When I was in the fifth grade, I was deeply entrenched in fantasy and science fiction. I went to Brian Jacques book signings, (gracias padres) and voraciously read any Black Cauldron and Young Merlin books. Naturally, ten year old me progressed to reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. One day, I walked into my school homeroom early, and thus decided to continue to read The Two Towers. I was entranced in a world and I delighted at the prospect of the unknown. I was made fun of, but no matter. While I was reading, advancing, and relishing every word, my best friend who was also reading the same book enters the classroom, sees my thumb holding a page, and misjudges the location. He exclaims that you’ve gotten to that part and he’s alive! Gandalf is alive!
I fled the room weeping. Nothing I write now can convey the depth of my despair. My teacher literally had to chase me down and console me the rest of the day. I did not speak to my friend for months. Spoilers are traumatic.
To say that I care about Lord of the Rings is an understatement. It’s themes are of the upmost importance, which is why it endures. Personally, those books taught me about what life is, and what hope should be in the face of hardship.
Back in 2011, I walked into a small chapel in Cuzco, Peru and saw a Joan of Arc stained glass window. It solidified and inspired my idea for the Eowyn tattoo that I wear proudly on my thigh.
Every year, I watch the Lord of the Rings Trilogy with an ardent passion. It’s difficult to explain to others, yet easy. No other film trilogy will ever touch it.
My parents were on a call with my little brother when I paused dinner preparation to chime in, “please listen to Deafheaven’s new album, and let me know what you think.” He said he was not aware of their new release, and that he has only listened to their 2013 Metacritic Album of the Year, Sunbather. He called it, “the pink one,” and after I answered his inquiry as to the new album title, he said, “oh, I like that: Infinite Granite.” My father then offered his two cents of mixed praise: band name is terrible, album name cool.
In a nutshell, this tiny exchange is a microcosm of all the discourse surrounding a band that has been nothing but polarizing. Over the last eight years, Deafheaven have combined black metal and shoegaze to an astoundingly mesmerizing degree, pushed the boundaries with each of their subsequent releases, and with each pivot have captivated and divided. Deafheaven is metal as hell, while Infinite Granite is how one would describe a shoe stuck to a pedal.
Myself, I never would have given Deafheaven a chance if not for all the critical acclaim. Whenever I listened to Sunbather in 2013, I cringed at the screaming, I frowned upon the overwhelming cascades of guitar and drums, and a couple minutes into any song I simply abandoned it. Yet, I persisted: I would read a review full of praise, a friend would tell me give it a chance, I would hear snippets of bitter-sweetness in the music, but after each revisit I could not commit.
In hindsight, I am not sure when I became completely enamored with Deafheaven, but their Sunbather closer, “The Pecan Tree” essentially tells the tale in a nutshell. At 11 minutes and 37 seconds, the first act in the song symbolizes everything I resisted about the band: anger, fear, resentment. Then, at the four minute mark, the song voicelessly transitions into the second act: hesitance, acceptance, beauty. Then, at eight minutes, George Clarke starts screaming again, but the accompanying music is beyond gorgeous. It is pure catharsis.
Deafheaven parted fanbases of metal and shoegaze down the middle with their precise formula of melancholic metal, and so when they released a few singles to promote Infinite Granite and announced their intention to reinvent, I was immensely concerned, but not at all surprised. There is hardly any screaming to be heard here, no need for a lyric insert to read along with. In fact, Clarke’s subtle vocals at the very start were disarming and unnatural. Who is this person whispering, “flooded with raining, levees are breaking,” in my ear? Astounded, I hated it.
And yet I persisted, and despite the lack of shrill vocals, I relished in the atmospheric calm of halfway-point respite that was “Neptune Raining Diamonds.” There has to be anger and resentment and screaming soon after this, I thought. No. Hesitance, acceptance, beauty — That is what was waiting.
Three quarters of an hour after the first track, I was rooted to the spot. Two hours and two listens later, I could not stop weeping. Here I am–45 hours after release and almost thirty listens later–still in awe of how Deafheaven managed to encompass their entire discography so perfectly and so incongruously all at once. It is simply breathtaking.
Every Deafheaven album closer is quintessential, and “Mombasa” is no different. It begins as softly as any of their music ever has, draws you in and finds you “sleeping in nectar, teething in freedom.” Then, with the final three minutes of what is less an album and more a 53 minute, 35 second song of heart wrenching and intensely abreaction of tender empathy, Deafheaven unleash the sky, and the result is nothing less than igneous fortitude. Infinite Granite.
March is my favorite time of the year. College basketball madness begins and I start coaching again (this year it was ultimate frisbee, not the usual track and field), and I absolutely adore the emotions that go with that. Furthermore, the weather gets nicer, my birthday comes along, and I can walk around in my trademark look tiny running shorts.
The month got off to a stellar start. Final Fantasy VII Remake dropped, I played frisbee for two hours everyday with a hilarious and wonderful group of kids, and I was finally feeling like I was hitting my stride in my first year as a teacher. Alas, I had to adapt and learn how to teach all over again when we switched to virtual learning in that 3rd week of March. Relationships with my kids changed, and I could not go to a bar for a drink on my birthday. Still, I was pretty ignorant and unconcerned about COVID-19. Upon my word, the naiveté. Little did I know.
I coped with social distancing about as well as expected. I poured hundreds–no, thousands–of hours into video games. I got so masochistic that even after I finished The Last of Us 2 I started playing Dark Souls. TLOU2 is among the most miserable and depressing gaming experiences of my life, and following that up with what I can only call as the most punishing, hair-ripping, controller-destroying game franchise of all time was downright sadistic of me. I lied in the dark with my cat embedded in my armpit watching dark things like The Wire and the news. I didn’t exercise, barely ate, felt my eyeballs melt out of my head Indiana Jones style on Zoom, and even downloaded Tinder again, which, why? On top of that, the killings and protests in Philadelphia and the world along with the election year was, well, stressful. To put it mildly.
All of this isn’t to say that my situation is unique. COVID-19 has wrecked the world in ways we have yet to understand. My heart reaches out to everyone affected. But the point is I neglected a lot of my mental and physical health, and a core pillar of my self-care and healthy medication is music. Instead of losing myself in books while blasting music, going for walks while blasting music, driving with the windows down blasting music, I religiously listened to podcasts for the first time, something I have never done before (I know, I know) and consumed media that wasn’t enough of an escape.
Obligatory aside and shoutout to The Mandalorian and my cat though. That show and her are perfect, and I love them forever for the glorious magic you brought me this year.Grogu, Din Djarin, and Manchitas, you are the MVP’s of 2020.
To continue, music is my haven. Even if it’s doom metal or dark and brooding electronic, it helps me work through myself, the good and the bad. Relative to most of my life, I barely listened to music this year, let alone new songs, and I realized I was essentially ignoring a therapist or support group. A horrid mistake, but in the last month I have remedied this. I have been catching up on the year’s big releases, but among my favorites have been The Spice Cabinet’s Adventures of Pie Boy.
Jazz is great, but I do not normally seek it out, and I was skeptical. While Spice Cabinet’s debut was a cover compilation of works by some personal faves such as Dido, Frank Ocean, and the like, it simply wasn’t all that memorable. The Adventures of Pie Boy, however, is a tight 40 minutes of original compositions and it just might be the only thing from 2020 that I wish would last longer. Four of the tracks are interludes, and the other six almost have more to say. This gives the album a lot of room to breathe in a live setting, which for a large jazz ensemble like Spice Cabinet, I am more than sure will happen. Yes, my kindred musical spirit, someday live music and jam session parties will return. Hang in there and stay positive!
That command in a certain context is insensitive and condescending, but not so for Pie Boy. The first track “Stick it to Ya,” was Pie Boy themselves telling me to lift the blinds, get out of bed, and go for an adventure, which I did. I found myself dancing into the kitchen for some tea. When was the last time I had heard a song that genuinely sounded joyous?
Turned out it’s not even the happiest song on the album. A word on that in a moment, but halfway through middle track “Pie Boy Moon Bone,” the album surprisingly slows down into a flute and subtle acoustic riff. For a moment this seems to be a jarring decision, if not for the consonance of what immediately follows, “Bittersweet.”
Featuring The Orchid Quartet, “Bittersweet,” is a gorgeously sprawling track that centers on dulcet spoken word performed by Kate Ettinger and Diana Lizhao. Bringing in these six women is a brilliant decision that makes the song work in the middle of the complimentary, higher tempo arranged pieces. With Spice Cabinet, it seems there truly cannot be too many cooks.
Had the album remained subdued, it would had suffered, but de facto closing track, “Sugoi Smash,” is superb. Sugoi roughly translates to “amazing,” and it is filled with homages to classic video game tunes making the title almost read “Super Smash,” a classic Nintendo staple. The track simply shines, and after playing so many video games this year that were not delightful, (except for Animal Crossing and FFVII), “Sugoi Smash” reminded me why I love the medium so much.
The video for “Bittersweet” is similar to a lot of videos this year: different squares with individual musicians playing alone in their own spaces. A painful reminder that we still cannot fully share music together. The editing is terrific, and all of the different faces and instruments blend almost psychedelically. It’s not a numbing sensory overload, but appropriate and comforting in the way an ensemble like The Spice Cabinet plays their music, together and joyously.
So hard put ones finger on the passage of time / the days mercilessly ticking by, unrelenting / the feeling of only having so much time / wondering how much of it may have been wasted / like so many grains of sand in an hour glass / finite in number, more precious than diamond dust
Kate Ettinger & Diana Lizhao, “Bittersweet,” The Adventures of Pie Boy, The Spice Cabinet, 2020
“This song sets up the album with the urgency I feel to show appreciation for the one who’s kept me grounded and feeling loved throughout all the tragedies I’ve faced.” — Jeremy Bolm
Touché Amoré’s newest album starts with the banger “Come Heroine,” a track that lead vocalist Jeremy Bolm wrote as a tribute to his partner. It’s an epic opener, and one that sets the stage for Touché Amoré’s most ambitious and best album.
Off mic, Bolm sets the mood and screams “From peaks of blue, come heroine” enthusiastically, and the band follows his lead with gusto. The song rips, roars, and amps me up so much that it makes me forget heartbreak and want to joyously embrace all my exes, friends, and acquaintances.
Of course, that is not possible right now. Every interview given by the band for Lament’s promotion has obviously included the nature of their creative process during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like a lot of art at the moment, it is about processing the shit we are going through. Lamenting the state of the world, our communities, our families, ourselves.
Touché Amoré, however, are hell bent on an attempting to stay positive, and even though they cannot see a crowd mosh, they wrote an album that alleviates some pain. Whether or not you enjoy listening to post hardcore lyrical delivery, I hope everyone appreciates screaming along to “I need reminders of the love I have.”
The video for that track, “Reminders,” is perfect, and I encourage all to watch:
It is a beautiful video, and it is easily the best and most accessible song the album has to offer. And yet, the stellar follow up, “Limelight,” is devastating: “I’m tired and I’m sore / I’m not so young anymore / worn down, but I imagine / this uniform stays in fashion.”
The album’s closer, “A Forecast,” is a complete surprise. Bolm does not scream over heavy rock music, but candidly sings while accompanied only by a piano:
I’ve healed more than suffered
I found the patience for jazz
I still love the Coen brothers
I’ve lost more family members
Not to cancer but the GOP
What’s the difference I’m not for certain
They all end up dead to me
So here’s the record closer
Still working out its intent
I’m not sure what I’m after
But it couldn’t go left unsaid
Unapologetically, the band makes an emphatic entrance and Bolm screams, “I’m still out in the rain / I could use / A little shelter / Now and then”
Touché is a French word that acknowledge’s cleverness at the expense of another, and for a band such as this, love has always held the upper hand and had the last laugh, even among the hardships. Lament is about depression, anxiety, and loss. But above all, it is about the love we have, good or bad.
I need reminders of the love I have, I need reminders, good or bad.
This article only highlights my personal experience and what I got out of the game. It should be noted that The Last of Us has been called out for transphobic and harmful portrayals of LGTBQ characters. Below are links to a few sources, and I believe that they are extremely relevant and absolutely must be included in any discussion about the controversy surrounding these games. The first condenses these thoughts in a concise manner, while the second is a longer, yet just as vital, link to a fellow blogger’s analysis. Happy Pride.
The Iliad was written almost a millennium ago, but it is read, dissected, and referenced often. You know the story: A woman leaves one man for another, a man is killed and then a brother, and all grieving parties seek revenge on the other. It is a tale as old as time, and it is as trope-filled as they come. The Count of Monte Cristo, V for Vendetta, Hamlet, Carrie, The Princess Bride, John Wick, Genesis 34, The Mask of Zorro, Kill Bill, The Wrath of Khan, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the list goes on and on. Themes and tropes repeat themselves because they work, but rarely are they original. Art in all mediums make us feel a certain way, and unless immortality and eternal boredom and apathy become normal, we will always get something out of it. Revenge stories are no different. The Last of Us Part 2, however, manages to examine revenge in an entirely unique way.
WARNING: EXHAUSTIVE SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US AND THE LAST OF US PART 2
The Last of Us was released on the PlayStation 3 in 2013 to universal acclaim, and while it was not new or original in its gameplay, it built upon its developer’s reputation as a narrative adventure video game juggernaut. Naughty Dog had been working on TLOU while the immensely popular and incredible Indiana Jones-like Uncharted 3 was being enthusiastically devoured by the gaming community, and it was almost inconceivable that ND could outdo themselves in their script writing and their storytelling. And yet they did, in large part because of performances like these:
Here you see the game’s protagonist duo, Joel and Ellie, barely escape the fungal infected terrors of their world and meet Bill, one of the many compelling supporting characters the player will encounter along their journey. At the very beginning of the game, the player controls neither. As Joel’s daughter Sarah, you give your dad a watch for his birthday, you fall asleep watching tv together, he tucks you in, you awake and are unable to find him. You then witness the horrific start of an apocalyptic nightmare, get into a car crash, and after Joel carries you to what you think is a safe haven, you are shot to death by the military attempting to contain the outbreak. In Joel’s arms, his daughter, who you were playing as, is murdered by the entity you thought was going to be your protection.
Cut to years later, and now you play as a grizzled Joel, who illegally smuggles contraband in a martial law controlled quarantine zone and does whatever he needs to in order to survive. Before long, his close partner Tess becomes infected and she sacrifices herself in order to allow you to escape with your latest cargo, an immune girl named Ellie. What enfolds is a perfectly developed relationship that is obviously influenced by Sarah, but also is wholly unique. Joel and Ellie develop a rapport, they support each other, survive traumatic experiences together, and Ellie ultimately coaxes out the personality Joel has been violently suppressing since the death of his daughter.
Moments such as these are what made TLOU a truly great game, and why people who did not even play it have watched cinematic movies of it on YouTube and why, hopefully, HBO will adapt it into a really good tv series. Finding the humanity in the repulsive makes for a great story. Yes, you had to murder dozens, maybe hundreds of people and fungus corrupted monsters to get to this moment, but you made it. The bond you have created with Ellie is immense, and Ellie, who is immune from the fungal plague, will provide humanity with a vaccine.
Once you arrive at the hospital, however, you discover that Ellie will have life ending surgery to remove the mutated fungus in her brain. Joel is told that this is the only way that a vaccine can be produced, and that Ellie has no knowledge that the surgery is happening. Ellie will die, and neither her nor you have any say in the matter. Out of respect for doing his job and delivering his cargo, he is allowed to walk out, at gun point, and move on with his life.
In the subsequent cinematic, Joel kills his captor and then you as a player take control and have no choice but to embark on a warpath, shooting and goring your way through anyone. Whether or not you think you are doing the right thing, you are playing as Joel, who will commit whatever atrocity he has to in order to reach Ellie and prevent the surgery.
You reach the hospital room in question and see the three surgeons. You see Ellie unconscious on the table, and realize the choice you have to make. Except you are not given a choice. One of them grabs a scalpel and brandishes it in your direction. As a player, you can either turn off the game, or kill them.
The Last of Us ends with Ellie waking up from her drugged stupor and asking Joel what happened. He lies, and the ending is left ambiguous as to whether or not she believes him. Ethically, morally, and personally, the player has to come to terms with what they wanted to do in that scenario. And yet it does not matter. Joel was going to save Ellie no matter what, and as a player how you feel means nothing. It is truly hard to convey the depth of emotion that the game leaves players, and this is why it works so well as a video game.
Agency in video games is complicated. The level of control a player has over a world and over its characters is obviously limited, but the ultimate reason TLOU endures to this day is because it explores this complex concept in an ethical, moral, and personal way.
Which is why The Last of Us Part 2 is a perfect sequel and a great video game.
AGAIN: EXHAUSTIVE SPOILER WARNING FOR THE LAST OF US PART 2
I successfully dived into TLOU2 relatively blind. I had seen a little gameplay, a trailer or two, and most importantly I managed to avoid all leaked spoilers. So when I started playing the game immediately after it finished downloading at 12:30am the day of release, I was working through a bizarre set of feelings. The game had been twice been delayed for months and months, in part because of Covid-19, but also because the staff at Naughty Dog were exhausted and overworked. I was giddy with excitement, finally ready to play arguably the most anticipated game in the last decade (it sold over 4 million copies in the first three days, fastest in PS4 history). But I was also heavy with dread and weariness. Like a lot of people, I have spent some time wallowing in the disaster that has been 2020. I’ve been lost, depressed and riddled with anxiety, and there I was, playing a heavy, dark and brutally violent survival-horror video game set in a post apocalyptic nightmare.
After a few hours of playing, I turned off my PlayStation and fell asleep, unsurprised that that I was feeling a little stressed out at being back in TLOU’s setting, but fascinated at getting the chance to spend time with Ellie again. I also felt relieved, because I had made it to the first big plot point in the story and could more or less extrapolate where it was going. I did not play the game again until two days later, and I continued to take a lot of breaks until the final chapter of the game in which I literally sprinted to the finish during an all-nighter because I just had to know what happened to Ellie.
The game’s marketing campaign had made it clear that Ellie was furious about something and that one of the central themes was revenge. The catalystic event, however, was not what most of the fandom was expecting, and right off the bat the game became controversial. Joel is beaten to death with a golf club right in front of a screaming and pleading Ellie. She does not know why, but what is important, is that you–the player–had up until this point been playing as the killer, a woman named Abby. Some players admitted online that upon witnessing his death at the hands of a mystery character you were just playing as (Joel even saves her life from a pack of infected), they rage quit in disgust and did not even finish the game.
Ellie is mercifully let go by the enigmatic faction of humans who clearly had beef with Joel, and she spends the next few days numb with grief. She moves as if through molasses, and as the player you are forced to move at that pace, no matter how much weight you put on your controller’s forward button. Ellie decides that she is going to go on a warpath of her own and chase after the group responsible, and what unfolds is a gruesome tale of revenge.
In a fascinating and ultimately incredibly important decision by Naughty Dog, the player spends only about half the rest of the game playing as Ellie, instead playing as none other than Abby, the golf club wielding mystery woman responsible for Joel’s fateful demise. I will not lie, at first I hated playing as Joel’s killer, and in my mind that is all she was to me for awhile, “the woman who killed Joel.” The more time I spent playing as her, however, that relationship got increasingly more complex.
During the time spent controlling Abby, it becomes revealed that she is the daughter of the head surgeon that Joel (the player), kills in order to save Ellie. Ellie, who at this point is fully aware of the events that transpired in the hospital, discovers Abby’s identity and elects to finish her quest for revenge despite knowing the validity of the motive to kill Joel. The pacing and structure that the game chooses to reveal all of these plot points is extremely choppy, but it was nonetheless a well done narrative worthy of the first game.
A lot of the fanbase is upset the game chooses to spend so much time with Abby, and that is understandable. The Last of Us is regarded as one of the best games of the 2010s for its gritty storytelling and its gripping relationships, none more than Joel and Ellie’s. As upsetting as it was to completely destroy that at the beginning of the game, I came to terms with it. Some macho and opinionated gamers argued that if he had to die, he should have died heroically to save Ellie. Well, he did, except it was years after he murdered his way through fire and hell to save Ellie from a fatal surgery.
Furthermore, Joel is anything but absent. My absolute favorite moment in the game is a flashback sequence in which Joel takes Ellie to explore a museum of natural history for her birthday. She runs around in glee, geeking out among the abandoned and yet largely intact exhibits, scenes I heavily identified with. When Ellie and Joel sit together inside the replica of a space capsule, he gives her a tape with a recording of a launch, and she closes her eyes. For a brief moment the world is free of worry and death. She quietly comes back to earth, turns to look at Joel, and they share a smile.
I had to pause the game and cry outside on my balcony for a while.
Let me be clear, I do not have sympathy for Abby, and I will not forgive her for shattering the bond between Joel and Ellie. What TLOU2 manages to achieve, however, is expand the story of the first game without retconning it to the point of absurdity or gross fan service. Am I mad that Joel is dead? Absolutely, but now I know some of the consequences of his/my actions. Joel killed, and therefore he destroyed the lives of those left alive, setting off a chain of events outside of his control. Abby killed, and therefore set off a chain of events out of her control. As controversial as the game is right now, I am convinced it told a stellar story next to its predecessor. It almost would have been a disservice for the game to have a happy ending, because that was not the point of the first one, despite Joel and Ellie living relatively well in the years after. If anything, the debate within the fanbase proves how great the story is. Unanimity, after all, can be quite dull.
When I initially completed the first game and reached the ending, I tried to spare the surgeons. I wanted both to save Ellie and quell the bloodshed, or at the very least ask the doctors if there was a 100% chance at a vaccine, and ask Ellie for her consent to do the surgery. When I had no other choice but to kill them, the consequences of my actions and my inability to control the outcome left me with a feeling I cannot describe. The Last of Us 2 is no different, as it continues to explore player agency within the ethical and philosophical quandary of Joel’s and the other characters’ decisions. This is of vital importance: It was Joel’s decision, not the player’s. Joel refused to lose another daughter, and that was that. The meta layer of the player controlling Joel is why TLOU and TLOU2 make the moral questions of revenge and murder that much more compelling and original, and why they work so well as video games.
Ellie fights Abby at the very end of the second game, and the player is entirely unsure if they are controlling one or the other. It is deliberately ambiguous, and the finale is nothing short of staggering. You understand the motivations of both and have not only spent extensive time forming a relationship with either character, but again, you have been guiding them through their respective stories. Unlike reading a novel from the point of view of different characters, the added layer that accompanies the video game medium is monumental within the world of fictional storytelling. This “final boss” fight is brutal, it is futile, and it is without a winner. The fight is the old adage “when seeking revenge, dig two graves,” perfectly put to video game screen, and the result is nothing short of devastating.
When HBO does release their adaptation, the themes of action and consequence, trauma, regret, and the endless cycle of violence that stems from an obsession with revenge that these games explore so masterfully will not resonate as powerfully without the inclusion of player agency. The Last of Us are not what would widely be considered as fun games, but they invite pertinent discussion and are as thematically captivating as they are narratively compelling. Tropes and clichés may be tried and true, but when they are done this well and executed this uniquely, they feel new again.
“Everyone I have cared for has either died, or left me. Everyone … fucking except for you! So don’t tell me that I would be safer with someone else, because the truth is I would just be more scared.” –Ellie to Joel, The Last of Us
Covid-19 has disrupted my life, but it has not yet felt personal. Yes, I am grappling with trying to work from home during a pandemic, yes, I have lost significant income, and yes, aspects of my lifestyle have become exceedingly uncomfortable. But as of this writing, Covid-19 is a virus that seems like an unseen threat in the distance and has not affected anyone in my life directly. To put it simply, no one I know has become infected, seriously ill, or passed away because of this novel virus.
Anyone who knows me is more than aware of my absolute adoration of Tolkien, but without people like Andrew Jack I would likely not harbor such uncompromising feelings. There are many reasons why Tolkien has affected me so much, but among them is because he invented languages for his story. Such rich detail is why a fantastical setting like Middle Earth is so enduring to this day, and Andrew Jack took an immensely complicated detail of that world and brought it to life. When fans go back to the films for the umpteenth time and see Orlando Bloom speak as Legolas, the One Ring terrify with the Black Speech of Mordor, Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortenson speaking flawless Elvish, it truly is real.
I currently teach Spanish to elementary and high schoolers, and of course, I am trying to do that from my desk at home in a strange cyber environment. I’ve spent time recording videos so that students have an extra resource, and therefore I’ve done a lot of watching myself talk. It is a bizarre thing, but it has helped me understand what my students see and hear when I teach. Live, I do not realize how fast I can talk or how strong my accent can be. The dialect and methods of my speech are inescapable, the intricacies are clear.
The process of this kind of teaching has been authentic and intimate, despite the lack of person-to-person contact. Let me be clear, I am not in the same room as my students, and that is jarring. But I am communicating with them in a foreign language through a screen, much like Cate Blanchett as Galadriel is to the audience in her opening monologue in Fellowship of the Ring. Storytelling is how I teach Spanish, because detail recollection directly correlates with communicative functions and helps retention. The idea that my dialect of Spanish through this medium is still as effective as in a classroom is not just a relief, it is a revelation.
Andrew Jack most recently acted in a minor role in the recent Star Wars films, and he was working on the most recent Batman film before his untimely death due to Covid-19 complications. We communicate with language, and how we do that is more important now than ever. His death makes this pandemic more real, uncertain, and all the more personal. It also reminds of the power of storytelling, the comfort of escape, the relevance of collaboration, and the catharsis of art. Andrew Jack helped make fantasy a reality, and that is a good thing.
My sister is my best friend, and we like to exchange top 10 lists. Of everything. We’ve done the basics, (movies) to the weirdly specific (top ten most romantic songs without the word “love” in the title). The one we’re on currently is top ten favorite video games, and this one I feel so strongly about it requires a long fleshed out blog post. Hope you enjoy.
Honorable Mentions — Final Fantasy X, Super Smash Bros, Sly Cooper, Warcraft III, Mass Effect, Mario Kart, Metroid Prime, Fallout 4, Chrono Trigger, Persona 4, Pokemon GO!, Marvel’s Spider-Man, I am Setsuna, Horizon Zero Dawn, Fire Emblem, Little Nightmares
10.) Humongous Entertainment, The MECC, and the Learning Company
This is fudging it a bit considering that these companies made a bunch of games, but I simply cannot mention one without the others, and in my mind they’re all one big awesome game. These are the ones that started it all–the educational video games that my parents let myself and my siblings play from the very beginning. If you grew up in the 90’s and never played Oregon Trail, I’m sorry for you loss. Their spinoffs Amazon and Yukon Trail were just as good, and I must’ve played Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo and Pajama Sam 3: You Are What You Eat From Your Head to Your Feet dozens of times, and Super Solvers: Mission T.H.I.N.K. is a great adventure full of mini games in which you have to collect board game tiles in order to beat the nefarious villain.
These games made learning fun, and although they were short, they were very sweet, and opened up my mind to the magnificent world of gaming.
9- Pokémon Blue
After the educational games that I devoured on the PC, Pokemon Blue was the next video game I ever played. But the emotional connection goes beyond that. The Gameboy Color along with Blue was a gift from my late grandmother, Memé. I have very fond memories of her, even though those memories are few since she passed when I was still young. I don’t think my mom was very happy with the gift, but it opened my mind to a different kind of storytelling and adventure, and I was able to supplement my love for the cards and the tv show with a fun, all encompassing RPG that I still revisit to this day. Not to mention that I am still playing Pokemon Sword, the new one for the Nintendo Switch. Anyone want to help complete my PokéDex?
8- Batman: Arkham
Batman has fascinated me ever since I discovered his 10 cent comics in the corner of a hobby store when I was a kid, and he will always be one of my all time favorite fictional characters. I have consumed every Batman, comic, game, show, and movie that I can, and I am familiar with every one of his adaptive iterations. Okay, that’s hyperbolic, but I’ve seen all 16 films released since the 40’s, every television show (yes, even the Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour from the 70’s), read as much of the comics as the internet and my budget for comics allows, and played every major video game title that he is heavily featured in (with the exception of the VR one). Safe to say, I love a flawed superhero who doesn’t have a true super power. Yes, he has his privilege and immense wealth to help him overcome that, but make no mistake, Batman is a complicated and compelling character worthy of re-exploring for generations to come.
The Arkham games are exceptional, boasting a compelling story and more than just one major villain per game. The stealth and combat gameplay elements fit the Bat Detective’s personality perfectly, and the stellar voice acting (Mark Hamill is the best Joker, fight me) makes for an amazing and immersive storytelling experience.
7- Bioshock Trilogy
I had a lot of trouble trying to decide which first person shooter (FPS) game to put on this list, and after narrowing it down to Metroid Prime, Fallout 4, and Bioshock, I decided to go with the latter based on the better narrative. Not only is the Bioshock franchise made up of story centered, ambitious FPS’s that explore wholly original environments such as a city built at the bottom of the ocean, but they deliver maybe the best twists in video game history.
15 minutes into this game I realized two things: SotC is the most unique game I have ever played, and that I must discover and play it all. So after experiencing this truly remarkable work of art and beating it once, I promptly played it another half dozen times. This is one of the first games that I achieved platinum status on, meaning I unlocked every single one of its trophies on the PS 4. I speed ran it, I beat it on hard, I unlocked all special items, I found every hidden stat building lizard, and I discovered all the little hidden gems in the game’s magnificent world that had been inaccessible to my weaker character in previous playthroughs. In the gaming community, this is what is known as “completionist.” And holy hell, what ride.
Doing my best not to spoil this must-play experience, SotC is simply 16 boss fights / puzzles. You find a Colossus and then you proceed to puzzle out how to bring it down, all for the remote possibility of reviving your lost love. The game’s themes of death, rebirth, love and futility are immersive and powerful, setting up a finale and emotional payoff that is nothing short of phenomenal. Along the way the player is treated to some of the most breathtaking art direction in any video game, ever. I never had the privilege to play this masterpiece in 2005, but thank the aeons that it was given an HD remake and rereleased and that I was blessed to experience it.
If the stereotypes that video games are just violent pointless shooters or mindless platformers with no backbone are still prevalent, then I’m at a loss. Video games have evolved into diverse and complex works of art rivaling books, movies, television, and hell, even podcasts. If you think Tetris and Call of Duty is all that video games are, you are sorely mistaken.
In 2013, the zombie genre was oversaturated. The Walking Dead and bad zombie games like Dead Island added nothing new to the genre, and frankly, I had no interest in The Last of Us when it was released. That changed with the reviews and word of mouth and the consensus that The Last of Us was one of the greatest games of all time, if not the best.
Not wanting to play the game but experience the story, my sister recently watched a playthrough on YouTube and became attached to the characters. She loved the game and proceeded to devour any video essay available. We have spent a few hours ourselves discussing it. Having still seen aspects of gameplay my sister was even more convinced that she never wanted to play the game because of how terrifying it is, and that’s not what makes this game a classic anyway. It’s the relationship between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie. Their dynamic is staggering and the emotional journey they go on creates for the most compelling character development in any game this past decade. Furthermore, it sets up an ending that is, quite frankly, polarizing and utterly thought provoking. I revisit The Last of Us often, and I still have meaningful discussions about it with friends. I even spent an entire eight hour work shift telling its story and discussing it. No game in the 2010’s told a better story, or spurred debates about player agency and ethical quandaries.
After I played Pokemon Blue on my Game Boy color, I proceeded to move on to Generation II Silver, Gold, and Crystal. And while those games mean a lot to me, it was Zelda Oracle of Ages and Seasons that really stick with me. The top-down, dungeon crawling, insane boss battles were mesmerizing.
The newest game, Breath of the Wild, would top this list if the only criteria were open world exploring and wonderment. I wish I could adequately describe what it is like to play a Zelda game for the first time. Twilight Princess introduced gameplay as a wolf, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask made the N64 a must have console, and Link to the Past made everything bad about Ages and Seasons better. The original and remake of Link’s Awakening are near perfect games, complete with their own ethical philosophical dilemma. The only flaw these games really have is character development, but I would argue there is no such thing as a bad Zelda game, and given the amount of titles, that is astonishing.
BREATH. JUST BREATHE.
Whew. Enter the top three. These games are so impactful and so powerfully emotional that I have trouble seeing them nudged politely off the podium. And they would step down humbly, because these games have personality, sensitivity, and are the standard. I will cherish them always.
Journey. Journey from point A to point B. You have two moves: jump, and sing/play a short musical note. There are variations, but really, that is it. You may sporadically encounter one other player, and if you do the only communication you can use is play your note and intertwine it with theirs–that is, should they reciprocate and offer you their musical collaboration, or even stick with you during the pilgrimage.
This is the only game on the list that I believe is 100 percent accessible. Anyone can pick it up and play it in a couple of hours, even if you have never played a video game before.
A few days ago, I played Journey yet again. I remember every play through and I weep every time, but this one was different. Early into the game I met another brilliantly robed character–meaning we had both completed the game before. We stuck along the path, occasionally getting separated, but always singing our musical note and finding each other again. I thought that I might know all the secrets, but at the very end, my companion showed me a trick, or perhaps a view, or perhaps a musical harmony. Together we continued to the finale, all the while playing our music, knowing that this was another unique and singular pilgrimage, but certainly not our last.
Madeline is struggling. She is dropped off with no context at the base of Celeste, for she has decided to scale the mountain and reach its summit. She will platform and learn the mountain’s language, and overcome all obstacles in her way.
In climbing, the crux is defined as the point of extreme difficulty. There are a million of these in Celeste, making it supremely difficult, borderline infuriating, and nigh impossible. But it is not impossible, and that is the beauty of it. Madeline suffers from anxiety and depression, and Celeste Mountain is the allegory. The main story, while challenging, is a pleasure to play, each screen and level a lesson in ultimate catharsis. The game invites you to learn from your deaths, and the time in between trials is so minuscule that it makes the death mechanic genius. You learn and understand immediately what it was you did wrong, or what route on the wall you need to take, and how to overcome.
Like Journey, Celeste is a game about departing from point A and arriving at point B. Unlike Journey, however, your demon self is there, infusing your quest with doubt and anxiety. I warn you that this is a spoiler, but when Madeline and her evil self come to terms with themselves, the result is brilliant and therapeutic. Celeste’s trials become somehow more difficult after that, but no matter. You are whole.
On February 26, 2001, I was in the 4th grade. I liked Pokémon, the Redwall series, Legos, and was still writing Star Wars fan fiction and designing the blueprints for space ships. I did not fully register Linkin Park’s “In the End” until middle school and I sure as hell did not know that Wikipedia’s launch in January 2001 would have such a huge impact on the internet. I remember asking my parents at the dinner table how a country’s president (Slobodan Milošević was arrested in March of 2001 for his various human rights atrocities, and coincidentally, today at this very moment, Michael Cohen is testifying in front of Congress) could be convicted of a crime, and later that year 9/11 transpired. Meanwhile, amidst all of the consequences that the terrorist attack had, the first film adaptations of both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were released. I voraciously devoured these movies with the fervor of an incandescently ecstatic kid unable to contain himself at the delight of seeing his two most favorite fantasy series brought to life on screen. And yet, I was forced to reexamine their seemingly cut and dry “good versus evil” themes within my expanding and exceedingly more confused world view.
Call it a part of growing up, call it losing my innocence, call it what you may, but it was at the age of 10 that I started to pay attention. The attention of a pre-teen, sure, but I started to notice the impact that the world had on people–individually and on a greater scale. I began to recognize the fact that both current events and pop culture could change the world. And while all of this was transpiring, Daft Punk’s sophomore album Discovery was playing, especially when “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was released as a single on October 13th.
At that age, my relationship with music was fairly myopic and contained. I knew that I loved music, but I only loved what I could easily consume. The Lion King and The Sound of Music VHS copies were watched more times than logically possible, and any CD’s that my parents had or were available at the public library I listened to copiously. I heard “One More Time” and “H,B,F,S” on the radio quite a bit but it was not until 2005 when I heard “Technologic” that the electronic duo regained my attention. They have since been one of the most influential and formative bands of my life, and it is no accident that Daft Punk themselves describe the album as “a reflection of the duo’s childhood memories, when they listened to music with a more playful and innocent viewpoint.”
Pop culture shapes most of our perception of time. When someone mentions a decade one thinks of the clothing, the music, the movies. When I think about the turn of the millennia, I think about the immense technological advancements that were beginning to transpire and how they have changed our lives. The world became more wired and more plugged in. Internet access was seriously starting to change the way we consume information. And Daft Punk donned their famous helmets.
This change in their image is the most fascinating decision in their career and without it, they would never have achieved their staggering fame. But that’s the thing. Daft Punk is famous. Their helmets and music are famous. Their stage persona is famous. The men underneath? They are not.
Most of us have dreamed about being a celebrity, but I think I would hate it. Getting instantly recognized every time I left the house would be constantly uncomfortable and I do not think I would be happy. Most critics call Daft Punk’s decision to wear helmets a marketing ploy, but they do not acknowledge that it may have been primarily motivated by the desire to protect their identity and privacy. Daft Punk is the alter ego of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, and they are so careful to preserve their privacy that they rarely ever tour (only twice, to be precise) and never allow their faces to be photographed in interviews. They even recorded the album in Banghalter’s own house during the two year making of the project. Masks can be used as protection, not just deception.
Since 2000, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have explored the idea of technological mythology. Are we our real selves on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter? What lengths do we go to consciously cultivate a carefully crafted false personality instead of portraying our genuine selves? Combined with our inability to remove our glued eyes from our screens, this self-mythologizing can be a devastating toxin that ruins our brains and identities. As they would later say on their 2005 album Human After All, “Television Rules the Nation.”
Daft Punk released an animated film with Discovery called Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem. Completely devoid of dialogue, the movie is really just one long music video, or complete visual album. It tells the story of an alien band of musicians, who after performing album opener “One More Time,” in front of a crowd on their home planet, are violently kidnapped by humans to be exploited on earth by a greedy record producer. After being rescued by an astronautical hero and escaping the mind control of the evil producer, they embark on a journey of self discovery, intent on stopping the insidious record mogul and returning to their home planet.
Interstella 5555 perfectly visualizes Daft Punk’s fascination with the identity of the self and a cultivated stage and technological persona, the ultimate themes of Discovery. And much like my evolving analysis of good and evil back in 2001, it concludes that it is not a simple rule of duality. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter wanted complete control over both their professional and private lives, and by donning their famous robot helmets they were completely successful.
Discovery is a concept album, one about growing up, self discovery and evolving world views. Daft Punk is nowhere near the first to explore these universally experienced themes, but with Discovery they did it in an ambitious and ecstatic way. My three roommates and I in college invested in a huge twelve panel poster depicting the neon silhouettes of Daft Punk in space and it encompassed an entire wall in our dorm quad common room. It was a reminder that during those formative years one could confusingly stumble through the process of self discovery and still dance and have a ton fun. Our shared love for Daft Punk was an invaluable building block for our enduring friendship. Similar things can be said for Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories, which was released during our final exam period our senior year just before graduation, but that is worthy of its own blog post.
It is difficult to truly quantify the significance of Discovery. It is a masterpiece, and as described by Wikipedia itself, “The record was designed to reflect a playful, honest and open-minded attitude toward listening to music. Bangalter compared it to the state of childhood when one does not judge or analyze music.” And that is perfect.
Daft Punk makes art that asks provocative questions about technology altering our identities or giving us a platform to become someone else entirely. Our phones and social media can not only be a vacuum, but an addictive drug that strokes our egos and distorts our social, mental, and even physical identity. In a world in which our cyber selves dominate, we must not lose sight of our humanity. Despite Daft Punk’s robotic image, the helmets preserve their personalities, and ironically have ensured that they are indeed, human after all.
“This album takes a playful, fun, and colorful look at music. It’s about the idea of looking at something with an open mind and not asking too many questions. It’s about the true, simple, and honest relationship you have with music when you’re open to your own feelings.”
It is the Holidays. What does that mean exactly? Who does that involve, and what does that entail? For me, the “holiday” season starts in October and ends sometime in January. From when Halloween is nigh to when New Years fades away. It is a joyous time, but it is also a stressful time. Holiday’s mean family, and family means drama.
The trailer for The Haunting of Hill House instantly grabbed me, but it still would have sat in my list unwatched until Halloween 2019 had I not received the most stellar recommendation. But lo! I prioritized the show thanks to that, and I can now say with confidence that it is the best show Netflix has produced and one of the best shows ever, period.
Unfortunately for me, I started it too close to nightfall. Or else I would’ve binged the entire thing right then and there.
BEWARE! SPOOKY SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!
The Haunting of Hill House tells the story of the Crain family. Parents Hugh and Olivia are house renovators and flippers and have five children: Steven, Shirley, Theodora (Theo), Luke, and Eleanor (Nell). Hill House is their latest project, and it will be their last.
It is quickly revealed that Olivia dies under mysterious circumstances and that Hugh is the only one privy to specific details. As he corrals his frightened and confused children into the family hatchback, little to no information is revealed to either them or the audience. This sets up one of the major conflicts within the show: suppressing and withholding negative emotion. As the patriarch, Hugh feels that it is his burden and his burden alone to carry the information of Olivia’s death, even if it means alienating his children.
Part of the HoHH’s brilliance is that it tells its story through two alternating timelines. The use of flashbacks and lengthy scenes depicting events leading up to the night of Olivia’s death give the night extra context, while the present day timeline shows the Crain’s as adults. The result is exquisite character development, and both the child actors and adult counterparts do a phenomenal job in portraying their roles and their relationships.
After all the years, however, Hugh still has not told his children anything about their mother’s death, other than that it was ruled a suicide. Hugh’s belief that he is sheltering his children becomes toxic and rotten, which combined with the Crain’s traumatic past creates an incredibly tense, dynamic.
Bottling up feelings, experiences, and avoiding problems has been human behavior since our evolution, and the Crain’s would likely have gone on to their graves forever haunted. Unfortunately, Hill House claims another one of their lives, and the family is forced to come together for the funeral and finally confront their demons.
Again, I would encourage you to watch this show because it is amazing and the rest of this blog post involves spoiling its best episode.
MAJOR SPOOKY AND EPICALLY CHILLING SPOILERS AHEAD
One of the Crain siblings cannot handle their haunting trauma, returns to Hill House, and dies. Coincidentally, their death is also ruled a suicide, and the rest of the family gathers in a funeral home to mourn. This is the first time that we see all living family members in the same space as adults, and the result is monumental.
What truly makes this episode so mind bogglingly breathtaking is that it is 53 minutes long, but over 51 of those minutes are comprised of only 5 shots. Some of you will read that and say, “so what?” and that is because I cannot effectively convey in writing the impressiveness and hard work that goes into filming such lengthy scenes in one single take. Writer Mike Flanagan comes as close as one can in explaining the painstakingly arduous process in a series of tweets that can be found here, but I cannot stress enough how much you should just watch the show and witness the mastery for yourself.
The cast and crew were given two full weeks to rehearse the shots. The production team spent months working on the hundreds of lighting and blocking cues, the cameramen practicing down to the minuscule and exact moment that they had to come in and out of their hiding spots on set. The sets for both Hill House and the funeral home were built with this episode in mind, and were thus connected. The third shot is an unbelievable 17 minutes and 19 seconds and described by Flanagan as “a BEAST.” Shot on a dolly and unable to get a take by lunch time, Flanagan was told by the crew that the dolly was on the verge of malfunction. With no replacement dolly and the budget and timeline exhausted, Flanagan did not tell the actors upon their return from lunch. He told them “I have a good feeling about this one,” and they proceeded to successfully get the shot on the next take. The dolly broke immediately after.
The Haunting of Hill House works on a lot of levels. As a family drama, the Crain’s reach a semblance of catharsis by the end. As a mystery, the audience and the Crain children solve the enigma of Olivia’s death and find out the deep and dark secrets of Hill House. Ultimately, it is an ideal horror story, and I spent a large portion of the show huddled under the covers with my eyes just over so I could watch. And there were plenty of times that I jumped out of my skin. Where the genius truly lies, however, is that psychologically and mentally, I have spent part of every day since watching it thinking about it, haunted by it, and pondering its message.
The Haunting of Hill House is not just a ghost story, and the best horror never is. Films like Eyes Without a Face, Get Out, It Follows, and The Babadook are all masterpieces in terror because they explore complex themes like female bodies and identities under the patriarchy, racism, the inevitability of death, and the traumas of being a single mother, respectively. Haunting of Hill House is horrifying because it explores the complexities of our past and their lingering ramifications. It also shows the disastrous potential of not being open, of not challenging those to be honest, even though honesty can be extremely painful.
Lil Peep’s first posthumous album, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, indeed includes some of his best songs, and it plays like a soothing salve. It is a haunting album that shelters the bereaved, albeit for a short while. The album begins in silence before building with an eerie, stirring, almost creepy steel drum melody. It’s like Peep is rising from the dead, taking a deep breath, and stretching out his limbs. Then it gives way to a signature Peep guitar riff and line. “She was the one with the broken smile / now that it’s done, she was the one,” he laments, signaling that his emo-rap brand is truly alive and well.
The familiarity of Peep’s music is the most comforting thing about Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, and the fact that it is so obviously his is not detrimental. It would almost be weird if the album sounded different from his other music. Even so, while Peep’s artistic genius stemmed from making music about sex, drugs, depression, and death, some lyrics are especially painful given his untimely passing. On standout “Life is Beautiful,” Peep raps “wake up in the morning, now you’re doing the impossible / find out what’s important, now you’re feeling philosophical / when I die, I’ll pack my bags, move somewhere more affordable.” Coming from Peep, such a line isn’t just clever, its cutting and overwhelming.
On the fantastic closer “Fingers,” Peep disguises some similarly depressing lyrics with his happiest sounding song in years.
How can I not stare, the way that you’re glowing?
I am a nightmare you don’t wanna know me
Running my fingers through your hair
Makes me remember everything, why don’t you hate me?
“Fingers” showcases what made Lil Peep so great, and that was his surprisingly endearing tenderness and vulnerability. The anxiety of not being worth it or deserving of someone’s love is palpable, raw, and relatable and Peep’s hypnotic delivery over the gushingly emotional music was the moment that moved me the most. The song and album itself ends with the words, “I’ll be the first there / and I’ll be the last there / I’m not gonna last here / I’m not gonna last long.”
Shortly after Gustav Åhr passed away, a fan-made music video of “Star Shopping” was put up on Youtube. After the song plays through once, it is edited into a transition of Lil Peep performing it live. The audience sings the entire song with him acapella while the video cuts to a slideshow of pictures from his childhood and life. It’s a gorgeous and powerfully moving tribute from a loving fan which serves as a small window into the star potential of Lil Peep and what could have been.
Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 as a whole is not perfect, but it does not have to be. The mere fact that Lil Peep’s mother, his friend/producer Smokeasac, and record label all made this project possible is a blessing. It is as if Gustav is back from the dead, a spectral presence who over the course of 38 minutes is here to haunt us. Only this ghost isn’t malicious or scary, it’s a loved one stopping by to make sure we know they are in a better place, that they are okay.