Saturday Summaries 2018-03-24: Games-To-Movies Edition

After watching the new Tomb Raider movie (I get into more detail on that below), I've been considering movie adaptations of video games and how they always seem to miss the mark. I think there's a couple of obvious arguments to make: the first, and perhaps more cynical, is that video game stories are rarely decent enough to work in a medium like movies or TV or novels which have far higher standards for narrative fiction. The second is that video game stories are built around the strengths of the medium in which they appear, and take on an almost episodic and incidental backstory-focused bent that befits the general pace of a video game. Take for instance, how the majority of the story lore is delivered to the player indirectly in something like Dark Souls.

I've also been thinking a lot about this movie after its cameo in the Ranking of Fighters. If GBW ever decides to join in with Film & 40s, it might be worth revisiting this TANG
I've also been thinking a lot about this movie after its cameo in the Ranking of Fighters. If GBW ever decides to join in with Film & 40s, it might be worth revisiting this TANG "classic"...

Taking the (presently) last Tomb Raider game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, as a timely example (warning: some story spoilers): the story starts with Lara in-media-res as she climbs a mountain to search for a hidden city somewhere in the Siberian wilderness; this city is thought to be the last resting place of an ancient prophet thought to be unkillable, who left his native Arabic lands with his followers to escape persecution. We learn all this from a flashback in which Lara follows her father's archeology notes to a buried temple in Syria, and from there Lara is introduced to the prophet and the shadowy global criminal organization Trinity: a spin on the "an obscure ancient Christian sect who secretly controls the world" Templar antagonists from the Assassin's Creed universe. The game has a lot of backstory to process before we even get to the game's setting proper; an incongruously lush forest on the far side of a Siberian mountain that is warmed by geothermal vents, in which a tribe of mysterious hunters has lived for centuries in order to protect the secrets of the immortal prophet and his city from interlopers. We get more about their backstory from notes and interactions: they were briefly defeated by the Red Army sometime during the Cold War, who marched north through Siberia to find new mining prospects to keep their war machine moving, but the Soviets were eventually cut off and defeated by the tribe's guerrilla tactics. Likewise, no-one's been able to re-enter the ancient city due to the Prophet's elite guards, who are similarly immortal but have turned murderously mindless in their defense of their homeland. Lara eventually makes her way to the source of the prophet's immortality - some sort of poorly explained alien artifact - before it is destroyed to prevent Trinity from using it to take over the world.

Obviously, that's a whole load of supernatural hokum that a self-serious movie studio wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, but works well enough for a video game where the focus is less on plot and more on Lara's solo journeys through treacherous terrain and fighting equally treacherous Trinity goons, exploring tombs and engaging in hunting and crafting systems along the way. Not to reveal too much of the movie before I'm ready, but the only narrative elements it retains is that Trinity is some elaborate Illuminati secret organization that is more powerful than anyone knows, and that they're tracking down anything even vaguely supernatural to give themselves the edge needed to assume full control of the world's governments.

The issue with the more recent movie adaptations of games is that they all have an inconvenient case of the dignities. They don't want to engage in the silly B-movie plots of the games while simultaneously feeling that the games and their financial success and fanbase deserve more "gravitas", which is a weird contradictory predicament to be in. So instead, they adjust the plots to be less ridiculous and more grounded in reality, and in doing so produce these action-thrillers with very little in the way of excitement or levity. The Assassin's Creed movie apparently suffered because of a glacial pace that oh-so-wanted to take the story of a man transported through time via his genetic memories by a magical science chair with the gravity it was somehow due.

For as much of a problem as I have with the older, opposite approach - where games were almost treated with this mocking derision by movie studios, which put together deliberately campy takes on the source material in the case of Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros., Resident Evil, and Street Fighter - it at least produced some movies that were entertainingly bad in their misguidedness. The way they put those video game plots - which were never meant to be particularly dense or meaningful - under the harsh movie studio lighting and tried to recreate it wholesale as if to highlight how truly ridiculous they were made them fun in their own way, even as we dejectedly grew to accept that Hollywood would never take our hobby seriously. Now that they are taking games seriously, I'm wondering if we weren't better off before. Careful what you wish for, I suppose.

Talking of granting wishes, I have this week's blogging for you to muse over:

  • The Indie Game of the Week this time was Yomawari: Night Alone, a Japanese 2015 PS Vita horror game which was developed and published by the Disgaea guys, Nippon Ichi Software, that saw a localization with a Steam port the following year. I realize I stretched the definition of Indie this week, but Yomawari definitely feels like the sibling of something like Corpse Party with its budget-y feel and 16-bit/32-bit presentation. Running around the isometric streets and lanes of your village, the goal is to find your missing sister and dog armed with nothing but a flashlight and a few rocks as distractions. At night the streets are filled with yokai - mischievous spirits, many of which have a hankering for human flesh - and the player has to navigate past them as best as they are able to make it to the next clue. It's a slow-burn of a game, one that starts you off in a big map with little direction and a lot to learn about how best to elude the vengeful ghosts on your path, but that early difficulty is eventually mitigated to the point where I was enjoying its modest spooky explorations towards the end.
  • The SNES Classic Mk. II's sixth episode covered Polestar's Magical Pop'n and Rare's Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, two games that have really nothing to do with one another besides the fact that I could make a gross "Pop'n Zitz" pun in the episode title. Magical Pop'n is a well-regarded Super Famicom-only platformer featuring a cute magical girl who learns new spells as she moves through levels, each of which has both a combat application and a traversal application: a flamethrower spell, for instance, creates a powerful short-range attack that can also be used to remove blocks of ice that are obstructing your egress. Battlemaniacs, meanwhile, is a loose remake of the first NES Battletoads that is purpose-built to take advantage of the graphical prowess of the SNES. It's a great looking game with a fantastic soundtrack, but your mileage with its legendary difficulty is going to vary considerably. Still, it's not hard to see where Donkey Kong Country came from after playing it for a few hours.

Addenda

TV: Mr. Robot (Season 2)

Boy, is it.
Boy, is it.

I watched the first season of Mr. Robot back in 2015 with rapt attention, but it was so harrowing in parts that I've been putting off getting caught up with it ever since. Now that the third season has recently aired, I wanted to make some strides with everyone's favorite mentally unwell hacker Elliot Alderson (or maybe Lain if anime's more your speed). If you're unfamiliar with the show, it's a carefully paced psychological drama involving hacking and anti-capitalism wherein a prolific hacker masterminds a take down of the biggest conglomerate in the world with the help of a mysterious character, played by Christian Slater, known simply as "Mr. Robot." The second season builds on a lot of the twists and revelations of the first, so I'm going to have to spoiler block it when I get into more detail about new story arcs and characters, but suffice it to say very little that you see or hear can be taken on faith. The taciturn Elliot (Rami Malek, who does great work with Elliot's repressed manic paranoia), who is usually but not always the character in focus, has a tenuous grasp on reality at the best of times and the show's very fond of eventually revealing to its audience what really happened, and not just what happened from Elliot's skewed perspective. Along with its many themes of alienation, righteous anger against an unfair system, loneliness, corruption, depression, and occasional bouts of extreme violence, it's a show that's both compelling to watch and punishing to one's temperament if they're prone to mood changes. It's a weird thing to be miserable after bingeing on a show you ostensibly enjoyed, but that's how it goes whenever I watch Mr. Robot. I realize that doesn't sound like praise, but it's a testament to how well the show is constructed and acted that it can leave that kind of effect.

I think a large part of why this show feels larger than life is in its editing and cinematography (or TV equivalent), which are both excellent in how they frame their scenes. The way characters are placed apart in the shot, or the angle they're being depicted from, gives the show this almost unreal sense even if the sets are fairly standard locations - houses, apartments, pristine corporate offices, cluttered police cubicles, etc. - and the show's only gotten more surreal since the first season. We're not quite in Twin Peaks territory just yet, but the layers of obscurity are starting to build up around more than just Elliot's delusions alone, especially whenever the nebulously powerful hacker collective "The Dark Army" is involved. They've become this global part-cult, part-terrorist cell led by an enigmatic figure known as White Rose (played by the excellent BD Wong, who is given much more screen time in season two and continues to kill it) who alternatively act as a scary antagonist always poised to strike and an occasional ally to Elliot's own smaller collective, "fsociety", for reasons not always clear. An utterly perplexing scene in this season has Angela Moss, Elliot's childhood friend and potential love interest who has had an equally elaborate and difficult arc, come face to face with the Dark Army via a strange initiation in which she answers very personal psychological questions from a battered schoolgirl who types those responses into a C64 adventure game. It felt like a very Lynchian take on Blade Runner's Voight-Kampf test scene, and it's sometimes hard to discern whether it had a purpose or it simply existed to discombobulate Angela (and the audience, by extension). Another memorable incident sees Elliot retreat into a corny 90s sitcom take on his own dysfunctional family, complete with poor quality TV reception, a laugh track, and a surprise cameo by ALF. Mr. Robot's not really a show that's interested in holding your hand through its more obtuse moments; that's evinced readily enough by the sheer amount of hacker talk and close-ups on coding, which you only need to follow so far to understand the effect it'll have. It's this great, moody, clever, symbolic TV show that I find utterly draining to watch in an entirely satisfactory manner.

Now, I'll just cap this segment off some more spoilerish introspection on the second season's events. Don't read if you're not caught up on the first two seasons (and please mark your own spoilers in the comments, especially for season three):

Well, they did it again. After the first season's revelation that Mr. Robot is entirely within Elliot's mind and that he's actually an apparition of Elliot's dead father, the second season starts by Elliot directly telling us that he has deliberately cut himself off from the world in an effort to purge his would-be phantom by staying at his mother's home where he's away from any computers and can stick to a mindless routine, only to later reveal that all of Elliot's arc for this season has been set behind bars. Craig Robinson's excellent "compassionate villain" Ray is really the prison warden, Ray's heavies are the tattooed prison guards, the Seinfeld-obsessed Leon is a friendly and philosophical con who is likely an agent of the Dark Army tasked with keeping Elliot alive through his incarceration, and his "mother" is actually another guard while his real mother is comatose in a nursing home somewhere. It pulls a second, smaller but still impressive trick by insisting that the unhinged executive and first season antagonist Tyrell Wellick died at the climax of the that season: we hear this both through Mr. Robot's confession that he took over Elliot and shot Wellick at the end of the first season, and Wellick's phone calls and gifts to his "Lady Macbeth" monster of a wife Joanna which were eventually revealed to be a spiteful trick played by the grieving CTO of E-Corp whose wife Tyrell killed last season. In spite of all this evidence to the contrary, Tyrell is indeed alive, and shoots Elliot in the final episode of season two after a skeptical Elliot tries to sabotage their plan to sink E-Corp once and for all (though Elliot apparently made it, since both Angela and Tyrell plan to watch him wake up from his surgery in the season's penultimate scene).

Meanwhile, we have a lot more focus on the show's various secondary characters, which is a welcome change and makes sense considering Elliot's little sabbatical: Angela Moss continues to siphon away what's left of her soul by fully accepting the corporate lifestyle, though we see that she hasn't quite given up the cause that inspired her in the first season, fighting against a literally toxic injustice perpetrated by E-Corp which took the lives of her mother and Elliot's father. Angela has to put up with a lot from both sides - the working-class defendants she was helping feel alienated by her apparent heel turn to E-Corp, and her fellow executives treat her with suspicion and antipathy due in part to her rapid rising through the ranks. We also see snippets of the life of Phillip Price, the increasingly desperate CEO of E-Corp who is shrewd enough to get what he wants from the Dark Army but may be biting off more than even he can chew, and of White Rose a.k.a. Minister Zhang of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, whose fixation on time belies an equally destructive obsession with control. Fsociety grunts Mobley, Romero and Trenton also face their own struggles, as does the interim ringleader of the hackers Darlene Alderson, sister of Elliot, whose world slowly crumbles due to the rigors of her group's predicament as America's most wanted, even if her resolve hasn't crumbled quite yet. Finally, there's Joanna Wellick's attempts to hold her privileged life together after Tyrell's disappearance, which eventually escalates to murder and perjury, and a spotlight on Grace Gummer's FBI agent Dom DiPierro; a gifted investigator and incredibly lonely individual who lucks upon a trail that leads her directly to Fsociety and its major players, though it also puts her in the cross-hairs of the Dark Army more than once. I really love the wider cast of characters, in part because it means the show can pull a Game of Thrones by giving characters the limelight for a protracted time which allow us to sympathize with them just so they can be killed off, ensuring that you really feel their demises.

I'm trying to hold off on season three for a while so I can catch up with some other shows, but it's going to be hard to stay away for too long. The show definitely has me hooked, especially with these new revelations moving into the third season.

Movie: Tomb Raider (2018)

Decided to go with this one rather than the
Decided to go with this one rather than the "giraffe neck" poster. You're welcome.

I covered most of the bases with the introduction this week, but Tomb Raider is one of a wave of recent video game adaptations that might actually suffer from giving the schlocky source material too much credit. It treats Lara Croft as this incredible figure of feminist agency; a resourceful survivor who is determined to track her father down and understand his obsession with the supernatural that caused him to become distant to her and the world. It builds from the two more recent Tomb Raider games, which cover Lara's roots as a burgeoning adventuress and her initial growing pains as she slowly becomes accustomed to traversing difficult terrain, surviving all-out gunfights with goons of shadowy organizations, and the danger-filled horrors of exploring trap-laden catacombs.

Oddly, however, the movie doesn't put that much credit in the stories of those two games, instead inventing its own from various bits and pieces. The target is still the ancient Japanese empress Himiko on an island off the Japanese coast - elements taken from the first game - while the villains are still Trinity and their zealous operatives - which was taken from the second game. The antagonist, played with googly-eyed menace by Walton Goggins (who is largely wasted in the role), is called Matthias and is more or less a composite of the deranged cultist castaway of the same name from Tomb Raider and the ruthless Trinity extremist Konstantin from Rise of the Tomb Raider. However, that's about as far as the similarities get, besides the almost incidental appearances of Survivor Lara's famous bow and "climbing axe", and a post-credits sequence (which was in the trailer, curiously enough) that features Lara's iconic twin pistols.

Without getting too much into spoiler terrain, though there are some mild ones ahead, the way the movie uses the ominous legends around Himiko and the character of Sir Richard Croft are wholly distinct from anything in the fiction of the Tomb Raider games, and it caused me to wonder why the movie would go to all the effort of including all these narrative tentpoles from the first two games if they were going to take a completely different route with Lara's origin story. It's this weird hodge-podge of cherry-picked scenes, imagery and names from the games framed in a separate but still familiar story that really drags at all times - it's exceptionally strange that it takes almost half the movie before Lara even makes it to the island to start the more typical guns-and-booby-traps Tomb Raider adventure, with various pointless scenes like a sparring match and a courier race across London. Equally strange is the fact that Lara has zero interest in archeology at any point in the movie: she only discovers her father's secret cache of ancient research after dragging her heels on legally declaring him dead in absentia and receiving a Japanese puzzle box from the family lawyer (Derek Jacobi, in another wasted role, though given the guy's age he probably can't do much these days) with a key inside, and a whole lot of skepticism thereafter. It's a far cry from how instrumental the love of archeology was to Lara's upbringing in the games, inspiring her to join her friend Sam's fateful expedition to Yamatai.

I'll say that the movie and its action scenes are competently shot and that Alicia Vikander does a fine job injecting Lara Croft with the wounded vulnerability yet indomitable will of "Survivor Lara", and the other cast members are adequate in their roles too. The movie's pacing is all over the place and filled with superfluous scenes, though, and it's not a particularly great movie whether you're looking for an actually good video game adaptation or simply an entertaining "so bad it's good" fiasco, as it's just too dull to be either.

Game: Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana

No Caption Provided

I think what's really been Ys VIII's staying power has been its alacrity. That was true of previous Ys games too, and is one of those benchmarks of the franchise that keeps me coming back, but for as immense as Ys VIII is (the Isle of Seiren is eeeeenormous) the fact that you can blow through each region so quickly with your suite of combat moves has ensured that it's never felt like a slog, even though I've spent roughly 80 hours with it. I felt the same way about some of the longer JRPGs I've loved in recent years like Final Fantasy XII, Xenoblade Chronicles, or Tales of Xillia: they all have these finely-tuned combat engines that has battles end in seconds when fighting small fry, but for larger and more challenging foes they seem to suddenly shift to become more tactical and engaging. It's a perfect engine for a long JRPG; where smaller battles exist and have a purpose, largely for farming or grinding, but the game knows that you're really here for something more substantial to sink your teeth into and hurries itself along to the good stuff. Ys VIII in particular obliges the latter early and often with its huge number of bosses and tougher-than-average foes littered across its world.

I breezed past the combat in the last overview because "breezing past" is pretty much its modus operandi. However, it takes a certain degree of craft to create an active real-time combat engine in a RPG that intuitively moves at a clip. For instance, Ys VIII's stamina bar - required for special attacks - regenerates after a recharge hit, which is when you wait a second before striking to produce a stronger attack. It's sort of like Secret of Mana's system, where you get more bang for your buck by waiting for the character's charge bar to fill back up to 100%. By allowing you to regenerate your special attack juice so quickly and easily, but in a way that still requires you to pause and think for a moment, you can choose between keeping the pressure on and letting loose with chains of regular attacks or taking a moment to recover which can then be followed by some heavy hitters. Enemy weaknesses can often cause a momentary roadblock, but switching between characters is instantaneous and you're immediately back in the fight with a character that can inflict the right type of damage: it's even invaluable for protecting vulnerable party members, as a character can never lose all their HP when AI-controlled. A few of these systems were brought over from Ys: Memories of Celceta and Ys Seven, the previous two games, but seem to be polished to a sheen here.

But even when I'm not madly slashing and spinning around the battlefield, the myriad quality-of-life touches makes playing Ys VIII a dream. I'm always on the hunt for a dozen different side-projects, like gathering ore for new weapon upgrades, finding rare materials for accessories and other valuables, considering the next set-piece hunt or raid side-mission and how best to shore up the defenses I have (which require more resources), hopping back to earlier maps to fill out the completion percentage and unlocking previously inaccessible new areas, checking in with my fellow castaways to see if they need anything, changing my skill loadouts to see which attacks chain more effectively or boosting those that haven't been leveled up yet, and maybe - if I find the time - resuming the main story thread that has really started developing into something serious, if a little familiar. I really like how the game handles its eponymous heroine, Dana, and the visits to the ancient time era she hails from in Adol's strange playable flashbacks that remind me quite a bit of Squall's Laguna daydreams in Final Fantasy VIII.

I believe I'm close to the end now. I've passed 95% on the overall completion tracker and I believe there's only a couple of story dungeons left to go. However, I'm in no rush to get to the end so I suspect I'll stick around to get 100% in everything. The platinum trophy's going to sadly elude me this time - I needed to play on the second highest difficulty for that, which wasn't something I had the courage to pull off - but I intend to do and see everything before putting the game to rest sometime before April arrives. This time next week I'm hoping to be knee-deep in a whole new game, so this will be Ys VIII's final appearance on Saturday Summaries. Suffice it to say that it's one of my favorite games from 2017, which was itself a pretty special year for this medium.

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