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.

Women and Geek Culture or Why the Fridge Has to Go

I grew up reading Green Lantern. Much like Doctor Who, there have been multiple Green Lanterns in the lifetime of the comic, and you always have your favorite (The 10th and Hal Jordan.) Yet, Hal wasn’t my first. That honor goes to Kyle Rayner.

I could go into the backstory as to why Kyle got the ring, and who his predecessors were, and why Hal came back; but none of that really matters. All that you need to know going in was that when he took the mantle of GL, he was the only one and he loved it. Kyle was young, reckless, and took his role with little seriousness.

That was until this happened…

Fridge

…yeah, that’s his girlfriend.

Long story short, she thought Kyle should take things more seriously; but he wasn’t the listening type. Unfortunately, one of his villains (aptly named Major Force) was, and decided to kill and stuff her into above fridge. The ensuing guilt propelled Kyle into being the hero that he was destined to be…

…and it also was the first instance of “fridge-ing”

Congrats, Geek Culture! We helped create a terrible narrative trope!

Unfortunately, things haven’t really gotten that much better as the years of have gone by. Female characters in comic books, games, and television have been mishandled, mischaracterized, and all together misused since then. For every Orange is the New Black, there are multiple shows, games, and comics that just do everything wrong.

Examples, you ask? Okay.

Game-wise, the two most recent offenders are Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and Watch_Dogs; which both use “fridge-ing,” as a narrative technique to motivate their respective heroes.

MGS1

In MGS: Ground Zeroes, Big Boss/Snake is required to rescue former associates Paz (a female officer) and Chico (a young male soldier) from a government run facility. By the end of the game you have rescued them both, but it’s found out that Paz has had a bomb placed inside of her. So, in one of the most gruesome moments put to gaming, the male characters dig into her abdomen, un-anesthetized, and rip the bomb out.

PazGZ

It’s gross, over the top, and not the worst part.

After the bomb is removed and she comes to, she relates that she has a second bomb placed inside of her as well; and so she jumps out of the helicopter to save the rest, exploding mid-air. It is not revealed unless you go through some of the side content where the other bomb was hidden…

…her vagina.

Within the audio logs you find, you discover that Skullface (the villain) had not only his men rape Paz, but he had Chico rape her as well, and THEN placed the bomb into her. The audio logs are long, uncomfortable, and disgusting. There’s no narrative or gameplay value to their existence in the game outside of shock value and as a means to motivate the player character to revenge in the upcoming sequel.

Though not as graphic, Watch_Dogs is just as bad.

Watch Dogs

In the game, there are two main female characters, Clara (a hacker who befriends the player avatar) and Nicole (the player’s sister.) Suffice it to say, both ladies have little to no story arc simply because they exist only to continue to push the main character forward.

Nicole’s only contribution to the plot is to be captured, held hostage, and kidnapped multiple times over and over again to bring the player character to action. At multiple points in the game, the player has to hand hold her through an action filled situation, because she is unable to defend herself on ANY level.

Ironically, her subplot ends with her leaving her ENTIRE LIFE behind in Chicago, taking her son with her; as the player character realizes that her continued existence within the gamespace (Chicago) would only result in her getting kidnapped, killed, etc. over and over and over again.

(Did I mention that she had a daughter that the main character got killed because she was in a car with him when he was attacked by thugs? Yeah, that too)

Clara might be the bigger problem. She is introduced as a competent rival hacker, but soon afterward she just becomes an objectified character model walking around the hideout of the player. Unfortunately, this is not out of the ordinary for most video games. Because of her lack of development and any story arc to speak of, she becomes less a character and more a piece of set dressing.

(Oh yeah, there’s also the fact that her model is actually based off a well known porn actress too…which has very little to do with the argument above, but it sure doesn’t necessarily help matters either.)

The icing on this terrible cake is that she ends up being “fridged” as well by the end of the game. It is revealed that she had a hand in some of the events leading up to the game, which tangentially led to the death of the Aiden’s (the player’s character) niece. While visiting the grave of the girl, she is gunned down as the player is trying to rush forward to save her in real time gameplay.

This, of course, is followed up by the player having to listen to a 2 minute long voicemail she left, just before she died; apologizing for her involvement and wishing to “just disappear…”

…which in turn motivates Aiden into the final act of the game.

It’s all very frustrating, to say the least.

Yet, much like you see in other forms of media, there is a silver lining, a ray of hope that shows things are changing; if only ever so slowly.

Take a game like Transistor.

As fellow Promethean Stewart wrote,

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.”

Most importantly, it not only stars a female (Red) as a lead, but it gives her a complete, well written, and genuine story arc. She is not used, she is not thrown around by events in the game space, she is the one CREATING those events. In other words, she is a fully realized character.

Red has more of a voice without having one, has more of a message without saying a word, than any of the previously mentioned examples above….

…Cue Dramatic Irony

Joss Whedon, known for his work on Buffy, Angel, The Avengers, and much more said in an interview once,

“When people say to me, ‘Why are you so good at writing at women?’ I say, ‘Why isn’t everybody?’ Obviously there are differences between men and women – that’s what makes it all fun. But we’re all people.”

It’s a pretty straightforward sentiment, but one that geek culture is now just starting to embrace, albeit slowly. Hopefully as we all continue to move forward, and as the medium continues to mature, we’ll see more games like Transistor, Gone Home, or Mirror’s Edge.

Geek culture has to come to terms with the fact that sexism and misogyny are deeply ingrained, and figure out what we can do to excise that cancer from our favorite hobbies. I’d like to believe that we are all better than this…

game ad

 

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: Outerlands

I don’t think we’ve ever featured a Kickstarter before here on the Playground; but this one is pretty special.

 

 

Outerlands is a proposed six episode documentary series on the culture of video games by Area 5 Productions. To oversimplify; they want to make something akin to the “This American Life,” of video game culture. These guys are storytellers, and fantastic ones at that. They have a love and passion for the topic matter and have a unique visual style that sets them apart from other documentarians.

 

 

What makes their pitch different from many others is that they don’t just want to talk about games. They want to talk about everything around them as well; the people involved, the niches that have arisen, and the unexplored corners that many of us don’t even know exist. On the Kickstarter page, they’ve already discussed talking about things like speed runners, the “gamification” of things outside of games, sexuality in the game-space, e-sports, and many other topics. They want to highlight and critically look at every aspect of a passion that many of us enjoy.

 

This is probably my favorite 1Up show episode. It covers the PS3 launch, and boy were times different then…

 

For those of us who have been around a while; Area 5 isn’t an unknown name. These guys are the ones who helped create the 1Up Show back in the day, CO-OP after that, and have been making some of the best documentaries on gaming since then. Their two most recent were the well received I Am Street Fighter, for Street Fighter’s 50th anniversary, and Grounded, a “making of” for The Last of Us. Suffice it to say, Outerlands is their passion project.

 

 

This is a great chance for something we all enjoy to be seen in a different light. to see stories that might not otherwise be told. Outerlands is a great project and I hope that you all will give it a look. These guys deserve the chance to make this.

 

You can support them on Kickstarter HERE

Hellhound on my Trail

Geek culture, perhaps more than any other American subculture except fundamentalist Christianity, is fascinated with Hell.

From Hellboy, Hellblazer, and Spawn to Devil May Cry, Doom, and the Diablo series, geeks are going to hell on a startlingly regular basis. Maybe it’s not too hard to understand. Even as far back as Dante, Inferno shows us that the hell is ripe with vivid imagery that captures our imaginations.

Hell is also useful to comic creators and game designers because it acts as an effective stand-in for all things evil. In earlier eras of comic books and video games, Nazis filled this role. This worked in the golden age of comics because WWII was still fresh (or still going on, in some cases) and many of the industry’s progenitors were Jewish immigrants. It worked in a more recent era of video games because the first-person shooter genre experienced explosive (no pun intended) growth and killing Nazis effectively dodged any questions of morality from outsiders that the industry wasn’t ready for (but now faces anyway).

WWII games don’t sell well anymore. The games industry dried up that well. And, with the exception of the “Captain America” film, telling a story with a Nazi as the villain is falling out of vogue. That leaves us with demons to fill the void.

With a convenient, practically faceless enemy, we’re allowed to tell horror stories on an otherworldly scale. There’s nothing to lose when Jamie Delano tells a story about John Constantine foiling the machinations of (literally) baby-eating demons.

But a convenient, faceless enemy also lets us tell stories about real-world evil. Horror stories change when the thing we’re afraid of becomes real and present. Hell becomes an easily painted landscape for our own vices — greed and violence in particular.

That’s all fine and easy, but what does it say when the protagonist — the most likable character, the character most easily identified with — is a demon himself? That’s what we get with Hellboy.

Hellboy’s first day on Earth. From Mignola’s comic.

Looking at either the Hellboy movie or comic, we have a demon, summoned from hell by a power-hungry wizard, Rasputin. When he’s brought to earth, Hellboy is rescued from Rasputin by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm. Of course, Bruttenholm “raises” Hellboy and gives him a strong moral compass and by the time we see anything of an adult Hellboy he’s a hero; part of the “Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense” with his enigmatic ally Abe Sapien and the volatile Liz Sherman.

But if you’ve seen the movie or read the first couple of volumes of the comic book, you know that Hellboy’s origins are always right behind him. The hero is plagued by his hell-born nature and Rasputin (and others like him) are often hunting him down trying to coax him into embracing his birthright: bringer of destruction and downfall.

So the hero, the sympathetic character, the character with whom we identify the most, spends some time each day with a belt sander, keeping his horns from growing too large.

Theologically speaking, this type of writing gets into some funny territory. If Hellboy is meant to be our presence in the story, then we’re also meant to feel like that demonic pull is ever-present in our actions. Not only that, but we have to actively fight our so-called “true” nature to keep a fast hold on our moral compass.

There’s a big difference between saying that everyone is a demon just under the surface and telling a story about a demon who is a lot more like us than we might care to notice. I don’t actually think Mignola does the former. He certainly does the latter. It’s when we are watching our sympathetic hero being tempted and fighting back against his evil heritage that these stories pick at our own insecurities. While none of us are demons, history has shown all too well the “demonic” potential of humanity.

But then what’s just as important is what Hellboy does at the end of the film (also in the comics). Even when given all the power associated with his birthright, he breaks off his horns and tosses them away. He rejects the easy power and ensures that greed and violence don’t win the day.

Hell, in almost every story, is something to be beaten. Whether it’s something to be obliterated with guns (as in the case of Devil May Cry and Doom), or something to be overcome (like in Hellboy, and also Devil May Cry to some extent), it’s almost always a stand-in for some other hurdle. Very few of us could relate to these hellscapes if they were only about large-scale cosmic battle for good. But when they get to us for what they represent — our own evil — they draw us in.

By my estimation, all of our trips to hell mean something other than the occasional vivid or frightening image. They are a reflection of ourselves. And, in turn, that makes characters like Hellboy, who overcome the hellishness that tries to corrupt them, all the more important.

Friday Feature: Don’t Starve

I’m not sure I can explain why, but the past couple of years have seen a rise in the popularity of so-called “survival” video games.

As a general rule, these games drop you into an unfamiliar, hostile environment with little to no instruction on what to do next. Sometimes you have some equipment that might indicate your first action (“here’s an axe, and there are some trees”), but just as often you have nothing.

Games like Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, DayZ, Rust, and Don’t Starve have taken hold of the industry and with upcoming games like The Forest in 2014 it looks like they’re here to stay.

Don’t Starve, right now, holds a unique spot in the survival game pantheon in that it (unlike Minecraft, Terraria, and Starbound) isn’t really a sandbox game where building your house is just as, if not more important than “surviving” and (unlike DayZ and Rust) isn’t an online game where 99% of what “surviving” means is avoiding other players who are better equipped than you and want to kill you for whatever resources you’ve gathered.

Don’t Starve drops you into the unfamiliar terrain and gives you only the instructions that its title does. You have the recipe for an axe, but you’re left on your own to find saplings and flint to make it. By the beginning of the first night you also need to have built a campfire. And I hope while you were hunting for flint you also scavenged some food, because within a couple of game days you’ll have starved to death.

Don’t Starve has a degree of difficulty that will be a turn off to many new players. As a general rule you’ll have to begin a new game and die three or four times before you really get the hang of what you’re doing, so it requires some patience, but it pays off.

In my opinion there’s a lot to love about this game. It’s charming because of its stylized game art which looks grim and hand-drawn in many cases. It’s endlessly unpredictable and replayable because of the randomly generated levels. And it’s challenging, partially because of the esoteric information about the game that you can really only access by playing it (or using a guide, I suppose, but that saps a lot of the challenge out of any game).

If what I’ve described doesn’t sound appealing, then maybe Don’t Starve isn’t for you, but if you’re already a fan of high-degree-of-difficulty gaming or survival games as a genre, then Don’t Starve needs to be on your must-play list.

The Isolated Geek

Like a fuzzy mammalian beast emerging from it’s winter cave, the Promethean Playground writers have had our fill of holiday meals and down time, and having hibernated successfully, we’re eager to hit the ground running with a whole new set of profound thoughts  for 2014. Happy New Year!

As we go into a new year and I look forward to all the new geeky things that are coming down the pipeline, I’m sort of amused to think about how mainstream my cultural niches are becoming. Comic book movies now run with the big dogs in the summer blockbuster lineup and video games are now so popular that nearly everybody I run into considers themselves a gamer.

This really is the era of the geek. Despite the best efforts of insulting shows like Big Bang Theory, King of the Nerds, and Heroes of Cosplay to ridicule us wholesale, it remains pretty socially acceptable to be a devoted fan of sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, and video games.

Maybe I just know the right places to look now, but when I was younger, it was incredibly rare to find someone with whom I really shared interests, and I always felt the need to keep many of my favorite things relatively secret. As a result I had few true friendships, but those I did have were deep and long lasting.

In between the times I could be with my good friends, I often felt a little isolated. (Before I move on, I should say that this doesn’t mean I had a “bad” childhood or anything. I was never bullied, really, and occasional loneliness is a reality of many lives.) I can’t be the only one that felt this way, and I think it probably resulted in a lot of really good geek art.

What jumps immediately to mind is the work of Jeff Lemire. His writing (and art, for that matter) in The Underwater WelderLost DogsSweet Tooth, and, more recently, Animal Man shows a profound understanding of isolation that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.

It’s clearest in Underwater Welder, where the protagonist relives his past while walking through a deserted parody of his home town.

It’s hard to avoid the imagery in this book. The protagonist does his job (a welder for an offshore oil rig) while trapped in waterproof armor, surrounded by silent water, connected to the rest of the world only by a thin strand.

For a person whose greatest fear really is long-term isolation, Underwater Welder is an emotional, difficult book to read. But it’s beautiful all the same. In a feeling that definitely isn’t schadenfreude, reading a book like this gives a person the relief of knowing that someone out there knows what it’s like.

So in this way, I feel like Lemire and I might be the last of a fortunately dying breed: the isolated geek. (Apologies to Mr. Lemire for making so many assumptions about his life.) I haven’t experienced that kind of isolation in years. In fact, in the room I’m sitting in now I’m surrounded on one side by group of people younger than me happily trash talking as they play a Marvel vs. Capcom fighting game, on another side by a guy perfecting a deck of trading cards, and on another by a couple with a pair of 3DS’s dueling each other in Pokemon X/Y. None of them have the trepidation I would have had when I was a teenager about doing the things they love in public. It’s wonderful.

But before we hang up our hats, turn off the lights, and enjoy our new social station, it might be worth remembering that all of geekdom isn’t as welcoming as the coffee shop I happen to be in right now.

Without getting into the exhausting details, I just hope that when we play Limbo, when we read The Underwater Welder, when we experience geek art that emphasizes the painful reality of isolation, we make every effort to make sure no other geek has to feel that isolated.

Let’s make it so every every one of our niches is as welcoming to others as this place is to us.