Thursday, October 10, 2013

Five film images that speak to me of heaven.

The Fountain
 Les Miserables
 Narnia:Voyage of the Dawn Treader

"I can promise you none of these things.  No sphere of usefulness; you are not needed there at all.  No scope for your talents; only forgiveness for having perverted them.  No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God."
-C.S. Lewis

Monday, September 30, 2013

On Breaking Bad

Well, it’s over.  I’m sure that’s a bigger deal for most everyone else than it is for me.  As I only started the show about a month and a half ago, I didn’t have the agonizing wait, the long, slow build-up over the last five or so years to see how this all would turn out.  And that might have more than a small effect on how I feel about the show.  I’ve wondered if perhaps I would have felt more strongly about the show had I not had ready access to pretty much the whole series from the get-go.  The suspense wasn’t necessarily a huge factor, because I could just throw on the next episode and see what happened pretty much immediately.

That being said, I have been trying to crystalize my thoughts on the show as a whole.  Normally, when a show ends, I can see the strengths and the weaknesses and evaluate where it could have or should have gone, what they should have done differently, where they may have veered off the path.  There’s none of that with my thoughts on Breaking Bad.  Which in and of itself is impressive.  There are no mistakes.  There are no missteps in the writing.  There are no plot holes to speak of.   
In pretty much every way, the show is perfect. 

As a piece of creative work, it is flawless. 

And that’s what I’m having trouble with.  If the show is that consistently high quality, you would think I would connect with it more than I did.  I have no complaints, I have no nit-picks, no thorns that are going to stick in my side when I think back to it. 
I think the closest thing to what I’m feeling right now about Breaking Bad is a feeling a got occasionally when I was in college.  I read a lot of works of literature.  Works that were supposed to be giants.  Works of varied and subtle brilliance.  Works that have gone and will go through the years regarded as indispensable.  And I didn’t really enjoy them all that much. 

And I think that’s what I would say about Breaking Bad.  It is without a doubt a work of art.  It is as close to literature as a television show can ever get.  It is masterfully and intricately crafted.  It is perfectly-and-I-do-mean-perfectly acted. 

I’ve been accused of being a hipster, accused of not liking the show just because it’s so popular.  And that’s honestly not it.  In fact, I started watching because I wanted to be part of the group, part of the discussion.  And now, having seen it, and looking at it from the inside, I find that I admire it much more than I enjoyed it.   
 Aside from a few moments of shock-oh-my-god-Gus’s-face-is-gone, I didn’t connect with it on an emotional or personal level. 

I very rarely cared about any of the characters, except for certain times with Jesse.  Some of the Walt moments, or maybe I should say Heisenberg moments, did resonate with me.  Because after all, we recognize the person he became, because a part of that person is inside all of us I believe.  I understand the powerful urge to seize control of your own life, to dictate instead of being dictated, to do what you want because you want to do it because that’s the highest law.  I understand that, and as a man specifically, that is powerful thing.  But I never really cared for Walt, or frankly any of the characters on the show. 

But at the same time, I keep finding things to praise.  I keep thinking of good things to say about the show.  That reaffirms in my mind that Breaking Bad is an altogether different experience than any show I’ve previously seen. 

The masterwork that it is cannot be questioned.  But I struggle with seeing the overall merit of the show as something that affects my life and my mind and my inner workings.  The show is basically one bad thing happening after another.  And at the end, there really is no redemption for Walt.  And yes, I know the show is called Breaking Bad for a reason, and perhaps I shouldn’t be looking for redemption, because that’s not what it is about.

But therein lies the problem with all things nihilistic.  No matter how great things are, in the end they amount to nothing.  And I guess that’s where my feet are landing.  I’m struggling to see the point. 

It just feels…empty.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Ten Best Game Franchises of the Current Generation

It’s a good time to be a gamer.  Ever since I was a kid, and I watched my brother play the original Legend of Zelda on the NES, this industry has fascinated me and taken me on adventures otherwise impossible.  I love stories of all kinds – movies, books, songs – but games are unique in that they put you in the character’s shoes and let you drive the story.  Narrative is the driving force behind my desire to play the games I play.  You won’t find me online much.  You won’t see me playing match after match of the latest military shooter.  I can count on two hands the times I’ve actually played a game co-op.  The stories are what brought me, and the stories are what keep me coming back.  And the great thing is, if the story is good, the gameplay can be almost anything – varied and different and unique – and I will love it. 

There were a lot of games that didn’t make it on this list for one reason or another.  In creating this list, I looked for games that had a specific cocktail of elements – namely narrative, gameplay, and a third, more elusive attribute – let’s call it emotional resonance, the games that stick with me for a long time after the final battle and the credits roll.  I find that the best of the best – the games that earn a permanent place on my game shelf and that find a special place in my gamer-heart, are the ones that find that sweet spot and combine those three elements to offer a unique and unforgettable experience. 

So without further ado, here is my list of my favorite games of the current generation, and you can consider these all highly recommended.

*disclaimer - I have made efforts to avoid overt spoilers.  That being said, if you haven't played these games and are planning to, I'm not saying don't read, but I am saying be careful.  



“Oh.  It’s you.”

Kicking off the list is a pair of games that really typifies how unique, quirky and downright funny games can be, all while simultaneously being awesome.  Portal hits so many different notes – there are moments of subtle, tongue-in-cheek humor, moments of horror, moments of outright hilarity, and moments of jaw-dropping spectacle.  I remember when I first stepped out of my containment cell as Chell.  I remember the thrill of passing my first test chamber, and the next, and the next.  And I especially remember the moment where I slipped behind the gleaming white panels and caught a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes.  The Portal games have become iconic in my mind – the companion cubes, the turrets, the silly and sinister Glados (still alive), the portals themselves. 

Oh yeah…and the cake I NEVER got.

Also, remember when I was talking about co-op, earlier?  This game is one of the few exceptions, and one of the only games that I consider to be TRUE co-op.  Co-op to me, is not “hey ur shootin dudes, I’m shootin dudes 2, headshot!”  Portal 2 offers one of the best co-op modes I’ve ever seen, where you actually have to work together, solving puzzles that would otherwise be impossible without the other player.  It’s not combat or violence based.  It is, however, atmospheric, funny and challenging.  It makes me use my brain.  And that is a great thing.

I’m hoping to hear news of a Portal 3.  Oh!  And wouldn’t it be cool if Portal 3 and Half-Life 3 were the same game?  Aperture and Black Mesa!  Gordon and Chell!  That’s a game worth assassinating someone for.  Speaking of which…



This one snuck up on me (…get it? *nudge nudge).  Okay, I promise no more of those.  Maybe.  We’ll see.

No, but seriously, this game kind of came out of nowhere and grabbed me way more than that OTHER assassin game ever did, and that grip didn’t let up the whole time.  The steampunk city of Dunwall, with sophisticated technology set against an antiquated background, made for a great backdrop to tell a revenge tale.  Playing as Corvo and checking names off my list one by one was not only challenging, but a heck of a lot of fun.  The gameplay felt like a cousin of Bioshock, only much more stealth-based, and stealth done right for that matter.  I loved using Corvo’s blink ability to jump from one point to another instaneously, staying one step ahead of the people tracking me.  Carving my way through Dunwall, interacting with a group of seedy and interesting characters, finding different paths around obstacles, all in a quest to clear my name of the empress’s murder and protect her daughter was an unusually satisfying experience. 

And depending on how you handle the situations you come up against, you can raise Dunwall and the empress’s daughter out of the mire, or you can let them sink by causing mayhem wherever you go.  Your actions ultimately decide the fate of the city, and I’m glad to say I got a satisfying, if a bit melancholy, ending. 
I hope the story isn’t over, though it might be for Corvo.  I feel like this was the first chapter in a bigger story, and I’m anxious to see what else lies in the city of Dunwall and in the larger world of the game.  I also still have no idea who or what The Outsider is, and I would love to see more entries in the series that flesh out the world and the mythology.



Some of the first stories that really took hold of me when I was young tended to be on the darker side (much to the concern of my parents).  But I couldn't help it.  There was something primal in these stories that fascinated me, and I can still vividly remember my first readings of Frankenstein, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the tales of Edgar Allen Poe, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, and of course, the Prince of Darkness himself, Dracula.  I loved monsters.  What little boy doesn't?

 I've been a long-time fan of the Castlevania series.  I played Symphony of the Night on the original Playstation, and played it again a few years ago on the Wii.  Like many fans, I was clamoring for a decent 3D entry in the series, because I always thought it would translate well, but I never dreamed it would be as good as Lords of Shadow.  To many, this game is only a mash-up of God of War and Shadow of the Colossus.  I'm a big fan of the latter, not a fan of the former.  But the developers took the best parts of those games - the combat of GoW and the epic scale of SotC - cloaked it in a haunting Gothic skin, and gave it a narrative depth that the series had never previously reached.  

The result is an adventure that feels almost as if it was tailor-made for me.  Battling my way through hordes of gargoyles, wargs, werewolves, and a myriad of other beasties, not to mention the titanic boss battles, trekking through vast, sweeping majestic landscapes and towering gothic castles - it was the game I had always wanted to play since reading the original classic stories when I was young.  And the kicker is, the whole time what you're playing is an origin story, and you don't really realize it until it's too late for Gabriel and his tragedy is already locked firmly in place.  And then it dawns on you that you've just witnessed the events that led to the creation of one of the most notorious figures of evil ever created.  

Tag the ending with a flash-forward to modern day where Gabriel has gone full Dracula, and you officially have me clamoring once again for the next entry in the series.  Mix towering sky-scrapers with medieval castles, the slick, glowing streets of modern day New York City with the continuation of Gabriel's trials hundreds of years ago, and Lords of Shadow 2 cannot get here fast enough.  

Speaking of stalking city streets...



I said at the beginning of this list that it’s a good time to be a gamer.  I would like to amend that: MAN, it’s a good time to be a Batman fan.  Between Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the incredible Arkham games, I feel like the Batman and all his varied associates, sinister and otherwise, are being explored to their fullest potential.  One of the most fascinating things about Batman and his universe is the way the characters interact with one another, both villains and heroes.  When you have a rogues gallery and support cast like Batman has, there are literally countless ways, unlimited pairings that you can come up with that would lead to new and different scenarios.  That’s why whenever a new Batman movie is announced there are two questions I ask: First, who is the villain?  Second, who is the OTHER villain?  Because depending on the pair of villains that are going up against Batman, the scenario can be wildly different, and seeing the ways Batman and the villains in question play off one another, matching psychosis to psychosis, is extremely intriguing. 

Arkham Asylum, the first entry in the series, laid an outstanding groundwork, nailing the brooding atmosphere and the stealthy, sleuthing vibe of what it would feel like to be Batman.  It was like one of my favorite Batman graphic novels brought to life - Arhkam Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth – where the Dark Knight is trapped inside the asylum with all his enemies at the same time, struggling to survive.  Asylum is a great game, no question.  It spawned some really memorable moments, especially the Scarecrow and Crime Alley sequences, that really cut to the heart of the characters.  And it would stand on its own as the best batman game ever made.

And THEN Arkham City came out…holy crapz.  This game took the concept of Arkham Asylum and broke it wide open, creating a huge chunk of a dilapidated Gotham to explore, densely populated by thugs and mainline villains, all hell-bent on ending the Bat.  Not only did Arkham City offer up the most in-depth world of Gotham ever created in a video game, it told one of the best Batman stories I’ve ever encountered.  Without giving too much away, the final showdown (again, how these characters interact with each other, particularly villain against villain) is shocking and final in a way I was not expecting.  And leaves players and fans of Batman with the question, “What now?”

And it’s all because of one the strengths of the Batman universe.  It lends itself so well to character study, and at the end, when a vital part of that universe is removed, it leaves you wondering how does this character move on without this vital thing that he’s always had, this thing that he’s been struggling against, and in a lot of ways, has come to depend on.

I’m really looking forward to Arkham Origins.  But more than that, I hope they make another game that takes place after Arkham City.  I would be thrilled to see what happens next.  



Blade Runner the game.  Alright, not really.  But almost.  My love for that movie likely has more than a small part to do with my love for this game, though they share little more than a similar atmosphere. The low minimalist electronic hum of the music goes hand in hand with the black-clad, augmented protagonist Adam Jensen sliding through the low streets and the high rises on his search for the truth.  The game is not without its flaws (boss battles), but it is pretty much the only thing Square Enix did right this generation, or at least, the only thing it did great. 

This is noir at its finest, a vision of the future as a slick-yet-sullied hi-tech renaissance.  Playing detective in the games huge urban environments is addicting, tracking down clues and key figures in the central mystery, and working to uncover a global conspiracy that leads to a difficult and profound choice at the close.  The narrative isn't afraid to ask big questions about transhumanism, social paradigms and the nature of what it is that makes us human. Deus Ex: Human Revolution stands as a testament to the fact that games do not have to dumb us down.  In fact, they can do quite the opposite. 


Stepping out of Vault 101 for the first time was one of those watershed moments for me.  It was the first time I had played a truly open-world game.  Up to that point in my gaming life, I had always expected some kind of clue, some hint, some signpost that would point me in the right direction.  But as that giant metal door slid away and I stepped into the sunlight of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, suddenly everything was up to me.  I had been given complete freedom to roam a massive and immersive world, where who I would become and what my next move was had no other deciding factor but my own free will.  And like with a lot of freedoms, it was exciting and a little scary. 

Exploration has always been a big part of why I love games.  I love being dropped in a world and let loose to see what I can find.  But Fallout 3 took it to a whole new level.  Traipsing through the creepy, sun-blasted overworld was endlessly thrilling, as I never knew what might lay over the next ridge.  And sojourning into abandoned subway tunnels or creepy hollows in the hills to see what loot could be discovered, all the while uncovering small stories told through scraps of paper or abandoned dwellings, it all added up to a singular vibe that I haven’t gotten anywhere else, even with Fallout: New Vegas. 

I still pop it in every now and again, taking my original character out of his home in Megaton to see what might be over that hill, or through that door set into the ground.  There’s still things I haven’t done or places I haven’t been.  And the prospect that they are still out there waiting for my next adventure is strangely comforting.  



Oh, Last of Us.  You're late to the party, but I sure am glad you showed up.  

One of the things I like about the current-generation is that many of the games offer the player choices, give them the power to influence the story in one way or another, even if it is in small ways.  There are a lot of games that do that really well.  But I also don't mind being told a story according to the vision of the person telling it, and that's exactly what The Last of Us does.  It is refreshing in its simple, powerful vision, and through that the creators were able to tell a story that still leaves me feeling like I was punched in the gut, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Let's face it.  Joel was never really a great guy.  Even with his daughter in the beginning he still comes off as rough around the edges.  There are glimmers of hope throughout the game, hinted at in his eventual interactions with Ellie, that maybe Joel might turn a corner, that maybe he might recover some part of the self that he lost, might be able to find some semblance of happiness.  And you know what the tragic thing is?  He does.  He finds something worth living for again.  But it doesn't make him a better person like it's supposed to.  It makes him a worse one.  He clings to it so selfishly, so desperately that he is blind to all else.  And his final choice (gut-punch) makes the player realize that maybe you've been walking in the bad guy's shoes the whole game.  

And the question I keep asking myself is, if it were me, would I do things any differently if it was someone I love?

 In a console's exclusive library that, to me, has been lackluster at best, The Last of Us stands as the crowning achievement of the PS3, and without a doubt as one of the best games of this generation.  


And the Scrolls have foretold, of black wings in the cold,
That when brothers wage war come unfurled
Alduin, Bane of Kings, ancient shadow unbound,
With a hunger to swallow the world... 

I didn't get an Xbox 360 until a couple years after it came out.  And when I did, my brother recommended to me a game called Oblivion.  I had heard rumblings, quiet whisperings, tellings of myths surrounding this game.  It had been in my periphery for awhile, but I didn't really know what it was.  But upon my brother's word, I purchased a used copy of the game.  

And then it ate my life.   

I had played the aforementioned Fallout 3, so I knew what open-world was.  But Oblivion was beautiful and majestic and adventurous in a way that Fallout wasn't.  They are very similar games in style, but manage to hit their own profoundly different notes in tone and atmosphere, and I owe my brother a hearty thanks for his recommendation.  It's Lord of the Rings style world and it's deep character customization put me in an environment I had always dreamed of visiting.  I battled daedra and protected the bloodline of the Emperor and saved the kingdom from the encroaching darkness, and I had a blast doing it. 

I think "fever-pitch" would be a good term to describe my state as the release of Skyrim approached.  At over two-hundred hours, Skyrim holds the record for most time I've ever spent playing a single game, and that was just one character.  When Skyrim came out, I played it like it was my job.  The prospect of another experience like Oblivion was too much to resist, only it turned out to be bigger, better, and more beautiful in many ways.  Stepping into the role of Dovakiin, Dragonborn, slaying dragons and embarking on a quest that ended in Sovengarde, the game's version of heaven, is not an experience that can be duplicated.  The game offered some of the best DLC of this generation as well, pitting me against a clan of vampires and a rogue myth - a Dragonborn of old.  

Whenever you're told a story, you get to step into another life, if only for a little while.  You get to go on adventures in your mind and your soul that would otherwise be impossible.  And while these should never replace the real life that is waiting for you, I am thankful for experiences like Oblivion and Skyrim, that offer me the chance to live a life straight out of a fairy tale, filled with dragons and swords and adventure.  


A man chooses.  A slave obeys.

I was in my dorm room in college when I first watched the trailer for a game called Bioshock.  I knew immediately is was something I was going to play. 

 What I couldn't know at that time was that the game would turn out to be a work of brilliance, maybe genius.  It combined a haunting and nostalgic early 20th century atmosphere with deep philosophical and social underpinnings that came together to tell a cautionary tale about the limitless potential of mankind, and his equally endless capacity for pride and folly.  The underwater city of Rapture was a glorious failure, and exploring it has given me some of the most vivid memories I've ever garnered from a game.  

In Bioshock 2, we return to Rapture for a more personal and intimate story, and one of my favorite relationships in all of gaming: the Big Daddy and the Little Sisters.  There was a lot of criticism of this second installment, which is something I never really understood.  I believe the gameplay to be at least equal to the first, and the ending actually more poignant than the first.  And as I watched Eleanor drop her Big-Daddy doll into the ocean, sinking deeper and deeper until out of sight, I felt simultaneous relief that she made it out of the city so far below, and a tugging at my heartstrings as I wondering if I would ever visit Rapture again.

My next trip turned out to be quite different.  The DNA of the original Bioshock is all over Columbia and its story, but it offers a unique and awesome tale all its own.  But perhaps what I love most about Bioshock:Infinite, other than the relationship between Elizabeth and Songbird, is how it ties everything together so perfectly. 

There's always a man.  There's always a girl.  There's always a city.

I didn't understand the Infinite title at first.  But now I do.  The game threw the door wide open on the universe, quite literally, and now there are endless possibilites. I'm anxious to see what door we go through next.  I hope we get the opportunity.  

If you haven't gotten a chance to play these games, give them a shot...would you kindly?



What can I say about this story?

Star Wars.  The Matrix.  Mass Effect.  

I have absolutely no qualms listing it among the sci-fi giants.  This is space opera at its finest.  Featuring a stellar and unforgettable cast of characters, a story that spans the universe, and the highest stakes imaginable, this series ranks among not only the greatest games of all time, but among the greatest stories as well.  

From the very start, the threat feels so very real.  And by the end of game three, I felt like I was Commander Shepherd, fighting every battle, feeling every loss, clinging desperately to every hope that maybe, just maybe, we might make it. 

Over the one hundred or so hours it takes to play through all three games, the characters and their relationships take on a life of their own.  And no story is complete without a cast of beloved characters.  If your main dude was anyone other than Garrus, you're doing it wrong.  The unique romantic subplots of the game made it feel like something truly special.  And the sequence at the end where you're basically saying goodbye to your friends is gut-wrenching.  

It's always hard saying goodbye to characters you love.  And my feelings for these games hearken back to my feelings as I watched Lost come to a close.  I had been through the ringer with these characters.  Watching them say goodbye to each other, and saying farewell to them myself was tough, as it should be.  That's the mark of a great story.  And stellar gameplay aside, Mass Effect is a truly great story.  I cannot praise it highly enough.  

In Closing...

The awesome thing is that this generation isn't even over.  We still have a lot to look forward to.  There are still games coming out for these consoles, and some of them are entries in the franchises on this list.  But some of them aren't.  But to be sure, as long as they keep offering new, unique, and brilliant experiences, I will keep coming back to them.  So who knows?  Maybe they'll find their way to this list.  I hope they do.