Thursday, October 7, 2021

"Life is Strange: Wavelengths"

 
In my review of Life is Strange: True Colors I complained (as many people have) that, as someone who comes to Life is Strange significantly for the slice-of-life (is strange) stuff, I would have liked more of that and less plot-driven investigation of the game's central mystery. I guess maybe this was intentional because it feels like a huge chunk of that element was reserved for the additional Wavelengths DLC, which was released a few weeks after the main game.

In Wavelengths, you play as Steph, fan favourite character from Life is Strange: Before the Storm and supporting protagonist of True Colors, over the course of her life working at the Haven Springs record store, Rocky Mountain Record Traders, and its attached local radio station, KRCT. Even though it's set in 2018, Wavelengths feels like the ultimate game for the pandemic lockdown era; in the course of its three-to-four-ish-hour runtime you, as Steph, spend your entire time in said radio station and record store. With the exception of the ending cutscene, you see and interact with absolutely no-one in person, all of your human contact occurring via phone calls, text messaging, dating apps and a video chat. Time, lockdown and and budgetary limitations aside (it's a bit weird that you never serve customers in the game), this is all strongly tied to the game's central exploration of the self-perpetuating effects of loneliness and the causes of self-destructive behaviour, as encapsulated in the character of Steph and her tendency to run away from any situation in life which risks becoming too serious, permanent, or intimate. I've heard it rumoured that at some point in the development there were going to be more face-to-face interactions and/or scenes outside the store and booth, but the lockdown made this impossible; if that's true, I don't think the game really suffered from lacking those elements, and is probably actually stronger as a result of it.

On the surface, Wavelengths is your usual Life is Strange fare: you wander around your environment, interact with objects to hear the player character's thoughts on them, communicate with characters (in this case purely electronically), solve simple puzzles and make choices which shape your experience of the story. And yet in some respects Wavelengths really invests in how this kind of gameplay evokes the experience of undertaking routine, predictable tasks as you perform these actions in order for Steph to do her job. This isn't exactly something new in video games, but it uses it to really capture the slice-of-life element to which I referred in my opening. Ever imagined what it would be like to run a local radio station? Well, a lot of it involves queuing music, reading boring ad copy and sitting in a small room waiting for time to pass.

I have to admit that Wavelengths, and Steph's presence in the main game, were two of the things that motivated my interest in True Colors, and I thought it was a sensible choice to take a beloved but relatively fringe character from one of the spinoffs and elevate her to a bigger role. Being able to actually play as Steph and get inside her head is better still, as the game deliberately takes what we knew about her and complicates it. Before the Storm presents her as an imaginative student, wise beyond her years with a variety of interests and a big heart. True Colors presents her as charismatic and confident, to the extent that I almost felt that the Steph of True Colors was difficult to recognise as the same character from Before the Storm. So Wavelengths really goes into examining how Steph changed over the nine years between when those two games take place, and how her struggles to deal with the experience of loss shaped her approach to life.

Initially, I expected Wavelengths to just be a humorous "here are a few days in the life of Steph" thing where you hung out at the radio station, listened to indie music and said silly stuff on the air. But it actually goes into a lot more than that about what it's like to feel unsure of yourself and your life's direction, to push people away, and to carry around unresolved grief. I really didn't expect this relatively short piece of DLC to have as much emotional weight as it did, but I honestly found it quite powerful, perhaps moreso than the main game, in which the central drama was so totally foregrounded in the marketing.

A bit like Before the Storm's "Farewell" DLC, Wavelengths differs from the main game in that there's no mystery and the narrative is pushed forward not by any kind of plot contrivance but rather by the characters' own trajectory. In this case, it takes the shape of understanding why Steph is who she is, in a way tied into the original Life is Strange (a game in which Steph didn't actually feature, as she hadn't been invented yet when that game was made). The game begins by asking if you've played the original, and if so whether you chose to save the town or not. I've obviously played the original multiple times and chosen both endings at least once, but originally decided to go with the "didn't save the town" (i.e., saved Chloe) ending, and I certainly did not expect that to feature the way it did, with Steph in that decision's course of events dealing with the death of her mother in the storm implicitly caused by Max Caulfield's use of time travel in the original game. The second time I went with "saved the town", in which Steph's trauma is instead the murders of Rachel and Chloe.

I think the first option I chose was a pretty clever move on the part of the developers because one advantage the "Sacrifice Arcadia Bay" ending has always had is that it doesn't really show you significant consequences for Max's choice. It's implied that everyone in the town was killed (and Life is Strange 2 confirmed that very many of them were) but you never really saw the consequences of that unless you played Life is Strange 2 or now; here I was transposed from the shoes of Max, sacrificing the town to save Chloe's life, in the original, to Steph's, dealing for years afterwards with the thought of her mother having been killed in the freak weather event of the original game.

As a way of exploring more from the original game's narrative I really think this was a pretty decent move on Deck Nine's part, as you find Steph scared of getting close to anyone for fear that she will lose them unexpectedly like she did her mother (or Rachel and Chloe, but more on that below), and with even her friend Mikey from Before the Storm being pushed away. We see via text message that Steph spends time with Gabe, Ryan and Charlotte from True Colors, but by setting the entire game inside the record store we get the sense that that's where she spends a lot of her time, shut away from everyone, keeping them at a distance, on the other side of the glass, caught between staying in Haven Springs as part of some seemingly half-hearted effort to get a new start and feeling the pull to again run away and do something new (which moving to Haven seems to have been in the first place).

Like all of the Life is Strange games it's testament to how well they engage with a certain kind of player (like myself) that I can have so much to say about a four hour piece of downloadable content, but the empathetic writing and the simultaneous presentation of what seems like an escape from reality with the less pleasant causes and consequences of that escape are more than powerful enough to make the experience worth contemplating. Wavelengths succeeds in this real-life stuff while also expanding upon what was only implicit in True Colors, namely that Steph was flaky and tended to drift from place to place, avoiding putting down roots. This explains why. And I wonder if this was set out from the start, and is why we were given less stuff about her backstory in the main game, or, if what I've heard is true, that the decision for the DLC to be about Steph's life was made later in the game's development, and that it's just a happy accident.

Wavelengths takes place over four seasons, starting in Spring shortly after Steph has decided to stay in Haven Springs and ending in winter on New Year's Eve of 2018, a few months before Alex's arrival in the main game, which is shown in the final cutscene. Each season is about thirty to sixty minutes of gameplay depending on how slowly you choose to take them, as you're free to wander around the record store, banter on the air and chat with the girls Steph rather futilely matches with on a dating app. It's all pretty mundane stuff, but that's what I'm here for. Spring is basically an intro to the radio station's mechanics: playing and queuing records, answering the station phone, helping people make decisions by rolling a D20 and reading ad copy, that Steph can choose to either take seriously or mock. Summer starts building upon the game's themes, with the last day of Pride Month causing Steph to reminisce about the experience of growing up as a gay woman in the northwest of the USA. Autumn (or Fall if you prefer) becomes much more somber, with a more direct representation of the consequences of Life is Strange the first on Steph's life. I have to say that the developers did a pretty good job here of demonstrating how the events of the first game might have impacted a character who hadn't been invented when the first game was developed, and I sure as hell felt bad for her. Finally, Winter concludes with Steph maybe finding a little solace after the rather difficult feelings brought up by the previous season, although still dwelling, appropriately, on the lonesome image of her popping champagne by herself at midnight, alone in the record store.

I like to play Life is Strange games slowly, one chapter or episode a day whenever I'm coming to one fresh or doing a replay, and while Wavelengths realistically is too short for this to be a sensible approach if you want a big hit of gameplay and/or of the character in one go, I did find it to be quite evocative of the "nostalgic" experience of life that the series has always captured so well, in which you know the ending is coming, and you want to see it, but at the same time you don't want it to end. I felt pretty deflated when Wavelengths did end, not because I didn't like it but rather because I enjoyed my time as Steph and wanted more, just like I did with True Colors proper. In fact, I think I probably enjoyed Wavelengths more than the main game given its slice-of-life focus and intensity of the kind of indie music that has always been so fundamental to the franchise's atmosphere. Being able to actually queue up the records every season and have them play in the background is great, and the official album or single artwork for each release is even rendered in the series' distinctive impressionist-watercolour art style. I would have liked more songs, especially in Spring where the auto-DJ defaults to crappy country and western library music, but I appreciate that that was kind of the point, and as the game goes on and Steph customises the playlist further, the automatic music becomes much more in keeping with her style.

Another significant feature of this DLC is the return of Steph's friend Mikey, also from Before the Storm, with whom she plays tabletop RPGs, this time over video chat, another pre-emptive retroactive nod to the years of lockdowns and working from home. It's good to see the character return and he's used effectively to demonstrate Steph's genuine and lasting friendships and how she doesn't always need to run away. There are also very, very brief voice cameos in Steph's recollections of Chloe and Rachel, both voiced by their Before the Storm voice actors, but this is pretty perfunctory, not that I really expected more. I think it's better to keep this stuff limited, especially as Steph is a character retconned into the story by the prequel; this implies that after Before the Storm she and Mikey would hang out with Chloe and Rachel sometimes but seemingly left before Rachel disappeared (and, depending on your choice, Chloe was murdered). It's a nice touch without going into too much detail if you haven't played the original game. I think either way it works, although the version in which she lost her mother to the storm is probably a little more believable than the loss of two friends with whom, by the time of the original game, she was presumably (had she been invented yet) no longer closely in touch.

I suppose Wavelengths gives True Colors the greater longevity and development of its secondary characters that I thought it needed, but despite featuring one of the same characters and taking place in part of the same setting it almost feels more like a separate experience in its own right, independent of the central game. I think it demonstrates a direction that the series could continue on further, i.e. focusing more on the day-to-day and exploring characters' lives in detail, and working that into a narrative in its own right. In the event that Deck Nine makes another Life is Strange game in a few years, I wouldn't object to it taking a healthy dose of inspiration from Wavelengths. I've played it through twice now, and I feel that there's probably still more optional dialogue I could unearth, but it kind of feels melancholy to think that now I really, truly have completed True Colors. I don't even want to finish writing this review because that means it's really over. Life is Strange is notorious for leaving its fans with that feeling, and this is no exception. I return to the same question I asked of True Colors: what do these games offer us that is missing in our own lives? And would we really be happier if we could be like Steph, feeling isolated and alone in a small-town radio station? What do we actually want, and where do we want life to take us? If something like Wavelengths has so much appeal, I think it speaks more powerfully than ever to the series' connection with the desire for what is simply a more emotional life, and a more emotionally experiential one, in which we can feel something, rather than just being.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

"Life is Strange: True Colors"

Shouldn't it be "Life is Strange: True Colours" in the PAL market?
 
Spoilers, for the entire Life is Strange series, obviously.
 
Anyway, I've always intended to publish a review of the original Life is Strange, one of my favourite story games (or pieces of interactive fiction) of the last decade. Yes, there's very little challenging gameplay, and the ending feels a bit rushed, and some of the dialogue reads like what middle-aged French men think American teenage girls talk like, but it has great atmosphere, strong voice acting and likeable characters. Some people don't like Chloe and I always found Max more relatable, but ultimately I thought that Life is Strange was moving and a lot of fun. That being said, I completely understand the school of thought that says that a huge part of the game's appeal is that it's a kind of "emotional intimacy simulator" above anything else which is why it has such a cult following and weirdly large fanbase of adult men. Nonetheless, having played the first game and enjoyed it as much as I did, naturally I played the sequel (by the same developers) and the prequel (by different developers), and now it's time for True Colors, the not-quite-second-sequel, developed by the developers of the prequel and featuring one of their characters.

True Colors, developer Deck Nine's second foray into the Life is Strange franchise, has the same strengths that I think form a big part of the series' appeal overall: nice atmosphere, good voice acting, and strong characters. It also has the same problem that their previous entry, the prequel Before the Storm, had, namely that it feels a bit unfulfilled and leaves you wanting more, the latter not necessarily being a bad thing, but like Before the Storm it feels like it could have been bigger. It's almost certainly the nicest-looking of the series so far, although given the tiny budgets of the original game and Before the Storm that isn't too surprising, but I still think lighting, environment and music-wise the original game had the best atmosphere.

A lot of reviews I've read have already pointed out the same things that I was feeling about the game: that it looks nice, that the characters are good but it feels like we don't spend enough time with them, that the gameplay is pretty simplistic, that the twist is stupendously obvious and predictable, and that the game feels very eager to evoke the beloved original game. It certainly feels like the game is trying to be conspicuously unlike Life is Strange 2, with that game's child protagonists, rotating cast of secondary characters, and heavy representation of American racial politics. In True Colors you stay in one place, the small cast of supporting characters is entirely consistent from the first to the last chapter, you play as an adult and you can romance one of your friends. The most political message in the game is the uncontroversial "big ruthless mining corporations are bad". The community in which the game is set is very "liberal" as Americans like to put it, with a local marijuana dispensary and and seemingly a pretty clear acceptance of LGBTQIA people, but that seems to have finally reached the point in at least some parts of America where it's no longer questioned by the average person. You play as a young woman of Asian heritage, but this scarcely comes up; it's almost completely confined to the background. And all in all, for better or worse, it feels rather safe, not interested in evoking anything like the divisive second game.

And to focus on the negatives first, I think the biggest problem with True Colors is that it's trying to feel like Life is Strange the original, without that much of its own identity. You're a young woman who is an outsider but with connections in an atmospheric small town with a dark secret under the surface. There's a murder, and you try to investigate. One thing True Colors seems to try to expand upon is Life is Strange's nascent theme of corporate greed and ruthlessness, the dangling plot thread of the original game's malevolent Prescott Foundation here replaced by the payoff-and-coverup-happy Typhon Mining Company. And the theme of governmental corruption is present here as it was in Before the Storm with the police and town council under the thumb of the criminally negligent corporation.

All this probably wouldn't matter if it weren't for the fact that, as I've said, we just don't get to spend as much time with the characters as might be beneficial. To be fair, I don't have a huge amount of patience for long, story-driven games if I'm not engaged with the characters and story, and I rarely am, but the thing that has always separated Life is Strange from other narrative-heavy games in the market is that, apart from the element of one character typically having some kind of supernatural power, and some sort of mystery or crime to investigate, they're all fairly grounded in real-world slice-of-life stuff which, as a boring overeducated man in my thirties, I find entirely more interesting than fantasy and science fiction adventures.

True Colors at its best maintains this; some of the most enjoyable parts of the game, in my view, are simple things like showing the local bar proprietor that, despite your lack of experience, you've got what it takes to check on the regular patrons; or hanging out in your apartment playing foosball with your friends; or rocking out at the annual town festival. All of this stuff, along with an extended Live Action Roleplay sequence, are where the game really shines, and I can't help but find myself wondering whether a Life is Strange game really needs a central mystery (murder or otherwise) or even too much of a supernatural element. Before the Storm certainly downplayed the latter, with vague suggestions of Rachel Amber having some supernatural potency, and Chloe's intense and disturbing dreams, being the only intrusion of the otherworldly into a fairly grounded narrative. I find myself wondering whether True Colors would have been better if it had just been the story of Alex Chen's life in Haven Springs, Colorado, and what that was like after ten or more years in the foster care system.

That brings us to the details of the game proper, which I've avoided going in depth with in my ruminations to this point, namely that in the game you play as Alex Chen, orphan and supernatural empath, who is reunited with her brother Gabe after eight years of separation, in the paradisal town of Haven Springs, Colorado. Gabe has lived in the town for a few years while growing up and trying to find Alex; he spent years in juvenile detention after stealing a car in his teens, which caused them to be separated. On Alex's first day in town, however, Gabe is killed in a landslide caused by mining blasting while they're trying to rescue his girlfriend's son, Ethan, and Alex spends the remainder of the game trying to determine why the blasting happened even after Gabe had called in to stop the detonation.

The problem with all this is that it's very predictable. And a story doesn't have to surprise me to be good; of course not. But the fact is that yes, the mining corporation was negligent, because they were desperate to cover up another accident that happened twelve years prior before the inspectors arrive, an accident which involved your (and formerly Gabe's) boss/landlord, town hero Jed Lucan, who was blatantly obvious even from the first trailer of the game as being the main culprit. When I played the original Life is Strange, as predictable as it is in hindsight, I was completely blindsided by the revelation that the affable but allegedly somewhat unprofessional photography teacher Mark Jefferson was the true villain, to the extent that I recall audibly saying "Oh, shit," when he was revealed at the end of the penultimate episode as the culprit. With this in mind, it was all too obvious starting True Colors that Jed was in a similar position to Jefferson: the seemingly trustworthy, warm, welcoming figure who turns out to have a dark secret made all the more obvious by how personable and nice they are. And I kept saying, out loud, as I was playing, "There was a mining accident," "Jed is the real killer", "Jed's behind it", and of course I turned out to more or less be right.

The reason I spell all these spoilers out is not to rag on the game, because I still really enjoyed it. The problem is that I think we needed more of this "normal life" stuff and less of the mystery, because, and I hate to say it, it's not that interesting. Arguably, Alex needs closure over why Gabe was killed, but other than that it's not particularly intriguing. It's already clear that the mining company is negligent and desperate to present itself as a positive force in the community despite that. The game shows us, as others have pointed out, images of things like Alex spending time with her new friends Steph and Ryan (Steph having been a fan favourite side character in Before the Storm) and other goings-on around town, and like many others I found myself wishing that I'd had the opportunity to see those moments rather than focusing, as episode two does for instance, on the investigation into the misdeeds of Typhon. Maybe that would have turned the game, as some have argued, into a "dating sim", but who cares? Even though probably the main theme of the games tends to be about what motivates us to use power, and what is really meant by the idea of using power "for good", I think the appeal of Life is Strange has almost always been its atmosphere and representation of real life relationships to a much greater extent than the mysteries. That being said, I understand that in the past, when Life is Strange games were released episodically, there was much fan speculation about what was going to happen next in the plot, which drove enthusiasm for the series; I only came to it after the original, the sequel and the prequel were all fully released, and thus I was able to play them all sequentially without waiting. So that's never been something I've expected of the series, and in any event it seems like players are almost always disappointed when they spend months speculating and the plot resolution typically ends up being something a lot less intricate and grandiose than they were anticipating.

It feels like much of the filling-in about character backstories is fleshed out through unlockable diary entries linked to the collectible character memories, which, as I elaborate upon further below, I didn't even realise were in the game until near the end of my second playthrough. I knew the memories were recorded, but not that you could click on them to get diary entries about them. I wonder if this was intended to be in the game proper but they didn't have the time or money to do cutscenes or interactive sequences for them, or if they were always intended to simply sit in the background because the developers couldn't figure out how to fit them into the game. 

True Colors also sells itself, as so many modern adventure games in the interactive fiction mold do now, of having "choices"; it's always been the complaint that in Life is Strange the choices that you make don't really shape the plot much, they just sort of affect your relationships with the game's characters to a certain extent. And I think that's fine because back in the original Life is Strange I felt that your inability to really shape events beyond your relationships with the characters was kind of the point; Max could change time, but she couldn't change people, only exploit her abilities to manipulate them in a way about which she clearly feels guilty. But that's the thing; Life is Strange the first's mechanic was time travel, an element which none of the subsequent games have had. So there's no reason in subsequent games for player choice to be such a big deal. In the original the whole point was you could agitate over your choices depending on what you thought was the best outcome, second guess yourself and revert them, only for the game to show you that it often didn't really matter, or that often there was no "good" outcome, just one set of consequences or another, and that the only real power Max needed was the ability to accept the consequences of her decisions.

In True Colors, Alex's power is that she can see and experience the emotions of others, to the extent that if they're felt strongly enough she's effectively able to read their thoughts, and become overwhelmed by other people's feelings. Obviously, a bit like Max's ability to see what the consequences of her decisions will be and then go back, Alex's ability to clearly identify what others are feeling and why potentially gives her the power to manipulate people. And yet one of my most satisfying parts of the game was when I was offered the choice to either take away the overwhelming anger of Gabe's grieving girlfriend Charlotte or leave her to deal with her grief, and of course I chose the latter, because it seemed to me that is was neither Alex's responsibility nor her right to take Charlotte's feelings away from her. That was a choice that I felt made sense because it related to how Alex used her powers. It seemed to be saying that often the best way to use power is to not use it at all. On the other hand, taking Deputy Pike's fear away from him in the fourth chapter works out for the best; is it supposed to be that his fear is holding him back, while Charlotte's anger is a necessary part of her grief? I'm unsure. In any event, at many other times the "important" choices aren't related to this and seem like they'd fit more in the original time-travel-driven storytelling of the first Life is Strange, because they didn't tie into Alex's power. Life is Strange 2, by contrast, worked in having choices because it so substantially affected the relationship between Sean and Daniel. The choices in Before the Storm always felt the most pointless to me because we know ultimately that they won't avert anything that happens in the original game. But the idea of a game about "player choice" and its consequences still seems so tied to the original game's grounding in time travel that it seems to be presented as an important gameplay mechanic and narrative device in all subsequent games, including this one, simply because "that's what Life is Strange games have" and not because it tied into the first game's wider themes and techniques. And I can't hold Deck Nine, developers of True Colors and Before the Storm, solely guilty of this, because Dontnod did it too in Life is Strange 2, and they were the developers of the original game. The artifice is particularly obvious in this game which, unlike all of the three previous, was released in one go, with the effect that the chapter divisions, featuring a page comparing the player's choices to that of others as a percentage, feels arbitrary, and almost like the game was divided up into five chapters simply because "Life is Strange games are in five bits with a choice breakdown at the end of each" even though this game didn't have an episodic release schedule.

And given that True Colors is notionally about our experience of emotions (fear, sadness, anger, joy), it feels like the game could have spent less time worrying about consequences (something far more relevant to the time-travelling Max of the original Life is Strange than the emotion-reading Alex) and done a lot more with exploring how our emotions define us; why is it okay for us to take Pike's fear but not Charlotte's grief? To what extent does Alex potentially manipulate Ryan or Steph into developing feelings for her by reading their emotions and then knowing exactly what to say (something Max's doppelganger accuses Max of doing through time travel in the first game, incidentally)? The idea that Jed is so in denial about what he did during the mining accident that his emotions are buried beneath Alex's notice is interesting, but worth exploring to a much greater extent. What's the connection between emotion and thought? There's a lot more that could be done here, and given that the Life is Strange series has thus far not shown an interest in direct sequels, it's a shame that we presumably won't see Alex's story explored further.

Once again all of this just seems like I'm ragging on True Colors or that I didn't like it, which isn't the case; rather, I'm frustrated, because I feel like this is a game with so much potential that just doesn't get completely fulfilled. As I've said, visually, the game is very impressive, the voice acting is top notch and the characters are really enjoyable to watch. As someone who essentially likes Before the Storm despite its numerous flaws, I was pleased to see the return of fan-favourite character Steph from that game and to see her used in a more substantial way. The other main supporting character, Ryan, is well-acted too, although I didn't connect with him as much after the first episode. Sometimes the consequences for the game's mandatory plot elements feel refreshingly realistic, like when Alex steals corporate data in Chapter 3 and then, appropriately, gets arrested for it at the end of Chapter 4. And I was also pleased to see that the game, as other recent-ish narrative games like Night in the Woods did, has games-within-games, for that element of skill-based challenge which these no-lose story-driven adventure games of the modern type (i.e. without inventory puzzles) otherwise usually lack.

I think the best parts of the game are when you're wandering around Alex's apartment above the bar and walking through the town of Haven Springs proper, getting to know the various residents and helping them out. Another standout moment is in the third chapter in which you cheer up Ethan by going LARPing with him, a logical extension of the amusing tabletop roleplaying segments in Before the Storm. A similar enjoyable sequence is when Alex and Steph perform the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun", as overplayed as it is, at the Spring Festival, because this is the stuff that the appeal of these games is made of, just like iconic scenes from the first game such as Max reminiscing at Chloe's house. That's what makes Life is Strange memorable, and this game certainly has its share. If only there were more.

One thing I noticed about this game is that it's arguably less surreal than the original or Before the Storm; its dream sequences, for instance, are much more like Sean's dreams about his father in Life is Strange 2, as Alex recalls her childhood and speaks to Gabe as if he were still alive. They're much more conventional than Chloe's bizarre and disturbing nightmares about her late father in Before the Storm, or the Lynchian dream sequence in the final episode of the original Life is Strange. That being said, another appealing moment was in the final chapter of the game in which Alex dreams that she's back in her psychiatrist's office from the beginning of the game, only for it to be revealed that the psychiatrist is just a tape recorder sitting in an empty office chair. There's also the amusing sequence in which, while LARPing with Ethan and tapping into his emotions, Alex sees the world through the eyes of a child's imagination, and they really are fantasy heroes on a quest in a magical land and not just running around the park wearing silly hats. I could have done with more moments like this in which the artifice of the world, reflective of the extent to which the mining company has clearly tried very intentionally to turn the town into an idyllic refuge, is made clear. The exploration in the final chapter of Alex's childhood is quite harrowing, but I think, as others have suggested, it might have worked better had those moments been interspersed throughout the game. I think it's very easy to miss, for instance, that it's implied as early as the first chapter that Gabe originally came to Haven Springs looking for their father, and that it's not pure coincidence, as it seemed to me at the time, that the late John Chen met his end in the very mining accident for which Jed was responsible. In fact, this is outright stated early in the game, but only in Riley's online memorial post for Gabe, and in the diary entries connected to Alex's unlockable memories which I only realised even existed as readable content at the end of my second playthrough. Anyway, In particular, I think the use of these dream sequences is a bit anticlimactic because the one about Alex's mother's death is captured much more neatly in the optional dialogue about the photograph in the first chapter of the game, and that the stuff about Alex's life in the orphanage, the climax of the dream sequence, is all stuff we already know if we've bothered to read the game's flavour text, i.e. that Alex was moved into foster care multiple times but always ended up back in the group home. Incidentally, I don't know how the foster care system works in the USA, but is it really realistic that Alex is still living in the group home at the age of 21? Don't people become adults at 18 in the States? Wouldn't she have been moved on? Anyway, it feels to me like the only really essential part of the flashback sequence is the scene revealing that Alex and Gabe were actually abandoned by their father, and that the rest was a little overdone.

This discourse is becoming very long, so let's finally talk about endings. Life is Strange had two endings. Before the Storm really only had one with very minor differences depending on your final choice, but that was arguably appropriate given that it was a prequel. Life is Strange 2 had multiple endings depending on how the player had driven Sean's relationship with Daniel; I must admit that when I played it I got an ending I didn't expect (Daniel helped Sean escape to Mexico and then turned himself in to the authorities). In any event, I could see that True Colors was going to go the way of having a fairly unambiguously happy ending (although I kind of wondered if the game was going to pull the rug out from under me at the last minute, but it didn't). It all depends on whether you choose to stay in Haven Springs or leave, and if you chose to be with Steph, Ryan or neither. In my first playthrough, being the Before the Storm apologist that I am, I naturally chose to get close to Steph throughout the game and, given that I didn't think Alex would much fancy living in the town where both her father and brother had been killed, at the end she and Steph left for a life of adventure. Seemed sensible enough. The only shortcoming was that Ryan was left alone, but given that I didn't connect with him that much anyway I didn't see that as too great a loss. So the ending felt a little insignificant. In my second play-through, I chose to stay in Haven (still with Steph) and there wasn't much more to see than what Gabe's memory describes to you in the flash-forward you see before the choice is offered. Even though you can fail to convince the local community that Jed tried to kill you, you can't fail to cause Jed to confess, which seemed really odd to me, because this is something that does actually relate to how the game explores emotions, with Alex unpacking all of Jed's feelings about the accident. So at the end of the day, the conspiracy between Jed and Typhon is revealed and justice is more or less served. At least Steph sticks up for you no matter what. It kind of feels like the True Colors developers, having had such success with the fans with Steph in Before the Storm, didn't want you to ever see her in a bad light, but as I've said I don't think choices ever actually need to be that important in the game except where they relate to the game's central premise, so I thought that was fine.

But I'm left at the end of this thinking: what is it that Life is Strange games offer their fans and is that what they set out to achieve? Are they intended to be mystery dramas offering some kind of meditation on the consequences of our choices and how we manage and utilise anything about ourselves that might be extraordinary? Or are they slice-of-life emotional intimacy simulators that appeal because so many of us are so starved for, or unable to see, the depth and beauty that might exist in our real lives? And is the former what their developers want them to be, while the latter is what they've become? Is it really the fault of the game if it leaves us with a sense of longing because for a little while it was so good at allowing us to pretend that we were another person with a stranger (and more emotionally connected) life than our own? Surely in that regard it's a success.

Indeed, I suppose it's testament to my appreciation of True Colors that the first thing I did after finishing it was to play it again; you can easily get close to thirty hours of gameplay out of two complete run-throughs if you take your time, and given how much dialogue there is that can only be seen on one play-through or another this definitely pays off. That was more or less what I did with both the original Life is Strange and Before the Storm as well, although I've only played Life is Strange 2 through once; I found it too dark to want to repeat. The game almost certainly is too expensive for the amount of "content" in it, and the fact that the Steph DLC (unreleased at time of writing) requires an additional payment. But while I don't expect a Life is Strange game to offer the "40 hours of gameplay" that seems to have become de rigueur among a lot of AAA video game players, I do wonder if it's time for the franchise to step up into a more 25-ish hour base game experience with more of the slice-of-life stuff that clearly a very large part of its target market is in for. I don't know, really. A lot of story-based games aren't actually that long. Is True Colors really as short as people are saying, or does time just fly when you're getting to pretend that you have feelings?

Monday, March 22, 2021

Thoughts after a history symposium

One accidental benefit of the tragic and in many cases avoidable circumstances which have resulted in large portions of the world being obliged to work from home in 2020-21 is that conferences and academic symposia have moved online and thus become easy to attend from the comfort of one's own home. I myself am presenting at a couple of literary conferences in mid-2021, one of which I most likely would not have been able to attend had this situation not arisen. And I was very fortunately, as far as time differences allowed, able to attend a free history symposium over the weekend of 18th-21st March hosted by the University of Louisiana. I'm not a historian; I have a PhD, but in English literature. I've never studied history at a tertiary level, and only get involved in it as a hobby. As such I was very glad that the hosts of the conference "Napoleon and his Legacy: Warfare, Politics and Society" made attendance so easy.

I was initially attending to see the roundtable discussion of podcasters who specialise in the Napoleonic Wars, fan that I am of Everett Rummage's Age of Napoleon podcast. And yet the two other sessions I was able to attend in full given the time difference, and which particularly interested me, were the opening and closing keynotes given by Professor Michael Broers and Professor Emeritus Charles Esdaile respectively.

I don't make much of a show of my interest in European, and particularly Napoleonic, history on this blog because it's rarely terribly relevant. Of the two academics in question, I only own one book by Broers, Europe under Napoleon, and one by Esdaile, Napoleon, France and Waterloo. I believe that Broers has something of a reputation as a Napoleon enthusiast, not just of the era but of the man himself; in the Open Letters Review, Steve Donoghue accuses Broers of engaging in "damage-control for the pestiferous little Corsican" in the second volume of Broers' work of Napoleonic biography, The Spirit of the Age. Esdaile has a reputation very much on the opposite side, with none other than political-strongman apologist Andrew Roberts referring to Esdaile's work Napoleon's Wars: An International History as "the Case for the Prosecution".

Professor Esdaile's closing address in particular attracted considerable discussion, as those who do not cast Bonaparte in a favourable light often do. The usual questions were asked of why he was so intent on criticising Napoleon. Yet the answer is perfectly clear. For those unfamiliar with it, Bonaparte was, for all of his alleged military and administrative genius, a particular expert at PR and propaganda, making himself appear not only particularly gifted, competent and fair in general, but also personally responsible for numerous achievements which are either exaggerated or were largely the work of other people.

Putting aside the issue of his personal achievements and any other qualities like his supposedly enormous energy, (sometimes) charming personality and reformist approach, it is fairly clear, deep down, why Napoleon appeals: he won a lot of battles. He made a number of pithy remarks. He adopted a unique and distinctive aesthetic. Furthermore, he positioned himself, and was positioned by others, as the "fun" and exciting rebel opposed to both the French aristocracy, pampered, decadent and foolish, and the British, who can easily be portrayed as the boring, fusty establishment — while also ruthlessly expansionist — sitting on the sidelines for much of the era paying (or pretending to pay) other countries to fight France on their behalf. It's little wonder that for years after his death, French political activists, often young liberal-minded students who had never lived under his authoritarian regime and would probably have opposed it if they had, would, in times of turmoil, call out "Vive l'Empereur!" and dress up as him to protest and riot. Napoleon doesn't represent oppression, conscription, taxation, broad governmental power, soldiers thrown into the meat grinder of terrible battles like Borodino or Waterloo. He is two fingers up to the regime in power.

I don't think Napoleon was a particularly nice person (in fact I think he often comes across as self-absorbed and tiresome, and his "friends" and associates probably walked on eggshells around him), and I think above all his greatest crimes are the thousands of pointless deaths of soldiers that must be laid at his feet, just as much as they may have equally been the responsibility of other European potentates who refused to let his empire become hegemonic in Europe. This, of course, is in addition to the sexism he institutionalised in the Civil Code, the racist policies and colonial atrocities for which he and his administration were responsible, and his fundamentally anti-democratic subversion of the popular will in his usurpation and centralisation of power within himself. And even if it is true (which it may or may not be) that he may have been no worse than other political and military figures of his time, and even if we are for some reason inclined to overlook or justify all the death, misery and oppression originating from him, Napoleon may be interesting, sometimes even funny in his ridiculous pomposity just as, at times, he seems remarkable in drive and strength of will. But I do not think that he was an especially extraordinary man except insofar as he was extraordinary in his capacity to make himself appear extraordinary. If the Napoleonic Wars were, as their name and some of their causes suggest, about making war against Napoleon himself just as much as they were about determining the balance of power in Europe after the French Revolution, then they were finally won, six years after Waterloo, on St Helena, where Napoleon, in the instant of his death (and as a consequence of much reputation-management beforehand) transformed into the very genius he wished for people to think of himself as by virtue of the lasting, often quite absurd, legend that arose around him. The British did the worst thing they could have possibly done by imprisoning him in such a remote and inhospitable place. Rather than defanging him, they proved to the world that he was so dangerous, and therefore in the eyes of many so incredibly formidable, that he had to be sent far away so as to do no harm. The British made him "great", far more than he did himself.

This is, I think, the argument that Esdaile was making at the symposium I attended, or at least it's the idea that many Napoleonic scholars and historians seem to miss; that one must be very suspicious of all "facts" to see where the truth really lies. Napoleon is only one example, but a particularly good one due to the enormous extent to which he, his supporters, and historical writing, have most likely transformed him into something he was not. It seems unscientific to allow a man whose entire goal was to make himself look good get away with it simply because, as a result of what he may represent, people want to let him do it.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

"The Mandalorian" Season 2


 
Imagine if the Sequel Trilogy had had a sensible release schedule (i.e. one every three years, as was done with the Originals and even the Prequels) and in late 2020 we were still a year away from Episode IX, or perhaps even two years if Michael Arndt had been given the time he needed for his original Episode VII script. Instead the Sequel Trilogy is done, and increasingly feels like ancient history, and the fresh hot new Star Wars content we got was the second season of The Mandalorian, i.e. the one where they went completely the other way from the first season and inserted tonnes of shit we already knew.

I won't get ahead of myself. I was reasonably excited for the new season of The Mandalorian. Season one was solid, simple fun. It wasn't the most dramatically groundbreaking storytelling of all time, but it was well-acted, benefited from solid writing, and actually did push visual boundaries in its use of the Stagecraft virtual set technology, which allowed the show to take place in lavish sci-fi environments while looking considerably more real than any green screen could. As I said in my first impressions article, the biggest strength of the first season was probably the writing/production/directing talent behind it, with Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, and many of those with whom they worked, having backgrounds in family and/or children's entertainment, leading to a tone and style of storytelling more appropriate to Star Wars than a lot of what we got in the Sequels.

I was hoping for more of that in Season 2, and to its credit, Season 2 was never exactly any more complex than Season 1. Much of it still kept the storytelling straightforward and took as its strength existing genre plots in a Star Wars setting: slay the monster, infiltrate the base, survive in the wilderness, that kind of thing. At the same time, it had more of a narrative thread than the first season, with Din Djarin, the titular Mandalorian, seeking the Jedi, the "people" of his young charge The Child, aka "Baby Yoda", real name later revealed to be Grogu. This was presumably something that was easier to accomplish than in the first season which was, I believe, repurposed from a film script, which is why episodes four to six feel like isolated digressions from the main plot in that season.

But at the same time I felt that this through-line made parts of the season feel a little like Mando was on a never-ending video-game quest: go here to talk to this person, who sends you to talk to this person, who sends you on to this person. Mando talked to the cyclops guy who sent him after Cobb Vanth who didn't actually have any info for him but by coincidence he met the frog lady who sent him on to Bo Katan who sent him to Ahsoka who sent him to the planet Tython where Grogu was kidnapped which led him to hunting down Moff Gideon.

There's nothing wrong with this per se, but it does feel a little bit mundane. Go here, talk to this person, follow that lead to the next person, and so on. Behind it all, admittedly, you have Din's character driving the narrative, which is to say his desire to protect Grogu and his devotion to the Mandalorian creed and thus his duty to return Grogu to his people. But on the surface it feels a little bit strung-together, and at times there were episodes where I just didn't feel terribly invested in what was going on because I expected the latest encounter to just direct him to yet another stepping-stone. This was also not helped by the fact that several chapters (11, 12, 15 and 16) all involved Din and one or more allies attacking and/or infiltrating an Imperial base or ship. Some of the episodes melted into each other in my head.

The other issue is the amount of references this season had to other Star Wars media: we had appearances by a character from a novel I haven't read (Cobb Vanth is from the Aftermath novels, I believe), two characters from the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons (Ahsoka and Bo Katan), and two from the main films themselves (Boba Fett and, of course, Luke with R2 in tow). I'm sure for many viewers, only Luke and maybe Boba Fett were familiar, and of course even I, Star Wars nerd that I am, don't go in for the novels and didn't actually know the Cobb Vanth character. Nonetheless, compared to the first season, this glut of appearances by existing characters had the same effect which such franchises often have of taking a supposedly large and busy world and making it feel small. I feel that Boba Fett didn't need to appear and that Ahsoka's use, while appropriate, would have made more sense had the show established (as both Clone Wars and Rebels repeatedly demonstrated) that Ahsoka is no longer a Jedi, having refused to rejoin the order after the Council's failure to support her when she was framed. I also thought it was strange that there was no role in Ahsoka's appearance for her main actor, or voice actor as the case may be, Ashley Eckstein, given that she has brought the character to life for so many years in both Clone Wars and Rebels. This seemed especially odd given Katee Sackhoff's live action casting as Bo Katan, having voiced her in the cartoons.

I felt like, given the story they were telling, at least the inclusion of Bo Katan and Luke made sense; as the last known legitimate ruler of Mandalore and the last of the Jedi respectively, they're the only characters who really qualify within the Star Wars universe for the roles for which they were needed. It does seem odd to think that, Rebels included, Bo Katan has now been deposed as ruler of Mandalore twice and has had to have the Darksaber given/restored to her by another Mandalorian (Sabine in Rebels' case). And I do honestly hope that this story plays into a third season of The Mandalorian, assuming that it is made. But if this is the case, I would actually like the show to explore the Mandalorian creed a little further, if their society, as seems to be the case, is turning into some kind of Galactic punching-bag that, despite their martial prowess, is constantly being conquered and victimised by other, more powerful, factions.

This leads to the other issue I had with the second season of The Mandalorian, one which admittedly was carried over from the first: the lack of "fun". Star Wars is, in my opinion, at its best when it is driven by fun, likeable characters, with an undercurrent of spiritual or philosophical meaning. The perfect example is in The Empire Strikes Back, the two central plot lines of which encapsulate both sides of this: the bantering tension between Han and Leia on the one side, and the quasi-Buddhist and pantheist teachings of Yoda to Luke on the other. To me, this is what makes Star Wars work: it's fun, with something a little more serious and contemplative underneath.

The Mandalorian suffers, I think, from having these elements but not quite taking them far enough. Din Djarin is a very serious character who lives by a reasonably strict code of personal and cultural ethics, although admittedly this season did give him some lighter dialogue occasionally. Most of the characters he meets are pretty serious too, with pretty serious goals. That doesn't mean there weren't some lighter characters, like Cobb Vanth, or the Mythrol, or to an extent Cara Dune. But often these are just one or two characters, and there's not much room for lightness between them. I was disappointed that, for instance, Chapter 9 didn't have a third character for Din and Cobb to bounce off, as none of the town locals were afforded any substantial characterisation; someone like the Weequay bartender could have been used for this. Obviously Grogu offers a bit of this in a similar manner to one of the droid characters, but a bit more between characters who actually talk wouldn't have gone astray. In the same way I would have enjoyed a little more contemplation of the significance of the Mandalorian creed and its different interpretations, as represented by Din and Bo Katan respectively. This wouldn't mean a deep exploration of the fictional creeds themselves, but more of the idea of what a culture's code of ethics means in a broad and diverse reality. Admittedly we get a little bit of this in Mayfield's appearances in Chapter 15.

I do wonder, however, if all of these issues stem from, as is now apparent, the fact that Season 2 of The Mandalorian was a cross-promotional exercise in marketing upcoming Disney+ shows, including an Ahsoka show and a Boba Fett show that was literally announced in a post-credits scene in the manner of a Marvel film. I do feel that this probably interfered with the writing and obliged the show to set up certain things and include certain characters that weren't strictly necessary. And it's a bit disappointing that the show seems to have so briskly been forced down that path rather than being allowed to stand on its own. I was hoping that past examples of this not working in the case of, for instance, the recent DC Comics films, might have encouraged Lucasfilm to recognise that just because something works for Marvel doesn't mean it works all the time. The original season of The Mandalorian worked through decent marketing and a level of quality that sustained interest over eight weeks. Lucasfilm and Disney's need to market their new content through the existing, proved, brand of The Mandalorian belies a lack of confidence in the swathe of new products they are apparently intending to present on their service in the next couple of years. As above, I'm disappointed to see that the Ahsoka show in particular is going to be a live action one, and possibly continue the search for Thrawn (and thus the story of Rebels) in that medium rather than its, in my view, natural home in animation with the voice actors from the previous shows. Its setup in live action in The Mandalorian actually makes me less interested in it.

You may have noticed that in all this I've spoken very little about Din or Grogu, our two notional protagonists, in any depth, and this is because I feel like the season didn't quite give them the narrative they needed. We already knew from the first season that Din was protective of Grogu and wanted to do right by him. The Ahsoka episode implies that the bond that has developed between them is stronger than Grogu's existing connection to the Force, and this leads to a nice moment in the season finale in which Luke tells Din that Grogu wants his permission to leave, but these are some pretty sporadic moments when otherwise I felt like we were continually having our attention placed on that episode's guest characters. We see at the start of the season that Din has developed from the previous; for instance, he's lost his antipathy for droids. But he already intended to return Grogu to his people at the end of the first season, and at the end of this season that's what he does. It doesn't feel like he developed too much more past the previous season, or that his relationship with Grogu did either, beyond him becoming more aware of it. Pedro Pascal's performance is always strong as the stoic title character, although sometimes I felt like his dialogue was uncharacteristically chatty or wry, but this perhaps linked to his increased willingness in this season to remove his helmet, suggesting that he is outgrowing the strict form of the creed by which he was raised. I just would have liked to have seen these parts given greater focus.

One other thing I would like to discuss with the season is its greater emphasis on having a relationship with the Original Trilogy. The first season clearly presented a Galaxy in the aftermath of the Empire, with Stormtroopers in dirty armour and Moff Gideon in command of only a small contingent of men. In this season we see more of this, perhaps leading towards the eventual rise of the First Order in the Sequels, and perhaps the experiments with Grogu are, as others have also discussed, intended to foreshadow the cloning techniques which will be used to create Snoke or resurrect Palpatine, i.e. trying to spin something out of two of my least favourite parts of the Sequels.

But we also hear characters talking about the destruction of the Death Stars as relatively contemporary events, and see a thirty-ish-year-old Luke Skywalker voiced by the (as of writing) sixty-nine-year-old Mark Hamill. Compared to the Sequels, which were set a plausible thirty years after Return of the Jedi, it feels very odd to see actors who were in some cases probably not even born when some or all of the Original Trilogy was first released playing characters discussing these events as if they're recent history. To me it makes the setting feel a little unnatural and awkward, and at times I found myself wishing that the show was set after The Rise of Skywalker rather than after Return of the Jedi. In addition, the inclusion of Prequel actors such as Temuera Morrison and Prequel-era spinoff characters such as Ahsoka and Bo Katan makes the show to me actually feel more distant from the Original Trilogy rather than closer, and creates a dissonance between what the setting of the show is meant to be and what it feels like it is in my gut, i.e. more like a continuation of Clone Wars and Rebels than something with a meaningful relationship to the Original Trilogy. Obviously this isn't some huge issue with the show, but it does feel odd.

I might as well talk a little bit more about Luke's appearance at this point. Yes, the CGI face on a stand-in's body is weird, but it's also strange, albeit unsurprising, to see how people have reacted to how Luke enters the action, effortlessly cutting down Dark Trooper droids to save the day. As audience members we're obviously meant to appreciate this, but it's dissonant to think that from Din's point of view he has no idea who Luke is — nor, apparently, do any of the other characters. And so the "cool" factor of seeing Luke in action, body double notwithstanding, is to me undermined by the fact that it doesn't service Din's story in any particular way. The comparisons people have made with the popular, but meaningless, scene of Vader killing the Rebels in Rogue One are a double-edged sword; a fan favourite character without any immediate relevance to the actual protagonist's narrative showing up to steal the limelight in a display of power, and I was actually disappointed that we didn't get to see Din and company using their limited effective resources (presumably the Beskar staff and the Darksaber) to defeat the Dark Troopers.

It's also worth noting that Luke's appearance here, hailed as some kind of "true" appearance of the character by certain commentators, potentially feeds exactly into how he was portrayed in The Last Jedi, as a "legend" whose raw power engendered both pride and fear. And while it does counterbalance Vader's Rogue One appearance, and the visual reference seems obvious, this is not, personally, how I see Luke: I don't see his character growth encapsulated by him cutting down droids with a lightsaber. Remember that Luke's defining character moment in Return of the Jedi was him throwing his lightsaber away rather than letting his destructive impulses control him. That doesn't mean he shouldn't fight; quite rightly, in this episode, he is using his power to defend the lives of people less powerful than himself. But it shouldn't be praised, as it seems to be by fanboys, as some kind of triumphalist display of might. This is why the received wisdom online that Vader massacring helpless men at the end of Rogue One is some kind of amazing scene is stupid because most of its advocates seem to just revel in the scene as a celebration of ruthless violence and not perceive Vader as evil or cruel (and, in fact, the scene in question seems to frame Vader as "cool" more than as terrifying or monstrous). Similarly, people seem to be glorying in Luke's destruction of the Dark Troopers simply as an impressive display of force rather than seeing it as something potentially sinister. I wonder if the episode would have been better served by presenting Luke's appearance as more a kind of defense; it all depends on how we're meant to interpret the scene. Ultimately this is just me being frustrated with Star Wars fans who seem to view the franchise through what I see as a warped, simplistic lens of "power levels" and action for its own sake. It isn't necessarily a problem with the episode itself, just how it's being interpreted.

So that was Season 2 of The Mandalorian. One more thing I should praise is Ludwig Göransson's score, which manages to be distinctive and memorable while almost never referencing anything by John Williams. It's watchable enough television — I appreciate that the episodes aren't too long — and it's quite strong as Star Wars spinoffs go, although my heart is definitely staying with Rebels for now. But it feels like too much of this season was dominated by the need to introduce supporting characters to get their own spinoffs, and not enough was carried by the central protagonists. I would have also liked to have both a bit more fun and a little more of a spiritual or philosophical exploration of the characters' beliefs. If a third season is in the works, and I think it is, I hope it is allowed to stand on its own a bit more, and maybe give more attention to our helmet-headed hero, and rely less on franchise references and cross-promotional marketing.