All posts by mjvowles2014

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 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?
    Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20190318173238
    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.
    Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20190318180318
    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…
    Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20190317220729
    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…
    Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20190317214406
    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.
    Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20190317214836
    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!
    Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20190317220324
Advertisements

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

5

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

4

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.

2

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

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181120145635

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181121224818

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181123211006

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181123211928

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!

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181130181048

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181129234407

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181128162854

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181127195009

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181127193447

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181201202623

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

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181213224712

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181209181851

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181201215003

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.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy_20181204221555

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.

DSC_0001

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.

DSC_0015

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.

DSC_0028

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.

DSC_0017

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.

DSC_0034

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.

DSC_0035

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.

DSC_0039.JPG

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.

DSC_0044.JPG

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.

DSC_0046

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.

DSC_0055

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!

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

I’ve always been profoundly offended by the censorship of artistic expression. It’s the one thing that consistently fires me up and has the power to bring me down on even the most cheerful of days. It’s an issue that I feel is only becoming more relevant in today’s society. When I hear about a book being banned I’m filled with a Krakatoan rage that makes me want to read every banned book there is, and sing their names from the nearest rooftop.

When browsing the internet for modern examples of banned and controversial books, one title in particular kept coming up: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The title alone attracted me straight away. The key element of that title is the compound adjective “Part-Time”. Without it, the title is worthless. And with it, it’s utterly compelling.

The book is a fictionalized memoir of Alexie’s experiences as a Native American teenager who transfers to a white school outside the reservation on which he lives. This is where the whole part-time business comes in. When he goes to school, he’s part of the white world. When he comes home, he’s a Native American. Except the opposite is true in terms of how each world perceives him. In the white world, he’s seen as that Indian kid. Back on the reservation, he is seen as a traitor to his people- someone that’s trying to be white. And as such he doesn’t feel whole in ether environment. This conflict of identity is the crux of what the novel is about.

Admit it- you’re curious now, aren’t you? Of course you are. Inherent in the premise is a “fish out of water” narrative and a clash of cultures. You can already imagine the fear of being a 14-year old kid walking into a new school for the first time. It’s a scenario that draws universal empathy. Only on top of that, you have the racial aspect of the boy’s fear.

This promised to be a perfect introduction to the banned book spree I was about to embark on. I have a long-standing interest in novels and memoirs that deal with adolescent angst. Bullying, hormones, and the search for identity are things I can relate to. The things I can’t relate to are racist abuse, alcoholism, and being a part of a community that has had its very soul gutted via the machinations of the U.S government. Therefore, the book already won the intriguing distinction of being both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. A lot of what the protagonist Arnold goes through resonates with me very deeply. But there’s also a lot of what he goes through that teaches me something entirely new, and opens my eyes to the Native American experience.

I won’t spend too much time covering the plot so that y’all can read it and enjoy it for yourselves. Instead I’d like to discuss why the book is considered controversial, what I liked about it, and why I think y’all will like it too. In short, the book is controversial for the simple reason that it’s aimed at teenage readers. If it were marketed toward adults, there would be nothing for us to talk about. There is nothing remotely shocking about the book’s actual content. When I finished Alexie’s novel, I thought “That’s nothing compared to some of the depraved shit I’ve read in other books- or seen on HBO dramas.”

To understand the book’s controversy, you have to understand the kind of people that are taking issue with it. The argument lodged against the book is that it’s not suitable for young readers. I heartily disagree. This is exactly the kind of book that teenagers should read, because it’s all about being a teenager. I would have loved something like this as a 14 year old. The book is written in a very straightforward, accessible style, and just like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s written in this conversational, colloquial first person voice. It reads as though written by a teenager. There are some lines written all in block capitals to showcase the narrator’s anger, and throughout the book are several illustrations that serve as Arnold’s own cartoons about his life. It’s also got this very light-hearted, comedic tone that juxtaposes nicely with some of the horrific events of the book. The union of humor and tragedy is a natural one in my opinion. I understand that it can be a little jarring for the more serious-tempered folks out there, but I just think it’s inevitable that wherever tragedy strikes, comedy won’t be far behind. When it’s done right, the marriage can lead to some really effective forms of artistic expression that resonate with people very deeply. Often in life you’ll see people making light of a dire situation- especially young people.

2

The passages that cause the most uproar among concerned parent groups are the ones that deal with bullying and racism and sex. For instance, Arnold talks frankly about being referred to as a “faggot” and a “retard”. These are horrible words. But what the concerned parent and religious groups fail to understand is that if you ban a word outright, then kids are not only going to use it more often, but they’re going to use it irresponsibly. These churchy types have a profound mistrust in the ability of young people to handle serious subjects. The fact is that these words exist on the schoolyard. Kids are going to encounter them. And they need responsible adults to help them understand the gravity and power of the language they use. My own teenage years are laced with these cruel words and the devastating effect they can have. I suffered these harsh words and I was guilty of using them myself on some occasions. And like any teenager I told jokes with my friends that were offensive, vulgar, or just straight-up gross. A lot of parents don’t want to believe it, but foul language is endemic to the teenage experience. This gives Alexie’s novel a resonant quality. It rings true. Real teenagers ask each other “What would you rather do…eat your Nan’s diarrhea or have sex with the gym teacher?”

They don’t “Run through fields of wheat”.

But what offends the conservatives and the Christians more than crude language? Their own depraved biology of course…

Alexie’s novel doesn’t have any actual sex in it- but it does contain sexual references. The narrator now and then jokes about how much he masturbates, and for this reason many parents have called for the novel to be removed from school libraries. But to write a book about puberty without covering masturbation is like writing a book about the history of music without covering brass instruments. I get the feeling that these “concerned parents” would see teen fiction stripped of all references to sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, and cursing until it’s so watered down and wholesome that it’s worthless as a piece of art. At that point you’re bordering on propaganda, because you’re trying to create an image of young folks that’s patently untrue.

I remember when I was a teenager, everyone around me was eager to talk about puberty in some form or another. It’s natural to want to try and make sense of the changes your body is going through. I remember once at school, I was in a drama class, and a kid in my group asked each of us to reveal how many times a day we masturbated. These types of conversations happen on every schoolyard and at every sleepover. And by writing about it in his book, Alexie is reaching out to teenagers all over the world and letting them know that they’re not weird, that they’re not sinful, that there’s nothing wrong with how they feel.

My favorite passages in the book were the high school basketball scenes. And that’s not just because I love hoops, but because it highlights the dichotomy of Arnold’s world so well. The white kids live in a culture that tells them they can do or be anything, and their games are full of hope. The Native Americans however, don’t have that same agency. They exist in a world where they are made to feel like they can’t achieve anything. The American Dream is a White Dream. Arnold is different from most of the kids in his tribe in that he’s determined to see the world and realize his ambitions. He thrives in a white school and his former classmates on the reservation hate him for it. They call him an “apple”, suggesting that he is red on the outside but white on the inside. When Arnold returns to his old high school as the star shooter for the rich white school, he’s met with an extremely hostile reception.

At first he’s determined to get revenge on them for bullying him, but then Arnold realizes that his fellow tribe members on the other team probably didn’t eat breakfast that morning. It’s a heartbreaking moment, because he realizes that this basketball game was all these poor kids had. It’s not really satisfying to beat them when your team has vastly superior resources.

The two biggest themes in my opinion are the lack of hope and the struggle for identity for Native American peoples. The cyclical nature of violence, alcoholism, poverty, and despair as portrayed in Alexie’s novel makes for very depressing reading. That’s why the humor is so important in my opinion. Arnold is an endearing protagonist because, unlike everyone around him, he refuses to give up.

Overall I quite enjoyed this book. It’s not as subtle as The Catcher in the Rye, but I think the simple language works well for the themes it wants to explore. The scenes of bullying are visceral and hard-hitting- as are some of the tragedies that occur in the latter half of the book. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone interested in Native American issues or Coming-Of-Age/Teen/Young Adult fiction.

My Favorite Titles

When I was ten years old, my schoolteacher gave a lesson on writing stories. I have this distinct memory of her asking us to think about what makes a good title. Given that we were a bunch of hyperactive little shits, we bombarded her with outrageous names like “THE LAVA DRAGONS” that only escalated in ridiculousness. I remember trying to come up with the craziest, most random title I could think of. When the orgy of shrieks and swallowed snot was over, the teacher told us that the best titles often didn’t spell everything out for you. A good title, she said, created a sense of mystery. You don’t want to reveal everything all at once- you want to pique a person’s interest.

Our teacher then proceeded to tell us what she decreed was the best title in the history of art and media.

The Magic School Bus!” she cried to a silent, head-scratching audience. “Think about it! You hear it and you just think: What made this school bus magic? In what way is it magic? What can it do that a normal school bus can’t? It makes you want to read more, doesn’t it? It takes something familiar- a school bus- and it makes it magic!”

4

No one said anything. I frowned at the woman; I figured she was just lame. Anything that had the word “school” in the title had to be lame. I was firmly of the belief back then that every teacher had no life outside of school, and that it was their mission to make everything in the world boring.

But what she said did get me thinking about titles, and it made me question my ideas. I knew that next time I had to come up with something cool, I’d think about how it sounded before just shouting it out. As the years went by, I began to appreciate that teacher’s words more and more. Even though I thought she was being dumb at the time, what she said nevertheless got through to me, and it stuck with me, to the point that I’ve held onto it for all these years.

I’ve never considered myself the most imaginative title-creator. It’s something I tend to fret over and struggle with when I’m writing a poem or a story. I spend ages trying to think up something witty and original when asked to think of a name for a pub quiz team, a 5-a-side football team, a video game character, or whatever. I’m deeply envious of people that can come up with something catchy on the spot. When I first met my friend Aaron while studying abroad in the USA, I complimented him on his penchant for lyrical, alliterative phrases and titles. Seemingly on the fly, he’d come up with things I’d never even think of. During the snowy nights at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, we’d be folding laundry and listening to music. Aaron had an indie playlist called “Hay Fever and Horn Frogs”. The title didn’t necessarily make sense, but it rolled off the tongue well and it was playful. There’s no such thing as Horn Frogs- they’re like Bananafish and Jackalopes- but in Argentina there are these little badasses called Horned Frogs.

3

At the moment I’m finishing up work on my novel and having to decide on its final title. Most authors tend to come up with working titles as they begin the writing process, and give their manuscript its real title when it is finished. It’s generally considered bad advice to come up with a title before a fleshed out story. I for one feel unable to name something until it’s finished. I have to look back on the work and think about what the most important themes are. There are no set rules as to what makes a good title, but one way to go about it is to think about the essence of your work and create a title that embodies it.

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite titles and why I like them. Here’s my list:

 

Long Day’s Journey into Night – play, Eugene O’Neil

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – novel, Maya Angelou

Look Homeward, Angel – novel, Thomas Wolfe

Tree of Wooden Clogs – film, Ermanno Olmi

A Streetcar Named Desire – play, Tennessee Williams

No Country for Old Men – novel, Cormac McCarthy

Things We Lost in the Fire – film, Allan Loeb

Beneath a Steel Sky – video game, Dave Cummins

Shadow of the Colossus – video game, Fumito Ueda

Out of this Furnace – novel, Thomas Bell

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – novel, Anne Tyler

Minutes to Midnight – album, Linkin Park

Dreams of Milk & Honey – album, Mountain

Physical Graffiti – album, Led Zeppelin

Where the Red Fern Grows – novel, Wilson Rawls

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – film, Guillermo Arriaga

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – novel, John Berendt

The Autumn of the Patriarch – novel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – memoir, Meg Fee

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – novel, Jeanette Winterson

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – short story, Harlan Ellison

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – novel, Carson McCullers

Call Me By Your Name – novel, Andre Aciman

 

Looking at my list, I can already see that I have a real thing for lyrical and poetic titles. A lot of these titles are fairly long too. Heck, some of them are even complete sentences. I like titles to feel unique rather than punchy. But that’s just me. What are some of your favorite titles? Let me know in the comments!

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 4 – American Venom (Spoilers)

When I set out to blog about Red Dead Redemption 2 I had no idea I was writing a quartet. This game is so vast and layered that more and more features seem to emerge for me to write about every time I sit down at my desk. Each deceptively-simple sentence begets another. Each planned paragraph leads to an unplanned one. And each blog post seems to carry within it the seeds of the next. But for what it’s worth, this definitely is the last post in the series.

If you’re finding me for the first time, I covered the gameplay in part one, the themes and tone of the franchise as a whole in part two, and the plot in part three. Today I’d like to write about the epilogue, as well as take a closer look at our protagonists Arthur Morgan and John Marston. Needless to say, there will be spoilers from here on out.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181111194112

When I started my Red Dead Redemption 2 playthrough, I wasn’t sure what to make of Arthur Morgan as a character. At first glance he seemed bland and generic. During the game’s effective opening chapter, he didn’t stand out very much. By contrast, the likes of Micah, Sadie, and Dutch were a lot more colorful. I wondered if RDR2 was following the gaming trend of having all the peripheral characters more lively and interesting than the protagonist. Perhaps there is a reason so many playable characters get outshined by their supporting cast. Maybe a quiet, brooding hero appeals to the widest audience? Or maybe it’s all about letting the player project their own personality onto the protagonist, making it therefore desirable to developers to create an inoffensive blank slate for us to infuse with whatever qualities we so chose?

I will say that I wasn’t giving Rockstar enough credit.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181113231518

Arthur Morgan’s greatness is in his subtlety. He emerges as a nuanced character as the narrative progresses. He becomes more complex as a person and as a character because the events of the plot cause him to look inward and really think about his actions. His arc is so compelling because Arthur becomes more self-aware. Put simply, he is a totally different person at the end of the plot than he was at the beginning. And so often in video games, the only notable difference in the protagonist at the end of the game is the fact their fingernails now smell like coins.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181209001646

When the game begins, Arthur is a senior member of the gang, serving as Dutch’s right hand man. As the latter dominates the cutscenes with his stylish outfit and verbose speeches, Arthur at first glance is playing the role of a henchman. He’s a grizzled, no-nonsense gunman. In a movie, he’d be a character whose primary role in the plot is to be pumped with lead at some point. I noted several moments at the beginning of the game where members of the gang would tease Arthur for being inarticulate or simple. This makes his transformation all the more affecting in my opinion; I love that Rockstar have given us this ostensibly dumb henchman as our leading man only to reveal that he is far more nuanced than the stereotype he seemingly inhabits.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181117160612

As the game went on, I actually found it a breath of fresh air that the protagonist wasn’t the chosen one or something. He’s not special, famous, or powerful. He’s just the trusty hired muscle to Dutch’s swaggering, infamous, larger-than-life celebrity. Too often games try to make players feel important by making the player-character a legend in the world of that game, or a leader of some kind. But it tends to feel hollow and token when you have to personally do everything. Perhaps the best example of this is in Fallout 4, where the factions in the game make you their leader after only knowing you 20 minutes, and then proceed to send you on the most mundane of fetch quests. Am I a king or a fucking errand boy? I’d ask myself. In Mafia 3, the game teases you with the exciting promise of being the boss of the city’s criminal underworld. But there’s no real gameplay based around the management of a criminal enterprise. Despite being the boss, you have to personally clear out entire warehouses full of thugs by yourself. In real life, mafia bosses don’t leave the goddamn house. These desperate attempts to make the player feel important often fall flat because they don’t gel with the actual gameplay. For instance, in the Mass Effect series, you can’t send Garrus and a few redshirt space marines down to the surface to take out alien strongholds on your behalf, because that wouldn’t make for a very fun game would it? Despite being the commander, you have to personally see to everything, leaving the majority of these highly-trained warriors you’ve been recruiting from all corners of the galaxy to remain on the ship playing Ticket to Ride in the mess hall.

Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t suffer from this disconnect however. Your role as a gunslinger compliments the gameplay. It makes sense that you’ll do the heavy lifting and ride into town looking for ways to “earn”.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181111201331

As the plot progresses, Arthur starts to think about the morality of how he “earns”. I got the feeling that, far from being blind to the sins of his work, Arthur had merely repressed these doubts for many years. At the beginning of the game, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in being a good person, and more or less embraces his outlaw persona. But as the actions of the gang become more reckless and violent in the wake of Hosea’s death, Arthur finds that he has to confront these doubts. Dutch goes too far, and Arthur discovers that despite his low opinion of himself, he isn’t like his mentor after all. He’s a better person than that, and during Chapter 6 he works to become a better person. It’s a beautiful catharsis, because Arthur is taking his life into his own hands and working to do the right thing. Now he has a real sense of agency. He’s not just accepting his status as a petty outlaw- he’s striving to be better. He acquires a modicum of dignity and self-respect that flies in the face of Dutch’s authority. Now Arthur’s more than just a hired gun. His tuberculosis diagnosis fills him with a desire to determine exactly who he is and what his legacy will be.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181111201817

Before the diagnosis, he acts more or less indifferent to the wrongs of the gang and the suffering of innocents. He’s not evil like Micah, but he has no self-esteem and seems content just to submit to an outlaw’s existence. He doesn’t believe at this point that he can be better, or that there is any other path for him. He’s amoral. When Charles seeks to help the German family, Arthur dismisses the idea. It’s not their problem. Charles challenges him, telling Arthur that he’s better than that. And when the German guy they save gives Arthur a gold bar, he’s humbled and speechless. He’s starting to realize that it feels good to help others.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181113234543

Once he gets diagnosed with tuberculosis, he begins to reflect on his actions a lot more. For the first time in his life, he has the bravery to look inside at his doubts and resolve to do the right thing. I’ve written in my previous posts how Rockstar uses its characters as vehicles for the larger themes of the narrative. Arthur represents the biggest theme of the franchise- redemption. His sense of shame and regret compels him to do the right thing and make amends for his past. This was incredibly powerful for me. Arthur stands up to Dutch and goes out of his way to secure a future for John and his family. The advice Arthur gives John in many ways drives the entire plot of RDR1.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181113203743

Arthur sees that John has a chance at the life he himself could have had with Mary Linton and implores John to take it. Ultimately he sacrifices himself to see John achieve that dream. And John follows that advice so well throughout the epilogue…until he doesn’t. The biggest tragedy of the game is that, after finally setting himself and his family up for a life of peace, he makes the fateful decision to avenge Arthur, which Arthur wouldn’t have wanted. He rides to Mt. Hagen and kills Micah, which is very satisfying. But this decision then sets off a chain of events which lead to RDR1. Edgar Ross finds Micah’s corpse and tracks Marston back to his family farm, which utterly destroys the life Marston had worked so hard to build. It’s admittedly a tough decision; now that everything has come together, John feels an immense debt to Arthur, and a real duty to avenge the friend that made his new life possible. Ultimately however, Abigail is right: Micah isn’t worth sacrificing their newfound happiness. In avenging Arthur’s death, John is tarnishing the very thing Arthur died for, and disregarding his last wish.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181209110151

Much like Arthur, John Marston is a different person by the end of the narrative. At first he’s this lucky rascal with nine lives and a wayward spirit. He has trouble committing to something and he doesn’t know what he wants. By his own admission he is a lousy father. He and Abigail don’t sleep in the same bed, and there’s no relationship to speak of. But as the game goes on, he matures, finds a sense of focus, and realizes how important Abigail and Jack are to him. Arthur plays a big role in helping him realize this. By the end of the game, John, Abigail, and Jack are a working family.

Red Dead Redemption 2_20181029142439

Overall, the epilogue was my favorite part of the game. The pace was much more steady, the events more realistic, and I liked how character-driven the missions were. The epilogue itself would make a great standalone film or novel in my opinion. A stranger shows up at a ranch, desperate for work, trying his best to hide his mysterious past, but is forced to relive it when the shit hits the fan. The relationship between John and Abigail is also really touching. They’re both people with rough, impoverished upbringings, who have lived on the fringes of society. They don’t feel entitled to a dream. But as the plot goes on, they start to dream a little, and you see them enjoying life for the first time. It’s bittersweet; you’re sad because you know it will all end in tragedy, but you’re also glad they got to experience true happiness before it all goes to shit during RDR1.

One of my favorite fan theories involves a little detail during the house-building scene. Throughout the montage, a blue jay appears multiple times in John’s vicinity. Given the various references to reincarnation throughout the game, many have speculated that the bird might be Arthur. If you got the good ending, Arthur dies peacefully while watching the sunrise. He loved nature and blue is sort of his color throughout the game- the color of loyalty. Whether Rockstar intended this in a literal sense I can’t say- but I don’t think that’s the point. It’s just nice to believe that Arthur’s watching over John as he follows his advice.