Wednesday, June 28, 2017

One Sky, One Destiny: A Kingdom Hearts Concert Experience


If you know me at all, you understand that I have a burning passion for a video game called Kingdom Hearts. While it has an engaging (and if I'm being at all honest, convoluted) storyline and extremely fun gameplay, it's also filled level to level and cutscene to cutscene with an abundance of phenomenal music. Sure, sure. You probably think, this is a video game, so all music in the game acts as rhythmic background noise, but that's simply untrue, as confirmed when I went to the Final Fantasy: A New World concert.

Kingdom Hearts is no different. Yoko Shimomura, the composer for the KH soundtrack, puts her entire being into her work, which she’s admitted countless times. What she’s done for the music of this much beloved series has continued to enchant and impress.


So, when Joey, a long-time friend of mine, and I heard that there would be a Kingdom Hearts concert called World Tour in the States (New York City, to be exact), we jumped at the opportunity. Now, in case you are unaware, this concert wasn’t originally supposed to happen. In fact, Joey and I were intending to purchase tickets for the Saturday Kingdom Hearts concert, but we still needed to talk logistics and understand exactly what we would need to save up. Thus, we waited. And waited. And waited some more. By the time we were prepared to purchase our tickets, we found that they were all sold out (cue waves of desolation). As the months passed and I continued to get notifications about the upcoming World Tour KH concert, I kept saying to myself that there would be another, I just had to be patient.

It didn't take long. I was on Reddit one day and saw that World Tour had added another showing the day before its original time and date! At that moment, I called Joey and begged him to consider going with me. He immediately demanded we snatch those tickets up.

Obviously, everything worked out, and though we had to make it through the scores of New Yorkers, the dreaded Friday night traffic, and the frustratingly extensive bag check in front of the United Palace Theatre, we finally sat down to enjoy one of the most surreal moments of my life, a Kingdom Hearts concert complete with a piano, full orchestra, and a choir.


One of the first songs they played was "Dearly Beloved," which was an obvious choice, since it's actually the first song you hear when you play the game. Not to mention that it's absolutely gorgeous. In fact, it has a way of evoking two contradictory, yet complementary emotions. The song starts with a powerful rise of notes, backed by the gentle tangs of the piano. What’s most interesting about this song is that holds the essence of nostalgia. While one chord plunges into melancholy and gives the listener a feeling of overwhelming loss, the other ascends to a much lighter, hopeful tone. "Dearly Beloved" has and will forever be one of my favorite tracks simply because it captures the feeling of childhood, that undeniable yearning for the younger years, something that you can never gain back, yet is something that makes you feel undeniably unafraid for the future and still puts a smile on your face.


They also included songs like "Treasured Memories," "Daybreak Town," and "Twilight Town," which are all beautiful compositions, but they also played some of the most heavily evocative songs, like "Vector to the Heavens," a song that focuses on Xion and her sacrifice. Not going to lie, I started to tear up a bit. I especially had major feels when "Hikari" and "Passion" came up! AHH! They truly were heavenly. Of course, all of the songs drew some kind of emotion from me.


There were also songs that were downright heart-pumping, "Destati" being one of them. It's a song that calls for greatness from the player by starting with a sudden, violent rise from the choir and an intense trill! It's a song that expresses both the intrigue of adventure and the fearful expectations of destiny. Something that makes you go, “I have no choice but to fight.” Interestingly enough, it makes you feel small yet strong at the same time.

Another exciting song was "Fate of the Unknown." I may have squealed a bit too much at its inclusion. The fast-paced tempo coupled with the subtle rise of all the instruments was beyond amazing! My eardrums bled with euphoria. All the brass added to the score was an excellent touch, especially when there were moments of absolute epic Birth by Sleep cutscenes playing on the screen behind the orchestra.


Then, they did something I hadn't anticipated. They played the newest Kingdom Hearts III trailer and a little later, "Wave of Darkness." Holy mother of hearts, that song has become one of my favorites. "Wave of Darkness" is a battle song that is used during Aqua’s boss fight in Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep. It’s something that encapsulates the epic nature of KH as well as Aqua’s constant struggle in the realm of darkness. The tumbling, downward spiral of the piano in the background paired with the jazzy labyrinthine way in which the orchestra plays alongside the sound of a violin. Oh, it was gorgeous.

But it wasn't all tears and heart-stopping battle themes, there was also tons of laughter. One of the most hilarious moments happened when during the battle music compilation, in between two of the themes, there was a split second where the orchestra played "Atlantica" but then quickly transitioned to something else. If you're NOT a KH fan, know that "Atlantica" is usually the least favorite world to visit. To say the least, it caused the entire auditorium to ripple into a state of applause and laughter.


Then, there was a moment in which the auditorium's lighting was having technical difficulties and there was an announcement that politely apologized for the inconvenience and said that the audience would have have to wait momentarily for the fix. Almost immediately after, someone shouted, “It’s okay. We’re used to waiting!”, to which the entire group erupted into hysterical laughter. We're still unsure when the Kingdom Hearts III release date will be.

However, the BEST part of the concert came near the end. The conductor took up a keyblade baton and had Yoko Shimomura come out and play the piano for the concert's encore. Her dexterous fingers played brilliantly (no surprise) and brought most of us to tears. But, it got better still. She quickly left, without so much as a bow, and came back with Tetsuya Nomura, the game's director!! I couldn't believe it. I was breathing the same air as the man who helped bring Kingdom Hearts into existence.


Later, as Joey and I struck up conversation with a few people from the concert, one of them commented that she wasn't expecting to feel as many feels as she did. Agreed! Every single song had a different meaning for me. A different way of feeling. Kingdom Hearts is, at its core, about friendship and about emotion. It's no wonder that a concert filled with its music brings such amazing responses. It was made even more magical by the fact that everyone in that auditorium felt that same pang of nostalgia, that same childhood excitement, and that same hope for something more. Our hearts are connected, indeed.

Kingdom Hearts is not only a video game, it's a reminder to make mistakes, to listen to your heart, to build strong relationships, and to remember the past, but not so much that it hinders your future.

Have you been to or thought about going to any fandom concerts?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Tony Awards 2017: Musical Winners

Source
The Tony Awards are over! The victors have taken home their awards and work is already beginning for next year's awards, I'm sure. Time to see how our predictions panned out and share some of the best moments.

Opening Number


The opening number at the Tony Awards is always a big deal, and I really enjoyed Kevin Spacey's take on the challenge. 

Costume Design Award
Winner -- Santo Loquasto for Hello, Dolly!
Source
Hello, Dolly! was a clear favorite for this one and Andrea and I both predicted it as a possible winner. 1/1 for our predictions. The show is filled with colorful costumes for colorful characters. Just look at that hat!

Scenic Design Award
Winner -- Mimi Lien for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812


Once again, Andrea and I predicted this show to win this award. Just take a look at this fun performance!

Featured Actor Award
Winner -- Gavin Creel for Hello, Dolly!


Once again, we were pretty on top of this one. Gavin Creel's role as Cornelius is pretty large and he's a great actor, so no surprises here. Our predictions are now 3/3.

Lighting Design Award
Winner -- Bradley King for Great Comet


I picked Dear Evan Hansen even though I thought Great Comet might win, so I guess the joke's on me. Andrea didn't choose a specific show, so I won't count that in her numbers. The lighting design for Great Comet is pretty amazing, so it's easy to see why it won. 3/4 for me and 3/3 for Andrea. 

Best Original Score Award
Winner --  Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for Dear Evan Hansen



The first big surprise of the evening. I thought Comet would run away with this award, though I did have DEH listed as a wildcard (so I shall give myself half a point). Andrea picked this (as well as Come from Away). So that's 3.5/5 for me and 4/4 for Andrea.

Best Book of a Musical Award
Winner -- Steven Levenson for Dear Evan Hansen



I predicted DEH, while Andrea suspected Come from Away would steal the spot. In the end, Dear Evan Hansen pulled through. With its realistic dialogue and easy flow, I'm not surprised. 4.5/6 for me and 4/5 for Andrea.
Orchestration Award
Winner -- Alex Lacamoire for Dear Evan Hansen



Bethany: Predicted Great Comet or Bandstand
Andrea: Predicted Bandstand

This was a surprising win, but deserved, I'm sure. Lacamoire also won last year for Hamilton. As you can see, Andrea and I were both off. Me: 4.5/7, Andrea: 4/6.

Featured Actress Award
Winner -- Rachel Bay Jones for Dear Evan Hansen


Once again, I listed the winner as a wildcard pick. I predicted Jenn Colella from Come from Away, while Andrea picked Stephanie J. Block (or Jenn) to take home the trophy. Looks like we were both wrong, but since I listed her as a wildcard, I'll give myself another half point. Rachel Bay Jones does an excellent job in this tear-inducing role as a mother who isn't always able to be there for her son because she's trying to provide for him. Me: 5/8, Andrea: 4/7.

Best Director Award 
Winner -- Christopher Ashley for Come from Away



I predicted this one as a probable win, while Andrea didn't pick a specific show again. Me: 6/9, Andrea: 4/7. 

Choreography Award
Winner -- Andy Blankenbuehler for Bandstand



Okay, I predicted Holiday Inn because I was awed by the idea of a tap number with jump ropes. I should have predicted Bandstand like Andrea. Also, this show looks awesome and their Tony performance was fabulous. Me: 6/10, Andrea: 5/8.

Actor in a Leading Role Award
Winner -- Ben Platt for Dear Evan Hansen 

 

This was all I wanted from this year's Tony Awards. Ben Platt won Best Actor and he was precious. His speech in the above video was inspiring as well. Both Andrea and I got this one correct. Me: 7/11, Andrea: 6/9.

Actress in a Leading Role Award
Winner -- Bette Midler for Hello, Dolly!


As predicted by both of us, Bette Midler won! She also did something we didn't expect: she talked right through her play-off music to thank people until the music actually stopped. It was a pretty hilarious moment that will probably live in Tony Awards infamy. Me: 8/12, Andrea: 7/10.

Revival of a Musical Award 
Winner -- Hello, Dolly!


I love the Revival of a Musical category. It's the moment musical classics get a chance to shine again. This year, they returned a previously cut song to the show and you can see David Hyde Pierce performing it above. I predicted this to win, while Andrea thought Falsettos might beat it. Me: 9/13, Andrea: 7/11. 
Best Musical Award
Winner -- Dear Evan Hansen


Whoa. Although I like Dear Evan Hansen, I was sure Great Comet was a lock for the night's biggest award. Andrea predicted rightly, though, so our final counts are ... me: 9/14, Andrea: 8/12. We didn't do so badly, but next year will hopefully be better.

Other Highlights



Ben Platt leading the cast of DEH, just days after being on vocal rest, was lovely and emotional and great. This kid can act and sing so beautifully. 


The performance from Miss Saigon was so chilling and emotional, a truly gut-wrenching performance and one of my favorites from the night. 


Have to share the performance from Groundhog Day since it didn't win any awards and has a talented cast. 


Lastly, I had to share this performance by two Broadway legends, Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone. 

So there you have it. What was your favorite moment from the Tony Awards? Did your favorites win? 

Monday, June 26, 2017

If You Like This, Try That: Popular TV Show Edition


Most TV shows wrapped up their regular season over a month ago, which I'm sure has given you plenty of time to catch up with everything you've missed. But now what? There are still quite a few weeks of summer left, and now you might be wondering what to binge-watch next. If you enjoy any of the popular TV shows right now, here are a few suggestions of what to try next!

If you like The Walking Dead, try Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin)


The Walking Dead is known for its depiction of humanity on the brink of extinction, of monsters attacking and eating humans, and of the deep truths about humans. Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) is also known for many of these same aspects. Both shows follow a ragtag group that is determined to survive and find a way to save their people. Just replace creepy zombies with giant man-eating titans, trap the entire population of the known world behind a wall, and add extra-awesome fighting gear and swords, and ta-da! you've transformed The Walking Dead into Attack on Titan (sort of). If you like The Walking Dead and you're looking for something new and different, try Attack on Titan.

If you like Supernatural, try Grimm


What could be better than hunting demons and monsters with two brothers? Hunting fairytale monsters with your best friend. Grimm is about Detective Nick Burkhardt who has the ability to "see" monsters that influenced fairytales in the real world. Thus he uses this gift to help him solve crimes. Grimm features a lot of stories about kidnappings and murders, strange circumstances, and lots and lots of bloody violence. In many ways, it reminds me of Supernatural because of the kick-ass characters, the plethora of monsters and lore, and gritty depictions. If you love Supernatural and you want something similar with a different twist (fairytales), Grimm is the show for you.

If you like Stranger Things, try Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency


I'll confess that I haven't actually watched Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency yet, but I was informed that the show has similarities to Stranger Things. You know, the weird circumstances, lights flickering, trying to figure out what in the world is happening. Dirk Gently's has that supernatural, science-fiction flair that keeps you guessing and provides a little terror to your experience, much like Stranger Things. It, however, is more comedic than serious, unlike Stranger Things, but it's definitely possible you'll like both!

If you like The Office, try Parks and Recreation


This one is a no-brainer. If you're a fan of The Office, you should watch Parks and Recreation (and vice versa). Both shows are comedy, both shows feature a fantastic cast of characters, and both shows take place in a typical working class environment. One focuses more heavily on business while the other focuses on government, but both provide a lot of laughs, quotable moments, and the sense of finding a TV family. Seriously though, why haven't they done a cross-over movie yet?

If you like Game of Thrones, try Vikings


I haven't actually watched Game of Thrones or Vikings, so take this recommendation with that in mind. But everything I've seen on the Internet has stated that if you like Game of Thrones, you'll enjoy Vikings. Both feature bloody battles, kick-ass female characters, and a plethora of drama and tension to keep you intrigued. If you're a fan of any of these aspects, watch Vikings (and then come back and let me know if this suggestion is accurate).

What other recommendations would you give for these popular TV shows?

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Eric Carle, the Abstract, and the Concrete


Few people understand how hard it is to make a children's book. The challenge of a story geared towards the adult population is to create a compelling narrative that guides the reader through a host of emotions, culminating in a conscious or subconscious epiphany. And while that's certainly daunting (believe me, it is; I'm attempting that very thing for my Master's), the challenge of writing for children is doing those same things while keeping in mind the fact that you’re doing it to shape a consciousness, not just elucidate some moral or concept, abstract or otherwise.

Children’s books are as much a source of knowledge and wisdom as they are a source of entertainment. Hence books like Everybody Poops and Where Willy Went. While the adult world can laugh at the awkwardly juvenile way in which these subjects (defecating and insemination, respectively) are presented through the books, children, by virtue of having spent only so many years alive, don't yet have the framework with which to understand the gravity (or lack thereof) of such topics. It’s like beginning to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation and not knowing that Klingons used to be the bad guys in the first series of the show.

Bad hairstyle was the true enemy. (source)

But kids are champs at learning. Kids learn like it's their job, and, in a neurological manner of speaking, it is. The brain's plasticity during the first decade of life is phenomenal. In fact, very young children, as in less than a year old, learn at such a rapid pace that it literally keeps them up at night. Yes, when your six-month-old is wailing at 3:00am in the damn morning, it's because she literally can't handle all the information about the world that has been pouring into her mind.

“But she doesn't study anything,” says Joe McSuperignorant. “She doesn't read, she doesn't understand words. She's not even doing anything half the time.” Oh ye of little understanding, poor Joe McSuperignorant. Before the world brainwashed you into thinking that the only type of knowledge to be had was in the form of doctrinal factoids (i.e. “The sky is blue,” “two plus two is four,” “Draco Malfoy is a tool bag”), we still acknowledged that experience was its own form of knowledge. Unbridled, uncensored, pure experience. Moments of experience, rather than pages of book knowledge, are what one's world is first built out of.

This is where we get the saying “The burnt hand teaches best.” Nothing will get you to trust in the destructive power of fire more than touching the fire (the same goes for breakups). And for kids, especially young kids, like four or five years old, the whole world is a series of “fires” teaching them things through experience. Kids experience things, they experience them again, they see the patterns forming, and the world suddenly starts making sense.

Pictured: child absorbing pure knowledge from the universe. (source)

Enter Eric Carle, color wizard extraordinaire. Eric Carle's books do what a lot of children's books do; it's hard to say he does it best. Frankly, that question gets too subjective to have an answer. However, no one can deny that what he does in his books is very effective.

What is it that he does exactly? He merges the abstract with the concrete.

Do me a favor and go to your local children's library and take a look at the illustrations in the nonfiction books. Then take a look at the illustrations in the picture books. In case you're too busy or lazy to do that (which I totally am myself, ha!), you'll find that the non-fiction books very typically employ actual photos while the picture books use artist-drawn or painted pictures. Even some of the nonfiction books use drawn, abstract illustrations (a lot of the how-it-works books do that). Why is that? The nonfiction books are of the doctrinal factoid sort of knowledge. The picture books are more about a narrative.

That's a keyword here, 'narrative.' See, when a child first forms their concepts of the world, a narrative starts to take place. Children start to put two and two together (at some point, literally), and they begin to see the patterns, the invisible laws about how the world works. Gender norms, language, family life, even something as straightforward as gravity--children, over the course of their childhoods, put together these patterns, finding all the ways they can that life can take shape. Regardless of whether or not those connections made are good or not (google search gender roles and tell me what you find), they are made nonetheless. To use a Hindu metaphor, they blindly feel about the creature they have discovered on the path until, after feeling it out so much, they realize that it is an elephant.

"Wait, don't tell me...giant football?" (source)

Eric Carle's books help kids do that. Let's take his most famous story for example, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The structure of the book is quite simple: this caterpillar is hungry and he spends most of the book progressively eating more to sate his insatiable appetite. The reader recognizes that the amount of food progressively increases all while it also changes color. Eventually the caterpillar gets sick from eating so much, creates a chrysalis within which to metamorphosize, and then becomes a butterfly.

And no child reading Carle's book will understand any of the process by which the caterpillar did this. Heck, words like 'chrysalis' and 'metamorphosize' are probably at least a decade off from being graspable words for the target audience. Still, something is happening here. The children are experiencing things.

The genius of Eric Carle is that his illustrations are right on the border between abstract and concrete. They're concrete because simple colors and shapes are used to convey objects. Before writing this article, I haven't seen that caterpillar in years, yet I could still visualize it, green beaded body and all. The food too is just as simplistic in its representation. Basic colors and basic shapes. They're so concrete they're nearly tangible.

At the same time the art style is very abstract. This caterpillar looks approximately 5% like an actual caterpillar, and the food isn't much better. Even the coloration is abstract, using Eric Carle's signature textured approach instead of solid colors. And the weird white background--what's with that? This story takes place in the middle of nowhere. It’s like those odd commercials; just floating in abstract white space, contextless, frameworkless.

"Where am I!?" (source)

But that's the genius! That's the magic! The child is learning to connect concrete things--shape and color--with abstract thinking--that unrealistic, worldless white space. And that... THAT is the basis for forming a grander meaning for one's life.

See, that deepest line between the dots waiting to be connected is what meaning life has. I won't dare argue what that meaning ought to be, or, in a metaphysical sense, whether or not there even is one. All the same, learning how to create a narrative for the world is a skill all of us need, even if that narrative is meaninglessness in general. Learning how to join the concrete and the abstract is what narrative, indeed what art, is all about.

If you want your kid to learn about caterpillars, check out a book on caterpillars. If you want your kid to have a fun, engaging story, check out a fun and engaging story. Your local children's librarian will know plenty. But if you want to imbue your kid with the mental faculties of combining abstract thought with concrete representation, you pick you up an Eric Carle book.

Do other books do this? Yes. Are there other ways of learning this same concept? Absolutely. But did Eric Carle do it well? Hell yes.

Hell yes.

Which of Eric Carle's books was your favorite? 
What other children's book shaped you growing up?


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Meet Cute: Island-Dwellers, World-Changers

Have you ever wondered what would happen if two of your favorite characters met? Would they get along fabulously? Would they immediately despise each other? Would they fall in love and live happily for the rest of eternity?

Enter Meet Cute.


I recently saw Wonder Woman, and while I was watching that incredible film, it suddenly hit me that Diana and Moana have a lot in common. They both are determined to save humans, they are both princesses (though Moana would disagree with me), and they both spend at least some amount of time sailing.

Diana: "I am Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta!"
Moana: "I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat--wait, what?"
Their drive and determination to save the world is one major similarity that unites them. Though Moana is drawn to save her tribe and Diana tries to save mortals from a different realm, ultimately their goals are the same. They're compelled to save people and do whatever it takes to do that. It makes them pure cinnamon rolls, honestly. I think they should discuss the perils and difficulties of their missions, as well as their love for humanity, over a cup of hot chocolate, a tropical drink, or whatever it is they drink on Themyscira.

The pig could also join them.--(source)

Both of these characters are also completely badass--though that manifests in different ways for each of them, you can see that resiliency at each of their cores. It's clear in Diana's fighting skills, her bold way of speaking, and even her tender heart. For Moana, her badassness is clear in sheer moxie--she knows how to sail, she won't let Maui take no for an answer, and if she doesn't get something right the first time, she'll try again. Ultimately, their badassness boils down to both Moana's and Diana's refusal to give up, no matter what it takes. They're fighters in every sense of the word, and that's why they should meet--that fighting spirit recognizes another fighter. They would understand each other.


The moment I realized these two should meet was when Diana decided to sail away from her island on a mission to save the world. Like Moana, she has a male companion (though sadly, she does not have a chicken named Hei-Hei). They were both raised on an island, they're both daughters of the ruler of that island, and they're both sailors. The similarities just go on. I'm telling you, these two were destined to meet.


Plus, I can easily imagine Steve Trevor and Maui in that bar in London discussing the girls they care about. I desperately want these two to meet, too. Steve would be the perfect person to temper Maui's slight arrogance, and Maui would bring Steve to new adventures and excitement.

Maui: "What can I say except you're welcome?
Steve: "Well that's neat."

Though Diana and Moana may seem like an unlikely pairing, I think it's perfect. They complement each other. Moana needs a mentor to guide her, and Diana needs someone to help bring out the young, almost childlike spirit in her (especially since Diana grew up without any other children on Themyscira).


Imagine Diana witnessing the magic of Moana's ocean and the life of her village and being extremely joyful to see it. Or Diana training Moana in combat, in sailing, teaching her Themyscira's ways, and then smiling as Moana takes on the new role as leader of her village.


This is a match made in heaven (perhaps by Zeus himself), and I can see it flourishing for years (just like Te Fiti).

Moana: "I know the way... I am Moana."
Diana: "And I am Diana, Princess of--"
Steve: "Prince. Diana Prince."
Maui: "You're welcome!"

What do you think about this Themyscira/Motunui alliance? Do you have any related headcanons? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, June 23, 2017

How to Fix Sonic the Hedgehog


First off, a caveat: I am by no means the first person to bring up ways in which the Sonic series has been less than perfect. The issue has been addressed in multiple ways. Simply Google the phrase “How to fix Sonic the Hedgehog” and you’ll get a number of hits and discussion boards all geared towards the ways in which he can be improved. I’ve heard of ideas such as going back to world-building roots or getting rid of the unnecessary edge to some of the characters (looking at you, Shadow) to simply sticking with the 2-D model that the game series first launched with. What I’m going to cover today has, in all probability, been talked about before. In other words, what I’m going to tell you probably isn’t a novel idea. It’s one I haven’t come across myself, but it surely must have been discussed in some forum board or late-night breakfast joint somewhere.

An additional caveat: I haven’t exactly played the newer games. The furthest I managed to bring myself (yes, effort was involved in getting myself to buy the later games) was in playing Sonic Heroes and Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II. I’ll be blunt now: I didn’t care for the former and enjoyed the latter, as well as its prequel. But, all the same, I couldn’t bring myself to continue purchasing the new games. Sonic Colors, Sonic Unleashed, Shadow the Hedgehog (ugh): I knew all of them would have the same core problem. Shadow probably had a few more (ha!), but at their core, the newer games all have the same issue.

Every segment of demo I see coming from a new Sonic game, every screenshot of a fan’s playthrough on Facebook, every mention of the different features and designs that the newest game in the series will incorporate--they all fail to address a basic issue.

Speed.

Sonic is too fast. There, I said it.

"Behold my legacy!"

But let’s back up a bit. Let’s go back to what I said a moment ago. I mentioned that I liked Sonic the Hedgehog 4. I liked it because it was like the old games. It featured very similar sorts of levels and bad guys to beat up. It managed to touch on nostalgia without becoming dependent on it. And, most importantly, Sonic’s speed didn’t actually hinder the game play. Just like in the old games.

Back in the days when playing a game meant overcoming a challenge instead of just being immersed in a world (see my post on Dark Souls and Zelda for more), Sonic gamers knew that it took a few playthroughs to memorize a level and then blast through it once it was fully memorized. I myself can remember getting through several levels on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 without taking a single hit. Because this was naturally a function of the game, speed was allowed. Or, to be more precise, controlling Sonic’s speed was allowed. Higher scores were granted to the faster players, but knowing when to jump, when to duck, and where to go were more important bits of info to the players than just running to the right real fast. The point of the game became controlling Sonic’s speed so that the fastest playthrough could be found. Add to this different paths through which one could reach the end of a level (as well as hidden traps and goodies along the way) and the fun of Sonic becomes apparent: getting to the end in the fastest, funnest way possible without losing rings or dying.

You poor children will never know the joy!

Fast forward to the newer, 3-D games. We’ll take Sonic Adventure for instance. While a large portion of the game involves playing levels that have nothing to do with speed (such as the Casino stage or any stage played with Big the Cat), those stages that use getting to the end as fast as possible as the mechanical basis for the level design leave something to be desired. The reason is that Sonic’s playstyle is at odds with how humans function. Before, during the 2-D era, Sonic was not too fast to be playable. He operated at a good speed and when he did go fast, that speed didn’t interfere with a player’s attempts to go through the level. The level could still be enjoyed. The mysterious backgrounds and hidden items and special stages (a glorious invention in gaming) could all be appreciated as they were meant to be.

But now? Now the focus is on making Sonic so fast that the games nowadays actually have to help you play them in order to maintain Sonic’s speed. From utterly boring single-lane movement to auto-controlled camera sequences, the 3-D games began letting the tail wag the dog. Cool level design and player experience was all hindered (or worse, sacrificed) to keep up the appearance that Sonic and his games are about speed.

The sad thing is that the cool parts of the old games were never about the speed. What drew me to the Sonic games were the music, the level designs, and the wonder of knowing that a whole world was out there for Sonic to save without being told much about it, which creates a sense of wonder and awe. We get none of that now. We get awkward controls that are either too sensitive to be used well or are so sensitive that the game has to take control away from the player to maintain the illusion that Sonic’s speed is the real name of the game.

I get it, though: speed is Sonic’s schtick, and in the comics and TV series, that schtick works, but it doesn’t work in the games.

So what would work? Athleticism.

Sonic games need to emphasize more of Sonic’s athleticism. The level designs could be revamped so that the platforming action happens via jumps, flips, slides, somersaults, wall-jumping, and all those sorts of things. Things that made Maria Robotnik and the God of War games fun. Speed needs to be taken out. We don’t need to prove that Sonic is faster than Mario (especially since he actually isn’t). We need to show the Sonic world again. We need compelling level designs with intriguing, minimalist storytelling and special stages. And so we need to stop pretending that speed is what the game is about. Having fun exploring the world is what the game is about and has always been about.

Well, maybe he can be a liiiiittle faster.

So….

We can do one of two things. We can keep Sonic sequestered in the realm of 2-D side scrolling. Or we can take Sonic in a whole new direction, one that doesn’t involve streamlining the level designs so that it's easier for players to match their reaction time to Sonic’s. While I certainly want to see more 2-D games for Sonic to dash through, we can do better in the 3-D platform. We can let Sonic be his Sonicky self through the more standard platforming mechanics that have made several series the hallmarks that they are today.

Let’s agree to slow Sonic down before he crashes into yet another gaming blunder and give the blue blur a better way to be a snarky, rebellious freedom fighter.

Let me ask, intrepid, young speedsters,

What critical flaw have you found in the design of a great game or game series?

and

How else have you seen a 2-D game fall short when transitioning to a 3-D platform?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Japanese Folklore, Zombie Clowns, and the Exiled Alien: Deckbuilding as Storytelling

Image result for yugioh
My experience with CCGs, collectible card games such as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokémon, or Magic: the Gathering, is probably like a lot of people’s. I played a “rules-light” variant of them when I was little (read: I was 8 and had no idea what the cards do or how the game actually worked) mainly because of the appeal of the TV shows. Even people who aren’t still actively involved in the games still recognize Pikachu or “Exodia, Obliterate!” from the shows we all watched after school and the video games we’d all play. (Duelists of the Roses, anyone?)


But just like a smaller group of people, I also came back to these games later in high school and college. I didn’t really make friends in high school until just the end of it, but one thing we all played, oddly, was Yu-Gi-Oh!, so I brushed off the old cards in the back of my closet and started dueling. We spent so many hours playing it, staying at the school in the band room until six or seven at night, sometimes even playing with one of the directors. One of my closest friends, Alex, had a three-hour match with a director once, the director sitting behind an indestructible, magic-proof dragon, while my friend drew desperately and tried to find an out but only ended up staying until 8:30 and worrying his mom.

Part of what kept us playing it, I think, is that a couple of months into playing I got tired of losing so much with the rag-tag collection of cards from childhood (though I did find a still-treasured God card smashed behind a drawer in my desk that gave me some victories) and built my own deck, using YGOPro—a free software that gives you access to every card ever to test new decks and see how things work—to create a deck I’d eventually call “Spirits.” I was the first one to do this and also the first one to buy card sleeves to protect the cards and give them a uniform appearance, and so this pre-conceived deck started tearing up the competition, which made Alex build his own deck, which led to four years of frantic deck-building and continual competition and aggression.
Image result for last warrior from another planet
Adam’s Bayberry Spruce, named for the candlebox the deck was kept in, was a frighteningly aggressive zombie deck where mummies and ghoulish clowns paid in blood for especially vicious attacks. David’s Worms were a pensive, stall-y, defensive deck that focused on running out putting the stack of cards the opponent drew from into the discard pile, giving them an automatic win without ever attacking. My own Spirits were a mix of the two playstyles, alternately aggressive and defensive, as however far they advanced they’d have to go back to the hand, “the Spirit Realm,” at the end of the turn.

But just there were so many we built, me and Alex especially eventually building dozens of decks over time and having eight or so on hand at any given hangout. I remember all of them: the Carnival of Horrors (or Clown Control), The Last Warrior from Another Planet, Shadolls, Cloudians, Zombags, Destiny Board, Melodious, Gishkis, Classic Horrible Beatdown, Burning Abyss, Bujins, Trains, Triamids, Ghostricks, False Gods--each of them with their own tricks and stratagems, each with their own boss monster to work toward, each having their own story woven into the cards.

That’s why these things have staying power in my mind. Deck-building is really a creative exercise, taking a pre-existing story that’s been broken up into distinct events and reassembling it into a form that works, that has power and can do things. Take Spirits, for example, where the most important card in there was Aratama, a Japanese personification of bravery (and recklessness and all sorts of other “hot” emotions) in the form of a little bull-horned imp, weak in itself but able to call all sorts of other creatures—even the gods—to its aid, and so this story of Japanese mythology starts with bravery, a small voice being unafraid to speak.

But it continues with Nikitama, the personification of calmness, reasoning, and patience, a green little dude that allows an additional Spirit to be played that turn (in Yu-Gi-Oh!, you only get one free summon a turn) and also encourages you to tribute it to bring out one of the bigger spirits, like Amaterasu, the temporarily cave-dwelling sun god that scorches the entire battleground to a flat plane of ash, or Yamata Dragon, the nine-headed serpent borne from the annual floods that Susano, the storm god, always beats back, just as he beats back every threat. And there are other, minor cards too, like Izanami, Mother of Gods, who can bring back an ally for a cost, or ones that are part of the story but don’t make the cut into a deck, like Asura Priest, a Hindu-themed fighter that leaves no enemy unchallenged but just isn’t quite good enough.

And so underlying these mythic, powerful gods is the simple duality of courage and patience, something I think is lovely and humbling, which is why Spirits is one of the decks I always enjoy playing, even if I lose—I get to see this awesome story play out in front of me, even if it ends badly, and that’s meaningful in itself. And I get to see my friends tell their stories they’ve made, too, fighting against the horror of the dead brought back to life or against an infestation of worms that can’t simply be beat down, stuff that speaks to them the same way my medley of Japanese folklore speaks to me.

Have you had similar experiences with Yu-Gi-Oh!, Magic: the Gathering, or Pokémon? Tell me your favorite deck below!