Tom Chick

Best thing you’ll read all week: The Three-Body Problem

, | Book reviews

Republican Congressman Mike Bost invoked something called “struggle sessions” last month. While talking to journalists, he explained why he wasn’t holding any town hall meetings, which have provided angry constituents a forum to make themselves heard by their Republican representatives. Bost felt holding such a meeting wasn’t a good use of his time. He compared it to “the cleansing that the Orientals used to do where youd put one person out in front and 900 people yell at them.” That’s how I learned about “struggle sessions”, a form of public humiliation used in Communist Russia and China. Bost later apologized for using the word “Oriental”, but not for shirking his duty as a representative.

The Three-Body Problem, an award-winning “Oriental” science fiction novel, begins with a struggle session during China’s Cultural Revolution. It is the catalyst for everything that happens in the book, which might include the end of the world. It is also an example of the novel’s uniquely Chinese cultural identity.

You’d never know from its beginnings that despite this identity, The Three-Body Problem is literally universal. Continue reading →

Best thing you’ll see all week: Edge of Seventeen

, | Movie reviews

I’ve been looking for Hailee Steinfeld for a while. I thought I caught a glimpse of her as an unlikely bridge between Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce in the morose romcom Hateship Loveship. If she was in that Romeo and Juliet that no one saw with a Romeo no one has heard of, I wouldn’t know. I didn’t see it. Could that have been her in Ender’s Game, playing fourth fiddle to Asa Butterfield, something no one should ever have to do? 3 Days to Kill was a showcase for the easy cool of Kevin Costner’s post-leading-man charm, but wasn’t that her giving it a little emotional gravity to offset McG’s McGness?

I seem to recall she might have been one of the lost faces in that dull swirl of girl slop called Pitch Perfect 2. Continue reading →

Only half of the Bayonetta saga will ever be playable on the PC

, | News

Sega was pretty coy for how they implied, but didn’t actually announce, that Platinum Games’ Bayonetta would be available on Steam today. So while it wasn’t exactly a surprise when it showed up, it was nevertheless a delight. It’s a great game and certainly my brawler of choice. I’ll take the Palin-esque Bayonetta over the emo Dante or brooding Kratos any day of the week.

However, don’t expect Bayonetta 2 to follow. The original game was published by Sega, who is more than happy to provide for venues other than the console systems in your living room. But Bayonetta 2 was published by Nintendo. Although they’ve flirted with other platforms (Pokemon Go, anyone?), they’re awfully parochial when it comes to non-Nintendo platforms. You’ll probably see Mario Kart on Steam before Bayonetta 2, which should happen sometime around the heat death of the universe.

Squirrel Girl coming to the Playstation 4! Also some other superheroes.

, | News

Gazillion recently retooled the skill system in their very good free-to-play Marvel Heroes Online (for the record, the phrases “very good” and “free-to-play” rarely appear next to each other). It was quite the makeover. A whole bunch of bits and bobs were either cut out entirely, or streamlined, or clumped into larger bits and bobs. There were fewer skills with more distinct kinds of powers. Characters like Doctor Strange who required multiple hotkey bars got simpler. A crazy endgame thing called Omega Powers or something just vanished. Marvel Heroes suddenly worked well with a gamepad. I wonder why they did all that? Who can say?

Oh, speaking of Gazillion, guess what. Today they announced Marvel Heroes Online for the Playstation 4! Who could see that coming? It will be called Marvel Heroes Omega, so no wonder they had to cut the Omega thing from the PC game. That just would have been confusing.

The console version will retain the free-to-play model. No cross-platform play, of course. It will launch with 38 of the 61 superheroes currently in the PC version. Yep, there are 61 heroes in the PC version. I didn’t even know there were 61 Marvel heroes. I figured we’d run out after Ant-Man. But looking through the game’s roster, I see there’s one named Angela. Just Angela. Someone wasn’t even trying. The latest addition to Marvel Heroes was a guy named Black Bolt. He looks like Captain America trying to be edgy by wearing a black suit. He borrowed Hawkeye’s stubby little wings, which sort of takes the edge off. It makes him look like a little girl playing fairy princess. But, you know, in black.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether Squirrel Girl will be among the 38 characters available at launch. We’ll find out soon enough, because Marvel Heroes Omega is due out this spring. As in, the season we’re currently in. Expect a beta announcement soon.

In Afghanistan ’11, history and game design go up to 11

, | Game reviews

My favorite strategy games are also historical essays. Paradox’s Victoria II considers how the rise of wealth corresponded with the demand for social reform in the industrial era. Joel Toppen’s boardgame, Comancheria, examines the cycle of brutalities European expansion and Native American culture inflicted on each other. Stardock’s Corporate/Political Machine explores how perception trumps reality. Afghanistan ’11 is about what we learned from Vietnam.

After the jump, the more things change, the more things change. Continue reading →

How a capella chick flick Pitch Perfect might get a videogame movie made

, | News

It’s not unusual that a movie studio options a book before it’s published. Especially if it’s a well-known author or a story with some sort of early buzz because it’s part of a franchise or based on a well-known event. But as far as I know, that’s never happened with a videogame. Instead, a game comes out, some sequels get made, lots of people buy them, and eventually Hollywood is all, like, “Huh, what, marketing groundwork already laid? Built-in opening weekend audience? Let’s make a (modest) deal!” Then several months later a Max Payne or Assassin’s Creed movie tanks at the box office. Worst case scenario, Crackle plops a Dead Rising movie online.

But Variety reports that it went a little differently today. A minor studio called Gold Circle Entertainment bought the rights for We Happy Few, which isn’t even out yet. It’s a successfully Kickstartered currently early access game by a bunch of veteran Montrealer developers gone indie. To its credit, We Happy Few has a unique sense of style. And by unique, I mean indebted to Bioshock without being slavish. That’s not something you find very often in videogames.

Gold Circle has been around for a while, and their success comes from stumbling into a couple of accidental hits that appealed to underserved female audiences. The first was My Big Fat Greek Wedding back in 2002. The second was Pitch Perfect back in 2012. Pitch Perfect — which is a very very good movie whether you’re a dude or a chick — is a commercial juggernaut for Gold Circle. The sequel — which is a very very bad movie whether you’re a dude, a chick, or even a Pitch Perfect fan — put it on the map as an Official Franchise with its $70 million opening and eventually a 10-to-1 worldwide return on its production budget. A third Pitch Perfect is in the works, adding the awesome Ruby Rose to its already awesome cast. With actors like these, who cares if the movie sucks? I can say this because it’s been several weeks since I suffered through Table 19, which I saw because Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, and Stephen Merchant were in it, so who cares if the movie sucks? I’m nearly over the trauma.

Obviously Gold Circle is casting about for new properties. Someone figured maybe this We Happy Few videogame might do well, so let’s get it while the getting’s good. The average internet reader will take this as an announcement that a We Happy Few movie is ON TEH WAY!!!1! But that’s not how these things work. Variety is just announcing a deal has been made. The majority of these deals do not result in movies. It’s unlikely a We Happy Few movie will ever see the light of day, much less a theatrical screen projector. But if We Happy Few 2 does well, it just might get handed over to some hapless European director as his entrance fee into the Hollywood creative mulcher. So stand by for news of a potential announcement concerning the early stages of what could be a possible We Happy Few movie sometime in 2020 or so.

Diablo on the PC, 1996-2017, beloved videogame cherished by millions, R.I.P.

, | News

Seasons in Diablo III are a way to play a self-contained character facing a unique set of challenges. Basically, an optional reset button so you can enjoy the early stages of the game all over again, without all the other hours you’ve played twinking the experience. Seasons also earn you unique rewards. When they end, everything you’ve earned gets transferred to normal Diablo III.

Seasons have only been available on the PC version of Diablo III. But the 10th season, which starts today, is available for those of us who play on the PS4. In other words, there is no longer any reason to play Diablo on the PC, where you can’t use a controller, where you can’t enjoy same-screen multiplayer support, where you don’t get all the cool interface shortcuts to manage your inventory on the fly, where the right stick won’t let you do a super helpful evasive roll, and where you have to sit in your office chair instead of on the comfy couch in the living room.

It was one heck of a run, PC Diablo. We’d remember you fondly if we weren’t so busy playing Diablo III on the PS4.

Forget violence. The real sin of videogaming is sloth.

, | Games

According to an article on The Economist’s online magazine:

…games have got [sic] immeasurably better. They are often beautiful, narratively interesting, enriching and social. Indeed, it is possible that they are too good. Today’s games seem to be displacing careers, friendships and families, and thus stopping young people (particularly men) from starting real, adult lives.

Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man. Oh, what? You have some data?

Between 2000 and 2015, the employment rate for men in their 20s without a college education dropped ten percentage points, from 82% to 72%. In 2015, remarkably, 22% of men in this group – a cohort of people in the most consequential years of their working lives – reported to surveyors that they had not worked at all in the prior 12 months. That was in 2015: when the unemployment rate nationwide fell to 5%, and the American economy added 2.7m new jobs. Back in 2000, less than 10% of such men were in similar circumstances.

And what’s that got to do with videogames?

Economists typically (and reasonably) assume that people tend to buy more things as they earn more money. But as they grow richer, they buy proportionately more of some things and less of others. Spending on necessities, as a share of all consumption, declines as incomes rise. Economists label “luxuries” the things that account for an increased share of spending as income goes up. There is a similar logic to leisure luxuries. As the amount of time people spend at leisure (as opposed to work) rises, some activities (like bathing or sleep) account for a shrinking share of total leisure time. Others the leisure luxuries account for more.

(What does it say about me that as I read that article, I imagined how that model would fit into The Sims?)

Among those predisposed to the leisure-luxury life, better games mean people are quicker to swap working hours for gaming hours; given nes-era [sic] gaming technology, a twenty-something might decline an opportunity for overtime work to have a little longer with Mario and Luigi. Now, a part-time job might be all they are willing to do, so good are the worlds and characters waiting at home. For those with the means, any hour on the job is an hour too much.

A lot of writer Ryan Avent’s anecdotes smack of videogaming guilt, a unique phenomena which doesn’t exist to the same degree for other forms of entertainment. His attempt to draw a parallel between life and game design is cringe-worthy, particularly his conclusion that the real world needs better dynamic difficulty adjustment. But his basic premise isn’t the usual mainstream alarmism. While I believe videogames belong alongside other forms of leisure and entertainment, their capacity to suck up time is unique. The long-term and widespread effects can’t be negligible.

The nimble Monster Slayers flies without being glib

, | Game reviews

When you’re really good at a strategy game — a boardgame, a card game, Civilization, chess — there’s a whole other kind of pacing than when you’re learning it, or just casually letting it unfold, or playing it as one of a half dozen other strategy games currently rattling around in your brain. The dilettante considers each move because he doesn’t know the game well enough to hurtle through it. When you master a game, your brain works as if it has muscle memory. In a given amount of time, someone who knows a game well can play twice as many games as someone who doesn’t. Maybe three times as many.

But even I can play a whole bunch of Monster Slayers in very little time. Continue reading →

Best thing you’ll see all week: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

, | Movie reviews

The centerpiece, heart, and bedrock of Macon Blair’s playfully blood simple black comedy is actress Melanie Lynskey. She plays the sweetly aggrieved Ruth, suffering the injustices of daily life with baby-faced resolve (you’d never guess it’s been nearly 25 years since Heavenly Creatures). She comes home from work every day to drink Coors, read Game of Thrones, and seethe about how everyone is an asshole. Something’s got to give.

There’s a subtle point almost hidden in Blair’s script. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore begins on the day Ruth stops taking medication for anxiety and depression. It’s not a decision she intended. The movie doesn’t even call attention to it. But given her terrible day, given that her anxiety and depression are abruptly unchecked, no wonder her mid-life crisis is of existential proportion. No wonder she breaks down at the fact of astronomical insignificance. No wonder the movie has an Alice in Wonderland quality. When percocet and religion briefly enter the picture, it just gets curiouser and curiouser.

This is where Blair’s second act introduces a picaresque cast of white trash villains and accomplices, with Elijah Wood and David Yow as standouts. The location happens to be Portland, but the setting could be any red state with a Green Room off in the woods. Ruth is to rural America what Jeff Goldblum is to Los Angeles in Into the Night, or Jeff Daniels to New York City in Something Wild: having a midlife crisis and liable to do something reckless.

It’s a little eerie how physically similar Lynskey is to Macon Blair in Blue Ruin. They could be siblings. They both have the same dejected brown-eyed soulfulness. You just want to hug them. “You have such beautiful black little eyes,” someone tells Ruth.

“Okay,” she allows politely.

Lynskey is also in XX, a pretty good horror anthology, called XX because the five directors are women and chromosomes don’t make for confusing movie titles at all. Annie Clark’s segment, The Birthday Party, is mostly a set-up for a punchline, but it works because it’s focused on Lynskey playing the same kind of sweetly aggrieved and eminently watchable protagonist. I mean, seriously, sit Lynskey in front of the camera, set it to a soundtrack, and you’re 90% of the way to a movie.

Blair is a little unsteady getting his footing on the tightrope of black humor. Sometimes I Don’t Feel at Home pinwheels its arms and sways more Napoleon Dynamite than Fargo. But when it’s poised on that razor’s edge of Fargo, it’s dead-on. For instance, few movies manage the endearing inanity of Lynskey’s exchange with David Yow during a climactic showdown. And Blair knows how to orchestrate nutso sequences of unintended action and unexpected consequence. Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Rube Goldberg, and the NRA would be proud.