Monthly Archives: November 2018

Mary Jane Watson

One thing I love so much about Spider-Man is how so much of the narrative can be stripped down to its archetypes. Peter Parker is an unlucky kid who’s suddenly had this great power thrust upon him. Otto Octavius is a genius scientist doomed for tragedy. And Mary Jane Watson is the girl next door.

A lot of the fun of the various incarnations of Spidey, be it different adaptations or reimaginings across the multiverse (see: Spider-Punk or Spider-Ham), is seeing how the play with the familiar narrative. Spider-Man is so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness that it’s a barrel of fun seeing what each new story will do.

All this to say I absolutely love Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man in the eponymous video game. Peter is a wisecracking twenty-something who always seems at the very end of his rope. Octavius is a down-on-his-luck scientist who genuinely wants to make the world a better place. And Mary Jane, well she’s a particularly great part.

The classic Spider-Man mythos is has a bit of a problem with its women. Gwen Stacy was, up until recently, best known for getting fridged by a death that haunts Pete. Mary Jane’s primary feature is that she’s the hot girl Peter has longed for for ages. This has been rectified a bit recently: an alternate universe Gwen Stacy was the one who got bitten by a radioactive spider and, upon finding out about the main universe’s Gwen’s fate, outright expresses disgust at being, and I quote, “fridged off a bridge.” The Spider-Gwen comics also had her confronting the fact that so many versions of Gwen Stacy die falling from a bridge and reclaiming that aspect of her character’s history. It’s all really cool and Spider-Gwen has long been one of the comics I most look forwards to.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man does work to make MJ more of an interesting character (though not to the extent that Spider-Gwen remains instructs Gwen Stacy). In this story, she’s not a model or actress, but rather an investigative journalist for the Daily Bugle. She’s someone who’s decidedly good at what she does, and her job gives her opportunity to get up close with the action.

In fact, it’s some such investigation into the rise of a new gang in the city that leads to her and Peter running into each other again. You, as player, are also given the opportunity to play as Mary Jane as she sneaks around. So not only is she given a more active role in the narrative, but the mechanics of the game are used to put MJ front and center. In games like Spider-Man playing as ay character is an important thing. Strong characterization is mixed with the immersive nature of games; the goals and fragility of the character become your own (consider how powerful it is in The Last of Us to play as Sarah during the opening).

Gameplay-wise, the MJ segments aren’t perfect. Compared to webzipping Spidey, MJ’s sneaking and waiting varies a lot in how good it is. Much of the action is very scripted, with there usually being one way to get through the stage which leaves little room for player creativity or choice. But they are heavy in atmosphere and shine the spotlight on MJ who, as it happens, is quite wonderful.

Her journalistic chops and contacts make her a valuable ally of Peter’s (she knows he’s Spider-Man in this one, which also means for a complex and interesting dynamic). She’s a bold character, someone who willingly sticks her nose in trouble, even when it’s inarguably a bad idea. Her relationship with Peter is a complex one; they were together for a while and have been broken up for a while when the game begins. What’s real neat though, is that even still there’s a mutual attraction; MJ isn’t some unattainable goal for Peter, they’re both really into each other and things just didn’t work out last time. This distinction is important: MJ’s not the prize for Peter being good at Spider-Man and/or life, she doesn’t date him because he does x-y-z to impress her; she’s into him, she likes him for, well, him. Their whole chemistry is very mutual. All in all, she’s an interesting character and is a delightful reimagining of her.

It’s always interesting to see how stories reinvent themselves. You’ve the retcon of how Captain Marvel got her powers from a few weeks ago that was really cool, for example. And Insomniac’s Spider-Man puts a spin on Mary Jane that made her into one of my favorite characters in the game. Her and Spider-Man’s friend in the NYPD, Yuri Watanabe. Also Aunt May’s really cool in the game too.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Normal Teenager Named Lara Jean

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before really feels like a classic 80s teen romcom, except it was made much more recently. It’s delightfully sweet, and has that uncynical honesty that readily calls back to fare like Sixteen Candles or Can’t Buy Me Love. Honestly, this movie is almost an anachronism, but a delightfully refreshing one at that.

Now here’s the thing, unlike all those 80s teen romcoms, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’s protagonist is Asian-American. Lara Jean Covey, played by Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American actress, is one of three sisters. Their Dad’s white, their passed-away mother Korean. This isn’t really relevant to the plot, it’s mentioned in passing here and there, and their dad makes a decided effort to blend some Korean culture (namely: cuisine) into everyday life. But beyond that, Lara Jean and her sisters are just typical Americans.

Point is, she’s really pretty normal.

Which is actually pretty unusual. Lara Jean’s narrative has nothing whatsoever to do with her identity. She just happens to find herself in the midst of some romantic comment shenanigans after some love letters that were never meant to be sent got sent.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is based on a book of the same name by author Jenny Han. Apparently, there was a few groups interested in adapting it to a movie, but they all wanted to make a change: make Lara Jean white. Han stuck to her guns and eventually a studio came along that was alright with keeping Lara Jean Asian (as, let me remind you, she is in the books) and so we got the movie.

Let’s focus in on just how ridiculous this is. You’ve a bunch of movie studios game to adapt a book, on the condition that the protagonist be white. Only one of the ones that approached her agreed to keep Lara Jean as an Asian-American. Sure, the story’s got basically nothing to do with her race, but that’s all the more the reason why it’s important for her to be Asian.

If you’ve read this blog for a while you probably know that I am a really big proponent for representation in fiction. So of course I want a character who’s a minority in the source to remain such for the adaptation. Especially when it’s a story where her race doesn’t come into play.

Yes, there’s a time and a place for ‘Asian stories’ and all that, but there’s also a space for stories about people-of-color getting to be normal. Look at all those classic 80s teen romcoms we love so much, everyone’s white. Kevin Bacon in Footloose, Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, John Cusack in Say Anything. There’s the implicit suggestion that those stories are their stories; sure, they’re meant to be everyman, characters who the audience can see themselves in, but there’s still this undercurrent of the everyman usually being a white dude.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel with any of its plotting. Yet it’s a delight of a movie, especially coming in an age when we really don’t have much in the way of romcoms anymore (Set It Up, also on Netflix, is wonderful too, by the way). Having an Asian-American woman as the main character, adds a small, cosmetic spin on things and makes these stories just a little more inclusive. So if we’re in the middle of a romcom renaissance, I’d like more of that too, thank you very much.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Poking Around

Games have rules and expectations. If you’re playing a first-person shooter, violence is the expected solution to most problems. A puzzle encountered in an RPG is going to have a solution, though it may be one you need to progress a little further in another direction to be able to solve. The rule of thumb in point-and-click adventures is that everything you can click on and inspect is gonna hold something of interest.

Say you’re playing Monkey Island and you’re stuck in a room. Somewhere in there is the key to your freedom. So you’re gonna click on everything you can to try and find the right stuff so you can say the right things in a conversation and get on with it. It’s the way it works, check all the things for things to use to advance.

Now, One Night Stand is usually classified as a dating sim, what with it dealing with the aftermath of a one night stand and having lots of conversations with choices for you to make that will net you one of several endings. Though there are strong elements of point-and-click adventures in it, as you are frequently given opportunities to poke around in the room you wake up in, and what you inspect can then unlock new dialogue options.

It’s a short game, and so befitting many playthroughs. The basic premise is you wake up in bed with someone after a drunken one night stand with no memories of the night before and have to figure out what to do. Do you just leave? Do you try to piece together what happened and play it off? Or are you forthright with her and admit you don’t remember anything? What’s gonna get you the ‘best’ ending?

Here’s the thing, although taking on the guise of an adventure game or dating sim, One Night Stand isn’t quite either. Sure, it’s got the mechanics of them, but the contract between the game and the player isn’t nearly the same.

One Nigh Stand has a decided rhythm. The girl leaves the room for some reason, you look around the room, she returns, you two talk. Repeat. You can only inspect so many objects while she’s out of the room, and they range from grabbing your clothes to leafing through her wallet to try and figure out her name. You have to choose what to prioritize in order to create the most meaningful interactions.

As I played the game it became apparent that there seemed to be a lot under the surface. One time I sneaked out of the house and saw her crouched over a toilet, throwing up. I figured that there had to be a way for me to help her out next time since that’s a rotten position to be in. On her bedside table are some earrings in a box, which she’s cagey about when asked. Same with the pills there. She has an interest in writing (as you can tell if you look at her notebook underneath the book she’s reading) but she doesn’t really engage if you ask her about it. Which, okay, got it, clearly I’ve gotta say the right things to get us close so she’ll feel comfortable talking about these things. Presumably then I’ll be able to get the Best Ending which, also presumably, would be a romantic one.

Yeah, no.

I played through the game being completely honest and was awarded with an ending where we parted ways as friends. But no matter how I played my cards I couldn’t get her to open up about her writing or earrings — in fact she would get straight up mad if I kept asking about it to the point where she’d throw me out. This threw me for a loop: those things are there, they’re meant to be investigated, why am I being punished for poking around? Why won’t she tell me what’s going on? I did the thing you do in these sort of games, so where’s my reward? They’re right there on her nightstand, why’s she made at me for looking through her personal stuff—

Ah. Right. It’s rude to go poking around like that in a relative stranger’s room. One Night Stand isn’t interested in creating some wild romantic fantasy, rather it lets you experience an awkward situation and the best result is for you to not be a jerk. You’re not gonna get brownie points for snooping, nor will gaming the system and faking a memory of the night before yield any outstanding results. Rather, being honest about not remembering the night before, getting dressed, and leaving as friends (without any romantic subtext) nets you the ‘best’ ending.

I think this is why I’m so charmed by One Night Stand. It subverts much of what you’d expect from a dating sim or a point-and-click adventure in lieu of letting you inhabit that awkward space — the game discards fantasy for quiet discomfort. The girl is not a prize for playing well; pretending to know more than you do won’t get you points. The point of the game isn’t to ‘win,’ but rather to be there and try and make do. It’s a unique experience, the sort you can really only get from a video game.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized