Thursday, August 18, 2016

GAME REVIEW: "The Last of Us" (Naughty Dog, 2013)

I played this on: Playstation 4.

For the last year or so, I've been learning that narrative design is not necessarily the same thing as game writing. It involves writing, certainly - dialogue and letters and other information - but it's also about how all the aspects of the game come together to tell a story to the player.

I've been playing a lot of different games to learn new ways of conveying interactive narratives - and I discovered one of the most perfect examples of storytelling with The Last Of Us, a zombie/survival game from Naughty Dog.

20 years ago, a zombie outbreak devastated human civilization. Now, the world is a harsh place, with humanity scraping by in isolated outposts, roving gangs, and heavily-militarized Quarantine Zones.

Our protagonist is Joel, a weathered and world-weary smuggler who helps get contraband in and out of the Boston QZ. He is contacted by the leader of the Fireflies, an anti-government resistance group determined to save humanity. They need Joel to smuggle Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, out of the QZ and escort her to a Firefly base. Why? Because she was bitten by a zombie and didn't die. Incredibly, she's immune to the infection, and could be the key to curing the disease once and for all. All Joel has to do is keep her alive.

What follows is a beautiful, bleak, and poignant story as Joel and Ellie embark on a road trip across post-apocalyptic America in the hopes of saving the world. While fighting off zombies, bandits, and cannibals, they also have to contend with each other. Joel mourns for the way the world was, while Ellie's never known any world but this one. They've both endured horrific losses, so both of them are terrified at the prospect of caring for another person when death is just a breath of spores away. The writing, voice acting, and cinematic animation for these characters (as well as the side characters they encounter) are simply phenomenal.

However, the visual storytelling is just as top-notch. Every environment in this game tells a story - sometimes explicitly with graffiti, signs, and forgotten notes, sometimes implicitly in the design of the environment itself - an abandoned bookstore with posters for book signings still pinned to the wall. A failed attempt to create a human sanctuary in the sewers. A spore-clogged college dorm full of rotting beanbag chairs and forgotten microwaves.

The gorgeous outdoor environments also tell a narrative. Everything is lush and green, covered in ivy and flowers and leaves. Plant life is reclaiming the earth - once it kills off all the humans first. Yes, fungus is responsible for the zombie outbreak. In a clever and realistic twist, the infection is a human strain of the real-life Cordyceps fungi. Infected humans are driven mad and mutate in gruesome ways before eventually dying and releasing infectious spores into the air. Each stage of the infected has different strengths and weaknesses (Clickers, for instance, are fast and vicious but completely blind), and will require different approaches.

Unlike, say, Firewatch (which was a fantastic narrative game but without much in the way of active gameplay), The Last of Us has a fun and clever gameplay system that's consistent with the setting and does a great job of making the player feel like they're part of the story. As Joel, you are a moderately-powered human character, ammo is precious, and gunshots can attract unwanted attention. You'll be required to craft many of your weapons (shivs, pipes, molotov cocktails, nail bombs) from scrap metal and rags and they have a limited number of uses. While you certainly can kill every zombie or raider you encounter, it's not always necessary. Sometimes stealth is all you need. Hostile encounters can be handled in a variety of ways, and I really enjoyed having all those options.

Honestly, though, my utter enjoyment of this game is due to the powerful empathy I felt for Joel and Ellie, and how every aspect of this game helped tell their story - the gorgeous music, the desperate cobbled-together nature of the combat, the melancholy set design, the vibrant environments, and the amazing performances from the whole voice cast. This is narrative design at its finest, and I will try my best to learn from it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

GAME REVIEW: "Firewatch" (Campo Santo, 2016)

Over the last two years, I've become more involved in gaming, and more interested in narrative design - how to tell a story in an interactive way, hopefully while giving the player a sense of control and agency (whether they have it or not).

As much as I love novels, it's a different experience writing for a reader who is sitting still, a reader committed to reading your story in order, from left to right, from page 1 to page 400. It's something different to tell a cohesive story to a player who will want to explore and run around and try as many different things as they can (or as the game will allow).

My exploration of interactive storytelling led me to the precious, independent gem that is Firewatch. I had such a profound narrative experience playing it, and I am in utter awe of how every aspect of this game came together perfectly to tell a riveting story.

The year is 1989, and you play Henry, a man recently hired as a summer fire lookout for a vast Wyoming forest. The job is isolating (the three-month gig involves sitting in a lookout tower and watching for fires), and that's just the way you like it. You're not exactly alone - your supervisor Delilah (who mans a nearby lookout tower) keeps in touch by radio.

But something's not quite right about this forest. The first day you start, someone breaks into your tower. The next day, some campers go missing. It's up to you (with the help of Delilah) to find out what's going on in the woods.

There's no combat in Firewatch. It's first and foremost an explorative narrative game - and every aspect of the game is specifically designed to contribute to the exquisite pacing, tone, and direction of the story.

The theme of Henry's isolation is conveyed through the pairing of a massive, wild environment (the gorgeously-designed forest) with a restricted gameplay perspective. Everything is viewed through Henry's first-person POV, and his interactions with Delilah (while extensive and beautifully acted) take place entirely on the radio. Ultimately, the only thing Henry can be completely sure of is himself, and the undercurrent of uncertainty creates a rising, visceral tug of suspense as the story proceeds.

But this isn't a horror game. There's also beauty, empathy, and a lot of humour as Henry and Delilah - connected only by walkie-talkie - rely on the anonymity of radio chatter to explore themselves and their own reasons for abandoning the world to spend a summer looking for smoke.

Some people would call Firewatch a "walking simulator" (since there's no fighting or puzzles or traditional active gameplay), but I find that label reductive. "Narrative Experience" is more fitting, if also a bit more vague. Regardless of how it's categorized, Firewatch is an outstanding example of visual, aural, environmental, and interactive storytelling.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

MOVIE REVIEW: "Ghostbusters" (2016)

The smartest move this film makes is that it doesn't try to replace the original Ghostbusters. It's not a remake: the plot is different, the characters are original, and it explores other themes. It's not supposed to be The Better Ghostbusters. It's supposed to be Hey! Great! More Ghostbusters! You could easily watch both films back to back without feeling like you experienced the same story.

This Ghostbusters is a more character-driven comedy. Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and Erin (Kristin Wiig) used to be best friends and paranormal scientists, but Erin abandoned their research and denied her ghost-hunting past to pursue academic credibility.

The sudden appearance of powerful malevolent spirits in New York causes them to reunite, and with the assistance of some awesome new friends - wild card engineer Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and history expert Patty (Leslie Jones) - they uncover an insidious paranormal threat to the Big Apple.

It takes a delicate hand to write an effective comedy about the need to be taken seriously, but Ghostbusters pulls it off. The desire to be heard, understood, believed, and appreciated drives all four of our Busters in different ways.

Erin does this initially by conforming to thankless and ultimately fruitless standards. Her arc has such a strong and empathetic feminist streak in it as she rebels (in an increasingly hilarious fashion) against the ways in which society dismisses and disbelieves her.

McCarthy's Abby - played with her trademark sweet-and-sour delivery (with a stronger emphasis on sweet this time) - wants to stick to the science, believing objective results and personal fulfillment trump social status. McCarthy plays it pretty low-key, as the emotional rather than comedic centre of the group.

Jones' Patty - the lone non-scientist - represents the self-made, self-educated woman. She reads like a fiend, knows the city inside and out, and knows her way around people - and she soon proves that she's a worthy Ghostbuster, degree or no degree.

And McKinnon's Holtzmann? A lesser movie and a lesser actress would have just labelled Holtzmann as "the kooky one" and played her with a combination of obnoxious, unrelated comedic traits that are barely tolerated by the rest of the cast. Instead, Kate McKinnon absolutely steals the entire movie as an unorthodox, confident, wildly charismatic, and unrepentantly unfettered genius who just wants to make wild, crazy science with whomever will let her.

And, oh yeah, this movie is also funny! Alongside these four comedic powerhouses, Chris Hemsworth does an outstanding job as their Hot Dumb Blonde Receptionist Kevin, and the movie is littered with well-deployed nostalgic references that should please Ghostbuster aficionados without excluding viewers unfamiliar with the franchise.

All told, Ghostbusters is a well-written paranormal comedy that combines wit and slapstick with emotional resonance and keen social commentary. I highly recommend.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

MOVIE REVIEW: "Love and Friendship" (2016)



Is this movie?

When I received free passes to see Love & Friendship (based on Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan), I was excited. I loves me some Austen costume drama, and as I hadn't yet read Lady Susan, I was looking forward to being surprised.

Well, I was a little surprised, but I spent most of the film feeling super confused. While the film is occasionally charming and funny (truly funny at moments), the pacing is absurdly drawn out, the staging is dull, and the plot is an incomprehensible mess.

The story (such as I could make out) is this: Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) - an impoverished widow with a scandalous reputation - comes to stay with her in-laws after being kicked out of her last domicile for tarting around with a married man. Once her last suitcase is unpacked, she precedes to spend the next two hours gaslighting hot dudes, ruining her daughter's life, and bitching with her sardonic BFF Mrs. Alice Johnson (Chloe Sevigny).

I think we're meant to root for Lady Susan, the sly and cynical outsider who offers clever observational quips about the follies of gentry life. But she really is The Worst, and what's more, there's no real explanation for her behaviour. She just seems to like messing with people with no apparent end goal or motivation. You might think she's out to catch herself a meal ticket, but she throws away every romantic attachment she appears to make, seemingly on a whim. Perhaps she's determined to secure her daughter's future - except for those long stretches of time when she forgets her daughter exists because she's too busy convincing hapless dudes that Up is Down and Black is White.

What does Lady Susan want? Why does she do what she does? I've never read Lady Susan, so I had no context to understand her myriad changes of heart. Nearly every character in the movie actively hates her and with good reason.

On top of that, despite some truly hilarious moments, the movie is boring and clumsy. Characters are introduced by name (with personalized title cards, even), only to vanish after a single scene without leaving any impact on the story. Several scenes go nowhere or end abruptly.

The filmmakers make no effort to frame the novel's events in a visual context. Instead of showing what happens, the filmmakers have the characters sit down and tell each other what happens - staging that's fine in a novel but glaringly dull on film. Compare that to the Mansfield Park adaptation that starred Frances O'Connor - despite being a wretched representation of the novel, as a film it was visually dynamic and the story was told through an even mixture of action and dialogue.

The actors do the best that they can - Kate Beckinsale, in particular, gives a breezily cunning performance that convinces the viewer she's a misunderstood snarky outcast even as her actions reveal her to be an amoral, manipulative sociopath. It's not enough to save the movie, however.

Perhaps I might have enjoyed this movie more if I'd read the book first. But as a film on its own merits, Love and Friendship is a hot mess. Give this one a pass.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"Anne of Windy Poplars," by Lucy Maud Montgomery

The Protagonist: Anne Shirley. While Gilbert's away at medical school, she'll be starting as Summerside's newest school principal.
The Rub: Summerside's got some nice folks, but also a nasty "royal" family and a horde of Evil Old People to contend with.

The Secondary Characters:

Aunt Kate and Aunt Chatty: Two sweet but diametrically opposed elderly spinsters with whom Anne boards.

Rebecca Dew: Kate and Chatty's cantankerous servant.

Elizabeth: An emotionally-starved orphan raised by two unloving crones, whom Anne befriends.

Angst Checklist:

  • Old Ladies Be Trippin'
  • Rampant Emotional Abuse
  • Family politics
  • Being unmarried at 28 is worse than death, for reals
  • Crazy couples who really shouldn't get married
  • Cats You Love to Hate
  • Houses Full of Dead People

Anne of Green Gables is a beloved classic - it's certainly one of my favourite books - but not as many people read the later books in the series (such as Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island). It's easy to see why. Anne has far fewer flaws (most of her "scrapes" in this book are by accident), the drama is far milder, the storytelling rambling and unfocused.

For me, though, the Anne books remain my jam - the ultimate comfort read. With church socials and sponge cakes, saucy gossip, and lovingly-described scenery, it's a lilac-scented meandering walk down a summer lane with the occasional incisive scrap of social commentary.

Windy Poplars is mostly comprised of Anne's letters to her fiancĂ© Gilbert during the three years they are separated (Anne to teach in Summerside as a school principal, Gilbert to finish medical school).

Anne has a tough go of it at first. Summerside's prolific and close-knit ruling family, the Pringles, had their own candidate for principal, and they are determined to topple Anne from her perch by any polite means necessary.

On top of that, Summerside has a surfeit of Emotionally Abusive Old People. Anne spends a chunk of the book rescuing girls and young women from their manipulative, grasping crone relatives who are determined to suck all the happiness out of them like Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus. It happens so often I wondered if all these old biddies and coots had some sort of club to Ruin Young People's Lives.

Anne also saves a couple of Bitter Spinsters (both unhappily unmarried by 28! Gasp!) from future crone-hood.

Through it all, Anne maintains her sunny optimism - life is happier when one turns the other cheek, to admire the flowers or the sea or some other deliciously-described aspect of Prince Edward Island scenery. While she's much tamer than she was in her slate-bashing days, Anne has her spirited moments (in one chapter, she harbours delightfully violent fantasies against one of the worst Summerside crones).

And yes, as mentioned before, the drama is milder, but if there is any theme in Windy Poplars it is that people are often their own worst enemy. Yes, the Crones and the Pringles are nasty, but a lot of the characters Anne encounters perpetuate their own unhappiness - either through inaction or indecision, or because they've entrenched themselves in their own bitter outlook on life and need an outsider's perspective to adjust their attitude.

While I have yet to visit Prince Edward Island myself, I so love visiting the P.E.I. of Montgomery's novels.

A very sentimental, rose-coloured A+

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet," by Becky Chambers

I have Sam Maggs to thank for this fantastic read - she described this book on Twitter as a cross between Mass Effect and Firefly. That's one hell of a recommendation. This succinct and ultimately accurate review is what led me to give this book a try, and I am so glad I did.

The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet is the best book I've read all year, and probably the best hard sci-fi I've read ever. 

The book concerns the colourful and diverse crew of The Wayfarer, a tunnelling ship that builds transport pathways between stellar systems by literally cutting holes through space. They have enough work to get by, but not enough to get rich - until their captain, Ashby, secures a government commission to build a tunnel to a planet whose mysterious inhabitants have only recently agreed to an alliance. The job comes with a mind-boggling payday, but will take almost a year to complete, so the crew is in for a pretty long haul.

While the eponymous small, angry planet is the overarching plot, the novel unspools in an episodic format - quite a bit happens during the year it takes for The Wayfarer to reach the tunnelling point. Everyone on the ship will find themselves tested in different ways, and the aliens on the crew give Chambers a golden opportunity to explore some pretty bizarre and unique perspectives about the nature of humanity and its relevance to the rest of the universe.

And what a universe! Chambers crafts a fascinating galaxy populated by various cultures and species, and while Humans aren't exactly endangered, they have very little influence beyond their own territories. There are massive cities built to host multiple cultures, as well as isolated frontier planets where the locals have created their own. Best of all, the rich worldbuilding is all expressed through the characters and their organic interactions within the story. Apart from a few articles here and there, there is no info dumping. The reader is free to explore and discover everything along with the Wayfarer's crew.

The novel's strongest, most outstanding selling point is the characters. I loved everyone on this ship - from Rosemary (a shy Human clerk who's never been off Mars), to Sissix (a reptilian pilot), to Dr. Chef (the most lovable alien caterpillar SpaceDad ever). Here's where the Firefly influence kicks in - while there's plenty of drama, conflict, and cultural differences, these characters truly love and care about each other. While spending a whole year together on the ship might bring up issues and baggage, at the end of the day, they're family.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a brilliant, rare science fiction novel that successfully explores vast galaxies and alien themes without sacrificing the warmth and empathy of character-based storytelling. Put down what you're reading and read this instead.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

"After You," by Jojo Moyes

*Warning* This review containers spoilers for Me Before You. I highly recommend you read Me Before You first before reading this review. It's a great book. Trust me.

I really enjoyed After You - but I kind of wish it didn't exist.

Let me explain. After You is the sequel to Me Before You, a novel that emotionally capsized me when I first read it and will likely do so again when I see the movie version (can Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey just play everyone's dad forever?).

However, one of the things I loved the most about Me Before You was the ending, where Louisa finds the courage to embark upon an adventurous life thanks to her relationship with Will. It was hopeful yet bittersweet, the narrative unravelling into uncertainty instead of a neatly hemmed conclusion. I kind of thought it as the perfect ending.

After You ruins it. Louisa did go on that adventure, but before long her grief caught up with her and forced her home. Estranged from her family and hometown thanks to her involvement in Will's death, Louisa lives in London while working at a tacky Irish-themed pub at an airport. She knows she's not living the life Will wanted for her, and she almost loses that life when she drunkenly falls off her apartment building.

It's a little disappointing to know that Louisa's picture-perfect Paris ending didn't last, but After You does explore the very real consequences of grief and depression. Louisa wants to change her future but feels her new opportunities were bought with Will's life. Just when it looks like she might undo everything Will helped her accomplish - his sullen, impulsive long-lost daughter shows up.

The product of a college relationship that ended badly, Lily's home life is a mess and she's desperate to learn about the family she's never met. Louisa sees an opportunity to honour Will's memory and decides to take Lily in, not really understanding how teenagers work.

While it initially seems like her grief has knocked her back to square one, Louisa's so easy to relate to. In Me Before You, Will guided Louisa as she fought to overcome her limitations and bad habits and grab the life she wanted. Now, Louisa finds herself in a mentor position - to a prickly, unstable teenage girl who seems determined to destroy her own life.

There are a lot of good aspects to this book - the characterization is as strong as ever (especially with Louisa's adorable family), and Moyes has a flair for humorous situations (such as when Louisa is forced to conduct a job interview by Skype in a public bathroom), but throughout the book I couldn't help but feel - this story isn't necessary. Maybe I'm a little too attached to that "perfect ending" of Me Before You, but nothing about this story felt like it had to be told.

To be honest, it felt a bit like an emotional band-aid, as if Moyes regretted the last novel's open ending that left a few characters (Will's parents, for example) in pretty bad places, so she wrote in a Troubled Secret Daughter to give everyone a second chance at happiness before hammering down an unambiguously happy, triumphant ending.

After You wasn't a bad book, per se. It just wasn't a necessary one. It wasn't a sequel that celebrated and built on the first book - it felt almost like a correction for the first one. I enjoyed reading it, and it had some good things to say, but it doesn't outshine Me Before You.