Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Never Alone

Upper One Games presents a unique experience: a video game with a story based upon the legends and history of an indigenous people, made in cooperation with those very same people.  That background alone makes the game notable: what makes it worth playing is the great care with which it was put together.  The game is Never Alone, essentially a gift from the Iñupiat of northern Alaska to the rest of the world: a story told in their own language, faithfully derived from their own traditions.

One or two players control an Iñupiaq girl named Nuna, and an arctic fox, on their quest to uncover the source of an unending blizzard and save her village.  With her trusty bola and the fox's spiritual powers, they face elemental, supernatural, and very human challenges in a classic 2D platform context.  There are few mechanics that I haven't seen before, but they serve the story well and reinforce the game's core themes of cooperation and courage.

Never Alone is beautiful, and what's more it uses its visual prowess to further its storytelling aims.  One might be tempted to regard the Alaskan Arctic landscape as a desolate, featureless waste, but this game is determined to check that assumption.  Here we find gnarled woods and shadowy caves, violent seas and creaky ghost towns and yes, vast plains of ice and snow, all of it imbued with character by the most expressive snow and atmosphere effects outside of the real thing.  Even with graphical settings on low (I'm not working with the fiercest of machines here), the animation and art design are gracefully realized.

Mechanically, Never Alone could have benefited from a little more work.  Not only is the AI for the two player characters inconsistent, but difficult platforming moments are often as much a matter of luck as skill.  You can't really predict when a jump will inexplicably fail despite visibly landing safely, but you can be sure it will occur at least twice over a gap filled with freezing Arctic water.  If you're really lucky though, the AI will sometimes send your partner character far enough past a difficult challenge to reach the next checkpoint.  What I'm saying is, gameplay bugs can also work for you.

The gameplay is at its most interesting when it requires the close interplay of Nuna and the fox, and most challenging when they must cooperate quickly in extended, time-sensitive situations.  Naturally, this makes single-player mode an occasionally taxing experience, but the good news is that Never Alone genuinely wants you to succeed.  There is an embarrassment of checkpoints and rarely will the player have to redo more than two or three significant challenges following a tragic death.  Perhaps it goes against the traditional platformer's orthodoxy, but I say it's a positive development that many modern games don't want to let that one impossible level get in the way of telling their story.

For as smooth a play as possible, I'd recommend a controller.  I cleared this game using keyboard and mouse, and as far as I'm concerned their principal virtues lay in convincing me that I'd totally have made all those missed jumps with a more responsive piece of plastic in hand.  I don't know how you PC kids survived on WASD all these years, but I'll take a proper D-pad any day.

A secondary challenge in Never Alone is unlocking Cultural Insights, short documentary videos that tell the history of the Iñupiat and explain many elements found in the game.  While Never Alone is basically a fantasy, it achieves a much better grounding in realism than virtually any other fantasy game by pairing its mythical narrative with the voices of real Iñupiat people, who expound their culture not with dry reverence but warm, personal affection.  Too charming to feel like homework, the Cultural Insights educate in the best sense of the word, bringing the player closer to the real world of the Iñupiat while still feeling like genuine rewards.

I unlocked most of these videos, but my computer remains uncooperative in playing them correctly.  Fortunately, they can all be found on youtube, so I don't feel like I'm missing out.

I recommend this game highly, for fans of platformers and for those who want to learn more about indigenous cultures in a unique way.  Perhaps in a better world the jumping could have been tightened up, but Never Alone does so much right that it's hard to fault it for a little frustration.  It's accessible and beautiful and fun, and with a two-player mode it is begging to be shared.  It can also be a little bit scary and at one point (no spoilers) genuinely shocking, so play with care.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

 There be dragons, here be spoilers.

It's Christmas time again*, which means that Peter Jackson, the world's most well-funded Tolkien fan-fiction author, has once again delivered his signature gift: 144 minutes of fantasy adventure.  But unless a studio decides that the Silmarillion could actually make a profit, we may never again see its like.

Once upon a time, The Hobbit was spoken of as a two-film project.  I don't think anyone who was familiar with Jackson's take on Middle Earth was truly surprised that we wound up with a trilogy.  However, I think I can now point to the very specific reason why, for all the pacing awkwardness it created, the third movie came into being: this was Jackson's last chance to film an epic battle.  His lust for on-screen mayhem, much like the Arkenstone of Erebor, drove him to such reckless madness that he took what other filmmakers might call a climax and turned it into an entire movie.

Indeed, The Battle of the Five Armies is unique among the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films in that, apart from the introductory scene of Smaug's demise (which, let's be honest, should have been at the end of the last film), the plot more or less revolves around a single battle that takes up about half of the movie's running time (I may be being unfair on that point, as I did not check my watch, but it sure felt like it).  This movie is mostly about three things: assembling the five armies, an hour or so of heroic fighting and death, and a rapid and fairly uneventful walk home for Bilbo Baggins.  

The really odd thing about this movie is that it can't keep an eye on its titular character.  Theoretically the protagonist is Bilbo, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from his screen time. Therein lies the central flaw of this entire trilogy: The Hobbit, in its original form, is too small to bear the weight of all the history and mythology that Jackson includes.  While much of it (Gandalf's encounter with the Necromancer, for instance) is either basically canonical or reasonably inspired by canon, it is difficult to believe that Tolkien would have ever considered including those scenes in the narrative of The Hobbit.  Tolkien's book was essentially about Bilbo Baggins stumbling into an epic world of myth, while Jackson's movies often feel more like an attempt to toss him out of it.

As for Jackson's more original additions, the worst subplot of all is a running joke about the greed and cowardice of Alfrid, a series of scenes of no consequence to the plot.  After an initial craven outburst, the former aid to the Master of Laketown relentlessly sucks up to Bard, then spends the entirety of the battle attempting to disguise himself as a woman, shoving treasure in his bra and bleating useless dialog.  No comeuppance is delivered and no character growth occurs: the entire thing just devolves into misogynistic comic relief.  A tip to writers: putting a man in a dress in order to indicate that he's a coward is a sexist trope.  Comparing him unfavorably to actual women (who serve no story purpose except to compare favorably with him) does not actually make that better. 

Once the carnage is done, Jackson seems to rush the ending, perhaps in a belated fit of recognition that the source novel is actually really short.  Upon the death of Thorin, nearly every other sub-plot of the film is dropped in the interest of getting Bilbo back to the Shire as quickly as possible.  The Elves get minimal resolution as Tauriel mourns for Kili, Legolas wanders off to find himself, and King Thranduil admits that he's been kind of a jackass.  The humans of Lake Town are never mentioned again, with no on-screen indication that they received the share of the treasure that they fought for.  The dwarves give Bilbo a brief farewell, but the character of Dain Ironfoot (who, as the new King Under the Mountain, you would think might have something to say to the person who did so much to restore the kingdom) is conspicuously absent.

The movie still has much to recommend it.  Tauriel continues to represent the sort of addition that a book like The Hobbit actually needs, and her tragedy is sincerely felt.  Thorin (perhaps the true protagonist of these stories) has a very satisfying arc, though a more subtle depiction of his "dragon sickness" would have improved things and made his final redemption more credible.   The much-hyped battle has its ridiculous moments (the giant tunneling worms, the bat monsters, every instant of Alfrid's screen time), but the general tone is exciting and even ennobling, as far as depictions of death and carnage go.  The whole thing is a bit of a sloppy mess, but it's absolutely clear that the director's heart is in it, and so much more besides.

And of course, the visuals are stunning.  After all these years, does that even need to be said anymore?  Fans of the wide-pan-over-CGI-New-Zealand aesthetic will not be disappointed, though they may yet mourn the end of an era.

Some day, perhaps decades from now, the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien will again be adapted for the screen (or whatever space-age medium we've moved onto by the mid-21st century).  The extent to which those new adaptations will draw on Jackson's example is an interesting question, as he and his crew have succeeded in defining a style that exists quite separately from the original work.  Call that a triumph, if you will.  Whatever the most hardcore fans may think, these movies were made in large part for us, but in even larger part for the rest of the world who got something very different than anyone could have expected.  As for me, like Bilbo I think it's time I got back to my books.

*It  was when I started writing this, and I don't feel like changing my opening line.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Poetry Jam #17

I was sure I'd miscounted, but I haven't.  There's really seventeen of these things now.  And that's not counting the ones I wasn't counting!

I do try to post these collections regularly, but I really felt like I needed to do one today.  I've been feeling like a lump for the past week or so, and it really helps to feel productive.  So this was good for me.  I needed this.

Except for the first one (more on that in the commentary), all of these poems were written after we'd moved to Uijeongbu in mid-March of 2014 and started our new teaching jobs there.  The last one was written in July, by which point it had become somewhat obvious we'd made a huge mistake in taking that job.  But all things considered, it wasn't a bad time.

Forgotten Lands of Snow

In December's morning hours,
when the rocks grow fangs of
autumn frost that glitter
like my favorite waterfalls,
I think of all the places
where it's even colder,
where the winter is a state of climate,
not of calendar,
and the heads of state are
crowned with ice of blue
and icy green circlets of glass,
and the deep, powder snow
of sugar
tops the houses like it's Tuesday
and that's just the thing to do.

Early Spring by the Gap River in Daejeon

What signs of spring today?
Is this as fertile country
as it seems, beneath
the hazy shade of winter?

Is the river full
of fish and birds as well
as artful paths of stone,
arranged with careful skill?

And are the mountains greening
on the roads of spring,
alive and rushing wild
with imagination?

Sun above, and breeze
across the valley floor,
and I am pleased to find
the sky is blue again;

The ducklings, newly hatched,
are paddling on their own
along the waterway,
their feathers soft and dry;

The hills are brown, but greening,
getting brighter with
determination, growing
in the heat of passion.

The Little Monster

Earnestly the little monster
tried to please its monstrous maker;
slowly did it realize
there was no pleasing human nature.

Angrily, the little monster
wrote a book about its soul.
The monsters tore it from its heart
to keep it under their control.

Silently, the little monster
sang the song it longed to learn
before the monsters killed the music
and the student had its turn.

Ode to my inexpensive speaker system

The little box makes bass
the hands that made it would
be proud to hear, erupting
boldly from the wood,

and all the troubles at
my job are nothing for
the treble in my heart,
the snares on two and four.

The voltage is too much
to carry home from here,
but future sorrow's nothing
to the sounds I hear.

Pictures of Women

I see them walking down the street: pictures
of women, skirts and thighs, passing by
my vision in an unexpected third
dimension, suddenly as real as life.

Pictures of girls in summer dresses, legs
as flawless as the fabric: that's the best
my eyes can do, and now it makes me feel
pathetic just to put it into words.

This isn't normal, is it?  If I see
the women framed like portraits, flat
like paper, glossy like a magazine,
there must be something broken in my brain.

Salon Treatment

The scent of apples,
fingers thrumming
through my hair
like water, something
sweet in my mouth;
I know it's worth
fifteen, but how do
you think it came
to twenty five?

The Pohang Platform

You think you know the ocean
in the daylight, with
the glitter on the waves,
the harmony of seasons
in the summer songs;
and even with its size
beyond imagining
you think you know your friend.

See your friend at night
in all its darkness, from
the silence of the pier,
peering at the depth
and seeing none that you
can measure; what is this
but fear you feel, who
is this you thought you knew?


Like Celes on the desert island
underneath the purple sky,
alone for all she knows, and watching
hours never passing by,

this waiting at the window sill
 can never end while I'm asleep;
the lonely nightmare never ends
if I'm too frightened by the leap.

Somewhere on the darkened sea
is life, and life is hope of love,
while hope is beating on the wings
you bandaged for the wounded dove.

The Wave

                  Falling faster,
         Smashing on the shoreline,
        Breaking at the                       tip.
      From somewhere in  
   The ocean's depths, the
  Wave is growing bigger: watch
 It rip across the beach, where summer's
children play, their colored towels are soon to drip.

Private Schools

Send the kids back home,
the walls are falling down
and all the glass is breaking:
someone call their mothers!

Everybody has
a job to do, before
the school can be declared
"safe for human life".

Further down the line
we'll hear about the scandals,
and we'll wonder how
the bastards got away.

Yonggungsa on the Rocks by the Sea

Could you capture all your passion in a
pool as small as this?  Would the statues
calm the water and the rolling wind, and
keep the stones from drifting to the ocean?

As the temple's expiration date is
known, and all these things must pass away
before the breakers crush the yielding boulders,
prayers must be made in proper fashion.

Water of Life

The water's not clean, but it comes from the planet,
and thus the desire to drink it, to drain
the summer from the burbling fountain,
to take all the minerals into myself,
to draw the impurities into my cells,
now becoming as one with industrial Earth;

Because (let's be honest) it comes from a pipe
that came with a price tag and rusts like a bucket;
God help me for all of my foolish desires.

Songs about Sex

I know too many
(not enough);
I love to sing them,
but I only
want to do it
when I'm done,
I only want to
riot when
there's music in my
loving eyes
and rhythm in your
heart of hearts.

Sleep Talk

Did you know, my love,
that sometimes, when the night is deep
I hear you speaking softly?

A word or two, or three:
while I am lingering from sleep
your dreams have come to play,

to light across your lips,
a murmur in the dark to keep
the silence from the air,

a tickle in my ear
before I go, before the steep
decline has come to pass.

Did you know, my love,
that you've been talking in your sleep
and making perfect sense?

Our Dream Castle

We've laid a strong foundation here
to build a castle out of time,
a palace of impressive scale,
a lofty home for yours and mine.

Together we have planned the rooms,
arranged the gardens, set the stones
to mark the courtyard from the keep,
and polished timbers for the thrones.

Our dreams are blessed with music, and
the dance of laughter fills the stairs,
a magic kind of love's adventure
echoes proudly through the air.

And now a storm is bearing down,
a tempest blasting from the sky
to smash the splinters into bits,
and make the garden's flowers die.

The war of winds may not be stilled
before we lose our precious halls
or watch the lightning tear like knives
through paintings on the mansion walls.

These awful floods may scar the floors
and rot the bridge which spans the moat,
but when the weather clears, you'll find
our higher aspirations float.

No matter what disaster strikes
by storm or sword or vengeful wraith,
I know the walls will not be lost
because you give me cause for faith.

As strong as iron, oak, and and marble,
shining like a crystal sea,
the castle of our lives will weather
every trouble that could be.

And nothing will deny us peace
or harmony within ourselves:
when two decide to share a life,
no evil force may break their spells.

And here's the commentary!

Forgotten Lands of Snow should have been in the last poetry jam, as it was written in December 2013, shortly before we left Oregon for our big adventure.  However, rather than writing it in my poetry journal, I had written it on my cell phone, which I could not use in South Korea, and so I had completely forgotten about it until I returned to America and rediscovered it in September 2014.  And that's how I finally thought of a title for it!  This poem is all about its imagery, it doesn't really have a message beyond "ice is pretty".

Tara, being more athletically inclined than I, joined the Cheonan traveling Ultimate Frisbee team when we were still living in that city.  Though we moved to Uijeongbu before the season started, since the league played games all over the country and they'd have to travel anyway, she continued playing for them.  I went to watch and cheer her on at her first away game in Daejeon, and while they were warming up I wrote Early Spring..., which has a pretty obvious title but a very nice, hopeful message.  I like this one a lot, and yes I did crib a line from a Simon and Garfunkel song, thank you for noticing.   

The Pohang Platform was written on another Frisbee outing (to the seaside town of Pohang, naturally).  Incidentally, the best burritos to be found in South Korea are located in Pohang.

The Little Monster is about a couple of students that I had at my new job, particularly in my kindergarten and ESL classes.  I had never really been responsible for kids that age before, to say nothing of kids who didn't really fit into the educational system their parents and society were trying to force them into.  I had a job to do and their behaviors occasionally made me angry.  However, I tried to always remember myself at that age, and how I wasn't much different, and the reasons why.  So this poem grew out of my sympathy for them.

I wrote an Ode to my inexpensive speaker system because without it, I might well have lost my mind.  One of my principle joys around this time was coming home, putting on Spotify, and rocking the house while preparing dinner for Tara.  Of all the things I bought there, it ranks in the top three.  Unfortunately, when we had to move out of that apartment in August, it must have bumped into something, because it started making a high pitched whine whenever it was on.  For this tragic inconvenience, I blame our faithless employers.

Pictures of Women is a poem about objectification and the male gaze.  The speaker in the poem (who, let's be honest, is more or less me) is disoriented by the tension between the cultural conditioning that has trained him to view the women around him as images for consumption, and a growing awareness that they are fully realized humans who don't exist for his sake.  Much could probably be made of the fact that I am a white man and the women in my immediate surroundings at the time I conceived and wrote this poem were almost all Korean. 

Salon Treatment is a cute little poem about a haircut that I may have been overcharged for, but possibly not as it was a very extensive, full-service operation.  I agonized for a long time about whether to write "how do you" or "how'd you", with an eye to the exactitude of the meter.  I ultimately decided the meter was not important enough to write something like "how'd you".

I was playing a lot of Final Fantasy VI last spring, and I nerded out so damn hard that I wrote a poem about one of its signature narrative moments.  Yes, Celes is about a character from a JRPG that came out in 1994.  Mark my words, some day it will not seem unusual or gimmicky for poets to make allusions to video games.  Incidentally, I still haven't finished that particular play through... I should get on that.

I put a personal touch on my fourth grade class by incorporating some of my poetry into lessons, and encouraging my students to write their own examples.  The Wave was written for a lesson on concrete poetry, or poems written to take the shape on the page of the thing they are about, which is why it looks so ridiculous.  It looked a lot more like a wave when I wrote it on the white board way back when, but you get the idea.  I'm including it here for nostalgia purposes, more than anything else.

Private Schools is about the dawning realization that I was working for an exceptionally haphazard organization.  Upon writing the third stanza, I became convinced that I had either written it before or subconsciously stolen it from somewhere else.  The poem's rhythm is loosely inspired by Simon and Garfunkel's song Save the Life of my Child (yes, I was listening to them a lot last year), but I didn't steal it from that, so I'm just going to assume I came up with it on my own.

I wrote Yonggungsa on the Rocks by the Sea after a visit to the eponymous temple in Busan.  It was one of the most beautiful locations we managed to find in our stay there, and I loved it.  If I could see something in South Korea again, I might very well want it to be that.

Water of Life might be the weirdest poem here, particularly for the really odd thing the meter does in the third line.  I composed most of this poem in my head while walking to work one day, after being inspired by a leaking pipe  I saw on the way.  Somehow that line fit in perfectly and I didn't notice it was missing a bunch of syllables until after I'd had a chance to write it down.  I tried to rewrite the line later, but nothing worked as well, so I accepted it as is.  It's also weird because it's about a compulsive desire to drink water from a leaky pipe, but anyone could figure that out.

Songs about Sex is about sex, but it's pretty tame as sex poems go.  The original title had something a lot cruder than "Sex", but I decided to spare you, gentle reader.  Around this time I was experimenting with erotic poetry, and had managed to produce a 28-line opus in iambic pentameter that is, among other things: precisely metered and rhymed, outrageously inappropriate, hilariously awkward, and a little hot if you're into this sort of thing.  Naturally it will never see the light of day, but I had to brag about it here because I managed to recall or reconstruct the entire thing from memory on the train home from Busan after it failed to save on my tablet the night before.  I am not usually good at remembering lines of poetry, so I was very impressed with myself.

Sleep Talk is a love poem for Tara, about sleeping together in an entirely more innocent sense.

Our Dream Castle was written at a particularly stressful time at work, when the rest of the staff and I were negotiating with our faithless employer over when we would be paid our month's wages and pension (both were late).  Tara and I were both thoroughly sick of this bullshit and more than a little homesick, so I wrote this poem in an effort to reassure her that we'd make it through OK.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


Those following closely will know that I have had a very unusual year.  I spent most of it in a foreign country under alternating stresses.  There were definitely points when I honestly had no idea where I was heading.  That I'm now sitting at the same old desk in the same old chair, comfortably ensconced in my mother's house, is mainly a testament to the gravitational forces that define my life.  Maybe that's part of the problem.

2014 came to a stunning finish for me when my girlfriend Tara, with whom I shared the year's adventure, told me that she wanted some time apart.  I spent much of the month of December eying the calendar and trying to guess at what was going on in her mind.  After a month, I checked in on her.  What she told me was not, perhaps, the worst thing I could have expected.  But the fact remains, we're on an indefinite break.  Wherever I go next in my life, I'm taking the step alone.

What does it mean to be without someone, without having definitely "lost" her?  That's what I'm trying so hard to figure out, and writing this all out is part of the process.  She didn't tell me to get lost.  She said she loves me.  But she also said we can't be together while she figures her life out.  It's confusing.

The main thing is, I've been put into the position of having to trust her absolutely.  If I want her, the only thing I can possibly do is trust her to take care of herself until she decides she's ready for me.  That's the kind of trust a person who loves another person should be able to have, ready to pull out the second it's needed.  It's precisely what I'm trying to do.  But my relationship with her has so far been based on voluntary efforts.  By the very nature of the situation, I now have no choice.

She's doing what she has to do, of that I have no doubt.  I know her well enough to know that she has thought hard about her decision.  But that doesn't make me any less wounded.  I have been good to her.  I have been loyal to her.  I have supported her in everything she's ever tried and done everything she's asked of me.  Every last bit of it was voluntary, because her companionship was a source of constant joy.  When I look at her, or hear her voice, I think "here is a person who is worth all of this, worth everything I can do for her".  How could losing her, even if it is temporary after all, be anything but pain? 

Our third anniversary is in nine days, and it will go by unmarked and uncelebrated.  There will be no presents, no earnest declarations of love.  Only silence and memory.  My heart tells me this is outrageous.  But there's nothing I can do.

When I remember all those train rides and car trips together, or when we went swimming in the ocean, or the meals we cooked for each other, or the camping in the woods and on the beach with her dog, or the books and shows we shared, or the time we danced and she sang to me spontaneously in her parents' kitchen, or all the countless nights I held her in my arms before we went to sleep... it just seems impossible that we were only meant for so little time.  I waited a long time for a love like this to come into my life.  I grew by leaps and bounds to become worthy of someone like her.  To lose something so precious would be more than cruel.

Which brings me back to trust.  All hope is not lost, and I haven't lost her forever.  But just as I have to trust her to be true to herself, she is trusting me to use my time wisely.  Once again, I'm sitting tonight in my mother's house, a thousand miles away from her to begin with.  I'm working for my father, saving a little money as I go, but that can't last forever.  I need to get back to my real home, in Oregon.  I have to build a real life for myself there.  I can't sit still, if I want to show her that she can really trust me to share her life with her.

At least, I think that's what I'm supposed to do? It's the best advice I've gotten.  It resonates inside me.  But I am so afraid, and the one I'd look to for courage can't help me now.  This was never how I wanted things to be, and if there were a god to shake my fists at I'd like to bring the whole heavens down in the act.  But I have no choice but to trust and try.

It is well that we are at the beginning of a new year.  I'm still a young man, and I still have hope.  2015 is off to a traumatic start, but a dramatic evolution may be in the offing.  I'm not ready to give up yet.  I want to be the kind of man who can do this for her.

Darling, on the off-chance that you still check my blog, I want to make you a promise.  I'll do my best.  I love you.