Category Archives: Reviews

Game Review: Her Story

Her StoryI picked this game up as part of the current Humble Bundle (the theme is Narratives — how could I resist?) and was completely engrossed in it for the space of about four hours over two evenings.

Three to four hours is really all it takes to finish Her Story. I logged a grand total of five hours, but the last hour was just chasing some completionist achievements.

If you’re looking for a game in any traditional sense of the word, Her Story isn’t it. This is less a game than it is an experiment in storytelling. When you start it up, you are confronted with an old-school computer desktop. On it you’ll find a couple of readme files (read them — they’ll give you some context), a few simple apps, and — taking up the majority of your screen — a window labeled the L.O.G.I.C. Database, with a search and display interface. The search term “MURDER” has already been typed for you — all you have to do is click the Search button and get started. When you do, a set of videos will appear, and you’ll be able to click them and begin watching. From there, everything is up to you. Enter a new search term, watch some more videos, and you’ll start piecing together the story.

And that’s what Her Story is actually all about. It’s a simple interface you use to piece together a narrative. And because the way the narrative unfolds is based on the search terms you enter, you’ll almost certainly experience the story in a different way than I did.

It’s the way Her Story functions as a story-telling medium that really interests me, to be honest, more than the story it actually tells.

It’s not necessarily an uninteresting story, mind you — I was legitimately intrigued by it in the beginning, and had a couple really cool “ah-ha” moments when I made certain connections. But ultimately, I was underwhelmed by the outcome.

(A note: I’m usually very unbothered by spoilers — I don’t mind knowing what’s going to happen because I’m still interested in watching the story unfold, even if I already know where it’s headed. That said, I think this is one place where spoilers would genuinely diminish the experience, because the whole experience is literally about your process of unveiling the narrative.)

I’ve discovered since finishing Her Story that there’s a hearty segment of the internet devoted to think-pieces analyzing the “ending,” or explaining different theories. I didn’t delve deep into these, but while I was interested in the way in whichHer Story teases you with different possibilities, in the end I can only see one possible version of “truth,” and it’s… meh.

But I don’t much care, because getting the story is such an interesting process. It’s a genuinely novel experience, and a great example of the ways in which technology — games in particular — can be leveraged to tell stories in exciting new ways.

I’m a writer, I like words, I like stories. I like the way Her Story simply presents you the pieces of a with a narrative and the tools to put it together, and then just lets you have at it. It’s uncluttered and feels legitimately fresh. It doesn’t feel gimmicky, and it’s just long enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

Oh, one last word. Big shout-out to Viva Seifert, whose performance in the lead (well, only) role in Her Story goes as much into selling the whole thing as any other aspect of it. The entire narrative is filtered through her naturalistic performance, and Her Story wouldn’t stand up nearly as well if this casting hadn’t worked, or if Seifert hadn’t turned in such a strong performance.

Recommended. If you like stories, are interested in novel storytelling ventures, and can accept that this is only a “game” in the barest sense of the word, if spending the length of a couple movies slowly unraveling a twisty little murder mystery sounds appealing, then Her Story is a solid way to spend an evening or two.

Strangers in Paradise Vol. 1: In Defense of Freddie

strangers-in-paradise-volume-1Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise is one of those comic series that I’ve always been vaguely aware of but never really bothered to look into.  I knew people really liked it, but I didn’t know why.  To be honest, I’ve now read the first two TPB and I still don’t know why people like it so much.  I won’t be reading any more of it than I already have.  I’d have given up sooner if it weren’t “required” reading for the Gender Through Comic Books MOOC I signed up for.

Vol. 1 is mostly about a breakup.  There’s a whole second plot that gets introduced in Vol. 2, which made the whole thing slightly more bearable, but Vol. 1 is just screwy relationship drama.

I have very little sympathy for any of these characters, who are mostly one-dimensional stereotypes.  (They get slightly more rounded in Vol. 2, but only slightly.)  Katchoo is a dangerous, man-hating, lesbian psychopath, who happens to be in love with her best friend Francine.  Francine, in turn, is needy, desperate, and with such crippling insecurities that she is apparently incapable of having a real romantic relationship.  They make a friend, David, when he basically latches onto Katchoo one day and follows her home like a lost puppy; he is the quintessential nice guy, and has a thing for Katchoo.  (Hurray, love triangles.)  And then there’s Freddie, Francine’s boyfriend, who dumps her in the first issue because she’s nuts, and…

(spoilers follow)

…then has to put up with being villainized, stalked, and assaulted for the rest of the book.

As the book opens, Freddie and Francine have been dating for a year.  Francine has, for the entirety of this year, refused to sleep with Freddie.  He, in growing frustration, has resorted to cajoling and begging.  (Sidenote:  It’s not clear if Francine’s prohibition applies only to penetrative sex, or if it’s a blanket ban on all sexual activity.  In the only scene where we actually see this play out, they are in bed together, but when Freddie tries to get some action, Francine tells him to go sleep.  When he presses the issue, she makes him sleep on the floor.)

Now, granted, Freddie’s no saint here; he’s clearly pushing the issue when she’s told him she’s not interested, and that’s not ok.

The next morning, Freddie wants to talk about their relationship.  THIS IS A REASONABLE THING TO DO, GIVEN THAT THEY HAVE BEEN TOGETHER FOR A YEAR AND THIS SEX THING IS PRETTY CLEARLY AN ISSUE THEY NEED TO DEAL WITH.  Francine brushes him off, saying, “Let’s don’t go into this again.  I thought we agreed to wait.”  Freddie, however, isn’t clear exactly what they’re waiting for.  He doesn’t understand Francine’s reluctance, and he’s frustrated by the whole situation.

So, finally, after a full year together, Francine gets around to trying to explain.  “I’m afraid if I sleep with you . . . it’ll ruin everything . . . and you’ll leave me like all the others.”  Freddie is incredulous — how could she possibly think that?  “I know how men are!” Francine cries.  “You all have this conquest thing!  Then when you get what you want it’s 1-800-SEE-YA!”  Then she proceeds to complain that she’s seen him looking at other women (skinny women), and how she’s not like those girls (because she’s slightly overweight), and she’s tired of getting dumped for those girls.

So Freddie, in what is frankly one of the most justified fits of anger ever, gets mad and leaves.  “Okay…  Let me see if I’ve got this straight…  You won’t sleep with me because then I will dump you for the nearest pair of plastic hooters I can find, right?!”

1-08

Let’s be real here.  They’ve been dating for a year.  By the time you’ve spent a year of your life with someone, I think you really ought to be past the point of worrying that he’s going to leave you the minute he gets in your pants.  And it’s pretty damned insulting to tell that person that you place so little trust in them and in your relationship.

I understand having insecurities, and sure, Freddie could arguably be more sensitive to those insecurities, but COME ON.  I want to sit Francine down and make her listen to (or read) Dan Savage for a day, because girl needs to hear some real talk.

Francine is clearly not in good working order.  Her insecurities are crippling her ability to actually have a relationship, and it’s really not fair to her partner — in this case, Freddie.

After Freddie walks out, Francine’s roommate/best friend Katchoo comforts her by telling her that all men are assholes.  “You do what’s right for you . . . and if he has a problem with that, tell him to go jerk off,” is her advice.  She’s not entirely wrong, sure.  Francine does need to do what is best for her, and if she’s not ready to have sex, she shouldn’t.  But a relationship is a partnership, and it’s about more than just your own needs and wants.  And neither of these two women seem willing to recognize that.  Where’s the negotiation and compromise that ought to happen as part of a relationship?  Hell, where’s the communication?  Instead, the message here is just, Freddie is an awful person because Freddie dared to have sexual desire for his girlfriend.

After Freddie leaves, the status of the relationship isn’t really clear.  Is this just a fight?  Or does Freddie’s walking out and cancellation of their anniversary plans signify the end of the relationship?  No matter, Francine isn’t ready for the relationship to be over.  She calls him and leaves a message suggesting that she was planning on that night being the night, because it was their one-year anniversary and all, and apparently that’s the arbitrary boundary where a man goes from being sex-fiend to decent human being.

Then, in an effort to win Freddie back, she shows up at his work dressed in only a trench coat and undies and barges into his office, only to find him mid-coitus with someone else.  Now, in my opinion, if Freddie thinks they’ve broken up at this point, he really ought to be free to pursue whatever casual sex he feels like having.  Francine is upset and embarrassed  and that’s totally understandable, but I’m sorry, her behavior in showing up like this is still all a bit crazy-pants.  And clearly there was some communication breakdown about whether this was a break-up or not, and, granted, that’s really on Freddie, since he was the one who walked out.

The next day, Francine calls him up again, and they agree to meet in the park to talk.  Francine tells Freddie how sorry she is, and she wants to start over.  Freddie declines the offer; he’s done with this relationship.  “Look, I know you love me and I love you… I’m ready to trust you now, really!  I can make you happy!” Francine insists.  “I know what makes you happy!  I know what you want, what you need . . . and I can do it!  You know I can!”  In other words, she’s prepared to have sex with him now.  But again, it seems to me that this is all pretty insulting.  Come on, Freddie, you just want to get laid, right?  You’re just in it for the sex, right?  I’ll give you the sex if it’ll make you come back.  She seems to think that the reason Freddie walked out on her was because of the lack of sex, when my reading of it was that it was really much more about the lack of trust.  I wouldn’t want to have a relationship with someone who was still convinced, after a full year, that I was just in it for the sex, either.

Freddie walks away, and Francine goes batshit and rips all her clothes off in a public park and starts screaming, “I can’t believe I let this happen to me again!  I loved you!  I trusted you!  I was ready to give my life to you! . . . And all you wanted was a piece of my ass!” despite all evidence to the contrary — she clearly didn’t trust him, and he just turned down her offer of sex.

And all of this happens in the very first issue.

Issue 2 begins with a recap that informs the reader, “Last issue we discovered that Francine loves Freddie, but he just wants in her pants!”  This clearly seems to be the narrative that the author believes he is writing, but it just isn’t borne out by the characters’ actual behaviors.  Francine isn’t ready to have a relationship, and Freddie is, in my opinion, entirely justified in distancing himself from the whole wreck.

In issue two, we see Freddie engaging in more casual sex and being a bit of a drunken jerk to the lady he’s brought home with him (who turns out to be a hooker), but again, he’s ended his relationship with Francine, let’s maybe just leave him alone, shall we?  Nope.  Katchoo shows up at his door, puts a gun in his face, slaps him around, and (with the help of a walking bull-dyke stereotype) ties him to a table and threatens to castrate him with an electric kitchen knife. In the end, Freddie winds up naked, in clown makeup, tied by his wrists and hanging in the window of a shop, with a magnifying glass pointed at his nether regions.  Seem like a reasonable punishment for his transgressions?

The guy is seemingly supposed to be the villain of this piece, but I had a lot more sympathy for him than I did for the two main female characters.  Seriously, these ladies are nutso.  Not charmingly quirky.  Not girl power awesome.  Just straight up insane.  They’re a danger to themselves and others.

Strangers in Paradise Vol. 1 is a relationship-gone-wrong revenge story, but the revenge is all out of proportion to the supposed wrongs.  And I still say, based on what we see of things, it really wasn’t Freddie who was really doing most of the wronging in this relationship, anyway.

A Brave New World for Princess Movies

open-uri20150422-7119-1mm8kcq_30f3d3a4I admit, Brave wasn’t what I expected.  The trailers sold it as a film about a spunky warrior girl fighting to avoid an undesirable arranged marriage.  And, ok, it’s sort of about that.  But it’s more about a girl negotiating the gap between her own desires and her hereditary duties, and about the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter.

The film’s critical reception has been fairly tepid.  It’s “better than Cars,” so the general consensus goes, but it’s “safe” and “conventional.”  Pixar has been <gasp> Disneyfied.

Hold on!  Safe and conventional?  Disneyfied?  Brave is almost nothing like the standard princess fare Disney has been feeding us for years.  When was the last time you saw a princess movie where the princess doesn’t fall in love?  When was the last time you saw a princess movie with a strong, realistic mother-daughter relationship?  Hell, forget princess movies.  When was the last time you saw a children’s movie with any female protagonist that fit either of those criteria?

Far from being safe and conventional, Brave is a gutsy evolution of the traditional princess film.  And, at its heart, it’s a deeply feminist piece.

Before I continue deeper into a discussion about Brave, I want to briefly look  at the films that have come before it.  It’s true, this is a princess movie (inasmuch as it is about a princess), but it’s markedly different from the Disney princess movies I grew up with.

UntitledWho are the Disney princesses?  Officially, they are, in order of appearance: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (Aladdin), Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), and Rapunzel (Tangled).

I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a definite progression through the princesses.  While the earliest films were really primarily about damsels in distress who needed to be rescued by handsome princes, beginning with the arrival of rebellious Ariel on the stage, the later films do become more and more about less helpless and more interesting and independent young women.  (Though I’ll have to plead ignorance about The Princess and the Frog and Tangled — I’ve not seen either of these two movies.)

Still, The Little Mermaid winds up being, at least partly, a story about getting the guy at all costs (even if it means changing or giving up some fundamental part of your identity to do it).  Beauty and the Beast, though Belle the bookworm became something of an icon for young nerdy girls, teaches us that the love of a good woman can transform a beast into a prince.  Jasmine runs away from home to avoid the arranged marriage her father is trying to set up, but her naiveté quickly gets her into trouble, and she is rescued by Aladdin, who is really the star of the movie.  Pocahontas is also uncomfortable with the marriage she’s been offered, and winds up playing the noble savage to arrogant John Smith, showing him the error of his ways; later, she nearly starts a war by making out with him, but manages to avert it through the power of love.

Up to this point, love and romance really is the filter through which every single Disney princess’s story is told.  (That’s not to say that some of these ladies aren’t interesting and worthwhile characters in their own right — just that they always have to exercise their independence and individuality within the fairly narrow confines of a love story.)

Then comes Mulan.  To my count, this is one of only three Disney animated films that feature female protagonists and don’t revolve around a romance plot.  (The other two are Alice in Wonderland and Lilo & Stitch; and both of those female leads are really pre-adolescent.)  Mulan, once again, is unhappy with the idea of being married off, but she runs away motivated not by this, but by a desire to protect her father.  Masquerading as his son, she joins the military in his place, plays an integral role in defeating the invading Hun army, and earns the respect of the emperor of China.  There’s still a romance element, as along the way she develops feelings for her commanding officer Li Shang (and he for her), but it’s secondary to the main plot, which is about Mulan’s fight for acceptance and her efforts to protect her country from its enemies.  (Sadly, the straight-to-video sequel puts the focus squarely back on marriage.)

Mulan, despite being easily one of the strongest and most interesting female characters ever to come out of Disney’s animation studios, gets the short shrift from their marketing department.  She somehow managed to get classified as an official princess (despite have neither been born to or married into royalty), but if you walk into your local Disney store, you’ll be lucky to find any merchandise with her likeness on it.  And if you’re hoping for something that celebrates her as a tomboy-type, forget about it.  Mulan dolls are typically as ultra-feminine as all of her co-princesses (she’s a “sparkling princess” or a “blossom beauty,” not a bad-ass warrior woman.)

(Side note:  If you haven’t already figure it out, I adore Mulan.  It absolutely ranks as one of my favorite Disney movies.  It’s often overlooked–one of the Brave reviews I read referred to Mulan as “perfectly inoffensive“–but it’s far more interesting and subversive than I think it tends to get credit for.  In what other Disney film do you get to watch a straight man struggle to come to terms with the feelings he is developing for someone he believes is another man?  This bit of subtext is handled with a light touch, but it is there.  Plus, there’s loads of cross-dressing, she saves his life, and the romance is never requited on-screen.)

I think Brave‘s Princess Merida is the natural next step in the evolution of the Disney princess.  In some ways, she is Mulan’s spiritual successor, but she really is truly unlike any that have come before her. And it’s the new elements (or, in some cases, the missing elements) that make Brave such a deeply feminist piece.

(WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW!)

One of these new elements is something that it’s frankly a little astonishing we’ve seen so little of in the past: the loving (if sometimes difficult) relationship between mother and daughter.

Snow White and Cinderella had their evil step-mothers.  Aurora’s mother sends her away for her protection, and though the girl has motherly fairies watching over her, their relationship with her is more like that of three indulgent grandmothers.  Next comes a procession of dead (or absent and presumably dead) mothers: Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas are all parented by single fathers.  Mulan’s mother lives, and, like Merida’s mother, wants her daughter to be a proper lady; she plays a minimal role in the film, and is primarily there to show us what Mulan’s options are like if she doesn’t run away.  A bit of Google research tells me that Tiana’s mother is also alive, though I don’t know how big a part she plays in the story.  Tangled gives us a return to the evil step-mother trope with Mother Gothel, who is actually Rapunzel’s jailer and who manipulates the girl for her own gain.

Disney’s standard narrative about mothers has–with few exceptions–taught us that good mothers die young and are all too often replaced by scary anti-mothers who, instead of protecting and nurturing their young female charges, see them as competition.

a16e2f60-eee1-0133-800e-0e31b36aeb7fFinally, with Merida and her mother Elinor, we get a realistic, complex, and caring mother-daughter relationship!  Elinor and Merida simply don’t get each other at the beginning of the film.  Elinor knows that her daughter will be queen after her, and she does her best to groom the girl to be able to fill the position with grace and dignity.  Merida, though, has a great deal of her raucous father in her, and she refuses to curb her wildness to fit her mother’s feminine ideal.  Her mother’s world is too staid and orderly for her; she wants action and adventure.  And yet, despite the gulf looming between them (a gulf every mother and adolescent daughter in history have faced to some degree), it is explicitly clear that Elinor and Merida love each other very much.  They are very different people, with very different ideas about how the world should work, but they don’t want to be constantly at odds with each other.  Elinor wants what is best for her daughter.  Merida wants to make her mother understand why she can’t abide Elinor’s restrictions. (See this blog post for a description of several scenes that exemplify this.)  They simply don’t know how to bridge the gap.

And it is this conflict that the movie really ends up being about.  It’s not a film about changing the world.  It’s a film about learning to accept each other’s differences, and about seeing the value in each other.

Is this why Brave is being called safe?  Because Merida doesn’t go on an epic quest to free all of Scotland from patriarchal oppression?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that Merida does something that, for the genre, is much more radical:  She compromises.  She cooperates.  She wins quietly.

mulan.0.0Mulan has to (at least initially) become a man in order to become a hero.  And her heroics come in a way that is typically coded as masculine.  She becomes a soldier.  She fights, physically.  She literally wins a war.

We’re led to believe, at first, that Merida will solve her problems in the same way.  And perhaps this is why reviewers seem so disappointed with the direction the film ultimately takes.  Our red-headed heroine, though she is physically fit and active, does not win the day through strength of arms.  She wins it by communicating, a skill closely associated with femininity.

Brave is, for me, an unexpectedly mature film.  Despite certain similarities, this isn’t the wish-fulfillment fantasy of Mulan, who ventures out on her own, saves the world, and ends up with the Emperor of China bowing before her.  Merida doesn’t save the world.  She very nearly doesn’t save her mother.  And she doesn’t get to have everything her own way.

Instead, she must continue to work within the confines of the world she lives in to effect change.  And she does effect change–a positive change for both herself and all of her would-be suitors.  Instead of being at odds with each other, with one defeating the other, the women in this film must learn to work together.  Let me say that again, because it’s important: Brave teaches us that women must learn to work cooperatively and to value each other, rather than be constantly in competition with each other. Do you know how rare it is in any movie, let alone a children’s movie, to see women working together rather than against each other?

And it’s not just the women who need to stop competing in Brave.  This is a fable very much about cooperation, about valuing others for what they can bring to the table.  It’s about the importance of communication and reliance on each other.

Mulan is a very individualistic tale.  Yes, she has companions, she has help, but ultimately, it is Mulan herself who saves the day.  As noted, it espouses a type of heroism that is traditionally very masculine.

Brave is much more skeptical about that type of combative heroism.  The male warriors, motivated by anger and revenge, nearly kill Elinor (who has been magically transformed into a bear).  Merida begs them to stop, but they are too much caught up in their bloodlust to listen to reason.  The bear Mor’du, who took King Fergus’s leg years before, was once human, but his humanity was lost when he refused to reconcile with his brothers, intent on military conquest.  It is Elinor who ultimately defeats Mor’du, but it’s not an act of hatred or anger against the beast–it’s an act of protection towards her daughter.

There isn’t all that much bravery in Brave,” claims one reviewer.  Which is true, I suppose, if you assume that bravery can only refer to martial feats.

The bravery in Brave is quieter.  Merida and Elinor must have the bravery to set their pride aside, to step outside their own world-views, and learn to look at things from a different perspective.  Personally, I think that’s a pretty valuable lesson, and one that does take bravery to learn.

e64ccb29a2a7425d7f721aeb82803045And this is why I think Brave is such a deeply feminist film.  Mulan shows us that a woman can be heroic in the same way a man can.  That’s valuable, and as I’ve already said, I love Mulan.  But where Mulan does its work within the traditional masculine paradigm of heroism, Brave offers us another, completely different paradigm.  A woman can take on “masculine” characteristics and be brave and empowered.  But she can also be empowered through more traditionally “feminine” means, like communication and cooperation.  In a world that consistently devalues traits associated with femininity, Brave‘s vision of female empowerment really is pretty radical.

Too radical, apparently for some reviewers.  One goes so far as to suggest that “having a reluctant Merida being wooed by an equally strong suitor, a la The Taming of the Shrew, or presenting a Moby Dick-like adventure in which she gathers a group of hunters to track down a mythic bear that plagues their kingdom” would have made a better story.  Thank goodness Chuck Koplinski isn’t writing for Pixar.  We’ve seen strong women being mastered by stronger men.  And we’ve seen, more and more lately, women who, like Mulan, take on traditionally masculine leadership roles.

Brave gives us something new.  It shows us that combat isn’t always the answer, and often it isn’t the best answer.  It reminds us that social change is more often accomplished in slow, small increments, and only when we start working together and start valuing different perspectives.  And it does all this through a nuanced, realistic vision of a relationship we rarely see developed in children’s movies.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s kind of a big deal.

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesPride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t know what I expected from this book, but whatever I was hoping for, I didn’t get it. After the initial joy of “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains,” disappointment soon followed.

I love a good parody, and this one had such promise. It should have been a fun, witty romp, but instead it rapidly becomes an asinine slog through page after page of lame, juvenile humor.

This is the downfall of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Look, I know Austen isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but she is a genuinely intelligent writer with a wonderful dry wit who manages to wrap up a great deal of social commentary into her engaging stories. I guess what I’m saying is, Jane Austen’s books are smart.

Seth Grahame-Smith’s additions and revisions are considerably less smart. He seems to be trying to channel a Pythonesque sense of absurdity, but instead winds up with something more like Jackass. He can’t seem to rise above the banality of poop and puke jokes, and the book ends up drowning under the copious bodily excretions.

I’m not sure who the target audience is for this book. Janeites will miss the characteristic subtle irony Austen is known for. Readers unfamiliar with Austen’s work will have little appreciation for the ways in which Grahame-Smith plays with her stories and characters, or with the conventions of the world in which she is writing.

P&P&Z simply doesn’t work, at least not in the way I want it to work. Grahame-Smith has tried to, according to the book jacket, “[transform] a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read,” but in the process he has managed to destroy much of what makes Austen an enjoyable read in the first place.