenomenon has gone as far back as prehistory and a notable trait of Ancient Egypt’s religious pantheon along with the still-extant faith of Hinduism (e.g. Ganesha and Hayagriva) but, within my lifetime and perspective, it is a nearly universal trait in family-friendly and kid’s entertainment. And then, there are the furries

As repetitive as this may sound, I’m rather perplexed at the bewilderment towards the subculture as if formed from thin air (Where have they been? Under a meteoroid-sized rock?). There’s been this trend in which anthropomorphic female characters in animated family-friendly and kid’s entertainment are given hourglass figures and ample bosoms of women that – far from only being cosmetic – is portrayed sensually. When it comes to having a favorite animal, it can cause…odd and disturbing feelings. As a child who really liked rabbits (still do as an adult), even having four as pets I named after the main characters of Ghostbusters, there was something rather unsettling when first watching Space Jam at ten years old – having an awkwardly early prepubescence – and being introduced to Lola Bunny. I say “unsettling” because, on one level, the idea of being sexually attracted to a non-human animal is both grotesque and unthinkable yet, on another level, I can see the appeal when intellectually and physically humanoid with superficially animalistic traits. So, I think I found Lola Bunny to be a hot piece of ass…?

Gee, talk about being conflicted!

That is not to say I am a furry as – besides being very fond of the feminine form in its many variances – I’ll always prefer flesh-and-blood ladies ’cause drawings, CGI, and costumes can never be the same as the real deal. Simply put, I understand the appeal of furrydom insofar as that aspect goes. Nonetheless, I continue to indulge in and greatly enjoy works that heavily feature anthropomorphic animals. There’s a reason I’ll literally never shut up about BoJack Horseman or why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Sharks, Battletoads, Bucky O’Hare, and Biker Mice from Mars are etched into my mind for time immemorial.

Beastars, the anime based on Paru Itagaki’s manga series, is now one of those. It’s also the only work of fiction featuring anthropomorphic animals that, next to Space Jam, made me feel uncomfortable but primary due to its surprisingly nuanced social commentary. Managing to deal with racial/ethnic discrimination, the politics of sex/gender, biological determinism vs. social conditioning, and how “civility” as well as “peace” in “developed” nations obfuscate the exploitation they’re built upon in ways that a certain film (i.e. Zootopia) or vaguely similar series sharing a streaming platform (i.e. BNA: Brand New Animal) failed miserably at otherwise.

The setting is one where society is largely stratified between carnivores and herbivores that – while intersecting with economic class and politics – acts as the main impetus driving most matters, even its black market that (unsurprisingly) is based around practices used by humans to make animal-based products. Since there are no humans in the setting, it only makes these practices being forced on animal-people by other animal-people far more unsettling. When it’s not evoking cannibalism, there’s drug smuggling and human trafficking as well as the selling of internal organs obtained via back-alley surgery, all hidden under this accepted practice where carnivores – to curtail their hunger for flesh – largely consume protein-based substitutes imitating meat-based sustenance (huh, that sounds oddly familiar…). There’s also an accepted level of segregation by institutions and an intense concern about miscegenation…or, to put it another way, an irrational fear of “race-mixing.” All the animal-people of the setting can, in fact, interbreed with each other and spawn mixed-animal children but whether it’s between two different herbivores, carnivores, or (considered most egregious) between a carnivore and a herbivore is downright taboo to the point its treated like a mental illness by others.

“Wait, what?! Isn’t this about some kind of quirky prestigious boarding school romance?” you may’ve wondered and the confusion is understandable. If anything, that part of the premise acts more like an introduction to the world these characters inhabit, rather than the overall structure of the narrative – which, much like Dorohedoro, takes a “big picture” approach and emphasizes world-building. It makes perfect sense when considering so much of the cast is comprised of teenagers who, perhaps due to financial privilege, have been sheltered for a good part of their lives. Their anguish from catching a glimpse of society’s dark underbelly is palpable and the adults who they’re surrounded by – much like in our reality – often appear either well-meaning but ineffectual, genuinely concerned yet overly cynical, annoyingly oblivious, frustratingly deferential to the status quo, or unapologetically abuse their power with little consequence. As far as that introductory romance goes, involving a wolf-boy and a rabbit-girl, it’s not as quirky as it is…troubling. On so many levels.

Legoshi (as in Bela), the wolf-boy, is infatuated with Haru, the rabbit-girl, but – given what has been stated – he’s greatly confused as to whether this means he actually loves her as another animal-person or…wants to devour her out of unquenchable bloodlust. The intriguing part is not that interpersonal dynamic alone but in how it deals with a number of real-world issues including the infantilization of women in media – specifically the “moe” trend – and how such depictions are both indicative of men’s sexual insecurity as well as the fear of female promiscuity. Haru is frequently victim to slut-shaming and that seems odd given she’s a rabbit, a creature usually characterized by their promiscuity despite a supposedly “innocent” appearance (it’s like Peter Quill being a dick about Rocket Raccoon’s scavenging instinct all over again), but it speaks to a common double-standard in our human society men are so often unwilling to acknowledge.

Badge Bunny v. Snow Bunny: Dawn of Lepus

Though Haru is seen as a “homewrecker” by other females, for having slept with their unfaithful boyfriends (or whom they mistakenly perceive as such). The same males who seek her out for carnal pleasure – which she, who enjoys the activity (no past trauma attached thankfully), can oblige – act ashamed of themselves when one comes to realize he is, in fact, far from the only classmate she’s been intimate with and it makes them hate her. This adverse reaction isn’t solely due to this setting’s weird version of miscegenation, though that’s part of it, but that men in general greatly dislike being reminded their sexual “conquests” are not all their own or that women do, in fact, have sexual agency. This disdain is exacerbated when it’s considered how a woman may be more sexually experienced, especially when being pursued by potential paramours in great number, than they may ever be in their lives.

Natural behavior being suppressed to one’s detriment is a running theme throughout and it’s telling the only character to not partake in the slut-shaming, other than Louis the Rich Racist Red Deer, is Legoshi. He, too, is publicly shamed albeit for different reasons. Encumbered by such severe self-hatred and constantly walking on eggshells to be unintimidating to herbivores makes him an emotional mess, especially when given no effective means to deal with it in a healthy manner (even their version of psychological therapy involves kidnapping and restraining them in a straightjacket with chains). Yet, no matter how reserved and respectful he may act to achieve acceptance, others always expect the worst of him based on appearance alone, only entrenching that sense of self-hatred further.

It’s something I greatly sympathize with, not only as someone who’s been described by others as physically intimidating and intense, but in how being treated as a ticking time-bomb by them – regardless of how I was actively behaving otherwise to avoid such – caused their fears to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as it only made me frustrated. Though I don’t have an unshakeable urge to feed upon others, of course, it still applies to animal-people as the major source of their societal ills are in how they prefer methods of suppression over honesty and open dialogue just like humankind. The reaction many herbivores have towards Legoshi can also be read as how white individuals are both overly judgmental and paranoid of black individuals (men particularly, in this case).

I mean, it’s hard not to interpret it that way when his romantic interest is a diminutive white rabbit who, at one point, tells him – misunderstanding his intentions at the time – that she’s never been intimate with a carnivore before, or when having an argument on a subway platform, police approach him as if he were committing assault from lightly grabbing her arm. The first scene in which he extensively interacts with anyone starts with him trying to deliver a posthumous love letter to an Angora-girl (who Louis obviously hates ’cause all goats eat paper like slack-jawed yokels – he says about as much!) from a murdered Alpaca-boy student, she reacts by pulling a knife [correction: it was actually a pair of scissors] on Legoshi and threatening him under the assumption he was going to attack her, despite no reasonably apparent sign of danger, because he’s a carnivore. At a time in the U.S. when white women call the cops on black individuals, children included, for innocuous actions as if sinister and many of those cops are more trigger-happy than usual – arresting and convicting them disproportionately to white people wasn’t enough, of course – it’s downright impossible for me to avoid seeing the parallels.

This is made more interesting by how other carnivores treat Legoshi as some kind of “race traitor”, whether it’s for having a romantic interest who isn’t just like himself (e.g. Juno the wolf-girl) or just not meeting some arbitrary criteria for how one is “supposed” to act like a carnivore. It reminded me of the intra-racial conflict present in Dear White People, as its characters try to define their own blackness and deal in how it clashes with their peers’ perception of identity. It is common for one person – whether it comes from arrogance, ignorance, or hiding their insecurities – to absurdly demand their version of blackness is the “correct” way to behave (the hotep episode is a great example).

“This is my design…”

Isn’t that the case with most unwritten social rules, though? That they’re arbitrary? Not arbitrary in the sense they don’t serve a function, they obviously do, but in that they’re the result of utterly subjective sentiments – as opposed to reason or empirical evidence – being factualized. It makes claims of “that’s just how it is” come off as either astonishingly ignorant or simply disingenuous because there’s usually someone with social clout that decided other people should follow a rule they made up for their own sake. It’s a common occurrence whether it’s casual or political – there’s always some asshole out to dominate the conversation, while shouting down every dissenting voice. Unfortunately, we tend to enable such behavior as opposed to discouraging it. Why else would we ever have someone as incompetent yet egotistical as Donald Trump in the position of President of the United States? He’s clearly the result of the Republican Party, opportunistic and hypocritical as they are, normalizing the most base instincts of the world’s worst people for their own benefit. It certainly doesn’t help the onus is put onto those victimized by them to be “the bigger person” as if that kind of moral victory actually means anything, ’cause it doesn’t. Not when you’re still treated like shit – regardless of how nicely you take their punishment. In fact, it only validates them further.

The phrase “Hell is other people” is associated with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, from his play No Exit, but is frequently misunderstood as a blanketly misanthropic statement rather than a comment about the conundrum humans face as social animals – we need others around us to properly function yet, simultaneously, those same people are what causes most of our frustrations. Honesty and open dialogue are impossible to practice when you know your personal validity is up for debate by others based purely on what you say and do, even when it doesn’t negatively effect them on any level; nor could they possibly understand your perspective due to the limitations of their own. If the phrase was blanketly misanthropic, rather than a poignant observation, it would echo a legitimate concern from those profoundly disappointed by the constant failures of humanity.

Or, in the case of Beastars, zoomanity – as Hell is now other animal-people.

Needless to say, I’m ecstatic there’s going to be another season and, though this entire piece could be about the masterful social commentary and world-building, I’d prefer to save it for next year when more has been developed to analyze further. So, instead, I want to bring up elements of the series I’ve liked outside of its narrative with a final statement.

To start, I can’t help but think that Paru Itagaki might be a bit of a Francophile – and, by proxy, those producing the anime. The setting of Cherryton Academy and city surrounding it have this Parisian aesthetic – particularly the architectural style and background music used – that can be blissful or haunting depending on the scene. Louis’ namesake is one shared by numerous French kings, thus apropos given his own affluent social standing. Itagaki herself admitted in an article by the French publication Le Monde to using actor Mathieu Amalric as the basis for Legoshi’s facial expressions. Other than just being appreciative as someone of French heritage (my ancestor was a grandmaster of the Knights Templar and his death actually fuels much of the conflict in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven!) and having been to Paris many years back, it brought back some fond memories of that visit as well as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie in lighter moments with darker ones reminiscent of Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible.

What made the opening credits sequence incredibly amusing to me wasn’t just how the stop-motion animation is evocative of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox

…but that ALI(Alien Liberation International)’s “Wild Side” sounds like it could be a track from French electro-swing band Caravan Palace, whose music video for “Lone Digger” can easily take place in Beastar‘s setting:

Another aspect the show shares with Dorohedoro is how well it blends CGI and traditional forms of animation together, if not better. Perhaps, due to the cast being anthropomorphic animals straight from a Disney or Warner Bros. cartoon (including young deer with traumatizing backstories and sexualized female rabbits), it was less distracting overall than full-on human characters given the animalian facial features. With the exception of Kaiman, obviously, as his Muppet-like mouth movements are more endearing than bothersome – looking like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street whenever he obsessively scarfed down potstickers (“Me eat gyoza!”). I suppose, when it comes to non-exaggerated human facial features in CGI, it’s hard to not fall into the uncanny valley (or, as I’d prefer to say, drop off Mori‘s peak – credit to Fred Van Lente for that one). As much as a certain Robert Zemeckis film (i.e. Polar Express, at least Beowulf was written by Neil Gaiman) and videogames strived for photorealistic facial features, it’ll always be off-putting because we evolved to recognize the facial features of other human beings and most imitations will feel like something hideously inhuman such as the Mi-Go in sheep’s clothing (wolves would be preferable). Maybe that’s why eschewing realism or, well, the usage of anthropomorphic animals tend to fare better.

Though, unlike Dorohedoro, more traditional forms of animation are seldom used save for dramatic close-ups and a few other moments. The show’s crew seemed to spend more time on this lovely visualization during Haru’s internal monologue about her background and personal motivations (which, again, refreshingly doesn’t involve rape or molestation as a reason for her promiscuity). The best way to describe it would be as if someone spent three to five years doing elaborate drawings on each page of a flip book, featuring a rabbit-girl walking through a forest to only then step into a shallow pond that drags her down deeper until she drowns. It’s obviously more effective when experienced first-hand and in context – as it is for all forms of entertainment – but nicely punctuates the scene it’s used and I really appreciate the extra effort put into it.

The Panda from Beastars Is Basically Black Jack | OGIUE MANIAX
Dr. Gohin: Action Therapist Panda!

Unlike other admirers of the medium, who’re still stuck in their habits as collectors than pure enthusiasts, I’m someone who buys and read comics and manga digitally over physical copies these days. Not only is it an issue of having enough space for storage but that, unless there’s a proper store nearby, it’s gotten expensive – moreso if you need them delivered. There’re very rare exceptions, of course, such as the omnibuses for Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Gimenez’s The Metabarons or Jack Kirby’s Fourth World – but, given how many series are collected in tens of paperback volumes, that doesn’t apply as much to manga. I might enjoy Blade of the Immortal and Lone Wolf & Cub or finally get into Berserk, but I also don’t want them to take up entire rows on my bookshelf when there’s already so much taken up.

As digressive as this all may seem, I do have a point: the last manga I’ve bought a physical copy of was Osamu Tezuka’s two-volume Ode to Kirihito after reading the equally grueling-yet-intriguing single-volume MW (it was hard, at times, to believe it was from the same guy behind Astro Boy). That was five years ago, if I remember correctly, and yet am nonetheless considering to buy physical copies of Paru Itagaki’s manga – at least, once it’s been completely translated and released in English.

It’s not just due to my newfound fondness of the material and wanting to financially support it further but that, as much as I like the anime, there’s a level of expressiveness in Ms. Itagaki’s artwork that’s downright charming – much like Tezuka’s own style – and can’t be fully captured with the animation style used on the show. It’s not something I want to see displayed on a monitor, but on a page I can also feel through touching paper and sense by the smell of ink.

If that isn’t one of the best compliments I can give a manga creator, I don’t know what is…

Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition #1

Originally, I was planning to review the first season of The Witcher…then ditched that to review the first season of Space Force as well as do a retrospective on Community. But, now, I ditched writing those as well. They felt less relevant as time went on and, honestly, I wasn’t really happy with how either of them were turning out.

However, I did want to start my new site with both some positivity (for the most part) and “Surfing the Netflix” installments dealing specifically with animated series. Though they may’ve been out for a bit, they still deserve the attention as delayed as it may be on my end. Each is wonderfully distinct in tone and presentation, and all of which I’d highly recommend watching – if you haven’t already (I assure you that they’re worth it) – and will clarify as to why.

Starting with…


Dorohedoro (Season 1)

NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM!

When it comes to fiction, transgressive morality is often more interesting than reaffirming accepted social norms as it calls into question certain traditions and practices we take for granted, as well as how far boundaries can be pushed before its considered too much to handle. That sense of transgression in fiction, due to its very nature, should be equally defiant of storytelling tropes and narrative rules we accept too readily – as many are the factualized tastes of older and out-of-touch figureheads of an industry. Despite the influence of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces it is, admittedly, utterly irritating how it’s treated as law by some than simply one of many possible guidelines for narrative structure. The three act rule, far from obligatory despite the name, is simply a template to build upon, rather some scientific formula to be followed to the letter. Even Shakespeare wrote five-act plays, and others only one or two!

My point is that, next to a Goichi Suda videogame, the anime adaptation to Q Hayashida’s long-running manga series displays refreshingly transgressive sensibilities to both moral standards and “common sense” storytelling – all accompanied by an aesthetic that could be best described as dystopian goth-punk chic.

Just about every character is (excluding a rare few like Dr. Kasukabe) a reprehensible person with the line between protagonist and antagonist almost nonexistent. Kaiman (or “Caiman,” but I prefer it with a K), our ostensible protagonist, simply needs to find the sorcerer who caused him to become a reptilian-headed amnesiac in a rather…unique process. However, even if the sorcerers he subjects to this is proven to not be the guilty party, he still murders them while assisted by Nikaido – a self-hating and closeted sorcerer herself – with an almost genocidal glee. En, the ostensible antagonist, is a vainglorious fungivore and powerful sorcerer who – in the dimension his kin reside – functions as an odd combination of community leader, businessman, and mob boss (he’s got hit records too!) that seeks a way to travel six years back into the past to prevent a mass slaughter: even if it means kidnapping and brainwashing a person with the power to bend time and space at his beck and call. The culprit who instigated that event may’ve been Kaiman prior to his amnesia, with the recent serial killing of sorcerers making him a prime suspect and priority target to En. Their well-meaning intentions, as valid as they are by themselves, are pursued with such abhorrent methods that lack much concern for human life and tortuously rationalizing the indefensible ultimately renders them meaningless.

“I’m gonna make ya grilled portobello ya can’t refuse…”

Despite all that, the series goes out of its way to humanize them, and I can’t help but find them relatable. Similarly to Daredevil‘s first season, two of the (supposed) antagonists – Shin and Noi – are given a romantic subplot instead of the (supposed) protagonists, who’re entirely platonic and without an ounce of sexual tension between them. It really helps that, since the fights are as brief as they are bombastic, most other scenes act as a vehicle for small but significant character moments – like Kaiman working his part-time job cleaning up a hospital, or En and his associates preparing for a quadrennial oath-making holiday called “Blue Night” – around some incredibly well-integrated world-building.

The Hole (I’d like to think it was named after that Tom Waits song used on The Wire), Kaiman and Nikaido’s home city, is a perpetually dilapidated place that looks no different from Los Angeles in Blade Runner minus the futuristic technology but, hey, there’s still toxic rain! To contrast with “Blue Night,” The Hole has an annual “Living Dead Day” where – due to the residual effects of the sorcerers’ magic usage – zombies spring forth from the ground and are hunted down, wherein small metal plates from their body are collected and traded in for prizes (it’s as awesomely morbid as it sounds). The Sorcerer’s World, on the other hand, is absolutely delightful in how it eschews so many traits typically associated with wizards/warlocks/magi/etc. to be something satisfyingly modern and stylish. It’s an urban fantasy in the most literal way imaginable.

Sorcerers tend to wear casual contemporary clothing (save for dandies/fops like En) as opposed to scholarly robes, not much different from most residents of The Hole, but there’s a social practice where – made darkly amusing by COVID-19’s presence – sorcerers have customized masks, rather than conical hats, that are worn frequently if not constantly. That said: they do travel by way of enchanted broom and carpet. Except, in this case, brooms have developed to the point they can resemble hoverbikes (it also shape-shifts into a house-cleaning appliance!) while carpets function as taxicabs. Did I also mention all the juxtaposed Satanic and Buddhist imagery? That demons are entirely real and act like Juggalos with the business tactics of Wall St. CEOs? Or how it’s possible to become one of them by accomplishing bizarre trials of strength and perseverance, such as carrying and feeding giant fruit bats while in a 350-lbs suit of armor? ‘Cause, honestly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg…but I want y’all to still be surprised!

Big Barda, but albinistic and anime.

If it wasn’t obvious by now that the series is unconventional in telling a tale, it somehow manages to make the “Mystery Box” formula – something I’ve come to despise next to the found footage subgenre – actually work. Clues are dropped almost constantly, some of which could be red herrings, but Hayashida establishes enough of a coherent timeline of events that is leading somewhere, as opposed to a convenient way to make shit up with no real plan in mind. They may feel like mere twists and turns but, given how often flashbacks are used and connected to hints made elsewhere, are most certainly not. However, it never feels telegraphed or boring…

The reason a series like Game of Thrones fail as a narrative by the end is the over-reliance on the mystique of an eventual “big reveal.” Yet what occurs around the unveiling gradually has less and less of a connection to that event and comes off as, far from being well-realized and thoroughly constructed, creatively lazy and random – the length becoming interminable as it turns ten minutes into three hours with an agonizing pace. One may continue forth, due to the sunk cost, but it’ll always end with regret over the wasted time and energy you put into something devastatingly mediocre. It’s the equivalent of a carriage slowly being pulled by a horse tempted forward by a small carrot kept out of range on a long stick. Wait, no, at least the horse already knows its subpar reward. The mystery as to who Kaiman really is – along with the what, when, where, why, and even how – is genuinely intriguing with its deft use of anarchic unpredictability as a pretense even with the trail of breadcrumbs it leaves. You don’t have to choose between anticipating the destination or concentrating on the journey, as the false dichotomy often tells us – why not do both?

An on-going issue for me is that many anime series, and films, on Netflix (not to mention non-Japanese animated works like The Dragon Prince) suffer from the usage of cheap-looking CGI. It’s tolerable if restricted to various kinds of transportation or monsters, when occasionally interspersed with traditional animation, but usually an eye-sore when applied to humanoid characters throughout. They all look like animatronic dolls with a ceramic shell but their gears, pistons, and so forth are in such disrepair that every movement creaks or grinds – sounds so piercing that it makes your teeth rattle and ears bleed. As inconsistent or limited as traditional animation can be, there’s a certain quality – much like with stop-motion (or “claymation”) – where the flaws can be charming while over- and badly-implemented CGI distracts to the point I can’t enjoy anything else.

Tasha Yar, but androgenously teenaged and anime.

Thankfully, much like with the “Mystery Box” formula, Dorohedoro‘s usage of CGI evades this problem due both to Hayashida’s art style being complementary to it and the liberal usage of more traditional methods alongside it. It’s a great blend and the only other series I’ve seen equitable to it, Beastars (that’s for next time!), understands that CGI works best for fast-paced action or minor movements that’re almost seamless when cutting to shots utilizing frames of traditional animation.

I only just started reading the manga, having been tired of watching the same dozen episodes several times over, and Hayashida’s early artwork on the title is…rough. Really rough. Which makes it fortuitous that those producing the anime use her more refined style seen in later chapters, not to mention improving the visuals of certain locales like En’s vivid mushroom garden or the grungy-yet-cozy atmosphere of the Hungry Bug restaurant. Early on in the manga, backgrounds had a tendency to be these blank white spaces, making it less interesting to read than it is to watch the episodes – since it never gives a sense of time and place the way more detailed backgrounds engender. There’re other minor changes made, like the sequencing of events, as well as omitting some superfluous lines. They also toned down the nudity by not displaying any nipples, though I’d rather Ebisu (the fact she’s apparently thirteen years old is greatly obfuscated) wasn’t topless at any point, but at least she isn’t sexualized as much in the anime as she was in what I’ve seen of the manga.

It’s rare for me, moreso now than before, to find anime that manages to enthrall me as much as Dorohedoro does. It’s unabashedly bizarre and subversive with a sense of style and energy all its own, a unique creative vision that makes it a gem amongst the rubble. As fun as something like Seven Deadly Sins can be, what with being a shōnen-style take on Arthurian mythos, it’s still hampered by so many tropes and character stereotypes (both problematic and overused) that make it almost indistinguishable from other series in the genre. It’s kind of telling that one of the only other Netflix Original anime series that I’ve felt as strongly about is Carole & Tuesday and that’s not a surprise given it was directed by Shinichirō Watanabe (of Cowboy Bebop fame). It’s a nice feeling to have, in these otherwise depressing times…

Part of that isn’t just the prominent aspects of the series, which I’ve already described as much as I can without spoiling too much, but that even secondary or tertiary elements are a pleasant surprise. Most 24/26-episode anime series, if not simply using one song each for the opening and end credits throughout, will change both by the halfway mark. Dorohedoro has only twelve episodes so far and a single song for the opening credits – but has six different songs for the end credits. I can only imagine the scenario making it possible; that K(NoW)_NAME, the musical group involved, were workshopping a perfect song for the end credits but came up with several. The series director, Yuichiro Hayashi, perhaps couldn’t decide on picking one over the others and said “fuck it, let’s use them all!” How could he not? They’re all fantastic – I’d go as far as to say all are better than the song for the opening credits – and it’d have been a shame to throw any one of them out. Even the end credits change up the visuals to coincide with the episode they’re featured in and, by God, I’d love to see more of that done in the future.

So, it’s only apropos to finish with my favorite song of the bunch for the end credits – “Night SURFING”:

Videogame Quarantine: Mini-Reviews of DEATH STRANDING, NIER AUTOMATA, GOD OF WAR (2018), NIGHT IN THE WOODS, and RESIDENT EVIL 2 (2019)(w/minor spoilers)

The last several months have been rather…eventful, for me. I got a new job that took up most of my time and energy, lost one of my cats, my father had a health scare, there was a change of ownership at my workplace leading to being laid off, my grandfather died, and then COVID-19 came along — where we all keep to ourselves as best we can, to avoid infection and the potential death that comes with it. I tried writing over those past several months but was often too tired or distracted to concentrate on it; however, with the free time available, it’s allowed an outlet to stave off both boredom and avoid further depression over the world’s current predicament (feeling like it comes straight from a Steven Soderberg movie, nonetheless). Which, almost presciently, our first entry deals with as a subject — in an idiosyncratic kind of way.

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Death Stranding

Ambivalence, in this day and age, is a sorely underrated sentiment. We live in a time of extremes, for both good and ill, but it’s ended up taking a toll on the discourse surrounding Artistic media. The “love it or hate it” paradigm makes it really difficult to have any nuanced discussion without presumptions that complicated reactions towards a work equate to “hatred” when not lavishing it in sycophantic praise. The reason I bring this up is that, when it comes to game developers, I’ve never felt more ambivalent towards a creator as much as Hideo Kojima. He makes plenty of creative decisions I can’t stand (“She breathes through her skin”?! Like a frog?!?!) yet when he does something I like, I really like it. Whether it’s the “Selection for Societal Sanity” scene from Metal Gear Solid 2 or the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 3 (with the best 007 theme song ever), they end making up for a lot and I can’t help but be forgiving.

I’ve played Death Stranding for well over 80 hours and still don’t know what to think of it; but, again, this isn’t from apathy — but ambivalence. There were certainly times I found it dull (with the largely expository and repetitive dialogue) yet it’s strangely refreshing to have a game where the challenge is almost entirely about traversal. It’s about scaling the various terrain of gorgeous landscapes, accompanied by movement mechanics and physics far more elaborate than any of the heavily downplayed combat. There are forced boss fights (one of which I, amusingly, defeated by throwing an attache at their head) I would’ve preferred to be omitted entirely — at least MULEs, Homo Demen terrorists, and BTs can be avoided entirely or evaded when confronted — as they aren’t nearly as enjoyable as maneuvering around a rock slide or trying to wade through waist-high snow as proficiently as possible while delivering a package. The experience, as aptly described by George Weidman, can become meditative as you slowly fugue into a Zen-like state to complete these tasks.

The narrative is less character-driven than it is by world-building in order to express high concept notions of a supernatural post-apocalypse where there’s the living, the dead, and those inbetween like Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) with a fictional ailment called “DOOMS.” It deals with internet isolationism in such a way that eerily echos the social distancing practiced now with COVID-19 and the protagonist being a lone courier with aphenphosmphobia makes it all the more relevant as speculative fiction. The society within the setting is one where people are forced to lock themselves away in fallout bunkers for safety from a now-inhospitable world, but to their own psychological detriment. In lacking much-needed human contact, there is an increased likelihood of suicide — which itself endangers the world further as corpses become Lovecraftian beasts made of crude oil or form vast, empty craters from exploding if not quickly cremated upon death— that’s lead to a Black Mirror-esque practice of combatting it with social media “likes.” It’s existentially frightening how closely it resembles our current reality and I doubt that’d happen without Kojima’s unique creative vision, warts and all.

Speaking of existentialism…

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NieR: Automata

Yoko Taro is another Japanese videogame auteur like Kojima but, unlike Kojima, my experience with his games has been indirect until now. Given his interviews and Q&As — part of me wants to love NieR: Automata unconditionally for Taro’s personality alone yet, unfortunately, I can’t.

I can appreciate what this game is doing. It acts as a Philosophy 101 course in the form of entertainment like The Good Place, where it’s less about dryly memorizing information than presenting ideas through an Artistic medium (though famous philosophers are name-dropped and some concepts elaborated upon). The way it plays with the limits of perception, changing from one point of view to another and gradually revealing more context to events we’ve initially taken at face value, is something I can’t help but love — made all the better with the involvement of automata (hey, just like the game’s subtitle!). There is a reason Blade Runner is my favorite film ever; well, that as well ashaving Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (where the term “robot” originated) and Harlan Ellison’s unfilmed I, Robot script on my bookshelf. I’m also pretty sure Robot Carnival being my first anime had something to do with it…

My point being: this is the kind ofshit I live for!

What left me feeling lukewarm, despite all that, is its main gameplay loop. The combat is derivative of Bayonetta (a title I absolutely adore) but lacks the variety of enemy types and movesets for the player character that Bayonetta had in spades. This is worsened by an incredibly unbalanced upgrade system, where there’s very little tension as one can enable a character to both auto-heal if briefly left unharmed and gain health back felling hostiles. The visual uniformity of said enemy A.I., with exceptions like the weaponized bipedal oil rigs named after Friedrich Engels, left them feeling no more different than the armies of ineffectual cannon-fodder from the Dynasty Warrior series. They all blur together and no one encounter stands out after awhile (save for the beautifully orchestrated musical soundtrack evocative of the Ghost in the Shell films). Perhaps that’s on purpose, to represent the ultimate futility of warfare, but it’s hard to tolerate after tens of hours. The further I got, the less enthused I felt to continue — and that’s unfortunate because, in another form, I may’ve never gotten sick of it.

As far as the next entry goes? I don’t think I could say the same.

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God of War (2018)

There didn’t need to be another God of War game. This game could have, in fact, had nothing to do with the series and (a few tweaks aside) it’d be much the same, except it’d be a unique intellectual property rather than part of a brand. It also didn’t need an open world, with arbitrary RPG-style stats and an upgrade system based on resource-gathering that convolutes otherwise simplistic combat, or a story that — despite its interminable length—feels largely uneventful. It’s the same kind of plot from Rise of Skywalker that everyone (myself included) hated: there’s a single goal stretched out with a series of fetch quests in order to attain it. Videogames have been doing this for a while, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but this game is an egregious case of spreading oneself too thin…and there wasn’t much to spread as is.

If the game does anything right, it’s the characterization of Atreus. There are far too many works of fiction where youths, rather than behaving like actual kids, are basically miniaturized adults with the lame excuse they’re “wise beyond their years.” Atreus himself is, in fact, wise beyond his years but still acts like a kid. It’s what makes the interactions between him and Kratos feel authentic as a father-son relationship, because — though he is well-read and knowledgeable —Atreus’ naivete about the world around him clashes with Kratos’ experienced understanding of it and his learned cynicism. It’s also nice to have a game where a supporting character isn’t invisible to hostiles and actively takes part in combat, though this is hampered from a lack of danger (he can’t die) and his education is not expressed mechanically. Those moments of Kratos teaching Atreus are largely bound to scripted events and what moves he learns for combat are based on something as abstract as experience points in an upgrade system instead of Kratos directly fathering him. He’s definitely a step above Ellie in The Last of Us or Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite as an element of gameplay, but nonetheless still far from ideal.

Since it’s on-topic — here’s more about the youth!

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Night in the Woods

If Bryan Lee O’Malley and Richard Scarry (somehow) collaborated on a graphic novel, then had it adapted into a videogame, the final product would likely resemble Night in the Woods. There’s that wonderfully interesting contrast I loved in BoJack Horseman starring fanciful anthropomorphic animals, yet it’s nonetheless grounded — sometimes hitting too close to home — as they deal with crippling personal issues and the toll it takes on others around them. That is not to say it is humorless (far, far from such) but it’s definitely more of a dramedy than pure comedy and I’m happy that’s the case. Not everything needs to be a laugh-per-minute romp.

Relatable characters like protagonist Mae Borowski and her handful of friends aren’t poorly conceived caricatures created by out-of-touch middle-aged men pandering to youths, but by those who truly understand the mindset and behaviors common among dissociated 20-somethings living in economic uncertainty. Keep in mind that I’m not using “relatable” synonymously with “likable,” something I find utterly meaningless when it comes to discussing characterization in fiction, since Mae Borowski herself is usually not a likable person. In fact, she wouldn’t be nearly as interesting was she “likable.” Her massive fuck-ups realistically reflect the complicated nature of human beings and the frustrations that come with it. We’ve each had our moments whether it is getting too drunk and making asses of ourselves at a party, awkwardly conversing with people you hated back in high school and haven’t seen since, or heated spats with those you may otherwise get along with due to a petty misunderstanding: that’s all in the game. It also adds replay value as you don’t get to see every character vignette initially and need subsequent playthroughs to view them, but it never feels like a chore as you get to know more about these people you’ve already connected with — all due to fantastic writing and dialogue. Up to a certain point anyway…

After the game had spent so much time on these amusing slice-of-life interactions with townspeople, it was odd how partway through the game turns into a supernatural mystery that only soured my experience. Remember how I said the characters felt like genuine people dealing with personal issues you could understand? It’s still there, kind of, but then you have dreadfully on-the-nose lines to hammer home the theme of economic woes that were once subtle before — I didn’t need ignorant rednecks overtly blaming the immigrants for a lack of jobs to make the point more obvious. I also can’t stand how Mae’s internal conflict about her hometown becomes personified as a literal Elder God, though it could’ve remained wholly symbolic and more fitting with the rest of the narrative. It all comes off as half-baked compared to previous sections, as if the developers wanted to end on a “big note” though it is contrary to what’s already been presented. It could’ve ended as unceremoniously as Clerks did (there’s an undercurrent of taking things one day at a time instead of needing every decision you make to be a momentous event), as opposed to this last-minute horror story as incongruent as a square peg forced into a round hole.

The next game, on the other hand, works quite well as a horror story (half of it anyway).

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Resident Evil 2 (2019)

It’s unfortunate that, due to Konami (for some incomprehensible and godawful reason) switching from videogame development to pachinko machines, there will never be another proper Silent Hill installment (that’s why we have Death Stranding now— it originated as a canceled sequel helmed by Hideo Kojima). The Resident Evil series, on the other hand, has remained relevant because of Resident Evil 4 and its influence on AAA game design for the last fifteen years. Perhaps to a fault, given its format became a ubiquitous template for most action-adventure titles to the point such games are becoming less distinguishable from one another. The AAA videogame industry is absolutely terrible about overexposure and diminishing returns which, by God, I just want them to stop doing. Even Dark Souls has been subjected to that treatment and now Soulsborne titles are everywhere

When Resident Evil 7, which returned to its survival horror roots with a storytelling presentation akin to prestige television, got a positive reception from both audience and critics — news of a Resident Evil 2 remake caught my interest. The original game barely held my attention as it came off like an interactive B-movie with terrible acting and cinematography (nor were there any real scares as much startles), but my experience with the remake has been the polar opposite. The title is able to make a gameplay mechanic I usually despise (e.g. inventory management) into an immersive part of the experience that had me hook, line, and sinker.

There was always that sense of dread mixed with excitement, figuring out how much I needed to defend or heal myself while leaving enough room open for key items, as there’s always the danger that comes with mismanagement. Flash grenades might take up a much-needed slot, but it means you’ll save on bullets and leave zombies stunned long enough to escape from them instead of powering through and taking possible damage. You may have to eschew the usage of green herbs because, though it may provide much-needed healing no matter how minor, it’s wasteful if not combined with red and blue herbs — as it fully heals and temporarily reduces damage, making it particularly helpful in tougher situations with stronger enemies. The fact I’d let out a sigh of relief when coming across another policeman’s hammerspace fanny pack to gain more inventory space must mean something, a feeling equal to the adrenaline rush from outrunning Mr. X’s pursuit or when surrounded by zombies who can’t be killed simply by headshots anymore and require Dead Space-esque dismemberment to sabotage their mobility.

In fact, I don’t dislike anything in the game that much with exception to Leon Kennedy’s flaccidly-told campaign (his weapons fucking suck too). In Claire’s campaign, you get a story with neat narrative beats — like Claire and Sherry’s relationship evoking Ripley and Newt’s dynamic from Aliens — that, while far from groundbreaking or deep, is surprisingly restrained for a game by Capcom. They’re a company where good storytelling and characterization went to die and a target of mockery in the gaming community yet, now, all the poor line deliveries and badly localized dialogue are nowhere to be seen. It’s not as obvious when you play Leon, failed boy band member and adamant Blue Lives Matter proponent, because — despite sharing many of the same environments — there’re no thematic connections to make memorable character moments as he goes from one place to another to open one door after another. He lacks a strongly defined motivation to push him forward as opposed to Claire with her brother Chris and later Sherry. Speaking of Sherry; even her stealth-based interlude keeps up the pace as well as establishing how terrible a person Chief Irons is and why, while Ada Wong’s segment is little more than an unnecessary interruption that does not provide further context to the plot or texture to the setting.

The Remake for Resident Evil 3 was just released yet reticent about playing it, coming out barely a year after the last installment has troubling implications and — based on what Ben Croshaw and Marcus Turner have said — it’s more of an action title than survival horror and I didn’t want that. I needed to fill the absence left by a lack of Silent Hill games and never in a million years would I have expected a remake of Resident Evil 2 to partially fulfill that role…

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POSTSCRIPT

Originally, I didn’t plan for these mini-reviews to have any sort of connective tissue between them — yet they did. They’re disparate as games but share something in common; the theme of needing personal connection with others while nonetheless forced into separation whether it is based on internalized, societal, or even cataclysmic factors (all three in Death Stranding’s case!). The fact I played them on the days leading up to the COVID-19 lockdown was a happy accident, though “happy” is a bit of a misnomer (if only at this time).

Getting back to writing after a far-too-long hiatus feels great, which makes me think it should be a goal to write more often and consistently put out a new piece at least once a month (if not more). I already have some others in the works — one of which is about Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher — and, hopefully, I’ll put them out sooner than later.

[Originally posted on 5/10/20 @ Medium.com]

I’d Rather Be FAR FROM HOME: A Film Review (w/spoilers)

After Into the Spider-Verse, I was worried it had spoiled me so much that Far From Home would ultimately disappoint. It is certainly not my favorite Spider-Man movie — that’s Into the Spider-Verse (obviously) — but it’s definitely my second favorite. Not any of the badly-aged and cringey (except for J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson) Sam Raimi films, the garbage fire that was Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, or Homecoming where Peter just acts like a lovesick Avengers groupie while wasting Micheal “I’m Batbirdman” Keaton as the villain (who thankfully wasn’t the fucking Green Goblin…again).

So what, exactly, made Far From Home different (at least for me)? Short answer: it’s actually a Spider-Man movie, not simply another “Marvel movie.” Even if Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has a posthumous presence in the story, it never overshadows the rest of the material and provides the kind of crisis-of-conscience that came from the death of Uncle Ben — something which Peter has lacked in previous MCU appearances — and deftly connected to the villain’s own motivation within the story, but the danger they represent isn’t overblown. The film, rightfully, concentrates more on Peter Parker’s psychology and making the stakes more personal even if portrayed in an epic manner.

The long answer? I’ll get into that now…

FRIENDLIEST IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

As stated in my (admittedly overlong and sometimes meandering) pieces on Infinity War and Endgame, I absolutely adore Tom Holland in the role…and still want to squeeze his cheeks, if I ever meet him (I can’t help it). He definitely captures the gee-golly-willikers take that Tobey McGuire was going for as Peter Parker, albeit far less campy, but — unlike McGuire — that doesn’t go away when he’s Spider-Man. He’s not the version of the character in the comics, cracking jokes mid-battle to annoy supervillains, but he definitely emphasizes the “friendly” in “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”

A problem I’ve had with a lot of Marvel movies, as far as their form of comedy goes, was how it came off more forced than naturalistic. There’s been this eager-to-please approach that makes it feel like the actors are in on the joke, nudging and winking while doing a shtick, except some of the best comedy comes from the unexpected or unintentional. Whether it is Drax’s inability to understand metaphors (and abysmal attempts at noticing social cues) or Thor’s bravado and bluster obviously covering up a fragile ego, it’s funny because the characters themselves are not trying to be funny — they’re playing it straight yet it is hard to take seriously.

Similarly, this Peter Parker both in- and outside the suit is humorous as a character because he’s congenial to a fault (e.g. politely introducing himself to Valkyrie, as played by Tessa Thompson…in the middle of an end-of-the-world battle) and adorably awkward when trying to hit on M.J. (who, in this case, is the disconcerting jokester — played here by Zendaya) the way a teenager actually would. It certainly feels more convincing than literally any (obviously ad-libbed)interaction between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in Amazing Spider-Man or its sequel. There’re other nice touches, like how the rivalry with Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) isn’t based on an outdated nerd/jock dynamic (that stopped once Tech-Bros became a thing…more on that later) as much as it is predicated on wealth and class. It’s also very true-to-life the way Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and Betty Brandt’s (Angourie Rice, who is co-starring with yet another pop singer) summer fling occurs and how seriously they take it, with the former giving condescending advice to Peter as if he’s been in a healthy relationship for many a year now.

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“It’s-a me, Mysterioooooo!”

A poignant aspect of the plot is how Parker, though still wanting to be a superhero, is stressed out by and made avoidant of the pressure placed on being perceived as Iron Man’s “successor” — a position that, at no point, he actually self-proclaimed and was simply assumed by others (including Tony Stark) — is asking a lot of a sixteen-year-old kid. It even causes his usually reliable Spidey Sense (please don’t call it a “tingle” unless you’re Marisa Tomei, who ages like the finest of French wines) to malfunction until the ending. It was difficult for me to perceive Peter’s avoidance as an act of cowardice because he, unlike Tony Stark, just wants to have something of a life outside of being Spider-Man than dedicate his entire being to that identity (which is faithful to how, in the comics, his work/life balance was a recurring internalized conflict). That’s not a bad thing and quite reasonable, moreso when considering what a wreck Tony Stark actually was as a person.

SINS OF THE SURROGATE FATHER

A big reason why Infinity War is one of my favorite MCU installments, as I stated elsewhere, is the acknowledgment that maybe some of these heroic characters aren’t always good people. They can, in fact, be downright terrible as human beings regardless of their feats, no matter how exciting or amusing. That isn’t to say they may as well be inhuman monsters but that, much like a real-life problematic fave, they’re far less ideal than they are made out to be either by themselves or admirers. You might like what they’ve done, but may come to disdain them — usually with enough time behind closed doors.

Tony “Iron Man” Stark is the exemplar of this.

His gadgetry may be fascinating and quips chucklesome, but his egotism and selfishness — two prominent personality traits — are often forgotten by audiences distracted by the spectacle. It should be remembered that he is a weapons manufacturer and only became a superhero when almost killed by one of his own missiles, not because he had a genuine interest in protecting the powerless from the abusively powerful like Captain America (Chris Evans) did. Though, even after becoming a superhero, he had endangered the world due to his overwhelming hubris (e.g. Age of Ultron) then betrayed many of his allies while undergoing a psychological breakdown (e.g. Civil War). However, I do not say that to diminish how — at other times — he was also integral to saving the lives of many and even died like a champion to do so. Plus Robert Downey, Jr. was so goddamn good in the role.

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(from MONSTRESS #18 by Majorie Liu, Sana Takeda, et al.)

In one of the best scenes of the film, after Spidey experiences a humiliating and near-fatal defeat, Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) has a heart-to-heart where he admits — being his closest and longest-known friend — Tony Stark wasn’t easy to be around or deal with. He was paranoid, obsessive, and never truly satisfied. That makes Happy one of the few people present in the film who’s wise enough to not expect Peter to become “the new Iron-Man.” He, instead, encourages Peter to walk his own path based on what he learned from his time as Stark’s kinda-sorta apprentice. What point is there in just replacing one whose time has passed and simply repeat their failings? It’s more important that, while acknowledging their achievements, we learn to avoid the mistakes the last generation made and become better for it.

If Tony had more foresight and knew what kind of pain and animosity his actions would have caused, especially after his death, perhaps Peter’s life — as well as those of his closest friends — wouldn’t have been endangered by someone whom he wronged in the past…

LAND OF CONFUSION

The zeitgeist we live in now is one of mass gaslighting, to one degree or another. Where the lies of charlatans are treated far too credulously, taking advantage of the goodwill of those well-meaning but gullible, and some even come to hero-worship them — as their fallacious narrative is more comforting than dealing with the disappointment that comes with skepticism and cynicism. Those who accuse legitimate sources of information as “fake news” are often the ones who help perpetuate the phenomenon most. It does not help these charlatans are gifted with a level of charisma that, though they abuse others including sycophants, often render them immune to further scrutiny as every indiscretion is swept under the rug with some convenient rationalization. They often have too much power, with little to no responsibility taken for their actions.

The point I’m making is that Quentin “Mysterio” Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) represents all of this.

Anyone who read the comics is well-aware his whole act of being a superhero from a tangent timeline fighting elemental monsters was a very likely falsehood, but knowing that didn’t really ruin anything for me. When it comes to cinematic adaptations of printed works — I want there to be changes made, for the better. Some stuff in the comics just don’t work in live-action, as much as fanboys are loathed to admit such (get the fuck over yourselves), and being too “faithful” might be a bad thing. No, what interested me was what changes would be made to him as a character. Originally, he was a special effects artist (though it is amusingly referenced with in-jokes about the actual process done for these movies) but that really wouldn’t work now. Making him an Elon Muskesque Tech-Bro not only makes sense when considering his weaponized drones used for advanced holographic imagery — which did, at certain times, strain suspension of disbelief — but that, accompanied by other former Stark Industry employees like William Ginter Riva (Peter Billingsley), his grievances are legitimate to some extent.

Stark pulled a Thomas Edison/Steve Jobs on Beck and took credit for the work he did, only to add insult to injury when giving his groundbreaking work a juvenile acronym like “B.A.R.F.” and tossed it aside in such a nonchalant fashion. Riva himself was pulled into a conflict between Stark and Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) which was little more than a dick-measuring contest writ large in the first Iron Man and, honestly, I can’t blame anyone holding a grudge over that. Though Beck speaks as if Robin Hood, upon tricking Peter him into handing over the E.D.I.T.H. glasses and access to more weaponized drones, he soon becomes another Sheriff of Nottingham the next moment as he threatens his accomplices due to minor dissent and an unexpected complication. Yet, rather than any self-realization on their part and trying to undo his scheme, they still followed his orders. Why would anyone do that, especially here? Fiction has plenty of henchmen who question their master and try sabotaging their efforts when knowing better, even in vain (e.g. Skurge, played by Karl Urban, from Thor: Ragnarok) — but not them and, at first, it confused me. Upon my subsequent viewing of the film, it dawned on me that their loyalty wasn’t to Beck as much as the false narrative he wants to impose upon the world.

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Quentin “Mysterio” Beck. Kinda (but really).

They’re not much different from the all-too-real villains of our current age: nihilistic opportunists who cravenly hide behind lofty lies and profit from the destruction they sow…

A POSTHUMOUS VICTORY

Along with Infinity WarFar From Home is the only other MCU installment where the villain succeeds, though one that is only achieved after their death. Being unable to do his version of The Syndrome’s scheme from The Incredibles, Beck’s spineless asshole lackeys take whatever footage was recorded by the drones and doctor it to frame Spider-Man for mass murder as well as doxxing him to the whole of New York City. This, of course, is pushed by none other than J. Jonah Jameson (and, by God, I was ecstatic to see they brought back J.K. Simmons for the role) who — given his portrayal as an online pundit and the graphical style of the show’s logo — may as well be Ben Shapiro or Alex Jones.

It echos incidences such as the dissolution of the community outreach organization ACORN due to bad faith actor and Andrew Breitbart protege James O’Keefe III or, more recently, former Quilette writer Andy Ngo’s demonizing of antifascist protestors by provoking them into a physical confrontation and using self-victimization afterwards for personal gain all while supposedly smart people expressed misplaced empathy for a “journalist” (which, god-fucking-dammit, he’s not) doing their “job” (of rationalizing heinous ideas appealing to fascists). In both cases, anyone perceptive enough can see through such egregious attempts of manipulation— those who believed them wanted to. If they truly cared about the facts, whatsoever, they would’ve waited and looked for more information as opposed to immediately coming to a conclusion based on an incomplete picture. They made up their mind before it occurred.

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J. Jonah Jameson. Kinda (but really).

When coupled with Captain Marvel’s take on “The Great Replacement” and demagoguery targeting refugees, and Thanos representing the resurgence of the “overpopulation” myth perpetuated by eugenicists of yesteryear like Thomas Malthus and Margaret Sanger from Infinity War, it’s nice to see this trend in the MCU using social commentary to inform their spectacles and make them resonate on a deeper level. I mean, most of the previous ten years suffered from telling over showing — with supposed “themes” outright stated by characters while no concrete action within the plot expresses it — but they’re finally doing it (more) and Far From Home definitely comes the closest to the spirit of 80’s-era satirical actioneers like Robocop and They Live, next to Winter Soldier.

Though, when you think about it, Mysterio’s posthumous victory was only possible because of Thanos’ posthumous victory. Wiping out half of all life across the universe may’ve been his intention, one that was achieved then subsequently reversed, but the psychological after-effects of “The Blip” (I’d rather they stuck with “The Snap” — ’cause that name sucks rotten eggs) still remained. The incident was so harrowing, worsened by the five-year discrepancy between those who survived and those who disappeared, that even Beck acknowledges it made people prone to believing any ridiculous scenario now. It’s what allowed him to execute his vile machinations and succeed. But, to tie all this up in a pretty little bow, there’s a line from Infinity War (no, I’m never going to shut up about it) that perfectly sums up the existential crisis the MCU (as well as our own world) is now afflicted by and that the Mad Titan (how fitting!) is responsible for:

Reality is often disappointing. That is, it was, but now reality is whatever I want it to be…


[Originally posted on 9/30/19 @ Medium.com]

Surfing The Netflix: BLACK MIRROR, Season 5 (w/spoilers)

As an anthology series, Black Mirror has never been perfect but — along with other shows like American Horror Story or Easy — it’s refreshing to have these self-contained stories as opposed to the currently popular trend of long-form storytelling that’s become exhausting in its overuse. Following its cancellation by BBC Channel 4 and adoption by Netflix, the overall level of quality seemed to drop with episodes as bad as the series premiere, “The National Anthem,” started to appear more often. Though the third season only had two episodes I’d consider particularly bad, “Playtest” and “Men Against Fire,” the fourth was nothing but terrible episodes and “Bandersnatch” managed to somehow be worse than them.

I couldn’t help but get this sense Charlie Booker had creatively exhausted himself, perhaps needing more guest writers to keep things varied, and was becoming more reliant on gimmicks as opposed to creating a thoughtful sci-fi morality tale. So, at first, I was dreading the new season — only to be relieved when finding they cut the number of episodes in half. Based on the plot summaries alone, it sounded like a case of getting back to basics as the speculative technology and human drama are intrinsically connected than dissociated with one another. It didn’t turn out exactly that way but it’s a step up from the previous season and definitely “Bandersnatch.” Though I think it started off a bit rough with…

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Striking Vipers

It’s basically Brokeback Mountain with immersive VR tech, but it could’ve been so much more than that.

The immersive VR tech is actually the least of my problems — it’s taking the concept seen in “Playtest” and fleshing it out a bit, for the better. It’s that the story never really moves past the premise of two guy friends having sex with one another as characters in a Street Fighter rip-off, only briefly touching on other subjects without really committing to them. One of them explains how great it feels to play as a female character when it comes to the literal cybersex, showing a sense dissatisfaction with being in a male body when outside of the game. You almost think it may end up dealing with body dysphoria and trans identity in an interesting fashion but…nope! It would’ve made the whole episode more eventful than stretching out what would otherwise be a half-hour’s worth of story.

If there’s anything I could compliment, it’s that the ending argues in favor of normalizing polyamory and extramarital trysts than demonizing them as abnormal. Monogamous relationships are fine if that is what the people involved want — but society has tried cementing it as the only way to be in a romantic relationship. It’s probably why, along with the rigidity of divorce laws in the past, so many stories involve an unhappy marriage with one or both individuals being unfaithful. It’s a way to tolerate a situation they feel unable to escape from without the general social and familial repercussions that would come about from such abandonment. They were not only sold on this idea of “one true love” but that it’d last forever — the reality, of course, is never that simple and accepting it would relieve so much anguish.

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Smithereens

The reason “Shut Up & Dance” is one of my favorite episodes is that, unlike so many others, it’s about the living nightmare that is our current internet culture. It didn’t need a sci-fi concept attached to get that point across when weirdly addictive social networking sites, trolling as a hobby, and harassment campaigns carried out by message boards filled with sadistic obsessives are all straight out of a dystopian cyberpunk story already. As time goes on, Satoshi Kon and Hideo Kojima (why, yes, I am a Japanophile!) are only further proven right in their cynicism about the internet. It was never leading to some New Renaissance but instead the further perpetuation of cultural detritus as well as a mechanism for which people are driven by their id, operating more on confirmation bias and self-validation than any self-proclaimed “logic” or “reason.”

Much like how I described “Striking Vipers” as “Brokeback Mountain with immersive VR tech,” I’d describe “Smithereens” as Collateral meets Phone Booth (I can’t be the only person who remembers them…right?) with contemporary internet culture as a theme but that’s meant as a compliment in this case.

There are things I could’ve done without, like the protagonist’s tragic background as the impetus for his actions or the cliffhanger ending that doesn’t punctuate the theme explored, but they weren’t deal-breakers. Because, even with those problems, it does enough right otherwise to make those minor issues whereas episodes from Season 4 were major due to their overwhelming presence. The premise should not have been a product of personal tragedy but of social alienation and the frustration with how internet culture has seeped into our reality for the worst. The best example being the protagonist’s anger over the performative empathy displayed by other characters throughout — touching on an issue I have with online interaction. A lot of times it can feel impersonal and insincere, based less on genuine connection than optics, that’s lead to the fetishization of concepts like “civility” while treating outright honesty as uncouth or even an act of aggression (something the episode “Nosedive” goes into as well).

It’s the same way I feel when someone I know personally wishes me a “Happy Birthday” on Facebook as opposed to calling me and having an actual conversation. Despite these sites literally being made to allow (as their descriptor implies) for social networking, often just make you feel more alone and disconnected from other human beings. It blurs the line whether there’s actually a person on the other end of a message and not just a well-programmed bot. What’s also profound is the realization that, though one can overshare details about their lives on them, you really aren’t heard on these social networking sites unless you’re a “somebody” and — if you’re a “nobody” — the only way to be heard is to ingratiate yourself to a “somebody.” That “somebody” here is the creator of the titular social networking site played by Topher Grace.

The episode could’ve gone the route where Grace was just another selfish Tech-Bro, but he’s not. You get a sense that he and the protagonists are, quite surprisingly, kindred spirits on two different sides of a social divide. While the protagonist is a victim to the everyday ramifications of an internet-addicted culture, Grace himself is a creator whose invention has grown so big and unwieldy that he can no longer control it while bound to the corporate bureaucracy that has formed from its ubiquitous use. It’s telling, when we first meet the character, that he’s interrupted during a sabbatical from media exposure and — when informed of the protagonist’s actions — is willing to have an honest heart-to-heart with him, moreso than those in the PR department who’re only concerned with damage control and keeping the company’s reputation clean. Yet even the PR people aren’t outwardly malevolent though, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, the worst kinds of evil are often committed for the most banal of reasons.

I wouldn’t claim it’s one of the best episodes of the series (it sure as shit ain’t “Fifteen Million Merits,” “White Christmas,” or “Hated in the Nation”) but, in this case, it is the best of the season. However, I actually enjoyed the next episode a lot more than most people — whose reactions were somewhere between annoyed befuddlement and intense loathing — but I can fully admit it was incredibly flawed as well…

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Rachel, Jack & Ashley Too

Okay, I did argue that Charlie Booker should bring in more guest writers to keep things varied — but Miley Cyrus wasn’t the kind of person I was talking about. Even if he alone is credited as the writer for this episode, it’s hard to not feel that the entire second half was self-insertion rebellious fantasy plotted by Cyrus herself. This leads to the story featured feeling as if it’s two entirely different tales haphazardly combined.

The first half, which is certainly the better one, is about the dangers of parasocial relationships and getting attached to an idealized public persona of an entertainer. The first of the three titular protagonists, played by Angourie Rice, is friendless and such isolation causes her to worship a pink-haired pop star to an unhealthy degree. She eventually twists her affable father’s arm into buying a kawaii robot (the third titular character) based on said pop star that only furthers her obsession to the chagrin of Rachel’s sister, the second titular character played by Madison Davenport, who feels she needs to accept the difficulties and disappointment of reality than withdrawing further into the naive optimism the pop star represents. However, what makes all of this interesting is that the pop star herself really isn’t the person she advertises herself to be — she looks uncomfortable and robotic in public interviews while acting like a female Trent Reznor behind closed doors, writing a lot of dark songs about suicide and alienation.

At that point, my interest was piqued. I was expecting this episode to make some poignant observations about the relationship between the audience and the artist as well as how capitalism manipulates both to their personal detriment — much in the same way BoJack Horseman brilliantly does — but none of that happens. As the second half rolls around, Miley Cyrus’ aunt becomes a cartoon villain who drugs her niece into a coma and tries to replace her with a realistic hologram…‘cause money, I think? Ashley Too, upon viewing a news broadcast of the pop star’s coma, short-circuits and requires both Rachel and Jack to fix it. It was bad enough Cyrus’ aunt turned into Snidely Whiplash but, apparently, these pieces of merchandise have a full digitalized copy of Cyrus’ mind that’ve been limited in function for commercial purposes. Like…what?

As much as I think Cyrus voicing a foul-mouthed robot is hilarious (I have a thing for ladies that talk like scurvy-ridden sailors!), proving she should do more comedy acting in the future, it’s a plot turn that feels as contrived as it is nonsensical. I like the idea behind such a development, having Rachel’s illusions about Ashley O crumble and trying to appreciate the artist as an actual person. They didn’t need a cutesy robot or even the Evil Aunt to make that point, perhaps having Jack help Rachel sneak into a hospital to meet an Ashley O recovering from an accident instead. Rachel would see her idol in a position of vulnerability and lacking the superficial veneer of glitz and glam. Instead, the story becomes a Disnified kid’s adventure with a very convenient happy ending and Rachel’s newfound appreciation of Ashley O as a flawed but talented human being isn’t really dealt with.

The problem isn’t that the ending is a happy one, it could’ve been and worked, but it needed an appropriate happy ending in the way “San Junipero” did — there was a precedent set and the final moments punctuated it. As I stated before, this feels like it belongs in an entirely different story. It’s a disappointing ending, to both the episode and this season of Black Mirror, but at least now I’m not dreading the next one…

[Originally posted on 7/23/19 @ Medium.com]

Surfing the Netflix: JESSICA JONES, 3rd & Final Season (w/spoilers)

Honestly, I think Jessica Jones—as a series — was ill-conceived from the beginning. It puts forth this premise of a hard-boiled private investigator who happens to be superhuman, in a world with many others like her, but she is rarely shown investigating and (following the most annoying trend in serialized drama) the long-form storytelling stretches out material that may work for an episode or two over a dozen. It’s hard to express how exhausting it is to watch, being so hyper-focused on one antagonist over a single season and having so much of the other “action” be…people talking. Incessantly. It all feels like a goddamn stage production instead of a live-action streaming drama involving superhumans.

I couldn’t help but imagine an alternate universe where every episode was self-contained with a case-of-the-week format much like Murder, She Wrote or Columbo. Perhaps it’d lead to other Marvel comicbook characters given an interestingly grounded live-action interpretation, each one either acting as the episode’s antagonist or seeking out Jessica’s help with a problem, while Zebediah Killgrave (who I like to call “The Grapist”) is only mentioned in passing before making an appearance in a season finale. That would’ve actually kept my interest, as opposed to suffering through another attempt to make the lightning that is Game of Thrones’ format strike twice (seriously, stop it already).

The third season doesn’t change the formula — it’s more of the same.

Though the grounded approach is appreciated, a refreshing contrast to the empty bombast of many Marvel films, it’s almost come to the point where a lot of the material — even when based on superhero comics — is almost indistinguishable from a typical procedural crime drama (albeit with very little procedure involved). It’s not that I want Rachael Taylor to wear an outfit slavishly faithful to her comicbook counterpart (even the show acknowledges how impractical and silly it’d be) but, like, just call her “Hellcat” once. Anything that shows some kind of acknowledgment of its comicbook origins than disdainful of them.

Would you believe me if I told you that Gregory Sallinger and Erik Gelden are actually based on comicbook characters? I can’t blame you, if not — I certainly didn’t think they were until I looked it up. It’s almost as if they were entirely new (bland) characters and just had the names of some lesser-knowns from Marvel’s catalog stamped on them afterward. Again, if they were restricted to a single one-off episode, I’d of tolerated it, but they quickly wore out their welcome. Just like Zebediah Kilgrave and Alisa in previous seasons. None of them could really carry an entire season, by themselves, but were forced to due to this rigid adherence to a narrative structure that wasn’t befitting the protagonist or their world.

Though, to be fair, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is comprised largely of characters originally conceived for film and television but has managed to keep my interest through both thick and thin. It’s the farthest thing from perfect — it took a while to get its legs and seasons can be bifurcated in terms of quality, with one half being better than the other — but the show is at least eventful. Even the other Marvel Netflix series like DaredevilLuke CageThe Punisher, and Iron Fist had more going on within a single season while having the same long-form storytelling format. More importantly, even if downplayed in presentation, none of them felt as begrudging as Jessica Jones does about its origins. It’s why they have a solid sense of identity than feeling like another anonymous entry in an overcrowded genre of tormented detective stories.

It’s baffling to me that the most interesting plotline running through the season wasn’t Patricia Walker becoming a vigilante, which the series had been building up since the beginning, but Carrie-Anne Moss as Jerri Hogarth trying to reclaim an old flame even if it means ruining her family. Despite being stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which would motivate others to make amends for those they wronged, she acts as if written by Ayn Rand and the most selfish piece of shit imaginable. Her opportunism is practically nihilistic, as she cuts ties to Jessica to defend Salinger as a way to save her law firm from going under or blackmailing Patricia as hired muscle to force someone into a legal agreement.

There’s something intriguing about characters diagnosed with a terminal condition, like Walter White in Breaking Bad, to approach it with amoral abandon than introspective regret. Within our society, it’s often a faux pas to speak ill of someone who may have (say) cancer regardless of their actual behavior — seeing someone like Jerri Hogarth presented as undeserving of anyone’s love or friendship, regardless of how horrible the state of her health, is almost cathartic. That’s not to say that she “deserved” to have such an illness (no one does) but that, when she uses it as an excuse for her terrible behavior, others rightfully call her out on how it isn’t a valid reason to treat others like garbage or to be immune to the consequences of her unethical actions.

Along with Detective Costa, Jerri Hogarth also represents how homosexuality should be portrayed in most media. She’s not dignified but nonetheless feels like an actual human being who isn’t entirely defined by their sexuality, it’s only part of her identity and not one that overshadows every other aspect of her personality. She’s a person who gets what they want yet, whenever attaining it, quickly becomes dissatisfied and looks elsewhere. The season reveals that it didn’t just begin within the first season of the show — but an intrinsic part of her behavior, well before it ever started. She starts off as an unfaithful partner and ends as the worst kind of homewrecker, airing out another person’s dirty laundry to the public and causing them to commit suicide…all because she wanted his wife all to herself, as even being an extramarital tryst in an open marriage wasn’t enough. To paraphrase a character from the film Bad Santa: her soul is dog shit, but it makes her the best character in this season as a result.

Usually, when people speak of a conclusion, they often use the phrase “it ended not with a bang, but a whimper” to evoke disappointment from a lack of impact. For me, Jessica Jones didn’t end with a bang or even a whimper but a yawn or maybe a snore. For all the problems I had with the first season of Luke Cage and Iron Fist, they upped the ante for their second season and the series finale in both manage to be quite exciting. Given it was inevitable that the shows would be canceled due to Disney wanting to take their ball and go home, it’s like the showrunners said “fuck it” and went all out as much as they possibly could. Jessica Jones, being the series to last the longest next to Daredevil, didn’t bother putting in even a third of the effort.

By the time Jessica and Patricia finally go head-to-head, it was too little too late and incredibly lame compared to the other final season smackdowns. The choreography and staging for the whole scene are basic and unimaginative, which doesn’t make the most of Patricia’s newfound cat-like reflexes even when stuck in a tight corridor. Her night vision, though it comes into play, falls flat when the “darkness” that surrounds Jessica isn’t present because the corridor is still dimly lit. It looks so ridiculous and moreso in a show that takes itself so seriously in presentation, which would pass me by in something light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek like Legends of Tomorrow if not being outright amusing.

If I am being as negative as I am, it is only because this show had a ton of potential and wasted it tragically by the end, rather than going out in a blaze of last-minute glory. I don’t hate the show (I’ve seen worse) nor would claim anyone on the crew was lacking in talent (again, I’ve seen worse) — otherwise, I would not have stuck with it from beginning to end just as I did Game of Thrones. Comicbooks are, to me, an art form that has long deserved to be taken as seriously as literature or cinema. I see adaptations like Jessica Jones, along with Daredevil, as a better way of proving that than many of the Marvel movies that only use and further perpetuate the least interesting tropes of the comics they’re based on. I want a version befitting cinema and serialized drama, playing to the strengths of those mediums, than simply a live-action comicbook.

I know Jessica Jones tried, it really did, and the effort is admirable but it would be dishonest to not express that the result was lackluster. I can only hope that Disney — instead of flippantly dismissing the series as some fluke — take notes on what the show did right and apply it to their future streaming series. Ever since Endgame, it feels like the sky’s the limit…

[Originally posted on 7/1/19 @ Medium.com]

Varying Degrees of Disappointment: Mini-Reviews for GRAVITY RUSH, THE LAST OF US, AXIOM VERGE, and LONE SURVIVOR

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Gravity Rush

There’s a lot of potential in the gravity-shifting mechanic so central to gameplay but, following inFamous and [Prototype]’s stead than Portal or The Talos Principle, is simply an amusing method of mobility albeit with poorly implemented combat.

That gameplay loop would be tolerable, were hostile AIs not the most non-commital and least creative of all monsters — nebulous black goo with glowing weak-points. It clashes with the aesthetics of Heksville, densely-populated floating city districts with art nouveau architecture and steampunk technology in spades, when something (likely troublesome to design and program) like malevolent robots would be more fitting with that setting. Though the plotline is as incohesive as the combat, interesting creative decisions are made including a sidequest of carrying out a full conversation with a married couple “unstuck in time” akin to Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan.

There’s this conceit that the protagonist, Kat, is in search of her past due to (of course) amnesia but that goal post keeps moving further back to the point it’s also part of the cliff-hanger. The game’s story is so episodic yet regularly reminds you of a mystery that is only hinted at further, often by characters who obviously know more but refuse to elaborate to play up the “Mystery Box” aspect, which only soured me despite a fondness for the visual presentation and admittedly charming cast. When taking the review by Ben Croshaw of the sequel into consideration — summarizing it as slightly different but still more of the same — it’s hard to feel enthusiastic enough to give a second chance.

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The Last of Us

If I can give Naughty Dog credit for anything, it’s that they understand cinematic language better than most other game developers (but especially David Cage). Whenever there was a cutscene, I could not help but find myself intrigued by the world and these characters — yet, unfortunately, the gameplay got in the way.

The combat and sneaking mechanics work perfectly fine (the game is never lacking in polish) but such sections are elongated to the point of exhaustion. Getting into gun-fights with post-apocalyptic highwaymen or quietly avoiding fungzies would be entertaining enough as brief interruptions but, when they go on for half an hour or more, it began to test my patience. This is not helped by the player character, Joel, being the most unlikable and least interesting person alive while Ellie, who is endlessly amusing and ridiculously adorable, tends to act as tag-along whom hostiles don’t acknowledge though her presence is what drives the plot. People may complain about escort quests in videogames but in cases like IcoDead Rising, or Resident Evil 4, they added a level of tension that would be lost with its omission. The dissonance is as distracting here as it was with Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite — we’re told of their importance, but their lack of ludic acknowledgment shows otherwise.

The saving grace, I suppose, is the ending with its disdain of closure as a narrative concept while reframing an act of heroism as selfish and even detrimental to the world itself. It’s a total downer with little sense of hope, but I can’t help but applaud sticking to such a creative decision. There’s too many a dénouement where poetic justice is dished out and everyone’s better off as though obliged, but that’s not the world we live in and need that reminder in post-apocalyptic fiction — otherwise it’s another insipid power fantasy that’d make Tyler Durden proud.

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Axiom Verge

Thomas Happ and I seem to share a good number of sensibilities: a fondness for the “Metroidvania” sub-genre, the aesthetics of H.R. Giger, and minimalist (almost obscurist) storytelling that’s less ludically dissonant than many other games. The fact he did all this by his lonesome is something that is both impressive and, to my shame, makes me feel quite envious I lack the skills to the same. I really, really wanted to like this game for all those reasons but can’t help but feel lukewarm about it.

It starts off well enough, introducing you to this truly alien setting — where the biological and mechanical are one, a place in which reality itself can glitch as if it was digitalized — with a clear sense of direction leading you to the first set of upgrades. The loss of interest came about when new modes of movement opened up and required backtracking, making me realize just how poorly-differentiated these levels are. They may have a distinctive background but the foregrounds are always these blocks, with a pallet swap from one area to the next, making navigation increasingly difficult as well as dull. Though the biomechanical alien nature of the setting was still appealing, the strange names for each section of the map — when coupled with the samey visuals — further dampened my enjoyment as I’d trek back and forth wondering where exactly I was or going to.

This wasn’t an issue I had in, say, Symphony of the Night as each area was entirely different and laid out in such a way that going between them didn’t feel like an arduous chore (except the clock tower with those goddamn flying Medusa heads). Even with the creative weapon selection, particularly how the Address Disruptor causes enemies to have their functions altered in numerous ways, it wasn’t really enough to keep me invested. But, all that said, I’m looking forward to whatever Thomas Happ has next on his plate…

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Lone Survivor

Much in the way Axiom Verge was an homage to Metroid, Lone Survivor is a love letter to Silent Hill — practically being a 2D remake of that game and its sequels (at least developed by Konami). As someone who liked that version of survival horror over Resident Evil’s cheesy take on the genre and always wanted more of it, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued enough to play it.

Unfortunately, like Axiom Verge, I become gradually soured on the experience the longer it went on. It wasn’t just the fact navigating endlessly similar corridors with rooms and branching paths, while constantly having to look at the map, is an exercise in annoyed boredom but that the game has less of an identity of its own than Thomas Happ’s title despite the comparable level of iteration. My eyes practically rolled out of their sockets when the titular protagonist finds a room with a woman he may or may not know imprisoned behind metal bars — it’s referential fan-service of the worst kind, next to most of the enemies being Cronenbergian meat puppets without faces.

Why be so slavish and just remind me of another game I already played? Why not use Silent Hill as an influence for something a little different? It doesn’t have to give me the moon or involve innovative gameplay mechanics — simply a work of Art that can stand on its own. Yet I can’t imagine why anyone would play Lone Survivor unless they were aware of Silent Hill, as its existence hinges on those games so much and there wouldn’t be much appeal to anyone not privy to its many tropes. Red Candle Games’ Detention, on the other hand, does not fall into this trap and — the atmosphere and folklore featured being symbolic of living under a military dictatorship, remembering the best monsters in horror are humans themselves — has a lot more to say than simply “I totally loved Silent Hill too!”

[Originally posted on 6/25/19 @ Medium.com]