Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Monday, 9 December 2013

Ending on a High Note

 


Huh.

Well that was an interesting year or so.

Here's a few things I've learned from my experiences:

- Never try to control a situation you have absolutely no control over. You're gonna have a bad time. If that means taking yourself out of the equation. So be it.
- As much as I'd like to have a dominating personality, I'm all about keeping the peace.
- Change is tough, but a necessary medicine for life.
- Never feel anger for failing to make people understand how you're feeling. For a mind as open ended and disconnected from reality as mine, that's an impressive feat in its own right.
- Mindlessly consuming media to pass the time bores me now. All the anime, the hipster music, video games... it's just not the same to me anymore. I like that though.It's refreshing.
- Always end on a high note. Always.
- Don't think, just do, (unless you're being a penis.)

Feeling a sort of tranquility in my personality lately. I like it. I feel like me again.

For the past few months or so, I've felt like I've had no control over my actions, when really, that's a crock of shit. I have plenty of control in my life. I've just been too stupid to see it.

To take a page out of Dr Seuss' book, "Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind," Those who are worth anything will prove themselves in time.

This blog is almost five years old now. Still don't understand life yet or why I should even care that much, but all I know is, it won't be found doing the same routines I've always been accustomed to. Consider this a eulogy. By this time tomorrow, this blog will be officially dead. You know the drill.

See you later boys and girls, I got shit to do, (and so do you.) And thanks for reading, whoever the Hell you are.

Love

- James

Monday, 7 May 2012

Post Avengers Movie Hype



With the sheer amount of build up for this one movie, be it the ballsy marketing strategy that had us watching a good 4 or 5 movies beforehand just to get the gist of things, everyone must be asking the same question. Was the Avengers movie worth the wait?

Short Answer: Yes. The sound of a hundred thousand fanboys sighing in relief can be heard simultaneously from cinema screenings across the globe, along with a popcorn boner for just how brilliantly executed the Manhattan showdown was in Act 3.

Long Answer? Well, suppose we'll get to that in a little while. Right now, let's have ourselves a good old fashioned circle jerk about the reasons why Avengers was such a success. Not just financially, but where the hearty stuff like writing and character treatment are concerned. The meat and potatoes of the movie that do a fine job of making every other pre Avengers movie look marginally weaker in comparison. Or maybe marginally better in hindsight. Who can say?

A lot of awesome stuff here. As far as comic book movies, it's easily in the top tier just for the action scenes alone. You feel there's actual depth to the fighting, in you sense you that it has variety and spontaneity in the many match ups the movie has to offer that steers away from the standard shenanigans of 'hero vs villain' and 'hero vs villain: the climactic rematch,' rinse and repeat. In fact, most of the heroes are fighting amongst themselves, often while bigger issues are at play, heightening that feel of looming chaos in the works, like with virtually all of Thor's battles. Holding your own against the Hulk so he doesn't destroy the ship you're on? Levelling an entire forest because you laid a Norse God smackdown on Captain America's shield? Badass.

But that's not even the best part. When you make fighting endless hoards of faceless mooks that you couldn't care less look super exciting, like that huge brawl that goes down at the movie's climax, you know you're doing something right when it comes to directing your action movie.

You know something Joss Whedon, this almost makes up for the fact that you killed off you-know-who in Serenity.

Almost.

Even the talky battles like with Tony Stark and Loki are great action scenes in their own right, (performance issues.) Psychological warfare can often be the most effective and stylishly executed way of showing dominance between two characters and when your story already focuses heavily on a team costumed superheroes who became popular on the base promise of physical violence on a regular basis, it's a nice little reminder that there's a semblance of character behind the costume.

And that's where character comes in heavily here, because that's a trait in which Avengers outshines other super hero movies the most. The treatment of each individual character and their interactions with each other are damn good. Can't fault 'em.

It's been said before, but it's pretty clear that a lot of the pre Avengers movies ranged from lack luster to just short of great, and in my eyes, that's because the characters didn't work well enough or lacked an interesting enough supporting cast as stand alone superheroes. But lump them all together and you get so, so much more to work with, as well a tight focus on the superheroes and superheroes alone. All those romance subplots that they tried to shoehorn into ever pre Avengers movie? None of that here, and oh what a good feeling it is to realise that.

So how did they deal with each of these characters then?

First off, the Hulk.

Oh my God.

They did it, they finally did it. They finally realised what makes the Hulk an endearing character. He's a fucking green monster in purple shorts who yells, "HULK SMASH!" and rampages through cities like some unstoppable force of nature

He's the Incredible Hulk. He's fun. That's why the other two Hulk movies fell so short. They kept trying to make you feel guilty about watching Hulk smash, as if it was a bad thing. But watching Hulk smash is the best part about the Hulk. If Hulk can't smash without it being inherently entertaining and stress reliving then you've missed the point of his character entirely. The Hulk is like a giant green middle finger to "the man," he's not meant to some Shakespearean tragedy who were supposed to dump all our personal woes about the constraints of society and the harrowing consequences of lashing out at our corporate masters. He's the fucking Hulk!

I can understand giving Bruce all that serious dramatic stuff, since he's the human side to the Hulk and all. That's cool, and Mark Ruffalo? Totally nailed that role. He's the quiet, vulnerable side to his alter ego who teases you into thinking he can snap at any moment, but has just enough control to pull back until the timing is just right. Edward Norton, I really didn't care for. Acting wise, I liked him in American History X, but that's about it really. Ruffalo is the better Bruce all in all. His total awkwardness and slightly fucked up delivery of the "gun in mouth" line just makes that all the more clearer to me.

But the big bulk of Hulk's character that makes him steal the show so much is that he smashes. And oh man, does he smash good.

I swear to God, every scene he was in from that final showdown onwards was like being a 12 year old kid again. That scene where he confronts Loki? How they've been building this up as some kind of epic final boss-esque showdown and the Hulk is just like, "fuck that!" and curb stomps the guy in about six seconds flat. How awesome? And that random sucker punch he gives Thor after they team up? Genius.

Next up, Captain America. 

Out of all the Pre Avengers movies I've seen so far, Captain America was probably the best as a stand alone movie just because he had the best characterisation of the lot. He may the weakest of the big 4 in terms of raw power, but his determination to actually be the hero and promote selflessness over personal gain is not only an admirable trait, but pretty damn cool as well. That scene where he chooses rescuing those civilians over joining the brawl like everyone else? That's a Captain America we can all love.

Sure he can't fly, shoot lightning or lay a smackdown anywhere near as powerful as the Hulk could, but that's just what makes his character so important. He's easily the most human out of the bunch. You might even say he's the perfect underdog in that regard. You feel as if he deserved every advantage giving to him in the form of super soldier experimentation and an invincible shield just because he worked so damn hard to achieve it. He wasn't born into fame and wealth or with demigod powers, he was just a humble kid who wanted to serve his country during wartime and had to deal with disadvantages every step of the way. He's a guy who earned his way to heroism through his hearty leadership skills and want to help the weak and downtrodden more than anything and he accomplishes this without being overly moral or preachy. The guy was handled extremely well.

This is what makes Iron Man such a great foil to Captain America. Iron Man is the smarmy anti hero. The cynical, but playful, fun loving alcoholic that's able to act so superior to his team mates just because of how ingeniously competent he is. He can afford to be a reckless asshole because at the end of the day, he gets the job done and with more style and finesse than Captain America ever could. We see this play out perfectly in our first big superhero battle with Loki. When the chips are down and Cap completely loses the upper hand... bam! In flies Iron Man with his own personal fanfare of AC/DC to save the day as smugly and efficiently as possible.

And even without all that, it's Robert Downey Jr. The guy is physical representation of an eccentric man's man we can all get behind. Sly, cocky, and one who can make women weak at the knees with nothing more than a stroke of his beard and a quip one liner. And if it's one liners you're looking for, then we all know there's no shortage of those as far as good old Avengers is concerned.

With that in mind, you'd think Iron Man would completely steal the show. After all, the two Iron Man movies were total sleeper hits that took everyone by surprise, breathing an abundance of new life in an otherwise lesser known Marvel superhero franchise prior. Surprisingly, no. There's a great epiphany in terms of character development in the form of his self sacrifice at the movie's climax, but all in all, none of that would have been possible without Captain America's doting about what it means to be a real hero as well as Bruce's reluctance to see his scientific accident as another more than a curse.

Now as for Thor... Thor is definitely the weakest in terms of characterisation. Not for lack of trying though. His movie wasn't exactly ground breaking, though it wasn't what I'd call bad either. Mainly because they focused too much on the whole "fish out of water" shtick with him coming to terms with human customs and how silly he looks trying to fit in. I've always found these kind of stories to be a bit too cliche, that's to say, they tend to get really old, really fast and that whole romance deal with Natalie Portman didn't really help either.

Thor is a character that works best on a superficial level. He's a literal god of thunder with a magic hammer, so like Iron Man he's amazingly competent when it comes to holding his own against pretty much everyone he comes across. Loki, Iron Man, The fucking Hulk... the guy gets in on some of the best fight scenes the movie has to offer, contributing a butt load to the overall action and making his screen time an overall fun ride to be a part of.

So he's not really one to sympathise with on the same level as Captain America or Bruce, which can't help but make his character seem lacking. Personally, I would have played up his whole arrogance thing, "you humans are so petty...!" and kept to that playful attitude the movie was going for. Basically, some more lines on the same level of "he's adopted," would have been perfect for me. But again, it's a minor flaw. With Loki as the main villain of the movie, you can't really see him as out of place to an extent that would bother most people for him being there. All in all, Thor shows room for improvement, but his mindless entertainment value more than makes up for it.

So how about them SHIELD members then? Hawkeye was just kind of... there. Initially, anyway. He gets brainwashed for most of the movie so he's more of a villain character to start off with, but once he rejoins the team and gets in on the action, he's a pretty cool guy. And I guess it's always a nice contrast to have characters like these who have no super powers of their own but can still hold their ground against the bad guys. Being a good teamster, but without being overly dependant on the star players.

Black Widow is every female Joss Whedon character ever made, ever. Sexy, confident, smart, quirky, not intimidated by domineering men who want to control her... But you know what? Scarlett Johansson is hot. With all the sausage fest on screen that justifies all the lusty women in every audience, she makes male movie goers feel straight again. What more needs to be said?

And finally... Samuel L. Jackson was Samuel Jackson. The big boss man. With a leather trench coat and an eye patch. I fail to see any problem with this.I fail to see any problems with this at all.

So we've established just how awesome our main heroes are and how they all fill a nice little niche as part of the team. What about villains though? It's pretty much just Loki throughout as the only real antagonist this movie has to offer who isn't of course, cannon fodder to feed our excitement as Hulk smashes through 'em in glorious Hulk-like fashion.

You know it's funny, Loki isn't really threatening or all that powerful in comparison to the actual Avengers at face value. In fact, he's more of a punching bag. There to talk big and cause a minor genocide here and there but above all he seems more on the capitalist side of villainy. Taking charge and enslaving people into becoming his minions, ultimately avoiding doing any of the dirty work himself. Which is cool in a way, just for that notion of how outranked he is in terms raw physical strength and for all his desire to control people, he's ultimately being controlled himself. Overall, I thought he was a great villain. Almost certainly fitting enough for a movie with so many A-list superheroes to contend with at least.

Thanos? I'll just come and admit that I have no idea who the fuck that is. I never stayed behind long enough after the credits to see any of the extra scenes and I don't indulge in comic books enough to know anything about this character. I know, I know, my power level is puny compared to you guys and all that junk, but the fact that I'll always lean more towards the anime/manga side of the world of reclusive entertainment is embarrassing enough as it is. Let's not rub salt on those vagina sized wounds already.

I'm guessing the guy's a major threat if he's making so many people shit their pants in terrified excitement. Thanos = sounds like Thanatos = Death. So... he's good at killing people? Works for me. Let's hope there is a sequel so I finally get to see how this all plays out without having to muster up the effort to look Thanos up on Wikipedia and spare 15 seconds of my life to indulge in a fictional character I know nothing about.

So this is where I finally talk about what kind of legacy Avengers has in terms of 3-4 years worth of anticipation. Did the marketing pay off? Yes. Were the fans satisfied? I definitely was. But what does it all mean in the wake of a sequel? It's blatant enough that they're planning one. It's only natural when profits for this thing are record breaking. How far are they really planning to take this franchise though? It would be awesome if they did release a second movie, but is it worth waiting until 2015 to see it? A lot can happen in three years. People lose interest. Who's to say Joss Whedon would be the one to direct it? Would the original all star cast still be there?

Can't help but feel cautiously optimistic here, just because it's such a rarity to have lightning strike twice like this and the last thing I want is to set myself up for disappointment. It's a shame because I really want to this franchise to thrive. Next to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, The Avengers is the only other superhero movie I've ever been this stoked about and one that had me and my buddies talking about it for days on end in the aftermath. And who can blame us? It's just a fun, awesome movie. There's so many memorable scenes to talk about, so many clever lines of dialogue. What can I say? It's as close to perfect as superhero movies can get. 

If I had to criticise anything about it, I'd say that the beginning was a little bit slow, that is, the actual assembly of each of the super heroes and the gradual exposition they throw at you inch by inch. But once the ball gets rolling action wise, you end up forgetting all about it by the time you reach the battle in Manhattan and just turn your brain off completely in the best way possible. I swear to God, it's like that entire scene brainwashed to disregard any of the movie's flaws for the sheer fact that it was just that awesome.

And there you have it. Avengers was indeed, awesome. I sincerely doubt anyone who hasn't seen this movie yet would have read this far into my spoiler ridden post so let's pat ourselves on the back and soak up the feeling of knowing how good it is to preach to the choir for once, because honestly, I can't see how any fan of cape comics could possibly disagree here and outright hate this movie. Maybe feeling disinterested or impartial to it I guess, but hatred? What are you? "That guy?" I don't believe you people exist. And if by some realm of possibility that you do, cheer up, because you're clearly you're not a happy person.

And this is coming from a guy who listens to a shit load of post rock and thought Katawa Shoujo was a profound experience.

Yeah man.

Let that thought sink in for a little while.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Ode to Joy Division



I've been thinking a lot about my favourite bands lately and what makes them so special to me, the listener, personally. Is it sheer replay value? Or does it go beyond that? The need to indulge in their work that transcends their discography, sparking a genuine intrigue in their history and cultural surroundings of the time frame they represent, as well their overall impact on the music scene in general. Can we learn from them? Build upon our own demons and fascinations with their ideologies in mind? Or is it best just to let a good thing die and not let our own specific sentiments get in the way in risk tipping the balance from inspiration to plagiarism.

For me, I think nostalgia plays a hefty role in what things we love the most. I have no idea if I'd still admire bands like Joy Division as much as I do today if they weren't there for me in the right place and at the time. Namely, me, as a weird as fuck, skinny sixteen year old with a buzz cut and dirty tracky bottoms, working part time with my Dad on a building site to earn a little bit of pocket money over the summer before heading off to sixth form - which now that I think about it, is basically the British version of high school, but without the glamour of everyone being a suburban white kid with rich parents, supermodel quality women and guys with biceps as big as their faces.

...Unless you're telling me shows like The OC and One Tree Hill were full of shit and I've had been fed an idealised version of American high school all these years.



"I'm guessing ...less bare knuckle boxing then?"


Hearing Love Will Tear Us Apart on the radio for the first time while hammering the Hell out of a brick wall with my tiny twiglet arms and becoming immersed in this strange Pandora's box of post punk is one of those odd little memories I have of my teenage years that's somehow always stuck with me. Especially that happy walk home to buy a copy of Permanent from a record shop that doesn't exist anymore.

Somehow the irony of that last sentence has escaped me all these years.

At that time, I was in an awkward transitional stage musically, growing out of my basement dwelling World of Warcraft inspired European power metal phase and shifting into current gen "indie" bands like Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and The Fratellis. Partly because I was at that age where I wanted to be in with the scenesters. Striped inside out tees and faded jeans, you know, the need to look trendy even if you feel like a total douche on the inside, dressing and acting the part as ham handedly as you can. But mostly it was because I wanted to expand my horizons a bit and not be such a recluse. It sort of gets to that point though when you get a bit of bored of it all. Hearing the same old song and dance, (literally,) about partying and having a good night out can feel a bit vapid and burn you out all too easily. I had a more weird, artistic hunger in mind when it came to my music.

Enter Joy Division, a Salford based post punk band from the late 70s. That poetic insight to their lyrics, that dark dystopian atmosphere to their sound, the energy and passion of Ian Curtis' vocals, the simple but melodic bass lines and percussion that drives the rhythm section, along with scarce but powerful guitar riffs and otherworldly keyboards in the latter half of their career... it all comes together to create such a one of a kind sound of gothic broodiness, but with a straight to the punch aggression that has a tight harmony to it all. It's almost injustice to talk about that feeling I get from listening to them because really, it's indescribable. Everything about the band's short lived career, from their modest discography, filled to the brim with hidden gems from the likes of compilation records through Substance and Still, to the inner struggles of lead singer Ian Curtis ending with his tragic suicide just fills me with such intrigue and fascination like no other. I've no second thoughts to the fact that these four young Mancs were the ones to really make me love and explore music as much as I do today, and I'll always love them for it. For better or for worse.

It does make me wonder though, it is really fair to parade people like Ian Curtis around as some kind of musical martyr because they had to suffer for their work? I understand there's an element of respect there from the fans as to what the man in question had to go through in order to entertain so many people, but at the same time, what do we really know about Ian's life other than what we read in books or what we see in documentaries? That was my main train of thought when I was rewatching Control just a few days ago. It's an excellent film by all means, but it does make me feel poignant about the whole concept of putting somebody's life on the big screen, watering it down to fit the 120 minute mark and spicing it up with exaggerated scenes and drama that more than likely never even happened in the first place. Is it just some odd preference to think our lives have some kind of narrative behind them? With a beginning, middle and an end? Suppose it would be easier to deal with things if that were the case, but reality that's never the case. Life somehow ends up becoming more of a random series of events, strung together with little depth or cohesion behind them and if we don't choose to live fast and die young, there's no real structure to the whole deal, other than to maybe enjoy yourself and find try to find peace of mind however you can.

I'm not going to pretend I knew what Ian's life was all about or why he should find solace in knowing something he was a part of affected my life in any significant way, all I know is that Joy Division were one Hell of a band and will hopefully stand the test of time for many more generations to come.

---

Funnily enough, I could never really get into New Order, even if it's the exact same members of the band bar Mr. Curtis. Enjoying Power, Corruption and Lies at the minute, but for completely different reasons to why I liked Joy Division. I feel like I should be sunbathing in Spain somewhere with a cheap six pack and a cigarette, rather than do the exact same thing at home, only with dark clouds over the horizon and petty existentialism as my speedos.

Glad they got all the mainstream success that they did mind. They fucking deserved it.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Planetes - Dreams that Pierce the Atmosphere


Space is a cold and lonely place. When it comes to science fiction, we often romanticise it as a place of imagination and escapism fuel. Looking up at the stars from the clutter of planet Earth and dreaming about the endless opportunities that await us in that vast unexplored territory, there's a profound humanistic fascination to be had. But is there really any meaning behind putting up a flag in the dark corners of the unknown? Planetes is a series that aims to put our dreams in perspective as it shows just how cruel and unforgiving space travel can be from a realist's point of view and asks the question of just what the actual consequences are of abandoning a life of peaceful comfort to act on your hopes and ambitions.

The story focuses on the lives of a small crew of debris haulers, a fluff term for what essentially amounts to being a garbage man in space. I love how super mundane that would sound on paper if it wasn't for that all important tag line, "...in space!" Just like how Redline is made far more thrilling for being 'Wacky Races ...in space' or Firefly for 'Let's cancel another Joss Weidon show prematurely... in space.' It's an interesting concept in itself just because of how life threatening floating debris actually is for astronauts due to the weightlessness issue, coming back to that age old experiment that if you happen to be on the moon and drop a hammer and feather at the same time, they would both hit the ground together in perfect synchronicity. So in that regard, even the tiniest of wayward screws can fuck up entire space stations just by coming into basic contact with it, endangering lives exponentially to say the least.

It's funny because you'd think with that in mind, debris haulers would be regarded as big damn heroes in the business of space travel, but in reality it's a thankless job. A reluctant necessity that gains about as much respect as you would as a garbageman on Earth, with low pay and next to no budget. This acts as the driving conflict for our main protagonist Hachimiki, who still clings to his boyish dreams of owning his own spaceship, but can't help but feel that dream slip away as years go by being trapped in a dead end job.

The story begins as a sort of light hearted slice of life series as new recruit Ai Tanabe gets accustomed to job with Hachimiki acting as her mentor through it all along with the rest of the crew. The show's hard sci fi element and realistic view of space travel is what really gives Planetes its initial edge, emphasising the sheer number of health risks to be had by living in a zero gravity environment as well the political and financial issues that lurk in the shadows, but where the show really shines is through its colourful cast of characters, each with their own little quirks and unique development through various sub plots and character based episodes that manage to a shine a light on so many diverse themes and conflicts throughout. Love, existentialism, terrorism, life and death; it's all brilliantly executed in what really shapes up to be in my personal opinion, one of the best sci fi anime ever created.

I love how there's a really dark shift in tone for the series about two thirds of the way through which harbours a lot of powerful and emotionally heart wrenching twists and turns for the viewer through the internal and external struggles that our characters must stand against in the face of unforgiving cruelty. One scene that sticks out in particular as a sheer intense 'edge of your seat' moment involves an oxygen tank and a character who we've all come to know as the voice of love and understanding, who has to make a life or death decision based solely on the value of basic human ethics and that dark carnal instinct to live at all costs, despite all consequence - which ends on a cliffhanger of all things. It was literally a jaw dropping experience and one that's too precious to spoil for anyone hoping to check out this series for themselves at some point.

All in all, Planetes has that all important question of "should we climb a mountain just because it's there?" ever present in the show that naturally weighs heavily on the concept of space travel in itself. Because even if you reach the top, is it worth the price of empathy and abandoning those who are less successful than you? The risk takers live a life of fragility and scrambling to be the best, whereas the bottom feeders either live a life of comfortable stagnation or get fed to by those on top. Dog eat dog as they say. In the end, I think what it all comes down to is balance. Follow your dreams but don't lose sight of what's important. In the end, it's not a bad message. In the grand scheme of things, you can't be an extremist one way or the other. We're all a bit lonely and fucked up beneath the surface to some extent and when it comes to gazing up the stars, relentless progression doesn't always guarantee a rich and fulfilling existence.

Planetes is one of those anime series that I just knew was going to make my top ten by the time I was done with it. It has that perfect astronomic atmosphere to it that aims to explore the human condition in a futuristic setting, but in a way that makes it feel especially close to home - and when it comes to sci fi, you can't get any better than that. Also, there's no high school setting or ecchi pantsu bullshit so that's always an instant thumbs up for me.

Still, it makes me wonder just why we're so drawn to space in the first place. Is it the stars we see in the night sky? Most of them are already dead by the time they reach our eyes. Is the endless potential of exploring the Universe? That beautiful mystery of knowing all that is unknown against all odds. Or is it just the solitude? Surely there's peace of mind to be found in that vast empty vacuum where there's no sound but silence and our own dark twisted existence staring at us dead in the face.

Must be a lonely feeling for sure...


Saturday, 18 February 2012

Katawa Shoujo and Coming to Terms With Your Own Crippling Loneliness

I'm sure there's something good about living in the golden age of the Internet. The fact that we're one Mediafire link away from discovering a new album or TV series that can impact our lives in such profound and emotionally heart wrenching ways - and for free no less, makes its pretty evident that we're granting almost limitless access to the entertainment industry for the common man, rather than leaving it exclusively in the hands of wealthy folk with a basic disposable income. A miniature Renaissance of sorts. Art for arts sake, despite the consequences of rapidly plummeting sales for those responsible for creating such works to begin with, (you monster.) Basically, it all amounts to the idea that even the lowliest of peasants can feel like the noblest of patricians when it comes to the arts providing they have a basic Internet connection.


Venus de Milo is my waifu.


But on the other hand...

There's something about this should-be glamorous lifestyle that makes us nameless rank and file Internet drones content with being lazy. After all, once you have the luxury of expense free media to occupy your time with, all that's left are material necessities to worry about: the cost of living, gas and electric, cigarettes, whiskey... you know, just essential day to day stuff to ward off any notion of actually leaving your own little fantasy bubble and interacting with the outside world once in a blue moon. So, is it really any wonder that so many of us are trapped in this vicious cycle? This impenetrable comfort zone known as escapism?

I think it's interesting to see just how a game like Katawa Shoujo can come out of the wood works after so much anticipation and then shake up so many peoples lives in such small ways thereafter. It's something of a phenomenon. Why is there such a devoted online community to what is essentially a dating sim to a group of disabled high school girls? There should be nothing left to discuss since its initial release nearly two months ago and it's not like there'll be any new content in the near future. So why do players feel such a strong connection to these fictional characters and the experiences that come with them?


The concept art that started it all.


I think the obvious answer is that its origins are rooted primarily on 4chan, having a non profit Western based production team while still maintaining the same sentiments and art style of a typical Japanese visual novel. Perhaps knowing that it's all amateur inspires hope into the rest of us budding young artists, making us stop to ask ourselves, "well, if those guys can do it, why can't we?" The fact that the game wasn't created with any kind of financial gain in mind, released for free after five long years of development really shows a lot of artistic merit when you've got nothing but the satisfaction of knowing something you created is out there and has the potential to reach out and affect people emotionally.

The sheer fact that this game exists is practically mind blowing to me. It's a real product of retail quality with good quality art, music, story, programming and even a few animated introductory cutscenes to boot. And to think, just over five years ago it was nothing but light speculation, brainstorming and a small collection of 4channers daydreaming of what could be the perfect Katawa Shoujo experience.

Because on the surface, Katawa Shoujo could have just been just another throwaway piece of masturbation fuel for anonymous' strange sexual kinks and a small minority would be satisfied with the result, but it goes complete beyond that and aims to tell a really intriguing and respectable story instead, almost to the point that once you look past the amputee fetishists or the promise of romancing a girl with horrible burn disfigurements, putting yourself into the shoes of the main protagonist, you end up looking into a virtual mirror, a reflection of your own personal vulnerability and it's then you begin to realise it's not the girls who are broken. It's you, the person playing this game right now.




Or maybe it is just post series depression talking here. There are five routes all in all and the general consensus is to savour them as much as you can, which is what I found myself doing. The more time you invest into something you really enjoy, the harder it is to let go and well, I thoroughly enjoyed playing Kawata Shoujo. I feel that major down and out moment now that it's not going to occupy any more of my time. I genuinely think it's solid work of fiction that everyone who has an even remote interest in Internet culture should experience now that it's still got a large community surrounding it.

I've never really been too big on visual novels. I played through Tsukihime once and the odd Windows 98 hentai game from Kazaa to get my jollies off back when I was fifteen, (True Love is quite the nostalgia bomb looking back,) but somehow KS just feels ...fresh, just because of every little wrong it does right. I can't say it revolutionises the genre of any of that bullshit, but it is a good reassurance for those harbouring certain prejudices towards what they might be expecting of the game at first glance. Little things like how the girls could have easily stuck to a typical cliche anime stereotype - Misha as the hyperactive genki girl, Shizune as the tsundere, etc, but they're never defined by these one dimension traits and feel that much better developed as a result once you actually get familiar with them, (and I'm not talking about the obvious pornography issue here.)

Having said that, the sex scenes are surprisingly vanilla and never really break flow by being too out of character or over the top. Even the gym storage room scene with Emi that got a lot of people's uncomfortable side just makes me laugh. The characters' total awareness of just how awkward it all was in the aftermath gives the scene a funny sense of authenticity that seems true to life. A lot of criticism comes from the fact you can pretty much do without the sex scenes altogether, since the game has such strong writing for a dating sim and more than often they feel almost tacked on and unnecessary in certain points. If anything though, I think the erotica adds a greater sense of realism to the characters, sex being a natural step in any any young relationship and I imagine shying away from the issue wouldn't have exactly propelled its integrity to the point of it becoming the Great Gatsby of visual novel writing, if you catch my drift.

All in all, I've had many mixed emotions running through me playing Katawa Shoujo and in order of which girls I went for...

Emi's route got me all inspired to exercise more, addressing Hisao's heart condition directly and how he shouldn't be held back by his disability. There's a lot of witty back and forth between the characters and I like how the route emphasises the point that most relationship drama comes after couples have been going out for a while, you know, once the honeymoon period is over, rather than have you get with the girl and everything instantly being sunshine and smiles from then on out.

Hanako's route made me think more about the whole white knight mentality and how the want to nurse a broken girl's wounded confidence like an umbrella in the rain is almost a bit...selfish and maybe reflective of some of kind of hidden urge to have a person take care of all your problems in return. In fact, the more pushy you are, the more likely you are to head on towards a bad end and I think that's an interesting twist on the situation.

Even though Shizune tends to take a backseat in her own route, hers got me all heartbroken when you hear Misha's confession and how it completely changes the way you look at her character. Not to mention the fact that it's all up in the air and none of it actually gets resolved at the end. That feeling of stagnation and subtle helplessness that hits you like a slap in the face in super slow motion. Call it bad writing or somebody hopelessly defending what is unanimously considered the worst route in the game, but all the loose ends it leaves hanging makes the whole concept of rose tinted high school feel that much more of fantasy, on top of the question, "what could have been," had things been differently in comparison to the other girls. Plus the whole learning sign language plot at the start of Act 2 was too sweet for me to let the abrupt ending be a deal breaker.

Lilly's route was the one that felt the most like a fairy tale romance. The naming of each act as past, present and future being an interesting theme, as I found myself absorbed in each little moment as if I was really there. Scenes like the date at the high class restaurant or the summer house confession really take you by surprise and despite the clich├ęd airport scene like something out of The Graduate, it's probably one of my favourite routes for being such a nice feel good story in its own right.




And lastly, on the whole rollercoaster of emotions I was riding during the height of Katawa Shoujo, Rin's route is the one that made me the most introspective and worried about my own purpose in life. The way both Hisoa and Rin come off as so apathetic and uncaring of their own futures no matter what outcome you end up is nearly soul destroying when you see just how black and white/good or bad every other ending route tries to be. Not to mention it was the first time I ever got a bad ending on my first playthrough. There was a lot of choices to be made here and they all seemed so vague without any clear indication of what was the right thing to do. With everyone else it's all so simple, just be honest, outgoing and not a controlling asshole, but Rin's route is so ambiguous and cynical that you're left feeling as if don't know what the Hell you're doing - at all. A subtle allegory for the carefree lifestyle that hits a little too close to home for some players? Who can say?

Either way, Rin works well as the token manic pixie dream girl character that you don't actually see a lot of in anime or manga now that I think about it. The kind of hipster-ish Ellen Page/Natalie Portman type chick who soothes the jaded male protagonist's heart by being so alien like and and eccentric, but apparently not enough to instantly solve all of life's problems by just being there for each other. Not that I'm complaining of course, I do feel as if Rin's route had the best writing out of all of the five, even if it does manage to rip your beating heart out of your own chest, Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom style in the process. Sometimes its hard to say what's really on your mind without it being a muddle of words, so maybe that's why I sympathise with Rin's character so much with her own struggle for normality. It might not be the best route overall, but to me, nothing will ever top the cigarette scene on the art room floor as the crowning moment of Katawa Shoujo. Hands down, the most beautiful scene in the entire game for me.

I just hope now I can put these feelings to rest. Maybe find some new pretty little distraction to occupy my time with until the door of opportunity finally comes knocking again. Life can be so surreal at times and more than often you're suffering just to feel content with your own present self. At least with KS I know I got a good story out of it all. Whether it's changed or affected me for the better, I really have no idea, but at the very least I can say the guys at Four Leaf Studios really made me brutally aware of my own personal crutches and I guess... knowing is half the battle as they say.

Could this entire post just be pointless self indulgence without any cohesive structure to tie an actual idea together? Possibly, but I know the longer I leave it sitting here in the drafts folder, the more useless and unproductive these random thoughts about a certain visual novel are. So there you go Internet, here's a small piece of my life for you to see. Whether or not anyone will read it, whether anyone will give a shit or whether or not I'll cringe looking back at it two years from now, I really couldn't care less. All I know is, it's here and it exists and unless some horrible catastrophe happens to Blogspot accounts in the near future, it's practically immortal right now.

Fuck bitches.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Mogworld


About a week ago, I had a painful experience of seeing Your Highness at the cinemas. It's one of those movies where you can it's garbage just by looking at the trailers but "fuck it," I thought, I was in the mood for something funny at the time and it's always nice to watch something on a whim instead of relying on Rotten Tomatoes for all my movie going decisions like some kind of pagan God - or at least I hoped. I don't mind watching a bad movie as long as I can just switch off and enjoy it for what it is, a stupid shock comedy written for teenagers discovering weed for the first time. Needless to say, it sucked, quite badly. I mean, seriously, how hard can it be to write a fantasy parody? All you need to do is have a vague interest in Tolkien esque fantasy like literature and play around with a few familiar tropes somewhat. Instead we get an absolute shit stain of a script from a director who didn't realise that characters saying swear words and dick jokes in a ye olde medieval English accent for over ninety minutes stops being funny after about two. Protip: just because you talked over Lord of the Rings, Mystery Science Theatre style, making jokes about how Samwise was hungry for Frodo's dick and got a few belly laughs out of your giggling stoner friends doesn't mean you're qualified to direct a movie that amounts to just that.

Just read Mogworld instead. Anybody who's ever played World of Warcraft or any kind of fantasy based rpg owes it to themselves to check it out. It was released sometime last summer but I've only just got around to reading it now, (being recently made single and working on night shifts is awesome.) It's written by Yahtzee Croshaw, the dude who hosts Zero Punctuation every Wednesday over at The Escapist and at the risk of sounding like an arrogant hipster with a gameboy necklace and smug indifference, I liked Yahtzee before he was cool. I remember playing all his own old adventure games like 5 Days a Stranger while they were still fairly underground along with reading his story Fog Juice back in 2005, hoping the guy did well enough for himself to write more stuff. Fast forward to the present day and the guy's an internet celebrity with a mass legion of fans, including Valve of all people, who enjoyed his review of The Orange Box so much they invited him for tea and biscuits at their office. But rather then wallow in jealousy and cry over how I'll never have an e-peen as big as his, I'd rather be a gentleman and recommend his first published novel with a solid thumbs up.

It has a certain Hitchhikers Guide charm to it in the sense that his writing style is one of the main driving points of humour for the book. It's narrated in the first person from the perspective of an undead mage named Jim who's grown a tad bitter in his recently immortal state and is more or less spending the majority of the book looking for a way to die properly. Jim's deadpan attitude and contempt to be the "hero" of the novel provides a lot the story's best one liners and playful cynicism that mirrors Yahtzee's own reviewing style in Zero Punctuation. Anybody who takes a shine to the man's colourful Black Adder like similes he uses in abundance during his reviews will find comfort in this unique comic fantasy filled to the brim with contemporary British wit. Almost makes me feel a bit patriotic in a way, *sniff.*

I like how some of the jokes only really work in written format too, like that internet conversation between those three developers where one of them is a huge tosser and doesn't realise his co workers can't stand him:

XxSuperSimonX: anyway can't hang around chatting all day...
XxSuperSimonX: chow for now cool catsXxSuperSimonX signed out at 9:33AMsunderwonder: its spelt 'ciao'sunderwonder: you stupid dickheadsunderwonder: i hate you so much
It's just little things like this that made me fall in love with the book. Ideas like how an all powerful necromancer keeps his undead minions in check by treating them like mundane office wage slaves while adventurers are being brutally tortured just down from the water cooler is the kind of humour I can really dig. This is how you do fantasy humour the right way and you only really get that by being able to relate to your audience. It's quite clear that Yahtzee has played MMORPGs before and the general thought of how an AI would react to the kind of stiff, immersion breaking programming as if it was reality is an interesting thought in itself. There are strong themes of morality and indeed mortality in play towards the end of the novel and that's just the icing in the cake when you already have an interesting plot, memorable characters and the kind of humble humour that can be left under appreciated by a lot of audiences these days.

So do yourself a favour and pick up a copy. It's a nice simple read so even if you're not into books that much, you're not gonna be flabbergasted by anything too abstract or inaccessible if you consider yourself a lazy loafer with the attention span of a goldfish like me. As for my own quest into reading, I think I'll tackle Freud's Interpretation of Dreams again. Maybe I'll actually get past the introduction this time where he does nothing but complain about how outdated his theories are but how he'll defend them with an iron fist anyway because you wouldn't want to feel like you wasted your money digging it out of the bargain bin at Bairnes and Nobles.

Ciao for now cool cats.