Midnight Confessions

Oh. Hi there. Christ, what a month, huh?

Yessiree. Quite a month.

As usual after a movie marathon like Hubrisween, I find myself glutted on film and unwilling to head back to the trough. (Due diligence: I still watched a few movies, but with the blissful intent of not writing a word about them) Last year at this time I went back to my first love, reading. This year, I returned to my second love, gaming.

You tell kids that these days, and they won’t believe you.

If you were to extrapolate my college days’ obsession with Dungeons and Dragons (when it was only three booklets bound in card stock covers) you’d find what brings me joy: dungeon crawls with turn-based combat. It’s what drew me to the Final Fantasy games, until the combat systems grew too action-oriented (and I could no longer afford new consoles, but that’s a complaint for another time).

So imagine my elation when I discovered that there was a Battle Chasers dungeon crawl with turn-based combat, Nightwar. I really liked the comic book – even when it could only manage to come out every six months or so – and the game has really good presentation on the rich characters. For the uninitiated, those would be Warrior With A Cursed Sword, Little Girl With Gauntlets of Ineffable Power, Protective Sentient War Golem, Alcoholic Wizard and Voluptuous Bounty Hunter. Best of all, with a little tweaking, it would run well on my ancient, wheezing computer. That it’s got a decent crafting system is gravy.

As is usually the case with such games, I hit a point where the challenge ramped up considerably and it was time to engage in what is known as Grinding: playing the game not to advance the storyline, but to get stronger, to buy better stuff, to beat tougher enemies. And it was at that point that Steam sent me a message that a game I had shown some interest in was on sale. At less than ten bucks, I took a gamble on Sakura Dungeon – and that is where things get complicated.

“Sakura” is Japanese for “cherry blossom”; it is also a continuing franchise of hentai games from the Winged Cloud studio. Most of these fall into the “visual novel” category, with Dungeon being the only RPG in its catalog. As it is, it’s a fairly stripped-down affair (pun not intended, though as a hentai game, unavoidable). Move in first person through a dungeon labyrinth, encounter monsters, get treasure, get to the Boss at the end, save the world. That really all I need, and all I wanted. However, I got more, and in that more is the source of my headscratching and chinwagging this month.

There are two main characters in Sakura Dungeon: Yomi, an ancient fox spirit and former dungeon lord, and Ceri, an adventurer and dungeon raider. Yomi has been asleep for several centuries, imprisoned in a crypt by whoever took over her dungeon, and is awakened and freed by Ceri, looking for treasure and glory. The vastly more powerful Yomi easily brushes aside Ceri’s attacks, and enchants her to become Yomi’s servant, her right hand in a crusade to regain her dungeon.

It’s an interesting storyline; the inhabitants of the village just outside the dungeon are glad to see Yomi return (they’re all monsters, too, though they look human – and more on that in a second). Ceri will be forced to reconsider her opinion of monsters as something to be despised and immediately killed, and under Yomi’s tutelage will become an extremely powerful warrior. The major twist to the combat is the possibility of capturing any defeated monsters and placing them under the same enchantment as Ceri; they can be added to your party and fight on your side. You’re allowed six party members at a time, though only three are playable. The other three step in if any of the primary three fall in combat. That’s an intriguing system, but it also means that a lot of the captured monsters will wind up in the dustbin without ever being played. That seems a lot of design work for nothing, but that’s also a common thread through all these party-based games.

Now, you’re thinking, didn’t you say this was a hentai game? Yes, we’re getting to that. All the monsters are cute anime girls, even the ones who are just supposed to be wild forest animals (Ceri has a thing for the Panda girls. “So cute!” “I’m not cute! I’m fierce!” “Aw, that’s adorable!”). As anime characters, all are pretty scantily clad. We are told that this is magic cloth, though, so it affords the same protection as a full suit of armor. That’s kind of dumb, but it’s still a better explanation than any fanboy has ever given me for Red Sonja’s bikini armor. So, naturally, a critical hit in combat shreds their clothing. And if you employ the readily-available-with-a-little-effort adult patch, a second critical hit renders them completely nude.

Without the adult patch the game provides a little cheesecake. With it, holy crap do things get explicit. A common chase item in these games are CGs, which I guess stands for Character Graphics – artwork of the characters you unlock and collect. With the adult patch these increase and become the smut that fanboys love and fill internet boards and tumblrs. Monsters are a lot more sexual than you’d think, and Yomi is quite the libertine – one of her goals is getting Ceri to loosen up. With an astounding variety of revealing costumes.

The closest thing to a man you’ll find in Sakura Dungeon.

What keeps this from becoming ugly is there are absolutely no male characters. None. Zilch. Dildos aplenty, but it’s all girl/girl action. It’s intriguing to me how much, in my eyes, this seems to elevate the relationships here. Though the game itself still leads to worrying about myself.

Like I said, what a month. We’re in the midst of a long-overdue housecleaning and discussion about the darker side of sexual politics in this country. I received my card for Team Burn It All Down some time ago, and now it’s starting to look like I should have gone for the Platinum level membership. I’m male and I’m horrified and flabbergasted and wondering about my own level of complicity.

So sitting in my office whiling away the hours looking at cartoon girls, in a game engineered to reward the Male Gaze. Am I part of the problem? Probably. Almost certainly. I can take some small comfort in knowing that I am horrified and flabbergasted and wondering about myself, and that I seem to lack whatever fucking chromosome that causes other men to think whipping out their penis automatically leads to immediate sex. I literally cannot comprehend that mindset, and I am thankful for that.

And then I encounter an early access game called Mirror.

Mirror is a gem-matching game like Bejeweled, with a tactical bent. The different color of jewels provide physical attacks, magical attacks, healing and (in this case) something called Rage, which ups your attacks and healing percentages. Link more than three jewels, you get bigger effects. If you’ve played Puzzle Quest, you’re familiar with this; my last encounter was something called Hell Girls where, with a choice of three of the title characters with different abilities, you played Destructo-Bejeweled to rid the map of monsters, find their bathing suits, and unlock their hentai CGs. Pretty straightforward, and entertaining enough in small doses.

Mirror has more of a involved story mode. At this stage of development it involves three girls: a dark elf, a demon hunter, and a hopping vampire/zombie festooned with prayer talismans. Each has a different method of attack via the jewels, like the zombie setting various jewels on fire, and each flaming jewel causing you damage until you eliminate them.

Beating them in three rounds advances their story and allows you to play the end scene, which is where things get truly ugly. The mechanics of each of these scenes is going to be familiar to you if you’ve ever played porn games. Let’s just say that options for your mouse cursor include hands, tongues, candles and in one instance, tentacles (of course). Each is meant to be as humiliating as possible to the girl; winning four matches unlocks “Free Discipline Mode”, which should tell you everything you need to know about this game. You shouldn’t turn your back on it, and this is coming from a man with his own kinky twists.

Oh, there’s even worse – if you unlock Free Discipline Mode, you also unlock an extra story mode which allows you to heap even more degradation upon your hapless opponents. The story modes posit the player as being exclusively male, which is probably the most canny/cynical design choice ever, and is the source of the strange angst running roughshod over my soul at the moment. Sakura Dungeon seems so carefree and positive in its female-centric antics, while Mirror, exclusively male in its outlook, is ugly, dark and brutal.

I wish I was clever enough to derive some sort of metaphor or lesson from this, other than the obvious and apparent Good God, but men suck; but the fact that I am confused even by my own actions would render anything I had to say suspect at best. It’s an odd confluence that occurred in my month off from movies, made more profoundly affecting by events in the real world, and the best I can can hope for is to simply report on it, continue to ponder the questions presented to me, and hope that enables me to be better for it.



Post-Hubrisween: Life (2017)

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I was going to review this for Hubrisween, but Gavin had a prior claim to it. Cool, I did The Living Head instead, because I was sure Gavin would have more interesting things to say. So here is a post-Hubrisween review. It’s wafer-thin!

Okay, show of hands: who passed this one up because it was so obviously this generation’s Alien? Um hm, yeah, okay. Me too. Until I needed an “L”.

In the near future, the crew of the International Space Station is waiting for the return of the Mars Pilgrim 7 probe, carrying with it soil samples. The probe has been hit by space debris and is off-course; it is only through a risky maneuver that the craft and its precious scientific cargo is retrieved.

Knowing what you know, you can pretty much write the movie from here: a dormant microbe is found frozen, they manage to revive it, it begins developing and evolving rapidly, and at some point, it gets hungry.

Don’t touch, dummy

That is ridiculously simplistic of me, of course; the script does a far better job of developing our monster (as the result of a national contest among schools, it is named Calvin) and its threat. The creature is fast, ridiculously resilient, resisting cold and heat, and intelligent as hell.  Our six person crew is various flavors of doomed, and the film’s success will depend on how creatively they meet those dooms, as they attempt, with very limited resources, to rid themselves of a creature that must not be allowed to reach Earth.

Life does a good job of distinguishing our cast; the heaviest hitters box office-wise are Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal’s character has been in space for a record amount of time, and his body is beginning to atrophy dangerously – he just doesn’t want to go back among billions of people, most of them assholes, and dirty air (tell me that’s not identifiable). The biologist (Ariyon Bakare) is a paraplegic who enjoys the increased mobility microgravity allows. Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) is the Contamination Officer who has her work cut out for her, and whose contingency plans are constantly screwed up by human error and the unforeseen ingenuity of the enemy. Director Daniel Espinosa keeps things moving, and the character notes seem to flow organically (which seems an unfortunate turn of phrase here).

The influence of Cuarón’s Gravity is definitely felt, with all the null-gravity choreography and attempts to keep the technology reasonably realistic. So yes, this is Alien with floating, but it’s well-produced floating.

And also yes, this is this generation’s Alien. Which was that generation’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space. We can play that game for some time, but let’s take it in another direction.

Let’s say it’s more of a prequel.

Life becomes much more interesting and less derivative if you consider it as the movie leading up to something like The Quatermass Xperiment. What happened on that particular doomed spacecraft was left to a damaged camera reel and surmisal. Here it is as a complete, well-rounded story. I find myself considering Life far more charitably in that light.

Buy Life on Amazon