Game of Thrones: Winterfell – Review and Q&A

Since the conclusion of Game of Thrones’ seventh season in the summer of 2017, I’ve experienced recurring dreams about how the show will end. I swear I’m not saying that to sound cute, but because it genuinely intrigues me on a scientific level. I can’t explain what the dreams mean or why I keep having them, but I think it’s telling that they are all unsatisfactory experiences. In each one I begin watching the final season of the show with this itching sense of desperate anticipation, and I say to myself “Is this really happening? Is it finally here?”

Again, I have to stress that I’m not trying to be funny. Each dream ends with me disappointed at how the show turns out. It never happens the way I expected it to, and maybe that’s because I’ve been speculating on all the possibilities so much. So when I watched the season eight premiere last night, I was in a strangely surreal mood. Now it was finally here for real this time. And yet I still had the irrational feeling that something completely preposterous would happen and I’d wake up in my bed screaming “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME!” while my balls leaked rivers of hot sweat over the sheets.

But let’s get to the episode itself, shall we?

Game of Thrones: Season Eight.

The Final Season.

“Winterfell”.

My overall impression of the episode is that it was good, but not electrifying. It didn’t feel as substantial as perhaps it should have, considering the important reunions and revelations. And I think this might be down to the way the pieces were put together, rather than the pieces themselves. I like every scene that happened, and I don’t think any time was wasted. But I did feel like these scenes were rushed and hastily put together. For instance, Jon’s reunion with Arya just felt a little underwhelming. The line about Valyrian steel seemed kind of odd to me, especially seeing as how Arya has her own Valyrian dagger, which she chose not to reveal. It didn’t seem to go anywhere, and Arya not mentioning it felt like the show saying “We ain’t got time for this”. I liked how it ended, with their discussion on loyalty, duty and family. However the whole scene felt rushed and slightly disjointed in comparison to some of the powerful dialogue scenes of previous seasons.

Another scene I thought a little clumsily written was the moment Samwell blurts out that he stole his father’s sword. This seemed like the show was trying to rush to the juicy revelation of his father’s and brother’s deaths instead of arriving at them organically. If it weren’t the final season, I think the writers would have handled that scene differently- perhaps with Jorah or someone saying “Nice sword” and then Samwell sheepishly confessing he stole it from his father, Lord Tarly. But, just as the Arya-Jon reunion was not without merit, so too this scene is saved at the end- in this case by John Bradley’s superb acting. So my criticisms are small ones, and each aspect of the episode I didn’t like seemed to be balanced out by something I did. At this point in the episode I began to feel a real momentum; we’re having to ask questions of our heroes. We see here that events have consequences, that deaths have meaning, and that no decision is easy. I think the next episode will focus on just how complex and fragile the allegiances of the north are, which will then create an effective tension leading into episode three’s Battle of Winterfell.

So that’s what I thought of the episode as a whole: kinda rushed and a little messy, but with a few excellent moments and some great promise for things going forward. But what are the key questions going forward? Here’s my episode Q & A:

 

Will Bronn assassinate Tyrion and/or Jaime?

This might just be a way to send Bronn north and have him join the rest of the characters considered heroes, since he is the last character on Cersei’s side that’s a fan favorite. Given that he risked his life to save Jaime getting incinerated by Drogon last season, I can’t see him murdering him so easily. As much as Bronn is motivated by material riches, the show has already established that he has a heart. I do think we will see a few popular characters do a few unpopular deeds this season though. And if Bronn is to be one of them, I don’t think it will be a straightforward affair. There will be some sort of twist that pushes him over the edge.

 

What’s next for Euron Greyjoy?

Euron is one of the characters I am most confident will die this season. Nothing about him suggests longevity. The fact that Yara has escaped and is heading back to the Iron Islands only makes me more certain that the Northern Armies will lose the Battle of Winterfell, since she mentions it as being a possible haven for Dany. I think the Night King will win, and Dany will take what remains of her army to the Iron Islands. I then think Euron will take his fleet there and get destroyed. The Night King will march on King’s Landing and almost destroy Cersei’s forces, but then Dany and Jon will come to the rescue. That’s my updated prediction for how the season goes down anyway. I can definitely see Euron dying at sea, and I can’t imagine that the Ironborn will be fighting as land units in defense of King’s Landing. That’s not what they are suited for. Euron’s fulfilled his wish of boning the Queen; I think the Iron Islands are more important to him.

 

What was my favorite scene?

In terms of pure spectacle, I loved the scene where the young Lord Umber is pinned to the wall and surrounded by a swirl of severed limbs. The moment he reanimated as a wight might be the biggest jump-scare in the show’s history. I liked it because it gives us a glimpse of the White Walkers’ culture. The Night King and his people aren’t mindless monsters like their undead thralls. The swirl is a recurring motif in the culture of the White Walkers. Having the little kid pinned to the wall, at the center of this design, not only shows that our threat is intelligent, but it also serves as a reminder of the way the White Walkers were created. A similar swirl can be seen surrounding the man that becomes the first White Walker in episode five of season six…

 

What will be the fallout from Jon learning his true heritage?

I think this conflict will dominate the next episode, but also be more or less resolved by the end of it. There might be some lingering tension that resurfaces at the end of the season, but I think the solution has already been foreshadowed. At first Dany will be very upset and neither she nor Jon will know what to do. But then I think that Tyrion and Varys will tell them their idea, and they will realize the solution is staring them right in the face. This whole situation is so obviously set up for them to get married. That way, they don’t have to worry about whose claim to the throne is more valid, and it solidifies the fragile alliances of the north.

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What I’ve Been Reading – March 2019

Of the Farm

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Author: John Updike

Country: United States

Review: I’ve always admired Updike’s writing for its ability to render the mundane profound. Updike writes about ordinary, middle class families and finds the poetry in their lives. I love the examination of trivial and ordinary events because if you go deep enough, they reveal greater truths. I am very affected by the idea that everyday life can be as epic and immortal as the stuff of myth. In short, this book is about a New York advertising executive that returns to his family farm in Pennsylvania with his new wife and her son from a previous marriage. Awaiting them at the farm is the protagonist’s mother, and the story is basically the four of them failing to get along for a weekend. It’s a subtle narrative that lacks the excitement of Rabbit, Run, but it is well put together. Sometimes the characters’ troubled thoughts rang true, but other times their words and actions left me confused and annoyed. The best thing about the book is the writing itself. John Updike is at his best in the novel’s stellar descriptive passages. Like Rabbit, Run, there are vulnerable, angst-ridden males and fearsome, sassy females, and these are always compelling characters that he writes well and that I enjoy reading. The book lost me a little bit with the Christian stuff at the end, but then again I have about as much tolerance for Jesus in my fiction as I do asbestos in my kitchen. On the whole the novel is an interesting look at themes of divorce, marriage, and family, but I wasn’t gripped by the narrative the way I was with Rabbit, Run.

 

 

Rape: A Love Story

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Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Country: United States

Review: This was my first time reading prolific American author Joyce Carol Oates. I’d always been aware of her but I’d just never got around to investigating her work. I came across this short novel while on my recent second-hand book haul and decided it was time to give Oates a go. I wanted an unflinchingly honest portrayal of a challenging social issue, and the book very much delivered in that regard. Nothing is subtle. The reader is spared no detail, and I think that is the most effective way to tackle the subject. The novel opens up with a horrific gang-rape and the details of the assault are repeated again and again throughout the book ad nauseam- reflective of the way the victim has to relive the events of one evening over and over again for the rest of her life. I like that Oates decided to make the reader uncomfortable, because people should be made to feel uncomfortable. The issue should be portrayed in a way that makes you feel sick to your stomach.

This is also the first novel I’ve read that’s written completely in the second person. The story is told from the point of view of the 12-year old daughter of the victim, who is present during the attack. Having the story written in the second person works really well in my opinion, because the plot is so gritty and realistic, and were it written in a more conventional way, might seem like a mere journalistic summation of events. The second person style instead gives the book a more psychological, introspective tone, as if the whole text is in fact a letter from the narrator to her younger self. And the book is not just about the issue of rape per se; it is, as the title states, a love story. Alongside the very realistic accounts of grief, trauma, and the legal process, is a narrative of something good growing out of something bad. From the horrific events surrounding the assault and its aftermath emerges something tender. It’s not a love story in the romantic sense. But rather, it’s about how this heroic person came to mean so much to the girl during the darkest times of her life. The book shifts from a very gritty and realistic beginning to focus on these more literary concerns as the plot progresses. In fact, the events get less and less realistic, although the characters and their motivations remain quite believable. I can’t say too much without spoiling it. But it’s an interesting blend of social realism and straight up thriller fiction.

 

 

Jamilia

7

Author: Chingiz Aitmatov

Country: Kyrgyzstan

Review: Of all the books on this list- and indeed, the year so far- I enjoyed Jamilia the most. I didn’t think I would, for the reasons that it’s a fairly old book (mid-20th century) and it’s a translation of a translation. The original book was written in Aitmatov’s native Kirgiz, and he then translated it himself into Russian, and it was this version that was then translated into English. I think my hesitance was due in no small part to my experience of reading The Beautiful Summer– another very short novel, written at a similar time period, with ostensibly similar themes about love and art. But as you’ll no doubt remember from my blog post on The Beautiful Summer, the translation was terrible and the plot was vague and insubstantial. I wondered if I was taking a risk with Jamilia, given that it’s a novel from a very remote and sparsely populated part of the world whose culture is no doubt vastly different from my own. I wondered if there would be too many references I’d misunderstand, and that my decision to read such an obscure novel would come off as an ostentatious statement to make myself look cultured and worldly.

As soon as I started reading, however, all of my doubts and anxieties subsided. I’m very glad I took a chance on it, because it was just so darn readable. The plot is not convoluted or hard to understand- in fact it’s very straightforward and deeply accessible. The translation is fantastic, so good in fact that you’d assume the book was written originally in English if you didn’t already know otherwise. The fact that books like this one (and Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red, which I reviewed last month) exist to be enjoyed by those who don’t speak the native language has made literary translators my favorite people in the world. The descriptive passages in Jamilia are some of the most beautiful I have ever read. Devouring each sentence was like snorting a line of coke from a hooker’s sternum. Seriously- get a load of this shit:

 

“The sun, quivering and shapeless, shimmered in the salty, whitish haze.”

 

“The ripened dove-grey wheat awaiting harvest rippled like a lake surface and the first shadows of dawn flitted across the field.”

 

“Dark rocks overhung with briar towered over the road, while far below the irrepressible Kurkureu gushed out from behind a thicket of rose-willow and wild poplar.”

 

“The cool wind from the steppe brought with it the bitter pollen of flowering wormwood, and the faint aroma of ripening wheat.”

 

“The last crimson rays slid past the fast-moving line of skewbald clouds along the hills, and all at once it grew dark.”

 

The story itself is what I’d call a tasteful romance. The narrator recalls an affair that developed during the war between his brother’s wife and a wounded soldier. At the time, the narrator was a teenager, and in many ways the focus of the novel is about how the affair affected his life forever. I found the story to be thoroughly human and universal in its themes. This is a novel that can be understood and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their reading level or where they come from. It’s all about forbidden love, tradition versus passion, family obligation versus self-determination, community versus the individual, small town scandal, coming-of-age, changing times, the importance of art, and a bunch of other stuff. I also think the setting and time period is very interesting- it depicts an era of rapid modernization in Central Asia under Soviet rule, in which the nomadic traditions of the steppe gives way to collectivization. I imagine this novel would have been even more striking at the time when it was written; modern readers are familiar with the idea of choosing partners based on emotional decisions. Not too long ago the institution of marriage was far different, and you really need that historical context to appreciate how shocking it would have been to abandon your domestic role in pursuit of something as lofty as the idea of love.

10 Predictions for Game of Thrones’ Final Season

It’s less than two weeks now until the final season of Game of Thrones and I can barely contain my excitement. As per usual, I’ll be doing my weekly episode reviews when the new season comes out. For now, here are some theories and predictions I have for how things will go down.

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  1. Jon Snow will ride Rhaegal in the battle with the Night King.
    This theory has been brewing for a while, and I think it’s easily the most likely one on my list. The ability of the Targaryans to ride and commune with dragons is shown to be somewhat intuitive. It’s in their blood. When Dany first rides Drogon in the fighting pits of Meereen, we can see that the whole process comes naturally to both her and the dragon. It’s instinctive, rather than trained. I expect that Jon’s true lineage will be revealed to him very early on in the season- my guess is the end of episode one. Since the battle with the Night King is all but confirmed to take place in episode 3, I think we’ll see him and Dany riding together for the first time in episode 2. This event was foreshadowed in the last season, when we see Jon petting Drogon. Dany seems a little shocked, and this indicates to us that she hasn’t seen anyone else interact with the dragons this way. It makes sense that Jon will ride Rhaegal, since the dragon is named for his father, Rhaegar.
    There’s also another theory that Bran will warg into a dragon. However I don’t think this will be necessary if the dragons already have riders. I can only see it happening if Jon disembarks Rhaegal to fight on the ground. It’s more likely, I think, that Bran will warg into Ghost or Nymeria during the battle.
  2. The Night King’s Target.
    We know almost nothing about the White Walkers and why they are moving south. It’s a mystery that’s simmered in the background of everything else since the show began. The only real clue we got regarding their motivations came in the season four episode “Oathbreaker” where we see Craster’s last son taken to The Land of Always Winter. The White Walkers perform a ritual that turns the baby into one of them. This hints to us that the White Walkers’ motivations may be related to survival. There are no female White Walkers, so they can’t reproduce on their own. They require human males, hence why Craster gave away all his sons in tribute. We also see in the season six episode “The Door” that the very first White Walker was created by The Children of the Forest for the purposes of fighting against the First Men. This also explains why there isn’t an army of White Walkers as such- the bulk of their forces are made up of undead humans and giants. The White Walkers themselves are fewer in number, since they don’t reproduce naturally, and each one has to be synthesized from a human baby each time.
    I expect that we’ll learn a little more about what motivates the Night King and his people in the coming season- but I don’t think there will be too much detail. I think that by and large, the White Walkers will remain somewhat mysterious, since it’s obvious now that the true antagonist of the show is Cersei. If the scenes shown in the recent trailer seemed a little samey to you, that’s because by and large they are taken from the first half of the upcoming season. Anything after episode 3 would hint at the outcome of the Battle of Winterfell. They’re saving the latter half of the season for the conclusion of the political conflict by the looks of things, perhaps because most people feel more invested in a human villain like Cersei than the Night King, whose machinations are treated more like an environmental threat.
    The Night King is extremely intelligent though- he’s not some Frankenstein-Monster. I don’t think we’ll hear him speak, even though we know that his people do possess a language of their own (Skroth). The biggest reason for this is that it’s best understood that you don’t want to still be giving exposition-dumps during the conclusion of your story. Since the White Walkers have remained mysterious and unknowable so far, I don’t see that changing much. However I hope we’re at least given some indication for the Night King’s motivations, because a mystery that’s never revealed is deeply unsatisfying. The actor who plays the Night King stated in a recent interview that his character has a specific target south of the wall. This is very interesting. To my mind, this target has to be Bran, given the latter’s unique prescient abilities. However this is a fairly obvious choice. I don’t see it being the Godswood, or anything else the show hasn’t already adapted from the books. It’s the end of the show, so there won’t be too much new exposition to confuse TV viewers.
  3. Cleganebowl.
    When I first heard this theory during season seven, I wasn’t sure. It sounded too much like fan-service to me, rather than nuanced writing. The concept seemed like a wish-fulfillment duel and the name “Cleganebowl” is nauseatingly memetic. However I now think a showdown between the Mountain and the Hound is actually quite likely. At the end of the last season, we see their respective storylines cross over for the first time since the show’s early days in a brief confrontation at the summit. The Hound seemed to pity the state of his zombified brother, and to me this scene foreshadows a kind of mercy-killing at the end of season eight.
  4. The Battle of Winterfell.
    I’m really interested to see how this one turns out. It’s no secret that in episode 3 we’re going to see the Night King’s forces lay siege to Winterfell. The cast have been pretty open about this, even going so far as to tease the sheer scale of the battle sequence. It’s meant to dwarf anything else on the show thus far, and is in no small part responsible for the show’s two-year hiatus. We know from trailer footage and cast interviews that the battle will take place at night, and will be somewhat akin to the Battle of Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In the trailer we can see Varys hiding in the crypts of Winterfell along with other people who can’t fight. I don’t think they’ll be safe though. Even though the meek characters are more likely to survive than the warrior-types, I think that the White Walkers will definitely breech the walls and enter the castle. In fact, I’m leaning towards the outcome of the battle being a White Walker victory. If our heroes do win, I think they will suffer heavy losses in doing so. But from a narrative standpoint, I can see the outcome of the battle being largely a negative one. The best we can hope for is a Pyrrhic Victory or a stalemate…unless of course you’re rooting for the Night King. A big victory halfway through the season might feel out of place, whereas a setback allows for greater tension leading into the finale. I predict that the Night King will overwhelm the alliance forces, and Rhaegal will perish while facilitating their retreat south.
  5. Arya will kill Cersei while wearing Jaime’s face.
    I like this theory a lot. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Jaime dies during the Battle of Winterfell in episode 3. For a long time now, the show has had Jaime on a redemptive arc. When we first meet Jaime in season one, he’s smug, sarcastic, and cruel. A cocksure pretty-boy without honor. He’s set up as the opposite of Ned Stark. But as Jaime’s journey progresses, we learn that his asshole personality is actually a defense-mechanism that conceals his inner vulnerability. He resents his Kingslayer reputation, is tortured by his father’s disappointment in him, and is racked with guilt for throwing Bran out the tower window. He’s aware of everyone disrespecting him behind his back, so he’s reflexively cruel. His fighting skills at least ensure that people have to fake respect to his face. So the decision to take his only sense of agency from him- his sword-wielding hand- was an excellent decision, because it’s led to some really interesting character development. The peak of his catharsis came at the end of season seven, when he turned his back on the woman he loves in order to do what he thinks is right. Now, for the first time in his life, he’s following his principles instead of his orders.
    I think it’s highly likely that Jaime will die during the Battle of Winterfell. I think his whole journey has led him to this point, and that he will finally achieve his redemption by fighting for the living. Arya will then take his face and assassinate Cersei disguised as him, thereby fulfilling the Valonqar prophecy Cersei has been trying (and failing) to outrun since she was a child. For the longest time it was assumed Tyrion would be the one to kill Cersei. Not only does he have the biggest beef with her, but Valonqar translates to “little brother” in High Valyrian. However, Jaime could technically be the Valonqar since he was born holding on to Cersei’s foot- a curious and perhaps not insignificant detail from the books.
  6. Dany will have Jon’s baby.
    I don’t necessarily expect us to see this in the show, but I definitely think the season will end with Daenerys heavily pregnant. I feel like this one is pretty obvious, given all the foreshadowing in season seven. I don’t think they would have brought up the issue of her fertility if they weren’t planning on her and Jon having a kid. If we do see the child at all, I think it will be via some kind of dramatic C-Section where Dany dies and the baby is raised by Sansa.
  7. The Iron Throne will be destroyed.
    I don’t foresee an ending where Dany gets the throne she’s always wanted and restores Targaryan rule over the Seven Kingdoms. George R.R. Martin has already stated that the ending will be bittersweet. I think we’ll be left satisfied but in a very roundabout way. The Iron Throne represents lust for power. The melted swords are a reminder of the cost of both seeking and maintaining that power. I think it would be an effective piece of symbolic imagery to see the throne physically destroyed during a battle in the season finale. During her visit to the House of the Undying in season 2, Dany has a vision of the throne room in ruins, covered in ashes and snow. This could be the result of dragonfire or wildfire as Dany’s forces lay siege to the Red Keep.
  8. The Golden Company will betray Cersei.
    At first I wasn’t sure about this one. Even though the Golden Company are the descendants of Targaryans, they’re an off-shoot branch of rebels intent on laying claim to the Iron Throne. I don’t see any obvious reason for them siding with Dany, since they should be motivated more than anyone to kill her and install themselves as the true Targaryan dynasty. I think we will definitely see the Golden Company in battle with the forces of the North- but perhaps only briefly. If they do side with Dany, I think it will be in the form of some kind of political marriage that reunifies the two Targaryan branches. However that may not be that satisfying for a TV audience largely unfamiliar with all the history discussed in the books. But I do think the wider theory of the Golden Company somehow breaking their contract is a likely one.
    I expect that the themes of prophecy and fate will be prevalent this season. Maybe we will see most of the show’s prophecies and promises turned on their heads? For instance, Dany becoming pregnant and breaking the curse put upon her by that old bag in season one. The Iron Throne being destroyed- representing the “wheel” being broken. Perhaps Cersei’s baby will survive, and she will die happy knowing that the Valonqar prophecy didn’t fully come true? The Three Eyed Raven told Bran that “the ink is dry”. But is it? Maybe things aren’t set in stone. I can see why fans believe that a mercenary company whose motto is “Our word is gold” might be destined to break their contract. It could form part of a larger theme the show has about change and new beginnings.
  9. Who is most likely to die?
    In my opinion the most likely character to die is Beric Dondarrion. His fate is tied to his religious mission to stop the army of the dead. This will happen during the Battle of Winterfell.
    The only other characters I am 100% certain will die are Melisandre, Jon Snow, Euron Greyjoy, and Cersei Lannister.
  10. Who will survive?
    This is perhaps the toughest prediction to make. I think the most likely person to survive will be Samwell Tarly. I can see him recording the events of the entire series in his writings. I also think that Sansa will make it out alright. She’s pretty much survived everything, and I don’t see her being in too much direct danger. And even though Dany’s baby with Jon is just a theory at this point, I do think this baby will definitely survive.

 

What do y’all think? Let me know your predictions in the comments!

Dark Theories that Prove Spyro is a Horror Game

Playing Spyro: Reignited brought back a lot of happy memories from my childhood. It was a real treat to see it, not as I remembered it, but infused with this staggeringly-beautiful, Pixar-esque aesthetic that channeled the whimsy of the original games. But my experience of playing the remastered trilogy went beyond admiring its exceptional visuals and indulging my own nostalgia. Now I was playing the games as an adult, and I hadn’t planned on this sensation to be as strange as it indeed was.

Perspective counts for a lot. When you’re a kid, you’re too innocent to realize that Willy Wonka is obviously a serial killer. You’re not yet jaded enough to spot the Nazi imagery in The Lion King, and you’re not yet cynical enough to realize that Alice in Wonderland is one giant acid trip. And the less said about David Bowie’s fucking Labyrinth the better.

What I’m trying to say is that children’s stories come from the minds of adults, and often enough you can dissect them for adult themes. As far as the child is concerned, Winnie the Pooh is nothing more than a colorful story about animal friends and their wholesome adventures. But watch it as an adult and you will quickly realize that Eeyore’s craving the sweet release of death just as much as you are, you fucking loser.

Anyway, this was true for my experience of playing Spyro as an adult- particularly Ripto’s Rage. Sometimes the dark stuff you see is wholly intentional, other times it slips out of the creator’s subconscious, and sometimes it’s completely inferred by the consumer. I’ve always believed that art is a subjective and unique experience for each individual, that we each bring our own traumas to whatever piece of art we consume. The same song or painting will make two different people feel completely different emotions.

For what it’s worth, here are some ideas I had about Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage. Call them what you what; Creepypastas, fan theories, conspiracies, subliminal messages, or just a sad twat reading way too much into things- in a way they’re all valid.

 

  • There’s something disturbing about Sunny Beach…
    Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20190317221826
    When Spyro arrives at Sunny Beach he’s asked by the native Turtles to stop the Water Workers from abducting their babies. In the intro scene we observe the dastardly Water Workers packing the baby Turtles into shipping containers and hurrying them off to an unknown location. This is already disturbing enough- but it gets worse if you look deeper. The motivations for these abductions are never explicitly stated, but I think there are three equally likely possibilities. At first I figured either the Water Workers are running a sex trafficking ring or they’re eating the poor baby Turtles, each of which are pretty fucked up in their own way. The latter theory is backed up by the Master Chef side mission. The Water Workers are aided throughout the level by the Ducks. But there’s this one freakishly malformed Duck named Master Chef that’s boiling the baby Turtles alive and making soup out of them. As a child this whole quest scared me, and I’m still convinced that Master Chef is the most evil character in the Spyro universe. You can’t fight him or reason with him; you have to play his twisted game and try to save the little Turtles from kamikazying into the broth. However it’s unclear whether his motivations align with the Water Workers, since he’s a different species, and he might just be a random psycho that’s taking advantage of the surrounding chaos to fulfill his own twisted desires.
    Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20190317221517
    My third theory for the Water Workers’ motivations, however, is more sympathetic. As I progressed through the level, I wondered whether this really was a conflict of good versus evil. What if the events of Sunny Beach are much more morally-complex? Given the Water Workers’ name, and the fact that the Ducks all wear hardhats, I got the idea that what was really unfolding was a labor strike. The Ducks and the Water Workers might be treated as second class citizens in a classist society, in which they represent the proletariat and the Turtles the bourgeoisie. Perhaps the Water Workers are only kidnapping the baby turtles as a kind of ransom, holding them hostage until their demands for equality are met?
  • Gems are actually worthless…
    Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20190317215519
    Just looking at the world of Avalar I get the feeling it’s a post-scarcity anarchist society. There’s no evidence of publically-funded institutions like schools, hospitals or council estates. We know there are goods and products, but in Avalar everything pretty much runs on magic, so there’s no real economy that’s comparable to ours. You could point to the interdimensional portals as being the equivalent to a national railroad service, but since they’re based on magic, I can’t imagine they require any kind of upkeep. There’s a lot going on in Avalar but I don’t recall seeing any evidence of capitalism. The only person that really gives value to the gems is Moneybags. This got me thinking: maybe, just maybe, Moneybags is in fact a homeless crackpot, a local eccentric suffering from severe mental health issues that give him quixotic delusions of grandeur. He boasts of submarines and mansions but we never actually see him using or inhabiting them. Perhaps he found his tuxedo in a skip outside a supper club and goes about trying to convince everyone he’s actually this Dan Bilzerian style playboy, living a life of luxury and excess. Spyro never says anything when Moneybags demands gems, so I take that to mean that Spyro pities him, and that everyone goes along with Moneybag’s harmless fantasy, even when he’s annoying them by obstructing their path. In my opinion this theory fits with what we see in the game, and it actually reminds me of a few local eccentrics in my hometown. Just last week I was walking along a deserted road on my way home from work. A man was coming the other way. As he passed me, he kept imitating the revving of a far-off motorcycle, going “RUMMM-RA-RA-RA-RUMMMM-RA-RA-RA-RUM-RUM!” and I wondered if he thought he were a budgerigar trained to mimic the sounds he heard.
  • Where are all the humans?
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    We know that human beings exist in the Spyro universe, but they don’t have any sort of established presence. It’s interesting to me that humans are included, but only as a small footnote. They have no power, influence, or any kind of societal structure. Why include them at all? The few we meet seem unsettlingly out of place, and we are given the impression that they’ve stumbled into a world in which they don’t belong. Let’s look at the case of the twins Handel and Greta, who we meet in Scorch. Here we have two unsupervised children claiming to be secret agents, roaming around a hostile alien landscape that we know they are not native to. Because they are young children, they’re oblivious to the madness of the world around them and seem unaware that they don’t belong. The natives are trying to do horrific things to them, but to Handel and Greta it’s all part of their little game. It’s later revealed that they share this childish fantasy with Agent Zero- a character it’s heavily implied is suffering some kind of mental illness. We see Agent Zero in the Cloud Temples level, where he keeps boasting that he is a very important secret agent working on a highly classified mission. Like the twins, he seems completely oblivious to the carnage going on around him and just seems very out of place. If you manage to follow him without being spotted, you realize that there is no base of operations. It’s like when kids refer to a little glade in the woods as their “hideout” or something, and they don’t want anyone to know about it that isn’t part of their game. After you follow him, he even inducts you into the fantasy, believing that you must be part of his imaginary club. Agent Zero bears a striking resemblance to literary icons Lennie Small and Boo Radley, both of which suffer from non-specific mental disabilities. What isn’t clear however, is whether Agent Zero is a disabled character lost in a fantasy world (and due to his impairment, is less shocked by his surroundings), or if he was a normal person that, after prolonged exposure to the absolute madness of Avalar, was driven slowly insane.
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    The last human character we meet is the most mysterious- Basil the Explorer. He seems much more stable than the other three, which indicates that perhaps he has some knowledge of Avalar and has traveled there of his own free will, perhaps out of scientific curiosity. We find him stranded in Mystic Marsh after his jeep breaks down. Like the other humans we have covered, Basil seems disturbingly out of place. His broken vehicle reminded me of literary tropes involving characters becoming lost in fantasy realms- usually it’s a wardrobe or a rabbit hole, and sometimes it’s a Malaysian airplane. Imagine you’re a nauseatingly-British explorer with an oversized moustache that smells permanently of chip butties and imperialism, on safari in the African savannah. You’re driving along, when all of a sudden, imperceptibly, the environment around you changes. It’s subtle- the acacia trees now have treehouses connected by boardwalks, the water is now purple, and all the elephants and rhinos have snail shells on their backs. It’s like a nightmare you’re trying to wake up from. In fact, the Mystic Marsh level has a theme of insomnia and psychosis. It’s a world out of balance; the magic water fountain that lulls the animals into sleep is broken, and now they’re rampaging around the place in an orgy of violence, driven mad by the inability to rest. Or perhaps the fountain itself is evil, suppressing the animals into a state of constant drowsiness like some dystopian mind control drug, and now that they’re free, the animals want revenge on their mystic overlords. Either way, I think the animals and the fountain represent Basil’s desire to break free and return to the real world.
  • Avalar is in fact a post-apocalyptic wasteland…
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    This theory is sort of a continuation of the last one, but with a twist. Instead of the humans being lost voyageurs from another world, perhaps they are in fact the true natives of Avalar, but an apocalyptic event has diminished their numbers. This would also explain for Handel and Greta’s lack of adult supervision, Agent Zero’s mental illness, and Basil the Explorer’s strange isolation. It’s further supported by the fact that other locations throughout Avalar show signs of human influence but are devoid of a human presence. Let’s look at the robot societies for example. Metropolis is a city of robots that resembles something you might see in the real world. The robots are depicted wearing ties and standing in line for the bus. I got the feeling that something happened to the humans- either some kind of deadly plague or a violent robot uprising. Because let’s face it- someone had to build and program those robots. The creators likely fashioned them in their own image. Over in Robotica Farms, the robots even have hick accents and mimic human behavior- for instance one of them is chewing straw and wearing dungarees. Robots don’t need organic food products, and yet they are maintaining the farm anyway. It’s like the robots of Metropolis and Robotica Farms have replaced their human masters and are following the pre-programmed AI subroutines given to them. It’s creepy isn’t it? A world where robots think they are humans and go on imitating human life. My apocalypse theory is further evidenced by the Bone Builder and Ice Builder cultures. The natives of Skelos Badlands and Crystal Glacier are the same species, but are they human? At first I didn’t think they resembled the likes of Agent Zero and the other humans I mentioned in the last section. I figured they are most likely a separate species within the same genus, in a manner similar to which homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis share a common ancestor. The Bone Builders and Ice Builder peoples are squat pygmies with large chins and pug noses. They’re little potato-headed cavemen. But if they are in fact humans, it lends credence to the human apocalypse theory. Perhaps their species once achieved scientific greatness, and lived highly complex lives in cities like Metropolis. They built robots and genetically altered farmyard animals to become hyper-intelligent. Once their society collapsed, those that survived fell into a primitive, Stone Age existence. The diaspora of human survivors had a schism, with one tribe settling in the equatorial region of Avalar and the other heading for the polar ice caps. What do you think?
  • The Wizards of Cloud Temples are actually evil…
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    No level encapsulates the series’ universal contempt for animal rights quite like Cloud Temples. In the intro scene, the Wizards are petrifying goats into stone. The Warlocks attempt to free the animals by disarming the Wizards. This issue starts a civil war between the two factions (see: slavery in the United States circa 1860). A lot of books and movies aimed at children feature colorful cartoon animals. But in the case of Spyro– a game marketed toward children- the animals are invariably portrayed as the bad guys, and you are outright encouraged to slaughter them en masse. There’s something insidious and troubling about the developers’ design choices for the Wizards and Warlocks respectively. The Wizards are made to look friendly with more gentle and soothing colors and voices. The Warlocks are meant to be viewed as evil given their red-black color scheme, maniacal laughter, and sharp teeth. When Spyro arrives in Cloud Temples, he dutifully and enthusiastically murders every Warlock and every free-roaming animal in sight. This is the most clear example I can think of where the game has you fighting for the wrong side, because you’re essentially putting down a political coup so that the Wizards can maintain control of the realm and use their powers for their own sadistic games. It should be noted that the Warlocks never kill any Wizards. They simply disarm them so that they stop being jerks. Whereas the Wizards enlist you to murder the Warlocks in revenge.
  • Life in Avalar has no value whatsoever.
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    My final theory builds on from the last one in many ways. Avalar is not a world in which you want to live. It’s a world devoid of justice and civil rights, in which the only law is the law of the gun. Violence is so much a part of everyday life that its inhabitants are numb to it. When most games tackle the issue of violence- such as Spec Ops: The Line, Metro: Last Light, This War of Mine, and so on- the graphic bloodletting is reflected in an aesthetic that is suitably grim and bleak. But the fact that the violence in Spyro is offset by tones that are twee, cheerful, and bright, is somehow even more creepy. Grief and mourning don’t exist in Spyro’s world. Death is treated as something light-hearted and comedic. If you engulf an innocent sheep in flames, its eyes will be left hovering untouched in the air for a few seconds, blinking and dumbfounded. In the Skelos Badlands, Catbats toy with the Bone Builders, holding them in mid-air for several agonizing seconds before dropping them into seas of lava. Then they cackle with glee. In Aquaria Towers, the Water Workers (of child-catching fame) torture the native Sea Horses by draining their world of water and taunting them over it, presumably just for a laugh. In Magma Cone, when his mate gets unceremoniously killed by a falling boulder of molten rock, the faun is seen laughing. He accepts it as a part of the comic absurdity intrinsic to the world in which he lives. Like I said, there is no grieving in Avalar. Every misfortune is met with laughter. It’s a land of nightmarish absurdity and casual violence, set against a backdrop that’s surreal and dreamlike. What do you think? What elements of Spyro cause you sleepless nights? Comment your thoughts down below!
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What I’ve Been Reading – February 2019

Three books I’ve read in the last few weeks. Let’s do this.


 

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

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Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Country: Colombia

Where I Got It: Quarter Price Books- Houston, Texas

Premise: A ninety year old man decides to celebrate his birthday by giving himself “a night of wild love with a 14 year old virgin”. However, she awakens a tender side in him that he didn’t think he had. For the first time in his long life, he discovers love.

My Favorite Quote: “I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people’s time. I learned, in short, that love is not a condition of the spirit but a sign of the zodiac.”

Review: Technically, this book can be counted as one of my celebrated banned book readings. In Iran the book was censored for seemingly promoting prostitution, before being released under the title “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” which I think is hilarious, especially as the title had already been sanitized ever so slightly for the English version. The original Spanish title “Memoria de mis putas tristes” more accurately translates to “Memories of My Sad Whores”, which is a lot less sentimental. The publishers for the English editions decided to change “sad” to “melancholy” because they thought it was more poetic and less derogatory. “Sad Whores” sounds like an insult, whereas “Melancholy Whores” evokes sympathy. It should also be noted that in Spanish, “puta” can also translate to “bitch”, so it’s a lot more cutting and mean-spirited than the English word “whore”.

Anyway, when it was released as “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” in Iran, the book sold out within 3 weeks. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Culture shat out and pulled it from bookstores after receiving complaints from Islamic conservatives. The institution of religion is a recurring villain in the history of free speech, and therefore too the history of banned books. It’s one thing when American Christians complain about And Tango Makes Three for having two male penguins fall in love, because we can swat their homophobia back down with a rolled-up newspaper. But in Iran, religion has a stranglehold on the population, and you can’t risk standing up for free speech and rational thought in case you get executed. It makes me sad, because I think about all the people over there that have these wonderful books denied to them.

But what of the book itself? Overall I liked it. It’s my second Marquez novel, and I do get the sense when reading his work that I’m experiencing a rare kind of genius. In fact, I was more in love with the writing than the story itself. The main character is miserable and unlikable, but you do end up feeling sympathetic towards him because he undergoes a fascinating catharsis. This is best seen in the quote I included above, where he begins to look inward and be honest about his decisions and his behavior. He’s this bitter loner that prefers the company of literature and music to fellow human beings. He’s never slept with a woman he hasn’t paid for. He’s referred to throughout the novel for his horrifically ugly looks, a curse that he embraces to the point that his ugliness is reflected in his behavior too. I even wondered if he might have psychopathic traits, since he’s aware that he’s mean and pretentious and yet seems to do his utmost to own these qualities.

He falls in love with a 14 year old prostitute, but it’s not really a sexual or conventional love. He treats her like a work of art and idealizes her to the point that he goes out of his way to avoid knowing the real her. He doesn’t want to know her real name and he doesn’t like hearing her speak, because he fears that such knowledge would shatter this perfect, angelic image he has of her. So yes, in its own way this novel is a beautiful and touching love story- but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

If you’re looking for a better review, check out Brittany Reads’ video here.

 

 

The Beautiful Summer

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Author: Cesare Pavese

Country: Italy

Where I Got It: Waterstones- Bristol, England

Premise: A curious yet prudish girl falls in with a group of painters and models whose Bohemian lifestyle challenges her innocent worldview.

My Favorite Quote: “Life was a perpetual holiday in those days. We had only to leave the house and step across the street and we became quite mad.”

Review: I bought this novel from a section of books being marketed as “Summer Reads”. This fact, in conjunction with the blurb and the beautiful cover, gave me the impression I was in for a passionate romance set against an atmospheric Mediterranean backdrop. However, this novel isn’t quite what it appears. There is a love story at work, but it’s no whirlwind romance. The plot itself is tissue-thin. For the most part, it’s about the protagonist Ginia and her feelings. This isn’t a book with an emphasis on its events- there are no real twists, there’s no suspense, no dramatic scenes. It can’t even be called a slow boil, because that assumes the events are building towards something important. Instead, everything feels hazy and vague; the book is mainly concerned with evoking a certain mindset- summer days drifting into each other- leaving you with an impression of a particular period of time in the characters’ lives. It’s an extremely sensual book, and it reminds me a lot of Maggie Cassidy by Jack Kerouac. It’s all about the vivid sensations of that summer and what it means to our protagonist. A lot of very similar events repeat themselves- the characters go on endless walks, they go to the café, they go to the painter’s studio. And when I said that the book was sensual, I’m referring to the patchwork of emotions Ginia feels that are wrapped up in these places, objects, characters, and trivial events. It’s not a very atmospheric or descriptive book. Most of the scenes take place inside shabby apartments.

The minimalist narrative is mostly concerned with Ginia’s feelings toward two characters: Amelia- a carefree model with an overactive libido, and Guido- a young and enigmatic painter. Amelia represents the Bohemian lifestyle that Ginia is curious about. I actually thought that Ginia’s relationship with her was the most interesting part of the book. Amelia is a few years older, is more street-smart, more confident. She’s unlike anyone Ginia has ever met. And Ginia herself has mixed feelings towards her friend. She both admonishes her reckless behavior and seems desperate to win her approval. I like that her feelings are confused and complicated and contradictory. There’s a subtle implication that Ginia might be bisexual, but not know it yet. Amelia on the other hand, is openly bisexual, and in her own free-spirited, polyamorous way, in love with Ginia. As for Guido, he represents Ginia’s experience of first love. I also think that this relationship is very interesting too; they enter a vague and noncommittal affair that, by its inevitable conclusion, has challenged and reshaped the protagonist’s concept of love.

So there’s some interesting stuff going on in this novel, even if it’s not a page-turner. However the excellent character development is hampered by the abysmal quality of the book’s translation. There are some sentences here that just flat-out don’t make sense. The very first paragraph begins in the first person and never returns to it; the paragraph ends in the third person and continues that way for the rest of the book. There are also several British colloquial terms that just don’t seem right given the 1930s Italian setting. This book has been described as “unreadable” by some readers. I do think there is something worthwhile in these pages though. In many ways it’s a fascinating look at first love, jealousy, sexuality, and art, and I’d love to see it get a modern translation. I also think the characters are intriguing enough that their struggles could easily be loosely adapted to some kind of stage or film production. Or perhaps an HBO miniseries? Something that captures the essence of what Pavese intended but fleshed out and expanded upon.

 

 

Seeing Red

2

Author: Lina Meruane

Country: Chile

Where I Got ItWorld of Books

Premise: A Chilean novelist in New York has to adjust to a new life after her eyes hemorrhage, leaving her all but completely blind.

My Favorite Quote: “My memory’s visual laws dictated the landscape to me. Screeching seagulls rose up over the esplanade, leaving a sedentary pelican run aground; they flew up along the sunset and then dove down, they drowned in eddies while the tide rose with the moon to cover the black beach. The moon was lost behind the trees; you could tell it was there, barely, from its shine.”

Review: I’ve been trying my darndest to read as many foreign writers as possible. It’s no problem finding the works of giants like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I’ve found it difficult to find English translations of contemporary authors from non-English-speaking countries. I am especially interested in modern- that is to say, 21st century- writers from foreign countries. I want to know who is writing right now. I want authors whose careers are ongoing, whose portrait photos on the back cover aren’t in black and white. I’m also especially keen to read women writers that write about women’s issues through a youthful, contemporary lens. Kinda like Elena Ferrante I guess. Anyway, if you have any suggestions for female, non-English novelists younger than 40-ish, please let me know in the comments!

One resource that’s been great for discovering foreign authors is the website Culture Trip. They do these awesome power rankings. I found one that was like “Top 10 Chilean Novels You Should Read” or something like that. This book popped up by Lina Meruane. Seeing Red; the title evoked promises of violence and darkness. Rage, even. That was the vibe I got. Pure rage. A woman loses her eyesight and takes it out on the world. And that’s sort of how the book goes, although it’s a subtle kind of rage. Once her eyesight is doomed, a new woman emerges- one that shocks those that know her. She’s cynical, sardonic, jealous, sexual, angry, and above all- raw.

It’s a short book that’s essentially a fictionalized memoir of the author’s own experience of blindness. In that sense, it can be seen as plotless. It follows the events after the hemorrhage and covers largely the narrator’s senses, how these remaining senses are used to relearn how she navigates the world, and how all of this informs her dark thoughts. It’s not a book full of twists and turns. It’s short at 157 pages, but it took me longer to read than I expected because there are no paragraphs, not even for dialogue. The entire novel is like one long block of text, without indentations, without any blank spaces with which to breathe. It made me think of it as being akin to a monologue. I wouldn’t say I was absolutely engrossed in what I was reading, but the writing itself left me breathless. It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s a visceral and poetic weave of long sentences and sharp, abruptly-short declarative statements that manage to capture a sense of inner monologue with the sense of verisimilar everyday speech. It’s a rapturous blend where everything feels like it’s in the right place, where every sentence is in order, where each word has been given careful consideration for its lyrical and phonetic qualities. I have to say it’s an excellent translation by Megan McDowell, who’s made a career out of using her own talent to spotlight the talent of others.

If you like introspection, monologues, and the beauty of language, this is the book for you! If you’re squeamish about eyes, maybe give it a miss…

Spyro: Reignited

My memories of playing the original Spyro games are some of the fondest of my childhood. When the news broke that the first three in the series were being remastered for the PS4, I was ecstatic. While the current-gen versions of Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite are gorgeous to behold, their remastering does feel a little premature. But bringing back old 3D platformers from the late 90s feels as fresh and exciting as if the games were new. It seems less like a cynical cash-grab and more of a gesture that’s rooted in passion for gaming. The Spyro games were rebuilt from scratch, and because they’re so old, the contrast between the original trilogy and the remastered one is breathtakingly jarring.

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I was delighted when my brother called me on his lunch break last November to disgruntledly tell me that he’d accidentally purchased two copies of Spyro: Reignited, and had decided to give me the extra copy for free. Tee hee.

I’d like to examine three things in this post:

  1. The quality and depth of the remake efforts
  2. How well the original games stand up after all this time
  3. My own gilded nostalgia

 

Spyro: The Dragon

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The first game in the series is the one I remembered the least. I’ve always associated it with vomit, because the last time I played it I was 9 years old, sitting cross-legged in my pajamas, and I had the sudden feeling that I ought to go to the bathroom. After feeling fine just a few seconds before, by the time I reached the toilet I puked everywhere. The whole thing was pretty traumatic at the time. I felt like I puked my entire body weight into that toilet. My throat was burning hot but my skin was trembling with cold. At one point my dad was like “Good Lord, there’s so much of it, it’s even coming out of his nose!” and it was like my entire insides were trying to escape me until all that remained was a dry and desolate husk.

For some reason I blamed the episode on the first Spyro game and vowed never to play it again as long as I lived. There was just something about the game that seemed to lack the charm of the other two. Anyway, it’s all important information, because I’m now 26 years old and I still haven’t thrown up since.

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The first thing that struck me about the game when I played it again in its remastered form was just how beautiful it was. The levels have so much more detail, depth, and texture. They’re as bright and colorful as a Pixar movie, and the swaying blades of grass, rippling castle flags, and cascading waterfalls are all imbued with this animate, living energy. I spent my first few minutes simply wandering around the hub world admiring the ambient sounds and smooth character animations. Just watching Spyro prancing around in such a fluid and crisp way made the whole experience feel fresh and whimsical.

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It was only when I entered one of the levels that I remembered why my younger self was so quick to dispense with the game. I quickly became bored- and I’d only just started playing the damn thing! There didn’t seem to be any sort of context for what was happening. None of the levels have any sense of narrative or personality. They each evoke some kind of time period, place, or culture from the real world, but they just feel shallow. They feel like movie sets rather than real places, and there is little variation between them beyond murdering every living creature in sight and unfreezing the dragons. As I progressed through the game, I became more and more tempted to give up and start playing Spyro 2. I was that bored. Each level felt like a chore, and I had no motivation to play except to finish it. The final boss fight in particular annoyed me. Gnasty Gnorc was the only thing giving the events of the game the slightest context, but he doesn’t say anything and just runs away from you. There are no checkpoints so when I died I had to go through the rigmarole of the whole thing again. It just felt poorly designed and lacking in the excitement and intensity of a final showdown.

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This might seem unfair given the technology available at the time, but I think it’s important to remember that one game shouldn’t be considered better than another by virtue of it being released earlier. Wolfenstein 3D is undoubtedly a more influential, innovative, and revolutionary shooter than Wolfenstein: The New Order, but no one can straight-facedly claim that it’s the better gaming experience. Spyro 1 established the central gameplay mechanics that would make the series a success, but beyond that, I found it a real slog.

 

Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage!

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To me, this will always be Gateway to Glimmer, which was the title given to the game’s European and Australian release in 1999. This was the first Spyro game I owned. Back in the day I would go to my friend’s house after Line Dancing on Friday nights and watch him play Spyro 3. I begged my dad to get the game for me. He couldn’t find it at the store, so he bought me Spyro 2 instead. The second game in the series is widely considered the best among fans and critics alike. It’s certainly my favorite in the franchise, and I realized upon playing the remastered version that almost all of my memories from the series came from this game in particular.

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As soon as I started playing Ripto’s Rage I felt immensely satisfied. Right off the bat we have firm context: an experiment in interdimensional travel goes tits-up and a megalomaniacal warlock with a raging hard-on for dragons is inadvertently summoned to the magical realm of Avalar. With the help of his semi-sentient dinosaur thralls, he proceeds to conquer Avalar and impose himself as dictator. The realm’s deposed government-in-exile, respectively a bipedal cheetah, a hyper-intelligent mole, and a sexually-frustrated fawn, decide that the most logical way to retake power is to summon a dragon to their world because Ripto hates them so much. I feel like this is a reckless move, because none of them have ever seen a dragon and the last time they pissed about with wormhole technology they opened up their realm to a cosmic invasion. They should be grateful they didn’t end up summoning fucking Smaug. I’d like to see how far Elora’s sass gets her when Alduin conjures a meteor storm and starts belching Gamma Rays at every living thing in sight.

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Luckily, they end up with Spyro. At first they seem disappointed not have gotten Draco as portrayed by Sean Connery, but as the fate of Avalar becomes increasingly dire, they hinge all their hopes of success on him, and it’s up to Spyro to reverse the coup d’état. The game begins, and at this point the player is invested. When I complained about the lack of narrative in the first game, I wasn’t thinking we needed something along the lines of The Count of Monte Cristo. It doesn’t need to be that complex- these games are aimed at kids after all. It just needs to have a little conflict and a dash of color in its cheeks. From the outset we have enough motivation to take down Ripto- he’s arrogant, snarky, cruel, and power-hungry. He’s tearing apart the harmony of this magical realm. By comparison, Gnasty Gnorc has about as much depth and personality as a tetherball with a smiley face drawn on it.

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But it’s not just the macro elements that make Ripto’s Rage stand out. Playing the game I got the feeling that every level had been carefully designed. For starters, there’s an intro cinematic that takes place every time you enter a portal. Each level has a conflict of some kind, and it’s up to you to solve it. Right at the beginning of the game you find yourself in a place called Glimmer. The land is populated by a race of sentient jerboas known as the Gemcutters. Not only does it have a native species, but it has a sense of life, commerce and industry too. The Gemcutters of Glimmer are renowned for their mining. However production comes to a halt when a hostile race of giant lizards shows up. At this point the Gemcutters enlist you as a kind of traveling pest control service, and you proceed to systematically exterminate every last one of them. A lot of levels follow this kind of pattern- each one begins with a cutscene that shows how the equilibrium is upended, and it’s up to you to restore the status quo. It never occurs to Spyro to solve the given problem using diplomacy, but I think I’ll save my thoughts on his morality for another post.

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The format of having us dip in and out of these self-contained stories works really well, and you find yourself motivated by the desire to check out the next cool environment and funky cast of characters that awaits you. The effort and attention afforded these levels is not just aesthetic however- it translates to gameplay too. As compared to the previous game in the series, there’s more variety on display. Each level has various optional challenges and side quests, calling upon you to swim, fly, ice-skate, chase, stealth, and puzzle-solve your way to success. You do everything from ride high-speed mining-carts around carelessly-laid boxes of TNT to herding cutesy bovine-elephant hybrids into a pen.

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The game is structured very well, and its three boss battles are excellent. They’re equal parts challenging and fun, as you utilize various creative power-ups via fast-paced gameplay to take down Ripto and his mates. Each encounter feels dramatic and significant, a feat achieved by the game’s teasing the bosses at earlier points in the narrative, building up to them with various steps and hoops in your way, and some appropriately climactic showdown music.

 

Spyro: Year of the Dragon

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This game’s an interesting one. A lot of our favorite characters return from Spyro 2, and the same sense of charm and personality is present in the game’s many cutscenes. But the game as a whole just smacks of trying too hard to emulate the success of its predecessor. It’s still fun, but it doesn’t feel all that original. Everything that worked well in Ripto’s Rage is carried over and ramped up to the point that it comes across as contrived. For instance, the characters of Spyro 2 added a real sense of humor and soul to the game that was missing in the first installment. The third entry in the series therefore massively expands this cast of characters and even lets you play as some of them. This isn’t an inherently bad idea, but it just isn’t executed that well. Sgt. Bird is a pain in the ass to maneuver, Bentley’s fat ass takes up the whole screen, and the monkey with the ray gun comes across as painfully bland- in both game design and personality. I thought Sheila’s jumping mechanics were fairly original and interesting, but none of her sections stood out as particularly exciting. You can even control Sparx in a series of Gauntlet-style dungeon-crawler missions, which I found utterly inane. None of it feels necessary. It seems like they’re just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.

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Another thing that worked well in Spyro 2 was its optional puzzles and mini games. Once again, the developers decided that this was an easy and fool-proof strategy for critical success and gave Year of the Dragon mini games up the ass. Some of them work, but a lot of them feel lazy and pointless. The skateboarding can be fun and the thief-chasing is as good as ever, but the overabundance (and varying quality) of these mini games just makes Year of the Dragon seem flabby and decadent. I’d rather they focused on just a few recurring mini games and gave them greater depth and more enjoyable controls.

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The main plot? It’s fine. I like the idea of this mysterious kingdom on the other side of the planet, whose natives have to reach the dragon world by burrowing into the earth and tunneling through until they pop out the other side. It’s kinda like The China Syndrome meets Alice in Wonderland meets Gears of War. Anyway, the ruler of this antipodean kingdom is a female tyrannosaurus with a rather threatening array of magical powers known only as the Sorceress. Quick aside- I find the image of a dinosaur wearing makeup and lipstick really unsettling. Anyway, the Sorceress sends her minions to the dragon world to steal all their eggs while they’re sleeping. It’s a pretty good plot device, meaning that Spyro is the only one who can travel to this strange new world to retrieve them since the tunnels are too small for the other dragons. It’s also interesting that the Sorceress has an army of bipedal rhinos at her command, which makes all the levels and hub worlds feel connected. This time you’re the outsider, and you’re up against the entire military apparatus of this kingdom. The Rhynocs are present throughout the various levels, acting as garrisons to oversee the many races they’ve subjugated and the many lands they’ve annexed. The bureaucracy is tantamount to the Roman Empire in a lot of ways. Of course, Spyro comes in and massacres them like the bloodthirsty revolutionary he is. Freedom fighter or terrorist? I honestly don’t know anymore. The fact he never even attempts to solve anything other than through violence started to alienate me. Sure, the Sorceress is a tyrannical despot and all that, but presumably the Rhynoc sentries are just doing their jobs, trying to get by in a cruel world, and can’t be held accountable for the atrocities of the wider system they’re a part of. Right? It’s hard to root for Spyro when he’s flat out goring Rhynocs that are surrendering to him.

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Overall, the third game is good but it tries too hard to emulate its predecessor and comes up short in that regard. The boss fights have none of the build-up and context of Spyro 2’s encounters, and each one feels like a shallow imitator of that game’s arena-with-power-ups model. The bosses themselves are introduced right before the fights, and their designs lack the simple yet effective tones of Crush and Gulp. I liked that there was a secondary villain in Bianca; her inclusion reminded me of Alora from Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Sadly though, you don’t get to bloodily rip her limbs off, which was a disappointment for me because I’d been thinking of nothing else ever since that time she boasted I’d never find the dragon eggs she’d hidden right as I could see one in the background over her shoulder.

Snow Day 2

Last year we had an ass-ton of snow one weekend in March and I decided to go outside to take some photos. I couldn’t really walk anywhere picturesque, so I decided to take some wintry shots of the places I grew up. I was feeling kind of nostalgic I guess, because I ended up calling in on my childhood friend Artie and engaging him in a conversation of old memories. A lot of my conversations with Artie take place in the past tense. We’re the kind of people that enjoy telling the same old stories over and over again. When I see him and my other school buddies, I often feel like the youngest version of myself. That’s not to say that Artie and I are trapped in our school days like a pair of McDonald’s All Americans in rocking chairs- I just mean that when I’m around the people I grew up with, I tend to retain parts of myself that I’d otherwise dispense with in other situations. For instance, I’ll make the kind of jokes that appealed to my adolescent self, speaking a lot of gibberish and putting on silly voices. I’ve always found that the past has a stronger pull than I’d like. I often feel the urge to escape it, perhaps just to prove that I can more than anything else. Finding new ways of being myself has the irresistible sensation of conquering the unconquerable- the past.

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And the past has been looming over me bigger than ever of late. Snow puts me in a reflective mood, even though it almost never happens in the town in which I live. Last Friday, on the first day of February, snow fell on our little town again. It put me in mind of last year’s snow day, and so once more I resolved to go out and make use of this novelty with my dSLR in hand. This time however, I had an agreement to meet some folks at the pub where I work. I didn’t want to photograph the same neighborhoods I did on last year’s snow day, so I took the extra-long route, zig-zagging across town and taking my time with things that interested me.

I also tried to think about the things I looked at. When I got to work on last year’s Snow Day post, I realized that I didn’t like the idea of uploading my photos without some words to accompany them. A blog post feels kind of naked without text. So I decided to intersperse the pictures with random stories from my childhood. The post felt a little too messy for my liking and I wasn’t sure it was my best work. I decided to forget about it. And yet, despite my dissatisfaction with the post, it turned out to be one of the most popular pieces of content I published last year. I figured the spike in traffic directed toward my website either had to be from former classmates curious to see if I’d slagged them off, or misguided foreigners hoping for National Geographic-esque stills of a rustic idyll.

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I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed on both accounts if that’s why y’all are here for round two. Nailsea is no chocolate box. Which is not to say that my hometown is especially ugly or anything, but it’s not a community that’s developed with a sense of touristic charm in mind. For the most part it’s functional rather than aesthetic, having been established around the industries of coal mining and glass manufacture. Now it exists as a sort of de facto suburb for commuters to the city. I imagine that it’s one of thousands of such quiet communities across the U.K, where little much of note happens except the odd headline regarding sleeping cows getting tipped over by dastardly youths or beige-cardiganed OAP’s farting themselves to death while reading Gardener’s World. But in a way I feel like these towns are more real than the likes of Polperro and Lyme Regis, which have always seemed like fantasies to me.

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As I went in search of inspiration last Friday, I ended up thinking about my own feelings toward my hometown. During my adolescence I developed a real hatred for it. It’s only fairly recently in my life that this deep-seated loathing towards Nailsea has subsided. Growing up, I attached a lot of the problems I had in my life to the environment I was in. I hated my hometown because it reminded me of everything I wanted to forget. For the longest time I saw it as a cage that reinforced my own failures in life. I dwelled so much on my experiences of being bullied, my romantic shortcomings, and my general sense of not belonging, that I believed wholeheartedly that I couldn’t flourish here. So I traveled. Other places seemed marvelous to me, because with them came the idea that I could be whomever I wanted. Other places were fantasies to me. As soon as I was 16 I vowed to leave Nailsea and never come back. Nailsea was the past, and as I said earlier, I wanted conquer it. I wanted to completely expunge it from my memory and create a life with no trace to the community in which I was raised. But you can’t ever really defeat the past.

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First I went to college in the nearby city of Bristol for two years. That in itself was interesting, because I found myself in an urban environment for the first time. It was bustling, cosmopolitan, and multicultural. I tried out new styles of clothing, often opting for the things that looked as different as possible from what everyone back home wore. I tried new types of music. I plunged headfirst into new ideas, reading from old philosophers, watching foreign films, going to the theatre on a semi-regular basis. But I still wasn’t happy. In fact, I was deeply unhappy during my time at City of Bristol College. I spent every break I had hiding in the library listening to my iPod and eating lunch in the bathrooms so that I wouldn’t be seen eating alone. Bristol, I decided, just wasn’t far enough.

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At the age of 18 I moved to Winchester, which is about two hours away from here to the south-east. This had to be my time, I thought to myself. I’m in a new place studying something I’m passionate about, surrounded presumably by more likeminded people. Perhaps I was just unlucky. Perhaps I was just born in the wrong place. But as it turned out, I was even less happy in Winchester. What I was sure would be the time of my life ended up being some of the worst years I had experienced yet. It was during this period of my life that I started to think something might be seriously wrong with me. I had grown even more reclusive and isolated than I had been in Nailsea or Bristol. Winchester, I decided, just wasn’t far enough.

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So I hopped on a plane and moved 4000 miles to the USA, in Making a Murderer’s very own creepy pine forest Wisconsin. I loved it. I loved it so much that I’ve gone back to the US for the past 5 years in a row. But I learned a few things while I was out there. As much as I enjoyed my time in this new place, I found that it was largely down to the specific friends I made- Aaron and Anne-Marie. I also learned that my problems were too deep-seated to be fixed by a change in environment. I learned that I ought to have been looking inward, instead of far away. Sure, it sucked the first time I came home from living in the USA, but that’s no different to going somewhere nice on vacation and having to return to the hum-drum of normal life. Everyone can relate to that. It was only when I started going to the US every year (and got the medicinal therapy I needed) that I let go of my hatred for Nailsea.

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Now I don’t really feel anything toward it. It makes no sense to imbue the physical streets with the shades of memories good or bad. I’ve separated my memories and feelings from the town itself. As I trundled through the snow last Friday, I felt kind of numb to everything. Now it’s just a place, and I think nothing of it for better or worse. In fact, in recent years I’ve even been surprised at the ease with which I walk around town now. I go out more often and talk with more people than I used to.

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I’d left the house too late on Friday to capture the snow at its brightest and puffiest. Now the midday sun was melting it into gray slosh. Everything was wet and disgusting, but I decided to keep taking photos anyway, because the imperfection of these muddy remnants reminded me of the imperfection of real life. And Nailsea is nothing if not thoroughly real.

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I passed a grocery store that operates out of an old house that seems more akin to a Victorian toyshop. I’ve never been in there, although I have a vague memory of sitting in the car outside and staring through the windows as my mom went in to buy something. I passed the hill that leads to my old house where I used to ride my bike and feel a mixture of fear and excitement at the gradient. I passed the fish and chip shop we’d sometimes stop at growing up, where I’d always feel a pleasure at the heat of the food through the paper in which it was wrapped. It felt like a present waiting to be unwrapped. I passed the road on which my childhood nemesis used to live- a support teacher I routinely clashed with and who once said I lacked any empathy. I was a hyperactive little shit that just couldn’t sit still back in those days, a fact that often surprises those of my friends so accustomed to the docile creature I’ve grown into.

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I finished my little walk in the snow at the pub where I now work. It’s a nice place and I feel pretty comfortable there. One of the best things about working in a kitchen is all the free food you get given. Whenever the chefs make too much, I’m often treated to spare chips or something. One time they made too much garlic bread, and I got treated to a couple slices. It was glorious.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for this year’s Snow Day post. Maybe it’ll snow again next year and I can make it a trilogy!

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