Media Musings ~ February 2021

March 2, 2021

You ever find yourself nostalgic for eras you were never a part of?

A year before I joined my older brother in middle school, all the kids in his sixth grade class were given their own laptops to carry to and from school for that year. Like any discerning public school system, there was a robust filter that blocked off vast swathes of sites deemed detrimental to education, including the booming number of flash game portals (save the hallowed Coolmath Games)…but a handful of sites always managed to slip through the cracks. Our parentals had a pretty draconian policy for videogames of any kind around then, so every time my brother came home with his browser carefully preserving a webpage of whatever the school’s favorite game was, readily available for him to play whenever he wished, it almost seemed like he’d been bestowed some sort of forbidden grimoire, one that I eagerly awaited the opportunity to have my own.

Of course, the next year the assigned laptop system was taken away, for reasons I can’t remember.

Growing up as the internet went from a countless number of spaces in an ever-expanding constellation to the few platforms we’ve been shoehorned into now, it feels like a lot of my online life has been realizing how cool parts of the 2000s internet was just before they got swept away.

Lurked around plenty of internet forums, but never got over what retrospectively minor debacles I’d had to be an active part of one. GameFAQs was still popping with dozens of folks dropping their own exhaustive guides or mechanical breakdowns to the formula for every JRPG that released stateside, but now it seems like any game would be lucky to get more than 10 FAQs for anything. Tried making god knows how many blogs under god knows how many different names and subjects, but never stuck with any for more than a month until now, when the golden age of blogs is long gone.

Better late than never, though. Here’s some books and games that got my brain ticking over the past month.

The Burning Quartet (The Rage of Dragons and The Fires of Vengeance) by Evan Winter (novels, ongoing)

A lot of things about this series’ presentation is misleading. For one, despite what the author’s name might tell you, Evan Winter was born in the UK to South American parents with African ancestry. The first book is called “The Rage of Dragons,” the series itself is called “The Burning,” and motifs of dragons are front-and-center on the cover of each book. But, the dragons themselves, while important, battlefield razing, culture-defining demons from the underworld, they aren’t nearly as important to the moment-to-moment events as you might think.

The Burning is centered around the Omehi people, a perpetually warring society based on a mix of Winter’s personal experiences and South African culture, primarily that of the Xhosa people. Driven from their home to the continent of a smaller peninsula of Xidda, and under an endless siege by the natives hostile to their presence, the Omehi’s centuries-long stay on the small stretch of land has resulted in an intensely stratified society fighting and endless war. Divided up into the starkly named Nobles and Lessers, there’s almost no socioeconomic mobility even between the two groups’ subdivisions, and though the people in the highest Noble echelons can avoid active service, every concern of the Omehi people is oriented around its perpetual war effort. It’s a series grappling with a lot of grim stuff—how individual lives are shaped by cycles of violence, whether or not class divides are justified (even with biological complications introduced in book 2), and what happens when victims of systemic oppression are elevated to power.

Plus, since this is a fantasy novel with dragons, there’s also a major plotline of how all the strength-enhancing and depleting magic siphons power from the underworld where a demon-spawning god (and presumably the Omehi’s original tormentors?) is imprisoned, including the dragons themselves. Taken together with the endless war business, there is a lot of intense violence in The Burning, sharpened to a deadly point by its breakneck pacing.

While all this might seem brutal and grimdark-y on the get go (and it totally is), the real fires fueling the story are the relationships working in them, giving an warm undertone to the entire story. Many of the main characters’ motivations are driven by family matters, particularly the vindictive fires where the second book gets its title. It makes Tau, the main character of the story, someone I find immensely compelling: a mid-ranking lesser who has his fires stoked by the almost casual murder of his father by a trio of Nobles, he gains the skills to outmatch any man by constantly tempering his soul for fighting against the underworld’s demons (the requisite mental health deterioration is explored as well). By the start of the second book, Tau finds himself auspiciously appointed as the figurehead of the Omehi military, bringing a constant tension between his animosity for the people looking down on him but also keeping the frayed society together, and the need to keep things together by not murdering every condescending Noble he encounters for the greater good of the people.

Magus of the Library by Mitsu Izumi (manga, ongoing)

Some creators make it really easy to tell that they really love their subject matter.

This is the 10th page of the first volume of Magus of the Library. Ten pages later:

Mitsu Izumi and co. (preeetty sure manga artists have assistants, and there’s no way there isn’t a handful of people working on this series) have these double-page spreads in almost every chapter, sometimes multiple and a row, with the same amount of intricacies afforded for the most mundane of panels. It boggles the mind.

I feel like I should be able to gush about this manga, since it’s A) basically a dumb big fantasy novel series in manga form and B) holding up the marketing promise of being a “Fullmetal Alchemist for all ages 13 and up,” with a handful of references for good measure. But, for whatever reason, words feel insufficient for me to convey how much Magus of the Library ticks off pretty much every single box of the my jam list.

I’ll try, anyway: Magus of the Library has a lot of things going on. There’s the overwhelming bevy of different races and creatures in a One Thousand and One / Arabian Nights inspired-world, with dozens of named characters and political interrelationships to keep track of by the time you reach the end of the second volume. There’s the greater society of kafna, magic-wielding stewards of texts divided into twelve different subdivisions and maintaining an enormous library at the center of its world. There’s huge, almost self-indulgently unnecessary infodumps about everything you could ever want to know about caring for or the of sociopolitical influences of texts, along with comparatively big infodumps about a miscellany of topics.

As far as fantasy epics come, there’s also a somewhat tropey setup—the protagonist, a fair-skinned and long-eared child living in the slums of a town of brown-skinned and rounded ear folks and persecuted for both, has only one human friend yet tons of animal friends, and loves books with all his heart, of course. Magus of the Library seems acutely aware of this though, and willing to use it for subtle flourishes. The protagonist is directly addressed as the “long-eared boy” for the entire first volume until its very end, when the first use of his name is used to emphasize future events: Theo Fumis, the boy destined to save the world from a great evil—which, according to the latest volume, may or may not be the same person who innocuously nudges Theo towards the road to becoming a kafna in the first place?

In that same fourth volume, this self-awareness crosses over into some meta territory: sitting at the bottom of every covery is a line reading “Based on Kafna of the Wind by Sophie Schwimm”—a story that, if you try searching for, doesn’t exist! As it turns out, Sophie Schwimm is a 35-year old lady who exists in the world of Magus of the Library…which means that Kafna of the Wind may or may not be be a nigh-prophetic text that exists in that world somewhere? She’s part of the same learning cohort as Theo (and by far the oldest among a group of mostly teenagers, funnily enough), so I suppose there’ll be plenty more tricks for Izumi to pull when the next volume hits…

Hades (Supergiant Games, 2020)

Videogames wise, February turned out to be a blue moon of a month. The only new game I bothered to complete was a game du jour within a reasonable time of it still being a game du jour: Hades, the zenith of Supergiant Games’ brand of action RPG, compete with a Greek mythos reinterpretation made for modern times and a ridiculous assortment of roguelike progression systems.

Though in some ways, it isn’t that unexpected of an outcome, since I’ve always had a fondness for Supergiant’s first two games (Bastion and especially Transistor), and the occasional fanart gets picked up by my twitter algorithm every now and again, so it’s probably still in the mainstream periphery somewhere. But, there’s also the opposing force of all the written pieces I’d encountered before and after I’d picked it up, all pretty unflattering about how its a game that could only really be “made” in 2020. Hades is absolutely a product of its time: where the whole cast is made to appeal to pop culture’s hunger for charmingly written, relatably sanitized, and social-media-sharable characters you’ll have no qualms being loudly horny for; and even if there was no maliciousness intended when the 20th incremental loop was implemented, its systems pushes all of a person’s compulsive buttons for a chance to be an ever-present fixation, easily lumped with the other “treatmill” games sweeping the industry.

All that aside, what did I personally think of Hades? Well…it’s cool, I guess.

It’s definitely something Supergiant wanted you to play for a looong while before you even beat a run for the first time. A lifetime of accumulated experience with all kinds of action games means it wasn’t long for me to get a grasp over everything, taking only 17 runs across 12~15 hours for my first escape. According to this Giant Bomb poll, the average player takes 20 to 30 tries for their first, though I’m curious if myself and Giant Bomb’s community being made of dedicated videogame players skews this somewhat—especially considering how much of the game was left for me by then. By the time I’d heard one of Lord Hades’ pre-run spiels about the third area of the game, I’d already been there six or seven times; and when I started up another run after my first escape I learned I’d managed to completely miss one of the friendly encounters in the second area of the game!

As for Hades’ “making the roguelike genre accessible with narrative” shtick—when you’re seeing character interactions back-to-back that you’re supposed to see with who knows how many hours between them, the seams of the game really start to show. Doubly so once you’ve gotten to the end of the story and brought Zagreus’s mother Persephone back to the Underworld after 10 escapes: Lord Hades supposedly wants to begin making up for all the ways he was a bad father to Zagreus—primarily by making his son’s escape attempts an officially sanctioned activity intended to end with his defeat every time, morbidly enough—yet his dialogue still remains mostly as antagonistic as ever with so much stuff I was intended to see left over. Guess I can get Zagreus to start building his relationship with his father now that his incremental affection system is unlocked now…

Speaking of characters, in a few ways playing Hades was a disappointing experience. Not as much as the game itself, as it is holding the tangential knowledge of how the videogames industry treats runaway hits, by duplicating their design decisions in an atempt to make as much money as the runaway hits (Melos Han-Tani’s blog has many good posts on this). Or in this specific case, has treated, since I’ve noticed shades of Hades aforementioned brand of character designs in just about every major videogame I’ve played over the past few years.

Take Zagreus, for example: he’s kindhearted, humble, has a cheery sense of humor, and tends to be jovial towards everyone he meets, even if they repeatedly give him the cold shoulder or try to kill him. His respectfulness does crumble when the subject of his parentage is breached, and talking to his father always brings out a frustrated anger from him…and yet Zagreus is never put into any scenarios where he’d be willing to show anything more biting than that, or even anywhere close to screwing up anything important.

And outside of Zagreus and Lord Hades, being allowed to have considerably different sides of themselves seems to be a luxury compared to the rest of the supporting cast—all the Underworld’s denizens and the Olympian gods you’ll encounter have their own distinct designs and manners of speaking, but as far as I know what you see and hear is all you’ll get over your 15 to 100+ hour gaming experience.

Heck, the only character in Hades I particularly liked for their personality turned out to be Artemis, the composed goddess of the hunt whose critical hit boons are endlessly abusable—but you can literally just subtract the “goddess” part and get H’aanit, my favorite character from Octopath Traveler, another very pretty looking and sounding videogame with (mostly) lackluster stories made palatable by their immaculately designed/dopamine-inducing systems.

( this what it means to have a type?)

There’s probably an inevitability to me noticing this, though I’ll admit my selection size is tiny and limited to games that definitely aren’t known for their narrative feats: Octopath Traveler, Breath of the Wild, Pokemon Sword & Shield, and to some extent Final Fantasy XV. Still, to me a lot of the characters in those games feel impersonal in how clinically-designed-to-appeal they are without much substance behind it, and all but one of those games are major entries in landmark franchises (with one of them, as much as I love it, having a painfully obvious influence on today’s games). The legacy that springs in the wake of these games, if any, will just be more formulas in the shape of characters, mostly remembered for their quirky charms tailor made for your amusement and/or projection, but not really because they were allowed to be human.

It’s a little weird, seeing this kind of stuff from Supergiant, a team with a past lineup of games with tragedies, and probably the closest thing there is to a “prestige” indie studio (…wouldn’t this be something resembling AA of the 2000s at this point?). All the other narrative-focused indies I’ve played over the past few months—Ikenfell, Extreme Meatpunks Forever, Wide Ocean Big Jacket—have characters who are allowed to screw up, to want things, to be complete versions of themselves. In Hades, it seems like everyone just wants Zagreus to stop making such a mess. Maybe there is something more for those characters that I’ve just missed the hints for—but locked behind all the incremental mechanics as they are, I doubt I’m ever gonna see them.

Oh well. It feels like I'm asking more of these games than they were ever made to give, but I suppose it’s pretty easy to notice all this when you’re trying to engage more with mediums dedicated to this stuff, or when your current undertaking is based on a prime example of many of these conundrums by way of barely deviating from them. Hopefully your videogame excursions are more fruitful than mine have been ‘till recently. See ya next time.