The big one is A Song of Ice and Fire. I read through the books in December when I needed a distraction and eventually watched through the television series as well. Freedom came to me near the end of the first book, when I looked at it and went, "You know why this is popular? Because it touches the same place in us as soap operas, tabloids, penny dreadfuls, and the more lowbrow Elizabethan tragedy. It's about important people in a distant land behaving scandalously and suffering terribly, while most of us reading it remain comfortable in our access to indoor plumbing." At that point, I stopped trying to find redeeming artistic value in it. That isn't to say it has none; George R. R. Martin is pretty good at building up and knocking down the tropes of Western epic fantasy, as well as weaving together a hell of a lot of characters. But expecting some deep and masterful statement about human nature to emerge from a perfectly constructed narrative is not the way to go about enjoying this series, at least not for me.
I don't think I should have to either find some complicated literary justification for the setting's perpetual misogyny or self-flagellate over it to atone for reading the series. Martin wanted a ridiculously unfair and oppressive setting, so he went with that. Cheap and lazy? Kind of, yeah, and I do sometimes get annoyed at how exaggerated the misogyny is (note to fantasy and historical fiction authors: The Alleged Past could be pretty awful in a lot of ways, but some of the more popular ones are more myth than fact). And certainly no one can be blamed for dropping the books after finding the oppression of the setting too unpleasant to read about. But I reject the assumption that any author who creates or depicts a misogynist world necessarily condones it. As I see it, in some ways ASOIAF can be seen as superior in its depiction of women to other major adult epic fantasy series consisting of doorstop-sized volumes. A lot of the other big names are either almost devoid of major female characters (Lord of the Rings and associated works) or dwell suspiciously on male protagonists fighting the good fight against female oppressors (Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth). By contrast, A Song of Ice and Fire has multiple female characters with arcs as significant and compelling as the male ones, and while the setting's misogyny is perhaps not condemned enough by the narrative, it also isn't endorsed. Don't get me wrong--there's certainly epic fantasy for adults out there that treats women better in many ways (including some by, er, actual women), but it's less prominent and harder to find (a problem in its own right), so I'm not surprised that ASOIAF has female readers who find value in it.
Some brief notes on things that did bother me, just to get them out of the way: the near-complete lack of significant characters who aren't some form of nobility kind of sucks. Large chunks of the books set outside Westeros have race issues I am not fond of. Now and then the misogyny blurs into the narrative voice as well. I will talk about these things when I feel the need to, but for the most part, with these statements out of the way, I would rather not dwell too much on picking the books and my enjoyment of them apart as a form of self-flagellation in the name of social justice.
So let's talk characters who do it for me. My initial favorite, for the first two books, was Tyrion. He was set up well as the outcast clever fool, pushed to the margins by his combination of high birth and low mistreatment, smart enough to look in from the outside and provide bitterly wise commentary on his society. At the same time, his arc slowly subverted this, revealing that he was neither as detached nor as compassionate to other outcasts as he would have liked to believe. His heart was still deeply enmeshed with his family's fortunes, and often enough his compassion only lasted as long as he felt he would be appreciated for it. That said, while I don't concur with some people in believing that Martin totally ruined Tyrion's character after A Storm of Swords, I do feel that his development since then has been somewhat afloat and awaits a better conclusion to make him satisfying again. It's also increasingly clear that he's the author's darling in some ways, and so the writing doesn't always make it clear when he's in the wrong.
As of A Storm of Swords, unexpected turns of events made Jaime my favorite. The ambiguity of his character arc fascinates me. He doesn't go full tilt from depravity into a redemption arc; it's more accurate to say he wakes from beneath a dull shell of desensitization under which the only thing he could bring himself to care about was Cersei. Since then, his characterization has been less about atoning and more about figuring out who the hell he is and who the hell he wants to become. Which I find quite a bit more interesting.
But my interest in him suffers for how deeply his story is tied to Cersei's. Don't get me wrong: I think the disproportionate and gendered hate Cersei gets from the fandom is disgusting. Yet I still can't really deal with the way she's written from the third book onwards. Her decline is both sexualized and linked to deteriorating emotional stability and sanity in a way that leaves me intensely uncomfortable reading it, and to top it off I get a strong sense of authorial contempt off of descriptions of her and her actions. Trying to talk about it, though, runs me straight into either the diatribes about how the entire series is vile and its fans should be ashamed, or people who just don't have a problem with her character arc, and while of course the latter are not at fault for interpreting the text differently than I do (hell, I wish I could fall in with them; I would love to enjoy Cersei as a character), trying to explain my position to them leaves me even more uncomfortable than I started.
Moving on. I also have grown to really like Sansa. I was indifferent to her in the first book, though I could tell she was being set up for later development. But the general gist of her later course, as someone who started out full of unrealistic fantasies and childish dreams only to have them utterly shattered and be left needing to use them as a mask instead, appeals to me enormously. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about her development so far. Of course it makes sense that she'd still try clinging to her old dreams as much as possible instead of doing an immediate flip-flop into pure bitter cynicism, but the length her uselessness and anxious, passive suffering is dragged out grows torturous. I'm sure the payoff will be great, though I don't fall in line with the "Sansa should take over Westeros and become the best queen ever, rah rah rah!" crowd so much; it's more complicated than that, and I expect she'll end up more morally damaged than they're assuming. But there's only so much I can take of her being ceaselessly manipulated and preyed upon by horrible people while she has no way to move the course of events herself.
Observations on Daenerys: I like her all right, though she is not a favorite of mine. I feel she has a lot of potential but rarely gets the chance to shine with it. Of course, a lot of her story is about how the destined heir ends up shining less and suffering more than we're used to, so that's not to be helped. But with the length to which Martin drags this out, frustration kicks in. It's glorious to see her moments of balancing madness and triumph, and heartbreaking to see her sincere agony over the consequences of those moments, but in between there's an awful lot of less interesting angst which just drags.
Observations on Jon Snow: I loved how clear the first book made it that his position as the destined hero and most special of snowflakes (see what I did there?) was more or less his own delusion and something he needed to outgrow; every time he tried to move to the next rung of the Archetypal Epic Fantasy Hero Who Is More Noble Than He Appears And Will Charge In to Save Everything ladder, someone smacked him down. But by the second book he'd mostly fallen into developing along that path unironically, and I lost interest. He became a bit interesting again as responsibilities forced him to become cunning and ruthless, but I'm withholding judgment on that for now.
Observations on pairings: I don't really have any. Between the fact that I rarely have extended fannish feelings about prose novels and the fact that the series constantly casts love of all kinds as such a destroyer, pairings have failed to materialize for me. Yes, I know: Jaime/Brienne. It is probably a thing that will happen in some way. I am kind of not looking forward to it, personally, because while I love both of them as characters and think they can be good influences on each other (Jaime to show Brienne how degraded her chivalrous ideals can become when exposed to reality, Brienne to remind Jaime that honor is still a thing worth having), I can't really wrap my head around how applying romantic tropes to their relationship will have good results. I don't know how else to put it, except to insist stubbornly that he's not good enough for Brienne, and hell, that is my least favorite pairing argument and I have always spoken against it in the past. As far as other pairings go...well, I didn't think I had any feelings on Robb/Jeyne, but my sulky reaction to the show replacing it whole cloth with something else showed me that I guess I did have more of a picture of it than I thought. Oh, well. Other than that, the show's development of Margaery has made me start anticipating her interactions on screen with Sansa so I can ship them, but I don't know if I could apply it as much to the books. I also have confused feelings about Arya and Gendry; I would have liked to see more of their interactions in the books and might have started shipping it if I'd gotten them, but their paths diverged too soon.
Observations on minor characters I adore beyond all reason: I would read an entire series starring Oberyn Martell and his daughters, especially if the main antagonist was ultimately revealed to be the unspeakably cunning and brilliant Olenna Tyrell. Also, I can see no reason why the Iron Throne should not ultimately go to Dolorous Edd.
Observations on the television series: I am unsure why they decided to exaggerate the books' existing race and gender issues, but I grit my teeth and tolerate it, because I do like a lot of the other decisions they've made. The casting is a thing of beauty. Lena Headey's portrayal of Cersei, as well as the writing of her, makes the character more appealing to me than the books ever did. The fleshing out of the Tyrells' politicking meant nothing to me when it was just about Loras and Renly (other than to make me moderately pleased that they were doing more to explain Renly's motivations than the books did), but the added development it gives Margaery is fantastic. I found Theon forgettable and insignificant in the first book and hilariously loathsome in the second, but in the show, while he's still a pretty awful person, he's much more nuanced as a character, and his motivations come across as more understandable and...I don't want to say sympathetic because he's still such a dick, but I will say more sympathetic than he ever was in the books. I spent much of the first season side-eying Jaime's presentation, because it thoroughly ruined the thing I loved in the books where he tricked me into believing he was a one-dimensional sociopath and then bowled me over with his later development, but eventually I reconciled myself with it. The show can't get away with presenting a major character as flat for two seasons in order to make his fleshing-out more of a surprise the way the books could, and they've handled the alternative pretty well so far. In general, I was down with the way they adapted the first season, but while I still think they're acting in good faith, I'm more dubious of most of how they've handled the second. It doesn't help that there was radio silence on whether they were going to cut the Reeds entirely until I saw something today saying they're being cast for the third season, and I like the Reeds. I'm one episode behind. We'll see how I feel when I've seen the Battle of the Blackwater on a television screen.
Let's move on to, oh, everything else.
After I turned the last page of A Dance with Dragons, I took a shot at my omnibus of the Amber series and got to the early parts of the fourth book before being distracted. It has so far failed to really draw me in emotionally, though I couldn't say exactly why. Maybe in part because it's somewhat dated? Corwin reads to me as an archetype common to sci-fi/fantasy of his era (Nine Princes in Amber came out in 1970), probably drawn in part from earlier pulp magazines: the bold and epic man of adventure, who we cheer for in his conquests and weep for in his suffering because he has such an inherent fortitude and passion to his soul, and also, he remains a man in an era (outside the pages or the screen, of course; within them it may be quite another era entirely) where gender has come frighteningly loose, but he does so without being excessively cruel or demeaning to others: see, see, we can keep masculinity without rejecting progress! Of course, Zelazny did not push the virtue of his hero the way, let's say, Roddenberry did. One thing that does make Amber interesting is the sense I get that the text is quite aware that its protagonist lacks the morals of mortals, save for where they've crept into the cracks from his centuries of amnesia, and it invites us the readers to make our own judgments on this. I am now curious what influence Corwin's backstory had on the trope of the god-like being whose nature is subtly changed by an enforced sojourn or confinement among mortals. We know that Gaiman looks up to Zelazny...
All of that said, what I find most striking is how fresh and inventive and unusual the setting of Amber feels forty-plus years on from its creation. It is an iconic work of fantasy, but no one has truly replicated it or even transparently tried. Diane Duane, all right, her multiverse operates on very similar principles sometimes, but she handles it quite differently, to the point where I can't tell if there's a connection. It's a fascinating setting, if sometimes difficult to grasp, and I do eventually want to get back to reading the series.
I also read the first two books of N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy. Though this is not, I think, truly an objective comment on her skill as a writer, I found disappointment in them. I don't know for sure, but I speculate that some of it is because she's another anime/manga/JRPG fan and writer of fanfiction. As such, her writing style and many of her ideas are familiar to me in a way that dulls the narrative tension. I don't have a problem with her romance subplots being melodramatic and ridiculous, not even when epic tentacle sex happens, but they don't really do anything for me either. That said, I can still get behind the Nahadoth/Itempas trainwreck. That much is pretty great.
I liked the second book better than the first, but mostly because I found Oree more interesting to read about than Yeine. Eventually, I will read the third and report back on my findings.
That's it for books. I have many yet to read, with the rest of Amber and the Inheritance trilogy up there on the list, but The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson is also tempting me. In addition: The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer and Declare by Tim Powers.
This brings me to anime, into which I am also going to group visual novels for the purposes of this post.
I finally watched Tiger & Bunny earlier this year. It was absolutely a lot of fun, and I enjoyed pretty much everyone in it. It was refreshing in that it was an entertaining series with lots of drama, but even the more messed-up characters ultimately dealt with things in relatively mature and functional ways, at least by the standards of mainstream action anime. Of course, that also means I'm not likely to get very fannish about it, because I am that awful sort of person who often likes characters who spend half the series digging a hole for themselves and the following half freaking out about how to get out of it.
I did find Kotetsu a very lovable character, and while Barnaby failed to catch my interest particularly on his own, I would still like to register my objections to the apparently common practice in the fandom of vilifying Barnaby in order to write Kotetsu angst. It doesn't work that way! They don't hurt each other repeatedly, actually they handle adversity pretty well as a team and allow their relationship to mature as the series goes on. Yes, yes, they have miscommunications and trials, but part of the charm of the show is that they can be counted on to overcome those things without dragging their lives through the mud a million times first.
And now I disclaim that I do not think the show was perfect. I would really have appreciated more development of most of the side characters. Karina's was decent enough, and Ivan, Pao-Lin, and Keith at least got their moments in the sun (if not much in the way of backstory for the latter), but Antonio and Nathan were criminally underused. Yuri's story is tragic and it amuses me far too much that he's basically a character from an angstier subgenre trapped in this show, but I would have liked him to be integrated a bit better into the plot. Okay, that one's a bit of a quibble; his role in helping Kotetsu near the end was reasonable enough involvement, I suppose. I think I was more bothered by the general letdown of parts of the ending: it's very unclear to me how they got from the drama of the climax to the "don't worry, we did our best to preserve the status quo, but we're not going to explain how all of this affected the characters' important relationships" epilogue. I know why they did it, mind you--as I understand it, the show spent most of its run with only dubious support from Sunrise, and so they couldn't really know from early on whether they'd need to plan for a continuation of some kind. Therefore, they had to shift gears from giving us the more or less conclusive ending they'd initially planned for to providing a hook for the movies. Which, whatever my reservations about the series are, I am looking forward to. Apparently the first one, which opens in Japanese theaters on September 22 (my birthday!), will be the standard deal of recapping the series with new material cut in, and the second will be a sequel.
I am also inclined to forgive the show's flaws more because every account I've glimpsed of its creators indicates that they are warm and receptive to their fans. The story that I have picked up is that they didn't really know what the reaction to the anime would be but were hoping to catch an audience of older and more casual male fans than the usual demographic; when they learned that part of their audience turned out to be women who were unleashing their inner fujoshi on the show, they shrugged and said, "Good for them," and kept going. It's kind of famous in fandom now (enough so that I'd heard about it before watching the show) that the official word on Kotetsu and Barnaby's relationship is that it's up to the fans to decide. I only recently learned the facts on where that came from: the Sunrise producer, Ozaki Masayuki, told fans bringing up the question at New York Comic-Con that "it's really up to all of you to decide for yourselves. I trust you to use your imagination." Good enough for me. I can go for Kotetsu/Barnaby as a pairing, or I can see them as friends and platonic partners; either one works fine as far as I'm concerned. My only other shippy feelings on this show are that I wish Kaede had been a few years older so I could ship her with Karina. Maybe in ten years?
Shortly before the second half began airing, I watched the first thirteen episodes of Fate/Zero. And thus my old feelings of ambivalence and longing towards the Fate subfranchise of Type-Moon awaken from their slumber. Oh, Nasu, why must the twin demons of compelling premises and obnoxiously tedious writing further compromised by stilted translations reside within your heart? I am not currently caught up on the new season of Fate/Zero--I think I'm six or seven episodes behind, actually--which is something I must address soon. But I have largely enjoyed what I've seen so far. The production values and attention to the source material are vastly superior to the same qualities as seen in the Fate/Stay Night anime, and while the setting is confusing as always (goddammit, Nasu), the characters are compelling and the action interesting. Urobuchi's loving and faintly maniacal approach to dark material works near-perfectly for me in this case (which is just a further reminder that I need to finish Puella Magi Madoka Magica; there is also another canon that presents a possibility, but I would like to maintain plausible deniability in regards to the extent of my horrible perversion, so I will not name it here).
That is to say, I can't properly express my delight over Caster and Ryuunosuke as characters; to me they evoke the perfect balance between horrified revulsion and shameful hilarity required for effective black comedy of the most macabre type. That much of their shared character arc (such as it is) rests on their approach to the theological problem of evil, a thing in which I have a passing intellectual interest, seals the deal for me. That said, I am so not looking too deeply into fandom for them. I'm sure there are also fans who appreciate them in reasonable ways, but I know how anime fandom at large handles misogynist serial killers, and I do not wish to engage with it.
A thing that is not an unpopular opinion: Rider is amazing, and his relationship with Waver Velvet is wonderful. I ship them shamelessly, but I wish Waver could have his growth spurt while Rider was still around, because the way they are now, I have to ship them chastely. Rider would break Waver.
A thing that is an unpopular opinion: I really don't care about Kotomine Kirei, Gilgamesh, or the relationship between them. It's nothing personal; they just do nothing for me. Also, Gilgamesh is such a tool, and while I understand that he is meant to be perceived that way, canon doesn't really take him down a peg often enough for my tastes.
I ship Saber/Irisviel; they invoke basic tropes of courtly love (the knight/lady dynamic) while also having meaningful connections based on their shared tragic destiny and surprising ability to find joy they were once denied in each other's presence. But I sorrow over how difficult it will be to figure out a way to consummate it. They are beautiful and sad together, and Kiritsugu is busy practicing adultery as a form of emotional self-flagellation, but writing around Irisviel's devotion to her husband is still not something I feel I can handle lightly.
I also side-eye things I've heard about Urobuchi's opinion on Saber's gender identity. It's difficult, because including characters who can be considered representation for trans and genderqueer individuals is great, but goddammit, this show has a relative dearth of female characters to begin with, and Arturia appeals to me more as someone who has always struggled to reconcile a female identity with her practical need to project male authority.
I digress. Let me get to the matter of my favorite character, as established in the first episode. I liked Kariya from his first ill-fated declaration of his intent to save Sakura. The problem is that his characterization and development thereafter is kind of patchwork in the anime. It's difficult to grasp the full extent of his motivations: how much is genuine concern for Sakura's well-being, how much is anger at the perceived betrayal of a man he used to admire, how much is long-festering resentment of his family and everything it represents about the magi lineages and their society (with perhaps a side of guilt over how Sakura might never have been traded to the Matou family if he hadn't walked out on them?), and how much is fucked-up Nice Guy bullshit aimed at Aoi? I would be cool with dealing with the combination if it were easier for me to tell, and I wish I could read the light novels to tease out the details. Also, the last part touches on an issue I have more prominently with Fate/Stay Night: it is maddening how weirdly unaddressed sexist attitudes snake in and out of otherwise compelling characters (note: I do Shirou a great kindness in calling him "otherwise compelling" in this regard). Aside from that--I have no idea how much of it is deliberate subversion and how much is just Urobuchi being Urobuchi, but it is intellectually fascinating to me (someone who kinks on stories of self-sacrifice while increasingly wanting to see them handled critically) how Kariya's character arc turns the usual self-sacrifice narrative on its head. The conventional handling of the trope depicts a troubled and flawed person whose sacrifice washes away their sins, purifies their very nature, and more or less beatifies them. It's a redemptive process of ascension, and at least in Western fiction it often turns its hero into a Christ figure no matter what he was before. Now, Kariya goes into the decision to sacrifice himself for Sakura's benefit with good intentions, a handful of past failures and mistakes, and maybe some guilt over his role in what happened with Sakura. But the resulting character arc is distinctly one of not beatification but unremitting degradation and decay both mental and moral.
That the idea of martyrdom as a personal failing, and self-sacrifice as an isotope of self-destruction, is in fact one of the major themes of the Fate franchise pushes me relentlessly closer to biting the bullet and crawling through the visual novel, oddly dense writing, stilted translation, and all. Just from the watered-down thing that was the anime (or at least as much of it as I managed to watch), I knew that Archer would hit me in my soul, and I would also love Rin and want to write porn of the two of them forever. But given my existing problems with pure visual novels as a medium and my reliance on distinct voice to grasp a character, the obstacles in my path here are formidable.
Fate/Extra is also a thing that I want, and it could help me on the "distinct voice" front. We'll see how the gaming system issue plays out.
Did you know that Urobuchi Gen, Nasu Kinoko, and Narita Ryohgo (the creator of Baccano! and Durarara!!) are playing a tabletop roleplay campaign with each other with the intent of chronicling it as light novels? If you didn't, now you do.
Last in this category for now: I'm confronting my aversion to NVL-style visual novels and starting on Umineko no Naku Koro ni. I'm on the second day. In fact, I am just past the discovery of the bodies in the gardening shed. At this point, despite my ceaseless struggle with the medium, I really have nothing but praise for Ryukishi07's writing and Witch Hunt's translation.
It's easy enough to explain the latter: while the narration often reads as slightly awkward or a little bit stilted in the way one would expect an amateur translation of large amounts of text to be (and I don't know what's up with the switching between first- and third-person in Battler's point of view), the dialogue is distinct and individual, which to me is much more important than the narration always being smooth. Translations erasing the personality and nuance in a character's dialogue is my bane, and I see it both from fan groups (where it's disappointing but forgivable) and official translations (where there's no excuse). Here I'm going to skip my standard rant about the lack of distinct voice and climax-mangling erasure of f/f relationships both romantic and platonic in the official subtitles for Mai-HiME and just say that I really appreciate Witch Hunt's success in preserving the Umineko characters' distinctness in their dialogue translation.
As for the actual content, I suspect it's strongly up to personal taste whether you like it or just find it tedious and weird, but so far I've been really pleased with the story. This probably sounds strange given that it's a bizarre extended metafiction puzzle about the logic battle between a witch and a skeptic, presented in the form of a repeating murder mystery, but underneath the amateurish art, it feels more grounded in reality than a lot of other supernatural-themed anime/visual novels--which isn't actually that surprising, as "make the real-life details as believable as possible so that the readers can accept what follows more easily" is standard advice to writers of speculative fiction. Peel back the cliches on the surfaces of the characters and what's beneath is more believable than I expected. I hear that people complain about the scenes where the adult siblings and their spouses argue over the inheritance, but I liked them. It wasn't dull everyday-life filler like Nasu would write (yeah, I'm never going to stop bashing Nasu's writing, sorry), it was meaningful interpersonal drama wrung out of the mundane, used to help characterize people who would soon be plunged headlong into gruesome chaos.
All right, it was also a bit slow, but the medium was what held me up more than anything, and I got through. Let's talk about why I've barely started the game/series/whatever you want to call it and I already have faith in the characters to be awesome.
I hate moeblob child characters who act implausibly young for their age for the loli appeal and see no social consequences for it aside from maybe some humorous reactions of shock. I love Maria Ushiromiya, because she kicks the shit out of that fanservice cliche. I usually have a strict "no diagnosing fictional characters with real psychological conditions not explicitly stated by canon" rule, but I'll break it to say that Maria reads to me like a believable portrayal of a kid with some form of developmental disability dragged into a family already simmering with conflict. I'm also not a fan of frail put-upon housewives, but Natsuhi is endearing herself to me. I expect to see similar subversion or expansion of their apparent cliches and character types from the rest of the cast as well. I'm looking forward to Beatrice, and to those of you who know what I like in pairings, I don't really need to go into my anticipation of Lambdadelta and Bernkastel.
While it took me longer than it should have to get through the first day, I'm actually all right with that now; I think it did a really good job of creating atmosphere and setting the stage for the gutpunch that occurs in the morning of the second day. I'm even more impressed with the writing in the second day so far than I was with that of the first day: it plays up tension and fear in the best horror-movie tradition, then delivers on it to my satisfaction. The discovery of the bodies was over-the-top almost to the point of camp, but I feel like the previous day of setup let it deliver its emotional impact properly. Battler's hysterical rant was ridiculous and surreal, but I bought it anyway. And yes, I'm sure this is something that varies from person to person, but it worked fine for me.
While the Fate franchise has more obvious hooks to get me into its fandom, I would be even happier to step into Umineko fandom. Don't let me put off reading more.
Video games! I've been doing those too, and not just the ones where you click repeatedly on a screen, read text, click more, read more, and listen to sound effects and freaky music. I've been writing this post on-and-off almost all day and I'm getting tired of building walls of text. Let's go.
Do you know what game I've always really wanted to replay and finish? Psychonauts, ever since years ago I got distracted in the middle of Waterloo World and never got back to it. Do you know what game I now realize I will never finish? Also Psychonauts. If I'd kept trying much longer, I would have become a vegetarian. I love almost everything about this game, but the last level defeats me. I still ship Sasha/Milla, though. It's the best. I'm going to try to crunch through some other Tim Schafer/Double Fine games before the Kickstarter one comes out. But I'm not putting money on my success, considering how many other games I have lined up.
In the wake of my Meat Circus failure, I turned to Bastion. It was more than I expected, and really a flat-out gorgeous game. More than that, I think it's a very good argument for the capacity of video games to be art. Not because it was especially deep and super-serious and complex (although I think to some extent it might be, or at least can be interpreted that way), but because it had coherent themes that were echoed in its gameplay, its art, its music, and its story. Suffice to say, there's a lot going on in this game.
Well, maybe not suffice to say. I could add that I wonder how much of the themes I read into it were intentional. I think the strong motifs of the Western genre might have had a point beyond aesthetics, that maybe the player was supposed to feel like they were breaking down the spirit of the American frontier, even though it was secondary-world fantasy. I might consider reading it as in part a parable on the destructive nature of expansionism and the myth of the frontier and the need to find new modes of thought, done not in a self-righteous and pretentious way but simply as part of making a beautiful game.
I'll probably recant all of this and be terribly embarrassed about reading so much into this game when the creators just wanted to tell an interesting story once I finally watch the documentary about its development. Such are the perils of overanalyzing things as much as I do. I couched the above paragraph in maybes, though, so I have an escape hatch.
Importantly, reading about the game's creation drives home just how much the developers consistently built the game around their goals for its visuals and gameplay. This is an admirable method, I think. Too many of the big-name games these days have divorced gameplay from story; the controls become simply a vehicle to carry character models and their dialogue. I've enjoyed games like this well enough, but they're missing out on the potential of the medium by treating it like it's nothing more than an interactive movie with, optionally, a handful of mini-games. Bastion points to the potential of video games as art not because it has such deep writing and sophisticated narrative technique (although maybe it does, and maybe it doesn't), but because it makes the gameplay part of the art.
A thing that particularly appealed to me (aside from the lovely post-apocalyptic aesthetic, which is always a winner with me): the slow reveal of just how much you're playing the bad guy, or at least an everyman working for the bad guy, and your mentor and guide is deeply complicit in everything that went wrong. A lot of beloved games hinge on shocking plot twists about the nature of the world and the protagonist (let me rattle off a few: Final Fantasy X, BioShock, Knights of the Old Republic), but Bastion never goes for the sudden shock; it just keeps quietly unspooling the details that fill in the blanks, in a narrative parallel to the way the environment is constructed visually.
I haven't praised the narration yet. Everybody praises the narration when talking about Bastion. Well, it's great, but I don't want to single it out as much as most reviews, because like everything else, it's most effective as part of the whole.
Now I disclaim that the gameplay is really fairly simple, and most of its genius is actually in the way it interacts with the art, music, and story. I had a lot of trouble getting through some levels, because I was a dumbass and tried playing on normal difficulty instead of easy my first time through. Don't be like me. Unless you're hardcore about your video games, play it on easy the first time through.
Short version: it's a deceptively simple RPG whose primary strength is in integrating story, aesthetics, and gameplay. The music is amazing. You should probably play it.
Then it was February 7th, and I still needed a distraction, and Steam had just discounted The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I used to have 205 hours of free time, but then I took an arrow to the knee. I barely dented the main plotline before I got distracted by other games, by the way. There's not much point in doing a lengthy and obnoxiously pretentious ramble about this one. It's a goddamn sandbox for you to act out your epic fantasy Mary Sue adventures in, and everyone knows it. It never wanted to be anything else. If you don't like sandbox games, you won't like Skyrim. If you like sandbox games, you will lose a chunk of your life to Skyrim. Personal opinion: the best part was making full sets of enchanted dragonbone armor and feeling proud of it, at least until I realized I was feeling proud about video game armor.
Later, I repeated a similar process, but for about half as much money and time, with Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale. It's extremely cute and enjoyable, and I really appreciate that someone's localizing doujin games like this and that the infrastructure to easily distribute them (Steam and similar platforms) exists. If you like parodies of the RPG genre with addictive gameplay, anime art, and slightly self-consciously silly dialogue, go for it. I finished the main game, but still have a few dungeons to clear if I ever get back to it. Which I won't for a while. Because--well, let me get to it.
Did you know that some ridiculous people made huge, high-quality, expansive RPGs for the Wii? Some ridiculous people who are not the Zelda developers? And have you ever wondered how totally boned players would be if confronted with a game with sidequest and exploration potential to rival Skyrim, but a plot you can actually care about? Let's not mention how much time I've already clocked on Xenoblade Chronicles without even advancing to the point where I have a full party, and say we did. Summary: it is a really fun game with great, flexible gameplay, loads of sandbox potential, and creative environments that can be thoroughly explored. I may have overstated the case a bit when I said you can care about the plot, but not by much. The characters aren't too complex so far, the mascot is the unholy revenge of Chu-Chu risen from the grave of underfunded PSX properties, and nobody's pretending that it's deep and artistic. But there are some interesting twists and unusual bits of world-building, and I'm really only getting started. I'll get back to this one when I have more to say.
I'm done here! It only took me all day. This was not what I signed up for.