Netflix It: Madoka Magica

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Every so often you get a story that not only transcends beyond the limitations of its chosen genre, but deconstructs it; devastating the tropes that define it in a way that resounds indefinitely. Watchmen did it for superhero comics, Scream did it to a lesser extent for slasher films (before becoming a joke itself with unnecessary sequels), Neon Genesis Evangelion did it for mecha, the Grand Theft Auto series routinely does it for third-person shooter video games, and for magical girl anime there’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Part of what made this show so brilliant was the way it was presented and marketed in a way to catch the audience completely off-guard. For those not into anime, let me explain. Magical girls are invariably upbeat, saccharine girl-power heroines with powers fueled by love and kittens who spread joy to the world by beating cartoonish baddies with extra-sparkly magical powers while navigating the social perils of high school like supercharged Hannah Montanas. Surely you’ve at least heard of Sailor Moon. So when you go for a magical girl anime, you aren’t expecting something that’s going to challenge you intellectually. You’re looking for something like this: Continue reading

Orange is the New Black and the Onset of Male Obsolescence

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So has everybody finished binge-watching the second season of Netflix’s best original show yet? Good. This one got me thinking after a particularly amusing exchange between two of the show’s black sheep characters, the prison’s hapless male counselor, Healey, and formerly psychotic hillbilly inmate, Pennsatucky, in which the former was attempting to inform his fellow anti-lesbian crusader of the feminist world domination agenda as put forth in a some book he was reading. As we all know, anything pandering to our personal insecurities in written form is automatically true; especially if they charge us for it. Ironically, this led to Pennsatucky seeking out the lesbianest lesbian she could find, Big Boo, in order to volunteer for the anti-male crusade. Boo happily (and hilariously) obliged her, although she could barely do it with a straight face.

While the idea of a real live lesbian feminist agenda to create mass male extinction is comedic to say the least, the obvious insecurity that led the character of Healey -a man surrounded by and tasked with dealing with a gender he has no clue how to relate to- is all too real. I mean, sure the male gender has maintained a dominant stranglehold on pretty much everything on the planet, but when you get down to it, what are we really good for? Sperm donations and jar-opening? If we ever develop methods of asexual reproduction and a smoother lid, surely the fairer sex will rise up and wipe us out?

Okay, maybe not, but in terms of media representation, Orange is the New Black is helping to blaze an interesting trail in entertainment and doing it in style. We’re talking about a popular television show of high quality with an entertainment factor that’s off the charts and it barely features any male characters of worth. Ladies have sat through decades of damsels in distress, Bechdel test failures, and various other lackluster portrayals of their gender in favor of more screentime for their male counterparts. It’s almost shocking to see the trope reversed so completely and successfully. Continue reading

Dark Passengers: What’s Behind Our Serial Killer Obsession?

???? Dexter

So I’m finally working my way through Dexter thanks to the magic of Netflix, and reading discussions about the show kind of highlighted something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. People goddamn love serial killers. And not just the crazy women who send them marriage proposals based entirely on knowing they are compelled to murder people. A really large percent of the population really gets off on stories about people being murdered in the worst ways possible.

True crime is an entire genre of literature that I hear a lot when I ask somebody what they read. Like, that’s all they read. And no, it’s not epic heists they want to learn about. They want blood, guts, gristle, rape, and torture. The Discovery Channel was a source of knowledge about the natural world for decades, but a hell of a lot more people watch the upstart spin-off station Investigation Discovery, which is focused almost entirely on murder. Other stations have been filling their programming with shows like Snapped that detail disturbing homicides.

But what we really love is a good old fashioned serial killer. Sure, these people who murder their spouses for insurance money or out of jealousy will whet our appetite, but we want a stone cold psychopath whenever we can get one. Someone who doesn’t kill for personal gain or anything we could conceivably relate to on a human level; someone who simply has to kill. And if we can turn them into heroes, that’s double our pleasure.

I first took notice of this in the 90’s when everybody was fawning over Sir Anthony Hopkins’ iconic performance as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. In that film, the character was a terrifying remorseless monster, but the sequel, Hannibal, attempted to turn him into some kind of bizarre romantic anti-hero. By the time we got to the origin story prequel, Hannibal Rising, he was a Nazi-killing avenger romancing Gong Li. Almost two and a half decades after Dr. Lecter took pop culture by storm he  has his own accaimed television series featuring the fourth actor to play him (counting 1986’s Manhunter). That is what you call an extended love affair. And all for a guy whose defining trait is killing and eating people in particularly creative ways. Continue reading

Are We Ready for a Farewell to Damsels?

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Last week, I was watching the latest episode of Once Upon a Time, in which the heroine ends up in a dungeon and awesomes her way out, meeting the incoming dashing hero and telling him that nobody rescues her except her. It highlighted an aspect of the show that I hadn’t really considered before. For a show about classic fairy tales that typically regard princesses as things to be kidnapped and rescued, it’s more or less stayed away from the damsel in distress trope and it hasn’t cost it a thing. Are you listening, video games?

Given the current social climate and the general tiredness of that particular cliché, you’d think this concept would have caught on in gaming even before Anita Sarkeesian found a way for somebody with no interest in video games to make a goddamn fortune exploiting female gamers’ political insecurities without adding anything of actual value to the community herself, but no. We’ve been so bad about this for so long that’s it has come to that point. Time to handle our business like adults.

And no, I’m not here to declare that the pursuit of freeing captured females as a sinister conspiracy theory hatched by the Patriarchy, Illuminati, Freemasons, Whitey, or the Legion of Doom to keep our sisters enslaved. I’m here to say what we already know: that video games are girls’ fun too and more games should reflect that.    damsel gif

I realize that with old-school game graphics, it was pretty hard to tell a compelling story. The simplest way to explain why you were doing what you were doing is have the big bad carry off a vaguely feminine-looking object which you would naturally need to rescue by jumping and climbing ladders and such. It’s simple. It worked. It gave the boys being wowed by these new toys called video games something to strive for.

But now it’s 2014. Women make up nearly half of the gaming populace and over half of the overall population in places like America, Europe, and Japan. They are literally the largest demographic in most of the gaming world, and they remain largely untapped. Traditional video game concepts usually mean male characters doing awesome things like shooting and punching stuff and generally being ridiculous power fantasies. I’m not against that. We all love a great power fantasy.

In keeping with that concept, when you -the male hero- get captured by the bad guys, how does it go? What do you do? Do you wait around for somebody to get you out or do you just kick so much ass that you cannot be contained? Exactly. Odds are, if you get locked in a prison in real life you aren’t going anywhere, but video games invariably give us a way to get out. Providing you are the almost-always male protagonist, that is.

The point is that there’s no good reason why we should expect that a female video game character wouldn’t have the same capabilities. It’s just weak storytelling. It’s been done over and over and it seldom adds anything interesting to the storyline. The general mentality has not progressed beyond that first generation mindset that you just need to have a chick to rescue and there’s your excuse to go kill stuff.

damsel princess peach

Do I have to? Again?

But gaming is better than that now. Or it could be. Easily. I’m not saying no female characters can ever get kidnapped again, but at this point it needs to be both integral to the plot and done much, much better. Or, here’s an idea: how about somebody kidnaps a MALE character and a female protagonist rescues him? Did I just blow you brains out the back of your head or what? Men like to be seen as manly, manly men and see other manly men do manly things. They apparently don’t like or expect to see men be unmanly. Seeing men be unmanly makes them feel less manly and how can a manly man be manly when he feels less than manly? Or something.

By this logic, are women expected to feel like prisoners because they’ve been subjected to story upon story where that’s what their gender representatives are reduced to? Gaming is a blank slate where we can create anything and anyone. It’s a place for silly fantasy and awesomeness and good times for anyone who wants them. I don’t see the possible upside of alienating or reducing the enjoyment of that experience for a demographic of this size. With limitless creative possibilities in front of us, why would we ever choose to be so lame and unoriginal?

Fiction has its tropes, of course, and damseling has always been one of the most leaned-upon to create drama. I get that. But I also get that seeing the same thing over and over again is the exact definition of boring. Can we not just kick virtual ass in order to stop bad guys from doing bad stuff? Do we even need a reason all the time?

I kind of love that the 8-bit indie game Hotline Miami just has you as a guy who gets phone calls instructing you (via creative euphemism) to go somewhere and kill everyone there. Why are you doing this? Because you’re playing a video game and the game tells you what to do. That’s how it works. That’s actually how it’s always worked, regardless of how they’ve dressed it up. This refreshing simplicity highlights the intent of gaming as a thing you do for fun just because you can. No damsels necessary.

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Pictured: irl distressed damsel.

And guys, women are our mothers, sisters, daughters, significant others, aunts, grandmas, coworkers, and friends. Respect is mandatory. Females aren’t invaders from another planet trying to ruin your Call of Duty game by making the matches about kissy fights with Justin Beiber as the soundtrack. They’re just fellow gamers trying to game. Being an asshole doesn’t assert your manliness; just your assholeness. Not a soul is impressed, I promise you. You can better assert your manliness by being mature enough to give and receive respect.

Gaming is growing up as a medium for entertainment, art, and even social interaction, but this appears to be a big hurdle left to clear. But it will get cleared, one way or another. The Last of Us essentially attempted to trick male gamers by easing us into playing as an awesome female character and enjoying it. After hours playing as the zombie-killing gruff man’s man, Joel, the big guy goes down, leaving his game-long escort mission charge, Ellie, in the driver’s seat.

Where were all of those gamers whining about not wanting to play as a girl while Ellie was stalking adult male raiders with bow and arrow and slitting throats? LOVING IT. Why? Because the game did a great job of drawing you into the story and, more importantly, the character. Joel needed Ellie to save him; you needed Ellie to save Joel. And you were now Ellie. Was that so bad? In the DLC, you played as Ellie and when the inevitable sequel comes, I doubt there will be any resistance to Ellie taking the lead right from the get-go. Thanks, Naughty Dog.

The clear answer to kicking this habit is better-written female characters. When a woman is properly developed in her own identity, it actually feels like a robbery to have her get nabbed. The Witcher 2 is an example of this. When you spend the first half of the game in the company of a kickass sorceress and suddenly she’s kidnapped and gone from the game just because the writers couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything more interesting, it’s more annoying than anything else. It felt like a damn waste of a character. Hopefully with better characterizations, game developers and players are going to start to pick up on that and find better uses for female NPC’s as well as more female protagonists.

coed gamingSo yeah, I’m going to say we are not only ready to bid farewell to damsels in distress as an overused story trope, but we’re long overdue. It’s probably only a matter of time before women attain positions of power in gaming, take over the industry from within, and show us that we can get along just fine without reducing female characters to personality-free archetype trophies to be awarded to successful masculine protagonists.

Gaming is not (and should never be) just boys’ fun and while the female gender on the whole may prize character development and world-building above killing things in the nastiest way possible, I don’t see that as a problem. There’s room for everybody and I’m afraid we’ve hogged the couch for too long, guys. Time to scoot over and give the ladies a turn. You might be surprised by how good they can be.

There’s a New Godzilla Movie Coming, but What About the Games?

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If I was going to list off the three most important influences of my childhood, you could pretty much boil it down to Star Wars, Nintendo, and Godzilla. And out of those three, only the last one remains a really pertinent influence to this day. Star Wars still has its moments and I still respect Nintendo, but there is absolutely no question about which one incites the most excitement in my man-child brain. While jumping plumbers don’t really do it for me anymore and Jedi and Sith just ain’t what they used to be, my love for giant monsters smashing stuff is still as strong as ever.

As with the films that I grew up with and continue to anticipate to this day, my history with Godzilla video games is a long and storied one. It’s been almost a decade since we last saw a Godzilla movie released and nearly as long since we saw an official video game. This needs to be fixed.

With the big G poised to bring in audiences in his American film debut (we do not speak of then 1998 atrocity known as GINO) I figure the time has got to be right for a new take on a monster who’s made his mark on the video game medium. But first, let me take you on a tour of Godzilla games past.

The year was 1988. The country’s new motto was Don’t Worry be Happy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the most awesomest thing ever, and ten year old Nick is already a kaiju cinema veteran doing chores for a quarter apiece so he could take his accumulated wealth to K-Mart every few months to search for VHS cassettes promising to provide the spectacle of a giant radioactive green dinosaur battling suitably outlandish adversaries while badly dubbed Japanese people look on in horror. This is the year Godzilla: Monster of Monsters rocked my socks.godzilla nes

I wasn’t what you’d call a picky gamer. I’d play anything. But I can say that I most likely played this NES title more than any other. I WAS PLAYING AS GODZILLA! It felt good to scratch something off of my bucket list that young. I mean prior to this game I used to literally watch the movies with a controller in my hand and pretend I was controlling him. That’s possibly a diagnosable mental condition of some sort.

Even after I bought a SNES four years later, I still made time to play Monster of Monsters. There was nothing else quite like it. The levels were broken up into grids. The player moved Godzilla and Mothra strategically along the grid (each space moved represented a short level where your monster had to smash through an alien army collecting power-ups and leveling up) in order to engage a number of adversaries from classic kaiju films both familiar and obscure. The fighting was surprisingly great for the time.

Two years later, Godzilla made his self-titled handheld debut on the Game Boy. Was I pumped? I was pumped. Until I laid hands on it, that is. The game was a chibi-styled puzzle game where Godzilla climbed ladders and punched boulders while enemies chased him like he was Dig Dug. What. The. Hell. This thing was Godzilla In Name Only long before Roland Emmerich ever conceived his big screen abomination.

Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters came out in 1992 for the NES. If I’d seen it on store shelves, I’d have bought it (and I wish I had), but I did manage to rent a copy. This game represents a definitive milestone for me as a gamer because it introduced me to a genre I still treasure to this day: turn-based strategy.

Huh? Yeah. The sequel to the side-scrolling action title Monster of Monsters was a strategy game. Not only that, but you didn’t even play as Godzilla. Godzilla and his fellow daikaiju were your adversaries and you played as the Japanese Self Defense Force using your assets (which awesomely included Mothra) to defeat the invading monsters. It was amazing and I wish to god to see something like it again; preferably one where you could play as either side.     

super godzillaAt that point, the SNES was already out so it’s not surprising that War of the Monsters didn’t get much love. The very next year saw yet another creative shift when Super Godzilla brought the King of the Monsters into the 16-bit era in all of its glory.

In this game, the military tags Godzilla with a transmitter that allows them to control his actions and they turn him into a weapon to fend off an alien invasion led by the usual menagerie of massive menacing monsters. The levels take place in a split screen view with one part being a map and the other showing the monster himself. You guide Godzilla through cities smashing through anything that gets in his way (which costs him energy) en route to the big bad.

The battles were not your standard fights either. Rather than the typical kick/punch/jump, the combat most closely resembled the future PlayStation classic Monster Rancher and different attacks were available to you based on endurance and distance. When you attacked, the action was carried out in a cutscene, making it a really unique experience. The game was short, but memorable due to its originality.

At this point, most Godzilla games were only being released in Japan. Godzilla Generations came out on the Dreamcast to terrible reviews. The streak of Japanese-only and dud games ended in 2002 when the Gamecube finally gave us the game we wanted all along. That game was Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee.

This was pretty much the kaiju game of my dreams. It was reminiscent of the classic King of the Monsters (which was not officially affiliated with, but definitely inspired by Godzilla), but was so much better. You take 2-4 monsters, put them in a city or other smashable environment, and there you go. It was crazy fun to play by yourself, and even crazier with friends.godzilla destroy all monsters melee

Not owning a Gamecube, I lucked out when Melee was released on the Xbox and even more so when it was enabled for custom soundtracks. If there is anything more awesome in a fighting game than tearing Tokyo apart via kaiju smackdown to Minstry’s New World Order I have yet to experience it. All of the monsters were well represented and the combat was pretty much as good as it gets for a game of the type.

Godzilla: Save the Earth was a direct sequel that came out only a year or so later and added some more monsters, but just didn’t seem as fun in spite of a playable Mothra who could change from larvae to adulthood mid-battle. Another sequel, Godzilla: Unleashed, came out on the Wii and PS2 and sported a monumental cast of monsters divided into factions with their own story modes. Having owned neither of those consoles, I had to give it a pass. The reviews imply that was a lucky break.

I once came really lose to buying the DS game, Godzilla Unleashed: Double Smash, but was dissuaded by the terrible graphics on the back cover. I later read that the game was named one of the worst DS games ever. That is not a title you want to hold on a console featuring games built around toy lines, kiddie shows, lame sports, fashion, ports of games way too powerful for the hardware, pop star simulators, reality and game show adaptations, and every other possible brand of shovelware in droves. Bullet: dodged.

godzilla unleashed

When I said terrible graphics, I was not kidding.

The fact that I almost bought a garbage game goes to show how hungry I am for a new Godzilla game. It’s been ten years since I played Save the Earth and seven since Unleashed came out. Gaming has come a really long way in that time and the time has never been better for another new take on the giant monster genre.

The way I see it, the fighting game format has been burnt out with the 00’s console entries being dedicated entirely to that format. It’s done. Time for something else. With the new Godzilla film returning the big guy to his roots as a deadly menace to humanity, I’d say the time is right to revisit that whole strategy game thing.

I mean, come on; this could be amazing. Laying out a giant map where the player can build up their defenses to repel  monsters as they appear or playing as the big beasties and laying waste has a lot of possibilities with modern hardware. Depending on which objectives you accomplish or fail, the story could unfold in different ways, the graphics and presentation would be amazing, and it would be unlike anything that’s been seen since 1992. Yes, I want this.

But seeing that most strategy games aren’t exactly big sellers, it seems unlikely. The old days had a lot of room for creativity and experimentation, which is why we saw such a variety of Godzilla games come out. These days you kind of need to engage that wider audience with familiarity and the action/fighting genre is just a really obvious choice for a monster best known for beating the crap out of other monsters. But wait…a new contender has entered the arena!

If you are thinking that in 2014 Godzilla will be going mobile, you would be correct. When I heard that the upcoming film tie-in Godzilla Smash 3 will be launching alongside the movie, I wasn’t sold. There doesn’t appear to be a Godzilla Smash 1 or 2 so that’s kind of weird, but whatever. Plus I heard it was going to be a Candy Crush-esque iOS puzzle game and face met palm. Then I saw this:

Yeah, I’d play that. And for free? I’d play the HELL out of that. So once again Godzilla forges into new gaming territory and offers his fans another twist on smashing and burning human constructs. I’d really love to see a full-on console game featuring the big G, but that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon so this mobile game will hopefully scratch that itch until some studio gets up the juice to bring us something really killer. Until then, happy stomping!

 

Five Agonizing Choices from BioWare Games

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BioWare has given us dozens of memorable choices to make over the years, and have pushed forward storytelling in video games to previously unthought-of heights along the way. The true test of whether or not a choice has any meaning is how it makes you think and feels, and BioWare regularly serves up some emotional doozies.

The way I play these types of games is to make my choices and stick with them; even if I regret them. Most of the time, I don’t go back and load a previous save. I prefer to deal with the consequences of my actions as if the story wasn’t just a game. My first playthrough is my canon playthrough for always; no takebacks allowed. I want to see how the game bears out my on the spot decisions made with good intentions, even if things end up going full Breaking Bad on me.

In the best cases, I may make the decisions I think are right, and the results may seem horribly wrong when it’s said and done. That’s when you know you’re playing something that’s more than a simple video game. That’s when it’s interactive art. Here are the moments BioWare has given me control and left me wondering for years afterwards if I did the right thing or regretting that I failed to do it.

Why, Bastila, why?

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a huge part of the decision to switch to Microsoft’s Xbox after some great years with the PlayStation. It looked like the game of my dreams, and it did not disappoint one little bit. Compared to the newer crop of games (now with 75% more ambiguous moral choices!), this one’s may not hold up on an emotional level, but there is still one that still haunts me over ten years later.kotor bastila

Bastila is a female Jedi who acts as your right hand woman through most of the game. Cute, charming, and a little uptight; she’s a solid, dependable character and potential love interest whose character evolves away from the strict code of the Jedi somewhat as the game goes on. At one point, she gets damseled, and when you go save her she greets you as a free woman. A free Sith woman, that is. Turns out that if you haven’t corrupted her already during your evil playthrough, Darth Malak’s mental torture does the trick and she has turned against the Order and you and is convinced she is beyond redemption.

Now depending on your choices, one of three things can happen. You can decide to take her out, she can decide to take you out, or you can convince her that she is redeemable. After a lengthy discussion, I chose the wrong approach, failed to convince Bastila that she still had a chance for redemption, she came at me, and I struck down a friend. I killed a valued team mate and I felt like a total failure even as I saved the universe. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt in a video game before and if BioWare hadn’t already won a lifetime fan with the rest of the game, this’d have done it.

That Goddam Mirror

In Dragon Age 2 I was presented with a serious ethical dilemma. It’s pretty much been established that blood mages are bad news at this point, so the sequel naturally puts one in your party: a Dalish elf named Merrill. In spite of her mega dark magic affinity, Merrill’s personality is made entirely out of adorableness. While her geeky combination of intelligence and naivety is normally charming, it occasionally swings into the “wtf are you DOING!?” range.

Merrill’s pet project involves an elvish artifact; specifically a tainted Evluvian mirror that she is attempting to repair. Not only is she into blood magic, but he ends up dealing with demons and all sorts of stupidity trying to get this mirror working, supposedly for the good of her people, who have shunned her because of it. At one point you have a shard of the mirror and have to decide whether to acquiesce to her desire and let her have it or keep it from her for her own good before she destroys herself.

merrill mirror dragon age 2

Seriously, da’len, you need a new hobby.

The real question there is whether you’re the kind of person who trusts in their friends and allows them the freedom to pursue their own affairs even at their own peril or the overbearing mother hen type who knows what’s best and will fight them until they agree or part ways with you. I’m the first kind. Freedom is my most consistently prized value. But it isn’t free…

So I let Merrill fuel her obsession with the mysterious, dangerous magical artifact knowing we could handle whatever came out of it. Except what happened was Merrill’s mentor sacrificed herself when the mirror bequeathed a demon bent on possession. She took the spiritual bullet for her wayward pupil and the demon used her body to attempt to kill us all. We struck the elvish elder down in self-defense just in time for the rest of Merrill’s clan to happen upon what admittedly looked like a pretty bad scene.

The banished blood mage with her forbidden dark magic artifact and her outsider companions leaving behind the corpse of the beloved elder doesn’t look great. I gave the wrong answer to their question and was then forced to slaughter my companion’s entire clan or be killed by the very same people she was claiming to be trying to save. Damn it, Merrill. I figured we could handle any foe the game could throw at us, but I never thought it’d be innocent people. Well played, BioWare.

Geth or Quarians?

This is an overarcing issue across all three Mass Effect games that comes to a head in the final installment. The Geth are an AI race who overthrew their creators, the Quarians, exiling them in deep space. They are a regular enemy who often align with the opposition, feeling threatened by biological races and occasionally manipulated by the Reapers. The Quarians are a species oppressed across the galaxy for their nomadic ways and they are consumed with the idea of defeating the Geth and reclaiming their homeworld.

This seems like an open-and shut choice, but over the course of the series and independent Geth named Legion joins your crew and teaches you a lot about his peoples’ story, culminating in you taking a tour into the Geth’s collective mainframe where you see the events that led to their initial revolt. Turns out the Quarians instigated the war that caused their own exile when they attempted to wipe the Geth out after they achieved self-awareness. Not only that, but the Quarian leadership are mostly complete assholes.mass effect tali legion

The final conflict comes in Mass Effect 3 when the two races go Armageddon on each other over the homeworld in question. The Quarians hold the advantage but Legion has a program that would allow the Geth to achieve true sentience and hypercharge their capabilities to turn the tables and end their creators. With the Quarians unwilling to back off it was one or the other.

There is a third outcome that allows for peace, given you managed to work out a certain compromise in the second game, which I somehow failed to do. So I was tasked with deciding which race gets wiped out. Fuck my life. Given that I viewed the Geth as mechanical potential, evolving theoretical lives as opposed to the clear and present sentience of the Quarians, I was moved by Tali’s pleas not to doom her people. But it was close.

I was rewarded with a tear-inducing outcome that saw Legion desperately attack Shepard in an effort to save his people before being taken out by Tali. His last words were to ask her “does this unit has a soul?” Wracked with sorrow, Tali answers “Yes, Legion. Yes it does.” It freakin’ gutted me.

The Landsmeet

Out of all BioWare’s epic story twist, turns, and choices in their games, this is the gold standard for me. The climax in Dragon Age: Origins isn’t the confrontation with the gigantic Archfiend leading the swarm of Darkspawn engulfing Fereldan. It’s the preparations made beforehand as the country struggles with divided loyalties over an impending civil war.

The Grey Warden has to take a leadership role in unifying Fereldan against the threat. Your opposition is that prick Loghain who you must first attempt to best in a debate where he expertly twists your own words and deeds against you. Win or lose, it will come down to a duel between one of your number and the evil dickhead. If you win, you are presented with a lot of heavy options.

dragon age alistair

I’m sorry, bro. [sob] SO SOOORRRRYYYY!!!!

In my case, I ended up compromising my own values for the good of the realm and making several decisions that were arguably wrong, but made with the best of intentions. I married my charming Templar knight (in training) Alistair to the ambitious queen of the realm, Anora, thinking the two of them would be the coolest of rulers. Except Alistair doesn’t like Anora. At all. So I lost a particularly cool party member and forced him to marry a woman he doesn’t love just because I thought it’d be neat. Shit.

Then there’s the issue of what to do with Loghain. I really wanted him to die. He deserved to die. But the thing is Anora is his daughter and I really wanted her support in this whole endeavor so killing her dad in front of her was not the call I wanted to make. So I had to lug this shithead around in my party now instead of Alistair. I then got the option to make him a fellow Grey Warden and allow him to die fighting the Archfiend. But then he would be remembered as a hero of the country and not the piece of garbage who betrayed it. I chose to let him live out his days in obscurity with a chance for redemption, but he never had to answer for what he’d done. Not only that, but as a favor to the witch Morrigan for services rendered (and possible future story intrigue), I….I let him bang her.

Don’t ask me how it ended up this way. I sold out my friend and gave the biggest bastard in the game the night of his life instead of a stump on top of his shoulders like he deserved. I’m actually rather ashamed that things ended up this way, but it’s a testament to the depth and nuance of the choices that the game offered to you. Life and conflict is about compromising and not always getting the result you want or doing the right thing and it’s not often you see that reflected in a video game.

The Toughest Call

For a lot of people, Mass Effect was the first time they experienced a truly agonizing choice. In RPG’s you are given a party of characters to be your friends and companions in all things. It’s part of the deal. On a few occasions, a character is scripted to die and it’s super sad, but it’s just part of the story. Their part is done. But what if their fate was in your hands?mass effect ashley kaidan

At the climax of that first amazing game in the trilogy, you send Ashley and Kaidan on separate missions and you only have time to save one before a nuke goes off and blows the facility to atoms. So who’s is going to be? How long did you sit and stare at the screen weighing the possibilities? Ash was kind of a racist tool, but an interesting foil and my best performer in combat by far. Kaidan…well, he wasn’t all that memorable or interesting to me and I preferred Liara when it came to biotic powers. Plus, Ashley’s kinda pretty. [blush]

If this was a one-off game, it wouldn’t have been any big deal. But Mass Effect is a trilogy, meaning th characters come back. While the second game had only small roles for either character, the closer brought them back to the forefront of the action on the Normandy. It’s like I barely even knew Kaidan. I’ve had three games to be attached to almost every other Normandy crew member in the series, but this guy’s story was cut short by my hand. Ash’s story in Mass Effect 3 was great. What was Kaidan going to be like in the third game? I’ll never know until I finally get around to replaying the entire series front to back.

So those are my dirty little first playthrough secrets from BioWare games that haunt me. They’re the kind of decisions that immerse you in the game’s world and really make you feel the stakes. As I’m sure some of you are raging about internally now, my picks were sorely limited by my status as a filthy console peasant so none of BioWare’s old PC classics made the list due to me not having played them.

So now it’s your turn. Share some favorite old school Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights tales if you’ve got them or tell us which Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or other latter-day game choices left a lasting impression on you. Or you can always just tell me how idiotic my choices were. No wrong way to play.

Celebrating the Most Horrorful Time of the Year

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October 31st is my favorite holiday, and very likely yours if you’re here. Most of the public may prefer Christmas for its crass commercialism and stable of timeless classic films and television specials or Thanksgiving for its epic mealtime, but Halloween is a holiday custom made for nerds. A whole day dedicated to cosplay, candy, horror, and evil music? Yes, please! It’s a time to celebrate all of the things we love with a sinister edge. Whereas the sights and sounds of Christmas very often reek of populist sentimentality and cynical modern cash-ins in the form of soulless Christmas albums and other forms of entertainment with a sheen of general cloying saccharinity, quality horror and everything that goes with it is something that never needs to be forced. Fear is with us everywhere we go all year ‘round and having one day to really celebrate it is a wonderful thing. But how to make the most of Halloween in 2014? I thought I’d share my experiences from this past month’s lead-up to October 31st and maybe give some of you some ideas about how best to pay homage to the spirits of the dead via geek-flavored entertainment new and old available this year. Continue reading

Mandatory Reading: The Greatest Vampire Stories of All Time

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Once again, welcome to my column. Come freely, go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring. I’ve spent October exploring some of the more unexplored facets of the immortal undead in popular culture, from some unsung triumphs of cult films to my favorite vampires from comics, video games, and anime. It’s almost Halloween and I’ve already covered advanced undead nerdery so I can’t think of a better way to bring the season of horror to a close than with a tribute to the stories that inspired almost all of the selections I’ve shared with you this month.

There are thousands of vampire stories spanning every medium of entertainment worldwide, but today I’m strapping on my old school for the ink and paper delights that took bloodsucking corpses out of rural folklore and made them immortal pop culture icons in the first place. These are the top five influential novels and novellas that gave birth to everything from supernatural romance to the entire zombie genre along with the myriad variations of vampiric horror itself, and I’m counting them down for newbies and discussing them for the veterans.

I’m tossing away my hipster leanings just for today and instead of drawing attention to the things you haven’t seen yet I’m exploring the best of the best. The ones we all know and love. The ones you can’t get around referencing whenever vampire fiction is discussed. The undisputed classics. And if you haven’t read these works of literary genius, consider this is your mandatory reading assignment. This is ground zero for tales of the undead. Continue reading

A Reason to Kill: J-Horror Gets Its Groove Back with Shiki

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So my big vampire-related surprise this year came from an unusual place. A co-worker of mine off-handedly asked if I’d seen this anime, Shiki, about vampires. As usual, my response was along the lines of “Vampires?! Did you say vampires?! I LOVE vampires!” And so began my quest. It wasn’t on Netflix, Amazon had the first season split into two exorbitantly-priced box sets that were too rich for my tasty mortal blood, and I just don’t really like watching TV and films on my laptop. Malaysian import? Malaysian import.

One thing I love about said imports is the superior packaging they often have. From behind the clear plastic sleeve, I was greeted by glossy artwork featuring a vamp with shiny metallic red eyes staring out at me. I can already tell this is going to be sweet. Since I’d stopped reviewing regularly, I’ve really fallen off of the cutting edge. I used to buy more imports than domestic DVD’s, but now it’s become a rarity for me. This felt just like old times except I was behind the curve instead of ahead of it. But since I had no intention of reviewing the show and was just watching it for my own enjoyment, I didn’t care about that. 22 episodes of a promising-looking new vampire series. Let’s effing do this.

Anime has a long history of creative and generally excellent vampire television shows and films. In fact, I’d say Japanese animation leads the world in that department. From the 80’s classic Vampire Hunter D to the more modern Hellsing, the goofy romantic comedy of Karin and Rosario + Vampire, the killer animation of Blood: The Last Vampire, the noir-esque Nightwalker,  and the controversy of Dance in the Vampire Bund -to name a few- there is almost always something for every taste to sink your fangs into. Continue reading

Five Awesome Vampires from Alternative Media

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Last week, I filled your coffers/coffins with vampiric obscurities from the domain of live-action film to kick off my month-long celebration of all things nosferatu. This week, I’m giving hardcore nerd culture its due and featuring my favorite bloodsuckers from the alternative media domains of comics, anime, and video games.

And what, praytell makes these particular vampires so awesome that they deserve their own list? Well, that varies. Maybe it’s their twisted personality, or sympathetic backstory. Maybe they kick the most ass, maybe they are just plain entertaining to watch, or maybe they just look freakin’ cool. It could be all of the above; but one way or another, these lords and ladies of the night stand out from the crowd.

Great stories live and die with their characters, so instead of merely repping the series’ that spawned them, I’m going to go specifically into the characters and what makes them so goddamn cool in comparison to the thousands of fictional bloodsuckers cluttering our DVD and book shelves. Do come along. Continue reading