Cradle: Be a Dystopian Raider Out On the Steppes

Sometimes, what draws me into a story isn’t the premise of the plot or its characters, but its setting. Case in point: Cradle is an indie game released on Steam last year, set in the countryside of Mongolia in the near-future, where uploading into robot bodies is the norm.

I mean, how could someone like me resist such a pitch?

You play as Enebish, a young man living in Mongolia who wakes up in his yurt with no memory. He discovers a few fantastic things about his world, such as the golden eagle that flies around with a metal plate fused to its belly and the dismantled gynoid body sitting on his workbench. After reactivating the machine, Enebish makes contact with Ida, a woman who explains how the world changed after an infertility epidemic and the race to harvest a vital substance called passium, produced by raw human emotion. With her help, Enebish begins a journey to explore the ruins of a nearby amusement park, collecting more clues about their respective pasts and how they came to be in this place.

Copyright © 2015 by Flying Cafe for Semianimals

Copyright © 2015 by Flying Cafe for Semianimals

What will probably grab most players about this game (as it did for me) is how beautiful this game looks. It’s tempting to roam around the map and take in all the detail, from Enebish’s hut to the cathedral-like amusement park. That same detail goes into the sound design, as every object you pick up or change has a definite solid noise to accompany it. I will admit, though, that sometimes the graphics were a little too fluid and sensitive for me. If you’re someone who gets motion sickness easily, you might want to play at a lower resolution, though that could affect your gameplay experience.

I also love the fact that this game is set in the Mongolian steppes, with plenty of native culture and flora to be explored. It’d be easy to make this a game somewhere in the US or Western Europe, so visiting this part of the world was a rare treat. I also like how we get a blend of the Mongolian landscape with futuristic technology, from the M-body that Ida lives in (with her realistic eyes in a visor) to the devices that Enebish uses to scan and digitize flowers that he’ll later sell.

Speaking of technology, the game has an interesting plot device in the form of “passium.” According to Ida, the substance is drawn from the human nervous system and produced by powerful emotions. She goes on to explain how an incident involving an overflow of passium led to a terrible accident in the amusement park near Enebish’s current home, with all the gravity of surviving a terrorist attack. I’d like to think that there’s a symbolic reading of passium in the game. Not only are people trying to turn emotional balance into a commodity, but the overflow incident that an M-body user triggered could be read as typical of the unstable personality behind most “lone wolf” acts of terror.

That being said, after a while, I started to lose interest in the game the longer I played. Once Ida is activated and the main plot kicks off, Enebish spends most of the game either getting long, expository dialogue with her or going to the amusement park to play a weird minigame in order to retrieve another component that her robot body needs. I wasn’t a fan of the cube collecing minigames and I don’t see how they related to the story at all. Wouldn’t it make more sense if I had to find and scavenge parts from abandoned M-bodies at the park?

At the end of the game, you learn more about the world where Cradle takes place and what makes Enebish so special. However, I don’t get the same satisfaction from the ending—or the playthrough leading up to it—as I did from Primordia or Journey, which also let you explore and uncover the past through collecting fragments in an ancient wasteland. I wanted to like Cradle, and I do recommend it for its beauty and its cultural prowess, but if you’re prone to motion sickness or not too keen on a vague and sudden ending, then it’s a cautious recommendation at best.

Cradle is available for purchase and download through Steam. You can learn more about the developer, Flying Cafe for Semianimals, from their official blog.


Bibliography: Cradle (video game). Developed by Flying Cafe for Semianimals. Published by Flying Cafe for Semianimals. Original release date: July 24, 2015.

Reading the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Novelization

swtfabook

Copyright © 2016 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

It’s no secret that I love Star Wars and that I adore the saga’s most recent installment, The Force Awakens. Watching this movie (3 times at the theater, as of this article’s writing) has made me remember the joy of the original films, from deadly lightsaber duels to heroic starfighter dogfights to the struggle of trying to save a droid on a hostile desert planet. And being a bibliophile, I naturally needed to read the novelization as well. When I heard that Alan Dean Foster was writing it, I was excited.

But I was less thrilled once I started reading it.

(If you want a synopsis of the novelization, I’ll point you toward my actual review of the movie, wherein I give a short, spoiler-free summary. However, there will be one or two spoilers below for the sake of this review.)

Like any good novelization, this book takes the main events shown in the film and adds literary context to everything: how the characters think and feel beyond their immediate dialogue and actions, along with backstory and details that the movie wouldn’t otherwise include. In Foster’s treatment, you can read all the iconic dialogue that you hear in the screenplay, but he does have a tendency to add more than might be necessary.

Here’s one example. In the movie, after Rey, Finn, and BB-8 escape Jakku aboard the Millennium Falcon, a First Order officer has to deliver the news to Kylo Ren. When told about the escape, Ren is fuming quietly. Then he breaks out into a violent display with his lightsaber, only to go back to his calm, chilling demeanor a minute later. All his dialogue is sparse, and you feel the officer’s dread when he has to deliver each new piece of information, knowing he might lose his life in a second.

But in the novelization, we get this long, strange monologue from Ren before the officer can deliver his report:

“Look at it, Lieutenant. So much beauty among so much turmoil. In a way, we are but an infinitely smaller reflection of the same conflict. It is the task of the First Order to remove the disorder from our own existence, so that civilization may be returned to the stability that promotes progress. A stability that existed under the Empire, was reduced to anarchy by the Rebellion, was inherited by the so-called Republic, and will be restored by us. Future historians will look upon this as the time when a strong hand brought the rule of law back to civilization” (Foster p. 92).

I can see a few problems here. One is that this style of speaking is far too romantic for a sadistic Force-user like Kylo Ren, especially if he’s trying to emulate his idol, Darth Vader. Another is that this speech kills the dread building up from the beginning of the scene. A lieutenant has to tell his master that a Resistance droid escaped Jakku with help from a rogue stormtrooper, and he’s expecting to die just like any officer under Vader would. In the audience, we’re counting on that same event to happen. But one thing Vader would never do is stop to make a subordinate join in his navel-gazing. He cared about results and used his words sparingly, just as Kylo Ren does in the film—but not in the book.

To be honest, the author adds a lot of dialogue where it wouldn’t be needed, getting rid of some of the tension that screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and director J.J. Abrams built into those scenes. Another example is this gem from Poe Dameron:

“This isn’t about my life, or yours. I’m sorry, Finn, but there are far greater things at stake. Forces are in motion that must be dealt with. Unfortunately, I seem to be at the center of them. It’s a responsibility I can’t—I won’t—forget. I’m sorry you’ve become caught up in the middle of it, but I can’t do anything about that” (Foster p. 60-61).

This long snippet takes place while Finn and Poe are trying to outmaneuver the laser blasts of a Star Destroyer inside a stolen TIE fighter. I’m aware that the original scene had a lot of back-and-forth dialogue between the two men as they made their escape, with Poe explaining flight controls and his mission to Finn, but this kind of calm, reflective tone doesn’t feel right in what’s supposed to be a high-stakes, life-or-death situation. Not to mention the fact that Poe talking about being an agent of the largest cause doesn’t really clear things up with Finn.

In fact, two lines later, Poe tells Finn that his droid is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker. Again, just like in the movie, but the movie’s dialogue was about Poe trying to convince Finn to go back to Jakku while trying to outrun fire from a Star Destroyer. Time was a factor and every word counted. The abovementioned aside from Poe about dark forces in motion doesn’t help persuade Finn, nor does it heighten the drama of the scene.

Ironically, Foster’s treatment does work when he writes out the deleted or implied content from the movie. This includes Leia’s envoy speaking to the Republic Senate before their planet’s destruction, Poe Dameron’s dramatic escape from Jakku, and one last encounter with the junk dealer Unkar Plutt. Because these scenes weren’t included or alluded to in the final cut of the film, I think the author has a lot more freedom to play with them, so these sequences stand out compared to the rest of the novel.

I really want to like this book, but only because of the movie. I don’t think Alan Dean Foster is a bad writer at all; after all, I enjoyed the novelization he wrote for the first Star Wars film back in 1976. But it doesn’t have the same depth and tension that other authors brought to their take on Star Wars, like how James Kahn did for Return of the Jedi or Matthew Stover did for Revenge of the Sith (you can read more about the latter in my review of the book). Ultimately, if you want to gain a little more perspective on the events of The Force Awakens—or, at least, see a few deleted scenes explored to their potential—then I can recommend giving the novelization a read… but only so far.

The Star Wars: The Force Awakens novelization is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.


Bibliography: Foster, Alan Dean. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (novelization). New York: Del Rey, 2016.

Flash Fiction: “Find Your Fairy in Aisle 27”

So, good news. I recently joined a writers’ group on Meetup.com, and I’m having a blast with them. At my first meeting, I got to write and present a very strange little story based on a prompt submitted by different members of the group. It’s not much, but it got a good laugh around the table.

And now I share its twisted, colorful journey with you.

Enjoy!


Find Your Fairy in Aisle 27, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 861

James was 66 and only a week into retirement from the USPS. He’d promised his wife that he’d finally fix up the tile in the guest bathroom, which was how he found himself in the tile section of the local Home Depot.

The only problem—well, besides finding the right glazed tile per Edith’s instructions—was that he was starving. But James had promised Edith that he’d not return until he found the perfect match for the bathtub.

But it wasn’t until he turned the corner that he first laid eyes on the Creature.

It wasn’t a child, but a tiny man. Only two feet tall, with pointed ears and an orange Home Depot employee’s vest. And, for some reason, the gnome was taking a long drag on a tiny cigarette. When he saw James staring, the gnome hissed.

“Look, pal,” he said, “I’m on break. Take it up with the Service Desk, okay? Okay…”

“Can…?” James couldn’t believe he was saying this. Or seeing this. “Can you help me, um… find the perfect tile?”

“No can do. On. My. Break.” The gnome blew out a puff of smoke in James’s face.

“But I—”

“The only one who can help is the Queen Beneath.” The gnome stamped his foot on the concrete floor. “If you cross the Lake of Bedlam, enter the Enchanted Grove, and make an offering, she’ll grant your wish.”

James blinked. “What kind of offering?”

“It’s Tuesday, so…” Scratching his head, the gnome glanced at the old man. “A bowl of soup oughta do it.”

“Soup?” James echoed.

“What can I say?” The gnome took another puff of smoke. “She likes soup on Tuesdays. Always did, always will.”

***

And so it was that James found himself following a gnome’s instructions. He discovered the magical entrance to Faerieland tucked behind the third stall of the men’s room. James screamed as he tumbled past dozens of gnomes, pixies, and lesser elves in the dense green woods hidden far below the parking lot. He haggled with another gnome in the Enchanted Bazaar, trading a shoelace and a nickel for a hot bowl of lentil soup.

Crossing the Lake of Bedlam proved more of a challenge. James bartered his other shoelace for passage on a tiny boat, with a gleaming gold fairy at the helm.

The lake was turbulent, waves rocking hard against the starboard side of the bat. James fought to row while keeping a scalding bowl of soup balanced on his knees. He didn’t even flinch when a slimy tentacle arose from the lake and tried to steal the bowl from his lap.

“Neither rain nor snow,” he muttered under his breath. With a mighty heave, he used his oar to knock the sea creature back. The pixie’s boat nearly capsized, but James regained his balance—and the soup as well.

He lost all sense of time out on the lake. James nearly forgot why he was down here in the first place. He wanted to be home on the couch, curled up with Edith…

But that was it. She deserved the perfect tile, and if the Queen Beneath could deliver it, then crossing this hideous green lake was worth all the trouble.

***

By the time he reached the other shore, James had found that his bowl of soup had grown cold. He continued to walk, following a trail of torches held by fairies in orange vests.

At long last, James carried his bowl of soup up a flight of granite stairs winding up the trunk of a massive tree. At the summit was a tiny treehouse, no bigger than the checkout stand at Home Depot. James squeezed himself inside, bowing his head against the low ceiling.

He stopped when he heard a cough and a raspy voice ask, “Is that my soup?”

Sitting on an ornate chair was the Fairy Queen, two and a half feet tall and covered in the finest mink. She wore a crown of berries over her delicate pointed ears.

James held up the now-lukewarm bowl of soup.

“Um,” he mumbled, “Sorry it’s cold—”

“Oh, perfect!” The little queen snatched the bowl from his hands and drank it down with an unladylike slurp.

James would’ve asked why, but he decided against it. After all, he’d given up on questions once he discovered a mythical lake far below the Home Depot parking lot. On a Tuesday, no less.

After finishing her soup and smacking her lips, the Queen looked James up and down. “So,” she asked, “you’ve come for your wish?”

“Um, yes?” James clasped his hands together. “I need the perfect glazed tile for our bathroom—”

“Done!” The Queen snapped his fingers, and there they were. Six boxes of beautiful bathroom tiles that Edith was sure to adore. James went to grab them, but the Queen stopped him. She reached beneath her mink coat and handed him, to his surprise, a receipt.

“Please remember that you may return all wishes within the next 30 days for a partial refund,” the Queen declared. She flashed James an evil grin. “Oh, and good luck finding help carrying all that tile back… mailman.”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Acknowledgments

Thanks to my supporters on Patreon, including Josh Powlinson, for their contributions that make stories like this one possible.

To see more content like this, please visit my Patreon page and become a proud donor today.

Tales from the Borderlands: 5 Episodes of High-Octane Desert Fun

Not every game needs to a straight-up battle between Good and Evil or a quest to rescue the princess or a gritty look at the horrors of war. Sometimes the best games are the ones that say, “Hey, wanna grab as much loot as you can and make out like bandits?”

That’s why the Borderlands franchise was created, and that’s why I love Telltales Games’ contribution, the five-part series Tales from the Borderlands, which I played late last year.

Copyright © 2015 by Telltale Games

Copyright © 2015 by Telltale Games

Over the course of 5 episodes, we follow two antiheroes across the surface of Pandora: Rhys, a salaryman for the Hyperion Corporation, and Fiona, a talented con artist. Despite their initial lack of trust, they find themselves thrown together with their companions on a quest to reclaim 10 million dollars, avoid the wrath of bandits, and follow the trail of the Gortys Project to a mythical find: the Vault of the Traveler. Along the way, they gather allies and enemies, from the hustler August to one very loyal Hyperion Loader Bot. And in true Borderlands fashion, it’s easy to see how Handsome Jack’s influence still lurks over the landscape in unexpected ways.

Seriously, this was one of the best games I’ve had fun with in a long time. Every little bit of commentary and dialogue is hilarious, especially with so many of Handsome Jack’s asides or propaganda thrown into the mix. And then, of course, there’s Gortys, the cutest little robot in the universe with a childlike sense of wonder.

But the gameplay itself was quite fun. I know a lot of gamers don’t enjoy Quick Time Events when they’d rather be traversing the landscape themselves and getting into proper fistfights and shootouts, but this setup worked for me quite well. I got so immersed in the storyline that I really did enjoy the way I’d be scrambling for the keyboard buttons once I got a prompt to pickpocket someone or drive a caravan underneath a Rakk Hive so it can get blown up by a moonshot (Yes, that actually happened, go play it and see for yourself).

Extra points go to the game for its use of licensed music in the episode intro sequences (I especially loved the openings for Episodes 2 and 3). It has the same devil-may-care vibe that I got from watching Guardians of the Galaxy: a bunch of outlaws and scavengers hit the trail in a beat-up vehicle to some classic Earth tunes.

If I had to nitpick any of the game’s quality, it’d be that some of the prompts for character interactions or dialogue don’t always pop up right away. This can be a little frustrating when you want to go through every option or cool side thing before moving on with the main plot.

If you’re looking for a game with a lot of comedic value, cool wasteland action, and a cast of surprisingly likable characters, then Tales from the Borderlands is for you. It delivers with all the satisfaction of unlocking a Vault.

All five episodes of Tales of the Borderlands are now available through the official website, Steam, Xbox Live, the PlayStation Store, Google Play, and the iTunes App Store.


Bibliography: Tales from the Borderlands. Developed by Telltale Games. Published by Telltale Games. Directed by Nick Herman, Jonathan Stauder, Ashley Ruhl, and Martin Montgomery. Produced by Sara Guinness, Adam Sarasohn, Mark Dickenson, Cody Murry, and Bryan Roth. Written by Pierre Shorette, Adam Hines, Jeremy Breslau, Chuck Jordan, Justin Sloan, Eric Stirpe, Anthony Burch, and Zack Keller. Telltale Tool (engine). Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, OS X, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One. Original release date (Episode 1): November 25, 2014.

Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Fighting for a Soul on Netflix Originals

It’s an interesting time for television (thanks to Netflix) and we’re still riding high in films and TV shows based on comic book superheroes (thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe). So, of course, we’re going to see more Netflix shows from Marvel. First came Daredevil, and now we’ve got Marvel’s Jessica Jones.

In New York City, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is trying to make her living as a private investigator, using street smarts and superhuman strength to serve subpoenas and get evidence of cheating spouses. But her past catches up with her when she encounters a young woman caught in the clutches of Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man with mind control powers and no conscience. Desperate to spare others from the same fate she endured, Jessica joins forces with her adopted sister Trish (Rachael Taylor), a ruthless attorney (Carrie-Anne Moss), and the formidable Luke Cage (Mike Colter) to expose the madman and bring him to justice, one way or another.

Copyright © 2015 by Marvel Television

Copyright © 2015 by Marvel Television

Now I’ll admit that I never read the original comics, but the fact that Krysten Ritter (whom I know from Breaking Bad) was playing the lead role got my interest. As a character, Jessica is a great anti-hero and an excellent portrayal of an abuse survivor. She’s bitter and sarcastic, but she doesn’t sacrifice any sympathy points during her investigations, even when she’s roughing up suspects or Kilgrave’s minions. It helps that she knows the pain they’ve undergone in mind control, which also makes her clever when she finds a way to circumvent that control.

Speaking of Kilgrave, this is easily one of the darkest villains in the MCU. Tennant’s villain is charismatic, pleasure-seeking, dangerously unhinged, and effective at pushing everyone’s buttons. Almost no one is safe from his influence once he’s in earshot, which often results in a trail of fresh corpses once they’re useless to him. Kilgrave was great to watch, but I had trouble at times seeing how he was both a man-child and a talented manipulator. Still, David Tennant plays both sides well (and yes, it was creepy to hear such villainous lines in the same Estuary English accent he used in Doctor Who).

Besides Kilgrave’s monologues, my other favorite parts of Jessica Jones (apart from the brutal fight scenes) were her interactions with Trish. Rachael Taylor makes a nice, optimistic contrast to Jessica’s hardboiled shell, but she backs that optimism up with a lot of physical prowess and some good investments in home defense. I don’t know why, but I love it when a good relationship between two women gets established and explored in TV or film. And as we see in this show, both Jessica and Trish have helped each other get past a shared history of abuse, which ties nicely into the central theme.

My only real gripe with the show had to do with its subplots and supporting characters. At times, I liked the romance with Jessica and Luke Cage, but at other times, I found it a little boring. And that goes double for any of the cutaways to her neighbors Robyn and Reuben or the subplot of Jeri Hogarth’s messy divorce (which I usually skipped). The sole redeeming factor in the supporting cast was Malcolm (Eka Darville), who does an amazing transformation from a comic relief character to a nuanced and surprisingly moral ally.

In between all the fistfights, epic body slams, and blood splatters, the show goes deeper than other media into subjects like rape, abuse, and other traumas. Jessica Jones isn’t afraid to throw words like “rape” and “consent” in Kilgrave’s face, even while he tries to avoid being tagged that way or paint himself as another victim of unwanted superpowers. It’s a little refreshing to see this side of sexuality explored in a modern show, as well as to see survivors find their way toward recovery. It’s what makes the dialogue between characters like Jessica and Hope Shlottman so effective.

By the end of the first run, I liked the show better than Daredevil at times, if only for Krysten Ritter’s performance. While I enjoyed the side characters in Daredevil a little more, I found this version of Jessica Jones to be very compelling, from her dark past to her tightrope walk between protecting the innocent and taking the easy way out. She’s a great protagonist and I can’t wait to what else lies in store for Alias Investigations.

Marvel’s Jessica Jones is now available for viewing on Netflix.


Bibliography: Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Created by Melissa Rosenberg. Based on the comics by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. Produced by S. J. Clarkson, Liz Friedman, Allie Goss, Kris Henigman, Cindy Holland, Alan Fine, Stan Lee, Joe Quesada, Dan Buckley, Jim Chory, Jeph Loeb, and Melissa Rosenberg. Perf. Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Rachael Taylor, Wil Traval, Erin Moriarty, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss and David Tennant. Marvel Television; ABC Studios; Tall Girls Productions. Netflix (distributor). Original release date: November 20, 2015.