• evgriff42

Positivity in Media - Quarantine 2020 Edition

Over on The Young Folks we had a couple different articles published trying to stir some positivity amongst ourselves and our readers in reflecting the media that helped us cope with the world crumbling around us in Current Year 2020.

I'm taking my personal excerpts from those articles and combining them in a chronological order in their lengthier versions.

Lord of The Rings Extended Edition Appendix Discs

I’ve been a fan of The Lord of the Rings since I first saw Fellowship of the Ring on DVD in 2001. They’ve been a part of my family's life ever since their release, I’ve read the novels several times, and even wrote a 35 page paper about Tolkein in high school. We always have a tradition of watching the extended editions in a single weekend after New Years each year for some nostalgic comfort for everyone. I’ve dabbled in the bonus discs of special features on the extended editions over the years, but never seen everything they had to offer.

Everyone had a lot of time to kill in quarantine this year, and when my brother Dylan and I would gather on weekends with our parents to watch some nostalgic movies, we went with some easy comforting and familiar picks: Star Trek, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Daniel Craig’s Bond films, Mad Max, Star Wars, The Matrix.

We finally started asking when we’re going to watch Lord of the Rings in May, all knowing we wanted to be able to pay attention to the beloved trilogy. But in May we often found ourselves distracted and multitasking, so I began putting on the Appendices discs, for which there are 2 discs per film. This trilogy’s bonus discs are the most earnest, lovingly detailed production diaries I’ve ever seen on a film, that any other movie behind the scenes features pale in comparison, and I grew up watching the ones for Star Wars multiple times over, even more than the movies themselves.

These discs cover every detail of the production in sequential order, from the pre-production details of adapting the screenplay, casting, location scouting, art direction, prop building, the works. They give detailed lengthy interviews with the cast and the stories they shared building camaraderie through production period, the intensity of Jackson and the editors working remotely with the Weta Workshop team crushing on visual effects up until deadlines, and Howard Shore remotely scoring the films weeks before premiere, and this was all new tech to play with in 2001.

Each film’s sets open with micro-documentaries on Tolkien’s life, history, stories, letters, ideology, and legacy, and they end with the red carpet premieres of their respective films. Anyone who has ever had even a minor interest in film production will be floored by the sets built, the miniatures, the tricks of editing and compositing pulled off. You’ll adore the stories from the cast like Sean Bean refusing to take a helicopter and opting to, in Boromir costume, scale the side of the cliff. You’ll love the cast ripping into Sean Astin for being a whiner, Elijah Wood and the Hobbit lads sharing a rowdy trailer with Sir Ian McKellen, the mystique of Vigo Mortensen going fishing on an overnight shoot or shopping in town in Aragorn costume and famously breaking his toe kicking a helmet, John Rhys Davies screaming in agony over the rashes on his face from makeup.

You’ll be wowed by innovative designs by Alan Lee and John Howe, classic Tolkien’s Middle Earth Illustrators, and having their drawings come to life on film. Even the creation of the world’s sound design is covered in detail, and I will never be able to unhear the Balrog’s amazing roar as a microphone buried underground with a cinder block dragged overhead, which only makes me love it more. The script, cast and crew had an intense dedication to making the world as accurate to Tolkien’s soul in every way imaginable.

We watched one three to four hour disc once a week for six weeks, and by the conclusion of Return of the King’s final Appendix disc, we were so exhausted and invested that we felt like we were really there alongside the whole crew on their journey back in the year 2000. It is an inspiring tale of a film trilogy being made on a blockbuster scale but with the intimacy and delicacy of an independent film, and it made me gush a whole new thread of love for this film trilogy just when I thought there wasn’t much left for me to give. In a year where the film industry has been in a rocky place and personal creativity felt stifled, these nearly 20 year old production diaries lit the inspirational fire in me that I needed.

And as luck would have it, if you decide to take me up on this recommendation, both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies are available to watch in brand new 4K remaster with stunning recoloration when you’re done with these precious gold mine DVDs. [Evan Griffin]

Discord Community Watching Studio Ghibli on HBO Max

I hadn’t quite realized just how few of Studio Ghibli’s films I had seen. I had seen some essentials over the years: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, The Tale of Princess Kaguya and the only feature by the studio I had seen in theaters was The Wind Rises.

I hadn’t quite realized until I saw the list of films all together the ones I had been missing, and there they are for those of us in the United States on HBO Max, the best new streaming service with the absolute worst ownership.

Prior to the quarantine era of 2020, my brother Dylan and I had accumulated plenty of remote friendships with other artists through our streamer’s community on Discord, on which we would share memes, talk about coffee, say good morning to each other, and on occasion, hang out in a voice chat with up to 10 people and watch movies using their beta access screen share feature.

Suddenly, everyone in the world was using services like Discord, and our real friends, co-editor Allyson Johnson included, started co-mingling with our online friends as we began duplicating friend gatherings to watch movies over the internet, and Discord so far has been the easiest most reliable place to do it, admittedly with technical sound hiccups here and there.

We began these digital gatherings with some not particularly uplifting films like David Lynch’s Dune and cult classic Train to Busan, but when HBO MAX came around, we got a little more positive, timeless and tasteful.

Many of our friends had yet to see some of these films, and I was the same. I finally got to rewatch Mononoke and Kiki through an adult lense. I got to finally see films that passed my be like Porco Rosso and The Cat Returns. We were enamored with the unique tonal and visual styles of My Neighbors The Yamadas and Ocean Waves, and finally my new personal favorite in the catalogue, the 1984 adaptation of the manga Nausicaa: of the Valley of the Wind.

I’m now delighted to have an understanding of the chronology of these movies productions, their distinct styles between Isao Takahata and Miyazaki, and am delighted that there’s still more for me to sink my teeth into. Heck, I’ll watch Tales from Earthsea even, I don’t care. What else are we doing? [Evan Griffin]

March – Fire Emblem Three Houses

My first ever experience with a Fire Emblem game is a spillover from pre-quarantine days. Just before he was getting married and going on his honeymoon, one of my closest friends let me borrow his copy of Three Houses last October. I played it from then through March of this year and, as of this writing, is the most hours I’ve personally logged on my Nintendo Switch for a single game. In the two years after finishing Persona 5, I was starving for new RPG experiences to hit the same highs, and struggling to find ones that really stuck to my bones, the closest being my first experience with Final Fantasy VI on my SNES Classic. Three Houses, the most popular entry to date in the series by Intelligent Systems, is famous for aping a lot of the social link allure for Persona 5 players like me but is still earnest about its structure and relationship dynamics being true to the legacy of the series. What they did add, however, was a calendar structure for you to use as an academic professor, and a hub world to explore on the weekend days to build social links with the student characters. The game’s SRPG elements are flashy and robust, and it’s the part of the game that still really sticks with me months and two playthroughs later, but the drive to spend time with these characters is what propelled me through the game’s laborious rhythm.

Of course, I went against the grain on the academic group I picked, choosing to follow the plot of Dimitri, the prince of Faerghus and the Blue Lions house, first. I fell in love with that team’s cast of characters for being well spirited, honest do-gooders (even the perv Sylvain grew on me). My attachment to the Blue Lions cast was so strong that when I did a Black Eagles run, I recruited almost all of my precious former students, despite enjoying getting to know Edelgard and her peers of the Adrestian Empire all the same. Spending downtime with these delightful characters and watching them grow in skill made me feel like a teacher who admired their students more than any other game could before, and when you add in a little spicy rebellion against a corrupt church-state, I found myself logging 200 hours into two playthroughs of the game for min/maxing stats and seeing new perspectives. And that’s only half the content available.

The only pain point was trying to finally finish my Black Eagles run in the first month of quarantine, which also was overlapping just a little too far into Animal Crossing’s release, and my beloved younger brother was neck deep into constructing our beloved island on Animal Crossing New Horizons. We savored being able to argue about something as silly as splitting time on the Switch between ourselves like we were 12 years old again, a welcome distraction to the world being on fire and everything so uncertain. In no time I was looking to dive further back into the Fire Emblem catalog of games, finally fearless of their Permadeath system now that I had significant confidence in my ability to conquer the game’s maps. This series is so damn charming, and it warms my heart to see it become so successful and secure a broader fanbase for what was always a niche franchise. Also, yes Edelgard was right, but Dimitri deserved so much better.

April – Animal Crossing New Horizons

On the night we downloaded the newest title in the Animal Crossing series, my brother (he’s 27) and I got to share an experience with the franchise we hadn’t had since the days of GameCube in 2003: living together in a village of chatty animals. In the years since then, we each had our copies of the DS and 3DS portable entries and never picked up City Folk on Wii. The irony of this particular experience is that our Animal Crossing brotherhood duplicated our constant real relationship of compromise down to every minute detail. The reason for this is that the game’s first player to launch the game on a single Nintendo Switch is considered the “main” character, and thus was given all the specific story directed tasks, and the only player on the island to receive them. Therefore, my profile on the game was the only one that made Tom Nook see progress in our island village, despite the fact my brother played it for 10 times the hours I did. How did I end up being the parent main character? He wanted our hometown fruit trees to be peaches. So we reset the game several times until he got the desired fruit he wanted. The dice of fate landed on my turn to launch the game.

I would continue onward doing trivial tasks in my time with this new Animal Crossing, like making sure neighbors were happy, taking project assignments from Tom Nook, digging up fossils, smacking rocks for bags of Bells, crafting countless items for filling arbitrary quotas because Minecraft has ruined everything. The repetitive stuff. My brother, on the other hand, would take the Switch, connect online, get on a Discord call, and just… faff about. Doing nothing. Sipping a peachy punch. Meanwhile, as I previously stated, all I really wanted to do was play more Fire Emblem.

Classic older brother doing the hard shit so his little brother can just screw off and make a mess to clean up later. Ayy, y’know I wouldn’t have it any other way, right? Right?

I did get to enjoy some socializing myself, as my friend Quinn, who I hadn’t seen since he let me borrow Fire Emblem, downloaded the game per my request so we could virtually chill on the beach with a La Croix and some beach chairs.

The energy was electric through the AC community around launch. It was a sight to behold when you got to trade materials, help friends reach personal goals, and seeing where everyone’s individual creativity brought them to assembling their island. It was a truly special moment, and it was absolutely the game that we all needed this year the most.

I’ll always have a soft spot for the quiet bamboo grove with a bonfire I built up in the northside hill of our little island of Twin Fish. Let me know if you want to visit, I have a dodo code and a lot of fruit.

April – NieR Automata

NieR Automata saved my soul.

I needed something to play that wasn’t on the Nintendo Switch so I didn’t have reason to complain about my brother’s Animal Crossing obsession (I’ll shut up about that now). Persona 5 Royal wasn’t out yet. I still couldn’t muster the energy to get through more than an hour of Death Stranding at a time. I’d been nagged to play NieR for years, I’d played the first couple stages back when it came out. I thought I got the gist. I was wrong.

I thought I was going to be enjoying just some anime-cyberpunk hack and slash Platinum game, but I had yet to discover the deepest musings of director Yoko Taro, the man I wanted to see in person but missed the chance because of a Jimmy John’s sandwich (Yes I’m still salty about that).

NieR Automata is more than a twitchy combat gauntlet. It is a bullet hell game. It is a mecha warrior game. A hacking simulator. A science-fiction action RPG. It is a dystopian tragedy. It is a story of musing on philosophy, existentialism, and humanism. It juggles so many identities, and questions the very meaning of identity itself.

Just when you think you have this game figured out, it pulls the rug out from under you. And there are no doubt millions of people out there that sadly never got to the famous third (D&E) playthrough. It sets you up for thinking a character perspective shift in playthrough B will be bog-standard character swaps in the same game structure, but then Automata ends up becoming a sequel to itself. Or maybe the first two runs are just two parallel ten-hour prologues, and run three is the real story.

The true nature of NieR Automata is to question the humanity of the self through the purview of seemingly sentient androids and robots in a world far beyond the era of humanity itself and to question why we believe things, to question what we feel and why.

NieR Automata is the Twin Peaks of the video game industry. It will stand the test of time for exposing the fallacy of the third person AAA action game genre. This game shook me in such a way that when I reached the absolute, save data deleting, conclusion. It haunted me. When I realized it was over, I had to uninstall the game entirely.

Maybe a little dramatic, but in March of 2020, it was a dramatic time.

In an era of uncertainty, NieR Automata took me in a loving embrace to make me not feel like a hollowed-out shell of a human being at a most essential time.

June – Halo Master Chief Collection

Oh boy, I used to play so much Halo. In high school, if I had free time, it was socializing on Xbox live, making machinimas, and taking photos in theater mode, and sharing on the Bungie blog. The experience everyone has now in Discord and Facetime and Zoom, I was doing in real-time with good company on Xbox Live. The revolutionary social engagement was enough to keep me playing for years, even if I sucked at Halo. I still do in fact suck at Halo, but playing on PC this summer was a fun nostalgia trip of those middle school and high school years. To be able to replay the original campaigns with friends online, dig into the evolution of level design, and breeze through Reach, was a nostalgic godsend. That said, I still suck at multiplayer, and don’t really care to meet new people online playing it. The one time I turned voice chat in public Slayer on, I got ridiculed for not grasping the structure of a custom game with very bizarre platforming modifications and move sets, and told: “a 5-year-old could do better.”

It is now especially bad since they’ve added Halo 4 and it’s obvious now more than ever that the series started moving closer and closer to Call of Duty. But we had fun reliving the old days of Slayer, Firefight, and skull hunting, and digging into the lore of the books grappled Miles and I so hard we even tried to play through Halo Wars on Game Pass (we don’t recommend it). But hey, maybe we’ll eventually give Halo Wars 2 a try, and I for one and very excited for Halo Infinite. I hope the folks at 343 are having a decent go of it despite the struggles, and they should have the confidence there are enough of us original trilogy fans out there to see what they’re going for in the new title.

Even if the multiplayer had its downer moments (I changed my USNC tag to “BAD” as a warning to other players) it was still a good time to run through the campaigns with my friends on our own, so there was that.

July – Ring Fit Adventure

I am not in shape. Never have been since I was 7, really. I also would often start and stop attempting to work out at sporadic points throughout my life. It never felt genuine. I felt like I had to work out because everyone else was, and because I didn’t conform to a look, and the cheap clothes I bought never fit just right.

I’m 29 now, and in the middle of a pandemic, sitting in a computer chair day to day, working remote, I realized I should probably try and keep myself even slightly active. The drive came the need to get out of a rit, and from wanting to take care of myself.

Years back, as I was finishing college, the best results I ever had with exercise was in isolation, in my own space at home, and doing bodyweight training. I still fell off the wagon eventually because radical work hours got me thrown off, but it was a small start that got me to realize it was possible.

Fast forward to June of 2020, and everyone is talking about how Ring Fit Adventure is sold out because gyms are still closed in the midst of a pandemic. I look into the game from fall of 2019: a game based in Breath of the Wild’s engine that was a structured combination of pilates, calisthenics, and bodyweight exercises, tracked with the Nintendo Switch’s joy-con controls, one strapped to the left thigh, the other snapped into a resistance ring.

I decided to try it, the Switch was quieter now that Animal Crossing use had plateaued. After a couple of weeks with Cheap Ass Gamer and Wario64 notifications on, I ordered a unit, and it shipped a month later. When I stated Ring Fit Adventure, I had no idea it would be the most exercise I’d ever achieve in my life. It was like what Wii Fit always aimed to be.

It doesn’t force you to rush, it always checks your form, the UI is clear, the sets are easy to customize to your personal strength level. It’s not about how fast you can do it, or competing for how far you can go; the game focuses on making you check your own limits against yourself, and maybe be just entertaining enough to goad you into an extra set or two that really makes that energy-burning difference. Currently, I’m close to level 100 on the max difficulty, and every session feels great.

Yeah, maybe it’s hokey to admit the most consistent workouts of my life have been using a Nintendo made peripheral and motivated by RPG gamifying of basic moves, but as someone who has never experienced having a gym trainer before, this piece of software has really impressed me. I’m not saying I lost 20 pounds because of it, but I can’t deny my overall energy level, water intake and posture have seriously improved.

August – Sea of Thieves

When we burned out on Halo (specifically the delay of Infinite, finishing all available, and the dread of Polygon’s Brian David Gilbert explaining the lore on Unraveled) we had all been signed up for Xbox Game Pass for PC. As someone who never had an Xbox One, but grew up playing Rare’s Nintendo games, I wanted some summer flare and buccaneering with Sea of Thieves called to me.

Playing Sea of Thieves solo on a small sloop ship is a trip, but with a three or four-man crew is a different beast, especially with friends who like to play as wild cards. I should have known the journey would be a mess from the start when Miles decided on the tutorial PVE island to walk onto another player’s boat and act like we’re not on public mic. In no time we were creepily stalked by the owner of said boat and claiming “we must be those new steam players” with such seething vitriol we had to leave the server.

The experience would end up being a mish-mash of Miles going off and doing whatever he wanted on the other side of the ocean while Travis and I tried to complete actual in-game tasks, and being assaulted by enemy players we wanted nothing to do with. Literally, we’d set off on a mission, and Miles would put himself in a canon and launch off onto a passing island. He would also very often try and commit mutiny on the boat to take us into the event battle against the ghost pirate in the sky. We locked him in the brig as he screamed “We have to go! The sky called me a bitch!”

It may have not been the most accurate of pirating experiences (or was it?) but we had a blast.

October – Final Doom (Doom 1993)

Listen. I’m only human. I can be swayed by people on YouTube the same as anyone else. When video game critic, and former Kotaku producer, Tim Rogers set off on his personal journey to create multi-hour long videos on the greatest videogames of all time, you’re damn right I was going to be there to watch the most self-aware indulgent man on Gaming YouTube give a college lecture on games that have already been talked to death.

When his episode on Doom was published in September, I consumed it, engorged on it, in a single playback. On my phone. As I was cooking. Occasionally glancing at it. Exactly the opposite way he intended the video to be experienced. Oh well. Despite that, the quality of the video was apparent, and it made me realize that, despite playing the port of the game’s original 3 chapters on the Xbox Live Arcade a little over a decade ago, I was still kind of a Doom poser, myself.

Thus, I downloaded Final Doom from Miles’ gigantic steam library, installed the Sigil mod published by John Romero himself, and I sunk my teeth into the iconic first-person shooter with newly quarantined bloodshot eyes.

I too was a Doom poser, but no longer. I now see the genius in its level design, enemy design, its music, its secrets. And while I have yet to master it, it’s given me a whole new perspective and it made me so eager to play Doom Eternal I accidentally bought it on the Fall Steam sale last week, mere days before It launched on Xbox Game Pass for PC simply because I wasn’t paying very much attention. OOoOoOops.

October – The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask

In August, I watched Arin Hansen finish his playthrough of The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask on Game Grumps after quitting it for 2 years. In classic rage quitting fashion, he was frustrated by the simplest of mini-bosses and restarted the game in our pandemic era, or as his co-host, Danny likes to call it “Backstreet Boys World Tour”. As I reevaluated his career-long criticisms of the 3D Zelda series, and of that game’s level design, I also appreciated Danny’s fresh perspective on Majora, adoring someone experiencing its themes and presentation from a fresh perspective.

Suddenly it hit me, the game was 20 years old as of April in Japan, and we were approaching its 20th North American release anniversary at the end of October. Whether out of spite for Game Grumps’ Arin Hansen, or the sore need for my own nostalgic replay, I assigned myself the task of writing a retrospective. While not a wholly original task, I set out with the intent to find a way to make it so. I streamed the game in its entirety on my Twitch channel for my friends to watch, acquire captured gameplay, and use it to make my longest video editing project to date (a 37-minute video essay). I dove into research and created probably the longest editorial I’ve written on TYF to this day.

I’m a bit burned out on this much beloved Zelda game for a while now, but the process was a fun distraction, and a creative outlet to focus on as emotions boiled over on Twitter, the daily readings of which was sending my anxiety through the roof. In replaying Majora to assess it critically, and to try and view it from a design perspective of its directors, it’s probably the most I’ve gotten out of the game since I first played it in 2000.

If you feel like watching or reading this editorial, you can find my piece on How Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi Changed Zelda’s Future here.

November – Hades

This game has consumed me.

My first encounter with it was through fanart in a friend’s Twitch stream. Then, in October, when visiting my friends in Maine for the first time since last October (the married friends), I witnessed gameplay of it on a Nintendo Switch, and the premise finally sank in. It was no longer a nebulous name floating in the ether of my brain cells, but now fully formed. This was Hades, and it was both welcoming, and brutal. I looked into more gameplay on Twitch following that weekend. I discovered developer commentary on speedruns, I watched the game’s voice actors play it, I pieced together the influence of Supergiant’s previous games on the final product, and it’s early access time on Epic Game Store.

The first takeaway from an arm’s length is the stunning character design, the high-quality voice acting, the beautiful environment art. The gameplay looks so fast, but when people use buzz words like “rogue-lite” and “dungeon crawler” it was hard to parse what made it so special. That was until I played for myself on a whim, on election night, looking to sink my teeth into something besides doom scrolling on Twitter.

I downloaded the game. And now, a month later, I can barely remember what it was like before this game was in my life. This year’s “feels like Spider-Man” in games media rhetoric is “I Can’t Stop Thinking About Hades.” It’s very unforgettable. It has an earnest, modern feeling in its presentation value, but true to the populus’ knowledge of characters in the pantheon of Greek mythology. But the most important is that high-quality gameplay loop. Every run feels rewarding in some way, even if you flub it early on. Every time you end up back at the House of Hades, you can use your darkness points in the Nyx’s mirror, and gift previous nectar to allies, adversaries, and acquaintances, and eventually check the statistics of past runs or set up difficult challenges for your next journey. There is always stuff to do, and all in service of getting to know Zagreus and the company he keeps better as well as improving the potential of your next run through the Underworld to escape and meet Zag’s mother Persephone.

Hanging out and streaming late into the night with Hades, and being coached by new friends in Discord who had been playing it since the alpha release, there was an energy in feeling their excitement as they watched me begin to click with certain weapons and boon combos throughout my playthroughs. It was some of the most engaging communal gaming experiences I’ve had all year. It feels really rewarding to get good at Hades, and no matter what the results of this week’s Game Awards are, I know in my stone-cold heart that this is my game of the year.

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