Nier: Automata Log 1

A game that I’ve had my eye on for a couple months now has been Nier: Automata (stylized in production materials as NieR: Automata), but I wasn’t really rushing to get to it until recently when I realized that I was over Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.  I decided that I’d keep a look out for a discount since the game’s been out for about a year, and that’s usually around the time that big budget games start to see price drops.  In the meantime, I enjoyed some time with a smaller scale game, and got ready to revisit Life is Strange one last time with the bonus “Farewell” episode that is supposed to be all about Max and Chloe just before Max moved away to Seattle (I haven’t played that yet; it’s probably best left for a weekend when Rachael and I can set aside a big chunk of time to do the whole episode in one sitting).  Because I rarely buy big budget games outside of special occasions, I decided that I’d also check out the demo for Nier: Automata just to be sure I would actually enjoy the gameplay (it’s one thing to find the story premise intriguing, but I learned from Horizon: Zero Dawn that it’s a good idea to be sure you’ll actually enjoy the mechanics you’ll be engaging with for the majority of your play time).

In the demo, you play as 2B, an android soldier on a mission to eliminate a gigantic machine that’s been located by YorHa intelligence.  The machines are all pretty dopey looking, but they were apparently enough of a threat when they invaded Earth that all of humanity has fled the planet.  Supporting 2B is a little satellite assistant called a Pod; this Pod handles communications with other androids, providing cover fire, and helping with navigation of the area.  The gameplay is a mixture of melee combat with 2B’s weapons and run-n-gun action with the Pod in environments that alternate between three dimensional arenas and two dimensional corridors (in both side-scrolling and overhead varieties); also thrown in for fun are sequences modeled after Gradius and Xevious styled bullet hells (though I haven’t yet encountered anything that was as genuinely difficult as dedicated scrolling shooters).  The result is a pretty eclectic mixture of action game genres that all mesh well with the motif of superhuman androids fighting off waves of modularly built, mass-produced enemies (I’m actually most strongly reminded in terms of premise of the old NES game The Guardian Legend).  The demo concludes with a sequence where 2B finds herself fighting a machine the size of the factory that she just navigated before she and her support partner 9S find themselves surrounded by three more of the giants with no hope of escaping alive.  They initiate a self destruct sequence that destroys them and all of the machines in one massive explosion, which is a pretty good way to end a preview for a game.

I found the demo engaging enough that I decided that yes, I would definitely buy this game when the opportunity arose, and lo, a few days later I bought it digitally on sale (huzzah!).  That meant that I needed to download the whole game, which is not exactly a small task when you have a relatively slow internet connection and fifty gigabytes of data to pull over the line.  Fortunately, as is common with most big digital downloads, the game’s designed so that you can go ahead and start playing after a certain point in the download (presumably for those folks who have nothing else to do while they’re waiting for their downloads to finish).  I jumped in on a lazy Sunday morning to get into the game while it was still finishing up the download, and I ended up playing a nearly identical version of the demo level as the opening sequence.  This was perfectly fine; it’s silly to expect demo assets not to be reused in some way in the full game, but what I found after I finished the level for the second time was that I couldn’t continue until the whole download finished.

Philosophical ponderings were not what I expected after the big explodey bits.

Because 2B and 9S are androids, the self destruct was a pretty obvious fake out; it’s easy to presume that their data was backed up somewhere else, so following the explosion the game would carry on back wherever 2B’s bodies are stored.  What surprised me though was the above screen, which if you select any dialogue choices besides “I don’t care,” you’ll quickly find that it’s an infinite loop of meditations on the nature of existence.  If you opt out, the game tells you that it can’t continue yet because it hasn’t finished downloading, but if you want to quit you can always start over later.

I did not want to start over and play the starter level a third time, so I ended up leaving the game to finish its download (which took an additional two hours according to the game’s play timer).  Consequently, even though I’ve played the same content of the game over twice now, I’m finding that I quite enjoy it; I’m hoping that this will be a nice change from the boring gruffness that is The Phantom Pain.


What Remains of What Remains of Edith Finch

After I finished the last Phantom Pain post, I realized that I had reached a point where I didn’t have much else to say about the game as a whole.  I’ve completed about a third of it, and I am firmly convinced that it’s not really going to get much more interesting than what I’ve seen already, so I started casting about for something else to play.  I have Final Fantasy XV waiting in the wings, but I really wanted to cleanse my pallet of Japanese games about dudes having feelings in the direction of other dudes (you’d think that sort of game genre would be ripe for interesting storytelling, but it generally just devolves into wangst that ignores the existence, let alone complexity, of other people).  At the recommendation of a friend (thanks, Jenn!) I picked up What Remains of Edith Finch, a game in the pejoratively nicknamed genre of walking simulators.

The thing with the phrase “walking simulator” is that it implies that not much is done in a game belonging to the genre besides walking.  From a purely mechanical perspective this is relatively true; these sorts of games don’t really have a failure condition in place that requires the player to demonstrate some kind of skill to be able to proceed through the game’s sequence of events; all you have to be able to do is navigate the avatar from one location to another within the environment.  What this description de-emphasizes is that these games are built to prioritize narrative over mechanics.  So many big budget, high profile games are built on refining and perfecting certain systems of gameplay while treating story as a secondary concern (this is why so many big budget, high profile games have boring, predictable stories in comparison to what’s written for other forms of media), and a large part of the “hardcore gamer” community prefers to value the former aspects of a game over the latter (I kind of shudder to even mention the “gamer” community these days; it feels like an incredibly alien space with which I’d rather not associate).  So “walking simulator” isn’t really a good moniker for the genre because it’s rooted in disdain instead of genuine description.  Rachael and I have had conversations about the term, and I always have to emphasize that I actually really like these kinds of games, and all of this is to say that I’d like to stop using a phrase that implies something weird and exclusionary left over from past days immersed in the “gamer” identity.  The big problem is settling on a name that’s descriptive while also emphasizing the strengths of the genre; I think something like “narrative environment” might work since the genre clearly hews pretty closely to video gaming’s roots in interactive fiction although that phrase feels a little clunky (“walking simulator” feels so persistent because it kind of rolls off the tongue).  If anyone has any thoughts on what to call these games, I’d like to hear input.

This game does have some truly beautiful imagery.

Okay, setting aside that tangent, let’s talk about What Remains of Edith Finch.  There are a lot of positive things to say about this game.  The whole vibe is heavily reminiscent of Big Fish (more so the movie than the novel) with generous doses of magical realism mixed in with a story about memory, memorial, and coping with mortality.  You play as the eponymous Edith Finch, a young woman who has just returned to her family’s home in the Pacific Northwest after her mother’s death.  The house is a mess of sealed up rooms and books, all hoarded over the years by the Finch family matriarch Edie, Edith’s great-grandmother (Edith’s mother Dawn sealed the rooms, but Edie is the one who turned them all into memorials).  As Edith wanders through the house, preserved exactly as it was the night that her mother took her away, the player encounters individual memorials to the many Finch family members who died over the course of Edie’s life; each one contains some sort of record of how the person died, and as Edith reads over it, the player is transported into the story of that person’s death from their perspective.

These sequences are almost universally fantastic in nature, highlighting the child’s (nearly all of the Finches die as children) particular imaginary quirks.  With the exception of Dawn’s father Sam, none of the sequences attempt to present their subject’s death in a realistic way, although the circumstances make it clear how each person ultimately died.  These are stories meant to delight all the way up until the moment that they turn tragic.

The narrative tension throughout Edith’s review of her family’s history arises from the differing opinions of Dawn and Edie.  Edie has spent her entire life watching her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren die, and she processes her grief through elaborate preservation of what she remembers about them.  Dawn has also experienced a tremendous amount of traumatic loss (in the story of how her father Sam dies, we see that Dawn was witness to the whole thing), but she prefers not to hold on so tightly to the past.  Edith is Dawn and Edie’s ideological battleground, as we get snippets in Edith’s reminiscences about her childhood of the constant back-and-forth between her mother and great-grandmother.  The question at the center of the story is whether Edith, in returning to her family’s home, is going to embrace the Dawn’s shutting away of the past or Edie’s revelry in it.

Unfortunately, the ending disappoints on that front.  Every aspect of the game up to its last twenty minutes feels perfectly tuned to exploring that question, but then things go off rails dramatically.  Instead of offering a resolution on the question that Rachael and I were most interested in, the game instead opts to finish on an ending that feels designed to fit in with the motifs of the game rather than present a final statement on its themes.  It’s incredibly frustrating, especially because it feels like a really common problem in many narrative environment games.  Of the ones that I’ve either played or watched myself, the only ones that I can think of as having a really solid, satisfying ending are Gone Home, which offers a really positive twist on the over-used trope of queer tragedy, and The Beginner’s Guide, which is such a massively meta-textual thing that the ambiguity of its ending dovetails nicely with the questions it evokes.

I suppose that sometimes it’s just hard to write endings.

Yes, this is you playing as a shark trying to roll downhill to get into the water. This game goes places.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #14”

In the middle of this arc featuring a lot of excellent artists who are also not Jamie McKelvie, we get an issue drawn by Jamie McKelvie, but composed almost entirely of recycled artwork from previous issues.  Kieron Gillen affectionately calls this the “remix issue” in the production notes in the back of the Commercial Suicide trade, which is a fitting structural feat in an issue that serves to both recap the events of the first year of published issues from the perspective of a character who wasn’t in the spotlight for most of that time and explore the character of Woden who takes significant inspiration from artists who specialize in sampling and remixing artists’ work to make something transformative.  Also, because Woden is a colossal jerk, it’s a way to subtly troll any readers who get excited by the prospect of getting an issue with new McKelvie art (what can I say; the dude draws well).

Meanwhile, this jerk. Major props to McKelvie for making a dude look like a smug jerk just by the tilt of his head. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover follows in the same style as the others in this arc: our focal character Woden is featured in a full body shot that cuts off the top half of his face (which is already obscured by his ever present helmet).  This whole issue is spent inside Woden’s head, so we’re going to take a deep dive on a character that we’ve only seen from the outside.  It’s very much of a piece with what Gillen did in the last issue with Tara, but here the twist is that there’s really nothing redeeming happening behind Woden’s mask; he’s just as terrible as the impression he gives to Laura in issue seven.  Instead of hidden depths, we’re getting to see the void behind that shiny, alien surface.

This is to say, Woden’s awful.

It turns out he’s a slightly more nuanced form of awful, but if at the end of this issue you still essentially think, “Wow, Woden is awful,” then you really haven’t missed a whole lot.

The recap is broken down into four primary scenes of import with a smattering of other smaller moments that Woden was witness to in the course of the series.  The major ones begin with Woden’s near-death experience at the hands Kerry (stage name Brunhilde), an ex-Valkyrie who was cut loose for gossiping about Woden without his permission.  We saw this scene from Laura’s perspective back in issue seven, and the emphasis there was on how traumatic it had to have been for Minerva because she was forced to seriously injure someone that most members of the Pantheon viewed as a friend.  Woden’s recollection is much more focused on his own fear at having a loaded gun pointed at his face, which is understandable.  Mixed in with the anxiety that stems from the near-death experience is a major dose of self loathing; “I deserve it,” Woden thinks to himself as he imagines his head being violently turned inside out.

It’s important to note that all of the moments of genuine reflection on Woden’s awfulness are entirely internal; he has multiple conversations throughout the issue with both Ananke (for whom he’s toadying) and Cassandra (for whom he’s doing his twisted version of pining), but neither the person who knows him best nor the person who he’s most interested in pursuing intimately (for some value of intimacy that very, very loosely fits the generally accepted definition) serves as an outlet for his most genuine thoughts.  Woden does not do vulnerability.  Period.

That doesn’t stop Woden from trying in his emotionally stunted way to flirt with Cassandra at Dionysus’s party.  The purpose of their exchange was to bring Cassandra in so that Ananke could get a better look at whatever quality it is that lets her know if someone has god potential, but in finally getting the nitty gritty of the conversation it becomes clear that there’s more to what Woden’s doing than just playing fetch for his master.  He tries to connect with Cassandra intellectually, laying out in plain terms his contempt for the Valkyries and his respect for her disinterest in being a hanger on before launching into a critique of patriarchy that comes across as genuine if unabashedly cynical.  Woden can’t open up emotionally, but he appears to feel an intellectual connection with Cassandra because she’s a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, which is probably how Woden sees himself at his best.  Of course, Woden can’t go any further than an intellectual relationship, so even when Cassandra offers the tiniest olive branch by recognizing that Woden is genuinely smart (in the same breath she also calls him evil) he can’t respond in any way for to lash out with his own self-pity and misanthropy.

Woden’s game is… not good. Also, I wanted an excuse to re-post Cassandra’s disgusted condescension face. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The third key scene unveils the answer to the series’s very first mystery with pretty much no fanfare: Ananke, spying on the court proceedings through a scrying device Woden has planted on Amaterasu (he’s very proud of the fact that she sleeps in the piece of jewelry; ew.), takes advantage of Lucifer’s showboating to frame her for the judge’s murder.  That’s right, Ananke, the woman that has done a lot of shady things since we met her (including executing Lucifer in broad daylight) was the culprit all along.  It’s good to have that mystery finally wrapped up (even if there’s not yet any resolution on Ananke receiving justice for whatever it is that she’s playing at with all these headsplosions), but this is probably the moment in the series where readers will realize with some finality that the point of the story has gone a lot further than a simple supernatural murder mystery.  That judge’s head was just the catalyst for setting off a much more complex story about a lot of really messed up people.

Don’t mess with Ananke. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

There’s no plot relevant reason to use this panel, but it’s one of those times when Woden amuses me. Also, Matt Wilson deserves a lot of props for his coloring making all the recycled art still look new and interesting. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The last key scene is Woden’s recollection of all the cleanup he’s had to do for Ananke’s murder spree (this follows a genuinely funny recap of the fight between Lucifer and Baal where Woden provides his interpretation of the subtext of the conversation that the two had while they were beating each other up).  In the wake of Baphomet’s attack on Inanna, Woden is feeling super jumpy, and he snaps at Ananke when she orders him to clean up the mess at the Wilson residence.  This is a moment of honesty on Woden’s part, and he immediately regrets letting his guard down.  It’s all a product of the mounting tension that Woden’s feeling from all he’s lost in becoming a god; though it’s never discussed explicitly, we know that he did something that requires him to wear a helmet all the time, and being party to Ananke’s plots cuts him off from everyone else who might be able to relate at least a little bit.

It’s interesting to see how Woden is operating under all this pressure, but it doesn’t really serve to generate any sympathy for him as a character.  Even the characters whom he’s closest to showing vulnerability hold him in contempt in a way that just shuts him off from the reader.  The stinger of the issue reveals that Woden has been reflecting aloud to someone else wearing a stylized helmet very similar to his own with the insistence that though he’s not sure who Ananke will be after next, he won’t let her take this unknown person.

Guest Post: Stardew Valley Is Survival Horror

A little while ago, Rachael played the Harvest Moon-like farming sim Stardew Valley, and after she finished her first two years of game play, she had thoughts.  She’s given me permission to collect the Twitter thread where she discussed all manner of things about the hidden horrors of the valley on my blog, so here are those tweets for posterity’s amusement.

Yaaaas! (Queer Eye is Good)

Depending on how much energy we have after any given week, Rachael and I often decide to kick the weekend off with a little bit of comforting television.  We recently finished re-watching The Good Place and our latest push through Arrested Development rather predictably stalled out at the start of the fourth season (why is it so hard to get into that season?), so we were on the lookout for something new to watch.  On a whim, we decided to check out Netflix’s new series Queer Eye, a reboot of the old reality TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  Rachael had heard from friends that it was a really fun, light thing to watch, so we gave it a shot.  After the first episode finished we were charmed, and we decided we’d take our time watching it.

The next day we watched four more episodes.


Title card for the Netflix reboot. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

As I’m sitting down to write this post, we’ve watched all but the final episode of the first season (it’s early Sunday afternoon), and we’re really taken with the whole premise.  I never saw the original show, and I don’t think Rachael did either, so I wasn’t really sure how much I’d enjoy the makeover format, but it turns out that I quite love it.  Having a show that focuses on helping men learn how to embrace their own sense of style and working to de-stigmatize certain self care rituals that are typically reserved for women is really engaging television.

The setup goes like this: a concerned friend or family member of a dude who needs some help shaping up his life asks the show to intervene, and then the “Fab 5,” a group of five gay guys who are each experts in different aspects of personal lifestyle descend on the beneficiary’s living space for a week and conduct a holistic overhaul of the way he’s living.  He gets advice on how to dress better in a way that’s authentic to his personality and means (I love that the show is conscious of tailoring each dude’s makeover to be reasonably sustainable for what the rest of his life looks like), how to better groom himself (this is the segment that most heavily emphasizes the value of forms of self care that often get derided for being too feminine for masculine men), how to arrange his living space for the kinds of activities he wants to be able to enjoy at home, how to be a little more competent in the kitchen (usually through a tutorial on how to prepare one relatively simple meal), and how to be more confident in being the kind of person he wants to be (this last aspect of the makeover is the most freeform with activities ranging from climbing trees to getting a lesson on how to taste whiskey, whatever the show determines would be most helpful for the guy getting the makeover to better meet his own personal goals).  On top of all these superficial activities, the Fab 5 act as a team of life coaches for the week, getting to know the guy and trying to tease out what he wants and what they think he needs all while having what passes for deep, intimate conversation in reality television.

I probably need to modify that last statement; it’s clear from the first episode that there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes to help the producers craft a satisfying narrative for the audience, but nothing seems to happen without the consent of the people being featured.  Stuff that happens on camera is clearly staged sometimes, but the content of the conversations still feels sincere for the most part.  Most episodes feature a segment that’s clearly social justice oriented as the hosts engage their subjects on some topic related to the individual’s personal biases or needs; the first episode features a conversation on a car ride where Bobby and Jonathan, the experts on home decor and grooming respectively, correct their charge’s misconceptions about gay relationships and the assumption that between two partners there needs to be both a masculine and a feminine role.  In the third episode (probably the season’s low point) Karamo, the only Black man among the Fab 5, gets pulled over by a cop who turns out to be the sponsor of their subject and then later has a conversation about the tension between Black people and the police.  None of these conversations ever get especially deep, but they underline the show’s ethos of chipping away at toxic masculinity in general and dispelling misconceptions about gay men in particular.  The sheer diversity of personalities displayed by the Fab 5 help reinforce this idea; Antoni, the culinary expert, comes across as relatively reserved and presents as the most typically masculine of the group while Jonathan is extremely gregarious and feminine (he delights in flirting with the subjects as a way to help boost their confidence as they undergo their transformations).  All of the Fab 5 are clearly “types” as necessitated by the reality TV format, but they’re distinct types within the broad category of gay men, and they all have plenty of opportunities over the course of the show to discuss how their personalities are dictated more by what feels authentic to them than by any sort of societal expectations based on their sexuality.  All of this is most prominently displayed in the season’s fourth episode, where the Fab 5 have the task of helping coach a gay man through coming out to his stepmother as part of moving forward with his life.

Beyond the general positive vibes that the show puts forth, I also find it really fun for a totally esoteric reason: the first season is set in Atlanta, and even though I’m really happy living in Portland, I do get twinges of nostalgia for my home.  Most of the neighborhoods that they visit are familiar to me, and the personalities of the guys featured all match men I’ve known in Georgia.  I have to roll my eyes at the MAGA cop and the church dude, but even they get presented in the best light possible here so that you end up hoping that their lives are improved a little bit by their participation in Queer Eye (the stuff about toxic masculinity applies most strongly to them, and it’s hard to see these gay men doing so much emotional labor to get these guys to move just a little towards a more inclusive attitude about people who are different).  It’s just a really good snapshot of the sorts of folks that coexist in Atlanta, and I admit there’s a strong sense of nostalgia that compels me to watch beyond my interest in the basic premise; I expect that if the show is a big enough hit that Netflix produces more seasons they’ll likely set up in different metropolitan areas in the future, but I definitely feel some comfort seeing my hometown featured so prominently.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #13”

Do you remember, way back in issue five, when the cover featured a portrait of Tara, the enigmatic god that everyone seems to inexplicably hate?  You remember how irritating it was to have a character teased on the cover to discover that she actually has absolutely no role in the story contained inside?  And we’re not talking like with the last issue where Inanna, who has just died, appears on the cover because the whole thing is consumed with the impression he’s left on Baal; Tara is completely irrelevant to the issue where Lucifer is killed.  I think that’s primarily because Gillen and McKelvie decided they wanted to have some fun with the covers playing off images on the first page of each issue in the opening arc, but it was still infuriating early in the series when I at least was hungry to find out more about the cast of character inhabiting this world.

On close inspection, I think the only thing about this cover that makes it slightly less creepy given the issue’s subject is the fact that Tara has that signature sneer that McKelvie draws on all his characters. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Anyway, this issue again features Tara on the cover (and like with the last one, her face is obscured so that we’re left only with a very impersonal image of her body), but this issue is also all about her, so we can let go of our disappointment and impotent rage that this series’s creators played a trick on us.  How dare they tease us like this with the promise of a character and then withhold that from their fans?  It’s monstrous!  Give us what we want!

Now, in reality I’m not actually that put out about the issue five bait-and-switch.  You have to be pretty forgiving of getting your expectations upended when you read The Wicked + The Divine, because it happens a lot.  The point I’m trying to make (perhaps poorly) is that fan entitlement is something that artists feel acutely, especially when they try to offer something very different from what their audience expects.  Tara is the rather explicit metaphor for that dynamic but carried to its furthest extremes.  Mild annoyance at having a cover promise one thing before giving something else morphs into Tara’s persistent desire to set aside her divinity and engage her fans as just a singer/songwriter.  The flashy miracles got their attention, but she’s hoping to share something that actually takes work on her part rather than the apparent ease with which the gods perform.  Unfortunately for Tara, most of her fans don’t appreciate what she’s trying to do, and they turn on her quickly.

Probably the most significant thing to consider throughout Tara’s trials is that there’s some barely contained rage inside her. She’s aware that she could destroy the entire crowd, but she constantly holds back. (Artwork by Tula Lotay, letters by Clayton Cowles)

It’s not just about Tara wanting to be a different kind of artist from the one that audiences want though.  That’s the broad shape of the conflict between her and her fans, but there’s a lot more to it.  The most salient aspect of Tara’s complicated relationship with her fans is the fact that she’s a beautiful woman; this issue flashes back to give us a few key scenes from Tara’s life growing up where we can see that even from a young age she was sexualized by men without her consent.  Her experience as a person has been shaped by instances where the people around her both reduced her to a beautiful object and expected her to willingly take the perceived advantages that beauty offers.  Becoming a god is essentially an extension of that same theme in Tara’s life; when you understand that it’s all tied up in the trauma of repeated sexual objectification it becomes a lot easier to understand why she dislikes performing miracles.  Gillen’s drawing a clear connection between the entitlement of casual sexism and the entitlement of fandom.

The way that Tara has chosen to try to fight back against all these forces that are slowly crushing her is to embrace a socially unacceptable persona.  She dresses in a way that emphasizes her sexuality while maintaining an attitude that communicates complete unavailability.  Unlike Inanna, who endlessly projects interest and concern for the people he’s with, or Lucifer, who thrives on making people feel slightly uncomfortable, Tara mode of interaction with people defaults to general disdain.  She knows that she’ll be objectified and harassed regardless of how she presents, so she dives neck deep into imperious indifference to the lowly mortals.  If we had met Tara before this issue, our impression as readers would likely be similar to the way other characters describe her; instead we’re invited to see the internal life of this largely enigmatic character, and we find that her public performance is entirely about self preservation.  Even when she engages in the most authentic expression she can offer through her songs and poetry, Tara defaults to wearing the mask that’s a signature part of her look.  She chooses to hide her face so that she can be judged purely on her art, and folks generally don’t care (it’s in the innate silence of the comics medium that we find ambiguity about Tara’s talent; there’s no way to tell if her songs are actually not very good or if they just pale in comparison to the ecstatic feeling that fans apparently have when they witness gods perform).

You see throughout this issue that Tara hides her face in public when she’s trying to offer a more authentic version of herself, but in private with Ananke she does the reverse as part of the issue’s emotional climax. (Artwork by Tula Lotay, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The revelation of the issue is that Tara, tired of being crushed by the unreasonable expectations of the public (exemplified in a two page spread of Twitter comments that are meant to give just a snapshot of the endless harassment Tara experiences as a public figure), has asked Ananke to help her die.  Constantly fending off a public that can’t differentiate between its hatred of her and its desire to have sex with her is too much to bear.  Ananke obliges her, and Tara, whom we know so very little about at all, dies in the same way as Lucifer and Laura.  To underscore the sinister nature of this whole sequence of events, Ananke destroys Tara’s suicide note and burns her body so no one will be able to tell that she died by decapitation.  Compounding those indignities (on top of all the others Tara suffers in her life), is the fact that Ananke asks Tara to perform as a god before her death.  On a purely textual level, this is pragmatism; the gods are at their most vulnerable when they perform, which makes it the opportune time to hurt them.  Thematically, this is one last twist of the knife on Tara, who can’t even die without bowing to the needs of others.

Tara ultimately acknowledges that her divinity is as much a part of herself as her singing, but that doesn’t change how she resents that it overshadows what she wants people to see in her. (Artwork by Tula Lotay, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Finishing the issue is another one page comic drawn by McKelvie, this time of a scene at a movie premier where a sleazy reporter tries to interview Tara before she walks away from him without answering any questions.  The reporter’s camera operator lingers over Tara’s body, cutting her face out of one panel (this bit’s highly reminiscent of the issue cover in some really uncomfortable ways) while the reporter asks her questions about her appearance, insinuating that she’s had plastic surgery.  Tara’s only dialogue on this page serves to correct the camera operator (“I’m up here.”); as soon as she understands what the questioning will be about she gives the reporter no more of her time, leading him to express his exasperation that she’s once again being a difficult celebrity.  It’s an incredibly dark endcap on Tara’s story, presenting us with an example of how everyone else in the world perceives her following an in-depth exploration of her internal life.  As a study of one specific character, this is easily one of my favorite issues of the series, sad as it may be.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Log 4

Up to this point I’ve sort of avoided discussing a relatively prominent part of The Phantom Pain‘s core gameplay: the buddy system.  It starts out as a pretty innocuous thing; on your first post-prologue mission you find yourself with a horse for faster travel across the war zone Ocelot has brought you to.  The horse is good for getting around, but it’s not really important to have for infiltration, so you don’t think too much about having it.  After you play a few missions you realize that you’re developing a bond with this horse; right around the time you get it to fifty percent friendliness (because in video games you can always quantify friendship) the horse decides it likes you enough that it will poop on command.  I don’t know if this serves any practical function (it probably can be used to distract enemy soldiers, but I haven’t experimented too much with the scatological aspects of the game), but it’s silly like so many other things in Metal Gear Solid (I guarantee you’ll give the poop command at least a couple times just to hear Keifer Sutherland say to a horse, “Do it.”) and charming in its own weird way.

Congratulations, you’ve just been tutored in the basics of how buddies work!

I’m not sure how many buddies there are in the game, but of the four that I’ve acquired so far, I’ve noticed a pattern that’s charming right up until you reach the fourth buddy.  See if you can see where this is going.

After the horse, the next buddy you can bring along with you is a dog that Big Boss rescued from the battlefield while it was still a puppy.  While you’re off doing soldier things, Ocelot trains this dog in the ways of combat (and apparently at some point ended up injuring the dog so that it lost an eye) and names it DD (for Diamond Dog, obviously).  The dog is a very different sort of companion from the horse.  It’s no good for transporting incapacitated soldiers, and no matter how much you may wish otherwise, Big Boss cannot ride DD.  Instead, the dog serves as an early warning system for nearby enemies; it can detect them from a distance and let you know where enemies are located before you have line of sight on them, which is an extremely valuable perk to have.  DD is also capable of attacking soldiers with various levels of lethality depending on how you’ve outfitted your dog, and it can lure enemies from a distance with its bark.  Like all dogs, DD is a good one.  As with the horse, DD improves as your bond with it improves; your bond increases by taking the dog on missions.

The third buddy offers a twist; it’s a robot.  I have not used the robot at all because I really like DD (not because it’s a dog, but because it’s a functional enemy detector; I am one of those monstrous people who in real life is totally neutral about dogs); also, there’s no bond to improve (the game rewards you little bonuses for doing things like maxing out the bond with your various buddies) because, duh, it’s a robot.  The robot looks like it could be fun, but whatever.

Now up to this point, you can probably guess the pattern with buddies.  They provide a really nice gameplay perk of one sort or another, and there’s a slight edge of silliness to the whole endeavor.  Buddies are like your loyal companions who come along just to further bolster the legend of Big Boss and his amazing battlefield prowess.  This is perfectly fine until you get to the fourth buddy: Quiet.

This is the high point of Quiet’s story: she’s about to shoot the pilot of an enemy plane from an absurd distance at very high speed with her sniper rifle. It’s all downhill from here.

The first time you hear about Quiet is from a random conversation that some soldiers will occasionally have in the first warzone, Afghanistan.  They’re talking about the rumors of a sniper who’s virtually undetectable, but whom all the witnesses who claim to have seen her describe as naked.  In the course of Big Boss’s wanderings through Afghanistan, he finally has an encounter with Quiet, who naturally wants to kill him.  You could theoretically ignore her just run away, but fights with snipers in Metal Gear Solid are always fun affairs, so you’ll probably engage her and then take her prisoner.  Quiet’s not naked really, but she is wearing the absolute minimum for Western standards of decency.  She also says absolutely nothing (why do you think everyone calls her Quiet?).  Congratulations, you’ve just recruited a straight thirteen-year-old boy’s actual sex fantasy as your outfit’s crack sniper.

There are so many things wrong with Quiet’s character concept that it feels almost a little mean to point them out for the sake of ridiculing the men (of course they were men) who created her, but then I remember that there was this huge PR campaign when Quiet was *ahem* revealed as a major character in The Phantom Pain that went to great lengths to try to sell her concept as completely justified and not at all misogynist.  “There’s a great reason why she wears no clothes in the context of the story, and you’ll understand why she looks the way she does once you get that part of the story!” they crowed.

Yeah, no.

If anything, the justification for Quiet wearing practically nothing makes her even more problematic than just saying she’s a woman who doesn’t wear clothing; if they had said, “our hot woman sniper in this game is a nudist!” I would have rolled my eyes at crappy characterization and the uncomfortable juxtaposition of female objectification and gun porn.  Instead, they chose to go the route of trauma-based nudity.  Quiet doesn’t wear clothes because she was horribly burned after a botched assassination attempt on Big Boss (which you witness in the game’s prologue), and the treatment to save her life has changed her physiology so that she breathes and absorbs nutrients directly through her skin.  Wearing clothes would literally suffocate her!

batman facepalm GIF by WE tv

(Image credit: Giphy)

Do I really need to spell out how messed up it is to justify a highly sexualized character because of violent trauma that takes away her ability to choose how she presents herself and also her voice?  This is like a crowning achievement in Metal Gear misogyny, which is saying something because the female characters in this series have always gotten a raw deal.

Anyway, to add insult to injury, Quiet serves a gameplay purpose as your fourth buddy.  She has a bond meter just like the dog and the horse (building bond with her allows you to develop more powerful sniper rifles for her use and also alternate costumes that are just different colors of body paint).  Her function in the game is to serve as an advance scout for a base, pinpointing enemy locations before you arrive to do infiltration, and to provide sniper support if things go south.  If you get spotted by enemies near an area she’s watching, she’ll immediately start shooting at soldiers to help you out.  She provides really useful support, but the cost of using her is knowing that you’re contributing to the same mindset that has in past games given us the dog companion and Elizabeth.  I find this whole thing very troubling, and I warn anyone who hasn’t played The Phantom Pain that the game suffers from a severe undercurrent of misogyny.

So that’s the buddy system.

~One of these ones is not like the other ones.