Review of Metal Gear Solid by Anthony and Ashly Burch at Paste

The writing that the Burches do in Metal Gear Solid isn’t that kind of partisan work. It takes positions, of course: they hold it accountable for its sexism, its hamfisted writing, and its strange plot beats that cohere simply because the game tells us that they do. The Burches tell you at the opening of the book that they are going to be relentless in their criticism of this object that clearly meant so much to them in their shared childhood.

But somewhere near the end of Metal Gear Solid a Burch says that there’s a romantic appeal to how weird this game object is. It does lots of things that don’t quite make a lot of sense when any scrutiny is applied to them, but it does all of those things with ultimate sincerity. It might be annoying, or it might make no sense, or it might be goofy, but the wide-eyed innocence that permeates the experience drives it toward some kind of endearing endgame where you look at a caribou and weep.

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Robert Yang on Bodies

A ragdoll is an awkward body in flux that we share with the game engine, whose every movement is unknowable and unpredictable and must be negotiated. Even the most realistic motion capture cannot compete with this kind of truth. Our vulnerability and awkwardness is what makes our bodies alive.

When you spank the NPC in Hurt Me Plenty so hard that you dislocate his shoulders, the instability of his ragdoll is crucial. It helps communicate the breaking of boundaries as the game code literally buckles under your demands, desperately trying to resolve his bones into some sort of rational arrangement, but it is impossible.

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You Buy It, I Play It: Crimzon Clover World Ignition

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Sam Stoddard on the Philosophy of Reprints in Magic The Gathering

The philosophy behind why we reprint cards is not simple. Sometimes it’s because we really like what the original card was doing and see no need to try and improve on an already strong design. Other times it’s because the card in question fits perfectly in a setting and goes a long way to making players happy. Reprints are an important part of nostalgia, and I think allowing people to use the exact pieces of cardboard they used a decade or more ago is a great thing when we can do it. It’s not always going to be the case—sometimes old cards have really wonky wording, name problems, or have some slight problem that leads us to make a new card to fit the role.

– Sam Stoddard, “Reprints in Magic Origins

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Amiibo Wave 7 Review

I reviewed some new Amiibos.

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The Social Obligation of Fantasy

devry

We see it less now, but we had almost a solid decade of thinkpieces and academic arguments about the role of fantasy in the post-9/11 American landscape. They all land somewhere around this point: the rise of fantasy media in a post-9/11 landscape correlates to a general malaise that Americans had around realistic politics. The didn’t want The Sum of All Fears anymore; they wanted orcs and unpronounceable place names. Americans needed somewhere to offload their new kinds of anxieties, and fantasy media provided a space for mental investment that wasn’t as stressful as the constant CNN footage of a smoking hole in New York City.

Now we’re through it, or beyond it, or the politics of the post-911 world are so brutally ingrained into us that we’re no longer shocked into shapelessness by the rah rah militarism (in the domestic police version as well as the world police version) as we once were. Politics have safely returned to the realm of pure spectacle in the run up to a new election. Fantasy fiction has more power because of market inertia, but we have the distinct feeling that it isn’t because of escape any longer. Superheroes are coherent, but they’re also brutally “real world” political in a way that we can’t really imagine The Fellowship of the Ring being (at least on its surface).

I say all of that to point out two new advertisements that are plainly attempting to lure the generation who grew up in that glut of popular fantasy. The political dramas of my 1990s were, as the critics claimed, supplanted by a fantastic double aughts, and the kids who began watching films in a broad way around the year 2000 have left or are leaving high school. The ones after that are in the prime horror of their teenage lives.

These ads:

The first is a very traditional anti-smoking ad, but instead of the “hey, peer pressure isn’t cool!” of my youth, we have A LITERAL ARMY OF ORCS FLYING INTO THIS KID’S MOUTH. It’s impossible to imagine that kind of commercial in any time other than this one since the dawn of moving images. The literacy requirement is so high that breaking it down seems unbelievable: you have to understand the scene; you have to know what orcs are; you have to get that orcs are bad; and you need to be afraid of the horde itself. It requires a significant amount of overhead information about the genre of fantasy, and it buys into many of the assumptions of those generic constraints.

The first ad required literacy and some implicit ideology: you have to know that orcs are bad for it to work, which is a particular form of baggage. But this DeVry ad is so much more explicit. There are heroes and normal people, and you want to be a hero. They can train you to be a hero. Nevermind that this is a hero who will explicitly defend the hardware and software of international corporations. And who are you protecting them from? What enemy do you define yourself against as the hero?

When I was in a high school, a friend was banned from using computers in the high school for accessing the registry on his computer to try to figure out if Deep Freeze software was preventing his online course software from working correctly. The network administrator stormed into the room and began screaming at this teenager who was doing nothing wrong, and instead of listening to the kid, the administration stuck with the “responsible” admin who had clearly been surveilling this kid.

Go to school to become a lord of the digital domain who always has the Divine Right of the Network on your side. See yourself as a champion. Stomp over the weak, or the weak-willed, or anyone who couldn’t be what you managed to be.

Fantasy was an escape from one overbearing political into a more abstracted one. Americans avoided X politics and normalized Y politics. Slowly, over the past 14 years, we’ve brought those things in line with one another–the “dog eat dog” world of Game of Thrones is just as much “medieval fantasy” as it is The Walking Dead postapocalypticism. Fantasy itself has become middle of the road political expression, and all of the conservative ideology in Tom Clancy has been resurrected in Tolkien and his legacy authors.

But you can be a fantasy warrior reskinned for the coming cyberwar.

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On Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

whas

I’ve been down with Wet Hot American Summer for something like a decade. I think that I might have learned about it via a weird daisy chain of really liking Reno 911, learning about the connection to The State, and then finding out about what all of the members of that troupe had done when their media deals had imploded. My best friend and I found some kind of digital copy (probably shared through illegitimate Livejournal communities), and we watched it over and over again.

I’ve watched it on and off pretty much constantly in the years since then. I’ve weathered the best and worst of the David Wain films from The Ten to Wanderlust, and there were moments when Wain’s sensibilities met a State-esque script in order to hit a high note that felt like we were back at that camp during the last gasp of summer.

So when First Day of Camp was announced, I was over the moon. It was going to be a serious follow-up that took all the gags from the original film to their conclusion. The actors would be the same, totally ignoring their age like in the original. It would be a prequel rather than the promised sequel of the film (the most Wain joke possible). They would have money, and time, and creative control.

So, finally having watched First Day of Camp as the most core of core viewers, what did I think?

It’s the same, but it’s stretched out. The joke content is all there, but it has time to stretch its legs. And I don’t know if it needs to be.

David Wain is the master of the 90 minute comedy. He hits target length, and the jokes don’t wear out their welcome because they’re coming at you a mile a minute. His strategy is always “set up a scene with strange logic and then play that logic as far as it will take you,” and generally that strange logic is literally just genre film mirrored back to itself. When Wet Hot American Summer becomes brutally parodic, it isn’t because the creative team is actually doing anything particularly out of the ordinary; they’re just producing the ordinary-as-story rather than the ordinary-as-material which inevitably points out how strange the cultural stories we have actually are.

First Day of Camp, like everything that comes out of this team, is built on that basic scaffolding. The journalist pretending to be a counselor story. The lost rock god story. The hidden military man story. The conspiracy narrative. The motley crew creating a work of art story. They’re all fully-baked genre experiences, and we can imagine each of them being deployed in the way that they were in the original Wet Hot American Summer film: each shows up in a tight two-minute scene that then recedes into time after we’ve had a laugh.

The format of First Day of Camp fights against that impulse. It rolls the plots across several episodes, and that just Does Not Work when the plot can’t sustain in that way. For example, Elizabeth Banks’ plotline is about her being a journalist who pretends to be a teenager to get a hot scoop about weird things happening at this camp. She finds out that there’s a reclusive rocker who lives in a cabin, and she helps him create his masterwork. And it’s funny in concept because this crowd is exceedingly good at purely conceptual humor to the point that the gag doesn’t need to actually exist. First Day of Camp drives forward, continually giving us the next step in the gag, and it does not pan out into anything (the rocker story does, but the journalist/mystery doesn’t). It peaks as a joke immediately and never goes beyond that initial impulse.

I think it’s a formal problem. They wanted to make the concept humor of Wet Hot work in this format, and it just straight-up doesn’t in some cases. Even when it is as its best, such as a the “sad-sack teenager is eternally sad,” it is a constraint that doesn’t seem to quite fit with the impulses of the writing team. You can tell that something that should be a three-bit gag turns into something that’s present in five different scenes across episodes, which really robs it of some punch that it could have had.

Overall, I think the show is excellent, but it drags in some small parts and I think it’s completely because of a weird mismatch between what the writing team has been doing for the past decade and what they (or Netflix) needed First Day of Camp to be.

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