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What Happens In… The Dark Knight Rises

January 14th, 2017 | Review

Batman vs. Bane

The Dark Knight Rises returns to the story of Bruce Wayne, already in progress after a minor interruption involving an evil clown who robs banks. The film opens with a scientist being kidnapped by… somebody. The somebody takes the scientist onto his plane along with a few hostages, but little does he know that one of the hostages is a mask-wearing man called Bane. Bane is to be the Mega Bad Guy of the film, and like most Mega Bad Guys he can do anything, regardless of how implausible it is, so he naturally has his own cargo plane and uses it to kidnap the scientist himself and destroy the somebody’s plane.

Meanwhile, Gotham has actually lived up to its status as the world’s best city by totally eradicating crime. Now if you do so much as run a red light you can be locked up for life, no questions asked. However, Commissioner Gordon is not so sure this is a good idea, but he’s not going to be a party pooper.

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is moping because without crime he doesn’t know what to do with himself. His mope is cut short when a Mysterious Woman steals a necklace that belonged to his mother. Uh-oh, crime! That gets Bruce’s attention real good.

In order to recover the necklace, Wayne traces her to a high-society bash, where he also meets a woman with a foreign accent. Nobody else in this film has an accent, so this is probably indicative of Deep Evil. Wayne doesn’t think of that, though, and for some reason he trusts her so much that he turns over control of Wayne Enterprises to her.

Bane, like most villains, has a deep grudge against The World’s Best City, and he strikes where it will hurt the most: the Department of Public Works! This is actually a surprisingly good plan. He also attacks the stock exchange, which is a less good plan, but leads to a motorcycle chase. Vroom!

Wayne Enterprises has, of course, continued its campaign of building dangerous weaponizable energy sources. This time around it’s constructed a fusion reactor that can be made into an atom bomb with minor modifications. (A job for the kidnapped scientist! Did you forget about him?)

When Bane finds out about this, he steals it and threatens to blow up Gotham! In the meantime his army of mercenaries (volunteer mercenaries, the worst kind!) sacks the city and force rich people to walk on thin ice.

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, got in a fight with Bane that landed him in a prison somewhere in the Middle East. It is a literal hole in the ground which light cannot penetrate, and yet it is very well-lit. While Wayne is in the prison, he finds out that the Influential White Guy lives on in spirit… he had an offspring who is even now behind the plot to destroy Gotham! That guy just can’t give it a rest.

Soon, Wayne escapes from the foreign prison and gets back to Gotham by… by… I guess he learned to teleport himself while he was in there. Anyway, he gets back to Gotham in time to find out that Foreign Accent Woman is not only in league with Bane, but she is the offspring of the Influential White Guy! She tries to blow up the city, but it’s not going down without some vehicular action. Vroom!

So the whole crew pulls together: Wayne, Gordon, and Mysterious Woman manage to strap the bomb to Wayne’s Bat-Copter and Wayne flies it away just in time for it to blow him up… or does it?

Soon things are back to normal in Gotham despite having been the site of the most horrific terrorist coup in American history. Wayne’s mansion is turned into a Dickensian orphanage. And Bruce Wayne, who did not die, elopes with the Mysterious Woman. God bless us, every one!

Homer Price

January 11th, 2017 | Books of My Childhood

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I read a lot as a kid. I went through dozens of books and pillaged the library on a weekly basis. There were, however, a few books that attracted my attention more than others, books I read over and over again. This is series is about re-reading those books as an adult. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they weird? Let’s find out!

Robert McCloskey is best known as the Caldecott-winning author/illustrator of the classic picture books Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings, but he also wrote a series of short stories for older readers featuring a character known as Homer Price.

Homer Price cover

Homer Price was a staple of my family’s read-aloud collection. My parents must have read it to us cover to cover at least three or four times. The book was originally published in 1943, and this copy, which came from my dad’s childhood collection, is from the fourth printing, in 1966. The book remains in print to this day. That the book has stuck around for so many decades is a testament to the universal appeal of the stories.

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What Happens In… Batman Begins

January 7th, 2017 | Review

Batman vs. Scarecrow

Batman Begins is the story of Bruce Wayne, a rich and influential white guy who has an unhealthy obsession with crime. This obsession, like most such things, can be traced back to childhood traumas. Wayne’s parents were gods among men, simultaneously working as doctors and as venture capitalists whose multibillion-dollar corporation coincidentally worked for the betterment of humanity. However, they fell prey to a violent mugger, and Wayne’s hatred of the disenfranchised and desperate was born.

We meet up with adult Wayne in a Chinese prison for reasons which are never satisfactorily explained. He meets up with another influential white guy who, it turns out, runs a mystical mountaintop martial-arts monastery. He trains Wayne to be a ninja (ninjas are well-known to be part of Tibetan/Chinese culture), then makes a critical error by asking Wayne to kill a murderer. Wayne, of course, would never kill (never!) so he escapes from the monastery by setting fire to it and battling his fellow ninjas. Most if not all of them die in the process, including (probably) the guy he refused to kill. It’s all right, though, because the other white guy told him that a secret society of urban-renewal conspirators was planning to torch Gotham, which is the world’s best city despite being totally corrupt at all levels of society, and Wayne isn’t going to let that happen.

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Media Summation: 2016

January 1st, 2017 | Review

Well, folks, it’s that time of year once again. What did I read this year? What did I watch? What was good, and what was bad? Read on for my recommendations, reviews, and the coveted trophies of badness.

Best Fiction of 2016

Top prize goes to The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. I make a habit of picking up books by authors I haven’t read before, and in this case I’m sure glad I did. Udall paints a sophisticated and detailed portrait of the complicated lives entwined in a polygamous Mormon family. The book has a very rich cast of characters and a solid overarching plot, all spun together with tight and effective prose. This was the first book I read this year, and still it managed to take the top spot. Highly recommended.

Runners-up!

  • Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. This is a wonderful book. It revolves around a terrible play for children and each chapter follows a different character: actors in the production, audience members, and so on. A former instructor of mine said that a novel should be a world, and Prose’s book is a shining example of that approach. Each chapter is almost a standalone short story, and yet they still all fit together like the gears of a clock. I loved it.
  • Honorable Mentions: Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. The Magicians by Lev Grossman. This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: The Great Tree of Possibilities

December 4th, 2016 | Myst in Retrospect

“Take from the past only that which is good.” – Atrus

Popular culture has a remarkably short attention span, especially so in the world of video games. Talk to many video game enthusiasts and you’ll get the impression that a game released five years ago is ancient history, archaic as the Model T, something their grandparents played. Many people react to these antique games with something akin to disdain, as if they were discoveries from the back of the refrigerator. This is no doubt due in part to how closely games are tied to the forward march of computer technology; it is inevitable that a game from five years ago is going to appear graphically inferior to one produced today. That said, while games are dependent upon imperfect technologies, it is important to remember that the best games strive to transcend these limitations and excel despite them. This is the context in which we’ve been examining the Myst series: it’s twenty years old, placing it somewhere between Gilgamesh and Beowulf in video game years, but like any work from antiquity, it still has power and meaning worth examining. As we wrap up this journey, I want to take a final look back to consider what the Myst series accomplished, why it’s important, and what its significance will be in the future.

Erase this post after you read it, just to be safe.

Here’s the formula: You play as a character with no name or personality beyond what you project onto it: essentially, you play as yourself. You are plunged into an unfamiliar environment, with no real understanding at first of the world or its characters. By exploring, you learn about the characters and their stories. Eventually you will encounter some of them, and in the end you will be asked to make a decision which will impact their lives. Along the way you will encounter obstacles which can be overcome by utilizing logic and clues found during your explorations. You are an active participant in a story. You are not the protagonist.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: End of Ages

November 27th, 2016 | Myst in Retrospect

“Consider it a ‘Myst’ opportunity.” – Esher

Considering what a vast and varied journey it’s been, definitively wrapping up the series is a tall order. We have loose ends from Atrus’s family turmoils, we still don’t know Yeesha that well, the question of the Restoration is still in the air, and that’s not even mentioning the bahro. A strong conclusion will need to cover those points, but should also allow us to revisit a few of our favorite old haunts and see some new places as well. Myst V: End of Ages hits some of these notes. It has a handful of nice character moments, a few spectacular Ages, and the occasional pinch of nostalgia. Unfortunately, it also has some serious flaws that greatly diminish the experience. Is it a fitting end for the series? Considering some of the high points we’ve seen, for the most part it isn’t. At best it’s a predictable end to the series, delivering most of the elements we’ve come to expect, both the good and the bad.

Double, double, toil and trouble, Esher burn and pedestal bubble

The game opens with an Atrus voiceover. (Well, why not, every other game has followed this convention and there’s no need to break a precedent, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore.) Atrus talks about how he’s lost everything and everyone he ever cared about, including (he thinks) Yeesha, and ends by saying that he will soon go on to a better place. The implication seems to be that he’s dead, which Yeesha shortly later emphasizes by saying that Atrus’s “time has passed.” It’s a somewhat grim start; it feels like finding out about the death of a friend secondhand. At the end of the game, of course, it turns out that Atrus isn’t dead at all; the whole thing was just a _metaphorical _way of saying he lives in Releeshahn now. It’s hard to guess why the game is set up this way. Nothing is really gained by this deception, unless making the player depressed right at the outset can be considered beneficial. Even when we find out Atrus is still alive, it’s not so much a relief as it is an irritation, because then we feel like we’ve been lied to. It’s a minor point, but it does affect the tone of the game, coming at the beginning as it does.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Uru: The Path of the Shell

November 20th, 2016 | Myst in Retrospect

On many occasions I’ve mentioned Myst _to avid video game enthusiasts and seen the same reaction: their eyes glaze over and they say that they thought it was boring. The way the _Myst series tells its stories is rather unorthodox, to the point of being inaccessible to many newcomers. In the end, though, it’s the story that makes the game work. The desire to find out what happened is what pushes players to solve the puzzles. Uru, on the other hand, has an understated narrative that makes the game feel somewhat empty even to invested players. This final installment, sadly, does nothing to correct that precedent, and unfortunately compounds it with an almost complete lack of storyline and some of the most tedious and repetitive puzzles ever devised. Uru: The Path of the Shell is not without its charms, but the inescapable fact is that it is, in all honesty, pretty boring.

Kadish's ego, depicted in 1/4000 size.

Much of the game revolves around the prophecies of a D’ni mystic known only as The Watcher. Specifically, the Watcher prophesied the coming of a messiah figure known as the Grower, who would lead the D’ni into a new era. Over the course of the game we come to learn that Guildmaster Kadish (the greedy guy who owned Kadish Tolesa), created an elaborate hoax to trick people into thinking the he was himself the Grower. Who is the real grower, you ask? Yeesha, of course! This is where things begin to go wrong.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Uru: To D’ni

November 13th, 2016 | Myst in Retrospect

“[L]ooking back at the others about the table, he smiled and raised his goblet. ‘To D’ni!’ he exclaimed. A dozen voices answered him robustly. ”To D’ni!‘” – Myst: The Book of Ti’ana, pg. 142

“There’s a couple things that the fans will like. I think the first is the fact that they get to go to D’ni. And anybody who knows our stuff on a little bit deeper level knows that D’ni is someplace you want to go.” – Rand Miller, interview from Myst 10th Anniversary DVD Edition

Onward, past the DRC's omnipresent roadblocks

Access to D’ni was undoubtedly one of Uru‘s strongest selling points among fans, yet Ages Beyond Myst offered only cursory glimpses of the Cavern: a couple small balconies, a rooftop, and a tiny office. Sure, you could catch a glimpse of Kerath’s Arch (a well-known D’ni landmark), but unless you were one of the lucky few who had access to Uru Live, D’ni seemed to be nearly as far away as ever. It wasn’t until the collapse of the multiplayer edition that the Cavern was opened to all in the form of this first expansion pack, To D’ni. It was made available free of charge, implying that Cyan wanted to extend access to D’ni to as many people as possible. To D’ni may not be the most impressive game in the series, but it finally gave us the trip to D’ni we’d always dreamed of, and for that at least it must be considered a success.

As I illustrated in the two opening quotes, the phrase “to D’ni” has an interesting kind of duality to it: it can be seen either as a dedication or a destination. As a game, To D’ni is about going to D’ni; as a work of art it can be seen as something made in honor of D’ni. Moreso than any other part of the series, this installment is about D’ni itself, and it lives up to its name perfectly.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Uru: Ages Beyond Myst

November 6th, 2016 | Myst in Retrospect

Imagine reading a press release that describes a website filled with interactive poems. The site will debut with just a few poems, gradually adding more in response to user involvement, making the site’s visitors part of a living, breathing artwork. It’s a clever idea, and a couple poems released as teasers show that the site has a lot of promise. Sadly, however, when the site finally debuts, something has gone wrong in development. Instead of the vibrant scene you were promised, there’s just a static page with a handful of poems. There’s not even anywhere to post a comment. The poems are still well-written, and you enjoy reading them, but you can’t shake the feeling that you could have been a part of something much bigger. Welcome to the beautiful and depressing world of Uru.

Hey, it's that guy!

After completing Riven, Cyan went quiet and began work on a multiplayer Myst game which was codenamed “Mudpie.” The concept was a surprising one, Myst being perhaps the quintessential single-player experience. Fans were largely intrigued but somewhat apprehensive. The development process was long and Cyan’s occasional preview screenshots offered glimpses into a game that seemed perennially just out-of-reach. Even more tantalizing were the promises of real-time graphics, ongoing storylines, and (perhaps most intriguing of all) access to D’ni itself. We waited patiently, forgiving Cyan’s radio silence on the grounds that Mudpie was going to be awesome.

Yet even early on there were signs of trouble. Cyan’s publisher, Ubisoft, requested that a single-player version be built as well; dialup users were still a majority at the time and Ubisoft didn’t want a product that required broadband. Cyan obliged, and the first public release of the game was the single-player adaptation Uru: Ages Beyond Myst in 2003. The multiplayer version, Uru Live, was not ready. The game shipped with promises of online play, but implementation was delayed. Eventually, the pretense was dropped, and in February of 2004 Uru Live was officially canceled.

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Aliens Ate My Homework

November 5th, 2016 | Books of My Childhood, Review

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I read a lot as a kid. I went through dozens of books and pillaged the library on a weekly basis. There were, however, a few books that attracted my attention more than others, books I read over and over again. This is series is about re-reading those books as an adult. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they weird? Let’s find out!

If you’d asked me who my favorite author was at the age of eight or nine, I’d have replied without hesitation: “Bruce Coville!” Mr. Coville’s specialty was works of science fiction and fantasy, usually with a dash of humor. He wrote numerous different series (some of which we may cover in the future) but my favorite by far was the “Alien Adventures,” beginning with Aliens Ate My Homework.

Aliens Ate My Homework

The Aliens series follows a small cast of alien characters perennially in pursuit of the evil intergalactic criminal BKR. Along for the ride is our hapless protagonist, Rod Allbright, a middle-school-aged kid who narrates the adventures in first-person.

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