Friday Feature: Summer Spectacular Vol. 1

We Prometheans have been a tad busier this summer than we thought we would be, and that’s made it hard to keep up with our regular posts. We love bringing you a new article every week, but there comes a time when we just have to take a break. We’re coming up on our one-year anniversary, and I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve accomplished. With the exception of last December, we’ve been going strong for nearly a full year!

With that in mind, we’ve decided that we have earned a little bit of a rest, but we’ll be back in September with our trademark brand of geekiness that folk have come to expect. In the mean time, I am going to be doing a Friday Feature here and there, just to keep the dust from settling.

Welcome to the Promethean Playground Summer Spectacular, where we recommend our favorite beach reads, shows to binge-watch after the sun goes down, and games to play when it’s just too hot. And maybe we’ll throw in a cocktail recipe here and there to keep it fresh.

Beach Reads

I’ve always thought it was a little bit unfair to the beach that the only books we ever bring out there are harlequin romances and bottom-shelf fantasy. I get that we want something that’s relatively easily digestible when we’re relaxing in the warm, salty coastal breezes, but there’s something to be said for taking that time to really delve into a book you’ve been meaning to read for years!

Last year my summer book was Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, the year before that I brought Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the beach – both books I had started long ago and never finished until I carved the time out of my summer vacation to get going with them again!

I’m going to recommend classic sci-fi for you all as this week’s beach read: Dune by Frank Herbert. I read this one something like 5 years ago between shifts bar-tending at a lakeside resort in Texas. I’ve written about this story before on the Playground, so long-time readers will be familiar with some of my thoughts, but there’s a lot about Dune that appeals to me. It’s a different kind of sci-fi than I’m used to. Interstellar travel is available in Dune‘s universe, but it is costly. There’s a mystical/spiritual/religious element to the story of Arrakis (the desert planet on which Dune primarily takes place), which I really enjoy. And Dune sets up a complicated political landscape that makes for good dramatic storytelling.

Binge-Watch Shows

I always think winter is a better time to pack on new shows to binge-watch, because that seasonal affectiveness disorder makes you not want to leave the couch anyway, but never-the-less we all have to come in from the pool at some point in the summer, right? So if you’re not caught up on your favorites, why not then?

This week I’m going to tell you that, if you haven’t by now, it’s time to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. The follow-up show to AvatarLegend of Korra, just began it’s third season and it served to remind me how absolutely amazing Avatar: The Last Airbender really was. (NOTE: We are talking about the Nickelodeon cartoon, not the pathetic attempt to make the cartoon into a movie.)

This show was and still is, broadly speaking, my favorite show ever. Sure I enjoy other things here and there, but Avatar has it all: humor, action, drama, characterization, a complex and compelling setting, and feelings (I weep like a child in season 3 when [spoiler redacted] reunites with [spoiler redacted], and there’s nothing anyone can do about it).

Fun fact about Avatar: The Last Airbender – each of the trademark “bending” styles is based primarily on a real-world martial art style. Airbending is based on a style called Ba Gua, which is reflected in Aang’s quick, circular movements. Waterbending is based on Tai Chi, which emphasizes slow, flowing movements that are more interested in healing than aggression. Earthbending is based on a style called Hung Gar, which uses strongly-rooted stances and powerful strikes. Finally, Firebending is based on Northern Shaolin kung fu, which is an aggressive, fierce, and powerful martial art, much like the benders from the show.

Summer Games

In the video game world, the summer slump is the time right before big publishers begin gearing up for their Fall and Christmas releases, where they expect to make their real money for the year. In spite of that (or maybe because of it) Steam has a now-infamous Sale every summer where games are marked down by very enticing amounts. I feel like I was pretty responsible this year, with the Steam Sale, and I still ended up buying about 8 new games. Summer gaming slump, my butt, now my backlog is even more embarrassing!

In any case, I think summer is the best time to plop down on the couch and play games with a pal, so I’m going to tell you to check out a game called Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine. As you might guess from the little subtitle there, Monaco is a heist-themed game. Players can choose from a handful of characters with different skills (knocking out guards, picking locks, digging tunnels, etc.) and play their way through increasingly difficult scenarios with up to 3 friends at a time. It’s a great same-couch game because it actually requires a lot of communication, especially as the difficulty escalates, and you just can’t beat physical presence for communication, no matter how awesome your mic is.

Friday Feature: Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man

DC’s massive “New 52” reboot has been met with, we’ll say, a mixed response. Of the 52 books originally launched with the reboot, a few didn’t make it past their 6th issue, others have lost creative teams, and others just never had the stuff to grab new audiences the way the relaunch was supposed to.

But Jeff Lemire’s relaunch of Animal Man was one of the books that gained critical favor relatively quickly and managed to retain it throughout its run.

With the exception of a few hiccups and minor missteps, Animal Man has been the book to read from the New 52. The title ceased as of March this year when Lemire said he felt like he had finished the story he wanted to tell, and, according to his blog, appreciated that DC let him end the story on his own terms.

My process of mourning the end of one of my favorite comics came as soon as I opened the first page of issue #29, the final issue, and I’ll miss the Animal Man solo title until DC decides to bring it back to life. Animal Man is currently represented in the pages of Justice League: United, but if I’m being perfectly honest, that’s a book with more shortcomings than positive traits.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Animal Man shouldn’t be a cool character. He’s a celebrity actor, a family man, he has a dorky name, his power set is just described as “animal powers,” and he has a confusing back story (that maybe involves “aliens”), but in the hands of a good creative team, he is unquestionably my favorite hero. Good writers can tell very potent stories about Buddy Baker and his family. Lemire is one of those writers, from book one, Baker’s driving motivation is his children and his wife.

Because of this, his heroics are often reluctant. While it seems like Buddy gets some pleasure out of his powers, he would give them up in an instant if it meant his family would be safe.

A-Man and his family…

In Lemire’s storyline, however, Animal Man learns that he and his powers play an important role in the cosmic makeup of the earth. He is the Avatar of “the Red,” the aggregate of all animal life, is is responsible for defending it from the other kingdoms of life: “the Green,” plant life, and “the Rot,” decay. Each kingdom has an Avatar, which are responsible for keeping life in balance.

So Lemire sets a cosmic stage in which to tell an intimate story: the story of Buddy Baker’s relationship to his family. If this sounds like your cup of tea, there’s nothing to wait for! Hit up your nearest local comic shop and pick out as much as you can of Lemire’s run on Animal Man. Then when you’re done, go back and read Grant Morrison’s run, from which we get my favorite single comic chapter ever: The Coyote Gospel.

Friday Feature: Transistor

A little while ago (2011) a brand new game studio, called Supergiant Games,  showed up at PAX with a cute little action game. Gameplay-wise, it was nothing to shake up the action game scene, even by indie game standards What made this game truly unique, though, was it’s art-house style and peculiar narrative design.

In Bastion, the landscape itself formed up around the protagonist as he made his way through the game, fighting off enemies as they popped out of the ground. Much like the land itself, the narration of “The Kid” and his story happened only as you played. None of the story was told through cutscenes and the narrator only ever responded to the player’s actions. These two components of Bastion gave players the feeling of more involvement in the story. Rather than playing the game to reveal the story, the story was about what they were doing.

Of course Bastion was still a very linear game, but its claims to fame – gradual terrain and responsive narration (not to mention the absolutely unbelievable soundtrack by Darren Korb) – are no less well-earned.

But just last week, Supergiant Games released their second title: Transistor. 

Transistor is more than just a worthy successor Bastion.

The gameplay feels like a natural progression from where Bastion began. Both games would comfortably be described as “action” games, but Transistor incorporates strategic “tactics”-like elements (other “tactics” games include Final Fantasy TacticsAdvance WarsFire EmblemX-COM, and The Banner Saga) that make Transistor feel a bit more grown-up. Less technically speakig, of course, Transistor is just plain fun! As the titular weapon downloads more “Functions” (the game’s name for your attacks), experimenting with different combinations becomes almost as entertaining as the plentiful battles that adorn your journey.

Transistor is a beautiful story about a woman whose voice (literally) was taken from her. It’s about her lover. It’s about a city that they both love deeply, but isn’t what it used to be. It’s about change, and remembering the way things were without ever being able to go back. It’s even more than that, I don’t want to spoil any of the story, because it’s worth your investment. Suffice it to say that it rivals or even surpasses its AAA, giant game company, contemporaries while coming from a still-very-small studio.

The story is probably best described as a sci-fi noir romance. It has classic elements of all three genres, but it adapts them into something wholly new and claims it for its own. Where both Bastion and Transistor are set against the backdrop of collapsing “civilizations,” Transistor‘s approach is able to carry the romantic sub-genre in a way that Bastion wouldn’t have been able to, and as a result the protagonist is far more sympathetic, even while silent.

The game also carries on the grand tradition of having an unparalleled soundtrack, something I find to be an asset to any game, but it makes ones like Bastion and Transistor really stand out from the crowd. Darren Korb’s work is the music that the games industry deserves.

All-in-all, Transistor is just worth your time and money, don’t be kicking yourself when it starts getting tossed around as a possible game of the year – play it now!

Friday Feature: Pretty Deadly

I’ve briefly mentioned Pretty Deadly before on the blog, but it’s never been the subject of a Friday Feature. Part of my reasoning behind not featuring it until now was that I wasn’t certain about where it was going or how I felt about it.

Before issue #1 came out, Pretty Deadly had already experienced a higher-than-average hyping up. Part of this came from writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who was excited to be working with artist Emma Rios on an all-female creative team.

Who can really blame her? Female creatorship is still pretty rare in the industry and having a creative team that passes the Bechdel test is even more unusual than having a book that does.

But the other side of that coin is that a lot of the hype came for this book just based on her excitement to be working with another woman. Again, not a bad thing, but we didn’t really know anything about the story (unless you dug deep through comics journalism) until after the book debuted.

Plenty of people ordered the book just because of the creative team with no other information. I was one of them. I wanted to support these creators (and publishers that support their creators and let the creators keep ownership of their work).

But when I read issue #1, I was a bit confused at the end of it. I liked what I saw, but I didn’t really have a good idea of where the story was headed. Debut issues of new comic titles are difficult – you have to both sell the audience on a new story and end on a compelling enough cliffhanger that they feel like they’re going to get their money’s worth out of the next issue.

I’m not totally sure that Pretty Deadly #1 did that. But after finishing issue #5 this week, I’m certain that despite my early misgivings Pretty Deadly is a solid book that lives up to promises it made in issue #1 that I didn’t even realize it was making.

DeConnick and Rios create a new mythology of the wild west in Pretty Deadly. With characters like “the Mason,” his wife “Beauty,” Death and his Daughter, Molly Raven and Johnny Coyote – this book his strongly on prototypically mythological beats. Gods or godlike characters clash with one another in a cosmic drama that plays out before us, with ramifications on a human scale.

One of Pretty Deadly’s mythic story beats: Beauty asks Death for her freedom.

Pretty Deadly is still somewhat of an all-or-nothing book. Most people either love it or hate it. The haters out there are saying that not enough happens, the characters are too vague, or that DeConnick is trying to mask a lack of drama with poetic writing.

They’re outright wrong about not enough happening. The pace of the book is variable, but there’s never an issue when the plot doesn’t advance. As far as vague characters and poetic writing go, these are characteristics of mythologies. No one story can tell you everything about a deity, why should we know everything about Ginny (Death’s Daughter) after one comic arc.

The art of Pretty Deadly is unparalleled in the industry. One of its primary colors is orange – which paints beautiful sunsets and assigns color to the arid feel of the western plains. Aside from the use of color, Rios’ penciling is beautiful, detailed, and emotional.

All in all, I think Pretty Deadly is one of the best books on shelves these days – but it does appeal very strongly to my taste for the mythic. Many will think the art is worth the cover price, and I would agree there, but if you look for story in your comic book purchase, know what you’re getting into.

Friday Feature: Tiny & Big

Every now and then there’s a game that comes along that just gets you. You deep dive it and nobody sees you for a week, and then you go out to share your experience with everyone only to find out it’s not a great game.

“It’s too short!” they say. “Those controls are terrible!” they moan. “There’s hardly a story at all!” they cry.

Well I’m undeterred. I’m still going to recommend this game.

Tiny & Big: Grampa’s Leftovers is pure gold. No matter what you say.

You play as Tiny, the oddly shaped inventor, armed with his three trusty tools: Laser, Rocket, and Hook. Big, the other titular character, is a bully who stole your inheritance from your gramps: magic underpants.

All of that doesn’t really matter, though, because the point of the game isn’t to advance the story. Though the cutscenes are amusing and the intelligible grunts of the two main characters are worth a few chuckles, this game is, at it’s heart an puzzle/action game.

The “puzzles” of the game aren’t puzzles so much as they are areas that are difficult to traverse. In order to make it easier, you have to rely on Laser (which cuts through things), Rocket (which pushes things away), and Hook (which pulls things).

There are collectibles in the game, secret rooms to find, and above all a fabulous soundtrack. The developers worked with a handful of independent bands to create a fun and unique soundtrack that you can customize as you play. One of the collectibles is new tracks for your radio to play while you solve puzzles, so finding these little floating tapes becomes even more interesting than getting to the next area after a while. Because you only start off the game with one song, by the end of the time you get the last level, you’ll probably be kinda burned out on that one, as well as the first few tracks you find.

The game is done in a cel shaded art style, evoking a comic-book feel which is accentuated by the fact that most of the game sound effects are accompanied by onomatopoeia words the flash up next to the source of the sound. “POK!” flashes up when your hook sinks into a rock, and “BZZZT!” or “ZORT!” will show when your laser activates. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s seamlessly integrated and adds both character and charm.

I’ll have to admit here that the art style and the soundtrack are both unparalleled in their greatness – but they’re the best part of the game. There are places in the game where having such awesome style makes the game’s flaws stick out a bit. The really cool cel shading feels a little underutilized when there are only two characters and really only three environments in the whole game: desert, pyramid interior, and a virtual game-within-a-game world. There are also places where the artistic awesomeness makes me willing to ignore even the most grievous of gameplay flaws, so you take the good with the bad I suppose.

When I really step back and think about it, I have to tell you that Tiny & Big feels a bit like it’s somewhere between a game prototype and a full game. It is a bit too short and it could have benefitted with a bit more fleshing out. Sigh. Truth hurts.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m still recommending it! Even with it’s flaws, it’s still fun to play and if you buy the version of the game that includes the soundtrack ($15; the game by itself is $10) it’s a very worthy purchase.

 

Friday Feature: The Humble Store

It’s unusual for me to feature a storefront over a product or work, but I feel like The Humble Store for PC games deserves a special mention. It springs out of the Humble Indie Bundle events that began several years ago, where independent game developers joined together for a “pay-what-you-want” sale where a portion of each sale would go to the Childs Play charity.

Humble Indie Bundle has been through 11 incarnations, each with a set of independent games which, when you purchased the set, you could often get the Steam  download code for each game. Usually at a reduced price from what you’d get from the Steam storefront – with the added bonus of donating to charity.

Humble Bundle has also introduced several other bundle sets, including the Humble Book Bundle and the Humble Android Bundle, each with the same goal: companies who enter their product to receive a reduced commission and donate the rest to charity.

While The Humble Store isn’t a pay-what-you-want operation, they do donate a portion of each sale to any of a handful of charities (Child’s Play, American Red Cross, Electronic Frontier Foundation, World Land Trust, and Charity: Water). Their breakdown is as follows: 15% of each sale goes to their operations as the Humble Tip, 75% goes to the creators for their work, and 10% goes to the charities. Nearly all games that are also available on Steam also come with a Steam redemption code (since basically all PC gamers rely on Steam for their game library).

So next time you go to buy a game on Steam, pause and take the extra step to go check The Humble Store and see if they have the game for the same price – because then you know you’ll be giving some of your purchase to a few good causes.

Friday Feature: Loki: Agent of Asgard

So when this title was first announced, it was met with equal numbers of excited claps and derisive sneers. I’m a big fan of sneering derisively at those who sneer derisively at new ideas, so I made it a point to check this book out last month when it debuted.

Recently in Marvel’s Loki stories, the original (evil, old, scheming) Loki was “killed” and a new Loki was born. The past couple of years of the title Journey Into Mystery have been about this new kid-Loki and his adventures.

Loki: Agent of Asgard seems to be a spiritual successor to that storyline, if not a direct continuation. It’s about a young-adult Loki, still a trickster god, but now working with Freya and the leadership of Asgard as their covert operative. It’s unclear as of yet whether he is trying to clear his name with the Asgardians, or if this is simply a convenient way to live for a while. Either way, it’s a good read!

Loki in this story is handsome, charming, funny, and generally more lovable than he is evil. From thence the fanboy sneers came. When the title was first announced, much was made about this “new” Loki’s likability.

(Aside: Much was also made about his sexuality. The authors announced that Loki would be bisexual in the new story, and would change genders at different points. Fanboys puffed out their chests and said, “That’s just fanservice to all the fangirls that want to see Tom Hiddleston make out with Chris Evans!” I have two responses to this: 1. If that’s really true, GREAT BUSINESS DECISION, MARVEL! Appealing to fans is how you sell books! I’m sure that’s why a new book with Wolverine in it comes out every year… 2. Let’s put our thinking caps on for a moment and remember the character comic-book-Loki is based on, Mythology Loki. Mythology Loki is a shapeshifting pansexual schemer who once turned into a female horse, was impregnated by a male horse and gave birth to the horse that Odin rode. The fact that comic-book-Loki hasn’t already expressed some bisexuality or gender-fluidity is frankly quite a surprise.)

It’s easy for a story to go wrong when writers try to make a character that was previously villainous into a sympathetic, loveable, “hero.” Loki: Agent of Asgard does it well though. The book is well-paced (so far), legitimately funny when it tries to be, and interesting. It also doesn’t require any previous knowledge of kid-Loki’s story – which is good because I didn’t really have any.

So far it’s been a kind of “grift-of-the-month” book, but with enough characterization in each issue to keep me reading, and with only two issues under its belt, it has a lot of room to grow. I do have one minor complaint with the first issue, and that is that in a few pages is portrays Thor as a drunken bully. There’s a lot of good reasons to do this: the story is told from Loki’s point of view so naturally his view of Thor will be more negative than others, it has a good basis in other stories (including mythology), and the author wanted to. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but in the recent cultural meta-narrative (through other comics and movies) we’ve seen Thor grow out of his bully-ish nature and more into a loving brother and leader. It was a shame to see him revert like that.

Bully-Thor notices Loki through a window.

Even with that small complaint, if you’re at all interested in a charming-scoundrel archetype character, comedy comics, or Loki, I would give this book a try.

And hey, if nothing else comes of this book, it will give skinny dudes another cosplay option for the next few years! (+1 p0int, skinny dudes)