Monthly Archives: January 2015

Building Back

Building Back

It never ends. Pop culture is interminable because we simply never stop either. Society consumes and consumes, and as things like shows and music and books permeate back and forth between countries—and then reciprocating and building upon each other—a perpetual energy emerges.

And it never ends. Think about how old the first written story must be, scrawled and smashed onto some cave wall 40,000 years ago. What about the first song? Hummed and passed along from the first minds capable to retain and enjoy it, we at least know of the Hurrian songs from 1400 BC.

From there, it keeps stacking. It’s not like these things go away by virtue of being old. In fact, we’re not sure these are even the oldest, so the archives may in fact be deeper than we think. And to take in as much of it as possible is vital to understanding the core of human culture and how it grows and bends in the media wind.

It explodes, though, past a certain point. Once history introduces the printing press and cameras and then the Internet, it becomes an exponential eruption of books and movies and television and songs and cat videos and GIFs. Even if you are old enough to have been around for the genesis of the Internet, your knowledge of online culture can degrade as quickly as a carton of milk.

So think about kids born today. They are so impossibly fucked in every possible way if they want to get a reasonable breadth and depth of knowledge. Consider that they now must consume 600 hours of Star Trek to discuss its canonical history and rewritten history. They’ll have to watch all six Star Wars of today and however many they make in the future. Will they even have time for Twin Peaks after reading and then watching Harry Potter?

Consider this: the Machete Order. It is an ordering devised by a fellow named Rod Hilton wherein you can derive some joy from viewing the prequel trilogy of Star Wars. He breaks down his reasons and consequences on his site, but the gist is that you watch the episodes in the following order: IV, V, II, III, and finally VI. Notice something? Yeah, Episode I is missing.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

It is a categorically terrible movie, so who can fault him for wanting to cut it out from the entirety of history itself. But he does have pretty great reasons for doing so. In fact, from here on out, I’ll probably recommend it as the only way to watch the whole series (until the next trilogy comes out, I guess). Episode I just won’t exist.

The consequence, of course, is that kids and newcomers just won’t know what a podracer is or what a Jar Jar Binks is, which is a shame because they were such integral parts of pop culture surrounding the release of that movie. As either bad or pointless they are to the Star Wars universe, they were fun.

They aren’t, however, essential. Not for the grand scope of understanding Star Wars, anyways. This leads to an interesting question regarding video games. (This wasn’t a wholly meandering piece. I got there eventually.) Where does the line for necessity stop?

Final Fantasy IV

There are long-running series like Final Fantasy where obviously the culling happens naturally. Someone will ask and you will invariably say, “Play IV, VII, and X.” Or even shorter ones where you will tell someone to just play Uncharted 2: Among Thieves if they really had to cut the experience short.

But what is the Machete Order of the entire span of video games? Shouldn’t there be one? Some critical path on which new fans can walk and absorb the maximal amount of history and culture with the minimal amount of time? I mean, while they are talking this sojourn into the past, new games (and movies and shows and music and books and, and, and…) will continue to come out. It never ends.

There’s no real conclusion to this exploratory thought bucket. It’s more of a posed question. Is there something that could imbue a new player with as much critical knowledge as possible so they can pick up leftovers along the way to the present day deluge of content? I would like to think so, but for such an impressively prolific yet young medium and industry, we have much more to compress and analyze than just six Star Wars movies.

EverQuest

I suppose there would be criticality from each genre. Get what you can from EverQuest and then World of Warcraft. Dive into Doom, dabble in Half-Life, and dip into Halo. But even then, along those time-scaled increments, there is so much between the notches missing like Star Wars: The Old Republic and GoldenEye 007, and innumerable subgenres that are equally diverse and important and develop as more games get added to the global lexicon.

It never ends, but it also keeps changing. It’s a frightening thought.

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Winning Desire

Winning Desire

Who doesn’t love winning. It’s crazy to think there’s someone out there who needs to be motivated to want to win. There is, in fact, a veritable cadre of psychological studies regarding the impact on winning and losing. And guess what: it’s super important.

With that as a baseline of knowledge, now consider that video games are designed around the concept of succeeding. There is at some fundamental level in every game where there is a goal and it is to be accomplished. Even the most abstract or non-game-like products like Proteus have (equally abstract, non-game-like) goals, like explore or relax.

This makes it seems totally nutso when designers make the assumption that they have to go out of their way to make you want to win, as if it were their responsibility to instill the basics of human psychology into your brain. It’s as if they feel a need to remind you that being happy feels better than being sad, and then also telling you what it means to feel happy. It’s a level of handholding that isn’t necessarily insulting but certainly questionable.

Alien Isolation

Most of this came to mind recently when I was going back through last year’s backlog of games I either didn’t finish or didn’t play at all. One of those was Alien: Isolation, which I never fully got around to despite liking what I had played at E3 and doubly despite hearing from some of my horror-loving friends that it was good for a scare. And after getting a little into it, I realized they were right: this game is scary!

But then I kept playing. And it kept doing the same thing. The scares became annoyances. It wasn’t that I started to hold my breath because I mimicked the character out of sympathy fear but I started sighing because I knew I was about to die. Not only had I failed at the game’s and my own objectives to survive, but I also had at least 20 minutes of crawling over the same stretch of vents and tile floor ahead of me.

Certainly, I am not clean of the blame. I should have been more patient and I should have been more alert to the Working Joes around me. But there is a construct of the game which mechanically defeats the your own desire to not be defeated, and that is the save system. There absolute, discrete points in the game where you can save at, though more accurately I should say they are the only places you can save at.

Alien: Isolation

In the diegetic nature of the game, this makes sense. But for the gameplay, it’s highly problematic. I can’t be sure without talking to someone who worked on the game or seeing some design docs, but it seems to me that this is very specifically for heightening the tension of each stretch of non-saving. It should make your innate desire to win even stronger and fervent.

The problem is that it does exactly the opposite of that. It only serves to increase frustration when you die, leaving you with a bad taste of directed anger instead of personal regret. It forces you to redo the entirety of something that only ever existed to raise the stakes to a more interesting realm instead of an indignant one.

Following the repeat attempts, it further sucks out whatever tension that may be left with a knowledge of what to expect. This foresight combines with a deadman-walking, fuck-it kind of attitude that invariably leads to rushing from one door to the other until some confluence of luck and skill leads you to a success in a matter of seconds rather than minutes or hours. And when you can’t brute force your way, with the game aggressively guiding you to its draconian path of winning, it then becomes a controller-throwing affair.

Alien: Isolation

We, as players, inherently want to win. This idea that a game has to further our wired need for success is patently absurd. Instead, the consequence of failure should be born from an intermingling of mechanical and narrative needs. Let’s say, for a second, that the save system in Alien: Isolation was replaced with a modern auto-checkpoint system. How do you put back that design intent of heightened tension?

To answer that, let’s take a step back. The fear of the game itself comes from not knowing where the xenomorph is at any given time. Hearing and seeing the clues colliding with the less opaque threats of the world are where the drama comes in. So instead, the design intent should draw from that. Even with a more frequent set of checkpoints—let’s say at every doorway—a randomized but informed placement of the xenomorph and other localized threats should be enough to inspire inklings of anxiety.

This restates the primary desire to hide and remain hidden with every death, rather than putting some meta fear into the player that extrapolates some systemic assumption of raising stakes and ire. None of this is to say that any of this makes Alien: Isolation a bad game or that it is a bad game (I actually am enjoying most of my time with it), but it certainly brings to mind many questions of modern game design.

Alien: Isolation

Obviously liberal checkpoints aren’t a panacea nor should they be (see: Dark Souls), but the idea that we need to be coerced into wanting to win is troubling. Instead, the reward of succeeding should be heightened, even in the punishment of losing. What person would ever want to be pushed by the stick instead of led by the carrot?

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Let’s Talk About Boyhood

Boyhood

There has been a lot of talk about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an ambitious coming-of-age drama filmed over the course of 12 years, which rightfully includes a handful of Oscar nominations as well as some deliciously phrased reviews. (The Dallas Morning News’ review includes my favorite quote involving an elephant.)

Very obviously there’s the Best Picture nod, as well as Best Director and Best Film Editing, which has come to more or less represent Most Directing and Most editing, an appropriate mutation for a project that must have accrued 100,000 hours of B-roll. And then there’s Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.

This is important because, for as much as Boyhood is about its titular phase of life for a boy growing into a young man, an equally scintillating narrative is woven with the commensurate growth of his parents. Or, perhaps, it’s the lack of growth. The similarities and differences between the two are well explored by the two fantastic actors, though I think what you get from it will differ depending on your age when you watch it.

The majority of the movie actually tracks the life of Mason Evans Jr. from age six in 2002 to just before he starts college in 2014. Played by Ellar Coltrane, we quite literally see a kid age and mature into an adult. It makes sitting down to Boyhood less of watching a movie and more of watching a life. You see his slow progression from child to awkward teen and suddenly shoot up into a man.

That shock is the veritable treasure of the entire movie. And it’s not just Coltrane but his sister (played by Lorelei Linklater) and Hawke and Arquette’s collective growth. Their faces and bodies and voices change and it is revelatory in a way. You forget just how quickly life can go by. This is a movie filled with all the nuances and annoyances and joys of a full, non-directed life and it still slips by in under three hours.

Set across major portions of Texas including Houston, San Marcos, and Austin, it’s interesting that so many actors in the film actually grew up in those cities. Coltrane and Hawke from Austin, Linklater (the director) from Houston, and others from San Antonio, Plano, and elsewhere in the Lone Star State. While it goes without saying that you can act like you’re from Texas, it’s something else to actually be from there.

Boyhood

The way Coltrane holds himself is distinctly Texan teen in the post-2000s. It’s not that teens from other parts of the country from other decades are so vastly different (there’s a timeline that reminds you of how the world grew up, too), but there are opinions, experiences, and relationships that seem to stem solely from existing within the state’s borders. The absurdly religious extended family, an unreasonable obsession with queso, flitting in and out of Austin’s downtown areas as you age into it. It’s all true.

However, the more remarkable part is the trials and tribulations of Hawke and Arquette’s Mason Sr. and Olivia. For as specific as the feel is of the actors and parts of the story to Texas, there is a poignancy to their older, already-of-age stories that will get overlooked as Mason Jr. attempts to reconcile youth and responsibility.

(There will probably be slight spoilers from here on out, so if you want to still watch the movie—and you should—then maybe come back to read the rest of this. I mean, you won’t because that’s not how interacting with any part of the Internet works, but I can dream.)

Boyhood

In fact, it’s precisely because of Mason Jr.’s growth that makes Mason Sr. and Olivia so amazingly real and tragic. The vast majority of their lives are just a disaster. Divorced, Olivia goes through a string of drunk, abusive, and terrifying husbands. Mason Sr. tries to maintain a relationship with his children, estranged over distance and a disdain for patriarchal figures via Olivia’s aforementioned experiences.

But then things start to work out. Well, not really. There’s a thing Mason Sr. says towards the end, when he’s finally settled down, giving up his reckless life of working on boats and driving his GTO. No one knows what life is about, what it’s all for. It’s a sentiment expressed by innumerable films and stories since the inception of films and stories, but it sticks because we’ve just now seen it over the course of three hours.

These people didn’t grow up. They didn’t even mature. They just grew a thick skin. Feelings become numbed through just living each day, getting beat up by life and each other. Mason Sr. drives a minivan and has to endure the entirety of shuffling another child through adolescence to adulthood, his former roommate Jimmy now an actual and successful musician instead of himself. Olivia is once again and ostensibly forever single, living in an empty and tiny nest with, in her own words, an unfulfilled life.

Boyhood

Life to these people is impossibly cyclical. Broken hearts and disappointed expectations abound, a meaning to it all confounds and eludes us as the familiar sound of deep cuts scarring over settle into repeat. It’s meandering into hopefulness and pushing back the tide of depression each time the waves bash us over our heads, giving in every once in a while to remind us that, well, who knows. But it reminds us of something, that’s for sure.

For as smile inducing as the film ends, talking about the moment seizing us instead of us seizing the moment, you realize it’s just as bleak as it is optimistic. We are in such little control of what we experience that the moment grabs us and throttles us instead of the other way around. As Mason Jr. takes it as a sign pointing to a bucolic scene of friends and a future, we just saw three hours to the contrary.

It wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does riding a perfect line between being all out depressing and excessively happy if the performances of Hawke and Arquette were so appropriately transformative. You can see it as the physical toll of 12 additional years of real life hang in their eyes, shifting from wilder, more impulsive youthful adults into hardened, complacency-subdued figures that filter in and out of the burgeoning futures of their children.

Boyhood

There’s a lot more to say about this film, but it all will probably be said at other places in better words. But these two lives, simultaneously nihilistic and joyous, deserve special attention that I especially cannot ignore. If you haven’t seen Boyhood yet, be sure to get around to it. And get around to doing everything else you’ve been wanting to do. Life goes a lot faster than any of us would like.

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Predestination Review: Pasttime

Predestination

Barreling towards the finish line, you should be doused in a sense of relief. It’s all over. You’ve reached the end. But every once in a while, a film, a book, a game, or even a song turns the tables. Instead of welcoming the faithful terminus to your exhausting journey, it instead comes faster and faster with a sense of terrible dread. Predestination does this not once, not twice, but over and over again, and it is fantastic.

Predestination is a movie starring Ethan Hawke and relative newcomer Sarah Snook where Hawke plays an agent in something called the Temporal Bureau. Via the power of time travel, he goes back into the past in an attempt to thwart the deadly attacks of a criminal only known as the Fizzle Bomber.

It’s probably best to not go into too much detail about the plot of the film, though it is heavily based on a short story by Robert A. Heinlein called All You Zombies, a work he famously cranked out over the course of a single day. Written and directed by the Spierig brothers (previously of Daybreakers, also starring Hawke), there is a substantial amount of non-Heinlein work put into the film. (The trailer is also iffy to watch, if you really want to go into this right.)

It’s safe to say that, much like any good sci-fi tale about going into the past to fix the present, it involves a number of classic time travel paradoxes and even goes so far as to take one particular thought experiment to its absolute extreme. It builds over the course of several smaller, introductory mysteries, compounding and quickly unraveling into a relentless assault of denial and acceptance of the truth.

There is a base narrative here on prominent display across the eras we visit, but in it is tucked several of the strangest love stories that somehow culminates into the unequivocally brain-rattling love story of them all. The theme, however, has very little to do with love itself. Adequately translated from book to film, the story instead deals with the idea of individualism.

By the very existence of a fluid temporal causality, we have the question of creating not only your own identity but through direct influence, create another’s sense of self. This idea fights face-to-face against the creeping but overt feeling of futility inherent in any story about things meant to be or created to be. It’s bitter while still being proactive in the way you can only be when you accept a dire lot in life.

Predestination-

Talking about the story, though, fails to mention two of the biggest contributors to the success of the film. Both Snook and Hawke throw down with spectacular performances, imbuing subtle flavors of the thriller tropes the Spierigs injected into the originally very short story. Hawke does a fantastic job of creating early on a character biding and hiding some truth he already knows, which later twists and turns into something intellectually frightening for all the right reasons.

Snook, however, deserves far more mention. There are only so many ways to discuss her performance without tripping over one or two errant spoilers, but all of the post-release attention and rave reviews she has been getting is well deserved. (Predestination actually premiered in March at SXSW.) She takes a character that seems to be only ever subjected to things and points her in a direction, giving a tortured—battered—person some sense of agency.

The innumerable grand and infinitely small transitions and heartbreaking turns her character takes are so smartly addressed with Snook’s acting. It truly makes you feel that despite this unbelievable framework surrounding an additionally impossible scenario has some grounded and significant gravitas to the cinematic proceedings.

Predestination

Some oddities do exist and permeate the movie, though. For as big of a leap of faith it is to take in a crime-fighting, time-traveling organization and whatnot, there are some choice minutiae (actually some sizable pills to swallow, regardless) that can rip you from the viewing proscenium. The spacefaring sex workers and the singularly and highly unethical aspects of a central medical event come to mind where they are largely unaddressed in their bid towards incredulity.

It is, however, still both a visually and thematically beautiful movie, though very much in both aspects tragically so. There’s a twinge of existential and nihilistic forgiveness for trying to be, swirling in and around notes of dark cosmic humor. Stuffed between two stellar performances and folded into a fundamentally intriguing premise, there’s no reason to not see Predestination.

+ Successfully recounts the base yet complex themes from Heinlein’s original short story
+ Hawke and Snook bring the heat with their complementary performances
+ Fantastically shot and exceptionally paced
– Weird carryovers from the written version have the potential to extract you from the viewing

Predestination

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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The Industry That Ate Itself

The Industry That Ate Itself

“Are you ever frustrated with a hobby because of its community?” That’s the question a friend posed to me in a text yesterday afternoon. I responded in the only way I knew how, and that was with the truth.

The inquiry had to be rephrased, though. Have I ever been frustrated with a profession because of its community? Without a doubt. Journalism has been full of morally dubious folk for decades. Computer science seems to be full of nothing but sociopathic narcissists. And gaming. Well…

Of course, rounding up the entirety of the worldly populations that consider themselves even tangentially attached to these rings of interaction is undoubtedly full of folly. The problem is that the no matter how good the majority of a community is, the bitter, misguided, malevolent, cynical, and plain ol’ dickish minority will always be far more vocal.

There’s a line in Inception where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, in a debate about how to manipulate someone’s motivations, says, “I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.” That is categorically false. It’s just that there is a greater possibility for a singularly more potent positive experience. Given two memories of commensurate effect but one is traumatic and one is endearing, the former will take precedence.

This piece from the New York Times puts it quite succinctly: “you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.” And that’s kind of the problem in the world of video games. In the year of 2014, we lost. A lot. And do you know what we found? Like, some pretty good action adventure games. So guess which one is going to stick with us.

The most important thing we lost was a surging and ever-present common enemy. (It’s something well displayed in an episode of 30 Rock called “Winter Madness,” if you get a chance to watch it.) Without some single point to rally against, lightning will strike everywhere. Since Death Race of 1976, video game developers and fans have been fighting against the general public just to exist.

CNN Supreme Court decision on video games

We’ve had some close calls, too. Only in 2011 did finally the court system step in and overrule the ban on sales of violent video games, declaring once and for all they fall under the First Amendment. Seems like a pretty obvious decision to make, but that took six years to sort out.

And before that, there was Jack Thompson, the unequivocally villainous foe of the entire industry from 2003 to 2008, at which point he was summarily disbarred by the Supreme Court of Florida. But in that brief five years that felt more like forever, he wreaked havoc, spewing headliner quotes like calling video games “murder simulators” and prejudiced imperative statements like “get a life” to adults playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Luckily we have Adam Sessler to deal with that. But the hazy stream of disinformation slowly dribbling out of Thompson’s mouth more than just stuck with the public; it seemed to build on top of a foundational impression the public had of gamers already. Socially inept, basement-dwelling losers who hate the sun, fear girls, and are unquestionably sexually repressed (or deprived) men. If you played games, you were this person.

South Park World of Warcraft parody

Most likely, there is someone out there who fits this bill. That’s just how things work. Either by fulfilling some minimum of random draws or by growing into this stereotype through social pressure, there is someone just like that who plays games. But the problem is that there was no one to defend against this stigma save for those under it, which is kind of like someone saying “but I’m not a liar,” perhaps the best way to convince someone you’re a liar.

The truth is that even from the very beginning, the types of people playing video games were incredibly diverse. There’s no way it couldn’t be. How else did word spread about them? They started out in a bar, after all. But then financial and social investments became necessary, and we were put in a corner. A single corner containing a myriad of personalities, faiths, and politics.

And that’s how we fought back. From our one corner, we rebelled. It was nice, holding hands as we charged forward into the inevitable future where either we were accepted or everyone realized they were gamers too. And that mostly happened. By way of terrible but addictive games like FarmVille and less terrible but equally addictive games like Angry Birds made available through Facebook and mobile devices, everyone became a gamer. They had no choice but to accept us.

People playing mobile games

But then it stopped being a singular “us.” There was no more “us.” That stereotype—that mythical demographic of Mountain Dew-chugging, Doritos-munching shut-ins dissolved and made way for the truth we’d been sitting on for so long: we’re just people. And like any group of people, there is no possible way we’d ever agree on anything—not politics or beliefs, let alone pizza toppings—without a common enemy.

Slowly the structs of make-believe dropped from around us, like a quickly ending game of KerPlunk. And this year, all the marbles fell. Gamergate, a modern exercise in tangible absurdism, descended upon us and made all of us look like fools. Sure, there are the few that genuinely pursue the cause as a question of journalistic ethics, but the majority of it is some grotesque grasp at maintaining bigotry, sexism, and pseudo-activism abuse.

Delving into the history of the whole affair isn’t worth it at this point. You’ve surely kept up with it, willingly or not. (You couldn’t open Twitter or read a gaming site without finding some words about it.) But it is embarrassing to be sure. The rest of the world openly discusses issues regarding LGBT, male privilege, etc., but our industry still hides behind a facade of name-calling, juvenile pranks, and personally affecting threats.

Feminist Frequency

But here’s the thing. We lost a common enemy, but we gained clarity. More importantly, the rest of the world gained clarity. “Gamers” is a fruitless concept. We’re just people, and some people happen to play games, just like some people happen to watch movies or read books or listen to music.

Granted, this was not a great year to have an industry’s quality level basically implode on itself, but the potential stored in this move is momentous. We may have lost $50, but we’re about to gain much, much more.

So long as we survive the climb back up.

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Late to the Party: Black Mirror

Black Mirror

One slick trend that I approve of in modern television is smartly integrating technology into their narratives. BBC’s Sherlock, for instance, does a stellar job of showing how phones can be used to tell parallel stories and implicate heavier parts of them for drama. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. even kicks off the whole series with some timely references to how it disseminates information to the masses.

Those shows, though, rarely go beyond simply mirroring the functions of the real world. People text nowadays instead of sending emails and making calls, so that’s how it works in television. Granted, writers have learned to start using that sort of thing better and better (which Casey Johnston breaks down splendidly), but that’s very often where it stops. They just use it.

That’s where Black Mirror picks up, a British television series that dives into the minutiae of what makes technology’s twisted, symbiotic grasp on our lives so terrifying. Or at least what should make it terrifying if we ever stopped to think about it. And it’s very obvious creator Charlie Brooker, who also made Dead Set, has thought about it as he presents these self-contained short stories.

Black Mirror

As a satirist, Brooker takes our dependency and irrational love for technology to its horrifying logical conclusion. It’s not just that we use our phones at dinner or get our news from Twitter instead of actual news programs but that it has begun to infiltrate previously cordoned parts of our brain. It shows so spectacularly our collectively addled minds in the opening episode The National Anthem.

Spoiler Alert: from here on out, it’s very likely what I say will contain spoilers, major or not. The first two seasons of the show have just been added to Netflix, so if you have an account (and you are a human being, so I’m assuming you do), you should go watch it and then come back to finish reading so you can tell me how big of an idiot I am or whatever.

We have the “Facebook princess,” named so because she accepted a marriage proposal over Facebook, something that already happened way too many times to count as even news anymore. She’s also just a peach of a person, being a humanitarian and whatnot. But she’s been kidnapped, held ransom at the price of a Prime Minister’s dignity: he has to fuck a pig on live television.

Black Mirror

This introduction to Black Mirror is so intensely complex. There’s the whole idea that we, as a people, would be so perverse as to actually enjoy watching another person being forced to have sex with an animal to save another person’s life. But we also have an intimate look at the crumbling of a marriage as the Prime Minister’s wife simply can’t stand to look at him anymore, a tragedy that further encompasses a facade of happiness post-bestiality and the psychological trauma of the very act that did it.

And then there’s the bit about the journalistic hunt to pick up any news on the event in any way possible, which leads to a nearly botched rescue operation and a view at the withering integrity of both government and media. Brooker somehow turns an absolutely absurd and nearly comical situation into an incredibly sobering and realistic depiction of how we think and how we operate under the various guises of humanity being humane.

The second episode, Fifteen Million Merits, is perhaps the best of the first two seasons, and definitely bears a grotesque resemblance to our lives. (It bears mentioning that each episode has a completely different cast and setting with no overt sign that anything is connected.) In it, we find that nearly everyone in the world has been relegated to riding bikes to generate power to the world, an activity that also earns them the currency of Merits.

Black Mirror

Everything costs something. Toothpaste costs Merits. Food costs Merits. Skipping ads during a video game costs Merits. And boy are there ads. There are ads everywhere, and they are “tailored” to your habits. Our protagonist Bing Madsen, in fact, has a proclivity to watch a pornographic stream called “Wraith Babes,” so ads of women kissing each other will often plague his tiny, screen-covered square dorm room.

It is, actually, just screens. On every wall, you can see what they want you to see. Correction: you have to see what they want you to see, cutting off and warning and annoying you if you obstruct your view of the ads, a move eerily similar to how Spotify will pause ads if you mute or lower the sound.

Not everyone has this life, though. Some people escape by making it big on the talent show “Hot Shot,” an American Idol-type show where people try to make it onto a stream (read: channel) to escape the bike. It’s always either you take what they offer or you go back to the bike, a depressing existence of dark walls and petri dish food.

Black Mirror

Here, we have an exceptionally and disgustingly precise view of the world as we know it. The entire biking workforce has been subjected to gamification, earning Merits in nickels and dimes while walking past a giant leaderboard every morning. And then you spend it all back in nickels and dimes on digital hats and pants for you “Dopple,” a digital avatar not unlike the one on your Xbox Live account.

It is so striking because, as a person in the modern world, how likely is it that you will pick up your phone while you watch this show because it dings? And how often will it be an email asking you to sign up for a service? Or reminding you to log back in to something? Or just telling you that you can save %15 if you buy now?

It comments on something that is actively happening to you while you watch. Even the entirety of the arena for “Hot Shot” is formatted like that of 1 vs. 100 on Xbox 360, a memory hard to ignore as your Xbox One and Xbox 360 stare at you from your shelves and those Dopples wave back from your TV. The ad-driven economy of the workers, the inescapable necessity of grinding marketing, and a listless existence of snidely poking at everyone else’s decision to exist as well. It’s painful to accept that it’s all true.

Black Mirror

Even more piercing is the ending. The enumerating complaints that you nod along with as the episode goes on eventually gets spilled out in the way you’d hope: in the face of those most visible in the plight against those bikers. Yelling at the judges with a shard of glass at his neck, Bing erupts in articulate anger detailing how fucked up the framework of their lives is. And then, of course, he joins the corruption, choosing to host a weekly debasement of his fundamental beliefs so as to both not die and not go back to the bike.

That whole episode feels like a punch to the gut. It is poignant and twisted in a rare combination that I can’t say I’ve seen in years. The third episode lacks that same effect, mostly resigning itself to a superficial parable on living in the past and accepting people for who they are. But even then, it’s packed with such masterful storytelling and potent acting (not to mention a delicious premise of wholly accurate, controllable, and sharable memory) that it’s hard not to find it a compelling anyways.

The same goes for the rest of the second season. (I know they’re called series, but just let it go, okay?) The acting is just superb and the settings for the episodes are unbelievably well realized bits of science fiction and horror. Be Right Back, the first of the season, is emotionally impactful and has delectable notes of Her while White Bear, the second of the season, packs a devilish twist and skews close to parts of The Purge.

Black Mirror

The Waldo Moment, the season closer, is the weakest, bringing about somewhat misaligned attempts at jabbing at our half-assed political engagement. It has, once again, an interesting premise but fails to follow through on anything more than where we can see it heading in the first third of the episode. The best it provides is an aching sensation as we witness something one man creates being misappropriated for another man’s greed. Significant in its existence but not substantially explored in the story.

As a series, Black Mirror definitely stumbles every so often. Its quality wavers here and there and even dips into some mediocre territory at the end of season two, but it starts of with two absolutely unbelievable entries and continues to provide engrossing propositions of what-if. With stellar acting and topnotch production value shacking up with Brooker’s precise and pessimistic satirical mind, you have no reason not to watch.

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The Year in Review: #1 Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

The Year in Review: #1 Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

To talk about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I have to first talk about Grand Theft Auto V, which also was number four in 2013’s Year in Review. The Rockstar opus is, perhaps, a game that singularly qualifies what it means to have an open world. It feels unbelievably full, like it’s about to burst at the seams with just stuff.

It is also something they have done before and continued to iterate and improve upon since the first Grand Theft Auto in 1997. More than that, it’s something everyone else has been doing for quite some time as well. The urban fervor is ripe with possibilities in an open world. Steal cars, fire guns, and blow stuff up. The recipe is something we know well à la Mafia II, Watch Dogs, and Saints Row.

Bits and pieces change here and there, but the overall flavor remains the same. Even Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games and one set in a rather original time and place, still felt overly familiar. (Not least of all because it was another Rockstar joint, but we can get to that another time.) And then games that remix large portions of the framework like Infamous creates an open world with much to be desired.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Here is where we find Shadow of Mordor. It stands tall among others who attempt to imbue a digital landscape with some semblance of life by doing things drastically differently. Leaving the clichés of inner city freedom behind, we are in a wholly fantastical place of orcs, elves, and possessive yet empowering ghosts. The closest we had before this was the Assassin’s Creed series (which, admittedly, is structurally similar to a fault), but those were still tied to a reality of physical consequences and historical architecture.

A city is easy to fill, albeit if only in concept and not execution. Civilians freely wander the sidewalks, drive their cars, and go about their day. Cats, dogs, and birds can turn a park from an empty lot to a visual treat as you plow through on your blood-soaked rampage. Gin up some construction and place some choice incidents and you have a town that feels lived in.

A different time and place for Shadow of Mordor does not guarantee a better open world, as proven by The Saboteur (decent, but not great). In fact, filling up a fantasy world does not give you the opportunity to stuff the turkey with all the usual suspects. And if not a vibrant social or wildlife infestation, interesting gameplay has to make the sandbox compelling.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

This is why Shadow of Mordor is so interesting and so well worth playing. It makes its world of dark fantasy feel alive and worth exploring because its gameplay and mechanics make it feel alive and worth exploring. Its Nemesis system creates an entire living, breathing network of militant dynamics and social hierarchies. It injects your otherwise run of the mill encounters with fodder enemies something personal and unique.

Other games create a facade of a beating heart. Those people you run over with your car and buildings that you blow up with your bombs mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. You outrun the cops and you marvel at the indestructible construction of fictional cities. Most games are, if nothing else, but a facade for storytelling.

But Shadow of Mordor takes one more layer away from that mask by creating these customized and deserving foes. For each fellow that strikes you down, you create someone with a name, but it feels like he was there all along. As he rises through the ranks with each battle you fight, it becomes something perverse, drawing inklings of pride for your repeat offender.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

It is something that, programmatically, is nothing overtly memorable. Data like names and fight results are stored and analyzed by the terabyte every second in the fighting game community. But the presentation makes it so special. They hate you. They kill you. They remember you. It feels very much like you are walking a deadly walk into a world that existed long before you ever came around with your sword and dagger (which is also really just a sword, the second best part of the game).

By breaking the mold of what makes an open world feel like an actual locale of people and places and things, Shadow of Mordor creates something special. It’s unique for the genre and it is felt as unique by you and me as the players. The world doesn’t just feel alive but it feels like it is something that exists just for you. And it’s why Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is my number one game of the year.

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