Higher Difficulty Can Make for a Better Game Story

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I think we’re all aware now that video game storytelling has entered the arena of art where it can begin to compete on equal footing with traditional mediums like books, film, and television. In time, it could even surpass them. After all, there is one thing that video games have that no other art form does: it puts the player in control. In a sense, you are the main character.

This is great in that it allows a sense of choose your own adventure in some games and allows you to alter the dialogue and sequences of events to represent what you would do in a given situation. This level of immersion is what makes gaming such fertile soil to plant narratives like BioWare’s Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead that not only serve as a mere distraction, but really get in our heads to the extent that we can regret our in-game decisions as if we’d made them in real life.

But as awesome as that is, it’s not the only way to immerse players in the world of a game and engage them on an emotional level. It might not even be the most effective. A lot of games these days are so focused on story that they forget that a serious challenge is what hooked many of us on video games back in the day, and it can still be an extremely effective way to further immerse gamers in their world.winner is you gif

General George S. Patton once said “Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory”. Being faced with a hard-fought challenge and overcoming it is its own reward, but in video games you get extra incentive because you get to advance the narrative and get more loot in addition to the personal satisfaction of kicking all of the ass.

This isn’t a new thing either, obviously. Old school games are renowned for their difficulty, even if the rewards weren’t always as rich. In the before time, your reward for beating a level was usually a quick death on the next level so you could start the game over from the beginning and try again. If you beat all of the levels, you got a poorly-translated congratulations screen at best, and then maybe start the game over again on an even harder difficulty.

But consider old school RPGs for a minute. With threadbare storytelling, the tribulations of the player’s avatar was the main source of character development. But what about that moment when story became the focus? Enter the game that changed gaming for me forever.

That’s right, another patented Verboon Final Fantasy IV gushfest is on the way. Playing the DS remake – which is much tougher than the original North American SNES release – made me really appreciate how well-crafted it was in the sense that it used its own difficulty to deepen the narrative even beyond my nostalgic memories of it.

The best example of this comes early when you rescue a little girl, Rydia, from a village you sort of burned down. Having lost your partner it’s just you and her crossing a hostile desert. Keeping Rydia alive with her meager abilities is harrowing. The enemies instinctively home in on her and you have no real way to protect her other than killing them as fast as you can and using up all of your miniscule item stock reviving her, trying desperately to gain her a few levels of experience so she can at least take a couple of hits before she drops.

cecil rydia ffivThis very challenging stretch works on several levels. It deepens the protective bond with a character who will later become a powerhouse and even save you from oblivion when you are at your most helpless and it highlights the evolution of your main character, Cecil. He begins as a dark knight only capable of dealing death, but his experiences lead him to seek the skills of a paladin, which include healing and the ability to use yourself as a human shield to defend your allies. That last one is key because lacking that ability is exactly what made you feel so helpless trying to get Rydia across that fucking desert.

In FFIV and other old school role-playing games, your party did not usually auto-heal up after every battle, and you couldn’t save anywhere you pleased. This made going into unknown dungeons extremely risky and pushing through a difficult one drained your resources considerably, stressing the player and adding to the immersion of traveling and living off the fat of the land; every chest and item drop a potential life-saver, every encounter a potentially deadly fight that could cost you an hour or more of progress and send you right back to where you started. In a sense, you felt what your characters were feeling.

In subsequent years, gaming has become less about the challenge and more about the experience. A lot of players n the old days would hit brick wall levels that they just could not pass and eventually give up on a game. This may have been acceptable in the 8 and 16 -bit days, but modern games have such massive budgets and such a plethora of content that developers are often worried about stonewalling players with too much challenge. With so many games on the shelf, it’s too tempting to just move on to something that isn’t going to slap you around and then laugh at you.

Imagine if an early level of The Last of Us was so hard that most people couldn’t pass it. Much of the cast performances, animations, pacing, twists, and various other perfections of the game would go unexperienced by all but the hardcore few, essentially wasting all of dead risingthe blood, sweat, tears, and money that went into crafting it.

So now we’ve got constant checkpoints and save anywhere functionality so that even the toughest stretches can be inched through and when a game like Dead Rising reverts to the old school save point standard, people freak out. Heaven forbid they have to do the same thing TWICE upon dying or experience any sort of urgency when surrounded by a horde of the undead.

But it seems like some gamers are coming back around to embracing gaming as a challenge. Dark Souls is renowned for its difficulty and deliberate tormenting of the player, garnering almost universal acclaim for its peaks and valleys of exhilarating victory and crushing defeat and risk/reward exploration.

One of my favorite experiences from the past generation was Catherine, which balanced days and evenings spent on exploring character development and plot with nightmarish gameplay at night that had me dreading going home from the in-game bar every night knowing the immense challenge awaiting me.

In that game, going to sleep each night leads to nightmares that represent the fears and challenges that the character is experiencing in regards to his romantic and social relationships. He has to climb to the tops of towers of blocks that he has to manipulate in order to navigate while the tower crumbles from the bottom up. It’s really freakin’ hard, but then again since when is a nightmare supposed to be pleasant?

catherine gameplayEvery level cleared felt like a gift from the gods, every mid-level respite was a warm welcome, and every night survived yielded the greatest treasure of all, another day to spend with your loved ones and get your life in order. The time spent on story and character was wonderful and contrasted perfectly with the nerve-wracking nights spent battling your towering insecurities alone and familiarizing yourself with the instant classic “love is over” screen while failing miserably.

I can’t think of a more artful game from recent years or one where almost everybody I recommended it to told me they skipped it when they couldn’t beat the demo. Maybe it’s just me, but when I played that demo, I dreamed about it all night. The game literally got in my head. Would it have been the same if I’d been able to just breeze through it?

I’m glad to see that there are still some games that embrace challenging gameplay as a technique to immerse players in the worlds they create. It’s become unusual for adventures to really feel like adventures anymore so much as cakewalks. While it can be a good thing to allow players to relax and do what they please, I find a lot of my most memorable and cherished gaming experiences from childhood to present day come from games that really challenged and frustrated me. Meanwhile, a lot of the easier games I’ve played quickly faded from my memory.

megaman2 dragonThe rush of finally locating the final dungeon in the original Legend of Zelda after searching for weeks, of beating the insane last level of Megaman 2, or being pushed to the limit by a superior opponent in UFC Unleashed before knocking my opponent out with a sick combo and jumping out of my chair with a Chuck Liddell-stlye celebration like I’d just won the title in real life; these are moments I remember forever. Who was the last boss in Fable 3 again? I genuinely don’t recall. I just recall that I got an achievement for never getting beaten even once in the entire game. That just shouldn’t ever happen.

Part of experiencing a virtual world and its characters is engaging the players’ emotions. Sure, you can use sight and sound to have an emotional story play out in front of us, but that approach is ported over from film. What sets games apart is the ability to share the in-game characters’ tribulations.

When you experience struggle within a well-crafted story, it can tie your emotions into the narrative in a way that only video games can do. Failing in a game with a great story feels like failing in real life and likewise the characters’ victories become your victories.

In a way, this is a deeper bond than any other medium has because the player is in control. You can’t really be challenged by a film or novel (other than intellectually), you can only watch or read and go along for the ride. It seems a shame to waste this kind of potential by making games easier and easier as the stories get more and more complex. In other words, bring on the rough stuff! A little tough love never hurt anyone and we’ll be better gamers because of it in the end.

Five Terrible Atari 2600 Games Based on Movies That Aren’t E.T.

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You youngsters don’t know how good you have it these days with your fancy graphics and your smooth gameplay and your sound effects that sound like what they’re supposed to sound like and your controllers with multiple buttons.  In my day, console games looked and played like shit and we liked it that way!

The Atari 2600 was released the year before I was born and I’d like to think that when I was born, the doctor toweled me off and placed a paddle controller in my hand to stop me from crying. It was the first breakthrough home console system that popularized the idea of removable game cartridges. It pretty much rules my earliest childhood memories.

But not all nostalgia can be rose-tinted. I spent countless hours playing every game I could lay hands on to the point where I still remember many of them to this day even as I can’t recall what movie I watched last night as an adult. But even as a small child I had to scratch my head at some of the games that were placed before me.

As with the games of today, movie tie-ins were regularly among the worst of the lot. Today I’ve got some of the ones that were so bad and confusing and just…pointless that they left an impression on me that has lasted over three decades. It’s time to blast the past, and I’m not wasting a pick on the biggest fail in movie tie-in history, either. As stupefyingly lame as E.T. was, it had plenty of shovelware to keep it company that is just as worthy of your attention.

Superman

superman atariThe Man of Steel has had a pretty rough go of it when it comes to video games. You’d think that controlling a character with that much power would be amazing. To this day, I’ve only played one Superman-based game that wasn’t garbage and it was a 1988 arcade-only game that had two players for some reason.

Speaking of multiplayer, Atari’s version had what’s got to be the worst idea in the history of the concept. One player could move Superman left and right. The other could control his vertical movement. Sound like fun? Didn’t think so. I can’t imagine I made it through even five minutes of that. Speaking of sound, every sound effect in Superman was actively designed to simulate nails on chalkboard.

At the beginning of the game a bridge blows up into a bunch of oddly-shaped pieces which you must find and return once you go to the phonebooth to don your Supermanly attire. Along the way you find gun-toting gangsters and a Lex Luthor/helicopter hybrid thing which you can pick up and fly to a jail, bridge pieces to return to the scene of the crime (where the bridge then blows itself back together), and  big flying, beeping X’s that are supposed to be kryptonite and follow you everywhere.

Should a flying X touch you while you repeatedly fail at picking up what you are supposed to pick up, you will be rendered impotent and are forced to wander about on foot until you find Lois Lane randomly wandering, who will cure you with a kiss or ten. This is a massive headache because in addition to having to deal with going back and forth through random identical screens trying to navigate, you are constantly being depowered.

If you want to see what this game can do to an objective reviewer, have a look at the following video. From enthusiastic optimism to curse-filled rage in minutes; it’s a beautiful thing in a way.

The Empire Strikes Back

empire strikes back atariAt least Superman had a point; a goal to accomplish. This? This barely qualifies as a video game. The film is universally lauded as the greatest chapter of the most beloved film franchise in history. The Empire’s assault on Hoth in particular was life-altering for me as a child and it’s something that is still a masterpiece by any standard today. Who wouldn’t want to play a video game based on it?

You play Luke Skywalker (maybe) in a rebel Snowspeeder defending Hoth from a limitless supply of Imperial AT-AT Walkers. Your options are as follows: you can try shooting a single Walker and watch as it changes colors and eventually dies after a long time spent flying back and forth trying to shoot it as it shoots you, you can fly over and under dozens of Walkers looking for one that is a color that signifies it is already weak and finish it off, or you can keep flying and hope to find one that has a weak spot.

A weak spot on a Walker is a flashing square that occasionally pops up that allows you to kill it with one shot. So most of your play time is going to be spent either flying over and under AT-ATs looking for one with a weak spot or just saying “fuck it” and spending an too long flying back and forth shooting the same one until it eventually dies. In addition to cannons shooting a constant stream of projectiles at you, some will fire homing missiles that look exactly like a weak spot that you have to spend some time fleeing from before you can resume your impossibly dull and endless task.

When I say there is no winner in this game, I mean that in every sense. It goes on forever until you die or refuse to play anymore, usually the second. Check the enthusiasm.

Krull

krull atariWhat the hell is a Krull, you ask? It’s an early 80’s fantasy film I barely remember involving a boomerang/shuriken thing. I mostly remember it because of the game. A game with an infinite first level. Yeah, seriously. Basically, you start off defending your bride from a legion of monsters with a sword. But they never stop coming. No matter how many you kill, the game will continue until you either die or fail at the appointed task of defending your ladylove and they carry her off.

Now this brilliant game design precedent is the main thing I remember about this one, but there were some four levels total (an epic amount at the time), none very fun. You could ride horses across a desert where you would find the Glaive (the boomerang/shuriken thing I mentioned), then you had to avoid some spider thing while jumping over moving web strands. After that, you use the Glaive to play Arkanoid and bust your woman out of prison while a monster throws stuff at you.

I’m pretty sure I never beat this game because should you be dumb enough to use the badass bladed boomerang weapon to, oh, I don’t know….FIGHT THE MONSTER, you fail because the monster takes it and keeps it. Better hope you have extras. You may use said weapon to chip away at the wall imprisoning the damsel and ONLY to chip away at the wall imprisoning the damsel. There is a phrase I would have used at the time to describe this gameplay feature if I used such language at that time: Fuck. That. Shit. Oh, and that spider level is not as easy as it looks in the vid. It’s kind of extremely terrible to endure.

Ghostbusters

ghostbusters atariNow, here’s one the one that I hated the least. It actually had some cool features for the time. That said, it still pretty much sucked.  The game begins with you playing as [drum roll, please]….the Ghostbusters logo. You travel amongst a lot of squares which represent buildings, one of which will be blinking. The blinking means there is a ghost there. When you go there, you get to drive the Ecto-1 and vacuum up ghosts you encounter for a few seconds. You get nothing from doing this, although there is currency in-game they could have rewarded you with. Ghostbusting on the road is its own reward.

You are then allowed to set down a trap and attempt to capture the ghost at the location. You first position the trap, then you position your first ghostbuster. You then position your second and then turn on their proton streams to attempt to trap the ghost as it quickly flies around.  Once your busters are positioned you can move them closer together, but not further apart. This means you only get one go at it.

The idea is to use the proton streams to trap the ghost without crossing them, which knocks you on your ass. But even if you do it just right and trap the ghost right above your containment unit, the busters turn off the streams when you activate the trapping mechanism, often allowing the ghost to dodge the trap anyways. And if you take too long or miss, the ghost puts its bum on you and then flies off, presumably leaving excretory ectoplasmic bodily fluids upon your person.

I didn’t understand the in-game economics (a feature well ahead of its time) so I didn’t know how to achieve the endgame where you run under a bouncing Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man for some reason, but rest assured that I was regularly even more agitated playing the game as a child than this fully grown man becomes during this video.

Flash Gordon

flash gordon atariThe movie was the epitome of delicious Queen-fueled Saturday afternoon 1980’s cheese. The game?  Just painful. It’s like watching Defender get raped. Remember Defender? Good, good times. Well, this is like they played that classic and then said “This is in space. Flash Gordon is in space, and people like that. Let’s do a thing like this and tie it into that movie we didn’t bother watching!”

So no, there is no football, nor flying jetskis, nor hawkpeople, nor Brian May guitar; not even any whipfights. There’s a spaceship, and then there is stuff you can shoot with the spaceship. The bottom half of the screen is a map that you used to navigate since every single thing on the actual gameplay screen looked exactly the same.

You conquer the city by finding stuff to blow up using the map. Along the way, you can rescue people randomly floating about for no good reason. How does one justify calling this Flash Gordon? The cover art, I reckon. For all of their mind-melting flaws, at least the other games on this list are recognizable as having something to do with the franchise they represent. Even the legendary E.T. had more to justify itself, and that one was so bad that it was blamed for crashing the entire gaming industry.

Then again, this one wouldn’t have seemed so terrible if it were advertised simply as the challenging early bullet hell shooter it was instead of Flash Gordon: The Game. But a movie tie-in that doesn’t even attempt to resemble the franchise in any way whatsoever? That’s the kind of irresponsibility that led to people abandoning gaming altogether during the mid 80’s before Nintendo swooped in to save the day. Any more room in that landfill where they dumped the E.T. cartridges?

Five Video Game Adaptations That Would Happen in a Perfect World

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There’s no shortage of adaptations of popular media franchises in the video game industry, but there is a remarkable shortage of examples of it being done just right. For every Knights of the Old Republic or Telltale’s The Walking Dead there are at least ten tie-ins so bad you want to forget they exist before you finish the online demo.

But when it’s done right there’s nothing quite like being able to dive into your favorite fictional universes headfirst and participate in them. With the right development team converging with the right intellectual property, magic can be made against all odds.  I’m feeling a little self-indulgent today so I’m going to play god of the industry and decree unto my favorite video game developers what their next projects would be if the world was a perfect place.

Some of these franchises have been adapted before and even recently, but didn’t make much of a splash for one reason or another. I’m going to recommend the best possible developer for each adaptation to create something to remind fans and gamers alike why they love the story and why gaming is quickly evolving into the escapism medium of choice.

 

Irrational Games’ The Prisonerthe prisoner

I recently fired up the classic British science fiction series after doing without for far too long and almost immediately, one thought entered my mind: this is like a Bioshock game without all the shooting. And what was a lot of peoples’ complaint about Bioshock Infinite? Too much shooting. It sounds ridiculous for people to complain about too much combat in a first person shooter, but when you consider how unbelievably Irrational games carried out the game’s plot, such standard gaming fare as killing lots of bad guys seems almost beneath them, even when you can summon flocks of attack crows to descend upon their panicked masses while doing it.

The answer: another game with an awesome plot that does away with the thing people enjoyed less. Everything about The Prisoner screams “make a video game out of me, Irrational Games!” The plot revolves around a man who resigns from his job as a government agent. Due to his knowledge of sensitive information, the man is captured and sent to an isolated village where each resident is assigned a number instead of a name. What do they want from him? Information. Information. INFORMATION.

The village is an Orwellian dystopia appearing under the pretense of a rural utopia. The residents all appear suspiciously happy and friendly, there are masquerades, marching bands, and all the trimmings of idealized living. The catch is you can never leave. Exploring this setting in a video game while uncovering the mysteries and encountering the many characters and socio-political themes would be amazing; especially in the hands of master storytellers.

 

Quantic Dreams’ Draculadracula origin

One of the finest examples of storytelling in any medium from the last decade or so was Heavy Rain. One of the most enduring novels of all time is Dracula. How could this not work? I mean, aside from making the story crazy linear as a possible result of a budget squandered on hiring big-name Hollywood actors? David Cage? You listening?

Okay, here’s the pitch. The plot, of course, revolves around Bram Stoker’s gothic masterpiece about a master vampire who gets bored with terrorizing a rural village in Transylvania and strikes out for the big city with the help of Jonathan Harker, whom he imprisons in his castle prior to absconding to London to feast upon his friends and beloved. But rather than following the plot in a linear fashion, this game would offer various paths and outcomes.

Like Heavy Rain, the player would play as multiple characters, making choices and interacting with the environments and characters of the classic tale with the story playing out in different ways depending on those choices. Harker and his Transylvanian traversions, Mina Murray with an option to romance Dracula or travel to save her love, Lucy Westenra’s subplot with her flock of suitors, Abraham Van Helsing’s quest to gather forces against something nobody believes exists; all with choices to make and intersecting narratives to build.

Even better would be the option to play the story from the other side. In addition to our heroes, there should be a separate campaign to play as Dracula, Renfield, and other dark side allies as well as some characters you could turn along the way (Harker and Lucy, for example). Having to stay one step ahead of Van Helsing’s hunters while choosing victims to ravage and ravish would be amazing.

 

BioWare’s Shadowrunshadowrun returns

I’ve been giving this multimedia franchise a lot of love lately since it was one of my favorite properties of the 90’s and last year finally saw the release of Shadowrun Returns (pictured above) via Kickstarter, a sequel to one of my favorite SNES role playing titles. In a perfect world, this would lead to a tidal wave of a resurgence for the underappreciated cyberpunk/fanasy/noir series culminating in a AAA title from the masters of Western RPG storytelling at BioWare.

It’s not a perfect world by a long shot, but I’m still allowed to dream all over this keyboard. The original Shadowrun video game actually shared gameplay elements with the first Mass Effect. For example, even when aiming at an enemy you might not hit it as your stats decided how straight your shooting was. In addition to that, both were party-based RPG shooters with in-depth dialogue systems and colorful casts populating imaginative worlds. Frankly, the two games may have more things in common than they have differences.

So basically, what we would have here is an extra-cool combination of Mass Effect and Dragon Age. It takes place in a dystopian future where magic has returned to the world and mages, dwarves, and orcs,  live alongside virtual reality hackers and cyberware-modified street samurai engaging in mercenary work for warring megacorporations. It’s a world that is pretty much limited only by imagination, and I’m pretty sure that BioWare’s imagination would be capable of bringing this property to new heights.

Given the depth of existing Shadowrun lore, the developer’s penchant for memorable stories and characters, and the similarities between games, this is the definition of a gaming match made in heaven. If only it would happen.

 

Atlus’ Seven Samuraiseven samurai

It seems really wrong to me that there’s never been a role-playing game made out of Akira Kurosawa’s unparalleled epic jidaigeki masterpiece. It’s got all of the standard conventions: an eclectic cast, interpersonal and political drama, a party of warriors with diverse abilities coming together to defend the weak from the strong, and much more.

I was thinking Square-Enix at first for this one. But considering that their decision-making and character-building skills have been suspect for a good while now, I’m going to pass on them. Instead, I’d rather look at a developer that’s on a roll. Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games are creative darlings amongst RPG aficionados and Catherine was an immensely unique sleeper that served up one of my favorite stories from the last console generation. They’ll do.

While one might argue that there isn’t enough action in the first half of Seven Samurai to carry a video game, I’d point to the sci-fi anime adaptation Samurai Seven as a pretty solid extension of the concept which stretched the defense of the village from invading bandits into an extended campaign rather than a single lengthy battle.

In addition to the partitioned combat, sections of the game would be spent getting to know the characters, interacting with villagers, and training. Rather than constant combat and obsessive grinding, battles would be occasional, drawn-out, and challenging affairs requiring strategy and teamwork. A strategic RPG format with real time elements fully utilizing terrain, fortifications, and traps would be a natural fit.

 

Tecmo-Koei’s Song of Ice and Firegame of thrones mod

My love for Koei’s classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy games is documented and everlasting, as is my disappointment with their current insistence on focusing on the myriad sequels and variations on their button-mashing Dynasty Warriors franchise. What if they not only returned to the glory of turn-based conquest, warfare, and diplomacy, but took on George R.R. Martin’s brilliant medieval fantasy franchise at the same time? It’s been tried as a generic action-RPG, real time strategy, and as mods to PC strategy titles, but we need that perfect game that really captures the ambition of Martin’s world.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms featured large scale conflicts spanning multiple territories within kingdoms and diplomacy, governing, and military micro-management right down to individual character stats. Various scenarios let players pick which point in history they wanted to begin at. Leaders could call each other out for duels on the battlefield and rulers could get married, have heirs, and use deception, subterfuge, espionage, alliances, and betrayal to achieve their own ends. Does this not have Westeros written all over it?

I’m not even suggesting using the Game of Thrones license. Overpaying for popular actors’ likeness and voices is the sort of things that leads to a half-assed final product. This game needs to be all about the quality, and the strength of concept alone should sell it. Could it be a blockbuster in a niche genre without HBO’s support? Maybe not, but with the development costs kept low, it wouldn’t need to be. A cult classic of excellent quality is better than a big budget dud all day, any day, every day.

Five Must-See Anime Series Currently Streaming on Netflix

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With Netflix creeping closer to replacing cable television and physical media altogether and me bursting with anime love, I feel like now’s the time to continue spreading the love. Binge watching an exciting new show is a treat unlike anything past generations have seen and I can only imagine how great it would be to fall in love with an unexplored foreign entertainment genre and have so much awesome at my fingertips right off the bat. With anime still being a niche market, I figure now’s a good time to show some people a tiny speck of what they’ve been missing out on.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to write this article. I was remembering all of the great shows I’ve watched over the years and figured I should write an article about some of them. Then I figured I should check and make sure that they are all still up because why bother if you can’t enjoy them right this instant too. Most of them weren’t. In fact, the vast majority of series seem to have been stricken from Netflix Instant, leaving a mere smattering. Stupid expired streaming rights.

Killer shows like Attack on Titan, Eden of the East, and Welcome to the NHK have been covered on this site before so rather than rehash those, I’ll just shout them out here and trust you to know what to do. Still, there are some amazing shows left standing, and some exciting new faces too. So while I may have had to cut this list in half and make some substitutions that end up making this list resemble a greatest hits of Adult Swim/Toonami runs, there are still some really exceptional classic shows for anime newbies to enjoy. Sorry, but no obscurities today, veterans.

 

Samurai Champloo

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Hi kids; you like Cowboy Bebop? Of course you do. Even anime haters have to give us Bebop. How do you follow up an instant classic space western fueled by jazz and blues? If you’re director Shinichiro Watanabe you naturally make a period samurai story with hip-hop elements.  So basically the exact opposite thing. Why the hell not?

The first episode of Samurai Champloo is likely to make or break it for you. The anachronistic hip-hop beats and breakdancing turn some people off right off the bat. I kind of feel sorry for them. The premise is that a young girl, Fuu, is searching for a samurai who ”smells of sunflowers”. Towards that end she enlists the help of two strong polar-opposite ronin who are dueling in a tea shop. The two agree to finish their deathmatch at a later date and accompany Fuu on her journey across feudal Japan.

If you are a fan of chanbara flicks, Champloo’s got you covered, but I personally found the modern elements to be a really refreshing addition to those classic tropes. There’s just something absurdly awesome about a yakuza henchman beatboxing into the hilt of his wakizashi to provide proper atmosphere for his boss’ rantings and ninja graffiti sprees.

In addition to the hip-hop flavor, there’s a lot of classical jidageki content as well, making this show arguably the most effective, entertaining, and stylish East/West culture crossover this side of Kill Bill. Samurai Champloo is definitely something to see.

 

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

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This is a modern classic that’s going to be really hard to get around if you are a fantasy fan who is open to Japanese animation. Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the coolest fantasy franchises around and is almost universally beloved for its combination of great characters, imagination, creative action, humor, politics, and drama.

The story involves a pair of brothers studying alchemy; a form of magic where you use existing components to create something new using the Laws of Equivalent Exchange. As children, they found out how it works the hard way when a failed transmutation left one without an arm and a leg. The others’ body was consumed entirely and his soul ended up fused to a suit of armor. The pair set out to research a way to get back what they lost by joining the government, hoping to use the resources there to find what they need, but working for a corrupt government has its own forms of equivalent exchange.

Brotherhood is actually a remake of the well-received original 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist series that came out seven years prior. Why a remake so soon? Well, the original anime caught up to the manga source material and then deviated into an entirely original storyline. Brotherhood hits several of the same story beats as the first series, but then goes on to a much more epic story with a much larger cast.

If you plan on watching both regardless, you may want to start with the original series, but if you’re touring the entire anime medium and only have time for one, I’ve got to give it to the remake. It’s an outstanding piece of work of fantasy fiction by any standard.

 

Trigun

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I remember seeing an interview with the director of the remake of the classic post-apocalyptic anime Fist of the North Star where he explained his desire to modernize the campy old-school series came from wanting to show a new generation what an ideal man was. Well, the protagonist of that show solves every problem he encounters by punching people until they explode in a shower of gore. Not the best example to set. My definition of the ideal man is found in the late 90’s sci-fi anime Trigun.

The story takes place on a post-apocalyptic desert planet and initially follows two insurance agents whose job it is to get information on a “humanoid typhoon” who has left a trail of expensive destruction in his wake, making him a legendary outlaw.  But when they catch up with him, things aren’t exactly what they seemed to be.

When I was first watching this one it struck me that for a show about an outlaw gunslinger with a massive bounty on his head, Vash the Stampede never fires his gun in the early episodes. Turns out, the guy is not only a complete goofball, but an impossibly staunch pacifist who would rather die than kill and is not afraid to expose his rawest of emotions and humble himself in front of redeemable scumbags rather than resort to violence. Not exactly your typical action hero.

There’s something extremely refreshing and cool about a show that chooses not to repeat the same ol’ same ol’ pattern of “ridiculously powerful hero crushes bad people because he can” and chooses instead to create a ridiculously powerful hero who absolutely refuses to harm even the worst of people no matter what.

Most popular entertainment would rather take a good person and have them do bad things to make the audience question how far is too far. Trigun instead pushes the audience to question whether there is an illogical extreme even to benevolence. That, if nothing else, makes it a must-watch show.

 

Sword Art Online

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This is my favorite anime from recent years. Only two years old, Sword Art Online managed to make a big dent when it aired on Toonami and crept from a show I didn’t expect much from to the top of my weekly watch list. It’s definitely the kind of story that creeps up in you and then blows all expectations out of the water.

The concept of an anime taking place in a virtual reality massive multiplayer online role-playing game is one with possibilities, but 99% of the time would probably lend itself to an average trope-filled fantasy romp with a gaming gimmick. SAO took the 1% route and used the concept to add validity to the power of online interpersonal interactions and highlight the revealing nature of anonymous online behavior while giving us a fascinating conceptual science fiction story to boot.

Imagine wiring your brain directly into a virtual MMO. Now imagine that the creator of that MMO uses that connection to lock you into it until you beat the game and programmed it to fry your central nervous system if you died in-game. Living in a virtual world full of monsters and other gamers for an indefinite period of time. Damn.

And should you get out, could you really say the time you spent with people you met, befriended, or even fell in love with online was meaningless? Were the interactions any less real than if you’d encountered them in person? Couldn’t you say that the true nature of the players would come out from this virtual experience?

While most American culture prefers to minimize and even ridicule the role of online communication in our lives, SAO takes a bold stance in suggesting that we may actually be more true to ourselves when interacting with strangers virtually than in real life. At the same time, it’s a cautionary tale about the possible abuses of virtual reality technology. Would you really want EA or Google to have direct access to your brain? Well, maybe if it was this awesome…

 

Chobits

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Continuing in that same sci-fi vein, Chobits is a classic boy-meets-robot story that explores the possibility that once AI androids have advanced enough, we may not need to interact intimately with other people IRL at all. Once again, a Japanese cartoon dares to look at possible future technology and questions current social norms and concepts of romance against it.

It occasionally drowns in more saccharinity than I care for, but shows like this are proof that anime does not need giant robots, crazy martial arts, or any sort of violence at all to make compelling entertainment. Sometimes unadulterated charm and romance is okay too, and Chobits is all over that.

This story kicks off with a student, Hideki, stumbling upon an apparently discarded persocom, which is an advanced android that acts as a personal computer; like if Siri had a humanoid body. In this case, the persocom is a blank slate which can only communicate with the word “chi”, which becomes her name.

As Hideki teaches Chi about life and social norms, it becomes apparent that the robot is not a typical AI and is in fact, one of a legendary rumored line of persocoms known as chobits which are programmed with human emotions. Taking care of an adorable android who is falling in love with him opens up all sorts of questions for Hideki, and he looks at other peoples’ relationships with their persocoms to try and ascertain the nature and limits of romance with an artificial intelligence.

Chobits may not fill the badassness quota of your typical anime, but it’s still a must-see series for conceptual science fiction fans looking for a new, lighter perspective on the social possibilities of AI. It also works as a straightforward romantic comedy and serves as yet another example that there is often more to the anime medium than meets the eye. Happy streaming!

 

Teen Titans Go! is Cooler Than You.

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Now here’s a show that I expected to hate. That I had every reason to hate. That I actively wanted to hate.  But every once in a while, a new twist on an old property surpasses all expectations and brings something really new and unexpected into your life. Teen Titans Go! has gradually become one of those shows for me.

Cartoon Network’s DC Nation block has had a bumpy ride for reasons that don’t seem to be clear. Chalk it up to more general DC WTF-ness, I guess. What the hell is going on with that company, anyways? DC Nation was a pairing of two shows based on DC comics mixed with stylish comedic shorts from various creators. It was a pretty great formula.

The inaugural shows were Young Justice and Green Lantern, both of which were pretty amazing. Teen Titans Go! were among the weaker weekly shorts that aired during the block. An amusing homage to the divisive cartoon, but nothing to write home about. Fans were not pleased when the two beloved shows were suddenly canceled and word had it that Teen Titans Go! was being promoted from shorts to full series to join the CG animated Beware the Batman, in which Alfred was a gun-toting football hooligan and Katana was now the sidekick. Who would do such a thing?

The original mid-00’s Teen Titans cartoon was a divisive experiment in style. Breaking from the DC Animated Universe formula that yielded classic series after classic series, it added an extra layer of cartooniness and featured heavy anime comedy influences, plus it significantly altered the personalities of many of the characters, making them almost unrecognizable from their comic book counterparts.

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A lot of people never gave the show a chance because the kiddie anime style turned them off, but it turned out to be pretty damn great once it got rolling; arguably better than its source material, in fact. Teen Titans Go! seemed like a stupid idea from conception. You take all of the things people hated about the original show and crank them up to absurd levels while alienating existing fans by taking away the great storytelling and making the characters parodies of themselves. How could this possibly work?

I ended up checking it out because I felt like I should give it a shot. I mean, it’s comics, right? With each episode only clocking in at around ten minutes, it wasn’t really a stretch to find the time. The first few episodes didn’t exactly set my world on fire, but at one point my son took an interest in the show.

Now my son is a funny kid. He’d seen every episode of Batman: The Animated Series before he was able to speak (he would lead me to my DVD shelf and point at my boxed set until I complied). By the time he made it through Superman and on to Justice League, his main commentary was “ha ha, Superman” whenever Big Blue got wrecked. You don’t know what paternal love is until you’ve mocked a true icon with your toddler. But at some point he stopped wanting to watch the same cartoons as his old man, so it was a surprise to me when he latched onto this one.

Teen Titans Go! has since become a rare father-son ritual for us. This is the biggest reason I kept watching it, and I’m thankful for that because good god is this show funny. Once it rebuilt the characters entirely as comedic foils to one another, this thing began to make me laugh like very few shows do anymore. On top of that, it’s probably the single most gif-able thing I’ve ever seen. I’m pretty sure I could spend all day after any given episode making gifs out of it. I mean, the dance gifs alone should make this show worth renewing. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many being made, which is kind of a crime.

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Come on, internet. You can do better.

So what the hell makes this show so enjoyable? Well, for starters, there isn’t anything else like it on the air. It’s just the right mix of goofiness, unapologetic absurdity, charm, and cleverness at the same time and is full of nerd references from all eras. It’s slowly developing a set of recurring in-jokes that most shows would die for. For instance, in one particularly awesome episode, Robin seeks to gain superpowers by fusing his genes with….a robin. Yeah. He ends up a beaked and feathered monstrosity who is good at pecking things while his teammates demand the world’s best chicken dance of him. The bird gained the ability to use a grapnel, which he uses in a later random appearance to steal a kid’s ice cream.

Teen Titans Go! is the kind of show where an argument about whether burritos are better than hamburgers results in a musical contest, a battery of scientific tests, and finally a full-on kaiju battle between the two foods. A show where mentioning VHS requires an explanation because kids these days, amirite? A show where two characters can spend an entire episode in a contest to communicate only using the word “waffles” -even when being brutally interrogated by a villain -and the best way to avoid the wait until next Christmas is a year-long coma.

And then there are the pop culture and DC references. Given the insanely cartoonish nature of the show, referencing Nolan’s gritty Dark Knight trilogy is not a thing you’d expect to happen. Or I would have thought that if there hadn’t been a library poster in the background of one scene with an angry Batman demanding “Swear to Read!” You just heard Christian Bale’s death metal growl in your head, didn’t you?

Would old-schoolers ever expect the Wonder Twin powers to activate again? It happened, but seeing that all Zan can do is turn into water, he got to be the Titans’ receptionist while Jayna took Beast Boy’s spot on the team. A recent episode recited lyrics from the Duck Tales theme and oh, Raven is a brony (or pegasister if you like). Yes, the harbinger of gloom, doom, and dark magic/best Titan is hilariously obsessed with ponies and I’m okay with that.

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Dear god…..she’s…she’s shipping them!

Speaking of Raven, remember her dad, Trigon? You know, the ultimate demonic big bad in the original series; apocalyptic enslaver of worlds? That guy? Well in this show he shows up to visit wearing a preppy get-up in a sitcom parody complete with laugh track. He also grants wishes, like so.

So begins my cavalcade of clips. Also, I kind of want a dog head for a hand now.

I’m sorry, but that is just win. Another great episode has Robin betting his teammates that they couldn’t make it a day without using their superpowers after they begin abusing them by doing things like destroying walls to avoid walking all the way to the door. Turns out, maybe Robin’s way of doing things wasn’t as hard as he thought.

The destructive power of an angry kitty is not to be underestimated.

But my favorite episode has to be the one where Raven manages to spread her love of reading to her teammates. It’s a top-to-bottom hysterical tribute to reading for the fun of it and at the same time, a spot-on satire of people like myself who overanalyze and often overcriticize fiction, taking all of the joy out it.

Sometimes I do kind of wish I could bust a wicked freestyle instead of torturing innocent Unreality readers.

One hallmark of great entertainment: there is ALWAYS room for a musical number. Whether it’s Beast Boy serenading Terra as a guitar-playing reggae cat or Starfire and Raven rehashing the original Puffy AmiYumi Teen Titans theme to cheer on the boys’ dodge ball team together, you’ve got to love it. But I don’t know if there’s any beating Cyborg’s soulful ode to his would-be sidekick, Brother Blood’s torture machine who can only say “pain” and “all I know is pain”.

I don’t know where the hell they come up with this stuff, but I love it. With Beware the Batman meeting an early demise, Teen Titans Go! is officially a DC Nation of one, but I think it’s actually become my favorite out of all of them so that’s okay. It’s the only show like it that I’ve ever seen and it somehow manages to pay tribute to the original show while parodying it at the same time.

Season one is coming to a close after a whopping fifty episodes in a year. Even considering the brevity of each episode, in terms of idea prolificity it puts to shame most other animated series, who often have trouble managing thirteen episodes for one storyline in that time (I see you over there, Archer).

I don’t know how long they can keep that pace up for, especially considering the original series only had sixty-five episodes total across four seasons, but for the time being I’m hooked. Teen Titans Go! brings me back to the old days with my dad and my friends watching Looney Tunes together, except instead of singing “Kill the wabbit” to the tune of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, it’s my kid and I chanting “Eat! Eat! Eat the meatball!”

The meatball is TTG. You are Raven. You know what has to happen.

Where Do We Draw the Line on Mentally Disabled Characters?

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So this is a thing that has been bothering me about childrens’ entertainment for quite a while: using characters that appear to be developmentally disabled for cheap laughs. To me, it comes across as crass, unfunny, and it unnecessarily lowers the quality of what are often already entertaining films and shows. With the current political climate becoming increasingly hyperdefensive of disabled individuals, how is it that this hasn’t become a widespread issue yet?

To be clear off the bat, I’m not offended by this entertainment trend in a politically correct sense. I personally find the current raging against a serviceable descriptive term like “retarded” due to the misuses of ignorant jackasses to be out of line and condescending towards people who are worthy of respect and don’t need our pity even if they do need our help at times. However, out of respect for those who find it offensive I’m going to avoid using the word myself, even if “mentally disabled” implies worse things than “retarded” does in an English language sense.

What does offend me is that you take a film like Frozen, which is full of gorgeous animation, charming characters, memorable songs, and a rare (for Disney) central metaphor that is socially relevant in a good way and then you shoehorn in a character for no other reason than to be laughed at for his sheer, complete, and utterly obnoxious stupidity.

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Is it really that funny that Olaf’s dream is a warm climate that would melt him? Reaaaallllyyy? I mean, does it need to be a sideplot that pops up again and again and has its own musical number and flimsy resolution and everything? This little buck-toothed humanoid with a malshapen head and a voice that suggests some severe handicap is joyfully obsessing over something that will kill him while the other characters look at each other like “oh well, whatcha gonna do?” and how long exactly is this supposed to be funny for? Is this Oscar-caliber comedy?

I’m a bit appalled at the prospect of the upcoming sequel Finding Dory too. The character’s entire point in Finding Nemo was, again, to be as stupid as possible without adding anything significant to the plot. The whole thing about fish only having a few seconds worth of memory might make a decent one-off joke, but basing a primary character entirely on it? Who signed off on that?

Then let’s take a look at Nickelodeon for a second. I still have never quite put my finger on what exactly is funny about Spongebob Squarepants, but if being obnoxious is enough to carry a show for some, I’m still failing to see the point in his friend Patrick. Is having a voice that suggests Down syndrome funny in and of itself? I’m not quite sure how or why.

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If Star Wars using caricatures of foreign accents to voice aliens is racially insensitive, what does that say about cartoons whose stock and trade is characters who sound mentally disabled? I suppose the premise is that kids enjoy the sound of characters with doofy-sounding voices, but they seem to enjoy characters without them just as much so I’m not sure that it’s a trope worth holding on to the extent it’s being used.

The only time I recall people seeming to have gotten up in arms about this is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, in which a recurring background character with crossed eyes was dubbed “Derpy” by fans, which was incorporated into canon. The character spoke in an episode and had a voice to match the name and the character ended up being altered in subsequent airings after a minor uproar, in spite of the fandom surrounding her. It’s odd that such a minuscule example of this was hammered so fast and so hard while so many bigger targets make it a staple of their comedy. Was it the eyes?

One could definitely argue about whether some of these kinds of characters are meant to be literally disabled or just unintelligent. It’s pretty much accepted fact that other people being stupid can be funny, but at what point do you cross that line? How do you differentiate a genuinely funny joke about ignorance from something that’s just moronic and offensive?

Does Homer Simpson count? He’s got a big, loud dumb voice and he does idiotic things for sure, but then again, he’s high-functioning and pretty much serves as a definitive symbol of the American public in The Simpsons’ brand of sharp satire so I’d say he’s more of a harsh everyman metaphor than a mentally disabled character. On the other hand, Family Guy once named an episode Petarded where Peter Griffin was declared legally retarded.  I’m not really sure what to make of that.  I guess you could just chalk it up to the show’s trademark random flailing at comedy.

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It’s interesting to me that live action entertainment has by and large gotten over its fascination with mentally handicapped characters. This may or may not be in response to the controversial satire of Tropic Thunder in which the Oscar baiting phenomenon was heavily skewered, coining the advice “never go full retard”. Seeing that that was more of a saying out loud what Hollywood was thinking situation, I find it amusing that people were more offended by a comedy poking fun at Hollywood’s exploitation of mental handicaps for profit than they are at its continued prevalence in childrens’ films and television shows.

Modern television has proved that it’s entirely possible to treat mental disabilities and characters who have them with respect. Jamie Brewer carved out featured roles in two of three seasons of American Horror Story as an actress with Down syndrome playing characters with Down syndrome who were integral to the plot and not played just for laughs or even sympathy. RJ Mitte has cerebral palsy, and so does his Breaking Bad character, Walt Jr. He’s not someone we pity or laugh at because he has a funny voice. He’s an indispensable cast member who is treated on the show as disabled people should be; just like anyone else.

If we as adults can appreciate that, why are we holding childrens’ entertainment to a lower standard? Are we training our kids to think that having speech problems is something to laugh at? At this point it’s obvious that kiddie flicks are being made for parents as much as their children so why put up with this? It’s clear enough that a lot of us find this sort of humor more annoying than amusing. We didn’t stand for Jar-Jar Binks, so why do Oscar winners and half of Nickelodeon’s programming get a free pass?

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Even divorcing the notion that it’s insensitive for cartoons to play mentally challenged individuals for cheap laughs, I don’t see the appeal. I watch a film like Epic and enjoy it quite a bit, but then they have to crap it up by cramming exceptionally low-brow humor and white ebonics approximations into the mix for no good reason. Whether the characters are meant to be literally mentally disabled or just dumb, at this point it’s become an almost unwatchable and cringeworthy cliché to me.

You don’t see Miyazaki stooping to this level. In fact, other countries seem almost completely immune to this. Do movies with serious stories featuring really, really stupid characters do that much better than ones that don’t in America?  This isn’t like using hot girls on magazine covers to sell more copies. I don’t think there is a direct correlation between unnecessarily obnoxious characters and a film’s appeal. It’s just bad writing.

So if you’re listening, Hollywood, I’d really appreciate it if you’d start hiring writers that get how comedy works and make funny things happen instead of just throwing deliberately doofy voices, ebonics, and general obnoxiousness into the mix. Sooner or later the PC crowd is going to come for your ass and shut it down anyways so no time like the present to start honing your actual joke-writing skills.  Thanks.

Sword Art Online and the Reality of Virtuality

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When Sword Art Online was announced to air on Cartoon Network’s Toonami anime block, I was a little bit leery. An anime that took place almost entirely inside of a massively multiplayer video game could be a cool concept, but then again the same could be said about a BloodRayne film. What sounds like a good idea can often fail miserably in execution and video games in particular have proven to be a difficult concept to translate to other entertainment mediums without losing the essence of what made them worth adapting in the first place.

But what the hell did I have to lose giving it a chance other than twenty minutes or so of my life? The art looked happening and I have a soft spot for fantasy of all kinds. It was a low-risk gamble that paid off huge because whatever I was expecting from a MMO-based anime (which was based on a manga adapted from a series of novels) was far surpassed by what I got.

Sword Art Online is pretty much a perfect example of Japan being ahead of the entertainment curve and lovingly integrating gaming culture into a near-future science fiction story that legitimizes it in a way that I’ve never seen done before. It’s a conceptual narrative that will likely cause you to think about the very nature of our hobby and question whether there is any distinction worth making between interactions in a virtual world as opposed to the “real” one. And by the end, it may be hard to argue that there is.

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The first episode presents the essential plot. On the launch day of a brand new virtual reality massive multiplayer role playing game, players log in using nerve gear, which wires their brain and senses into the actual game, immersing them in it entirely. But at the end of a long day of amazing gaming, the players can’t find the command to log themselves out.

Turns out SAO’s creator had a whole new level of hardcore gaming in mind when he launched this project. The world is informed that players’ consciousnesses will not be returned to them until the game has been cleared, any attempt to remove the nerve gear will result in death, and anyone who dies in the game dies in real life. Game on, noobs.

Again, an interesting idea, but it would have been easy to make this just another fantasy anime with a gimmick of the whole thing being a video game. Thankfully, that’s not what we got. The various adventures within SAO acknowledge gaming’s place as an increasingly social form of entertainment and goes so far as to suggest that a person’s behavior in-game is a better indication of who they are then the way they act in reality.

The protagonist, Kirito, was a beta tester for the game and as a result he has a leg up on the vast majority of his fellow players. While others form guilds for survival, Kirito is determined to be a solo player, and is one of the few strong enough to do it. He also seems fairly unconcerned at the prospect of being trapped in the game, implying heavily that he actually prefers to be altogether free of the stresses of real life. After all, he’s practically a god in-game.

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Tranhumanistic themes aside, SAO also kicks quite a bit of ass.

The other players are suitably a mixed bag. Some refuse to buy into the “if you die in-game, you die irl” story and continue killing other players for loot, others organize the strongest players to attempt to beat the game as soon as possible, some are too terrified to even go out into the field and are simply resigned to living out their lives in a virtual world. It’s a fascinating and fairly realistic look at a cross-section of gaming culture and humanity in general.

Individual episodes of the show often tell stories that act as gaming parables. For example, in one episode a man conspires against his real life wife in the game upon discovering that in there she was strong, confident, and better than him in every way. He explains that the ideal woman he married in real life was meek and submissive and that he couldn’t deal with who she was in-game. It’s a really disturbing tale that cuts to the core of male insecurities and gives one a strong urge to kick anybody who would list “submissive” among the attributes that make an ideal wife in the face.

Yeah, this show gets dark, but it’s also full of whimsy, surprisingly effective romance, and strong emotional highs and lows. If you can’t imagine being brought to tears by a cartoon character humming Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I would suggest you to take the SAO challenge and see if that can’t change. On the other end, there’s a legitimate question posed of whether spending an extended period of time falling in love with another person in a virtual world counts as genuine romance. Again, the show makes it hard to argue against it. Even a life lived in virtual reality is a life lived with real emotions and shared experiences, after all.

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It’s historically been very easy and common to laugh off the idea that an online friendship or relationship could ever carry the same weight we assign to real life interactions, but what SAO does is take where we are at now with online interactions and take it to its inevitable logical extreme.

As we are now, social networking may just be words or images on a screen, but what about when we are able to fully immerse our senses in cyberspace? When we can feel ourselves holding each others’ hands and gaze into each others’ eyes in real time, or even share a virtual home together even though we’re potentially thousands of miles apart? Perception of the word around us is nothing more than our brain processing and interpreting information from light, vibrations, and sensations. With this in mind, could you really call a virtual experience between two people in VR any less real?

All this and a lot more is worked into the first fourteen episode arc of Sword Art Online. For the second half of the inaugural season, the show does something extremely unexpected that I won’t really spoil here, but it’s a pretty bold step. What I will say is that the focus shifts and that one aspect of the second helping is kind of a flip side to the online relationship question regarding the true identities of the people you may be gaming with online.

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Who wouldn’t trust this guy with direct access to their cerebral cortex?

In addition to that, SAO’s second plotline brings into focus some of the prospective ethical dilemmas of a company essentially being plugged directly into people’s brains. Yeah. You think Kinect’s always-on microphone is an ethical dilemma? Child’s play. That kind of VR would literally be corporate god mode.

Overall, Sword Art Online gives the viewer a lot to think about if they are so inclined, but also serves up memorable characters, easy to follow stories, great action scenes, and a lot of feels for those who just want an entertaining distraction.

Like The Matrix before it, it strikes just the right mix of conceptual sci-fi philosophy and good times, and unlike anything else before it, it captures important social aspects of gaming culture and pays tribute to the hobby as something beyond a mere distraction for losers with no life. It treats the medium and its players with a level of respect that hasn’t really been done before that I can recall. If for no other reason, this is why hardcore gamers should consider seeking this show out. It’s really one of a kind.

   

What in the Hell has been Going on at DC Comics?

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Everybody knows there are two heavy hitters in the comic industry: Marvel and DC. The two companies relentlessly copy and complement each other with the various ebbs and flows of the business; keeping each other honest and maintaining the balance of power. DC invented superheroes as we know them today and gave the world mythic icons like Batman and Superman while Marvel arguably perfected the formula by adding angst and human drama to the characters’ lives, bequeathing unto us legendary characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine. This arrangement has worked out for both companies and comic fans alike.

After some 75 years of Marvel and DC fans are still constantly arguing the virtues of each company to establish which one is the ultimate comic supplier. DC has better TV shows! Marvel has better movies! The Justice League could totally kick the Avengers’ asses! Marvel Zombies was way cooler than Blackest Night! Was not! Was so! You know you love it. At least I do.

But here’s something that hasn’t really been taken into account in this argument: who really has it more together as a business? The Marvel and DC brands have expanded and put their respective stamps all over the entertainment industry, but whenever controversy arises, it always seems to be DC in the hotseat.

I’m not going to rundown my list of reasons I have run screaming from the New 52 yet again, but since launching their post-Flashpoint all-gritty-all-the-time universe reboot it has been one f**king thing after another. Fails are just falling out of the sky.

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I suppose we should be happy it took twenty years to completely skankify Harley Quinn.

Your nerdy fun fact for today is there is actually a website that keeps track of how long it has been since DC has done something stupid: hasdcdonesomethingstupidtoday.com. Their current record is 41 days. February had an extra special act of stupidity for us; namely that during Black History Month they debuted two formerly black characters as white characters, Connor Hawke and Onyx. Okay, Hawke was half white, but now he’s all white for some reason in an industry that can always do with more diversity.

Speaking of diversity, DC last rustled mainstream jimmies by driving out celebrated writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, who were writing Batwoman, last year. The title character, Kate Kane, is one of the few examples of a genuinely awesome high profile gay character in mainstream comics. In fact, given my experiences with recent Batman and Batwoman comics, I’d go so far as to Batwoman’s title has been superior. By far. More on that later.

So the reason William and Blackman quit was that the company would not allow them to carry out the marriage of Kate to her female fiancé. To be fair, DC stated that they weren’t allowing any heroes any marriages so I don’t believe they were being homophobic, but that just brings up another level of stupidity.

Writers need freedom to write. They should have creative control over the destinies of the characters placed in their charge within reason. Obviously, they shouldn’t be allowed to kill characters off and other extremities without consulting the bosses, but I hate to think that a company would be so stupid as to make a blanket rule that no characters are allowed to get married ever. When I think about it, all I hear J. Jonah Jameson’s voice screaming “Marriage isn’t gritty! People don’t want to read about loving relationships in 2014!” Well I do, DC. I have only fond memories of Peter Parker’s romance and marriage to Mary Jane and my memories of Marvel’s reboot of it in One More Day yields only bad feelings from top to bottom.

I get that people like the tension of a romantic life in flux, but I think that comic readers have aged themselves into a different demographic and DC is clinging to outdated notions. We are not children and teenagers anymore. A lot of readers are married with kids and there’s nothing wrong with a comic book universe reflecting that in some of its characters.

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FYI: this was the ironic result of DC’s last same-sex marriage proposal.

DC has long struggled with the concept of diversity. They wiped several of their gay characters off the face of the universe when the New 52 came about and haven’t reintroduced them, although they did manage a token obscure Green Lantern, albeit one who got a press release as if a minor character coming out is big news. If you want to impress me, reboot Wonder Woman as a lesbian.

Speaking of the Amazon princess, how’s that movie coming along? You know: one of the most recognizable comic characters of all time, part of DC’s Big Three, spectacular badass immersed in epic Greek mythology, worldwide sex symbol, and an overall avatar of awesomeness? You can’t manage to put out a movie starring THAT Wonder Woman?

Marvel is giving us an alien talking raccoon commando kicking ass while hanging off of a giant talking tree that can only communicate his name Groot and it looks amazing, but Wonder Woman is too tall an order? Oh, you say you had Joss Whedon -the same one who has worked magic in televisions, film, and comics before bringing us the Avengers movie of our dreams- on the case, but you let him go? F**k you too, then; just make her a supporting character in a Batman/Superman feature; it’s not like they made Wonder Woman Superman’s arm candy in the comics or something.

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They did whatnow?

How does this stuff happen? How out of touch does a company have to be to get to the point where they appear to be declaring war on their own creators and fans? Just ask Alan Moore. Their decision to make prequel series to his perfect and complete exactly as it was Watchmen was met with a resounding “why?” from fans and more than a little bit of bile from the embittered creator.

It seems like some writers at DC are given the privilege to do any ridiculously stupid thing they want while others are doomed to get the shaft no matter what. Gail Simone’s Secret Six was one of the most beloved pre-New 52 titles, but that didn’t save it from the axe. In addition, she was booted from Birds of Prey for the second time and Barbara Gordon was dismantled (or reassembled, I suppose) and sent back to Batgirl duties, leaving us sans-Oracle. Yawn.

DC had the good sense to allow Simone to continue writing Barbara Gordon…for a while. Then they fired her. The they re-hired her because the internet lost its collective mind. Why wouldn’t a talented and consistently high-performing female writer in a male-dominated industry be given at least the same amount of respect as the vanilla-flavored likes of Geoff Johns? You tell me.

Grant Morrison’s seven year reign as king of all things Batman has been…patchy. He has no shortage of fans who will assure you that if you read every single issue over and over it makes sense kind of, but I’m going to give you a quick rundown of the kind of insanity that made me simply stop paying attention in case you are not familiar with Morrison’s roughshod ride.

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Uh-oh is right. Morrison, are you out of your shiny Scottish gourd?

The reintroduction of Silver Age nonsense like Bat-Mite and Bat pets, along with Bruce Wayne’s ridiculous and flamboyant-looking hidden personality, the Batman of Zurr-En-Arrh, are exactly as ridiculous as they sound and look. And apparently superheroes can’t get married, but they can have children and then take them out to combat evil as Robin while still toddler-sized, and then bring home a cow.

There used to be a rule that the only characters who stayed dead in comics were Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben. Since only one of those are necessarily true anymore, I’d think Batman’s parents would have been a good addition. Surely that sacred line wouldn’t be crossed. Oh wait, Morrison brought back Thomas Wayne (or did he? Not sure even Morrison knows) as a villain in the cash-grabbingly titled Batman RIP in which Batman does not rest in peace in any sense of the term. But if he did, he’d have rolled over in his grave.

In addition this kind of sacrilege, we got Batman Inc. where Wayne decided to have a bunch of Batmen all over the world because reasons, and then there was the tour of Batmen throughout history like Pirate Batman, Knight Batman, and Native American Batman and Morrison’s public insistence in interviews that Batman was “very, very gay”.

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I have no idea whatever he could mean.

What do you say to a writer who believes that the character he is writing is gay and continues writing him as straight anyway? Sorry about harping on Morrison for so long, but there is a lot of crazy to sort through to make this point: why does a male writer this bizarre get to do whatever the hell he feels like while female writers get the axe for keeping characters interesting without making a complete circus out of their assignments?

If you thought mayhap I was alluding to sexism, mayhap you could be right. DC’s history with their ladies is sketchy on a good day. Everything from Wonder Woman’s origin as a chauvinistic bondage toy to Black Canary’s fantastic 2007 solo miniseries identifying her on the cover as being “From the pages of Green Arrow” (translation:  “It’s okay, guys, you’ve heard of her boyfriend and he’s in it too” ) in large type above the title.

And this isn’t just related to corporate politics and panels. For the love of God, could we get a cool Lois Lane on the big screen? The Lois Lane from the DC animated Universe (and modern comics given the right writer), not the old “Superman’s Girlfriend” Lois Lane who existed only to to be boring and give Superman someone to rescue. I want this Lois Lane:

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The Lois that is the most awesome reporter out there. The one that was all integrity and snark, knows exactly who Superman is, and chooses to play along. The one who only needs Superman to rescue her when she is a mere mortal getting in trouble on a superhuman level due to sheer badassery. Who the hell wants to see yet another film where drab Lois is just there because Hollywood says audiences won’t relate to a man in colorful tights unless he gets with a hot chick to prove how straight he is?

And let me point out real quick that when I complain about sexism, I am not going to talk about fashion. Whining that comic books puts women in silly, form-fitting costumes is something only people who never touch the things (in other words: haven’t seen the male equivalents for comparison) could complain about. But hey, why bother learning about topics you pretend to care about when you can just read a post from someone else who hasn’t bothered either and complain about whatever they complained about? Yes, boys like boobs more than they like no boobs. This is more biological fact meets financial convenience than political stance.

If we could stop trivializing the portrayal of strong women in comics by calling for The Adventures of Denim Woman and Burka Girl or other things we have no intention of buying and focus instead on supporting the artists and writers who are doing it right, that’d be sweet. Then maybe we could get more Oracle hacking the Batcomputer to tell the Caped Crusader to piss off and Wonder Woman facing down the might of the Chinese military with an axe and shield and less of the “females should be used only to assist the male lead” mentality and contests where DC asks entrants to draw Harley Quinn committing naked suicide. Yes, that was an actual thing.

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Pictured: doing it right.

In conclusion: comics may have come a long way, but DC is still doing its part to assure that there are still miles to go before we sleep. Marvel has its problems too, but in my experience they’ve risen to the occasion so far this decade (in some areas more than others) while DC almost seems to be uniformly moving backwards. So if anybody can shed some light on what the hell these guys are thinking, I’d really appreciate it. I’ve almost stopped paying attention altogether.

Great Unexpectations: A Tale of Two Second Season Premieres

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The first part of 2014 delivered to me two exceptional second season premieres from two different up and coming storytelling delivery mediums. These two episodes did more for me in terms of defying expectations, changing the landscape of their respective series, and delivering compelling entertainment and challenging morality in these individual episodes than most series will ever accomplish in their entire runs.

The first was technically released in late 2013, but I was a couple weeks late getting to it so I got it post-New Years. It was Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, a story-based series that blurs the line between video game and interactive fiction beyond all recognition.  The second: Netflix’s original flagship series House of Cards, a high-quality political drama whose streaming format allows for viewers to watch as much or as little as they want whenever they choose to rather than endure the traditional wait for weekly installments and increasingly tiresome mid-season breaks.

Both of these breakthrough series were game changers in their respective first seasons and both made it their business early in their second seasons to change the game again by toying with traditional expectations and then using those expectations to destroy their viewers’ brains. Naturally, the following contains some very nasty spoilers so proceed only if you have already experienced these premieres or don’t intend to anytime soon. Here’s to celebrating some of the best moments in entertainment I’ve had in ages.

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For those not in the know, Telltales’ The Walking Dead is based on the massive comic book sensation that spawned the AMC television show. As you can see, the art style is cel-shaded to reflect that origin. You might think that the unreality of it would diminish the drama, but you would be wrong. Telltale lives up to their name in every way. They know how to tell a goddamn story, and in basing the narrative on decisions that you make it takes the story and puts it in your hands, completely immersing the player in the world in a way that combines the best aspects of video games, comic books, and television.

As dark and depressing as you may think the TV show is, it’s got nothing on this game. It may even have the comic beat. The first season you played as Lee, a convict that escaped during the zombie outbreak who found his redemption protecting a little girl, Clementine. Lee doesn’t make it to the finish line, and for season 2, your darling Clementine takes the lead.

The cliffhanger from season 1 had little Clem alone spotting a pair of figures in the distance who may or may not be her friends. Season 2 starts with our heroine in the company of those friends, the lovable Omid and his Amazonian hardass of a girlfriend Christa, assuaging our worry that she would be all alone in the world. But the first thing Telltale does is kill off Omid when Clem lets her guard down and a drifter gets ahold of her gun.

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First. Freaking. Thing. Most of us remembered the horrors and the shock and depression of the first season, but early on you expect them to ease you back into the characters. Nope. Before you can even get over how nice it is to have Omid back, Season Two blasts you full in the face. Welcome back, noobs.

Now it’s just Christa and Clem and the adult is incommunicado, blaming the little girl for her fatal slip-up. But that’s not depressing enough. In a nighttime attack from a group of raiders, Christa and Clem are separated and then there was one.

At this point, it’s time for some quiet time. Alone in the woods, you happen upon a stray dog who begins following you, giving Clementine a companion to talk to. We’ve all seen this before; we know how this works. The dog is defensive at first, but soon lets its guard down. Two lost souls leaning on each other for support: man’s best friend and the little girl lost. It’s a beautiful thing.  So naturally, I’m thinking how sad it’s going to be when the dog inevitably sacrifices itself so that the little girl can live. I’ve got you nailed, Telltale! I know you are setting me up for feels!

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Now the above image represents a pivotal moment in Clem’s relationship with her new canine companion. We’ve all seen this before. OF COURSE you are going to share your scavenged beans with the dog. This is the covenant between human and dog: we share our food with them and you become our beloved friend and protector forever.  This contract is sacred and cannot be broken.

So I chose to share and the dog I’d been bonding with for the last twenty minutes or was so eager for it he knocked the can right out of Clem’s hand. As he tried to get at the beans, Clem reaches out to retrieve the can from the greedy pet and…

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…that happens. Food aggression much? In probably the most viscerally shocking thing I’ve ever experienced in over 30 years of gaming the dog lets out a menacing snarl and attacks the little girl. It threw me for such a loop that I almost dropped my controller and was so baffled by this complete reversal of everything I’d ever experience before it that I helplessly watched a dog tear out a little girl’s throat and all I could do was laugh myself silly at this complete betrayal of my expectations. Well played, Telltale. Well played.

That was definitely the high point of my gaming experiences in 2014 so far. After you do away with the doggie, the rest of the episode sees Clementine happen upon a group of zombie apocalypse survivors who mistake her bite for…well, a bite and lock her (still bleeding) in a shed to see if she turns or not before deciding whether or not to waste any medical supplies on a potentially infected stranger. Not out of the woods yet.

She has to break out, steal supplies, and stitch her wound herself and deal with walker who uses her improvised exit as an entrance before facing her angry captors and eventually making another life or death decision when a zombie attack interrupts an exploratory hunting trip framed around a dicey family conflict the next day. It’s a lot to take in for a single episode. To think I’ve still got four more to go and I’m already emotionally exhausted.  Let’s see what’s on Netflix.

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Conspiracy plots is the new sex and violence. This is what makes quality entertainment now: terrible people doing terrible things to each other using the most intricate and underhanded methods that the writers can possible conceive of. That and sex and violence, of course.

The most terrifying of this new crop of anti-hero (villain?) protagonists is House of Cards’ soulless sociopath Frank Underwood. It’s a testament to our ingrained expectations of popular fiction that a character who has almost no redeeming qualities becomes a heroic figure to viewers who don’t know what to do with a story where the protagonist is objectively evil. They need that identification. They need to root for somebody. Someone needs to triumph and it may as well be the devil we know.

Because of these things, House of Cards continues to push further and further to see how much they can bend the phenomenon of audience identification without quite breaking it. Underwood regularly punches a hole through the fourth wall, fixing his sinister gaze on the camera to directly acknowledge or address the audience outside of his own reality; daring us not to feel uncomfortable as he wrecks life after life on a whim.

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Season 2 has Frank as the Vice President of these United States, having manipulated his way from Congress to a heartbeat away from the highest office in the free world out of sheer spite because of a political snub. His ultimate target is still ahead of him, though. How does one secretely do away with an American President while maintaining a kind and gentle Southern “aw shucks” public exterior? The same way he got where he’s at, I reckon.

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. Near the end of Season 1, Frank crossed the uncrossable line and set up a candidate only to have him knocked down by his vices, setting the scene for ol’ Frank to save the day. When he turns into a loose end with too much information Underwood leaves him passed out in a running car in a closed garage, framing his murder as a suicide and presumably losing the last bit of audience sympathy in the process.

So how does one top the cold-blooded murder of an innocent man for political gain? House of Cards returned after its hiatus with a group of journalists hot on Underwood’s tail, connecting the dots between the dead politician and the freshly-minted VP. If Frank was still the protagonist, young up and coming journalist Zoe Barnes was his new antagonist.

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This is interesting because Zoe is a fairly lovable character; all sex appeal, aggressive youthful optimism, and career-driven woman using every means at her disposal to make her mark in Frank’s world. She wants to be a good journalist and get the truth out to the public, however ugly. Her mutually-beneficial relationship (both personal and professional) with Frank formed the very foundation of the first season, but the murder makes her a liability who had long since served her purpose.

The second season premiere was a cat and mouse game between the former partners, setting up what we would expect to be a season-long arc. Or maybe not. After Underwood warns Zoe off several times, she continues probing him with the wrong questions in the wrong place at the wrong time

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So yeah, the closest thing left to a primary character who is not a complete piece of shit gets Ned Starked in the first episode of the season. This is House of Cards, kid. Scruples only earn you a nasty end. At the end of the episode, Frank turns to us and addresses his audience for the first time this season: “Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you’d hoped I had” before welcoming us back to his world. It’s bone-chilling.

Meanwhile, Frank’s wife Claire, who has often been seen as the heart of the Underwoods as this point, starts to show that she may be every bit the sociopath her husband is, researching pregnancy under the guise of an older woman exploring her options when she is in fact attempting to subdue a pregnant ex-employee who has brought a lawsuit against her.

And by “subdue” I mean find out how she can use her pregnancy against her. She discovers that the ex-employee in question requires a certain drug to sustain the health of her unborn child and exploits a loophole that allows her to cancel her health benefits, telling the poor woman that she will gladly watch her baby shrivel and die in her womb if she doesn’t do as she’s told. This is the first blatant display suggesting that Claire may well be every bit as nasty as her husband in spite of her ever-pleasant demeanor. Guess who’s stepping up this season.

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And that, friends, is how you hook a viewer in for the long haul right off the bat. Moments like these that smash everything you thought you knew about a franchise are what assures that we will keep coming back for more. After a single season, we think we know what there is to know.

There is a rhythm and ritual to most popular entertainment where we often know more or less what’s going to happen but watch to see it happen anyways. It’s comforting…and boring. When a show can use these expectations to expertly set the viewer up just so it can knock them down with glee, then you know you are dealing with heavy hitters; writers who understand the power of storytelling and are determined to push their medium forward rather than maintain the comfort of the status quo.

Telltale’s The Walking Dead and House of Cards, you’ve got what I need. I’d say don’t change, but that would completely defeat the purpose. Just keep doing what you do and I’ll keep playing/watching.

Why a Video Game Industry Crash Could be A Good Thing

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It seems like more and more often, I’m reading about the video game industry crashing again. My initial reaction to these reports was the shrug them off by pointing to the record profits, hardcore fanbase, and the apparently recession-proof nature of the medium. But lately, having thought about this more often, I’ve started to come around and realize that the current business model may no longer be viable and appears to be hanging on to remnants of the past while branching out in the wrong directions. But given these observations, would another industry apocalypse be a bad thing?

To those who may not be familiar with the history of the medium, the Crash of 1983 ended the first generation of video gaming in devastating fashion. The fledgling industry over saturated the market without regard for quality and brought about its own demise by overextending itself in a rush to maximize profits too fast and too soon. Nintendo single-handedly saved gaming with the NES a couple years later, but 1983 remains a warning that it could all come crashing down again if companies are not careful.

Over thirty years after the big crash, video games are taking over as a dominant entertainment medium. The biggest earners in any given year are typically gaming staples like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto and the culture that has risen up around gaming is a combination of massive and passionate that film, television, and literature fans can’t touch. We’ve reached a sweet spot where artistic interactive storytelling, astonishing visuals, excellent soundtracks, and genuine fun have all come together to make it a something for everyone catch-all entertainment behemoth.

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The bigger they are…

So why is it going to crash? Well hardware prices are going up, more companies are trying to throw their hats into the ring, budgets are becoming more and more inflated, companies are becoming less and less consumer friendly, and set price points for games coupled with tough economic times for the middle and lower classes are leading to more people buying used and pirating. Even with massive sales, companies are often losing money due to the immense budgets of their products.

This leads me to believe that Nintendo may actually have the leg up on Sony and Microsoft, in spite of appearances. For all of the mockery the Wii-U has endured for not being high-tech enough and not having enough awe-inspiring games, this conservative approach could be in anticipation of some economic calamity that they foresee. Nintendo is not dumb. For all intents and purposes, they built this house out of the rubble of the Atari age. And they may well be poised to clean up again after the Xbox and PlayStation brands implode under their own weight.

Which brings me to my next point: where will we as gamers be with our hardcore gaming brands out of commission? Well, there is no possibility of video games not making an immediate comeback. We may lose some of the biggest companies, but we will not lose the medium. It’s part of who we are as a generation now. There will always be interactive digital adventures to be had, with or without the Microsofts and EAs of the world.

But how, you crazy bastard, you say. How will we survive without a new Call of Duty and Madden every single year or a stack of unplayed games that we reflexively bought because they looked awesome but never got a chance to play because were too busy playing new Call of Duty and Madden every year?  Well, you know what they say: less is more. Part of the reason the industry may be dooming itself is because there is just too much out there. I know this is as First World problems as it gets, but there are literally too many games on any one console for any of us to hope to play.

game sales chartRemember when we used to get a game and play it for years unraveling every secret and replaying the same levels over and over just to get better for its own sake? I don’t know what that feels like anymore. Every time I fire up a new game, I’m already thinking about the next game I’m going to play. There are so many games that I don’t have time for that I feel like I have to rush through every game I play so I can hurry up and get to the next one and the one after that, hoping to get to them all before the next console generation where I start the process all over again while still lamenting the games I never got to play on the last gen.

Maybe my problem in life is that I want to experience too much. Perhaps this is the form of my impending mid-life crisis: to have so many things I want to see, read, watch, play, and do with no time for them all. Again, it’s a good problem to have as far as dilemmas go, but with so much out there and so many people with only so much time and money to go around, it seems like the entertainment industry can’t take much more expansion. Something is going to give and gaming seems to be the industry pushing itself the hardest.

But even if we lose all of the big three and even Valve, gamers will not want for distraction. One of the big stories of the several years has been indie games. From low tech nostalgia-style titles to story-based adventures told in installments, smaller companies are proving that you don’t need big budgets to deliver a good time. If the corporations crumble, these guys will be more than ready to fill their void, and with the extra attention they could potentially become the next generation of mainstream gaming and remake the industry with a completely new paradigm.

Imagine a world without set $60 price points and day one DLC. No more paid corporate shill reviews flooding websites or overpriced special editions, no products rushed to market before their time, and no goddamn console wars either. Imagine all the people living for today. You may say I’m a dreamer, but…wait, what was I talking about?

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We don’t need no water…

Oh, right. Let it all burn, then. Thanks for the good times, corporate gaming overlords, but progress marches on.  Not that we should start picking out a catchy tombstone epitaph for EA just yet or anything, but given the direction that things appear to be going with new consoles failing to live up to expectations and general consumer malcontent becoming the norm, I could see a return to smaller PC titles in the future.

Whether it happens or not we’ll see, but with gaming cemented in the public’s collective consciousness as primo entertainment we don’t really have much to fear if it does. There’s plenty of talent out there to make sure that the industry will bounce back and chances are a reboot could end up being beneficial to consumers and give a lot of new blood and fresh ideas a chance without being gobbled up by the sharks. And to that I say, why the hell not. The last one cleared out the crap and gave us some of the most definitive years in gaming history. I’m definitely interested in what could be in store for the next cycle.