Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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***SPOILERS. SERIOUSLY.***

I’ll come out and say it straight: I didn’t like the new Star Wars movie. In fact, for a few days after having watched it, I hated it with such a passion that  I would occasionally entertain idle fantasies of feeding a tied-up JJ Abrams into a nest of gundarks. (I’m better now.)

It wouldn’t be fair to say The Force Awakens was a bad movie, though. It was good entertainment for most people: fun, exciting, comedic, a visual feast for the eyes.

No, my reasons for disliking it are more subjective and personal. With The Force Awakens, I felt as if Disney had thrown away much of what had made Star Wars great, and in its place, instituted a generic, emotionally manipulative crowd-pleaser.

Star Wars was great because it was more than just a bunch of movies. Star Wars was the transmedia franchise to end them all, a fictional sandbox of planets, people and lore spread out across a 25,000 year timeline. This Expanded Universe (or EU), as it was called, was spread out through books, comics, video games, television shows, RPG sourcebooks and other material. While much of it was deservedly rubbish (looking at you, Jedi Prince), many of the books and video games of the franchise were the touchstones of my childhood. The KotOR games, Jedi Academy, Galaxy of Fear, Starfighters of Adumar – they have a special place in my memories.

The Expanded Universe made Star Wars something truly special. It created a galaxy of vast size and scope, and gave it a deep history and also a sense of unified continuity. It provided Star Wars with a kind of taped-together historicity that made it unique in transmedia franchises. More importantly, it provided a canvas in which the stories of our heroes from the original trilogy could continue. It alone sustained Star Wars during the twenty-year long interregnum where Star Wars slumbered as a franchise. It made the heroes of the Original Trilogy more than plucky action heroes; gave them depth and character. It built them a future, however tenuous and full of danger that future might have been.

The Force Awakens is the repudiation of all that I thought made Star Wars great, all in pursuit of a formula that is designed to please the average movie-goer, clued in to Star Wars only as a movie franchise. It’s not that it necessitated the throwing away of the old EU, it’s that it replaced the EU with something that shrank the scope of the Star Wars universe, lazily disregards the conventions of the franchise in some crucial aspects, and most upsettingly (to me), undid the future that the EU had built for the characters of the original Star Wars.

The Force Awakens reduced the hoary complexity of Star Wars by being such a naked and unsophisticated rehash of the story beats of A New Hope.  The variety and color of the many weird and wonderful stories of the EU were, in my view, eliminated from the Star Wars canon to be replaced by a product of singular unimaginativeness and manipulative nostalgia. Desert planet? Check. Round superweapons? Check. Cute droid? Check. Cocky pilot? Check. Destruction of important planet? Check. Rebels destroying a superweapon before it can target their base by exploiting a crucial weakness in the base infrastructure? Check. (There are a lot more that I haven’t bothered to mention) The callbacks and parallels to A New Hope  were, by Abram’s own admission, deliberate. And while it might have served some instrumental purpose to attract moviegoers with the promise of “more of the same”, that lack of innovation makes the throwing away of the EU seem like such a huge waste for an uninspired rehash of the original.

The funny thing is that, for all the failings of the prequel trilogy, that trilogy did a much better job of communicating the vast scale and scope of the Star Wars galaxy. The prequels had a much greater degree of political realism. Palpatine’s machinations felt devious and complex, and the prequels were able to communicate the vast scope of planets, people and events up to the fall of the Republic.

In contrast, this movie told its political story in vague generalities. We know that there is a Resistance and a First Order and a Republic, but not much more than that. Their relations seem simplistic – the First Order is evil, the Republic good but feckless, the Resistance the only thing standing in the way of evil. When the First Order destroys the Republic capital, it is assumed that that means the Republic is destroyed – but no explanation is given as to why that might be the case, given that surely the Republic, as a galaxy-spanning government, must have more resources at its disposal than one fleet stationed in a single star system. Why is the Republic appeasing the First Order? What sort of society is the First Order, and how do they get the money and wherewithal to build a giant superweapon when the Death Star taxed the resources of the entire Galactic Empire? How could the Republic be so blind as to disregard the threat of the First Order? The movie fails to provide context to many of these questions that might provide more realism to the political context of the film. Instead, all it cares about are archetypes and abstractions and how it might best parrot them from A New Hope. In doing so, it reduces the scope of the Star Wars universe.

But this deficiency was still, in my mind, acceptable. After all, Star Wars did start out as a simplistic good-vs-evil space opera before the EU came along. I have confidence that the new Disney continuity will be able to provide some of that complexity and texture to the franchise, and answer the more granular questions, in the same way that the EU did to the originals. Books like Lost Stars are testament to that, and the new Visual Dictionary answers a lot of the questions I had about the story gaps in The Force Awakens.

More importantly however, The Force Awakens was lazily written in a way that egregiously disregards key elements of the Star Wars mythos, even the ones in past movies. First of all, the galaxy feels shrunken in size – physical distances and scales feel truncated in a way that was never the case in the originals. Resistance pilots from their base in D’Qar can cross the galaxy to Starkiller Base in the span of a few minutes, even though in previous movies it was established that hyperspace jumps across large portions of the galaxy would have taken days.

More egregiously, the Starkiller base beam that destroys the Republic capital (thank fricking god not Coruscant) could be seen from Maz Kanata’s base on Takodana, even though Takodana would have been thousands of light years away. What gives? Does Abrams have no conception of astrophysics whatsoever? Even if this is Star Wars, a fantasy universe, certain predicates of reality and logic should be followed, and one of those is that the galaxy is large enough that it would take some time for the light from a giant planet killing beam to reach a planet thousands of light years away. This is a lazy and nonsensical way to communicate to the protagonists that something big-evil has just happened, and the First Order is behind it.

Then there’s Rey, who is somehow able to master  her nascent force powers and lightsaber combat without any prior training whatsoever to defeat Kylo Ren (who is saved by a convenient crevasse opening up between them at the last moment – is this a shounen anime episode?). This is even though it’s been well established that Jedi training takes minimally months, if not years of careful training – see Luke’s training on Dagobah and Anakin’s long apprenticeship. This feels more like lazy writing than anything – a way for Rey to kick ass without giving her a reason to be able to, and worse, disregarding already established conventions of the canonical source material.

There are many such examples of lazy writing elsewhere. Most of these are just predicated on overly-fortuitous coincidences. Like how Rey and Finn happen to jump on the Millennium Falcon to escape – providing a too-easy opportunity for a cute fan-pleasing moment. How Han and Chewie just happened to be in the area searching for their missing ship. How Han and Finn just happened to be able to meet Rey by chance while running around a planet-sized base. There’s Captain Phasma, who meekly drops the shields to the base without resistance and is later deposited into a garbage compactor for cheap laughs. It’s lazy writing over plot coherence and consistency.

But all these are minor points compared to the one that really strikes me as the film’s single biggest sin – which is that it destroys the future of the characters we came to know and love from the original trilogy. Han and Leia marry and have a son who turns to the dark side. They become estranged, and Han goes back to his old smuggler ways – and, as seen, isn’t particularly successful at it – he even loses the Millennium Falcon. Luke’s attempts to rebuild the Jedi Order are cruelly foiled, and he goes into seclusion. And of course, Han dies, killed by his own son, while trying to turn him back to the light.

This last event was the singular capstone that killed the film for me. I can apprehend why they did it – for commercial and plot reasons – to give the character of Kylo Ren that essential quality of evil, to raise the stakes, to make it so they wouldn’t have to pay Ford another exorbitant amount to star in the next few films.

But Han died in vain, killed during the nadir of his life when he was adrift and purposeless, killed by his own flesh and blood. This was not the ending I’d have imagined for my favorite character of the original trilogy. Han Solo didn’t deserve the ignominy of the death he got – he didn’t deserve to die so that an unworthy Star Wars film could have “guts” (screw you, Abrams), or so that Disney could save some money. He didn’t deserve to have his death mourned only by Leia, Rey and Chewbacca while the rest of the Resistance celebrated the destruction of Starkiller Base (and I guess they also forgot that a billion people died with the destruction of Hosnian Prime).

Han’s death, and more generally, the situation that Han, Leia and Luke were in in The Force Awakens, have served to tarnish the Original Trilogy for me. You know the ending of Return of the Jedi where the Rebels celebrated the destruction of the Death Star, and Han, Leia and Luke could rest knowing that they had won? We can never now watch that scene in the hopefulness that that was just the start of a brighter future for them, filled with adversaries and crises but always turning out better for them in the end. Watching them in that scene will now be tinged with a profound melancholia that from then on, their lives, and the things they fought for, would be marred and destroyed by the First Order.

It therefore pains me that we threw away the EU, which was in many ways the realisation of that brighter future that was promised, albeit with adversities and sadnesses along the way. With the post-Return of the Jedi EU, Han and Leia at least raised a next generation of Solos, Luke got married and had a son, and the New Republic grew from strength to strength (at least till NJO and beyond). In this film, we see the crumbling of their hard-fought legacy. Works published in the post-Return of the Jedi, pre-The Force Awakens era will just seem empty and hollow now, because we know how it all turns out – not well.

It’s true that the original characters had to be shunted aside to make way for a new generation of Star Wars heroes – Rey, Finn, and Poe (and maybe Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo, after his inevitable moment of redemption, depending on whether or not he dies). But the original characters didn’t so much pass the torch as they did drop it and let the new characters pick it up by themselves. And so far, I’m still ambivalent about the potential for Rey, Finn and Poe to be worthy successors for Han, Leia and Luke. While their performances in the movie were good, it feels like they’ve been pushed on us to strongly and enthusiastically by Disney. I mean, they even started selling their merchandise before the movie was released, before we even had a chance to size them up as characters and to form affective connections with them. If that isn’t nakedly manipulative consumerism, I don’t know what is. Rey, Finn and Poe need the chance to shine by themselves without being aggressively marketed by Disney as being the next big thing, and ticking all the right boxes by having them be close cognates of the archetypes that the originals embodied.

But in the end, not all hope has been lost. Star Wars has always been bigger than the movies, and I think Disney will create as rich a galaxy as the one that they so cavalierly disposed of. But this film in particular – its lazy writing, its lack of regard for the rules of the universe, its lack of innovation, and its wanton trampling on the legacy of the original heroes – this film is not likely to be a part of the Star Wars universe that I’ll come to appreciate as much as I did the EU.

I’ll watch episodes VII and VIII, and all the subsequent films in the never-ending Disney-Star Wars machine, for sure. They might even be better movies than this one. But I’ll be watching them with a critical distance, regarding them not as the inheritors of Star Wars, but as big-budget fan fiction. And the post-RotJ EU stories (well, some of them anyway) will remain in my personal headcanon as the definitive version of the Star Wars story.

I give this movie: 2.5 out of 5 stupid cross-guard lightsabers

 

Never Let Me Go

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For a long time, I resisted reading Never Let Me Go because somehow I thought that Ishiguro wouldn’t have been able to convincingly capture the voice of a female first-person character, especially to a such a high degree of psychological realism. This was especially as I hadn’t been too impressed with the way Ishiguro wrote Stevens in Remains of the Day.

Luckily, Ishiguro does a much more compelling job with this book. I actually wish I’d read it earlier, when I was of an age when its themes of growing up, nostalgia and reminiscence might have resonated more strongly with me.

The funny thing about Never Let Me Go is that it is a bona fide science fiction novel. It is set in an alternate version of Britain where clones are routinely created and reared for their organs, which are harvested from them for medical purposes. The narrative is told by Kathy H, one such clone, from her childhood in Hailsham, a boarding school for these clones, through to her teenage and adult years as a carer for her fellow clones as they undergo the organ donations that usher them to an early death.

Ishiguro does a masterful job with Kath’s characterization. Kath’s voice is compelling and convincing, and her descriptions of the lives of her and her fellow ‘students’ is highly evocative. Their worries and preoccupations as kids and later as teenagers ring with truth. The memories that they create of Hailsham, and the associations with people and places that inhabit that setting, are intensely relatable and sympathetic.

Kath’s relationship dynamics with the clones closest to her – Ruth and Tommy – are the emotional core of the book. Ishiguro’s Kath is a wonderfully introspective narrator, and her reflections on the interactions that she has with her friends are rich in psychological authenticity. Ishiguro has a very profound understanding of the cadences of human relationships, how they ebb and flow, and of the neuroses and insecurities of human beings.

Ishiguro is also great at creating vignettes of moments of emotionally powerful imagery. The one that strikes me most is that of the school administrator weeping as she peeks in on Kath dancing to an old cassette of Judy Bridgewater’s Never Let Me Go, clutching a pillow to her chest as if refusing to let go of her imaginary baby.

The fact that Ishiguro has painted such a compelling and human picture of Kath and her friends is crucially important to the story, because it gives authenticity to one of the central tensions of the book – the uncertainty of the public of this alternate history Britain as to whether these clones are human – have souls. Clones are harvested for their organs in this society, and the only moral defense for such an act is to pretend that clones are somehow less than human. The sheer humanity demonstrated by Kath and her fellow students belies that notion, and makes this alternate society seem even more reprehensible in turn.

But Kath and her compatriots do differ, psychologically, from “normal” people in one crucial respect: their attitude towards their eventual fate – of an early death through donations – is that of fatalistic, passive resignation. Kath and her fellow students are not afraid of their early deaths. They don’t offer resistance or anger to the notion that their lives will be cruelly curtailed just because they are needed for their organs. Their only reaction is a gentle and melancholic regret that their early mortality will prevent them from living out their lives in the way they would have liked.

Kath and Co’s passive attitude towards the way of things is especially disquieting when compared to the psychological realism they display in other aspects of their personality. The book doesn’t carry obvious hints as to why this might be the case. But that aspect of theirs signifies their crucial difference from baseline human stock – their diffidence, their submission to authority – which actually also emerges during Kath’s recollections of their childhood days being taken care of by their guardians. Is that docile streak programmed into them? Is that why normal humans regard them with “revulsion”? The book never quite explains, but there are hints that there is a difference between clones and people, and those differences, while subtle, color the ways in which this alternate society sees them.

Admittedly, this renders the science-fiction side of things rather half-baked. Ishiguro never really interrogates the roots of how a society that sustains itself on the wanton sacrifice of cloned people could be morally sustainable. There are too many uncertainties that Kath does not explain in this vision of alternate Britain, that are left for the reader to fill in.

But I think Ishiguro’s portrayal of the clones as fatalistic is meant to play up a more significant theme – that of mortality and how people deal with it. Unlike normal people, the clones are constantly aware of their mortality and they are stoically resigned to it. Like us, Kath and her fellow clones deal with that in several ways – they often wax nostalgic about their more idyllic childhood days at Hailsham, or try to live moment to moment, taking what they can as it comes. Kath does both, but she has to deal with facing the mortality of others too – her friends, her school, her childhood. Hers is a loss more keen than others, because, as the sole survivor of her circle of friends, she needs to cope with the memories of what she had before but has now lost.

As such, Never Let Me Go reads like Kath’s elegiac missive to the ephemerality of life, her way of sharing with us the keenness of her loss through showing us the fullness of the tapestry of their lives; a story laced through with nostalgia, little joys, and regrets. It’s cathartic, in the sense that it galvanizes us, the readers, to perhaps live and love a little better, a little fuller, in the way Kath and Ruth and Tommy were unable to in the brief span of their beautiful but truncated lives.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 tapes

 

 

The Historian

ea79c85eeb934ea4aeefa84df461a62fKostova’s tale about the vampire that started it all is elegantly written, unsettling, and often evocative – but it ultimately gets mired in its own intricacies while building up to a denouement that doesn’t quite justify the effort taken to reach it.

The Historian is, naturally, about historians. It’s also about history, in both its meanings – the subject and the discipline. Our historian protagonists journey through various European countries to find the final resting place of the historical figure Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century Wallachian warlord who fought the Ottomans and impaled his enemies, and who inspired the vampiric Dracula we all know and revere as part of the cultural milieu. Except, Vlad really is a vampire in this novel. And not of the sparkly variety.

The tale is told in multiple layers. The narrative switches between the protagonist’s dramatized account of her teenage years accompanying her father, Paul, on his travels across Europe as a diplomat, and Paul’s own reluctant verbal and epistolary account to her of his story of his pan-European quest to rescue a distinguished professor seemingly spirited away due to his research into vampires. Paul’s story incorporates the distinguished professor’s own narrative, and the professor’s narrative, in turn, includes renditions of primary historical documents that offer clues as to Dracula’s resting place. As Paul’s narrative unfolds, it slowly informs more and more of the mystery enshrouding the protagonist’s present narrative strand.

If that sounds like a complicated onion of a narrative, that’s probably the point. The Historian is nothing less than a story about historians performing historical research in order to advance the narrative. Paul and his wife-to-be, Helen (and, incidentally, the narrator’s parents) travel from city to city, visit old libraries, consult with local historians, peruse ancient maps and letters, and listen to centuries-old folk songs in their quest to find the tomb to which Dracula’s minions have spirited Paul’s beloved mentor (and Helen’s estranged father), Bartholomew Rossi. In the relative present, the narrator retraces her father’s journey through reading his letters, notes, and by deducing his whereabouts with a little quick sleuthing.

In The Historian, scholarly ability, intellectual rigor and perseverance are hallmarks of heroism, but overreaching inquisitiveness can spirit you to the darkest of places. Rossi’s research into Dracula attracts his attention, and it is for that reason – and Dracula’s high opinion of the quality of Rossi’s research – that he is abducted. That tension between the practice of history as a gesture of bravery, as well as potentially ruinous, is a running tension in the novel. This is to be commended, as it subverts the common trope in horror that curiosity kills the cat.

But the series’ focus on history is also the source of its greatest flaws. The Historian is Kostova’s first novel, and it shows. The book starts with considerable panache, doling out tantalizing and mysterious  dollops of story progression. But Kostova becomes mired in the complexity of her own plot. The book wears out its welcome in a plodding second act that sees Paul and Helen running across Eastern Europe trying to find the whereabouts of Dracula’s tomb. Kostova begins to go into tedious detail over their careful discussions over various historical documents, their provenance, destination, and how it might lead to Dracula’s whereabouts – detail that seems artificially inserted to provide the illusion of complexity, when actually the truth of Dracula’s whereabouts is quite obvious to the reader without the need for the ponderous exposition.

The novel’s second act eventually sees the two plot strands – past and present – meld together, as the narrator ends up finding her father. Dracula appears, but he is quickly dispatched in anticlimactic fashion, hardly befitting of the dread vampire he was supposed to be. The reveal of Dracula’s intentions – that he seeded clues to his existence all over the world to entice worthy historians to find him, whereupon he would make them catalogue his vast library of hoarded works – adroitly addresses the nagging questions I had with the apparent irrationality of the villains’ machinations. But the fact that Dracula instituted a whole plan just to find competent librarians for his giant library is unconvincing. It trivialises his menace.

Nevertheless, there is much to like about the book, despite its structural flaws and flaccid ending. Kostova’s prose is elegant and evocative, especially when describing the places and cuisines of the various European destinations through which our protagonists pass. Reading these sumptuous descriptions I resolved that I should visit these places for myself. Paul, in particular, espouses a brand of wanderlust to which I find I can relate. His is a connoisseur’s appreciation of the experience of travel, of taking a train rather than a plane, of savouring the feeling of being on the road. Kostova captures that unique essence of travel very well.

To sum, I enjoyed much of the book, even if I thought it fell a little flat nearing the end. Ultimately, the book’s treatment of Dracula as real is more of a hook into Kostova’s themes than an attempt to spin horror out of an old and venerable figure of legend. Dracula is the linchpin of history at its darkest. He signifies the unending struggle between two worlds: East and West, Christian and Islam, capitalism and communism, human and vampire, mortal and immortal. Dracula is a reminder of the thick evil that resides in the heart of history, a counter-narrative to those that would deem history as the preserve of bookish bores. The Historian tries to make the practice of history mysterious, threatening, and heroic – and perhaps almost succeeds.

I give this book: 3 out of 5 dragon books

The Wolf Among Us

the_wolf_among_us_background___a_walk_in_the_city_by_mrjimjamjamie-d8ll5o9I got The Wolf Among Us during a Steam sale months ago. It was on a lark, really. I hadn’t read the Fables series of comics and knew basically nothing about the game, but it did have the vaunted Telltale label.  Having also just completed Tales from the Borderlands, I decided to give Wolf a try. I wanted to compare this earlier Telltale game to Tales, to see if my dissatisfaction with Tales’ lack of meaningful game mechanics would carry on to this game.

It’s surprising, but I liked Wolf a little more than Tales, because Wolf gives me that feeling (or illusion?) of agency where Tales did not. Wolf does two things a little better than Tales. First, it actually has some incidental interest. Unlike Tales, which felt like an on-rails experience with very little breathing room, Wolf gives the player a little more space to explore without relentlessly rushing him or her to the next narrative set piece. There are quiet moments where the player can walk around, poke at things, talk to people, and listen in on their character’s’ internal monologue. That’s not to say that Tales didn’t have player-controlled segments, but Tales’ playable areas seemed desultory and devoid of interest.

Secondly, Wolf ‘s game mechanics are made meaningful through alignment with plot. The game puts you in the shoes of Bigby Wolf, a sheriff of a town of Fables, who are near-immortal mythical characters from the myths and legends of cultures all over the world. The game has Bigby (who is the analogue of the Big Bad Wolf of Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs fame) investigate the murders of two women, Fables of Fabletown. A lot of these puzzles are about exploring the environment and finding the right clues, or playing “choose-the-dialogue-option” scenarios during cutscenes. The player is essentially experiencing the illusion of undertaking a murder investigation through going through the gameplay motions. This gives the rather half-baked mechanics some contextual meaningfulness, and thereby masks, to some extent, the superficiality of the base mechanics (i.e. interacting with objects and choosing dialogue options).

Wolf, is therefore, a better game experience (in terms of player agency and empowerment) than Tales was. But was it a better story?

This is where I go a little more subjective. I felt compelled to binge-play Wolf more than I did with Tales. While Tales had its moments and giant wacky set pieces, Wolf had the more streamlined, incisive story. It’s only got the one player character, after all. Wolf also proved the more immersive, riveting experience, not least because of its episode-ending cliffhangers, its tense noir sensibility, and the tension that emanated from its darker setting. I cared more about Bigby than I did either Rhys or Fiona, too. And Borderlands jokes need a bit of a cooling-off period.

The most compelling thing about the plot is that it actually gives the player ethically meaningful choices; choices where there is no clear right or wrong. Too often, games present a binary moral choice based on whether you’re roleplaying the good or the bad guy (KOTOR is a case in point). Wolf, luckily, has more shades of grey than that, and it makes for a compelling story, especially in the denouement.

Wolf does have its issues, of course, which appear in most player-choice narrative games. While the player is given latitude to role-play the main character, the game often has a more restrictive view on what the character should be like. In Wolf, one of the themes that the writers were trying to get across was that Bigby was in a constant struggle with his more animalistic tendencies, which he had suppressed after he came to Fabletown. There are times in the narrative where you can choose to act upon those urges. But when you roleplay Bigby as a goody-two-shoes, as I did, that thematic angle loses its potency, because my version of Bigby never seemed to have an issue tamping down on his emotions, only bringing out his big bad wolf form in self-defense. But again, the limitations of budget and scope are at play here.

In all, The Wolf Among Us is a strong, compelling and atmospheric entry in the Telltale pantheon of narrative games, and actually distinguishes itself in the relative depth and context-appropriateness of Telltale’s suite of game mechanics. Hard-hitting, morally complex choice-based narrative games – I’d like to see more of these, as ludic narratives have such potential to expand the frontiers of good storytelling.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 ribbons

Tales from the Borderlands

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***Link to Episode 1 review for posterity’s sake***

I ended up waiting for all the episodes to come out before continuing Tales from the Borderlands. Part of the reason for this was that Telltale was taking its sweet time releasing subsequent episodes, probably because it was so caught up with its Game of Thrones series. As such, I’m writing this entry more than a year after I played the first episode of the game.

Overall, Tales has been an entertaining and engaging adventure yarn set in the Borderlands universe. It manages to capture, in large part, the anarchic spirit of the Borderlands games while layering a strong and engaging character-driven narrative on top of it. This latter part was largely deficient in the Gearbox Borderlands games and is a welcome and necessary addition here.

Narrative is everything in these kinds of games, mostly because there is so little else on the table to offer in terms of gameplay mechanics. Luckily, Tales manages to keep up the frenetic pace, with brilliant set-pieces in every  episode. The humor, while uneven, is mostly on-point, and is at times hilariously self-aware of the wacky tropes of the Borderlands franchise. The cast of characters is largely sympathetic, with a few breakouts – Gortys in particular is an adorable ball of bubbly but canny optimism. And the series wraps itself nicely, with few plot threads dangling, but with the door open for future iterations of the franchise.

However, I do think that the episodes varied somewhat in narrative quality. There is a definite sense that the writers were making things up as they went along. The game is essentially a nested narrative, with Fiona and Rhys telling their own versions of the same story to the mysterious stranger that kidnapped them. The first four episodes recount that story, but do it in such a way that there is a disconnect between the recounted events of the past and how they relate to the meta-narrative that emerges in the final episode. As an example of this disconnect, Fiona and Rhys express hostility to each other when they first meet in the meta-narrative, but their recounted story never really adequately explains why they should be so hostile to each other in the first place. And the mannerisms, characteristics and demeanor of the mysterious stranger that abducts the protagonists isn’t in keeping with his true identity when revealed in Episode 5.

The whole shtick about Tales being told by two unreliable narrators never really takes off after the first episode either. Subsequent episodes pretty much tell a unified and simultaneous story, but I guess that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Also, at times, the series’ penchant for allowing the player to craft characters through their dialogue can lead to some odd situations, plot-wise. For example, Rhys’ backstory as an ambitious corporate ladder-climber and his obsession with Handsome Jack doesn’t quite cohere with my playstyle, in which I painted Rhys as consistently mistrustful of Jack and resistant to his offers to help.

The series also starts to ramp up the character drama towards the end, but this tends to end up feeling a little forced, as if put in there just for the sake of generating pathos by sacrificing certain characters. Although if I know Borderlands, said character will probably show up at some point anyway.

Ultimately, though, my expectations of the Telltale-style narrative adventure game genre have increased since I played Life is Strange. Telltale’s games are not so much games as they are point-and-click, QTE-driven interactive movies. Player choice is largely an aesthetic illusion. While this isn’t a knock on the Telltale style, which is perfectly legitimate, I feel like the genre that Telltale has pioneered is no longer being led by them. Games like Life is Strange are ultimately better games, in the sense that players have more meaningful agency in them. In Tales, almost nothing is interactive, the player spaces were constrained, and side-conversations were extremely limited. The game is largely a cinematic, on-rails experience, with one dialogue option or another largely leading to the same outcomes.

The issue is not that the game is giving the player the illusion of choice, which is necessary given time and budget constraints. The issue is that Tales doesn’t offer much in the way of incidental interest, that every player action has the singular purpose of advancing the story and little else. There is some incidental interest here and there – Rhys’ cybernetic eye is able to scan objects for some (mostly) humorous flavor text. But Tales is much more limited than Life is Strange in that regard, which had similar on-rails storytelling, but a lot more player freedom to explore the playable space, talk to random people, and live in the moment, without feeling like the game is rushing you places.

In addition, Telltale’s non-narrative game mechanics aren’t very much fun. When control is vested in the player, it is either in the form of QTEs or walking around an extremely limited playspace to fulfill a few basic functions in order to advance the story. Telltale would benefit from iterating on its mechanics to make the gameplay feel like a more inherently fun experience.

In the end, the upshot is that Tales is a great story and a fun experience, but it could have been so much more than that. It didn’t necessarily have to be, but it could’ve been. Borderlands is a franchise with a great deal of worldbuilding potential. It’s got a distinctive visual style, great characters, a strong sense of character and place, and a brand of off-the-rails humor that sets it apart from most games of its genre. Here’s hoping that future Borderlands titles can iterate on the foundations built by Tales and previous games to provide both great narratives as well as great gaming experiences.

I give Tales of the Borderlands: 4 out of 5 Gortys Cores

Golden Sun (Red Rising #2)

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To my pleasant surprise, Golden Sun manages to be better than the first.

After the well-crafted but ultimately trope-heavy YA-fest that was Red Rising, Golden Sun finds Darrow fending for himself in the real world, so to speak. Darrow’s good showing in the Institute lands him a coveted spot as a lancer for his mortal enemy Nero Augustus, but the gutter politics and venality of Gold society soon stop his revenge quest in its tracks. Darrow, being the intrepid lateral thinker that he is, is undeterred, and soon machinates a civil war between two powerful Gold families in a bid to destabilize the Society from the top.

Golden Sun avoids falling into the middle book trap, by heading in a new direction from the first book. Darrow, now a fully functioning member of the top echelons of Gold Society, finds himself with a different challenge than the one he faced in the first book – to navigate in a society filled with people who are as capable as he is in the arts of leadership and strategic thinking. He must do this amidst a wider, more fully-fleshed out world, one that is far more eclectic and complex than the bounded test environment of the first book.

Brown has outdone himself in providing more texture and depth to his far-future hierarchical Society. The Society is not a dystopian abstraction or metaphor, but a fully-fleshed out system. Its members are circumspect and aware of its workings. The system, such as it is, is logically consistent within the bounds of its operating axioms. It’s bureaucratic, imperfect, and horrific from our point of view, but there is a certain verisimilitude to it. There is a purpose, a deliberate systems-driven design to their brutality. You could almost imagine that a society like that could one day exist. That’s not something that can be said for similar literary dystopias whose purpose is to paint extreme and abstracted visions for what society might become if some social or political trend today were brought to its logical conclusion (see Hunger Games, Fahrenheit 451,  Idiocracy).

The great thing about Darrow, that is becoming more apparent in this book, is that he isn’t your typical hot-headed teenage protagonist. He has a deliberateness about him, a sense that he thinks everything through. Brown doesn’t fall into the trap of creating character conflict through having Darrow make stupid choices, which can often be frustrating, especially if the reader is cognizant of that Darrow is making a mistake due to some inherent weakness (i.e. dramatic irony). Even so, Darrow isn’t an overpowered or bland Gary Stu. His conflict is an internal one – between his status in Gold Society and his core identity as a Red Revolutionary. Both aspects of his personality are authentic to his nature, but he must navigate the pitfalls, both internal and external, that come with his double existence.

At the end, Darrow decides to try to dispel the dissonance created by his double identity and attempts to unite his dual natures into one singular purpose – rather than to replace one tyrant with another, he tries to foster a Revolution in which all Colors, Golds included, can have a more just and equitable place in society – a society ruled by common purpose, rather than through ignorance and fear. It can seem a naive vision, and his open-mindedness can seem ill-advised at times, but it’s important for Darrow’s character growth that he embody this kind of idealism. Brown can choose to shatter it or validate that idealism in the final book, and either path can have interesting dramatic outcomes.

At the end of the second book, there is a cliffhanger worthy of the Empire Strikes Back, a classic nadir in the hero’s journey, but one that is truly shocking in scope and brutality. It’ll be interesting to see how Brown ties up the loose strands in the final book. And given the richness of the Society that Brown has envisioned, I hope he has more stories to tell in that world, no matter how it ends up after the denouement of Darrow’s story.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 peerless scars

Red Rising (Red Rising #1)

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There’s a certain portentousness to Red Rising, as if it knows its the header to the next giant YA franchise; its protagonist, Darrow, the next Katniss or Ender. There’s even a movie adaptation in the works.

That’s not to say the hype is entirely undeserved, though.

Red Rising is a formidable debut. It’s well-paced, cinematic, and epic. It draws from well-defined narrative stock that resonates with established tradition. Its got a compelling (even if slightly unbelievable and shonen-esque) character arc in the form of its protagonist, Darrow. It seems like it was written just to be the source material for a big-budget movie tie in.

But what, I think, sets it apart from other dystopian YA novels of its ilk is that it isn’t just psychologically aware, but politically aware as well.

This is a fictional dystopia in which the things that the great do to oppress the small make sense. There is a keen awareness of how power operates. The Society of Red Rising is built upon a well-trodden trope: the Brave New World-esque separation of society into strictly hierarchical castes. At the top, the Golds rule as philosopher-kings, propagating their power through levels of influence, coercion and deception, all the way to the bottom, where Reds perform the hard menial tasks that keep the society operating.

It is a society that is run according to Platonic precepts – that each person knows his or her exact place in the hierarchical pyramid, and is kept in that place by deception, religion and the divide-and-conquer practices of their superiors. On the top, the Gold philosopher-kings legitimize their rule by being as ruthless to themselves as they are to their servants – honing their military, administrative and warrior prowess through participation in the Darwinian culling process of the Institute.

It’s a rich, compellingly envisioned fictive world inspired by one of the oldest pieces of political philosophy known to us – Plato’s Republic.

But Brown deconstructs this vision of aristocracy for us, by showing the cracks in the regime that devolve from the imperfectability of its ostensible leaders – the venality that corruption that seems endemic to the human condition, even among these godlike Golds with their Olympian stature. The fact is, in a vision of society built upon any assumption that man can be perfected, is a society doomed to collapse.

The first book is about Darrow’s rise. Darrow is Red, the lowest caste, working in the mines of Mars to extract helium-3 fuel to power the ships of the civilisation. After his wife is executed by the Society for sedition against the Society, he is taken by members of the resistance movement, the Sons of Ares, bio-engineered to become a Gold, and told to infiltrate their ranks in order to destroy them from within.

Darrow tells the tale in present tense, with immediacy and gravitas. His is the somewhat derivative but still well-executed character arc of an emerging hero, a man with the potential for greatness, but who nevertheless must grow into his role. Red Rising details that character arc, and chronicles his development as a leader, but one who gains the legitimacy to rule not through fear and coercion, but through inspiring his followers, earning their trust and willing loyalty.

There is an interesting tension, though, because even as Darrow aspires to become the philosopher-king that is the Platonic ideal to which the Society aspires, he is at the same time the ostensible seed of its destruction. Darrow must become a perfect Gold to destroy them. This tension provides for some character interest. It is this tension that forces Darrow to make second-best choices that do not befit his character arc. Ultimately, he is an agent-provocateur and must do the less than honorable in order to fulfill his greater mission – to topple the Society and act as a beacon of hope and liberation, not for the Golds, but for the lower Colors.

Red Rising’s world is also well-realized, with a compelling cultural and literary aesthetic. Although the culture of the Golds is based on a mishmash of Roman and Spartan influences, the aesthetic is Golden Age Science fiction, with humans terraforming the worlds of the Solar System, where Mars is a desert oasis, where pitched battles are fought in the forested vales of the Valles Marineris. It has a very Old Mars sensibility to it.

All in all, Red Rising is a promising debut that offers more depth, texture and verisimilitude than your average YA dystopian novel, and while a little derivative and seemingly engineered for the silver screen, is somewhat smarter and more politically aware than it might let on.

I give this book: 4 upon 5 razor whips