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What is Spirited Away about? — February 4, 2017

What is Spirited Away about?

I found out a few weeks ago that my wife had never seems Miyazaki movie, so I immediately requested a copy of Spirited Away from the library. When I suggested watching it the other day, she asked “What’s it about?”, and I found myself totally flummoxed.

It’d been years since I’d seen the movie, but I did my best. “Spirited Away is about a girl who is moving with her parents to a new home. Along the way she ends up in a magical world of spirits and demons, and gets a job at a bath house.” It was right about here that I realized the narrative of Spirited Away isn’t really what mattered, and explained that it was the art and the music and the mood that made me love it so much.

After we watched the movie, I asked her what she thought it was about. She thought about it for a moment and then said, “Okay, that’s why you had trouble answering.” We talked about a lot different things you could say it was about… growing up, learning to adapt, friendship, taking responsibility, falling in love…

It’s a great movie, but it’s still pretty hard to sum up what it’s about. 

Mass Effect 3: Shepard Looks Like and Is a Total Goober, and It’s All My Fault —

Mass Effect 3: Shepard Looks Like and Is a Total Goober, and It’s All My Fault

When the first Mass Effect game came out, way back in the long lost age of 2007, I was an angsty teenager with a red pleather jacket, long hair, and a really horrible attempt at a goatee; and one of my favorite parts of any video game was the ability to create my own character. Clearly, my amazing sense of fashion and style in the real world helped me find the perfect look for my video game characters. Usually that look was gaunt, pale, and, when possible, with bright red hair and eyes. Most of these fine looking fellows were left behind a long time ago, but when I fired up the 2011 game Mass Effect 3 for the first time in about 5 years, there was Commander Shepard, a character I created in 2007’s Mass Effect, and whose story continued through 2010’s Mass Effect 2, staring back at me. Picking up where I left off and finishing the trilogy, I realized that having the ability to sculpt Shepard’s looks and decisions to my liking left me with a character I really, really disliked.

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“Look in to my eyes… deep in to my eyes!”

It turns out the first terrible choice I made in Mass Effect was creating a creepy monster with a handlebar mustache+sideburns with, somehow, weird red specks on his skin around his facial hair… Apparently dermatological medicine didn’t advance at the same rate as everything else after the discovery of the Mass Relays. The worst part, though, was the eyes, the horribly sunken-in eyes under a way-too-pronounced brow. I had to get away from those eyes… Thankfully I found some sort of visor pretty early on in ME3 that gave me a combat bonus and, more importantly, completely, 100% covered Shepard’s eyes. It wasn’t until I nearly finished the game that I realized I had turned Shepard in to a guy who wore sunglasses. All. Of. The. Time.

 

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I wear my sunglasses at night… and indoors, and in space, and…

Really, though, when people talk about the ability to make choices in Mass Effect, they are referring more to the conversation options that show up throughout the games than Shepard’s looks. Now, remembering the kind of person I was when these games started, it’s probably not hard to believe that I played the commander in the first two games like a lone wolf, who would never let himself be, like, held down by, like, the man, man! I’d like to think I’ve grown since then, so I decided to play ME3 as a good-good boy, who says nice things and helps people. The only problem is, this game asks you to make hard decisions with THE FATE OF THE ENTIRE GALAXY AT STAKE. Essentially, I was trying to make Shepard a sweet little angel, even though I – as a player – felt like he should have been more aggressive and cutthroat.

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How most of the conversation options in Mass Effect go. Available on shirts, mugs, phone cases, and more at tiny.cc/troytlepower

This made for a really weird transference when I started getting to scenarios where the game pushed me, and I felt like I really had to choose the renegade option. At one point the game makes you choose between two races, one a synthetic machine society, the Geth, who had just obtained true free will, and the tattered remains of the species who created and subjugated the Geth, the Quarrians. Even though I had formed a (sometimes romantic) bond with a member of the creator species across three games, it was clear that the Geth would be a greater tactical advantage, and Shepard calmly and cooly let every single member of the Quarrians die. I started to realize at this point, it wasn’t just me who knew the less pleasant option was the right one, but that Shepard was also thinking the same thoughts as me. Because he went hardcore when push came to shove, every time he said something nice it ended up feeling shallow, forced, and fake. Ultimately, by making the nice choices even when I didn’t think it was right, I felt like Shepard was also just acting nice, and I started to hate his shiny, fake demeanor. Come on, man, all organic life is at stake, you don’t have time to waste trying to make Ashley feel special, just tell her to get back to work!

At the end of the day, giving me the chance to craft my own character across three different games and nine years left me with a dude with terrible facial hair, a pair of sunglasses he almost never took off, and a falsely positive attitude, who didn’t really care about any of the people around him. As weird as it sounds, I think that looking at Shepard this way was an interesting social experiment, in that it really illuminated why people sometimes feel the need to act nice even when their gut response is to be more direct, and how leaning too far in those niceties can make someone just seem false. It’s also made me realize that there’s more to creating an interesting character than red eyes and a sweet mustache.

On Wingsuits: Far Cry 4, Batman Arkham Origins, and and Just Cause 3 — January 29, 2017

On Wingsuits: Far Cry 4, Batman Arkham Origins, and and Just Cause 3

Flight seems like one of the most overpowered superpowers there is. Characters who can fly almost always seem to do so effortlessly… Do you ever see Superman needing a cool down period after a quick trip across the Atlantic to the Londinium Batcave? Heck no. In video games, developers seem to recognize that the ability to fly would give the player too much power, but are also as interested in the ability as we all are. From that conflict, we get the ability to glide, going all the way back to Super Mario Bros. 3 and the Tanooki Suit.

I’m not sure how it worked out, but in the last month or so I’ve played 3 different games with a heavy emphasis on the ability to use technology on the characters outfit to be able to nearly fly, Far Cry 4, Batman: Arkham Origins, and Just Cause 3, and all three have a slightly different feel.

Far Cry 4 ends up being the least interesting of the bunch when it comes to Wingsuits. The first person perspective should make gliding over the Kyrat countryside really exciting, but the limited controls you have mean that you are essentially just slowly descending, without the ability to drop down to gain speed, then rise back up, like Mario with his yellow cape back on the Super Nintendo.

Batman: Arkham Origins is a prequel to the Arkham Trilogy that came out between City and Knight, the 2nd and 3rd entries in the series. It brings over the grappling-hook-in-to-glide combo introduced in Arkham City, which really feels great. Arkham Knight made the glide a little too powerful, in my opinion, where it starts to feel like Superman’s ability to fly. Going back to the more limited glide in Origins felt more Batman to me, even if the controls are a little clunkier than in the newer game.

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Head over to my Teepublic shop to check out this Just Cause 3 design on t-shirts, phone cases, coffee cups, and more!

Just Cause 3 goes the same route as Arkham Knight, giving you an almost unlimited ability to “glide”, so much so that you may as well be flying. Combine that with the parachute that you can deploy to regain some elevation and the grappling hook that can pull you up a cliff face without touching the ground, and you can pretty much traverse the entire map in this game in the air. The difference here is that I’m not supposed to be Batman, so feeling so overpowered doesn’t rub me the wrong way.

All three games let you glide, with Just Cause 3 being the closest to flight. And you know what? It turns out that JC3 is far and away where I had the most fun with the glide suit. So, while I’m glad most games stay away from flight, because it’d make things just to darn easy, it turns out that if you get me as close as possible with a Wingsuit, parachute, and grappling hook, I’m like a kid in a candy store… who climbs up to the highest shelf he can find and leaps off the top of it just for the heck of it.

No, really, Assassin’s Creed Rogue is excellent! — January 19, 2017

No, really, Assassin’s Creed Rogue is excellent!

I started with the Assassin’s Creed series back when the first game came out in 2007, and then loved Assassin’s Creed II in 2009, but I didn’t get in to any of Ezio’s offshoot games. In 2012 I picked up Assassin’s Creed III, but it didn’t really pull me in and I dropped off the series from there. Last summer I started playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and it’s pulled me way back in to the series. Since then I played through AC4 , finished up AC3 (it turns out I’d stopped it just before a twist that would have kept me hooked), and knocked out the Freedom Cry expansion for AC4. I’ve had Assassin’s Creed Unity sitting on my shelf since I started AC4, but since I have heard it wasn’t great I decided to try out Assassin’s Creed Rogue on the Xbox 360 next.

Rogue came out at the same time as Unity, back in November of 2014, but was released for the older systems (360 and PS3) while Unity was specifically made for the modern consoles. I picked up a 360 copy a while back, expecting it to be a weak little brother to AC4, but it turns out it’s good… like, really, really good! I think it might be my favorite game in the series so far.

I went in to this entry with very little info, except for hearing that it was more of AC4, and from a gameplay perspective that is absolutely true. AC3 introduced sailing to the Assassin’s Creed universe, but it felt clunky and awkward in that game (probably because I played AC4 first), so I was glad the mechanics here pulled from the more recent system. The weapon selectional tool also got a huge improvement in AC4, and Rogue pulls straight from that. Really, there wasn’t much that changed from AC4 to this… the dart gun was replaced by an air rifle (but they function exactly the same) and the fire barrels from AC4 were replaced by being able to dump burning oil behind your ship (but I never really used either of those weapons in either game). The only real new addition was a grenade launcher that can shoot shrapnel, sleep, and berserk grenades, but aiming it felt a bit clunky, so I didn’t use it much outside of areas it was required.

The biggest change from AC4 to Rogue is the setting. Since I kept hearing that this was more of the same, I assumed it was also going to be set in the tropics. That made the North Atlantic setting a huge, but welcome, surprise. The ice burg filled oceans and jagged coastlines ended up being way more entertaining to sail through than the Caribbean, and having more developed cities to explore made this feel more like older AC games than Black Flag ever did. The world also seems more expansive than AC4, with several different regions to explore, each with different weather, trees, and animals. I was surprised at the end to realize there was a whole section of New York I never even set foot in. In fact, the only failing in the world of Rogue might be that the story was so short that I don’t feel like I had a chance to explore all of it’s nooks and crannies.

On the story… The major plot device of this game is a series of Precursor sites that the Assassin’s think can be used to control the world… somehow. When Assassin Shay Cormac accidentally triggers the destruction of Lisbon by exploring one of these sites (and discovering that they actually hold the world together… or something), he defies his mentor, Achilles, for meddling with powers he doesn’t understand. This eventually results in him joining the Templar Order in hunting down his former brothers. Playing the role of the betrayer is an interesting twist from the past games, but it’s really the inclusion of Adéwalé (from AC4) and Achilles (from AC3) as adversaries that make this interesting.

Setting this game between two others in the series means that you aren’t (always) going up against random, nameless Assassin’s, you get to hunt down characters that the player already has a huge emotional investment in (the end of Achilles’ story in AC3 in particular had me shedding tears, so seeing him in his prime was… complex). Without having played those other games, the story probably wouldn’t be quite as engaging, but I think it’d still be enough to push you from point A to point B (at least more than the beginning of AC3 did for me).

I really, really loved this game, even though it was short. I’ve been trying to burn through the Assassin’s Creed games to get up to date ever since Black Flag pulled me back in to the series, but since I’ve heard so many negative thoughts on Unity, I think I might just keep exploring the North Atlantic for a bit longer.

What do you think? Did you get a chance to play Rogue, or did it slip under your radar as just a distraction from the main series, like Arkham Origins Blackgate or any of the Grand Theft Auto or Final Fantasy offshoots? Or maybe you’ve found other offshoots that best the main entries in a series like Rogue does for Assassin’s Creed? I’m curious what everyone thinks!

More thoughts on Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders — January 15, 2017

More thoughts on Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders

After watching Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders last night, I listened to an episode of Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman’s “Hollywood Babble-On” that was absolutely excellent. Recorded live at Stan Lee’s LA Comic Con, this panel with Adam West, Burt Ward, and Lee Merriweather is insightful, funny, and sweet. 

If you were any kind of fan of the Adam West series, you should absolutely take an hour to listen to this podcast, but you should probably plan an extra 105 minutes to watch the Batman ’66 movie right afterwards (pssst, it is on Netflix right now!).