A Change of Pace in Episodic Gaming

The Entertainment (Cardboard Computer, 2013)

Episodic television often includes small episodes about minor occurrences. Video games don't seem willing to do that.

The problem when you craft an idea around a very good, very watchable, very easily accessible television show via Netflix is that you tend to keep watching episodes of said show. This is what I did with The West Wing in the after glow of writing a post last week about the possibility of a Telltale-Games-style version of that show ("Considering the Direction of the Telltale Style Adventure Game", PopMatters, 14 January 2014). After hitting publish, I found myself continuing to think on certain aspects of what a West Wing adventure game would look like if Telltale designed one. Then at some point I was informed that Telltale had in fact done a Law & Order game that I had never heard of before. They've also done four CSI games that were published by Ubisoft. I haven't played any of them, but now I am curious to see whether Telltale did anything with them or created old school adventure games using those particular licenses.

But back to The West Wing. I've been rewatching episodes while I multitask, and I've noticed something that games seem loath to do but that television is all too willing to do all the time. In addition to major story arcs, episodic television often includes small episodes about minor occurrences. Not everything has to be a hearing on the hill, shutting down the government, or assassinating a foreign terrorist organizer. Sometimes the characters are simply debating an issue, taking a meeting about the bill of the week, or assessing the fallout of a non-story. Video games don't seem willing to do that.

In a video game, the fate of the world needs to always be at stake. The goal of a game has to be big, and the stakes have to be high for the player to care at all. Or at least that seems to be the thinking. And even those games that do focus on smaller scale fare only seem interested in the drama and pathos that can be extracted from the extreme situations of such a setting. Even Telltale is subject to this. All five episodes of The Walking Dead focus on big transition periods for the survivor group. We don't get to see the day-to-day deterioration in the three months since Lee and company set up at the motel. The game skips ahead for the big events concerning the dairy and the bandits. Likewise, Telltale's The Wolf Among Us is based on an intellectual property (the comic book series Fables) that has several hundred years of history of its various communities' history to draw from, but only with the advent of a serial killer does the story start.

Indeed this particular approach to the serial could be something that it is a left over from the lineage of comic books. Rare is the comic in which any issue in the run doesn't feature an important event in which big things are occurring. One of the reasons that I like Ultimate Spider-Man so much is that it takes the time to occasionally slip in an issue that simply deals with the mundane aspects of life and things of small consequence.

The media form with the biggest influence on video games, and not just in visual affectation, is film. While television and film are really two facets of the same medium, their approach to the form is very different. Films are big one-off events. If a story is made into a film, there had better be a good reason for it. Comic book movies always focus on big transition events in a hero's life -- their origin, their fall from grace, etc. -- major changes in the status quo. Even comic books with their high stakes know to keep the status quo for a while and see what they can get out of a certain confluence of elements.

Each medium and media format has their own way of doing things, primarily based on audience expectations. Television shows are allowed more leeway in how big or how small they allow themselves to be. If one week was disappointing, than the next week can pick up the slack. Comic books are monthly and have a high price of admission in relation to other media so there are expectations that the content within will do something and not fritter time away. There are of course exceptions to all these stereotypical understandings of each of these mediums. Manga, for instance, are comics that are given more leeway for off chapters because of a weekly schedule and anthologized publications. Smaller art films are allowed to get away with the drama of small moments in people's lives because of expectations. Television shows on premium networks with shorter seasons aren't given the same benefit that broadcast television is with regards to breather episodes.

Likewise video games, depending on the scope and presentation of the game, are subject to their audience's expectations of the material that they present. I do realize that some games have such downtime built into their structure, like every open world game ever made, but I'm talking about authored content. Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, or Bioshock Infinite need a certain level of power behind their narrative content. These are big games that have to deliver on certain audience expectations. They are also whole works meant to be consumed as such. And this is where we get back to Telltale.

In this hypothetical West Wing adventure game that I wish Tellatale was making, I'm wondering about the place of such "breather episodes," episodes that may or may not advance character dynamics, plot threads, or whatnot. Episodes that exist in between bigger events or in the lead up to a big event, say a State of the Union speech, for which there wouldn't need to be smaller scale episodes sprinkled in before that event.

We kind of already see this with Cardboard Computer's Kentucky Route Zero. The free, related prequel and intermission episodes of Limits and Demonstrations and The Entertainment act as in-between samplers in the same world and style as Kentucky Route Zero, but they are outside Conway's odyssey through the back roads of Kentucky. They don't effect the narrative, but inform it. They don't display big events of significance to the larger story, but instead concern themselves with the drama of the small. The expectations are different because they are free and are labeled as a game demo and as a tech demo respectively.

A lot of ink is spilled about the sameness of the industry's output, even among indies. I don't wonder if what we need isn't a change of content, but a change of pace and scope. Content will follow whatever reasonable expectations are. To move away from the need to highlight "events" that seems a part of Telltale's The Walking Dead might be required for a game in the vein of The West Wing. It would be a game that would have to present smaller, cheaper episodes that are put out more frequently. With the same sets and character models used for all of them, it may be possible.


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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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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