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Spotlight: Free Comic Book Day 2017

Spotlight: Free Comic Book Day 2017

This was written for and originally published on D. Bethel’s webcomic site, LongJohnComic.com.

Despite having missed last year’s Free Comic Book Day celebration at Empire’s Comics Vault, this year’s event passed like no time was lost. I’ll be honest, the main reason why I like to go back is to hang out for a day in a room with a bunch of people I know––some of whom I’ve known for years, a situation in which I rarely find myself. Personally, I looked at the event as a welcome reprieve as I had just collected about a hundred final portfolios from my writing classes (my day job) and had no problem delaying my head-first dive into them.

FCBD helped to delay the inevitable. D. Bethel at his desk with 97 writing porftolios. Photo by Shelley Blanton-Stroud

I was tabled between old friend and fellow webcomicker, Melissa Pagluica (who makes Above the Clouds), and artist Julie Okahara. All of us in our row were pretty much chit-chatting the entire time which made the time pass somewhat quickly (most of us had arrived by 7:30 am; it was a long day).

Because of the early hour, Ben (the owner of the shop) had allowed us to set up the day before the event. I fretted quite a bit with my table setup, but I ended up pretty happy with the final layout. Tabling at a show is an art in its own right, relying on visual rhetoric and some fundamental grasp on 3D design; I know a little about the former and go by feel for the latter. Ultimately, I was pretty happy with how it ended up.

D. Bethel’s table at FCBD 2017.

This event marked the debut of the Logan-inspired print, “Legacy,” as well as my sketch collection, BackMatter (which is now on sale in the store!) and though “Legacy” may not have been the most appropriate piece for this all-ages show, most people got a chuckle out of the Long John, volume 1 cover with kids pointing in shock, joy, or horror as they waited in line to grab their free comics.

Ben also allowed us who setup early the chance to grab what we wanted from the FCBD offerings, so I picked through having only glanced at what the titles would be.

Dan’s haul of the Free Comic Book Day books. Clockwise from the top left: 2000 AD, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I Hate Image, Guy Delisle’s Hostage (from Drawn & Quarterly), Bad Machinery, Boom! Studios 2017 Summer Blast, and Doctor Who.

So far, I’ve only sat down and read through Skottie Young’s I Hate Image, a short story featuring the protagonist from his hit Image book, I Hate Fairyland, and it is hilarious especially if you are familiar with some of the faces of key players at Image Comics. I’ve read through the Doctor Who book as well and found it a rather clever use of art to delineate different Doctors within the story. Bad Machinery was a surprise for me because I have been a fan of creator John Allison’s work for years back when he did a webcomic called Scary-Go-Round which he shuttered and replaced with a spinoff, Bad Machinery. While still doing webcomics, he has found success with the print comic, Giant Days, which he writes for Boom! comics. So, it was nice to see webcomics represented in the mix of Big 2 (Marvel and DC) and other major publishers.

I also picked up the most recent two issues of Melissa’s comic, which you can also get from her Etsy store (where issue 6 is on pre-order).

Issues 4 & 5 of Above the Clouds by Melissa Pagluica.

Lastly, I indulged in the very generous sale the store was having and picked up some books I had my eye on for awhile but never had the guts to take the plunge. I have not been shy about my love for the work of Becky Cloonan. I first really saw her work when she did a fill-in issue on Batman during the New 52 run and was blown away by her style. Soon after, I found her store online and bought her stuff, focusing on her single-issue short stories that are rather opaque but beautiful. These comics were called Wolves, The Mire, and Demeter. Opaque may be the wrong word for it; they’re just very sparse and open for interpretation. Reading her work is challenging and begs for re-reading. However, she has done work in more mainstream comics (as with Batman) in between her creator-owned passion projects. One of her early forays into sequential art was a series called Demo for Dark Horse Comics. Written by Brian Wood, it is a series of 18 stories each about a different teenager with a power of some kind. Since finishing, it has been made available in a big omnibus collection which I picked up at reasonable discount.

Books bought on discount at Free Comic Book Day (left to right): DC’s Wonder Woman, volume 1 (New 52) and Dark Horse Comics’ Demo.

Also, with the Wonder Woman movie arriving in June, I figured I should not be a poser and actually read some Wonder Woman. Of DC’s initial “New 52” launch (many books were cancelled and new ones introduced later in the New 52 lifespan), I remember hearing very positive things about what Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang were doing with Wonder Woman. At the time, I liked keeping my net shallow and the only New 52 book I read was Batman. But now that the New 52 is done and that story is completed, I figured that (with a sale, to boot) it would be the perfect chance to go back and check out this run on a classic character. I haven’t dug into it yet but Nicole––my spouse––has thoroughly enjoyed it so far.

I came away from the day exhausted with some good sales and even better conversations. With luck, I look forward to doing it again next year.

News Blast: Three X-Films Announced for 2018

News Blast: Three X-Films Announced for 2018

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

An article filed by The Hollywood Reporter revealed that 20th Century Fox has slated three movies set in its own X-centric (no pun intended) universe for 2018. While not the biggest of surprises, it at the very least hints at a big push by the Marvel Studios competitor for a larger share of superhero cinema profits. Hot on the heels of an announcement regarding Fox’s other major franchise investment––James Cameron’s Avatar series––revealing their release dates for the next three sequels, Fox confirmed that their blockbuster season will start with the newest entry into Fox’s X-world, and one that is a bit of a gamble at that.

Cover for The New Mutants, issue 1. Art by Bob McLeod. Courtesy of Marvel.

Announced to open on April 13, 2018, The New Mutants is in pre-production at the moment with Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) directing. The spring release date is a safe one as it allows it to miss much of the summer and winter blockbuster melodrama. This movie has had a lot of speculative casting in the news over the last few months, no doubt gearing up some excitement for a series of characters relatively unknown to the greater populace. The New Mutants were introduced in 1983 as the first major spinoff to the X-Men, bringing back the original conceit: a team of teenaged mutant heroes lead by Professor X. The movie is based on the early issues, specifically on a storyline called “The Demon Bear Saga,” that are well-regarded by fans and critics. The New Mutants eventually became a fertile playground for the notorious Rob Liefeld, who introduced characters like Cable, Deadpool, Domino, and Shatterstar, among others, in its pages. The series ended with issue #100 at which point the series was renamed X-Force. With an X-Force movie desired by the Fox bigwigs, they may be viewing The New Mutants as a stepping stone for that eventual film.

From the Deadpool 2 teaser shown in front of Logan. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

The hotly anticipated Deadpool 2 will follow with an early summer release on June 1, 2018. Summer is big business for blockbuster movies and Fox is clearly betting on the hope that Deadpool will be a contender (which it will very likely be). More importantly, it will be released just under a month after Avengers: Infinity War opens and a little over a month before Ant-Man and the Wasp debuts, placing it firmly in the middle of what Marvel is guaranteeing to be their summer (DC/Warner Bros.’s Jason Momoa-led Aquaman will be opening in July as well, making it a very busy season indeed). In contrast, the first movie was such an underdog contender, it was released at one of the slowest box office points of the year––February––so the new release date definitely shows the confidence the studio has in the character and its creative team. Deadpool 2 recently made the news rounds with the rather surprising casting news that the MCU’s own Josh “Thanos” Brolin will be playing Deadpool’s time hopping straight-man, Cable, which paved the way nicely for this scheduling announcement. As mentioned on the site previously, even though Deadpool 2 has had its share of hiccups during pre-production with the exit of original director, Tim Miller, and taking with him original composer, Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL, the studio filled the open seat with John Wick director, David Leitch, and things are moving full steam ahead.

Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) &  the Phoenix Force in X-Men: Apocalypse. Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Finally, the next ensemble X-Men film, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, has been given an opening date of November 2nd, 2018. This is perhaps the most surprising film in the announcement. With the critical and financial wobble that X-Men: Apocalypse had last summer, the future of the franchise was in question among critics and fans while the studio was also being rather quiet. Secondly, while both long-time X-Men director, Bryan Singer, and long time X-Men writer/producer, Simon Kinberg, have hinted at different directions to go with the next film, the reveal of the title in this announcement solidified their direction and ended much speculation since “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is likely the most famous X-Men storyline in its history. One can assume that Game of Thrones star, Sophie Turner, will reprise her role as Jean Grey, but it leaves fans to wonder how much of the other cast will return considering the slapback X-Men: Apocalypse received. While winter is not nearly as fiscally important a season as summer, it is the second largest period for income-generation with, in the past, large franchises like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter opening in November or December. Given the current slate of Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Bros. movies, it looks like, for now at least, X-Men: Dark Phoenix may have fairly light competition. Currently, Simon Kinberg is the favorite to direct, which would mark his feature directing debut, taking the helm from Bryan Singer. This film stands to be the most interesting of the three, as we wait to see how the success of experimental films like Deadpool and Logan influence the overall tone and approach to the now 17 year-old franchise.

While such an X-heavy year may point at a renewed interest in creating a shared universe between the films––that is a natural response to this type of schedule since it is basically what Marvel has done to establish its own––that is probably more speculation than likelihood. If we can pull anything from this schedule it is that despite the public lashing X-Men: Apocalypse took, and with the success of Deadpool and Logan, Fox is willing to put more faith and muscle behind their Marvel franchise in the face of Marvel Studios’ general dominance in the last decade. This is important because, in the wake of that cinematic giant, Fox seems to be finding its own path and voice and is making a different animal rather than just playing in the shadow of what’s been done before, and the new ideas that Fox has recently brought to the table are things that people seem to enjoy. With hope they keep experimenting and help keep the superhero movie genre on its toes in general.

News Blast: Star Wars Celebration 2017!

News Blast: Star Wars Celebration 2017!

This weekend was Star Wars Celebration Orlando, the twelfth instance of the Star Wars Celebration experience. Star Wars Celebration is usually an opportunity for fans to get together and talk about their love of Star Wars. Of course, it’s also a great opportunity for the people that make Star Wars to unleash new content onto the world. This year was no different.

Perhaps the biggest news is the revelation of a trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi:

The Internet is already abuzz over the release of the first trailer for Star Wars: Episode 8: The Last Jedi. Mark Hamill drives the trailer as Luke Skywalker, providing the overall narration and a lot of heavy context to the “Last Jedi” aspect of the title. It sounds like the film will address the “balance of the Force” theme that first appeared in The Phantom Menace and has been further explored in Season 3 of Star Wars: Rebels. I’ve already spent an undue amount of time trying to determine if Tom Baker found his way on to the cast list, given his role as the Bendu in Star Wars: Rebels. With a release expected this December, there’s already a lot of fan excitement developing for this title.

“Jedi and Sith wield the Ashla and Bogan. The light and the dark. I’m the one in the middle. The Bendu.”

In addition to the Episode VIII trailer, a preview for the upcoming fourth (and final!) season of Star Wars: Rebels was also released:

For those not following Star Wars: Rebels, it is the story of a cell of rebels fighting the Empire that become an essential part of the Rebel Alliance. The show has continued to provide a background for the formative years of the Rebel Alliance, and this final year appears to be no different. Season 3 villain Admiral Thrawn makes an appearance in the trailer (with what appears to be a silly General Veers style helmet) as does Katee Sackhoff’s character Bo-Katan, who was previously seen in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Forest Whitaker’s character Saw Gerrera also appeared briefly. With regard to thematic content, it appears that they will be addressing both the “balance of the Force” theme and the battle for Mandalore (which was an element of Sabine’s storyline from Season 3).

Probably the only character not featured (despite claims that her fate would be addressed) was Ahsoka Tano. As /Film’s Peter Sciretta points out, showrunner Dave Filoni seemed to tease the audience with a clever t-shirt swap during the Rebels event last weekend.

For not saying anything about Ahsoka during the event, he certainly seems to have said a bunch.

Given everything Star Wars that was unleashed in Orlando, it looks like 2017-18 will be a relatively big year for the franchise.

 

Week in Geek: Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo 2017

Week in Geek: Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo 2017

In what may be a first for the website, a Week in Geek post will go up before its associated episode (link will be broken until Friday). When writing up responses to an exposition or convention, however, timeliness is key. For the second year in a row, I attended the Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo which is held in West Sacramento (a different city than Sacramento, believe it or not; in fact, it’s in a separate county). It’s still a small show but they are able to cram a lot of developers––40 in all, both video game and tabletop––into the two large rooms (and then some) dedicated to the event. A variety of game styles and platforms were on display; the most numerous were mobile/tablet games with a fair VR representation as well.

Though there were a lot of games, the few that really drew my attention are discussed below (games are listed in alphabetical order, not in order of judgement nor preference):

Beat The Game

by Worm Animation

Described as an adventure game meets a music sequencer, what caught my attention was the visuals, which reminded me of a comfortable amalgam of Double Fine’s Psychonauts and a Tim Burton creation. The build I saw seemed very rough still, but its ambition was clear and impressive.

Concept art from Beat The Game. Image courtesy of Worm Animation.

Ostensibly, the player character travels through this apparent open world collecting music samples that are inventoried. Once a set amount is collected, the player must arrange the samples in a way that pleases the gatekeeper/boss (I have forgotten who it was that judged you) in order to move forward.

Mixing samples together is a puzzle mechanic in the main game as well as a creative endeavor in a free-play mode. Courtesy of Worm Animation.

I was told that there was also a kind of “free play” mode where you could arrange the samples in any way you wanted for an in-game, virtual audience. Though I don’t remember the details, the awareness and availability of the primary game mechanic for use as not only a narrative-progression tool but also for personal expression intrigues. I wonder if you’ll be allowed to mix down and export the sequences you arrange, which would definitively be a bringing together of the two disparate genres.

Black Future ’88

by Don Bellenger

Black Future ’88 is a spritestravaganza. Courtesy of Don Bellenger.

This was the first game I saw at the show and despite it being, I would guess, about 50-60% unfinished, it looked impressive. Like a lot of the games I stopped at, this game takes a retro, sprite-based platformer and tries to plug some interesting mechanics into what is possibly a tired format. Aesthetically, it looks like a cyberpunk Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with some very expressive animation for the player character.

The premise is that the character needs to ascend the Monolith, a tower whose authored rooms are procedurally arranged as the player progresses upwards.

Fast game is fast. Courtesy of Don Bellenger.

What’s unique is how combat works, though once you become aware of Bellenger’s inspirations it makes a lot of sense even if initially not, perhaps, for a 2D platformer. The character is armed with a gun and a secondary weapon (more guns) and varieties of firearms drop from defeated enemies along the way. However, there is no “fire” button. Instead, the game works more like a twin-stick shooter like Enter the Gungeon or, if we’re relying on my frame of reference, Smash TV. But putting that mechanic into a 2D platformer is novel and seems to work quite well. The mechanics for shooting in this game feel tight, visceral, and fast and I want to say it may be due to its lack of a button-press to shoot. The shooting in Black Future ’88 is less about holding the right stick in the direction of the enemy and more about flicking the stick in the direction of the enemy. The player doesn’t really have time to plant and send out a barrage of ordnance; you have to keep moving much like you would in a bullethell game like Enter the Gungeon or, what it also brought to mind for me, something like Gradius or R-Type, which is another aspect of that genre the game integrates pretty well.

Like the space ship shooters I mentioned (“shmups” if you will), the enemies in Black Future ’88 send out less waves of bullets meant to kill you quickly and more slow-moving mazes whose walls can hurt you and through which you must find the opening (or, if left with no other choice, dash through). These come at you from all directions, so you must keep the character moving, sending out attacks when you can. With these different pieces coming together in a very functional manner, it created––even in its unfinished state––a frenetic and stylish experience.

 

Frauki’s Adventure

by Preece

Where you start the game as well as where you spawn after every death. Courtesy of Preece.

Of the games I saw at the show, Frauki’s Adventure took me most by surprise. The Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo is still a fairly small event with the majority of developers spread through two large rooms––basically two large multipurpose rooms––where tables are crammed together leaving a fairly small avenue for passersby. When I first arrived, I snaked my way through both rooms before heading up to the blackbox theater to see who the next speaker was and as I walked through the first room, I passed by Frauki with nary but a glance. There was no signage nor patient person waiting beside it, eager to explain the game to a potential player. It was kind of just…there. It was set up spread between two small monitors, from beneath each wormed a knockoff USB Super Famicom controller. I have to say, the initial glance didn’t do much for me.

Frauki’s Adventure is, like Black Future ’88, a 2D pixel sprite-based action-exploration platform game, again in the vein of something like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Metroid. Unlike Black Future ’88Frauki was bright and colorful and didn’t have the grimdark edge that a lot of other games had. Nor did it have any of the irony that other games who go for the more twee-cute aesthetic often have, either. Frauki’s Adventure is actually quite earnest.

So, I walked by.

Later, I walked through the rooms again to see what the crowds were like and if any games were open to poke at. The VR stations clogged up much of the traffic and I was left standing in front of Frauki and, on a whim and out of boredom, I pushed a button on the controller. In all honesty, I did so out of curiousity for what the quality of the gamepad was like; if it had been solid, I would consider buying one for my own uses (it was not very good quality). But when I pushed a button, Frauki jumped. It was a good jump. It had the right response off the button-press and, when she landed, her stylish bob danced at her jawline for a few frames. In animation, we call this “secondary animation” or animating a reaction (in the clothes, hair, anything loose on a person) to the primary movement of a character. Secondary animation is viewed mostly as the key to unlocking believability in your characters. It’s a subtle form of exaggeration that makes a figure feel more real because it’s interacting with gravity in way that a body mostly does. In video games––especially a lot of 8/16-bit sprite animated games––it’s rarely done. Symphony of the Night has some. When you make Alucard crouch, it takes a second for his cloak to hit the ground, for example. And in Frauki her hair simply bounced as she landed on the ground and it had my undivided attention.

Some well animated and programmed action awaits in Frauki’s Adventure. Gif courtesy of Preece.

It speaks overall to the careful attention the developer puts into the game. Admittedly, a lot of it still kind of looks unimpressive at first glance, but if you move around, the world breathes, metaphorically, and you kind of don’t care if anything doesn’t immediately match your aesthetic.

Mechanically, the developer said it was inspired by his two favorite games, Mega Man X and Dark Souls, so I assume punishment and/or extreme challenge is in order.

What stuck with me as I played it, aside from being surprised at how much it charmed me, was that it felt good to play. There were some performance issues––it’s an alpha after all––but I found it eminently and immediately playable and it became the game I was thinking most about after leaving the show, even though I know if I showed people screenshots or perhaps even video of the game, it may not be enough to persuade anybody. The game sells itself when it’s played. The earnestness, craft, and gameplay of Frauki’s Adventure hit an open chord in me, and I look forward to playing it again.

The Rabbit and the Owl

by formal sheep

The Rabbit and The Owl title card, giving a glimpse of its painterly style. Courtesy of formal sheep. Click to enlarge.

This game was at last year’s Indie Arcade Expo and although I somehow missed it, it is a high-gloss puzzle-platformer that is very much in line with a lot of the interesting puzzle-platformers released in the last five or six years. I’m not saying it’s not original, in fact I mean the opposite. It is exactly as creative and interesting as the rest, which puts it in good company. It’s incredibly stylistic, relying on storybook art direction than on the jagged edges of pixel art sprites. Its mechanics are simple––jumping, lever-pulling, some cursor work. It’s goal is simple: get The Rabbit and The Owl to their respective goals.

It’s a two-player cooperative game where one player controls The Rabbit––the white figure––and the other player controls The Owl––the black figure. The screen is broken up into light and dark avenues which criss-cross each other; the white Rabbit lives in the dark realm, the black Owl lives in the light realm and they can only travel within those realms, never crossing over (as far as I saw). The specific goals each one has to get to is often blocked by the intersection of the other character’s world, but those are moveable by way of pulling a lever. So, if the Rabbit is blocked by the bright wall of the Owl’s world, the Owl is most likely able to reach a lever that, when pulled will move it out of the way (usually for the Rabbit to reach her own lever to pull it and open a path for the Owl).

Things can get complicated. Courtesy of formal sheep.

It’s this clever puzzle solving that reminds me of everything from Braid to Monument Valley to even LIMBO and this game fits right into that milieu.

Unearned Bounty

by Extrokold Games

Title card for Unearned Bounty. Courtesy of Extrokold Games.

Unearned Bounty was another game I judged or, more accurately, codified on first glance before trying to walk past it (again, blocked by traffic). It is a game with a very slick aesthetic: cartoony, bright, silly sounds and a slick user interface (UI). It seemed like a mobile game; it had the low-poly/high-style look to that seemed like it could easily be a mobile game aimed at micro-transactions and fun but unchallenging gameplay. As with other games this year, I ended up being quite wrong.

Instead of being a on-the-toilet game, it’s actually best described as an arena shooter, a related but distant cousin to something like Nintendo’s Splatoon, but instead of being team-based––though that can very well happen––it’s a free-for-all timed shootfest where the player is trying to accumulate as much booty as possible. Instead of being first-person with a gun sticking out the bottom of the screen or a third-person run/cover/gun shooter, you’re a pirate ship on the high seas trying to blow up other pirate ships. What the developer wants––and I could see it happening––is with so many ships on the board (I forget the player count), and for the fact that the game tags the ship currently in first place (which, if you take it out, you get a bigger bounty), players will form temporary alliances and break them and backstab and do all the things pirates do in order to end as the richest scallywag.

Unearned Bounty’s colorful and cartoony aesthetics are polished and charming. Its UI is particularly slick. Courtesy of Extrokold Games.

What intrigues about this choice is that it automatically modifies traditional third-person shooting tactics because your main weapons shoot sideways, so your direction and physical alignment is key and so incredibly different from most (all?) shooters out there. Secondly, because you’re a sailboat on the water, movement is much slower (though not boring) than most people are used to. Controlling the movement––slowing players down––I found increased the tension and excitement of the gameplay rather than stifling it. With accumulated money, the player can upgrade the ship to do more damage and, I assume, protect from it, but it’s mostly a game about hunting down other ships and laying your cannons into them.

The developer mentioned games like League of Legends not necessarily as inspiration but for the type of crowd he was going for––online competitive multiplayer fanatics. I immediately thought of Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, remembering how enjoyable (and similar to this) their ship combat was. They were likely the best parts of both of those games, so it’s nice to see people recognizing that and doing something with it. I do wonder if the game will find its intended audience, though; I’m guessing it’ll skew a bit younger because, with the cartoony aesthetics and sense of humor, I think the young and pre-teen crowd are going to find consistent solace in ships helmed by the likes of “Captain Toots” and “Captain Hornswaggle,” but I hope it finds who it’s aimed at because it’s a game with a lot of strategic possibility if only because of its complete uniqueness in a sea (apologies) of shooters.

*******

This year’s Arcade Expo yielded a more satisfying experience for me than last year. I went this year having seen the speakers list beforehand and intended to basically sit in the blackbox theater the entire day watching people talk intelligently about games (the speakers’ talks have been archived in audio form by the International Game Developers Association of Sacramento). Instead, I found myself on the floor talking intelligently about games with people whose hands were in the mud, making clay. The point being that it wasn’t that I was particularly surprised by the games I wrote about above; it’s more that I allowed myself to realize that––to an obvious extent––the true discourse of independent games cannot be summarized by sitting in a rather comfortable folding chair in a black box theater, watching people sweat under a bright spotlight; it’s down in the multipurpose rooms where asses accidentally get pushed into the faces of people sitting in front of monitors, where people swinging wildly wearing VR headsets cold cock the PC tower that’s running the game, where you have to lean in to hear the soft-spoken developer who has been slowly crafting his small game on the weekends for the last year and a half tell you, “No, it’s not a whole lot like Zelda, actually.” It’s into this mud that I, as a player and intellectually curious critic, hope to wade a bit deeper next year.

Worth A Look

Worth A Look

I have always had too many hobbies, especially when I was younger. Like a lot of people, some of these fell away for awhile, some of them I picked back up for nostalgic reasons or with a new appreciation. Some have been left behind. For me, one passion remained constant throughout (aside from writing). With comic books, I stopped reading them for over a decade. Sure, there was the occasional trade paperback here and graphic novel there, but there was a long time where I checked out of the culture and community for good (until I was drawn back in, pardon the pun). With regard to other nerdy passions, I started playing music rather late and I basically stopped drawing for a long time before starting up my first webcomic in 2007.

But my oldest nerdy pastime––one that never went away––has been playing video games. I’ve always kept in touch, I’ve always had an ear to the discourse, and I’ve always followed the developments. It’s strange, then, that I never really thought about video games critically until relatively recently. Until I started using the tools I was practicing as a college student and graduate student, I never really absorbed games as statements on (or of a) culture.

However, there were a few times when I played a game and recognized that there was something more here, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it. Metal Gear Solid was one (as was Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater after it). Another was Shadow of the Colossus. There was also Red Dead Redemption. When Red Dead was released, my excitement was tempered with shock because as a fan of its predecessor, the Playstation 2 game Red Dead Revolver, I had no idea that it garnered enough attention to warrant a sequel––not from the fans nor from the industry. But I greeted it with anticipation and my reaction to it was on par with most people who played it––I loved it.

Image Source: Bullet Points Monthly

It felt big and cinematic, the story felt important, but what it was trying to say eluded me if only because I wasn’t thinking about that with regard to games. More importantly, I wasn’t quite sure about how to analyze a text like this. My instinct when it comes to fiction is to be enveloped by its tone and characters. Though I had become more critically aware of movies and books (what with my English degrees), such skepticism never leapt the barrier into video games.

Now, as a neophyte pop culture critic, I would like to analyze this medium but worry if I could do so as objectively as I would like. It is one of those “special” games to me, a pane in a stained-glass assemblage that is my personality, nostalgia, and taste. Furthermore, so much time has passed since its release that I wonder––with all the developments in the technology and expectations––if I could go back to it without some immediate deconstruction of my love for what made this game great in 2010.

Furthermore, most of the conversation around the game has been cultural rather than critical. Most discussion I come across is done by those who love it like I do, so the talk is mostly about how it has become “the game of its generation” or how video games can have impactful, cinematic storytelling while also being good games. While I don’t disagree with those sentiments, I haven’t found any real conversation around the game that delves deeper than a nigh dilettantish affection for the game, so I let more time pass and the possibility of actually developing a thesis around it slip away.

And then I found the brilliant podcast, Bullet Points. In a way, linking to Jess Joho’s article is a slightly veiled excuse to gush about the Bullet Points podcast and its long-form criticism companion site, Bullet Points Monthly. The core of Bullet Points is the trio of critics Ed Smith, Reid McCarter, and Patrick Lindsey who all write freelance for a variety of different culture sites. Their monthly episodes bring in assorted guests (such as Joho) and, together, approach video games new and old with an intelligent, skeptical scalpel that makes for an engaging listen. Each episode focuses on one game (ostensibly their focus is games with shooting mechanics, hence the title) that they all play and come to the recording session with their individual critical takeaways from the experience. Bullet Points Monthly contains articles written by the hosts with one guest contributor to hone their experiences into deft and penetrative articles about the game to be discussed on the upcoming podcast episode.

Back to Red Dead Redemption, their talk about the game (Episode 24 of the podcast) immediately gave me what I was looking for, which also pointed to article Joho wrote for the discussion and is also a perfect example of what I hoped to see in the discussions about this game––an incisive dissection of what this game means:

Red Dead Redemption doesn’t just portray a revisionist western story. The game itself plays like it’s a revisionist western cowboy on a quest to erase the past misdeeds of its genre—only to perpetuate those same misdeeds under the guise of revisionism or redemption.

It gave me a place to start, critically, with which I can go back to the game without the worry of being dragged down by old controls or distracted by out-of-date graphics. A lot of times their discussions touch on cinematic criticism or literary criticism but never as a crutch. Instead, they are citing those critical fields as peers to the texts being discussed on the podcast, which is exactly a tenet Andrew and I yearn to do on this very website with a similar general theoretical approach. If Bullet Points continues to do more writing and discussion like this, then I am even more excited for not only what other games they turn their attention toward, but also what I will have to say about games in the future, because it’s one of the first times in a while where I’ve been inspired to go play a game with a critical eye. It’s as if hearing them do it––and do it so well––finally gave my brain the permission to hop the fence and give this thing called video game criticism more of a shot than before.

Canon has been an undercurrent of a lot of what Andrew and I talk about on the podcast lately, though not necessarily whether it’s good or bad, necessary or fanciful. There is no doubt that canonizing properties has been a long-standing tradition for a variety of reasons: first, a continuity helps keep future iterations and sequels in line so that the thematic or tonal essence of a property is preserved; second, that universal structure helps to also solidify, as Mike Chen notes, “the backbone of a community” as well. This has been put to the test in the last decade.

From the dissolution of the Star Wars Extended Universe by Disney to the increasingly interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, canonicity has become an important talking point in the nerdy-geeky world in some form or another. Both Marvel and DC, in their comics divisions, are struggling with it; it’s hard to decide whether the best move is to honor the canon established by including the upwards of seventy years of existing stories (for some) or to start anew and revised in a clean cut with the hopes of attracting new readers to old characters made relevant once more. Either way, our tendency towards canon development fosters in readers a deep attachment to the characters and their stories. While the emotional importance of canon among fans is undeniable, and is something that Mike Chen paints with affection in his article, he touches on what I think is the more damaging––and therefore more pertinent––side of canonicity: gatekeeping.

Grand Admiral Thrawn. Artist: Tony Foti (from Star Wars: The Card Game)

I am on the verge of arguing that gatekeeping mentalities are at the heart of the problems that are tearing the nerd world––and, by proxy, popular culture––apart. As these properties and franchises expand outward from the once niche pocket of fandom to greater cultural acceptance (something we all wanted in the first place), it is admittedly hard for some fans to accept that people that have only watched the Marvel movies can call themselves fans of Marvel.

But here’s a fact: they are.

But so many of us try to keep people like them out. Post-2005 Doctor Who fans. Fans who discovered Star Wars with the prequels. Abrams’ Star Trek fans. Mario fans whose first game was Super Mario Sunshine. For some fans, any of these people should have their fandom challenged and tested by their own twisted metric, but it means nothing. As much as we would like to––and as much as we already assume to––have ownership over the properties we have built the core of our personalities around, we simply do not. Passion and fervor, while important for the survival of a fiction, are not authors of it nor the metric for deciding who gets to like it. We cannot decide who gets to love movies, games, cartoons, comics, and television shows. Besides, what good does keeping people out do? If anything, Chen argues that it could even damage our identity within a culture:

[G]eeks often discover their passions while searching for some form of acceptance. With geek culture exploding into the mainstream over the past decade, it often becomes less about ‘are you a fan?’ and more about ‘how much of a fan are you?’ But fandom—the enjoyment of creativity and art—shouldn’t be placed on some finite metric to be analyzed and judged, as long as it’s being expressed positively.

Being a fan of the Marvel comics is not the same as being a mason, nor should it be, with tests to administer and rituals to memorize. They are meant to be enjoyed; again, what good does it do to actively damage a person’s enjoyment of something you or I enjoy so much? Instead, we need to look at things like canon as what it is: fiction. And fiction is meant to be fun. I don’t know about you, but even if someone comes to a fiction later than me or for different reasons than me, if we’re all enjoying it then it’s elevating not only the culture as a whole but, if I were to be honest, also my enjoyment of it.

News Blast: Mass Effect Review Round Up

News Blast: Mass Effect Review Round Up

This week saw the release of the long awaited “next title” in Bioware’s popular Mass Effect series: Mass Effect: Andromeda. For any number of reasons, Dan and I are far from the “cutting edge” of video game playing; I have no plans to play the game soon and Dan will start playing it this week.

That being said, the game has attracted its fair share of reviews, commentaries, and discussions. A lot of the internet is abuzz over the game, with many reviews acknowledging the games strengths but also admitting a healthy share of weaknesses. Erik Kain from Forbes even called it the “worst-reviewed game in the franchise.”

No matter how beautiful the planet, somebody has something negative to say…

From IGN‘s Dan Stapleton:

Mass Effect: Andromeda is an expansive action role-playing game with a few great moments that recapture the high points of the landmark trilogy that came before it, and energetic combat and fantastic sound effects contribute to a potent sci-fi atmosphere. Without consistently strong writing or a breakout star in its cast to carry it through the long hours and empty spaces, however, disappointments like a lack of new races, no companion customization, and major performance problems and bugs take their toll.

From Kotaku‘s Patricia Hernandez:

The plot and structure of Mass Effect: Andromeda can be viewed as a metaphor for the game itself, where a population eager for a fresh start makes a leap into a new frontier. The destination isn’t the paradise we hoped for. For our characters, Andromeda required a leap of faith, the belief that the universe must hold more for humanity. Nobody anticipated how much work building a new home would really take, and in a way, the entire game is about mitigating everyone’s disappointment. The truth is that Andromeda itself isn’t the promised land players hoped for either, but there is a lot that’s good in this flawed new frontier for Mass Effect.

From Polygon‘s Arthur Gies:

Let’s be clear: I’m conflicted about Mass Effect: Andromeda. There’s a lot of roughness throughout the game, and the technical issues, while not game-breaking, are often incredibly distracting. But it’s my time with the cast that I’m still thinking about, and the mysteries about the world that haven’t been answered that make me feel like I’m waiting once again for a new Mass Effect game. And if I’m judging a game by where it leaves me, Andromeda succeeds, even if it stumbled getting there.

Being both a sort of prequel and sequel to the original Mass Effect trilogy, it’s understandable that there would be both excitement and trepidation regarding the changes made to the venerated series. However, in at least one case, dissatisfaction with the game has taken a rather dark turn.

Kotaku‘s Ethan Gach reports that Allie Rose-Marie Leost, a woman who worked for EA Games in the motion-capture labs and had been associated with Mass Effect: Andromeda, was the victim of a series of online harassment and threats. Some people appear to be discontent with the animations in the game, somehow identified Leost as a lead animator, and are holding her responsible. The harassment ranges from threats of sexual assault to accusations of her providing sexual services in order to get her job.

This was going to be a screenshot of some of the awful tweets made towards Leost, but I figured it would be much more positive and uplifting to just post a Mass Effect: Andromeda screenshot instead.

After the initial onslaught began, Bioware decided to try and take action to rectify the situation by tweeting that somebody who had been “misidentified as a lead member” of the team was not, in fact, a lead member. It also clarified that she was no longer an employee of EA Games. This has been met with mixed responses from media websites and fans.

More recently, former Mass Effect animator Jonathan Cooper took to Twitter to both oppose attacks made against members of the development team and discuss some of the methods used in animation development. Pointing out the expansiveness of a project like Andromeda and the time limitations associated with the development cycle, his comments provide context for how a few of the more prominent animation mistakes have become the signature video for the game.

First though; going after individual team members is not only despicable, but the culprits and choice of target revealed their true nature. Just as we credit a team, not an individual, for a game’s success, we should never single out one person for a team’s failures. That said, animating an RPG is a really, really big undertaking – completely different from a game like Uncharted so comparisons are unfair. Every encounter in Uncharted is unique & highly controlled because we create highly-authored ‘wide’ linear stories with bespoke animations. Conversely, RPGs offer a magnitude more volume of content and importantly, player/story choice. It’s simply a quantity vs quality tradeoff. In Mass Effect 1 we had over 8 hrs of facial performance. In Horizon Zero Dawn they had around 15. Player expectations have only grown. As such, designers (not animators) sequence pre-created animations together – like DJs with samples and tracks.

Since the game’s release, there has been some discussion about providing some sort of patch or fix for some of the concerns expressed by fans. Ian S. Frazier, the lead designer, has expressed on Twitter that they’re “looking at patching lots of issues and want to strongly support the game moving forward.”

How all of this will affect the game (and, potentially, the critical response) remains to be seen. It does also, however, touch on the growing conversation around the status of high-profile, triple-A games being released in increasingly hobbled conditions (commonly decried as being “unfinished“), requiring either day one patches or, after vociferous fan and critical response, releasing one as soon as possible. Where Mass Effect: Andromeda falls in that conversation is unknown, but time (and sales) may yet tell.

Nerd Law 101: Intellectual Property Basics

Nerd Law 101: Intellectual Property Basics

It is hard to talk about “the law” and the importance it has in all things geeky and nerdy because “the law” is a vast collection of rules with a lot of interpretations and intricacies that vary from state to state and country to country. However, when considering the different areas of law and how they apply to nerd and geek issues, one practice area stands out as most applicable to your average nerd or geek: intellectual property.

Intellectual property usually refers to non-physical things like inventions or identities or stories that the government has determined important enough to recognize as a specific type of property. Typically, intellectual property is divided into four separate categories that cover different types of things: copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secret. Because three of these things (copyright, patent, and trademark) come up with some regularity in nerdy and geeky endeavors, they’re worth discussing in a bit more detail.

It should go without saying that the contents of this article are meant as a general overview. This isn’t legal advice. Do not base any legal arguments on what you read in this or any further Nerd Law articles. Their purpose is to provide a basic understanding of how intellectual property law is relevant to nerdy and geeky stuff so you don’t end up saying something silly like “I’m going to patent my comic book” or “I own the copyright to this rule system.” One more time, just to make it clear: the contents of this article do not constitute legal advice.

From Plows to Portraits

When you look at the whole of intellectual property, it’s important to recognize that there are different kinds of things being protected. A new, unique farm tool is a very different thing from a painting of a farm, and both are different from the recognized trade name of a farming conglomerate. Because the sort of things being protected have different purposes, the rules associated with them are different and they have different names. Knowing the difference is important, because it’s common for people (even lawyers) to get the rules mixed up.

Copyright is probably the most famous (or infamous) type of intellectual property because it protects so many things that people interact with. Copyright protects creative works and expressions. This includes stories and paintings but also includes film, sculpture, dance, and songs. If it’s something you’d describe as “art,” it probably falls under copyright.

Patents, on the other hand, protect “inventions” like new machines, tools, chemical concoctions, and medicines. Specific processes also falls under patents: a software algorithm and a method for exercising your cat with a laser would also be a patentable invention. Usually, something falls under the protection of copyright or of patent, but rarely both.

Actual illustration from Patent #5,443,036.

Trademark, in contrast, is used to protect names, symbols, and other identifying marks associated with business. These are the marks and styling that let consumers know they’re buying items from a known business. Think of logos and brand names: “DC Comics” and the DC logo let you know that what you’re looking at is made by the company that makes all the Wonder Woman and Batman comics. This is a main reason why most superheroes have big logos on their chests.

Knowing the difference can be important, especially if you find yourself doing something that involves intellectual property. In the future, we will take time to focus on each individual type of intellectual property. For now, it’s good to start simple. Think of copyright as the law that protects creative things that artists do, patent as the law that protects inventive stuff that engineers and scientists do, and trademark as the law that protects identifying stuff that marketing people do. That’s a generalization, but it’s a good place to start thinking about it.

Knowing What They Don’t Do

Keeping in mind the basics of each type of intellectual property, it’s also important to recognize what they do not protect. Although there are interesting exceptions, most things fall into one of the three categories of intellectual property. Yet, I mentioned earlier that a lot of people tend to mix them up. Even lawyers, although one could argue that it’s less a mistake and more of a bold attempt at “shotgunning” a solution. Let’s take a somewhat recent example: the lawsuit that Wizards of the Coast brought against Cryptozoic over their online trading card game, HEX. This lawsuit claimed that Cryptozoic infringed on Wizards of the Coast’s copyright, patent, and trademark property. Consider this excerpt from the copyright section of the complaint:

37. Cyptozoic copied the cards, plot, elements, circumstances, play sequence, and flow of Magic. Players in both games are confined to the same parameters based on an initial dealing of seven cards and play progresses in a substantially identical manner. Players must efficiently use their skill and calculation to assemble their initial decks and then in suitable selection and play of the various cards.

Although this paragraph comes from the copyright infringement of their complaint, most of what they’re describing is the process or procedure of the game. But, it’s worth pointing out that they never say process, procedure, or method of operation, because “[i]n no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” 17 USC 102(b) (emphasis added). The attorneys here are carefully trying to sneak patent concepts into the copyright section of the complaint.

It’s obvious something is going on here.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. If you go down to the patent section of the complaint, they make the following claim:

55. Cryptozoic deliberately and intentionally copied the game play, rules, player interaction with the game, layout and arrangement, visual presentation, sequence and flow, scoring system, and Magic’s overall look. By duplicating the rules, scoring, and cards, Cryptozoic has copied Magic’s then-inventive game.

Most of that sounds like a patent issue (rules, processes, and procedures). But, then something else sneaks in: “layout and arrangement, visual presentation, […] and Magic‘s overall look.” That’s strange, when you consider that patents are obtained by “[w]hoever intents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new, and useful improvement thereof[.]” 35 USC 101. Nothing in that says anything about “visual presentation” or “overall look.” As before, the attorneys for Wizards of the Coast were packing extra claims, in this case, likely a variety of trademark claim, into the incorrect section of the complaint.

When Even the Lawyers Are Not Sure

This just goes to show that intellectual property law can be a difficult subject. And I haven’t even gotten to things like fair use, derivative works, trade dress, non-obviousness, functional aspects of aesthetic components, or any of the other wild and crazy elements of intellectual property. From Rocky IV to Monopoly to Games Workshop, there are plenty of interesting issues to explore in the world of intellectual property.

This is just intended to be a quick introduction to the three major types of intellectual property that affect the nerdy/geeky community. Consider this the first step of a much larger exploration of how intellectual property manifests in the world of all things nerdy and geeky.

News Blast: Iron Fist Roundup

News Blast: Iron Fist Roundup

With Iron Fist set to come out on Friday of this week, it seemed appropriate to do a quick round up of all the news and reviews that have been circulating in the previous week. For those who have been distracted by other news, Netflix has released the first six episodes of Iron Fist to a number of reviewers and critics. The response has been … less than was perhaps expected.

“He’s not a human. He’s like a piece of iron.” -Ivan Drago. Image by John Gallagher

From Polygon‘s Susana Polo:

Iron Fist’s problems with its portrayal of Asian cultures and Asian-Americans are embedded throughout every episode. It’s just that its problems with delivering exposition, crafting consistent characters, and even basic dialogue writing run right alongside.

From The Onion A.V. Club‘s Danette Chavez:

Had Netflix rolled out Iron Fist first, its unsteadiness would be forgivable; this is a process, after all. But it’s actually the final step before a huge showdown, so it can’t afford to buckle under the pressure. And yet, with all that riding on it, the first half of the season is just a checked box. Filler episodes are one thing, but right now Iron Fist looks like a filler season.

From The Hollywood Reporter‘s Daniel Fienberg:

Iron Fist feels like a step backward on every level, a major disappointment that already suffers from storytelling issues through the first six episodes made available to critics and would probably be mercifully skippable in its entirety if it weren’t the bridge into the long-awaited Defenders crossover series.

From Business Insider‘s Jethro Nededog:

First, it doesn’t live up to the quality of storytelling found in “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” and “Luke Cage.” Plainly stated, “Iron Fist” is boring.

Of course, it is worth remembering that this is based entirely on the first six episodes. Rumors abound that the seventh episode of the series will be extremely violent. The episode has been rated 18 for “Strong Bloody Violence.” Given the stagnant impressions of the first six episodes, it remains to be seen if episode 7 (titled “Felling With Tree Routes”) is as much a dramatic turn as the portended graphically violent turn.

Given that the Defenders mini-series is already slated for a 2017 release, it’s clear that Iron Fist‘s poor initial reception will not stop the Marvel/Netflix hybrid from moving forward. That being said, it’s unfortunate that the same studio partnership that produced Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Daredevil has hit a slump with their most recent offering; whether this should be viewed as a bump in the road or an image of what’s to come is uncertain.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

Batman: The Animated Series has become a show whose perennial place in nerd culture is all but assumed and revered. Andrew and I discussed the show, albeit briefly, back in Episode 59 – BTAS, as a segue to talk about dreams and dreaming in fiction, but the show, obviously, has done a lot more than that throughout its 110 episodes across seven years of airing (I’m including The New Batman Adventures in the tally). When talking about the show, one conversation that must surface is its diversity of storytelling and the risks it took. What set the show apart from not only every other animated series on American television may also have set it apart from nearly any other television that aired at the time of its release. Namely, it’s willingness to have strange, experimental episodes that challenged the expectations of superhero fans and television viewers.

Sure, it will be remembered for its strong, more traditional, Batman stories like “Heart of Ice”, “The Demon’s Quest”, and “Robin’s Reckoning (Parts 1 and 2)”––the last of which won an Emmy––but it will also be remembered for its non-traditional, esoteric stories like “Perchance to Dream”, “Legends of the Dark Knight”, “Over the Edge”, and “Almost Got ‘Im.” It was a show that learned to take risks, and what’s fascinating is that, apparently, a lot of that ethos was there from the start.

Concept art from the BTAS Writer’s Bible. Art by Bruce Timm. Source: io9

One of my prized possessions, creatively, is a book written by Paul Dini and Chip Kidd called Batman: Animated which covers the history of the show and is filled with amazing photos of everything from concept art to marketing photos for Batman-branded soap. But a bit of space is devoted to the development of the idea of what Batman: The Animated Series would be, hinting at the thorough show bible that Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Mitch Brian put together. Basically, a show bible is a treatise on the characters, stories, tone, and plan for a tv show used to keep the studio on track as well as acting as a set of guidelines for artists and writers hired to work for the show. Somehow––and thankfully so––the show bible has gotten out there in pdf form and it is as glorious as I was hoping it would be.

The cover to Batman: Animated by Paul Dini & Chip Kidd, art by Bruce Timm.

Whitbrook points out in his article (which also has a link to the pdf) that the show bible takes firm stances in how the creators saw the show. Even if the show wiggled its way out of those chains a bit as it went on (you can’t not have a bat signal), its overall view of the character himself was carved from stone and rooted in change from the status quo:

One big emphasis throughout the bible is an ardent desire to tell darker Batman stories; after all, the last solo Batman TV series before this one was Batman ‘66. Like Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, The Animated Series sought to distance itself from that interpretation. Sometimes it did so subtly, with mentions like “no Bat Signal or hotline” to keep him separate from the Gotham police, or by making Robin an occasional partner rather than a full-time companion.

While the show worked its hardest to separate Batman from his previous televised iterations to make him into the brooding loner we all know and love, what Whitbrook’s article and its attached copy of the Batman: The Animated Series show bible illustrate (pardon the pun) is how something as important and groundbreaking as this show actually came together through an almost supernatural synchronicity of passionate, creative people who were willing to break the rules every now and then and try something new with, at the time, a forty year-old medium and a sixty year-old character.

Although I court a lot of pushback as soon as I say it, I feel pretty lucky to have grown up reading comic books when I did, in the early 1990s. For those with vehement dissenting positions to this opinion, I offer a truce by completely agreeing with you when you say the content of this point in comics history was rather lacking as creators felt the need to push good taste to its limits in many different ways. However, these comics were connecting with kids––with me––and while I can’t say their influence was all beneficial, they certainly stirred the imagination. With that in mind, a lot of choices made both narratively and, especially, artistically at the time are nigh inexcusable when held up against modern criteria.

In light of the speculator market and the inflated sense of worth the industry had of itself at the time, for a fan the early ’90s were quite exciting in spite of all of that. It was this excitement for not only the characters, stories (what there were of those, at least), and creators that drove us back to the shops every week, but it was also the industry as a whole during this time, especially during the flashpoint formation of Image Comics. I remember the creation of Image Comics happening. I remember thinking it was really weird. I remember being really excited for it, as well. (A good documentary about the formation of Image Comics exists, called Image Revolution, that is well worth the viewing.)

Cover from Youngblood #1 by Rob Liefeld, the first comic published by Image Comics. Source: Geek.com

As the ’90s faded away and the market crashed and Marvel went bankrupt and the industry and its fans actually had some time for critical self-reflection, Image Comics, as it had started out, became the pennant we could all point to and say, “That, right there, is what was wrong with comics in the ’90s.” In some ways, such assertions are very true. Fast-forward twenty years, though, and the “worst” in industry has become the outstanding front runner for thoughtful, challenging, and earnest comics above almost all other publishers. The about-face is astounding and couldn’t have been written better for fear of being too cliché and feel-good. But it all comes down to the principles that formed the bedrock (or badrock, harhar) of the company, as iterated by Jensen in his article:

Image had two rules: all comics were owned by their creators, and no Image creator would interfere with another’s business.

As it stands today, Image Comics is a beacon in the industry and is at the top of its game. I’m sure many people lament the 180-degree turn from its superheroic start––I experience light pangs as I think about it but shrug them off––but there’s no doubt that what Image is doing today aligns (at least in theory) with the concept that founded the company: complete independence. Because of that, Image books are bringing more attention to creators, more good to the industry, and better comics for readers, and I wouldn’t trade that for the gun-toting, veiny-muscled, blood-soaked comics of yore any day of the week.

Week In Geek: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch

Week In Geek: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch

The book in question: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch. Source: Boss Fight Books

Part of my goal as an academic-slash-nerdy-stuff enthusiast is to be a person that helps build the bridge between those two tentpoles that, as time moves forward, seem to be pushed further apart. In truth, criticism evolved as a genre from the world of popular culture. Without going too deep into the history of literary criticism, what academics view as critical writing––examining texts through specific lenses and discussing the positive and negative results of such investigations––was birthed by popular thinkers arguing back and forth in newspapers, mostly people like Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold yelling at other people. What criticism brings to its readers––and why it should be much more present in popular culture––is new ways to look at familiar things. You can agree with them or disagree, that’s fine; in critical discourse, if you disagree, you respond with your own critical analysis.

Criticism operates on the assumption that there is no one right way to read a text, so for people who have concrete definitions they’ve crafted or inherited about what a specific movie means or what a certain writer of a comic book is trying to say and they don’t want to budge because they know they’re right, then the critical investigation can’t move forward because a conversation can’t be had.

This is what is happening in the world of video game criticism right now, especially with the entire fracas that formed around Anita Sarkeesian’s videos and GamerGate’s reaction to them (among other sundry instances). Could Sarkeesian maybe have had more tact or been less forward in her presentation of her analysis? Sure. Because of that, did she deserve the response she got? Absolutely not. She was engaging in a critical discussion to not necessarily change the games we love but to bring these readings of the medium to the table for developers and players to use them as they will.

In their book for Boss Fight Books, Metal Gear Solid, the Burch siblings do an admirable job bringing critical investigation to a popular audience. As I mentioned in Episode 117 – Five Minutes to Funny, their approach was unorthodox for me who is more used to “classical” critical prose––i.e., very academic, argumentative, essayistic format––but it actually worked quite well. In more traditional co-written criticism (or most collaboratively written works, for that matter), no effort is made to distinguish between the contributions of each writer. In Metal Gear Solid (their book), the chapters are divided into sections with headings of either “Ashly” or “Anthony” to let the reader know who is speaking. This is ultimately effective for a few reasons. First, there is a slight difference in age between the two and the difference is enough to be notable; specifically, their initial comprehension of the game and what it was trying to do provides interesting juxtapositions. Second, and more importantly, the gender difference yielded very different reactions to the game and how it impacted their lives overall both in their youths and as adults, which would be lost or depersonalized if they had to neutralize the more dialectical (not a transcribed dialogue) format.

The Burch siblings. Source: TV Tropes

With that in mind, their book brings a lot of interesting aspects of the game to light that should be discussed, but usually aren’t. The standout for me is the excellent analysis of characters and their arcs––and the missed opportunities therein (their section on Otacon is outstanding)––which balances the “it’s complex stuff for the time” and “it’s really not as progressive as it appears to be” arguments fairly. This balance is a source of the schism in the greater video game culture; too many people don’t realize that you can criticize a game and still love it, which is exactly what the Burches do. They point out issues within Metal Gear Solid that, in a modern environment, can seem backwards and sometimes unforgivable. Snake, to a teenager or child (as Anthony and Ashly were, respectively, when they first played the game), is an uncompromising badass; however, upon reflection, it is clear he is a bully and sadist, especially to women. Meryl is presented as a tough woman who is every bit a soldier as the men on Shadow Moses Island, but with the way the camera, Snake, and the gameplay treat her, she is woefully underserved by the game that otherwise wants to present her as a progressive take on female characters in video games. A lot of this comes down to the apparent conflict within the series creator, Hideo Kojima, himself. I’ll quote here what I read aloud in the episode:

There are two Hideo Kojimas.

One Kojima injects every Metal Gear Solid game with earnest if overbearing discussions of nuclear disarmament, the morality of genetic experimentation, the nature of warfare, and the difference between patriotism and terrorism.

The other Kojima lets you call Rose in Metal Gear Solid 4 and shake your SIXAXIS controller to make her boobs jiggle (21-22).

Part of accepting Metal Gear Solid as an artistic entry is to accept that, yes, it is thematically earnest and powerful and its characters are remarkably well-rounded, but for every two steps forward it––as a game and as a series––takes at least one step back. But that is also the nature of art. If any thing was perfect, there would be nothing to talk about.

Another fascinating aspect the book investigates is how Kojima openly and freely manipulates the relationship between the player and Solid Snake, arguing that Kojima willingly draws Snake and the player together at times and forcibly separates them at other times for a purposeful, emotional, and narrative purpose. It opened up a through-line for critical investigation into games as power fantasies, so that the conversation doesn’t just stop at “video games are power fantasies.” The Burches delve into how Kojima uses that fact to both make the player feel powerful (like most games do) and also use that trope to make the player feel detached, weak, and helpless. If anything, for both the criticism and the praise, the book showed me the art that goes into game design and how mindful Kojima is with his games despite his own severely problematic flaws as a creative.

Who is in control of this game? Of my tv? Screenshot from Metal Gear Solid. Source: Metal Gear Wiki

For all the good that this book does at managing the intersection between criticism and popular culture, it is clear they have the events of GamerGate on their minds, which is smart considering that a co-author is female and, by the virtue of that simple fact, she, her brother, and the book are automatically painted with targets. Their apology takes the form of the concluding chapter, titled “The End?”, in which Ashly takes the lead with a passioned defense that, I would argue, comes dangerously close to diminishing the very poignant and important arguments she and her brother make in the book to that point:

So, Anthony and I shit on Metal Gear Solid for about half of this book. If you’re a fan of MGS1, you might be kind of pissed. But despite the amount of acid we spit at the game and its various baffling choices, despite the inordinately long cutscenes, the convoluted plot, and the awkward dialogue, we do love this game (159).

This is problematic because 1. they surely don’t “shit on Metal Gear Solid” at all. They critically engage with it and because they are able to do that with detailed and thorough arguments it 2. proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they love the game. In that instant, this concluding chapter felt a bit reductive and unnecessary. What’s impressive is that despite being couched in a chapter-long ass-covering thesis, Ashly does an admirable job teaching not only what criticism is, but why it’s important for the industry as well as for fans:

[W]hen we hear a complaint…about a game we love, we have to stop that little seed of defensiveness from spilling over into anger. We have to recognize that a critic’s concern doesn’t say anything about us, and it doesn’t make us wrong for liking the game. We’re all on the same team, and we’re all just trying to make this medium the best it can be. For everyone (161-2).

This chapter was an eye-opening moment for me as a reader, gamer, and wannabe critic, perhaps because I audibly scoffed when I read this chapter, saying something akin to, “You didn’t have to do this, catering to those people.” The D. Bethel that said that was Professor Bethel, the academic, the person whose workplace and occupation don’t have to apologize––among colleagues at least––for challenging arguments. In fact, they are expected.

What is Snake hiding from: a clear and present threat or genuine, productive, and thoughtful criticism? Source: PlaystationLifestyle.net

However, in the pop culture nerd world that Podcast Co-Host, Comicker, and Website Curator (and straight white male) D. Bethel operates, you have to do this, especially if you’re a woman or minority. And while it’s atrocious and insulting that anybody would have to write this chapter, it shows why this book is successful at building that bridge I longingly want to help construct.

I want more good, challenging gaming criticism. I want to buy books of it. And though some exist and continue to get published, such a desire may be self-defeating in the end. If we’re looking to bridge that gap between pop and academic cultures, it won’t be through book stores. Instead, it is happening online in the form of podcasts and videos and, occasionally, articles. However, if we’re looking to make this a two-way connection, from the halls of academia to reddit and back again, in order to legitimize games as critical texts in the eyes of PhDs, books should be made as well as journals and panels at conferences. The Burches’ Metal Gear Solid definitely offers the academic handshake toward the people who love and care and talk about video games on the internet with confident airs and cries for legitimacy. I just hope pop culture is willing to accept and return it.