Stranger Frustrations

If you’re American and you have Netflix, odds are you’ve watched Stranger Things. And I am no exception. Most people love Stranger Things and it’s not hard to see why. The pacing in Stranger Things is intense. Most episodes whirl you through a series of slowly building stakes along two or three parallel stories culminating in a blockbuster finale that puts a cherry on top of it all. And, perhaps most impressive of all, the show does this twice.

There’s a lot to like about Stranger Things. Long time readers know this means I’m about to switch gears and tell you everything I hate about the show. So let’s get down to it.

I enjoyed my time with Stranger Things. But I also didn’t enjoy it as much as many other people I know. I didn’t count down the days until it came out and I didn’t binge the entire series as soon as it was available. Part of this is because I have a life that makes demands of my time. Most of it was because I wasn’t highly invested in watching the series. The pacing of Stranger Things is one of its strongest points hands down. By whirling the audience from one new revelation to another the Duffer brothers keep their audience breathless with excitement and anticipation, never really thinking about things that have been but rather focused on things that are coming. That’s a huge accomplishment. On top of that there’s some amazingly strong character writing and acting. Every award Stranger Things won it deserved.

Problem is when I wasn’t watching Stranger Things I was thinking about things. So, while I want to praise Stranger Things some next week, I hope you’ll indulge a bit of griping this week as we discuss the details that keep Stranger Things off my list of great TV shows – at least for now. In order to do that, though, we’re going to have to discuss

-SPOILERS- 

so please stop reading if, by some chance, you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet and that kind of thing bothers you.

Let’s start with blood.

You know, the stuff that lured the Demogorgon out when Jon and Nancy trapped it, that led it to the deer which brought Nancy into the Upside Down, that attracted it to Barb leading to her untimely demise. Stranger Things makes it seem like blood is very important to the Demogorgon somehow. Except that it’s not.

You remember Will Byers? Y’know, the kid who’s disappearance starts everything in Stranger Things season one? He isn’t bleeding when the Demogorgon attacks him. More than that, season two establishes that Demogogons in general will follow food that has no blood in it at all, like Three Musketeers candy bars or bologna. In fact, none of the Mind Flayer’s influenced entities seem to react to blood in any special way in season two.

So why the random blood imagery? The only reason I can think of is to make the viewer uncomfortable, as seeing injured people is want to do. It’s blatant emotional manipulation. Now manipulating audience emotions is the job of a writer but if you get caught doing it that’s generally bad. Worse, it makes the monster inconsistent, almost as if the Duffers are writing the monsters in whatever way they thought would be creepiest, rather than as actual menaces to the cast with their own inscrutable goals.

Season two has another case of this when Bob Newby dies. Monsters that had been vigilantly patrolling the halls, ignoring dozens of dead bodies, suddenly stop hunting active targets to devour his body after killing him. Gotta let those main characters escape, right? This makes even less sense when, a few episodes earlier, we see that the Mind Flayer can make Demodogs ignore easily available prey in favor of its own priorities when they leave the kids in the junkyard alone. Again, these inconsistencies make the emotional manipulation at work clear and make it harder to stay immersed. We watch Bob get eaten because he was a kind, caring, upstanding person and we’re supposed to be sad and angry at his death. Watching his body desecrated pushes us in that direction.

The biggest question of all is why the solution to the Mind Flayer in season two was so… simple. The original Demogorgon pulled open holes between the upside down and Hawkins on a semi regular basis. But, even with a huge presence in Hawkins and far more intelligence and power at its disposal than the Demogorgon, the Mind Flayer only ever relies on one gate to maintain its hold. Why didn’t it open at least one other gate and secure its power base that way? It managed to widen the primary door easily enough.

There are other, minor, moments of frustrating decision making on the part of the writers. In season one the only reason for Nancy to crawl under a tree into the upside down after a something that ran off with the body of a deer while she knows there’s something in town abducting people is so the story can ratchet up the tension. If Will was so sensitive to heat that Joyce had to keep the front door open why wasn’t the Mind Flayer purged from him over the summer? It routinely gets into the 90s outside. If that’s not hot enough how hot does it have to be? The human body can only take so much. Or did it just survive so we could have a second season? Again, it’s just so much disappointing and transparent audience manipulation.

Look, none of these things a dealbreakers. They don’t make Stranger Things a bad TV show. But they do kind of chip away at immersion and disappoint people who like consistency in their fiction. Stranger Things is good TV, and if you get hyped for the inevitable season three then by all means watch it. But that’s not to say the Duffers couldn’t do better on some fronts and I hope they will. But even if they don’t I’ll still check it out just because they are so good at what they do. Drop back next week and we’ll unpack that a bit more too.

West of Loathing: Absurdism in the Weird West

When I was in college there was this game called Kingdom of Loathing that many of my friends and acquaintances played. It was a simple game filled with stick figures and a love for puns and absurdist humor. Kingdom of Loathing still exists but I’ve long since moved on. The game’s biggest strength was it’s writing and sense of the absurd – and the fact that you could try and beat it while under ridiculous restrictions, like teleporting at random all the time. Problem was, once you’d experienced all the humor a few times the charm rubbed off and only the silly challenge plays were left. It wasn’t my cup of tea.

When I heard that the same writing and development team was putting together a single player game full of their stock in trade humor called West of Loathing I got a little excited. And when it finally came out I ignored my usual policy of waiting for a sale and bought it at full price, just so I could see if it was everything I’d hoped for.

The game’s graphics menu has a colorblind option. The art consists entirely of black and white stickfigures. Toggling back and forth between colorblind and normal does nothing. And with that I knew we were off to a good start. The “Best Font” option sets all text in the game to the Ariel font and comes with a request that you please, please don’t use it. Yes, Loathing is here in full force.

West of Loathing does not have a story per se. The only goal is to go from the east side of the map to the west – just like people in the Old West, you’re looking to Go West. There will be goblins and aliens and practitioners of Southerwestern Bean Magic Cooking – the Nex-Mex. But for the most part, except for a single sequence at the very end of the game, you’re left to wander wherever you want to go and see what you want to see and however much or little of it you see you’ll still be able to finish the game. There’s even a “ending cutscene” that sums up your adventures and then leaves you to go wander some more if you want.

And in spite of being an RPG the game has very basic combat. Your character and one of three “pardner” NPCs square off against hostiles and flail at each other a bit, balancing equipment and stats in pretty straightforward ways. It’s straightfowardness is actually kind of dull. But it is fair and is typically pretty easy so at least you won’t get caught up in a dull combat encounter and not be able to get past it.

Where the game really shines is in the problem solving. West of Loathing is stuffed full of weird puzzles and strange characters you can choose to outwit, rather than outfight. Whether you’re wandering through a graveyard, decoding messages on tombstones, trying to work out a grim Nex-Mex formula from the snatches of dialog overheard from cultists while hiding in a wardrobe or just swindling a stupid goblin out of his own pants with your Hornswogglin’ skill, every situation West of Loathing has a creative bent to it that will let you do things more graphically impressive but less ambitious games never attempt. What other game will let you fight bandits, trick them, or release a giant spider to eat them?

The other great point of West of Loathing is the writing. While there’s no story in the game there are stories. The first thing you learn about the world is that The Cows Came Home. A few years back all those cows humanity ate opened portals from hell and wreaked a horrible revenge upon the ranches of the west. It was horrific and hilarious at the same time, I’m sure. You find hints as to what happened scattered all throughout the world as you travel and each one is a delight to poke through. You can also choose to do weird stuff like dig through every spitoon you find for treasure. It’s disgusting and the game makes sure to shame you for it every time in lengthy and increasingly creative ways until, finally, at the end, you break its will and and it gives up on you. But my favorite part of the game is Ghostwood, where you have to help the town of Breadwood secure a logging permit. It must be experienced to be believed.

West of Loathing is crafted with care. From the Shaggy Dog Cave, which is exactly what you think, to the El Vibratto, which is not, Asymmetric Software has paid careful attention to making the weirdest, funniest, most tongue in cheek Western post apocalyptic stick figure game you have ever played. If you’re looking for a light hearted laugh while you romp through a world that never existed – but maybe should have – West of Loathing is for you.

Voltron: The Legendary Five Man Band

A month or so ago I wrote about how five man groups are pretty much the gold standard for good storytelling, presenting good options for different character dynamics without bringing too many characters for the audience to track to the table.

There’s a great example of this character dynamic in the Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender. The basic premise of this shown is that five ancient and powerful alien war robots fall into the hands of human pilots, who must then wield them as separate entities and in the combined super robot known as Voltron. These five pilots are, of course, the core five man band of the show. The cast starts out by with a central cast that fits basic archetypes – Shiro, the soldier, Keith, the loner, Lance, the goofball, Hunk, the anxious, and Pidge, the nerd. These archetypes quickly flesh out as the character’s various motivations keep them moving at odds with one another.

The clearest example of this is Pidge, a girl who is passing herself as a boy in an effort to track down her father and brother, who went missing on a deep space mission. She’s hiding her identity because she’s already drawn too much bad attention from the authorities prying into classified files but, when she meets Shiro, who disappeared on the same mission and reappears under equally mysterious circumstances, she has to decide how much she trusts him and the three others whisked away on the wild ride they’re undertaking. It’s a particularly cryptic balancing act to watch as we’re not aware Pidge is a girl at first.

Character dynamics are at the heart of Voltron, from the clashing personalities of Keith and Lance to the uncertain relationship between Allura, the alien princess who’s father built Voltron, and her human paladins. But these aren’t the only important character dynamics. In fact, arguably the most important character dynamic exists between Shiro, the tyrannical Emperor Zarkon, and the Black Lion, the war machine both men wielded in battle at one time. Zarkon seeks to reclaim the lion with single-minded zeal while Shiro is driven by conscience and a clear desire not to let down his current team like he fears he did his last. (Shiro has a touch of the amnesia.)

It’s not just the heroes who have good character dynamics. There are interesting faces and motives among the villains as well, including factions and traitors, double agents who give the two sides multiple points of contact and an interesting glimpse into how the two sides are similar and different. It’s this kind of character writing that makes the show so very compelling and, with the third season introducing a five man band on the villain’s side, we can only expect these dynamics to go deeper.

Last week I went on about how I’ve found Marvel’s Netflix lineup to be incredibly lackluster. Serviceable but not compelling. Oddly enough, Voltron, with a total running time comparable to the length of Daredevil alone, has managed to build more compelling villains and, as a direct result, more compelling heroes than the entire Marvel Netflix line.

Voltron doesn’t just have strong heroes with deep flaws, who bond with each other in interesting and meaningful ways. It has surprisingly deep villains in a struggle that makes it clear one side has a moral edge over the other without letting the villains become caricatures or jokes. While Zarkon can come off as a bit of a tantrum thrower his deep connection to the Black Lion and a fuller understanding of his history, as revealed in season three, actually makes his single mindedness a little clearer. If I have one worry about the future of the show it’s how the story seems to be casting Zarkon as a victim of crystallized evil, rather than a man who turned to evil of his own volition, seeking goals he thought were good. There’s elements of both in his story right now.

C.S. Lewis’ most lasting works of fiction were the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of books that meant for children that people of all ages love reading over and over. Sometimes stories meant for children make the strongest impressions and one thing is sure – Voltron: Legendary Defender may be aimed at children but it’s making a really strong impression right now. Worth checking out if you have the time.

The Ampersand

We’re going to talk about China Meiville’s Railsea and it’s going to include spoilers. You’ve been warned.

That said, we’re not actually going to talk about the plot of Railsea but the worldbuilding. Knowing this doesn’t change the story itself in any way. But, in many respects, the best part of Railsea is… well, the railsea. Everything in this strange, topsy-turvy world runs on rails and the book is full of strange little touches that help you remember that this is not the world you know.

What’s nice is that the story never goes out of its way to shove those moments into your face. They’re subtle and pointed, always clearly intended to illustrate some aspect of Meiville’s world that is different from ours. Well, most of the worldbuilding is that way. There was one aspect of it that shows up on the first page, digs its claws into you and won’t stop annoying you for at least fifty more pages. The phenomenon is thus: the prose never uses a comma in lists but rather stringing them together with a series of ands. Except the letters “a”, “n” and “d” are never written in that order anywhere in the text of the book. Every instance of the word “and” is replaced with The Ampersand. You can even begin sentences with &, removing the need for capital letters.

To make a confession: I hated this tendency at first. The prose was cluttered with unnecessary conjunctions and the ampersand jumped out at me whenever it was used, never quite enough to break the flow of the story but enough to grab at the back of the mind. It was wrong but I was enjoying the rest of the book enough to struggle through. Eventually, the ampersands faded into the background. Then I reached Railsea chapter 33 and read these words:

“The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails.

What word better could there be to symbolize the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than ‘&’?”

Mind. Blown.

Most of us think of worldbuilding in terms of what happened in the history of the world, or what they eat, or how they dress, or what kind of governments there are, what kind of buildings they build, what kind of rituals they have for births, marriages and deaths. That kind of stuff is well and good. It’s an important part of cultures and traditions to understand these things. The same is true for ecology, environment and larger scale parts of the picture. But what Meiville did with The Ampersand was go a level deeper.

He asked the very simple question, “If the world is fundamentally like this, what kind of changes might happen to the very ways people think? The way they talk? The way they write?”

Then, instead of a long Martin-esque exposition about traditions and rituals, he just shows us the people of that world acting like they would and lets us get used to it, no matter how odd it first strikes us. In time the curtain is pulled back for us but when it is we’ve already grown so used to the strangeness that the explanation is just icing on the cake.

This kind of worldbuilding is great but have care. Without the other worldbuilding, the careful assembly of ideas into a coherent culture and environment, you can’t come up with something like The Ampersand. What makes The Ampersand so striking is that Meiville did all that work and then went a level further. He came up with an idea that fit his world so perfectly then went back and hid all his tracks, weaving it into the fabric of his tale page by page until he found the right time to share it. This is not a technique to try and use at the start of worldbuilding but at the end. But if you do use it that way and you’re very patient it can make for a great culmination to the work.

 

Always Be Afraid

Netflix – the great timesink of our era. I’ll admit that I don’t watch much with the eight bucks a month it costs me but shows like Trollhunters certainly make it worthwhile. I’ll also admit that when I heard about a kid’s show written by Guillermo del Toro I had about the same hopes as I had for a bedtime story by M. Night Shyalaman, which was not a whole lot. But I watched it all the same as it came well recommended and I was pleasantly surprised.

Long story short, Jim Lake is a kid in high school who finds an amulet that lets him turn into the Trollhunter, a sort of U.S. Marshall for trolls, those weird looking guys who turn into rock if they’re touched by sunlight. Jim is the first non-troll to be accepted by the amulet and gain the powers of the Trollhunter, which amount to summoning a suit of armor and sword composed of daylight and deadly to trolls, and he joins with a couple of trolls, Blinky and AARGH, and his friend Toby to keep trolls safe while trying to keep the amulet out of the hands of trolls who are up to no good.

Jim’s story is sadly typical for kids his age: No father, mother working too hard to keep the household together, crush on a girl he doesn’t know how to approach and no role model to work off of. Well, except for Mr. Strickler, one of the teachers at school, and maybe Blinky, the troll in charge of teaching him the lore of the trollhunters. But life was hard enough without mystical amulets and bloodthirsty troll generals chasing wherever he goes.

So let’s talk about stuff in a spoilery fashion.

Trollhunters has the potential to be a very generic tale. A couple of things set it apart from other young adult stories of this stripe. First, Jim’s relationship with his mother is very well developed and rings true. Jim cares for his mother and tries to take up as much of the slack as he can even as she tries to be two parents at once. It’s sweet and sad at the same time. The one disappointment in this is that Jim doesn’t share his new job with his mom like he does with his friend Toby and, when she eventually does find out about it, a plot contrivance wipes her memory soon after. I liked the dynamic between the two when Jim was struggling to make his mom see how important his place in the troll world was and she was struggling to let him do what she knew made him whole. Taking it out of play so quickly felt cheap.

Mr. Strickler fixes one of the problems many YA tales have – good villains. We watch him ascend from a lackey to a legitimate player in the power struggle in the troll kingdoms through ruthlessness and cunning. The show is replete with clever dialog for him, especially after Jim learns who he is and Strickler starts giving him warnings in coded language in public. There’s a brilliant scene where he visits Jim and his mother (still in the dark at the time) at their home for dinner. He spars with Jim, verbally and physically, all while both dance around Barbara out of a mutual desire to keep her in the dark. It’s one of the best moments in the whole show.

Finally there’s Blinky, the wonky, many-eyed troll that teaches Jim the ropes. He’s a different kind of mentor figure, eccentric and intellectual without ever being distant or unapproachable. Too often today intelligence is associated with emotional dysfunction. Blinky is a an emotionally functional but very smart troll, full of sage advice and strategic insight. He’s not a brave troll himself, nor does he have the strength to fight in the first place. He’s more of a Merlin to Jim’s Arthur, on hand with books, wise words and the fix when social situations pose a problem, but rarely taking a hand in fights.

Speaking of Merlin, one of the most interesting parts of Trollhunters is the lore of the world. Jim’s amulet is activated with the phrase, “For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!” This touch of Arthurian lore adds an interesting twist to the show. After all, the Lady of the Lake made Arthur a king so what does that say about Jim Lake? Or about his father?

There’s lots of other fun bits of lore scattered about, like the way we learn how to defeat the ultimate bad guy or the troll facts Blinky is always sharing out. But my favorite has to be the first rule of trollhunting: Always be afraid. Frank Hubbard sneered at fear as a weakness, del Toro reminds us it’s something that can help us so long as we don’t let it control us. That kind of simple, practical and time tested life advice is the foundation of every story in Trollhunters and it’s hard not to love the story for it.

Two Strings and a Clockwork Orange

Kubo and the Two Strings is a wonderfully written and animated movie that I found profoundly disturbing. I want to talk about what I loved about it but I also want to talk about what bothered me and in order to do the second part I’m going to have to get into major spoilers. Like, discussing how Kubo finally defeated his villain and what the fallout of that was. You’ve been warned.

Let me start with the basics. Kubo is a kid missing his dad and his mom isn’t always there, mentally speaking. He can also control paper by playing music on his shamisen (a Japanese instrument vaguely like a banjo) and he’s missing an eye that his grandfather, the Moon King, stole from him when he was a baby. Naturally, the plot kicks off when Kubo’s grandfather discovers where his grandson has been hiding all these years.

Kubo leaves his mother and, with the help of Monkey, a guardian statue turned real, and Beetle, an anthropomorphic beetle who claims to know Kubo’s father somehow and lost his memories to the Moon King, the boy must collect the three pieces of a legendary suit of armor and defeat his grandfather.

When Kubo is slow and meandering it’s still pretty good. When the story moves then it’s great. I particularly liked the character moments between Monkey, Beetle and Kubo. The three aren’t together long before it becomes clear that these are the parents Kubo never had – quite literally as the Monkey contains the fragment of his mother’s soul that was lacking in her for so long and the Beetle is Kubo’s father, transformed and rendered amnesiac by the Moon King’s power. The bristly but unified way Kubo’s parents act before they realize this fact makes their odd couple romance plainly obvious to the audience while not shoving in our face. I also appreciate the fact that, even when they don’t know who the other is, there’s never any competition between the two or any attempt on the screenwriter’s part to make one look better than the other.

Beetle is focused on goals, finishing Kubo’s quest and making him strong and independent. Monkey focuses on keeping him safe and provided for. It’s a pleasing dynamic and conflict in it comes very naturally and is resolved in equally satisfying ways. More movie families should be written like this one.

The Moon King was an interesting but underdeveloped character. His sense of personal perfection was an understandable driving force and I liked the symbolism of his taking Kubo’s eyes to represent his trying to blind him to the value of others. His winding up with the eye he took from Kubo replacing one of his blind eyes was a nice touch.

My one gripe with the writing is how obvious they made it that the momentos from Kubo’s parents – a lock of hair from his mother and his father’s bowstring – would form new strings for the shamisen after Kubo broke the old ones. I think it would have bothered me less if he hadn’t broken his instruments strings until after he had both momentos or if the old strings hadn’t broken at all and replacing them had been a necessary part of his working his final magic. Or, y’know, if that little plot element hadn’t been spoiled in the title of the movie.

So yeah, the movie was written great and animated in a fun and distinct way which I found beautiful and expressive but can’t really explain well in writing. (I know, I know, I got one job…) All that said, why did the movie disturb me?

Because it’s a kids film and it portrays A Clockwork Orange as a recipe for utopian paradise. Let me explain.

In addition to giving his grandfather his left eye, Kubo also brainwashes the Moon King. After Kubo works his final magic the Moon King has no memories, just like Kubo’s father in beetle form. So Kubo tell the Moon King he is a man of compassion and kindness. The movie has established Kubo as a great storyteller and entertainer and Kubo turns his abilities to convincing the Moon King he’s never been anything but a kind old grandfather in a small village and said village joins in the scam. This leads directly to the film’s “happy ending”.

“The stories we tell ourselves” is a running theme through Kubo and, as a storyteller myself, I kind of understand what they’re saying. Seeing our life as a story is a tool to help us make some sense of it. We could look at it that way and draw some solace from that fact, I have no problem with that notion so long as we keep in mind that we’re not the entirety of the story but a part of a much larger story unfolding all around us. That philosophical rabbit hole is not where we’re going today.

What bothers me about the ending of Kubo and the Two Strings is that Kubo stole his grandfather’s story by force, just as the Moon King stole from Kubo’s father and mother. Worse, Kubo replaced the Moon King’s identity with a lie. Sure, the story glosses that over with a happy ending but Kubo’s solution is nothing of the kind. Lies always get found out and, no matter how well intentioned they might be, the destroy trust between the liar and the victim. If the Moon King was an implacable and dangerous foe before being violated in such a way what will he be after the deception comes to light? Kubo didn’t tell a story to help someone know themselves, he told them a story to hide the truth from them and in doing so he let down the author’s first duty, to his audience.

Worse, the Moon King’s entire purpose in the story was undermined. Instead of being confronted with his shortcomings by Kubo’s stronger character the Moon King was just swept under a rug, he was never given the chance to overcome the villain he was nor did his villainy destroy him. He’s never confronted by how his lack of compassion would destroy him and he’s poorer for it, as are we the audience.

Ultimately, while Kubo and the Two Strings does a great job showing us it’s characters and their struggles the only thing I can take away from the tale is this: Kubo’s flawed human compassion was no better than the Moon King’s lack of compassion. What was needed was a story of perfect compassion.