Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Hey everybody! Are you sick of Star Wars: The Force Awakens think pieces yet? Me too! I've been actively avoiding them for weeks! But I still want to write one! So I will!

This post may contain spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (I wanna talk about Ren). It will definitely contain spoilers for like... all ten of the Silent Hill games. Probably the movies as well, I haven't seen them, but they're adapted from the games so it's a safe bet. Also some of the Metal Gear Solid games.

So if you've been meaning to see those, please go to your local theater, purchase and sink hours and hours into the video games listed above, or even just find a playthrough on Youtube (search "Let's Play: "game title", that usually gets you a series that values the cutscenes and includes charming commentary, as opposed to a "walkthrough", which will just show you how to navigate the game's challenges) and spend hours and hours and hours watching it to absorb the story.

...Actually you probably didn't need to watch all 10 Silent Hills. In fact you may be staring at me disapprovingly, or wondering how the hell I came up with the number "10". There's a reason but it's not important here, so let's get moving!


The Force Awakens is... good. It's better than I expected it to be, and it's a fun time! There is one big complaint about it on everyone's lips, though, and that's that it is super samey. And good god, it really is.

The Empire-Lite, the Resistance that's resisting... what, exactly? The pilot, the new Jedi, the Sith, the plans, the robot- dear god, this is a movie made from parts of the old. And it's not just the story.

The initial shot of the starship eclipsing the moon, the shot of the long walkway over a long drop, the sandy desert planet, and the snowy tree planet, and the cantina- the sets, the settings, the shotwork! This is more than an homage. Force Awakens is straight up mimicking the Original Trilogy, and is doing it hard. On every filmmaking level.

There is a place where Force Awakens is startlingly, shockingly new, though, and that's the metagame. Female main character! Black main character! Men and women of various races and ethnicities peopling the scenes in the New Order and in the Resistance! Casting a boring Captain character with a female actor and then resisting the temptation to spice up the role of acknowledge her gender in any way! These things are huge and wildly important to a lot of people, and the glee they inspire may be baffling to the viewers whom are not touched personally by these elements.

But that's fine! After all, the ideal is that ten years from now, people will watch the film and only see it as a weird remake, and smile and nod at us when we explain that it was innovative in its time. Like when original Trek fans try to explain Chekov to those of us who came after the Cold War.

But I'm actually not going to talk about that! I'm going to talk about Silent Hill. *cracks knuckles*

For those not in the know (or not inclined to watch 400 hours of video games), Silent Hill is a series of horror-themed video games of some renown. They involve monsters, yes, and shooting those monsters with guns, but they tend toward psychological horror and thick atmosphere instead of a horror-movie run and gun aesthetic. They also like multiple endings, staying open to interpretation, and letting you infer things rather than telling you what's going on, so I could basically tell you anything about the plot of the collective series and have a thousand other fans disagree with my interpretation. And we'd all be equally right.

But gist of most of the games is this: You play as a human! A human in the town of Silent Hill, where something is very wrong. Often you are looking for another person from whom you have been separated, though sometimes it's a thing or even just a way out of town. The town is mostly deserted, the few people you meet are... not helpful. And oh yeah, monsters!

That is really the only way to explain the games en masse without spoiling, running into retroactive continuity, or walking into subjective interpretation. But the games often leave you wondering whether what's going on is really real, or a nightmare, or a hallucination, or something in between, which makes them... tricky to sum up (I have strong feelings on this, but again. Subjective).

But I bring all this up, because the 10-ish (that is a hell of a successful series) entries are very clearly delineated into two groups: The original four games. And everything else.

You probably have a guess of where I'm going with this.

The first four games were all made by the same team, in Japan, for Konami. This are big budget games, so probably people came and went during development, but they are all unified by... something. An aesthetic. A goal. And the first four games are brilliant. Indulge me while I burrow into the rabbit hole further:

This is where I recommend you go play/watch the first four again. You may be put off by the ancient graphics and stilted voice acting in the original Silent Hill, but the story is twisty and surreal and keeps you guessing until its bizarre end.

The graphics and acting in Silent Hill 2 also hasn't aged well, until you compare it to other games released at the same time. Those voice actors? Are doing the motion capture for their characters. Those aren't localized voice actors, those are English-fluent voice actors hired in, and working in, Japan. And even if you aren't as captivated by this as I am, Silent Hill 2 is considered the magnum opus of the Silent Hill series even to this day, and a shining example of story execution for games in general.

People recommend starting with Silent Hill 2, because it's great, because its such a huge jump in graphics, and because there is no continuity of story between 1 and 2. It's not a direct sequel, there are no recurring characters. But I recommend you play/watch the first game first, because my favorite thing about Silent Hill 2 is how it handles return players.

In gameplay, SH2 is nearly identical to its predecessor. You are a guy, searching the foggy-monster-town for a missing family member. Shootin' guns, interacting with weirdly ominous people, navigating set-camera-angles...

Familiarity is death to a horror game.

Any returning player spends the first hour of the game wondering when someone from the first game is going to turn up and explain why the monster-town of SH1, which was resolved in that plot, is happening again. No one comes. Could it be happening at the same time? No, because the map is the same, and... the monsters aren't. There is no continuity of monsters between SH1 and 2. But surely the explanatory elements of the first story are waiting around the corner? Nnnope.

Even the veteran player is wandering around in the fog, no idea what's going on. Ironically, knowing how SH1 ends makes it harder to intuit how SH2 ends. They go in very different directions.

I love it.

The Silent Hill games have to diverge from their predecessors, because familiarity is death in the horror genre. But no matter how much it diverges, it's hard to say that SH2 isn't a real sequel to SH1- because the aesthetic is the same.

Silent Hill 4, the black sheep of the original four, changed up the game mechanics in a way that everyone hated. That, plus the amazingly bland protagonist, meant that it bombed. It was the last Silent Hill from Team Silent, and every Silent Hill since has been made by North American game studios (don't quote me on that. There might be a European game studio in the mix. Oh, and that Japanese arcade shooter, I'm not sure when that was released).

But it's still hard to argue that SH4 isn't a 'real' Silent Hill game- because the aesthetic is dead on, the weird game mechanics support the crack-tastically surreal plot, and even that deadpan protagonist has a story reason for being so deadpan. It's the black sheep, but it's still a sheep.

(I will comment on SH3 only to say that it's a direct sequel to SH1, it's the game from which the second Silent Hill movie was adapted, and it's very good. Heather Mason for the best protagonist!)

And all of the Silent Hill games made after this? Let me be frank: They are good games! They tend to be triple A titles, with a lot of money and creative heft behind them. They tend toward more modern gameplay styles, they have some gorgeous imagery. Many people are very fond of these games in their own right, and champion their favorites. But they're just not the same. Or they're too the same. I am certain this isn't the only reason, but it's the one I'm the most fascinated by:

They have to prove that they're Silent Hill.

They need to change in order to stay frightening! But if they change too much, they won't be recognizable as Silent Hill. That's a much bigger problem for a new publisher taking their first crack at a beloved franchise than it was for Team Silent, tweaking the series they created.

I do NOT envy any of them this task. Because the aesthetic of the original Silent Hill? It's a psycho-horror set in the US but written by a Japanese horror game team, who were emulating a Hollywood psychological horror film (Jacob's Ladder. S'good.) but infusing their game with elements that the US would later come to know from imported J-Horror films. Like those neon pink Robby the Rabbit dolls. Those are super J-Horror.

That is really hard to recreate. Many of the later Silent Hill games lose the aesthetic by simply having a better idea of what a American small town looks like. Or the allure of newer graphics eclipses the foggy, poor visibility of the older games. Some games decide to explain the things that older games left ambiguous. I have predicted the endings of two SH games because they were emulating the story beats of games in the original 4. SH: Homecoming has a weird Eli Roth-like torture sequence in it. I expect it was trying to incorporate newer horror trends.

Ironically, one of the most successful later games in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which is literally a retelling of the original Silent Hill game, but with vastly different gameplay and its own unique aesthetic. It does play out the story differently, but I was spoiled for the twist before the game even came out, so... I'm not entirely sure it's even a spoiler. It could have been on the back of the box, for all I know. Anyway, people love that one and frequently recommend it as an entry-point to the series.

The only later Silent Hill game that even comes close is... P.T. Despite having no fog and no gameplay that resembles the previous games. Despite being a demo. It's also the only Silent Hill game to have been planned by a joint US and Japanese creative team. It just felt right. It nailed the aesthetic.

And then Konami canceled it. But, uh...

I think the entirety of Force Awakens is a new creative team saying: "This aesthetic? We can nail it. We can make REAL Star Wars".

This whole movie was a reassurance.

Action sci-fi space operas don't need to be shocking and different to live. They aren't like horror. And the fact that the prequel movies' big failing was their plotting (the political stuff didn't quite play as intended) makes the Force Awakens having a carbon copy plot a super safe bet.

We can make Star Wars! Look, it hits all the points! There are returning actors! And the blessed diversity in the cast invites all of us, all of us in.

It is safe. We've got this.

And like I said, it mostly works because the movie is aware of it, and cheeky about it.

And if I'm right, the next movie will diverge wildly.

This is where I start to speculate, and spoil stuff about Kylo Ren. It's also where we're done with Silent Hill, and Metal Gear Solid starts to sneak in. So go watch all of those!

No wait, don't. MGS1&2 are all you need for this discussion. Actually, really just MGS2, but MGS2 makes no sense whatsoever without MGS1.

Back? Good.

It's not just meta-textual- everything in universe in Force Awakens is happening in the shadow of the events of the original trilogy. The new Resistance is probably called that because its built of the remains of the old Resistance. The New Order desperately wants to be the Empire, and is intentionally using the Empire as a template, right down to the ridiculous super weapon the inclusion of the Sith (because that's a great idea). To Rey, Han Solo is the famous smuggler. To Finn, some kind of war hero. The events of episodes 4-6 are recent history and rapidly becoming space-national legend.

When the new characters think of heroic stories, they think for episodes 4-6. So when the new characters try to be heroic, episode 4-6 things are what they try to do. And they somehow baked this into the universe without it being too overbearing.

In fact you can't really see it at all until you look at Kylo Ren.

Back in 4-6, there's a powerful and emotionally affecting storyline of Luke nearly being sucked into a cycle of destruction and becoming his father. His story is as much about breaking and resolving that cycle as it is anything else.

Kylo Ren will probably tell you that he's also in that cycle. But he's lying to himself. Kylo Ren wants to be Darth Vader so bad, you guys! He's actively chasing the cycle, trying to force it to happen, because he wants to be that legend he's grown up with.

To us, Vader is a man who rejected the dark side at the end of his life. To those of us who have awkwardly accepted the prequels into our canons, Vader is a broken puppet of the Emperor and a terrible Sith Lord (all good Sith Lords, as we know, kill their Masters and ascend to the position of Biggest Ego in the Universe. ...The only extended universe stuff I've assimilated is KOTOR 1&2, if that explains my weird understanding of Jedi/Sith dynamics). But Kylo Ren never met the man. He only had the Legend.

I predict- or at least I hope- that following these patterns isn't going to work well for anybody. The New Order can't put on the Empire's old shoes and stomp around and suddenly become the Empire. If the heroes try to follow Luke's, Leia's, and Han's old plans, their actions will be predicted and thwarted. And as long as The New Order and Kylo Ren are trying to be someone else, Snoke will lead them around by the nose, because any well-written Sith worth his/her salt can manipulate a story.

What I would like to see is a storyline where all the old tactics fail, because, after all, they've been done before- they've become the obvious solution. If they're going to actually be heroes instead of playing at being heroes, they're going to have to blaze their own trail.

 Kylo Ren is never going to be Darth Vader. My favorite part of Force Awakens- no lie- is when he drops down to talk to the pilot guy, Poe, in his very first scene. That little piece of body language is utterly unthinkable for any other Sith character in the movies- it immediately make Ren distinct, and unique.

And if he ever realizes that, he might actually be dangerous.

But I promised you Metal Gear Solid 2. *cracks knuckles*

If you actually went out and watch/played it on my recommendation: I am sorry. I should have warned you.

For those who didn't: The Metal Gear Solid games are spy/action games! You play as a noble spy/soldier/guy, infiltrating some base where there are terrorists or something, and then you get double-crossed like five times, but you wind up saving the day and also fighting a giant robot with nukes on its back. No, those aren't spoilers. Yes, some version of that happens in pretty much all of the games. The series didn't start with MGS1, either, the Metal Gear series goes back the Nintendo Entertainment System!

MGS is known for its near-future crazy technology, its overwritten melodrama, and its super long lectures on the nature of war and humanity. The director of these games, Hideo Kojima, is as close to an auteur as you will find in the video game world.

And MGS2 is the weirdest, most convoluted, most frustrating MGS game of them all. Apparently it had a troubled production history.

MGS2 is the game where, after playing one level as the hero of MGS1 and most of the other Metal Gear games, you suddenly get switched to a second guy. Instead of playing as Solid Snake, you play as Raiden: The guy who wants to be Solid Snake (I should mention- these are code names). The game then spends all of its subtext telling you how sad it is that Raiden/You want to be Solid Snake.

Did I mention that you play as Raiden for the rest of the game? Did I mention that Raiden was not in the advertising for MGS2 at all?

I was warned about Raiden, so I actually like him (whininess and all!). Players, however, were not amused.

Throughout MGS2, Raiden's desire to be like Solid Snake is used to manipulate him, by a series of very bad people. And computers. And weird global alt-history conspiracies- MGS2 goes to crazy-town pretty fast.

When you finally learn about Raiden's backstory (which is perfect) and he starts playing to his own strengths (butchering people with knives) instead of Snake's (guns), he firms up as a character pretty fast. Then they trade it all for crazytown and long rambling speeches from Revolver Ocelot (again- code names. MGS has the best-worst code names).

Is it possible that I am expecting too much of the new Star Wars films, in thinking that they will pull an MGS2 on us? That this crowd pleaser of a series is going to try the name narrative master-brushstroke as the most convoluted attempt by a visionary game director?

Yeah, probably. But oh man. Imagine if they do!

What a great story that could be, if they stick the landing!

How powerful and life affirming it could be, to make it a story about breaking free of expectations!

How many twists and turns the new movies could pull, now that we have accepted them as legitimate, and they have proven themselves to be profitable!

And if we can't have that movie in the future, at least we can have it now, in this speculation! A place where we can play with the story to our hearts' content.

At the very least, we shouldn't count out the new trilogy yet. They may still surprise us.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


This happened because I was eating BooBerry Cereal.

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This is the comics equivalent of a stream-of-consciousness writing.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Unicorn and a Random Person. They solve... Crimes?

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Trying to force myself into drawing regularly involves mining old, incomplete ideas, drawing them to the best of my rusty ability, and then posting them here. Who knows if I'll continue with this or if it will ever make sense! Just run with it! Run! RUN!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

When all else fails? FAN ART.

Practicing with brush pens, I made this attempt at Frank Doyle (of "and Sadie" fame).

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Also, this is basically one of my favorite lines in anything ever. TAH #88.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Birthday Post

I am terrible at buying gifts. I always over think it. Always.

I think- I HOPE- this means that the resulting gift choice is solid and reasonable. I'm certain, however, that it is not as hilarious as it could have been.

Until the time when you can actually receive the thing I bought, I present to you:

Stuff... that I could have bought your puppy!

The first thing I looked at was dog bowls! Because everyone needs dog bowls, right? Probably multiple sets, so they can be swapped out for cleaning.

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Because everyone wants their dog to eat out of a meme!

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Or from a bowl with spikes in it! Even if they are fashion spikes.

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Oh dear god what is this? Why would you do this to a pet? I'd be concerned it would spring a leak and fill your food with whatever weird gel is probably in there in lieu of water.

On the whole, most of the bowls either sucked or were creepily gendered (seriously). So I moved on to other oddities.

For example! Did you know that this is a real thing?

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I almost bought you this. I genuinely almost bought you this.

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But no! Surely you want your puppy to smell like sugary human food!

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Many, many varieties of sugary human food.

But no one likes getting soap as a gift. So I moved on again.

I am sure you are well acquainted with the madness of pet toys. And if you're not, I could not bring myself to deprive you of the opportunity to explore the insanity for yourself! So I only took one photo to share.

Because you want to train your dog to bring in dead possums.

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... And you want to do so with the help of Martha Stewart.

Happy Birthday, Em! Hope your day (and puppy) are the best!

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Oh? What is this I have?

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