Where’s Gamora? Hey Marvel, if you make it – WE WILL BUY IT

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By Vivian Obarskiguardians-of-the-galaxy-gamora

It’s getting to be that time of the year again — aka the most wonderful time of the year for most parents. Many of us are heading out to get school supplies, backpacks and new clothes in anticipation of another fall when the kids head back to school.

So it wasn’t unusual for my daughter and I to embark on this mission. As usual, there were the theme backpacks — Avengers, Transformers, My Little Pony, Disney Princesses, Guardians of the Galaxy. And sadly, what wasn’t unusual was this outcry from both me and the kid:

“WHERE’S GAMORA?”

Now, the kid and I aren’t alone in this cry. Shortly after Guardians of the Galaxy showed up in theaters, a lot of people noticed and wrote about the lack of Gamora (and Nebula) in the merchandise. Shirts and backpacks prominently feature Star-Lord, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and Groot, but none of the deadliest woman in the galaxy. True, there are Gamora and Nebula action figures, but those are the more collectable than the type that could be found in a child’s toy box (or what I would have hanging around my computer to amuse me). The amount of stuff for Gamora — who is a member of the team and not a sexy lamp — in proportion to her male counterparts is well, not surprising for me, but annoying as hell.

Make no mistake, I still love the movie, but I feel like Marvel is missing out on a major merchandising opportunity by not giving Gamora and Nebula the same amount of attention as their male counterparts. There is a huge market and demand for the women of Marvel (one of my friends’ has a daughter who adores Black Widow and probably would wear ALL THE BLACK WIDOW STUFF if it was available), but there’s not even a supply for the demand.

I suppose that this is another symptom to the problem of lack of representation in Marvel films (which are wonderful and great to watch). Kevin Feige saying Marvel has no plans to release a female-led superhero movie nor has a Black Panther movie been scheduled and the Marvel movie calendar goes to 2017.

In this day and age, it seems like an antiquated notion to erase the female characters from the merchandising. Forty-four percent of the GOTG audience opening weekend were women, according to exit polls. So why not cater to that audience, given the well-documented evidence of their buying power? I’m not saying we need soft pink and roses and glittery t-shirts (but I’ll admit a Groot in a flower crown may pique my interest). What I am saying — throw us some t-shirts with Gamora lines on them. Give us backpacks and fun looking messenger bags so we can tote around our comic books and action figures. Give my daughter a cool looking Gamora t-shirt that will go with her Rainbow Dash one.

The audience is huge. We have money. Give us something to buy.

And while we’re at it — can we get a dancing baby Groot in flowerpot that doesn’t come with the $360 action figure set? Some of us can’t afford that stuff, but we want our own Groot to boogie with.

As-I-Play XCOM: Reboot – Post Three

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By Kristin Bezio

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Well, it’s happened. I finally got enough people killed in a fashion that was clearly the product of my own laziness and lack of attention (rather than genuine lack of skill) while eating dinner that I gave up about two hours of gameplay and went back to a previous save.

As the game progresses, there are more aliens, they have better firepower and accuracy, and it’s a lot easier to mistake something for cover when it isn’t. The aliens also start being much better at flanking your units. Here’s the thing about me – I don’t mind when I’m genuinely beaten by another player or a game. I get really annoyed when I’ve just misclicked or am playing half-assedly because I’m also jumping up and down from the computer to help make and then eat dinner and I send one of my units (Axel) to the middle of a field instead of behind a tree stump or rock. Said unit – needless to say – promptly bites it.

So I suppose it’s a good thing I’m not playing Ironman (autosaves so I can’t have any do-overs), although part of me wished that I were so I’d have been playing more carefully. Se la vie.

So I went back a bit in gameplay and actually bothered to pay attention the second time through, but I did learn something. Even if I choose the exact same missions (abductions – I went to Mexico), the actual map to which it sends me seems to be randomly generated, because although both were in forests, they were not the same maps and the downed UFO was in a different place and had a different configuration (same enemy types, though). So that was an interesting tidbit learned from my failure to properly manage Axel the German Tank.

It has also opened the proverbial floodgates. Now that I’ve done the reload-a-save thing once, that means that I’ve “wrecked” the trend, and I’m going to save at every critical point in a mission so that I can consistently keep everyone alive (or at least the useful people). This has the somewhat contradictory consequence of making me slightly more lazy at first, and then more careful so that I only have to play through part of the combat mission twice, instead of three or four times, which irritates me. (Despite my tendency to replay games, I don’t actually like replaying combat, just story, and this game doesn’t have much of a story.)

Otherwise, I’m starting to get a little annoyed by the science and engineering teams. They’re irritating to talk to (so I’m clicking through) and I don’t like that I can’t set up a queue – I have to pick things in order. On the up side, if I abandon research and come back to it later, I don’t lose the progress I’ve already spent on it, so that’s good.

The other thing that I don’t like about research/engineering is that it isn’t terribly transparent what different components or research projects will do. Some of them are stated outright – to launch a satellite I need both the satellite (engineering project) and a satellite uplink (building project) – where others (autopsies especially) are less obvious. I’d like a nice tree to show me which trajectories I want to follow – as well as figure out of I now have some projects that are obsolete. For instance, I’m pretty sure I have weapons and armor that are obsolete, since I’ve built newer ones, but I’m not actually clear if I have armors with different capacities, or if one really is just an upgrade of the other (in which case I’d really like to be able to replace the old with the new and not have the old still hanging about, but whatever). I understand that the new stuff is more expensive, and it’s better to be able to buy the old than not buy anything at all, but it’s still not the clearest upgrade system.

The other event of note that took place recently is that the creepy Illusive-Man-esque XCOM board decided to reprimand me for the first time. In all prior meetings they were happily pleased with me. This time they appreciated my efforts, but hoped I would do better. I’m pretty sure that’s scripted to happen (maybe not), but they were mad that Argentina pulled out of the XCOM project after having hysterics (too high of a panic level). Others who have played tell me that this is what happens if a nation is at full panic at the end of a “month” when the Council has their little chat with me. My response to Argentina’s departure was “Whatever. Their loss.”

Which comes down to one of the things I’ve reiterated throughout this experience. I just don’t care that much about what’s happening in the game. It is a challenge, it is allowing me to pass the hours in an engaged fashion, and I don’t dislike the game, but I’m not really sure “like” is the right word for my relationship to it, either. I don’t look forward to playing XCOM – I don’t dread it, I don’t want to get it over with, but my general thought process is “What am I going to do now? Watch a show? Nah, those are all reruns. Maybe I’ll play some XCOM.” When I play games I really like, I don’t think about it – I want to play them the minute I have the time. I feel about XCOM the way I feel about Bejeweled – it’s a good way to kill the time and keep myself engaged, but (aside from this blog) I don’t really have the drive to do that over anything else.

As-I-Play XCOM: Managing the Team (Part Two)

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by Kristin Bezio

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As I continue playing, not much seems to be changing in terms of gameplay other than the expected “more aliens” per mission, “different aliens” on missions, and the constant harping of my German scientist who is quite frankly getting a bit annoying.

Managing resources at my base of operations has proven to be more challenging than I initially expected, as I keep running out of whatever currency § happens to be. It’s added a little bit of strategy to this part of the game that would otherwise, I think, but a bit boring. I actually have to think about whether an other fighter jet would be a better investment than a power plant or satellite.

I’m also starting to have trouble managing the panic levels in some countries. The first nation to lose its proverbial shit was the US, which is probably what would actually happen if there were an alien invasion in real life, but it’s mostly because of that first mission where I didn’t go to Dallas (oops). I’ve also allowed Africa to get a little bit more out of control than I’d like, if only because putting a satellite in Russia earns me more money than putting it in South Africa, and I need the money (see previous point).

I’ve also now started losing squad members – I’ve gotten three killed so far, the man from the UK, the woman from China, and another dude from the Czech Republic (I think – my flag identification skills aren’t that great). I’ve also actually been surprised by the squad members who have proven to be invaluable. The woman from the US is my go-to sniper, the dude from Argentina is my anchor Heavy, my Support is a nice man from Germany (named Axel), but my best squad member, hands down, is an Iranian woman whose nickname is “Septic” who, as it turns out, gets really lucky with her grenade throws and low percentage shots a lot of the time.

I’ve been going out of my way to try to rotate rookies into my squad (which I’ve upgraded to be six rather than four) so that if I get them killed I don’t have to take an entire rookie squad with me the next time. But it’s really tempting to just keep with my Argentina/Germany/Iran/US/France/Nigeria power-team. The problem with rookies is that they’re the most likely to get killed (looking at you, Czech) or panic (China) and freak out on me, rendering themselves useless and more likely to get shot for a turn or two.

But aside from having some squad members whose abilities are nice to have in combat, I don’t really care whether they live or die. Yes, their abilities are nice to have (as they get promoted, they gain additional skills), but I don’t actually care about THEM. They don’t talk much (other than to say things like “I’m pinned down!” when being shot at), and they don’t have personalities to speak of, so I don’t get attached to them as characters, only as mechanical tools. I think that’s probably why I think of them as their countries (since they all have names and once they have combat experience, nicknames, too) – they’re tools, not people.

I’m not sure whether I’d want them to be, either. The point of the combat in XCOM, as far as I can tell, is to manage your tactical abilities and combat maneuvers against enemies that aren’t always predictable (new aliens move in different ways, like the annoying half-robot ones that more-or-less teleport). Thus far, it seems like the point is to make the player feel the stress of having to make impossible decisions. For instance, do I let this fighter be destroyed in order to try to destroy a UFO or do I abort? Which abduction do I attend to, since there are three but I can only go to one? Does loyalty or practicality take precedence as I choose my team or choose which nation to help? Do I save money or resources in case a disaster happens, or do I spend it to try to deal with the disaster better, knowing that I’m taking a risk while my team is working on the problems? Do I upgrade my weapons and armor in hopes of protecting my squad, or do I do the mission sooner?

The purpose isn’t to make us – as the disembodied Commander – feel for each member of our team, as it is in BioWare games. The purpose is to make us do the math, calculate advantages and disadvantages to using this team, giving that squad member experience, or allowing a UFO to attack a nation rather than send out a fighter that’s certain to be destroyed. It’s about making the hard choices without involving emotions.

Could XCOM have included emotions? Sure. They could have made us care about our squad, given them personalities and narratives, which would make the fact that some of them have to die all the more horrible. But I don’t think people would play a game whose purpose is to make us feel horrible about ourselves throughout the whole process. I think the apathy with which we treat the squad members is perhaps a more “realistic” depiction of how distant commanders make tactical decisions. It’s more about strategy and less about the “human” element, although some of that can’t help but creep in.

It teaches us that distance can sometimes be a good thing, because distance enables us to be more efficient, more successful. To take risks that can pay off in a big way that we might not take if we felt for the people involved. But it’s also a really good argument to play XCOM Iron Man style. There aren’t any do-overs in life. If you make a bad choice, if you get unlucky (because the success or failure of shots in combat are based on probabilities, not on certainty), things go south. Equipment gets damaged or destroyed. People get hurt, or die. Consequences, even though digital, are more real when you can’t go back.

The Continuing Influence of Weird Al on Law, Especially Copyright Law

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by Raizel Liebler

weirdalandfozzieConsidering Weird Al has his first #1 album on the Billboard charts, many have taken this as an opportunity to do a retrospective on his career. But outside of his musical and parodic impact, he has also had an impact on law. This isn’t so strange – this album is the last one in his contractually obligated series with the record company he’s been with since 1984. He’s also talked about the difference between his rights as an artist – and those of his record company – considering he can’t even put his own videos on his own YouTube channel without them being pulled off due to ContentID.

So I think it is important to look over Weird Al’s impact on law — especially how all us use Weird Al’s work as a shorthand for everything from lighthearted parodies to the ubiquity of licensing music. The way that he goes about his creations through licensing rather than relying on fair use has been used as justification to limit fair use – under the assumption that all artists are willing to license their works – even if the new product makes fun of them.

Weird Al or his works have been cited by a large number of legal scholars in almost seventy-five law review articles over the years, including in at least six articles by at least three of the top 30 IP scholars — Mark Lemley (Mark Lemley & Stacey Dogan, Parody as Brand, 47 U.C.D. L. Rev. 473, 503 (2013); Mark Lemley, Should a Licensing Market Require Licensing, 70 Law & Contemp. Probs. 185, 191 (2007)); Jonathan Zittrain (Jonathan Zittrain, Privacy 2.0, 2008 U. Chi. Legal F. 65, 83 (2008)) and Rebecca Tushnet (Rebecca Tushnet, Payment in Credit: Copyright Law and Subcultural Creativity, 70 Law & Contemp. Probs. 135, 161 (2007); Rebecca Tushnet, My Fair Ladies: Sex, Gender, and Fair Use in Copyright,  15 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol’y & L. 273, 297 (2007); Bruce P. Keller & Rebecca Tushnet, Even More Parodic than the Real Thing: Parody Lawsuits Revisited, 94 Trademark Rep. 979, 985, 996, 997 (2004)) and many others, including Kembrew McLeod & Peter DiCola, Non-Infringing Uses in Digital Sampling: The Role of Fair Use and the De Minimis Threshold in Sample Clearance Reform, 17 Deakin L. Rev. 321, 329 (2012).

But his influence isn’t just in rocking the possibly non-existent borderline between parody and satire – let alone tribute, takeoff, and more, but has been cited in law reviews to talk about topic from racial profiling (Nancy Leong, The Open Road and the Traffic Stop: Narratives and Counter-Narratives of the American Dream, 64 Fla. L. Rev. 305 (2012)) to the RIAA (Vincent J. Galluzzo, When Now Known or Later Developed Fails Its Purpose: How P2P Litigation Has Turned the Distribution Right Upside-Down,  61 Fla. L. Rev. 1165 (2009)) to defining what goes into Spam – the meat product (Pamela C. Chalk, A Pig by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet, 12 J. Contemp. Legal Issues 340 (2001)).

The first law review citation to Weird Al I was able to find was this 1987 article: Kenneth J. Nunnenkamp, Musical Parody: Derivative Use or Fair Use?, 7 Loy. Ent. L.J. 299 (1987).  Nunnenkamp mentions how “Like A Surgeon” uses the entire musical score of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”, but that he licenses use of the songs used in his parodies (302). Oh, and “Weird Al[‘s]… humorous remakes of popular songs should hardly be a fair use simply because they criticize something, especially when one considers the possible detriment such a song, if unauthorized, could have on the marketability of the original.” (320).

There is even pre-Campbell law review article dedicated to Weird Al: Charles Sanders & Steven Gordon, Stranger in Parodies: Weird Al and the Law of Musical Satire, 1 Fordham Ent. Media & Intell. Prop. L.F. 11 (1990). The authors analyze Weird Al’s music under the pre-Campbell standard:

“Mr. Yankovic’s ability to rely on the fair use doctrine to excuse the unlicensed uses of the songs and music videos he parodies is extremely doubtful. Application of the “verbatim copying” threshold test would present an insurmountable hurdle to any claim of fair use by Mr. Yankovic. His taking of the full chord structure, melody, and portions of the lyrics of the original underlying musical compositions which he parodies is clearly substantial enough to pre-empt a finding of fair use as a matter of law, regardless of any number of “mitigating” circumstances which might exist. The same is true of his near-verbatim takings of the accompanying music videos which he sometimes parodies along with the song and sound recording. Even assuming that Mr. Yankovic could survive application of the verbatim copying threshold test, and taking into account that there is no reason to suspect he would fail the “nexus” threshold test or run afoul of presumptions concerning obscenity, Mr. Yankovic would still not be able to satisfy the burden of proving fair use.” (35)

But the article talks about why artists might not want to license their compositions to Weird Al and others in purely economic terms:

Weird Al’s substantial market success is responsible for the willingness of copyright owners to grant him permission to parody their musical compositions, and has made it possible for Yankovic to bargain for a lucrative share in the copyright of the parody version of the song. He further surmises that fledgling parodists and comedians are often denied permission to parody by copyright owners who believe the sell-evident risks of damaging the value of their copyright by permitting the parody is not offset by a “guarantee” of financial return which Weird Al can provide.

Despite not being cited with Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, 510 U.S. 569 (1994) – the Supreme Court’s big parody/satire case, Weird Al was referenced by both parties in their briefs regarding how he licenses and pays for his parodies. The Reply Brief for Campbell mentions Weird Al:

Respondent points to the recordings of “Weird Al” Yankovic as examples of music parodies produced pursuant to a license from the copyright holder. … Unlike Petitioners’ parody, however, none of these parodies appear to be critical of the underlying work or recording artist, nor do they comment on any controversial issues, so that the copyright holder would be unlikely to license them. Parody would not long survive as a unique and valuable art form if it were limited to such bland treatment of popular musical works and their themes.

And while Weird Al wasn’t referenced in the Supreme Court decision, he was referred to in the lower court decision in the Sixth Circuit, Acuff-Rose Music v. Campbell, 972 F.2d 1429, 1440 n.3 (1992) where the court refuses to call Weird Al’s songs satire or parody – instead referring to “‘comic’ effort, such as those created by comic musician Weird Al Yankovic.”

But Weird Al also serves as a cultural touchstone in filed briefs in cases in varied subjects. Below are some of my favorites, in the way they assume that the judges (or their clerks) will automatically know of Weird Al’s oeuvre:

In a 2007 Brief by the Texas AFL-CIO to the Texas Supreme Court:

Utilizing the Court’s novel interpretation of the term “perform,” for example, one could hire Madonna or Usher to “perform” at a concert but they could do so fully and completely by hiring Weird Al Yankovic to sing in their stead. Those who hail this decision should, therefore, be careful what they wish for.

In a 2012 Brief to the Ninth Circuit:

This is an example of what does not constitute infringement — i.e., different expression of a very basic idea — in this case, the idea of describing what a mother says to her child. … Such words come from ideas that have found their way into any number of song lyrics and titles, including … “Just whistle while you work, and cheerfully together we can tidy up the place . . . And as you sweep the room . . . .” (from “Snow White’); they are used by artists from Weird Al Yankovic (he commands in his lyrics to “Eat it”: “Don’t want to hear about what kind of food you hate, You won’t get no dessert ‘til you clean off your plate, So eat it, Don’t tell me you’re full, Just eat it, eat it, eat it . . . .”) to Vampire Weekend (in their lyrics to “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” they sing, “Is your bed made? Is your sweater on?”) to name only a few.

Weird Al is America’s equivalent to the parodies in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Though The Looking Glass – where culturally known materials are parodied. Since the 1850s, we’ve forgotten what “You Are Old Father William” refers to, but children still love hearing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bat for the first time because they understand the reference! So I hope that Weird Al’s songs continue their staying power – though I expect Eat It to be the longest lasting song – even if kids don’t remember Beat It.

Think about the thread that runs through a mashup of the audio of Weird Al’s Handy with the video of Fancy which is an unlicensed music video unlicenced “re-telling” of the movie Clueless (including being filmed in the same high school) which is in turn officially a modern take on the public domain work Emma by Jane Austen. This video highlights our present difficulty in determining where the lines for quoting, allusion, and licensing should be drawn in law and in the larger culture — and it runs all the way from a bizarre double entendre about wood stripping all the way back to the writings of a book published 199 years ago that is still popular today. But watch it while you can kids, because YouTube could pull it at any time!

San Diego Comic Con – Day 2 Recap

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by Nicole Keating

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What a lovely Friday!

As I write this recap, I’m waiting in the fabled Hall H line for the Saturday panels, thinking back to this Friday morning when I was able to wake up at a luxurious 6am and still make it into the front of the Indigo Ballroom for the Cartoon Network/animation block of panels.

These panels are quickly becoming a staple of my Comic Con experience. Last year, I skipped them for the Game of Thrones panel, and I was disappointed. Not only do these animation-based panels–especially Adult Swim and FX’s Archer–offer laughter and imagination and joy and vulgarity and comedy, but the presenters are all extremely accessible: Archer’s Lucky Yates was in the elevator with me this morning, Venture Bros’ Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick were hangin out at Starbucks, and all three are in staying in my hotel. There’s no pretension and no arrogance. Other than that which comes along with being naturally dope, of course. Like a People Magazine’s “Celebrities! They’re just like us!” in real life!

Plus everyone offers really solid advice on writing, acting, and producing for comedic television, what I’m currently teaching myself to do! So it feels good to hear little bits of encouragement from peeps who’ve been there.

Here are the highlights.

Uncle Grandpa
As the creator of Uncle Grandpa and the voice of the title character, Peter Browngart said “Cartoons can do impossible things.” The sense of the impossible and surreal was certainly evident in all of the materials the UG team brought. From what I saw, the show has a Ren & Stimpy vibe, which was confirmed by a fourth-wall-breaking table read. They revealed some of next season’s special guests–Tone Loc (!!!), Shaq, and Henry Rollins–a fun short from Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward, and an upcoming comic!

Clarence
The Clarence panel started with a sizzle reel, which included a sequence at a Chuck-E-Cheez type restaurant where the titular Clarence approaches the ball pit and says, “Put your shoes in the cubby. And then you take a fresh pair.” And he reaches for princess-themed sneakers that light up when he walks. And, yes, I coveted those shoes as a child. Light-up shoes, ball pits, and elementary school…Clarence seems grounded in all these real childhood experiences. They then showed some of next season’s clips as well as some animatics of a Bettie Boop-style episode, displaying an admirably broad variety of animation styles. They finished with a Q&A, and someone nicknaming cast member Tom Kenney Spongecash. I would further suggest Spongecash Coinpants.

What time is it? Adventure Time!
The panel began with the above chant, so we started strong. The panel got better and better, with repeat moderator Tom Kenney slipping in and out of his Ice King voice, the voice actors for Finn and Marceline singing an a capella “Daddy Why Did You Eat My Fries,” and a number of delectable clips. There’s an upcoming Lumpy Space Princess and Marceline episode, a Lemongrab spiritual enlightenment episode, and a Finn-goes-it-alone episode that features some sort of cloud-like guardian (it was animatics, so it was hard to tell, okay?) referring to Jake as “Supple Yellow Dog.”

Fans of the show and the deeply human lessons that it embodies will be thrilled to hear that the land of Ooo will return for a 7th season!!

You should also check out Jeremy Shada’s (Finn) band Makeout Monday, Justin Roiland’s (Lemongrab) new comic Bananaguard Academy, and John DiMaggio’s new documentary on voice acting I Know That Voice.

Venture Brothers
I love Venture Bros panels. They’re irreverent and witty and totally bananas. They’re never moderated, and always have the same three people. I’ll set it up for you: A revved-up, sleep-deprived crowd, no moderator, creators and actors Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick as well as actor James Urbaniak.

The AV crew flubbed these gentlemen’s first entrance music, so they went back and did it again.

“YOOO I tell ya what I want what I really really want,” blared The Spice Girls. Our panelsits enter like a whimsical glam rock trio–Jackson Publick in head-to-toe seersucker, Doc Hammer in a purple plaid suit, both in Ray Bans, followed by Urbaniak in a loud paisley top.

Rather than bore you with a wordy recap, here are my bullet points–NAY exclamation points–of best quotes.

When asked who his ideal panel guests would be, Doc Hammer answered, “The General from the insurance commercials, that Harry Potter Guy, Nelly, and the Cheerios Bee.”

“You committed to your full dandyism.”
“A gentleman does not remove his jacket in public.”
“My sweat stains go down to my elbows.”
“Do you know what prolapse is? …I got real close.”
“Trip them up like so much Columbo.”
“We are big fans of our own television show.”
“We have our heads so far up our own buttholes that we can see what we ate yesterday.”
“I cut my head on a towel.”
“I put sunscreen on to do a panel.”
“I put on deodorant yesterday but didn’t really cause I forgot to take the plastic thing off.”
“Everybody dribbled peepee all at once.”
“Diarrhea was a real killer of great men.”

These three men are hilarious and just the right amount of insane. If you’re ever in San Diego for the convention, you should really try to make it out to see the Venture Bros panel. You won’t be sorry.

Triumph/McBrayer
I missed some of the next panel to run up to the room and charge my phone, but I made it down in time to see some nice interactions between Jack McBrayer and Robert Smigel. The premise is meta: a stand-up gets his own show. Like Seinfeld or The Wayans. Only this time the stand-up is Triumph, and the history of his career is completely fabricated. There’s promise there, but I don’t know that I’ll go out of my way to watch this show.

Rick & Morty
Breakout hit Rick & Morty had a loud, excited audience. This lil show from Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon got so popular in its first season, and rightly so. The show approaches the world with a sense of limitless possibility, and they embue their viewers with this hope-despite-disaster mentality. For example, Dan Harmon wore a bird costume. It was clearly made of cardboard, duct tape, and craft store feathers (disaster), yet I still wrote “DAN HARMON IS MY GOD NOW” in the margins of my notebook (hope).

I would highly recommend this series, coming out on DVD/BluRay soon. As added incentive Cartoon Network is scattering 22 “The Good Morty” pamphlets (an in-show reference) throughout disc packages, Golden Ticket-style!! There’s also original animatics, a behind-the-scenes documentary, and multiple commentaries per episode.

For aspiring content creators myself, Harmon and Roiland recommend creating something once each month. And not just creating, but also finishing! Then you have created something and don’t spend all your time enmeshed in the energy and frustrations of the creative process.

All in all, an enlightening and entertaining panel!

Mike Tyson Mysteries
Oh man. Just……oh man.

Mike Tyson Mysteries is a cartoon in the grand tradition of old school Hanna Barbara cartoons like Scooby Doo. Mike Tyson solves mysteries with his adopted Korean daughter, a pigeon, and a late-19th century ghost played by Community’s Jim Rash.

Mike Tyson is……..quite a character. He tows the line between appropriate and OMGWUTDIDYOUSAY with the natural skill and threat of danger of a tightrope walker. This calls for another quote list.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Mike Tyson:
On why he decided to do the show: “I’ve never been a cartoon character and I decided to make me a cartoon character.”
On how he differs from his cartoon persona: “I’ve never adopted a Chinese girl.” The character is Korean.
To co-star Jim Rash: “Wait, are you the pigeon?” Jim Rash: “No. I’m the ghost.”
20-Something Audience Member During the Q&A: “Mr. Tyson, I’m a lifelong fan and–” MT: “How can you be a lifelong fan? You’re only 12!” Audience roars with laughter. MT: “Stop, I’m not funny.” Audience member: “You are funny…but I’m 13.”
Lastly, presented without comment: “We need more Mexicans.”

Robot Chicken
True confessions: I’ve been obsessed with Seth Green and Breckin Meyer since tweenhood. I know we’re meant to be BFFs. What can I say? I have a soft spot for dudes who are half a-hole, half charm, and all nerd. The Robot Chicken team is basically my soul mate.

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They began by showing us a short special episode dedicated to beloved Strawberry Shortcake-inspired character (and likely one of my upcoming cosplays) Bitch Pudding, voiced by the ineffable Katee Sackhoff. There were questions from the audience that were all answered in the lightheartedly mocking tone of the show itself, including a plea to get the afore-seen Mike Tyson on the show, and then an extra special announcement from the bros. [Seriously, y’all are really bro-y. Invite me to your writers room. I’m also an a-hole, so I’ll fit in, but I’m a lady so QUOTA FILLED!]

Robot Chicken will be collaborating with Team Unicorn, the nerd girl collective headed by Green’s wife Claire Grant. They celebrate cosplay, referential humour, and creativity with a very feminine edge. Unsurprisingly, these ladies are some of my career role models. They will join forces to form MEGAZORD Team Unicorn’s Saturday Action Fun Hour. It’s a throwback to children’s shows of yesteryear, with a live action intro/outro and an animated center. Like a Twinkie!

Bob’s Burgers

I’m new to Bob’s Burgers, but I love every second of this show. The new season starts October 5th, and I’d highly recommend getting caught up before then. It’s so funny. Plus, unlike shows like Family Guy where the humor comes from the family treating each other kinda crappy, the Belcher family at the center of Bob’s Burgers really seems to love each other! The comedy comes instead from the outlandish characterizations provided by the skilled comedians behind the voices, including the likes of H. Jon Benjamin, Eugene Mirman, and Kristen Schaal.

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Dan Mintz, one of the writers, voices adolescent daughter and fan favorite Tina, who likes “horses, magic, and boys.” The swag for this panel was a sturdy (made in Canada, so you know it’ll treat you right) Tina mask. That’s me sporting it up above.

Tina also writes erotic friend-fiction. That’s like fan fiction, except you cast your friends. The most exciting announcement for me was the reveal that Tina has contributed a friend-fiction piece to Rookie Magazine. (An online zine masterminded by wunderkind Tavi Gevinson, right now appearing in This Is Our Youth at sweet-home-Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, Rookie regularly publishes a real-live book version called Yearbook, in which said piece will appear. It’s one of my fave sites and yet another career influence for me, so I of course highly recommend checking it out.)

This friend-fiction piece is an “elaborate Labyrinth fantasy.”

That’s three–count ‘em THREE–of my favorite things combined into ONE THING.

Thank you, Bob’s Burgers.

Thank you.

Archer
Okay, kids, it’s the piece de resistance: FX’s spy satire Archer.

Archer has been a television fave of mine for some time, to the point where references to the show bleed into my vernacular. They’re no longer quotes. They’re part of my language, and everyone seems to know what I mean. This show is a standout because of its incredible characters brought to life by skilled animators, hilarious writers, and fearless actors like venerable nerd girl and my lover-though-she-doesn’t-know-it-yet Aisha Tyler.

The Archer panel boasted some of Tyler’s fantastic one-liners: “I looked deep into Josh Hartnett’s eyes, and I almost peed myself just a liiiiiiittle bit.” “I’m an expert at stealing semen. If you go to stealingsemen.org…” I could go on, but why don’t you check out more of Tyler’s work yourself? Not actually on stealingsemen.org. How about on Twitter @aishatyler? Do it. She’s the best.

But wait; there’s more. They announced upcoming special guest voices, like the return of Christian Slater and Fargo’s Allison Tolman.

But wait! There’s more! We got to watch the Season 6 premiere, and it looks like this season has all the action, hilarity, and “PHRASING” of seasons past!

But wait! There’s EVEN MORE! Archer has been renewed for a Season 7! Sing out your praises, nerds!

Thus concludes SDCC Day 2. Aight, I’m outtie! The Hall H line for Saturday’s panels is moving, and I gotta finish this thing before my battery di

San Diego Comic Con Recap: Day 1

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by Nicole Keating

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San Diego Comic Con has officially begun!

First things first, I LOVE SDCC. I know people complain about lines and commercialism and the dilution of True Nerd Culture, but OMG THIS IS LIKE SECOND CHRISTMAS! It’s basically a four-day non-stop nerd party, and we started the fun almost as soon as we got offa the plane.

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Last night was Preview Night, which I didn’t have tickets for, but it’s really only important if you want first dibs on exclusives. Instead, I picke up my badge offsite (in a place called Fashion Valley, so I’m 99% sure Barbie lives there), picked up some groceries so I don’t have to eat gross con food the whole weekend, and enjoyed a relaxing evening at the hotel pool before heading out to one of my fave San Diego restaurants, Gaslamp Strip Club: A Steak Place, for martinis and grill-your-own steak. (Seriously, go there if you’re ever in San Diego. It’s delish and the walls a decked with Vargas girls. Highly recommend.)

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Today is when the con activities truly started. This is my fourth SDCC, but the first year that I haven’t wanted to attend any Thursday panels. In years past, Thursday panels have included Psych, Agents of SHIELD, an X-Files reunion panel, a Q&A with Joss Whedon, and Legend of Korra. See? Unmissable!

This year, even Hall H panels* were just…meh.

Instead, I got to sleep in–which here at Standing-in-Line Con 2014 means 7am–and spend the day on the exhibit hall floor. SHOPPING!

First things first. A large portion of attendees come for the entertainment guests. It’s what makes this particular convention so popular. Purists will lament about that, but it means the comic sellers aren’t super crowded. More for me! Plus any comic store who sends reps to SDCC has insane sales, like 50-60% off trades, so there will always be more comics than you will ever have time to read. Today I picked up Alan Moore’s Promethea, Harley Quinn in Welcome to Metropolis, Adventure Time with Fiona and Cake, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by the author of the original pre-cartoon comics, The Sandman presents The Furies, and Girl Genius.

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I also stopped by a booth for a comedy writing collective called The Devastator and picked up two small books that made me laugh: Dungeons & Douchebags and Satanic Baby-Sitters Cult.

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I don’t think I’ll have any trouble staying entertained while waiting in line the next few days.

Of course, I did pick up some con exclusives. A plush Rocket Racoon from the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy and a Harley Quinn purse.

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Okay, enough materialism. While I love to shop around this big nerdy mall, it’s 100% possible to go to SDCC and not spend a dime on entertainment outside of your con badge. Any large distributor or company or publisher brandishes the big guns. Studios like Weta, companies like Hasbro and Sideshow Collectibles, and publishers like Marvel, DC, and Image set up elaborate and beautiful displays for attendees to enjoy, whether buying stuff or not! Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite sights of the day. Enjoy!

The other amazing thing about the con floor is the cosplayers! Thursday is not the most popular cosplay day, but I still saw my fair share of awesome/hilarious/adorable/beautiful/inspiring cosplays. Even as I type this, in my direct line of sight I see Wayne and Garth, Piper and Alex from Orange is the New Black, Maleficent, the Evil Queen from Snow White, and a steampunk fairy princess Captain America. For Sunday’s recap I’ll be wandering the floor with my camera at the ready specifically to take pictures of all the fabulous cosplayers!

More impotantly, stay tuned for tomorrow’s recap, when I’ll tell you all about the hilarious Adult Swim panels (happening in my hotel #lazy), and Saturday’s, when I’ll be braving the Hall H lines just for you. Well, no, actually it’s for me. And for a screening of the new Gotham show. And for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And for Stephen Amell.

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You know, Mr. Green Arrow, Black Canary is my signature cosplay ;)

#nerdiestpickuplinesever

Until tomorrow, live nerdy and prosper!

*Hall H is the largest room in the convention center, holding about 6,000 people, so the really popular panels are held there.

Webseries Spotlight – Space Happens

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Our latest webseries profile is an upcoming project of a TLF regular, guest writer Nicole Keating! We are really excited to see her show, Space Happens.

(Ed: this is an e-mail recreation of a really awesome – but sadly lost – conversation between Keidra and Nicole about the show, Orange is The New Black, feminism, and other stuff.)

Describe Space Happens in a sentence or two for TLF readers.
“A Gynocentric Space Comedy of Mostly Epic Proportions.” Space Happens tells the story of Joy Jones, an earnest-yet-clumsy stoner chick who knows she’s born to do Something Extraordinary and who has no idea that makes her sound like an asshole. When she steals a seemingly mundane and kinda shitty government ship, she ends up among our fave sci-fi tropes — aliens, androids, plots to destroy the universe … She is in way over her head.

Tell me a little about where the idea came from, what stories or TV shows inspire your scripts?
This premise for the show has been percolating in my brain since 2007.  Late last year, I was lucky enough to join forces with my co-producers Deborah Craft, Melissa Fox, and Alyson Grauer, who were all as excited by the idea of a nerdy comedy featuring an all-female crew. Everyone was also incredibly jazzed by the webseries format. The Chicago film and acting communities recently fell in love with web-based entertainment. Everyone wants to broadcast their work online! Among all of these shows, Space Happens is one-of-a-kind: highbrow and lowbrow, sci fi and comedy, visual and verbal. On top of all that, we’re dedicated to showcasing talented women on and behind the camera.

We’ve been inspired by all the usual suspects – Firefly, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica–as well as more conceptual inspirations for our structure and humor — Edgar Wright, Archer, and Broad City come up quite often.

Who’s on the writing staff? How do you work together to develop the scripts?
We have a team of seven writers: myself, Deborah and Melissa, Justin Lieber, Laura Nash, Elizabeth Rodriguez, and Nathan Thompson.

Since January, we’ve been meeting 1-4 times per month for a formal “writers room.” We explore style, develop the world, outline episodes, and write dialogue collaboratively. We also write when we’re not together — dividing up episodes to be written, then reading and discussing them when we’re together.

Since January, we’ve gone through many drafts and many changes, with multiple people getting a pass at each episode. We also keep a shared Google Doc as a reservoir for jokes, dialogue, shots, et cetera that we’ve cut over the months. At this point, each episode is written with a combo of all of our voices, and our last couple months’ of work will be smoothing those into one collective voice.


Is there a specific character that you especially enjoy writing for?

Ummm, all of them? All of the characters have a really unique way of speaking, so they’re all really challenging. And because I’m a horrible masochist, challenging = fun.


How long is your initial season? How many scripts have you written already?

For the first season, we have 10 episodes. (It’s actually 11, because as TV is wont to do, the finale is an epic two-part finale. The title of the episode is actually ‘Epic Two-Part Finale.’) At this point in the process, we have at least one draft of every episode. We’re researching, revamping, and revising throughout the rest of the summer to create a master shooting script as well as a show bible.

It’s notable that you explicitly refer to Space Happens as “a slash fic between feminism and science fiction” (I love that the ship is named the HMS Janeway!)  How do you think mainstream sci-fi TV/Film is doing these days when it comes to female characters and feminist perspectives?

TV/film as a whole is pretty dismal when it comes to us ladies’ perspectives. The gender gap in Hollywood is insane; read Jezebel for like a day, and I’m sure you’ll see at least one article lamenting the prejudice against hiring women. Producers, directors, writers, and actresses all have a hard time getting hired and staying employed. Of course, entertainment is difficult for men, too, but there is no prejudice based on their gender. When a woman pitches her script, the response from production companies is overwhelmingly and notoriously “yes, but it’s about women.”

Science fiction is particularly rough on women. My Space Happens character is loosely based on Black Widow, who even in the capable hands of Joss Whedon couldn’t escape a close up on her ass. More recently, look at the reaction to Thor’s next incarnation being a gal:

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And that’s the kindest of the social media interactions I’ve seen.

I don’t even wanna talk about how Wonder Woman keeps getting pushed to the back burner in favor of male heroes.

Okay, maybe Wonder Woman is just waiting for me to become famous so I can direct it.

Space Happens is looking more towards smaller-studio produced shows like Orange Is the New Black. Obviously we’ll be drawing our humor from very different places, but OITNB places a similar emphasis on showcasing the female experience as well as incorporating women behind the camera as producers, writers, and showrunnerrs (my dream job).

Space Happens is a Chicago based show with a lot of local comedy and theatre talent, in what ways do you see a Chicago influence  (as opposed to Hollywood) possibly weaving its way into the tone and writing of the show?

Chicago is a town that focuses on process and craft. There’s a perfectionist tendency inherent in all artists–I want my piece to be the absolute best that it can be before I show it to audiences — but instead of pushing for a perfect product, Chicago practitioners push for an intense process. I see this in our writers room already. We start with questions and work collaboratively to develop the answers. Our Space Happens team also places a lot of emphasis on intelligence. Regardless of whether the comedy is highbrow or lowbrow or unibrow–which is how my high school English teacher described my sense of humor–we want the show to come from an informed place.

Chicago is also a hub of exciting theatrical productions, which rely on visual storytelling and sophisticated direction in addition to high-level acting. This is the school of thought that I was born and bred in: framing is part of the storytelling. On top of this, we layer wit, visual jokes, slapstick, and plenty of references.

What are your plans for distribution for Space Happens?
We’ll primarily broadcast on YouTube and our own website, with plans to release the entire series on DVD once the show is complete. We’ve also struck up a partnership with another Kickstarter-funded Chicago nerd project, Geek Bar, who will be able to show our episodes on their screens alongside other popular webseries.

Like Space Happens on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @SpaceHappens

We’re Part of the (Global) Game: U.S., Twitter, and the World Cup 2014

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As we reach the end of the World Cup, I figured it would be a good time to look back at the social media impact of the games, as I did four years ago.

Certainly, in the world of social media, a lot changes in four years. In 2010, Twitter was pre-IPO, pre-advertising and still largely seen as a platform for news professionals and social media douchebags to network and communicate with each other, rather than a real-time news and information platform. Since that time, Twitter’s demographic has gotten significantly younger and brands/media organizations have gained more awareness of Twitter’s culturally diverse audiences.

Notice that I didn’t say that Twitter became more diverse; as I have said several times in the past few years, Twitter diverse audiences have existed under the radar for years, only now since the outing of “black Twitter” have we started to see an acknowledgement from the media and ad agencies that the audiences here are not solely comprised of white male tech/marketing types or mom bloggers in the U.S..

But I digress. We’ve only had two proper experiences with the World Cup and social media communications platforms. While 2010 offered a taste of what was to come (Twitter was long ahead of the game on appealing to its global fanbase, with its flag hashtags.) this time around we saw the full impact of real time social media communications, we saw more Tweet volume around the World Cup and a lot more brand bandwagon jumping from companies, sometimes with face-palm inspiring results.

Yeah Delta, I’m talking about you. The U.S. Ghana game saw the first example of the folly of social media news-jacking, when Delta decided to use a giraffe as Ghana’s avatar (as opposed to the U.S.’s Lady Liberty) even though there are no actual giraffes in Ghana. Delta quickly apologized but by then it was too little, too late.

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On the other hand, with the impressive showing of the U.S. this year, we certainly did not see a repeat of 2010′s borderline xenophobic response to World Cup Twitter activity from the U.S. In fact, U.S. fans (and brands) were pretty quick to showboat, as the team moved forward into the Round of 16. (This time I’m talking to you, Waffle House, and your “ban belgian waffles” tweet.)

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After goalkeeper Tim Howard’s historic performance against Belgium led to one of the most memorable memes of the year, #thingstimhowardcouldsave. (Man, has it been a great year for clever memes!)

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Then, on the other end of the spectrum, Brazil’s crushing 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals, led to some pretty lolsob worthy memes of their own and a record breaking volume of Twitter activity.

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Twitter comes out a clear winner at the end of this championship, however. They built from the momentum of 2010 by continuing the flag hashtags but also creating a Twitter guide to the games (players, official accounts, news orgs, etc.) and an enhanced experience for following game hashtags. As a company, Twitter has stepped up their efforts in their bid to become a source for real time news and information, and at least for me it worked. I learned about Muntari and Boateng’s ejection from Ghana and was updated about Neymar’s injury from Twitter first. With this impressive showing could we see Twitter emerge as a legitimate real time breaking information source for non-sports news in the near future? Possibly. Even so, it’s been interesting to see how far cross-cultural conversation has come in such a short time. Who knows what awaits for 2018!

SOPOCU Con: Singing the praises of a successful, Mississippi-based convention

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by K. Hopson

My home state just had its first real convention, guys.

SOPOCU Con, which stands for Southern Popular Culture Convention, was on June 21 in Jackson, Miss.

Yes, I am aware Mississippi is late and infamous for underachievement. Precisely why this is a big step for us! I’m beyond pleased and proud. I don’t care how small it was! *waves I <3 Mississippi flag*

dalekNo, but seriously, there was a good turnout for this little indie con! Very good, especially considering the organizers only had five months to put it all together. John Hanks and Jay Branch said they got about 1,800 through the doors for the one-day event by pounding the pavement and using old-school marketing tactics. It worked though, because they exceeded their 1,000 goal. applause If you want that Maserati, you better work, bish.

There wasn’t much in the way of programming, and the guests weren’t exactly what you would call an all-star lineup, but I think they made up for it with enthusiasm and informativeness. And there were a lot of cute things on sale.

As you know, that’s enough to keep me occupied for a couple of hours. I caught the panels for Q&A sessions with Mary Kate Smith and Kelsey Syers, from TBS’ King of the Nerds, and Theodus Crane (aka Big Tiny), from The Walking Dead. His panel was so endearing. The audience was kind of shy, so he ended up turning the questions on them instead of the other way around. Just adorable.

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It was really cool to know that Smith is a real-live rocket scientist, and so down-to-earth and funny! I’m late on that, but I have a valid excuse since I no longer have cable. Syers also revealed that she speaks like…four languages fluently. Actually, the panel just before theirs was a lecture from Dr. Angelle Tanner about extrasolar planets in science fiction universes (and, I think, their hypothetical locations in the solar system? I only caught the end of it.) It’s always good to see chicks doing cool, smart-people shit. Now that I think about it, there was a good bit of racial and gender diversity at this con. Here’s what organizer John Hanks had to say:

“I told Jay [Branch] that I was putting the show on for selfish reasons. I basically wanted a show where I could show my daughter a bunch of cool things that come from Mississippi and the South. It was cool for me to have a female rocket scientist, female artists, and a great diversity in the vendors and artists for her to see.”

Heart-warming, right? Btw, Hanks owns a company called Southernerds, which aims to combat stereotypes about us all being unexposed, cousin-marriage-supporting hicks. (Bought one of their shirts.)

Dude also burst my bubble and revealed that this was actually not the first Mississippi con.bumblebee

“It’s actually not the first Mississippi based convention, but a lot of people keep saying that. There has been the aforementioned MS Pulp Con, Mississippi Anime Invasion, and CoastCon has done like 40 conventions,” he said. “There are cons upcoming like Anime Invasion, Geekonomicon, and Hub Con. However, I will take the compliment. It means we are doing something right and our face to face, old school marketing plan is working.”

Wow, how did I not know all this?! Going to play that off now…

Hanks said they were very happy with the attendance numbers and hope to branch out next year:

“We hope to do it all over again next year and possibly expand into two days, while also leaving room to grow in the future. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and ruin the great thing we think we are building. In the future, we want to have more programming, more vendors, more options and things for people to do throughout the day. Just try and make what we did even better.”

And because I had a good time, I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with for next year’s event. This will be on my to-watch list. (GO MISSISSIPPI, WOO!)

You Died. Again: A Review of Dark Souls by Someone Who Didn’t Play It

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by Kristin Bezio

To be fair, I did watch someone play most of the game. Many of those moments repeatedly. And if I wasn’t in the room, the plaintive “Nooooo” that would echo from the living area told me that I’d be able to see whatever it was in another ten minutes. And probably again another twenty after that. And another twenty after that.

You get the idea.

Dark Souls, and its successors, have developed the reputation of being the most frustrating game in existence. In fact, when Dark Souls 2 was announced, it was being touted by gaming journalism sites as the game in which you could “die a million times.” I always laughed at those, thinking, “okay, the game must be hard, but it can’t be that hard.”

Yes, yes it can.

The person in our house who played it is a professional game developer with years of playing and testing and designing under his belt (hint: it’s not me). This is not a game for the faint of heart or the slow of trigger finger.

He told me a few days in that he had intended to play slowly and carefully, and just not die. He gave up on that idea in less than an hour.

Among the reasons why Dark Souls is a brutal, soul-crushing experience are the following:

–Everything respawns when you die, meaning that if you’ve only just finished clearing out an area, and die to the last thing in it… yup. You get to redo the whole thing all over again!

–You lose all the souls and humanity you’re carrying when you die, which is rough. Now, you can go retrieve them from a little glowing green ball located wherever you died, but if you die on the way to it, you lose it all forever.

–So the solution is not to die, right? Well, yes and no. You see, in addition to respawning when you die, everything also respawns when you save. (Your save points and your respawn points are the same – campfires.) So when you finish that horrible garden level with the spikey trees and giant mushroom men and save… they all come back. There are some boss monsters that don’t respawn (thank god that dragon-tooth-maw-thing only dies once), but most of the common enemies will be right where you left them. Yay!

–All this wouldn’t be so bad if the enemies weren’t so difficult to deal with. The husband points out that while
individually they aren’t so bad, when three or four or six of them swarm you, it doesn’t really matter how easy one of them is to kill.

I learned about those things within the first few hours of the husband’s playthrough, and that was more than enough to convince me that attempting to play Dark Souls would turn me into a murderous harpy, and not in a good way. That said, the husband really does love the game. It lets him do a lot of exploring and resource management (it’s like Skyrim in principle, if not really like it in execution), upgrading of equipment, and tactical combat. It seems to be – as the observer – to be fairly slow-paced (not in a bad way), but that might simply be a product of the husband’s playstyle.

That said, all of the aforementioned reasons why I won’t be playing Dark Souls provide a challenge that many players have very obviously found intriguing, entertaining, and fun. More power to them.

There are some really interesting mechanics that appear in Dark Souls that don’t usually factor into most single-player games, because they’re really multiplayer components incorporated into singleplayer:

–Players can write messages to each other across the game ether. This is actually kinda cool. The game doesn’t tell you at first that these messages are (or might be) from other actual people. But as you travel through the world, players start to warn each other about hidden enemies, loot they can pick up, and strategic tips on how to kill that giant dragon on the cliff (ranged attack, the note says). These hints can be erased and up or downvoted, too, so that people are encouraged to be useful or at least funny.

–Players can ghost into each other’s games, so that from time to time you will encounter a ghost that does nothing to you (the ones that hurt you aren’t other players), but usually has some really cool gear. It’s a reminder that you aren’t alone in the horror that is the Dark Souls experience.

–If they choose, players can even pay to enter other players’ games and attack them, although this costs resources and is only available if both players have “agreed” to let it happen by choosing to become “human” (players are undead by default, and can lose their humanity by dying).

There are advantages – and disadvantages – to playing with “humanity,” and it is a resource that can be gained and lost throughout the game. In addition to being subject to attacks from other players, playing with “humanity” enables the player to summon aid – that of other players and that of AI placed strategically around the world. The inclusion of “humanity” in this capacity is not only mechanically interesting (and exciting), but produces interesting commentary on the developers’ view of human beings. Possession of “humanity,” that thing that is unique to human beings, enables us to be both our best (helpful) and worst (hostile) selves; only by embracing the polar opposites contained within the mechanic can we be considered human. Without “humanity,” players in Dark Souls must walk the game’s path alone – they will not be able to summon allies to help them – but they will also not place themselves at risk from attack by other players. The best and the worst of being human.

One of the other components that the husband likes and that I don’t is the fact that there is functionally no plot, no complex narrative. The game has more of a premise than a plot, really, and a lot of it is shrouded in mystery. Mystery can be a good thing. I loved it in Braid – the game didn’t tell us what was going on, it let us figure it out as we went. I just like some narrative to make me care about my player-character, and Dark Souls doesn’t really have that.

Partway through the game, the husband became convinced that Dark Souls was in some way aping the premise of Shadows of the Colossus: that his player-character is in fact evil and is killing off guardians in his desperate attempt to once again become human. The fact that the player-character begins as undead and is collecting “humanity” may have had something to do with this idea.

Interestingly, most of the monsters one battles appear to be giant versions of animals – really badass animals. cat2There are giant plague rats that poison you, giant three-eyed frog things that curse you, and a HUGE wolf that wields a sword with its mouth. There are also big grey Cheshire-cat-things (at least one of which who speaks to you) that look disturbingly like my cat, Grimm.

But the creepy resemblance of a fantasy videogame creature to my pet aside, the game feels as a whole very much like a version of Through the Looking Glass, at least to the outside viewer. Perhaps it’s because the similarity of the things in the game to things outside the game – but with a twist. Trees will slowly walk to the side to reveal hidden entrances, but otherwise appear like normal trees, the creatures that are big but otherwise just a little bit off… and the fact that the other speaking characters in the game seem like a little bit (or more than a little bit) mad…

Despite this, the game has a good deal of logic that is often absent from games. In one castle, there is the requisite corridor down which a large boulder rolls, squishing the player who gets in the way. But unlike in most games (and Indiana Jones movies), Dark Souls follows the boulders through – it later shows the player not only the mechanism by which the boulders are thrown down the corridor, but even has a giant pulling them from a large pile and dropping them down a chute into the mechanism. In other words, in Dark Souls everything has an origin, an explanation, a mad logic of its own.

One of the other distinctive parts of Dark Souls is the game’s refusal to supply a player with a standard experience; in most games, the majority of players will see the same things; acquire the same loot, weapons, and armor; fight the same enemies; and follow the same pathways. In Dark Souls this is not the case. Certainly there are many common things across different playthroughs, but there are also certain scenes and loot that only appear under specific circumstances. There are others that randomly appear for different players: the Mask of the Mother/Father/Child, for instance, will be one of the three, chosen at random for the player when a three-headed enemy is defeated. In some rare circumstances, a player may be able to acquire the other masks later (if they have accomplished certain tasks when the monster is defeated), but most players will only ever see one. This is a way for the developers to gain replayability (players will want to play again), but it also virtually guarantees a unique personal experience – and generates discussion between players, thus creating a sense of community.

In terms of the game’s narrative… well, there just isn’t much. Even the ending is ambiguous – have you just [spoilers] destroyed the world? Saved it? Replaced the guardian of the fires? Destroyed yourself? It’s not terribly clear. It isn’t even clear whether you – as the player-character – are good or evil, which I actually find rather intriguing. But the Alice in Wonderland-esque sense lasts even to the end of the game, leaving you as the player rather confused about which worlds were “real,” which undead, and whether any of them really mattered at all. It causes the player to be confused, certainly, but also provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the choices made throughout the game – it’s uncertain which actions are good, which bad, which neutral, and whether any of them ultimately made a difference. In short, it seems to be a game about the oddity and, ultimately, futility of life.

[Major spoilers] In fact, once the credits roll, the player ends up back where they started – in the Undead Asylum. This time, though, with all the armor and weapons and upgrades they earned in the first playthrough. Perhaps a commentary on reincarnation, or the idea that we have to keep reliving our lives – day by day – until we get “it” right, whatever “right” is. Is this a hopeful message or a depressing one? That all depends on perspective, I suppose.

In the end, the husband and I disagree about this game because although I do concede that it is carefully, deliberately, and diligently crafted, I have absolutely no interest in playing it. It doesn’t appeal to the things I look for in a game – narrative complexity, gameplay that is challenging without being frustrating or punishing – even though it does do several things I do find appealing – gameplay woven into the (sparse) narrative rather than being tangential, rich world-development, logical structure of gameplay and player-character choices. It appears to be a good game, just not one I want to play.

The husband, however, has become what one might call obsessed. The detail of thought that went into the mechanics and gameplay is enough for him – he’s a gameplay junkie who doesn’t really care much for narrative at all. And for what he likes, Dark Souls appears to be the be-all-and-end-all. It’s crafted, not just built, and has a level of detail that one generally only finds in a master creator. The logic of the puzzles, the smoothness of gameplay, the “easter eggs” that are not shoved forcefully in the player’s face but built seamlessly into the rest of the game… These things are balanced against one another and the game’s difficulty such that a player like the husband who lives for gameplay will always be on the edge of failure, always so close that replaying a level is an addictive pleasure rather than (as it would be for me) a chore.

In short, this is a game for those who love gameplay for its own sake, who have no desire to be instructed in where to go or why, and who are uninterested in complex narrative or character development as the core part of their gameplay fantasies – players whose fantasies are about challenge and skill progression. Ludics over narrative. And for those players, Dark Souls is an amazing jewel of a game. Even those of us who aren’t those kind of players can appreciate and respect what Dark Souls is doing – but if you aren’t keen on riding that knife-edge of failure, if you like the story of your game to direct your actions, if character development is part of your fantasy, then this isn’t the game for you. It’s a great game, but it isn’t for everyone.

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