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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (4/15/18) 9:52pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Learn Japanese the Manga Way
Movies:  The World's End
TV:  <none>
Other:  Gorogoa, The Talos Principle

Learn Japanese the Manga Way by Wayne P. Lammers
This is a Japanese grammar reference that uses untranslated manga for all of its usage examples.  It's a novel approach that works surprisingly well -- as the author explains in the introduction, comics often provide straightforward language, presented in the way that it's actually spoken.  Plus, the format gives you the context of what's going on -- and that's really important for Japanese.  The way you speak the language is heavily context-dependent: are you a woman? a man?; are you speaking to your boss? a family member? a stranger?; is this a formal business meeting? a bar? a temple?  Comics give you language surrounded by all this context -- which, as another side benefit, makes it easier for a newbie reader to puzzle out what's going on.

The book itself is pretty straightforward -- general grammar topics for each chapter, and subheadings with more specific topics in each chapter.  The book's at its best in the early chapters, covering basic grammar ideas like the topic particle or "explanatory の".  Mr. Lammers covers these foundation ideas in detail, and with a strong bent towards the nuances actual spoken usage.  A lot of these descriptions were pretty eye-opening for me -- cases where I'd heard the ideas explained three or four times before, but *this* was the explanation that suddenly made sense to me.

It becomes more of a standard reference book towards the end, covering much shorter, more obscure, more advanced, and more specific topics in quick succession.  These all sort of went in one ear and out the other, but it'll be good material to have around once I finally get around to properly learning those topics.

Generally, it's a great book for topics in Japanese that you already know, when you want to learn about them in more depth or see a different perspective on them.

So: maybe not the *only* Japanese grammar you should have onhand, but it's a good read and a good reference.

The World's End
This is the 2013 Edgar Wright film about a group of erstwhile childhood friends who meet back in their hometown for a pub crawl.  And then, there's an alien invasion.

It's also the last film of Edgar Wright's so-called "Cornetto trilogy", three cock-eyed genre riffs he made with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  The first two were Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

And The World's End, I think, is always going to be the sort of scruffy underdog of the three.  Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz have much stronger genre underpinnings -- it's not just "zombie movies", it's "George Romero slow-zombie movies"; it's not just "cop movies", it's "Michael Bay over-the-top cop movies".  The tropes make for solid films, and playing off of the tropes makes for humor everyone can relate to.

The World's End doesn't really have that clear referent.  Is it about body-snatching movies?  Alien invasions?  Robots gone mad?[1]  You never quite know what they're riffing on, so you're never quite sure where you stand.

But that ambiguity gives the movie a little breathing room.  They take a good half-hour before any genre elements show up.  They build up their characters, hinting at decades of pain and regret between them and the early 1990s.  Honestly, there was probably a good non-genre film in there, with the characters going on their pub crawl, coming to terms with their past, and going their separate ways.[2]

It was an incredibly strong starting point, structurally... to the point that it made the hard left turn into robot-alien-land frankly a bit disappointing.  It was exciting, sure, and it's great to see Edgar Wright ably direct the combat scenes and keep things humming with his usual energetic editing.  The movie did touch nicely on themes of how you can never really go home again, and how franchises and economies of scale are wiping out the local character of small towns.[3]  But they've also gone so fully into silly-land that when Gary tearfully reveals what prompted him to do the reunion pub crawl, it doesn't really stick the landing.

And then there's the weird apocalypse ending -- which is fine, I guess, and promised, I suppose, by the title.  But it didn't sit right with me -- which is weird, because I love bizarre mid-plot changes in direction in, say, sketch comedy, or in something like The Simpsons, where they've already done every conceivable "normal" take on their material.  But here, it just felt... random.  Establishing that two of their central characters got killed felt like it wasn't paying off the story of this group of friends.  Ending with a mountain of voiceover narration felt like screenwriting amateur hour.  And letting Gary roam the countryside with clones of his childhood friends felt like giving the character exactly what he wanted, but the opposite of what he needed.

I know it's weird, talking about emotional payoffs with what's essentially a silly genre send-up.  I guess I'm saying that, unlike Shawn and Hot Fuzz, The World's End isn't really anything *more* than a silly genre send-up.  You'll see some fun action scenes and some amazing comedic chops.  (I did not realize I needed to see a long argument between characters played by Martin Freeman and Simon Pegg, but here we are.) And you might have some moments of recognition, of "ah, yes, going back to my hometown felt a little like that", and some of the melancholy of looking in the mirror and thinking, "Well, I guess I'm old and boring, now."

But the overall sense I had was of something coming together well that ultimately kind of fizzled into a lesser Spaced episode.

This is a 2017 indie puzzle game with a unique 'storybook' puzzle mechanic.

Here's how it works: the basic game screen is a four-quadrant, four-panel comic.  You can manipulate the comic -- you can drag panels to different quadrants; sometimes you can zoom in and out on a panel; sometimes you can drag panels on top of each other.  If you do it right, panels will interact in some surprising but satisfying way, and you can then progress through the story.

Man, explaining game mechanics verbally is tough.  Just ignore what I wrote and check out the launch trailer.

I really liked this game.  It was a quick little two-hour adventure.  It's gorgeously drawn -- nerds of a certain age might be reminded of Christopher Manson's old Maze book.  And I have never seen anything like the dragging-comic-panels mechanic -- and in true indie-puzzle-game fashion, designer Jason Roberts finds more and more brain-bending ways to *use* this basic mechanic as you advance through the levels.

Most of all, I liked how Gorogoa expresses its story.  The game has no dialog and no legible text -- Mr. Roberts even picked a title that wouldn't have any meaning in any language.  But it manages to create a hint of a story -- a through-line following your protagonist, hints of a terrible monster lurking just out of sight, themes of war and loss and persistence.  It's not an actual story, at least at first glance, but it holds together.  The hints that we get are evocative -- unsettling, even.  In a better world, a million fanfics would bloom as fans let their assumptions about Gorogoa play out.

I feel like most indie puzzle games *try* to do this sort of thing -- see the ponderous philosophizing in The Witness or humanity's digital detritus in The Talos Principle -- but Gorogoa is one of the few games I've played that actually succeeds.  It's hard to tell just a few wisps of a story and have it still feel compelling, emotional, and meaningful.  Most of the time, this falls short, and you feel like somebody was just too lazy to put together a proper story and is relying on you to insist on forging meaning out of a few disconnected ideas.[4]

But this did the rare feat of making you feel like the rest of the story was *there*, just out of frame, without the inevitable disappointment of having it all laid out for you.

Gorogoa is well worth your valuable time.  The art and music are gorgeous, the puzzles are intriguing and fun, and the story is something of an abstract wonder.

The Talos Principle
This is the 2014 puzzle game in which a robot has to solve a series of elaborate security-system puzzles.

More specifically, you are an AI, and you're working through a virtual-reality simulation.  The simulation was set up by a team of scientists as the human race faced annihilation.  And you, the AI, are left to wonder: should you bother jumping through these hoops? do you have free will in the matter? is there even a "real world" beyond this simulation?

At this point you're probably thinking I liked this game, because hell, from that description, it sounds like I *wrote* it.

I might have liked The Talos Principle when it came out, back in 2014.  But I'm playing it now, and I'm comparing it to the games I've played since then, and the game suffers badly by comparison.


For example: I've played Gone Home.

Gone Home is a game where you explore your family's house, and you encounter the usual 1990s detritus of holiday cards, business receipts, and diary entries.  But it turns this into a gripping family drama, rich with characters and relationships, with an engaging, multilayered plot.  (Seriously: there was a whole other level to the family story that I never caught on to in my playthrough, because I wasn't paying close enough attention.)  I got to the end of Gone Home engaged emotionally with the material: I had to know how things would turn out for these people, all in a story depicted by a mosaic of fictional documents.

Gone Home also uses far fewer documents -- maybe only forty or fifty -- to create this effect.  That means that every document -- every artifact -- *means* something.  Every one informs us about the characters, and their relationships, and their story. 

The Talos Principle tries so hard.

The game uses this same technique -- in this case, it's random text files and audio logs you find scattered throughout the simulation -- to tell the story of how the simulation was created, by whom, and under what circumstances.  Now, you may think that my rundown of that plot a few paragraphs ago was a spoiler, but don't worry: that basic outline becomes evident very early in the game.

The frustrating part is that their story never really gets much *beyond* that outline, either.  They try to create different characters at the computer lab, but they're... not good at it.  They try to create a palpable sense of how it feels if humanity is literally on the edge of obliteration, but they can't quite capture it.  ("Welp, everyone is dying; better keep coding our simulation, doodz.")  They flat-out forget to depict any relationships between the characters they introduce, which is something even random improvisors playing "Slide Show" know to do.

You can see them trying to do the same thing that Gone Home did, but they don't have the storytelling chops to pull it off.  And the voice acting suffers, because the actress is given such a vacuous character -- she gives it her all, but she's trying to imbue character where there's nothing there on the page.

Plus, they use *hundreds* of documents, which means most of it is filler.  That's not all bad -- for example, there's a poignant email with instructions for ensuring that pets have a fighting chance at survival after all the humans die -- but even that is just filler: at best, it sets mood.  There's no "there" there.


Another example: graphics.

This game is pretty.  Very pretty.  It sets up lovely environments: Egyptian tombs, Roman ruins, a cathedral.  But the problem is, I've played Gorogoa.  That's a game that's every bit as beautiful, but it goes *beyond* that.  The art in Gorogoa has an identity.  The art moves you emotionally.  The art conveys a very distinct world.  You see Gorogoa, and you know that forever after, you can sometimes describe a piece as "Gorogoa-esque".  Even the most majestic 3D environments in Talos convey little beyond "hey, aren't computer graphics neat?"


The Talos Principle also engages with philosophy -- hell, the title itself is about a philosophical thought experiment concerning the nature of humanity.

The problem here is that I've watched The Good Place, a sitcom (of all things) that doesn't just pay lip service to philosophy, but uses it as the underpinnings for wrenching character dilemmas.  People argue about philosophy in The Good Place, and some of them clearly know their way around some basic philosophical schools of thought, and those arguments *matter to the story*.

By comparison, Talos has clearly just slathered some chats about philosophy on top of a bog-standard puzzler, and hoped to gain some borrowed glory from that pretention.  You can't just throw in a random excerpt from Kant (and yes, they did that, in one of their zillions of text files) and pretend that it makes your game smart.

The game also wants to talk about religion.  There's a deep booming voice in your head that directs you around.  The voice describes itself in clearly godly terms.  And it becomes clear that this voice is just trying to KEEP YOU DOWN and keep you away from THE TRUTH, MAN.  Let me level with you, dear reader: I am an atheist; I have always been an atheist; this game's depiction of religion actively offended *me*.  It was basically just "Hurr hurr relijin is teh dumbz".  And to be clear, I think His Dark Materials, with maybe the most searing takedown of Christianity in popular fiction (they kill God, ffs) is awesome, in the original sense of that word.  But The Talos Principle brought to mind an old Andy Rooney quote: "I'm often embarrassed by the people who agree with me."

And, because they can't let well enough alone, they introduce a Satan character, an AI that you interact with via the "Milton" (ha ha ha) Linguistic Interface.  And this is where they are tryharding the most, sounding like smug dorm-room philosophers, and basically showing what strong arguments they can make for "lol nothing matterz".

Oh, honey.  This game was made in 2014, and that look... has not aged well.  "Well, actually, all morals are relative, and we can just do whatever we want, amirite!" has not aged well.  Especially from white dudes.  *Especially* especially from white dudes in tech.  *Most* especially from white dudes in tech in gaming.  And the arguments are so simplistic that you become pretty sure that nobody actually read the philosophical treatises they quote in their game.


Okay, fine.  But what about the puzzles?

Welp, the problem *here* is that I've played The Witness.  I had a lot of problems with The Witness -- with its Godot-like austerity, its compulsive need to respond to/comment on other games, and its empty philosophical bombast -- but damn if it didn't have its puzzle design down pat.  The "two paths" puzzle (you know the one) is simply majestic, a gorgeous concept that seems perfectly simple until you try to explain it to somebody.[5]

The Talos Principle just isn't on that level.  Sure, it's competent.  The puzzles are often cleverly designed, some 130 geometric riffs on the grain/sheep/wolf/boat riddle, and usually they do passably at ordering puzzles so that earlier ones teach you how to do later, more complicated ones.

But it doesn't have the novelty of "let's explore pathfinding puzzles" or, as with Portal, "let's create one massively counterintuitive piece of technology and explore every variation of it".  Instead, it's got a grab-bag of traditional puzzle-game parts.

And there's no sense that The Talos Principle treats the player's time like it's valuable.  To get from one puzzle to the next, you might have to walk back to a checkpoint, walk to an elevator, go up the elevator, walk to another elevator, go down that elevator, walk to another checkpoint, and then walk to the puzzle.  Other times, you've got to keep futzing with the environment for a long time, just to see if there's some aspect of the UI you've overlooked.

This attitude extends to the puzzles themselves, which can be needlessly long-winded.  I got to the end of one and realized, oh, they've added one last annoying step to this, whereby I have to walk all the way back to the starting point, pick up a discarded object, bring it all the way back to the end, and drop it on a pressure plate.  This shows up in puzzle after puzzle: needless spinning that challenges one's patience far more than one's mind.

Towards the end, they introduce timed puzzles.  And that's not unheard of -- in The Witness, they do the same thing, only there, it's with a specific purpose, procedurally generating a set of timed puzzles so you can prove you've actually learned how to solve them instead of just cribbing from walkthroughs the whole way.  But in The Talos Principle, there's no point to the timing, beyond stretching things out.  "Okay, now you're stuck on puzzle number five, but after you stare at it for five minutes, you have to start all over again!  Get ready to spend another ten minutes plodding through sections one through four!"

I really got a sense of how bad it was when, right after a session playing The Talos Principle, I was trying to read a sentence in Japanese.  I finally figured out what all the words were[6], and what the sentence meant, and my brain lit up with a delightful little moment of joy -- "Aha!  I understand now!" -- as it came together.

And it occurred to me, at that moment, that that is how it's *supposed* to feel when you solve a puzzle.

The Talos Principle isn't like that.  With The Talos Principle, at least with the later puzzles, the moment you figure out a puzzle, your heart sinks.  Instead of "Aha!  I understand now!", it's more like "Aha!  Wait, oh god, now I have to do a crazy twenty-step process that will take forever..."  And in some cases, there are mines -- so there may be an additional, "... and hope I don't set off a mine in step #19, which will send me back to the beginning.  And you may discover a Chinese-wall problem[7] on step #20 that makes you realize that, no, you have to start all over again and leave a box on a ledge this time.



The game's ending (or "its set of endings" -- there are multiple ones) is disappointing.  But the worst of it is knowing that a good ending for this game was *impossible*.  The storytelling isn't there, so you aren't concerned how anything turns out -- for you, the god-ish voice in your head, or anybody on that science team.[8]  The puzzles don't get more impressive, so there's no last, triumphant puzzle that can finish things off.  The best you can hope for is stirring orchestral music to signify "this is the end, and the end matters."  And then the game doesn't end, it just stops.

So that's The Talos Principle.  At its best, it's like Portal.  At its worst, it's like spending hours and hours failing, by more and more elaborate methods, to fish your keys out of a sewer grate.  It took me about twenty-five hours to reach its middling 'good' ending, which makes me pretty dumb.  I'd say if you set your expectations rightly, and treat it as a casual game -- show up, futz with pressure plates and boxes for five minutes, and set it down 'til next time -- you'll be okay with it.

For next week: right now I'm watching The People Versus O. J. Simpson and Paprika.  I'm reading a book about memorization.  Still catching up with a giant backlog of podcasts on audio.  Oh, and I still need to write about Black Panther.

[1] The characters dispute at length whether they even *are* robots, which kind of hangs a lantern on how tricky to pin down The World's End is.
[2] God, could you imagine Mike Leigh cutting loose with that setup?
[3] "Human replacement" movies are always about something deeper.  The basic sci-fi gimmick is just so evocative you pretty much *have* to do something thematic with it.
[4] "
Stone souping" it, if you will.
[5] ... and thus try their patience.[1b]
[5b] I'm sorry, Lindsey.
[6] ... plus where all the word breaks were -- no spaces in Japanese.
[7] A text-game term for a type of design flaw.  You design a game where, in step one, the player can walk through a papery Chinese wall.  Then, at step five hundred, they player needs that wall, intact, to solve the last puzzle.  The general rule is, "don't design puzzles like that."
[8] Not entirely true -- I did cheat to an easter egg whereby I could save one kitten trapped in a box.  I was hoping the kitty would be okay.

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