Ms Marvel Super Follow-Up Issue 1

I’d already been enjoying Ms Marvel, but the finale episode knocked it over the top

The Ms Marvel series had already won me over on sheer charm, but the finale episode was so well-done that it knocked the show into my #2 favorite MCU series, right after WandaVision1Please don’t turn Kamala Khan into a villain, Marvel. The scene of Kamala revealing her secret identity to her family was enough to win me over just on its own.

My biggest complaint — my only complaint, really — is that once you show a villain firing weapons at children, you need to show them getting a bigger comeuppance than just losing their job.

Some of the middle episodes seemed to me to struggle with balancing MCU-level fate-of-the-entire-world action scenes with a series targeted at a younger, more family-friendly audience. I think the finale did a much better job with it overall2But the content warning at the beginning of the episode was a thoughtful and necessary inclusion, keeping it mostly at the those-wacky-teens-and-their-inventions level while still keeping the stakes high.

Best of all is that it managed to stay true to the series’ overall tone of joy, optimism, community, and family, without coming across as mawkish or tacked-on.3I think Captain America’s final speech in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was well-written and well-acted, but it still felt like an over-simplistic afterthought after the more mature and nuanced takes on it earlier in the series. The repeated idea of responding to aggression with empathetic resistance is a great one even for audiences that don’t fall into the “young adult” category. This is the first MCU series that I would love to see turned into an ongoing series4As much as I loved WandaVision, it absolutely didn’t need a second season, and I hope there is one after the movies.

A final spoiler note related to my wondering whether I’m in the target audience or not: We’d seen a comment online about Bruno’s last revelation in the finale (which was a big surprise to me, after so many months of speculation about how the MCU was going to continue!), mentioning the sound cue that played underneath it. We watched it again today, cranking up the volume and listening for anything unusual, but didn’t hear anything particularly odd — maybe it was a sound effect from one of the earlier movies that we didn’t recognize?

As a joke, I said that if they really wanted to drive it home, they would’ve included the iconic theme song from the 90s TV series that I’m still not trying to spoil for people who haven’t seen all of Ms Marvel yet. So we went back and listened to the scene again, even more closely, and there it was: that iconic riff, played barely audibly just underneath the theme music5Which reminds me: hearing Pakistani/Indian takes on the usual MCU themes has been just delightful through the whole series.. Which made me wonder: was it that subtle for everybody watching? Or just for those of us who are in our 50s and having to watch everything with the subtitles turned on these days?

Whatever the case, I’m squeezing myself into the target audience even if that wasn’t the original intention. I’ve been charmed by this series and I can’t wait for The Marvels.

  • 1
    Please don’t turn Kamala Khan into a villain, Marvel
  • 2
    But the content warning at the beginning of the episode was a thoughtful and necessary inclusion
  • 3
    I think Captain America’s final speech in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was well-written and well-acted, but it still felt like an over-simplistic afterthought after the more mature and nuanced takes on it earlier in the series.
  • 4
    As much as I loved WandaVision, it absolutely didn’t need a second season
  • 5
    Which reminds me: hearing Pakistani/Indian takes on the usual MCU themes has been just delightful through the whole series.

Literacy 2022: Book 6: Mexican Gothic

Does exactly what it says on the cover, and it does it really well

Book
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Synopsis
Set in the 1950s, young socialite Noemí Taboada is summoned from her home in Mexico City to respond to a desperate letter sent by her recently-married cousin Catalina. She travels to the family home of Catalina’s new husband, an aging gothic mansion next to a silver mine in Hidalgo. There, she’s haunted by increasingly disturbing nightmares as she uncovers secrets about the family’s dark past, and she suspects that Catalina’s illness and apparent mental breakdown might be caused by something more sinister.

Pros

  • Stylistically fascinating. The prose itself is straightforward language that rarely gets too flowery or poetic, but often gives the sense of poetry via rhythm and repetition. Details are withheld to stretch out intrigue and give passages forward momentum. Words and ideas are introduced as innocuous foreshadowing, and then repeated with increasing frequency as the idea grows more urgent.
  • Noemí is an outstanding protagonist. The aspects of her personality that would usually be characterized as “flaws” in a less nuanced (or frankly, more misogynistic) story — her impulsiveness, vanity, stubbornness, youthful arrogance, and manipulative streak — are instead acknowledged as essential parts of who she is, and they even become assets. She’s an extremely intelligent and ambitious character who happens to enjoy the kind of life that shallow people also enjoy.
  • The author deftly presents an extended metaphor for colonialism embedded in a story that explicitly deals with colonialism. Instead of feeling redundant, it feels as if the details of Mexican history pre- and post-Revolution refuse to sit inert as factual history; they’re given more emotional weight and made to feel more present by seeing the manipulation and abuse played out in a more supernatural Gothic horror.
  • Steadfastly anti-racist and anti-sexist without ever feeling stridently so.
  • The author’s notes, along with her essays about the history of gothic romances, and the real Mexican town that inspired the setting of the book, are more interesting and valuable than 99% of novels’ after-words tend to be. They show how much thought went into crafting this book.
  • It doesn’t descend into pastiche, and it isn’t a deconstruction or a re-interpretation of a Gothic Horror or Gothic Romance novel; it is unabashedly and unashamedly a Gothic Horror/Romance novel. All of the standard elements are used to great effect, without feeling like re-tread or parody. Overall, it feels like a novel written by someone who understands the appeal of the format and its tropes, and is able to counteract the genre’s limitations without also losing what makes it appealing in the first place.

Cons

  • One decision in terms of pacing the book was extremely jarring and killed my enthusiasm for getting back into it for a day. I was loving the build-up and ever-increasing sense of dread for the first half of the book… and then, a scene happened right after the halfway point that I still believe should’ve been left closer to the climax. I understand the reasoning behind it: stretching it out for much longer would’ve made Noemí seem like a simpleton, because things had developed long past the point of hiding or overlooking the sinister. Still, it felt jarringly sudden.
  • As a result of the above: an entire chapter is just devoted to exposition, with a character explaining everything that had happened before. I wish that this had been stretched out longer, with Noemí discovering these details and more actively piecing them together, instead of having it all spelled out for her.

Verdict
A truly excellent, compelling horror novel that proves genre fiction can be intelligent, and that familiar tropes can be applied to novel settings. Even with my one big reservation about the climax happening too early, I think it sticks the landing. The resolution had the satisfying feeling of checking off all of the ideas and all of the details that had been set up over the first half of the book. As a white American with little knowledge of Mexico beyond a bunch of random, unsorted facts about its history, I’m really looking forward to reading more by Moreno-Garcia.

One Thing I Love About Ms Marvel

Apart from possibly the best casting in any MCU project, the thing I like best about Ms Marvel is the same thing I liked about Hawkeye

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve seen the first five episodes of Ms Marvel on Disney Plus1I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.. I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoyed it; I can’t really think of a better word to describe it than delightful.

I admit that I initially assumed that it would be little more than a victory lap for the MCU2Kind of like Rogers The Musical combined with some nods to Muslim-American culture that could either come across as pandering or inert. Instead, there’s a real feeling of enthusiasm, excitement, and pride that comes through.

It’s what makes the series work, since it would frankly be underwhelming if it were nothing more than an MCU super-hero origin series: the pacing is weirdly disjointed, as stuff just seems to happen instead of flowing together in a clear chain of cause-and-effect. But the disjointed pacing in most MCU projects seems to be the result of trying to cram in big action set pieces at predetermined intervals, while here it’s reversed. In Ms Marvel, it usually feels as if they’re trying to work backwards from a predetermined set of character moments, while fitting everything into a set of 30-minute episodes.

But those character moments work largely because the performances are so good. Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan is so perfectly cast that it’s almost absurd; Marvel has released making-of featurettes that describe how Vellani was at least as big a fan of Captain Marvel (and Ms Marvel, and the comics in general) as her character is, and it comes across as completely genuine.

I’m also really impressed with Zenobia Shroff’s performance as her mother Muneeba Khan. Her character is given so many opportunities to evaporate into clichés, but she manages to feel genuine and sympathetic throughout. Any story about a teenager coming of age is going to have scenes where the parents are antagonists, but even when she’s set up to be the main obstacle, there’s a sense that you can understand why she’s doing the things she does. It would’ve just come across as “hyper-protective immigrant mom” had she not been able to convey a genuine sense of compassion.

All of that works together towards what I think is the one thing I like most about Ms Marvel, which is essentially the same thing I liked about Hawkeye, which is that it has a tone and focus that go beyond just being a super-hero origin story. Kamala Khan is a character even more obsessed with super-heroes than Kate Bishop was, but these series don’t accept “super-hero” as a genre on its own. Hawkeye was an action-comedy that frequently called back to the MCU, while Ms Marvel is a coming-of-age story about a Pakistani Muslim-American teenager that uses the supernatural not so much as the focus, but as the thing that helps her define herself.

Part of that is knowing what the target audience is. This feels like a show about a teenager that isn’t necessarily targeted at teenagers, but designed from top to bottom to be something that teenagers can watch with their families. That means that the crises are kept mostly in the realm of things that a girl in high school in Jersey City would be concerned about, with the destruction of the entire world3Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all being treated as a backdrop for more personal stories.

I spent a lot of the series thinking that I was enjoying it, but I was just barely included in the target audience, but as the series has progressed, the more I’ve been convinced that it is at least partially aimed at people like me — white Americans who don’t know much about the experiences of American immigrant families, and only the most basic details about non-European history.4And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media. I’ve picked up the barest hint of basic info about the separation of India and Pakistan, but I either never knew, or I’d forgotten, how much of the conflict was driven not just by British colonialism, but by divisions between Muslims and Hindus. Obviously I’m not claiming that I’m now an authority, but seeing even this much presented in an accessible format is more than I’ve gotten before.

I’ve read criticism from the original Ms Marvel comics writer, lamenting that the TV series chose to change Kamala’s powers from the body-stretching/shape-shifting ones in the comics to something “shiny and sparkly.” I can see both sides to the argument, as I understand it. I like the TV origin story much better than the comics I’ve read — even if The Inhumans hadn’t been such a disappointment, tying Kamala’s origin story to that instead of something more rooted in Islamic mythology would’ve been a huge missed opportunity. Also, even if the body-stretching imagery looked good — and it rarely looks good even on feature film budgets, much less in a TV series — it would make Kamala seem more like a junior Reed Richards than a hero inspired by Carol Danvers.

But there is an extremely important idea from the comics that has undeniably been lost in the TV translation: in the comics, when Kamala first gains her powers, she almost subconsciously takes on the form of a more Westernized version of beauty. It takes a while before she’s comfortable presenting herself as a Pakistani-American teenage girl with a big weird fist, because she’s spent her entire life being barraged with imagery that suggests she’s weird and different. Ironically it’s kind of a shame that the TV version of Kamala comes across as more confident than her comics counterpart — she’s often insecure, and often feels like an outsider, but in the TV version, it’s more because of her nerdiness than her ethnicity or heritage.

To be fair, the TV series does hint at that, with a scene in which obnoxious white kids give her alcohol at a party, but it’s pretty brief. Most of the series presents Kamala and her family as part of a sizable Muslim community that welcomes non-Muslims, instead of portraying them as an isolated enclave surrounded by people who see them as outsiders.

I’m obviously not qualified to say whether that’s an entirely positive change or not. It does have the effect of making me feel even more like I intersect with the target audience, though — the comics felt as if they were made to give Muslim and South Asian teenagers in general a character whom they could directly identify with, from someone who understands what their experiences are like. The TV series often feels more like it’s intending to show non-Muslims like me what a different culture is like. I do wonder if it would seem too simplistic, too juvenile, or too didactic for teenagers who’ve already grown up in that environment, but I can only say that I’ve loved seeing the portrayal of a culture that’s not my own, but inclusive.

  • 1
    I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.
  • 2
    Kind of like Rogers The Musical
  • 3
    Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all
  • 4
    And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media.

A List of Things I Like About Thor: Love and Thunder

Because there haven’t been enough people posting their opinions about this movie online

  • I like it better than Ragnarok. I don’t think there are any moments in Love and Thunder that hold up to the best moments of Ragnarok, but I think it works better as a movie overall, largely because it feels more confidently silly instead of trying to balance pathos and heavy metal while proving “a Thor movie can too be funny.”
  • Russell Crowe as Zeus was clearly there to have fun and felt he had absolutely nothing to prove. Ever since Endgame, I haven’t been able to make up my mind whether the MCU as a whole and Thor in particular are making fun of fat people, or if it’s just acknowledging that a physique like Chris Hemsworth’s isn’t natural (or even attainable) to most people and is every bit an active choice. Love and Thunder makes it even murkier, but at least Crowe seems to be delighted to appear in armor that highlights his “post-divorce” body1Which is 10,000x hotter than he was in Gladiator, if you ask me.
  • Tessa Thompson as King Valkyrie had to underplay her performance — as she often had to be the straight man2Ironically surrounded by absurdity — but she still managed to be a distinctive character who fit perfectly into this bizarre universe. The result was that she was powerfully sexy and attractive in just about every scene, even for an actor who is usually the sexiest person on camera without even trying.
  • The lighter tone worked overall because it made the darker subjects feel less like maudlin manipulation. Jane’s cancer story in the comic felt cheaper to me because it tried so hard to give the subject the gravitas it was supposed to deserve, which was then undercut by introducing a magic hammer. I felt the movie was actually more respectful by letting her be silly and over-enthusiastic about getting to be a superhero. It spun the premise from “real-world tragedy given a supernatural spin” to one about a character choosing what to make of her life.
  • The screaming goats were overused and yet they still made me laugh every single time.
  • The girl using her stuffed animal as a weapon was a little predictable and obvious but still worked 1000%.
  • Gorr the God-Butcher’s story didn’t give Christian Bale any opportunities to be funny, but it worked perfectly as a counterpoint to the silliness of the rest of the movie, emphasizing how increasingly cosmic-powered and god-like superheroes become disgusting when they act without integrity and responsibility.
  • It also meshed surprisingly well with Jane Foster’s story, bringing the idea back from “who would win in a fight?” or “who will be first to reach the magic MacGuffin?” to questions about why we do the things we do, and why do we exist at all.
  • It’s my favorite of the Taika Waititi projects I’ve seen3Apart from maybe the TV series of What We Do In the Shadows, which I love mostly based on the performances of the actors. Every time I see a project where he’s a creative lead, I’m left with the feeling that I wish I liked it more than I actually do. It often feels like the sense of freedom that makes his projects so appealing is combined with a lack of restraint. So jokes that don’t really land are given way too much screen time4As much as I like Melissa McCarthy, I wish they’d cut the entire rehash of the play in New Asgard, since it was no longer making fun at the self-seriousness of the first two Thor movies, but just saying “Hey look at these famous and semi-famous people we got to do cameos”, and the stories often feel disjointed in tone and weirdly flippant5The scene in The Mandalorian with the stormtroopers punching the bag containing Baby Yoda is a perfect example. In Love and Thunder, I think the shifts in tone were used for good effect: the silly stuff felt like it was poking fun at targets who deserved it, while more serious subjects were treated with enough levity that they felt authentic instead of maudlin.
  • 1
    Which is 10,000x hotter than he was in Gladiator, if you ask me
  • 2
    Ironically
  • 3
    Apart from maybe the TV series of What We Do In the Shadows, which I love mostly based on the performances of the actors
  • 4
    As much as I like Melissa McCarthy, I wish they’d cut the entire rehash of the play in New Asgard, since it was no longer making fun at the self-seriousness of the first two Thor movies, but just saying “Hey look at these famous and semi-famous people we got to do cameos”
  • 5
    The scene in The Mandalorian with the stormtroopers punching the bag containing Baby Yoda is a perfect example

My Favorite Games: You Don’t Know Jack Movies

Did someone order an 8-inch sausage?

Warning I’m about to be extremely Gen-X here: out of all the multi-million-dollar budgeted AAA games I’ve played, none of them have managed to give me as strong a visceral reaction as the first time I played You Don’t Know Jack, and the pre-show voice said, “All right, lose the desktop.”

That was the first sign that the Jellyvision/Jackbox writers knew how to speak directly to me. In fact, I found out several years later that one of my other most impactful moments in video games — when the Seaman responded eerily insightfully after I told him my favorite movie was Miller’s Crossing — was also written by the team at Jellyvision. The thing that’s been consistent across different games and different genres is a commitment to ignoring conventions and expectations and instead making something that really connects with the audience regardless of the medium.

Or more specifically: the You Don’t Know Jack series isn’t funny for a video game, it’s just plain funny. Even back in the 90s, there was already this whole subculture of in-jokes and self-reference among video games, as if the medium could only ever appeal to a subset of nerds. You Don’t Know Jack defied that by making stuff that engaged with the audience on its own terms, instead of targeting a specific pre-existing audience.

And the Movies version remains my favorite because it felt like they were relentlessly experimenting with the format throughout. All of the question bumpers were built around movie references — my favorites being the bomb countdown, and the porno — with a confidence that the audience was going to get it. They also experimented with the format itself, like with the repeating questions about Groundhog Day. The whole thing gives the impression that they were making video games because they wanted to make video games, not because they were slumming until they could find jobs in “legit” media like television and movies.

I was especially impressed to find out just how much thought went into it, as well. At my first Computer Game Developers Conference1Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference, I saw a fantastic presentation from Harry Gottlieb in which he explained the philosophy behind the You Don’t Know Jack games (and Jellyvision in general), and how it could be applied to non-game platforms like banking and medical assistance. Seemingly every single detail was designed to tear down the interface — or specifically, assumptions about the interface — and establish a more direct and natural connection between the user and the developer. Among other things, that meant more natural, casual language; and a responsiveness to everything the user did, including stuff that was traditionally ignored in interfaces, like interrupting a prompt.

It’d be well over a decade before those ideas took off, with corporations’ brief fascination with chatbots a few years back. The reason that failed wasn’t concept, but execution: they never really felt natural, so it just felt like adding unnecessary complications to what should have been a much simpler process.

But back to video games: the You Don’t Know Jack series remains the best-written comedy video games ever. And they did it by deliberately not targeting just an audience of video game nerds, but an audience of real people who could be trusted to get the joke.2And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.

  • 1
    Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference
  • 2
    And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.

Point of Pride

Squeaking in an observance of Pride Month at the last minute

I don’t usually make a point of acknowledging Pride month, or the various events and parades or anything, because for me it would feel performative. I’m about as boring and mainstream a gay man could be1Without being a billionaire or a repressed congressman who works against civil rights legislation, of course., so it feels opportunistic to be taking attention away from the people who’ve “earned it,” either through activism, or through a lifetime of being bullied just for not conforming.

But the older I get — and, paradoxically, the more mainstream and unremarkable it gets to be A Boring Gay — the more it feels urgent to call attention to it and celebrate it.

It’s not hyperbole to be extremely concerned about the corrupt minority that’s currently working to roll back all the progress in civil rights we’ve made over my lifetime. The most worthless Supreme Court justice has already felt empowered enough by the new stolen court seats that he’s threatening to overturn the last couple of decades’ worth of progress. You know the one — he’s the one whose marriage to a blatantly traitorous asshole was guaranteed by a court ruling exactly like the ones he’s threatening. And I’d hope that anyone with an ounce of empathy who’s still calling for restraint and moderation would recognize how tirelessly the Republicans have been working to make trans people’s lives miserable.

But Pride is an invitation to take a brief break from a life that’s always spent having to be on the defensive. It’s an opportunity to celebrate. Back when I was deeply closeted, my first reaction to talk of “pride” was the predictable “what’s there to be proud of? It’s just the way I am and I can’t do anything about it.” It took me an embarrassingly long time — and it’s probably an indefinitely ongoing process, in reality — to fully accept that there’s no need to “do anything about it.” It’s an assertion that you don’t need to answer to anyone but yourself.

A couple of weekends ago, we went to an event for Pride month at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, where they were showing But I’m a Cheerleader. I could’ve sworn I’d seen it before, but it turns out I never had. But I wish I had, because I loved it and had never seen anything quite like it. So much of the “LGBT-themed” stuff I’ve seen is either about surviving through a repressive society, or stridently overcoming it by asserting your uniqueness. I loved seeing a movie where it never even occurred to the main character that she had anything to be ashamed of.

The screening was packed with people of all different types, so just being outside among other people was like getting a tentative peek at life after COVID. But more than that, it felt to me like the first “gay event” where I didn’t spend any time thinking about whether or not I fit in, or who in the crowd I did or didn’t identify with. We were all just a bunch of very different people who had one thing in common: we were there to see a movie.

And I don’t tend to think a lot about “safe spaces,” not because they’re not important, but because I rarely need to be that concerned about it. But it was just comfortable being able to turn off any sense of anxiety for the night. It was nice to be solidly in the in-group for a change, and know that everybody there either identified as LGBTQ, or was completely on-board with the idea. I lived in the Bay Area2And came out in the Bay Area for 25 years, so it’s not as if I’ve ever had to feel like I was in hostile territory. But still, it was nice to have it set aside as a big, shared space, where I didn’t have to give a moment’s thought to the other thing that most of us all had in common.

Which is why the increased level of acceptance across the US is undeniably great, but it doesn’t negate the need for Pride. I spent a long time wishing for the day when I could just be normal and fit in. I’ve been more or less enjoying exactly that for the past several years. But I’ve finally started to realize that the key to happiness isn’t just being comfortable and normal, but being comfortable with not being normal.

  • 1
    Without being a billionaire or a repressed congressman who works against civil rights legislation, of course.
  • 2
    And came out in the Bay Area

Literacy 2022: Book 5: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit is a classic for a reason

Book
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Synopsis
Ten strangers are called to a house on a secluded island, invited by a person they’ve never met. When the first death comes right after dinner, the other guests start to realize they’re all being murdered, one by one.

Pros

  • Stylistically, it’s much more interesting than I remembered from reading it in high school. The narration jumps around freely from person to person, switching between inner monologues and dialogues, so it never feels quite like a novel but not a screenplay, either. It’s more like someone telling a story to you in person, and they can’t wait to get to the next part.
  • It’s been decades since I last read it, and almost a century since it was written, and surprisingly little of it feels dated (now that they’ve changed the awful original title and framing nursery rhyme, two times over).
  • My copy has an author’s note taken from Agatha Christie’s autobiography, in which she essentially says that she wrote And Then There Were None mostly to prove that she could do it. Which is unquestionably a baller move.
  • The setup is so intriguing that it’s easy to see why it inspired countless homages and outright rip-offs.
  • I liked the structure at the end, of having a chapter of recap and then an epilogue laying out the entire mystery. It invites the player to be completely engrossed in the mindset of the characters while the mystery is still happening, and then go back and reconsider the clues after the events have finished.

Cons

  • The epilogue wasn’t strictly necessary, and just felt more like Christie justifying how she’d plotted the whole thing.
  • I kind of call foul on it as a whodunnit, since the clues were pretty weak. I can understand Neil Simon’s frustration when he calls out detective novel writers in Murder By Death for making clues too obtuse or pulling plot developments out of thin air.

Verdict
It’s an intriguing concept, told in a really engaging way. You can totally see why it’s become such a classic. I’m not convinced that it’s that great as a murder mystery, but if you instead read it as a horror story, it almost feels contemporary.

My Favorite Games: Suikoden 2

The game that changed how I think about Japanese RPGs and how I think about Kobolds

Featured image is from a post about Suikoden 2 on VG247.com

None of the main-line Final Fantasy games will show up in my list of favorite games, because I haven’t loved any of them as much as I loved Suikoden 2. (Final Fantasy 9 comes close, though). It’s my favorite JRPG, and it showed me why people like JRPGs so much. And I probably wouldn’t have heard about it at all, if I hadn’t worked at Infinite Machine.

Final Fantasy 7 was my first introduction to JRPGs, and I was every bit swept up in the hype as every other video game player at the time. I thought that not only was that game representative of the entire genre, but that it was the best possible example of the genre. Did you see those cut-scenes, after all? That epic story that just seemed to keep growing and growing? The absurd production value? I was stunned that they’d drawn or rendered a different combat background for every single environment you could fight in!

By that standard, the Suikoden games seemed like unambitious throwbacks. Why were my coworkers so obsessed with this game? You want me to play a sprite-based game after I’ve just finished this huge adventure with fully-3D characters?1Cloud Strife alone must’ve had at least a dozen polygons! More than that, though: Final Fantasy 7 genuinely pushed video game storytelling forward, both with its more cinematic presentation and also its more complex world-building. Suikoden 2, on the other hand, starts with the most cliched premise for a video game RPG: the main character is a boy whose quiet home town is destroyed in the game’s opening.

As it turns out, that feeling of “old-school JRPG” is a huge part of Suikoden 2‘s charm. And the appeal of a somewhat simpler and more straightforward story, where more focus was put on the game mechanics than a linear storyline, felt like comfort gaming even to those of us who’d never actually played the old-school JRPGs. (There’s a reason Final Fantasy 9 went back to the basics, combining all of the aesthetics of its roots with the series’s newfound focus on more linear and cinematic storytelling: it felt like welcome fan service for people who’d loved the earlier games).

But for being “somewhat simpler,” Suikoden 2 is still enormous. Its basic premise is the same as the other games in the series: the main character must recruit the “107 Stars of Destiny,” characters who will combine to summon some divine power to defeat a great enemy. That means finding each character and completing some type of quest — sometimes simple, but often surprisingly involved — to convince them to join your side. At a certain point in the story, you unlock an abandoned castle as your base of operations, and you can return to the castle and have conversations with all of the characters you’ve recruited.

More than that: an absurd number of those characters can join your adventuring party, using their unique skills in combat. You have a party of six, cleverly split into a front row and back row based on close-up and long-range fighting. There’s a version of Yojimbo, whose animations even include Toshiro Mifune’s mannerisms from that movie, with devastating sword skills. There’s a chef who fights with his frying pan and ladle. There’s a makeshift robot made from a barrel. There’s a squirrel, as well as a noble Kobold warrior and the Kobold puppy who idolizes him.

Many of the characters who don’t join you in combat will instead open up shops in your home base. Meaning that as your team grows, you can buy and craft better items and equipment. Some of the characters will continue their storylines after they’ve been recruited — for example, the chef will frequently be visited by people challenging him to an Iron Chef-style battle mini-game, using the ingredients you’ve found during combat.

And the characters combine in interesting ways. Having similar characters in your party, or in specific placement within your party, will unlock special combination attacks. The two kobolds can unite to unleash a pack of hundreds of dogs onto your enemies, for example.

In terms of game design, it’s just an immensely satisfying combination of systems, all building on top of each other and feeding into each other. But in terms of experience design, it perfectly captures the appeal of the first adventure game or the first RPG that you truly loved: the feeling that the story allowed for limitless exploration, and it would just keep growing and surprising you without end. To be clear, none of the characters’ stories in Suikoden 2 are particularly deep. But they’re all appealing, and there’s so many of them!

I’ve forgotten many of the details about the game, but I can remember the point where it really hit me that this was going to be one of my favorite games.2I’d already fallen in love with Gabocha the Kobold puppy at that point, but I was still thinking of the game overall as “basically charming.” I was exploring the castle that was serving as my home base, and I was surprised that it seemed to keep going and going. It felt as if it’d been clearly set up with areas where a character was obviously going to set up shop, but it also felt as if there were a lot of wasted space. Then I found a cave with an underground lake. What was going to be there? I had no idea, but I couldn’t wait to find out. It struck me like a moment from a Hardy Boys novel. It occurred to me that the real appeal of this game for me wasn’t depth, but delight.

  • 1
    Cloud Strife alone must’ve had at least a dozen polygons!
  • 2
    I’d already fallen in love with Gabocha the Kobold puppy at that point, but I was still thinking of the game overall as “basically charming.”

Literacy 2022: Book 4: Star Wars: Brotherhood

A flashback to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s partnership before everything took a bad turn

Book
Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen

Synopsis
Set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, explains what Anakin and Obi-Wan were talking about with “that business on Cato Neimoidia.” Obi-Wan is sent alone to an unfriendly planet to investigate who was behind a catastrophic terrorist attack.

Pros

  • Brisk reading with the right scope and focus, trying to convey a galactic conflict in terms of how it affects a small number of characters
  • New characters like a cynical Cato Neimoidian sniper, and an extremely Force-sensitive Jedi Initiate, are memorable additions among all the familiar characters
  • Sticks to a philosophy that’s somewhat unusual in Star Wars, which is that war is bad, actually, and Obi-Wan is most interested in de-escalation
  • The format of devoting each chapter to the perspective of a single character is a neat structure and is perfect for this story in particular

Cons

  • Some of the characters tend to be two-dimensional, or just illustrate their one identifiable character trait over and over again
  • Lots of words are devoted to describing Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship, and how it’s changing from master-and-apprentice to genuine friendship, but it would’ve been stronger to show that actually happening in action moments, instead of just resorting to internal monologues
  • There’s quite a bit of repetition, making it feel like a short story that had been stretched out to novel length
  • The demands of licensing and continuity make this often feel more like a novelization of an episode of The Clone Wars animated series, rather than a standalone novel

Verdict
The book accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is give the reader more time with some characters they like from the movies and animated series. I wish it had shown a little more insight into the characters’ motivation or a more nuanced or complex characterization, but I don’t think it aspires to be a character study.

My Favorite Games: Myst

The first mega-hit CD-ROM game still doesn’t get enough credit for what makes it so special

To start with, two personal notes about Myst:

  1. The dialogue poking fun at the game in Curse of Monkey Island was not written by me, because I was a big fan of the game. And I respect the people I worked with too much to throw Jonathan Ackley under the bus by saying who did write it. (Seriously, though, he’s always said he liked the game, too. The gags in Monkey 3 were just a side effect of Myst being the 900-lb gorilla of CD-ROM adventure games at the time, making it ripe for parody).
  2. My first surprising1Surprising at the time, completely obvious in retrospect crush on a video game character was Achenar in the original Myst. You guys be cool and don’t tell Rand Miller I said this, but Atrus could get it. But I only met Atrus later. For most of the game, the way Achenar would get uncomfortably close to the camera and ham it up, begging me for the pages just got me confusingly twitterpated. What can I say? I admit I’ve got a type: mentally unstable guys trapped in inter-dimensional voids via magic books.

A glance at all the Myst-related wikis tells me that the “trap books” were retconned in subsequent games, although even after reading two separate accounts, I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how or why. The ensuing lore after the first game — built in novelizations, several sequel games, and a seemingly never-ending line of remakes of the original — never managed to grab me. I read The Book of Atrus and played Riven, but that was about as much of D’ni as I could handle.

But that’s not a knock against the extended lore so much as an acknowledgement of what made the first game so special. It was perfectly evocative of a deeper and weirder fantasy story unlike any I’d seen before. The possibilities suggested by Myst were more intriguing to me than any book or game would be able to make explicit.

I think over the years, we’ve collectively come to an over-simplistic explanation for why Myst was such a huge hit: it came at exactly the right time. Both CD-ROM drives and 3D-rendered imagery were still a huge novelty, and the people buying new computers wanted something to show off the potential of a machine with all this newly-available storage. Everyone at the time was talking about the potential of multimedia and new media, but there was little to show for it, apart from discs filled with uninspired shovelware, The Seventh Guest, and Myst.

I think that explains why it became so huge a hit, but it doesn’t explain why Myst has had such longevity. Creatively and artistically, it was all novel and stunning. It went beyond the “steampunk” aesthetic to combine classical architecture, early-20th century sci-fi, contemporary science fiction, and high fantasy. Even the presentation was completely novel to me: the windows into the trap books appearing like static-filled television broadcasts is such a formative idea, and I’d never seen anything like it.

It’s perfectly fitting that a story whose core conceit is the ability to create new worlds by writing in books — worlds limited only by the imagination of the creators — would hop across so many different genres.

Also, I loved it because it was originally made in HyperCard. It seemed like the ultimate realization of what was possible with the software many of us had fallen in love with for its seemingly limitless potential.

A VR version of the original game came out not too long ago, and I tried it on the Oculus Quest. It was not for me. Not only did it give me motion sickness that lasted over 24 hours, but I’d forgotten the degree to which it requires note-taking and generally being aware of the world outside the screen. I tried taking off the headset, updating the notes on my phone, putting it back on to get more information, taking it off again, etc… and it almost immediately felt like more trouble than it was worth. It’s a reminder that VR games in general come from a different age2So to speak: when Myst first came out, it was still pretty common for games to require you have at least a note pad handy, if not a full supplement of printed maps, guides, and code keys. VR took off only after games demanded that everything be supplied in-game3And often with over-long and too exhaustive tutorials.

I’m usually the exact opposite of one of those people who says “In my day, we made graph paper maps for games, and spent hours figuring out ciphers and logic puzzles, and you kids today are too damn soft!” But I’ll make an exception for Myst, since it’s so good at giving you the feeling of being trapped in a world with nothing but clues and scattered pieces of paper, and it’s entirely up to you to puzzle your way out of it.

  • 1
    Surprising at the time, completely obvious in retrospect
  • 2
    So to speak
  • 3
    And often with over-long and too exhaustive tutorials