Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake: Talk Back, Move Forward

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

Writing prequels to a story is tricky. On the one hand, you have to take details from various backstory clues and try to weave them together without contradicting the existing story we already know. On the other hand, you still have to tell a story with its own beginning, middle, and end. If you don’t do this right, you get the Star Wars prequels. If you do it well, you get a compelling tale like Better Call Saul or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I’d also put Life is Strange: Before the Storm in this latter category. It’s a compelling look into the past of Arcadia Bay through characters we all know and love.

In Episode 1: “Awake,” we meet Chloe Price at age 16, as she sneaks out at night to attend a Firewalk concert outside the town limits. A sudden encounter with some local toughs and Rachel Amber changes her life forever. Rather than face the ugly truth of her mother Joyce dating David Madsen, or her decline in school attendance at Blackwell Academy, Chloe latches onto the elusive Rachel. Of course, mysteries love to stack onto each other, and this first episode ties together the girls’ fate with their relationships to their respective fathers. For Chloe, it’s about confronting her father’s untimely demise, and for Rachel, it’s dealing with a parent who wasn’t what he seemed to be.

When I first played Life is Strange back in 2014, I didn’t love Chloe Price as a character. But in the episodes that followed, she grew on me. In Before the Storm, I’ve actually come to enjoy playing Chloe as a protagonist over Max. The key difference, I think, is that Max could be easily shaped by how you rewound time and what choices you did or didn’t make. Here, Chloe always has an agenda. She always has a way to get things done, but it’s more of a question if she’ll be quiet and then subvert the System later, or if she’ll get in someone’s face with sarcasm and a few keen insights. It makes Chloe stand out more, even while she’s burning bridges with the principal and making good impressions with the local D&D nerds (and by the way, did you know you can play a short Dungeons & Dragons game in Episode 1?).

On a meta level, I also respect the fact that Chloe Price isn’t being voiced by Ashly Burch, owing to the SAG-AFTRA strike. I love that Miss Burch is still involved as a writing consultant who can bring Chloe back to life, and I think Rhianna DeVries does a fine job as her vocal successor.

Meanwhile, we get a closer look at who Rachel Amber is and what makes her tick. I must say, if you’ve ever played or heard of the fan-made game Love is Strange, then I think you won’t be surprised at how similar their interpretation of Rachel is to the real deal. Or, at least, that’s how I see it. Rachel likes being an enigma, but I get the sense that she’s playing it up to cover for something deep and painful—not unlike how Chloe plays up the deliquent factor to mask her abandonment issues (which we get to see in dream sequences and one heartbreaking junkyard scene).

Besides the character depth we get to explore for both Chloe and Rachel, I love the new mechanics in this series. While Max’s time rewind powers were fun to play with, I also found them very stressful and sometimes they clashed with the plot. Instead, what we get with Chloe is Backtalk and Graffiti. With Backtack Challenges, you can basically shut down an argument with someone else through skillful wit and sarcasm. And, of course, like with any choice in Life is Strange,there will be consequences.” Except, here, the consequences feel like they mean something now. There’s no way to undo it when Chloe loses an argument. She just has to move on.

And I love, love being able to write graffiti wherever I can. Seriously, I know it can be difficult to develop, but I’d love to see more games that let me change around the environment like this. Even if it has nothing to do with the actual story content, it’s just a fun little exercise.

I don’t think Before the Storm is a perfect game (the constant AMD driver crashes on my end certainly didn’t help me with the gameplay experience), but I find it’s an improvement over some of the criticisms leveled at the original Life is Strange. Chloe’s character arc is compelling, her interactions with Rachel and other students are meaningful, and there’s room for all kinds of plot development and new game mechanics in the next two episodes. It’s amazing how a little jaunt into the past can sometimes open up a bright new future.

The first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Awake,” is currently available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Store, and the official website.


Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake. Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: August 31, 2017.

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Flash Fiction: “The Armstrong Experience”

When you give me writing prompts with “Neil Armstrong” and “science fiction,” there’s only so many ways I can take a story like that. Fortunately, I was plenty entertained with the route I took here.

Enjoy!


The Armstrong Experience,

By Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 477

Every step he took down the ladder seemed to last forever, even though there was only sixteen percent of Earth’s gravity here. But as he floated down, Neil Armstrong looked out from the landing module at the barren landscape of the Moon.

He couldn’t believe it. He was finally here. About to stand on ground that was over two hundred thousand miles from Earth. He’d be the only human being in existence who could make that claim.

Neil lowered his foot. With all of Earth watching, he said, “That’s one small step for man—”

And then everything went white.

A flash seared his eyes. Neil felt himself drop, and he felt himself begin to tumble toward the ground. He tried to call out, to shout “Mayday!” over the radio, so that Buzz Aldrin could hurry out and help. But when he reached for his helmet, there wasn’t a radio anymore. Or a spacesuit. Or even the barren landscape of the Moon.

Neil floated in a sea of pure white light. And when he looked around, weightless in the void, he heard a beautiful voice speaking to him.

Welcome,” said the voice. “This one has discovered your presence on the Great Outlier. This one welcomes your kind to the expansion.

“My kind?” Neil asked.

Processing now,” the voice continued.

He wanted to ask what it meant, but then the pain rose abruptly. A thousand images and sounds came burning through Neil’s mind, all at once. He saw himself as an old man, waiting in line at a subway station where all the signs were written in French. He saw his body lying in a casket, where someone had laid a golden cross on top. He saw himself as a young man in his twenties, getting stopped at the border crossing for a broken taillight on his faded green Studebaker, with a case of Mexican beer chilling in the trunk.

All these images and more came rushing through his mind; his entire life in a single panoramic shot.

Then the rush died down, and the voice returned, a little stronger than before. “Thank you for cooperating.

Despite clutching at his head and reeling from the agony, Neil couldn’t let it go without answers. He reached out his hand and cried, “Wait! Are you…?”

The voice laughed, and the sound rippled over Neil like a waterfall. “Indeed. We have waited a long time for your people to arrive, Neil.

Then the sea of light vanished.

Neil found himself back in his spacesuit, still holding onto the ladder. His eyes once again beheld the distant blue gleam of the planet Earth, and his foot still hovered over the barren landscape of the Moon.

He lowered his foot with a satisfying crunch into the regolith.

“…One giant leap for mankind,” he said, more to himself than to the world that was watching.


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

Samurai Gourmet: A Little Taste of Japan and Life After Work

Copyright © 2017 by Netflix

Looking back at my career so far, I realize that I’ve been running this blog for… well, at least 7 years now. And when I started, I was originally determined to cover only media that fell in the science fiction and fantasy genres. But, as you can guess, a lot can change in 7 years. My tastes certainly did. And while my love for sci-fi and fantasy remains unabated, I’ve branched out a lot more. For every epic movie like Guardians of the Galaxy and every urban fantasy novel like American Gods, I do stop and enjoy quieter, more wholesome media. In this case, I fell for a Japanese Netflix Original series called Samurai Gourmet.

Based on a manga series by Masayuki Kusumi, our show is centered on the newly retired Takeshi Kasumi (played by Naoto Takenaka), who finds himself without much of a purpose in daily life. He does, however, love reading books about samurai and he sets out to find new types of food to enjoy. He’s essentially on a gourmet-style journey, pushing himself outside his comfort zone after 60 years of living. Meanwhile, as Kasumi faces his doubts in each new encounter, he’s not alone. He constantly daydreams about a masterless samurai (played by Tetsuji Tamayama) who acts as his alter ego, acting bold and eating well in opposition to Kasumi’s meek nature. It’s from following this inner samurai spirit that Kasumi learns to eat well and truly enjoy life.

I love the style of this show. Yes, the emphasis that the camera places on food being prepared in each episode is tantilizing. But that’s not the only great thing. It’s also in the shifts of architecture and costume design whenever Kasumi goes into one of his daydreams with the nameless samurai. The producers put a lot of thought into how they might transition from a 21st-century diner or pub and turn it into an Edo Period tavern, complete with turning each loudmouthed patron into a bumbling samurai that our hero has to contend with. Sometimes a little attention to detail like that can go a long way.

The more I watched this series, the more I realized something. This show feels like an inversion of the premise behind Sofia Coppola’s stellar film Lost In Translation. Only, instead of following an aging Bill Murray and a bored Scarlett Johansson, we’re caught up in the personal experience of Kasumi, a retired salaryman. I say it’s an inverted experience because Coppola’s film features two Americans searching for meaning in a foreign setting. In Samurai Gourmet, we’re following a man born and raised in his own country. Yet the search for meaning remains the same, with a particular focus on cuisine and asserting his identity after all these years. It’s also inverted since we’re not dealing with some of the Japanese stereotypes that were played for laughs in Lost in Translation. Instead, we get a story about life in Japan from a Japanese perspective.

I must admit that I love getting into stories like Samurai Gourmet and Midnight Diner: Tokyo StoriesIt’s a chance to wet my beak in a culture different from my own, and to enjoy quiet, meaningful stories instead of searching for the next big drama or the latest side-splitting comedy. I won’t deny that this show can be a little too simple or (dare I say) corny for some audiences, but then again, not everyone lives for the sheer dramatic turns and twists of a show like Game of Thrones either. Sometimes a little peace and quiet in a local diner is all we need.

Samurai Gourmet is available on Netflix. The original manga, Kodoku no Gourmet, is available for purchase through Amazon and other booksellers.


Bibliography: Samurai Gourmet (Netflix Original). Created by Masayuki Kusumi. Produced by Kaata Sakamoto. Perf. Naoto Takenaka, Tetsuji Tamayama, and Honami Suzuki. Netflix. Original release date (Japan): March 17, 2017.

Flash Fiction: “A Time for Orchids”

Time travel is one of those genres that doesn’t interest me in the mechanics, but in the kind of characters who get to use it and what that power does to their perspective. Case in point: today’s story.

Enjoy!


A Time for Orchids,

by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 955

A sigh escaped Rebecca’s lips as she surveyed the scene. “Jimmy…”

“What?” he responded. The ratchet wrench in his hand went cranking along. “This is fine!”

“Jimmy!”

“Oh, come on! We’ve been through worse!”

“Define ‘worse.’”

“I mean…” He fell silent, letting the ratchet wrench speak for him. Then, after a moment: “Well, look. Do you see any marauding Huns about to massacre us?”

“That cabbie over there just might though…”

“Hush. Lemme reset this navigation beacon and we’ll be on our way again. Just, like… two minutes, tops!”

Rebecca proceeded in the way of her people and slowly rubbed her palm down the length of her face. She couldn’t believe this.

Not where she was; she could believe that it was, in fact, New York City in the 1930s. The air didn’t have the same smog issue, for one thing. From where she stood, in the middle of a busy intersection, she could spot roughly where Times Square stood. The passerby there had the clothes and automobiles she’d expect from the era: flat caps, overcoats, pleated skirts, Rolls-Royces, and Mercedes-Benz Speedsters. No, all of that she could believe.

But this! This, this, this, always this with Jimmy Whitehill, the supposed genius among genii at MIT. If it wasn’t a course correction, it was an unexpected malfunction. So much so that Rebecca had already began to expect them. And she was rarely proven wrong.

“Next time,” she growled, “I’m logging in our destination.”

Rebecca emphasized her point by giving a kick to the cooling time machine. Her heel bounced off its topless, tarnished-mirror surface. Their machine wasn’t too dissimilar to the same design that H.G. Wells had dreamed up a century and a half ago. And unlike other imitators, theirs actually worked. Supposedly.

“Hey, hey, watch it!” Jimmy put himself between Rebecca and the vehicle. “She’s still adjusting! The chronological flux is almost ready, I promise!”

“Sorry, but I’m out of flux to give today.”

“Look, if we get to 1872?” Jimmy’s voice dropped into a solemn tone. “We’ll find her, Rebecca.”

Rebecca said nothing. She stared him down.

“The girl with the orchid,” he continued. “Think of me what you will, but I know she’s real. And I know where to look.” He gestured at the machine, his voice rising over the dismayed honks of angry cab drivers forced to go around them. “It’s just getting to the when that’s the issue.”

Rebecca still didn’t answer. She was too busy remembering an oil painting in Professor Teagan’s office back home. An Impressionist piece of art created by an unknown French painter. Even his signature, a mere smudge in the bottom right-hand corner, simply read, “l’inconnu.” Yet this unknown Frenchman was a huge deal to the art world of the late twentieth century. Rebecca was going, by hook or by crook, to learn this virtuoso’s name—and in the process, make a name for herself. If only she could find the model for his masterpiece, the girl she only knew holding a white orchid. Staring back at her with those sad, small eyes.

Such were Rebecca’s thoughts that she almost didn’t notice a pair of heavy footsteps plodding up the jam-packed street. Not until a nightstick tapped her shoulder did Rebecca turn around.

“Hey, what’s the big idea?” A uniformed cop glowered at her and Jimmy. “You two are holding up all the traffic! Move it! Unless you wanna spend a night in jail!”

“I’ve almost…” Jimmy had ducked behind the time machine and was still tinkering with one of the rearmost vents. He sounded more distracted than concerned. “Rebecca, can you handle it?”

Rebecca leaned over the machine to glare at him. “Oh, sure. Leave me all the fun jobs!”

“You want to get out of here or not?”

“I’m debating leaving you and jumping ahead on my own. I might even grab Einstein and partner up with him. He still owes me that favor.”

“Hey, I’m talkin’ here!” The police officer’s bellow didn’t faze Rebecca. She took her time turning back and looking at his red, sweaty face.

When she didn’t spot a gun anywhere on his belt, Rebecca allowed herself a tiny grin.

“Sorry, Officer,” she purred. With a casual lean back, she reached for the trunk and popped the lid open. Her hand went rummaging inside. “Here, let me help you out…”

As soon as her hand found the hilt, Rebecca let out a cry. She ripped the sword free and raised it over her head, letting out a fierce kiai that would’ve impressed Miyamoto Musashi. Both the cop and that one murderous cabbie panicked and went running for their lives, abandoning their cars in the middle of the already-blocked intersection.

Behind the machine, Jimmy laughed. He clambered up with a cheeky grin. “Got it! Let’s bounce!”

“Finally!”

“Oh, like you’re not having a little bit of fun?”

Rebecca regarded the sword in her hand. It was a real katana, made of folded steel. Forged in the eighteenth century, as a gift from a feudal lord whose life she’d saved from the latest peasant uprising. Of all the souvenirs, this was the one she’d learned to treasure the most.

“If I say yes,” Rebecca asked, “will we get a better jump to France in 1872 this time?”

Jimmy wiped his hands with a greasy rag. “I make no promises.”

“That’s fine. I wanna test this sword on someone’s neck…”

Shaking his head, Jimmy dropped the rag in the trunk and hopped into the driver’s seat. “You jest. I’m splendid. History will bear me out after this.”

Rebecca took the seat beside him, ignoring the stares of New Yorkers as the machine whirred to life again. “He said for the hundredth time…”


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First Look: Adapting Death Note as a Netflix Original

Death-Note-US
Copyright © 2017 by Netflix

Ever since I saw the original anime back in college, I’ve been a fan of Death Note and what it can inspire. It’s not just the story of a serial killer with a supernatural twist. It’s also the gripping tale of two brilliant minds–a serial killer and a reclusive detective–matching wits from beginning to end, each one fighting for their own ideal of “justice” in an otherwise gruesome world.

I just wish someone had told all of this to the creative team behind the live-action adaptation that came out this year.

Set in modern-day Seattle, this Netflix Original film follows high school students Light and Mia, who come across a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written down. In the span of 3 minutes (in movie time), Light goes from an angsty teen to the Angel of Death, delivering cold justice to hundreds of criminals and terrorists around the world from the comfort of his bedroom. This, of course, attracts the attention of Ryuk, the death god who “dropped” the book into the human world, and L, the mysterious detective who wants to stop the murderous “Kira” at all costs.

This isn’t the Light Yagami some viewers might remember from the original manga and anime. Light Taylor (played by Nat Wolff) isn’t a sociopath masquerading as a normal person. He’s just a kid. A slightly stuck-up kid, but he doesn’t have his anime counterpart’s sense of vision or ruthless edge. For that, we get Mia Sutton (played by Margaret Qualley), who at first seems to be nothing more than his prerequisite love interest, but she later turns out to have all the ruthlessness that Light didn’t have from the start. But I guess it’s better than trying to adapt the obsessive stalker Misa Amane, right?

Honestly, what saves this movie for me (in small doses) are Ryuk and L. Willem Dafoe’s voice acting and the production’s CGI nail the creeping horror that is Ryuk, although here he’s less vocal about giving Light the notebook because he’s “bored.” He honestly spends more time explaining the rules and making not-so-subtle threats to Light’s existence. Meanwhile, Lakeith Stanfield is a stellar performance as L. Appearing about 30 minutes into the film, L is dynamic and eccentric in all the right ways. He becomes the new center of the story in a way that the Kira duo never quite pull off. It’s less “cat-and-mouse” and more “cat chasing a pair of mice who seem half-dead already.”

Speaking of half-dead, let’s talk about the performances. Everyone in this film, apart from Light’s father and L, are mostly delivering whispery dialogue and a lot of cliche lines. There’s no real menace to half the time spent on Light and Mia’s actions. I honestly would never have expected L to be the one who emotes the most in this story, but there we are.

The movie also seems to have a tonal problem. It can’t quite decide if it’s dramatic or melodramatic and verging on farcical. One minute, we’re watching Light sketch out a plan to block L’s latest move. The next, we’re seeing car chases set to a weirdly out-of-place Eighties pop ballad. And for some reason, the deaths committed by Kira in this story never feel chilling. Given all the gore and over-the-top bloodsplatter, it’s almost comical. Like Sam Peckinpah or Robert Rodriguez were guest directors.

I’ll admit that there were some few precious moments when I actually enjoyed the film’s visuals or its casting decisions (like getting Paul Nakauchi to play Watari, for instance). But half the time, I was expecting something deeper, something raw and cerebral. Instead, this is Death Note mixed with high school drama, with a little bit of teenage Bonnie and Clyde.

The live-action film Death Note is currently available on Netflix.


Bibliography: Death Note (Netflix Original film). Based on the manga by by Tsugumi Ohba (story)and Takeshi Obata. Directed by Adam Wingard. Produced by Masi Oka, Roy Lee, Dan Lin, and Jason Hoffs. Screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater. Perf. Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, and Willem Dafoe. Vertigo Entertainment, Witten Pictures, Lin Pictures, Viz Productions. Netflix (US distributor). Original release date: August 25, 2017.