LUDO-NARRATIVE DISSONANCE: Noted video game critic, Ian Bogost, got blood boiling when he wrote the salaciously titled, “Video Games Are Better Without Stories,” for The Atlantic. D. and Andrew investigate the argument Bogost is making––its good points and its flaws––while also talking about why people play games in the first place. Dan talked about Ian Bogost’s book, How to Talk About Video Games, back in “Episode 76 – Beepop.”
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew puts his manual dexterity and patience to the test while assembling the LEGO Creator Expert Parisian Restaurant set, while Dan can’t stop playing Double Fine’s recent release of Full Throttle Remastered.
LAPSING SUBSCRIPTIONS:DC Comics announced that the third season of the fan-beloved Young Justice animated series, which will be called Young Justice: Outsiders, will be an exclusive release on DC’s as-of-yet unreleased subscription streaming service. It marks yet another step in content providers eschewing more popular platforms like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime in favor of doing something similar but centralizing around their specific content. Is this where streaming is heading, to a diversified subscription market? Or is it a swing at extra revenue that will ultimately be futile? D. Bethel and Andrew discuss.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew plays super sentai producer in Chroma Squad while D. Bethel gets introspective while drawing old high school characters for his “Sketch Fridays” series at LongJohnComic.com.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END: The final Doctor Who series to feature current Doctor, Peter Capaldi, and current showrunner, Steven Moffat, began last weekend with “The Pilot,” which also introduced the new companion, Bill Potts. Dan and Andrew discuss their reactions to the episode.
NERD LAW – YOUTUBE EDITION: Andrew dusts off his non-advisory expertise to talk about a recent situation that occurred during Dan’s livestream of God of War III. They talk copyright, YouTube’s priorities, and Chinese variety shows.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew watched the live action remake of the Disney animated feature, Beauty and the Beast and D. Bethel discusses his experience at this year’s Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo.
REGRESSIVE RESURRXION: First, the comic book news cycle went nuts because the first post-Inhumans vs. X-Men book was released, X-Men Gold, which was then subsumed by the fact that people seemed to like it, which was then subsumed by the likelihood that X-Men Gold artist, Ardian Syaf, may have placed possibly intolerant symbology in not-so-hidden places throughout the book. Then it turned out that he definitely did that. It has been a roller coaster of news and insight into Indonesian politics (where Syaf resides) that has been mostly very sad and upsetting for X-Men fans.
*Extra Bit: Marius Thienenkamp of Comicsversewrote a thoughtful analysis and retrospective of this entire affair.
THE TWO MASTERS: On the threshold of the debut of Doctor Who‘s Series 10, it was revealed that actor John Simm would be returning to the show in his former role as The Master, the longtime foe of the show’s titular hero. Last seen at David Tennant’s departure from the lead role, he returns during the tenure of his successor, Michelle Gomez as Missy. What this means for the episode(s) in which they appear together (the last one or two of the season), we can’t yet say, but both Dan and Andrew are pretty excited about it.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew plays catch-up after the Guestcast by letting us know about his time with the indie game, Turmoil, as well as discussing his experience with Alton Brown’s live show, Eat Your Science, while Dan talks about reboots and his hesitancy going into the first two issues of DC Comics’ new series, The Wild Storm.
MASS REJECTS: As Andrew reported, the new Bioware game, Mass Effect Andromeda, has met with a lot of criticism. However, said criticism is all over the map. Dan and Andrew get deep talking about expectations, Mass Effect, fandoms, and video games as cultural expressions. WARNING: the hosts get a little worked up.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With D. Bethel suddenly on a Spring Break excursion, Andrew recruits friend of the show, Taylor Katcher to fill in the blanks.
THE ONLY WIZARD IN THE PHONE BOOK: Andrew and Taylor talk about the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game, the upcoming card game release from Evil Hat Games. Taylor expresses his fondness for Harry Dresden while Andrew admits his fondness for Paul Blackthorne.
TAYLOR BREATHES IN THE WILD: After last week’s discussion of The Legend of Zelda series, Taylor shares his experiences with the newest title in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
For all intents and purposes, that was an episode recap.
-“Stayin’ in Black” by Wax Audio
-“The Final Teen Spirt'” by Wax Audio
-“Maul, Savage and Viszla” by Kevin Kiner & Takeshi Furukawa (from Star Wars: The Clone Wars)
-“Can You Dig It (Iron Man 3 Main Titles)” by Bryan Tyler (from Iron Man 3)
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew does his best to navigate menus and complex relationships playing Crusader Kings II while D. Bethel gets horribly disappointed while playing Samurai Shodown VI.
A TWISTED LEGEND:The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been released to universal acclaim as a launch title for Nintendo’s new console (and as a tombstone for their previous console) but how much is pure nostalgia, how much is hype, and how much is it actually a good game. Well, neither Dan nor Andrew have played it, but with the conversation surrounding the game they do ask a pertinent question, “What is as Zelda game and does this new game meet it?”
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew plays Project Highrise after receiving it as part of this month’s Humble Bundle subscription service, while Dan reads a book about the history of the Japanese game industry in Chris Kohler’s Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life.
THINK INSIDE THE BOX: With Andrew’s sojourn into the world of subscription grab-bag services, he and Dan discuss the growing phenomenon and where they think the trajectory may end up.
ACCELERATED EVOLUTION: When a YouTube star gets the spotlight from a major industry publication, his world starts to crumble a little bit despite his denial of it. Swedish YouTube sensation, PewDiePie, encountered some issues after an exposé by the Wall Street Journal causes him to lose valuable contracts and allies and seemingly sends him into a strange spiral of denial and self-pity––without losing any subscribers. Andrew and Dan look at this very strange situation and how it connects to the larger cultural issues the news media and celebrity are dealing with while trying to figure out a solution.