Joseph Hallenbeck

Literary Criticism

May 22, 2020

2019 Cultural Review

Filed under: Literary Criticism part of Annual Reviews

One sentence micro-reviews of each film, show, book, and game that I watched, read or played over the last year. Each item recieves a letter grade from F (terrible) to A (a must watch/read).


Reserve for items that are so good and re-watchable/readable that they deserve to bought as a physical addition to my library.
This is a re-read or re-watch of a volume in my library.
A multi-episode show, an ongoing comic, or series of books instead of a single contained volume.

Films (36) & Shows (10)

There Will Be Blood - A (B)
Long biographic exploration of the nature of the oil rush to the west. A deep exploration on the relationship between religion and money in the American west. Definitely recommended.
Legend - C+
Watched just for the famous “unicorn” scene that many claim was reused in the dream sequence of Blade Runner. It’s not a particularly smart film, but it does leave me wishing the genre had taken off more than it has.
Snowpiercer - B+
The imagery of Snowpiercer is stunning and lasts with me. A kind of dark Willy Wonka story and examination of class barriers. Worth a watch.
Annihilation - C-
Forgettable. It’s science fiction. It’s a blockbuster.
The Holy Mountain - A (B)
Second favorite Alejandro Jodorowsky film after El Topo. Although, unfortunately decidedly less coherent.
Jonny Mnemonic - B+
Based on a William Gibson short story and it does a very good job of capturing the kind of vibe that I get from reading Gibson.
8 1/2 - A (B)
One of those art house kind of films examining the kind of burn out that a creative type feels while trying to force something into creation that just refuses to budge. There’s a lot of characters, scenes, just stuff that spoke so very much to my life in this film.
Yojimbo - A (B)(R)
One of Kirasawa’s more lighthearted period pieces. Yojimbo is a rounin who comes to town and pits two gangs against each other to their mutual destruction.
Crooked House - B
Fun who-dunnit type of film with a decent amount of Brittish humor thrown into the mix.
Hackers - B+
Required watching for the folks over at Watched twice in the last year. It grows on you. Someone described this to me as a film about what 2600 imagined they were up to in the nineties.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers - C+
Watched the original. The inspiration for pod people, lizard people, all the different wonderful conspiracies that our government is run by people totally out of touch with humanity.
Saturn 3 - B
This was probably a big-budget when it was made, but has a very cheap “B” quality feel to it today. Nonetheless, the robot is absolutely terrifying.
Death Race 2000 - B
Bloody, violent, brilliant. Just dumb but in a constant state of satirizing American politics.
Sneakers - A-
A heist/hacker film. It seems like the early nineties had a host of films fascinated with hacker-chic. As far as a “hacker” film goes, it’s pretty good even if villian has a bit of Bond-villian vibe going on.
Escape from LA - C
Not as good as the original. It leans too far into attempting to both lampoon Hollywood and provide a satire of American culture that ultimately makes it fall flat compared to the original.
The Quiet Earth - B+
A post-apocalyptic film out of New Zeland. Don’t mind the “science” as none of it makes any sense. One of those, someone guy wakes up and finds himself the last soul on earth, except for a couple others. Great atmosphere.
Mad Max - B (B)(R)
The original Mad Max tells a story on the edge between Fallout style distopia and our present day. The way it captures the dissociation between Max’s career as a cop seeing the collapse of orderly institutions and his family life where he tries to maintain a semblence of normalcy is entirely topical for our era.
The Road Warrior - B (R)
The sequel introduces so much of the aesthetic of post-apocalyptic film. As far as action films go, its violent, exciting, a thrill to watch but misses the social commentary of the first film.
Shazam - C-
Dumb fun. Watched in the single-screen theatre, so it was my only option. Otherwise, not worth it.
Night is Short, Walk on Girl - A (B)
Brilliant feature-length tour-de-fource of Masaaki’s creative ability and a welcome return of many of the side-characters from Tatami Galaxy.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - B
There is a good twist to this film. It is a great romanticization of Hollywood and Los Angeles and a time period that is far behind us. A good film to watch and revisit a time before I was alive.
Johnny Handsome - B-
A pulpy kind of noir film with a big dose of revenge thrown into the mix. It was a fun watch on a hot afternoon when I needed to find a cool theater to sit.
The Public Eye - B+
Joe Pesci plays a photo journalist specializing in murder photos who gets in over his head. A really decent noir from the early nineties that captures much of the better aspects of the genre.
Pulp Fiction - B+
Surprisingly not taken in by this film nearly as much as I expected.
The African Queen - C+
Bougart plays an excellent drunk. Not my favorite of his films, but it’s one that I’ve seen posters and clips from so much that it is worth a watch.
IT Chapter 2 - D
Heard great things about Chapter 1. Can’t say the same for Chapter 2.
A Simple Plan - B
There’s a big part of me that loves films featuring the northern-midwest, particularly if they do a good job of capturing the kind of culture you find in WI and MN. A comedy of errors that build and builds in an increasly tragic way.
The Vanishing - A- (B)
Lighthouse double feature! The Vanishing is a fairly similar concept to The Lighthouse. People go nuts. Then they disappear from the rock.
The Lighthouse - A (B)
Watched this in an art-house in Tucson. Great atmosphere and storytelling. Absolutely terrifying and iconic imagery.
The Saga of Tanya the Evil: The Movie - B (S)
Good sequel film to a dumb show that I still can’t believe I watched.
Princess Mononoke - A (B)(R)
I discovered Ghibli-fest this year and made the three hour drive to Albuquerque just to catch my favorite of the Ghibli films.
Spirited Away - A (B)(R)
My second-favorite Ghibli film and a wonder to catch on the big screen.
The Dark Crystal - A-
Hensen’s films have aged extremely well. The puppetering is something that is extraordinarily timeless in presentation.
Ford vs Ferrari - C
This film takes a subject matter that I know, and care nothing about and makes it fascinating. It wasa fun watch in the theatre, though not sure if it is worth putting an effort into watching it.
Battle of Unato - B
Unato is a weird sell. It has the tone and feeling of the good half of Kanebari, but is missing most of the character development and lethality of the monsters. Yet, it was fun to revisit the setting and characters.
Hustlers - C+
A good watch. I would actually call this a heist-film, although one from a wildly different perspective than anything else in the genre.
Tokyo Godfathers - A (B)(R)
Satoshi Kon’s life and career was cut far too short. Making this an annual Christmas Eve watching.
Planetes - A (B)(S)
This is the kind of slow, character driven kind of Anime that seemed to appear for a very brief period in the early 2000s before disappearing into the hole of moe.
Devilman Crybaby - A (B)(S)
Masaaki at his most violent. The story is a rather hopeless Faustian experience that simply escalates into the stratosphere. Beautiful animation throughout.
Bojack Horseman - A (S)
Very slow start. It took until half way through the first season to really get hooked on the show. Then the ride was wild – I could oddly relate to almost the entire cast. The ending was… tame, should have ended an episode earlier.
The Expanse - A (S)
Amazon is throwing a lot of money at this show, and it really shows. The last season on ScyFy was rather lacking, but this is a return to the intrigue and games of the earlier seasons.
Rick & Morty - B (S)
The episodes themselves are good, but I’m starting to get a feeling that the show is starting to run out of material. The latest season is also starkly lacking in any kind of character development for Rick, which has largely been my interest in the show.
Tatami Galaxy - A (B)(S)
Masaaki at his best! An absolute favorite. I had forgotten so much of how this show plays out. A great examination of personality, of the absurd, and leaves me wanting to visit Kyoto.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistence - A- (S)
Still waiting on a second season. Overall, excellent except it ends on a lighter note leaving a huge gap between the events of the show and film. Yet, it excellently captures the feeling of Hensen’s work.

Games (3)

Magic 2014 - C
Fun distraction for a short time. The limitated number of deck options and inability to really engage in deck building though severely limited the replayability of the game.
Mario Maker 2 - A (B)
Made some really fun levels with this, and played some really fun levels. If anything, I became distracted too quickly by…
The Legend of Zelda: Breathe of the Wild - A (B)
An epic game that lives up to it’s reputation. A wonderous take on the open world genre adapted to the sensibilities of Zelda. It does start to get tedious after a while, particularly if you approach it from a completionist viewpoint.

Literature (12)

Return to Dominaria by Martha Wells - F
Tried to give reading the Magic lore a shot. Wow. Glad that I gave away my Magic books and didn’t decide to revisit them.
Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson - B
Gibson is slow to get into due to his books being so thuroughly embedded in the world that they inhabit. Once you get the hang of the slang, and can relax the analytic mind and just accept the ride the book opens up.
Night is Short, Walk on Girl by Makoto Ueda - B
A fun exploration of Kyoto over the course of a year. There are some stories the film improves upon, and some (the stage play section) which work much better in written form.
On the Road by Jack Kuroac - A (B)(R)
Oh how many times have I made my way through On the Road? I keep a copy in my glove box for emergencies. Flip it open to any page, it’s a bible for the western traveler and dirtbag.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - D
This is the schlock lies that saturated our society in the nineties and is an artifact of a time I am glad is well done and over.
Goodnight Pun Pun by Inio Asano - A- (B)
Extremely depressing examination of mental illness. Perhaps too nihilistic. It pushes the envelope far beyon any of Asano’s other writtings and into Grave of the Fireflies territory.
The Mindful Way Through Depression by J Mark G Williams - B
Useful and grounded examination of the usefulness of mindfulness in a psychological setting. Devoid of the more Bhuddist influences that underscore mindfulness. But the exercises are worth trying.
4 Hour Workweek Tim Ferris - D
I’m not accepting book suggestions from entrepeneurs anymore.
Deep Work by Cal Newport - A (B)
There is some excellent advise in Deep Work for getting out of the burnout rut that endless networking and distraction can lead to. This book has greatly improved my ability to get work done while cutting down the number of hours in the day that I need to dedicate to that work.
The Cult of the Dead Cow by Joseph Menn -C
I just can’t really get into Menn’s journalistic style. He is simply too conventional and conservative to really appreciate what he’s covering.
Domain Driven Design A (B)
An excellent book on architecture for building software around business processes. After practicing this for several years many of the concepts in the book have started to crystalize – as well as objections to some areas and improvements.
Implementing Domain Driven Design A (B)
DDD is a more high-level overview of the ideas while Implementing is a more hands-on approach examining particular implementations of those ideas. The two texts should be read together.
Level One C
Returning to Magic the Gathering after a decade break and deciding to make something of an attempt to actually grasp the strategy of the game instead of just building themed decks around whatever concept amuses me. This is a pretty solid e-book explaining a lot of how to approach tournament magic.
Test Driven Development: By Example , By Kent Beck- A (B)
An incredibly boring book, and yet incredibly influential on how I do my development in the last year. It’s like pair programming with a master – Ken painstakingly desribes every step in his decision making process as he goes through every single line of code in a simple project. It’s painful, but I found thinking about a project like Ken to be revolutionary in my ability to organize, decompose, and execute my daily assignments.

Podcasts // Notable Online

Welcome to Nightvale
Listened to all of Welcome to Nightvale in 2019 and it was an absolute blast. It very much captures the kind of madness that you find in desert communities.
Alice isn’t Dead
Wrapped up the first season of Alice isn’t Dead. Its a great road podcast to listen to on a late late drive across the open expanse of the Southwest.
Desert Oracle
News and nature essays from the Southwest. This show is a continuously evolving affair that perfectly captures the essence of the “desert philosopher.”
Lindsey Ellis
Excellent deep literary analysis wrapped up in entertaining video essays.
Red Letter Media
These guys dive a touch into being too edge-lordy at times, but they do have quiet a deep understanding of film and do a great job of contemporary film criticism with a good sense of humor. Does feel like sitting down with some WI friends over beers.
David Bull
Great videos that dive into both the history of Japanese woodblock carving and demonstrations of modern recreations of many prints.
Sarah’s Scribbles by Sarah Anderson
Fun, honest, four squares of comedy.
Drugs and Wires by Mary Safro and Io Black
Brilliant alternative-history exploration of the post-Soviet nineties in a world where we skipped desktop computers and dived directly into mind-alterting virtual realities.
January 01, 2019

2018 Cultural Review

Filed under: Literary Criticism part of Annual Reviews

One sentence micro-reviews of each film, show, book, and game that I watched, read or played over the last year. Each item recieves a letter grade from F (terrible) to A (a must watch/read).


Reserve for items that are so good and re-watchable/readable that they deserve to bought as a physical addition to my library.
This is a re-read or re-watch of a volume in my library.
A multi-episode show, an ongoing comic, or series of books instead of a single contained volume.

Film & Shows (33)

Q1 (5)

Made in Abyss B (S)
The environment and creativity that goes into the ecology of the abyss makes for an interesting show. It’s a pity it abruptly ends.
The Greatest Showman C
An okay film. Entertaining to watch, but not memorable.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi B+
A mess. Like most of the new films, it isn’t bad, it just isn’t great.
Oscars Short Animations 2018 C
A mixture of good and bad as can be expected.
Ready Player One C-
Like most of the 80s era directors, Spielberg has quite lost his touch.

Q2 (4)

The Shape of Water B-
Held off on this, because I had low expectations. But was pleasantly surprised by an interesting inversion of the swamp-thing type film.
Blade Runner 2049 A (B)
The only honest, non-cyncial cash-in on Ford’s career. This is actually a good, stand alone film and a better than good sequel to the original.
Solo B-
Didn’t really need the backstory to Solo, but surprisingly didn’t entirely destroy the character.
March Comes in Like a Lion C (S)
A rather slow slice of life. Probably would enjoy it more if I was in the right mood. Difficult to really watch more than an episode or two at a time.

Q3 (12)

Elysium C
Blockbuster of the big graphics, guns, explosions variety. Entertaining while I watched it.
Arrival C+
I really liked Ted Chiang’s collection of short stories, but they really don’t translate into movie form nearly as well.
Citizen Kane A (R)
Brilliant work by Orsen Welles. A classic that I alone in my household enjoy.
Delirium C
Above average horror film, which puts it at about average for most films.
Synecdochee, New York B+
Film took me by surprise. Synecdochee captures a kind of creative ennui and stuckedness in life that I could relate. The surrealism and direction made for a wonderful film similar to the works of Gondry.
Dark City B+
A neo-noir with Jennifer Connelly set in a bizarre dystopian world. Another film that is worth a watch.
Uresai Yetsura: Beautiful Dreamer A (B)
Never saw any of Uresai Yetsura before this, but it left me itching for more. The film wonderfully captures a kind of adolescent dreamscape and capitalizes on animation’s ability to break rules.
Looper C+
Theirteen Monkeys but with a much more straightforward plot.
Mullohland Falls A- (B)
An excellent entry in the noir genre. It hits all the beats just right with a more modern tempo.
Your Name A-
Beautiful. Gorgeous. I can see why this film raked in so much cash. It has a little bit of everything in it for everyone – science fiction, adventure, romance.
Lost Highway C-
Lynch misses more balls than he hits. There are films like Mulhollland Falls or the original Dune that I love, but so much else is just lost on me.
Let the Right One In B+
Swedish films have this strange way of just being extraordinarily creepy.

Q4 (12)

Cloak and Dagger B+
Strangly don’t remember watching this, but I must’ve liked it.
Evil Dead II B- (R)
The king of the “B” reels. The Evil Dead films still hold up.
No Country for Old Men B- (R)
Great film for the Southwest, and having now lived out here, I can see how it captures both the landscape and the people.
The Sixth Sense C
Finally watched this film, and I can say, it was mediocre.
Number 23 C
Jim Carrey does his best work when he’s not trying to be funny.
Miss Hokusai B-
Great period piece about the life of Hokusai’s daughter who apprenticed and followed him in his work.
American Psycho B+
Perfect film for this era, truly captures the American Dream.
The Resident D
Santa Sangre A-
My introduction to the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky (outside of the Metabarrons that is). Brilliant explosion and truly an expansive attempt to push the medium into new realms. Horrifying all the same.
El Topo A (B)
A stand out in Alejandro Jodorowsky films and perhaps my favorite of the lot. A brilliant splash of style, an exploration of Christian and Eastern thought, wrapped up with a dark plot.
The Usual Suspects B+
Excellent heist film, perhaps the best that I’ve seen in the genre.
Vanilla Sky C
Extremely slow start with an eventual payoff. Debatable on whether it’s worth it.

Books (11)

The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas C
An excellent collection of advise for the professional developer.
Test Driven Development by Kent Beck A (B)
This book really grows on you. It’s like pair programming with a master. Really boring to read. But transformative in how you approach problems.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius A
A great introduction to classical stoic philosophy, but greatly overrated by the Hacker News crowd.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo A (R)
Kondo’s ideas on consumerism and focusing on owning stuff that brings joy is certainly worth a look.
Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein C
Dirty old man’s adventures through time and space. Heinlein is overrated.
The Nine Princess of Amber, The Guns of Avalon, The Signs of the Unicorn,
The Hand of Oberon, The Courts of Chaos, and Trumps of Doom by Roger
Started my way through the Chronicles of Amber series, and I must say that it is a great alternative take on modern fantasy that actually adds to the genre.
Solanin by Inio Asano A (R)
This is my third or forth run through Inio Asano’s Solanin. It has become a rather core entry into my personal philosophy.
Queen Emeraldas by Leiji Matsumoto B+
Great to see more of Leiji Matsumoto’s works make it into English. I’m getting tired of having to read them in French.


Minecraft A
I stayed away as long as I could, but it got me in the end. This game is genius.
Mario Kart 8 A-
Another great entry in the series that maintains the same level of quality as other entries in the series.
Team Fortress 2 A
The last FPS that I still play. Worth checking out since it still maintains a nice casual feel to the servers.
Super Mario Odyssey A-
Probably the best 3D entry since Mario 64. There are some truly great levels in this game, although there are also some truly forgettable levels as well.
Rocket League B
Worth playing if you have some friends to play it with, otherwise a pass. I don’t know how anyone actually controls the cars themselves, it’s utter chaos.
January 12, 2018

2017 Cultural Review

Filed under: Literary Criticism part of Annual Reviews

One sentence micro-reviews of each film, show, book, and game that I watched, read or played over the last year. Each item recieves a letter grade from F (terrible) to A (a must watch/read). This year, I add some additional signfiers:

Reserve for items that are so good and re-watchable/readable that they deserve to bought as a physical addition to my library.
This is a re-read or re-watch of a volume in my library.
A multi-episode show, an ongoing comic, or series of books instead of a single contained volume.

Film & Shows (48)

Q1 (11)

Rogue One B+
This is only the second new Star Wars film and I’m already getting franchise fatigue. Nonetheless, an excellent addition – likable characters and an exciting premise that plays out like an old Star Wars FPS game.
Secret Life of Pets C
An unremarkable animated feature that did nothing particularly novel or groundbreaking but was enjoyable none-the-less.
The Shining A- (B)(R)
I am rather fond of the works of Stanley Kubrik, and the Shining is an outstanding film although perhaps not in the same catgegory as Clockwork Orange or 2001.
Gosford Park A (B)
A strange favorite of the year. Gosford Park is a standard murder mystery with the added take of Brittish black comedy and insights into Brittish classism.
The Black Cat B+
Great horror from the Italian director Lucio Fulci.
The Big Sleep A- (B)
Continuing the noir theme. Good film. Not mu
Eyes Wide Shut B+
Not sure what to say. The film was good. The charaters and scenario interesting. But for the folks involved, I kind of expected more.
Necromancy B+
Fun schlock horror anthology
Kafka the Last Story D
Just an atrociously boring
The Saga of Tanya the Evil C (S)
Not quite sure how I started watching this, it did turn out better than you would think.
Flip Flappers C (S)
Beautiful scenary, but the show didn’t really seem to know where to go. After a handful of nice episodes it just loses all steam.

Q2 (12)

Point Break D
Bad acting. Mediocre plotting and filming.
Ex Machina C
Ok science fiction film of the Hollywood variety
Lost in Translation B+
Friends have recommended this film to me for some time. I found myself, actually disappointed in it, but perhaps it was due to the hype.
Lavendar C
Another forgetable horror film
Vertigo B
Hitchcock at his finest
Lars & The Real Girl A-
This film starts out making you feel really uncomfortable, but by the end you love it.
Escape from Alcataraz B+
Good old film
The Arroyo F
Dazed and Confused A+
Started a theme of “night” movies. This is one of those quotable films that somehow never actually get watched. Excellent social commentary, atmosphere, a kind of film that takes you back.
Before Sunrise C
Continuing the night theme. I see where the directory has started a kind of reputation for making movies where people hang out and talk.
A Brighter Summer Day A (B)
This film is absolutely brilliant! But do set aside the time to watch it. I didn’t realize that it’s novel length.
Night on Earth B
Night theme. A series of short stories interconnected by the late night taxi rides.

Q3 (13)

The Life of David Gale D
Forgetable Kevin Spacey film. Starts with an agenda and doesn’t get far.
Baby Driver B-
Big name Hollywood film. Good music. Surprising lack of actual car chases.
Shutter Island B
Finally finished Shutter Island. I’ve started this film three or four times. A good dark mystery, a psychological thriller of the mind-fuckery variety
What We Do in the Shadows A-
Fun mockumentary comedy out of New Zeland
The Dark Tower C
Sort of a mess, but that was my view of the books as well.
Blackwell Ghost D
More forgettable horror films
Mulholand Drive A-
Starts out slow, but transitions into a much better film. It is oddly obvious when Lynch got the funding to take this from a TV Special to feature film.
The Great Gatsby B+
Brilliant big-cinema film that captures the excess of the period and highlights much that might be missed by a contemporary reader of the book.
The Warriors B
I keep telling the pets to “Come out to Play”
The Black Swan B-
A Perfect Blue rip-off.
Escape from New York B
Love John Carpenter’s various takes on the Science Fiction genre. His visuals continue to live up and the characters are fun.
Jurassic World C+
Kickstarting Jurassic Park again. Hollywood blockbuster. On the better end of the scale for these kinds of films, but still not worth it.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 B+
Just as good as the first.

Q4 (12)

The Conjuring 2 C+
Better than average horror, not great cinema, but entertaining.
The Maltese Falcon A
The source of the maguffin! A must watch for the noir and film history buff.
The Battle of the Sexes B
Watched this in downtown Durham. Fun. Worth it if you were burning time on a double feature.
The Woman in the Window B+
Short noir film, but one that really captures all of the different themes and styles of the genre.
The Oblong Box B+
Help! I am running out of Vincent Price films!
The Thaw D
The Lady in the Van B-
A nice feel-good film
Skyfall C
I am so far behind on James Bond films.
Valarian and the City of a Thousand Planets B
Beautiful! Wonderful blockbuster with all the giant special effects. A pitty
Kiss the Girls C-
Described as a “neo-noir psychological thriller,” I didn’t really find it worthy of being called nor, nor pyschological
Intruders D
Red Skeleton Holiday Special A
Great way to end the year.

Books (18)

Statistics in Plain English by Timothy C. Urdan B
A helpful, straightforward introduction to statistics that is perhaps useful to the social scientist but unfortunately skips most of the math useful for Machine Learning which was why I was reading it.
Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister
Didn’t find much use out this business book.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (B)
Very fast read and, as expected of Gaiman, a very well written contemporary interpretation of Norse myth.
The Book of Yokai by Michael Dylan Foster
Deep dive into all things Yokai and a great overview of thse Japanese monsters.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (B)
Extremely well written short Science Fiction. Every single one of these is a must read.
IQ84 by Haruki Murakami F
An astonishingly boring and disapointing thousand page read that rehashes the tropes of Murakami’s earlier books.
The Great Gatsby by F Scots-Fitzgerald
Following watching the Film, I had a sudden urge to read the book. It holds up well and continues to be relevant to our divided nation.
Wizards First Rule by Terry Goodkind
Adolescent drivel and wish fullfilmment. A novel that I would have probably eaten up as a teenager, but can’t stand as an adult.
Opus by Satoshi Kon B+
Satoshi Kon’s unfortunate early demise leaves this book unfinished. Yet, it remains a fun run.
Nijigahara Holograph by by Inio Asano (B)(R)
Asano’s take on horror. This is my third run through Holograph, the narrative is exteremly dense requiring close attention to untangle the twisted motivations of these characters.
Ryuko by Eldo Yoshimizu C+
Beautiful artwork, but dreadfully cliched plot. The French edition is an easy read for a beginner in the language.
Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind by Hayao Miyazaki (B)(R)
Miyazaki’s masterpiece of manga. A darker take on the environmental themse present in Nausicaa.
Genshiken by Shimoku Kio A (B)
I found myself relating rather uncomfortably with the characters of Genshiken. A realistic and non-romantic take on the situation. I hear the sequel rather undermines it’s themes and ending though.
Yoon-suin by David McGrogan (B)
A strange, far-eastern themed OSR book.
Micropend6 by Sigil Stone Publishing
Sure would be fun to find a group to play these games with. The D6 system was a favorite for me as it focused on cinematic gameplay over crunchy numbers.
Tiny Dungeon by Gallant Knight Games
Another attempt at a paired down rules system for easy play.
Dungeons & Dragons: The Players Handbook 5th Edition A (B)
5th Edition is a truly exciting return to what I enjoy in a D&D game. If only I could find a group to play with these days.
The Misty Isles of Eld Aby Chris Katulik and Robert Parker (B)
An adventure that would be fun to play, but was quite a fun read non the less.


The Legend of Zelda A (B)
Never played the original until I got it on the 3DS virtual console. The title has aged well and is still worthy of a playthrough.
Pillars of Eternity B
I really wanted to like Pillars of Eternity as I’ve been reminisce for the old Infinity Engine style games. Yet, Pillars just couldn’t quite keep my attention and started to be feel like a grind.
Borderlands 2 A (B)
Endless piles of content and all of it a wonderful. Perhaps one of the best PC titles this decade and a blast to play with friends.
Don’t Starve Together A (B)
Another fun multiplayer title. Don’t Starve is a survival game that really tests your teamwork to survive.
Team Fortress 2 A (B)
A fun FPS that has a strong community and plays well on almost any system. Valve is still patching and updatingthe content so it doesn’t go stale.
Windswept D
Beautiful, but shallow game. It took roughly a single evening to explore the full potential of the game and put it back on the virtual shelf.
Minecraft A (B)
Finally took the dive into Minecraft and found it just as fun and addictive as I always feared it would be.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds A (B)
A perfect return on the handheld to the traditional Zelda formula.
Paperclips A
Free online game and a really fun take on the paperclip maximizer thought experiment.
July 07, 2017

The Desert List

Filed under: Literary Criticism


“One cannot read a book: one can only reread it” – Nabokov

I woke this morning thinking about re-reading The Lord of the Rings. The last stab at the thick volume I made while at Oxford in 2008. A childhood friend reads the entire thing on an annual basis. Which brings me around to another question. If I examine the entirety of my library and was given the choice of only a select few books to read and re-read for eternity which volumes would that entail? It is said that the quality of a litrary work is measured in our ability to glean something anew from each reading.

Certainly there are many a book and a film that has touched and moved me greatly and yet, I would not go back and read it again. Honey & Clover, for example, was paramount in my decision leave DigiPen for Augustana. Yet, in rewatching, it has never recaptured the same motive power.

This list then is a kind of “desert island list.” A list of works so profound that if restricted to only those works on a deserted island I could potentially get by. It is also the list of works that I could potentially see myself reading and re-reading every five years into my geriatry.

Books (Novels, Short Story, and Graphic Novels)

The novel is an easy one to figure out. Which volumes have I returned to time and again? Some of have certainly fallen off the list. C.S. Lewis was wonderous as a child but what once seemed like playful allegory now feels too much like a club.

The Classics

  • Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Gilgamesh
  • The Holy Bible

The Modern Fantasy

  • The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
  • The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
  • The Silmarillion or The History of Middle Earth by JRR Tolkien
  • The Works of Lovecraft
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • The Dungeons & Dragons Rulebooks (AD&D, 3rd, and 5th Editions)

The Graphic Novel

  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki
  • Solanin by Inio Asano

The Literary Books

  • On the Road by Jack Kuroac
  • Child’s Play by Ichiyo Higuchi
  • Snow Country and Thousand Cranes by Yatsunari Kawabata


What is worth re-reading in Philosophy is far too long of a list. I submit instead those volumes from my undergrad that I find worth returning to as they provide a rather sound foundation for further reading.

  • The Complete Works of Plato
  • Nichomachean Ethics by Artistotle
  • Confessions by St. Augustine
  • Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas
  • Meditations on First Philosophy by Descartes
  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by Locke
  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by Hume
  • Critque of Pure Reason by Kant
  • Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics by Kant
  • The Phenomonology of Spirit by Hegel
  • Fear & Trembling by Kierkegaard
  • The Portable Nietzche
  • Being & Nothing by Sartre
  • The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus

Film & Television

Rarely do I return to a film and almost never teleivison. A handful are regulars, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Labyrinth where all watched repeatedly in my youth. The collected works of Miyazaki, Kirasawa and Satoshi Kon are all revisited on occassion. A handful of anime I would like to take the time to rewatch as they were all very formative in my youth. Yet, how well they would stand up on a rewatching remains unknown.


  • Star Wars
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • Night on the Galatic Railroad
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Directed by Miyazaki: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Pom Poko, Whisper of the Heart, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Directed by Kirasawa: Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ikiru, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Throne of Blood
  • Directed by Satoshi Kon: Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika

Anime & Television

  • Cowboy Bebop
  • Samuarai X
  • FLCL
  • Serial Experiments Lain
  • Mushishi
  • Kino no Tabi
  • Red Dwarf
  • The Twilight Zone


The vast majority of games have no narrative arc. How can I return to Counter Strike? When I examine narrative single player games though, I find myself going back to Miyamoto’s early games: Mario and Zelda. Few titles from that era held up with age, and fewer modern titles are worth a second look. Yet, I must admit that I have probably gone back to re-play none of these games in the last decade.

  • Super Mario I, II, and III
  • Super Mario: Yoshii’s Island
  • Super Mario 64
  • Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
  • The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  • Chrono Cross
  • Shadow of Collossus
  • Ico

Honorable Mentions

There are a few volumes that I have read multiple times, but upon later reading in life, I do not feel the same spark and will probably not return:

  • The works of Mishima
  • The works of Murakami
  • The works of Bill Waterson
  • The works of C.S. Lewis
January 12, 2017

2016 Cultural Review

Filed under: Literary Criticism part of Annual Reviews

A quick run down of all the films, shows, books and games watched, read and played over the last year.

Film & Shows

This was the year of film. Starting in the FEMA trailer in Clifton, the big screen TV that came with the new house. We had every excuse to watch movies. We are running low on Hitchcock and Price films at this point. There are so many of them (over 30 in total!) that I can’t give time for each. Instead, I’ll just break each down to a letter grade.

Not mentioned, but started Steven Universe, FMA: Brotherhood, The Guild, Amanchu, Dark Mirror and Flip Flappers.


  • Moment A
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens B+
  • A Boy & His Dog A
  • Dogma B
  • Limmey B
  • The Revenant D
  • The Life of Pi B+
  • Theatre of Blood C
  • The Wrong Man C
  • Erased (Anime Series) C


  • The Hills Have Eyes D
  • Alice Through the Looking Glass C
  • Iron Man D
  • Big Fish C
  • Kiznaiver (Anime Series) D
  • Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (Anime Series) A-


  • One Punch Man (Anime Series) B
  • Suicide Squad D
  • The Haunting C
  • The Edge of Tomorrow B-
  • The Enemy of the State B
  • The Conversation A
  • Night of the Hunter D
  • Crimson Peak A-
  • Central Intelligence D
  • Now You See Me 2 D


  • The Babadook B+
  • From Beyond the Grave C
  • The Asylum C
  • Stir of Echoes C
  • Scott Pilgrim vs The World C+
  • John Wick C+
  • I Am Big Bird B-
  • 13 Assassins B-
  • 2001: A Space Oddyssey A-
  • War Dogs C+
  • Rear Window B
  • Shadow & Fog A-
  • Chinatown A


Not mentioned, but started Queen Emerladas, Galaxy Express 999, Peopleware, Ryuko, The English Calendar, and half a dozen Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine volumes.

The Martian

Saw the film, decided to read the book. The book is very detailed, and very slow. I think it worked better as a film, as the book was very much written for people who would want to geek out over the science in it.

Table Titans

Read the backlog of Scott Kurt’z other comic. Glad that I waited for something of an archive to build up. The comic can be slow reading as a daily but the backlog helps hook me in.

Get A Grip

Another business narrative for those who like to imagine that they’re executives in the book and not just another drone trapped in whatever political mechanations middle management has in store for them. Okay, I’m being overly cynical but I would like to see more business books written from the perspective of running teams for the middle manager or line man and how to handle the demands that stem from both above and below. It seems like a cheap cop-out to write your book about C-level executives who appear to be free to steer their business willy-nilly.


An amazing historical record of pre-war Japan and an important read in light of our current political times. It is fascinating to watch how a progressive forward thinking government can be erroded and transformed into the fascist war machine just a few decades later.

Democracy Incorporated

I really like Steve Wolin’s idea of managed democracy. There are some good ideas in this book. However, I struggled to get over Steve’s apologetics for the Democractic party. It would reason that the Democrats are as much a part of managed democracy as the Republicans and share just as much of the blame for our failures. Elevating them up as the true will of the demos seems wishful thinking.

The Life Changing Tidying Up

People kept talking up this book, and I’ve been struggling this last year to really minimize my life. This would have been better as a pamphlet. There were a handful of useful tips, but they were all lost in the flood of prose.


This is the fourth or fifth time through Solanin. At this point, I’ve read it at quiet a few different points in my life. As an unemployed post-collegiate student. As a young man starting hist first relationship. And now as a young man having been in a steady relationship for five years. It’s a rare book that continues to speak to you each time.

Stand Still Stay Quiet

Well written, absolutely beautiful modern take on a lot of Scandinavian lore. A zombie story, with monsterous trolls, ghosts of the dead, and a ravaged Europe. A lot of fun, although I’m begining to get the feeling that the characters have plot armor. The early story really built up the trolls as being nearly undefeatable. Scourging entire military operations. Laying waste to cities. Yet, our rag-tag team takes them out like to much butter.

Alice Grove

Jacques should stick with coffee shop banter. I just can’t take his style or characters seriously. Love QC though.

The Go Programming Language

One of my long standing complaints with language books is that so many of them are written for the absolute novice. The first section goes through different variable types. Basic boolean logic. Maybe by the later half of the book can we get into the meat of how to use the language to get things done. The Go Programming Language is excellently written not for that novice. Rather, it’s written for the experianced programmer trying to get started and productive with Go fast. In this respect The Go Programming Language succeeds amazingly.

Otherworld Barbara

A really good brain teasing science fiction text. Another volume that I simply had to read in a single night.


Not mentioned, but started Pillars of Eternity, Borderlands II, Too the Moon, and some time on Graal Online and Eve Online.


Wow. It has been a long time since a game hooked me to the point where I stayed up until dawn just to see how it ended. The story, characters, atmosphere. The 80s era camping gear of my childhood drawing in that sense of western camping nostolgia. I’ve lived up at Black Rock. The game captures the feeling and remoteness of Wyoming.


There were so many people on Facebook and Twitter that kept recommending this game to me. It took me three tries to actually get into the game. Each time I stopped right around where the skeletons appeared. The game play in Undertale is really simplistic, too simplistic. But after a slow start, it gains some momentum. It’s enough to get me to the end of the game, but not good enough that I would bother playing through it over again to get all of the endings.

Torchlight II

Torchlight II starts out very slowly, but becomes extremely fun in the late game once the characters have access to their full arsenol of spells. Unfortunately, this also seems to be the point in which game breaking bugs start to appear. We had enitre unplayable nights because of players not being able to join games or the AI simply bugging out and refusing to interact with us. For a game that’s been out for years, I would have hoped these issues would have been fixed by now.

February 16, 2016

2016 Reading List

Filed under: Literary Criticism part of Annual Reviews

To match up with the list of books and films read or watched in 2015 is a list of books that I hope to get to this year. There are a lot of re-reads in here. I am finding that as I get older I am much more inclined to step back and re-read a good book then I am to always be searching for the next great thing. I’ve also grown a lot more choosy on what it is I do start up reading. There just isn’t enough time in a year to rush though a paperback a week like I did way back in High School. I also suspect the list will evolve substantially as the year goes on based upon my seasonal whimsy and discovery of new authors.



(Total: 22)


Graphic Novels


There is no way I will be getting to all of these volumes. For a lot of them, like Pic Iyer’s Falling Off the Map, The Open Road, and The Art of Stillness – I inclined to only read one. Likewise, a lot of the philosophy texts, I doubt I will be getting to all of them. And my employer also gives me a reading list of sorts which I haven’t added to the pile of computing volumes.

(Total: 27)

General Non-Fiction


Philosphy, Zen & Theology

Roleplaying Game Rulebooks

September 14, 2013

On the Extraordinary Polish of Fez

Filed under: Literary Criticism


I am struggling to find the words that adequately describe the simple joy that is Fez. I think the word that I most often find in my reflection is complete. That is, I think Fez is a more polished and “whole” game than many a modern Triple-A title.

Concerning Publishing Unfinished Games

It has become too common to see games placed on shelves before they are truly finished. I could point the finger at any number of triple A titles (mostly in the MMORPG and FPS genres) wherein the release of the game is done before production has really honestly finished. But the most brazen releasing of unfinished games seems to come from the Independent scene where often games seem more like tech demos then completed titles.

These unfinished games are hobbled together and released while their ideas are still weak and unrealized. They lack the true polish that is necessary to fully explore their game-play potential. Graphics are unpolished with no eye for creating a cohesive aesthetic. Game-play consists of repeating the same simple mechanic over and over. And content is either procedurally generated, random, or simply lacking in complexity and attention to detail.

These poor unfortunate children are cast out into the marketplace and I am still surprised to see so many titles getting praised despite their severe flaws.

Exploring the Observatory in

Unity of Ideas in Fez

When I look at Fez what I see is a gestalt that creates an exceptional sense of unity in presentation. The game is whole and explores its ideas sufficiently to fully showcase the game without exhausting our temperament. I am reminded of the original Super Mario Bros in that it is a game that could be beaten in a short time but yet each piece – the art, the arrangement of the platforms, and progressive difficulty was a creative expression that created an ensemble that far exceeded it’s parts. Indeed, had one platform been off, had one level simply felt as though it was a hap-hazardous assembly of ill thought ideas the entire idea would collapse. But we do not see this with Fez, instead we see a kind of excellence found only in minute attention to detail that encourages us to immerse ourselves in the scene feeling secure that it will not disappoint us by failing to reward our explorations.

In essence, we have a game whose levels encourage a kind of tranquil enjoyment of each scene – the dog laying to sleep, the strange hieroglyphics adorning the walls, and pixel-perfect skies. The developers behind Fez certainly felt the need to reward such careful exploration as without the desire to wander about the levels solving Fez’s mind-boggling puzzles becomes nigh impossible.

That is, the process of rewarding for exploration is built into the game. On one level spinning a globe reveals hidden treasure maps. On another turning a valve lowers and raises the water table on a completely different level. Puzzle pieces reveal that what looks like decorative glyphs in the game may be a part of solving a larger puzzle. Rather than punish us for wandering beyond the linear paths and only rewarding us for progress, Fez rewards us for returning over and over again to the same places to look again. Our approach to each level is hyper-linear and this hyper-linearity creates a sense of choice not found more linear narratives.

Sidescrolling Game-Play in

The Game-Play of Fez

The stages of Fez go on far beyond what I typically expect of an independently produced title. We find such a variety of unique realms that rarely repeat their themes – haunted mansions, seasides, jungles, and libraries.

Each stage reveals such a wealth of history into the eight and sixteen-bit eras. We see tetris blocks built into the levels, Owls that look remarkably like those found in Zelda, and a story that winks at the 2D “worlds” that exist inside our computers as our hero sets off to save the world by collecting cubes all the while electronic tears appear all about him in the world.

The idea of exploring a 3D world collapsed onto a 2D plane while still allowing the user to change the plane of collapse is not a new one. Mario explored these visuals in the various Paper Mario titles. Portal, likewise explores the bizarre possibilities of physics-breaking that video game space can produce. So, like so many other games before it, Fez is not something truly new but an exploration of something that has come before.

But it is not the exploration of something new that makes Fez, or many great games great. It is once again the fact that Fez is complete, polished and a unified example of it’s kind.

May 02, 2012

Portal 2: A Rave Review

Filed under: Literary Criticism

Okay, Portal 2! What could be said about Portal 2 that wouldn’t already be known by anyone who stumbles upon this blog?

Portal 2 is amazing? That’s a given since this is a product of Valve we are talking about here. Valve just does a very good job on it’s games and Portal 2 is no different. This is a product that has been polished until not one little error remained. Every line of dialog is a pleasant suprise, every puzzle an innovative joy and I am only sad that it is so short.

For those who may have been laying beneath a rock – Portal 2 is a first-person puzzle game built using Valve’s Source engine, that is the same engine responsible for the likes of Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, and Half-Life 2. Except instead of focusing on run-and-gun gameplay, Portal uses the first-person perspective for an entirely different take. Your gun shoots portals. Left click and it sets an entrance on a wall. Right click anywhere else and you create a doorway that will take you from one space to the next.

It’s like playing in an M.C. Escher painting and the challenge is simply being able to visualize the problem of moving between point A and point B. At first this is rather simple. Shoot a portal on a wall, put another one somewhere else and hop through. But the puzzles become increasingly challenging as the game progresses requiring a great deal of creativity upon the player’s part to simply navigate the levels.

And as a companion to your trials you get a collection of some of the most delightful, twisted characters that I have seen in a game before: GlaDOS, Wheatley, and Cave Johnson exist to torment, mock, and serve up a kind of science-experiment-gone-wrong scenario as Chell (our protagonist) delves into the bowels of Aperture Science to uncover where it all began.

If I am beaming about the game it is because it is just that much fun. It has been a long while since I hit a game that I just could not put down and Portal 2 is definitely hard to put down.

The Sun I came upon the film Sunshine by way of the exemplar Moon. The latter being perhaps one of the best instances of hard science fiction that we have seen in theatres since 2001 A Space Odyssey. Sunshine, while a very good film, cannot live up to Moon simply because of some very basic plotting issues. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting science fiction flick.

Sunshine works on the premise that in fifty-some years the sun’s light has begun to dim plunging the earth into an eternal winter. In order to revive the fires of the sun, Icarus was sent to detonate a payload with “the mass of Manhattan” into the sun’s surface. This mission, for unknown reasons failed. The film begins following the second mission (Icarus II) as it retraces the steps of the Icarus I in an attempt to follow up on the same mission.

This is decidedly a psychological film — one that draws upon many past science fiction themes of the lonesomeness and vastness of space and how this conveys the minuteness of humanity in the cosmos. It is particularly interesting how involved the main cast gets into the sheer importance of their mission and the willingness to throw everything away for their mission. That said, they are very human characters, not the machismo heroes of the action-suspense genre we often see out of Hollywood.

The sun, our antagonist, plays so many roles for our heroes as they address it both as a villain who threatens the ship and with a kind of spiritual reverence held by various pagan sun gods.

The very name Icarus seems to very important to understanding the film. In the old Greek myth, Icarus is the son of Daedalus the inventor. The two are imprisoned onCrete and in a stroke of genius Daedalus constructs wings for the two to escape the island by flying through the heavens. Daedalus warns Icarus that the wings are fragile and made of wax which will melt if he flies two close to the sun. Nevertheless, Icarus is too taken up with the excitement of flight and flies higher and higher until his wings melt and he plummets into the sea.

Herein we can see the fate of Icarus the ship — a work of technological achievement sent on a mission to visit Apollo himself. In flying so close to the sun, it chances total destruction by it’s firing furnace and only by a massive aspis-styled that reflects the sun’s light.

Returning the mythical elements, the crew seem to be in awe of the sun. They spend hours watching it’s furnace glow, talk reverently about it, and dream nightmarish dreams about it’s flames.

Scene Reminiscent of 2001 A Space

The only issue with Sunshine? Besides introducing the ridiculous cliché of an accidental oxygen shortage, the third act forgets who it’s antagonist is. The sun, such a perfect villain for a man-vs-nature plot is supplanted by the mad captain of the Icarus I who boards the ship and turns an otherwise amazing film into a run of the mill slasher flick. The captain, burnt by the sun’s rays, and having lived alone aboard the Icarus I for seven years believes the sun that the sun is God and that it has commanded him to abandon the mission.

While I can appreciate the sun-god motif in the film and the interesting questions that Sunshine brings to the table about how we have related to our star over the centuries — the rabid fundamentalist captain is out of place in this film. He suddenly interrupts our story and transforms it into a battle between science and fundamentalism or man-vs-man which is not altogether what we have been promised in the first two acts.

Indeed, the violence that the deprived captain inflicts upon the crew is a merger of horror into an otherwise fulfilling film. I do enjoy the occasional cerebral horror film. However, in Sunshine I was not expecting a razor-blade wielding maniac to suddenly appear and displace the sun from it’s dominant role of antagonizing our heroes and I do not think his addition adds anything to the film other than to pad it out an extra twenty minutes.

Despite the plotting flaws, Sunshine is an excellent example of how cinematic science fiction can rise above the empty plots ofHollywood action-suspense flicks into truly masterful pieces that explore our relationships with being. I highly recommend watching it.

April 18, 2012

Okamiden - Final Impressions

Filed under: Literary Criticism


Today I finished an adventure that I had started out on just a mere 24 hours or five months earlier: Okamiden.

My initial apprehension towards Okamiden rapidly faded as I began to get into the game and realize that in it’s complexity it was far more than just a scaled down rehash of the seminal PS2 Okami. From combat, to brush strokes, to atmosphere and plotting the game has nearly everything that it’s big brother has.  


My initial impression dwelt heavily on Okami’s scaled down gameplay at it’s lack of features. I now have to eat these words. Although the button-mashing aspects of combat are scaled down to just mashing A to attack, the ease of using brush strokes on the DS makes the spirit brush an integral component of late-game combat. As I began collecting slicing, lightening, fire, and wind strokes I soon found myself combining them into effective combos: wind to knock an opponent on the ground, rain or lightening to slow and trap them, then close in with a couple of bombs and basic attacks. I would say that by the end of Okamiden it had the combative depth of Okami.

Dungeons were likewise exemplar. Puzzles made liberal use of companions special abilities and combinations of brush strokes to activate devises. I found myself taking my time in many of these places to really explore all the rooms, solve the extra puzzles and pick up every last scrap of artwork I could find. I don’t think I have so thoroughly immersed myself in the exploration aspects of a dungeon crawl since Ocarina of Time.  

Aesthetics & Plotting

Okamiden is gorgeous and I am rather surprised that the aesthetics of Okami could scaled down so perfectly to fit onto the DS’s small screen. Yet, here it is completing with music, sounds and tantalizing natural scenes.

Okami suffered one issue. It jumped the shark in its plotting. The early gameplay introduces eight-headed dragon Orochi and for the large part of the tale we believe that we are somehow fighting against this beast. Yet, we defeat him two thirds of the way through the game and are suddenly a new demon turning the progression of the story completely on it’s head. The result is a feeling that the later half of the game had been rushed and lacks the detail of the first portion of the game. The ending seems a tacked on after-story to the quest to lift Orochi’s curse.

Okamiden, on the other hand, feels like a much more complete narrative. The major plot turns are well foreshadowed and we expect these surprises – Kurow’s betrayal and the appearance of Akuro make sense from a narrative perspective.

I feel that Okamiden is a complete adventure title. Unlike the DS Zelda titles which I think attempt to be minor iterations in the overall Zelda lineup – Okamiden simply feels like a full fledge title and not a scaled down hand-held port of it’s predecessor. I hope that it sees some good success on the handheld platform and look forward to the continuation of this franchise. Kuni’s tale deserves to be told.


It was my luck that The Secret World of Arrietty came to Sioux Falls. This is my first Ghibli film that I could see in its proper setting: the big screen and I must say that it was a spectacular treat for the eyes, replete with stunning backgrounds and gracefully animated characters who play out yet another fantastical story. While Arrietty will probably not be my most favorite Studio Ghibli film, it does possess the wit, charm and magic that I expect from the creators of Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke. It’s only real lack is in it’s pacing, which seems much slower than past fare and for some may be too slow.

I happened to watch Spirited Away the day after seeing Arrietty and it occurred to me how much sense of atmosphere Ghibli creates in their films through the deep sense of place and connection that chracters have with the environment that they occupy. Ghibli certainly pays very close attention to the details in it’s stories and illustrations and I think that this sense of environment is just one example of stroytelling that makes their films so tremendously delightful.

Environment in story informs the characters and plot, or at least it should if the author is paying any attention to their setting. A character who is actually living in their world will face the unique limitations that their environment creates – their culture, actions, and life will all be informed by this setting. Ghibli films realize this reality in a way that so many other films simply ignore. Their worlds draw upon the ambient emotions that nature’s many forms (violence, tempered, serene, and sublime) create in the human psyche. Let me take a quick glance at a few Ghibli films and illustrate how this plays out:

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke

The atmosphere of Mononoke drips of the time when the wilds were an alien and unforgiving place for mankind. Early on in the film we see the difficulties that civilization has sought to overcome: the danger of predatory animals (Moro), the difficulty in navigating the wilds (the muddy and treacherous caravan trips), and deadly weather. Yet, nature still possesses a sense of serenity. The Emishii peoples seem to live a harmonious existence with nature as does San.  The characters who find nature the most brutal are the ones who act the hardest to work contrary to their environment. Overall, the scenes create an atmosphere that mimics the internal difficulties of each scenes principal characters. For the caravaners the woods is a dangerous, frightful place but in the hands of Ashitaka the woods becomes a land of delightful and helpful spirits – the differences not in the woods, but in how the characters approaches dealing with their sense of place in the natural world.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

Since Spirited Away takes place in a bath house and not the wilds we see a very different approach to place. The bath house of Yubaba is a fusion of Japanese and Chinese aesthetics that exaggerates the more gaudi elements of Chinese style and completely abandons Buddhist simplicity in everything but its depictions of the natural world. The bath house is simply an extension of Yubaba, who is a greedy and gluttonous crone. We see these characteristics not only in her employees but reflected back to them by Noh-face who absorbs the essence of the place as he stumbles about eating the staff and flinging gold about. Not until he disgorges the filth of the bath house can he go back to his simpleness.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Arrietty in the

The world of the borrowers takes on a much more realistic charm that lies less in the fantastical elements as much as trying to showcase how the borrowers would interact with their gargantuan environment. Arrietty’s family lives in the walls of houses where they make their way about using ropes, nail staircases, and simple free-climbing techniques in an adventurous method that reminds me of real-world caving. They “borrow” from their environment as they take only what they need from the Beans who they both live beside and in fear of. I think in Arrietty we see a kind of modern Emishii where their lifestyle nurtures a kind of connectedness to their environment that emphasizes a sense of propriety over taking only what is needed while leaving the superficial (the gaudy playhouse) behind.

February 10, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

Filed under: Literary Criticism

The Secret World of Arrietty

I saw the trailer to The Secret World of Arrietty when I went out to watch The Muppets back in November. Now mind you, I was out on Thanksgiving break visiting my folks in the frigid north of Escanaba, Michigan. The Northern Midwest is not know for its taste in eclectic films – theaters up there typically run the top selling Hollywood flicks of the week and little more. So you can imagine my delight to see a Studio Ghibli film being advertised in such a mainstream venue!

It seems that this is a new move for Disney, which according to The Ghibli Blog, will be promoting the film with a release in 1,200 theaters this month.  Unfortunately, from what I can find: there is no release scheduled for Sioux Falls. So I’m either going to have to drive or wait for the DVD release.

On a lark, I went out to WestMall7 and choose to watch whatever film happened to be airing. Now, WestMall7 is Sioux Fall’s second-run theater. Its good for its cheap popcorn and cheaper tickets. Although, much of the popcorn seems to end up on the floor in this place and  The seat cushions, I believe, are from the 1980s – the springs long worn out.

I have been avoiding WestMall7 for the last couple of months on account of there being no good films out. The Christmas flicks have yet to hit the screen and the flicks that aired between the summer blockbusters and the holidays are a rather large collection of duds. I settled on The Darkest Hour as what seemed the least worst film.

The Aliens Arrive in the Darkest

The Darkest Hour is about a group of early twenty-some-things trying to escape Moscow after an attack by an alien force. The film follows the fairly routine alien invasion that we have come to expect from the offspring of The War of the Worlds. Although, unlike Independence Day which attempted to modernize War of the Worlds with a computer virus rather than biological virus – The Darkest Hour falls into a distinct escape from the invisible monster scenario.

I expected this film to be one of the laughably bad kinds. The marketing department that designed this film must have thought that the audience wants to bond with Mark Zuckerberg impersonators and  the bubbly-headed American tourist girls who seem terrified to be outside of their home country.

Empty characterization aside, some of the ideas in The Darkest Hour are rather interesting and if the writers explored these ideas in a more unique manner (rather than hacking together a cookie cutter sci-fi flick) we would be walking away with a much different impression of the title.

For example, the aliens of The Darkest Hour are energy-based life forms. This idea has been explored in written and televised works, but never in this much depth. The characters face a difficult challenge in defeating and understanding an opponent that is essentially invisible and detectable only through the destruction is creates and side-effects that it has on electrical equipment.


Nevertheless, these ideas are never really explored. The protagonist explains them away in narration – why they want to attack earth is never explored, but just given to the audience, much like the characters are given each of their solutions to the alien threat. Midway through the film, after just days from the initial alien attack, mad scientists suddenly appear seemingly anticipating the attack and armed with portable electron guns and protective faraday cage hideouts. Militias appear who seems to have a deep understanding of their invisible opponents and have developed technologies and tactics to defeat these invaders that belay more skill and artifice than could be learnt in a weekend.

Hence the largest issue in The Darkest Hour: pacing. The protagonists shelter during the early invasion in a cellar and emerge a week later. In that time, it seems they have been transported twenty years into the future.

Other issues abound. The protagonist discovers that the aliens are blinded by glass. Yet the writers ignore this fact when the aliens, from the street, spot the characters rummaging inside an apartment building hundreds of feet away. Likewise spatial logic is redundant as one character falls off a boat and ends up transported miles away across the city. Are we to suppose that upon reaching shore she decided to walk away flee from her companions rather than attempt to meet up with them at their destination some hundred yards down river?

I am glad that it was a mere three dollars to see The Darkest Hour and I should hope that in the future such ill thought works can be kept to the SyFy channel.

Margaret Thatcher as Portrayed in the Iron

I recently attended a showing of The Iron Lady at the bequest of my girlfriend. I was initially reluctant to see such a production – not because of some distaste for a biopic of Margaret Thatcher, but because I feared that it would just be a simple film riding on the coattails of last year’s The King’s Speech.

The King’s Speech won four Oscars last year and for a very good reason. It is an eloquently produced work illustrating the changing political climate of Britain as it transitioned from the Victorian into modern times. Yet, here we are one year latter with yet another film about yet another British ruler. How can I not consider this a grab on the prior work’s success?

Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that The Iron Lady can stand upon it’s own accord. I knew little of Margaret Thatcher going into the film, save that she was an influential Conservative party politician in Brittan through the seventies and prime minister through the eighties. Folks still talked and argued about her influence when I went to Oxford just a few year’s back. She seems to be a rather reviled women and yet surprisingly influential on British society.

The Iron Lady showcases a kind of highlight reel of Thatcher’s life. A few scenes from before her entrance into politics, her campaign for leadership of her party, a handful of NRA inspired terrorist attacks, the Falkland’s war, and her eventually fall from authority. Overall these scenes are rather touching and masterfully performed by Meryl Streep.

Yet, he film spends it’s time predominately dealing with her current dementia. This is surprising since there is such a wealth of material from her actual life as the first female Prime Minister of Brittan and this dementia deals so very much with her late husband who is scarcely found in her historical remembrances.

My initial response to the film was delight. As a biopic, I walked away rather inspired to hop online and research more about Thatcher. As the days pass however, I find myself more and more caught up in the film’s narrative failures in a way that I did not feel with The King’s Speech. Indeed, whereas I might go back in a few years time and enjoy The King’s Speech again – I do not think I shall do so with the The Iron Lady.


I wrote a short review about Watchmen back when the film came out in theaters and while I have read the book, I wish to address the film in particular. I will be revealing a lot of the plot devices in this one, so if you haven’t had the chance to read or watch the film, I say skip this and come back once you have.

Watchmen is to Super Hero films what Neitzche is to Nihilism. It would seem at first that Watchmen is just a grittier version of the Super Hero genre. Filled with anti-heroes, sex, violence and the dynamics of less-than-perfect humanity, the work portrays itself as being a critique of Super Hero romanticism.This may be true in the graphic novel, yet the film takes this concept slightly further in its alterations to the ending.

Through the earlier sections of the film we are introduced to a post-Neitzchian society. The ambitions of man are kept in checked by a careful balance of political power. Russia and the USA have the bomb, but the USA has Dr. Manhattan – a superman with the power to see through time, cause people to explode, and any number of other powers. This superman is Neitzche’s ubermensch. Yet, his mastery is bent to the futile intrigues of his surroundings and he has become disconnected with mankind and he begins to see past man and into their empty, futile attempts to placate fate. The greater part of society is now living post-god in which man exists not in fear of some retributive all-powerful deity, but must only fear the retribution of his fellow man. Such fear was kept in check for a while by the threat of the vigilante”Watchmen,” who superseded the law authority to enact retributive justice upon lawbreakers.

Here is that central theme of Watchmen: is there any justice at all? Certainly it seems in the text that the justice of the political fails to address the people’s needs to see justice served. Society is rank with villainies such as robberies, murders, rapes, and muggings. The Watchmen, more or less, are also not the answer to justice as each of them pursues their own particular view of justice which in the end is merely self-serving. Heroes such as Silk Spectre or the Comedian are merely in it for the fame and power and Nite Owl is fueled by a sense of wishy-washy moralism that exists more out of expediency than the virtuous determination we see among Super Heroes. We see fellows trying to rise up to the status of Nietzsche superman. They establish these self-made virtues but cannot follow through with them, and so fall back into the line of the society of men. Watchmen’s society is thus that of a nihilism, not Nietzsche’s self-determinant society of supermen and the answer in Watchmen is not that of the existentialist, but of the necessity of re-establishing God in order to keep man in line.

Look at the film’s end. Viedt’s mastermind plot is to subvert nuclear war by attacking first. He nukes all of the super power’s city centers using weapons designed to look like Dr. Manhattan’s unique radioactive signature. These attacks force society to re-evaluate itself and come together in the realization that they have much larger threat to mankind: Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan is thus God incarnate, a new kind of messiah who saves not through sacrificing himself, but by sacrificing the rest of the world. This is the vengeful God of the old testament who will suffer none of the squabbles of humanity. By providing the world with this new-found maker of miracles (or ought I say plagues), Viedt reveals that God is very much alive and he is a giant blue man.

Dr. Manhattan, fed up with meaningless bickering of mankind, leaves earth for the sterility of the heavens where Viedt can assure the people of earth he is watching over them carefully. Again that father-figure is restored into culture and the nihilist society is resolved not by truth but by the re-establishment of a great lie.

Rorschach, however, is our true super hero. The man who is fighting for truth and very much believes in justice. Viedt, and ultimately Nite Owl believe in alleviating suffering not the upholding of an abstraction like justice. In the world of the Watchmen there is no place for a man who truly believes that there is justice. Such a man would be absurd or “nuts” as Rorschach is referred to by his fellow super heroes. Yet if we superimposed Batman, Superman, Spiderman or any other superhero into this space they to would be seen as hopelessly naive at first, and if the hopelessness of society didn’t drive them to the madness of Rorschach then they would be rather unbelievable. No, Rorschach is representative of a desire for a just world. He wants a world that is more than just nice, where people are pleasant and freed from suffering. He wants a world were justice is seen to and the people virtuous. Such a man cannot live long in the mockery that Viedt creates: the world of lies that we live in as we tell ourselves that all is right and just in the world. In the end, Rorschach is killed by Dr. Manhattan because there is no place for a just man in such a world.

Apollo's Song

I recently procured a copy of Apollo’s Song which, like many of Tezuka’s works, is printed in a thick 500+ page single volume. The first English run was in 2007, and currently is out-of-print according to Amazon. Nevertheless, Vertical has a good reputation for keeping its library in print and has republished the text in a two-volume series.

Apollo follows the lives of Shogo, a young boy whose admitted to a psychiatric hospital for his atrocious abuse of animals. Due to an abusive upbringing by a prostitute, Shogo is unable to love and finds the pairing of even animal mates repulsive. During his first treatment of shock therapy, Shogo experiences a vision in which he is visited by Athena, the greek Goddess of wisdom. She foretells to Shogo that because of his transgressions against love he will be denied the sanctity of love – in every life that he finds a women to love, the two of them will be divided and perish shortly thereafter. The remainder of the text follows Shogo through each of these lives lived: WWII, a present-day Eden, the present “real” world, and the future. In each of these lives Athena’s fate follows him in an endless tragedy.

We must keep in mind the time period in which Tezuka is writing: the 1970s which at least some sources hint at being fairly conservative towards educating Japanese children about sexuality and is following up on his, perhaps more artistically complex Ode to Kirihito. For coming so late in Tezuka’s career, I am suprised by Apollo. The art is very much a throwback to his earlier works. Characters, on Scout McCloud’s big triangle, are quite a bit further away from resemblance – they are far more abstracted and morphic. This can, at times, distract from the seriousness of Apollo’s pathos. Perhap’s Tezuka’s throwback to his earlier days is because Apollo is a much more positive encounter with Tezuka than his medical dramas, which often focus on the brutality and selfishness inherit in the human character. If we were to find ourselves living in the world of Kirihito alone we would find it a brutal, uncaring existence filled with selfishness and cruelty and very much lacking the friendship and love that Tezuka attempts to address in Apollo.

The nature of manga publication in the United States is that it is a youth-dominated market and the youth want what’s hot and new in Japan today. This leaves those of us who are more interested in manga from a cultural perspective in the dust as, short of learning Japanese (or French), we have little access to some of the older volumes such as the works of Tezuka, Tatsumi, or Matsumoto. For this reason, I must continue to sing endless praise for the fine work of the editors over at Vertical, Inc. who have been faithfully translating the ovouer of our good Tezuka.    

Last month I composed a short essay detailing what I consider the “Exploration” game or “Zen Garden” game. When  I composed that essay, I had a few titles in mind that I considered the seminal titles of this genre.

1. Ico

Ico Gameplay

Ico came out for the Playstation2 in 2001 and it, and along with Shadow of the Colssus has recently been re-released with a graphics upgrade for the Playstation3. Ico is ultimately an adventure-puzzle game with a light mixture of combat elements. The game is played from the perspective of Ico, a horned boy who is imprisoned in a gargantuan tower. After freeing himself from his immediate cell, he meets Yorda, a magic girl who unlocks the massive stone doorways that block Ico’s escape from his jail.

The game play focuses on the difficulties of navigating the collapsing tower. Ico can climb, jump, and fight. Yorda can open the doors, but otherwise must be led by the hand through each level, and helped up walls. On top of that, if she is abandoned for too long shadows creep up from the ground and try to make off with her.

Since the puzzles themselves focus to heavily upon the environment of the game, the tower is very lushly illustrated with hanging ropes, rotting wooden buttresses, and bridges that stretch over blue watery coast. The player must spend his time examining the space, moving through it, and puzzling over how the space can be surmounted.

2. Shadow of the Colossus

This brilliant title by the same studio responsible for Ico is oft cited as an excellent example of how video games could be elevated to an refined art form.

Shadow of the Colossus takes the adventure game and simplifies it down to one aspect: boss battles. The game plays through sixteen battles with the hulking colossus – gargantuan roaming creatures who each present a unique and puzzling challenge to overcome. Yet, to reach each of the colossus the protagonist must first journey on horseback through an empty, expansive wilderness. The land is covered in toppled ruins, lush forests, and flowing steams. The colossus themselves are often gentle creatures and their deaths are pathos laden affairs that hint at a less than virtuous conquest.

Like IcoSotC is a puzzle game merged with the real-time over-the-shoulder elements of the action-adventure genre. It’s elevated into the realm of exploration by both its lavish detail to the landscape and it’s atmospheric emphasis.

I must sadly admit, I never completed Link to the Past and so I must put forth Link’s Awakening as the best of the Legend of Zelda 2D iterations. The Link to the Past is the definitive exploration game. The world begins first with Link awakening on a small island where he is confined to a small space by the necessity of finding the tools (sword, bow, shield, &c) that will open up more of the island. The game is riddled with little mini-games, sidequests, and clever level design that fits together like a massive puzzle.

Like Link to the Past and the original Zelda, Link’s Awakening plays from an isometric perspective. Link runs about in real-time, and unlike the traditional J-RPG, combat takes place in the over world through sword swings, arrows, and shield blocks. The other item that makes Link’s Awakening stand out over the J-RPG is the attention to detail. The realm is very lush, precisely arranged with deep care. The action-adventure game play removes the elements of grinding that have come to dominate the RPG genre.

4. Okami

Okami Gameplay

I saw Okami in 2004 at E3 and it was easily the best title on the show floor. Okami builds on the action-adventure elements of Ocarina of Time – 3D adventure title with real-time combat, item collection, clever dungeon puzzles, big boss battles, and an amusing combat system. Then it adds some new spices to the mix such as a creative Ukiyo-e look, J-RPG styled combat zones, and a healthy heaping of traditional Japanese myth. This creates a game that in every way embodies the idea of world exploration found in the Zelda series but also sets it apart with a much more mature tone and unique setting that defines Okami as a distinctive story-space from Zelda. It isn’t just aping it’s predecessor’s gameplay, it is attempting to refine it into new form.

I started to dig through the noitaminA block of Anime from the last few quarters to see if anything got a good review on ANN. I find that anything from noitaminA and gets a large volume of tens has a tendency to live up to my expectations. What I stumbled upon was Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai or We Still Don’t Know the Name of the Flower We Saw That Day. I am perplexed by the length of this title. I find Japanese titles often end up being oddly long before domestic translators get a hold of them and chop them down to size. I don’t even think we could turn this into a acronym AHMHNBMS?). I’ll call it Ano Hana for now. Below consists of my initial impressions of the first episode.

The whole Gang from Ano

The production value of Ano Hana is, akin to most noitaminA productions: very high. The backgrounds are rich and complex with a healthy mixture of colors. The character designs are varied and animations rather well done. That said, my initial impression is to be unimpressed with Ano Hana.

We get a fairly good outline of Ano Hana’s plot in the first episode. Menma died in a childhood accident, her ghost returns to Jinta to ask for a wish to be granted. The young ghost forgets the wish and instead tries to get the, now older, Jinta back together with his childhood friends. Jinta, a shut-in, has little interest in going out to socialize with his old friends who have drifted apart becoming shallow and vain teenagers. This plot seems far too ripe with pathos for the age of the cast. The flashbacks to their childhood, which is really just a few year’s prior, held little power when I realized that the characters still had a long, productive life ahead of them. At least Ebenezer Scrooge was visited after a long, unproductive life when we can actually feel sad for his having wasted it. Such makes the meager few years that Jinta and company spend saddened by Menma’s demise paltry in comparison.

Moe in Ano

A large part of my dislike surrounds the character of Menma – a frail looking stick of a girl who is definitely of the

Moe character type. Her design is reminiscent of K-On! or Sora no Woto and showcases a similar characterization to K-On!’s female cast. A full analysis of why I do not particularly care for Moe would require more space than I wish to go into right now. In simplest terms: I feel that reliance upon such pre-built characters tends to generate a very shallow story, one that I have seen before and have no interest in going through over and over again. Anaru, Yukiatsu, and Tsuruko also seem like rather shallow characters, the caste is only saved by my interest in the character of Poppo who appears at the very end of the episode. Suddenly, I have a character who I might be able to relate to and find interesting enough to continue through the entire series.

Cover of The Rebel by Albert

After several months of video game reviews, let’s take a look at something entirely different, a text that is a rather appropriate capstone to the events of 2011: Albert Camus’s The Rebel.

In The Rebel, Camus examines the history of the revolutions in Europe – starting with the French Revolution in the late 18th century which deposes the Divine Right of Kings, forever altering the role of religion in the state and ultimately the faith of the cultural revolutions of the dandy’s rebellion against Victorian society, the Marxist/Russian revolutions of the 19th century and the culmination of these revolutions with the nihilism expressed in Nazi Germany.

Through this examination of history, Camus examines the ethics of the rebel. He establishes the causes of rebellion, why rebellion ultimately becomes violent anarchy, and illuminates the reasons that we will most likely not see a return of these rebellions in western society.

In reviewing the international news events of the last year, we can definitely see this: uprisings in the Egpyt spreading over toLibya. Rioting over austerity in Greece and Brittan calumniating in the OWS encampments in the United Statesover similar issues. Yet, in the west the response has been much more tempered than the violence in Libya. As Camus points out, the rioters in the West, while displeased with the failure of the state are also very much interdependent on the success of the state. They cannot simply tear down the market system without tearing themselves down as they forfeit their livelihoods and retirement benefits.

In light of these events, it is a good idea to sit down and examine the successes and failures of past rebellions. Hence, Camus’ 1951 text is a very timely, timeless text to pursue. Camus recognizes that a successful revolution requires temperance by the rebel – a willingness to recognize that the state has wronged them, but to not fall to criminality in response to the state. When the rebel revokes limits and is willing to engage in the self-same murder that he accuses the state, then he also revokes his own legitimacy. The limitless rebel creates the various revolutionary disasters that we see inRussiaduring Camus time, and in more contemporary times,Central America.

The Rebel is also an easier read than his earlier work, The Myth of Sisyphus. The later work requires a much more complete understanding of Existentialist philosophy (namely, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche). Whereas, The Rebel relies upon a much more common historic background that less philosophically inclined readers are more likely to possess or could easily be researched through a brief glimpse at Wikipedia’s entries on the French and Russian Revolutions. A general understanding of Hegel’s concepts of history and it’s importance to 19th century ideologies as well as a general overview of Nietzche’s master/slave dialectic can help with the reading, but are not necessary.

Last week’s reflections on Okamiden upon the game’s qualities resurfaced an old musing regarding games. I am very particular about the games that engross me through thirty or sixty hours. Most games, by some aspect of their design, fail to illicit such a strong emotional response. What are the qualities of these games? What aspect of the design of say Super Mario 64 illicits such a strong response whereas Rachet & Clank brings out little to no response.

The feeling of playing Okamiden is different from playing Call of Duty. I am an avid World at War player and can easily sink a hundred hours of multiplayer game play over the course of a year. Yet, there is no resonance with Call of Duty. There is frustration, truimph, and overall competition. I play such games to build up a skill set and use it to triumph over other players. Nevertheless, victory is fleeting. Like any sport, the match is reset, I play again. Each round is unique with different opponents, different permutations of strategy. It is fun to play such games, but they are not fulfilling. The need to play is endless because each round brings on the next in an endless series that never draws up into some telos.

Massive Multiplayer Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) come in the same spirit as the first person shooter, abet without the sense of competition. In the MMORPG, the player begins the game and progresses up a ladder of levels, exploring new spaces and expanding a repertoire.  In this genre (World of Warcraft, Eve:Online, Graal), I never got into the ‘end-game.’ The repetitiveness of the game-worlds eventually drove me away, but not before I could explore the space where these games take place. These titles are better, but still do not capture the sensation I find in Okamiden.

Okamiden Gameplay

The obvious answer is that Okamiden is a single player title, whereas Call of Duty and World of Warcraft are multiplayer title. This is a correct observation, I only bring up these multiplayer titles as examples of other titles I actively play and to say that while they engross my attention they never leave me wistfully recalling my experiences with the game. 

What is different?

This question, I think is much larger than I first thought. Indeed, in answering I think we ought to dispense first with the rather clumsy system of genres that journalists and developers have hobbled together over the years. First-person shooter, adventure game. platformer, puzzle game. These categories define aspects of game rules whereas I am thinking about something much more ambiguous since this element is found in both the earliest Mario platformer to the puzzles of Ico and combat orientated of Muramasa. Certainly, it would not hurt to transgress the history of games to see where first this element arises.

In the late seventies with the games like Adventure and more importantlyZorkappear on the scene,. I wish to address Zork since this title I do have experience with. Zork is an interactive narrative. That is it. You read the paragraphs of text, pick out nouns such as “mailbox,” or “rock” and then experiment with simple verbs such as “open,” “pick up,” or “throw.” The game world exists on a sheet of scrape graphic paper or only in the player’s mind if they have a memory for it. The text-based adventure game eventually becomes the graphical adventure game with titles like Myst where the player clicks about the screen. The gameplay of Myst is altogther like that of Zork, but what once was a text parser is now represented through icons.

How are these titles related to Okami and Zelda? They rely upon a narrative to drive the game foreward. Gameplay exists as logical puzzles rather than hand-eye-reflex coordination. Zelda is sometimes catalogued as an Action Adventure title for this very reason. Nevertheless, so is Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto, and God of War. Zelda shares very little in similarity to these latter titles, indeed there is more ressonance between Zelda and Zork then Zelda and GTA. Action Adventure is not a good definition for Zelda because so often it is Action that is emphasized over Adventure in Action Adventure titles.

The early Adventure games focused upon narrative since their entire world must be expressed to the player through description and exposition. Zelda, like Zork focuses on description and exposition particularly relating to the exploration the space game takes place in. God of War, GTA, however, focus on the action and in particular the actions of the protagonist. Moreover, there is a larger aspect to the spatial arrangement of titles like Okami and Zelda. Namely, that they present themselves as a kind of Zen Garden.

Zen Rock

I need to find a copy of Andre Vestal’s The History Of Zelda or David Shaff’s Game Over. The first, a gamespot article, seems to have disappeared and the latter unavailable to me from the local library. I will have to resort then, to wikipedia:

“The Legend of Zelda was principally inspired by Shigeru Miyamoto’s explorations as a young boy in the hillsides surrounding his childhood home in Sonobe, Japan where he ventured into forests with secluded lakes, caves, and rural villages. According to Miyamoto, one of his most memorable experiences was the discovery of a cave entrance in the middle of the woods. After some hesitation, he apprehensively entered the cave, and explored its depths with the aid of a lantern. Miyamoto has referred to the creation of the Zelda games as an attempt to bring to life a “miniature garden” for players to play with in each game of the series.” (Wikipedia)

The Legend of Zelda is precisely this, a recreation of the natural world or a “pocket garden” as other Miyamoto interviews put it. This garden aspect makes the childhood encounter with nature a centrifugal aspect of the gameplay. The arrangement of the levels intended to create the miniature abstraction of landscapes found in the zen rock garden. The closer then that a level design adheres to this idea the greater the calming and exploratory aspect the game takes on. Thus we see this aesthetic in the Japanese titles of Okami, Zelda, Mario, Ico, and Shadows of Colossus. We see this less often in the western designs, but rather get God of War and GTA – action driven versus reflective-driven titles. Nevertheless, western developers do approximate this effect in titles like Elder Scrolls, Myst, or Banjo & Kazooie (in fact, I could argue that no platforming title can have good level design without some stumbling upon these principles).

I would call this category the Zen Garden or Exploration Game and I see these titles as the aesthetic pinnacle of game design.

November 23, 2011

Top Picks for X-Mas 2011

Filed under: Literary Criticism

I suppose it’s not really news that the 2011 Christmas season for game releases is somewhat excellent this year around. Studios always seem to hold out on their big-budget titles until around this time of the year, so let’s examine my top five picks for this year:

4. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I played Elder Scrolls Oblivion back when it first came out. The graphics Skyrim’s predecessor blew me away and I spend countless hours wandering about the countryside in search of herbs. Unfortunately, collecting herbs and perfecting non-combat skills in Oblivion just got you killed as your opponents would all level up to match you’re supposed new combat prowess. Later mods for the game would resolve a lot of the launch issues, transforming it into a much more enjoyable experience. For this reason, I’m sticking away from Skyrim until the mod community has had a swing at it. That said, the graphics and in-game footage that I have seen so far blows me away.

3. Super Mario Land 3D

I have yet to pick up a 3DS, and I most likely will not be picking one up anytime soon on account of the plethora of unopened DS titles on my shelf. Handhelds have always been in my sweet spot for games, and a lot of experimental titles seem to hit handhelds – and thus by wallet. If I had a 3DS, I would most likely be picking up Super Mario Land 3D. The previews that I have seen so far make the game out to be the successor of Super Mario 64. Anything that gets us more of the traditional Mario experience and away from Miyamoto’s more experimentive (Mario Sunshine?) titles would be good in my book.

2. Mario Kart 3DS

Maybe I ought to get a 3DS, there seems to be a lot of items on my list that are coming out for it. I’ve played the Mario Kart series all the way back to the SNES and I have found every iteration of the formula to be refreshing and extremely fun.

1. Legend of Zelda, Skyward Sword

You should’ve seen this one coming. I am extremely excited about Skyward Sword. Accounts from friends say that it is reminiscent of Ocarina of Time and with a story of equal measure. In particular, I am excited for the first Zelda title that was designed for the Wii hardware.

A quick post to point out that there is a new article,  examining my early impressions of Okamiden, over at The Wind-Up Culture Blog. I actually have new material lined up for the next few weeks on the blog, and I plan on making it a point to update the site at least once a week with new material throughout the winter.

Drifting in the Sea is still on hiatus. I am not sure if I want to continue the current plotline, or devote what little time I have into working my comic adaptation of the Saga of the Volsungs, and complete the series of Weird short stories that I began last year on my road trip across the southwest.

In other news, many of my first sites at Gage E-Services will start to roll out over the next few weeks. I have a lot of work done adding modules, and fixing items on existing client sites – but these will be projects that I worked on from the early design stages up through completion. I am very excited about this.

November 16, 2011

Okamiden - First Impressions

Filed under: Literary Criticism


I am six hours into Okamiden right now or roughly a quarter of the way through the game. Considering Okami is one of my favorite games for the PS2, Okamiden as a sequel has some very big shoes to fill. My initial impression of the game was just how similar Okamiden is to it’s big brother. It replicates many of the game environments from its predecessor, the brush-manipulating game-play techniques, and graphical styles. Yet, it does this in a very paired down system and it can be difficult to judge Okamiden harshly because it’s landscapes are more restrictive, combat less frantic, or content less grandiose.

After a few hours, the comparisons drift aside and I can enjoy Okamiden for what it is – a very fun adventure title that captures all of the witty plots, beautiful scenery, clever puzzles, and elaborate art of it’s predecessor. I am even glad to see such a faithful recreation of Okami’s setting since returning to Shinshu fields and Kamiki village brings back a very fond memories of the other games. I get a great deal of delight in reconnecting with the characters of Mr. Orange, Susano and Issun – much like meeting friends whom you haven’t seen for a long while over for lunch. In many ways, this gives_ Okamiden_ the feel of an after-story, or a kind of prologue to the events of Okami in which the protagonist revisits the places where he has been in a kind of mini-adventure, such as when Frodo returns to Hobbiton in The Lord of the Rings.

The plot generally follows that of Okami: great evil sweeps over the land, demons abound and the wolf-god Chibiterasu, the descendent of Akamatsu (Okami’s protagonist) must go about the world cleansing it of the presence of demons and restoring the land to health so that the cherry blossoms and bloom again. The strength of the plot is that it keeps pulling you back to old characters and developing them throughout the game rather than pushing the protagonist out into a world of generic cardboard characters and endless scenery changes. I expect to return to the village of Kamiki and Yakushi time and again throughout the game as I chase over old hunting grounds on new quests. This sense of place found in the Okami series captures the spirit of Ocarina of Time better than any of the Zelda titles that attempt to homage that N64 title.


The aesthetic experience of Okamiden recalls the Edo-period wood-block prints of Japan with tapered outlines and a very warm solid palette of colors. However, recreating the style of Okami on the DS’s limited hardware causes some issues. Frame-rates for character animations seem rather low giving Chibiterasu a bit of a jumpy walk and causing combat to be disorientating. The maps are also cut into very limited spaces requiring load times when stepping from one space to the next and interactive objects only loading into view once Chibi is nearly standing upon them. Okamiden could have taken a note from the old Super Mario 64 title which has much more seamless loading transitions.

Despite these fallbacks, I would say that Okamiden is beating out all of the DS Zelda titles for the crown of “best” DS Adventure game. I am looking forward to playing through it to the end and getting back with a final report.

Most of my favorite web comics are ones that I discover near the end of their runs. Michael Poe’s Exploitation Now!, Josh Phillip’s Avalon, or It’s Walky – I stumbled upon these near the end of their runs where I could sit down and spend several days reading through the archives. This last month, I embarked upon reading through the archives of two of my favorite web cartoonists: Michael Poe and Fred Gallagher.

The experience of reading through an archive is vastly different from following along as the comic is created. Often in the daily wait between new pages months or even years can go by between the appearance of minor characters and stretching long, convoluted plots out over months can cause many of the subtle details to be lost.

I prefer to read the archives online. I do buy the print editions to help the artists, but I find that one of the great aspects of web comics is that necessary beat – a brief “ah” while you wait for the next page to load. This gives me a moment to reflect upon the events of that page, to get caught up on the cliff hanger, and appreciate the art. A printed book is too easy to skip ahead, the pages fly by in a blaze. I try to remember to give that beat with a print comic and pause before I turn the page. Nevertheless, print artists fail to fully utilize that beat as effectively as web cartoonists.

Michael Poe’s Exploitation Now! was my introduction to web comics. I loved watching how the art and characters progressed from sketchy, one-dimensional creations into a complex fleshed out world. I am also rather impressed with Poe’s dark sense of humor that seems to fixate at times upon the more disgusting aspects of bodily existence. Poe’s more recent work, Errant Story, I liked not as much. In rereading the work from the beginning, I begin to understand why. In following the story the first time, I became confused by the complex place names and history. I became lost. In rereading the work, I caught all the history, all the characters and found myself actually enjoying the work just as much as Exploitation Now!.

Fred Gallagher’s Megatokyo, I began reading in 2004 and since then it has added nearly a thousand new pages. In all the mess of filler art days, guest strips, and hiatuses I became rather lost in the main storyline. Following it through a second time, I see why I enjoyed the work. Though it’s a long story and at present, I am only up to 2002.


Continuing the sword-collecting series, I take a look at Muramasa for the Nintendo Wii. Before I begin, let me get it out of the way. I am a big fan of Vanillaware’s previous title, Odin Sphere, and the overall design philosophy of revisiting the game design challenges of two-dimensional design. It was a sad day when developers jumped ship for three-dimensional graphics, and I find it nice that there are still a few developers out there who, like me, would rather see the processing power of our new consoles put to envisioning the advances of the older two-dimensional genres.

In the case of Muramasa the current-generation variation of the side-scrolling action games revisits the action of the arcade days of yore. With the new technology however, comes an even faster-paced gameplay as dozens of enemies swarm across the screen swinging swords, throwing ninja stars, and battling the player. All of this is mixed together with a RPG-styled leveling system that encourages item collection.

My first impression of Muramasa is the sheer depth of the artwork which unravels like a fine painting. The orchestrated music fits perfectly with the gameplay enhancing the appreciation of the game’s atmosphere which drips from the screen into my eyes. Odin Sphere focused on variety by telling the tales of different characters each with unique fighting styles. The result was a bit rough. Some character’s combat systems were rock solid, others felt hacked together. Muramasa solves this by focusing on just two characters at their Obarahu style combat. The result? A very well polished combat system that is a thrill to play.

Combat in

Not everything is good in Muramasa. Some of Odin Sphere’s mechanics were sadly cut. Planting fruit to grow new items, a mechanic I loved, is now gone; an unbalanced difficulty system gives you the choice of slicing through enemies like butter, moderate strategy, and insanely difficult; platform jumping is difficult to predict due to an unclear collision detection beneath the hand-drawn character sprite; and the battles can get tedious if played for a long sitting. Nevertheless, I would say Muramasa is the best third party Wii title out there – even though it makes no use of any Wii-specify hardware.

Following Super Mario Galaxy and Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, I began Katanagatari and Muramasa – a show about collecting swords and a game about collecting swords! Similar plots match similar settings, as both series are set in the early Genroku period shortly after the shogun unite the warring kingdoms of Japan. This week, I’ll take a look at Katanagatari.

In Katanagatari the protagonists, Togame the “Strategian” convinces Shichika, a swordsman (more like a marital artist) to help her collect twelve deviant blades of Shikizaki – whose power is fabled to grant dominion over the world if collected together. Together they travel Japan in an episodic battle-of-the-week format challenging ninja, swordsmen, and pirates to duals over these fabled swords.

I tend to avoid fighting animes because of the tendency for fight to dominate the episode. After all, if an episode has 25 minutes to both tell a story and showcase an epic battle, than the story tends to become little more than an excuse for fighting. Katanagatari escapes this flaw through it’s 50 minute episode length. With all this extra time, Katanagatari’s conversations can reach Bakemonogatari-lengths. This gives the work a much more feature-film-like pacing as we get to know the characters through long conversations over meals, bathing, and other breaks that typically won’t make it into the frantic pace of shorter animes.

Katanagatari's Protagonists

White Fox, a relatively new studio showcases some amazing production values in the animation. Katanagatari’s character designs are unique and take some time to accept. This design focuses on simple characters with few, yet bold, lines and unornamented eyes that harkens back to the character designs of Osamu Tezuka. It is still common to see such designs in a lot of manga, nevertheless the interpretation of manga into animes often results in a bit of more (often unnecessary) flourish.

Landscapes of Katanagatari

The backgrounds are a mixed bag. Some scenes portray sprawling countryside with a very traditional feel as though each is a water-colored painting – a similar style to those we might expect in Mushishi or a studio Ghibli film. Yet, once in the scenes_ Katanagatari_ quickly lose this detail for a much flatter computer-painted appearance.

At four episodes in, I find that Katanagatari has hooked me right into the adventure. I can see why ANN rates this series so highly and I find myself surprised that I held out on watching it for so long. I would encourage anyone who is looking for a good light-hearted action anime to give this a look. It’s short, enjoyable, well drawn, well plotted, and contains some very fun characters that (so far).

I follow roughly thirty webcomics on a daily basis. I say roughly because this number tends to change a lot. I cull the collection about once a year to remove comics on hiatus and comics that I grew bored with. Yet, this is counterbalanced by binging on new webcomics. Once and a while, I’ll just start clicking on ads for new comics, dig through the links on my favorite comics and discover (or re-discover) new series to read. There are a few criteria that I look for in a new comic to follow:

  1. An archive! I want to know that this comic has staying power, that the artist is committed to delivering on a regular basis and won’t get bored in a month and stop posting. Generally, I like to see about a year of regular updates in the archive or at least fifty pages of comics.
  2. Coherence. Some strips are gag-a-day strips, some artists tell long epics – whatever the strip decides to do, I want to see some coherence to it. An incoherent comic tends to end up a sketch blog.
  3. They need to be good! Comics are about getting a laugh, or telling a story. If the piece just doesn’t communicate to me, than I’ll pass.

This last week I had a cold, which gave me an excellent excuse to do nothing but binge on some new comics! My findings this time included a few oldies and one newer comic:

SMBC – This one has been around for a while. I tend to stumble across it once a month, read a bunch of random comics, laugh at it, and then forget about it. SMBC is a gag strip akin to XKCD or the Farside. SMBC’s following is a lot like XKCD’s following in so far as if you have a lot of geeky friends, they will send you these strips on a regular basis. The writing is amazing. As I poured through the archives I found myself laughing harder than I have in a long while.

Girl Genius – I stumble on Girl Genius at least once a year. It’s a hard series to get into. I started on the archive dozens of times, but once I realize that there’s nearly ten years of pages to read, I quit. I don’t quit because I hate Girl Genius, I quit because I love Girl Genius, It’s an amazing story with gorgeous detailed artwork that has layers upon layers of little visual jokes worked into an outpouring of details (how they succeed at doing three pages a week, I will never know). The result is an extraordinarily visually dense work that requires slow, careful reading to fully appreciate each page. This time I surmounted the challenge of reading through the first year’s worth of pages. After that, I was too hooked to stop. The plot starts off slow, but keeps ratcheting up the tension with each page until the entire story becomes a non-stop rollercoaster.

Living with Insanity – With only two years in it’s archive, this is a new one that I stumbled across. LwI is another ‘bizarre-slice of life’ series trying to be like Queen of Wands or Questionable Content. The illustration is decent but lacks distinction from other generic computer-aided illustrations. The plotting feels like it’s just stumbling along. The story arcs in the series tend to peter out halfway through, and the humor lacks the polish of the longer running series whose footsteps LwI is following. LwI tries to make up for this with the tactics perfected by Michael Poe – gratuitous sex, nudity, and fan service. I’m going to follow it, but it will probably not last the next culling.

I started watching Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 just a few days before the quake hit Japan last month. For those who don’t know, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 depicts the aftermath of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake centered on Tokyo. The creators of the show set out to deliberately create an accurate account of what such an event would be like that is, no over-the-top anime hijinks, no racy sexuality, no big-time explosions, none of the more fantastical elements we expect from anime.

I must admit, I am not a fan of realism, and with it’s strong emphasis on realism, Tokyo Magnitude suffers the problems I find with most of the realists: reality simply doesn’t have the same sense of narrative rise and fall and real people tend to have problems that, all and all, are rather boring. The result is rather undramatic narrative that feels like a school-room educational video. There is an earthquake (tense, exciting) and then the protagonists walk home (dull).

Screencap from Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 Credits

The animation of Tokyo Magnitude is rather superb, which is what I’ve come to expect from the Noitamina block. Indeed, I must admit my initial attraction to the show stems from the title cards for the series: each card depicts the city of Tokyo in a state of ruins. I wish I knew the artist responsible for the works as they remain some of my favorite cityscape pieces.

Yet, the series fails to live up to the artwork, which is really a disappointment considering the sheer talent (Studio Bones, e.g.* Darker than Black and Full Metal Alchemist*) responsible for the show’s execution. The story pacing feels like a short OVA drawn too thin over it’s eleven episodes. A tighter plot condensing the story into three episodes would have improved the narration, particularly since so few memorable events occur in middle of the series. Nonetheless, elven episodes it is.

March 28, 2011

Super Mario Galaxy, A Review

Filed under: Literary Criticism

Super Mario Galaxy Cover Art

Having done Zelda and now Mario, I think I might end up with a long run of Nintendo-game-related articles.

Super Mario Galaxy was one of the launch titles for the Nintendo Wii back in 2006 when the system was still nigh impossible to find on store shelves. Wait a few years and it becomes surprisingly easy to find, however, not cheaper. Unlike Sony, who tends to drop their best-selling title prices soon after launch, Nintendo keeps prices high and even today a copy of Mario Galaxy runs for $40.54 on Amazon, a mere $6.37 cheaper than it’s recently released sequel. Writing a review of such an old game on a gaming-blog is probably preaching to the choir. Get used to it, I plan on writing many more articles about even older hit titles.

First Impression

Super Mario Galaxy contains the same amount of plot expoltation as the original Super Mario for the NES: a hair-thin plot of a giant turtle kidnapping a princess, and the red-suited man who goes to save her. Mario is and never was much for plots, nor should it be! Mario is all about giving someone an excuse to explore the imaginative spaces of level designers. The collecting of coins, stars, and defeating of bosses are just a thin glossing to give gamers incentives to pick around through each of the game’s many “galaxies.” Because of this, Super Mario Galaxy realizes, much better than Super Mario Sunshine, the game-play that made Super Mario 64 so compelling to play through and complete.

To get an idea of Super Mario Galaxy’s gameplay simply imagine Super Mario 64, but wrap each stage into a sphere with its own gravitational pull. Mario leaps, bounces, and flies between these spheres landing on one or another and often running up walls. Intermixed amongst this is more traditional levels in which gravity is clearly down and leaping off the edge causes death.The opening stage expresses the creative potential of the game and the gravity-bending aspects will contribute to future stages as they produce increasingly surrealistic playgrounds for exploration.

At this point in the game my only complaint is against the musical score and progression. The tempo, much faster than earlier Mario games, tended to discourage idle exploration in the earlier stages. I felt rushed to run through each level, grab the star and move on to the next level. Perhaps because of this fast tempo, the rewards in the early stages come too quickly. I collected many of the stars necessary to unlock the advanced stages in just a few hours, and (to my surprise) was able to beat the game with only 60 of the 120 stars in the game. Thus, I beat Koopa long before I even had a taste of the game’s true potential. I can imagine that this quick progression is because of the title’s launch status. If Nintendo intended this game to attract new gamers than a difficult learning curve might put them off from future game purchases.

Super Mario Galaxy Gameplay

The Mid-game

Super Mario Galaxy wins back whatever scorn I might put upon it in the latter half of the game. After beating Koopa, all new coin-collecting stages appear which encourages a much more methodical approach to the galaxies. The pacing also slows in later galaxies and the time spent completing puzzles in a level to advance and collect each star lengthens as the levels progressively get larger and more complex. The result is that the more experienced gamer who progresses on to collect all 120 stars is rewarded with a much more engaging game even while the new-comer can collect the reward of “winning” early on. Secret stars compound this by sending Mario back to old galaxies looking for alternative routes to completing each stage, and “prankster” comets mix up the levels by adding extra difficulty through time-limits, faster enemies, ghost-races, and on-hit-kills health.


It took me 20 – 30 hours of play to collect all 120 stars in Super Mario Galaxy, which puts it on par with the length of most contemporary games. As an introduction to the Nintendo Wii, I think Super Mario Galaxy makes a great game and one that I think Nintendo hoped would demonstrate the possibilities of reinvisioning older game genres with their new control scheme. It is a pity that Wii Sports became the real champion of the system rather than Super Mario Galaxy, as there is a glut of mini-game Wii titles, and very few platformers of Super Mario Galaxy’s caliber.

March 15, 2011

Zelda: Spirit Tracks Review

Filed under: Literary Criticism

Zelda Spirit Tracks Cover

As I grow older, I increasingly become one of those gamers who spends a great deal of time reading about the hobby rather than doing it. In-between becoming a curmudgeon who complains about how they just don’t make games like they used to, I find a few games that still capture my attention. Zelda: Spirit Tracks would be one such game.

I would love to speak fondly of how Spirit Tracks embodies the wide open spaces of Ocarina, or how the interlocking and complex dungeons rivaled the masterful level design of Link’s Awakening.

Unfortunately, I cannot. The curmudgeon must come out and point out how Spirit Tracks is quite literally a game on rails. The vast sweeping steppes of Hyrule which opened up for exploration in Ocarina are no more. This new system, pioneered in the previous DS title restricts Zelda’s classical theme of exploration into a mindless grind of watching scenery fly by a train’s window.

I ought to write at great length about the more Zen aspects of Zelda, how the wandering about the luscious natural settings of an adventure game mimics the experience of a Japanese rock garden. I might point out that Miyamoto once said that he hoped that the Mario and Zelda games would elicit such an aesthetic. Nonetheless, such would be for a much longer, and vastly more academic piece. I would say that Spirit Tracks retains only a shadow of these traits. Once outside of the train, there are places to walk about, but they lack real defining character and were too small to allow me to poke around and really explore the space.

Spirit Tracks is easy. This should come as no surprise as Zelda titles started sliding into the easier realm some time ago. For the old-school gamer (or the hardcore masochist) who enjoys a good round of nigh-impossible difficulty, Spirit Tracks will disappoint. Nevertheless, for those whose skills have atrophied from the demands of “adult life,” Spirit Tracks fits the mold of a good casual distraction.

The one saving grace for Spirit Tracks is its pacing. The dungeons are small, but this has the benefit of dividing the game into bit-sized chunks. Plowing through a dungeon in an hour was standard. For a short-on-time gamer, this made playing through Spirit Tracks a very enjoyable experience. It may not possess the grace of the earlier Zelda titles, but at least it is a small bone to us adventure gamers.