Monthly Archives: July 2019

Zero Two

When I got my Game Boy Advance SP many years ago as a wee tween I was very excited about some of the games I could play. Obviously, there was Pokémon Ruby because, c’mon, you gotta catch ‘em all. Then there were the new slew of Mega Man games, like the Battle Network series, an RPG where you bounced between Lan in the real world and Mega Man in the digital, fighting viruses and the such in an adorably nascent look at cyberwarfare. More importantly, however, there was the Mega Man Zero series, a sequel of sorts to the Mega Man X games set a hundred years after and starring an amnesiac Zero, the deuteragonist of the original X games.

Zero was very much the Han Solo to X’s Luke Skywalker in the X games, the cooler secondary character (and sometimes villain, so maybe less Han). He became a playable character in X4 and offered a different gamestyle; eschewing X’s buster for his Z-Saber, requiring an even more agile approach. Anyway, in light of that, a series with him as the lead was naturally exciting to my younger self. 

After ranting writing about the games a couple weeks ago, I decided to replay them because, c’mon, they’re great games. So I bought myself a headphones adapter for the very same Game Boy Advance SP as a couple paragraphs ago. Sidebar: why the headphones? The Mega Man games have an excellent soundtrack and the Zero series is arguably the best of the best. They were mainstays for essay writing in college and are still great writing music, so of course I want to be able to re-experience those tunes while playing on the subway. If I’m gonna replay these games, I’m gonna do it right. 

And man, are they fun, in ways I don’t think I really appreciated sixteen-odd years ago. In stark contrast to a certain more recent iteration, the controls of the Z games are razor-sharp, the level design punishing but fair. When I die, I know it’s because I mistimed a jump or misread an enemy’s attack. The games are hard: you don’t have a lot of health and some enemies dish out a good chunk of damage. Compounding it all is the games’ grading system: after every mission, you’re assigned a rank and score, with points negated for taking too much damage, using a continue, or failing a part of the mission — amongst others. Wanna use a cyber-elf to increase your health or make your saber stronger? Cool, but good luck getting an S-Rank with that. You don’t need to clear a mission with a high rank, but it creates a fun incentive to be better at the game.

So I finished the original Mega Man Zero last week and started on the sequel recently. It’s a marked improvement over the first, far more refined and sleek looking. The first’s aesthetic was very worn, everything from the start menu to the character portraits are much more crisp in Z2. Game systems have been tweaked and refined; the stage select looks more like a ‘normal’ Mega Man game’s and unlockable forms that change Zero’s stats are added to switch up gameplay a little. Furthermore, learnable skills are now rewards for clearing a stage with a rank of A or S.

Where sometimes a big change is a great part of a new iteration of a game or what-have-you is excellent, Z2 is one of those that builds on what came before. Sure, the sprites are mostly the same and the core gameplay is essentially identical, but the effort is put instead into refining what already works.

I’m really looking forward to replaying Z3. Beyond being one of my two favorite Mega Man games (X5 is the other), it’s where things really reach their peak. The EX Skills and Forms from Z2 are carried over and a few other customization options are thrown in alongside some real fun stages and boss battles. As much as I enjoy playing new games, there’s something real fun about booting up an old one where I still have the stages half-remembered and appreciating it all over again.

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Cinnamon Tography

We live in a time that I’ve seen described as Peak TV, where there are these major shows that edge into cultural phenomena. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Black Mirror. Those shows that you’ve definitely watched or you certainly know people who have watched. There’s an almost cultish fanaticism to the whole thing; half the fun of following Game of Thrones was being up in the discussion around it, whether at work, at the bar, or in line at the grocery store. Everyone’s watching it, everyone’s talking about it. 

But there’s not a lot of people talking about Corporate, a darkly comedic satire about, well, working. Corporate follows Matt and Jake, two workers in the very corporate head office of Hampton DeVille, a possibly-very-evil megacorporation. The show merrily skewers a variety of facets of modern life, like commercializing protest, the military-industrial complex, and company retreats. The episode “Society Tomorrow” turns the show’s piercing lens towards Peak TV — and a whole lot else besides.

In the episode, it seems like everyone at work is watching this hit new show Society Tomorrow. It’s an ersatz Black Mirror, and what we see of it features people trying to escape the controlling influence of a futuristic watch-like device — which happens to look a lot like the StrapIn Hampton DeVille is selling. The thing that makes this episode so delightful is that Corporate isn’t content to just go after one facet of this whole thing but instead take it apart from every angle.

Shots are taken at spoiler culture, where there’s an HR meeting over an employee slapping another for spoiling an episode. Since this is satire, it’s the spoiler who’s at fault and not the slapper (the HR rep is also watching the show, naturally). The way characters try to suss out how far each other is in the show is an amusing dance, often to the point of ridiculousness as people try to talk about what’s going on without ruining it for each other. In a day when the entire series is dropped onto a platform at once (see: Netflix’s Stranger Things and Good Omens on Amazon), it’s almost a race to keep up with what’s going on lest a spoiler ‘ruin’ the experience for you.

Matt’s an ardent fan of the show, going so far as to have Jake drive him to work not so they can chat and hang out, but so Matt can watch it on his StrapIn. When he tries to get the eerily-prescient ads off his fancy gadget it locks onto his wrist, and he suddenly feels like he might just be in the situation the show describes. The StrapIn seems to be spying on him, what with its targeted ads and all, and maybe, just maybe he might be beholden to it (as are the characters in Society Tomorrow). Ultimately, however, convenience seems to be worth the sacrifice of privacy and Matt, like so many people in real life, decides to dismiss privacy concerns because, hey, ain’t it handy to have a device that helps you with your life?

The third skewer is aimed square at people not watching the show. Jake, it seems, is the only person in the office not watching Society Tomorrow. As such he’s ostracized by others in the office, a superior going so far as to tell him to take the day off and watch the show. During a conversation with the only other coworker who doesn’t follow the show, Jake wishes there would be another mass shooting, describing the drama and suspense of it all in much the same way one would a prestige tv show. It’s a quick jab, but the barb here is that this guy who’s acting all above it all and would rather discuss current events and other ‘real’ subjects treats the real world like a tv show itself. Later on, when questioned by coworkers in an interrogation chamber, Jake confesses that the main reason he hasn’t watched the show is just to be contrarian. The point Corporate makes here is that you’re not more ‘deep’ for not jumping on the latest bandwagon.

Finally, there’s how people try to speak so authoritatively about aspects of the show. People remark on the show’s excellent score and cinematography. Matt eager to give off the appearance of knowing what he’s talking about agrees that, yes, the “cinnamon tography” is so good. It’d be easy to mock people’s superficial understanding of filmmaking techniques and criticism, but that’s too lazy for the show. By positing Matt’s misunderstanding of the very word ‘cinematography’ the satire is aimed straight at the tendency of people who to parrot the praise of a work – without understanding it – just to feel a part of the zeitgeist.

The brilliance of “Society Tomorrow” is in Corporate’s ability to satire all of this at once. It’s not just the way we can try and find connections between fiction and real life, nor just the way we’ll feign understanding to sound intelligent. By mixing it all together, the show hits at everyone involved in any of the buzz around a major tv show. Everyone is complicit in the ridiculousness in one form or another, but then, we’re all also absolved. The buzz and hype around peak tv is just a part of modern life, so let’s make fun of it. And, as Corporate does in “Society Tomorrow,” do a good job of it. 

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Aegean Aexploration

Somehow, I’ve managed to clock in upwards of ninety hours in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey since I started playing it a couple months ago. I’m nowhere near done with the story; heck, I’m not even too sure I’m that far into it. This isn’t so much a case of my having lost the thread as it is a merry exploration of Ancient Greece and all the fun it entails. 

The lengthy playtime is especially impressive when one takes into account the fact that I’d just about given up on the series after Black Flag back in 2014. It wasn’t that the games were bad; I really liked the whole running around history, rubbing shoulders with important people, and stabbing bad guys (sometimes sneakily). Plus, there was this whole super-advanced ancient civilization and modern-day conspiracy narrative weaved into it. There’s a lot to like.

My complaints stemmed more from the games’ lack of polish. Revelations, the third game in the Ezio Trilogy that started in II and was the precursor to III (their numbering system is almost as bad as Kingdom Hearts), saw the action move from Renaissance Italy to Constantinople, but gameplay remained frustratingly samish and the narrative a stopgap. As awesome as it was running around the Grand Bazaar (and the fun context it would provide to my own trip to Istanbul a few years later), I didn’t really care too much about Ezio’s adventures and honestly couldn’t tell you the story now if I tried. Black Flag focused on pirates, which was really cool, but suffered from a similarly disjointed narrative hampered by how much fun sailing the open seas in a pirate ship was. I know Kenway had some adventure or other to be on, but there were ships to sink out here!

I missed the next few Assassin’s Creed games, feeling that my goodwill to the games was tied to being able to captain a ship. Odyssey appeared on my radar due to its RPG elements, ability to romance other characters, and finally finally featuring a female protagonist, albeit an optional one (but why would you want to play as Bland Dude #38 when you can choose Kassandra?). 

And I get a ship again, so there’s that too.

Oh, and it was on sale on Amazon.

Somehow, I’ve since clocked two entire workweeks exploring Greece, and I’m still not tired.

Why? I’m not terribly attached to this franchise, so why am I so invested?

I’m not so sure it’s the story. I get it in broad strokes, and I am onboard with Kassandra’s hunt for the cultists who ruined her life, though I could do with the fun of a little more detective work. Kassandra has a winning personality, owing much to Mellisanthi Mahut’s performance; she’s wry and, based on the choices I’ve made, not someone who cares about your sob-story so much as the drachmae. It’s pretty fun playing a character who’s above all the squabbling in the local city-state and just wants to get paid.

More than anything else, though, I think I’m just enchanted by the world the makers created. Sailing the Aegean and finding new islands somehow doesn’t get old (and I’m putting off exploring some places because I want some places left to uncover). There’s a cave with cultists, here’s the home of a Spartan leader I’m going to assassinate, I’m going to fight against the Athenians alongside the Spartans to conquer Malis (and get a share of the spoils). How sneakily can I infiltrate this fort?

In many ways, it reminds me of Breath of The Wild; it might not be quite as gorgeously lush as Hyrule, but, dude, I get a pirate ship. I loved Assassin’s Creed II for the catharsis it offered after a long day at work, and Odyssey is much the same. Here’s a world I can quite happily get lost in and find my own sort of fun for hours on end. Seems like there’s always something more to do.

I recently made port in the island of Keos and, upon finding a viewpoint to take in the island, couldn’t help but be delightfully enchanted by the place. I know it’s probably not all that different from the other islands in the archipelago, but there’s a part of me that can’t help but surrender to the wonder, to that little spark of glee at uncovering a new island and joy of adventure. Perhaps that’s why I’m really falling in love with Odyssey: the game lets me chart my own path, figure out my own path, and really explore this new world. There’s a new fort or cave behind every turn, and I feel like I did twenty years ago popping Pokémon Yellow into my GameBoy Color and uncovering its secrets. 

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Delicious Stakes

There’s a common maxim in storytelling stating something to the effect of how you should always raise the stakes. Don’t make it just a friend at risk, make it a sibling. Instead of it just being the neighborhood affected, have it be the town. If you’re gonna have to save a city, it oughta be a major metropolis like New York. And why stop at saving the city when you can save the world?

High stakes usually mean high thrills. The Battle of New York at the climax of The Avengers is epic because they aren’t just fighting for the city but the entire world too. Lara Jean’s predicament in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is so dire because it’s her entire high school reputation at stake. Inigo Montoya wants vengeance because the Six-Fingered Man killed his father, not a mentor or neighbor. 

And yet, sometimes there’s something so much fun about a story where the stakes are low. Too much life-or-death can be tiring; there’s a point where having every conflict with the Avengers being about saving the world where it starts to seem very same-old-same-old.

That might just be why Ant-Man and The Wasp is a movie that’s so delightful: the stakes are just so low. There’s no risk of some powerful tech/weapon falling into the wrong hands (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Guardians of The Galaxy) or some vengeful figure from the character’s past threatening the hero’s life (Iron Man 2, Thor Ragnarok, Captain Marvel). It’s not even the question of a Very Important Friendship that Civil War presents, one with ramifications for near everyone. 

The stakes at the heart of Ant-Man and The Wasp is the question of if Hank and Hope can rescue a Janet from the Quantum Realm. Complicating it is a Scott who wants to help but doesn’t want to violate his house arrest. There are also some villainous black market dealers and a woman named Ava who’s adversely affected Pym Particles. And that’s really about it, there’s no true villain; not in the way that Civil War presents flawed characters warring amongst themselves, but in a way that’s pretty, well, chill. By the end of it, everyone is more or less happy to get along with one another. 

Sure, the day’s been saved, but that just means that Janet’s been rescued from the Quantum Realm and they’re working on a way to stabilize Ava.

In a Marvel universe where the fate of the world is quite frequently at stake, it’s downright refreshing to have a movie where that’s really about it. No cataclysm, no Hydra takeover, just well, a small little side-adventure. It’s refreshing, especially sandwiched as it is between Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel (and then Endgame). Similarly, although Spider-Man: Far From Home does have some pretty high stakes, it feels kinda low compared to the existential threat that was Thanos. Sure, you’ve got these potentially world-destroying Elementals, but far more important is Peter’s relationship with MJ and his friends. These dumb villains are getting in the way of his vacation, man!

Honestly, it does feel like his friendships are the more important stake, and that’s okay. When it comes down to it, stakes only matter if we care about it and one way to make us care about it is to see a character care. When Peter frets about sitting next to MJ on a plane ride, we care about it too because we’ve invested in Peter Parker. Lloyd Dobbler and Diane Court’s relationship in Say Anything… isn’t gonna change the world, but it’ll change theirs. Daniel winning the tournament isn’t a life-or-death thing in The Karate Kid, but it’s the fruition of his relationship with Mr. Miyagi, and so much of the movie’s stakes are within the question of whether or not Daniel will be able to find a sense of belonging in the new town and, in turn, self-actualize.  

Perhaps the maxim is a little misguided. Bigger stakes are really only bigger if they mean something. The Earth is destroyed at the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy but that’s not really so much as important as poor Arthur Dent yearning for a proper cup of tea. The Earth is generic, but that cup of tea means everything. So really, the size of the stake doesn’t matter so much as it’s well treated and given the proper time it needs to stew. Then bam, your stake is delicious. 

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