A Rebuttal to James Whitbrook: Our Fascination With Canon Is Not Killing the Way We Value Stories

On April 1, 2020, a news editor by the name of James Whitbrook wrote an article for Gizmodo entitled “Our Fascination With Canon Is Killing the Way We Value Stories”. His central argument being made clear in the title, he claims that with pop culture being dominated by large franchises featuring interconnected stories, the fanbase’s love of stories is morphing into what he calls an archival competition. He then laments that critics and fans alike don’t discuss the underlying themes of a given work, but rather melt down the base components to what he calls “pure, unflinching facts”.

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Dear Esther

Introduction

In the mid-2000s, a professor and lecturer from the University of Portsmouth named Dan Pinchbeck had an idea for an experimental video game. Creating mods using Valve Software’s Source engine became a favorite pastime of many PC enthusiasts at the time – Mr. Pinchbeck included. He then realized he needed someone to score the game. For this task, he turned to his wife, Jessica Curry. Ms. Curry had earned a Bachelor of Arts for English Literature and Language at the University College London in 1994; her postgraduate work saw her earn a diploma in Screen Music from the National Film and Television School. Using her experience, she was more than happy to help her husband with his project. Thus, in 2007, the couple founded their very own independent game studio they dubbed The Chinese Room – named after the famous thought experiment devised by philosopher John Searle in his work “Minds, Brains, and Programs”.

Being a research project at the university, it received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mr. Pinchbeck conceived the script, citing the works of William S. Burroughs as an inspiration. He sought to capture a poetic use of language while drafting the script, contrasting the descriptive tone typically found in the medium. The game, entitled Dear Esther, was originally released as a free mod in 2008. It was later selected for the Animation Exhibition at the Prix Ars Electronica. There, the website Mod DB selected it as one of the best mods of the year, placing it on their top 100 list. The following year, Dear Esther won the award for Best World/Story award at the IndieCade festival.

Like many successful mods, Dear Esther went on to receive a commercial release. This Landmark Edition was released in 2012 on the digital distribution platform Steam. An artist of renown within the independent circuit named Robert Briscoe had the honors of completely redeveloping Dear Esther from the ground up. As the original mod, though praised, was also criticized for baring numerous glitches and a poor level design, Mr. Pinchbeck gave Mr. Briscoe his full blessings for the redesign. As a standalone release, Dear Esther received positive reviews overall. When the original mod was created, the independent gaming scene had started gaining traction. Even now, it is considered one of the scene’s early hallmarks. How, exactly, did it capture such a profound amount of critical attention?

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Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)

Three years ago, a meteor landed on a coastline in the United States. Ever since that day, a strange disturbance known as the Shimmer appeared. In response, many expeditions have been carried out by the army, though only one person has ever returned from them: a man named Kane. Upon returning, he reunites with his wife, Lena, but is unusually evasive when asked what happened during his expedition. Shortly thereafter, his health begins to deteriorate and is quickly hospitalized. With Kane in intensive care, Lena is approached by Dr. Ventress. She is prepared to go on a new expedition into the Shimmer. Determined to learn what happened to Kane, Lena volunteers to join her.

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March 2020 in Summary: Silent World

I hope you’re all doing well out there in the face of this daunting pandemic. To think that nearly one-hundred years after the infamous influenza outbreak of 1918, we’d have another one our hands. Isolation won’t be easy but doing so will pay off in the long term, so remember to take care of yourself.

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Mystery Blogger Award from Ospreyshire

Well, once again, I find myself tagged with a Mystery Blogger Award – this time, courtesy of Ospreyshire. Outside of video games, you don’t see many creative types who actually acknowledge international efforts these days, so I’d say his is a blog worth following. He asked five questions from me, so let’s dive right in.

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Mega Man 4

Introduction

Mega Man 3 was highly regarded upon its 1990 release. Unbeknownst to the people who bought it, however, the project had to overcome myriad roadblocks in order to see the light of day. Director Akira Kitamura had left Capcom and would later quit making games entirely while his replacement, Masayoshi Kurokawa, frequently clashed with the team, causing him to leave the project halfway through. This resulted in artist Keiji Inafune taking up the reins, forcing him to compile their work in a very short amount of time. Consequently, many ideas were left on the cutting room floor. For example, the team expressed the desire to replace the famous stage select system in favor of a linear level progression or take inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been recently released, and implement a map system. Both ideas were shot down by Capcom executives. While Mega Man 3 remains a beloved classic, it does bear signs of its taxing production cycle for those who dig beneath the surface.

Although Mega Man 3 could have been considered a grand finale for the series, Capcom realized that the title character was their answer to Mario. With a formula that lent itself well to sequels, a fourth installment was an inevitability. Production of Mega Man 4 went much more smoothly according to Mr. Inafune, who worked as one of the three designers for this game. As a result, he and his fellow staff members often held this game in higher regard than its direct predecessor. The game was released domestically in December of 1991 as Rockman 4: A New Evil Ambition!! before abridging the title abroad to Mega Man 4 a month later. Mega Man 4 is notable for being the first installment in the series released after the debut of Nintendo’s Super Famicom console in November of 1990. Was Capcom able to give those who hadn’t yet adopted the new platform an experience worthy of its acclaimed predecessors?

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Tacoma

Introduction

The year 2013 marked the debut of Gone Home – the inaugural project of The Fullbright Company. The team, based in Portland, Oregon, was founded by one Steve Gaynor, who began his work in the industry as a tester for Sony and Perpetual Entertainment before designing stages for BioShock 2. Gone Home was a resounding critical success. The most notable piece of praise it received was from Polygon when critic Danielle Riendeau awarded it a perfect, ten-point score, calling it a “quiet triumph in storytelling”. Despite its universal critical acclaim, Gone Home struggled to find an audience outside of its proponents due to its short length and lack of gameplay.

Despite its overall mixed reception, Fullbright would use their success to fund their next project. Keeping true to their Pacific Northwest roots, they conceived a story taking place in a home in Tacoma, Washington. However, they backpedaled from this idea when they felt it to be too similar to Gone Home. While Gone Home sold itself as a slice-of-life story told within a video game, their next product would incorporate science fiction elements by being set in a space station. The team would name their game Tacoma as a nod to its original setting.

Tacoma was originally announced at The Game Awards in December of 2014, though it wouldn’t see its release until August of 2017 due to their playtesters’ feedback. Released across various platforms, Tacoma received favorable reviews. Eurogamer notably ranked it twenty-second on their list of the best games of 2017. Despite its favorable reception, Tacoma went on to sell fewer copies than Gone Home. Mr. Gaynor himself attributed its modest performance on the sheer number of games released in 2017, believing by that it was harder for indie titles to break out into the mainstream by then. Regardless of the exact reason, they realized Tacoma wasn’t the success story on the same level of Gone Home. Was it truly a step down from their thunderous debut?

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February 2020 in Summary: System Shocked!

Also known as the one in which Red Metal’s computer finally goes kaput, causing the last review of the month to be delayed. Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I had been considering getting a new one for a long time, but I hesitated until this development forced my hand (which isn’t the first time something like this happened, to be honest).

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Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom

Introduction

Although Westone’s Wonder Boy series garnered a following, its association with the popular developer Sega arguably ended up being its undoing. This is because 1991 marked the debut of Sega’s mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. Seen as their answer to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut game proved to be a gigantic hit. As a result, Sega began primarily focusing on their popular character. The game marked a stark paradigm shift in Sega’s output, causing many of their older franchises to fall by the wayside. This included their former mascot, Alex Kidd. Despite not having been developed by Sega themselves, Wonder Boy was afflicted as well. With Sega electing not to export what would end up being the final installment, Monster World IV, to the West, the series quickly fell into obscurity.

Sixteen years later in 2010, an independent developer in Paris, France named Game Atelier was founded. They made their passion for the medium clear from the beginning, wishing to one day create a surprising, joyful, thrilling game everyone can enjoy. One of their first games was Flying Hamster – a colorful horizontal shooter. Their effort was a success, being downloaded over one-million times across the various active platforms at the time. Game Atelier took this opportunity to set their sights higher when it came time to make a sequel. To fund the game, they looked to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Helmed by one Fabien Demeulenaere, Flying Hamster II was to provide a completely different experience from its predecessor, being an action-RPG platforming game with a shapeshifting protagonist. Parallels to the Wonder Boy series – more specifically, the Monster World installments that followed the original arcade game – were not a coincidence. Mr. Demeulenaere and his team were big fans of the series, and Flying Hamster II was to be both a loving tribute and a spiritual successor to those games with a projected release date in mid-2015. Before it could be determined if the creators reached their funding goal, the project was suddenly cancelled. The developer announced a partnership with FDG Entertainment, a company founded in 2001 that specialized in producing and publishing games for Java-compatible hardware. For the next year, no new information would be revealed.

Game Atelier then broke their silence by announcing their newest project: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Although Westone had filed for bankruptcy and liquidated their assets in 2014, Sega only owned the names of the games. This meant that series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa was able to retain everything else. As fate would have it, Flying Hamster II caught the attention of Mr. Nishizawa, who was flattered that his work struck such a chord in Game Atelier. From there, he used his ownership of the series’ rights to transform what would have been a spiritual successor to Wonder Boy into a canonical installment. Collaborating with Mr. Nishizawa, Mr. Demeulenaere and his team finished and subsequently released their game in December of 2018. Twenty-four years had passed since the release of Monster World IV when Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom saw completion. Outside of the comic book industry, not many people can claim to have directed an official installment of one of their favorite series. Was what Mr. Demeulenaere created worthy of marching under the Wonder Boy banner?

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