Bethesda Showcase E3 2015 Recap

Bethesda Showcase E3 2015

Todd Howard is one hell of a guy. That was the big takeaway from Bethesda’s first ever E3 press conference. Or at least I think it was. It’s hard to tell.

Just kidding! There was so much news out of the company’s taut event that’s almost unbelievable. They should do one every year if it wouldn’t grind them into an Activision-type depression situation. But we got some poorly concealed secrets, some inevitabilities, and some honest-to-god surprises, the rarest breed of the video game industry.

Anyways, let’s get to cappin’! (Or you can just watch the entire thing archived over on Bethesda’s Twitch page.)

Doom

We finally have a launch date window for Doom as well as a set of predictable platforms. You can expect the series reboot to land on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC come next spring.

Oh, and for those of you that weren’t at QuakeCon last year (which should be all but 9,000 of you), they showed off the same demo with some slight changes. The differences aren’t especially remarkable unless you care heavily about updated sound effects. There is the nice bonus, however, of a multiplayer demo.

Dishonored 2

Without a doubt the worst kept secret of the show after a rehearsal snafu, Dishonored 2 from Arkane Studios is now official. The sequel to 2012’s Dishonored will also come to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC somewhere around spring of next year. (The release was given a range in the post-show interview with Arkane’s Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith.)

The game will feature two playable characters in Corvo Attano and Emily Kaldwin. Corvo returns from the first game where he was the main protagonist while Emily also returns but all grown up from the young princess she was in the original. She will feature a completely different set of skills and animations, highlighting the differences between her and Corvo’s training and tactics.

You won’t be able to switch between the two after you’ve chosen but you will have the same amount of freedom and gameplay latitude as from the first Dishonored. “You can play the entire game without killing anyone,” said Smith, as the characters return to the same world but a different city.

BattleCry

If you forgot about BattleCry, you’re forgiven. Not that it made a bad showing at last year’s E3 (on the contrary, I actually quite liked that demo), but it feels that at times Bethesda also forgot about the online multiplayer free-to-play brawler.

Good thing BattleCry Studios got their time during the event, announcing that they and the game do still exist and that the beta will take place sometime this year. Signups for the beta, in fact, are now open, and if you sign up before June 18, you’ll get priority access and an in-game reward.

Doom Snapmap

This is actually super exciting. Most of the other announcements were pretty exciting, sure, but this was both totally unexpected and immensely impactful. Rather than having a bunch of modders work their tails off to suss out how the pipes run under the foundation, Doom Snapmap will provide them both the tools and the schematics to understand and build on top of it all.

You’ll be able to not only create maps but also futz with the actual game logic, forcing enemies to react to your position and actions and whatnot, creating entire games or game modes. And then you’ll be able to share it and play it instantly with other UGC explorers. We’ve seen Doom in LittleBigPlanet. How long until we see LittleBigPlanet in Doom?

The Elder Scrolls: Legends

This definitely elicited the most snark on Twitter when it was announced. Everyone had the same reaction, falling somewhere along the lines of “I guess Bethesda wants a slice of that big ol’ Hearthstone pie.” While I don’t think that’s a pie up for carving so much as it is Blizzard making a quality game, I also don’t think this is as dumb of an idea as people are making it out to be.

It’s a free-to-play strategy card game that follows in the steps of the aforementioned Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. It’ll be coming to PC and iPad later this year and, well, that’s kind of all we know about it so far. I guess that and the teaser trailer is, like, super cheesy.

Dishonored Definitive Edition

Dishonored Definitive Edition

Coming this fall to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Dishonored Definitive Edition will be a new-gen rerelease of the original Dishonored packaged up with all the DLC including the trials-based Dunwall City Trials and the story-building The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches.

Fallout Shelter

This was a huge—huge—surprise. Not only did no one expect this announcement but no one really thought it would actually be available right after the event. It’s a great one-two combo that more publishers should consider doing with their press conferences.

Anyways, Fallout Shelter is a Tiny Tower-esque game for iOS that puts you in the shoes of a vault overseer. As overseer, your responsibilities include expanding your vault, defending your vault, and making sure your vault is self-sustaining with power, food, water, and dwellers. It is free-to-play, but from the few hours I’ve put into it, it’s not the in-your-face variety and more of the if-you-want-it kind.

Fallout 4

The Fallout 4 segment was—in a word—massive. With game director Todd Howard on the stage and guiding the expansive set of demos, it felt impressive and not at the all befuddled or meandering. We got a release date, the setting(s), and answers to so many more questions that we didn’t even know we were supposed to ask.

Coming November 10 of this year, Fallout 4 will put you in both pre-explosion and post-fucked time periods. And right off the bat, the demo clarifies the question we’ve all had on our minds regarding character creation: still 100% at the mercy of your imagination with its face sculpting system reminiscent of an Italian plumber.

But there’s more. Oh my god there’s so much more. There will be a full settlement component involved where you can collect scraps to build up forts and bases and entire communities, hooking up lights and defenses to power generators and defending inhabitants from raiders. It’s insanely comprehensive.

Fallout 4

Just as comprehensive, in fact, as the equipment crafting system. All the junk you can pick up like lamps and stuff can be broken down for screws and lenses, materials usable for crafting wholly new weapons off of the 50 base types, or even modify your own power armor.

Howard also exemplified his perfectly succinct self-awareness within the industry when he introduced the collector’s edition of Fallout 4. Called the Pip-Boy Edition, it will come with an actual Pip-Boy that you can wear on your wrist while you play. “As far as stupid gimmicks go, this is the best fucking one I’ve ever seen.”

But bonus: there’s an app you can install on to your phone and put it into the Pip-Boy so you can use it just like you would in the game. That means you can manage your inventory and change your gear and whatnot. Costing $119.99 USD (£99.99 UK / €129.99), it also comes with a display stand and Capsule Case. While not necessary for the app to work, it does seem kind of cool.

Fallout 4 Pip-Boy Edition

And that’s that! Pretty busy day for E3 when Day Zero hasn’t even started yet. Do you remember when that wasn’t even a thing? How far we’ve come, huh. And by that I mean god dammit I miss at least pretending there was time to sleep and eat during this show.

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Jurassic World Review: Dinoscore

Jurassic World

While the movie features a “highly intelligent animal,” the film itself is lacking in the smarts. Jurassic World is an above average summer blockbuster but all its posturing about having something to say and having more layers than its mid-June release would suggest fail to follow through. It is, however, still quite worth watching.

Jurassic World is a temporally adjusted sequel in the Jurassic Park series where the dinosaur theme park has gone from guided tour to full-blown Sea World. (You’d think, though, that the events of every other Jurassic Park movie would tell people to do anything but that.) John Hammond has passed the reigns of the park to Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) who in turn has left the business upkeep to Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard).

A classically cold and disinterested career-focused character, Claire decided that the only way to maintain visitor numbers was to manufacture an entirely new dinosaur via gene splicing. It’s a terribly large and violent thing called the Indominus Rex, an abomination that resident Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) finds out about and warns against. By then it’s too late, as they all soon discover it’s also wicked smart.

As a review, it’s never wise to simply compare one product to another, but certainly the lineage is worth considering. Jurassic World deserves praise in this department as it is never cloying towards the vaunted 1993 original, nor is it intimidated. Instead, it is referential while being reverential, surreptitiously throwing back to the first film in a way that rewards old fans while not alienating new ones.

It does, however, have a tendency to still try to aim for the bar set by the Spielberg classic. The film wants to be as smart about its characterizations and storytelling as the Indominus Rex is about being a dick. For the most part, it gets the foundation right.

Owen is painted as a man who gets the dinosaurs, making his unbelievable control over the Velociraptors actually somewhat believable. Claire is successfully set up as a woman who singularly wants to progress her career and make sure the park is operating at peak profit levels. Her nephews—who come to visit at the worst time possible—manage to both be their own self-contained drama while filling in some familial backstory on Claire.

Jurassic World

But then they fail to go much of anywhere, though the performances backing them are quite good. They start out as people and mostly devolve into archetypes and clichés with predictable arcs. Owen, in fact, doesn’t change at all. Claire only kind of gains respect for the dinosaurs (it’s also more of a fear than respect), but it’s a moot point when it’s highly doubtful they’ll ever open another park again.

It’s disappointing, actually, that as a female lead, most of Claire’s functions revolve around shallow woman-oriented subjects like a man, children, and running (impressively) in heels while screaming. She’s never quite a helpless damsel in distress, but she isn’t a layered character with complex motivations so much as a poster for that kind of character. (Nor is anyone else, as Owen doesn’t fare much better as Guy Who Is More Solution Than Person.)

As for the actual world of Jurassic World, writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow build quite the framework. If you were told that they built out an entire timeline of events from the opening of the first Jurassic Park to the opening of Jurassic World and then started writing this movie, you’d probably believe it. The background feels thick and believable.

Jurassic World

Either as a consequence or in spite of that, though, the things that happen from there come across as inevitable more than anything. There isn’t a sense of dread where you wonder how deadly they’ve made the park or where it will fail this time around. Right out of the gate we are introduced to the incredibly large and dangerous Mosasaurus, the answer to any sense of foreboding we might have had. From there it’s just a sense of acceptance rather than terrified refusal.

The action is pretty top-notch, though. While heavily CG’d and far removed from any amount of dread, it is supremely entertaining to watch. These feel like sequences you would play out as a kid with little dinosaur toys and action figures and it comes across with that kind of glee and irreverence. There’s not much drama imbued in these bits, but engrossing all the same.

The sequence you see in the trailer where the Velociraptors run as a pack into the night in particular is fantastically done. It actually conveys how strong yet sleek these animals are and why you would and should fear these things, extinct or not. They move smooth and fast and with an immense amount of power. It was great to see.

Jurassic World

It matches the pace of the actual movie, too. The film moves quickly between its mired attempts at characterization to bits of running/screaming fast enough that it’s kind of hard to fault the static players and the lack of impending doom. By building out the scope of the world and the dinosaurs and the subsequent action, Jurassic World comes across more electric than it is.

It’s hard to believe that Trevorrow went from little indie film Safety Not Guaranteed to a huge project like this, but he and his crew pull it off with aplomb. Not to say it all goes off without a hitch or a modicum of disappointment, but everything they do well generally outweighs what they didn’t do so great. Go into Jurassic World expecting spectacle and not a lot of brain and you’ll find a good time.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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Let’s Talk About Apple Music

Apple Music

The One More Thing coming out of Apple’s WWDC this year was a doozy, and not perhaps in a good way. Prolonging the already interminable keynote by over an hour, we were treated to the long predicted reveal of Apple Music, the company’s broad response to no longer being the dominant name in the online music space.

Apple rightfully earned that title back in 2001 with the advent of iTunes, a simplified listening and purchasing system for music both local and online. But then they pretty much lost that it somewhere in the mid to late 2000s when it bloated into some mess of mixed downloads and faded glory against competitors.

This, seemingly, is where Apple has seen fit to attack the world anew with Apple Music. The recently announced subscription-based streaming/social network/radio/recommendation service is supposed to unify the world of fans and artists into a single ecosystem while sitting the Cupertino-based company back at the top.

Unfortunately, this is also perhaps the worst move Apple could make. It feels just so scattershot and unfocused like a mess just waiting to happen and, worst of all, like a decision based on hubris rather than value.

Do you remember the last time Apple tried to make a social network? Yeah, it was Ping and it lasted just under two years after accruing and promptly losing about a million users. (A great deal of that probably had to do with Facebook being in its heyday.) And what about the streaming part of Apple Music? That comes across as more of a “me too!” than a “we can do this better,” a defining quality to Apple products and services.

Sure a lot of detractors and fanboys would love to pin this on the lack of Steve Jobs’ oversight, but even Tim Cook or Eddy Cue could have said no to the pressures of Jimmy Iovine and crew. By saddling up with him and Trent Reznor and Dr. Dre (and, strangely, Drake?), Apple has locked itself into a process that has found unwarranted success in leveraging names and marketing and not objective quality.

Eddy Cue and Drake

The Beats brand is precisely that: just a brand. They throw around 14 dollars at a time to get a pair of good-looking headphones, mark them up to a few hundred bucks, and watch the company value skyrocket to $3.2 billion. They’re so bad at being headphones there’s even a whole website dedicated to getting you to not buy them.

That is what they specialize in, despite being formerly known for individually making great music. They see a space, see their names, and think they can get a foothold there. All right, truth be told, that may or may not be the actual origin of Beats by Dre, but after the announcement of Apple Music, it’s hard not to see it that way (especially with the revelation that the service would top out at 256kbps, a notch down from the 320kbps of Spotify, Google, and Tidal).

What horde, exactly, was clamoring for a globally synced and available radio station? Basically no one. There’s local radio; there’s satellite radio, which SiriusXM has undoubtedly dominated; and there’s Internet radio, which a simple Google search reveals dozens of solutions. It’s strange that Apple views this as a win.

DJ Zane Lowe and Kanye West

Who was poking around YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and thinking, “Wow, I really wish there was one place for all of this”? Once again, no one. Instagram is a great space for sharing visually while YouTube is great for sharing and exploring videos. Twitter is fantastic for quick dissemination of information while Facebook, well, is kind of a mess nowadays. A consolidation doesn’t strengthen each of these attributes but rather weakens them.

Iovine, though, also focused on the concept of humans over machines, where people curating playlists and recommendations is vastly more powerful than a machine learning algorithm that produces guesses at related artists and songs. But there’s a whole tab for computer-based offerings in Apple Music, not to mention Spotify has been curating playlists since its inception (and more recently by paid employees).

Speaking of Spotify, what Iovine decided to highlight and ignore was strangely…non-competitive. There was a big splash late last year when Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify. But do you know who has that catalog? Apple. Do you know how many times they bragged about her and the rest of their library during the Apple Music segment? Five. No wait, the other one. Zero.

Taylor Swift

And while Apple boasts 800 million iTunes accounts, that actually includes every person who ever synced an iDevice or bought a single song. Spotify, on the other hand, just announced 20 million actively paying users for their service, a figure double that from a year ago.

It might have been just that, though, that persuaded Cue and Cook that expanding their music industry connections (read: purchase) with the Beats by Dre founders into a music service was a good idea. There’s a lot of money sitting around waiting to be taken away from Spotify and Pandora and Google and everyone else.

That, unfortunately, was not what earned Apple its modern recognition, nor what tore it out of 90s decline into near-obscurity and matching lack of profits. And while there’s nothing with refinement, this video lays out quite neatly the theory that the company has gone from innovator to imitator. It’s too early to tell where on the spectrum Apple Music lies, but it’s easy to say what it feels like.

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How Fallout 4 Can Win

How Fallout 4 Can Win

“Win what?” That’s probably you asking a strangely rhetorical question to no one in particular as 1) you’re most likely all alone right now and 2) you can safely assume that I’ll be answering that question posthaste. Or as close as possible as I do have a tendency to go on.

As you know, Fallout 4 was made official last week. Over the course of 24 hours and several mini announcements, we got a trailer, a website, and someone who sounds like Troy Baker perhaps offering the first voice protagonist of the series—a rarity for Bethesda in general, actually. And then the Internet went wild.

Turns out that Fallout 4 wouldn’t technically have the first voiced protagonist. And then some savvy sleuths figured out exactly where Vault 111 is located in Boston. Oh yeah, they all took a stab and placed the game in Boston based on the landmarks. But oh wait, does the Troy Baker-esque VO mean we won’t have the robust character creation options we’ve come to expect? Nope, maybe not.

I tended to shove all that aside. There was a bigger question that loomed over the announcement, one posed by another game that was recently released: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Not to say that they’re the same game, but they do have similarities and scratch a lot of the same gaming itches.

They’re both huge, sprawling open-world action RPGs with deep lore and worldbuilding, for instance, something Bethesda has prided itself on for over a decade now. But with Wild Hunt out now to great critical and commercial acclaim while Fallout 4 sits in development for at least another year, how can the storied studio set the story straight that they are indeed still the visionaries of yesteryear?

I’ve had a week to stew on the matter and I do believe I’m done percolating. After putting in considerable time into Wild Hunt (still haven’t beat it) and going back to explore some of Bethesda’s more recent offerings in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 3, there’s really only one conclusion to come to.

Fallout 4

Personal consequence. Not to mean the consequences of playing need to be more directed towards the player such as in moment-to-moment gameplay but rather that the fallout (ha!) of choices and actions need to be more personal and more impactful.

Bethesda does a great job with worldbuilding. There’s not question about that. However, they’re not so great at making it matter after the fact. It all comes across as an immensely static diorama in which more things are set, not that the people and the world react as one to the outcome of your story.

Consider the mission early in Fallout 3 where you find yourself in Megaton with the option to either facilitate its destruction or disarm its decidedly more crumbly fate. And aside from the big explosion that happened after I said, “Fuck this town,” I don’t remember much of anything of what happened.

Fallout 3

Sure, it did make a huge mark on the land in a literal way. That town is, like, super gone. And former Megaton citizens are likely to recognize and attack you. It certainly does change the way you handle that part of the world.

But that’s just it. It’s only that part of the world. For all the negative karma you get for blowing that dingy hole up with a nuke, you can actually come back from it and end up a half decent fellow. And so long as you don’t go wandering around that freshly irradiated crater, you tend to forget you even did it. It feels massively inconsequential despite being massively terrible.

Blow up the city or save it. Kill the quest-giver or save him. Fight with the farmer or fight against him. Those sorts of choices feel exceedingly mechanical in Bethesda games, where you can almost see the boolean bit being set in the memory space saying you did this thing, as if you were directly input hex values like some drastically simplified Super Mario World credits warp.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The problem is that the effect of all your gun-toting and sword-swinging causes are simply too direct and too predictable. Of course everyone hates you for blowing up Megaton. Big whoop. There’s no depth to your choices. You don’t care what’s at the bottom of a puddle because you can see it, but the bottom of the ocean is a lot more mysterious and interesting.

When you play Wild Hunt, though, you feel like there’s a far deeper web than you can possibly predict (maybe even comprehend) as you make choices. The immediacy is very apparent but everything down the road is murky and full of fear and paranoia.

Not even all your choices are purely systemic. If you head over to Vice and read this story about how neglecting Gwent, Wild Hunt‘s in-game card game, cost the life of one of Geralt’s companions, you’ll see what I mean. It’s not just about the binary options you toggle between when choosing what quests to accept but also how you go about being yourself within the shoes of this Witcher.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Of course, Bethesda games can and have achieved the same thing. Their games offer you a myriad of tactics towards accomplishing your goals or shirking your responsibilities, but they all still arrive at the same terminus with just a smattering of complexity and intrigue.

There’s also the problem of combat. While Skyrim skews closer to the setting of The Witcher series, its fighting mechanics are overly simplistic. But that’s retro-fantasty and Fallout games are future-fantasy. But they’re still failing there as well as this Forbes piece points out with the V.A.T.S. feature.

Writing also tends to be an issue, opting for dry info dumps rather than the mature and layered stuff of The Witcher games, but truly the great divider and most inviting space for Bethesda to once again innovate their style is in the worlds they build and how they feel against the coarse actions and choices you do and make. Here’s hoping, fellas.

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Sense8 Review: All for One

Sense8

Sense8 is a befuddled web of narratives that’s just as hard to watch as it is to stop thinking about. In its grand ambition of a premise, it actually fails to go much farther than the idea stage and calls it quits just after qualifying as a show. But it weaves in such interesting and engaging moments and characters that you can’t quite dismiss it completely.

Coming from the Wachowskis of The Matrix fame and the infamy of just about everything else they’ve done, it’s safe to say that the announcement of this Netflix original garnered a tepid response at best. Just as they’ve always done, though, they cook up one hell of a pitch.

In Sense8, eight strangers from around the world are mysteriously tied together by seemingly supernatural means. Slowly their past and present merge together to form their futures, taking their experiences and emotions and skills and blending them all together. They are “sensates,” people born into their own respective network of other sensates that share their, well, everything.

It is fascinating, to be sure. Through each character, wholly different cultures and identities and struggles are represented. They are each thoroughly and impressively fleshed out with entire backstories that could span individual features just as well as they fill in their slots in the show.

For instance, there’s Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), a trans woman and former hacker and current political blogger. Not only is her current predicament lovingly crafted and intricate (perhaps informed by Lana Wachowski and Clayton’s own lives?) but you then get insight on her troubling past, all of which is simultaneously built alongside the overarching plot.

And there’s Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ residing in London as she attempts to evade her past. Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt) reveals his layers of loyalty and latent romanticism amidst his strangely dissociative behavior. Each main character is a deep and necessarily real one.

Sense8

The problem is that they don’t do much besides that. With eight individuals to tend to across the 12 episodes, very often it feels like the narrative thread that ties them together is far too thin. (And we’ve already seen the “strangers connected” trope before.) Their individual stories offer a remarkable amount of depth but then when it comes to the season-wide antagonist and set of complications, it all come crumbling apart.

We don’t find out much about the villain other than he/they exist, nor do we learn much about why the sensates exist, much less the reason the bad guys want them dead. All the treachery is instead imbued into the isolated character stories which tend to tie in the other characters through happenstance and deus ex machina. It almost becomes a game during viewing of wondering how situations can be carefully constructed to require sensate intervention.

As real as the characters themselves are, the situations they find themselves in become all too predictable. Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is thrown into an especially trite arc despite being one of the more compelling sensates as a closeted movie star. And then the ones that fail to find maturity in their own stories are just confusing, like Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) and a presumably unsolved murder form his past that doesn’t seem to involve him enough to matter.

Sense8

This could be a problem of the writing. It seems like the show is more interested in telling you that it is poignant rather than being just that, almost as if in the writers room, they kept chopping out words until it felt mysterious enough to count as cerebral. And then too many oddly crafted sentences were left untouched. Especially when it comes to Nomi, it’s hard to not sigh and think to yourself that no one talks like that, like they’re constantly trying to impress James Lipton.

Many of the bits surrounding the core of the show, however, are rather impressive. The logistics, for example, of filming all these parallel scenes on location and effectively cutting them all together is awe-inspiring. And each scene is beautifully shot with clear framing and digestible movement. All that practice with the action of the Matrix movies has paid off.

The editing is simply admirable as well. The story (and stories) move so slow and meander between nowhere and the middle of it but with the cuts moving between locations and characters with slick transitions makes it all look and feel like a much faster show. It’s almost enough to keep you awake for all of it.

Sense8

Perhaps they fell into a trap of making a play of the word “sensate.” At times, the attempts for resonance is far more laughable than potent. There is an—ahem—”origin” montage that starts out relevant and points toward emotional but by the fourth sensate and what feels like its tenth minute, it’s hard not to roll your eyes and laugh.

It’s obvious the Wachowskis have a lot of stories to tell, each one seemingly more interesting and gripping than the last. They certainly have the sense of grandeur to do so. I just can’t wait for when they finally finish one.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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Surrounding Google Spotlight Stories

Google Spotlight Stories

Break the rules. It’s a mantra that can land you in a pile of fun or a heap of trouble but it’s always tempting. Unfortunately, in many of our entertainment endeavors, we rarely get to indulge in this simple pleasure. More so, it’s often an impossibility.

Enter Google Spotlight Stories, a semi-released project from Google Advanced Technology and Projects. You might better recognize the group as Google ATAP, a group within the search giant that specializes in seeking out and developing new ideas that may or may not have commercial, social, or even just any base level of practical value. As ATAP Lead Regina Dugan puts it, they are “a small band of pirates trying to do epic shit.”

While perhaps getting more headlines this past week for things like Project Tango and Google Jump, they also produced Spotlight Stories. Granted, it originally started out as product with Motorola devices like Moto X, but now it has wormed its way onto the greater breadth of Android devices and will soon be on both iOS and YouTube.

The gist of these stories is that you get some folks that like to tell tall tales and let them do it in a way that few have gotten a chance to before. By utilizing technology like Google Jump (as well as more traditional or computer-generated animation), these creators can craft fully immersive, 360-degree experiences in their narratives within these mobile devices. As you turn or look up, the viewpoint presented to you will also turn or look up.

From the static methods of visual storytelling in movies and television, Spotlight Stories attempts to instill within you the idea that doesn’t have be the way you ingest entertainment. You can break that rule and look wherever you want. You don’t even have to resign yourself to picking apart scenes at a ferocious pace at the price of taking in the overall plot. These were made to be watched over and over again, each time with you behind the wheel.

And you know what? It works. Help! is the latest story, created and released in concert with the ATAP segment in last week’s Google I/O event. Helmed by Fast and Furious director Justin Lin, it’s the first of the project’s live action venture and tracks the events of an alien crash landing into the middle of Los Angeles.

Justin Lin Help!

It is quite disorienting at first. The first thing to accomplish is to even just recognize that you control the camera. Turn around, look up and down, and try to step forward and back (that, actually, does nothing). It works fantastically but you can’t shake the feeling that you’re breaking the rules.

More than that, you can help but feel like you are missing something. As the creature chases our human friends around, half of your brain is dedicated to the sensation that this is super neat, but the other is constantly wondering if you are catching all the action, which there is a lot of.

However, this isn’t supposed to be a traditional viewing experience. (Or at least I don’t think it is.) It became a lot more interesting once you engaged with the idea that you are building the whole story one run at a time. It’s a rather short film coming in at just a few minutes, but each time you watch you can fill in gaps you left from the time before. Slowly, it all comes together, as if you were solving a puzzle broken and left behind by the creator.

Glen Keane Duet

While there’s nothing particularly innovative about the story itself or the smattering of acting we are privy to, it’s something worth indulging in. Glen Keane, the Disney legend behind characters like Ariel and Beast and Aladdin as well as the award-winning short Paperman, was one of the first to sign up with Spotlight Stories. Duet, Keane’s short that launched with the app last year, is the result of his belief that there’s something to this thing. (It’s also worth watching.)

And more are signing on, including Aardman Animations, the studio behind Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit; Patrick Osborne, the director of Disney’s short film Feast; and a few others that you’ll probably recognize.

Aardman will produce Special Delivery, a story about a janitor who chases an intruder around on Christmas Eve. “Viewers will have the option of following the janitor, the intruder, or peep into the homes of building dwellers.” From Osborne, we’ll have Pearl, which will “take place entirely in a car, and will use a musical format to explore the theme of ‘gifts we inherit from our parents, both tangible and intangible.'”

Patrick Osborne Pearl

Certainly it’s far too early (and far too insane) to call this the future of entertainment, but there is value here. It is a unique experience that provides a different kind of interaction from video games and a different kind of storytelling from movies. If you can, definitely give Spotlight Stories a shot. It might convince you of something else entirely, like maybe breaking the rules isn’t such a good thing.

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You Should Probably Watch Kung Fury

Kung Fury

There was a trailer from about a year and a half ago that made quite the splash. And then there was the David Hasselhoff music video from back in April that reminded people to go watch that trailer again. And finally, as of late last week, it has all come together in Kung Fury, and you should probably watch it.

Kung Fury is a Kickstarted short film that takes everything that makes you laugh about and cringe at the 80s and compresses it into a tight 30-minute block of absurdity. Despite being rather well funded at $630,019, it still possesses the charm of a dirt poor but well executed indie endeavor. So much of it has a cavalier, brazen quality to it that makes it hard to hate, even if pugilistic arcade cabinets aren’t your thing.

It takes a cop (David Sandberg) imbued with the powers of the prophetic Kung Fury to go back in time and defeat Adolf Hitler (Jorma Taccone)—better known as the Kung Führer—before he can murder his entire precinct. It is 100-percent ridiculous and somewhere around 90-percent terrific. For all the quirky gags and batshit scenarios, it still has a few flaws.

There are moments where the in-your-face “haha it’s the 80s GET IT” schtick wears thin. Or rather, it takes an odd turn from pitch-perfect parody to some uncomfortable and unintentional cynicism. The bits like the phone number with the Viking ladies still pull in laughs but they push in some modicum of metaphysical consideration.

The vast majority of the film, however, is superb. It paces excellently between over-the-top machismo, illogical yet logical action, and easily quotable one-liners. It even knows when to take it slow and develop some actual plot, no matter how crazy it is. Slowing down is vital for a movie like this. You want the viewer to know when insanity is happening and not for it to become ordinary.

But even the more deliberate sections are still memorable and hilarious. From the sojourn into the far past and the perfectly cast (and dressed) hacker character and especially the conversation about mustaches, it all adds variety to the pacing as well as variety to the jokes. Instead of just bodies exploding and an inexplicable triceratops as a cop, there is some good setup and delivery as well.

Kung Fury

However, the exploding bodies and Triceracops and their ilk should be noted as positives. For all the untamed madness, there is a calculated methodology to the proceedings. There are times where it feels like a reference is made just for the sake of the reference, but there are also plenty of times where a joke stands perfectly well on its own in addition to the context of the action.

I do worry, however, that this will only bring about more and more pieces of media that try to emulate what Kung Fury does. Without the deft and careful handling of the material, the ensuing experiments could easily delve into “zany” territory. It’s a shame I wrote about things being what they are instead of what people want them to be last week. It would work so well for this movie.

Paranoia aside, you should watch Kung Fury. It’s free, it’s brief, and it’s packed with enough good times to keep you smiling for days later. So get to it!

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Trying to be a Game

Trying to be a Game

At some point, the umbrella is too small. You keep throwing things under it, hoarding definitions and references and landmarks, until it stops being an umbrella altogether and starts being a noose. The ones that hoisted the parasol as a banner start to resent the foisted structure.

Of course then the problem is one of nomenclature. What do you even call it if not this thing? This is a struggle that strikes all artistic mediums after a certain point of maturity. Once all the obvious bits are done away with, you have to start asking “what not” instead of “where to begin.” All the fruit, low-hanging or otherwise, has left the tree.

That’s how you encounter situations like the 240-hour Modern Times Forever, a Danish film that depicts how Helsinki’s Stora Enso headquarters building would decay over the next few millennia. Few would dare call it a film as something you could casually watch on your television, but it still is a categorical fit. (Strangely, though, it has a lot in common with many of the first films ever made including Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse.)

Video games are finding themselves critically and quickly at this point. Over the short span of 70-ish years, the industry has gone from figuring out what it needs to do to figuring out what it can do. It needed to give people an interactive experience. But what could it necessarily do beyond that?

The term “low-hanging fruit” has earned a negative connotation, but it’s not always a bad thing. The grasp and execution of it all lays the foundation for what lies higher up. Lower doesn’t mean it’s within reach; it doesn’t preclude innovation. In fact, it often requires it.

Certainly the earliest and most recognizable video games were of the needs variety. Consider Pong, a tennis-based game that took a simple and immediately intuitive competitive structure and gameplay loop into the history books. Then Asteroids and Centipede, two classics that arguably rode the space wave amidst the recently launched NASA Space Shuttle program into relevancy and, consequently, popularity.

Very quickly—relative to other mediums like music and film—video games wanted to do more, jumping from tree to tree in pursuit of higher and higher fruit. From simplistic coin-ops to the home console to the modern era of games, we eventually arrive at the like of Proteus and Dear Esther. Whole genres push the greater corral like interactive novels and, well, I guess you could call them experiments.

This is all a very long and roundabout way to bring up something that has been cropping up lately: Mad Max previews. First off, it’s crazy for any of the previewers to compare with or expect anything resembling the recent film Mad Max: Fury Road. Their mostly aligned release schedules seem to be more coincidence than anything else. It’s completely detached from the movie.

But the second part is that ignoring that first thing brings up some interesting considerations. Whereas the film was full of life and drama and implements that are exceedingly specific to what director George Miller wanted to achieve, the game appears to be a by-the-numbers affair, albeit a rather competent one. But lifeless it is by comparison.

It’s not that the game itself lacks content or life; on the contrary, developers Avalanche Studios (the folks behind the rambunctious and teeming Just Cause games) and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (the same behind the Batman Arkham franchise) seem to have instilled a lot of freneticism into the game. With that combined pedigree, it seems inevitable the kind of game they would make.

That inevitability seems to have trapped them, though. Instead of questioning what the game can be, they made what it needed to be. It reads like a checklist (car combat, melee combat, open world, outposts, etc.) and even more so when the layers peel back. Things like throwing up into the air trackable/countable achievements like yanked tires or freed territories. Jason Shreier of Kotaku made the astute and appropriate Ubisoft comparison.

Not that there’s anything even wrong with the 1 + 2 = Mad Max equation. The structure seems like a natural fit for the fiction and the universe, so it can hardly be blamed as a capitalization on a gift horse. But the described framework quickly became a prescriptive one where reach and grasp were easily met by fruit so low it might as well already be in the basket.

Mad Max

It seems like Mad Max is trying so hard to be a game that it never wanted to explore what else it could be. It seems almost comfortable under the umbrella, watching others push out into the rain and stumble and fall. In the expansion under the brim, you go further and further until a new shelter takes in your borders.

This is not to disparage a game that isn’t even out yet nor is it to put down the artists and developers and designers behind the scenes putting it out. This is just a statement—a plea to not always want to be a game but rather be whatever you need to be. You may not fit under this umbrella and others may not join you under yours, but that’s better than slotting into a mold that never quite fit.

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Mad Max: Fury Road Review: Pedal to the Metal

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is the most cogent insanity you will see all year. Every step of the way is another that takes you further away from recognizing anything resembling reality but each thunderous push forward makes sense. With so much empty action and hollow drama out there, it’s remarkable to find a film that gives madness with substance.

Not a sequel (fan theories be damned) but not being touted as a reboot, this entry into the franchise finds Max (Tom Hardy) once more trying to survive in a desert wasteland following some cataclysmic event forcing the total collapse of society. He’s captured by a battle-tuned gang called the War Boys only to be set out again as a chained up “blood bag” for a pursuer in the chase.

The hunt is after an Imperator named Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a leader of the group that has turned against their cultish king Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe has been holding beautiful women as his wives for breeding—seeing as how the desert near-apocalypse has turned everyone hideous—but Furiosa could abide no more and seeks to set it right.

From the beginning to even the end of that narrative setup—and all the way to the end—is the most bat shit crazy and overwhelming dive into a pool of lunacy. It’s a hungry sort of insanity surrounding all of the action, like if a red-tailed hawk didn’t just want to but had to dive faster so he took hold of a passing F-16 and went headfirst into a pile of fireworks and gasoline.

And it’s all totally comprehensible. With the combat-ready big rigs and “pole cats”—the guys you see in the trailer riding atop swaying poles attached to speeding trucks—and the inexplicable but absolutely necessary flaming guitar War Boy, it would be easy to lose sight of the purpose of each action sequence. But director George Miller has an uncanny knack for making visual absurdity wholly digestible and beautiful.

At no point does it come across as action happening for the sake of action. A great deal of it borders on gratuitous, but it fits so well within the world Miller has built that it all seems natural. There’s a logic to the reactions and nutso solutions for even the smallest problems that crop up. Siphoning nitro from mouth directly to the engine and tank-convertible cars and even more hysteria that defies words all nestle right into your arms like an exploding, bleeding, screaming teddy bear.

Mad Max: Fury Road

That is perhaps the most impressive part: the world-building is so exhaustive. Like how scarcity of resources have led to distinctly exclusive encampments that specialize solely in those assets. Or how singularly capable a cult leader can manipulate beliefs into unwavering loyalty and a twisted sense of camaraderie. Every single piece of Fury Road seems completely considered.

That part is not a surprise considering Miller has been storyboarding and concept arting since the late 1990s. There wasn’t even a screenplay for the longest time. The surprising part is how from that unconventional development there also emerged several strong, stout themes.

There isn’t a lot of dialogue—just like the other Mad Max films—but that allows everything to be intellectually distilled into just primal senses. While primarily all about survival, characters emerge from their visually stated origins just as do your desires for these characters. You know who you want to survive and who needs a bloody retribution right off the bat and you begin to intuit why along the way.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Take for example the War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), the aforementioned pursuer to Furiosa. You might recognize him as the fellow in the trailers yelling into abject terror something about a lovely day. Already a delectable turn for normally nice boy Hoult, Nux goes through several transformations. And as you understand the strangely Norse-infused ideologies of Joe, it makes more and more sense in a demented way.

The mythology extends further into even the name of the movie. Joe’s wives act very much in the fashion of Greek Furies, or Norse Valkyries. In their pursuit of reclaiming Joe’s “property,” these women are guiding—picking and choosing—those that die and ascend to the prize promised them.

And then there’s the feminist angle, which is not necessarily feminist so much as it is humanist. “We are not things,” says the wives. And once the elderly women enter the picture, they make a structured and bold entrance. It’s a statement about possession of people as well as the intrinsic value of a body versus spirit. Absolutely there is a feminist statement in it, but there’s also a core that seeks to defeat universal folly. (But really, those women kick ass. Don’t forget that.)

Mad Max: Fury Road

There are a few disappointing bits to the film, though. As a consequence of the lack of dialogue, which is also a consequence of being incessantly chased and exploded, there isn’t much of a discrete arc outside of Nux. Max and Furiosa are mostly the same as when they started by the end of the movie and the wives don’t project much personality beyond wanting to not be sex slaves. And due to the heavy use of mouth-obscuring masks and Hardy’s trademark gruff, much of that dialogue is indecipherable.

So then unless you are able to pick up and buy into the instinctual development of these characters, it’s a lot harder to care for them. You begin with broad swaths of personalization and as the movie goes on, you see the layers emerge rather than listening for them. Showing is a lot harder to do than telling anyway, but it’s so much more effective. With all the carnage, though, showing is even harder, but Miller still manages it, though not as much as he could probably do with a few dozen more hours.

Miller is still a master of kinetic filmmaking, and this time he has injected his cinematic statement with hefty social commentary. He never overindulges himself into a gratuitous state, never going chargeless into a pointless fight or explosion. He’s hewn Mad Max: Fury Road into a sharp and profound and striking film that you should definitely see.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Final Score: 10 out of 10

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Pitch Perfect 2 Review: Aca-Something

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2 is barely a movie. And that should be a massive consideration. While Pitch Perfect managed to capture pop culture lightning in a bottle that also happened to house a story about finding friends and a sense of belonging, the sequel squeaks by in being a collection of loosely connected jokes, songs, and scenes. And it’s still probably worth seeing.

It opens a few years down the road following the first movie with the Barden Bellas, the all-girl a capella group at a fictional Georgia college, performing at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Still riding high from their national victory (and, apparently, subsequent repeats), they have official gone big time.

Unfortunately, a classic wardrobe malfunction in front of President and Mrs. Obama sends them into the gutter and forces them to compete in the international circuit to regain their respect. The problem arrives in three parts: 1) a new legacy pledge shows up, 2) the reigning international champions are dangerously German, and 3) Becca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) gets a job at a recording studio.

Despite all the surface-level differences, the plot moves in very much the same way as the first film. Becca, in fact, repeats her arc of going from too-cool-for-you to “I love you awesome nerds” once more. But then the beats involving being new to competitive a capella, finding a love interest, and integrating personal musical desires get excised and put onto newcomer Emily Junk-Hardon (Hailee Steinfeld).

The repetitive structure manages to feel worn even halfway through the film’s 115-minute runtime where even the predictable act structure of a modern comedy can’t be popcorn’d away. Even the ordering of song and choreography build up is similar, following bigger and bigger moments with more and more intimate singing exchanges. They even manage to cook up a fantastically ill-explained Riff-off simulacrum hosted by David Cross.

And somehow, it still doesn’t seem to matter as much as it should. This isn’t a movie so much as it is a tightly compacted sequence of Fun Things. Hell, the antagonists’ most evil quality is wearing mesh shirts. While the song selection isn’t as catchy or head-bobbing or sing-alongy as before, they are still quite electrifying to watch. It’s enough to make you wonder why you didn’t join a college a capella group as well. (It’s not too late for some of you!)

Pitch Perfect 2

First-time director Elizabeth Banks—who also plays a capella commentator Gail Abernathy-McKadden—manages to mostly keep it moving at a brisk pace, barely allowing you to recognize the failings in the moment. Jokes land with regular consistency and are even able to further explore some of the established shenanigans of the first film.

The Jessica/Ashley gag is especially choice, as are most of the Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) bits where she interacts with, well, basically anyone and anything. However, some of the jokes fall so flat that they don’t even register as jokes, most of which occur with the minority Bellas played by Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee, and Chrissie Fit. If they were more pointed and handled more gracefully, then some could have counted as biting commentary, but instead they just come off as shirt-yankingly awkward.

However, the spirit remains intact. It’s impossibly upbeat, even when the drummed-up drama surfaces (for legal reasons, probably), and makes you feel like you could be a Bella. Peering through the casually racist stereotyping; innumerable cameos by the likes of Snoop Dogg and the Green Bay Packers and Pentatonix(!); and mishandled narrative, it still comes out shining brighter than it should.

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2 never quite reaches the smooth, comfortable grace with a side of slick rebellion that only a quirky underdog film like its predecessor can achieve, but it still manages to be mostly together and mostly entertaining. With expectations in check and a heart open to a capella mashups, then you can find joy in it, too.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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