Some Quick Reviews Part 3: Games

 

krz

I knew when I started these reviews that  I was going to end with videogames. The thing was, I had just beat two Telltale series (Tales From the Borderlands, and The Wolf Among Us) and thought that I would have one other game finished by the time I wrote this last section. Things were looking grim for awhile, all the other games I’ve been playing are very long and I haven’t had time to finish them. Then, in a holy beam of light, Kentucky Route Zero Act IV descended from the heavens to grace our Earthly senses. So, let’s talk about some games, and don’t worry, I’m saving the best for last.

2830461-boost+1920x1080

Tales From the Borderlands

This was my first Telltale game series, and I loved it. Before playing Tales From the Borderlands I had played the first Borderlands game, a little of the Pre-Sequel, and had absorbed a fair amount of the second through memetic fusion (though I started playing Borderlands 2 more recently). Despite my somewhat limited knowledge of the Borderland Universe I found the game very enjoyable. Say what you will about the move-as-game method of their creations, Telltale has become the master of minimalist narrative game design.

What I enjoyed most about Tales was its ability to blend a variety of disparate tones into a delicious genre smoothy. Most of the time the game makes good use of the trademark Borderlands humor – sarcasm, crass remarks, and gratuitous gore are abundant – but the game managed to surprise me with its ability to shift seamlessly between action, comedy, touching character relationships, and moments of heart-wrenching sadness. It doesn’t like to say it, but Tales is really an epic game. In scope if not it tone.

image

Wolf Among Us

I got Tales From the Borderlands and Wolf Among Us at the same time, so I started Wolf almost immediately after Tales. I’ve read the first book of Fables, the comic book that Wolf Among Us is based on, so I was intrigued to see how they adapted it into a game.

The game’s greatest strength is its consistency of tone. It not only inhabits the grit and shadows of noir, it rules them. The integration of fairy-tale powers and characters into the detective story is effective, but the game sometimes suffers from its linearity. All Telltale games are pretty linear. Choices aren’t so much about changing the direction of the game world, more about the relationships between characters. Nonetheless I got a little frustrated with the amount of quick-time events in Wolf that apparently had no positive outcome. The game’s dedication to the dark “no happy endings” tone forces its hand into punishing your character. There are events that are meaningless, but they feel superficially meaningless and less like the game is teaching you a harsh lesson about the reality of the game world. There are times where your character will get a beating, the game prompts you to press a key really fast, but even if you get the meter nothing changes.

The ending also left me a little disappointed. Again it felt like they were so desperate to fulfill the tone they had carved out for themselves that they didn’t deliver on a satisfactory conclusion to the actual mystery of the plot.

Wolf Among Us is still good. The characters are fantastic, the setting fleshed-out, and there are plenty of scenes that will stick in my memory. When the tone works, it works flawlessly, but when it begins to force your hand it can become frustrating.

 

krz3

Kentucky Route Zero – Act IV

Words cannot express how excited I was to learn that Kentucky Route Zero had finally released its fourth act. I got the game when it had three acts, so I had dined gleefully on its modernist magical-realism melancholia only to be left wanting more. For a long time I was exasperated that Act IV was so long in the making, but no that I’ve played it I just can’t be mad. This act is so … not different … but almost evolved. There’s a sense that they earned the hiatus, a special polish here. Scenes are unique in ways that stand out, even in a game that’s almost exclusively composed of individual, beautiful moments.

I can’t spoil anything here (though its not like I’ve talked much about plot for any game here) because, well, its a game that should be experienced. Kentucky Route Zero has a sort of beauty that makes it, in my mind, some sort of “great American video-game.” It can be played and replayed and examined and dissected. It can be enjoyed for the mere experience, but it can also be enjoyed for its structure, its quality, and its craft.

It’s been awhile since I’ve played the first three acts, so maybe my memory is hazy, but I think that Act IV has a lot more variety to it. I mean this in the sense of options regarding how scenes play out. Kentucky  has notoriously beautiful yet mechanically pointless decisions. It’s all about dialogue, all about choosing who the characters are. In Act IV there’s a greater emphasis on not being there to play every possible scene. Almost every time you shift to a new scene you have to choose between two locations with different characters, so if you really have to decide which characters you want to watch interact when you choose your scenes. I also get the sense that there’s even more emphasis on the aesthetics of location (very important since the game inhabits a land of psychogeography). The way the camera slowly pans around a boat, or how it follows slowly behind characters into a tunnel, there’s a real sense of presence to the camera. A presence that adds weight without becoming a burden. There’s also more dialogue – like, a lot more dialogue – going on here. Words and phrases are rolled into artful little packets like paper into origami. Sometimes I just have to lean back and enjoy the essence of a paragraph, or taste the words by speaking them out loud.

Once the fifth act comes out I may do a longer piece on Kentucky Route Zero, god knows it deserves it, but for right now all I can say is that Act IV hasn’t disappointed me. I feel satisfied with this course, but I still await dessert with anticipation and hunger.


[EDIT: because I can’t seem to caption my images right now I will be linking the image sources below]

Stop everything! Kentucky Route Zero Act IV is out right now

http://www.gamespot.com/reviews/tales-from-the-borderlands-episode-two-atlas-mugge/1900-6416067/

https://store.xbox.com/en-us/Xbox-One/Games/The-Wolf-Among-Us/f5b8be2c-58f9-427b-8e12-2786d03dc55f

https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/07/22/kentucky-route-zero-act-iv-review/

Some Quick Reviews Part 2: Movies

IMG_1872

Ah the silver screen, how I love thee. Though I’ve seen more than just these two movies these last few months I’m going to just talk about Anomalisa and Down By Law because they interested me the most, and they were the only movies I haven’t seen before.

Anomalisa

I’m a pretty big Charlie Kaufman fan. I haven’t seen all his movies – Synecdoche New York and Being John Malkovich have somehow evaded me – but his imagination and sincerity really do something for me. He really has an ability to zoom in on the minuscule moments of everyday existence that form the tragicomic lives of the every-man. In his movies there’s the basic humanness of everyone is laid bare, with all the pettiness and hope that that brings.

Anomalisa could be called the natural progression of Kaufman’s work. It still has elements of his thought-experiment-esque, mind-screwy, reality-warping, style; but its much more understated in Anomalisa. Here there aren’t layers-upon-layers that must be unraveled. The idea is simple: a man sees everybody as being the same – same face and same voice – until he meets Lisa, who stands out. From this concept we see the weight of loneliness, and the cost of assuming you deserve better. In some ways it’s like an understated Fight Club, but if Tyler Durden never really showed up.

This is probably the least laugh-out-loud movie that Kaufman has made. There’s humor, sure, but it never got more than a dry chuckle out of me. It’s a quiet movie, it almost feels like watching life sometimes, but it still held my attention the whole time (the wonderful puppetry and camerawork probably helped). I could definitely see Anomalisa being tedious for some, there’s not much that actually happens in the plot. If you like quiet movies that are willing to explore relationships and characters at the expense of the action, then I would recommend looking into Anomalisa.

Down By Law

I was very excited to discover that Criterion had given Down By Law a Blu-Ray release. As a fan of Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, this seemed like the perfect movie for me.

The plot in a nutshell: A New Orleans pimp and disc jockey are both framed (for completely different reasons) and are sent to prison where they live in the same cell. An Italian immigrant who committed manslaughter is also put in their cell. The three learn to live with each other in prison until they discover a means of escape into the swamps of Louisiana.

Honestly, I was expecting this movie to be funnier, but that was mainly because it’s usually described as a comedy. This isn’t to say that the movie is bad, more that it threw me off-guard. It does have plenty of funny moments – especially once Benigni shows up – but there’s a lot more to this movie than comedy. Though Jarmusch described the film as “neo-beat noir comedy” I think I would say there’s more “neo-Beat” and “noir” than comedy.

The film does have an interesting stylistic arc, beginning with the gritty life on the streets, moving to “odd-couple” style dark comedy in the prison, then dissolving into a fairy-tale journey through the forest in the end. These thematic transitions aren’t always smooth, but they aren’t so abrupt as to lose the viewer.

All the lead performances are great. The characters are understated but understandable, with a quirkiness that reminds me of O Brother Where Art Though. Benigni steals the show though, his physical clowning and his playing with language are charming, but he’s never so cartoonish that the out-of-place becomes otherworldly.

The soundtrack (provided by John Lurie, with a few Tom Waits tracks thrown in) is phenomenal at providing the tone that the movie requires. Robby Müller’s cinematography is also amazing – perhaps being the best thing in the movie. There’s plenty of amazing shots of New Orlean’s streets and bayous in black-and-white, adding to the feeling that this is a movie set in the mind, rather than the real world.

I haven’t checked the extra Criterion goodies yet, but they seem pretty promising. There’s plenty of interviews and Q&As to listen to, and some behind-the-scenes footage as well.

Down By Law is something of an art-house flick, but it isn’t so pretentious or strange that it intentionally alienates. It feels like a film from the 40s or 50s, despite its being released in 1986. If you want something a little like a noir-fairytale-dramedy then you should check this out, because it might be the only movie that fits that description.