It’s An Old Song

I’ve been listening to Hadestown on a continuous loop for the last week at work, and I think I’m finally familiar with it to start picking apart the story.  The basic structure of the musical is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but set in something like the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression.  I originally didn’t get why this particular setting would be so vital to the story as a whole, but it’s become more clear to me over time.  The core of the standard Orpheus myth is Orpheus’s devotion to Eurydice even beyond death; he challenges Hades to reclaim his dead bride and wins but only on the condition that he can leave the Underworld without looking back to make sure Hades has kept his word.  Because the ancient Greeks weren’t really in the business of giving their heroes happy endings, Orpheus almost makes it, but just before he emerges he glances over his shoulder and Eurydice’s spirit, which had been silently following him, vanishes.

Hadestown: The Myth. The Musical.

Cover of the original cast recording album. (Image credit: Amazon)

Taken at face value, there’s a pretty clear motif around the finality death and the futility of trying to do anything besides accept its inevitability.  Orpheus can win temporarily, but that’s small comfort.  What Hadestown does with this basic story is expand and complicate it with additional thematic layers around the nature of love and the tension between craving both freedom and security.  Hades and Persephone, who lack much in the way of personality and motivation beyond their role as generic rulers of the afterlife, become deeply textured when recast as a work obsessed industrialist and his unhappy, freedom craving wife.  Orpheus and Eurydice, who are also relatively flat in the original story, also become interesting foils to the gods with whom they get entangled.

The parallel love stories of the two couples work as a study in alternate pathways.  The great tragedy of Hades and Persephone (here with a rewritten history that considers them as lovers whose relationship soured rather than an abductor who caught and tricked his unwilling victim into marriage) is that Hades, who has become preoccupied with creating a great artificial monument to his love for his wife, has lost touch with what she genuinely loves.  Hades is consumed with proving that he can keep Persephone, and he’s descended into obsession with work for work’s sake because he sees only uncertainty and instability in the prospect of letting go.  Persephone remembers the early days of their relationship fondly, but she’s continually repulsed by Hades’s inability to see how he drives her away.  That she takes her obligatory winters in his factory town as an opportunity to smuggle in some memories of better times for Hades’s trapped workers.  The musical puts heavy emphasis on Persephone’s higher nature as a fertility goddess; the opening scene shows her delighting in providing food and drink for the revelers before Hades arrives to take her back to his home for the winter.  That Hades seems totally oblivious to what Persephone clearly enjoys doing (perhaps partly because he’s unaware of what she gets up to when he’s not looking) underlines how far fallen their relationship is.

On the flip side are Orpheus and Eurydice, here a pair of young lovers who are just beginning in a world that’s full of possibility and uncertainty.  Orpheus has his head in the clouds, preoccupied with writing his songs and enjoying life in the moment.  Eurydice loves this about him, but as the winter sets in and things become harder, she feels the pinch of Orpheus’s idle attitude.  Hades offers her the security of a steady job, and she accepts because her beloved has gone off to compose without doing any preparation for the lean times.  Persephone’s contempt for Hades’s industry is inverted into Eurydice’s worry over Orpheus’s lack of forethought.  Both sets of lovers have their problems.

What I keep striking on with the dynamic between the four main characters is the tension between work as security and idleness as freedom.  Orpheus is presented as foolish for not considering the onset of winter, which is what makes Hades’s offer to Eurydice feel appealing, at least in the short term.  There’s the inevitable betrayal as she learns that working for Hades means giving up all freedom for the rest of her life, but that central need to be warm and well fed is a real one, and it’s undeniable that a moderated version of Hades’s offer wouldn’t be the worst thing.  The real problem (as I see it, anyway) is that Hades’s version of work is meaningless make-work.  He builds the wall around Hadestown because it gives his employees something to do and it feeds his obsession with security, not because it actually serves a real purpose.  The Dust Bowl setting figures in significantly here, as this is all contextualized by a larger economic crisis where the government genuinely was generating public works projects that had the primary purpose of giving people something to do so that they could collect a paycheck.  The indignity was largely considered to be the lack of available work instead of the more basic lack of available resources (I’m currently reading Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber which has many things to say about the fictions we tell ourselves to justify the distribution of resources).  Hades’s offer sounds like relief in this context, and in a world of extreme scarcity, it sort of is.  Persephone’s contempt and Orpheus’s carefree attitude with regard to work are rooted in the privilege of having their needs met automatically.

There’s a lot more to this version of the story that could still be pulled apart, but I think that’s enough for the time being.  I’m fascinated with the dynamics among the central characters, particularly with how Hades is portrayed.  His error seems to me to be one of degree rather than kind, and although he still leaves Orpheus in a bind with the deal they strike, I can’t bring myself to see him as a villain.  I need to think some more about how he’s characterized and the way his flaws drive the rest of the action in the story.

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Reading Delver #2

After reading the first issue of this miniseries, I inadvertently got hooked, so I figured I’d continue doing write ups on it as it comes out.  Naturally, “as it comes out” means I wait a month to process my thoughts while I work on other stuff, but you probably get that if you’re a regular reader of my comics posts.

Anyway.

The first issue of Delver worked primarily as exposition for the story’s premise.  A small village called Oddgoat (because they breed, well, odd goats) in the middle of nowhere suddenly has an entrance to Dungeon, a magical underground labyrinth filled with endless piles of treasure and danger, open up in one of the locals’ food cellars.  Adventurers start wandering in from all over to take advantage of the new entrance to Dungeon, and the influx of travelers combined with the outflux of loot begins to drastically change the local economy in ways that displace Oddgoat’s residents.  Families adapt either by moving away or getting into the adventurer service industry.  Merit, our protagonist, does the latter, selling her sister’s homemade stew to hungry adventurers for the gold that’s turned into the lifeblood of the economy (compared with the mostly sustenance-based accrual of resources that the farmers and goatherds previously relied upon).

Cover to Delver #2. (Cover by Clive Hawken & Maarta Laiho; Image credit: Comic Vine)

In the second issue we settle down from the general view of how the village is impacted to focus on Merit specifically.  She features on the cover of the second issue, looking on towards the sword that comprises the series’s logo.  The implications are pretty clear: selling food to adventurers isn’t enough for Merit anymore; she wants to do something more ambitious.  The kind nameless adventurer from the first issue who bought some of Merit’s stew fends off a fire breathing dragon in the background, reminding the reader that Merit’s new vocation will carry high risks as well as high rewards.

Given this promised framework, the issue sets about establishing how things have changed in Oddgoat in the three months following Dungeon’s opening.  Where the first few weeks pointed towards a boom time, it hasn’t taken long for the economy to shift and mutate into a thing that’s mostly inaccessible for the locals.  Adventurers who initially paid for services with gold now offer up loot from their explorations.  The local families can’t do anything with the treasure or convert it into more easily transportable currency, and so small operations like Merit’s stew stand are locked out of the trade economy.  Some families have resorted to renting out their homes because they have nothing else they can offer the adventurers anymore; others have gone ahead with their decision to move away, and the ones remaining behind await word of where the new settlement has sprung up so they can follow with their less able-bodied family members.  Merit’s family is no longer bringing in money with the stew stand, and her father and brother are being forced to take their goats farther afield to graze with all the space near the village now occupied by the new arrivals.  Everyone’s way of life is being fundamentally changed, and not everyone can adapt to the new status quo.

When you really think about it, the loot selling economic system of most fantasy adventure stories is messed up. (Artwork by Clive Hawken, colors by Maarta Laiho, letters by Ed Dukeshire)

For Merit, this situation is untenable enough that she’s eager to try her own hand at delving.  The prospect of having to move with her family and her own exceptional strength (for a farmer) are catalyst enough to make her seriously consider going into Dungeon after she catches a scoundrel of an adventurer sleeping under her stew stand and he offers to give her fighting lessons as payment for the aforementioned squatting.  That he ditches her as soon as a buddy gets his sword out of pawn gives us a clear enough picture of the nature of the relationship.  Merit shows some talent, but the dude is only interested in mollifying her so that he can keep his shelter until he gets back on his feet.  It feels like a con job, and I’m slightly worried that Merit will be getting in over her head when she goes into Dungeon under prepared.

Clem is a delightful mess. (Artwork by Clive Hawken, colors by Maarta Laiho, letters by Ed Dukeshire)

The upshot of all this is that Merit does make a genuine friend and adventuring partner when she meets Clem, a third generation descendant of an especially successful delver whose family lived off the accumulated wealth from Dungeon until it ran out with her.  Clem’s whole backstory feels like a brief commentary on the way wealth tends to dwindle over time in a family if they don’t do anything to maintain it (or maybe the way it should dwindle over time).  Fortunately she’s not at all spoiled, which is always a thing to be wary of when it comes to folks who come from moneyed families.  I’m looking forward to seeing her and Merit getting into some trouble in the next issue, although I hope it’s not too much trouble.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Log 2

I got to spend a few more hours with the game over the weekend, and I am generally on board with the whole premise that I have to go to planets and do random stuff to help increase the viability of colonies there so that the Andromeda Initiative doesn’t have a total party wipe six hundred years after they last hit a save point.  The first major planet, Eos, is a vibrant wasteland full of giant acid spitting bugs, varying levels of radiation hazards, and all the killer robots anyone could ever want to smash.  Combat is generally challenging, but I think I generally enjoy the exploration more than the gunplay.  Wiping and having to redo a firefight four times because of dumb luck is not the most fun thing, especially when you’ve gone for an ability heavy, minimal gun use build (I intimately know the importance of getting those recharge  times down on my skills).

The unveiling of the game’s car, the Nomad, elicited a small groan from me.  Mass Effect‘s history with exploration vehicles is not the best, but in the case of the Mako it was mainly because of the map design more than any fault in the car’s controls.  Desolate rocky terrain with poor visual markers of viable paths just didn’t make for fun exploration way back in the first game.  In retrospect, probably the best thing the designers could have done for the Mako was design the planet maps with more hard boundaries to keep me and probably every other player from trying to beeline to points of interest over mountains that were too steep to traverse in the first place.  I’ve not seen that mistake being repeated with Andromeda, but I’ve only been exploring Eos, which is obviously the first world where all the exploration bits get showcased (I would hope they’d be really thoughtful about how you introduce a major aspect of gameplay to make it as appealing as possible).  I finished my last play session by opening up more of the galaxy, so I haven’t seen what the side planets look like in terms of design.  At the very least, I’m feeling cautiously optimistic that the story planets will be fun and interesting to drive around (that was never a complaint I had with the Mako sections on the main planets in Mass Effect).

Setting aside car stuff, the on foot exploration is generally fun.  I really like the addition of jumping and dashing to allow for more three dimensional mobility.  I especially enjoy the small details like how because of my character build Sara uses biotics instead of her jetpack to move around.  It’s all very satisfying, and I genuinely miss the functionality when I’m in areas like the Nexus or the Tempest where there’s no need to be in combat gear.  The fair trade for losing my favorite new ability in safe areas is that Sara gets to wander around in a very stylish jacket/scarf combo (accessible from her quarters aboard the Tempest) that is way more interesting than any of the stuff Shepard ever got to wear.

As for the squad (it’s a BioWare game, so I know we’re all really here to make friends and flirt with them), I’m starting to develop opinions.  I’ve done no reading about the squadmates, so I have the delightful experience of encountering them new for the first time.  I’m taking a page out of Rachael’s playbook and just flirting with everyone at the outset before I make any definite decisions.  It’s fun concluding every conversation with my crew with a bit of flirtation, and it helped me sort out who wasn’t going to be available right away.  My early impressions of the crew are mostly positive (I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a Mass Effect character I actively disliked), although some are certainly more interesting than others.  Liam seems very bro-ey but otherwise unremarkable.  Cora’s very straight laced in an “I don’t resent you for taking the job I was trained for, but I really sort of do” way.  As usual, the aliens are way more interesting than the humans.  Vetra, the team Turian, is intriguing precisely because she’s a Turian who skirts the law; there was so much in the original trilogy about Turians as buttoned up soldier types that I’m curious to see what they do with someone who’s a little more relaxed.  Drack, while not romanceable (I suspect he and the doctor will have a thing going on) is a great grizzled old man.  I wish his granddaughter Kesh had a larger part in the story, but she’s an administrator on the Nexus, so I at least expect I’ll get to check in with her periodically.  I’m disappointed that Kallos, the Tempest’s pilot and a Salarian, can’t be romanced either, but I’m going to hold out hope that he and Gil, the ship’s engineer, will turn their professional bickering into a deeply affecting relationship.  While there’s one squadmate still to recruit, I’m currently weighing the object of Sara’s ultimate affections between the science officer, Suvi (when you first express interest in her she sends you a sixty page report she wrote on soil samples, which is utterly adorable), and the game’s resident scoundrel, PeeBee, who just exudes reckless charm and trust issues.  I’m a little weary of going with the Asari romance just because Liara always struck me as a pretty dull partner in the original trilogy.  She got some interesting depth towards the end with all the Shadow Broker business, but that wasn’t really anything to do with her as a potential girlfriend.

The most interesting side mission I’ve come across so far is the one about the first murder in Nexus space (I’m trying very hard to be conscientious of the fact that Andromeda must have its own sentient species and history dating back to before the Initiative arrived).  It turns out that the guy who was found guilty of murder didn’t technically do it because he shot and missed (the victim was killed instead by a shot from an enemy instead).  The dilemma for the player has to do with deciding whether this technicality is enough reason to release the would-be murderer or condemn him to exile.  It’s kind of a dumb dichotomy because he very clearly still committed a serious crime (I’m pretty sure “attempted murder” is still a criminal offense seven hundred years in the future).  I get that not giving the player a third option is meant to force you to make a decision you probably won’t be entirely comfortable with, but it’s so clear that the guy is guilty of ill intent that I can’t imagine anyone choosing not to exile him.  I would have preferred a lesser punishment for him, but I understand the Nexus is sort of a mess and probably doesn’t have the space to maintain a permanent prison facility at the moment.

Look, I get what you’re doing, Tann, but can we just not? Like, think this through just a little bit instead of making me be the totally unnecessary bad guy.

This early on, I’m generally enjoying everything I’m encountering in the game.  I hope it keeps up.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Log 1

Look, it was on sale for seven dollars, okay?

I’ve heard the many complaints about Mass Effect: Andromeda, but with Rachael spending the last month doing an aggressive play through of the entire Dragon Age series, I’ve been craving my own trip through a BioWare game.  Unfortunately, the original Mass Effect trilogy is only on PS3, and while I could bust that series out, I figured that it’s probably best to let things lie.  It’s been a long time since I finished Mass Effect 3, and I’ve come to terms with the story that my version of Shepard finished.  The realization that the only way to make sure Shepard survives is to enact a synthetic genocide makes it a little hard to countenance trying to do a glorious re-enactment where instead of making the heroic sacrifice he (my Shepard was a dopey looking ginger dude) inevitably had to make, he’d make it through and enjoy a peaceful retirement with Tali on the Flotilla.  So I picked up Andromeda on the cheap and have calibrated my expectations to the lowest possible setting.

My first couple hours with the game have been pretty good, all things told.  It’s always fun to play with the character creator after all.  I decided for this game my protagonist would be Sara Ryder (I decided to keep the default first name and was pleased to find that the dialogue actually uses it), and she would be a Black woman with an interesting facial scar that she got in some way that I haven’t fully figured out yet (I’m thinking it’s a burn from a training accident).  I’m pretty pleased so far with the character design, but I’m still adjusting to the voice acting.  It would have been nice if there were dialogue tracks from a couple different voice actors like in Dragon Age: Inquisition so you had some options for audio matching.  I’m sure I’ll get used to it, but the voice actor just doesn’t quite match what I imagined Sara sounding like when I designed her face.

The premise works perfectly fine for me.  Some time during the lead up to the final conflict with the Reapers, the Citadel civilizations organized a backup plan to send ark ships off to the Andromeda galaxy in order to maintain the survival of the Milky Way’s most prominent species.  Exploring a new home is a cool idea, although I do wonder how well the story’s going to handle issues of colonialism.  I finished the introductory mission on the first planet, and it involves inadvertently starting a war with hostile aliens who are also there exploring a thing.  Not the best beginning, if I do say so.  We’ll see where it goes from there.

The gameplay so far is perfectly fine.  I’m long past my days of enjoying shooters, but I can deal with the mechanics for the sake of a story.  Rachael and I along with our friends recently determined that it’s best to think of the Dragon Age series as a dating simulator with fantasy RPG elements.  I’m going to declare Mass Effect the same, but with sci-fi shooter elements.  Just here for the interpersonal drama and chill hangouts, thanks.  To help make things at least a little less tedious than point-and-shoot, I’ve decided to go with a straight biotic build on Sara.  The interface suggests that over the course of the game I’ll be free to mix and match abilities from all three of the basic character classes, but I think trying to stick to one specialty will make the game a little more interesting (and also give me an excuse to actually pull the trigger as little as possible).  It’s occurred to me that I could just set the difficulty to narrative mode, but I figure I’ll wait until I encounter a challenge I actually don’t want to deal with in order to get on with the story.

Initial thoughts on the package as a whole are that the game’s first few hours feel really solid and reminiscent of what I liked about the original trilogy.  The urgency to keep the story moving isn’t quite there yet, but maybe it will pick up.  If that’s not in the cards, then playing Andromeda can at least be a meditative experience.

I think Sara ended up looking pretty cool.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #42”

I like to think about The Wicked + The Divine‘s individual issues largely in terms of how they reflect various characters’ arcs.  This issue features major developments across three characters who’ve been various levels of antagonistic to Laura across the span of the series.  One of them is about hitting an inflection point in the transition from heel to face while the other two are studies in how character arcs can end either in epiphany or ignominy.

This is probably the creepiest cover that McKelvie and Wilson have done yet. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue is a portrait of one of Woden’s Valkyries.  It’s never been extremely clear how consistently individual Valkyries wear specific colors, but the pink trim suggests to me that this is supposed to be Eir, the woman who had the misfortune of being Sakhmet’s handler way back in issue #17.  Her face is splattered with someone’s blood.  We’ve seen this motif before on the cover of issue #35 where 1923’s Minerva looked gleefully murderous.  Knowing what we know about Minerva and Ananke at this point, that attitude is disturbing but understandable.  The Valkyrie, by contrast, looks totally impassive.  There’s no fear, no anger, no joy, nothing in her expression.  It’s way more chilling than any of the other relatively gruesome covers that have come out across the series.

This is the moment where Woden, having been given due warning about the danger he’s in, decides that he is still totally capable of pulling this Pantheon ruse off. “Men like you” indeed. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Because we’re speeding towards the series conclusion, and this is a story that’s always been explicit about the need for a high body count, we get two major character deaths in this issue.  They’re the central study in contrasting character arcs, so let’s take them in turn.  I’ll begin with Woden since his arc feels significantly less complex than what we get at the issue’s end.  Woden has been the unrepentant jerk of the Pantheon since the series’s beginning; he manipulates women for his own gratification, he sells his allies out for minor advantage, and he betrayed his son for the sake of a few months of luxury and power.  At every turn he has resisted revealing some nobler agenda; the only redeeming qualities that he seems to have are a shallow affection for Cassandra and the fact that despite all the terrible stuff he’s done to Jon, his son still wants him to be okay.  Despite all of these negative qualities, Gillen manages to give Woden a death that’s both tragic and fitting at the same time.  Given every opportunity to make a better choice, Woden to the very end makes the calculation that he thinks will give him more power heedless of others’ warnings.  His death here is grotesque and self inflicted and entirely unnecessary if he had just had the good sense to take a genuine gift instead of trying to leverage more advantage.  There’s no redemptive moment for the creepy middle-aged dude who hangs around with a bunch of teens, which is probably precisely what Gillen wants given his transition away from writing stories about young people with WicDiv‘s impending end.  About the only sympathetic thing I can say about Woden is that his death is extremely gruesome and horrifying.  Everyone else in the Pantheon that’s died has at least gotten relatively swift ends; Woden gets torn apart by the very women he victimized the most.  It’s all ugly and brutal and reveals pretty much nothing new about a character who told us from his first appearance exactly what he was.

Nergal finally understands the deal with making grown up decisions. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Contrast all of that with the issue’s major sympathetic death; Nergal, upon learning that he’ll be losing his god powers as part of Laura’s plan to take down Ananke and that he’s the only Underworld god left who can do resurrections, runs away from the rest of the group to visit Dionysus in the hospital.  Dio’s been brain dead since his big hero moment in issue #32, which is only mostly dead in this case.  Having established with the Morrigan that the Underworld gods can resurrect other gods, but only at the cost of their own lives, it becomes immediately apparent what Nergal intends to do.  He’s spent the entire series being terrified of the death sentence that the Morrigan put on him when she asked Ananke to bring him into the Pantheon; avoiding it death has been the chief motivator behind almost every bad decision Nergal’s made since his ascendance.  Choosing to use his power to save his best friend at the cost of his own life marks a complete reversal from what Nergal attempted to do with Inanna.  It’s also the completion of a redemptive character arc that mirrors Woden’s totally unrepentant one.  Both characters’ initial appearances are built on tropes surrounding abusive and controlling men.  Our introduction to Nergal as Baphomet involved him gleefully brandishing the apparent severed head of his female lover, and from there his early appearances revolved around inviting Laura deeper and deeper into a series of at best unsafe and at worst self-destructive choices.  Despite these early parallels to Woden, Nergal also reveals at every turn in his own story that while he makes many very bad, selfish choices, he has a genuine, if weak, desire to do right by the people he cares about.  Coming into his own as someone who can be self sufficient (even though that metamorphosis is incomplete when we catch up with him in issue #41) is a major accomplishment given those beginnings, and his totally independent decision to offer Dionysus his chance at returning to a normal life marks the completion of that development.  I’m really sad that Nergal dies, and I’m really happy that he does it in a way that gives final closure to a throughline of his character that’s been present from the beginning.

The third character arc of the issue belongs to Baal, and unlike the previous two, he makes it to the last page intact, which means that his story isn’t finished yet.  There are still some questions left to answer regarding Baal’s development: once the crisis is over, assuming he survives, how is he going to square his child murdering with the fact that he was completely manipulated by Ananke?  Baal is a character fueled almost exclusively by his passion, and while in the moment of realization that he’s been doing evil things needlessly he seems pretty set on punishing himself, it’s hard to judge how other factors like Inanna’s survival and just having some time to process how Ananke is at fault for all of his actions since the beginning of the Recurrence.  While I was initially skeptical that Inanna wasn’t just the purely good person that he appears to be, I’ve come around to thinking that if anyone in this mess deserves to have a happy ending, it’s him and Baal.  I don’t know how likely it is that Gillen will give them that ending (above all else, fear hope), or even what would need to happen for Baal to both be able to forgive himself enough to be happy with Inanna and receive an appropriate consequence for murdering children.  There may not be a way to thread that needle.

There’s a lot going on inside Baal’s head at this moment. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

So I Just Saw Us

Look, if you haven’t seen Us by now you probably aren’t the kind of person who’s interested in seeing it anyway.  It’s a highly suspenseful horror movie that relies very little on gore or jump scares to keep you engaged and anxious.  The performances are all stellar (I am happy that Lupita Nyong’o has been making bank doing supporting roles in Disney-owned blockbusters the last few years, but she’s a vision as Adelaide/Red and she needs to be the lead in a lot more projects), and the comic relief is applied with an incredibly light touch, giving the audience opportunities to chuckle at just the right moments.  It’s a fantastic movie, and I can’t recommend it highly enough; it’s precisely the kind of horror that I genuinely enjoy as opposed to much of the dreck that’s typically served up in movies.

Us Poster

Theatrical release poster for Us. (Image credit: IMDb)

For everyone else, let’s discuss some stuff; there will be spoilers about Us because all the meaty bits are buried deep in the third act.

The core thing that keeps occurring to me when I think about Us is the way it plays with the concept of American identity and our complicity in the great capitalist/colonialist/white supremacist project of enriching the lives for a select few in the overclass while everyone else has to struggle for a meager semblance of the same type of life.  Pick a hegemonic -ism, and you will find both beneficiaries and scapegoats tied up together in tension with the ones on top too oblivious to notice how they hurt and the ones below too powerless to do anything but scream for relief.  The central fear of Us is that the ones below will eventually rebel violently, and there will be no survivors.  It creeps up on the audience as a surprise revealed in the final third of the story, but the fear is there, buried in the premise of doppelgangers suddenly appearing to terrorize a comfortable middle class family in their home.  Fear of home invasion is a core component in the American formula for selling the security industry and all its accouterments.

“Our way of life is valuable and worth protecting from those people out there who would take it from us.”

“Protect the homeland.”

“They hate us because of our freedom.”

It’s easy to see how Us skewers these impulses.  The wrench in the works comes in the form of the twist about Adelaide and Red.  In the closing moments of the film, it’s revealed that Adelaide, the woman who has spent the entire movie fighting desperately to protect her family, is actually from the tunnels herself.  Red is actually the original Adelaide who was abducted and left trapped in her doppelganger‘s place.  It’s a classic trope in horror stories about doubles that the one who survived is actually the story’s monster.  Where things become complicated here is the realization that the switch happened long before the moment of catharsis.  Adelaide has been legitimately invested in protecting her family; it’s just that her family was established in a monstrous way.  Even if Adelaide didn’t understand Red’s plan until the very end, she was aware the whole time of the conditions that precipitated its development and execution.  As a child, she took her chance to escape, but it was at the cost of another victim.  Maybe she can’t be considered fully culpable in this decision, but there’s a deeply unsettling horror in the realization that she knew what was happening and did nothing until the moment of crisis.  I think despite this after-the-fact horror, we’re supposed to generally find Adelaide sympathetic.  It’s the realization of that sympathy that indicts us all over again.

Exercises in Ambivalence: Valkyria Chronicles

The Valkyria Chronicles series is not a surprising game franchise.  Its premise goes like this: imagine an alternate world history where World War II happened a decade early, and it was fought over access to a magical mineral that powers all the world’s technology.  Also, there’s an ancient race of powerful superbeings who once conquered all of Europa (the fantasy version of the subcontinent) that are now extinct, but their bloodline lives on in women who can be transformed into weapons of mass destruction with the proper biological engineering.  The elements of fascism are largely stripped from the larger sociopolitical context (the Empire is bad, but mostly just because it’s more aggressive than the Federation, although the very nomenclature of the two sides leans heavily into the fact that we’re talking about a community of nations working together against a single all-consuming political entity).  Also also, because we’re talking about a fantasy version of a modern war, the violence is all extremely cartoonish in its implementation; while bullets are flying on every battlefield, gunshots are bloodless and result in soldiers casually falling over when they die.  The game’s visual aesthetic is more a cross between sepia toned photos and storybook paintings.  It’s all very pretty and far removed from the gritty visuals commonly used in other games about modern war, and it uses this very interesting setting and concept to tell extremely rote stories of bravery and tragedy and the horrors of war.

It really is a beautiful game where everyone does horrible things because war.

Unlike other games about gunfights though, the mechanics are much more centered on tactics and strategy than fast-twitch shooting.  A given encounter is divided into two primary phases: command and action.  During the command phase you’re given a bird’s eye view of the battlefield with the positions of your units and the positions of all enemy units that have been spotted by your soldiers.  You’re tasked with considering all the available information and forming a plan of action before you direct your individual soldiers to carry everything out.  Every unit in your squad falls into one of a handful of distinct roles, and much of the planning you do in command mode is considering how to get the units you need in position to do their jobs so you can accomplish the mission objectives.  Once you’ve figured out what you want to do, the next step is to pick a unit and have them do what they need to do.  Here the game transitions to the action mode, dropping the camera down to a third person view of your selected troop.  Suddenly everything’s running in real time (although the enemy soldiers thankfully don’t move while it’s your turn), and you switch from the commander to the foot soldier, knowing what your job is supposed to be, but also adapting to all the ground-level information that you didn’t have before.  You have limited energy to move about the battlefield, and you can only complete one action per command, be that an attack on an enemy or obstacle or administering first aid to a friendly soldier in need.  Individual units can complete multiple commands in a single turn, but they get more exhausted with each action, quickly losing mobility as they need to rest before the next big push.  You switch back and forth between these two modes for the duration of your turn, which lasts until you run out of command points or you decide to end it.  Then the enemy commander gets to do the same thing but without giving you the same ground-level view of the battlefield (if an enemy soldier is in view of one of your troops, you can see them moving around from that troop’s perspective; otherwise, they’re just an invisible marker on the map shuffling around while you wait for your next turn).  The whole cycle makes for a game that feels very cerebral in execution than typical for games with real-time third person action sequences, which I find extremely satisfying.

Where the series as a whole tends to fall down is in the storytelling.  In the two primary games of the series, 2008’s Valkyria Chronicles and the just released last year Valkyria Chronicles 4 (the second and third entries in the series were released on the Playstation Portable to understandably disappointing sales; Sony has never effectively supported its portable game systems) tell similar stories about a ragtag group of friends trying to defend their home against the depredations of the Empire.  You see similar character types spread across both main casts, and the story beats follow a similar pattern of early high adventure that gives way to major personal tragedies in the late game which shift the story’s tone dramatically.  Ten years ago I appreciated the focus on the personal cost of warfare on the people most directly invested in its execution.  Now, I rolled my eyes when it was revealed that the Federation, while not explicitly fascist, is just as callous in its exploitation of people as biological weapons (also, for extra feels, it turns out the Valkyria they’re using are children, and the general implication is that they’re meant to operate as human nuclear bombs).  I still have about a quarter of Valkyria Chronicles 4 to finish, and every story beat up to this point has been entirely predictable.  I’m sure it will all end happily for most of the main characters, but I wonder how the game’s climax will handle the implications of its big reveal.

The nature of the Valkyria is central to the series’s premise, but it doesn’t seem up to using them to explore themes around the human cost of war in general.  If you could somehow set aside the unfortunate implications of a fantasy race of vaguely Nordic people who commanded immense magical power that’s passed down through their bloodline (the Valkyrur, from whom the Valkyria are descended, are all extinct, but the “purer” a Valkyria’s lineage is, the more powerful she tends to be), there’s rarely any attempt to draw a connection between the suffering of these very special people and the suffering of the regular folks who experience just as much trauma in the regular course of all the fighting.  Valkyria are especially tragic figures whose apparent suffering is orders of magnitude greater than your own squad, composed of regular people with richly developed backstories (one of the series’s high points is the way it gives every one of your troops a distinct personality and life outside of the war) who instead only get a sanitized version of the muddy struggle that is fighting for a cause which may or may not be worthy.

Where the Valkyria are the super special people of specialness within the game’s lore, their mirror counterpart are the Darcsens.  In brief, the Darcsens are a fictional race native to Europa who are social outcasts because of their legendary role as the adversaries of the Valkyrur.  Something called the Darcsen Calamity happened many thousands of years ago (the details are extremely vague) which was the culmination of the war between the two factions.  It was so bad that Darcsens have been pariahs for generations.  There are some pretty clear parallels intended between the concept of the Darcsens and the real-world history of Jews and European anti-semitism.  It’s all cleaned up and filtered through a fantasy lens, but the elements are unmistakable, and they feel clumsily handled.  Darcsens as individual characters in the series are generally likeable, complex characters, but the broad history and contrast drawn between Darcsens and Valkyrur always feels uncomfortable.  Whatever the in-game lore says about the actual history of the Darcsen Calamity (the destructive power the Valkyria wield suggests that the Valkyrur were probably not nearly as noble as everyone imagines them to be), it’s just icky to see a world constructed around a thinly veiled fantasy version of real-life bigotry.

In the end, I continue to have extremely ambivalent feelings about the Valkyria Chronicles series.  I love the gameplay immensely, but the structural features of the story always leave a bad taste in my mouth if I think about them too much.  It’s a series that wants to play with ideas and concepts around an era of history that’s rarely given anything other than hagiographic treatment in video games, but the attempts to make the material fit the series’s aesthetic leave much to be desired.

Sometimes things go very very right though.