Games

The Transmedia Failings of 'Assassin’s Creed 3' and 'Halo 4'

Halo 4 and Assassin’s Creed 3 try to bring some of that outside fiction into the games. Neither succeed all the way, but one succeeds more than the other.

Both Halo and Assassin’s Creed have stories that extend outside the games, and both Halo 4 and Assassin’s Creed 3 try to bring some of that outside fiction into the games. In doing so, they both run into problems with narrative structure. It’s hard to transition a story from a book/comic to a video game while still making the game a standalone product. The game is forced to serve two masters. It has to be an effective independent story and an effective sequel. Essentially, the writers are writing two stories that have to parallel each other so closely that they feel like one. Neither Halo 4 or Assassin’s Creed 3 succeed all the way at doing this, but one succeeds more than the other.

Assassin’s Creed has usually handled its transmedia transitions pretty well in that there haven’t been any transitions. The games and comics and other miscellaneous mediums all tell separate stories that only crossover in slight ways. This seems to me to be the best use of extended fiction material because my knowledge of the universe grows but at no point is that knowledge required for enjoyment of the original property. The various plots happily exist side-by-side, not intertwined. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Assassin’s Creed 3 fails to bring these various outside plots together since that act is the antithesis of what worked so well before.

The game acts like a sequel when it assumes we’re familiar with the character of Daniel Cross and his relationship with the Assassins. The game wants to set him up as a thematic counterpoint to Desmond. The two meet multiple times in the real world and each time the conflict escalates before they finally fight to the death in the end. But the game doesn’t go far enough to properly set up the relationship between the two. Daniel never seems like much of a character, he just shows up in order to instigate chase scenes. He suffers from some incapacitating mental problems, but we never get any details about what’s wrong with him. He and Desmond never get a chance to talk, and we never learn how he was shaped to be a killing machine by the Templars, breaking his mind. You have to read the comic to understand his backstory and how it parallels Desmond’s own story of growing into his role as an assassin. The game uses the character building of the comics to skip its own necessary character building. This makes it a fine sequel, a fine continuation of the story in the comics, but it fails as standalone game narrative.

Unfortunately, it also then fails as a sequel or continuation of a plotline because it doesn’t actually do anything with the relationship that it assumes we’re familiar with. It doesn’t treat Daniel with the same importance as the other fiction does. Daniel isn’t a main antagonist, and he’s never even established as much of a threat. He’s a henchman, not a villain. The final battle is so anti-climactic that I wonder why it was even included in the main game.

Assassin’s Creed 3 isn’t just the end of Desmond’s story. It’s also end of Daniel’s story, but it’s clear that the writers didn’t know which one should be the focus. As a result, the game doesn’t do enough heavy plot lifting to effectively stand on its own, but it also doesn’t do enough with the plot it takes for granted to be an effective continuation.

Halo, on the other hand, has never handled its transmedia transitions very well. I still remember being very confused at the start of Halo 2. The first game ended with Master Chief adrift in an unknown area of space, then the sequel opens with him getting a medal in orbit around earth. How did he get back? I didn’t read the book that bridges that time gap (I think he hijacks a Covenant ship, I vaguely remember someone telling me something like that). However, my lack of knowledge didn’t impact my understanding of the game’s story. The same can’t be said for Halo 4.

Shortly after meeting the Didact, the villain of the story, we’re treated to an exposition dump that explains the war-torn history of the Halo universe. This kind of historical data dump is always confusing. It’s too much information to take in at once, so details are inevitably lost when we go back to shooting and fighting for our lives. (If that’s the intention à la Assassin’s Creed 2, in which even the main character thinks “What the fuck?,” then it’s probably okay to dump all the facts you want. Howeverm if you’re trying to relate important story information in a coherent manner, the exposition dump doesn’t work.). It’s unfortunately necessary in this case because in order to understand the Didact’s motivations we have to understand the universe’s history of war. Since I’m left confused at the end of the exposition, I remain confused up until the end of the game;. The only plot thread that pulls me forward is the general knowledge that the bad guy hates humanity, and I have to save humanity.

In this way Halo 4 fails as standalone product, but unlike Assassin’s Creed 3, it still succeeds as a transmedia sequel. The books introduce us to the Didact, we learn about his struggles, his multiple rises and falls from power, his conflicts with humanity, and the reasons for his eventual imprisonment. He becomes a well-established threat to humanity, and Halo 4 treats him as such since we spend the whole game fighting against him. I may not understand this enemy, but at least I understand that he’s powerful, dangerous, and determined. Halo 4 is a mediocre start to a game series starring Master Chief, but it’s an effective conclusion to a book series starring the Didact.

Assassin’s Creed 3 tries to serve both masters, resulting in a highly confused narrative. Halo 4, to its credit, picked one narrative and stuck with it to the end. It may not have been the narrative that best suited me personally, but at least, it worked for someone.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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